Class of 2020: Rookie Recap – AFC North
The first Rookie Recap article focused on the AFC East, and how much value their rookie picks gave fantasy drafters. This time, we look at their conference neighbours to the North.
The process for eligible players, point scoring and ranking system can be found here.
So, without further ado, let’s see who finished DEAD LAST in the AFC North.
DEAD LAST: CLEVELAND BROWNS
Why are the Browns in fourth??
They made their first playoff appearance in many years!
But it was their veterans, particularly their defensive players, that proved to be the driving force. It was difficult to decide who would be in the top three, but there was no such hesitancy with putting the Browns in fourth place.
Picks: Harrison Bryant (TE, Florida Athletic: 4th round, 115th pick); Donovan Peoples-Jones (WR, Michigan: 6th round, 187th pick)
Harrison Bryant was seen as one of the best Tight Ends in the 2020 class. With only David Njoku ahead of him, this was a big opportunity for Bryant to defy draft position and provide excellent value.
But then the Browns signed Austin Hooper, fresh from a big season with the Falcons. And this significantly changed Bryant outlook, who now sat in third place on the roster.
And, with the Browns’ passing game slow to heat up, the entire Tight End group struggled to get consistency. Bryant himself had a high against Cincinatti in Week 7, scoring 2 touchdowns and 21.6 fantasy points. But the hot streak ended as quickly as it started – and he didn’t see above 10 PPR in the remaining games. Aside from a quick-witted fantasy player slotting him in for that blockbuster week, nobody got any fantasy value from Bryant in 2020.
Unlike Bryant, sixth-round pick Donovan Peoples-Jones had several weeks above 10PPR points. A particular high point in Week 13 saw the Wide Receiver grab 17.6 fantasy points from 2 receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown. But only one week until then had seen above 5 PPR points. 9 of the 11 previous games had resulted in 0 points. This breakout week would have been so difficult to see coming.
Ultimately, Cleveland’s ground game dominated. And the pass game, and its components, was largely boom-or-bust. Not great value for fantasy drafters.
Picks: Grant Delphit (DB, LSU: 2nd round, 44th pick); Jordan Elliot (DT, Missouri: 2rd round, 88th pick); Jacob Phillips (LB, LSU: 3rd round, 97th pick)
As stated before, the defensive contribution was a huge factor in the Browns making towards the playoffs. And, unfortunately, the rookie draft picks did not contribute more.
Chief among them was second round pick Grant Delphit, although this was down to a severe Achilles injury that he picked up in training camp. Without this setback, there could have been a rookie contribution to the Cleveland DST point total.
Meanwhile, Jordan Elliot and Jacob Phillips played in 16 and 9 games respectively. But they weren’t able to contribute any big defensive plays either. And they could only contribute 28 solo tackles between them – equivalent to less than 4% of the team’s total. And, if tackles don’t bring points, that doesn’t help the fantasy value.
MOVING ON FAST: PITTSBURGH STEELERS
This is where it gets tricky. The remaining three teams have had standout players. So it comes down to the other picks made in this draft to determine the standings. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they find themselves third in a closely-contested decision.
Picks: Chase Claypool (WR, Notre Dame: 2nd round, 49th pick); Anthony McFarland (RB, Maryland: 4th round, 124th pick)
Chase Claypool made waves in his first season as an NFL player. The rookie scored the most touchdowns out of the Wide Receiver class of 2020. He got eleven in total – nine in the air, and two on the ground. The Notre Dame man fit smoothly into the Pittsburgh operation.
Fantasy owners will have been pleased with Claypool’s output as well. He scored the highest weekly point total of any 2020 rookie. Four touchdowns against Philadelphia garnered him 42.6 points. It likely helped fantasy owners blow their opponents out of the water that week. Including this blockbuster game, 9 of Claypool’s 16 games (56.25%) saw him outperform his predicted Sleeper points.
It certainly helped the receiver that the Steelers were focused almost entirely on the pass game in 2020.
But it certainly didn’t help Anthony McFarland, the fourth-round pick out of Maryland. The rookie found himself unable to break into a significant role, and ended up as third RB behind James Conner and Benny Snell. His 22.7 points averages out as 2.06 a week, and his best output barely scraped over 5 PPR points.
But it wasn’t just him. A Find The Gap article highlighted the Pittsburgh run game as the least effective in 2020. The two running backs in front of him suffered greatly. And the fact that Big Ben, the least mobile Quarterback, got sacked only 12 times last season suggests where the O-line’s strengths lay.
Conner is due to hit free agency for 2021, so McFarland could hope for a bigger role. But 2020 was a bust for the back.
Picks: Alex Highsmith (EDGE, Charlotte: 3rd round, 102nd pick); Antoine Brooks (S, Maryland: 6th round, 198th pick); Carlos Davis (DT, Nebraska: 7th round, 232nd pick)
Another deciding factor between the last three teams are the defensive players. And, when it comes to individual contributions, the Steelers weren’t able to bring as much as the other teams.
Alex Highsmith, the EDGE rusher from Charlotte, was the pick of the Pittsburgh bunch. The third round pick featured in all 16 regular season games, and added two sacks and an interception to the team totals. He also managed to get an impressive 24 defensive stops from 43 tackles.
However, the other two defensive draft picks did not see nearly as much action as Highsmith. Antoine Brooks saw action in just two games – with just a handful of snaps in the Week 13 game against Washington. And, although defensive tackle Carlos Davis made seven appearances, he wasn’t able to add any big plays either.
As such, the rookies were only able to add very little to the impressive accolades that the Steelers’ DST picked up over the season.
GETTING A PASS: CINCINATTI BENGALS
I imagine that certain Steelers fans won’t be too happy that I’ve put the Bengals picks above the Pittsburgh ones. After all, Claypool was one of the standout rookie Receivers. But there are others factors involved in this choice.
Picks: Joe Burrow (QB, LSU: 1st round, 1st pick); Tee Higgins (WR, Clemson: 2nd round, 33rd pick)
After an abysmal 2019, the Bengals got their shot at the number 1 draft spot. And Joe Burrow showed glimpses of why he was chosen first. Six touchdowns over two games against the Browns. Four games with multiple scores. Four games over 300 yards passing. Three rushing touchdowns.
The injury from a Week 11 sack brought all that to a stop. It was one of the 32 Burrow had received in his 10 games – third highest in the league at the time. And the 72 hits he took was the highest a rookie had received since 2000.
So to produce what he did seems even more astounding. If the Bengals can give him protection, there will be no doubt he can beat those stats.
TEE vs. CHASE
One player that reaped the rewards of Burrow’s abilities was the Bengals second round pick, Tee Higgins.
The similarities to fellow rookie Chase Claypool are pronounced. Both incorporated themselves well into their respective offenses. They both went over 20PPR points three times in the season. Both beat their predicted Sleeper points in 9 of 16 games (56%). And both saw big games against the Eagles. It’s so close, the PFF have them graded just 0.3 apart. And it’s the form you would expect from two highly valued second-round picks.
Claypool edges some of the important stats. He averages 13.24 points per week compared to Higgins’ 12.1. And Weeks 1-7 have Claypool coming out on top with 14.56 points per game against Higgins’ 12.6.
But down the regular season stretch (Weeks 8 – 13), the stats become a lot closer – the difference is just 0.1 point (Claypool’s 13.6 to Higgins 13.5). This is when Joe Burrow’s injury really made a difference to the make-up of the Bengals’ offense. Still, Higgins was involved and getting targets – his fantasy value didn’t seem to drop as much as you would expect when losing your starting QB.
And it could be the playoff weeks that his contribution may have made the biggest difference. While Claypool’s 21.1 points in Week 17 may have helped a small number of players win an extended season championship, his Week 14-16 average of 7.2 points will have constituted a bust in the weeks where it counted.
However, while Higgins’ numbers in Weeks 14 and 15 aren’t much better than his Pittsburgh counterpart, the Bengals wideman’s 21.9 points in Week 16 could have been the difference maker in many more fantasy players winning a championship.
Plus, if that wasn’t enough, we have to consider the value of the two team’s picks outside of these two wide receivers. And there was a lot more fantasy value from Joe Burrow compared to Anthony McFarland.
Picks: Logan Wilson (LB, Wyoming: 3rd round, 65th pick); Akeem Davis-Gaither (LB, App State: 4th round, 107th pick); Khalid Kareem (EDGE, Notre Dame: 5th round, 147th pick); Markus Bailey (LB, Purdue: 7th round, 215th pick)
But was there a difference made by the defensive players? Alex Highsmith was the top draft pick performer in the Steelers’ unit. And we only have to look as far as third-round Logan Wilson to see a similar output. Wilson only featured in 12 games, but managed a sack and two interceptions during his season.
And there were contributions from the other draft picks. Both Akeem Davis-Gaither and Khalid Kareem played a full 16 games, picking up 1.5 sacks and an interception between them. And the Bengals made the least sacks in the division, so the rookies’ combined 2.5 sacks made up nearly 15%!
TOP OF THE CLASS: BALTIMORE RAVENS
Picks: J.K. Dobbins (RB, Ohio State: 2nd round, 55th pick); Devin Duvernay (WR, Texas: 3rd round, 92nd pick); James Proche (WR, Southern Methodist: 6th round, 201st pick)
Due to the lack of offseason, many teams eased their players into NFL action. And I feel that Dobbins was one of the players whose early season form reflected this. Perhaps were it not for Mark Ingram’s early involvement in the scheme, I feel Dobbins could have added more. But Ingram was a reliable option in a stormy season. And, as the veteran’s usage dropped, the rookie’s grew.
The stats back this up. The rookie back’s Week 1 – 7 average points came out at 7.63 a game. A game high of 9 carries in this time, with only two touchdowns to show for it. Week 8 – 13? An increase to 8.76ppg. This time, a carry high of 15 (twice). Still two touchdowns, but a higher number of yards.
But weeks 14 – 17 were the breakout for Dobbins. Double digit carries and 5 touchdowns in four games. A colossal 17.025ppg – including his highest weekly return of 28 points in Week 17. As such, Dobbins could have been a huge contributing factor in fantasy players winning vital playoff matches. And, with Ingram gone and Gus Edwards on tender, we could see a similar usage to the 2020 stretch in the 2021 season.
Sadly, while the Ravens rush was breaking records, the pass game was suffering. It’s likely why both Baltimore rookie receivers failed to give anything to fantasy players. Devin Duvernay managed a few carries himself during the season. But his receiving stat line (26-201-0) didn’t compete with Wide Receivers drafted after him (Gabriel Davis was a fourth round pick). And sixth rounder James Proche saw just three targets all season. However, with Lamar Jackson a notorious runner, it was wise not to expect anything big out of them to start with.
So, with just one standout offensive player for the Ravens, why are they ranked first?
Picks: Patrick Queen (LB, LSU: 1st round, 28th pick); Justin Madubuike (DT, Texas A&M: 3rd round, 71st pick); Malik Harrison (LB, Ohio State: 3rd round, 98th pick); Broderick Washington (DT, Texas Tech: 5th round, 170th pick); Geno Stone (S, Iowa: 7th round, 219th pick)
The Ravens’ defensive picks were the real difference in deciding the top team. For fantasy value, Patrick Queen added a lot to the Ravens DST. Playing every game, the linebacker’s involvement in 819 snaps made him the most used defensive rookie in the division. Additionally, Queen was responsible for three sacks, two forced fumbles (and the returns that followed), and an interception.
With the exception of a further sack from Justin Madubuike, Queen contributed the entirety of the rookie Ravens’ DST points. This made up 13.33% of the Ravens DST’s final total – allowing the team a first-ranked finish. And, if IDP leagues scored for tackles points, then Queen’s 76 solo efforts will have bagged owners a delicious haul. Everyone expected big things from the first-round rookie in 2020 – and he duly delivered.
Defensive point contributions were rare from the other rookie picks. Third-rounder Madubuike only featured in 10 games himself, adding that solitary sack. And while Malik Harrison played every regular season game, he didn’t add points to the total. Broderick Washington made one tackle (two assists) in the eight games he featured in. And seventh rounder Geno Stone was surplus to requirements – featuring in one game and two snaps – for the Houston Texans.
But Queen’s contributions compared to other defensive picks was massive. And, for me, it put the Ravens at the top of the list in the North.
DEAD LAST: CLEVELAND BROWNS
MOVING ON FAST: PITTSBURGH STEELERS
GETTING A PASS: CINCINATTI BENGALS
TOP OF THE CLASS: BALTIMORE RAVENS
Next time, we head to the West, and see which of the AFC teams got players fantasy value with their draft picks.
Until next time,