Fantasy Football Studs, Duds & Sleepers: AFC North

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With the NFL lockout finally behind us, football fans can finally turn our attention from the courtrooms and onto the field, where it belongs. In the coming weeks, I will rank the fantasy studs, duds and sleepers for each division. Today, the AFC North gets some time under the microscope.

Fantasy Studs

 

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (2010: 3200 yards, 17 TD, 5 INT)

Big Ben owners endured his four-game suspension and were rewarded for their patience. Roethlisberger finished 2010 ranked in the top six for fantasy quarterbacks, not to mention leading his team to the Super Bowl. Ben still has some extremely explosive weapons around him, so there is no reason to think he will drop below a top-10 fantasy QB.

 

Running Back: Ray Rice, BAL (2010: 1223 yards, 5 TD, 63 receptions, 556 yards, TD)

There was much rejoicing in the Kelley household when Baltimore cut ties with Willis McGahee. Nothing against Willis, but he was a fantasy vulture, stealing 17 touchdowns from Ray Rice the past two years. Newly-acquired Ricky Williams is not a stellar goal-line back, so Rice should get the bulk of the carries inside the five. Expect big things from #27 this season.

 

Wide Receiver: Mike Wallace, PIT (2010: 60 receptions, 1257 yards, 10 TD)

Wallace took the leap from sleeper to star last season, proving to be a home run hitter from week one. Wallace ranked sixth last year among fantasy wide receivers despite having the lowest catch total in the top-10. Expect Omar Epps’ twin brother, Mike Tomlin (seriously, they might be the same person), to find some new ways to get the ball into the hands of Wallace this season.

 

Wide Receiver: Anquan Boldin, BAL (2010: 64 receptions, 837 yards, 7 TD)

Boldin flew out of the gate last year, scoring five TDs in the first seven games. But Boldin, and the Ravens offense, started to slip from there. Baltimore had three receivers who basically had the same skill set (Boldin, Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh); good players, but all possession receivers. With the additions of rookie burners Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss, as well as Lee Evans (more on him later), expect there to be plenty of space underneath for Boldin to do what he does best.

 

Tight End: Benjamin Watson, CLE (2010: 68 receptions, 763 yards, 3 TD)

The onus in the AFC North is on running the ball, so it is no surprise that most of the tight ends in the division are better blockers than receivers. Watson was Colt McCoy’s security blanket last season, and proved to be the most consistent pass catcher. Pat Shurmur’s new offense has looked good in preseason, and Watson will continue to be used as a solid weapon. Expect top-20 production, but Watson is likely a TE2 on draft day.

 

Defense/ST: Pittsburgh (2010: 188 points)

The Steelers had the number one defense in fantasy football last year and there is little evidence to suggest that will change this upcoming season.

 

Ward is no longer a top WR

 

Fantasy Duds

 

Quarterback: Andy Dalton/Carson Palmer, CIN (2010: NA)

What would an NFL season be without some kind of controversy in Cincy? Palmer has said he will not play unless he is traded. The Bengals front office, most notably owner Mike Brown, says they do not negotiate with terrorists (or their players). So that leaves Dalton in the unenviable position of being a rookie starter with no offseason to familiarize himself with the offense. Good luck with that.

 

Running Back: Cedric Benson, CIN (2010: 1111 yards, 7 TD, 28 receptions, 178 yards, TD)

Benson had decent production last year, but falls onto this list because of the immense backfield talent in the division. Still, there is concern that defenses will load the box to play the run with Dalton under center, and Benson’s average run (3.5 in 2010) continues to fall below the ideal four yards a carry. Benson likely falls out of the top-25 this season.

 

Wide Receiver: Hines Ward, PIT (2010: 59 receptions, 755 yards, 5 TD)

Every so often, fantasy owners need a reminder that fantasy football’s motto is “what have you done for me lately?” Ward has been a very good receiver for a long time, he’s likable, and apparently he can dance too. But the fact is, he’s starting to slip as a playmaker. Ward is still a solid WR3 or bench option, but make sure you do not over-draft for a guy whose best days are behind him.

 

Wide Receiver: Mohamed Massaquoi, CLE (2010: 36 receptions, 483 yards, 2 TD)

Mohamed was the highest drafted Browns receiver last season, and put up some underwhelming numbers. A lot of excitement is brewing in Ohio over Shurmur’s new offense, but Massaquoi might be the odd-man out. He has a small chip fracture in his foot, an injury that will bother him all season. Also hurting his chances is the fact that the Browns’ also drafted a bigger, faster version of Massaquoi in rookie Greg Little, who has impressed this preseason. Massaquoi is expected to see playing time in the final preseason game, so keep an eye on how he’s used. But as of now, he’s out of my top-75 WR rankings.

 

Tight End: Heath Miller, PIT (2010: 42 receptions, 512 yards, 2 TD)

Miller always seems to come up with the big 3rd down catch when the Steelers need it, but fantasy teams don’t get points for that. Coming off a very impressive 2009 campaign, Miller came back to earth when Pittsburgh started focusing more on the run game. He did not have a single game with more than five catches. With Pittsburgh’s offensive line still a work in progress, Miller will continue to be used as a blocker.

 

Defense/ST: Cleveland (2010: 95 points)

The Browns suffered from a number of injuries last year, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse the team’s performance in 2010. Cleveland is switching to a 4-3 defense under defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, but the general though is that it takes a year to adjust to a new system. Fantasy owners should sit this one out.

 

Lee Evans will excell in Baltimore

Fantasy Sleepers

 

Quarterback: Colt McCoy, CLE (2010: 1576 yards, 6 TD, 9 INT)

Finally, there is something for Browns fans to cheer for. McCoy has looked very good in the preseason commanding Cleveland’s new offense. Don’t get me wrong, McCoy is not a QB1 candidate, but with an early bye (week 5) he’s a solid option as a backup fantasy quarterback.

 

Running Back: Montario Hardesty, CLE (2010: NA)

Hardesty was drafted by the Browns in 2010 to compete for the starting job, but tore his ACL in the final preseason game had missed the entire season. Peyton Hillis took the job and was a beast last season and will be the man again this season. But he also takes a beating, and noticeably faded down the stretch (also known as the fantasy playoffs). If Hillis does not stay healthy, Hardesty should be your first waiver wire claim.

 

Wide Receiver: Emmanuel Sanders, PIT (2010: 28 receptions, 376 yards, 2 TD)

Sanders got better as the season went on, and came up big in the playoffs. He has blazing 4.4 speed and will benefit from the extra attention paid to Mike Wallace this season. Take a late round flyer and reap the benefits.

 

Wide Receiver: Lee Evans, BAL (2010: 37 receptions, 578 yards, 4 TD)

Evans suffered for years in Buffalo; appreciated by fantasy owners, but garnering very little attention from anyone else. A change of scenery should do Evans a lot of good. Let’s just say, Evans will make it on a number of my fantasy teams. If that’s not an endorsement for the former Badger, I don’t know what is.

 

Tight End: Jermaine Gresham, CIN (2010: 58 receptions, 602 yards, 4 TD)

Gresham was impressive last season for the Bengals, earning his spot as a first round pick. The quarterback situation will keep Gresham from being a fantasy starter, but rookie QB’s generally rely on their tight ends, meaning Gresham will get his in 2011.

 

Defense/ST: Baltimore (2010: 133 points)

Ok, so they’re not really a sleeper, but with only two remaining teams to choose from, I couldn’t put Cincinnati in this spot, could I? Simply put, the Ravens will be good (again), and you should try to draft them (again).

 

Stephen Kelley is a contributor at The Sports Bank where he covers Fantasy Sports and Pro Drafts. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_tsb.

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