print 2011 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2012 Preview: NFC North

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Published, 1/30/12    

NFC North
Chicago Bears
QB: In many ways, it was a bittersweet year for the Bears. For the first time since acquiring QB Jay Cutler prior to the 2009 season, Chicago might have seen the full potential of its franchise QB this past season. Of course, Cutler ended up getting hurt before that potential could be fully realized, and what was a darkhorse, outside-the-box MVP campaign was derailed too soon because of a thumb injury that required surgery. He wasn’t a great fantasy producer, as, in 10 games, he went 182/314 (58.0%) for 2319 yards and 13 TDs with 7 INTs. His 18.0 FPG ranked him just 20th at the QB position, so he was just a low-end backup. But consider what he had to work with. While the offensive line finally started to come together, Cutler’s best receiver was probably RB Matt Forte, and he had no one reliable on the perimeter to whom he could drive the ball downfield (a big problem, considering Cutler has one of the strongest arms in the NFL). So it should come as no surprise that Cutler’s fantasy numbers were pretty inconsistent. In 10 starts, twice he threw for 300 or more yards, twice he threw for fewer than 125 yards, and six times he was in between. The best news is that Cutler was on pace to cut into his INT total for the second consecutive season. After throwing 26 in his first year as a Bear, he threw 16 in 2010 and was on pace for only 11 in 2011. Clearly, he was growing more comfortable in the Mike Martz offense, an offense he probably isn’t a great fit for in the first place because he’s much more of an improv, sandlot player than Martz typically likes. Of course, that wasn’t exactly Martz’ offense from the Greatest Show on Turf, since the Bears scaled things back a bit. Now, Martz is gone after “retiring” following the 2011 season, and at least Cutler took positive steps forward in 2011 that he can build on. His OL still isn’t great, and Cutler’s brilliant movement in the pocket made the line look better than it probably is. Cutler will always play with a schoolyard mentality, but the difference this past year is that he didn’t play recklessly. If the Bears can build a decent group of WRs around Cutler’s boy Earl Bennett, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice designs to his strengths, he could have his best year as a Bear yet. Let’s hope he stays healthy, as well, because Caleb Hanie, who looked totally lost, didn’t give us much faith he could fill in decently enough if Cutler goes down again, and Josh McCown is just a journeyman. Tice will run a similar system in 2012, so there won’t be massive changes, which should help.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: How will Tice’s offense play to Cutler’s strengths? Who will be the backup QB, with both McCown and Hanie free agents?
RBs: When Jay Cutler went down with a thumb injury after playing just 10 games in 2011, the Bears really had only one legitimate offensive skill player they could rely on – RB Matt Forte. So obviously, the Bears were not the prettiest team in the world to watch when an MCL sprain ended Forte’s season just two games later. Through 12 games, Forte was on pace for career-highs in rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards. He posted 203/997/3 on the ground with a career-high 4.9 YPC, and 52/490/1 through the air, with 9.4 YPC in that department (second only to last season’s 10.7). He averaged 14.4 FPG, which ranked him 9th among all RBs and was his best number since his fantastic rookie season in 2008, when he averaged 15.2 FPG. Also recall that he scored just 1.2 FP in his final game before getting injured – through 11 games, he was 6th with 15.6 FPG, which was better than his rookie numbers. The best thing about owning Forte this past year was that he was a lock for at least 15 touches in every game. In eight of the 11 games before he was injured, he touched the ball at least 20 times, and in the other three, he had at least 16. Even in his worst rushing performance of the year, gaining just 2 yards on 9 carries against the Packers in Week Three, he added 7/80 as a receiver. Not only was Forte the Bears’ sustaining element in the ground game, but it can also be argued that he was Cutler’s best and most dynamic receiving option (he had 15 more catches than anyone else on the team). He can make grabs both out of the backfield and when he’s split out wide against a linebacker or safety. We certainly have questions about Forte’s potential involvement in the passing game when he takes the field next year without Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, but as of right now, there is nothing to suggest that he won’t be as important to Mike Tice’s offense as he was to Martz’s. That’s especially apparent because we really don’t know what the Bears have behind Forte. RB Marion Barber was brought in to be a stabilizing power back, and unfortunately for Forte’s owners, he was adequate in that role for fantasy. Barber carried just 114 times for 422 yards, but he converted his 18 red-zone carries (including 8 goal-line carries) into 6 TDs – 3 more on the ground than Forte had. But overall, he averaged just 7.6 FPG, which ranked him 40th at the RB position, so he was little more than a foil to Forte when Forte was healthy. And when Forte wasn’t healthy, Barber made his most famous “plays” of the season. In a game against Tim Tebow and the Broncos, he inexplicably ran out of bounds when he could have kept the clock running, and he fumbled in overtime, setting up the Broncos’ game-winning drive. So with Barber unreliable as a starter (and then injured), the Bears turned to young Kahlil Bell down the stretch. Bell played in 11 games, running for 79/337/0 and adding 19/133/1 as a receiver, so he was more in line with the Forte style of play than Barber was. But Bell’s 4.98 FPG don’t tell the whole story. Over the last three weeks, when he saw his biggest workload, he ranked 12th at the RB position with 13.6 FPG, making him a true Waiver-Wire superstar at playoff time. A couple fumbles in Week Sixteen put a damper on an otherwise strong performance, but as a versatile player who clearly could step into the fire in a pinch, he might have earned himself a job for next year backing up Forte. He’s a restricted free agent, but we’ll assume for now that Chicago keeps him in the fold as a solid backup to Forte.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Forte is a free agent. Will the Bears give him the long-term deal he wants, or will he be franchised? Barber isn’t a free agent, but did he show enough to stick around in 2012? Will Bell, a restricted free agent, get a decent offer to a more guaranteed role elsewhere?
WRs/TEs: We understand a good deal of the criticism QB Jay Cutler has gotten in his three years with the Bears, but we can’t let it go without also commenting on the fact that his club just hasn’t surrounded him with a whole lot of talent on the offensive line or at receiver. Never has that been more evident than this season, especially to fantasy players. The first Bear to rank on a standard-scoring leaderboard was Johnny Knox – a player we like but someone who got off on the wrong foot this year. In 14 games before falling victim to a scary neck/back injury, Knox caught 37/68 targets (54.4%) for 727 yards and 2 TDs. His 19.6 YPC was certainly impressive, but the numbers around it were anything but. He averaged 6.0 FPG, which ranked him #1 among all Bear WRs, but a horrific #54 in the entire NFL. And note that Knox didn’t even pick up his numbers until Caleb Hanie of all people became the QB. His best game, in Week 12 (4/145/1) came after Cutler got hurt. Knox had a tough time getting off his feet because the Bears signed Roy Williams prior to the season, and he was inexplicably plugged into the starting lineup without much of a reason. Yes, Williams had his best year in Mike Martz’s offense in Detroit, but that was ages ago, and it’s clear now that Williams isn’t a fit for any offense any more. In 15 games, Williams caught 37/62 targets (59.7%) for 507 yards and 2 TDs, and his 4.2 FP ranked him 80th among all WRs. The Bears desperately needed his size, but Williams was apparently incapable of using it to his advantage. For most of the season, he was worthless. The 20.1 FP Williams scored in the last two weeks combined were his best back-to-back games of the entire season, but it was too little too late. Williams is a free agent, and it’s hard to imagine him being back. That takes us to the Bears’ most reliable receiver, and we use reliable lightly: Earl Bennett played in 11 games, catching 24/381/1 on 42 targets (57.1%). His 4.0 FPG ranked him 84th at the WR position, which meant he wasn’t even worth owning, for all intents and purposes other than a couple of solid games. But he fell off a cliff after Cutler got injured in Week Eleven. In the last six games of the year (he was healthy for all of them after suffering through a chest injury early on), Bennett caught just 7/110/0 on 18 targets with the Bears’ backup options at QB. If Cutler is healthy, Bennett is probably the most likely of this poor group of receivers to have a substantial role next year. We think Devin Hester (26/369/1 on 54 targets; 48.1%) has proven he’s not much of a WR, and Dane Sanzenbacher (27/276/3 on 52 targets; 51.9%) is just a guy who can be adequate in the slot and red zone. Speaking of the red zone, TE Kellen Davis was the Bears’ most notable threat there, as 5 of his 18 catches went for TDs, and 7 of his 33 targets came inside the 20. But he had only 206 yards receiving, and he’s disappointed that Martz’s offense didn’t give him a bigger chance to catch the ball. With Martz gone, we’ll see if the Bears give him the opportunity to make more plays, but he might skip town anyway. Whatever the case, the Bears need major upgrades here to help out Cutler.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Who will actually start at WR for the Bears next year? Will Knox be healthy enough to contribute? Will the Bears look to add a more dynamic TE now that Martz is gone?
Key Free Agents: RB Matt Forte,WR Roy Williams, TE Kellen Davis, QB Josh McCown, QB Caleb Hanie, DE Israel Idonije, DT Amobi Okoye, CB Tim Jennings, CB Zackary Bowman, CB Corey Graham, S Craig Steltz, S Brandon Meriweather
Detroit Lions
QB: It’s hard to imagine the Lions expecting anything close to what QB Matthew Stafford gave them in his first full season as a starting QB, as he was finally able to stay healthy in his third season in the NFL. Entering this year, Stafford had started only 13 combined games, as shoulder injuries robbed him of significant time in each of his first two seasons. In those 13 starts, Stafford combined for 2802 yards, with 19 TDs and 21 INTs, and 246 total FP. So on average, Stafford put up 215.5 yards, 1.47 TDs, 1.6 INTs, and 18.9 FPG per start in his first two seasons. Compare that to this year: In 16 starts, Stafford went 421/663 for an incredible 5038 yards, with 41 TDs and 16 INTs, ranking him 5th among all QBs with 26.5 FPG. Stafford averaged 314.9 yards per start (nearly 100 full yards more than in his first two seasons), 2.56 TDs per start (57.4% more per start than his first two years), and 1 INT per start (37.5% fewer than in his first two years). Stafford improved across the board, and not just subtly. He exploded. Without any run game to speak for most of the year, the Lions needed Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson to pick up the slack, and they did. After having just one 300-yard game in his first two seasons, Stafford had eight in 2011, including a massive 520-yard, 5-TD effort in a losing effort against the Packers in Week Seventeen. The best news for Stafford owners, outside of the fact that he was healthy all year, was that he didn’t really have a “down” stretch either. Although he had a few rough patches, only once all season did he throw for fewer than 200 yards in a game. He had 183 yards against Atlanta in Week Seven, which was also one of only four times he failed to throw multiple TDs. The book on Stafford coming out of college was that his accuracy would fail him at times, but other than a few games in which it did suffer, it’s was pinpoint, for the most part, this year. His delivery is near-perfect, and he was really composed, showing a pocket presence that really can’t be taught. He may have the most “live” arm in the league right now, as no one throws it on a rope like him, and he makes throws that only a few guys can even dream of making. He also has the best receiver in football, two solid TEs, and a decent enough supporting cast, even before potential free-agent or draft additions. And as outlined to us by receiver Nate Burleson during the season, Stafford improved greatly in terms of his mental effectiveness in 2011, which certainly helped his production. At this point, as long as Stafford’s on the field, his future looks very bright. Considering the ineffective running game and a mediocre-at-best offensive line, Stafford’s consistency was refreshing, and he should be drafted as a high-end starter next year, even though you have to take the “under” on 5000 yards and 40 TDs by default.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: It’s obviously wise to expect Stafford’s numbers to drop a bit from his monster 2011, but can he keep production high enough to be a top-half fantasy QB?
RBs: The Lions’ backfield was plagued by injuries before the 2011 season even started, and that proved to be a bad omen for pretty much the entire season. Rookie Mikel Leshoure was expected to provide a stabilizing and sustaining force in the backfield as the thunder to Jahvid Best’s lightning, but a torn Achilles in preseason practice ended his season before it even began. So Best was relied on for volume early in the season, and he was actually pretty successful overall for fantasy purposes. Unfortunately, a concussion cut his season short after Week Six, and now his long-term health has to be called into question because of concussion problems he’s had in the past. In those six games, Best carried 84/390/2, adding 27/287/1 as a receiver. Extrapolated over the entire season, Best’s 14.3 FPG would rank him 10th at RB. But concussions are obviously a serious issue, and Best couldn’t get cleared to play over the last three months of the season. The Lions were obviously concerned with his durability and ability to carry a load in the first place, or they wouldn’t have drafted Leshoure, and now Best’s health issues make his status as the team’s top back an even bigger question. Of course, nothing the mediocre fill-ins the Lions did after Best went down should give the team too much confidence moving forward. Despite playing in only six games, Best’s 390 rush yards led the Lions as they struggled to find an adequate replacement for much of the rest of the season. At first, the Lions handed over the reins to veteran Maurice Morris (80/316/1, 26/230/1, 4.8 FPG) and young, one-speed back Keiland Williams (58/195/2, 8/62/0, 2.9 FPG), neither of whom was particularly effective in anything but a part-time role. This midseason swoon when Best first went down is when the Lions’ offense “struggled” for the only time this year, so they had to go out and make a move by bringing in old friend Kevin Smith, after a turbulent trade deadline that included an attempt to trade for Ronnie Brown (voided when it was discovered that Jerome Harrison had a brain tumor). Smith was out of football after three injury-plagued seasons with the Lions, but his arrival in Week Ten gave the Lions the extra juice they needed to push towards the postseason. In Week Eleven, his first start, Smith carried 16 times for 140 yards and 2 TDs, and he added 4/61/1 as a receiver as well. As has been typical with Smith, he missed time (high ankle sprain and hamstring), but in his seven games, he gave the Lions and some fantasy teams some life. In only seven games of action, Smith ran for 72/356/4 (easily a career-high 4.9 YPC), and he added 22/179/3 as a receiver. His 13.6 FPG ranked him 11th at the RB position on the whole year (right behind Best, actually). Honestly, his performance overall was surprising. We wonder if the time off gave him some new life, because even as a rookie he was a grinder with limited lateral agility. In 2011, Smith looked more fluid than ever and actually had a little juice to him to go along with his underrated receiving game. Smith has always been a guy who finds a way to gain good yardage when he gets touches, and he’s very sneaky and productive in the screen game. He probably did enough to earn himself a serious look in 2012, if not with the Lions, than with another club. But there’s little doubt that a healthy Leshoure should be in line for 200+ carries in 2012.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Obviously, this backfield was a mess in 2012. Will Best and Leshoure rebound from serious injuries? Will either Smith or Morris, both free agents, be back as insurance?
WRs/TEs: If there was any doubt before 2011, let there be no doubt after it. The Detroit Lions have the best WR in football, and Calvin Johnson went above and beyond the call of duty to prove it this past season. In the first 16-game slate for Johnson since 2008, he posted career highs in all of the major receiving categories with 96/1681/16 (16.6 YPC) on 157 targets (61.1% conversion rate), and he ranked 1st among all WRs with 16.6 FPG in standard-scoring leagues. It was the first time since 2007 that the NFL’s leading receiver had more receiving yards than its leading rusher had rushing yards, and it’s no surprise that Johnson was the guy to accomplish this feat. Johnson scored 2 TDs in each of the first four games of this year, he had a streak of five 100-yard performances in six games from Weeks Three through Eight, and he finished with two 200-yard performances in his last three games (including 11/244/1 in a losing effort in Week Seventeen). Obviously, a full season of a healthy Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ complete lack of a sustaining run game helped Johnson put up his video-game numbers, but he doesn’t have numbers like that without freakish natural ability. Johnson’s huge, he’s fast, and he’s strong. In other words, he’s pretty much impossible to defend one-on-one, and sometimes two-on-one. He should be the top WR off the board in 2012, and he’ll probably go in the middle of the first round in many drafts. In a way, it’s not surprising that Johnson had his huge numbers, because the Lions didn’t really have anyone else to rely on at the WR position. We do like Nate Burleson, but he wasn’t the dependable #2 NFL WR (or #3 fantasy WR) we thought he would be and he was a non-factor far too often than we’d like to see. In 16 games, Burleson went for 73/757/3 on 109 targets (a really strong 66.9%), but he finished just 50th at the WR position with 6.4 FPG (PPR leagues were kinder to him, as he finished 39th). Burleson was a lot better over the second half of the season. From Week Ten on, he caught between 3 and 8 passes in every single game, with at least 5 receptions in seven of those eight games, and he improved from 31st at the WR position with 8.4 FPG over that stretch, and 19th in a PPR. We always like strong finishes more than fizzlers, and hopefully Burleson can parlay his momentum into a complete 2012 season if he can return as the team’s #2 receiver. He’ll have some competition from rising sophomore Titus Young, who didn’t jump off the page in any one way, but still managed to produce solid numbers. In 16 games as a rookie, Young had 48/607/6 receiving on 85 targets (56.4%), ranking him 53rd at the WR position with 6.1 FPG. Young has below-average size, but he’s not a burner, and he doesn’t appear to be a polished enough route runner or a sudden enough athlete to man a slot job on a full-time basis, at least not yet. He seems like the type of player whose numbers will be inflated in a big-time passing offense, and that’s exactly what they were this past year. We’ll see if he improves with a full off-season, but he wasn’t the consistent downfield threat we thought he might be, and we thought he moved a little better coming out of college. The Lions also have two strong TE options, and have been one of the teams on that bandwagon over the last two seasons. The top guy has been Brandon Pettigrew, who improved on his strong 2010 numbers with an even better 2011: 83/777/5 on 125 targets (66.4%) and his 6.7 FPG ranked him 13th at the TE position. However, his 83 receptions were 3rd at the position, and he ranked 8th for fantasy in a PPR. We were a little bit worried that with a full season of the strong-armed Stafford at QB, Pettigrew would become a little less involved, but Stafford still loved to check down to his big TE, and coach Jim Schwartz said that Pettigrew acted as “an extension” of the running game as the team’s most consistent chain mover, important because they didn’t really have a guy in the backfield they could rely on. Pettigrew is a good in-line blocker when used as such, but he runs better than we thought and he’s fairly solid away from the formation, as well. That’s where the Lions also use Tony Scheffler, who is clearly the #2 TE in this offense and might be more of a WR type than an actual TE. For what it’s worth, he’s also an underrated “TD celebrator,” and that gives him a few bonus points. But we were still baffled that Scheffler wasn’t more involved. He caught 26/347/6 on 42 targets (61.9%) in 15 games, ranking him 23rd at the TE position with 4.7 FPG. No, he’s not Jimmy Graham, but Scheffler can indeed move around pretty well, and he’s a tough mismatch in his own right. Scheffler’s biggest value came inside the red zone, where he had 13 of his 42 targets, and he actually scored more TDs than Pettigrew. Moving forward, we’d like to see him cross the 40-catch plateau, so he can be a more reliable fantasy option, because we like him as a player.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: With all of their top five options under contract for 2012, how will the Lions’ passing game evolve, if at all? While he was productive, we would like to be a little bit more impressed with Titus Young’s game, and hopefully a full off-season helps that.
Key Free Agents: LT Jeff Backus,RB Kevin Smith, RB Maurice Morris, RB Jerome Harrison, QB Drew Stanton,WR Maurice Stovall, WR Rashied Davis, DE Cliff Avril, MLB Stephen Tulloch, LB Bobby Carpenter, CB Eric Wright, SS Erik Coleman
Green Bay Packers
QB: Obviously, the Packers’ season ended in the most disappointing way possible, as drops, fumbles, and some rare bad throws from Aaron Rodgers cost them a chance to repeat as Super Bowl champions. But that doesn’t discount the season Rodgers had as a whole, which solidified his status as perhaps the top QB in the NFL, and probably the most reliable fantasy QB in the entire league as well (although Drew Brees certainly has an argument for that). Rodgers played in 15 games, sitting out the Packers’ meaningless final regular season game, but his season was still incredible. Rodgers completed 342/501 passes (68.3%) for 4637 yards with 45 TDs and only 6 INTs. Rodgers also adds value with his legs, with 60/257/3 rushing, and his 30.4 FPG ranked him #1 overall at the QB position. Although his worst game of the season came at perhaps the most inopportune time, in Week Fifteen against the Chiefs, Rodgers still added a rushing TD in that game to help his fantasy owners. In our standard scoring system, Rodgers scored at least 22.0 FP in every game he played in. For reference, only seven QBs averaged as much as 22.0 FPG. He threw for at least 300 yards eight times, including a seven-game stretch to start the season in which his lowest yardage total was 297 yards in Week Three. He never turned the ball over more than a single time in any game this year, and he accounted for multiple TDs (whether by rushing or passing) in all of them, as well. So yeah, without question, this guy is really good. Obviously, it helps that he has one of the most talent WR corps in the entire NFL, but his offensive line struggled with injuries all year to guys like Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton, and it was ineffective in the first place (as we saw in the playoffs against the Giants). He also didn’t have a good run game, with Ryan Grant mostly ineffective and James Starks banged up for a good part of the season. Rodgers has an absolute cannon for an arm and the willingness to make any throw on the field, but moreover he doesn’t make many poor decisions. His pocket movement is elite, and unlike players like Michael Vick, he doesn’t unnecessarily break the pocket unless he has to, despite being able to pick up first downs consistently with his legs. No doubt, the one Packer QB performance that probably sticks out above all is Matt Flynn’s record-setting Week Seventeen against the Lions, in which he threw for 480 yards and 6 TDs with Rodgers resting for the postseason. But, as a whole, Rodgers confirmed to us that he’s as elite as elite comes. He should be a 1st-round pick in 2012 because he’s an automatic 20 points every week with huge upside.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Will the Packers’ line come together and protect Rodgers better, as pressure was the only way to stop him this year? With Flynn a free agent and almost certain to sign a monster deal elsewhere, will the Packers stick with youngster Graham Harrell as backup or will they add someone else?
RBs: The Packers didn’t have much of a run game for the second straight season, and fortunately for them QB Aaron Rodgers and the passing game were prolific enough that it didn’t matter. The Packers’ leading rusher was second-year back James Starks, who carried for 133/578/1 in 13 games, adding a meager 29/216/0 as a receiver. Starks ranked just 47th at the RB position with 6.6 FPG, and even though he wasn’t the “starting” RB, he ended up being the most reliable of this bunch for fantasy (which, of course, wasn’t very reliable at all). But Starks has had a long history of injuries, and he didn’t escape the 2011 season unscathed, missing three games with knee and ankle injuries. The best thing that Starks owners could say about the guy was that they typically knew what they were getting from him, at least before he got hurt. Starks had an eight-game stretch from Weeks Three through Eleven in which he had between 11 and 13 carries in every game, with at least 1 reception in each of those games as well. If he was getting plugged in as a flex, he was pretty much a shoo-in for between 6.0-9.0 FP most weeks. But after scoring a TD in Week One, Starks didn’t cross the goal line for the rest of the season, and generally he was way too mediocre to use as a flex except in a pinch. Starks is like a younger Ryan Grant in that he can move forward when he gets carries, and he’s not an incompetent receiver. He’s a physical runner, but he’ll always have injury problems because he runs too upright and takes a lot of hits. But for all intents and purposes he’s “just a guy” who plays a specific role because the Packers don’t really have anyone better. That includes Grant, who returned from last season’s serious foot injury to post about as good a season as we could expect. In 15 games, Grant ran for 134/559/2 and 19/268/1 as a receiver, averaging a 45th-most 6.7 FPG, just 0.1 FPG ahead of Starks’ production (which the 2 extra TDs pretty much accounted for alone). Grant was more inconsistent than Starks, but his highs were higher than Starks’ highs. He had his only 2 rushing TDs as part of a 10/85 day against the Raiders in Week Fourteen, and he had an 80-yard receiving TD against the Lions in Week Seventeen. Otherwise, he had as many as 92 rushing yards in Week Three, and as few as 6 (on 8 carries) in Week Ten. We’ve known for a while that Grant is no special talent, but he’s always been productive when he’s gotten the chance to play, and the Packers will have a decision to make with him because he’s a free agent. He looked better than Starks at times this year, but he also looked more sluggish than Starks at times this year. But the Packers needed to use him. They didn’t give a big look to rookie Brandon Saine (28 touches, 138 yards from scrimmage), and rookie Alex Green took only 4 touches before tearing his ACL, putting his future in question. And as always, there was FB John Kuhn, who scored 6 TDs on 45 touches but had only 155 yards from scrimmage. The Packers’ backs are serviceable, but a little bit more dynamic talent in the backfield (like the Saints have) could give them an all-time great offense. Even if Green is healthy, there’s no way the Packers can rely on him in 2012, so they may be Grant back at an affordable price. But the Packers had some definite plans for Green for the second half of 2011, so he could still be the guy
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: The Packers are not typically a club that pursues players on the free agent market, but with Grant potentially leaving, will the Packers look to spice up a mediocre backfield? Can either rising second-year player, Saine or Green, contribute in 2012?
WRs/TEs: When a team has a QB as prolific as Aaron Rodgers, there are going to be a lot of weapons in the passing game benefitting and putting up some huge numbers. So did fantasy owners, especially if they were able to jump on the Jordy Nelson train in the middle rounds. In terms of pure FPG, Nelson was the biggest breakout WR in 2012, even ahead of Victor Cruz. In 16 games, Nelson caught 68 passes for 1263 yards and 15 TDs, with an average of 18.6 YPC. His 13.5 FPG ranked him #2 at the WR position, behind only Calvin Johnson among those who played a full season.What’s most amazing is that Nelson did all this on 96 targets (6 per game), with an incredible 70.8% catch rate. Consider that Nelson is not a TE catching passes in the flat, or a RB catching screens. He’s a WR who averaged nearly 19 yards per catch, and he caught a spectacular percentage of his passes, which is a testament to his skills and the deadly accuracy of Rodgers (and some credit has to go to Matt Flynn as well, as he threw 3 of those TD passes to Nelson in Week Seventeen). As a big-play guy, Nelson had some down weeks, but he scored in 10 different games, and he had double-digit TDs in four of those 10 games. He had five 100-yard games, and was under 50 yards only four times. So he was about as consistent as one could possibly expect from a downfield threat. Nelson moves well and he has great size, which are obviously positives, and he’s got the long speed to beat double coverage. But the chemistry with Rodgers is just through the roof, and it’s why he’ll be a top draft pick among fantasy WRs next year. Of course, we can’t discount the contributions of WR Greg Jennings either. Nelson had the big plays, but Jennings was the most consistent chain-mover on the Packers’ offense, and Rodgers’ most reliable target. In 13 games, before a knee sprain kept him out for the final three games of the regular season, Jennings went for 67/949/9 on 101 targets (66.3%), and his 11.5 FPG ranked him 9th among all WRs. It might seem that Jennings had more than only three 100-yard games, because he was a pretty consistent producer. In standard-scoring systems, Jennings had at least 8.2 FPG in 11 of the 13 games he played in, and double-digits in nine of those 11. He had 5 catches or more in eight of his 13 games, so Rodgers looked for him to make plays when the team needed them. Despite missing three games, Jennings tied for the team lead with 17 red-zone targets, an area in which he’s really successful because he’s fantastic and finding space in zones or getting just slight separation from defenders, and Rodgers can put the ball on a rope for him. Jennings didn’t have a flashy year, but he made plenty of big plays, and he’s still the “#1” receiver here if we’re going to use specific designations on a team that doesn’t really need them. Outside of Nelson and Jennings, the Packers had a ton of receivers making plays. Downfield contributor James Jones went for 38/635/7 on 55 targets (69.1%, 49th with 6.6 FPG), ancient veteran Donald Driver went for 37/445/6 on 56 targets (66.1%, 68th with 5.0 FPG), and even rookie Randall Cobb parlayed an impressive Week One performance into a decent 24/369/1 on 30 targets (80%, 110th with 2.9 FPG, not bad for the sixth option in this passing game). However, it’s hard to have so many options in one offense without at least one guy turning out a disappointing campaign. And that distinction, unfortunately, has to go to TE Jermichael Finley. Looking at his numbers, of course, it’s hard to even say it was a “disappointment.” Finley finished with 55/767/8 receiving on 90 targets (61.1%), and he ranked 7th at the TE position with 7.8 FPG. But Finley had only four games with double-digit fantasy points, and 3 of his 8 TDs came in a single game, against the Bears in Week Three. Five times Finley finished with fewer than 5.0 FP. Finley struggled with nagging knee problems and “tired legs,” but more importantly he made mental errors and had significant problems with drops. We know how gifted Finley is. If we’re talking pure athleticism, maybe only Jimmy Graham is ahead of him, and even that is a maybe. But he has never lived up to his full potential just yet (it was a shame he got hurt last season, because he looked like he was on track). We still like Finley a lot, and we would expect the Packers to either franchise him or re-sign him to an extension this off-season, but he has the potential to be a lot more. To be fair to Finley, he seems to realize it. He’s talked about needing “chemistry” with Rodgers, and he’s admitted that he’s come up short of expectations in his short career thus far. That all said, he’s still extremely dangerous as a one-on-one matchup for a defense, and the Packers would lose a lot without Finley.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: With almost everyone under contract for 2012 already, there are two situations to watch. Will Driver hang around for another season, and will Finley be back, whether under the franchise tag or under a new long-term deal? Can Nelson keep his incredible pace up while being mainly a downfield threat?
Minnesota Vikings
QB: The Vikings surprised many when they took QB Christian Ponder in the top half of the first round in April’s NFL Draft. Many hadn’t pegged Ponder as a 1st-round pick, and some had him behind Andy Dalton on draft boards, and Dalton wasn’t drafted until the 2nd round. The Vikings were also the only team to put their 1st-round rookie QB (including Dalton here) behind an established veteran at the position. After initial unwillingness, and likely due to no offseason thanks to the lockout, the Vikings made the move to acquire Donovan McNabb to start at the position, while Ponder developed. Quite frankly, the move was a disaster. McNabb started six games for the Vikings, completing 94/156 passes (60.3%) for 1026 yards, with 4 TDs and 2 INTs. Over the span of his starts, McNabb ranked 31st among all QBs with 13.2 FPG. The biggest problem with McNabb was his accuracy. Most of his completions were short passes, and even on some of his completions he made inaccurate throws, preventing runs after the catch. A few weeks after the Vikings benched McNabb, they cut him, and although it appeared the needy Bears would be a logical fit for the hometown boy, McNabb didn’t find a job, and now his future is in serious jeopardy unless he’s willing to accept a backup’s job. On the other hand, there were some positives for Ponder, and some negatives. He made his first start in Week Seven against the Packers, and started each game for the rest of the season for the Vikings. Over that span, he completed 149/274 passes (54.4%) for 1754 yards with 13 TDs and 13 INTs, adding 27/211/0 rushing. His 16.1 FPG over his starts ranked him 24th at the QB position, but it was better for the Vikings to get their young guy developed when it was obvious McNabb was not going to help them. Ponder actually got off to a quick start, as his throws down the field were more accurate than McNabb’s, and the Vikings used a lot of designed roll-outs and boots to get Ponder’s legs, one of his better assets, moving. Through his first six starts, everything seemed to be going really well. Although Ponder showed some typical rookie struggles, he still threw for 200 yards or more in four of his first six starts. Then, everything started to unravel. Ponder first had to play through the pain of a hip pointer, and then through a concussion. He ended the year extremely poorly, with as few as 28 and no more than 120 passing yards in each of his last four starts. When Ponder wasn’t getting a full slate of practice reps because of injury, it became evident that he was struggling with even the most basic of reads, which could be a red flag for the future. He probably shouldn’t have been playing down the stretch, and the Vikings should have just let the versatile Joe Webb, who was able to move the ball in the few chances he got, start their last couple games. Despite the struggles with Ponder (he was baited into some bad picks), he has poise and a very good feel for the game and does not play too fast, which is obvious when you watch him play. The ball comes out well and his arm is a little stronger than expected. He also moved well in and out of the pocketed and augmented his fantasy value with some running production. He looks like he has a future, but it’ll be interesting to see if Webb can pressure him into some competition in the off-season.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Ponder is obviously the overwhelming favorite to start heading into 2012, but is there a chance that Joe Webb (34/63, 376 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT; 22/154/2 rushing) does enough to push him?
RBs: This is probably the one position in all of our team reviews where the numbers don’t really matter, because if Adrian Peterson isn’t 100% or close to it by the time the season starts, the Vikings will already be in a hole. When Peterson was active, his owners benefitted, as he ranked 6th among RBs with 15.8 FPG. But he played in only 12 games, first missing time with a high ankle sprain, and then with a devastating and ugly ACL injury that put him under the knife. He finished with 209/973/12 rushing and a disappointing 18/139/1 receiving. Peterson isn’t a great receiver, but he’s certainly capable of adding value in that department, so it was a little bit upsetting to see him catch only 18 passes (9 of which came in two games, 9 in the other ten), especially with a young QB in Christian Ponder playing most of the time. While Peterson scored in all but three games that he played in this season, he only topped 100 yards three times, although, to be fair, he also did this in 2009, when he played a full 16-game slate. It was hard to expect Peterson to do a whole lot by himself. The Viking defense struggled for most of the year, and the offensive line was average at best (although the right side of the line looked pretty good at times), so a combination of fewer opportunities and mediocre push at the point of the attack kept Peterson under 1000 rushing yards for the first time in his career. But the injury suffered in Week Sixteen is why we’ll remember this year. Peterson was probably trying to play too soon as he recovered from a high ankle sprain, and his desire to live up to the monster contract he signed in 2011 might have been a motivating factor. Peterson was hit directly in the left knee by a shoulder, his leg getting bent the wrong way, and the torn ACL and MCL make his availability for the start of the 2012 season a question mark. For our sake, we hope he’s ready, but the timing of his injury and the history of his injury suggests his 2012 season will not be anywhere up to par. At least the Vikings got a solid performance from second-year back Toby Gerhart in Peterson’s absence, however. In 16 games, Gerhart carried for 109/531/1 and 23/190/3 receiving, ranking him 49th among RBs with 6.0 FPG. But from Week Twelve through the end of the season, when Gerhart did most of his “filling in,” he got enough volume to rank 13th among all RBs with 13.0 FPG. In other words, he might have been among the “truest” of RB handcuffs, if we’re using the typical definition of the word. Our criticism of Gerhart has been pretty consistent. We think he’s a one-speed player who runs like a defensive lineman, but he’s tough and he’ll invite contact, and his hands are good enough to make him more than adequate as a receiver. To put it another way, he’s an old-time FB who gets by on running hard and with power. Of course, he was drafted as a RB in the second round, which in retrospect was a bit over the top. But he was at least been more decisive in 2011, and he’s shown he can put up numbers on volume as a runner and a receiver. He takes what’s given to him, nothing more and nothing less. But he saw double-digit carries in five of the Vikings’ final six games, so they’re willing to go to him when Peterson is hurt. It also helped that their best scatback was WR Percy Harvin, so the Vikings didn’t really have a choice but to go to Gerhart when Peterson was out. Late in the season, the Vikings added free agent Jordan Todman, a smaller but speedier back who was drafted by the Chargers this past year. Todman could be in the mix as a changeup in 2012.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: Obviously, the big question is if Peterson will be ready for Week One. Whether the answer is yes or no, it’ll be really interesting to see where he goes in drafts. Do the Vikings trust Gerhart enough to be the main backup, or will they add a legitimate speed threat to help take the load off of him?
WRs/TEs: Prior to the 2011 season, the Vikings didn’t find it prudent to re-sign Sidney Rice to a long-term contract, given Rice’s inconsistency and problems with injuries in his career. Although the Vikings ended up shorthanded at the WR position, that decision, at least, turned out to be very defensible, given Rice’s inability to stay on the field with Seattle this past season. So the Vikings were left with Percy Harvin and a bunch of role players at the WR position. And if you want to be serious, Harvin might be a role player too – the ultimate role player. In other words, he does everything. In 16 games, Harvin went for 87/967/6 receiving on 118 targets (a fantastic 73.7% conversion rate), and he added 52/345/2 rushing (he was also a great kick returner, as well, if your leagues count that production). His overall numbers were enough to get him 11.2 FPG, ranking him 11th at the WR position. And given how Harvin finished, it’s hard to remember that he got off to a really slow start with Donovan McNabb at QB. In McNabb’s six starts, Harvin went for 25/261/0 receiving, and only his solid rushing numbers helped him to rank 46th at the WR position over that span with 7.0 FPG. Harvin didn’t score a TD until Week Eight, which was the second start for QB Christian Ponder. And from the moment Ponder took over, there was magic for Harvin. From that point forward, he ranked 5th at the position with 13.7 FPG. Remember, this is in a standard scoring league, not a PPR. With Ponder as starter, Harvin had a string of five straight games from Weeks Ten through Fourteen with at least 6 catches, scoring 5 TDs over that span as well. He had positive chemistry with both Ponder and backup Joe Webb, and the Vikings made an effort to get the ball in his hands. Harvin isn’t going to become a top receiver strictly by playing on the outside, so the Vikings move him around, notably into the slot and into the backfield. Harvin is especially dangerous out of the backfield because he’s always a threat to run the ball, and he does it well. He did all of this without a significant threat on the outside, as the Vikings battled to try to get someone consistent to take the focus off of Harvin. After going through some pains that included cutting the ineffective Bernard Berrian, the Vikings found at least a decent option in veteran Michael Jenkins, who went for 38/466/3 on 55 targets (69.0%) in 11 games, ranking him 58th with 5.9 FPG. We’ve always called Jenkins “just a guy,” and he did nothing to change our opinion of him, but at least he could work the sticks. At 6’4”, he has great size with average speed and decent hands, so there’s a place for him in the NFL. But Jenkins landed on IR with a knee injury after Week Twelve, and the Vikings ended up having to give significant reps to Devin Aromashodu (26/468/1 on 83 targets; a horrendous 31.3%), who is like a lowercase Jenkins. It’s clear that the Vikings will need to add someone to work with Harvin, because they need one desperately. Fortunately for Ponder, he had a decent pair of TEs to help him out. Veteran Visanthe Shiancoe was the starter, going for 36/409/3 on 70 targets (a really poor 51.4%, especially for a TE), and a poor 3.9 FPG. Shiancoe can stretch the field and be a weapon in the red zone, but at 31 and with an expiring contract, it’s hard to imagine him sticking around. That’s doubly true because of the presence of Kyle Rudolph, who didn’t put up huge numbers as a rookie but showed enough to convince us he can be a major player in the future here. In 14 games, Rudolph went for 26/249/3 on 39 targets (66.7%), averaging only 3.1 FPG but convincing the Vikings that he should be a big part of their offense moving forward. Rudolph might not be a freak talent like a Rob Gronkowski, but he’s certainly gifted enough to be a major mismatch both in line with and away from the formation. Late in the season, he also showed an ability to make contested red-zone catches, which could be a great sign for his future as a viable fantasy contributor. He didn’t catch more than 3 passes in any single game this year, but remember that he played mostly a reserve role, showing good chemistry with Ponder. The Vikings need to add some other pieces, but they do at least have some nice weapons to build around in Harvin and Rudolph.
  • Fantasy situation to watch in 2012: The Vikings need more of a prototypical “#1” WR to complement Harvin. Will they find one on a crowded free-agent market or through the draft? Is Rudolph ready to take the next step toward being a full-time player if Shiancoe moves on? 

Key Free Agents: TE Visanthe Shiancoe, WR Devin Aromashodu, WR Greg Camarillo, QB Sage Rosenfels, DT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion, LB E.J. Henderson, LB Erin Henderson, CB Benny Sapp, S Tyrell Johnson, S Husain Abdullah


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