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Mostly NFL Notes: An NFC Season Preview

Dalton Del Don
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What's in store for Kaepernick's encore? (USAT)

NFC EAST

1. Washington Redskins 9-7
2. Dallas Cowboys 8-8
3. New York Giants 8-8
4. Philadelphia Eagles 8-8

Comments/Fantasy predictions: After the Redskins opened 3-6 last year, it seemed quite unlikely they’d be a playoff team, but a 7-0 finish changed everything. There’s no question Washington had some luck, somehow recovering a whopping 69.8% of the 43 fumbles that occurred during its games (H/T Chase Stuart). But they outscored their opponents by only six fewer points than the eventual Super Bowl winning Ravens, so it’s not like they were total flukes. I’m clearly high on Alfred Morris and also consider Pierre Garcon a top-15 fantasy wide receiver. The biggest question both for Redskins fans and fantasy owners is the health of RG3, who became the first rookie in NFL history to lead the league in YPA (8.1) last season. He also had a league-best 1.3 INT% on dropbacks and an NFL-high 6.8 YPC mark. No team was better last year during play action. How Griffin performs coming off knee surgery will be key. I expect this division to be highly competitive, with every team a real threat to win it.

This run by a high schooler is pretty legit.

In case you missed part one, here’s my AFC season preview.

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Here are my thoughts on Tony Romo. And no matter what you think of him in real life terms, it’s hard not to consider Romo underrated in fantasy circles. There’s simply zero reason Matt Ryan should be going 50 picks higher (I’d actually argue there’s no reason Ryan should be going higher at all). My love for Romo pales in comparison to my affection for Dez Bryant. Having said that, it looks like Bryant will be on zero of my teams this year, as going running back early appears to be as important as ever. I can’t get behind DeMarco Murray, who for some reason continues to be drafted aggressively (I loved stashing Lance Dunbar, but he got hurt, so there’s no clear Dallas RB2 to roster right now). Pro Football Focus graded Sean Lee as the sixth best inside linebacker last season, when he missed 10 games. To put this in perspective, 48 other ILBs finished with more snaps. He was on pace to record 155 tackles before going down. Lee is going to be an IDP monster in 2013.

If I ever get into a high speed chase, I sure hope this cop isn’t the one after me.

Here are the Giants’ sack numbers from 2007-2012, respectively: 53 (NFL-high), 42 (6th), 42 (6th), 46 (5th), 48 (3rd) and then just 33 (22nd) last season, when they allowed an NFL-high 8.1 YPA. I’d love to say a bounce back is in store, but while some improvement is inevitable, there are some red flags this unit will continue to be a problem. FS Stevie Brown was lost for the season with a torn ACL, and question marks continue to surround Jason Pierre-Paul’s health. But in fantasy terms, there’s a lot to like here, even if I think Hakeem Nicks is getting overdrafted (take Reuben Randle much later on instead). Eli Manning has a big bounce back season, throwing for 4,500-plus yards and rewarding owners who wait on the quarterback position. For those who planned on targeting David Wilson in their drafts this weekend, the Andre Brown injury news could actually be bad, as Wilson’s price tag is shooting through the roof (and Brown was likely to get hurt at some point anyway). Still, Wilson is worth his increasing cost, as he’s one of the league’s most explosive backs who’s going to be given a heavy workload. Wilson is a borderline top-12 fantasy pick for me right now.

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Over the Eagles’ final 10 games last season (right after defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was fired), Philadelphia allowed 30.9 points-per-game, which would have tied for the worst mark over a full year since 2008. And if the preseason was any indication, the team’s D is going to be among the league’s worst once again in 2013. Still, this team has so much upside on offense while facing a last place schedule just one year removed from being among the conference’s favorites, the Eagles have the widest range of outcomes as any team in football. Michael Vick is easily the highest upside QB not drafted inside the top-12, while DeSean Jackson finishes as a top-20 fantasy wide receiver, ahead of Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Hakeem Nicks and Reggie Wayne. Moreover, I’d strongly consider drafting LeSean McCoy once Adrian Peterson is gone. The Eagles have an underrated offensive line and should lead the NFL in rushing attempts, so this is a nice rebound opportunity for McCoy, who led the NFL with 20 touchdowns just two years ago (that number fell to five last year, and it should be noted he suffered a severe concussion. But then again, it’s easy to forget McCoy is younger than C.J. Spiller and only six months older than Doug Martin (H/T Nate Ravitz)). McCoy is going to have a monster 2013 season.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers 11-5
2. Chicago Bears 8-8
3. Detroit Lions 7-9
4. Minnesota Vikings 5-11

Comments/Fantasy predictions: Aaron Rodgers is the most valuable commodity in football, but since QB is so deep, he’s not worth taking as early as he typically goes in fantasy drafts. Despite playing just 651 snaps last year (57 other WRs saw more), Randall Cobb was targeted 104 times and had the fourth-most broken tackles among all wideouts. Increased playing time will lead to big things in 2013, when he finishes as a top-10 fantasy wide receiver. Jermichael Finley lives up to the preseason hype for once, while Eddie Lacy scores double-digit touchdowns and finishes as the most valuable rookie runner.

Here’s an epic response to someone driving while talking on their cellphone. Courtesy of Russia, of course.

The Bears actually had a better point-differential than four division winners last season, including the Packers. The Marc Trestman hiring is a complete unknown since he hasn’t been in the NFL since 2007, but his track record (and training camp reports) suggest it will be a positive for Chicago’s offense, especially for Matt Forte, who’s going to be heavily involved as a receiver. He’s a top-10 overall pick on my board. Rookie Kyle Long looks like an immediate upgrade along the offensive line, and fantasy owners need to hope Brandon Marshall’s recent concern over his offseason hip surgery is overblown. Alshon Jeffery displays improvement, but a healthy Marshall is once again among the league-leaders in targets.

This guy is better at his job than you or me.

The Lions have a potentially dominant front four on defense and the game’s best wide receiver. Reggie Bush should also be an upgrade at running back, and it’s worth noting Detroit was a bit unlucky last year, as they faced a particularly tough schedule and went 3-8 in games decided by a touchdown or less and recovered just 32.6 percent of fumbles (H/T Bill Barnwell). But the Lions’ schedule in 2013 doesn’t exactly look favorable, and this is still a defense that allowed 27.3 points-per-game last season. And as always, it comes back to the quarterback. Matthew Stafford was the 10th most valuable fantasy QB last season despite attempting 36 more passes in a season than any other quarterback in NFL history while playing in a dome and having one of the greatest wide receivers ever at his disposal. Pointing to the many times his receivers were tackled inside the five-yard line actually hurts his argument, as that helped Stafford somehow run for four touchdowns. He’s still just 24 years old, so there’s room for growth, but he has a 6.9 career YPA. He’s at the bottom of the “Big 12” (I guess with Michael Vick’s emergence this tier could expand to 13 now) fantasy QBs on my board. Calvin Johnson loses 250 receiving yards, but he more than doubles last season’s TD production. Reggie Bush catches 90 passes and approaches 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He shouldn’t be lasting past the middle of the second round of fantasy drafts (and anyone taking Mikel Leshoure over Joique Bell as his handcuff is doing it wrong).

Here’s a Broken Nose Prank.

The Vikings look like the obvious team that came out of nowhere and played a bit over their heads to make the playoffs last season due to take a major step back the following campaign, and that’s before considering them losing impact player Percy Harvin (as well as Antoine Winfield, who Pro Football Focus graded as the best CB in football last year). Moreover, as superhuman as Adrian Peterson is, asking him to reproduce what he did in 2012 is simply unfair. In fact, over the final eight games, Peterson got 6.7 YPC, whereas Christian Ponder got 5.4 YPA. Peterson averaged 165.3 rushing YPG while Ponder averaged 149.0 passing YPG, and they both totaled nine touchdowns over that span. Wow. And to think AP just had one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history while returning from a torn ACL. Unreal. Peterson probably has less than a 50 percent chance of finishing as the No. 1 fantasy back in 2013, but there’s no argument for him not to be the No. 1 pick. I liked Greg Jennings earlier this summer but have since soured, as I don’t expect him to be a top-30 fantasy wide receiver. Cordarrelle Patterson is too raw to make a major impact this season, but he’s a future star and someone to target in dynasty leagues. Thanks to what looks like a difficult schedule, some regression and Ponder’s severe limitations, I took the Vikings’ Under this year.

NFC SOUTH

1. Carolina Panthers 9-7
2. Atlanta Falcons 9-7 (Wild Card)
3. New Orleans Saints 9-7
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8-8

Comments/Fantasy predictions: The NFC South has never had a repeat winner, but that’s more of a fun fact than any reason why I chose to go off the board here. I honestly think you could order this division in any way whatsoever and have a reasonable chance of looking right. But I personally like Carolina, who quietly has put together what could be a formidable front seven on defense. Luke Kuechly is already one of the best middle linebackers in the league and should be either first or second off the board in IDP formats. Charles Johnson’s 49 QB hurries last season were the second most among 4-3 defensive ends, while the team’s other DE is younger and has even more upside, as Greg Hardy has set a goal to get 50 sacks this year. Carolina also used its first two picks on defensive tackles in the draft, so even with a suspect secondary, the Panthers are one of my favorite fantasy defenses that will also be cheap.

As for the other side of the ball, after deemphasizing the read/option last year, Cam Newton was a beast, posting a 19:4 TD:turnover ratio over the final nine games. His rushing stats also actually increased, as he ran for 431 yards and five touchdowns compared to 310 and three over the first seven contests. Newton is a 24-year-old who’s never missed a game with a 7.9 YPA (to go along with 1,447 rushing yards and a whopping 22 rushing scores) over two seasons in the league. He’s done so playing outdoors with a shaky offensive line and a below average receiving corps. Make no mistake, this is a true superstar. Despite Jonathan Stewart's absence, DeAngelo Williams fails to score more than five touchdowns and is barely worth using as a FLEX (thanks to Newton and Mike Tolbert). The Panthers won their final four games last year and are my favorite long shot to make a Super Bowl run in 2013 (I bet on them at 40/1).

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The Falcons were awfully close to making the Super Bowl last year, and it’s quite possible the team’s ability to win close games at a much greater rate than league average is more skill than luck. But are you ready to hear a stat that will quite possibly blow your mind? Atlanta went 13-3 last year, finishing with a +120-point differential. They outgained their opponents by 57 yards. In total. 57! It’s hard not to love the Falcons skill position players, but their defense is questionable, and an already average offensive line losing RT Mike Johnson for the season sure doesn’t help. The team will also have to deal with facing a schedule based off being the conference’s No. 1 seed. Steven Jackson is getting drafted far too high for my taste. While I get the argument for his improved environment, I just don’t want to bet on a running back approaching 2,500 career rushing attempts who’s averaged 5.2 touchdowns over the past six seasons.

Here’s a pretty decent “playing dead” prank on a quarterback.

The Saints (like the Eagles) have a wide range of possible outcomes. They are just one season removed from dropping 32 points on the road against arguably the league’s top defense in San Francisco in a narrow loss in the playoffs (New Orleans would have been big favorites in the NFC Championship had this not happened). But then bounty-gate occurred, and the Saints’ defense last year was about as bad as it gets, as they allowed NFL-highs in both YPA (8.1) and YPC (5.2), which is pretty tough to do. Sean Payton’s return should help, but it’s not like offense was the team’s problem last season. I’m on board with Jimmy Graham being a top-15 pick, but I’m sure Marques Colston ends up on none of my fantasy teams. New Orleans’ poor defense hurts Saints fans, but it helps Drew Brees’ fantasy owners.

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Although I’m putting the Buccaneers finishing last here, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if they actually won this division. The defense looks sneaky good, as Gerald McCoy has developed into a beast (between the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in the 2010 draft, which DT would you prefer moving forward: Ndamukong Suh or McCoy? The former is better against the pass, while the latter is FAR superior against the run. It’s a very interesting debate right now, and I’d probably prefer either over that year’s No. 1 pick). Speaking of run defense, the Bucs did the unthinkable, going from the league’s worst run defense in 2011 (5.0 YPC) to the best in 2012 (3.5), and don’t think McCoy playing 10 more games didn’t have a lot to do with it. And we haven’t even started to discuss the improvements in the secondary, as strong safety Mark Barron should improve in year two, and they added free safety Dashon Goldson and corner Darrelle Revis through free agency, the latter with the upside to be a top-three defensive player should he return even close to full strength.

On offense, not only does the trio of Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams look nice, but it’s worth noting just how different this offense was once their high-priced guards went down with injury last year. Unfortunately, Carl Nicks is dealing with a staph infection that has his future looking murky. And keeping with my QB obsessed theme, Tampa Bay is going only as far as Josh Freeman, who was actually second in yards per completion last year, will take them. Over his first 13 games last season, Freeman posted a 25:8 TD:INT ratio. Over the final three (including facing a historically bad Saints secondary), he posted a 2:9 TD:INT ratio. He really struggles when facing pressure, so the Nicks health situation is huge. Doug Martin will live up to the fantasy hype, while Vincent Jackson (who somehow scored eight touchdowns last year despite seeing zero targets inside the five and just three inside the 10) remains maddeningly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis.

NFC WEST

1. San Francisco 49ers 11-5
2. Seattle Seahawks 11-5 (Wild Card)
3. St. Louis Rams 7-9
4. Arizona Cardinals 5-11

Comments/Fantasy predictions: The Packers aren’t far behind, but in my opinion, the two best teams in the NFC (which has quickly become far superior to the AFC) are both in the West. The only reason I give the 49ers the slight edge here is because it seems like their toughest opponents mostly come at home, as this is just a scheduling issue. The Niners appear to have the league’s best offensive line entering 2013, and Phil Dawson should be a huge upgrade over what David Akers did last year, while Andy Lee is adding a “knuckle punt.” It’s pretty crazy Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks over 13 games last season, and then didn’t record another over his final six contests. Obviously, Justin Smith’s injury had plenty to do with it, but Aldon also was playing at far less than 100%, at least SF fans and prospective IDP owners hope so. Vernon Davis finishes as the No. 2 fantasy tight end, while Quinton Patton and Vance McDonald should be stashed in dynasty leagues. Frank Gore gets hurt, and Kendall Hunter becomes a monster as a result.

Here are some Colin Kaepernick (who will be a top-five fantasy QB) stats: As a starter, Kaepernick led the entire NFL in Total QBR from inside the pocket, an indication he wasn't overly reliant on the read/option. He was the only player to rank in the top-3 in QBR on both passing and rushing plays. Kaepernick also led the NFL in AIR YPA by a wide margin. His 181 rushing yards in the divisional round were the most in NFL history by a quarterback. For what it’s worth (probably nothing), Kaepnerick scored a 37 on the Wonderlic, which was higher than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Brett Favre. Over his final six games last year, Kaepernick faced five playoff teams that had a combined 57-23 record, and the other was an Arizona team that held opposing passers to an NFL-low 71.2 QB Rating. During this span, Kaepernick got 9.1 YPA with a 14:4 TD:turnover ratio. The loss of Michael Crabtree is significant, but Kaepernick has the talent to overcome it.

Here’s an elephant attacking a safari Jeep.

The Seahawks had a dominant defense last year, allowing just 6.2 YPA and a 71.8 QB Rating with an NFL-low 15.3 PPG (nearly two points lower than the next best). DE Chris Clemons suffered a torn ACL in the team’s playoff win over the Redskins, but Seattle added Michael Bennett (who ranked seventh last year among all defensive ends according to PFF) and Antoine Winfield, who Pro Football Focus graded as the best CB in football last year, both on the cheap during the offseason. Bruce Irvin’s ceiling remains high as well. The loss of Percy Harvin hurts, but he was more of a luxury than a necessity. Despite the Seahawks running the ball more than any team in football last season (and attempting fewer passes than any other as well), Russell Wilson should be treated as a top-seven fantasy QB at minimum.

Wilson is coming off a rookie season in which he produced an 8.7 YPA with a 24:5 TD:INT ratio over his final 13 games (including the playoffs). This isn’t picking an arbitrary end point either, as the Seahawks decided to take the training wheels off their rookie after their Week 11 bye, when Seattle increased its use of the read/option (and gave Wilson a lot more responsibility). Over Wilson’s final eight games (again, including the playoffs, which best reveals how a team truly views its players), he rushed for 424 yards and five touchdowns (while getting 7.4 YPC). He’s a special talent who’s only going to get better during year two in the league. Golden Tate, who had the third most broken tackles among wide receivers last year despite seeing limited snaps, finishes as a top-25 fantasy WR, ahead of Mike Wallace. Christine Michael might be my favorite dynasty target. He looks like a future star and is in a system set up for success for many years to come (and Marshawn Lynch may walk after 2013). If Lynch were to suffer an injury in 2012, Michael is among the short list of backup RBs who could then be the type of player who wins your league for you.

Here’s FAU spiking the ball on fourth down.

The Rams somehow went 2-1-1 against the 49ers and Seahawks who otherwise went 21-7 last season, but this is a team on the upswing simply saddled by a ridiculously tough division. In fact, after adjusting for SOS, all four NFC West defenses were top-six against the pass in 2012. Chris Long led the NFL with 55 QB hurries last year, and the team added left tackle Jake Long via free agency during the offseason. Daryl Richardson finishes with more fantasy value than both DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden, while Chris Givens easily outscores Tavon Austin. Givens, who had five straight games with 50+ yard catches as a rookie last season, goes down as one of the best values among all fantasy wide receivers. Austin makes a big impact on special teams, and Jared Cook is another potential upgrade in the passing game, so it’s time for Sam Bradford to sink-or-swim, as there will no longer be any excuses if he fails to impress. The Rams are likely to be a much better football team than their final record indicates.

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As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals allowed the fewest YPA last season, and sometimes an upgrade from the worst QB situation in the NFL to around league average can have a far more dramatic effect than expected. Carson Palmer, who just threw for more than 4,000 yards in only 15 games for a dysfunctional Raiders franchise, should thrive joining a Bruce Arians led Arizona team with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts as receiving options. It’s just too bad the team’s already biggest problem (the offensive line) lost G Jonathan Cooper, who was the seventh overall pick, to a season-ending broken leg. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald goes back to being among the top tier fantasy WRs, while Michael Floyd justifies being a popular sleeper target. But Rashard Mendenhall disappoints (I’d personally draft Ben Tate over him), as no one emerges as a reliable weekly fantasy starter among the Cardinals backfield.

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Draft time:
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