We’ve reached the conclusion of my NFC season preview with the northern division, and it promises to be as competitive as any in the entire league thanks to strength up top and plenty of intrigue at the bottom. Aaron Rodgers returns for a full season as the premier quarterback in the conference for Green Bay, while Minnesota welcome former Washington QB Kirk Cousins into the fold. Mitchell Trubisky will be hoping to take big strides in his second professional season for Chicago. Detroit shouldn’t be slept on, either, after they won nine games a year ago and finished second in the division. Another day, another powerhouse NFC division. Who’ll come out on top? Keep reading to find out.
1. Green Bay Packers
Notable Additions: DeShone Kizer (QB), Jimmy Graham (TE), Muhammad Wilkerson (DT), Jaire Alexander (CB), Josh Jackson (CB)
Notable Losses: Jordy Nelson (WR), Morgan Burnett (S)
When Aaron Rodgers is on the field, Green Bay are legitimate Superbowl contenders. When he’s not? Well, we saw what happened last year when the Packers finished below .500 and didn’t make the post-season for the first time since 2008. There were positives from what was mostly a lost season, notably Davante Adams emerging as a top-level receiver, but ultimately a 7-9 record saw general manager Ted Thompson ousted and Brian Gutekunst hired in his place. Gutekunst was proactive in free agency, a departure from the usual order of business in Green Bay, bringing in tight end Jimmy Graham to give Rodgers a big bodied target on the outside to replace Jordy Nelson. The Packers also selected cornerbacks with their first two picks in May’s draft, the first steps towards overhauling a defensive unit that has lagged behind the offence for almost the entirety of Rodgers tenure under centre.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Notable Additions: Kirk Cousins (QB), Sheldon Richardson (DT), Mike Hughes (DB)
Notable Losses: Case Keenum (QB), Sam Bradford (QB), Teddy Bridgewater (QB), Jerick McKinnon (RB)
Three quarterbacks out, Kirk Cousins in. Will Minnesota see a noticeable upgrade? Probably. But it’s easy to forget just how good Case Keenum looked in 2017 until the clock struck midnight in the NFC Championship game, and Sam Bradford was excellent in his solitary week one start (27/32, 346 yards, 3 TD’s). Jerick McKinnon’s loss could be felt in the passing game, although the return of fellow running back Dalvin Cook from torn knee ligaments should aid Cousins and the Vikings offence. The defence remains arguably the top unit in the league, and it would be surprising if Minnesota didn’t run Green Bay incredibly close for the division crown. As is usually the case, two head to head meetings between the pair in weeks two and 12 could make all the difference.
3. Detroit Lions
Notable Additions: LeGarrette Blount (RB), Devon Kennard (LB), Frank Ragnow (OL), Kerryon Johnson (RB)
Notable Losses: Eric Ebron (TE), Haloti Ngata (DT)
Detroit appear to be one of the NFL’s “limbo” teams – never bad enough to secure a high draft choice, yet rarely winning enough games for a high playoff seed or even a post-season appearance. Over the past five years they’ve won 7,11,7,9 and 9 games, making the playoffs twice and losing in the wild card round on both occasions. In many ways this is emblematic of quarterback Matthew Stafford and his ability relative to the rest of the league. No one would deny Stafford isn’t a very good QB, but while he certainly gives the Lions a chance to win most weeks he isn’t in the rarified air of the elite signal callers (think Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers) around the NFL. To help support Stafford Detroit signed veteran RB LeGarrette Blount and picked fellow runner Kerryon Johnson from Auburn in the second round of the draft. If they can help take some of the heat off of Stafford then maybe, just maybe, this could be the year Detroit breaks through and makes some noise in January.
4. Chicago Bears
Notable Additions: Allen Robinson (WR), Trey Burton (TE), Taylor Gabriel (WR), Prince Amukamara (CB), Roquan Smith (LB), James Daniels (C)
Notable Losses: Josh Sitton (OG), Quintin Demps (S)
John Fox is out in Chicago and Matt Nagy is in, but the change of coach is unlikely to alter the fortunes of the Bears enough to see a first post-season appearance since 2010. The main storyline of the summer was the addition of a new number one receiver in former Jaguar Allen Robinson, while Trey Burton was brought in from Philadelphia to play tight end. This follows the model used by the Eagles a year ago, when they surrounded second year QB Carson Wentz with a plethora of skilled playmakers to aid his development. Chicago will be banking on similar improvement from their own sophomore quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, but it’s wishful thinking to expect the Bears to replicate the Superbowl victory and near MVP season that Wentz and Philly enjoyed a year ago.
Who do you think will emerge as the winners in the competitive NFC North? Have your say in the comments or tweet @fredjstanley.
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