The NFC North will feature one of the tightest divisional races in the NFL this season.
Will Old Man River be able to duplicate his fantastic 2009 campaign? Can Mr. Rodgers and the flashy Pack make the next step up into the NFL's upper echelon? Do the Bears have any chance to contend in the Black and Blue Division? Does anyone need to worry about the Motor City Kitties?
Here's a team-by-team breakdown of strengths & weaknesses and where each team will end up when all the dust settles.
Surprise surprise. Although one year more experienced and a tad bit deeper at the skill positions after drafting wunderkind Jahvid Best and bringing Nate Burleson back to the division where he began his career, the Motor City Kitties have a long way to go before they make the teams above them in the North get too worried.
Let's not forget about King Kong Suh, a sure-to-be stalwart in the middle of an improved defensive front. If only the Lions played in the NBA where a few good drafts that bring in young studs can automatically turn a team into a contender. Unfortunately for Detroit, an NFL roster consists of 53 players, and a few up-and-coming stars won't translate into anything besides a less depressing last place finish in the division.
With Matthew Stafford's continued growth, MegaTron's freakish ability, and a stellar 2010 draft, Lions fans have a lot to look forward to. Just not this year. Too many holes on both lines, a lack of overall defensive talent, and inexperience will be the demise of this young and exciting darling.
With the acquisitions of DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor, the Bears picked up some steam early in the offseason. With everyone talking about the Packers battling for the top spot in the division with the Vikings, could the Bears sneak up and surprise everyone with a breakout year? I don't think so.
Although Taylor certainly shores up the running game - says the fool who picked Matt Forte third overall in his fantasy draft last year - and Peppers is a major addition to a shaky defense, not enough overall talent was added to improve much on a lackluster 2009 performance.
As we all know, quarterback is the most important position in football. Without a winner under center it's incredibly hard to maintain any kind of real success. Unfortunately for fans of Da Bears, Jay Cutler is a loser. Not only has he never led a team to a winning record in his three years as a starter, but his best QB rating ever is an 86.0 (which would put him somewhere between Jason Campbell and David Garrard if he had accomplished that career high last season...which he didn't). He threw 26 interceptions last year. His QB rating? A paltry 76.4. Not only do the numbers paint him as mediocre at best, but his body language, maturity and leadership skills (or lack thereof) are reminiscent of a high school jock who doesn't get his way. In a Mike Martz offense that emphasizes deep drops, calm under pressure and stellar decision making, it is very possible that we will see a repeat of Cutler's interception showcase from a year ago.
The receivers surrounding Cutler are promising, but unproven. Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Devin Aromashodu have two career 100-yard games combined. They are all young and have speed to burn, so it will be interesting to see if they can evolve into polished receivers, not just high-end athletes.
Brian Urlacher leads a defense that added a monster at defensive end, in Julius Peppers, but has little else to brag about. Granted, they were on the field constantly last year due to their offense's turnover bug, but they've lost the ability they had in the middle of the decade to create turnovers and big plays at will. Hopefully for the Bears, this unit can stay healthy and get off the field on third down better than it has the last couple seasons. Getting everything it can on this side of the ball could take some pressure off of an offense that will need time to jell.
As much as Jay Cutler is a loser, Aaron Rodgers is a winner. He's legit. He's scary good. Even rabid Vikings fans kind of like him. If I could have any quarterback for the next 8-10 years the answer would be obvious: A-Rod.
After sitting pat while the Diva from Dixie retired and then didn't and then did again, the California boy now has the team to himself and for the rest of the NFL, let alone the NFC North, that has turned out to be a worrisome proposition. With a solid, although not necessarily intimidating, group of skill position players around him Rodgers should only continue to get better and cement his place amongst the elite gunslingers (no Favre reference intended) in the league.
That is, if his O-line can keep him on his feet. At the start of last season the Packers' line let more fat guys walk past them than a Walmart greeter. They shored up the revolving doors as the season progressed and added a solid rookie in Bryan Bulaga, but they have yet to prove that they can keep their leader consistently clean.
The D was the weakness in Green Bay last season and will need to make more big time stops if the Pack hope to make a deep playoff run. Charles Woodson is unlikely to repeat his magical '09 season that masked some larger personnel flaws in the secondary that need addressing. Will the defense be able to get off the field and get the high octane offense back on it on a regular basis? The answer to that question will most likely decide whether the Pack finishes here in second or leapfrog the Purple and take the NFC North title.
In the NFL, the window for success is minimal and this may be the last time in a while that the Vikings have a legitimate shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. In their 50th year in the league, the Vikings risk a changing of the NFC North guard if they slow down at all from their 12-4 clip of last season. With a bevy of veterans and players entering their primes, it's now or never for the Purple.
Right now, there's a bit of a cloud hanging over Winter Park. The Favre fiasco finally resolved itself, but his faulty ankle is still waffling. Sidney Rice opted to not have surgery all offseason and finally had to acquiesce, making it a near certainty he will be gone for half of the year. Last season's Rookie of the Year, Percy Harvin, has been sidelined with intense and unpredictable migraines. The list goes on. Everyone has been talking about the potholes and speed bumps the Vikings have been experiencing, yet they forget to look up and see that they're still driving the pace car in the division.
They have the best defense in the division, leading the league in sacks last year and coming in a close second in run stopping. E.J. Henderson, who was having a Pro Bowl-type season before going down with a broken leg last year, is back and recorded seven tackles on ONE DRIVE last week, showing he's healthy and raring to go. Their quarterback is coming off arguably the best season of his career and can turn around and hand off to the best running back in the league. Yes, Mr. Johnson, that counts you, too.
In order to keep Ye Ol' Gunslinger healthy and take some pressure off a depleted receiving corps, Brad Childress should take a hint from my choice of images and run the ball. And then run the ball some more. Adrian Peterson should be the focal point of this offense. Spell him with the bruising Toby Gerhart or the shifty Albert Young and then put him right back in to punish opposing defenses. Sure, it won't be as flashy as last year's aerial circus, but it will keep #4 healthy, keep opposing offenses off the field, and, oh yeah, put the ball in the hands of a man who scored 18 TD's last year.
The division is the Vikings' to lose. If they can repeat their success against the Packers and get healthy, they are still a top three team in the NFL and a force to be reckoned with. The Green & Gold are nipping at their heels so even a slight hiccup could mean Wild Card at best, missing the playoffs at worst.
Note: In such a tight divisional race little things matter! One or two missed field goals could decide first place in the North. Ryan Longwell could end up being the MVP or scapegoat for the Vikes. Just you wait and see...