With the opening of NFL training camps comes the undeniable surge of optimism emanating from all 32 NFL cities. Every team is back at 0-0; every team has a chance.
But the start of camps is also a time of much uncertainty. Newly constructed teams are only starting the long, arduous journey that is the NFL season. Chemistry must be built. Kinks need to be worked out. Major questions remain unanswered.
The same idea applies in the NFC North, where the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are set to embark on what should be a major comeback season for the division. There appears to be both depth and competitiveness to the NFC North, and all four teams can present defendable arguments for improving their win totals from a year ago.
However, many concerns still linger as the NFC North prepares to open camp.
Below, we will address the biggest question marks for each team in the division to start training camp. Call this playing devil's advocate to the optimism of late July.
Is Jay Cutler Capable of More Progression?
The arrival of Marc Trestman clearly made a positive impact on Cutler last season. At 30 years old, Cutler posted a 89.1 passer rating (career high), 63.1 completion percentage and 5.1 sack percentage (both highs since coming to Chicago) in 2013. But can he really make another jump at age 31?
Keep in mind, Cutler still threw interceptions on 3.4 percent of his throws (right around his career average) last season. After a strong start, some of the "Bad Jay" moments started creeping back into the picture.
It's true that not many quarterbacks completely reinvent themselves at this stage in their careers. The Bears paid Cutler like a quarterback they think has turned a corner. It's now on Cutler, who has 75 interceptions in 67 career starts with the Bears, to make good on the money.
Is the Safety Group Any Better Today Than in 2013?
The Bears improved along the defensive line and at cornerback, but it's anyone's best guess if the Chicago safeties will be any better next season. A year after featuring arguably the worst safety tandem in football in Major Wright and Chris Conte, the Bears signed a handful of mid-to-lower-level free agents (M.D. Jennings, Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray), drafted a rookie in the fourth round (Brock Vereen) and gambled on a 34-year-old former Pro Bowler who is coming off a major injury (Adrian Wilson).
Wright is gone, but Conte returns.
Jennings and Mundy haven't been great starters in other NFL locations, and asking a rookie to overhaul a position group is aiming high. Wilson would need to defy great odds to rebound from a torn Achilles tendon and make an impact next season.
The Bears should be better rushing the quarterback next season, and Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Kyle Fuller make up a solid 1-2-3 at cornerback. But the safety position may still be a huge weak spot on the Chicago defense in 2014.
Which Path Will Matthew Stafford's Career Follow?
No factor for the Lions is more important in 2014 than the career rebound of Stafford.
In 2011, Stafford threw 41 touchdowns and looked destined to eventually join the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. But over the last two seasons, the Lions quarterback has completed less than 60 percent of his passes, thrown 36 interceptions and posted a pedestrian passer rating of 81.9. Predictably, the Lions fell from 10 wins and a playoff appearance in '11 to just 11 wins combined and zero postseasons the last two years.
The decision-makers in Detroit recognized the regression and set out to stop it this past spring. Gone is Jim Schwartz, replaced by Jim Caldwell (of Peyton Manning fame). Joe Lombardi brings the New Orleans offense to Detroit. Arriving on the roster are Golden Tate and Eric Ebron.
The Lions centered their whole offseason around rebuilding the career of Stafford. If his slide somehow continues, Detroit could be faced with some difficult questions next spring.
Are the Remaining Cornerbacks Ready for the Challenge?
Releasing Chris Houston ensures the Lions will start camp with Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis as the team's two starting cornerbacks. While Slay has obvious upside, and Mathis proved to be Detroit's best corner last season, there's still reason to worry.
Slay is just a second-year player, and he struggled at times early last season. The Lions are counting on a big jump in his sophomore year. Mathis is 34, an ancient age for a cornerback. Regression is just as easy to predict from Mathis than any other outcome next season.
Behind the two presumed starters are plenty of unknowns. Bill Bentley has had an up-and-down start to his career. Nevin Lawson is a rookie. Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green have seen little of the field. Cassius Vaughn, the wild card of the bunch, will play for his third NFL team in just five years.
If there's the right development from the younger players, the Lions should be comfortable at the position. But any stagnation—combined with regression from Mathis—would create a group of average to below-average cornerbacks in a division loaded with receivers.
Green Bay Packers
Is a Steep Learning Curve Ahead for New Safeties?
The Packers rightfully believe their safety group has improved in talent. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix represents the first safety drafted in the first round by Ted Thompson, and Micah Hyde is an instinctive player who could thrive when the action is all in front of him.
However, rookie safeties are rarely instant impact players. Darren Sharper and Nick Collins each needed three or four years in the NFL before they became consistent, Pro Bowl-caliber safeties. The Packers don't need a Pro Bowler at safety—a player that can simply create a takeaway or two would be a huge improvement—but expecting Clinton-Dix to blow the doors off his rookie season might be aiming far too high.
Hyde has at least played in an NFL game, but he still has zero professional experience at safety. While highly regarded by head coach Mike McCarthy, Hyde is in for an adjustment period as he begins his second NFL season learning how to play the back end of a defense.
Clinton-Dix and Hyde will almost certainly bring improvement over M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, the two players Green Bay expected too much out of in 2013. But don't be surprised if there is a steep learning curve for both the rookie and second-year player making a position change. Improvement might take patience.
Will the Defensive Changes Make a Difference?
A defense that allowed 46 touchdowns (30 passing), 26.1 points per game, 4.6 yards per rush and a 95.9 opponent passer rating last season added Julius Peppers and Clinton-Dix and re-signed Sam Shields and B.J. Raji. Will it be enough?
If healthy, Dom Capers' defense should improve on its ugly 2013 numbers. But questions remain.
The Packers are now smaller along the defensive line. Inside linebacker wasn't addressed in free agency or the draft. The safety group is depending on two unknowns. Peppers is 34, and Clay Matthews, Mike Neal and Nick Perry have battled injuries in recent seasons. Will the Packers stop the run any better? Will the pass rush dry up again if there's one or two injuries?
So much of Green Bay's 2014 season rides on the defense becoming better at harassing quarterbacks and creating takeaways.
Will the Vikings Receive Any Better Quarterback Play in 2014?
Three Vikings quarterbacks—Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman—combined to post a passer rating of just 76.0 last season, which ranked 24th in the NFL. Minnesota quarterbacks haven't had a season over 85.0 since Brett Favre in 2009, marking a four-year run of average-to-below play at the game's most important position.
A drastic turnaround isn't likely in 2014.
Matt Cassel, the favorite to start, has a career passer rating of just 80.4. Since becoming a regular starter in 2008, the 32-year-old Cassel has just two seasons with a rating over 85.0. His three-year rating sits at just 74.6.
The Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick in May's draft, but odds are against him pulling Minnesota out of the gutter, or at least right away. Since 1970, only eight rookie quarterbacks have finished their first season with a passer rating above 85.0. Just seven have won 10 or more games.
While the future should be bright with Bridgewater, Cassel will likely enter next season as a lower-tier starting quarterback. Even in Norv Turner's offense, it's unlikely Minnesota will receive considerably better play at the position next season.
Will Next Year be a Transition Season for the Vikings Defense?
The arrival of Mike Zimmer in Minnesota makes it easy to envision the Vikings once again having one of the NFL's better defenses, but how long will it take to get there?
Minnesota has reshaped its roster and philosophy on defense. Gone are Jared Allen and Kevin Williams, former stalwarts of the Vikings defensive line. New faces include Captain Munnerlyn, Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr. Zimmer has scraped the Cover-2 look of the Leslie Frazier days in favor of his own style, which is built on dominating the line of scrimmage and attacking the quarterback on passing downs.
Patience will be required.
During Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati, the Bengals finished 19th in points allowed. The next season, Cincinnati shot up to sixth overall. The Vikings would certainly take an improvement from 32nd to 19th in points allowed, but the point here is that Zimmer's handiwork on defense will be a process.
The Vikings are still iffy at linebacker and safety (opposite Harrison Smith), and the cornerback depth is shaky past Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes. Also, Zimmer probably doesn't yet have the quality of depth he desires along the defensive line.
It would be reasonable to expect the Vikings to start knocking on door of a top-10 defense by 2015. But next season, a first-year head coach like Zimmer shouldn't be expected to work miracles—especially on a defense that finished 2013 ranked dead last in points allowed.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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