Fantasy Sleepers: NFC North
The NFC North has more players who might fly under the radar, but deserve attention.
Chicago Bears: Alshon Jeffery WR
A pretty popular pick last year in his rookie campaign, but a slow start to the offseason and injuries limited Jeffery’s production last season. However he still managed to grab 24 catches on 48 targets over the course of 10 games last season. Extrapolated over a sixteen game season his numbers would look somewhere around 37 catches on 75 targets, not to shabby for a rookie. His 50 catch/target rate is nothing to write home about, but he does have an uncanny ability to muscle through defenders to make tough catches. There have also been reports that Jeffery is working out in private with fellow Bears receiver and superstar Brandon Marshall, who has become and elite receiver in the league when partnered with Jay Cutler. As much as Jeffery could breakout and put the talent everyone saw at South Carolina to use in the NFL, the improvements around him could help him even more that what he can do for himself.
The Bear’s shocked the football world at the end of last season when the let long time Head Coach Lovie Smith go due to lack of progress in the offense, despite a brilliant defense. In came quarterback guru Marc Trestman who guided the Toronto Alouettes to some impressive offensive campaigns in the CFL. Not only that, but Jay Cutler has had to work with a patchwork offensive line during his tenure in Chicago. With the free agent signing of Jermon Bushrod as well as the first round draft pick of Kyle Long, the Bears may finally have an offensive line capable of keeping Cutler upright. With these additions it’s clear that the Bears want a more explosive passing attack and Jeffery figures to play a pretty large part in the rebuilding process, especially as Devin Hester could be released due to his high cap number and limited skill set on offense. There is no guarantee that Jeffery will get the spot as the number two man behind Marshall, he will have to beat out Earl Bennet for that right, but whoever wins the number two spot for the Bears is up for a breakout season in the Windy City.
Also keep an eye on : Earl Bennett WR
Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush RB
Last season the Lions attempted a record number of passes behind the rocket arm of Matthew Stafford leading to his large contract extension earlier this offseason. Part of this absurd frequency to pass the ball came from having one of the most physically gifted wide receivers of all time in Calvin Johnson, but it also stemmed from having their running backs consistently averaging less than four yards per carry. Mikel LeShoure ruptured his Achilles in the preseason of his rookie year, and has seemingly never been able to find a groove since. The Lions did however still manage to average 100.8 ypg on the ground last season, good for 23rd in the league, so there are still touches to go around. The Lions also utilize their backs in the passing game with Joquie Bell pulling in 52 catches to go along with his 85 rushing attempts, this type of running back utilization seems tailor fitted for a back like Reggie Bush.
Written off as a bust while in New Orleans, Bush had a sort of renaissance during his two years in Miami. By proving he could be a feature back not only rushing the ball, but also remain a viable receiver out of the backfield, he has opened the door to fit right in to the pass first and second offenses popping up around the league. None may be more fitted than the Detroit Lions. Bush remains a threat in the open field against any defense in the league, but with teams having to compensate for Calvin Johnson, that should hopefully open up the underneath game for a receiving back such as Bush. While in Miami his pass catching ability was vastly under utilized, having failed to catch over 40 last season. My only worry is that Bush has been fairly consistent with his touchdowns in Miami, having 6 both season, but Mikel Leshoure is more suited to taking goal line carries with his bigger frame and between the tackles running style. However, the ability to play in a new division usually comes with a statistical boom as teams have less film against common opponents and simply don’t know how a new player with fit into the system. Look for Bush to have a surprisingly effective season with less pressure on him to carry an offensive workload.
Also keep an eye on: Ryan Broyles WR
Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy RB
The Packers for the last few seasons have had one of the most exciting passing offenses in the league, to go along with one of the most ineffective rushing attacks. In the NFL if your quarterback is your second leading rusher for the season, something has gone terribly wrong. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness forced the Packers to be frustratingly one-dimensional at time last season leading to a lot of pressure being put on Aaron Rodgers to make plays. Luckily players at the wide receiver positions stepped up and let Rodgers run the offense with little to no threat of a running game. That (hopefully) changed this offseason when The Pack selected two of the highest rated running backs in the draft in Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin. Lacy however will presumably get the head start on Franklin due to draft position (2nd round over 4th), but that is no guarantee that he will win the starting job in the end, or that they won’t split carries throughout the season. The Packers had 277 carries between their top three running backs last season (Alex Green, James Starks, Cedric Benson) and it would be safe to assume most, if not all of those carries get split somehow between Lacy and Franklin. Lacy has the more punishing running style however that will force linebackers to respect the inside running attack a little bit more that Franklin. Lacy also has the speed to run away from linebackers if they fail to compensate for him. Franklin had a big season while at UCLA last season, but SEC run defenses are slightly more respected than the PAC-12 in this day and age so I will give the edge to Lacy in become a capable fantasy running back. He still isn’t worth a very high draft pick, maybe a RB 3 or top reserve, but until he wins the starting job and a fair share of carries Lacy will still be risk.
Also keep and eye on: Jonathan Franklin RB
Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder QB
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of one of the most peculiar seasons in NFL history. With their star running back coming off of a late season ACL tear and not expected back until mid-season Adrian Peterson subsequently tore apart opposing defenses ending up 9 yards short of the NFL record for rushing yards in a single season. However they were stifled in the playoffs due to a key injury, to Christian Ponder. Many pundits are citing the loss of Percy Harvin to the Seahawks as a huge blow to Ponder’s growth as a quarterback, but I actually think it will do him a lot of good. First of all the Viking’s brought in Greg Jennings, a veteran receiver who will not only be able to help Ponder along, but tutor ultra talented Cordarrelle Patterson in his rookie campaign. Last season Harvin also only averaged 10.9 yards per catch meaning his was getting a lot of screen passes and not getting down the field very often, especially since that is what his was expected to do. By being unable to stretch the field it forced Ponder to settle for underneath routes a shocking amount of the time. With Adrian Peterson in the backfield the play action passing game should open up huge holes in the secondary, and a real deep threat like Patterson should be a huge boon for Ponder to be able to look downfield.
Ponder also had a problem with turnovers last season, accounting for 17 by himself. However, just as with ever sophomore quarterback there is frustrating tendency for defenses to adjust quicker and faster than as a rookie seeing as defenses have a whole season of film and offseason to study it. Ponder has all the tools to be become a viable fantasy quarterback all he has to do is take charge and ride the play action passing game. If that weren’t incentive enough the Vikings have brought in former Chiefs and Patriots quarterback Matt Cassell to aid and push Ponder to his full potential. Ponder isn’t going to be the first option in Minnesota this year, but that will give him the opportunity to make the deep throw on second down and hopefully strike it big knowing Peterson can pick up short yardage on third down, and plays like that can turn into fantasy gold.
Also keep an eye on: Toby Gerhart RB