Fantasy Preview: AFC North

E-mail Sam

Follow Sam on Twitter

The AFC North is notorious for its defensive reputation. In 2011 that remains true. There are a few elite fantasy football stars in the division, though, and some middle to late-round sleepers you could snatch up later in your draft.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens dropped a load of dead weight this offseason, allowing receivers Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to leave, as well as longtime tight end Todd Heap and backs Willis MacGahee and Le’Ron McClain.

The loss of the veterans means an increased importance of the young players the organization has put their faith in. Joe Flacco will have a new cast of wideouts to throw to, including second- and fourth-rounders Torrey Smith (Maryland) and Tandon Doss (Indiana), and Lee Evans, who the team recently traded for from the Buffalo Bills.

Evans will get the nod opposite of Anquan Boldin, who should flourish as Flacco’s go-to guy in his second year in the system. Evans and Smith should command some attention from defensive backs with their deep-threat ability, and fit well with Flacco’s big arm. Doss, currently fourth on the depth chart, but his physical attributes may allow him to be a future dynasty pick.

Ray Rice enters the 2011 season in a contract year, playing behind a new fullback.

The Ravens added fullback Vonta Leach to the mix to pave holes for Ray Rice, who is entering a contract season. Rice is without a doubt the featured ball carrier this season; though Ricky Williams was brought as his back-up, he shouldn’t threaten Rice’s workload. The addition of Leach, considered one of the elite run-blocking fullbacks in the National Football League, puts Rice at the top of the second-tier running backs for 2011. Leach blocked for the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster last season.

The loss of Heap to the Arizona Cardinals was to make way for second-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to enter the mix. Dickson will have the first shot to earn a starting gig, but Pitta impressed when Dickson missed time due to injury. Heap caught more than 50 passes for almost 600 yards and six touchdowns when healthy in 2009, and produced similar statistics last season despite missing time due to injury. It’s unlikely Dickson (or Pitta) will match those numbers immediately, but could be in store for three to four touchdowns as a TE2.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are a mess, period. Carson Palmer would at least give the team a glimpse of hope for fantasy relativity, but since Andy Dalton, the rookie out of TCU is currently getting first-team repetitions I would stray from drafting any Bengals in 2011.

Dalton has first-round selection A.J. Green to throw to, but it’s still a question whether he’ll be able to get the physically gifted wideout the ball. Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley’s values are also diminished.

The team managed to resign Cedric Benson, who’ll continue to steal carries for the more talented Bernard Scott. Benson’s best two seasons were with the Bengals the past two years, posting more than 1,000 yards and at least six touchdowns. However, in 2010, Benson averaged a mere 69.4 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. He offers no pass-catching ability and lost five fumbles. He surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark only three times. Against division foes he’s managed 414 yards and two touchdowns – and that’s six times per year.

Scott, on the other hand, receives one-fifth the amount of carries Benson does, despite averaging nearly five yards per carry. Scott may not be able to carry the physical load like Benson, but should be featured as the clear change-of-pace back and given the ball in space more. Potential aside, Scott, along with the rest of the Bengals, should be avoided in drafts everywhere.

Cleveland Browns

Enshrined on the Madden ’12 cover, is Peyton Hillis in line for another 13 touchdown season with the Browns? Hillis averages between the top 12 to 20 running backs in 2011, projected to rush for just over 1,000 yards and find the end zone far fewer times.

The odds are stacked against Hillis’ chance of repeating his surprising 2010 season. He’s now joined by Brandon Jackson in a new offense, and Montario Hardesty is now healthy after missing all of 2010 due to injury. Hillis should receive a lighter workload, and his receiving numbers should drop due to Jackson’s third-down role.

Consider Hillis a RB2, with the chance of injury due to not only the supposed Madden curse but his rumbling, stumbling, bumbling running style that eventually will take a toll on his body.

Entering his second year in the pros, and first full year as the Browns’ starting quarterback, Colt McCoy possesses some fantasy relevance as a back-up. In eight games last year, McCoy threw for over 1,500 yards and six touchdowns, and ran another one in on the ground. In a full 16-game schedule, he projects to pass for around 3,000 yards, 12 touchdowns and perhaps a few more rushing scores.

McCoy can easily be overlooked because the odds are stacked against him as an NFL-level prospect. He does have a budding star in Mohamed Massaquoi at wide receiver, and as McCoy progresses Massaquoi gains more and more value. I’d take a flier on him in the later rounds because McCoy eventually will air it out to him.

The other receiver to keep an eye on is Brian Robiskie, not second-round selection Greg Little, who has yet to impress during training camp thus far. Robiskie improved from year one to year two, but like Massaquoi his ceiling is capped until McCoy proves he can be a capable passer.

The sleeper on the Browns this year is tight end Evan Moore, who despite being listed as No. 2 on the depth chart behind Ben Watson, has been touted as the best player in training camp this year. Moore had 16 receptions for 322 yards and a touchdown in a dozen games last season, but a 20-yard-per-catch average. The Browns use Moore split out wide like a slot receiver, and should see an increase in catches, possibly supplanting Watson in the lineup.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Perhaps the biggest steals of fantasy drafts in 2010 was Mike Wallace, who had seven 100-yard receiving games en route to a breakout campaign. Wallace had 10 touchdowns, and averaged an impressive 21 yards-per-catch and 80 yards-per-contest. Though he’s mostly in that DeSean Jackson mode as a big-play receiver, his electrifying speed is nearly unstoppable.

According to Rotoworld, Wallace was the only top-10 wide receiver not to finish in the top 15 of most-targeted. In other words, if Ben Roethlisberger looked Wallace’s way just a little bit more often, this guy could easily make his way into the top five come season’s end.

Wallace headlines a young receiving corps including Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Hines Ward is still the No. 2 wideout, and the team recently signed former Jet Jericho Cotchery. Brown is currently the slot receiver since Sanders underwent foot surgery this preseason, and it’s looking more and more likely Brown will get the nod ahead of him.

Neither Brown nor Sanders put together eye-opening campaigns last season, though their late-season impact is surely a forecast of their future roles on the team. It also spells the decline of Ward, now 35 and entering his 13th season in Pittsburgh. Ward caught 59 balls last year, the second lowest total of his career. He still found the end zone five times, which means he’s not completely irrelevant, but he’s a WR3 at best.

In the backfield, the often overlooked Rashard Mendenhall is entering his third year as the Steelers’ starter. He’s put together back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons, increasing his touchdown total from eight to 13.

Mendenhall was a consistent RB1 all season long, scoring in 11 of 16 games, though he only surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark four times. He’s not going to impress in receiving numbers, averaging 24 catches the past two years, and Mewelde Moore taking third-down snaps. But Mendenhall is a dime in touchdown leagues, and is considered at the top of the second class of backs.