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Big Ben stands strong in AFC North
There’s nothing finer than driving in the middle of the night on the open highway. You are alone with the truckers and moving vans, armed with a selection of your digital favorites (“The Devil’s Jukebox” as my playlist has been described) and your thoughts. Following the workout I attended last Saturday in San Diego, my thoughts have been consumed by the NFL, depth charts and the fantasy world.
As I write this, I’m in the midst of an ambitious mini-training camp trek that will tax the power of my rental car and test the effects of caffeine on a man’s system. To me, there’s nothing like getting out for a camp workout and watching the plan come into focus. The abbreviated practice schedules mandated in the new CBA are forcing teams to work more efficiently and briskly.
I’m attempting to do the same as I trek across the country. The sponsorship tags just write themselves!
Cue the opening lines of “Turn the Page.” Let’s start this divisional review with the next stop on my training camp tour. I’m ready to sweat it out with the Steelers in Latrobe.
Overview: The Steelers made a major adjustment by bringing former Kansas City Chiefs head coach and Arizona Cardinals coordinator Todd Haley in to run the offense. There are grand expectations of a pass-happy attack to rival the pinball-like efforts of Kurt Warner under Haley’s tutelage in Arizona. Of course, the Steelers are operating at present without their primary ball carrier (Rashard Mendenhall), a game-changing wide receiver is currently holding out (Mike Wallace) and have some concerns on the offensive line. Add the fact that Ben Roethlisberger reportedly has a tear in his shoulder, and you have a big, fat question mark early in camp.
Quarterback: As mentioned above, Roethlisberger reportedly has a “little torn rotator cuff,” an injury originally sustained last November against the rival Ravens. He’s downplaying the injury, but this is certainly a major cause for concern. Short-term, an ankle injury is keeping Roethlisberger off the practice field. Owners taking a run at wide receiver Antonio Brown are assuming great risk with Byron Leftwich entrenched as the second option on the Pittsburgh depth chart.
One of Haley’s biggest charges upon arriving in Pittsburgh is to keep Roethlisberger upright. The offensive line has been retooled with greater depth. Rookie David DeCastro was a steal in the late-first round, and the return of Willie Colon fortifies the left side.
Running Back: Mendenhall’s absence launches Isaac Redman and his 4.4-yard-per-carry average (110 carries) to the top of the depth chart. Redman ran for 92 yards in the Steelers’ season finale last year and then posted 121 rushing yards in the playoff loss to Denver.
Redman is the lead, but he won’t handle the entire workload. Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey are vying for touches behind Redman while Mendenhall recover from a torn ACL. Rainey makes for an interesting “deep sleeper” selection because of his potential role in the passing attack.
Wide Receivers: The absence of Wallace and his 72 receptions and big-play potential looms large as the preseason slate approaches. The Steelers are left thin at wide receiver behind Brown (69 receptions for 1,108 yard). Emmanuel Sanders (sleeper) has been unable to stay healthy, and there’s zero veteran presence behind Jerricho Cotchery.
Tight End: The depth chart issue addressed above presents a potential boom for veteran Heath Miller. Miller caught 51 passes for 631 yards, and his role may increase immensely in Haley’s offense. He’s caught at least 47 passes in four of the past five seasons.
Kicker: Shaun Suisham converted 23-of-31 field goal attempts last year with 36 PATs. His conversion percentage from distances of at least 40 yards still needs improvement (7-of-13, including 6-of-11 from 40-49 yards).
* Suisham recently underwent an appendectomy, but is expected back for the season opener. He’s a Bye week fill-in in fantasyland, but kickers are people, too! Swayze Waters from the Toronto Argonauts is in camp during Suisham’s absence.
Defense: The Steelers carried the “old” tag last year and still produced the league’s besting scoring defense (14.2 points per game). The level of effectiveness essentially brings this unit back for another run for 2012 with just a pair of changes on tap.
• Harmon favorite Casey Hampton is recovering from ACL surgery, thereby putting Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu in line for reps.
• Ziggy Hood officially claims the left defensive end spot that he’s essentially owned for the better part of two years in place of the injury-battered Aaron Smith.
The defense rolls when James Harrison is flying around and Troy Polamalu acts as a disrupting force in the secondary. Keeping Polamalu healthy is paramount to the unit’s success. Remember, the unit will play the season opener in Denver without safety Ryan Clark.
Overview: “We know these truths to be self-evident.” The Ravens, led by Harmon Man-Crush captain Haloti Ngata, continue to play fantastic defense despite wearing the “old” tag (just like their division rivals). Ray Rice is a world-beating, stat-amassing running back and received a salary commensurate with his stellar play this offseason. Torrey Smith makes big plays and became a fantasy star in 2011. Fans and fantasy owners aren’t quite as sold on Joe Flacco.
Quarterback: Flacco passed for 3,600 yards for the third consecutive season and was a dropped pass from a Super Bowl appearance. Yet, he remains a much-maligned figure in Baltimore and the fantasy world. Flacco threw 20 touchdowns passes (plus one rushing) against 18 turnovers. His completion percentage dipped five percent.
Running Back: Last year, Rice demonstrated that he could handle his own mail at the goal line and scored 12 rushing touchdowns. At present, he’s the lone option for the Ravens. Rookie Bernard Pierce has struggled on the field and also missed several practices. Second-year back Anthony Allen out of Georgia Tech has the body (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) to be a goal-line back, but has yet to distinguish himself from the pack.
If he gets past the injury issues and accelerates his learning curve, I like Pierce’s potential as a second option behind Rice. He clearly sees little action when a healthy Rice is in the Baltimore backfield.
Wide Receivers: It’s “Torrey Time!” OK, so that might be a bit of an obscure children’s program. The second-year receiver caught 50 passes as a rookie for 841 yards and scored seven times to pace the Ravens. He averaged nearly 17 yards per catch, including a reception of at least 29 yards in eight contests.
Veteran Anquan Boldin amassed 57 receptions, his lowest total since the 2004 season, including three touchdowns. His per-reception yardage count established a career-high mark (15.6), but impact plays were few and far between. Boldin rates as a plug-in WR3 or WR4 option.
Tight End: Dennis Pitta sustained a broken hand in drills, thereby leaving Ed Dickson to run solo into the preseason. Pitta caught 40 passes last season, while Dickson ranked third on the team with 54 receptions (five touchdowns). He’s officially on the “sleeper” list given the dearth of reliable wideouts. There’s upside from his 2012 totals (528 yards and five touchdowns).
Kicker: Incumbent Billy Cundiff is being challenged by Justin Tucker. Tucker, a former Texas kicker, has a strong leg and could overtake Cundiff if he performs consistently this summer.
Defense: The celebrated defense and its cast of well-known names returns for another run in 2012 minus pass-rushing monster Terrell Suggs. Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw will try to replace some of the pressure lost by Suggs’ injury.
Ray Lewis is reportedly much leaner than in years past to allow him to work in space against wide receivers. Will teams decide to run at him?
Overview: Marvin Lewis was blessed with a wealth of riches in last year’s rookie class, as Andy Dalton and A.J. Green ushered in a new era of Cincinnati football. The team turned the page by letting go of Cedric Benson, just as they’d done with the remnants of the Carson Palmer era (including Chad Ochocinco, of course).
Quarterback: Dalton passed for nearly 3,400 yards with 20 touchdowns (plus one rushing) against 15 turnovers. Cincinnati fans and fantasy owners are anticipating a step forward by the 24-year-old in year two. His weak completion percentage (58.1%) was moderately concerning, but secondary receiving options were not plentiful.
Running Back: Former workhorse Benson was not re-signed, thereby putting the Bengals in the market for a reliable, durable tailback. BenJarvus Green-Ellis joins the Bengals. Green-Ellis remained a monster at the goal line in 2011, but he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry behind a good line in New England.
Green-Ellis will cede carries to Bernard Scott. Scott averaged 3.4 yards per carry (112 carries) in 2012 with 13 receptions.
Wide Receivers: I don’t need to belabor the brilliance of Green. I have him ranked fourth among wide receivers, and I expect a huge 2012 season on tap.
The other wide receiver slots are up for grabs. Youngsters Mohamed Sanu (6-foot-2, 210 pound from Rutgers), Armon Binns and Marvin Jones are fending off challenges from Brandon Tate and Jordan Shipley. Shipley has the makings of a PPR beast if he’s healthy.
Tight End: Longtime readers in this space know of my Man-Crush on Jermaine Gresham. He essentially matched his 2011 effort with 56 receptions and 596 receiving yards in 2012. Gresham snagged six touchdown passes. He’s on the back end of my TE1 lists. If Dalton and this offense steps forward, Gresham has top-five potential.
Kicker: Nugent performed brilliantly for the Broncos last season. He converted 33-of-38 field goal tries, including a superb 14-of-16 from distances of 40-49 yards.
Defense: The Cincinnati defense ranked ninth in total defense at 20.2 points allowed per game and fifth in sacks with 45. The arrival of Dre Kirkpatrick injects new blood to Lewis’ game plans, and the signings of Jason Allen (former Miami No. 1 pick) and Terence Newman aid to fend off the now-passing friendly rivals in the AFC North.
Overview: The Browns were sold this past week. Thus begins a new era of Cleveland football, an era led by three rookies and a second-year receiver. There are no expectations on the team itself to make waves in the rough-and-tumble AFC North, but fantasy owners are making huge bets on running back Trent Richardson.
Quarterback: Rookie Brandon Weeden was officially named the team’s starter heading into the first exhibition game. The 28-year-old rookie faced no competition from Colt McCoy. As the undisputed No. 1 here, Weeden enters the preseason as a late-QB2 option.
Running Back: Peyton Hillis, his frustrations and phantom injuries have moved on to Kansas City. The Browns replaced him with Richardson, the most highly-touted runner to come along since Adrian Peterson. In this Cleveland offense, Richardson stands to see the ball 20-25 times per game while Weeden gets his NFL legs under him.
Wide Receivers: Greg Little, the Browns’ second-round pick in 2011, is the lead man in this receiving corps. Little caught 61 passes for 709 yards last season as a rookie. Red zone opportunities were infrequent as a result of dismal quarterback play. Owners can draft him as a WR4 with upside.
He’s joined in the receiving corps by Mohamed Massaquoi (31 receptions in 14 games last season) and rookie Josh Gordon. Gordon’s history has been well-documented, so I see no need to recount it here. The 6-foot-3 receiver out of Baylor is raw, but has the play-making athleticism to make a big contribution immediately.
Return specialist Josh Cribbs also grew as a receiver last year with 41 receptions for 518 yards. Hang a star on his name. He’s not draftable unless you receive the return yardage, but his big-play capability is intriguing.
Tight End: Benjamin Watson missed several games last season and saw his per-game averages drop markedly (down 16.2 yards and 1.4 receptions per game). He’s not been a red zone threat in Cleveland (five touchdowns in two years), but the anemic offense and spotty (too kind?) quarterback play didn’t exactly generate many opportunities.
Evan Moore is the second half of the two-TE set for Weeden. Moore caught 34 passes last year, including four touchdowns. At 6-foot-6, Moore has the potential to be a sneaky plug-in tight end play in touchdown leagues if Richardson can get the line moving.
Kicker: Veteran Phil Dawson returns on the franchise tag for the second year. He’s accurate (career 83.1% conversion rate) and actually hammered home seven field goals from distances of at least 50 yards in 2011. Dawson had converted only 10 such field in his career prior to last season. The Cleveland offense will be better with Richardson and Weeden onboard, but Dawson’s no more than a bye week filler.
Defense: The Browns quietly ranked fifth in total defense last year, allowing just 19.2 points per game. However, Cleveland tied for the fifth-fewest interceptions with nine and 23rd in sacks. The loss of Chris Gocong from the heart of the defense is huge .Quinton Spears, an undrafted second-year players from Prairie View A&M, is expected to take his spot at left linebacker. The unit is set up front with 2011 first-round pick Jabal Sheard, who amassed 8.5 sacks.
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