The 2009 off season wasn't just big for the Bears; the entire NFC North has had some big changes.
This is a briefing of the improvements each team has made and how it will affect the Bears chances to win the division and make the playoffs.
Which team poses the biggest threat? Who will end up NFC North Champions?
Last season the Packers finished 6-10; a record that doesn't reflect how good this team really is. The team finished 5th in the NFL in points scored (26.2), 8th in passing yards per game (238.3), and 17th in rushing yards per game (112.8). On top of those numbers Aaron Rodgers finished last season with a 93.8 passer rating.
Barring injury on the offensive line, the running game should be improved this year. Green Bay drafted some young talent for the offense in the 4th and 5th round of the draft with OT T.J. Lang from Eastern Michigan, FB Quinn Johnson from LSU, and OT Jamon Meredith from South Carolina. These additions may turn out to be helpful but, the real story this year will be the development of second year receiver Jordy Nelson.
Although Nelson had modest stats last year- 33 receptions, 366 yds, 2 TDs- he's a big target at 6'3" and he's 10 years younger than aging, but still dangerous, Donald Driver. I'm predicting that the Nelson/ Rodgers duo will be a nice complement to the Jennings/Rodgers hook up. With 3 solid receivers and a healthy offensive line this passing offense is only going to be more dangerous in 2009.
The Packers defense last year was injury prone and well, pathetic. They finished 22nd in points allowed (23.8), 26th in rushing yards against (131.6), and a reasonable 12th in passing yards against (202.8 - this may be more in part because they played teams that favored the run).
But all that means nothing this year. Green Bay hired Dom Capers who employs the 3-4 defense. The 3-4 is not a popular scheme in the NFC North. Traditionally the 3-4 is a defensive scheme better used against teams that are pass-heavy. The thought is to have four athletic LBs on the field to essentially react and diagnose the play faster than three, less athletic linemen. In the NFC North teams are generally run first pass second.
However BJ Raji is no average lineman. He's quick, real quick. If he can demand a double team, this 3-4 will seem more like a 4-4 and the Packers may look pretty scary on defense.
On the other hand, not sure that's a reasonable expectation considering this is the first year with the new scheme and Raji is a rookie. Even the veterans will make mistakes in the 3-4 and those could cost the Packers.
Prediction: Dangerous offense but the defense may be vulnerable at times. Contenders for the division, but not likely to finish first. The Bears must contain this offense. This defense will allow the Bears to score. A threat that the Bears can handle.
Not much else to say.
The Lions lost 4 games last year by 7 points or less. That's about the only silver lining to their season last year. The only other good thing to come out of last season was Calvin Johnson and his 78 receptions for over 1,300 yards and 12 TDs.
The offseason was big for the Lions. They acquired new head coach Jim Schwartz, new big money QB Matt Stafford, and new TE Brandon Pettigrew.
The offense wasn't the biggest problem for the Lions but that's where they invested two first round picks. These could end up being great picks to compliment Calvin Johnson; regardless I don't expect to see drastic changes in 2009.
The Detroit Lions finished last in points allowed (32.3), yards allowed (404.4), and rushing yards allowed (172.1). Their pass defense, like the Packers, probably looked better because they played run heavy teams last year. I use the term 'better' loosely though because it's still terrible. The Lions allowed 232.2 yds against per game, 27th in the league.
With numbers like that it's amazing that Detroit didn't do more to shore up their defense in the offseason.
Second round pick Louis Delmas is a solid corner and should start in 2009. DeAndre Levy is also a good pick and will end up being a solid LB for Detroit. I strongly believe however, that defense starts up front. The D-line for the Lions is shotty and well.... horrendous.
32.3 points against. To put that in perspective think about it this way. The top offense in the league last year was the New Orleans Saints. They had 28.9 points per game. That means in order for the Lions to have a winning record, they'd also have to have the most potent offense in the NFL.
Prediction: The Lions won't finish 0-16. They also won't finish ahead of anyone in the NFC North. If I'm in the Lions front office I would start thinking about the 2010 draft and I would take a long hard look at defensive players coming out of college.
The Minnesota Vikings finished last season averaging 23.7 pts per game (12th in the league). Their passing offense had an abysmal 184.8 yds per game which landed them 25th in the league in passing offense. The obvious strength for this Vikings team is their ground game. They finished 5th in league in rushing yards per game with 146.1.
The offseason moves made by the Vikings should help them generate more points and take better advantage of passing opportunities that their run game sets up for them.
Vikings fans have to love the pick up of Percy Harvin. He makes your air attack much more threatening.
Percy Harvin is an athlete and can be a play maker anytime the ball is in his hands. When teams are placing extra guys in the box to help stop Adrian Peterson, they'll be leaving single coverage and little help on the Berrian and Harvin.
The scenario this creates is a QB's dream. That is unless your QB is Tavaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels. Neither one of these QBs are someone you'd look at as having a clear advantage with single coverage. When these guys get single coverage it makes you feel like there's a chance they might get a completion.
Should the Vikings land a healthy Brett Farve before the start of the regular season they will have a completely new offense. Sure Farve is a gunslinger who throws as many interceptions as he does touchdowns; but he's also got the poise and experience that neither Jackson nor Rosenfels have. He can take advantage of what the running game will open in the passing game.
Farve also won't have to throw as many passes with the VIkings solid ground game which will help him save that arm strength late in the season.
The biggest problem is that this is all speculation. Farve isn't a Viking.
Should the offense go into the season the way it stands now, it will be improved but will also remain one dimensional.
The Vikings have a strong defense. A year ago they had the league's best run defense allowing, on average, an amazing 76.9 yards per game.
That amazing run stopping defense started up front with Pat and Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Ray Edwards. This D-line could arguably be one of the best, if not the best, defensive fronts in the NFL.
One thing that may cause Minnesota to stumble out of the gates though would be the pending four game suspensions for both Pat and Kevin Williams. If the two of them have to miss four games at the same time it could completely change the look of this feared defense.
Looking at their schedule, the Vikings would be smart to just have both players sit out the first four games of the season. That appears to be the softest spot in their schedule and it’s very likely they will serve the suspension at some point in 2009.
Suspensions aside, this defense is very good. The secondary is probably the only chink in their defensive armor. That said, with a line that creates as much pressure as the Vikings front four, they don't need to be any better.
The pick up of CB Asher Allen in the third round is only going to help this secondary become stronger. The linebacker crew will also see added help from Jasper Brinkley a 5th round pickup from South Carolina.
Allen and Brinkley should help shore-up the weak links but this defense didn't need much help.
Prediction: The Vikings are a QB away from being a frightening team. They're scary now, but if you can contain their ground game and score a few points, you can beat them. In my opinion they are the biggest threat to the Bears in the NFC North.
The Chicago Bears finished last season 14th in the NFL averaging 23.4 points per game. Despite having standout rookie Matt Forte the Bears finished 24th in the league in rushing yards per game by averaging just under 105 yds. Surprisingly, they finished higher in passing offense, 21st in the NFL, by averaging 191.3 yds per game.
The offense benefited greatly from the off season moves the Bears made. The trade of the summer was made when the Bears landed Jay Cutler for Kyle Orton and two, first round draft picks.
One thing that hasn't really been mentioned much is that they picked up six players in this years draft within the first five rounds. What's impressive about that is that they were able to do that without even making a first or second round pick.
Jay Cutler alone has made this offense more threatening. Orton wasn't bad but Cutler is much better. The biggest difference is Cutler has already been to a pro bowl. Coming from the AFC, where there are names like Manning, Palmer, and Roethlisberger, that says a lot.
Perhaps one of the greatest gems about this trade is that it puts Earl Bennett and Cutler back together. They both played together at Vanderbilt and Bennett was Cutler's favorite target at the time.
The criticism that surrounds the Bears now is that they don't have a reciever for Cutler to throw to. I disagree. The Bears leading receivers last year were Forte, Greg Olson, Devin Hester, and Desmond Clark. All four of those guys return and become much bigger threats with Cutler. Add in the rookies drafted and the revival of Bennett/Cutler and Chicago has plenty of options.
Lets not forget this is a running team.
The Bears bolstered their offensive line this off season. The new line coupled with the resigning of Kevin Jones will give Chicago a better running game. Jones will now be two years removed from his knee injury and in better playing shape. Throw in an occasional play from Garret Wolf and this offense will end up shocking its critics.
The Bears offense is ready.
The three men pictured above can make or break the Bears Defense. If all three of these guys, Charles Tillman, Tommie Harris, and Lance Briggs, are healthy the Bears defense is one of the best in the league.
Last year the Bears struggled with health issues. Both Tillman and Harris were playing in pain last year. The run defense survived; Chicago finished 5th allowing an average of 93.5 yds per contest. But the pass defense was lacking. Finishing 30th in the NFL in pass yards allowed is not Chicago Bears defense.
To fix the issue, the Bears quickly signed former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli. Marinelli has a reputation for creating dominate defensive line players. With the talent the Bears currently have on the D-line, they could use someone like Marinelli to get the players to exceed their potential. New DT/DE Jarron Gilbert and thrid year DE Mark Anderson should benefit most from Marinelli's arrival. They both have the tools to be a successful players. With a little Marinelli magic they can become dominant.
The Bears have also realized they have some problems at safety. In OTAs Chicago recently started using Corey Graham at free safety. A great move in my opinon.
Graham had an excellent year in 2008 filling in for the injured Nathan Vasher. By moving Graham to FS it adds another player familiar with the Bears defensive scheme on the field, and puts more of their proven talent on the field as well.
Prediction: The Bears are strong contenders for the NFC North title. Injuries are their biggest threat this season because the defense doesn't have depth in key areas. If they stay healthy they should make the playoffs.
I guess I forgot to mention Special Teams. Nobody in the NFC North can match the field position the Bears start with. Cutler is used to going the length of the field. Now he has to go less than 50 yards.
The Bears are primed for a BIG year.
As the teams stand right now (the Vikings without Farve) the Bears will be the NFC North Champions.