2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC North

Green Bay Packers

Additions: DE Julius Peppers, DT Letroy Guion.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
1          21           S          Ha Ha Clinton-Dix     Alabama
2          53       WR        Davante Adams          Fresno State
3          85        DT        Khyri Thornton          Southern Miss
3          98        TE        Richard Rodgers       California
4          121       LB        Carl Bradford             Arizona State
5          161        C          Corey Linsley              Ohio State
5          176      WR       Jared Abbrederis      Wisconsin
6          197      CB        Demetri Goodson      Baylor
7          236     WR       Jeff Janis                      Saginaw Valley State

Losses: WR James Jones, OT Marshall Newhouse, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE/DT C.J. Wilson, S M.D. Jennings.

Analysis:

The story of the Packers is that the offense keeps on getting better no matter what, and the defense can’t seem to keep pace. The defense had depth issues before DT B.J. Raji went down with an injury. Now they’re pretty much depleted in terms of depth along the defensive line. They are littered with college free agents. The current projected nose tackle is rookie Mike Pennel, a college free agent out of Colorado State-Pueblo. Not an ideal situation for a 3-4 defense that relies heavily on its nose to anchor the front. Datone Jones needs to show he was worth his 1st round draft position. He and Mike Daniels will need to pick up a lot of slack.

Inside linebackers AJ Hawk and Brad Jones will have to close the gaps quickly and should pick up a ton of tackles this year. Clay Matthews is still nearly unblockable on the outside. Opposite him is Julius Peppers, who I’m not really sure if he has anything left in the tank. If only the Packers could trade some of their depth at linebacker for a nose tackle, they’d probably be better off. That or some of their depth on offense.

The secondary is loaded with talent. CBs Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Casey Heyward are all very good players and fit well in this man coverage defense. Throw in Davon House and Jarrett Bush and there’s tremendous depth here. Micah Hyde played well last year at FS and new addition Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is going to be a terrific player.

The offense still has Aaron Rodgers which makes them potent just on premise. But throw in weapons like Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Eddie Lacy and they should strike fear in the hearts of defenses.

This is the best offensive line that Rodgers has played behind in a while. Bakhtiari was a great surprise last year at LT. LG Josh Sitton, RG TJ Lang, and RT Bryan Bulaga are veterans who compliment each other and this offense well. The only shift in the offense is C JC Tretter. The loss of Evan Dietrich-Smith shouldn’t cause any problems and I don’t think the move to Tretter is any huge downgrade. OT Derrick Sherrod and OG Lane Taylor provide the necessary depth along the line.

There are 2 issues plaguing the Packers: injuries and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Last season the Packers were the most injured team in the league. This seems to be happening a lot to them and is something the Packers are hoping to address by adopting some of Chip Kelly’s practice habits and conditioning regiments. The other part, Capers, is a problem that the Packers have shown that they’re not afraid of. Capers showed an inability to adjust to different offenses last year and seemed unable to scheme pressure when necessary. Capers is a longtime force in the NFL as a coordinator but he’s going to need to get his game up to speed or the Packers might be giving up as many points as they score far too often.

Minnesota Vikings

Additions: WR Lestar Jean, TE Allen Reisner, G Vladimir Ducasse, DE Corey Wootton, DT Linval Joseph, DT Tom Johnson, ILB Jasper Brinkley, CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Derek Cox, S Kurt Coleman.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.     Player                     College
1          9            LB          Anthony Barr                UCLA
1          32         QB         Teddy Bridgewater     Louisville
3          72         DE         Scott Crichton               Oregon State
3          96         RB         Jerick McKinnon         Georgia Southern
5          145       G            David Yankey                 Stanford
6          182       CB        Antone Exum                  Virginia Tech
6          184       CB        Kendall James                Maine
7          220       DT        Shamar Stephen           Connecticut
7          223       LB         Brandon Watts              Georgia Tech
7          225       CB        Jabari Price                     North Carolina

Losses: QB Josh Freeman, RB Toby Gerhart, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE John Carlson, DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, DT Letroy Guion, ILB Erin Henderson, ILB Desmond Bishop, CB Chris Cook, CB A.J. Jefferson.

Analysis:

The Vikings made wholesale changes to a lot of their roster and to the entire coaching staff. There are 3 big additions that need to be mentioned immediately: Mike Zimmer, Norv Turner, and Teddy Bridgewater. Zimmer is a stud of a defensive coach and his players buy into his “no bullshit” personality. Turner still has the creativity and ability to dial it up on offense and now he has Teddy Bridgewater to do it with. Heck, Turner has even made Matt Cassel look good this preseason.

Adrian Peterson still anchors this team and while Norv can sometimes lean on the pass a little too much, Peterson’s presence should keep his mind focused in the backfield. The Vikings also have one of the most underrated offensive lines in the league. Phil Loadholt is, well, a load on the right side. He consistently mows people down in the run game and it’s so much fun to watch on film. Matt Kalil is a top 5 LT in the NFL. Brandon Fusco looked phenomenal at OG last season and John Sullivan is still a very good center. The addition of Vladimir Ducasse adds some depth but the biggest help may be motivating Charlie Johnson to up his play. Also, don’t rule out David Yankey (5th round pick) and Antonio Richardson as good fill ins.

The receiving corps is quietly pretty good as well. Greg Jennings looked impressive when he had someone put the ball somewhere in his neighborhood in 2013, but he can’t help it if his QBs couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Cordarrelle Patterson is about to emerge as one of the league’s most dangerous weapons. He really started to come on late last year and he’s going to explode onto the scene this year. He’s such a versatile, athletic, nifty, and speedy player. He also has terrific size and his route running appears to have improved immensely this preseason. Teams will need to devote extra resources to stopping him. Jerome Simpson is still a decent option on the outside and in the middle of the field the Vikings will have Kyle Rudolph testing and pushing safeties. There is no shortage of weapons at the skill position for this Vikings team. A potential sleeper here is Jerrick McKinnon, the backup RB. He’s shifty and has good juice. He may be listed 3rd on the depth chart but he’s the 2nd best RB on this team.

The defense is an interesting bunch. The front line is going to be very good. The Vikes added Linval Joseph to pair with Shariff Floyd and that’s a good duo to match up. Everson Griffen is a streaky player but I like the way he played towards the end of the season. Brian Robison is ok but nothing special. I really thought the Vikes would use Anthony Barr at defensive end in place of Robison but it appears they’re more interested in dropping him into coverage as a strongside linebacker. I’m not sure whether this is just a preseason tactic or something that Zimmer plans on eliminating when the games really count.

Chad Greenway is still a very good weakside LB and Jasper Brinkley probably doesn’t get enough credit for being the rock in the middle. The most imperative issue with the Vikings front seven is a real lack of depth. Outside of the starters there is a serious drop in talent in just about every position.

The question mark for the Vikings from most fans and pundits is the cornerback and secondary play. I don’t really have those same concerns. Xavier Rhodes looks like a very good #1 option and really stepped up his play late in the season. I was surprised the Vikings cut Derek Cox but that tells me that they have faith in Captain Munnerlyn (who played much better last year than I anticpated), Jabari Price, and the rest of the depth at CB. I would normally be worried but Zimmer is phenomenal at finding CBs and helping them play above their abilities. Plus with S Harrison Smith on the back end, a lot of mistakes will get cleaned up and covered up.

The Vikings finished 5-10-1 last year. They upgraded at head coach and QB. I also feel that Zimmer will take an average defensive roster and turn it into a good one while Norv Turner is going to make a good offense better. With a weaker schedule, I’d be extremely confident in taking the over on Vegas’ win total for the Vikings at 6.

The Vikings are going to surprise some people this year.

Chicago Bears

Additions: WR Domenik Hixon, WR Josh Morgan, C Brian De La Puente, DE Jared Allen, DE Lamarr Houston, DE Willie Young, DE Trevor Scott, OLB Jordan Senn, S Adrian Wilson, S M.D. Jennings, S Ryan Mundy, S Danny McCray.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                  College
1          14          CB         Kyle Fuller                  Virginia Tech
2          51          DT        Ego Ferguson             LSU
3          82         DT        Will Sutton                  Arizona State
4          117        RB        Ka’Deem Carey          Arizona
4          131        S           Brock Vereen              Minnesota
6          183       QB        David Fales                  San Jose State
6          191        P           Pat O’Donnell              Miami
7          246       OT       Charles Leno, Jr.        Boise State

Losses: QB Josh McCown, RB Michael Bush, WR Earl Bennett, DE Julius Peppers, DE Corey Wootton, DT Henry Melton, OLB James Anderson, CB Zackary Bowman, S Major Wright, P Adam Podlesh, KR Devin Hester.

Analysis:

The Bears’ defense was supposed to be getting younger. Instead they add Jared Allen and DJ Williams, both 32 years old, to the starting defense. Lamarr Houston is young but nearly all of the starters on this defense are 30-plus years old. Lance Briggs isn’t getting any younger, and neither are Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. The Bears like the experience they have on the defensive side of the ball but this is a group that is going to face some of the most athletic offenses in their own division.

One guy on defense to watch out for is new addition DE Willie Young who comes over from Detroit. Young racked up more QB hurries in the Motor City than any of these Bears defenders did in 2013. Young is a starter-quality pass rusher and that is something this Bears team will have to manufacturer to keep scores in check.

The offense is still potent with weapons like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, and now potentially Santonio Holmes. The offensive line played much better last season than just about anyone anticipated but there are still question marks about it. LT Jermon Bushrod was good enough at LT, which is far better than what the Bears had in previous years. Matt Slauson was the highlight and C Roberto Garza played decent as well. There are still question marks and it’s not a given that the line will get better this year, but it should.

This is a team that I don’t have as high as most. The Bears offense is potent but I don’t think the defense is as good as it’s expected to be. Injuries decimated the front line last year and so they ushered out those players and added guys that might not prove to be much better than those replacements. Jared Allen and Jay Ratliff can change the whole complexion if they’re healthy and dominant. They can make this defense top 10 or bottom 10. If dominant, they open up a lot of opportunities for everyone else. If he’s not, this is an average defense at best.

Detroit Lions

Additions: QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Jed Collins, WR Golden Tate, DE Darryl Tapp, DT Vaughn Martin, CB Cassius Vaughn, S James Ihedigbo.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd  Pick# Pos.  Player                   College
1           10          TE       Eric Ebron                   North Carolina
2          40          LB       Kyle Van Noy             BYU
3          76           C          Travis Swanson        Arkansas
4          133        CB       Nevin Lawson            Utah State
4          136       DE        Larry Webster III     Bloomsburg
5          158        DT        Caraun Reid                Princeton
6          189       WR       T. J. Jones                   Notre Dame
7          229       K           Nate Freese                 Boston College

Losses: QB Shaun Hill, WR Nate Burleson, OT Jason Fox, G Leroy Harris, DE Willie Young, DE Israel Idonije, CB Chris Houston, S Louis Delmas.

Analysis:

If the Lions aren’t very good, what will Matt Stafford’s excuse be this year? He’s running out of chances to prove that his terrific 2011 season was the rule and not the exception. He’s been an alright QB, but being drafted number one overall comes with elevated expectations and playing “okay” doesn’t cut it.

Stafford is armed with plenty of weapons in Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Golden Tate, Joique Bell, and I still like Ryan Broyles as a 3rd receiver. Add in Joseph Fauria, Brandon Pettigrew, and rookie Eric Ebron. Ebron is the most talented overall player of the bunch but Caldwell may slowly ween him into the lineup as he grows into the position.

The offensive line played well last year, led by RG Larry Warford and C Dominic Raiola. Warford was one of the best OGs in the NFL last year even as a rookie. LT Reilly Reiff was surprisingly good and needs to continue that trend this year or else Detroit fans will be using him as the excuse for Stafford. RT LaAdrian Waddle was pretty bad last year and might be in danger of losing his job this season.

The defense starts up front with Ndamukong Suh, Ziggy Ansah, and Jason Jones. Nick Fairley is listed as 2nd on the depth chart but he’s too talented of a player to remain there. The LB corps was a lot better than anticipated last season and was one of the stronger parts of the defense. It’s unfortunate that rookie LB Kyle Van Noy is starting the season on IR as he would be a good compliment alongside DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.

Rashean Mathis was the best CB for the Lions last year as Darius Slay continues to try to grow into a capable CB in the NFL. Glover Quin is one of the most underrated safeties in the league and he seems to only keep getting better. Quin is a converted CB and seems to learn something knew every year. He’s a great defender in the pass game and is still learning when to diagnose and come into the box to fill a gap and make a stop in the run game. James Ihedigbo is an upgrade at the other safety spot for the Lions and provides a solid presence in the box from the secondary. The real concern here is depth beyond the starting 4 DBs. Cassius Vaughn and Bill Bentley are going to be exposed for better or worse against teams like Chicago and Green Bay that will spread them out with a large amount of WRs on the field at the same time.

The Lions are really talented on both sides of the ball. The issue is that they aren’t really deep at any single position. It’s also hard to predict how the scheme is going to look offensively and defensively. Caldwell ran the Peyton Manning offense in Indy – meaning he didn’t really run the offense at all. Caldwell’s best games in Baltimore came when he ran an abbreviated version of his system after Cam Cameron was fired and he took over as the OC. Then last season the Ravens offense looked stunted. On the defensive side of the ball, Caldwell subscribes to the Tampa 2 defense but new DC Teryl Austin comes from a long line of defenses (SEA, ARI, BAL) that are anything but Cover 2.

Detroit could be a really good team if Caldwell can get this team to jell together and get the light to click on for Matthew Stafford. This is the same thing that Jim Schwartz couldn’t do in 4 years at the helm.

Overall NFC North Outlook

Green Bay Packers (11-5)

This offense is going to put teams away all by itself. The defense is good enough but thin. Have to stay healthy.

Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

One of the better teams that no one is talking about. Reminds me of the Chiefs last season. Upgraded at the head coach and QB position, and also got a genius at OC. The roster is more talented than people give credit and Zimmer will cover up some holes in the defense. They’ll push for the playoffs.

Chicago Bears (8-8)

Good offense. Aging defense. More of an uphill climb than most seem to want to believe.

Detroit Lions (6-10)

Wild card of the group. Talented team that could win 4 games because of shoddy QB play or injuries, or could put it all together and win 10 games. I lean towards the former.

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