After the Packers reigned over the NFC North for an impressive four consecutive seasons, the Minnesota Vikings finally dethroned Green Bay in 2015, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. In a not-so-stellar offensive display, no team in this division finished last season better than 20th in total yards on offense. Injuries to big-name players were partially responsible for the lack of offensive production in the NFC North, in addition to mediocre Quarterback production from the Lions and Vikings and Bears, oh my... See what I did there? Regardless of last year's collective woes, 2016 presents a fresh fantasy football opportunity for everyone involved. Whether fantasy owners are searching for elite ball-carriers or premier signal-callers, this division has both. So, buckle your theoretical chinstrap as we tackle some offensive outlooks for the NFC West organizations.
*This particular series of articles is intended to break down every NFL team's 2016 offensive playmakers and discuss what impact they'll have on the wonderful world of Fantasy Football. In each divisional write-up, I predict player outlooks for the upcoming season by separating each team's offense into two parts: Passing Game + Running Game. I'll update each divisional article as news and reports surface, so don't forget to check back regularly.*
With a depleted receiving corps, Jay Cutler managed to finish 2015 as the 21st overall fantasy QB, but recorded a career-best passer rating. Now, after losing his OC Adam Gase to Miami, Forte to the Jets, plus Martellus Bennett to the Pats this off-season, Cutler is faced with a new-look Bears offense in 2016. However, it's not all bad. He gets back a healthy slate of wideouts (White, Jeffery, Royal, etc.), which will undoubtedly alleviate some pressure. He has QB1 streamer appeal in select matchups, but Cutler feels more like a QB2 this season.
In terms of Smokin' Jay's weapons weapons, the most notable option who dealt with injuries last year is Alshon Jeffery. A ridiculous talent with superb hands, there aren't many balls Alshon can't haul in. If he stays healthy this season, along with his WR mates, Jeffery is a low-end WR1 with the talent to compete with the elite fantasy wideouts. Also returning from injury is Kevin White, the second-year wideout from WVU. Oozing with athleticism, White stands at 6'3" and has blazing speed, making him the obvious choice to line up across from Alshon. With the attention Jeffery demands, White could make Bears fans forget about his lost 2015 with a dynamic 2016 campaign. With the attributes of an elite NFL wideout, he has WR3 upside even if Jeffery stays healthy.
Eddie Royal has proven to be an effective slot receiver when healthy, and could have some PPR value in 2016, especially with Marquess Wilson re-breaking his foot this offseason. Despite playing limited snaps until Bennett was injured, veteran TE Zach Miller finished as a solid TE2 last season. Even though he should get the nod as the Bears' top TE, I'm not counting on a soon-to-be 32 year-old without a 500+ yard season in his career to be anything more than an iffy TE2 in 2016.
After spending his first 8 years in Chicago, Matt Forte departed for the Jets' starting RB job this off-season. He was a major presence in the running and passing game alike, making him a tough piece to replace. The man who is up against this challenge is none other than Jeremy Langford, a second-year back out of Michigan State. Langford filled in last year after Forte dealt with injury, but wasn't too spectacular, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry without a 5.0 YPC mark in a single game. This season, he will be relied upon as Chicago's main back, regardless of last year's mediocrity. While he wasn't a very dependable catcher (8 drops) or pass blocker, Langford still managed to contribute 279 receiving yards in 2015. If he can improve in the passing game and become the leader of the pack, we're looking at a solid RB2 in fantasy football.
However, if he falters or fails to impress, rookie Jordan Howard out of Indiana should be next in line for touches. A fast straight-line runner with a big frame, Howard is an intriguing late-round selection in fantasy drafts this summer. He's certainly the best handcuff to Langford, and it wouldn't be crazy to say that he has the most upside in this Bears backfield. The third member of Chicago's RB group is Ka'Deem Carey, who hasn't done much in his first two seasons as a pro. He's only worthy of a bench spot if one of the previously mentioned backs goes down with injury.
Things won't be the same this year in Detroit as Calvin Johnson, the future Hall of Famer, has decided to hang up his cleats. Now his former QB, Matthew Stafford, faces the 2016 challenge of life without "Megatron". A former number one overall pick with sky-high expectations, Stafford has had a frustrating NFL career thus far. In fantasy football, Stafford seems to settle in as just a streaming option every season. But he ended 2015 on an absolute tear, throwing for 2197 yards and an impressive 19:2 TD to INT ratio after his Week 9 bye. This hot streak allowed him to finished as a top-10 fantasy QB, but without Calvin in 2016, I don't expect him to come close to that spot.
Golden Tate has been a solid #2 receiver in his two years as a Lion, posting 90+ receptions in consecutive seasons. Now without Johnson in town, Tate will look to be Detroit's top receiver in 2016. He's a quality PPR option, as he should push for 100+ receptions in 2016. In standard leagues, he's more of a WR3 until the division of work between he and newly-added Marvin Jones is made clear. Jones comes to the Lions from Cincinnati, where he was a productive all-around second receiver with a nose for the end zone (10 TDs in 2014). It's anybody's guess whether Jones will surpass Tate as the #1 WR, but he's being drafted much later than Tate. Draft position in mind, I prefer Jones to Tate, as I believe they possess similar upside.
Jeremy Kerley was brought over from the Jets this off-season, but he's been a special teams/slot receiver with little to no value for standard size fantasy leagues. He'll be competing with third-year WR from Notre Dame, T.J. Jones, who has reportedly looked great this offseason. Jones will likely have the youth and talent to surpass Kerley in '15.
Eric Ebron improved during his sophomore campaign in 2015, and he'll look to take another step this season. Another statistical beneficiary from CJ's retirement, the athletic Ebron has low-end TE1 upside if he can take advantage of his opportunities in 2016. However, heading into his third season for the Lions, Ebron hasn't show many signs of being worth his top-10 selection in 2014's NFL draft.
The Lions are coming off a pathetic season in terms of rushing statistics, finishing with a league-low 1335 yards on the ground. As part of a timeshare, Ameer Abdullah had an inconsistent rookie season where he accounted for 780 yards from scrimmage and 3 total TDs. Still, he enters his second season as the highest upside Lions RB by a wide margin, giving him solid breakout potential in 2016. He's a small back with agility and explosion that his backfield mates simply don't possess, and could turn into an upside RB3 option this season, assuming he leads the committee in touches.
RB Theo Riddick had a breakout 2015 in a receiving role, tallying 80 catches for 697 yards and 3 TDs. He's a bench player in standard leagues, but is a borderline RB2 in PPR leagues based on last season. Competing for touches behind Abdullah and Riddick are youngster Zach Zenner and veteran Stevan Ridley. Both stand at 5'11" and just around 220 pounds, making it obvious that they are vying for the same role in Detroit. My money is on Zenner, who flashed last preseason, but aside from very deep leagues, neither are feasible fantasy options unless injury strikes Abdullah.
Green Bay Packers
In a "down" year without his favorite wideout, Aaron Rodgers still managed to throw for 3821 yards, 31 TDs, and only 11 INTs in 2015. Drafted as sure-fire top-3 fantasy QBs for quite some time now, "A-Rod" compiled the 7th-most fantasy points among signal-callers last season. Without a healthy WR corps, Rodgers looked out of sync with his pass catchers en route to a career-high number of attempts. Now getting Jordy back and a slimmed-down Lacy in the backfield, Rodgers has the looks of a prime bounce-back candidate for 2016. I'm a fan of waiting until mid-rounds to draft a QB in fantasy, but I think he's the clear-cut #2 option behind Cam.
Jordy Nelson's return to action will certainly boost the entire GB offense, and it won't be surprising to see the trusty receiver jump right back into the top-10 fantasy WR discussion in 2016. Averaging 1417 yards and 10.5 TDs in his last two healthy campaigns, I look for Jordy to be a back-end WR1 this season in a Packers offense that is almost sure to rebound. His counterpart, Randall Cobb, struggled while attempting to serve as A-Rod's top option last season after Nelson went down. Cobb barely managed to finish as a top-30 WR in standard leagues, putting him in the WR3 picture after high-end WR2 expectations. Like most Packers weapons, Cobb will undoubtedly benefit from a healthy Jordy, and I see him moving back up to WR2 territory in 2016.
Davante Adams was another GB WR who couldn't step up in the absence of Nelson, failing to surpass 500 receiving yards and dealing with some drops and bruises along the way. He and Jeff Janis will be fighting for the #3 WR spot in GB, a relatively valuable position to occupy. Janis is a physical specimen who, himself, reminds me of a young Jordy, but HC Mike McCarthy realizes that he still needs to work on his fundamentals. Whoever wins the job should carry WR3 potential. As for the tight end position, Richard Rodgers was a limited athlete in 2015 and the Packers have now brought in the more talented Jared Cook in from the Rams. This is the first time Cook will have a QB of A-Rod's caliber, so he could find his way into being an upside TE2 at some point in 2016.
In Eddie Lacy's first two years as a pro, he rushed for an average of 1159 yards and 10 TDs per season. Drafted as an elite RB1 in drafts last summer, "Fat Eddie" got out of the gates slow and never really hit his stride. He did have three 100-yard performances in the middle of the season, but in the same 5-week stretch, he had performances with just 4 and 10 rushing yards... Yikes. He finished up as the 25th-best fantasy RB in standard scoring with 758 rushing yards and 3 TDs, placing him squarely in RB3 range - far from his RB1 projection. This off-season, Lacy has supposedly worked his tail off to shed weight and enter 2016 in better shape, which obviously bodes well for his fantasy outlook. I personally expect Lacy to look closer to the 2013 and 2014 versions of himself than his underwhelming 2015 form. I'm banking on Eddie returning to borderline RB1 status this season.
James Starks had a very solid 2015, outperforming Lacy from a fantasy standpoint by a mere one spot on the RB leaderboard. He was re-signed this off-season, and I'm considering Starks an above-average handcuff heading into 2016 - well worthy of a mid-to-late round selection. That being said, I look for Lacy to thoroughly outplay Starks this season.
I want to start by saying this: Teddy Bridgewater isn't necessarily a bad NFL Quarterback, but he is a bad fantasy Quarterback. He doesn't consistently deliver the ball downfield with his subpar arm strength, and he plays in a very low-volume passing offense. Even with weapons to target, this Vikings team will circulate through their running game and a stout defense. He's an uninspiring fantasy option, even in two-QB leagues...
After a nice rookie season from Stefon Diggs, the Vikings' leading receiver still only racked up 740 yards and 4 TDs. He went on a hot streak early in 2015, but then sputtered out en route to finishing as the 46th-best fantasy WR - worthy of a bench spot at best in standard formats. Diggs shouldn't be viewed as more than a WR4 as he enters 2016 with one year under his belt - one more than newly drafted wideout Laquon Treadwell. The first round rookie will line up across Diggs as an immediate starter in Minnesota, but that doesn't mean he's a quality fantasy contributor either. Bridgewater's Vikings don't chuck the ball down the field, but Treadwell should quickly transition into an imposing possession receiver in the NFL. He has the talent to become a WR3 if everything breaks right.
Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson have been hyped up in back-to-back years, only to disappoint in major ways. I'm not buying into either one of them in 2016. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is an above-average NFL player for his position, but his style doesn't translate well to fantasy football. He is a low-volume, borderline TE2 whose weekly value hinges on a short touchdown.
One of the most consistent fantasy producers of all-time, Adrian Peterson is back at it again in his age-31 season. "All Day", similar to the Energizer Bunny, seems to just keep on going. Most RBs going into their 10th season in the NFL would be showing obvious signs of breakdown, but then again, Peterson isn't "most RBs". After sitting out for almost all of the 2014 season due to off-field concerns, AP came back to the tune of 1707 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs, good for the league rushing title (1485). At a position with such little predictability on a year-to-year basis, Peterson has remained a stud RB1 for almost a decade. With off-season headlines such as "No need to reduce Peterson's workload", "Peterson wants to play in the preseason", and "Peterson could see more targets", I see no indication of a steep decline happening in 2016. He's still a first round RB1 selection in my eyes.
In dynasty/keeper leagues, backup RB Jerick McKinnon is a quality stash as Peterson nears his last few seasons in the pros. Yet, in standard re-draft leagues, the talented speedster will once again only be a handcuff for AP on your bench, albeit a very valuable one.