32 Fantasy Questions: Northern Divisions
What is the key fantasy football question for each NFL team? Pat Thorman examines the AFC and NFC North.
32 Fantasy Questions: Northern Divisions
While plenty of time remains before training camps open, the draft is in the rear-view mirror and basic roster structure is formed. Before things really start to pick up, let’s take a spin around the league, and ask one pertinent fantasy question for each team. For fun I will add my best guesses, which, in most cases will be safe to ignore in about a month. We’ll kick things off with the Northern divisions.
Baltimore Ravens – What’s the sell-by date on their veterans?
Justin Forsett averaged 2.65 yards after contact per attempt through 12 weeks, which would have ranked seventh out of 42 qualifying backs for the season. After that he averaged 1.71 in seven games, which would have ranked 41st out of 42 backs. Steve Smith averaged 16.5 fantasy points during the first eight weeks (WR11), and just 11.1 after that (WR40). Both will be heavily involved early, but will see their workload diminish as they wear down and several talented rookies get up to speed.
Best Guess: It will be best to move them before their Week 9 bye, after which they face a long stretch of tough defenses. Nobody likes trading for players about to have a week off, so shop them ahead of the Week 8 Chargers matchup.
Chicago Bears – Is Matt Forte still a lock to finish as a top-12 fantasy running back?
After ranking 27th in Elusive Rating and 35th in Breakaway Percentage out of 42 qualifying running backs, it’s fair to ask if Forte is losing it. A 39th-place showing in fantasy points-per-opportunity, and a plodding 47th-best yards-per-carry rate, screams volume dependence. The Bears have a new coaching staff that’s favored committees. They drafted a runner (Jeremy Langford) and signed the league’s best pass-blocking back (Jacquizz Rodgers) – an area in which Forte’s fallen off. Alarm bells are ringing.
Best Guess: “Lock” is a strong word, but Forte should finish as a RB1 in PPR leagues, despite less volume. It’s less certain in standard leagues, and I rank him at the RB1/RB2 fringe due to his efficiency and the meltdown potential of Chicago’s offense.
Cincinnati Bengals – How fantasy relevant can a receiving back be in a low-volume, run-based offense?
Once Jeremy Hill took control of the backfield in Week 9, Gio Bernard saw more than six fewer touches per game. Hill’s pass blocking efficiency (95.5; 18th-best of 62 qualifiers) dwarfed Bernard’s (90.3; 48th), and his catch percentage was higher (87.1 versus 78.2 percent). A.J. Green, whose return to health coincided with Bernard’s target downturn, and Marvin Jones are both 100 percent again. Tyler Eifert was targeted three times during the only quarter he played in 2014, and is back to soak up short-to-midrange work.
Best Guess: Bernard will be fantasy relevant, but good luck guessing which weeks it will happen if you’re not in a Best Ball league. It’s also possible that Hill is as good or better option to keep on the field in passing downs. Gio is being overdrafted.
Cleveland Browns – How long before their most explosive option gets on the field?
Dwayne Bowe ranked 65th in PFF’s passing game marks (of 110 qualifying wideouts) and 60th in yards per reception. Brian Hartline graded 87th-“best” and his yards per reception came in 69th. They combined to force seven missed tackles – the same number as Chris Hogan. Isaiah Crowell ranked 38th in yards-after-contact-per-attempt and 42nd (out of 42) in Elusive Rating. It’s not a question of if Duke Johnson’s dynamic skills will be sorely needed, but how soon he gets involved.
Best Guess: The Browns won’t have a choice once the Jets defense swallows them whole in the season opener. The schedule takes an ugly turn after September, so if Duke-fever sweeps across Fantasyland, dust off the “For Sale” sign in redraft.
Detroit Lions – Will Detroit’s offensive upgrades help Matthew Stafford’s value?
The Lions were the eighth-most pass-happy offense last year, and ran the 12th-most plays. However, their draft maneuverings focused on helping a poor running game that ranked 30th in yards-per-attempt. More handoffs could spell trouble for the supremely volume-dependent Stafford, who has only once cracked the top 10 in fantasy points per dropback (2011; 9th-best). Perhaps an improved running game boosts his passing efficiency, but that’s a risky bet while he has a top-10 quarterback ADP.
Best Guess: Boosting the running game should help him in real life, but not necessarily in fantasy. As for Stafford’s draft value, his cost needs to settle down before anything short of a football-lobotomy will significantly help that.
Green Bay Packers – Is Eddie Lacy getting overdrafted as a top-five pick?
After the first month of 2014, Lacy was PFF’s highest-graded running back, including a league-best +8.5 passing game mark. For the season, he had the second-highest Elusive Rating and the third-best Breakaway Percentage. Yet a perception exists that his ceiling is capped because he plays in a pass-first offense. The Packers threw on 56.5 percent of snaps (22nd-most), and ran just 1,001 plays (24th-most). The previous two seasons their snap counts ranked 11th and 9th, respectively.
Best Guess: He is appropriately priced. Aaron Rodgers will be 32 during the season, and was dinged up last year. The Packers running game will continue to be fed. If snap volume rises and efficiency doesn’t plummet, Lacy could top all backs in fantasy scoring.
Minnesota Vikings – Is this the best Vikings offense that Adrian Peterson has been a part of?
That honor goes to the 2009 team, the year before Brett Favre finally turned into a pumpkin. Since then, a steady stream of Ponders, Simpsons, Jenkins, and Shiancoes have held Peterson down – despite double-digit touchdowns every year until 2014. Teddy Bridgewater and company are a clear upgrade on AP’s norm, and Norv Turner’s offense will significantly lift his passing targets. Just ask Frank Gore (86 targets under Turner), LaDainian Tomlinson (86), and LaMont Jordan (103), to name just a few.
Best Guess: No, but it doesn’t have to be. Peterson rushed for 18 touchdowns in 2009, his offenses have stunk since then, and he’s still been a fantasy stud. The buzz is building to make him the top fantasy pick, and it’s tough to argue it.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Is their defense still a catalyst for all-around fantasy production?
Pittsburgh had the sixth-most snaps and pass attempts, on their way to scoring the seventh-most points. Their defense allowed the second-fewest snaps, but the 15th-most points. On a per-drive basis, they allowed the fourth-most yards, eighth-most points, and ninth-quickest time of possession. The Steelers gave up points in a hurry and went right back to work on offense. They failed to adequately address the cause of this condition, particularly in the secondary, leading to another fantasy powder keg situation.
Best Guess: If the symptom is a wide open offense, then we’re all glad they didn’t do a good job treating the cause. Ben Roethlisberger was the fourth-best fantasy quarterback starting in Week 7, even with Le’Veon Bell going nuclear.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman