We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.
Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.
Today we preview the NFC North.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (11-5)
Brett Favre is not on the Minnesota Vikings. It doesn't matter. The Vikings win the division by three games and are favored in all but one game. The Vikings average 25.3 points per game (#2 in the NFL) and allow 18.6 points (#7) against a schedule featuring five games against teams who made the playoffs in 2008.
Absolute Record: 15-1
Most Significant Newcomer: Percy Harvin - The computer has a serious man crush on Percy Harvin. The wide receiver/running back/returner/athlete is one of the most dynamic playmakers to enter the NFL in recent memory. Harvin put up "Playstation" numbers against the best defenses in the country at Florida, averaging 9.5 yards per carry and 14.5 yards per reception and scored 32 touchdowns on 194 rushes and 133 catches in his three-year college career. There are some injury and effort flags, but he projects to be a star if he wants to be and can stay on the field. Harvin is a unique blend of player who can make all of the other offensive weapons on the field better just by his presence and the threat he can be to run or catch the ball for a big play - plus he may even play quarterback in the Vikings' version of the "Wildcat." In the projections, Harvin runs the ball 92 times and catches 38 passes for 904 total yards and eight touchdowns.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Offense - I want to popularize a "rushing margin" statistic to best quantify just how ridiculous the Vikings have been for the last two seasons. In 2007, Minnesota ran for 2.2 more yards-per-carry than their competition. In 2008, that value was still a league-leading 1.2. The offensive line is fantastic with guys like Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie creating holes. Chester Taylor is still a legitimate weapon. Percy Harvin is a freak. Possible starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can run. And, oh yeah, Adrian Peterson may be the best player in football. If the Vikings stick to the run, they won't need to worry about who is playing quarterback to win. In the projections, Minnesota rushes for 2,691 yards on 567 carries.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Pass Defense - Of course, the quarterback situation is not ideal, but it's not as bad as most make it. We have Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson splitting starts evenly and the team does fine. The QBs shouldn't have much pressure on them, so most mistakes should be avoidable. Instead, the defensive backfield is prone to allowing big plays. The Vikings let ballhawking safety Darren Sharper go, but that's not that big of a deal at this point in his career. The bigger concerns for Minnesota are getting free safety Madieu Williams as healthy as possible, hoping second-year strong safety Tyrell Johnson takes a step forward as he joins the starting lineup and keeping the corners focused throughout each game. We have Williams playing 12 games, love Johnson and can't really fully account for consistency. There is talent in the secondary, but its pieces need to get and stay on the same page.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Percy Harvin, WR - See above. We are in love.
Closest Game: @Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 7) - The Vikings first six games are all against teams we predict to be below .500. A game against the defending champions will be a huge test for this team. It's early in the season, so it will not yet be freezing temperatures in Pittsburgh and Adrian Peterson should still have a fast track. The Vikings have a team that can exploit the Steelers' weaknesses by getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers. An 11-0 Vikings team heading into its game at Arizona should not be a surprise.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Sage Rosenfels (31) 1,481 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs; Tarvaris Jackson (33) 1,389 yards, 10 TDs, 3 INTs; Adrian Peterson (1) 1,802 total yards, 15 TDs; Bernard Berrian (16) 47 receptions 941 yards, 7 TDs; Percy Harvin (18) 38 receptions, 904 yards, 8 TDs; Bobby Wade (58) 37 receptions, 484 yards, 4 TDs; Visanthe Shiancoe (23) 26 receptions, 367 yards, 3 TDs; Ryan Longwell (11) 45/45 XPs, 25/29 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||San Francisco 49ers||60||25-20|
|4||Green Bay Packers||76||28-18|
|5||@St. Louis Rams||84||30-19|
|8||@Green Bay Packers||70||25-20|
|17||New York Giants||53||22-20|
CHICAGO BEARS (8-8)
The Bears shook their foundation this offseason by trading two first-round picks (one this year, one next) for quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler brings a cocky swagger and Pro Bowl resume to the Windy City, where the Bears have lacked an offensive star for years. Cutler may grab the headlines, but he is not that good. He is definitely not good enough to instantly make this a playoff team. In fact, the 2009 Bears win one less game than they did in 2008. The Bears average 19.1 points per game (#26) and allow 18.4 points (#6) against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Most Significant Newcomer: Jay Cutler, QB - Jay Cutler is clearly the best quarterback from the first round the 2006 NFL Draft (over Matt Leinart and Vince Young), but we are still not sure how good he is. Cutler has a huge arm and can be a great asset to a speedster like Devin Hester; however, he is very mistake-prone and has racked up big stats against mostly porous AFC West defenses and playing behind and excellent offensive line. The defenses in Detroit and Green Bay are not really better than they were in Kansas City and Oakland, so Cutler's numbers may often look good, yet games against Phiadelphia, Pittsburgh and Baltimore will be the true test of his progression and ability. The Bears will need Cutler to turn Hester and Greg Olsen into stars and make one of the other options, Earl Bennett, Juaquin Iglesias, Rashied Davis, Derek Kinder or Johnny Knox, into a solid contributor to have a chance to win the division. We say he'll get about halfway there with 2,886 yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a big season from Olsen.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Defense - Even with Cutler, this team is still defined by its defense, primarily at linebacker and with stopping the run. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa are the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. Former starter Hunter Hillenmayer, 23 years old, third-year player Nick Roach and speedy Jamar Williams may also help on the outside to give the Bears great depth and insurance at the position. Adrian Peterson (twice), Michael Turner, Brian Westbrook, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson are among the excellent running backs on the schedule, so Chicago will need its running defense to keep them in games.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Offense - Matt Forte may be rack up the carries, but he is not an explosive runner. He would be best suited to play a role similar to what Willie Parker, Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai did in 2008, where he is mostly counted on to grind out the clock and not to make big plays. The Steelers, Cardinals and Colts for whom those players played last season, were among the five teams that finished worse than the Bears in yards-per-carry. The problem is that Chicago's overall defense is not as good as Pittsburgh's and its passing offense is nowhere near Arizona or Indianapolis.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Devin Hester, WR - Hester has all of the talent to be an amazing receiver. He lacks experience and, thus far, has lacked a quarterback capable of best utilizing those abilities. Late in 2008, the Bears seemed to invoke a strategy designed to get Hester deep either as a decoy or to draw pass interference calls. Cutler has the arm to get him the ball. If he actually starts catching some passes when he gets downfield, his numbers are going to skyrocket. As it stands, we have Hester projected to catch 45 passes for 796 yards.
Closest Game: @Green Bay Packers (Week 1) - Opening the season on the road and then followed by a trip from the defending champions, the Bears would love to make a strong opening statement with their new QB. The Packers secondary was bad last year and if Cutler can exploit some holes the Bears can get a nice road win against a divisional opponent right off the bat.
Fantasy Notables: Jay Cutler (17) 2,886 yards, 17 TDs, 13 INTs; Matt Forte (5) 1,761 total yards, 11 TDs; Devin Hester (41) 45 receptions, 796 yards, 4 TDs; Greg Olsen (5) 53 receptions, 710 yards, 4 TDs; Desmond Clark (21) 41 receptions, 413 yards, 2 TDs; Robbie Gould (17) 31/31 XPs, 27/34 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|1||@Green Bay Packers||55||20-20|
|10||@San Francisco 49ers||40||15-19|
|13||St. Louis Rams||85||27-12|
|14||Green Bay Packers||58||22-18|
GREEN BAY PACKERS (7-9)
The roster is almost identical to the 2008 version that went 6-10. Switching to a 3-4 defense may be the trendy thing to do right now, but it's not be the simplest transition for the Packers and probably will not help much in 2009. Green Bay plays the bottom three teams in the league - Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit - four times, so there are some winnable games. The Packers are underdogs against the rest of the schedule and will win their close games in order to improve upon 2008. The Packers average 20.3 points per game (#22) and allow 22.3 points (#20) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 5-11
Most Significant Newcomer: B.J. Raji, DT - The ninth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Raji is vital to the future of the Packers as a nose tackle in the team's new 3-4 scheme. Ryan Pickett is also a serviceable option at the position in 2008, but Raji is bigger, more athletic and NFL-ready to the point where he just needs a little in-game experience to turn into an NFL force. The progression of B.J. Raji will have a great deal to do with how productive inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett can be and how free outside linebackers Aaron Kampman and Clay Matthews will be to attack the quarterback. Raji does well in the projections, making 41 tackles and sacking the quarterback four times in 16 games.
Biggest Strength: Passing Offense - Aaron Rodgers proved to be an adequate NFL quarterback who could start all 16 games in 2008. He is not an elite player and probably never will be, but he has some great weapons with Green Bay and works within an effective system. Greg Jennings has quietly emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the league, averaging 59 catches for 949 yards (16.0 yards-per-reception) in his first three years in the league. While two of those seasons were with Brett Favre at quarterback, Jennings really broke out last season catching passes from Rodgers. 34 year old wide receiver Donald Driver is coming off of his fifth straight 1,000 yard season. We do expect a drop in his production (to 50 catches for 701 yards) due to the progression of the talent around him, but he is still a great asset to have. Tight end Donald Lee is a red zone target who Rodgers trusts. The rest of group, which includes second-year players WR Jordy Nelson and TE Jermichael Finley, third-year WR James Jones and third-down back Brandon Jackson, should produce multiple breakout performances. The Packers have a great system and plenty of talent to make them dangerous after the catch, always capable of breaking a game-changing play.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Offense - No one expected Ryan Grant to match his 5.1 yards-per-carry from his 2007 season with the Packers, but dropping to a below-average 3.9 yards-per-carry was more extreme than most anticipated and it really hurt the Packers last season. Grant's true ability should be somewhere in between - we have him at 4.1 yards-per-carry. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the team, there are some serious concerns on the offensive line. Rodgers may be able to scramble and make plays in the passing game, but Grant is going to be worthless without somme guys in front of him who can open up holes.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Jermichael Finley, TE - Finley is just 22 years old and has only six career NFL catches. He is almost exactly the same size as starting tight end Donald Lee, yet possesses superior athletic ability that will help him run down the seam and stretch the defense. By the end of last season, Lee was primarily a short-yardage and red zone threat, catching just two passes in the team's final three games. In that span, Finley jumped over Tory Humphrey on the depth chart and caught three passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. That's obviously not a significant sample and Finley should not be expected to average 20+ yards-per-reception, but it shows that Rodgers was comfortable looking for him and that the Packers were comfortable asking him to make big plays downfield. The more we look into this situation, the more we love Finley for 2009 and beyond - he's younger than 2009 draft picks like Brandon Pettigrew, Cornelius Ingram, Shawn Nelson and Travis Beckum. In our most recent projections (conducted a week after the projections being used for this preview), Finley catches 36 passes for 413 yards.
Closest Game: Baltimore Ravens (Week 13) - The Packers have a pretty easy schedule early, so they may not be totally out of it before they finish with the Ravens, Bears, Steelers, Seahawks, and Cardinals. Baltimore presents an interesting matchup as another team around .500 that could easily go in either direction. By Week 13, both of these teams should know who they are and have worked out the kinks. Baltimore has the better roster, but not by a ton.
Fantasy Notables: Aaron Rodgers (8) 3,459 yards, 20 TDs, 14 INTs; Ryan Grant (18) 1,391 total yards, 10 TDs; Greg Jennings (7) 83 receptions, 1,288 yards, 6 TDs; Donald Driver (44) 50 receptions, 7-1 yards, 4 TDs; Jordy Nelson (57) 35 receptions, 489 yards, 4 TDs; Donald Lee (16) 46 receptions, 454 yards, 2 TDs; Mason Crosby (20) 34/34 XPs, 25/32 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||@St. Louis Rams||64||25-22|
|9||@Tampa Bay Buccaneers||46||22-25|
|11||San Francisco 49ers||40||21-22|
DETROIT LIONS (5-11)
Following an 0-16 the Lions have cleaned house and look to start over. With a new front office, coaching staff and face of the franchise, not to mention the laws of probability in their favor, expect the Lions to win some games this year. They are actually favored twice. The Lions average 19 points per game (#28) and allow 24.9 points (#27) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 2-14
Most Significant Newcomer: Matthew Stafford, QB - Our stance is still that Matthew Stafford (and Mark Sanchez) will attempt around 90% of the Lions' passes in 2009. Coming off a season with two rookie quarterbacks who started every game for playoff teams, going to a team that did not win a game at all last season, in a city desperate for a player to rally behind (as soon as possible) and with the highest guaranteed contract ever, the Lions pretty much have to play Stafford all year. Do they really want 250 fans to show up to their home opener in Week Two? Plus, there is the precedent set by top picks like Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning who were thrown to the wolves right away and struggled mightily through at least a full before becoming Hall of Fame caliber, Super Bowl winning players. Sanchez projects to be the better pro quarterback than Stafford and is in a much better position to succeed in his first season. Neither will ever be great. Still, Stafford is already an upgrade over 2008. If he wins any games, he is a hero.
Biggest Strength: Calvin Johnson, WR - Stafford and his strong arm are going to benefit greatly from the abilities of Calvin Johnson. At 6'5", 239 pounds, running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash and catching everything near him, Johnson is the new prototype. He may actually be the closest thing to LeBron James than we ever see on the football field. Detroit finally found its franchise receiver. Still at just 23 years old, Johnson may go down as one of the all-time greats.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Defense - The Lions' defense in 2008 was historically horrific, allowing a league worst 8.82 yards-per-pass-attempt - more than half a yard worse than the second worst team - and a league worst 5.1 yards-per-rush. Even though the team hired defensive guru Jim Schwartz as head coach, drafted Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy and Zack Follett, and brought in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, Anthony Henry and others, there is no switch that can be flipped to make everything fine. Detroit's defense will be much better - it almost has to be - in 2009, but it still will be the team's downfall.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Bryant Johnson, WR - Admittedly, we projected Bryant Johnson to have a big season in 2008 and he let us down. The expectations are much lower in 2009, but he may still breakout. In San Francisco, where Bryant Johnson was last season, he was supposed to be "the man." In Detroit, Calvin Johnson clearly plays that role and the team also has Ronald Curry to do the dirty work and be its possession receiver. That should free up Bryant Johnson for big, scoring plays. He may not get a ton of targets and the quarterback situation may not be ideal, but he should do the most with what he gets. Our projections have Bryant Johnson catching 28 passes for 448 yards.
Closest Game: St. Louis Rams (week 8) - Assuming the Lions do not pull off a significant upset, this Week Eight matchup of the two worst teams from 2008 gives the Lions their best shot at their first win and an end to a 23-game losing streak. The Lions do have a bye the week before and the Rams are less talented than the Lions. Both teams may actually be winless at this point. How exciting! Does flex scheduling start by Week Eight? NBC will definitely want this game.
Fantasy Notables: Matt Stafford (23) 2,618 yards, 16 TDs, 13 INTs; Kevin Smith (15) 1,468 total yards, 9 TDs; Maurice Morris (59) 635 total yards, 5 TDs; Calvin Johnson (3) 81 receptions, 1,381 yards, 8 TDs; Brandon Pettigrew (32) 24 receptions, 251 yards, 2 TDs; Jason Hanson (19) 29/30 XPs, 26/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results: