This off-season has proven interesting in the NFC North, particularly in Chicago, and to a much lesser extent Detroit, with plenty of AP drama in Minnesota, and (as usual) not much in Green Bay. Overall, I'd say the Vikings had the best draft of the bunch, followed by Chicago, Detroit and Green Bay. The Vikings and Packers did the best job of not losing anyone important, while Chicago and especially Detroit struggled to stem key losses.
In terms of coaching staffs, the Packers, Vikings and Lions all have continuity with last year, while the last place Bears opted for a re-boot again this year, their 2nd in 3 years, canning head coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery. With that, let's have a look at each team, their changes, odds, buzz and forecast...
After going 5-11 last year, the Bears pulled the plug on head coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery, and are now in rebuilding mode with new head coach John Fox, whom the Bears acquired after Fox left the Broncos by mutual agreement. Fox is a 60-year old veteran defensive coach, and formed a solid defense in Denver around Von Miller. But, Fox's value came increasingly into question as the Broncos under Peyton Manning failed to win a Super Bowl.
Fox's task, along with new, first-time GM Ryan Pace, who was previously director of player personnel in New Orleans, is to rebuild the Bears into a playoff team. One of the problems Fox and Pace are hampered with is the state of the Bears roster. Former GM Phil Emergy doubled-down on disappointing QB Jay Cutler- re-signing him to a new 7-year deal averaging around $17m a year, and with a dead cap hit of almost $30m this year, and $13m after next season, pretty much guaranteeing Cutler's presence on the team for at least this year, and maybe next.
Beyond that, Fox and Pace face a dilapidated defensive roster, which Fox and new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio from the 49ers are attempting to adapt into his 3-4 scheme. Jared Allen, the former Vikings 4-3 RDE, one of Emery's free-agent acquisitions with $12.5m guaranteed this year, is being asked to play ROLB for the first time in his career at age 33. For Allen, whose production has declined considerably the past few years, while remaining the 2nd highest paid player on the team, this may well be his last year with the Bears.
Additionally, Ryan Pace took a chance in signing DE Ray McDonald, despite his off-field issues, but that didn't work out as they continued and he was released last month, leaving a hole in the defensive line that will be difficult to fill at this point.
On the offensive side, Fox is re-joined by his offensive coordinator (under Peyton Manning many would say), Adam Gase. Gase incorporates aspects of both West Coast and Air Coryell offensive schemes in an attempt to gain as many favorable match-ups as possible. For example, Gase/Manning used a lot of quick-hitting pass plays common to the West Coast offense, while also incorporating pre-snap motion, power running, and widespread use of the TE, common to Air Coryell, How good a fit his scheme will be with Jay Cutler and the Bears, rather than Peyton Manning and the Broncos, remains to be seen.
Key Off-Season Acquisitions/Losses
On defense, the Bears lost two long-time aging veterans and Pro-Bowlers in linebacker Lance Briggs, and CB Charles Tillman. Tillman had been often injured the past two seasons since his All-Pro year in 2012, but his loss and the struggles of Kyle Fuller create a big question mark in terms of starting outside CB opposite Tim Jennings.
The Bears had a good draft, picking up a top WR prospect in Kevin White (6'3", 215 lbs., 4.35 40) #7 overall, and got good value in NT Eddie Goldman in the 2nd round to help anchor the middle of their new 3-4 defense. Third round pick Hroniss Grasu may help do the same for the offensive line, replacing the departed Roberto Garza. But, the Bears also parted ways with Brandon Marshall, who had been Cutler's go-to receiver when he was healthy, and his production will be hard to replace.
Ryan Pace also picked up 32-year-old CB Antrel Rolle, free-agent from the Giants (-13.9 overall PFF last year) to replace the departed Chris Conte, but this hardly seems an upgrade, although Rolle has proven more durable. He also acquired OLB Pernell McPhee from the Ravens, who had a break-out year last year, but the Ravens chose not to pursue. Last, Pace signed slot receiver Eddie Royal from the Chargers, who played his rookie year with Cutler in Denver, but hasn't been as productive since.
Win Super Bowl: 50-1
Win NFC North: 12-1
Over/Under # of Wins: 7 (trending to under)
Most of the talk in Chicago is centered around the new coaching staff, how things are going, what their impressions are, how the players are responding to the new systems, etc. Expectations do not appear to be too high, giving John Fox and staff time to get their feet wet in Chicago and install their systems. Apart from that, there is the scathing criticism of Jay Cutler, who Pace tried hopelessly to trade, but now the Bears and Adam Gase will try to fashion into something worthwhile- at least for this season.
While the Bears had a good draft, and the incoming coaching staff under John Fox have proven very capable, especially on the defensive side, the Bears have too many holes to fill and question marks to solve for just one off-season. Installing new systems on both sides of the ball may also cause some pain in rebuilding, while the perennial question mark for the Bears- Jay Cutler- will likely remain so entering the year with yet another OC, system, and HC attempting to straighten him out.
Overall, despite having solid talent in their receiving corps, the Bears simply have too many holes to fill on defense, and also pass blocking in the offensive line, to be a contender this year. They would need all their draft picks and acquisitions to be major contributors this year, which is unlikely.
The 7-game over/under for the Bears seems optimistic, whose only victory against the NFC North last year came against the AP-less Vikings at home. Playing against potent offenses in the NFC North, and against the NFC and AFC West this year, I'd look for the Bears to finish the year around 4-12, with another year of rebuilding in 2016. Starting the year with the Packers, Cardinals, at Seattle, Raiders, at Kansas City and at Detroit could easily see the Bears 1-5 and out of contention going into their bye-week. Their schedule doesn't let up until December, when they have have the 9ers and Redskins back-to-back, which in all likelihood will be must-win games for them to gain some respectability.
Most of the talk about Detroit this off-season has been about the losses on the defensive line, namely Ndamukong Suh, but also Nick Fairley, George Johnson, Andre Fluellen and CJ Mosley. New head coach Jim Caldwell had taken the Lions defense from near middle-of-the-pack to a top unit last year which, much more than the offense- which actually declined significantly, led to an 11 win season and wild-card playoff birth.
Key Off-Season Acquisitions/Losses
The Lions were able to mitigate some of the losses across their defensive front by obtaining NT Haloti Ngata from the Ravens, and drafting DT Gabe Wright in the 4th round out of Auburn. Ngata has been stout at NT, but Wright needs some development before he is likely to be effective as a starter. The addition of Tyrunn Walker from New Orleans may help in the meantime.
For the most part, the Lions elected to improve their running game (ranked 28th last year) in the draft, with 1st round pick G Laken Tomlinson and 2nd round pick RB Ameer Abdullah. In trading down for Tomlinson, the Lions also gained aging C Manny Ramirez from the Broncos who may replace bad boy C Dominic Raiola, or compete with Tomlinson at G. Abdullah looks to be a replacement for the departed Reggie Bush, to complement Joique Bell in the backfield as a change of pace / 3rd down type back.
Win Super Bowl: 40-1
Win NFC North: 6-1
Over/Under # of Wins: 8 (trending to over)
Beyond the big changes along the defensive line, the Lions have not had RB Joique Bell for any of the off-season practices, due to his recovering from Achilles and knee surgery. LBs Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy have been limited and have not participated in any team drills. DE Jason Jones was also out from mini-camp with injury. The big question is Bell, the Lions only experienced RB, who has not done anything this off-season. How he will look in training camp, how quickly he will be back to normal, what his workload will be this season are all question marks.
While the Lions had a decent draft, and did their best to stem losses along their defensive front, and are probably helped by having a year in their new systems under Jim Caldwell, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Lions take a step back this year from their 11 win season last year. In part that may due to the defense taking a step backward as rookies and new acquisitions fill the void on the defensive line, which will likely create more pressure for what could be a one-dimensional offense to deliver. Combined that with a tougher schedule this year, and I could see the Lions slipping back under .500 this year, ending the year 7-9.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Expectations are very high for the 2015 Packers. They are currently the oddsmakers favorite to win the Super Bowl, and a heavy favorite to take their 5th straight NFC North title. Clearly they are the team to beat in the NFC North.
It is easy to see why the Packers are so highly rated right now. They have (arguably) the best QB in the league (definitely in terms of PFF grades), and had the most productive offense in the league last year. They lost very little during the off-season, had a decent draft, and, but for a historic collapse in the NFC Championship, would have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last year.
Key Off-Season Acquisitions/Losses
While neither count as either a acquisition or a loss, re-signing WR Randall Cobb and RT Bryan Bulaga was probably the most important thing the Packers did in the off-season. They let lackluster LBs in Brad Jones and AJ Hawk go, but this was long overdue, and also veteran CB Tramon Williams, who was also in decline. Perhaps the only meaningful loss for the Packers was CB Davon House, With these losses, nickel CB Casey Hayward will assume the outside CB spot opposite Sam Shields, and Micah Hyde will continue as nickel CB. The Packers are hoping to convert first-round pick Damarious Randall, who played safety in college, to slot CB, and develop raw CB Quinten Rollins. Early accounts suggest both players have a lot of work to do before cracking the starting line-up, and may not see much action this year, except in the event of injury.
To fill the void left by ILBs AJ Hawk and Brad Jones, the Packers also drafted ILB Jake Ryan, who looks to be more of a 2-down thumper, but with hopes of being a 3-down LB, despite his limitations in coverage. He'll compete with Sam Barrington as the 3rd LB on passing downs, joining Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers on the outside. Of all the Packers' draft picks, Ryan, a 4th round pick, is the only one likely to fill a starting role his rookie year.
The Packers also drafted WR Ty Montgomery in the 3rd round, who will most likely take over kick return duties from Randall Cobb.
Super Bowl: 6-1 (lowest/most likely of any team)
Win NFC North: 1-3 (heavy favorite)
Over/Under # of Wins: 11 (trending to Over)
The biggest buzz in Packerland this offseason is the recent revelation that head coach Mike McCarthy will be giving up play-calling duties to (seemingly) unknown Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements, whose held down that job for three years under McCarthy. Though the timing of the change seems in response to the widespread criticism of McCarthy's play-calling in the NFC Championship fiasco, the Packers insist the change was to allow McCarthy more time to focus on other aspects of the team, including the defense, where he has been more involved during the off-season. Also some buzz about WR Devante Adams having a good off-season and being ready to break-out. A part from that, there is a push by McCarthy and company to get off to a better start than the 1-2 starts they've had in recent years. With Seattle up week 2, that is undoubtedly a factor in that mentality. But another factor has been the rash of pre-season injuries the Packers have sustained for several years now. Despite a few changes in his off-season program, McCarthy has been unable to solve this long-standing issue. Whether the Packers can make it thought the pre-season without one or more season-ending injuries remains to be seen.
The Packers are returning everyone on the #1 offense from last year, and look to be a top unit again in 2015. The defensive secondary also looks solid. If there is a soft underbelly to this Packers team, it is their run defense and defensive front 7 generally. The Packers are hoping the return of BJ Raji at NT will solidify the defense after missing all of last year. However, over the previous three years, Raji had a -2 overall PFF grade sandwiched in between two -20+ years, so just how good he'll be at this point is a big question mark.
The Vikings made some strides on defense last year under Mike Zimmer, and with Adrian Peterson back in the fold, are generating some buzz as a potential wild-card team this year. For that to happen, the Vikings will need to see continued development from QB Teddy Bridgewater, who showed a lot of promise after being called into action his rookie year.
Key Off-Season Acquisitions/Losses
The Vikings essentially traded WR Greg Jennings for WR Mike Wallace, who may be a better fit for their system. The Vikings had another good draft, and 2nd round pick LB Eric Kendricks may have the biggest impact his rookie year, with 4th round pick TJ Clemmings potentially filling a hole along the offensive line. First-round pick CB Trae Waynes may see some action, but it's unclear at this point if he'll be ready to contribute much this year.
Super Bowl: 33-1
Win NFC North: 6-1
Over/Under # of Wins: 7.5 (trending to Over)
Most of the buzz for the Vikings this off-season centered around the Adrian Peterson drama. With the former MVP returning to the Vikings backfield, and Teddy Bridgewater looking like the franchise QB the Vikings have lacked since renting Brett Favre, there is plenty of guarded optimism about the Vikings prospects this year.
Despite having a tougher slate this year, the return of Adrian Peterson, along with the continued development of Teddy Bridgewater and Mike Zimmer's defense should be good for a few more wins over last year's 7-9 campaign. With Chicago and perhaps Detroit slipping a little, look for the Vikings to hit 10 wins and possibly land a wild-card spot in the post-season.
Looking at the up or down trend among the teams in the NFC North, only the Vikings appear to be on the upswing, with the Packers steady at the top and both the Lions and Bears looking weaker heading into training camp. While it's not out of the question that the Vikings could challenge the Packers for the division crown this year, they may need some help by winning the perennial war of attrition and suffering fewer key injuries than the Packers to make that happen.
Detroit is perhaps the biggest wild card this year in terms of difficulty in predicting their season, as things could pan out for them or they could just as easily drop back considerably from last year if the defense doesn't gel. On balance, a lot has to go right for the Lions to gain double digit victories again this year, and that is a lot to ask for a team with so many vacancies to fill in their roster this off-season.
For the Bears, their ceiling is pretty low this year going into their first year of what is likely to be a multiple-year rebuilding process. It is difficult to expect anything more from Jay Cutler than what he has delivered over his 10 year career. On paper Cutler has a good supporting cast in Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett at TE, and a raw but promising #1 WR in Kevin White. But the offensive line is still suspect, and learning a new system while facing a tough, front-loaded schedule isn't likely to end well.
Here's my early prediction on how the regular season plays out:
Green Bay Packers 11-5
Minnesota Vikings 10-6
Detroit Lions 7-9
Chicago Bears 4-12