2018 Projections: AFC North

This series focuses on projecting players that are expected to be fantasy relevant for all 32 NFL teams. The included projections were built using the Excel Projection Machine which is included in the FFDRAFTPREP package.

Though projections are more meaningful when used to explore player’s ranges of outcomes, those presented represent “best guesses.” Please note that the RB3 and WR4 included for each team have been allocated a percentage of rushing or passing attempts that brings the team’s total to 100 percent. As a result, the stat lines and point totals included for these players may be somewhat inflated. Projected point totals are based on PPR scoring. In an effort to cover all teams as expediently as possible, we will be reviewing the projections on a divisional basis. Key assumptions and notes have been included in bulleted lists.

Can Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown combine for more than 650 fantasy points? Will A.J. Green reassert himself as a top-tier fantasy WR? Is Joe Mixon the real deal? Let’s take a look at the AFC North and see if we can answer these questions!

Pittsburgh Steelers

RUSHING AND TARGET ALLOCATION

PY Alloc

  • The Steelers should be one of the leagues most competitive teams. As a result, the team should be able to accrue more than 1,000 plays.
    • Despite the team’s success, it has substantially favored the pass and this trend is expected to hold.
  • Bell is projected with an insane workload. However, it is right in line with his 16 game pace from the last two seasons.
    • With all signs pointing to 2018 being his last season in Pittsburgh, there’s little reason to expect the team to scale back his work.
  • Bell’s involvement in the passing game and the major workload deserved by Brown limit JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ability to gain a higher target share.
    • In 2013, Emmanuel Sanders was able to control 19 percent of targets. This is the highest total for a Steelers WR2 in the last five seasons.
    • Martavis Bryant logged the second highest total, with 16 percent, in 2015. While it should be noted that he missed five games, Bell missed 11.
    • Smith-Schuster could gain two to four more percentage points if the team moves away from utilizing a third WR. However, the team utilized three-wide receiver sets 66 percent of the time last season.1
  • Jesse James is projected as the TE1 but Vance McDonald is capable of winning the job.

FANTASY PROJECTIONS

PIT PROJ

  • Bell’s projection is absurd! It works out to nearly 24 points per game when allocated across a 16 game season.
    • In 2016, he outpaced this by going for more than 26 points per game. So as ridiculous as 382 points sounds, the precedent is there.
    • Bell is projected with above average efficiency but not league highs, so there’s room for improvement. Regardless of how optimistic this projection seems, it’s not his ceiling.
  • Ben Roethlisberger’s projection gives him more passing yards than his average, but this is due to an increase in passing attempts.
  • Smith-Schuster’s projection assumes a significant decrease in efficiency from the super-human levels he recorded as a rookie. Still, it pegs him with a level slightly above average for a WR2.
  • If James or McDonald could cancel the other out entirely, they’d make for a solid option at tight end.
  • Brown is expected to do Brown-like things. He and Bell could very realistically combine for more than 700 fantasy points.
  • This projection forecasts Pittsburgh with 38 touchdowns, a decrease of five from last season

Baltimore Ravens

RUSHING AND TARGET ALLOCATION

BAL Alloc

  • The Ravens run a lot of plays and significantly favor the pass.

BAL Attempts

  • The team’s projection assumes that Joe Flacco remains the starter.
  • Alex Collins emerged as the team’s best back last season and will be the RB1 controlling the majority of RB work.
  • Willie Snead and John Brown will work their way into the passing rotation, but Michael Crabtree is expected to be favored by a significant margin.

FANTASY PROJECTIONS

BAL Proj

  • Collins’ projection assumes average efficiency, but given his workload, he’s able to project with a solid outcome.
    • In an efficient season, he could be an RB1.2
  • Crabtree has a solid projection as he could lose four percent of his target share and still finish with 170 points.
  • Snead will need to find the end zone more often at his projected target share to become a weekly option.
  • I’d recommend staying away from Baltimore’s rookie TEs. Absent of transitioning the majority of TE2 targets to the team’s TE1, it’s hard to make the position an attractive option.

Cincinnati Bengals

RUSHING AND TARGET ALLOCATION

CIN Alloc

  • I expect the Bengals to see minor improvement over last season.
    • The team will continue to operate at a slower pace, limiting total plays to levels below average.
    • I kept the team’s ratio of rushing to passing plays at levels similar to 2017.
  • Joe Mixon will be the team’s lead back but it has employed a two-back approach for some years. I expect Giovani Bernard to remain involved.
  • Brandon LaFell will remain Cincinnati’s WR2 and the projection assumes that John Ross’ talent rises to the surface and he beats out Tyler Boyd for third on the target totem pole.
  • Tyler Eifert’s health remains a question, as a result, Tyler Kroft has been projected with the TE1 work.3

FANTASY PROJECTIONS

CIN PROJ

  • The most likely thing I have wrong in this projection is the split between Mixon and Bernard. It really comes down to whether or not Mixon has the ability to be an every-down workhorse. His mixture of size/speed and receiving ability suggests he does.
    • If I’m wrong, and the Bengals’ split the backfield opportunity down the middle, Bernard becomes a great value. I estimate that there’s a 25 to 30 percent chance that this is the case. That or Bernard actually steals the majority of work.
    • If you’re managing multiple teams, try to get Bernard on at least one of them.
  • While it is possible for a WR other than Green to emerge as a viable fantasy starter, LaFell was only able to finish as WR39 in 2016. Green played in just 10 games that season.
    • Marvin Jones was able to crack the top-40 while in Cincinnati, but it’s unclear if any of the team’s current receivers can match his talent.
  • Green’s projection forecasts an increase of three points per game over the prior year. With a couple of small bumps in his efficiency, he could climb his way back into Tier 1.
  • Team touchdowns assumed are 34, which is equivalent to the total posted in 2017.

Cleveland Browns

RUSHING AND TARGET ALLOCATION

CLE Alloc

  • Cleveland won zero games last season, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Still, it will be difficult for the team to accrue a play volume that’s near league average.
    • Given the signing of Carlos Hyde, drafting of Nick Chubb, and the addition of two QBs who can use their legs as weapons, the team will rush more in 2018 than it did last season.
  • The projection assumes that Tyrod Taylor will start the majority of games. However, as Baker Mayfield is expected to be used similarly, the projection is likely a valid one, regardless of which QB plays the majority of snaps.
  • I expect Hyde to begin the season as the main rusher but believe that Chubb will overtake the role by season’s end.
    • This limits the number of attempts that Duke Johnson will see, as does the addition of a rushing QB. Further, with a talented TE in David Njoku, the addition of a tremendous asset in the shallow-passing attack in Jarvis Landry, a full season expected from Josh Gordon, and presence of former first-round pick Corey Coleman, Johnson’s target share will suffer.
  • Given Landry’s prowess in the slot, sure hands, and ability to accrue yardage when needed (even if in small chunks), he’ll see the highest percentage of targets, but Gordon won’t be far behind.
  • Despite his talent, a number of things will need to break in the favor of Coleman for him to substantially improve upon his projected 14 percent of targets
  • Njoku will get more looks than last season, but like Coleman, he his ceiling is limited by the abundance of weapons around him.

FANTASY PROJECTIONS

CLE PRoj

  • This projection forecasts Cleveland with an increase of four touchdowns, 31 total, from 2017.
  • Twenty-four passing touchdowns would be the highest total of Taylor’s career, but this is easily the most talented group of WRs he’s ever played with.
  • Unfortunately, the overlap between Hyde and Chubb prevents either from having season-long success.
    • Naturally, if you feel strongly about either back and believe that they will be the guy on rushing downs, they could finish the season as an RB2.
  • While some may see Johnson as the back to draft in Cleveland, his upside is limited this season.
  • Landry and Gordon are not projected with high TD efficiency. If they are to significantly outplay their projections, they will need to find the end zone at higher rates.
    • Taylor has never posted a strong rate of TDs to targets, but as mentioned before, the talent of his receivers could have played a role in this.
  • Considering how bad the Browns were last season, this projection is fairly optimistic. It paints the team’s QB and two main WRs as solid fantasy options.
    • The 2018 version of the Browns has a number of significant differences from last year’s version and appears to have improved. Despite the talent of the team’s offensive weapons, we still need to temper our expectations. One thing to keep in mind is the loss of phenomenal center Joe Thomas to retirement. This could impact pass protection and rushing efficiency.

  1. Thanks to Player Profiler for that statistic.  (back)
  2. Of course, this assumes that he can prevent Allen or Dixon from stealing percentages of his opportunity share.  (back)
  3. At the time of publishing, all signs point to Eifert starting the season on the PUP list.  (back)