NFC North Season Preview

By: TFL Staff 

We’re just one more preseason week away from some real pigskin, and what better division to talk about then the one with the most classic rivalry. Don’t forget about the abundance of Thanksgiving football and emergence of Sam Bradford (just kidding).  It’s the NFC North in this weeks analysis.

Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

It’s pretty obvious as to why Rodgers wins in this category. The best players are the ones to make the least mistakes, and Rodgers is in that criteria of players. He hasn’t thrown for more than 10 interceptions since 2010 (Super Bowl Season) and has thrown 30 or more touchdowns in 5 of his last 6 seasons (the exception being a 9 game season in 2013). Couple that with the arsenal of the Packers receiving corps and Rodgers is even more poised for success.

Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb stand as Rodger’s one-two punch, and he will be helped by rising Packer DeVante Adams. The Packers also signed star TE Martellus Bennett, who spent a season helping the Patriots while Gronk was injured. Bennett has earned a starter role in a powerful offense.

Rodgers had a 93.8 Passer Rating while under pressure in 2016, ranking him among the best QBs according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Rodgers also has a knack to catch penalties on the defense early, giving him an ability to make amazing free plays. He’s only 33, and his skill and mindset is that of a top 3 Quarterback. Expect Rodgers to make another MVP run while he’s at it this year.

Prediction: 4,200 yards, 36 Touchdowns, 8 Interceptions, 67% Pass Completion, 325 rushing yards, 4 rushing Touchdowns 

Defensive Player of the Year: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota Vikings 

Xavier Rhodes got paid this offseason. And i mean paid. Rhodes signed a five-year extension worth up to $70 million this offseason. Rhodes’ current deal through 2022 is the most lucrative deal inked by a defender in Vikings history, with a chance to earn $78 million over the next six seasons. Rhodes, who is under contract for $8.026 million this season, will receive $41 million guaranteed. That will be paid within the first three seasons, making his three-year average pay in line with Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Arizona’s Patrick Peterson at $14 million per season. His average pay over all six years is $13 million.

In 2016, Rhodes led the Vikings with a career-high five interceptions — most by a Minnesota player since 2003. The corner allowed the second-lowest reception percentage among all players targeted at least 75 times (49.4 percent), per NFL Research. Last year’s breakout campaign showed what Rhodes could do once he put it all together. He became the first Vikings cornerback in more than a decade to grab five interceptions in a season and was regularly assigned to shadow an opponent’s top receiver. That includes the Vikings’ Monday night victory over the Giants, when Beckham was held to three catches for 23 yards.

In his fifth season with the Vikings, the young cornerback most certainly has the potential to be a part of the All-Pro Team when the year comes to a close. It just depends on Rhodes being able to stay healthy and also continuing to come up with big-time plays when opposing quarterbacks actually try and throw in his direction. The Florida State product has all the right reasons to brag right now. He is heading into the prime of his career and has the potential to get the Vikings back into winning territory this season. I like him to earn DPOY in this division.

Prediction: 62 tackles, 11 passes defensed, six interceptions, one forced fumble, and Two defensive touchdown(s)

Rookie of the Year: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

It has been a peculiar draft process for Dalvin Cook which led him to being a Viking. After the 2016 CFB season, Cook was a sure-fire top-15 pick, then a bad combine lead him to slip. Then a questionable injury history, then off-field issues. All those events led to the biggest slide of the draft down to the 41st overall pick. The Vikings didn’t have a first round pick (it was traded to PHI for Sam Bradford of all people), so they traded up to snag a first round talent in the second round. It works for both parties.

Last year the Vikings couldn’t run the ball against Texas Tech, that’s how bad it was. They ranked last in the NFL in rush yards/game. They didn’t have Adrian Peterson for most of the year, and their offensive line was atrocious. Now they have Cook, Latavius Murray via free agency, and a considerably better line after they addressed the need via FA and the draft.

To begin the season Cook will be the number one back baring injury or an extreme set back in these final weeks. He is more talented than Murray and should make Pat Shumur smile at the potential he has with this offense. As a runner, Cook has great vision and uses it at the right times, the other times he runs like a bat out of hell which should help a spotty o-line. He is a viable receiving option as well. He has speed to be a mismatch and his frame is hard to bring down. Captain Checkdown (Sam Bradford for those who are lost) should have a field day with that. As a rookie Dalvin is the biggest home run threat the Vikings possess, so expect Minnesota to use him as such.

He wont top 1,000 rushing yards due to Murray being good enough to get a decent amount carries in his own right along with getting  bulk of the goal line carries due to his 6’3 frame. But Cook will do it all in the Vikings offense. They have no choice but to use his versatility right away, so expect a nice balanced stat line for Cook this upcoming season.

Predictions: 180 carries, 815 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 320 rec yards, 3 rec TDs

Green Bay Packers

The reigning NFC North champs are coming into this year with a great chance to repeat. Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers have won this division five of the last six years, and that is all thanks to Rodgers. No seriously, 90% of the Packers recent success is due to Rodgers. A-A-Ron has led the Cheeseheads to eight straight playoff appearances tied with New England for the longest active streak, and one behind Dallas for the longest in NFL history.

It only gets better by the year for Rodgers. His offense this year could be the best talent he has been surrounded by in recent memory. The receiver trio of Jordy Nelson, Randell Cobb, and DeVante Adams are finally all healthy leading into week one for the second straight year, and they signed Martellus Bennett this offseason to be their red zone guy, or that is the smoke they seem to be blowing our way. That is four guys who all have potential to reach 850 yards and 8+ TDs each. And for an offense who threw the ball the most last year, that seem more and more possible every time I think about it. And for once Green Bay will have a respectable offensive line. They have one of the better OT duos in David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. The interior needs to be sured up after losing T.J Lang and others, but Jahri Evans and Lane Taylor should be better than any guard duo in the past few season to dress for the Pack. However it really wont kill the Pack if they do not perform well. Figuring they don’t have a legit running back taking the bulk of the carries and Rodgers escape ability will make things easier on that unit.

Now lets go to a unit that has about zero respect, the defense. They held the crown of worst pass defense last year, and if Sam Shields wasn’t injured or they had an NFL caliber corner behind him they would’ve been in the Super Bowl. There are three clear leaders on this defense. DT Mike Daniels, OLB Clay Mathews, and S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Those three have to play at an all-pro level if the Pack want to rep the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. Green Bay will rely on second-year plays ILB Blake Martinez and NT Kenny Clark to produce at a high level. Then rookie Kevin King will have a lot of pressure to help this poor secondary after being the 33rd overall pick. This defense will be the weakest point yet again on this team, but spending their first four draft picks on defensive players is the step in the right direction. We will see inexperience from this defense a lot, but we should see some potential of what this D can become.

No team seems to be on the Packers level, hold on let me rephrase that. No team in this division is on Aaron Rodgers level. It is just like the AFC East, you have the best QB in your conference? Congratulations you qualify to be a division dynasty. The Packers offense is one of the best in the league and will not take a step back this year after improvement this offseason, and the defense will most likely not be the worst in the NFL at any category. In some part because of the Jets but in large parts because of improvement. Green Bay will be co-record holders with the Cowboys and inevitably the Patriots with 9 straight playoff appearances.

Prediction: 10-6

Minnesota Vikings

I really do feel for the Vikings. They were a mere game winning field goal away from beating the Seahawks back in 2015 in the playoffs. Whether it was the absolute brutal conditions in the Twin Cities that day, or the enormous pressure Blair Walsh felt making that kick, is for you to decide. What isn’t really much of a debate, however, is the Vikings having nothing but bad luck since. Losing Teddy Bridgewater for yet another year has left the job to be filled by veteran Sam Bradford.

The thing that sticks out the most about the 2017 Vikings is the new look run game. For the first time since 2006, the Vikings head into a season without Adrian Peterson as he departs for a new chapter in New Orleans. Considering that Peterson is 32 and averaged 1.9 yards per carry while missing 13 games a year ago, maybe it was time to start from scratch. After releasing Peterson, general manager Rick Spielman went to work restocking an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL during an injury-ravaged 2016 season that saw the Vikings lose eight of their last 11 games to miss the playoffs for the second time in coach Mike Zimmer’s three seasons. Murray and Cook will be excellent additions to this run game. Murray is a big back who can pass protect and make people forget last year’s repeated failures in short-yardage situations. Cook is a three-down back with first-round talent who fell into the second round. Cook is no doubt a home run threat, and a back i see having a stellar rookie season.

Bradford is the undisputed starter in part because the Vikings believe Bridgewater will miss a second straight full season as he works his way back from the career-threatening knee injury suffered last August. Bradford was exceptional last season, arriving eight days before the regular season and setting an NFL record for completion percentage (71.6) while throwing only five interceptions. He was durable, quick-minded, smart with the football and steady in spite of losing Peterson in Week 2, both starting tackles by Week 6 and Turner heading into Week 8. At receiver, the Vikings have two overachievers as starters in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Neither has the size of a typical No. 1 receiver, so it’s time for the underachiever in the room, 2016 first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell, to bounce back after an injury-marred season saw him start only one game and catch one pass.

The key to the season is the offensive line. A year after using 12 linemen, including five left tackles, the Vikings will start three new faces up front. Reiff and Remmers aren’t elite, but they’re young, durable and the best the Vikings could find with free agency and the draft. Reiff was cast aside in Detroit for an upgrade and is moving from his more natural right tackle spot to left tackle. Elflein has some limitations athletically, but the third-rounder is strong and physical enough to start from Day 1 at center or right guard. Shurmur is a pass-oriented coach but has worked to change the team’s run-blocking schemes to include more outside zone plays that could benefit Murray and Cook. Zimmer is determined to run the ball to control the game and prevent a repeat of the plethora of three-and-outs that caused his defense to wear out down the stretch last season.

The defense can be dominant, as it was while racking up 12 takeaways during the 5–0 start last year. Zimmer uses a 4-3 base but plays sub packages more than 60 percent of the time. His signature Double A-gap look puts offenses on the defensive because of all the different things the young playmakers can do out of that look. A defense that ranked third in the NFL last year could be even better if 3-technique tackle Sharrif Floyd is able to bounce back from nerve damage in his knee. He missed 15 games last year and isn’t being counted on to return this year. The Vikings signed former Packers first-round draft pick Datone Jones, an end who the Vikings believe is better suited to play the penetrating 3-technique spot. Spielman also made Iowa tackle Jaleel Johnson the team’s first defender drafted. The fourth-rounder had 7.5 sacks a year ago and has the potential to upgrade the Vikings in this category.

The line is the team’s strength. Right end Everson Griffen is the rare elite pass rusher who is doggedly determined enough to be a strong run stopper as well. Nose tackle Linval Joseph sets the tone with size, strength and lateral quickness. Left end could see a battle between steady 10-year veteran Brian Robison and rising superstar Danielle Hunter, who had 12.5 sacks last year as a situational pass rusher. Hunter overwhelms right tackles with freakish athleticism for a man that big and strong. Zimmer often moves Robison inside in passing situations and allows him to freelance from the standing position. Linebacker in the sub packages is set with two 25-year-old three-down players in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Kendricks keeps getting better and has led the team in tackles during both of his seasons. Barr, meanwhile, has All-Pro potential but had a flat, no-flash season while coasting too often a year ago. He needs to step it up this year.

In the base defense, the Vikings are looking for someone to win the weak-side position vacated with Chad Greenway’s retirement. Emmanuel Lamur, who sometimes looked lost last year, is a candidate. So is rookie Ben Gedeon, who is limited athletically but would be primarily responsible for stopping the run in the base. Another option would be to move Kendricks to the weak side and let Kentrell Brothers play in the middle.In the secondary, free safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are Pro Bowlers with All-Pro potential. Smith is Zimmer’s most useful game-plan gadget because he can rush off the edge and cover deep. Rhodes is a big, long corner who continues to gain confidence and savvy as a guy who can shadow the opponent’s top receiver.

On the other side is Terence Newman, who turns 39 before the season yet shows no signs of giving up the starting position. Trae Waynes, a first-round pick in 2014, has been groomed to take over the position but might have to wait another year. At strong safety, Andrew Sendejo can be a speed liability, but he’s an overachiever who plays foot to the floor at all times. The biggest hole defensively could be at nickel back, where Captain Munnerlyn left via free agency. The Vikings drafted his heir apparent, Mackensie Alexander, in the second round a year ago. Alexander has skills and instincts but is raw and immature.

Prediction: 7-9

Detroit Lions

This one should be fun to break down. But when isn’t it fun to talk about the Lions? Let’s be honest, this team isn’t in condition to bring home a Lombardi trophy this season, but they are on track to bring back a winning team to the Motor City.The hope for the Detroit Lions is that a new regime led by general manager Bob Quinn will continue where it left off in 2016. The Lions returned to the playoffs, got significant contributions from Quinn’s first draft class and, with a franchise quarterback already in place, appeared to lay a foundation for success.One thing hasn’t changed, however. The Lions still haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, and they haven’t won a division title since ’93, letting one slip away last winter with three consecutive losses to end the season. So while coach Jim Caldwell’s even-keeled approach is appreciated in the locker room and seems to be a good fit with Quinn, Caldwell is facing a contract year that includes a tougher schedule.

Their is no doubt that Matthew Stafford will be the starter for a long time in Detroit, barring any injuries. The 29 year old Georgia alum got paid this past week, racking up a  a five-year contract extension worth $135 million. This is $10 million more than Oakland Quarterback Derek Carr, who also had himself a wealthy upgrade last offseason. Stafford is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, despite playing the last month with the middle finger on his throwing hand in a splint. Prior to that, he led the team to an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins. And he looked comfortable in his first full year with Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator, spreading the ball around in a controlled short passing attack.

And then there is the run game. The Lions ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing and didn’t have a back gain more than 70 yards in a game all season. But starter Ameer Abdullah is back after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 2 last season, and he could form a dynamic tandem with Theo Riddick, a matchup nightmare out of the backfield who also was lost to injury late last season. The emergence of Zach Zenner as a viable fill-in starter provides some depth, but if Abdullah can’t stay on the field, it’ll spell trouble again. The biggest change in the Lions’ offensive outlook can be found in the trenches, where Quinn has completely revamped the offensive line.

The line was expected to be anchored by last year’s rookie first-round pick, Taylor Decker, who had an impressive debut at left tackle. But Decker required shoulder surgery in June and will not be ready to start the season, so the Lions traded with the Rams for former first-round pick Greg Robinson and signed former Bills second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Lang’s arrival adds some veteran leadership as well as a much-needed nasty streak, but Decker will be missed.

Last year’s big free-agent addition, receiver Marvin Jones Jr.. He started fast while trying to fill the cleats of retired star Calvin Johnson. But after a 205-yard, two-TD day at Lambeau Field in Week 3, his per-game averages the rest of the season (three catches for 44 yards) didn’t measure up. That’s one reason the Lions targeted another big wideout in the draft, Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay, who’ll compete for the No. 3 role behind Jones and Golden Tate. The wild card remains Eric Ebron, an athletic tight end who may never validate his top-10 draft choice but who has steadily improved.

It’s a good thing the offense was able to extend drives last season, because the defense had far too much trouble getting off the field, ranking 31st in the league in third-down percentage. The Lions also finished last in opponent pass efficiency, tied for 30th in sacks and tied for 28th in takeaways. Not surprisingly, the front office made adding defensive playmakers — and speed — a priority in the draft. The most notable addition is at linebacker, where first-round pick Jarrad Davis — a natural leader who wowed scouts at Florida’s pro day — is expected to step in immediately as a starter. The Lions cut ties with DeAndre Levy, who missed most of the last two seasons with injury, but they also got younger and deeper at the position. Davis’ arrival — Quinn pegged him as a middle linebacker — may push incumbent starter Tahir Whitehead outside. But there’s second-year pro Antwione Williams and an explosive hitter in rookie Jalen Reeves-Maybin pushing for jobs as well, while veteran Paul Worrilow, who spent last season in a backup role with Atlanta, provides some insurance and special-teams value.

With Caldwell back for a fourth season, the Lions are counting on continuity as they try to make back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in more than two decades. But they also know that continuity won’t last long if they can’t build off last year’s progress. Stafford appears ready to take this franchise to the next level, but he’ll need more help from some of the younger playmakers. Caldwell’s staff has shown a knack for player development. This season, it’s imperative they show even more.

Prediction: 8-8

Chicago Bears

The restructuring has begun at Soldier Field, and it won’t end anytime soon.

The Chicago Bears have finally gotten rid of the nonchalant Jay Cutler in exchange for Mike Glennon and first round draft pick Mitchell Trubisky. On Paper, Glennon is not a bad QB, with a 2:1 TD Ratio (30:15). Second overall pick Trubisky will probably take that starting role somewhere down the line but it looks like the Bears are comfortable hiding their weapons for now. The competition is a good one, and should leave Chicago fans with high hopes… in four or five years.

These QBs will have a tough time finding weapons though. After losing Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles in free agency, and Cameron Meredith to a torn ACL, the Bears went from having good receivers to no receivers. Unproven first round pick Kevin White will need to prove himself alongside veterans Victor Cruz and Kendall Wright. In the backfield, RB Jordan Howard surprised the Bears last year with over 1,300 rushing yards. Given the situation at QB and WR, expect Howard to take over the offense with around 300 touches. The QBs will also get support from TEs Dion Sims from Miami and Zach Miller who’s known to make spectacular plays. The offense is spotty, and will require help on the outside to win games.

As for the Lines, the bears boast some pretty good ones. On the Offensive front, Kyle Long, Cody Whitehair, and Josh Sitton control the perimeters. The only weak-spot could be Charles Leno Jr and Bobby Massie, who will need to prove themselves at the Tackle Position. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranks this unit 5th heading into the 2017 season, mostly because of the pro-bowl caliber type of players they have.

On the defensive end, the polar opposite can be said. PFF ranks this front seven 28th heading into the 2017 season, and for good reason. They have great players who are good at one thing, but struggle at another. LB Danny Trevathan struggled against the pass and making tackles, Leonard Floyd performed well last season, but needs improvement against the run. The Bears will rely on LB Jerell Freeman, who had a combined 110 tackles with 8 forced fumbles last season, as well as DE Akiem Hicks, who stuffed the line and recorded 7 sacks last year. It’ll be up to these two players to get the pressure going. The age on this front seven is a blessing.  While You have players in their prime like Trevathan, Hicks (Both 27), and Floyd (24), There are also some old-heads to mentor the rooks. Jerell Freeman and Willie Young are both 31, and while retirement is not far, they have enough time to pass the torch to a Chicago Bears team that will need time to restructure.

The secondary is very interesting. The Bears signed CBs Prince Amukamara (Jax) and Marcus Cooper (Ari). Cooper led his team last year in interceptions with four, Amukamara however; recorded no interceptions and played awful in 2016. If Kyle Fuller gets traded before the start of the season, this Bears secondary could be in trouble. While Fuller was not the breakout star Chicago needed, he is a starting CB compared to the rest of the roster (Bryce Callahan and BW Webb are not making headlines for the city.) If he does leave, that will leave Safeties Quintin Demps (SS) and Adrian Amos (FS) with their hands full for 16 straight weeks. Expect the secondary to crumble if Fuller leaves.

Usually, this would not be important, but it is now. The Bears need a kicker, and so far the competition is Connor Barth vs Roberto Aguayo. Expect Barth to win the job, but also remember that no matter what happens, Chicago has no good kicker for the 2017 season.

Prediction: 3-13

That’s it for this week folks! Join us back next time as we have only two more divisions left to tackle until kickoff. Next time, the AFC EAST!

 

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