Fantasy Notebook: AFC North; Big Ben Facing Issues; T-Rich On The Rise?

Apr 12, 2013
Fantasy Notebook: AFC North; Big Ben Facing Issues; T-Rich On The Rise?

And the fun continues. Here's the latest installment of my division-by-division review/preview of the NFL -- from a fantasy perspective. This week's edition: The AFC North.

We'll get the ball rolling this week in Pittsburgh, where news broke on Wednesday that the Patriots signed restricted free-agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the offer sheet is a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

The Steelers have five days -- until the end of Sunday -- to decide whether to match the offer or let Sanders go to the Patriots and receive a third-round draft choice from New England in return. According to Schefter, the Steelers are not expected to make a decision until Sunday.

Update: The Steelers have matched the Patriots offer sheet. Sanders will remain in Pittsburgh for at least 2013.

While various reports have indicated the money in Sanders' offer sheet won't scare Pittsburgh, there are other issues. Remember: Sanders can leave in a year as an unrestricted free agent. Instead of risking losing him with no compensation after the 2012 season, the Steelers could opt to take New England's third-round pick now.

But as staffer and former scout for the Cleveland Browns Matt Williamson pointed out, Sanders' signing of this offer sheet forces the Steelers to make a decision they did not want to make. Williamson explained, "This is not the type of organization that wants other franchises to negotiate contracts for it -- which is essentially what New England did if Pittsburgh chooses to match, and matching could force the Steelers to further shuffle their roster and salary cap."

So that's one issue. The bigger issue is on the field.

The 26-year old Sanders is a quick, athletic receiver who caught a career-high 44 passes in 2012, doubling his production from the previous season. The Steelers already have a major void in their receiving corps in the wake of Mike Wallace's free-agent defection to Miami. Sanders was expected to replace Wallace in the starting lineup opposite Antonio Brown.

The only Steelers wide receivers with any experience right now are Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress and David Gilreath.

That's not good news for a team heading into the NFL Draft with salary cap issues and multiple needs.

One position that's been of great interest to fantasy owners has been running back. The team let Rashard Mendenhall move on to the Cardinals via free agency and while they've kicked the tires on some of the available free-agent talent at the position (Ahmad Bradshaw and LaRod Stephens-Howling have both visited), they've yet to make a move.

Perhaps they were waiting to see if the Patriots were actually going to come through with an offer for Sanders. Or maybe they already viewed receiver as a position of greater need.

That's what Associated Press Steelers beat writer Will Graves thinks.

During a Saturday night appearance with the FootballDiehards on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio, Graves told listeners that running back is important, but it's certainly not the most important position when it comes to needs.

"Wide receiver is a priority," Graves explained. "They don't have speed. They need a guy who can take the top off a defense."

Neither Brown nor Sanders is that guy, but having two capable veterans would be nice if the Steelers end up selecting a speed receiver early in the upcoming draft.

And what about the backfield?

Graves insists the team will be fine with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. The key is getting the offensive line together.

"If the offensive line stays healthy," Graves said, "Everything else will be fine."

My own opinion is that Dwyer has, for the most part, looked every bit as plodding as Mendenhall did before him. Yes, Dwyer's 4.3 career yards per carry is slightly higher than Mendenhall's 4.1, take away the former's 2011 7.7 yards per carry (compiled on just 16 attempts) and the two are much closer. Redman hasn't been much better, although he's flashed play-making ability working in a change of pace role.

Getting back to the receiving corps, I'll remind you there are major questions surrounding Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target, tight end Heath Miller.

Miller was having his best season as a pro in 2012 and led the Steelers position players with 50 points and with 71 receptions, but his ACL, MCL and PCL were torn in Week 15. Not surprisingly, it's still not clear when he'll be ready to play in 2013.

Graves isn't especially optimistic.

"He's coming off a major, major knee injury," the reporter said. "Cancel him out of OTAs and mini-camp. ... He might be ready for training camp but..."

The "don't get your hopes up" went unspoken, but it's obvious.

Given the issues with Miller and the team's situation at wideout, you also have to wonder how Roethlisberger's numbers will be impacted.

Adding to the concern, Graves still isn't sure Big Ben is on the same page as offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Indeed, despite being offered multiple chances by Graves (and others) to endorse Haley, Roethlisberger still hasn't done so.

"Roethlisberger could have been diplomatic but he wasn't," Graves noted, adding: "Ben is headstrong. There needs to be some acknowledgement that Haley knows what he's doing, but it doesn't happen. Also, Ben is the kind of player that needs to be told he's good. Haley doesn't do that."

Remember, in overtime Dec. 9 in Dallas, Roethlisberger tried to throw a 10-yard out pass along the right sideline to Wallace. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, the ball carried a little behind Wallace and Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr intercepted it and returned it 36 yards to the Steelers 1 to set up the 27-24 Dallas victory. The next week at home, Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson intercepted Roethlisberger's sideline pass with 14 seconds left in a tie game and the Bengals turned it into a field goal that won it, 13-10.

After the Dallas game, Roethlisberger openly questioned Haley's play selection. But Graves noted that even if he didn't like the play calling, the QB didn't have to throw the ball on any of those interceptions.

Bottom line? Given his well-known flair for the dramatic, we'll undoubtedly be hearing more about the issues at wideout if Roethlisberger thinks we should (and I suspect he will). It'll be worth watching this one in the coming weeks.

In Cleveland, Elyria Chronicle-Telegram beat writer Scott Petrak is upbeat about the Browns' coaching changes. Specifically, Petrak believes turning to Norv Turner as offensive coordinator will be good news for Trent Richardson. Yes, new head coach Rob Chudzinski is considered an innovative offensive mind, but Petrak stressed that Turner will be calling the shots in Cleveland.

That being the case, it's worth noting that Turner believes his best offenses have featured several players catching at least 30 passes with the outside receivers averaging at least 16 yards per catch. But the scheme relies first and foremost on an effective and relentless rushing attack best powered by a true NFL feature back.

Whether it's been Emmitt Smith in Dallas (Smith led the league in rushing in each of Turner's three seasons as offensive coordinator), Terry Allen (2,600 yards and 31 TDs in two healthy seasons) and Stephen Davis (2,700 yards and 28 TDs in two seasons) during Turner's tenure as head coach in Washington, LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego (Turner served as coordinator there for LT's 10-TD rookie season), Ricky Williams, who ran for 1,800-plus and 1,300-plus yards in Miami with Turner in charge of the Dolphins offense in 2002 and 2003, LaMont Jordan, who posted the only 1,000-yard season of his career under Turner in Oakland, or San Francisco's Frank Gore, who ran for 1,600 yards under Turner in 2006, the track record is solid.

Indeed, heavy usage as both runner and receiver has been the norm.

Williams caught 47 and 50 passes during his stint with Turner; Tomlinson ran for 1,236 yards and hauled in 59 passes -- both tops among all NFL rookies -- while ranking third in the NFL with 339 carries in 2001. Gore who pulled in a career-high 61 receptions during his season with Turner.

So there's reason to believe we'll at least find out what Richardson is really capable of -- assuming he's fully healthy.

According to Petrak, that was the biggest issue in a solid -- but not nearly as spectacular as expected -- rookie season.

Remember: Former general manager Tom Heckert traded the fourth pick plus a fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round pick to move up one spot to guarantee he would get Richardson in the draft. But only two of Richardson's 267 carries were for more than 20 yards.

In addition to sudden issue that required Richardson to have his knee scoped the second week of August, the youngster also played with two broken ribs most of the season that prevented him from twisting out of tackles.

Still, he still rushed for 950 yards.

So we'll all be watching Richardson's health heading into training camp and if he opens the regular season at full speed, we might just see a new back in join the ranks of elite fantasy producers.

In Baltimore, Carroll County Times staff writer Matt Zenitz joined the FootballDiehards and when given the opportunity to address the team's free-agent losses this offseason, the reporter was quick to stress that Joe Flacco's new contract, a $120 million dollar deal that makes him the league's highest-paid player (for now at least) wasn't the reason so many players were allowed to move on.

At the very least, that new deal kept the team from having to endure a salary cap hit of about $19.5 million under the exclusive franchise tag (or run the risk losing their quarterback with a non-exclusive tag). The deal also allowed the Ravens to figure out their budget and assign some dollar figures to players.

The fact that they preferred to trade Anquan Boldin to San Francisco rather than pay him $6 million wasn't a function of Flacco's contract; according to Zenitz, it was because they simply didn't think Boldin was worth that much money.

Instead, general manager Ozzie Newsome had a $4 million figure in mind for Boldin. When the veteran wideout wasn't willing to take a pay cut, Newsome stuck to his guns.

And now Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are the top wideouts on the roster. Meaning they only have one real starter.

According to Zenitz, the plan now is to find a receiver early in the draft that can develop into a starter opposite Smith. Because, ideally, Jones is not a starter. He's too valuable as a return man and too inconsistent as an offensive weapon to be the starter.

Meanwhile, Zenitz believes Tandon Doss could emerge as a slot receiver but he's not an every-down player, either. David Reed has been limited so far, but Zenitz feels Reed could develop into a productive player.

But as of now, if the Ravens don't find Boldin's replacement in the draft, Zenitz told listeners to look for Dennis Pitta to be used more as an outside receiver. If that's the case, Pitta's fantasy value will climb.

As for whether the Ravens overpaid Flacco, only time will tell.

But he is the only quarterback in league history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. He leads the league in combined regular season and playoff wins (63) by a starting quarterback since 2008. His play during the Ravens' 2012 playoff run, capped off by an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVII, solidified his status among the league's top quarterbacks.

Flacco's 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the playoffs equaled San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana's feat of 1989. Flacco completed 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns against the 49ers' strong defense in Super Bowl XLVII.

All of which made it beyond unlikely he was going to allowed to escape Baltimore. And in today's NFL, quarterbacks get paid. Period.

Former NFL star Kurt Warner recently told Zenitz the thing that prevents Flacco from being mentioned among the top quarterbacks is his inconsistency during the regular season. And until that changes, Flacco won't be considered as high-end a fantasy starter as he is an NFL starter, regardless of what he's paid. Period.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals have an established starting tailback in BenJarvus Green-Ellis but are in need of more depth with Cedric Peerman and Dan Herron the only other backs on the roster.

And while long-time staff writer Geoff Hobson told us during his Saturday night FootballDiehards appearance that the Bengals will address the running back position early in the draft to help compliment Green-Ellis, the team has shown interest in a handful of free-agent prospects.

Green-Ellis, a six-year veteran, carried 278 times for 1,094 yards (3.9 average) and six touchdowns last season. An injury kept Bernard Scott from emerging as the speed option last year and appears to be the reason the team isn't pushing to bring him back.

Instead, the Bengals have looked at series of veterans, including Beanie Wells and Mike Goodson, and Goodson subsequently joined the Jets.

The latest candidates to pop up on Cincy's radar are Bradshaw and Felix Jones.

If the goal is a change-of-pace, a breakaway back with speed to the outside to compliment Green-Ellis, Jones might be the guy if they come up short on draft day.

Update: The Bengals re-signed Scott on Friday [April 12]. Considering he's coming off a torn ACL, I suspect the search for a speed back will continue with more of an emphasis on the draft than in free agency.

Meanwhile, Hobson feels the Bengals are comfortable with the young talent on hand to step up as their No. 2 wideout opposite A.J. Green.

Hobson believes Mohamed Sanu, who has recovered from the fractured foot that ended his surprisingly productive rookie campaign early, and Marvin Jones, both drafted last April, have shown enough to keep the team from targeting the position again this time around.

I agree. In fact, I'm eager to see if the versatile Sanu can re-emerge as the kind of scoring threat he looked like in scoring four touchdowns in a four-week span right before he was hurt last November. The former Rutgers standout certainly seems to have a nose for the end zone -- a knack that could be enhanced by his rushing (he carried the ball five times last year) and passing ability (see his 73-yard TD pass to Green against the Redskins in Week 3 last year).

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