Now that pre-season is half over, we begin to get a better idea of what team starting rosters may look like heading into the regular season - including those of the NFC North. Of course things can still change (see Vikings last year), but for the most part the starters are pretty well known, with a few exceptions not likely to have a big impact either way.
Taking a closer look at NFC North rosters gives us a chance to identify strengths and weaknesses, find matchup issues, and outline each team’s chances against the Vikings.
Let start with last year’s division winner- the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay Offense
Offensively, the Packers look about as strong as ever at the skill positions. The main difference with previous years is that the receiver group has filled out a little more from Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Davante Adams has improved as the other outside receiver opposite Nelson, so Aaron Rodgers has three good receivers to throw to now. It would not be surprising if Jordy Nelson, who is 32 and entering his 10th season, began to slide some in his production, but that remains to be seen.
The Packers lost a key cog in their offense last year in Jared Cook, whom Aaron Rodgers gave some credit for the Packers late season run last year, but replaced him with Martellus Bennett, who may be just as good. There could be some lead time before Bennett and Rodgers develop the chemistry lost with Cook, but otherwise this change seems a lateral move.
Running back does not look to be changed much for the Packers, who will roll again with WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery, who did well filling in for the injured Eddie Lacy last season, who the Packers have since let go. The Packers picked up a couple fresh RB prospects in the draft- Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones- who will likely fill out their RB committee. But I’m not expecting improvement here for the Packers, particularly as the run blocking along their offensive line looks worse than previous years.
Where the Packers are not as good as previous years is at both guard spots. They had the best guard duo in the league for many years with Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. But they’re both gone now. Lane Taylor has taken over the left guard spot, and new acquisition Jhari Evans (age 34) is now right guard. Both have done well in pass protection, if not quite as well as their predecessors. But where there is a bigger dropoff is in run blocking, where they both struggle. Both Evans and Taylor had ‘poor’ grades from PFF in run blocking last season, which could make the run game all the more difficult for the Packers to get going. Last year the Packers had one of the highest percentages of pass plays in the league, which can take it’s toll on an offensive line and quarterback.
The Packers are strong at both tackle spots, with David Bakhtiari and Brian Bulaga, and starting center Corey Linsley has been solid. But overall the Packers offensive line is not as strong as it has been in the recent past, nor is there much depth. Bulaga suffered an ankle injury last week, and his regular season status is still uncertain. The Packers will probably keep him out the remainder of pre-season, and reassess his status before their week one matchup with Seattle. In the meantime, Kyle Murphy looks to be Bulaga’s replacement. Murphy only played 8 snaps last season, but looks like the Packers’ most able replacement in practice. How he’ll fare is a question mark.
But overall, offense remains the strength of the Packers team, centered around Aaron Rodgers, their best player and play-maker, who turns 34 in December. Last season was the first since 2008 that Rodgers had a passer rating under 100, finishing the year at a still respectable 91.8. Last season the Packers offense was 4th in the league in points per game and 8th in yards per game. I expect they will contend for top 10 rankings again this season, but more likely to slip a little than improve, as their offensive line losses outweigh a more complete receiver corps.
Green Bay Defense
Defensively, there are a lot more questions for the Packers.
Starting upfront, Clay Matthews is coming off the worst year of his career, earning a poor 46.1 overall PFF rating and his second straight year of decline. At age 31, a $15m cap hit this year and $11m next year, and a durability concern besides, I’m sure there is some discussion in the Packers front office about his future. In any case, Matthews has not been the edge threat he once was, and it remains to be seen if he is able to rebound from last year.
But, while Matthews is on the downslide, Nick Perry on the other edge is on the upswing, showing for the first time last year that he may work out as a first round pick. The Packers made a $59m investment over 5 years in any case. Perry graded better against the run (85.9) than pass rush (76.4), so there remains some question of how effective the Packers edge pressure will be this year.
Along the Packers front 3, Mike Daniels is one of the best 3-4 DEs. But beyond Daniels, the Packers are struggling with quality starters. They parted ways with former-Viking Letroy Guion, who had been their NT, and 3rd round draft pick Montravious Adams has missed all pre-seson and likely the first week or two of the regular season with an ankle injury, so just how much he’ll be able to contribute remains to be seen. That leaves them with Kenny Clark, Ricky Jean-Francios, and Dean Lowry to man the NT and other DE spot. These are average players, and Jean-Francios a free-agent pick-up, so there is some question how this group may fare overall for the Packers this year.
Interior linebacker is another question mark for the Packers defensively. Jake Ryan has emerged as a solid, if not outstanding, player for the Packers in the middle, but so far the Packers have not been able to develop another as good. Blake Martinez struggled in coverage last year, and Joe Thomas struggled in both coverage and run defense. The Packers drafted Wisconsin-native Vince Beigal ahead of Ben Gedeon in the 4th round, but afterward decided he needed foot surgery, causing to miss all of the off-season, training camp and pre-season. He may start the season on the PUP list, and missing so much crucial development time, it’s difficult to see him contributing much this season. Given all that, the middle of the Packers defense could prove a weak spot again this season.
But the biggest weak spot in the Packers defense last season was at cornerback. They were stung badly by injuries, losing Sam Shields for the season early, and later other CBs were hobbled but continued to play. But between Damarious Randall, Quinton Rollins, and LaDarius Gunter, the Packers had perhaps the worst trio of CBs in the league. They all had very poor PFF ratings reminiscent of Vikings OTs last year. The hope for Packers fans is that they are once again healthy, and will bounce back. That may be, but they need to bounce back quite a bit to be merely average. But the losses of not only Sam Shields, but also their best performing CB last year in Micah Hyde, will be difficult to make up.
The Packers are attempting to do so by re-acquiring Davon House from Jacksonville, where he fared poorly in their zone coverage scheme. The hope is he will do better back in the Packers more man-oriented coverage scheme. Lastly, the Packers drafted Kevin King with their first pick in the second round. He has struggled some in practice and in vanilla pre-season action, so there is some question on whether he can be an upgrade for the Packers this year. I expect improvement over the fiasco of last season in this group, but I suspect a lot is riding on just how much improved they will be this year.
The one area that remains solid for the Packers, and really for every team in the NFC North, is the safety position. The Packers return Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett from very good seasons, and look to have found another contributor in 2nd round pick Josh Jones. The Packers will need Jones to get up-to-NFL speed fast, however, as the Packers often have 3 safeties on the field, using Burnett to replace a linebacker, while Clinton-Dix and Jones play more traditional safety roles. This makes sense, as the Packers don’t have linebackers that can cover well, except maybe Ryan. But safety and cornerback positions are not easily mastered in the NFL by rookies, and counting on Jones to be in the right position, take the right angles, etc., etc. will undoubtedly result in rookie mistakes that could prove costly.
Beyond the players on defense, the Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers employs a fair amount of zone blitzes, in part perhaps to create confusion and cover for an otherwise underwhelming rush most of the time. That creates some feast or famine scenarios for the Packers defense- allowing a big play or making one. But that sort of thing doesn’t translate into consistency, as the Packers rankings on defense confirm: 21st in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed last season.
Overall, I don’t see the Packers defense making great strides this season. I expect some improvement in the secondary, based on healthier players there, but there could also be more pressure on them if the Packers pass rush fails to materialize, with losses of two of their most effective pass rushers in Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. One could imagine 4 or 5 wide spread formations giving the Packers fits on defense, creating matchup issues for a struggling CB group that the Packer pass rush cannot mitigate. It’s also difficult to see an improved run defense- which was a strong point last year- with the interior lineman on hand, but that isn’t their biggest concern.
Vikings - Packers Matchup
The strength on strength matchup here is obviously the Packers offense vs. the Vikings defense. Both were basically top 5 units last year, and both had a win in last year’s two game series.
The key for the Vikings when the Packers have the ball is how well Trae Waynes, and possibly MacKenzie Alexander, fare in coverage. Aaron Rodgers is all about match-ups, and he has a pretty good idea of where he wants to go with the ball on Sunday by Wednesday afternoon. The first game last year Rodgers threw early and often at Trae Waynes, who played for an injured Terence Newman. The result was a lot of completions and penalties against Waynes, until he finally stepped up and made a key interception late, sealing the Vikings win. He’ll be challenged again this year, and Alexander even more if he plays in the slot. The Vikings coverage unit should be helped though by a more effective pass rush as Danielle Hunter takes over the starting LDE spot.
But it may be who improves their weaknesses the most that determines who wins this year’s match-ups week 6 and 16.
When the Vikings have the ball, just how improved the offensive line is this year should go a long way in determining the outcome- and keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field. It’s not overly optimistic to predict the Vikings offensive line gets back to average this year, with significantly improved run blocking and modestly improved pass protection. I expect Mike Remmers will be the weak link there, and the Vikings may need to game plan there with a TE or RB staying in at times to help against Nick Perry. But we’ll see. Remmers held up- not necessarily well, but he didn’t allow any sacks- against Michael Bennett at Seattle, so he could do OK against Perry too.
But with a little more time, Sam Bradford has more offensive weapons to test the depth and breadth of the Packers secondary, and more freedom to audible at the line than last year as well. Stefon Diggs ate Damarious Randall’s lunch in the first game last year, while Adam Thielen had a career game in a losing effort at Green Bay. The addition of a third big bodied receiver in either Laquon Treadwell and/or Michael Floyd should put more pressure on the Packers smaller defenders. Bucky Hodges running seam routes will too.
And then there is Dalvin Cook. He may prove a bigger threat as a receiver than running back against the Packers, but either way, he will be a match-up issue for the Packers, who struggle at times bringing down ball-carriers in space.
This looks like the premier matchup in determining who wins the NFC North this year, and both games could go either way. I do think the Vikings will be more improved on offense than the Packers on defense, which gives them an advantage over last year. I also think the Vikings pass rush will be better. But the Vikings will also need to be more consistent in the defensive secondary to get past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for the NFC North crown.
How will the Vikings fare against the Packers this season?
This poll is closed
2 wins, 0 losses
1 win, 1 loss
0 wins, 2 losses