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2012 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2013 Preview: NFC North

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Published, 1/25/13 

Also See: NFC East I NFC South I NFC West I AFC North I AFC East I AFC South I AFC West
 
Chicago Bears
 
QB: After going without a legitimate #1 option at WR for his first three years in Chicago, Jay Cutler was reunited with WR Brandon Marshall in 2012, which certainly gave us hope for Cutler’s chances of becoming a reliable fantasy option for the first time in years. The connection between Cutler and Marshall worked out great, and Marshall became one of the best fantasy WRs. Unfortunately, Cutler didn’t have another consistent option and was nothing more than a fantasy backup all season. Marshall was certainly a good fit with Cutler, since he could make contested catches when covered, and Cutler wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger in man coverage. However, rookie WR Alshon Jeffery battled multiple injuries and wasn’t able to develop in a reliable threat in 2012, so Marshall was Cutler’s only real threat on the outside. He ended up going 255/434 (58.8%) for 3033 yards with 19 TDs, 14 INT and 233 rushing yards on 41 attempts, which put him 25th at the position, with 16.7 FPG. Once again, protection was an issue for Cutler, as he was sacked 38 times, the second-most since joining the Bears in 2009. While the OL was an issue, Cutler also held onto the ball too long, and his decision-making was poor at times. He still forces too many throws, and the lack of discipline in his game has never allowed him to be precise, which is also why he’s so inconsistent. When the team was trailing or needed a big play to hang around, Cutler got reckless and made too many throws with no clear definition. Of course, the lack of weapons and bad protection often forced Cutler to play recklessly, so we’d like to see all of these issues rectified in 2013. Hopefully, that will happen under new HC Mark Trestman. Trestman worked with Cutler before he was drafted in 2006, and besides being a successful head coach in the CFL, he’s got an extensive NFL background, including working with QBs like Steve Young and Rich Gannon. Cutler seems to be completely on board with the Trestman hire and we like it, too. Trestman noted he’d like to take advantage of Cutler’s athleticism, specifically mentioning his use of the pistol, shotgun, and read-zone schemes while in Montreal. He also made a point to say his 2002 offense in Oakland under Gannon was a no-huddle team. Basically, we’re expecting Trestman to take what was a very boring offense under Mike Tice and hopefully take it to the next level, since we know Cutler is a talented player with a great arm, who should be putting up better numbers with guys like Marshall, Jeffery, and RB Matt Forte around him. It’s going to be a west coast offensive scheme, and Cutler ran a version of the WCO in Denver, where he enjoyed his most success. Cutler missed just one game all season, but he dealt with concussion, knee, back, and neck issues, so keeping him healthy and protected should be a key in 2013. The system can help, since it entails getting the ball out of the QBs’ hands quickly.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Cutler become a fantasy-relevant player under Trestman? Will the Bears finally field a respectable OL? Who’ll back up Cutler with both QBs Jason Campbell and Josh McCown heading into free agency?
 
RB: The Bears signed RB Michael Bush in the off-season heading into 2012 and had some contract squabbles with RB Matt Forte, but they ended up working everything out heading into the regular season. After initially being franchised, Forte signed a four-year deal in July. We thought we’d see more of a split in the touches between Bush and Forte, but that really wasn’t the case, as Bush was a disappointment for most of the season, clearly not looking like the player who was a threat as a runner and a receiver when he filled in for Darren McFadden for a big portion of 2011. Bush looked sluggish, and while he was a better short-yardage back than Forte, that only translated to 5 TDs on 114 carries. He had just 411 yards (3.6 YPC) and caught only 9/83 on 11 targets before landing on the IR with a rib injury after playing 13 games. Bush is expected to return in a similar role for 2013 since the team really doesn’t have much outside of these two backs. Forte was hitting on a lot of big plays early in the season, but he continued to struggle at the goal line. The Bears were aware of this and gave him only 1 carry there all season. He ran for 100 yards just three times all season, although the last one did come in the season finale. An ankle injury nagged him all season, but it caused him to miss just one game. Forte ended up with 248 carries for 1094 yards (4.4 YPC) and 5 TDs, but he saw his role in the passing game drop a bit from previous seasons, as he ended up with 44/340/1 on 60 targets, which put him at a very solid 13th among RBs with 12 FPG. New HC Mark Trestman seems to be intent on making the offense more creative mentioning his use of the read-option and pistol during his time in the CFL and with a weapon like Forte, it would be wise to get the most out of his versatility, especially as a receiver. Back in the early 2000s with the Raiders, RB Charlie Garner caught as many as 91 passes with Trestman running the offense, so Forte could have significant PPR value in 2013.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: How will the arrival of Trestman change Forte’s role? Will the team look to bring in another, younger back through the draft?
 
WR/TE: QB Jay Cutler asked and he received. The Bears traded for Marshall from the Dolphins to reunite him with Cutler for the first time since the two played together in Denver back in 2008. The connection got off to a quick start and it was obvious how great the rapport was between the two. Marshall’s ability to win in contested coverage and Cutler’s fearless nature proved to be a great matchup once again, which allowed Marshall to have his best season as a pro. He had career-highs across the board, with 118 catches for 1508 yards (12.8 YPC) on 191 targets for a 62.8% catch rate, which put him second only to Calvin Johnson at 13.5 FPG. Marshall played all 16 games, but he had a hip scope in mid-January, although he downplayed the issue. However, we should note he’s had two previous procedures done on his hip in the past, which is why it’s a slight concern. The team drafted WR Alshon Jeffery to give Cutler another big target opposite Marshall. He didn’t start right away, but it was clear his size and ability would be helpful for Cutler, since the other options included slot receiver (and Cutler favorite) Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, who’s been a total bust as a WR. Unfortunately, Jeffery broke his hand in Week Five and wasn’t able to return until Week Eleven. He’d be back for just one game before missing the next two due to a knee scope. When he returned in Week Fourteen, Jeffery was put in the starting lineup, but it was clear the start-and-stops during his rookie season hindered his development. He struggled to separate in coverage, but did flash at times as (surprisingly) a downfield threat and also a red zone threat, giving the team a glimmer of hope for the future. Jeffery started in six of his ten appearances, finishing with 24/367/3 (15.3 YPC) on 47 targets for a 51.1% catch rate and 5.5 FPG. Bennett, who had been Cutler’s best receiver over the first three years together, had 29/375/2 (12.9 YPC) on 49 targets for a 59.2% catch rate and 4.1 FPG after being limited to 12 games, thanks to concussion and hand issues. It appears as if the presence of Marshall destroyed any value Bennett had, since he was more of a possession guy who needs some volume to come through. Hester had just 23/242/1 (10.5 YPC) on 40 targets for a 57.5% catch rate and 4.1 FPG. He hinted at retirement with the firing of HC Lovie Smith, but that doesn’t appear to be happening. We’re hoping new HC Mark Trestman can bring some juice to this offense, as they certainly have the talent to be dangerous, as long as Marshall continues his dominance and Jeffery can continue his development. It would be nice to have a better pass-catching option at TE after Kellen Davis was a disappointment, posting just 19/229/2 on 42 targets for a terrible 45.2% catch rate and a mere 2.3 FPG.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will Jeffery stay healthy and become a reliable #2 option opposite Marshall? Is Marshall’s hip procedure as minor as he’s making it out to be? Can Trestman take advantage of what looks to be a solid group at WR? Will the team look to upgrade at TE?
 
Key Free Agents: WR Johnny Knox, LG Chris Spencer, RG Lance Louis, RG Chilo Rachal, RT Jonathan Scott, QB Jason Campbell, QB Josh McCown, RB Kahlil Bell, DE Isreal Idonije, DT Henry Melton, DT Amobi Okoye, LB Nick Roach, LB Brian Urlacher, LB Geno Hayes, CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Zackary Bowman, CB D.J. Moore, PK Olindo Mare.
 
Detroit Lions
 
QB: Lion franchise QB Matthew Stafford took a major step back this season after a record-breaking 2011 season, but the organization has no other choice but to keep its faith in the young quarterback. Stafford’s declining mechanics have to be the biggest concern heading into the off-season. He threw sidearm or off his back foot way too much this season, and often his mechanics would break down with no defensive pressure on him. Stafford is simply making easy throws much more difficult than they need to be, and in comparison to 2011, he completed a much lower percentage of his passes and threw far fewer TDs. Stafford, thanks mainly to a high number of pass attempts, did finished 10th among QBs this season with 22.8 FPG, but he still didn’t quite live up to his second-round fantasy draft status. He completed 435/727 (59.8%) for 4965 yards, 20 TDs, and 17 INTs. While his 727 pass attempts this year set a new NFL record for attempts in a season, Stafford threw for 21 more TDs in 2011 (41), and his completion percentage was 3.7% higher (63.5). He did lead the team to three comeback victories in the fourth quarter, but that’s really cherry-picking positives, given that the Lions won only four games. Stafford will continue to throw to the NFL’s top wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, next season, but he needs his secondary receivers (Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, and possibly Titus Young) to step up and also stay healthy. By the end of 2012, Megatron was Stafford’s only reliable receiver, which could help explain why his touchdown passes were way down (to be fair, Calvin was also tackled inside the five a ridiculous number of times and just missed several end zone catches). Stafford also wasn’t helped by an inconsistent running game, but even if the Lions establish more of a rushing attack in 2013, Stafford will still be relied on to throw the ball a ton. Despite a shaky performance in 2012, the Lions are looking to lock up Stafford long term this off-season, even though he’s currently locked up through 2015. The Detroit Free Press reported in July that Stafford is due to count for an astounding $20 million against the cap next season, so the organization has plenty of reasons to renegotiate his contract. Perhaps the biggest positive was that Stafford did play a full, 16-game season for the second consecutive year after his first two seasons were cut short because of fluky injuries. If Stafford would run into more injury troubles next season, QB Shaun Hill has proven to be a reliable backup quarterback. But the Lions would certainly love for Stafford to look more like the 2011 version than the 2012 version next season. But clearly, Stafford’s standing in the fantasy hierarchy has slipped from 2012.   
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Stafford once again play like an elite NFL quarterback as he did in 2011? Will Stafford be a fantasy draft value after a shaky 2012 campaign?
 
RBs: Lion RB Mikel Leshoure showed some promise this year as the club’s lead back, but ultimately the Lion ground game wasn’t a serious threat and his season wasn’t exactly pretty. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, and his longest run of the season was only 16 yards. But at least Leshoure proved he was durable, coming off an Achilles tendon tear that forced him to miss his entire rookie year in 2011, and Leshoure showed he has a real nose for the endzone, with 9 TDs (he converted 6 of his 7 runs inside the five into TDs, obviously a great percentage). He finished 19th among RBs this year with 11.1 FPG, on 215 carries for 798 yards and 9 TDs. He also contributed a little in the Lion passing game with 34 catches for 214 yards. Leshoure played in 14 games this year after missing the first two games because of a suspension. Ultimately, Leshoure’s season would’ve been a bust without his 9 TDs, so he’s hardly a reliable #2 RB fantasy option next year because touchdowns can be fickle from year to year, but he at least gave the Lions a reliable option in short yardage. For 2013, the Lions could look to establish more of a running game after QB Matthew Stafford set an NFL record for pass attempts, so Leshoure could see a little more action. Of course, the Lions have been trying to get their running game going now for years with only a modicum of success. Leshoure can’t be discussed without also noting that backup RB Joique Bell was a real revelation for the organization and fantasy, with 899 yards from scrimmage. Bell also showed more big-play ability than Leshoure, especially in the passing game as the primary passing-down back. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 82 rushing attempts for 414 yards and 3 TDs. But Bell also contributed 52 receptions for 485 yards in the Lion passing game. He finished 39th among RBs this year with 6.7 FPG, and was obviously a viable flex in PPR leagues. A back with solid straight-line burst after he gets a head of steam, Bell has more than likely nailed down a roster spot next season, even if the Lions look to upgrade their running backs, which is quite an accomplishment for a running back who barely made the roster in 2012. RB Kevin Smith’s 2012 season will go down as a disappointment after starting the first two games as the Lions’ lead back. Smith finished with only 8 carries and 4 catches after Week Two this year. Smith is a free agent this off-season, and he said after the season that he’d like to re-sign with the Lions, but he doesn’t seem to fit into the team’s plans after barely being used on a 4-12 team.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Leshoure show more big-play ability after averaging just 3.7 YPC last season, while continuing to have a nose for the endzone? Will Bell continue to be the Lions’ passing-down back after emerging from nowhere in 2012?
 
WRs/TEs: The Lion wide receivers hit the highest of highs and the lowest of lows this year. WR Calvin Johnson had a record-breaking season, but the rest of the group was completely underwhelming, highlighted by talented WR Titus Young getting essentially booted off the team late in the season. Megatron broke Jerry Rice’s single-season record (1848) for receiving yards with 1964. He finished just 36 yards short of becoming the first WR to hit 2000 yards for a season. Johnson ended the year as the top WR with 14.2 FPG, on 122 catches (60.7% catch rate) for 1964 yards and 5 TDs. He finished the year on an absolute tear, averaging 147.3 receiving YPG in his final nine games. The disappointing aspect of Johnson’s season was his unusually low 5 TD receptions, a low number in large part because he was tackled inside the five on multiple occasions. Still, in the TD department, we’d think Calvin is primed for a bounce-back year in 2013, as he scored 28 combined TDs in his previous two seasons. Johnson was even bothered by a knee injury for most of the season, and he could still have a cleanup procedure done this off-season. A healthy Johnson in 2013 is a scary proposition for opposing defenses. Megatron will certainly enter 2013 as the top fantasy WR by a fairly wide gap once again, so he didn’t fall victim to the asinine “Madden Curse.” As for the rest of the Lion WRs, 2012 was a forgettable season on many different levels. Aged WR Nate Burleson went down with a broken leg in Week Six (after 27/240/2 receiving), and the Lions couldn’t find anyone to take his spot. Rookie WR Ryan Broyles showed some real promise in the slot (22/310/2 on 32 targets, 68.8%), but he ended up tearing his right ACL in early December. It was a devastating development for Broyles, who overcame a left ACL injury at Oklahoma University in 2011. Broyles won’t have the benefit of off-season work for a second consecutive year to start his professional career. Burleson will more than likely be ready to go in training camp, and the Lions are hopeful to get Broyles back around the middle of the 2013 season. Young was the biggest disappointment of the entire group, and he earned a spot in coach Jim Schwartz’s doghouse for attitude and disciplinary reasons. In 10 games, Young posted only 33/383/4 receiving on 55 targets (11.6 YPC, 60%), and ranked 57th among WRs with 6.4 FPG. Young got into confrontations with coaches on the sidelines, and he has been accused of deliberately running incorrect routes because he was upset with his involvement. The team eventually placed him on the injured reserve for a “knee injury” in early December, yet Young hadn’t undergone knee surgery as of early January. Then, Young took to Twitter, insinuating he’d quit football if he didn’t get the ball more. Young’s mouth is bigger than his resume at this point, and he certainly has a lot of work to do to even have a chance of playing with the Lions next season. It’s not unrealistic to think the team will eventually just release him. With Burleson, Broyles, and Young all done for the year, the Lions were down to WRs Kris Durham, Brian Robiskie, and Mike Thomas at the end of the ’12 seasoon. The three wide receivers combined for just 17 catches for 197 yards and 3 TDs this year. TE Brandon Pettigrew also was a big disappointment this season, as he saw a big decline in his production from 2011. Pettigrew, dealing with injuries all year long, dropped from 83 catches in 2011 to 59 this year in 14 games. He also saw a return of the drops that plagued him earlier in his career. Pettigrew finished with 8 drops, and only Saint TE Jimmy Graham had more drops at the tight end position. Pettigrew ended up finishing 20th among TEs this season, with 5.3 FPG, on 59 catches (57.8% catch rate) for 565 yards and 3 TDs, his lowest totals since his rookie year in 2009. Pettigrew has never been great at finding the endzone (his career best is 5 TDs in 2011), so he likely fall in fantasy drafts next summer. Backup Tony Scheffler didn’t play much better in a bigger role this year with Pettigrew dealing with injuries, posting 42/504/1 on 84 targets (12.0 YPC, 50%), ranking 32nd among TEs with 3.8 FPG.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Megatron once again start finding the endzone with regularity and be an even better fantasy WR off of his record-breaking season? Will the Lions ever find a #2 WR to take some of the load off Johnson’s shoulders? Will Pettigrew ever develop into anything more than a TE option in PPR formats?
 
Key Free Agents: RB Kevin Smith, DE Cliff Avril, FS Louis Delmas, RT Gosder Cherilus, TE Will Heller, SS Amari Spievey (RFA), CB Chris Houston, CB Jacob Lacey, OLB Justin Durant, LB DeAndre Levy, DT Corey Williams, C Dylan Gandy, RT Corey Hilliard.
 
Green Bay Packers
 
QB: When you’ve established yourself as a top-flight fantasy QB, a Super Bowl champion, and a league MVP, expectations tend to be very high, which is why some may look at Aaron Rodgers’ 2012 season as somewhat of a disappointment. That’s sounds ridiculous to say when he finished second to Drew Brees, with 25.6 FPG, thanks to 4303 yards, 39 TDs, just 8 INTs, and 259/2 on the ground, but after he put up 30.4 FPG in 2011, the drops almost across the board probably did hurt those who took Rodgers in the first round. We realize this is a severe case of nitpicking, but it was odd to see Rodgers score fewer than 25 FP in seven of his 16 starts, including six games with fewer than 20 FP. From Weeks Eight through Fifteen, he didn’t hit 300 yards. Rodgers had a slow start to the season because he was playing too fast, behind a poor offensive line, and with some banged-up weapons at the skill positions. The injuries to WRs Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings left Rodgers without his full complement of receivers for much of the season, although we did see players like WRs James Jones and Randall Cobb step up in a big way, with Rodgers being a big reason for their success. TE Jermichael Finley complained about his lack of chemistry with Rodgers, although the two seemed to be back on the same page by the end of the season. When Rodgers was at his best, he played calm football and compensated for his line's weaknesses with good throws and decisions. He used his elite pocket movement to create space and make throws. We know he can make every throw on the field and can do so in or out of the pocket and on the move. Plus, if he needs to run, he can pick up significant yards with his legs, although he’ll only do so if he can’t make a play with his arm. When he was at his worst, Rodgers played a little fast, rushing some throws, plus you could tell by his head movement that he was not getting a clear picture at times. Like all QBs Rodgers felt the cumulative effects of pressure and wasn’t consistently comfortable in the pocket, and while some of that had to do with his holding onto the ball too long at times, it could also be blamed on a line that was average at best. What might have bothered us most about Rodgers was his looking like a pocket passer who lacked confidence and didn’t pull the trigger on throws he had made without hesitation in 2011. He could still beat the rush, and when Rodgers had time to throw, he was much quicker with his decision-making and more precise with his ball location. Outside of minor ankle and calf injuries, Rodgers escaped the season relatively healthy, despite the protection issues. While it might seem like we were a bit harsh with our assessment of Rodgers this past season, we know he still put up great numbers and will continue to be a top fantasy option at the position for years to come, even if Jennings does leave via free agency, as expected.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Rodgers have a more consistent season in 2013? Will the Packers give him some help on the offensive line? How big a loss would Greg Jennings be, since he and Rodgers have had such a great rapport?
 
RB: While we know the Packers are a pass-first team, they’d like to have a somewhat reliable ground game, but they struggled in that area yet again in 2012. They signed RB Cedric Benson late in the off-season and it was clear he was their best option heading into the season, especially with RB Alex Green still working his way back from a torn ACL. Benson wasn’t outstanding, but he gave the team a back they could trust as a complement to the high-octane passing game, and they actually had a strong commitment to the run, due possibly to those protection issues. In the first five games, he ran for 248 yards and a TD on 71 carries and had 14/97 in the passing game, which was good for a solid 8.1 FPG. Unfortunately, that would be all the Packers saw of Benson, as he suffered a foot injury that turned out to be a Lisfranc sprain. Benson was put on the designated-to-return injured reserve with the hope he’d be able to come back in late November, but he ended up needing surgery and remained on IR for the rest of the season. He’s expressed an interest in returning to the Packers in 2013, but he’s aware that at 30 years old, it’ll be up to the team if they want to bring him back. Of course, if the Packers had felt better about their current backfield situation, it might be easier to just let Benson go, but we’re not sure they can feel great about what they have. Green had chances to lock down the starting job, but he never really showed consistency as a main ball carrier to make us or the team believe he could be the unquestioned starter. He played in 12 games, rushing for 456 yards on 1234 carries while contributing 19/133 on 30 targets to finish with just 4.9 FPG. He didn’t run all that hard and struggled at times as a pass protector, so outside of showing a little juice, he’s fallen short of expectations. Besides the knee issue at the start of the season, Green dealt with a concussion down the stretch, which opened the door not only for RB James Starks, but also for RB Ryan Grant and RB DuJuan Harris, who was brought off the practice squad, as well. Starks struggled in the preseason and dealt with a turf toe injury, which held off his season debut into Week Six. After Green got the first crack at the starting job when Benson went down, Starks found his way into the mix and ended up starting a pair of games when Green struggled. Starks didn’t do much better, which limited his role when Grant was signed late in the season. Starks ended up playing in just six games, totaling 255 yards and a TD on 71 carries while adding 4/31 on 6 targets to finish with just 5.8 FPG. RB coach Alex Van Pelt admitted Starks is more of a change-of-pace at this point in his career after a disappointing performance in 2012. Grant returned to the team in early December after spending some time with the Redskins and played in four games, including a Week Seventeen start. Outside of going for 80 yards and 2 TDs in Week Sixteen, he wasn’t a major factor, finishing with 132 yards and 2 TDs on 32 carries. He’s a free agent and probably won’t be back. Harris was with the Jaguars in the preseason and was then claimed by the Steelers, only to be cut again soon after. He found himself on the Packer practice squad for much of the season until they signed him to the main roster in early December. He was initially used as a change-of-pace back, but with the team not having a clear starter, Harris began to get more opportunities with the team using a hot-hand approach. He ended up with 34/157/2 on the ground and just a pair of catches for 17 yards, good for 7.4 FPG. However, he finished the regular season strong and kept it going into the playoffs, rushing for 47 yards and a TD on 17 carries and putting up 5/53 in the Wild Card Round, followed by 11/43/1 and 2/11 in the Divisional Round loss to the 49ers. It certainly looks like Harris is the best of the options in the backfield heading into 2013, but the team is still expected to look for other options, specifically someone who could fill the role as the starter/lead back. FB John Kuhn didn’t contribute much, rushing 23 times for 63 yards and a TD while adding 15/148 on 18 targets, although he did score a pair of TDs in the Wild Card Round.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Will the Packers finally find a reliable starter? Can Harris continue to build on the strong finish to the season? Is Benson worth bringing back?
 
WR/TE: The Packers have enjoyed a talented, deep receiving corps for the last few years, but they weren’t able to enjoy having the entire group healthy for much of the 2012 season. It started in Week One, when WR Greg Jennings suffered a groin injury that kept him out for a week. He returned to action in Week Three, but apparently rushed back too fast, as he played just a short amount of time in Week Four. Jennings wouldn’t play again until Week Thirteen, when it was determined he’d need sports hernia surgery. He returned for the final five games of the season and ended up with 36/366/4 on 62 targets (58.1% catch rate) for an average of just 10.2 YPC and 7.6 FPG (40th among WRs). Unfortunately for Jennings, 2012 was a contract season, and he didn’t get to show much for his next contract, which will almost definitely be somewhere other than Green Bay. Jennings was totally aware that he was unlikely to return to the Packers, and while he had a great rapport with QB Aaron Rodgers, we do wonder if he’ll have the same kind of success elsewhere, since he’s not a game-changing talent. He’s very good, but some of his production was simply a function of playing in a great offense and with a great QB. The team’s other starter, WR Jordy Nelson, was coming off a fantastic 2011 season, but he didn’t have much of a chance to replicate that, thanks to knee, ankle, and foot problems that kept him at less than 100% for much of 2012. Nelson played in 12 games, catching 49/745/7 (15.2 YPC) on 72 targets, which was good for a 68.1% catch rate and 9.7 FPG (22nd). While Nelson might have been a #1 fantasy option in 2011, he’s probably more of the #2 option we saw this past season, although with the injuries, it might not have been the best season to assess Nelson’s true value. He could assume the #1 role with Jennings not expected to return, as he’s a physical, fast player with good size and a strong rapport with Rodgers. So Nelson could be a nice value in 2013. Of course, the player we might have been most impressed with this season was WR Randall Cobb. Cobb made his biggest impact as a return man in his rookie season of 2011, but HC Mike McCarthy recognized his versatility early on and made a point to get him involved in a variety of ways. Cobb was used on the outside, in the slot, and out of the backfield, much like the Vikings do with WR Percy Harvin. There’s no doubt Cobb was Rodgers’ most consistent option all year long, and it was apparent Rodgers liked looking Cobb’s way. Cobb started eight of 15 games, catching 80/954/8 (11.9 YPC) on 104 targets for a 76.9% catch rate, while also adding 10 carries for 132 yards to finish 18th among WRs at 10.4 FPG. Cobb is probably one of the biggest reasons the team can let Jennings walk, and we expect to see even more of him going forward, as he’s a player who’s still getting better. WR James Jones, who was often the odd man out in 2011, ended up leading the league with 14 TDs this past season. He started every game and had 64/784 (12.3 YPC) in addition to the 14 TDs on 97 targets (66% catch rate), which put him at 10.8 FPG (tied for 14th). While Jones might not have the skill set of Cobb or Nelson, he’s expected to play a big role again next year with Jennings likely gone. TE Jermichael Finley wasn’t shy about the issues he had with Rodgers, noting the two weren’t on the same page, but we blame him for a lot of that as well, since he dropped too many catchable passes. He wasn’t a reliable fantasy option, but was better down the stretch, although it wasn’t enough to boost him to starter status for the season. He played in every game, catching 61/667/2 on 86 targets (10.9 YPC) for a 70.9% catch rate and 4.9 FPG (22nd). Finley’s strong finish will probably keep him in Green Bay in what will be a contract season, and HC Mike McCarthy did note that Finley was a different player after the bye. Veteran WR Donald Driver was active for 12 games this season, but had just 8/77 on 12 targets and all indications are that he will retire.
 
·         Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: With Jennings likely gone, how will his departure affect this receiving corps? Will Finley become a reliable fantasy option once again? Can Cobb take another step forward?
 
Key Free Agents: WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, C Evan Dietrich-Smith (RFA), TE Tom Crabtree, RB Cedric Benson, RB Ryan Grant, LB Erik Walden, LB Frank Zombo (RFA), LB Rob Francois (RFA), LB Brad Jones, CB Sam Shields (RFA).
 
Minnesota Vikings
 
QB: Given the promise he showed last year and early in the 2012 season, it would be fair to think the Vikings could have expected more out of second-year QB Christian Ponder in 2012. On the year, Ponder’s line looks less than impressive. In 16 starts, he finished 300/483 (a solid 62.1%, actually), but for only 2935 yards, with 18 TDs and 12 INTs. He added 61/246/2 rushing to finish 28th among all QBs, with 16.0 FPG. Oof. But the season got off to a more promising and efficient start than that for Ponder. Although his fantasy numbers weren’t prolific by any stretch, Ponder didn’t throw a pick until Week Five, completed at least 60% of his passes in each of his first six games on the season, and he ranked a solid 16th over that span, with 19.8 FPG. That made him a reliable backup, something you might have been able to expect from a mobile passer like Ponder. But then something happened. Starting with a miserable Week Seven showing against the Cardinals, in which he threw for only 58 yards, Ponder’s confidence seemed shot. In three of his next seven games, he would throw for fewer than 100 yards, and in seven of his final 10, he wouldn’t get to 200 yards. So at that point, he became droppable. He was playing erratically, making horrendous decisions, and turning the ball over. Now, it’s hard to blame Ponder for everything. When Percy Harvin went down, he lost his only reliable WR target, instead having to rely on TE Kyle Rudolph and a cornucopia of mediocrity (if that) at the WR position to help him make his hay as a passer. With Harvin active through Week Ten, Ponder put up a respectable 17.0 FPG, but he plummeted to only 14.3 FPG without Harvin. But as we saw in the postseason, when Ponder couldn’t play because of a nasty triceps injury, the Vikings really don’t have much to hope for outside of Ponder rebounding (Joe Webb was unprepared, but still overmatched against the Packers). Ponder closed the season out with a really nice Week Seventeen performance against the Packers to propel Minnesota to the playoffs, and that’s at least a positive heading into next season. But although coach Leslie Frazier confirmed emphatically that Ponder is his starting QB, Ponder will be on blast from the Minnesota fans in 2013.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Can Ponder build on his strong start to the 2012 season, or his strong Week Seventeen, to take a firm grip of the starting job in 2013? Who will back up Ponder, presuming Webb isn’t the answer?
RB: Really, this entire blurb can be summed up with “Adrian Peterson is $!@*ing awesome” and we could probably be done with it because that’s all that needs to be said. But we’re a fantasy football site, and we like numbers, so we’ll talk about just how awesome Peterson was, less than a year after a massive knee reconstruction. In a full 16-game schedule, Peterson carried 348 times for 2097 yards (6.0 YPC) and 12 TDs, adding 40/217/1 as a receiver. He finished 1st among all RBs, with 19.3 FPG; he topped 100 yards rushing 10 times overall and nine times over his last 10; and he also posted two 200-yard outings. Not only was Peterson amazing out of the gate, but he also got stronger as the year went on and he gained more confidence in his strengthening knee. Although he wound up 9 yards shy of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, it’s our belief that Peterson might have had the greatest football season anyone has ever played, given the circumstances. Peterson was helped by an improving offensive line and a really strong year from blocking FB Jerome Felton (who went to the Pro Bowl), but it’s amazing that his vertical speed, short-area burst, and unbelievable elusiveness were all present at what looked like 100% capacity. Peterson is talking about 2500 yards next year, which sounds absurd, but does anyone want to doubt him after what he did in 2012? Behind Peterson, the Vikings still have Toby Gerhart, but Gerhart might be ill-fitted for the role he’s in. In 16 games, Gerhart carried for 50/169/1 (3.4 YPC) and added 20/155/0 as a receiver. He ranked 86th among RBs, with 2.4 FPG. Only once all year did Gerhart have double-digit touches (Week Three), and his role was typically limited to third-down work, where his pass protection gives him the only advantage he could possibly dream over Peterson. As we’ve seen in the past, Gerhart is a trusty handcuff because he can put up numbers when he gets volume, but he never saw that in 2012 in the wake of Peterson’s amazing year. He also had some short-yardage struggles, never a good thing for a bigger back.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch for 2013: Peterson thinks he can be even better next year. Can we possibly believe him? Will FB Felton be back? Will the Vikings continue to roll with Gerhart as their backup, or will they want someone with more burst?
WR/TE: Viking QB Christian Ponder’s struggles in 2012 were obvious and very well documented, but let’s not forget that he had just about zero help from the WR position when Percy Harvin was lost for the year with an ankle injury after only nine games. It’s hard to quantify just how brutal a loss that was for the Vikings, who were already perilously thin at the position with Harvin. The fourth-year WR was prolific in his nine games, posting 62/677/3 receiving on 85 targets (10.9 YPC, 72.9%) and 22/96/1 rushing, ranking him 12th among WRs with a career-high 11.3 FPG. Over that span, with Harvin active, Ponder put up a respectable 17.0 FPG, but he plummeted to only 14.3 FPG without Harvin. Given his occasional rush attempts and his PPR dominance, Harvin touched the ball 10 or more times on five separate occasions, which is frankly unheard of for a WR, and that’s where his value lies. As a guy who can play outside but dominates in the slot and out of the backfield, Harvin is one of the more unique and versatile players in the NFL, but he’d work even better with a threat on the outside of the formation. The Vikings frankly didn’t have that, and to appease Harvin, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal without an extension in place (there is palpable tension between Harvin and the team, as Harvin didn’t believe he needed to go on IR with his injury), it might suit them well to find one. The Vikings were in a hole in that regard before the season even started. Talented rookie WR Greg Childs blew out both patellar tendons on a single play in the preseason, and might never take a snap in the NFL. And Jerome Simpson was suspended before the season began, and then he never got going once he was activated. In 12 games, Simpson posted only 26/274/0 on 51 targets (10.5, 51%), good for only 2.3 FPG. Simpson had trouble with cuts after a back injury led to problems with his foot, but the enigmatic talent still has many questions beyond that. The Vikings want to bring him back in 2013, or at least they’ve publicly said so, but it wouldn’t surprise us if they let him walk. They could bring back Michael Jenkins (40/449/2 on 72 targets) or Devin Aromashodu (11/182/0 on 22 targets) for another go-round, but they’re just big bodies with little else to offer. One promising talent the Vikings have at WR is rookie Jarius Wright, who posted 22/310/2 on 36 targets (14.1 YPC, 61.1%) in seven games of action, in which he averaged 6.3 FPG, 59th among WRs. Wright is an elusive slot option, which might make him and Harvin redundant, but at least it gives the Vikings options and some upside. Once Harvin went down, Ponder’s most reliable receiver was TE Kyle Rudolph, who posted 53/493/9 on 93 targets (9.3 YPC, 57%) and ranked 11th among TEs, with 6.5 FPG. But Rudolph suffered the same inconsistencies as the rest of the Viking passing game. On three separate occasions, he put up goose eggs, and his value was largely tied to TDs, as his season-high in yardage came with 67 in Week One, and he topped 50 yards only three times after that. Still, the big and talented TE, whom we took to calling the terribly corny “Rudolph the Red-Zone Reindeer,” was at least a reliable option. That’s more than we can say for big-money free agent signing John Carlson, who caught 8 passes for 43 yards in the first year of a five-year, $25 million contract as he battled knee and concussion issues.
 
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2013: Given the tension between him and the team, will Harvin get an extension before 2013, have to play out his rookie contract, or get traded? Will the Vikings add a true #1 option on the perimeter? Will Simpson be back? Can Rudolph build on his solid 2013 and become a consistent, high-end fantasy starter?

Key Free Agents: WR Jerome Simpson, FB Jerome Felton, RT Phil Loadholt, WR Devin Aromashodu,OL Geoff Schwartz, MLB Jasper Brinkley, LB Erin Henderson, CB A.J. Jefferson (RFA), S Jamarca Sanford, LB Marvin Mitchell.

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