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Team-by-Team Analysis: AFC North (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Jared Lese | @JaredL_FF | Featured Writer
Mar 20, 2021

 
I recently began my Team-by-Team Analysis article series in which I delve analyze every team’s primary fantasy positions (i.e., QB, RB, WR, and TE). Using FantasyPros data, I previously explored the AFC East, which contained one elite fantasy offense and three underwhelming ones. In this iteration, the AFC North is on the hot seat; a division that was also rather poor from a fantasy point-of-view last season. No team finished above 14th in total fantasy points. But how did each of the four AFC North teams individually fare and which situations present the greatest opportunities for fantasy managers in 2021?

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Division Overview

The below visualization reveals each AFC North team’s total points ranking, along with their positional ranks in fantasy and associated mean and median values. The AFC North possesses three young, exciting QBs and one bound for the Hall of Fame; however, for much of the season, it appeared like the veteran – Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger – was the one with much left to be desired. Furthermore, a devastating knee injury in Week 11 to Cincinnati QB – and the 2020 NFL Draft top pick – Joe Burrow led to a debilitated Bengals offense. The remaining two teams finished relatively well, with both making it to the second round of the NFL playoffs, led by elite rushing games, albeit in two separate ways. Baltimore’s superstar QB Lamar Jackson went wild running the ball for the second consecutive season – with fewer touchdowns than the year prior – while Cleveland employed a great 1-2-punch with their stud RBs, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Team Breakdowns

In this section, I wanted to take a deeper dive at the AFC North and each team’s fantasy output by segmenting each of the four positions into the generally startable roles (i.e., QB1, RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, WR3, and TE1). By breaking the analysis out and ranking them accordingly here, we can better understand 2021 opportunity from analyzing production distribution.

There are a few major observations and takeaways that can be made from the above chart:

Baltimore:

2020 Observations:

  • The offense centers around Jackson’s unique rushing ability and targeting TEs with the relatively few times they do pass.
  • Extremely poor WR production, which many Marquise “Hollywood” Brown managers quickly realized despite hope for a sophomore year breakout.

2021 Takeaway:

  • I wouldn’t anticipate much change in the offensive scheme in 2021, as Jackson is one of the few players that allows for an efficient running game. Jackson should be selected as a top 5 QB option in 2021.
  • Baltimore could be an intriguing option if they were able to land one of the premier WRs – namely Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller V, or Allen Robinson (if he does refuse to sign the franchise tag) – in free agency. There would be less volume than alpha WRs usually command; however, Jackson’s distinct rushing threat may allow one of these receivers to beat their defenders 1v1.

Cincinnati:

2020 Observations:

  • Despite some glimpses of a great offense in the future in the form of a young WR corps (i.e., Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd), Cincinnati’s fantasy production was rather tepid. The team continues to inefficiently run the ball with their primary RB, Joe Mixon, instead of utilizing him in the passing game, as they do with their back-up RB, Gio Bernard.
  • The aforementioned injury to young QB, Joe Burrow, inhibited the offense, with back-ups Ryan Finley and Brandon Allen playing poorly when given the opportunity.

2021 Takeaway:

  • Assuming Burrow can fully recover by the start of the 2021 season, I expect this offense to improve greatly from 2020, with Higgins elevating his game and becoming the heir to A.J. Green as the Bengals alpha WR.
  • With the number five pick in the upcoming draft, Cincinnati is in a great position to select either the top offensive lineman – Penei Sewell – or receiver – Ja’Marr Chase – assuming they don’t trade down. These additions should further enhance the offense, leading to (hopefully) improved efficiency by Mixon.

Cleveland:

2020 Observations:

  • Led by Coach of the Year winner Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland operated one of the most efficient run games in the league, despite not possessing a dual-threat QB – as opposed to Baltimore. Nick Chubb continued being a rushing monster, challenging Derrick Henry as the best pure runner in the game, and finishing as the RB10 despite missing four games, while Kareem Hunt complemented him well as the receiving back, scoring 11 touchdowns on the way to an RB11 finish.
  • With an early injury to lead receiver, Odell Beckham, Jr. (“OBJ”), Cleveland’s receiving corps underwhelmed in 2020, as no single player finished ahead of the 18th-best at their role (e.g., OBJ – who scored the third-most fantasy points among Cleveland’s WRs – was the 18th-highest WR3 in the league).

2021 Takeaway:

  • I don’t see much changing scheme-wise in 2021 for Cleveland, as Stefanski will continue to center the offense on the running game and running play-action off of it. As such, I consider the 2021 fantasy environment to remain largely similar to last season.
  • Similar to Cincinnati, however, an anticipated full recovery to a star player can lead to major dividends for the team. If OBJ were to rebound and hopefully return to his former self, Baker Mayfield and the surrounding talent can score even more touchdowns and total fantasy points in 2021.

Pittsburgh:

2020 Observations:

  • Starting the season on a 12-game winning streak, Pittsburgh exited the playoffs quickly in a devastating defeat to a division rival (i.e., Cleveland). As it relates to fantasy, Pittsburgh went extremely pass-heavy, albeit inefficiently by focusing on the short-passing game. As such, young receivers Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster fared well in PPR leagues, but many weeks felt underwhelming to fantasy managers, with a strong rookie campaign by Chase Claypool.
  • Lead RB James Conner plodded in the few opportunities he was given throughout the season, and the lack of confidence in an established running game may have led to the preferred aerial attack.

2021 Takeaway:

  • Recent news of a Big Ben return leaves many fantasy managers unsure of the 2021 fantasy season for this offense. Known as a strong-armed passer, Big Ben was rather poor in 2020 throwing the deep ball; however, rising sophomore Claypool and the aforementioned Johnson may incentivize more deep passes next season. However, with the anticipated exit of Smith-Schuster combined with Pittsburgh’s WR-centric passing game, a new slot WR – perhaps through free agency – may present fantasy managers with high returns.
  • Beyond the anticipated Smith-Schuster departure, Conner – who filled in well during former star RB Le’Veon Bell‘s famous hiatus in 2018 but faced the injury bug since – is expected to leave as well. Pittsburgh has historically been one of the teams that utilize a bellcow RB approach most frequently, so if they were to draft one of the top RBs (i.e., Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, or Javonte Williams) in the upcoming draft, this backfield could offer serious fantasy potential in 2021.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.

Jared Lese is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jared, check out his archive and follow him @JaredL_FF.

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