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AFC North Fantasy Preview: Sleepers Galore

Baltimore Ravens: The AFC North is kind of like the “Where’s Waldo?” of divisions in fantasy football. The talent is there, but it’s not very evident. Maybe no team in the division is more representative of that statement than the Ravens. They are still focused around defense, but there are certainly some quality offensive players to be had.

He will be racking up the yards in '09

He will be racking up the yards in '09

Running back Ray Rice was a super sleeper in the early days of summer, but now he’s a guy that everyone is looking at to fill their RB/WR flex spot. He is locked in as the Ravens’ starting back and that’s going to lead to a ton of touches. Rice is a very good receiver and is kind of built like an amateur edition of Maurice Jones-Drew. He could easily get 250-300 carries and 50+ catches this year.

The only problem with Rice — is that it doesn’t look like the team will let him finish many drives. Le’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee are both bigger than Rice and will most likely steal all potential goal-line touches. McClain seems to be a change-of-pace back right now because it’s McGahee who has surprisingly been getting a lot of short-yardage carries this preseason. McClain is about 30 pounds bigger than McGahee, but the team might be trying just to keep Willis happy. Regardless, both backs should be drafted long after Rice. I think he will put up 1,300-1,400 total yards this year. He may cash those in for only a few TDs, though.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is not going to throw for 4,000 yards, but look at what he did after week six last season. He threw 13 touchdowns next to just five interceptions and averaged a little less than 200 yards per game. What’s the point? Flacco won’t hurt you and will consistently get you about 10-12 points each week. He has plenty of upside and a chance to finish the year as a top-15 fantasy QB.

Flacco’s option’s main option is just like him: not flashy, but consistent. There’s no shame in drafting Derrick Mason as your third wide receiver. You know what you are going to get: A durable WR who will put up 1,000 yards and 5-7 scores. I think that’s better to have than possible bust candidates such as Anthony Gonzalez or Lance Moore.

I’m disregarding all other Ravens receivers because Mark Clayton doesn’t produce enough, week-to-week, and I’ll believe all these rumors about Todd Heap having a rebound year when I see it.

Again, the Ravens are built on defense and there is no doubt that they have one of the best defenses in fantasy. But if you haven’t learned it by now, you are an idiot if you pay an eighth-round price for any defense. Spend that pick on a skill position and then play defense-by-committee. Just pick up the best defense every week with the most favorable matchup. You’ll be MUCH better off**.

**This point is stressed even stronger with kickers. They belong in only the final two rounds.

Cleveland Browns: We are less than a week away from the start of the regular season and the Browns have yet to announce who is their starting quarterback. Maybe they are trying to keep the Minnesota Vikings, their week one opponent, in the dark. Brady Quinn had a better preseason than Derek Anderson, but he’s been really trying hard to win the job. So which one do you want?

None of them.

If it was obvious as to who should be this team’s quarterback, the starter would have been announced a long time ago. The silence shows that, even if a decision has been made, it’s plausible to think that this below-average battle is ongoing. The fact is the Browns don’t really have a true starting quarterback right now, just a couple of glorified backups.

Braylon Edwards let passes slip through his hands like grains of sand last year, but he can’t possibly be any worse this season. He’s currently outside the top-15 drafted WRs, which I think makes him a bit of a steal as your second wideout.

Who will start alongside Edwards at wide receiver? Eh, head coach Eric Mangini doesn’t really care to decide on that either.

The most interesting aspect of the Browns from a fantasy perspective is at running back. Jamal Lewis is the starter for now, but he is reportedly lucky to still have a job . With all the fuss being made about LaDainian Tomlinson turning 30, it’s hard to imagine that Lewis is the same age because played in the  preseason as if he was 40. He gained 63 yards on 24 carries in the four games.

Jamal Lewis, please meet the bench

Jamal Lewis, please meet the bench

Meanwhile, rookie James Davis, who gained 186 yards on 24 carries this preseason and is a much better receiver than Lewis, is the Cleveland Browns running back you want to own. He is a hard runner and can break the big gainer. My guess is that Davis will be getting the majority of the carries by week 6. Lewis is just cooked.

Cincinnati Bengals: I shouldn’t even have to run through the Bengals because if you’ve been watching the greatest reality show ever, Hard Knocks, you know all about the inner-workings of the Bengals. I saw some spoiler alerts today, but I’ll leave them to myself for those of you who want to find out which players made the team and which got cut.

Anyway, the Bengals obviously need quarterback Carson Palmer if they are going to go anywhere (Anyone remember Ryan Fitzpatrick last year? That was funny/hard to watch). Palmer sprained an ankle in the first preseason game and he still has a frayed ligament in his right throwing elbow, but he said last week that he will be ready to start the team’s season-opener against Denver on Sept. 13. Protection may be a problem for Palmer and you still have to worry about that elbow, but if everything is as good as the Bengals’ camp makes it seem, Palmer could be a top-10 quarterback.

Of course, most things aren’t as good as they seem.

Cedric Benson has never been as good as his No. 4 overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft. But in the final two weeks of last season, he turned a ton of fantasy owners into champions with a combined 282 yards rushing. He has a new two-year deal worth $7 million in his pocket now and it will be interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off.

A full season of this should be fantastic

A full season of this should be fantastic

My quick judgment: No.

It is Cedric Benson. He’s still pretty slow and isn’t much of a receiver. If you can get him for bench depth, great. You will only want Benson as a bye-week fill-in. And then after he gets hurt, you will have to take notice of Bernard Scott or DeDe Dorsey.

I have high hopes for the Bengals’ wideouts. I think Chad Ochocinco (that’s so much fun to type!) is a steal as a No. 2 fantasy receiver. It’s obvious that the lack of Palmer crushed Ochocinco’s 2008 season. With him back and maybe a renewed sense of focus without his favorite toy, I think you can expect an easy 1,100 yards and seven scores for Ochocinco, and those are very conservative predictions.

Laveranues Coles was brought in to be T.J. Houshmandzadeh lite, but I think he will actually end up being passed on the depth chart and in the minds of fantasy owners by Chris Henry. Henry has the size and the speed. Palmer has called him a Randy Moss duplicate for the longest time. Henry scored a touchdown in each preseason game this year and maybe best of all, he has gone more than 17 months since being arrested!

Henry will be very streaky and may give you a couple of Sundays of 20-30 yards, but he is a great value as the third or fourth receiver for your team around the 10th round. He has an outside shot at 10 touchdowns.

Pittsburgh Steelers: I’ll say it again: I don’t care if a defense is really good — the Steelers’ defense is the top-ranked unit according to many fantasy football Web sites — you better not pick a defense until at least round 12 or you will be handicapping your team.

Moving on to positions that matter … running back Willie Parker has missed six games in the past two seasons and the Steelers should want to see what 2008 first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall has to offer, but head coach Mike Tomlin said not so fast last week.

Parker isn’t the most durable of backs and Mendenhall would still be the smart choice for goal-line work, but Mendenhall hasn’t impressed when given his opportunity. Word is that the Steelers still don’t really know what they have in Mendenhall and until he shows more explosiveness, Parker will get the large majority of carries in Pittsburgh. He is a nice fantasy player as a flex play.

With injuries to Parker and Mendenhall, Ben Roethlisberger was kind of forced to carry the offensive load by himself. The Steelers have to run the ball to be successful and ranking 23rd in rushing isn’t going to do it. It also doesn’t help that Big Ben (sorry, but that last name is not as fun to spell) has taken 139 sacks in the past three years. If the Steelers revive their running routes and protect their quarterback better, Ben will probably see his numbers rocket back up to near 2007 levels.

Hines Ward is another stable receiver from this division, but I actually don’t have as much faith in him as I do in a player such as Derrick Mason. Ward is a bigger injury risk.

Much like what happened with Eli Manning’s draft stock immediately after the Giants won the Super Bowl, Santonio Holmes is being selected way too high in most drafts because too many people are remembering Holmes’ postseason. But this is a player who hasn’t eclipsed 1,000 yards in any of his three seasons and he is playing second fiddle behind Ward in a grounded offense.

Santana Moss, Donnie Avery, Mason, Ward and a few others instead of Holmes, but unfortunately, those players find themselves behind Santonio in a lot of leagues.

Lastly, if you end up with Heath Miller at tight end, you took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

You do understand that this touchdown does not carry over to this season, right?

You do understand that this touchdown does not carry over to this season, right?

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