2020 Fantasy Football Preview: AFC North draft targets

Paul Charchian joins follow the money to discuss how high a player like Lamar Jackson should get drafted, noting the excitement factor is massive for the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

With the 2020 NFL season fast approaching, so is the fantasy football draft season.

To help get you ready, Sportsnet’s Andy McNamara will break down a division position by position every Friday until the start of the campaign.

Next up: the AFC North.

QUARTERBACK

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

The reigning NFL MVP and No. 1 fantasy producer naturally has owners frothing at the mouth to grab Jackson as their quarterback. However, no quarterback since 2013 who finished first in fantasy points came in the top-five the following season. Who knows what that means for Jackson in 2020, but it is something to keep in mind.

Despite all the accolades the Baltimore signal-caller amassed a year ago, I urge people not to reach for him in the first two rounds. You’ll be missing out on those increasingly rare true bell-cow running backs in those slots. Instead, build out your roster and still nab an upper-echelon fantasy quarterback in the middle rounds.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Last season was a write-off for Roethlisberger after suffering a serious elbow injury to his throwing arm that required surgery. The season prior, Big Ben was a QB3, chucking it up for over 5,000 yards and 34 touchdowns. Can he replicate similar stats at age 38?

The future Hall of Famer has a good supporting cast in Pittsburgh, and should be looked at as a back-end starter in 12-team leagues.

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

After setting the rookie passing touchdown record in 2018, Mayfield came crashing back to Earth last season. Don’t expect a repeat of the gunslinger’s second-lowest completion percentage in 2020 under new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s quarterback-friendly offence.

Stefanski’s wide-zone scheme is the evolution of the Mike Shanahan, son Kyle and Gary Kubiak’s system that focuses heavily on play-action. A strong running game forces defences to stay honest and allows for chunk gains through the air.

There will be no excuses for Mayfield to not rebound with the stacked arsenal he has at his disposal.

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

I’m not going out on a limb by saying that Burrow should no doubt be the first rookie quarterback off the board in any dynasty draft. However, for 2020, the LSU star should at best be a risky second in two-quarterback leagues. I just don’t trust first-year signal callers on my fantasy team because of the inevitable turnovers and learning curve at the pro level.

RUNNING BACK

Cleveland Browns

A true double threat in the backfield as Cleveland boasts rising star Nick Chubb and former rushing-title holder Kareem Hunt. In most cases this duo would suggest a committee, but in this new Browns run-heavy attack there should be enough meat for both to eat.

Chubb was a RB6 in standard leagues and ranked eighth in PPR last season under the (at times) random play calling of now ex-head coach Freddie Kitchens. The Georgia Bulldog product finished second in rushing yards only to Derrick Henry and is primed for another heavy workload. Chubb is a no-brainer late-first-round pick in any fantasy draft.

Hunt presents a more interesting scenario as he could become more of a modified slot receiver than traditional running back. The former Kansas City Chief should be considered a high-end flex in PPR only.

Cincinnati Bengals

It’s remarkable what Joe Mixon was able to accomplish in 2019 behind an atrocious offensive line and a club in full tank mode. Despite that, he still finished a RB11 in standard leagues, rumbling for 1,137 rushing yards with 35 receptions and eight total scores.

Cincinnati’s still got a long way to go but they’re improved, and the 23-year-old is the undisputed starter. Slot in Mixon as a top-of-the-pile RB2.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) rushes against Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21). (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Head coach Mike Tomlin has commented that he wants to “lean” on James Conner as his lead running back and that Benny Snell would be looked to if injury struck. Refreshing clarity for the fantasy community!

The best ability is availability, and Conner just hasn’t been consistently available throughout his career. Over 14 games in 2018, he exploded for 12 touchdowns, but I just can’t trust him and that’s why Conner falls just outside an RB2 slot on my fantasy team.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are much better set up for real-life football at the running back position then for fantasy. This is a full-fledged committee folks, and coach John Harbaugh commented that he hopes to keep all four running backs involved. Now mix in how much Lamar Jackson takes off and we’re in a real mess.

Mark Ingram polished off 2019 as the eighth-best fantasy rusher in half-PPR and that will surely dip with Ohio State star rookie J.K. Dobbins joining the fold alongside Gus Edwards and Justice Hill.

The unknown workload is too sporadic for my liking.

WIDE RECEIVER

Pittsburgh Steelers

Overall, the AFC North is arguably the deepest division when it comes to quality wide receivers. Ben Roethlisberger’s return makes all the difference here as JuJu Smith-Schuster attempts to recapture his glorious 1,426-yard season from 2018. JuJu’s a better No. 2, in my opinion, but if his supporting cast steps up he could rise.

Juju-Smith-Schuster-Pittsburgh-Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. (James Kenney/AP)

Canadian rookie Chase Claypool is an athletic freak of nature and needs to be collected in keeper leagues. However, I could see him starting slow as the Steelers try to figure out how to utilize him best. James Washington and Diontae Johnson’s similarities as five-foot-10 slot receivers with speed neutralize their fantasy value as PPR bench-depth components.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns receiver group possesses all-star personas in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, but can new head coach Kevin Stefanski link it all up with Baker Mayfield? OBJ and Juice are both rehabbing from off-season surgeries and should be good to go for September.

Beckham’s first campaign in Cleveland produced the most underwhelming 1,000-yard effort I’ve ever seen. He was being force-fed the ball, wasn’t comfortable with the playbook, and entered the end zone on just four occasions. Beckham hasn’t been a fantasy force since 2016, and I would place him no higher than a WR3 on my roster until he consistently delivers.

Landry’s sure hands and incredible work ethic make him a rock-solid back-end WR2 in any format.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have amassed a nice set of toys for their new first-overall selected quarterback Joe Burrow. A returning A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, plus rookie Tee Higgins, give the Heisman Trophy winner some options on a team that will likely be playing from behind a lot.

Green is the wild card, having now signed his franchise tag contract, and one I’m not willing to invest any significant draft capital in. His ankle injury is reportedly fully healed, but I would take Boyd over him at this point.

Boyd could explode if Green stays healthy by benefitting from opposition secondary coverage, while six-foot-four Higgins checks all the boxes as a future star and is a must-draft in dynasty formats.

Baltimore Ravens

This Baltimore offence is solely built around Lamar Jackson and that hurts the fantasy upside of everyone else around him. Marquise Brown is a fine player, as is sophomore Miles Boykin, but passing the football is not the focal point in Baltimore.

Be very cautious and set low expectations when selecting a Ravens receiver.

TIGHT END

Baltimore Ravens

The one passing option in Baltimore that seemed to still be able to thrive from their run-first mentality is Mark Andrews. Even in a three-headed tight end committee, Andrews emerged as the go-to and now should have even more looks with the departure of Hayden Hurst. Nearly 100 targets, 64 receptions, 10 touchdowns for 852 yards is no joke.

The 86th pick in 2018 was a TE2 in standard league and fifth in PPR. Even if there is some regression, the fantasy tight end situation is so thin that he is a must-own.

Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews (89) celebrates with wide receiver Marquise Brown (15) celebrates after scoring a 39-yard touchdown against the Cleveland Browns. (David Richard/AP)

Cleveland Browns

Adding Austin Hooper in free agency made a lot of sense for the Browns as they integrate a two-tight-end, heavy-rushing system. Hooper is just entering his prime at 25 coming off a 2020 run that found him sitting as the sixth- or seventh-best tight end in fantasy. Don’t be surprised by a top-five finish.

Fade on incumbent David Njoku, who has asked for a trade, and it’s too early to know how rookie Harrison Bryant will be utilized.

Pittsburgh Steelers

It seems like each year we always anticipate a surge from a Steelers tight end and it just never happens. Well, I’ll bite once again as Eric Ebron joins the fold and that pushes the underperforming Vance McDonald to the background.

I’m an Ebron believer after he caught 66 passes in 2018 for 13 touchdowns, proving he could handle a starter workload. Outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster, there’s a lot of targets up for grabs from the returning Big Ben. There are some durability concerns, but I’m picturing a high ceiling for the six-year veteran.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cue the vomit emoji for Cincinnati’s tight end fantasy football relevance. C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample are merely warm bodies that don’t warrant any consideration.

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