Before I get started, let me just say that I know the NFC North isn't a sexy division for fantasy players. A league that prides itself on tough running and even tougher defense doesn't exactly make fantasy nerds drool on their keyboards. Outside of the few top-tier talents (see Adrian Peterson and Aaron Rodgers) the rest of the Norris Division appears fairly pedestrian to the untrained eye, but if you delve deeper, there are some serious side dishes to go along with the main course. So just in time for your annual smack talk festival, I give you my NFC North Top 5 booms, busts and sleepers for the 2010 fantasy football season.
1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Alright, so this one is a no brainer. All Day is the run away favorite (pun intended) for the top of the NFC North fantasy draft class. Second only to the Titans Chris Johnson in most mock drafts, Adrian Peterson is the epitome of running back reliability. In a league where RB-by-committee is becoming the norm, the Vikings are bucking the trend by making Peterson the star of the show as evidenced by his 357 touches last year. As a pro, AD has yet to fall below 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a single season and has scored double digit touchdowns every year as well. The injury questions that followed him into the NFL from Oklahoma are no longer an issue after two straight 16-game seasons and he also silenced critics of his receiving ability with his 43 catches in 2009. Peterson is without a doubt the top fantasy performer in the division.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Two years removed from being that Favre guy's understudy, Aaron Rodgers has done nothing but throw for over 4,000 yards and around 30 TDs in each season since, placing him near the top of all NFL QBs in that time frame. 2009 was the true breakout season for Rodgers, who led his position in fantasy points despite being battered more than a Lake Michigan walleye. Offensive line woes aside, Rodgers should be the first quarterback off the board in 2010 and he looks primed to improve on his already impressive numbers.
3. Ryan Grant, RB, Green Bay Packers
After dealing with a somewhat crowded Packers backfield early in his career, Grant established himself as the green and gold's lead back in 2008, and notched career highs in 2009 with 1,253 yards and 11 TDs. More importantly, Grant was at his best when it mattered the most, rushing for 322 yards and six touchdowns over the final four games of the regular season, including a 137-yard, two-TD performance against the Chicago Bears in week 14. While the Packers haven't done much in the offseason to improve it's dreadful offensive line, the threat of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' potent passing attack should keep running lanes open for Grant all year long.
4. Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears
Go ahead and laugh all you want. Cutler's miscues in 2009 (namely his league-leading 26 interceptions) are well documented and the Bears' apparent lack of a true No. 1 wideout is cause for concern, but I will justify this selection with two words: Mike Martz. The offensive guru of "Greatest Show on Turf" fame heads to the Windy City to resurrect an offense that hasn't finished in the top 10 in more than a decade. Martz has a proven track record of producing terrific quarterback numbers from so-so talent (see Jon Kitna). Just take a second and imagine the possibilities of the convergence of Martz's mind and Cutler's rocket right arm. Scary huh? Call me a sucker for hype, but grabbing Cutler in a later round could be the missing piece of your championship puzzle.
5. Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay Packers
Three Packers in the top five? Believe it. Jennings' production dipped in 2009 with 68 catches, 1,113 yards and just four TDs (down from 80, 1,292 and nine in 2008), leaving a bad taste in many fantasy dorks' mouths after projecting the Western Michigan product as a top-ten wideout. I'm going to give the young man the benefit of the doubt by saying his decline was due more to Aaron Rodger's penchant for holding the ball a little too long and the coaching staff's insistence on forcing Jennings to be a vertical threat. In his breakout 2007 season where he caught a career-high 12 TDs, Jennings was used out of the slot in crossing routes, allowing him to use his insane after-the-catch ability to zig and zag through the defense for long gains. Look for the kid from Kalamazoo to get back to his old ways in 2010.
1. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
"Megatron" disappointed big time in 2009. With Matthew Stafford at the helm and various injuries holding him back, Johnson was a shadow of his former self as his production dropped severely from the previous season.
His catches dropped from 78 to 67, his yards from 1,331 to 984 and his touchdowns from 12 to just five. Many experts are high on the Lions and Stafford's huge arm, but I'm going to temper my expectations. Detroit has a long history of failure and until they become relevant, I'll approach every player on the roster with reservations.
2. Devin Hester, WR, Chicago Bears
Outside of Jay Cutler, Hester is probably the most heavily criticized member of the Chicago Bears offense, and mostly it's is own darn fault. Bears coach Lovie Smith saw massive potential in Hester after his breakout rookie and stellar sophomore seasons as a returner and couldn't help but convert the former defensive back to wideout. Fans expected big plays on a regular basis and to this point the Hester experiment has failed to live up to the hype. Although the speedster from The U led the Bears in receiving last season (57 catches for 757 yards) he has scored just three touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and his career 13.4 YPC average leaves much to be desired for a supposed deep threat. Mike Martz has already hinted at using Hester more as Az-Hakim rather than Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt and the Bears are hell bent on getting more production from Hester in the punt return game. Despite being listed as the No. 1 wideout on the depth chart, all signs point to a lesser role for the former game breaker.
3. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears have a long history of one-hit wonders at the running back position (see Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis and Anthony Thomas). And it appears as though Matt Forte is yet another in a long line of RB busts after a sluggish 2009 campaign. Injuries and poor run blocking played a major role in Forte's disappointing season, and it appears early on in camp that the former Tulane workhorse has regained his burst, but the addition of former Viking Chester Taylor is sure to take away some carries. An even split in carries in Mike Martz's pass happy offense will make it hard for either back to establish himself as a sure fantasy contributor, making fantasy disappointment Matt's forte.
4. Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Rice leaped into fantasy relevance, literally, in 2009 thanks to the return of Brett Favre after being buried on the Vikings receiver depth chart for his first two seasons. Thanks to his 6-4 frame and go-go Gadget arms, Rice quickly became a favorite target for Favre, totaling 83 catches, 1,312 yards and eight TDs on the year. But so far in 2010 Rice has struggled with a hip injury and currently remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Head Coach Brad Childress recently stated that Rice remains "a ways away" from being removed from the PUP list and it remains to be seen whether Favre will return for another season. A bad hip and Tarvaris Jackson as your starting QB could spell disaster for Rice in 2010.
5. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Will he play or will he retire? My guess is the 40-year-old gunslinger will give it one last go-around. Unfortunately, with a bum ankle and a banged up receiving corps, Favre will be hard pressed to repeat the magic of the 2009 season, when he had career highs in completion percentage (68.4) and quarterback rating (107.2) and a career low in interceptions (7), while throwing for 33 TDs and 4,202 yards to lead the Vikings (12-4) to an NFC North title. One thing working in Favre's favor is the lack of secondary talent throughout the division, but sooner or later something has to give. I'm betting Favre will make his annual comeback in 2010, but this time he'll regret it.
1. Johnny Knox, WR, Chicago Bears
Someone has to catch Cutler's barrage of passes and who better than the speed demon from Abilene-Christian. A Pro Bowl return man in his rookie season, Knox returns in 2010 listed as a starter on the Bears wideout depth chart and is primed to make a lot of noise for the Monsters of the Midway.
2. Jahvid Best, RB, Detroit Lions
I usually don't put much stock in rookie running backs. Unfortunately for me, that line of thinking has usually hurt me more than it has helped. Therefore, I'm changing my tune this season and listing Detroit rookie Jahvid Best on my list of NFC North sleepers. Best gives the Lions something they haven't had in a while: a homerun threat in the backfield. Kevin Smith is a serviceable starting back if healthy, but Best will give the Lions another dimension in the running game and has a serious chance to become the lead back for a young Lions offense right away.
3. Devin Aromashodu, WR, Chicago Bears
Aromashodu is listed as the third receiver on the Bears' depth chart behind starters Johnny Knox and Devin Hester, but there should be plenty of balls to go around in Mike Martz's offense. Given Aromashodu's rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler and his large frame (6-2, 201), it's easy to see Aromashodu taking over the lion's share of the work especially in the red zone.
4. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers
Finley split time with Donald Lee in 2009, missed three games due to a knee injury and still finished in a tie for fifth in red zone targets among fantasy tight ends. The former Texas Longhorn enters 2010 as the unquestioned starter and should see a major boost in his production after developing great chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers late in the season.
5. Chicago Bears D/ST
The Bears defense has caught a lot of grief in the past few years, failing to live up to the Monsters of the Midway moniker by finishing in the bottom half of the league ever year since ranking fifth in 2006. What most "experts" fail to see is that the Bears are on an upward trend. After dropping to 28th in 2007, they rose to 21st in 2008 and 17th last season. With the addition of Julius Peppers to an underachieving line and one more season under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli, the Bears should be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and take some pressure off of a so-so secondary. Lovie Smith always preaches takeaways and scoring on defense, as the Bears defense leads the NFL in takeaways and touchdowns since he took over as head coach. Adding rookie Major Wright at safety gives the Chicago secondary a boost and the Bears' special teams unit is second to none. Johnny Knox, Daniel Manning and Devin Hester comprise the best return unit in the game and coordinator Dave Toub should have the group ready to score plenty of touchdowns in 2010.