AFC North 2012 fantasy preview
Browns plan to use Trent Richardson as a runner and a pass-catching threat
Torrey Smith could supplant Anquan Boldin as the Ravens' No. 1 receiver
Steelers think Rashard Mendenhall could be out through Week 7 of season
A funny thing happened after this writer called the Bengals the most worthless destination for fantasy prospects last July. They became a great one, and a contender, behind rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
The Browns are going to try to follow suit with hyped future fantasy star rookie Trent Richardson and a "veteran" rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, 28, joining the fold. This is going to be a tough division for the Browns to compete in, though, particularly with the year-to-year prominence of the Ravens and Steelers.
The AFC North has generally been a defense and rushing division. The defenses will remain intriguing, but it is the burgeoning star quarterbacks that can make this division soar in fantasy potential. Ben Roethlisberger is still in his prime, Joe Flacco -- despite the criticism -- is headed there and Dalton is just getting started with Green. If the Browns wind up as this year's Bengals, this is going to be some division in terms of fantasy draft targets.
One thing appears clear with the Browns: Richardson is going to be the first rookie picked in fantasy football this August. It isn't just his talent, but his opportunity before him as well.
"They're doing a lot of stuff with me as far as coming out of the backfield," Richardson said after the OTAs. "They're really putting me out there to showcase everything. There ain't no sugarcoating. I'm going to get the ball. I'm going to catch the ball."
We've already taken our capsule looks at the NFC East and AFC East. We continue with the emerging AFC North's depth charts, position battles, injury questions and fantasy positional rankings:
No. 1 WR: The Ravens are a quality team with elite talent, but they lack depth to really challenge their starters. One spot that could undergo some turnover is the go-to receiver. Boldin, who will be 32 in October, has slowed down in recent years and the rise of Smith as a rookie makes for an intriguing debate over whom is the fantasy receiver of choice with the Ravens. If not for inexperience and inconsistency as a raw rookie starter, it would clearly be Smith. Training camp should help us determine who Flacco, or the gameplan, favors. Watch the early drives in the preseason to see who gets the targets between Boldin and Smith. Smith can really take off if he takes over.
It is noteworthy the Ravens are going to move Boldin to the slot in three-receiver sets, putting the burners Smith and offseason acquisition Jones on the outside to run deep routes and clear out space underneath. That can make Boldin more of a possession target. "You have a guy with that kind of speed, [Jones] and Torrey outside, it opens up a lot of things you can do," Boldin said. "Me working inside with Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, bringing Ray [Rice] out of the backfield. It just opens up a lot for us."
None -- While the Ravens don't appear to have quality depth, they also haven't had many questions in the way of injuries.
Starting RB: With Mendenhall (knee) a candidate for the PUP list and missing at least the first six games of the season, the Steelers will need someone to step up as the leading back in the early weeks. The 27-year-old Isaac Redman has a leg up on the younger backs because he is picking up new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system. Dwyer, 22, is coming off a broken foot, too. Whomever wins the job initially is going to have limited fantasy value because of the expectation Mendenhall takes over midseason, when healthy.
RB Rashard Mendenhall, (knee) -- He is still hoping to be ready for the season, but Mendenhall tore his ACL in Week 17, so the Steelers are expecting he needs a stint on the PUP list, which would put him out through Week 7 (because they are on bye in Week 4). That would be a long time to wait on a back, making Mendenhall little more than a late-round flier if he indeed opens the season on the PUP list.
Starting RB: The Bengals have not brought back veteran Cedric Benson, so they expect to go with a committee approach with BGE and Scott, neither of which they like enough to slot in a workhorse role Benson used to be in. That limits the fantasy potential of all of the Bengals' backs, even if this is a run-heavy offense. BGE is the expected starter and primary ballcarrier, but Scott is going to get enough carries to limit BGE to being a fantasy backup.
No. 2 WR: Jerome Simpson's acrobatics are no longer in town, so the Bengals need to develop a secondary option to take the double coverage off the elite WR Green. Shipley showed promise as a rookie before losing almost all of last season to ACL surgery. The third-round pick Sanu is getting a lot of the offseason attention along with unused second-year man Armon Binns, while fifth-rounder Marvin Jones is a long shot. Sanu has the upside, but a healthy Shipley could start over him.
WR Jordan Shipley, (knee) -- There is some talk he might need to open on the PUP list, which doesn't say much for his recovery from ACL surgery last September. He shouldn't have been feeling stiffness still this offseason. Tate is years removed from his own ACL, so he could have a leg up (no pun intended) on an opening-day roster spot, if not the No. 2 WR starting gig. Tate is a nice sleeper, even if Sanu, Binns and Jones get more of the hype for their long-term potential.
Starting quarterback: It is expected the job will be handed to the 28-year-old rookie Weeden over the 25-year-old third-year quarterback McCoy, who has apparently fallen out of favor. It is just the Browns way, apparently, to go with an older, inexperienced rookie. Although word is McCoy just doesn't have an NFL-worthy arm, he did have more touchdowns (14) than interceptions (11) a year ago in 13 games. And that was done with the same weak receiving corps still in place in Cleveland. Neither QB will be worth considering outside of the deepest of two-QB formats this August. There just aren't enough viable options for targets, even if the Browns placed the blame on McCoy. "An outstanding quarterback brings synergy to the whole team," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "... If a quarterback throws the ball accurately, on time, it makes the receivers look good."
WR Nos. 1-3: There is no telling how the passing game will produce in Cleveland, whether the rookie Weeden (not yet signed) or McCoy (unlikely) is under center. Little should be the primary receiver, but that status could fluctuate with the starting quarterback, which could change a few times throughout the season in Cleveland. The Browns are expecting a breakthrough for Massaquoi, but that has been the story for the past four training camps. We're all getting old waiting on him. Supplemental second-rounder Josh Gordon, Benjamin, a fourth-rounder out of Miami, and the undrafted Cooper are raw talents and dark horses to contribute. Gordon will get the most hype because he was picked in the supplemental draft in July, but he really only played one season in 2010 as a 19-year-old sophomore.
RB Montario Hardesty (knee) -- He still looks a bit limp, despite being almost two years removed from knee surgery, according to reports. If healthy, he is the clear backup to expected workhorse Richardson. Otherwise, Ogbonnaya and Jackson will get some fantasy airtime they are generally unworthy of.
1 Ben Roethlisberger PIT
2 Joe Flacco BAL
3 Andy Dalton CIN
4 Brandon Weeden CLE
5 Colt McCoy CLE
6 Bruce Gradkowski CIN
7 Byron Letwich PIT
8 Charlie Batch PIT
1 Ray Rice BAL
2 Trent Richardson CLE
3 BenJarvus Green-Ellis CIN
4 Isaac Redman PIT
5 Bernard Scott CIN
6 Rashard Mendenhall PIT
7 Montario Hardesty CLE
8 Bernard Pierce BAL
9 Anthony Allen BAL
10 Jonathan Dwyer PIT
1 A.J. Green CIN
2 Mike Wallace PIT
3 Torrey Smith BAL
4 Anquan Boldin BAL
5 Antonio Brown PIT
6 Greg Little CLE
7 Emmanuel Sanders PIT
8 Mohamed Massaquoi CLE
9 Jacoby Jones BAL
10 Jordan Shipley CIN
11 Mohamed Sanu CIN
12 Jerricho Cotchery PIT
1 Jermaine Gresham CIN
2 Ed Dickson BAL
3 Heath Miller PIT
4 Ben Watson CLE
5 Evan Moore CLE
1 Mike Nugent CIN
2 Billy Cundiff BAL
3 Shaun Suisham PIT
4 Phil Dawson CLE
5 Justin Tucker BAL
1 Ravens BAL
2 Steelers PIT
3 Bengals CIN
4 Browns CLE
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).
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