Fantasy Notebook: NFC North Preview; Bears on the Rise; Pack Ready to Attack & More
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends (although there are sometimes brief breaks). So far this offseason I've previewed the NFC East, NFC West, NFC South, AFC East, AFC West and AFC South. Which leaves the Norths. We'll rectify the NFC half of that today (and the AFC half early next month).
We'll get the ball rolling in Chicago, where it didn't matter if Jay Cutler or Josh McCown was slinging the ball last season, the Bears put up points. They had an improved offensive line, a versatile running back in Matt Forte and the super-sized trio of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett.
So while it was no surprise that defense was the main focus entering free agency and the draft, it's still the offense that's generating buzz among fantasy football owners as training camp draws near.
Any questions about Cutler's future with the Bears were resolved in January when general manager Phil Emery announced the team had signed the QB to a seven-year deal that will keep him in Chicago through 2020. In announcing the new contract, Emery called Cutler "a demonstrated winner" and said 2013 was his best season because of his "leadership, his improvement, his display of toughness."
Despite missing five games in his first season under head coach/quarterback guru Marc Trestman, Cutler finished the year with his best passer rating (89.2), completion percentage (63.1) and yards per game (238.3) since his arrival in Chicago in 2009.
Given all that -- and the presence of Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett and Forte, Cutler believes he's in the best position he's been since coming to Chicago in 2009. "Talent-wise and being in the system two years and the way the guys work, all that adds up," he said. "Hopefully we can stay healthy and see where this thing goes."
There's the issue, right? Because by "hopefully we can stay healthy," Cutler almost certainly means "hopefully he can stay healthy."
But he's optimistic on that front. "I think with the offensive line we've got here, the guys are doing everything possible," he said. "Last year was last year. Kind of two freak injuries. I don't really foresee that happening again."
It's safe to assume Cutler will be working behind the best offensive line he's had in Chicago. But that's not saying much given their poor play prior to 2013. Cutler was sacked 19 times last year after being sacked an average of 37 times in his previous four years.
Cutler also began his strength and conditioning program earlier this year so he could, "get my whole left side back to even with my right side," and feels he has. Trestman agrees. "Jay has really worked hard in the offseason, and he has always been a hard worker in his conditioning and his training, but he has really amped it up," the coach said during a recent appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "He's bigger, he's stronger than a year ago, and he has really focused on staying physically well for the entire season."
That would be a change of pace. Cutler hasn't played a full 16-game schedule since 2009, and it is fair to question his durability.
But if Cutler can change that this season, he's going to be an excellent value play.
Very productive players -- but less fantasy value given their high price tags -- will be found in Jeffery and Marshall, who racked up 1,421 and 1,295 yards, respectively, to finish sixth and 11th in the NFL in receiving yardage last season -- which will lead to questions this summer as to which one is actually the No. 1.
From an NFL perspective, I'm not sure it matters.
Their combined 2,716 yards ranked as the second most of any receiver duo in the NFL, behind only Denver's Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (2,718). Marshall and Jeffery's combined yardage total represents the most by a duo in Bears franchise history. When teams focused on Marshall, Jeffery often took advantage of single coverage, which helped him to become the only receiver in Bears history to produce two 200-yard receiving games in a season.
That production moving forward will likely change the way teams defend the two. Either way, it's going to be very difficult to argue with forward-thinking owners who might prefer Jeffery over Marshall. While I try to be a forward thinker, I'm not ready to go that far. Neither is my man Denny Carter, who took a much more in-depth look at Marshall and Jeffery earlier this offseason. You might want to check it out.
Meanwhile, Trestman said the Bears are not "anointing" Marquess Wilson as the No. 3 receiver in the offense, but the release of Earl Bennett cleared a path for the second-year man. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, coaches believe Wilson can develop like Jeffery did a year ago. The youngster has bulked up from the 184 pounds he was listed at last year to 207 this year. Learning from Marshall and Jeffery has apparently helped Wilson, too. He was widely reported to be one of the stars of the team's off-season workouts.
According to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright, Wilson possesses the ability to threaten the seam up the middle -- much like a tight end -- opening up options for outside receivers. That alone is good news for fantasy owners. But Jeffery recently told the Tribune that the "sky's the limit" for Wilson, prompting NFL.com to opine: "If the second-year receiver is able to become even a good third wheel, the Bears will sport the longest, most athletic corps outside a basketball court."
Also worth noting, Martellus Bennett quietly posted career numbers in his first year as a Bear. And there's reason to believe a full season with Cutler will mean even bigger things for Bennett in 2014.
"Bennett did most of his damage with Cutler under center, as Josh McCown looked for Jeffery and Marshall on a high majority of his throws," SB Nation recently pointed out. "Extrapolating the stats that Bennett had with Cutler in the ten games where Cutler played a majority of the game over a 16 game season, his stats look like this: 75 receptions, 878 yards, and five TDs, which would have been over 100 extra yards over his total last season. Those stats would have been good enough to be the No. 7 TE last season."
It's a factoid that's worth keeping in mind, especially for fantasy owners who get caught on the outside looking in during a run on tight ends in their drafts.
Forte, of course, has to be considered among this year's top fantasy running backs. This after finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the NFL with 1,339 rushing yards, third in yards from scrimmage (1,933), third in first downs (97), fourth in receiving yardage by running backs (594) and tied for No. 6 in rushing touchdowns (nine). The rushing yardage and yards from scrimmage were career bests for Forte.
In all, Forte ranked in the top 10 in eight statistical categories, while also serving as a crucial component of the protection schemes.
Running backs have traditionally fared quite well in Trestman offenses, particularly as receivers, which gets them away from the mauling they take on interior runs. In 10 NFL seasons with Trestman in coordinator and/or quarterback-coach positions, his lead running backs averaged 65.4 receptions per year, from a low of 48 for Charlie Garner with the Oakland Raiders to a high of 91 for Garner one year earlier.
Look for more of that approach as the Bears move into Year 2 under Trestman -- which means look for more of and from Forte.
Just ask him.
"If we keep working hard we're going to take this offense, hopefully, to the top of the league," Forte told the Chicago Tribune. "There's no ceiling. There's no limit that you can put on it."
You'll have to draft Forte accordingly, of course. The good news? Rookie Ka'Deem Carry is a reasonably-priced handcuff.
In Detroit... after the major shakeup of firing head coach Jim Schwartz and replacing him with Jim Caldwell, the Lions didn't make a slew of headlines over the offseason.
Wide receiver Golden Tate was the clear prize of their free agent haul, accepting a five-year, $31.25 million deal to leave the reigning Super Bowl champions for an opportunity to star opposite Calvin Johnson. The Lions were desperate for a threat opposite Johnson with Nate Burleson released, Ryan Broyles coming off yet another surgery and a group of possession receivers loading up the depth chart.
Detroit then added Eric Ebron in the first round of May's draft, securing a highly-athletic receiving tight end who the team also envisions splitting out wide more than occasionally.
But as NFL.com suggested earlier this year, the Lions' unofficial off-season slogan has been "Fix Matthew Stafford" -- which might not be that big of a job.
For new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, an analysis of Stafford's 19 interceptions in 2013 was revealing. "I was a little encouraged after watching that this was not an interception machine," Lombardi said upon arrival in Detroit.
Nonetheless, Stafford has become known as a gunslinger with lazy footwork who relies on his arm strength to make plays and Lombardi concedes there is room for growth. But as noted above, the Lions have made a number of moves to help the QB do just that. Remember, Caldwell was Peyton Manning's QB coach in Indy and Lombardi served in that same capacity for Drew Brees in New Orleans the last five years.
During Lombardi's time with the Saints -- whose offense he plans to emulate -- Brees threw fewer than 600 passes in a season just once.
Nobody should compare Stafford to either Manning or Brees -- Stafford has yet to display their cerebral approach to the game; but better coaching, an upgraded receiving corps and lots of attempts will continue to yield high-end fantasy points.
Calvin Johnson has been gradually working his way back from surgery on his right knee and a finger on his left hand during recent OTA and mini-camp sessions. But he appeared to be moving without difficulty and made an excellent point when he told reporters, "We've got all this time right now to get it strong, take our time. There's no need to rush back."
The surgery was performed the first week of January. The knee injury sidelined Megatron for two games in 2013; the finger had been an issue the last two seasons. Even with the Lions running a new offense, it's safe to assume the super-star wideout will remain front and center in the game plan. Better health and a more aggressive offense are just two positives here. In Tate, Johnson will have a game-breaking sidekick working opposite him for the first time in his seven-year career.
Tate has hauled in 144 of 149 catchable passes since 2011, leaving him with the best drop rate in the NFL over that span. Tate also led all NFL receivers in forced missed tackles and yards after catch per reception in 2013 (per PFF). Tate believes swapping the Seahawks' offense for the Lions' new plan will fit his skill set and allows him to develop as a receiver. Tate envisions himself being a Lance Moore type of player, but more explosive and able to do a few more things.
Now, Lombardi must transform his only big offseason upgrade into a souped-up version of Moore.
Ebron, the first tight end selected in the 2014 NFL draft, evoked a comparison to Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers from Dane Brugler of CBS Sports. "Freaky athletic specimens," Brugler said, "both Ebron and Davis move like wide receivers, but have the size and length of tight ends to create mismatches in coverage." Mike Mayock of NFL Network agreed, sort of. "People ask me to compare him to Vernon Davis," Mayock said. "He's not as quick or as twitchy as Davis, but he's a better athlete with better hands. Everything this kid does is easy. He is one of best athletes I've seen at that size. When you combine him with (tight ends) Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew, all of a sudden Stafford has a lot of weapons on that offense."
Adding to the intrigue is talk of a role similar to another tight end fantasy owners love.
"He's a very special offensive weapon," general manager Martin Mayhew said of Ebron. "He fits us because he can do some of the things [Lombardi] did with Jimmy Graham in New Orleans."
Lombardi is quick to point out the differences between the two, however. "(Ebron and Graham) are not exactly the same but they are both athletic guys," he said. "Jimmy's got more length and Eric maybe has more quickness. Some things we did with Jimmy in New Orleans, we will do with Eric and there may be some things we do with Eric that we didn't do with Jimmy."
Those comparisons to Davis and the talk of a Graham-like role may have fantasy owners salivating -- and Ebron's value is understandably high in dynasty formats. But the simple fact is rookie tight ends very rarely make a dent in fantasy football.
Meanwhile, I find myself a bit torn about the team's running backs.
"I see these guys kind of having a split role and both being very productive," Lombardi said.
"These guys" would be Bush and Joique Bell, who had 57 fewer carries than Bush despite playing two more games. Lombardi's comments echoed Bush's own remarks. Bush seems to know that his carries per game could decrease toward the levels he had in New Orleans, where Lombardi used to coach. Money talks even louder than Lombardi's comments. The Lions re-signed Bell to a three-year, $9.3 million deal in March.
This new Detroit regime knows that asking Bush to carry the ball over 200 times is asking for trouble in December -- even if that's not what fantasy football owners who have the speedy back on their rosters will want to hear. He'll still be a dangerous threat -- especially in PPR formats -- but expecting top-10 production is a reach.
That same could be said of Bell, although he's been more versatile than most of us expected. He rushed for 650 yards and eight TDs on 166 carries but added 53 receptions for 547 yards in 2013. Even with Mikel Leshoure and Theo Riddick on board, Bell's role will remain unchanged -- assuming the nagging knee issue that's slowed him a bit this offseason isn't ongoing.
Green Bay Packers
In Green Bay... the Packers weren't the only ones who felt the pinch when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on his left (non-throwing) side in the opening series of a Nov. 4 loss to Chicago. Fantasy owners with Rodgers on their rosters obviously felt it, too.
Counting that night, Green Bay went winless in five straight games, and the Packers were on the verge of not returning to the playoffs.
Yet, after missing essentially eight games because of the injury, Rodgers demonstrated his worth by returning for the regular-season finale and throwing a clutch fourth-and-long deep ball to Randall Cobb for a game- and NFC North-clinching touchdown in the last minute. It's exactly the kind of play he makes on a routine basis. It's also what makes him so appealing to fantasy owners.
This year, Rodgers will be working with a new QB coach in Alex Van Pelt, who admits it will be challenging to coach Rodgers because there aren't a lot of things he doesn't know about running head coach Mike McCarthy's offense. The loss of James Jones, who signed with the Raiders, should be counteracted by the emergence of Eddie Lacy, who provides the kind of powerful rushing threat that's been lacking in past seasons.
That's interesting when you realize McCarthy has produced a top-10 offense in seven of his eight seasons in Green Bay. It's even more interested to see the coach get fired up talking about the potential for his offense in 2014.
Despite Rodgers' extended absence last season, the Packers ranked No. 3 in the NFL in yards per game (400.2) and No. 8 in points (26.1), so McCarthy's enthusiasm should be shared by fantasy owners. As the Green Bay Press-Gazette noted, for the first time since 2009, Rodgers will have a bona fide 1,000-yard rusher for a full season to help take some pressure off the passing game. Opponents no longer will be able to let their safeties sit back in coverage and show little or no regard for the Packers' run game. Green Bay will be a pass-first team as long as McCarthy and Rodgers are around.
But Lacy, who was named 2013 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, heads into 2014 positioned for another big year -- even if coaches follow through with recent chatter about lightening the second-year man's workload. With Johnathan Franklin forced into retirement by a neck injury, James Starks and DuJuan Harris will pick up any slack.
If there is any.
"We haven't sat down and figured out an 'X' number of carries for Eddie," offensive coordinator Tom Clements told the Press Gazette. "Eddie was a workhorse for us last year, and then when James got in there last year, he ran very hard. That was a great one-two punch. Now you factor in DuJuan and the other guys, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out."
Remember: Starks and Harris have injury concerns of their own after missing time in 2013: Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in August and Starks missed three games with a partially torn MCL. In the end, even if Lacy doesn't get the 284 carries he finished with last season, I'm still viewing him as top-5 fantasy back.
Jordy Nelson is coming off one of the two best seasons of his six-year career. He marked career highs in receptions (85), targets (126), yards (1,314), in addition to scoring eight touchdowns. Only in the 2011 season did he have comparable yards (1,263) and more touchdowns (15). This even after Greg Jennings bolted for rival Minnesota in free agency and Donald Driver retired last offseason.
But the numbers weren't as tremendous as they could have been last season, however, because of not only having Rodgers sidelined but also losing Cobb for 10 games with a broken leg and Jones for two games with a knee injury. With Jones now gone, Cobb and Jarrett Boykin will make fine complimentary receivers.
In other words, as long as Rodgers and Nelson both remain in the locked and upright position, there's no reason to believe big fantasy production isn't in Nelson's immediate future.
The same is true of Cobb, whom the Packers would like to develop as an outside receiver. To date, he has played inside.
"I think he can go outside," WRs coach Edgar Bennett said. "That's something that we certainly talked about and worked on some during training camp. But obviously, he's a difference-maker in slot. Wherever you put him, he can be a difference. He can continue to be an impact player."
Cobb talked about this heading into training camp last year. He wanted to be more than a slot receiver, even if that's where he excels most. But much like Jennings developing as an overall weapon -- inside, outside, on the move -- the Packers may be looking to do the same with Cobb, a player they view as a legitimate 100-catch receiver.
From a fantasy perspective, I'm on board with anything that makes the Packers offense (and any or all its components) more dangerous. Maximizing Cobb's contribution would certainly fall into that category. Others can help as well.
Boykin's emergence last season led McCarthy to characterize the youngster as one of the club's top three receivers and praise his development. This year, Boykin, a third-year pro, will again get plenty of reps. That's especially true with ongoing questions at tight end.
Jermichael Finley's NFL career is currently on hold because of his neck injury. If he gets cleared to play football again, a return to Green Bay remains on the table. "In my mind, he's a Green Bay Packer, hopefully," McCarthy said in May. "He's going through a tough medical situation that we all recognize is a serious injury. My understanding is he's doing everything and beyond to get himself ready and we'll continue to watch that."
That said, Finley still hasn't been medically cleared and the previous conventional wisdom surrounding he said that a return to Green Bay was unlikely.
That leaves Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor, third-round pick Richard Rodgers and undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla at the position. According to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, Quarless did not practice at all this offseason, but Rodgers took advantage. He will have to show that he can be an effective blocker once the pads come on in training camp, but at this point Rodgers might be in the lead.
Demovsky added that Rodgers' size (6-4, 257 pounds) and athleticism stood out during the offseason practices.
Lyerla, who was considered a first-round talent by some evaluators, starred in a variety of roles for Oregon from 2011-12 under then-head coach Chip Kelly, who left to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles after the 2012 season. Lyerla was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules last year, though, and weeks later was charged with cocaine possession. He pled guilty to the charge, and went through a barrage of questions about his background at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
"(Lyerla has) done things in his college career, and we're fully aware of everything that every prospect has done on and off the field," McCarthy said.
The 6-4, 242-pound Lyerla would give McCarthy an athletic weapon who can line up all over the field. He was one of the top performers among tight ends at the combine in the 40-yard dash (4.61 seconds), vertical jump (39 inches) and broad jump (10-8). But he'll need to demonstrate an ability to keep his nose clean before fantasy owners get too excited.
In Minnesota... while the Vikings were widely applauded for their NFL Draft haul, general manager Rick Spielman made several gambles since the end of last season that will either pay off with Minnesota returning to playoff contention or flame out and likely land him in the unemployment line. Much will depend on new head coach Mike Zimmer (who replaces Leslie Frazier) and the arrival of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
The offense was solidified with the re-signing of quarterback Matt Cassel, who should fend off Teddy Bridgewater for as long as the Vikings are sniffing the playoff race. But Spielman left the Vikings seriously exposed if running back Adrian Peterson batters his way into more injury problems.
Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, the second most in NFL history. However, last year he fell off to 1,266 yards and missed two games in December due to injury. Peterson underwent surgery on his groin in January, but he's been able to take part in OTAs and mini-camp work.
Peterson turns 30 next March, but he isn't worried about slowing down in the foreseeable future. In fact, he scoffed earlier this month when a reporter asked him if he's entering the twilight. "They said 'Oh, ACL, you'll never come back from it,'" Peterson said. "So, it is what it is. It doesn't apply to me. I have a totally different mindset, mind frame."
Still, the new staff has plans to help Peterson avoid the kind of pounding he's take in recent year. Although the superstar tailback has never caught more than 43 passes in a season, Turner wants to get Peterson in open space against an opponent's secondary.
"A big part of that is finding ways for Adrian to not have to run in such crowded areas all the time," Turner said. "He's going to have to do that, that's part of his job, he's the best in the league at it. But if we can get him more space we can take advantage of his great abilities."
This, of course, isn't anything we haven't heard repeatedly in recent months. Turner, Zimmer and Peterson himself have gone on the record regarding the running back's hoped-for receiving role since the new staff took over. Peterson has 206 receptions for 1,697 yards in seven seasons. He's averaged a middling 5.4 and 5.9 yards per reception the last two years. Still, Turner dismissed the perception that Peterson can't catch or be a viable option out of the backfield.
"He's got good hands, I think he's comfortable with the routes that we would ask him to run," Turner said. "It's certainly not the lead part of what we're doing. We threw a screen to him yesterday that was as nicely set up as you could ask for and the linemen got out in front. If we can get him in space like that throughout a game, throughout the season it will help all of us."
As NFL.com suggests, if Turner is able to get Peterson to the second level more easily through the passing game, the NFL's most dominant runner will be even more difficult for defenses to manage in 2014 -- and fantasy football owners will get even greater value. And there are other weapons who might take some pressure off Peterson.
The Vikings took their time incorporating Cordarrelle Patterson into the offense last season. That's going to change this year as Turner hasn't been shy with the second-year pass-catcher, using Patterson all over the field during recent mini-camp sessions.
That makes sense after Spielman told reporters at February's scouting combine that Turner, upon his hire, immediately cooked up 10 new plays designed to maximize the 6-2, 220-pound athletic freak's unique abilities. We saw Patterson used in different ways as a rookie, but Turner plans to unleash him. As NFL.com's Marc Sessler pointed out, Turner has a reputation of doing just that young wideouts. He used Josh Gordon in Cleveland last season as an "X" receiver with the ability to kill teams deep.
Sessler added, however, that Patterson figures more as a "Z" type in Minnesota's attack -- something closer to a monster-sized Percy Harvin. That alone should keep NFC North opponents up at night -- and keep Patterson high on the fantasy football radar.
Don't overlook tight end Kyle Rudolph either, who was asked in April to name the NFL's best tight end. He didn't hesitate with his response.
"Me," he said.
"There's a ton of talented tight ends in our game," Rudolph told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "You have guys that play at a high level, like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. But I would put myself up there with them. I feel as a tight end, it's extremely important to be a guy that can contribute in the running game and also in the passing game."
With Peterson in the backfield, Rudolph has done plenty of blocking in his first three seasons. But fantasy football owners can expect his receiving numbers to improve under Turner, who is known for using the tight end as a target. Cleveland's Jordan Cameron caught 80 passes and made the Pro Bowl in 2013 with Turner as coordinator. Before that, Turner was coach in San Diego, where Antonio Gates was a perennial Pro Bowl selection.
Rudolph hasn't had the gaudy receiving numbers of some other tight ends; his best year was 2012, when he caught 53 balls for 493 yards on the way to the Pro Bowl. His three-year career totals in Minnesota are 109 catches for 1,055 yards and 15 touchdowns. A fractured left foot ended his 2013 season after 30 catches for 313 yards. But Rudolph said he's fully healthy and he's worked without restriction in OTAs.
The biggest question for the Vikings is whether they roll with a veteran or rookie at quarterback Week 1.
While other teams might not rush their rookie QBs into starting roles this season, the Vikings have placed no limitations on Bridgewater.
"Teddy will play when we feel like he's ready, if he's the best guy, which we hope that he will be," Zimmer recently said. "We always want to have competition."
I'll remind you that approach worked out pretty well for Seattle and Russell Wilson two years ago.
The Vikings re-signed Cassel to function as a "bridge" quarterback, but if Bridgewater is what the Vikings hope he is, the bridge might not be necessary. As NFL.com suggests, it's realistic to believe Bridgewater will enter Week 1 as the starter. He was the most advanced of this year's quarterback prospects in terms of reading defenses, beating blitzes and keeping his poise in the pocket. Since Cassel is also learning Turner's offense, he won't have a significant head start on Bridgewater.
Fantasy owners shouldn't rush on Bridgewater, who doesn't have much experience playing in the cold (and the Vikings will play outdoors the next two seasons). But he is worth watching based on coaching and supporting cast alone.
And if Cassel is the starter?
Jennings probably won't complain. Neither will fantasy owners who draft Jennings late.
For those who weren't paying attention, Jennings had an 11-catch, 163-yard, one-touchdown outing with Cassel under center in Week 15 last season. In fact, in the six games Cassel started last season, Jennings pulled in exactly half (34) of his 68 catches, racked up 413 of his 804 yards and scored three of his four touchdowns.