NFC North Fantasy Football Preview: Studs, Sleepers, and Division Winners and Losers
We're inching closer to the start of football season, which means two things: your favorite team is about to embark on a hopeful journey to the Super Bowl, and your fantasy football drafts are about to take place.
So, to get you prepped for both things, we'll be covering each team -- division by division -- over the next week in order to help you set expectations (analytically, of course) for what's about to happen on both the real and fake football field.
Let's count down the NFC North from worst to first, ranked entirely by our nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect the team to win or lose by against an average one on a neutral field.
4. Chicago Bears | nERD: -3.57 | Projected Record: 7.4-8.6
Fantasy Football Stud: Alshon Jeffery
Every time you draft a wide receiver early in fantasy, you need that guy to be a heavily-involved member of the offense. Alshon Jeffery may have a few shortcomings, but that's most definitely not one of them.
Despite playing only nine games last year, Jeffery still had a team-leading 18.15% target market share, averaging 10.4 targets per game. If we look exclusively at the games in which Jeffery played, his market share jumps to 31.4%, which would have been one of the top marks in the league. If he were to duplicate that and stay healthy this year, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which he wouldn't bring a quality return on investment.
After what happened last season, Jeffery may have a bit of a reputation for being prone to injuries. Considering he played all 16 games in both 2013 and 2014, that perception is a bit hard to grasp. He's got a clean slate entering 2016, and as the unquestioned stud in the passing game, he's a guy you can count on week in and week out.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Zach Miller
With Jeffery missing so many games last year, there was an opportunity on the offense for other assets to step up and establish themselves as reliable targets. Nobody did that more than Zach Miller.
Miller's first week in which he saw a snap percentage above 60.0% came in Week 9, and he simply took off from there. From that game through Week 16 (Miller did not play in Week 17), he scored four touchdowns, saw at least five targets in every game except for one, and controlled an 18.8% market share. He rarely left the field, playing at least 90% of the snaps in four of the games, and that's a floor you don't get from a ton of tight ends.
Miller's currently going in the 13th round of 12-team, PPR drafts, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, meaning he's essentially free. With Martellus Bennett no longer on the team, the door is open for Miller to continue his 2015 late-season run. He's worth a roster spot just with the possibility that may happen.
3. Detroit Lions | nERD: -2.41 | Projected Record: 7.7-8.3
Fantasy Football Stud: Golden Tate
There aren't many players inheriting better situations this year than Golden Tate. After two years of sitting behind Calvin Johnson, Tate's in line to inherit more volume in 2016, and that's something of which he saw plenty even when Johnson was playing.
In his two years with the Detroit Lions, Tate has had 144 and 128 targets, respectively, giving him the 10th-most targets in the league across those two seasons. With Johnson retiring, there are now 149 targets up for grabs, and while a bunch will likely go to Marvin Jones, Tate should get his, as well.
Tate's inefficient, and he doesn't have a ton of touchdown potential. But he's going to get you volume, and that has immense value in fantasy football. As long as Jones doesn't surpass Tate as the top wideout on the team, Tate should produce well enough to warrant his fourth-round ADP.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Ameer Abdullah
This is -- admittedly -- a very liberal usage of the "late-round" designation. Ameer Abdullah is currently going at the end of the seventh round, so this isn't an attempt to mislead you into thinking that you can get him absurdly late.
His value there is just too bonkers to ignore.
Consider this. Prior to last season, Abdullah was flying off the board in the fourth round. That was when the team still had Joique Bell to pilfer carries and before Abdullah had played a snap in the NFL.
Abdullah's rookie season was actually very efficient, and he got better as the season went along. Bell is no longer there, and the team focused on the offensive line early in the NFL draft. There are so many reasons we should be drafting this guy right now, and yet he's available three rounds later than he was last year. That makes almost zero sense.
Abdullah isn't a late-round target, but he is absolutely going later than he should. He's worth a bit of an ADP reach if it means you can guarantee getting him on your roster.
2. Minnesota Vikings | nERD: 1.52 | Projected Record: 8.6-7.4
Fantasy Football Stud: Adrian Peterson
Going out on a pretty big limb here to call Adrian Peterson a fantasy football stud. Wherever would we possibly get that idea?
It may be because he has finished as a top-eight running back in every year except for one since he entered the league. Or it could be because he just led the league in rushes, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns in his age-30 season last year. Either explanation will likely suffice.
Peterson's effectiveness will eventually slip, and we should be considering that in fantasy. But right now, he's the unquestioned top running back on a team with a well-above-average defense, according to numberFire's preseason projections. There's immense value in a situation like that, and it's why Peterson is still an elite fantasy asset.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Jerick McKinnon
It would seem a bit contradictory to pump up two separate running backs on the same team, but Peterson and Jerick McKinnon are a special breed. Although you probably shouldn't pair the two on the same fantasy roster, McKinnon's a tremendous target if you miss out on Peterson.
A huge asset in a late-round running back target is finding a guy who already has an established, standalone role within the offense. Over the final four games of last year (including the team's playoff loss), McKinnon started to have that, seeing a 19.1% target market share in the offense. If he were to get that again this year, he'd be automatically ownable in PPR leagues. That's before we consider the possibility of anything happening to Peterson.
There are currently 48 running backs being drafted before McKinnon, but he may already be more valuable than a good number of them. If his role were to expand -- for any reason -- in 2016, he'd have the ability to win leagues.
1. Green Bay Packers | nERD: 2.34 | Projected Record: 8.9-7.1
Fantasy Football Stud: Jordy Nelson
There aren't many 31-year-old skill-position players who can miss an entire season and come back the next year with a second-round ADP. There also aren't many guys who can ball like Jordy Nelson.
In each of his past three 16-game seasons, Nelson has finished in the top 12 in scoring among wide receivers. That includes two second-place finishes and at least seven touchdowns each of the past four seasons despite missing four contests in 2012. His production is unparalleled, so you know the ceiling here is immense.
That brings us to the risks, and they're not negligible. On top of the recovery from a torn ACL, Nelson suffered another injury in the offseason that has him still on the physically unable to perform list. That's the bigger concern at the moment, though coach Mike McCarthy did say Monday that he expects Nelson back within a week or so.
With Nelson, you want to see him at least practicing before pulling the trigger in the second round. But if he can get on the field in the near future, don't be shocked if Nelson lives up to his lofty expectations once again.
Fantasy Football Late-Round Target: Jared Cook
When you have a successful offense like the Green Bay Packers', you aren't going to have many assets going late in fantasy drafts.
Then there's Jared Cook.
Cook signed with the Packers in the offseason and figures to be the team's main receiving option at tight end. That's a critical role for fantasy purposes.
Because of the nature of the tight end position and its touchdown dependency, you want a player on a team that will be in the red zone as often as humanly possible. Cook didn't have that the past few seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, but the Packers are a different story. An efficient quarterback like Aaron Rodgers will generate plenty of scoring opportunities, and getting exposure to his tight end is a must, regardless of their individual talent level.
Cook is currently the 20th-ranked tight end on the board, the final player at the position who has an ADP. If you're drafting a pair of these big boys, you at least want to ensure the second one has elite upside. On this offense, that's exactly what you'll find with Cook.