2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Chicago Bears
June 30, 2015 | Chet
The Chicago Bears were one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams in 2014, taking a step backwards and finishing 5-11 on the season while dropping their final five games. That in turn got Marc Trestman fired after just two seasons as the team brought in John Fox and Adam Gase from Denver to take over. With the Bears projected for just seven wins this season, is this a combustible situation, or one that may have still some upside for fantasy owners?
2015 Bears Schedule
Feel free to take strength of schedule analysis any way you like, but the Chicago Bears open with a daunting slate on paper. Before their week seven bye, they face four playoff teams from last season, all of whom defend the pass very well. Once they hit their bye, things open up a touch in terms of seeing red on that card from 2014, but many defenses like Minnesota, San Diego, Denver and even Washington I anticipate will better than they were last season. If Chicago doesn’t scrape by and hang around .500, things could deteriorate quickly in year one of this regime.
With the addition of Gase to run the offense and Fox to revamp the defensive side, Chicago could be a very controlled offense in 2015 if game script allows. I’m not going to drop previous Gase nuggets as a coordinator because he’s only ever run an offense led by Peyton Manning, but increasing their offensive efficiency should be something achievable with the weapons they still have on board as 2014 set a low bar for them to hurdle as the year two decline of a Trestman offense popped up once again.
Is it Finally Time to Fade Forte?
Matt Forte has been a pillar of fantasy consistency on both a macro and micro level for his career. He’s never had a season outside of the top-12 scoring backs overall during his seven year career. On a weekly level, he had nine top-six scoring weeks, 10 top-12 weeks and 14 top-24 ones.
Forte’s career has largely centered around the fact that he’s stayed durable while sustaining a high workload and is an elite pass catcher. He’s had 50 or more receptions in six of his seven seasons and last season he set an NFL record for backs with 102 receptions out of the backfield. The only backs to have more receptions thorough seven seasons than the 443 by Forte are LaDainian Tomlinson (458), Marshall Faulk (465) and Roger Craig (483). As far as both rushing and receiving combined, he became just the second player ever to have 1,000 rushing yards and 100 receptions in the same season, joining Tomlinson.
His receiving acumen has covered some of his rushing inefficiency at times and last season he ranked 33rd in terms of rushing points per attempt, behind both Giant running backs, Terrance West, and Steven Jackson as well as others. He also lost some explosion, with just 8.3% (22 of 265) of his carries going for 10 or more yards, down from the 14.3 percent (38 of 266) he had in 2013.
It’s not unfair to consider Forte a volume dependent back at this stage and we know at least some of his high end passing game involvement will be lost with Trestman leaving town. He also should lose natural volume simply because Trestman never took him off of the field. Forte led all backs in snaps played each of the past two seasons and last season he played 1006 snaps, 63 more than the next highest back (Le’Veon Bell). In context, he was on the field for 206 more snaps than DeMarco Murray who had the sixth most regular season touches since 1970. Here’s Forte’s career snap usage.
|Year||Snaps||Team Snap %|
Even though supremely more talented than his backups Jacquizz Rogers, Ka’Deem Carey, and rookie Jeremy Langford, at age 30, Forte should be expected to get a breather more frequently this season than he did under Trestman. Fox has used multiple backs often over his tenure, so I do expect the ancillary backs to nibble at some of his snaps.
If Forte is going to lose volume, then he needs to regain some lost efficiency. Normally we would look for a back to score more touchdowns to smooth that over, but Forte has consistently been a subpar short yardage option over his career. Of all players with 50 or more rushing attempts inside the five-yard line since 1999, Forte ranks dead last in conversion rate.
The way to overcome that poor rate is to stack volume, but with Chicago expected to be a middling team at just an over/under win total of seven, it’s hard to anticipate a large spike in scoring opportunities. Despite all of those negative elements surrounding Forte, he’s still a starting back that is going to catch a lot of passes compared to the majority of all other backs. That alone will hold his value as a top running back. That said, I just like the other high-end backs a lot more than him this season. I really don’t foresee myself taking Forte in the first round. If he’s there in the second come August, I’d still be intrigued with him as my second back, but then you’re talking about taking him over a high end receiver and the gap from second round receivers to third round ones is much larger than the running back drop to those available in the late third. All of this is saying in all likelihood I won’t own much of him this season unless he’s low hanging fruit.
Should we GAF about the King of DGAF?
Let’s face it, the bulk of how the Bears fare and how the fantasy assets on this offense return investment fall into the hands of Jay Cutler. That’s an uncomfortable place to be based on everything surrounding him. Cutler was benched in week 15 for the ghost of Jimmy Clausen after turning the ball over six times the previous three weeks. Was that a move by Trestman to save face and preserve his job? Was it an organizational stance to preserve Cutler since they were eliminated from the postseason and he was still owed $29.5 million guaranteed? We don’t know, but based on the alleged rumors of them offering him to anyone who would bite this offseason, there has to be some fire to the smoke that the organization has soured on him as an option to take this franchise where it intends to go. He still has just Clausen and sophomore David Fales behind him, so talent wise he has an edge on keeping the gig all season long, but no longer has the monetary rope he had last season going forward as they can release him next offseason and take a $13M bath yet still save $4M in cap space.
The most intriguing part of Cutler’s 2014 campaign though is it was a complete testament of why the quarterback position doesn’t have as much real life overlap to fantasy football. Cutler notched career highs in completion percentage (66.0 percent), touchdowns (28) and had his second highest point per game output (17.0) of his career. For week to week fantasy purposes, he was the sixth best quarterback in terms of average weekly finish with as many top 12 scoring weeks as Ryan Tannehill, Tony Romo and Tom Brady to go along with the sixth best bust rate of the top 12.
Many will point to the perception that Cutler stacked junk production to anchor his counting stats. While the Bears did run 61.6 percent of their offensive plays while trailing (fifth highest percentage in the league), only 20 percent of Cutler’s fantasy passing output came in the fourth quarter while trailing, which is when we see a dramatic shift in play calling splits league wide (league play calling shifted to 77.4 percent pass in those circumstances). That mark was below Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton to name a few, but here’s the full breakdown for everyone.
All of the risk surrounding Cutler with his overall play and job stability is already baked into his current cost at QB23 in early drafts, but none of his upside is. That’s a large part of why Joshua Lake sees Cutler as a potential value at that price point. He still has reasonable weapons that are being drafted at extremely more expensive price points than he is, so he’s worth a look at that spot. The hang up on him is if you draft him to be a part of a platoon, I just don’t see a spot outside of Oakland in which you’d use him over the first six weeks, even if he is going well. Because of that, in start one quarterback leagues I’m letting him go undrafted on the odds that he finds the waiver wire over that stretch. If he treads water and holds the job, I’ll be looking to add him to a stable of quarterbacks, but I won’t overextend in doing so.
Alshon Jeffery followed his 2013 breakout with another top fantasy season last year. He was a clear positive regression candidate as he improved his red zone conversion rate to 31.8 percent (seven scores on 22 targets) after a 15.7 percent (three of 19) rate in 2013. He also still maintained big play ability with 12 receptions of 25 or more yards and now has 27 over the past two seasons, the fourth most over the past two years. He posted a top-12 scoring season despite seeing a dip in efficiency and volume, becoming just the 18th receiver to have multiple top-12 scoring seasons before turning 25 years old. Generally that bodes well for future success, as just two of those members failed to notch another high end scoring campaign over their careers.
Jeffery didn’t have an immense weekly ceiling, with just one top-six scoring week and four top-12 ones, but had 10 top-24 weeks and was the only other receiver besides Antonio Brown not to have a scoring week outside of the top-48. With Brandon Marshall hobbled for the majority of the season, Jeffery still performed as a high-end fantasy asset although he was more about volume than efficiency with Marshall completely out of the lineup. Despite some wonkiness to how he’s posted his numbers over the past two seasons, he still been the best receiver per target that Jay Cutler has had in Chicago by a good margin per the AYA App available at RotoViz.
The concern here again lies with the possibility that he’ll lose Cutler at some stage if the wheels fall off. As C.D. Carter highlights in his Equity Scores, his median score is enough to factor that in. It’s worth noting as a testament to his floor that Jeffery was a dynamo when Cutler missed time in 2013 and even in Clausen’s one start last year, he was WR13 that week in scoring. A move away from Cutler may limit his bottom line, but I’m moving forward with Jeffery since he has a safe floor due to volume blended into on field ability and is an ideal second receiver on any team for fantasy purposes since he has that floor with scoring potential.
The Bears also used prime draft capital in the selection of receiver Kevin White, who I broke down in detail here. White had a bizarre turn of events unfold with him missing OTA’s and training camp due to a ongoing shin injury which was just revealed to require surgery to fix, placing White on the PUP to start the season. The injury sounds like it will be more of a 10-12 weeks injury and possible season ending one, leaving White as undraftable in seasonal leagues entering the season, even in leagues that have IR spots.
The Bears also went out and signed Eddie Royal in free agency, likely signifying that they intend to run a lot of three receiver sets (they also don’t even currently have a fullback on the roster) this season. Royal actually has 15 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons as well. More than Torrey Smith, Mike Wallace, Marques Colston and Anquan Boldin. As much as we have harped on the unsustainability of Royal over the past two years, he has proven to be an ideal third receiver on the real football field. Royal is the worst kind of player for fantasy owners because he does just enough to make us notice him, but not enough to warrant rostering him. He’s a player that already had 91 targets from a good quarterback a season ago and still wasn’t usable week to week. Even if you bump him up another target or two per game he’s going to be a tough plug in and although I believe he definitely returns value on his cost, he’s the kind of player I want my opponent to have to start. Outside of Best Ball formats, I’m swinging from my heels at my WR5 spot for deep ceiling crashers.
Royal is also a strictly inside option, so with White unable get on the field, that means third year receiver Marquess Wilson could be seeing significant time. It’s hard to get a true read on Wilson as he was injured for almost the entire season last year and then returned to a team that was circling the drain. He did find playing time once Brandon Marshall was out, but did little with it. Of Wilson’s 17 receptions, none went for 20 or more yards and 11 went for under 10 yards. He’s a guy you’re really want to monitor reps on in the preseason as it could signal if the organization believes he has any future with their franchise.
Martellus Bennett is the final piece of the receiving group and he’s coming off of a career year. Bennett easily posted career highs in targets (128), receptions (90), yards (916) and scores (six). He finished third on the season in top-three scoring weeks (four), third in top-six weeks (seven), fourth in top-12 weeks (eight) and had the second fewest weeks outside of the top-16 (three). Bennett benefited the most from the banged up Marshall as he was targeted highly per route and took over a larger portion of the team share than ever before.
I expect that target share to come down, as well as some of the high end production weekly in 2015. I feel very similarly about Bennett as I do in Greg Olsen, but expect a larger drop in performance if and when he suits up. Like Olsen, Bennett has yet to show us he’s a high end touchdown producer. He’s never scored more than six times in a season and has been an underachieving red zone option for his career, converting just 17 of 70 targets (24.3 percent) for scores. I like that he’s cheaper than Olsen, but he is often reached for currently since many view him as the last of the reliable tight ends. At tight end, I’m going after a high weekly ceiling attached scoring potential before paying for a floor at mid-round pricing, especially if that floor appears as compromised at Bennett’s does. I would much rather hold out for Jordan Cameron a few rounds later or pursue a cheaper reliable floor from a veteran like Jason Witten given the choice of taking Bennett at the round seven/eight turn.