AFC North Fantasy Football Preview: Studs, Sleepers, and Division Winners and Losers

Who is favored to win the AFC North based on our metrics? And which fantasy options from each team are worthy of a draft pick?

We're inching closer to the start of football season, which means two things: your favorite team is about to embark on a hopeful journey to the Super Bowl, and your fantasy football drafts are about to take place.

So, to get you prepped for both things, we'll be covering each team -- division by division -- over the next week in order to help you set expectations (analytically, of course) for what's about to happen on both the real and fake football field.

Let's count down the AFC South from worst to first, ranked entirely by our nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect the team to win or lose by against an average one on a neutral field.

4. Cleveland Browns | nERD: -3.59 | Projected Record: 6.9-9.1

Fantasy Football Stud: Duke Johnson

If Josh Gordon wasn’t facing a four-game suspension to start the season, he’d likely be the pick here, but instead, I’ll go with Duke Johnson. Worries about an offense that may consistently struggle and the presence of Isaiah Crowell keep Johnson from being a bonafide, top-tier fantasy option, but at his current price, he offers upside at a position that is inherently volatile.

It’s probably wise to take what Hue Jackson said about Johnson being a three-down back with a grain of salt, but should Crowell miss time due to injury or any off-field issues, Johnson would immediately vault into high-end RB2 status for fantasy purposes. Even without an injury-boost, Johnson has standalone weekly value as an RB2, especially in PPR leagues given his dynamic receiving ability.

Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Gary Barnidge

I normally prefer to draft tight ends in the double-digit rounds of most fantasy drafts, so middle-round options almost never end up on my fantasy teams. But Gary Barnidge is looking like a possible exception to the rule.

A relative unknown before breaking out last season finishing the year as the TE4 in PPR leagues, Barnidge was also insanely productive last season, finishing second in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) among 19 tight ends with 75 or more targets.

The landscape in Cleveland has certainly shifted with a new quarterback, a new head coach, the pending return of Josh Gordon, and a ton of draft capital invested in the wide receiving corps. But when you compare our season-long projections to Barnidge’s current cost, it’s highly unlikely he doesn’t return value for those willing to invest a ninth-round pick.

3. Baltimore Ravens | nERD: -0.85 | Projected Record: 7.7-8.3

Fantasy Football Stud: Kamar Aiken

The swirling vortex of Baltimore Ravens’ running backs and wide receivers partially necessitates Kamar Aiken's place here as the top fantasy option in Baltimore. While he might not as well known as Mike Wallace, Steve Smith or Breshad Perriman, Aiken has an excellent shot at leading the team in targets this season, which might be the best you can ask for in this situation. The fact that he can be acquired in the 10th round adds even more appeal.

He was an average performer in terms of Reception NEP per target last season, but his plus athleticism and opportunity for targets if either Steve Smith starts playing like a 37-year-old or Mike Wallace fails to fit into a new system makes him a very valuable pick.

And in case you need another reason to like Aiken, wide receiver guru Matt Harmon approves as well.

Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Breshad Perriman

Although it feels a bit futile at this point, I’m still holding out hope for Perriman. Despite his overwhelmingly disappointing NFL career up to this point, he is still an athletic pass-catcher on a team with a big-armed quarterback with potential opportunity for targets in the very short-term.

Given his injury history, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to balk at the news coming out of training camp of his impending debut. Our rankings have him pegged conservatively at WR69 for season-long fantasy production, but if he is in fact healthy, and we see a major drop-off in the performance of the aforementioned Smith at age 37, the youngster, who is going undrafted right now, is well worth a flier.

2. Cincinnati Bengals | nERD: 4.23 | Projected Record: 8.9-7.1

Fantasy Football Stud: A.J. Green

In the offseason here at numberFire, dissenting opinions were laid out describing A.J. Green's rock-solid production as well as the potential perils of his increasing cost. Our projections have him as the season-long WR6, firmly entrenched in the second-tier of wide receivers, and just slightly below his current cost of acquisition.

Green has shown a propensity to be a volatile week-to-week performer for fantasy purposes, but it's nearly impossible to deny his athleticism and route-running abilities.

Both Green and his quarterback, Andy Dalton, are coming off the most efficient seasons of their respective careers according to our metrics. So unless you believe that last year was a total mirage, Green is set up nicely to finish among the upper-echelon of fantasy wide receivers in 2016.

Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Tyler Boyd

Tyler Boyd fractured the draftnik community more so than potentially any other 2016 NFL Draft prospect. His collegiate production profile is jaw-dropping, but his tested athleticism is about as enthralling as Tim Kaine.

Cincinnati Bengals beat reporters have been raving about Boyd's performance so far in camp, making a strong case to be the team's starting slot receiver.

With Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard all competing for targets with Boyd, it's likely to take an injury to one or two pass-catchers for him to make a substantial impact in 2016. But as the WR65 coming off the board in the 14th round, there's a decent amount of upside coupled with nearly no investment risk at at all.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers | nERD: 5.92 | Projected Record: 9.5-6.5

Fantasy Football Stud: Antonio Brown

There’s a reason why Antonio Brown is routinely the top overall pick in most fantasy drafts. Brown’s dominance over the last three seasons has been well documented, and Martavis Bryant's year-long suspension should funnel even more targets Brown’s way, affording him an excellent chance at leading the entire league in targets come season’s end. Toss in the recent news regarding Ladarius Green's questionable availability, and expectations for Brown rise even higher.

Our projections have him outscoring every other non-quarterback in the league. While Ben Roethlisberger is likely overvalued at this point, Brown represents the safest, most logical choice for any fantasy owner with the first overall selection this summer, especially in PPR formats.

Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Sammie Coates

With Bryant suspended for the season, Le'Veon Bell likely out Weeks 1 through 4, and Green's season and career very much up in the air, Sammie Coates is primed to assume a very big role in the Steelers' offense in 2016. Earning rave reviews early on in camp, Coates should be given a shot at a starting outside receiver role.

While his physical profile has never been in question, whether or not he can harness his raw talents into consistent production has yet to be proven on the field. Coates’s ADP has been steadily rising over the last month, but can still be had in the 10th round according to Fantasy Football Calculator.

As the potential WR2 in one of the league's best offenses, there's reason to believe in the hype.