Outside of the Green Bay Packers, the NFC North could be thrown on its head this season. The perennial doormat, Detroit looks like it could make some very big strides in 2011.
A dismal O-line will likely doom the Bears and Vikings to also-rans in the division. More on their respective O-lines in a moment, though.
The running game is a little more dicey. Ryan Grant is back and healthy, but not totally on the same page with the Packers brass. He is penciled in as the starter in most circuits, but don’t be surprised if James Starks leapfrogs him sooner rather than later. If he becomes the primary ball carrier, Starks becomes a very nice value option at RB.
The passing game, of course, goes through Rodgers. Greg Jennings posted the elite numbers last year that we all expected out of him for quite some time. Some believe that the healthy return of Jermichael Finley will erode Jennings’ fantasy value into oblivion. I still like Jennings as a lower-end WR1 in fantasy circles. Finley’s presence could open things up even more for Jennings in some packages.
There is no doubt that Finley has the potential to be a fantasy beast at tight end in 2011. Then again, he also has the potential to get injured and miss time—something he’s done in both his NFL seasons so far.
There is major sleeper upside for whoever winds up the WR2 in this offense. James Jones showed big-play ability, but he also a tendency to drop the ball in big games. Jordy Nelson was much more reliable, but not as much of a game-breaker. Rookie Randall Cobb will factor into the equation at some point, but the squad will likely bring him along slowly.
Detroit Lions: This is the year that the Lions make the playoffs—mark my words. And they’ll be there because Matthew Stafford will finally hang around long enough into a season to make his presence felt.
Stafford has so many variables working in his favor, the biggest being the weapons at his disposal. Calvin Johnson could be a fantasy star with Rosie O’Donnell under center. Nate Burleson offers veteran presence. Brandon Pettigrew is a young talent with solid upside.
Jahvid Best will be available for plenty of shots out of the backfield.
The team’s success will also lie on Best’s ability to stay healthy. Turf toe hampered him during his rookie campaign, but we’re told he’s past those woes. There was some concussion talk this preseason, but he’s allegedly beyond that, too.
With rookie Mikel LeShoure officially out for the season, there isn’t a lot of talented depth on the roster. Do watch the position battle between Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris for the RB2 gig...whoever gets the nod may provide some deep sleeper value.
Chicago Bears: There are fantasy weapons here, but they may struggle to break out due to a slipshod O-line.
Jay Cutler always had big-play upside, but can rack up quite a lot of interceptions, too. The Bears fans questioned Cutler’s toughness and manhood last season. Will those same fans sit quietly if Cutler struggles to cut back on his interceptions this year?
Matt Forte proved to be a big-play fantasy producer in stretches last season—although, a lot of his production came sporadically through the passing game. He may struggle to find room to run this season behind arguably a worst O-line.
The passing game needed a big time playmaker and instead got Cowboys castoff Roy Williams. Williams needed a new venue to start fresh, and many thought his Chicago arrival could mark the beginning of a new career arc for him.
However, Williams struggled to impress this preseason, and word from Bears officials is that Johnny Knox has stepped up his game enough to be the primary receiver. Knox could be a sleeper pass catcher in that offense—it is just hard to rally behind him after so much mediocrity last season.
The same goes for Earl Bennett, who allegedly was going to get a larger share of the offense this season. Perhaps he’ll provide some PPR potential, but again, I wouldn’t want to hitch my wagon to any of these receivers until they prove they can make some noise on a consistent basis.
Kellen Davis takes over as tight end in a tight end-unfriendly passing scheme under Mike Martz.
Minnesota Vikings: As bad as the Bears O-line could potentially be, the Vikings will be that much worse. On numerous O-line ranking websites, the Minnesota front is almost unanimously ranked dead last among the 32 NFL franchises.
That doesn’t bode well for elite running back Adrian Peterson, who continually is asked to carry the brunt of the offense on his shoulders. One of these days he’ll break down, and one wonders if this is the season. Time will tell.
The passing game is a total mystery. Gone is Brett Favre and new under-center in purple is Donovan McNabb, who looked terrible at times last season in Washington. Most feel this was due to bad blood in the Redskins organization and that McNabb will rebound in a new offense. Again, time will tell.
Percy Harvin has been promoted to top pass catcher now that Sidney Rice has left the building. Harvin struggled mightily with major headache issues in previous seasons. Vikings brass have boasted that Harvin has been headache-free since the end of last season, but then again, he hasn’t taken any major hits from opposing defenders since then, either.
Some are talking up Bernard Berrian as a sleeper option, but why? He has yet to capitalize on his potential, even when he was the top dog when Rice was injured in the past. I’m not buying that McNabb will make him a fantasy star now with both players reaching the twilight of their respective careers.
Fantasy MVP: Matthew Stafford, DET—We know Aaron Rodgers will likely lead all fantasy QBs, but you can get Stafford a bazillion rounds later.
Fantasy rookie of the year: Kyle Rudolph, MIN—Not a whole lot of rookies in positions to get major playing time in this division. Reports from Vikings camp is that no player had a better preseason than Rudolph, and McNabb has been known to utilize the TE in the past.
Fantasy sleepers: James Starks, GB—If reports are correct that Ryan Grant isn’t as locked in as the top RB as most think, Starks could really produce in the primary role in a potent Packers offense.
Jordy Nelson, GB—Ultimately, I think Nelson is the better option to excel after Jennings and Finley in the offense, especially after James Jones suffered some knee ailments in the preseason.
Matthew Stafford, DET—Ready to break out if he can stay away from the injury bug.
Jerome Harrison/Maurice Morris, DET—Whoever officially becomes Jahvid Best’s immediate backup has value as a sleeper.
Fantasy bust: Adrian Peterson, MIN—I may sound like a broken record, but Peterson will be affected by constant pounding at some point, and considering the sad state of the Minnesota O-line this year, I’m wondering if this is it.
Comeback player of the year: Matthew Stafford, DET—Guess I’ll continue pushing all my chips in on Stafford. McNabb was the other option here, and while I think he’ll outperform his 2010 stinker with the Redskins, I don’t feel ready to anoint him a fantasy option again.