By Tzali Nislick
A lot went on in the AFC North last year. Between Lamar Jackson winning league MVP honors to the Browns underperforming, it was a storyline-filled season for this division. Things could get even more interesting this year though, with Ben Roethlisberger coming back from injury and Joe Burrow entering his rookie year after an electric 2019 season at LSU. So without further adieu, let’s preview the fantasy-relevant players from the AFC North for the 2020 season.
More from this series:
Lamar Jackson: Let me preface what I’m about to say by stating what Lamar Jackson did last season was special. But he will regress this season without a doubt. And I’m not suggesting that he’ll fall off and finish as the QB5 or anything like that, because I still do believe he’s a top-2 fantasy quarterback. But his insane 27.7 PPG from a year ago is just not sustainable. After Patrick Mahomes went ballistic and finished as the QB1 in 2018, he was sixth among quarterbacks in PPG last year despite being drafted as the number one QB in the third round. After Peyton Manning tossed 49 touchdowns in 2004, he threw for 800 less yards and 21 fewer touchdowns the following season and his TD% slipped from 9.9% to 6.2%, which by the way was still better than his career 5.7 TD%. The thing that people don’t understand about statistically historical seasons is that they’re statistically historical for a reason; few people are able to accomplish what was just accomplished. Again, I’m not saying Jackson will fall off, because he’s still a top-2 QB for me. But I don’t expect him to repeat his nearly 30 PPG clip and you won’t see me biting at his ADP which currently sits at 21st overall. I won’t hate on people who do take him that high though, because they’ll be getting an elite performer week in and week out. But I’d rather take a running back or wide receiver and find a better value at quarterback later on.
Mark Ingram: Mark Ingram was a steady is it got last year, scoring below 8 fantasy points just once and double digits 10 times. That was good enough for him to finish as the RB11 last season. But now at 3-years old and the with Ravens drafting JK Dobbins, Ingram’s ceiling isn’t nearly as high anymore. I can’t imagine Baltimore wants to take the ball out of Jackson’s hands to create extra carries for Ingram and Dobbins and Ingram doesn’t offer much in the receiving game. His five receiving touchdowns, which was more than Christian McCaffrey, seem like an anomaly considering he caught just 26 passes. I think Ingram is more a fringe RB2 this season with more value coming in non-PPR leagues.
JK Dobbins: While I’m down on Ingram this year, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m high on Dobbins, especially since he’ll likely be behind Ingram on the depth chart. But it shouldn’t be long before Baltimore involves him somehow. If anything were to happen to Ingram, Dobbins could become an RB2 but for 2020 he’s not much more than a late-round flier.
Marquise Brown: Marquise Brown proved in Week 1 last season why the Ravens took him 25th overall in 2019, showing his big play ability with 147 yards and two touchdowns. He was pretty inconsistent for the rest of the season, but he enters 2020 as a prime breakout candidate. With Lamar Jackson’s continued development as a passer I could see Brown being much more of a factor this year. Like any big play deep threat, I’d expect some inconsistency and a few duds here and there, but the upside is there and his WR30 ADP feels about right.
Mark Andrews: I wrote about Mark Andrews as one of my must-haves for the 2020 season. He finished as the TE5 overall last year and was the TE2 in non-PPR leagues. Entering his age-24 season, I think that lands him in the elite tight end conversation. He’s not as good as Travis Kelce or George Kittle, but I believe he’s a better value in the middle rounds for anyone (like myself) who doesn’t want to spend a second or third rounder on a tight end. Baltimore only eliminated competition for Andrews this year by trading Hayden Hurst over the offseason. I think that helps Hurst more than it does Andrews, but we’ll get to that when we preview the NFC South. Andrews’ role as Jackson’s number one pass catcher seems to be secure on what should be another high-flying offense in 2020.
Joe Burrow: Joe Burrow also made my must-have list. Needless to say his 2019 season at LSU was special and was arguably the greatest Heisman season ever. He won’t have Joe Brady as his OC or Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson to throw to,but the Bengals’ weapons are pretty underrated. Tyler Boyd has posted back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, AJ Green is still talented despite his injury history and then there’s the youth of Tee Higgins and John Ross. Most rookie quarterbacks struggle, but I actually anticipate Burrow putting together a nice season. There’s also the potential for garbage time points, with the Bengals expected to have another tough season. Burrow should be drafted as a backup quarterback with upside.
Joe Mixon: Mixon has been one of the steadiest running backs in fantasy over the last two years, with RB10 and RB13 finishes in 2018 and 2019 respectively. I think he’ll repeat that level of production in 2020 as well. Mixon struggled out of the gate last season, but came on strong after the bye week, averaging over 18 PPG over his final eight games. Burrow should make the Cincinnati’s offense more dynamic and provide more opportunities for Mixon to improve on his five rushing touchdowns from last season. Mixon is a top-10 RB for me in 2020.
Tyler Boyd: I think Tyler Boyd has officially established himself as the number one receiver on the Bengals. But somehow after back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons and a WR18 finish last year, his ADP is just WR32. And now with Burrow in the fold that’s a major value. Boyd was 7th in the NFL in receiving yards from the slot last season, and that should match up perfectly for Burrow, who had Justin Jefferson lead the nation in slot receptions and receiving yards for LSU last year. Boyd is just inside my top-20 WRs this year and could prove to be one of the best values on draft day.
AJ Green: I wrote about Green as one of the players on my do not draft list. He’s entering his age-32 season and has just one full 16 game season under his belt in the last four years. He’s missed 23 games over the last two seasons alone after not playing at all in 2019. I still believe in his talent, but I’m not convinced he can stay healthy for a full season. At his WR28 ADP, I’d much prefer Boyd.
John Ross/Tee Higgins: I’m not sure how much of an impact either of them will make this year, but I’m not giving up on Ross in dynasty leagues just yet and Higgins has more value in dynasty leagues as well.
Baker Mayfield: Baker Mayfield might be the biggest wild card at his position this year. After setting a rookie record with 27 touchdowns in 2018, he and the Browns had all the hype in the world coming into last season. That’s what made his 22:21 touchdown to interception ratio such a disappointment last season. But in his defense, Freddie Kitchens wasn’t ready to be a head coach and Cleveland’s offensive line was a mess. Enter Kevin Stefanski and Jedrick Wills, which in addition to Cleveland’s treasure chest of talent, should make things easier on Mayfield this season. With so many other talented quarterbacks, it may be difficult for Mayfield to crack the top-10, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if he does. His volatility though puts him as a mid-tier QB2, but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Baker yet.
Nick Chubb: Chubb unfortunately was another casualty on my do no draft list. Chubb is certainly one of the best backs in the league today, but he was the RB16 after Kareem Hunt came back from suspension last season, compared to being the RB6 before. He averaged 20.2 carries per game through his first 11 contests and that number decreased to 15.2 per game over his final five. There’s simply no denying that Hunt played a significant role in Cleveland’s offense in 2019, especially in the passing game. I’m not saying Chubb is a bust or anything, but I don’t his floor is as high as it has been and he’s a touch outside my top-10 this year.
Kareem Hunt: Hunt is interesting this year. If Chubb were to miss any time, Hunt would become a no-brainer RB1. Even without an injury, Hunt still has standalone value too. Hunt had four or more receptions in five of his eight games last season, so he could definitely provide enough value as a FLEX in PPR leagues. His current ADP is RB27 and that feels about right.
Odell Beckham: Another Brown who made my do not draft list. Beckham still has all the talent in the world, but he just hasn’t produced over the last three seasons like he did in his first three. Mix in a couple of injuries and that’s why I’m down on him. I think he rebounds from last year’s WR25 finish, but not enough to justify his WR11 ADP. He’s more of a back-end WR2 for me, but there’s definitely upside with OBJ as well. It just all comes down to how early or late he goes.
Jarvis Landry: Am I missing something here? A five-time Pro Bowler who’s had at least 80 receptions every year of his career, finished top-10 in receiving yards and was the WR12 in 2019 is being drafted as the WR29? Oh, and he’s never missed a game in his six-year career. Landry profiles as the perfect FLEX this year and could easily crack the top-20 at his position again. Sign me up.
Austin Hooper: I swear I don’t hate the Browns, but Austin Hooper is another one of my do not draft list. He benefitted from the Falcons having the pass-heaviest offense in the league last year. He now goes to a Kevin Stefanski lead team who ran one of the most run-centric schemes in the NFL in 2019 with the Vikings. There’s a lot of mouths to feed in Cleveland’s offense and I’m nervous that Hooper won’t see as many targets as he did a year ago, when he had the third highest target share on Atlanta at 15.54%. The player with the third highest target share on the Browns last year was Nick Chubb at 9.65%.
Ben Roethlisberger: On one hand, Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 4,400 yards and 29 touchdowns over his last five healthy seasons. On the other, he’s 38-years old and is coming off elbow surgery. No matter what, he’s an upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. Roethlisberger has always been a volume passer, evident by him leading the league in completions, pass attempts, yards and interceptions in 2019. I don’t expect that to change, even at his advanced age. Roethlisberger wouldn’t be a bad option for owners who wait on quarterbacks until one of the last few rounds, as long as he was paired with someone with more upside like Burrow.
James Conner: Conner made my do not draft list as well. And although I believe he’s a talented player, his injury history is too much for me to ignore. He has appeared on the injury report 11 times over the last two years and battled shoulder and quadricep ailments last season. His case wasn’t helped by the Steelers drafting Anthony McFarland Jr. in the fourth round, who joins Jaylen Samuels and and Benny Snell in a jammed Pittsburgh backfield. There are better options out there considering his ADP of RB21.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: JuJu was the definition of “bust” last season, finishing as the WR65 after an 8th ranked finish in 2018. It wasn’t all his fault though, as he missed four games due to injury and the Steelers were dreadful at the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger returns healthy and that should boost the USC product back into WR2 territory. His ADP of WR13 is a bit too high for me, but he has the talent and ability to justify it.
Diontae Johnson/James Washington: Diontae Johnson shined towards the end of last season, averaging 16.6 fantasy points over his last four games. That has earned himself spots on many people’s breakout lists entering 2020. But I think people have forgotten about James Washington too. He was a popular breakout candidate last year too and had similar numbers to Johnson. It’s certainly possible Johnson breaks out, but for their ADP I’d rather have Washington (WR73) than Johnson (WR38). It’s not that I don’t believe in Johnson, but I think the fantasy community has given up too early on James Washington when he was basically in Johnson’s same exact position a year ago.
Eric Ebron: Ebron is still a talented player, but after a letdown 2019 campaign, his 2018 season seems to be an aberration. He’s a back-end TE2 who could rise to fantasy relevance based on matchups throughout the season.