Fantasy Notebook: AFC North Preview; Coach, Coordinator Changes Add to Intrigue
Oh ye of little faith. Did you really think I wouldn't make it through the entire NFL before training camps open? Of course I would (and by "of course I would," I totally mean "I had no idea, but bravado after the fact is always a winner, right?").
In case you haven't been following along, the Fantasy Notebook has been taking readers through a division-by-division preview of the league since early this offseason. I've hit the NFC East, NFC West, NFC South, NFC North, AFC East, AFC West and AFC South. Which means we're down to the final installment: The AFC North.
So let's get after it.
We'll get the ball rolling in Baltimore, where general manager Ozzie Newsome was aggressive in addressing a roster that underwent a painful purging of aging stars and free agents the previous offseason following the team's run to the Super Bowl title. As the Sports Xchange's Howard Balzer put it, "Baltimore took an expected step back in 2013 -- although much further back than most anticipated."
This year, Newsome came out swinging in free agency, adding wide receiver Steve L Smith and tight end Owen Daniels, a pair of proven veterans who lack the speed they once featured but still provide a much-needed boost to complement wide receiver Torrey Smith.
While Torrey Smith can take the top off a defense, Smith is now more of a possession receiver who brings added value with his bulldog personality. If fully healthy, Daniels replaces departed Ed Dickson in the tight end tandem with Dennis Pitta.
So far, so good.
According to Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei, as the offseason went on, new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak became progressively intrigued with the possibility of relying heavily on two-tight end sets. The primary reason is how well Daniels performed in off-season workouts.
Daniels played for Kubiak in Houston, but the Ravens weren't sure what to expect from the 31-year-old, who is coming off a broken fibula. Daniels is a similar to Pitta and the thinking is that pairing them on the field using a Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez model could create significant matchup issues for defenses.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson reports that Pitta was in constant motion throughout the Ravens' offseason practices, making it difficult to get an accurate read on where he would line up from play to play. Indeed, the various assignments ranged from Pitta being split out as an extra wide receiver to working out of the backfield as well as traditional in-line tight end alignments.
"I have done a lot of different things in this offense already," Pitta said during the team's final mini-camp. "I would assume that would continue to increase."
It makes sense. NFL.com recently reminded readers that no offense targeted tight ends as much as Kubiak's Texans did the past three seasons; Pitta, on the other hand, caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns during the Ravens' Super Bowl championship season in 2012-13. For his career since being drafted in the fourth round in 2010, Pitta has 122 receptions for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Given the history of both the player and incoming coordinator, Pitta will be of great interest to fantasy football owners this fall.
Going on 35 years old, Steve L Smith knows he's not a No. 1 wide receiver anymore. And he understands what his role will be under Kubiak. "I don't see myself in coach Kubiak's system like [Texans wide receiver] Andre Johnson," Smith said. "I see the complementary dude of [former Texans wide receiver] Kevin Walter."
Fantasy owners will likely contend that Torrey Smith will never be mistaken for Johnson either.
Smith is entering the final year of his four-year, $3.399 million rookie contract that includes $1.727 million in guaranteed money and was signed in 2011 when he was drafted in the second round. Both sides have expressed interest in a new deal after Smith caught a career-high 65 passes for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns last season. In three NFL seasons, Smith has caught 164 career passes for 2,824 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging 17.2 yards per catch.
It remains to be seen, however, if the Ravens' focus on adding targets will make Smith more effective. Even though 2013 rookie Marlon Brown showed promise last season, he and Jacoby Jones combined for just 86 catches at 11.4 yards per reception. So the desire to add weapons is understandable enough.
The extra firepower can't hurt Joe Flacco. That said, you won't find many fantasy owners drafting him as anything but a low-end QB2 at this point.
As for the ground game, with legal troubles casting at least some doubt on his immediate (short-term) future, Ray Rice has been committed to what he can control: Losing weight and getting back to full strength.
He suffered a hip flexor injury in Week 2 last season, and the injury led to the Pro Bowl back putting on some weight. According to head coach John Harbaugh, Rice weighed as much as 217 pounds last season. The team would like Rice to play at about 207 pounds. To that end, Rice has impressed teammates and staff alike with his improved conditioning and increased quickness during off-season workouts.
Thanks at least in part to the increased weight and the tender hip, Rice rushed for his lowest output since becoming the Ravens' featured back in 2009. He had only one run over 20 yards.
Fantasy owners should be encouraged by Rice's commitment to conditioning, but there are no guarantees he regains past form. In addition, Rice, who was indicted by a grand jury on third-degree aggravated assault charges for striking his now-wife unconscious on Feb. 15, was able to escape legal punishment by entering a diversionary program.
However, the Ravens are expecting a suspension (perhaps three games) under the league's personal conduct policy.
The good news? Bernard Pierce is expected to be ready for the team's July training camp after undergoing shoulder surgery in January. Pierce dealt with shoulder, hamstring, toe and knee injuries in 2013. He had an awful second season after showing promise as a rookie.
Which brings us to the real question: After Pierce combined with Rice for the 30th-ranked rushing offense last year, should we be excited about either guy? Or rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro for that matter?
Pierce had 436 yards on 152 carries, a dreadful 2.9 average yards per rush. Rice rushed for just 660 yards and averaged 3.1 yards per carry, his lowest numbers since becoming a regular starter. He averaged just 1.1 yards per carry after contact, the worst numbers in the NFL.
A revamped offensive line and Kubiak's runner-friendly offense should help. But they aren't enough to convince me to select either Raven running back unless I'm in a serious draft day pinch.
In Cincinnati, the biggest obstacle in attempting to take the next step toward becoming a Super Bowl contender is the significant challenge of replacing both coordinators who landed head coaching jobs -- creative offensive play-caller Jay Gruden (Redskins) and defensive guru Mike Zimmer (Vikings).
Hue Jackson replaces Gruden as the Bengals' offensive coordinator while former linebackers coach Paul Guenther replaces Zimmer on the other side of the ball.
With Jackson taking over the OC duties, the Bengals are expected to move toward more of a ground-and-pound approach.
Jackson wants to run often and he wants to move at a high tempo. Then when he's done feeding Giovani Bernard and fellow backs Jeremy Hill, the powerful rookie out of LSU, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis carries in between the tackles, he wants to flank one out wide and pass to him for big after-the-catch yards off a play-action fake to another back. Then when he's called one or two of those plays, the coach wants A.J. Green or fellow receiver Marvin Jones to sprint down the sideline for an occasional "Go" route bomb from what he hopes is a more confident Andy Dalton.
Of course, we all know that Green will be near the top of many a draft list. But unlike previous seasons, he'll be joined in that high-end range by Bernard.
"After a spectacular NFL Rookie of the Year finalist season," Bengals.com staffer Geoff Hobson recently wrote. "Bernard is only going to get more work and no doubt is going to border on 300 touches."
Hobson went on to remind readers that Green-Ellis had 50 more carries last season, but Bernard had two more touches and, according to ProFootballFocus.com, took 155 more snaps. Considering that -- and despite head coach Marvin Lewis' recent comments to the contrary, Hobson's prediction isn't completely out of line for a team that's going to focus more on the run.
That said, even though I'm not counting on those 300 touches, I am expecting more big plays. Thirty-three backs broke more runs of 20-plus yards than Bernard did last season, but he plans to correct that statistic this fall. "If you're a running back, you always want to be able to have explosive runs," Bernard recently explained. "Maybe not so much just the 10-yard runs or 15-yard runs or the 20. I want to be able to break the 50s, 60s and 70s. And who knows? Maybe the 80s and 90s. Things like that take hard work and dedication. That's really where your skills come into play is on those explosive runs."
As NFL.com noted, only three of Bernard's 170 rookie carries cracked the 20-yard barrier last season. His longest run was a 35-yard touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 9, a game that also produced his highest yards-per-carry figure at 8.78. "This year, I'll take a few more chances," Bernard said. "A lot of people talk about the Miami run. That was a chance that I took. But that was a run where, I don't do that often."
Fantasy owners shouldn't sleep on Bernard, despite the fact he'll be sharing time -- even if Green-Ellis isn't the guy who'll be getting the bulk of those other snaps.
This after Bernard and Hill started OTAs as the No.1 and No.2 running backs, respectively. This is notable because Bernard did not start one game in 2013 under Gruden. It certainly looks like the Bengals are ready to move forward. More than a few observers have suggested the fact that Green-Ellis started OTAs as the third-string running back could be an indication he'll be out of Cincy's plans altogether by the end of training camp.
It's a situation we'll be watching in coming weeks, but it appears the Law Firm's role and future with the club are worth questioning.
While Jackson has made no secret of his preference for a run-heavy attack, Green is an inviting enough downfield target to keep the coach interested. Apparently, Dalton is part of that equation.
Jackson told SiriusXM NFL Radio just last week that Dalton and Green are the best QB/WR duo in the business.
"I think they're the best in the game in my opinion," Jackson said. "I know people will fight that and say differently, but I've watched these guys and these guys have grown. They came in together. They started off hot, they're still hot. Every year statistically, they've gotten better." Jackson continued: "I think both of these guys are in the prime of their careers. I wouldn't change the two guys I have for anybody at this point because these guys know how to do it together."
I'll kindly suggest the QB half of that equation benefits greatly from the WR half.
Green is clearly cemented as a top-five receiver after escalating his level of play in each of his three 1,000-plus-yard seasons. On the other hand, Dalton, with shaky post-season performances and wild inconsistency -- not to mention stats ballooned by Green's jump-ball ability -- probably won't be viewed among the elite at his position. But should fantasy football owners be surprised at a coach pimping his players?
No more than we should be at fantasy owners doing the same with theirs.
As for our expectations for Bengals receivers not named Green?
Although Jackson said the time has come for Green to take it to a whole different level, the coach also singled out Jones as the player who has to "knock A.J. off the pedestal" as Cincinnati's top playmaker. "I want A.J. and Marvin and that receiver group to play uncommon football like you've never seen," Jackson said.
Jones was the team's second-leading receiver last season. But most of his yardage came after his career-high 122-yard, four-TD effort in Week 8. Only once in the previous seven weeks did he have more than 60 receiving yards in a single game. Following his breakout effort, though, he went beyond 60 yards receiving four more times.
Assuming Jones continues to deliver, Mohamed Sanu will be relegated to a No. 3 role.
There are questions at tight end as well. As ESPN.com noted, in the months that immediately followed Tyler Eifert's selection in the 2013 draft, there were high hopes about an Eifert-Jermaine Gresham tandem at the position. But the two-tight end sets came and went last season, giving way on occasion to receiver-heavy formations or two-back sets. Some observers believe Eifert will take the lead role with Gruden out of the mix. The fact that Gresham is coming off hernia surgery could help Eifert establish himself in training camp.
But there are plenty of lower-end tight ends I'd rather take a chance on this season.
Speaking of players folks aren't looking to take a chance on, even though Dalton set team records for passing yardage and touchdowns, his current MyFantasyLeague.com ADP (QB16) seems quite reasonable. I'd feel very comfortable heading into the season with "The Red Rifle" locked in as my QB2 (working under the assumption there will be weeks he plays more like a "red-headed stepchild").
Say this for the Browns -- they don't lack for drama. The front office cut ties with head coach Rob Chudzinski after one season, only to watch Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi get swept out the door themselves. New general manager Ray Farmer wasn't even in the interview for new head coach Mike Pettine.
It's no secret that Pettine wasn't the team's first choice. The 47 year-old has never been a head coach beyond the high school level, but he did a good job with Buffalo's defense last year and as defensive coordinator of the Jets for three years before that. As NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal pointed out at the time, Pettine's defenses in New York and Buffalo were creative and difficult to prepare for. His Bills squad finished fourth in FootballOutsiders' 2013 defensive metrics. Rosenthal went on to point out the Browns have a ton of talent on defense, which is suited to Pettine's 3-4 background.
Then again, the issue in Cleveland wasn't defense last season. So the hiring of Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator is of great interest to fantasy owners.
Shanahan spent the last four seasons in Washington as offensive coordinator under his dad, Mike Shanahan. Prior to that, the younger Shanahan spent two seasons as offensive coordinator in Houston, so the addition of Ben Tate seems like a good move. Shanahan was gone from Houston before Tate arrived, but Tate's running style should be a good fit for what Shanahan, who helped transform obscure Alfred Morris into a Pro Bowler in Washington, likes in the running game.
Nonetheless, the Browns were interested enough in securing Terrance West's services, they sent a fourth- and sixth-round pick to San Francisco to trade up to No. 94 overall for the Towson University product. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the sturdy West could form an effective tandem with Tate.
Tate and West should improve a running attack that was tied for 27th in the NFL last season (86.4 yards). West rushed for 4,849 yards and an outrageous 84 touchdowns in three seasons at Towson. The small-college competition certainly plays a role in those totals, but West is confident he can play at the NFL level. Asked if he were a between-the-tackles runner, West replied: "Whatever the play is I will make the best out of (it). I can do it all."
Given that depth, it's no real surprise that Pettine has hinted at a committee approach. But I'm not sure we'll actually see that if Tate avoids injury. As NFL.com's Marc Sessler recently wrote: "Everything we know about the Shanahan family's previous work with runners suggests Tate, if he stays on the field, will produce yardage in chunks along the shores of Lake Erie."
I'll buy that.
Fantasy owners looking for more certainty, however, might prefer tight end Jordan Cameron, one of the breakout players of 2013 while transforming from fantasy sleeper to Pro Bowler with an 80-catch season. Quarterback play will be a factor here, but for fantasy football owners, the hope would obviously be that Shanahan's history of featuring the tight end (Daniels in Houston and more recently Jordan Reed in Washington) plays into Cameron's strengths.
Those strengths, by the way, seem to be getting even stronger.
Listen to this: "Cameron was impossible to cover in the spring. Maybe it's just mundane OTAs and mini-camp. Or maybe Cameron, 25, is still improving as a dual-threat receiver who can line up anywhere; a scary thought."
While the above description was posted on the team's official website (not necessarily the most objective outlet), there's no denying Cameron's potential. Last season the Browns targeted him 117 times. Only Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez saw more passes come their way at the position. The report notes the 6-5, 249-pounder has shown improved foot work and explosion in the open field once he has the football.
That's the kind of positive reporting that's going to further fuel fantasy football owners already greatly interested in him.
The biggest worry? Josh Gordon faces what seems almost certain to be a one-year suspension after another failed drug test -- a problem compounded by a DUI arrest earlier this month.
Given Gordon's issues (and the recent release of butterfingered underachiever Greg Little), Cleveland needed help at wide receiver. Miles Austin will be among those getting a chance to provide just that. In fact, Austin could be the No. 1 receiver if Gordon is suspended.
Austin is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season in which he caught just 24 passes for 244 yards, and no touchdowns. Austin was a 1,000-yard receiver twice, catching 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009 and 69 passes for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010. He also played in all 16 games each of those years. But the receiver's hamstring issues have been a recurring theme the rest of his career. He never reached the 1,000-yard mark in any of his next three seasons.
It appears there will be opportunity in Cleveland and if healthy, Austin could be a valuable part of the offense. Keep an eye on Hawkins as well.
As for the quarterback situation, Pettine made it clear before the draft that he'd rather not throw a rookie quarterback into the fire during his first NFL season, but you don't draft Johnny Manziel to clutch a clipboard. Or do you? Pettine told reporters after picking Manziel that he still believes starting the year with Brian Hoyer at the position is a wise move.
"Whether (Manziel) was taken at No. 4 or going at No. 22, it'll be a competition," Pettine said. "I meant that when I said it." Pettine emphasized the competition angle when pressed. "I don't think you can hand jobs to people when they come in," he said. "We're in the business of evaluating who will be the best quarterback for the Browns to win football games and that's who's going to play."
Which obviously leaves the door open for Manziel.
Remember, Shanahan prepared Robert Griffin III to start as a rookie two seasons ago in Washington. Fantasy football owners shouldn't be surprised if Manziel benefits from that experience as well as the Browns' desire to get their QB of the future on the field as quickly as possible.
In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger may have needed nametags at the first off-season meeting with his wide receivers, although that's not to say the offense may not be improved. The position was in dire straits when Jerricho Cotchery left for the Panthers and Emmanuel Sanders signed on with the Broncos.
But general manager Kevin Colbert responded by bringing in veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. He then finally provided Roethlisberger with a big, athletic target in fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, a raw but physically gifted 6-4, 211-pound target.
Getting Roethlisberger more help at wideout plays to a strength.
Big Ben played every snap of the 2013 season for the first time and all 16 games for only the second time in his 10-year career. After a slow start to the season, offensive coordinator Todd Haley unleashed his veteran QB in the no-huddle more often. Roethlisberger's sacks (just seven in the final seven games) and interceptions dropped in the second half of the season as he went to a quicker release and started using rookie running back Le'Veon Bell as a target more.
The Steelers ran at least 15 no-huddle plays in each of the final nine weeks of the season and averaged better than 10 points more per game compared to the first seven games. Roethlisberger was extremely successful in the no-huddle completing 102 of 163 passes for 1,221 yards and 10 of his 28 touchdowns.
Assuming better offensive line play is coming -- and that Markus Wheaton (or one of the other newcomers) can fill the void left by Sanders' departure -- Antonio Brown has proven to be a solid enough No. 1 for fantasy owners to realistically expect Roethlisberger to continue playing at his current level, meaning high-end QB2 with the potential to outperform that status on any given weekend.
What's that? You're not sold on Brown?
You should be.
As ESPN.com's Scott Brown recently put it: "Brown answered any questions about whether the Steelers had a No. 1 wide receiver after Mike Wallace left for Miami with an exclamation point." In fact, he put together the greatest season by a Steelers receiver by catching 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.
Scott Brown went on to suggest the Steelers don't have to worry about Antonio Brown getting complacent, as he is a tireless worker who hasn't forgotten that 194 players were taken ahead of him in the 2010 NFL draft. Tight end Heath Miller notwithstanding, Brown is Roethlisberger's most trusted receiver. Given the totals he posted last year, that's understandable. It also has us expecting another very strong season.
Speaking of Miller, those of you looking for the kind of value at the position I mentioned when discussing Eifert should look no further.
One of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL, Miller will become a bigger part of the passing game after working his way back from a torn ACL suffered late in 2012 last season.
Although he only managed one touchdown last year, the previous season (when he was at full strength) Miller caught a career-high eight touchdown passes in 15 games. He also had a career-high 816 yards on 71 receptions. Other than Brown, Miller will be a guy Big Ben looks to in clutch situations.
Bell will figure into that mix as well, however.
The Steelers are committed to Bell as their feature back -- as they should be -- and the former second-round draft pick will get the majority of the carries assuming he builds on a stellar rookie campaign.
While newcomer LeGarrette Blount provides the Steelers much-needed insurance behind Bell, the plan is still having the second-year man handle the bulk of the workload. As ESPN.com's Brown suggested, what Blount gives the team is options. "With another ball-carrier who packs a punch," Brown wrote, "the Steelers can reduce some of the wear and tear on Bell by incorporating Blount into the running game."
That could prolong Bell's career and in the short-term it would allow the Steelers to wear down defenses by hammering them with two big running backs.
The good news here is fantasy football owners hoping for a strong sophomore season from Bell shouldn't worry about his role (as long as he stays healthy).