Fantasy football owners are busily filling their draft boards as training camps have opened all across the NFL landscape. Every fantasy owner is looking for a sleeper selection or two in order to help carry them to the promised land of a fantasy football championship. In the seventh of an eight-part series, I am examining each team by division to help you find that possible sleeper. This installment previews the NFC North.
The Green Bay Packers will try to rebound after their early exit from the playoffs last year while posting a 15-1 regular season record. The Detroit Lions will try to overcome the recent rash of offseason issues and build upon last season’s playoff berth. The Chicago Bears have added some new weapons on offense and could be a surprising team in 2012. The Minnesota Vikings will try to determine if Christian Ponder is the future under center for the club moving forward.
A column which highlights sleeper picks usually showcases little known players, but in the case of the Chicago Bears, I think two key veterans could post career seasons with the Bears this season. Mike Martz is out as the Chicago offensive coordinator, replaced by Mike Tice. Tice loves to stretch the field with the deep ball and I really like QB Jay Cutler this season. Issues still surround the offensive line of the Bears, but the club has made significant upgrades at the receiver position. Cutler threw a career-best 27 touchdowns with the Bears in 2009, and I look for him to break through that number this season. The Bears added former teammate WR Brandon Marshall and drafted South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery. I expect Cutler to come close to his career high passing yardage total of 4,526 yards and eclipse his 27 career high touchdown passes this season.
I also hesitate to call a player entering his fifth year in the league as a sleeper, but I love Michael Bush as a flex player this season. I expect Matt Forte to carry the ball between the 20′s this season and then enter, RB Michael Bush. Bush is a bruising back, and when you look at his 2010 season in Oakland when he carried the ball just 158 times, he recorded eight scores. I expect similar, if not improved numbers for Bush this season.
The Detroit Lions have had to endure a rash of offseason arrests. Can the Lions overcome the distractions? That is going to be a key question heading into the 2012 season. I like two players on the current roster as sleeper picks heading into this season. WR Titus Young and RB Joique Bell.
Young posted a strong rookie season with 48 receptions and six scores last season and I fully expect him to supplant WR Nate Burleson by mid-season for the Lions. Given the issues surrounding the Lions running back situation., expect more of the same, through the air, high-scoring offense from the Lions in 2012.
Long time readers of my work over the last few years know that I am very high on Lions RB Joique Bell. Bell, a Harlon Hill Division II-A award winner, has bounced around the league for the past two years. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Bills, Bell joined the Eagles, Colts, Saints, before signing a contract and joining the roster of the Lions late last season. Given the issues surrounding the Lions running back situation, Bell should get an extended look in the pre-season and eventually get a chance to tote the rock in the NFL this season.
Green Bay Packers-
The Packers roster is similar to the New England Patriots, loaded with offensive weapons and suspect at the running back position. Donald Driver is entering his 14th season in the league. His leadership and character has never been in question but I expect him to be slowly phased out this season. I think Randall Cobb could emerge as a playmaker for the Packers this season as the team continues to work him into the lineup. Cobb has return and receiving skills and early reports suggest that he looks great in camp.
The running back position for the Packers, as the patriots, seems to be an afterthought with the offense being guided with a pass first mentality. Green Bay finished the 2011 regular season ranked 27th in rushing offense while posting a 15-1 overall record. Someone has to step forward in the Packers backfield and I have a feeling that it might be RB Alex Green this season. Coming off a knee injury, he is drawing rave reviews early on in training camp.
I believe that the Vikings are going to be competing for the top pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. (Cue the hate mail) There is a great unknown with RB Adrian Peterson. Is Christian Ponder a true starting quarterback at the NFL level? Is Percy Harvin going to dedicate himself to the Vikings this season? The only player I think that could be considered a sleeper pick this season for Minnesota is WR Jerome Simpson. Simpson starts the season while serving a three-game suspension but could become a favorite target of Ponder’s given his physical size versus Harvin. A name to keep on the back burner and you watch lists as the season progresses.