Most pressing fantasy questions the NFC North has to answer

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As <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/7200/" data-ylk="slk:Aaron Rodgers">Aaron Rodgers</a> heads into his twilight years, making his life easier must be a focus for the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/green-bay/" data-ylk="slk:Green Bay Packers">Green Bay Packers</a>. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
As Aaron Rodgers heads into his twilight years, making his life easier must be a focus for the Green Bay Packers. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

With the offseason now in view for NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each NFC North team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.

Detroit Lions

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Pressing question: Who can help alongside Kenny Golladay?

The second-year receiver was a revelation for the Lions, as Kenny Golladay proved capable of handling No. 1 receiver volume. Golladay handled 40 percent of Detroit’s air yards in 2018. Only DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham handled more of their team’s passing game when they were on the field.

Golladay was a bit shaky as a pure box score producer, especially when going against top-flight cornerbacks, but the Lions should feel reasonably confident in him going forward as the center of their passing game’s universe. The question revolves around those complementing him.

Detroit shipped off Golden Tate midseason after determining he was not a part of their future. Tight end Eric Ebron was jettisoned in the offseason before going on to have a career year with the Colts. The Lions have intentionally chosen to weaken their passing game personnel. Marvin Jones will be back, but at least one more body is needed.

The running game is almost certain to be the focus for Detroit as they head into the future. Defensive coach Matt Patricia wants that as the central point of the scoring unit. Young back Kerryon Johnson is more than capable of feature back duties if they trust him as that player.

Yet, if the team wants to leap others in the NFC North and more importantly, maximize the twilight years of Matthew Stafford’s prime and albatross contract, they need another different-maker in the passing game.

Possible solutions

The team has already stated that tight end is a need. While Eric Ebron was a plus asset for the Colts, he was a middling starter with the Lions on his best days.

There are a couple of free agents who could make sense for the Lions. Jared Cook may look to leave the rebuilding Raiders but if the Lions offer a fat paycheck, he could look to cash in there.

Tyler Eifert is an injury risk at all times but could make sense on a one-year, prove-it deal. The Lions have $30 million in cap space and could court one of these options.

However, this is set to be a solid draft for tight ends. The Lions would be one of the few teams where a rookie could step in right away and push for 50-plus receptions based on need alone. Detroit could look at the two Iowa products in T.J. Hockenson or Noah Fant to help plug this hole.

Green Bay Packers

Pressing question: What does Aaron Rodgers need?

A squirrelly segment of Packers fans exists that think Aaron Rodgers had too much autonomy over the direction of the offense. The hope is that Matt LaFleur will design an offense that’s more suited to this current decade of NFL football and Rodgers won’t feel the need to go off script quite as much.

Beyond Rodgers’ tendency to freelance and what he’s asked to do in this new offense, it goes overlooked just how subpar the personnel in the passing attack was last season. That can’t be tolerated again. Rodgers is the center of the Packers universe and all that is within Green Bay’s power must be done to position him for success as he enters the twilight years of his prime.

Davante Adams is a star and is coming off his best season as a pro. Now firmly entrenched as the Packers No. 1 wideout, Adams finished with the second-most targets in the NFL last year and was top-seven in catches, yards and touchdowns. Green Bay must now turn its attention to the second and third-fiddle spots, with Randall Cobb’s contract expiring.

The Day 3 rookie trio of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, and J’Mon Moore (in that order) offered their fair share of flashes in 2018. Valdes-Scantling played the most and showed versatility as an outside and inside receiver, taking 46 percent of his snaps from the slot. He could be part of the rotation next year, no question, but more needs to be added around Adams and Rodgers.

It appears Jimmy Graham will be back, despite his beefy $12.7 million cap figure. That doesn’t mean the Packers can’t start looking for his replacement. Graham simply isn’t the athlete he once was and wasn’t the boost they’d hoped for in the scoring areas, securing just one catch inside the 10-yard line.

The offensive line could also use an influx of talent, especially in the pass protection department. Only two teams allowed more sacks than the Packers’ 53. The guard spots, in particular, need new starters.

Possible solutions

The Packers were far more aggressive in Brian Gutekunst’s first offseason at the controls than prior years under Ted Thompson’s watch. We could see the team sink into the free agent market once again to bring in reinforcements.

With Cobb likely on his way out, the Packers will need some bodies at slot receiver. Golden Tate is the clear-cut top of the line option. He might price himself out of the Packers’ range but could be right back to the 90-catch range in this offense after snapping his four-year streak in 2018 amid a midseason trade.

Washington’s Jamison Crowder is another name almost certainly set to hit the market and could be available to Green Bay at a discount. He struggled with injuries in each of the last two years but looked like a plus-starter in 2016.

The Packers need to create more layup throws for Rodgers, who threw far too many passes outside the numbers in Mike McCarthy’s offense. Targeting a proven slot receiver like Tate or Crowder and then attacking the wide receiver draft class for a perimeter threat would be a wise move.

Green Bay could turn to over-30-year-old veterans like Rodger Saffold or Ramon Foster on the free agent market to patch the holes in the interior offensive line for a couple years. We could also see the Packers sink one of their two first-round picks into a tackle to groom as the future on the right side or kick into guard.

Minnesota Vikings

Pressing question: What kind of offense do we want to be?

There was clearly friction inside the Vikings coaching staff last season. Minnesota finished 2018 with the fourth-highest passing play percentage (64.4 percent) but that never seemed to fit with Mike Zimmer’s desires. The head coach publicly bemoaned the team’s lack of commitment to the ground game before ultimately canning embattled offensive coordinator and progressive pass-game enthusiast, John DeFilippo.

In the final three weeks of the season, with Kevin Stefanski replacing DeFilippo, Minnesota had the eighth-highest run play percentage (48 percent) in the NFL. Dalvin Cook finished with touch totals of 20, 19 and 15 over that stretch. It appeared to be a clear philosophical switch with Zimmer’s preferred play-caller installed.

Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook could be the center of the offense next season. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook could be the center of the offense next season. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Stefanski is back as the offensive coordinator along with some new faces. Gary Kubiak was hired as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor. He brought longtime assistant Rick Dennison to serve as the offensive line coach/run game coordinator and his son, Klint, to be the quarterback coach.

Kubiak is one of the longest standing branches of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. While this is the passing offense that quarterback Kirk Cousins got his start in, the attack revolves around the zone running game. Given Kubiak’s public statements in the middle of last season, it would appear this was likely the reasoning behind bringing in this group.

Possible solutions

It seems counterintuitive to build an offense around the running game in the year 2019, especially after shelling out $28 million per year to recruit Kirk Cousins to your roster. It leads you to several questions. However, we have a decent amount of evidence to suggest that’s the direction this coaching staff would like to take. While we can sit around and debate the wisdom behind their course, it’s more important we consider the ramifications.

The Vikings already have a theoretical feature back in Dalvin Cook to enjoy the spoils of this new approach. Cook’s 2018 wasn’t all smooth sailing coming off a 2017 ACL tear, but he eventually got rolling after returning from early-season hamstring issues. Cook averaged 17.8 touches per game and maintained 5.7 yards per carry from Weeks 13 on. Getting him comfortable in this scheme and having him enjoy a healthy offense will be key to getting peak returns in 2019.

The most pivotal task in this identity makeover will be to rebuild the offensive line. The Vikings can want to run the ball all they want but it will be painfully difficult to do so with a line that ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric and 25th in Pro Football Focus’ run blocking grades.

Minnesota can look to the 2018 Colts as a model for how to fix a line largely in one offseason. Indianapolis sunk a first- and second-round pick into their line last offseason and we could see the Vikings take a similar double-down approach. The strength of the tackle class could see them take a solution at one of the outside spots in Round 1 and search for interior help on Day 2.

Chicago Bears

Pressing question: How can we kick offense up a notch to withstand defensive regression?

The 2018 Jaguars were yet another reminder of how difficult it is to roll over high-end defensive performance year over year. Josh Hermsmeyer of 538 showed how defensive performance is incredibly difficult to predict for the coming year based on what they did last season. The Bears will now face this reality in 2019.

Chicago became one of the better teams in the NFC on the back of their defense. Matt Nagy’s hire and proven offensive system, along with a boost in skill-position talent, certainly helped the scoring attack become a solid unit. But it would be foolish to deny that it was a dominant defensive performance that turned this team into a division winner.

After ranking No. 2 in yards per play allowed, No. 1 in drives against ending with a score and leading the NFL in turnovers, it’s inevitable the Bears will see some degree of defensive regression. You can argue they won’t go the way of other defenses because of “Reason X, Y or Z,” but frankly, it’s more productive to think about how the other side of the ball can increase the margin for error.

Overall, the Bears can feel good about their offensive performance in Nagy’s first season. The team posted the 10th-best rushing success rate and 14th-best passing success rate. It was an above average unit.

While the progress was clear, it’s time to take another step in order to offset some defensive regression. Much of that will hinge on the development of third-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Possible solutions

The Bears hardly need to make personnel additions on the offensive side of the ball. Much of that work was done last offseason. However, there are a handful of approaches they could take to help their quarterback take the next step.

Trubisky threw 16.8 percent of his passes 20-plus yards downfield. Only Josh Allen threw deep at a higher rate (19.7 percent) among quarterbacks to start double-digit games. The results weren’t overwhelmingly positive for the Bears in 2019, as Trubisky ranked outside the top-15 in deep passer rating. Incorporating more layup throws for the young quarterback would be a boost.

Tarik Cohen emerged as an excellent outlet receiver for the offense as the pass-catching running back. Slot receiver Anthony Miller would be another player who could help in this area. Miller is a clean route-runner whose separation ability would create more short throws for Trubisky. Along with a healthy Allen Robinson, who was dominant and back in form for the Bears playoff loss, having a pair of receivers who are maximized as separators is exactly what the offense needs.

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