NFL Early Outlook: NFC NORTH

Four of the leagues oldest teams, with some of the best rivalries, occupy the NFC North: the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and Minnesota Vikings. Always thought to be one of the fiercest divisions in the NFL, the last few years have been more about promise than actual progress. Yet somehow, the NFC North is still a tough division. The potential is always so great, that you can never count out any team in it. Even Minnesota will make a game interesting. But questions across the division still arise. Will the Vikings finally solve their QB issues? And can the Lions get their act together on and off the field to raise their value of winning? Do the Packers have everything they need with a healthy Aaron Rodgers back to remain the best team in this division? Can Jay Cutler finally  stay healthy and utilize his weapons to be number one?

The Detroit Lions started last season 6-3 and looked to be the division winners early. After losing Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, then soon after, losing Jay Cutler in Chicago (both to injury), it appeared all the road blocks to the playoffs has subsided. Unfortunately, fate saw a different future. The inconsistency of Matthew Stafford, lack of offense, and disciplinary issues over took the team. They went on a 1-6 skid to finish the season and ended up in third place in the division with an overall 7-9 record. Detroit did make some off-season changes, but is it enough? First and foremost they brought in a new head coach, Jim Caldwell. Caldwell has a track record of working with some well-known and efficient quarterbacks. This will work in the favor of Stafford. He’s been in the league six years and still has not quite reached that level of elite that he has been projected to obtain. His inconsistency in accuracy and poor decision making late in games has plagued him to a regressive state over the last few years. Calvin Johnson may arguably be the league’s best receiver, but that doesn’t mean one should throw him the ball with triple coverage. Stafford will do that. It results in interceptions. And those are the decisions that Stafford needs to be more aware of. If he can limit the mistakes, he can drive this offense which really does have some power names such as the before mentioned Calvin Johnson,  plus Reggie Bush, Golden Tate (signed from Seattle), and first round draft pick TE Eric Ebron. Detroit didn’t do the best of job this off-season correcting a struggling secondary, as their cornerback position is still not up to par. They signed Cassius Vaughn from Indianapolis, but will still rely heavily on Darius Slay (second round pick) and 11 year vet Rashean Mathis. Those options are just not convincing. Let’s not forget long time kicker Jason Hanson retired, so they will probably be starting a rookie kicker on special teams. Lastly, Coach Caldwell will need to instill the value and idea of winning, especially in close games. Detroit will have to be a disciplined team. Even the front office realizes how important it is for the team to get back to good clean football:

“We’ve got to get better playing team football, playing smart football, being able to be aggressive but also to play smart, minimizing the penalties and turnovers and mistakes,” general manager Martin Mayhew said. “Just playing solid football as a group is really as important as adding any particular player.” (FOX Sports)

The 2013 Chicago Bears was the living proof of the cliché “when it rains it pours”. Quarterback Jay Cutler goes out halfway through the season with a groin injury, and on his return debut, goes out again with an ankle injury. Luckily, back up QB Josh McCown was able to be a formidable stand in, still bringing the team to 3-2 (and this caused much talk in the off-season as to whether or not he should be the new starter) during the time Cutler was out. However, McCown is now in Tampa, so one of the keys to a successful season for the Bears is Cutler remaining healthy. Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer are both competing for the No. 2 QB spot and neither QB will step in and do what McCown managed to under those circumstances. The Bears gave Cutler $54M guaranteed over seven years during the off-season. He has to prove he deserves it this season by staying healthy. This is actually not impossible to do, since head coach Marc Trestman’s system is actually designed to keep him that way. This is year all five starting offensive lineman will be returning and their job is to protect Cutler under all cost. Trestman’s system centers around that. It also helps that Cutler has arguably the best receiving duo in the NFL. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are two very good receivers, both capable of defeating double coverage, both able to stretch the field, and both able to “go up and get it” if the ball is a toss up. While most QB’s will enjoy having a variation of receivers to work with, it actually works in Cutler’s favor to have limited options because he isn’t the best at reading defenses. Two targets like Jeffery and Marshall (and TE Martellus Bennett when he isn’t suspended) is just enough, not to mention having an explosive Matt Forte for the run option. As much as the offense has progressed under Trestman, the defense– as tough as it was on paper– was picked to shreds. Injuries plagued it. According to CBS, the Bears lost outside linebacker Julius Peppers, safety Major Wright, and defensive tackles Henry Melton and Corey Wootton via free-agency in the off-season. They brought in defensive ends Jared Allen, ex-Lion Willie Young, and LaMarr Houston, free safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, and strong safety Danny McCray. There is no reason why this team should not be a 9 or 10 win team this year, but it is imperative that Chicago wins the division as there is nothing too convincing that the NFC North will host two playoff teams this season.

Minnesota has a few problems it hopes to correct this season and numeral uno  circles around the QB position. Drafting Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville was supposed to be the answer to that problem, but new head coach Mike Zimmer has yet to name a starter. Matt Cassell is listed at No. 1 according to TwinCities.Com, and Cassell will also be starting preseason game two against the Cardinals. Whoever gets the nod, needs to be ready to turn up the offense as Minnesota actually has some decent weapons to work with. Kyle Rudolph, and Cordelle Patterson are two receivers that offensive coordinator Norv Turner will use to wisely and efficiently. Minnesota does need to come to grips that Adrian Peterson, though the best running back in the game, is not the going to be enough to make them a contender. Running backs are becoming undervalued in this league and thinking back on Peterson’s best year (2012), the Vikings were bounced out in the first round of the post season. Their only other worthy year of contention was 2009, and that year centered around Bret Farve, not AP. He’s getting older and it would behoove the Vikings to understand no matter how dynamic a player is, the road will eventually have to come to an end. With the talent Minnesota needs to survive the NFC North, all of the funds cannot be tied up in Peterson. They will in the near future need to consider a trade. They need to develop their defense and their secondary is still a concern, even though the potential for that front seven is legit. The Vikings have gotten tougher on defense though. Drafting Anthony Barr in the first round was a smart move and it helps that they have a defensive minded head coach, as Zimmer made a name for himself being the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. This will not however be the season the Vikings exhibit all that’s needed to make any push for the playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers is amongst the best quarterbacks in the game. So what happens when he fractures a collarbone and misses half the season? An 8-7-1 overall record, and a one and done post season appearance. So whats the point of the story? Stay healthy! Four key players in Green Bay were injured in 2013 besides Rodgers: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Jermichael Finley (who suffered a spinal cord injury that took him out for the season). If not for mistakes by other teams in the NFC North, the Packers would not have seen the playoffs in 2013. Staying healthy is key to their success. When healthy, the Rodgers-Nelson tandem is ridiculous, and after losing James Jones to Oakland, it is expected that Jarrett Boykin will certainly fill that spot. Eddie Lacy proved to be a great pick up last season in the draft. He ended up being that ground and pound back that Green Bay was missing. That established run game was solid enough to overcome some potential losses in Rodgers’ absence, so it is assumed that Lacy will have a more complex role this season. Even though the Packers added Julius Peppers from Chicago to the lineup, it still doesn’t truly fix some defensive concerns. Peppers looked a little old last season in Chicago, and AJ Hawk looked overmatched last seasons at times for the Packers. Green Bay added no one in the off-season to challenge Hawk or Brad Jones to raise their level of play. This defense needs to be solid, because even though the Packers offense can put up points, its defense needs to be able to stop the Bears offense and the Lions offense. Even getting out of the division doesn’t clear its need for a strong defense as it is not a guarantee their defense is able to contend with the likes of San Francisco or Seattle, one of which it is sure to meet later on down the line. Nelson, Cobb, and Boykin have the potential to be the best offense in the NFC North with Aaron Rodgers tossing the rock (as defense is a problem period across the NFC North), but what does it matter if the other team will also put up 40 points. There is no championship run without a solid defense.

EARLY PREDICTIONS

1. Green Bay Packers

2. Detroit Lions

3. Chicago Bears

4. Minnesota Vikings

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