Over the next few weeks I’ll give an overview of the fantasy-relevant quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends in each division. In the interest of keeping these columns under 10,000 words, rather than going into substantial detail on each player (there are plenty of sources for that), I tried to give you about a briefer Cliff Notes version of my opinion. I will update these entries as more news develops and once pre-season starts.
NFC North – The Meat & Potatoes. Much like the Midwestern cities represented, the NFC North teams really offer the meat-and-potatoes kind of fantasy players. If your fantasy team doesn’t have at least one or two of these guys on the roster, you may be in trouble.
Chicago Bears: Though potentially the third place team in this division, the Bears replaced offensive coordinator Mike Martz with former Vikings head coach Mike Tice in an effort to step up their offensive production. If Jay Cutler is the talent many people believe him to be, they could surprise people this season.
Jay Cutler has two things going for him this year: a new, more protective offensive scheme and a reunion with wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Many gurus think with the physical style of Marshall and rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery, Cutler could end the season as a top-5 QB. I’m skeptical. He might be worthy as a high upside QB2, but start him at your own risk.
Matt Forte gave Bears fans and fantasy owners a huge sigh of relief by agreeing to a 4-year, $32 million contract last week. A hold out would have been disastrous for both the team and his fantasy prospects. Now Forte can get into shape and up to speed on a new offense with plenty of time to hit the ground running. At best, he could be a top-5 back, at worst he’s still a solid RB2.
Michael Bush had a productive season in Oakland last year after Darren McFadden injured his foot. A capable starter, it’s highly believed the Bears brought him in as hold-out insurance for Forte. With Forte’s contract signed, however, Bush should really end up just supplying change-of-pace support and the occasional short-yardage touchdown. Don’t expect too much.
Similarly, Kahlil Bell‘s name was being thrown around a lot more when Forte’s status was uncertain. As of now, he’s likely not worth a draft pick.
Brandon Marshall was Cutler’s favorite target in Denver, where he had his first 100-reception season. If I believe in the upside of this reunion, I’d rather take the Marshall half than the Cutler, but right now he’s being drafted ahead of Julio Jones, which I think is a mistake.
Rookie Alshon Jeffery is a physical receiver who, if used in the slot with Brandon Marshall stretching the field, could see a lot of attention. I really like him as a high upside flex that can be drafted in the 10th-12th round. Watch out for him to start going earlier as preseason brings him more attention.
Detroit Lions: The Lions are one of the best case studies of rebuilding years patience. They went from the laughing stock of the NFL not so long ago to one of the best offenses in the league. Now, if only their defense can get some of the off-the-field issues in check, then we could see a productive postseason out of them….
Matthew Stafford was significantly undervalued in last year’s draft, thanks to injury uncertainty. Don’t expect to get him at a deal this year, as he’ll typically be drafted as 4th or 5th QB, where he belongs. Assuming he can stay healthy, he is a reliable, productive QB1, with a great deal of upside thanks to the talented Megatron.
I’ve seen some buzz around Brandon Pettigrew this year, but I’m not sure I’ve signed on to it. He’s a good playmaker in a talented offense, but the competition for targets may be too good to make him a consistent option. He should be the 9th or 10th TE, but if he’s picked before round 9 that might be too pricey for him.
Jahvid Best is your typical paper tiger. When healthy, he’s extremely dangerous and exciting to watch, but with multiple concussions in his history, along with other injuries, there’s no certainty how long his season will last. To mitigate that risk, the Lions will split carries with Kevin Smith and Mikel Leshoure. Best might be worth the risk somewhere in the late 5th or 6th round.
Kevin Smith was the comeback kid last year, performing well after signing with the Lions midway through the season. If he stays healthy, Smith could become a decent flex option, particularly if either Best or Leshoure are out.
Mikel Leshoure, despite being a sturdy power back, tore his Achilles tendon in training camp last year and missed his rookie season. He’s also slated for a 2-game suspension at the start of this season thanks to a couple marijuana arrests. If injury and off-the-field distractions are behind him, he could be a solid flex option even sharing carries with Best and Smith. If either of the other two get injured, Leshoure has great upside.
The only thing negative you could say about Calvin Johnson is that he may fall prey to the Madden Curse. Other than that, he’s clearly the most talented receiver in the league, with a strong-armed QB who will help him make big plays. You could arguably take hum 4th overall, certainly within the top 10.
Titus Young was involved in some nasty locker-room brawls earlier this year, in addition to other character issues, which negatively impact his value. If he can get beyond that, between his talent and the defense Megatron draws, Young has the opportunity to be a major impact receiver.
Last year Nate Burleson proclaimed himself “the Black Wes Welker.” While you have to applaud his moxy, he fell way short of that. Burleson’s targets are too inconsistent to start him with any reliability, and your late round picks are better spent on receivers with more upside, like Alshon Jeffery or Reuben Randle.
Green Bay Packers: The Packers are the Patriots of the NFC (only more likeable, I think.) Offensive weapons abound, and they reliably put points on the board, which is great for fantasy owners.
Aaron Rodgers is easily the #1 quarterback and, arguably, the best fantasy starter in the game. He is smart, strong and reliable, with talented receivers. Though he’ll likely be drafted after the big 3 RBs (Foster, Rice, McCoy), if you get him anywhere after the 4th pick it’s a steal.
Jermichael Finley was talking a big game going into last season. He was largely drafted in the top 5 for his position, but disappointed owners with inconsistent performance. This year, he’s being drafted around TE7, which is about right, but late 4th round overall is early. He’s a worthy fantasy starter, but beware of drafting to early.
James Starks may be the starting back in Green Bay, but that’s not saying much. The Packers are a heavily pass-oriented offense, and last year Aaron Rodgers was their leading rusher. Starks may be worth an RB2 or flex role, but just barely.
Alex Green is unlikely to earn much of a role in the Packers backfield less than a year off an ACL tear. He’s a promising powerful back, though, and may be worth keeping your eye on for 2013.
Greg Jennings and Aaron Rodgers make beautiful music together. He is both a deep threat and a sturdy underneath receiver, and Rodgers likes to rely on him. Jordy Nelson’s breakout year should also ease the coverage on Jennings some. He is easily a top 8 receiver and will be gone by the late 3nd or early 3rd round in most drafts.
Jordy Nelson hit everyone’s radar during a solid 2010 postseason, and followed it up by being the #2 fantasy receiver in 2011. Despite that, it seems most people don’t expect that performance to be repeated, as he is currently being drafted outside the top 10 receivers. There’s enough offense to go around in Green Bay, so, despite being #2 to Jennings, draft Nelson as a solid WR1 starter.
Randall Cobb is an exciting return specialist with upside to become the 3rd receiver for the Packers. Donald Driver is in the twilight of his career (as evidenced by his performance on Dancing with the Stars), and there are rumors James Jones might be out to make some salary cap room, leaving Cobb with a lot of opportunity in 2012. I like him a lot around the 12th round.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have had a tough go over the last few years and, as a result, are firmly planted in the basement of the NFC North. However, there are some glimmers of hope on the team from a fantasy perspective.
Kyle Rudolph is a huge 2nd year tight end with a lot of potential. The problem is, he’s been working in two-TE sets that haven’t allowed him to shine. He’s a potential sleeper, though, and a good option to keep in mind if you get stuck on the wrong end of a run on TEs. Wait a couple more rounds, and he’s certainly worth taking a shot on if your other options are in the Greg Olsen, Dustin Keller, Kellen Winslow, Dallas Clark range.
Sadly, the era of Adrian Peterson is likely over. That said, Purple Jesus is still one of the most ulcer-inducing players going into this year’s draft. Despite tearing three ligaments in his knee late last season, he is determined to come back full force, and, being Adrian Peterson, many people believe he can. There’s no question he should be drafted–the question is where. The Vikings will likely start off slow with him, so don’t expect much in September. Take a chance if your RB1 is dominant and reliable.
Toby Gerhart is AP’s “handcuff” (a strategy I don’t subscribe to, but more on that in a later column….) His upside is that he’s sure to get some early season starts and has the size and receiving skills to be a handy fantasy starter. His downside is that his season may be stifled as soon as AP fully returns. Still, to pick up a starting RB as late in the draft as Gerhart is available seems like a good deal, particularly since you could replace him with the one or two other fantasy starters that always emerge on the waivers into the season.
Percy Harvin‘s use in the rushing game sets him apart from all other WR1’s. He’s currently being drafted in early WR2 territory, but with an offense less reliant on AP, he has WR1 upside, particularly if your league also rewards return yardage. He has a history of migraines, which result make for unpredictable inactive weeks, but he seems to have gotten that under more control.
Jerome Simpson is a talented receiver acquired from Cincinnati to help stretch the field and draw coverage from Percy Harvin. That is, after he serves a 3 game marijuana-related suspension. If Christian Ponder continues to improve at QB, we could be seeing Simpson’s name more. Keep your eye on him as a very late round pick or an early-season waiver add.