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AFC North :: 2019 Preview!

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Baltimore Ravens

Down the stretch run of the 2018 season, the Ravens did something not often seen in the NFL (certainly, it was something Mike McCarthy never thought he would see), overhauling their entire offense from one game to the next in order to account for the unique elements that make Lamar Jackson special. The Ravens went from being one of the pass-heaviest teams in football to being the run-heaviest, mixing Jackson’s athleticism with super-scrub Gus Edwards’ north/south style to confound defenses and make a surprising run at the playoffs. Now, Greg Roman (the architect of the offenses that built career years for both Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor) has had a full offseason to work with Jackson and prepare new wrinkles that the league hasn’t seen. While it is understandable that some are still worried about Jackson’s accuracy issues, we should keep in mind that Roman is aware of these issues as well. Paying attention at the coaching level can give us a leg up on our competition, as we can recognize that Jackson is working with a creative and adaptable coach who will be crafting the offense to fit the talents at hand.

but that does not mean that we should expect this team to go pass-heavy

One thing we should expect heading into this season is for Baltimore to put more on Jackson’s plate as a passer; but that does not mean that we should expect this team to go pass-heavy. Fundamentally, this team’s style is straightforward: they want to be aggressive on defense, force second-and-long and third-and-long, and control the game on offense with a run-heavy approach.

Things we don’t know:

Baltimore brought Mark Ingram to town this offseason to replace Gus Edwards as the feature back; Baltimore also, however, drafted Justice Hill, and hey, Gus Edwards isn’t going anywhere. We know Baltimore will run, we know they will sometimes have multiple backs on the field, but we don’t yet know exactly how this team views Ingram. Will he carry the load from jump, or will he settle in as more of a 14 to 16 touch per game back? (Historically, Roman has given his “lead back” around 15 to 17 carries and two to three receptions per game.) We also don’t know how Roman plans to utilize his rookie chess pieces Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin. Will we see a fair number of wide receiver screens? A few shot plays per game? (Likely: yes on both.) The first couple weeks will tell us a lot about this team.

Things we do know:

We do know that Baltimore will be among the league leaders in 12 personnel (with a decent chunk of 13 personnel mixed in), and we know that Mark Andrews – a favorite target of Jackson’s down the stretch – has been buzzed about heavily in camp. We also know that this team does not want to completely remove what makes Jackson special. Baltimore has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, and allowing their offense to take a dive in the name of “developing Lamar for the future” is not exactly high on their list of things to do. While this team will certainly attempt to keep Jackson healthy, and will continue to expand its passing attack in order to keep defenses on their heels, we should still expect Jackson to lead all quarterbacks in rushing attempts (likely by a somewhat comfortable margin), giving him a high floor and a high ceiling almost every week.

What we’ll be watching for early in the year:

The running back rotation will be a key point to pay attention to through the first couple games of the season. As we will surely explore in the first NFL Edge, Baltimore will be squaring off with Miami’s putrid run defense in the first game of the year – creating an interesting spot in tourneys for trying to guess on this backfield (with the key, likely under-owned play, of course, being Ingram); but within a couple weeks, we should have a strong feel for exactly what’s going on in this spot. We will also be keeping an eye on exactly how the Ravens plan to maximize their ultra talented rookie wide receivers – a spot that may go under-owned even if it proves to have legs, simply due to the public’s fear over relying on Jackson’s arm with their money. Finally (and this will likely prove to be nothing, but if it is something, it will be something rather valuable), we will be keeping an eye on the Baltimore defense, making sure that they are still able to control the game the way they have the last several years after some roster turnover this offseason. If there are signs in the early going that Baltimore’s defense is set to take a step back, it could create opportunities to target overlooked shootouts early in the year.

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Cincinnati Bengals

With an extremely difficult schedule and a rash of bad luck in the injury department, the 2018 Bengals looked worse than they actually were, and this was finally enough for the team to move on from “above-average, but never good enough” coach Marvin Lewis, replacing him with 36-year-old Zac Taylor, who has coached under Sean McVay the last few years. (Random side-note: Zac’s brother Press Taylor is the QB coach for the Eagles — and is a name to watch in coaching circles over the next few years. Random side-note to that side-note: I went to school with Press’ brother-in-law.) The Bengals’ defense (which was one of our favorite squads to pick on in 2018) has added only one player, but they will benefiit from a much easier schedule than they had last year, which has a chance to pull them back to the middle of the pack, instead of leaving them as the bottom-barrell unit they were last year. (Naturally: this is something we’ll be keeping an eye on early in the season, as it will be important to adjust expectations appropriately on this defense in order to gain the greatest possible edge.)

Offensively, there are a number of things we know about the Bengals this year, and there are a number of things we don’t know.

Things we know:

We know that Taylor is a good communicator, is extremely intelligent, and is focused on “coaching” his players, rather than just putting them on the field with their assignments and hoping things go well. (One thing Taylor has talked about throughout the summer is the importance of his players understanding the “why” behind what they are doing on each play — a mark of a coach who has a fundamental understanding of what it takes to be successful at the NFL level.)

Mixon should be featured in all facets of the offense

We also know that the Bengals should have some question marks on the offensive line once again (in 2018 :: 22nd in adjusted line yards; 19th in adjusted sack rate || heading into 2019, PFF has the Bengals’ line ranked 27th in the NFL). We know that John Ross has not shown any strides in camp from his dismal first two years. We know that A.J. Green will miss at least the first game or two of the season (with potential for him to miss more than that), and we know that this had a negative impact on the stat lines of Tyler Boyd last year, as he played better when Green was on the field to create spacing and attract attention. Finally, we know that Joe Mixon was one of the better backs in the NFL last year by a number of metrics, and while Giovani Bernard will still be on tap to soak up work on obvious passing downs, Mixon should be featured in all facets of the offense when he is on the field.

Things we don’t know:

For starters, we don’t know if the Bengals are actually trying to win games this year. Now, of course, coaches want to win, and players want to win — and this tends to be the case even when ownership would prefer for their team to struggle for a year and pick up a top draft pick. Taylor also went for a two-point conversion in an effort to send a preseason game into overtime, further emphasizing the fact that, yes, coaches want to win. But even with all of that said, the question of whether the Bengals are truly trying to WIN this year, or are instead trying to lay the foundations for the future, is very much worth asking; and this is something we will absolutely be paying attention to early in the year.

Without A.J. Green, the Bengals have only one NFL-caliber wide receiver in Boyd; but with a healthy (for now) Tyler Eifert, a very capable “backup” pass-catching tight end in C.J. Uzomah, and rookie blocking tight end Drew Sample, tight end is one of the deepest positions on their roster.

The Bengals were far better last year from 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) than they were from 11 (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers); and it’s fair to assume that they would continue to be better from 12 personnel early in the season, given how little they have at wide receiver. But Taylor has also talked plenty this offseason about what he calls “The System,” and while I believe there is a chance that Taylor uses this phrase to allude to everything the Bengals are hoping to build, beat writers in Cincinnati have generally been taking this to mean the 11-personnel-heavy system that the Rams have hammered under Sean McVay. (Last year, no team in the league was close to the Rams in percentage of plays run from 11 personnel.)

Do the Bengals plan to put their best offensive players on the field and try to “figure out how to win each game”? Or do they plan to line up in 11 personnel and work on building their offensive identity for the long run, even if this means taking some extra losses in the short term?

Fundamentally, the end result is likely to be the same either way from a fantasy perspective: Mixon will be worth considering most weeks for his talent and his usage; Boyd will be worth considering most weeks early in the season for the sheer volume his role has the potential to yield, but his efficiency will almost certainly rise once Green is on the field; and Eifert will be an intriguing “touchdown or bust” option in tourneys in the early going. But will Taylor look to maximize the talent he has in the hopes of winning games no matter what it takes? — or will he instead focus on establishing the rhythm of the offense he wants to run, regardless of results? Time will tell. We’ll keep a close eye on the Bengals early in the year.

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Cleveland Browns

With the Hue Jackson fiasco finally finished in Cleveland, Browns fans have something to look forward to this year. Freddie Kitchens is in as head coach after coordinating this offense down the stretch last year, and he has brought in air raid proponent Todd Monken, who was part of the play design and (for the first portion of the year) play-calling in Tampa last season. When people asked me during the first half of this year what I thought about the Browns, I typically said something like, “They have a ton of talent, but there’s also a lot we don’t know about Kitchens as a head coach; and coaching matters so much in the NFL. We’ll see.”

Well, here’s what we’ve seen so far:

Kitchens ran one of the more demanding training camps in the NFL this offseason, and he has worked on building a high level of focus, discipline, and accountability amongst his players. The constant refrain out of Cleveland — among coaches and players alike — has been, ‘We had a losing record last year, and we haven’t won anything yet.’ While there are certainly teams that respond poorly to a hard-driving coach (see: Jaguars, 2018), the Browns have a young roster that is hungry and appears to have bought into Kitchens’ message; and Kitchens has just enough “player’s coach” to his makeup to strike a strong balance here. With Baker Mayfield syncing up nicely with Kitchens’ approach to running a team (head down; plenty of confidence, plenty of accountability, and plenty of hard work), it’s starting to look like this unit could really come together. The hype will likely prove to be more than just hype. Get ready for the Browns…

There are a number of ways in which we can categorize and break down NFL players, but one of the most obvious ways is to create a delineation between those players who have a reputation for outworking their competition (not only physically, but also mentally; working to understand the ins and outs of the game, and to gain leverage over their opponents as a result), and those players who rely primarily or even wholly on talent (guys who are known for putting less time than they should into understanding the nuances of the game). Inside of those two categories are sub-categories — including those players in the first category who pair their hard work with immense amounts of talent. This is where Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham both land. There are also those who might not have quite that elite level of talent (Jarvis Landry; Rashard Higgins), but who have found ways to maximize their talent, becoming the best at their craft that they are capable of becoming. (For Landry: this is an elite route-runner and underneath threat, with occasional explosive upside. For Higgins, this is a role player — and a valuable, even if low-volume, piece of this passing attack.) In the other category, of course, players without elite talent tend to wash out of the league; and then there are the guys like David Njoku and Antonio Callaway, whose measurables are often cited as a reason for optimism, but who leave us always wondering when they’re going to put it all together.

we can assume that talent will be maximized

After Freddie Kitchens took over as the offensive coordinator last year, we saw Baker Mayfield spread the ball around as much as any quarterback in the league (in his eight starts with Kitchens in charge, he threw to the following number of players per week: 10 // 9 // 8 // 10 // 8 // 7 // 10 // 8), and this is one of the elements we will likely have to account for on this offense once again. But on a team with Kitchens as the head coach and Mayfield as quarterback, we can assume that talent will be maximized, and players who buy in and do the little things right will be emphasized most weeks over players who don’t. Obviously, we’ll keep a close eye on Njoku’s usage and production early in the year (and we’ll do the same for Callaway once he returns to the field); but it should be Beckham, Landry, and Higgins (in that order, of course) who become the most reliable players in this offense throughout the early portions of the season.

From a floor perspective at a price-considered standpoint, there are reasons to be cautious on Odell Beckham in the early going, as he is unlikely to maintain consistent volume in the range of guys like Julio Jones, Davante Adams, and DeAndre Hopkins; but from an upside-in-tournaments perspective, Beckham will clearly be a player to pay attention to early in the year. Landry should continue to maintain his high-floor, low-ceiling, possession-receiver role (with touchdowns or broken plays required in order for him to post the sort of score you “have to have” in order to win a weekend). And Higgins may low-key turn into a decent salary saver early in the year, with steady 4-40ish production, and with potential for some downfield looks and/or occasional touchdowns to give him more value at the bottom of the price barrel than most will expect. Njoku should remain a high-talent, low-reliability option; though it’s early enough in his career that there is still potential — especially with this group of players around him — for him to turn things around and become a more consistent contributor than he has been his first couple years in the league.

A year ago, the Browns faced a much easier slate of opposing pass defenses than they will face this year, and a tougher slate of opposing run defenses; and there is a chance this may have skewed their deployment a bit. Last year the Browns also faced one of the tougher schedules of opposing offenses; and with Gregg Williams running their defense, they were unable to maximize their talent on this side of the ball. Combining these two elements, there is a chance that the Browns are playing from in front more often this year, and that they lean on the run more often than they did a year ago — playing the matchups, and taking what the opponent gives them in order to find the best way to win each individual game (all of which would boost the value of Nick Chubb). I’m not as convinced as others that Chubb will be the third-down back and an absolute bellcow (after all: the Browns didn’t trade Duke Johnson because they suddenly decided to change Chubb’s role; they traded him because they were happy with the development of Dontrell Hilliard, who is in line right now to be the pass-catching compliment). But in the early going — at least before Kareem Hunt returns — Chubb should, at worst, touch the ball 18 to 20 times most weeks (with potential for a much higher touch ceiling than that), and we should expect his pass game involvement to increase from last year, when he averaged only two receptions per game after taking over the starting role. Chubb is a solid pass catcher and a very strong runner; and while it’s hard for me to stomach him getting drafted higher than James Conner in a lot of Best Ball and season-long leagues (after all: we know about the narrow distribution of touches on the Steelers, and we know that the Browns like to spread the ball around), I do expect Chubb to be a fine cornerstone for fantasy rosters early in the year; especially until his price catches up with his potential for production.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Given the talent level on both sides of the ball for the Steelers, this should be one of the best teams in the NFL — a team that wins comfortably most weeks with a high-scoring offense and a suffocating defense. Thankfully for us as DFS players, however, Keith Butler is the coordinator for this defense.

Last year, the Steelers had only three games in which they outscored their opponent by more than one possession (for reference: the Patriots had eight such wins), as quality teams were often able to take advantage of Butler’s tendency to worry more about aggressiveness than about coverage — with the Steelers having too many lapses on the back end as they tied for the most sacks in the league…but had the fifth fewest interceptions, and ranked a middling 15th in points allowed per drive.

Of course, from a DFS perspective: we hope all of this continues, as it allows Randy Fitchner to embrace his aggressiveness on offense — where last year his group finished fifth in yards per drive, ninth in points per drive, and fourth in drive success rate.

Brown was the most-double-teamed receiver in the NFL last year

In talking about the Steelers offense this season, it’s difficult to avoid the departure of Antonio Brown as the first order of business, with the common narrative this offseason going something like: “Sure, JuJu is great, but can he get open without Brown on the field?” While there are certainly plenty of ways in which a defense can tilt coverage in an effort to take away a particular receiver, it’s worth noting that Brown was the most-double-teamed receiver in the NFL last year, coming in at only around 4% of plays. Furthermore, Fitchner is one of the more creative and intelligent deployers of players in the league – moving guys around in order to dictate what the defense can do, rather than sitting back and waiting to find out what the defense will do to him. The targets will be there for JuJu Smith-Schuster to be one of the top receivers in the league this season, and it’s fair to assume that the production will be there as well.

Much has also been made about the massive number of available targets from last year’s team, and while Ben Roethlisberger is not expected to throw the ball as many times as he did last year (when he led the NFL in passing attempts with an unbelievable 675 — 36 more pass attempts than second place, and 77 more than third place), it is also true that JuJu will not be soaking up every bit of what is available. This has created another offseason talking point: who is the number two receiver?

Early in the year, it is expected that Donte Moncrief will fill this role in a nominal sense, but if James Washington sees his preseason performance carry over to the regular season this year (no guarantee, of course, as he looked equally impressive last year in August action), he should replace Moncrief in the pecking order before we get too deep into the year.

Vance McDonald has also been part of the trickle-down effect of AB’s departure, with many expecting him to take a leap forward. The Steelers have maintained that McDonald’s snaps will not go up from last year, but it does seem very likely that his targets will rise, with his after-catch skill set giving him weekly upside at this thin position.

In the backfield, James Conner is still expected by beat writers to fill the regular, workhorse role that has become common in this offense over the last half decade, though there is also belief that Jaylen Samuels will find his way onto the field this year in one form or another – sometimes spelling Conner, sometimes lining up in the backfield alongside him, and sometimes moving into the slot in order to take advantage of his unique, versatile skill set.

Of course, with all these moving parts – Roethlisberger potentially seeing a dip in volume, JuJu soaking up more targets than he did last year, Samuels mixing in, and Vance, Moncrief, and Washington all vying for extra targets as well – there may not be the massive spikes on these ancillary pieces that many seem to be expecting (at the very least, it seems likely that spiked weeks from these non–JuJu/non-Conner pieces will be somewhat sporadic and difficult to predict); but we do enter the year knowing that reliable, heavy, well-schemed, typically high-scoring volume will be attached almost every single week to JuJu and Conner, making this (as always) an offense to think about each and every week.