Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

NFC North Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 29, 2009

Teams listed in projected order of finish.  I will say that I think this division is very tough to project as the top three teams could end up all being very close.

1. Minnesota Vikings – I tipped my hand in an earlier post before the season preview that I think the Vikings will be scary good in 2009.  Last year they did manage to win this division, thanks largely to winning five of their final six regular season games, only to get surprised at home by the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.  There is no question that Minnesota has talent all over the board, and now they might have enough to take the next step and really give people in the Twin Cities something to celebrate.  There is also little doubt the Vikings offseason was very eventful, and according to many very controversial (even perhaps causing some tension in the locker room?), but I think in the end it will prove to make all the difference for the Vikings.

The reason for the controversy surrounding the Vikings is Brett Favre.  I am on record as saying I think he can still play and will end up being a good fit in Minnesota.  I do think his will he or won’t he retire saga did get very old very fast, especially because it seems the whole thing was planned all along for him to miss the arduous training camp.  The fact is that prima donna or not, Favre is still good enough to make a difference for the Vikings.  I don’t think anyone can make a reasonable argument that he isn’t an improvement over Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels.  Jackson’s performance last season was shaky enough that coach Brad Childress felt compelled to trade for Rosenfels back in Februrary.  Even at his age Favre is an improvement over both, and he knows the offense.  Favre will also have the benefit of throwing to veteran wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who will be joined by first round draft pick Percy Harvin of Florida.  Harvin has blazing speed and should be a terrific fit on the Metrodome surface.  Tight end Visanthe Shaincoe also gives Favre a reliable target over the middle, and Bobby Wade is a good option in the slot.  The biggest strength for the Vikings though is the running game, anchored by the NFL’s top running back, Adrian Peterson.  The scary thing for opponents is that Peterson worked very hard in the offseason to improve his pass blocking and his receiving ability.  As it is, Peterson won the league’s rushing title last season with 1,760 yards, and that was without a consistent passing game.  If Favre is even just above average, teams will have to respect the passing attack with those receivers, and that could mean even better numbers for Peterson.  Chester Taylor also gives Minnesota a good option for a few carries per game as well as a third down back so they don’t have to wear down Peterson.  The offensive did lose center Matt Birk in free agency, but they still have an excellent left side of the line in tackle Bryant McKinnie and perennial Pro Bowler Steve Hutchinson at guard.  They also drafted Oklahoma’s Phil Loadholt in the second round for depth.

There is also no question the Vikings defensive line is an easy top three unit and probably the league’s best.  Defensive end Jared Allen made a huge splash last year as Minnesota’s big free agent signee with 14.5 sacks, while tackles Kevin and Pat Williams both made the Pro Bowl as well.  The Williams’ could be facing a four game suspension by the league if the courts ultimately rule in the league’s favor that the duo used a banned diuretic last season.  Right now their fate is unknown, but the Vikings are hopeful that they’ll be able to play a full season.  It is worth noting that the Vikings’s first four games are very manageable so a suspension may not cripple the team in any case.  The Vikings’ front seven is also boosted by linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is an excellent tackler.  For years teams have been unable to run against the Vikings, plus they are able to get great pressure on the quarterback.  I see no reason that won’t continue this year.  The secondary did lose safety Darren Sharper to New Orleans, but the coaches also felt his talent was slipping after he intercepted just one pass last year.  The Vikings are confident that Tyrell Johnson can take his place, and the corners are solid, anchored by Antoine Winfield.

The kicking game is in great hands with veteran Ryan Longwell.  Punter Chrs Kluwe took a lot of criticism last year (mainly for not kicking away from Reggie Bush in a Monday night game last year), but he does have a strong leg and the coaches have confidence in him.  Percy Harvin is expected to handle the return duties, and he should be able to make an impact there.

I said before I started this preview that I think the Vikings are headed for the Super Bowl.  They had most of the pieces in place already, and I think Favre will put them over the top.  A decent passing game coupled with the league’s top running game and a very stingy defensive front seven is a tough combination to beat.  In any case they are clearly the class of this division.

2. Green Bay Packers – The Packers as expected had a rough first season post-Favre.  The irony is it wasn’t really Aaron Rodgers’ fault.  Rodgers did a much better job than expected of handling the pressure of replacing the Packer legend, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.  What doomed the Packers was the defensive side of the ball.  In a six day span in late November, Green Bay surrendered a staggering 86 points in losses to New Orleans and Carolina.  The Packers did finish on a positive note, winning their final game against 0-16 Detroit, but they had lost six straight prior to that, finishing 6-10 overall.  The Packers should be much improved this year, and they are confident that lying in the weeds quietly is a better approach than the big splashes made by their division rivals.

We touched on Rodgers’ season a year ago, and his first full season as a starter certainly exceeded expectations.  Now he needs to put it together when the game is on the line.  The Packers were 0-7 last year in games where the offense got the ball with less than five minutes to go in the game with a chance to tie or win.  Rodgers took that stat personally, and he vows to be better in 2009.  He will have plenty of help from an offense that returns largely intact from a year ago.  Running back Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,200 yards, but his yards per carry dipped from 5.1 in 2007 to 3.9 last year.  To be fair, he played through a hamstring injury last year and is now healthy, so the Packers feel he should be back to his old self.  They also hope to find a complementary back, such as Brandon Jackson, who can spell Grant on occasion and keep him fresh.  The receivers are also strong, with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver both very capable of stretching the field.  The duo combined to catch over 150 balls last year, and if Rodgers improves in his second season as a stater, that number should go up.  Tight end Donald Lee is also an excellent red zone presence as well as a blocker in the running game.  The offensive line is a bunch of unknowns, but it returns intact save for the addition of center Duke Preston from Buffalo and the loss of tackle Mark Tauscher to free agency.  Since the unit is virtually the same from a year ago, the Packers hope the continuity will breed improvement.

Defensively, the Packers got quite possibly the steal of the draft in Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji at number nine overall.  Raji was clearly the best defensive player available in most scouts’ minds, and his presence should be huge for the Packers in the middle of their defense, especially since they will play a 3-4 this season.  The linebacking core is also starting to mature with former Ohio State standout A.J. Hawk and steady veteran Nick Barnett.  The secondary is anchored by cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, both of whom made the Pro Bowl last year despite the struggles of the defense as a whole.  Both are aging, but are still among the best in the league.  Their play will offset that of the young safeties, Atari Bigby and Nick Collins.  I do expect the defense to be better than last year mainly because of the presence of Raji, and I think that could be enough to make the Packers a contender for a wild card slot.

The Packers are set at kicker for a long time with Mason Crosby, who has a very long leg (he kicked a 60-yard field goal in college at Colorado).  Punter is another story however, as Derrick Frost was so horrible he got the boot after 12 games last year.  Jeremy Kapinos of Penn State will take that over this year.  Will Blackmon returned two punts for scores last season, so the Packers do appear to be in good shape there.

I think the Packers could be in play for a wild card.  I like Rodgers and the offense to be better, and I also think the defense will be tougher with the presence of Raji.  The Packers didn’t make many moves in the offseason, but it’s possible their stability could make the difference as opposed to the big shakeups of their prime rivals.

3. Chicago Bears – The Bears have a very different look from the team that made the Super Bowl in 2006.  For years they have been a run and play defense kind of team, winning lots of low scoring games.  Last year they did finish 9-7, but they let a playoff spot slip away with a bad loss at Houston in the final game of the season.  The Bears still have their running game and defense to rely on, but now they have a quarterback to go with it, as they pulled off the offseason’s biggest trade by acquiring Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler from the Broncos.  All of Chicago is ga-ga over Cutler, who is only 25, has a rocket arm, and may be Chicago’s best quarterback in 30 years.  The Bears feel Cutler is the missing piece for a run at the Super Bowl.  While they have good reason to be excited, I don’t see a Super Bowl in Chicago’s future just yet.

Cutler no doubt has posted good numbers in Denver.  Last year he threw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, but he also threw his share of interceptions, many of them forced into double coverage, and is just 17-20 as a starter.  Cutler also played very poorly in Denver’s final three games last year, resulting in a Broncos’ collapse out of the playoffs.  The Bears do have reason to be very excited about Cutler, for they have gone through a whopping 37 quarterbacks over their last 171 games, a span of nearly 11 seasons.  Given that you can’t blame Chicago for paying a steep price to land a quarterback.  Cutler does have a lot of years ahead of him and is very talented.  Chicago does need to hope that he cleans up his attitude (the Broncos felt many of his interceptions came when he got impatient and frustrated), and Cutler does need to show that he has what it takes to win in the clutch.  The good news for the Bears is they may not need to rely much on their passing game, because Matt Forte is quickly emerging as one of the league’s top running backs.  Forte rushed for over 1,200 yards last year, and he has shown an ability to run inside and outside.  The Bears are counting on the mere presence of Cutler to open up the running game significantly.  They also hope that Cutler’s presence will improve the passing enough to make their offense a threat not seen in Chicago in a long time.  Cutler will have to work magic with a very suspect group of receivers, the best of which is probably Devin Hester, who is still adjusting after transitioning from cornerback.  The Bears do have a good tight end in Greg Olsen, but the rest of the group consists of rookie Juaquin Iglesias of Oklahoma, and a pair of relative no-names in Rashed Davis and Earl Bennett.  The offensive line also took hits with losses of John Tait (retirement) and John St. Clair (to Cleveland).  They did sign veteran Orlando Pace to protect Cutler’s blind side, and Olin Kruetz remains an excellent, albeit aging, center.

Defense has long been a Bears’ staple, and this year shouldn’t be much different.  The defensive line has good talent in Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye and Tommie Harris.  The linebackers are outstanding, led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.  Despite all this talent in the front seven, the defense wasn’t always its usual self last year, surrendering 41 and 37 points respectively vs. division rivals Minnesota and Green Bay.  One reason is that their secondary can be considered average at best.  Charles Tillman can’t really be considered a shutdown corner, and Nathan Vasher is a liability against the run, and has also battled injuries the last two seasons.  The Bears did add safety Josh Bullocks from New Orleans.  If the secondary is average again, the Bears will have to rely very heavily on their front seven.

The Bears are in great shape at kicker with Robbie Gould, who has hit on 85 percent of field goals in his career despite kicking in windy Soldier Field, as well as punter Brad Maynard, who placed 40 punts inside the 20-yard line last season.  Devin Hester’s reputation as a returner is well documented, but the Bears might want to be careful not to let him get too distracted by trying to play wide receiver that he loses steam as a returner.  Daniel Manning as well as the rookie Iglesias could be capable of stepping in that role as well.

The Bears could well be a playoff team despite playing in a brutal division.  I know many people in Chicago think Cutler is their knight in shining armor, but I think he has some work to do before he becomes an elite player.  The question marks at receiver, offensive line and secondary could prove to be their undoing.  Despite that, it should be a great battle with the Packers and Vikings in this division.

4. Detroit Lions – Last season was obviously one to forget for the Lions, who became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16.  Most of their games weren’t even close, and perhaps the only positive thing for Lions fans was that the team sent general manager Matt Millen packing after years of ineptitude.  Not surprisingly, the head coach also lost his job, and the team used its first overall draft choice on a new quarterback.  Oh, and the logo is new too, because we all know that makes all the difference.  Of course it will take much more than a new logo to generate success in Detroit, but at least they can’t be any worse this year right?

Clearly there will be a lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, the talented signal caller from Georgia who was the Lions’ choice at number one overall in the draft.  The Lions are hoping for some good karma here.  See, Stafford went to the same high school as the only legend quarterback in Lions’ history, as well as the last one to lead them to a championship.  That would be Bobby Layne, and the year of that championship was 1957.  The Lions hope that Stafford will prove to be a good selection, and he definitely has the tools to be a good player.  He will have competition this year though from Daunte Culpepper, who has bounced around to several teams but lost 30 pounds in the offseason and has actually looked good in the preseason.  Either way, the Lions hope the position will be improved over last year, when Dan Orlovsky memorably symbolized the futility by running out of the back of the end zone untouched for a safety against the Vikings.  Whoever is at the controls will have the luxury of throwing to one of the league’s top receivers in Calvin Johnson.  Despite the awful quarterback play last year, Johnson ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and first in touchdowns.  With improvement under center, Johnson might be able to post scary numbers (Be sure to tab him in fantasy this year if you can). He will be joined by Bryant Johnson, who comes over from San Francisco and Ronald Curry, signed from Oakland.  Not necessarily household names, but they are decent enough to be able to take some pressure off Johnson.  Second round draft pick Brandon Pettigrew of Oklahoma State also adds an intriguing option.  The Lions top running back is Kevin Smith, who nearly hit 1,000 yards last year, and he will be backed up by Maurice Morris, who is looking for a fresh start after leaving Seattle.  The offensive line wasn’t really addressed save for the addition of no name Daniel Loper from Tennessee.  Odds are the line will be a mess, and that means the offense overall will unfortunately still be a work in progress for Detroit.

New coach Jim Schwartz is frantically trying to get his defensive linemen to bulk up. Last year no one on the line weighed over 300 pounds, which put them at a disadvantage against opposing offensive lines virtually every week.  One of the Detroit’s free agent signings was tackle Grady Jackson from Atlanta, who weighs roughly 345 pounds.  They also drafted Sammie Hill, a 329-pound tackle out of little known Stillman University.  The linebackers should be significantly improved with the additions of Larry Foote, a key player on Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl winning teams in ’05 and ’08, as well as Julian Peterson, who comes over from the Seahawks.  The secondary was also addressed in the offseason, a good call considering they unit picked off just one pass last year.  Phillip Buchanon comes over from Tampa Bay, and the Lions also tabbed Anthony Henry from Dallas.  Couple those additions with holdover Keith Smith, who actually has good cover ability, and I’ll go out on a limb and say the Lions’ secondary will pick off more than one pass this year.

Detroit’s longest tenured player is kicker Jason Hanson.  He was vocal in his displeasure last season, and he is back for another year in the Motor City.  Punter Nick Harris has bounced around to multiple teams, but was very consistent last year (Hey, he had plenty of practice!).  Rookie Derrick Williams from Penn State is a candidate for return duty, as is Avion Cason, who was solid but not spectacular in the role last season.

I will make a bold prediction and say the Lions will not stumble to 0-16 two years in a row.  It may not be in the first few weeks, but there are a few winnable games on their schedule.  The defense is completely rebuilt, and the offense has some talent.  It will take a few years, but believe it or not there is a new direction here.

Coming next: the AFC South

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