NFC North Landscape – Part 3 – Future Prospects

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Future Prospects May Hold Consideration Of Who Rises To The Top Of The NFC North!

In the second installment of this series, I broke down the long-term salary cap situation of the Minnesota Vikings. More specifically, how it related to their defense. I came to the conclusion that they couldn’t preserve both their defense AND re-sign Bridgewater or Bradford, and that the current construction of the defensive unit would likely have few holdovers by 2019. The 2019 season also happens to be the last season on Aaron Rodgers’ current deal (he’ll turn 36 in December 2020) and is the last year of the current CBA. Therefore, there should be a vacancy at the position of resident divisional heavyweight come the turn of the decade. The question is who will fill it.

I’ve already determined that:

1) it’s no longer Green Bay, which has been usurped by Minnesota,

2) that Minnesota’s success can be attributed to both the premature decline of Aaron Rodgers and the simultaneous rise of their defense, and

3) that Minnesota won’t be able to retain very many of their key defensive players once their rookie deals expire.

So What’s The Future Prospects Of The NFC North?

So it’s unlikely that it would be the Packers, who would find themselves preparing to turn the page on an aging Aaron Rodgers, whose deal will expire shortly after his 37th birthday. As explained in the second part of this series, the Vikings are unlikely to re-sign all five of their defensive starters currently on rookie deals. While finding adequate replacements for five good, but aging defenders that comprise the rest of the defense, and achieving stability at the QB position moving forward into 2019. Given the fact that their recent success is largely predicated on their defense, it’s not likely going to be them, either. That leaves two candidates – Chicago and Detroit.

We’ll first discuss Chicago’s prospects briefly, because well – there’s not much to be said about their prospects. Reports have been circulating that a contingency within the Bears organization has lost faith in Jay Cutler, and there are murmurs that they may be looking to move on from the embattled signal caller.

However, Cutler, who Chicago infamously signed to one of the worst QB deals (7-yr/$126.7M) of all time in 2014, is under contract until 2021. Cutler’s dead cap hit plummets from $19M in 2016 to just a relatively painless $2M in 2017, opening up the possibility for the Bears to move on from the husband of Kristin Cavillari. Still, the franchise is confronted with the prospect of having to begin a quarterback search in 2017, which is usually a daunting task.

Meanwhile, the defense is poor, their best player is a WR who isn’t even top ten at his position. John Fox will be fired from his third head coaching gig in under a decade sooner rather than later, and GM Ryan Pace is being dragged kicking and screaming into a rebuild. As of right now, it’s doubtful the Bears will be a playoff contender three or four years from now.

How Is The Future Of The Lions?

Meanwhile, the Lions have a lot more reasons for optimism moving forward. Matthew Stafford is finally owning up to his billing as the first overall pick in 2009, and his chemistry with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has suddenly morphed him into a top flight quarterback. As Stafford rounds into form, he’s still only 28 years old. By the time 2019 rolls around, he’ll only be 31 years old, an age at which many quarterbacks – although Aaron Rodgers is apparently not among them – are still in their prime.

Furthermore, the Lions have a new GM who already has done some good work in his short time in Detroit. The signing of Marvin Jones might be the steal of the off-season; he re-signed Theo Riddick to a very reasonable 3-year, $11.55M deal; he re-signed Sam Martin, one of the best punters in the league, to a 4-year, $13.6M deal; and although it’s still early, first round pick Taylor Decker has played very well for a rookie at left tackle. While the Lions might move on from Caldwell this off-season, or possibly even mid-season, there are still bright spots on this team.

It’s still too early to declare the Quinn hire a success, he’s been encouraging thus far.¬†One of Quinn’s best decisions was retaining Jim Bob Cooter, who as I said, has helped tremendously in the development of Stafford. That’s on top of being a huge improvement over Joe Lombardi. Over the last fourteen games – since Cooter took over after the 2015 bye week – Stafford has led the league in touchdowns (33) and completion percentage (69.5%).

These three factors are cause for optimism moving forward in Detroit. The only thing that would throw a monkeywrench into the Lions’ long-term plans would be a surprise decision from Matthew Stafford to sign elsewhere after 2017. That seems unlikely given that Quinn has essentially declared him the face of the franchise. Plus, the potential destinations that immediately come to mind are inferior situations to Detroit, not only because they’re inferior teams, but also because they don’t have Jim Bob Cooter.

Much Ado About Caldwell!

Granted, Caldwell is a lame duck, but unless Quinn butchers his first head coaching search, namely by disenchanting Cooter, then the Lions’ coaching situation will largely remain stable. As odd as it may seem, the future of the franchise might be dependent upon a 32-year-old, second-year offensive coordinator from Fayetteville, Tennessee.

Hypothetically, if Quinn passes over Cooter for the head coaching vacancy, and he covets it, he’s likely to bolt for the first head coaching gig offered to him. And remember – Teryl Austin’s name was circulated as a potential HC candidate after just one year of good work with the Detroit defense. It’s likely Cooter will begin garnering attention for job openings shortly. Alternatively, if a different head coach is hired and he has philosophical differences with JBC, Cooter might bounce anyway. All of this would negatively impact the team’s ability to re-sign Stafford, who raved about how Cooter saw football the same way as he did.

All of this is admittedly a doomsday scenario, though. It’s more likely than not that Stafford re-signs with the Lions and JBC continues coaching for the team. Quinn’s greater plan for the organization remains to be seen, although it is largely contingent on Stafford. Because these three pieces – Stafford, JBC, Quinn – have all come together to form the perfect storm right as other teams are declining (Packers) and others are close to plateauing (Vikings), I would tentatively call the Lions the favorites to become the next divisional powerhouse after the Vikings’ defense reigns supreme for a few more years. And who knows, the Lions’ time could even come sooner than you’d think.

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