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AFC North Training Camp Previews

Sigmund Bloom runs down injuries, position battles, and offensive changes to watch for AFC North and gives his view on the direction the team is headed.

Training camp openings are coming, so it's time to focus our attention on the changes, injury recoveries, and position battles that will inform our last tweaks to our draft boards before we draft. It's also good to record our thoughts on the direction of the offense as it affects fantasy bottom lines before camp and preseason twists and turns make us doubt what we have spent months mulling over waiting for football to come back. I'll try to give insight into where I think the puck is going with these teams, because like Wayne Gretzky said, we should skate there instead of where the puck has been, i.e. last year's results.

Baltimore

Offensive Change(s) to Watch: The team added RB Kenneth Dixon to a muddled backfield in the fourth round. The high effort, multi-faceted back could be the next man up behind Justin Forsett with a good summer. Mike Wallace was signed in the offseason to add another deep threat to a vertical, pass-heavy offense. Left tackle Eugene Monroe was released after the team took Notre Dame tackle Ronnie Stanley #6 overall. Ben Watson signed to bolster a deep but uncertain tight end group after a late career renaissance in New Orleans.

Injury Situation(s) to Watch: WR Breshad Perriman suffered a partially torn ACL during OTAs and received a stem cell injection to aid healing. The team says they expect him to be ready for Week 1, but we remember how his knee injury situation went during his rookie year. WR Steve Smith is rehabbing from a torn achilles and will likely miss the entire preseason, if not regular season games. TE Dennis Pitta is attempting a comeback after hip fractures cost him most of the last three years. TE Crockett Gillmore had surgeries on both shoulders in the offseason, but the team expects him to be ready for training camp. QB Joe Flacco suffered a torn ACL and MCL late in the season, but he has recently indicated that he expects to be on the field for the first practice of training camp. RB Trent Richardson is trying to revive his career, but he had knee surgery in June.

Position Battle(s) to Watch: Justin Forsett should open the season as the starter, but behind him, Dixon, Javorius Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro, and Terrance West will vie for backup touches and potential fantasy value if Forsett goes down again. The Ravens wide receiver injury woes and glut of tight ends should force them into more multi-tight end sets, so the divvying up of snaps behind presumptive starter Ben Watson between Gillmore, 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams, and possibly Pitta should be monitored. With Smith and Perriman sidelined for some or all of camp, Wallace and Kamar Aiken could establish themselves as starters going into the season, and Jeremy Butler or rookies Chris Moore and Keenan Reynolds will have a chance to shine with more reps in camp and the preseason.

Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman will probably make this pass offense viable and Justin Forsett will be the most valuable running back to start the season, but beyond that this is a hard offense to decipher. As many as four running backs and four tight ends could have roles, two of the top four wide receivers are injured, and a third looked washed up last year, but got more money than expected (4.5 million guaranteed for Mike Wallace). Forsett and Wallace are the most likely values in the Ravens attack, but neither are going to be league winners and both could see their roles shrink as injured and younger players get into the mix as the season goes on. This will be a better offense to exploit for DFS lineups than redraft rosters.

Cincinnati

Offensive Change(s) to Watch: Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones left for greener pastures in free agency and the Bengals added Brandon LaFell in free agency and Tyler Boyd in the second round of the draft to help replace them. The nature of the offense could shift to put more on the shoulders of running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard with the step back in wide receiver experience and talent, not to mention starting tight end Tyler Eifert sidelined during camp recovering from ankle surgery

Injury Situation(s) to Watch: Eifert’s recovery is one of the biggest injury situations to watch this summer. If he can play Week 1, it would be a small surprise and turn Eifert into a value at his depressed eighth-round ADP. If he isn’t on track to play Week 1, we might not have assurances that he’ll be ready in Week 2 or 3 either, and his effectiveness when he returns would also be questionable at first. It would be an upset if we see Eifert practice or play this summer.

Position Battle(s) to Watch: 2015 third-round pick Tyler Kroft isn’t vying for a long-term starting spot, but he will start any games that Eifert misses. His play and practice this summer will dictate the size of his role in the passing game during any spot starts. The wide receiver corps is largely unsettled after A.J. Green, LaFell, and Boyd. Sixth-round pick Cody Core, 2015 UDFA Jake Kumerow, and 2014 seventh-round pick James Wright are among the names to watch for end of the roster spots.

Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: An offense that revolved around Andy Dalton and a myriad of passing game talents is going to enter the season with A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard and not much else in the passing game. Eifert should return to health, but for how long? LaFell or Boyd could emerge, but it’s far from assured. Green will get an inordinate number of targets, and Bernard’s role will grow, and Jeremy Hill could be a value pick if he runs more like 2014 Hill and less like 2015 Hill. The offense is in a precarious spot if Green goes down, and if they rely more on Dalton, his recent successes could get smaller in the rear view mirror.

Cleveland

Offensive Change(s) to Watch: Robert Griffin III was signed to hopefully keep the Browns from having a reason to start Josh McCown again, although the offense could easily be better off with McCown. Josh Gordon can apply for reinstatement on August 1, but the team is going forward with an expectation that first-round pick Corey Coleman and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins will be their top two receivers, with a host of players vying for relevance behind them. The Browns lost two of their top offensive linemen, center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, in free agency, and hope 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving will be ready to fill the sizable hole left by Mack. New head coach Hue Jackson has been a shot in the arm to offenses he has overseen in the past, and he should be aggressive and playing his best players strengths with his plan for this unit.

Injury Situation(s) to Watch: Hawkins is coming back from multiple concussions, but otherwise there are no medical issues hanging over any of the team’s skill players to monitor

Position Battle(s) to Watch: Since there is a new regime, everyone is battling for playing time and prominence, outside of entrenched starting tight end Gary Barnidge. Griffin will win the starting quarterback job unless he instills no confidence in the coaching staff, which is possible, and the progress of the battle should foreshadow how Griffin’s season will go. Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, and even Terrell Watson, who was with Jackson in Cincinnati last year, are trying to win the largest role possible in the backfield. Coleman will attempt to show he is ready to a #1 receiver right away, and the other three receivers they drafted (Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, and Ricardo Louis), in addition to size/speed QB convert Terrelle Pryor, mighty mite Taylor Gabriel, and journeyman Marlon Moore will all be in the running to make the team and even get significant snaps in three wide sets.

Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: Jackson has improved offenses wherever he has gone, but improvement in Cleveland can happen without this becoming an offense that makes us interested in investing for fantasy. Johnson is a mid-round PPR target, and if he can stay healthy, he could be the closest thing there is to a centerpiece in this offense, but much like the personnel moves indicated, this is a rebuilding year for this team, so outside of occasional flashes, this will be a work in progress, which usually spells fantasy disappointment.

Pittsburgh

Offensive Change(s) to Watch: The biggest change to the Steelers offense will be the absence of Martavis Bryant, who is suspended for at least one year under the league’s substance abuse policy. Darrius Heyward-Bey was re-signed and he was serviceable in place of Bryant when he was suspended last year to begin the season. 2015 third-round WR Sammie Coates has gotten a lot of praise in the offseason and he is probably the Plan A to replace Bryant. Long-time tight end Heath Miller retired and the team signed size/speed mismatch Ladarius Green to replace him, with second-year TE Jesse James also potentially playing a larger role.

Injury Situation(s) to Watch: The most important injury situation to monitor in fantasy football this summer is Le’Veon Bell. Bell injured multiple ligaments in his knee and whether he’ll even take a snap in the preseason is still up in the air. We would say his Week 1 availability is not a sure thing despite a lot of positive signs, but now we can say he won't be available until Week 5 unless he can win an appeal of a four-game suspension for missing a drug test. The second/third round range of fantasy drafts could change with a shot of good or bad news about Bell’s recovery, which has been lacking specifics up to this point. Green had ankle surgery in January that sidelined him for OTAs, so his chance to start riffing with Ben Roethlisberger will begin in training camp and his reps and health this summer will take on increased importance.

Position Battle(s) to Watch: The Steelers high-flying offense should create a second strong fantasy option in the passing game behind Antonio Brown. It could be slot receiver Markus Wheaton, Green, Coates, or even Heyward-Bey. Green, Wheaton, and Coates are all going in the 8th-12th round range of early drafts, but one could emerge with a strong summer and cause the others to drop.

Skate to Where the Puck is Going to Be: The Steelers offense will be one of the most prolific in the league, but the loss of Bryant and his field-stretching speed can not be overstated. If no one steps up from the group of secondary targets, even more will fall on the shoulders of Brown and the dynamic backfield duo of Bell and DeAngelo Williams. Williams seems destined for more this year, even if Bell plays 16 games. The offensive line should be healthier in 2016 to help, but if Bell goes down again or Roethlisberger misses multiple games and no one exceeds expectations otherwise, this offense might underachieve.