Thursday, Sep 10th

NFC North :: 2019 Preview!

NFC East | NFC South | NFC West | AFC

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Chicago Bears

In many ways, especially on the surface, the Chicago Bears are exactly the type of team we love in DFS: a team that, in spite of allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL, still finished ninth in the league in points per game behind an offense that aimed to remain aggressive throughout its contests, mixing a run-heavy approach with an aggressive passing attack designed to move the ball underneath in order to set up big plays downfield. But when we look closer at this team, we run into a bit of a traffic jam. Here is a list of the offensive weapons that Matt Nagy wants to scheme around and get involved each week:

David Montgomery // Tarik Cohen // Allen Robinson // Anthony Miller // Taylor Gabriel // Cordarrelle Patterson // Trey Burton // Adam Shaheen

And that’s even before we throw in Mike Davis – whose role will likely dwindle as Montgomery continues to earn trust from this coaching staff, but who will likely be at least somewhat involved early in the year.

When you actually dig into the game logs from this offensive unit, you will notice that very few week-winning fantasy scores tend to come from it, with the rare exceptions being “speed games” (i.e., games in which Nagy is able to get Cohen or Gabriel into jailbreak looks against a slower defense) and the rare spiked-target games from Robinson. More often than not, Nagy’s ability to move his chess pieces around in new ways to attack the unique defense he is facing (in other words: the same ability that makes Nagy a strong real-life coach) ends up making his teams surprisingly unattractive from a fantasy perspective.

this is a team that requires close attention and a bit of guesswork almost every single week

Cohen is a favorite piece for Nagy – much more than a third down back – and he tends to be used most reliably against slower linebacking units, or against teams that have been susceptible to the sorts of double moves and spacing Nagy can use to create open field for him. Montgomery has quickly become a favorite for Nagy as well this offseason (if he seizes the goal line role on top of leading backfield duties, he’ll become the most reliable piece on this team), and both Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller have drawn rave reviews for their offseason work. Gabriel remains a lid-lifting part of this offense; Nagy is particularly excited about what he can do with Patterson; and the Burton/Shaheen combo creates unique mismatches from the tight end position. Pile it all together, and this is a team that requires close attention and a bit of guesswork almost every single week – a team that is often likely to put up points as a unit, but that is never guaranteed to provide the sorts of scores we should be looking to target for our DFS rosters.

Of course, as we talked about in our writeup of the Eagles, there is sometimes nothing wrong with rostering a quarterback naked – and when you look under the hood at Mitchell Trubisky (421 rushing yards last year – fifth in the NFL among QBs), you see yet another situation in which this holds true. Trubisky has had an up-and-down summer practicing against the Bears’ elite defense, but Nagy has also talked openly about the fact that he has gone out of his way this year to put Trubisky in difficult situations in practice. It won’t be surprising if Trubisky takes another step forward this year; and if he does, this high-powered offense will make him worth considering in tournaments throughout the season.

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Detroit Lions

After back-to-back nine win seasons, the 2018 Detroit Lions qualified as a disappointment. Beat writers for the Lions have tried to spin last season as a reminder that this team wasn’t close to winning a Super Bowl before Patricia arrived, and so, ‘Hey, why not tear down and rebuild the right way?’; but it is also true that this team had enough talent to win more than six games last year. So how did this team get there?

Patricia took a reliable, non-sexy-but-good-gas-mileage sedan and tried to turn it into a pickup truck

Frankly, from whatever angle you look at it, it appears that Matt Patricia arrived in Detroit last year with an idea of how a football team should be run, and of what a team’s strategy on the field should be. While this is all well and good, it also appears that Patricia formed this plan before he ever knew what organization would eventually hire him as head coach. Patricia took a reliable, non-sexy-but-good-gas-mileage sedan and tried to turn it into a pickup truck. This team was built to pass the ball but instead skewed run heavy – going so far as to jettison Golden Tate halfway through the season, and to fire pass game proponent Jim Bob Cooter in favor of run lover Darrell Bevell. Meanwhile, the goal of the Matt Patricia offense has become predictably boring and simple: he wants a ball-control attack that can chew up the clock and keep his defense fresh. Philosophically, Patricia is more interested in avoiding negative plays than he is in attacking an opponent, as if all it takes to win like Belichick is a strategy built around sitting back and waiting for opponents to make a mistake.

While this approach from Patricia robs us of the consistent and glorious upside we should be able to target from Kenny Golladay (and, to a lesser extent, Marvin Jones), this would at least be acceptable to us as DFS players if Patricia were leaning heavily on Kerryon Johnson. Even with the Lions letting go of Theo Riddick, however, there is still no guarantee that Kerryon will see the full workload to which he should be entitled. As Kerryon has seen his draft position rise throughout the summer, there have been thoughts out of Lions camp that CJ Anderson will hog a large chunk of the goal line work, and we may even see rookie Ty Johnson mixing in on third downs before we get too deep into the season. Given where Kerryon is starting from a price perspective, he should still be worth targeting early in the year – though it will be an open question as to whether he is underpriced, or is instead appropriately priced in Patricia’s upside-sapping offense.

As for those pass game weapons: Matthew Stafford failed to top even 33 pass attempts across the Lions’ last five games of 2018 (three of which, by the way, were losses), and with this team’s turtle-in-a-shell philosophy and the slow pace at which they choose to play, we will need to pick our spots with this passing attack this year. Frustratingly, Detroit played solidly on defense last year, allowing the seventh fewest receptions to wide receivers and the eighth fewest receptions to tight ends, while bottling up running backs during the second half of the year and allowing the 10th fewest opponent yards in the fewest opponent plays per game. Ultimately, we will want to hunt for our upside from this passing attack (Golladay, Jones, and likely TJ Hockenson) on weeks in which we can expect them to be forced into a pass-heavy game plan. There will be times when this passing attack will be useful, but game environment (thanks, Patricia) will have more to do with that than will the talent involved on this team.

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Green Bay Packers

An era ended in Green Bay this offseason (can you feel the tears?) when the Packers finally fired Mike McCarthy and moved to replace him with Matt LaFleur. McCarthy is the poster boy for the “system coaches” we sometimes refer to on the site: coaches who build their offense around a preconceived idea of what they want to do, rather than adjusting their offense to fit the talents of the players at hand. Across the last decade, McCarthy’s “system” aged poorly as the modern NFL moved forward, creating a situation last year in which Aaron Rodgers often ran a completely different offense on the field than the one McCarthy was calling. And now, thirty-nine-year-old Matt LaFleur has been brought in to restore order after a disastrous season as the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.

As alluded to in our writeup of the Titans, there is a strong chance that not all of the issues in Nashville last year were the fault of LaFleur (we are likely to discover once and for all this season that Marcus Mariota is not the quarterback we all want him to be). With that said…well, if nothing else, this will at least be an interesting experiment.

There are three main things we should expect to see from the Packers offense this season that are different from what we have seen in the past:

1) Firstly, we should see a lot more pre-snap movement, with motion and misdirection designed to keep the defense honest and to open up more areas of the field.

2) We will also see the Packers running a primarily outside-zone rushing attack — an attack that requires speed to get to the edge, and that is a fantastic fit for Aaron Jones while being (mercifully) a terrible fit for last year’s fantasy rainstorm Jamaal Williams. With Williams a poor fit for this offense (and with Tra Carson and Dexter Williams in an underwhelming battle for the number three role), we should see Jones unleashed at last – taking on a role that not only fits his skill set, but that is also expected to be heavy in running back receptions. Rodgers has a long history of vulturing touchdowns from his running backs, but even if Jones’ touchdown production lags behind the truly elite backs, we should expect the touches and the yardage to be there almost every week.

3) Finally, we should see LaFleur focus heavily on his play sequencing, attempting to run different plays out of the same look in order to multiply the number of assignments a defense has to think about on any given play. Particularly against poor defenses, or defenses that have shown issues in communication, we will have expanded opportunities for big plays from the Packers offense.

Rodgers is still going to run the show however he wants to run it

As for what will not change: Rodgers is still going to run the show however he wants to run it, and one of the ways in which we know he wants to run his show is by focusing heavily on Davante Adams. Unless LaFleur’s system is just an absolute dud (and while it may mean nothing, we should keep in mind that this is a guy who has learned from both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan), we should actually see Adams getting open more often this year, with Rodgers having less of a need than in the past to force the ball to his favorite target in ultra-tight coverage. The targets should be there for Adams once again, and there is no reason to expect him to perform at anything other than the level at which we have become accustomed.

This offense should run through Jones and Adams; but with a bounce-back year likely on tap for Rodgers, there should be enough production on any number of weeks for Geronimo Allison (who is expected to play primarily in the slot), Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or even Jimmy Graham to tack on a usable line – with at least a couple week-winning scores emerging from Allison and/or MVS this year.

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Minnesota Vikings

With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at wide receiver and Dalvin Cook at running back, the Minnesota Vikings have the raw tools to be one of the more dangerous offenses in the NFL. Last year, however, this team fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo because he was passing the ball too much, turning the play-calling reins over to run game proponent Kevin Stefanski. Annoyingly, Minnesota ramped up their rush play rate in spite of running the ball behind an offensive line that finished the year 23rd in adjusted line yards, 30th in power rank, and 25th in stuffed rank. (Meanwhile, this same line finished ninth in adjusted sack rate. Tell us again about how you should be using Thielen and Diggs less?) And with a full offseason with Stefanski at the helm, there is no reason to expect this to change.

It isn’t all gloom and doom in Minneapolis, however, as Stefanski has been working with Gary Kubiak to develop and install this year’s offense – a great sign for a running back like Cook, of course, but also an underrated boost to this team’s two elite wide receivers. We are unlikely to see production at the level we saw under DeFilippo, but we should see a more aggressive passing attack than we saw down the stretch run of 2018. In fact, aggressiveness has been one of the main talking points out of Vikings camp this year.

one focus this summer has also been pass plays designed to be aggressive

While the foundation of this offense will obviously be the outside-zone running scheme that has been the signature of so many Kubiak offenses in the past, one focus this summer has also been pass plays designed to be aggressive off of the Vikings’ sure-to-be successful run action. Not only is Minnesota planning to incorporate as many bootlegs and as much pocket movement as they can, but they are also pushing Cousins to be more aggressive this year in his targeting of Thielen and Diggs – not waiting for them to be open before taking a shot, but instead trusting that these two have elite hands to go with their elite route running, and attempting to squeeze the ball into tight windows from time to time.

With no wide receiver depth behind Thielen and Diggs, and with rookie tight end Irv Smith a piece that Minnesota wants to develop alongside Kyle Rudolph, we should also see Minnesota operate out of a large dose of 12 personnel, allowing this team to check into pass plays when the defense goes heavy, and allowing them to lean toward the run when the defense shifts to lighter formations.

There are question marks on this unit — no doubt. Will Cook finally be unleashed as a 70% or 80% player, or will rookie “Latavius Murray replacement” Alexander Mattison take on the full, value-sucking Latavius role? And will Minnesota ever be truly aggressive on offense of their own accord, or will it take communication breakdowns in their stout defense before the offense will respond with an aggressive game?

Yet even with these questions, Minnesota will continue to give us a narrow distribution of touches centered around a group of extremely talented players, making them intriguing pieces from a tournament perspective far more often than not.