Tuesday, August 27, 2013

NFL Divisional Previews - NFC North

Many people are talking about the strength of the NFC West, but a reasonable argument could be made that the NFC North is the best division in football. The Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Chicago Bears each won 10 or more games last season. The only weak link in the division was the Detroit Lions, which isn't anything new. The Packers have seen some pretty major changes to their offensive and defensive starters but with Aaron Rodgers leading the way, the results are expected to remain the same. The Chicago Bears are starting the Marc Trestman era, as a 10 win season wasn't enough to save Lovie Smith's job as the Bears missed the playoffs once again. The Minnesota Vikings will be out to prove that their 10-win season last year wasn't a fluke. The Detroit Lions want to prove that 2012 was a fluke, and they are ready to be contenders like they were in the 2011 season. 

1. Green Pay Packers  

2012 Record: 11-5, NFC North Champions
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (8th season Green Bay, 80-42 career)
Key Additions: RB Eddie Lacy, RB Johnathan Franklin, QB Vince Young, DE/DT Datone Jones
Key Losses: RB Cedric Benson, RB Ryan Grant, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, TE Tom Crabtree, C Jeff Saturday, ILB Desmond Bishop, S Charles Woodson

2013 Outlook: The Packers didn't breeze through the regular season in 2012 like they did in 2011 but they still played well enough to win another NFC North division title. They beat an undermanned Minnesota Vikings team in the Wild Card round before getting literally run over by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the Divisional Round. Last year, the offense was not the explosive unit it was in 2011. Rodgers still put up fantastic numbers but the passing offense dropped to 9th in the NFL and the rushing attack continued to struggle, finishing 20th. The most absurd stat that captures the lack of effectiveness of Green Bay's running game is the fact that they haven't had a back go over 100 yards rushing in a game in 43 consecutive regular season games.  They looked to rectify that by taking two of the top running backs coming out of college in the draft, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. Both backs have had their issues in training camp. There were whispers that Lacy came into camp out of shape, while Franklin has not impressed so far. Because of that, currently DuJuan Harris is at the top of the depth chart for Green Bay, with James Starks and Alex Green behind him. It remains to be seen which of these running backs will make the final 53 man roster. If the running game can't get traction, the offense will fall once again in the hands of Rodgers and his receivers. Longtime receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are both gone, allowing Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson to take the reigns. Cobb was excellent last season and is a weapon the Packers can use in a multitude of ways because of his speed. Jones led the league with 14 receiving touchdowns last year. He still disappears at times but you can't complain too much about the year he had last season. Nelson dealt with injuries most of last season and already is having injury problems this year in camp. He is expected to be ready by Week 1 and is hopeful he can put his injuries behind him. Some good news coming out of camp has been the play of TE Jermichael Finley. Finley had struggled the past few seasons with drops and inconsistency but has looked fantastic so far in preseason. If he can carry that over to the regular season it will make things that much easier for Rodgers and the other receivers. The Packers offensive line was a weakness last year, not only in run blocking but also pass protection. Right tackle Marshall Newhouse was awful last season, but will remain in the starting lineup. The Packers suffered a major blow at left tackle when Bryan Bulaga suffered a season ending injury in training camp. That means rookie David Bakhtiari will now be Rodgers blindside protector. Left guard T.J. Lang has been moved to right guard. There has been a lot of shifting and change with the injuries and poor performance of the line. How they perform will be a major storyline during the Packers 2013 season. The Packers defense was improved in 2012 but then exploited badly by the 49ers in the playoffs. They had no answer for the Niners read option and starting the 2013 season will see that in back to back weeks to open the season when they play the Niners and Washington Redskins. The defensive line will have a new look with their first round pick DE Datone Jones. He will immediately start on the left end, with the Freezer B.J. Raji back at the right end. Any talk of the Packers defense normally beings with stud LB Clay Matthews. Matthews led the team in sacks last season and was rewarded with a big contract this off-season. A.J. Hawk is the other most known Packers linebacker but he mostly still rides off his college reputation. M.D. Jennings will replace Charles Woodson at safety. The rest of the secondary is pretty strong with safety Morgan Burnett and the two corners, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. Surprisingly, Mason Crosby will be back at kicker for the Packers. He made David Akers look good last season, and I am really surprised the Packers brought him back. Punter Tim Masthay has a cool name but punting wise is just average. WR Cobb brings an element of big play potential for the return game. The Packers have some question marks and a tough schedule, but they still remain one of the most talented teams in football. I expect Rodgers and the offense to continue to hum along and for the Packers run game to be improved this year. The Packers will be in the thick of things in the NFC as they have been the last few seasons.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Chicago Bears    

2012 Record: 10-6, 3rd place NFC North
Head Coach: Marc Trestman (1st year Chicago, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: G Kyle Long, ILB Jon Bostic, TE Martellus Bennett, OT Jermon Bushrod, G Matt Slauson, DE Kyle Moore, S Tom Zbikowski
Key Losses: QB Jason Campbell, WR Johnny Knox, TE Kellen Davis, TE Matt Spaeth, G Gabe Carimi, G Chilo Rachal, DE Israel Idonije, OLB Geno Hayes, ILB Brian Urlacher, CB D.J. Moore

2013 Outlook: The biggest question surrounding the Bears this season is what effect coach Marc Trestman will have on the Bears putrid passing game. He has been out of the NFL for a few years, but was quite successful as coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. The Bears passing game was Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall in 2012 and not much else. They ranked 29th in the league in passing offense, and their top 10 running game wasn't good enough to overcome those struggles. RB Matt Forte has been the most consistent cog of the Bears offense for years, and Trestman figures to feature him heavily. The hope is that Forte can become a bigger part of the passing offense, after mostly disappearing from it last season. The addition of Marshall was a good one, as he is easily the Bears most prolific wide receiver in years. Now it is time for second year WR Alshon Jeffery to step up and become a threat that can take some pressure off of Marshall. The Bears have upgraded at the tight end position with the addition of Martellus Bennett. Bennett should give Cutler an added weapon, and the tools are there for Cutler to succeed. This is a contract year for Cutler, and anything less then a special season might spell the end of his time in Chicago. Now, the biggest key to his success is whether the offensive line will give him time to prosper. The Bears have added Jermon Bushrod to the line and drafted guard Kyle Long in the first round of the draft. Another new starter on the line will be left guard Matt Slauson. The Bears hope these changes will finally solve an area that has been a problem ever since Cutler became the quarterback. Defense was pretty much always a strength for the Bears in the Lovie Smith era, it will be interesting to see if that continues with him no longer the coach and Brian Urlacher no longer the hear and soul of the defense. Former Bronco D.J. Williams is expected to take over for Urlacher, but rookie Jon Bostic has really impressed this preseason and it may not be long before he takes over. Lance Briggs is still an anchor at linebacker and one of the best in the league. The defensive line is still defined by the imposing Julius Peppers who has so far lived up to the huge free agent money he signed for a few years back. Fellow defensive end Corey Wootoon isn't as well known but had a strong season last year with 7 sacks. Henry Melton is a strong presence against both the run and pass at defensive tackle. Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman make up one of the best cornerback duos in the league, and Major Wright mans the safety spot quite well. Robbie Gould is one of the best kickers in the league, while punter Adam Podlesh doesn't have a booming league but does a nice job of pinning teams back. Due to teams not kicking to him as much and somewhat declining skills Devin Hester is no longer the human highlight reel in the return game that he once was. Due to a tougher schedule the Bears may not win as many games as last season but I think they will get back to the playoffs this year. I think the addition of Trestman calling the plays and adding Bennett and the emergence of Jeffery, along with improvement on the line will make the Bears passing game very dangerous. The defense will remain a strength, and the Bears will do just enough to sneak into the playoffs.

Prediction: 9-7

3. Minnesota Vikings  

2012 Record: 10-6, 2nd place NFC North
Head Coach: Leslie Frazier (3rd season Minnesota, 16-23 career)
Key Additions: DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, P Jeff Locke, QB Matt Cassel, WR Greg Jennings, ILB Desmond Bishop
Key Losses: WR Percy Harvin, WR Michael Jenkins, ILB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antoine Winfield, P Chris Kluwe

2013 Outlook: Adrian Peterson basically single-handedly carried the Vikings into the playoffs in 2012. Rushing for over 2,000 yards Peterson was the Vikings main offensive weapon, as QB Christian Ponder continued to struggle with inconsistency. Even worse for Ponder, he was injured and unable to play in the Vikings embarrassing Wild Card playoff loss to the Packers. The week prior he had played his best game as a pro in leading the Vikings over the Packers to get Minnesota into the playoffs. The Vikings took away one of Ponder's best weapons by trading Percy Harvin to Seattle, but are hopeful the signing of Greg Jennings can make up for that. I am skeptical as to how effective Jennings will be. He is coming off an injury plagued season and has always been blessed by playing with superb quarterbacks. He also had multiple impressive wideouts surrounding him in Green Bay, which certainly isn't the case in Minnesota. Lining up opposite him is Jerome Simpson who had a 2012 to forget. Ponder's second favorite target will likely be TE Kyle Rudolph, who led the team with 9 receiving touchdowns. The offense will still go through Peterson, who is confident he can remain at the exceptionally high level he has been throughout his career. Even if he remains the best running back in the NFL the Vikings want to see Ponder take that next step in his third year as the starter. The Vikings are stacked at tackle with Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt manning those positions. The guard positions are less dominant, but Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco are adequate. The Vikings were pretty good against the run last season and did a nice job of rushing the quarterback. DE Jared Allen led the team in sacks with 12, although for him that was a somewhat disappointing season. Brian Robison and Everson Griffen are also disruptive forces and do a good job of getting to the quarterback. Kevin Williams is still there in the middle, making life miserable for running backs. Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway are solid at linebacker, and former Packer Desmond Bishop should also see some time in the starting lineup. The secondary will look different as Minnesota parted ways with longtime CB Antoine Winfield. The star of the secondary is now second year safety Harrison Smith out of Notre Dame. Josh Robinson and Chris Cook will man the corner position this year. If Robinson struggles like he did last year, first round draft pick Xavier Rhodes will quickly take over. Blair Walsh was an outstanding kicker as a rookie and with new punter Jeff Locke the Vikings are hoping they are set at those positions for years to come. The Vikings are pretty much the definition of an average team. It took a super human season from Peterson to will the Vikings to the playoffs. While I expect Peterson to be very good once again, I don't see how he can replicate his 2012 season again. I am not sold on Ponder as being the answer at quarterback, and also, don't believe the Vikings have surrounded him with the necessary weapons at receiver. Maybe if Jennings can stop talking or thinking about his old team, he could prove to be a strong addition. With an average team will come average results for the Vikings.

Prediction: 8-8

4. Detroit Lions 

2012 Record: 4-12, last place NFC North
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz (5th season Detroit, 22-43 career)
Key Additions: DE Ezekial Ansah, RB Reggie Bush, G Leroy Harris, G Jake Scott, DE Israel Idonije, S Glover Quin, K David Akers, KR Michael Spurlock
Key Losses: RB Kevin Smith, WR Titus Young, WR Kassim Osgood, OT Jeff Backus, OT Gosder Cherilus, DE Cliff Avril, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, OLB Justin Durant, CB Drayton Florence, K Jason Hanson

2013 Outlook: The Lions were eager to prove that the 2011 season was the start of something in Detroit, led by Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Instead, the Lions ended the season on an 8-game losing streak, despite prolific numbers from Stafford and Johnson. Stafford was just 33 yards short of another 5,000 yard passing season, but despite all those yards his touchdowns dropped from 41 to 20. His interceptions remained high, which has been a problem throughout his career. Some of that stems from the fact that he has never had a real running game in Detroit. To try to solve that problem, the Lions signed Reggie Bush away from the Miami Dolphins. Bush was given more carries in Miami than he had in New Orleans and mostly responded. He also is a threat as a receiver and the Lions hope that pairing him up with Johnson will add to his effectiveness. Johnson is coming off setting the single season receiving yards record and is widely regarded as the best wide receiver in football. Him and Stafford were able to connect everywhere on the field, save for the most important spot, the end zone, as Johnson finished with just 5 TDs. Nate Burleson is returning from injury to serve as the Lions number two receiver, but he doesn't scare anyone defensively. TE Brandon Pettigrew disappeared towards the end of last season, but when Stafford can find him, he can be productive for the Lions. The Lions offensive line is a huge question mark. Gosder Cherilus left and Jeff Backus retired, leaving C Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims as returning starters on the line. The play of left tackle Riley Reiff and right tackle Jason Fox will go a long way towards how the offense performs this season. The Lions defense actually wasn't as bad as I thought, ranking in the middle of the league against the pass and run. The middle of the Lions defensive line started to become what they envisioned when they drafted Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Suh had always lived up to the hype but last year was Fairley's coming out party. The Lions have brand new starters at defensive ends with the loss of Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. Rookie Ezekiel Ansah will be thrown into the fire right away, and former Seahawk Jason Jones will start on the other end. Stephen Tulloch is strong at middle linebacker, which is good because I've never heard of the Lions other linebackers. Glover Quin is the new starting safety after being brought over from Houston, and pairing him with Louis Delmas gives the Lions a strong duo. Chris Houston isn't well known but he was strong at corner last season, and he will be joined by rookie Darius Slay. The weirdest thing about the Lions 2013 season will be seeing someone other than Jason Hanson kicking field goals. Hanson finally retired and it looks like David Akers will be his replacement. I detested Akers last season as he missed field goal after field goal for the 49ers, but he is only two years removed from being the best kicker in the league in 2011. Rookie Sam Martin will take over at punter. Special team specialist Michael Spurlock could give the Lions a shot in the arm at the return position. The Lions will win a few more games in 2013 but won't be back in the playoffs. I think the offensive line is way too unsettled and will lead to Stafford getting beat up and not starting the entire year. Another last place season awaits the long suffering fans of the Lions.

Prediction: 6-10

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