AFC North Preview

Steelers Preview

Owners of a seventh Super Bowl ring, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be expected to contend for another AFC North title and be playing well into January and February.

As usual the team will be carried by its defense, anchored by Troy Polamalu and reigning MVP James Harrison. The top ranked defense remains intact, returning 10 starters. With the usual wizardry of coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau it isn’t difficult to imagine the latest incarnation of the Steel Curtain as the best defensive unit in the league.

The Steelers also could have the most productive fantasy weapon in the division on the offensive side of the ball. Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, whose late game heroics snatched the Lombardi Trophy from the Arizona Cardinals, may be the first AFC North player off your draft board.

The wide receiver seems poised for a breakout year after his playoff performance, and his one-game team suspension last year should be all the punishment he gets for the marijuana incident last October. There are plenty of bigger issues on commissioner Roger Godell’s plate right now, so Holmes shouldn’t be expected to miss time. Even in a sometimes stagnant offense, the former Ohio State star will join the divisions’ other top receivers.

Lining up on the opposite side of the field will again be 12-year veteran Hines Ward. The wide receiver is gaining a reputation as a dirty player, but should always be remembered for his pass catching abilities. Ward is a possession receiver, so in any league that values catches he should be remembered. Right now he seems to be on par with Lee Evans and Santana Moss.
Both wide receivers should come close to 1,000 yards receiving and grab at least five touchdowns. It would be Holmes’ first 1,000-yard season and Ward’s second straight.

The man throwing them the ball is still Ben Roethlisberger, someone who seemingly has given fantasy owners headaches over the years. He isn’t a frontline quarterback in the league, but a safe option for a little more than 10 points a week. With Carson Palmer again recovering from injury, Roethlisberger is the best quarterback in the division, and probably the safest as well. Expect another season of more than 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.

With Byron Leftwich now out of the mix, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon will be fighting for the job of first clipboard holder. Roethlisberger has only missed four games due to football injuries in his career and has a penchant for fighting through injury. In addition, the Steelers offensive line has been better at protecting the Miami University product.

The line also has traditionally done a good job of run blocking for Willie Parker and company. Parker should no longer be considered an elite running back. Often injured, Parker could end up sharing some time with second-year back Rashard Mendenhall. Parker is still a viable option as a fantasy back, but you should have a backup ready if he goes down or the Steelers move more to a two-back system.

If Parker gets back to 1,000 yards it will have been a successful season, but he won’t find the end zone much. His career high is 13 in 2006, but hasn’t had more than five touchdowns any other year. Mendenhall may get more looks this year close to the goal line.

Tight end Heath Miller returns to the offense, though he is probably not a top-10 talent. Miller is a solid blocker and can catch the ball, but Roethlisberger doesn’t look his way often. The tight end position seems to have become a bit deeper and Miller is much more valuable in real life than if fantasy.

Despite kicking in the treacherous conditions of Heinz Field, Jeff Reed remains a usable kicker. He is probably more of an option during a bye week.

The Super Bowl champions’ schedule is not especially strong. The Steelers will have to endure some tough defenses early in the year with Tennessee, Chicago and San Diego all coming in the first quarter. But only Chicago is a road game. They also travel to Miami at the end of the year and get to go to Ford Field. Pittsburgh has a bye in week eight.

Traditionally Pittsburgh does not play rookies much. A team that is as full of veteran talent as this doesn’t have to and this year’s rookies are unlikely to change that. First round draft choice Evander Hood should play in the defensive front, but don’t look for him to replace any of the starters. Of the rookies, wide receiver Mike Wallace seems to be the most likely to make any significant contributions. With the departure of Nate Washington, Wallace may be called on as the third or fourth receiver.

Bengals Preview
Carson Palmer is back and not a moment too soon for Marvin Lewis, who must be on the hot seat after a couple poor seasons.
Palmer won’t return as the top-five quarterback he used to be, but he surely will perform better than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Palmer’s brother, Jordan.

Palmer has recovered from serious injuries before and there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different. He can easily throw for 3,500+ yards and 20 touchdowns with a pass-friendly offensive scheme. That may even be too conservative if he can stay healthy. Palmer has passed for at least 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in each of the three seasons he has played all 16 games.

Palmer is already missing one of his favorite targets from previous years, now that T.J. Houshmandzadeh has taken his act to the West Coast. Another big time talent may be on his way out of Cincinnati, but there’s really no reason to believe that a Chad Ochocinco trade will actually happen this year. He no longer seems to be an exceptionally gifted receiver, but still has the full diva personality. Whether he can bounce back from his terrible 2008, remains unseen, but having Palmer back won’t hurt any. He’s not a top-15 wide receiver anymore, but he could have more value than some expect.

Last year was Ochocinco’s worst season since his rookie year. It seems unlikely that he won’t rebound at all and could even get back to 1,000 yards.

But he may get plenty of looks now because the Bengals’ top running back is Cedric Benson. Fantasy players who were stuck in a league with a Week 17 championship game last year already knew that, as Benson torched Kansas City in his coming back party. He’s still not a 1,000-yard back, but Benson will likely find his way onto more than a few teams.

Also in the offensive mix is Houshmandzadeh’s replacement, Laveranues Coles. He’ll be asked to be versatile as a receiver, both stretching defenses and being more possession oriented. If Ochocinco can prove himself as a threat again, Coles will likely have more freedom to operate. Look for around 900 yards and about six touchdowns.

The biggest offensive hole for the Bengals was tight end and the team attempted to fill it on draft day. Taking Chase Coffman in the third round, Cincinnati may have found a rookie playmaker by default. Palmer has traditionally liked throwing to his tight ends and Coffman has shown to be a very good route runner in college. He will have to make the transition to lining up on the line of scrimmage, which he didn’t do much of at Missouri, but provided he can do that, he should become a key part of this year’s offensive set.

The Bengals drafted Andre Smith in the first round to replace the three tackles the team parted ways with after last year. Cincinnati also released running back Chris Perry and safety Mike Doss.

In an attempt to beef up their defense, Cincinnati signed two Dallas castoffs. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson and safety Roy Williams join the 19th ranked defense. They also drafted USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, who slipped to them in the second round. It should be an improved unit, but not one to look for great production from.

The schedule isn’t too tough for Cincinnati, with home dates against Denver, Detroit and Kansas City. They will also travel to Oakland, but do get stern road tests three of the last four weeks, with trips to Minnesota, San Diego and the Jets. Their bye comes in week eight between home contests with Chicago and Baltimore.

Whatever the Bengals’ record is this year, they should be able to provide entertainment value. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series will chronicle Cincinnati’s training camp this year, complete with the likely feuds of Ochocinco and ownership and Palmer’s outspoken attitude. He recently said he thinks the Bengals can start the year 6-0 and is certainly looking at playoffs at the end of the year. With no hype surrounding the team they may be able to sneak under the radar, but how far their quarterback can take them remains to be seen.

Ravens Preview
After such a successful season in Jim Harbaugh’s first year, expectations will be high in Baltimore.

Defense continues to be this team’s calling card and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis anchor one of the top units in football. There are plenty of young, talented players in the mix as well, keeping the Ravens fresh as their stars age. This defense is one of the top three in the league and will force plenty of turnovers.

The Ravens offense, however, is the weak point on the team, though Harbaugh is improving that side of the ball. With a solid running game, Baltimore seems prepared to play with the best teams in the AFC all year long.

The running game is far from an ideal fantasy situation however. Fullback Lorenzo Neal is out, and while the impact in Baltimore won’t be as serious as it was in San Diego last year, there will be fallout. Le’Ron McClain will take over duties as fullback, but likely will continue to be a touchdown vulture. McClain won’t see the ball much outside the red zone, but his knack for finding the end zone last year made him a viable starter.

Willis McGahee and Ray Rice will continue to share carries outside the red zone and neither should be a frontline option. But both should see enough carries to net seven or eight points a week. McGahee could even find the end zone with some regularity and Rice will factor in the passing game, but counting on any of the Baltimore running backs will likely not be for the faint of heart.

Likewise, Joe Flacco owners could be in for a headache. The rookie had a solid year directing the Baltimore offense, but don’t look for a breakout just yet. Flacco doesn’t have the weapons to make him a passing force and the learning curve is still steep for second-year quarterbacks. It’s likely that his touchdown-interception ratio is close to one, but he should throw for 3,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He can be an option as a backup.

Derrick Mason remains the primary receiver for the Ravens and, while he isn’t spectacular, gets plenty of balls thrown his way every Sunday. Mason won’t break many big gains, but is a Hines Ward-type who can be a pain in the neck for the opposition. He doesn’t drop many balls and is very consistent. Look for another 1,000 yard season with a quarterback he is more comfortable with, but as usual Mason will not be dancing in too many end zones.

Mason had surgery on his left shoulder in February and has been limited at minicamp, but said that if he continues according to plan he will be ready for the first game.

Tight end Todd Heap has been joined by L.J. Smith in the lineup, so Baltimore now has a pair of 29-year old tight ends who aren’t especially productive. Both have seen big drops in the production over the past two years, and now that there isn’t a clear starter neither should be expected to rebound immediately. One of them will get 400 yards and a few touchdowns this year, but it’s unclear who wins that battle in training camp.

The last remaining connection to the old Browns is gone. Kicker Matt Stover was given his walking papers after 18 years with the Ravens/Browns. Graham Gano and Steven Hauschka will fight to become his replacement during camp.

Baltimore took offensive tackle Michael Oher with their first round draft choice. He will immediately compete for a spot on the starting unit. The Ravens other five picks probably won’t be as fortunate in terms of playing time this season.
Other newcomers include center Matt Birk and wide receiver Kelley Washington who is expected to provide a veteran presence. He may also end up in the starting lineup, but will have to knock off Mark Clayton.

Baltimore will face three stern defenses on the road in the first half of the season. The Ravens travel to San Diego, New England and Minnesota weeks two, four and six. They then have their bye in week seven. Baltimore will play Pittsburgh twice in five weeks, including a week 16 matchup on the road, which could decide the division.

Browns Preview
A new season brings a new coach and GM to Cleveland. But unless the State Farm ads come true and LeBron James brings his other-worldly talent to the Browns, look for another bleak fall on the North Coast.

Coach Eric Mangini and GM George Kokinis have started a much needed house cleaning from the Romeo Crennel days. Gone are Kellen Winslow, Joe Jurevicius and Ken Dorsey. Still suiting up in the brown and orange are Braylon Edwards, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. There’s still time in the offseason, but with no takers thus far on any of the three, it seems that they will all open the season with the Browns.

The quarterback situation means neither Anderson nor Quinn is worth even putting on your bench, unless the comic relief is needed. Not that either quarterback did anything last year to make themselves valuable in the fantasy sports world anyway. There is some speculation that Quinn will be named starting quarterback, but this has come out of the Browns camp before.
Unlike some other high-profile receivers, Edwards seems relatively happy with his current team. Mostly it’s the fans that are tired of the Michigan grad dropping balls, no matter how badly thrown they were. He could rebound and be a nice receiver this season and could create an interesting draft day situation between himself, DeSean Jackson and Bernard Berrian for fantasy players. Edwards is capable of another 1,000 yard season with about seven touchdowns. But its’ also possible that Edwards’ 2007 season was an aberration.

A quarterback controversy and a new playbook mean that the Browns will lean on Jamal Lewis. His running style should create yards even with a shaky offensive line and means that he still gets the ball at the goal line, if Cleveland ever gets there.
The Browns added tight end Robert Royal to replace Winslow, but he won’t equal Winslow’s offensive production. He also will share time with Steve Heiden, though Heiden is more of a blocking tight end. Royal had 351 yards last year in Buffalo and may be able to duplicate that in Cleveland, though not as much is expected from the position without Winslow.

Phil Dawson has had a successful career kicking in the rough elements of the AFC North and should continue to be one of the most trustworthy Browns. He won’t get many extra point attempts, but field goals aren’t out of the question even when the weather turns ugly. Dawson isn’t the best option at kicker, but he’s far from the worst.

One of the good parts of a new sheriff in town (literally, Cuyahoga County appointed a new one in May) is the rookies will be given a chance to perform right away. Though the Browns seemed unwilling to pick in the first round and eventually took center Alex Mack, Mangini did take two wide receivers in the second round. Neither is a good option to start the year, but scouts around the league think Ohio State grad Brian Robiskie can contribute this year. He’s a possession receiver and could be a sleeper this season, with the potential to rack up 700 yards and a few scores.

Mohamed Massaquoi is more of a downfield threat and the Browns could insert him into the offense right away as well. The Georgia alum won’t be on anyone’s big board, but if Edwards continues to be unable to hold onto the football, Massaquoi may get looks.

The front end of the Browns’ schedule is dominated by road games. Five of Cleveland’s first eight games are on the road, including visits to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago. With a bye in week nine, the Browns will end the year at home against Oakland and Jacksonville. Also in the second half of the schedule are visits to Kansas City and Detroit.
Unfortunately for Browns fans this means plenty of time spent on the freezing cold lakefront, but it could be a positive for Lewis and the rest of the ground game as they try to churn out victories.