Fantasy Football Early Bird: Previewing the Green Bay Packers Offensive Weapons
Before anyone groans it's too early to begin discussing fantasy football ("The real NFL draft is next month!"), well, perhaps y'all have families and responsibilities and are neurosurgeons or something. Maybe this article isn't for you yet. Bookmark it in a folder titled "summer reading," and wait for the beaches to get overcrowded before you revisit.
For the rest of us still reading:
Yet the Green Bay Packers still possess a team chock full of potential fantasy stars. A healthy Rodgers is obvious, and Lacy proved himself a very capable featured back. Some others—like Jarrett Boykin—emerged last season, while others like Andrew Quarless are heir-apparent starters who will be challenged for their expanding roles.
This article discusses those players and battles, projecting whom you ought to begin targeting. Because it's never too early to start thinking about fantasy football.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers
Among the top-rated fantasy quarterbacks when the season began, injuries sidetracked Rodgers (and the Packers) for much of 2013. At the conclusion of a disappointing 8-7-1 season (and barely clinched postseason spot), Rodgers played just nine games.
Give Rodgers nine games, however, and he’s still a fine selection. Last year that meant 281.8 yards and nearly two touchdowns per game, and that includes Week 8, when Rodgers left the game after just two pass attempts. Throw in a 3:1 touchdown-to-interceptions ratio—actually not particularly impressive on the Rodgers Scale considering he bettered the mark three of the previous five seasons—and he was still able to finish the season as the 22nd-ranked quarterback, while those per-game averages qualified him as top three.
Looking ahead, nothing suggests Rodgers shouldn’t be the first or second quarterback off draft boards this summer. He missed only one game from 2008-2012 and threw 84 touchdowns (and just 14 interceptions) during his 2011-2012 campaigns.
Some may (correctly) point out that the Packers now have a credible running game to balance the offense, but little suggests that will derail Rodgers’ season. Week 2, for instance, saw Rodgers pass for 480 yards against the Redskins—James Starks still ran for 132 yards on 20 carries. Similarly, Week 17 against the Bears, long after the Packers had established their formidable running game, Rodgers passed for 318 yards and two touchdowns while Starks and Lacy combined 31 carries for 154 yards and a touchdown.
Running Back: Eddie Lacy
A breakout rookie, Eddie Lacy’s power and vision saved the Packers season while Aaron Rodgers recovered from injuries. While the Packers record during the dismal stretch was just 2-4-1, both wins and the tie came in games in which Lacy carried at least 20 times.
And before one guesses whether Green Bay’s historically bad defense pulled it together those weeks, the Packers actually surrendered 26, 21 and 36 points (an average slightly worse than the rest of the season). Lacy’s combined 316 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns kept Green Bay’s head above water; and over the course of the season, the team was 7-2-1 in games in which Lacy had 20-plus carries.
Lacy has thus earned the role of featured back in this offense, and Green Bay’s renewed commitment to the run with him in the backfield could translate to a 300-carry season. Had he not been injured against the Redskins Week 3 and subsequently missed Week 3, he would have undoubtedly broken the mark last season (he finished with 284 carries).
The sole knock against Lacy regards his relative lack of contributions to the passing game. He finished the season with 35 catches for 257 yards and zero touchdowns; however, 32 of those receptions were in his final 11 games of the season, suggesting he’s capable of 45-50 receptions, putting him on par with most running backs of his type and caliber and easily qualifying him as a first-round pick.
Wide Receivers: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin
Those who follow the Packers won’t be surprised to see Nelson recently qualified in a story by ESPN’s Matt Williamson as one of 14 No. 1 receivers (subscription required). Nelson weathered injuries to Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley to finish with 85 receptions for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns—and the 11th-ranked receiver in fantasy football.
Lacking competition from James Jones (now in Oakland) or Finley (still a free agent), Nelson represents Rodgers’ surest target. While Cobb plays the necessary role of possession receiver—and does so very well—Nelson shreds defenses on deep passes, demonstrating underrated quickness and very consistent hands. Per Sporting Charts, Nelson dropped only three of his 127 targets in 2013. Among wide receivers with as many targets, only Larry Fitzgerald dropped fewer.
Regarding the offense’s aforementioned “possession receiver”—an unfair and often oversimplifying designation—Cobb’s role in the offense will continue to grow as long as he’s healthy. Missing 10 games last season, he finished with just 31 catches. That doesn’t paint a complete picture. Rodgers targeted Cobb nearly eight times per game, an increase over the prior season of almost one, and he finished with 80 receptions in 2012.
Target both Packers receivers this summer; while Nelson figures to best Cobb in yards and scores, the latter will likely see more passes thrown his way, bridging the gap between them. And though Williamson classified him as a No. 1 receiver in real football, Nelson’s fantasy value falls somewhere between WR1 and WR2; Cobb’s ought to be considered in mid-WR2 territory.
Boykin didn’t catch on until the Packers' receiving options tapered; he didn’t register a catch until Week 5, after which he caught 48 for 638 yards and three touchdowns. Extrapolate those numbers over the course of a season and Green Bay would nearly have another 1,000 yard receiver—and your fantasy team a solid WR3.
"I can't say enough about Boykin," McCarthy said at the NFL Annual Meeting (per NFL.com). "The young man is a heck of a player, he's done it the right way, special teams, he's performed every opportunity he's given."
Barring an impressive rookie joining the corps, Boykin has likely cemented himself as Rodgers’ third wide receiver. Given Green Bay’s lack of a sure-thing tight end, that role ought not be underestimated. He’s very capable of, if not likely to, catching 70-plus receptions this season.
Doubtful to be among the first 30 wide receivers off draft boards, pick Boykin as a WR3 with high upside.
Tight Ends: Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick
Quarless received a golden opportunity to shine last season. But despite Packers receiving targets dropping left and right, Quarless failed to capitalize in the 10 games Finley missed, catching 28 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Those aren’t terrible numbers on the whole, but he tallied 12 receptions and both touchdowns in two games. In the other eight: 152 receiving yards.
"I felt like last year, he wasn't quite where [he was] two years ago,” McCarthy said (per ESPN) at the NFL's annual meetings. "Just quite wasn't himself. I thought last year there was a big hurdle that he actually made it through the whole season. It's something that he struggled with. We felt that he has a chance to get all the way back and still is a young ascending player."
Quarless missed the entire 2012 season while recovering from a 2011 knee injury.
Bostick, on the other hand, represents a wild card. Standing at 6’3" and coming from a basketball background, the undrafted free agent received some 2013 offseason talk as an “X-factor worth keeping an eye on” (per Pro Football Weekly). He’s also been described by Mike McCarthy as the team’s best blocking tight end, which might afford him more opportunities to see the field.
And like Boykin, who rapidly ascended the depth chart last season, Bostick began his career proving himself on special teams.
"When you look at performance on special teams, it's always a pretty good indicator of how guys are going to transition to their offensive and defensive responsibilities," McCarthy said at the annual meetings (per ESPN). "And Bostick's right there. I thought he really improved and was one of our four core players on special teams. He's doing some really good things in his limited opportunities on offense."
Of course, the possibility exists Green Bay will draft a tight end. But with more glaring holes on defense, one wouldn’t expect Ted Thompson and McCarthy to choose someone in the early rounds. Instead, the battle for Rodgers’ attention will likely center squarely on Quarless and Bostick—young tight ends vying to fill the hole left by Jermichael Finley.