Monday, August 24, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The NFC North

Pictured: Daphne being held by not Joe.

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

We finish up our NFC previews with the high-flying North.

I know, imagining a division where passes are flying all over the yard at Lambeau Field and Solider Field is a little weird, but with three of the league's Top-13 passers returning from last season, along with a promising sophomore, and half the division (Minnesota and Detroit) playing indoors, this isn't the NFC Norse of old.

Even with all those yards through the air returning, there are still questions for each team in the North. Can Green Bay find enough defense to get to Super Sunday? Can the Bears turn Jay Cutler's gaudy yardage totals into wins? Can Detroit take the next step and truly contend in the NFC, and how far can Teddy Bridgewater carry Minnesota in his second season, especially with the help of reinstated All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson?

Daphne and I investigate.

The Favorites

Green Bay Packers

There's no question Green Bay is the favorite in the North, and the sharks in Vegas even have the Pack pegged as the odds on favorite to win Super Bowl 50, listing Green Bay at 11/2, just ahead of Seattle at 6/1 and Indianapolis at 8/1. Those odds may change a bit with news of star receiver Jordy Nelson tearing his ACL, but clearly the Packers will be on most experts' short list of true Super Bowl contenders.

(Personally, I like New England at 17/2, but that's neither here nor there)

So, expectations will loom large in Titletown, but reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers is more than up for the challenge. After throwing an absurd 38 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions (!) last year, it's hard to see Rodgers being much more efficient, but the now two-time NFL MVP may just be entering his prime at 31, and he'll have nearly all his weapons back from last year's impressive run, as 10 starters return on offense.

The loss of Jordy Nelson, who was coming off a 1,500 yard season in 2014, will definitely hurt, but Randall Cobb is back after amassing nearly 1,300 yards out of the slot, and may be the most explosive player on the team. Running back Eddie Lacy is a physical back that could average five yards a carry in Green Bay's high-powered attack next year, but the steps he took as a receiver in 2014 (427 yards on 42 catches) may be his most important in this offense.

Second-year receiver Davante Adams came on strong at the end of last year and should give Rodgers a reliable second option after Cobb, plus intriguing tight end Richard Rodgers is penciled in to start at tight end after limited action in 2014.

The defense is better than you remember, with Clay Matthews proving he can play (and rush the passer) from both the inside and outside linebacker positions in Dom Capers' zone blitz 3-4. Outside linebacker Sam Barrington played well enough that Green Bay didn't mind letting go of the declining A.J. Hawk, and Julius Peppers showed he still had some gas in the tank with a 7-sack season in 2014.

It's not an amazing linebacking corps by any stretch, but Matthews is one of the best all-around backers in the business, and Barrington gives them enough athleticism to get by. There's even some depth, with OLB Mike Neal playing well in extensive action last year.

The secondary should be improved with rising-star Ha Ha Clinton-Dix entering his second season at safety, and Sam Shields returning for another season at corner.

The situation up front isn't quite as rosy, where nose tackle B.J. Raji has struggled to stay healthy, but Mike Daniels has improved as a pass rusher at defensive end. The Iowa product enters a contract year, so he should be plenty motivated to help the Packers improve up front.

With expectations sky-high in Green Bay, the Packers enter 2015 on a mission. Whether or not they can ultimately dethrone Seattle in the NFC and capture another Super Bowl will largely depend on the improvement of a young defense that will be looking for answers up front, and the health of Rodgers and his skill players on offense. With Nelson likely out for the year, Green Bay can't afford to lose anybody else.

The Question Mark

Can John Fox Turn Chicago Around?

Many hailed the Bears' hire of former CFL coach Marc Trestman as "revolutionary" and "outside the box" two years ago. 19 losses and 30 Jay Cutler interceptions later, Trestman is out the door, and we're all starting to realize what that decision actually was: Desperate.

Desperate because the Bears were looking for anything, and anyone, to give Cutler a jolt and sense of urgency, as the seemingly disinterested quarterback was always THIS CLOSE to being good. Chicago then compounded the problem by signing Cutler to a 7-year, $126.7 million extension in 2014, after he put up a losing record in an injury-riddled 2013 campaign.

Basically, none of the moves Chicago has made with regard to their two most important positions (QB and head coach) have made any sense for roughly three decades.

John Fox, at least on paper, seems to make some sense, though he'll be bound by the albatross that is Cutler's deal. Still, with a history of winning with all kinds of quarterbacks (Jake Delhomme to Peyton Manning), Fox certainly has the track record to inspire confidence that he can figure something out with Cutler.

The first part of that will probably revolve around making his troubled signal caller throw the ball less. Cutler only threw slightly more than the league median with 561 attempts last season, but his 18 interceptions led to him finishing with an atrocious 3.2 percent interception percentage, putting him in the ballpark of guys named Sanchez, McCown, Geno Smith and Bortles.

The Bears have a star running back in Matt Forte, and I would expect Fox to run him until the wheels fall off in a division where only Detroit ranked in the Top-20 in run defense.

Speaking of defense, improving upon Chicago's 30th ranked unit will also be a front-burner priority for Fox, who will be counting on newcomers Antrel Rolle and Pernell McPhee, among others, to improve a mistake-prone secondary and sluggish pass rush.

With a suddenly competitive division, and a potential juggernaut in Green Bay, the deck seems stacked against Fox in his first season, but he's pulled a rabbit out of his hat before.

The Theme

Everyone Chasing the Pack

As good as this division could be, it still seems like everyone other than Green Bay is playing for second. Still, that could make for a very interesting Wild Card race.

Chicago should be better, or at least less turnover prone on offense, and there's nowhere to go but up on defense. Meanwhile, Minnesota could see several young players, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, take major steps forward, and the return of Adrian Peterson means the Vikings should have a puncher's chance against almost anybody.

But the team that should give the Pack their biggest run is Detroit, a squad that returns the league's 2nd ranked total defense (No. 1 vs the run) and an offense that should benefit from a now completely healthy Calvin Johnson.

The backfield loses some explosiveness with Reggie Bush in San Francisco, but they may find more consistency with Joique Bell and stellar looking rookie Ameer Abdullah carrying the load. A revamped line built around first round pick Laken Tomlinson and a pair of young tackles should improve from last year, and the defense should again be solid, despite the loss of Ndamukonh Suh and Nick Fairley, as Detroit quickly added Haloti Ngata and believes Ezekiel Ansah is ready to be a Pro Bowl player.

While it's hard to see any of these teams knocking off Green Bay, the Packers will have no cake walk to the playoffs. This is one of the deepest divisions in football.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog

 Minnesota Vikings

Only a pair of 2-point losses late in the season prevented this team from finishing above .500 in 2014, and even jaded Minnesota fans are secretly talking themselves into the Vikings being better this year.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returns for his sophomore season, and the former Louisville star will have a much-improved supporting cast. Most notably, former All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson returns from suspension to give Minnesota a boost on the ground, and deep threat Mike Wallace has been added to give the team some big-play potential on the outside.

The key word there is "potential," which Wallace and former first round pick receiver Cordarrelle Patterson each have in spades. If this receiving corps can begin to live up to some of that massive promise, Bridgewater and the offense could surprise.

The defense was was middle of the pack last year, but young and particularly good against the pass (7th in the NFL at 223 YPG allowed). That bodes well in a division that features Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and the carcass of Jay Cutler.

Minnesota's youthful secondary should be even better this year with the addition of first round pick corner Trae Waynes to complement corner Xavier Rhodes, and rising star safeties Harrison Smith and Antone Exum Jr.

The linebackers are solid with Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway back on the outside, but they'll need a big year from rookie Eric Kendricks or former Eagle Casey Matthews to solidify the middle of the defense. Stud pass rusher Everson Griffin is entering his prime, but I'd look for defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd to finally break out on the interior, assuming the former Gator can stay healthy.

All in all, the Vikes are a good team to buy low on. With a young quarterback and secondary, along with Peterson back in the fold at running back, Minnesota could take several big steps this season. If any of their receivers show some semblance of consistency, and they find an answer at middle linebacker, don't be surprised to see the Purple back in the postseason for the first time since 2012.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
 DeAndre Levy, OLB, Detroit

Levy has been Detroit's Defensive MVP the last two years, quite an accomplishment considering the Lion's have ranked among the league's elite defenses in that span. Despite that, most people still don't realize just how good the former Wisconsin Badger is.

Levy finished second in the league in tackles last season with 151, and has amassed 270 tackles and 7 interceptions the last two seasons.

After being named a 2nd Team All-Pro in 2014, Levy has finally entered the casual football fan's consciousness, and will need to be even better in 2015 if the Lions are to absorb the loss of star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

One of the league's best 4-3 outside linebackers, Levy plays the run and passes to the flat equally well, and is one of the few backers in football that can run with pass-catching tight ends. With Stephen Tullock returning from a torn ACL at MLB, Levy should again flourish in Detroit's underrated linebacking corps.

In the Dog House
 Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago

I know it seems like Cutler has a "make or break" season every year, but this time it's for real, yo. The Bears owe Cutler guaranteed money until the end of 2016 ($10 million against the cap in '16), but another poor season, and a larger salary cap, could lead to Chicago parting ways with their controversial signal caller at the end of 2015.

The Bears (for some reason) thought CFL coach Marc Trestman could bring out the best in Cutler, but they fired the "offensive guru" after just two years. Under John Fox, a guy that has gone to the Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme at QB, there is no more time for Cutler's excuses, or interceptions, of which he's thrown 44 the last three years.

If Cutler can cut down on the turnovers, he'll still have the services of touchdown machine Alshon Jeffery and do-it-all back Matt Forte, but first round pick receiver Kevin White looks to be out for the foreseeable future.

It could be an uphill battle in the Windy City.


Joe: 1. Green Bay, 2. Detroit (Wild Card), 3. Minnesota, 4. Chicago
Daphne: 1. Green Bay, 2. Minnesota (Wild Card), 3. Chicago, 4. Detroit

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