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AFC North Fantasy Preview

Joe Flacco

Into the second week of August we go, where NFL teams will all finally see action this coming weekend to open their preseason slate of meaningless games. We got our first taste of football season with Sunday night’s Hall of Fame game, which featured the Dallas Cowboys topping the AFC North’s defending divisional champs, the Cincinnati Bengals.

The AFC North is likely to be one of the more hotly contested divisions in football, with Cincy aiming to repeat in the top spot, Baltimore reloading for a deep postseason run, and Pittsburgh a perennial playoff contender  this year depending on how they fare out of the gate while they are without Ben Roethlisberger’s services. And then there’s the Cleveland Browns… (crickets chirping)

So in our third installment of the Divisional Fantasy Preview series, I dive in deeper for a closer look at the fantasy names of the AFC North, a division chock full of talent and plentiful in fantasy value.

Team Profiles

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have visions of Super Bowl XLV dancing in their heads coming into the 2010 season after turning heads in the ’09 postseason, handing a 33-14 beatdown to the Pats in the wild-card round. Third-year quarterback Joe Flacco is poised for a breakout season for Baltimore, hoping to build on a very strong sophomore season. He has reached “fantasy starter” status coming into this season, ranked among the top 10-12 QBs in most pre-draft rankings.

Flacco will have a new toy in his toy chest on offense, with Baltimore acquiring former Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin this off-season. Boldin, a #2 behind Larry Fitzgerald for many seasons in the desert, now becomes the go-to guy for Baltimore’s air attack, which should vault Boldin also to the top 10-12 players at his position. To complement Boldin, the Ravens brought back veteran Derrick Mason and brought in troubled veteran Donte Stallworth. Stallworth would have to be considered a very late round sleeper, but Mason should be drafted in every league as a solid bye-week option for your depth at WR.

On the ground, the Ravens feature one of the top RBs in the game with Ray Rice. He’ll be gone in the first round of every draft you’re in, guaranteed. Behind Rice on the depth chart is another veteran, Willis McGahee, whose fantasy value has to be questioned, even though he should be drafted in every league, if not for handcuffing reasons alone.

Cincinnati Bengals

With a healthy Carson Palmer last season, the Bengals swept their divisional slate of games, winning all six, en route to a 10-6 season and an AFC North title. Palmer, who had come back from elbow surgery before the season began, was economical in his return, not putting up overwhelming stats, but doing enough fundamentally to manage the game and deliver victories more often than not.

Cincy last year, even with the big arm potential of Palmer, turned more into a running team than in prior years. The team picked up Cedric Benson off the scrap heap and watched the bruising rusher turn in the best year of his career. I like Benson as a solid second or third round pick in fantasyland, and I actually really like Palmer as a borderline fantasy starter at the QB position.

With a pair of VH1-featured wideouts in Chad Ochocinco and the newly acquired Terrell Owens, Palmer will be forced to feed their egos by feeding them the ball often. Consider Ochocinco a solid pick in the middle rounds, as he takes aim at his eighth 1000-yard season in the last nine years, with Owens acting as nothing more than a late-round flyer pick, as his career continues its downward spiral. Antonio Bryant was also brought in during the off-season, but with the late acquisition of Owens, any fantasy value Bryant had has gone by the way side now.

Cleveland Browns

I can’t leave them out because despite public opinion, they are actually still an NFL team, but you’d never know it from the roster they keep trotting out there every year. Cleveland decided to dump Derek Anderson and trade away Brady Quinn, opting instead to import former Panther QB Jake Delhomme, ex-Seahawk Seneca Wallace, and draft the highly touted Longhorn QB Colt McCoy. Delhomme will likely start the season under center, but that doesn’t mean you should look his way for your team. I can’t see any Cleveland QB being worth a draft pick this year, unless maybe you’re in a 16-team fantasy league.

Delhomme will throw to an uninspiring crop of receivers, led by Mohamed Massaquoi, who is probably the only WR on the Browns who might warrant a draft pick in fantasyland. Behind Massquoi are the speedy Josh Cribbs and second-year man Brian Robiskie, both of whom would be late-round sleeper picks, at best.

Cleveland’s ground game doesn’t wow anyone either, featuring a pair of lackluster backs in Jerome Harrison and rookie Montario Hardesty. Both should be drafted in fantasy leagues, but if either one is starting for you, don’t take that as a good sign.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Every expectation that Steelers fans have coming into the 2010 season hinges upon the eventual return of their franchise quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben will begin the season serving what now is a six-game suspension, but commissioner Roger Goodell has said that suspension could be shortened to four games if the QB can keep his nose clean. Obviously, fantasy owners can’t rely on Big Ben as a starter, but if you draft a QB with a bye week after his return, Roethlisberger can be considered a very solid #2, worthy of a mid-to-late round selection. Meanwhile his fill-in, Byron Leftwich, isn’t worth a pick out of the gate.

Byron and Ben have a few good options at receiver that I like, led by potential breakout receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace only had 39 grabs last season, but with Santonio Holmes shipped out to the Jets, Wallace will be asked to step in to the starter role in the Steel City, opposite veteran receiver Hines Ward. Both men should put up a solid stat line in 2010, worthy of plenty of fantasy consideration. Pittsburgh also boasts the best tight end in the division with veteran Heath Miller being the only TE in the AFC North worth drafting.

In the backfield, Pittsburgh will lean on youngster Rashard Mendenhall to carry the bulk of the workload this season, with veteran Mewelde Moore and rookie Jonathan Dwyer acting as backups. Mendenhall is ranked as a top-10 fantasy back in every pre-draft list I’ve seen thus far, and with a rather easy schedule on the slate, there’s no reason he won’t put up big numbers for his owners. Moore and Dwyer don’t have a ton of value, if any at all, but if Mendenhall goes down, remember their names on the waiver wire.

Top 5 AFC North Studs (Players Worth Early Picks)

  • Ray Rice, RB Baltimore
  • Rashard Mendenhall, RB Pittsburgh
  • Cedric Benson, RB Cincinnati
  • Anquan Boldin, WR Baltimore
  • Joe Flacco, QB Baltimore

Top 5 AFC North Duds (Players I Think Will Flop)

  • Jerome Harrison, RB Cleveland
  • Terrell Owens, WR Cincinnati
  • Willis McGahee, RB Baltimore
  • Donte Stallworth, WR Baltimore
  • Antwaan Randle-El, WR Pittsburgh

Top 5 AFC North Sleepers (Players Whose Value Will Increase)

  • Mike Wallace, WR Pittsburgh
  • Bernard Scott, RB Cincinnati
  • Derrick Mason, WR Baltimore
  • Carson Palmer, QB Cincinnati
  • Jonathan Dwyer, RB Pittsburgh

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