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“Big Rigg’s” NFC North Free Agency and Fantasy Implications

OVERVIEW

Arguably, the biggest acquisition during the entire 2018 offseason was Kirk Cousins signing with the Minnesota Vikings.  This is a quarterback driven league and you either have one or you don’t.  The Vikings were able to get decent quarterback play in 2017 out of a career journeyman, Case Keenum, but opted to move on from him and pay up for Kirk Cousins, a more proven veteran.  The signing of Cousins automatically puts/keeps the Vikings in the 2018 Super Bowl conversation and guarantees the Vikings playmakers will remain fantasy relevant, if not better.  The Chicago Bears were also big players this offseason, making a big commitment to Mitch Trubisky adding four pass catchers to their roster via free agency.  The Lions and Packers had quieter free agency periods, but they still made solid additions to their squads, adding some contributors that should be fantasy relevant.  In 2018, Aaron Rodgers will arguably have the best tight end he’s ever played with during his career in Jimmy Graham…if only Jermichael Finley stayed healthy.  Now we will break down the additions and subtractions from each NFC North team from the offseason.

Chicago Bears

Allen Robinson will turn 25 before week 1, so he’s still relatively young as a 5th year player.  Robinson came on the scene strong in 2014 as a rookie, catching 48 balls for 548 yards and 2 TD’s across 8 starts before going down half way through the season with a foot injury.  In 2015, Robinson fully broke out, catching 80 balls for 1,400 yards and 14 TD’s.  In 2016, Blake Bortles regressed and stopped looking down field as much, and he started telegraphing throws with a big, lumbering release.  As a result, Robinson had more contested catches, and he saw his catch rate fall to 48.3% and his yards per reception dropped down to 12.1 from his career 14.1 yards per reception average.  Matt Nagy knows how to get playmakers open, so Mitch Trubisky shouldn’t have a problem finding Allen Robinson as long as Robinson stays healthy coming off his torn ACL.

Taylor Gabriel has been labeled a one trick pony to this point in his career, and rightfully so.  It seems he’s a boom or bust player dependent on the big play to come through for fantasy.  In Gabriel’s best year as a professional football player, 2016, he was only targeted 50 times, catching 35 of them (70%) and scoring 6 times.  The Bears don’t really have too many other great options at receiver outside Robinson and Gabriel, so if Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich are able to dial it up for Gabriel the same way he dialed it up for Tyreek Hill in 2017, he could see a little breakout.  However, it needs to be understood that Hill weighs about 20 more pounds than Gabriel and carries himself like a running back, so he’s able to take more punishment inside, something we’ve yet to see Gabriel handle which may limit his usage.  If Nagy and Helfrich are able to utilize Gabriel properly, 60 catches at 15 yards a catch (his career yards per catch numbers are all over the place) would put Gabriel right at 900 yards receiving.  He will never be a big touchdown guy, so he shouldn’t be drafted very high, he’s simply a late round flier who can fill in nicely during bye weeks.  Moreover, the Bears paid him $14M in guaranteed money, they are paying him to be a solid #2 WR, not a chump.

Bennie Fowler could never really get it done in his four years with the Broncos but he’s in a new system now, and if Mitch Trubisky wants to play it safe, he may hit Fowler a lot out of the slot.  Fowler should go undrafted in almost all leagues, but monitor his snap share and usage early in the season, because he may be a sleeper if Trubisky is super conservative at this early stage in his development.

Trey Burton is athletic as can be and has performed admirably when Zach Ertz has missed time over the last few years.  However, Burton is only 6’3” 235 pounds which is small for an NFL tight end, so it’s yet to be seen if he can play every down as a blocker.  The more snaps he plays, the more relevant he will be for fantasy purposes, so it will be interesting to see if he’s capable of a full compliment of snaps.  The Bears do have a few big boys at tight end though, mainly Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen, who can do the hard work, leaving pass catching duties for Burton, who is more or less a heavy wide receiver.  With Mitch Trubisky entering year number two, he’s likely to take some more lumps before he fully breaks out and emerges as a stud, and while he’s learning, he’s likely to lean on his tight end underneath.

Detroit Lions

LeGarrette Blount is quickly approaching 32 years of age, but even at 31 years old  was able to run for 4.4 yards per carry for the Eagles during their Super Bowl run.  Blount is the short yardage back the Lions have been looking for, and he should be able to take some pressure off Matt Stafford in the redzone.  The Lions aren’t paying him to be the man, only paying him $1.25M, $200,000 of which came by a signing bonus, meaning they are only paying him to be a role player.  The Lions already have Theo Riddick as their third down back and drafted Kerryon Johnson in 2018 to handle early down work.  Blount is a thumper, plain and simple, but there’s simply too many mouths to feed in that Detroit backfield, and if you play him, you’re praying he scores a touchdown.  LeGarrette Blount should only be drafted in deeper leagues as a touchdown dependent bye week or injury filler.

Luke Willson wasn’t utilized much in Seattle because they had a fella named Jimmy Graham dominating snaps at the tight end position.  Willson is a tall (6’5”), athletic pass catching threat that could dominate if he earns a full compliment of snaps in Detroit.  The Lions were willing to let go one of the most talented tight ends in the league in Eric Ebron this offseason because he couldn’t figure out how to be a pro and had problems staying healthy.  Ebron also couldn’t block very well.  Maybe Willson is the tight end that Matthew Stafford has been looking for that Eric Ebron couldn’t be.  Of the 137 targets Willson has seen in his career, he’s caught 89 of them for 1,129 yards, which is good for 12.7 yards per catch, which is a better mark than Jimmy Graham’s career yards per catch which is 12.2 yards.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers let Jordy Nelson walk in free agency this year which is disappointing, but even when Aaron Rodgers was healthy last year, Nelson wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with the emergence of Davante Adams.  When Rodgers was healthy, Nelson’s yards per catch remained healthy, in most games except against the Bengals.  When Brett Hundley took over, it was ugly, Nelson only cracked 10 yards per catch once and that was a 2 catch, 24 yard effort against Baltimore.  Although much of Nelson’s 2017 struggles can be blamed on quarterback play, it was clear the Packers were ready for a changing of the guard so to speak.  With Jordy Nelson moving on, it opens the door for the 6’3″ 202 pound Geronimo Allsion to get more playing time.  If Allison can earn the #2 receiver job in the Green Bay offense, he could offer tremendous value similar to the way Davante Adams broke out playing next to Jordy Nelson in 2016.

Jimmy Graham had his lowest catch rate of his career in 2017, only hauling in 59.4% of passes thrown his way and had the second lowest yards per game of his career with 32.5, which is the first time he dipped below 55 yards per game since his rookie year in 2010.  Graham is still, however, a dominant redzone target, hauling in at least 10 touchdowns for the fourth time in his career.  At this point in Graham’s career, I will only draft him as a touchdown dependent middle of the pack TE1.  At this time, I would draft Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Evan Engram and Greg Olsen over Jimmy Graham.  Even though he’s aging, he’s still a top end guy. Mercedes Lewis was also brought in by the Packers this offseason, but let’s be clear, he wasn’t brought in to be an every down player and will offer little to no value in fantasy even if Graham does go down.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings let former first round draft pick Theodore Bridgewater walk via free agency along with Case Keenum, the gun slinger who led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.  Kurt Cousins has been a full time starter for the Redskins since 2015, and during that span, he has played a full 16 games each season, completed at least 64.3% of his passes and thrown for at least 25 touchdowns.  In Washington, Kurt had Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed as his main playmakers.  In Minnesota, Kurt has Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kendall Wright and Kyle Rudolph to throw to, along with Dalvin Cook who is a legitimate pass catching threat out of the backfield.  In my view, although John DeFilippo hasn’t called plays in the NFL since doing so for the Browns in 2015, he will be just fine because he played a substantial role in planning the plays while preparing for opponents on a weekly basis for the Eagles, and he is known for focusing on doing things that his quarterbacks do well.  That being said, DeFilippo should be able to utilize Kurt to the best of his abilities, and should be able to fully utilize all of the weapons he has at his disposal.  When you sit down and think about which QB’s you would draft over Cousins, guys like Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Philip Rivers and possibly Matthew Stafford come to mind.  That being said, Cousins should be a low end QB1 or high end QB2.  Maybe if the Redskins Owner, Dan Snyder, didn’t refer to Kirk as Kurt, he would have signed in Washington!!!

This offseason the Vikings opted to let Jerrick McKinnon walk to the 49ers.  In doing so, they must clearly feel that Dalvin Cook will be ready to roll and be his normal self for the start of the 2018 season.  McKinnon owns a career 4.0 yards per carry, but in 2016 and 2017, the two seasons he carried the ball more than 150 times in a season, his average fell below 4.0 both times.  McKinnon never offered much in the touchdown department, scoring 7 rushing touchdowns in his career, but he will be missed in the passing game as he reeled in 94 balls over the last two years for just shy of 700 yards and 4 TD’s.

Kendall Wright was brought in to man the slot in Minnesota and after watching Nelson Agholor bust out for 62 grabs, 768 yards and 8 touchdowns in an offense with John DeFilippo’s fingerprints on it, you have to wonder if this is the year Kendall Wright finally breaks through and comes through for fantasy.  Wright’s career catch rate hoovers around 65% and his yards per catch is around 11.5 so he would need about 130 targets thrown his way to flirt with 90 catches and break 1,000 yards on the season.  I am not sure he can do that with the presence of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but that’s about where his ceiling is.

Follow me on Twitter @Coachriggall

 


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I've been coaching lacrosse since 2002 and playing fantasy football since 2006. I've racked up several championships over the years including a 4th place finish in the Kentucky Fantasy Football State Championship in 2016.

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