More sleepers, more football as the season keeps creeping closer and closer and today I'm looking for draft-value players in the AFC North. In real football, the division looks to be one of the strongest in the NFL with three playoff teams from a year ago and honestly a Browns team that actually has a pretty strong defense.
That's the problem when comparing this division to fantasy though: they play a lot of great defense in the AFC North. Great defense is not much of a help to fantasy owners. The Ravens, Steelers, Bengals and Browns are probably all stronger on the defensive side of the ball than they are on the offensive side. There are some solid big-play receivers like Mike Wallace, A.J. Green and Torrey Smith. Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton, and Joe Flacco almost seem like the PERFECT division of quarterbacks to welcome a new guy like Brandon Weeden. It's almost like, "Where you been Weeden? You're just the guy for this division!"
But to find the diamonds in the rough is a little tougher when the diamonds in the diamond patch aren't exactly overwhelming. I'll try though.
Bernard Pierce, RB, Ravens
If the season started today, it's very likely that Anthony Allen would be Ray Rice's main backup and Pierce would be behind him but the season doesn't start today. Which is good for the Ravens since Rice is still holding out and actually if the season started today, Allen would be the starter.
Allen, a seventh round pick last year, has impressed everybody in OTAs while Pierce has seemed to struggle. A third round pick this year out of Temple, Pierce should be expected to step up and win the job that Ricky Williams left behind. Coincidentally, Williams is 2nd all-time in Division 1 FBS rushing touchdowns and Pierce is 18th after rushing for 53 scores during his time in college but he did it in only 33 games.
More after the jump...
Allen seems to be playing himself into a job this year, but I'm not sure it will be as the main handcuff to Rice. The Ravens traded up to acquire Pierce and I believe that eventually he'll be a backup in a good situation. Especially if Rice were to actually hold out into the season. (Which he won't but it's always going to be speculated like that.)
Another name I'd look out for this year: TE Dennis Pitta.
Emmanual Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
When I look out for sleepers in the Steelers organization this year, I'm not necessarily looking for any guys that they've brought in recently at skill positions, but what they've done around the other parts of the offense. Most notably, drafting G David DeCastro in the 1st, T Mike Adams in the 2nd, and hiring Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator.
Before he was the head coach of the Chiefs, Haley was the OC for the Cardinals during their most successful run in franchise history. They had Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald, but the Steelers don't exactly have slouches at those positions. Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown can ball and go deep and Haley could be just the guy to guide them. But what about sleepers?
I'm compelled to take a closer look at Sanders. This article from the Altoona Mirror has a lot of quotes from Sanders on Haley and the new offense and his belief that it will be "explosive." If I take Sanders in the last round of a deep draft, I hope he's right.
Sanders should be taking over Hines Ward role this year and also relieve Antonio Brown of return duties, giving Sanders added bonus value if your league counts return yards.
I don't really know what I think about the Bengals this year, much like I didn't have a good read on them going into last year. A.J. Green was even more ready for the NFL than we thought and even then he had some struggles which makes you wonder what his actual ceiling is. Andy Dalton was good but has plenty of room to grow. I'm not entirely impressed with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the Cedric Benson replacement and not entirely impressed with his backups as I don't think that Bernard Scott or Brian Leonard are great starting options.
However, the Bengals did grab G Kevin Zeitler in the first round and drafted Sanu in the third and WR Marvin Jones in the fifth. I guess I like Sanu the most out of the new additions and already had rated him higher than many people going into the draft.
Sanu was one of the best players in the history of Rutgers football and broke Larry Fitzgerald's single-season Big East record with 115 receptions in 2011. Transitioning to the NFL is especially hard for receivers but I think Sanu was a steal in the third round for the Bengals and when he starts playing opposite of Green, he could become a solid WR3 in fantasy formats or better.
That may not be as soon as this year, but I'd keep an eye on him just in case.
The Browns have nowhere to go but up on offense, where they averaged 13.6 points per game in 2011. Because of that, Little rather quietly had 61 catches for 709 yards as a second round rookie without much help at all around him. Little was inconsistent but that's to be expected for a rookie and it's just a great sign that he was ever good at all with Colt McCoy throwing it and almost nobody else making catches. He had a career day in week 14 against Arizona with 5 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown.
New on playcalling will be Brad Childress, the former OC of the Philadelphia Eagles and head coach of the Minnesota Vikings that was often credited with turning Donovan McNabb into a Pro Bowl quarterback, something that Pat Shurmer will hope that he can do for Brandon Weedon or maybe McCoy. All of which is better news for guys like Little.
If Little can improve his hands, drop fewer passes, there is no other player on this roster standing in his way. With a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback, and Trent Richardson added as the top young running back in the NFL, things should really be opening up for Little. Definitely don't keep him under your radar anymore.
And I did that segment without a single pun, no small accomplishment.