This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
During the Harbaugh era in Baltimore, the expectations have continued to grow. There are questions surrounding the offense and what the transition from Gary Kubiak to Marc Trestman will mean to fantasy owners. Can Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense adapt well to the philosophical change? Plus, there is increased pressure on Flacco to lead his team back to Super Bowl contention.
Quarterback: Flacco is a better NFL quarterback than a fantasy one. In the past, he has not been ask to throw the ball frequently enough to be a fantasy factor. Could the switch to Trestman catapult the big-armed passer to fantasy relevance? There is hope. The additions in the NFL Draft only help build expectations more. Backing up Flacco will be veteran Matt Schaub. Schaub is not a player any Ravens fan hopes to see the field. His arm strength is a thing of the past.
Running Back: After the Ray Rice debacle a year ago, the Ravens still were still able to establish a strong running team. Justin Forsett took advantage of the opportunity and put up big fantasy numbers. Early indications out of training camp indicate Forsett will be a big factor once again, especially in the passing game. Baltimore drafted Javorius Allen to add depth to the backfield. Allen is a big back who is apt in the passing game. He should make a solid complement to Forsett. After an arrest last season, Bernard Pierce was sent packing. This left the door wide open for Lorenzo Taliaferro to emerge, but it never happened. Taliaferro could work his way into a committee role with a strong training camp. Baltimore has a deep backfield and will look to run the ball to keep the pressure off Flacco.
Wide Receiver: The Ravens receiving corps has changed a lot the past two years. First, Anquan Boldin was traded to San Francisco for next to nothing right after the Super Bowl two years ago. Then, this offseason, it was Torrey Smith who was allowed to leave in free agency. He ended up with the 49ers as well. Replacing Boldin, veteran Steve Smith came over from Carolina and played very well in 2014. Even though he is at the end of his career, Smith can still be a valuable weapon, just without the after-the-catch ability he used to possess. Baltimore drafted Breshad Perriman early in the NFL Draft to address the loss of the departed Torrey Smith. Perriman is a physical specimen. He is a big, athletic, and especially fast youngster. Look for him to have growing pains as a rookie but really take off in year two. Much was made of his “problem” with dropped passes pre-draft so it is something to monitor. Marlon Brown will vie for the third receiver role with Michael Campanaro, Kamar Aiken, Darren Waller, and DeAndre Carter. The last two are high upside rookies who may be a year away from contributing. Carter is a player we like to potentially emerge as a starter. He will need time to adjust from small college football but is a good player.
Tight End: Dennis Pitta is still recovering from the multiple hip injury. He has encountered no setbacks …. yet. Owen Daniels departed to Denver with coach Kubiak so the team drafted Maxx Williams to be the starting tight end. Remembering what Trestman did for Martellus Bennett's career in Chicago, Williams should have strong fantasy appeal. Crockett Gillmore could also see time in the lineup.
Coordinator Todd Haley has the offense firing on all cylinders. The Steelers put up gaudy numbers a year ago and are primed to possibly top those this year.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger is back under center and still seems to be underappreciated by fantasy owners and football fans alike even after an awesome 2015 campaign. He is still an upper echelon NFL quarterback and should be able to continue his offensive success, especially if the offensive line can improve. Roethlisberger has put up strong fantasy numbers for the past couple of seasons, finishing easily in the Top 10 players at the position. Once he was able to get on the same page as coordinator Todd Haley, the offense seemed to gel. Bruce Gradkowski is back to his role holding the clipboard for the durable passer. Gradkowski is an underrated reserve. He played admirably in Oakland early in his career and gives the Steelers hope for continuity if Roethlisberger were to miss games again. Roethlisberger does hold the ball a long time, and takes many hits, so it is not out of the question that the veteran reserve plays some this season. Landry Jones will battle Tajh Boyd for the right to be the team's third quarterback. Neither should be on the fantasy radar.
Running Back: Once he comes off suspension, the Steelers will depend on Le'Veon Bell to carry the load on the ground once again. Bell is coming off a great 2014 campaign. He is a bigger back who runs with finesse more than power. Bell is a strong runner but is exceptional in the passing game. After cutting LeGarrette Blount loose a year ago, Pittsburgh realized the need for a strong backup to Bell. This is the reason the team went out and signed DeAngelo Williams in free agency. With the pending Bell suspension, Williams should start a few games this season. Speedy Dri Archer was drafted a year ago to provide a boost to the return game and special plays. He is too small to be a regular contributor. But, this is one offense which needed to improve the speed on the field, especially with the loss of fast wide receivers in consecutive seasons. Josh Harris is also in the mix, but he is more of a grinder with a limited skillset. The addition of Williams will soften the Bell suspension a bit.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown has enjoyed consecutive strong seasons for fantasy owners. Roethlisberger looks to him as the “go to” receiver. He returns looking to establish himself as one of the game's top pass catchers. It is amazing what Haley and Roethlisberger have been able to do with Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders departing the past two offseasons. Many hoped Markus Wheaton would easily step into Sanders' spot last year. But, it did not happen. Wheaton has the speed and ability to make an impact starter, but is not refined enough to start over this year's receivers. Martavis Bryant was drafted to groom behind Wheaton but surpassed him by midseason. The Steelers drafted Sammie Coates Jr this year to add another speedy pass catcher to the mix. The starting job is Bryant's and he has the opportunity to be a fantasy starter. Many may look at his 2014 insane yards per reception average (21.1) and scoring ability (eight touchdowns on 26 receptions) and think those averages will continue. There is no way he can keep up that pace, but will still be a very good fantasy receiver. If we look at the mix, it is the sure-handed Brown and three speedsters. This group will make plenty of big plays for their quarterback.
Tight End: Veteran Heath Miller is back and healthy. Miller is one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets so he has an outside shot to be a surprise finisher in the Top 10 at the position. Matt Spaeth, Rob Blanchflower, and rookie Jesse James are behind the starter on the depth chart. Keep an eye on the rookie in preseason. He is big and a good blocker. James could develop into Miller's eventual replacement.
There are high expectations for Marvin Lewis' team once again. The upstart Bengals have competitive talent at most positions, but will rely on Andy Dalton and a strong defense in order to contend for the division title. Can Dalton lead his team to the next level? If not, both he and his coach could be looking for jobs in the near future.
Quarterback: Dalton returns to lead the Cincinnati offense after getting paid this time last year. Dalton's contract represents a middle class valuation of his services, which is fair. He is a solid-yet-unspectacular field general. Even with strong weapons to target, Dalton is merely average for fantasy owners. Cincinnati did draft A.J. McCarron in 2014, He could potentially develop into the quarterback of the future. However, McCarron is physically limited and is more of a “field general” than gifted quarterback.
Running Back: The running back position should be a committee for touches, just like last season when rookie Jeremy Hill split touches with Giovani Bernard. Bernard offers a play-making threat to the running game while Hill will be the power back. This is a dynamic duo and could be used to keep Dalton out of obvious passing situations. These two backs could total 2,500 total yards in 2015. Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead offer depth and little else on offense. Peerman is solid on special teams.
Wide Receiver: Now healthy, A.J. Green should lead the team in receiving once again. His potential is unlimited and Green is on pace for a Hall of Fame career. Cincinnati has added young depth to the receiving corps in the last few years. Marvin Jones Jr and Mohamed Sanu are talented and could play an increased role as defenses focus on stopping the superstar Green. Each has the potential to be a long-term starter, Jones as the WR2 and Sanu in the slot. Jones could surprise after missing 2014 with injury. He is talented. Denarius Moore signed a one-year deal after leaving Oakland. He could play if one of the three above were to get injured. Also, keep an eye on the undersized, yet very speedy, Mario Alford. He is a rookie and could see the field more after some refinement as a pass catcher and route runner. The offense could use the speed. The Bengals have a strong group of receivers for Dalton to target.
Tight End: This should be the year that Tyler Eifert asserts himself in the offense after losing most of 2014 to injury. Jermaine Gresham was allowed to depart and remains unsigned. The Bengals drafted Tyler Kroft to assume Gresham's in-line blocking role while Eifert is allowed to run routes. Kroft could develop into a fantasy option in the future.
The Browns are still a team in turmoil. The more things change, the more they remain the same in Cleveland.
Quarterback: Brandon Weeden was unceremoniously kicked to the curb last offseason. Cleveland then proceeded to draft Johnny Manziel in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He did nothing with the opportunity to beat out Hoyer a year ago while struggling on and off the field. Manziel's immaturity is well documented. He will be given another chance this season to develop into the Browns' starter role. With the team not counting on Manziel, the Browns signed Josh McCown to be a stop gap. He offers leadership and experience but does not possess a strong arm or the athletic ability to make plays. With an expected poor finish this season, Cleveland will be in the market for a passer in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Running Back: Last year, the team used a Top 100 pick in the draft to select Terrance West. West is a solid player. He racked up big yardage at Towson and could have a strong career in the NFL. In addition, troubled Isaiah Crowell signed after going undrafted. He bounced around colleges due to off the field issues. Crowell is talented as well. Together, this duo carried the Cleveland offense in 2014. The organization was not done. Duke Johnson Jr was drafted in May's NFL Draft. Johnson is a play-making back as a runner and receiver. This is a very good trio of ball carriers. The backs are the core of the offense.
Wide Receiver: Josh Gordon has been suspended for the 2015 season. What a sad development for one of the game's best players. Dwayne Bowe was signed from Kansas City. He gives the team a true WR1, although a less-than-average one. Only the brave should roster Bowe. He is oft-injured and struggles to gain separation. However, Bowe is the only fantasy-worthy receiver of the group. Local product Brian Hartline signed from Miami. He is not a NFL starter but will be asked to play one in Cleveland. Together, these two are toward the bottom of fantasy options at the position. Shifty Andrew Hawkins was added a year ago to provide a spark to the receiving corps. Sadly, this is the same team that waived Charles Johnson a year ago. He could be a starter in this group.
Tight End: Jordan Cameron was not retained and he signed in Miami. In his place, Rob Housler was signed. Housler is a decent receiver but has battled injuries through his brief career. We really do not know what to expect from the new Browns tight end with the history of injuries and lack of targets he received in Arizona. Gary Barnidge will back him up.
The division should be a dog fight with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati competing for the title. Since the NFL is a quarterback league, the edge has to go to the Steelers slightly over the Ravens. This will be a hard-fought division all year long with few lopsided contests. Even Cleveland has the talent to beat one of the other three teams any given week.
Please feel free to email me (Tefertiller@Footballguys.com) with any questions or comments. Also, I am on Twitter (www.Twitter.com/JeffTefertiller), LinkedIN, and Google+ so feel free to connect where most convenient.
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