2017 First Fantasy Football Thoughts: AFC/NFC North

by Michael Nazarek - 7/13/2017

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

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens failed to make the playoffs once again in 2016. Veteran QB Joe Flacco returns as the starter, but remains too much of an inconsistent player to be deemed anything more than an average fantasy backup at best. QB Ryan Mallett returns to back up Flacco. In the running game, veteran RB Justin Forsett is gone, leaving RB Terrance West as the lead back, while second-year RB Kenneth Dixon sits out the first four games due to suspension. Veteran RB Danny Woodhead was signed to fill the pass-catching role on the team. He developed quick chemistry with Flacco during OTAs, showing he's fully recovered from a torn ACL. In PPR leagues, Woodhead is the guy to own here. RB Buck Allen returns for depth. In the passing game, veteran WR Steve Smith has finally retired. The team signed veteran WR Jeremy Maclin recently, and he'll likely fill the #1 WR role, while veteran WR Mike Wallace and WR Breshad Perriman will provide deep threats for the passing game. Due to Flacco's inconsistency, none of these receivers are top 30 fantasy players. WR Kamar Aiken is gone, leaving the corps rather thin behind the top three WRs, as WR Mike Campanaro and WR Chris Moore have little experience. At tight end, veteran TE Dennis Pitta suffered another dislocated hip during OTAs and was released. That leaves WR Ben Watson, TE Crockett Gilmore, and TE Maxx Williams to fight for playing time at the position. Watson (Achilles) seems like the best bet to start, but he must prove himself 100% healthy coming off a season-ending injury last summer. Veteran PK Justin Tucker returns, coming off another big season. With this team likely to continue to struggle in the red zone, Tucker is the top ranked fantasy kicker for 2017.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals slumped to a losing record in 2016. That said, veteran QB Andy Dalton returns as the starter for 2017. Dalton can produce the big game here and there, but consistency has never been his forte. As a result, I avoid drafting him in fantasy leagues. QB A.J. McCarron returns to back up Dalton. In the running game, RB Jeremy Hill struggled again for the most part in 2016, although he did score nine times. The team drafted RB Joe Mixon to push Hill for the starting job. Odds are good that Mixon will win that job and push Hill into a goal line and short yardage back. RB Giovani Bernard (torn ACL) returns, but could begin the season on the PUP list, causing him to miss the first six games of the year. That makes his fantasy value shaky at best. In the passing game, WR A.J. Green returns after missing a large part of the 2016 season late with a hamstring injury, but he's healthy now. He's an elite fantasy STUD, one whom is underrated this summer. Veteran WR Brandon LaFell and second-year WR Tyler Boyd also return, while the team drafted WR John Ross due to his speed. Only Green is a sure bet for fantasy here. At tight end, WR Tyler Eifert returns, but he battled through injuries in 2016. He is certainly a talent, but also an injury risk. In addition, he doesn't catch many passes, but does have a nose for the goal. Keep that in mind when eyeing him in your drafts this summer. TE C.J. Uzomah and TE Tyler Kroft return to back up Eifert. Veteran PK Randy Bullock returns, but will face a challenge from PK Jake Elliott this summer. It's probably best to avoid the Bengals kicker anyway due to inconsistent scoring chances.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns disappointed AGAIN in 2016. What else is new? Despite a new coaching staff, the team tanked, mostly due to the fact that upper management though "money ball" would work in the NFL. Yeah, right. After a 1-15 season, what else can go wrong? Plenty. First of all, QB Robert Griffin III and QB Josh McCown are gone, leaving second-year QB Cody Kessler to battle rookie QB DeShone Kizer for the starting job. Neither are game-changers. What about freshly acquired QB Brock Osweiler? Give me a break! It's going to be another long season for the Browns. In the running game, fourth-year RB Isiah Crowell is likely the most talented player on the team and best fantasy prospect. He will start and produce solid #2 fantasy RB numbers. RB Duke Johnson returns as the change-of-pace pass-catching back, but can disappear at times, leaving his fantasy value not much to be desired. None of the other backs are worth mentioning. In the passing game, star WR Josh Gordon is still suspended indefinitely, so he's not even in the picture. Rising star WR Terrelle Pryor bolted in free agency to the Redskins. It's typical that when a Browns player emerges, the team refuses to pay him what he's worth, then he leaves. That leaves second-year WR Corey Coleman and veteran WR Kenny Britt, whom signed this off-season, as the starters. Coleman has some potential, since someone has to catch passes for the Browns. As for Britt, his best days are behind him. Veteran WR Andrew Hawkins was released, leaving inexperienced WR Ricardo Louis as the #3 WR. Yuck. At tight end, veteran TE Gary Barnidge was released (not surprising), as the team drafted TE David Njoku in April to replace him. Njoku has talent, but these are the Browns. TE Seth DeValve will also see playing time at tight end. At kicker, PK Cody Parkey simply won't see enough scoring chances in 2017 for real fantasy consideration. Two words can sum up pretty much everyone on the team except for Crowell and Coleman: STAY AWAY.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers made the playoffs again last year, but not the Big Game. Veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger returns to lead the team in 2017, and remains a dangerous threat to produce big numbers in any given week. That keeps him a top 10 fantasy QB in most systems, although there is some injury concern as he gets older. QB Landry Jones returns to back up Big Ben. In the running game, franchise-tagged RB LeVeon Bell shouldn't hold out, even if he doesn't a get a new long-term deal by next week. He's clearly an elite fantasy STUD RB, so draft him in the first round if you can! Backup RB DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned, which likely means RB Fitzgerald Toussaint seems on track to be Bell's handcuff. Of course, he must win the backup job in camp this summer first. RB Knile Davis and rookie RB James Conner will push for that job. In the passing game, WR Antonio Brown produced another big season, and remains at the top of the fantasy WR group for 2017. Fourth-year WR Martavis Bryant has been re-instated from suspension, and is set to start opposite Brown with WR Markus Wheaton gone. Third-year WR Sammie Coates needs to stay healthy, if he's going to contribute as a deep threat. Veteran WR Darrius Heyward-Bey is gone, as WR Eli Rogers and rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster fight for the slot job. At tight end, TE Ladarius Green was released recently, leaving TE Jesse James as the likely starter. He is a fantasy backup TE at best. TE Xavier Grimble returns to fill the backup TE job. PK Chris Boswell returns as the kicker, but the Steelers go for two points after many TDs, which limits Boswell's scoring chances and fantasy potential.

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: The Bears failed to make the playoffs again in 2016, and this time QB Jay Cutler paid for it with the ultimate price, his release, and eventual retirement. The Bears added QB Mike Glennon via free agency to start for them in 2017, and drafted QB Mitchell Trubisky in April to be the future at the position. Glennon has potential, but there are so many other QBs worthy of fantasy consideration before taking him in your draft this summer. In the running game, second-year RB Jordan Howard broke out as a solid #1 fantasy RB in his rookie year, and that should continue in 2017. Veteran RB Jeremy Langford returns as his likely handcuff, while RB Ka'Deem Carey returns for depth. RB Bennie Cunningham was signed to play a bit on third downs, but Howard is a capable pass-catcher, and even underwent laser eye surgery to help him in that regard. In the passing game, WR Alshon Jeffery is gone via free agency. That leaves an unproven WR Kevin White and an emerging WR Cameron Meredith as the lead receivers for an unproven bunch. Veteran WR Eddie Royal is gone, as the Bears signed several cheap veteran receivers to cobble a unit together including: WR Markus Wheaton, WR Kendall Wright, WR Victor Cruz, and WR Rueben Randle. None of these players are expected to make much of an impact. At tight end, TE Zach Miller returns as the starter, although some say his roster slot is not safe. I'll believe it when I see it. TE Daniel Brown returns to push Miller, while TE Dion Sims was added for depth. The kicker is PK Connor Barth, but an inconsistent offense is likely to make him far from fantasy worthy in 2017.

Detroit Lions: The Lions made the playoffs as a Wild Card team last year, but lost their playoff game. Veteran QB Matthew Stafford returns as the starter after another solid year, but did fade a bit down the stretch. That said, he's still an effective fantasy start, at least for owners in larger leagues. QB Jake Rudock will back up Stafford in 2017, so the Lions best hope he stays healthy. In the running game, veteran third-year RB Ameer Abdullah is coming off another injury, this time a serious Lisfranc foot injury. That said, he is healthy and should be the clear starter, as long as he stays on his feet. He has potential, but injuries have really hurt his ability to produce anything consistently. Veteran RB Theo Riddick returns as the change of pace and primary pass-catching back, but he's also coming off an injury (to his wrist), and is not yet 100%. RB Zach Zenner and RB Dwayne Washington return for depth, while the team added RB Matt Asiata. If all backs stay healthy, Asiata is likely looking like a late summer cut. In the passing game, WR Golden Tate and WR Marvin Jones return as the starters, but both need to play more consistently throughout the entire season. Jones was on fire early in 2016, while Tate struggled, but by November, it was all Tate and little else. With WR Anquan Boldin gone, Tate and Jones are very important to this passing game. WR T.J. Jones returns to possibly claim the #3 WR spot, but he has little experience. Rookie WR Kenny Golladay could be a surprise contributor. At the tight end position, 4th-year TE Eric Ebron returns as the starter, but needs to not only stay healthy, but play with more consistency, especially when it comes to making catches. Veteran TE Darren Fells will be the #2 TE and play in multi-TE sets. At kicker, veteran PK Matt Prater returns after winning more than one game with a late FG last year. He's a borderline fantasy starter in larger leagues this year.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers made the playoffs, but failed to make the Super Bowl in 2016. Veteran QB Aaron Rodgers returns to lead the team once again, and should remain an elite fantasy producer this season. QB Brett Hundley returns to back up Rodgers. In the running game, RB Eddie Lacy is gone, as the team decided to go with converted RB Ty Montgomery as the lead back. He showed nicely last year in that role, and makes a solid fantasy sleeper for 2017. Veteran RB James Starks is gone, as the Packers drafted RB Jamaal Williams in April to back up Montgomery. Williams could eventually push for significant playing time. In the passing game, WR Jordy Nelson and WR Davante Adams return as the solid starters. Nelson continues to be underrated for fantasy, having scored 14 times in each of the past two seasons he's played. WR Randall Cobb had another inconsistent season, but he coaches want to get him more involved in the passing game. Sleeper? Perhaps. WR Geronimo Allison and WR Jeff Janis return for depth. At tight end, TE Jared Cook is gone, as the Packers signed TE Martellus Bennett to start, while TE Lance Kendricks was signed to be the #2 TE. TE Richard Rodgers also returns, but could actually be pushed off the roster if both Bennett and Kendricks impress and stay healthy this summer. PK Mason Crosby returns coming off a solid season. He will continues to see plenty of scoring chances, keeping him a nice fantasy starter in 2017.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings missed the playoffs by one game last year despite losing their starting QB to a horrific knee injury last summer. QB Teddy Bridgewater (knee) went down hard suffering a non-contact knee injury, one where he may never return to form, although things are looking up for him to eventually return to action. That said, this is QB Sam Bradford's team for the start of 2017. Bradford dinked and dunked his way to mediocrity last year, so the bar for the passing game is not exactly very high. Let's just agree to call him a weak fantasy backup. In the running game, RB Adrian Peterson was cut loose and is now a Saint. Free-agent RB Latavius Murray was signed, and is the likely starter and goal line runner. The Vikings did draft RB Dalvin Cook in April, a guy with a lot of speed and overall quality play. Many expect he'll take over at some point this season. Veteran RB Jerick McKinnon returns for depth, while RB Matt Asiata is now a Lion. In the passing game, third-year WR Stephon Diggs and 2016 surprise WR Adam Thielen return as the starters. Diggs is a true talent, but limped through a groin injury for most of 2016, causing his play to suffer. He's healthy now, so he should rebound into a solid fantasy wide receiver. Second-year WR Laquon Treadwell must improve his play if he's to see any significant playing time. Treadwell will likely battle WR Jarius Wright for the #3 WR job this summer, while veteran WR Michael Floyd tries to regain traction as an NFL receiver after going through legal troubles concerning his alcohol intake. The team stands behind Floyd, a player they signed this off-season. WR Cordarrelle Patterson and WR Charles Johnson both moved on in free agency. At tight end, TE Kyle Rudolph returns as the starter. He surprised last season, ending the year as a top 10 fantasy TE. He should maintain that value in 2017 on this team. Unknown TE David Morgan is the current backup. Veteran PK Blair Walsh is long gone, as the team signed PK Kai Forbath last November to replace him. Forbath returns as the kicker, but is likely to finish in the bottom half of the league in fantasy terms.

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!

End.

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