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Key Games -- Week 4 at Lions, Week 5 vs. Saints, Week 9 at Packers, Week 12 at Rams, & Week 17 vs. Packers
Breakout Player -- If Chicago is going to challenge for a division championship, they’re going to need somebody other than Brandon Marshall to make an impact in the passing game. Enter last year’s second-round pick Alshon Jeffery. He hasn’t done much via preseason games, but the Bears are excited about his progression, especially as a route runner.
Rookie Impact -- It’s just preseason, but first-round pick Kyle Long may have been the most impressive rookie throughout the month of August. Football is in his blood. His brother is St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long and his father is Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long. His run blocking, which has been ridiculously impressive, will be a major boon to Chicago’s running game.
Fantasy Stud -- Marshall has 100-plus receptions in nearly each season with quarterback Jay Cutler throwing him the ball. The lone exception being ‘06, when both were rookies and Marshall wasn’t a featured player in Denver’s offense. New head coach Marc Trestman’s system is a good fit for both, so look for the duo to continue their strong rapport in 2013.
Prediction -- The Bears may very well be a better team this year than last, but they’re going to have trouble matching their 10 wins from a year ago. Long is a bright spot along the o-line, but the rest of the unit remains a work in progress. They invested money in free-agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod, but he’ll find life more difficult without Drew Brees’ quick decision-making. The Bears also drew a difficult schedule. Cutler struggles with exotic defenses, which is the primary reason for his 1-8 record (including playoffs) versus Green Bay since arriving in Chicago. The Bears play the AFC North, which is home to perhaps the most exotic defenses in football with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and yes, Cleveland. Nevertheless, Marc Trestman was a sneaky-good hire. He’ll have Cutler in more three-step drops, allowing him to get rid of the ball quicker. This may cut down on big plays, but it’ll also prevent Cutler from taking too many hits. A playoff berth in the deep NFC is probably out of reach, but with a strong finish, Chicago could position themselves for a postseason run in 2014.
Key Games -- Week 4 vs. Bears, Week 5 at Packers, Week 13 vs. Packers, Week 16 vs. Giants, & Week 17 at Vikings
Breakout Player -- In his second season, defensive tackle Nick Fairley made the strides one might expect out of a former first-round pick. He’s shown more dedication to his craft by shedding weight in the off-season. As a result, he’s looked even more quicker. His strong off-season and last year’s progress (5.5 sacks) could lead to him out producing teammate Ndamukong Suh.
Rookie Impact -- Needing to upgrade their secondary, Detroit took cornerback Darius Slay in round two of the 2013 NFL Draft. Slay’s combination of size and speed makes him a high-upside prospect. The Lions aren’t wasting anytime getting him on the field. He’ll likely start opening day. With a bit more physical play, he could be one of the missing ingredients for a defense looking to go from good to great.
Fantasy Stud -- A year after scoring a career-high 18 touchdowns, wide receiver Calvin Johnson set career highs in receptions (122) and receiving yards (1,964). The latter actually set a new NFL record. He comfortably projects as the No. 1 fantasy wide receiver in all of football.
Prediction -- Sometimes a team has to take a step back before taking two steps forward. The Lions were a fun story in 2011 en route to their first playoff birth since 1999. They entered 2012 expecting to make the playoffs only to finish 4-12. However, they were losers of eight games by less than a touchdown. It was a humbling experience, and it is unlikely lady luck will treat them poorly for the second consecutive year, especially as quarterback Matthew Stafford plays more like his ‘11 version. Adding running back Reggie Bush was one of the off-seasons best moves. He’s an excellent fit in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s attack. Defensively, the Lions are about pressuring the quarterback with their front four. The NFL is a copycat league and Detroit clearly took notice of the Giants’ success with their d-line. The Lions’ ability to pressure Aaron Rodgers, in addition to a favorable schedule (Green Bay plays Atlanta and San Francisco, while Detroit plays Arizona and Tampa Bay), could be the difference maker in the division race.
Green Bay Packers
Key Games -- Week 1 at 49ers, Week 11 at Giants, Week 13 at Lions, Week 14 vs. Falcons, & Week 17 at Bears
Breakout Player -- Over the last two seasons, one of the more unreported stories was the career-ending neck injury Green Bay safety Nick Collins suffered in week two of 2011. At the time of the injury, Collins was a perennial all-pro candidate. His absence has left a stain on Green Bay’s defense, who has allowed 8,288 passing yards over the last two seasons. Entering his fourth year, Green Bay is hoping safety Morgan Burnett is ready to ascend to Collins’ level. He’s already among the best tacklers on the team, but he’s yet to make the big plays (just two interceptions in 2012) that would put him among the top safeties in football. After receiving a three-year contract extension in the off-season, it’s clear Green Bay believes that’ll change in 2013.
Rookie Impact -- The Packers aren’t afraid to depend on rookies and 2013 isn’t an exception to that philosophy. Green Bay is starting fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari because Bryan Bulaga is done for the season with a torn ACL. The rookie tackle has answered the call throughout training camp, by proving to be assignment sound and displaying a little nastiness in his run blocking. In addition to Bakhtiari, running back Eddie Lacy enters the year as the team‘s starting running back. If Lacy provides a significant boost to the rushing attack, then a third straight division championship is within reach.
Fantasy Stud -- On average, Green Bay’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers has rushed for 286 yards and four touchdowns per season. Those numbers seem trivial, but there in fact a huge boon, while comparing him to Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. Currently, nobody throws it better, but his legs also contribute to his fantasy success.
Prediction -- Depending on young players isn’t out of the norm for Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson, but they’ll depend more on first and second-year players than any other preseason contender will. Linebacker Nick Perry, cornerback Casey Heyward and defensive ends Mike Daniels and Datone Jones are key contributors in their defense. Offensively, Bakhtiari, Lacy and offensive tackle Don Barclay will all open the season starting. The Packers also have several weaknesses worth noting. With the exception of Bakhtiari, they enter the season with the same o-line that allowed 51 sacks in ‘12. They failed to draft a safety, placing them at the mercy of Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings. Finally, kicker Mason Crosby is coming off a woeful season, but the team could not find a replacement, despite having two other kickers in camp. Green Bay’s considered a safe playoff pick, but the NFC is the deeper of the two conferences. A couple of teams that would qualify in the AFC will be sitting out the NFC’s tournament. The Packers will be among those teams in 2013.
Key Games -- Week 1 at Lions, Week 2 at Bears, Week 8 vs. Packers, Week 11 at Seahawks, & Week 12 at Packers
Breakout Player -- Last year’s draft class had a number of rookies make an impact. One of them was Minnesota’s Harrison Smith. The Minnesota safety was deserving of more recognition for defensive rookie of the year. He started all 16 games, proving to be among Minnesota’s most reliable defenders. As his ball skills improve, he’s only going to make more plays, and that’ll have him pushing for all-pro recognition.
Rookie Impact -- The Vikings had three first-round picks last April, but none of them had breakthrough camps. All of them are more or less projects, so the Vikings’ intentions are to bring them along slowly. Of the three, cornerback Xavier Rhodes will make his presence known the fastest. In recent years, Green Bay’s receivers have struggled with physical corners. The Vikings likely took notice and targeted Rhodes because of his physical play. Rhodes also brings rare combination of size (6-1 & 210 pounds) and speed to the table. He fits the current trend of big, physical cornerbacks.
Fantasy Stud -- Historically, 2,000-yard rushers tend to come back to earth the next season. Chris Johnson ran for 642 fewer yards in his follow-up season, Jamal Lewis 1,060 fewer yards, and the great Barry Sanders had 562 fewer yards. Adrian Peterson is one of fantasy‘s elite players, but talk of 2,500 yards is not realistic.
Prediction -- Despite getting one of the greatest seasons ever from Peterson, Minnesota still needed a last-second kick to make the playoffs. When put into context, Minnesota’s outlook for ‘13 doesn’t look as good because they can‘t count on Peterson rushing for 2,000 yards. The fact that some consider it even a possibility is a testament to the reigning MVP’s skills. As a result, Minnesota’s going to need their passing game to significantly progress. However, quarterback Christian Ponder hasn‘t shown much in two years. They did bring in receiver Greg Jennings from Green Bay, but the former Packer is going to see a noticeable difference going from Rodgers to Ponder. The Vikings do possess a good pass rush and they have an outstanding head coach in Leslie Frazier. Because of Frazier and Peterson, they overachieved last year. This year, without Peterson rushing for 2,000 yards, they'll return to their norm.