NFC North Primer

In my continuation of division offseason previews, we move on to the NFC North, which has been virtually dominated by the Green Bay Packers in the last 2 seasons. Each team has made the playoffs at least once during that same time frame, so there is a good amount of parity in the Black and Blue division. Featuring a trio of gun slinging quarterbacks and elite receivers, the NFC North is one of the best divisions in the NFL and is continuously competitive every single year.

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As per usual, every team apart from the Packers was busy during Free Agency as Green Bay continues with their motto to improve solely in the draft. Let’s take a look at what each team needs to do to dethrone the back-to-back division champs.

The Chicago Bears moved away from Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher and appear to be changing their image from a defensive to an offensive team.

New head coach Marc Trestman will put more focus on pass protection and ball security of the for Cutler. The drafting of first round tackle Kyle Long, will go a long way (no pun intended) in insuring that Cutler is kept upright and those 6-10 sack games will be a thing of the past.

The signing of Jermon Bushrod will be a huge upgrade for the Bears as he is one of the better tackles in the game. The key factor for this offensive line to truly flourish is Gabe Carimi. He was drafted expecting to be a mauler and he has battled injuries and inconsistency and has simply not been able to adjust to the pro game.

Not only will Trestman focus on better pass protection, but he will use Matt Forte in and myriad of running plays. The Bears, with Mike Tice as the offensive coordinator, used Forte in isolation and run-up-the-gut runs, which didn’t truly utilize his skillset. The new regime wants to use tosses and zone blocks, as Forte is one of the best cutback runners in the game. His game reminds me a lot of Arian Foster the way they are so smooth with their running, vision and using jump cuts to find the open spaces. They allow blocks to materialize before they decide on their next move. It makes sense for the Bears to give Forte more room to operate considering his terrific vision.

Jay Cutler needs to have a big season. Not only is he due for a new contract, but also there should be no more excuses driven by the media or even Cutler himself. The team has surrounded him with a true number one receiver and finally shored up their offensive line. In a system that has always been good to quarterbacks (Trestman has worked with the likes of Rich Gannon, Steve Young, Bernie Kosar among others), Cutler should make big strides with his ball security, accuracy and decision making. One of his main issues was locking on to Brandon Marshall far too often last season (as evident by his 194 targets last season), which meant forced passes and easy interceptions for the opposition. The addition of Martellus Bennett, who can line up in the slot or at wide receiver in certain situations, should provide help for Cutler and Marshall, but they desperately need further development from Alshon Jeffrey, who looked good in the first couple of games before disappearing for most of the season. Marques Wilson, who was projected as having first round talent, fell to the 7th round due to accusations towards his coach at Washington State. If he can keep his cool, he has enough talent to be a solid player in his first year.

It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks and Cutler has never been a great read and react quarterback. He will need to change his ways and actually scan the field to read his progressions or he will have another interception-laden season.

Defensively, this Bears team is old, but still have the necessary playmakers to be a force. Peppers, Briggs, Tillman, D.J. Wiliams and Jennings are all approaching 30 or have already hit the wrong side of it. Tim Jennings and especially Charles Tillman were absolutely terrific in coverage, which led them to the 8th best pass defense in the league and a league-leading 2.8 takewaways per game.  They will again be relied upon to give the offense more opportunities or even score themselves with their ball-hawking nature.

New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has worked in different schemes in his time in the league. The Bears will most likely still run a base 4-3 defense, but employ the 3-4 at certain stretches. What may change is their reliance on the Tampa 2 defense that has been a mainstay since Lovie Smith has been coach. Regardless of the defensive system, the Bears will be able to get after the quarterback and make plays to help their offense. The key will be how they adjust without Brian Urlacher. While his skills were eroding, he was still the unquestioned leader of the defense and made all the calls at the line of scrimmage. His knowledge of the game is a huge aspect for a team that goes after the ball and creates turnovers at an alarming rate. They will have to adjust without him on and off the field. Jonathan Bostic was drafted in the 2nd round out of Florida and he is a big, physical linebacker. It will be interesting to see if he can outperform D.J. Williams who did not play much last season in Denver.

In their 6 losses, the Bears only recorded 7 offensive touchdowns. That is simply not good enough and a big reason why, when they faced talented teams like the 49ers and Houston Texans, they did not materialize any pressure on those defenses. As a consequence, a 7-1 start turned into a 3-5 finish, where, they had a chance to still make it into the playoffs on the last day of the season, but did not control their own destiny. Marc Trestman has worked with Cutler before, 9 years ago during his pre-draft workouts. He knows what Cutler’s base skillset looks like and will be able to get the best out of him. I expect a solid season out of Cutler, with a lower amount of bone-headed turnovers. The defense should still be stout and provide many opportunities to score for themselves and give the ball back to the offense.

The Detroit Lions have been known more for off the field issues than their play on the field. The players who have been distractions have either been jettisoned or are on a very tight leash.

You will be hard-pressed to find a team that went from having so much potential based off the previous season’s playoff performances and faltered in a big way. They wasted a historical season from Calvin Johnson and the coach and general manager regime of Jim Schwartz and Mark Mayhew will need a bounce back season for their contracts to be renewed.

We know with the Lions it begins and ends with their QB-WR duo. They were very prolific last season, despite Stafford having very little receiving help aside from Brandon Pettigrew. Calvin Johnson had league high 204 targets last season, but that should decrease with the return of Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles who were both injured last season and the signing of Reggie Bush who always factors into the passing game. Stafford had somewhat of a down year after posting over 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2011 and his struggles can be attributed to a bad defense that meant they were always behind playing catch up, an inconsistent running game and as stated, a scarcity of weapons outside of big 81. Over 700 passing attempts is a ridiculous amount of throws, regardless of how good your quarterback is. I expect him to bounce back in a big way in 2013.

As mentioned, Reggie Bush signed a 4-year deal, worth roughly $16 million. Along with Mikel Leshore and Joique Bell, Bush will lead a solid running back core. With Miami, he proved that he can handle 200 plus carries in a season and you can look for him to be the starter for the Lions, with Leshore and Bell being change of pace bruisers. It will be important for Bush, who is average in pass protection, to improve his blocking skills, as Stafford throws a whopping 85% of his passes out of the shotgun. But the most important factor is that Bush provides a dynamic weapon out of the backfield, one in which the Lions have not had since Jahvid Best went down with concussion issues.

Defensively, the Lions lost Cliff Avril to free agency and Kyle Van Den Bosch to retirement. I am not entirely sold on the drafting of Ziggy Ansah, although it made sense from a need and raw talent standpoint, his lack of production and playing time means this could be a boom or bust pick and it needs to boom quickly for the Lions.

The interior of their line, featuring Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, will be counted on to create the lion share of the pass rush and defend the run. Suh is a dominant player (and at times dirty), but every time I have watched him, he is inconsistent with his gap coverage and can get lost from time to time when defending the run.

Stephen Tulloch is a terrific linebacker, but that position is bare with the loss of Justin Durant to Dallas.

Where they will need to make drastic improvements is in pass coverage. Statistically, they were middle of the pack, but they did not garner many takeaways. Retaining Louis Delmas was important as he is a good playmaker with range, but he needs to stay healthy. The signing of Glover Quinn from Houston will also provide a nice piece in the back end.

I loved the pick of Darius Slay who will step in immediately and be asked to shut down the top receivers in the division. He has perfect size and great speed and I presume he will start opposite Chris Houston once the season starts.

We rarely talk about kickers, but Jason Hanson retiring is a big loss for the Lions. Considering how valuable the kicking game is, Hanson, who has been one of the most accurate kickers of all time, will need his usual reliance to be replaced.

Ultimately, the fate of the Lions will still rest on Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford.  They were close in many of their games and at best, could have easily been a .500 team. Subtle improvements in the draft and via free agency to their secondary will be important in a division where their competitors each feature elite wide receivers. Ziggy Ansah must be good right away in order for the pass rush to compliment the back end and the offensive line is still a major question mark with the retirement of Jeff Backus. If their pass defense remains middle of the pack and Stafford develops better chemistry with other receivers aside from Johnson, they should be able to compete for the division crown. Simply put, more discipline is needed and that is a direct reflection on the head coach of the football team. Detroit was 4th worst in yards per infraction and they will need to be more disciplined in all facets of the game, especially with a young defense.

The Green Bay Packers came off a 15-1 season with a team that dealt with a plethora of injuries. They led the league in adjusted games lost (a metric that measures how much teams were affected by injuries) with 108 (Via FootballOutsiders.com). Despite the injuries, they still managed to sneak into the playoffs and grab the division title.

One of the reasons for the Packers continued success, or should we say THE reason is of course, Aaron Rodgers. Despite being sacked 87 times over the last two seasons and 51 in 2012, he has managed only 14 interceptions in 2 full seasons versus 84 touchdowns. He is undoubtedly the best quarterback in football and his 108 quarterback rating, despite injuries all season to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson coupled with a shoddy, old and inconsistent offensive line, are a testament his talent.

You can pencil in Rodgers to have another terrific season, but it will be imperative for him to get rid of the ball in situations where he cannot make a play. As he alluded to during the opening of OTA’s, the blame with regards to the sacks cannot all simply go to the offensive line. He is too valuable to be sacked 51 times and as such, they drafted two tackles in the fourth round in David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter. The latter however broke his ankle and will be sidelined for several months. Aside from that, Chad Clifton retired as did Jeff Saturday, who was ineffective last season. Bryan Bulaga, who is considered the team’s best offensive linemen, will move to the left tackle spot in a move that will improve the entire depth of the line.

Another way to alleviate hits to the quarterback is avoiding the amount of drop backs he takes. Although they were 16th in rushing attempts per game, their ground attack was very inconsistent. James Starks and Alex Green both showed flashes after Cedric Benson was lost for the season, but looked average at best. From what little I saw from DaJuan Harris, most notably in the season finale against the Vikings, he looked like a jitterbug type back with quick moves and terrific speed. I look forward seeing him in the upcoming season and will be a sleeper pick to have a very solid season. With the drafting of Eddie Lacy, who features a similar running style and build to Trent Richardson and Jonathan Franklin who is more of a speedster, the Packers finally look set at the running back position with much depth to spare.

At the receiver position, while the loss of Greg Jennings will hurt, Rodgers will have no issues finding a new favorite target to throw back-shoulder passes. James Jones cured his propensity for drops and had a great season with 12 touchdowns and Randall Cobb proved that he is not just a gimmick receiver. He can play the slot or out wide and he should get 60-75 catches this season. Jermichael Finley needs a bounce back season being in a contract year. He is continues to be one of the most frustrating players. He has all the talent in the world, but has not been able to put it together. His drops have seemingly gotten worse every season and at times, he lacks the necessary concentration to be a premier tight end, which he has all the raw physical tools to be. Look for him to get more responsibility with the move away from Greg Jennings. Finley actually taking that increased role is still to be determined though.

Finally, I have heard good things about 7th round pick Charles Johnson from Grand Valley St. and although there may be some questions about the competition regardless of whether it is Division I or Division II, 31 touchdowns in two seasons is quite impressive. Johnson appears to have terrific speed clocking in with a 4.40 40-yard dash and he has good size.

Defensively, they were also battered and bruised as Desmond Bishop, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry all missed significant time with injuries. The loss of those players, notwithstanding, they still managed to finish 16th in total defense thanks in large part to key fill-ins such as M.D. Jennings at safety, Brad Jones at inside linebacker and Erik Walden at outside linebacker.

The release of Charles Woodson was not unforeseen, but Jennings and Jerron McMillan have shown enough flashes that the Packers opted to not even take a safety in the draft.

The Packers will need Tramon Willams to continue to ascend towards one of the best cover corners in the league. I thought he took a slight step back last year. Morgan Burnett is one of the more up and coming players though and is one of the best tackling corners in the game. He plays similarly to Charles Woodson by dropping to the box and is an adequate blitzer from the back end.

As long as Matthews can stay healthy and they start to get valuable production from former first rounder Nick Perry, the Packers, with a great defensive front to keep the linebackers off blockers have the makings of one of the better young defenses in the league. B.J. Raji is one of the best nose tackles in the league and Ryan Pickett has made a name for himself as a 5 technique that can contain the edge and stop the run. The return of Desmond Bishop will be key as well in a 3-4 defense that is reliant on its linebackers.

Mason Crosby must have a bounce back season, as he was absolutely putrid in the kicking game. I would attribute it to simply a bad season, as he has consistently been one of the best kickers since he has come into the league.

The Packers still have a load of talent and continue to show a commitment to building through the draft, in fact more so than ever. Dom Capers has the type of scheme that requires pressure from all positions on the field and the personnel that they employ with the players returning from injury, will allow the Packers to be more than adequate on defense again.

For the Minnesota Vikings, their entire season could be summed up with a few plays: Isolation run up the gut to Adrian Peterson, off tackle run to Adrian Peterson and toss to Adrian Peterson. Simply put, in my 15+ years of watching football, I have never seen the type of season Peterson had. He came off an ACL injury, yet was actually better than before. His cutback ability, vision and ability to take it 50 yards to the house were the formula that repeated itself numerous times as evidence by two games with touchdown runs of over 60 yards and two games with touchdown runs of over 80 yards. Oh and do not forget 7 games of over 150 rushing.

This upcoming season, he has set a goal of 2500 yards and while that is as lofty an expectation from a running back as you will see; do not count him out on having another near 2000-yard season to help propel the Vikings to a winning record.

Of course, the key to that will be Christian Ponder. The former Seminole had 3 games with less than 100 yards passing and 5 games in which Adrian Peterson outgained him.

The criticism has been far greater than warranted, though. No one wants to mention that Ponder started the season with back-to-back games with quarterback ratings above 100 and started 4 out of the first 5 games with a rating above 83, which is solid but not spectacular. Yes, when Percy Harvin went down, there was more reliance on Adrian Peterson. Conversely, this affected Ponder and with Kyle Rudolph as the only viable passing threat, it made sense to take away the reigns from Ponder and rely solely on a dominant running game. Give Ponder credit though as there is simply no chance that the Vikings win the season finale that propelled them into the playoffs, if Ponder doesn’t have the terrific game that he had.

With Greg Jennings in the fold, you have an experienced receiver that can line up in any position and truly be more of a complete receiver than Harvin. Kyle Rudolph will soon ascend to being one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league. Jairus Wright showed some flashes in the last game of the season against Green Bay and Cordarrelle Patterson has all the tools to be a dominant receiver and return man. At 6 foot 2 inches and over 220 lbs., he will lose very few battles in the air. The key with him will be how he learns and adapts to the NFL game and if he will be able to hone and improve his raw receiving skills.  Nothing more to be said about Peterson except for the potential for more touchdowns with what we can assume will be an improved offense and a more consistent Christian Ponder.

The offensive line, which got very little attention despite Peterson’s near record-breaking season, is one of the best in the league. Matt Kalil was dominant as a rookie and will be making Pro Bowl’s for years to come. John Sullivan is one of the most underrated centers in the league and Phil Loadholt is the prototypical right tackle with behemoth like size at 6-8 to anchor the strong side/running side.  In fact, Adrian Peterson compiled most of his 2,097 yards towards the right amassing 594 yards.

One underrated aspect of the offense is the signing of undrafted rookie Bradley Randle. Although he is diminutive at 5-7, 190 lbs., he provides a different aspect as a running back that can catch passes out of the backfield, which is an aspect of the Vikings offense that has not really been apparent since Peterson was drafted. That is not to say that Peterson is a liability as a pass catcher, but it is not his strongest asset and such a dynamic is always important to have especially in passing downs. If he makes the team, he can add a different dynamic from the backfield that has not been apparent for quite some time.

Defensively, all the attention goes to Jared Allen, but Chad Greenway is the best player on that team and one of the best strong side linebackers in the league. Paired with him are Erin Henderson, who the Vikings felt was good enough for them to bypass drafting a middle linebacker and giving up a brief flirtation with Brian Urlacher. Most draft pundits agreed that was a need for the team, but Henderson is solid enough, although he lacks to required athleticism that you normally look for in a mike linebacker for the Tampa 2.

With regards to their defensive line, you still have to respect that front-four despite the aging right side. The drafting of Shariff Floyd was an absolute steal. The Vikings got a player who many predicted would be a top 3 pick and was number 1 on certain draft boards. The pairing of Floyd and Kevin Williams, who can still lay claim as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, will remind Vikings fans of the days of the Williams wall when Pat Williams and Kevin Williams anchored the middle. Floyd dropped mostly due to his short arms, but let’s not forget that Hall Of Famer John Randle was barely 6’0 and had over 130 sacks as a defensive lineman, possessing short arms as well.

One of my few correct mock draft predictions was the drafting of Xavier Rhodes by the Vikings.  As a big, fast and physical corner, he is perfectly equipped to defend the bigger receivers of the division such as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and James Jones. With or without the loss of Antoine Winfield, help at corner was desperately needed.

Not many people know of Harrison Smith, but he proved to be a solid strong safety, amassing over 70 solo tackles. And Chris Cook will be counted on to supplant the production Winfield provided. He was a sure tackler and tenacious cornerback. It is hard to ask a young corner to step in and replace that type of tough-nose style, especially at a position like cornerback, but Cook will need to deliver in a hurry. Jacob Lacey, who played well for the Colts, was signed to play the position of slot cornerback, which Winfield played for most of 2012.  The rest of the secondary is inexperienced and untested. They will need to be better than ranked 24th in pass defense, especially in a division that boasts Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.

When the Vikings offense sputtered, Blair Walsh bailed them out. He was easily one of the best kickers in the game last season and depending on Ponder’s improvement, Walsh will be counted on for another season to provide points if the offense stalls inside or outside the red zone.

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