With training camp less than a month away, it’s a great time to start breaking down each team, division by division. I’ll run through the NFC for the next four weeks followed by the AFC, finishing up with, of course, the AFC West. Who will represent each division in the playoffs? Who will snatch a wildcard birth? Who will face off in Super Bowl 53? Can’t wait! This week, I am focusing on the NFC North. 2 new coaches, 1 hall of fame QB, 1 unproven sophomore QB with loads of potential and one of the highest paid QB’s in 2018. This could certainly be one of the most entertaining races in the league this season.
The Chicago Bears: Last year’s 5-11 season was the final nail in the coffin for John Fox as head coach. GM Ryan Pace is going from old school ground and pound to a seemingly creative offensive mind in Matt Nagy. Being one of two first year coaches in the NFC North, grace will be given early but the Bears faithful are ready to see some excitement on the offensive end. Last year, Chicago’s passing offense was the worst in the league averaging only 175 yards per game. In his rookie season, Mitch Trubisky was descent enough, especially considering his wr’s were average and Fox held back the reins so tightly Jay Cutler could feel the pull. This year the Bears loaded up on wideouts both in free agency and in the draft. Led by former Jaguar Allen Robinson, Chicago is begging for more production from the passing game. The biggest question there is can they stay healthy? Robinson tore his ACL last season and Kevin White, a former top 10 pick, has only played in 5 games his first 3 seasons. Brining in Taylor Gabriel from Atlanta should help bolster the receiving corps as he has big play capability. Something else to watch with Chicago is how running back Jordan Howard will fit in. Obviously, he’s a very solid back but he is not one of those swiss army knife kind of guys that can provide production in the pass game. Naggy along with his offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich certainly expect to utilize the backfield passing game but insist Howard is still their guy. I think it would be a mistake to try to turn him into something he’s not but time will tell. Defensively, the Bears are solid: Top 10 in total yards allowed and 7th against the pass. Their issue was forcing turnovers. Specifically interceptions. With only 8 picks, the Bears were tied for 29th last season. If they can get more production from their edge rushers they might be able to force more bad passes, potentially leading to more turnovers. I think this team will be much improved…but playoffs? I’m going with 8-8, typically not good enough to sneak in. At least not in this stacked division.
The Detroit Lions: Can the Patriot Way morph into the Lions Way? That will be new Head Coach Matt Patricia’s goal as he makes the leap from New England’s Defensive Coordinator to leader of the pride in Detroit. With sexual assault allegations resurfacing from 1996, Patricia was forced to answer incredibly difficult questions months before his team would even start training camp. The Lions backed their guy and the controversy seems to have faded so football is back to top priority for the Lions. Opting to keep Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, this offense should be solid in the passing game led by 10 year man Matthew Stafford. A bad line, the leagues worst run game and a handful of injuries didn’t seem to slow down Stafford. He threw for nearly 4,500 yards and 29 TD’s, earning the Lions passing attack a top 6 spot in the league. But in order to compete in the North, they will have to get better on the ground. The Lions signed former Patriot and Eagle, LeGarrete Blount and drafted Auburn standout Kerryon Johnson in the second round. With their first pick they snagged Arkansas Center Frank Ragnow. So it’s clear Detroit is taking the necessary steps to improve its rushing attack. Defensively this team was tasked with getting tougher over the offseason. Patricia certainly personifies that characteristic but can it translate onto the field? My guy Ezekiel Ansah was given the franchise tag, making him and Cowboys Demarcus Lawrence the highest paid defensive ends in the 2018. Ziggy had 12 sacks last year but continues to battle with injuries. If he can go a full season then look out! Hoping to get better up front, the Lions scooped former Broncos 2nd round pick DT Sylvester Williams and moved up in the 4th round of the draft to get former Bama DE, Da’shawn Hand. All in all, Detroit has been a middle of the road team for over 5 years. GM Bob Quinn made a statement that screamed they were tired of mediocrity by firing a descent coach in Jim Caldwell and brining in a guy of his own in Patricia. I like their passing attack and on paper, their run game should be much better than 32nd in the league. Playoffs in Patricia’s first year? I still see a lot of holes in their defense. Other than that secondary lead by Darius Slay, I think they will continue to give up a lot of yards. And because of that, I have the Lions finishing below .500 at 7-9.
The Green Bay Packers: The most obvious issue with Green Bay last year was Aaron Rogers missing 7 games which resulted in the end of an 8 year playoff streak for the Packers. But perhaps the REAL issue is this strange tension brewing between the 34 year old QB and Head Coach Mike McCarthy. Not only did McCarthy drop qb coach Alex Van Pelt without consulting Rogers, they released one of his favorite targets in Jordy Nelson as well. The Packers are also going with, as the head coach put it “a scrub-brush approach,” to this offense. Another move Rogers didn’t appear to be on board with 100%. “It puts a greater strain on guys like myself who have been in the same offense for 14 years,” Rogers told Athlon Sports. He later admitted that it might be a good thing in the end, but it’s clear he’s not too crazy about some of the moves going on without his input. However, when it’s all said and done, the Packers just don’t miss the playoffs with a healthy Rogers. Their passing attack should be solid with Davante Adams, Randal Cobb and now, TE Jimmy Graham. Graham caught 10 TD’s in Seattle last season, all of them in the red zone. Rogers and Graham should be a lethal combination this season. The Packers struggled mightily on defense last year, resulting in the firing of long time defensive coordinator Dom Capers. McCarthy says he is tired of his defense being “the stepchild.” Bringing in Mike Pettine as the new defensive coordinator might be the way to help pull this unit out of the shadows. Pettine’s defenses in New York (Jets) and Buffalo never finished outside the top 10 in total defense. With a confident group of defensive linemen in Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Muhammed Wilkerson, the Packers hope that it all begins up front. Linebacker Clay Mathews and Free Safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix will look to lead Green Bay into the limelight but will they and an improved D line be enough? They also drafted two Corners in the first two rounds in Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Both of those guys, especially Jackson, should be solid in the next few years. Overall I can see a slight improvement on the defensive side of the ball but not good enough to make a huge difference this year. That being said, you simply can’t count this team out as long as Aaron Rogers is in the lineup. The Packers should light it up offensively and a slightly better defense could propel them to a 12 win season. 12-4 and winners of the NFC North. Order shall be restored in the North.
The Minnesota Vikings: If someone told me that the Vikings would be a conference finalist with Case Keenum as the starting QB I would have thought you lost your mind. But through an amazing defense and and a top 10 rushing attack, the Vikings continued to prove their doubters wrong all season. Case Keenum was so good that his play earned him a nice pay day from the Broncos. The Vikings didn’t seem to trust him, however, and opted to sign one of the richest contracts in 2018 and bagged Kirk Cousins. Stat wise, Cousins is picture perfect. He’s had 3 consecutive seasons with at lease 4,000 yards and 25 TD’s but his record in Washington was underwhelming; 26-30-1 and 0-1 in the playoffs. Sure, the Redskins didn’t do much to build around him but in a league that puts so much on the QB, one has to wonder if Cousins is simply a great stat stuffer or can win big games in big moments. Thankfully, this team is stacked. Running back Dalvin Cook was having a tremendous year before he got hurt and Latavius Murray proved he can not only be a formidable backup but can still carry the load on the ground. Wideouts Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and now Kendall Wright make this team lethal in the passing game. Oh yea, and that tight end of theirs is pretty good too in Kyle Rudolph. Their defensive unit was the best overall and 2nd against both the pass and the run. They stayed incredibly healthy and have most of their starting group intact for the 2018 campaign. They also brought in Sheldon Richardson to help an already ridiculous group up front in Everson Griffin, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter. Their linebacking crew will once again be led by Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, a guy hoping to be the first guy to lead the Vikings in tackles in his first 4 seasons. And at last, their secondary is golden with guys like free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Dare I say this defense will be better next season meaning number 1 overall? That’s my guess. However, I still have concerns about Cousins at the helm. They are a playoff team but I still like the Packers to win the division. Vikings will go 10-6 and steal a wild card.
NFC NORTH: Packers 12-4 Vikings 10-6 Bears 8-8 Lions 7-9