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Most pressing fantasy questions the AFC North has to answer

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With the offseason now in view for NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each AFC North team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.

Cleveland Browns

Pressing question: How do we sustain second-half momentum?

After another miserable start to the season, the Browns elected to make changes on their coaching staff after Week 8 while sitting at 2-5-1. Cleveland finally rid themselves of head coach Hue Jackson after three wins in two and a half seasons and sent feuding offensive coordinator Todd Haley along with him.

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Gregg Williams was installed in the head coach spot and perhaps more importantly, former running backs coach Freddie Kitchens took over the reins at offensive coordinator.

The change sparked Cleveland. From the time Williams took over as the head coach and Kitchens as the play-caller, the Browns won five of their final eight games. More importantly, No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield clicked on every level.

Mayfield completed 68.4 percent of his passes with a 106.2 passer rating and 8.7 adjusted yards per attempt figures with Kitchens as his offensive coordinator. The relationship and productivity shared between this duo lit Kitchens’ path to the head coaching chair come season’s end.

Also coinciding with Kitchens’ promotion was the ascent of Nick Chubb as one of the league’s most efficient backs. The 2018 second-round back took over the starting gig when Carlos Hyde was shipped out of town and blistered through defenses to the tune of 4.7 yards per carry and eight total touchdowns from Week 7 on.

The Browns knew they had something in the Kitchens-Mayfield-Chubb connection, made clear by their decision to promote Kitchens to the head coaching job. Sustaining such an excellent stretch will be difficult but the sky appears to be the limit for Mayfield, the instant life-supplier to the Cleveland area. The key for the Browns will be surrounding him with everything he needs to keep the hype alive.

The Browns have finally found the center of their universe and now they must surround his orbit with quality support. (Photo by: 2018 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
The Browns have finally found the center of their universe and now they must surround his orbit with quality support. (Photo by: 2018 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)

Possible solutions

The Browns have already shown they’re well aware the mission is “everything for Baker” this offseason. Not only did the team promote Kitchens to head coach, they brought in revered air-raid offensive mastermind Todd Monken from the Buccaneers to be the offensive coordinator. That’s a perfect marriage.

In a more controversial move, the Browns signed Kareem Hunt to a contract early Monday morning. Hunt could get removed from the picture with a double-digit game suspension, so he should leave Nick Chubb’s spot as the featured back untouched for much of the year.

However, Hunt brings slightly better pass-catching chops to the table and is one of the more efficient backs in the game. His presence will not be welcomed by all in the observing public, but he will bring juice to this offense.

The Browns also enter this offseason with over $80 million in cap space. They can afford to spend big on the free agent market for the second year in a row, this time on a vertical presence this scoring unit desperately needs. Pro Football Focus charted Mayfield with a 51.7 percent accuracy rating on deep throws, third-best among quarterbacks with over 200 attempts. A player like John Brown or Tyrell Williams would unlock another layer of this offense.

Incumbents like the improving Rashard Higgins and the dripping-with-talent David Njoku can also be further maximized. Higgins should be extended soon and Njoku must be fed the ball more than the 5.5 targets per game he averaged in 2018.

Finally, Cleveland could explore adding additional offensive tackle help in the 2019 NFL Draft. At the 17th overall pick, the Browns will consider a lineman along with, what should be, several quality defenders available. The pass protection improved with Mayfield at the helm as the year wore on. But there is no such thing as doing too much for a potential superstar quarterback like him.

Cincinnati Bengals

Pressing question: Can Zac Taylor bring juice back to the offense?

The Bengals won four of their first five games and came out of their Week 9 bye with a 5-3 record. After looking like a potential AFC Wild Card team in the early going, Cincinnati bungled away the rest of the season to finish with a 6-10 record.

Injuries were an issue down the stretch, with both Andy Dalton and A.J. Green finishing the year on IR, but the offense had collapsed long before that and the defense was a bottom-five unit all along. Management didn’t buy the injury excuse, as 2018 was finally enough of a mess for Marvin Lewis to at long last get the hook.

Replacing the long-tenured Lewis will be former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. One month ago, the league as a whole was buzzing about Sean McVay disciples like Taylor, or even just any vague associates. Right or wrong, one-game sample-size drones will declare the shine has worn off following the Rams putrid three-point offensive effort in the Super Bowl.

Nevertheless, Taylor’s primary assignment will be to bring a Cincinnati offense that has some talent on paper into the modern era and produce results similar to their 2013 and 2015 seasons when they were top-seven in points. Taylor’s lone stint as an NFL play-caller came in a five-game stretch at the end of the Dolphins 2015 season as the interim offensive coordinator under Dan Campbell.

The Bengals are all but certain to bring back Andy Dalton as the starting quarterback. Taylor will look to maximize his ability by not only bolstering the supporting cast but building a scheme that suits Dalton’s skills.

In Dalton’s two best seasons (2013 and 2015), he maintained a time to throw of less than 2.3 seconds. Getting rid of the ball quickly will be a priority. Taylor’s Rams helped remake Jared Goff after he spent a season in quarterback hell within Jeff Fisher’s prehistoric offense.

Dolling out credit to Taylor for anything involving the Rams reconstruction is difficult, considering he was just the quarterback coach and only held that gig for one season. However, he’s at least been around a team that successfully installed the blueprint for maximizing a quarterback with ability that previously struggled in a poor situation. He’ll be expected to breathe life into this offense right away and that means massaging the best play possible out of Dalton.

Possible solutions

Not only does Dalton’s play improve when he gets the ball out of his hands quickly, he’s one of the many passers whose numbers get better on play action throws. His yards per attempt has improved by at least 1.9 in 2013, 2015 and 2018 when utilizing the play fake versus traditional throws, per Pro Football Focus.

Dalton was already among the more play action-heavy quarterbacks last year (25.4 percent of his dropbacks — ninth among quarterbacks to start 10-plus games) but we could see even more in 2019. Jared Goff used play action on 34.6 percent of his dropbacks in 2018 and 29.1 percent in 2017, ranking first and third.

The Bengals sunk multiple resources into their offensive line last offseason and those bore fruit. After being a clear bottom-three unit in 2018, Cincinnati presented an average to slightly below-average unit in this past season. The Bengals ranked 19th and 22nd in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate (pass protection) and adjusted line yards (run blocking) metrics, respectively.

Owning the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Bengals could look to add a player in a strong tackle class with inside/outside versatility to compete on the right side of their offensive line. The Rams turnaround was boosted by big investments in the offensive line and that should follow Taylor to the AFC North.

Lastly, Taylor should look to continue to maximize the talents of the high-end players already on their roster. The Rams boasted a series of strong receivers over the last few years that were brought in under the McVay regime.

In Cincinnati, Taylor will find a true No. 1 unlike any the Rams ever had in A.J. Green. He’s struggled with injuries in recent years but Taylor can still count on him as the center of the passing game’s universe. Taylor will also find he has a potentially supped-up version of Cooper Kupp in Tyler Boyd. His 10.1 average depth of target is higher than Kupp’s 8.4 over his first two seasons.

In addition to using Boyd to create more layup throws for Dalton, he should incorporate Joe Mixon into the passing game more. Todd Gurley led all running backs with 22.9 pass routes per game, according to Player Profiler, whereas Mixon went out for just 12.8 routes per game while drawing 54 targets to Gurley’s 76.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pressing question: Run it back again or look to the future?

The Steelers will lose at least one face of their offense from the second-half of the Ben Roethlisberger era when Le’Veon Bell inevitably walks in free agency. After a dramatic holdout that lasted the entire 2018 season, the divorce is expected.

Following a public spat with their best offensive player, Pittsburgh is in danger of making it a two-for-one loss this offseason if they follow through on Antonio Brown trade rumors. Brown’s disappearing act in Week 17 was indeed inexcusable and it wasn’t his first non-legal off-field bother. The aftermath of this issue did seem to indicate something was different this time.

Both sides seemed ready for a split after the Steelers were eliminated from the playoffs. Ownership spoke out about the possibility of a trade. Brown made no secret he wouldn’t mind being shipped out of town. Reports from a variety of outlets piled on.

Yet, as the weeks have gone by, the tone appears to be softening, with reports coming out that both Brown and the team are leaving the door open for the wide receiver’s return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are faced with a clear fork in the road. Of course, they’d love to send a message by sending Brown packing while also cashing in the game’s best wideout over the last half decade at near peak value. That’s fine but it’s impossible to make the case Pittsburgh would not be a considerably worse offense without Brown in the mix.

We already got a taste of what this offense might look like sans Antonio Brown. The Steelers put up 16 points and averaged just 5.2 yards per play in a must-win Week 17 game against a putrid Bengals defense that ranked 31st in yards and points allowed per drive in 2018.

The wide receiver corps couldn’t get open against man defense in Week 17 and that’s an issue that’s directly related to Brown’s absence. Not only is Brown one of the few true coverage-dictating wideouts in the league, no one gets open against press and man coverage like him:

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame player, likely one of the five or so best players to ever play his position and the epitome of a difference-maker. You can make all the assertions about “culture” you wish, but there’s no denying they’ll be a significantly worse on-field product without Brown in the mix. No matter what they get back in a trade, the fruit it bears will not equal Brown’s output in 2019. If the Steelers move Brown, it’s a move for the future of this team, not a positive step toward a Super Bowl win.

Possible solutions

The window is closing on this era of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ storied franchise. Ben Roethlisberger will turn 37 in March and has already flirted with retirement in recent years. The time to win a Super Bowl with this core is running out. Unless you’re a true believer in Mason Rudolph, we all know the Steelers will enter quarterback wilderness the second Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career comes to an end.

If the team is serious about its pursuit of a championship title, it has to figure a way to work it out with Brown.

The team has revolved around their offense as a whole and specifically their passing game in the second-half of Roethlisberger’s time at the helm. That unit would be severely compromised if they ship out Brown simply to make a point.

If Brown is gone, downgrade everyone in this offense. James Conner proved to be a more than adequate sub for Bell at the NFL’s most replaceable position but that was in a pristine offensive ecosystem. Again, no Brown and that suddenly looks different. JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the best young receivers in the league but it’s almost impossible to state how different his task would be without Brown dictating defensive coverage as the X-receiver outside.

Baltimore Ravens

Pressing question: What does building around Lamar Jackson long-term look like?

The Ravens caught fire with Lamar Jackson as the starting quarterback down the stretch in 2019. Baltimore went 6-1 after their Week 10 bye with their lone loss coming at the hands of the Chiefs in an overtime duel at Arrowhead Stadium. From a bottom-line perspective, Jackson’s rookie season was a success.

However, it would be utterly disingenuous to not admit there were warning signs of potential long-term problems. At least as a rookie, Jackson had a passing problem.

Pro Football Focus charted Jackson with a 66.7 percent adjusted completion percentage, second-lowest among 39 quarterbacks to take 20 percent of their team’s dropbacks. In Next Gen Stats’ completion probability model, Jackson checks in fourth-worst among qualifying quarterbacks by completing -4.5 percent of his passes under expectation.

Essentially, by any passing efficiency metric, Jackson was sub-par in 2018. Watching the games, it wasn’t uncommon to see him sail passes and badly miss open receivers on certain routes. The Ravens responded with an extremely untraditional and aggressively run-heavy game plan.

Now, just because Jackson was a subpar statistical passer as a rookie doesn’t mean he’ll never be a quality passer. The Ravens will need to hope he gets better, as the style of offense they ran in 2018 isn’t a sustainable model for the future. As they work to develop Jackson as an individual, the organization can take steps to help out his passing work while still taking advantage of his unique athletic ability.

Possible solutions

The Ravens already did a great job reinventing an offense on the fly for Jackson to win games in 2018. Now they need to think long-term for building an offense where he can succeed.

Baltimore can start by not being so predictable. As noted in the earlier graphs, Baltimore was extremely run-heavy on first down with Jackson as a starter. However, that was Jackson’s best down as a passer last year. Jackson completed 67.9 percent of his first down passes with an 8.9 adjusted yards per attempt figure.

While lazy armchair analysts wanted to stereotype Jackson into being unable to grasp a pro-style offense, Jackson came from an Erhardt-Perkins offensive system — a long-standing NFL attack. He had experience making pro reads and working under center. Yet, just seven of Jackson’s throws came from under center in 2018.

The Ravens got it right by making him the most play action-reliant quarterback in the NFL last year (41.9 percent of his dropbacks) but it’s time to incorporate more of that on under center plays, where play action is more effective.

One area their approach did match up with his collegiate profile was the direction of his passing. As The Draft Network’s Ben Solak noted in his quarterback accuracy research, Jackson was a much more accurate passer over the middle of the field than throwing outside the numbers. That matched up with a number of scouting reports and held up at the NFL level.

As a rookie, 33 percent of Jackson’s passes went to the short middle of the field. That should continue. An emphasis on middle of the field passing should lead the Ravens to target a clean route-running receiver to separate well on those patterns, especially if they lose vertical threat John Brown in free agency. The Ravens also have two young tight ends, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, that they drafted last year and who can continue to help in this area of the field.

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