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AFC North Wide Receivers (WRs): A Fantasy Football Breakdown

By Jared Smola | Updated on Fri, 04 Aug 2023 . 6:24 PM EDT

AFC North Wide Receivers: Draft Targets and Fades

Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are clearly the kings of AFC North WRs.

But the best value in this division might come from Baltimore and Cleveland.

As for Steelers WRs? We’re mostly out.

Read on to find out why …

See where all these AFC North WRs land in the fantasy football rankings.

 

Baltimore Ravens Wide Receivers

Top Fantasy Target: Zay Flowers
Other Draftables: Rashod Bateman, Odell Beckham

Ravens WRs are a lot more interesting for fantasy football this year than the past few.

There’s an influx of talent, which we’ll get to below. But the big change comes at OC, where Todd Monken replaces Greg Roman.

Expect More Passing

Roman has been a run-favoring play caller throughout his career. His four Ravens offenses averaged a -5.5% Pass Rate Over Expected. (That means they passed 5.5 percentage points less than we’d expect based on score differential, time remaining, down-and-distance, and other game factors.)

Monken, on the other hand, has averaged a +1.8% PROE across four seasons as an NFL OC.

Translation: Expect the Ravens to pass more in 2023, perhaps significantly more. That’s good news for the WRs.

The Incumbent

Bateman returns for his third NFL season.

The first two have been marred by injuries. He missed the first five games of his rookie season with a groin injury and then missed 11 games last year with foot trouble. 

Bateman had surgery on his left foot in November and then required a cortisone shot in June. He’s been sidelined since, currently residing on the active PUP list.

Bateman has flashed when healthy, but he’s tough to trust as more than a WR4-5 bench stash until we see him back on the field.

The Newbies

Bateman’s injury woes make Flowers and Beckham more intriguing.

The Ravens picked Flowers 21st overall in the draft. 

He dealt with some bad QB play at Boston College and didn’t put up huge raw numbers. But Flowers shined from a market-share perspective, accounting for 32.7% of his team’s receiving yards and a whopping 45.6% of the receiving scores over the last three years.

Flowers is undersized at 5’9, 182 pounds but plays bigger in contested situations. And he’s explosive and dynamic both in his routes and after the catch.

Flowers is the top Raven in our fantasy football WR rankings.

Beckham checks in a few spots behind Flowers.

It’s been a while since OBJ has been a real fantasy asset. He tore his ACL midway through the 2020 season, finished just 57th among WRs in half-PPR points in 2021 and then missed all of last year recovering from a second ACL tear suffered in Super Bowl LVI.

It’s fair to wonder what the 30-year-old has left in the tank. But the Ravens are clearly optimistic, giving Beckham a near-fully guaranteed one-year, $15 million deal.

With an ADP well outside the top 40 WRs, Beckham is certainly worth a look as an upside bench stash. His 185.2 half-PPR ceiling projection would have made him a top-20 WR last year.

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3D projections show the baseline, floor, and ceiling for every player.

  

Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receivers

Top Fantasy Target: Ja’Marr Chase
Other Draftables: Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd

This WR corps is clear.

The Alpha

Chase emerged as the Bengals’ No. 1 WR last year. After averaging 7.5 targets per game on a 23.1% share as a 2021 rookie, he spiked to 11.2 targets per game on a 28.6% share last year.

That volume boost helped make up for a dip in efficiency. 

Defenses played more Cover-2 shell against the Bengals last year, forcing them to throw shorter. The effect on Chase’s numbers:

2021 2022
Average Target Depth 12.6 9.0
Yards Per Catch 18.0 12.0
Yards Per Target 11.4 7.8

Still, Chase scored more half-PPR points per game last year (16.9) than he did in 2021 (15.7). He has ranked fifth and then third among WRs in half-PPR points per game and sits second in our 2023 WR rankings.

The Beta

Higgins’ numbers suffered a bit from Chase’s ascension last year.

2021 2022
Target Share 23.9% 21.1%
Yards Per Game 77.9 64.3
Half-PPR Points Per Game 13.0 11.4

But Higgins still finished 14th among WRs in half-PPR points per game last year. And he jumps to ninth if you remove the three games in which he played less than 27% of the offensive snaps. 

Durability remains a concern with Higgins. Our Injury Predictor gives him an 89% probability of injury this season. But he’s also a good bet for borderline WR1 production when healthy.

That’s worth picking in Round 3 of fantasy drafts.

The Gamma

Boyd has been the Bengals’ clear No. 3 WR the past two seasons. But, because this is such a voluminous and productive passing game, he has finished as a top-40 fantasy WR both years.

There’s no threat to that No. 3 job this season, making Boyd a useful bench piece with spot-start potential.

He also brings contingent upside in the case of an injury to Chase or Higgins. Although it’s worth noting that Boyd has averaged just 8.7 half-PPR points across eight healthy games without Chase or Higgins over the past two years.

Joe Burrow Injury

Burrow went down with a calf strain on July 27. He’s expected to be sidelined for multiple weeks but “likely” to be ready for Week 1, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo.

Check Shark Bites for continued updates on Burrow’s status.

His absence would obviously be a big blow to Bengals WRs. Trevor Siemian is the backup QB.

  

Cleveland Browns Wide Receivers

Top Fantasy Target: Elijah Moore
Other Draftables: Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones

A Better Passing Game in 2023

The 2022 Browns ranked 22nd in passing yards and 19th in passing TDs. That came with 11 games of QB Jacoby Brissett and six with a rusty Deshaun Watson.

We’re expecting much better from Watson in 2023, with a full, distraction-free offseason to settle into HC Kevin Stefanski’s offense. Remember that Watson was a truly elite passer from 2018-2020, completing 68.7% of his passes and averaging 8.3 yards per attempt.

If Watson does bounce back, this WR corps will be a nice source of fantasy value.

Cooper Returns as Lead Dog

Despite a subpar passing game last year, Cooper scored the second-most half-PPR points per game of his career, finishing 18th among WRs. He also posted his second-best Pro Football Focus receiving grade and second-most yards per route run.

So Cooper is still going strong at age 29. Despite increased target competition this year, he’s fairly priced at his WR17 ADP.

Moore has Breakout Potential

But Moore looks like the best ADP value in this WR corps.

Yes, last year was ugly. Moore mustered only 37 catches and ranked 92nd among 96 qualifying WRs in yards per route run.

But he had issues with the Jets’ coaching staff (to put it mildly) and dealt with crappy QB play.

We were high on Moore coming out of Ole Miss, where he averaged 102.2 receiving yards and 0.7 TDs per game across his sophomore and junior years. And he flashed as a rookie, racking up 459 yards and five TDs across a six-game stretch in the middle of the season.

Moore has been one of the buzzier players of the offseason, drawing consistent praise for his route-running skills and versatility.

TIP

Moore is one of our Fantasy Football Sleepers.

Don’t Forget About Peoples-Jones

DPJ has improved his catch and yardage totals each year. His 61-839-3 line last year was good for a WR41 finish in half-PPR points.

The arrival of Moore has Peoples-Jones sitting considerably lower than that in our 2023 WR Rankings. He might not be a guy we can count on in lineup-setting leagues. But his combination of downfield skills and situation gives him appealing weekly upside for best ball leagues.

We’ll keep an eye on WR Cedric Tillman, whom the Browns added in the third round of this spring’s draft. He’s a 6’3 downfield threat in the same mold as Peoples-Jones. But we’re not expecting him to threaten DPJ this year.

  

Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receivers

Top Fantasy Target: None
Other Draftables: Diontae Johnson, George Pickens

The Diontae Dilemma

You’ll find plenty of fantasy sites calling Johnson a strong value at his WR32 half-PPR ADP.

Not us. Johnson checks in a few spots below ADP in our WR rankings.

Yes, he’s a lock for positive TD regression after somehow managing to score zero times on 86 catches last year. Johnson scored on 7.9% of his receptions over his first three NFL seasons. Give him a 7.9% TD rate last year and he scores 6.8 times – and climbs from WR39 in half-PPR points to 20th.

So why are we below ADP on Johnson?

Two reasons:

Pittsburgh projects to throw less this year

The Steelers ran on just 37.5% of their plays over the first half of last season. That spiked to 51.4% over the second half.

The front office and coaching staff has told us all offseason that they want to remain run-centric this year.

Will they run on more than 50% of their plays. Probably not. That’s rare.

But we’re projecting them for a 46.5% run rate this year – and 25 fewer pass attempts than last season.

TIP

Detailed team-by-team projections are a big part of why we’ve had the MOST ACCURATE DRAFT RANKINGS over the past three seasons.

Johnson could lose target share

Johnson has been a target hog over the last three seasons.

2020 2021 2022
Target Share 22.9% 28.5% 26.6%
Target Share Rank 27th 4th 15th

There’s a chance that share sinks a bit in 2023 considering Johnson will share the field with second-year WR George Pickens and third-year TE Pat Freiermuth, ascending players who could demand more targets this season.

Johnson needs heavy volume because he’s never been super efficient. Here’s where he has ranked among qualifying WRs in yards per route run over the last three seasons:

  • 2020 -- 42nd out of 99
  • 2021 -- 23rd out of 101
  • 2022 -- 51st out of 96

Johnson is a relatively safe pick as a WR3. But he’s unlikely to be a real needle-mover for fantasy squads.

Pickens’ Rookie Season Was a Mixed Bag

We’re also a few spots below ADP on Pickens.

That’s a little scarier considering his rookie-year production. Pickens’ 9.8 half-PPR points per game were the 24th most from a 21-year-old rookie in NFL history.

The underlying metrics weren’t as impressive, though. Pickens drew an underwhelming 14.7% target share, despite running a route on 90% of Pittsburgh’s pass plays. That gives him less room to add target share than a player who wasn’t on the field as much.

Pickens also averaged a middling 1.38 yards per route run, 57th among 96 qualifying WRs.

He, of course, is a candidate to take a leap in his second NFL season. But there’s reason to worry that Pickens will never be a high-end target earner.

In comparison to Diontae Johnson, Pickens is less safe but has a higher ceiling.

Oh yeah – Allen Robinson. He’s on this team, too.

Robinson has been one of the least efficient WRs in football for two years running, ranking 86th and then 90th in yards per route run.

Now he’s the No. 3 WR in a run-leaning offense.

No thanks.

  

When to Draft AFC North Wide Receivers (and everyone else)

Exactly how valuable all these AFC North WRs are in YOUR fantasy league depends on myriad factors, including:

  • Scoring system
  • Team needs
  • ADP
  • Upside
  • Injury risk

We factor 17 value indicators into the rankings on your customized fantasy football cheat sheet.

Get your cheat sheet now!

 

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Jared Smola Author Image
Jared Smola, Lead Analyst
Jared has been with Draft Sharks since 2007. He’s now Lead Analyst, heading up the preseason and weekly projections that fuel your Draft War Room and My Team tools. He currently ranks 1st among 133 analysts in draft rankings accuracy.
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