AFC North Offseason Review

Jamey Black

04/09/2016

AFC NORTH

CLEVELAND:   The Browns have really failed to help themselves this offseason and 2016 looks to be another year of rebuilding in Cleveland. On defense, the Browns released LB Karlos Dansby and DT Randy Starks. Both have been underwhelming and overpaid so this isn’t shocking for a team on the rebuild. Losing safety Tashaun Gipson to free agency is going to hurt though, and adding LB Demario Davis and safety Rahim Moore will hardly fill the void.  It’s very likely Cleveland drafts a QB with the #2 pick in this year’s draft, which makes it somewhat surprising that the Browns signed RG III to a 2 year, $15M contract. Griffin still offers some potential though and should help their running game right away. The Browns wisely left themselves an out, as releasing Griffin will only cost Cleveland $1.75M in dead money for 2017. Releasing Dawayne Bowe was a “no duh” move after paying him $9M last season for a grand total of 5 catches, 53 yards and ZERO TD’s. Failing to retain WR Travis Benjamin was perhaps the biggest of the big blunders made by the Browns this offseason, and not far behind was letting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack escape as well, leaving the new coaching regime with big holes to fill on the offensive line. I’m not sure how I feel about Josh Gordon right now, but even if he gets reinstated he has a long road back to becoming the Josh Gordon of 2013. Hiring new head coach Hue Jackson is really the only positive development to report out of Cleveland thus far in their 2016 offseason.

FANTASY IMPACT: Hue Jackson will help the running game in Cleveland, especially when they fill the holes on the offensive line. Jackson’s first year as the OC in Oakland, he improved the Raiders’ rushing attack from 21st in the NFL in 2009, to 2nd in the NFL in 2010 when Darren McFadden had his best season as a pro, averaging 5.2ypc and 128 yards from scrimmage per game. Jackson did the same in Cincinnati in 2014, improving their rushing attack from 17th in the NFL to 6th in his first year as OC. Look for Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson to get plenty of opportunities this season, particularly if RG III is at QB as opposing defenses will have to account for his ability to run. With that said, Cleveland has some work to do after losing 2 very good offensive linemen.

 

CINCINNATI:  The Bengals lost a few key players to free agency and haven’t received much in return, but I’m not sure it has hurt them too badly. Cincinnati retained their priority free agents on defense and lost a couple of 2nd tier guys, but it looks like they may keep their secondary intact if they can at least resign safety Reggie Nelson and possibly CB Leon Hall…they did add safety Taylor Mays for insurance and depth. The recently acquired Karlos Dansby is a nice fit and should be able to find a starting position among the Bengals linebacker corps, but even if he doesn’t, he will likely be productive as a role player. Fortunately, Cincinnati has depth on the offensive line to soften the loss of Andre Smith.  Signing Brandon LaFell provides the Bengals with a veteran #2 receiver, but doesn’t really fill the void after losing receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu to free agency. The Bengals do still have their top 2 receiving threats in AJ Green and Tyler Eifert and they generally draft well. Cincinnati should be very competitive again this season.                                                                                                                        *Update: (Wed. 4/06/16) Reggie Nelson signed a 2-year deal with Oakland

FANTASY IMPACT:  Losing Jones and Sanu at WR will provide more opportunities for Green and Eifert.  AJ Green’s targets fell off a bit last season. Look for Green to get back over the 10 targets per game mark we are used to seeing from him. After breaking out last season, Tyler Eifert should continue to move forward with more opportunity which should lead to more consistency, and there is every reason to expect a career year from Eifert in 2016 if he stays healthy. LaFell is the #2 WR in a good offense, so don’t be surprised to see a few big games from him this season. With less receiving options, it’s very possible Giovani Bernard will contribute more in the passing game and break his career highs in receptions (56) and receiving yards (514) this season. Other than that, I expect the running back situation to remain unchanged this year, even after the departure of 2014-2015 OC Hue Jackson.

 

BALTIMORE:  Losing Kelechi Osemele is a blow to Baltimore’s offensive line, however they did extend Marshal Yanda mid-season last year leaving them only 1 hole to fill up front. Grabbing TE Ben Watson at $8M over 2 years is somewhat surprising considering the Ravens have two young, promising TE’s in Crockett Gilmore and Maxx Williams. WR Mike Wallace may finally be able to help a team since leaving PIT as Joe Flacco has the arm to let Mike Wallace be Mike Wallace. The Ravens have taken a hit on defense this offseason allowing both linebacker Daryl Smith and defensive lineman Chris Canty to walk, and safety Will Hill was released after yet another suspension.  Adding Eric Weddle fills the void at safety, but the Ravens still have glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball. Look for Baltimore to try and sure up their offensive line and defensive needs through the draft.

FANTASY IMPACT:  The addition of Wallace should help out the underneath WR’s and TE’s as he will open things up with his speed. RB’s Justin Forsett and Buck Allen might benefit from a “light” box as well. QB Joe Flacco was actually having career highs in passing yards per game and completion percentage last season until he went down with a torn ACL. With the signing of Ben Watson, Crockett Gilmore showing promise, Maxx Williams getting a year under his belt and last year’s 1st round pick WR Breshad Perriman coming back from injury, there is no reason to think Flacco won’t pick up where he left off.  I do expect Baltimore to take it easy with Flacco until he feels comfortable with his knee and the Ravens feel confident their O-line can protect him, likely leading to more touches for their RB’s early in the season. I wanted to feel good about a fantasy TE in Baltimore, but the addition of Ben Watson makes it difficult. Watson will play, but he isn’t going to come close to the numbers he put up in N.O. last year and he hurts the fantasy value of both Gilmore and Williams.

 

PITTSBURGH:  The Steelers have done well in the offseason to keep most of their team intact, and adding free agent tight end Ladarius Green at $5M per season was a tremendous value. Green should be an upgrade to the retired Heath Miller and Pittsburgh may need Green’s freakish size/speed combo even more in the passing game after losing WR Martavis Bryant for the season to suspension. PIT also lost left tackle Kelvin Beachum to free agency leaving a hole to fill on the O-line, but keep in mind, Beachum only played in 6 games last season before tearing his ACL. After a 2 week suspension to start the year, Leveon Bell returned in 2015 and was on his way to possibly his best season as a pro, averaging career highs in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry before his season ending injury in week 8. Though he tore his MCL and PCL, Bell managed to avoid damage to the ACL and should be a full go week 1. On defense, losing NT Steve McClendon will likely hurt them on running downs a bit, but Pittsburgh managed to retain the rest of their defensive free agents with the exception of CB Antwon Blake, who was one of the worst DB’s in the NFL last season.

 

FANTASY IMPACT:  TE Ladarius Green could be given a lot of opportunity in the passing game with Bryant out for the season, which also opens the door for a WR opposite Antonio Brown.  It’s Markus Wheaton’s job to lose right now and he should hold down the #2 WR position for the Steelers this season, but don’t sleep on Sammie Coates. Coates caught all of 1 pass in the regular season as a rookie last year, but showed improvement in the post season with 61 receiving yards in Pittsburgh’s loss to the Broncos.  Returning from injury, RB Leveon Bell should ascend back to the top-tier as a high-end RB1 again this season.

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