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.