2018 Fantasy Football Divisional Preview: NFC North
Dom Murtha breaks down the NFC North division from a fantasy football perspective.
With free agency frenzy and the NFL Draft now firmly behind us, it is time to start looking towards the 2018 fantasy football season. Over the next few weeks, I will take you around the league, division by division, team by team, talking valuable fantasy commodities and potential busts. For each team in each division, I will flesh out... 1) Fantasy MVP 2) Fantasy Rookie of the Year 3) Most Improved Fantasy Player 4) Biggest Fantasy Disappointment. Through this process, you should gain a more well-rounded perspective of the league at large; who to target and who to avoid in your upcoming drafts. Sit back and relax, training camp is almost here…
2017 was a season of transition for the Bears, as they ushered in the new – with a rookie at quarterback – and shuffled out the old – with the demise of the John Fox administration towards the end of the year. With the combination of those two polarizing traits of the Bears 2017 season, it should come as no surprise to see that they finished in last place in the NFC North, featuring zero division wins and a disappointing 5-11 record overall. Looking forward towards 2018, things are trending in the right direction, however… Not only were the Bears a near consensus pick for the best draft class this offseason, but they also brought in a new, forward-thinking, offensive-minded coaching staff, that should help further the development of young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky .
2018 Fantasy MVP: Mitchell Trubisky
Speaking of young Mr. Trubisky, he seems to be the en vogue pick for a breakout season in 2018. While I fancy myself a contrarian, this is a scenario where I will follow the trend, as the evidence pointing to Trubisky’s improvement is mounting.
Aside from his talent and general growing comfort at the NFL level in his second year in the league, the Bears offense has seen a dramatic improvement this offseason. First and foremost, John Fox – a.k.a. “The Quarterback Killer” – is gone, and in his stead is Matt Nagy – the former Chiefs offensive coordinator who saw the talents of Alex Smith blossom right before his eyes last year. Along with a bright offensive mind calling the shots comes a true number one wide receiver in Allen Robinson , an explosive rookie wideout in Anthony Miller, a seemingly healthy former first round pick in Kevin White , a versatile interior offensive lineman in rookie James Daniels, and Super Bowl hero Trey Burton , who will come in and play the Travis Kelce role in coach Nagy’s progressive offensive scheme.
A modern offensive philosophy, along with all of these personnel additions should give the talented Mitchell Trubisky everything that he needs in order to realize his potential in 2018. He’ll be drafted as a backup in your league, but may end up as a top-10 quarterback when all is said and done.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Anthony Miller
I already spoke of Anthony Miller, so it should come as no surprise to see him projected to win this award. Not only is he joining an offense that is trending upward and has the room to give him plenty of reps, but he’s also one of the most talented receivers to come from the 2018 draft class. I for one had him ranked as my third best receiver on the board, behind only Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and Maryland’s D.J. Moore . Here’s what I had to say about Miller…
“Electric play speed; tough pace for cornerbacks to keep up with for 60 minutes; tough as nails; doesn’t appear to have an off switch… Sudden release off of LOS; quick and smooth in and out of his breaks; above-average route runner… Massive hands, especially for his size; can palm one-handed catches… Dangerous after the catch; combines athletic wiggle and underrated power to make most 1v1 defenders miss; wields a devastating stiff arm… Carries self on the field with a swagger and an earned confidence; plays with massive chip on his shoulder; leads by example and teammates follow suit.”
With all of these NFL ready traits, Miller joins the Bears as a 24 year old rookie as well, seemingly plenty mature to make an immediate at the pro level, whereas most first year receivers tend to struggle early on. I say, feel free to draft Miller as your first bench receiver just to be safe, while he will end up as a strong flex option before you know it.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Mitchell Trubisky
Take everything that I said about Trubisky and apply it to this award as well. He could ultimately end up being the most improved fantasy player in the league this season, if everything plays out according to plan.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Dion Sims
One guy whom I happen down on in this offense is Dion Sims . It’s not that I don’t think he will be an effective player in their on-the-field success, but it’s more because of his current fantasy perception.
As it sits, most online depth charts have Sims penciled in as the starting tight end. Please take this as a PSA: Dion Sims will be the Bears third most targeted tight end this season.
While he may see a large percentage of snaps, Sims’ role in this offense will be more as a blocking tight end than as a potential target in the passing game. If you are looking to add a Bears tight end to your fantasy roster this season, go for Trey Burton first and even give second year man Adam Shaheen a look before considering Sims.
After starting out the 2017 season 3-1, the Lions playoff hopes were rather quickly dashed as they stumbled to play only .500 football for the remaining 12 games. While a 9-7 finish for the second consecutive season should be a badge of honor for coach Jim Caldwell, the fact that he failed to lead his team to the playoffs was enough for him and much of his staff to lose their jobs in Detroit. While former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia brings along with him a new regime, it should be noted that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will remain in place for at least one more season. With that, offensive philosophy will largely remain the same, however with a new defensive-minded head coach in charge in Patricia, field position and overall offensive opportunities may be different. Along with this, the Lions brought in some new faces via free agency and the draft, which will hopefully put them back in the playoff picture.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Matthew Stafford
In terms of overall fantasy points, Matthew Stafford has finished no lower than ninth amongst quarterbacks over the last three years. He peaked last year at sixth, and this was accomplished with no semblance of a running game and a lame duck coaching staff. This season with a seemingly better overall roster and coaching staff surrounding him, Stafford may have his most competitive team in years. Most notably this season the Lions added two talented running backs to the roster – veteran LeGarrette Blount and talented rookie Kerryon Johnson. These two – along with an improved offensive line – should take a lot of pressure off of Stafford and the passing game, which will ultimately improve his success on the play action. While the yards may decrease slightly this season, I expect that Stafford will increase his touchdown passes in 2018, once again making him a force in the fantasy football community. For some reason he’s still being drafted as a backup in most of the mocks that I have done so far… He’ll finish as a top-eight option once again this season.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Kerryon Johnson
It’s been six long years since a Lions back eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in a season (Reggie Bush, 2013, 1,006 yards). Six long years of Matthew Stafford carrying the team on his back; six long years of an unbalanced offensive attack. That changes this season.
Unlike in other years where the Lions have prepared to fill their running back void with undersized hybrid players like Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick , this offseason they not only went out and grabbed the hulking LeGarrette Blount , but they also added Auburn rookie Kerryon Johnson, whom I ranked third at the position in this 2018 draft class. Behind only Penn State sensation Saquon Barkley and former USC back Ronald Jones, I felt that Johnson went this draft season as one of the class’ most underrated prospects. Here’s what I wrote about him…
“Johnson is the hardest runner in this class, bar none. In the open field he sees defenders bounce off of him with either a shoulder blast or a devastating stiff arm, while his build up stutter step gets them off balance. His most defining trait is his ability to change speeds behind the line of scrimmage in a way that only Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray have mastered over the last few years. Once the defenders have been lulled to sleep by him, that is just when Johnson flashes his elite acceleration through the hole that helps him frequently bust off big gains.”
Simply put, Johnson brings an element to the Lions backfield that Matthew Stafford has never had the benefit of seeing in his entire career: a true workhorse back that will fight for every yard he earns. Johnson is not only relentless as a runner, but he also possesses natural nuance, before and through the hole, that only the elite of the elite have shown at the NFL level. His potential is high and the touches should be available to him; maybe not initially, but sooner rather than later on in his rookie season.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Luke Willson
This is a selection by default, as Willson is somehow going to be granted the starting tight end position after the loss of Eric Ebron . While I don’t love his particular skill-set or long-term potential, Willson is sure to more than double his numbers from last season as a reserve player with the Seahawks.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: LeGarrette Blount
I’ve talked a lot about the Lions backfield situation this offseason, and while I think that the addition of Blount will be a positive one overall, I don’t believe that he will be the lead dog for Detroit when all is said and done. For all of the great things that I just mentioned about rookie Kerryon Johnson above, understand that his success cannot exist without Blount underwhelming fantasy owners. Chances are that Blount plays a bigger role earlier on in the first month of the season, while the Lions coaching staff will quickly become enamored with what Kerryon Johnson can do as an every down back. So to classify this as a disappointment, Blount will simply have to underperform at his draft position, which is currently ahead of Johnson, who will quickly become the lead back.
Green Bay Packers
Like many seasons before it, the story of the 2017 Green Bay Packers is a story of Aaron Rodgers . Getting off to a quick start, the Rodgers led Pack jumped out to a 4-1 record. Then in Week 6, Rodgers was suddenly lost to a collarbone injury against the would-be division champs – the Minnesota Vikings. As they have been for the better part of the last decade and change, the Packers are a franchise that hinges on the right shoulder of number 12. As Rodgers was lost for the remainder of the season, Green Bay stumbled to lose eight of their next 11 games; They ultimately would miss the playoffs. The silver lining in the injury of their franchise quarterback was that the front office could now see the larger inadequacies of the rest of their roster; a quarterback of Rodgers’ talent can often mask team construct flaws. After a season of reflection, in the offseason the Packers got to work. Returning is a healthy Aaron Rodgers in 2018, and he will be accompanied by a host of impact free agents and a well-graded rookie class. A playoff berth is once again in sight for Green Bay.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Yes he missed much of last season with a collarbone injury, but do I really have to explain myself here? Rodgers is the most valuable Packer on the field, off the field, and in the fantasy realm. It has been this way since 2005; end of story.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Eqanimeous St. Brown
I struggled with this one because the Packers added three capable receivers in the draft this offseason. Of the three, I felt most comfortable crossing Marquez Valdes-Scantling off the list because he’s incredibly raw and most likely won’t see the field much in 2018. Between the other two, while I had J’Mon Moore ranked higher, I ended up going with EQ St. Brown for a few reasons, largely based off of my scouting report on him…
“St. Brown is a long and lanky X-receiver with incredibly underrated speed for his build. A player who came to mind immediately when watching the tape was Tyrell Williams , who has almost the exact same size (6-foot-4, 204 lbs.) and possesses the same type of deep speed that St. Brown shows on tape. Thinking about St. Brown’s potential NFL future, I see a similar type of route to success that Williams had. By that I mean that he’s going to win on outside deep routes against 1v1 coverage… Williams could have double-digit touchdown potential due to size and speed alone. He’s a high potential player who improved his draft stock with a good combine.”
Contrary to J’Mon Moore, St. Brown offers size, long speed, and high potential. Sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moore more heavily targeted in the passing game this season than St. Brown, but with St. Brown’s size, speed, and leaping ability, he most surely will see more red zone looks and deep shots. Someone has to fill the Jordy Nelson role, right? To make things clear, St. Brown is not on my sleepers list per se, but of the Packers rookies, he will surprise with a handful of touchdowns, despite being taken in the sixth round.
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Jimmy Graham
As I said, Jordy Nelson is now gone and missing from this Packers offense too is the seam runner and red zone threat in the passing game. Enter Jimmy Graham , who seems to roll out of bed catching double-digit touchdowns per season. Yes, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t had much success with tight ends in the past, but in Graham he’s getting a legitimate Pro Bowl caliber player. While it’s tough to best his 10 touchdown performance from 2017, I expect that Graham will see a significant uptick in receptions, targets, and yards this season as a Packer, making him the most improved fantasy player on the roster.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Aaron Jones
Jones is a guy who I actually like. Unfortunately though, he’s stuck in a log jam at the position and I fear that he will be the odd man out. Ty Montgomery seemingly will remain the receiving back and spell package guy, while if Jamaal Williams’ late season success in 2017 is any indication, he will be the primary runner on early downs in 2018. Save for injury to either of the aforementioned two, those drafting Jones – a guy currently offering the same ADP as Williams and a few rounds earlier than Montgomery – will be disappointed come season’s end.
2017 was a season of magic for the Vikings, as they boasted a 13-3 record, a combination of both a top ranked offense and defense, a near sweep of their division, and a trip to the NFC Championship game. In life, not everything can be magical however, as even in a season in which so many things went right, the Vikings still came up just one win shy of being the first team to ever host the Super Bowl. Regardless, 2018 is another year in which they can improve. Most of their elite roster and coaching staff is set to return – except for quarterback Case Keenum and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur – however it can be argued that they even upgraded with the addition of Kirk Cousins and the return of a healthy Dalvin Cook . For this team, the mission is clear… Super Bowl or bust.
2018 Fantasy MVP: Dalvin Cook
Yes, I know that the big signing was Kirk Cousins this offseason. And I know that Kirk has been a fantasy stalwart over the last three years on a far less talented offense. But does anyone remember what Dalvin Cook was doing last season prior to his injury? He was not only experiencing elite fantasy success, but he also was well on his way to the offensive rookie of the year award. Word is that he’s currently cleared for OTA drills and that he’s running when prompted. By all accounts, the ACL injury appears to be in his past. If I can get 16 weeks of a back of his talent, I don’t care who the quarterback is… Cook will be the Vikings 2018 fantasy MVP.
2018 Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Tyler Conklin
This is more of a selection by default, as the Vikings didn’t exactly add any rookies of potential fantasy note. While I like what Conklin can add in the passing game, right now he appears to be blocked at the position for significant playing time by Kyle Rudolph . I wouldn’t be surprised if Conklin played his way into the TE2 role during camp, but it is unclear what kind of fantasy potential that would offer. For those interested, here’s my scouting report on Conklin…
“Conklin is one of the smaller tight ends in this class, but he doesn’t exactly play like it, as he is seen frequently out-muscling and out-jumping defenders on tape. Despite being a team captain and the most targeted option in his offense – or in other words, the key player defenses would target – Conklin still always seemed to come down with the football through all types of contested coverage. He shows comfort lining up all over the formation, as a move player, slot receiver, fullback, inline tight end, and most impressively as an outside island flanker. While he’s not the best blocker right now, he shows willingness and toughness in that area and some developable traits. Ultimately though, in the NFL his calling card will be what he can do in the passing game. Based off of his underwhelming size but impressive receiving prowess for the position, I stumbled upon the sure handed Dallas Clark for his comparison. Someone is going to get themselves a steal on day three of the draft.”
2018 Most Improved Fantasy Player: Laquon Treadwell
This will be the second year in a row that I am anointing Treadwell the winner of this award, which is not a good sign because it likely means that I was wrong in the previous year…
As most people know, wide receivers tend to blossom in their third year in the league, making this a pivotal one for the former first rounder. While he has yet to record more than 200 receiving yards in either of his first two seasons, Treadwell did manage to see a significant uptick in his snap percentage from his rookie to sophomore season. For the first time in his career, Treadwell has been working exclusively with the first team offense during OTA’s, leading many to believe that he will be a starting outside receiver, while Diggs and Thielen will rotate snaps on the inside, a spot where they both did ample damage from last season. Likely forging a better relationship with new quarterback Kirk Cousins than he had with Case Keenum , chances are that Treadwell will more than double his targets and yardage in this season as opposed to last. On top of that, with him being on the field far more this season, Treadwell’s red zone prowess – his best and most defining trait as a receiver – will finally be on full display. I’m expecting statistical upticks across the board this season from the former first round pick.
2018 Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Latavius Murray
The return of a healthy Dalvin Cook should spell the end of Latavius Murray ’s fantasy relevance. Looking back to last season, Prior to Cook’s Week 5 injury, Murray tallied 14 carries for a measly 38 rushing yards and no touchdowns through four weeks of action. In other words, as a backup, Murray offered a whopping 2.7 yards per carry. Cook is a do-it-all back, who won’t be coming off the field too often. Sure Murray will remain Cook’s spell, but his lack of effectiveness on third downs limits his chance at consistent work, especially early on in games. The addition of scatback Roc Thomas will only make matters worse for Murray, as he will be given every opportunity to shine as a receiving spell in hopes of limiting Cook’s overall exposure and chance of re-injuring his knee. Avoid Murray this season, unless of course Cook experiences some sort of health setback.