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Mostly NFL Notes: An AFC Season Preview

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The Broncos enter as the AFC's favorite (USAT)

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots 11-5
2. Miami Dolphins 7-9
3. Buffalo Bills 6-10
4. New York Jets 6-10

Comments/Fantasy predictions: The Patriots were outscored by more points in last season’s AFC title game (15) than their other four losses combined (11). I’m still bitter about them ending my Survivor season in Week 2 as 14-point favorites to an Arizona team that won its only road game of the season, but looking toward 2013, the loss of Tom Brady’s weapons are overblown, as he finishes as a top-five fantasy QB. Moreover, Danny Amendola leads the league in receptions, while Stevan Ridley leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns, although that doesn’t prevent Shane Vereen from finishing as a top-25 fantasy back. New England is more likely to finish as the AFC’s No. 1 seed than they are the No. 3…I have Miami finishing 7-9 again, but they admittedly have the potential to be one of the league’s breakout teams, depending mostly upon whether or not Ryan Tannehill makes the leap. Mike Wallace goes down as a fantasy bust, while Lamar Miller lives up to the early hype, as all the Daniel Thomas noise proves meaningless when the bullets start flying. Cameron Wake, who not only had 15.0 sacks last year but has drawn a league-high 20 holding penalties over the past two seasons, is an IDP monster.

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It’s pretty remarkable Buffalo may be relegated to starting an undrafted quarterback during his rookie season Week 1, but at least E.J. Manuel showed promising glimpses before suffering a knee injury. Still, with the Bills’ QB situation and now in a run-heavy system under new coach Doug Marrone, fantasy owners should avoid Stevie Johnson unless his price tag falls dramatically. I guess it’s possible Fred Jackson provides fantasy value, but at age 32, it’s a pretty huge long shot, even if C.J. Spiller were to go down. Speaking of Spiller, he finishes as a top-three back, making those who passed on him regret it…The Jets quietly allowed just 6.4 YPA and a 68.3 QB Rating to opposing passers last year despite Darrelle Revis missing nearly the entire season and added CB Dee Milliner with a top-10 pick in the draft, so they shouldn’t be a doormat. Unfortunately, the quarterback position remains the most important in football, and they look like a mess there. The team’s No. 1 goal should be to see whether Geno Smith is a potential long-term answer (gulp) yet Rex Ryan reportedly has the final say on who’s starting, and his priorities are much different (trying not to become the rare coach who’s fired a few years after taking his team to back-to-back AFC Championship games), which could lead to a lot more Mark Sanchez than New York fans want. I like the idea of Chris Ivory, who’s averaged a 5.1 YPC mark during his career that would be among the highest in NFL history if he qualified, finally becoming a full-time back for the first time in his career. But he simply can’t stay healthy, and he’s also fumbled more times (four) than he’s caught the ball (three). Bilal Powell is less talented, but he’ll also be cheaper in fantasy leagues and has about a 50/50 chance of providing as much value. Despite the shaky QB situation, Stephen Hill proves to be one of the better late-round WR fliers.

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AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
2. Baltimore Ravens 10-6 (Wild Card)
3. Cincinnati Bengals 8-8
4. Cleveland Browns 6-10

Comments/Fantasy predictions: The Steelers are coming off a down season in which they finished third in the AFC North, but that came with them allowing the fewest YPA (6.0) and the third fewest YPC (3.7) in the NFL. Only three teams had fewer than their 10 interceptions, and their defense scored just one touchdown (to put this in perspective, the Chargers scored seven). In other words, they experienced extremely bad luck and should be due for some regression. Impressive looking rookie Jarvis Jones will step into aging James Harrison’s spot, and imagine what a bonus it’d be if Troy Polamalu ever stayed healthy. The team has continuity with one of the league’s best coaching staffs and a 2013 schedule that looks highly favorable, making them my favorite candidate in the conference to take a major step forward (and by far my favorite fantasy defense that’s typically being ignored). Pittsburgh’s offensive line can only be healthier this year, and don’t forget Markus Wheaton, who very well may be Mike Wallace 2.0. I’d have preferred Le’Veon Bell not getting hurt, but running back is the most replaceable position on the field, and as much as Pitt’s coaches seem to hate its internal options, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman ranked tied for third as the best RB blockers in the NFL last season and were both also inside the top-12 in YPC after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Prospective fantasy owners' guess is as good as mine when it comes to this backfield. The biggest issue is whether Ben Roethlisberger, who’s played in 16 games just once during his nine-year career, can stay healthy. But he’s clearly a star when on the field (his 7.9 YPA is tied for the sixth-highest all time) who’s now far more comfortable entering year two in Todd Haley’s system. Remember, this is a Steelers team that had a point-differential that was 52 points better than the 11-5 Colts last season despite suffering numerous injuries and facing a far more difficult schedule.

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Joe Flacco has a 7.1 YPA mark with a 1.82 TD:INT ratio over 2,489 career passing attempts. During last year’s postseason, he got 9.0 YPA with an 11:0 TD:INT ratio and an incredible 117.2 QB Rating. This amazing stretch against the best competition in football came especially as a surprise following a regular season (7.2 YPA, 22:10 TD:INT ratio) that in no way suggested a breakout was in store. Part of last year’s playoff improvement had to do with changes on the offensive line and coordinator (which both should carry over to this season), but it’s still tough to get overly excited about his fantasy prospects, especially after losing Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. However, with a big increase in targets and an improvement in his ability to run the full route tree, Torrey Smith goes off, finishing as a top-15 fantasy wide receiver. If Ray Rice were to go down, Bernard Pierce would easily become an RB1.

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The Bengals have a very solid foundation, but it’s tough to compete yearly without an elite quarterback. While Andy Dalton’s surname is truly elite, his ability to play the quarterback position remains something far closer to average. Last year’s 27 TD passes look awfully lucky when compared to his 6.9 YPA mark (that dropped to 6.1 over the final nine games, including the playoffs). It’s possible he improves during year three, and it sure helps having A.J. Green on his side, but I predict the QB will ultimately keep the team’s 2013 postseason hopes just out of reach. Geno Atkins is one of the best defensive players in all of football, but it’s not reflected in most IDP formats because of the position he plays. Giovani Bernard emerges as the far more valuable fantasy back than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and it’s not particularly close...Cleveland is a popular buzz team, and it makes sense considering their complete overhaul with the coaching staff and an underrated defense. But it’s so tough having to play in the AFC North, which sure looks like the conference’s toughest division by a wide margin. Again, it comes down to the quarterback position. Brandon Weeden has actually looked good at times this preseason, and his skill set appears to fit Norv Turner’s system, but the soon-to-be 30-year-old remains a pretty big wild card. Trent Richardson lives up to the hype, while those who drafted Josh Gordon will be happy they remained patient, as he becomes a useful WR3 at worst after returning from his suspension. Members of the Jordan Cameron sleeper club are also not disappointed.

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AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans 10-6
2. Indianapolis Colts 9-7 (Wild Card)
3. Tennessee Titans 6-10
4. Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

Comments/Fantasy predictions: Houston is a perennial contender that benefits from its division but will ultimately go only as far as Matt Schaub takes them. Schaub has somehow thrown for just 120 touchdowns over 118 career games despite getting an elite 7.8 YPA (higher than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady). The Texans’ run-heavy ways really limits his fantasy potential and also hurts Andre Johnson, whose seven red-zone targets last season were tied for 60th in the NFL. Here are Houston’s run blocking grades, according to Pro Football Focus, from 2010-2012: third, seventh and 13th. That's going in the wrong direction. But another easy schedule and having the best defensive player on earth sure helps (quick side note: I was listening to a popular gambling podcast recently, and there was a discussion about which defensive player in the NFL would move the point spread the most if he were to miss a game. J.J. Watt’s name was never mentioned. Huh?). Here's my bold prediction: Ben Tate finishes with more fantasy points than Arian Foster.

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Last year the Colts were the only 11-win team to ever have a negative scoring differential (and it was minus-30). They also allowed the most points (387) of any team to win so many times. Indy was 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, a scenario in which the vast majority of teams win about 50 percent of their contests. They did all this while facing BY FAR the league’s easiest schedule, so in other words, there isn’t a team likelier to regress in 2013. Andrew Luck was knocked down 122 times, according to Football Outsiders, which were nearly 30 more than the next QB (Aaron Rodgers). Luck had a poor 54.1 completion percentage and got 7.0 YPA while throwing for the third most interceptions (18) in all of football, while also having by far the most dropped INTs in the league as well. The Colts changed offensive coordinators and made some head-scratching signings during the offseason, including giving Erik Walden a $16 million deal. Having said all that, Indy’s schedule once again looks favorable, and the team possesses a young offensive corps poised to take a major step forward, so after much back-and-forth, I gave them the final playoff spot in the AFC. As for some fantasy predictions: Coby Fleener finishes outside the top-15 tight ends, while Ahmad Bradshaw is a top-25 RB (and a huge help in pass protection). Reggie Wayne is a big disappointment relative to his ADP, while both T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey are profits. Hilton is (understandably) getting all the fantasy hype, but Heyward-Bey really does look locked into a starting role in an offense that should feature a lot of two tight end sets alongside an aging Wayne who totaled just 520 yards and two touchdowns on 94(!) targets over the final eight games last year. Don’t sleep on DHB.

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Chris Johnson, who ran for 1,033 yards and got 5.09 YPC over his final 11 games last season, bounces back in 2013. Tennessee added RG Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick in the draft and LG Andy Levitre through free agency, so the offensive line looks much improved (incumbent Michael Roos was graded as the third best LT in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus). Johnson may lose goal-line carries to Shonn Greene, but it sure helps facing the Jaguars and Colts (both ranked in the bottom five in run defense last year) in 25% of his games, as CJ returns to being a top-12 fantasy RB. It’s too bad Kenny Britt’s knee troubles look likely to never allow him to reach his once elite fantasy potential. Jake Locker proves for good he’s not the team’s long-term answer at quarterback…The Jaguars have one of the three worst quarterback situations and recorded an NFL-low 20(!) sacks last season. Over his final nine games last year, Cecil Shorts had 774 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 9.6 targets per game, which would’ve easily ranked top-10 over the season. It’s at least worth noting, however, that the vast majority of this came with Chad Henne, and not projected starter Blaine Gabbert, at the helm. Conversely, for Shorts owners worried about when Justin Blackmon returns, realize Shorts did his damage last year while Blackmon averaged a whopping 12.0 targets over the final four games, so it appears both can produce while co-existing, even in a far from ideal setup.

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AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos 12-4
2. Kansas City Chiefs 8-8
3. San Diego Chargers 6-10
4. Oakland Raiders 3-13

Comments/Fantasy predictions: Peyton Manning just threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns while getting 8.0 YPA after joining a new franchise (on a non-dome team for the first time in his career while coming off multiple surgeries). Manning’s arm strength has only strengthened since then, and the team’s losses on defense, including Von Miller, who’s arguably the second-best defensive player in football, for the first six weeks, combined with an unsettled RB corps, should lead to plenty of passes. Moreover, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker comprise easily the best WR crew Manning has ever had. There’s never been a 37-year-old with a higher fantasy outlook than Manning in 2013. Montee Ball finishes with the most points among all of the Broncos’ backs, but it’s a committee situation (and his needing to improve in pass protection) that ultimately limits his massive upside. This has to be one of the worst articles written in recent memory.

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I wanted to make the Chiefs my crazy sleeper playoff team to emerge in the AFC this year (and apparently I’m not the only one who believes they are in store for a big improvement, as their juice on their “Over” win total shot up very quickly, so a lot of action felt the same way). First, the positives: upgrading to a league average quarterback and coach over their predecessors is a big deal, and KC has a nice schedule coming off a 2-14 season. The Chiefs also drafted a left tackle with their first pick who should make an immediate impact. Going from two wins to 8-10 seems drastic, but even aside from those upgrades, it’s also safe to say the Chiefs were unlucky last year, as they had an anemic 33.3 percent fumble recovery rate. And it’s not like the team is void of talent, having sent a whopping six players to last year’s Pro Bowl (admittedly, this distinction isn’t exactly a perfect measure of performance). Ultimately, I gave them a six-win jump but think Alex Smith’s limitations result in Kansas City falling just short of the postseason. And while Dwayne Bowe improves with his new QB and pass-happy system, his skill set doesn’t mesh well with Smith, resulting in a disappointing fantasy season for those who drafted the WR at his current ADP. It’s not all bad, as Jamal Charles finishes as a top-five fantasy back.

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The Chargers suffered some bad luck last year, losing a handful of games in which they led in the second half and finished with a losing record despite not getting outscored overall. They also finally rid themselves of coach Norv Turner during the offseason. But Philip Rivers’ YPA has dropped three straight seasons, including a career-low 6.8 last year (when he also took 49 sacks and fumbled 15 times). And it could have looked much worse, as he somehow produced an 8:0 TD:INT ratio over the final four games while getting 6.2 YPA (that’s like a baseball player batting .400 over a month with a 35 K%). The loss of Danario Alexander certainly doesn’t help either. This is a team moving in the wrong direction. Ryan Mathews posted a nice YPC during the preseason and generally looked good, but he’s hard to trust on third downs (especially with Danny Woodhead as an alternative) and near the goal line, so his fantasy value is capped even if he were to somehow stay healthy, especially with his environment declining around him. Vincent Brown remains an intriguing late round WR flier.

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It’s become increasingly difficult to say nice things about what’s going on in Oakland. Their offensive line was a major worry before losing left tackle Jared Veldheer, who was arguably the team’s best player, and since his replacement (Menelik Watson) HAS NEVER PLAYED LT at any point in his football career, it’s safe to say the best fantasy defense each week will be the Raiders’ opponent. It’s one thing for Matt Flynn to lose his presumed starting job to Russell Wilson, but it’s another to do so to Terrelle Pryor. I’m beginning to think this performance may go down as an outlier. This all sets up Tyvon Branch to have a big IDP year. I wanted to like Denarius Moore’s fantasy prospects this season, but his arrow isn’t exactly pointing up. Commenters gave me a hard time for calling Darren McFadden a bust here, and while I acknowledge the prediction isn’t exactly “bold,” McFadden is still being drafted as a top 15-20 RB in every single league I’ve been in this year. So let me be clearer: McFadden will be less valuable in 2013 than Eddie Lacy, Shane Vereen, Giovani Bernard and Daryl Richardson.

Side note: I'm fully aware this appears weak picking five of last year's six AFC teams to make the playoffs when on average the turnover is about half yearly, but this wasn't done without a lot of thought (for whatever that's worth), and I'm not a fan to do something different just for the sake of it. I will say I make some more unlikely predictions during my NFC preview, which will be up at the end of this week. So Stay tuned.

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