2018 First Fantasy Football Thoughts: AFC/NFC North

by Michael Nazarek - 7/14/2018

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 2017. 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 Robert Griffin III is a back up to Flacco, but the team also drafted QB Lamar Jackson in April. He is a wildcard player, whom could play more than just QB. If Flacco struggles, there is a chance we see Jackson at QB in 2018. In the running game, veteran RB Terrance West is gone, leaving as RB Alex Collins the lead back, but RB Kenneth Dixon and RB Buck Allen could push for playing time. Veteran RB Danny Woodhead retired. In the passing game, veterans WR Jeremy Maclin and WR Mike Wallace are gone, as the team signed veteran free-agent WR Michael Crabtree to be the new #1 WR. Other veterans signed include WR John Brown and WR Willie Snead. WR Breshad Perriman and WR Chris Moore return for depth, but have little experience. The overall wideout group is a bit hodge-podge, and may take some time to develop chemistry with Flacco, so you should temper your expectations here. At tight end, veteran WR Ben Watson is gone, leaving TE Maxx Williams and TE Nick Boyle to battle rookie TE Hayden Hurst for playing time. Hurst is a talent, so he should emerge as the starter sometime this season. Veteran PK Justin Tucker returns, coming off another nice season. With this team likely to continue to struggle in the red zone, Tucker remains a top tier fantasy kicker for 2018.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals missed the playoffs again in 2017. Veteran QB Andy Dalton struggled last year, but returns as the starter for 2018. Dalton can still produce the big game here and there, but consistency has never been his forte. As a result, I still avoid drafting him in fantasy leagues. QB A.J. McCarron is gone, so QB Matt Barkley is the current backup. In the running game, RB Jeremy Hill is gone, as the team has installed second-year RB Joe Mixon as the starter. Mixon is talented, and should make for a solid #2 fantasy RB in 2018. RB Giovani Bernard returns, as the primary backup and handcuff. In the passing game, WR A.J. Green returns as the #1 WR, coming off an inconsistent season. That said, he is still a very talented player, one whom remains a solid top 10 fantasy WR. Veteran WR Brandon LaFell also returns as the default starter, since WR Tyler Boyd struggled last year and second-year WR John Ross was non-existent in his rookie season. LaFell can be had at the every end of your draft, while Ross is a late-round fantasy sleeper with untapped potential. At tight end, gimpy WR Tyler Eifert (back) was re-signed, but may still not be healthy when camp begins, making his fantasy stock very shaky at best. Backup TE Tyler Kroft produced well in Eifert's absence, so he's one to watch this summer if Eifert can't get (or stay) healthy. Veteran PK Randy Bullock returns, but it's probably best to avoid him in your draft due to inconsistent scoring chances.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns went WINLESS in 2017. As a result, the owner blew up the team and tossed away all the coaches and the general manager. All the QBs on the team in 2017 are gone, as the team acquired QB Tyrod Taylor from the Bills and drafted QB Baker Mayfield in April. Taylor is expected to start, while Mayfield learns the ropes. That said, the team expects Mayfield to take over at some point in the future. Taylor will win some games for the Browns this season, but the question is how consistent will his play be? In the running game, RB Isaiah Crowell is gone, leaving the team to sign veteran RB Carlos Hyde as the new starter, while RB Duke Johnson returns as the change-of-pace pass-catching back. The team drafted RB Nick Chubb in April, so he'll factor in at some point in the future, fairly soon. In the passing game, WR Josh Gordon returns, while the team acquired WR Jarvis Landry via trade to start opposite Gordon. Third-year WR Corey Coleman returns, but this could be his final chance to make an impact, and he's not guaranteed to start. I like Gordon as a known fantasy sleeper to draft in the middle rounds this summer. WR Kenny Britt is long gone, leaving WR Rashard Higgins and WR Ricardo Louis to picks up any scraps left over. At tight end, second-year TE David Njoku is the clear starter, a player whom could have a breakout season, since Taylor loves to target his tight end in the passing game. TE Seth DeValve returns, while veteran TE Darren Fells was signed for depth. At kicker, PK Zane Gonzalez needs to improve to keep his job this summer. AVOID.

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 2018, and remains a dangerous threat to produce big numbers in any given week. That keeps him a top 13 fantasy QB in most systems, although there is some injury concern as he gets older. QB Landry Jones returns to back up Big Ben, although rookie QB Mason Rudolph could be the future of the team. In the running game, franchise-tagged RB LeVeon Bell is likely to skip training camp again if he doesn't a get a new long-term deal by Monday. That just means he will wait until September to report, but he remains an elite fantasy STUD RB! Backup RB James Conner is the backup and handcuff here. In the passing game, WR Antonio Brown produced another big season, and remains at the top of the fantasy WR group for 2018. Troubled WR Martavis Bryant was traded to the Raiders this off-season, as second-year WR JuJu Smith-Schuster moves into the #2 WR job. Smith-Schuster is a solid top 20 fantasy WR. WR Eli Rogers tore his ACL late last year, and has not yet been re-signed, leaving veteran WR Darrius Heyward-Bey to fight with rookie WR James Washington for the #3 WR job. Washington is the player to watch this summer, since the Steelers know how to draft quality receivers. WR Justin Hunter returns for depth. At tight end, TE Jesse James returns, but TE Vance McDonald should start if healthy, as the coaches love his talent. He could make a significant impact in the passing game if the receivers beyond Brown and Smith-Schuster struggle. PK Chris Boswell returns as the kicker. He took his game to the next level last year, so the faith the team has in him makes him a top 10 fantasy kicker in this system.

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: The Bears failed to make the playoffs again in 2017. Veteran QB Mike Glennon is gone, as second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky will start in 2018 after he struggled when given the chance to start last year. That said, the Bears have upgraded their passing targets in the off-season to help Trubisky perform better. Trubisky has talent, which makes him an interesting #3 fantasy QB, or a #2 if you prefer to wait to take your backup late in your draft. QB Chase Daniel is the backup. In the running game, third-year RB Jordan Howard is solidly entrenched as the starter and workhorse back for the most part. That said, second-year RB Tarik Cohen ("Tank") made his mark as a change-of-pace back with breakaway speed. Still, Howard remains a top 15 RB for fantasy. In the passing game, WR Cameron Meredith (knee) is gone via free agency, as the team signed veteran WR Allen Robinson (torn ACL), a player coming off his own knee injury. A-Rob is expected to be fine for the start of the season, as he still rates as a top 20 fantasy WR. WR Taylor Gabriel was also signed to compete to start with injury-prone WR Kevin White. WR Demarcus Ayers and WR Bennie Fowler are on the roster for depth. At tight end, TE Zach Miller (leg) returns, but won't play in 2018 due to a serious leg injury. In fact, he may not ever play again. As a result, the team signed veteran TE Trey Burton to start, a player whom has solid potential, as having made several plays as an Eagle when TE Zach Ertz wasn't playing due to injury. I like Burton as a solid fantasy sleeper in 2018. The kicker is PK Cody Parkey, but an inconsistent offense is likely to make him far from a fantasy starter in 2018.

Detroit Lions: The Lions missed the playoffs in 2017. As a result, the coaching staff was fired, but veteran QB Matthew Stafford returns as the starter after another solid year. There's nothing to think Stafford won't be a top 10 fantasy QB in 2018. QB Jake Rudock and QB Matt Cassel will back up Stafford in 2018. In the running game, veteran RB Ameer Abdullah is in trouble with regard to his roster spot. He's still on the team, but RB Kerryon Johnson was drafted in April, and is expected to start. In addition, veteran RB Theo Riddick returns as the change of pace and primary pass-catching back. Meanwhile, RB LeGarrette Blount was signed to likely se goal line carries and get the tough third-and-short yardage. That leaves little room for Abdullah, whom could be traded or cut by September. RB Zach Zenner and RB Dwayne Washington return for depth. In the passing game, WR Golden Tate and WR Marvin Jones return as the starters, and have become one of the best 1-2 pass-receiving tandems in the league. Second-year WR Kenny Golladay is expected to make a significant leap as the #3 WR. WR T.J. Jones returns for depth. At the tight end position, TE Eric Ebron is gone, as the team chose to concentrate on their wideouts rather than add another tight end. That means newly signed TE Luke Willson and TE Levin Toilolo will likely battle to start. Both are better pass blockers than pass catchers. At kicker, veteran PK Matt Prater returns after winning more games with late FGs last year. He's a top 12 fantasy kicker in 2018.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers missed the playoffs in 2017 primarily because veteran QB Aaron Rodgers missed much of the season due to injury. Rodgers returns healthy to start in 2018, and he's still the elite QB to own in fantasy. QB Brett Hundley returns to back up Rodgers, but proved he's no Rodgers when it comes to winning games. In the running game, RB Ty Montgomery returns, but both second-year RB Jamaal Williams and RB Aaron Jones (suspended two games) will share time with Montgomery in the backfield. That makes this a RBBC, and something to avoid if possible in fantasy. In the passing game, WR Jordy Nelson is gone, making a returning WR Davante Adams the clear #1 WR. WR Randall Cobb also returns to man the #2 WR job. I like Adams as a top 10 fantasy WR, but don't care for Cobb, a player whom disappears too often for my liking. WR Geronimo Allison returns to fill the #3 WR job. He may be one to watch, especially if Cobb has more injury issues. WR DeAngelo Yancey and WR Trevor Davis return for depth. At tight end, TE Martellus Bennett is gone, while TE Richard Rodgers left via free agency. As a result, the team signed veteran TE Jimmy Graham to start, and while he's still a solid red zone threat, asking for much more is likely asking for too much. Veteran TE Marcedes Lewis was also signed, and should see some action as the #2 TE, while TE Lance Kendricks will also play. PK Mason Crosby returns coming off a poor scoring season due to the lack of Rodgers at the helm. He should see more chances in 2018, making him a top 15 fantasy kicker.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings missed the Super Bowl by one game last year. QB Case Keenum left via free agency for Denver, as the Vikings signed QB Kirk Cousins to a fully-guaranteed contract. I like Cousins, but he will likely have to throw less due to the quality targets around him, the fine running game, and the tough defense, making him less valuable for fantasy than most may think. QB Trevor Siemian is the new backup. In the running game, RB Dalvin Cook was off to a big start until a torn ACL cut his rookie season short by October. He should be good to go come September, and is a top 10-15 fantasy RB. RB Latavius Murray is the clear handcuff now that RB Jerick McKinnon flew the coop in free agency to San Francisco. RB Mack Brown was signed for depth. In the passing game, WR Stefon Diggs and WR Adam Thielen return as the starters, and are one of the better tandem wideouts in the league. I like Diggs a bit better than Thielen this season since Cousins like to target his best wideout for the big plays. That player is Diggs. WR Laquon Treadwell will battle WR Kendall Wright for the #3 WR duties this summer. WR Jarius Wright and veteran WR Michael Floyd are long gone. At tight end, TE Kyle Rudolph returns as the veteran starter, and solid top 10 fantasy TE. TE David Morgan remains the backup. Veteran PK Kai Forbath will fight a losing battle with rookie PK Daniel Carlson this summer. Why do I say that? Vikings Insider John Holler tells me the team didn't trade up to draft Carlson and not use him. I don't care for rookie kickers, although more than one worked out nicely in 2017. As a result, I'd rate Carlson near the middle of the pack with some upside.

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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