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NFL Division Preview: NFC North

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In 2013, the NFC North had zero teams over eight wins, but don't be fooled; the NFC North could be the most offensively talented division in football.

Jamie Squire

In 2012, the NFC North had three teams with 10+ wins and the fourth team (Detroit), made the playoffs the year before. In 2013, the NFC North went the opposite direction: zero teams with more than eight wins. But, don't be fooled, the NFC North could be the most offensively talented division in football.

The questions in the NFC North surround health and defense: Can Rodgers stay healthy and lead GB back to be among the NFL elite? Can the Bears and Lions finally cash in on their offensive fire power and get over the hump of mediocrity? Can a new staff and new QB in Minnesota get the Vikings back to the playoffs?

1) Green Bay

2014 Prediction: 11-5

2013 Record: 8-7-1, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Key Losses:

  • James Jones, WR (Oak)
  • Marshall Newhouse, OT (Cin)
  • Evan Dietrich-Smith, C (TB)
  • C.J. Wilson, DE (Oak)
  • M.D. Jennings, S (Chi)

Key Additions:

  • Julius Peppers, DE (Chicago) - should start
  • Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S (1st Rd pick, Ala) - should start
  • Davante Adams, WR (2nd Rd pick, Fresno St) - WR depth

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Aaron Rodgers - This is a QB league and Rodgers is the best QB in the division (maybe in all of the NFL). With Rodgers, the Packers are still a Super Bowl contender. In 2013, the Packers were 6-3 with Rodgers and 2-4-1 without him.

Eddie Lacy - When has Rodgers ever had a competent running game? In Rodgers' absence last year, Lacy established himself as a legit NFL back (1,178 yards, 11 TDs). His numbers are impressive on their own, but he compiled those numbers with teams knowing he was getting the ball. Guys named Flynn, Tolzien and Wallace didn't exactly help Lacy find running room. Rodgers will. With Rodgers and Cobb healthy, Lacy will have much more room and 1,300-1,500 yards is certainly possible.

WR Corps - They lost James Jones and Jermichael Finley, but they get a better player, Cobb, back from injury and Jarrett Boykin showed his value even without Rodgers (49 rec, 681 yds, 3 TD). With Rodgers, Nelson and Cobb should both be 1,000-yard receivers and Boykin and Quarless should put up good numbers as well. This will be a tough offense to contain.

Big Play Defense - This is not an elite defense, but with the offense they have, they don't need to be elite. What they need is speed and the ability to take advantage of the leads, which the offense should provide. With Matthews, Peppers, Raji and Clinton-Dix, they have that. Peppers is on the backside of his career, but he still will garner double teams and can make big plays. His presence will make Matthews - one of the best players in the game - even better and the pressure those two will put on the QB will cause QBs to hurry throws and play right into Clinton-Dix centerfield abilities.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The Offensive Line - In 2013, guys taking snaps in Green Bay uniforms were sacked a staggering 45 times, one of which lead to Rodgers broken collarbone. It is TBD if the loss of center Evan Dietrich-Smith is a good or bad thing, but one thing is for sure, if this line can't keep Rodgers healthy, the Packers chances of going anywhere but home in January are slim.

The Division - The NFC North is not the best division in the NFL, but it may have more offensive firepower than any other division. With the weapons the Bears and Lions have, the Packers can't afford any lulls throughout the season.

Overall:

This may be the most talented offensive division in football and I, like many Packers fans, am concerned about the O-Line. However, to me, Rodgers is the best QB in the NFL and heads and heels above Cutler, Stafford and whoever starts in Minnesota. Plus, in a division of offense, the team with the best defense should have an advantage, and to me, the best defense in this division is the Packers.

2) Detroit

2014 Prediction: 8-8

2013 Record: 7-9, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Nate Burleson, WR (Cle)
  • Tony Scheffler, TE (retired)

Key Additions:

  • Golden Tate, WR (Sea) - should start
  • Eric Ebron, WR (1st Rd, NC) - should start
  • Dan Orlovsky, QB (TB) - will back up Stafford
  • Jed Collins, FB (NO) - should start
  • James Ihedigbo, S (Bal) - should start
  • Kyle Van Noy, LB (2nd Rd, BYU)

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Jim Schwartz, HC
  • Fired - Scott Linehan, OC
  • Fired - Gunther Cunningham, DC
  • Hired - Jim Caldwell, HC
  • Hired - Joe Lombardi, OC (QB Coach, NO)
  • Hired - Teryl Austin, DC (Secondary Coach, Bal)

Reasons for Optimism:

Offensive Weapons - With Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Ryan Broyles, Brandon Pettigrew, Golden Tate, Joique Bell and the addition of rookie TE Eric Ebron at the disposal of Matthew Stafford, this could very well be the best and most dynamic offense in the league. But, the Lions have had a dynamic offense for the past five or so years and it has never lead to any real success.

Defensive Line - With Suh, Fairley and Ansah, this defensive line could be dominant. Emphasis on could. In 2013, this big name line accounted for just 33 sacks (28th) and ranked an unimpressive 17th against the run. Under Schwartz, this was an undisciplined line. The question will be if Caldwell and Cunningham can get them playing to their talent.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Matthew Stafford - I have never been sold on Stafford. Sure, he has put up some impressive individual numbers, but he also averages more than an interception per game, has one playoff appearance in 5 seasons, has a completion percentage below 60 percent (59.5 percent) and has a career record of 24-37.

Finesse - Finesse teams don't usually win in this league. The Lions are filled with finesse players and seem to lack the hard-nosed and disciplined players needed to make a deep run. Even Fairley and Suh, despite their power, play more like finesse players.

Defensive - The defense has some names and some talent, but they ranked a mediocre 16th overall in 2013, including a 23rd ranking against the pass. Not terrible, but not promising in a division loaded with offensive talent like the NFC North.

Jim Caldwell - Jim Caldwell, as head coach, was 24-8 with Peyton Manning and 2-14 without Manning. A lot of coaches have looked good under Manning. Stafford is not Manning.

Overall:

This team will put up a lot of points and will be great for fantasy owners, but with this defense, in a league with the offensive firepower that the NFC North has, I don't see them putting up enough wins to make a run into the playoffs. The talent on offense will be enough to get this team close to .500, but not enough to mask their weaknesses and make it to the playoffs. Chew on this for a minute. The Lions made the playoffs in 2011 at 10-6. Since their 5-0 start in 2011, the Lions are 16-28 (includes their playoff loss).

3) Chicago

2014 Prediction: 7-9

2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd Place

2014 Prediction: 7-9

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Josh McCown, QB (TB)
  • Devin Hester, WR/KR (Atl)
  • Henry Melton, DT (Dal)
  • Major Wright, S (TB)
  • Michael Bush, RB
  • Julius Peppers, DL (GB)

Key Additions:

  • Jared Allen, DE (formerly with Minnesota) - should start
  • Kyle Fuller, CB (1st Rd, VT) - 3rd CB
  • Ego Ferguson, DT (2nd Rd, LSU) - key backup
  • Will Sutton, DT (3rd Rd, ASU) - key backup
  • Ka'Deem Carey, RB (4th Rd, Ariz)
  • Lamarr Houston, DT (Oak) - should start
  • Ryan Mundy, S (NYG) - may start
  • Adrian Wilson, SS (NE) - may start
  • Jimmy Clausen, QB (Car) - will compete for back-up QB
  • Domenik Hixon, WR (Car) - possible punt / kick return specialist
  • Josh Morgan, WR - will compete for WR3

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

The "Good" Jay Cutler - This is the Jay Cutler that has football "experts" oozing each year because of his strong arm, gun slinger mentality, ability to "make all the throws," etc. It is the Jay Cutler who shows up a few times a year and looks like a top five QB. Cutler can make all the throws, he does have the physical tools to be a great QB, and he has the weapons to be dangerous. If he can ever be this guy from week-to-week, the Bears could dust off the Super Bowl shuffle under Cutler's leadership.

Receiving Weapons - The Bears have surrounded Cutler with an array of receiving talent. Marshall and Jeffery are likely the most dynamic and physically imposing WR duo in the NFL and with a top 10 receiving RB (Forte) and TE (Bennett), the Bears should be able to find the endzone and find it a lot.

Improved O-Line - This group made a huge jump in 2013 with the addition of Jermon Bushrod and rookie Kyle Long, and finished the season ranked 7th in YPC (4.5) and T-4th surrendering just 30 sacks. This group was so solid in 2013 that Jay Cutler didn't even feel the need to assault any of them on the sidelines! And more importantly, the more Cutler stays upright, the fewer turnovers he will have and the better chance the Bears will have.

Matt Forte - He will be 29 before the season is over, but he is still one of the best RBs in the league. After being greatly underutilized by the defensive minded Lovie Smith, Forte saw his numbers jump under the offensive minded Trestman. In 2013, Forte nearly broke the 2,000 all-purpose yard mark (1,933) and contributed 12 TDs. With the improved O-Line, an offensive-minded coach, and the passing weapons the Bears have, Forte is poised for another big year in 2014.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The "Bad" Jay Cutler - This is the Cutler the media seems to forget about when mesmerized by his arm strength. This is the Cutler that has only one playoff appearance in eight seasons. The Cutler that has only three winning seasons in eight years in the league and no season with more than 10 wins. This is the Cutler that averages more than 1 INT per game (112 INTs in 104 starts) and has had a season with 26 INTs (2009). This is the Cutler that has never had a rating over 89.2. And this is the Cutler that has 3 seasons of sub 60 percent completion percentages. The Bears defense cannot bail out "Bad Cutler" in 2014. If he averages one or more turnovers a game, as he has throughout his career, it may not matter how many points the Bears put up because the 2014 Bears defense won't be able to hold up on short fields.

The Defense - They added Jared Allen and first round pick Kyle Fuller, both moves I like, but replacing Peppers with Allen is essentially a wash and Fuller is still a rookie. I don't see any offseason moves that make me believe this defense has improved much over 2013 and the 2013 bunch was brutal! The Bears defense ranked dead last against the run in 2013, surrendered 5.3 YPC and gave up 25.4 more YPG than the next closest team! Not good for a defense that sees guys named Lacy, Bush and Peterson twice each. Rankings wise, their pass defense was a little better (12th), but that was merely because teams didn't need to pass against the Bears, they just killed clock as they ran it down their throats.

The Division - The NFC North may be the worst division to be in if defense is your weak link. And defense is the Bears weak link. The Bears defense will be severely outmatched in every division game -- not a recipe for success.

Trestman -I like the track record Trestman has with QBs and Cutler and McCown played very well under him in 2013. However, he took over a team that went 10-6 and promptly took them to 8-8, going 4-6 after a 4-2 start. When the Bears fired Lovie, they wanted a coach that had a more exciting and potent offense, and they got that in Trestman. However, Trestman's background is heavy in the CFL, a league not known for defense, and his Bears showed that in 2013. The Bears organization and fans are finding out quickly that winning ugly is better than losing pretty. A franchise rich in defensive history has seen their defense transformed into a shell of itself.

Overall:

Make no mistake about it, the Bears have a championship caliber offense. The problem is that they may still have the worst defense in the NFL and that is a recipe for failure, especially in an offensively potent division like the NFC North.

4) Minnesota

2013 Record: 5-10-1, 4th Place

2014 Prediction: 6-10

Confidence in Pick: 70%

Key Losses:

  • Josh Freeman, QB (NYG)
  • Joe Webb, QB/WR (Car)
  • Toby Gerhart, RB (Jax)
  • J'Marcus Webb, OT (KC)
  • Jared Allen, DE (Chi)
  • Kevin Williams, DT (Sea)
  • Erin Henderson, MLB

Key Additions:

  • Anthony Barr, LB (1st Rd, UCLA) - should start
  • Teddy Bridgewater, QB (1st Rd, UL) - may start
  • Linval Joseph, DT (NYG) - should start

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Leslie Frazier, HC
  • Fired - Bill Musgrave, OC
  • Fired - Alan Williams, DC
  • Hired - Mike Zimmer, HC (DC, Cin)
  • Hired - Norv Turner, OC (OC, Cle)
  • Hired - George Edwards, DC (LB Coach, Mia)

Reasons for Optimism:

Adrian Peterson - It's hard not to be optimistic about a guy that runs for the second most yards in NFL history (2,097) just eight months removed from tearing his ACL, and follows it up with another impressive year (1,266 yds in 14 g). Even though he will turn 30 shortly after the 2014 season, Peterson is a physical specimen and not someone I would bet against. He is one of the few throwback workhorse RBs left in the NFL and was the main clog in the eighth ranked running attack in 2013...and he will be running in a division littered with weak defenses. Nothing is more impressive than when a defense knows an RB is getting the ball, yet cannot stop him, and that is what Peterson provides.

Mike Zimmer - I love Mike Zimmer. I love his attitude. I love his work ethic. And I love his approach to the game. His players play for him and he will bring attitude and accountability. He will make the Vikings better as a team, even if their record does not improve greatly. One thing is for sure, under Zimmer's watch, the Vikings defense will not be ranked 31st overall like they were in 2013. When Zimmer arrived in Cincinnati in 2007, he took over the 27th ranked defense and improved them to 12th in 2008, 4th in 2009, 15th in 2010, 7th in 2011, 6th in 2012 and 3rd in 2013.

Teddy Bridgewater - I really liked Bridgewater coming out of college and I believe he will not only be the best QB from the 2014 draft, but will be the only franchise QB from this draft. I do not see how he dropped from a preseason top five pick before the season to the 32nd pick by the time the draft came around - and this, despite having a good junior year (71% comp., 31 TDs, 4 INTs, and 3,970 yds) . NFL "experts" talk about his slight frame - at 6-2 1/8 and 214 lbs, Bridgewater is listed as 1/8" taller and six pounds lighter than a guy named Aaron Rodgers. Chew on this for a moment, in his three seasons at Louisville, Bridgewater had 72 TDs to just 24 INTs (3/1 ratio), including a nearly 8/1 TD/INT ratio his final year (Manziel = 2.84/1 with a top 10 WR; Bortles = 2.78/1).

Cordarelle Patterson - Patterson had a disappointing rookie season from a receiving standpoint (45 rec, 469 yds), but he rushed for 158 yards and ended the season with 9 TDs (4 rec, 3 rush, 2 KO Ret). Patterson may be the most explosive player in the NFL and at 6'2" 220 lbs, is a bigger version of Percy Harvin. With a more accurate passer in Bridgewater and a year of experience, I expect Patterson to be the top option in the 2014 Vikings offense.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The Vikings Offense - This team will still be starting a rookie QB or a poor QB and their offensive weapons, while good, still pale in comparison to their division foes. Jennings is decent, but was more of a product of Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Rudolph is not a difference maker at the TE position.

QB Position - This is a league of QBs and if you have one, you are good. If you don't have a QB, you struggle. As much as I like Bridgewater, 1) he may not even start, and 2) he is still a rookie. In a division that features Rodgers, Stafford and Cutler, the Vikings are at a clear disadvantage at the QB position.

The Defense - The defense will be better under Zimmer, but they are still going to be in the bottom half of the league and in the NFC North, they will be tasked with stopping some of the most potent offenses in the NFL twice a year.

Rookie Head Coach - As much as I like Zimmer, he is a rookie head coach with as many head coaching wins as me. Combine a rookie coach with a rookie QB and a poor defense in a league filled with potent offenses and you don't get a recipe for success.

Overall:

I believe the Vikings will be better under Zimmer and could surprise a lot of teams, but I don't see them being able to make a legit playoff run. Could they get up towards the .500 mark? Sure. Doing so would be possible and would put them in play for second in the division, but I don't see any scenario where this team makes the playoffs.

**Thanks to our friends at Fantasy Football Impact for the in depth team-by-team offseason moves.