The NFL season is getting closer with Training camp shortly on its way. It’s hard not to get excited. Today, we’ll be analyzing the NFC North, a division that includes two franchise quarterbacks, two top-ten defenses, and a plethora of talent at various other positions such as wide receiver and cornerback.
While the NFC North has been largely dominated by the Green Bay Packers since the Aaron Rodgers took over at quarterback following the conclusion of the 2007 season, things could be changing soon. Over the last few seasons, both the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions have shown flashes of stripping the Packers of their title “Kings of the North”, while the Chicago Bears seem to be on the rise.
There’s no doubt that this is going to be one of the tougher divisions in the NFL.
Welcome to my NFC North preview.
Let’s start off with a team that we expect to light it up this season with their new franchise Quarterback.
1. Minnesota Vikings.
2017 record: 13-3
My 2018 projection (Best/Worst): 12-4/9-7
Playoff Prediction: Super Bowl berth.
Team MVP: Stefon Diggs
Best free agent addition: Kirk Cousins
Draft Grade: B+
Best Draft pick: Mike Hughes, CB, UCF
Summary: Coming off an unbelievable 2017 season with Case Keenum I have no doubt this team can win the whole thing as they have pieces on all sides of the field. After signing Kirk Cousins to a three-year deal worth $84 million dollars, the expectations are higher than ever in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. While head coach Mike Zimmer has stated that he doesn’t feel as if it’s Super Bowl or bust, there are definitely Super Bowl expectations for this team.
With a solid offensive core consisting of guys like Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs, it won’t be a surprise to see the Vikings have one of the more dangerous ariel attacks in the league. However, the running game in Minnesota is what should put this team over the top. With 2017 second-round pick Dalvin Cook expected to return from an ACL injury and join veteran Latavius Murray in the backfield, the Vikings could have one of the best running back duos in the NFL. Last season, prior to going down with an injury, Cook averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 8.2 yards per reception. He’s definitely got potential to be a future dual-threat weapon that should only get better over the next few years.
On defense, however, things are different for the Vikings. The Vikings are loaded at almost every position and field arguably the most complete defense in the NFL. In 2017, this is a unit that notched 14 interceptions and 37 sacks. Led by Everson Griffen who had 13 sacks a year ago, this unit is once again primed to be one of the best in the NFL. Although they’ll face explosive offenses such as the Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, and New Orleans Saints in 2018, this unit has proven that it is ready to take on the task of stopping anyone. With 10 of 11 starters returning, it’s fair to expect this unit to be just as dominant, if not even more dominant
Next, let’s go to a team that we all can’t really tell what’s going to happen with them.
2. Detroit Lions.
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection (Best/Worst): 8-8/7-9
Team MVP: Matthew Stafford
Best Free Agent addition: LeGarrette Blount
Best draft pick: Frank Ragnow, Center, Arkansas
Draft grade: A
Summary: Matthew Stafford will have to prove he’s a playoff quarterback yet again, however the Lions offensive woes are not his fault. Since 2011, Stafford has started every game and has averaged over 4500yards per season over that span, proving that the problem in the Motor City is not the passing game, rather it is the run game. To address this, the team added Kerryon Johnson via the draft and signed three-time Super Bowl Champion LeGarrette Blount. From 2015 to 2017, Johnson averaged 831 yards at Auburn, with his best season coming in 2017 where he scored eighteen rushing touchdowns. Blount on the other hand split carries with Corey Clement and Jay Ajayi last season as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles but still proved that he could be effective as he averaged nearly five yards per carry.
It’s difficult to determine what the Lions defense will be. Last year, the team ranked 27th, giving up nearly 356If the Lions as a whole want to win the NFC North, then the defense must play better as a whole. Although the team managed to get thirty-five sacks, 18.5 of those sacks came from two players: Ziggy Ansah (12) and Anthony Zettel (6.5 sacks). What this team needs is a third player to step up on the front seven to really help fulfill the potential it has. In 2018, if players such as A’Shawn Robinson and Jarrad Davis can step up, the Lions front seven could help the secondary by disrupting the quarterback and creating more turnovers for guys like Darius Slay and Glover Quin.
3. Green Bay Packers
Look who’s back, a top two quarterback in the game, Aaron Rodgers. The Packers will be playoff contenders as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy.
2017 record: 7-9
2018 projection (Best/Worst record): 10-6/8-8
Playoff Projections: Wild Card
Team MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Best Free Agent Acquisition: TE Jimmy Graham
Best Draft Pick(s): Jaire Alexander, CB, Louisville, and Josh Jackson, CB, Iowa
Draft grade: A+
Summary: The Packers have had an intriguing offseason so far. A team rarely known for being active in free agency went out and signed guys such as Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Marcedes Lewis. New general manager Brian Gutekunst also was active in the NFL draft, moving up and down the board as much as possible in order to acquire future draft picks.
Even though Aaron Rodgers is back and the so are the Packers in Super Bowl conversation, Rodgers alone cannot win this team another Lombardi Trophy. Other guys such as DaVante Adams, Ty Montgomery, and Aaron Jones must step up. With new Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham now donning Green and Gold, the Packers offense is expected to be one of the NFL’s best this season. And it’s reasonable to expect double-digit touchdowns for Graham considering a future hall of fame quarterback is throwing him the ball. Aside from Jimmy Graham, another player to keep an eye on is DeVante Adams, who is now the consensus number one receiver on the Packers roster. Even with Brett Hundley starting nine games last season, Adams managed 10 touchdowns and 885 receiving yards.
Much like the Detroit Lions above, the Packers biggest problems also lie on the defensive side of the ball. A unit that was ranked 22nd last year brings in a new defensive coordinator in Mike Pettine who is expected to quickly transform this unit into a championship caliber one. There’s a lot to love regarding the Packers offseason moves for the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary. In the draft, the Packers selected Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first-round and then in the second-round, got a steal with Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson who had eight interceptions in his final college season. Jackson and Alexander will join 2017 second-round pick Kevin King and form one of the most intriguing trio of cornerbacks in the NFL. The secondary looks as if it will take a step forward, while the front seven will once again be led by Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, and Nick Perry all of whom combined for 19.5 sacks last year.
It’s difficult to figure out what the Packers will do in games this year as they play a mix of both good and great teams. For every game they have against a good team like the Seattle Seahawks, they’ve got a tough game against a great team such as the New England Patriots.
4. Chicago Bears
Finally, the young and mighty Bears led by former Mentor, Ohio quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, 2018 is his year to shine.
2017 Record: 5-11
2018 projection (Best/Worst record): 9-7/7-9
Team MVP: Mitchell Trubisky
Best free agent addition: Allen Robinson II
Best draft pick: Roquan Smith, LB, UGA
Draft Grade: A
Summary: This is still a very young team that has added pieces for Mitchell Trubisky. In fact, everything that the Bears have done this past offseason has likely involved Trubisky in one way or another. It is all up to him now to put things together.
Chicago overhauled it’s passing game during free agency with the additions of wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson, to go along with signing tight end, Trey Burton. In 2016, Robinson was targeted 151 times but only caught 73 passes for six touchdowns, averaging 12 yards per receptions. Unfortunately, while his 2017 season was cut short due to an ACL injury, there are rumors swirling that he’ll be ready to go when the team reports to training camp on July 21st, ready to earn every penny of the three-year/$42 million dollar deal he signed back in March. Two other notable receivers on the Bears roster include Kevin White and Anthony Miller. As for Kevin White, his future is unclear due to various injuries. The 2015 seventh overall pick has yet to even catch a touchdown pass in his NFL career.
One of the Bears most underrated additions of the offseason might just be Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller who woke up many scouts and general managers across the league with his dedication and his god given talent with some even labeling him as the best wide receiver in the 2018 draft. In his final year at Memphis, Miller had 1462 receiving yards, 18 touchdowns and averaged 15.2 yards per catch.
However, as good as the Bears passing game will be in 2018, their running backs will also be a big part of the offense in 2018. Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard are the biggest sleeper running back duo in the league. For you fantasy junkies, last year Jordan Howard had accumulated over 1100 yards with nine touchdowns for the Bears, proving that he can be a workhorse running back in the NFL. Tarik Cohen, on the other hand, is one of the sneakiest draft steals whenever draft night is for you. The former fourth-round pick has the making of being a dual-threat weapon for this team as last year, he had 723 yards from scrimmage, while averaging 22.1 yards per reception. Even though those are not the greatest stats, Cohen will be utilized more effectively due to the Bears offensive minded Head Coach Matt Nagy.
With the Bears finishing tenth overall in total yards on defense last season, there’s plenty of reason to be excited about such a group. With eight of eleven starters returning, this group is on its way towards having a stellar 2018 season. After totaling 42 sacks in 2017, the Bears will look to have more in 2018. 2018 first-round pick Roquan Smith (6.5 sacks in 2017 at Georgia) is expected to come in and contribute right away, while outside linebacker Leonard Floyd who led the team in 2017 with 4.5 sacks will look to have a breakout season. We have to also remember that all four starters at defensive backs that will be coming back in 2018. Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson will look to lead the charge for this ascending secondary as both had a brilliant 2017 seasons combining for four interceptions.
While we may not see this team make the playoffs in 2018, they are certainly better than people think and appear to be on the rise. Take note, as this could be one of the more dangerous teams in the NFL come 2019.