The NFC North may have said goodbye to Randy Moss, but star signal-callers Brett Favre and Daunte Culpepper still call the division home. Mike Tice is banking that the removal of Moss's negativity in the locker room will allow him to give this year's allotment of Super Bowl tickets to family and friends traveling to see his team play.
Fantasy owners want to know who's going to step up in Moss's absence, who will be catching balls from Favre's golden right arm and whether Detroit and Chicago will mount any serious challenge in the division, or at least a couple of viable fantasy performers.
I'll begin the tour of the NFC North with the Vikings, who have the largest hole to fill in the division.
Minnesota Vikings (2004 Stats: Rushing: 18st at 113.9 YPG, Passing:1st at 297.1 YPG )
The Vikings enter the '05 season without two big parts of their success from the past several years. Of course, Randy Moss has shuffled off to Raider Nation, but the Vikings also said goodbye to Offensive Coordinator/QB Coach Scott Linehan. He joined Nick Saban in Miami. Additionally, the Vikings are hoping that Pro Bowl Center Matt Birk will be fully recovered from his third hernia operation to anchor the offensive line.
We know that we can safely rule "The Whiz," Onterrio Smith, out of the equation after his bizarre offseason. Michael Bennett enters the season as the starter. After his huge 2002 season (over 1,600 yards from scrimmage with six total touchdowns), Bennett has carried the ball only 160 times over two years, so durability is most certainly a concern. Though Bennett is designated the No. 1 back, Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason and Moe Williams will factor into the game plan.
It will be strange not to see No. 84 lined up on the wing, but Daunte Culpepper is confident that the Vikings won't miss a beat. Nate Burleson, fresh off of his brilliant 2004 campaign (1,006 receiving yards and nine touchdowns), will slide up to the No. 1 role. Mike Tice and company expect speedy rookie Troy Williamson (4.34 40-yard dash) to become a frequent target of Culpepper deep balls. Travis Taylor comes over from Baltimore and will mount a challenge for the third receiver spot against Kelly Campbell and Marcus Robinson.
Fantasy Power List
Daunte Culpepper (Last First-Early Second Round): Lost in the euphoria over Peyton Manning's record-setting season was the brilliance of Culpepper in 2004. He registered four games with four or more touchdowns and tossed multiple TD passes 10 times. Of course, the question remains as to how he'll respond to life without Randy Moss.
Nate Burleson (Sixth Round): Burleson made the most of running opposite Randy Moss in '04, snagging 68 catches for 1,006 yards. He had four 100-yard games, saving two of those and three touchdowns for the fantasy playoffs. Burleson will need help from the running game and his fellow receivers to help loosen the double coverage he'll expect to see.
Michael Bennett (Ninth Round): Owners are skeptical of Bennett's ability to stay healthy, as evidenced by such a late selection for a starting back. Mewelde Moore rushed for 92, 109 and 138 yards in his three starts last season, causing many to believe that he'll ultimately overtake Bennett for the job this season. If you select Bennett, be sure to stash Moore on your bench in the final rounds.
Troy Williamson (12th Round): It doesn't roll off the tongue like "Moss and Toss" did, but Williamson will be the deep threat in this year's edition of the Vikings' offense. I also envision a steady diet of flanker screens to let him run wild after the catch. He's a great gamble this late in the draft.
Jermaine Wiggins (13th Round): Wiggins caught three or more passes in every game that he played after the Week 1 thrashing of the Cowboys. He caught five or more passes in eight separate contests and hauled in 71 for the season with four touchdowns. The loss of Moss means that Culpepper will need to turn to new red zone targets. Wiggins is one of the prime candidates to move into that role.
Marcus Robinson: Robinson had his best season since 2000 with the Vikings last year, offering a big downfield target for Culpepper. However, his week-to-week productivity is often frustrating and he has a tendency to disappear (three catches for 25 yards over Weeks 14-16). Like Wiggins above, Robinson will be a candidate for the fade in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers (2004 Stats: Rushing: 10th at 119.3 YPG, Passing: 5th at 284.4 YPG)
The biggest question for the Packers entering 2005 isn't the health of Brett Favre or even the lingering holdout of star receiver Javon Walker. Rather, the shakeup of an offensive line that had been together for five seasons will be the most interesting subject. Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera are gone, Center Mike Flanagan had major knee surgery and Adrian Klemm has been injury-prone. How will the shuffled lin protect Favre and will they be able to provide ample running room for Ahman Green?
As mentioned above, the Packers will employ new starters on the offensive line for the first time since 2000. The fear is that the timing of the gap running game will be compromised and mitigate Ahman Green's ability to dominate. Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher are capable backups in the event that Green gets banged up.
Naturally, the Packers are concerned about the prospect of an extended holdout by Javon Walker (1,382 yards and 12 TD) and its implications on and off the field. For now, the players can table the talk, as a number of stars are generally excused from mini-camps. Fantasy owners don't seem too concerned, as he's still a third-round pick as of now. Long-term, the consistency of line play will determine the success of Favre and company.
Fantasy Power List
Ahman Green (Early-Second Round): Green battled through injury in '04, missing one game entirely and large chunks of several others, but still gained over 1,100 yards on the ground (five straight years over 1,000). Fantasy owners had moved him up between the second and fourth pick in 2004 drafts after his huge totals in '03. For that high pick, they received only four 100-yard games and touchdowns in four games (three games with multiple touchdowns). The decline in stats and questions on the offensive line has pushed him into the second round.
Javon Walker (Third Round): Walker was positively dominant for fantasy owners in 2004. He caught 89 balls for nearly 1,400 yards and scored in 10 games. Walker also tallied five 100-yard games (eight with 80-plus receiving yards). Fantasy owners are pushing the holdout to the wayside and allowing his talent to guide the selection.
Brett Favre (Fourth Round): Favre just keeps on ticking. Though fans and fantasy owners question some of the "thread the needle" attempts that he makes, Favre treated owners to his second straight 30-plus TD season and eighth of his career with his highest yardage output since 1999. Favre was sacked only 12 times last season en route to keeping his consecutive starts streak intact. He's currently the sixth QB drafted on average in Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS leagues.
Donald Driver (Eighth Round): Driver achieved his second 1,000-yard season in '04, hauling in 84 catches for 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns. He was a consistent performer for fantasy owners last year, scoring in five of seven games down the stretch including the pivotal playoff Weeks 14-16.
Bubba Franks (12th Round): He's not going to pile up receptions, but he's always on the field and is a favorite target for Favre in the red zone. Franks has scored seven or more touchdowns in three of the past four seasons. Given the attention of Walker's situation, the fact that Franks may hold out at the beginning of training camp has gone virtually unnoticed.
Robert Ferguson: Ferguson remains the third receiver in the Packers set. With the attention afforded Walker and Driver, he will be in line to push his totals above his 2003 totals (38 catches, 520 yards and four touchdowns). If he can stay healthy, he may prove to be a serviceable third fantasy receiver.
Detroit Lions (2004 Stats: Rushing: 19th at 111.1 YPG, Passing:24th at 195.3 YPG)
This is the make or break year for the combination of Joey Harrington and Steve Mariucci. The team has assembled a potentially formidable offense and gives new coordinator Ted Tollner plenty of options.
Kevin Jones picked up steam in the second half and rolled to 1,133 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He rushed for 70 or more yards in his final eight starts, including four 100-yard efforts, and the Lions return four starters on the offensive line this season. The only change made up front was the free agent acquisition of Rick DeMulling.
Harrington should benefit from the continuity on the offensive line, but he's truly been spoiled with the upgraded weaponry afforded him this offseason. Marcus Pollard came over from the Colts, Kevin Johnson from the Ravens, Mike Williams was the third straight WR drafted in the first round, and Harrington should finally have a healthy Charles Rogers on the field. If Harrington falters, Mariucci has brought in former 49ers QB Jeff Garcia to take over the reins.
Fantasy Power List
Kevin Jones (Late-First or Early Second Round): Jones rushed for 70 or more yards in his final eight starts, including four 100-yard efforts. Jones also scored in four straight games from Week 13-16.
Roy Williams (Sixth Round): Despite being slowed by ankle injuries over the course of the season, Williams showed that he's capable of becoming a top-flight receiver. He scored two touchdowns in a game on three occasions and averaged 15 yards per reception.
Mike Williams (12th Round): Williams hasn't been on the field in a long time, but his size and speed should help accelerate the learning curve. His addition to the roster gives Harrington two huge options named Williams in the red zone.
Marcus Pollard (12th Round): Pollard battled injuries and the emergence of Dallas Clark to his lowest reception total since 2000 in '04. However, he still scored six times. Detroit brought him in to serve as a safety valve for Joey Harrington. With top-flight receivers on the wings and Jones in the backfield, Pollard should find space over the middle.
Charles Rogers (13th Round): Fantasy owners haven't forgotten the promise shown by this high-flying receiver in his short stint on NFL fields in '03. He's played only five games in two seasons as a pro, watching both end prematurely due to collarbone injuries. As a 13th-round selection, it's a minimal investment in an offense that could explode or implode in 2005.
Harrington: Elvis Presley once belted out the lyrics, "It's now or never!" OK, so the context wasn't the NFL or fantasy football, but I'm willing to bastardize it for this analysis. This is Harrington's last chance to show Detroit fans some love before he's booted from town. Yes, he had six games with multiple TD passes, but his inconsistency remains a concern. Jeff Garcia anxiously awaits his opportunity to shine with all of these tools. To be fair, neither Rogers nor Roy Williams were available to Harrington at 100 percent health last season, but an erratic start will not be tolerated this season.
Chicago Bears (2004 Stats: Rushing: 25th at 101.5 YPG, Passing: 31st at 165.1 YPG)
The Bears would just as soon forget the 2004 season. They averaged a miserable 14.4 points per game, dead last in the NFL. To attempt a quick turnaround, the Bears signed WR Muhsin Muhammad one day into the free agency period and selected RB Cedric Benson in the first round of the draft. The offensive line was also upgraded with the signings of Fred Miller and Robert Garza. The team allowed the most sacks in the NFL last year.
Benson was brought into the fold to provide Chicago with a bruising back to control the line of scrimmage. Behind a healthy offensive line, Benson should be able to post solid numbers as the No. 1 back. Thomas Jones will be his backup, offering a change of pace option with solid hands out of the backfield.
The Bears signed Muhammad on the strength of his spectacular '04 season, but he had not produced such totals since 2000. There is a logjam among the remaining receivers on the roster to determine who will win the second and third receiver jobs. Rookies Mark Bradley and Airese Currie were brought in for their speed in an attempt to provide deep options and stretch defensive backfields. Bobby Wade, Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian also factor into the offense.
Fantasy Power List
Muhsin Muhammad (5th Round): Muhammad went from a waiver wire acquisition in '04 to the most productive receiver in the game in terms of receiving yards and touchdowns (1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns). Fantasy owners certainly don't expect a repeat performance, but a season of 1,000 receiving yards and 8-10 touchdowns is not out of the question. Muhammad is dangerous in the red zone, but he'll need the offensive line to protect Grossman to get him those opportunities.
Cedric Benson (Eighth Round): Benson shouldered the load at Texas and wore his heart on his sleeve on draft day. He'll be a huge force in Ron Turner's offense and will certainly have ample opportunities to make a fantasy impact. The presence of Thomas Jones on the roster appears to be impacting his draft status early on.
Thomas Jones (13th Round): Jones is just a year removed from the big free agent deal that brought him to the Bears. He gained 948 yards on the ground (seven touchdowns) and caught a career-high 56 passes. Even if/when Benson wins the starting roles, Jones will still be a factor in the passing game out of the backfield. Right now, he's a solid late-round pick as insurance for Benson.
Rex Grossman: It's hard to tell precisely where Grossman is on the NFL learning curve, as he's only played in six games. However, he appeared to be developing into a solid NFL starter when he went down with an ACL tear last year. Grossman will have a true No. 1 receiver in Muhsin Muhammad and an Offensive Coordinator with a solid track record in Ron Turner. There are still a number of factors keeping Grossman off of the fantasy radar right now, but his development will determine how well the investments in Muhammad and Benson pay off.