Last week, we explored the target opportunities afforded to wide receivers in the NFC. This week, we tackle the AFC. The first division up will be the AFC North, and it is the division with the most room for opportunity in 2016. The division has the second, third and seventh ranked teams in terms of fantasy points available to the receiving corps this year based on the targets missing from last year’s passing game. As with the NFC, these figures are restricted to targets lost from wide receivers only.
Cleveland loss a whole mess of receivers this offseason, with Travis Benjamin, Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe accounting for over 60% of the team’s targets, receptions, yards and nearly 90% of their touchdowns to wide receivers. The corps left behind leaves little to get excited about outside of NFL newcomer Corey Coleman. The rest of the team is a collection of WR3s, so Coleman is going to get peppered with targets by default. Coleman was the first WR off the board in the 2016 draft, and the first player taken by the Browns after their trade downs to acquire more picks. The Browns are running a more analytic front office (more so than drafting Johnny Football because a homeless man told them to), so selecting Coleman had a definite purpose. They’re going to use him. He’s worth a double-digit round flyer, but no other wide receiver will be worth your time in Cleveland.
The two biggest contracts handed out to wide receivers this offseason were to Mohamed Sanu (ATL) and Marvin Jones (DET). Both of these receivers are formerly of the Bengals, so that gives you a good idea of the talent gap that exists in Cincinnati now. The only thing keeping the Bengals from having shed more production is the high number of targets that went, and still go, to A.J. Green. Expect that number from Green to explode this season, going from 132 up past 160 or evey 170. The reason for this is that the Sanu/Jones production has been replaced by frying pan hands Brandon LaFell and Brandon Tate (he of three targets last season). Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense will have nowhere else to go through the air except Tyler Eifert (and Gio Bernard out of the backfield). The sheer target volume that will go A.J. Green’s way will vault him into target monster status, and pairing that with the touchdown regression coming for Eifert, I would take him fourth among wide receivers (after Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham, Jr). It will be a tossup between Hopkins and Green, but given the question mark in Brock Osweiler and the money spent on Lamar Miller, I would lean towards Green in this instance.
The Steelers lost a ton of production for 2016, and 92 of the 93 targets lost was unforeseen. The 92 targets represent the suspended Martavis Bryant, who missed four games in 2015 and at least all of 2016 from separate violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy. Oddly, the biggest beneficiary of Bryant’s absence last season was Darrius Heyward-Bey, forgotten wide receiver bust of the Oakland Raiders. Heyward-Bey has shown more in his career that he will be bad than good, so I wouldn’t look his way to sop up the missing targets in Pittsburgh. It’s almost physically impossible for Antonio Brown to get more targets, and the tight end got around five targets a game last season (some think that will bump with the addition of Ladarius Green, but Heath Miller was one of Ben Roethisberger’s go-to targets). Within the wide receiver corps, that leaves Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates. While Sammie Coates is the mystery box, Markus Wheaton showed last season that he is capable of production comparable to Bryant (Wheaton had a slightly lower yards per target and almost identical catch rates). Wheaton should be the early number two receiver, and may never give up that role. He is a plug and play receiver that Ben Roethlisberger knows he can trust. As I said, Coates is the mystery box, the lottery ticket, who, if he beats out DHB, could produce massive fantasy upside. The only issue there is targets. Wheaton is the shoo-in to absorb targets, and when you factor in Antonio Brown, the aforementioned Green and Le’Veon Bell, Coates will be fifth in line for targets. It’s definitely an uphill battle for Coates, and one to monitor. Don’t draft him, however.
The Ravens receiving corps may be the single most difficult Rubik’s Cube of this offseason. Steve Smith is making his way back from injury (don’t draft Steve Smith), Breshad Perriman is making his way back from injury, and is already injured again (maybe don’t draft Breshad Perriman), Kamar Aiken was productive mostly due to the absence of any other option (maybe draft Kamar Aiken) and Mike Wallace makes his return to the AFC North. There have only been a handful of productive fantasy seasons from wide receivers Steve Smith’s age (or older), and most of them were by Jerry Rice. There’s also the little issue of him coming back from an Achilles tear, and the fact that he’s playing to hit 1000 targets. Breshad Perriman has two bad knees, two bad hands and an even worse hairline. Optimistic reports have Perriman ready for week one, but I’m not going anywhere near a receiver who had trouble bringing down footballs in college and has done nothing but get hurt since he was drafted. Aiken is the smart play here, since his targets are inherent and he burst onto the scene last season in the absence of other options. The other options from last season will still be mostly absent or ineffective. Mike Wallace, however, is the big unknown. He will likely be the Torrey Smith to Aiken’s Anquan Boldin, taking the top off the defense and stretching the field. His fantasy value cratered in Miami and then Minnesota, but 2014 Ryan Tannehill was one of the worst downfield passers in the league and the 2015 Vikings offense and Teddy Bridgewater were not good fits for Wallace’s skillset. He will be like the aforementioned Smith. You’ll look up and he’ll end up in the WR20-30 range, but his ownership will be incredibly frustrating on a week-to-week basis. In a best-ball league he’s a great target. In a smaller league, his inconsistency could kill you, but his boom potential could make your season in a deeper league. He’s definitely still worth a shot.
The AFC North has plenty of opportunity to go around, with over 500 targets in play for the wide receivers in this division based on last season’s production. Unfortunately, the situation left on the rosters leave the beneficiaries of these opportunities. A rookie is the clubhouse leader to get targets in Cleveland, A.J. Green is about to go from the second tier of fantasy wide receivers to the first, and Markus Wheaton and Kamar Aiken are set to build on their breakout campaigns.