32 Questions Part 4 - AFC North
By Sigmund Bloom
July 20th, 2011

Pittsburgh - Can Emmanuel Sanders overtake Hines Ward this year?

Hines Ward made a lot of news this offseason, but little of it had to do with football. The potential hall of famer won the reality TV competition "Dancing with the Stars" and lost the reality competition "Prove that you were not Driving while Intoxicated". Ward posted his lowest catch total in 10 years last year, and had three or less catches in a game more than half of the time. He is becoming less of a threat to opposing defenses and he is getting fewer looks from Ben Roethlisberger because of it. Emmanuel Sanders flashed downfield speed, phone booth quicks, and toughness that belies his small frame in his rookie year, on the way to 28 catches and a stable role as the #3 receiver. If he continues to progress, he could certainly surpass Ward in the quarterback's mind, if not on the depth chart. Roethlisberger was on a 4000+ yard passing pace for the second straight year in 2010, which means than there is room for more than one fantasy wide receiver to have strong value in the Steelers pass offense. Ward will go ahead of Sanders in most drafts, but Sanders has more potential to elevate the passing game. Pay attention to the news out of Latrobe in August to see if the Steelers coaches agree.

Baltimore Ravens - Will Ray Rice become the goal line back?

Willis McGahee's presence has been vexing to Ray Rice owners for the last two seasons, but his six million dollar price tag could free them from his vulturing ways this year. McGahee seems unlikely to take a pay cut to stay with the team, and the team has Jalen Parmele, practice squad RB Curtis Steele, and seventh-round pick Anthony Allen (plus any free agent signings) to fight for the right to backup Rice this year. 2008 workhorse Le'Ron McClain will probably leave in free agency for more touches after the Ravens made him a full-time fullback, so the potential is there for Rice to get goal-line carries exclusively. McGahee scored 20 total touchdowns in 2009-2010 - even a bump of only five scores would have made Rice the #2 running back in non-PPR and PPR leagues last year in a down year for the Ravens running game. Rice could end up being a value at #5 or 6 overall slot he occupies in most draft.

Cleveland Browns - How much work will a healthy Montario Hardesty take away from Peyton Hillis?

New Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur said he likes the idea of a two-back backfield. GM Tom Heckert gave up a third and two fifths to move up for Montario Hardesty in 2010. Peyton Hillis "won" the Madden cover contest and its accompanying curse (if you believe in such things). There are so many signposts pointing to a drop in Hillis's production that last year's #2 overall fantasy running back can be had in the second, if not third round. That could be one of the steals of the draft if Hardesty can't stay healthy (which is the norm for him), or a reach if Hardesty is a 1A who gets almost as much work as Hillis. It makes a lot of sense for the Browns to limit the work for both because Hillis runs with no regard for his health (or that of his tacklers) and Hardesty knows the inside of an operating room all too well. Training camp will give us the first hard evidence of how the Browns plan to divvy up the work in the backfield and the strongest clue of which Browns back to target in your fantasy draft.

Cincinnati Bengals - Who will carry the load in the backfield now that Cedric Benson has run afoul of the law yet again?

Perhaps Cedric Benson should stay away from his college home of Austin in the offseason. Benson was arrested in the city for the fourth time in the last three years, this time on the verge of the opening of a free agency period that will see him get what is likely his last lucrative contract of his contract. Well, would have seen. Benson brought embarrassment to the Bengals organization even though he isn't officially on the roster, and the team should have the cap room to pursue any free agent running back that makes it through the exclusive rights of negotiation period at the beginning of free agency. Mike Brown is known for being a cheap owner, so Benson could be back (as was widely speculated before the arrest) on an even less expensive contract, but his standing with the team is diminished. If they do re-sign Benson, the Bengals should be questioned for relying on a back that couldn't even muster three yards per carry against run defenses that weren't in the bottom six of the NFL. Bernard Scott has looked more explosive than Benson on almost every occasion and this latest development could give him the window to prove to the team that he can be more than a change of pace back. Cedric Peerman is still highly regarded by our talent evaluation guru, Matt Waldman. The door is open for someone other than Benson to emerge.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bloom@footballguys.com.

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