The NFC North looks to be one of the most competitive in the NFC if not the entire NFL this coming season. Everyone in Packer Nation knows the moves the Packers have made and many are likely quite excited. But it is a lot more difficult to keep up with the off-season moves of the other teams in the North so we at GPN decided to do that work for you as the Packers’ success in the Division is largely indicative of their success overall. Let’s take a quick look around the North and check out the competition with a view toward a better understanding of the division as a whole.
1. Minnesota Vikings
As the current NFC North champions, we are forced to start with the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings brought in Kirk Cousins on a fully guaranteed three year contract and hope that he will be the answer that they have been looking for at quarterback. Dalvin Cook also looks to be back from his knee injury and was electrifying before he went down. Cousins has a good supporting cast in Rudolph (cousins likes passing to tight ends), Thielen, and Diggs. But the Vikings also added guard Tom Compton, WR Kendall Wright, and Interior D lineman Sheldon Richardson to the mix.
In the draft, the Vikings added Mike Hughes the DB out of UCF. The Vikings picked up the fifth year option on Trae Waynes giving the Vikings time to figure out whether he is worth a long-term deal and at the same time get a chance to see how Hughes develops. Terrance Newman is back as well but in a division that includes Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and now Mitch Trubisky, the Vikings know that they have to stay ahead of the age of their backfield to be able to field personnel that can execute their two-deep safety scheme well enough to continue to get the pressure they have in the past.
In round two of the draft, the Vikings addressed a major need, picking up Brian O’Neill the OT out of Pittsburg. Case Keenum was largely untouched last year but not due to the proficiency of the O-line. Keenum was the least sacked quarterback last year when under pressure because of his ability to get rid of the ball, not because of his line. And now with the retirement of right guard Joe Berger, the Vikings look to O’Neill to fill the vacancy or even to kick out to right tackle. Either way, the Vikings will have some question marks at the position going into the week 2 matchup with the Packers at Lambeau Field. Look for Nick Perry and company to give them a significant test.
The Vikings other draft picks include:
Round 4, Pick 2 (No. 102 overall): Jalyn Holmes, DE, Ohio State
Strength of schedule 8th (tied with Bears, Giants, Cardinals) Opponents 2017 win percentage .520
2. The Detroit Lions
The big news for Detroit fans was first and foremost the signing of head coach Matt Patricia. But Patricia didn’t sit on his heels when he got there, he immediately went to work on a team with a middle of the road roster. Patricia franchised Ziggy Ansah, signed Nevin Lawson, and Tavon Wilson and added Devon Kennard on the edge as well as DI Sylvester Williams from Tennessee. Christian Jones and DeShawn Shead also add LB and DB depth. They also added TE’s Toilolo (Atl) and Luke Wilson (Sea) to make up for departed disappointment Eric Ebron.
In the draft, the Lions found an excellent prospect and possible first year starting center in Frank Ragnow who should take over for Wesley Johnson sooner rather than later and be shoulder to shoulder with TJ Lang and whoever the “answer” at left guard ends up being. The team also added Oregon offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby who, along with the addition of Kerryon Johnson, and fullback Nick Bowden in the 7th round (the Lions eliminated the fullback position altogether just 11 months ago) shows an emphasis on improving a useless running game.
Full list of picks includes:
Round 1, No. 20 overall: Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas
Round 7, Pick 19 (No. 237 overall): Nick Bawden, FB, San Diego State
Strength of schedule: 2nd (tied with Saints) opponent 2017 win percentage .535
3. The Chicago Bears
The Bears saw the free agent market this year as a way to upgrade the (abysmal) talent around Mitch Trubisky. They added Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton. The team let Josh Sitton walk however and will need to fill that gap before the season begins. Also, retaining Kyle Fuller (4 years, 56 Million) is important for a defense that quietly had one of the better backfields in the league last year. If Leonard Floyd pans out and first round draft pick Roquan Smith makes an immediate contribution, the Bears’ pass rush should see improvement. Either way, the Bears look to be an improved team even minus Pernell McPhee and with an improved passing attack to go along with a Howard/Cohen running back tandem, they could make a run at a Wild Card Spot. The biggest barrier could perhaps be that they are in the NFC North where Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and now Kirk Cousins sit twice each on the schedule.
In the draft, the Bears picked up Smith 8th overall and running a 4.51 at 6’1″ and 236 pounds, it is no wonder the Bears wanted him. The rest of the Bears’ draft is as follows:
Second round, 39th overall: James Daniels, C/G, Iowa
Second round, 51st overall: Anthony Miller, WR, Memphis
Fourth round, 115th overall: Joel Iyiegbuniwe, LB, Western Kentucky
Smith is a potential pro-bowler and drafting Daniels says that the team wants to protect their costly franchise QB. The Bears have to prove it but even if they don’t shine in the NFC North, they will likely pick up several quality wins. This from the team that last year had the Falcons in the palm of their hands without Trubisky. The Bears are not to be overlooked.
While I won’t insult Packer Nation’s intelligence by rehashing every FA pickup and draft pick, I do want to talk about how the off-season moves may affect the Packers’ chances in the North. Let’s break this part of the analysis down by team as well.
Packers Versus Vikings: I would be hard-pressed to predict any better than a split with the Vikings as hard as it is to admit. The Vikings have done things the right way of late and if their 84 million dollar guaranteed gamble on Cousins is right, they could be in the pole position. They don’t have Aaron Rodgers though and while Dalvin Cook should return, I don’t see the Packers’ defense letting Rudolph, Thielen, and Diggs dice them up the way they did last year. The matchup at Lambeau Field I have as a win and I think the interior D-line shows early dominance. The Vikings moves to try to protect Cousins may not be completely solidified by week 2 and the Packers at home should sport a balanced attack pass/run while getting in a few shots to Aaron Rodgers’ new toy Jimmy Graham. I don’t expect Graham to really come on until the second quarter of the season and this certainly would not be the game to expect him to break out. Still, there is reason to believe that Graham can serve a possession role along with Marcedes Lewis early and especially against an imposing defense like the Vikings’.
I expect this will be a conservative game from the Packers’ offense as they still remember what happened last season. But Aaron Rodgers will be begging to unleash Graham and make them pay…big-time. A solid start in the run game should bring play-action success and homefield advantage could make all the difference. The health of Brian Bulaga may be a critical factor in this game as we saw early offensive struggles out of last year’s offense while the O-line sorted itself out. On defense, I have to believe that the Packers front seven will be looking to make a statement to Kirk Cousins and will in fact (don’t think it doesn’t happen) have vengeance for last year on their mind. I expect multiple sacks in this game from the Packers’ defense. Even if Pettine’s scheme has not completely “set” for the young DB’s, our front three along with the LB corps should be very much ready to go and at that point in the season hopefully most of them will be available.
The week 12 matchup could be a very different story. If the Packers are as banged up as they usually are, we have to expect double-digit injuries and several starters missing. If any are on the O-line then the Packers should consider seeing what Deshone Kizer can do or giving Hundley a chance to redeem himself (I’m kidding…I’m kidding!). The Packers Offensive line is going to need to be healthy for this one if the Packers are going to have a chance. But if they are then position and continuity should be in place. I think the Packers can take this one if they run a deliberate offense and are able to win the field position battle. By then we will also know what we have in the defense (for good or ill) and a couple of our young cornerbacks should have risen to the top. But the Vikings solid defense coupled with a Kirk Cousins who by the end of November knows whether he can carry the team or not, can still press the Packers. Even game manager Case Keenum was able to do enough and Cousins should be an upgrade. If the Packers don’t do a good job stopping the run, things could get out of hand. The key to this one I think will be field position, time of possession, and in-game adjustments. The Packers will have to know when to put their foot on the gas and I think a couple Mason Crosby field goals will play into it. The Vikings defense led the league in yards given up last year and they will look to keep Aaron Rodgers in check. This should be an early opportunity for the running game and guys like Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams with a very dangerous Ty Montgomery in the mix with his ability to catch out of the backfield.
Packers Versus Lions: The Packers lost twice to the Lions last year and while the offense only scored in the teens on both occasions, that is largely due to the fact that Aaron Rodgers had gone down week 6 and Brett Hundley had done little with the offense. A greater concern though was the fact that the Lions scored 30 or more in both contests. This year’s defense will face a challenge once again in Matt Stafford and now with new head coach Matt Patricia and some additions for the line and at the running back position, the Lions may be capable of ball control and clock management too.
We all know about the week 17 final matchup against the Lions that will be at Lambeau, but the away game comes in week 5 which is interesting. As the first game of the second quarter of the season, one would expect Aaron Rodgers to be using Jimmy Graham as the weapon that he is, a suitable number 2 perimeter receiver to have begun to show himself when Graham is not in that role, and the running game to have come into its own. Defensively, there will be no excuses that “it’s a new system” and the perimeter cornerback group should have shaken itself out. With the two early division games, followed by games against Washington and Buffalo (uncommon opponents), I think that Lions game could be a real touchstone for what kind of a team we really have. The Lions will have a new head coach so tendencies will be less defined, but they still have a dangerous quarterback in Stafford on a team that apparently (see above) wishes to take pressure off him by running the ball. The Packers tend to have all they can do to get wins in Detroit and this will be the third divisional game of the season by week 5. I believe Ragnow will have settled in as the starting center by this point. Get your red pen and circle that one Packer Nation, it will be a watershed game.
The League made a brilliant move by putting a division game at the end of each season. Week 17 matchups have been critical for the Packers since the policy began. With the strength of schedule that the Packers face in 2018, we have to expect this year will be no different. If the Packers can find a way to be relatively healthy toward the end of the season, they should be able to take the week 17 matchup at home. Cold field and a Detroit team that plays indoors give the Packers an edge. Aaron Rodgers knows how to handle the elements and by then we will know what we have in our running game. If it comes down to a quarterback…I take Rodgers at home any day. I would not be surprised, however if the Lions try to manage time of possession and if their running game is improved, that might just work. I expect the Packers’ defense to be good against the run though. This one should be a win, and not the kind of win that comes down to a field goal. I’ve got the Packers winning both matchups.
Packers Versus Bears: This may be the toughest one to call. The Bears had a really active off-season and if Mitch Trubisky takes an expected second year leap the Bears’ offense looks pretty good going into 2018. But week one is so early that I expect the Packers to be ahead of the curve on this one. I expect multiple sacks out of the interior of the Packers’ D-line in this game as they take advantage of a team that is missing guard Josh Sitton. The additions to the Bears’ wide receiver corps doesn’t scare me too much although, again, it is week one and we don’t know who will have settled in on the perimeter at cornerback though I think Tramon Williams and Kevin King are enough to handle it as-is. I have the Packers winning this one.
At Chicago, in the middle of December in week 15 is gonna be a cold one. Anything can happen with the weather on Lake Michigan and we need to have a running game that is able to tow the line. The Bears have a great tandem/running back by committee system and they will look to use it. I think this game is where the interior of our D-line shows its value against the run. This game has trench warfare written all over it and at this point, the Bears could be hanging on to some playoff hopes. The possibility of snagging a Wildcard spot would be just the motivation the team needs to make a serious run at a superior opponent at home. Really wish I could see the future on this one, but with the difficulty of the Packers’ schedule and the fact that this will be the last division game before the week 17 matchup against the Lions, and I expect this to be a tough one. The Bears have been able to give us a run for our money in Chicago and this year may be their best chance in a long time.
Well, there are some thoughts on the State of the North. Let me know what you think and please consider becoming a Patron today!