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Fantasy Files - NFC North Divisional Preview

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Lions and Vikings and Bears, oh, and that other team

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

This is our seventh in a series of eight divisional previews. We will review all 32 teams via the 8 NFL divisions over the summer. Reviewing the league this way helps for a couple obvious reasons. Teams in the same division play essentially the same schedule and teams will many times be built in a way to try and win that division. Also, it’s easier to think of the league in 8 parts instead of 32. We’ll review each team, the players to consider, and finish it up with a best of divisional team. I use a variety of sources to build my analysis including DVOA from Football Outsiders, average draft position from Fantasy Football Calculator, and offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus. As always, civil discourse is welcome. Today we take a look at the most important division around these parts, the NFC North. The North draws the NFC West and the AFC East this year.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Bears

2017 DVOA – 28th; Passing DVOA – 24th; Running DVOA – 29th; Offensive Line – 11th

Fox-ball is dead. Long live the Tru-Nagy offense! While Ryan Pace arguably waited a year too long to put the Chicago fan base out of its collective misery, the Bears finally have something to get excited about with Matt Nagy as Head Coach and Mitchell Trubisky at QB. The Bears went out and, shockingly, did exactly what many Bears fans and pundits wanted them to do. It remains to be seen exactly what the playbook will reveal, but it should be a close cousin to the Chiefs and Eagles schemes. Carson Wentz put up 3,700 yards, 16 TDs, and 14 INTs in his rookie season under then first year coach Doug Peterson. Last year, Wentz was on MVP pace with 3,300 yards, 33 scores, and 7 picks in 13 games. Alex Smith, an established veteran at the time, put up 3,300 yards, 23 TDs, and 7 INTs in his first year in the Andy Reid offense. Smith’s best year in the Chiefs offense was 4,000 yards, 26 scores, and 5 picks in 2017. There are so many different factors to consider, but a good year from Trubisky would look like 3,500 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs. That gets him onto the radar as a backup fantasy QB and is totally defensible to draft late.

If you’re bullish on those numbers I laid out for Trubisky, it’s probably partly because of the new weapons in the passing game. The Bears receivers last year were amongst the worst in the league. Enter Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, and Trey Burton. In one offseason, the Bears completely remade the receiving tree. These four new additions should see the vast majority of the non-RB targets. Allen Robinson projects to be the alpha and should be a star signing for the Bears. Robinson had an incredible season with Blake Bortles throwing him the ball in 2015, but missed all of 2017 after an opening day ACL tear. That’s plenty of time for an ACL recovery in the modern NFL and Robinson has been practicing without restriction. I will fight you for Robinson if we’re in the same league, count on me taking him earlier than his 5th round price tag. Anthony Miller, one of the Bears second round picks this year, looks like a good bet to be a factor as a rookie. I predict the preseason will raise his stock enough to where you’ll need to go get him in the 10th or 11th round of your draft. If you’re in a dynasty league, he looks like a really good target. I don’t think Gabriel will have any sustainable fantasy value, but I love him as a real life player. Trey Burton comes over from the World Champion Eagles as one of the heroes of the Super Bowl. He’ll join second year man Adam Shaheen and veteran Dion Sims at tight end. Burton projects to be the feature Tight End although I expect the Bears to run a lot of formations with Shaheen or Sims on the field at the same time. That’s because Burton is more in the mold of the “U” tight end, which Nagy has described as more of a receiver / tight end. He’s drafted as a low-end starter and if this offense takes off like many in Chicago hope, he’ll be challenging top 5 tight end numbers.

The Bears other second round pick this year was James Daniels, interior offensive lineman from Iowa. I believe Daniels will eventually serve as the pivot and Cody Whitehair will be moved back to guard, but the roster battles currently have Daniels fighting for the guard position. Whatever the case may be, this offensive line could be a top 5 unit if they get settled and standout Kyle Long can stay healthy. That’s good news for one of the most underrated players in the league, Jordan Howard. All Howard has done since entering the league is churn out yards despite a lackluster passing attack to alleviate pressure. Howard is currently the 12th running back off the board and an easy profit investment in the second round. The dynamic Tarik Cohen is back for an encore. The most electric offensive player the Bears have had for at least a couple decades, Cohen is a live wire that can line up all over the formation and maybe even throw a pass or two. He’s the perfect guy to throw into a “flex” position on your roster as he has big play ability and could pop off any given week.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers

2017 DVOA – 15th; Passing DVOA – 20th; Running DVOA – 25th; Offensive Line – 13th

As a Bears fan, reviewing the rest of the NFC North requires a bit of self-restraint. Reviewing the Packers requires heavy redacting of curse words a level of objectivity that sometimes is difficult to find, but here we go. Aaron Rodgers is a fantastic quarterback. He’s a fire-breathing dragon. He does things with a football that should be illegal and I hate Hate HATE dislike to an extreme degree that he plays for the rival Packers. He has missed significant time with a collarbone issue twice, missing two half seasons, but has otherwise been healthy. He’s the first QB off the board, he’s got a high floor, vaulted ceilings, and makes everyone around him better. As a Bears fan, I will not draft Packers players, but if I had to choose someone on this team, it’d be Rodgers.

The main beneficiary of the magician is Davante Adams. Coming off a Pro Bowl in 2017, Adams is primed to soak up an increase in targets with Jordy Nelson’s departure. Adams’ next 1,000 yard season will be his first, but he’s put up double digit scores each of the past 2 seasons. He’ll be the first Packer off the board in your draft unless you’ve got an idiot a guy that really likes QBs. Randall Cobb is still around and kicking in the slot. His best days may be behind him as he settles into WR4/5 territory. He’ll almost certainly be over-drafted. Geronimo Allison is the other name that pops up frequently on draft boards but the Packers always seem to have 3 or 4 guys that can come out of nowhere to have a big game – the Rodgers factor in action. The Packers did make a big free agent acquisition by signing Jimmy Graham, the once great Saints tight end. Graham spent the last 3 years with Russell Wilson, underperforming his draft position. Rodgers has the ability to make everyone better, so I guess that’s why he’s currently the 4th TE off the board but that feels like a huge overpay to me.

The Packers running game hasn’t been very effective and the fantasy community has no idea what to do with Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Ty Montgomery. Williams is a plodder, Jones will start the year serving a two game suspension, and Montgomery is a converted wide receiver. It would appear that Montgomery would have the most secure role with the potential to expand it. He’d be most effective in a PPR league, obviously, with at least some chance of taking over as the lead back.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Lions

2017 DVOA – 12th; Passing DVOA – 11th; Running DVOA – 11th; Offensive Line – 19th

The big change this offseason in Detroit was bringing in new Head Coach Matt Patricia from the Patriots. I’ll admit that I liked Patricia quite a bit during the coaching search because of the Patriots’ ability to play matchup defense. I have no idea what kind of offensive philosophy Patricia will employ, but expect it to be similar to last year with Jim Bob Cooter still calling the plays. That’s good news for Matthew Stafford fans as he’s been a top ten fake teams QB the last 3 seasons. He’s had at least 4,200 yards and 20 TDs in each of the last 7 seasons where he hasn’t missed a single game. If everything breaks right for him, he can finish in the top 5 at the position.

Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, and Marvin Jones present a bit of a problem for the fantasy community. Ideally when drafting wide receivers, the passing tree is skinny and there is one target hog to project as a top option. With this trio, the Lions might have three guys that get 100+ targets each. Tate is the better PPR target, Jones had an amazing TD rate last year, and Golladay is the youngster looking to emerge. In other words, Tate has the best floor, Jones has the most regression potential, Golladay is the ceiling play. I would consider all three of these guys as viable roster targets.

The Lions offensive line rose to the level of competence last year, which helped their running efficiency ratings, but the only real viable running back for fantasy purposes was Theo Riddick. He’s back and on the radar for PPR leagues. The Lions might be waiving the white flag with Ameer Abdullah, who has battled injuries and averaged a disappointing 3.3 yards per carry last year. To remedy the Abdullah problem, the Lions brought in LeGarrette Blount and drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round. The rookie out of Auburn has an interesting opportunity here in a seemingly crowded backfield. Maybe some of this gets sorted out by final roster cuts or maybe Johnson takes on a complimentary role in his first year. One thing is for sure, Johnson is a solid dynasty target for those that can stash him on the bench for a potential payoff in 2019.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings

2017 DVOA – 4th; Passing DVOA – 8th; Running DVOA – 5th; Offensive Line – 16th

Count me among the group who believes the Kirk Cousins signing makes this team a legitimate Super Bowl contender. He’s an upgrade over Case Keenum and gets to throw to a talented receiving tree, which we will get to later. Cousins has delivered three straight top ten finishes as a fake team signal caller and topped 4,000 yards in each of those seasons. Cousins will now be operating under a defensive minded head coach with an elite defense. He may be asked to play more ball possession football than he ever was in Washington and with so many quality options at QB, I’m not sure I want to sink a pick in the middle rounds to secure his services. Still, he’s throwing to talented receivers in a new offense that promises to be creative under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.

Adam Theilen had a breakout 2016 and followed it up with an even better 2017 by topping 1,200 yards but only scoring 4 times. Stefon Diggs had his best year as a pro last year in 14 games, where he was able to find the end zone 8 times. I think it’s an interesting conversation as to who is more valuable for fantasy but one thing is for sure –they’re both really good wide receivers. Both players are drafted in the 3rd round currently, projecting as high end WR2 players. There are good arguments for both players and I’ll fall back to the easy answer – draft Theilen in PPR leagues, Diggs in standard. The other name you need to know is Kyle Rudolph. I’ve been hard on Rudolph in the past but with two straight solid seasons and a dearth of established options at the position, I’ve come around on him. The other piece of this I can’t get out of my head is that DeFilippo’s Eagles put an emphasis on Zach Ertz in the passing game and Kirk Cousins was most effective when Jordan Reed was healthy and making plays. While I can’t put Rudolph on the same physical abilities tier as Ertz or Reed, he’s a great red zone target and has improved as a route runner.

We saw only a flash of Dalvin Cook before he tore his ACL, but it would behoove you to remember the trajectory he was on in the first month of the season. This guy absolutely terrifies me as a Bears fan. While I’d expect the Vikings offensive line to be the weak link of this team, Cook should see plenty of carries and has the skills to stay on the field on third downs. He’s currently the 10th running back off the board but has a legitimate chance of finishing first at the position. If you believe in the Vikings defense as much as I do, you can envision the Vikings salting away a lot of victories with Cook and the run game. Add that to an offense that was incredibly efficient last year, and the scoring opportunities will be there for Cook.

The All NFC North Squad

QB – Aaron Rodgers, Packers

RB – Jordan Howard, Bears

RB – Dalvin Cook, Vikings

WR – Allen Robinson, Bears

WR – Davante Adams, Packers

WR – Stefon Diggs, Vikings

TE – Kyle Rudolph, Vikings

D – Vikings