2017 NFC North Preview

By Ha Kung Wong 

Twitter: @FBGarbageTime

Hey, guess what?

We’re only about a month away from the start of the NFL Preseason!  That, and we’re only 6 months away from the new Star Wars movie!  Woohoo!

I know that as much as you like football, you’re unlikely to watch more than a handful of preseason games.  I totally get it.  What fun is it to watch your starters put a half-ass effort into about a quarter worth of play, and then watch a bunch of scrubs battle it out for rights to warm the bench during the season?  If I wanted to watch scrubs play, I’d just video record my flag football games.  Trust me, if you want to see scrubs, I can definitely show you scrubs.  But we’ll watch the preseason games anyway, in hopes that we can get a hint of what we can expect in the regular season.

Well, no need to wait until the preseason games for the NFC North, because I’ve got predictions for you!  The Draft is long past and offseason moves are essentially done, so we have a decent feel for what each team will be working with, so why not do a little speculatin’?

Green Bay Packers

2016 Rankings per DVOA: 4th Ranked Offense / 20th Ranked Defense

Key Additions: TE Martellus Bennett, CB Kevin King, G Jahri Evans

Key Losses: TE Jared Cook, G T.J. Lang, OL JC Tretter, RB James Starks, RB Eddie Lacy

There’s no doubt that Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs in the league, and that when he’s on, there’s little most defenses can do to slow him down.  The Falcons, however, managed to expose a depleted O-line and put pressure on Rodgers during the NFC Championship game.  The biggest concern is that Rodgers tends to need more time for plays to develop, as the Packers rely on a lot of long developing routes.  Normally, that’s not an issue behind one of the best O-lines of 2016 (just look to the league best pass block efficiency as measured by Pro Football Focus), but if there are injuries, lack of depth can be a problem.

During the offseason, the Packers tried their best to shore up the O-line and make up for the departures of Lang and Tretter, but they didn’t go about building much depth.

In addition, there’s some question regarding what the Packers will do in the backfield, as they let Lacy and Starks go and failed to pick up a proven commodity at RB.  Instead, they’ll rely on WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery and hope he can develop into an effective every down back, as well as hope that one of the 3 late RB flyers they took in the draft might turn out.

I don’t doubt that the Packers will vie for a playoff spot again, but whether they’ll top the NFC North again or not is a bigger question than I’ve had in the past.

Predicted 2017 Record: 10-6

Minnesota Vikings

2016 Rankings per DVOA: 26th Ranked Offense / 9th Ranked Defense

Key Additions: RB Latavius Murray, RB Dalvin Cook, RT Mike Remmers, DE Datone Jones, T Riley Reiff

Key Losses: RB Adrian Peterson, CB Captain Munnerlyn, LT Matt Kalil, T Andre Smith, WR Charles Johnson

The poor Vikings lost their QB of the future in Teddy Bridgewater due to a freak accident in the 2016 preseason, but managed to recover nicely under the direction of a disgruntled Sam Bradford.  Everything was looking up after a 5 game undefeated streak to start the season, particularly behind what appeared to be the top defense in the NFL at the time, but it unraveled quickly as the season wore on.  It’s tough to say what the problem was, but there certainly was significant underperformance in the WR and RB cores.  Sure, Adrian Peterson was out with an injury, but the Vikings offense just couldn’t get anything going late in the season.

The Vikings recognized this, at least with respect to the ground game, and with Adrian Peterson gone thoroughly compensated for this short coming by taking one of the best RBs in free agency, Latavius Murray, and draft one of the top 3 RBs in the draft, Dalvin Cook.  Unfortunately, Murray had ankle surgery soon after his acquisition, and Cook has a relatively lengthy injury history of his own, so it’s unclear how they will work together in the upcoming season, or weather they’ll even be available for any significant amount of time.  But Murray was a relatively efficient back in Oakland and one of the best pass blocking backs in the NFL.

Assuming the Vikings can keep up their exceptional defense deep, with Terence Newman tied for the lowest catch rate allowed on 20+ yard passes (7.7%) and Xavier Rhodes allowing the lowest percentage of caught balls against (48%) in the league, there should be room for the offense to get rolling.  Whether the addition of Murray and Cook, as well as a flyer on off-field mess Michael Floyd, will be one of the more interesting cases to watch in 2017.

Predicted 2017 Record: 8-8

Detroit Lions

2016 Rankings per DVOA: 15th Ranked Offense / 32nd Ranked Defense

Key Additions: G T.J. Lang, LB Paul Worrilow, LB Jarrad Davis, DE Cornelius Washington

Key Losses: LB DeAndre Levy, G Larry Warford, T Riley Reiff

Assuming it wasn’t a fluke, Matt Stafford might finally become the top 5 QB that Detroit was hoping for when they drafted him first overall in 2009.  Stafford managed to exceed his 2011 season with over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns in a slick 10-win season plus a trip to the playoffs.

And this was all done without Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, arguably one of the best WRs in Lions history.  Stafford also was responsible for 8 fourth-quarter, game-winning drives, tied for the most in a season all-time.  Part of this was thanks to Golden Tate putting up his second 1,000 yard receiving season in the last 3 years, and Marvin Jones’ contribution at the beginning of the season.

But one thing that it was NOT thanks to, was the ridiculously porous defense.  The Lions finished the season winless in their last four games, mostly due to inept defense.  Through the final 3 regular season games (against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers) and a playoff game against the Seahawks, the defense allowed an average of 377.5 yards and 29 points per game, adding not one interception or fumble recovery.

The Lions moved hard to address their defense in the offseason, adding Worrilow, Davis and Washington.  Clearly, they’ll need to work on an improved defensive plan on top of just adding talent, but this is a good start.  Now the Lions just need to hope that Stafford doesn’t regress in 2017.

Predicted 2017 Record: 9-7

Chicago Bears

2016 Rankings per DVOA: 16th Ranked Offense / 22nd Ranked Defense

Key Additions: QB Mike Glennon, QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Markus Wheaton, WR Kendall Wright, WR Victor Cruz

Key Losses: WR Alshon Jeffery, DL Cornelius Washington

Oh, the Bears.  Being a lifelong Bears fan has been rough over the last couple years.  Sure, there was that one time back in 2010 that we were a step away from the Super Bowl but for an injured Jay Cutler and the ridiculous rival-Packers offense.  But since then it’s been a veritable disaster.  The Bears have been last in the NFC North over the last 3 years, and hasn’t had a winning record since 2012.  And now with the Bears finally throwing in the towel on Jay Cutler, and losing it’s number 1 WR in Alshon Jeffery, is there anything for a Bears fan to look forward to?

Shockingly, the Bears handed over essentially $18 Million to Mike Glennon to be their starting signal caller, a QB that hasn’t thrown more than a handful of passes as a backup over the last 2 years.  I’ve written about him in the past, and actually think he could be good for the Bears, but he certainly doesn’t appear to be worth all that money up front.  At least they gave themselves an escape hatch after 1 year.

But then the Draft came, and the Bears did something even more shocking.  They traded the house away to move up one spot and draft Mitchell Trubisky, a QB that has had only 13 starts in college.  Sure, I like Trubisky as much as the next guy, praising some of his skillset prior to the draft and discussing how he could work out for the Bears long term.  But regardless of how good he could be, it’s not going to be in 2017, and the Bears did little to surround Glennon with the tools necessary to win now.

The only ray of hope lies in breakout RB, Jordan Howard.  Howard had the 2nd most rush yards in the league in 2016 (1,313) with the 4th most rush yards per attempt (5.2).  Howard is doing everything he can to avoid a potential sophomore slump, as he’s losing weight, got corrective eye surgery to improve his vision and has stated he wants to lead to league in rushing.  With all that, there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2017.

That plus a strong O-line could give Glennon enough freedom to make something happen with the highly questionable WR group consisting of Kevin White, Cameron Meredith, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Victor Cruz.

Or it could just be a really really long season for Bears fans.  I’m an optimist, but I’m going with the latter.

Predicted 2017 Record: 5-11

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