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AFC North Fantasy Football Deep-Dive: Best Picks, Sleepers, Draft Advice for 2021

A team-by-team deep dive, bringing you the best of the AFC North for 2021 fantasy football.

With the 2021 NFL season fast approaching, I’ve taken it upon myself to go division-by-division and breakdown each team for 2021 fantasy football. For each team, I’ve picked the best fantasy options and a few up-and-comers on the roster who could have sneaky fantasy value this coming season. I’ve also included Sharp Football’s Strength of Schedule Metrics for each team (1st = easiest, 32nd = hardest) and my own 2021 .5PPR rankings for the players were applicable. (Listed ADPs via FF Calculator)

Baltimore Ravens
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency

Given Baltimore’s strength of schedule metrics, per, it’s possible the Ravens are forced out of their run-first game plans from time to time, as 2021 opponents feature top-12 passing personnel groups on both sides of the ball. That said, the Ravens’ offense is a beast of its own and it’s safe to assume that Lamar Jackson and Co. are licking their chops at what projects to be the seventh-softest slate of opposing run defenses.

Kings in the North

QB Lamar Jackson (My 2021 rank: QB4)

Lamar Jackson’s near 1,400-rushing yard lead on the rest of the NFL’s quarterbacks, over the last three years, is a testament to his field-tilting dynamism—and a great reason to excitedly draft him at his current 4.12, QB4 ADP. Jackson disappointed drafters last year but much of his sporadic production was caused by the wonkiness of the 2020 season: a bout with COVID-19 and a lackluster/injured offensive line functioning as the clear areas of misfortune.

Although another go with the former is a concern, Baltimore’s front office put serious resources into the O-line this offseason, adding standout veterans Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. With starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley healthy again, this unit goes from a 2020 weakness to a 2021 advantage. Jackson’s passing production should take a leap as well after the team spent a first-round pick on WR Rashod Bateman and signed veteran downfield receiver Sammy Watkins.

COVID-19 update: Lamar Jackson has contracted COVID-19 for a second time. Jackson showed no real ill effects when he got it last time but we’ll still hope for a swift and fallout-free recovery.

WR Marquise Brown (WR51)

Marquise Brown’s been a bit of a disappointment in his first two NFL seasons, through no fault of his own. Brown—standing a diminutive 5-foot-9, 170(ish) pounds—did his best operating as the team’s de facto No. 1 WR but he was always destined for a field stretching role. With rookie X-receiver Bateman and veteran Watkins now in the fold, Brown can focus on his intended role: roasting DBs in the deep areas of the field. With this newfound freedom, Brown is in line for a potential career year and drafters should not hesitate to pull the trigger on him at his current 10.08, WR46 ADP.

Injury note: Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh recently revealed that Marquise Brown’s hamstring injury is worse than the team originally thought. In short, this is bad. Serious hamstring injuries that occur in August have a long history of plaguing players throughout the upcoming season. Consider Marquise Brown officially off of the Certified Beast landscape right now.

TE Mark Andrews (TE5)

Despite never being a high-snap rate guy, Mark Andrews has finished as a top-5 tight end in back-to-back seasons. The fourth-year player has shown no signs of slowing down and drafters have noticed. He’s a rock-solid pick at his current 5.04, TE5 ADP.

In Line for the Throne

RB Gus Edwards (RB29)

Although Gus the Bus is the No. 2 running back in Baltimore’s backfield, his 8.07, RB39 ADP is drastically more desirable than lead back J.K. Dobbins’ 2.09, RB15. Baltimore was the third-most run heavy offense on first-half early-downs (FH/ED, per Sharp Football) last year, toting the rock at a rate of 54%. The league average was just 46%(!). These FH/ED numbers show us what the team wants to do and what they plan on doing on a weekly basis.

Looking at it from the inverse perspective, head coach John Harbaugh only wants Lamar Jackson throwing the ball 46% of the time. With just 20% of those FH/ED targets being funneled to the running back position, Dobbins’ late second-round ADP is completely untenable. Another thing to keep in mind here: J.K. Dobbins, albeit as a rookie, received just one more intended touch (ie. carries plus targets) than “No. 2 back” Gus Edwards did last year (158-157). Given the draft capitol the team spent on Dobbins in 2020 (pick No. 55 overall), it’s reasonable to assume that Dobbins does take on a larger role this year. But how much larger?

And then there’s the matter of Lamar Jackson, the league’s premier rushing quarterback. Jackson’s 159 rushes actually led the team last year and his 26 redzone carries trailed Dobbins and Edwards by just three and two, respectively. The Ravens’ running back duo will undoubtedly produce at an impressive level of rushing efficiency—Gus Edwards’ 5.0 yards per carry was the “worst” on the team last year yet tied for ninth in the league overall—but their overall touch volume is going to lower their raw totals. Pass on Dobbins and instead draft Gus Edwards six rounds later.

Injury note: With J.K. Dobbins out for the season, Ty’Son Williams is now the No. 2 back in this rotation. A minimum of 10 touches per week are well within his potential range of outcomes. Add him ASAP if you have any need at the position.

Cincinnati Bengals
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency

Cincy’s 2020 play-calling tendencies were a tale of two halves. From Weeks 1 to 11, before then-rookie quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season, the Bengals boasted the league’s second-highest first-half, early-down (FH/ED) passing rate (62%). Through the remaining six contests, with Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley at the helm—as the team flailed with a 2-7-1 record—head coach Zac Taylor flipped the stick into neutral and coasted to a 2-4 finish with a FH/ED passing rate of just 44%.

Should Joe Burrow be healthy enough to start in Week 1, fantasy managers should safely assume the Bengals return to their intelligent, analytically-backed play-calling style. If he is not (which may actually be the more likely outcome) it’s going to be Joe Mixon SZN to the max.

Kings in the North

RB Joe Mixon (My 2021 rank: RB12)

For fantasy purposes, we like talented, dual threat running backs in good offenses, with big workloads. As a consolation prize, we will accept talented dual threat running backs in questionable offenses, with massive workloads. Joe Mixon is going to be one of the two, and maybe even both as the season progresses.

For those concerned about Mixon’s injury history, read Dr. Porras and then draft him confidently. If Joe Burrow is good to go in Week 1, which is trending towards unlikely, Mixon will be the full-time, workhorse back in a high-scoring offense. If Burrow is not ready to play in Week 1, Mixon’s likely to see a similar, mammoth-sized workload as he did when the Bengals closed out the 2-14 2019 campaign with a washed up Andy Dalton at the helm. During that four-game stretch, Mixon averaged 23.75 carries, 2.5 targets, and 20.4 .5PPR points per game, 8th-most at the position. Mixon’s a rock-solid pick at his current 2.05, RB13 ADP.

Injury note: Joe Mixon reportedly tweaked his ankle this week and we now have a medical professional, Dr. Jesse Morse, voicing his concern. Expect the workload projections above to remain accurate if Mixon is healthy, but evidently, there’s now some cause for concern.

WR Ja’Marr Chase (WR28), Tee Higgins (WR47), Tyler Boyd (WR51) & QB Joe Burrow’s outlook (QB23)

Ja’Marr Chase is an exceptional X-receiver prospect who has a great shot at immediately taking over as the team’s No. 1 pass catcher. Tee Higgins proved to be a capable NFL player despite his dreadful athleticism in his 2020 rookie season. Tyler Boyd has long since established himself as an above average slot receiver in the league as well. The trio has the potential to operate on the high-floor, low-end WR2/high-end flex spectrum on a weekly basis.

Their respective ceilings lie in the hands of Joe Burrow’s knee, so to speak. For a detailed rundown of what exactly Burrow is trying to comeback from, readers are again directed to the excellent work of Dr. Edwin Porras. Unfortunately, reports are not great at the moment.

Come Week 1, Burrow will only be nine months removed from the injury. Although there is no difference in re-injury rate between Month 9 and Month 12 post-injury, most players return in the Month 11 to Month 12 window. That’s not to say that Burrow can’t be ready for Week 1, but he’s not likely to be his full, potential self until perhaps November. Given the assortment of passing game weapons, he might still be able to provide decent production, but you simply aren’t drafting a guy who’s in place to routinely find his fantasy ceiling.

Were all three wide receivers being selected ahead of their current, respective sixth to eighth round ADPs, they would make for risky picks. At this point in the draft, fantasy managers can feel somewhat comfortable drafting them in that WR2/Flex range.

With regards to Joe Burrow, he’s currently being drafted with his ceiling outcome in mind at the 9.02, QB12 spot. This ADP is far too high for him at the moment.

In Line for the Throne

RB Samaje Perine (RB59)

Perine’s the No. 2 back in Cincy. Depending on Joe Burrow’s health and their run/pass rate, Perine could return value via a touchdown or two as your final best ball draft pick.

WR Auden Tate (WR72)

Tate has operated as a capable role player from time to time. He would slide onto the flex radar should anything happen to one of the team’s three starters.

TE Thaddeus Moss (TE28)

Moss was a one hit wonder at LSU, catching passes from Joe Burrow in 2019. Due to a foot injury, he missed all of 2020 as a rookie with the Washington Football Team last year. Moss was later claimed by the Bengals off waivers in April, 2021. Perhaps most notably, Thaddeus Moss is the son of the one and only, Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss. Although Thaddeus is a long shot to make it in the NFL, being Randy Moss’s son as well as already having an on-field connection with Joe Burrow have to count for something. One could do worse with their final fantasy pick in the draft.

Cleveland Browns
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency

Last season, the Browns threw the ball on first-half early-downs (FH/ED) 55% of the time, tied 13th-most in the NFL. Through the final six weeks of the season, playoffs included, when the team had fully adjusted to new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offensive scheme, they upped that FH/ED passing rate to 62%, fifth-most in the league.

On the season, the team also averaged 30.4 rushing attempts per game, fifth-most in the NFL. How is it that a team can simultaneously be a pass-first, yet skew extremely run-heavy? By establishing the pass, not the run.

Fans and analysts alike continue to misdiagnose Kevin Stefanski as a traditional, “three-yards and a pile of dust” play-caller. In reality, he’s anything but that. With analytics guru Andrew Berry at his side, the newfound Browns leadership duo are taking this team to the next era of football; one backed by science, mathematics, and beautifully designed play-action passing mixed with Gary Kubiak-inspired rushing philosophies.

Dissecting the strength of schedule metrics above, it’s plain to see that Cleveland will be imposing their will on opponents all season long. Opposing offenses are largely inefficient, and are unlikely to be tilting game script in their favor. The fourth-softest slate of run defenses offers plenty of fantasy potential for both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as the duo is primed to feast through the second halves of most contests.

The Dawg Pound has the Super Bowl firmly within its sights this year.

Kings in the North

QB Baker Mayfield (My 2021 rank: QB15)

The biggest thing holding Baker Mayfield back from a top 12 ranking is his own efficiency. Perhaps best exemplified by his Weeks 13 and 15 performances—where he produced respective stat lines of 25/33-334-4-0 and 27/32-297-2-0—Mayfield has finally found a home with in Kevin Stefanski’s scheme after a couple years that had some questioning whether he belonged as a long term NFL starter.

Related: Quarterbacks to Target in 2021 Fantasy Football

Expect Mayfield to continue shredding defenses early in games, offering fantasy managers an extremely high-floor. Given the nature of the offense, he’s unlikely to be a reliable slate-breaker though. His current 12.04, QB18 ADP is an absolute steal. Drafters would do well to add Mayfield in a pairing with a promising rookie possessing high-ceiling potential like Trey Lance or Justin Fields.

RB Nick Chubb (RB9) & RB Kareem Hunt (RB19)

If you’re wondering what to think of Cleveland’s deployment of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, look no further than this usage breakdown from the great and powerful Dwain McFarland. Chubb’s got the edge in snaps and carries. Hunt’s not lacking in those department’s though, and the passing game work is his, and his alone. Both backs are featured in scoring position. Their outlook is enhanced by Warren Sharp’s expectation that Cleveland will be squaring off with the league’s fourth-least efficient conglomerate of run defenses this year.

Chubb and Hunt are both good bets to streak their way to hyper efficient seasons in the box score. Chubb’s lack of a passing game role makes his 1.06, RB6 ADP awfully pricey and he’s being taken as though his ceiling is a given. Kareem Hunt though is coming off the board at a much more advantageous ADP of 4.10, RB24, behind backs like J.K. Dobbins, Josh Jacobs, D’Andre Swift, Myles Gaskin, and James Robinson, who he can absolutely out-produce this year.

WR Odell Beckham Jr. (WR25) & Jarvis Landry (WR35)

As with their quarterback, the biggest obstacle in the paths of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry looks to be their own team’s efficiency. Once this team finds the end zone a few times, it’s a race to the finish line, as evidenced by their 29% second-half early-down passing rate when up by eight points or more. That said, it’s more likely than not that these two beasts were involved in their team running up the score in the first place. Smart team’s know that play-action passing can act as a skeleton key for chunk gains and the Browns certainly qualify as a smart team. Last year, 128 play-action passes (16th-most) scorched the league for 1,160 yards, tied for 9th-most in the NFL.

Jarvis Landry continues to operate as a high-end, reliable target in the short-to-intermediate area of the field and forcefully asserted himself as Mayfield’s No. 1 target in the red zone last year, seeing 18 targets in the region—twice as many as the next closest Brown. Landry’s 10.02, WR43 ADP is an exceptional value.

Odell Beckham Jr.’s last two seasons have been derailed by injury. The hip/groin issue in 2019 had all sorts of strange storylines surrounding it. The isolated ACL tear last year, in theory, should not hold him back this year. He’ll be almost 11 months removed from the injury, come Week 1, which is the typical return time for this injury. Beckham has had a number of issues plague him throughout his career but his upside has typically quieted those concerned.

Were Beckham coming off the board at a high cost, savvy drafters would understandably try to shy away from him. His 6.04, WR24 ADP is much more palatable though. Although there may be some down weeks for a receiver with a downfield role, his upside is week-winning. Beckham is an excellent target at the beginning of the sixth round.

In Line for the Throne

TE Harrison Bryant (TE20), Austin Hooper (TE22), & David Njoku (TE28)

Cleveland’s 30% tight end target rate was third-most in the league last year and the tight end trio of Hooper, Bryant, and Njoku were all top 10 in team snaps. Although that positional competition will hurt their consistency, nabbing one of them late is a good move for bench depth. Hooper is the team’s TE1 but Bryant, who notched a few impressive performances in his rookie season last year, offers more of a complete tight end skill set than the receiving-centric Hooper can.

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR54)

Rookie receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones saw a sharp increase in snaps after Odell Beckham Jr. suffered his ACL injury in Week 7 and quietly finished with a respectable 14/20-304-2 stat line, despite starting just two games last year. Although he didn’t get much fanfare outside of Cleveland, Peoples-Jones actually finished with the second-highest Yards per Route Run (Y/RR) of the 2020 rookie WR class with a mark of 2.34, just 0.32 yards behind Justin Jefferson. That’s good company to be keeping. His athletic profile also speaks for itself:

With Beckham’s contract entering it’s team-friendly, “cut at any time” phase after this year, the Browns are going to want to find out if Peoples-Jones has got what it takes to take over as the No. 1 WR ASAP. Expect the sophomore receiver to get all the work he can handle in 2021. He’s an excellent person to use your final fantasy draft pick on.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Overall Strength of ScheduleOpposing Off. EfficiencyOpposing Def. EfficiencyOpposing Pass D EfficiencyOpposing Run D Efficiency

Things are bleak in the Steel City. Longtime starters like right tackle Alejandra Villanueva (now a Raven), right guard David DeCastro (effectively retired), and center Maurkice Pouncey all left the team this offseason, leaving the Steelers with quite possibly the worst offensive line in the league. Ownership also saw fit to intervene this spring, forcing the front office to “fix” the running game by spending their first-round pick on a running back Najee Harris, instead of an offensive lineman. Although their schedule looks like one made for shootouts, with terrifying offenses and flaccid defenses, it’s just as likely that the ancient Ben Roethlisberger is sacked into retirement.

Kings in the North

WR Chase Claypool (WR26), Diontae Johnson (WR37), & JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR45)

Chase Claypool quickly asserted himself as the next dominant Pittsburgh wide receiver as a just a rookie last year, hanging a receiving stat line of 62/109-873-9 (11 touchdowns from scrimmage) on opponents, en route to the position’s 18th-best Yards per Route Run (2.00). The crowded receiving room, Roethlisberger’s aging arm, and the pits of sorrow along the offensive line keep Claypool in the high-end flex range, as opposed to his top 15 potential.

Diontae Johnson’s struggles with drops may continue, as will the ankle ailments of the cornerbacks trying to cover him. A route runner like Johnson can never be taken off of the field for long. The guy is here to stay. If choosing between the two though, Claypool’s 7.01, WR29 ADP is a much better deal than Johnson’s 5.08, WR22 ADP.

JuJu Smith-Schuster remains an enigma. Early career dominance had the world expecting immense success. Knee issues last year and an inability to consistently get open while running routes on the perimeter have slowed his roll. Despite his tight end-esque 5.8 average intended air yards (fourth most shallow in Next Gen Stat’s 2020 database), JuJu finished as .5PPR’s WR18 last year— undoubtedly buoyed by his 97 receptions, 9th-most in the NFL. Banking on a repeat performance from JuJu may be a fool’s errand in 2021 though. His usage is bizarre and the young duo of Claypool and Johnson are quickly establishing themselves as the top dogs in Pittsburgh. The veteran’s 8.02 WR33 ADP is a bit too early.

RB Najee Harris (RB16)

Dual threat rookie back Najee Harris has his work cut out for him this year. Although he won’t find much room to run behind Pittsburgh’s league-worst offensive line, the touches will be there to buoy him. A candidate to see 300 carries and potentially 75 or more targets keeps the young back in the mid-to-high RB2 conversation, even though he could be producing well below league average yards per carry marks.

Related: Running Backs to Avoid for 2021 Fantasy Football

Unfortunately for us, the drafting public has gotten ahead of themselves, elevating him to the 2.02, RB11 draft spot, an extremely tough place to justify selecting him. Draft there, if you dare. Somewhere around the Round 3/4 turn is a much more desirable place to take him though.

In Line for the Throne

WR James Washington (WR73) 

James Washington is a victim of circumstance, plain and simple. During his three-years in Pittsburgh, Washington has flashed real potential as a downfield receiver. He just so happens to be in one of the most stacked wide receiver rooms in the NFL. Expect Washington to waltz into a starting gig elsewhere next season, after his contract’s fulfillment this year. Should one of Claypool, Johnson, or JuJu be unable to play, Washington would immediately be worthy of a flex start in most formats.

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