The NFC North has been a division of legends since the very first Super Bowl in 1967. The Packers led by Bart Starr brought home the championship trophy. In recent years, however, the division has seemed to take a step back in competitiveness as the legends grow older and the rebuilding stages begin. One team that has transitioned well, no doubt in thanks to their quarterback play, has been the Green Bay Packers. Going from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers wasn’t exactly tough on management. The signal callers for the Vikings and Bears have been relatively unstable, while the Lions have an established gunslinger . . . but not much else. All of this leads to what could be an interesting Division race at the top and could produce a few top five picks at the bottom. I will be analyzing the teams based on their strengths, weaknesses, and their offseason acquisitions. Hopefully, this insight will be a sneak peak into a group of teams that appear to be headed for a similar destiny as 2016.
The Green Bay Packers: 1st Place
Best Positions: Quarterback (Obviously) and Wide Receivers
With one of the great ones at the helm, the Packers are the easy choice to win the division. Aaron Rodgers once again proved to be capable of propelling a team forward last season, leading them to the conference championship game where they lost a high-flying matchup to what should’ve been the eventual Super Bowl winners (the Falcons followed up this doozy with one of the worst collapses in professional sports history but I’ll save that for another article.)
After a season that featured many ups and downs, I expect Rodgers to once again be in the MVP conversation near the end of the year. He has a healthy Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams as well as essentially another receiver coming out of the backfield in Stanford alum Ty Montgomery. The offense is loaded and should continue to put up points at an impressive clip all season. This is an offense that will carry the team to an NFC North division win and possible Super Bowl contender.
Outside of Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers have a very young and inexperienced secondary that was repeatedly abused last season. This was their ultimate downfall as the Falcons and Matt Ryan picked them apart in the conference championship game. Clearly, they could use some help and by ridding themselves of Ladarius Gunter, they took a step in the right direction. With each year Damarious Randall promises better play but this will be the season for him to put up or shut up as he has received rave reviews this offseason. With a schedule littered with high-flying offenses, it will be up to the secondary to decide if the Packers can take the next step and become World Champions.
The Detroit Lions: 2nd Place
Best Positions: Offensive Line and Secondary
With the offseason pickups of T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner along with the return of a healthy Ameer Abdullah, the Lions rushing attack should improve dramatically from their 30th place finish from last year. These additions will also help prevent Stafford from having to run for his life and allow him to find his talented receiving targets in Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, and Eric Ebron. The Lions got very lucky last year and won several close, come-from-behind games that allowed them to appear much better than the stats actually show.
However, the secondary that was already very good, improved more over the offseason with experience and the addition of a promising rookie in Jalon “Teez” Tabor. He will hopefully find his niche in the defense and provide some speed and versatility to the secondary that will allow the Lions to win shootouts with their offense.
You might be hard pressed to find many glaring positional weaknesses for the Lions believe it or not. That being said, the linebacking crew projected to take the field for the Lions in 2017 leaves a lot to be desired. They are going to be forced to start former Gator and first round pick Jarrad Davis along with a reeling Paul Worrilow that was ousted from Atlanta last season. This group is going to need to step up big, especially against the run, if the Lions want to challenge for a playoff spot and NFC North title this year. Despite very little star-power, the Lions have an exceptionally average roster headed into 2017. It will take a few young guys stepping up in order to increase their win total from 2016.
The Minnesota Vikings: 3rd Place
Best Positions: Linebackers and Secondary
The Vikings defense carried them all season, giving up more than 26 points only twice all season. They come back this season led by Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks as a preseason top 5 defense, and the best in the NFC North. This defense ranked in the Top 10 in nearly every major defensive category in 2016 and in order for them to break through in Sam Bradford’s second year and make the playoffs, they will need to repeat their performance from last year. There’s no doubt the defense is talented and many say defense wins championships, but it’s tough to win championships without an offense that scores any points.
Weaknesses: Running Back and Offensive Line
The running back situation could be considered a strength by season’s end but as of today in June, it appears to be headed for disaster. I like Dalvin Cook as much as the next guy but he will have his work cut out for him running behind an offensive line that ranks near worst in the league. To make things worse, the offseason signing of Latavius Murray would be in vain if they don’t at least give him a chance and management doesn’t want to admit that mistake if at all possible. It will take time for these new guys to learn the offense and they don’t exactly have a Pro Bowl quarterback to lean on.
As a side note, best wishes to Teddy Bridgewater moving forward. He is an excellent player and young man and hopefully, the former Louisville Cardinal will return to the field sooner rather than later. For now, the Vikings will have to make due with a below average QB, a weak offensive line, and unproven running backs to keep their defense off the field in 2017. Who knows, maybe we could be in for a surprise contender?
The Chicago Bears: 4th Place
Best Positions: Defensive Front
This is more of a general defensive “strength” segment as the Bears aren’t necessarily strong by any definition of the word. Jerrell Freeman is a stud but missed a chunk of the season last year because of a suspension. Danny Trevathan and Leonard Floyd have proven to be capable pass rushers and run stoppers. The D-line is anchored by big Eddie Goldman. The secondary improved vastly with the acquisition of Quintin Demps and Prince Amukamara, so hopefully, the defense can get back to the glory days. The Bears show signs of promise on the defensive side of the ball and that’s good because chances are they’ll be on the field a lot in 2017.
Weakness: Quarterback and Wide Receiver
The ever-frustrating conundrum of starting a lifetime backup or an unproven rookie. That is the case for the Bears this year with a grossly overpaid Mike Glennon and number two overall pick Mitch Trubisky. There is a lot of hope that Mitch Trubisky is the leader of the future but with only one year of starting experience in college, it remains to be seen whether or not he can be successful long-term. That will be tough considering either Glennon or Trubisky will be throwing to a depleted receiving corps that lost their number one threat from a year ago in Alshon Jeffery. They now have a drop-plagued Cameron Meredith, another who’s made of glass in Kevin White, and finally a classic number three in Kendall Wright. It looks as if it will be a rough season for the Bears in the NFC North and hopefully it will lead to some growth and possibly a top five pick in next years draft.
Final Division Predictions:
Green Bay Packers: 13 – 3
Detroit Lions: 9 – 7
Minnesota Vikings: 8 – 8
Chicago Bears: 2 – 14