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2012 First Thoughts: AFC/NFC North

By Michael Nazarek


It's time to take a closer look at the North Division teams to see how they are shaping up in May. Let’s get right to it…


Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens had another successful season in 2010, but failed to make it to the big game. QB Joe Flacco returns as the starter, but has yet to reach that elite level as a fantasy starter or a Super Bowl champion. In fantasy terms, he's still a solid fantasy backup in most leagues. I don't see that changing much in 2012. The backup position at QB is shaky with QB Curtis Painter signed this offseason. The Ravens better hope that Flacco stays healthy and continues to mature. Of course, the running game remains the primary focus of this offense, as RB Ray Rice returns as an elite starter in the NFL as well as the fantasy world. The team franchised him, and continue to work towards getting him signed to a new long-term deal, although it's been a slow process. Rice isn't going anywhere, at least not in 2012. Veteran RB Ricky Williams retired, leaving third-round draft pick RB Bernard Pierce slotted in as the backup. Veteran RB Anthony Allen will also provide depth. In the passing game, veteran WR Anquan Boldin returns, but second-year WR Torrey Smith seems primed to take over as the #1 WR scoring threat. Yes, that means I'd draft Smith ahead of Boldin in most fantasy scoring systems this summer. Veteran WR Jacoby Jones was signed to fill the #3 WR role after the team chose to release injury-prone WR Lee Evans. Jones has flashed on occasion, but consistency has never been his strong-suit. Second-year WR Tandon Doss and WR David Reed return for depth. At tight end, TE Ed Dickson and TE Dennis Pitta return to provide a solid 1-2 punch for the team, although the time-share makes it tough to consider either of these players a top 10 fantasy TE. Veteran PK Billy Cundiff will battle rookie PK Justin Tucker for the starting job later this summer. Cundiff missed a potential game-winning FGA in the playoffs last year, so the Ravens have less patience with him now. Quick Draft Summary: Beyond Pierce, the Ravens drafted WR Tommy Streeter in round #6, along with six OL/defensive players in the April draft. Streeter is seen as a developmental player for depth.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals made the playoffs in 2011, and promptly lost to the Texans. With the loss of veteran QB Carson Palmer to a "retirement" and later a trade, the Bengals could have folded their tent, but rookie QB Andy Dalton surprised with poised play and a strong and accurate arm. He returns as the starter, looking to grow on a rookie season that made him a solid fantasy backup, one with great potential to move into a fantasy starting role, provided the Bengals beef up their WR corps. That is still in question, but the team did choose to move on from RB Cedric Benson, to sign veteran RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis in free agency. The Law Firm has never fumbled and is a reliable runner. He should be a solid replacement for Benson in the running game. RB Bernard Scott returns as the quick change of pace back, but one whose injury history makes him a longshot for any type of consistent fantasy success. RB Brian Leonard also returns for depth. In the passing game, second-year WR A.J. Green returns as the class of the corps, but he can't do it all by himself. Veteran WR Jerome Simpson wasn't re-signed, while WR Jordan Shipley and WR Andrew Hawkins return in questionable roles. The team did draft WR Mohamed Sanu (3rd round) and WR Marvin Jones (5th round) to beef up the corps, but this unit is definitely one of the youngest in the league. In most cases, that is not a good thing. This situation should mean more looks for veteran TE Jermaine Gresham, whom returns as the starting tight end. Veteran TE Donald Lee was re-signed, but is more known for his blocking in recent years than his pass-catching. TE Orson Charles was drafted in the 4th round to provide depth. PK Mike Nugent signed his franchise tender and returns to kick for the Bengals. He's one of the better kickers in the league, and should remain a top 10 fantasy kicker, unless the Bengals offense takes a step back in 2012. Quick Draft Summary: The other players drafted in April consisted of offensive linemen and defensive players with the exception of 6th-rounder RB Dan Herron, drafted for depth.

Cleveland Browns:
The Browns disappointed again in 2011... in both the NFL and fantasy football. What else is new? They tried to trade up to grab QB Robert Griffin III, but that failed. Now, they are stuck with either struggling QB Colt McCoy or late first-round draft pick QB Brandon Weeden. Weeden is expected to win the starting job, but that doesn't mean he'll be productive his rookie season (if ever). Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised to see QB Seneca Wallace leading the team come November. In the running game, RB Peyton Hillis was not re-signed, as the team traded up to draft STUD RB Trent Richardson. I know my Bama boys, and he's the real deal. Even if the passing game struggles, Richardson will be a productive player for those fantasy owners lucky enough to draft him this summer. As for the other tailbacks on the roster, they will back up Richardson, including RB Montario Hardesty, RB Chris Ogbonnaya, and RB Brandon Jackson. In the passing game, second-year WR Greg Little returns as a starter, opposite WR Mohamed Massaquoi. Both players struggled last year to produce, while Massaqoui battled injuries. WR Josh Cribbs and WR Jordan Norwood return for depth. Don't get me wrong. Cribbs is an outstanding return man and can make the occasional big play, but he's not a consistent fantasy producer. The team drafted WR Travis Benjamin in the 4th round for added depth. At tight end, TE Ben Watson and TE Evan Moore return, but both are also inconsistent on the playing field. Veteran PK Phil Dawson returns, but will be lucky to see 25 FGA’s with 25 PAT's, keeping him a risky fantasy draft pick. Quick Draft Summary: The Browns mostly took a mix of defensive players and offensive linemen with the rest of their draft picks with the exception of 7th-round draft pick TE Brad Smelley. I know Smelley from his days at Alabama, and he's a tough pass-catcher/blocker, one with potential. I wouldn't count him out, but making the roster and actually becoming a fantasy impact player are different things.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers made the playoffs, but fell short of their ultimate goal, a championship. Veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger returns as the unquestioned starter, but failed to produce enough to be a top 10 fantasy QB. I don't see that changing in 2012, but he is certainly a quality starter to own as your fantasy backup. QB Byron Leftwich has been re-signed to back up Big Ben, but as long as Ben's health holds up, this is his team. As for the running game, RB Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL late last season and may not be ready to return as the starter to begin the 2012 season. RB Isaac Redman returns to likely start if Mendy isn't healthy. Redman could be an interesting fantasy sleeper if he starts this season and has some early success. The Steelers might then choose not to rush Mendy back too soon. RB Jonathan Dywer also returns for depth. In the passing game, WR Mike Wallace is the league's only unsigned restricted free agent, but it's only a matter of time before he signs and returns as the starter opposite WR Antonio Brown. Veteran WR Hines Ward was released, then retired. WR Emmanuel Sanders returns to fill the #3 WR role, while WR Jerricho Cotchery was re-signed for veteran leadership. 7th-round draft pick WR Toney Clemons was drafted for depth. Keep an eye on undrafted free-agent signee Bama boy WR Marquis Maze. He may be tiny in stature, but he's blazing fast and could make an impact, especially in the return game. TE Heath Miller remains the starting tight end, and a solid fantasy backup. Veteran TE Leonard Pope was signed to back up Miller. PK Shaun Suisham returns, and deserves a look as a final round fantasy backup kicker pick. Quick Draft Summary: The Steelers other draft picks were three defensive players and three offensive linemen, along with 5th-round draft pick RB Chris Rainey and 7th-round draft pick TE David Paulsen. Not much is expected from Rainey or Paulsen in 2012.


Chicago Bears: The Bears failed to make the playoff once again in 2011. OC Mike Martz was let go, but the team still wants to get the most out of QB Jay Cutler. To that end, they acquired WR Brandon Marshall at the start of free agency. The duo thrived in Denver, but this is Chicago. Still, I can see some of the magic returning, obviously enough to make Cutler an interesting fantasy choice in drafts this summer. Veteran QB Jason Campbell was signed to back up Cutler, meaning if Cutler goes down again, the entire team won't fall apart. In the running game, RB Matt Forte was all-world before his injury last year. The team struggled in a big way after he went down, but despite a change in general managers, the Bears still haven't signed Forte to the long-term deal he deserves. Look for Forte to hold out well into training camp, but eventually sign his franchise tender and start for the team. If he waits too long, though, he becomes an injury risk. Meanwhile, the Bears signed veteran RB Michael Bush to back up Forte or start if Forte sits out any of the season. Bush is more than capable of carrying the load if needed, at least for a portion of the season. RB Kahlil Bell returns for depth, while RB Marion Barber retired. In the passing game, Marshall is obviously the new #1 WR, but I don't see a top 10 finish for him in fantasy terms. WR Johnny Knox's serious back injury has his season in doubt, which is why the Bears still need WR Devin Hester to contribute in the passing game. The Bears drafted WR Alshon Jeffery in the second round to eventually start. Veteran WR Earl Bennett returns to likely play in the slot. WR Dane Sanzenbacher returns for depth, while WR Eric Weems was signed to help the return game and see limited snaps in the passing game as needed. At tight end, TE Kellen Davis was re-signed as the inconsistent starter, with TE Matt Spaeth backing him up. There's not much fantasy potential at this position for the Bears. Meanwhile, PK Robbie Gould remains one of the better kickers in the league, and should be considered a top 12 fantasy producer. Quick Draft Summary: Beyond their Jeffery pick, the other Bears draft picks this April were defensive players and TE Evan Rodriguez in the 4th round. If Rodriguez impresses early, he could be one to watch down the line.

Detroit Lions: The Lions surprised in a big way in 2011, with an ending in the playoffs. Young veteran QB Matthew Stafford stayed healthy and produced a big season in 2011. He returns to lead the effort to get the team into the Super Bowl this year. No ifs or buts about it, Stafford is the real deal and a top 5 fantasy QB. QB Shaun Hill has been re-signed to back up Stafford. In the running game, RB Jahvid Best spent much of last season off the field due to multiple concussions. He should be cleared to play in 2012, but that doesn't mean he'll start. Second-year RB Mikel Leshoure returns after suffering a season-ending injury before last season. And then there's RB Kevin Smith, a player whom was re-signed late last year and started for the team during the playoffs. Leshoure will give Best a run for his money to start, while Smith should still be hungry enough to make some noise, possibly turning this into a three-way battle. Let's just say that training camp should be interesting for these three Lions tailbacks. In the passing game, WR Calvin Johnson finally emerged as the BEAST that he is with Stafford's healthy holding up. Johnson is the cover boy for Madden '13, but it's hard to not place him atop the WR fantasy rankings in 2012. I, for one, won't shy away from drafting him in the first round of my fantasy draft. Veteran WR Nate Burleson returns as the other starter, while second-year WR Titus Young should mature into a more consistent player. The team drafted WR Ryan Broyles in the second round to push Burleson and Young at the position. At the tight end position, TE Brandon Pettigrew is very effective in both the short passing game and over-the-middle routes, while TE Tony Scheffler is a sneaky asset, one that might catch only one pass in a game, but it has a great chance at going for a score. Pettigrew is a top 10 fantasy TE in PPR leagues. Veteran PK Jason Hanson turns 42 in June, but plans to keep his job. We shall see about that later this summer, but if he does, he is a borderline fantasy starter in 12+ team leagues. Quick Draft Summary: The rest of the Lions draft class is filled with defensive players and one offensive tackle.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers lost to the eventually world champion New York Giants in the playoffs last year after winning it all the previous season. QB Aaron Rodgers returns as the elite fantasy QB. Barring injury, I don't see that changing in 2012. QB Matt Flynn left via free agency and signed with Seattle, leaving inexperienced QB Graham Harrell to back up Rodgers. The Packers better hope Rodgers stays healthy. In the running game, RB Ryan Grant remains an unsigned free agent, as RB James Starks is set to return as the team's new starter. But that doesn't mean Starks will be a productive starter, as injuries and inconsistent play turned into regression during his sophomore season. Second-year RB Alex Green returns after missing all of last season due to injury. He should push Starks for the starting job. RB Brandon Saine returns for depth. In the passing game, WR Greg Jennings and WR Jordy Nelson return as a top tandem in the NFL as well as in fantasy. WR Donald Driver remains under contract, but could be released if he doesn't accept the paycut the Packers likely want him to take, after the end of Dancing with the Stars. WR James Jones returns to likely fill the #3 WR role, as Driver sees even less looks. Second-year WR Randall Cobb flashed in 2011, and returns for depth. At tight end, TE Jermichael Finley returns as a fantasy enigma. He avoided the franchise tag by re-signing for the next two years. He can blow up in one game and then disappear for 2-3 games in a row. That makes him a risk to take early in your fantasy draft. There are just too many quality targets in the passing game for Finley to emerge at this time as an elite fantasy producer. Youngster TE Tom Crabtree returns as the backup to Finley. TE Andrew Quarless also returns for depth. PK Mason Crosby returns and remains a top 10 fantasy kicker, but still misses a few quality FGAs at the wrong time. He missed four FGAs in the team's final seven games last year. Quick Draft Summary: The Packers' first six draft picks went to the defense in April, then they took an offensive tackle, and ended the draft with QB B.J. Coleman in the 7th round, a developmental pick.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings struggled with QB Brett Favre now retired. Rookie QB Christian Ponder ended the 2011 season as the starter, but he was inconsistent in his play to say the least. He also suffered a few nagging injuries, but is said to be healthy now. Ponder returns as the starter, but questions have arisen regarding whether he's the QB of the future for the team. Let's just say that I'd likely avoid him in redrafter leagues this summer. QB Joe Webb and QB Sage Rosenfels return to battle for the backup position. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised to see either Webb or Rosenfels take over the starting job if Ponder struggles out of the gate. In the running game, RB Adrian Peterson showed he’s an elite fantasy producer once again in 2011, that is until he went down with a nasty torn ACL/MCL. He's rehabbing right now, and hopes to be ready for week #1, but the team could slowly ease him back into the game plan, knowing they don't really have a championship caliber roster. Look for RB Toby Gerhart to see most of the work, until Peterson shows he can handle a full workload again. RB Lex Hilliard has been signed for depth. In the passing game, WR Percy Harvin returns as the class of the corps. He is the one star player returning healthy to the team in 2012. He ended the 2011 season as a top 10 fantasy WR in PPR leagues, but it will be tough to repeat that feat with Peterson not healthy and Ponder a big question mark. For now, I'll have to downgrade him for 2012, but he still has that wildcard talent that could push him near the top if the team jels quickly. Veteran WR Jerome Simpson was signed to start opposite Harvin, but he'll miss the first three games of the season. He was an inconsistent player in Cincinnati, but did flash more than WR Michael Jenkins did for the Vikings last year. As a result, Jenkins is expected to back up Simpson in 2012 when Simpson plays. In fantasy terms, Jenkins is now nearly an afterthought. The team drafted WR Jarius Wright in the 4th round. He could fill the #3/#4 role on the team. They also drafted WR Greg Childs later in the 4th for depth. At tight end, TE Visanthe Shiancoe was not re-signed, giving the starting job to second-year TE Kyle Rudolph, a player that showed some potential in 2011. Veteran TE John Carlson was signed, but will have to beat out Rudolph to start, something that is uncertain to happen. Carlson became a non-factor last year, so he should be motivated to become an impact player again. Time will tell if that will happen or not. PK Ryan Longwell was released last week after the team drafted PK Blair Walsh in the 6h round of April's draft. You know how I feel about rookie kickers, they are a big fantasy risk. I make them prove themselves before I pick them up and I never draft them to start for my team. Quick Draft Summary: Besides the rookies I've already mentioned, the Vikings drafted five defensive players, an offensive tackle, and FB Rhett Ellison in the 4th round.

That does it for the North divisions. Look for my views regarding the teams in the South shortly. All comments, complimentary or otherwise, are always welcome via the contact page. Let's talk fantasy football!



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