2012 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2013 Preview: AFC North
QB: As ridiculous as it seems now, there was a time only a few short months ago when it was a totally fair question to wonder if Raven QB Joe Flacco would be in Baltimore for much longer. An impending free agent, Flacco has been looking for a new contract for a long time, but the Ravens have been unwilling to meet his demands (or at least wanted to let the situation play out). Toward the middle of the season, with the Ravens playing mediocre football and Flacco not really impressing, it wasn’t hard to think that the Ravens would have a really difficult decision to make, likely one that would involve franchising Flacco to give them a little more time. But can they do that now? Flacco has played his best football of the season in the playoffs, and the Ravens made an underdog run to the Super Bowl, where he won MVP. For fantasy purposes, Flacco was once again “blah.” In 16 games, Flacco completed 317/531 passes (59.7%) for 3817 yards with 22 TDs and 10 INTs. He added 3 rushing TDs, but only had 22 yards rushing, and he ranked 18th among QBs with 18.7 FPG. By the numbers, this was Flacco’s best fantasy season ever, which still wasn’t good enough to make him a consistent starter for most fantasy teams. Flacco had five 300-yard performances on the season, but he also had seven games of fewer than 200 yards passing, so you were more likely to get a “dud” from Flacco than a “stud” game. But it’s also totally fair to say that Flacco is asked to do a hell of a lot with a mediocre group of weapons on the perimeter. Flacco throws the ball downfield more than any QB in the NFL, and his deep ball might be the best in the league. That works with a speedy WR like Torrey Smith, but Smith isn’t exactly the most polished route runner in the world, so his upside as a #1 WR is limited. Veteran Anquan Boldin is still rock-solid, but he’s much more physical than he is fast, and he struggles to separate at times. And former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron still wouldn’t let Flacco audible or run a lot of no-huddle, something Flacco insisted he was becoming comfortable with. In other words, Cameron was essentially telling defenses that he didn’t believe Flacco could beat them without hitting a big play or two, and that’s a dangerous way to play. So it’s not likely a coincidence that the firing of Cameron late in the season and the change to an evidently more flexible Jim Caldwell helped Flacco post an amazing postseason. Even with his inconsistencies, he threw only 10 INTs during the regular season, and avoiding turnovers is one part of becoming an elite NFL QB and a solid fantasy starter. Flacco isn’t there yet, but we expect he’ll get paid soon, and he’ll be paid like an “elite” QB because the Ravens won’t have a choice. Now they need to work on letting him do his thing, as in the playoffs, and getting him some more help. Remember, a strong postseason is no guarantee of fantasy success the next season, and the only place you have to look for proof of that is Eli Manning’s 2012.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: When will Flacco get paid? If the Ravens do make the expected monster commitment to him, will they support him with more weapons on the perimeter? Will a full off-season of Caldwell at OC help the Raven offense become “less boring?”
RB: Well, we know Ray Rice is awesome, and he continued to be so during the 2012 season. In 16 games, Rice carried for 257/1143/9 (4.4 YPC), and he added 61/478/1 as a receiver (7.8 YPC) to rank 6th among all RBs, with 13.9 FPG. It was a fall of nearly 5.0 FPG for Rice from last season, when he was out of control, but still an incredibly successful season for the Ravens’ star. But there were some things a little bit different in 2012. Rice posted four 100-yard rushing performances, down from six in 2011. He had 10 TDs in 2012, down from 15 in 2011. He had 1621 yards from scrimmage, his fewest since becoming a starter in 2009 and down from 2066 in 2011. He had four more games with 100 yards from scrimmage on top of his 100-yard rushing performances, same as in 2011, meaning he had two fewer 100-yard performances overall. In 2012, Rice had eight games in which he posted 20 or more touches, down from 11 in 2011. In fact, his 318 touches are the fewest he’s seen since becoming a starter in 2009. And why is that? Well, for the first time since Willis McGahee left town, the Ravens featured a young and useful backup RB in the person of rookie Bernard Pierce. Pierce’s fantasy value didn’t really hold up on its own, as his 108/532/1 rushing line (4.9 YPC) was enough to average him only 4.0 FPG, which ranked him 70th among RBs. But Pierce clearly has a future in the NFL. A straight-line runner with good power, Pierce can be crudely compared to Ben Tate, as he relates to Rice’s Arian Foster. He has excellent vision and is difficult to bring down on first contact, and his ability to gain yardage in chunks allowed the Ravens to rest Rice more than they would have in the recent past. Pierce had only a single 100-yard performance and only two games in which he posted 10 or more carries, so it’s not like he was cutting deeply into Rice’s value (Rice saw 10 goal-line carries to Pierce’s 1), but he was effective enough to spell Rice. That became frustrating for Rice’s fantasy owners, but we’d probably say now to get used to it. Pierce is still a handcuff, but he’s a really good one, and while Rice still produces like a high-end fantasy back, Pierce has apparently given the Ravens a very useful cushion behind their big-money investment.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Pierce’s strong rookie season and playoff performance mean he’s going to cut into Rice’s production in the future?
WR/TE: The Raven offense was pretty bland for the majority of 2012, and while we’ll lay a lot of that blame at the feet of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the lack of a truly dynamic talent at the WR position for QB Joe Flacco to rely on was a factor as well. That’s not to say the Ravens don’t have skilled players. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s just that the guys they do have are probably better suited as #2 WRs. Torrey Smith is clearly their most dangerous threat, as he has deep speed that few in the NFL possess. But despite Smith playing with perhaps the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL in Flacco, he really wasn’t anywhere close to being a consistent player. In 16 games, Smith went for 49/855/8 on 109 targets (17.4 YPC, 44.9% catch rate), ranking 33rd among WRs, with 8.4 FPG. If you look at Smith’s overall stats, you understand why he’s better suited as a #2. His skills really aren’t conducive to a controlling a game from a possession standpoint, even though his season was highlighted by games he dominated. In Week Three against the Patriots, Smith posted 6/127/2 just a day after the tragic death of his brother, and in the postseason he was able to torch future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey for 2 TDs (and Flacco missed him for what could have been another). But Smith had eight games of 2 or fewer catches, and he had only two 100-yard performances. That’s not a slight at Smith’s ability, because his speed is clearly elite; it’s just that he’s not the smoothest route runner in the world and isn’t a complete player. Elsewhere, the Ravens got solid production out of Anquan Boldin, a player who is pretty much the exact opposite of Smith. In 15 games, Boldin posted 65/921/4 on 111 targets (14.2 YPC, 58.6%), ranking 36th among WRs, with 7.8 FPG. Boldin is a physical, big receiver who knows how to set up receivers and get open in the short area, but he lacks breakaway speed and isn’t the best fit for what the Ravens were asking Flacco to do for most of the year. Boldin had only one 100-yard performance on the season, and rarely scored before the postseason, going without a TD between Weeks One and Thirteen. However, Boldin became a much more important part of the Raven offense in the postseason, when he often lined up in the slot in the red zone and beat inexperienced defenders, scoring as many TDs in the postseason as he did in the regular season. He’s still a quality player, but he lacks the speed you want from a true #1 WR, and like Smith, he’s best for fantasy as a #3 guy. The Ravens got decent production out of #3 guy Jacoby Jones (30/406/1, 13.5 YPC), and he’ll be most remembered for his miracle TD against the Broncos in the postseason, but really, the Ravens had two #2 WRs and a #4 as their top three, which could explain some of the inconsistencies of this offense. At least Flacco found a reliable chain mover at the TE position in his buddy Dennis Pitta. In 15 games, Pitta posted 61/669/7 on 91 targets (11.0 YPC, 67.0%), ranking 7th among TEs, with 7.3 FPG. Although he was involved early, Pitta’s game really took off in Week Ten, a span after which he ranked 3rd among TEs, with 9.4 FPG. Pitta’s involvement in the offense was key to the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl because he gave Flacco a reliable intermediate target outside of Boldin. That was huge because Flacco was asked to throw more deep balls than any player in the NFL this season, and it often led to inconsistent play. It’s not surprising, then, that Flacco’s play really started to steady in the postseason, after Pitta had already become a reliable threat. With his reliability, Pitta moved clearly past the talented but inconsistent Ed Dickson (21/225/0) on the TE feeding chart.
· Fantasy situation to watch in 2013: Will the Ravens add another receiver to the fold, or will they ask Smith to take another step toward being a #1 in 2013? Can Pitta build on his strong finish to the 2012 season to be a solid fantasy starter again?
Key Free Agents: QB Joe Flacco, TE Dennis Pitta (RFA), TE Ed Dickson (RFA), LT Bryant McKinnie, OG Ramon Harewood (RFA), TE Billy Bajema, WR David Reed (RFA), DE/LB Paul Kruger, S Ed Reed, CB Cary Williams, DE Arthur Jones (RFA), DT Ma’ake Kemoeatu, LB Dannell Ellerbe, CB Chris Johnson, S James Ihedigbo, S Sean Considine.
QB: The Bengals went through a transition in 2011, but were able to reach the playoffs in part due to the solid play of then-rookie QB Andy Dalton. While he wasn’t a reliable fantasy option, he was good enough to get WR A.J. Green the ball and make him a dangerous threat in the passing game. We probably undersold Dalton as a fantasy option heading into 2012 due to his physical limitations, but by the end of the season, our worries about him proved to be warranted. Dalton opened the season hot and found himself in the top-10 of fantasy options for the first half of the season. He was sharp for the most part, despite not having much to rely on in his receiving corps outside Green and TE Jermaine Gresham. Dalton is a player who throws with timing and anticipation, meaning he’s a rhythm passer. While they would rather have a balanced offense, the Bengals became a more of a passing team, at least for the first half of the season with the OL struggling to block for the run. We started to see cracks in Dalton’s game heading into the Week Eight bye, and he had at least 1 INT in each of the team’s first eight games. We started to see Dalton rush some decisions and throw balls that shouldn't have been thrown. It was clear that if a defense could get him off his game mentally, then Dalton struggled to put up numbers. The OL also had issues blocking athletic defenses, and with the pressure on him, Dalton struggled to find his rhythm, which was a big reason he didn’t play nearly as well down the stretch. He became gun-shy and inaccurate with his throws and his struggles started to show up more and more. The truth is, even when he was putting up big numbers, he wasn’t playing all that well and left way too many plays, including a lot of TDs, on the field. We know not having another reliable WR hurt him, especially after WR Mohamed Sanu went down, but Dalton has to take a lot of the blame as well. He never hit the 300-yard mark after Week Six and topped 250 yards just once in the second half of the season. Dalton would be helped by another option in the passing game, but he needs to step up, too, especially since he cost Green what should have been an even better fantasy season. Because of his arm limitations, Dalton’s margin for error is smaller, so he can’t be making bad decisions and leaving plays on the field. We’ve still believe Dalton can be a solid NFL QB, but he needs to clean up his game if he plans on bouncing back in 2013. Even with his struggles, Dalton took a step forward as a fantasy option, finishing 14th among QBs, with 20.5 FPG, thanks to 3669 yards, 27 TDs, and 16 INTs on 329/529 passing (62.2%) and 120/4 on the ground.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: While Dalton may have upped his fantasy value in 2012, can he have a more consistent season in 2013 and become an every-week fantasy starter? Will a Bengal WR step up or will the team look to free agency to bring in another reliable option for Dalton?
RB: The Bengals parted ways with RB Cedric Benson and decided to bring in RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’d been part of a frustrating RBBC in New England for his entire career. Green-Ellis was installed as the starter, although there were certainly questions about his ability to excel in that role over an entire season. Those questions seemed to be justified for the first half of the season when it became apparent Green-Ellis’ fantasy value was directly tied to his ability to find the endzone. He didn’t do that nearly enough in the middle of the season and, as a result, had double-digit fantasy outings just three times in the first ten weeks. Green-Ellis is a power back who needs volume to produce and when that wasn’t always there, he struggled, especially behind an OL that had issues blocking for the run. However, in a span of performances that seemed to come out of nowhere late in the season, Green-Ellis raised his fantasy value significantly. He hit 100+ yards in four of his final six games and had three TDs during that time. A hamstring injury kept him out of the season finale, so in 15 games, Green-Ellis ran 278 times for 1094 yards (3.9 YPC) with 6 TDs and 3 fumbles and added 22/104 on 30 targets, putting him 23rd among RBs, with 10.4 FPG. Because Green-Ellis had such an up-and-down season and isn’t an overly talented player, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see OC Jay Gruden say the team would place a high priority on finding a “game changer” at RB to go along with Green-Ellis. We believe the team would have liked RB Bernard Scott to play that role, but he was lost for the season in Week Five after tearing his ACL and likely won’t return, as he’s a free agent. Scott played in just two games, rushing for 35 yards on 8 carries. RB Cedric Peerman, another power back, looked like he might cut into Green-Ellis’ role, but an ankle issue cost him some time in December and Green-Ellis was playing much better by then. Although we didn’t see much of him in his 14 appearances, Peerman finished with 258 yards and a TD on 36 carries (7.2 YPC) and caught all 9 of his targets for 85 yards. Although he’s an RFA, we could see him returning in a backup role next season. RB/FB Brian Leonard continued to be useless for fantasy, rushing 33 times for 106 yards and added 11/67 on 15 targets in 15 games. He’s also a free agent and is no lock to return.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: What kind of upgrade will the Bengals look for in the off-season? Can Green-Ellis be consistent enough for entire season to trust as the team’s starter?
WR/TE: One problem the Bengals didn’t have to worry about coming into 2012 was their #1 WR. That’s because they drafted a superstar in WR A.J. Green, who not only made a big impact as a rookie, but also took things to the next level in 2012. He was able to excel, despite the inconsistent and frankly, disappointing play of QB Andy Dalton. There’s no doubt Green is the team’s best player and when they struggled to run the ball, their passing game became that much more important, with Green leading the way. At 6’4” and 207 pounds, Green has the size to go up and get any pass, even the ducks Dalton threw from time to time, but he also has the speed to make plays downfield. Green had another big season and has already become one of the top options at the position. One of his best accomplishments of the season was his streak of nine straight games with a score from Weeks 2-11. Unfortunately, he scored just one other time after that span. We blame a lot of that on Dalton for leaving too many plays on the field including multiple TDs to Green. Even with Dalton’s struggles, Green finished tied for 4th at the position, with 12.8 FPG, thanks to 97/1350/11 (13.9 YPC) on 160 targets (60.6% catch rate). While Green was easily the team’s best WR, it really wasn’t much of a competition since they never really found a #2 WR. Rookie WR Mohamed Sanustarted to come on in the middle of the season, scoring four times from Weeks Ten through Twelve, but he suffered a stress fracture in Week Thirteen and landed on the IR. He had surgery on the foot and is expected to be running around during OTAs. Sanu looks like he can be the #2 WR and has shown the ability to play in the slot or outside and with his size, showed to be a nice red-zone target, so hopefully he’ll be able to rebound in his second season. He ended up with 16/154/4 (9.6 YPC) and 5.1 FPG. Second-year WR Andrew Hawkins really flashed as a super-fast option out of the slot, but for whatever reason, the team didn’t get him involved nearly enough. The smaller Hawkins appeared to be a perfect fit for this West Coast scheme, but he ended up with 51/533/4 (10.5 YPC) on just 79 targets (64.6% catch rate) and 5.7 FPG in 14 games. We hope the Bengals use this young playmaker more in 2013. Rookie WR Marvin Jones, a player who the team seems to like, found his way into the starting lineup at the end of the season, and had 18/201/1 (11.2 YPC on 32 targets. He could be in the mix to start again next season. TE Jermaine Gresham showed improvement in his second season after getting off to a slow start, but still hasn’t exhibited the athleticism we’d hoped to see. In 15 games, Gresham caught 64/737/5 (11.5 YPC) on 93 targets (68.8% catch rate) and was 10th among TEs, at 6.9 FPG. While he was a starting fantasy option, we wonder if Gresham will show much improvement going forward, as he’s a solid player, but hardly one who dictates coverage.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Green continue to be held back by Dalton? Will the Bengals find a legitimate #2 WR, either on their own team or through free agency? Can Sanu find the form we saw before his injury? Is Gresham any better than the player we saw in 2012?
Key Free Agents: WR/KR Brandon Tate, RT Andre Smith, RT Dennis Roland, QB Bruce Gradkowski, RB Bernard Scott, RB Brian Leonard, RB Cedric Peerman (RFA), DE Robert Geathers, NT Pat Sims, DE Michael Johnson, LB Manny Lawson, LB Rey Maualuga, LB Dan Skuta, LB Thomas Howard, CB Nate Clements, CB Terence Newman, CB Pacman Jones, SS Chris Crocker, PK Mike Nugent, PK Josh Brown.
QB: Brown rookie QB Brandon Weeden had a decent first season, but he was far from spectacular in the young Cleveland offense. Plus, Weeden’s first-year performance was even more underwhelming when compared to his fellow rookie QBs from the 2012 draft. And unlike the other rookie QBs, Weeden is already 29 years old, so he doesn’t have a ton of time to develop into a big-time NFL quarterback. Weeden completed 297/517 passes for 3385 yards, 14 TDs, and 17 INTs, and he ended the season 29th among QBs with 15.8 FPG. He also averaged a very pedestrian 6.5 yards per attempt in his 15 starts (Weeden missed the final game of the year with a sprained right shoulder, but the injury wasn’t serious). The Browns hired Rob Chudzinski to be the team’s new head coach on Jan. 12, and he was understandably noncommittal on whether or not Weeden would be the team’s starting quarterback next season. Obviously, Chudzinski didn’t have any time to evaluate Weeden as the Panthers weren’t in the market for a QB in last year’s draft, and Carolina didn’t play the Browns in 2012. Chudzinski did say that he wants to bring a vertical, downfield passing game to Cleveland, and Weeden has plenty of arm strength to get the ball there. But his biggest issues are that he locks onto his receivers and doesn’t go through a progression, and he isn’t athletic enough in the pocket. After one season in the NFL, Weeden ultimately looks like a guy who could be a solid QB in the NFL at best, but the Browns might not have a choice but to play Weeden once again this year, unless they want to burn another high draft pick on a quarterback. QB Colt McCoy is actually younger than Weeden and started 13 games in 2011, so it’s not out of the question that Chudzinski and new OC Norv Turner could open up the starting QB spot for a competition in training camp. However, McCoy lost his biggest supporter Mike Holmgren, so there’s also the possibility that the Browns shop McCoy for a draft pick. Chudzinski obviously worked with a freak athlete in Carolina with Cam Newton, but he did help guide the Brown offense to their last winning in 2008. The Browns finished 10-6 with Chudzinski at offensive coordinator and Derek Anderson at QB, so Weeden, in a five- and seven-step drop offense, has a chance to succeed.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: After a mediocre rookie season, will Weeden fit into Chudzinski’s plans for the Browns’ offense? Does McCoy have any future with the Brown organization?
RBs: Brown rookie RB Trent Richardson didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his first NFL season, but he still displayed enough promise to show why he was taken #3 overall in last April’s draft. In 15 games, Richardson finished with 267 carries for 950 yards and 11 TDs to finish 8th among RBs, with 13.6 FPG. He was also great in the Brown passing game, with 51 catches for 367 yards and 1 TD. Richardson averaged just 3.6 YPG, but he was a real force around the goal line and in the red zone, scoring 6 TDs in a four-week stretch from Weeks Twelve through Fifteen. Richardson put up the solid numbers all while dealing with a handful of injuries this year, which gives us some optimism for what he will be able to do next season if he stays healthy. Richardson underwent a knee scope that forced him to miss most of the preseason, which put him behind the eight ball. He then broke a few ribs in Week Six and played the rest of the year, and Richardson admitted the injury really hindered him down the stretch. He also suffered a minor ankle sprain, and he sat out of Week Seventeen more as a precaution in a meaningless game. Richardson should be in perfect health by the time preseason camp rolls around next summer. Richardson stepped right into the Browns’ starting lineup from Week One, and he was a true three-down and goal-line back. The numbers don’t lie either, as he played on 702 offensive snaps this year in 15 games, the ninth-most among running backs. The Browns hired Rob Chudzinski in the middle of January, and in fantasy circles, he was known for his peculiar use of Panther RB DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert. Yet we also can’t deny how much he used QB Cam Newton. Let’s also not forget the hiring of new OC Norv Turner, someone who is famous for his usage of a single workhorse back (Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore, LaDainian Tomlinson). Turner loves to run the ball, and Chudzinski isn’t afraid to build an offense around a star like he did with Newton in Carolina, so we fully expect Richardson to be the focal point of the offense. Richardson has plenty of upside heading into 2013, especially if he can stay healthy. RB Montario Hardesty will likely serve as Richardson’s backup once again next season, as he is a cheap option but effective option. He’s coming off his best season in his three-year career, with 65 carries for 271 yards and a TD, but Hardesty could always see extended time if Richardson deals with more injury issues next year.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Richardson, as the focal point of the season, stay healthy and get his 3.6 YPC average up significantly next season? Will Richardson stay on the field as much next season under new HC Chudzinski?
WRs/TEs: The Browns had one of the thinnest receiving corps in the NFL coming into the 2012 season, and while they still weren’t anything special during the year, the group at least showed a little bit of promise for the future. The reason for the optimism begins and ends with 2nd-round supplemental pick Josh Gordon. He ranked right up there with Seahawk QB Russell Wilson, Buccaneer RB Doug Martin, and Jaguar WR Justin Blackmon as the most improved rookies from the beginning of the season until the end. Gordon possessed a great deal of size and speed, and he eventually to harness his ability in Week Five against the Giants when he caught 2 deep balls for touchdowns. He still needs to become more of a complete receiver, and the QB situation isn’t resolved, but Gordon will be drafted as a #3 fantasy WR next summer. Gordon finished 50th among WRs, with 6.9 FPG, on 50 receptions (53.2% catch rate) for 805 yards and 5 TDs. Blackmon and T.Y. Hilton were the only rookie receivers to have better years, so the Browns’ investment Gordon did slow down a bit at the end of the season, with just 8 catches for 73 yards in the last three weeks, and he suffered an ankle injury in Week Seventeen. But he clearly showed why the Browns made their investment, and his progress will be fun to monitor this summer. Brown #2 WR Greg Little became well known for dropping passes during his rookie year in 2011, and he did little to shake that status early in 2011, especially on Thursday Night Football against the Ravens early in the year. However, Little started to turn things around in the second half of the year. He had more than 48 yards receiving in six of his last eight games, after clearing the total just three times in his first eight games. Little ended up finishing 68th among WRs, with 5.6 FPG, on 53 catches (57.6% catch rate) for 647 yards and 4 TDs. Little is clearly the #2 WR in Cleveland heading into next season, but he did come on a bit, so he should go late in fantasy drafts, provided the Browns don’t add anyone. WR Mohamed Massaquoi began the year as a starting receiver, and he ended the year on the injured reserve late in December. Massaquoi dealt with a number of injuries and played in just nine games this year. He is a free agent this summer, and it’s hard to believe the Browns will bring back Massaquoi. Rookie WR Travis Benjamin finished the year with just 18 catches for 298 yards and 2 TDs. Yet he came on strong at the end of the year, with 8 catches for 158 yards and a TD in the final three weeks. Benjamin is slight of build (5’10”, 175), but he could see even more time in the slot next year, and he does have some big-play ability. TE Ben Watson had a resurgence in the second half of the year, but he still has an uncertain future in Cleveland. Watson went for more than 40 yards just once in his first eight games, but he cleared 40 yards five times in the second half of the year. He finished 28th among TEs, with 4.3 FPG, on 49 catches (59.8% catch rate) for 501 yards and 3 TDs. Watson is a free agent this off-season, so Cleveland’s new leadership has to decide if it wants to ride with the 32-year-old tight end or give talented TE Jordan Cameron his shot to start. The 2013 season will be a make-or-break year for the former basketball player, after hauling in 20 catches for 226 yards and 1 TD. But new head coach Rob Chudzinski and OC Norv Turner have a great reputation for working with TEs, including Antonio Gates and Greg Olsen, so Cameron has huge upside in this offense.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Gordon and Little continue to improve and become a legit wide receiver tandem in the league? Will the Browns stick with the free agent Watson or give the talented Cameron a chance to start at TE?
QB: Steeler QB Ben Roethlisberger was at the very least considered in the NFL MVP conversation though the first half of the season, but then the bottom absolutely fell out against the Chiefs on Nov. 12 on Monday Night Football. Big Ben suffered a dislocated rib and a sprained right shoulder on a big hit that night, and he ended up missing three games during the middle of the year. The Steelers went just 1-3 the rest of the way when Roethlisberger returned to the lineup in Week Fourteen, and the team won only two of their final seven games after that fateful Monday night in November. He still finished with 97.0 passer rating, seventh best in the league, but Big Ben said the Steelers would’ve made the playoffs if he had played better down the stretch. It’s hard to argue with him because Roethlisberger threw late INTs in back-to-back weeks against the Cowboys and Bengals, which cost the Steelers a chance at victories and a spot in the playoffs. He may have been a bit ineffective, but Big Ben didn’t appear to be limited physically. Big Ben still had a solid season for fantasy purposes, finishing 11th among QBs with 20.9 FPG, on 283/448 passing for 25 TDs and 8 INTs. Roethlisberger didn’t play poorly for fantasy in his final four games either, with 22.1 FPG, but he did throw half of his interceptions during that time. The good news for the Steelers and Big Ben is that he won’t require off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder. Yet this could be an off-season of change for the Steelers, with #1 WR Mike Wallace most likely on the move. Wallace never came to an agreement after holding out for an extension the preseason, and the Steelers appear ready to part ways. Big Ben also needs to get on the same page with OC Todd Haley, as the two often butted heads in 2012 with Haley’s more short-pass-oriented offense. Roethlisberger was clearly still upset the Steelers let go of former OC Bruce Arians, who loved airing the ball deep, but it’s time for Big Ben to get past it for the betterment of the team. The Steelers also could be in the market for a better backup QB as both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich become free agents this off-season. Both QBs have plenty of NFL playing experience, but Batch (age) and Leftwich (injuries) have major drawbacks at this point in their careers. And the back-up QB job in Pittsburgh has been an important position since Roethlisberger came to the organization. Big Ben hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2008, his only full season in nine years, and you have to wonder if he’ll ever play at a consistently high level over a full season again, given the beating he’s taken in his career and the physical, improvisational style with which he plays.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Roethlisberger adjust to life without WR Wallace and life with OC Haley? Can Big Ben stay healthy enough to play a 16-game season for the first time since 2008? Who will back up Ben in 2013?
RBs: The Steeler running game was a complete and utter mess for nearly the entire 2012 season, and there were plenty of reasons why they underperformed. The Steeler offensive line dealt with a number of injuries, and the team rarely used a fullback as a lead blocker. The Steelers also had a lack of commitment to the running game early in the season, and they used a running back-by-committee for much of the year. Still, at the heart of the issue is the fact that the Steeler running backs just weren’t very good. Former first-round pick RB Rashard Mendenhall dealt with knee and Achilles injuries, and he also had an attitude problem that got him suspended for a game. Mendenhall will become a free agent this off-season after an up-and-down tenure with the Steelers, and he’s likely played his final snap with Pittsburgh. Mendenhall had his least productive year since his rookie campaign in 2008, with just 51 carries for 182 yards and 9 receptions for 62 yards and 1 TD. RBs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman showed a little bit of life at running back, but they hardly showed they’re capable of handing full-time duties. Dwyer was the best of the group, finishing 40th among RBs, with 6.5 FPG, on 156/623/2 rushing and 18/106 receiving, and he had back-to-back 100-yard performances in Weeks Seven and Eight. But after that brief stretch, Dwyer never topped 60 yards on the year, and only two times did he have a halfway-relevant fantasy performance after that, with TDs in Weeks Thirteen and Fifteen. Dwyer looked the best of these backs, but ultimately he’s Redman also got a few cracks to handle the job, finishing 51st among RBs, with 110/410/2 rushing and 19/244 receiving. The Steelers ranked 27th in rushing this year, hardly acceptable for a team that once used to take pride in running the ball. All three backs will become free agents this off-season (Dwyer and Redman are restricted), so the Steelers could draft a back or be in the market for a lead back this year. While Mendenhall’s days appear numbered in Pittsburgh, Dwyer will likely have a chance to backup and could possibly get a crack to start next season. Meanwhile, Redman is more equipped for goal-line and third-down situations, and he should go back to that role next year. The Steelers already released #4 RB and return man Chris Rainey on Jan. 10 after he was arrested for simple battery. Rainey was used sparingly this year as a scat back and in the slot like Chief WR Dexter McCluster or Saint RB Darren Sproles, so his loss won’t have a huge impact on the offense, but he is a talented player who could catch on elsewhere.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Who will be the Steelers’ lead back next season? Can Dwyer be effective as the workhorse back behind a healthy offensive line, or will he be limited to backup duties?
WRs/TEs: The Steeler wide receivers showed a great deal of promise heading into the season, but the young and talented group really regressed in 2012. WR Mike Wallace was a problem from the moment he decided to hold out of training camp. A number of key drops during the season overshadowed the big plays he made this year. Wallace finished 28th among WRs,, with 8.8 FPG on 64 catches (55.2% catch rate) for 838 yards and 8 TDs. Wallace equaled his TD production from 2011, but he finished with 355 fewer yards, and his YPC dropped from 16.6 in 2011 to 13.1 in 2012, perhaps a symptom of the quicker passes that new offensive coordinator Todd Haley implemented into the offense. Wallace is a free agent this off-season, and there’s almost no doubt that he’ll with another organization next season. The Steelers are about $10 million over the projected 2013 cap, and Steeler president Art Rooney II said all the pieces don’t fit. You can see the writing on the wall with Wallace, who will get paid elsewhere. WR Antonio Brown missed three games because of an ankle injury, and he didn’t live up to the contract he signed in the preseason (the same big-money five-year deal the Steelers offered to Wallace, which he rejected). Brown ended the year 32nd among WRs, with 8.5 FPG, on 66 catches (62.9% catch rate) for 787 yards and 5 TDs. Brown found the end zone three more times this year than in 2011, but finished with 321 fewer yards, although he did play three fewer games. Both Wallace and Brown finished with 1000 receiving yards in 2011, but neither player hit that mark this year, thanks to injuries, the new offense, and general ineffectiveness. WR Emmanuel Sanders was a marginal player at best as the #3 WR, even with chances for extended playing time because of injuries. Sanders hauled in 44 catches for 626 yards and 1 TD, but his role could drastically increase next year. Brown probably isn’t a true #1 WR, but he’ll more than likely be forced into the role, with Sanders getting bumped up to the #2 spot. WR Jerricho Cotchery has played sparingly during his two years in Pittsburgh, but he could become the #3 WR next year if the Steelers don’t upgrade the position through free agency or the draft. TE Heath Miller may have been the one of the few bright spots for a Steeler offense that underperformed for much of the season. Yet, a devastating knee injury in Week Sixteen ruined what was a great season for Miller. He tore the ACL, PCL, and PCL in his right knee, and he’ll now be a big question mark heading into the start of the 2013 season as he recovers from reconstructive surgery. Even if Miller returns at anywhere close to 100%, he will be 31 next season and it’s difficult to believe he’ll maintain his high level of play from 2012, in which he benefitted from Haley’s focus on quicker passes (he didn’t have to stay in to block as much). Despite the injury, Miller still finished first on the team in catches (71), tied for first in TD receptions (8), and second in receiving yards (816). He finished 4th among TEs this year with 8.6 FPG, and Miller had new career-best numbers for yardage and touchdowns and a whopping 71.7% catch rate. The Steelers have very mediocre options at tight end behind Miller, so they could look for a backup plan in case he has any setbacks.
· Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: If Wallace leaves through free agency, can Brown and Sanders step up into expanded roles? Will Miller be back for the start of next season, and can he be even close to the same player he was this year?
Key Free Agents: WR Mike Wallace, RB Rashard Mendenhall, RB Jonathan Dwyer (RFA), RB Isaac Redman (RFA), WR Emmanuel Sanders (RFA), NT Casey Hampton, ILB Larry Foote, CB Keenan Lewis, LT Max Starks, RG Ramon Foster, WR Plaxico Burress, QB Byron Leftwich, QB Charlie Batch, TE Leonard Pope, C Doug Legursky, SS Will Allen, FS Ryan Mundy.