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Around the NFL Pop Quiz: AFC North

My wife and I have started to watch Hard Knocks again, as is tradition along with writing these columns and bickering with my fantasy football league about rule changes that we don't need as much as would like to spar about for no reason other than we're all in our late 20's now and act like we're in our 40's. I've had to talk my wife into it this year, as last year, she was immediately invested in the success of the Cleveland Browns, for what reason I'm still unsure. Maybe she loved David Njoku more than she let on. She's simply not as interested in the Oakland Raiders, despite us being from California and certainly having more friends who root for that team. I tried to get to the bottom of it.

Her: "I don't really care about this."
Me: "Why?"
Her: "I don't know, they just aren't very good"
Me: "But you liked watching last year, and the Cleveland Browns weren't very good"
Her: 'Yeah but.... I don't know, the Raiders have just never won anything
Me: "Ok, but again, the Cleveland Browns..."
Her: "Yeah but like, there's no one really good on the...."
Me: "The BROWNS! It's the same thing! The BROWNS!"

But after I stopped shouting colors at her, I sort of got it. The Cleveland Browns, for what they were then, were on the upswing, and your belief in that success had to be due to the men on the field, and not the history, or the naysayers, and most certainly not the coach. They're arguably the team to beat in this division, but it'll be fascinating to watch the rest of them work their ass off to do so. It's literally anyone's year.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

TRUE OR FALSE: I'm taking James Washington over Donte Moncrief

Today's journey down the wide receiver depth charts continue, as we are left to figure out where the value is behind JuJu Smith-SchusterJames Washington stock is up a full round after one week of preseason football, so I find myself to be in the FALSE camp.

"Donte Moncrief has done it before" is one of the cringiest lines in the fantasy football trope, but there's certainly some truth to it here. Moncrief, for the 2019 fantasy season, is more likely to provide longterm value. He's got some chemistry with Ben, apparently is a well-respected hard worker (all peak football-ism language), but outside of that, you'd have to think that Ben is looking for a reliable veteran. Moncrief is actually better at creating separation than he was during his peak 2016-2017 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, as Behind the Steel Curtain does a nice job of breaking down. It's going to be something important that Roethlisberger looks for, and Washington can't provide yet. Ultimately, this team would have been better suited to grab a dedicated slot receiver, instead hoping either Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer can do the job. In the end, Moncrief is more likely to play this role.

An important note; this advice applies primarily for redraft leagues. Moncrief is on a two year deal with the Steelers with a one year out, while Washington is in their long term plans but ultimately isn't quite ready to take the reigns... yet.

Where To Take Him: End of the 10th, Re-Draft
Confidence: Flier
Timeline: If Washington sees 15 targets in his first two weeks, Moncrief can be dropped and you can get your heckling in.


Baltimore Ravens 

The Only Ravens Worth Drafting in 2019 are _________ and __________

Smarter people than me will tell you that the Baltimore Ravens are in a sunken place. Last year, Willie Snead IV looked like a good value on a team that we assumed would throw. He instead finished as the 136th best player in fantasy, and the Ravens top receiver still on their roster. He was out-earned by Justin Tucker! Not great!

Mark Ingram's role is now further defined for the Ravens, not just as their obvious bell cow, but as an option to a run-first attack that hasn't been seen in the NFL since teams flirted with the wishbone a la Robert Griffin. His counterpart here being Lamar Jacksongoing somewhere in between Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. Ingram in the 4th round is an ideal scenario, and all the better if he ends up falling a round. Jackson, on the other hand, is likely going too low, as his accuracy issues will improve with time and reps, and he'll run just as much as the sample size we saw in 2018. It would be better for his development if he was given a receiving security blanket, a luxury the Ravens simply don't seem to have. Look out for first round pick Marquise Brown here, but you would be better served to add him to your waiting list, as he's currently sitting farther down the depth chart than a first should.

There's not much else to hope for here. The Ravens haven't made a lot of lists of "sell" when it comes to 2019 performance, but this team will need everyone to outperform their expectations to win in a suddenly competitive division. An offense comprised of Willie Snead, a Marquise Brown who isn't quite ready for primetime, Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson aren't quite there yet.

Where To Take Him: Ingram, Beginning of the 5th (Re-Draft). Jackson, Beginning of 11th (Re-Draft) and 9th (Keeper)
Confidence: Medium-High
Timeline: These two are seemingly all the Ravens have. Take the un-sexy draft picks and don't think about it too much.


Cincinnati Bengals

Pay attention: The stock of _________ isn't skyrocketing but should be

  1. Joe Mixon
  2. John Ross
  3. Tyler Boyd
  4. AJ Green

The natural thought process here isn't difficult; AJ Green suffered a hamstring injury that may keep his out for 6-8 weeks, is in the last year of his Bengals contract. He is obviously hoping to come back and perform for as many games as possible, potentially rushing his recovery, or the team may decide to be extra careful with him as they were when he sat out the end of the 2018 season two games early. During the time that Green was sidelined, Tyler Boyd was doing some great work, though scoring less frequently as he was dealt worse corner match-ups with the team's #1 out. It's clear that Boyd was arguably worth more with Green on the field than without, but it's also hard to pass up taking him slightly higher than he was before.

A healthy Andy Dalton doesn't target many other players the way he targeted Boyd and Green last year, almost from the jump. After jumping John Ross on the depth chart, Boyd was apart of the game plan early, and was seeing at least 5 targets a game until late October. It wasn't as consistent as AJ Green (the man had 8-9 targets like clockwork through September), but the important note isn't the WR1 vs WR2, but the gap. Dalton's third-highest target share was reserved for Joe Mixon at 36, less than half of either Green or Ross's targets.

The issue here isn't exactly Boyd in double coverage, but Andy Dalton's sincere lack of options to throw to. This team is going to run Joe Mixon into the ground and hope Tyler Eifert comes back to form (the fantasy community remains skeptical), but there isn't the trust in any other receiver the way there is in these two guys, and one will be out for half the season. Even if you believe Boyd is walking into a difficult situation that invites double coverage, something that can absolutely be true, you have to believe that Dalton will still be pressed to have to get him the ball, moving him at least firmly into the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth round.

Where To Take Him: End of 4th/Beginning of 5th
Confidence: Medium
Timeline: If you hold onto him until October, you might as well keep him until AJ Green returns.


Cleveland Browns

The only fantasy commodity in Cleveland you can afford is _________

  1. Dontrell Hilliard
  2. David Njoku
  3. Jaelen Strong
  4. Rashard Higgins

Last year I wrote "Assume Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon will be steady, productive fantasy assets." In a twist, the 2019 sentence has changed to "Odell Beckham Jr. is a lock to be a 2019 fantasy asset, and assume Jarvis Landry will be too." Of course, Landry is going in the 5th round and Beckham at the beginning of the 2nd, so there's nothing affordable there. I love Nick Chubb's value given that he's now the only fantasy threat running the ball until Kareem Hunt returns in eight weeks (Hunt's value ultimately being a different conversation that is aside from this column, but still, it's a stretch to qualify him as affordable.)

The list continues in a suddenly deeper Cleveland Browns offense. David Njoku is the tenth tight end coming off the board in PPR drafts, but his average targets per game being only 3.5. Even as the Browns are seeing a great camp out of Njoku, they aren't seeing the dominant goal line threat that they hoped when they drafted him a few picks behind the great fantasy hope of 2019 tight ends, OJ Howard. You can hope that Howard starts seeing closer to 6 targets a game and wait on tight-end, it's just a little hard to call that value.

So, whose the affordable one? When Rashard Higgins locked in his spot as the 3rd wide receiver, beating out Jaelen Strong, and basically leaving the rest of the depth chart as special teams assets, bench space, or camp cuts. It's a little dramatic to put it that simply, but in reality, what the Browns receivers have in talent they lack in depth. Cut to Higgins. He's seeing the same targets per game average as Njoku, but he's being utilized as a deep threat. Higher yards per reception, higher percentage of successful completions, and the same number of touchdowns.

Higgins is, as of today, going un-drafted. He'll likely be seeing more favorable coverage with corners likely doubling Odell Beckham Jr. He's likely the best last dollar target I'll recommend so far, with the implicit acknowledgement that his targets will have to double and then some. It's a big if.

Where To Take Him: End of Draft
Confidence: Flier
Timeline: Higgins is worth holding onto until at least mid-October, as the team will be figuring this out on the fly a bit and may not have the immediate success they aspire for.

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