5 Factors That Will Decide NFC North Division
Let's be perfectly honest right out of the gates: A lot more than five singular factors go into deciding an NFL division over 16 games. There is so much to account for during a season for there to be just five points on who will win or lose what.
But in looking over the NFC North, five major factors loom over a division that should be one of the NFL's best next season. Among those include the unhappiness of one receiver, the contract status of a top running back and the health of the two best quarterbacks.
In the following slides, we'll break down the five key points for the NFC North in 2012.
Percy Harvin's Trade Request
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The Minnesota Vikings weren't likely to be major players in the NFC North in 2012, and recent developments regarding one of their best offensive players isn't helping that cause.
While a trade this offseason is almost certainly not going to happen—Harvin is 24 years old, has two years left on his rookie deal and currently stands as the team's best receiver, by a long shot—the chance of a training camp (or longer) hold out looms large.
Last season, Harvin had career highs in catches (87) and yards (967) and total touchdowns (nine). Losing that kind of production for any time hurts Minnesota, especially considering Jerome Simpson might be the team's second best receiver.
Matt Forte's Holdout
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As expected, Forte missed all three days of the Bears' minicamp last week. Players not under contract—such is Forte, who hasn't signed the Bears' franchise tag tender—do not have to participate in the otherwise mandatory minicamps.
The next big deadline for Forte is July 16, or the last day he can negotiate for a new deal with more future security and guaranteed money. If he can't arrange a multi-year deal by that date, Forte will be forced to play out the 2012 season on the one-year deal.
If that's the case, a holdout through training camp could ensue. But at that point, Forte will stand to lose millions of dollars—giving the leverage all back to the Bears' side.
The Bears have done enough on the offensive side ball—adding Brandon Marshall and running back Michael Bush—to withstand the loss of Forte on a small scale. But if Chicago wants to win the NFC North in 2012, it probably needs Forte available for 16 games.
Health of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers
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Both have had injury issues in the past, and the scenarios if either are missing in 2012 don't bode well for either side.
Rodgers got through 2011 unscathed after missing parts of games in 2010 with concussion-related injuries. While Matt Flynn was a capable backup during those absences, it's Graham Harrell who will likely be backing up Rodgers in 2012.
Any injury to Rodgers next season could spell disaster for an otherwise talented offensive roster.
The same could be said for Stafford, who couldn't stay healthy early in his NFL career. While Shaun Hill is the division's best backup quarterback, he can't replace the 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns Stafford amassed while healthy in 2011.
If both quarterbacks are healthy for 16 games in 2012, it's likely the Packers and Lions will be the division's two best teams. But any injury at the quarterback position could mean the NFC North gets very, very interesting.
Status of the Packers Defense
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There were very few who envisioned the drastic dropoff of the Packers' defense in 2011.
After closing out so many games for Green Bay during its Super Bowl-winning season of 2010, the Packers' defense allowed more passing yards than any team in NFL history and ended the season as the No. 31 ranked defense in total yards allowed.
The reasons why were fairly simple: Cullen Jenkins' departure led to a massive drop off in pass rush; Nick Collins' injury in Week 2 robbed the secondary of a Pro Bowler at the back end; and the Green Bay got almost nothing from its linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews. The tackling as a team was atrocious, too.
GM Ted Thompson did something about those holes this offseason.
He used his first six draft picks on defensive players, including linebacker Nick Perry, defensive lineman Jerel Worthy and cornerback Casey Hayward. In free agency, Thompson signed Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir to add competitiveness on the defensive line.
The talent is certainly there for the Packers' defense. Dom Capers has the pieces he needs to get his unit back to 2010 levels. If he can accomplish that task, Green Bay should coast to its second straight NFC North title.
How New Additions in Chicago Pan Out
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New Bears GM Phil Emery wasn't shy about making a splash this offseason.
After taking over for Jerry Angelo, Emery got aggressive to fill the holes on his roster.
Early on, he sent a couple of draft picks to the Miami Dolphins for Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall to cross off the need for a No. 1 receiver.
In free agency, Emery signed running back Michael Bush, backup quarterback Jason Campbell and receiver/returner Eric Weems.
Bush could play a huge role if Matt Forte holds out or somehow ends up not in Chicago for the 2012 season. In 16 games for the Oakland Raiders last season, Bush ran for 977 yards and seven scores.
Campbell was signed to make sure a late-season slide—like the disaster in 2011—doesn't happen again if quarterback Jay Cutler has to miss any time.
But the key man who needs to fit in is Marshall, who represents the team's first legitimate No. 1 receiver since the days of Marty Booker and Marcus Robinson.
With the quarterback-hampered Miami Dolphins last season, Marshall caught 81 balls for 1,214 yards and six scores. In two full seasons working with Cutler in Denver, Marshall averaged 101 catches for nearly 1,300 yards.
If the Bears can repeat that kind of production between the two in Chicago, this should be a football team that is a contender in the NFC—not just the NFC North, but the conference as a whole.