The Fantasy Trenches –NFC North Edition

By Elliott Anderson (@darthpichi)

Lions and Packers and Bears…Oh my!!! The NFC North might be the division steeped in the most tradition and historical relevance, but it also might cause the most doubt and angst among fantasy owners in 2017. While the Packers are an offensive powerhouse there are questions about whom, if anyone, will lead that backfield. That is a common theme for the Norris division as the Swami likes to call it.  Ameer Abdullah, Jordan Howard, and the Law Firm of Murray, Cook and McKinnon are surrounded by talks of injury concern, sophomore slumps, and split workloads.  The level of quarterback ranges from hero to zero which obviously makes clicking the draft button on many of the North’s pass catchers a torturous exercise.  Adding murkiness to the already muddy waters is that there has been a significant shuffling of the big men up front for more than one team. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show, the Ringmaster of the NFC North Circus is about to crack his whip in an attempt to tame this beast of a division.

Green Bay Packers

Rush YPG: 106.3(20th)

Pass YPG: 262(Tied for 7th)

Sacks Allowed: 35(Tied for 16th)

Key Losses: T.J. Lang (G), J.C. Tretter (C)

Key Additions: Jahri Evans (G) FA, Don Barclay (T) FA

The offensive line in Green Bay is really good at what they need to be really good at…and that of course is protecting Aaron Rodgers. A-Rod often looks like an escape artist when he eludes opposingpass rushers, but the pressure he receives is not the fault of his offensive line unit, but instead because he holds the football longer than any other QB in the league other than Tyrod Taylor.  Rogers is elusive and crafty in the pocket and that’s why I predict the Packer’s passing game will not be affected by the loss of T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter.  The addition of Guard Jahri Evans will help fill the void left by Lang in the interior of the O-line. The gatekeeper to Rodger’s blindside is David Bakhtiari and he isn’t going anywhere. Bakhtiari was credited for just 20 QB pressures which is mind blowing when you think of how often GB puts the ball in the air. The ability for Rodgers to stay calm and confident in the pocket bodes well for Nelson, Adams, Cobb, Bennett, and their fantasy owners. The area of concern for this unit is its ability to run block. Right tackle Ryan Bulaga and guard Lane Taylor are both effective pass blockers, but fell short in their ability to create running lanes for Montgomery and Michael last season.  The Green Bay run game wasn’t nonexistent, but it did leave something to be desired. Management addressed the lack of depth at running back by drafting both Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, but neither came at a high draft price so Ty Montgomery will most likely remain the lead back to start the season. The offense spends a lot of time in the red zone, so if the offensive line can improve from last year and potentially increase its run blocking effectiveness, then Montgomery will be a steal at his current 5th round ADP.

Chicago Bears

Rush YPG: 108.4(17th)

Pass YPG: 248(14th)

Sacks Allowed: 28(Tied for 7th)

Key Losses: Ted Larsen (G)

Key Additions: Tom Compton (T) FA

The Chicago Bears are a proud franchise that finds itself in complete rebuild mode. They are young at all the offensive skill positions which leave countless questions for fantasy owners. The crown jewel of the Bears’ offense is sophomore running back Jordan Howard. Once he took the reigns last season he became one of the most electrifying backs in the league. He totaled over 1600 yards and 7 touchdowns from scrimmage and averaged 5.2 YPC. The interior of the Bears O-line is one of the best in the league, but their tackles struggled, giving up over 70 QB pressures over the course of the season. They cannot have a respectable passing game if the QB is constantly running for his life and taking unnecessary hits. The addition of Tom Compton from Atlanta could add the competition needed to maximize the level of play at the tackle position. Chicago will need to run the ball efficiently to take the pressure off newly acquired quarterback Mike Glennon and 3rd overall pick Mitchell Trubisky out of North Carolina. If they can force defenses to commit more players to the box to stop the run, it will open up throwing lanes for their signal callers and allow them to get the ball to their play makers in the passing game. It’s do or die time for 3rd year wide receiver Kevin White that was drafted with the 7th overall pick in 2015. The first two seasons of his career have been a huge disappointment due to injury and lack of effectiveness. With Alshon Jeffery’s departure in free agency and the emergence of 3rdyear receiver Cameron Meredith to help draw coverage, it might be a perfect storm to prove what a game changer White can be.  The Bears offense will be better than most predict in 2017 because of their ability to dominate the line of scrimmage from B gap to B gap, but if their tackles play inspired football on a weekly basis there will be some draft day steals out of the Windy City.  

Detroit Lions

Rush YPG: 81.9(30th)

Pass YPG: 257(11th)

Sacks Allowed: 37(Tied for 21st)

Key Losses: Larry Warford (G), Riley Reiff (T)

Key Additions: T.J. Ward (G) FA, Ricky Wagner (T) FA, Greg Robinson (T) FA

Having balance on offense is the key ingredient to being successful offensively in the NFL. That’s not to say you can’t move the chains and score if you are a run or pass heavy play caller, but typically you need to at least threaten defenses with the ability to do both. Detroit was extremely one dimensional last season, due in large part to the loss of running back Ameer Abdullah. With the exception of Abdullah and quarterback Matt Stafford, there was not a single Lions back that averaged over 3.9 YPC. So the questions becomes: are these numbers a result of poor play by the offensive line or poor play at the running back position? The offensive line’s Pro Football Focus scores were all above average in run blocking except for the left guard, which tells me that a more talented group of running backs might have had success. Abdullah played one full game behind this group before sustaining a foot injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the 2016 season. He averaged 5.6 YPC in that one game plus and showed flashes of being the bellcow back most analysts touted him to be entering the season. The good news is Abdullah looked great in OTAs as he has recovered fully from last year’s injury. The bad news is that the Lions have lost the services of second year left tackle Taylor Decker for 4-6 months due to shoulder surgery. This is a major blow for their line. There have been substantial changes with the loss of both Larry Warford and Riley Reiff, but they filled these voids with T.J. Ward and Ricky Wagner, a 1-for-1 exchange at both guard and tackle. The Lions added Greg Robinson in free agency after discovering that Decker would be out for most, if not all, of the season, but Robinson has failed to live up to expectations coming out of college. With Matthew Stafford under center the Lions will have success throwing the ball. The main concern at Lions camp will be building trust and consistency within the offensive line and figuring out what combination of players work best together to put Detroit in position to win each week and keep Stafford on his feet.

Minnesota Vikings

Rush YPG: 75.3(32nd)

Pass YPG: 240(18th)

Sacks Allowed: 38(23rd)

Key Losses: Matt Kalil (T), Andre Smith (G)

Key Additions: Riley Reiff (T) FA, Mike Remmers (T) FA, Pat Elflein (C) Ohio State 3rd round

2016 was a difficult year for the Vikings offensive line unit. They ranked 31st in stuffed rate and dead last in rushing yards per game. Minnesota is another team that lacked talent at the running back position after losing future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson but in all fairness his performance was underwhelming prior to his injury. He averaged just 1.9 YPC and struggled to find space running between the tackles. This group also ranked 16th in QB pressure rate, but this number is a touch misleading. The Vikings depth of target was the lowest of any team in the league which means that the line didn’t have to sustain its pass blocks for very long. Bradford made good decisions and got the ball out of his hands quickly to execute the only offense that the Vikings had which was the short to intermediate passing game.  The good news for Minnesota is that a lot has changed since last season and the only direction for the offense to go is up. While they lost both Matt Kalil (T) and Andre Smith (G) in free agency, they added Riley Reiff (T) and Mike Remmers (T), as well as drafting 3-time All Big-10 center Pat Elflein in the 3rd round. Elflein is a natural leader and outstanding run blocker. Center was a weak spot for the Vikings’ line in 2016 so he will have the opportunity to start and make an immediate impact. It will be strange not seeing AP walk out of the tunnel for the Vikings for the first time in his career, but the addition of Latavius Murray and rookie running back Dalvin Cook might be exactly what Minnesota needs to rejuvenate its run game.  Sam Bradford is not a risk taker so the passing attack should look very similar in 2017. Kyle Rudolph ranked 3rd in receptions and touchdowns and 4th in total yards amongst tight ends last season and has developed a great rapport with Bradford. This makes Rudolph a great value at his current mid-8th round ADP. Besides Rudolph, there aren’t any options in the Vikings passing game that will win you your league, but Diggs can be a consistent PPR contributor with a decently high floor.