NFC North: One reason to be cheerful, one reason to be fearful

Matt LaFleur

Chicago Bears

Reason to be cheerful: not a rebuilding job!

This offseason marks the first since general manager Ryan Pace took over, where the Bears can be argued to be out of rebuilding mode. Pace has made some missteps along the way but overall he has helped reshape this roster from one built around ageing veterans to a playoff team with a core of young talent and players in the prime of their career.

Genuine optimism surrounds the franchise for the first time in years and that is also down to Pace’s second head coaching hire, Coach of the Year Matt Nagy.

The defence has difference makers at every level including Pro Bowlers Eddie Jackson (safety), Kyle Fuller (cornerback) and defensive line (Akiem Hicks). We all know what the addition of Khalil Mack did to this unit. On offence, the team looks lively which is a welcome change from the offense run under John Fox and Dowell Loggains. Nagy brought his innovative, aggressive brand of Andy Reid’s offence with him to the Windy City making the Bears entertaining to watch on offense at last.

Reason to be fearful: can the offense step up?

The loss of Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator is significant. The former Niners coordinator did a tremendous job taking this unit to an elite level in terms of turnovers and being stout against the run. As well as Nagy did on offense, let’s not ignore the fact that the Bears defence was the major reason the team made it back to the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

Now Chicago has done well in replacing Fangio, who was a relatively conservative coordinator, with former Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. It will be interesting to see what Pagano does with this unit, given his propensity to blitz much more.

This also puts more pressure on the offence and especially Mitch Trubisky to step up in his third year. Can the North Carolina alum put this team on his back and take over games? He’s shown an ability to do this at times this year, but there were lots of missed chances when the D was getting the Eagles off the field in the Wild Card Round. Nagy may need to lean on his running game much more, which may be with or without Jordan Howard.


Detroit Lions

Reason to be cheerful: signs of life in the running game at last

It appears in rookie running back Kerryon Johnson, the team has found a player with the potential to save their backfield woes. Injuries limited him having as big an impact as the team would have liked in his first year in the league, as well the fact he spent a large chunk of the year splitting carries with pass catching back Theo Riddick and thumper LeGarrette Blount.

However, when the former Auburn player was given the opportunity to dominate time in the backfield, he largely made the most of it. Johnson helped himself to 101 yards on 16 carries in a 26-10 win over New England in September, as well as 158 yards on 19 carries against the Dolphins under a month later. That game against New England marked the first time a Lions back had rushed for over 100 yards since 2013.

The Lions may need Johnson to carry the load more this season given the relatively anonymous status of the offensive skill positions outside of quarterback Matt Stafford, wideout Kenny Golladay and Johnson. The addition of Darrell Bevell, the former Seahawks offensive coordinator, may also help in Johnson’s development, given the dominance of Seattle’s run game from 2012-2015, when it consistently ranked in the top five in the league. However, much of that can be attributed to the dominance of Marshawn Lynch. Can Bevell coax a high level of production out of a back with a very different skill set to those traditionally favoured in Seattle?

Reason to be fearful: still stuck in the NFC North basement

This roster must be one of the most talent-starved in the league.

The Lions have invested a lot in the offensive line, including first round picks on tackle Taylor Decker and guard Frank Ragnow, as well as in free agency on T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner.

Golladay led the Lions with over 1,000 yards receiving in his second season, whilst fellow wideout Marvin Jones will be hoping to get back to his 2017 form after his season was disrupted by injury last year. There are glaring needs at slot receiver and tight end though.

On defence, there is a real need for impact players. Whilst general manager Bob Quinn traded for defensive tackle Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison last season, which added quality to the D-line, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah could be on his way out of the Motor City. The Lions franchise tagged him before the start of the season but he only started 7 games, collecting 4 sacks, due to injury. On paper, this roster is the worst in the division.

Green Bay Packers

Reason to be cheerful: Aaron Rodgers is still in his prime

The quarterback wasn’t the problem at Lambeau Field last season. Rodgers still managed over 4,000 yards passing, 25:2 touchdown to interception ratio and a 97.6 passer rating and without his usual heroics (including a Hollywood movie-like comeback in week 1 against the Bears), this team could well have been picking in the top five of this year’s draft.

But Rodgers is now 35 and its criminal how the Packers have wasted the Super Bowl window they have had with number 12 leading the team.

New general manager Brian Gutekunst eschewed the minimal approach to free agency advocated by his predecessor Ted Thompson, signing tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, though their impact was not what would have been hoped for. That led to an overreliance on receiver Davante Adams who had twice as many receiving yards as the second placed player, Jimmy Graham. Sorry, this was meant to be cheerful…

Reason to be fearful: first time head coach Matt LaFleur

I appreciate the Packers couldn’t carry on as they were with former head coach Mike McCarthy. There were reports of conflict between Rodgers and himself, as well as some questionable play calling decisions. Many have said that McCarthy has wasted Rodgers’ best years. I think that’s unfair: whilst McCarthy was part of the reason for that, former general manager Ted Thompson’s reluctance to utilise free agency or trades to upgrade the roster around Rodgers is also responsible.

Nonetheless, a new era begins under former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. Make no mistake this is a risk. Yes, LaFleur has a stellar track record of getting Rookie of the Year and MVP campaigns out of Robert Griffin III and Matt Ryan, respectively, whilst he was also part of Sean McVay’s team in LA who helped develop Jared Goff so much in his second year in the league. However, being a head coach is about more than being a quarterback guru. Besides Rodgers’ play wasn’t the issue. His supporting cast on offense, including at running back and tight end, needs to be better, whilst the defence is still a work in progress. Can LaFleur lead a team, and can he lead it back to the playoffs?

Minnesota Vikings

Reason to be cheerful: a roster still stocked with talent

The Vikings return a lot of their top players for the 2019 season. That includes one of the best receiving tandems in the league, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs; defensive linemen Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen; and linebacker Eric Kendricks. The secondary is awash with talent: All Pro safety Harrison Smith; 2 time Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes; and former first round draft picks Mike Hughes and Trae Waynes. The biggest free agents Minnesota have to worry about are outside linebacker Anthony Barr and safety George Iloka.

In addition, head coach Mike Zimmer rightly remains in place, whilst on offense Kevin Stefanski has been promoted to coordinator. As QB coach Stefanski helped guide Case Keenum to an excellent 2017 season and he will be helped with the addition of Super Bowl winning head coach, and former Denver Broncos head man, Gary Kubiak, who joins the franchise as assistant head coach.

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Reason to be fearful: can they beat fellow playoff hopefuls?

Zimmer is a fantastic defensive playcaller and game planner. The Vikings can rest assured that he will consistently put a productive defensive product on the field week after week. Minnesota added Kirk Cousins on a three-year $84 million contract hoping he would be the missing piece that could get the team to the Super Bowl. Statistically it looks like Cousins was worth the investment, as he posted career highs in completion percentage (70.1%) and touchdowns (30).

There has been a lot of talk about Cousins’ record in primetime games, with him going 1-4 in those matchups last season, but when you look at the Vikings record last season they lost too many games to the teams they have to beat if they want to go far in the postseason. In games against opponents who ended up in the playoffs, the team went 1-7. Minnesota also ranked 20th in the league in offensive yards per game with the run game ranking 30th. If teams know the Vikings can’t or won’t run it, it becomes easier to focus on Cousins, Thielen and Diggs. It seems harsh to blame all the team’s offensive woes on Cousins.

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About Mark Gill 49 Articles
I'm a Bears fan for my troubles meaning I approach each Chicago NFL game with a mix of hope and pessimism.

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