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AFC North: Rudi awakening

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I continue my tour across the NFL with a look at the AFC North. The Steelers and their crushing running game will look to hold off the challenges by Carson Palmer and the Bengals, Kyle Boller and the re-tooled Ravens offense and the Romeo Crennel-led Browns. We've got familiar faces in new places and some young guns trying to make their mark in a tough division.

I'll begin with the defending champs, who expect a giant leap in the performance of Ben Roethlisberger after his winning ways as a rookie.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2004 Stats: Rushing: 2nd at 154 YPG, Passing: 28th at 185.6 YPG)
The Steelers rumbled to the AFC championship game on the strength of the league's second-best rushing attack. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley are back for another season. Pittsburgh waved goodbye to the inconsistent Plaxico Burress but retain the vast majority of its title-bound team.

Running Game
Three Pro Bowl offensive linemen and the return of Bettis and Staley mean that the Steelers will certainly be among the league leaders again. It will likely play out much as the beginning of 04 did, with Staley handling the bulk of the carries and Bettis finishing the job near the goal line.

Passing Game
Roethlisberger will be expected to carry more of the offensive load after a full year in the Steelers' system. The entire offensive line returns, which means that Roethlisberger should again be protected well (he was sacked only 30 times all year – seven of which came in a Week 11 game against Cincinnati). The running game was so efficient last season that Roethlisberger threw more than 22 passes on only four occasions.

Fantasy Power List

  • Hines Ward (Fourth round): Fantasy owners are counting on a bounce-back season from Ward in the TD department. He registered his fourth consecutive season of 1,000-plus yards and 80 or more receptions, but found the end zone just four times. Roethlisberger figures to throw more in his second season, so naturally Ward will see opportunities. He's money in leagues that reward receptions.
  • Duce Staley (Seventh round): Staley is back as the every-down option after missing significant time with hamstring issues last year. He still racked up 830 rushing yards, but watched his end-zone opportunities go to "The Bus." The late selection of these players is due to the split in duties and question of how both will hold up over the full season.
  • Jerome Bettis (Ninth round): Bettis' place in fantasy football history was cemented by his strange stat line in Week 1 of the 04 season (five carries, one yard and three touchdowns). He returns for one more run at the Super Bowl and will enter the season as the goal-line back. In TD leagues, he's a must-have. Everywhere else, he's a great insurance policy against Staley's health.
  • Antwaan Randle El (13th round): Burress' departure makes Randle El the favorite to open the season as the No. 2 receiver. He caught 43 balls for 601 yards last year and closed the season with two touchdowns in the final three games. Randle El also caught 21 balls over the final five weeks.
  • Heath Miller (15th round): The Steelers haven't been known for featuring the tight end, but they haven't had a 6-foot-5 target with his skills (no offense to Jerame Turman and Jay Riemersma). Miller is expected to become an immediate contributor on offense, offering a safety valve for Roethlisberger as he begins to throw down the field more this year.

Wild Card
Ben Roethlisberger: Pittsburgh drafted Miller and WR Fred Gibson (add him to your sleeper list) to get the passing game in line with the potent running attack. The only free-agent addition was WR Cedrick Wilson, who may emerge as a deep option on the wing. Roethlisberger had a great rapport with Burress, so he'll need to find a new favorite target. Given the talent at his disposal, that shouldn't present too much of an issue.

Baltimore Ravens (2004 Stats: Rushing: 9th at 128.9 YPG, Passing: 32nd at 159.9 YPG)
Play word association with any NFL fan and say "Baltimore Ravens." Odds are that you'll hear the name of any number of defensive starters or simply the word "defense." The team added standout cornerback Samari Rolle to join Chris McAlister in the defensive backfield. And, oh yeah, those guys named Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs are still around.

Offensively, the Ravens are trying to bring the unit up to the lofty standards of their defense. They brought in coaches Jim Fassel and Rick Neuheisel to work with Kyle Boller, and added new weaponry in receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton.

Running Game
The Ravens return four of five starters on the offensive line and will be happy to have the specter of Jamal Lewis' trial and incarceration in the rear-view mirror. Lewis has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first four seasons in the NFL and will most certainly hit that total again this year.

Passing Game
The Ravens made wholesale changes this offseason with the hopes of making the passing game functional. Fassel takes over as the offensive coordinator and the embattled Neuheisel will serve as QB coach for Boller. They're looking to improve on the horrific 5.52 yards per pass attempt earned by Boller last season. Top option Todd Heap should be healthy for the start of camp and Mason and rookie Clayton provide legitimate receiving options.

Fantasy Power List

  • Jamal Lewis (Late first round): Lewis served his prison sentence this offseason and will be able to fully re-dedicate himself to the game. He still reached the 1,000-yard mark despite missing four games last year, although he hardly made a dent in his 2,066 yard total from 03. The Ravens significantly upgraded the passing game and return four starters on the line. Those elements should give Lewis the running room to reclaim his spot among the game's elite backs.
  • Todd Heap (Sixth round): Heap was slowed last year by an ankle injury that wouldn't die. He was originally slated to miss 2-3 weeks but ended up missing nine games. He should be ready for camp and will remain a big focus of the offense. In the six games he did play, Heap caught at least three passes in each and scored three touchdowns. With Lewis back in the mix and receivers that need to be accounted for by the defense, Heap should push toward his 2002 totals (68 catches, 836 yards and six touchdowns).
  • Derrick Mason (Seventh round): Fantasy owners are clearly skeptical of Boller's ability to get the job done for the Ravens, pushing Mason down to the seventh round of early drafts. Mason's logged four straight seasons of better than 1,000 receiving yards, averaging 85 catches and seven touchdowns over that period.
  • Mark Clayton (12th round): Though owners ding Mason for his move to Baltimore, they clearly expect returns from the rookie receiver with his selection in the 12th round. He's polished and ready to contribute from the first snap and will be counted on to use his speed to make big plays in the short passing game.

Wild Card
Kyle Boller: Let's not mince words. Boller was positively awful last season. Granted, the Ravens offense performed without Heap for half of the season, Lewis for a quarter of it, and the top receiving options were Travis Taylor and Kevin Johnson. However, Boller's total of 13 touchdowns over 16 starts was atrocious. Taken further, four of those touchdowns came in a Week 14 stomping of the Giants. He was shut out in eight contests.

Like Joey Harrington in Detroit, Boller has been given the tools to succeed in 2005. He's got a veteran offensive line, a top-flight receiver in Mason and a defense that will hand him great field position with regularity. With a full complement of weapons, I think he'll be a pleasant surprise and make a big leap forward. Is he a fantasy starter? Only in spot starts for now, but I'm not giving up on him yet.

Cincinnati Bengals (2004 Stats: Rushing: 17th at 114.9 YPG, Passing: 17th at 220 YPG)
Marvin Lewis thinks that this is the year that the Bengals will establish themselves as a force in the AFC. They finished 10th in total offense a year ago, scoring 23.4 points per game. However, the defense ranked 21st, allowing 23.3 points per game. The Bengals addressed the need for QB pressure with the first-round selection of David Pollack. If he and second-year defensive end Robert Geathers can garner some pressure and force a few turnovers, the offense has the firepower to win games.

Running Game
The Bengals return their entire offense from last season. They have Rudi Johnson wrapped up for five years and will look to improve on their 17th-ranked rushing offense (114.9 yards per game) from a year ago. However, the jury is still out as to whether last season's first-round selection, Chris Perry, will be recovered from his hernia operation in time to contribute this season. If he's unable to go, the Bengals will turn to veteran Kenny Watson. Second-year back Quincy Wilson (son of former Chicago Bears Super Bowl champ Otis Wilson) has a shot at making the team as the third back.

Passing Game
The Bengals are in a great position with the emergence of Carson Palmer in the second half of the 2004 season and a capable backup in Jon Kitna. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh make for a potent 1-2 combination at receiver and will be complemented by either rookie Chris Henry, third-year wideout Kelley Washington or veteran Peter Warrick. Matt Schobel and Reggie Kelly will battle for the top spot at TE. In any event, Palmer's passing rating went up nearly 30 points between his first seven and final six starts, showing that he'd made his adjustments and grown into the pro game. It could be a huge year for the Bengals offense (yes, you read correctly).

Fantasy Power List

  • Rudi Johnson (Second round): After his 1,454 rushing yards in 2004 (a franchise record), the Bengals signed Johnson to a long-term deal, solidifying the core of the team for years to come. He recorded five 100-yard games and tied for eighth among running backs with 12 rushing touchdowns. Fantasy owners are expecting big things from the Bengals this season, and it all starts with Johnson.
  • Chad Johnson (Third round): Johnson has topped 1,100 receiving yards in each of his three seasons as a pro and has caught 90 or more passes for two straight seasons. After a quiet first half of the season, Johnson exploded in the second half. He caught 45 passes in the final seven weeks of the season and seven of his nine touchdowns. That growth should continue this season.
  • Carson Palmer (10th round): As mentioned above, Palmer grew into a bona fide fantasy starter in the second half of the season. He averaged 2.2 touchdown passes per game over his final seven games and cut down on his interceptions. With a strong supporting cast, Palmer will take the next step into becoming a fantasy starter. He's got the weapons to push toward 30 touchdown passes.
  • T.J. Houshmandzadeh (11th round): Houshmandzadeh enjoyed a tremendous second half. He caught 41 passes over the final six weeks of the season with all four of his touchdowns. He's another player that the Bengals have locked up with a long-term deal and will open the season as the No. 2 receiver.

Wild Card
Chris Henry: The Bengals added the former West Virginia receiver with their third-round selection. He stands 6-foot-4 and will compete to take the No. 3 receiver role away from Kelley Washington and provides insurance if Peter Warrick is unable to return. Marvin Lewis is enamored with his work ethic and willingness to be physical in early workouts. Keep an eye on him as summer workouts begin.

Cleveland Browns (2004 Stats: Rushing: 24th at 103.6 YPG, Passing: 26th at 192.3 YPG)
The Browns have scrapped the team that finished so dismally last season. Romeo Crennel will assume his first head coaching gig, going from the Super Bowl champs to a proud organization going through a rough spell (worst record in the NFL over the last six years). The Browns ranked 27th in total offense in 2004, averaging just 17.3 points per game. Lee Suggs and Andre Davis have shown flashes in between injuries, but the team will need other options to step up.

Running Game
The Browns welcome offensive linemen Joe Andruzzi from the Patriots and Cosey Coleman from the Buccaneers to help right the running game. Cleveland ranked 23rd in rushing yardage last year (103.6 per game), a full 30 yards below Crennel's Patriots. Look for Crennel and new coordinator Maurice Carthon to shift that up this year. Lee Suggs and Reuben Droughns will be the 1-2 punch down the field, but watch for Terrelle Smith to be a factor around the goal line.

Passing Game
The passing game was virtually non-existent in stretches last season. Kellen Winslow had been tabbed to be a big part of the team's future, but we know his story all too well. Jeff Garcia, Kelly Holcomb and Luke McCown combined to throw just 21 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions and ranked 26th in the league at 192.3 yards per game. The receiving corps returns virtually intact, but the Browns did select Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Braylon Edwards in the first round. The big question mark here is that the Browns have turned the offense over to Trent Dilfer, who hasn't been a full-time starter since 2000 in Baltimore. Will he hold up over a season? Can Doug Johnson step in as a capable backup? Or will rookie Charlie Frye be fed to the wolves in the rough and tumble division?

Fantasy Power List

  • Reuben Droughns (Eighth round): He's currently being drafted three full rounds ahead of Lee Suggs, with whom he's expected to split time at best. No doubt, Droughns' huge 2004 season in Denver is fresh in owners' minds (six 100-yard games) and pushes him up the draft board.
  • Lee Suggs (11th round): Suggs missed six games during the 2004 season, but finished strong with three consecutive 100-yard games. He'll battle Droughns for playing time during training camp with the hope that his speed will serve to push him to the top spot. In the interim, he and Droughns account for two of the final starting running back options to come off of the draft board.
  • Andre Davis (13th round): Davis had shown signs of life before going down for the season in Week 6. He had three straight games with 90-plus receiving yards and scored in his final two games. Davis is a threat for a breakout season in 05. New Browns QB Trent Dilfer is a big fan of Davis's playmaking ability.
  • Braylon Edwards (15th round): The big rookie from Michigan will be counted on to become the top receiving option in Cleveland from the first day of training camp. He will need to be more consistent with his hands to offer another big target for Dilfer.

Wild Card
Antonio Bryant: Bryant continues to bewilder coaches, fans and fantasy owners, following up several strong weeks by disappearing for long stretches. He scored four touchdowns over a two-week period against Cincinnati and New England, but failed to reach the end zone in any other contest. Bryant contributed three 100-yard games and a career-high 58 catches in 2004.