NFC North Fantasy Preview
Our final divisional breakdown shifts the focus to the NFC North, a division with storied rivals and loads of fantasy implications. The Vikings’ running attack is potent while their passing game has been the subject of much laughter at the hands of Teddy Bridgewater. The Packers are coming off a “down year” after perennially starring as every fantasy owner’s dream team. With Aaron Rodgers supposedly on a new diet (but who isn’t these days), Eddie Lacy trying his best at P90x and the hopeful return of Jordy Nelson’s knee, the Packers are a high-powered offense to own. The Lions saw a second-half resurrection under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. The question remains how creative Cooter can be following the retirement of Calvin Johnson. The Bears and Jay Cutler are up-and-down performers with a backfield loaded with a few question marks heading into the season.
Check out the rest of our series of Divisional Breakdowns for the AFC South, AFC East, AFC West, AFC North, NFC South, NFC East, and NFC West.
Coach/Staff: Mike Zimmer coached the Vikings to a surprising division crown and a 11-5 record. The defensive-minded coach has won with defense and a consistent ground attack. Despite being an accomplished OC, Norv Turner, who’s real first name is Norval (fun fact), has inherited a roster with low upside at the receiving position. He should open up the passing game a bit more in 2016.
QB: While many predicted in 2015 for him to take the next step in fantasy stardom, Teddy Bridgewater was a steady performer as a game manager. He did shine in Week 15 with 4 TDs . He still presents little upside based on low volume as the Vikings attempted only 447 passes averaging 201.94 yards per game, worst in the league. In fact, Bridgewater’s fantasy finishes are remarkably similar as he came in at QB22 in 2014 and QB23 in 2015. The only difference was the 3 TDs on the ground, the lone part of his game that could give Bridgewater some fantasy value moving forward if he improves. While Teddy B could certainly lead the Vikings back to the playoffs, he seems at best a low-end QB2 as long as the guy he hands off to is around in Minnesota. Backup Shaun Hill once started 10 games for the Lions and Jim Schwartz in 2010 and 8 for the Rams and Jeff Fisher in 2014. I’m not sure if that’s an accomplishment or a depressing career trajectory.
RB: Adrian Peterson still is the most physically imposing RB in the NFL even entering his 10th season in the league. In a season that was marred by injuries at the RB position, AP was a steady performer finishing with 1,485 yards, and 11 TDs as RB2 in both formats behind Devonta Freeman. He still has low upside in terms of catching passes out of the backfield as he only saw 36 targets on the season. He’s showing no signs of slowing down so don’t pay any attention to the “over-the-age-of-30” narrative given to most RBs… AP is a clear exception. He’s being valued as a mid-to-late 1st Rounder and should certainly return that value in standard leagues. Bump him down slightly in PPR leagues. Jerick McKinnon is a capable handcuff worth owning. Despite limited work, he averaged 5.2 yards per carry and totaled 3 TDs. He definitely has league-winning upside if something were to happen injury-wise to AP. McKinnon is being taken at the end of the 12th Round, a steal for owners. Matt Asiata had his moment in the sun two years ago when AP went down when he was a short-yardage TD machine but now has fallen backwards in the depth chart. He is currently going undrafted and only has appeal if there was an injury ahead of him.
WR: The Minnesota Vikings WR group was mostly a fantasy wasteland as they scored the least receiving TDs (6) in the league and averaged 15.2 standard fantasy points per game. To put that in perspective, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown averaged 15.4 by himself last year! The lone bright spot was rookie Stefon Diggs, who didn’t see playing time until Week 4 as put on a show (6 catches on 10 targets for 87 yards) against Denver’s vaunted secondary. He cooled down in the second half but seems to be sole known commodity in the passing game. Beyond deeper PPR leagues, Diggs will be hard pressed to show much fantasy upside. Rookie Laquon Treadwell was a celebrated college WR who underwhelmed for many scouts at the combine. He’s the type of big-bodied WR who could excel in this Norv Turner offense although there are still some lingering injury concerns. With an ADP of 10.08, he is definitely worth filling a roster spot as he’s eased into the offense. Expect a boom game or two in the second half of the season with more value in DFS than season-long formats. Jarius Wright’s numbers were as boring as they get with 34 catches for 422 yards and 0 TDs. Cordarrelle Patterson is a knucklehead who’s immense talent and rookie year campaign has messed with fantasy owners the last two years. He hardly saw the field last year with a barf-worthy final stat line of 2 catches on 2 targets for 14 yards. Woof.
TE: It is my honor to highlight the self-proclaimed “best TE in football”, Mr. Kyle Rudolph. Besides Week 11’s spot on top the TE pedestal, Rudolph should’ve been relegated to the waiver wire. He is a TD-dependent, low-target option in the worst passing offense in the league. That is a depressing combo and someone who is TE2 with little upside. Rhett Ellison is the only person named “Rhett” in the NFL. Oh yea and he has no fantasy implications. None.
Green Bay Packers
Coach/Staff: Behind Bill Belichick and Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy is the third longest tenured head coach in football as he’s been on the Packers’ sideline since 2006. He’s owned the NFC North going 32-11, a .744 winning percentage. Former Packers RB Edgar Bennett is the OC and 1-of only 5 African American assistant coaches in the league, although McCarthy retains the play-calling duties.
QB: Despite entering his age 32 season coming off a bit of down year in terms of fantasy production, Aaron Rodgers, is still the creme of the crop of fantasy QBs. He threw 3821 yards, 31 TDs and 8 INTs finishing as QB7, a fair drop from those who drafted him in the second round in 2015. Blame it on Jordy Nelson. Blame it on Eddie Lacy. Blame it on Davante Adams. Besides the lack of dynamic playmakers and downfield options in the passing game, Rodgers was constantly under pressure inside the pocket as the offensive line was average at best last season. No matter who you want the scapegoat of 2015 to be in Green Bay, you can benefit as Rodgers is being drafted currently in the late third round. In many mocks, I’ve seen him go as late as the end of the fourth. Remember, this is a guy who was a top-2 QB for every full 16-game season he’s played besides last year. He is a great candidate to return to that elite tier of fantasy QBs. If you like having confidence in your QB week-to-week and Rodgers continues to slide in draft position, he is your guy. Brett Hundley was a 5th Round selection a year ago with great college numbers and tons of raw ability. He’s young but if Mr. Discount Double-Check were to go down, he definitely has streamable value.
RB: With perhaps the most discussed belly flab of 2015, Eddie Lacy and his weight remain the topic of steaming conversation leading into 2016. After seeing 24 total TDs his first two seasons, Lacy was benched on several occasions and finished dastardly low (RB 24 in standard, RB32 in PPR) despite being selected 1st overall in many drafts. The scary part was his targets were almost cut in half (from 55-28) in the passing game. His current ADP of 3.01 in PPR leagues is more indicative of his value moving forward as he is a borderline RB1. For Lacy to return to his 2014 form, he needs to be involved in the screen game and given more goal line opportunities. Buyers beware as Lacy definitely still has some boom-or-bust weeks in his future. James Starks was a hot waiver pickup as Lacy sputtered and actually finished one spot (RB23) ahead of Lacy in standard leagues. He performed admirably as an all-around back rushing for 4.1 ypc, 43 catches, almost 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and 5 TDs. Starks still has some appeal for Lacy owners as a handcuff but we should expect some regression from last year’s numbers. John Crockett was an unheralded and surprising Thanksgiving Day lineup insert against the Lions ahead of Lacy. He is a name to watch if Lacy once again goes into a tailspin. John Kuhn is one of the rare fullbacks in the NFL who has a regular role in an offense. He holds more value to Packers fans as a fan favorite as his TD-vulturing ways are frustrating for Lacy owners.
WR: With the breaking of his ACL in preseason, Jordy Nelson and the owners who him drafted were sent into a spiral of doubt and depression for the 2015 season. Nelson seemed to be the “special sauce” missing from the Packers offense and his return is much celebrated. However, recently Nelson went missing from camp complaining about his non-ACL tear knee and was placed on the PUP list. Most reports claim he’ll be ready for Week 1, but this news isn’t positive for owners prospectively taking him as his current ADP of WR7 at the beginning of Round 2. If healthy, Nelson displays uncanny chemistry with Rodgers with top-5 WR upside and some monster games in store for fantasy owners. Randall Cobb was one of the most frustrating players in fantasy to own in 2015 as his opportunity to seize the role as the No. 1 option in the Packers passing game was bust-worthy. And yet despite the bad taste we all carry in our mouths from last year, Cobb set a career high with 129 targets. He caught 79 balls for 829 yards and six TDs, a far cry from 2014’s version in which he finished with 12 TDs as fantasy’s WR6 in standard and WR8 in PPR scoring. While he could most certainly lose targets, Cobb could turn into a value as his current ADP is now in the late 3rd Round. The battle for the third-option in this offense is a coveted one as there is some definite fantasy implications involved between Ty Montgomery, Davante Adams, and Jeff Janis. Every beat writer has their own special take on who will move ahead of the other in training camp. Montgomery is a do-it-all type in the mold of Cobb although he saw only 5 games of action after going down with an ankle injury. He’s still entering his second year in the league with lots of optimism that he could carve out a role. Adams might have been the worst draft pick in 2015 as his ADP rose all the way to early 4th Round status and he finished as WR83 in standard leagues, one spot behind a one-legged Roddy White. Yikes! Any reason for fantasy ascendance was stifled from last year’s stinker. Janis is the champion of fantasy pundits who always touted him as a 7th Rounder out of Saginaw Valley in 2014 and saw him ball out in the Packers divisional playoff game against the Cardinals with 2 TDs. He has the raw ability, size, and leaping ability much akin to Jordy Nelson. However, his poor route running skills and lack of understanding the playbook could cost him snaps on the field. Poor Jared Abbrederis. He’s buried behind these other WRs despite being the most productive WR in Wisconsin’s history. He could have value in leagues that rewards kick return yards if he wins the job.
TEs: Jared Cook is one of the most tantalizing physical specimens at the TE position able to run a 4.5 40-yard time at his 6’5-248 frame. And yet here we are, 7 years into his NFL playing career and he’s posted just one TE1 season in 2013. He is a vertical threat, something this passing game lacked in 2015 and should improve his efficiency with a new QB. Still, Cook is in a TE committee which limits his upside. What most fantasy owners will remember in an otherwise middling Packers’ fantasy season was the Richard Rodgers-to-Aaron Rodgers “Hail Mary” to beat the Lions, which in turn blew up the Twittersphere that night. Rodgers was in fact a solid fantasy TE for much of the year, although his final season totals were propped up by a couple huge games as he finished as TE9 in standard and TE11 in PPR formats. His final line was 58 catches on 85 targets with 510 yards and a solid eight TDs, the fifth highest mark for a TE in the league. It’s best to stay away from this situation as the week-to-week beneficiary could most certainly change back-and-forth. Third-stringer Justin Perillo looks like a rhinoceros loose on the field, lining up predominantly as a blocking TE. He did however post a top-6 performance in Week 10, something he can hopefully hang on the refrigerator at home.
Coach/Staff: Since stepping in as head coach in 2014, Jim Caldwell has been maligned as a head coach especially with the porous start the team had in 2015. The Lions showed they could be competitive in the second half although his expertise and tendencies lean towards a conservative approach. OC Jim Bob Cooter was praised in 2015 for turning around the offense and utilizing short passing routes and improve the Lions’ efficiency around the goal line. His name still seems like a bad joke every time I type it in.
QB: Last season was a tale of halves for Matthew Stafford. For the first eight games of the season, the Lions went 1-7 as their offensive line was being steamrolled, the running game was nonexistent, and Stafford had only two QB1 performances to show. After the change in offensive coordinators, Stafford went on a tear posting a 19:2 TD-to-INT ratio, completing 70% of his passes and finishing as QB4 over that span. With the loss of Calvin Johnson, “Pad Statford” will have to find another deep target to bail him out of tough scenarios. He’s available past the 10th Round for those who wait on QB, and has the upside to finish once again as a QB1. Backup Dan Orlovsky has been a backup QB in Detroit since 2005, a job only someone like Dan could enjoy for a decade. Cheers to 10 years Danny boy!
RB: The Lions are another crowded backfield in which roles are delineated despite the talent at the top. Ameer Abdullah was uber-hyped coming into last season as a breakout performer but for those who took him rounds 4 or 5, he greatly disappointed finishing as RB42 in standard and RB43 in PPR leagues. He simply could not get going behind an offensive line that was in shambles in the first half and failed to top 800 yards from scrimmage. Despite the Lions’ second-half success, Abdullah saw less than 50% of the RB workload in every game as he seemed be phased out of the offense and relegated to more of a gadgety-type player. If you believe in the talent, he could return major rewards this year as a sixth round RB. Theo Riddick emerged as a legitimate third down asset and a PPR godsend for owners that picked him up in the second half of the year. He caught 80 passes on 99 targets finishing as RB18 in PPR, slightly ahead of the more heralded LeSean McCoy. Riddick seems to have a safer floor than Abdullah and can be selected almost 5 rounds later. Stevan Ridley looked like a shell of his old self last year with the Jets but does present some interesting value if he were to win the early down work. Zach Zenner was a hot name last preseason as an undrafted free-agent out of South Dakota State who went down with a chest injury in Week 6 costing him the rest of the season. He is praised for his athleticism but could be the odd-man out in terms of seeing regular snaps.
WR: With the sudden retirement of Calvin Johnson, the franchise’s all-time leader in almost every single WR category, the Lions must turn a page to discover a new schemes in the passing offense. Golden Tate was a red zone monster in the second half but saw his overall yards per catch fall off a cliff to 9.0, almost 4 yards below his career average. He finished with 90 catches, a top ten total solely from the furious second-half pace. Cooter utilized Tate mostly in the screen game but we expect his route tree to expand as his role expands as top dog in the WR pecking order. His price has steadily creeped up into the 4th Round so be willing to pay the price. Marvin Jones was signed in the offseason to a x million deal to be the 1B to Tate’s 1A status. He was a solid secondary option in Cincinnati last year racking up a 65-816-4 line on 103 targets. Jones is a bit of a wildcard as this will be his first extensive look as a featured part of a passing game. We’ve just never seen him do this before and yet his current ADP of 8.08 suggests that he’s a steal. I’d say 1,000 yards and 7 TDs are not out of the question. Anquan Boldin was signed recently to bolster the receiving corps and provide some veteran presence. Despite entering into his age-35 season, he should carve out a role as a slot guy especially for an accomplished WR who has seen 100+ targets every year of his NFL career. He’s currently being drafted basically for free as WR66 and is the type of late flier who could return WR4 value especially in PPR leagues. Jeremy Kerley and T.J. Jones are battling it out for the fourth on the depth chart although both would make you seriously sad if you had to start them in any format.
TE: Eric Ebron is shockingly entering his 3rd year in the league as a 23-year-old with tons of upside. He has steadily improved each year catching 47 balls on 70 targets and 5-TDs in 2015. He does make his fair share of bone-headed mistakes. His ADP of 13.08 is perfect in terms of a low-risk, high reward late-round TE selection that could pay dividends. With Megatron out of the picture, Ebron could see more red zone targets and vault into the elite TE1 territory. Brandon Pettigrew, who once saw 100+ target season for three straight years in Stafford’s early days, is now further down the depth chart. He could steal some red zone looks in two-TE sets near the goal line, killing Ebron owners.
Coach/Staff: John Fox is as stubborn as they come in terms of the usage of his players. He’s notorious for being “hush hush” with media and maddeningly is a firm believer in the running back by committee (RBBC). Dowell Loggains, the quarterbacks coach in 2015, replaces the departed Adam Gase as offensive coordinator. By the way, Dowell Loggains sounds more like a country music star than an offensive mastermind.
QB: Jay Cutler has been a bit of an enigma as a starting quarterback in the NFL and yet he has presented some significant fantasy value as a streamer over the last couple of years. After getting injured in Week 2 and missing the most of Week 3, Cutler posted four top 12 performances and actually did not throw more than one INT in a game besides Week 17. He posted a career-high 92.3 passer rating along with a 64.4 completion percentage and 7.58 passing yards per attempt, both of which were the second-highest totals of his as he enters his 11th year in the NFL. His current ADP of QB25 suggests that he is being undervalued a bit as you could select him as a late round QB or a steady QB2 in two-QB leagues. If the running game sputters, Cutler could definitely post some monster games with the added caveat of some high-risk with turnovers. The current backup is Brian Hoyer. I think I might have wasted space typing those words.
RB: The Bears have parted ways with franchise back Matt Forte after 6 seasons being the most productive back in the NFL in terms of yards from scrimmage. He was a do-it-all and now Fox is implementing a RBBC system “led” by second-year back Jeremy Langford. While having some eye-popping stat lines from 2015, Langford still has gathered many detractors as his efficiency was downright dreadful averaging 3.6 yards per carry and catching barely 50% of his targets, an absurdly low number from a RB. His 1.13 yards after contact also ranked 46th out of 47 RBs. Beyond bludgeoning us with stat after stat pooping on Langford, we must recognize Fox trusted him to step in and see the majority of work in 2015 and still has RB2 value. Ka’Deem Carey seems to be a Fox favorite despite showcasing limited ability in two seasons removed from the University of Arizona. He doesn’t see much third-down work in the passing game to make him a viable fantasy option. In other words, Carey is only here to disappoint Langford owners and buddy up with John Fox. Jordan Howard was drafted in the 4th Round out of Indiana as downhill runner capable of taking over the backfield and converting short yardage plays. He is an interesting dynasty name to watch but still can’t be counted on for much production in this RBBC. Jacquizz Rodgers seems to be the forgotten man in this crowded crew as he was signed the previous offseason to provide consistent third-down work while also being an elite pass protector. He saw only five games and was placed on injured reserve with a broken arm. He is a longshot to hold any value and should remain undrafted.
WR: Alshon Jeffery has been the topic of much discussion this offseason as the Bears failed to negotiate a contract extension with their WR1 despite his production. He posted back-to-back top 10 PPR seasons before succumbing to injury in 2015. This is a guy who is heavily targeted by Jay Cutler while playing out a contract year. That seems like a recipe for success as a top-flight WR1. Kevin White, the 7th overall draft pick in 2015, missed the entire season and still is receiving treatment on his fractured left shin during this summer. His upside is immense as he could step into a role opposite Jeffrey as an imposing jump ball threat. His ADP suggests that owners are convinced he’ll be ready for the season as he’s being taken as WR38. Gone are the days in which Eddie Royal was a high volume slot receiver in Denver or a TD machine in San Diego. He played only 9 games with the Bears in 2015 with minimal fantasy impact despite early season hype. Marquess Wilson has shown flashes at times filling in for the injured Jeffrey last season while having a couple boom games. He’s best left as a DFS dart-throw.
TE: After Martellus Bennett went down in Week 11, Zach Miller took over as a legitimate option in the passing game. The former Jaguar was a beast from Week 10 on as he was TE5 in standard leagues during that span highlighted by a 5-catch, 107-yard, 2-TD performance against the Rams. He was targeted at least five times in every game during that span except Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers. He was consistently found as Cutler’s safety-net and should retain that role in 2016. Miller does carry an injury risk and yet is the type of late-round TE selection with the upside to finish as a top 10 guy in 2016. Rob Housler is the biggest tease. Despite the raw ability, he has been fantasy irrelevant bouncing from the Arizona Cardinals to the Cleveland Browns and now the Bears. If Miller were to go down, he is a name to remember or forget forever.