I’ll just go ahead and get this out of the way. I went to the University of Cincinnati, have friends and family in the area, and live about an hour north of the city. I’ve been in bars where fights break out whenever Pittsburgh comes to town. So, needless to say, the AFC North is a part of my life. The worst part, for me at least, is that the power dynamic appears to be shifting. The Steelers still remain the powerhouse of the division, but Sashi Brown’s genius has put the Browns back on the map. Cincinnati still needs help on their offensive line, and the Ravens need to get younger on offense. This division has the most potential to shake up their conference with some changes on offense. Let’s look at what the teams need to do to take the top spot.
The AFC North
Offensive Position of Need: Wide Receiver
Jeremy Maclin, 29 years old. Mike Wallace, 31 years old. Ben Watson, 37 years old. These were ages of the fantasy-relevant pass catchers on the Ravens in 2017. But, let’s set aside age. Maclin was known as a target hog during his time in Kansas City and Philadelphia. Wallace was a perennial best-ball draft target with his home run potential. Watson was in a prime position as Joe Flacco favors the RB and TE position. On paper, the Ravens were set up for a positive season.
There’s a line of thinking that places most of the blame on Flacco’s back injury. The offense minimally improved with a shot at making the playoffs as the season progressed. Alex Collins played a major factor in taking the pressure off Flacco, but the receiving game was still lacking. With rumors of this being Breshad Perriman’s last chance to prove himself, the Ravens need help through the air.
Maclin presented himself as an obvious release candidate due to his cap hit and the Ravens’ lack of cap space. The latest free agency addition of John Brown has added speed, but not size to the receivers group. Brown’s sickle cell trait has hampered his career after racking up over 1,000 yards in 2015. The ability to work the outside and underneath is there, but his health will always be in question. To address the size discrepancy, the Ravens could turn to Courtland Sutton in the second round. His route technique needs polishing, but he could serve as a larger target for Flacco if drafted.
Offensive Position of Need: Quarterback
This is the part where I show you an image of Andy Dalton throwing an interception. Or show you a table of his declining efficiency metrics relative to the league. Third possibility: a plot showing the team’s decreasing points per game over the last three seasons.
But, you already know this.
Tying his career best of four interceptions in Week 1 against the Ravens? Saw it. The four games with zero touchdown passes (twice that of 2016)? Remember it. Tossing incomplete passes well over his receiver’s hands? Burned into memory. Watching the team’s frustration boil over into a fight between A.J. Green and Jalen Ramsey? That clip will probably be shown on repeat next year.
The team is attempting to fix their offensive line woes that plagued most of the season. This should help Joe Mixon and the run game, but more importantly, it should keep Dalton upright. That should help for the upcoming season, but it’s time for the Bengals to make plans for the future. A.J. McCarron has signed with the Buffalo Bills, and the team needs a better option at quarterback. Dalton’s been above average in passing yards on the season only twice in his career while having multiple fantasy relevant assets on his team. He requires an offense with infrastructure already in place and a coaching staff that can play to his strengths.
With their needs on the offensive line and defense, it’s unlikely the Bengals will invest early in the draft at QB. If they wait until the second or third round, Mike White is their potential signal caller of the future. White struggles under poor protection, but that’s acceptable, as Dalton is still under contract until 2020. Assuming the Bengals continue to rebuild their line, White’s tight window accuracy and ability to hit throws from off platforms will be critical to the team’s success. He’ll need time to develop, but Dalton’s current contract gives them time to bring White up to the professional level.
Offensive Position of Need: Quarterback
Let’s take a look at the Browns’ offensive free agency additions as of late:
- Jarvis Landry – THE slot receiver
- Carlos Hyde – running back with some receiving upside
- Chris Hubbard – offensive lineman
- Darren Fells – blocking tight end
- Tyrod Taylor – owner of the “Konami Code“
The additions make the Browns a formidable offense that can attack defenses at multiple levels on the field. Is it possible the Browns work the draft, trade Hyde for a later pick, and still draft the almighty Saquon Barkley? They have the capital in both picks and cap space to be a wildcard during almost any pick in the draft. But let’s be realistic. Tyrod Taylor has the talent to pilot this team, but the talent behind him drops off quickly. His passing and rushing style of play will always concern fantasy owners, and the Browns’ front office making him a liability at the position. After suffering an MCL sprain in 2015 and a groin tear in 2016, it’s imperative that the Browns acquire another quarterback. This move will provide depth at the position and, theoretically, set the Browns up for their franchise QB to start in 2019.
Tyrod’s one-year deal, the Browns holding on to their No. 1 and No. 4 overall picks, and the constant reinforcements on both offense and defense suggest the Browns are looking at drafting a QB in the first round. The early picks open up the Browns to any of the top-ranked QB prospects. Of the prospects, Josh Rosen has the potential to return value at either draft position. He has the arm strength to hit Josh Gordon on deep passes and Landry on intermediate route. His footwork, defensive adjustments, and ability to work out of play action complement what Johnson and Hyde provide out of the backfield. Overall, Rosen’s shown himself to be one of the top prospects in the draft and his over-aggressive tendencies can be shadowed by some of the best receivers in the game.
Offensive Position of Need: Quarterback
Go ahead and google “Ben Roethlisberger retirement” and see how many results come up. Not only is “retirement” one of the top-ranked autocomplete search terms, but the results go back a couple of years. Whether the comments are made in jest or have good reason, it’s alarming to think of the potential dropoff if Big Ben isn’t under center for the Steelers. We’ve seen how this goes in past seasons when Ben is out due to injury.
If there’s even a chance Roethlisberger will miss a game, you’ll see this table posted all over social media concerning what to do with Antonio Brown. The return of Martavis Bryant and the additions of JuJu Smith-Schuster and the tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James give opposing defenses more targets to cover. This could shift some of the focus of the defense away from Brown should Roethlisberger miss a game. But as the retirement talks continue, the Steelers must be prepared for the eventuality of Big Ben leaving the game.
Their defensive needs after the loss of Ryan Shazier were highlighted in the AFC Divisional game that saw multiple Jacksonville receivers getting into the passing game. This should move the Steelers to address these gaps early in the draft. A mid-round prospect for the Steelers to look at it would be Riley Ferguson. He operated within Memphis’ spread offense well and demonstrated traits that would translate well to Pittsburgh’s offensive setup. He’s shown general pocket awareness with some issues dropping his eyes, but he has the footwork and vision to climb the pocket when necessary. He needs time to develop, but his draft cost would fit into what the Steelers need at the moment with time to improve.
Data Sources: NFL Next Gen Stats; Matt Harmon, ‘Reception Perception’; Matt Waldman R.S.P. Boiler Room; Sports Injury Predictor; Spotrac; Rotoviz