NFC North Preview 2020
*** this was written weeks ago but somehow didn't get published to the site. Everything in this piece is pre-Week 1.
For many years, the NFC North has been the Packers' division, but the Vikings and Bears have also won a few time each. This year, the division is extremely deep, especially at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins. The Packers and Vikings are down a bit but should still contend. The Lions have a lethal offense and an improved defense, though the defensive line is extremely thin. The Bears have a fantastic defense and a head coach who has the ability to squeeze out some production out of a lacking offense. It should be an exciting 2020.
Defense: The Bears seem to always be led by great, menacing defenses. While they lose a couple starters in the secondary, their defensive front is very good. They return star pass-rusher Khalil Mack and signed veteran Robert Quinn, who had 11.5 sack last year and has had multiple double-digit sack seasons. The middle of their defense should return to form with the returns of LB Danny Trevathan and DT Akiem Hicks from injuries.
Wide Receiver: Outside of Allen Robinson, Chicago has struggled to find receiving threats recently, and this year looks no different. They added speedy veteran Ted Ginn Jr, but they are still relying on players who have yet to reach expectations.
Offensive Line: Kyle Long's retirement leaves a whole at right guard on an offensive line unit that wasn't good in 2019. Center Cody Whitehair is probably their best offensive linemen right now, and their tackles are average at best.
The Bears liked Montgomery enough to draft him and let a still young Jordan Howard go, and he proved them right. While his yards per carry number wasn't great (3.7), he ran for 889 yards and 6 TDs as a rookie. Montgomery will miss the first few weeks, but if he plays the rest of the year fully healthy, he'll have a big season. He could be a consistent 1,000 yd rusher in this league.
Is Trubisky really the answer at QB?
The Bears made a lot of noise trading for former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in the offseason. Mitchell Trubisky had an inconsistent start to his career to say the least and seemed to be going the wrong direction at the end of year three. I'm sure many fans expected Foles to win the job. Whie they had a close battle throughout training camp, Trubisky was ultimately named the starter for week 1. You have to wonder if he's improved enough or if they weren't entirely pleased with either option. I still have them at 8-8 because of the defense, but the pressure's on Mitch in year 4.
Final Record: 8-8
Quarterback: I will continue to say this until the day I die: Matthew Stafford is one of the most criminally underrated quarterbacks in league history. Yes, he plays for the Lions, but that shouldn't matter. All he's done for most of his career is put this team on his back. He was playing at an MVP level before injury last year, and they don't make the playoffs in 2016 without him. After his injury, the team didn't win a game with Jeff Driskel and David Blough starting at the position. This year, they've upgraded the backup role with veteran Chase Daniel. Stafford is head and shoulders above the rest of the QBs on this roster, but they might not lose out if something happens to him this year.
Wide Receiver: Whether you know it or not, the Lions have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. They'll be bringing back their top 3 at the position. Kenny Golladay had a breakout season last year after 2 years of talk about his potential. Marvin Jones has probably been Bob Quinn's best free agent signing. Both of these guys can reach 1,000 yards receiving and high totals for touchdowns. Danny Amendola was the most productive #3 WR they've had in a long time. Converted cornerback Jamal Agnew has apparently looked great after making the position change and will add even more speed out of the slot. Add underrated rookie Quintez Cephus and deep-threat Marvin Hall to the mix, and you've got a strong unit.
Defense: The last time the Lions had a good defense was in 2014. They went 11-5 and lost a controversial playoff game in the wild card round. The members of that defense have long since moved on, and the team hasn't really recovered. They found a way to be respectable enough under Jim Caldwell, but always seem to let other teams set new records against them. They hired a new defensive coordinator, added some good pieces in the draft, and made an effort in free agency, so we'll see if they can turn it around.
Offensive Line depth: This offensive line is probably middle of the pack in the NFL; they're not great, but they're not bad. However, they lost 2 starters and will be relying on at least one rookie to step into a spot. Their new right tackle has spent his career as a swing tackle and not as a starter. Too many question marks to say they can survive injuries on the o-line.
TE T.J. Hockeneson
Hockenson was billed as the top tight end in last year's draft and had an outstanding debut. While he provided some production from the position, he fell off as the season went on. In year 2, I think we'll see him make a jump. He spent the offseason working out with Pro Bowl and fellow former Iowa Hawkeye George Kittle and looks like a stronger player already. I also considered putting CB Amani Oruwariye and safety Tracy Walker in this spot.
The team has a few promising running backs, but can they find a consistent running game?
They have Kerryon Johnson, D'Andre Swift, Ty Johnson, and Adrian Peterson, who was signed after putting Bo Scarbrough on IR.. Scarbrough played well filling in for various injuries last year, and it remains to be seen when/if he will return. In the meantime, Peterson, K. Johnson, and Swift will see the bulk of the carries. While many people assume Peterson is washed up at 35, he still ran for 1800+ yards in 2 seasons in Washington, including a 1000+ season in 2018. The Lions have a young stable of backs that can only benefit from learning from such a great player. They haven't quite been able to put a solid running game together since Stafford has been there. Is this the year they finally do?
Will their pass defense improve?
They made several acquisitions in the offseason to try to improve their defense. They added veterans Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon and drafted impact players like Jeff Okudah and Julian Okwara. Adding these and more to a few other promising defenders should improve the defense, but will it?
Do they have enough depth behind Stafford if he gets hurt again?
Chase Daniel is a much better backup quarterback than Jeff Driskel and David Blough. For one thing, he;s actually played in and won NFL games. Lions fans won't be automatically counting on a loss if he has to come in. The trouble starts if he goes down, too. Right now, Blough is the developmental QB on the practice squad, but they need to try to keep him there and not throw him back in the fire.
Final Record: 9-7
Green Bay Packers
Quarterback: As arrogant as he may be, Aaron Rodgers is still one of the best in the league and the main element that keeps this team in the hunt.
Pass rush: Preston and Za'Darius Smith provided an incredible spark to what had been a pretty dull pass rush with double-digit sack seasons. They'll hope to add 2019 draft pick Rashan Gary to that mix as well. Kenny Clark is their main interior force.
Off-ball linebacker: Christian Kirksey earned a contract extension with the Browns, but was released after only playing in 9 games the past 2 seasons. Now, he is probably Green Bay's best off-ball linebacker, but, if anything happens to him or Oren Burks, they're in trouble.
Tight End: They tried Jimmy Graham, and it was okay at best. His reputation helped take defenders away from other receiving threats on the offense. Mercedes Lewis has had a great career in Jacksonville, but has fallen off the past few seasons. He was likely brought in to teach a young group the right way to play the position in the pros.
In just 2 years in the NFL, Alexander has already made an impact on what was a struggling secondary. As a rookie in 2018, he earned All-Rookie honors from the Pro Football Writers' Association after leading the team in passes defended. In 2019, he started each game, defended even more passes, and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. He's come on quickly, so it's a good bet he'll continue to improve.
Biggest Question Mark
Do they have a #2 RB?
Aaron Jones broke out as a #1 RB in 2019, but I have doubts about the group behind him. Jamaal Williams is the only one to have over 100 yards in an NFL season and they're set to rely on rookies A.J. Dillon and Patrick Taylor. While I liked those guys in college, I think they'll take time to adjust to the NFL. Jamaal Williams is the only other RB on the roster to have over 100 yards in an NFL season, so they'll be in trouble if Jones goes down.
Do they have a TE who can become a consistent offensive weapon?
As I mentioned before, it's a young group and Mercedes Lewis. The team drafted Jace Sternberger in the third round in 2019, but he has yet to make an NFL catch. They also saw promise in Robert Tonyan last season and drafted Josiah Deguara this year. We'll see if they find something in that group.
Final Record: 9-7
Linebacker: Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are two of the best the league has to offer. Eric Wilson has also been good in a backup role. Rookie Troy Dye won't make an impact right away, but he had a good career at Oregon and should provide good depth.
Safety: Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris may be the best safety combo in the league. The others behind them are pretty inexperienced, but these two make it one of their strongest units.
Offensive Line: The Vikings seem to always struggle on the offensive front, despite spending much of their resources to attempt to fix it. They now have a young corps of guys to develop, but, for now at least, the group is below average.
Corner: They lost Xavier Rhodes, Mackenzie Alexander, and Trae Waynes this offseason. Most people will tell you it usually takes about 3 years for a corner to transition from college to the NFL, and Minnesota doesn't have anyone with more than 3 years of NFL service at the position.
With Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, the Vikings need a receiver to step into the #2 WR role. Out of all the options on the roster, I think the rookie is the most likely. Jefferson had a great career at LSU and has recently said that the Vikings run the same offense. That might put him ahead of the curve.
Biggest Question Mark
Who's their #2 WR?
I think Jefferson is groomed for this role, but he'll have competition form Olabisi Johnson, who surprised a bit as a rookie in 2019 and had a great training camp. Regardless, they need to figure this out quickly.
How do they replace key players in the secondary?
I originally included the departure of Everson Griffen in this question, but the team has since traded for Yannick Ngakoue, who is a younger star with more upside. They still have to address the holes left by Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Right now, their most experienced corners are 3rd-years Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. Looks like some rookie DBs will be getting trial by fire.