Don’t look now, but the NFC North has become a league filled with offensive powerhouses in 2009. The division used to be highlighted by tough defenses and grind-it-out time-control offensive philosophies, but not this year.
The extra firepower will help any fantasy team wise enough to tap into the potential. Team-by-team previews and predictions include:
Green Bay Packers
1. Well before the preseason offensive fireworks display, I was a big advocate of Aaron Rodgers in 2009. The running game is not the center of the offense—the passing game is. Rodgers has the weapons and will be in enough shootouts to finish the season in elite fantasy company: as a top-three QB with Brees and Brady.
2. Ryan Grant is one of those running backs this year that allows fantasy owners to take risks in drafts. Taking stud receivers or a top QB in the first two rounds? Grant provides a nice RB insurance option this year. He started last season slowly, hampered by injuries. By the end of the season, he was a solid RB2, with RB1 performances. He starts this season off injury-free and should be a nice low-profile RB sparkplug.
3. Want a true team sleeper? Look no further than Jermichael Finley. The tight end tore it up all preseason for the Packers, and while the current plan is to use Finley and Donald Lee in a 50-50 split, I fully expect Finley to become one of Rodgers’ go-to red zone targets and be a viable starting TE in most fantasy formats by the end of the season.
4. Some are looking at the Packers’ defensive unit to be a fantasy sleeper this season, but I have my doubts. While the Packers should thrive in the 3-4 scheme that Dom Capers is instituting, it will take time for the squad to adjust to the nuances of the switch. The Packers have a great mix of veteran talent and youth potential, but they are no better than a D/ST plan B and bye-week fill-in depending on matchup.
5. There is no doubt that Greg Jennings has become the primary target in this offense over an aging yet effective Donald Driver and numerous young talents. Jennings is primed for a career season, especially in PPR formats.
1. Anyone who thinks Brett Favre is going to wither and die as a fantasy option this year is totally out of touch with reality. When healthy last year, Favre led a fairly uninspired and under-performing group of Jets to an impressive 8-3 record. If he’s healthy, and indicators say he is, Favre should thrive in an offense where he doesn’t need to win games by himself. In 2007 with the Packers, Favre learned the value in throwing short passes and allowing the receivers room to work. His INTs dropped and TDs and overall yardage soared. While he won’t replicate his 2007 numbers, he will be a fantasy starter at times this season.
2. As someone totally unnerved by Percy Harvin’s track record for knuckleheadedness, I’ve grown to expect a decent rookie campaign in 2009. The Vikings seem committed to using Harvin in as many ways as possible, and having Favre around will help him both on and off the field. While it may not seem a stretch (considering Michael Crabtree self- destructing his NFL rookie season), Harvin could finish the season as the best rookie WR of this year’s crop.
3. I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t expect Adrian Peterson to last all 16 regular-season games. He’s a hard-core running back that pounds the holes and drags tacklers with him, but that beating will also take its toll. You heard it here first: Peterson will not be the top-scoring fantasy running back in 2009.
4. With that being said, I expect Chester Taylor to be a sneaky RB sleeper this season. He has the skill set to excel as a 16-week starter for most any team, and he’s also in a contract year. He has something to prove, and when Peterson gives him the opportunity, Taylor will be a viable RB1 in most fantasy formats.
5. I have great respect for ep’s viewpoints on matchups, but I totally disagree when it comes to defensive units. I’ve had too much success taking mediocre defenses who play horrific offenses and raked on the matchups and ensuing fantasy points. That being said, I totally expect the Vikings D/ST to be the highest scoring unit in fantasy football through the first third of the season. Matchups against Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, St. Louis and Baltimore in five of the first six weeks is pure fantasy gold.
1. There’s a wide spectrum of viewpoints on the Bears receiving unit this year. Mark my words: Earl Bennett will be the player standing when the dust settles in Bearsland. His connection with Jay Cutler goes back to a successful pairing at Vanderbilt, and it helps that Devin Hester is better suited as a trick, special teams sort of player. Bennett will be targeted early and often in the offense, and will not only lead the Bears in receptions, but will be near the top of the NFC-North in catches behind guys like Greg Jennings and Calvin Johnson.
2. Many feel that Matt Forte will experience some sort of sophomore slump in 2009, but it’s hard to drink that Kool-Aid. Jay Cutler will force defenses to play honest, opening holes for Forte and keeping the back upright more often than not. The Bears are a run-first, grind-it-out offense, and that won’t change even with Cutler under center.
3. Jay Cutler highlights one of the biggest offseason trades in recent memory, and his presence will help the Bears offensive skill players. While he seems to be finding chemistry with his receivers and talented TE Greg Olson, it is hard to get excited about Cutler’s fantasy stock until he proves that he wasn’t a product of the Broncos’ situation.
4. Tight end Greg Olsen is a great asset to anyone drafting a fantasy team. With Cutler in town, Olsen is primed to take a leap in the position’s rankings, and allows people to avoid the early TE drafting trap of Witten, Gonzo and Gates.
5. The Bears D/ST is not what it once was. Sure, many of the playmakers, like Brian Urlacher, are still there. However, the unit is aging fast and finds itself in a division that suddenly is much improved offensively. In the past, the Bears were a lock as a top-five fantasy defense year in and year out. This year, I’d much rather take a chance a defense with upside than pay the inflated price that many place on the Bears based on name value alone.
1. Not sure why, but the announcement that Matthew Stafford will start week one over Daunte Culpepper surprised me. All preseason, Stafford seemed less polished than rookie QB counterpart Mark Sanchez, and while the Lions will not make the playoffs in 2009, Culpepper still provided them the best chance to get a few W’s on the board coming off the league’s first-ever winless campaign. I keep thinking Stafford will struggle on a team that should be better across the board in 2009.
2. There were several very impressive rookie running backs last season, but it surprises me that Kevin Smith continues to get so little love in fantasy circles. He gets it done both on the ground and through the air, and will be a safety valve for Stafford early and often. He is another RB, like Ryan Grant, who allows non-conventional fantasy drafters in 2009 to go WR-WR or QB-WR in the first two rounds and still save face at RB.
3. Calvin Johnson is a beast, no matter who’s throwing him the ball. He has too much talent to not succeed, regardless of whether Culpepper or Stafford are under center. Last year, Johnson continued to shine even with Dan Orlovski chucking him the ball and defenses keying off him like teens at a Hannah Montana concert.
4. I really liked the Lions’ selection of Brandon Pettigrew in the rookie draft this year, and Pettigrew will be a tight end to watch in fantasy circles—however, not until 2010. He has talent and the Lions are starting to develop weapons in the offense, but Pettigrew will be option three for a rookie QB who continues to under-impress me.
5. Not that I need to tell you, but don’t bother drafting the Lions defense this year. While they will see improvement over last year’s squad, the NFC-North saw a major influx of offensive firepower this offseason, and the Lions will struggle to keep up.
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