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2020 NFC North fantasy football outlook

For the next few weeks, on the RB1 Fantasy Football Podcast, we’re highlighting a few must drafts, avoids, and deeper sleepers to keep an eye on, division by division. If you like anything you see here, tune in to the pod for a more in-depth look, or listen I guess it’d be.

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers
League winner, Dalvin Cook.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

This has been a top-heavy division in both real football and fantasy football for the past couple of seasons. This year, with perhaps a changing of the guard at the QB spot in Chicago, we have a lot of fantasy potential from top to bottom in the NFC North.

Trustworthy Elite — Dalvin Cook

Cook’s talent and situation is pretty obvious. The only thing keeping Cook’s ADP ‘all the way down’ at #7 (all ADP courtesy of Fantasy Pros 0.5 PPR ranks) instead of being in the mix for the top two is injury concern. Those injury concerns are legit, with a couple of injuries to his legs and now, including his college career, a couple of shoulder injuries. And so this gives us a chance to talk about handcuffing, and why Cook should be the number three back off the board this season.

There is much debate around handcuffing, and for good reason. Handcuffing your starting running back was more prevalent in years past when running back depth charts were more linear, and when backs absolutely dominated the NFL and fantasy seasons alike. Now, in the era of running back committees, points per reception, and muddled depth charts, handcuffing has fallen out of fashion.

However, we have all the ingredients for a successful handcuff situation in Minnesota in 2020.

First, we have an offensive scheme that is driven by the running back. The head coach, Mike Zimmer, is a traditional, defensive-minded coach who wants to slow the game down and run it on offense. Gary Kubiak, known for his zone-run and play-action schemes, moves from behind-the-scenes Offensive Coordinator to the-actual-Offensive-Coordinator, along with a stable offensive line. So the Vikings will be running the same system they ran last year.

Vital ingredient number two is a dominant, do-it-all back that can carry an offense. We have that kind of back in Dalvin Cook who’s going so early in drafts half of you wont even have the chance to take him.

Crucial ingredient three, a backup running back who could step in and produce should the number one go down. Alexander Mattison, a talented RB in his own right, is that talented-but-clearly-number-2 back behind Cook. There will be no time-share here, even if Cook does go down.

And last but not least, unlike the situation in Cleveland, the number two back, Mattison, has an ADP of 120-something. For the math majors out there, that is just outside the first 10 rounds in a 12-team league.

The downside here is that you’re tying up two roster spots for, at best, one starter. That is a price I’m willing to pay to legitimately lock down the Vikings backfield.

League Winner — Adam Thielen

I’ll stick with the Vikings here as a stable offense with well-defined roles for their big stars. Thielen did just fine with Stefon Diggs in town, but the Kubiak offense is really set up to feature one, dominant wide receiver. Thielen will remain the number one, but with less competition for targets. Thielen is going at a nice discount for such a premium player. Don’t be afraid to jump up and grab Thielen from about the middle of the second round on.

Do Not Draft — No Comment

No one in this division jumps out at me as a do not draft. Allen Robinson is going as the WR 10, a little early, and a little scary with Chicago’s nebulous quarterback situation. Robinson, though, is a premier WR1 who’s been overcoming poor quarterback play for his entire career. If Foles gets the nod to start for the Bears, Robinson’s rank may be too low.

David Montgomery is another question mark, but with an ADP of 64, fears of an unproductive offense and split backfield are perhaps being over-accounted-for.

With the Lions we have Kenny Golladay going early, but if Stafford makes it through all 16 games he’s an absolute steal at the end of the second round.

So, you tell me. Who in this division is going way too early?

Late Round Sleeper — Irv Smith Jr.

Its tough to call Irv Smith Jr. a sleeper, as there is plenty of buzz about the athletic tight end going in to his sophomore season, but with an ADP of 210, Smith Jr. is free.

The scheme the Vikings run is the same, in principle, as the scheme that has made 5th-round-draft pick George Kittle one of the premier tight ends in football. In this scheme, defenses are put in a terrible bind trying to cover the tight end, if you put a safety or, god forbid, a corner, over the TE, the offense will have a size advantage in the run-blocking game and hit you with a nice outside zone run. If you cover the tight end with a linebacker, when you have an athletic TE like Kittle or Smith Jr., then they have a huge advantage in quickness. These TE-LB matchups lead to huge plays on play-action, bootlegs with the TE streaking down the field, the covering linebacker three steps in his wake.

Smith Jr. has the athletic potential to burst on to the scene this year, and he is, essentially, going undrafted in most formats. Do not leave your draft without picking up Irv Smith Jr.