Fantasy Football Nuggets: NFC Teams
Ken Pomponio
August 26, 2012

AFC Teams »

16 NFC teams, 16 quick-hitting, need-to-know nuggets to digest before checking into your fantasy draft rooms:

Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall are trying to change the culture in Chicago. From Dick Butkus to the near-mythic '85 Bears to Brian Urlacher, defense has long been the Bears' hallmark, and to that point, the Chicago "D" has ranked higher than the "O" in 11 of 12 seasons since 2000, in terms of total yards allowed. Last year, the Bears also owned the top fantasy defense/special teams with 156 points, but with a healthy Cutler, Forte and Marshall entering their primes and defensive standouts Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman all on the wrong side of 30, the offense may finally be primed to take center stage in the Windy City.

Which Josh Freeman will take the field for the Buccaneers in 2012? That's a burning question in Tampa and fantasy land after the QB struggled in 2011 after a breakthrough 2010 campaign. At first glance, the QB's seasons don't appear much different. Freeman threw for 3,451 yards and had 25 total TDs in '10, and then followed with a 3,592-yard, 20-TD season in '11. The difference, though, was Freeman's NFL-worst 27 turnovers (22 interceptions, 5 fumbles) last season – a marked increase from his nine TOs (6 picks, 3 fumbles) a year earlier.

Just call him him Boom-or-Bust Beanie Wells. After all, there's really no in-between when it comes the fantasy production of the Cardinals' running back. Last season, in a year in which he became the first back in the 92-year history of the franchise to rush for 1,000 yards and 10 TDs in a season, Wells scored 12 or more fantasy points in eight games. Those were the "booms,"  but then there were the "busts" as he scored 6 or fewer fantasy points in the remaining eight games, including a pair of contests missed due to injury (Week 3 and 17).

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is the Antonio Gates of the NFC. Or maybe Gates is the AFC's Witten. Either way, there's no disputing the fantasy greatness of the 10-year Cowboy. Since 2004, his second NFL season, Witten has finished among the top-12 fantasy TEs each season, including a pair of first-place rankings in '07 and '10. Over that span, Witten never has had fewer than 64 receptions or 754 yards in a season, and has had at least four receiving TDs in six of his past eight seasons. Perhaps most importantly, Witten hasn't missed a game since his rookie year of '03 -- a streak that could be put to the test with the ruptured spleen he suffered the first week of the preseason.

How much does Michael Vick's rushing prowess figure into his top-10 fantasy QB value? Consider the career passing stats of the Eagles' QB, who only has played a full 16 games in a season only once (2006) since entering the league in '01. Vick's career high for single-season passing TDs is 21 (2010), and his top single-season passing yardage total is 3,303. (2011). Very pedestrian numbers for one of the leading fantasy passers. By comparison, a pair of rookies, Cam Newton (21 TD passes) and Andy Dalton (3,398 passing yards) matched or exceeded those totals a year ago.  

Is the Falcons’ Matt Ryan on the verge of becoming a top-five fantasy QB? If the preseason fantasy positional rankings of his top targets – WRs Julio Jones (Huddle rank of 4), Roddy White (13) and TE Tony Gonzalez (9) – come to fruition, history says the top five will indeed have to make room for Ryan. The past five times a team has had at least three receivers or tight ends finish in the final top 16 of their positional fantasy-point rankings, that squad’s QB has finished in the top five that season. The teams and their QBs? The 2011 and 2007 Patriots with, of course, Tom Brady, the ’06 and ’04 Colts with Peyton Manning and the ’04 Packers with Brett Favre.

Kickers rarely deserve fantasy headlines, but we’ll make an exception for the Forty-Niners’ Jeff Akers and his stellar 2011 season. Akers not only was the league’s top fantasy kicker by a landslide last season – finishing a full 34 points better than runner-up John Kasay (using weighted scoring for longer kicks) – but he also set a NFL single-season record with 44 field goals made. Akers’ seven 50-yard-plus field goals was an integral part of his fantasy success, and it’s emblematic of a league-wide boom, which saw a record 90 50-yard field goals made last season – an amazing 36.4 percent increase over the previous mark of 66 established in 2008.

A year ago, NFL end zones were Salsa dance-free zones. In other words, Giants wideout Victor Cruz literally came out of nowhere in 2011, going from zero career catches to 82 for 1,536 yards and 9 TDs in one memorable season. He also made the improbable, Kurt Warneresque leap from undrafted fantasy player to top five at his position, finishing fourth among all wideouts with 208 fantasy points. Others, such as RB Arian Foster (ADP of 26 to No. 1 in 2010), RB Peyton Hillis (ADP of 67 to No. 2 in ’10) and WR Miles Austin (ADP of 58 to No. 3 in 2009) have made similar leaps in recent seasons, but none Salsaed their way into unexpected fantasy stardom quite the way Cruz did in 2011.

The Lions' Calvin Johnson not only had the top fantasy receiving season a year ago, but his 96-catch, 1,681-yard, 16-TD performance was one of the best in NFL history. Only three other receivers in league annals have had as many as 1,500 receiving yards and 15 TDs in the same season. Jerry Rice accomplished the feat three times (1986, '94 and '96), while Marvin Harrison ('01) and Randy Moss ('03) did it once. As you can see, none was able to repeat the double feat the following season, and only Harrison (1,733 receiving yards in '02) and Rice (22 TDs in '87) were able to eclipse one of the two milestones the following year.

This is where we separate fantasy from reality. In 2011, the Packers’ defense came in 32nd – as in dead last – in the NFL’s team defensive rankings with 6.585 yards surrendered, including a league-worst 4,796 through the air. Among fantasy team defenses, though, the Pack actually were among the leaders of the pack, finishing third overall with 147 fantasy points. For that, Green Bay can credit its league-high 38 takeaways (31 interceptions & 7 fumble recoveries) and its seven combined defensive/special team TDs, which tied for second with the Lions and Bills behind the Bears’ 10.

Steve Smith isn't finished. Far from it. Coming off back-to-back years with fewer than 70 catches and 1,000 yards, the Panthers' wideout proved as much last season, catching 79 passes for 1,394 yards (17.6 per catch) and seven TDs – at all the age of 32. Smith enjoyed quite a revival with the arrival of rookie QB sensation Cam Newton, and at the same time, became the first wideout age 32 or older to finish a season with at least 1,300 receiving yards and a 17-yard-plus average per catch since Washington's Henry Ellard in 1994 (1,394 yards, 18.9 avg.).

Over the past seven seasons, the Rams have had two single-season passing leaders (Marc Bulger and Sam Bradford) and four different leading receivers (Torry Holt, Donnie Avery, Danny Amendola and Brandon Lloyd), but there's been one constant in St. Louis. Steven Jackson has led the Rams in rushing in each of the past seven seasons – a streak currently matched by only the 49ers' Frank Gore. Jackson, though, has the longest current streak of top-15 fantasy RB finishes all to himself with seven years and counting. The Jags' Maurice Jones-Drew owns the next longest streak with six straight seasons in the top 15.

Frustrating, unpredictable illogical. Pick your adjective, and it most likely fits the Redskins' fantasy RB outlook. Over the past three seasons, two with Mike Shanahan and one with Jim Zorn as coach, the Skins have had nine RBs gain 100 total yards in a game. Four backs – Ryan Torain, Tim Hightower and rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster – did so in 2011. Now, the Skins are entering 2012 with the same cast, minus Torain. Welcome to another year of frustration and uncertainty in D.C. 

Not only is Saints QB Drew Brees on the verge of NFL history with his streak of 43 straight games with a TD pass, but he's also in the midst of one of the great fantasy runs all all-time with six straight seasons finishing among the top-three fantasy QBs. Here's a closer look at Brees' numbers during his 43-game TD streak: 32 games with at least two TD passes, 18 games with three or more TD tosses, 104 total passing TDs, 45 interceptions, three rushing scores, 25 games with 300-plus passing yards and three games with 400 or more passing yards.

You've heard of RBBC, but how about WRBC? That's exactly what fantasy GMs are looking at in the Pacific Northwest this season. The Seahawks have had a different leading receiver in each of the past six years, and over the past two seasons under coach Pete Carroll, Seattle has had a total of 10 players finish with at least 30 catches in a year, including seven different wideouts (Mike Williams, Deon Butler, Brandon Stokley, Ben Obomanu, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Sidney Rice). All but Williams and Stokley are back this season in a cast that also has added veteran Braylon Edwards.

Percy Harvin is much more than your average top-10 fantasy receiver. After all, he has a secret weapon. Discounting the Chiefs’ Dexter McCluster, who played more of a running back role with Jamaal Charles out most of last season, the Vikings’ Harvin led all NFL wideouts in rushing with 52 attempts for 345 yards and two TDs. That’s an extra 46 fantasy points, enough to bump Harvin from 22nd overall to No. 7 among wideouts with 179 total points. No other WR had more than 20 rushes, 87 yards or a single TD in 2011. Harvin, who finished fourth in the league with 87 receptions, has had at least 15 rushing attempts and 100 yards in each of his three NFL seasons.

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