TGS 2016 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC NORTH
Following is our preview of the NFC North, courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl. Teams are presented in order of predicted finish, including last year's straight-up record and playoffs results (if applicable)...
by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor
GREEN BAY (10-6 LY; lost at Arizona in Divisional Round)...Green Bay slipped a notch last season, losing at Lambeau in the season finale to the hated Vikings in the final regular-season game. That loss will sting, especially for a proud Packer team that had won four straight crowns in the NFC’s fabled “Black and Blue Division.” The Green Bay brain trust rightly regards the still-improving Vikes as a worthy challenger to the Pack’s recent domination.
Every NFL team is going to endure some injury trials during the brutal, 16-game NFL regular season. Quality depth is valuable, and valid excuses few. But you have to forgive the Pack for believing that their season was affected more by injuries than other teams by following the loss of top target Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL in the second preseason game. The remarkable Nelson had missed only four games in his previous five seasons. And his uncanny ability to escape deep (1519 yards and 13 TDC in 2014) made him an invaluable top target for Aaron Rodgers.
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The absence of Nelson allowed foes to tighten the clamps on other G.B. receivers, forcing the careful and accurate Rodgers (65.1% career; 257 TDs vs. only 65 ints.!) to hold the ball for an extra tick much too often. Underachieving TE Andrew Quarless was also injured early, and young backup TE Richard Rodgers (58 recs. LY, but only 8.8 ypr) will never be the intermediate seem threat of the Jermichael Finley type.
Worse yet, power RB Eddie Lacy, enjoying the good life in cheese country, allowed himself to balloon up to the 260 range, losing quickness and endurance, and being benched at times while gaining only 758 YR in 2015 compared with the 1100+ of his first two seasons. The Pack had to struggle more frequently for wins after starting 6-0 SU (5-1 vs. the spread). G.B. finished a lowly 23rd in total offense and 15th in scoring, even with McCarthy re-assuming playcalling duties in Game 13. Rodgers’ yards per pass attempt fell to only 6.7, the lowest of his starting career.
Heading into 2016, there is renewed hope for the Pack attack, even with Nelson still not quite 100% in the middle of camp. The star wideout doesn’t seem to be overly concerned. Meanwhile, McCarthy apparently has gotten his message through to his expanding RB, as Lacy found himself under the tutelage of P90X conditioning founder Tony Horton, who was still on the case of the slimmed-down Lacy in early August. At TE, savvy Pack GM Ted Thompson—who much prefers to build from within—signed 6-5 veteran free-agent Jared Cook from the Rams. Cook had 142 recs. and 8 TDs the L3Ys in the poor-passing St. Louis offense. The G.B. OL, very reliable when healthy, added promising young tackles Jason Spriggs (2nd round, Indiana) and Kyle Murphy (6th round, Stanford) in the draft. If Jordy Nelson is okay, the Pack should produce a top-five offense once again.
The defense took some hits in the offseason, with DT B.J. Raji taking at least a one-year “hiatus” from football. The deep G.B. secondary lost CB Casey Hayward to a bigger paycheck in San Diego, and OLB/DE Mike Neal to one in New Orleans.
But GM Thompson, who “hit” with No. 1 pick Ha Ha Clinton Dix at safety in 2014 and with No. 1 pick Damarious Randall at CB in 2015, appears to have done so again TY. Packer insiders say DT Kenny Clark of UCLA (No. 1 2016) is plenty rugged 6-3, 314, but a much better pass rusher than expected. And No. 4 pick—hard-nosed LB Blake Martinez from Stanford—has stepped in immediately at ILB. If Martinez continues to progress, he should allow Clay Matthews to shift back to his preferred OLB/DE pass-rushing spot. Better run-stopping inside and better pass pressure up front would allow Dom Capers to attack opponents with greater impunity, considering his veteran Sam Shields, Damarious Randall, Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix base secondary.
Due partly to the careful Rodgers, the Pack was +5 in turnovers LY. But a healthier attack, combined with a tougher front seven, should boost that margin.
Summary...A healthy Jordy Nelson, a quicker Eddie Lacy, a more effective TE in Jared Cook (coming off foot surgery), and immediate contributions at ILB from rookie at Blake Martinez would address all of Green Bay’s primary 2015 issues. Of course, that’s asking a lot. But the veteran Rodgers (who’s given up dairy products in his diet!) still rates an edge over young Teddy Bridgewater of the Vikings. And a revenge victory byt the Pack in Game Two in Minneapolis could very well have Minny chasing all year. G.B. OLBs Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (at this writing) still have to duke it out with the Commish regarding the Al-Jazeera America PED allegations. Still, a slight nod to the Pack, by a narrow margin, over the Purple People Eaters, with both making the postseason.
If you’re fortunate enough to get into Lambeau for a game, check out the stadium’s new concession stand featuring an all bacon-item menu!
MINNESOTA (11-5 LY; lost vs. Seattle in the Wildcard Round)...After winning the NFC North for the first time since 2009 (then under HC Brad Childress, QBed by Brett Favre!), the Vikings now get to find out what it’s like to have the target on their backs. Last January’s 20-13 upset at Lambeau in Game 16 gave the Vikes the division title in their second season under Mike Zimmer. And it was Zimmer’s first full season benefiting from the freakish athletic skills of RB Adrian Peterson in the backfield after the Texas native was sidelined for 15 games in 2014 following his curious child-beating episode.
Peterson smashed for 1485 yards (tops in the league) and 11 TDs in his return, his ninth season. But “All Day” is now 31, so it is not so simple to presume he will be quite so dominant, even though Peterson might benefit—in retrospect—from his time off in 2014, saving nearly a full season of NFL battering.
Cue third-year QB Teddy Bridgewater, who now has 28 regular-season starts under his belt, and who is showing increasing mastery of the balanced, complex, proven offense of coordinator and “QB whisperer” Norv Turner. Bridgewater might have smallish hands and a mediocre arm. But he has a big heart, good leadership skills, and improved decision making. OL injuries contributed to his mediocre QB 2015 numbers of 3231 YP, 65.3%, 14 TDs, and 9 interceptions. The on-going problems in the pits also were a factor in his 44 sacks.
Improving the OL was a Zimmer priority in the offseason, as the Vikes added 6-8, 310 G Alex Boone from S.F. and 6-4, “325" RT Andre Smith from Cincy. No. 4 pick OT Willie Beavers of Western Mich might push for a backup job. But the team had to absorb a disappointment when giant 6-8, 345 RT Phil Loadholt decided in late July not attempt a return from last year’s Achilles tear, retiring instead. So depth became a concern once again. LT Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the league in 2012 has been a disappointment in relation to his draft position and contract.
Another issue is at WR, where Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell should help. Stefon Diggs (52 recs. LY as a rookie) turned out to be a bargain as 5th-round pick. But Charles Johnson (31 recs. in 2014, only 9 LY) dropped off, and even don’t ask about former top pick Cordarrelle Patterson (2 recs. LY), who now sticks mainly to returns. TE is a different deal, where Kyle Rudolph (49 recs., 5 TDs) is among the best in the league.
Zimmer, a longtime def. coord, is most proud of his defense (5th LY at 18.8 ppg), one of the most stubborn and physical in the league. The unit is at its best when powerful and penetrating DTs Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd are both healthy. No. 2 pick of 2015 Eric Kendricks immediately started in the middle, joining OLBs Chad Greenway and Aaron Barr to give the Vikes one of the league’s top crews. Safety Harrison Smith is among the best overall in the NFL, while Zimmer’s tutelage has fourth-year CB Xavier Rhodes on the way to similar status.
Kicker Blair Walsh (121 of 141 careerFGs) suffered a devastating blow in the playoffs, hooking a 27-yarder LY in the Wildcard Round, resulting in a 10-9 loss to Seattle. But that game was outdoors in frigid January, at the University of Minnesota. Walsh, especially, should enjoy the move to the Vikes’ new U.S. Bank Stadium, complete with its fixed and translucent roof!
Summary...Minnesota rates the edge over Green Bay on defense, thanks to Zimmer’s pounding, physical platoon. But Viking WRs last year contributed only six TD passes, a startlingly-low total in today’s NFL. So it’s slight edge in the North to G.B., due to Rodgers and the Pack passing game. Still, look for Peterson & Co. in the playoffs.
But please note Minny’s 14-3 overall pointspread record LY, including 6-1 as a dog!
DETROIT (7-9 LY)...If you look at it in Olympic terms, Detroit won the bronze medal in the NFC North last season! Hey! Congratulations! Too bad there are only four teams and that the Lions have now have gone 22 years without capturing a division crown! That was back when Wayne Fontes was at the helm and when Barry Sanders was making opposing tacklers look stupid.
Now that Calvin Johnson—the team’s most dominating player since Sanders—has retired, it looks as if the Lions will again be in a battle for the bronze in the “Black and Blue Division.” Still, in this tough division with two very strong teams, there is reason for some hope in the Motor City.
That’s because of young offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (only 32). The Lions started 2015 with a 1-6 record, reaching the 20-point mark in scoring only twice under beginning-of-the-season off. coord. Joe Lombardi. But Lombardi was jettisoned after the team’s slow start, and Cooter elevated from QB coach. His first game was a 45-10 disaster vs. the Chiefs in London. But then a 6-2 finish to the season followed, raising the hopes of the long-suffering Lion nation once again. One of those losses came on that miraculous Hail Mary launch by Aaron Rodgers in December.
Now, Cooter has had a full offseason to install/refine his attack, which is designed to be uptempo, quick-hitting, and QB friendly. It better be, as big-time QB Matthew Stafford (now 28) is in his prime and took quite a beating LY, even with the presence of the 6-5 “Megatron” as a target of first and last resort. Stafford was sacked 44 times, but still managed to throw for 4262 yards, with 32 TDs and 13 interceptions. Detroit, with all of the region’s many problems, does not want to see the best years of Stafford end up being as useless as the Flint, MI water system.
With solid Green Bay and rapidly-arriving Minnesota ahead of them, the task of the Lions won’t be easy. But they are speedy in the backfield with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick. And they’re surprisingly deep at WR, even following the exit of Johnson (83 career TDC). Physical, reliable Anquan Boldin was signed from S.F. to help replace Megatron. But the keys to the Cooter attack will be the speed at RB and wideout, where Golden Tate has proven to be a bargain signing from Seattle, with 99 and 90 catches the L2Ys. This year’s offseason landed 6-2 free agent Marvin Jones from Cincinnati. TE Eric Ebron (47 recs. in 14 games LY), is a major threat down the seams if he can only stay healthy. The OL has been under construction, but 6-7, 310 LT Taylor Decker of Ohio State was taken in the first round in spring to go with 2015 first rounder G Laken Tomlinson and 2012 first-round RT Riley Reiff. Taht’s three No. 1s up front.
On defense, HC Jim Caldwell has established a solid base, with good leadership from the likes of DT Haloti Ngata, LB DeAndre Levy, S Glover Quin, and CB Darius Slay. DE Ziggy Ansah (14½ sacks LY) ranks as one of the best paa rushers in the league. But the stop unit needs more out of 2014 second-round OLB Kyle Van Noy (only one career sack), and it must produce more than LY’s small total of nine interceptions. Rookie No. 2 pick DT A’Shawn Robinson of Alabama should join the rotation up front. However, the Lions can’t seem to keep from losing one or two key defenders to injury each of the last few years.
Summary...The men in Honolulu Blue will continue to be a tough team to beat. Off. coord. Cooter appears to have the offense clicking. And the Lion defense can get after rival QBs. But Detroit’s chances of overtaking either the Pack or the Vikes are small unless the Lions improve their running game (32nd and last in 2015) and their defense vs. the run (19th). That’s basic football stuff. It’s very likely to be Year 23 of the division drought in Detroit.
CHICAGO (6-10)...Second-year coach John Fox is quick to point out that the Bears were one of the older teams in the league when he took over in January of 2015. Ever since, the plan of the front office and coaching staff has been to make the team younger and faster. The process has not been pretty. Five losses in the last seven games. Then an offseason that saw proven—but aging—stars allowed to hit the free-agent trail. Say good-by to stalwart RB Matt Forte (now Jets) and TE Marcellus Bennett (Pats). Also, G Matt Slauson (S.D.). G Vladimir Ducasse (Ravens). DE Jarvis Jenkins (Redskins). Same for the likes of underachievers such as DE Shea McClellin (Pats) and OT Jermon Bushrod (Dolphins).
Younger and faster has been the goal, plus the addition of players who better fit in the systems preferred by Fox, namely, a power, ball-control running on offense. And some intense, hard-hitting, conscientious defense from coordinator Vic Fangio, like the units Fangio developed for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco.
But Fox, now in his 15th season as an NFL head coach, admits there are going to be growing pains during the transition. Some of them showed last year. There will be more TY. The OL is not only far from a finished pocket, it has already lost C Hroniss Grasu—a talented young leader—with a torn ACL in camp. RG Kyle Long appears to be a fixture. And former seventh-rounder Charles Leno (third year, Boise) has a chance to solve the situation at LT. But 2016 second-rounder Cody Whitehair of K-State has been making only slow progress at RG. With the early loss of Grossu, depth is already an issue.
In the backfield, second-year RB Jeremy Langford (537 YR as a rookie) has shown lots of promise replacing Forte, but Langford mushed for only 3.6 ypc LY. QB Jay Cutler (64.4%, 21 TDs, 11 ints.) had one of his steadier years despite persistent Chicago receiver injuries. But last year’s Cutler-helpful off. coord. Adam Gase has moved on to become the HC at Miami. And we have all seen what can happen to Chicago’s offense (i.e., sacks and ints.) when Cutler becomes frustrated and moody.
Fox has brought in his former Bronco tackling machine Danny Trevathan to be the veteran fulcrum of his defense. But it will take some time for Fangio to “coach up” the team’s younger defenders and to get them in the right positions. 6-6 first-round OLB Leonard Floyd of Georgia will eventually be a prized piece. Kyle Fuller began to settle down LY at CB. This year’s draft also landed Florida DE Jonathan Bullard, West Virginia LB Nick Kwiatkowski, and Miami safety Deon Bush. They, and others, will get lots of on-the-job training this season.
Summary...The Bears’ last winning record was 10-6, posted in 2012 under Lovie Smith (who was then fired). If Fox can coax this rebuilding team to a winning record this season, he deserves a raise and contract extension.
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