As the Vikings start their defense of the NFC North crown this year, let's look at what's been going on with their rivals since last year, and what their prospects look like for the upcoming season. Click here for my take on the Vikings roster.
The NFC North plays the AFC South and NFC East divisions this year, which I think makes the schedule easier overall than last year against the AFC & NFC West divisions, and potentially higher win totals for NFC North teams- and less room for losses for the Vikings to defend the NFC North title this year.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Similar to last year, the Packers begin the season as prohibitive favorites to win the NFC North and Super Bowl. Most predict that Aaron Rodgers will rebound from a down year and win the MVP with the return of Jordy Nelson and Mike McCarthy once again calling plays; a slimmer Eddie Lacy will be dominant in the running game; and the Packer defense will improve now that Clay Matthews is back outside.
I beg to differ.
Don't get me wrong, the Packers will field a solid team this year, and challenge the Vikings for the NFC North crown. But a lot remains to be seen before assuming they will return to 2014 form, as has been done by many in making them odds-on favorites to win the Super Bowl this year at 6-1. Let's take a closer look.
Offensively, the Packers were ranked 25th in passing yards last year, I believe their worst ranking since the Lindy Infante era. That wasn't just because Jordy Nelson was out. It was also because the Packer receivers, from the Denver game on, were proven unable to beat press-man coverage. That created timing problems- which is key for the Packers passing game- and difficulty gaining separation. The other issue was that Aaron Rodgers wasn't as sharp as he has been in previous years. He didn't make some of the throws he's made in years past. So, while I'm sure Aaron Rodgers will have a productive career well into his late 30s, ala Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, I don't see him threading the needle with a frozen rope 20-30 yards downfield as he once did. Rodgers turns 33 in a few months, and over 4,000 attempts and 300 sacks begins to take its toll. I'm not expecting a sharp decline in Rodgers' performance and production, but a gradual one where the misfires of last year persist, and a passer rating over 100 becomes a little more elusive.
Another aspect of the Packers passing game this year vs. last year is the Packers offensive line. Just recently the Packers let go their All-Pro LG Josh Sitton (who signed with the Bears). The speculation for Sitton's sudden release is that he had become something of a locker room cancer to the point where the Packers felt the need to terminate the last year of his contract. Given that Sitton's replacement- Lane Taylor- did not win the position battle in camp and had a PFF pass pro rating of 45 last year (vs. Sitton's 91), the timing of his release the week before the season starts, and that the Packers had the salary cap room for Sitton, all give credence to that speculation.
In any case, it's worth pointing out that the Packers enjoyed basically 80+ PFF ratings across the board for their offensive line in pass protection last year. Losing Sitton and starting Lane will likely put a dent in that otherwise very stout pass protection- particularly the interior line- that Aaron Rodgers has enjoyed for some time. The Packers starting center- Corey Linsley- is also on the PUP list, and likely out for 6 weeks or so. His replacement- JC Tretter- fared well last year in 3 starts at center, and doesn't seem to be the downgrade that Taylor appears to be at LG. In terms of offensive line depth, the Packers look weaker than the Vikings, with Don Barclay listed as the backup for all interior linemen, and two rookies backing up at LT and RT.
The last link in the Packers' passing game is their receiver corps. Jordy Nelson is back, and presumably that is an upgrade at one receiver position. But how much remains to be seen. The only study of post-ACL recoveries for NFL WRs is an old one- released in 2006 based on ACL injuries in the 1998-2002 timeframe. It showed on average the returning receiver lost 33% of his pre-ACL ability. Of course ACL surgery has advanced since then, and outcomes have improved- Adrian Peterson is a case in point, as is Wes Welker. But you also have to consider that Jordy Nelson is 31 years old. He had over 1,500 yards receiving in 2014 on 98 receptions. Hard to imagine him getting anywhere near that this year, or being the deep threat he once was. And that is key for the Packers passing game.
Beyond Nelson, the question for the rest of the receiver corps remains their ability to beat press-man. Undoubtedly they will be put to the test early and often until they show they can beat it consistently. Presumably the Packers will try some stacked formations, motion, and other ways to mitigate press-man, but just how successful that will be remains to be seen.
Lastly, the Packers picked up TE Jared Cook this off-season, and whom the Packers are high on, but he is also listed as backup to the uninspiring Richard Rogers. Once again, it remains to be seen if Cook can add any meaningful production to the Packers passing game.
In terms of the Packers running game, Eddie Lacy is presumed to be back and better than last year. But looking at his stats, particularly his 4.1 yards per carry in 2015 - the same as his rookie year and just under his 4.3 yard average, there seems little reason to expect improvement here after 3 seasons. It's also worth noting that Lacy's TD production has declined each year since his rookie season, while his fumbles have increased.
Defensively, the Packers had more personnel changes over the off-season. In particular, they lost CB Casey Hayward, and now have Demarious Randall starting opposite Sam Shields, and Quinton Rollins playing nickel CB. That represents a bit of a downgrade for the Packers, as the current 2nd year CBs had (not unexpectedly) up and down rookie years. Safety continues to be a strength, however, with both Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett returning.
The Packers front seven, which has generally been the weak spot of their defense for many years, also has changes with the addition of 2 rookies and a 2nd year LB this year. NT BJ Raji decided to "take a year off" ending the perennial hope among Packers faithful that he will return to form after several years. Instead, he will be replaced by Letroy Guion at NT, and rookie Dean Lowry, a 4th round pick, will start at DE. Mike Daniels, who has emerged as one of the better DTs in a 3-4 scheme, anchors the Packer defensive line.
The linebacker corps also features two young guys starting on the inside this year- 2nd year man Jake Ryan (who had 5 starts last year), and rookie 4th round pick Blake Martinez out of Stanford. Julius Peppers (now 36 years old) splitting reps with the mediocre Nick Perry on one edge, while 30 year-old (and declining) Clay Matthews will return to the left edge.
Given the learning curve even more talented and successful rookies face their first season, combined with aging edge-rushers and a little more uncertainty at CB, and it's difficult to see the Packers defense improving this year over last. In particular, the Packers had the 8th ranked defense in terms of 3rd down conversion % allowed last year. But given the personnel this year, I would not be surprised to see that ranking drop to league average. Time will tell.
Overall, I expect the Packers offense to be somewhat improved from last year, but the Packers defense to worsen. But the gains on offense will be limited by a decline in offensive line strength, and less production from Jordy Nelson than expected, which will limit the production of Aaron Rodgers. I do expect the Packers to win at least 10 games, but with an early (week 4) bye week and what looks to be a tougher back-loaded schedule (Texans, Seahawks and Vikings, division-rival Lions & Bears on the road), most of those wins had better come early.
Last year I predicted that the NFC North title would come down to the last game at Green Bay against the Vikings, and it did. I predicted Green Bay would win, but happily I was wrong. This year I like the Vikings to repeat as NFC North champs, but it may come down to injuries- particularly along the offensive lines where both teams are weak. Overall I think the Vikings match-up a little better against the Packers last year (the addition of Boone vs. Daniels, downgrade of Taylor vs. Floyd, better Viking receivers vs. a bit weaker Packers CBs).
I also think having beaten the Packers last year at Lambeau and winning the NFC North helped erase something of a confidence deficit vs. the Packers that had been there for many years. On the Packers side, while internally there has always been a strict silence, I suspect the Packers team chemistry/attitude both last year and this is not as strong. The Sitton release is another sign of that.
In any case, a Vikings win week 2 would go a long way toward defending their division title, as I suspect the Vikings will improve as the season progresses with Bradford, barring injury.
The Bears are improving, and I expect them to be better this year compared to last.
Offensively, the Bears suddenly have what looks to be a improving interior line. The addition of Josh Sitton, helps off-set the loss of Chicago's best lineman last year- Matt Slauson. Along with Kyle Long, Sitton should help shore up the interior line at least, although the Bears have Ted Larsen (40 overall PFF rating last year) listed as the starting center- rather than their 2nd round pick Cody Whitehair. Tackles still look problematic however, as both Bobbie Massie and Charles Leno both earned sub-50 PFF ratings in pass pro last year. Overall, the Bears line is improved, but still with much to be desired.
Of course the Bears are cursed with Jay Cutler- better than prospective replacements, contractually a white elephant, not good enough to get the Bears anywhere worthwhile, and yet if only he could improve.... this.... or that... he could be good.... but alas.... he continues to disappoint. Still, Alshon Jeffrey has flourished of late, and the re-addition of now 2nd year rookie Kevin White could give Cutler another target to fire to downfield.
I am cautious on just how Kevin White will pan-out for the Bears. As you may recall, White was the Bears top draft pick in 2015 ((#7 overall) and lost for the year prior to the pre-season opener. White had the measurables that coaches and fans drool about, and after two years in community college, had two very productive years in West Virginia's pass-happy Air-Raid offense. He was seen as a raw prospect, similar in some respects to Cordarrelle Patterson, but better as route runner, high-pointing the ball and against press coverage. But then he was lost for the entirety of his rookie year.
For a more raw rookie prospect, suffering a season-ending injury as rookie training camp starts, is bad timing to say the least. It can effect development much more than the lost practices and playing time. White's last game prior to his unremarkable preseason was at the end of 2014. That's a long time in the wilderness for a rookie trying to make the transition to the NFL. We'll see how that effects his season.
On the losses side, the Bears suffered a heavy one in Matt Forte. He was perhaps the best all-purpose back in the league, and always figured prominently in the Bears' offensive production. The Bears have now turned to a trio of unproven backs in 2nd year men Jeremy Langford and Ka-Deem Carey, and rookie 5th round pick Jordan Howard. Should they prove less-than-impressive, pressure will increase on Jay Cutler and the Bears' passing game.
Defensively, the Bears were able to acquire Brandon Boykin from the Eagles during the off-season on a one-year deal to shore up their secondary, only to have him suffer a season-ending pec injury last month. That leaves the less-than-stellar Tracy Porter opposite Kyle Fuller at CB, with 2nd year UDFA Bryce Callahan as nickelback. Rookie 4th round pick Deiondre Hall could also see playing time. This is really a weak group for the Bears, and safety isn't all that much better.
Linebacker, as one would expect traditionally from a Chicago Bears team, is once again a strength defensively. Unfortunately the Bears lost OLB Pernell McPhee to the PUP list for at least the first 6 weeks of the season in all likelihood. Nevertheless, Lamarr Houston, Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, and Willie Young still represent a solid core for the Bears defense.
Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks anchor the front three, and are solid, but not exceptional.
Defensively overall, the Bears look to be weak in overall pass defense, and in a passing league, that's not a recipe for success.
Overall, the Bears off-season has been one of both gains and losses. The net result is that the Bears are more dependent on unproven players to replace losses. That creates a wider range of possibilities this year for the Bears, but overall the expectation is improvement. But with an as yet unproven running game, and WR in Kevin White, and what looks like a weaker secondary, it is also possible the Bears don't fare much better this year, especially if they find themselves trailing in games.
With a somewhat easier schedule than last year, the Bears could look to finish around the .500 mark. But they are still missing proven elements on both sides of the ball at this point to do much better than that.
Question marks abound with the Lions this year.
Offensively, how will Matthew Stafford perform now that Megatron is gone, and can Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, and a 35 year-old Anquon Boldin combine for enough passing offense, to off-set what looks like a weak running game. The Lions' new trio all fit the role of solid #2 receivers, but will any of them emerge as a go-to receiver for Stafford? Or will they all struggle to some degree to gain separation and develop a solid rapport and timing with Stafford?
5'9" 203 lbs. Ameer Abdullah, who leads the Lions' RB contingent after the departure of Joique Bell, is unproven as a featured back, and may split duties some with the better receiving back Theo Riddick. It could be a nice 1-2 combo, but could also prove to be a weak rushing combo behind a weak run blocking line.
The Lions' offensive line looks better in pass protection than run blocking, but there remain question marks at LT, where rookie Taylor Decker is starting, and center where a mediocre at best Travis Swanson returns. Overall the returning offensive linemen look stronger in pass pro than run blocking, where everyone but Reiff struggled last year, except for Swanson, who struggled with both. Still, the Lions' guard tandem of Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson, and Riley Reiff at RT form a decent core to build on. Taylor Decker could add to that, but was rated one of the worst picks of the draft by PFF (along with Willie Beavers BTW), as a LT that struggled with pass pro in college. The history of rookie first-round tackles performing above average, let alone well, their rookie year over the past several drafts is not encouraging.
Defensively, the Lions have top players at each level of defense, in Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy, and Darius Slay, but not much of a supporting cast. Opposite Slay looks to be Nevin Lawson, who was ranked near the bottom of all CBs in the league last year. Quandre Diggs looks to be the nickel CB, and was about average last year.
Up front, Ngata has declined since joining the Lions as Suh's replacement, while Devin Taylor and Tyrunn Walker were unimpressive last year.
Lastly, with the return of Levy to the LB corps, alongside Tahir Whitehead, the Lions should have a solid core. But injuries to Josh Bynes forces the Lions to start Kyle Van Noy outside, who is unproven having seen limited action.
Overall, the Lions have too many weak links- that more complete teams can exploit- for them to make a run at the post-season. I also get the sense that rather than rebuilding under strong coaching and front office, the Lions are struggling to cobble together a team, as their drafts have been mixed, while veteran losses have overshadowed free-agency acquisitions.
That leads to the overall impression of a team treading water, rather than positioning itself for a break-out year- which may be a couple years away if Jim Caldwell and the Detroit front office can gain some traction- which is still an if at this point. The Lions were 7-9 last year, and it's difficult to see much improvement beyond that in a division where they suffer a talent, coaching, and front office deficit with all their division rivals.