NFL Previews and Predictions: NFC North

Now that we’ve finished the AFC portion of our division previews and predictions, it’s time to take a closer look at the NFC, starting in the NFC North. With three very talented teams in this division (Packers, Bears, Vikings), and one not far off (Lions), this should be one of the most competitive divisions in football. It’ll be a bloodbath the entire way, making every game, especially against one another, mean that much more. Can Aaron Rodgers and Matt LeFleur mesh well? Can the Bears avoid regression? What does Kirk Cousins bring to the table in his second year with the Vikings? Can Matt Patricia get the Lions to overachieve in 2019? Let’s discuss.

First Place: Green Bay Packers

packers
Photo Cred: Packers Wire- USA Today

Record Prediction: 11-5

Best Case: 13-3

Worst Case: 8-8

Power Ranking: 11th

Offense Ranking: 8th

Defense Ranking: 19th

Initial Thoughts: Due to Aaron Rodgers’ injuries and former head coach Mike McCarthy’s struggles to adapt his system to the modern NFL, the Packers have now missed the playoffs in back to back seasons. With a new, progressive head coach in Matt LeFleur in charge, the upside with this team is through the roofs, though Rodgers’ relationship with LeFleur will ultimately dictate that.

Offense: As mentioned, the pairing of Rodgers and LeFleur is exciting. Rodgers has regressed the past few seasons, but he’s so talented that it’s hard not to blame that on injuries and McCarthy’s outdated system. LeFleur will bring a Kyle Shanahan-type scheme to Green Bay, meaning the focus will likely be on getting receivers separation, as opposed to McCarthy’s system, which forced receivers to create their own separation. That worked fine for receiver Davante Adams, who’s one of the game’s top separators off the line of scrimmage, but LeFleur’s system could really help second-year receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St.Brown, and J’Mon Moore contribute after rough rookie seasons. That’s the hope obviously, since that’s all the team really offers at receiver, aside from maybe Jake Kumero and Geronimo Allison, especially since it’s unclear what the team will be getting from tight end Jimmy Graham, who has consistently seen his production fall year after year. Another beneficiary of the new scheme could be the offensive line, which was already strong before. Left tackle David Bakhtiari may be the best pass protector in the NFL, Corey Lindsley is one of the best centers, and Bryan Bulaga is fine at right tackle. Lane Taylor needs to step up, as does free-agent signing Billy Turner, but they have legitimate depth on the interior with second-round rookie Elgton Jenkins and Cole Madison, so they’re well-positioned to protect Rodgers and open up holes in the running game. The latter will be huge for running back Aaron Jones, who quietly average 5.5 yards per carry, but was underutilized by McCarthy. Assuming he’s used more, he’s a perfect fit in this zone-running offense, and he could be a true difference maker for Green Bay this season, even at the running back position.

Defense: One of the reasons the Packers have struggled in recent years is that they had struggled to replace their older, regressing defensive players. However, general manager Brian Gutekunst has been active in free agency ever since taking over, and as a result, Green Bay’s defense should be much improved in 2019. Jaire Alexander showed a lot of flashes of excellence last season, and in his second season, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine becoming a true lockdown, #1 corner. If young players Kevin King, Josh Jackson, and Tony Brown can step up and compliment him, this could be one of the better cornerback groups, though it’s an unproven group for now. Either way, the duo of free-agent signing Adrian Amos, one of the top safeties in football, and first-round rookie Darnell Savage, an absolute playmaker, could prove to be elite, and if that’s the case, the team may not have to rely so much on their corners. Especially, since their pass rush figures to be very productive this season. The additions of edge rushers Preston Smith (free agency), Za’Darius Smith (free agency),  and Rashan Gary (First Round NFL Draft) have completely changed the look of this pass rush, as it’s gone from one of the league’s worst to a potent group. Add in the pressure Kenny Clark will bring on the interior, and there’s top-five potential with this group. I am concerned about their linebackers, as neither Blake Martinez nor Oren Burks are quality starters, which hurts their outlook tremendously. Yet, the talent with the pass rush and the back-end of the defense is hard to ignore; their 19th ranking is likely their floor.

Final Thoughts: Unlike in previous seasons, it won’t be all up to Aaron Rodgers to carry the Packers to the playoffs. This team has legitimate talent on both sides of the football, and with a great home-field advantage, a favorable schedule, and a new head coach in LeFleur, there’s a lot to like with this team. It’s unclear how smooth the transition to LeFleur’s scheme will be with Rodgers, but if it is, it’s hard to imagine they won’t win the division.

Second Place: Chicago Bears

bears
Photo Cred: Turf Show Times

Record Prediction: 11-5

Best Case: 14-2

Worst Case: 9-7

Power Ranking: 10th

Offense Ranking: 16th

Defense Ranking: 1st

Initial Thoughts: We’ve seen this act before. Last place team comes out of nowhere to win their division based off of a strong defense, only to regress the following season. After all, that’s what happened to the Jaguars last season, which has led many to compare this Bears team to Jacksonville. However, Chicago has a much better roster and coaching staff than the Jags did, and as a result, they’ll avoid significant regression in 2019.

Offense: What is Mitch Trubisky? At this point, the 24-year-old hasn’t proven to be a franchise quarterback; he tends to make way to many mistakes, while also being too conservative at the same time. He’s a great athlete, but his arm talent and decision making if very inconsistent; Chicago’s ceiling is limited as a result. Still, the third-year quarterback is in a perfect position to succeed, despite his shortcomings. The team features a deep group of receivers headlined by Allen Robinson, second-year player Anthony Miller, slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, and rookie Riley Ridley. If tight end Trey Burton can once again be a terrific Red Zone threat and running back Tarik Cohen continues to make an impact receiving threat out of the backfield, this could be a strong passing offense despite the limitations of Trubisky.  Meanwhile, the offensive line, featuring core players such as guard Cody Whitehair and left tackle Charles Leno Jr., and a breakout candidate in center James Daniels, is a fringe top-ten unit. Plus, the running back group is also ideal; Cohen can be the scatback, third-round rookie David Montgomery is a legitimate three-down back, and Mike Davis is nice depth. There are a lot of weapons for head coach Matt Nagy, an underrated play-caller, to craft a productive offense. Additionally, if Trubisky can take a step forward in year three, the potential of this offense, and this team as a whole, is incredible.

Defense: Though the Jaguars’ 2017 defense was dominant, it was nowhere near as talented as the unit the Bears have. After trading for Khalil Mack a week before the season started, the pass rush was transformed last season, and since the whole gang, including interior rusher Akiem Hicks and edge rusher Leonard Floyd, is back, they should once again cause havoc for quarterbacks. In addition, the secondary, despite the losses of Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan, is still tremendous. Kyle Fuller is a true #1 cornerback, Prince Amukamara is a solid #2, and Buster Skrine should be an alright replacement for Callahan. In addition, the team brought in safety Haha Clinton-Dix on a cheap contract to replace Amos, and Eddie Jackson is probably the best playmaking safety in football. There’s more; linebacker Roquan Smith is an easy breakout candidate this season, and since Danny Trevathan is a sturdy linebacker, it’s safe to say the team has one of the best linebacker pairings in the league. Heck, the interior defensive line is excellent with Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Bilal Nichols, and Jonathan Bullard; this team could rank first in pass defense AND run defense. Losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hurts, but Chuck Pagano is an established defensive mind, and I have confidence he can step in and allow all this defensive talent to shine.

Final Thoughts: Unlike the Jaguars, the Bears have a potentially dynamic offense, an unbelievable defense, and a great coaching staff. Therefore, they should be around the twelve-win mark they had last year, though the schedule will be tougher this season. If Trubisky indeed takes a step forward, this should be the division favorite, though, at the moment, it’s clearly a neck and neck race between them and the rival Packers.

Third Place: Minnesota Vikings

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Photo Cred: Vikings Wire- USA Today

Record Prediction: 9-7

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 7-9

Power Ranking: 16th

Offense Ranking: 18th

Defense Ranking: 4th

Initial Thoughts: After signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed $84 million contract, the Vikings fully expected to compete for a Super Bowl title. Instead, they barely missed the playoffs, as Cousins and co. couldn’t win against the Bears at home in Week 17. After adding several offensive players in the draft, the team is hoping that Cousins’ second season goes better, and although it should, Minnesota will likely be on the outside looking in once again.

Offense: Cousins may not be the clutch performer that Vikings fans were hoping for, but he certainly isn’t a slouch at quarterback. He may be more of a middle of the pack quarterback than an above-average one, but an offense can fully function with him at the helm. Having a special duo of receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, despite Diggs’ struggles last season, definitely is a boost, but there are still legitimate concerns in the passing game. After Thielen and Diggs, there is no other receiving threat on this team. Former first-round pick Laqun Treadwell has provided zero production for the team throughout his career, forcing them to rely on the likes of Jordan Taylor, Chad Beebe, Olabisi Johnson, and Dillon Mitchell, which isn’t ideal. Meanwhile, tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly regressing, so unless second-round rookie tight end Irv Smith Jr. can make an impact, Cousins will have to rely completely on Thielen and Diggs for another season. Despite all of the criticism regarding the offensive line, they actually rated out okay in pass protection last year. Still, they needed to improve, and adding center Garrett Bradbury in the first round should be a major upgrade. Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neil isn’t the worst tackle upgrade, so if Pat Eflien plays better at guard than he did at center, and Josh Kline reverts back to his 2017 form, this could actually be a solid offensive line. At the very worst, it shouldn’t be a liability at all. That’s important for running back Dalvin Cook, who has the potential to be a dynamic three-down back if he can stay healthy, but assuming he can’t, Minnesota will have to rely on third-round rookie Alexander Mattison. Since offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is rumored to be trying to establish a run-heavy offense, keeping Cook healthy and fielding a strong offensive line is extremely important, but definitely aren’t certainties. Overall, this offense is fine, but is more mediocre than exciting.

Defense: The Vikings defense, on the other hand, certainly is much better than mediocre. Head coach Mike Zimmer is an elite defense mind, and he’ll be complemented by a lot of talent in important areas. There may be no standout cornerback on this roster, but Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, and Mackensie Alexander are all starting-caliber players, and same goes for Holton Hill once he returns from an eight-game suspension. Additionally, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are a great safety duo, making this one of the league’s best overall secondaries. The pass rush is also a strength here; Danielle Hunter has emerged as a true #1 pass rusher off the edge, Everson Griffen is a high-end #2 pass rusher, and Stephen Weatherly is great depth off the edge. This would be more than enough to get excited about, but Eric Kendricks is a fine inside linebacker, while linebacker Anthony Barr brings value with versatility. Heck, even Linval Joseph remains one of the best run defending interior defensive lineman in football. There may not be any superstars on this defense, but there are a lot of talented players at important positions, and as a result, Minnesota should field a top-five defense in 2019.

Overall Thoughts: If the Vikings indeed made the playoffs in 2019, I wouldn’t be surprised. After all, they still have an elite defense and some playmakers on offense, which is why they were a Super Bowl favorite last season. Still, their offense has some clear holes, and this is definitely an aging roster. Especially in a strong division with a tough schedule, they’ll likely be around .500 in 2019.

Fourth Place: Detroit Lions

tj
Photo Cred: Detroit Free Press

Record Prediction: 5-11

Best Case: 10-6

Worst Case: 2-14

Power Ranking: 17th

Offense Ranking: 17th

Defense Ranking: 16th

Initial Thoughts: The Lions had a very underrated offseason, adding impact players such as pass rusher Trey Flowers in free agency, as well tight end TJ Hockenson in the draft. Overall, they actually have a well-rounded roster in head coach Matt Patricia’s second season, but will likely be the victim of the bloodbath of this division.

Offense: There’s no debating that quarterback Matthew Stafford had a really poor season last season. However, he apparently played last season with “tiny fractures in his back” and also saw one of his favorite targets, Golden Tate, traded midseason. I’m fully expecting a rebound from him in 2019, and when he’s his usual self, he’s a fringe top-ten quarterback who is certainly capable of elevating an offense. Plus, his supporting cast is definitely improved this season. Receiver Kenny Golladay is one of the top breakout candidates in 2019 after he showed significant growth last season, Marvin Jones is a fine #2 receiver, and Hockenson should immediately step in and be a top-ten, maybe even a top-five tight end. Plus, the offensive line is fine; they’re set at left tackle with Taylor Decker, 2018 first-round pick Frank Ragnow should improve now that he’s moving back to center, and Rick Wagner is a satisfactory right tackle. The guard spots are a little weak with Kenny Wiggins and Graham Glasnow, but this offensive line certainly won’t get in the offense’s way this year. Moreover, running back Kerryon Johnson was actually one of the most efficient halfbacks last season, and CJ Anderson is a very competent backup. I have some concerns regarding new offensive coordinator Darell Bevell’s strong commitment to the running game, and there isn’t a clear strength with this unit, but they should still be serviceable in 2019.

Defense: Patricia is one of the most underrated defensive play-callers in football, meaning that the defense should automatically overachieve this season. Still, this looks like a suitable defense on paper. Adding Flowers, a versatile defensive lineman who can help in all areas, is extremely important for Patricia’s defensive scheme, and Mike Daniels should provide some pressure on the interior. However, there isn’t a clear #2 edge rusher, and since neither Flowers and Daniels have a high upside, this pass rush isn’t intriguing enough. It’s the same story with the secondary; Darius Slay is an elite corner, Justin Coleman is a nice nickel corner, and Quandre Diggs an emerging safety, but there isn’t a clear #2 cornerback on the roster, and the free safety competition is filled with a lot of mediocre players. Speaking of mediocre, that would explain the linebackers; Devon Kennard, Jarrad Davis, and Christian Jones will get the job done, but they won’t exactly scare opposing offenses. It should be mentioned, that like a Patriots-style defense, this team has a lot of run defending interior defensive lineman, including Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Da’Shawn Hand. This should be a decent defense next season, but there are too many holes to expect them to be anything too special.

Final Thoughts: The Lions are actually one of the deeper teams in the NFL, are fine at quarterback, and have some very talented players. Still, they don’t have a clear strength, and possess too many weaknesses to compete in this division.

 

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