After years of being depicted as a division of stodgy, ground-controlled running attacks and dominant defenses, the NFC North is rapidly becoming the playground for strong-armed, gun-slinging quarterbacks.
The Bears’ blockbuster trade for Jay Cutler and the Lions’ selection of Matthew Stafford as the top overall draft pick, coupled with Aaron Rodgers' presence in Green Bay, has turned this once conservative group into potentially, a wide-open aerial circus.
The offseason maneuvers should make for an interesting division race. The defending champion Vikings return a solid nucleus, led by standout RB Adrian Petersen, sack artist Jared Allen, and defenders Pat and Kevin Williams.
Minnesota’s key additions include the acquisition of quarterback Sage Rosenfels and the first round selection of speedy wide receiver Percy Harvin, the former Florida Gator. Harvin possesses game-breaking abilities, but is considered a character risk due to his litany of off-field miscues.
Viking coach Brad Childress will be under the gun to deliver a deep playoff run to meet ownership and fan expectations. The play at the QB position, with or without Favre, along with the development of Harvin, should provide the key to Minnesota’s hopes. One other potential distraction to monitor is the current “starcaps” case involving Pat & Kevin Williams. The duo could be forced to sit out the season’s first four contests, a potentially damaging blow to the Vikes title hopes.
Chicago enters the ’09 campaign with a radically changed offensive look. Jay Cutler settles in as the Bears' signal caller following one of the biggest trades in NFL history. The trade for Cutler should provide the Bears with long-term stability at the position, while also improving short-term prospects for an energized passing attack.
Cutler’s weapons won’t resemble his former Denver mates, but the hope is that the exciting Devin Hester, reliable tight end tandem of Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, and the emergence of either Earl Bennett, rookie Juaquin Iglesias, or as of yet to be signed veteran wideout can solidify the receiving corps.
Not to be forgotten, second year man Matt Forte will once again be counted on to carry the Bears running game and provide a pass catching threat out of the backfield. Forte was a rock in ’08, leading the team in rushing yards and receptions, while seeing the field for 85 percent of Chicago’s offensive plays.
The Bears' other notable offseason addition was left tackle and former Pro Bowler Orlando Pace. If healthy, Pace will anchor Chicago’s offensive line and protect Cutler.
Defensively, the Bears have question marks in the secondary and must hope that veteran Tommie Harris regains his form of a couple seasons ago. Chicago has become increasingly susceptible to giving up big plays on defense, and this unit must bounce back for the Bears to once again become factors in ’09.
Green Bay looks to bounce back following last season’s disappointing 6-10 record. Though the Pack faltered, Aaron Rodgers played well after getting the keys to the Green Bay offense.
Following in Brett Favre’s enormous foot prints, Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns, and appeared to demonstrate the necessary traits to be the long-term answer. It helps that he has a talented receiving group, led by veteran Donald Driver and emerging Greg Jennings.
Green Bay’s ground attack looks to rebound with Ryan Grant trying to recapture his 2007 form. The Packers have drafted in recent years to bolster the offensive line, and need to receive more consistent play from that unit.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay will shift to a 3-4 alignment. Former Carolina and Houston coach Dom Capers comes aboard to direct a unit that was easy to run against in ’08. The Packers hope that a healthy linebacker Nick Barnett can help veteran defenders Aaron Kampman, A.J. Hawk, and first round pick Clay Matthews.
Green Bay lost several close contests last year, and with good fortune health-wise, the Packers could once again be knocking on the NFC North title door.
Following last year’s winless season, Detroit has turned over about everything—from the front office and coaching staff right down to the team’s logos and uniforms. Whether the changes will be reflected in the standings is anybody’s guess.
Jim Schwartz, the former Tennessee defensive boss, got the head gig and will attempt to rebuild the Lions. His first pick, top selection Matthew Stafford of Georgia, has a chance to play early. The strong-armed Stafford does have some weapons, notably stud wide out Calvin Johnson, who may be ready to fully blossom in his third season.
He also has second year running back Kevin Smith, a powerful back who runs through tacklers.
Detroit’s line play on both sides was porous in ’08, something that might not be easily remedied. Linebacker Ernie Sims is a tackling machine, but the Lions suffer with too few play makers to make a major leap in the standings and are clearly behind the Vikings, Bears, and Packers. The drafting of Stafford and his fellow rookie class does offer hope for a brighter tomorrow.