The NFC North was dominated by the Green Bay Packers last year. They were undefeated for most of the year and looked unstoppable at times. They ended up losing to the Chiefs, then were taken out at home by the Giants in the NFC Divisional Round. The Lions took a big step last year and made their first Playoff appearance in a decade. The offense was finally all systems go with a healthy Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. The Bears struggled on offense and couldn't make it into the Playoffs after winning the division in 2010. And the Vikings had one of their worst seasons in recent memory and still appear to be the 4th best team inside the division. This is still a pretty strong division. The Packers, Lions, and Bears can all make the Playoffs, and with some improvements on defense, the Lions could challenge the Packers for the division title this year.
Green Bay Packers
2011 Record: 15-1
Throughout the entire 2011 season the Packers looked like favorites to repeat as Super Bowl Champions. They were rolling over opponents before the Chiefs finally found a way to shut them down. Then in the Playoffs a few things were exposed: The Packers lack of a running game and bad secondary. The Giants were able to take advantage of that and knock out the Packers in Lambeau. The Packers offense was a juggernaut last season. They were ranked third in total offense. The defense, however, was ranked dead last in the league. That needs to be improved on if the Packers want to be Super Bowl threats again this year. The Packers are a Playoff team, but improvements on defense will be needed so the offense can avoid being in shootouts all year and carry the burden of winning games all year.
Biggest Question: Can the Packers Offense Keep Up Its Pace?
The Packers shot themselves in the foot against the Giants in the Playoffs. Constant drops, miscues and turnovers doomed them in that game. You have to wonder if that bad performance will linger into this season. Sooner or later, defenses will catch on to what the Packers are doing. That means they can't let turnovers kill them like they did in the NFC Divisional Round game. But offenses usually can't keep up the same pace that they had from the season before. The Packers had to put up points to bail out their defense, but if teams can start to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, like the Giants did, then it will be tough for them to put up the same numbers that did last year. The Packers offense will still be good, but they can't let miscues in the Playoffs effect them mentally this year.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Scott Wells: Center
Wells was one of the steady pieces of an otherwise shaky Packers offensive line this past year. I'm sure Aaron Rodgers would not be happy if his Center left. Expect him to be retained.
2. Matt Flynn: Quarterback
Flynn put up a Packers record 480 yards in one game against the Lions last year. He won't be coming back as a back-up. Flynn will start somewhere next year. People are basing all of this off of one game, but he showed enough qualities you look for in a starter to warrant the opportunity.
3. Erik Walden: Linebacker
Walden is an okay 3-4 OLB but he only contributed three sacks last season. He's serviceable, but the Packers will probably look for an upgrade here.
Top 3 Needs
1. Outside Linebacker
Part of the problems the Packers pass defense has is that they suffer because no one can put pressure on the QB. Clay Matthews lead the Packers with six stacks, but he needs help opposite of him.
Despite the lack of pass rush, the Packers still need help in the secondary. Charles Woodson is turning 36 and may be converted to safety. Safety Nick Collins suffered a scary neck injury last year. Improvements are needed.
3. Running Back
A decent running game can do wonders for an offense. The Packers will always be a pass first offense, but a better running game will help them. Ryan Grant is a free agent but he doesn't have much left. James Starks is at best a second option. A good starter is needed here.
Despite struggles in certain areas, the Packers are still a very talented football team. Aaron Rodgers is an elite QB who can make a mediocre team great because of his talents. The defense needs to be improved in order for the Packers to remain an elite team. The Packers will make the Playoffs but they will have competition in the division this year with the Lions still improving. How good the Packers are this year depends on the defensive improvements as well as their mental stability after their poor showing in the Playoffs.
2011 Record: 10-6
The Lions finally made the stride that everyone thought they could make last year. After a decade of futility, the Lions finally made the Playoffs. Their young group of core players finally stayed healthy. Calvin Johnson turned into a a beast at WR, and Matthew Stafford finally stayed healthy and showed the potential everyone knew he had when drafted #1 overall. The Lions shot themselves in the foot, however. Had they beaten the Packers reserves in Week 17, I think they had a legitimate shot to beat the Giants in New York. Sure they lead the Saints at the half, but they couldn't stop them at all in the second half. While Lions fans were happy with the teams Playoff appearance last year, they will expect better things this year. While they may not be Super Bowl contenders, they should be expected to compete for the Division Title.
Biggest Question: What Do The Lions Need to Top the Packers in the NFC North?
The Lions fans, players and staff will expect the Lions to take a big step forward this year. Just like the Packers, the Lions have a very good offense when healthy. The Lions also have the advantage of having the best WR in the NFL today in Calvin Johnson. I would argue that Johnson could be the best WR since Jerry Rice. The Lions will need to improve their offensive line, specifically upgrade at left tackle. They also need a steady force in the backfield. Jahvid Best has concussion issues, Kevin Smith is more of a journeyman then a starter, and Mikel Leshoure is coming back from a torn Achilles. On defense they will need to improve a secondary that was torched on a regular basis last year. The Lions ranked in the bottom third of the league against the pass. If the Lions improve those aspects of their team, and stay healthy, then there is no reason they couldn't compete with the Packers. The Lions are a good, young team that will only get better.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Stephen Tulloch: Linebacker
While Cliff Avril will demand the most attention on the open market, Tulloch is just as important to the Lions. The Lions signed him to a 1 year, $3.25 million deal last off-season. They won't be that lucky this off-season. Tulloch is 27 and proved he can be a great team leader at the MLB spot in a 4-3 scheme.
2. Cliff Avril: Defensive End
Avril was franchised on Monday, meaning that any team that wants him would have two give up two first round picks to get him. Avril had a breakout year, gaining 11 sacks and forcing 6 fumbles. He won't be happy about the franchise tag and might hold out if a long term deal isn't reached.
3. DeAndre Levy: Linebacker
If the Lions can't re-sign Tulloch, then Levy might be able to fill in as starter. Despite struggling at weakside linebacker last year, he still finished second on the team in tackles. He's better at the inside position.
Top 3 Needs
1. Left Tackle
Jeff Backus is a free agent and the Lions have been looking to replace him for a while. He was guilty of seven sacks and 11 penalties last year. The Lions need a replacement at the position, and they should look to Draft one in the first round of the Draft this year.
If the Lions want to get better in the secondary, then they need to find someone to play opposite Chris Houston. It will help them shut down the Packers offense.
Cornerback is the bigger need, but safety is just as big a one as well. Amari Spievey was awful all year and he needs to be replaced.
The Lions are a team that won't be going away any time soon. They are young and have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. The Stafford-Johnson connection will be one of the better ones, if not the best in the league for years to come. The Lions have good front seven that they need to keep together. As long as Ndamukong Suh doesn't lose his mind again then the Lions will be fine there. The Lions should be a Playoff team again this year and I think they will be competing for the NFC North Title, and if they can make a few key improvements, may be my pre-season pick over the Packers.
2011 Record: 8-8
The Bears came into last season with some question marks. Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship Game the year before with a knee injury that many people questioned the severity of. Then last year while on a potential Playoff run, Jay Cutler was lost to a broken thumb and Matt Forte was lost to a knee injury. Losing their two key offensive components, the Bears missed out on the Playoffs last year. The Bears fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Oh wait, he "resigned." The Bears now have to deal with the fact that the Lions passed them in the NFC North and they are now the number three team in that division. The Bears are also an aging team, especially on defense. The Bears need to improve their offense so they can keep up with those of the Packers and Lions in the same division.
Biggest Question: Can Jay Cutler Finally Keep His Head On Straight?
It seems like every year, something happens that makes Jay Cutler a story in the NFL. In the 2009 off-season, Cutler was rumored to be trade bait by new Broncos Coach Josh McDaniels. Cutler didn't like that McDaniels mis-lead him about trade talks, then demanded a trade and was traded to Chicago. In the 2010 Playoffs, Cutler suffered an injury to his knee and did not return in the second half. Many people questioned the severity of Cutler's injury as he was seen walking on the sidelines during the second half. Cutler was then rumored to have problems with offensive coordinator Mike Martz last season. A lot of Cutler's problems has to do with the attitude he portrays. Cutler, at times, seems like a whiner. There is always something he either doesn't agree with or complains about. Hopefully, Cutler can finally put together a complete year this year. The Bears opportunities are dwindling and there Playoff window is closing fast.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. Matt Forte: Running Back
Forte was recently franchise tagged by the Bears, but you know he would like to work out a long term deal. Otherwise, a holdout is almost guaranteed. Forte made it known last season he wanted a new contract. Forte is one of the best all around runners in the league and was on pace for a career year before his knee injury.
2. Israel Idonije: Defensive End
Idonije is a good run stuffer and does a good job getting to the QB, registering five sacks last season. He benefits from having Julius Peppers opposite him.
3. Tim Jennings: Cornerback
Jennings surrendered zero touchdowns in his time at cornerback last year. Despite his small size, Jennings is a valuable asset to the Bears secondary.
Top 3 Needs
1. Wide Receiver
Jay Cutler has never had a true #1 WR in his time with the Bears. Earl Bennett is his favorite target, enough said. Expect the Bears to make a play for Vincent Jackson.
2. Left Tackle
J'Marcus Webb started at left tackle for the Bears last year. He surrendered 12 sacks and 14 penalties last year. J'Marcus Webb will not be the teams starting left tackle this year.
3. Tight End
Mike Martz hated using tight ends in his offensive scheme, but they can be a valuable asset to an offense. The Bears may look to Draft one this April.
The Bears have had chances to make a run the last few years but something has always stopped them. Jay Cutler can be a good QB when he has his head on straight, and Matt Forte is one of the best running backs in the league. If Cutler can get a top notch WR to help him out, then the Bears offense may be able to keep pace with the Lions and Packers. The defense is getting up there in age, and Brian Urlacher is recovering from a torn MCL and PCL that he suffered in Week 17. This season may be the last chance this current Bears roster has at making a run in the Playoffs.
2011 Record: 3-13
The Vikings season was a lost cause after Week 4 last year. The team started 0-4, and even after their blowout win against Arizona nothing was looking up. Donovan McNabb was benched after the team's Week 6 loss to the Bears. Christian Ponder took over for the Vikings and played adequately for a rookie, but he still has a ways to go. Part of the problem was that Ponder was under constant pressure because he played behind a poor offensive line. Oh, and now Ponder probably won't have his safety net ready for the start of the 2012 season. Adrian Peterson suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 16. Percy Harvin, however, has emerged as a versatile weapon for the Vikings. By the end of the year, Harvin was catching passes and running out of the backfield. The Vikings defense also needs an upgrade, especially at the cornerback position. The Vikings are clearly the #4 team in this division, and they can expect another long season.
Biggest Question: Will Adrian Peterson Be the Same AP When He Returns?
When Adrian Peterson suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 16, many people questioned why Coach Leslie Frazier even played him in such a meaningless game. My answer to that is he is a professional football player. You don't bench a star player just because your season is lost. He wants to play football, and that is what he is going to do. Injuries happen, and while this one may be costly, you can't blame AP for wanting to play and Frazier for wanting to play him. But now, the Vikings have to wonder if Peterson will return to form this year. He probably won't be ready for the start of the season. But will he even be the same running back? Running backs usually aren't the same coming back from severe knee injuries. If that happens to AP, then the Vikings will lose their best player and be set back even more.
Top 3 Free Agents
1. E.J. Henderson: Linebacker
E.J. Henderson was a tackling machine last year. He was second on the team with 110 tackles. He is getting up there in age and injuries have plagued him, but he can still be an effective linebacker if healthy.
2. Erin Henderson: Linebacker
Erin Henderson is younger and showed a lot of potential last year at weakside linebacker. E.J. will be a better team leader, while Erin has more potential long term.
3. Letroy Guion: Defensive Tackle
Guion doesn't really do anything too well, but he can is young and is a serviceable player right now who still has some upside.
Top 3 Needs
1. Left Tackle
Charlie Johnson was brought in as a free agent and he was basically a revolving door at left tackle. The Vikings are praying the Rams trade the #2 pick so they can draft Matt Kalil at #3.
Antoine Winfield is 35 years old and his skills are decreasing. Chris Cook is battling legal issues and Robert Griffin probably won't be back. With the offenses the Packers and the Lions have, an upgrade is needed.
3. Wide Receiver
If AP isn't back to form, the Percy Harvin is the Vikings only offensive weapon. The Vikings need more than Harvin. Justin Blackmon is an option at #3.
I wish I had good news for you Vikings fans, but 2012 has the makings of another last place year. Unless Christian Ponder makes huge strides, AP returns to form, and the Vikings secondary makes major improvements, the Vikings are bound for the basement cellar. I expect more than 3 wins, but this team is not better than their division rivals.
Only two more to go. Expect the AFC East up Thursday, and the NFC East up this weekend.
Until Next Time,
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