2013 Wrap-Up Report and Early 2014 Preview: NFC North
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QB: Jay Cutler’s tenure in Chicago hasn’t exactly gone to plan, and while he’s had the team in the mix for the playoffs, including a deep run in 2010, Cutler would probably admit he’s been disappointed how things have gone since coming over in a trade back in 2009. With Cutler entering a contract year in 2013, the team decided to shake things up by firing HC Lovie Smith and his staff to bring in creative offensive mind, Marc Trestman, who had made quite a name for himself in the CFL and as an offensive coach for many successful QBs. The Bear offense was conservative, boring, and stagnated under Smith’s regime, so the hope was Trestman could inject some life and get something out of a talented group that already included high-end talent like WR Brandon Marshall and RB Matt Forte. There were also high hopes for veteran TE Martellus Bennett and second-year WR Alshon Jeffery. As we know, the Bear offense ended up being significantly better in 2013 with all of the aforementioned players having good-to-great seasons, with the one exception being Cutler. Cutler didn’t have a bad year, but a groin injury in Week Seven and an ankle injury in Week Ten limited him to just 11 games and opened the door for journeyman QB Josh McCown to rejuvenate his career. McCown ended up appearing in 8 games and he started five times. He went 149/224 (66.5%) for 1829 yards, 13 TDs, and just 1 INT, while adding 13/69/1 on the ground to finish with 19.6 FPG. His five starts came during Weeks Nine through Fourteen, and during that span, he was 9th among QBs at 23 FPG. While Cutler is the more talented player, McCown did a great job protecting the football and getting the ball to the great weapons around him. McCown would keep the Bears in the hunt until Cutler returned in Week Fifteen, but losses in the final two games of the season ended their playoff hopes. In 11 games, Cutler went 225/356 (63.2%) for 2619 yards, 19 TDs, and 12 INTs, while adding 23/118 on the ground to finish with 19.9 FPG (t-19th). Thanks to the change in scheme and some nice additions on the OL, Cutler was sacked just 19 times in 11 games compared to 38 sacks in 2012. McCown took 11 sacks in his eight appearances, so the team still gave up just 30 sacks, a clear improvement over previous seasons. Cutler has signed a new deal to remain with the Bears and while McCown could test the market, he’s indicated a return to Chicago as the backup would be best. Cutler’s in a great situation in Chicago going forward, but we have to worry about his availability, since he’s now missed time in each of his last four seasons. That means he’s a backup only for fantasy in 2014, but there is some upside in this great offense.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: If Cutler can stay healthy, will he be a fantasy starter in this fantasy-friendly offense? Will McCown return as the backup or attempt to cash in elsewhere?
RB: To say we were excited about the prospects for RB Matt Forte after the hiring of HC Marc Trestman would be an understatement. We knew RBs under Trestman, like former Raider Charlie Garner, had a lot of success and with Forte being such a great all-around player, it seemed like he would be a great fit in Trestman’s offense. That was certainly the case, as Forte stayed healthy and played 16 games for the first time since 2010. While the passing game flourished with both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown throwing to big WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, Forte also had his most-active year as a receiver. He caught 75 of 95 targets (79.8%) for 594 yards and 3 TDs. The catches, targets, and yards were all career-highs for Forte. That wasn’t surprising. What was a bit of a shock was the improvement Forte had at the goal line. Never known to be a good short-yardage back, Forte did a much better job converting in those situations this past season and earned the trust he didn’t have with the previous coaching staff. Forte had 50 RZ carries and 13 GL carries compared to 15 RZ carries and 10 GL carries for RB Michael Bush. Bush looked sluggish in 2013 and scored just three TDs on the ground all season, while Forte found the endzone nine times running the ball. Bush appeared in 15 games, but was a non-factor, rushing 63 times for 197 yards (3.1 YPC) and 3 TDs while adding just 4/48/1 on 8 targets to finish with 3.5 FPG. Meanwhile, Forte had 288 carries for 1339 yards (4.6 YPC) and 9 TDs to go along with his great receiving numbers, and that helped him finish 2nd among RBs at 21.3 FPG. He’s never run for more yards or scored more rushing TDs in any other year and the 289 carries were his most since running it 316 times as a rookie. We can only hope Forte will continue to handle this heavy load without any issues because if that’s the case, he should be in for another great season in 2014.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Forte remain healthy enough to build on his great performance in 2013? Might the team try to get Bush more involved or look to add another back in the draft?
WR/TE: No matter what the offense, who’s playing QB, or who his coach is, WR Brandon Marshall has put up big numbers year after year. That was the case in his first season with the Bears in 2012, despite the offense as a whole being boring and conservative. When you’re one of the best receivers in the game, you can overcome any issues that might slow others down, and long as you have a decent QB. However, our expectations were raised for Marshall and the Bear offense with the hiring of HC Marc Trestman, and by the end of the season, those raised expectations were certainly justified. What we didn’t expect, to the degree he did it, was the monster improvement from second-year WR Alshon Jeffery. The Bears selected Jeffery with the hope he could be a similar player to Marshall, but his rookie season was marred by injuries and inconsistent play. We loved what we saw from Jeffery in the preseason, and that so-so rookie 2012 season seems like ancient history after Jeffery’s performance in 2013. While Marshall has an inch and about 15 pounds on Jeffery, both players gave QB Jay Cutler big, physical options, both of whom could make plays down the field, in traffic, and on jump balls. Of course, all of that is especially important playing with Cutler, since he’s not afraid to chuck it up. With both Jeffery and Marshall dominating the competition, opposing defenses couldn’t pay too much attention to one over the other because they were both performing at a very high level. Marshall ended up with 100/1295/12 (13 YPC) on 160 targets (62.5% catch rate) with 22 RZ targets and 9 GL targets, putting him 8th among WRs at 18.8 FPG. He now has five 100-catch seasons in eight years and has racked up at least 1000 yards in the last seven seasons. Jeffery posted 89/1421/7 (16 YPC) on 148 targets (60.1% catch rate) with 19 RZ targets and 3 GL targets, and that put him in a tie for 10th at the position, with 17.7 FPG. The team added a legit receiving threat in TE Martellus Bennett, and while he didn’t have a monster season, he was definitely a reliable passing option, which had been missing from the team’s TE since the departure of Greg Olsen. Bennett had 65/759/5 (11.7 YPC) on 94 targets (69.1% catch rate) with 16 RZ targets and 4 GL targets, and finished with 10.7 FPG (t-14th). With this entire group back and Cutler signing a brand new deal, expectations should remain high heading into 2014.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Marshall and Jeffery each be considered #1 fantasy options despite playing on the same team? Will Bennett’s numbers improve enough to make him a more reliable fantasy starter?
Key Free Agents: QB Josh McCown, KR Devin Hester, OL Jonathan Scott, OL Eben Britton, OL Roberto Garza, DE Corey Wootton, DT Landon Cohen, DT Nate Collins, DT Henry Melton, LB James Anderson, LB Blake Costanzo, LB D.J. Williams, CB Charles Tillman, CB Zack Bowman, CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Sherrick McManis, S Major Wright, S Craig Steltz.
QB: Certainly, Matthew Stafford remains an exceptionally talented player, but one who has flaws that must be corrected. It’s arguable that Stafford’s flaws – mechanics and decision-making mostly – were the key reasons for the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz. And new coach Jim Caldwell (who spend many years coaching a younger Peyton Manning) came into his interview with the Lions prepared to discuss what Stafford needs to improve on, clearly impressing the Lions’ brass in the process. Now, for fantasy, Stafford’s season was fine, as always. He completed 371/634 passes (58.5%) for 4647 yards with 29 TDs and 19 INTs. He ranked 4th among all QBs in our site-default scoring system, with 23.0 FPG. For the first three months of the season, Stafford was consistently among the elite fantasy QBs – through Thanksgiving he posted fewer than 20 FP only once, a 17-FP showing in Week Five. Over that span, Stafford’s 26.5 FPG ranked him #2 behind only Peyton Manning, and he had six games of 300 or more passing yards. However, come fantasy playoff time (and time for the Lions to make their own run), Stafford totally collapsed. Over the last four games of the year, all Detroit losses, Stafford was a fantasy zero. He threw only 2 TDs to 5 INTs in December, totaled 822 yards in four games, and averaged a miserable 12.5 FPG. That ranked him 34th among QBs with at least two appearances in December. Stafford’s breakdown coincided with WR Calvin Johnson’s inability to shake a knee injury that required post-season surgery, as well as a finger ailment. As a result, Stafford’s messy footwork and mechanical issues blew up. Stafford’s final completion percentage of 58.5% was the lowest since his rookie year in 2009, and his 23 turnovers were also the most of his career (he fumbled 12 times, losing 4). Here’s what the Lions can do to help. First of all, Caldwell and OC Joe Lombardi have a good track record with passers, and their focus will be on Stafford’s footwork. Clearly, Caldwell and Lombardi have already done plenty of research on Stafford’s issues. Second, GM Martin Mayhew must give Stafford viable receivers outside of Calvin. The fact that Stafford can play inconsistent football and still put up numbers is encouraging, but he ruined a lot of fantasy seasons with his play over the last month.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: Can Stafford put together a consistent 2014 after a productive 2013 that slipped down the stretch? With Shaun Hill a free agent, who will back him up?
RB: Although the fantasy production wasn’t always consistent, the Lions ended up with the most effective one-two fantasy RB punch in the NFL in 2013. It started last spring in free agency, when the Lions lured Reggie Bush to town on the promise that Calvin Johnson would open up huge running lanes, thanks to the coverage he demanded downfield. And for the most part, the Lions came through on that promise. In 14 games, Bush totaled 223/1006/4 rushing (4.5 YPC) and 54/506/3 receiving on 79 targets (68.4%). It may surprise some fantasy players to know that Bush finished #6 in a PPR with 17.7 FPG. For the most part, Bush came through if he was in your lineups. He topped 20 FP five separate times in a PPR, and was under 10 FP only three times, with one of those outings coming in at 9.9 FP. However, given Bush’s fumbling problems (he lost 4 on the year and was benched at times) and his injury issues (a calf injury late and a knee injury early cost him games), we’d think the average fantasy player may be surprised by how well he finished overall. Still, he topped 100 yards from scrimmage eight separate times, and had 3 or more catches in 11 of his 14 games. When he was active, he was typically producing. But because of his issues, it’s important to have a reliable backup. The Lions had that and more in Joique Bell. In 16 games, Bell posted 166/650/8 rushing (3.8 YPC) and 53/547/0 receiving on 69 targets (10.3 YPC, 76.8%). Overall, he ranked #16 among RBs with at least five appearances with 13.8 FPG in a PPR league. By that number, Bell was an every-week #2 RB, one you put in your lineup and didn’t worry about. But we need to look a little bit deeper. Bell topped 20 FP in a PPR league on five separate occasions, including both times Bush missed games (Week Three and Week Fourteen). But he also had a whopping eight games of fewer than 10 FP in a PPR league. One of the other times Bell topped 20 FP, in Week Sixteen against the Giants, Bush was benched after a fumble. That left Bell with two 20-FP performances, three 10-19 FP performances, and eight sub-10-FP performances with Bush handling a big role. Most of the time, he didn’t come through, despite his high final ranking. Now, Bell is a pretty talented pass catcher and versatile back, one capable of handling both short-yardage and third-down work. But despite the final rankings for Bush and Bell, this backfield didn’t completely support two fantasy-relevant players, at least consistently. Bell is a restricted free agent this coming off-season, and he’s expected to receive a high tender from the Lions, perhaps a second-round tender. That means rising second-year player Theo Riddick (51 yards from scrimmage, 1 TD) will probably have to wait another year before becoming a major contributor.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: Under new coach Jim Caldwell, what will this backfield look like? Will the Lions trust Bush enough to remain top dog here? Will Bell, a restricted free agent, be back?
WR/TE: This seems odd to say because the Lions have consistently been among the NFL’s most prolific passing teams since drafting Matthew Stafford in 2009, but their receiving corps significantly lacks depth. Of course, it helps to have Calvin Johnson, who may be the most gifted receiver in the history of the NFL. Calvin backed up his 2012 season, in which he set the NFL record with 1964 receiving yards, by posting more monster numbers in 2013. Calvin hauled in 84 passes for 1489 yards and 12 TDs on 155 targets (17.7 YPC, a very low 54.2% conversion rate). In 14 games, he averaged 21.8 FPG, which actually tied his performance from last year, when he had only 5 TDs, despite his record-setting yardage. He ranked #2 to only Josh Gordon among all WRs.Calvin’s season obviously hit its zenith with his absurd 14/329/1 receiving performance against Dallas in Week Eight, as part of a four-game run in which his worst performance was 26.3 FPG in Week Ten (he scored 7 TDs over these four games, after scoring 5 total in all of 2012). In all, Calvin topped 100 yards seven times in the 14 games he played. But he also dealt with a nagging knee injury all season, an injury that cost him time in Week Five and in Week Seventeen. It really hampered him down the stretch, when he missed Week Seventeen and had only 12/190/0 receiving from Weeks Fourteen through Sixteen. As a result, Stafford struggled for fantasy over the final month as well. And can you blame him? The rest of Detroit’s receivers were miserable, at best. In 14 games, Calvin totaled 304.9 FP. The other eight Detroit WRs to play offensive snaps combined for 279.6. That group was led by Kris Durham’s 99.0 FP. But Durham is “just a guy,” and we mean that at best. In 15 games, Durham posted 38/490/2 receiving on 83 targets (12.9 YPC, 45.8%). He ranked 87th with 6.6 FPG. Only twice all season did Durham post double-digit FP in a PPR, and only once (Week Six) did that come with Calvin also active. Durham has a job because he’s 6’6”, and that’s about it. Obviously, Detroit would have been helped if vet Nate Burleson didn’t break his arm in September trying to reach for a pizza in his passenger seat (really). In Nine games, Burleson posted 39/461/1 receiving on 55 targets (11.8 YPC, 70.9%). He averaged 10.0 FPG and ranked 56th at the position, so he wasn’t a total zero. But after posting 19/239/0 in three games before getting hurt, Burleson had only 20/222/1 in his final six appearances of the year, and he failed to step up with Calvin hurting late. It’s fair to say that with Calvin coming off knee and finger surgeries, the Lions need more insurance at the WR position for next year. Plus, Durham is a restricted free agent, and Burleson may be cut if he doesn’t want to restructure his contract (the Lions are in veritable cap hell). Suffice it to say that neither Durham nor Burleson, and especially not Kevin Ogletree, Jeremy Ross, Dorin Dickerson, or Micheal Spurlock will be a good #2 in 2014 for Jim Caldwell. A wildcard is third-year wideout Ryan Broyles, but he’s suffered a major knee injury in three of his last four seasons dating back to college, so he’s probably not someone they can rely on and any contribution from him should be viewed as a bonus (but we’ll see where he is in the summer). Stafford didn’t get much help out of the TE position, either. Brandon Pettigrew played in 14 games before an ankle injury knocked him out late. In those 14 games, he posted 41/416/2 receiving on 63 targets (10.1 YPC, 65.1%). His 6.8 FPG ranked him tied for 32nd at the TE position – he wasn’t even worth owning. Pettigrew’s contract is up, and since he’s a “blocking” TE who isn’t even that great a blocker and drops too many passes, Detroit would be wise to let him move on or bring him back cheaply. Should Pettigrew go, it’ll be interesting to see how the very talented Joseph Fauria develops. As a rookie, Fauria posted 18/207/7 receiving on 29 targets (11.5 YPC, 62.1%). But 14 of Fauria’s targets came in the red zone, with 6 of those coming inside the five. At 6’7” and 255 pounds, it’s easy to see why Fauria is an appealing option in the red zone. But he also must develop as a route runner and a blocker before a team can trust him as a starter.
- Fantasy situation to watch in 2014: Can the Lions get a viable target outside of Calvin here? Will Calvin’s injuries hamper him in 2014? Will Pettigrew, a free agent, be back? Can Fauria become a starting-worthy fantasy TE?
Key Free Agents: TE Brandon Pettigrew, RB Joique Bell (RFA), WR Kris Durham (RFA), C Dominic Raiola, QB Shaun Hill, OL Leroy Harris, T Jason Fox, DE Israel Idonije, DE Willie Young, CB Rashean Mathis, WR Kevin Ogletree, WR Micheal Spurlock, WR/KR Jeremy Ross (ERFA), DT Andre Fluellen, K David Akers.
Green Bay Packers
QB: The Packers somehow managed to win the NFC North and qualify for the playoffs while going through four different quarterbacks. The Packers suffered a near devastating loss when QB Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone on his left side during a loss to the Bears in Week Nine. The Packers went winless in five straight games (four losses and one tie) without Rodgers, but the NFC North was dysfunctional enough that the Packers still won the division when Rodgers returned in Week Seventeen. He threw a clutch fourth-and-long deep pass to WR Randall Cobb for the game-winning score to qualify the Packers into the playoffs over the Bears. The Packers went 2-5-1 without Rodgers and 6-2 in the games that he started and finished, so it could easily be argued that he’s the most valuable player to his team in the NFL. The fantasy fortunes for the rest of the Packer skill players took a major hit with Rodgers out of the lineup. He finished the year 193/290 (66.6%) for 2536 yards, 17 TDs, and 6 INTs in nine games, tying him for 4th among QBs, with 23.0 FPG. He had his highest regular season completion percentage (66.6%), and he tied a single-game franchise record with 480 passing yards against the Redskins in Week Two. Rodgers doesn’t have a history of injuries, and he looked fine coming back from his broken collarbone, so he should be one of the first three fantasy QBs taken in drafts next summer, along with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Eventual backup QB Matt Flynn ended up saving the Packers’ season by replacing an injured Seneca Wallace and an ineffective Scott Tolzien. The Packers picked up their former backup QB off the streets after he had been cut by the Raiders and Bills earlier in the season. He led the Packers to two comeback wins and a tie that helped to keep the Packers’ afloat with Rodgers out of the lineup. Flynn completed 124/200 passes (62.2%) for 1392 yards, 8 TDs, and 5 INTs, averaging 15.4 FPG in seven games. Flynn is a free agent this off-season, and the Packers could look to keep him around for another season to compete for the backup job with Tolzien. The Packers picked up Tolzien after training camp, and he showed a little bit of promise, so he could get another chance to become the primary backup. Tolzien has decent arm strength and athleticism, and it looks like HC Mike McCarthy wants to work with him this off-season. However, as we learned this year, the Packer offense looks completely different with Rodgers out of the lineup and it’s clear that he’s one of the most valuable players to any team. Rodgers has finished in the top four of fantasy QBs the last six years, so he’s been incredibly consistent for fantasy purposes.
- Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: Can Rodgers maintain his status as a top-tier fantasy QB, despite coming off a collarbone injury and the potential for some turnover at receiver? Can Tolzien improve enough to win the backup job, or will the Packers keep Flynn around to handle the duties?
RB: Rookie RB Eddie Lacy came to Green Bay as advertised, looking like the bruising back who ripped apart Notre Dame’s defense in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. In just one season, Lacy earned a reputation as one of the most punishing running backs in the league, breaking 62 tackles this season. Including the playoffs, Lacy rushed for a total of 1259 yards and 55% of his yardage came after contact. Lacy also showed great vision and patience on his reads, and he was a capable receiver out of the backfield (although there’s clearly room for him to improve there). Lacy finished with 284 carries for 1178 yards (4.1 YPC) and 11 TDs, and he added 35 catches for 257 yards (7.3 YPC) on 44 targets (79.5% catch rate). He ranked 11th among fantasy RBs, with 16.3 FPG, just behind Le’Veon Bell (16.8 FPG) and ahead of Giovani Bernard (14.1). Lacy set franchise records for a rookie running back in carries, rushing yards, and touchdowns. He also led all rookies in rushing yards while taking home Rookie of the Year honors. Lacy lost just 1 fumble this season in the opening game, and he suffered a concussion early in Week Two, which forced him to miss basically two games. Lacy should definitely excel if he gets a full season with QB Aaron Rodgers next year, although Lacy actually played better with him out of the lineup, averaging 18.3 FPG. Backup RB James Starks tied a career-high by playing in 13 games this season, and he showed he could be an effective backup to Lacy. Still, he’s a free agent this off-season and the Packers could elect to go with Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris as backups. Starks finished with 89 carries for 493 yards (5.5 YPC) and 3 TDs, and he added 10 catches for 89 yards and 1 TD. He picked up 54% of his yards after contact, so he can be a bruising runner like Lacy. The Packers could be interested in keeping Starks around, but they won’t break the bank to do it with more talented options waiting in the wings. The rookie RB Franklin didn’t exactly have a memorable first season, as his only highlight of year came against the Bengals in Week Three, rushing 13 times for 103 yards and a TD. He rushed just 6 times for 4 yards the rest of the season in 11 games, and he fumbled once on just 23 offensive touches. His season ended in Week Twelve with a concussion, which landed him on the IR. He had ball security issues and was a major liability in pass protection, an area where he’ll need to improve next season if he wants to be Lacy’s backup. RB Harris started training camp as the potential starter after a strong finish to his 2012 season, but he was placed on the IR in August after he needed surgery to clean up his patellar tendon. Harris didn’t have any structural damage, and he’s expected to be ready to participate in the team’s off-season program. FB John Kuhn led the way for Lacy this season, and the Packers would like to bring him back because he’s one of the best lead blockers in the game. Kuhn stole only 1 touchdown last season for the second year in a row, so he hasn’t been a vulture recently.
- Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: What can Lacy do for an encore in his second season, especially if he gets a full season to work with Rodgers? Will the Packers keep Starks around to be Lacy’s backup or will they give Franklin or Harris a shot at the role after both players had forgettable years?
WR/TE: The Packer receivers dealt with some adversity this season, as WR Randall Cobb and TE Jermichael Finley both missed extended time. But the biggest blow came when All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers went down with his broken collarbone in Week Nine and didn’t return until Week Seventeen. Still, WR Jordy Nelson set a new career high in receptions (85) and yardage (1314), despite Rodgers going down for half the season and having to play with the likes of Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace. Nelson went off in the final game of the year with Rodgers back in the lineup, hauling in 10 catches for 161 yards. He finished the year with 85 catches for 1314 yards (15.5 YPC) and 8 TDs on 126 targets (67.5% catch rate), ranking him 13th among WRs, with 16.5 FPG. Jordy was a top-3 fantasy WR through the first eight weeks of the season with Rodgers in the lineup, catching 39/649/7 for 20.8 FPG in seven games. Nelson played well out of the slot, and he showed that he’s one of the best in the league at catching sideline balls. His minor preseason knee operation didn’t slow him down at all early in the season either. The Packers could look to extend Nelson this off-season, as he has one year left on his deal. Nelson played at a truly elite level this season on healthy hamstrings and with Rodgers in the lineup, so Nelson could end up being a little bit of a value pick in fantasy drafts next season. Cobb broke his leg in Week Five and missed 10 games, but he returned in Week Seventeen and made the game-winning catch to get the Packers into the playoffs. He also dealt with a biceps injury during training camp. Cobb played like a top-10 fantasy WR when he stayed on the field this season, hauling in 31 passes for 433 yards (14.0) and 4 TDs on 46 targets (67.4% catch rate) for 17.7 FPG. Cobb is still a dangerous weapon in this offense and one of the most explosive players out of the slot in the NFL, so he puts plenty of pressure on opposing defenses. Cobb played the vast majority of his snaps out of the slot, but the Packers could use him a little more on the outside next season. Second-year WR Jarrett Boykin saw his role increase after Cobb’s injury, as he didn’t have a catch in the first four games. He played fairly well in the first major playing time of his career once he stepped into the lineup in Week Six, catching 49 passes for 681 yards (13.9 YPC) and 3 TDs on 82 targets (59.8% catch rate). Boykin, primarily an outside receiver, has deceptive deep speed, and he’s aggressive on contested passes, which endeared him to his quarterbacks. Boykin is also an excellent run blocker, so he could earn himself the #3 WR role if the Packers decide to let James Jones walk. Boykin could be a player to keep an eye on with a bigger role and more playing time with Rodgers. Jones had two 100-yard games in the first four weeks, but he was never quite the same after a knee injury in Week Five (PCL injuries can be nasty for WRs even if they’re able to play on them). He missed nearly three games to the injury and never hit 100 yards in a game again. Jones also played through broken ribs at the end of the season after suffering the injury in Week Sixteen. We knew it would be difficult for him to even come close to his 14 TD catches from 2012, but he managed only 3 TDs this season. He finished with 59 catches for 817 yards (13.8 YPC) and 3 TDs on 92 targets (64.1% catch rate) for 11.3 FPG. Jones will turn 30 this March and the Packers aren’t likely to pay him the most money, so Jones may have played his last snap with the Packers. Of course, he did give them a hometown discount a few years ago, so he can’t be ruled out from returning. WR Chris Harper could get a longer look next off-season if the Packers decide to move on from Jones. The Seahawks used a 4th-round pick on Harper last April, and he’s got some talent, but both Seattle and San Francisco waived him last season. He’ll be competing for playing time with WR Myles White, who ended the year on the IR with a knee injury. The Packers and TE Finley will have major decisions to make about his playing future. Finley was on pace for a potential career year before a severe neck injury ended his season in Week Seven. He caught 25 catches for 300 yards (12.0 YPC) and 3 TDs on 34 targets (73.5% catch rate) for 12.2 FPG, but he still had 2 drops on only 34 attempts. The Packers have to have major concerns about Finley after his cervical fusion, but he does seem intent on returning to the NFL next season. A representative of Finley’s stated in late January that the free agent TE should be cleared for contact in a month’s time. We’ll see if Finley can pass physicals to allow him to play again, and the injury could keep him from getting much guaranteed money, which could open the door for his return. Backup TE Andrew Quarless took over as the starter after Finley’s season-ending injury, and he hauled in 32 passes for 312 yards (9.8 YPC) and 2 TDs on 52 targets (61.5% catch rate). Both Finley and Quarless are free agents this off-season, so the Packers have some major decisions to make at tight end. Quarless was little more than a check-down option in the passing game, so they can certainly do better than he. TE Brandon Bostick is an intriguing former WR who can really run, but he struggles in run blocking. The Packers could try to carve out a role for him as a receiver next season, so he’s definitely a player to keep an eye one, but we’re told he’s probably a reach in terms of being their guy of the future. He’s expected to be ready for off-season workouts after he broke his foot in December.
- Fantasy situations to watch for 2014: What will the Packers do with free agents Jones, Finley, and Quarless? Will the Packers decide to roll with Nelson, Cobb, and Boykin at wide receiver and start over at tight end, especially after Finley’s scary neck injury? Can Nelson and Cobb be top-10 fantasy WRs in the same offense?
Key Free Agents: WR James Jones, TE Jermichael Finley, RB James Starks (RFA), TE Andrew Quarless, FB John Kuhn, QB Matt Flynn, QB Seneca Wallace, RB Kahlil Bell, DE B.J. Raji, DT Ryan Pickett, CB Sam Shields, FS M.D. Jennings (RFA), C Evan Dietrich-Smith, RT Marshall Newhouse, DE Mike Neal, DE Johnny Jolly, ILB Jamari Lattimore (RFA), ILB Rob Francois, DE C.J. Wilson (RFA).
QB: Looking back on the Viking QB situation in 2013 is painful enough for fantasy players, so we can only imagine what it feels like if you’re a fan of the team. 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder opened the season as the starter, but he didn’t play particularly well in the first three games before suffered a rib injury that would keep him out for the next month. The team then turned to QB Matt Cassel for a couple of games until they determined QB Josh Freeman, who was signed in early October after being released by the Buccaneers, was ready. As we know, the Freeman experiment was a disaster, and in his only appearance, he started in Week Seven against the Giants, going 20/53 for 190 yards and an INT. He suffered a concussion in that game, but it was also clear he wasn’t ready for action. Freeman would be relegated to third-string duty for the rest of the season. Ponder took back the reigns in Week Eight and played through a shoulder injury, but he ended up suffering a concussion in Week Thirteen, his final appearance of the season. Cassel finished out the year as the starter, and while he really wasn’t any better than average, he was clearly the team’s best starting option all season, and that may be enough to keep him around for 2014. Cassel started six of his nine appearances, going 153/254 (60.2%) for 1807 yards, 11 TDs, and 9 INTs, while adding 18/57/1 on the ground to finish at 16.2 FPG. Ponder started all nine of his appearances, going 152/239 (63.6%) for 1648 yards, 7 TDs, and 9 INT, but did have 34/151/4 on the ground, which was good for 16.6 FPG. Neither Cassel nor Ponder has much of an arm, and the offense was limited with both players under center. We’d expect the Vikings to address their QB situation in this year’s draft and that could spell the end for Ponder if the Vikings don’t keep both him and Cassel. If the team expects to go anywhere in 2014 and beyond, it won’t be with any of their 2013 QBs under center. We’ll be interested to see how much say new OC Norv Turner has on that decision. Also, Cassel is opting out of the final year of his contract, so he could be gone as soon as this year. The Vikings could still bring him back, though.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Who will be starting for this team in 2014? Will Ponder or Cassel stick around?
RB: When a player is coming of an historic season, usually it’s smart to take the under on his numbers the next year, although if someone could repeat or top such an amazing performance, it would be RB Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in 2013, as Peterson battled multiple injuries, including foot and groin issues down the stretch, but it wasn’t like he had a terribly disappointing year. Peterson is still the same back who can power through, run over, and pull away from defenders unlike any other player at the position, past or present. The Viking passing attack struggled again, and while that meant more concentration on stopping Peterson, as we’ve seen many times in the past, he overcame stacked boxes and the extra attention paid to him by the opposition. While the foot injury was a little more serious and enough to keep him out two of the last three games, it was the groin issue that required surgery, his second in as many off-seasons. Peterson is expected to be fine in six weeks, so the problem shouldn’t carry over to the 2014 season. Peterson played 14 games, rushing 279 times for 1266 yards (4.5 YPC) and 10 TDs, but added just 29/171/1 on 40 targets (72.5%), putting him 8th among RBs at 17.1 FPG. Peterson already said he believes new OC Norv Turner can be “the perfect guy to come in and get us on the right track.” Turner’s passing offenses have been strong, including the 2013 Browns and their three QBs, so the hope is an improved passing attack while make life easier for Peterson on the ground. Peterson’s primary backup, Toby Gerhart, will enter free agency this off-season and may not be worth bringing back. He was limited to 14 games by a hamstring injury and had just 36/283/2 on the ground (7.9 YPC) while adding 13/88 on 19 targets, good for just 4.4 FPG. With both Gerhart and Peterson missing time down the stretch, RB Matt Asiata was called into action for a couple of starts, rushing for 30/51/3 in Week Fifteen and 14/115 in Week Seventeen.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Can Peterson bounce back from multiple injuries to become a top-3 fantasy RB again? Will Turner’s offense help open up more lanes for Peterson? Who will back Peterson up?
WR/TE: When you decide to leave a team with one of the best QBs in the league, it can’t be an easy decision, but WR Greg Jennings followed the money to Minnesota, and things didn’t exactly go as planned. Of course, we didn’t expect Jennings to tear it up when he downgrades from Aaron Rodgers to Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman, and based on his comments throughout the year, Jennings realized just how good he had it with Rodgers in Green Bay. However, the Viking QB situation also posed an issue for Jennings. With Ponder starting, Jennings played eight games and posted 30/350/1. In Cassel’s six starts, Jennings had 28/379/3. Clearly, Jennings got more love from Cassel and it makes you wonder if he would have been better than the 68/804/4 (11.8 YPC) and 11.5 FPG (t-36th) he had for the season. Jennings still caught 64.8% of his 105 targets, but we suspect he’s hoping for a significant upgrade at the position this off-season, which should come via the draft. While WR Jerome Simpson opened the season as the starter, other than flashing here and there, he was hardly consistent, which pretty much sums up his career. Simpson finished with 48/726/1 (15.1 YPC) on 100 targets (48% catch rate) and just 7.9 FPG. He gave way to rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson down the stretch and many, including us, wondered what took so long. The versatile Patterson looked the like the perfect replacement for WR Percy Harvin, as a returner and dangerous weapon in the offense. Patterson was one of the best returners in the game, posting 1392 yards and 2 TDs on 43 returns. He had a 109-yard return for a score and led all returners with 32.4 yards per return. Patterson took some time to get acclimated, but he ended up starting in six of the last seven games and during that span, he had 27/301/3 on 49 targets and 10/156/3 on the ground, which put him 17th among WRs with 15.5 FPG. On the season, Patterson finished with 45/469/4 (10.4 YPC) on 77 targets (58.4%) and 12/158/3 on the ground, which was good for 9.4 FPG (61st). He should be a great toy for new OC Norv Turner in 2014, and we’d expect his role in the offense to expand. Hopefully, the magic Turner fostered with Josh Gordon as a downfield threat will continue with Patterson in 2014, and we know they will try more downfield throws to Patterson. WR Jarius Wright started 3 of his 16 appearances, but he had just 26/434/3 (16.7 YPC) on 43 targets (60.5% catch rate) and 5.5 FPG. The TE position didn’t produce much, as starter Kyle Rudolph was limited to 8 games and landed on the IR due to a foot injury. He had 30/313/3 (10.4 YPC) on 45 targets (66.7% catch rate) and was 18th among TEs with 9.9 FPG. His backup, TE John Carlson, had 32/344/1 (10.8 YPC) on 48 targets (66.7% catch rate) and had just 5.6 FPG in 13 games before going out with a concussion. The hope is that Rudolph will bounce back and be featured in Turner’s offense, as tends to be the case, with Brown TE Jordan Cameron being the most recent example.
- Fantasy situation to watch for 2014: Will Jennings bounce back in 2014 if the team finds a new QB? Can Turner get the most out of Patterson’s talents and turn him into a strong fantasy option? Will Rudolph turn into the reliable fantasy TE we’ve hoped for, if not better, under Turner?
Key Free Agents: QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR Jerome Simpson, WR/QB Joe Webb, OL J’Marcus Webb, OL Charlie Johnson, OL Joe Berger, OL Seth Olsen, DE Jared Allen, DE Everson Griffen, DT Fred Evans, DT Kevin Williams, LB Marvin Mitchell, LB Desmond Bishop, CB Chris Cook.
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