Saturday, July 21, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: NFC North Edition

Its time for preview number two. This time, we look at the NFC North. I would consider the NFC North one of the toughest, if not the toughest division in the NFL. Three of the four teams in the division could easily make the Playoffs. The Lions finally made the next step last year and made the Playoffs. The Packers dominated the regular season but fell short in the Playoffs. And they return the majority of their team this year. Chicago added Brandon Marshall to help out Jay Cutler. Then there's the Minnesota Vikings. Well, at least they're staying in Minnesota! I would expect the division race to come down to the last few weeks of the season this year.

1. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay dominated the regular season last year. Very few teams were able to keep up with them offensively. They carved up other teams left and right. But come Playoff time, the Giants were able to put a stop to the high powered Packers offense. Part of Green Bay's problem was that they became too one dimensional. The Packers didn't have much of a running game to speak of. James Starks didn't live up to the expectations he set for himself during the previous year's Super Bowl run. Oh, and the Packers also had one of the worst overall defenses in the league. Some of those issues were addressed in the Draft, but will the rookies be enough to improve the defense? Despite some of the flaws, the Packers still have one of the best teams in the league. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs in the league and he has no trouble making plays when his first option isn't there.

Key Additions: C Jeff Saturday, DE Philip Merling
Key Departures: C Scott Wells, T Chad Clifton, QB Matt Flynn, S Nick Collins

The addition of Jeff Saturday eases the pain of losing Wells, who was arguably the Packers best offensive linemen, But losing Chad Clifton hurts. He's being replaced by unproven Marshall Newhouse, who gave up 9 sacks and committed 7 penalties last year. Aaron Rodgers ability to scramble might help out a lot this year. The team released Collins after suffering a severe neck injury last year. Collins was one of the leaders of the team and it could hurt in the locker room.

Burning Question: Can the Packers Continue Last Season's Success
The Packers had a great year last season. They often pulled away from opponents early on and continued to add points after the fact. The Giants were able to figure things out and beat the Packers in Lambeau in the Playoffs. With the Packers offensive line going under some changes this off-season, teams may be more inclined to put a pass rush on Aaron Rodgers and make him scramble from the pocket. The Packers also need to get some semblance of a running game together. Ryan Grant was not re-signed, which means the backfield is now in the hands of James Starks. The Packers have a 2011 third round pick coming off a torn ACL and an undrafted free agent backing up Starks. Aaron Rodgers is a really good quarterback, perhaps the best in the league, but to expect a repeat of last year's performance might be wishful thinking.

The Packers are still one of the best teams in the NFL. Despite the flaws on defense, the offense is loaded enough that they can put points on the board in bunches. If the rookies play good early on and gain confidence, then the defense will be better. The emergence of Jordy Nelson as a #1 WR paired with Greg Jennings gives the Packers one of the better WR tandems in the league. Green Bay will also face stiffer competition this year. The Lions and Bears will both be better and out to take the Packers crown. But even with that, I still think the Packers take the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers still has a bad taste in his mouth from the Playoff loss to the Giants. Green Bay claims the division, but it isn't as easy this time.

Final Record: 12-4

2. Detroit Lions
Second place in this division could be a toss up. Any one of the three teams could win this division. I still think the Packers win it, but I would not be shocked if the Lions or Bears won it. I'm giving the Lions the slight nod here. Yes, there have been numerous off the field issues for this team during the off-season. But they are also a young, very talented team, especially on offense. Detroit showed their potential last year with Matthew Stafford finally getting through a full season healthy. And by finally drafting smart, the Lions have been able to put together a pretty good unit on defense. It is just a shame that they constantly find themselves getting in to trouble off the field. Even if they don't win the division, the Lions are definitely a Playoff team and I can see them getting there again this year.

Key Additions: S Sean Jones, T Riley Reiff
Key Losses: S Chris Harris, CB Eric Wright

The Lions didn't do too much this off-season. They let go of Eric Wright who was burned more than a marsh mellow in a fire. So I guess the off-season would be considered a win.

Burning Question: How Will The Off-Season Arrests Affect The Team?
Detroit has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but they need to get their heads on straight. DT. Nick Farley was arrested twice this off-season. RB Mikel LeShoure was arrested for marijuana possession. And of course you never know when Ndamukong Suh will go off and kick another player in the head. Coach Jim Schwartz was supposedly livid with all the off-season distractions this season and one would have to think he has let his team know that. The Lions can't let all of these distractions affect their mentality on the field. Detroit is too good and has too much potential to let off the field issues. They finally came alive last season and brought a winning mentality to a losing Detroit franchise.

On offense, the Lions have a unit that could match the output of the Packers. Calvin Johnson is the best WR in the NFL and Matthew Stafford is quickly becoming one of the best QBs in the NFL. Just like the Packers, if the Lions can find some form of a running game then they will be even better than they were last year. On defense, Detroit needs to improve a secondary that was one of the worst in the league last year. They could have beaten New Orleans in the Playoffs had they been able to stop Drew Brees. In the end, it all comes down to the mental toughness of this team. If they can get past those issues, they can build off the success of last season, which I think they will. Detroit misses out on winning the division, but they hang around until the end and claim a Wild Card spot.

Final Record: 11-5

3. Chicago Bears
Going into this off-season, the Bears knew that they had to add some pieces on offense to compete with the Lions and the Packers this season. The Bears took care of that problem in a cheap, effective way. They added WR Brandon Marshall for a couple of measly third round draft picks. Despite Marshall's problem causing in the locker room the last few years, being reunited with former QB Jay Cutler should help turnaround his career. Chicago then added RB Michael Bush to make a very talented backfield with Matt Forte. The front office finally caved and gave Matt Forte a long term contract before the franchise tender deadline. The added weapons on offense will help the Bears defense, which is one of the better units in the NFL, assuming Brian Urlacher can return healthy. Urlacher tore his MCL and PCL in the last game of the year last season. But the Bears have the pieces in place to compete for a Playoff spot this season.

Key Additions: WR Brandon Marshall, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell,
Key Losses: DT Anthony Adams, CB Corey Graham

Chicago didn't really lose too much this off-season, and I already touched on the additions of Bush and Marshall. Campbell gives the Bears good insurance encase Cutler gets hurt again.

Burning Question: Has Chicago Done Enough To Get Back To The Playoffs?
I really like the additions of Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush. Marshall gives Cutler the #1 WR he has been missing since he came to Chicago. He's a tall target who played well with Cutler while they were in Denver. While the team didn't add much help on defense, they were a solid unit on that side of the ball. Julius Peppers is still chugging along as he gets into his 30s. But that could also be a problem for Chicago. Half the Bears defense is over the age of 30, which means durability could be an issue. The Bears have some young depth on defense, especially the defensive line. But it is also unproven. And Jay Cutler can be a bit of a complainer sometimes and let things effect him personally when they shouldn't. Sure Cutler and Marshall played great once, but can they do it again?

Chicago has talent on both sides of the ball, and their off-season additions make them competitors in the NFC North. But the NFC is very good and they will have a lot to over come if they want to make the Playoffs. If everyone stays healthy, they can make a deep run in the Playoffs. As long as age doesn't catch up to the Bears, then they can make the Playoffs. But they also have to worry about a very tough NFC South and NFC East. There are a lot of talented teams in the NFC, and the Bears are one of them. At 10-6 they'd make the Playoffs in the AFC, but the NFC? That might not cut it.

Final Record: 10-6

4. Minnesota Vikings
And then we have the Minnesota Vikings. Similar to the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North, the Vikings don't have much to look forward to in 2012. They have a young QB who still has to prove himself, a WR who said he wanted out of Minnesota but then had a change of heart, and their stud RB is coming off a torn ACL from the last game in 2012. And what may be even worse for the Vikings is that the teams ahead of them in this division are better than what the Browns have to deal with in the AFC North. On defense, the Vikings have a stud playmaker in defensive end Jared Allen and a solid CB in Antoine Winfield. They also have plenty of holes filled by unproven players and rookies. Allen won't have 22 sacks again. He is going to need help.

Key Additions: WR Jerome Simpson, TE John Carlson, CB Chris Carr
Key Departures: G Steve Hutchinson, LB E.J. Henderson

The Vikings off-season additions won't add up to much for them. Their biggest addition will be T Matt Kalil. He's expected to start right away. The team over paid for Carlson despite having the young and talented Kyle Rudolph on the team. Losing Hutchinson will hurt the interior of the offensive line and may effect the run game.

Burning Question: What To Do With Adrian Peterson?
Many people questioned why Adrian Peterson was even playing in the final game of 2011 when it meant nothing for the Vikings. These guys are professional football players. They love to play football. They are not going to sit a game out unless they absolutely have to. I get why Peterson played and have no qualms about it. But now the Vikings have to figure out what to do with Adrian Peterson this year. You never want to rush a player back from a knee injury, especially someone as talented as Peterson. He's one of the best running backs in the league. Now the Vikings will never admit it to themselves, but they more than likely won't be too competitive this year. If I were them, I would take as much time as possible to bring Peterson back. Rushing him back could worsen Peterson's knee injury. But if they wait to bring Peterson back, the Vikings season could be done and bringing him back won't mean too much. But these guys are athletes that want to play, so I would expect to see Peterson back sooner rather than later.

Well, at least the Vikings are staying in Minnesota. That might be the only good news the Vikings get this year. They will take a long hard look at Christian Ponder this year. If things don't go well early on, they may turn to Joe Webb and see what he has at the QB position. And if neither of them work out, the Vikings may be looking for a new QB next year. Ponder had terrible protection last year which Kalil will help with. On defense, the Vikings have Antoine Winfield who is still playing at a high level, but is also 34. Opposing teams will avoid him and pick on the youthful Vikings secondary. If Peterson returns at 100%, then he can win a couple games for the Vikings by himself. But I still don't see the Vikings winning more than 4 games.

Final Record: 4-12

And there you have it. Preview #2. Up next? Well that's a mystery.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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