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Three (Four) Questions August 25th: AFC North Preview

Well since there are four teams in the division this week’s installment of Three Questions will actually contain four questions. Starting with:

1. Can the Ravens avoid the injury bug that bit them in a big way last season and become a serious contender to win the AFC South?

It’s hard to really accurately predict that, but if they do stay relatively healthy I do like their chances. I really liked this team a lot going in to last year until a slew of injuries, lack of depth and inconsistency at quarterback led to a disappointing 6-10 season. Baltimore is now healthy for the most part, and one of the two other issues that plagued them last season was addressed this off season in a huge way.

At quarterback the Ravens signed former league MVP Steve McNair which instantly gives them the credibility at the quarterback that they’ve lacked for most of the Brian Billick era in Baltimore. Injuries have been a concern for McNair the past few seasons, but he did start 14 games last year for Tennessee and finished with a quarterback rating of 82.4. He also has the experience, leadership and poise that last year’s starter Kyle Boller lacks and his command in the huddle has already been very evident in the preseason and in training camp. The chemistry between he and fellow former Titan Derrick Mason has already resurfaced and in Todd Heap, McNair again has the target at tight end that Frank Wycheck provided him for so many years in Tennessee.

They did lose Chester Taylor in the off season, but brought over a better and more experienced fit in former Denver Bronco Mike Anderson. Jamal Lewis has been banged up a little in training camp, but the Ravens should see no significant drop off is Anderson is called on for duty. At receiver Mark Clayton will be entering his second season in the league, the season where rookie receivers usually make their biggest improvement. The offensive line will again be the weakness in this offense, but with the additions of McNair and Anderson, and the likely emergence of their young receivers this won’t be as glaring a weakness as it was a season ago. With McNair under center teams will no longer put eight men in the box to stop the run, relieving some of the added responsibility put on this line under Boller.

Despite injuries to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed last season (the best two players on the defense), the defense was still ranked 5th overall in the league. Without those two, however, the Ravens lacked the playmaking ability the unit has had in seasons past. Both are back and healthy and are now surrounded by younger and more consistent players. Reed, along with Chris McAllister, Samari Rolle and Gerome Sapp make up one of the best secondarys in the NFL. With All Pro caliber talent at every level on the defense look for this unit to again be in the top 5 statistically in overall defense.

I really like what this team has done in the off season, and if Steve McNair can give them the 14 games he gave Tennessee a year ago there is no doubt in my mind that this is a playoff team. The Ravens probably should have addressed their lack of depth in some other key areas, but I’m counting on McNair to stay healthy, as well as Lewis and Reed, and for Mark Clayton to emerge as one of the best number two receivers in the AFC. Because of all of this I’ve pegged this team for a return to the playoffs in ’06. Prediction: 10-6

Key Additions: Steve McNair, Mike Anderson, Trevor Pryce, Haloti Ngata

Key Losses: Chester Taylor, Anthony Wright, Peter Boulware, Orlando Brown

Fantasy Outlook

Surprisingly there is a lot to like here despite their shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball in year’s past. Jamal Lewis is no longer the running back that can push for 2,000 yards, but he’s still a solid number two assuming he’s fully healthy going in to the season. Handcuffing him with Mike Anderson is a must though because of his recent injury problems. Due to these recent problems he can probably be had in the third round, but if you do get him wait no later than the eighth or ninth to grab Anderson (it’s likely he’ll be gone before that though). McNair should be very comfortable in this offense now that he again has Derrick Mason at his disposal, as well as an elite pass catcher at the tight end position. He’s probably worthy of being a starter in fantasy, but due to his injury history should be counted on more so as a very adequate back up. It’s likely he’ll be available in the later rounds, so wait and take him then. Mason is going for his sixth 1,000-yard season in a row, and due to his reuniting with McNair only injury will stand in the way of him accomplishing that (which shouldn’t be a problem given the fact that he’s started in 56 consecutive games). He is a solid number one and a great number two in fantasy, and given his mysterious obscurity can be drafted as late as the middle rounds. Mark Clayton is certainly worthy of a draft choice, and given the right match up should have some very nice weeks. Grab him in the later rounds and thank me later. Todd Heap again is a top five option at tight end, and given McNair’s use of the position heavily in the offense he’ll likely have a career year in yards and touchdowns. With Ed Reed and Ray Lewis healthy the defense again becomes a top three unit and will likely be one of the first couple picked as early as the eighth round.

2. Can the Bengals overcome all of the off the field issues from this off season, Palmer’s lingering injury and a brutal ’06 schedule to return to the top of the AFC North?

I certainly think they can. In fact I really believe had Palmer not gone down in last season’s playoff loss to Pittsburgh that this team would have been playing in the Super Bowl and not the Steelers. That’s a bold statement, but one that I firmly stand by. That offense was hitting on all cylinders, and the defense was becoming a stouter unit against the run. Plus a rematch with the Colts in the AFC Championship would have been a classic. The game between the Steelers and Colts was a great one, but the fireworks that would have gone off had Indy and Cincy played would have been even greater.

Cincy returns all 22 starters from last years division winning team, and this off season have added some nice depth at several positions. This offense is still one of the league’s best and most balanced, and despite lacking a playmaker at tight end has no real weakness at all. Carson Palmer is one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and given his work ethic and dedication to the game he should be ready when the Bengals start the regular season September 10th at Kansas City. At running back they have one of the most consistent players at the position in Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry and Kenny Watson given them above average depth. At receiver there is no better one two punch in the league than Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh, and the depth is nice as well with Chris Henry, Kelley Washington and Antonio Chatman. The offensive line is one of the league’s best as well, leading the way for one of the league’s most efficient offenses (+24 in turnovers in ’05).

The defense has had its problems, but it’s only a matter of time before Marvin Lewis turns this around. He’s still in the process of gathering the talent needed to play more 3-4 sets, and with the acquisition of Sam Adams in the off season he may now have the big run stuffing tackle needed to finalize the transition. This unit is a very opportunistic one (created 44 turnovers), but has also been prone to giving up the big play. The loss of star linebacker Odell Thurman for the first four games will be a tough one, but Lewis has already moved Brian Simmons over there during the preseason where he has looked like a more than adequate short term replacement.

If Palmer returns even at only 80% the offense will not miss a beat given the talent level surrounding him. Even if he’s unable to go at the beginning of the season, I have enough faith in back up Anthony Wright to keep this super talented offense running smoothly. Defense has been their problem for years, but given Lewis’ knowledge of that side of the ball, along with off season additions (Sam Adams, Dexter Jackson) and the emergence of younger players (Odell Thurman, David Pollack, Williams Madieu, Jonathon Joseph) I feel this unit will climb from the cellar of the league to somewhere closer to the middle of the pack. The schedule is the toughest of any team in the league, but with this improvement on defense and already very potent offense another division title is well within their reach. Prediction: 10-6

Key Additions: Sam Adams, Dexter Jackson, Anthony Wright, Frostee Rucker, AJ Nicholson, Ahmed Brooks

Key Losses: John Kitna

Fantasy Outlook

There is a lot to like here as well. Carson Palmer is a top five fantasy quarterback, and if he remains healthy there is no reason to believe he won’t match or better his numbers (3,836 yards and 32 touchdowns) from a year ago. He may fall to the third round given his somewhat up in the air status, but don’t count on it. Given the talent on this offense, Anthony Wright is also a nice option if Palmer were to go down. Rudy Johnson has amassed over 1,450 yards and 12 touchdowns the past two seasons and is now a legitimate selection at the latter part of the first round. If he were to go down it’s unclear if Chris Perry would take over, or if they would institute a running back by committee approach. Given the tougher schedule Chad Johnson probably warrants selection in the third round (although he’ll likely go in the second) and given this offense’s production TJ Houshmandzadeh (956 yards and 7 touchdowns last season) is worthy of being your number one receiver as well. Look for him to go as early as the fifth round. Chris Henry has looked very impressive in the preseason, but given his off the field track record he could be suspended at any time. Take a wait and see approach with him. Stay away from the tight ends here, but given the defenses penchant for forcing turnovers and likely improvement they are certainly worthy of starting in fantasy as long as yards allowed or points allowed aren’t negatives in your league. Deltha O’Neal or Keiwan Ratliff returning punts and kicks also makes the unit attractive.

3. Will all the off season moves made by the Cleveland Browns translate in to a playoff appearance in Romeo Crennel’s second season as head coach?

Probably not. The Browns have made several nice moves this off season to bolster their previously thin roster, but perhaps their most significant addition, LeCharles Bentley, will not be realized until next season due to his season ending knee injury during his first practice of training camp. They traded last year’s starter at the position (Jeff Faine), and have already suffered through several injuries at the center position during training camp. This will be a setback in offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon’s desire to establish a more consistent running game, but with the addition of Kevin Shaffer and three starters returning they should improve upon last season where Cleveland had its first 1,000-yard rusher since 1985 (Reuben Droughns).

Charlie Frye returns for his second season as the Browns quarterback, and likely will not be looking over his shoulder this season given the teams lack of quality depth behind him. Cleveland’s front office is convinced Frye has the ability and leadership skills to be a starter in this league, and with the addition of Joe Jerivicius and the return of Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards he’ll finally get a fair shot at proving them right.

On the defensive side of the ball is where the Browns have made their most additions, adding veterans Willie McGinest and Ted Washington, both of whom Crennel coached in New England. These additions, along with the drafting of Kamerion Wimbley and D’Qwll Jackson should result in the significant improvement of what many felt was the worst front seven in football last season. The degree of improvement will be based on how much gas each of those two veterans has left in the tank combined with the rookie’s willingness and ability to learn new positions on the fly. The secondary lacks an elite talent, but Crennel was able to thrive defensively in New England without that and should be able to do so eventually in Cleveland as well. The talent isn’t exactly below average, but inexperience at both safety positions needs to be addressed.

Overall I like the moves the Browns have made in the off season through free agency, and I felt they had far in away one of the best drafts. This should be one of the most improved teams in the league in ’06, but with the seventh toughest schedule it likely will not be reflected in their record. Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel clearly have this team headed in the right direction, but due to a lack of experience at a couple key positions and a brutal schedule it still looks like they are still at least one year away from returning to the playoffs. Prediction: 6-10

Key Additions: Joe Jerevicius, Willie McGinest, Ted Washington, Kamerion Wimbley, Dave Zastudil, LeCharles Bentley, Kevin Shaffer

Key Losses: Antonio Bryant

Fantasy Outlook

There is a lot of potential here, but it’s hard for me to give very many of these players my ringing endorsement as fantasy starters. Reuben Droughns will again be a solid starting running back in yardage leagues (1232 yards), but the Browns ineffectiveness in the red zone should again limit his touchdown opportunities (only 2 last year). He’s a decent number two, but would be a great number three. Given his yardage from last year it’s likely he’ll be gone by the fifth round. The only other Brown I’d consider drafting is tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. He’s got the potential to put up top five tight end statistics, and given the fact that Frye is a young quarterback it’s likely he’ll look to Winslow often in the offense. Try to holdout until the middle of the draft before selecting him, however, since he is coming off a serious injury. I’d likely endorse using a later pick on Joe Jurevicius, but given the conservative approach this offense will likely take don’t count on him as a weekly option. The defenses inability to sack the quarterback and create turnovers should be improved, but still doesn’t warrant drafting them on draft day. Take a wait and see approach because they have made some nice personnel changes that may result in significant improvement in both of those areas.

4. Can Pittsburgh put all of their off season issues behind them in order to remain atop the division and again contend for the Super Bowl?

I honestly don’t think that they can. The loss of Jerome Bettis goes far beyond his stats, as he’s been the stabilizing force and leader on this team for several years. I believe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can become the team’s leader and do so effectively, but he certainly didn’t take a great first step this off season following his motorcycle accident where it was made known he wasn’t even wearing a helmet. He’s bounced back nicely getting healthy before the start of training camp, and showing up in the best shape physically that’s he’s been in since coming in to the league. Unfortunately Roethlisberger’s accident wasn’t the only issue the team has dealt with this off season.

The contract issues surrounding Joey Porter and Bill Cowher have been highly publicized, and unlike Porter’s, Cowher’s will likely drag on for the duration of the entire season. If that wasn’t enough, first round pick Santanio Holmes’ troubles with the law has slowed his development at a position where rookies rarely make an impact in their first season. Speaking of the receiver position, Cedric Wilson played well in spots last season, but he is in no way the threat that Antwaan Randle El provided this offense in seasons past. Hines Ward is still one of the league’s best, but with out Randle El will likely see more double teams and he’s no longer a spring chicken having turned 30 in the off season. Heath Miller had a nice rookie season, but he will be counted on to play a much bigger role in the offense in ’06. A task I think he is capable of handling.

Pittsburgh still has one of the league’s best offensive lines and all five starters return for the third straight season. The depth is above average here as well. Willie Parker will again be called on to be the primary running back, but without Bettis it is unclear who will enter the game in short yardage and goal line situations. Duce Staley has struggled with several injuries over the past couple years, and Verron Haynes is more suited as a third down back.

They return most of their starters on a defense that was ranked first overall a season ago in total yards. Their 3-4 zone blitzing approach is one of the most effective in the league, and should see little to no drop off from last season’s production (barring there are no significant injuries to any starters). They are thin at linebacker and in the secondary, and a loss of any starters would result in a significant drop off in experience and talent.

Last year this was a team that was very lucky avoiding injury only having 16 starts lost all season. They began an amazing run last year following their win at Chicago, but they face the loss of leadership in the locker room and on both sides of the ball, lingering contract issues and the fact that every team in their division has made significant improvements to their rosters. This along with a much tougher schedule makes it hard for me to believe they can match last season’s magical run. In fact it even makes it hard for me to believe they’ll make the playoffs. Prediction: 8-8

Key Additions: Santonio Holmes, Rodney Bailey, Ryan Clark, Willie Reid

Key Losses: Kimo Von Olehoffen, Chris Hope, Antwaan Randle El, Jerome Bettis, Tommy Maddox

Fantasy Outlook

Due to the Steelers commitment to the running game Willie Parker should again amass some nice stats on the ground. Also, given his speed he is always one broken tackle away from the big play, and with the absence of Bettis in the offense he may also now see more goal line carries. He is a solid pick in the third round, but could go as early as the second. It’s hard for me to endorse picking any of the other running backs on the roster, but given Pittsburgh’s talent along the offensive line any player should be able to find success. At receiver Hines Ward’s yardage has steadily decreased over the past five seasons, and last year he failed to reach 1,000 yard for the first time in four years (but he did score 11 touchdowns). He’s still a solid option as a number one receiver and a great option as your number two, and with out Randle El or any other proven player his numbers should increase from a season ago. Take him in the third round, but if you can get him in the fourth it’s more practical. Heath Miller should improve his nice numbers from last season (459 yards and 6 touchdowns) and will likely be the second leading receiver in ’06. Take him in the middle rounds and start him every week. No other receiver is worthy of a draft pick. Roethlisberger should put up career numbers in passing yards and touchdowns, but should only be counted on as a back up. Peg him for selection in the later rounds. The Steelers defense should remain one of the top five to seven units in the fantasy given their ability to get to the quarterback and Troy Polamalu’s ability to make the big play.

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