NFC North Preview

Posted: 09/03/2016 by levcohen in Football

This morning, the Eagles traded quarterback Sam Bradford to the Vikings in a trade that impacts both the division I wrote about yesterday and the one I’m writing about today. It was a trade that made sense for both teams, as the Vikings are in win-now mode and have draft picks to spare while the Eagles are rebuilding and were without a first round picks next season before this trade netted them one. I don’t think it’s a trade that will change Philadelphia’s 2016 fortunes too much. They were going to have a bad offense with Bradford, and they’re going to have a bad offense without him. If anything, this is a trade that gives them more variance. With rookie quarterback Carson Wentz likely to start from the get-go, the Eagles are more likely to go 4-12 than they would have been with Bradford. But if Wentz is better than expected, they’re more likely to go 9-7. The trade definitely has larger ramifications for the Vikings and the NFC North. Speaking of the NFC North…

Green Bay Packers (11-5): What can I say? It’s just really, really hard to bet against Aaron Rodgers. Remember the last time we saw Rodgers? That was against the Cardinals in last year’s playoffs, when he ended an improbable game-tying drive with his second Hail Mary of the season. Then Arizona won the toss to start overtime, and Larry Fitzgerald did the rest, sending Rodgers and the Packers home. This is one of the easiest teams to preview every year, simply because they run back almost the same team each season. Sure enough, their only free agent signing this year was tight end Jared Cook. Cook’s a decent pass catcher who might see the field in two tight end sets, but he’s still probably behind Richard Rodgers (yes, the guy who caught Aaron Rodgers’s first Hail Mary) in the TE pecking order. Until today, when they surprisingly cut expensive (and great) guard Josh Sitten, their only major losses this offseason were nose tackle B.J. Raji (retired and only a part time starter last year) and cornerback Casey Hayward (a legitimate loss). Of course, I’m leaving out one big addition: wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Nelson missed last year with a torn ACL, and I think it took the injury for everyone to realize how good Nelson really is. Without him, the Packers were a mediocre offense last season. Rodgers looked worse. Eddie Lacy looked worse and was out-snapped by James Starks. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, who were both picked early in fantasy drafts, both flopped, unable to excel against increased defensive attention. It’s hard to imagine a non-quarterback meaning that much to an offense, but Nelson clearly did. Last season, Rodgers posted his first sub-elite (90+) season rating on Pro Football Focus since 2008. His 87.3 rating was still good (ninth in the NFL), but it was a far cry from 2014’s 95.7. It might not be prudent to expect Nelson to be as effective as he was before he got injured, but he’s definitely going to give the offense a boost, as will a reinvigorated Lacy. Another guy to look out for is Cobb, who apparently played all of last season with an injured shoulder and is now healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if both Cobb and Nelson return to the upper echelon of fantasy wide receivers, which will mean only good things for Green Bay’s offense.

Even with the offensive a near lock to perform better than last season, the defense has to remain near the top-10 in efficiency if the Packers want to better last season’s 10-6 record. Luckily, they have a young defensive core that has already proven itself to be surprisingly good. They finished ninth in DVOA last year, and that was with their best defender (Clay Matthews) playing at middle linebacker, a position that’s far worse for him than outside linebacker. Matthews is moving back outside this year after Green Bay drafted Blake Martinez from Stanford to start in the middle, and I’d expect his PFF rating to leap up from last year’s 72.7 back into the high 80s. But even without Hayward, the defense’s strength is the secondary. Expect Damarious Randall, a rookie last year who largely impressed, to step up this season and replace Hayward as the team’s #1 cornerback. I’ve loved Randall ever since he was drafted at the end of the first round in 2015; in fact, I thought he should have gone at least 10 picks earlier. He’ll start opposite Sam Shields. It feels like Shields has been around forever, but he’s actually only 28 years old and still a very solid player. After he missed a lot of last year with a concussion, expect him to bounce back. The Packers play in the nickel more often than not, so slot corner Quinten Rodgers is another really important player. A second round pick last season, Rodgers was the 26th best cornerback in football according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a solid and deep cornerback group. And the safety combination of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett is young and elite. With Matthews set to bring more pressure this year and the defensive line looking very good, the interior linebackers are the only guys to be worried about. This could be a top-five defense this year.

If the Packers are as good offensively as they were in 2014, they’ll win 13 games. That makes the 11 win prediction seem pretty pessimistic, but I just want to be careful not to get too excited about their chances.

Minnesota Vikings (9-7): The Vikings went 11-5 last year, but they really played more like a nine win team. I think they’re better overall this year, but they did just lose their quarterback. That’s why I think that, after the Bradford trade, a 9-7 season is a reasonable expectation. Bradford is actually a perfect replacement for the injured Teddy Bridgewater. Both quarterbacks are very conservative, as Bradford’s average depth of target (7.4 yards) was just behind Bridgewater’s (7.5) last season. Both are pretty accurate and reliable. Injuries are obviously a concern for Bradford, especially since he’s moving to a team with some moving pieces on the offensive line. But he’s a good replacement for Bridgewater, and he’s also going to be reunited with his college running back, Adrian Peterson. The offense obviously goes as AP goes. He wasn’t the most efficient running back in the league last year, but he still managed to rack up a league-leading 1,485 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Peterson is certain to face a lot of eight man boxes against this year, but that isn’t anything he hasn’t succeeded against before. But the Vikings had better hope that this isn’t the year the 31 year old falls of the cliff, because the offense is going to be dreadful if they don’t have an elite AP.

The defense is going to have to carry the team, and I think it’ll be able to now that it’s fully healthy again. By the end of last year, Linval Joseph, Harrison Smith, and Anthony Barr were all injured or just coming off injuries. Those three guys are all back, and they’re all elite players. Joseph is a dominant defensive lineman, a guy who’s great as a pass rusher and fantastic as a run defender. He was the sixth best interior lineman in football last year with a 89 PFF rating, and he’s only 27 years old. Smith is a hard hitting safety. He’s also easily the best safety in football according to PFF (88.9). He’s also just 27 years old. Then there’s Barr, a 24 year old ex-first rounder who broke out in his second year to become the best all-around linebacker in football not named Luke Kuechly. To get all three of those guys back will almost certainly move Minnesota’s defense back near the elite. But for them to get into the Denver-Carolina-Arizona-Seattle echelon defensively, they’ll need to get breakout seasons from a few of their talented young defenders. Luckily, they could well get those breakouts. Trae Waynes and Eric Kendricks were Minnesota’s two top picks last season, and they both flashed tantalizing talent in uneven rookie seasons. Given the positive reviews we’ve been hearing about both Waynes and Kendricks, improvement should be expected from both. The talent is there for Minnesota to be one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Projecting the Vikings to go better than 9-7 is too risky for my taste, because it would basically require the assumption that Peterson will be as good as ever and that Bradford will learn the playbook in eight days. It took Bradford a while to get comfortable in Philadelphia, and I think the same thing might happen in Minnesota. But the defense will be good enough to guarantee a second consecutive winning season for the Vikings and, more importantly, it’ll keep Minnesota in the playoff hunt.

Detroit Lions (8-8): How much can we take from Detroit’s 6-2 finish to last season after a 1-7 start? I think quite a bit, actually. The Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator in the middle of last season, and Cooter’s changes quickly paid off. The Lions averaged 26 points per game in their final eight games after putting up 19 per contest during their 1-7 start. Of course, they did lose future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson after Johnson shockingly retired following last year. Losing Johnson hurts. Obviously. But I still think the Lions should have a solid offense. I’m a big fan of Matthew Stafford, because I think Stafford has the ability to make super difficult throws and the accuracy and (now) maturity to be safe with the ball. And Stafford has his fair share of options, including Golden Tate (for my money the best after-the-catch receiver in the league), ex-Bengal Marvin Jones (a great deep threat who’s had a great preseason), and terrific receiving back Theo Riddick (93 PFF rating as a receiver, far better than #2 Danny Woodhead among running backs). The offense won’t be elite for two reasons: (1) they don’t have a consistent running game, and (2) they don’t have a good offensive line. Now, both the runners (cough cough Ameer Abdullah cough cough) and the linemen (including first round left tackle Taylor Decker) should be better this season than they were last year, allowing the Lions to be a good offense. But let’s just say that the Packers shouldn’t be worried that their perch atop the NFC North’s offenses will be challenged by a pass-heavy Detroit offense.

It’s the defense that keeps me from proclaiming that the Lions will be a playoff team. I see one elite defender on the team, and that’s Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah racked up 14.5 sacks last season and will be a force to be reckoned with for years. But the rest of the front seven is mediocre, and Darius Slay (#6 CB last season) is the only thing keeping the secondary from disaster. I don’t see any chance that the Lions can regain the defensive dominance they exhibited in the Ndamukong Suh years, especially since mediocre safety Rafael Bush is the only defensive addition they made in free agency. It should be said that Teryl Austin is a tremendous defensive coordinator at the biggest reason that the Lions were 16th in defensive DVOA last season. The defensive talent level indicates a bottom-five season, but Austin, Ansah, and Slay should make them at least respectable. But is the defense playoff-worthy? I’m far from convinced.

Chicago Bears (5-11): I think the Bears were lucky to go 6-10 last year. Their defense was atrocious, ranking 31st in DVOA. Their offense was actually pretty good, but that was with offensive mastermind Adam Gase running the offense. Gase is now Miami’s head coach. The only direction the offense is going to go is downhill. Not only is Gase gone, but so is longtime star running back Matt Forte. The Bears haven’t replaced Forte, meaning that they’re going into this season with the mediocre Jeremy Langford, who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season and ranked as PFF’s 48th best RB, as the workhorse back. They do still have stud receiver Alshon Jeffery, but Jeffery’s always banged up and can’t carry the offense by himself anyway. The Bears have made a lot of changes on the offensive line, but it’s lining up to be one of the worst in the league this season. Guard Kyle Long is the only guy who is even an average lineman. That’s bad news for quarterback Jay Cutler, who’s coming off of his best season as a pro but is now without a solid offensive line or a good running game. This was an offense that finished 10th in DVOA last season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up 30th this year.

The defense will be better than last season, even though Pernell McPhee, the team’s best defensive player, will start the season on the PUP list and will miss at least six weeks. They brought a lot of guys in, and the front seven will be much improved. Akiem Hicks (DL), Jerrell Freeman (ILB), and Danny Trevathan (ILB) are all free agent signings who should immediately become the team’s three best defenders with McPhee out. And first round pick Leonard Floyd is an exciting talent who should at least rush the quarterback effectively in his first season. The reason the Bears made so many changes to their front seven is that they were the worst team in football against the run last year. Unfortunately, they weren’t great against the pass, either, and the secondary is no better than it was last season. Talent-wise, safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey might be the worst starting duo in the NFL. Amos was drafted in the fifth round last year, while Jones-Quartey was an undrafted free agent last season. Neither guy proved much last year. And the Bears’ top three corners are all already banged up. Kyle Fuller, the one solid player in the secondary, is doubtful for week one, while Tracy Porter and Bryce Callahan are both questionable. To make matters worse, the Bears didn’t add a single player to the secondary in free agency or in the first three rounds of the draft, so they also lack depth. Teams are going to be able to throw all over the Bears this year.

I can’t envision this season going well for the Bears. They just don’t have the talent on either side of the ball to compete with the Packers, the Vikings, or even the Lions. I do anticipate better results for the defense, but those improvements will be more than neutralized by an offense that will come crashing back down to earth.


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