Here’s a look into the NFC North, and yes, Brett is back!
“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”
Strength- If the Chicago Bears plan on being a force in the NFC North, their defense will have to return the dominate form they played a few years ago. Chicago has some pieces in the right place to have a strong defense. With the addition of defensive end Julius Peppers, opposing quarterbacks may find themselves on their backs more in 2010. Peppers should improve a defense which was tied for 13th in the league with 35 sacks. Peppers is the all-time leader in sacks, forced fumbles, and blocked kicks for Carolina in his eight years with the team. The five time Pro Bowler has recorded double-digit sack totals in six of his eight years. He’ll line up with former Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher. Urlacher missed all of last season after suffering from a dislocated wrist. Currently nursing a groin injury, he should be geared up and ready to go when the regular season starts. On the outside, corner Zack Bowman had an outstanding second season in 2009. He was tied for fifth in the league with six picks. These three defensive leaders look to bring the Bears back to the postseason.
Weakness– The Bears do not exactly have the most gifted bunch of wide receivers. Devin Hester made a name for himself as a kick returner with his blazing speed. In 2006, Hester had two kick return and three punt return TD’s (took opening kick all the way in Super Bowl XLI). In ’07, he had two more kick return and 4 punt return scores. Since then, he has changed from a corner to receiver and hasn’t scored on any returns. He caught three touchdowns and 757 yards in 2009. Behind Hester, guys like Johnny Knox, Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett, Jacqiun Iglesias, and rookie Greg Matthews fill out the depth chart. Neither of those guys has more than three or four years experience. As they get older and get more practice, these guys may develop into offensive playmakers. Until then, they are better off on special teams.
Biggest Question- Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz teach Jay Cutler the tools he needs to become a successful quarterback? Martz is known for work as the coordinator for the “Greatest Show on Turf” with the St. Louis Rams, who won the Super Bowl in 1999. He hopes he can turn Cutler into the next Kurt Warner. In 1999, Warner threw for over 4,300 yards and 41 touchdowns. Cutler’s struggles in Chicago were well documented after he was traded from Denver for two first round draft picks and QB Kyle Orton. Cutler had a 76.7 passer rating, with a league high 26 interceptions, and was sacked 35 times. He was not comfortable in the Bears’ offense, and was not on the same page as his receivers. Chicago fans hope Martz can work his magic and reinvent Cutler as a QB, and also restore life in running back Matt Forte. After an outstanding rookie season with over 1,200 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, Forte had only 929 yards and four scores in 2009.
Strength- Detroit is one of those teams where you may question what their upside may be, but they have potential with a core group of young, talented players. If the Lions want to win, Matthew Stafford will have to improve off his rookie year. In his 10 starts, Stafford threw for 2,267 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 20 picks. If he can control the ball and reduce the turnovers, the former 1st overall pick can have a successful 2010. His biggest game can against Cleveland in Week 11. Both teams had an offensive explosion, and Stafford threw for 5 touchdowns, including the game winner on an untimed down following pass interference in the end zone. Also on the same play as the penalty, Stafford took a big hit, and injured his left shoulder. He stayed in to throw the winning TD to fellow rookie Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew is another young player looking to mature in 2010. He caught 346 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in 2009. Lining up outside him is Calvin Johnson Jr., one of the best receivers in the league. In his three seasons with the Lions, Johnson Jr. has 3,071 yards and 21 touchdowns. Don’t forget running backs Kevin Smith and rookie Jahvid Best, who both are looking forward to big seasons.
Weakness- As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. Having no defense will get you two wins, and the second overall pick in the draft, which is exactly what happened to the Lions in ’09. Detroit gave up the most points in the league, averaging 30.9 per game. They also gave up 392.1 yards per game, again the worst. They were 29th in sacks with 26, and 30th in interceptions with nine. Detroit’s leading tackler was linebacker Larry Foote with 99 tackles. Foote returned to Pittsburgh after only one year with the Lions. Free safety Louis Delmas had a great rookie year. He was second on the team with 94 tackles and also recorded two picks, taking one back for a score. The two biggest additions to the struggling defense were end Kyle Vanden Bosch and rookie tackle Ndamukong Suh. Vanden Bosch had 38.5 sacks in his five seasons in Tennessee. Suh was taken with Detroit’s second overall pick. Suh was the Big 12 Athlete of the Year, an All-American, and Heisman Finalist. His 57 tackles for loss at Nebraska ranks second in school history. These two lineman should help Detroit win some battles in the trenches.
Biggest Question- Can Detroit win more than two games? Seriously, what will it take for the Lions to have a successful season? They haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, and were 0-16 in 2008. For years, Detroit has been considered amongst the worst teams in the league. However, the players they’ve added might put them in the right direction. Delmas, Johnson Jr., Stafford, and Suh are all good players. Their recent drafts seem to be better than the 2003-’05 drafts, were Detroit took wide receivers in the first round for three straight years. Head Coach Jim Schwartz wants to turn the franchise around, or at least win enough games to keep his job. Remember when Arizona was a bottom feeder? With the right coaches, a few good drafts, and smart free agent signings, the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl. Everyone wants to win now, but the Lions will have to look into the future as their young players develop into talented stars.
Green Bay Packers
Strength- The Green Bay Packers have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Brett Favre… I mean Aaron Rodgers. It looks like the front office made a good decision when they let Favre go in favor of Rodgers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brett, and I wish he could have finished his career as a Packer. However, you can’t argue with success. In his two seasons as a full time starter, Rodgers has thrown for 8,472 yards, 58 touchdowns, and has completed over 63% of his passes. His 103.2 passer rating was fourth in the league last season. He was tied for first with Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo with 17 plays of over 40 yards. Rodgers has also been rated among the top two or three fantasy QB’s for 2010. I often ignore preseason games, which are meaningless to the regular season, but Rodgers is hot through three preseason games, including a going 21-29 with 195 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts. Receivers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and tight end Jermichael Finley give Rodgers excellent targets to throw too. The Packers’ offense enters 2010 as one of the best.
Weakness- Over the past two seasons, Rodgers has been sacked 84 times. That’s not a number that an organization wants to see. The offensive line needs to protect the new face of the Green Bay franchise. In the first nine games of 2009, the line gave up 41 sacks. As the team made their run toward the playoffs, the line did lock down. The ground game was solid throughout 2009. Ryan Grant averaged 4.4 yards per carry as he ran for over 1,200 yards. Both veteran tackles return for 2010. Chad Clifton, 34, and Mark Tauscher, 33, both missed time last season. Clifton made 12 starts, but Tauscher only made eight. With their first round pick, Green Bay took tackle Bryan Bulaga out of Iowa. Bulaga has been practicing as both a tackle and guard in training camp. If Clifton and Tauscher remain healthy, Bulaga may find some playing time as a starting guard. Expect big things from the Packers if Rodgers can remain upright and Grant has room to run.
Biggest Question- Can Green Bay’s defense continue to perform at the level they did last season? In terms of yards allowed, Green Bay had the second best defense in the league, only behind the Jets. Their rushing defense was the best in the league, only allowing 83.3 yards per game on the ground. The Packers were tied with the Vikings for first place by allowing only five rushing touchdowns all regular season. Their passing defense was fifth overall, allowing 201.1 yards per game. Green Bay’s defense intercepted the ball a league high 30 times in ’09. If the Packers plan on making a Super Bowl run, their defense will have to remain as stout as they did last season. They did lose Aaron Kampman to Jacksonville. In his eight seasons as a Packer, Kampman recorded 54 sacks. Corner Al Harris is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Harris had reconstructive knee surgery during the offseason. He failed to pass his physical this past week. If he is on the PUP list when the regular season starts, he’ll have to sit out the first six games. With their second and third round picks, Green Bay drafted lineman Mike Neal and safety Morgan Burnett. We’ll see how well the Packers can replace Kampman and Harris.
Strength- Minnesota also has a unyielding defense. The Vikings were sixth in total yards allowed with 305.5 per game. Their rushing defense was second only to Green Bay. They gave up 87.1 yards per game and the ground, and only five rushing touchdowns, tied with the Packers for fewest in ’09. They were also first in the league in quarterback sacks. Led by their Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, the Vikings had 48 sacks. Allen was second in the league with 14.5. He also had a safety, an interception, forced five fumbles, and recovered three (one for a touchdown). The inside of the line is patrolled by Kevin and Pat Williams. While they’re not brothers, both 300+ pound tackles are great at stopping the run. Kevin also has 48.5 sacks in seven seasons as a Viking. To add to the mix up front, end Everson Griffen was drafted in the fourth round. To improve their secondary, Minnesota drafted corner Chris Cook with their first pick (34th overall). They also acquired former Pro Bowl corner Lito Sheppard. The Vikings’ defense should be among the best in the NFL again in 2010.
Weakness- Brett Favre had some great targets in 2009. However, 2010 may be a different story. The team’s leading receiver ,Sidney Rice, will miss at least half the season after undergoing hip surgery. Rice had 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin has also battled injuries. Harvin has suffered from severe migraines throughout the offseason. He collapsed on the practice field during training camp, and was taken to the hospital. As a result, Harvin has missed significant time. Receiver and punt returner Jaymar Johnson will miss the entire season after being placed on injured reserve. Johnson broke his thumb during the preseason opener. The Vikings recently signed veteran Javon Walker. Walker played four seasons with Favre in Green Bay from 2002-’05. In 2008, Walker last saw action with the Raiders, catching 15 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings also traded corner Benny Sapp to Miami for receiver Greg Camarillo. In three seasons with Miami, Camarillo has 113 catches for 1,325 yards and four touchdowns. He also went all last season without a dropped pass. A depleted and injured receiving group will have to step up if Minnesota wants to return to the NFC Championship game.
Biggest Question- Brett Favre, isn’t he always our biggest offseason question? Well, we know for sure he is going to play in 2010. He says this is it, his last season, but we’ll wait until next offseason to argue that. The biggest problem Favre needed to overcome was his injured ankle. He underwent surgery during the offseason, but was behind on recovery, and wasn’t sure if he would be able to perform at a high level. Steve Hutchinson, Ryan Longwell, and Jared Allen took a short trip to Mississippi to recruit him, and now Favre is back. Exactly how well will he be able to play? Don’t expect the Favre of last season, arguably his best in his 20 year career. He threw for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns. His 68% completion rate was the highest of his career, and his seven interceptions was the lowest. I don’t expect him to see such a significant role in the offense this season, but he could surprise us again. I assume Adrian Peterson and rookie Toby Gerhart will do a lot of running this year. As for Brett, we never know what’s next.
Division Prediction- Starting at the bottom, Detroit will once again finish last in the division. I’m sure they’ll win more than two games, but not enough to pass Chicago for third. The Bears have a .500 team. I don’t expect them to surprise anyone. The NFC North will be decided between Green Bay and Minnesota. The Vikings will make the playoffs if Favre does well again, however, I see them getting in as a wildcard. Green Bay should have an outstanding season. Rodgers has improved every year since he took over, and I expect him to continue to get better, if that’s possible. The Packers are one of the favorites to not only win the North, but also to make it to the Super Bowl.