Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Chicago and Tampa Bay didn't win many football games last season. In fact, the Buccaneers lost their final 10 games, while the Bears lost five out of six to close out the year.
Both teams, though, are winning big-time this off-season.
Chicago kicked off its off-season Tuesday by trading for high-maintenance, but ultra-talented wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Meanwhile Tampa Bay has been gobbling up free agents like Joey Chestnut on the Fourth of July, adding stud wideout Vincent Jackson and coveted guard Carl Nicks to its roster.
Let's look at these moves from a fantasy perspective for a second. Think about how this move helps quarterback Jay Cutler. Look who he had to throw to last season: Chicago's receivers were Johnny Knox, Roy Williams, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester.
Were any of them on your fantasy team? I didn't think so.
Cutler's most productive receiver last season was actually his running back, Matt Forte, who led the team with 52 catches. New England had two tight ends who had more catches than that last season.
Enter Brandon Marshall. The ex-Miami Dolphin hasn't had fewer than 80 catches in a season since his rookie year. That 2006 season was also the only time in Marshall's career that he has failed to reel in 1,000 receiving yards. That is what you call fantasy gold.
You give Cutler a little to work with and he'll do the rest. We'll discard his 2011 season because he was injured for almost half of it. But even without a star receiver to throw to in 2010, Cutler accumulated a QB rating of 86.3 with 23 touchdown passes.
There's another layer to the Cutler/Marshall connection that we can't overlook, either: they've already played together.
Marshall had three consecutive 100-catch seasons in Denver between 2007 and 2009. Cutler was the starting quarterback for two of those seasons (2007 and 2008).
Those seasons were two of Cutler's best years, too, as he finished 2007 with a career-best 88.1 QB rating while setting a career high in yards (4,526) in 2008. Clearly, these two have chemistry.
The Marshall trade has interesting fantasy implications for Forte as well. While the rest of the league was hovering around 45 percent, the Bears ran the ball on 48.9 percent of their plays last season. Now that Cutler will have a solid receiver to throw to, Chicago shouldn't be nearly as dependent on their running game this year.
This means fewer carries for Forte, which hurts his fantasy value, but at the same time getting fewer carries will reduce the chance that Forte will get injured. He took a lot of punishment in 2011 and ended up on the sidelines the last month of the season when the Bears needed him most. That's less likely to happen again this year if Chicago can put together a decent passing game.
Let's not forget about the Buccaneers, though. The Bears were a .500 team last year. Tampa Bay was only 4-12, so the Buccaneers will need way more help than Chicago if they want to be competitive in 2012.
Adding Jackson and Nicks is a great start. Without Jackson's 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns last season, San Diego wouldn't have even been in the hunt for a playoff spot. Jackson is everything you look for in a No. 1 receiver. He's big, fast, a good leaper and he has terrific hand-eye coordination.
Quarterback Josh Freeman had a few more weapons on offense than Cutler did in Chicago last year with Mike Williams (65 catches, 771 yards) and tight end Kellen Winslow (75 grabs, 763 yards), but he still didn't have much.
With Jackson suiting up for the Buccaneers this season, many of Freeman's passes that were interceptions a year ago (only Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed more picks than Freeman did last year) will be catches in 2012.
But that's not the only reason Freeman will be a much-improved fantasy player next season. A quarterback is only as good as the offensive line that's protecting him.
With Nicks as the new anchor, Tampa's o-line should be dominant next season. If Freeman has more time to make his passes, it will be easier for him to find open receivers and he'll make better decisions. It also reduces the chance that Freeman will get sacked, making him less of an injury risk.
It's like Freeman was driving a Grand Cherokee and suddenly the Tampa Bay owners came up to him and said, "Here, drive this Maserati."
There's no doubt that both Cutler and Freeman will be rejuvenated fantasy contributors in 2012. So ... who do you pick?
It's a tough call and you probably can't go wrong with either one of them. Cutler is probably the more skilled passer and he will have the benefit of passing to a receiver that he already has experience throwing to. It might take Freeman, who is still just 24 years old, a little while to get used to the routes Jackson runs and it will definitely take time for Jackson to learn Tampa Bay's playbook.
But at the same time, keep in mind that Cutler was injury-prone last year and that Freeman will benefit from Tampa Bay's improved offensive line. Cutler was sacked 23 times in only 10 games last year, so his protection is still a concern.
Factor in that Marshall is a complete head case (he's been involved in one nightclub brawl already in the last week and it's only Friday) and it's pretty much a draw.
I'll go with Cutler because of his rapport with Marshall, but both players should be better than the versions you had on your fantasy team a season ago. On draft day, it will be up to you to pick your poison.
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