by Russ Bliss (8-19-11)
 

Baltimore Ravens

QB's: Joe Flacco has the skills to be a solid starting fantasy QB but he has yet to put it all together. I think it's more because of the lack of great weapons to throw to than it is his own failings. He is a borderline fantasy QB1 for fantasy. Rookie Tyrod Taylor and veteran Hunter Cantwell will compete to be the backup but it wouldn't be surprising if the Ravens brought in someone else as neither is likely very good.

RB's: Ray Rice is a surefire RB1 for fantasy and combines strong running with great receiving capabilities. His shortcoming is that he doesn't get into the end zone as often as an elite RB would. The addition of Vonta Leach as a lead blocker for him may change that. Leach is no threat for more than a handful of carries (if he even gets that many). Ricky Williams will backup Rice and could fill the role of goal line vulture Willis McGahee had the last couple of seasons. Williams surprisingly still has gas left in is tank and makes a smart late round handcuff to Rice. Jalen Parmele, Anthony Allen, and Matt Lawrence will battle it out to be the #3 RB.

WR's: Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans will be the starters. Boldin went ice cold the last half of 2010 but should be able to rebound in 2011. Providing Evans has some of his trademark speed left it could mean greater consistency out of Boldin (who does a lot of his work on short-intermediate passes over the middle). Boldin is a good WR2/3 while Evans needs to prove last year's horrible numbers were a reflection of the QB situation in Buffalo and not on his skills eroding quickly. After the top 2, it is a crapshoot between rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss, along with veterans Marcus Smith, David Reed, Justin Harper and James Hardy. Only 3 or 4 of those 6 are going to make the team and it's a good bet that both rookies will be kept. Smith is likeliest of the group to be the 3rd WR, but that's not a given and other than Boldin and Evans there is no one here I'd select in a standard re-draft type of league with a standard fantasy draft.

TE's: Second year players Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are battling it out to be the #1 TE now that Todd Heap is gone. Both are excellent receivers and unless one of them really shines, they could end up cancelling each other's stats out. If a clear cut pecking order between them is established the #1 guy would make a quality borderline starting fantasy TE. Veterans Kris Wilson, Jonathan Stupar, and Davon Drew will battle to be the #3 TE and have no fantasy relevance.

K: Billy Cundiff finally found some accuracy to go with his big leg last year and is worthy of being drafted as a starting fantasy kicker.


Cincinnati Bengals
 

QB's: Rookie Andy Dalton is the favorite to start the season, but if he struggles in preseason the Bengals will switch to veteran acquisition Bruce Gradkowski. Neither is an exciting option. I had my doubts about Dalton being able to be more than a backup QB in the NFL, and Gradkowski has run hot and cold as a starter throughout his career. Injuries have also plagued him. Gradkowski has better fantasy upside if he becomes the starter over Dalton, but I expect we'll see both QB's make starts in 2011 and neither being more than waiver wire material.

RB's: The Bengals say they are going to get back to running the football more in 2011 and that bodes well for Cedric Benson. Benson is the feature RB and should be very motivated after settling for just a one year contract. Benson didn't have a bad 2010, it just wasn't as good as his 2009 season. As a RB scheduled to get 300+ carries this year, Benson makes a fine, but unexciting, RB2 in fantasy. Bernard Scott is his primary backup and change of pace runner. Scott lacks size but is fast. The Bengals have said they want to increase his role, but he has a hard time staying healthy and is no more than a potential handcuff to Benson. Brian Leonard is the 3rd RB and has no fantasy value. Cedric Peerman and rookie Jay Finley may not make the final roster.

WR's: Rookie A.J. Green will start immediately, and while he has great natural skills, he is likely to be hindered by a poor QB situation (especially if Dalton is the starter). Green would be a fantasy WR3/4. Jerome Simpson should be the other starter and he showed playmaking ability at the end of last year but like with Green, he is at the mercy of the QB's. Expect some big games and many others where Simpson disappears. Jordan Shipley is the #3 WR and he could be worth a flier in deep drafts (18+ rounds) with a ppr format as he shows excellent hands and runs the underneath and shorter routes I expect Dalton to throw a lot of. In standard sized drafts though he is likely to be left undrafted. Andre Caldwell is the #4 and offers no fantasy value barring an injury to one of the three guys above him. Quan Cosby leads a cast of mediocrity in the battle for the 5th WR role.

TE's: Jermaine Gresham was much better in 2010 than I expected. But his final stats (52-471-4) translated into nothing more than backup fantasy TE numbers. With an expected decrease emphasis on the passing game in 2011, I don't expect those numbers to improve much. Former Titan Bo Scaife will compete with Chase Coffman to be the top backup. Needless to say, Gresham is the only one with any potential fantasy value.

K: Mike Nugent is coming off a 2010 season ended early by a torn ACL. He appears to be healthy now though and while he has not been known for his accuracy throughout his career, he should be the kicker come week 1. However, between his lack of accuracy and the expected sad state of the Bengals offense, you're best off looking elsewhere for your fantasy kicker.
 

Cleveland Browns
 

QB's: Colt McCoy is the unquestioned starter after a surprisingly good finish to his rookie season last year. McCoy isn't much of a fantasy option with his weak arm in a dink and dunk offense, but he was better than anyone expected last year and could surprise again in 2011. He doesn't have great weapons at WR, and probably is no more than a mediocre option as a backup in fantasy. Seneca Wallace is the backup and if McCoy offers little fantasy value, Wallace offers less.

RB's: Peyton Hillis is the starter and while he was spectacular in 2010 he wore down towards the end of last season under the heavy workload. He'll still be the primary RB though and is a good bet for 240-280 carries. Hillis was also great catching the ball and has added ppr value. He may not catch 61 passes like he did last year after Cleveland brought in former Packer Brandon Jackson (an excellent 3rd down back), but around 50 receptions is certainly easy to imagine. Hillis is a good fantasy RB2. Jackson was brought in to be the backup if Montario Hardesty can't get totally back from a torn ACL suffered in the preseason last year. If Hardesty is healthy (and so far he's struggled in his recovery) he would assume change of pace duties for Hillis. If Hardesty can't get healthy, Jackson would be the primary backup and change of pace guy. Jackson struggled last year to be fantasy relevant when he took over as the Packers top RB so I doubt a move to Cleveland makes him perform better if called upon. If Hardesty's healthy, he makes a good handcuff to Hillis as Hardesty is a superior runner to Jackson.

WR's: There is a lack of a true #1 WR on this team. Rookie Greg Little has the most talent and is likely to be a starter right away, but he has been struggling to be consistent in practices. Little has big time upside though and if the light comes on for him, he could be a serviceable fantasy WR3/4. Mohamed Massaquoi will start if he can get over a foot injury that has prevented him from practicing so far. If Massaquoi has any problems recovering from the foot injury, Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs would battle it out to be a fill in starter. Robiskie has been slow to develop and offers little potential fantasy value. Cribbs is always hyped to get more involved as a receiver each year and maybe new head coach Pat Shurmur will finally follow through on that in 2011. If Cribbs, who has proven to have playmaking ability in the return game, has a strong preseason, he could be a real deep fantasy football sleeper. But between Massaquoi, Robiskie and Cribbs, I'm not expecting enough production to be more than waiver wire and/or injury fillers for fantasy rosters. Jordan Norwood has impressed the coaching staff and they currently say he will be their #3 WR, but I find this sounding more like coach speak to motivate the other guys than an indication that Norwood is suddenly one of the top 3 WR's on the team. Carlton Mitchell and Demetrius Williams are the best names of a really mediocre bunch to round out the deepest end of the bench.

TE's: Ben Watson is the starter and had a surprisingly good 2010 season. He finished 5th of all TE's in receptions and receiving yards, but he only scored 3 TD's. In performance leagues Watson could be a borderline fantasy TE1, but in scoring heavy formats, he is no more than a backup. Evan Moore is an athletic freak with more raw talent than Watson, but Moore needs to develop consistency before he'll challenge Watson for the starting job. Alex Smith will battle rookie Jordan Cameron for the 3rd TE spot.

K: Phil Dawson is an accurate kicker but his offense doesn't get him close enough to attempt as many FG's to be a viable fantasy kicker. Unless this offense shows marked improvement, Dawson is likely to be nothing more than a bye week filler.
 

Pittsburgh Steelers
 

QB's: Few teams boast the depth at QB that the Steelers enjoy. Ben Roethlisberger is a solid starting fantasy QB. He's not amongst the top 7 in my fantasy football QB rankings, but definitely deserves to be in that 8-11 range and someone you can be very comfortable starting every week if you wait to take a QB in your draft. Behind him are Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon, and Charlie Batch. While none are of true starting NFL caliber, each has proven to be effective when called upon to fill in. Leftwich is the most likely top backup to Roethlisberger.

RB's: Already a strong fantasy RB1 on the heels of a solid 2010 campaign, I think this will be the season where Rashard Mendenhall takes his spot amongst the top 5 fantasy RB's. Mendenhall has size, power, enough speed, and a nose for the end zone. He's also underrated as a pass catcher and I expect he'll improve on his receptions totals in 2011. 1,500 combined yards and 12 TD's is the least of what I expect and the upside for more is an attainable projection for him. Isaac Redman is the top backup and would step in if Mendenhall suffered any injury. Redman is worth the handcuff in the late rounds of deeper drafts. Redman will also battle Mewelde Moore for snaps spelling Mendenhall on the 3rd down occasionally. Rookie Baron Batch was lost to injury and will miss the 2011 season, leaving Jonathan Dwyer to battle it out with undrafted rookies John Clay and James Johnson for the 4th RB spot (if the Steelers keep that many).

WR's: Mike Wallace was one of big fantasy football sleepers last year and he delivered big time. Even though he isn't likely to catch more than 75 passes (he only had 60 last year, but averaged 21.0 yards per reception) he should be considered a strong fantasy WR1 in any format. Hines Ward is back for another season and will be the #2 WR to start the season but Ward saw his numbers fall off last year and as he ages he isn't likely to be more than a WR4/5 for fantasy. Emmanuel Sanders is one of my top sleepers this year if he can move past Ward into a starting role sometime during the season. Sanders may start the season slow though as he recovers from foot surgery that has been preventing him from practicing. Antonio Brown would be the #3 WR if Sanders' recovery lingers into the regular season. Jerricho Cotchery was signed to be the 5th WR and provide veteran insurance in case Ward's decline becomes a free fall or Sanders is slower to recover from a foot injury than expected. Cotchery should only be viewed as a mediocre veteran option on free agent wires if he gets more playing time than expected.

TE's: Heath Miller is the starter and while he has flirted with being a fantasy TE1 at various times in the past, deficiencies on the Steelers OL in 2010 made him turn into more of a blocker. That could very well be the case again in 2011 and a repeat of his low 2010 stats (42-512-2) is more likely than a return to his 2009 totals (76-789-6). Miller is a low upside TE2 for fantasy. John Gilmore was signed to be the backup after former backup Matt Spaeth bolted in free agency.

K: Shaun Suisham finally developed some accuracy to his game when he took over for Jeff Reed midway thru last year. Suisham enters this season as the kicker and barring a return to his former inaccurate self, he should be fine to be a starting fantasy kicker. He has a bit more risk than most starting fantasy kickers because of his history, but his reward in a potent offense is worth it after the top kickers have been selected.


see Russ's 2011 AFC East Preview