I have sized up each team in the NFC North and laid out how I think the division will shake out this upcoming season.
There have been some interesting trades and free-agent signings. There also have been some interesting cuts that have been made as well.
Let's dive in and take a look at this year's "Black and Blue" division.
That face says a thousand words about how last season ended for Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, after falling to the rival Green Bay Packers in the 2010 playoffs.
Since then, the Bears traded arguably their best overall receiver, tight end Greg Olsen, to the Carolina Panthers and replaced him with the likes of wide receiver Roy Williams, which remains a head-scratcher to most people.
Rookie tackle Gabe Carimi will probably start the season at the left tackle position. Carimi should be a major upgrade from last year, but not having one of the league’s best centers and fan favorite Olin Kreutz quarterbacking that offensive line will prove costly.
Another question mark will be the improvement of Jay Cutler. Will he be able to cut down on the crucial turnovers that cost games? One full year in this system should help, but only time will tell.
You can expect to see more of the same on defense from Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Julius Peppers will command most of the attention on the defensive line, so someone will have to step up.
Isreal Idonije could be that guy, with eight sacks in 2010, but it still remains to be seen if he can follow up what he did last year.
All in all, too many wrong moves and not enough right moves on offense will cost the Bears this season. It's looking like a year of more long faces from Jay Cutler.
Chicago Bears; 6-10
With the trade for Donovan McNabb, the Minnesota Vikings are showing that drafting Christian Ponder does not necessarily mean the team is in a rebuilding phase.
This is a team that is still built for right now. You have cornerstones on offense and defense—running back Adrian Peterson and defensive end Jared Allen respectively. Not to mention this team is only one full season removed from an NFC Championship appearance.
With the right attitude and leadership from new head coach Leslie Frazier, you can expect to see some improvement from this team.
Letting go a nearly 400-pound Bryant McKinnie and replacing him with Charlie Johnson actually fills a mountainous hole at the left tackle spot.
McNabb had the privilege of playing with Brian Westbrook, but he’s never had a running back like Adrian Peterson before. Team chemistry will evolve from that relationship and prove vital on the field.
Losing Sidney Rice will not be as big of a loss as Vikings fans think. Donovan McNabb has worked with terrible receiving corps in the past. Having Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian will be a welcome sight for McNabb.
Losing DE Ray Edwards to the Falcons and DL Pat Williams will no doubt hurt them on defense. The Vikings did bring in NT Remi Ayodele to replace one half of the “Williams Wall.” They will also look to Brian Robison to step up and fill the hole left by Edwards.
Cedric Griffin makes his return after missing most of the 2010 season due to a torn ACL. If he can return to his 2009 form, and if second-year corner Chris Cook proves he is a legitimate defender in nickel situations, look for Minnesota’s secondary to be much-improved from last year.
Minnesota Vikings; 9-7
Big things are on the horizon for the Detroit Lions. This team is stacked on offense and it starts with wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Matthew Stafford has proven he has the tools to be an outstanding quarterback in this league. His biggest question remains to be his health.
If he plays a full season and second-year running back Jahvid Best can remain healthy, look for this team to do some big things on the field.
The Lions’ defensive line might be, after this season is over, the best defensive line in football. You have an all-world player in Ndamukong Suh on the interior, and next to him will be rookie DL Nick Fairley, who will push for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch should return to his Pro Bowl days with all the attention being focused on Suh and Fairley.
Stephen Tulloch should anchor a decent linebacker corps with DeAndre Levy coming off the edge.
Surprising to a lot of us, the Lions did not go out and get one of the two big-name corners on the free-agent market. The cornerback position is their biggest weakness on defense, however free safety Louis Delmas helps out tremendously with his ball-hawking skills.
Do not be surprised to see the Lions battling it out with the Vikings for second place in the division.
Detroit Lions; 9-7
To really no surprise of anyone, the Green Bay Packers are the class of the NFC North, and it starts with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
At Rodgers’ disposal is an arsenal of weapons at the receiver position. The Packers re-signed James Jones to remain in the slot, Greg Jennings is coming off of his first Pro Bowl and Donald Driver is as reliable as they come.
Rodgers also gets TE Jermichael Finely. Finely is a big-time matchup problem for any defender when he is stretching the middle of the field.
Green Bay’s offensive line improved as well. Second-year tackle Bryan Bulaga took over in Week 5 for longtime Packer and hometown guy Mark Tauscher, after Tauscher went down to injury. Bulaga started every game since and has not looked back.
Rookie first-rounder Derek Sherrod will take over for Darren Colledge at the left guard spot. Although Colledge was serviceable, Sherrod should be an upgrade.
The only glaring weakness on offense comes out of the running game. Ryan Grant comes back after missing most of the 2010 season with a foot injury.
2010 rookie James Starks did show some good things during the playoffs last year. It should be Grant's job to lose, but don't be surprised if you see a split backfield this year.
It’s more of the same on defense, with studs everywhere. It starts with B.J. Raji up front stopping the run.
Clay Matthews is one of the best outside linebackers in the game today, and one of the best overall defensive players in the league.
It remains to be seen what Mike Neal can do in replace of Cullen Jenkins, but the drop-off should not hurt too much.
Desmond Bishop has already proved that he is a better middle linebacker than Nick Barnett, who they released. And A.J. Hawk is coming off his best year as a pro.
Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams would be the best corner duo in the league, if it weren’t for Nnamdi Asomugha signing with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Anchoring the secondary is three time All Pro Nick Collins. He is one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the league, and he is one of the best run-stopping safeties as well—making it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to know where he is going to be on the field.
Barring major setbacks, you can all but expect the Green Bay Packers to repeat as NFC North champs and make another deep run into the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers; 12-4
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