The NFC North has more drama headed into training camp than any other division in the NFL. Yes, you read that correctly. The Black and Blue division, an afterthought in recent years has more drama right now than any soap opera on daytime television.
Pick your poison: new faces, a returning diva, new coaches, exciting rookies, new schemes, looming suspensions. This division has it all.
Like sand through the hourglass so are the days of the 2009 NFC North offseason.
Yet the division was a lot closer than many fans realize. Four plays throughout 17 weeks could have had either the Bears or even the Packers as the defending champs.
What does this mean for the 2009 division race?
Let's start with the lowly Lions. With a new coach in Jim Schwartz, a new quarterback in Matt Stafford, a couple new linebackers, and a notable minus in Matt Millen; this doormat team should be improved.
Detroit loyalists hope that Stafford can take over at quarterback and see success like Matt Ryan had at Atlanta last season. Veteran Dante Culpepper also is on hand to give the rookie some competition at quarterback. They have an elite receiver in Calvin Johnson and a blue chip tight end prospect in Brandon Pettigrew to help him transition into the pro game.
Tackling machine linebacker Ernie Simms ( 113 tackles in 2008) gets some reinforcements with new acquisitions Larry Foote and Julian Peterson.
The Lions have improved their roster to be sure. Will it be enough to contend in 2009?
Not quite. But it should be enough to get four or five wins and perhaps play spoilers to a couple of their NFC North brethren.
In the windy city both Cub fans and White Sox fans actually agree on something in late May. Jay Cutler is their anointed savior.
With an exciting young running back in Matt Forte and up and coming TE Greg Olson there are some bullets for Cutler's gun. But the question is whether the Bears have any legitimate #1 wide receivers. And that answer, at least right now, is a big NO.
Defensively the Bears are not getting any younger. Key players like defensive tackle Tommy Harris and linebacker Brian Urlacher battled injuries and sub par play in 2006.
Their secondary is shaky other than Charles Tilman. their depth at linebacker and in the secondary is non existent.
The Bears will go as far as Cutler can take them in 2009. Teams will key on stopping Forte and rushing Cutler.
Though a division crown is possible the more likely scenario is another season of eight or nine wins and a second or third place finish.
The Green Bay Packers are the wild card of this division. After winning 13 games and coming within a Brett Favre careless overtime interception of the Super Bowl in 2007, the stumbled badly in the second half of 2008 under Aaron Rodgers. But Rodgers was not to blame. With over 4,000 passing yards and 32 touchdowns combined passing and rushing he led a potent offense that finished in the top ten overall.
A healthy Ryan Grant and the deepest wide receiver corp in the NFC will give Rodgers plenty of weapons at his disposal.
A key question is whether the young and deep offensive line will produce an adequate starter at right tackle to replace the long time starter Mark Tauscher who is recovering from knee surgery and remains unsigned.
But if there is one thing that will make or break the Packers 2009 season it will be how well their defense plays under new coordinator Dom Capers.
Capers will unveil his vaunted 3-4 scheme at Lambeau Field this fall. He has already received early presents in two blue chip first round draft picks in defensive tackle BJ Raji and versatile Clay Matthews III.
He has multiple pro bowl players in Charles Woodson at one cornerback position and Al Harris on the other side. Other pro bowlers include free safety Nick Collins and converted OLB Aaron Kampman.
If the rookies can contribute right away and the defense overall can avoid the injuries they suffered last season there could be a significant improvement over their 20th overall rank in 2008.
And if the defense improves the Packers will be in position to win ten or eleven games and re-capture the division crown.
There is no team in the NFL with more drama right now than the Minnesota Vikings.
Will Brett Favre have minor surgery and yet again un-retire and play for his former team's hated rival?
Will the Vikings two dominating defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams be suspended for the first four games of the season?
The ultimate answers to these two questions will go a long way towards determining the Vikings fate in 2009.
Journeyman quarterback Sage Rosenfels was signed to compete with underachieving Tavarius Jackson at quarterback. If Favre elects to remain retired, the Vikings will have the worst starting quarterback in the division. Not many teams in this situation win their division.
The Vikings have talent on both sides of the ball however.
All world running back Adrian Peterson returns. Elite pass rusher Jarred Allen will continue to terrorize quarterbacks.
But the Vikings simply aren't that good at the linebacker and secondary positions. They also have holes to fill on the offensive line.
A return of a healthy and determined Favre and an avoidance of suspensions for the Williams wall and this Viking team can win eleven or twelve games and win the division crown. But if Favre elects to stay home on his tractor and the Williams miss the first four games the Vikings could struggle to win nine or ten games.
This division looks like a three horse race with a fourth horse that would love to play spoiler.
Which quarterback will emerge with a division title? The diva? The savior? The replacement? And how good is the rookie?
Stay tuned as it should be a fascinating season in the upper midwest.
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