We've been making mountains out of molehills (in the words of ESPN's Matt Williamson) all offseason, so it's almost a relief to know that new data is coming from camp reports and preseason games to correct some of our entrenched assumptions build up while we whittled away the time between football seasons. Which situations and changes should bear the most fruit in terms of honing our understandings of just what we have to work with entering our 2015 fantasy drafts? Let's look at the NFC North, a quarterback-driven division with a future Hall of Famer, a new kid on the rise and two riddles yet to be solved.
1. Dull Cutlery? - Only Washington seemed to be more reluctant to embrace their starting quarterback this offseason. The Bears could not unload Cutler because of his huge price tag and nosedive last year. Now under John Fox and a new regime, how much patience will there be for Cutler’s lukewarm nature? He is situated in the middle of an excellent group of weapons, and Cutler has displayed fantasy QB1 potential in the past, but the next time he is benched as a Bear will likely be his last. Cutler’s value and the value of every Bears skill player will be implicated by how Cutler reacts to his new authority figures. We should expect lots of positive buzz, even if we shouldn’t count on it to persist well into the season. If Cutler is showing outward signs of friction with management, it might be time to run away from this offense this year.
2. Who is Adam Gase? - The new offensive coordinator for the Bears oversaw a massive increase in output for the Broncos offense when Mike McCoy left to be San Diego’s head coach. He was also under John Fox there, so one would assume that Fox is on board with an aggressive approach. Still, Jay Cutler isn’t Peyton Manning, and not putting a ton on his plate could be the better approach. It’s hard to know what the character of this offense will be under Gase, but training camp and preseason should give us some insight, and help us when it comes time to make a decision on the key parts of this offense in our drafts.
3. Royal with Cheese? - Once upon a time, Eddie Royal was a highly productive rookie wide receiver with a bright future ahead of him. His quarterback was Jay Cutler. The new regime in Denver didn’t want Cutler and traded him to Chicago. That regime also hired one Adam Gase as a wide receivers coach and Royal’s numbers plummeted. Cutler and Royal (and Gase) have been reunited and Royal is slotting in as a prominent target for Cutler. #7 overall pick Kevin White is out with a mysterious shin ailment and no one seems that excited about Marquess Wilson. Royal will have to share with Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte in any event, but he could be a key stabilizing force for Cutler and even give us some DFS/waiver wire appeal if he clicks with his old quarterback.
1. Crack in the Bell - Joique Bell is still not practicing after multiple offseason surgeries, and there’s no timetable for when he’ll return. If that doesn’t give you bad vibes, I don’t what will scare you off of a player at this time of year. The Lions aren’t showing a ton of nervousness yet, but we could easily see George Winn or Zach Zenner getting the dirty work carries while Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick remain more of passing down/space backs. Watching the battle for the #4 running back job is important, along with making sure Abdullah doesn’t lose the momentum he built in the spring. If Bell can return and look himself by the third preseason game, he will have been a value in summer drafts, but if he can’t, he’s looking more like a falling knife.
2. Searching for a Three - The top two pass catchers in this offense are set with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but who will emerge as the third option? Eric Ebron in his second year after being an underwhelming #10 overall pick? Corey Fuller’s deep speed and game continuing to blossom after he made a few clutch plays last year? Theo Riddick leveraging off of his RB/WR tweener background to make hay as a slot receiver? Lance Moore looking for redemption after being a forgotten man in Pittsburgh? The answer could be relevant if Calvin Johnson misses time again, or if you’re looking to tighten up your list of late-round upside TE targets.
3. Half Stafford - In 2011, Matthew Stafford looked like the latest name to add to the Brady/Manning/Brees/Rodgers perennially elite tier of fantasy quarterbacks. Since then, his play has only slid, with mediocre numbers reflecting mediocre play. Some of the blame can be put on Calvin Johnson for missing time, but Stafford still looks out of tune compared to his prodigious 2011 campaign, and the team seems to be gearing more to be a defense/conservative offense team than the wide open attack they were that year. Stafford’s fantasy value is still coasting a bit on reputation, but even if he doesn’t improve enough to get back to fantasy QB1 levels, his overall effectiveness will matter to all of the moving parts of this offense.
1. Which Davante? - Second-round pick Davante Adams shined in the playoff win over Dallas had a few other moments to hang his hat on in his rookie year, but he also stubbed his toe on many malfunctions, generally not looking like near the equal of his 2014 rookie wide receiver peers. Adams was the subject of lots of team-generated hype this spring. While he probably won’t get to the mountaintop of consistent fantasy value as a #3 in this offense, he could be a pick your spot DFS/flex play and whether he follows through on that buzz will guide us to know just how much value he could have if one of Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb go down.
2. Looking Lower on the WR Depth Chart - Green Bay qualifies as a true “plug and play” offense where merely competent wide receivers can produce fantasy relevant numbers by virtue of playing with Aaron Rodgers. Second-year size/speed freak Jeff Janis, Harvin-esque “weapon” Ty Montgomery, possession receiver Jared Abbrederis and a cast of many others are competing for the #4 and #5 wide receiver jobs. File away the names of the winners and hope we don’t need them this year.
3. Anything Left for the Tight End(s)? - The Packers are a boring team to break down in the offseason, let’s face it. The key pieces are all intact and we should basically see the same offense we saw last year. So while we’re interested in Andrew Quarless (good vibes to him after his loss) and Richard Rodgers jockeying for the #1 tight end job, the chance of it being a fantasy relevant position, even if multiple wide receivers suffer injuries, is a hard sell. Still, DFS hail maries and one-week waiver wire desperation plays could come from this spot.
1. Sorting out the WRs - Charles Johnson came into the offseason as the best wide receiver on this team according to offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but that was before they added vertical threat Mike Wallace for a song. Wallace was actually effective on shorter red zone routes last year in Miami and with just a small boost in deep ball production could be a strong WR2. Johnson has a similar ceiling with his deep ability. In the background is the return of Adrian Peterson, who should keep safeties occupied and set up Turner’s penchant for throwing deep, especially off of play action. It is conceivable that both wide receivers end up being values if Teddy Bridgewater makes progress, but knowing who he is more tuned into this summer is still valuable information.
2. Rudolph the Red Zone Reindeer - Much like Dwayne Allen, it is possible that Kyle Rudolph is just not built for the NFL and destined to spend too much of his career on the injury report to realize his NFL and fantasy potential. He’s still a gamble worth taking, even as your TE1, after he scored nine touchdowns with Christian freaking Ponder when Peterson was running over defense to eclipse 2,000 yards less than a year removed from an ACL year. Bridgewater is smart and good enough to rely on Rudolph on goal-to-go passing downs if the tight end can just stay healthy this year.
3. Welcome Back - Putting aside the reason we didn’t see much of him last year (if you want to - if you want to put him on the “do not draft” list, I totally get it, and you’re the GM! That’s the point of fantasy football!), Adrian Peterson being back on the field is great for the entertainment value of the NFL and the upper reaches of the first round of fantasy drafts. Peterson did say he wasn’t back to his typical explosion earlier in the offseason, so we’ll want to see if that’s still the case this summer. We’ll also want to see if he is getting the usual “pretty much everything” workload, or if the team decides to use more of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata because Peterson is 30 and in the autumn/winter of a typical running back’s career. Turner should have fun making all of these pieces fit together.
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