Bengals’ elite players lift their status

Here’s a tricky one. Mac Jones took a step back last season but it’s hard to blame him, or fairly evaluate his game when he was saddled with that offensive coaching staff nightmare. Regardless of how you feel his career may go from here, you have to mark him as an unknown at this stage. Jones can’t expect his receiver corps to be anything more than “fine,” either. DeVante Parker is an average starting X-receiver and JuJu Smith-Schuster is a rock-solid good big slot player. Neither is a true difference-maker. Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton bring different skills to the table and will battle it out at flanker.

Rhamdonre Stevenson is the best player on this unit. He is a powerful back with nimble feet and passing down chops. That’s a rare combination but it doesn’t sound like the Patriots, or Stevenson himself, want him to play as much as he did last year. A veteran back is coming. The tight end combination of Mike Gesicki and Hunter Henry has the potential to be a nice and complementary pairing.

This unit is going to be better than it was last season. Book it. Still, a league-average unit probably represents the ceiling.

[NFC team fantasy football rankings: 49ers, Eagles fight for best grade]

The Texans finally have a real quarterback solution in town with C.J. Stroud. It’s refreshing for a team that’s been lost at sea for multiple seasons. Rookie quarterbacks may struggle to post above average stats but he gives them a chance to actually evaluate their players.

Dameon Pierce showed himself to be a strong rusher as a rookie. He wore down a bit but the presence of Devin Singletary will help matters while still giving Pierce enough leash to run the show. Nico Collins is the most interesting breakout bet on this offense. He has all the prototypical X-receiver traits and gets open with great flexibility on in-breaking routes. The rest of the receiver corps is mostly role players but Dalton Schultz at tight end should provide a nice safety blanket for Stroud.

The Broncos offense was incredibly overrated going into last season and it remains so to this day. Russell Wilson can get back on track with Sean Payton in the mix but his ceiling feels more like the 15th best starter in the league, not anything close to his Seattle days. The receiver room is a collection of No. 2 and No. 3 options. Jerry Jeudy is a splash big play threat but he’s an inconsistent route runner. He’s not a WR1.

Greg Dulcich flashed as a rookie and may be the Broncos player I am most tempted to draft in fantasy at ADP (124.8 on Yahoo) this year. It’s a shame that Javonte Williams may come back slow this season from a complex knee injury he suffered in 2022. If he was healthy, I’d feel a lot better about where this unit stands.

The Titans’ grade would have been even less favorable had they not signed DeAndre Hopkins. While he’s not the player he was at his peak, Hopkins can still function as the top receiver on an offense, can get open short and intermediate and has the same old vice-grip hands. The rest of the receivers are a huge question mark. Treylon Burks is a limited player but fits better as a No. 2 for now. Chigoziem Okonkwo has breakout potential at tight end after some flashes as a rookie. Neither is an established player and the rest of the roster doesn’t offer much juice.

The main holdovers will reprise their same old roles in Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry. The Titans have obviously been actively looking for Tannehill’s replacement but he remains a solid starting quarterback, albeit with durability concerns. Henry is a tricky case. He’s at the axis of age and career workload where we worry about running backs. But he’s quite literally built different than any other back.

Overall, this offense is more interesting with Hopkins in the fold but the ceiling is still low unless Henry breaks the age model to a striking degree.

Full disclosure: I am so high on the Colts skill position players as future bets. I could see them being in the B+ territory by next year but I wanted to remain realistic for now.

The receiver room is one of the most slept-on units in the NFL. Michael Pittman is a true No. 1 receiver and separates with ease on crucial short to intermediate routes. He just needs a quarterback to unlock him. Alec Piece is a nice vertical option and rookie Josh Downs is a perfect fit between those two hulking wideouts in the slot. Jonathan Taylor got banged up last year but is still a very effective runner and focal point of this attack. The tight end room is the only one I consider truly “light,” but Jelani Woods is a massive athlete who can change that perspective.

It all comes down to Anthony Richardson. He is a rare athlete and can attack defenses in the vertical game. I think he will start all year but it may take time for him to get comfortable in the offense. He’s in a position to succeed with this underrated set of skill-position players but an inexperienced rookie quarterback puts a ceiling on your grade.

I’m high on the Steelers’ potential but wanted to be realistic. Quarterback Kenny Pickett showed he can play as a rookie but his ceiling remains an open question. I love his ability to improvise and stay poised in chaos. Najee Harris is a grinder back who has handled a really heavy workload over two seasons. That’s a skill. Pittsburgh also found a nice change of pace option in last year’s UDFA Jaylen Warren. Harris is the feature back but Warren should be an effective second pitch.

The pass-catchers are really intriguing. Diontae Johnson is an elite route runner but slightly mistake-prone. He’s over-criticized, though, and could have the best season of his career from an efficiency standpoint with a young non-rookie passer. George Pickens has some flaws as a separator but he looks like a quality X-receiver with great hands and big-play potential. Pat Freiermuth is a rock solid tight end who is one of my favorite fantasy picks at the position. And I know no one wants to hear it, but Allen Robinson is a much better fit as a slot receiver for this team than the X-receiver role he played last season in LA.

I went conservative with the final grade but if Pickett is good, this unit is quite talented.

The Raiders are a tricky one to read. They still have one of the best receivers on the planet in Davante Adams. I also like Jakobi Meyers quite a bit as a flanker, No. 2 receiver who can create big-time separation underneath and over the middle. Hunter Renfrow didn’t seem to get off on the right foot with this staff but he’s a quality slot receiver. Michael Mayer may not get rolling right away as a rookie — most tight ends don’t — but I liked him as a prospect.

The backfield is muddled. Josh Jacobs seems the most likely running back among all those scorned right now to holdout and potentially miss time. He was one of the most dynamic players in the league last season but this franchise tag beef brings up some troubling vibes. Jimmy Garoppolo replaces Derek Carr at quarterback. At best, that’s a lateral move. He’s also a huge health risk.

Adams, Meyers and hopefully Jacobs are elevating the grade here. The parts may be better than the sum with this unit.

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I’ll openly admit to struggling with the Browns. Deshaun Watson just makes this a near-impossible exercise. If Watson is the player he was last season, this grade is ridiculously high. I tend to think he will play better with a normal offseason ahead but may not reach his Houston heights. Nick Chubb is the central figure of this attack either way. He has a case to be named the best back in the league, especially as a runner, and could lead the league in rushing this season.

The pass-catching room is much better than last year. Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones are the holdover receivers. Cooper is coming off the best season of his career. He’s an inconsistent player but should be able to repeat his efforts in 2023 as the Browns’ X receiver. DPJ would be best suited as a WR3 and that should be able to be the case this year with Elijah Moore in the fold. Moore is a “watch the games” player because you need to isolate him from quarterback play to appreciate his separation ability. There’s depth in the receiver room too with Cedric Tillman of the 2023 class being the most interesting. David Njoku is solid starting two-way tight end who brings size to the table.

Starting off with the duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle is simply an unfair advantage for any offense. The speed, separation and open-field ability they both bring to the table forms a truly rare and unmatched combination. Tua Tagovailoa showed himself to be a quality point guard with these two at his disposal. As long as these three guys are on the field, this offense is potent.

I think it’s right to bring up the holes elsewhere and those issues keep them off the A-tier to me. They didn’t seem interested in using a tight end last season but that spot is pretty barren. Their third receiver is either Chosen Anderson or Braxton Berrios. Questions, albeit different queries surround both guys’ ability to be a true high-volume third target. The running back rotation will consist of De’Von Achane, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. There’s not a season-long lead back in that group.

The Dolphins’ strengths rival the best units in the league and they’ll be a quality attack this year. No one appreciates a concentrated offense more than me but if we’re grading the skill-position talent, they’re top-heavy.

Aaron Rodgers has lost some of the movement ability he once possessed but is still accurate and aggressive in pushing the ball down the field. He represents a massive leap for this team. The receiver corps is led by obvious superstar candidate Garrett Wilson. He’s going to take this unit to new heights all on his own. The receiver room behind him of (I think in this order) Corey Davis, Allen Lazard, Mecole Hardman and Randall Cobb is fine, but not great.

Breece Hall looked like an instant hit as one of the top backs in the league last season. By all accounts, he had a pretty clean ACL tear and should be back up to speed if not by Week 1, then early in the season. There’s a pretty deep stable of solid options behind Hall for when he needs a breather.

Hall, Wilson and Rodgers are doing most of the heavy lifting in this grading but they have the strength to lift the unit.

Baltimore Ravens: B-

There’s a ton of excitement around the Ravens’ offense this season, primarily because of the switch from Greg Roman to the more progressive Todd Monken. The fact that the roster is very talented helps matters quite a bit. Lamar Jackson is signed for the long term now and is a uniquely dynamic talent at the quarterback position. This season will go a long way in proving exactly where his ceiling lies as a passer now that Roman’s offense is gone, and good news, he has the pass-catchers to do it.

Mark Andrews is the established leader of this group at tight end. He’s a dynamic receiver who can threaten defenses in a variety of ways. The receiver trio of Odell Beckham, Rashod Bateman and Zay Flowers has the potential to be excellent. There are obvious questions about all three but I remain particularly bullish on Bateman’s talent to be a true WR1, if he’s healthy. JK Dobbins returns as the starting running back after an efficient end to an injury-plagued 2022 season.

I dinged the Ravens down to B- because a lot of this is projecting based on potential, but I’m quite high on this unit.

Buffalo Bills: B

The Josh Allen to Stefon Diggs connection goes a long way for this team. Both are elite top-three players at their position.

The questions are all over the rest of the roster. Gabe Davis is a dangerous vertical receiver but a little overmatched as a true No. 2. Buffalo is hoping having a variety of legitimate options behind him this year will fill in the gaps. First-round pick Dalton Kincaid will join Dawson Knox in the tight end room and play a ton of slot receiver. Second-year man Khalil Shakir has potential to play as a flanker or slot receiver.

The running back room could have a nice one-two punch between James Cook and Damien Harris. In theory, Harris is the exact kind of power back this team needs. The Bills also added Latavius Murray who also fits the big back mold the Bills have to fill.

Jacksonville Jaguars: B

The Jaguars are one of, if not the most exciting up and coming unit in the NFL. It starts with Trevor Lawrence. He showed off top-10 quarterback ability in spurts last year and is ready to make the leap into the top tier of passers. Jacksonville beefed up the pass-catching corps with Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram last year; all quality players in the right roles. Now they’ll add Calvin Ridley to the mix. It’s been a minute since we’ve seen him but at his best he was a No. 1 wideout who could beat press and man coverage at a high rate. That’s exactly what they needed.

The running game should be a heavy dose of Travis Etienne Jr. with a sprinkling of Tank Bigsby. Etienne may not be the pass catcher some fantasy folks forecasted but he’s an explosive runner.

Jacksonville could be a top-five offense this year. The talent is there at every level.

[2023 Fantasy Draft Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DEF | K]

Los Angeles Chargers: B

Justin Herbert is a top-tier quarterback. Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong last year. He hurt his ribs, the team lost its star left tackle, the top two receivers missed weeks at a time and the play-calling didn’t help matters. With a fresh start under Kellen Moore, Herbert could have his best season yet. Austin Ekeler returned to the team under less than rosy conditions following a contract saga but remains one of the top running backs in the league.

The pass-catching corps should be slightly improved. The main issue is the decline of Keenan Allen’s separation ability on last year’s game film. Maybe it was just a hamstring blip but he’s getting to the age where we need to ask questions. Mike Williams is a good X-receiver but not a true full-field No. 1 type receiver. If he’s healthy, that’s huge for this offense. Rookie Quentin Johnston needs to get up to speed quickly in order to bring much-needed YAC and deep separation skills to the table. If those three are on the field, it puts guys like Josh Palmer and Gerald Everett in more comfortable complementary roles.

The Chargers are a bit more volatile of a unit than often discussed but I believe in Herbert and Ekeler enough to boost this offense.

Kansas City Chiefs: A-

Let’s keep this super simple, I am not giving a unit with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce on it anything that does not start with an “A.” There are questions in the running back and wide receiver rooms but those two are transcendent stars that keep everything moving.

At running back, it looks like we’ll get a split between Isiah Pacheco and Jerrick McKinnon, which was a nice tandem last season, but don’t rule out Clyde Edwards-Helarie getting in the mix. I’m guess the three-receiver set for this team will be Marquez Valdes-Scantling at X receiver, Skyy Moore in the slot and an off-ball gadget man in Kadarius Toney. Those guys can all be solid in those roles. I personally only like Moore to develop into a high-volume option. But I don’t think anyone here is a top-30 fantasy football option.

Again, this grade is Mahomes and Kelce based. The rest of the questions on the roster get them down to A-. Does it matter? No.

Cincinnati Bengals: A+

What needs to be said about the Bengals? They have a top-three quarterback in Joe Burrow who is capable of hitting big plays and spraying the ball accurately as a point guard. He also may have the best feel in the pocket and for navigating tight spaces among all non-Mahomes quarterbacks. Burrow gets to work with an enviable wide receiver trio led by a true alpha in Ja’Marr Chase. The LSU product is great at every facet of playing the wide receiver position. Running mate Tee Higgins could be a No. 1 for a variety of teams and Tyler Boyd is a rock-solid slot.

The running back room is a bit of a question mark after Joe Mixon had a down 2022 season. Tight end is also a lighter spot on the roster. Irv Smith is taking over the career rehab spot from Hayden Hurst and while he’s been a disappointing player, he will get easy looks in this offense.

The Bengals’ strengths are elite. That’s good enough to cover over any holes, which especially in the case of running back, may not be a big deal.

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