Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The NFC North

It's a quarterback's league, but Adrian Peterson carried Minnesota to the playoffs in 2012.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Like the NFC East, the NFC North is an evenly-matched division. All four teams have made the playoffs at least once in the last three years, including the Vikings doing it with two different quarterbacks. Unlike the NFC East, however, there seems to be a consensus choice to win the division - you won't see too many predictions that don't have Green Bay on the top line.

The last three teams, however, could finish in just about any order without much surprise. The Lions finished just 4-12 last year, but were 10-6 in 2011 and shored up their anemic running game with the signing of Reggie Bush, coming off two underrated seasons in Miami (averaged 1036 yards per season on 4.7 yards per attempt). They also bolstered their pass rush, drafting Ezekiel Ansah and his seemingly limitless potential with the fifth overall pick.

Minnesota is an interesting case - they reached the playoffs last season on the strength of a historic season from Adrian Peterson, despite finishing 31st in the league in passing yards. They lost all-world receiver and return man Percy Harvin, but replaced him with Greg Jennings, who should fit into their play-action offense better than Harvin did. The only thing that projects to hold them back is the inevitability that Peterson won't put together another season of 2000+ yards.

Closing out the division (although not necessarily finishing at the bottom) is Chicago, who basically returns their entire team from last season with one notable exception - middle linebacker Brian Urlacher retired, and he'll be replaced by longtime Bronco D.J. Williams. Like Ray Lewis, Urlacher's reputation exceeded his actual performance, and it's unlikely that Williams will produce at a level much different from Urlacher's.

Storyline(s) To Watch:

Can Green Bay and Detroit Run The Ball?

Developing a strong running game presents a different upside for each team - if Green Bay can consistently generate positive yards with their new-look running game, now featuring rookies Eddie Lacy from Alabama and Jonathan Franklin from UCLA, they become the best offense in the NFC and perhaps even a prohibitive favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. If Detroit can run the ball, their offense adds much-needed diversity and they put themselves on the short list to grab one of the two Wild Card spots.

With the passing revolution that is obviously taking place in the NFL, people often lose sight of how effective a strong running game can be. In fact, four of the six playoff teams in the NFC finished with higher ranked rushing offenses than passing offenses (San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, and Minnesota). Furthermore, in terms of total yards, just five of the top 10 passing offenses (New England, Denver, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Green Bay) reached the playoffs last season (New Orleans, Detroit, Dallas - the top three - Oakland and Tampa Bay missed out), compared to six of the top 10 rushing offenses (Washington, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco - the top four - New England and Houston).

This is not to say that the NFL is suddenly returning to 1940s tactics where three yards and cloud of dust is considered a success - the passing game is still king in the NFL. But running the ball is still a vital piece of an offense, if only as a release valve to punish teams for playing two deep safeties. If Green Bay and Detroit can climb from the 20th- and 23rd-ranked rushing offenses to, say, the 14th- and 17th-ranked rushing offenses, expect both to be in the postseason.


Can Chicago and Minnesota Throw the Ball

Basically, all that stuff Jeremy said, only the opposite. We'll get into this more with our players to watch...


Player(s) To Watch:

Christian Ponder

Ponder had a pretty easy job last season.

Hand the ball to Adrian Peterson 25 times, throw deep in playaction once or twice a quarter, and try your damnedest not to turn the ball over. That was the entirety of his existence. And when a team gains 5.4 yards per carry, it's not a bad strategy.

This year, however, Ponder may have more responsibility on his shoulders. For one, the likelihood of Peterson averaging 6.0 yards per carry on almost 350 carries for a second consecutive season is effectively zero. Peterson is good, but not that good. Look at the top 10 rushing seasons in NFL history (excluding Peterson's), and check out the sharp decline the following year:

Eric Dickerson: 2105 yards in 1984 (5.6 ypc); 1234 yards in 1985 (4.2 ypc)
Jamal Lewis: 2053 yards in 2003 (5.3 ypc); 1006 yards in 2004 (4.3 ypc)
Barry Sanders: 2053 yards in 1997 (6.1 ypc); 1491 yards in 1998 (4.3 ypc)
Terrell Davis: 2008 yards in 1998 (5.1 ypc); 211 yards in 1999 (3.1 ypc)
Chris Johnson: 2006 yards in 2009 (5.6 ypc); 1364 yards in 2010 (4.3 ypc)
O.J. Simpson: 2003 yards in 1973 (6.0 ypc); 1125 yards in 1974 (4.2 ypc)
Earl Campbell: 1934 yards in 1980 (5.2 ypc); 1376 yards in 1981 (3.9 ypc)
Ahman Green: 1883 yards in 2003 (5.3 ypc); 1163 yards in 2004 (4.5 ypc)
Barry Sanders: 1883 yards in 1994 (5.7 ypc); 1500 yards in 1995 (4.8 ypc)
Shaun Alexander: 1880 yards in 2005 (5.1 ypc); 896 yards in 2007 (3.6 ypc)

For Minnesota to get back into the playoffs, Ponder will need to make more plays downfield in the passing game, and it should be easier for him this year. Last year's No. 1 receiver Percy Harvin is amazing when he can get into space - but that's difficult to do in a traditional power-running offense. This year, newcomer Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson have skill sets that better match up with what the Vikings want to do in their passing game - they won't have to go outside their usual offense to create good opportunities for them like they often had to do with Harvin. 

If Ponder can take a step forward, they can survive the regression from Peterson. 


Jay Cutler

After years of dealing with guys like Cade McNown, Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, it's pretty easy to see why Bears fans have latched onto the incredibly unlikable Cutler- He isn't terrible.

But, being an upgrade over recent Bears QB busts doesn't really say much. While the Bears ranked in the top 10 in the league in rush offense, total defense, rush defense, pass defense, sacks, and No. 1 in turnovers forced, there was one minor area they finished 29th in the league- Pass offense.

Basically, Chicago was good at everything, except throwing the ball, in 2012.

While you could argue in past seasons that a lack of weapons was holding Cutler back, Brandon Marshall was in full-on beast mode last year, grabbing 118 receptions for over 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffrey seem to be decent complimentary receivers, so if the Bears again rank among the league's worst in throwing the ball, it's all on Cutler.

That being said, you know they're gonna re-sign this guy. They don't want to end up with another Erik Kramer or Dave Krieg.


Jeremy's Picks:

Packers: 11-5 
Vikings: 9-7 
Bears: 9-7 
Lions: 7-9

Joe's Picks:

Packers: 12-4 
Bears: 9-7 
Vikings: 8-8 
Lions: 5-11 

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