2018 Fantasy Football Divisional Preview: AFC North
Dom Murtha breaks down the AFC North division from a fantasy football perspective.
After a 2017 season which not only resulted in a heartbreaking loss in the waning minutes of the final game, but also the third consecutive year that the Ravens were excluded from the playoffs; entering 2018, the franchise couldn’t feel farther from their Super Bowl triumph of 2011. Now, set to kick off head coach John Harbaugh’s 11th season, the pressure is beginning to mount. Plenty of new faces – either via free agency or the draft – are set to debut this season, featuring several who are here to supplant some well known veterans for the starting job. With the coaching staff on the hot seat, 2018 will not be one in which a player’s reputation alone can guarantee playing time. Results on the field will rule the day.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Alex Collins
It took nearly half the season, but rather quietly, yet undeniably, Alex Collins seized the Ravens starting running back position in 2017. Without much fanfare, Collins in fact finished just 83 yards short of 1,000, while he scored six rushing touchdowns in his last seven games played. Looking forward towards this season, yes there is a stable of capable backs behind him, but there is no question that Collins earned the first crack at leading the position in 2018. Considering my feelings towards the Ravens passing game this season (more on that later), it makes sense that Collins – the Ravens top running back – would be the team’s fantasy MVP in 2018.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Hayden Hurst
Looking over this Ravens rookie class, there are some really intriguing names, but with much of the skill positions locked up by veterans, this award really came down to the Ravens two rookie tight ends. While I am a fan of both players, Hurst ended up edging out Mark Andrews slightly, and mainly only by default, being that he was drafted in the first round. Because of Hurst’s first round billing, the Ravens are going to be compelled to give him more playing time, at least initially, while his mature age of 25 and more well-rounded skill set should also give him an early edge in the playing time department. Look for Hurst to quickly win the starting gig over Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle , while Andrews will see a lower usage rate, but potentially be used in more unique and versatile situations. Looking at the future of this position for Baltimore, they could really have a dynamic duo on their hands… Just for this season, Hurst should have a slightly larger fantasy impact.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Alex Collins
Health provided, Collins eclipses 1,000 yards and six touchdowns this season, while becoming a must own in all fantasy formats; something that couldn’t be said about him in 2017.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Joe Flacco
With the drafting of Lamar Jackson this offseason, the pressure is even further mounting on the shoulders of the former Super Bowl MVP. After winning the Super Bowl in 2013 and subsequently inking the then largest contract in NFL history, Flacco has done nothing but produce seasons of disappointment both on the field and in the fantasy world. Reaching a new low in 2017, Flacco failed to reach even 3,200 yards passing or 20 touchdowns. With his money potentially coming off the books soon, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see Flacco in a legitimate quarterback battle this training camp and throughout the entire 2018 season. He has proven over the last half decade that when challenged, he is not up to the task, so in short, stay away from Flacco this season.
As was mentioned in regards to the Ravens above, the Bengals season too ended in wild fashion, as they were the team that delivered Baltimore their aforementioned “heartbreaking loss in the waning minutes of the final game.” Outside of that brief moment of elation however… 2017 was a season to forget for Cincinnati. Without delivering too much boring detail, understand that for the second consecutive season, the Bengals missed the playoffs and extended their playoff winless drought to a whopping 27 years. Much has been the case throughout the Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton era, they looked at times formidable and other times forgetful; as we know, mediocrity will not get the job done in the National Football League. To say that both Dalton and Lewis are on the hot seat would be to utter the understatement of the century. The Bengals need a big year in 2018, to say the least.
2018 Fantasy MVP: A.J. Green
This one feels like it doesn’t need much explaining, but I suppose I will anyway… Despite having a mediocre quarterback at best and playing on an ever-deteriorating roster, A.J. Green still somehow manages to produce statistically at an incredibly high level. Health provided, Green’s average numbers each season are somewhere around 80+ catches, 1,000+ receiving yards, and 8+ receiving touchdowns. Playing for a franchise that has been so volatile over the years, Green’s consistency is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s the stabilizing force for this city and has been the same for fantasy rosters since 2011. He is the Bengals fantasy MVP and will continue to be in 2018.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Mark Walton
In a year in which the Bengals didn’t really pick that many skill position players, this selection became rather easy. Mark Walton comes in as a high-potential and versatile talent at the running back position, seemingly poised to take Gio Bernard’s job. With his more electric play style and fresh legs, I expect that he and Joe Mixon will combine to be one of the game’s most exciting, talented, and productive running back tandems in the league, going forward.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Joe Mixon
It is no secret that Mixon is an immensely talented back, one who is far better than his lousy 3.5 yards per carry in 2017. Not only does he now have a year of experience under his belt, but he also will benefit from the Bengals addition of center Billy Price in the draft – a talent who could potentially single-handedly overhaul the offensive line. Even if his yards per carry doesn’t improve drastically, Mixon is entering the season as the Bengals starting running back… That alone will in theory take his starting reps from seven games last season to 16 in 2018. A drastic improvement is in store for the second year back.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Giovani Bernard
For all of the reasons I just explained in the last two sections, Gio Bernard’s days are numbered in Cincinnati… Not only is Joe Mixon set to take on a bigger role in the Bengals backfield this season, but they also decided to invest in rookie back Mark Walton – a guy who basically offers the same skill-set that Bernard does. He had a nice run while it lasted, but make sure to stay away from Bernard in all fantasy formats in 2018.
Despite having just one win in their last 32 games, things feel oddly optimistic in 2018 for America’s sorriest franchise. For the first time in what seems like forever, the Browns not only have one competent quarterback, but arguably two, depending on your feelings towards rookie Baker Mayfield . Along with seeming stability under center comes an improved offensive line, an underrated defense, and significant upgrades along several skill position spots. Without getting too ahead of ourselves, the Browns may have some legitimate fantasy mainstays in 2018.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Carlos Hyde
I’ll probably catch a lot of heat for my takes in this section because it appears that I am A) one of the few believers in Carlos Hyde and B) one of the few willing to throw some cold water on the inferno that is the Nick Chubb hype train (more on that later). Let me dish out some facts here… 1) on a bad 49ers team and running behind a bad 49ers line last season, Hyde still managed to finish eighth amongst fantasy running backs in total points, including the fourth most rushing touchdowns, the eighth most receptions, and the 13th most rushing yards. This was all accomplished under a coaching staff that seemed intent on irrationally limiting his workload early on in the season – as an undisclosed punishment mind you. Secondly, it is no secret that Hyde is one of the game’s more talented running backs. Joining an underrated Browns roster behind one of the more improved offensive lines in the game, there is a chance that he could have his best statistical season yet. With money invested in him, a rookie quarterback, and a career game-managing quarterback in TyRod Taylor, chances are that this offense is going to revolve around the running game and RPO’s. To be completely honest, even with the presence of Duke Johnson – a true PPR monster – and Nick Chubb – everyone’s favorite “sleeper” running back – my money is still on Hyde to be the goto player in this emerging Browns offense.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Baker Mayfield
I like TyRod Taylor, I really do, but I can’t imagine that the Browns took Baker Mayfield number one overall without believing that he was good enough to start right away. A quarterback battle is sure to play out during training camp, it is then and there Baker will make a name for himself. With a strong training camp in the back of everyone’s minds, after a few losses, the Browns will be compelled to insert the number one pick into the starting lineup. After the first month of the season, TyRod Taylor will be usurped as the starting quarterback and Mayfield will be fantasy viable... Volia!
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Corey Coleman
Corey Coleman is a former first round pick and yet has still failed to eclipse 500 receiving yards in a single season. With a year of good health in 2018, that is sure to change. I’m not saying that he’s going to be Antonio Brown this season, but I am confident that he will finally turn into the competent number two wideout that he was promised to be coming out of the 2016 NFL draft. Keep in mind that this will be the first year that he will have a competent quarterback to throw him the football.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Nick Chubb
I’ve been called a Nick Chubb hater, and while I detest that moniker, I certainly like his game less than most. I want to be clear that he will have a successful NFL career, but people need to understand that the guy that we saw tearing it up at Georgia before his knee injuries is not the player who will be playing for the Browns. As I see it, Chubb is stuck behind two accomplished NFL backs right now on the Browns depth chart, and while that is usually a hurdle that rookie backs can overcome, both players in front of him are seemingly entering the primes of their careers. Simply put, Chubb is a fine player who will get his day in the league, but I just don’t see it this year. He’s not the ultra-dynamic game breaker that he once was, so he will have to keep improving his current form to find his way onto the field as a rookie.
While the Patriots may have dominated the NFL over the last 20 years, it is hard to argue that any franchise has done better in fantasy football than the Steelers over the same stretch. By that I mean that in almost every significant fantasy position, the Steelers have consistently delivered a must own player, year after year. Expecting something different different in 2018 would be irresponsible, even with a frustrated Le’Veon Bell and an ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger . The Steelers and their high-powered offense will once again be the talk of the fantasy football world in 2018. Make no mistake.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Antonio Brown
There were several names to choose from here, and while picking Bell or Roethlisberger would not have been wrong, I think that Brown is the safest option this season. On the one hand you have Big Ben thinking retirement and on the other you have no clue if Le’Veon Bell is even on speaking terms with the front office. Brown seems to be the consistent, calming, presence in the Steelers locker room; a consistent, calming, presence that no one in the NFL can cover. Expect another monster campaign from him in 2018.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: James Washington
Truth be told, I’m not exactly high on Washington as a fantasy commodity this season, but the fact is that Pittsburgh didn’t really draft anyone else worth noting here. He’s stuck behind a handful of star receivers at the moment, but he’s guaranteed a roster spot, which is more than any other Steelers offensive rookie can say at the moment. Don’t draft him, but Washington wins this one while running unopposed. With the threats the Steelers have on offense, Washington may benefit by running down the field unopposed once or twice this year too… Won’t be surprised to see him score a few long touchdowns in 2018, so there is that.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: James Conner
Word out of Pittsburgh is that Conner is in the best shape of his life entering training camp this summer. This is coming from the mouth of the one decision maker that matters; head coach Mike Tomlin. With Le’Veon Bell almost guaranteed to be out the door after the 2018 season, James Conner is essentially the franchise running back in waiting. Expect this to be the year where Conner starts to see legitimate touches, acclimating him to the NFL game for his eventual starring role. Think of a workload similarly to what DeAngelo Williams used to see when backing up Bell in years past.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Le'Veon Bell
Let me make myself clear here – I do not think that Bell will have a bad season! I just think that with a healthy and in-shape James Conner , Bell is going to see his historically high usage rate drop a few notches. This may be good for Bell’s overall health and efficiency, but it also may disappoint some fantasy owners who were expecting another 400+ touch season from the underpaid back. Another poorly kept secret – as I mentioned above – is that Bell is likely to leave Pittsburgh after 2018, making Conner the de facto running back of the future for the Steelers. If he is to take the reins in 2019, experience this season is going to be critical for his development. Playing devil’s advocate to myself here though, the Steelers may look at the departing Bell as even more of a reason to run him until the tires fall off… We shall see.