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NFC North fantasy football preview

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Michael Harmon

Mike is a fantasy contributor for>>

It’s no longer the black-and-blue division of your youth. You can use the lame “your father’s day” term if that makes you feel better. I’m not going to pat you on the back to make you feel better.

The NFC North changed in a heartbeat. The days of “three yards and a cloud of dust,” long, protracted battles in the trenches or wishing and hoping that Barry Sanders would rip defenders’ ankles to put points on the board if you were a Detroit fan, are over.

That isn’t to say that Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson don’t rip up chunks on the ground. They remain two of the elite options on the ground. But, you’re not pondering such things in Detroit or Green Bay. You’re airing it out and racing hard toward 4,000-5,000 passing yards. This year, the Bears entered the arms race by gifting Jay Cutler big targets in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. We’ll see what Christian Ponder can do as the Vikings re-tool the receiving corps for him.

It’s a new world order. Let’s start with the leaders in the clubhouse.

Green Bay Packers

Overview: The Packers are the presumptive favorite to come out of the NFC, although the litany of early-camp injuries are concerning. Green Bay rolls into the second week of the preseason with myriad injuries affecting defensive rotations and decimating the receiving corps. Over the weekend, the Packers came to terms with free agent running back Cedric Benson, thereby affirming the reticence of fantasy owners to place much stock in James Starks.

Quarterback: The Green Bay juggernaut returns for another run in 2012. Aaron Rodgers posted a season for the ages in 2011, rolling up 4,600 yards with a 45-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s averaged 28.7 touchdown passes in the previous three seasons prior to last year’s dominance.

Backup Graham Harrell has never taken a regular season snap. The former Texas Tech quarterback has reportedly improved greatly this offseason, but the lack of game experience is certainly somewhat concerning.

Running Back: James Starks averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2011, but left fantasy owners wanting with his single rushing touchdown (133 carries). He returns to the lead role for 2012. However, he sustained a toe injury in the Packers’ preseason opener and has not progressed as expected. As a result, the team signed veteran Cedric Benson to a contract over the weekend.

Speedster Alex Green, folk hero and goal-line threat John Kuhn, and second-year running back Brandon Saine rounds out the backfield.

Wide Receiver: The Packers possess inane depth at wide receiver this fall. Greg Jennings and 2011 hero Jordy Nelson anchor the squad, with both players drafted as top-15 fantasy options. The future is bright for second-year receiver/returner Randall Cobb, but he still has to battle James Jones and dancing superstar Donald Driver for looks. The injuries affecting the receiving corps (Jennings’ concussion) have opened chances for Cobb, and he’s excelled at every turn. Cobb rates as a WR4 to start camp with upside.

It’s a nice time to be Aaron Rodgers if the offensive line affords him protection.

Tight End: Jermichael Finley delivered on high expectations with 55 receptions, including eight touchdowns, last year. Of course, Finley also left some opportunities hit the ground, as he ranked among the league leaders in dropped passes. Therefore, fantasy owners are hopeful that a new ceiling is in the offing for 2012.

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge D.J. Williams’ offseason training program that included wrestling cows.

Kicker: The Green Bay offense was incredibly efficient in 2011, affording Mason Crosby 69 PATs (he made 68 of them). However, he tied for just 20th in field goal attempts, converting 24-of-28 of his tries. I would suspect that we see a regression in the Packers’ touchdown rate, thereby generating additional tries for Crosby.

Defense: The Packers flat-out released Charlie Peprah and lost linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and Davon House in the preseason opener against San Diego. Bishop may miss the season, while House’s injury vacates a starting cornerback slot. House was expected to take the role opened by Charles Woodson’s shift to safety.

Green Bay amassed 29 sacks and forced 43 turnovers last season, including 31 interceptions. Building early leads certainly created opportunities for the ball-hawking secondary.

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Chicago Bears

Overview: Lovie Smith undoubtedly feels some weight this season. In between those look-ins on Denver and the Jets, the eyes of the media are circling back to Chicago. The Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall sequel ranks among the top storylines of the new campaign, and the tweaks to the offense have media, fans and fantasy owners salivating.

Quarterback: Step foot on the Olivet Nazarene campus in Bourbonnais and you’ll walk about 20 feet before hearing the destination “New Orleans.” To say that expectations are high for Jay Cutler in his reunion with Jeremy Bates and Brandon Marshall would be a gross understatement.

Cutler averaged 231 passing yards with 14 total touchdowns and 10 turnovers last seas in 10 games. The dismissal of Mike Martz leave fans and fantasy owners hopeful that the Bears can shorten Cutler’s drop and avoid the high sack count of year past. Mike Tice is charged with building a protection scheme to maximize the output of the Bears’ deep receiving corps.

The Bears invested heavily in backup quarterback Jason Campbell following the second-half swoon that occurred in Jay Cutler’s absence. Campbell performed well in Oakland last season before an injury prompted the acquisition of Caron Palmer.

Running Back: The Bears continued the tradition of bringing along another option to run behind Matt Forte and work into the goal-line mix. They paid a pile of cash to former Oakland standout Michael Bush, who nearly rushed for 1,000 yards in place of an injured Darren McFadden last season. He teams with Forte, who inked his monster contract ahead of training camp.

Obviously, fans and fantasy owners are curious to watch the offensive line come together, but the singular efforts of these backs should make owners happy. Bush is the first or second backup coming off the board and will represent a solid Flex play if he gets the expected 8-10 touches and goal-line opportunities.

Wide Receiver: When was the last time you were excited about a Chicago receiver? You have to go back to 1999 (Marcus Robinson) or 2002 (Marty Booker). This year, fans and fantasy owners are buzzing about the wonders of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both players have dazzled the adoring throng in training camp, and truly expand the playbook.

Beyond the two big outside options, the Bears deploy big-play, speed threat Devin Hester and the sure-handed Earl Bennett. Critics have decried the use of Hester as a receiver in the past. I’m intrigued to watch him in a secondary role. Think of the space vacated in the secondary by attempts to cover up Marshall.

Tight End: The tight end position didn’t factor into the Mike Martz way. That’s changing in 2012, and you can put the “sleeper” tag on Kellen Davis. Davis was limited to 18 receptions in 2011. Five of those were touchdown grabs.


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Kicker: Robbie Gould converted 28-of-32 field goal tries in 2011, including a perfect 6-for-6 from distances of at least 50 yards. He’s converted 86% of his career attempts and will kick behind what figures to be an explosive offense. Gould has averaged 31 field goal attempts in seven years with the Bears.

Defense: There is a noticeable hole in the Chicago defense as you wander around Bourbonnais. Future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher has been relegated to observer status, left to don a floppy hat and a leg sleeve instead of his shoulder pads. You can get excited about pass rusher Julius Peppers, fellow linebacker Lance Briggs or cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, but No. 54 stirs the proverbial drink. Urlacher expects be recovered from his knee issues in time for the opener against the Colts. However, that doesn’t mean that fans and pundits aren’t worrying.

The arrivals of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have aided the secondary immensely. Cornerbacks Tim Jennings, D.J. Moore and former Colt Kevin Hayden are tested constantly. One player sending tongues wagging this summer is safety Brandon Hardin out of Oregon State. He has a nose for the ball and an aggressive style that has area pundits and fans reminiscing about the big hitters of days past.

The Bears ranked 14th in total defense last season, allowing 21.3 points allowed per game. Chicago generated 33 sacks and 33 turnovers. Chicago fans are hoping for a few extra notches in the sack column for Peppers and Shea McClellin.

Detroit Lions

Overview: We should have been talking about the ferociousness of the Detroit defense or celebrating Matthew Stafford’s brilliance this offseason. Instead, we were left to read the police reports and bulletins of in-fighting and, seemingly, a chaotic atmosphere. Jim Schwartz has assembled a talented squad, without question, but questions abound as the Lions ready for a sequel to their 2011 breakthrough.

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford finally avoided the freak injuries that plagued the first two years of his career and posted a ridiculous final stat line. Stafford completed 63.5% of his pass attempts for 5,038 yards and threw 41 touchdown passes. He tossed multiple touchdown passes in 12 of his 16 starts.

Shaun Hill, who passed for nearly 2,700 yards with 16 touchdowns in place of Stafford in 2010, returns as the backup. College star Kellen Moore is competing for the No. 3 slot.

Running Back: This is the biggest question mark facing the Detroit offense. Kevin Smith has emerged as the No. 1 option in this offense, and therefore represents a tenuous RB3 option. Jahvid Best (concussion) has not been cleared for workouts, while second-year tailback Mikel Leshoure has both injury and suspension issues to consider. Leshoure is the player that owners want to bet on long-term given his goal-line potential and the lengthy injury histories of his competitors.

Wide Receiver: Do I need to offer a long analysis of Calvin Johnson? No, I don’t believe that I do.

Fantasy owners are well-aware of the chief components of this unit. Nate Burleson is a steady, reliable option in PPR league, but rarely visits the painted grass (three touchdowns in 2011). Titus Young has breakout potential in the No. 3 role following a 48-reception, six-touchdown rookie campaign.

Keep an eye out for rookie Ryan Broyles from Oklahoma, who amassed a mountain of receptions despite a knee injury that cost him the 2011 campaign. He’s a deep-seated second-half “sleeper.”

Tight End: Brandon Pettigrew was a member of the Harmon Man-Crush squad in 2011. He produced a fantastic 83-reception campaign that included five touchdown receptions. Remember, he also caught 71 passes in 2010.

Kicker: Ageless wonder Jason Hanson produced ridiculous numbers behind Stafford and the Detroit offense last season. He logged 54 PATs and converted 5-of-7 field goal attempts from distances of at least 50 yards (24-of-29 overall). If Stafford’s upright for a full 16-game slate, Hanson’s a value off of the wire.

Defense: The Lions ranked 23rd in total defense last season (24.3 points allowed per game), but offered big-time production to fantasy lineups for much of the season. Ndamukong Suh and company tallied 41 sacks, and the unit amassed 38 turnovers overall.

Minnesota Vikings

Overview: Leslie Frazier faces an uphill climb in 2012. His second-year quarterback, Christian Ponder, enters camp with a number of questions in the receiving corps, and all-world running back Adrian Peterson’s availability remains in question. The daunting task of slowing the offensive powerhouses in the division doesn’t help.

Quarterback: The Donovan McNabb experiment was short-lived last season, thereby thrusting 2011 draft pick Christian Ponder into the mix. Ponder faced a daunting challenge upon assuming the reins. He obviously could hand the ball to Adrian Peterson, but the receiving corps was fraught with issues behind Percy Harvin. Ponder completed 54.3% with 13 touchdowns and 15 turnovers while absorbing 30 sacks in 11 games.

He’ll operate behind a young offensive line that includes rookie Matt Kalil protecting his blind side.

Running Back: Fans and fantasy owners were jubilant upon hearing that Adrian Peterson was activated from the PUP list and returned to practice. Peterson underwent surgery on New Year’s Eve, so his return to the field is awfully aggressive. Still, it emboldens fantasy owners with hope that Peterson may be ready for the opener. As a result, owners are shifting Peterson back into the early part of the second round or higher.

Toby Gerhart remains a strong handcuff play, and a backup who should be drafted a round or two earlier as insurance or a sneaky long-term play. Gerhart rushed for at least 90 yards in three of the Vikings’ final five games.

Wide Receiver: Minnesota was dealt a blow early in camp when fourth-round selection Greg Childs sustained major injuries to both knees. He was expected to challenge for a prominent role in the receiving corps alongside Percy Harvin. Harvin’s had his injury issues in the past, but he produced as a receiver, runner and returner when healthy.

Michael Jenkins returns as a solid possession option, but he may be edged out by second-year receiver Stephen Burton. Burton electrified the crowd with a 52-yard reception from Ponder in the preseason opener.

Former Cincinnati receiver Jerome Simpson is moderately intriguing, but he’ll sit out the first several weeks because of a suspension. That affords rookie Jarius Wright, another fourth-round pick out of Arkansas, with an opportunity to become a downfield threat for Ponder.

Tight End: The Vikings will expand the role of the tight end position this season. Kyle Rudolph, a second-year player out of Notre Dame, and former fantasy option John Carlson will serve as safety valves for Ponder while the receiving corps shakes out.

Kicker: Rookie Blair Walsh has no veteran competition in camp. He converted 21-of-35 opportunities for Georgia in 2011 and takes the reins from Ryan Longwell. Walsh will rate as a possible Bye week replacement only.

Defense: The Vikings recorded 50 sacks last season, but that wasn’t enough to offset deficiencies in the secondary or to overcome offensive lapses. The team generated just 26 turnovers (eight interceptions) and ranked 31st in total defense (28.1 points allowed per game). The division certainly offers no relief this season.

Tagged: Bears, Bengals, Lions, Packers, Vikings, Jason Hanson, Michael Jenkins, Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Cedric Benson, John Kuhn, Jay Cutler, Greg Jennings, Tim Jennings, Brandon Marshall, James Jones, Michael Bush, Adrian Peterson, John Carlson, Matt Forte, Kellen Davis, Kevin Smith, Earl Bennett, D.J. Moore, Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Percy Harvin, James Starks, Christian Ponder, Randall Cobb, Alex Green, Davon House, Brandon Saine, Matt Kalil, Brandon Hardin, Alshon Jeffery, Kellen Moore

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