2015 Training Camp Preview: AFC North

Three burning questions for each AFC North team as training camp approaches

We've been making mountains out of molehills (in the words of ESPN's Matt Williamson) all offseason, so it's almost a relief to know that new data is coming from camp reports and preseason games to correct some of our entrenched assumptions build up while we whittled away the time between football seasons. Which situations and changes should bear the most fruit in terms of honing our understandings of just what we have to work with entering our 2015 fantasy drafts? Let's look at the AFC North, a division that could give us the best fantasy offense in the NFL despite a much tougher schedule for the division than last year.

Baltimore

1. First Round Impact? - Speed/size wide receiver Breshad Perriman was taken in the first round by the Ravens, presumably to replace the field-stretching threat Torrey Smith took with him to San Francisco. Perriman has some issues with drops and overall consistency, and will have to earn the #2 role in the offense that would justify the boom/bust weekly profile that goes along with a pick in the 8th-10th rounds. If he is struggling, Kamar Aiken or Marlon Brown will be waiting in the wings, but it would hurt the overall efficiency of the offense.

2. Battle of the Backups - The running back behind Justin Forsett on the depth chart will be set up for some goal-line opportunities and carries to put away the opponent when the Ravens control the game, in addition to big-time injury upside in what looked like a plug and play running game last year. Last year’s fourth-rounder Lorenzo Taliaferro has slimmed down after looking a bit sluggish laterally last year. This year’s fourth-rounder Javorius Allen has a better initial burst than Taliaferro and good hands out of the backfield, making him the better bet with a higher ceiling. It is possible that they will split the role and cancel out the potential value of the situation.

3. Trestman, Work Your Magic - The Ravens have the most underwhelming target group this side of Oakland, which isn’t going to help us sleep at night if we are building around Justin Forsett. The good thing is that new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has said he isn’t going to significantly change anything, and the offensive line is intact. Still, if Steve Smith looks his age and none of unaccomplished pass-catching targets take a step forward, how is this offense going to force defense to honor the pass? Trestmand and quarterback Joe Flacco have their work cut out for them.

Cincinnati

1. Too Many Mouths To Feed? and What's on the Menu? - The Bengals turned into an offense is run through their thunder and lightning backfield last year when Marvin Jones Jr and Tyler Eifert went down. AJ Green also missed a handful of games and limped through a few others. What will the Bengals offense look like with a deep set of passing game weapons? Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson still seems like the type to favor the backfield - as long as the game script allows for it. With the whole AFC North facing a much tougher schedule than 2014 (at least based on 2014 performances), perhaps the Bengals will be forced into more pass-heavy run/pass splits. The offense has once of the best set of RB/WR/TE in the league, but also has a painfully mediocre quarterback in Andy Dalton. Bet on the default approach to remain conservative.

2. Weather Report - The thunder and lightning backfield of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard was very effective last year. When the Bengals controlled a game, Hill was a strong RB1. When they didn’t he sometimes fell outside of the RB2 ranks. Bernard’s workload seemed to decrease as the season went on, although his pass-catching spiked at the end of the season. This could be a difficult situation to gauge on a game-to-game basis, which makes the full retail price of Hill in the second and Bernard in the fifth in PPR leagues tough to swallow unless there are signs in camp that the roles will change from the last time we saw this young duo in action.

3. What Can Anyone Other Than Green Do For You? - This one is a subset of the first question, but know that for Marvin Jones Jr or Tyler Eifert to have a big impact this year without an injury to AJ Green or Jeremy Hill, you will need to project this offense to look more like 2013 than 2014, or project the team to have a losing season and be forced to open up the offense on a more regular basis. The interconnected nature of fantasy values dictates that for Jones or Eifert to flourish, someone else will have to suffer unless the whole passing pie gets bigger.

Cleveland

1. Backfield In Motion - Lest we forget, the Browns offensive line was creasing defenses a la Dallas last year before Alex Mack went down, and they took the #1 center in this year’s draft (Florida State’s Cam Erving). The team has a strong enough defense to keep games on a low-scoring script, feeding the running game, so we should be taking notice of this backfield in fantasy drafts. 2015 second-round pick Duke Johnson Jr has been compared to Giovani Bernard by the team themselves, so his PPR upside is apparent, and he could be even more prolific than Bernard in an offense with much less viable options at wide receiver and tight end. Isaiah Crowell could be this offense’s version of Jeremy Hill, IF he can vanquish Terrance West. Johnson’s usage, and West vs. Crowell are among the most important training camp situations to watch this summer. Johnson could grab a bigger piece of the standard running game and leave both in his wake.

2. Johnny Football, the Sequel? - Johnny Manziel’s offseason included some things that resembled a true desire to mature and change and a few that indicated the same immaturity that sunk his rookie season. The biggest clue to how far he has come will be whether he can truly change a limited starter in December of his career in the form of Josh McCown. Manziel would totally change the dynamic of the Browns offense with his scrambling ability, but apparently he has to totally change the dynamic of his lifestyle before that can happen. Head coach Mike Pettine has left the door open to someone other than Josh McCown starting Week 1, but only very slightly.

3. Tooting Gabriel’s Horn - No it’s not Judgment Day for the Browns, but instead a reference to the positive buzz building around second-year UDFA wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. He has been tirelessly trying to learn by matching up with true #1 corner Joe Haden and the new set of veteran wide receivers in Cleveland. He is at the very bottom end of the range of weight for wide receivers that can make in the NFL, but if he is the primary deep target and works his way into a starting role, Gabriel could make the Browns wide receiver corps actually matter in PPR leagues. Tune in to see if he is carrying over that positive momentum from the spring.

Pittsburgh

1. For Whom The Bell Tolls - The Steelers were the first team to open training camp and they will the first team to have two players go off of the board in fantasy drafts this year. How high should one of those players, running back Le’Veon Bell, go in drafts? A three-game suspension that could be shortened looms, but Bell has also said that the knee injury that sidelined him for the team’s playoff loss to Baltimore is still not 100%. While this is not comforting, Bell is not on PUP, and he is taking his reps in drills (even looking good per observers). It’s probably nothing to fret about until Bell missed the third preseason game, but when we are talking about potential top 5 picks, we have to put everything under the microscope.

2. TD Mart - Second year wide receiver Martavis Bryant has already been one of the hot topics in training camp, including his reports that he added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. He showed up last year as an extremely raw receiver, but made an instant impact with a limited skillset and snaps/role in 2014. If there is affirmative evidence that his skillset, size, and role will be larger in 2015, he’ll be a player to target with unknown upside in an offense that should be among the most productive in the league.

3. How Big is Ben? - We all remember Ben Roethlisberger’s back-to-back six touchdown games, but even after that outburst, Roethlisberger was the #7 quarterback in typical scoring for the remainder of the season. The team has an imposing set of passing game weapons, the best young running back in the league, and the best offensive line they have had for a long time. The defense, on the other hand, is riddled with question marks and unproven players in big roles. Roethlisberger has already commented that he wants the team to score more than 30 points per game, which they actually did after Bryant got on the field last year. It’s odd to think of Pittsburgh as a fantasy cup that runneth over, but all signs point to that in 2015. Will offensive coordinator Todd Haley get carte blanche to put the pedal to the metal?