A Look At The NFC North From Ash’s Perspective
Have you been faithfully watching the preseason games, drinking your daily dose of Kool-Aid, and dreaming of a 12-4 season? Well more than 1/3 of any given season is played against three opponents for the Lions, so here is a take on what the major foes had gotten themselves up to. For those just crawling out from under a rock, the NFC North is composed of the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Green Bay Packers.
The Chicago Bears
There was a time when the Chicago Bears actually referred to the Lions as their NFC North little brothers. The franchise has fallen on hard times recently, finishing last in the division for two consecutive years, and not having had a winning season since 2012. The Bears are currently in a rebuilding phase, having moved on from veteran performers in the last two seasons under GM Ryan Pace, and head coach John Fox.
The Bears offense has had it’s good moments in the preseason, and recently added three time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to the mix. That should help their offensive line problem a bit. In the preseason, this looked like an offense specifically designed to get Jay Cutler killed or injured. The skill position players are more than good enough with Kevin White and Alshon Jeffrey at the wide receiver position for as long as they stay healthy. Jeremy Langford was looking better and better as the preseason rolled on.
The problem was their offensive line, which was looking awful in both run blocking and pass protection. After the preseason ended the Bears picked up three time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. While that should help in a couple weeks once he has picked up the offense, the addition still leaves this line undermanned. The loss of Martellus Bennet this off season will hurt in the passing game, and while Jeremy Langford is adequate, he is not on the same level that Matt Forte has been on for years in Chicago. It’s not the worst offense in the NFL but that offensive line if going to have problems in the NFC North.
The Bears brought in a new pair of linebackers in Danny Trevaythan, and Jerrell Freeman, as well as defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. They drafted pass rusher Leonard Floyd as one of five defensive players selected by the end of round four in the 2016 draft. The team’s defense was middle of the road last season, and looks to be significantly improved going in to the regular season.
The Bears will likely rotate their pass rushers in to keep them fresh, utilizing their incredible depth at the outside linebacker position, but injuries anywhere else on the defense could put untested rookies or simply bad players on the field. “The Monsters of the Midway” are not quite back to their old form yet. The defensive line consistently fails to get any push in either the running or passing game, and the secondary is very exploitable, lacking quality depth.
Projected Record: 6-10
The bears will have a good defense, but will struggle to move the ball and put points on the board. Cutler is likely going down with an injury at some point, and Brian Hoyer will not take this team anywhere good in Cutler’s absence.
The Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are the defending NFC North champions, coming off an 11-5 season. They did not lose anyone vital to the success of the team right up until the end preseason when Teddy Bridgewater tore an ACL and dislocated his knee. While on the surface losing their starting quarterback looks like a catastrophe for the Vikings, this team is put together well enough to weather that storm.
Adrian Peterson is really all I need to say about this offense for you to understand it. Sure they drafted Laquon Treadwell in the first round, but he only gives them a better possession receiver than they already had in a receiving corp lacking usable deep threats. They will run the ball successfully in to eight or nine man fronts for as long as Adrian Peterson is on the field. Setting up favorable down and distances for Shaun Hill, and at some point Sam Bradford, to make easy short throws for first downs.
This offense is not complicated, it is just brutally effective smash mouth football. They lost Phil Loadholt to retirement, but replaced him with Andre Smith and brought in Alex Boone to shore up their guard position. The likely return of Matt Kalil for week one makes this a difficult offensive line to deal with.
Terrance Newman was brought in to plug the only real hole this secondary had, but another popped up with the injury to safety Michael Griffin. The Vikings have two premier linebackers for pass coverage, Chad Greenway and Eric Kendricks, making it easier for them to limit the responsibilities of a lesser safety in coverage against tight ends and running backs. The Vikings front seven is the best in the NFC north, with Sharif Floyd, Everson Driffin, Linval Joseph, Brian Robinson up front, and Anthony Barr joining the linebacking corps. This is the best defense in the NFC North.
Projected Record: 11-5, Wildcard
All NFL teams look to get a little bit better in the off season and the Vikings did that. Their offense is not built to feature a quarterback, but to run the ball down their opponents throats. They will likely not miss Bridgewater’s presence all that much. Their Defense is an elite crew with only one discernible hole, and will likely be one of the better units in the NFL.
The Green Bay Packers
None of their players will see any discipline for having been accused of taking human growth hormone by Al Jazeera News, which is unfortunate for the rest of the NFL. The Packers are coming off what can be classified as an off year for them at a mere 10-6. While that should have been 9-7 –lest we forget, the hail Mary- the Packers return the vast majority of their team with a few improvements from last year’s crew. They are going to be a force to deal with in the NFC North.
As long as Aaron Rogers is the Green Bay quarterback this will be a dangerous unit. Eddie Lacey appears to have put down the doughnuts and taken his career seriously again, regaining his 2014 burst. James Starks is the best all around backup running back in the NFL. Jordy Nelson is returning from ACL surgery which may or may not limit him. Even an 80% Nelson would still be an improvement over Davonte Adams across from Randall Cobb.
The Packers also brought in their second major free agent of this century – I am not joking – in tight end Jared Cook. Cook has always been an intriguing player, never having been paired up with a quarterback that wasn’t awful, or on an offense that had enough receiving options to give him room to work. Always putting up solid numbers. The Packers cut their pro bowl left guard Josh Sitton in the cut down to 53 players. A move that left pretty much everyone outside of Green Bay scratching their heads, leaving a possible hole on the left side of their offensive line.
As with any 3-4 defense, the key to the Packers success on this side of the ball is their linebacker play. They have moved Clay Matthews back to his natural position on the outside, across from Julius Peppers which should help the statistics of both men rebound significantly. They also drafted Blake Martinez, who has improved leaps and bounds as the preseason has gone on, to plug their huge hole in the middle. Their secondary is among the best in football, with quality depth and starters across the board. The Defensive line of the packers is not superstar laden but it has been effective in it’s role, pushing the pocket up in pass situations and eating space in the running game.
Projected Record: 12-4, NFC North Champion
I don’t like it any more than you do but the Packers are looking like a really good team, and there is a reason that they are being picked to go to the Super Bowl by a lot of pundits. Their offense has it’s teeth back, and their defense has had it’s holes plugged. This is going to be a tough nut to crack in 2016.
The Detroit Lions
The Lions have undergone an incredible amount of change in a very short time throughout the organization. The 2014 team that made it to the playoffs is pretty much gone, and like a phoenix rising from it’s ashes a new team has been born. The Lions are not being picked to do much by the pundits of the NFL, but Bob Quinn has quietly upgraded the depth of the team. The loss of Calvin Johnson will be felt for sure, but much like the Hydra of Greek mythology- when one head is cut off, two grow back in it’s place.
The Lions have added to the number of experienced, high quality targets available in their passing game. They have also rid themselves of some dead weight in the running game. Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin, Andre Roberts and Golden Tate have all had multiple seasons in the NFL with 50 or more catches. Boldin has never had fewer than 50 catches in his 13 NFL seasons.
Eric Ebron looked good as a complementary player while he was actually playing with them, making the downfield passing game for the Lions this seasons dark horse in the NFL. Likely limiting the number of times we are going to see an extremely telegraphed pass to a running back on third down. The Offensive line are incredibly young, with no player currently on the Lions roster with more than four years experience. Including depth players, 43% of the offensive linemen on the team are in their first professional season.
Ameer Abdullah looked great running the ball in the third week of the preseason, but behind him are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Was it blocking or bad running backs? If it was blocking can it be fixed with experience and scheme?
The Lions are carrying eleven defensive linemen, which seems likely to allow them to rotate at will to keep fresh bodies on the field. Gone is Jason Jones, but in his place Wallace Gillberry, a similar player at a much lower price tag who seems likely to get fewer snaps than Jones did. Leaving Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor on the field more. The linebacking corp is fragile, even a single serious injury could hurt being without veteran backups.
Levy, Whitehead, and Van Noy have looked like a capable starting trio through the preseason. Antwione Williams has been effective against the run, if somewhat less so against the pass. The Secondary is not at an elite level, with two pro bowl caliber players in Darius Slay and Glover Quin, and a lot of question marks beyond that. Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs have looked up to the task in the preseason, but remain relatively untested.
The strong safety position is the biggest question mark and will likely be the difference between the defense sinking or swimming. Rafael Bush or Tavon Wilson will need to step up to match the level of the departed James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus. The flip flop from Bush to Wilson just before week one is justified, but also a little terrifying; it feels like he’s getting the job by being the lesser of two evils.
Projected Record: 9-7 Missing the Playoffs
The Lions are a better team than they were last season and have an easier schedule than they did last year on paper, but with that said the NFC North is stronger from top to bottom as well. The Lions will improve their record from a year ago, but it will not be enough to get them in to the playoffs, to the frustration of the fan base.