As the 2009 NFL season is nearly upon us, fantasy drafts are approaching as well. There a many different ways to break down the fantasy potential of players, the best of which is the competition those players will face.
With that in mind, I am going to provide team-by-team analysis over the coming days for every NFL team, looking at some of the improvements, question marks, and expectations for the season. Who could be this year's breakout star, like DeAngelo Williams? And, on the opposite side of that spectrum, who could be a bust?
In a logical progression through the NFL, I will provide these previews both for the individual teams as well as a divisional overview. After all, if the competition of a player plays a significant role in that player's success, where better to begin an evaluation than their division?
This might be one of the most fun divisions to watch for quarterbacks this year. Rodgers projects as a top-five quarterback with the weapons around him. Cutler certainly has the ability to be a big play guy, but has some questions in the receiving corps that still need to be answered. Favre's statistical expectations can't really be confidently projected because of the strong running game in Minnesota; but can Favre be a "game manager" while his heart still wants to chuck?
The unsettled situation in Detoit is something that could evolve with the season. Either quarterback will have Calvin Johnson to throw to, but which one's on the field might be determined as much by the team's record as it is by their production; if the Lions fall out of contention early, they might make the move to Stafford with an eye on the team's future sooner than later.
Sleeper: Smith, Chester Taylor
Much like the quarterback position, the NFC North has two of the elite running backs in the entire NFL entering 2009. There is going to be one significant consideration every manger will want to make when picking their running back this year, though: how is the league scoring?
Many ESPN and Yahoo leagues are scoring points for receptions this season, but many aren't scoring for rushing attempts. This is something you're going to want to consider when taking that long, hard look at Peterson with a top-three pick. Peterson's a special running back, but hasn't traditionally been used as a receiving back. He accumulated 1,760 rushing yards last year, but only caught only 21 balls for 125 yards in the entire season. If receptions are a consideration, he won't get you many points there.
On the other hand, Forte had 63 catches and eclipsed 1,700 total yards last year. If Cutler checks down because of the questionable Chicago receiving corps, Forte could benefit and be a favorite target in 2009 just as he was for Kyle Orton last year. This could, indeed it should, elevate Forte into a top-ten overall fantasy pick this year.
Smith quietly had a solid season in Detroit last year while the rest of the house collapsed around Johnson and him. He fought Rudi Johnson for playing time early in the season and nearly totalled 1,000 rushing yards by the end of the season. Like Forte, this second year back will also get you some points in the passing game; he caught 39 balls last year. If the Lions make the move to Stafford, they could rely more on the run, leading to bigger numbers from Smith.
Grant wasn't in very good shape last year, and his numbers reflected that at the end of the season. While he should bounce back, the emergence of Rodgers could take the ball out of Grant's hands. However, Taylor could vulture some touchdowns away from Peterson in Minnesota as more of a versatile receiving back, and he could be a nice late-round pick.
Sleeper: Harvin, Earl Bennett
Let the record show that after Johnson and Jennings, there should be a fairly significant drop-off before the rest of the receivers in this division. Johnson could also see his numbers become volatile with a potentially evolving quarterback situation in Detroit, which leads me to believe that Jennings might be a safer pick late in the season.
Berrian and Harvin, however, could be wild cards. If the Vikings allow Favre to earn his $25 million contract and throw the ball, Berrian might be the happiest receiver in football. Harvin has shown some flashes of becoming something special as a slot, and could work his way into decent yards this year.
In Chicago, the receivers are a huge question mark. Hester has already been fooled by Cutler's arm strength on a couple occasions in the preseason, and the biggest beneficiary of his continued learning curve could be Greg Olsen. A nice sleeper could be Bennett, though, who was Cutler's favorite target during their one season together at Vanderbilt and he has emerged as the starting receiver opposite Hester for the Bears.
Rank: Greg Olsen, Donald Lee, Visanthe Shiancoe, Desmond Clark, Brandon Pettitgrew
Olsen might stand to be the biggest beneficiary of the Bears addition of Cutler. He was on the cusp of emerging as a legit fantasy tight end at the end of last year, and has quickly become Cutler's favorite target in Chicago during the preseason. He could see a significant jump in receptions, yards and touchdowns this season, while Clark could get some catches in the red zone and end zone as well this year.
Lee is an athletic tight end that could put up good numbers with Rodgers continuing to emerge as an elite quarterback in Green Bay. Shiancoe, much like Olsen, could benefit from his new quarterback this year in big ways. In Favre's last year in Green Bay, tight ends caught nine touchdowns in the same system Minnesota uses now. Shiancoe could be a great fantasy sleeper this year. Detroit's unsettled quarterback situation, coupled with Pettitgrew being a rookie, makes him an option only in a bye week or deeper leagues.
Rank: Minnesota, Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit
Sleeper: Green Bay
Minnesota is one of the best defenses in the NFL and should be a solid fantasy play all year. In Chicago, the health of their secondary is a huge question mark that hasn't been settled, but they have always taken the ball away well under Lovie Smith.
The wild card in the division, indeed what might play the biggest role in determining the division title, will be how the Packers adjust to Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. With Aaron Kampmann moving to a linebacker slot instead of a traditional end, there could be a learning curve in a division with a lot of offensive talent. Detroit made a lot of changes, but needed to after tossing a doughnut last year.
Rank: Robbie Gould, Mason Crosby, Ryan Longwell, Jason Hanson
All four of these kickers, especially the two that play in domes, are solid fantasy plays and should put up good fantasy points in 2009 considering the offenses in the division. Hanson emerges as a sleeper because he's always been good from longer range and, with the struggles the Lions have had, he might be asked to kick a lot of field goals.