With training camp underway in the NFL, we’re breaking down the league’s outlook division by division. With the AFC out of the way (links follow), we set our sights on the NFC North, where the Vikings are a trendy Super Bowl pick and the Lions are hoping to actually win a game. Don’t miss the AFC North, AFC West, AFC East, and AFC South previews too.
– Detroit Lions by Brian Spencer
– Minnesota Vikings by Andrew Thell
– Chicago Bears by Dave Wright
– Green Bay Packers by Darren Yuvan
1 – Minnesota Vikings
Despite the shaky quarterback play of Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte last season, the Minnesota Vikings went a respectable 10-6, winning the NFC North. Their defense was elite, ranking near the top in most metrics and finishing as the NFL’s stoutest rushing D in the NFL for the third consecutive season despite losing starting MLB EJ Henderson in Week 4.
On offense, second-year stud Adrian “All Day” Peterson led the NFL in rushing yards with 1,760, while Chester Taylor once again proved himself one of the league’s most valuable and reliable backup running backs. High-profile, and costly, free-agent acquisitions Bernard Berrian and Jared Allen earned their paychecks: deep threat Berrian led the league in yards per reception (20.1) while notching 7 TDs, and Allen provided a much-needed pass rush, finishing 5th in the league in sacks (14.5) despite battling injuries much of the year.
Given just those facts, it’s somewhat shocking that the Vikings didn’t win more games and that Minnesota was embarrassingly trounced in the first round of the playoffs by the wild card Philadelphia Eagles. It’s no secret among football fans that blame for the underwhelming final results can be squarely placed on quarterback play. In that deciding playoff game, Tarvaris Jackson was befuddled and bullied by the aggressive blitzing schemes of Philly’s late, great defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Mr. Jackson performed, but his final line in that game tells some of the story: 15-35 (42.9%) for 164 yards, 0 TDs and 1 INT with a 45.4 QB Rating despite the Iggles stacking the box against Adrian Peterson all day. Long touted as the future of the franchise, and longtime Brad Childress pet project, it was clear the Vikings needed significant improvement in the passing game to become the legit Super Bowl contenders the rest of their roster says they should be.
The Vikings might just have that significant improvement, and it has nothing to do with the whims of a certain No. 4.
Minnesota unsurprisingly addressed the QB position quickly in the offseason, trading a 2009 fourth-round pick to the Houston Texans for longtime backup gunslinger Sage Rosenfels in February. Rosenfels is probably best known for the infamous fourth-quarter fumble he committed against Indianapolis back in October last season that cost Houston the game. And make no mistake about it, in his career Sage has had trouble taking care of the football. The nine-year vet boasts an unimpressive 30/29 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his career. But also make no mistake about this: Sage Rosenfels is an upgrade over the bumbling Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels can move the football.
Filling in for Matt Schaub in 15 games over the last two seasons Rosenfels boasts a stellar 65.2% completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt. Similar numbers this year, which wouldn’t be shocking given the benefit of full-time starter status, would put him in the top 5-10 in the NFL in both categories (where he also figures to be in INTs).
The other two major upgrades to Minnesota’s offense came via the draft. First-round pick Percy Harvin has the look of an elite playmaker, a top-10 talent who slipped all the way to 22nd on draft day due to character and marijuana-related concerns. He’s got scary quicks and is an early candidate for NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Just a few days into camp, Minnesota is already working him into kickoff and punt return duties, using him on reverses and lining him up in Wildcat formations, in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.
Meanwhile, the Vikings drafted a behemoth of a right tackle in 6-8, 343-pound Phil Loadholt in the second round. Paired with Bryant McKinnie, Loadholdt gives the Vikes two of the NFL’s seven largest tackles. He replaces the woeful Ryan Cook on the offensive line and by virtue of his sheer size and athleticism will make an already stellar offensive line elite.
On defense, the one major concern is the possible suspension of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the Williams Wall which has paced Minnesota’s NFL-best rushing defense. The proceedings remain ongoing with the pair facing a possible four-game suspension. That would be a major blow, but not the type of event that would derail a promising season. The defense should also be bolstered by talented rookie nickel back Asher Allen and the healthy return of starting MLB, former Butkus Award winner and tackling machine EJ Henderson. By all accounts, Henderson has been one of the most impressive Vikings in camp.
Breaking down the rest of the NFC North after the break…
2 – Chicago Bears
The ’08 campaign ended with the Bears handing the division away by losing to the Texans in Week 17. The Chicago faithful seem to think it has been one of the most productive Bears’ offseasons in quite some time, but the question remains: will it transfer onto the playing field for the 2009 squad?
The team’s primary needs were on offense, and many have been addressed. First, the Bears thrust themselves into the spotlight by winning the coveted Jay Cutler sweepstakes. The last memorable Bears quarterback was 20+ years ago when Jim McMahon led them to an ’85 Super Bowl victory, and since then they’ve been mired in a QB sludge. What Cutler brings is a 25-year-old, Pro-Bowl cannon of an arm and the hope of stability at the position for the foreseeable future.
But even a QB as talented as Cutler would have looked questionable behind last year’s offensive line. The Bears addressed this by bringing in future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace, as well as tackles Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer.
This significantly improves the line that will be clearing the way for last year’s second-round breakout Matt Forte, who totaled over 1,700 yards from scrimmage last year while also leading the Bears in receptions with 63—all this without the presence of a solid number-two back behind him. That will change this year as well, as former first-round draft pick Kevin Jones is said to be at 100% and ready for a substantial increase in his workload.
The biggest question mark for the Bears this year is the greenhorn receiving corp. Cornerback/ return specialist Devin Hester, who made the jump to wideout just last year, figures to top the depth chart with second year player Earl Bennett opposite him. Bennett failed to tally a catch last year, but a lot of that has to do with the team wanting him to learn all three receiver positions before playing him. He was Cutler’s top target at Vanderbilt, and the Bears are optimistic the relationship will help the development of both players. Fighting it out for the third spot will be veteran Rashied Davis, third-year players Brandon Rideau and Devin Aromashodu, and rookies Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox, and Derek Kinder.
The uncertainty at receiver does set the table for tight end Greg Olsen to have a breakout year. His combination of size, speed and athleticism should put him at the top of Cutler’s target list.
The Bears solid defensive core remains together, but continues to age. Brian Urlacher, steadfast, anchors the defense and stays a top-five linebacker as he enters his tenth season.
The linebacker position isn’t a concern, though, as the secondary ranked 29th in passing yards against last season. This was a two-fold problem with injuries to the secondary as well as the defensive line. Tommie Harris, the former Pro-Bowl defensive tackle, is said to be at full speed as he enters what could be a make-or-break season in his career. They also tended their d-line needs in the draft by selecting athletic freak Jarron Gilbert with their first pick in the third round and defensive end Henry Melton in the fourth. The Bears believe with more pressure on the quarterback, playmakers Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman are set to anchor the secondary that just two seasons ago was in the top-third of the league.
If these new pieces can click for the Bears, they should be extremely competitive in what looks to be the weakest division in the NFC. The oldest rivalry in football should again rear its head in a war for a wild-card spot.
3 – Green Bay Packers
The Packers look to rebound after a disappointing start to the post-Favre era in which their season was derailed by poor play on both the offensive and defensive lines. They should be much improved, but this is still a team in transition.
Green Bay’s slide last season towards the bottom of the NFL was hardly the fault of QB Aaron Rogers, however. Rogers completed 63 percent of his passes for over 4,000 yards, 28 TDs, 13 interceptions, and a 93.8 QB rating: a much better season than the future Hall of Fame QB he replaced had in New York. Expect Rogers’ ascent into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks to continue, as he should have another fine season.
Rogers has a slew of competent weapons at his disposal, with the crafty veteran Donald Driver and the lightening fast youngster Greg Jennings both coming off 1,000-yard seasons. Tight end Donald Lee provides a competent dump-off option and with running back Ryan Grant coming off a successful 1200-yard season, the Pack has no lack of offensive firepower.
There are serious questions on the offensive line, however, and that could once again cause problems for Green Bay. There’s plenty of camp competition going on, and that’s never a bad thing, but any wholesale changes will most likely leave the line needing some time to gel. Veteran tackle Mark Tauscher is no longer with the team, and he is being replaced by youngster Allen Babre, who has only 15 NFL games under his belt, none as a starter. The starting center postion is also up for grabs and possibly even both guard positions. The Pack could see anywhere from two to four new starters on their line, and this could be the weakest unit on the team.
On the defensive side, the Packers are moving from a 4 – 3 to a 3 – 4, with long-time defensive end and sack leader Aaron Kampman moving to outside linebacker for the first time in his career. While Kampman is obviously talented enough to make the switch, there may be an adjustment period.
The Packers ranked 26th in the NFL against the run last year, and drafted star defensive lineman BJ Raji in the first round to plug up opponents’ rushing lanes, but he won’t help unless the Packers can get him signed and in camp; he’s currently holding out. The Packers did manage sign their other first rounder, linebacker Clay Matthews, and he should step in immediately as a starter.
The secondary remains the team’s defensive strength, with Pro Bowler Nick Collins back at safety and Charles Woodson and a finally healthy Al Harris returning at corner. But both Woodson and Harris are in their mid – 30s and may have lost step. If the injury bug hits or age finally catches up to either one, Tramon Williams can step in—he picked off five passes last year in Harris’ absence.
4 – Detroit Lions
When you’re a Lions fan—a long-suffering group comprised of delusional believers and cornbread eaters, and one which I was born into and remain faithful to to this day—you have no choice but to develop a sense of measured perspective when it comes to evaluating your lovable band of losers. To find something, anything positive to cling to when all you see on the field is a middling circus act staffed by third-tier clowns and broken-down mules.
To that end, my Lions brethren, I remind you that for one season, at least, we actually don’t have to wait for it to get any worse. This franchise has finally, painfully, and appropriately fallen as far as a professional sports team can fall. There’s literally nowhere to go but up.
Last season’s historic 0-16 effort was the crowning farewell jewel on Matt “Dunderhead” Millen’s reign of terror in Motown, an era which I’ve already outlined in greater detail here and here. There has been little to nothing to cheer about for a long, long time now. It sometimes feels like the last big win the Lions enjoyed was stealing the now-infamous overtime coin toss from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving Day, 1998, which helped lead them to an ugly 19-16 upset victory. That was 11 fucking years ago.
My dad and I (and I’m sure we’re not the only ones) have a running joke about the Lions’ proven track record of topping utter ineptness with something ten times more mind-boggling, infuriating, and ultimately laughable the next Sunday. More often than not, they do. In all the years I’ve spent watching NFL football, this franchise has written the book on “Absurd Ways to Lose a Professional Football Game.” It’s unbelievable how badly the Detroit Lions have been run, and played, for so long.
One thing they do excel at, however, is whipping up mean batches of cornbread—and there were more bakers in the kitchen this offseason than usual. Matt Millen has been replaced with Martin Mayhew in the front office. Head coach Rod “Pound the Rock” Marinelli is out, former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is in. A fresh batch of highly touted draft picks, led by first-overall pick Matthew Stafford, have come to town with enthusiasm, high hopes, and positive early reports out of training camp. Last year’s underperforming draft picks–especially on the defensive line–are showing signs of “getting it.” They franchise has turned a corner!
Mmhmm. We’ve seen it before. And we’ve seen how well it’s gone. Many times. Sigh.
As a hopeless believer in the Lions, though, I’m having trouble turning down a piece of that sweet, piping hot, perfectly baked cornbread.
Calvin Johnson might be the best all-around receiver in the league. Starting RB Kevin Smith goes into his sophomore season with a playoff-berth prediction stamped on his pads. With Pro Bowl-caliber vets Julian Peterson and Adam Foote joining The Human Missile, Ernie Sims, as the team’s starting linebackers, a formerly woeful unit has seemingly transformed into an area of strength. First-round picks Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew, as well as early second-round pick Louis Delmas, were all the highest-rated prospects in April’s entry draft at their respective positions. Delmas will step right in as one of the starting safeties, Pettigrew should start at tight end, and if Stafford doesn’t start immediately, he will be soon.
They will be better. Whether that’s 5-11 better (not unlikely) or 8-8 better (possible) remains to be seen; by my count, there are at least seven winnable games on the 2009 schedule. Whatever happens, I’m fairly certain they’re headed in the right direction, though, and that much better things are on the not-too-distant horizon.
Yep… this year’s batch of cornbread tastes mighty fine indeed.