QB Jay Cutler
(2013 QB Rank—#24, 19.9 FPts/G)
The Chicago Bears clearly put their franchise in the hands of Jay Cutler for the foreseeable future and paid him like an elite quarterback, lavished him with a fresh seven-year, $126 million deal in the offseason. Should fantasy owners feel the same confidence? Cutler has always been on the fringe of being a consistent fantasy starter, but injury, scheme or sieve-like offensive line play have always conspired to keep him from being a reliable QB1. In 2013, with a new coach, offensive philosophy and towering targets in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett, Cutler was off to a strong start, throwing for 12 scores after the first six games. But serious groin and ankle injuries caused Cutler to miss significant snaps and left the door open for Josh McCown to have career resurgence.
Enjoying a healthy and productive offseason, Cutler is an intriguing option for owners looking for a sneaky value pick at quarterback. Blessed with a terrific system, mentality and elite receiving options, Cutler is primed for a repeat of his 2008 season in Denver when he passed for 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. His injury concerns are valid because of the die-hard way he plays the game, but looking at his medical history, there are no sign of chronic, repeated problems. His arm has always been healthy, and despite missing 12 games over the last three years (six of which were from a freak thumb injury), he is a very tough field general who plays and effectively so, although they’re minor injuries. Fantasy owners looking to stockpile receiver or running back talent before landing a quarterback should keep Cutler in mind. Currently hovering in low tier QB1/upper QB2 territory, Cutler has the gridiron environment to possibly sneak his way into the middle tier and become a real steal.
RB Matt Forte
(2013 RB Rank —#3, 16.6 FPts/G)
The demise of the elite, reliable volume running back has been swift and harsh. Fortunately for his fantasy owners, someone forgot to tell Matt Forte. Forte continues to be one of the game’s best dual threats and reliable ball carriers, as he posted another fantastic season in 2013 with 1,339 yards on the ground, along with 75 catches for an additional 592 yards receiving. Forte also tied his career high with 12 total scores. He set career highs as a receiver in Marc Tressman’s new offensive system, and his work as a pass receiver sets him apart from many of his peers. What makes Forte such a valuable fantasy asset is not only his ability to carry your team to victory once or twice a year, but his consistency. He ranks No. 2 in FFToday’s consistency ratings at running back with only three games scoring single-digit fantasy points. Forte continues to play at an elite level, even as he enters the season at 28 years old. Combining superior vision and tackle-breaking ability even without blazing speed, especially in the screen game, Forte will benefit from several factors entering this season. Draft him, plug him in as your offensive centerpiece and pray he stays healthy!
RB Ka’Deem Carey
(2013 RB Rank—N/A)
Fourth-round rookies buried behind veteran superstars usually garner few fantasy headlines. Winning fantasy owners don’t read headlines, though. They look deeper. Coming off a ridiculous 1,885-19-5.4 season for the Arizona Wildcats, Ka’Deem Carey plummeted to the middle rounds due to a lackluster 40-yard dash time and character issues. Possessing many of the similar traits as starter Matt Forte – body control, lateral agility and pass receiving ability – Carey inds himself in a fertile environment to develop. He won’t be asked to play many snaps, barring an injury to Forte, but should that happen, Carey has the volume opportunity to provide some tremendous RB2 value to the forward thinking owner. Carey might be one of the few “must own” handcuffs in the league, and Forte owners will be sure to draft him, but don’t be scared to select him and stash him on your bench even if don’t own the Tulane star.
RB Shaun Draughn
(2013 RB Rank—N/A)
In a time when running back talent is as scarce as ever, it’s important to pay close attention to camp battles at backup spots. Although the talent and pedigree of Ka’Deem Carey should propel him to the back-up RB spot in Chicago, watch closely the amount of reps second-year undrafted free-agent Michael Ford and veteran journeyman Shaun Draughn receive in pre-season practice. Coach Marc Tressman isn’t going to lock anyone into backup slots too soon, so be thorough in your research and preparation. Sometimes the most expensive diamonds have to be mined from the deepest caves.
WR Brandon Marshall
(2013 WR Rank—#6, 12.6 FPts/G)
Obscure duo references notwithstanding, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler are as locked-at-the-hip as they come in professional sports. Signing his own mega contract extension this offseason, Marshall seems to have contained his demons and focused on becoming a professional football player. Combining rare physical gifts with boundless emotion, Marshall has entered the prime of his career improving his technical and mental game. While he underperformed in overall yardage and catch totals since 2012, Marshall still had over 100 catches for the fifth time in his career and had a personal-best 12 touchdown grabs. For as long as they are together, Cutler will have his radar locked on to Marshall, which makes him one of the most reliable pass catchers in the league. The emergence of fellow wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey and the continued threat of Matt Forte mean defenses can’t scheme Marshall out of the game. Expect another season of 90+ catches, 1,200 yards and double digit touchdowns, landing Marshall in the upper tier of WR1s.
WR Alshon Jeffery
(2013 WR Rank—#9, 12.2 FPts/G)
After the first three games of the 2013 season, Alshon Jeffery had 13 catches for 104 yards and zero touchdowns, not a great start for a highly touted second-round pick coming off a disappointing rookie year. So, forgive the fantasy world if they didn’t see the 1,317 yards and seven touchdowns that came in the final 13 games. Jeffrey was one of fantasy’s biggest and most surprising stars of the 2013 season. After a top-10 finish, though, can fantasy owners expect a repeat performance? The quick answer is not exactly. Brandon Marshall continues to be a target monster as long as Jay Cutler remains under center, which means that on most afternoons, Jeffrey is at best the No. 2 option in the passing game. While it’s true that the target, yardage and touchdown numbers for Jeffrey were very similar no matter if Cutler or McCown were under center, Jeffrey was the recipient of a number of miraculous catches and jump balls. These are all a testament to his amazing skills, but they are also similarly hard to duplicate. As defenses focus more attention on Jeffrey, his yardage totals will drop, as more frequent safety help over the top comes his way. As a young player he still lacks the refinement in his route tree to be a consistent short and intermediate target, but his yards-after-catch skills – 15th among wide receivers – means the drop-off might not be as severe as it could be. Feel comfortable drafting Jeffrey as a low-end WR1 and ecstatic if he is your WR2, as he has the skillset, scheme and gunslinger quarterback to be a high-end receiver for years to come.
WR Marquess Wilson
(2013 WR Rank—N/A)
A fantasy no name in 2013, Wilson barely registered on the stat sheet as he finished the season with two catches and 13 yards. Don’t be shocked if he surpasses those numbers in the first half of the opener against the Bills. Thanks to the emergence of teammate Alshon Jeffrey (similar frame and skillset) and release of Cutler-favorite Earl Bennett, fantasy owners have noticed Wilson this preseason. Expected to win the WR3 job, Wilson remains someone to keep an eye on, if not during your draft, then during the season as a waiver pickup. Should an injury befall Brandon Marshall or Jeffrey, the towering former seventh-round pick could have the opportunity to make a prepared fantasy owner very happy.
TE Martellus Bennett
(2013 TE Rank—#10, 6.6 FPts/G)
Despite several stops in his NFL career, highly-touted TE Martellus Bennett has never become an explosive, field-stretching pass receiver like some thought he would be when the Cowboys made him a second-round pick in 2008. He has become is a solid, reliable target for Chicago Bears quarterbacks, though. Bennett is the ideal TE for the owner with a solid all-around roster. He finished eighth or ninth among all tight ends in targets, catches and yards last season, making him at best, a low-end TE1 option. You won’t mind starting Bennett if you have to or sitting him for a gamble, so he is a great option for owners looking for some decent production while they sit and wait on a young, high-upside TE2s like Eric Ebron, Zach Ertz or Ladarius Green.