When it’s all said and done this season, the NFC North might not boast the teams with the best records in the league or even their own conference, but it might just end up being the toughest division in the league, from top-to-bottom.
Not many people outside the Upper Peninsula remember that the Minnesota Vikings ended up winning the NFC North last season, after going 4-2 over the last six games of last season and surging past the faltering Packers to take the division crown.
Vikings head coach is Mike Zimmer is one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL; his players absolutely love playing for him. He and General Manager Rick Spielman have helped create a defense that might have as much talent as any defense in the NFL, including the Broncos or Seahawks.
Everson Griffen (double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons) is a pass rushing stud. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph (who was quietly one of the very best at his position last season) and Shariff Floyd might form one of the best interior pairings in the league. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr looks like a future superstar. Safety Harrison Smith is right up there with Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu as one of the best safeties in the NFL. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has played very solidly for them, and the team is very pleased with the progress shown by cornerback Trae Waynes — the team’s first round draft pick in 2015 — during training camp this season.
Offensively, the Vikings still have the seemingly ageless Adrian Peterson, and a couple of young stud receivers in Stefon Diggs and Laquon Treadwell (their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft). Their biggest X-factor remains Teddy Bridgewater, who looks very reminiscent of a Chad Pennington-type quarterback: a heady player who can astutely run your offense, but hinders its potential because of his total lack of arm strength. I think it all rests on Bridgewater, as far as how far he can take this otherwise very talented team.
Having lost the NFC North throne, due to crippling injuries and sub-par performances from some of their key players, the Packers spent the offseason trying to get everyone back into the best possible shape, in order to reclaim their division crown. Aaron Rodgers looked uncharacteristically and shockingly mortal for much of the 2015 season — especially over the second half of the season — as he struggled to carry an offense that provided him very little support overall. He finished the season with his lowest completion percentage and lowest yards per attempt as the Packers starting quarterback, and the lowest total passing yards for any season where he played more than 15 games.
To do his part in getting past a 2015 season he’d probably like to forget, Rodgers spent the offseason training harder than ever and cleaning up his diet (going heavily vegan, eating only a little meat but entirely nixing any dairy consumption). He reportedly lost about 13lbs in the offseason, and is at his lowest weight since his rookie year. Rodgers will also get wide receiver Jordy Nelson — his favorite target — back from injury (although he’s starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list as a precautionary measure), while the other young receivers on the roster (Davante Adams and Jeff Janis) are also healthy and have gained more NFL experience. Rodgers should also get more support from his running game, given that Eddie Lacy spending the offseason training with P90X creator Tony Horton, and lost close to 20lbs as well.
On defense, the Packers had a few changes up the middle of their defense, as they try to fix their perennially leaky run defense (ranked 21st last season). Letroy Guion takes over at nose tackle for the retired B.J. Raji, while Sam Barrington and Nate Palmer are penciled in at inside linebacker (allowing Clay Matthews to move back to outside linebacker). The biggest change in the secondary is moving defensive back Damarious Randall into the starting lineup. The coaching staff is absolutely enamored with Randall’s abilities, and have spent the 2016 OTA’s and training camp to date moving him around between nickel cornerback and free safety, trying to turn Randall into their own version of Tyrann Mathieu.
One of the most under-the-radar storylines in the NFL is the way that Chicago Bears General Manager Ryan Pace has gone about renovating the roster of the old “monsters of the Midway” over the last two seasons. The Bears are one of the rare teams who has set out to build a team the “right” way — building the foundation of the team through the draft, and then supplementing those building blocks with smart free agent acquisitions — and has actually stuck to the plan (at least so far).
Pace has absolutely aced his last two drafts, and in the 2016 free agency period, the Bears might’ve made three of the shrewdest and most strategic free agent signings out of anyone. They shored shore up the middle of their defense by (very quietly) signing two of the better inside linebackers in football: Danny Trevathan (formerly of Denver) and Jerrell Freeman (formerly of Indianapolis) that just adds to a group of linebackers that already had Pernell McPhee (a fantastic free agent pickup from Baltimore last season), Lamarr Houston, and the aforementioned Floyd. Then, they signed right tackle Bobby Massie (formerly of Arizona), allowing Kyle Long to move back inside to guard, where he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player; that one signing effectively shored them up in two positions. So, the Bears’ offensive line and the middle linebackers — two of their weaker position groups last season — could very well end up being two of their strengths.
They still have a few big questions that need to be answered, like whether new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains — who was promoted from quarterbacks coach — can carry on the offense that Adam Gase so masterfully ran for Chicago last season; who is going to emerge from their logjam at running back (between Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and rookie Jordan Howard have their strengths, but none of those guys are anything close to what Matt Forte was last season); and if their secondary can hold up (Kyle Fuller had an up-and-down year last year, and they’ve basically got nothing at cornerback behind him, nor at safety next to Adrian Amos). Still, if things break correctly for them, this team has the potential to be dangerous. And if they continue to build this team the way they have been over the last couple of years, I think they’re a really good running back and one starting cornerback away from being a legitimate contender in the NFC.
As far as the Detroit Lions, it begs the question: will the real Detroit Lions please stand up? Which version of the Detroit Lions are we going to see this season: the one that started the 2015 season with a 1-7 record, or the team that went 6-2 over their last eight games, scoring over 26 points per game in that span? To a fan, they all believe that the first stretch of the season was an aberration, and a function of overcoming the injuries they faced and some of the schemes in place. Over the last eight games of the season, Matthew Stafford threw for 2,179 yards (and 7.44 yards per attempt), completed 70% of his passes, and threw 19 touchdowns versus only two interceptions. Sure, they’ll have to figure out how to replace the incredible productivity of future Hall of Fame-player Calvin Johnson, but free agent wide receiver Marvin Jones has already shown an early rapport with Stafford, and he — along with incumbent Golden Tate — will fit well in Cooter’s scheme that emphasizes quick throws underneath and allowing the receivers to do damage after the catch.
Defensively, the Lions will get back linebacker DeAndre Levy, the heart of their defense who missed all of last season with various ailments. If they can keep defensive tackle Haloti Ngata on the field (he fought nagging injuries all season last year) and build on the breakout years from defensive end Ziggy Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay, they could be a quietly difficult team to deal with in 2016.