Fantasy Football: 5 burning questions in the AFC North

Whether there are enough footballs in Cleveland, addition-by-subtraction for Steelers and the Lamar Jackson experience in Baltimore

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Next up is the AFC North, where there's an unfamiliar new favorite in the Cleveland Browns overtaking the division's two perennial challengers, the reigning champion Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, whose addition-by-subtraction strategy may or may not lead them to more wins but likely will have negative fantasy ramifications. Conversely, the Cincinnati Bengals under rookie head coach Zac Taylor could be more prosperous for fantasy owners than the Brown family this season.

1.) What can Lamar Jackson do in his first full season as the starter?

The Heisman-winning, ankle-breaking, breathtaking playmaker finished as QB8 overall in average scoring from Weeks 11-17, his seven-game starting sample size, despite tossing 5 touchdowns compared to 7 turnovers and eclipsing 200 passing yards once. That's obviously a small sample, and Jackson has miles to go as a passer. But if new coordinator Greg Roman intends on maintaining the game plan that saw Jackson average an unprecedented 17 carries per game while Roman was asst. head coach last season and Marty Morninwheg was still calling plays, the quarterback's upside is unlimited — assuming he can make at least marginal strides as a passer.

We didn't necessarily see that last season, when Jackson completed less than 60 percent of his throws and averaged only 7 adjusted yards per attempt, but in his first full offseason, with exciting new weapons in Marquise Brown and Justice Hill, not to mention a healthier TE corps, at least modest improvements should be expected.

However, Jackson's supporting cast still leaves a lot to be desired with immense potential but little in the way of proven production in the WR corps. The signing of Mark Ingram and drafting of Justice Hill is encouraging at least because they're strong pass catchers who will serve as valuable safety valves offering high-percentage chances for Jackson as his knowledge of offense and reading defenses increases.

Jackson is going off as QB20, lasting until the end of Round 12 according to Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP data. With that price tag and his historic running production — 695 rushing yards ranks 11th in NFL history, trailing only full-time starters — Jackson will be near the top of our list of late-round QB bargains with game-changing upside.

2.) Which Steeler will be most affected by the Antonio Brown trade?

It has to be Ben Roethlisberger or JuJu Smith-Schuster, right? We touched a bit here on the three games in which Smith-Schuster has been the team's No. 1 in Brown's absence. But how has Big Ben fared without A.B. throughout his career? In two games over the past two seasons, Roethlisberger averaged 256 passing yards and tallied a 3:1 TD-INT ratio, compared to 305 and 59:29 with the future Hall of Fame receiver on the field.

Talk about a small sample size, but that's basically what we have to go off because Brown only missed one other game since becoming a full-time starter — the 2016 regular-season finale, when Roethlisberger was also sidelined. Indeed, there will be some serious projecting required before locking in Smith-Schuster as your WR1 or Roethlisberger as a potential starter.

But what about James Conner, you ask? He saw more than eight defenders in the box last season on 27.91 percent of his carries, per Next Gen Stats, a higher percentage than all but 10 qualifying NFL runners. In other words, the presence of Brown, rather surprisingly, didn't make life that much easier on Conner, at least in terms of the fronts he saw. The hard-charging Conner was not only prolific but efficient last season, and with four starters returning up front and no real new challengers to his workload, he again profiles as a rock-solid RB1 — with a drop-off looming not far behind him on fantasy RB boards.

As far as the beneficiaries of Brown's departure, 2017 Biletnikoff winner James Washington is the most obvious choice, and rookie Diontae Johnson and vets Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer merit late-round dart throws, but it could finally be Vance McDonald #szn, too. Remember, McDonald came on like gangbusters in last year's playoffs when Brown was hobbled, and after his delayed start to 2018 because of injury, finished as TE9 over the final 14 games.

3.) Will there be enough footballs to go around in Cleveland?

We're not as worried about the backfield because Nick Chubb will have half a season to maintain full ownership of the lead role in Kareem Hunt's absence with suspension, and remember what happened over the second half of Chubb's rookie campaign? All he did was finish sixth among all fantasy backs in scoring following Carlos Hyde's trade to Jacksonville. If anything, Kevin Zeitler's exit from what was only an average (at best) run-blocking O-line gives us more pause, but it's up to the 33rd overall pick in the draft two years ago, Austin Corbett, to help provide a jump start.

Until Duke Johnson is dealt, he'll also have fantasy value as the clear preferred third-down back in an offense that's going to pass a ton. But where Baker Mayfield slings it outside of OBJ and Jarvis Landry is a huge question. He was certainly more of an equal opportunity passer upon taking the starting reins than predecessor Tyrod Taylor, but that's like comparing a Rolls Royce to a beat-up Buick. We feel very comfortable drafting Beckham with the expectation of getting an elite WR1, Landry a productive WR2. We like David Njoku and Antonio Callaway, but only as relatively cheap options in what has a chance to be the most dangerous aerial attack in the league.

Stay tuned. We plan to dig in a lot deeper specifically on the Browns' riveting fantasy landscape in the coming weeks...

4.) How much faith should we have in new head coach Zac Taylor?

Well, how much faith did you have in Marvin Lewis by the end of his 16-season death march? He's a defensive-minded coach, and even with the bottom truly falling out last season, the Bengals were home of fantasy's RB9 (Joe Mixon) and WR16 (Tyler Boyd) overall.

And we expect Cincinnati to once again be fruitful for fantasy purposes, with A.J. Green currently perhaps the biggest bargain at receiver and Tyler Eifert still surely worth at least a last-round flier, which he's not fetching at the moment. Taylor has only called plays for five NFL games, when he was the interim coordinator with the 2015 Miami Dolphins. He oversaw a 60-40 pass-run split, leaning on Lamar Miller early over that stretch and helping unlock DeVante Parker late in his rookie season.

Coming from Sean McVay's Rams, Taylor seems likely to use plenty of "11 personnel" with Tyler Boyd working in the slot and John Ross potentially sliding into the Brandin Cooks vertical role. Based on their current ADPs, we might give Ross a long look before ponying up for Boyd, who hasn't shown yet that he can be a reliable point scorer opposite Green.

The injury to Jonah Williams is a crushing blow to the Bengals offensive line, no two ways about it. But that unit's shortcomings a year ago, when it ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders' overall run-blocking metric, hardly diminished Mixon's value, and a potential increase in the screen game that he's shone so brightly in spurts may offset a bit of the O-line concerns. We're comfortable with Mixon's current price tag (RB8, 1.11) but would be thrilled to get him somewhere after that Round 1-2 turn.

5.) Who'll be the fantasy stud, dud on each club?


STUD: If he stays healthy and limits his fumbling, Lamar Jackson will anchor your squad.

DUD: Gus Edwards is about to get tossed under the Mark Ingram/Kenneth Dixon/Justice Hill bus.


STUD: James Conner is a bad man, fully capable of building on his breakthrough 2018.

DUD: Big Ben led the NFL in yards but also picks last year, and we're all about to find out what Brown did for him.


STUD: Baker Mayfield is ready to dominate.

DUD: Add to the list of Kareem Hunt concerns: Nick Chubb.


STUD: A.J. Green, still the man.

DUD: Tyler Boyd's contract season comes at a difficult time.

Pro Football Weekly