State of the Franchises – NFC North

Fantasy Outlook By Division

NFC North

In recent years the NFC North has proven to be one of the most competitive and volatile divisions in the entire league. After early decade dominance by the Green Bay Packers the division has had a new winner every year since 2014. I imagine it’ll surprise nobody that only the Detroit Lions don’t have divisional win in the past decade, in fact it’s now nearly 30 years since they last won the division.

After an impressive 13-3 season and a run to the NFC Championship game, Green Bay will enter the season as presumptive favourites despite a somewhat underwhelming offseason. The Vikings have replenished their secondary but traded Stefan Diggs away to Buffalo. Chicago face a Quarterback competition that’s probably rigged in Mitch Trubisky’s favour and the Lions still look like the Lions.

Green Bay Packers

The defending champions enter the season with some major questions. How engaged is Aaron Rodgers after the team spent a 1st round pick on his presumptive replacement? Do they have receivers that can carry the load of another deep playoff run? How will Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and Jamal Williams split carries in the backfield?

The task of resolving all of this falls on second year Head Coach Matt LeFleur, who despite making it all the way to the NFC Championship, has found little respect amongst NFL observers. Their off season moves suggest a shift towards a more run based attack and how that works with Rodgers may well be the key to the team’s season.

Fantasy Star: Davante Adams. The 27 year old wide receiver will enter his 7th season in the league with much to prove after injuries reduced his impact in 2019. Adams hasn’t played all 16 games since 2016 and a team short on high end receiving weapons could really use a full slate from the former San Diego State man.

997 yards and 5 touchdowns in just 12 games suggests Adams level of performance hasn’t dropped much despite being, by some distance, the teams number 1 pass catching target. He could have used someone to lessen the load but unless Devin Funchess, Marquez Valdez-Scantling or Allen Lazard takes a leap a lot will fall on Adams.

You can expect 150+ targets, 100+ receptions, probably double digit touchdowns. If Adams stays healthy he’s an elite WR1.

Regression Possible: Aaron Jones. After 1500 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns the fantasy world should be all over Aaron Jones. A breakout season after years of Green Bay struggling to make use of their talented running back was going to finally “free Aaron Jones”, right? Seemingly not. With the selection of AJ Dillon in the 2nd round the narrative around Jones has shifted. Talk now is about his expiring contract, how the team don’t want to pay him, how his Head Coach has a history with Derrick Henry and that’s the kind of back he wants.

Whatever narrative you believe there is no doubt that Jones’ long term future is now murkier than it was in January. Much of his landmark season came from goal line work and the touchdowns that produced. If nothing else there will be a regression there, and if Dillon makes an impact in short yardage a lot of Jones touchdown value will will dissipate.

If there is a chink of hope it’s that LeFleur has continually stressed that he wants a stable of backs. It’s possible that Dillon is a replacement for Jamal Williams and that Jones will sign a reasonable second contract to stay in Green Bay. He may be worth gambling on but don’t expect a similar return to last season.

Rookie to Watch: AJ Dillon. If Jones’ days in Green Bay really are numbered then Dillon will be an exciting player to pick up in dynasty leagues. Should Jones and Jamal Williams leave town next spring then Dillon will be the lead back on a team that wants to move a more run first approach as their Hall of Fame QB reaches the end.

Dillon’s college production on the ground at Boston College was exceptional. Three consecutive thousand yard season, starting with nearly 1600 yards as freshman. He was, however, almost non existent as a receiver, a fact that may well limit his fantasy upside. In his first year I expect that Dillon will get 1st and 2nd down carries and a fair amount of goal line work. For the next few years he will be an interesting running back option.

Could Surprise: Jace Sternberger. With Jimmy Graham out of town, former Texas A&M tight end, Sternberger will become the latest Green Bay player to take on the challenge of giving Aaron Rodgers a productive tight end to supplement his passing attack. Every since Jermichael Finlay’s big season in 2011 the team have been searching for someone to fill the mantle and have consistently come up short.

Sternberger has done little in the league since being drafted but had a big final year in College Station before being selected at number 75 overall. 48 catches for more than 800 yards and 10 touchdowns suggests that he has the ability to make an impact if he can build a connection with Rodgers.

Deep Sleeper: Reggie Begleton. Former CFL standout Begleton could be an interesting dynasty punt if you want to take advantage of the mess in the Green Bay wide receiver room.

After a college career at little known Lamar University he spent three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders and has shown enough promise to suggest he could stick at the bottom of a fairly patchy group of receivers.

Minnesota Vikings

Mike Zimmer’s Vikings have been in contention for the playoffs pretty much every year since the 63 year old arrived in Minneapolis. There is little reason to believe they will not be competitive again this season.

Fantasy Star: Dalvin Cook. The 5th overall running back last year, Cook largely stayed clear of injury and delivered 1700 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. He only missed two games, a significant improvement on his first two years in the league when injuries meant he didn’t feature in 50% of the games he could have played.

Cook is an extremely talented back, playing for a team that wants to run the ball as often as possible. Last year he averaged more than 20 touches per game; he’s a workhorse back in a league that are making such players redundant.

Injuries will continue to be a risk and will likely depress his ADP until he shows he can play all 16 games. As a result he falls just outside the elite running backs for fantasy but is the perfect consolation prize if you are picking later in the 1st round of redraft or startup.

Regression Possible: Strangely Dalvin Cook is also the highest regression candidate. If he can’t stay healthy the team have Alexander Mattison, a highly capable backup, waiting in the wings. If you were to place an over/under on Cook playing 12 games, I suspect you’d back the under and that makes him a risk proposition at such a high draft spot.

Rookie to Watch: Justin Jefferson. When the team traded Stefan Diggs to Buffalo they vacated 94 targets that will need to be spread across a number of potential passing targets. With Adam Thielen healthy you would expect him to dominate the passing game but there is clearly a space for first round pick Jefferson to make an instant impact. He’s likely to see at least 50 targets and could be a useful fantasy asset from day 1.

How he interacts with Thielen in the slot will be an intriguing challenge for OC Gary Kubiak. Both do their best work inside but the key to long term impact will be if he can show the versatility to win outside.

Could surprise: Olabisi Johnson. In Thielen’s absence last year the team had no choice but to turn to Olabisi Johnson, a 7th round pick out of Colorado State. Johnson didn’t let them down. 31 catches for 294 yards and 3 touchdowns helped fill the void. With Diggs gone there is undoubtedly space for another receiver to to a significant leap, Johnson is the early favourite to be that guy.

Deep Sleeper: K.J.Osborn. In the aftermath of most rookie draft there is a lot of excitement for priority free agents, and every year there are late round picks who fall between the cracks as teams race to pick up forgotten talent. This year Osborn could be that guy. The Buffalo transfer led Miami in receiving in his final year and arrives in a receiver room full of opportunity. In most rookie drafts he’s a post draft waiver claim, and one that presents lots of upside.

Detroit Lions

Making the playoffs looks to be the minimum required for Matt Patricia to keep his job in Detroit and, right now, that looks like a steep climb to achieve. The roster is oddly constructed and much depends on a successful return for Matt Stafford. The offensive line still looks suspect; overpaying Halapoulivaati Vaitai seems unlikely to solve that particular problem. It seems likely Stafford will continue to be let down by his protection and ultimately that, as it has for most of his career, will limit their chances.

Fantasy Star: Kenny Golladay. One thing in the Lions favour is there ability to find productive receivers. Golladay is the lastest in the list of fantasy relevant WR1s in Motown. He’s currently being drafted at WR8 and is going in the early to mid second round in redraft and startup.

Last season Golladay saw 116 targets and it feels like there is room to add at least 20 more to that number with Stafford healthy again. He feels likely to over perform his draft position and could well repeat his top 3 WR finish from last season.

Regression Possible: Danny Amendola. The veteran receiver was a surprisingly useable player in deeper leagues last year. 97 targets went Amendola’s way as he benefited from injuries to Marvin Jones and TJ Hockenson. If the team are to take a step forward then they can’t be reliant on Amendola and will need Jones, and particularly Hockenson to significantly step up in production – that should marginalise Amendola.

Rookie To Watch: D’Andre Swift. Kerryon Johnson has been a fantasy darling for the last couple of years but injuries have prevented him really cracking the top tier of fantasy producers. With the arrival, a high second round pick, his outlook will be significantly impacted. Swift is a superior talent, back to back 1000 yard seasons at Georgia showed his ability as a runner and as a pass catcher. Patricia and Quinn are on record as wanting to run a committee of backs similar to New England so it may take Swift some time to hit the peak of his potential but his talent will likely make him a producer from day 1.

Deep Sleeper: Quintez Cephus. The Wisconsin receiver could be an interesting long term option. With the receiver group heavily dependent on veterans Amendola and Marvin Jones. Cephus could find a path to some production this season and by next offseason the UDFA may well be an option at WR3. His lack of elite athleticism may limit his upside but his college career suggests he’s a competitive over achiever who may fight his way to playing time.

Chicago Bears

This time last season hopes were high in Chicago. A disappointing wildcard playoff loss to the Eagles had been brushed off and the team were ready to make a leap in Matt Nagy’s second season in charge. Well, they didn’t. Signs aren’t great that they’ll do much better this season either. They remain shackled to the corpse that is Mitchell Trubisky. The main criticism of Mitch coming out of UNC was that he hadn’t played enough games. By the end of last season the view in the Windy City was that, if anything, he’d played too many.

The team did bring in some insurance in the form of Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. There is no more streaky QB in league history than Foles, if they need him in relief there are few better backup options in the league. On the other hand, if he has to carry the team for 16 games then things won’t go well.

They still have an excellent defense and Nagy has shown that he can be a creative play caller but there isn’t enough to cover for the mediocre Quarterback play they are likely to have.

Fantasy Star: Allen Robinson. A career spent catching passes from Blake Bortles and Mitch Trubisky would drive even the best receiver mad. Somehow, Allen Robinson hasn’t only retained his sanity he’s produced a 1400 yard season with Bortles and a near 1200 yard one with Trubisky. With an ADP in the range of WR15 Robinson could well be a league winner if you can get a hold of him – even with Trubisky throwing him the ball.

Regression Possible: It was a pretty bad offensive season in Chicago. There aren’t any obvious regression candidates. Tarik Cohen had a disappointing second season but could well rebound. Anthony Miler will need to improve on his 52 catches and 656 yards if the teams offense is going to take a step forward. The same goes for 2nd year running back David Montgomery.

Rookie to Watch: Cole Kmet. The Bears have been desperately searching for a tight end ever since Matt Nagy arrived in town. Trey Burton didn’t really work out, Adam Shaheen has been a non event and the team have attempted to fill the void with quantity over quality this offseason. Kmet, however, looks a class apart from the rest of their tight end room. He has the potential to offer the team a size mismatch passing option in the middle of the field and unless you see Jimmy Graham as a potential road block, he could easily be TE1 by week 3.

Could surprise: David Montgomery. Chicago let Jordan Howard walk for peanuts and spent a third round pick on Iowa back Montgomery. His rookie season was largely seen as a disappointment, not least because he underperformed Howard’s production from 2018. He barely outperformed Howard as a pass catcher.

That said his debut season was hardly the disaster some would have you believe. 889 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns was a reasonable return on the ground and may set him up for a breakout sophomore campaign. There’s little competition for early down carries and while Tarik Cohen will limit his passing upside he could easily see a thousand yards on the ground and double digit touchdowns if he’s efficient at the goal line.

Deep Sleeper: Riley Ridley. After Allen Robinson the receiver depth chart looks pretty bare. Anthony Miller will need to step up but then there is gaping hole where pass catching options should be. Enter Riley Ridley, the brother of Falcons wideout Calvin. Ridley was drafted in the 4th round of the 2019 draft and came with rave reviews for his hands and route running.

Despite high hopes and impressive bloodlines Ridley barely seen the field last season. He had 6 catches for 69 yards in 5 appearances, but with a wide open competition Ridley has every chance of beating out Javon Wims, Cordelle Patterson and Ted Ginn for playing time.

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