NFL Season Preview: NFC North

Posted by Jack Tumen

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

The NFC North has always been one of the most consistent divisions in the NFL in terms of competition and age-old rivalries. Even with three new head coaches (if you wanna count Marc Trestman from last year,) the same remains true for this group heading into 2014.

Chicago’s been royally-screwed from the playoffs over the last two years. They finished 10-6 in 2012 but weren’t even the Wild Card team to advance out of their division. Last year, the North was a bloodbath and 8-8 would have been good enough to take the cake – but then Aaron Rogers happened; stealing away the division title at Soldier field in week 17 to finish 8-7-1.

8-7-1. That was the winning record in the NFC North last season (but  seriously, who the heck ties anymore?) The Bears have been oh-so-close to emerging from the shadow of the Green Bay Packers; the winners of the division for three years running.

Formerly known as the place where receivers go to die, Chicago is now more or less receiver heaven. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are the best wideout-duo in the NFL today. Some will argue that title belongs to Julio Jones and Roddy White but that’s a discussion for another time.

Marc Trestman was hired over from the CFL to be the Head Coach, injecting new life into the Bears’ offense. They finished 5th in the NFL with 267.6 passing YPG while tying for second with 27.8 PPG, only behind Denver’s historic offense. The real kicker is that all this was accomplished with two different starting quarterbacks. This year, Jay Cutler will need to stay healthy throughout if the Bears want to see their lofty goals to come to fruition.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Matt Forte was the number-two rusher in the NFL last year, finishing with 1,339 yards and 9 TDs. He’ll once again be a top-notch back in this dynamic offense. Chicago drafted one of my favorite RBs in this year’s class, Arizona’s KaDeem Carey. He won’t get much run while Forte’s still in town but he’s only 21; and with Forte set to turn 29 this December, Carey could be looking to take over as the Bears’ back-of-the-future 2-3 seasons from now.

We know Chicago’s offense will thrive; but the defense needs to step it up if this team wants to be playing in January. The Bears’ D allowed nearly 400 yards of offense per game last season and were far-and-away the worst rushing defense in the league, allowing 161.4 YPG in that category.

The star defensive-ends in this division have been playing musical chairs; and right now Jared Allen is sitting in the Bears’ chair. He’ll replace Julius Peppers, who’s now sitting with the Packers. At age 32, Allen was in the tied for 8th last year with 11.5 sacks. He’ll bookend the defensive line with former Raider, Lamarr Houston. The linebacking corps looks hopeful. Vets Lance Briggs and DJ Williams will lead a group with young guns Shea McClellin, Jonathan Bostic and Christian Jones. This is an aging secondary with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings at corner. However, first-rounder Kyle Fuller has been one of the most impressive rookies throughout the entire league during training camp and gives this group a set of much-needed fresh legs.

Other Notables: Second-year wideout, Marquess Wilson, will be the team’s third receiver and has stepped his game up big time; TE Martellus Bennett was suspended from the team recently for attacking Kyle Fuller in practice but will still be an athletic option in the passing game; Safety is not a strength for this defense; the O-Line will need to keep plowing holes for Matt Forte.

Patience is running low in Detroit. Jim Caldwell takes over for the joke of a Head Coach named Gym Shorts – I’m sorry, Jim Schwartz. Nobody’s questioning Matthew Stafford as a top-notch fantasy quarterback – but in real life, the Lion’s offense has lacked the discipline and intelligence required to be an elite squad. Often described as a “hat-backwards” guy, Stafford seems to have the presence of a frat star rather than that of a veteran NFL quarterback. You can see it in his demeanor on the sidelines and in his body language at times.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Regardless, that hasn’t held him back from eclipsing 4,500 yards passing in each of the last three seasons. In each of those seasons, Stafford also finished in the top three among all quarterbacks. That’s an impressive feat, especially when you consider some of the names out there that many still put ahead of Stafford in the QB hierarchy. In fact, Drew Brees is the only quarterback that Stafford hasn’t managed to surpass in yardage during that time-span. We know what he’s capable of – but he has to play like it’s 2011 every year, where he threw for 5,038 yards, 41 TDs and 16 INTs while completing over 60% of his passes for the only time in his career. Still only 26, Stafford has time to right the ship.

Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver on planet Earth at the moment. Although, he’s never had much help in Detroit’s passing game. The Lions attempted to change that this offseason by signing former Seahawk, Golden Tate. Now, Tate is a fine receiver, but he’s nowhere close to being the addition that changes everything for this offense. Yes, Detroit spent the 10th overall pick on consensus top-tight end, Eric Ebron – but it’s been a rocky start for the rook and all signs point to him having a minor role in Detroit’s offense at least for this season. What they need is another big body across from Megatron; and if they could then slide Tate into the slot, now we’re talking about an elite offense. Until then, I’m not sold.

They do, however, have one of the league’s better backfields with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bush surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for only the second time in his 8-year career, and by surpassed I mean dipped his pinky toe 6 yards over it. Regardless, he’s managed to revive his career as a multi-dimensional threat that keeps the defense on it’s toes. Joique plays the thumper and has managed to improve his game each season. However, he’s shadily 28 years old but hasn’t been in the league for very long so his body is well-preserved – much like Rashad Jennings.

Elsewhere, Ndamukong Suh is on the books for a league-high 22 and a half million dwollas going into the final year of his rookie contract. He’s joined by Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones along one of the meanest defensive fronts in football. This defense also returns 100+ tacklers in Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy at linebacker. Second-year corner, Darius Slay, is now the default no. 1 at the position and will be asked to handle a heavy workload. Rashean Mathis will be the savvy vet to help him out, but it’s a thin secondary overall. They did add journeyman safety, James Ihedigbo, who had over 100 tackles with Baltimore last year – but it’s never good when your top safety is a journeyman.

Other Notables: RB Mikel Leshoure wants to stay involved in the offense; Brandon Pettigrew will be the top tight end once again while Eric Ebron learns the ropes; Ryan Broyles’ career has been riddled with injuries but that won’t stop him from fighting for the third receiver job with Kris Durham; this O-Line is surprisingly one of the better groups in the league with no one you’ve ever heard of.

It’s good to be a Green Bay Packer.

Your quarterback is named Aaron Rogers. He’s a Super Bowl MVP and one of the top-three quarterbacks in professional football. In six years as a starter, he’s never completed less than 63% of his passes. Going on 31, he’s got another half-decade of top-notch football left in him. He’s a class act and he’ll be the last Packer to ever wear number 12.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Your running back is named Eddie Lacy. As a rookie, he was 8th in the league with 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s shaping up to be one of the games most-durable backs and looks to be the best out of the ‘Bama bunch. He’ll also go in the first round of every fantasy draft for the next five years.

Your number one receiver is Jordy Nelson. He finished in the top-10 in receiving last year and has proven to be one of the games’ most reliable wideouts. You also have Randle Cobb, who’s a dynamic ‘joker’ in your offense. He lines up out wide as a receiver, in the backfield as a runner and back deep as a returner; and he’s good at all of it.

Your head coach is Mike McCarthy. He’s been your head coach since 2006 and is the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in the league. He’s won you a Super Bowl and four division titles and looks to win you four more before it’s all said and done.

To top it off, your GM is Ted Thompson. He doesn’t waste money on big-name free agents; he builds through the draft and breeds exceptional football players in-house. It’s a strategy that’s brought a Lombardi Trophy back to Title Town in this decade.

The only things left to be desired lie on defense. It’s a group with below-average players. Ironically, one of the faces of the Packers’ franchise is a defensive player; Clay Matthews was a little banged up last year, but he should be back to flexing those guns in no time. Mr. Thompson has recognized this defensive deficiency and used Green Bay’s first-round pick on a defensive player each of the last three years; Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are solid corners and AJ Hawk is still racking up 100+ tackles. In un-Thompson-like fashion, Green Bay signed Julius Peppers to bolster that defensive line. Even in the twilight of his career, Peppers is still a double-digit-sack caliber player.

Other Notables: Second-round wideout, Davante Adams fumbled twice in his first preseason game but expect him to shake off the rust and become a weapon for this offense; WR Jarrett Boykin has the inside track to the no. 3 receiver spot; Aaron Rogers takes too many sacks; Look for rookie, Richard Rodgers, to emerge as the top tight end in this offense; WR Chris Harper has bounced around a few rosters in just one year in the league but I love his potential as an Anquan Bolden-type receiver; This team won’t miss James Jones or Jermichael Finley.

Minnesota doesn’t get enough love – they’ll get even less of it now that Kevin Love is a goner, but I digress.

Former Bengals’ Defensive Coordinator, Mike Zimmer, takes over as the new head coach. This was a fantastic hire in my opinion. Zimmer has been one of the top coordinators in the league for a while now and it was only a matter of time before he’d be rewarded with his first head coaching gig. Minnesota is the perfect place for him, too. Zimmer inherits a defense that was second-to-last in the league in yards allowed. With plenty of young talent, things will get turned around sooner than later for the Vikings.

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious; they drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. It was the second year in a row that Minnesota traded back into the first round to make an additional selection; they’ve made five first-round picks over the last two drafts – Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Cordarrelle Patterson, Anthony Barr and Bridgewater. That’s a lot of talent acquired in a short period of time.

The quarterback battle is curious, indeed. They resigned Matt Cassel to essentially be the ‘default’ starter, but Teddy has been pushing him pretty hard and has a chance to be the first rookie QB of this class to start out of Bortles, Manziel and Carr. We’ll see what happens with that. I’m just not even gonna mention Christian Ponder.

At running back, Adrian Peterson.

The receiver picture is strange as well. Greg Jennings has shown to be just an average wideout in this offense but if one quarterback can start excelling, Jennings’ production should increase once again; but all eyes are on Cordarrelle Patterson. He was considered extremely raw as a rookie but immediately showed why he was worth a first-round pick, making plays one-hundred different ways. The Vikings have expressed the desire to force feed him targets in Norv Turner’s offense and he should propel himself into the top-10 conversation at his position in a year from now.

The X-factor will be tight end, Kyle Rudolph. He just got paid the other week and should break out in the offense that made Jordan Cameron last year. He’s got the tools; it’s time to see the production.

This is a young defense but it’s led by veteran linebacker, Chad Greenway, who finished top-10 in tackles with 134, 3 sacks and 3 INTs. With Erin Henderson on the streets, there’s reps to be gobbled up. Anthony Barr comes to mind as the first to step in, but don’t discount my Penn State homies, Gerald Hodges and Mike Mauti. Those are two mean sons-of-bitches that will make their cases to start this year.

Everson Griffen is the big name on this defensive line. They signed Linval Joseph in free agency but it was reported he was struck by a stray bullet at a bar after the Vikings preseason game on Friday…so, um, he should be out for a bit. They also drafted Oregon State standout, Scott Crichton, in round three.

In the secondary, Minnesota added Captain Munnerlyn, Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman. They also drafted Antone Exum, who has the potential to be their starting safety next to Harrison Smith down the road.

Other Notables: Rookie RB, Jerrick McKinnon, has looked awesome this offseason and even drew praise from AP; Don’t sleep on rookie WR, Kain Colter, who played both QB and WR at Northwestern; Rookie guard, David Yankee, was a nice grab for one of the better offensive lines in football.

Final Standings:

  1. Green Bay: 11-5

  2. Chicago: 9-7

  3. Minnesota: 6-10

  4. Detroit: 6-10

This division gets to play the AFC East and NFC South this year. Green Bay is really on an upswing and I expect them to be playing deep into January as the class of this division; Chicago will basically be the exact same team as last year. Their offense is good enough to win them games but Jay Culter will never win them a Super Bowl. He’s got one of the strongest arms in the league and is tough as nails but his demeanor and inconsistency will always hold him back; It’s not gonna come together just yet for Minnesota but they have one of the best young rosters in football and Mike Zimmer is building a long-term winner. They’ll be a dynamic squad by the time they move into their new stadium in two years; I really don’t like Jim Caldwell as a head coach. What’s that you say? He took the Colts to a Super Bowl? Um, no. Peyton Manning took him to a Super Bowl. He’s one of those unenthusiastic, expressionless coaches that stands on the sidelines with his arms crossed and looks like he’s doing something. Detroit has always had the pieces to the puzzle but has had an extremely hard time making them fit together. The Motor City is running on fumes.

Next up: NFC South

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