Monday, Nov 28th

2022 AFC North

Published 6/13/2022

Baltimore Ravens

John Harbaugh returns for his 14th season as head honcho of these Ravens, while Greg Roman returns for his third season calling plays offensively. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is the lone change amongst the big three but has experience coaching a 3-4 base defense from the seven years he spent with the organization prior to a short stint at Michigan.

The Ravens started their draft by addressing a pass defense that ranked just 25th in 2021 (which, as we’ll see shortly, had a lot to do with injuries more than anything else), selecting safety Kyle Hamilton with the 14th pick of the first round. They made their second pick in the first round as well, selecting center Tyler Lindbaum with the 25th pick. Both should immediately step into starting roles. They continued with outside linebacker David Ojabo in the second (45th overall), defensive tackle Travis Jones in the third (76th overall), offensive tackle Daniel Faalele in the fourth (110th overall), cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis in the fourth (119th overall), tight end Charlie Kolar in the fourth (128th overall), punter Jordan Stout in the fourth (130th overall), tight end Isaiah Likely in the fourth (139th overall), cornerback Damarion Williams in the fourth (141st overall), and running back Tyler Badie in the sixth (196th overall).

The team brought in safety Marcus Williams via a massive five-year, $70 million deal, offensive tackle Morgan Moses, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, running back Mike Davis for added backfield depth, and depth secondary piece Kyle Fuller, amongst other, lesser-known signings.

Interpretation

The Ravens were bitten hard by the injury bug last season, seemingly at every valuable position on the field outside of tight end. Quarterback Lamar Jackson missed games, the team started 12 different offensive linemen over the course of the season, defensive backs were falling like flies, and 18 running backs were injured before the start of the season (kidding, but that’s what it seemed like), and the starting linebacking unit played very few snaps together over the course of the season. Why is that important to us moving forward? Well, for one, the Ravens attempted 35.9 passes per game in 2021 after averaging just 25.9 in 2020. That increased pass volume, paired with a young wide receiver group, led to tight end Mark Andrews finishing as the fantasy TE1 on an “absurd for the Ravens” 154 targets. His target count the year prior was just 89. Yes, he ran more routes and played more snaps, but the magnitude of that delta is absurd. That entire paragraph is to say the dude might be being drafted far past ceiling in season-long formats and might be over-owned come DFS time. The youth at wide receiver persists heading into 2021, with Marquise “Hollywood” Brown off to Arizona, leaving second-year wide receiver Rashod Bateman as the de facto lead wideout, and a smattering of youth in Devin Duvernay, James Proche II, and Tylan Wallace left to fight over the WR2 and slot snaps.

Furthering that discussion is what the increase in pass volume (and the injuries to the offensive line and running back stable) did to the run game (or lack thereof). The team brought back Gus Edwards and maintains cheap control over third-year running back J.K. Dobbins to head a backfield that should see 350+ combined rush attempts. In 2020, the Ravens ran the football a massive 555 times compared to just 382 pass attempts – we’re unlikely to see that level of unbalance based on a slightly declining defense and middle-of-the-pack offensive line, but the point remains. Last year, I expected Dobbins to take a firm lead in the backfield before getting injured, and I expect the same this year. Look for something along the lines of a 65/35 split between him and Edwards, with additional rush attempts from Lamar Jackson thrown in as well. In total, 500+ rush attempts from this team would not surprise me in the slightest when all is said and done, leaving a solid 12-15 weekly rush attempts and hefty goal-line role to Dobbins. Consider Edwards one of the top “handcuff” running backs available that also carry standalone value.

Mounting injuries were the real Achilles heel of this defense in 2021, more than any quantitative metric. They continued to suppress opponent scoring relative to the field, allowing 23.1 points per game after leading the league in that metric in 2020 (18.5). The defensive continuity remains strong, with Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey locking down the back end while Calais Campbell, Odafe Oweh, and Justin Madubuike wreak havoc up front. One of the biggest changes comes in the form of nose tackle Michael Pierce, whose position is relied upon heavily to stop the run in this 3-4 base defense. Look for a return to form this season from the Ravens defense, which should, again, help to increase the likelihood of more rush attempts from this team.

Cincinnati Bengals

The full picture came into view in 2021 as Zac Taylor led the Bengals to a Super Bowl appearance. Taylor returns for his fourth season in Cincinnati and brings back defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan. Most notably, Taylor calls plays on the offensive side, and Anarumo’s defense has continued to over-perform based on the talent and experience of the players available to him.

The majority of the six picks made by the Bengals in this year’s NFL draft were made on the defensive side of the ball, as the team selected safety Daxton Hill with the 31st pick in the first round, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt in the second (60th overall), defensive tackle Zachary Carter in the third (95th overall), offensive tackle Cordell Volson in the fourth (136th overall), safety Tycen Anderson in the fifth (166th overall), and defensive edge Jeffrey Gunter in the seventh (252nd overall). All six picks should start the season as depth pieces, with first-rounder Hill the likeliest to make the most immediate impact in certain “light” packages on the back end.

The Bengals wasted no time in addressing their offensive line this off-season, signing offensive linemen La’el Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras away from the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Patriots, respectively. All three will immediately step into a new-look offensive line built around former first and second-round picks Jonah Williams (left guard) and Jackson Carman (left tackle). Really, the only other major addition through free agency came with the signing of tight end Hayden Hurst, who should split duties with 2019 second-round pick Drew Sample.

Interpretation

Anarumo’s 4-2-5 base defense over-performed last year relative to the talent level of his players, primarily due to the complex nature of the scheme itself. The majority of the snaps in his scheme come from “nickel” or “light,” which primarily translates to Cover-1 and Cover-3 zone coverage principles. They finished the season ranked 17th in yards allowed per pass attempt and 20th in completion rate allowed but faced the third-most pass attempts per game against at 37.3, a clear indicator of how teams chose to attack the heavy zone concepts. Daxton Hill gives the back end another athletic option, capable of playing all five positions in the secondary as well as being a near-perfect fit for zone usage. Nose tackle D.J. Reader is graded by PFF as the third-best defensive tackle against the run and the top overall nose tackle in the NFL. Health is the biggest limiting factor here. That being the case, look for teams to once again turn to the air at an increased rate against the heavy zone principles of this team.

Cincinnati’s offense landed between eighth and 10th in most efficiency metrics a year ago and they were right in the middle of the pack in run-pass rates, with the score within seven points. What really caught my eye was the stark difference in explosive plays gained on the ground versus through the air, as the team ranked 26th in explosive play rate on the ground and fifth through the air. With the presence of dynamic running back Joe Mixon, a vastly improved offensive line, and outlier performances from Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, it stands with reason that we could see those values regress to the mean this season. Said another way – there is a possibility we are seeing Chase and Higgins going over-drafted in season-long drafts currently, particularly considering the balanced approach shown by this offense in competitive games. The final metric that caught my eye from this offense from 2021 was the relatively low delta in run-pass rates when trailing versus when playing with a lead. The Bengals called 53% pass plays when playing with a lead in 2021 compared to 63% when playing from behind. That’s almost half of the average delta from the other 31 teams in the same splits from a season ago. Basically, Zac Taylor’s Bengals remained relatively balanced regardless of game flow.

The wide receiver trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd forms the top on-paper wide receiver stable from a year ago, responsible for the WR5, WR24, and WR31 finishes in full-PPR scoring. All other teams had at most two wide receivers finish in the top 36. That honestly is more of a testament to the level of health these three enjoyed throughout the season as each played more than 840 offensive snaps. We spoke to the improved offensive line above, leaving the only other major change to this offense the addition of tight end Hayden Hurst. Hurst was in a route on only 54% of his offensive snaps a year ago, while Drew Sample was in a route on only 22% of his offensive snaps. If anything, expect those values to see a slight uptick considering the improvements to the offensive line.

Cleveland Browns

The front office trio of Kevin Stefanski (head coach), Alex Van Pelt (offensive coordinator), and Joe Woods (defensive coordinator) return for their third year together in Cleveland.

The Browns ended up selecting a total of nine players in this year’s draft after trading down repeatedly – four offensive players, four defensive players, and a kicker. Their first pick didn’t come until the third round when they selected cornerback Martin Emerson with the 68th overall pick. Following Emerson were defensive end Alex Wright in the third (78th overall), wide receiver David Bell in the third (99th overall), defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey in the fourth (108th overall), kicker Cade York in the fourth (124th overall), running back Jerome Ford in the fifth (156th overall), wide receiver Michael Woods II in the sixth (202nd overall), defensive end Isaiah Thomas in the seventh (223rd overall), and offensive lineman Dawson Deaton in the seventh (246th overall). It appears likely Emerson will find his way into the starting lineup this season after the team traded slot corner Troy Hill. David Bell also has an outside chance of cracking the starting lineup to start the year as the slot wide receiver, but we’ll need to wait and see how he performs in camp and preseason.

Cleveland did quite the number with their quarterback position this off-season, selling the farm to land Deshaun Watson and his baggage from Houston. This, deservedly so, upset incumbent quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has since asked for his trade. The team also brought in wide receiver Amari Cooper to replace Jarvis Landry, who left for New Orleans. Other than those two massive splashes, the Browns had a relatively quiet free agency window, with the biggest real-life football signing being return ace Jakeem Grant to help on special teams. They instead elected to re-sign tight end David Njoku, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and running back D’Ernest Johnson.

Interpretation

The Browns have a very nice on-paper roster, but we can’t help but feel like the self-induced off-field distractions brought on through the trade for Deshaun Watson and subsequent quarterback outbursts will have some sort of lingering effects this season. That’s a somewhat tough pill to swallow considering how tight this division is projected to be this year. That said, we have a fairly clear picture of the identity of this team, one that wants to control the game on the ground, take methodical shots downfield set up through play action, and utilize increased heavy personnel sets to pair with a top-five offensive line. It will be interesting to see how the Browns start the season as the ongoing Watson saga plays out, and it will also be interesting to see how the league handles his case. The Commissioner’s Exempt list makes a lot of sense considering the civil nature of the suit.

The Browns ranked sixth in the league in situation-neutral rush rate in 2021 at 46%, just behind the Colts, 49ers, Titans, Saints, and Eagles. Most notably, that rush rate jumped to a robust 56% when playing with a lead and only fell to 39% when trailing. It becomes very clear how this team wants to win games under Stefanski. The team re-signed running back D’Ernest Johnson to a larger-than-NFL-average running back contract, which could be notable considering Kareem Hunt is on the last year of his deal. It also could be nothing more than the team maintaining the same depth in the running back room. At this point, your guess is as good as mine, but the rumblings around the industry seem to think Hunt could be on his way out. From a season-long perspective, I am treating the situation as if Hunt stays until we know more, but there is a case to be made for late shots on Johnson where it makes sense.

The most telling off-season moves were the re-signings of David Njoku and Jadeveon Clowney, both of whom represent the particular identity of this team. As in, Clowney is one of the defensive leaders, and when paired with Myles Garrett, forms one of the top pass-rush duos in the league. On the other side of the ball, the Browns chose to make Njoku the fifth-highest paid tight end in the league from a yearly perspective. Njoku has long been lauded for his athletic profile with the ball in his hands, but the Browns immediately pointed out his blocking acumen after signing him. Chalk it down as a head-scratcher, and I have been hesitant to project Njoku for any meaningful increase to his modest 45% route participation rate from a year ago. Expect Amari Cooper to act as the lone near every-down wide receiver, with Donovan Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz likely rotating through the opposite perimeter spot and rookie David Bell likely left to handle slot duties. Most notably, the Browns were in 11-personnel only 45% of offensive snaps in 2021.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Tomlin returns for his 16th season as the head coach of the Steelers, joined by offensive coordinator Matt Canada in his second season and recently promoted Teryl Austin in the defensive coordinator position, who gets the bump from the defensive backs coach. Pittsburgh has long taken care of its own under Tomlin and this year is no different with the in-house promotion at defensive coordinator.

Pittsburgh started their draft with the 20th overall selection of quarterback Kenny Pickett in the first round, who should compete with Mitchell Trubisky for the starting role to begin the year. Wide receiver George Pickens came off the board next at pick 52 in the second round, followed by defensive end DeMarvin Leal in the third (84th overall), wide receiver Calvin Austin III in the fourth (138th overall), tight end/fullback hybrid Connor Heyward in the sixth (208th overall), linebacker Mark Robinson in the seventh (225th overall), and quarterback Chris Oladokun in the seventh (241st overall).

The Steelers had a relatively quiet, but effective, free agency period, bringing in quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, linebacker Myles Jack, two offensive linemen in Mason Cole and James Daniels, cornerback Levi Wallace, and return-man Gunner Olszewski. All major signings should immediately contribute as starters.

Interpretation

The biggest off-season report to come out of Pittsburgh has been the hint by Tomlin that running back Najee Harris is likely to see his workload cut back a bit. My initial reaction is this: “by whom and at what cost?” Tomlin has “felt the heat” from Pittsburgh fans over the past few seasons after winning the division only once in the last four years. To me, his recent remarks sound all great and fine until the Steelers need to win games for him to keep his job. All just conjecture at this point, but I am currently confident selecting Najee Harris anywhere in the back half of the first round in all season-long formats for his elite athleticism and top-notch projected volume. The next big story out of Pittsburgh has been the hand size of their first-round quarterback, telling you all you need to know about the classic Pittsburgh mentality of going about their business. That relates directly to their off-season free-agent signings, the top five or six of whom should all make this team better.

The Steelers had somewhat of a down year defensively last season, allowing the 22nd most points per game at 24.4. A lot of that was simply due to the fact that the offensive line struggled so much, and Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t throw past seven yards downfield, putting increased pressure on the defense as the Steelers held possession of the football for only 29:40 minutes per game, which ranked 24th in the NFL. They did improve their offensive line this off-season with the signings of Mason Cole and James Daniels, but the questions at quarterback remain, providing another landscape that could see them struggle with both time of possession and points allowed per game.

As alluded to above, I still expect Najee Harris to lead the league in touches at the running back position. I also expect Diontae Johnson to continue to be featured as the primary pass-catcher in Matt Canada’s offense. It’s difficult to get overly excited about the remaining skill position players with either Trubisky or a rookie (and debatably over-drafted) quarterback responsible for running this offense. Either should continue to live in that short-to-intermediate range of the field, further boosting the likely volume for Diontae underneath. Consider him a volume-driven and safe fantasy wide receiver in full-PPR. Chase Claypool has the athletic profile and draft pedigree to take a massive leap entering his third year, but the quarterback carousel likely puts a small damper on fantasy expectations. Consider him a weekly upside receiver at cost. A lot of the trajectory of this team comes down to how successful they are able to be on the ground behind an improving offensive line, which should trickle down to the other areas of the field for them.


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