Fantasy Football: NFC North team breakdowns

With the fantasy football draft season right around the corner, I’ve decided to do a breakdown on the fantasy-relevant players on every team, division by division. You can check out the previous columns here:

NFC East                          AFC East

NFC South                      AFC South

This column will cover the teams from the NFC North. The NFC North has some of the best skill position players in football, making it a crazy important division for fantasy football. All comments are with respect to a 10-team league with standard scoring.

Minnesota Vikings

Vikings’ Depth Chart

QB: In all likelihood, it appears that the Vikings will go into the season with Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback. This is good news for fans of the Vikings, and good news for fantasy owners.

Cassel was serviceable last year and this year he’ll play in the Norv Turner offense. Remember that this is the same offense that made fantasy owners consider starting Brian Hoyer. He’s not worth drafting in standard leagues, but he could be a sneaky pickup in 2QB leagues.

If Teddy Bridgewater takes over the Vikings’ starting quarterback job, it’ll be because he outperforms Matt Cassel for the job, in which case he’d be even more valuable. I’m a big fan of Bridgewater in dynasty leagues as well. It would be hard not to succeed in the Turner offense with the pieces he has around him.

RB: Adrian Peterson is easily my top choice for the top running back in fantasy football, as well as for the first pick overall in drafts.

He was the seventh best running back last year despite missing two full games along with parts of a few others. He should be even better this year as he runs in a new, explosive offense that guarantees to have them in the red zone much more often than last year. Norv Turner offenses often involve running backs who can contribute in the passing game as well, and the Vikings have already spoken about how the expect Peterson to catch more passes this year.

Don’t over think this one, Peterson’s number one. It’s hard to know who the handcuff is for Adrian Peterson, so if you have one of the top picks in your draft you should be sure to pay attention to Vikings’ news as the preseason unfolds.

WR: I love Cordarrelle Patterson this year. He was a top five wide receiver over the second half of last season, which coincides nicely with Christian Ponder’s removal from the starting lineup. He is a physical specimen with all the potential in the world to become a true number one wide receiver.

The addition of Norv Turner doesn’t hurt either, as Patterson could easily become Turner’s new Josh Gordon/Vincent Jackson. He will likely be a little bit streaky as he continues to learn how to play in the NFL, but he’s a solid WR2 this year or a fantastic flex.

The new #84 is poised for a big year.

The new #84 is poised for a big year.

I think that Greg Jennings is being severely under drafted as well. He was the 39th ranked wide receiver last year, but his stats were much better under Cassel as well. I think he’ll finish the year ranked somewhere in the late 20s at his position, which makes him a good WR3. He’s no longer a  superstar, but he should be valuable in standard leagues as a backup and a bye-week fill-in.

TE: Kyle Rudolph is easily the best tight end in the division, and he’s a trendy sleeper to be this year’s version of Jordan Cameron. Per Matthew Berry, the lead tight end in a Norv Turner offense has always scored at least seven touchdowns, and Rudolph is a young, talented player. He’s not a superstar and he will likely be a bit inconsistent, but I’d be shocked if he wasn’t a top six player at TE this year.

D/ST: The Vikings defense was horrid last year. There are some reasons for optimism with the addition of Anthony Barr and the continued development of Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, but they’re still a year or two away from being useful in fantasy.

Chicago Bears

Bears’ Depth Chart

QB: I’ve never been a big fan of Jay Cutler.It seemed like he was a big name with a big arm who produced very little.

However, everything changed when Marc Trestman became the head coach of the Bears. He installed an offense that fit the Bears personnel to a tee, and as a result, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey all had breakout seasons.

Cutler was having a pretty solid season himself, and he was just about to feast on a sequence of terrible defenses before his ankle injury robbed him of a few games. If he can stay healthy, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that he could be a top 12 quarterback. In fact, if you add his fantasy points to those of his backup Josh McCown, you’d have the third best fantasy quarterback last year. Even if you don’t like Cutler, you have to admit he’s probably at least as good as career journeyman McCown.

If I can’t get one of the top five quarterbacks this year and I can’t get RGIII or Colin Kaepernick at a good value, I’ve been waiting and grabbing Cutler very late in my mock drafts. I’d rather have him than low-upside players like Matt Ryan or Tony Romo. I’m all in on Cutler this year.

RB: Matt Forte had the best fantasy season of his career last year after Trestman finally let him run on the goal line. Forte responded, scoring 12 touchdowns.

I don’t see any reason for a regression from Forte. He played a lot of snaps last year, but he has less wear and tear on him than many running backs his age and he’s still only 28.

He is quick, strong, fast, smart and he catches passes, making him an easy top 5 overall pick in fantasy football.

I like Ka’Deem Carey a lot as his handcuff. Carey was one of the most productive backs in college football over the past few seasons. He slipped in the draft because of character concerns, but if Forte gets hurt I have no doubt that he’d be a top 20 running back for fantasy.

WR: The Bears boast the best 1-2 wide receiving duo in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

Jeffery serves as the Bear’s primary deep threat while Marshall has become the Bear’s go-to possession receiver, but both are complete players that can do anything asked of them. They both saw over 140 targets last year, which really isn’t that surprising given that the Bears don’t really have any other quality receivers.

Marshall is a solid number one receiver and Jeffery is a low WR1 with high WR1 upside. Don’t over think it, these guys are studs.

TE: Martellus Bennett has been a popular sleeper for years, but he’s never put it together. He’s just another tight end, similar in quality to about six other mediocre tight ends that you can pick up off waivers.

D/ST: Despite their reputation, the Bears’ defense was unbearably awful last year. To help fix the problem, Bears’ GM Phil Emery jettison three, old veterans on the offensive line and replaced them with … three, old veterans. Look elsewhere for your defense.

Green Bay Packers

Packers’ Depth Chart

QB: Aaron Rodgers is certainly one of the top three quarterbacks in fantasy football along with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

He’s the NFL’s all-time career leader in passer rating, and other than last year’s injury-shortened season, he’s never thrown fewer than 28 touchdowns in a season. He also adds a rushing component to his fantasy value that neither Manning nor Brees can offer. The Packer’s wide receiving duo of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb is one of the best in the league as well.

The only downside to Rodgers is worry about his health. The Packers have one of the worst offensive lines in football. Rodgers led the league in sacks taken in 2012 with more than 50 sacks, and he was on track to have taken close to 40 sacks in 2013 before Shea McClellin broke his collarbone. By sacking him. He has also had at least one concussion that caused him to miss a regular season game in the past. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that he could take a sack, of which he could take close to three per game, and miss half of the year again.

That risk is enough for me to drop him below Brees and Manning, but he’s still the clear number three quarterback. No one would be surprised if he’s the top quarterback in fantasy football this year, just draft a backup.

RB: Eddie Lacy was easily the most valuable rookie in fantasy last year, finishing as the number six fantasy running back. The Packers fed him the ball incessantly and he rewarded them with one of the best seasons by a rookie running back in quite a while. He contributed with aplomb whether the Packers had Aaron Rodgers or Scott Tolzien at quarterback.

However, there are some reasons for concern. We’ve seen sophomore running backs fail live up to their rookie performances, *cough* Doug Martin *cough,* and the Packers have already made some noise about wanting to limit his carries.

The Packers will still be in red zone very often and, barring injury, Lacy will still finish as a top 10 fantasy back. I just don’t love him with the fifth pick overall, which is where he’s going in many drafts.

James Starks actually looked pretty good when he had a shot last year, and he’s one of my favorite handcuffs this year. Make sure to draft Starks  if you draft Lacy.

WR: Jordy Nelson managed to finish as the eleventh best wide receiver in fantasy football last year despite catching passes from random quarterbacks the Packers found on the waiver wire for half of last season. He was a little bit streaky and he relied on deep passes for much of his value, but if Aaron Rodgers is healthy for a full season it’s not difficult to imagine Nelson finishing as a top five wide receiver. That makes him a WR1 for me.

Nelson's currently being under drafted, get him while you can!

Nelson’s currently being under drafted, get him while you can!

Before he was hurt last year, Randall Cobb had two good games, one bad one and one artificially inflated by a fluky 60+ yard rush. He is a slot receiver with some health concerns who doesn’t seem to be a reliable source of yards, but he does score touchdowns with some frequency. He’s a WR2 with some nice upside if Rodgers targets him deeper down the field this season.

TE: After Jermichael Finley’s horrific injury last year, the Packers basically used their tight end as a blocker. That’s unlikely to change this year. Embattled rookie Colt Lyerla is valuable in a dynasty format given his potential, but rookie tight ends almost never make a significant difference, let alone undrafted rookies.

D/ST: The Packers added Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but neither will be good enough to make the Packers defense fantasy relevant.

Detroit Lions

Lions’ Depth Chart

QB: Matt Stafford was on his way to a career year last year before he dramatically imploded right in the middle of the fantasy football playoffs. Perhaps not surprisingly, his poor performance coincided with Calvin Johnson looking especially hampered by recurring knee and finger injuries.

The Lions added Golden Tate in the off season, but they also hired Jim Caldwell as their new offensive coordinator, and he seems less likely to let Stafford throw the ball 50 times per game like his predecessor. I’m also wary of a quarterback whose performance seems so predicated on the health of his number one wide receiver, especially when Johnson has had persistent nagging injuries over the last few seasons.

Given his inconsistencies, I doubt that Stafford will ever be a truly elite fantasy quarterback, but he is a perfectly serviceable starter. Just streakier than most.

RB: Reggie Bush was the Lions lead back last year, but he was very inconsistent. He missed time with injury, as per usual, and he inexplicably disappeared for some games. He had some monster games and some beautiful runs, but he was overshadowed at times by Joique Bell.

The Lions used Bell on early downs and on the goal line last year, and they gave him a new extension in the off season that will actually pay him more than Bush. I think this is shaping up to be a true running back by committee with Bell serving as the early-down and goal line back and Bush as the third-down and change-of-pace back.

If I had to pick one I’d rather have Bell because of the likelihood to score touchdowns and because of Bush’s injury history, but I think they are both low-end RB2s at best. If one was to get hurt, the other immediately becomes a very high-end RB2 or even a RB1.

Joique Bell figures to get most of the Lion's carries this year.

Joique Bell figures to get most of the Lion’s carries this year.

WR: I know I’ve said not to over think drafting studs a few times already, but I’m a little bit worried about Calvin Johnson.He always seems to have a nagging injury, and they seemed to slow him down more last year than ever. Even in weeks he played he always seemed to be questionable.

In addition to the injury concerns, it’s a near certainty that his targets will drop this year, as Stafford is likely to attempt less passes and the signing of Golden Tate in the off season gives Stafford another legitimate target for the first time in his career. Johnson is still a stud but I think we’ve already seen his best years, and he’s a ways behind Demaryius Thomas for me.

I think that Tate will be very useful for the Lions for winning actual football games, but less so for fantasy owners. He’ll be going to a team that will certainly attempt more passes than the Seahawks, but he won’t be the number one target. He’s a WR3.

TE: There’s a lot of buzz about Lions rookie tight end Eric Ebron, but there’s not much to be excited about in a redraft league. As with Lyerla, rookie tight ends almost never put up big numbers and Ebron will split snaps with Brandon Pettigrew, at least at the start of the season. He’ll likely have a few big games, but he isn’t worth owning.

D/ST: The Lions have a lot of stars and they added a great piece in rookie linebacker Kyle Van Noy, but the secondary still worries me a lot. They’re a year away from being a reliable fantasy defense.

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