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AFC North – The Up & Comers

Over the next few weeks I’ll give an overview of the fantasy-relevant quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends in each division. In the interest of keeping these columns under 10,000 words, rather than going into substantial detail on each player (there are plenty of sources for that), I tried to give you about a briefer Cliff Notes version of my opinion. I will update these entries as more news develops and once pre-season starts.

AFC North – The Up and Comers While not as rife a fantasy hunting ground as some of the other divisions, the AFC North is home to some interesting young players who could definitely provide value this year and in dynasty or keeper leagues.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals are a talented young team poised to give this division a run for its money. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green led the team as rookies, but the Bengals balanced style of offense seems to stifle the upside of any one player.

Andy Dalton is a great quarterback. Unfortunately, great quarterbacks don’t always translate to great fantasy quarterbacks. The Bengals style is more of game-management than big plays, and until they get more comfortable with Dalton leading the team, he’s probably not worth a starting QB slot on a fantasy roster. He will definitely be drafted as a QB2 with upside.

Jermaine Gresham was a favorite sleeper tight end last season. Unfortunately, the Bengals didn’t seem to use him to his potential, resulting in a fairly inconsistent season. Don’t expect much to change this year. He’s currently being drafted as a low-end TE1, which is right, but proceed with caution.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be interesting to watch this season. The Law Firm surprised many last season emerging as a solid RB2 play out of the Patriots committee. This year he’s been given a full-time gig for the first time in Cincinnati. If he can stay healthy and productive, he should see a lot of carries and is definitely worth drafting around the 5th or 6th round.

Bernard Scott is the answer to the big IF that is BJGE. Having played behind Cedric Benson the last two seasons, Scott was slowly starting to see an increased role. He could easily split carries with Green-Ellis if he falters early, but if BJGE hits the ground running, Scott could also see more frustrating bench time. If he goes undrafted, definitely keep your eye on him on the waivers.

A.J. Green is by far the most exciting player the Bengals have to offer. He’s got the physical talent and a great head on his shoulders. I love that he spent part of the offseason working out with Cam Newton and Calvin Johnson and later attended Larry Fitzgerald’s receivers camp. The kid wants to succeed. Given the chance, he could be a top 3 fantasy WR.

Jordan Shipley provides some value in PPR leagues as the Bengals reliable slot receiver. His upside is pretty limited, though, and he may go largely undrafted.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns really have a tough row to hoe. Possibly the worst team in the NFL this year, they’re also in a tough defensive position and are unlikely to put up a lot of points–fantasy or otherwise. Still, there are a few people worth noticing on their roster.

By: Erik Drost

The Browns got very excited about Trent Richardson in this year’s draft, as they should have. He has a promising combination of size and speed that have many people saying he’s the new Adrian Peterson. However, as far as his fantasy impact, expectations should be tempered. He’s a rookie on a bad team in a tough defensive division. That’s a lot of risk for him to be going in the 1st round. If your competitors agree, and he somehow slips to late 2nd or 3rd round, draft him then.

Montario Hardesty is Richardson’s primary back up, but if Richardson isn’t a valuable RB it’ll be more likely a result of the Browns offense than his own shortcomings. Hardesty is an injury risk as well, so it’s hard to see him being worth a draft pick.

Greg Little is an unpolished 2nd year receiver. With the right QB, he could have tremendous upside. Unfortunately, Cleveland doesn’t have the right QB and may even flip flop throughout the season. Draft Little with caution, but not before the 9th or 10th round.

Mohamed Massaquoi makes this list by sheer default of being a starting receiver. Between the Browns’ anemic offense and their questionable QB situation, there’s not enough upside to spend even a late round pick on him.

Baltimore Ravens: Runners up for the AFC Championship last year, the Ravens are a great team, but with a not-so-sexy offense. That said, they do have a couple of fantasy stand-outs.

Joe Flacco is not one of those stand outs, per se, but he is a solid back up QB to roster in a deep league. If you draft a QB with a bye week in weeks 4, 6 or 10 (when the Ravens have winnable home games), Flacco presents a good back up for you. After his bye week start, you could potentially trade him to another team that’s more desperate in that position.

Ray Rice is my pick for #1 overall player in this year’s draft. He doesn’t have the recent injury history of Arian Foster, and he is the clear cornerstone of the Ravens offense. Rice is a fantasy monster, and you’d be lucky to have him.

By: Jeff Weese

Bernard Pierce is the rookie back playing behind Rice, but unless Rice gets seriously hurt (and even questionably then), it’s hard to see him having any fantasy value.

Torrey Smith got everyone’s attention last year as a deep downfield threat. He is definitely the future of the Ravens’ receiving corps, but his upside is somewhat stifled by their inconsistent offensive production. He makes a solid low-end WR2 or high-end WR3/Flex.

Anquan Boldin had a great career in pass-first Arizona, but his performance has been anticlimactic in Baltimore. With Torrey Smith stretching the field for him, he could have some more opportunity if Baltimore moved to a more balanced offense, but, understandably, they are heavily reliant on Ray Rice. Boldin will have some value if drafted in round 10 or 11, but someone else is likely to select him first, based just on his name.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Over the last five years, the Steelers have quietly gone from dominating the division with solid defense and running game to a team with significant air-production. This year, with better competition in Baltimore and Cincinnati, a new Offensive Coordinator in Todd Haley, and the lack of a dominating presence out of the backfield, choosing Steelers for your fantasy team will require somewhat of a leap of faith.

By: Matthew Brady

Depending on how you feel about the Steelers this year, Ben Roethlisberger could be the most underrated player to draft. Rashard Mendenhall will be sidelined for much of the season, and the other backs don’t make compelling replacements. In the mean time, Big Ben has some extremely talented receivers to work with. Currently being drafted as a borderline QB1/QB2, Roethlisberger’s upside is that of a reliable top 6-8 QB.

Isaac Redman will be the Steelers primary back for at least the early part of the season. However, he’s currently being drafted as a low-end RB2, based on his unproven ability to shoulder the load combined with the possibility Mendenhall will be back from his torn ACL. If you do think Redman can handle the carries (I do) and you don’t think we’ll see much of Mendenhall this season (I don’t), then Redman provides a great value to be drafted in the 5th round.

Jonathan Dwyer is the insurance ticket if you don’t think Redman will work out. He can be picked up in the last rounds of your draft, or possibly early in the season off of waivers. Dwyer showed some flashes of greatness last year, so if the Steelers opt for more of a committee than giving Redman the solo gig, Dwyer could be a good Flex play.

Rashard Mendenhall was drafted as a top 5 RB last year, and, despite his talent, was somewhat disappointing thanks to the offensive line. In week 17 he tore his ACL, and now the question is if, when and to what extent he’ll be able to come back and play behind a line Pittsburgh has worked to improve. You’ll be able to get him in a late round; the question is, will you want to carry him on your roster for so much of the season? I won’t.

Mike Wallace is somewhat of a headache right now. Between his nagging hamstring injury from last season, a potential holdout, and the creeping presence of Antonio Brown, someone who could be a top 3 receiver is being drafted in the 10th-15th spot for his position. Wallace is a favorite endzone target for Roethlisberger, but he also failed to break 100 yards in any game after week 7 last year. A 3rd round selection seems likely and palatable for him.

Antonio Brown led the team in targets last season, but surprisingly only had two touchdowns. Brown should continue to be a fixture in this offense, and defenses will have to split coverage between him and Wallace, so there’s no way he doesn’t improve the TD number. I would take him before DeSean Jackson or Brandon Lloyd, who are right now both going before him.

Emmanuel Sanders is a small but efficient receiver who may see more use as the Steelers employ three receiver sets (and generally more passing plays) to make up for a shakier running game. He’s worth spending a late round pick on, but he’s also likely to be available on the waiver wire at points throughout the season.

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