Sunday, August 28, 2016

NFC North Preview

Can Teddy Bridgewater lead the Vikings to back-to-back divisional titles? 

Minnesota Vikings

Previous Season Record: (11-5)

Key Acquisition(s): Michael Griffin, Alex Boone

Key Loss(es): Mike Wallace, Casey Matthews

Any uptick in offense will be directly related to Teddy Bridgewater’s improvement.  The team has expressed a desire for the 3rd year QB to be more aggressive going down the field (they were 31st in passing yards and 25th in yards per attempt). Coming out of the University of Louisville, Bridgewater was lauded for his quick and quality decision-making and accuracy.  His detractors’ loudest cries during the draft came about how small he was and his lack of arm strength.  Offensive coordinator, Norv Turner’s offense is predicated on 7-step drops and deep throws. The deep drops expose the relatively diminutive QB to more/bigger hits. The throws are something that will certainly challenge his skill set.  Will Bridgewater be capable of being the QB they need? Can Adrian Peterson be a legit receiving threat and add a dimension to his game and the offense as a whole? Will LaQuan Treadwell be able to match the production from surprise standout and fellow receiver Stefon Diggs. Despite returning the core of their offensive players, plenty of questions abound for the Minnesota Vikings offense.

Somehow with the best running back in the League on their team, the defense is the most effective side of the ball. They gave up the 5th fewest points in the League.  They were a “bend but don’t break” mentality, they didn’t take the ball away much (19th in the NFL), and as a result they were on the field more than nearly any defense in the League (28th). The defense should only improve as 3rd year player, Anthony Barr continues to shine from the linebacker position. 

Chicago Bears

Previous Season Record: (6-10)

Key Acquisition(s): Danny Trevathan, Akeem Hicks,

Key Loss(es): Matt Slauson,  Antrel Rolle , Martellus Bennett

On the one hand, Jay Cutler had one of his most productive seasons under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase.  Unfortunately, Cutler won’t have Martellus Bennett nor Matt Forte as both have moved on in free agency. And Gase took a job with the Dolphins. They’ll need second year WR Kevin White to contribute immediately, after he missed all of last season with an injury. There is major turnover on the line with 3 Offensive lineman moving (Bobby Massie, Manuel Ramirez, Ted Larsen). With so many changes on this side of the ball, it’s hard to predict what the offense will actually look like.

Bears fans are itching to see Kevin White in some regular season action (Chicago Tribune)

John Fox was brought in to help a struggling defense.  They improved from 31st to 20th in points allowed per game.  They most noticeably improved in their pass defense, going 30th in yards surrendered through the air to 4th. The organization has clearly made a conscious effort to spend more, and devote more resources to the defensive side of the ball; after years of investing mainly in the offense. The additions of defensive tackle Akeem Nicks and linebacker Danny Trevathan should solidify a run defense that is still in the bottom third for yards allowed per attempt. And three of the first four picks in the draft were defenders.

Prediction: With Green Bay and the Vikings in this division, I can’t see the Bears making a serious push for a playoff spot.

Green Bay Packers

Previous Season Record: (10-6)

Key Acquisition(s): Jared Cook,

Key Loss(es): BJ Raji, Casey Heyward, James Jones, John Kuhn

The Packers are always a fascinating offseason team.  Rarely does the team acquire free agents of any magnitude (their last likely candidate was Julius Peppers two offseasons ago).  Instead, the Packers choose to draft and keep their players—valuing fit and chemistry as highly as anything else.  This offseason was no different.  Health played a huge role in last season’s narrative.  The Packers lost Jordy Nelson before the season began, and saw their offense sputter—particularly at the end of the season.  They ended in the middle of the pack in terms of points scored per game, but they were nearly last in yards per attempted pass.  Considering Aaron Rodgers’ talent, the more conservative play-calling was a marked change considering the Packers led the League in the stat just the year before. Without Nelson available to command extra defensive help down the field, the Packers wide receivers were exposed as mediocre athletes who couldn’t separate.  Rodgers saw a lot of tight man coverage; leaving the defense with additional players to bracket or blitz. Perhaps the offense’s fate rests on the fate of Nelson.

You don't know what you got 'til it's gone. Will Nelson's return mean a return to dominance? (USA Today)

The Packers struggled against the run last season.  Despite his contribution to the Packers’ most recent Super Bowl win, BJ Raji became expendable at the nose tackle position when the team finished 29th in yards allowed per rushing attempt. With their offense struggling a bit more than usual, the defense was exposed.  In order to keep Rodgers off the field, opposition will run the ball. They’ll need to improve in order to return to the top of the division.
Prediction: I think anytime you have a top 3 QB, you’ve got a fighting chance.  Jared Cook will have a big season as tight End, combine that with Nelson’s return and this team will return to the playoffs—but will fall short of winning the division.  

Detroit Lions

Key Acquisition(s): Marvin Jones, Andre Caldwell

Key Loss(es): Calvin Johnson (retired), Reshean Mathis (retire)

You lose Calvin Johnson from a mediocre offense, and conventional wisdom says that your offense will suffer.  Conventional wisdom…is probably completely right in this regard.  They picked up Caldwell and Jones, and Stafford has talked about multiple guys stepping up, and it actually being tougher on teams because they won’t be able to key on anyone. I’m not going to call him a liar…because I’m not sure if he believes what he is saying or not.  Regardless, they won’t be as good scoring the ball—something that they already struggled with. They allowed 44 sacks (21st in the NFL), so much of their draft was devoted to adding talent on the offensive line.  One thing seems clear, as ambiguous as his career has been, Stafford will certainly show his worth this season.

While Mathis leaving isn’t the same as Johnson, he was one of the few bright spots for a largely unremarkable defense.  They were as middling against the run (20th in the league in yards allowed per rush) as they were against the pass (21st in the league in yards allowed per pass).

Prediction: This team is still finding its legs after one of the best players to ever play his position abruptly retired. At least they have experience with this sort of thing, right? No playoffs for the Lions.

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