Breaking Down Chicago Bears and NFC North Heading into Training Camp
The Chicago Bears feel good about themselves heading into training camp next month, and with good reason. They have improved a squad that was on a roll before losing Jay Cutler and Matt Forte to injury last season.
That being said, the Bears aren't the only team to have made changes in the NFC North. The division may even be the strongest in the NFL in 2012, led by the Green Bay Packers, who took home the title a season ago.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions rate as a force to be reckoned with once again, assuming they can continue to improve. In fact, as good as the Bears and their fans feel about their team, they may only be the third-best club in their own division.
I don't necessarily believe that, and neither should you. Nevertheless, based on 2011 (and what some pundits are saying) the Bears will have to prove that they are better than their divisional foes in 2012.
Packers and Lions and Bears—oh my.
Yes, the Minnesota Vikings take up residence in that division as well, and they will be covered too.
Let's get right to it, starting in reverse order of their respective finishes in 2011.
The Vikings are coming off a miserable 3-13 season, and troubles have already started surfacing within the team this offseason. In particular, wide receiver Percy Harvin is frustrated with the organization and has reportedly requested a trade.
Vikings head coach and former Bear Leslie Frazier has his hands full with this squad. The Vikes lost every game versus their divisional rivals in 2011, and that has to change if they are going to move back toward respectability.
Second-year QB Christian Ponder needs Harvin if he's going to continue his development. The rest of the receiving corps is surrounded by question marks, with Michael Jenkins coming off knee surgery and Jerome Simpson due to miss the first three games with a suspension.
Having said that, the Vikes helped Ponder by drafting blue-chip left tackle Matt Kalil and have two good tight ends in Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson.
Defensively, they are hoping that Jasper Brinkley can replace E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker. Brinkley missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury.
A lot of uncertainty will probably result in a lot of losses once again for Minnesota.
The Bears made strides in order to make this Cutler's team. They added a former teammate and a solid No. 1 wideout in Brandon Marshall, drafted a hybrid tight end in Evan Rodriguez and a tall receiver in Alshon Jeffery, installed Mike Tice as offensive coordinator and hired Cutler's friend and mentor, Jeremy Bates, as QB coach.
The only improvement they did not make was along the offensive line, where they hope Chris Williams will challenge J'Marcus Webb at left tackle and that Gabe Carimi can come back from injury.
Assuming Cutler can remain upright, the offense should be vastly improved this season. The Bears even added insurance in case of injury by signing backup QB Jason Campbell and backup running back Michael Bush.
Defensively, the Bears' core players are another year older and no obvious long-term replacements for them were drafted or signed.
Brian Urlacher is coming off injury, but is expected to be ready for the season. Along with Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers, the "core four" are all over 30, but should still be solid.
First-round draft choice Shea McClellin will start opposite Peppers at defensive end, while second-year defensive tackle Stephen Paea will hopefully take that next step to eventually challenge Henry Melton.
Meanwhile, the secondary is still surrounded by question marks.
I am excited about the Bears' prospects this season. This is a Bears team that should challenge for the division title and make the playoffs in Lovie Smith's contract year.
In fact, this could be a Super Bowl season if all goes well. However, with such talent in their own division, it will not be easy.
The Lions didn't make a lot of changes this offseason, but they bring back a nucleus that made the playoffs in 2011. Three years after the Lions had that awful, winless season, they are now a team on the rise and a clear threat to the Bears and the Packers.
They reached contract agreements with Calvin "Megatron" Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. They also applied the franchise tag to defensive end Cliff Avril, whom the Bears almost certainly would have had interest in if he had hit the open market.
Meanwhile, they need to find a way to keep Ndamukong Suh on the field. As long as he plays by the rules and stops stomping on players, he is a force at tackle for the Lions.
The Lions are the opposite of the Bears in that they have young players with room for growth. Those players can improve just by having another year in the league, while the Bears' core players continue to get older.
As for the Lions' aging players, they now have a replacement plan for left tackle Jeff Backus in Riley Reiff, who was drafted in the first round by Detroit.
Backus may still be the starter this season as Reiff learns the ropes, but it shouldn't be long before Reiff is ready. It must be nice to have a situation like that at LT, while the Bears can't even find one good player for the position.
The Lions' biggest issue is that they didn't do much to improve a secondary that was bad for much of 2011. Nickleback Aaron Berry will challenge free-agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start alongside Chris Houston.
At safety, the Lions seem to be willing to give Aman Spievey another opportunity to start. However, with Matthew Stafford developing into an elite QB, the Bears will have their hands full.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers focused on the defensive line this offseason. Nose tackle B.J. Raji will split time with rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, while Anthony Hargrove will be serving an eight-game suspension and Mike Neal a four-game suspension.
Green Bay also signed Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir.
They lost backup QB Matt Flynn this offseason, so if anything should happen to stud QB Aaron Rodgers, they won't have a backup in place as good as the Bears do with Campbell.
That being said, Graham Harrell does have experience in the Packers system, and the coaches seem to really like him.
We all know how good the Packers offense will be, but their defense doesn't scare anyone after last season. They scored more points than any other offense in 2011, but Football Outsiders ranked their defensive line as the 30th in the NFL. Only Indianapolis and Cleveland (28) had fewer sacks than the Packers (29) last year.
Meanwhile, their offensive line ranked 16th in run blocking and 23rd in pass protection, again according to Football Outsiders, in 2011.
With that being said, they return a 15-1 team from last year, so they are definitely the team to beat in the North.
I might be accused of viewing the Bears through rose-colored glasses, but I see Chicago as the team finishing with the top record in the NFC next season. This optimistic viewpoint is largely based on the improved offense and the hope that their aging defensive stars are as good as they were last year.
The Packers will still be very good, of course, but their defense is going to catch up with them at some point. I know they can outscore the opposition (they had a plus-201 point differential in 2011), but they will be dethroned this season.
The Lions are also very, very good. However, I feel this is the Bears' year for a number of reasons.
The change at offensive coordinator and the introduction of Jeremy Bates give Cutler complete control of the offense this offseason. While he hasn't always been successful in the past, I believe that the blame has largely lied elsewhere. For that reason, he should now be able to take advantage of his enormous talent.
That being said, I like the Bears defense much more than Green Bay's and even more than Detroit's, due to the issues in the secondary. The Bears also have issues in the secondary, but I like Chris Conte, Charles Tillman and Craig Steltz better than any three of the Lions' safety/corner combinations.
Therefore, with a vastly improved offense, better health and the best defense in the division, I'm picking the results to be as follows:
2012 NFC NORTH (Prediction)
Chicago 12 4
Detroit 11 5
Green Bay 11 5
Minnesota 5 11