KEY ADDITIONS: WR Odell Beckham Jr., DE Olivier Vernon, DT Sheldon Richardson, RB Kareem Hunt
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Tyrod Taylor, G Kevin Zeitler, S Jabrill Peppers, RB Carlos Hyde, LB Jamie Collins, LB Emmanuel Ogbah, RB Duke Johnson Jr.
DRAFT: 2nd round: CB Greedy Williams, LSU 3rd round: OLB Sione Takitaki, BYU 4th round: S Sheldrick Redwine, Miami 5th round: LB Mack Wilson, Alabama K Austin Seibert, Oklahoma 6th round: OT Drew Forbes, Southeast Missouri State 7th round: CB Donnie Lewis Jr., Tulane
SUMMARY: General manager John Dorsey had an offseason to remember and is currently leading my ballot for Executive of the Year. This team, after an incredible offseason, is stacked with talent. Cleveland has Pro Bowlers all over their defensive line, meaning they’ll likely make leaps in all of these metrics: 6288 yards allowed (30th), 24.5 points allowed (21st), 135.2 rushing allowed (28th) 38 sacks (19th).
Given the talent, Cleveland should be in the top half in all of those categories. Myles Garrett should have a breakout season with a lot of the opponent’s attention directed elsewhere. Their secondary is still young but Denzel Ward and company should have easier lives.
On offense, it’s quite the party. Baker Mayfield has all the weapons he needs to succeed. Odell and Landry are a top-three receiver duo and tight end David Njoku and running back Nick Chubb both have demonstrated high ceilings.
Yet, it would be so very much like Cleveland to mess this up. The talent is overwhelming but Freddie Kitchens is in his first year as coach. Cleveland likely loses a game or two due to bad coaching and those games could prove costly to a chance at their first division title since 1989. Failing to win the division would be a disappointment but missing the playoffs altogether, with this lineup, would be yet another stake through the heart of Cleveland.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Nick Chubb
Baker Mayfield has high upside but is going as high as the end of the fourth round in some drafts and for a quarterback who has yet to show how far the rabbit hole goes, I’m not willing to take that risk. Odell could have a career year or see his usage rate drop in a hodge podge of skill positions, which seems more likely. Njoku is a great tight end as well but Chubb is the player I’d take from the Browns. Chubb is going in the second round of most drafts and while Njoku has high upside, Chubb’s command of the backfield, and Duke Johnson Jr.’s trade to boost that command further, are simply impossible to resist.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 10-6
Week 1: vs. TEN Week 2: @NYJ Week 3: vs. LAR Week 4: @BAL Week 5: @SF Week 6: vs. SEA Week 7: BYE Week 8: @NE Week 9: @DEN Week 10: vs. BUF Week 11: vs. PIT Week 12: vs. MIA Week 13: @PIT Week 14: vs. CIN Week 15: @ARI Week 16: vs. BAL Week 17: @CIN
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Steven Nelson, LB Mark Barron, WR Donte Moncrief
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Antonio Brown, RB Le’Veon Bell, S Morgan Burnett, LB Jon Bostic, WR Eli Rogers, CB Coty Sensabaugh
DRAFT: 1st round: LB Devin Bush, Michigan 3rd round: WR Diontae Johnson, Toledo CB Justin Layne, Michigan State 4th round: RB Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky 5th round: TE Zach Gentry, Michigan 6th round: LB Sutton Smith, Northern Illinois DT Isaiah Buggs, Alabama LB Ulysees Gilbert III, Akron 7th round: G Derwin Gray, Maryland
SUMMARY: The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team who can’t get out of their own way. Despite having what is undeniably a top-five offensive line, they refused to run the ball, finishing 31st in the league with 1,445, just ahead of Arizona. James Conner demonstrated improvement between his rookie and second year, and in Bell’s absence, showed workhorse potential, accumulating close to 1,000 yards rushing in 13 games on a 4.5 clip. At that clip, you would expect the Steelers to pound the rock. You would be wrong.
With Todd Haley gone, there’s no one in the Steelers’ coaching staff to curtail Ben’s ego. With Randy Fichtner at OC, Ben essentially calls the offense and Ben loves his own number, even when it’s not in the team’s best interest. Pittsburgh may have rid themselves of two cancers in the locker room but one still remains.
The Steelers are unlikely to take advantage of their outstanding run game and will be stuck force feeding Ben most weeks. This strategy will cost the Steelers one contest this season if not two and in a more competitive AFC, that might be the difference between the team making and not making the playoffs.
The defense is still coached by an incompetent coordinator who’s reluctant or ignorant of opposing offense’s adaptations mid-game and Tomlin has lost my faith after losing the locker room and allowing the team to become a soap opera.
Despite all the turmoil, Pittsburgh is still a talented team. Talented teams generally make it interesting but poor coaching, management and play-calling will get them in the end, as it always does.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Ben Roethlisberger
JuJu Smith-Schuster is a talented receiver who will shine in Antonio Brown’s absence and James Conner looked like a game changer when healthy last season. However, Pittsburgh’s a pass-happy team with a pass-happy, egotistical quarterback. Ben chucked the ball a ton last year, 675 times to be exact. That was nearly 35 times, or about a whole game’s worth, more than Andrew Luck and almost 70, or about two game’s worth, more than the next man up, Matt Ryan. Given that usage rate, Ben should be a capable QB starter if not a flat-out QB1. Current rankings in ppr have him as a ninth-rounder. Ben finished third among quarterbacks last year. I understand the road struggles but usage rate, man.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 9-7
Week 1: @NE Week 2: vs. SEA Week 3: @SF Week 4: vs. CIN Week 5: vs. BAL Week 6: @LAC Week 7: BYE Week 8: vs. MIA Week 9: vs. IND Week 10: vs. LAR Week 11: @CLE Week 12: @CIN Week 13: vs. CLE Week 14: @ARI Week 15: vs. BUF Week 16: @NYJ Week 17: @BAL
KEY ADDITIONS: FS Earl Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, CB Justin Bethel, LB Pernell McPhee
KEY DEPARTURES: LB C.J. Mosley, LB Za’Darius Smith, FS Eric Weddle, WR John Brown, LB Terrell Suggs, WR Michael Crabtree, RB Alex Collins, TE Maxx Williams, OL Alex Lewis, DT Brent Urban, OL Jermaine Eluemunor
DRAFT: 1st round: WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma 3rd round: DE Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech WR Miles Boykin, Notre Dame 4th round: RB Justice Hill, Oklahoma State G Ben Powers, Oklahoma CB Iman Marshall, USC 5th round: DT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M 6th round: QB Trace McSorley, Penn State
SUMMARY: The Baltimore Ravens are a victim of the salary cap this season. Many teams can push off their death, alleviate the pain even but all teams, at some point or another, go through it. It helps bring balance to the sport.
When C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith both entered contract years, everyone, including the Ravens, knew they were in trouble. Two of the team’s best players, the two cogs of the front seven, needed new agreements and both were due a lot of money.
The Ravens were unable to bring back either and while the contracts both signed were pricey and likely unaffordable for Baltimore (Mosley for five years and $85 million, Smith for 4 and $66), it doesn’t alleviate the hole in the roster. Pernell McPhee was brought back home to play edge while Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board and Kenny Young enter the middle, all relatively unknown commodities who are extremely unlikely to replicate a franchise linebacker’s production. Safety Eric Weddle and franchise edge rusher Terrell Suggs left for retirement tours elsewhere. The Ravens also have bad contracts in freshly-signed Tavon Young (season-ending injury yet again), Willie Snead and Brandon Carr to get out from under.
The defense finished first in yards against and second in points allowed at the conclusion of the 2018 campaign. They were really good and they’ll be good this year, they’re Baltimore, but they’ll fall in the rankings. They’ve simply lost too much this offseason.
On the plus side, if Earl Thomas returns to form, he’s an upgrade from Weddle, though far more expensive. I liked the Ravens draft. Oklahoma G Ben Powers likely starts the season while receivers Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin have a chance to become the franchise receiver Baltimore has been looking for since their inception. Running back Justice Hill is getting some praise in football circles and Trace McSorley is similar to Lamar Jackson.
And finally, onto Lamar. Jackson is a great athlete; I don’t doubt his speed. However, there were flags in his rookie tape, specifically a struggle to make basic NFL throws and concerning ball security. The Ravens are smart to run a system tailored to his skill set but I also hesitate to crown a team with a quarterback who will be lucky to throw 20 touchdowns. Jackson has a chance to run for 1,000 yards this season, something only one player has ever done. A bet on that at the sportsbook seems reasonable and we’ve seen the Ravens succeed with their scheme before. However, we also saw it stonewalled after only a few weeks and I believe teams will adapt and thwart it later in the season, leaving Baltimore on the outside looking in.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Mark Ingram
With the Ravens installing a run-first offense, newcomer Mark Ingram seems the most likely candidate for an upswing. Baltimore has been a run-first offense for almost their entire existence and will be so again this year. Ingram is ranked 45 in Matthew Berry’s rankings, placing him in late third, early fourth territory. Ingram, given the scheme and work share, should be a capable RB2. If you somehow squeeze him into your flex, you’re golden.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 7-9
Week 1: @MIA Week 2: vs. ARI Week 3: @KC Week 4: vs. CLE Week 5: @PIT Week 6: vs. CIN Week 7: @SEA Week 8: BYE Week 9: vs. NE Week 10: @CIN Week 11: vs. HOU Week 12: @LAR Week 13: vs. SF Week 14: @BUF Week 15: vs. NYJ Week 16: @CLE Week 17: vs. PIT
KEY ADDITIONS: CB B.W. Webb, G John Miller
KEY DEPARTURES: LB Vontaze Burfict, TE Tyler Kroft, LT Cedric Ogbuehi, DE Michael Johnson, G Clint Boling, G Christian Westerman
DRAFT: 1st round: T Jonah Williams, Alabama 2nd round: TE Drew Sample, Washington 3rd round: LB Germaine Pratt, NC State 4th round: QB Ryan Finley, NC State DT Renell Wren, Arizona State G Michael Jordan, Ohio State 6th round: RB Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M LB Deshaun Davis, Auburn RB Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma 7th round: CB Jordan Brown, South Dakota State
SUMMARY: Cincinnati did the impossible: they fired Marvin Lewis.
Lewis should have been fired years before but it seemed there was nothing the man could do to cause dismay within the organization. Alas, the shoe finally dropped and now Zac Taylor coaches the Bengals, though they’ve been the Bungles as of late, bungling all over themselves. Last year, the orange and black finished in the bottom third in total offense and passing. The days of A.J. Green bailing them out are nearing an end. The Bengals missed their window.
The franchise is in rebuild mode, though they have their receiver in the future in Tyler Boyd (four-year extension worth $43 million, a reasonable and financially responsible investment). Notwithstanding, the injury bug is alive and well in Ohio. Jonah Williams, this year’s first-rounder, will miss the season following shoulder surgery. 2018 first-rounder Billy Price missed his rookie year with injury as did 2016 first-rounder William Jackson III and 2017 first-round choice John Ross might has well have missed his, playing in only three games. Four consecutive years without your first-round choice is quite a record and it’s no surprise the team has struggled to fill the holes the last few seasons. At this point, I think the team prays for health more than wins.
Andy Dalton’s prime years are behind him and his future with the franchise foggy at best. The team could have cut him this season and suffered only a $200,000 cap penalty, a direction I thought they’d go in to maximize their draft slot but management has chosen otherwise. Either way, Dalton’s final year is essentially an option year and Cincinnati has no commitment to keep it on the books. It’s likely they run with Driskel or Lindley next season or target a new franchise head for 2020.
With the exception of Joe Mixon, who’s one of the league’s best young backs, not much is going on in the jungle these days. Cincinnati re-signed a lot of their roster (LB Preston Brown, CB Darqueze Dennard, RT Andre Smith, to name a few) and will be running the gauntlet with many of the same faces. The team’s secondary hasn’t lived up to its draft stock yet and the linebacker group is especially thin. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap still provide the defense a lethal d-line that may give teams trouble but expect the win column to be low.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Joe Mixon
In fantasy, I tend to target usage rate. Who is getting the biggest share of the offense, will get more targets/carries, etc? Joe Mixon’s usage rate this year is going to be high. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get 300 carries. With A.J. Green sidelined to start the season and Andy Dalton deteriorating, Mixon will start strong out of the gate. Mixon is an RB1 in the second round. Take him.
SCHEDULE PROJECTED RECORD: 4-12
Week 1: @SEA Week 2: vs. SF Week 3: @BUF Week 4: @PIT Week 5: vs. ARI Week 6: @BAL Week 7: vs. JAC Week 8: vs. LAR Week 9: BYE Week 10: vs. BAL Week 11: @OAK Week 12: vs. PIT Week 13: vs. NYJ Week 14: @CLE Week 15: vs. NE Week 16: @MIA Week 17: vs. CLE