The Lull Before the Storm – The AFC North
By Leo Paciga - @FFHoudini
June through the end of July tends to be the proverbial lull before the NFL storm; a storm that starts up at the last week of July with the official commencement of NFL training camps across the country. The current lack of NFL activity, however, provides the perfect window to set the fantasy football table for dynasty owners by identifying which players to watch, what training camp battles to focus on, and what coaching changes may impact fantasy production. Let’s take this opportunity to plug some coordinates into your fantasy football GPS from a dynasty perspective in order to help you navigate straight through to the next destination…..NFL Training Camp. My last article took a look at the AFC South; this week’s write up will tackle the AFC North.
Cincinnati Bengals – What to Keep an Eye On:
Running Back - Below you’ll find an excerpt from an article I published back in early May that focused on the potential BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Giovani Bernard training camp battle and the potential upside the “Bernard factor” adds to the Cincinnati rushing attack. The reason I’m referring back to this particular write up is because this May breakdown still holds true for Cincinnati’s upcoming training camp.
Giovani Bernard, RB – Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals selected UNC RB Giovani Bernard as the first running back off the board with the 37th overall pick. Just this week Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden stated that he doesn’t plan on using Giovani Bernard as a workhorse back and that he sees Bernard in a timeshare with fellow RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Honestly, what else is Jay Gruden going to say at this point? Do you think he’s going to go on record and state that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a pedestrian talent and that he can’t wait for Giovani Bernard to relegate Green-Ellis to the bench? The truth of the matter is that Giovani Bernard brings a dynamic and explosive set of skills to the Bengals that they have been sorely lacking at the running back position. Giovani Bernard presses the line of scrimmage better than Green-Ellis and his cutback ability is substantially better than any RB currently on the roster. Bernard also possesses a unique combination of quick burst ability and the necessary patience required to take advantage of the angles that develop as each play unfolds. Factor in Bernard’s skills catching the ball out of the backfield and this rookie has the potential to be a major factor in PPR leagues right out of the gate. With the overall talent that Giovanni Bernard brings to the table, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves his mark on the Bengals offense and on the fantasy football community in general.
It’s been written 100 different times in 100 different ways, but you can’t escape the facts; BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a pedestrian talent, a plodder with a “turtle-esque” burst and very little wiggle, a straight-line runner who moves the chains 3 yards at a time. Sure, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a consistent, steady, reliable running back who seldom puts the football on the carpet, but ultimately relying on Green-Ellis week in and week out is like being set up on a blind date with a person whose biggest positive quality is having good teeth. Sorry, but I’ll pass. Giovani Bernard may lack that elite top gear, that super high end speed, but he brings enough versatility and game breaking potential that the “Gio buzz” will start early in camp and Bernard should see more and more opportunities as training camp progresses. He may not be a 20 – 25 carry RB, but in today’s RBBC world that type of workhorse running back has become as difficult to find as a three legged unicorn…..or at least as difficult as finding a New England tight end without bad judgement.
Wide Receiver - A.J. Green is an elite NFL wide receiver in just his third NFL season and he’s locked in as Cincinnati’s top play-making threat. The WR battle in training camp will center around which wide receivers will be lined up to collect the A.J. Green leftovers and second year wide outs Marvin Jones and Mohamad Sanu appear to be at the top of the list when it comes to rounding out this group. Marvin Jones is the better deep threat and it looked like he was establishing some long ball chemistry with QB Andy Dalton during OTAs. Mohamed Sanu, on the other hand, is not a real threat to stretch the field, but he does have hands that resemble steel bear traps and he established himself as a physical space eater and solid red zone target before his season-ending injury last year. The team will also make room and playing time for the 5’7″ Andrew Hawkins, who provides just enough electricity (4.34/40) to be a game changer whenever he’s on the field.
Tight End - Jermaine Gresham or Tyler Eifert? Will the incumbent or the rookie contribute more at the tight end position for the Bengals? The long term answer is easy; Eifert was drafted to become the future at TE for the Cincinnati Bengals, but just how quickly that happens is a more difficult question to answer. Jermaine Gresham has been labeled as “underwhelming” during his short career as a professional, but ironically Gresham’s numbers have actually improved in each of his three NFL seasons, and he was selected to the Pro Bowl the last two years. Rookie Tyler Eifert was the winner of the 2012 John Mackey Award, an award given annually to the nation’s top college tight end and his game is laden with aspects that make football folks stop and take notice. Eifert has a surprising burst off the line of scrimmage for a TE with his size (6’6″, 250 lbs.) and he’s able to maintain a level of “smoothness” as he accelerates to his top gear. Eifert also high points the ball very well and uses his massive catch radius to help enforce his aggressive mentality when attacking the ball in the air. The competition between Gresham and Eifert is going to make for a very compelling battle in training camp and we’ll also get to see just how much OC Jay Gruden infuses his offense with schemes utilizing two tight end sets.
Pittsburgh Steelers – What to Keep an Eye On:
Running Back - Rookie Le’ Veon Bell is easily the most talented of the Pittsburgh running backs. The key to Le’Veon Bell’s early involvement will hinge upon two things – just how quickly the rookie learns to pass protect at the NFL level and how well Bell handles the aspects of a newly added zone blocking scheme in the Pittsburgh rushing attack. Although Le’ Veon Bell has the patience and vision necessary for success in a zone blocking scheme, I worry that Bell may not have enough lateral quickness which is essential for any running back to succeed long term in a ZBS. Training camp should offer up some answers to the questions “how soon” and “how much” when it comes to Le’Veon Bell’s role in the Pittsburgh ground game. Training camp will also reveal just how often the Steelers plan to use their newly added blocking scheme since it’s been reported that the ZBS is simply an added aspect to the Pittsburgh offense and not a complete overhaul in blocking philosophy.
As for the back up spots at RB, beefy Jonathan Dwyer shows sporadic flashes of talent and offers up solid pass protection while Isaac Redman brings a workmanlike but unspectacular ability to the running game. LaRod Stephens-Howling could see some time as the third down back and might provide some scoring upside as a deep roster stash in PPR leagues depending on his overall usage by the enigmatic OC Todd Haley.
Wide Receiver - Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have the top two wide receiver spots locked up, but rookie Markus Wheaton is a player all dynasty owners should watch intently during training camp. Wheaton, a 5’11″ 189 lb. wide receiver from Oregon State was forced to miss OTAs because of the “graduation rule” – an NFL rule that prohibits draft picks still in college from participating in team OTAs until their school has graduated their class. Wide receiver can be a very difficult position to grasp quickly at the NFL level and missing OTAs can make it an even more daunting transition regardless of the talent level. Wheaton is a lean wide receiver who is quick off the line, has good body control that enhances his impressive long speed AND he has the overall skill set to become Pittsburgh’s number one wide receiver by 2015. If Markus Wheaton starts off slow due to missing OTAs, his current owner could become disenchanted with the lack of early production. If that happens be prepared to take advantage of that lack of patience and pounce.
Tight End - Veteran TE Heath Miller tore up his knee in the second to last game of the 2012 season and although he was running sprints during the last round of OTAs, Miller’s readiness for the start of the 2013 has always been in question. Matt Spaeth and David Paulson are behind Heath Miller on the tight end depth chart, but don’t expect much from the TE position until Miller returns to full health. Heck, Pittsburgh’s mascot “Steely McBeam” would probably be a more productive addition to your fantasy roster than either Spaeth or Paulson for the 2013 season.
Cleveland Browns – What to Keep an Eye on:
Running Back - Trent Richardson, Trent Richardson and more Trent Richardson; while it may not be terribly creative, it’s certainly a successful formula that basically sums up the Cleveland rushing attack. The only 2 things to really monitor at this position during training camp are Trent Richardson’s health and Montario Hardesty‘s involvement/work load as the primary backup.
Wide Receiver - Josh Gordon will start the season serving a two-game suspension for failing an off-season drug test. Gordon released a statement saying that he used cough medicine containing codeine – a banned substance in the NFL – while recovering from strep throat in February. That two game suspension should provide an opportunity for Greg Little to pick up where he left off last season. Little finished strong with a slight uptick in production during the final five games of 2012, but more importantly, Little seemed to gain confidence and focus as the season came to a close – improving his pass catching percentage from 52% (weeks 1 – 12) to 66% (weeks 13 – 17). Josh Gordon (6’4″, 220 lbs. and a 4.52/40) may be perfectly suited for OC Norv Turner’s vertically driven offense – but it will be Greg Little’s ability to overcome his “hands of stone” reputation that will set the tone for Cleveland’s passing offense in training camp and early on in 2013. From a line up perspective, Travis Benjamin will most likely fill in for Josh Gordon during the first two games, but unless Gordon misses extended time during the season, expect Travis Benjamin’s production to be very limited. The only other wide receiver to watch during training camp is Davone Bess and that especially applies for owners in PPR leagues. Bess is a former member of the Miami Dolphins and a solid slot receiver who knows how to work the underneath routes and present himself as a target when the pocket collapses.
Tight End - Jordan Cameron has been a dynasty darling at the tight end position for the past two years and he has that high athletic ceiling that most dynasty owners crave. So far, however, Cameron has done little more than wet the appetites of dynasty owners by providing small glimpses of his untapped potential. Cameron attended Brigham Young on a basketball scholarship in 2006, then transferred to USC in 2007 to try football as a wide receiver. Finally after two failed seasons at WR, Cameron moved to tight end his final year at USC and although he caught only 16 passes, Cameron flashed enough ability to drop a few jaws. New Head Coach Rob Chudzinski and Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner have an accomplished track record of developing and emphasizing TEs in their respective offensive schemes. Early OTA reports indicated many a deep pass flew in Cameron’s direction and with very little competition standing in his way, 2013 may be the perfect storm that helps Jordan Cameron take the next big step.
Baltimore Ravens – What to Keep an Eye on:
Running Back - Ray Rice is still the talented spark plug the ignites the Baltimore offense, but the loss of Anquan Boldin and Vonta Leach could cause a few misfires in 2013. Anquan Boldin’s (49ers) absence should create more opportunities for Ray Rice in the passing game and that will help offset any loss in rushing productivity caused by additional defenders at the line of scrimmage and/or an increased role for second year running back Bernard Pierce. Pierce had a productive rookie season and his no nonsense, powerful, downhill running characteristics are a perfect compliment to the more versatile running style of Ray Rice. Losing punishing lead blocker Vonta Leach may have the biggest impact on Bernard Pierce since Pierce appeared most comfortable running out of the “I” formations in his rookie season. Ravens fourth-round FB Kyle Juszczyk lined up at lead blocker during OTAs, but Vonta Leach left some mighty big shoes to fill. Training camp should reveal just how HC John Harbaugh and OC Jim Caldwell plan to tweak the Baltimore rushing attack to make it even more effective in 2013.
Wide Receiver - Is 2013 year the Torrey Smith takes that big step to the next wide receiver tier? Torrey Smith will begin his third season in the NFL as the focal point of the Ravens’ passing game. We all know what Torrey Smith brings to the stadium on Sundays – great ball tracking skills and those effortless strides that translate into elite long speed, but can he become dominant all over the field? Another question that must be answered early on is just who will be Baltimore’s number 2 WR opposite Torrey Smith? Jacoby Jones may be the front runner for that wide receiver position, but Jones’ game lacks focus and any type of long-term consistency. The Ravens will need someone else to step up in 2013 if the passing attack is going to operate on all cylinders and that player will likely come from a group of candidates consisting of Tommy Streeter, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson and David Reed. At 6’5″, 218 lbs. and a 4.4/40, second year wide out Tommy Streeter may be raw, but he has ample athleticism, a wicked size/speed combination and the wing span of a California condor. Tandon Doss has decent size and adequate speed, but Doss’ best assets are his hands (take that Freddie Mitchell – you youngsters can Google that Mitchell “hands” reference) and his “catch the ball in a crowd” mentality. Deonte Thompson is a another second year wide receiver who possess breakneck speed and nimble quickness and could be a tremendous asset to the Ravens if he continues his development. This positional battle for the Ravens will probably be the most convoluted and ultimately the most intriguing from a fantasy football perspective during training camp.
Tight End - Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson form a nice one-two punch at TE for the Ravens, but unlike the past few years, there is no training camp battle to watch at this position. Dennis Pitta is clearly the lead dog and Ed Dickson, while very capable, will be relegated to 2 TE sets and back up duty.
Well, that will do it for the AFC North and some players and situations to focus on once training camp opens up in a few weeks. You may or may not agree with my analysis on the players and situations mentioned above, but hopefully you’ve at least enjoyed the article. I encourage everyone out there to take the time to research players, watch some film and continue to actively improve your dynasty rosters. The tools and opinions provided here at DFW can certainly help take your teams to the next level. Feel free to contact me on Twitter @FFHoudini with any questions or comments.
Read more DFW articles by: Leo Paciga