NFC North Preview for 2009
The NFC North is the most up-for-grabs divisions in the NFL.
With the addition of Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, and, perhaps, the reintroduction of Brett Favre, there's a lot of offensive turmoil that will go a long way to determining whether or not the North can stand up to the rest of the league, or each other.
Defensively, Green Bay is switching to a whole new scheme, the Vikings are staring down a suspension to the Williams Wall, the Bears are facing more questions than answers lately, and the Lions are...well...the Lions.
All that makes for some exciting and intriguing possibilities for the coming season.
The Bears' Offense
Key Additions: Jay Cutler (QB) and Orlando Pace (OT)
Key Subtractions: Kyle Orton (QB), Rex Grossman (QB), Brandon Lloyd (WR), John St. Clair (OT), and Fred Miller (OT)
Other Key Players: Matt Forte (RB), Devin Hester (WR), Greg Olsen (TE), and Desmond Clarke (TE)
Analysis: While Cutler is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of Orton or Grossman, he is coming into a fairly scary situation. Chicago's offense was effective, in spurts, under Kyle Orton last season, but Cutler doesn't have the offensive weaponry or protection that he had in Denver.
His No. 1 receiver is Devin Hester, a converted corner/returner who has relatively little route running experience. Hester's explosive, but if the Bears offense is going to work this season, Hester is going to have to do more than run simple, straight-line routes if he wants to put Cutler in position to win games, because after him the most experienced receiver is Rashied Davis, who has 74 receptions in five seasons.
Cutler will have great outlets in tight ends Greg Olsen and Des Clark, who will provide a fine underneath passing game as they did last season. If he can develop a rapport with either one of them, he can mitigate some of the pressure to push the ball downfield that Grossman and Orton felt.
Matt Forte is more talented than any particular runner that Denver started last season, but Denver had the best running game in the NFL last season.
A lot of that was because of the offensive line. Forte will no doubt be able to put up some good stats out of the backfield, but only so far as his offense will carry him.
The addition of Orlando Pace was a good one, but Pace is coming off a major injury and isn't getting any younger. The rest of the Bears o-line will have a big job trying to protect Cutler and Forte, and it's one I'm not so sure they will be able to uphold.
The Bears' Defense
Key Additions: Josh Bullocks (S)
Key Subtractions: Mike Brown (S)
Other Key Players: Lance Briggs (LB), Brian Urlacher (LB), Adewale Ogunleye (DE), Alex Brown (DE), Charles Tillman (CB), and Nathan Vasher (CB)
Analysis: People still talk about the Bears' defense as one of their great strengths, but injuries and age have taken their toll on the unit since their Super Bowl run in 2006.
There's no doubt that players like Briggs, Urlacher, and Ogunleye are still very talented, but the pressure on them to perform is greater than it's ever been.
With the ownership spending so much money to upgrade the offense, the defense has to keep pace.
In the past, people will figure this is no problem, but the Bears D had some serious issues last season.
They were 30th in passing yards allowed and 21st in total defense. Sure teams had trouble running against their linebackers (they ranked fifth against the run), but in a division where you're playing against Calvin Johnson twice a year, and where Aaron Rodgers really found a grove with his receivers last season, there might be some serious trouble unless the secondary really improves.
The Bears have the talent to compete in every game, but there are too many questions here.
Having Jay Cutler will help, obviously, but the offensive line is still a mess and not having a proven No. 1 or, for that matter, No. 2 receiver suggests serious trouble.
The defense is on the cusp of needing a large makeover, and while they will still perform well enough in most cases, it doesn't help that teams have found a way to move the ball effectively against them.
If the secondary doesn't tighten up their coverage, the Bears are going to struggle.
The Vikings' Offense
Key Additions: Sage Rosenfels (QB), Percy Harvin (WR/RB), and Phil Loadholt (OT)
Key Subtractions: Matt Birk (C) and Gus Frerotte (QB)
Other Key Players: Adrian Peterson (RB), Tarvaris Jackson (QB), Bernard Berrian (WR), Chester Taylor (RB), and Bryant McKinney (OT)
Analysis: For the time being, we have to assume that Brett Favre is not going to be a part of the 2009 Minnesota Vikings roster.
There is still a lot to like about the Vikings' offense.
Of course, it all begins and ends with Adrian Peterson.
The NFL's best running back forces defenses to adjust, which often doesn't matter as he sprints past tacklers. However, after two seasons, it's time for the rest of the offense to keep up their end of the bargain.
While defenses stacking the box opens up a lot of passing lanes, no Vikings quarterback has been able to take advantage of the mismatches.
Sage Rosenfels will be the latest to make the attempt, but history says that he won't be able to make the spectacular plays that would really put the Vikings over the top.
The draft, however, opened up some more options with the addition of Percy Harvin to line up with Bernard Berrian. If nothing else, even mediocre quarterback play should make the Vikings an exciting offense.
The Vikings' Defense
Key Additions: Karl Paymah (CB)
Key Subtractions: Darren Sharper (S)
Other Key Players: Pat Williams (DT), Kevin Williams (DT), Jared Allen (DE), Antoine Winfield (CB), and E.J. Henderson (LB)
The addition of Jared Allen last season made the Vikings' defense line one of the best in football. Paired with Pat and Kevin Williams, the Vikings were first against the run and a much improved 18th against the pass.
However, with suspensions looming, the Vikings might be down two of their best players to start the year.
In coverage, the team has struggled over the past few years. Antoine Winfield is one of the best cover men in football, but he's getting older and the team is already starting to plan for life without him.
The other starting corner, Cedrick Griffin, is a boom or bust player who is just as likely to make a great play on the ball as he is to get burned for a long touchdown. It doesn't help that second year safety Tyrell Johnson will be essentially learning on the job.
One thing that most people don't realize, however, is that as good as the Vikings' defense was last year, they were without one of their most talented players in linebacker E.J. Henderson.
Henderson is the emotional and physical leader of this defense, and his return will make them even better in 2009.
There's just too much talent here for the Vikings not to be able to ride it out for another season or two.
Adrian Peterson is the best back in football, and the pieces around him are good enough that they should be able to win the North again, if (and this is a big if) they can get any sort of consistent play from the quarterback position.
Favre is obviously the elephant in the room there, but even without him, Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson have a chance to make plays happen, and with the addition of the mercurial but talented Percy Harvin, they should be handed a much more open and quarterback friendly offense this year.
The Packers' Offense
Key Additions: None
Key Subtractions: Mark Tauscher (OT)
Other Key Players: Aaron Rodgers (QB), Greg Jennings (WR), Donald Driver (RB), and Ryan Grant (RB)
Analysis: The Packers offense this season will be dictated by two things:
Whether or not Aaron Rodgers will be able to maintain his great performance level from last year, and whether or not Ryan Grant will be able to redeem himself from an abysmal first half last season.
Rodgers may never have been able to put together a second half comeback last season, but he made Packers' fans forget about Brett Favre and kept the offense relevant in the face of a collapsing defense.
The Packers have a number of great receivers, including top notch starters Jennings and Driver, but it takes a good player to get them the ball and Rodgers delivered.
Ryan Grant actually ended up with a respectable 1,203 yards last year, but he had just as many touchdowns as he did fumbles (four), and he rarely looked threatening in the backfield.
After a brilliant rookie season, Grant looked completely unprepared coming out of the gate, and it wasn't until about the mid-point of 2009 that he seemed to put it together mentally, though he continued to under perform on a regular basis.
Rodgers needs the balance to be there this season, so Grant must be focused or the Packers had better have a Plan B ready to go.
Maybe a full training camp will put him in the right frame of mind, but it's hard to tell.
The other thing to watch with the Packers this season is the offensive line.
They had a hard time gelling last season without the presence of veteran tackle Mark Tauscher. Tauscher was injured quite a bit, but he was a real leader for that line, and it will be interesting to see how they perform without him this season
The Packers' Defense
Key Additions: B.J. Raji (DT) and Clay Matthews (LB)
Key Subtractions: Colin Cole (DT)
Other Key Players: Aaron Kampman (LB), Nick Barnett (LB), A.J. Hawk (LB), Nick Collins (S), and Charles Woodson (CB)
Analysis: The Packers defense is in the midst of a transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense, and it's going to take some time. Aaron Kampman drops back a few steps to take over at linebacker, hoping that it will give him a clearer path to the quarterback, while space eater B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews move in to try to make an impact as rookies.
It's hard to tell this early how it's going to work out, of course.
The players will have all preseason to work out the kinks, but I suspect it will take 4-5 games into the regular season before they're wholly comfortable in their new roles. And it fails to really address the secondary, which struggled at times last year, and may cost long time starter Al Harris his job in the near future.
B.J. Raji is a huge addition and the perfect nose tackle for this scheme, but it will take him some time to get adjusted to the wear and tear of the NFL game, and Packers' fans looking for a big year from the rookie might be disappointed by the lack of production you typically see from a 3-4 nose tackle.
There's a lot to like about the Packers, but too many problems that need to be addressed before the season.
Whether or not Ryan Grant can produce under pressure after last year, how the offensive line bounces back despite playing some great defensive lines, and how the defense transitions this year.
I think the defense struggles to start the season.
Kampman isn't a natural linebacker, and while he might benefit early on from being an blitzer rather than a standard edge rusher, offenses won't take too long to scheme around that. But I think the first few teams the Packers face will be able to establish their running game and get ahead of the secondary fairly quickly.
I do think this scheme change will ultimately be for the best, however, I just don't think they'll have it together until their bye, at which point they will already be too far in the hole to make an impact this season.
The Lions' Offense
Key Additions: Matthew Stafford (QB) and Brandon Pettigrew (TE)
Key Subtractions: Rudi Johnson (RB) and Dan Orlovsky (QB)
Other Key Players: Calvin Johnson (WR), Kevin Smith (RB), and Dante Culpepper (QB)
Analysis: Coming off an 0-16 season, the Lions have more holes than they can properly fill in one offseason.
Sure, Atlanta and Miami had amazing seasons last year after stumbling horribly in 2007, but the Lions were historically bad.
The lone bright spots on the Lions' offense are Calvin Johnson, an incredibly talented wide receiver who will do everything he can to salvage the Lions this year, and Kevin Smith, a second year back who was able to pile up nearly 1,000 yards rushing last year after sitting on the bench for part of the season.
If Smith can maintain his strong rushing numbers and Johnson can provide one big play a game, the Lions should win at least once this year.
The looming question, of course, is who will start at quarterback?
Dante Culpepper inherits the job, but he was nothing special last season, and will probably be riding the bench by Week Four unless he explodes out of the gate.
The other option, Matthew Stafford is a rookie, but impressed scouts with his poise while starting at Georgia.
And Stafford will probably succeed.
Not because he's going to be a great rookie player like Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan were last year, but because the bar is so low in Detroit that completing two passes in a row will probably be cause for celebration.
With big targets like Johnson and fellow draft pick Brandon Pettigrew, Stafford won't be fantastic, but he won't be horrible.
The Lions' Defense
(Note: Here's another picture of Calvin Johnson, because I couldn't find any pictures of the Lions' Defense doing anything good last season.)
Key Additions: Julian Peterson (LB), Larry Foote (LB), Grady Jackson (DT), and Phillip Buchanon (CB)
Key Subtractions: Shaun Cody (DT) and Paris Lenon (LB)
Other Key Players: Ernie Sims (LB)
Analysis: The biggest problem the Lions faced last season was the inability of their defense, especially against the run, to stop opposing offenses.
Every time their offense would get on a roll, their defense would fall apart down the stretch. They were never able to put Culpepper and Co. in position to win.
Larry Foote is a nice hometown addition that will help for a year or two, but the real coup was scoring Julian Peterson from Seattle. Peterson should be able to step in and make the defense better immediately.
Playing alongside Foote and Ernie Sims, the linebackers have three tough, able linebackers that should improve their abysmal defensive performance from last season.
Unfortunately, their secondary and line aren't much improved over last season. Grady Jackson's a nice addition, but he's years past his prime and not really able to take every snap.
The same could be said for Phillip Buchanon, who is an upgrade to their coverage teams, but that is not really saying much for the 27th ranked pass defense in the NFL last season.
I think they'll win at least one game, and three isn't a stretch. They are not nearly as bad as they were last year, but this is very clearly a 3-4 year rebuilding process and they need to start from the ground up.
Stafford is a nice base, but the defense is still going to be hovering near the bottom of the league, even with their talented linebacking corps.
You have to figure that the Lions are going to come out of the gate slowly, but I think that inserting Stafford around the Week Six game against Green Bay could re-energize the Lions, and they have a handful of winnable games in the second half of the season.
If the defense can hold their opponents to under 30 points, the Lions should be able to squeak out a win or three this season.