Part two of Fred Stanley Sport’s NFL season preview focuses on the NFC North, a division featuring last year’s NFC Championship game finalists, the Green Bay Packers, their fellow play-off participants Detroit, and two contenders in Chicago and Minnesota. To find out which order we expect the four teams to finish in, as well as which players each outfit has both lost and gained, keep reading.
Key Additions: WR Kevin White (draft), WR Eddie Royal (free agency), CB Alan Ball (FA), S Antrel Rolle (FA)
Key Losses: WR Brandon Marshall (trade), C Roberto Garza (FA), DT Stephen Paea (FA), CB Charles Tillman (FA), LB Lance Briggs (FA)
After hiring Denver coach John Fox to replace the departed Marc Trestman, the Bears will be hoping to avoid a repeat of their 2014 season, a train wreck which never really got off the ground. Jay Cutler returns at QB despite serious questions lingering about his leadership ability, while leading wide receiver Brandon Marshall is no longer in town. Alshon Jeffrey and Matt Forte give Cutler some hope for a productive offensive season, although the offensive line has several holes, as it also did a year ago. Chicago’s defense was even worse than the offense in 2014, and with little arriving in the way of reinforcements the once famed unit figures to be a weakness in the upcoming campaign as well.
Key Additions: OG Manny Ramirez (trade), NT Haloti Ngata (trade), RB Ameer Abdullah (draft)
Key Losses: DT Ndamukong Suh (FA), Nick Fairley (FA), RB Reggie Bush (FA)
Unlucky to lose to Dallas in the Wild Card round last post-season, Detroit may have missed their chance to make a deep play-off run with both of last year’s starting defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, having departed via free agency. With the strength of last year’s team no longer in town, more onus than ever will be placed on elite wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the man throwing him the ball, rocket armed QB Matthew Stafford. Stafford has never quite taken his game to the next level in the NFL, despite having Johnson to throw the ball to, and with his pedigree as a former number one overall pick in the draft his career is viewed in some circles as a disappointment. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to call him a bust as he boasts several seasons with 30 or more touchdown passes, and he lead the team admirably even without Johnson in the side last year when the receiver was struggling with an injury. Golden Tate provides a useful compliment opposite “Megatron”, and with both incumbent starting running back Joique Bell and rookie Ameer Abdullah in the backfield the Lions offense should continue to put points on the board in 2015. Whether or not the defense can keep opposing teams out of the endzone, however, is another matter entirely. Detroit’s front four was so strong last year that opposing team’s had little to no chance moving the ball on the ground against them, but with Suh and Fairley no longer in town the onus will fall to new recruit Haloti Ngata to plug the 600-plus pound gap in the middle of the defense. DeAndre Levy is one of the NFL’s up and coming linebackers, and with a settled secondary the Lions have at least the chance to remain at a similar level to last season. Will it be enough to dethrone Green Bay in the ultra-competitive NFC North? Only time will tell.
Green Bay Packers
Key Additions: S Damarious Randall (draft), QB Brett Hundley (draft)
Key Losses: CB Tramon Williams (FA), CB Davon House (FA), ILB A.J Hawk (FA)
Green Bay were an onside kick recovery away from the Superbowl last January, and that botched play will live long in the memory of star QB Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy if the Packers are unable to make a return to the big game in the next season or two. Rodgers is just about in his peak, although as his calf injury last year showed he isn’t getting any younger, and after suffering a broken collarbone in the 2013 season his durability isn’t perhaps as stellar as other elite throwers around the NFL. With Jordy Nelson lost for the year with an ACL tear Rodgers will be without his favourite target in 2015, although Randall Cobb and second-year pro Devante Adams are still valuable weapons on the outside. Eddie Lacy has been one of the NFL’s more consistent running backs since he entered the league and he could see a greater role in the offense with Nelson absent, but in reality the health of Rodgers will dictate how successful Green Bay are at putting points on the board in the coming season. Defensively, Clay Matthews made a successful move to inside linebacker in 2014, with veteran defensive end Julius Peppers assuming a starting role outside and rolling back the years to perform at a high level despite his advanced age. The secondary lost both Davon House and Tramon Williams, so the success of that particular unit could hinge on the development of 2014 first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Key Additions: CB Trae Waynes (draft), WR Mike Wallace (FA)
Key Losses: QB Matt Cassel (FA), WR Greg Jennings (FA), DE Corey Wooten (FA)
2014 was a mixed season for the Vikings, who lost star running back Adrian Peterson to a yearlong suspension after it was revealed that he had issued questionable punishment to his adolescent son, who as a result needed hospital treatment. However despite the absence of Peterson, rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater performed above expectations, showing great poise in the pocket and demonstrating that he might be the man to lead Minnesota into their new stadium in 2016. With Peterson reinstated Bridgewater will be able to lean on a much better running game than he was a year ago, and as a result the Vikings are many people’s pick to be the surprise package of the NFL in the upcoming campaign. The defense boasts a number of players who performed well last season but probably don’t receive the national recognition they deserve thanks to Minnesota’s small market and lack of a post-season appearance; namely safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Chad Greenway. Another defensive end, Anthony Barr, was selected in the top ten of the 2014 draft and has a chance to join that group as a building block towards the next Vikings team to play in January. With Peterson back in the fold and Bridgewater entering year two of his young career, that might occur sooner rather than later.