If you’re a Ravens fan and a fantasy football player, drafting someone from the AFC North who doesn’t wear purple on Sundays probably feels sacrilegious. Watching your division rivals pile up points on both the scoreboard and your fantasy roster is truly bittersweet.
But if you’re unfazed and willing to sacrifice your morals for the sake of a few more points each week like me, Baltimore’s three division opponents can each offer some intriguing options in 2014.
The Browns, despite perennially finishing in last place in the division, have been second to none when it comes to national publicity this offseason.
Of course, any preview of the Browns in 2014 would be incomplete without a mention of Johnny Manziel. The former Heisman trophy winning quarterback at Texas A&M was taken in the first round by Cleveland and has made more headlines off the field than on it.
Manziel will likely begin the season as the backup, but as with most high draft picks, the franchise will have pressure to get “Johnny Football” on the field. Given the recent success of quarterbacks in their rookie year like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, Manziel could be worth a stash on your bench.
Star wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was the number one fantasy receiver last season despite only playing 14 games, failed his third drug test of his career. This resulted in a yearlong suspension from the NFL.
Gordon is appealing and could get his suspension reduced. A ruling should come down by the time most drafts occur. If the suspension gets reduced to around eight games, Gordon is still worth a pick, probably around the 10th round.
The Browns completely overhauled the rest of their receiving corps this offseason, adding veterans Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, and Nate Burleson. Hawkins, the former Bengal, is the one worth owning, and should go in most drafts by the 12th round.
Athletic Tight End Jordan Cameron will be a consistent starter for your team at a position that does not have much depth. Cameron finished as the 6th ranked fantasy TE in 2013, and should be taken by the end of round 7.
Cleveland signed former Houston running back Ben Tate this offseason to take over as the lead back for the team. Tate, entering his fifth NFL season, has battled injuries throughout his career but has been effective when on the field, boasting a career 4.7 yards per carry. Tate will be a solid RB2 in 2014, and will be taken in the 4th or 5th round.
Local product Terrance West was drafted in the third round out of Towson and should compete for carries. For now it appears to be Tate’s job to lose, but it’s a situation worth monitoring. West is worth a late round pick.
The Steelers, winners of six of their last eight games in 2013, carry a similar team into this season. Pittsburgh used their first two picks in the NFL Draft in May on defensive players, and will showcase a mix of both young and veteran talent on the offensive side.
The two players to target wearing black and gold are wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Brown had his best season in the NFL last year, piling up 1,499 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. Establishing himself as an upper-echelon receiver, he caught at least 5 passes in every game, making him particularly valuable in PPR formats. Brown should be gone by the end of the third round.
Running back Le’Veon Bell enters his second season in the NFL, one in which many analysts are predicting him to truly break out. The former Michigan State Spartan played in 13 games last season totaling 860 yards rushing, 399 receiving, and eight touchdowns. Bell is currently projecting to be a late-first, early-second round pick in most drafts. However, Bell’s value may be overestimated. The 6’1” RB averaged only 3.5 yards per attempt last season. In addition, Pittsburgh added bruising runner LeGarrette Blount to its backfield this offseason, who tallied 944 yards (incl. postseason) on the ground last year for New England. Le’Veon Bell is an intriguing name in 2014, and will be the first Steeler off the board, just make sure it’s not too early.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played in a full 16 games last year for the first time since 2008. Despite his ability to stay on the field, he finished as the 12th ranked fantasy QB, most likely relegating him to backup duty for your team. He’ll be drafted from rounds 11 to 15.
The reigning AFC North champions simply have the best fantasy talent in the division. Returning all key players from last season, the Bengals should continue to put up impressive offensive numbers despite the loss of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
The star of the team is fourth-year wide receiver A.J. Green. Fantasy players have gotten well acquainted with Green over the past three seasons, as the former 4th overall pick has averaged over 1,277 yards per season over his brief career. Draft him in the second round with confidence.
Elusive sophomore running back Giovani Bernard is a name to watch for in 2014. Drafted in the second round in 2013 out of North Carolina, Bernard accumulated 1,209 all-purpose yards in his rookie season, averaging 5.35 yards per touch. Bernard’s stock is high, and he’s currently being taken around the mid-second round in most drafts.
Keep in mind Bernard is a smaller, change-of-pace style back who won’t get a ton of carries. Cincinnati drafted LSU running back Jeremy Hill in the second round this season, who figures to receive around 10 carries a game. Bernard will have to make his touches count, and assuming he does, is worthy of a third-round pick.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off of a season in which he threw for a career-high 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns. Cincinnati recently rewarded him with a six-year extension worth $115 million.
Yet because of his lack of playoff success (1 TD and 7 INT), Dalton is not highly regarded among most fans. He finished 2013 with the 6th highest fantasy point total among quarterbacks and represents great value in the later rounds if you want to wait to draft your QB; a strategy I highly recommend.
Be sure to check out my complete fantasy preview here and leave your comments below.
Scott DeWeese is a geographer from the Baltimore area. One of the final graduates of the University of Maryland from the ACC era, DeWeese is an avid sports writer and fan. When he’s not looking up remedies to counteract male pattern baldness, you can find him at Camden Yards on his phone checking the fantasy football waiver wire. Follow him on Twitter @SDeWeese7.