NFC North Depth Chart Review: Quarterbacks
This week it is time for me to put the NFC North quarterbacks under the microscope. The division lost one of its longest-tenured quarterbacks during the offseason, as Matthew Stafford is gone after a dozen seasons in Detroit. He will be replaced by former Rams starter Jared Goff. There was also the possibility that the division would lose its most senior signal-caller, as Aaron Rodgers and the front office in Green Bay have been playing a game of chicken over the past couple of months. It appears for now as if Rodgers will return at some point before Week 1. I doubt we have seen the last of this public squabble, but fantasy managers won’t mind as long as Rodgers is in New Orleans on September 12.
Kirk Cousins will be back for a fourth season in Minnesota. He has been a steady source of fantasy production for several years now, although he has never quite made it into the elite range of fantasy quarterbacks. It seems safe to say that Cousins will be the division’s second-best fantasy quarterback. But he could eventually be pushed from that perch by the new Chicago Bears quarterback. And no, I am not talking about Andy Dalton. Keep reading to see where I think Justin Fields lands among the NFC North quarterbacks, as well as my expectations for the rest of the division’s quarterbacks in 2021 redraft leagues.
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NFC North Quarterbacks
The Chicago Bears finally put an end to the much-maligned Mitchell Trubisky experiment during this past offseason. Chicago signed Andy Dalton to a one-year contract and let Trubisky walk via free agency. The club also traded up to draft Justin Fields in the first round of this year’s draft. General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy have both been emphatic in their statements that Dalton is the team’s starting quarterback. I have a hard time believing they will stick to that company line come September. This is likely a make-or-break season for both Pace and Nagy. I cannot imagine they would let their fates rest in the hands of Dalton, especially after they essentially tabbed Fields as the franchise’s long-awaited answer at quarterback.
However, let us at least entertain the notion that Dalton starts for the Bears this season. Even in that scenario, I see no reason to draft the Red Rifle. Dalton has finished outside the top 20 in both PFF grade and PFF WAR over the last two seasons. Even when he finished 12th and 13th respectively in those categories in 2018, it did not translate to fantasy points. Dalton was just 18th in fantasy scoring on a per-game basis that season. He does not provide enough passing volume to justify a starting spot in fantasy. Dalton has not thrown for more than 25 touchdowns in a season since 2013. He has also eclipsed 3,500 passing yards just once since then. There is just very little upside here, which is why I believe the team will turn to Fields sooner rather than later.
Justin Fields put on a quarterbacking clinic in 22 starts over two seasons at Ohio State. Fields completed 68.4 percent of his passes and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt. He threw 63 touchdowns versus only nine interceptions. He also tacked on 867 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground for good measure. Fields has a strong arm and can make all the throws necessary at the NFL level. He can also run with the best of them when the situation calls for it. Fields posted a 4.44 40-yard dash time as his NFL Pro Day. Matt Nagy started going a bit more up-tempo and using bootlegs and rollouts towards the end of last season. If those changes carry over to this season, the former Buckeye would benefit tremendously. Fields fits the mold of the modern-day quarterback and figures to be a fantasy force for years to come.
That is all well and good in Dynasty formats and even Best Balls to a degree. But it is hard to have a ton of confidence in Fields making an immediate impact given the continued insistence from above that Dalton will start Week 1. Having said that, I would still try to stash Fields if possible given the upside. I currently still have him in my top 20 at the quarterback position. That will change come September if, in fact, he is on the outside looking in. However, I do believe that once given the opportunity, Fields will have top-12 weekly upside. His athleticism and skill set are too impressive to ignore. The jettisoned Trubisky was the overall QB9 on a per-game basis in 2018, and it is agreed upon by most that Fields is a better all-around quarterback.
The Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams swapped starting quarterbacks back in January, with the Rams throwing in draft picks as well. That means that Jared Goff will be the new signal-caller for the Lions in 2021 after Matthew Stafford had held that post for over a decade. Goff has seemingly regressed since his breakout 2018 campaign. He set a career-best with a 67 percent completion rate last season, which sounds good on paper. But that was mostly due to Sean McVay refusing to trust Goff to make plays down the field. Goff attempted the ninth-most passes in the NFL last season but tied for 21st in attempts 20 or more yards down the field. Goff’s 7.2 yards per attempt was also 21st in the NFL and was his lowest since he played seven games as a rookie in 2016.
I am not completely sure what to make of the fit between Goff and the Lions. The team signed free agent wideouts Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, but both are on one-year deals and are more effective down the field. Fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown and incumbent Quintez Cephus figure to round out the receiving corps following the loss of mainstays Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola. Tight end T.J. Hockenson made a solid second-year leap in 2020, and running back D’Andre Swift showed flashes with 10 total touchdowns as a rookie. Detroit also has an improving offensive line, highlighted by first-round draft pick Penei Sewell. There is talent there at Goff’s disposal. I just do not think he is good enough to take advantage of it. That is especially true given that Dan Campbell and Anthony Lynn will be largely responsible for the offense this season.
If there is a bright side to be had about Goff’s fantasy outlook for 2021, it is likely to be found in negative game script. Detroit is expected to be among the worst teams in the NFL this season. As much as Campbell and Lynn would like to bite knees and take the air out of the ball, that will not work if the Lions are down 13 in the third quarter. Perhaps Goff can channel some of that Blake Bortles mid-2010s garbage time magic this season. Ultimately, Goff is a tough sell as a fantasy asset this season. I just do not see him cracking the top 20 in fantasy points this season. I suppose you could take him as your QB3 in a SuperFlex and play him as a QB2 placeholder for Justin Fields or Trey Lance. Other than that, I would advise ignoring him.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers decided against formally opting out for the 2021 season on Friday. It’s too bad. I kind of wanted Twitter to explode. The reigning MVP will likely return to Green Bay for a 17th NFL season. Of course, there is still the possibility of a trade involving the star quarterback, but I do not see that happening. Even if Packers brass considers Rodgers “complicated”, they are best served to run it back with Rodgers for another year. Rodgers had a remarkable 2020 season, and at times looked to be toying with opposing defenses. His 70.7 percent completion rate was a personal best, as were his 48 touchdown passes. He also threw just five interceptions on the year. It does not get much better than Rodgers’ PFF Grade Heat Map:
There are times when completion rate, PFF grade, and other numbers do not translate to fantasy. That was not the case with Rodgers in 2020. Rodgers finished second in total points among quarterbacks and third in points per game. He also finished second in fantasy points per dropback a season ago. Rodgers has arguably the league’s best receiver in Davante Adams in tow, and can still improvise with the best of them. Despite all that, fantasy managers are not entirely sold on a repeat quite yet. They are currently drafting Rodgers eighth at the position on average. Perhaps some of that has to do with the contentious situation between Rodgers and the Packers organization. Now that we know Rodgers will at least play somewhere in 2021, will his ADP rise over the next two months?
It could, but there are also compelling arguments for the quarterbacks just above him. Most notably, the quarterbacks ahead of him are considerably more mobile. That upside is difficult to ignore. Besides, Rodgers was so hyperefficient that he almost has to experience some type of regression. We all knew heading into last year that Lamar Jackson would not be able to sustain his 8.98 percent touchdown rate from the year prior, right? Well, Rodgers’ rate last season was 9.13. Obviously, Rodgers is a much better passer than Jackson, but a slight dropoff is still likely. After averaging 2.01 TD passes per game over his first 16 seasons, Rodgers averaged an even three per game last year. If Rodgers averaged 2.5 touchdowns per game last season instead of three, he would have been the QB6. That feels like a more realistic expectation for the future Hall of Famer.
Kirk Cousins seems to be in no man’s land in the landscape of fantasy quarterbacks. That goes not just for the NFC North quarterbacks, but the entire NFL. In each of his three seasons in Minnesota, he has been a top-15 fantasy quarterback. But in none of those seasons has he finished above the overall QB10. Cousins has been the walking definition of a fringe QB1 for three years running. That manifested itself to a degree in Cousins’ PFF accuracy chart last season. He graded out “average” in six of the nine zones, with a couple of “very goods” and a “good” mixed in.
Last season, Cousins was almost a tier unto himself in terms of fantasy production. He averaged 19.14 points per game last year, good for 11th-best among quarterbacks with at least nine games played. He was 1.98 points per game behind Tom Brady and 1.29 ahead of Gardner Minshew. Every other quarterback in the top 24 was within one point per game (both high and low) of another quarterback. Despite the final result, Cousins was not always a steady QB1, particularly over the first half. The Vikings went 1-5 in their first six games, in part because of Cousins’ shaky play. He threw 10 interceptions over those six games. Though Minnesota won their next two games, Cousins was a glorified bystander as Dalvin Cook did the heavy lifting. All told, Cousins averaged 232 passing yards per game over the first half of the season, with 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
In the second half, however, Cousins was asked to do much more, and he responded in kind. Over his last eight games, he averaged 301 yards per game with 20 passing scores and just three interceptions. If this were fantasy baseball, managers would probably be all over Cousins due to his second-half prowess. But it isn’t, and they aren’t. Though Cousins posted top-five fantasy numbers over the final eight games last year, that is not the formula Minnesota wants to employ to win ballgames. They would rather feature Dalvin Cook and allow their defense to close games out for them. If Minnesota’s defense takes a step forward this year, Cousins is unlikely to approach the 38.4 pass attempts he had over the second half of last season. That makes him hard to trust as a QB1 in 12-team leagues.
Still, there is a scenario where Cousins could finish in the top 10 if the defense cannot hold up their end of the bargain. He proved he could carry the load if necessary towards the end of last season, so there could be some value to be had. For me, the decision to draft Cousins is very much dependent on who your starting quarterback is. If you draft one of the top four or five quarterbacks off the board, I see very little need to supplement with a guy like Cousins. But I believe Cousins makes for an ideal pairing with a potentially volatile QB1. There is a chance that Jalen Hurts does not reach expectations, or Justin Herbert regresses, or Joe Burrow is not 100 percent physically come Week 1. If you have one of those guys, I would highly recommend grabbing Kirk Cousins as a safety net.
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