2013 Season Preview: NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Overview

General Manager Ted Thompson, his staff, and the Packers organization just keeps doing what they normally do. There is a clear process here (that obviously works) and they continue to follow that blueprint for success – draft talented and smart players, develop, re-sign, and continue to grow while stocking up on depth. The continuity plays in their favor as the players and the staff understand exactly what is expected of them.

As usual, there were minimal free agent signings but there were some familiar names that left via free agency or weren’t retained. While the names you might recognize – Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Tom Crabtree, Jeff Saturday, Erik Walden, Frank Zombo, Desmond Bishop, and Charles Woodson – the actual 2012 production from that collective group of players was relatively small. There isn’t much reason to think that any of those players are a significant loss as the Packers have plenty of young talent to step up in the vacated positions.

The Packers look poised to be strong again in 2013. Green Bay finished 2012 at 11-5. With Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers still leading the way, the Packers appear ready to meet that same record or even improve because of a division that houses teams who have glaring issues.

Strengths

Obviously, the Packers strengths start at coaching and starting quarterback. Rodgers is another year experienced and in the prime of his career. The receiving corps brings back many of the playmakers that led it in production last year, notably Cobb, Nelson, and James Jones. On defense, the Packers boast strong cover cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. Young phenom Casey Hayward, is good enough to be the number two cornerback, and is possibly the best cornerback on the roster. Depending on the offensive line, the output from the rookie running back duo of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin could prove to be an added element that the Packers were missing last year.

Weaknesses

Green Bay lacks any semblance of a backup quarterback. GM Ted Thompson said he had wished he brought in Vince Young sooner so he could learn the offense, and then promptly goes out and signs Seneca Wallace who is as inexperienced in the system as Young. This leads me to believe that Young may be back sooner rather than later. Left Tackle David Bakthiari should hold up fine, even as a rookie, but the offensive line is a bit of a concern should there be some injuries along the unit. OT Marshall Newhouse can play either side but isn’t someone Green Bay wants starting a ton of games. While Clay Matthews is tremendous at getting to the QB, the Packers’ LB corps as a whole isn’t anything special. The Packers will rely on two rookies to provide support on the outside while the inside linebacker position lacks speed.

Name To Know

Datone Jones – The first round pick of the Packers in the 2013 draft will provide some punch from the defensive end position. He’s a tough guy who is smart and tremendous at shedding blocks when he keeps his leverage.

Prediction

Green Bay starts out of the gate tough: at San Francisco, vs. Washington, and at Cincinnati. The bye week comes early in week 4, so this could be a long grueling end to the season when the Packers face Pittsburgh at home and in Chicago the last two weeks of the season. I think the Packers are better than the 11-5 record they posted last year but the schedule won’t let them show that. I expect the Packers to be somewhere around 10-6, even if I think they’re much better than that. If Aaron Rodgers goes down, all bets are off.

 

Chicago Bears

Overview

Not many coaches who win 10 games get fired, but that’s the story for Lovie Smith after the 2012 season. New General Manager Phil Emery sounds brilliant and thoughtful when he speaks and new Head Coach Mark Trestman provides an extensive resume that covers 30+ years of football coaching experience. Trestman will provide an interesting twist to an offense that needs to find consistency. The defense appears to be largely unchanged from a unit that was historically one of the best last season.

The hope is that Trestman will provide some juice that will ignite an offense that’s been as inconsistent as its star quarterback, Jay Cutler. GM Phil Emery has chosen not to extend many of the players going into the final year of their contracts and let them play it out. Cutler is one of those guys. How Cutler performs this year will dictate the direction that Trestman and Emery steer the Bears’ ship in the next few years.

Expect Trestman’s offense to look similar to that of what he used in 1998, when he was the QB coach and offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals and QB Jake Plummer. Much like Plummer, Jay Cutler is an athletic QB who can throw on the move. This will be a tempo based offense that pressures defenses with pocket and QB movement that will also help shrink the field for Cutler, ideally providing clearer reads and better decisions. Cutler will suffer from a below average offensive line in front of him but he doesn’t make it any easier on himself via poor feet mechanics.

Strengths

Everyone knows the Bears’ strength lies in its defense. They play with speed and ferocity. The first man to the ball delivers a hit while wrapping up the ball carrier. Every additional defender that gets to the tackle punches and rips at the ball trying to create a turnover at every opportunity. The loss of Brian Urlacher is more in name than outcome. Rookie Jon Bostic is a phenomenal athlete that needed better coaching to find his feel for the game. He looked tremendous and certainly didn’t seem overmatched intellectually on the field. The combination of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall will continue to be a lucrative one. I expect a great receiving running back such as Matt Forte to have a good season and Michael Bush is one of the better backups in the league and can handle a full workload if necessary.

Weaknesses

As I mentioned before, there are still concerns with the offensive line even after adding free agent tackle Jermon Bushrod and draft G/T Kyle Long in the first round this April. There is some age on the defense that we should be aware of as injuries may come into play. I’m also not completely comfortable with the depth at cornerback. The Bears expected Kelvin Hayden  to fill the nickel back role but after a torn hamstring, Chicago is left with hoping Isaiah Frey can fill the void. He may prove capable but any injury at all and the Bears will have to rely even more on scheme than talent to get by when teams try to spread them out.

Name To Know

DT Stephen Paea and LB Khaseem Greene – Paea had a tremendous preseason in which he graded out as a +2.9 by Pro Football Focus. He provides a pocket collapsing presence from the inside and still holds up very well against the run. Rookie LB Khaseem Greene is a ball hawk in its truest form. He’ll get caught in traffic at times but he’s very intelligent and instinctive with terrific speed to the ball. Any injuries at LB and Greene will begin seeing significant snaps.

Prediction

Typically, first year coaches come in and make a positive impact on the team’s record from the previous season. Typically, teams that go 10-6 don’t have coaches that get fired. The defensive unit had a fluke of a season last year, but it did see a lot of good luck (much of which it created on its own). There should be a slight regression from its success last season while the offense will find more consistency but less explosiveness. As everyone tries to get used to the new system, the Bears should finish about 9-7. This means that the week of the season the Bears visit to Lambeau Field will have major playoff implications.

 

Minnesota Vikings

Overview

The Minnesota Vikings were a team that I could not figure out last season. I constantly picked them to lose and every time I did, they seemed determined to prove me wrong. My misevaluation lied in underrating the Vikings’ defense. They’re a cover 2 type of defense that provided a good pass rush up front with good safety play on the back end. This is a good recipe for success on defense. We all know the story of Adrian Peterson’s near-record-breaking season. He seems to be from another planet. He’s fast, violent, agile, powerful, and possesses incredible vision. He’s the ultimate running back. Minnesota relied heavily on him in 2012 and probably would like to do less of that in 2013.

The Vikings traded away an explosive playmaker in Percy Harvin to get rid of a perennial headache. They hope to replace him by adding veteran Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings also added DT Shariff Floyd and CB Xavier Rhodes early in the draft and expect all 3 rookies to play significantly starting opening day. The loss of guard Geoff Schwartz and CB Antoine Winfield may prove to be more important than the Vikings realize.

Strengths

Minnesota has a young and promising roster. The linebacking group is deep and starting safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford are very good football players. TE Kyle Rudolph is a good player that was the only reliable receiving option on offense last year. The offensive line and running backs are a tremendous match for each other. Minnesota also has the LT position locked up for years to come with 2nd year player Matt Kalil who will be a cornerstone at the position.

Weaknesses

Quarterback. Simply put, Christian Ponder has to be better. Ponder was inconsistent at best and really bad at his worst last season. Some will attribute this to a lack of weapons outside but Ponder seemed to actually regress as the season went on. The Vikings could be slightly concerned about depth at defensive end. The Vikes could use some explosive plays at wide receiver that don’t require Ponder to have to throw the ball deep. This is where losing Percy Harvin hurts but that Cordarrelle Patterson could help add some splash plays to the offense. The problem is that Patterson was a poor route runner at the University of Tennessee who lacked concentration at times.

Name To Know

Xavier Rhodes and Joe Webb – Yes, that Joe Webb. The QB turned wide receiver may be the spark that this offense needed. He looked good in the preseason as a wideout and appears to be a natural at the position. He’s got the body and the athleticism for it and shows a good demeanor in going up after the ball. He’s currently an experiment but don’t be surprised if he evolves into the 4th, or even 3rd, wide receiver. The Vikings may also use him in some “wildcat” type of formations. Rookie CB Xavier Rhodes is currently listed as the 3rd CB but will get significant playing time in the AFC North versus offenses that like to spread it out. He could become a solid defender for the Vikings or a player that opposing offenses target if they feel he’s a liability in coverage.

Prediction

I am a firm believer in that you need a solid quarterback to succeed in today’s version of the NFL. With the Vikings, I just don’t see that on the roster. Eventually, teams will learn to scheme against Adrian Peterson and force Ponder to throw the ball deeper than 5-10 yards. Minnesota will need to use every inch of the field horizontally (smoke routes and bubble screens) to try to get spacing to keep the middle unclogged for Peterson. 10-6 last year seems like overachieving. I like the Vikings but in a brutally tough NFC, they’re probably more of an 8-8 or 7-9 team.

 

Detroit Lions

Overview

This team begins and ends with the coaching. It was an issue (personal fouls, lack of concentration penalties, and greatly visible flaws that went uncorrected all season) last season and likely will remain an issue as the entire coaching staff remains. I’m not sure if the talent isn’t taking to the coaching or the coaching was just never there. Either way, the Lions need to progress and evolve, and that starts with QB Matt Stafford.

No matter what the coaching staff says, they have to see Stafford’s atrocious mechanical flaws. Whether they believe those flaws are problematic or just part of Stafford as a QB, well, that’s on them. Stafford’s footwork, pocket tolerance, decision making, and arm slot are all major issues. I’m scared to think of what this offense would be without Calvin Johnson. Matthew Stafford is one of the most physically talented throwers in the NFL. He is able to throw the ball from platforms I never even knew existed and still get exceptional zip on the ball. He’s that guy that you play a pickup game of basketball with who jacks up a 3-pointer from 5 feet behind the line and you think, “Why’d he shoot that?!” Then it goes in and all you can say is, “Good shot.” Stafford has some Favre-esque qualities to him but that’s a hard way to make a living in the NFL. That’s why Favre was the only guy who was able to get away with it.

The addition of Reggie Bush will play a big role in the architecture of the Lions offense. His health will determine a lot of the game planning every week. On defense, the Lions added DE Israel Idonije and Jason Jones who both played well in the preseason. One of the underrated additions may be safety Glover Quin who could really help Detroit’s secondary eliminate the big play while creating some of its own. Losing defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch looked fairly detrimental until the Lions added Jones and drafted physical freak Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah is raw but possesses a ceiling that is sky high.

Strengths

The defensive line of Ansah, Jones, Ndomakong Suh, and Nick Fairley is one of the best in the league. They’re big, fast, and aggressive. The line is also deep and versatile with Willie Young and Idonije as backups.  The receivers on offense are a slightly underrated group. Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson provide solid options opposite Calvin and Reggie Bush will function as a RB/WR a lot of the time.

Weaknesses

The defensive back seven. The linebackers as a whole are inadequate. They’re a little over-aggressive versus the run and are below average in pass coverage. I’m not a fan of having to rely on rookie cornerbacks but that’s what the Lions will have to do with Darius Slay. Chris Houston is a solid option as the first corner but isn’t the lockdown type. Louis Delmas and Glover Quin are hitters but Delmas has a long injury history and can’t be counted on to be available for all 16 games. Unfortunately for the Lions, they don’t have a solid contingency plan for Delmas on the roster.

Name To Know

Larry Warford and Ryan Broyles – Warford is a rookie guard who is a mountain of a man that has surprisingly great feet for his size. He’s an ideal guard and has shown the ability to play both sides of the line. He improved tremendously as the preseason progressed. He’ll eventually end up in a starting role. Broyles is a smooth route runner who gets good separation and has good hands. He was trending up until he went down with a knee injury last season. If he’s recovered, he could end up being Stafford’s 3rd option behind Calvin and Reggie.

Prediction

The Lions have so much potential. Potential that seems destined to go to waste due to a lack of focus on the finer details and a cleaning up of repeated mistakes. Detroit has to learn to avoid the personal fouls and penalties (6th most penalty yards per game in 2012) and to not make mental errors. Stafford has elite physical talent but has shown no progression during his time in Detroit. Some would even say he has regressed. The Lions finished 4-12 last year. They’re better than that. The secondary is better and will benefit from such a tremendous defensive line. This is evened out by a LB corps that is inept at covering. The Lions will find themselves in shootouts again this year and will live and die by turnover ratio. If the Lions can find some semblance of a run game and rely less on Stafford’s (side) arm then they’ll be much better than I’m projecting. As it is, I see 6-10 that could go as high as 9 wins or as low as 3. This team’s future is as volatile as its play.

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