AFC North Division Preview: Will Lamar Jackson's claim as fantasy king be challenged in 2020?

The Yahoo Fantasy analysts will preview all eight NFL divisions during the 2020 fantasy football draft season. Here, we’ll tackle each team’s most pressing fantasy question, and team win totals. Be sure to also check out each team’s full preview linked up below. First up, the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens: Even if Lamar Jackson doesn't replicate his historic rushing totals from 2019, at what draft position does he make you forgo the late-round QB philosophy in 2020?

Andy: First of all, let’s note that Jackson averaged 79.4 rushing yards per game over the final seven weeks of his rookie season and 80.4 rushing YPG last year. As long as he remains healthy, I expect him to continue piling up rushing yards at a similar rate. It actually wouldn’t shock me if his rushing TDs increased a bit in 2020. The area in which I think we need to expect some regression is Jackson’s passing TD rate; he led the league at 9.0 percent last season, which is simply not the sort of rate anyone maintains over multiple years.

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In any case, I think both Jackson and Patrick Mahomes get interesting near the Round 3/4 turn. Those guys belong to a tier of their own. Over the past two years, they’ve produced the highest-scoring QB season in fantasy history (Mahomes) and the highest-scoring QB season on a per-game basis (Jackson). Either can be a league winner. Generally speaking, I’m going to land RBs and WRs with my first three picks. After that, I’m willing to take a shot with one of the top two QBs.

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Dalton: This hypothetical would never happen, because it would be at least Round 5 before I’d even start debating taking a quarterback in a non-superflex league. The running back position is simply too important not to attack early, and quarterback is deeper than ever. It’s also safe to expect LJax to regress some in 2020. We’d have to be at least 50 picks in before I’d consider drafting Jackson (or any QB in any year).  

Liz: I agree with Andy that Jackson’s rushing ceiling has yet to be met. In his first year with OC Greg Roman the 2019 MVP averaged nearly 7 yards per attempt and over 80 rushing yards per regular season contest. Marshal Yanda’s retirement certainly leaves a hole at right guard, but the franchise is high on second-year player Ben Powers as well as Joe D'Alessandris’ ability to coach up raw talent.

Roman has a knack for optimizing the explosiveness of a mobile QB and Jackson certainly has the talent to ascend. It’s also possible that the potential regression in his passing efficiency (112.5 True Pass Rating, QB2) is made up for by an increase in productivity, when considering consistent health from Marquise Brown and growth from Miles Boykin.

I, in fact, recently completed a Best Ball draft in which I selected Jackson at the end of the second round, just ahead of the turn. I would likely do the same in Super Flex formats. In standard redraft, however, I’d prefer to focus on RB in the first three or four rounds (depending on draft position) and roster a mobile QB like Kyler Murray in the fifth.

OVER/UNDER on 11.5 Win Total from BetMGM

Dalton: The Ravens are loaded, with an emerging defense, superstar quarterback (and developing star wideout Hollywood Brown) and strong coaching; they are rightfully one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. But it’s difficult to win 12 games in the NFL, especially coming off a first-place schedule and in a division featuring three other teams all expected to be much better in 2020. It’s always safer to take an under, and this is especially true when fading a team with a QB who’s more likely to get injured while attempting 175-plus rushes. But I’m not fading the Ravens here as much as I am the number, so give me the UNDER.

(Click here for our full, in-depth Baltimore Ravens team preview)

Pittsburgh Steelers: Diontae Johnson is everyone’s favorite breakout candidate this year, but does he really represent the best draft value among the Steelers receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Chase Claypool)?

Matt: Please ignore what Andy Behrens says about me in the next paragraph. I do not wield that kind of power. However, he is right: Diontae Johnson was one of my personal biggest risers after charting him for Reception Perception. Johnson posted a 75 percent success rate vs. man coverage, scoring at the 88th percentile. That is an excellent signal that a breakout could be coming for Johnson. Now, even if the skill is there, the profile for fantasy has some risks. Obviously there is Ben’s health and the competition for targets is real. JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely lead the team in looks and James Washington is quite good in his own right. In fact, if Johnson continues to climb up fantasy boards, you could argue the vertically skilled Washington is the superior draft value going outside the first 10 rounds.

Andy: First of all, let’s make sure that everyone understands Matt Harmon deserves the blame for Diontae’s rising ADP. You truly hate to see it.

Still, Johnson is going 90 picks later than Smith-Schuster in an average Yahoo draft; he represents the far better value in our game. Johnson was a revelation last season, despite his team’s mostly miserable quarterback situation. He closed the season by gaining 273 scrimmage yards and making three house calls over his final four games. If Big Ben can simply remain healthy, keeping Pittsburgh’s offense among the league’s best, Johnson won’t need 120-plus targets in order to make a huge fantasy splash in 2020.

[2020 Draft Rankings: Overall | QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DST | Kickers]

Scott: Here’s one argument for drafting early (I like a post-NFL draft fantasy draft, myself), before door-busting opportunities dry up. Johnson’s become a fantasy darling and the value is almost completely sucked out of his ADP; it’s so difficult to make a birdie on a hipster pick because the buzz is priced into the purchase. Okay, Chris Godwin happened last year, though Godwin had a much longer resume entering 2019 than 2020 Johnson does (Godwin’s draft cost was also a tier more expensive). The best best-ball value is probably Washington because you get him for peanuts. Oddly, I see JuJu’s arc being somewhat forgotten in this passing game; his 2020 ADP might look laughably cheap in retrospect.

(Full disclosure, I took Johnson in the sixth round of my most recent Best Ball draft. Hey, but he’s my WR4!)

OVER/UNDER on 9 Win Total from BetMGM

Scott: It’s inescapable; this essentially becomes a referendum on Roethlisberger’s health. The rest of the infrastructure is there; exciting skill players, a sturdy offensive line, a sack-happy defense, coaching stability. I’m not excited to punch this either way (and the juice is almost even); I suspect Cincinnati and Cleveland will be notably improved, and I expect Baltimore to be a juggernaut again. But if Roethlisberger stands for four months, this won’t be an 8-8 team. You need a pick and I’ll shade UNDER, given Roethlisberger’s age and injury file. But this won’t be one of my seasonal plays.

(Click here for our full, in-depth Pittsburgh Steelers team preview)

Cleveland Browns: We’ve been waiting for the Baker Mayfield-Odell Beckham Jr. connection to flourish since OBJ got traded. Will 2020 be the year they crack top-10 fantasy finishes at their respective positions?

Will the Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. connection finally come together in 2020? (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Will the Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. connection finally come together in 2020? (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Dalton: No. Mayfield took a giant step back last season, to the point it’s concerning moving forward. He finished bottom-five in CPOE and struggled from a clean pocket, so I barely have him as a top-20 fantasy QB despite the nice set of skill position players in Cleveland.

OBJ, meanwhile, finished last in RACR (Yards Per Target divided by aDOT) among all wideouts with at least 120 targets in 2019, and while playing hurt can be partially to blame, Beckham’s injury history is lengthy. He’s also past his prime and will be fighting for targets with Jarvis Landry (who led Cleveland last year), newcomer Austin Hooper (especially in the RZ), and Kareem Hunt (while sharing touchdowns with Nick Chubb). OBJ is awesome, and I still treat him as a top-20 WR, but there are many wide receivers who are younger and without the injury concerns and shaky QB play.

Andy: I can get there on Beckham, because we all know how freakishly talented he is when he's uninjured. Very few receivers can match his hands and separation ability. I've already made the case for OBJ as a rebound candidate. He was playing through a significant injury last season but should open 2020 operating at full capacity. I'm endorsing him at his ADP of 28.5. 

Mayfield, however, faces a tough climb to reach top-10 status at his position. He was obviously a huge disappointment in 2019, though the dreadful coaching situation did him no favors. This year's Stefanski-Van Pelt partnership should help. His receiving corps is clearly of the highest quality. The biggest issue facing Mayfield in terms of his year-end fantasy finish is the strength of his position; just check the current Yahoo QB ranks. Half of the quarterbacks in our consensus top-10 offer rushing ability, giving them multiple paths to fantasy relevance. And beyond those names, the position is loaded with legends. Even if Mayfield produces the best season of his young career — think 4,000 yards and 28 TDs — he’s no lock to challenge guys like Brees, Ryan, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Stafford, Goff, Wentz, et al. 

Matt: Will give a quick “no” to Baker Mayfield as a top-10 option. Quarterback is just too deep and there are too many high-ceiling runners to project him to have that dramatic of a rebound. Mayfield can stabilize into a good starter, despite being one of the worst in 2019, but even if he’s a Kirk Cousins-type player in Kevin Stefanski’s offense, he will fall outside of the Top-10 passers. 

However, Odell Beckham Jr. is interesting. It is no exaggeration to say he was not only one of the best receivers in the NFL but a legendary talent at his peak. His 2019 results were quite far off that from a statistical and film perspective. When you go back and watch Beckham play last year, it’s clear that he is so far off of his usual standards that the only possible conclusion is he was truly dogged by a sports hernia injury all year, as was reported. On the one hand, it’s easy to write that campaign off as an outlier, and pencil in a rebound.

Yet, it’s fair to ask whether this is just the final straw among a litany of lower-body injuries for Beckham and we’ve already seen the best this player has to offer come and go. The answer is unknowable from the outside. I’ll choose to go down with the ship. Given that he’s going so late in drafts, all the risk is baked in while you give one last chase to the ceiling we knew once existed.

OVER/UNDER on 8.5 Win Total from BetMGM

Dalton: The Browns should see improved coaching with Freddie Kitchens gone and a better offensive line with the addition of Jack Conklin, but Mayfield was essentially Josh Allen as a passer last season without the rushing ability. The Browns will likely play better in 2020 without the hype and with less pressure, but Mayfield has gone from likely future star to huge question mark. They’re also in a division that arguably has them facing two top-five teams (Baltimore and Pittsburgh) 25% of their schedule, and Cincinnati is vastly improved as well, so especially at +105, I’ll take the UNDER.

(Click here for our full, in-depth Cleveland Browns team preview)

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow just had arguably the best season for a QB in CFB history. Now he’s stepping into a Cincinnati situation where there’s a lot to like. Would you draft Burrow, or take a wait-and-see approach on the waiver wire?

Dalton: Burrow enters coming off a crazy-good final college season that saw him get a whopping 13.9 YPA on first downs. Over the last decade, only Russell Wilson had a better college CPOE than Burrow’s 2019 season, which he finished with a silly 60:6 TD:INT ratio and revealed further fantasy upside by adding 368 rushing yards and five scores on the ground. Burrow’s somewhat advanced age should be considered a plus for his 2020 fantasy value, and while he relied heavily on identifying mismatches pre-snap in college, the Bengals are ideally suited for that as arguably the deepest team in the league at wide receiver now. I’m treating Burrow as a borderline fantasy QB1 right away.

Andy: Realistically, if you play in a smallish 8- or 10-person league, then no one should be drafting Burrow. But in any sort of larger league, he’s clearly a player of interest. We’ve never seen a collegiate passing season as impressive as the one he just delivered, and he’s stepping into a sneaky-loaded offense. I’m already on record as a believer that he can make a significant fantasy splash in his first season. It’s historically rare for any QB selected first overall to have so much talent surrounding him. A.J. GreenTyler Boyd, and rookie Tee Higgins are a ridiculous receiving trio, plus Auden Tate and John Ross remain in the team picture. Burrow has a shot at setting a few rookie passing records, no question.

Liz: They call him Joe Cool for a reason. As discussed on the Rookie Snapshot Podcast, Burrow’s game is slick. He’s got the poise and processing speed of a pro, as evidenced by 3,077 air yards in the 2019 season (QB1) and his 76.3% (QB1) completion percentage. He’s also being surrounded by a dynamic group of pass-catchers and will be working behind a revamped offensive line. These aren’t your dad’s Bengals.

While the potential is obvious, the rate at which Burrow can ascend — especially in such an atypical offseason — is the biggest obstacle facing his fantasy relevance in 2020. At such a deep position it doesn’t make sense to start Burrow in standard redraft, but he's a solid draft target in 2-QB or Superflex leagues. For reference, he’s the Yahoo Consensus QB22 — just behind Jimmy G and ahead of Philip Rivers.

OVER/UNDER on 5.5 Win Total from BetMGM

Dalton: It’s not easy sharing a division with the Ravens and Steelers, but the Bengals have a quietly improving defense to go along with the possible addition of a superstar at sports’ most important position. They also have intriguing skill position players, an innovative young coach, and will have a left tackle who was just drafted No. 11 returning, so Cincinnati is my favorite long shot (125/1) to win the Super Bowl and my favorite OVER of the year.

(Click here for our full, in-depth Cincinnati Bengals team preview)

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