AFC North Fantasy preview
By James Collier
After months of waiting (and drafting), the NFL season is mere days away. In a week’s time we will be (over)reacting to those Week 1 matchups and either panicking or feeling rather smug about our teams.
But even though there is little we can do now with 99% of drafts finished, it is still worth keeping up to date with all of the latest goings on around the league. Let’s dive into the latest outlook for each of the fantasy relevant players in the AFC North.
During the offseason it has been hard to avoid the optimism around the Ravens offense and Lamar Jackson in particular. After breaking records in 2019, it’s been a disappointing three years for the QB in fantasy but he looks set to bounce back this year. He has upgraded weapons, a new Offensive Coordinator and if things go well it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back as the top scoring fantasy quarterback.
Following bad luck with injury in recent years, JK Dobbins should be back on the field leading the Ravens running back room this season. He had a promising end to 2022 with almost 400 yards rushing in his final four regular season games. The issue with Dobbins in fantasy is he is rarely involved as a receiver, with just 25 catches in 23 regular season games. He’s going to either need that to change, or to score a lot of touchdowns to surpass his ADP as the 20th running back off the board. Gus Edwards is a capable backup and would be a priority waiver target if anything happened to Dobbins.
Odell Beckham Jr and Zay Flowers are the new additions to the Ravens receiving room with Rashod Bateman (hopefully) returning from injury to give Lamar Jackson the deepest group of receivers he’s ever had. Arguments can be made for all three of them and with their draft prices in the WR 40-50 range they have been easy enough to acquire in drafts just in case one of them does emerge as the favourite target.
The reality however, is more likely to be that Mark Andrews is the top pass catcher in Baltimore once again. Andrews is the only tight end not named Travis Kelce to lead the position in fantasy points since 2015 and is the only realistic candidate to do so again this year.
Draft WR Ja'Marr Chase.— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) August 25, 2023
The Bengals WR led all WRs in red-zone targets per game (28 in 14 games played)
2nd in expected fantasy half-PPR points per game (19.6) during Weeks 1-17.
Strong bet to finish No. 1 in red-zone targets and touchdowns in 2023.
There were some concerns that a training camp calf injury would rule Joe Burrow out for the start of the season but he now seems to be trending towards playing. Burrow is one of the rare quarterbacks that can be a fantasy difference maker despite not being known for contributing much with his legs. If the team’s investment in the offensive line pays off then he has every chance of breaking the top five at the position again.
After off the field issues and speculation that the team may move on from him, Joe Mixon is back as the Bengals primary running back again in 2023. He was a little hit and miss last season with five of his nine total touchdowns coming in one game. But with no Samaje Perine in town there isn’t likely to be much competition for touches from Chris Evans and Chase Brown. So Mixon should be a locked-in top 12 back once again.
The Bengals have two of the league’s best receivers in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. If we exclude the incomplete Week 17 game, they were both inside the top 12 fantasy receivers last season. Not much needs to be said about Chase, he is a threat to score every time he touches the ball and led the league in red-zone targets per game. Higgins is a solid WR2 in fantasy, if not a little expensive as the WR14 off the board. But if Chase does miss time again then he’s an automatic top 10 option at the position. Tyler Boyd is a reliable receiver not to be ignored but he may be difficult to trust in fantasy without injuries.
Joe Burrow does not target his tight ends often and why would he with that set of receivers. Last season Hayden Hurst averaged 8.3 fantasy points per game with the Bengals and Irv Smith Jr is his replacement this year. Barring an injury to Chase or Higgins, he’s not likely to be particularly relevant for fantasy though.
There are plenty of reasons not to want Deshaun Watson on our fantasy teams but he was a top five fantasy quarterback in each of the last three seasons that he was allowed to play a full part in. It seems a stretch that he will be able to replicate that this year but he has a solid group of weapons around him and with a full pre-season, should be much better than he was when he returned in 2022.
Nick Chubb is arguably the best running back in the league and has always been a reliable fantasy option. The only thing that has held him back in the past is Kareem Hunt being on the roster and taking a large proportion of the teams passing down duties. But with Hunt now a free agent and only Jerome Ford and Pierre Strong behind him on the depth chart, that should change this year. There is a realistic chance that Chubb finishes as the fantasy RB1 in 2023.
In his first season as a Brown, Amari Cooper was a top 12 fantasy wide receiver. Although his points per game dropped from 16.1 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback to 11.6 with Deshaun Watson. That should bounce back somewhat and he’ll likely be a solid WR2. Elijah Moore gets a fresh start after flashing as a rookie but struggling in his second year with the Jets. He’ll be vying for snaps with Donovan Peoples-Jones who had a mini-breakout last year. Either one or both of them could be relevant fantasy options alongside Cooper but a lot will depend on Watson.
It feels as though he’s been around forever but David Njoku is still only 27 and just had his best season since Baker Mayfield’s rookie year in Cleveland. Only one tight end had more red-zone targets than Njoku but he only managed three touchdowns during the fantasy season. He could be a sneaky candidate for some positive regression in that area.
The stats from Kenny Pickett’s rookie season don’t make good reading. Under 185 passing yards per game, just seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He did improve considerably after the Steelers bye week and it’s possible he is a startable fantasy asset down the line. But he’s not worth rostering outside of two quarterback leagues at this stage.
The Steelers running back room has been pretty divisive this offseason. Najee Harris is the starter but is a volume dependent play and if Jaylen Warren is able to eat into his workload, the backfield could get messy. Warren was much more efficient as a rookie last year (4.9 yards per carry compared to Harris’ 3.8) and may be hard to keep off the field if pre-season is anything to go by. While this doesn’t mean he’s going to take over the job, it would be less than ideal for Harris who has been a borderline second round pick in fantasy drafts this year.
The wide receiver position in Pittsburgh is also quite polarising. Diontae Johnson is the proven top target earner on the team with a history of fantasy production. But he has often been drafted behind fellow receiver George Pickens. Only five receivers had more targets than Johnson in 2022 but he somehow still ended the season with zero touchdowns. Meanwhile it felt like every one of Pickens’ receptions was a highlight. Pickens should take a step forward but with a little more luck on his side, Johnson will be a top 24 fantasy wide receiver.
Through two years of his NFL career, Pat Freiermuth has developed into a solid later round tight end option in fantasy. With the Steelers struggling as a whole to score touchdowns with Kenny Pickett under centre, he only recorded two but still finished the season as the TE6. He is another candidate for some positive regression which is great news for those taking him as the tenth tight end of the board according to ADP.
Feature photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
A Washington fan since the early 2010’s, James had no choice but to turn to fantasy football in search of happiness – and it wasn’t long until it became an obsession. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesc294.