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2013 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2014 Preview: AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens
 
QB: After a surprising run to a Super Bowl title and the massive contract that followed, Joe Flacco was riding high coming into the 2013 season. But the raised expectations for Flacco and the team were never reached, which leaves more questions than answers heading into 2014. Baltimore decided to trade away WR Anquan Boldin rather than pay a sizeable salary, but did so on the assumption that TE Dennis Pitta would expand his role as Flacco’s most reliable receiver. Unfortunately, Pitta injured his hip in the preseason and ended up on the designated-to-return IR until the last four games of the year. That left Flacco with a less-than-stellar receiving corps and put him under the microscope after receiving such a monster contract. While Flacco deserves credit for helping the team get to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, he’s never been one to make everyone around him significantly better and that was clear in 2013. In defense of Flacco, his top WR, Torrey Smith, continues to be miscast as a #1 despite not being a complete and polished player through his first three seasons. WR Jacoby Jones isn’t a consistently reliable option and missed time, and rookie WR Marlon Brown proved to be a solid red-zone threat, but also missed time and was probably playing too large of a role in his first season. The loss of Pitta left the team with TE Ed Dickson, who has never reached his potential and struggled again this season. The team tried to replace Pitta with veteran TE Dallas Clark, but it was clear he was on his last legs and didn’t pose much of a threat to opponents. When you add in an OL that allowed Flacco to get sacked 48 times and a ground game that didn’t get much out of RBs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, it put Flacco in a tough spot and he was unable to overcome the myriad obstacles in his way. A knee injury limited Flacco down the stretch, but he won’t need off-season surgery and still managed to start every game for the sixth straight season. For the year, he went 362/614 (59%) for a career-high 3912 yards with 19 TD and 22 INTs, also a career-high. While HC John Harbaugh thought Flacco did more with his mobility, it resulted in just 27/131/1 on the ground. Flacco was once again a fantasy afterthought, finishing 24th at the QB position, with 18.2 FPG. In his six seasons, Flacco has never finished with more than 18.7 FPG and that came in 2012, which once again proves that there can be a disconnect between fantasy and reality. Baltimore must address their receiving corps, OL, and ground game this off-season if they’re going to help Flacco and the offense improve in 2014. Of course, it would help if they figured out who their new offensive coordinator will be after former OC Jim Caldwell left to take the HC position with the Lions.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will the Ravens once again make WR a priority? Will the team continue to put more of the offense on Flacco’s shoulders if the running game doesn’t improve? Can Flacco ever be relevant for fantasy?
RB: While the Raven passing game hasn’t always given fantasy owners much to get excited about, their rushing attack, led by RB Ray Rice, has been very reliable, which has made Rice one of the top fantasy backs over the last few years. That was until everything fell apart in 2013. Rice battled a hip injury early in the season and admitted he never really got over it. Add in quad/thigh issues late in the year and health was a season-long issue for Rice, who was clearly less elusive and didn’t have the lateral agility and burst we’ve seen from him in the past. He missed just one game (his first since his rookie season), but it was obvious Rice wasn’t 100% just about all year. Rice’s only 100-yard effort came against the Bears in Week Eleven, but they ended up being a sieve on defense and even then, Rice needed a big run to get most of his yards. He struggled to break tackles playing through injury and didn’t get much help from an OL that didn’t do a good job opening holes. Under OL Juan Castillo, the team was using more read-and-react run plays, as opposed to power runs and sweeps, with the latter being more of Rice’s strength. Rice will look to play at a lighter weight in 2014 after intentionally adding to his frame coming into 2013. Baltimore has already talked about using more of a timeshare next season, and while Rice won’t be cut, it’ll be interesting to see how the team addresses their running problems. Second-year RB Bernard Pierce didn’t fare any better than Rice, as he battled through hamstring, knee, toe, and shoulder issues, with rotator cuff surgery reportedly coming soon. He’s expected to be out 4-5 months, but should be ready for training camp. Rice ended up playing 15 games, rushing 214 times (37 RZ, 16 GL) for 660 yards and 4 TDs (3.1 YPC) while adding 58/321/0 on 73 targets (79.5% catch rate) and was 28th among RBs at 12 FPG. Rice’s 3.2 yards-per-carry average was horrible, but it was his 5.5 yards-per-catch average that was most disconcerting. Coming off 2012 and 2011 seasons in which he averaged 9.3 and 7.8 yards per catch, Rice couldn’t even crack 6 yards a catch despite the fact that he was getting in space much more as a receiver. That is a clear sign that he’s on the decline. Pierce played every game for the second straight year, but had just 436 yards and 2 TDs on 152 carries (2.9 YPC) and 20/104/0 on 25 targets (80% catch rate), putting him 65th at the position, with 5.4 FPG. For a team that once had a very reliable ground game, there are many questions about this backfield going forward.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Rice regain the form that made him one of the top backs in the league? Will we see more of a committee situation, and how will that help or hurt Rice’s value? Who will be part of that committee?
WR/TE: When the Ravens traded WR Anquan Boldin to the 49ers in exchange for a 6th-round pick, it was considered a steal, but Baltimore believed they had enough in their receiving corps to make up for the loss of Boldin. After the 2013 season, that move looks completely ridiculous and the Ravens need help in their receiving corps more than ever. Besides the money due to Boldin, the Ravens made the trade because they believed TE Dennis Pitta would be able to make up for the loss of Boldin after a strong 2012 campaign as QB Joe Flacco’s favorite target. Those plans blew up when Pitta dislocated his hip in late July, an injury that was expected to cost him the entire 2013 season. With Pitta’s status in question, the team scrambled and ended up adding TE Dallas Clark to go along with an underwhelming TE Ed Dickson, but neither could make up for the loss of Pitta, who eventually returned for the final four games. Pitta’s absence created a large hole in the receiving corps and once again pushed WR Torrey Smith into a bigger role than he should have been playing, but with a lack of proven options, the team really didn’t have a choice. Smith ended up playing every game, despite dealing with a hamstring issue at times and had a career year. He caught 65/1128/4 (17.4 YPC) on 135 targets (48.1% catch rate) and was tied for 29th at the position with 12.6 FPG. All of the numbers except the TDs were career highs and could put Smith in line for a contract extension, although we hope the team also adds another reliable threat on the outside. That role was supposed to be filled by WR Jacoby Jones, but he’s really just a deep threat and had his season derailed by a MCL sprain early on, which ended up limiting him to 12 games. Jones posted 37/455/2 (8.5 YPC) on 62 targets (59.7% catch rate) and scored just 7.9 FPG. With help sorely needed in the receiving corps, rookie WR Marlon Brown was called upon to play a bigger role. He ended up starting in 12 of his 14 appearances and did provide Flacco with a good-sized, red-zone option, working both outside and in the slot. He was limited by hamstring, hip, and finger injuries, but still had a solid debut, posting 49/524/7 (10.7 YPC) on 82 targets (59.8% catch rate), which put him 55th among WRs with 10.2 FPG. Brown is probably best fitted to be a #3 WR working out of the slot, and if the team addresses the need for an outside WR opposite Smith, Brown will be in a much better position to produce. With Pitta missing significant time, Clark had 31/343/3 on 52 targets and 6.9 FPG, which was good for just 31st at the position. Dickson played 15 games, ending up with 25/273/1 on 42 targets and 3.9 FPG. He is a free agent and is not expected to return. Meanwhile, Pitta had 20/169/1 on 33 targets and 10.7 FPG in four games, but he is also up for a new deal. GM Ozzie Newsome has indicated re-signing Pitta is a priority, as it should be considering his relationship with Flacco. Pitta could get the franchise tag, but he would be able to fight his position distinction, since he often lines up as a WR. No matter what happens with Pitta, they still need to get Flacco more help and could look to do that in the draft.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will the team finally add a legitimate option on the outside? Has Smith done enough to earn a contract extension with one year left on his deal? Have we seen the best of Smith or can he develop into more of a complete WR? Will Brown settle in as the #3 or can he be their clear #2?
Key Free Agents: TE Dennis Pitta, TE Ed Dickson, TE Dallas Clark, WR Jacoby Jones, RB Bernard Scott, OL Eugene Monroe, OL Michael Oher, DE Arthur Jones, DT Terrence Cody, LB Daryl Smith, S James Ihedigbo.
 
Cincinnati Bengals
 
QB: In some ways, no player exhibited a bigger disconnect between fantasy and reality this season than Bengal QB Andy Dalton. The top two QBs for fantasy this season were Peyton Manning (31.1 FPG) and Drew Brees (27.3 FPG). It’s certainly arguable, if not totally obvious, that both Manning and Brees are among the league’s top-five QBs. But #3 in our site-default scoring system? That would be Dalton. Despite his ups-and-downs throughout the year, Dalton finished 363/586 (61.9%) for 4296 yards with 33 TDs passing. He added 61/183/2 rushing and averaged 23.6 FPG. However, Dalton also threw 20 INTs, placing him 5th in the NFL in that department. In fact, he was the only QB in the NFL with at least 30 TD passes who finished in the top 12 in interceptions. If you owned Dalton for fantasy, this probably doesn’t surprise you. His season was one of runs. In a three-game stretch from Weeks Six through Eight, Dalton was excellent, throwing 11 TDs to only 2 INTs and ranking #1 among QBs with 32.7 FPG (98 FP total). And Dalton’s fantasy production was strong over the final four games of the season as well – he had 11 TDs and 4 INTs (all 4 INTs coming in Week Seventeen), averaged 30.0 FPG (120 FP total). It’s the other nine games in which he wasn’t so hot. Excluding his two “big runs,” over which he averaged a combined 31.1 FPG, Dalton completed 11 TDs and threw 14 INTs in nine games. He averaged only 17.7 FPG in these nine games, a number that would rank him #25 for the full season. The frustrating thing is that Dalton is clearly capable of putting up big numbers, thanks mainly to the team’s talented receiving corps. It’s just that we never knew when a total meltdown was coming. Although certainly talented enough to win at the NFL level, Dalton doesn’t have elite arm strength. In order to combat this, his accuracy and decision-making must be better (or at least more consistent) than they were in 2013. Dalton is now 0-3 in the playoffs, and just getting there isn’t good enough for the talented Bengals any more. Dalton’s performance against the Chargers in the Wild Card round, with 3 bad turnovers, won’t help him go into the off-season with much support from the Cincy faithful. He needs to hope new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson finds a way to put him in a position to be consistently successful. Unfortunately for fantasy, that would almost certainly involve reducing his pass attempts. In fact, it’s already clear that Jackson will look to run the ball more, in part to reduce Dalton’s negative impacts for the offense.  
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: Do the Bengals bring in serious competition for Dalton, or do they throw all their support behind him? If he is the 2014 starter, does new OC Hue Jackson place less of an emphasis on throwing the ball?
RB: The Bengals needed to add more dynamic weapons to their offense in 2013, and they got off to a heck of a start with RB Giovani Bernard, whom they made the first running back taken in last April’s NFL Draft. An excellent receiver who excels in open space, Bernard managed to put up big numbers in those areas while also surprising us with how well he ran between the tackles. Rotating snaps about evenly with BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the season, Bernard posted 170/695/5 rushing (4.1 YPC) with 56/514/3 receiving on 71 targets (78.9%) and ranked #15 in a PPR league among all RBs, with 14.1 FPG. Clearly, it was Bernard’s receiving ability that made him an appealing fantasy player. His 56 catches and 514 yards ranked him #8 at his position, while his 3 receiving TDs tied him for 4th. However, it was his surprising power for his frame that made him a guy to whom the Bengals were willing to give double-digit carries on 11 occasions, including in each of the final seven games of the season. Only five times all year did Bernard fail to produce double-digit fantasy points in a PPR league, which is pretty good for a guy who essentially split snaps and touches. Considering Bernard went over 100 yards from scrimmage only twice all season and touched the ball inside the five-yard line only 8 times (although he was used inside the goal more than some expected), these numbers exhibit how much room there is for him to grow as a fantasy back. Of course, that growth would almost certainly require Green-Ellis’ touches to fall. To Law Firm’s credit, he did exactly what the Bengals asked of him. He totaled 220/756/7 rushing (3.4 YPC), and tied for 10th in the NFL with 13 goal-line carries (inside the five). He’s a total zero as a receiver, though, with only 4/22 receiving on 8 targets. In a PPR league, BenJarvus averaged only 7.7 FPG, ranking him 47th at the position. BenJarvus had double-digit fantasy points on only four occasions, and never without scoring a TD. However, he carried the ball 10 or more times in 13 of 16 games, so at least he remained involved if you needed him. Despite their active backfield that saw their top two RBs combine for 1451 rushing yards, the Bengals didn’t have a single individual 100-yard rushing performance all year, given the active rotation. Under new OC Hue Jackson, we would expect the Bengals to run it more in 2014, or at least keep pace with their rushing numbers in 2013. It’s just a matter of which back is touching the ball most here next season. Could Bernard take a step forward like Ray Rice did in his second season in 2009? That is the prediction, and he we can see his carry total climb to even 240 or so in 2014. That means Bernard already looks like a strong 2nd round pick this coming season.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: With Green-Ellis owed big money in 2014, is there a chance he gets cut? If so, do the Bengals bring in someone else to split touches with Bernard, or did he show enough in 2013 for the club to commit to him as a full-time back in 2014? It’s possible he’s a top-15 PPR pick next season, depending on what happens over the next few months.
WR/TE: The Bengal offense did manage to produce the #3 overall QB in our site’s default scoring system, so in ways it’s pretty disappointing that they didn’t have more consistent performances and more fantasy-relevant players than they had at the WR and TE positions. Assuming a 12-team league lineup that starts 3 WRs and 1 TE, only two Bengal players finished ranked in a “starting” spot – WRs A.J. Green (#6) and Marvin Jones (#34). Green’s final numbers were, predictably, impressive. He hauled in 98 passes for 1426 yards and 11 TDs on a ridiculous 177 targets (but only a 55.4% catch rate). His 19.2 FPG ranked him #6 among all WRs. In PPR leagues, Green was a consistent stud who produced just about every week. He had double-digit fantasy points in 15 of 16 games and had six games of 20 or more fantasy points. Despite the up-and-down season of QB Andy Dalton, Green was a no-brainer start in every week. He had his typical struggles with Brown CB Joe Haden (who held him to 2 catches and 7 yards in Week Eleven), but overall Green reinforced the hype that made him a second-round pick in most fantasy drafts. But outside of Green, the Bengals didn’t have a viable #2 fantasy option for most of the year, at least until Jones emerged. Playing behind Mohamed Sanu for most of the early part of the season, Jones still managed to make the occasional impact with TDs. Through Week Seven, Jones had only 16 catches but 3 TDs, and then he really broke out in Week Eight against the Jets, with 8/122/4, hauling in all 8 of his targets. On the year, Jones caught 51 passes for 712 yards and 10 TDs on 79 targets (64.6%), and averaged 11.8 FPG, ranking him 34th among all WRs. Still, nearly a quarter of Jones’ total production came in a single game, thanks in large part to the fact that his snaps didn’t truly increase and move past Sanu’s until late in the season. But Jones is a fairly explosive playmaker who can high-point the ball, which makes him much more useful for our purposes than Sanu. Sanu is a good blocker and versatile player who started most of the year but managed only 47/455/2 receiving on 77 targets (61.0%). His 6.7 FPG ranked him #86 among all WRs. In our opinion, the Bengals have another underutilized player at WR in the speedy Andrew Hawkins, who was on IR for the first half of the season with an ankle injury and dealt with hamstring problems later on. Hawkins had only 12 catches in eight games, for 199 yards. However, his speed is a potential difference-making asset if used correctly. Hawkins is a free agent in 2014, and it remains to be seen if they club will invest much money on him, since there’s only one ball here. The Bengals spent their first-round pick in April on TE Tyler Eifert, but Eifert split snaps with Jermaine Gresham and didn’t make much of a fantasy impact. In 15 games before missing time late with a shoulder injury, Eifert had only 39/445/2 receiving on 60 targets (65%). He ranked 36th among TEs with 6.4 FPG, tied with fellow rookie Mychal Rivera of Oakland, making his rookie season a disappointment. Eifert flashed a few times, but he never topped the 66 yards he had in his second career game, and didn’t top the 5 catches he had in his first career game. Now, rookie TEs don’t often produce big numbers in the NFL, but it’s fair to think the Bengals expected more of Eifert. He needs to improve his blocking if he wants to see more snaps next year, and they need to do a better job of utilizing his downfield ability. As for Gresham, he wasn’t much better for fantasy. Playing in 14 games as he battled through hamstring, abdomen, and groin injuries, Gresham totaled 46/461/4 receiving on 68 targets (60.3%), ranking 24th among TEs, with 8.3 FPG. He topped double-digit fantasy points only five times, so he was little more than a fill-in option for fantasy. Generally considered a strong blocker, Gresham even struggled in that department in 2013, and the Bengals may choose to cut him or force him to restructure his near $3 million salary in 2014.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: Will Jones get the starter’s reps alongside Green next year? Will the Bengals figure out how to use Hawkins, a restricted free agent? Does either TE make a fantasy impact next year?
Key Free Agents: DE Michael Johnson, WR Andrew Hawkins (RFA), LT Anthony Collins, LB Vincent Rey (RFA), T Dennis Roland, G Mike Pollak, WR/KR Brandon Tate, S Taylor Mays, WR Dane Sanzenbacher (RFA), S/CB Chris Crocker.
 
Cleveland Browns
 
QB: It was pretty clear the Browns wouldn’t be going very far in 2013, but when you have to play three different QBs with each of them getting at least three starts, there’s little chance for success. Cleveland came into the season with a new HC in Rob Chudzinski and a front office with no connection to QB Brandon Weeden. Weeden opened the season as the starter, but it was clear that Chud was leaving the door open to a change if Weeden struggled. That move happened pretty quickly, as Brian Hoyer was elevated from the third-string to the starter by Week Three. He was doing a very decent job until a torn ACL ended his season after just three starts. For the rest of 2013, we saw a combination of Weeden and Jason Campbell, although neither was particularly impressive. Weeden saw action in eight games and had five starts, compiling 1731 yards, 9 TDs, and 9 INTs on 141/267 passing (52.8%), which put him at 15.9 FPG. In addition to having the starting job taken away from him on multiple occasions, Weeden also dealt with concussion issues. Veteran QB Jason Campbell, who also dealt with concussion issues, would play in nine games with eight starts and finished 180/316 (57%) for 2015 yards, 11 TDs, and 7 INTs while adding 13/107 on the ground to finish with 15.6 FPG. Campbell played over his head at times (credit Norv Turner and Josh Gordon), but he’s expected to be cut and for now the top two QBs look like Hoyer and Weeden. New HC Mike Pettine already lauded Hoyer for his “intangibles” and being “a winner” although we’ve hardly seen enough of Hoyer to believe he can be anything more than a stopgap, if healthy next year. The team has a pair of first-round picks in the draft and will likely use (at least) one of them to acquire a QB.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Who will start for this team in 2014? Will Weeden be kept around? Can Hoyer return from his injury and find his way into the mix?
RB: Much like the QB position, the RB position in Cleveland is far from settled heading into 2014. The new regime felt they could get more out of a first-round pick than RB Trent Richardson, so he was shipped off to Indianapolis after just two games. At the time, the move was met with criticism, but with the team going nowhere and in a rebuilding process, they took advantage of the Colts’ RB injury woes and look very smart for doing so, especially after Richardson struggled mightily. For the rest of the season, the team pretty much went with a committee, which didn’t result in a lot of productivity. Veteran RB Willis McGahee was signed soon after Richardson was traded and ended up starting six of his 12 games, rushing for 377/2 on 138 carries (2.7 YPC) while adding just 8/20 through the air, putting him at just 5 FPG. McGahee clearly had very little left in the tank and will probably struggle to find work in 2014. RB/FB Chris Ogbonnaya saw action in every game and started seven times, although some of those came at FB. He carried 48 times for 239 yards (5 YPC) and was a solid option in the passing game, catching 48/343/2 on 73 targets (65.8 YPC), which was good for 7.4 FPG (50th). RB Fozzy Whittaker, who began the season with the Chargers, saw action in 14 total games (11 with Cleveland), rushing 29 times for 80 yards (2.8 YPC) and had 21/155/2 on 36 targets, putting him at 4 FPG. If there’s a player who intrigues us going forward, it’s RB Edwin Baker, who flashed down the stretch during the evaluation period. He started two of his three appearances, rushing 43 times for 171 yards and 2 TDs (4 YPC) and caught 8 of 9 targets for 57 yards to average 14.3 FPG. The Browns will likely add at least one RB in the draft, but Baker showed some quickness and burst in the little we saw of him, which is something the team really didn’t have all year. Of course, the new OC, whomever that may be, will probably have something to say about whom the team will bring in via the draft and/or free agency.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Who will be the starting RB in 2014? Did Baker and the others show enough to the new staff to be in the mix?
WR/TE: Not a lot went right for the Browns in 2013, but they did have arguably the best WR in football. WR Josh Gordon was suspended for the first two weeks of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and still managed to lead the league in receiving yards. Did we mention he played with three different QBs, none of whom may be starting for the team in 2014? In 14 games, Gordon put up 87/1646/9 (18.9 YPC) on 158 targets (55% catch rate), which was good for a league-high 22.5 FPG despite dealing with Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, and Jason Campbell. Each of those QBs got at least three starts, yet Gordon managed to put up monster numbers with what turned into a QB by committee. With great size and speed, Gordon could sky over defenders to make tough catches and then run away from the opposition. In ten games, he had at least one of 30+ yards, which is pretty ridiculous considering the next best WRs on the team were Greg Little and Davone Bess, neither of whom commanded extra coverage, whereas Gordon did. Gordon had an historic two-game stretch (Weeks Thirteen and Fourteen) when he put up 24/489/3 against the Steeler and Jaguars. He had at least 100 yards in seven games and dipped below 70 yards just three times. The talent is off the charts, so we can only hope Gordon stays out of trouble because his next slipup will (likely still) result in a year-long ban. The Browns need him to stay on the field since they didn’t get much out of Bess or Little and neither is expected back. Bess played in 14 games and posted 42/362/2 (8.6 YPC) on 86 targets (48.8% catch rate) and just 6.4 FPG. He had some well-documented off-field issues and will likely be cut. Little disappointed yet again, posting 41/465/2 (11.3 YPC) on 98 targets (41.8% catch rate) to finish with 6.2 FPG in 16 games. There’s a good chance he may not be back in 2014. The other bright spot of the receiving corps was the athletic TE Jordan Cameron, who finally got a chance to shine under (now former) OC Norv Turner. While Cameron missed one game with a concussion (he dealt with concussion issues at the end of 2012), he still posted 80/917/7 (11.5 YPC) on 115 targets (69.6% catch rate) and was 5th among TEs with 14.2 FPG. Turner’s offense was very TE-friendly and it helped that Cameron could be lined up anywhere in the formation. We can only hope the next OC will take advantage of Cameron’s talents the way Turner did because he had a fine season, despite the carousel at QB. While his ascension was extremely impressive, he actually didn’t make many big plays down the seam or enough plays in the red zone, so there is actually room for him to grow.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Gordon keep up his fantastic play with yet another QB? Will the Browns find another outside WR to go along with Gordon? Will Cameron remain a top option in the offense under the new OC?
Key Free Agents: RB Willis McGahee, OL Oniel Cousins, OL Alex Mack, OL Shawn Lauvao, S T.J. Ward, PK Billy Cundiff.
 
Pittsburgh Steelers
 
QB: It looks like Big Ben will stick with the Steelers for a long time, despite some controversial reports from NFL.com this year that he would demand a trade this off-season. It also looks like OC Todd Haley will stick around for another season after it looked like he might be out after the Steeler offense got off to a slow start. He handed over more control of the offense to Big Ben, and the Steelers started to take off in the second half of the season. Roethlisberger had one of his finest seasons as a pro in his 10th year, completing 375/584 (64.2%) for 4261 yards, 28 TDs, and 14 INTs, finishing tied for 10th among QBs, with 21.3 FPG. From Week Nine on, Big Ben finished 6th among QBs, with 23.8 FPG, as he racked up 2331/20/7 in the last nine games. Roethlisberger showed this season that he can still throw it all over the field with the best of them. He finished with five 300+ yard performances and a career-record number of attempts (584), mainly because the Steelers played from behind so much this season. It also didn’t hurt that WR Antonio Brown played like an absolute stud. Roethlisberger got his season off to a slow start with way too many mistakes and turnovers behind an ineffective and banged-up offensive line (C Maurkice Pouncey done for season in first game). However, the offensive line started to perform well enough in the second half of the year and Big Ben’s performance saw an uptick. The Steeler O-line allowed 36 sacks in the first nine games (4 per game), but only 7 sacks in the final seven games (1 per game). LT Kelvin Beachum and RG David DeCastro settled into the lineup and became standouts, which gives some hope that Ben will play behind an improved line next season. The Steelers also picked up veteran OL coach and former Titan HC Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line. Big Ben has two years left on his current contract, as he’ll turn 32 in March. The Steelers may look to extend him at some point, and team president Art Rooney II said he hopes to have Big Ben for at least another five years. Big Ben played a full 16-game schedule for just the second time since he came into the league in 2004, so new backup QB Bruce Gradkowski had little work to do in 2013. That could always change next season as Big Ben has never missed major time, but he does seem to get some nagging injuries that will keep him out a week or two each season. Rookie QB Landry Jones needs to show some major improvement in the off-season to have any chance of supplanting Gradkowski as the backup quarterback.
 
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Can Big Ben and Haley keep this offense looking like it did in the second half of the season, as opposed to the dreadful start to the season? Can the O-line continue to give him clean pockets to throw from like they did in the second half of the year? Who will Big Ben be throwing to outside of stud WR Brown?
RB: The Steelers got exactly what they wanted when they used their 2nd-round pick on RB Le’Veon Bell last April. The rookie running back from Michigan State stepped right into the starting lineup once healthy and showed he could be a three-down running back. Bell proved that he could be a consistent chain mover and a real threat as a receiver out of the backfield, oftentimes running downfield routes. Bell set Steeler rookie records with 1259 total yards, even though he missed the first three games of the season because of a foot injury. Bell ran 244 times for 860 yards (3.5 YPC) and 8 TDs, and he added 45 catches for 399 yards (8.9 YPC) on 66 targets (68.2% catch rate). Bell finished the season 9th among RBs, with 16.9 FPG, ahead of fellow rookies Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, and Zac Stacy. The Steelers didn’t have a 100-yard rusher until Week Fifteen, and the group averaged just 3.5 YPC this season, their lowest mark in 10 seasons. However, the running game gained a lot more stability with the development of rookie Bell as the clear-cut starter. And he played brilliantly down the stretch as the offensive line improved, averaging more than 4 YPC and 109.6 total yards in the final five games. Bell got good reviews out of college for his work as a receiver, but he even surpassed those expectations by showing soft hands and instincts as a pass catcher. Bell is already one of the more patient running backs in the league, letting holes develop in front of him, so he could become even more dangerous if this Steeler O-line shows more development. The addition of new OL coach Mike Munchak could give Bell a nice boost as well, as his patient running style should blend nicely with Munchak’s emphasis on zone-blocking schemes. The Steelers could look to upgrade their backup RB spot, as Jonathan Dwyer is currently the best option off the bench, even after the Steelers cut him initially out of training camp. Bell ended the season averaging more than 22 touches per game this season, so he was a true volume back. The Steelers could be in the market to find a viable backup RB this off-season just to give Bell a few more plays off next season. Dwyer finished the year second in rushing with 49/197 (4.0 YPC), but he’ll become a free agent along with RB Felix Jones, who finished the year with 48/184 (3.8 YPC). Dwyer could be back next season, but he won’t have a guaranteed spot and he’ll be in competition for playing time. RB LaRod Stephens-Howling is also free agent after getting cut down in the first game of the year to a torn right ACL. The Steelers brought Stephens-Howling in to give this backfield some speed out of the backfield, but it obviously never materialized. The Steelers could take a look at Stephens-Howling again as a potential scat-back behind Bell, as long as he hasn’t lost any elusiveness because of his knee injury.
 
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Can Bell develop into a #1 fantasy RB next season, especially if the O-line plays like it did in the second half of the year? Will Bell continue to average 22+ touches per game next season, or will the Steelers bring in an actual viable backup RB? Will Munchak’s emphasis on zone-blocking schemes help the patient-runner Bell have a monster season?
WR/TE: It looks like WR Antonio Brown did just fine as the Steelers’ #1 WR in his first season in the role. Some experts worried that he might not be able to handle the role after WR Mike Wallace left to go to the Dolphins because defenses would be keying in on Brown. Well, it clearly didn’t matter much if he had the attention of opposing defenses as he put up monster numbers. Brown showed a ton of consistency as a route runner and with his hands, and he continued to make a ton of plays after the catch. Brown racked up 110 catches for 1498 yards (13.6 YPC) and 8 TDs on 165 targets (66.7% catch rate), finishing 4th among WRs with 19.3 FPG. Josh Gordon, Calvin Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas were the only receivers to finish ahead of him, so Brown was in some elite company. Brown showed he could get open all over the field, even downfield, and his 8 receiving TDs more than doubled his career total (7) in his first three seasons. He also made top CBs like Cleveland’s Joe Haden look silly at times, so Brown showed just how complete a receiver he could be. Brown had 5+ catches and 50+ yards in every game this season, the first time any player had ever accomplished the feat in NFL history. Although they did prefer Wallace all things being equal, the Steelers made the right choice to extend Brown ahead of Wallace two off-seasons ago. The Steelers will have another tough choice at wide receiver this off-season, as WR Emmanuel Sanders will hit the open market, along with #3 WR Jerricho Cotchery. Sanders had a pretty productive season stepping into the #2 role, but he did have a number of key drops. Sanders hauled in 67/732/6 (10.9 YPC) on 11 targets (60.4% catch rate), finishing 35th among WRs with 11.2 FPG. The Steelers nearly lost Sanders as a restricted free agent last season, and the two sides couldn’t come together on a long-term deal last summer. The Steelers don’t have a lot of wiggle room with the cap, so Sanders could fetch more than what the Steelers can pay him. Third-round pick WR Markus Wheaton had an extremely disappointing first season with the Steelers, catching just 6 passes for 64 yards (10.7 YPC) on 11 targets (54.5% catch rate). He broke his pinky finger early in the season and then broke his middle finger late in the year, keeping him out of four games. However, the team absolutely loved him in the preseason, and Wheaton should get the chance to make his case to be the #2 WR this coming season, as Sanders, Cotchery, and Plaxico Burress are all free agents. Wheaton could see an increased role in the offense next season, so he’s got some potential to be a fantasy sleeper, but he needs to stay healthy and prove he can be a dynamic option. Wheaton’s speed compares to Wallace, but he was actually viewed as a more complete receiver coming out of college. Cotchery really made the most of his targets this season, as he became a favorite of Big Ben in the red zone. He scored a whopping 10 TDs on 22 red-zone targets, finishing the year with 46/607/10 (13.2 YPC) on 76 targets (60.5% catch rate). Cotchery stole Burress’ potential role in the endzone this year, as Plax tore his rotator cuff before the season even started, so his career could be near the end of the road. As for Cotchery, he’s a valuable player for them and will likely be back. Meanwhile, TE Heath Miller fell out of favor in the red zone this season, as he had just 9 red-zone targets this year in 14 games. Heath led all tight ends in red-zone targets in 2012, with 20 targets in 15 games. Miller finished the year with 58/593/1 (10.2 YPC) on 77 targets (75.3% catch rate), tying him for 16th among TEs with 8.8 FPG. OF course, Miller played the year on a reconstructed knee with little off-season and preseason work, and he appeared to be running in mud at times this season, so he could bounce back next season with the chance for a full off-season program. In fact, when the 2013 season ended the team was interested in extending his contract.
 
  • Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Will Brown stay among the elite wide receivers next season? Who will be the #2 WR next season? Will it be Sanders, Wheaton, Cotchery, or someone not currently in the organization? Will Big Ben start looking for Heath in the endzone once again?
Key Free Agents: WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Plaxico Burress, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB Felix Jones, DE Brett Keisel, FS Ryan Clark, OLB Jason Worilds, DE Al Woods, DE Ziggy Hood, FB David Johnson, TE Michael Palmer, SS Will Allen, OG Guy Whimper, C Fernado Velasco, P Mat McBriar.

 

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