This series of articles will examine the fantasy impact of the offseason moves, both via free agency and through the NFL Draft.
The bar is high coming off the Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Can Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense play well enough to help the re-tooled defense? Time will tell. The pressure will increase off last year's success.
Quarterback: Many are wanting to see how Flacco plays this season. The loss of Anquan Boldin could be huge. The veteran receiver made clutch receptions down the stretch, and during the time Flacco played his best. Backing up Flacco will be Tyrod Taylor and Caleb Hanie. Taylor has a huge lead and will likely hold the clipboard on game days.
Running Back: Ray Rice will be the focal point of the offense once again. Hopefully for fantasy owners, he will be used more in the passing game with the loss of Boldin. Bernard Pierce is a quality reserve, with the talent to one day become a NFL starter. If the Ravens run the ball more this season, Pierce could see his role increase. This one of the top running back duos in the league. Behind them on the depth chart are Anthony Allen, Bobby Rainey, and Damien Berry. None are threats for playing time.
Wide Receiver: As mentioned above, the loss of Boldin will be substantial. Torrey Smith will be relied upon heavily to carry the passing game. Smith possesses top-notch speed and will see at least 125 pass targets for the first time in his career. How well will he respond? Fantasy owners have high expectations. One thing to watch, Smith's catch rate has been around 50% each of his first two professional seasons due to a high volume of deep routes. If this continues, who will run the underneath routes? Competing for the other starting jobs will be Tommy Streeter, Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, and Deonte Thompson. Jones is getting much of the publicity currently, but do not expect much. He will flash potential but disappoints when asked to be a consistent contributor. Streeter and Thompson are burners like Smith, and could hit big if either can put it all together. Doss is more of a possession receiver. There is a distinct possibility that Baltimore brings in a veteran receiver to start opposite Smith. One name to watch is Brandon Lloyd. David Reed, LaQuan Williams, and rookie Aaron Mellette will battle for the remaining roster spots. Many like Mellette's potential, but the rookie is taking a huge jump from tiny Elon to the NFL.
Tight End: Dennis Pitta saw an increased role late in the 2012 season. Many fantasy owners are expecting the role to increase even further with Boldin now departed. It remains unseen if there will be enough pass targets to support these expectations. Ed Dickson will also play often. If Baltimore does not sign another receiver, expect more two-tight end sets with both Pitta and Dickson on the field for large portions of games.
Pittsburgh is aging on both sides of the ball. The team mortgaged the future (salary cap) in order to prolong the successful Super Bowl runs, but it is now time to pay the piper. This offseason, we witnessed the Steelers letting quality veterans walk in free agency due to a strained salary cap situation.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger is back under center and wanting to prove the doubters wrong. He is still an upper echelon NFL quarterback and should be able to continue his offensive success, especially if the offensive line can improve. After his injuries the past few years, Pittsburgh has finally upgraded the backup quarterback job from Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, and Charlie Batch to Bruce Gradkowski and rookie Landry Jones. 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 this is not out of the question. Jones is a young quarterback to develop, something Pittsburgh has not done in several years.
Running Back: The team did not have the cap situation - nor the desire - to re-sign Rashad Mendenhall, so the starting tailback went to Arizona to re-unite with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. He will be missed. The Steelers selected Le'Veon Bell in the NFL Draft to serve as Mendenhall's successor. Bell is a bigger back who runs soft, and could disappoint. The rookie will not break many tackles or make defenders miss, and will rely on the offensive line to open holes. The fit in Pittsburgh may not be a strong one. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are also in the mix, but neither is overly talented. Dwyer did have a nice stretch of games in 2012, but the team showed what they thought of him by drafting Bell. La'Rod Stephens-Howling was signed from Arizona and could play some on third downs.
Wide Receiver: After Miami gave Mike Wallace huge dollars to come to South Beach, the Steelers were sweating the potential loss of Emmanuel Sanders as a Restricted Free Agent, but were able to keep him. Sanders makes plays, but has been plagued by injuries during his short career. He will vie with Antonio Brown for the lead receiver role. Brown is the favorite but may struggle without Wallace on the other side. The impact of Wallace's speed on opposing defenses cannot be understated. This opened up lanes for the other receivers. A receiver to watch is rookie Markus Wheaton, who has the speed and ability to make an impact in year one. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress will play some, but not often. Justin Brown was selected late in April's draft, but offers little upside. Brown and Sanders have the opportunity to be fantasy starters, especially with the high number of projected pass attempts once again by Roethlisberger.
Tight End: Veteran Heath Miller hurt his knee late last season and could begin the season on the PUP list. With the losses of talent at the tailback and receiver positions, it could aid the fantasy outlook for Miller and the tight ends if they are not asked to stay in and block to help the line in pass protection. However, do not expect much until Miller returns to full health considering Matt Spaeth and David Paulson are behind the starter on the depth chart.
There are high expectations for Marvin Lewis' team after a strong finish in 2012 and solid draft. The upstart Bengals have competitive talent at most positions, but will rely on young players to develop in order to contend for the division title.
Quarterback: Andy Dalton returns to lead the Cincinnati offense. He is a solid-yet-unspectacular field general. Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski departed and has since signed with Pittsburgh. Josh Johnson and John Skelton were added to compete for Gradkowski's old job. Skelton has a big arm, but lacks many of the skills needed to be a viable option so Johnson should win the job easily. Many forget the high hopes on Johnson to develop when he came out of the University of San Diego and was a fifth round draft pick. Possibly offensive coordinator Jay Gruden can develop Johnson into a legitimate quarterback prospect. He is only a little more than a year older than Dalton.
Running Back: The running back position should be a committee for touches, much more than last season when BenJarvus Green-Ellis dominated touches. He should get most of the early down carries again, but may lose touches to rookie Giovani Bernard as the season progresses. Bernard offers a play-making threat unseen in the grinding Green-Ellis and looks to be used on third downs and in obvious passing situations. Bernard Scott and Cedric Peerman will also be in the mix, but remain on the outside looking in. Rex Burkhead was drafted in April, but is not a threat to unseat the top two on the depth chart.
Wide Receiver: 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 past two years. Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones Jr battled through injuries in their respective rookie seasons. Each has the potential to be a long-term starter across from Green. The electric Andrew Hawkins will be on the field often as he makes big plays. Also, keep an eye on Cobi Hamilton, Brandon Tate, and Ryan Whalen for the remaining roster spots. Hamilton is an intriguing rookie if he can develop and gain consistency. Hamilton was raw at Arkansas, but has the physical skill set to threaten for a starting job.
Tight End: Jermaine Gresham will start at the tight end position. He has been underwhelming as a professional. Even with two more seasons under contract, the Bengals selected Tyler Eifert to be Gresham's eventual replacement. This could happen sooner versus later. Eifert heads a strong 2013 rookie tight end class and is being tabbed as a future fantasy starter by many. But, the pair should allow Cincinnati to utilize a two-tight end set when desired.
The Browns made changes in the front office and the coaching staff, all for the better. The hiring of Rob Chudzinski as head coach was a step in the right direction. But, the well-traveled offensive coordinator made strong coordinator hires: Norv Turner on offense and Ray Horton on defense. Both are top-notch coordinators, and even Turner's shortcomings should be overcome by Chudzinski's ingenuity.
Quarterback: Brandon Weeden has a strong hold on the quarterback job. While the older rookie was not great in his initial professional season, he did make strides leading the youthful Browns. Cleveland also signed Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer to provide veteran depth at the quarterback position. The job is Weeden's to lose. If he does not play well in 2013, the team will finish the season with a high draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and a quarterback will be on the menu.
Running Back: Trent Richardson is a superstar in the making. He should only be stronger in year two. Expect the young tailback to anchor the offense. There is a recent report that the young tailback will miss time this offseason with a leg injury. This is definitely a situation to monitor. Richardson is backed up by a lackluster group of Montario Hardesty, Dion Lewis, Chris Ogbonnaya, Brandon Jackson, and Miguel Maysonet. If Richardson were to miss time with injury, Hardesty and Lewis would be the favorites for carries, but expectations should be low.
Wide Receiver: Josh Gordon is primed for a breakout season. He flashed big-time potential late in the year. Coming to the Browns via the NFL Supplemental Draft caused a shortened offseason for Gordon in his rookie season. With a full offseason to mature on the finer points of the wide receiver, expect major improvement. He is the heavy favorite to lead the team in receiving even though the youngster will miss the first two games of the season due to suspension. The one concern for the youngster is his history of off the field issues. These types of issues are usually not isolated. It is something to keep an eye on. Greg Little should be the starter opposite Gordon. Little will see enough pass targets to be fantasy viable, but has a low ceiling with the expected breakout by Gordon. Davone Bess was acquired via trade to man the slot receiver position and return punts. While far from explosive, Bess offers solid hands and reliable routes for a young offense. David Nelson was signed for depth purposes but is unlikely to see much playing time. He will compete with Travis Benjamin, Josh Cooper, and Jordan Norwood to be active on game days. It is doubtful Cleveland carries seven receivers on the active roster so Cooper (Weeden's college teammate) and Norwood need to shine well in order to make the team.
Tight End: With veteran Ben Watson allowed to leave in free agency, this is the year Jordan Cameron fantasy owners have been waiting for, and it only got better with Chudzinski running the show. The head coach is known for utilizing the tight end position and now there are high hopes for Cameron. While undersized (at 254 pounds), Cameron will be utilized similarly to how Chudzinski used Greg Olsen in Carolina. His athletic ability was evident as the USC product showed well at the NFL Combine, enough so that the ex-Trojan was selected in the fourth round by the previous regime. He could approach 80 receptions and 1,000 yards if all goes well. Behind him on the depth chart are Kellen Davis, who was signed from Chicago, and Greg Barnidge. Barnidge played for the new coach in Carolina and is a receiving threat much more so than a blocker.
Baltimore has experienced change on both sides of the ball. The Super Bowl champs should be the heavy favorite for the division with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the mix. Cleveland will be competitive, too, but does not have the talent to win the division as of yet.