Fantasy Football: AFC North

Fantasy Football: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (12-4, 378 Points For, lost in AFC Championship Game): Forget everything you thought you knew about the Ravens, the flow is changing. The aging defense is no longer a dominant unit, and sack-master Terrell Suggs could be down for the season. As a result, the games will be more open this year, on both sides. QB Joe Flacco seems ready for more responsibility on offense, and receiver Torrey Smith was an uncoverable monster all summer. You'll land Smith as your third or fourth wideout in most drafts, but he's capable of a Top 15 year at the position. Anquan Boldin can still grab 65-75 passes, but he's not a deep threat and his touchdown upside is limited. Ray Rice is a known commodity, a Top 3 back on anyone's board. If you're in a deeper league and feel the need to handcuff, the backup is Bernard Pierce. That said, Rice has been very durable as a pro.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 325 PF, lost in Wild Card Round): Todd Haley has his share of detractors, but his offensive methods are well-respected and he should do a fine job with the Steelers offense, in time. But for 2012, we worry about the offensive line and what it will allow Pittsburgh to accomplish. Isaac Redman (groin) is no sure thing in the backfield and Rashard Mendenhall is coming off a major knee injury; with that in mind, earmark summer sleeper Jonathan Dwyer for the late rounds. Ben Roethlisberger is still a Top 12 fantasy quarterback, when he's allowed to stand and fire. Mind you, Big Ben runs into a few sacks himself by holding the ball too long. Antonio Brown could ascend to the No. 1 receiver spot, and he's a good bet for 7-9 scores this year after being touchdown-unlucky last year. Mike Wallace is a dynamite deep threat, though he's unhappy about his contract and blew off most of the summer. Brown's progress (and lucrative contract extension) might wind up bothering Wallace, too. Buyer beware.
Cincinnati Bengals (9-7, 344 PF, lost in Wild Card Round): A bunch of things fell right for the surprise Bengals last year, and they were happy to take advantage of a soft schedule. Cincinnati never beat a team with a winning record in 2011, so be careful when you judge this roster. QB Andy Dalton was a quick study and should be a decade-long starter, though he's not a special talent by any means. But so long as he keeps pitching the ball to electric WR A.J. Green (now there's an elite player, a Top 5 pass-catcher), everyone in the Queen City will be happy. There's no solid No. 2 wideout here, which means tight end Jermaine Gresham will be targeted liberally. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a straight-line runner with no lateral agility, but he never fumbles and he's reliable around the goal line. Look for a boring 1,100 yards and 7-9 touchdowns, the type of year Cedric Benson used to give us. Try to secure Green-Ellis as your third back.
Cleveland Browns (4-12, 218 PF): Most NFL clubs viewed Brandon Weeden as a so-so prospect, someone to consider in the third or fourth round of April's draft. Part of the bearish nature was tied to Weeden's age - he's already 28, having spent several years as a baseball prospect. The Browns wrote their own memo on Weeden and pounced in the first round, 22nd overall pick. Obviously they'll give him a chance to play right away, for better or for worse. Weeden's college stats were floated by a wide-open spread offense, but the Browns don't have the personnel to run that here. At least there's second-year receiver Greg Little on the outside, a budding star. Running back Trent Richardson was a respected pick at the No. 5 slot, but he needed a knee scope in early August. If he can heal up quickly, he'll run behind an underrated offensive line; while the Browns don't have an answer at right tackle yet, they do have two blocking stars in LT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Montario Hardesty has settled in as the backup tailback, and could be an interesting sleeper if Richardson is slow off the mark. Cleveland's underrated defense should keep things surprisingly competitive, but this will be another losing year by the lake.

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Twins double up Orioles Monday night after erasing Baltimore's early lead

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USA Today Sports

Twins double up Orioles Monday night after erasing Baltimore's early lead

BALTIMORE (AP) -- Max Kepler homered and drove in four runs, Miguel Sano and Jorge Polanco each had a career-high four hits and the Minnesota Twins roared back to beat the Baltimore Orioles 14-7 Monday night.

Minnesota trailed 5-0 in the second inning and 6-2 entering the fifth before cranking up the offense against Ubaldo Jimenez and an ineffective Baltimore bullpen.

A two-run double by Kepler helped the Twins knot the score in the fifth, Minnesota sent 11 batters to the plate in a six-run sixth and Sano added a two-run homer in the ninth.

Joe Mauer had three hits, two RBIs and scored twice for the Twins, who reached season highs in runs and hits (21).

Adam Jones hit a three-run drive in the second inning off Kyle Gibson (1-4) for Baltimore.

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It was his 125th home run at Camden Yards, moving him out of a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for the most in the history of the 26-year-old ballpark.

That proved to be the highlight of an otherwise ugly night for the Orioles.

Jimenez frittered away a five-run lead and missed a chance to earn his first win since April 19. The right-hander allowed six runs and nine hits in four-plus innings, a performance that lifted his ERA to an unsightly 7.17.

Jimenez was replaced by Tyler Wilson (2-2), who gave up six runs in 1 1/3 innings.

Down 5-0, the Twins got an RBI groundout from Mauer in third before Kepler led off the fourth with a home run.

It was 6-2 before Minnesota bunched together five hits in the fifth. After Kepler chased Jimenez with a two-run double, Eduardo Escobar hit a sacrifice fly and Polanco tied it with an RBI single.

Highlights of the Twins' sixth inning included a tiebreaking double by Mauer, a two-run double by Escobar, an error by second baseman Jonathan Schoop and a run-inducing balk when Stefan Crichton dropped the ball in the midst of his windup.

Recalled from Triple-A Rochester before the game, Gibson gave up six runs in five innings, but nevertheless earned his first victory in seven starts this season.

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Jay Gruden views Chris Thompson as the NFL's best third-down running back

Jay Gruden views Chris Thompson as the NFL's best third-down running back

In 2016, Chris Thompson simply needed to prove to Jay Gruden that he could handle 16 NFL games.

Now, looking ahead to 2017, the fifth-year running back hopes to show his head coach he can shoulder 16 NFL games and a larger workload.

"I have a feeling that I might get a little more this year," Thompson said Monday at the Redskins Charitable Golf Foundation. "[Gruden] knows now that I'm healthy and I can stay healthy, which I think that was one of his biggest concerns. So now he sees that I can handle the load, I think that I'll get a lot more opportunities this year."

Last season was by far the best in the 26-year-old's career. He played a full slate of games after playing in just 19 over his first three seasons combined, and he set career highs in rushing attempts (68), yards (356), receptions (49), receiving yards (349) and total touchdowns (5).

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He also held up well in pass protection, a key duty for him as the team's third-down running back. And it's all of those qualities — being able to contribute on handoffs and with catches while also providing help in keeping Kirk Cousins upright — that make him an excellent fit for a popular NFL duty.

The most excellent in that duty, actually, if you ask Gruden. 

"I think Chris Thompson's role is big," he said. "When you're talking about third downs, that's the most important down in football. There's nobody better as a third-down back in my opinion than Chris. He's got a huge role on this football team." 

Gruden went on to indicate that an increase in Thompson's responsibilities is likely coming, though No. 25 will still do the majority of his work when the offense needs him most.

"Whether he does some more stuff on first- and second-down will be determined," he said. "I'm sure he will. But he's so valuable on third-down that I gotta keep him in that role for now."

A 2013 fifth-round pick who came into the league with a history of injuries, Thompson has now fully gained the trust of his coaches and teammates. The 5-foot-8 running back may be small in stature, but the Redskins know he's not small in importance.  

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