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NFC North Off-Season Analysis

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An off-season breakdown of the Vikings’ division rivals

With most of the off-season moves having been made, but perhaps a few roster moves yet to come, let’s take a look at how the Vikings’ division rivals have changed heading into the new season, and how that may impact the division race.

This off-season, there have been no head coach or de-facto coordinator changes in the NFC North, so there should be a fair amount of scheme continuity among the Vikings’ NFC North rivals. But let’s take a more detailed look at each NFC North team, and see what’s happened this off-season.

Chicago Bears

Head Coach: Matt Nagy. OC: Mark Helfrich. DC: Chuck Pagano.

2019 RECAP:

Finished 8-8, 3rd in NFC North, 29th ranked offense, 4th ranked defense in points/points allowed.

ROSTER CHANGES:

Veteran losses: OLB Leonard Floyd; CB Prince Amukamara; FS HaHa Clinton-Dix; LB Nick Kwiatkoski; OLB Kevin Pierre-Louis; TE Trey Burton; WR Taylor Gabriel; QB Chase Daniel; DT Nick Williams; TE Dax Raymond; LT Cornelius Lucas; OLB Aaron Lynch; TE Bradley Sowell; G Ted Larsen; LS Patrick Scales; RT TJ Clemmings

Veteran additions: QB Nick Foles; DE Robert Quinn; TE Jimmy Graham; DB Tre Roberson; WR Ted Ginn Jr.; WR Trevor Davis; OLB Barkevious Mingo; TE Demetrius Harris; FS Tashaun Gipson; OL Germain Ifeadi; CB Artie Burns; S Jordan Lucas; T Jason Spriggs; DT John Jenkins

Draft picks: TE Cole Kmet, CB Jaylon Johnson, DE Trevis Gipson, CB Kindle Vildor, WR Darnell Mooney, OT Arlington Hambright, G Lachavious Simmons.

UDFAs: RB Artavis Pierce, WR Ahmad Wagner, OL Dieter Eiselen, OL Badara Traore, DL LaCale London, DL Trevon Swain, LB Ledarius Mack and LB Rashad Smith.

DRAFT NOTES:

The Bears’ draft was one of the worst graded drafts initially this year, in large part because of the curious decision to draft TE Cole Kmet with their first pick (a 2nd rounder), when they just acquired TE Jimmy Graham and had ten, yes ten, other TEs on the roster. CB Jaylon Johnson seems like a good pick in the 3rd round, and he’ll likely start for them at an outside CB spot opposite Kyle Fuller. The Bears traded up with the Vikings to get DE Trevis Gipson in the 5th round, but he doesn’t figure to be much of a contributor this season. The rest of the Bears’ Day 3 picks don’t appear to be contributors this season either.

ROSTER NOTES:

Defensively, the Bears are struggling to maintain the quality roster they had a couple years ago. They had a couple key secondary losses last season, and continue to suffer net losses in quality this year. The issue is the cost to acquire Khalil Mack. They’ve been without a first-round draft pick the last two years, which makes it difficult to maintain a roster with young talent, and Mack is now an annual $26 million salary cap hit, which makes it more difficult to retain and acquire quality free agents.

At the same time, key players like Mack, Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith and Kyle Fuller are all coming off down years last season under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. They’re still good players, and still managed to be the 4th best defense in the league last year, but with another year of net degradation, it’s more of a question whether they’ll continue to be the dominant bunch they’ve been the last couple seasons. Looking at the projected starting line-up on defense for the Bears this season, only 3 starters (DL Mack, Hicks, and Goldman) had a PFF grade over 70 (average) last season. Five starters had a grade below 60 last year, along with a projected rookie starter at CB.

Offensively, it seems the Bears are moving on from high-profile draft mistake Mitch Trubisky, having acquired veteran QB Nick Foles. Foles broke his clavicle early in week one last season with the Jaguars, but came back late in the year for a few games. Foles is no panacea for the Bears’ anemic offense, but he is more steady and reliable than Trubisky, which should be a positive for the Bears.

But the on-going problem for the Bears is outside of WR Allen Robinson II, is that there aren’t really any top quality weapons for Foles. The Bears’ offensive line also looks suspect, with all of the projected starters having graded below 70 last season overall, according to PFF, and a couple below 60. Robinson II is the only Bears’ projected starter on offense this season with a grade above 70 last year.

OVERALL:

It’s not surprising that the Bears appear to be moving on from Mitch Trubisky after 3 seasons of generally poor performance. But Nick Foles seems more of a place-holder than a QBOTF, and the overall talent level on offense remains suspect. Matt Nagy’s obsession with tight-ends suggests he’s focused on making that a more viable and frequent target in a run and quick-hit passing game offense, which makes sense given their personnel, but whether that results in any significant improvement remains to be seen.

Defensively, while the Bears look to be stout up front if Akiem Hicks can stay healthy, there are a lot more question marks in their secondary, and now at linebacker too. The Bears are really going to need to hit on all cylinders personnel-wise this season to maintain the level of defense they’ve had the past couple seasons, but with the number of question marks in their starting roster, that looks increasingly unlikely.

Bottom line, the Bears are suffering the consequences of general manager Ryan Pace’s decision-making over the years. His first round picks since becoming GM include Kevin White, Leonard Floyd, Mitch Trubisky, and Roquan Smith. And he traded his last two first-round picks for Khalil Mack. White and Floyd are no longer with the team, Trubisky looks to be a $9 million backup, Smith has been up and down, and Mack is a $26.6 million cap hit and coming off his worst season as a pro. That’s not a lot to show for six first-round draft picks - and the four they didn’t trade were top 10 picks.

At the same time, with core players on defense at or approaching 30, and no long-term solution at quarterback, it looks like the Bears are trending toward a re-boot in two years, rather than improve much on their 8-8 record last season.

We should get a good read on how things are trending for the Bears early in the season, with a few ‘could go either way’ games, followed by a tough Tampa game and a pretty tough four game stretch before their bye week. My guess is that the Bears will be under .500 at that point, and a long-shot to make the playoffs.

Detroit Lions

Head Coach: Matt Patricia. OC: Darrell Bevell. DC: Cory Undlin.

2019 RECAP:

Finished 3-12-1, last in the NFC North, 18th ranked offense, 26th ranked defense in points/points allowed. Starting QB Matthew Stafford missed half the season due to injury, and the defense regressed despite some quality player acquisitions.

ROSTER CHANGES:

Veteran losses: G Graham Glasgow; CB Darius Slay; OLB Devon Kennard; DT A’Shawn Robinson; DT Damon Harrison; DT Mike Daniels; RT Ricky Wagner; TE Logan Thomas; QB Jeff Driskel; RB J.D. McKissic; CB Rashaad Melvin; S Tavon Wilson; WR Jermaine Kearse; DT Darius Kilgo; DE Jamie Meder; QB Kyle Sloter; OLB Steve Longa; S AJ Howard; P Matt Wile; RB Tra Carson; P Sam Martin

Veteran acquisitions: RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai; OLB Jamie Collins; CB Desmond Trufant; QB Case Daniel; DT Danny Shelton; DT Nick Williams; CB Darryl Roberts; S Jayron Kearse; WR Geronimo Allison; ILB Reggie Ragland; WR Geremy Davis; CB Tony McRae; OLB Elijah Lee.

Draft picks: CB Jeff Okudah; RB D’Andre Swift; DE Julian Okwara; G Jonah Jackson; G Logan Stenberg; WR Quintez Cephus; RB Jason Huntley; DT John Penisini; DT Jashon Cornell.

UDFAs: TE Hunter Bryant; P Aaryn Siposs; S Jalen Elliot; DB Jeremiah Dinson; S Bobby Price; FB Luke Sellers; LS Steven Wirtel.

DRAFT NOTES:

The Lions generally got good initial grades on their draft, headlined by the top CB prospect Jeff Okudah, and also arguably the best RB in the draft, D’Andre Swift in the 2nd round. Beyond those two, probably not many contributors beyond that this season, but still a pretty good draft for the Lions.

ROSTER NOTES:

The Lions roster turned over quite a bit this off-season, with what appears to be a total of ten new starters for the Lions this season. Lions’ GM and former New England Patriot Bob Quinn continues his long-term plan of signing former Patriots to the Lions organization, which now includes head coach Matt Patricia, Danny Amendola, Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins Sr., and Duron Harmon.

On paper, the Lions look like a much better team than the Bears, and what should be a playoff contender. The main issue with the Lions’ roster is it’s age. Marvin Jones Jr. turned 30. Danny Amendola will be 35. Desmond Trufant will be 29. Nick Williams 30. Jamie Collins 31. Duron Harmon 30.

In some cases there are younger players behind them that could step up, if need be, and the Lions have been able to bring in an influx of younger talent to help replace some of their aging veterans.

The Lions look pretty solid on offense, however, and with Matthew Stafford back could make another step forward. Defensively, integrating the turnover in the roster will be a major task, as the Lions look to have 7 new starters on defense this season.

OVERALL

No discussion of the Detroit Lions’ prospects would be complete without mentioning what has been the bane of the Lions going back to before the Super Bowl era: a deep-seated organizational weakness.

I’m not sure if that’s the right term - a loser’s mentality may be more accurate - but whatever it is, it’s real and pervasive. The Lions have been near perennial under-achievers for decades, with only one playoff win to their name since 1958. They’ve never won an NFC North division title. The last time they won the division title was back in 1993 - 27 years ago - when it was the NFC Central division.

And despite Bob Quinn’s attempt to import the Patriots’ winners mentality from Foxboro, head coach Matt Patricia has the familiar Detroit stench all about him. As de-facto defensive coordinator, Patricia had what appeared to be a pretty solid defensive roster last season, complete with some nice free agent acquisitions, and looked poised to take another step forward. But it all went south. This despite an improving offense, even without Matthew Stafford.

Characterizations of Patricia from former Lions, including Darius Slay, while they may be dismissed as ventings of disgruntled employees, do raise questions about how respected he is as a coach, how hard players are willing to play for him, and what the team and organizational dynamics are going forward.

This looks to be a prove-it year for Patricia, and another sub-.500 season may well lead to his ouster. He’s been a sub-.300 head coach since taking over in 2018. The Lions have a current 9 game losing streak, and have lost 12 of their last 13 games.

Having said all that, the Lions look like a team that can compete in the division. They have the longest odds to win the division title, but from a roster standpoint, they look very competitive.

The key for the Lions will be to start the season strong. They start with two division battles with Chicago and at Green Bay, then another road game at Arizona, before returning home against the Saints. If the Lions can manage to go 2-2 before another week 5 bye-week, they have a chance to be a contender after Thanksgiving. But the early bye-week, along with a brutal post-Thanksgiving schedule do them no favors.

Bottom line, the Lions have a chance to be at least a .500 team this season, if things come together for them, and they can pull out some close games. But a slow start could see them wind up in the tank again, with head coach Matt Patricia out on his pencil.

Green Bay Packers

Head coach: Matt LaFleur. OC: Nathaniel Hackett. DC: Mike Pettine.

2019 RECAP:

13-3 record, NFC North Champions, 1-1 post-season record, 15th ranked offense, 9th ranked defense, in points/points allowed. 18th ranked in yards on both offense and defense.

ROSTER CHANGES:

Veteran losses: LB Blake Martinez; RT Bryan Bulaga; TE Jimmy Graham; OLB Kyler Fackrell; LB BJ Goodson; WR Geronimo Allison; T Jason Spriggs; S Ibraheim Campbell; CB Tramon Williams; RT Jared Veldheer; WR Ryan Grant; RB Tyler Ervin; FB Malcolm Johnson; G John Leglue; QB Manny Wilkins.

Veteran acquisitions: RT Ricky Wagner; LB Christian Kirksey; WR Devin Funchess; DT Treyvon Hester.

Draft picks: QB Jordan Love; RB AJ Dillon; TE Josiah Deguara; LB Kamal Martin; T Jon Runyan; C Jake Hanson; T Simon Stepaniak; S Vernon Scott; DE Jonathon Garvin.

UDFAs: LB Krys Barnes; S Henry Black; T Travis Bruffy; CB Marc Antoine-Dequoy; LB Tipa Galeai; S Frankie Griffen; G Zack Johnson; FB Jordan Jones; QB Jalen Morton; DT Willington Previlon; CB Stanford Samuels; LB Delontae Scott; WR Darrell Stewart; CB Will Sunderland; RB Patrick Taylor.

DRAFT NOTES:

The Packers were widely panned for having the worst draft in the NFL this season. Partly for trading up in the first round to draft QB Jordan Love, having just extended Aaron Rodgers just over a year ago, failing to draft a player that will likely contribute much this season, getting poor value for a few of their picks - essentially over-drafting them, and failing to adequately address more immediate needs like WR and LB.

It may be that the Packers are looking ahead to the next couple years when Aaron Rodgers turns 38 and 39 and has a cap hit of $36 and $40 million respectively, while at the same time players like LT David Bahktiari, C Corey Linsley, RB Aaron Jones, DT Kenny Clark, WR Davante Adams and CB Jaire Alexander become free agents that will command big price tags the Packers can’t currently afford, while lesser players will also need to be replaced.

I suppose you could also argue that while the Packers didn’t address a need at WR, they managed to go 13-3 last season with basically they same starters at WR, so what’s the urgency?

ROSTER NOTES:

The Packers look to have lost more than they gained in their off-season transactions, particularly at right tackle and inside linebacker. The lack of any substantial acquisitions either through the draft or free agency so far this off-season suggests the Packers are basically happy with their current starting roster, and therefore more focused on planning for the future.

Whether or not that proves to be a wise strategy, however, is yet to be seen.

OVERALL

The Packers largely looking to the future this off-season may help to prevent a larger fall-off in the coming years, but it is raises questions about how they will perform this season. Last season the Packers were aided by the upgrades on defense, particularly edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, who helped lead a big improvement in the Packers defense - particularly in takeaways. They also outperformed on both sides of the ball in the red zone.

But the Packers net point differential didn’t suggest at 13-3 team last season, and I suspect even many Packers’ fans felt they over-achieved relative to their roster, so it was no surprise when they fell convincingly to the 49ers in the playoffs for the 2nd time, just as the Vikings had the week before. The Packers had about as many blowout losses as wins, but proved very effective in winning tight games, going 7-1 in one score games, and in some cases against not very good opponents.

All that backdrop serves as a bit of a dark cloud for the Packers in the upcoming season. Statistics like turnover margin and record in one score games tend to even out over the course of time, while point differential is also a key predictor of the following year’s success, along with notable changes in roster, schedule, injuries, etc.

So far, there haven’t been much in terms of notable roster changes, and the Packers went from a 3rd place schedule to a 1st place schedule.

More specifically, the Packers upcoming schedule is much tougher in the first half of the season, particularly the four games just after their early week 5 bye week. If the Packers aren’t able to start strong, they could be looking at something close to 2-6 after week 9, before things get a little easier in the second half of the season. Additionally, both the Bears and Vikings have their bye-week before facing the Packers, while the Packers face the Bucs following their bye-week.

But even if the Packers are able start pretty well, it’s difficult to see them doing much better than about 10-6 for the season - assuming some reversion to the mean in terms of turnover margin and one-score games.

Bottom Line

The early post-draft prognosticators suggest that while the Vikings may have drafted the best in the division, the Lions also drafted well and had some significant acquisitions in free agency, the NFC North looks to be a slightly weaker division overall this season.

The Packers and Bears did little to improve their roster, while the acquisitions the Vikings and Lions made this off-season may be largely off-set by the losses.

Last season, the Vikings had by far the fewest Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) of any team in the league due to injury, according to Football Outsiders. The Packers and Bears were slightly below average, and the Lions were slightly above average, given the loss of Matthew Stafford for half the season. In the past, how healthy each team in the division has been has had a very high correlation to winning the division, and that will likely be the case this season as well.

But with the Lions looking more competitive, at least on paper, the Bears perhaps treading water, and the Packers perhaps set for a bit of regression over last season, the Vikings have a good opportunity to regain the division crown for the first time since 2017. But they’ll need to continue to stay relatively healthy, and see some of their backups and draft picks step up more so than others among their division rivals.

Current odds seem to make the NFC North largely a two team race between the Packers and Vikings, with the Bears a bit further back and the Lions even more so.

The Vikings were 3-4 in one-score games last season, and had the highest net point differential in the division, which are positive leading indicators. But they were also near the top in turnover margin, which can be a negative if it reverts to the mean this coming season. Whether their roster improves the most over last season also remains to be seen.

Lastly the Vikings record within the division was a mere 2-4 last season, with their only wins coming over the hapless Lions (although their last loss to the Bears was with their 2nd string). Both the Packers (6-0) and Bears (4-2) had significantly better division records. So, for the Vikings to have a reasonable chance of winning the division, they’ll need to do a better job of beating their division rivals.

Stay tuned.

Poll

The first name of the NFC North winning head coach this season will be:

This poll is closed

  • 90%
    Mike
    (1706 votes)
  • 9%
    Matt
    (180 votes)
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