Last week marked the halfway point – fourth of eight divisions – of the fantasy football team reports published at DraftBuddy.com, including rankings and projections from Dave Stringer and Mike MacGregor, plus player commentary by Dave. Division number four on the schedule was the AFC North, home of the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers. My task is to critique the opinions, rankings and projections found in those team reports, as I did previously for the NFC East, AFC East, and NFC North.
The AFC North is a hard-hitting, in-your-face division with teams that truly do not like one another. This is what division rivalries should be like. It always seems to come down to the final weeks to decide which team wins the division and, often, this division also grabs an AFC Wild Card playoff spot (five straight years prior to last season). I do not expect anything less this year as all four of these teams improved in the offseason.
Team Report – June 30
It was just two seasons ago that the Baltimore Ravens hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy and carried the title Super Bowl Champions. Today, the Baltimore Ravens are lucky if they are considered a Wild Card team. Investing $120-million dollars in Joe Flacco was probably one of the most regretful things this franchise could have done.
No doubt Flacco’s playoff record was worthy of his big payday, but he was surrounded by players he could lean on, like Anquan Boldin, plus a stellar defense. Now things are considerably tougher. Complicating matters for the offense, Ray Rice is expected to be suspended and looked sluggish last season, a possible sign of his decline, while Bernard Pierce didn’t wow anyone either. With regards to where they are ranked and projected, I’m in agreement with a conservative forecast for Flacco and Rice.
However, Torrey Smith‘s ranking is much too conservative. When Flacco shows flashes of greatness, it is often thanks to the former second round product of Maryland. Last season, in Smith’s first 5 games, he averaged 5.4 catches for 111.2 yards. At that rate, Smith ranks inside the Top 10.
It didn’t last, primarily as Smith’s teammates were injuried, and he started seeing more double coverage due to the poor depth of the Ravens receiving corps. For 2014, depth was addressed adding Steve Smith, Owen Daniels, plus a healthy, returning Dennis Pitta.
The offense also gets a shot in the arm adding OC Gary Kubiak. Kubiak doesn’t use his wide receivers in the red zone much, but that was never Torrey Smith’s forté anyway. A better running game, and play-action passes, will benefit the speedster greatly.
I expect Smith will finish comfortably inside the Top 20 at WR.
Team Report – July 1
Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals offense had a good balance of run and pass (45% run, 55% pass), which ranked them 11th at rushing percentage. Former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson takes over as offensive coordinator from departed Jay Gruden, and wants to push that number even higher. To do that, the team added rookie RB Jeremy Hill to join last year’s rookie sensation Giovani Bernard, and veteran plodder BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
LawFirm brings experience to the table in spades, but I expect Hill’s youth and talent to help him surpass Green-Ellis in short order. Hill may even cut into Bernard’s anticipated workload if Giovani can’t handle a lot more than the 226 touches he received last season (Green-Ellis had 220 carries plus 4 receptions).
Hill has a big frame at 6’1”, 235 pounds. He runs downhill like a bowling ball, which suits him well in goal line situations. The current projections allot Hill 375 yards and 2 touchdowns, which seems very low especially if Hill becomes the goal line back.
I believe Hill proves himself in training camp and will take some pressure off Bernard’s shoulders, quickly becoming a significant contributor to this offense. If this happens, he will yield more yardage than 375. Hill is a great dynasty prospect. Get him now before he shines in 2014.
Team Report – July 2
To say that the Cleveland Browns have all eyes on them this offseason might be an understatement. Not only did they draft Johnny Football – Johnny Manziel – and inherit the media circus that follows him around, but they are also dealing with a pending suspension of troubled, 2013 breakout wide receiver Josh Gordon. Depending on how long that suspension is (NFL insiders seem to be expecting at least 8 games and now, with his recent arrest, it could be more), the outcome will decide if the Browns compete in their division this year or chalk it up as another lackluster season.
Outside of Manziel and Gordon, Cleveland had a very busy and positive offseason acquiring Ben Tate, Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, and drafting two running backs that could challenge Tate for playing time in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.
As stated, Gordon is facing a lengthy suspension, so some of his fellow wide receiver teammates must step up to fill the void. Andrew Hawkins is used to playing opposite a superstar wide receiver as he came over from the Cincinnati Bengals who of course has A.J. Green. Hawkins shone when given the opportunity and the opportunity in Cleveland is pounding on the door.
Hawkins is currently projected at 55 receptions for 600 yards and 3 touchdowns. I think that is extremely low and given the situation, Hawkins should have no problem surpassing those numbers filling as the number one wide receiver until (or if) Josh Gordon comes back. Grab Hawkins late and benefit, particularly in PPR leagues.
Team Report – July 3
In the 2013 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Le’Veon Bell with the 48th overall pick. This pick created some buzz because Ben Roethlisberger finally had a dual-threat running back. Unfortunately, Bell suffered an injury which kept him out the first three games of last season. In Bell’s first appearance in Week 4 he scored two touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings. This performance turned heads and Pittsburgh knew they found their guy.
When Bell was on the field last season, he handled 71% of Pittsburgh’s carries. The Steelers, as any team would, felt there was a need for a decent backup, adding LeGarrette Blount as a free agent. Blount made some noise late last season to make himself relevant again, however, this should most likely only impact Bell’s goalline carries. Bell will still be one of a rare breed in today’s NFL, that of a workhorse running back.
Barring injury, Bell should surpass 300 touches resulting in north of 1,000 yards rushing with 500 yards receiving. Those numbers will help land him inside the Top 10 at RB.