Now that the off-season program has been completed, let’s have a look at where things stand with the Vikings rivals in the NFC North.
All four teams are under-going an overhaul on one side of the ball with coordinator changes, and the Packers a head coaching change as well, so which team responds best to those changes may prove to be the division champ. Of course injuries, player development, roster strength, and team chemistry all play a part in a team’s success from one year to the next, so with that let’s take a look at each team individually and the changes from last year, along with how things are shaping up heading into training camp.
The reigning division champs won the division last season largely on having the best defense in the NFL - having given up the fewest points per game last season while also scoring the most.
But the leader of that defense, Vic Fangio, was tapped to become head coach of the Broncos. He was replaced by Chuck Pagano, who didn’t coach in 2018 after being fired as head coach of the Colts in 2017. Pagano has spent most of his NFL coaching career as a defensive secondary coach, before being promoted to defensive coordinator in Baltimore back in 2011 - his only season in that job before this year. He was promoted again after taking an already good Ravens defense to another good season, then becoming head coach of the Colts in 2012. He had only one season with a top 10 defense with the Colts (#9 in 2013), and grew steadily worse each year until reaching #30 in 2017, when he was fired.
The Bears also lost two of their best defensive backs in safety Adrian Amos and slot corner Bryce Callahan. They will be replaced by former Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix, and most likely by free agent pickup Buster Skrine, although Sherrick McManis did a good job in relief of Callahan last year. Both may prove to be downgrades, but with Khalil Mack set to be a $26 million cap hit next year and thereafter, the Bears needed less expensive options.
Nevertheless, the Bears should return a good defensive secondary, with Eddie Jackson, Clinton-Dix, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara as starters.
That pairs well with a front five anchored by Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Khalil Mack.
But relative to last season, it’s difficult to see this group performing better under Pagano. More likely is a regression, which could be greater than that the Vikings defense had in 2018 after having the best defense in the league in 2017.
Offensively, not much change for the Bears. They swapped Jordan Taylor for Mike Davis and drafted David Montgomery at RB, to go with Tarik Cohen. They picked up Cordarrelle Patterson to return kicks and run some jet sweeps, and added some depth players at WR and OL.
But the Bears will likely continue to run the ball to take the pressure off of Mitch Trubisky, who Pro Football Focus gave a very dim view of his future prospects, based on his poor statistics that historically are very stable year-to-year, and very favorable situations he enjoyed last season, which may not continue.
The Bears have an average offensive line with some weak spots- particularly at both guard spots and also run blocking across the board. They haven’t made any changes to their starting lineup this year. Last year the Bears ran the ball often, but not necessarily well, as they had the 6th most rushing attempts, but only 11th most rushing yards, because they ranked 27th in rushing yards per attempt.
The Bears also haven’t been able to come up with a good solution to their kicker problem this off-season, after releasing Cody Parkey following his infamous double doink that eliminated the Bears from the playoffs. All three of the kickers on their roster failed to make a 42 yard field goal in mini-camp, angering head coach Matt Nagy and leading to one being released. That leaves them with two guys named Eddie Pineiro and Elliott Fry to compete for the starting job. This has prompted former Bears Head Coach John Fox to say the Bears have had the worst off-season in the league. Fox, who the Bears fired in 2017 in favor of Matt Nagy, was head coach when they let kicker Robbie Gould go, the Bears all-time leading scorer and currently 2nd best among active kickers in career field goal percentage made.
While not finding a proven replacement to Parkey seems like a misfire for the Bears this off-season - apparently they wanted to get Robbie Gould back but the 49ers franchise tagged him - that isn’t enough to warrant having the worst off-season.
But that, in combination with losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, two top defensive backs, having little in terms of draft capital to deploy after the Mack trade, and not much salary cap to acquire anyone else of significance, does make a case for the Bears not likely to improve this coming season.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers begin their post-McCarthy era with reports of friction between their franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coaches past and present overshadowing their off-season overhaul, and creating some additional uncertainty whether the transition will be a smooth one.
After firing head coach Mike McCarthy late last season, 2nd year GM Brian Gutekunst selected Matt LaFleur for his first head coaching gig, coming off two one-year gigs as offensive coordinator with the Titans (2018) and Rams (2017). LaFleur has mainly been a quarterback coach in his NFL coaching career, which began under Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan in Houston as offensive quality control coach in 2008-09. Then followed Washington as quarterback coach in 2010-13 (again under Shanahan), then Notre Dame (2014), then Atlanta (2015-16). LaFleur’s quick rise from offensive coordinator to head coach at age 39, with only one season of calling plays, and never having spent more than two years with a team, could give some reason for pause as he takes the reigns in Green Bay. Especially with a future Hall of Fame quarterback who thinks he should be running the offense.
LaFleur is firmly in the Kubiak/Shanahan coaching tree, and as a result will likely employ a similar offense to the one the Vikings will run under Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski. Indeed, LaFleur had this to say in response to friction with Rodgers over his ability to audible at the line of scrimmage:
“We’re running a system I first picked up while working with Kyle [Shanahan] in Houston a decade ago, and we’ve never really had a quarterback who’s had complete freedom to change plays at the line, because that’s not really the way the offense is set up.
It’s interesting that both the Packers and Vikings will be running largely the same offense, which could limit it’s effectiveness in NFC North games as all the other teams will either be practicing against it during the week or making a point of preparing for it during the off-season as two teams in the division will be running it.
That aside, LaFleur brings a whole new slate of position coaches on offense as well. Every position coach is new except running backs. Meanwhile, on the defensive side, Mike Pettine returns for his 2nd year as Defensive Coordinator, but with new inside and outside linebacker position coaches, and a new defensive back coach (promoted from within).
So, from a position coach standpoint, every coach is new to the job in Green Bay except the running back and defensive line coaches.
Beyond the coaching staff, there are also a bunch of (likely) new starters in Green Bay, particularly on defense.
First, the Packers cut loose edge rushers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the former being well past his prime and the later a perennial disappointment. They replaced them with Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and first-round draft pick Rashan Gary. It looks like Za’Darius and Rashan Gary will rotate, with Gary being the base OLB, and Za’Darius the nickel/dime OLB. Preston Smith will be the other starting OLB.
The Packers signed the Smiths to some pretty big contracts, relative to their production, which amount to $30 million in average salary cap hits between them in the coming years. It’s interesting because the Redskins could’ve afforded to keep Preston Smith, but chose not to, drafting Montez Sweat instead to replace him. Perhaps that’s because Preston Smith’s first four years looked a lot like Nick Perry’s first five- a few mediocre years followed by one above average year.
Similarly, the Ravens could have easily afforded to keep Za’Darius Smith, but didn’t. Again for the same reason. He’s averaged 5.5 sacks a year since he was drafted, and has never done that well in run defense, which is why he may be replaced by Gary on running downs. It is curious that the Packers decided to pay Za’Darius Smith $16.5 million average salary cap hit (more than Danielle Hunter) only to also spend their #12 overall draft pick on another edge rusher to rotate with him in Rashan Gary. Normally a top overall pick like Gary should be a full-time starter as a rookie and with very high expectations. But Gary was not seen as a first-round pick by a couple analysts, including Pro Football Focus and former NFL defensive end Stephen White, who writes for SB Nation.
Along the defensive interior, the Packers have seen first-round pick Kenny Clark pay-off with back-to-back elite seasons. That was off-set last year by Mike Daniels, who had been their best interior linemen, but suffered a notable decline before injuring his foot after 10 games and missing the rest of the season. He was held out of OTAs this spring as well, for the same reason, and the Packers have indicated Daniels, 30, won’t play as many snaps this season.
Beyond the edge rushers, the Packers also continue to invest in their secondary. Since the 2014 draft, the Packers have used 8 first or second-round picks to draft Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Quinton Rollins, Damarious Randall, Josh Jones, Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and Darnell Savage. The first three are no longer with the team, and Josh Jones, who’s been a bust to this point, wants to be traded - which the Packers may do (if they can get anything for him) now that they’ve acquired safety Adrian Amos for $9 million/year (average) in free agency and drafted Darnell Savage in the first round.
As it stands now, the Packers defensive secondary will likely consist of Jaire Alexander and Kevin King at outside corners, Tramon Williams at slot corner, Savage and Amos at safety, and Josh Jackson at dime LB/SS. It’s been a long and expensive re-build for the Packers, who spent enough draft picks to fill two starting rosters over the past five years, but they may still be spinning their wheels. Kevin King has yet to play more than 380 snaps/season in his first two years, while Josh Jackson gave up a 112.7 passer rating when targeted last season. Meanwhile Tramon Williams, age 36, has been in decline for some time. Last season was a career low, according to PFF, and 4 of the last 5 have been below average. Jaire Alexander has been a relative bright spot, allowing a passer rating of 94.0 last year when targeted, although he finished the season weaker, giving up a passer rating of 106.4 over his last six games. Savage looks promising, but then again so did all the other draft picks before they hit the field.
Of course to the extent the Packers can improve their pass rush, which ranked #19 overall last season according to PFF, that will make life easier for their struggling secondary. Amos is a definite upgrade, but how the rest of the secondary develops remains to be seen, and will likely determine the fate of the Packers on-going rebuild this season.
Offensively, the Packers didn’t spend as much this off-season, either in the draft or in free agency. The two notable acquisitions were Billy Turner, who replaces a committee that played right guard for the Packers last season, 2nd round pick center Elgton Jenkins, and TE Jace Sternberger, a 3rd round pick. Jenkins will compete for an interior spot, but may spend this year as a backup. Speculation is that Turner will replace Brian Bulaga next year at right tackle, and Jenkins will play right guard.
This issue with Billy Turner, however, is that he’s never been very good. One of the less commented reasons for the Packers disappointing results offensively in recent years has been the decline of their offensive line, particularly at guard. Since they lost Josh Sitton and TJ Lang, the Packers offensive line hasn’t been as good, and that’s led to a decline in performance, over 50 sacks in each of the past two seasons, and injuries to Aaron Rodgers. Outside of David Bakhtiari, the rest of the Packers offensive line has been average to below-average the past two seasons - and that doesn’t appear to be changing this season.
The Packers will see some changes in their receiver group this year, as they let Randall Cobb go, and continue the competition to replace the void left by parting ways with Jordy Nelson two years ago. Early indications from the Packers spring program seem to point to Marquez Valdes-Scantling playing outside opposite Davante Adams, and the near equally long-named Equanimious St-Brown having the inside track as slot receiver.
The Packers hope to get more production out of the tight-end position, particularly in the Shanahan/Kubiak offense presumably, where they paid Jimmy Graham like Travis Kelce, but got 3rd rate production from the former star, clearly past his prime. The Packers hope his production will improve his second year with the team, and have added promising tight-end Jace Sternberger, who may become the primary target at TE next season, if the Packers part ways with Jimmy Graham and his expensive contract. The Packers salary cap will be seriously top heavy at that point, with 50% of their cap space going to 5 players (which don’t include Graham).
In the running game, the Packers will go with Aaron Jones as their primary running back, and have replaced the departed Ty Montgomery with Jamaal Williams, who they drafted a couple years ago. They also drafted Dexter Williams in the 6th round, who will add to their RB stable.
Overall, while the Packers may run more - they were last in the league in rushing attempts despite being 2nd in yards per attempt at 5.0 - the Packers offense will still be all about #12. This year he’ll try to get more chemistry with his receivers, beyond Davante Adams. And hope the younger guys develop.
Still, not much change in talent offensively for the Packers. The question will be how well the Packers offense responds to coaching and scheme changes - their first in over a decade. It will also depend on how well 39 year-old Matt LaFleur is able to take command of an organization in the midst of the shakiest period it’s seen this century.
Matt Patricia’s first year as head coach last season left many wondering if he has what it takes to be a successful head coach in the NFL. The Lions 6-10 record, following a 9-7 record in Jim Caldwell’s last year, reflected a team that wasn’t completely on-board with Patricia.
A former defensive coordinator with the Patriots, Patricia is part of Lions’ general manager and former Patriot Bob Quinn’s strategy of importing the New England Patriots to the Motor City. That strategy continued this off-season with the acquisition of former Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, defensive end Trey Flowers who replaces Ziggy Ansah, and CBs Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman. They’re hoping a little more will rub-off by scheduling some training camp sessions with the Patriots this year as well.
But the biggest change for the Lions this off-season was replacing offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter with long-time Seahawks (and Vikings) offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. In his first year as head coach, Patricia sought to import the Patriots Erhardt-Perkins offensive system to Detroit. The Lions took a big step backward offensively, and Patricia has abandoned that idea in favor of Bevell and his west coast offense.
Patricia has said they’re starting from scratch offensively and just trying to get the best players at every position. To that end, they selected the top TE in the draft, TJ Hockenson, to help fill a void there. They also acquired Jesse James in free agency. They’ve also been helped with the selection of RB/WR Kerryon Johnson in the 2nd round of last year’s draft, who’ll share rushing duties with Theo Riddick. The Lions also have a solid trio of receivers in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., and Danny Amendola, although next to no depth behind them. They traded Golden Tate last year just before the trade deadline.
Along the offensive line, the Lions look to be overhauling their interior line. They lost All-Pro TJ Lang to retirement, and are looking to replace him with last year’s starting center Graham Glasgow. Last year’s first-round pick Frank Ragnow will move from left guard to center (I was surprised he wasn’t there last year), and the left guard spot will be a competition between last year’s relief right guard Kenny Wiggins, and 2016 draft pick Joe Dahl. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dahl wins the starting job.
The problem for the Lions and the OL reshuffle is that the whole OL is very average. $12 million/year RT Ricky Wagner has been average, as was LT Taylor Decker last year. Former Lions tackle Riley Reiff slightly outperformed both last year, according to PFF. Meanwhile Ragnow had a disappointing rookie year at left guard, Kenny Wiggins struggled at right guard, and Glasgow was okay at center. The Lions OL gave up 10 sacks week 9 last season against the Vikings.
Nevertheless, the Lions offense and Matthew Stafford have a fairly solid talent base to work with among starters, but lack depth in the event of injuries. What remains is how well they take to Darrell Bevell’s offense. Bevell has ran the ball more than any other team the past few years in Seattle, despite having Russell Wilson at QB. He figures to run the ball more in Detroit in what sounds more like an Air Coryell approach than a true West Coast offense - combining a physical run game with a more explosive passing attack. Last year the Lions used mostly 3-WR sets, while this year looks to be more varied.
Defensively, the Lions have improved with the play at safety of last year’s 3rd round pick Tracy Walker, who had an outstanding rookie season - as did 4th round pick Da’Shawn Hand (DT). They also picked up Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison last season from the Giants, who seem to have a disdain for top performing nose tackles. Add to that a break-out year for DT A’Shawn Robinson last season, and the addition of DE Trey Flowers in free agency, and the Lions may have perhaps the stoutest base run defensive line in the division - which is saying something. The pass rush may not be there yet, as they don’t have a pair of good edge rushers, and Trey Flowers is perhaps a better run defender than pass rusher.
The weak spot for the Lions defense looks to be their interior linebackers, along with their DBs outside of Darius Slay and Tracy Walker. The Lions drafted LB Jahlani Tavai in the 2nd round to help shore up their linebacker group, but how well he does remains to be seen. The Lions are hoping Teez Tabor improves (he was downright bad last season), and Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman prove to be upgrades - they were both average/mediocre last year. The Lions also spent almost all of their draft picks after the first round on defense, hoping to improve their talent base. 3rd round pick S Will Harris could find a role as a ‘big’ slot corner.
Overall, the Lions improved defensively last year under Patricia, and look poised to do so again this year if their new additions work out - and two players under-contract end their hold-outs.
The Lions have made their way through their off-season program with two of their best defenders, Damon Harrison and Darius Slay, holding out in contract disputes. They both want new contracts that pay them more. While both players could perhaps get more in the open market, this issue reflects team chemistry - an issue that’s plagued the Lions for decades, and seems to have engulfed Matt Patricia as well. Patricia may want to import the Patriots, and their mentality, to Detroit, but that is easier said than done. Getting the Lions to play to their potential, or even more than the sum of their parts, is a big challenge for Patricia, and he’s not helped by the Lions tough early schedule.
Be that as it may, the Lions have had a pretty good off-season plus in terms of improving their roster, particularly on defense, heading into the 2019 campaign. ESPN gave the Lions an ‘above average’ grade for their off-season, best among NFC North teams, based primarily on the acquisition of Trey Flowers to help their poor pass rush last season.
That should help the Lions improve defensively, as will the development of young players, but the true test will be offensively, which took a step backward last season, and how well Matt Patricia can improve team chemistry, and get past the long years of under-achievement.
Back in Black (and Blue) ?
One trend across the whole of the NFC North this off-season, including all three new offensive coordinators, is a focus on running the ball more. Something the Bears already do a lot.
The other trend in recent years is a focus on strong defense, with both the Vikings and Bears having the best defense in the league the past two seasons. Matt Patricia in Detroit seems to be working hard in that direction, and the Packers ponied up big time in free agency to acquire Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, while also drafting edge rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage in the first round.
Those trends of running the ball more and strong defense hearkens back to the days when the NFC Central was known as the Black and Blue Division. Rule changes favoring passing and protecting the QB make that very unlikely in full, but the trend is there for a move toward more traditional football in the division- at least to a degree.
NFC North Schedules
From a schedule standpoint, the Lions look to have the toughest slate with some tough match-ups early (Chargers, at Eagles, Chiefs) followed by an early bye-week which, if they end up losing, could lead to dysfunction down the road.
We’ll find out a lot about the Bears early on, as they face the Packers on Thursday night to open the season. That’s followed by two road games - the first against their old defensive coordinator Vic Fangio - who knows them well. They then host the Vikings at home week four. Overall the Bears schedule isn’t too bad for a division winner, but they do have some tough matchups against the Saints and at the Rams that other teams don’t have.
For the Packers, they face a tough slate of defensive fronts to open the season - Bears, Vikings, Eagles, Broncos. Bryan Bulaga better be ready, as he’ll likely face off against Khalil Mack, Danielle Hunter, Von Miller and Brandon Graham before September is out. Getting Aaron Rodgers through that stretch uninjured will be key, along with getting more than one win. Any problems with getting the offense to gel against four of the best defenses in the league could leave the Packers scrambling the rest of the season.
The Vikings schedule is manageable, with no more than two road games in a row, and no big stretch of tough opponents. But I expect all the division games to be close ones, and don’t see any easier games on the schedule, except maybe the Raiders at home week three.
With all the NFC North seemingly moving in a similar direction schematically, it could make it tough for any team to make much headway in the division race. Teams will be even more familiar with each other from a scheme standpoint, and tough defenses will keep games close.
The other thing common across the NFC North is the lack of a dominant offensive line. Apart from left tackle David Bakhtiari with the Packers, the division lacks any standout offensive linemen. On the other hand, every team in the division has a pretty solid or better defensive front, particularly the interior line and run defense. That being the case, whichever team can get the most from their offensive line may have an advantage.
But with three new offensive coordinators, and one new defensive coordinator in Chicago, a lot rides on how well NFC North teams respond to new schemes in terms of which team comes out on top.
I expect the Bears to take a step back from last season, and the Lions to be better. The Packers remain something of a wild card with the amount of changes- Matt LaFleur has a lot on his plate for a young, first-time head coach.
As for the Vikings, they haven’t had the splashiest of off-seasons, but they’ve quietly improved where they needed to- along the offensive line and offensive scheme. Gary Kubiak and company should bring improvement and ‘complementary football’ in both run/pass and between offense and defense that should help the Vikings gel. The offense is well suited for Kirk Cousins, which employs more concepts and plays where he excels, while at the same time taking some pressure off of him.
Overall the Vikings have a better offense than the Bears, and a better defense than the Packers, while competitive on the other side of the ball with both teams. Compared to the Lions, the Vikings are similar but with some smaller advantages on both sides - along with better team chemistry.
But that’s all on paper. How well teams plan and execute their game plans will be key to determining the division champion, and as the odds-makers suggest it could be a tight race, depending on injuries.
Which NFC North Team Will Be the Most Improved This Season ?
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