With the preseason set to kick-off, The Fantasy Authority will be dishing out weekly updates of each division’s hottest training camp stories. We’ll be hitting on the latest positional battles, injuries, and media drama (hey, Browns). Yours truly has been matched with the ever-entertaining & gritty AFC North, featuring three viable playoff contenders. Sorry, Cincinnati & the Andy Dalton fan-club out there (I do think they’ll improve under McVay disciple, Zac Taylor). Check back weekly for the latest in Baker media buzz, or updates on the most polarizing offense in the NFL: the Ravens. Let’s dig into our AFC North Training Camp Update!
The Baltimore Ravens transformation is quite possibly the most interesting offseason story that’s currently running under the radar. Speaking of running, who’s got the under on the number of times Lamar Jackson will tote the rock this season? John Harbaugh sure doesn’t. He’s got a real shot to lead the Ravens in carries this season, even amongst their stable of capable backs: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, and Kenneth Dixon. Mark Ingram & Justice Hill are the new kids on the block, with the former expected to carry the load. Don’t count out the rookie, Hill, so fast though. Justice Hill posted the second-best Sparq score at this year’s NFL Combine & ran a 4.40 40-yard dash. Early reports out of camp have Ingram & Edwards carrying the load on early downs, while Hill has been opening eyes with his receiving prowess and explosiveness.
Onto the most talented runner on the team: the QB. Lamar Jackson’s jaw-dropping performance leading the Ravens to a 6-1 record as a starter and an AFC North crown last season will be tough to top. I think the sophomore is up to the challenge. Early reports have been positive regarding his understanding of the completely revamped offense under new coordinator Greg Roman. He has developed increased chemistry with second-year tight end Mark Andrews and has shown substantial improvement with his deep ball. Feast your eyes on this beauty of a bomb to Willie Snead. The team is building around Lamar’s skillset and understands his limitations as a passer. The erratic throws haven’t subsided just yet, but expect continued improvement as camp goes along. Did I mention the other new toys that he has to play with? Enter, the most electric college WR from last year, Hollywood Brown.
Marquise Brown has been recovering from foot surgery due to a Lisfranc injury this offseason, but the camp buzz is already in full force. He was recently clocked at 21 mph during a rehab run – a REHAB run. The fastest ball carrier in the NFL last year peaked at 22mph – Brown has a legit shot at being the fastest man on the gridiron this season once he’s fully recovered. This offense has exciting potential behind Jackson’s continued development as a passer, the additions of Brown, Hill & Ingram, as well as the improved connection with Andrews.
A few notable injuries besides Brown: Robert Griffin III injured his thumb and declined to reveal X-Ray results. Sideline reports suggest Griffin became emotional after viewing the results. Rookie Trace McSorley out of Penn State will take reps with the second team moving forward. The Ravens will host the Jags next Thursday to open up their preseason.
Another down year for the Bengals? We hoped not, but the news has been grim in Cincy. Perhaps their best weapon, AJ Green, went down with an ankle injury at the start of camp in Dayton, Ohio. He went through a surgical procedure on Tuesday to aide in his recovery and is expected to miss “at least two games” per head coach Zac Taylor. Does this open the door for Tyler Boyd to shine as a true #1, and for speedster John Ross (dealing with a nagging hamstring) to live up to his 1st round pedigree? We’ll find out.
In other devastating injury news, the first-round pick and projected starting tackle Jonah Williams will be out for the entirety of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. The injury bug is alive and well but hopefully will subside as the new-look Bengals offense starts to take shape. Zac Taylor looks like he’ll already have his hands full this season as he attempts to take the notoriously mediocre Bengals to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. They have not made it past the Wild-Card round since 1990.
Nonetheless, there are some reasons to get excited about camp this year. It starts with the continued dominance of Joe Mixon on the ground. The AFC’s leading rusher from a season ago will look to build on his momentum as the feature back for the Bengals, and provide former Rams coach, Zac Taylor with his own version of Todd Gurley. Entering his third year, the RB should expect an even higher volume of touches, especially with the injury to AJ Green. The offensive line play will continue to be shaky, but expect Taylor to find creative ways to get his star tailback the ball in space, much like what the Rams did with Gurley.
Beyond Mixon, the fantasy outlook is quite bleak outside of Tyler Boyd. Boyd was furious with the field conditions that resulted in Green tearing several ligaments in his ankle. “Turf was terrible.” “It was somewhere we shouldn’t have been.” While some may have Boyd skyrocketing up ranks with his partner in crime due to miss time, hold your horses. Last year with Green on the field, Boyd caught 77% of targets and was targeted on 23% of his routes. With Green off the field, he caught just 63% of his targets and was targeted on only 21% of his routes. Continue to keep Boyd on your radar as a middle of the pack WR2.
A few other notable injuries in camp so far besides Green, Williams, and Ross: center Billy Price is out with a non-football injury. Due to the Green and Ross injuries, keep an eye on Cody Core & Josh Malone as they see first-team reps in the coming weeks at camp. The Bengals will visit Kansas City next Saturday for their first preseason matchup.
The Browns enter camp as the hottest preseason Super Bowl pick this side of the Mississippi. Let’s take a look into what Freddie is Baking up in the Kitchens.
The Browns made the biggest splash this offseason when they traded Jabrill Peppers, a first-round pick, and a third-round pick to the New York Giants for superstar wideout, Odell Beckham Jr. OBJ will be paired up with second-year stud QB, Baker Mayfield, and the high flying Browns offense. While Baker’s new mustache is dominating the spotlight, it’s his leadership that should be stealing the show. Widely known for his completely unapologetic tone and unfazed demeanor, Baker was recently overheard yelling at his receivers to come back to the ball during a training camp drill. While some may think a cause for concern, I beg to differ. It will result in a better offensive group going forward, with open lines of communication & full transparency. If this special group of offensive weapons can pull it all together this year, watch out.
The star QB will be surrounded by not only arguably the best WR in football but by a collection of young talent unrivaled by any NFL team. Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson & Kareem Hunt round out the list. Hunt, however, will be suspended for the first 8 games of the season & Johnson is sidelined with a hamstring injury, not to mention on the trade block. Early reports out of training camp showcase the connection of Baker to OBJ – just look at this perfect execution. However, keep an eye on potential top-10 fantasy back Nick Chubb as he shoulders the load in training camp with both Hunt and Johnson sidelined.
Looking past the big names, Rashard Higgins continues to impress at camp with this pretty catch over top draft selection, Greedy Williams. Look to see plenty of Higgins alongside OBJ and Landry come Sundays if he can keep the consistency up. Speaking of OBJ, despite the highlight reel of catches coming out of Cleveland, he has been “taking it easy” with light practices this week. We will keep an eye on this as camp progresses.
The longtime class of the division is being overlooked this season. The departures of superstars Le’Veon Bell & Antonio Brown are massive, but the Steelers remain one of the most talented teams in football. Their absence should also lessen the drama around the team and keep the players focused. They’ll look to bounce back from a disappointing 2018 as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. I’m confident they will, led by Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster & Vance McDonald.
The hottest story to watch in camp this year won’t focus on any of them, however. Nor will it focus on JuJu’s latest foray into the FortNite world. We’ll be patiently watching the contested battle for the 226 targets vacated from last season – most in the league. Who will win the rights to the second and third WR spots alongside Smith-Schuster? Rookie third-rounder Diontae Johnson has been turning heads at camp with his elite route-running, making his case. Per Warren Sharp, the Steelers have been the best WR drafting team of the last decade including notable names Antonio Brown & JuJu Smith-Schuster. Look for Johnson to continue that trend and make his way into the starting lineup.
Another contender and a new face in the Steel City, Donte Moncrief, is dealing with a finger injury. Recently picked up from Jacksonville, many around the league believe Moncrief to be the bonafide #2 wideout, and that could hold true with highlights like this. However, Moncrief was sidelined today due to the finger ailment, and Johnson started in his place.
The third name to watch in this corps is James Washington. Early reports out of camp have been positive, with teammate Smith-Schuster singing the wideouts praises. Washington was hard-pressed to find targets last season with AB and JuJu dominating Big Ben’s focus. He’ll get his second chance this year, with only Johnson and Moncrief in his way. My bet is on Diontae Johnson taking the reigns and winning the #2 job.
In the backfield, expect James Conner to carry the load this season, with talented backup Jaylen Samuels nipping at his heels. However, Samuels shouldn’t be a cause for concern for Conner owners. In early camp practices, the Steelers were seen deploying two-back sets featuring both Conner & Samuels. Rookie Benny Snell (click the link, you won’t be disappointed) provides interesting depth at the position, but will not be in line for touches unless the injury bug strikes. Conner remains an elite RB1 option with Samuels a borderline flex & handcuff.
Besides the aforementioned Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer was seen limping off the practice field Wednesday with a banged-up quad, and WR Johnny Holton continues to nurse his hamstring. The Steelers will open the preseason in Pittsburgh next Friday against the Buccaneers.
Be sure to check back on The Fantasy Authority for more news & updates from the AFC North! Follow me @themurph34 & @FF_Authority and tweet us your reactions. Who do you think will earn the Steelers number 2 WR spot?