Position Battles to Watch: AFC North
It’s early, but now is the time to make notes on who’s getting the action in camps as the NFL season starts to warm up. These are some of the position battles to keep an eye on as things get underway…
The Ravens WR Corps
The question here is who is going to be the Ravens’ no.1 WR come September? And does it really matter when you have ball hogs Mark Andrews and Isaiah Likely as your TEs? It’s been since Marquis Brown was in a Ravens’ uniform that we’ve had a Baltimore WR do anything of note in fantasy, though Rashod Bateman did have a promising rookie season that was ultimately derailed by injury. Bateman is back, and allegedly healthy, but now he has Odell Beckham and rookie Zay Flowers to contend with for targets. Beckham is also returning from a serious injury, at age 30 no less, but he’s a special player when healthy and will command significant targets. Flowers was some prognosticators’ top WR in this year’s draft, and rarely went below 5th on most rookie WR rankings. Somewhat of a Brown mimic, he has all of the tools necessary to be a no.1 WR, if everything clicks. Don’t forget that Demarcus Robinson, who led the ravens in receiving last year, and Devin Duvernay are still in Ravens uniforms for now. Oh, and the Ravens signed Nelson Agholor in March. This could all be much ado about nothing, as the Ravens have perennially been a run heavy offense, and I’m not sure how much that changes now, even with a new OC at the helm – Todd Monken loved the power running scheme during his stint at Georgia.
It’s already a given that Ja’Maar Chase and Tee Higgins are firmly entrenched as the outside presences in Cincy, but could one of these speedy rookies supplant Tyler Boyd as the slot presence and 3rd WR for the Bengals this season? Iosivas got lost in the mix at the Senior Bowl, but a sterling senior season at Princeton and a strong Combine(9.96 RAS) showing make him an intriguing option. Jones is old for a rookie, he’ll be 25 in October, but he runs a 4.43 forty and has vice-like hands. He could do a lot of damage as an inside presence. Boyd may have fallen out of favor when he failed to step up during Chase’s absence last year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these rookies works his way into his role.
Amari Cooper is top dog in Cleveland, but Tillman is almost a carbon copy of DPJ and is coming off a 1,000+, 12 TD season at Tennessee, where he averaged 16.9 YPC in 2022. DPJ had somewhat of a breakout season last year, but his production flagged when Deshaun Watson took the reins from Jacoby Brissett. Tillman can usurp the no.2 spot with a strong showing in camp.
With Deshaun Watson under center, any starting receiving position is worth stabbing at in fantasy, and the slot in Cleveland is no exception. Moore was never able to build a consistent season with Zach Wilson as his QB, but he flashed glimpses of brilliance at times as a Jet and has 2nd round pedigree. Bell was a 3rd round pick himself, and though he doesn’t possess the speed and wiggle of Moore, he brings a toughness to the slot that Moore doesn’t. Whoever wins this contest will be a viable PPR contributor.
This is an important battle because I’m not sure Kenny Pickett is able to support more than 1 WR consistently at this point in his career. My money is on Pickens, as he’s the youngest and most talented of this bunch, posting an 800 yard, 4 TD rookie season. Pickens was a bit inconsistent with Pickett at the helm in 2022 though. Johnson had 147 targets in 2022, but was only the 4th WR in NFL history to put up sub 900 yards on at least that many targets – Not to mention he didn’t score a single TD. Robinson was brought in to help out in the red-zone, but he hasn’t been himself for at least a couple of years. This whole situation is contingent on Pickett taking a step forward in 2023.