An in-depth look at the NFC North
In Order of Projected Finish
Green Bay Packers
Mike McCarthy has something to prove in 2009. A year after drawing considerable “Coach of the Year” attention for his 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC Championship game, McCarthy led his team to a disappointing 6-10 finish, where they lost an astounding 7 games by 4 points or less. While one could attribute that staggering statistic to bad luck, the devil on my shoulder tends to think that it is more indicative of an inability to “nut up“ when it counts. Much of this can be put on the Coach’s shoulders, as suspect late game play-calling can certainly be pointed out. McCarthy did deal with a brutal array of injuries to his 20th ranked defense, but still decided to make wide sweeping changes, bringing in 3-4 guru Dom Capers to install the system and hopefully give the Green and Gold a nice new look on that side of the ball. Capers has had great success with his 3-4 defense, but will need to be on his game right from the get-go, as the Packers will only go as far as their defense lets them.
Statistically in 2008, Aaron Rodgers made good strides in his first attempt to make the loyal Cheeseheads move on from #4. He ranked sixth in league in QB Rating with a solid 93.8, eclipsed the 4000 yard mark and tossed 28 touchdown passes in his first year as starter. However his inability to find his inner Favre and create magic late in the fourth quarter was tough to ignore, as the Pack dropped too many close games. Greg Jennings is young and dynamic and is a touchdown machine, bringing in 21 on the outside in the past two years. Averaging 16.2 yards a catch, Jennings is a homerun threat that defenses need to apply double teams to more and more. This gives the dependable Donald Driver room to operate on the opposite side of the field, whose crisp route running and solid hands still make younger defensive backs look silly. After a superb coming out party in 2007, Ryan Grant looked too predictable last year, and struggled throughout the season. While he did deal with a hamstring injury all season long, a supposedly new and improved Grant will need to come out strong right away in 2009 for the injury excuse to validate itself. If not, he becomes one of countless other backs who had short term success before being shut down by more aware and prepared defenses.
The Packers defense, who have traditionally used the 4-3 defensive set, will look much different in 2009. Aaron Kampman will attempt to make the very tough transition from defensive end to linebacker, where the team hopes he can continue to rush the passer with his normal high end efficiency. Nick Barnett returns to the lineup after a knee injury ended his season in 2008, and hopes to be a key cog, and the leader of the linebacking unit. Questions remain on whether he will have the same sideline to sideline running ability that he had pre-injury, but he should be able to at least provide a tough, hard-working attitude needed when trying to change defensive schemes. One of the Packers first round draft picks in 2009, Clay Matthews, is a player to watch for as he brings an impressive pedigree (son of former Houston Oiler lineman Bruce Matthews, and a USC graduate) to the defense. His pass rushing ability cannot be denied, and if Kampman can provide as much pass rush pressure on the left side as he did on the line, Matthews could have the chance to run wild on the right. B.J. Raji, the other first round pick, did his best prima donna impersonation in holding out until August 14th. However the mammoth nose tackle is now signed, and has one job – clog shit up. And at an alarming 337 pounds, taking up space should be no problem for him. The secondary unit is aging but is still a good one for the Packers. Nick Collins went to the Pro Bowl last year after nabbing seven interceptions, and Charles Woodson matched him in the pick department at the age of 32. Woodson continues to excel, and continues to make Oakland Raiders more and more angry after each and every interception.
Never doubt a kicker who teams up with a powerful offense. Mason Crosby will get tons of chances to put one or three points on the board, and while he did miss a few too many last year, he is a solid kicker who doesn`t get rattled in poor weather conditions. Cutting Canadian Jon Ryan last year turned out to be a terrible decision, as they got more hang-time out of BJ Raji`s vertical leap test then they did out of their punts in 2008. Household names Durant Brooks and Jeremy Kapinos will compete for the job in 2009, and will more than likely have the Packers faithful putting one or two more fist holes into their Cheesehead hats during the season. The return game is reasonable, with Will Blackmon in charge. Blackmon has a decent return average and took two to the house last season, but will need someone to help him in order be even more dynamic.
Fantasy Player to look for:
Greg Jennings – All the dude does is rack up yards and touchdowns. He has become a solid headline fantasy receiver, but will probably require a late second, or early third round pick, seeing as how he will become even more productive as Aaron Rodgers grows. If he passes you by in the draft, grab Donald Driver in the late rounds instead, and while the numbers drop off, he will still get you a good amount of points each game.
Now that the Vikings have struck gold and found themselves a vengeful grey haired quarterback willing to wear the colour most reviled by his old fan base just so he can stick it to Ted Thompson for two games in 2009, the only thing stopping Minnesota from a Super Bowl is a shockingly bad head coach. Brad Childress, despite having the best running back since a young LT, a very solid offensive line and a gritty defense, has managed to go to only one playoff game out a fairly weak division, showing only minimal signs of improvement each year. Childress started his time in Minnesota by pissing off the fans, and short of a Super Bowl, will end his time in Minnesota by pissing off the fans. The skinny Mr. Feeny will need to figure out how to manage ridiculously large expectations early without wearing #4 out before the playoffs. If this means trotting out Tarvaris Jackson to throw a couple routine interceptions, or to have Sage Rosenfels get helicoptered into a fumble late in the game, so be it. As long as he wins a minimum of 12 games and wins the Lombardi, he should be in ok shape for next year. Then by all accounts, he will be in the exact same position once Favre has his newest tearful retirement speech, a quarterback away from hiding his shortcomings as a head coach.
Bernard Berrian is the happiest man in football. In 2009 he won’t see every ball thrown to him go either way long or way short, and should cut the amount of times he runs the opposite direction chasing ball carrying DB’s by around half. In addition, with the potentially dynamic Percy Harvin on the other side of the field, Berrian might see single coverage more often than not, where he should be able to use his quickness to get an easy 7 or 8 catches a game. Not to mention that Berrian won’t feel a load of pressure, as he has a 1700 yard rusher in the backfield who has defenders wishing they had packed an extra pair of Joe Boxers in their bags before the game. To top it all off, Bernard has an offensive line that is rock solid, who now have the added pressure of needing to keep an antique upright behind them. All of this of course, is dependent on whether Mr. Favre can show his early 2008 form, as opposed to his late 2008 form. In reality, all Brett will have to do is show something that he has had trouble with in the past, patience. Hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson 30 times a game, get his 15-20 completions and 2 touchdowns (and probably at least 1 int, who are we kidding), and go home with the W. If the ol’ Gunslinger decides to do otherwise and tries to be the hero, it could be a frustrating season for Vikes.
Minnesotans have someone to relate to in Jared Allen. The friendly, yet punishing Midwesterner likes to hunt, has a hardworking attitude and everybody hates him except for Minnesotans. The Pro Bowler notched 14.5 sacks in 2008, and will have another shot at those numbers in 2009 as he returns to a line with two other Pro Bowlers, Pat and Kevin Williams. This is of course assuming that the Williamses can make like athletes and “um” and “ah” their way out of substance abuse allegations in time for the regular season. The linebackers should get a boost, as EJ Henderson returns from injury to anchor the middle alongside a budding star in Chad Greenway, and a solid veteran in Ben Leber. The secondary will be relying on their hard hitting corner, Antoine Winfield, to keep bringing along a young group. They do have the issue of replacing former Packer Darren Sharper, especially now that they have Cutler, Stafford and Rodgers to deal with six times a year, who are all capable of airing it out.
The Vikings have another former Packer kicking for them in Ryan Longwell, who is extending his career greatly by kicking indoors eight times a year. But make no mistake; accuracy is the key, something in which Longwell has mastered throughout his career. Chris Kluwe is a solid punter, with a leg capable of hitting the roof of the Metrodome. Look for Percy Harvin to help make the Vikings D/ST look mighty appealing in the late rounds of a fantasy draft, as the speedster will more than likely get a shot at returning kicks.
– Let’s face it; unless you own the top pick in your draft, you’re not going to get Adrian Peterson. And even if you do have the first pick, this choice would be no indication of your overall fantasy football savvy. Favre would be a cute pick, as would a Bernard Berrian. But neither of those guys are sure things for the picks they will command, even in such a potentially explosive offense. Use your head; take the kicker who won’t need worry about the wind at least eight times a year, and who will get plenty of FG opportunities with a potent offense.
The Bears, who have historically been known for having a tough-as-nails defense and a solid offense, have been missing both since their most recent Super Bowl visit two years ago. The Bears believe that with some coaching changes and a brand new hard throwing cry baby set to take over at QB, they are ready to move on up in the North. Their recent defensive struggles are in large part due to head coach Lovie Smith`s choice of defensive coordinator, Bob Babich, who has been a significant downgrade as the defense has slipped to the bottom half of the league statistically. While Babich remains in the capacity, Smith will apparently be taking a more active role with the defense, and they`ve hired Rod Marinelli as the defensive line coach and assistant head coach. Yes, this is the same Marinelli who coached the Detroit Lions to an 0-16 season, and who carries with him an intimidating 10-38 lifetime record onto Soldier Field. Despite the jaw-dropping lack of success, I am a firm believer in the idea that not everyone is meant to be a head coach (see: Brad Childress), something Marinelli helped prove in Detroit. I tend to think that with Rod being out of the spotlight, it will help him loosen up and do what he does best, which is coaching the D-Line. This should work out well for the Bears.
Jay Cutler will undoubtedly change the whole dynamic of the Chicago Bears. He throws the ball a mile, he talks a lot and he isn’t going to put up with being disrespected. That being said, he’s perfectly fine disrespecting his old fans in Denver, the owner who used to pay him a lot to throw a football, and now, his own teammates. Recently Jay criticized his top wideout (which, by the way, does not bode well for the receiving core), Devin Hester, for not playing within his means. This is fantastic. There is no possible way this could end poorly, right Chicago fans? Bad-itude aside, Cutler will certainly be helped out by a second year horse in the Chicago backfield, Matt Forte, who burst onto the scene last year with 1200 yards and eight touchdowns. Forte and Cutler will combine to create offensive statistics unseen by Bears fans in a long, long time. However, as mentioned, if Hester doesn’t pan out as a receiver, who else is there? Earl Bennett is the second wideout on the depth chart, and you trying to figure out who that is right now is a good indication that their receiving core sucks.
As long as Brian Urlacher is manning the middle for the Bears, their defense will at least be relevant. A leader with unquestioned toughness and leadership abilities, Urlacher is still an impact player regardless of the fact that he is into his thirties. Beside him is Lance Briggs, who consistently makes the trip down to Hawai’i with Urlacher every year, and remains as effective as ever. The D-Line for the Bears is alright, but has been banged up. Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek both return from injury, and can be impactful when healthy. Alex Brown runs the show for the D-Line, putting forth unbelievable effort on a weekly basis. The secondary is led by Charles Tillman, who is a very solid shut down cornerback for the Bears. Nathan Vasher and Josh Bullocks are exhibit A and B when describing the inconsistency for the Bears secondary.
This is where the Bears excel. Robbie Gould is an excellent kicker, especially when considering the blustery conditions he copes with each game. His 85.9 field goal success rate is good for third best in NFL history. They don’t drop off at punter either, where Brad Maynard dropped a ridiculous 40 punts inside the 20 yard line in 2008. And while the Bears have lost the magic that Devin Hester once brought to the kickoff return game, they have a more than adequate, hardnosed returner in Danieal Manning. Averaging 29.7 yards per return, all Manning did in replacing Hester was lead the league in that category, proving that intelligent, tough running can do the trick just as adequately.
Forte will be the one reaping the most rewards of the Bears’ new and improved passing game. Forte accounted for 35 percent of the teams total offense last year, and still managed 1238 yards and 8 touchdowns despite all the attention he garnered from defenses. Put him on your fantasy team while he’s still hot, as if the Bears continue to work him like they do, he’ll be done by the time he’s 25.
Jim Schwartz, believe it or not, could be in a worse situation. He does take over a club that doesn’t even know how to spell the word win, he has a 300 pound starting quarterback, and he will play six games against divisional opponents that should all be substantially improved from last year. But, let’s look on the bright side: His twin children could save their allowance for a year and be able to afford the new family house in the Motor City, he is playing for fan base that is simply overjoyed that they can put their Matt Millen voodoo dolls in the trash can and he faces no real pressure from the crowd, as no-one can afford a ticket to the game. Throw in Gunther Cunningham and another “brutal head coach but damn good coordinator” in Scott Linehan to run the defense and offense respectively, a top-five wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, and a bunch of cast-off veterans looking for a second chance to prove themselves, and the Lions could be in good shape. The reality of the whole situation is this: He only needs to win one game by one point to have the season be ruled a success. And the best part, Lions fans? The Cleveland Browns are on the schedule! It could be done!
The franchise saviour, Matt Stafford, is probably a year away. He should be eternally grateful for this, as Daunte Culpepper will be given the keys to the offense instead. Rest assured, ol’ Daunte will have the hood up on this baby more than one time this season. He has a below average line, a young running back in Kevin Smith who could be decent if he was in the right offensive scheme, and a top-flight wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, who defences can more than likely afford to put half their team on and still only give up 200 yards of total offense and a Jason Hanson field goal. In all seriousness now, if Culpepper has trimmed down and has recovered from his injury history, he has the chance to at least turn the offense around. Kevin Smith did almost get 1000 yards last year in spite of the leagues third worst rushing offense. If he, along with Seattle cast-off Maurice Morris can show any sort of production behind a shaky offensive line, Daunte will get the chance to use his arm to get it to Johnson & Johnson (Bryant) down the field.
The Lions have improved on this side of the ball. They got Julian Peterson and Larry Foote, two under-appreciated linebackers, to solidify a unit that was already reasonable with Ernie Sims, who had an off year in 2008. Peterson, a five time Pro-Bowler, will be motivated to show the Seahawks that he was not in fact dispensable, and Foote will be eager to shed the stigma of being only a good player in a great line-backing crew in Pittsburgh. The D-Line will be undergoing a fairly large transition, as they go from being a smaller, quicker line to a bulkier, stronger line under Jim Schwartz’ orders. Second year man Cliff Avril could reap the rewards of this if his two tackles take up enough space to let him roam free on the end. Avril is showing the signs of a decent pass rusher. The secondary will be bolstered by free agent acquisitions Philip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, who both were craving bigger roles in a defense. They will certainly get the chance in a defensive backs group that was exceedingly average last year, and devoid of any defensive play-makers. With the NFC North having reloaded with bigger arms at quarterback, they will be counted on early to find their form.
Jason Hansen, who was drafted into the NFL when Matthew Stafford was only a toddler, continues to perform admirably for the Lions. He was a leader last year for a team lacking in that department, and was a remarkable 21 for 22 on field goals. Nick Harris knows the coffin corner as well as anyone in the league, and is the definition of dependable. Don’t expect anything out of the Lions return game, as they will be using the ‘pick straws for your chance to return kicks’ method this year until they hopefully find someone capable of doing it on a long term basis.
This freak of nature brought down 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns for the 0-16 Lions last year. This was without any consistency at quarterback, and with the target on his back every single week. With a healthy Culpepper and an eager Stafford ready to put their big arms to use, Johnson will be put to good use once again, and will shine for your fantasy team.