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Vault Valuables: NFC North Preview


 

Green Bay Packers

After an offseason fiasco surrounding the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers, he is back, at least for the year. This could be his last year in Green Bay, so Matt Lafleur and the Packers need to go all in this year after losing the NFC Championship last season. At -165, they seem to have a stranglehold on the division. Are the Packers a safe bet?

Offense

Quarterback

This will be the shortest section of this preview, and for good reason. After threatening to retire, the Packers gave Aaron Rodgers what he wanted. Arguably the most talented QB in NFL history, Rodgers returns, hoping to follow up his MVP season with another super bowl this year. The Packers are set at QB.

Skill Positions

There was worry about the running back position this offseason. After losing Jamaal Williams to the Lions in free agency, the Packers thought they might be thin due to Aaron Jones’s free agency. However, luckily, Jones resigned for 4 years and 48 million dollars. Being a top ten running back in the league, he should help relieve Rodgers’ workload by rushing the ball, as well as with his impressive pass catching skills. The main running back behind Jones is 6’0” 247 pound AJ Dillon. He will be a great change of pace to Jones, as he is a bruising running back with some of the largest legs on Earth (seriously, look them up).

At wide receiver, Green Bay supports Rodgers with none other than Davante Adams, the best (or 2nd best) receiver in the game. After scoring 18 touchdowns (1st in the league), Adams is looking for a longer and larger contract, and it is certainly deserved. With the tandem of Rodgers and Adams, defenses do not tend to have an answer. Outside of Adams, the Packers have Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Devin Funchess, Allen Lazard, rookie Amari Rodgers, and veteran Randall Cobb (who was brought back due to Rodgers’’ demands). Clearly, they are extremely deep at the receiver position and full of talent. Add in the fact that they have Aaron Rodgers, and this group might be the best in the NFL.

At tight end, last year’s breakout tight end of the season was Robert Tonyan. Once again, there is a common theme here in the fact that Aaron Rodgers makes everyone around him better. After being essentially nothing in his career, he exploded last year with 11 touchdowns and zero drops. On top of that, he is a fantastic blocker, after working in the offseason with All-Pro George Kittle. Behind him is 16 year veteran Mercedes Lewis who has played in Green Bay for the last 3 years. Essentially, they are set at all three skill position groups in Green Bay.

Offensive Line

For years, the Packers offensive line has been extremely impressive. However, recently, they have been declining in talent and experience. Just two years ago, the line consisted of David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, and Bryan Bulaga. Those 4 are all extremely talented players. However, now, Bakhtiari is the only remaining player from that line. Besides Bakhtiari, the Packers starters are Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Lucas Patrick, and Billy Turner. While it is not a pathetic line, it is certainly below average. While they are elevated by Rodgers mastery, they are not helping him or the running game out. With that in mind, this offense will be successful because of Rodgers and the skill positions, not this offensive line.

Defense

Front Seven

The Packers’ front seven looks to be strong again. With Za’Darius and Preston Smith off the edges and Kenny Clark on the inside, they have an extremely strong line. The former Smith is unhappy about his contract, and he has a right to be, as he had 12.5 sacks last year. He is also above average in the run game. On top of the three aforementioned players, they also have Dean Lowry who has been a productive player in the past, as well as former 1st round pick Rashan Gary from Michigan. Overall, this defensive line is strong again.

At linebacker, the Packers signed De’Vondre Campbell and then returned Krys Barnes. Overall, there is not much to say about them, as they are largely average players, albeit ones that can and have produced. There is not much depth behind them, but one player of note is Kamal Martin who is 23 years old and developing.

Overall, this front seven should be strong, especially with the help they get from the secondary behind them.

Secondary

This is an extremely strong secondary. Just as I wrote above, they will also be helped out by the strong front seven up top. Arguably one of the top 5 cover corners in the league, Jaire Alexander can shadow any receiver in the league, and he can do it successfully. On top of that, he is only 24 years old and improving too. On the opposite side is Kevin King. While he struggled at the end of last season, he is talented and should not be underestimated as to what he can do as a 6’3” corner. Behind them, the Packers just drafted Eric Stokes in the first round of this year’s draft. Perhaps they are grooming him to be a slot cornerback between King and Alexander?

At safety, the Packers don Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage. Both are extremely hard hitters who can create turnovers behind a talented defense. With that being said, the depth behind them is lacking, but as long as they stay healthy (never a sure thing in football), they should be fine.

With Alexander, Amos, and Savage, this secondary should slow down opposing passing games, as well as creating turnovers.

Overall

At -165, the Vegas sportsbooks assume that this division is all but locked up, and I tend to agree with them. Essentially, as long Aaron Rodgers stays healthy, this team should be in contention for a super bowl. While you won’t gain much value on this bet, you should get the money back.

 

Minnesota Vikings

At +250, the Minnesota Vikings have the 2nd best odds in the north to win the division. After going 7-9, the Vikings are relying on development, along with a couple of key additions in the secondary to make the playoffs.

Offense

Quarterback

There is no QB controversy here, but it is interesting that Minnesota drafted Texas A&M quarterback, Kellen Mond, at the beginning of the third round in this year’s draft. Don’t get it twisted, Kirk Cousins is the starter here, and has earned that right, but don’t be surprised if they transition from Cousins to Mond in a year or two. Anyways, regarding this year, Cousins has been just above average for years, after he signed a 3 year 84 million dollar fully guaranteed deal a few years ago. While he struggles at times, for the most part, he is not going to lose you any games. After being 8th in passing yards and 6th in passing touchdowns, he looked like an upper echelon QB; however, he was tied for 31st among QBs in interceptions, a bad number. Regardless, he is a serviceable QB that has good weapons around him.

Skill Positions

At running back, Minnesota has one of the best in the league, FSU product, Dalvin Cook. Last season, he was second in rushing yards and touchdowns, and he added over 350 receiving yards. After having almost 2,000 scrimmage yards, it looks like Cook will continue his growth and development. The only concern for Dalvin Cook is injuries, as he has had knee issues throughout his college and pro career. Behind Cook, the Vikings have Alexander Mattison and Ameer Abdullah. Both are veterans that have played before, Mattison filling in for Cook during injuries and Abdullah in Detroit. Overall, this position group is set, especially if Dalvin Cook can play a full 17.

At receiver, Minnesota has a chance to be special, especially at the top of the depth chart. Last year’s first round pick Justin Jefferson will look to continue what he did in his record breaking rookie campaign, hoping to be a top ten receiver this year. On the other side, Adam Theilen will likely be the same consistent Theilen he has been for years. Those two have no questions surrounding them. After the two of them though, their depth is a bit lacking. The next few receivers are Chad Beebe, Dede Westbrook, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Beebe has been in the Vikings system for a couple years, thus he might have the upper hand. Besides Beebe, Westbrook has the most experience and talent, having played for the Jacksonville Jaguars for a few years. It may pay off for Minnesota to add some free agent veteran talent before the season starts.

At tight end, the Vikings let long time veteran Kyle Rudolph go during free agency. That gave the keys to 2019 second round pick Irv Smith Jr. While he has not played a large amount in his career due to the former presence of Rudolph, he has had a great training camp by all accounts. Behind him is also Tyler Conklin, who is a 5th round pick that has not played much either. While there is a lack of experience at the position, the Vikings are hoping that by being put in position to play, they will develop.

Offensive Line

The Vikings have truly rebuilt their offensive line. While it is not amazing, it is an improvement upon recent years. This draft, they selected Christian Darrisaw in the first round to play left tackle. Originally projected to go in the top 15, he fell to them at 23 due to luck and positional need for other teams. At left guard is 7 year veteran Dakota Dozier. Center is former first round pick Garret Bradbury. Right guard is former 2nd round pick Ezra Cleveland. And right tackle is former 2nd rounder Brian O’Neill. Essentially, the point here is that they have talent, as four of the five linemen were selected in the top 2 rounds of their respective drafts. All they have to do is put it all together. Mason Cole will be the versatile swingman inside.

Defense

Front Seven

This Vikings front seven is extremely talented. After getting a deal done with Danielle Hunter this offseason, he is returning, and looks to get after the quarterback for a 7th season. On the other side, DJ Wonnum looks to take a bigger role. He is currently slated to be the starter after playing sparingly last season. Wonnum is probably the weak link on this defense, especially in terms of experience. Inside, the Vikings are extremely talented, as they have Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson. Not only are they all extremely talented, but they are behemoths too. They are some of the biggest men in the league, especially Pierce.

At linebacker, the Vikings have Nick Vigil, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks. Vigil is coming over from the Chargers after having a breakout season for the Bengals two years ago with 111 tackles. While he is the weak link in this group, he is NOT a poor player, the only problem is that he is playing next to two pro bowlers in Barr and Kendricks. While both were injured last year, they look to return to their elite form to round out this talented defense. On top of their talent, they are great against the pass and the run, thus making them 3 down linebackers. Behind these three, they also drafted Chazz Surratt this year, a talented backer from North Carolina.

Secondary

At corner, the Vikings signed former all-pro Patrick Peterson. While many had expected him to return to the Cardinals, he surprised many by coming over to Minnesota to elevate this defense even higher. While he is a bit old, he can shut down many receivers. On the other side is former third round pick, the talented Cameron Dantzler. Behind Dantzler and Peterson, Minnesota has Kris Boyd, Mackensie Alexander, and Bashaud Breeland. All three have talent, while Breeland and Alexander have started in the NFL before.

At safety, Harrison Smith returns again. Smith is one of the best safeties in the league, and has been for many years now. Opposite of him is Xavier Woods, a former Cowboy, after Anthony Harris (PFF’s #1 rated safety) left in the offseason. While Harris is a big loss, they have the talent and experience to survive back there.

Overall

Overall, the Vikings are solid. They are nothing special, but nothing poor either. They are far behind Green Bay for a reason. They do not have any elite characteristics about them, but definitely a solid team. If you wanted to take a flyer on some value, this may be the team to bet on, but as written earlier, they are basically competing for second place in the division behind the Packers.

 

Chicago Bears

At +550 to win the division, an 8-8 Chicago Bears team will need to improve if they want to beat out the Green Bay Packers to win the division. After drafting Justin Fields and having an impressive defense, will Matt Nagy be able steer this team to victory, or will they fall like they have for years?

Offense

Quarterback

As Matt Nagy has said for weeks since the draft, Andy Dalton is Chicago’s starter since they signed him. However, according to all reports, Justin Fields (who Chicago moved up in the draft to sign) has been lighting it up. For this team, it almost seems like a matter of time. The answer to the question of will Justin Fields play is more a question of when not if. His athleticism and wow factor will surely endear him to Bears fans more than veteran Andy Dalton. While Dalton will be fine for them, he is not going to give them extra chances to win games. They will be average again with Dalton. With Fields, he will certainly go through rookie growing pains and he might not work out, but he certainly has a better chance at being elite than Dalton.

Skill Positions

Honestly, the Bears are better than I initially thought at the running back position. The starter is going to be David Montgomery. While he is capable of being a three down back, he doesn’t need to. Coming off of a knee injury, speedy running back Tarik Cohen is set to be the third down back, as well as used in multiple gimmick packages and as a receiver. He is their do it all back. Behind Montgomery and Cohen, the Bears signed Damien Williams from the Chiefs this offseason. After being an integral part in the Chiefs’ super bowl win, he comes over to Chicago to hopefully add talent and bring a veteran presence. They also drafted excited Virginia Tech rookie Khalil Herbert.

After franchise tagging Allen Robinson, they were not able to come to an agreement on a long term deal. Thus, Robinson will once again be playing on a one year, prove it deal. As long as he stays healthy, this should not be a problem for Robinson, as he is one of the top receivers in a game. The only thing that has held him back has been extremely poor quarterback play. Behind him is Darnell Mooney, a Tulane product that had a breakout year last season with over 600 yards receiving. If he can continue to develop, he will likely have a stranglehold on the second wide receiver position for years to come. In the slot, the Bears signed Damiere Byrd over from the Patriots. After finding success with Cam Newton last year, he hopes to improve with Dalton and Fields at the helm. The Bears also signed Marquise Goodwin. While he hasn’t played in a bit of time, if he can return to what he was with the 49ers, he will bring major speed to this Bears offense.

Last season, it seemed as though the Bears had 100 tight ends. This year, Chicago looks to throw out Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham to help out the quarterbacks and running backs. The young and the old. Graham will hopefully be a good mentor for Kmet, who got drafted in the second round last year. Overall, they should be fine to proceed with this group, but they aren’t going to be anything special. Overall, this offense will be just that: fine, but nothing great.

Offensive Line

This offensive line has not been good lately. They have done a bit to shore it up, but it's not great. In the second round of this year’s draft, they drafted Teven Jenkins. Honestly, they got lucky that he fell to them, because he was projected to initially go in the top 25. Left tackle is one of the toughest positions to learn and play well in the NFL, so he will certainly go through some growing pains, but he has the size and potential to play well, but it will take a bit of time before he can excel. James Daniels and Cody Whitehair will play left guard and center, two former second round picks. Alex Bars will play right guard, and former first round pick Germain Ifedi will play right tackle. Once again, this group will probably be in the bottom half of the league in terms of how this line plays, but they will be improved from last season.

Defense

Front Seven

This unit has been the Bears’ calling card for the last few years. After trading for Khalil Mack from the Raiders a few years ago, their defense has been elite. On the edges, they lost Leonard Floyd. They brought in Robert Quinn to be paired with Mack. In terms of pass rushing, this duo is elite. Quinn could work on his edge setting in the run game, but Mack can do it all. Inside, the Bears have Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. Honestly, there is not much to talk about with this group. Up and down this part of the depth chart, Chicago has extreme talent.

For as good as they are up front, they have some pretty great linebackers too. The middle linebacker is speedy Roquan Smith. The 24 year old former eighth overall pick is one of the best linebackers in the game, and is looking to get a large new contract either this offseason or next. They are very set at the “mike” position in this defense. Next to Smith is the hard hitting Danny Trevathan. The former Bronco had one of his best seasons last year, as he had 112 tackles (his second best number in his career). As long as these two can stay healthy, they will help cover on the second level as well as plug holes in the opposing teams’ run games.

Secondary

After losing some pieces in the secondary the past couple of years, the Chicago front office has done a good job of retooling and continuing to put talent on the field. The Bears used to have Charles Tillman and Kyle Fuller, but now they have Jaylon Johnson (last year’s second round pick), veteran Desmond Trufant, Artie Burns, and they are trying to put a reclamation project to Teez Tabor (a talented player out of Florida, but not one that has succeeded since). Overall, while this cornerback group is not as good as they used to be, they will be solid, especially with the front seven rushing the passer.

At free safety, Eddie Jackson roams the middle. One of the best in the game, he can create turnovers in the air or by hitting the ball carrier. Two years ago, he had six interceptions, and last year he caused three fumbles, tied for thirteenth in the league. On the other side, after losing Adrian Amos, Tashaun Gipson Sr was brought over last year to replace him. He has been a mainstay for ten years in the National Football League, and he hasn’t slowed down much. Playing with the rest of the talent on this defense, he should be able to keep up and continue his play.

Overall

Honestly, they are not going to win this division. The only chance they have is for this defense to return to the record breaking form they had a couple of years ago. I don’t see it happening, and I don’t see Justin Fields being so amazing in his first year that he elevates them to first in this division. They would not be my bet.

 

Detroit Lions

With a new coach in Dan Campbell, the Lions hope to turn around Mo Town’s luck. However, at +2500 and with a poor roster, I don’t see them finishing atop the NFC North, especially with Jared Goff at quarterback.

Offense

Quarterback

After trading long-time quarterback Matthew Stafford, they received Jared Goff and two first round picks in return. While the picks should help in the rebuild, Jared Goff with a little amount of talent around him will not end up being a great team. After playing for five seasons with the Rams, Goff will look for a new start in Detroit. I don’t believe he will have much more success in Detroit, as interceptions and decision making have been a problem for Goff the last few years. With an inferior team around him, Goff will not be able to improve upon what he was able to do in Los Angeles. This is one of the worst rosters in the league, and Goff is not the quarterback to elevate it.

Skill Positions

Despite having a poor roster, running back is one of the best groups that the Lions have. D’Andre Swift is extremely talented and should be able to improve upon his impressive rookie season. He excels at both the rushing aspect and pass catching aspect of playing running back. He can hit holes, has speed, can break tackles, etc. After Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel, Swift helped continue the Georgia running back legacy. Long story short… he is good. Behind him, the Lions signed Jamaal Williams. After giving some of the best press conferences so far through training camp, he hopes to be as good of a backup to Swift as he was to Aaron Jones in Green Bay. However, he probably won’t be as much of a backup, he will be more of a 1B to Swift’s 1A. Overall, this is a great position group.

At receiver, Detroit doesn’t necessarily have a wealth of talent, but they have quite a bit of depth. The Lionshave Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman, Quintez Cephus, Geronimo Allison, and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown (who has drawn rave reviews in training camp). Overall, they should be able to help Goff do fine, but they will not be the more elite talent that he had in Los Angeles.

At tight end, the Lions are extremely excited about TJ Hockensen. Most around the league believe that he can be a top five tight end in the league. He is a capable blocker, and he can certainly catch. Reports from training camp say that he has been playing well and found some nice chemistry with Goff. After 723 yards last season, he hopes to eclipse 1000 this year. Behind him is Darren Fells who comes over from Houston after starting for the Texans last year. Overall, Detroit should be fine at this position, especially if Coach Campbell can impose some fire into the tight ends.

Offensive Line

This offensive line has had problems, there is no question about that. They tried to shore it up this offseason, and it was no surprise to see Detroit’s front office ecstatic when they were able to draft Oregon’s Penei Sewell at 7th overall. Thought to be one of the best offensive line prospects to ever come out of college, Sewell should be able to lock down the right side of this line. On the opposite side, Taylor Decker (former first round pick) will hold down Goff’s blind side. Jonah Jackson will play left guard, Frank Ragnow (another first round pick) will play center, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai will play next to Sewell. Overall, they have improved on the line, but they still are not perfect.

Defense

Front Seven

This defense is not very talented. Up front, the Lions have Julian and Romeo Okwara, as well as Michael Brockers and Trey Flowers off the edges. This is where most of their talent comes from. However, they’re definitely not elite here. In the middle, they have Alim Mcneill and Levi Onwuzurike. Behind these names, the most notable names are Da'Shawn Hand and former first round pick turned disappointment: Charles Harris.

At linebacker, they have veteran Jamie Collins, Alex Anzalone, and Jahlani Tavai. The more notable names are Collins and Anzalone, who comes over from New Orleans. This will be Collins’s 10th season in the league, with the most notable of his time in New England and Cleveland. Anzalone had his most notable time in New Orleans, as written about before. Overall, this position group is fine, but not great.

Secondary

At cornerback, the Lions have last year’s third overall pick in Jeff Okudah. After having a disappointing start to the year, Okudah had to get surgery after getting injured. Thus, he did not start off his career the way that he wanted, but hopefully he put the offseason to good use. On the other side is Amani Oruwariye. Behind them are Quinton Dunbar and Ifeati Melifonwu, a former third round pick.

At safety, the Lions have Tracy Walker and Will Harris. This will be Harris’s third year and Walker’s fourth. Walker has had more starting experience, however, neither is quite impressive back there.

As written about earlier, this defense is not extremely impressive, but has some players to hold its hat on.

Overall

Essentially, the Lions look like they will be one of the worst teams in the league. This bet will just lose you money. So, all in all, don’t bet on it.

 

Recap

As written about at the very beginning of this preview, this division is all but locked up. After making the previous two NFC championships, the Packers hope to improve and finally make the super bowl. As I wrote earlier, this division has arguably the safest bet in the league. At -165, you may not make an extreme amount of money on this bet, but it is pretty safe with the former MVP in Aaron Rodgers at the helm.

I expect this division to go in the exact order that I wrote it in… Packers, then Vikings, then Bears, then Lions. Once again, this division is not really a competition, more a race for second.


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