NFC North Looks to Be Much-Improved for 2009

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NFC North Looks to Be Much-Improved for 2009
(Photo by Jim Prisching/Getty Images)

After posting a less-than-stellar .390 winning percentage in 2008 (including the the first NFL team ever to go 0-16), the NFC North division appears to be headed for a much more competitive 2009 campaign.

In examining the changes made by each team, it is obvious that if the Minnesota Vikings want to retain their division title, they will have a very tough road ahead of them looking forward to next season.

Chicago Bears

Perhaps the biggest splash in the division this off-season was the trade of Quarterback Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos, who was shipped to Chicago in early April.

In exchange, the Bears parted with veteran quarterback Kyle Orton, first and third-round picks in last month's NFL draft, as well as another first-round pick in the 2010 draft.

This investment shows that Chicago, known for its stingy defenses of years past, is looking for big-time improvement from its offense in this upcoming season.

Cutler broke out in 2008, throwing for 4457 yards and 25 touchdowns. It is this threat from the quarterback position that the Bears have been missing since Jim McMahon took the franchise to its only-ever Superbowl title in 1985.

The team already has outstanding second-year Running Back Matt Forte, selected in the second round out of Tulane university in the 2008 draft.

In his inaugural NFL campaign, Forte demonstrated not only the ability to run the ball well (1238 Yds, 8 TDs), but also a remarkable ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (63 Rec, 433 Yds, 4 TDs).

The Bears hope that pairing their dynamic young Running Back with the strong-armed and supremely talented Cutler will yield immediate results and bolster an offense that ranked just fourteenth in points scored and a mediocre 26th in total yards in 2008.

Add to this a defense stocked with talent and looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2008, and the Bears aim to be a legitimate contender to de-throne the reigning Minnesota Vikings.

Green Bay Packers

Mostly quiet during the off-season, the Packers feel comfortable as they look to the future. The team boasts one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, with an average age of just below 26 years.

The Packers showed a very strong offense in 2008 (5th in points scored, 8th in total yards), but their young defense struggled to stop opposing teams (22nd in points allowed, 20th in yards).

Green Bay's offense is led by its quarterback, 2005 first-round pick Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers, 25, sat behind the legendary Brett Favre for three seasons before taking over the starting role in 2008.

Rodgers broke out immediately, throwing for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. Rodgers also showed his mobility, rushing for over 200 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Wide Receiver Greg Jennings proved to be a favorite target of Rodgers in 2008 (80 rec, 1292 yds, 8 TDs), and running back Ryan Grant, signed to a four-year contract extension at the beginning of last season, piled up yards (1,203), but struggled to find the end zone (just 4 TDs).

Paired to these offensive weapons is a defense led by 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji, a space-eating nose tackle out of Boston College. Raji joins a defensive line staffed by outstanding pass-rush specialist Aaron Kampman.

Behind him is an exceptional linebacker corps, led by veterans AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett. The team also selected Clay Matthews, a pass-rush threat out of USC, with its second of two first-round picks.

Three of the Packers' four starting defensive backs (saftey Nick Collins, and veteran cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson) were selected to the pro bowl a season ago. The Packers are expecting more of the same from that group heading in to this season.

The Packers' 6-10 record in 2008 was surprising considering the talent level of their roster. Looking ahead to 2009, they expect to be serious contenders to knock the Vikings off the top of the NFC North.


Detroit Lions

After an historically awful season in 2008, which saw the Lions post the NFL's first ever 0-16 record, the Lions cleaned house. They started at the top, firing longtime President/General Manager Matt Millen three weeks into the season. Millen was replaced as president by Tom Lewand, and as General Manager by Martin Mayhew

Following their dreadful 2008 campaign, the Lions also released Head Coach Rod Maranelli and his staff.

In their place, the team has hired former Tennesee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz as head coach. They've also brought in ex-St Louis Rams head coach Scott Linehan to handle the offense, and NFL veteran Gunther Cunningham to run the defense.

The Lions need improvement from nearly every facet of their team, ranking 27th in points scored, 30th in total yards, and dead last in both points and yards allowed during the 2008 season.

Second-year wide receiver Calvin Johnson offered a rare bright spot for the Lions. Despite the team's uncertainty at quarterback, Johnson had a marvelous year with 78 receptions for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns.

To get Johnson the ball, the team selected Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the number one overall pick in this year's draft. Stafford was paid 41.7 million dollars in guaranteed money, the most ever given out in an NFL contract.

Johnson and Stafford are joined on offense by second-year running back Kevin Smith, selected in the third round of the 2008 draft out of Central Florida.

Smith enjoyed a fine 2008, rushing for 976 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite starting just 12 games.

Detroit added another target for Stafford in the form of Brandon Pettigrew, a tight end out of Oklahoma State. Pettigrew was selected with the second of the Lions' two first-round picks (20th overall)

Additionally, the Lions added free agent running back Maurice Morris, as well as wide receiver Bryant Johnson to give them further depth on offense.

It is with these pieces that the Lions hope to formulate an offense that showed flashes a year ago, but struggled to consistently be a threat to opposing teams.

On defense, the Lions are desperate to turn things around. Not only were they ranked last in points and yards allowed, but they were out-scored by an average of over 15 points per game.

Detroit is led by 2 outstanding veteran linebackers, Paris Lenon and Ernie Sims. The team also acquired excellent pass-rush specialist Julian Peterson in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks.

The team was busy in free agency, adding cornerbacks Eric King and Phillip Buchanon, as well as veteran linebacker Larry Foote.

The Lions look to the example of past worst-to-first teams in their pursuit to become challengers in the NFC north. Both the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons took just one season to turn their teams around and become division champions a year ago. The Lions hope for a similar result as they head into 2009.


What It Means for Minnesota

The Vikings have made strides of their own this off-season to bolster themselves for a run at a second straight division title in 2009. One thing is for certain, however: it will be no easy task.

The addition of Cutler, the maturation of the Packers, and the quick turnaround potential of the Lions are all things that the Vikings must be aware of as they make their plans for a division title defense this season.

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