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2018 fantasy football outlook: AFC North

Here’s what I expect from the top fantasy football options on the Steelers, Ravens, Bengals and Browns this year.

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Typically when I start writing big sweeping articles about different divisions in the NFL, I start with the AFC East. It’s only logical that I’d start with the Patriots and a division I know so well. But this time I decided to challenge myself and start with a different division; one that people might be unfairly sleeping on.

That’s right, the AFC North might just be mildly exciting this year! The Pittsburgh Steelers will always be the Pittsburgh Steelers, that is to say a regular season power house whose fate is to ultimately falter in the playoffs to the Patriots because either Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown is injured. But you know what you’re getting with them year in and year out.

The Baltimore Ravens might finally be exciting because either their going to start a motivated, “holy shit I actually need to work to keep my job” Joe Flacco OR—and this is the “or” that we’re all waiting for—they’re going to start Lamar Jackson at quarterback who’s just going to be so much fun to watch.

In Cincinnati... well, the Bengals still have A.J. Green who on a “down year” still managed over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns and here’s to hoping that the sophomore seasons of both John Ross and Joe Mixon are massively better than their rookie campaigns (which I don’t think is too far out of the question).

And then we have the Cleveland Browns. OH MAN am I here for this year’s Browns team. Ultimately, I know they’re going to Suicide Squad me and not live up to the hype, but for now, I’m watching that Bohemian Rhapsody trailer on repeat and convincing myself that this is the year the Browns finally return to relevance. ALL HAIL PRESEASON OPTIMISM!

Here’s how I see the AFC North playing out this year:

  1. Steelers: 12-4 (Steelers still the best team in the division)
  2. Bengals: 9-7 (Andy Dalton gets his poop together but is helped massively by Joe Mixon and an improved run game)
  3. Ravens: 8-8 (Lamar will take over for Joe Flacco but he and the Ravens will have some growing pains)

Now, let’s get to the fantasy content, since after all this is a fantasy site. I’ve decided to do four different tiers of players for each team: Love, Like, Eh, NOOOO. I feel like those are all pretty self explanatory. Also, let it be noted, not every team will have all four categories AND I likely will not talk about all the players on each team. I don’t want this to be a 3,000 word dissertation so I’m going to try and talk about players who I have strong feelings towards either positively or negatively.

(Each player has their current non-PPR ADP via Fantasy Football Calculator if applicable)

Baltimore Ravens

LIKE: Alex Collins (RB20, 3.12), Michael Crabtree (WR30, 7.03), Kenneth Dixon (RB52, 13.07) Justin Tucker, if you’re into kickers
EH: everyone else on this roster (but actual names include: Willie Snead, John Brown and the tight ends)
NOOOO: Joe Flacco (QB>25, >15.00)

Aside from me being a snarky asshole, it’s plain to see the Ravens, at least on paper, don’t offer a wide variety of fantasy options. The team rebuilt their receiving core this offseason and while could help a terrible passing attack (26th per DVOA last year), a lot of that passing attack relies on the guy throwing the football. That being said—we’ll get to that football thrower later—there are names that would be good to know heading into fantasy drafts.

Willie Snead was thought to take a big step last year with the Saints after he put together two back-to-back seasons of over 100 targets and 800 yards, but alas that did not come to fruition. Even with his usage in New Orleans, Snead was never more than a WR3/Flex option in fantasy and I don’t see that wildly improving for him in Baltimore.

John Brown is wicked fast and has had a 1,000+ yard season in his career but he’s struggled with injuries and I’m unsure if there’s anything else to his game than running deep really fast. That being said, Mike Wallace made himself a nice couple of years in Baltimore doing exactly that. Between the two, I’d take the flier on Brown. We know Joe Flacco loves to chuck the ball deep.

Quickly on Joe Flacco: just don’t do it to yourself. Even if he’s a revitalized Joe Flacco, he’s just not going to be worth drafting in fantasy. No ones going to take him either so you can always snag him off the waiver wire. If you’re someone with big cajones, go get yourself Lamar. He’ll either give you nothing, or EVERYTHING!

Finally, the guys I like. Collins and Crabtree are going to be fantasy contributors because someone has to do it. Collins did show last year that he can be a workhorse back and he finished RB16 last year despite starting 12 games. Personally, I think the third round is a little pricey but I’d take him if he fell to the fourth, no questions asked. Crabtree is going to get so many targets, he won’t know what to do with them all. You’re buying on volume here not nessecarily ability. Kenneth Dixon has a ton of talent and if he can stay healthy, could be a big time sleeper this year.

Cincinnati Bengals

LOVE: A.J. Green (WR8, 2.08)
LIKE: Joe Mixon (RB13, 2.08), Giovani Bernard (RB53, 13.09), John Ross
NOOOO: Tyler Eifert (TE11, 10.10), Andy Dalton

My infatuation with Green should come as a surprise to no one as I’ve literally been preaching his name on every medium I can find. I talked about him at length on this week’s RB1 Podcast as my favorite ADP in fantasy this year. And why shouldn’t he be? HE’S GOING IN THE BACK END OF THE SECOND ROUND PEOPLE. This is a guy who on a “down year” posted over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. I mean, come on this is a no brainer people.

Mixon had a less than stellar rookie season but that’ll change in his sophomore year. Not only will he have a year under his belt, but he’ll also be running behind an improved offensive line with the addition of Billy Price in the draft. The reason he’s not a love is that he’s going in the same spot as Green and if I had to pick between the two, ya know who I’m taking.

Everyone keeps predicting the end of Gio yet he just keeps ticking in the backfield, someway, some how. His fantasy production has gone down a little over the past few years but it has yet to dip below RB45 so if I’m taking him at RB53 this year, that’s a return on investment. I’ll happily take a flier on him. I’m putting John Ross here as well because he’s another guy I’d happily take a flier on/might not even need to draft but can add via waiver wire. His speed is electric and you know the Bengals will try and scheme the ball into his hands some way or another.

Tyler Eifert has just been injured too often for me to trust him and Andy Dalton falls in the same category as Joe Flacco: why put yourself through that? (Though between the two, he’s much more likely to return to fantasy relevance. And then you can snag him off the waiver wire.)

Cleveland Browns

LOVE: Carlos Hyde (RB30, 6.05)
LIKE: Jarvis Landry (WR29, 6.11), Duke Johnson (RB48, 11.01)
EH: Josh Gordon (WR13, 3.10), Nick Chubb (RB39, 8.07)

I’m going to be honest, I’m a bit confuzzled by Hyde’s current ADP. I understand there’s this whole Nick Chubb train that’s left the station and is speeding to Hypetown U.S.A. but am I the only one who’s thinking that train might come careening off the tracks? Last year, on a 49ers team that seventh worse in the league in Football Outsiders’ stuffed metric (percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage), Hyde still managed to finish 13th in the league in rushing yards, fourth in touchdowns and RB11 in fantasy. People are wildly underrating Hyde and I’ll take full advantage of their mistake.

It’ll be interesting to see Landry’s usage in Cleveland (though I have already correctly predicted how he’ll be used) but regardless, he’s going to get targets and he’s going to get production and I don’t mind that in the sixth/seventh round. I’d take Landry as my WR2.

I’m a big Duke Johnson fan. I don’t know why, but I just am. He’s coming off a season which he finished RB21 and established himself as a legit threat catching the ball out of the backfield. I think his rushing attempts will take a hit this year but he’s earned himself a role in the passing game.

There’s too much up in the air around Gordon for me to spend a third round pick on him (that being said, get better Gordon!). Plus, we haven’t seen him be the dominate wide receiver threat since 2013, which for those at home, is five years ago. I hope he returns to form and blows up the league again, but I don’t have so much confidence in him that I’m willing to draft him over Stefon Diggs or even JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Quickly on the Browns’ quarterbacks, because I do like these guys. I’m a big Tyrod Taylor buy and I’ve so far loved everything that’s come out of Baker Mayfield’s camp. In terms of fantasy, I need to see to believe on both these guys. I’m still unsure if the Browns will be able to hold of the Mayfield screams for too long so Taylor seemingly has a short leash and then how much to you want to rely on a rookie quarterback on the most snakebitten franchise in NFL history? They’re certainly guys to keep eyes on on the waiver wire but I’m not drafting either of them.

Pittsburgh Steelers

LOVE: Le’Veon Bell (RB2, 1.02), Antonio Brown (WR1, 1.06)
LIKE: JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR17, 4.08), James Washington

The Steelers are boom or bust when it comes to fantasy. They offer the best players at their position and that’s about it. I don’t feel like I need to spend too much man power on Bell or Brown. They’re pretty obvious picks. I will say in regards to Bell, I think we could see an utterly dominate season out of him this year for two reasons. First, he knows he’s about to hit legit free agency for the first time and he wants to get paid. He also wants to show the Steelers what they’re going to be missing out on. Dude’s going to ball. Second, and I’m just wildly speculating here, the Steelers are going to use every ounce of Bell this year. The Cowboys did the same thing with DeMarco Murray; give him a billion touches, wear down the tires, get everything you can out of him and then release him to free agency for some other team to overpay. (Personally, I think this is a dick move but when was the last time the NFL and it’s owners ever cared about being nice to their players?)

Smith-Schuster is an interesting guy because he came seemingly out of nowhere last year and put up some good numbers for a rookie sharing an offense with Brown and Bell. He finished WR20 last year and I think his current WR17 is fair given that he has a full year under his belt, etc etc. If you’re looking for a deep sleeper, James Washington might do exactly what JuJu did last year, that is, come in as a rookie and immediately produce.

Please for the love of all that is holy, do not draft Ben Roethlisberger. There are much better options out there. Please don’t.

And look at that, under 3,000 words. That’s a win.


Who will have the better fantasy season?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Alex Collins
    (9 votes)
  • 54%
    Joe Mixon
    (27 votes)
  • 12%
    Carlos Hyde
    (6 votes)
  • 16%
    JuJu Smith-Schuster
    (8 votes)
50 votes total Vote Now