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Each NFL team is its own fantasy football organism. Will they thrive or die in 2018? This series outlines the critical questions for each team across their skill position depth charts. In this edition: AFC North
Where is the tight end value in the AFC North?
Only David Njoku has a top-16 positional ADP among the tight ends in the AFC North. How should fantasy owners leverage the cumulative low investment in this division at tight end?
Verdict: David Njoku has the pedigree, but will have an uphill battle for targets in Cleveland between a strong wide receiver and running back corps, plus likely low volume as a collective offense. Tyler Eifert is solidly in TE2 range of ADP, but considering he is already (still) having health issues, fantasy owners need to steer clear of the one-hit-wonder in drafts. Instead, the value lies with low-cost Tyler Kroft and Vance McDonald in the division. McDonald is the current version of what Pittsburgh hoped Ladarius Green would provide in a previous edition - a seam-stretching athlete who can exploit the consistent single coverage as an ancillary option in Pittsburgh's dynamic passing game. McDonald has a positional ADP well outside the top-20. Kroft is a hedge against the health of Tyler Eifert. Kroft has average around 9 PPR PPG with Eifert out of the lineup in recent years and averaging close to half a touchdown per contest. Kroft is outside the top-30 tight ends in ADP and is a matchup TE2, at worst, any week Eifert is out.
Verdict: Starting with Alex Collins, he has minimal depth chart pressure in Baltimore. Kenneth Dixon is a wild card but is returning from a lost year from injury and suspension. The common formula for finding an undervalued RB1 producer is generally in the RB20-30 range of ADP and the presumed (but overlooked) Week 1 starter. Collins fits the criteria exactly for 2018. The Baltimore passing game lost four of its five highest target totals from 2017 (Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Ben Watson, Danny Woodhead), totaling more than 280 available targets. Michael Crabtree is one of the easiest bets for 110 or more targets with upside from there. Even with modest efficiency, 110 targets translates to a top-24 fantasy finish with top-16 firmly in play for most receivers. With an uncertain depth chart at tight end, Collins and Crabtree are two of the most sturdy selections in the middle rounds.
Joe Mixon continues to rise as a breakout projection in 2018; is he more risk or reward?
Joe Mixon is commonly drafted in the RB10-15 range, somewhere in Rounds 2-3 in fantasy drafts.
Verdict: 2017 was an up-and-down rookie season for Joe Mixon, the occasional flash mixed with poor offensive line play and a running back looking a little heavy. Reports are Mixon has trimmed down this offseason and there is no added competition on the depth chart beyond incumbent Giovani Bernard. Outside of potential development from last year's first-round pick John Ross, the Bengals passing game depth chart is unchanged as well, and on the light side. Diving into Mixon as a prospect, of his peers as 220+ pounds with athleticism and receiving scores both above 80% in the projection model, the rookie year producers of at least 9.0 PPR PPG in Year 1 have strong upticks in their second seasons. Qualifiers include Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, Steven Jackson, and Ricky Williams of note, and four of those five hit at least 16 PPR PPG in Year 2. While aggressively priced, it is appropriate with Mixon having the profile of a league-winning running back, especially if owners can draft him as their RB2 in 2018.
Who is the No. 2 receiver in Baltimore and does it matter for fantasy?
Michael Crabtree is locked into the WR1 role for the Ravens, but with a myriad of available targets, the No.2 role can provide fantasy value in 2018.
Verdict: As mentioned in the Michael Crabtree section, Baltimore has more than 280 targets available from last year's distribution. Challengers for the No.2 role are primarily John Brown and Willie Snead, both previously productive on other teams. Brown is the most intriguing of the two with his dynamic athleticism. As a smaller receiver, Brown profiled similarly to T.Y. Hilton, Brandin Cooks, and Santonio Holmes as a prospect. Brown's main hurdle since his breakout season in Arizona has been his sickle cell condition. Considering the top tight end for Baltimore may collect less than 50 targets, 100+ looks are possible for the No.2 receiver, which is enough volume for WR3 fantasy production. Snead had a lost 2017 season in New Orleans following an early-season suspension, seeing only 16 targets in 11 games as the offense moved on without him. Snead is a higher floor option than Brown, but if one turns into a top-30 option, bet on the speedster Brown. Both have an ADP outside the top-90 receivers by July data.
Jarvis Landry enjoyed a high volume of targets in Miami, will it continue in Cleveland?
Jarvis Landry had the fifth-most targets of wide receivers over the past three seasons, producing more than 3,000 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns over the span.
Verdict: The Browns threw the ball plenty in 2017 with negative game scripts and an inefficient quarterback group. However, no receiver had more than Ricardo Louis' 61 targets last season. The problem with Jarvis Landry's target upside for 2018 is two-fold. First, the Browns are improving and likely to see more positive game scripts and opportunities to stick with the run game (their three strong running backs will also siphon plenty of offensive production). Secondly, Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, David Njoku in Year 2, and Duke Johnson Jr are substantially more talent competition for targets than Landry's Miami setting of the last three seasons. The sentiment is backed by the Footballguys staff projects with Landry in the WR3 zone of fantasy production, a stark drop to around 80 receptions.
LeVeon Bell is projected to report late (again) in 2018. Should fantasy owners be worried?
Without agreeing to a long-term deal, LeVeon Bell will play under a one-year deal in 2018 and, once again, report leading up to Week 1.
Verdict: LeVeon Bell tempted the odds with a late report and a huge workload in 2017. It paid off with an impressive 15-game run of production, averaging 27 touches per contest. In addition to suspension risk, Bell is coming off 400+ touches, a volume only hit by DeMarco Murray and Chris Johnson over the past 10 seasons. Despite being in their mid-20s after the 400-touch season, neither Murray or Johnson ever approached an equal fantasy season to their peak again. The concern with Bell is also the cost, a top selection amidst a crop of strong running back candidates who are either younger and/or coming off lower workload seasons.
The Browns arguably have the best trio of running backs in the NFL. Is it best to avoid or embrace their depth chart for fantasy?
Verdict: The good news is the Browns offense should be much improved and seeing more positive game scripts in 2018. On the flip side, three capable backs will share the backfield and a single ball. All are relatively affordable in the RB25-40 range, so their fantasy role is more in the depth zone with upside than relying on them weekly as an auto-start. Duke Johnson Jr as the pass-centric option (70+ targets each of the last three seasons) has the most predictable, albeit tempered for fantasy, role to be a flex consideration. The real debate is what happens between Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb on early downs and at the goal line. The storyline of the offseason had the Browns give a significant contract to Carlos Hyde, but one they can cut after this season. With plenty of cap room, Hyde's signing gave the team flexibility heading into the NFL Draft. They were able to draft Nick Chubb in Round 2, a scenario they were probably not expecting, a greater indicator of their big-picture plan. Expect Carlos Hyde to be the de facto starter early in the season, only to give way to Nick Chubb as the season progresses. The key for fantasy owners will be blending the rest of their running back decisions around selecting Hyde (more likely to help early in the season) or Chubb (better chance to be a late-season impact) after selecting one in the middle rounds.