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“Big Rigg’s” AFC North Fee Agent Breakdown & Fantasy Implications

Each year, free agency additions and subtractions have a tremendous impact on the fantasy football landscape.  In 2017, the Bengals lost two Pro Bowlers from their offensive line in Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, and the result was a disaster.  The Bengals were simply never able to adequately protect Andy Dalton, and Bengals running backs were getting hit almost as soon as they hit the line of scrimmage.  On the slip side of that are success stories like Alex Collins, who was cut by the Seattle Seahawks and almost ran for 1,000 yards after getting picked up by the Baltimore Ravens.  Now that we looked back in time a few months and revisited how a few 2017 free agency moves played out, it’s time to look at key free agency moves by AFC North teams in 2018.

Baltimore Ravens

Joe Flacco got off to a slow start to the 2017 season after missing the entire preseason with a back injury, but on the plus side, his numbers improved drastically over the final half of the season and he has another year of continuity with Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.  Conventional wisdom would indicate that Flacco needed time to get into form after missing so much time during training camp and he should be his normal self for the upcoming season.  Breshad Perriman has been a colossal bust to this point in his career, he simply cannot stay healthy, and the Ravens leading receiver from a year ago, Mike Wallace, is now a Philadelphia Eagle.  The Ravens completely overhauled their wide receivers this offseason, and now have Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead as their primary pass catchers.  Crabtree and Willie Snead are more possession type receivers, of which, Crabtree really has a nose for the endzone, catching 25 touchdowns over the last three seasons.  Crabtree has averaged between 10.7 and 11.3 yards per catch over his last three seasons, so at this point, he is what he is, a possession receiver with endzone chops, but if the volume is there, which is should be, Crabtree should flirt with 900-1,000 yards and catch north of 80 balls.

John Brown is a burner and his skillset should work well with Joe Flacco as long as both he and Flacco can stay healthy.  Hopefully a change in scenery, and maybe strength and conditioning staffs, will benefit Brown.  Crabtree is what he is at this point, he is a possession receiver who can give you added points with touchdowns, but John Brown is the guy I am really watching out for in this offense.  Brown signed a one year $5M contract this spring, meaning he will be looking to prove his worth to the Ravens and 31 other NFL teams who will be paying attention.  In all fairness, in addition to Brown’s own injury problems, he hasn’t had the most stable QB situation in Arizona the last few seasons with Carson Palmer in and out of the lineup.  In 2015, Brown played in 15 games, starting 11, and had Carson Palmer for a full 16 games.  As a result, in just his second year in the league, Brown hauled in 65 of his 101 targets for 1,003 yards and 7 touchdowns.  The big play ability is there and he’s somebody I want to take a chance on later in drafts.

Also of note, the Ravens will have Marshal Yanda, one of the best, if not the best guard in the game back from injury this year, which means Flacco will receive improved protection in 2018.

Cincinnati Bengals

Bill Lazor took over as the Bengals offensive coordinator very early in the 2017 season and in all honesty, he was limited based on the talent of the Bengals offensive line.  Much of what Lazor tried to do was clearly predicated on the Bengals weakness at the left tackle position and Lazor tried to hide Ced Ogbuehi’s deficiencies at all costs.  With an upgraded offensive line unit after trading for Left Tackle Cordy Glenn from Buffalo, it will be very interesting to see what the Bengals can do.  I put very little stock in what the Bengals did in 2017 due to their offensive line woes.

In 2017, the average NFL quarterback was sacked on 6.7% of their dropbacks.  Andy Dalton, on the other hand, was sacked on 7.7% of his dropbacks.  Although Dalton’s sack rate may not seem too far above the NFL average, you need to consider the fact that sacks often end drives.  When a quarterback gets sacked, drives are not likely to continue, and if Dalton takes less sacks in 2018, he is surely to improve on his 2017 stat line, where he averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, his worst effort since his rookie season in 2011 where he threw for only 6.6 yards per attempt.  Cordy Glenn figures to serve as a massive upgrade to Ced Ogbuehi at left tackle.  Even if Glenn isn’t able to play a full season as he’s dealt with injuries over the last few years, any games he gives the Bengals will be huge.  The Bengals also drafted Billy Price from Ohio State who figures to be an upgrade over Russell Bodine who left for Buffalo in free agency, and Bobby Hart should push Jake Fisher for the starting right tackle job.  Dalton’s poor 2017 season was due to poor offensive line play and he should be a solid QB2 in 2018 and make AJ Green, Joe Mixon, Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard all better in the process.

Addition by subtraction – The Bengals Running Backs heading into the 2018 season are Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard and Mark Walton – Gio Bernard is a sneaky pick that flew under the radar in 2017 mainly because the Bengals had a three headed monster in Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, severely limiting Bernard’s touches.  However, after Jeremy Hill went on IR late in the 2017 season, Bernard saw a minimum of 15 touches a game as it became the Mixon-Bernard show.  Bernard figures to be a sneaky, late round RB2 this year now that Jeremy Hill is off to New England.  Joe Mixon will now be the workhorse in the Cincinnati backfield in place of Hill.  Although Mixon had a poor statistical 2017 season, it was mainly due to the timeshare with Jeremy Hill.  After the Bengals handed the keys over to Mixon, he had at least 19 touches in the full games he played to finish out the year (he did get banged up late with a concussion).  Mixon only averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season, but with the upgrades to the offensive line, that is sure to improve.

Also of note, in 2017, the Bengals needed to utilize their tight ends to stay in and block because of their offensive line deficiencies.  In 2018, look for Bengals tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft to see an uptick in usage now that the offensive line unit is much improved.

Cleveland Browns

While calling plays for the Arizona Cardinals during their 2008 Super Bowl run, Todd Haley demonstrated he’s capable of dialing up the big play.  On the flip side, Haley also demonstrated the ability to call a more conservative game plan and have his quarterback distribute the ball to let his play makers make plays as he did over the last few seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  That being said, it will be interesting to see what Haley dials up for the Browns this season with Tyrod Taylor, an offseason acquisition, under center.  Taylor is a deep ball thrower who can run.  He started 29 of a possible 43 of a possible 48 games for Buffalo over the last three seasons and completed about 62% of his passes during that time.  Taylor is very conservative with the ball and shouldn’t turn it over in Cleveland, only throwing 16 INT’s in a three year span.  Although Taylor has a big arm and he takes care of the football, the most he’s ever thrown the ball in a season is 436 times in 2016, completing 269 of them.  That being said, I have a feeling that Jarvis Landry, who was acquired from the Dolphins via trade in the offseason, won’t have another 100 catch season because there simply won’t be enough targets to go around.  If you do the math, if Landry gets his usual 100 catches, there are only about 200 more balls to go around.  Duke Johnson had 70 grabs alone last year, David Njoku is on the verge of a breakout, and oh yea, one of the best receivers in the league, Josh Gordon, is back.

The more I look at the Browns offseason moves, the more I believe that Jarvis Landry was acquired from the Dolphins so Baker Mayfield can pepper him with targets when he starts getting game action.  I understand things can change based on the coordinator, but as long as Tyrod Taylor is playing for the Browns, I would expect guys like Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman to see a high volume in targets because of Taylor’s attributes and strengths, but the moment Baker Mayfield takes over, I am confident Jarvis Landry can flirt with 100 catches as he’s done in the past even with subpar quarterback play.

The Browns drafted Nick Chubb in the second round of the NFL draft, but prior to that, they signed Carlos Hyde to a $15.25M contract, locking him up through his age 30 season.  The Browns wouldn’t have paid Hyde over $5M a year if they didn’t see a role for him.  However, over the years, Hyde has demonstrated he’s best, and most readily available, when he has a more modest workload.  In 2017, Hyde only carried the ball 240 times and he was able to stay healthy for all 16 games.  Hopefully sharing passing down work with Duke Johnson will help Hyde stay fresh and he’s able to fend off Nick Chubb for playing time.  A worst case scenario here is a situation similar to the Bengals early in the 2017 season, when they split series between Jeremy Hill, Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard, rendering all of them fairly useless for fantasy football.  Carlos Hyde is pretty good in pass protection, so he should be able to fend off Chubb early as long as he stays healthy.

The Browns did have one of the better offensive line groups in the NFL, and then Joe Thomas retired.  Losing Thomas will be a hit, but Cleveland still has a solid, above average unit in Shon Coleman, Joel Bitonio, JC Tretter, Kevin Zeitler and Chris Hubbard.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers haven’t made a ton of noise this offseason, but they did move on from their play caller, Todd Haley, opting to promote their longtime Quarterbacks Coach, Randy Fichtner, to the position.  Fichtner has been with Ben Roethlisberger ever since Mike Tomlin was hired in Pittsburgh, so it’s not like he will try to reinvent the wheel here.  However, Big Ben’s disagreements with Todd Haley or vice versa have been well documented over the years, so it will be interesting to see if Fichtner cuts Big Ben loose a little more than Haley did and increase the number of long dropbacks as Haley often tried to protect Ben from himself.  Regardless, the Steelers have three of the best skill position players in the league, so moving the ball shouldn’t be an issue for Pittsburgh this year.

Addition by subtraction, the Steelers didn’t make any big name free agent signing this offseason, but they finally parted ways with Martavis Bryant, sending him to the Raiders in a trade during the draft.  Although Bryant did provide major big play ability for the Steelers, with Bryant gone, there are even more targets to go around for Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Le’Veon Bell in the passing game.  Moreover, with Big Ben aging, the Steelers are likely to keep using shorter routes to feed the ball to its play makers in order to keep his career going, and Bryant wasn’t much of a possession receiver with a 56.25% catch rate over his career and a 15.2 average yards per catch.

Follow me on Twitter @Coachriggall




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I've been coaching lacrosse since 2002 and playing fantasy football since 2006. I've racked up several championships over the years including a 4th place finish in the Kentucky Fantasy Football State Championship in 2016.

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