Fantasy football draft season is fast approaching. Prep to win your league with SI.com's ongoing preview, including team-by-team breakdowns that examine each club's key fantasy storyline and much more.
Key fantasy storyline
In the NFL of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, of Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas, of 5,000-yard passers and 1,900-yard receivers, rare is the running back who becomes a fantasy stud while doing little more than a cursory share of his damage through the air. For every Marshawn Lynch, there's a Jamaal Charles, a Doug Martin and a C.J. Spiller. Of the top-20 rushers last year, only Lynch, Alfred Morris, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene, Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard caught fewer than 30 passes.
The emphasis on pass-catching backs helped drive Matt Forte into the beginning of the second round in most drafts last season. In 2011, Forte caught 52 passes for 490 yards and a touchdown in just 12 games. Add that to his 997 rushing yards, and Forte averaged 124 yards from scrimmage per game. However, the Bears' offense under Mike Tice squeezed Forte out of the passing game to a degree last season. In 15 games, he caught a career-worst 44 passes for 340 yards, the lowest total of his five years in the league by 131 yards. The result? Despite playing three more games than in the previous season and despite still averaging 4.4 yards per carry, Forte totaled merely 1,434 yards from scrimmage, an average of 95.6 per game.
A new regime swept into Chicago this offseason, however, led by offensive-minded head coach Marc Trestman. He installed former Saints' running backs and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as his offensive coordinator, and the duo is on record as wanting Forte to be heavily involved in the passing game this season. Trestman was the Raiders' offensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003, and in '02, Charlie Garner caught 91 passes for 941 yards. It proved impossible for Garner to replicate those numbers, but he still caught a respectable 48 passes for 386 yards in 14 games the next season. Kromer, of course, helped implement the schemes that turned Darren Sproles into one of the preeminent pass-catching backs in the league. Given their respective track records, Kromer and Trestman are going to do whatever it takes to get Forte back atop the receiving mountain.
Chicago's fantasy promise extends well beyond Forte, as the offense can be sneakily elite this season. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall already make one of the NFL's best quarterback-receiver duos. Alshon Jeffery had trouble staying healthy as a rookie, but looked every bit the capable second banana when he was on the field. Adding Martellus Bennett gives the Bears the competent receiving tight end they lacked last year as well as a truly dynamic athlete who can dominate the middle of the field.
Defenses will have their hands full with this team, so they won't simply be able to direct their focus to Forte. Michael Bush is still going to wrest some goal-line carries, but Forte is such a great fit for Trestman's ideal offense that he won't leave the field all that often. Forte will get the vast majority of the carries between the 20s, and his ability as a pass catcher is something Trestman will want to feature as well as a skill Cutler has praised in the past. Forte may be from Lake Charles, La., but he won't be just a drunkard's dream this year. He's a top-15 player and a top-10 back in my book.
|Chicago Bears' 2013 schedule|
|Including a look at how the Bears' upcoming foes fared defensively in fantasy last season|
Stats via FFToday.com
The Bears' NFC North division mates all boast decent defenses, though none really stand out as elite. The Bears match up with the AFC North, which typically features strong defenses in the Steelers and Ravens, though both of those teams have aged without totally reloading; opponents still don't take those units lightly, but they're also not afraid of the way those teams dominated three or four years ago. While fantasy players shouldn't necessarily draft guys based on their fantasy playoff schedule, especially since we can't possibly know everything we need to about a defense in July and August, it's worth noting that the Bears' schedule in Weeks 14, 15 and 16 isn't exactly daunting. The Browns and Eagles ranked 19th and 29th, respectively, in points against last season.
QB: Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, Matt Blanchard
RB: Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Armando Allen
FB: Harvey Unga, Tony Fiammetta
WR: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Eric Weems, Marquess Wilson, Devin Aromashodu
TE: Martellus Bennett, Steve Maneri, Kyle Adams
K: Robbie Gould
|Chicago Bears' 2012 defensive rankings|
The Bears are going through arguably the biggest change of any team on the defensive side of the ball, as Brian Urlacher will not be starting at middle linebacker for the first time since 1999. (Technically Barry Minter began the Urlacher's rookie 2000 season as the starter at middle linebacker, but you get the point). The Bears compensated for the loss by signing D.J. Williams and drafting Florida Gator Jon Bostic in the second round of April's draft. With Urlacher and Lovie Smith gone from Chicago, the Bears will likely divert from their beloved Cover 2 more than they have in the past.
However, that might not be as big of a change as it seems. The Bears didn't sit in Cover 2 as often as the talking heads often indicate. Whereas Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been the strength of this defense for a long time, the best unit is now probably the line, where Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Stephen Paea lead a solid pass rush. Corey Wootton is back healthy, and Shea McClellin showed flashes as a rookie last year. All four starting defensive backs return, with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, who led the league in interceptions last year, at corner, and Chris Conte and Major Wright at safety.
Briggs, Peppers, Tillman and Jennings are the biggest names on the defense, and all should be owned in IDP leagues. Tillman is a big, physical corner who will likely be among the league leaders for tackles as a DB. A lot of luck goes into leading the league in interceptions, but Jennings pulled in a number of his picks in man coverage. Briggs and Peppers remain among the best in the business at their respective positions.
While this is still a strong defense, its window is closing. Briggs, Peppers and Tillman only have so many snaps left in them. If Williams and Bostic can do an admirable job filling in for the version of Urlacher we saw the last few seasons, however, this defense can play at a championship level in 2013.