AFC North fantasy football preview: Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson headline stacked division

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws in the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Cincinnati, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

The AFC North appears to be loaded with talent much like the AFC East, giving us another fun division to break down for fantasy football in 2023.

We’re going to assess the fantasy value of key players from the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers and identify the top draft day targets as well as some deep sleepers.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals have established themselves as one of the NFL’s elite offenses with elite quarterback Joe Burrow, who should be ready for Week 1 after suffering a calf injury during training camp. The running game will once again be led by Joe Mixon, but rookie Chase Brown could become involved if Mixon struggles with efficiency. Ja’Marr Chase has cemented himself as a top-five receiver, and he’ll be complemented by Tee Higgins once again in what’s arguably the NFL’s best duo at the position. Veteran Tyler Boyd makes for a solid third option in the slot, and new pass-catching tight end Irv Smith could also play a role if healthy as Hayden Hurst’s replacement.

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson finally got paid, and he’s set up for success in a new-look offense that features plenty of weapons, unlike the previous system that was holding him back as a passer. The running game won’t be leaned upon as much, but J.K. Dobbins should be productive as the lead runner if healthy and see the bulk of the carries in front of veterans Gus Edwards and Melvin Gordon. Rookie Zay Flowers is an exciting option alongside Odell Beckham Jr., and these two are set to lead the receiver room and push Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay into complementary roles. Mark Andrews will once again be an elite tight end option, and Isaiah Likely is an excellent backup in case anything happens to Andrews.

Cleveland Browns: Deshaun Watson’s coming off a lost 2022 season in which he struggled after returning from suspension, but he should be improved in 2023 now that he’s got a better grasp of the offense. There should still be plenty of touches for Nick Chubb, who’s in line for a career-best season with the inexperienced Jerome Ford being the only threat behind him at running back now that Kareem Hunt is gone. Amari Cooper turned in a solid first season in Cleveland and should be even better with Watson as the full-time starter, with Elijah Moore and Donovan Peoples-Jones profiling as solid complimentary options. David Njoku has evolved into a steady receiving threat at tight end, and he should be a top 10 option at the position if healthy.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The offense has some question marks beginning with second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett, but he should see improvement in his second season with decent weapons and a better offensive line. Najee Harris should excel behind the revamped offensive line and be the bell cow once again despite backup Jaylen Warren showing flashes last season. The receiving corps isn’t flashy, but it’s not terrible considering that Diontae Johnson is a strong slot presence that will be complemented by big-play threat George Pickens and veteran Allen Robinson. The tight end room looks strong with the rising Pat Freiermuth entering his third season, and rookie Darnell Washington could have a role in the red zone right away.

TOP DRAFT DAY TARGETS

Nick Chubb, Browns RB: Everything is setting up for a Chubb breakout in 2023, as he should see more running lanes with defenses having to respect Watson and the passing game, and have more opportunities for touchdowns in what should be a much more explosive offense.

Tee Higgins, Bengals WR: Higgins has crossed the 1,000-yard mark the past two seasons despite dealing with nagging injuries, and he should be productive once again next to Ja’Marr Chase and profiles as a steal on draft day since he puts up similar numbers when healthy.

Lamar Jackson, Ravens QB: It’s safe to say the Ravens’ offense is in line for a breakout, and Jackson now has the weapons to truly cook as a passer and put up just as good or better numbers than he did in his 2019 MVP season even if he doesn’t run quite as much.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers WR: Johnson improved down the stretch once he established chemistry with Kenny Pickett and should be leaned upon more this season now that he’s gained the young quarterback’s trust as the go-to option to where he’ll be peppered with targets.

TOP DRAFT DAY SLEEPERS

Deshaun Watson, Browns QB: Watson’s disastrous 2022 has caused him to become a value in 2023 fantasy drafts, as people seem to have forgotten that he was a top-five option not that long ago. He should finish in the top 10 at minimum thanks to his dual-threat ability.

Zay Flowers, Ravens WR: Flowers profiles as a dangerous weapon as a rookie as someone who can a variety of routes and is explosive. He’s got No. 1 receiver written all over him, especially with Odell Beckham and Rashod Bateman being injury prone.

Chase Brown, Bengals RB: Joe Mixon’s efficiency was down enough last season to where Samaje Perine became more involved, and Brown should fill the complementary back role and has the upside to potentially dethrone Mixon if the efficiency struggles continue.

Irv Smith, Bengals TE: Smith likely won’t be heavily involved early on, but he should see his role increase down the stretch much like Hayden Hurst’s did last season and could become fantasy relevant if injuries pop up in the wide receiver room.

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