As we near week one of the NFL season, let’s take a look at what’s happening within the Vikings’ NFC North division, including changes and developments among the Vikings’ NFC North rivals.
The Bears are coming off a disappointing 8-8 campaign last season that left them out of the playoffs after going 12-4 in 2018. Perhaps the biggest reason for the Bears decline was the loss of some key players on defense, and the inability to replicate the league-leading 36 turnovers they had in 2018. Losing Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator didn’t help either.
The Bears also suffered from poor quarterback play, and the offense struggled in general with both run and pass. Players like Mitch Trubisky and David Montgomery disappointed, and there was nobody to pick up the slack.
While head coach Matt Nagy is the de facto offensive coordinator, OC Mark Helfrich took the fall for the poor performance of the Bears’ offense last year, with Nagy replacing him with Bill Lazor, who’s had two unremarkable 2-year stints with Miami and Cincinnati.
In free agency, the most notable move for the Bears was trading for Nick Foles to challenge, and presumably unseat, Mitch Trubisky as starting quarterback. The Bears also signed DE Robert Quinn to replace Leonard Floyd, signed TE Jimmy Graham, CB Artie Burns to replace Prince Amakumara, RG Germain Ifeadi to replace Kyle Long, and apparently have moved Cordarrelle Patterson to RB.
The Bears traded their first-round pick this year in the Khalil Mack deal, but drafted CB Jaylon Johnson and TE Cole Kmet in the 2nd round. They had just three 5th round and two 7th round picks after that.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they’ve already been hit by the injury bug - losing starting cornerback Artie Burns for the season to an ACL tear and RB David Montgomery for 2-4 weeks with a strained groin muscle. The Bears are thin at both positions and will start rookie Jaylon Johnson at cornerback opposite Kyle Fuller, while relying on unproven backs to fill in for Montgomery with Tarik Cohen.
The Bears have also suffered minor injuries to star DT Akiem Hicks, who suffered a quad injury; Jaylon Johnson suffered a shoulder injury that’s caused him to miss some valuable practice time as a rookie; and star receiver Allen Robinson has missed some practices due to an ankle injury. The injury to Hicks, soon to be 31 and missed most of last season due to injury, is worth noting because injuries can tend to linger in older defensive tackles- Linval Joseph is a good example.
The main news from Bears training camp is the QB competition between incumbent Mitch Trubisky and newcomer Nick Foles, which has been disappointing. Neither QB has looked particularly good, raising some concern. Foles may have a slight advantage in training camp performance, but neither QB appears to have earned the starting job at this point. Former Vikings’ offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is the Bears’ QB coach.
Since acquiring Khalil Mack in the blockbuster trade a couple years ago, the Bears have
been bleeding talent on defense, particularly their defensive secondary. Offensively, apart from WR Allen Robinson, who’s in a contract year, the Bears lack talent across the board.
The Bears’ defensive front is really their only strong position group at this point, but even there their stars are aging. Akiem Hicks will be 31 this year, and Khalil Mack will turn 30 in February. Mack has averaged just 10 sacks a season since joining the Bears, and acquiring him cost them two first-round picks. Mack is also a $26.6 million salary cap hit for the Bears in each of the next two years. That hit has caused the Bears to lose free agent talent, and the cost to acquire him cost valuable draft capital the Bears needed to replenish that talent.
All of the above gives the Bears the stink of a team headed for a rebuild. Bears GM Ryan Pace was once seen as one of the young, up-and-coming deal-makers in the league. But his high profile blunder in drafting Mitch Trubisky, along with the very costly Mack deal turning south, has put him on the hot seat. He doesn’t have much to show for his draft picks the past five years, and his curious decision to draft a tight-end with his first pick in the draft, after signing Jimmy Graham and having like a dozen TEs on the roster at the time, hasn’t helped that situation.
As it stands, just over half of the Bears current 80-man roster will be free agents at the end of the year. While some of them will likely be released as the Bears cut down to a 53-man roster, I suspect half of the Bears 53-man roster will also be free agents at the end of the season. Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller and Khalil Mack - the core of their defense - will either be unrestricted free agents or could be released at the end of next season, at which time they’ll all be 30+. All this, along with no franchise quarterback, sets the stage contractually and from an age standpoint, for major turnover and rebuild. I have my doubts that Ryan Pace will be the one calling the shots at that point.
The Bears roster and general situation also sets the stage for what could be a disappointing season, and perhaps setting them up to pick in the top half of the draft next year. They have the 6th easiest schedule this season in terms of opposing team total win over/under number, but I don’t think it would take much in the way of adversity for the Bears to finish around the 6-10 mark, and it’s difficult to see them finish better than 8-8.
The Lions are currently in a 9 games losing streak dating back to early November last year. They’ve also lost 12 of their last 13 games, putting head coach Matt Patricia under .300 for his career as a head coach.
Since Bob Quinn became the Lions’ GM from New England several years ago, he’s seemingly prioritized making the Lions the Patriots of the Midwest, except for the winning thing. He’s brought in former Patriots’ DC Matt Patricia as head coach, and acquired several former Patriots in free agency. The intent was to change the Lions culture to that of the Patriots, and then presumably the dynasty would begin. But, as we’ve been witness to from the other side of Wisconsin, culture change hasn’t come easily to the Lions organization, if it’s come at all, over the past several decades.
Matt Patricia is the de facto defensive coordinator in Detroit, but it was defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni that took the fall for the Lions drop from 16th to 26th in points allowed last season. Patricia promoted former Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin to be his new defensive coordinator- it’s his first DC gig. He’s also being given play-calling duties, taking over from Patricia last season.
In free agency, the Lions acquired RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai from the Eagles to replace Rick Wagner, who went to the Packers. They also acquired 30 year-old LB Jamie Collins from the Patriots to replace Devon Kennard, who went to the Cardinals. They also picked up DT Danny Shelton from the Patriots, who replaces Damon Harrison. They also acquired DT Nick Williams from the Bears, who replaces A’Shawn Robinson/Mike Daniels, who went to the Rams/Bengals respectively. All those were largely lateral moves.
In the draft, the Lions picked the top CB Jeffrey Okudah to replace Darius Slay, RB D’Andre Swift, DE Julian Okwara, and G Jonah Jackson to replace Glasgow with their top picks, and all of them look to be starters, or receive significant reps, for the Lions this season.
The Lions ownership sent a letter directed at GM Bob Quinn and HC Matt Patricia last
December, when they extended them one year, basically mandating the Lions be playoff contenders, or buh-bye. So that adds a sense of urgency for both men to basically be above .500 - I’d call that a rough equivalent to “playoff contender.”
But while the Lions have Matthew Stafford back healthy at QB, they went 3-4-1 last year before he was lost for the season due to injury. How does the team respond this year? It’s hard to get a good sense of all the off-season moves, but they seem largely lateral moves. Jeffrey Okudah is still learning the ropes, so he won’t be able to replicate Darius Slay’s performance right away, and there will be a fair number of new guys- both rookies and vets- in the Lions lineup. Will they gel together and get things done?
Lions history suggests that however good the Lions may look on paper, actual performance falls below that, and sometimes a lot below that. And seldom if ever does it exceed expectations on paper. Will that change this year?
The Lions have the 8th easiest schedule in terms of the over/under for opposing team wins. But they start with 4 of their first 6 games on the road (.250 road winning % under Patricia), with home games against the Bears and Saints. An early (week 5) bye week, combined with a fairly brutal last five (@ Bears, Packers, @Titans, Bucs, Vikings) doesn’t help much either.
Given all that, it’s difficult to see the Lions doing well enough to keep Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn employed. 8-8 seems about the best case scenario, but 6-10 looks like a better base case scenario for the Lions, which appears likely to lead to a new head coach and GM for the Lions next year.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers new regime under Matt LaFleur was more successful than many predicted, going 13-3 and advancing to the NFC Championship game. But many also felt the Packers record was a lot better than the team itself, as the Packers won more than their share of close games (9-1 in one score games), sometimes aided by questionable calls, and what may be an unsustainable turnover differential. Nevertheless, the Packers were able to make the most of what they had, and benefitted by the free agent acquisition of Za’Darius Smith to help bolster their long lack-luster pass rush. The Packers’ defense rose from 22nd to 9th last season.
In free agency, the Packers acquired RT Rick Wagner from the Lions to replace Bryan Bulaga, who went to the Chargers. They also acquired ILB Christian Kirksey to replace Blake Martinez, who went to the Giants. In both cases, this represents a downgrade for the Packers. They also lost OLB Kyler Fackrell to the Giants, and TE Jimmy Graham to the Bears. They acquired WR Devin Funchess, but he opted-out for the season.
The Packers draft was widely panned as one of, if not the worst, draft in the league this year. It wasn’t just that they traded up in the first round for Jordan Love, a project QB with a high ceiling and low floor, but that they really didn’t draft anyone that will have much of an impact this year. They didn’t draft a WR- which was a big need- in a deep draft class at the position. Many thought RB AJ Dillon was a bit of a reach in the 2nd round, and the rest with the possible exception of LB Kamal Martin, look like career backups. Dillon is a big back (@ 250 lbs. with tree trunk legs) that will likely spell Aaron Jones.
But overall, the Packers didn’t do much to improve their roster this year. They made an investment in Jordan Love, hoping he’ll continue the string of HoF QBs in time. But don’t expect to see much of Love before 2022.
Clearly the Packers felt they can leverage their existing roster, hoping some guys will step
up to fill the voids. One of those guys is Rashan Gary, who the Packers spent a high first-round pick on last year, but who didn’t get a lot of reps considering his draft position. Another guy they’re hoping will step-up is TE Jace Sternberger, who they drafted last year but missed the first half of the season due to injury, and didn’t show much the second half. Lastly, the Packers are hoping 3rd-year WR Allen Lazard and/or Marquez Valdes-Scantling will provide Aaron Rodgers with another productive target outside of Davante Adams, who’s carried the Packers’ passing game the last couple years.
Based on personnel changes, it would seem that the Packers offense is about the same as last year, but the defense may be a tick worse, considering the downgrade at linebacker.
Aaron Rodgers will turn 37 in a few months, and over the past few seasons has shown he’s not the Aaron Rodgers of his prime anymore. Arm strength and downfield accuracy aren’t what they once were, nor are his receiving weapons outside of Adams. It wouldn’t be surprising for Rodgers to take another tick down in performance this year, which has been the trend since he hit his mid-30s. Keeping healthy is probably more of an issue these days as well.
But the Packers play the NFC North tough. 6-0 in the division last season, albeit with some close games, but it doesn’t seem likely that the Packers will go belly-up in the division all of a sudden. My guess is they’ll be at least 3-3, more likely 4-2.
The Packers have an average (15th) difficulty schedule, based on opponents over/under total win numbers. They have an early bye week, but the strength of their opponents is clearly front-loaded as well. They have two tough road games in September- at the Vikings and at New Orleans - before their bye week. Then they face Brady and the Bucs on the road, at Houston, Vikings at home, and at San Francisco. Getting to week 10 with a 4-4 record would be a good outcome for the Packers. From there things get easier the rest of the way.
And so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Packers end the regular season around the 10-6 mark, which should give them a playoff birth and contend for the division crown.
The Vikings made it back into the playoffs last season as a wildcard, but couldn’t beat the Packers or the Bears, which cost them the division crown. Like the Packers, they advanced in the playoffs until they met the 49ers, who beat them handily.
The Vikings had the best team in the division in terms of combined offense and defense rankings, and point differential last season, but they couldn’t translate into a better division record or a division crown.
It would seem like an off-season overhaul, as Mike Zimmer replaced both offensive and defensive coordinators, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zimmer is the de facto defensive coordinator and any new wrinkles in scheme will continue to be at his direction. Offensively, the Vikings installed Gary Kubiak’s scheme and coaching staff last year, so not much change on that score either. The loss of George Edwards and Kevin Stefanski was effectively getting rid of the middlemen. Zimmer did take on Dom Capers to provide some ideas on different defensive wrinkles he may employ, and could lead to some changes, but probably not dramatically so on either side of the ball.
In terms of free agency, the Vikings jettisoned Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and MacKensie Alexander. They also traded Stefon Diggs for a first round pick and a couple others. But they also acquired Michael Pierce to replace Linval Joseph (although he opted-out this year), and most recently Yannick Ngakoue to replace Everson Griffen.
The Vikings also ended up with a record 15 draft picks, which they used to restock their CB group with Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, and Harrison Hand. They also picked WR Justin Jefferson to replace Stefon Diggs (although Bisi Johnson is poised to be WR2), a bunch more picks could eventually make their way into rotational or starting jobs at some point down the line.
And so while the national media seems more concerned about the loss of more well-known players like Diggs and Rhodes, the truth is that the wide receiver and cornerback position groups are shaping up pretty well, particularly seeing them in training camp.
The biggest loss was probably NT Michael Pierce opting-out for the season. That creates more of a question mark about the Vikings run defense - something that held them up at times in big games last season. I suspect the Vikings will be fine at both the defensive end and offensive tackle spots, but it’s the interior trenches that are more uncertain, and more likely the weakest link on both sides of the ball.
The Vikings look to have largely solved the problem of departed veterans over the off-
season, and may have even improved their pass defense. But as it stands, their run defense and the interior offensive line remain the same question marks they were at the end of last season. Both the Lions and Packers have spent high round draft picks on running backs, while the Bears, given their QB situation, have remained somewhat dependent on a healthy run game. The Vikings inability to beat either the Bears or Packers last season is problematic if the Vikings are to come away with the division title this year.
But both the Packers or Bears look to have lost a bit more than they gained, which should open the door for the Vikings to at least split the series with both teams this season. The Vikings have won five straight against the Lions, and by the time the Vikings face them at home in November, the Lions and the Patricia regime could be circling the drain.
Still, the Vikings will need to beat better teams than the Lions if they’re to win the division. In addition to the Packers week one, another road game at Seattle week five should be an important gauge of where the Vikings are at this season. The Vikings run defense will be tested early and often the first five weeks, with the Packers and Seahawks both having run the ball well against the Vikings last year, and the Colts, Titans and Texans all having pretty good running backs - and QB in the Texans’ case. After that initial blitz, the Vikings host Atlanta again before their bye week, and a trio of division games beginning at Lambeau Field. Tougher games against the Cowboys, Bucs and Saints round out the back end of their schedule.
My guess is that the Vikings and Packers will be fighting for the division crown, and may end the season with similar records around the 10-6 mark, while the Bears and Lions will be a few games behind in the race at the bottom.
Oddsmakers appear to share that view, as the Vikings and Packers have nearly identical odds to win the division at 1.75-1 (Vikings) and 1.80-1 (Packers). The Bears have 4-1 odds to win the division, while the Lions are 4.5-1.
As always injuries, and this year Covid cases, will likely have an important impact on the division race.
Which team would you bet on to win the division, given the odds?
This poll is closed
Vikings (win $175 for a $100 bet)
Packers (win $180 for a $100 bet)
Bears (win $400 for a $100 bet)
Lions (win $450 for a $100 bet)