Preseason has been cancelled, but training camp has begun. This gives players a limited chance to impress coaches and peers. The only “playing” experience they will get will be on the practice field before week one. There will be no live football until the Kansas City Chiefs open up against the Houston Texans on Thursday, September 10th. With players reporting this week, it’s time to breakdown the NFC North and give our predictions on who will be the crown jewel of the division this year.
Lets start this breakdown with the Chicago Bears.
The Bears went 8-8 last year after winning the division and going 12-4 in 2018. Going into 2020, the Bears have made a flurry of off-season moves to try and regain their 2018 form. Much of that has to do with the growth and development of third year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. One of those moves was bringing in veteran quarterback Nick Foles to compete with Trubisky. They also added tight ends Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris, edge rusher Robert Quinn, and defensive back Artie Burns. Graham and Harris replace failed signee Trey Burton. Quinn came in after Leonard Floyd left town for the LA Rams.
The defense has had a lot of turnover from the last two years that made it one of the top defenses in the league. They still have perennial all-pro Khalil Mack and safety Eddie Jackson, but can players like Quinn and Burns replace the production of other gone stars?
The offense added Foles, Harris, and Graham to help bolster an offense that was stagnant for most of the year. They still have play makers in Allen Robinson and Tarik Cohen. The question that surrounds the offense is the play of the quarterback. Trubisky had a sophomore slump by all accounts, which resulted in the club trading for Foles. Is Trubisky still the future of the franchise or have they moved on with the addition of Foles?
The Detroit Lions haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016 when they went 9-7. They went 9-7 again in 2017, but have had losing seasons the last two years. Head coach Matt Patricia is heading into his third year and is potentially in hot water since he has produced little positive results since becoming head coach.
The offense can be electric, led by longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford. Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, and T.J. Hockenson provide a sound supporting cast around Stafford. Golladay has emerged as one of the top wide receivers in the league since coming into the league in 2017. Rookie running back Deandre Swift will combine with Kerryon Johnson to make a solid one-two punch out of the backfield. The success of this team has been tied to the offense for many years, while the defense has struggled to keep up with the offense.
Gone is arguably the best player on the roster, Darius Slay, who left for the Eagles. Slay leaves a massive hole at corner and on the defense. They brought in veteran corner back Desmond Trufant to help fill the gap, but no one will argue Trufant is as good as Slay. Three defenders defected from the Patriots and jumped ship to the Lions. Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon help a defense lacking in any kind of star power.
If Patricia cannot improve a talented Lions team in year three, they could be looking at find a new head coach.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers were the cream of the crop for the NFC North in 2019. They went 13-3 to finish second in the conference. While their strong record would seem to indicate they were a strong team all year long, eight of their wins came within one possession.
The Packers were 15th in points scored and 18th in yards gained. The offense was sporadic to say the least. The defense, on the other hand, turned in many dominating performances, including the opener against the Bears in which they allowed only 3 points. A week later, they caused four turnovers against the Vikings, intercepting Cousins twice.
Offense and Defense
Rodgers and the offense definitely had their turn in the spotlight, turning in big games against the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, and the New York Giants, all games in which they scored over 30 points. In many games, they would start hot but have to rely on the defense to make late game stops as the offense sputtered in the second half. In week two against the Vikings, they had a 21-10 lead at half, but were unable to score a single point in the second half. That game came down to cornerback Kevin King making a game-sealing interception in the end zone to end the game.
The offense has made little changes over the offseason. The only major free agent signing was wide receiver Devin Funchess, who has now opted-out of the upcoming season. The Packers used heavy capital in the draft to address depth issues on the offense, but did not address the growing concern at the receiver position. With Funchess gone, the receiving corp will look exactly the same as last season. Incoming rookies A.J. Dillon and Josiah Deguara will most certainly play key roles in this Covid-19 season. The question for the offense is will anyone be able to step up opposite Adams and provide Rodgers another reliable target.
The defense made huge jumps from 2018 to 2019, in large part to the additions of Preston and Za’Darius Smith, as well as Adrian Amos. Za’Darius was quietly one of the best defenders in football last year, finishing with 13.5 sacks and leading the league in total pressures with 93 according to Pro Football Focus. The defense will look to continue to improve on the strides they made last year, when they finished 9th in the league in points allowed. Continued growth from young players like Jaire Alexander and Rashan Gary, and a consistent presence in the middle-of-the-field, will turn this good defense into one of the best in the league.
To finish our breakdown of the NFC, and before we predict our winner, we end with the Minnesota Vikings.
Cousins and company finished 10-6 in 2019, losing to the NFC champs, the San Francisco 49ers, in the playoffs. The offense was a top ten offense in terms of points (eighth) and the defense followed suit finishing ninth in total points allowed. On paper the Vikings were a dominant team. Their kryptonite? Kirk Cousins. Overall Cousins put up good numbers, but failed deliver in pivotal moments. Week two against the Packers (which I mentioned earlier in the article) he threw an interception late in the 4th quarter that sealed the win for the Packers. He was also unable to lead late season wins against the Bears and Packers in weeks 16 and 17.
The offense added some firepower this offseason in the draft, adding versatile wide receiver Justin Jefferson out of LSU in the first round. He is in to replace pro bowl receiver Stefon Diggs who left for the Buffalo Bills via free agency. Diggs was the Vikings leading receiver in 2019, so Jefferson will have big shoes to fill. It will help to have Adam Thielen on the other side since he will demand the focus of defenses in 2020, alongside halfback Dalvin Cook. In 2020, the offense will once again surround Cook to help relieve the pressure on Cousins. If Cook can stay healthy, the offense can be more dangerous than it was in 2019, even without Diggs.
The defense, which was one of the best in 2019, lost some key veteran pieces this year. Gone are veterans Xavier Rhodes and Everson Griffin. They still boast one of the best safety tandems after Anthony Harris’ breakout 2019 season, in which he led the NFL in interceptions with six. Eric Kendricks leads from the middle of the defense along side Anthony Barr, with Danielle Hunter along the defensive line.
While the defense may not be as dominant in 2020 as it was in 2019, they still have the star power to be a top ten defense.
Who wins the NFC North?
To finish our NFC North breakdown, who will win the division in 2020?
The Packers finished 13-3 to win the NFC North in 2019, and will no doubt be a threat to win it again as long as Aaron Rodgers is leading the way, but who will challenge them?
The easiest choice is the Vikings, who pose the biggest threat to the defending champs.
I still believe the Packers will come out on top to win the North again in 2020, edging the Vikings.
The Lions are a team that is still growing, rebuilding, and finding their identity under Patricia. The offense has a chance to be lethal, but will it all fall on the shoulders of Stafford once again?
The Bears have turmoil at quarterback, the most important position in football, and they lost key players on defense. Can Nagy find his magic again from 2018, which led them to a division title, or will they continue to fall under Trubisky (if he is the starter).