NFC North Preview: A well-rounded division up for grabs
The NFL's 100th season is finally upon us after thousands of hours - and hundreds of thousands of minutes - without a competitive snap. After all the talk, the questions we over-thought about during the off-season will finally get some answer.
So let's kick things off by looking at the state of each team.
Let's start with the champs. It must be tough to have THAT kind of season derailed by a last minute kick. Nonetheless, 2018 is behind us and the Bears will move on. But will they take their defense with them?
It's rare the league's best defense remains there from year-to-year. In 2015, Seattle gave up fewest points but conceded third fewest the next. New leaders New England went from fewest to fifth fewest points between 2016 and 2017. The Vikings, similarly, went from best to ninth-best in points allowed before the Bears took the title last year, all per ESPN. It tells the tale of a natural regression that has to happen.
But even a little regression might be too much considering the offense.
Even though the Bears returned almost all of the starters, they failed to get the most important piece not named Khalil Mack back: defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The playcaller was a huge reason the defense looked legendary last year, and rightfully earned a head coaching gig in Denver.
But where the team goes now is a mystery. It's almost impossible to live up to the hype they've heard all off-season, and add into that that things could well feel stale after such an impressive campaign in 2018.
On the other side of the ball, you'll hear Bears fans say thank God for head coach Matt Nagy. His play calling is up there with the best in the league. Just like with Rams head coach Sean McVay, he elevates his team and quarterback play.
And Chicago certainly has a lot of talent on offense, buoyed by a very serviceable offensive line. There's versatility in the backfield with running backs Tarik Cohen and draftee David Montgomery. At wide receiver, fans can finally stop hoping former first round pick Kevin White will deliver on expectations, and instead rely on a group of play makers including wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel.
But quarterback Mitchell Trubisky got away with a lot last year. From watching his tape you can see he has accuracy issues and logic suggests opponents won't leave as many turnovers out there in 2019. Nagy's creative calling certainly causes confusion, but don't expect that to mask Trubisky's play so much in the coming months.
It's definitely a good roster, but Chicago is in a tough division and the momentum from last year won't just carry over. So we have this team on the playoff bubble, with the Vikings and Packers challenging for the division with more ease than Bears fans will admit.
The Detroit Lions are doing things differently compared to most teams. Through head coach Matt Patricia's defensive philosophy, the team hopes to establish the run and defend strongly against the run to win games. In a pass heavy league.
Defensive coordinator's will tell you how demoralising it is to be beaten on the ground. So the mantra makes sense on paper. But in all likelihood, opting for the run where you can average half the yards-per-touch as in the air can be limiting. And it minimises what you have in quarterback Matt Stafford, whose once-famous aggressiveness seems to be disappearing as he grows into a more conservative-looking quarterback.
The keys for the pass game are there when it is called upon however. Wide receivers Kenny Golloday, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and tight end Jesse James - until first round tight end TJ Hockerson is up to speed - are a good looking group. But if the offense attacks at it is expected, this group of solid-but-not-superstar-level talent won't break into the Top 15 -- a place it was pre-Patricia.
The team certainly looks prepared to the defend the run with a group of strong players up front. Mike Daniels and "Snacks" Harrison will occupy the tackle spots so it'll be interesting to see how free agency mega-signing Trey Flowers does solely on the outside. He's at his best moving along the line so might not be as effective as the $90 million contract he got in March suggests.
Defending the passing game is something Lions fans will eagerly await too. Despite ranking in the Top 10 last year, the perennial question of help for cornerback Daruis Slay in the secondary continues.
Overall, that might be the least of the teams worries. Because even though they're a good squad, they find themselves in a tough division -- probably the most well-rounded in football behind the NFC South. To make any waves, everything must go right for them, and running back Kerryon Johnson might have to be an even bigger surprise than he was last year to get this offense churning.
Green Bay Packers
There's so much excitement around the Packers this year. Everything seemingly went wrong for the franchise in 2018, so after heaps of change - that involved bringing in offensive guru Matt LaFleur as head coach - it's time for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to get back to elite.
It's a mystery what LaFleur will do with the offense. He brought a similar buzz to Tennessee but ultimately didn't elevate quarterback Marcus Mariota's game. The argument is Rodgers has a higher ceiling plus a great chemistry with standout receiver Davante Adams, but it remains to be seen how impactful the new head coach can be.
Adams will likely have to carry the load, but if Vantez-Scantling can learn a new offense faster in Year 2, he could emerge as a big threat too. Aaron Jones at running back is a really efficient runner -- even behind a banged up line he provided hope last year. With better health - and it can't get much worse than the Packers O-Line in 2018 - he can an X-factor.
All-in-all, the offense has a high ceiling if everyone gets on the same page quickly. (And the same field for that matter.)
Former Cleveland coordinator Mike Pettine's defense is intriguing. It has decent players up front, with Za'darious Smith coming in from Baltimore and Preston Smith being added from Washington to help out stud nose tackle Kenny Clarke. Rashan Gary was added in the draft but some training camp injuries might suggest his impact will be limited in year one.
In the secondary, the team continued to address the cornerback and safety positions in the draft. Last year's addition of cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were two different tales, with the latter struggling. But Alexander looks likely to sure up one cornerback slot for a time to come.
We'll go out on a limb and say the defense is more likely than the offense to show up early in the year. Chemistry on offense will come after a while, but there will likely be growing pains with the young play makers.
There's nothing saying Minnesota can't be one of the best offenses in football.. outside of quarterback Kirk Cousins. What version of the 31-year-old will show up to play will determine how successful this offense - with some strong play makers and a finally (?) rejuvenated offensive line - will be.
Running back Dalvin Cook is huge in the backfield. But a dodgy injury history now places a lower ceiling on the 2017 second round pick. If Cook stays on the field and can perform like he did in the preseason - one play for an 85-yard touchdown - he could enter 2020 as big of a star as Ezekiel Elliott or Alvin Kamara. (Good luck figuring out how much that will cost down the road.)
The top pass catching trio ranks high amongst the league's best. Having two outside guys - Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs - makes match ups tricky. The two are Top 11 paid wide receivers, suitably suggesting how talented they are. Tight end Kyle Rudolph kind of makes up for a lack of a slot answer. But there's a lack of depth behind them, so an injury to any of them would be as devastating to the offence as the O-Line injuries in recent years.
But how's the defense? Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are two solid edge rushers but they're not quite the same as the Olivier Vernon/ Myles Garrett duo we've written about in Cleveland. So while they can't carry the team, getting assistance from star safety Harrison Smith would go a long way. If he can help protect them on the back end, it could buy them extra time to get to the quarterback.
Outside Smith, there's questions at cornerback. What exactly is Xavier Rhodes? Depending on who you ask, Rhodes is either elite or inconsistent. The same can be said - to a lesser extent, obviously - about Trae Waynes opposite him. But as far as corners go league wide, at least this pairing won't hold the team ransom.
And under Mike Zimmer, the group always has a shot.