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AFC North Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks

This week, my divisional series continues with a look at the AFC North quarterbacks. The starting quarterbacks in this division all are former first-round NFL draft picks. Two of the four were overall No. 1 draft picks in their respective draft classes. Don’t feel too bad for the other two, though. One is a two-time Super Bowl Champion and likely Hall of Famer, and the other is just two years removed from becoming the youngest NFL MVP in history. Despite the considerable draft pedigree and talent in the division at the position, I am hesitant to declare more than one of these AFC North quarterbacks a bonafide top-10 fantasy quarterback this season. Keep reading to find out which one (probably not the world’s most difficult riddle to solve), as well as my thoughts on the rest of the quarterbacks in the division and their fantasy prospects for 2021. 

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AFC North Quarterback Breakdown

Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson finished 10th among quarterbacks in total fantasy points last season, and eighth on a per-game basis. Those numbers were a far cry from his otherworldly 2019 season in which he seemingly singlehandedly won fantasy championships. Most figured Jackson was due for some regression last year, so his results were not all that surprising. The question now becomes which version of Jackson will fantasy managers get in 2021. Will Jackson regain his MVP form and post ridiculous fantasy totals every week? Or should we temper expectations a bit this year based on some of his struggles from a season ago?

Jackson has struggled with accuracy in his brief NFL career. Last year, Jackson completed just 64.4 percent of his passes and had an adjusted completion percentage of 74.8. The good news is that those numbers are not too far off from his 2019 output. But while Jackson’s raw percentages may not necessarily be dealbreakers, he throws a ton of what Pro Football Focus classifies as “catchable inaccurate” passes. Of 32 qualified quarterbacks last season, Jackson finished 30th in this metric. This often leads to dropped passes and a lack of yards after the catch. He also ranked just 28th in accuracy on attempts downfield last season. The Ravens would like to attempt more deep balls this year, but Jackson will have to improve on his accuracy for the aggressive philosophy to be effective. 

Perhaps an even bigger issue for Jackson from a passing perspective is lack of volume. His completion percentage and yards per attempt were on par with Matt Ryan last year. But Ryan averaged 39 pass attempts per game while Jackson averaged just 25. Jackson attempted fewer passes in 15 games last year than Joe Burrow did in 10. Even in his historic 2019 campaign, Jackson averaged well under 30 passes per contest. And Baltimore does not figure to let Jackson chuck it 40-plus times a game anytime soon. On the bright side, the Ravens drafted Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace and signed Sammy Watkins to join Marquise Brown in their receiving room. When you combine those receivers with pass-catching tight end Mark Andrews, Jackson could very well have his best passing season in terms of attempts and yardage.

Of course, a fair portion of Jackson’s fantasy value stems from his rushing ability. Jackson has rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He has also totaled 14 rushing scores over the last two years. Jackson had at least 45 rushing yards in all but two regular-season games last year. His rushing upside cannot be matched by anyone else at the position. It is because of his rushing that Jackson is almost a top-10 fantasy quarterback by default. I believe that the added weapons on offense will bring Jackson back to being a top-five fantasy quarterback. He may not get back to being the overall QB1 in 2021, but he is easily my preferred option out of all of the AFC North quarterbacks. I currently have him ranked fourth at the position.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Burrow’s rookie season came to an abrupt end after Week 11 when he tore both his MCL and ACL. Sadly, Burrow’s fate was not completely shocking to those who had followed the Bengals throughout the year. Cincinnati fielded one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season. They seemed to catch a break when potential generational left tackle Penei Sewell remained on the board when Cincinnati was on the clock with the fifth pick in this April’s NFL Draft. Instead, the Bengals went in a different direction. Cincinnati chose Burrow’s college teammate, wide receiver, and former Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase. Considering how much I love fantasy football and the amount of Franchise Mode I played in Madden growing up, I really respect the move. Line, schmine! We’ve got Joe Burrow and three good wide receivers! Let’s throw it 50 times a game!

A look at Burrow’s raw numbers from last season (65.3 percent completions, 73.5 adjusted completion percentage) seems to point to a lack of accuracy ala Jackson. However, I do not believe that is the case with Burrow. Completion percentages alone do not tell the whole story when it comes to accuracy. Pro Football Focus charts passes in nine zones based on a quarterback’s intended target. They then classify those throws with six grades, ranging from “elite” to “poor”. Burrow performed markedly better than his percentages would seem to indicate. For reference, here is his accuracy chart next to Jackson’s. Burrow is on the left. As you can see, he has Jackson beat in nearly every zone charted. 

Burrow struggled in two main areas last season. First, he did not perform well under pressure. Burrow was on-target on just 53.5 percent of his throws when under duress. The only quarterbacks who performed worse in those situations were Drew Lock and Dwayne Haskins. An upgrade in pass protection would almost certainly limit the number of times Burrow faces pressure. Burrow also was abnormally bad on deep balls. His 20.8 adjusted completion percentage on passes 20-plus yards down the field was better than only Haskins, Mitchell Trubisky, and Jimmy Garoppolo. Burrow was effective on deep balls while at LSU, so I do not believe this is a long-term area of weakness for Burrow. He was also incredibly precise on passes within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. This is a good indicator that Burrow is by and large an accurate thrower of the football. 

The Bengals did take some steps to address the protection up front in the offseason. They signed Riley Reiff to a one-year deal and drafted Jackson Carman out of Clemson in the second round. Reiff should be Cincinnati’s right tackle, while Carman figures to slide in at guard after playing tackle in college. The interior is still a concern, and I do not expect the Bengals to suddenly field a top-10 offensive line. But if they can at least avoid being a bottom-10 unit, Burrow has the potential to put up big numbers in his sophomore season.

The trio of receivers at Burrow’s disposal has the potential to be among the very best groups in the NFL. Tyler Boyd has averaged 82 receptions and 972 yards over the past three seasons. He has proven to be one of the league’s most effective slot receivers. Boyd posted an 87.4 PFF grade and averaged 2.67 yards per route run in man coverage. Both numbers put him among the top-10 among receivers in the NFL last season. Flanking Boyd on the outside will be Chase and Tee Higgins. Hopes are high for Higgins, who had a huge rookie campaign in 2020. Higgins had 908 receiving yards last year and stands to benefit a great deal if Burrow can improve his accuracy on the deep ball. Higgins finished seventh in deep targets last season, but just 19th in receiving yards on such throws. Chase put up a season for the ages alongside Burrow in 2019. He caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 14 games while helping to lead the LSU Tigers to the National Championship. He and Burrow have great chemistry, which has already been on display during minicamp.

Burrow has a ton of upside given his impressive pedigree and the weapons around him. He averaged just over 40 pass attempts per game last year, and it is easy to see him approaching that threshold again. Of the 18 quarterbacks in NFL history who have attempted at least 640 passes in a season, the worst fantasy finish among those was Joe Flacco’s QB17 finish in 2016. And I think it is safe to say Burrow has a higher ceiling than Joe Flacco. At the same time, he is just seven months removed from a gruesome knee injury, so it is not as if there should be no concern whatsoever. Burrow is fully expected to be available come Week 1, but I would prefer to have a backup plan if I draft Burrow in a redraft league. He is a borderline QB1 for me at the moment in that format.

Cleveland Browns

Plenty of questions surrounded Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield a year ago at this time. He had just come off a 2019 season in which he threw 21 interceptions. Jameis Winston was the only other NFL quarterback to exceed 16 picks in 2019, and he was shipped out of town and forced to hold a clipboard for all of 2020. The pressure was on Mayfield to come through, and he responded with arguably his best NFL season. He set personal bests in on-target percentage and passer rating while throwing just eight interceptions. From Week 7 through the playoffs, he had the second-highest PFF grade among quarterbacks. Oh yeah, the Browns also made the playoffs for the first time since Mayfield was seven, and won a playoff game for the first time in his lifetime. All of that sounds wonderful, but there is a huge “yeah, but” coming. Ready? Here it comes!

Yeah, but none of those things matter a whole lot in fantasy football. Sure, quarterbacks get docked for interceptions. However, as Winston proved in 2019, throwing interceptions can be quasi-beneficial for fantasy purposes. This is why, as I have been saying forever, interceptions in fantasy football need to be punished much more harshly. But alas, I have yet to be formally named Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of Fantasy. So we are stuck with this foolishness for at least another season. Back to Baker. As solid a season as his 2020 was, it did not translate to a lot of fantasy success. Mayfield finished just 17th among quarterbacks in fantasy points on the year. To be fair, he was ninth on a per-game basis over the final six weeks of the regular season. But Mitchell Trubisky was 11th in the same timeframe, so take that with a grain of salt. 

I just do not see why head coach Kevin Stefanski would suddenly mess with a formula that worked so well last year. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt each exceeded 1,000 scrimmage yards in 2020, and figure to be featured once again this year. I do not expect Mayfield to suddenly start slinging it around the yard just because Odell Beckham is allegedly healthy. All in all, Mayfield is a mid-range QB2 for me in 12-team leagues. And I do not even find him to be an overly exciting one. I currently have him ranked ahead of Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields, and Deshaun Watson in season-long leagues. However, I would much rather have any of those three in Best Ball formats. Mayfield simply does not possess the weekly ceiling that some of his counterparts in that range do.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger played just two games in 2019 before requiring Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. Entering his age-38 season, there were whispers about whether Roethlisberger could return to his previous form. Those whispers grew a bit louder last March when Big Ben put out a stay-at-home PSA in the early days of the pandemic. The message itself was sincere and important. However, Big Ben looked more like a retired folk singer than an active NFL quarterback. And this was months after he seemed to pack on a few pounds following his elbow surgery. But Roethlisberger got himself back in some semblance of shape and started all of Pittsburgh’s games before resting in Week 17. He attempted 608 passes last year, which tied for the second-most in his illustrious career. He also threw 33 touchdowns, his second-highest total.

It was not all rainbows and roses for Roethlisberger despite the renaissance. He was severely limited because of the elbow injury and subsequent surgery. Roethlisberger played a lot of quick pitch-and-catch, as 76 percent of his throws took place within 2.5 seconds of the snap. The NFL average last season was 58 percent. As a result, his CAY/Cmp (Completed Air Yards per Completion) was dead last out of the 30 quarterbacks with at least 200 completions. But volume is king in fantasy football, which is why Roethlisberger finished the season 14th among quarterbacks in fantasy points despite the obvious limitations. Early chatter is that Roethlisberger’s elbow should be stronger this year than last. And the team has three solid wide receivers for him to throw to. So why do I project Big Ben to have a worse fantasy season this year than last? Two words – Najee Harris.

Pittsburgh drafted Harris in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft. The former Alabama star will fill in for the departed (and oft-injured) James Conner at running back. I would not be surprised to see Harris approach 300 touches in his rookie season. His presence would provide Pittsburgh with a much-needed offensive piece. Roethlisberger graded last out of 36 qualified quarterbacks on play-action attempts last season. Part of that was a result of his issues getting the ball down the field. But the Steelers also did not have a reliable running game. They are hoping that will change now that Harris is in the fold. I do not expect Roethlisberger to average 40 passes per game as he has in his last two full seasons. That number is likely to be closer to 35.

I believe that Roethlisberger’s overall passing efficiency will increase this season. He should be able to push the ball down the field a bit more. I would not be surprised to see him exceed 4,000 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes this year. The problem is that those thresholds only get you so far in 2021. There are so many mobile quarterbacks out there that the traditional pocket passers are often behind the 8-ball from a fantasy perspective. Seven of the top 10 fantasy finishers last year at quarterback recorded at least 60 fantasy points on the ground. Roethlisberger would probably not hit that mark if the NFL increased the season to 70 games instead of 17. I believe Big Ben has the potential to put up a top-15 fantasy season, but I would be hard-pressed to recommend him as a weekly QB1.

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