Thursday, August 28, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The NFC North

Jared Allen and Julius Peppers both changed teams this summer. But they both stayed in the division. Which one will have a bigger impact? And will it lead to a division title?
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Would you have guessed that the NFC North was tied for the 2nd-worst cumulative record of any division in the league last year (only the AFC South was worse)? Would you believe that the division had the worst cumulative SRS score in the entire league? Would you believe that they were the only division in football to have all four teams post a negative SRS?

It seems improbable that a division with so many blue-blood teams would go belly up like that, but it did.

Granted, there were some extenuating circumstances. The Packers were 6-2 when Aaron Rodgers played all four quarters. They were 2-5-1 when he didn't. They had three different backup quarterbacks start in a span of four weeks, including the was-somehow-still-employed Seneca Wallace. The Bears, long known for stellar defenses, suffered a rash of injuries on that side of the ball and saw the entire unit fall into a tailspin. The Lions, for the umpteenth year in a row, couldn't find much success running the ball and couldn't find a reliable second receiver to compliment Calvin Johnson. And the Vikings, well, they started Josh Freeman for a game. That really sums up their season.

In terms of scheduling, it's a bit of a zero-sum game. They played the AFC North last year, they play the AFC East this year (certainly easier). But they played the NFC East last year, and they play the NFC South this year (almost certainly harder). The four teams in the division all finished in the top 12 of easiest schedules in 2013, with the Lions playing the easiest schedule in the league. But a lot of that has to do with six games (almost 40 percent of the schedule) coming against the other riff-raff teams in the division. The division should be better, so the schedule should (technically) be more taxing, but cumulatively, the group should climb back towards .500.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Lions are listed as being better than advertised, and the Vikings are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Lions will be better than the Vikings. It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

Green Bay Packers

2013 Outcome: 8-7-1, 1st in NFC North, Lost in Wild Card Round
Odds To Win Division: -175
Over/Under Wins: 10.5

The Packers might be the one team in the league that improved every single unit of their team, either by default, or through free agency or the draft.

Last year, Aaron Rodgers missed half the year with an injury. He's unlikely to repeat that. Eddie Lacy spent a good portion of the year banged up. Again, he'll be healthy. Randall Cobb played in just six games. That figure should close to triple, should the Packers make the playoffs. Bryan Bulaga will return to play right tackle after missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. Those four players alone represent huge, enormous upgrades for the Green Bay offense.

The Packers' pass rush disintegrated last year with Clay Matthews (missed five games) and Nick Perry (missed five more) out of the lineup for extended stretches. This year, they'll (likely, hopefully) be healthy again, and even if they aren't, they went out and added Julius Peppers, who still has the ability to be an impact player. Their secondary struggled to force turnovers - the team intercepted just 11 passes, 26th in the league. In the draft, they went out and got safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round.

The Packers averaged 30.6 points when Aaron Rodgers played the full game. They averaged 21.5 when he didn't. It truly was a night-and-day change, as you might expect, considering Rodgers is a former Super Bowl and NFL Regular Season MVP. Simply having him in the lineup will put the Packers' offense back in the same breath as New Orleans, Denver, and Philadelphia among the tops in the league. If the defense can stay healthy, and Peppers and Clinton-Dix can help turn 2013's negatives into 2014's positives, the Packers could very well find themselves back in the Super Bowl.


Chicago Bears

2013 Outcome: 8-8, 2nd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +350
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

Chicago ended up allowing an abysmal 5.3 yards per carry to opposing rushers (a full half yard per attempt worse than anyone else in the league, and the worst figure since the merger). The Baltimore Ravens, who finished dead last in the league in yards per attempt (3.1), managed to rattle of 174 rushing yards on 41 carries, a 4.24 average, or a 27 percent increase. In a must-have Week 16 game against Philadelphia (if you don't remember, you can probably see where this is going), they allowed 289 yards on the ground. On 36 carries. An average of over eight yards per attempt. They lost 54-11.

The good news is things really can't get much worse on that front, and Chicago's front office was proactive in improving the struggling defense during the offseason. They lost Julius Peppers, but brought in another over-the-hill defensive end who is still good for a few moments of brilliance each week in Jared Allen. While Allen has struggled against the run in recent years, the addition of 300 lb. end Lamarr Houston opposite him should make up for that, plus Houston is good for 5-7 sacks a year himself.

The secondary added a solid piece in safety Ryan Mundy (not the physical presence Major Wright was, but an upgrade in coverage), and the Bears drafted their lockdown-corner of the future in the first round when they selected Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech. With Fuller in the fold, and the return of Charles "Peanut" Tillman, Chicago's pass defense has nowhere to go but up.

They'll have to replace their two leading tacklers from 2013 (OLB James Anderson and SS Major Wright), but they'll be improved in coverage across the board, and linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams should have enough in the tank to get through another year.

Offensively, they should again be prolific, perhaps even more so in coach Marc Trestman's second season. Jay Cutler returns at quarterback, and he'll have arguably the best receiver duo in the league to throw to in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Matt Forte should have his standard 1,800 total yard, 12-15 total TD season, and tight end Martellus Bennett has superstar potential. You know, when he isn't body slamming the team's first round pick.

The only way the offense could run into trouble is if Cutler gets nicked up again. This year, it won't be veteran Josh McCown coming to the rescue. Rather, Chicago has brought in the only quarterback people dislike more than Cutler, former Notre Dame gun slinger Jimmy Clausen.

All signs point toward the Bears being at least as good as last season, and some improved injury luck on both sides of the ball should lead to a playoff berth. Only health could throw them off, both the health of their players, and the health of Aaron Rodgers over in Green Bay.


Detroit Lions

2013 Outcome: 7-9, 3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +350
Over/Under Wins: 8.5

Average is as average does.

They have an above-average quarterback, the best receiver in football, two backs that can catch well out of the backfield, an improving offensive line, an on-again/off-again star at defensive tackle.... and.... well, that's about it.

The Lions made the playoffs in 2011 by slinging the ball all over the field - they were 1st in pass attempts and 31st in rush attempts. They didn't even have a single player rush for over 400 yards. They were able to do that because after Calvin Johnson, they still had three receivers that went for between 600-800 yards. In 2012, their next three receivers were between 485-567 yards (and two of them averaged fewer than 10 yards per catch). In 2013, they have five receivers between 400-550 yards, and two of them were running backs.

Plain and simple, the Lions need to diversify their passing game, and two key moves over the summer may have done that. First, they used the No. 10 overall pick on tight end Eric Ebron out of North Carolina. That made him the highest-drafted tight end since Vernon Davis went No. 6 in 2006, and he's had a pretty good career so far. Then they signed Golden Tate in free agency, who was able to rack up 898 yards for a team that threw for just 3508 as a team. That's a quarter of the team's receiving yards - if he took a quarter of Matt Stafford's receiving yards in 2013, he would have had nearly 1200 yards.

Ebron adds to a fine group of tight ends in Detroit (old steady Brandon Pettigrew is still in town and should have a bounce-back year after a down year in 2013, and rookie Joseph Fauria was an excellent Red Zone target, hauling in seven touchdowns), and Tate gives them an outside threat opposite Calvin Johnson for the first time since 2011, when the artist formerly known as Nate Burleson had his last productive year before missing seventeen games over the last two seasons.

Defense is still a question mark for the Lions. On paper, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley is one of the best defensive tackle combinations in football. But they take plays off and commit a lot of dumb penalties. Ziggy Ansah has an explosively high ceiling as a pass rusher, but he's still learning to play football. Kyle Van Noy is a well-regarded rookie, but, he's a rookie. They certainly have the talent to be an above-average outfit, all that's missing so far is the execution.

An improving offensive line (Riley Reiff and Larry Warford represent two of the best young players at their respective positions in all of football) and improved skill players should put Detroit's offense back towards 2011 levels. They won 10 games that year, and it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch for them to pull that off again.


These Teams Are Worse Than You Think They Are

Minnesota Vikings

2013 Outcome: 5-10-1, 4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +1800
Over/Under Wins: 6.5

They ended the Josh Freeman experiment quickly, but they held on way too long to the Christian Ponder experiment. Ponder, as a starting quarterback, is 10-6 during seasons in which Adrian Peterson is a 217-pound head-turning man-child, capable of carrying the ball 350 times and still averaging six yards per attempt. In all other seasons, Ponder is 4-14-1.

Perhaps it's not totally fair to Ponder - he wasn't actually much worse in 2013 than he was in 2012. During Peterson's monster year, Ponder hit 62.1 percent of his passes for a 6.1 yard average. In 2013, he was actually better (63.6 percent completions, 6.9 yard average). But his sack rate nearly doubled (6.2 percent to 10.2 percent), and his interception rate spiked (2.5 percent to 3.8 percent). All in all, he was roughly the same. But the difference is, being a vaguely average quarterback is good enough to make the playoffs when the team's running back is putting together one of the top five seasons in the history of the position (in the 20 seasons that a running back has rushed for over 1800 yards, only four have averaged over six yards per carry - Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, and Peterson; Eric Dickerson didn't, Walter Payton didn't, Earl Campbell didn't).

When the team's running back is putting together a season that qualifies as, well, just another pretty good season from a really good back... the team usually only wins four or five games.

They've turned the reigns over to Matt Cassell. Cassell, like Ponder, is a vaguely average quarterback. When he's surrounded by dynamite weapons (Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and the like) playing for an All-Time great coach, he can win 10 games. When he's playing in a garbage division (like the 2010 AFC West) with an elite rushing game, the best special teams units in football, and an offensive system that makes it near-impossible for him to commit turnovers, he can win ten games and then get blown out in the playoffs. Take the rest of his seasons combined and his teams are 12-26 when he's the starting quarterback.

The only way Minnesota has a respectable season is if Peterson has a season like he did in 2012. Yes, in theory, Greg Jennings will be healthy and Cordarrelle Patterson will make a huge leap like so many Year 2 wide receivers do. And yes, in theory, playing a fourth-place schedule (giving them the Rams and Redskins) instead of the second-place schedule (which gave them the Panthers and Seahawks) will make things a bit easier for them. But losing Jared Allen is going to hurt their already anemic defense. And Adrian Peterson can't possibly rush for 2000 yards again... right?


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