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2009 Fantasy Preview: NFC North

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2009 Fantasy Preview: NFC North
(Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

As the 2009 NFL season is nearly upon us, fantasy drafts are approaching. There are many different ways to break down players' fantasy potential, the best of which is the competition those players will face.

With that in mind, I am going to provide team-by-team analysis over the coming days for every NFL team, looking at some of the improvements, question marks, and expectations for the season. Who could be this year’s breakout star, like DeAngelo Williams was last year? And on the opposite side of that spectrum, who could be a bust?

In a logical progression through the NFL, I will provide these previews both for the individual teams as well as a divisional overview. After all, if a player's competition plays a significant role in that player’s success, where better to begin an evaluation than their division?

To begin our look around the NFL, we’ll start in the middle of the country, with the NFC North: the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

Quarterbacks

Rank: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Brett Favre, Daunte Culpepper/Matthew Stafford

Sleeper: Stafford

Overview:

This might be one of the most fun divisions to watch for quarterbacks this year. Rodgers projects as a top-five quarterback with the weapons around him. Cutler certainly has the ability to be a big play guy, but has some questions in the receiving corps that still need to be answered. Favre’s statistical expectations can’t really be confidently projected because of the strong running game in Minnesota; but can Favre be a “game-manager” while his heart still wants to chuck?

The unsettled situation in Detroit is something that could evolve with the season. Either quarterback will have Calvin Johnson to throw to, but which one’s on the field might be determined as much by the team’s record as it is by their production. If the Lions fall out of contention early, they might make the move to Stafford with an eye on the team’s future sooner rather than later.

Running Backs

Rank: Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Kevin Smith, Ryan Grant

Sleeper: Smith, Chester Taylor

Overview:

Much like the quarterback position, the NFC North has two of the elite running backs in the entire NFL entering 2009. There is going to be one significant consideration every manger will want to make when picking their running back this year, though: how is the league scoring?

Many ESPN and Yahoo leagues are scoring points for receptions this season, but many aren’t scoring for rushing attempts. This is something you’re going to want to consider when taking that long, hard look at Peterson with a top-three pick. Peterson’s a special running back, but hasn’t traditionally been used as a receiving back. He accumulated 1,760 rushing yards last year, but only caught only 21 balls for 125 yards in the entire season. If receptions are a consideration, he won’t get you many points.

On the other hand, Forte had 63 catches and eclipsed 1,700 total yards last year. If Cutler checks down because of the questionable Chicago receiving corps, Forte could benefit and be a favorite target in 2009 just as he was for Kyle Orton last year. This could, indeed it should, elevate Forte into a top-ten overall fantasy pick this year.

Smith quietly had a solid season in Detroit last year, while the rest of the house collapsed around  him. He fought Rudi Johnson for playing time early in the season and nearly totalled 1,000 rushing yards by the end of the season. Like Forte, this second-year back will also get you some points in the passing game; he caught 39 balls last year. If the Lions make the move to Stafford, they could rely more on the run, leading to bigger numbers from Smith.

Grant wasn’t in very good shape last year, and his numbers reflected that at the end of the season. While he should bounce back, the Rodgers' emergence could take the ball out of Grant’s hands. However, Taylor could vulture some touchdowns away from Peterson in Minnesota as more of a versatile receiving back, and he could be a nice late-round pick.

Wide Receiver

Rank: Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Bernard Berrian, Devin Hester, Percy Harvin, Donald Driver

Sleeper: Harvin, Earl Bennett

Overview:

Let the record show that after Johnson and Jennings, there should be a fairly significant drop-off before the rest of the receivers in this division. Johnson could also see his numbers become volatile with a potentially evolving quarterback situation in Detroit, which leads me to believe Jennings might be a safer pick late in the season.

Berrian and Harvin, however, could be wild cards. If the Vikings allow Favre to earn his $25 million contract and throw the ball, Berrian might be the happiest receiver in football. Harvin has shown some flashes of becoming something special as a slot receiver and could work his way into decent yards this year.

In Chicago, the receivers are a huge question mark. Hester has already been fooled by Cutler’s arm strength on a couple occasions in the preseason, and the biggest beneficiary of his continued learning curve could be Greg Olsen. Bennett could be a nice sleeper though. He was Cutler’s favorite target during their season together at Vanderbilt and he has emerged as the starting receiver opposite Hester.

Tight End

Rank: Greg Olsen, Donald Lee, Visanthe Shiancoe, Desmond Clark, Brandon Pettitgrew

Sleeper: Shiancoe

Overview:

Olsen might stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of the Bears' addition of Cutler. He was on the cusp of emerging as a legit fantasy tight end at the end of last year and has quickly become Cutler’s favorite target in Chicago during the preseason. He could see a significant jump in receptions, yards and touchdowns this season, while Clark could get some catches in the red zone and end zone as well.

Lee is an athletic tight end who could put up good numbers with Rodgers continuing to emerge as an elite quarterback in Green Bay. Shiancoe, much like Olsen, could benefit from his new quarterback this year in big ways. In Favre’s last year in Green Bay, tight ends caught nine touchdowns in the same system Minnesota uses now. Shiancoe could be a great fantasy sleeper this year. Detroit’s unsettled quarterback situation, coupled with Pettitgrew being a rookie, makes him an option only in a bye week or in deeper leagues.

Team Defenses

Rank: Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit

Sleeper: Green Bay

Overview:

Minnesota is one of the best defenses in the NFL and should be a solid fantasy play all year. In Chicago, the health of their secondary is a huge question mark that hasn’t been settled, but they have always taken the ball away well under Lovie Smith.

The wild card in the division, indeed what might play the biggest role in determining the division title, will be how the Packers adjust to Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme. With Aaron Kampmann moving to a linebacker slot instead of a traditional end, there could be a learning curve in a division with a lot of offensive talent. Detroit made a lot of changes, but had to after tossing a doughnut last year.

Kickers

Rank: Robbie Gould, Mason Crosby, Ryan Longwell, Jason Hanson

Sleeper: Hanson

Overview:

All four of these kickers, especially the two that play in domes, are solid fantasy plays and should put up good fantasy points in 2009. Hanson emerges as a sleeper because he’s always been good from longer range and, with the struggles the Lions have had, he might be asked to kick a lot of field goals.

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