2020 Fantasy Football: AFC North Team Previews
The AFC North is a fascinating fantasy division to me. The Ravens are projected to win the division handily, coming off a league-high 14-win season. The major question is whether 2019 breakout superstar Lamar Jackson can maintain his incredible touchdown efficiency. The Steelers skill players will undoubtedly see an uptick in production with the return of Ben Roethlisberger, but how much does he have left in the tank? The Browns have a ton of offensive talent. Will yet another new coaching regime unlock their potential? Even the projected doormat of the division, the Bengals, have a potential superstar on their hands with Joe Burrow. With Burrow under center, will we see the dawning of a new era in Cinci?
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AFC North Fantasy Team Previews
Projected Win Total Odds: 11.5
The number one QB off the board in 2020 is unanimous 2019 MVP, Lamar Jackson. He was a league-winner in 2019, passing for 3,127 yards with a league-high 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Of course, what truly sets him apart is his otherworldly rushing ability at the position. His 1,206 rushing yards (776 on designed runs) were more than the likes of Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and Aaron Jones. He also splashed the end zone seven times on the ground. How repeatable are those stats though, and is he worthy of his Fantrax ADP of 24?
Jackson led the league by a country mile with 0.91 points per dropback. Patrick Mahomes, by comparison, clocked in at 0.56. Even in Jackson’s rookie season when he was nowhere near the passer he turned into in 2019, he led the NFL with 0.83 Pts/DB. Mahomes threw for 50 touchdowns and still only had 0.67 Pts/DB. Even though Jackson’s 9% TD% cannot sustain (the NFL average is closer to half that mark), his insane rushing floor is simply too valuable to discount.
Even with TD regression expected in the passing game closer to the mid-’20s due to the low volume, it’s hard to imagine him finishing lower than QB2 behind Mahomes unless his rushing leads to an injury. Remember, he’s not built like Cam Newton or Ben Roethlisberger at just 212 pounds. With QB being such a deep position, it’s hard to pull the trigger on a late second/early third-round price tag. You need to feel pretty good about your sleepers at RB, WR, and TE to spend this early pick on a QB.
Mark Ingram II finished 20th in the league with 202 rushing attempts in 2019 but was very efficient with them. He scored 10 times on the ground and racked up 1,018 yards, good for 5.0 yards per carry. He scored an additional five times on just 26 receptions (28 targets), a number we can’t expect to repeat. As the primary back for the Ravens one more year, Ingram will see the majority of rushing attempts yet again.
However, Ingram is creeping up on 31 years old, and the Ravens paid a second-round price for J.K. Dobbins out of Ohio State. Ingram’s workload is likely to take a step back in 2020, ceding touches to the younger backs such as Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. Unfortunately for us, while Ingram’s touches should regress, that doesn’t make any of the other backs especially valuable unless Ingram misses entire games with an injury. Dobbins makes for the best handcuff, but we would be looking at a sort of committee if Ingram is out.
Plenty of regression is already baked into Ingram’s RB24 price tag with an ADP of 61. He’ll be best drafted as a low-end RB2 or FLEX option as the stars would have to really align again for him to finish better than that. Dobbins is a great dynasty stash who could see his touches increase as the season wears on.
Even Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio had to be impressed with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s rookie campaign. Brown blew away expectations, scoring seven times over 14 games. In this low-volume passing offense, of course, he only amassed 584 yards on 46 receptions (71 targets). If he can stay healthy he should have no problems surpassing his 2019 target, reception, and yardage totals. The Ravens offense is still expected to be very run-heavy, so consistency is going to remain an issue for Brown in 2020. As the WR34 according to Fantrax ADP, Brown is better suited for Best Ball formats than normal redraft. That will capture his upside games and cancel out his duds (three or fewer receptions in seven of his 14 games).
In an offense that can barely float the value of a single WR3, there isn’t much to see in the supporting cast. Devin Duvernay is the Raven’s newest addition, a third-rounder out of Texas. He’s more of a short-area target as opposed to Brown but isn’t likely to hold redraft value. Willie Snead IV is likely to be the second most valuable WR on the roster, but no one outside of Hollywood will be useful in standard leagues.
With Hayden Hurst no longer on the roster, Mark Andrews is set to expand upon his 2019 season. He caught 64 balls on 98 targets for 852 yards and 10 scores in 2019, finishing as the second most valuable TE in fantasy. He’s only being drafted as the fourth TE behind Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz on Fantrax, with a 46 overall ADP. He’ll be one of the few real difference-makers at the position, although another 10 scores will be hard to duplicate.
Projected Win Total Odds: 9.5
There’s nothing like resting the fate of your franchise on the surgically-repaired shoulder of a 38-year old who has played a full 16 games just once over the past five seasons. We saw what a hit these fantasy options took last year with the likes of Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph under center. It was…not good. Ben Roethlisberger is back for 2020, but it remains to be seen just how effective he will be. As the QB17 you can wait until the endgame in your standard drafts to take a chance on him, but you’re better off using him as a streamer in single-QB leagues. He does have a juicy Week 1 matchup against a torchable Giants secondary. Yes, “torchable” is a word…now.
James Conner racked up 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards in 2018 and was shaping up to be a true stud in 2019. He was hit by the injury bug yet again, unfortunately, and was less effective over his 10 games. He put up 464 yards on 116 carries and totaled seven scores (three receiving). With a Big Ben-led offense and a full healthy season, Conner has the upside to finish as an RB1. On pure talent, his 60.5 Elusive Rating ranks him right behind the likes of Saquon Barkley and Joe Mixon. However, his consistent injury issues and the worry that Ben is toast (or misses more time, himself) puts a very low floor on Conner. His RB22 price tag is a hedge between each of those outcomes.
We can throw out what JuJu Smith-Schuster did in 2019. Between his atrocious QB play and spending more time on the outside, his unusable numbers over 12 games are lower than what we can reasonably expect in 2020. JuJu will move back into the slot for 2020, where he previously thrived. He should contribute more like 1,100-1,200 yards and seven scores as he climbs back into WR1 territory.
JuJu’s ceiling might be lowered, however, by the emergence of second-year wideout Diontae Johnson. Even as a rookie who recently revealed that he played through a groin injury sustained in Week 2 that required offseason surgery, he led the Steelers in targets (92), receptions (59), and receiving TD’s (five). In his second year, with full health and an actual NFL-caliber QB, Johnson is set up for a huge breakout. We could see him emerge and turn JuJu and Johnson into more of a 1A and 1B in terms of production the way we saw Antonio Brown and JuJu just a few years ago. James Washington and Ryan Switzer are still kicking around on the roster, but they’re deep Best Ball plays at best.
Everyone knew Eric Ebron would take a step back in 2019 after his 13 touchdown 2018, but his 31/375/3 line over 11 games was useless. Vance McDonald is still around in Pittsburgh to take some targets from Ebron, who would need to score a lot more than his projected 3.4 touchdowns to give you a positive return on your TE18 investment.
Projected Win Total Odds: 8
Baker Mayfield was the fourth quarterback drafted on average in most formats in 2019. That was a mega bust as he threw for 3,827 yards with just 22 scores and 21 picks. The 21 INT’s were second in the league, behind only Jameis Winston’s truly impressive 30. Mayfield can now be drafted as QB15 at a 121 ADP. You can bank on a potential bounce back with him as your second QB with little risk at that price.
Will former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski be able to turn Mayfield back into the promising young QB we were expecting after his rookie season? If nothing else, the team should be more run-heavy and not have to lean on Baker chucking the ball around haphazardly like a toddler in a room full of far too many breakables. They will also be running more play-action if Stefanski’s time in Minnesota is any indication – an area in which Mayfield excels. The run-heavy tilt limits his ceiling, but he should be better than his 2019 numbers.
One of the major conundrums of 2020 is how the backfield in Cleveland is going to shake out. Nick Chubb has emerged as one of the league’s premier runners. However, Kareem Hunt showed up halfway through 2019 after suspension and was a PPR monster. Hunt caught 37 balls on 44 targets in those eight games, establishing himself as far more than just a handcuff.
Chubb rushed for 1,494 yards and eight scores over 16 games, adding 36 catches for 278 yards through the air. Those are easy RB1 numbers by themself. However, once Hunt returned, it was more of a split backfield than Chubb owners wanted to see, and his production waned into RB2 territory over the second half. Stefanski’s offense should be run-heavy enough to give Chubb a chance at RB1 numbers, but he is already the RB9 per Fantrax ADP.
Hunt will have standalone value in PPR formats particularly as a FLEX option – but he is also an elite handcuff. If Chubb misses any extended time due to injury, Hunt would immediately vault into elite RB1 territory. Apart from that, he wouldn’t be worth the RB26/ADP71 sticker price in non-PPR leagues.
The premiere name here is Odell Beckham, Jr. The player who had the most productive 2019, however, was Jarvis Landry. Beckham’s decline in production can be at least somewhat explained by a sports hernia that he played through the entire season. He still managed to top 1,000 yards but caught only 74 of 133 targets. Was it the injury? Was it inaccuracy from Baker Mayfield? A poorly schemed offense? Too many late-night jalapeno chorizo tacos? All of the above? In any case, it’s hard not to see a bounce back from OBJ, which you are very much paying for at WR10/ADP26.
As hard as it is to see OBJ not taking a step forward from 2019, it’s hard not to see regression from Jarvis Landry’s 2019 line. He went 83/1,174/6 on 138 targets. While Landry is a consistent PPR option (112+ targets in every year of his career), a healthy OBJ, as well as more 12 personnel, is likely to mean fewer targets for Landry. He’s more of a floor play than ceiling at WR29.
Well, so much for the David Njoku experiment. After all his 2019 hype, he played just four games, netting 10 yards on five receptions. He will continue to be an afterthought now that the Browns signed Austin Hooper and drafted Harrison Bryant. Even Hooper, who is destined to demand the most targets at the position, is in a rough spot to repeat his 75/787/6 2019 line.
Projected Win Total Odds: 5.5
Joe Burrow is expected to start right out of the gate after finishing potentially the greatest college QB season of all time. The NFL is a totally different beast, of course, and even the greats have had rocky rookie seasons. His rushing ability will help him raise his floor immediately, but the Bengals woeful offensive line will make most of his rushing stats come from broken plays where he is running for his life. His receiving corps is solid, but it’s hard to imagine he finishes as a QB1 in his first season. However, he could very well turn a profit an be a solid Superflex option considering his late-round ADP of QB22/ADP146.
First things first with Joe Mixon: we don’t know if he is going to hold out for a new contract. Assuming that all is well, which is all we can do at this point, Mixon has RB1 upside based on volume. Mixon had 18+ touches in 10 of 16 games in 2019, although that only resulted in 1,424 yards, eight total scores, and an RB11 finish. He was tied for third in the league with 18 carries inside the five though, so see some positive touchdown regression could be on the table. The offensive line, again, remains an issue.
Giovani Bernard will spell Mixon here and there but won’t have standalone value without a holdout or injury. Mixon has tended to miss some time in previous years, but Bernard has not filled in as more than a FLEX option. Trayveon Williams would also cut into Bernard’s volume if Mixon misses time, leading to a no-win scenario.
We haven’t seen A.J. Green since the middle of the 2018 season. He will presumably be back and healthy and ready to step back into the Bengals WR1 role. Imagine his excitement returning to Joe Burrow rather than Andy Dalton. Green has played just one full season over the past four years, though. He’s also now returning as a 31-year old to a new offense and a new quarterback. So yeah, there are a few question marks. If you feel confident in his health and that he won’t face age-related decline, you’re optimistic about his potential to profit from his WR26/ADP55 spot. If you’re worried about those question marks, you’ll probably avoid him altogether.
Returning as the Bengals #2 is Tyler Boyd. He is right behind A.J. Green in terms of draft price at WR31/ADP67. With the return of Green, as well as newcomer Tee Higgins, there is no way Boyd garners another 148 targets. He was still able to surpass 1,000 yards on 108 targets in 2018 with half a season of Green. He’ll need more missed time from Green as well as a slow start from Higgins to finish as more than a WR3.
Whereas the other tight end situations are at least somewhat interesting in this division, this one is easy. Just avoid it. C.J. Uzomah is the primary TE now with Tyler Eifert out of town. He’s an uninspiring fantasy option in an offense that doesn’t feature the tight end. Theoretically, he could step into some of the 63 targets vacated by Eifert, but most of those are going to be spread around to the WR corps.
Got a different take on how the AFC North plays out? Share it in the comments below.
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