print 2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: AFC North

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Published, 1/24/12 

Also see: NFC East I NFC North I NFC South I NFC West I AFC East I AFC North I AFC South I AFC West

In this report, we’ll go division-by-division and offer up a quick wrap of the 2011 season, with a brief preview of what to expect in 2012 and beyond.
Baltimore Ravens
QB: Few players were as polarizing as Joe Flacco this season. He was inconsistent, as usual, sometimes playing well against good defenses and poorly against bad defenses. He was difficult to predict, and both he and OC Cam Cameron were frequently criticized for an offense that appeared stagnant despite a 12-4 record and AFC North title. In the second half of the season, Cameron wisely started giving the ball to RB Ray Rice more consistently and limiting Flacco. Flacco has great arm strength and the ability to make impressive throws, but the combination of his inconsistency and the failure of his receivers to get open really hurt his fantasy value. Flacco ended up completing a career-low 57.6% of his passes for 3610 yards, 20 TDs, and 12 INTs, and he finished a disappointing 21st among QBs with an average of 17.2 FPG. Things really went downhill late in the season, as he failed to throw for more than 227 yards in any of his last six regular season games after he threw for 300 yards in four of the season’s first eight games. Flacco looked very good at times, but he also may have been handcuffed by poor play-calling, shaky pass protection, and lousy play by his receivers. WR Anquan Boldin struggled to gain separation, speedy Torrey Smith made big plays but is extremely raw, and veteran Lee Evans brought absolutely nothing to the table with 4 catches on 25 targets in the regular season. When Flacco is good, he can be really good, delivering big-time throws that few quarterbacks can make. When he’s bad, well, things can totally fall apart – like when he inexplicably completed 21 passes for only 137 yards against the Jaguars. It doesn’t help that Flacco has been openly criticized by people like teammate Ed Reed, who said he looked rattled in a playoff game, which has only added to the avalanche of criticism and the notion that he occasionally looks like a deer in the headlights in the pocket. Flacco is tough figure out, especially because it’s difficult to determine who deserves blame for what, between his failure to make plays he needs to make, the receivers’ failure to get open, and the unimaginative play-calling of Cameron. The Raven offense obviously needs to run through Rice, who’s clearly the best player here, but it’s been four years and we still don’t know what to make of Flacco. For fantasy purposes, he was incredibly hard to trust because his play and his attempts fluctuated wildly, and the end result was a number that made him look like a low-end backup. The 12th-ranked QB this year was Carson Palmer, who averaged 19.8 FPG. Well, Flacco hit that number in a game only five times (with another couple in the ballpark). He’s clearly talented and can make all the throws and make them well, but he occasionally looks like a rookie in terms of his awareness on the field, and the lack of depth and consistency at receiver only compounded the problems. Yet, through all of this, the Ravens went 12-4 and nearly went to the Super Bowl. Perhaps Flacco will always be someone who frustrates us on a weekly basis, and maybe we just have to accept him for what he is, although some changes are surely coming in 2012. It’s clear he and Cameron don’t get along, so a new offensive coordinator would be the first step toward Flacco possibly turning a corner and playing more consistently.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Next year is Flacco’s contract year, so, unless he’s signed to extension, it’s obviously a big one for his future. The Ravens need help at WR, and the offense could also look different if the team moves on from Cameron, whose contract expires.
RBs: While he had a few rough games in which OC Cam Cameron inexplicably didn’t give him the ball much (a total of 21 carries against Jac, Stl, and Sea), Rice had a phenomenal season for fantasy and generally lived up to lofty expectations. Even when he didn’t get the ball a lot as a runner, he still made up for it with production in the passing game. He finished 3rd in the league with 290 carries, and he finished 2nd among RBs with 76 catches, and only Maurice Jones-Drew had more than his 366 touches. Rice ended up with 1362 rushing yards (4.7 YPC) and 12 TDs, along with 76 catches for 704 yards and 3 TDs on 104 targets to rank him 3rd at RB in standard scoring. Obviously, he had a lot of PPR value as well, as he was a frequent dump-off option for QB Joe Flacco in an inconsistent passing offense that had receivers who struggled to get open. Rice had six 100-yard rushing games, and he had at least 5 catches in 10 of 16 games, which is ridiculous for a RB. While Rice isn’t a particularly big running back, he’s an effective runner between the tackles because he runs with a low center of gravity, he runs hard, and he has excellent lateral agility. He’s shifty as a receiver in the open field, and he’s fast enough to break off a big play when he finds a crease. Plus, he was aided in 2011 by the presence of new FB Vonta Leach, who may be the league’s best lead blocker, and liberal use of two-TE formations. Rice wasn’t always consistent, and sometimes he does struggle with impatience and/or doesn’t “press the hole” well, depriving the Ravens of a sustaining element to their run game. Instead of decisively find a hole, he will sometimes look to cut back too quickly. So, Rice certainly isn’t perfect, and he was unimpressive in the playoffs with a total of 42 carries for 127 yards (3.0 YPC) in two games. But he still ranks right near the top of the league with Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy in terms of the most complete and versatile backs, and there’s no question that he’s an elite fantasy back. While the bigger Ricky Williams was present, the ball still went to Rice around the goal line. He touched the ball on 58% of the team’s plays inside the 5-yard line, ranking 2nd only to Frank Gore. Williams did get a decent number of carries behind Rice, putting up 108/444/1, but Rice was clearly the bell cow here. The Raven offense was frustrating at times with the inconsistent Flacco, receivers who can’t get separation, and an offense that appeared oversimplified under Cameron, but Rice still overcame everything to live up to his expectations as a top-5 overall fantasy pick.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: There’s no way the Ravens will let Rice walk, so either they’ll get a long-term deal done with him or they’ll put him under the franchise tag. So, expect him to be back. The question here is the future of the offense, as often-criticized OC Cameron may not be back.
WRs/TEs: Heading into the 2011 season, it was pretty clear what the Ravens needed in their receiving corps: speed. They got rid of Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh –two aging receivers who brought nothing different to the offense than Anquan Boldin – and they added speedster Torrey Smith through the draft and veteran deep threat Lee Evans in a trade from Buffalo before the season. The hope was that the speed of Evans and/or Smith could help the offense open up a bit, with QB Joe Flacco using his strong arm to make big plays and Boldin, RB Ray Rice, and TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta getting room to work underneath and on intermediate routes. Well, that largely failed. In the first half of the season, the team did throw plenty, and Flacco threw for 300 yards in four of his fight eight games. In fact, in Week Three, Smith suddenly burst onto the scene out of nowhere, putting up 5/152/3 with the first three catches of his career all going for TDs. But that production wasn’t really sustained. Smith, who is raw as a route-runner and not really polished, was forced into the starting lineup because of a nagging ankle injury to Evans. Smith finished the season with 50/841/7 (16.8 YPC) on 94 targets to rank 28th at WR with an average of 8.7 FPG. Meanwhile, Evans was one of the biggest busts in the league. He played only eight regular season games, catching a horrendous 4 passes for 74 yards on 25 targets total. He emerged a little bit in the playoffs with a few catches, but his season will most be remembered for a near-TD that would have probably sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl had Patriot CB Sterling Moore not knocked the ball loose. As for Boldin, he actually averaged a career-high 15.6 YPC, but he also had his fewest catches since 2004. He caught 57 passes for 887 yards and just 3 TDs on 104 targets, ranking 38th among WRs with an average of 7.6 FPG. Boldin is a tough and physical receiver, but he lacks quickness and struggles to get consistent separation. While Flacco can sometimes compensate with his strong arm and ability to put the ball in tight windows, he’s too erratic with his accuracy. The lack of separation is a big issue, and it doesn’t help that the speedy Smith also struggled to get separation vs. man coverage because he doesn’t run crisp routes (yet). In theory, it seems probable that speed could help open things up for a guy like Boldin, but the speed can’t change the offense if a WR like Smith isn’t getting open and a WR like Evans is doing nothing. It should also be noted that, although he had only a decent 15 red zone pass targets, Boldin just missed several TDs (at least 5-6) on passes thrown to him in the endzone. At TE, the Ravens frequently used two-TE sets with second-year players Dickson and Pitta. It’s pretty clear that Dickson has more upside because of his athleticism, as he could develop into a nice matchup problem capable of exploiting slower linebackers and safeties down the seam. But he actually averaged only 9.8 YPC, and he didn’t really distinguish himself from Pitta all that much. They were both involved, and while Dickson was targeted more and was more productive, Pitta had a few nice games late. Dickson finished with 54/528/5 on 88 targets – just 3 fewer catches than Boldin – for an average of 5.2 FPG, while Pitta finished with 40/405/3 on 56 targets for an average of 3.7 FPG. Combine the two and you get a nice fantasy TE, but, unfortunately, both guys were held back by the presence of the other. They’re nice players, but, obviously, this isn’t the Patriot offense, and they can’t produce like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens did move both guys around the formation, splitting them out wide, although they certainly needed them to produce because of that lack of depth at WR and lack of downfield plays on a consistent basis. Elsewhere, the Ravens got few contributions from their low-end receivers. In fact, La’Quan Williams, David Reed, and rookie Tandon Doss managed to combine for a total of 4 catches, all of which belonged to Williams. To say the Ravens lacked depth at WR is a massive understatement, as Boldin and Smith accounted for 111 of the team’s 119 receptions by WRs. Meanwhile, RBs and TEs accounted for 63.5% of Flacco’s completions, as Rice led the team in receptions.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: It’s hard to imagine Evans being back after such a lousy season, and it’s pretty clear that the Ravens need to add a top target at WR. Ideally, Boldin would shift into the #2 spot with Smith being used as a change-of-pace, big-play receiver, although the hope is that Smith can make big strides in a full off-season.
Key Free Agents: RB Ray Rice, TE Kris Wilson, G Ben Grubbs, C Matt Birk, DE Cory Redding, OLB Jarret Johnson, ILB Jameel McClain, CB Chris Carr, SS Tom Zbikowski, FS Haruki Nakamura
Cincinnati Bengals
QB: People had their doubts about Andy Dalton – us included – but everything was in place for him to be the Bengals’ starting QB since even before last April’s draft. Bengal OC Jay Gruden made it clear that he loved the possibility of Dalton in his West Coast offense, and they jumped at the chance to grab him early in the 2nd round. With Carson Palmer refusing to play in Cincinnati and Bruce Gradkowski brought in simply as insurance, the starting job was Dalton’s from Day One, and, for the most part, he did a very solid job and showed a lot of savvy. The Bengals turned things around and secured a playoff bid, and while Dalton wasn’t spectacular, he was a pretty good game manager who showed poise and confidence that can be rare for a rookie quarterback. Dalton does not have elite arm strength, but he knows where to go with the football and has a good sense of timing, which can make up for arm strength deficiencies, especially in a West Coast offense. Of course, in addition to the timing throws, it helped that he had one of the most talented receivers in the league in WR A.J. Green to go up and make spectacular catches downfield. The Bengal offense was simplified behind Dalton, and opposing defenses caught on to that in the second half of the season. However, that can be expected with a rookie QB, young receivers, and a lockout-shortened off-season. Dalton finished the year ranked 22nd among QBs with an average of 16.9 FPG, and he was viable for stretches, but he was also somewhat erratic. He completed 58.1% of his passes for 3398 yards, 20 TDs, and 13 INTs, and while he had some nice games, he also was held to fewer than 200 yards in 9 of his 16 starts. But there’s no question that he has some promise heading into next year, especially with Gruden staying and a full off-season to work. He has young talent around him with Green and TE Jermaine Gresham, and while he might never develop into an elite quarterback, he looks like someone who could be a steady, confident presence for a balanced offense for a while in this league. He’s naturally composed, and if he becomes more consistent with his accuracy, he could be a really nice timing-and-rhythm passer who can also take his shots and make big plays with Green.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: This is a big off-season for Dalton, but he’s obviously entrenched as the starter. The questions are more about the supporting cast, as RB Cedric Benson and WRs Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell are free agents.
RBs: Benson was frustrated with former OC Bob Bratkowski’s play-calling in 2010, which featured more runs that had Benson bouncing to the outside to compensate for poor blocking up the middle. Well, he seemed happy with the removal of Bratkowski and the addition of OC Jay Gruden, and while Gruden’s first season was a success given the presence of a rookie QB, Benson actually received 48 fewer carries and had 13 fewer touches than 2010. He had another solid year, but he was rarely an exciting fantasy play. He’s essentially a volume back for fantasy, which means his margin for error was small. Benson carried 273 times for 1067 yards (3.9 YPC) and 6 TDs and had 15/82 as a receiver, placing him a mediocre 27th among RBs with an average of 10.1 FPG. There was nothing particularly exciting about him for fantasy, as he was held under 60 rushing yards eight times in 15 games (he was suspended by the league for one game in the middle of the season). But that’s not to say he didn’t look good, for the most part. The Bengal O-line had a few games in which it struggled, which was a problem, but overall Benson showed that he still has quick feet and power, and he can sustain offense. He’s a patient runner with good vision and short-area burst, and he’s particularly effective in the inside zone running game. He’s nearing 30 years old, but he can still take pressure off Dalton. The problem is that he’s not active enough as a receiver and has also struggled in short-yardage situations, therefore limiting his fantasy upside. Benson admitted to being frustrated with the increased use of backup Bernard Scott as a change of pace. Scott nearly doubled his carries from 2010, rushing 112 times for 380 yards (3.4 YPC) and 3 TDs with 13 catches for only 38 yards on 17 targets. Scott is nothing special, but he’s a solid changeup behind a power back like Benson, and he saw 6-8 touches per game for much of the season. Aside from them, versatile FB Brian Leonard was mixed in, often in passing situations, but his value was minimal with 85 rushing yards and 22/210 receiving on 31 targets.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Will the Bengals move on from Benson? If they do, it’s hard to imagine Scott being the full-time solution, and in fact he won’t be, so the Bengals should be in the market for a new RB.
WRs/TEs: Sometimes, analysis is very easy. Example: A.J. Green has a chance to be really, really great. In fact, it’s pretty clear already that he’s a top-10 WR in the NFL in terms of talent, and while he was a rookie working with a rookie QB after a lockout-shortened off-season, he still ranked among the top-20 WRs for fantasy with an average of 10.2 FPG. Green is a rare talent, combining excellent size with downfield speed and unbelievable ball skills and leaping ability. With QB Andy Dalton, this is mainly going to be a timing-and-rhythm West Coast passing game, but Green gives them versatility. Dalton may not have a great ability to drive the ball downfield, but that doesn’t necessarily matter with Green. Get the ball in his general vicinity, and Green will probably catch it. Even when Green had quiet games in 2011, he still generally did something of note. He finished the season with 65/1057/7 on 112 targets (58% catch rate), and he hit 1000 yards despite slowing down at the end of the season with a total of 51 yards in his final two games as he dealt with a shoulder injury. There was an argument to be made that Green was the best prospect in last year’s class, and it’s possible he’ll live up to that, even with the out-of-this-world potential of QB Cam Newton in Carolina, OLB Von Miller in Denver, and CB Patrick Peterson in Arizona. Green is already one of the league’s best WRs, and if Dalton can refine his game and become more consistent, he’s going to do big things. Next to Green, the most important piece in this receiving corps is probably TE Jermaine Gresham, who still hasn’t quite broken out. A 2010 1st-round pick, Gresham missed his entire final season of college ball at Oklahoma because of a knee injury, and he made some improvements this year in becoming a viable low-end option. He wasn’t great, putting up 56/596/6 on 91 targets to average 6.8 FPG, but he made some plays in the red zone and had a couple nice games to end the regular season. What’s missing is the bigger plays, as Gresham has yet to become a true playmaker at the TE position. Hopefully a full off-season with Dalton will make for another big step in 2012, as he did have some problems picking up the new offense in 2011. Elsewhere at WR, Jerome Simpson stepped into a starting role and was inconsistent and unfortunately also dealt with legal issues. He ended up with the best season of his career by far, though, putting up 50/725/4 on 105 targets with a mediocre average of 6 FPG. Of course, his season will be most remembered for one of the plays of the year with his front flip touchdown in Week Sixteen. Simpson is a great athlete, but he’s still not been consistently reliable as the #2 WR and is heading into free agency. The Bengals suffered a big loss early in the season when slot receiver Jordan Shipley was lost to a torn ACL, and neither Andre Caldwell (37/317/3) nor Andrew Hawkins (23/263) was particularly great filling in. Green and Gresham are entrenched as starters, but this unit needs help.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: The Bengals have two key pieces in place with Green and Gresham, and the dependable Shipley could provide a nice boost in the slot if he is able to successfully return from his knee. The big question is at the #2 WR spot, where the Bengals could use someone a little more consistent than Simpson.
Key Free Agents: RB Cedric Benson, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Andre Caldwell, FB Chris Pressley, TE Bo Scaife, TE Donald Lee, PK Mike Nugent, G Bobbie Williams, G Nate Livings, DE Frostee Rucker, DT Pat Sims, OLB Manny Lawson, FS Reggie Nelson, CB Adam Jones, CB Kelly Jennings
Cleveland Browns
QB: To be fair to Colt McCoy, he had to adjust to a new system under new HC Pat Shurmur in 2011, and he also had to do that after a lockout-shortened off-season. But McCoy also failed to give people confidence in him as the long-term answer at QB in Cleveland. A 2010 3rd-round pick, McCoy started eight games as a rookie and the first 13 games this season before he was knocked out with a concussion by James Harrison for the final three. In 13 starts, McCoy completed 57.2% of his passes for 2733 yards, 14 TDs, and 11 INTs, placing him 25th among QBs with an average of 16.5 FPG. He actually looked like a viable #2 QB early in the season, but that was a result of a high number of pass attempts because of a struggling running game with Peyton Hillis’ never-ending issues. In his first five games, McCoy averaged 43.4 pass attempts per game and 19.4 FPG. In his final eight games, McCoy averaged 30.8 attempts per game and 14.6 FPG. So, he was a volume quarterback, and the team didn’t want him to be a volume quarterback because he’s not capable of carrying the offense. It didn’t help that his receiving corps was among the worst in the league, with promising rookie Greg Little taking over as the #1 but struggling with drops and consistency and no one else consistently providing life to the unit. The biggest problem with McCoy was that, not only does he lack the arm strength necessary to drive the ball downfield, but he also missed on too many short and intermediate throws. A weak-armed quarterback can compensate by being an effective timing-and-rhythm passer in a West Coast scheme, but McCoy was unable to deliver the ball with consistent accuracy. McCoy is mobile, at least, and can be tough to sack, but to be successful he needs a strong running game and a top-end receiver. He didn’t have either in 2011, and the season ended up being extremely shaky, leaving serious doubts for the future. In the last three games, Seneca Wallace took over as starter and did nothing special, averaging 14.2 FPG with a 50.5% completion rate, 550 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and 7/70 rushing.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: How patient will the Browns be with McCoy? With the #4 overall pick in April’s draft, the Browns will almost surely be players in the Robert Griffin sweepstakes (behind Andrew Luck).
RBs: Peyton Hillis was the golden boy of the NFL in 2010, developing from the college fullback of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones into a bruising sustaining lead ball carrier for the Browns with 1177/11 rushing and 61/477/2 receiving. And then 2011 happened. It didn’t take long for Hillis to fall out of favor. Entering a contract year, negotiations were clearly a major distraction, drawing harsh words from teammates. And he was constantly injured, with a nagging hamstring problem – plus a strep throat bout – costing him six games. There were already signs of Hillis wearing down from his punishing running style late in 2010, and his numbers took a significant dive. After averaging 4.4 YPC last year, he averaged only 3.6 YPC this year, rushing 161 times for 587 yards and 3 TDs with 22/130 as a receiver. Hillis can be tough to defend when he’s running hard with his natural power and strength, especially when he gets good blocking. But there’s nothing special about his skill set. He’s fairly quick for his size and has excellent versatility, and that’s about it. Next to Hillis, the Browns relied on Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya with Brandon Jackson out for the season. Hardesty, a 2010 2nd-round pick who missed his entire rookie year, was unspectacular, rushing 88 times for 266 yards (3.0 YPC) and 0 TDs with 14/122 receiving, while Ogbonnaya chipped in 73 carries for 334 yards (4.6 YPC) and a TD and 23/165 receiving. Hardesty isn’t a bad player as a sustaining grinder, although durability questions will continue to hang over him, as he had calf injuries and missed six games. He had a few nice games, including 5/49 receiving against Tennessee, but he also needed 33 carries to put up 95 rushing yards – his best of the season – against Seattle. He didn’t look as dynamic (for a bigger back) as he did in college, so he’s not someone we should expect will emerge as the lead back here (it is still possible, at least). Ogbonnaya looked solid when given a chance, just like in the preseason with Houston, and he ended up playing a versatile role that was probably similar to what Jackson would have done if he hadn’t gotten hurt. There’s no question that there’s talent in this backfield, but the running game never came together consistently enough to take pressure off QB Colt McCoy, who needs a strong running game behind him.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Is there any chance of Hillis and the Browns reaching a deal to bring him back? If not, will the Browns target a #1 RB in free agency or the draft? Hardesty is a nice player, but his durability issues make him unreliable for a team that desperately needs a running game.
WRs/TEs: The Brown passing game was a mess for most of the year, and, while QB Colt McCoy clearly has a lot of issues, the lack of production from the receiving corps was a huge factor as well. The Browns passed up on a chance to draft Julio Jones last year, instead trading down with the Falcons and acquiring Greg Little – someone who they thought could do similar things – later in the 1st round. Little is a very talented player and has a chance to be a go-to receiver, but his adjustment to the NFL was a little rough, which wasn’t surprising considering he missed his last season at North Carolina and dealt with a shortened off-season. Little is a physical receiver with good size and excellent ability to make plays happen after the catch. However, McCoy struggled with accuracy on shorter throws, and Little dropped a ridiculous number of passes. For the season, he was still clearly the team’s #1 WR, catching 61 passes for 709 yards and just 2 TDs on 114 targets. For a rookie, those aren’t bad numbers, but the drops and the lack of TDs killed his value as he averaged only 5.6 FPG in standard leagues. He did have seven games with 5-6 catches, though, so he wasn’t terrible as a low-end PPR option for a good stretch of the season. Aside from Little, not much was happening here for fantasy. Given expectations for him on offense, WR Josh Cribbs wasn’t bad, putting up 41/518/4 on 67 targets for an average of 4.9 FPG, but he’s more of a complementary piece in this offense and is not a primary target in the passing game. That ship has sailed for Cribbs. The #2 WR is supposed to be Mohamed Massaquoi, but he had another concussion in 2011 and was unimpressive with 31/384/2 on 74 targets (41.9%). At this point, he’s just a guy. Even worse was Brian Robiskie, a 2009 2nd-round pick who managed 4 catches in five games before the team cut him. The only pleasant surprise was undersized slot receiver Jordan Norwood. Norwood flashed toward the end of the season, finishing with 23/268/1 on 34 targets. If nothing else, he could be a serviceable underneath target capable of making things happen after the catch. At TE, the Browns appeared to have a solid one-two punch with intermediate target Ben Watson and the athletic Evan Moore, but neither guy did much of note, and they also struggled with injuries. Watson’s numbers plummeted from 68/763/3 (5.9 FPG) in 2010 to just 37/410/2 (4.1 FPG) in 2011, as he didn’t catch more than 3 passes in a game after Week Four. He needed McCoy to throw the ball a lot to come through, and that didn’t really happen. As for Moore, he failed to take advantage of his athleticism and averaged only 9.7 YPC, putting up 33/320/4 after signing a three-year deal before the season. Veteran Alex Smith chipped in a TD, but the intriguing guy here is still raw but athletic rookie Jordan Cameron, who caught only 6 passes. Hopefully he’ll take a big step forward next year.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: All eyes will be on Little to see if he can become more dependable after a full off-season of work. Aside from him, it’s clear that the Browns need to upgrade their other starting spot, as Massaquoi isn’t the answer. The Browns have two 1st-round picks, and it’s possible both will address skill positions.
Key Free Agents: RB Peyton Hillis, TE E. Alex Smith, PK Phil Dawson, MLB D’Qwell Jackson, FS Mike Adams, CB Dimitri Patterson,
Pittsburgh Steelers
QB: It was certainly an interesting season for Ben Roethlisberger, who once again took a beating behind a questionable offensive line and frequently played through pain. Miraculously, he played in at least part of 15 games despite a bad ankle injury at the end of the season, completing 63.2% of his throws for 4077 yards, 21 TDs, and 14 INTs to rank 13th among QBs with an average of 19.7 FPG. He had a nice season in which he was a solid fantasy starter most of the time, but he didn’t quite live up to expectations. He rarely has a bad game, but injuries played a part in limiting his output some weeks. You have to give him credit for gutting it out most of the time, though, as he still made some nice plays even when playing one on leg. This Steeler offense clearly had a pass-first mentality under OC Bruce Arians, with everything flowing through Roethlisberger instead of the run game. However, the offense frequently lacked rhythm and instead consisted of Roethlisberger holding onto the ball and improvising. He has one of the league’s deepest groups of receivers, led by big-play man Mike Wallace and emerging second-year receiver Antonio Brown, who became the #1 target as defenses focused their attention on limiting Wallace’s big plays. Wallace’s production did drop off in the second half of the season, and that played a part in Roethlisberger’s sometimes mediocre numbers. Big Ben’s numbers particularly declined in the second half of the season, as he hit 20 FP only once after Week Nine. To compare, Aaron Rodgers never had fewer than 22 FP in a game all year. When Roethlisberger is healthy, this is a tough passing game to stop because Brown, Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery, and TE Heath Miller made them multi-dimensional with a mix of speed, possession receivers, young talent, and veterans. He can make up for deficiencies in protection with his rare strength and mobility, but holding the ball longer and moving around opens him up to more hits, which means more injuries. Somehow, he generally avoids missing games, but his numbers can be compromised when he plays hurt, which is obviously a concern for fantasy. Behind Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch was the only QB to see action, and Batch, Dennis Dixon, and Byron Leftwich are all free agents.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: At some point, it’s fair to question if Roethlisberger’s body will break down from so many hits and so many injuries. Limited mobility really hurts him because his game is so reliant on moving around and making things happen even when plays break down. Otherwise, the question is with the play-calling, as the pass-happy Arians will not return in 2012.
RBs: Heading into the 2011 season, it was reasonable to assume that Rashard Mendenhall would at least be a dependable option for fantasy. Yes, the Steelers operated a pass-first offense in 2010 and were expected to again in 2011, but Mendenhall is a very good player and there was little reason to think his production would drop after he ranked 10th among RBs with an average of 13.9 FPG. Well, that wasn’t the case. That’s not to say Mendenhall was bad – he bumped up his yards per carry to 4.1 and he actually looked very quick all season – but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Mendenhall, who played 15 games before tearing his ACL, received 228 carries, which was down nearly 100 from 2010’s 324. He turned them into 928 yards and 9 TDs, and he managed only 18/154 as a receiver. Mendenhall received frequent criticism, especially for things like getting stuffed at the goal line four straight times against the Browns, but the line in front of him dealt with a lot of injuries and was unspectacular, and OC Bruce Arians refused to commit to him. When given chances, Mendenhall generally looked quick, and his biggest problem is occasionally dancing and trying to bounce outside instead of simply hitting it up in there and taking what he can get wasn’t as prevalent in 2010. Behind him, Isaac Redman actually looked pretty good, carrying 110 times for 479 yards (4.4 YPC) and 3 TDs in his second season. He looked particularly strong filling in for the injured Mendenhall, as he had 19/92/1 in the regular season finale and 17/121 in the Wild Card game against the Broncos. Redman doesn’t dance around as much as Mendenhall. Instead, he gets downhill quickly and runs with some natural power. Given his success, Redman probably needs more carries, but the Steelers have operated with a pass-first mentality behind Roethlisberger and Arians. Depending on the health of Mendenhall and what they do in the draft, Redman could see his chances increase. Mewelde Moore was in the mix occasionally in passing situations, rushing for 157 yards and putting up 11/104/1 as a receiver. Jonathan Dwyer had 16/123 rushing before being placed on IR with a foot injury. His progress has been very slow (and he actually looks very slow), but he could be in the mix early in the 2012 season if Mendenhall isn’t 100% and they decide to address other positions in the draft and in free agency. Undrafted rookie John Clay got into the mix in the last two weeks, rushing for 41/1 on 10 carries.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: How will Mendenhall bounce back from the torn ACL? Plus, how will the offense change as the Steelers move on from Arians? And will there be another face in this backfield?
WRs/TEs: With veteran Hines Ward moving into the background, 2011 looked like it would be all about speedy WR Mike Wallace. In this pass-first offense that sees Ben Roethlisberger take a lot of shots downfield, Wallace got off to a ridiculous start, appearing poised to build upon his 2010 season in which he had 1257 yards. But, after putting up 100 yards in each of his first three games and averaging 13.8 in the first half of the season, he failed to hit 100 yards in the second half and averaged only 7.8. For the season, he increased his catch total to 72 on 112 targets, but he dropped to 1193 yards (still a solid 16.6 YPC) and 8 TDs for a an average of 10.8 FPG, placing him 13th among WRs. So, no, it wasn’t a bad season at all, but defenses shifted their attention toward Wallace and attempted to eliminate big plays. That shift opened things up for second-year WR Antonio Brown, who became a go-to target in the offense. While he’s not as explosive as Wallace, Brown has deep speed, and he’s better route-runner. Facing a fair amount of single coverage, Brown averaged 9.5 FPG in the second half of the season, finishing the year with 69/1108/2 (16.1 YPC) on 121 targets for an average of 7.9 FPG. The passing offense had some trouble with Roethlisberger banged up, but Brown gives the Steelers two big-time options. He’s a quick receiver with good hands, and he picks up yards after the catch with a fluid running style. Behind Brown and Wallace, Ward faded into a secondary role, putting up only 46 catches for 381 yards (8.3 YPC) and 2 TDs on 63 yards. Obviously, he’s on the downside of his career, and it’s tough to imagine him being much of a factor in Pittsburgh anymore. Promising slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders was unable to build on a solid finish to his 2010 rookie season, as he had 22/288/2 on 43 targets in 11 games and missed time after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in November. If he’s healthy, he could emerge next year as a reliable underneath option. That’s something the Steelers need, as there’s been no real rhythm in their passing game. Instead, it mostly consists of Roethlisberger improvising and taking shots to Brown and Wallace. Former Jet Jerricho Cotchery rarely did much and was a rotational player, catching only 16 passes for 237 yards and a TD, but he did some good things late in the season. At TE, Heath Miller saw a few more targets than 2010 but still wasn’t a big factor for fantasy. He’s often asked to stay in and block, and while he had a few notable games, overall he didn’t do a lot with 51/631/2 on 74 targets for an average of 4.7 FPG. He’s had only 2 TDs in each of the last two seasons. Behind him, the Steelers have an intriguing player to watch in undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders, who was one of the top TE prospects before he missed his entire final season at South Carolina. He had only 4/29/1, but he could be someone to keep an eye on as an under-the-radar player.
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2012: Brown and Wallace are clearly the top guys here, so now the question is what defenses will do in 2011. They shifted their coverage toward Wallace, but that opened things up for Brown, who is a more complete player. A healthy Sanders would also help as a viable slot receiver. 

Key Free Agents: WR Mike Wallace (RFA), WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Mewelde Moore, QB Charlie Batch, QB Dennis Dixon, QB Byron Leftwich, FB David Johnson (RFA), OT Max Starks, G Doug Legursky (RFA), G Ramon Foster (RFA), CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda


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