I’ve been able to watch at least the starter’s worth of the first two weeks of preseason games from all 4 division teams. That, in concert with the roster additions and subtractions as well as the projected progression and regression of players on the current roster is the criteria with which I’m going to predict the order of finish in the NFC North. The Packers are two time defending NFCN Champions and although division championships are not something real high on the priority list for Packers fans it is a step on the journey that hopefully ends with another Super Bowl for the Packers in the Thompson-McCarthy-Rodgers era.
1st Place: Green Bay Packers
Offense: The Packers took a step back last season from their historical performance in 2011. The offense was still well above average as a unit, but it was not the same squad that led the ’11 team to a team record 15 regular season wins. The offense is looking to make improvements, having shifted its entire line from left to right, most notably moving All-Pro RG Josh Sitton to the left side. The other major change was the drafting of two stud running backs in the 2013 NFL Draft. Much is being made of two significant losses from the team last year, OT Bryan Bulaga to a season ending knee injury and WR Greg Jennings to the Vikings.
Here’s the deal though, Bulaga and Jennings missed a combined 15 games last season, and Jennings was limited on at least one of his appearances. The Packers went 11-4-FailMary last season, basically without those two. I really like Bryan Bulaga and I think he has the potential to become one of the NFL’s elite RTs but the Packers are 22-6 with Marshall Freakin’ Newhouse at LT. The receivers are now truly defined in their roles. The starters on the outside are Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the NFL’s touchdown leader from 2012. Look for slot WR Randall Cobb to take another step forward into true superstardom this year. TE Jermichael Finley has shut his mouth and shown that this could finally be the season we’ve all been waiting for from him, and with increased opportunities and a different attitude, Jermichael could really make it count for himself in a contract year.
Eddie Lacy appears to be the most talented back that the Packers have had since Ahman Green. His ability to keep defenses out of deep coverages and respectful of the play action is going to keep the offense at its elite status quo, if not improve it. The fact is that the Packers have gone from needing to “Break Glass in Case of Real Emergency and call Cedric Freaking Benson” and now are in a situation where after Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, and DuJuan Harris, the team is going to cut a player that is going to end up on another NFL roster at some point this season.
Defense: Defensively, the Packers made monumental climbs last season. The defense went statistically from historically bad in 2011 to above league average in 2012. Ted Thompson spent his first 6 picks on defense in the 2012 draft and the benefits were obvious. Casey Hayward looks to be one of the truly elite slot cornerbacks in the NFL, which is an increasingly important position. Nick Perry looks to have a big impact this season and Mike Daniels has been a pleasant surprise during this camp. The 2013 draft looks as though as it may be fruitful defensively as well. Both 1st round pick Datone Jones and CB Micah Hyde have appeared to be players that can contribute to the Packers over the long haul.
Charles Woodson is gone, but he was gone for multiple games last season as well. MD Jennings and Jerron McMillian will take a step forward in typical Ted Thompson draft and develop form. The pass rush, which was a top 5 unit in the league as far as sacks were concerned, look to improve yet again from the additions of Jones and Perry as well as the move of Mike Neal from being an inside pass rusher only to a hybrid DE/OLB role that is very exciting for Packers fans. Any talk of the Packers defense cannot end without talking about OLB Clay Matthews. The Claymaker was given a big contract extension, and with DeMarcus Ware’s move to DE is now the premiere 3-4 OLB in the league in my
unpaid professional opinion.
Special Teams: Mason Crosby had a fantastic season in 2011 followed by a house of horrors in 2012. The team brought in Giorgio Tavecchio as real competition in camp this season, and although Tavecchio has been competent it appears that the Packers are going to stick with Crosby and hope that he somehow regains his form. The Packers are looking for one of Randall Cobb’s teammates to step up and take hold of the returner duties so that the wideout can stay off of special teams and stay healthy. There is nothing to say about P Tim Masthay or LS Brett Goode other than that they are both safe to make the roster.
Bottom Line: The Packers didn’t lose anyone from last year’s team that didn’t miss a significant portion of 2012. Ted Thompson’s draft and develop strategy seems to be working and the continued development of the player’s on one of the NFL’s best and youngest teams should lead to continued success. The Packers are a staggering 8-1 against division opponents over the last two seasons. Had the Fail Mary been called correctly, the Packers would have gone 12-4 last season, and that’s right where they are going to finish up this regular season. Prediction: 12-4
2nd Place: Detroit Lions
Offense: Matthew Stafford took a step back last season. Although Stafford’s yardage total only dipped about 1% from 5,038 to 4,967, his TD total plummeted from 41 to 20. SuperDuperStar Calvin Johnson continued to put up astronomical reception and yardage numbers but as one would expect, his TD numbers went down drastically as well. Personnel wise, Detroit did very little to improve offensively, which is probably fine as far as skill position players are concerned, but they could sure use help on the offensive line. The one acquisition that they did make of a veteran and a guy that could team with Mikel LeShoure to create a decent 1-2 punch, is RB Reggie Bush. Bush is a nice fit for the Lions’ spread attack. The development of WR Ryan Broyles could also aid the Lions passing game.
I’m not sure that you’re going to get 5,000 yards passing and 41 TDs from Stafford, but he’s going to have a better season than he did in 2012. Calvin Johnson’s production should improve with Stafford’s and as the Lions become more well-rounded offensively, they should move closer towards the above-.500 team that took the field in 2011.
Defense: The Lions have a fearsome front four that is let down year after year by a very suspect back end. DT tandem Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are among the most feared in the NFL. The loss of Kyle Vanden Bosch to regression and Cliff Avril to free agency has weakened the defensive end rotation. Top 3 pick rookie DE Ezekiel Ansah has JPP-like upside but has proven very little as a football player. Veterans Jason Jones and Israel Idonije have come on to bolster this group as well.
Speaking of that back end, drafting Darius Slay and signing Glover Quin bodes well for the development of the pass defense. I’m not sure that it’s going to transform them into the 2012 Seahawk secondary but it’s definitely going to be a step in the right direction. I will never forget the day my best friend and I sat in the 14th row of the south end zone at Lambeau and watched Matty Flynn throw 6 TDs against this formerly(maybe?) putrid secondary.
Special Teams: For the first time since my formative years, the Lions will not have Jason Hanson at kicker. Former Eagle and 49er David Akers will man that post. Punter Sam Martin and returner Michael Spurlock should have little competition
Bottom Line: this team has all signs pointing to a bounce-back year. I think that they have the second best QB in the division, and in this NFL, that matters. I look for them to slot somewhere between their 4-12 season in ’12 and their 10-6 breakout campaign of 2011. Prediction: 8-8
3rd place: Minnesota Vikings
Offense: More than any other player on any other NFL team, the Vikings live and die by Adrian Peterson. It’s fitting then, that he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award a year ago. Peterson blasted through defenses (especially our favorite team) to the near record-breaking tune of 2,097 yards. This is all staggering considering his knee injury in late 2011. I am not one of the haters who thinks Peterson was using PEDs during his recovery, but I am all for some kind of testing to prove that he is actually a human being, as I am skeptical. Vikings QB Christian Ponder is a different story completely. Ponder was a reach as the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft (don’t tell Vikings fans that though, because Rick Spielman is God’s gift to an NFL front office). His lack of NFL arm strength and questionable decision making has not been made up for by his supposed accuracy and surprising athleticism. Ponder, and this preseason has been a confirmation of this, is one of the worst 5 starting QBs in the NFL.
Efforts have been made to surround Ponder with weapons this offseason. After selecting two defensive players in the first round, the Vikings sacrificed the rest of their draft to take freak athlete from Tennessee WR Cordarelle Patterson. The team hopes to offset the loss of Percy Harvin with the 6’2” 220 lb. Patterson. People tend to forget that Harvin carried the team through the first 6 weeks as Peterson became more comfortable with his knee. The Vikings also gave a bunch of years and a
loveboat full of money to former Packers WR Greg Jennings. I’m not sure that the injury prone Jennings is going to be able to do more good, having only ever played with HOF QBs, than the harm that he is doing by antagonizing Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who has a knack for holding grudges. The Vikings line is good. C John Sullivan and LT Matt Kalil are exceptional football players and RT Phil Loadholt, while somewhat one dimensional, is above average as well.
Defense: The Vikings defense, although widely considered “good” (“The Viking ran the ball and played good defense, and now they’re in the playoffs”) actually finished 18th in scoring defense and 16th in total defense in 2012. Led by stalwarts Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield and Chad Greenway, the Vikings were very average defensively. This, along with the personnel losses the team suffered leave me very pessimistic on this unit as a whole. Of the Viking difference makers defensively, only Harrison Smith is on the correct side of age 30. If there’s a noticeable slip in play from Jared Allen and/or Kevin Williams, one could really see the d-line taking a step back. On the bright side, DT Shariff Floyd appeared to be a tremendous value on draft day, and in my opinion (although no one else is saying it) I think Everson Griffen will be the Vikings best defensive lineman in 2013.
The back seven is what really concerns me. The Linebackers are led by tackling machine Chad Greenway. He’s now being asked to team with Erin Henderson (an OLB trying to play MLB) and Desmond Bishop (the Packers are committing more salary cap dollars in dead money to keep him off their roster than the Vikings are paying him) to plug up the run and cover backs, slot receivers and tight ends in the passing game. Speaking of slot receivers, the Vikings have no viable slot cornerback. Josh Robinson has long speed, but I have no reason to believe he has the instincts, tackling ability or agility required to be an effective nickel a la the departed Antoine Winfield. Winfield took less money to play with a contender in Seattle this offseason. I don’t think Chris Cook is a CB1 either. I would much rather have Tramon Williams of the Packers, Chris Houston of the Lions or Charles Tilman of the Bears. Xavier Rhodes might be a nice player, or he might be Patrick Robinson. I really think the Vikes are one Harrison Smith (who is a really, really good football player) injury from having a bottom 5 secondary in the NFL.
Special Teams: Blair Walsh is looking to avoid a sophomore slump after, quite frankly, being the league’s best kicker as a rookie in 2012. The Vikings cut outspoken punter Chris Kluwe and drafted UCLA P Jeff Locke. Considering Green Bay selected Micah Hyde 5 spots later, I have a hard time justifying a 5th round pick on a punter, but taking Walsh in the 6th in 2012 was a master stroke. Marcus Sherels is back to return punts and Cordarelle Patterson looks to do his best Percy Harvin routine as the team’s new kickoff returner.
Bottom Line: The Vikings needed (considering his injury) the greatest season in NFL running back history from Adrian Peterson in order to be the last team to qualify for the playoffs in 2012. The greatest season in NFL history after a 2,000 yard season is 1,491 yards by Barry Sanders in 1997, and Barry didn’t have a reconstructed knee. Even if Peterson beats that by 15% and puts together a (really good!) 1,600-ish yard season that’s a huge regression from 2,100 yards. The Vikings were a very impressive 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less last season, and if the team (read: Adrian Peterson) regresses that might not hold. With the developmental arrow pointing down on so many of their key contributors, the losses of Harvin and Winfield and Ponder’s status as (clearly) the worst QB in the division, I see the Vikings finishing somewhere between their 3-13 finish of ’11, and their 10-6 finish of ’12. Prediction: 7-9
4th Place: Chicago Bears
Offense: The enigmatic Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract, and to this point (obviously, or I wouldn’t have written the first part of the sentence), has yet to earn himself a contract extension from the Bears. Among the things that have been questioned in his tenure in Chicago are his decision making, his accuracy, his leadership, and his toughness. He and Matt Forte will line up behind a rebuilt offensive line featuring new former Saints LT Jermon Bushrod. The team traded former 1st round pick out of Wisconsin Gabe Carimi away and will go with former Jet Matt Slauson at left guard and 1st round pick Kyle Long on the right side. J’Marcus Webb (who really is the Bears version of Marshall Newhouse) has also apparently lost his starting position to 5th round pick Jordan Mills out at right tackle.
The Bears also brought in reinforcements in the passing game. In addition to the attempts to better protect their franchise QB, the team signed 6’6” 265 lb. TE Martellus Bennett. Bennett’s presence, as well as the expected development of Alshon Jeffrey are hopefully (well not hopefully because upon further review the Bears still suck) ways to take the pressure off of WR Brandon Marshall. Marshall led the NFL in targets, percentage of targets and about every other measurable that would tell you that Jay Cutler stared at Brandon Marshall like no other WR. That’s all well and good because Marshall is a freak athlete and a very good player, but when a guy like Tramon Williams comes in and holds him to 8 catches for 78 yards over the course of two contests, the Bears really had a hard time moving the football. The Bears need to hope that their line can get Forte back to the NFL’s elite backs and that Cutler’s other receiving options can diversify this offense and make it more effective.
Defense: This is a unit in transition. The most glaring difference here is that for the first time in 13 years, Brian Urlacher will not be starting at middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. It’s honestly going to be weird looking at the Bears line up in their Cover 2 defense and not seeing #54 patrolling the middle of the field. Despite the losses of Urlacher, as well as regular contributors Israel Idonije, DJ Moore, and Nick Roach, the Bears do have defensive weapons. Julius Peppers continues to be one of the best athletes and best pass rushers in the league. Lance Briggs, having lost his running mate of so many years is now the leader of the defense. Cornerback duo Tim Jennings and Charles Tilman are among the best in the business.
My concerns about the Bears defensively are very similar to my concerns about the Vikings. All of their major contributors are getting old. Peppers is now 33. Briggs is 32. Tilman is 32. There isn’t a player on the Bears defense that gets you really excited under the age of 28. Their linebacking corps is either going to be made up of old-ish journeymen or the unproven rookie Jon Bostic (although he ‘bout killed someone last weekend). In the NFL you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. The elite programs in the league stay young and good. That’s how the Packers do it, that’s how the Patriots do it, and it’s how the 49ers do it. People expecting the Bears defense to continue to be elite are expecting them to be the same as last year. In this league, there is no “same as last year”.
Special teams: Speaking of old, all of a sudden Devin Hester is 30 years old. He’s been waned off of his special teams duties little by little as the team has made attempts to make him a part of the offensive game plan, and that should continue. There is nothing to say about Robbie Gould or Adam Podlesh other than to say that they aren’t going to be losing their jobs.
Bottom line: This season I see something of a Patriots of the AFC east thing happening with the NFC North. I see the Packers as a team that’s always going to have between 10 and 13 wins because of Aaron Rodgers (the Patriots win double digit games every year because of Brady), and then I see a lot of mediocrity. The team that I think comes in last is the team that I think has the least amount of young talent. There is no player that the Bears have drafted in the last 4 drafts that gets me all that excited. Certainly not as excited as I am about Casey Hayward or Randall Cobb, certainly not as excited as Vikings fans should be about Harrison Smith or Chrstia… (nevermind) or Lions fans should be about Suh and Fairley. The NFL runs on young, healthy talent and the Bears don’t really have any. Prediction: 6-10