Team Tendencies and Trends: AFC North
Team previews and trends continue with the AFC North division. Previous articles highlighted preliminary thoughts and skill position usage for the Bengals and Steelers. But here, we dive a bit into measurables, combine performance, and college usage for deeper analysis. First thoughts on the division alone is that they’re all outdoors on the east coast. Inclement weather will be a factor throughout the season. Let’s see how it’s affected the teams historically.
No Offensive Skill Players Drafted
The Ravens spent their picks on offensive linemen and defensive skill players. But, their free agent acquisitions will eat into the 223 targets left behind by Steve Smith Sr. and Dennis Pitta. Danny Woodhead (coming off the ACL tear) looks to complement Terrance West while Kenneth Dixon serves his suspension.
In short, draft more Woodhead. Positional usage spikes in high wind conditions for the Ravens. Woodhead’s own targets have steadily increased across all brackets with spikes in the 20+ MPH bracket. Couple that with Mornhinweg’s desire to take pressure off Flacco’s deep ball and you can count on Woodhead seeing his fair share of targets. With Dixon out for the year, Woodhead is a coveted PPR target assuming he comes back from his recent hamstring injury.
Jeremy Maclin looks to replace retired Steve Smith Sr. working from both the slot and outside receiver position. Maclin’s size, speed, and hands will allow him to thrive in the offense. But, his subpar route running and struggles against man and press coverage will cap his potential. Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman look to work the outside. Let’s see if Maclin can work the interior.
Each season the two receivers have been active show similar usage across the field. If Maclin can establish a rapport with Flacco, look for Maclin to become the primary beneficiary. First down targets and short-mid range targets could become his specialty under the new offensive scheme.
Wide Receiver, 1st Round
Teams can’t lie with their draft picks. They lost two of their best starters in free agency. To combat their problem, they selected the guy that broke the 40-yard dash record. His necessity to this offense cannot be understated. Dalton’s sacks, yards lost per sack, and interceptions skyrocket under pressure. Their 2017 schedule pits them against Top 10 defenses five times during the fantasy season. His AY/A also drops off as wind speed increases. A dump off valve that has shown he can create separation against all types of coverage would be huge for this offense.
Regardless of what you think of Dalton’s talent, Ross is the linchpin to the offense. That doesn’t necessarily equate to fantasy output, but it affords the offense to operate. This could mean longer drives after key first downs. Or being placed in scoring position after a single chunk play. Ross’ speed and ability will allow Dalton to operate behind the 31st ranked offensive line. His knee injury hampers his integration into the offense. Assuming no further setbacks, it will take him until mid-season to get in sync with the offense.
Running Back, 2nd Round
As a husband and father to a young woman, I will not gloss over Joe Mixon’s off the field actions. I hope he uses his opportunity in a positive manner towards society. Be kind to others always. It costs nothing to be nice.
The state of the running back corps in Cincinnati have set up a perfect storm for Mixon. Gio Bernard coming off a late season ACL injury. Jeremy Hill with another lackluster season. Their short careers aren’t very inspiring for an offense in trouble.
While Bernard’s established himself as the pass catching back, his usage doesn’t match his peers on other teams. His usage remains consistent across speed brackets. No multiple spikes across the last four years indicating his ability has separated him from Hill and must be on the field.
Joe Mixon posted faster combine numbers than his teammates. His quick shift from slow to fast at the scrimmage line remind scouts of Le’Veon Bell. His pass catching ability is equally impressive. He’s a three down back. He has the potential to overtake this backfield given his talent. Bernard’s return during training camp has muddled Mixon’s path to significant playing time. At best, this looks to be a platoon until Mixon can clearly separate himself.
Wide Receiver, 4th Round
Josh Malone profiles as the perfect complement to A.J. Green. At 6’3”-208 with 4.4 speed, an outside receiver role is his for the taking. With Brandon Lafell being resigned in the offseason, look for the rookie to gain some experience from the vet while working on his technique.
With Green’s injury in 2016, it’s hard to extrapolate any useful tendencies from Lafell’s first season with the Bengals. However, because he performed well in Green’s place expect him to continue his role opposite Green. Depending on the offensive line’s performance, Malone’s speed could propel him onto the field. Other than that, it’ll take another year for the rookie to see the field.
Tight End, 7th Round
Assuming Tyler Eifert is ready to suit up, Mason Schreck will sit behind Tyler Kroft on the depth chart. Both have much to learn as Eifert has quickly become one of the premiere tight ends in the league. That’s if his recent tendinitis injury is as minor as the team reports.
Eifert’s established himself as a central piece of the offense. For either Kroft or Schreck to inherit any of this opportunity, they’ll need to improve both their blocking and route running. Eifert’s blocking isn’t the best, but his hands keep him on the field. Both the rookie and second year vet will have to work their technique in order to make an impact for the Bengals.
Tight End, 1st Round
David Njoku already possesses the required skills to make an impact to this offense. At 6’4” – 246 with 4.64 speed, Njoku is an impressive receiver with the footwork to pick up yardage after the catch. While he does need to improve on his blocking technique, their second ranked offensive line can make up for some of his inexperience. So, while he’s building muscle and practicing with the team, let’s see what he’s walking into.
Gary Barnidge’s departure leaves roughly 100 targets on the table between his two productive seasons with the Browns. While it’s hard to judge his performance due to the multiple QBs used in his time, his skill kept him on the field. It’s no stretch to say 2015 was his greatest performance, but in both 2015 and 2016 his usage steadily increased with wind speed. Exactly what you’d like to see. If Njoku can establish a rapport with whomever the starting QB will be, expect him to see similar usage in the future.
Quarter Back, 2nd Round
Again, teams can’t lie with their draft picks. The signals were there that Hue Jackson wanted Kizer to command the offense. But while the technique isn’t completely evident, the intangibles are there. The leadership traits. Dealing a strike downfield knowing he’s going to get hit. Good runner too. But, he does get stuck a single read and tends to get picked often. If his primary read is his focus, let’s see who’d stand to benefit.
While the departed Terrelle Pryor is the more dynamic receiver, Kenny Britt’s steady usage profiles as a receiver capable of picking up the slack. He’s slower than Pryor, but still has the size to battle defenders at the catch point. Corey Coleman is a few inches shorter, but assuming he’s healthy, he should be able to complement the vet and aid Kizer if needed.
Running Back, 7th Round
All signs point to Isaiah Crowell leading the backfield in 2017. However, Matt Dayes looks to compete for the backup/third down role. At 5’9” – 205 lbs, Dayes profiles as an outside runner. Both need to work on their pass protection to earn more snaps, but if an injury to Johnson were to occur, what can we expect?
Johnson’s past usage doesn’t instill much faith in his role. No clear spikes in usage when wind filters are applied. But, recent reports suggest he’ll become a dual threat at slot receiver. This would only increase Johnson’s value as a mid-late round PPR target with Dayes serving as a potential backup.
Wide Receiver, 2nd Round
Martavis Bryant’s reinstatement solidifies the primary receiver roles for the Steelers. If the news of his conditioning and rehabilitation efforts are accurate, Pittsburgh is primed for 2017. But, more offensive weapons are good. Juju Smith-Schuster looks to compete for a role either on the interior or outside barring injury.
Juju primarily stayed on the outside throughout college. But, his struggles with man and zone coverage indicate some development is necessary for him to continue in this capacity. At 6’1” – 215, his size could afford him work from the interior keeping him from tight coverage situations.
Smith-Schuster is 3 inches taller with the same speed as sophomore Eli Rogers. Rogers proved himself useful while Sammie Coates battled injury and drop issues. In his better days, Markus Wheaton’s role was valued as defenses keyed on one of the best WR tandems in the NFL. If Rogers falters in his second year, look for the rookie to take on the role within one of the premiere offenses in the NFL.
Running Back, 3rd Round
I can’t fathom receiving the news of having cancer. I can’t fathom receiving the news I’ve been drafted by professional sports team. I definitely can’t fathom experiencing both. That’s James Conner. Stop reading my stupid article and go watch a video on this kid. I don’t care if you hate the Steelers. Go watch this kid. I’m a Bengals fan. I’ll be watching this kid. It’s stories like these that get my allergies going when I’m watching a movie. Or someone’s coincidentally cutting an onion nearby. Something.
At 6’1” – 233, James Conner profiles as a banger. Power runner that makes up for his lack of agility with a bull-like mentality when approaching the line. As excited as I am for the rookie, let’s not get too hasty. He’s behind one of the Big Three running backs and I’ve already highlighted his talents. You can expect Conner to be in the short yardage/give-Le’Veon-a-breather role this year.
Due to Conner’s size and limited lateral movement skills, he profiles more like DeAngelo Williams than Bell. While a Bell injury would equal a jump in touches, that doesn’t necessarily mean catches. There’s no way Connor could ever replicate Bell’s production. Especially considering the other available passing options. But, a similar role to D-Willy could be in store for Conner should the rookie take the field.
Quarter Back, 4th Round
I’m a Mechanical engineer so Dobbs’ major offends me. But, it is remarkable he could juggle both commitments. I’ll let it slide. It’s not hard to see what the Steelers like about Dobbs. Look at their current back up. The offense takes a significant step back when Landry Jones takes the field. He showed some progress last year, but the offense could use more. Considering Ben Roethlisberger has hinted at retirement numerous times, it’s imperative the Steelers establish a possible heir.
Their #3 ranked offensive line should give Dobbs plenty of time to work through his progressions. His ‘one read focus’ knock should dissipate after getting comfortable on the field. Even if he does focus on one guy, he couldn’t have a better one guy to focus on. His skills as a runner should also keep drives going. While it’s not expected, pay attention to his development throughout training camp and the preseason. An injury to Roethlisberger isn’t that far-fetched. If Dobbs takes over, he should perform better than Jones has in the past.