X-Green Bay Packers 11-5
In the NFC North, it is the Green Bay Packers and everyone else. The Packers have won five of the last six NFC North Championships, while their eight-year playoff streak is tied with the New England Patriots for the longest active playoff streak in the National Football League. But since the Packers won the Super Bowl to conclude the 2010 NFL season, they have dealt with heartache during the playoffs. Two of the last three seasons have ended with the Packers losing in the NFC Championship Game this past January to the Atlanta Falcons. But as the Packers continue to be one of the better teams in the NFC, will they be able to put it all together in 2017 to claim another Vince Lombardi Trophy?
For Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, his job has been made easier over the last nine years with Aaron Rodgers as his starting quarterback. In 2008, Rodgers took on an impossible job in replacing Brett Favre as the Packers starting quarterback. And although that Rodgers will never be able to make the people in Green Bay forget about Favre, he has done a tremendous job in regards to writing his own story.
Aside from leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl victory, Rodgers is a two-time National Football League MVP and he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks that the game has ever seen. For his career Rodgers has completed 65.1% of his passes, while he has thrown 297 touchdowns passes to just 72 interceptions. And even at the age of 33, Rodgers is showing no signs of slowing down, while he should also rack up plenty of points in fantasy football.
Rodgers has always been one of the best in regards to spreading the football around and that’ll once again be the case this season. Since 2008, wide receiver Jordy Nelson has been one of Rodgers’ most dependable pass catchers. And after Nelson missed the entire 2015 National Football League season as he was recovering from a torn ACL, he returned last year to lead Green Bay in receptions (97), receiving yards (1,257), and receiving touchdowns (14). Nelson has some of the best hands for a wide receiver and he should continue be dependable in key situations; especially on third down.
In 2014, the Packers used a second-round pick on wide receiver Devante Adams and he continues to improve. Adams was on the verge of totaling 1,000 receiving yards last season, and he should be able to reach the mark this season in what will be an important year for him with his rookie contract set to expire.
But as good as Rodgers has been, he cannot mask the fact that the Packers have struggled to rush the football. Last year the Packers were 20th in the National Football League in regards to rushing as their running game was in shambles. As Green Bay dealt with several injuries at the running back position, they were forced to convert wide receiver Ty Montgomery to running back. And with no long term answer in sight, it appears that Montgomery will once get the bulk of the carries this year for Green Bay.
The past few years has seen as the Packers offensive line as a quiet, unassuming group which goes out and does their job which is to keep the uniform of Rodgers clean. The Packers offensive line is not comprised of Pro Bowl caliber players as they are more of a “no-name” group that has come together to be a solid unit. However the Packers offensive line should get a boost with veteran guard Jahri Evans joining the unit. Evans has spent the last 11 years with the New Orleans Saints where he was a six-time Pro Bowl selection, while also helping the Saints win their only Super Bowl Championship in franchise history.
For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, his unit must find a way to improve after they were 22nd in the National Football League last year in total defense. The Packers desperately need outside linebacker Clay Matthews to regain the form that has made him one of the top defenders in the NFL. The Packers have been shifting Matthews around over the last three years playing him as both an inside and outside linebacker. However Matthews is at his best as an outside linebacker due to his edge rushing ability. And Capers must find a way to play Matthews as much as on the outside this season.
Green Bay has one of the best safety combos in the National Football League with strong safety Morgan Burnett and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as both players have tremendous range, while neither is afraid to do some paint swapping in the run game. But the Packers will need some more consistency from their cornerbacks such as Davon House and Damarious Randall in order to be one of the better units in the league.
Once the Packers offense is able to get the football inside of an opponents 40-yard line they are in scoring range due to the leg of kicker Mason Crosby. Crosby connected on seven of his nine attempts from beyond 40 yards last season, and his powerful leg will once again be important; especially when the temperature begins to drop.
The schedule makers weren’t kind to the Packers as they’ll begin the upcoming season by hosting the Seattle Seahawks before they visit the Falcons who eliminated them from the playoffs this past January. However with the NFC North expected to weak, Green Bay should once again be able to coast to another division title.
Minnesota Vikings 7-9
The 2016 National Football League was set to begin with the Minnesota Vikings as a legit Super Bowl contender, but things would unravel rather quickly. In last August 2016, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL during a non-contact drill which changed the outlook for Minnesota. The Vikings would scramble as they would acquire quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vikings still had strong defense which propelled them to a 5-0 start, however the wheels would quickly fall apart as they would lose eight of their final 13 games to finish 8-8.
Aside from the Bridgewater injury, veteran running back Adrian Peterson only appeared in three games for the Vikings last year due to a knee injury of his own. And thus when the off-season rolled around,the Vikings deciding to not exercise an option on his contract which made him a free agent as he would go on to sign with the New Orleans Saints.
Peterson left Minnesota as the Vikings all-time leading rusher with 11,747 yards, while he had been the face of the franchise for the last decade. And now that Peterson is gone, while Bridgewater still isn’t fully back from his ACL injury, how will Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer handle the upcoming season for his team?
With the Vikings parting with Peterson, it left a void for this team as they use a second-round pick on running back Dalvin Cook. During Cook’s collegiate career with the Florida State Seminoles, he was a two-time All-American as at times he was a runaway freight train. Cook is 5’10”, 213 lbs., but he runs over opponents like a fullback, while possessing the speed of someone smaller than him which makes him a logical candidate to the Offensive Rookie of the Year this season in the National Football League.
Bradford doesn’t have a reputation for being a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, but he is coming off of the finest season of his professional career. Bradford completed 71.6% of his passes last year which was tops in the National Football League. Even though that Bradford was in his first year with the Vikings, he had familiarity with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur when they worked together with the Eagles as Bradford made it his business to not force the football.
Minnesota has plenty of speed with wide receivers such as Laquon Treadwell and Stefon Diggs, but the biggest question will be whether or not that Bradford who is not known for the deep pass will be able to get them the football consistently? However whereas Bradford doesn’t get the football down the field with regularity, one of his favorites options in the passing game last year was tight end Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph continues to improve in each season with the Vikings and his 6’6″ frame is a matchup nightmare for opposing safeties and linebackers. Rudolph will be Bradford’s go-to-guy once again this season; especially on third down as he knows how to move the chains.
But with Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer being a defensive minded coach, Minnesota’s bread and butter is defensive football. Last year the Vikings were third in the National Football League in total defense which included holding nine opponents under 20 points. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is rapidly emerging as a force for the Vikings which was evident by him recording 12.5 sacks last year. A knee injury could force defensive tackle Shariff Floyd to retire, but Minnesota still possesses plenty of depth on the defensive line with defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Brian Robison.
Detroit Lions 6-10
The 2016 National Football League season was full of surprises which included seeing the Detroit Lions reach the postseason. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell was able to rally his team as Detroit was seeking to replace a legend in wide receiver Calvin Johnson who had retired following the end of the 2015 NFL. However although that the Lions made the playoffs last January, they finished the season on a four-game losing streak which included blowing an opportunity to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history. And as the Lions are set to embark on a new campaign, will they be able to do something which they’ve been unable to do since 1995 which is to make the postseason in consecutive years?
For Caldwell and Lions general manager Bob Quinn, they have attached their wagon to quarterback Matthew Stafford. In 2009, the Lions made Stafford the first overall pick of the National Football League Draft in the hopes that he would help to reverse the fortunes of their franchise. Stafford has not always had the best team around him, but by 2011 he was able to help Detroit reach the playoffs. Stafford has made one Pro Bowl appearance and he has rapidliy become one of the better quarterbacks in Lions franchise history which is evident by him passing for at least 4,000 yards in each of the last six years. The Lions have committed to Stafford as last month they gave him a five-year, $136 million extension which made him the highest paid player in NFL history.
But Stafford’s extension with the Lions has been met with criticism as he has a career record of 51-58, while he has never won a playoff game. Stafford did show maturity last year as without Johnson as his security blanket, he had to focus on getting the football to other wide receivers, but will he be able to take the next step and get the Lions a playoff victory?
A big reason why the Lions have had to rely on Stafford’s arm so much is that they have struggled mightily in regards running the football. The Lions leading rusher in 2016 was running back Theo Riddick with just 357 yards, and as a team, Detroit was 30th in the National Football League in rushing. And with Riddick as the Lions best option at running back heading into the new season, I don’t see the Lions problems in regards to running the football going away; especially with a patchwork offensive line.
Last year the Lions defense lacked sizzle, but they had substance. Seven of Detroit’s opponents in 2016 were held under 20 points as points came at a premium against them. But as the Lions were only able to tally 26 sacks, they lacked the ability to make big plays in key situations which is a big reason why they were swept by the Packers.
A big reason for the Lions lack of a pass rush was due to the fact that defensive end Ziggy Ansah was plagued by an ankle injury as after recording 14.5 sacks in 2015, he was limited to just a pair of sacks last year. Aside from Ansah, the Lions don’t have a pass rusher who can consistently put fear into opponents which makes it paramount that he is healthy to be an anchor of Detroit’s defensive line.
The Lions won’t be confused with having an easy schedule as they have road games with the New York Giants and New Orleans, as well a pair of divisional meetings with the Packers. The Lions have not had consecutive winning seasons since 1995 and Caldwell and his club have their work cut out for them in order to make that a reality in 2017.
Chicago Bears 5-11
It’s hard to believe, but the Chicago Bears have not made the playoffs since 2010, while they have not had a winning record since 2012. Over the last three seasons the Bears have lost a combined 34 games for their worst stretch since 1997-2000 as this organization has been plagued by numerous bad personnel decisions. General manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox are each set to begin their third year with the Bears and as Chicago is in the midst of rebuilding, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight in regards to the futility in the Windy City.
In 2009, the Bears acquired quarterback Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos and he was expected to be a savior as he was expected to finally solve Chicago’s long time issues at the position. Cutler had an up and down career with the Bears as he was 51-51 as a starter while throwing 154 touchdowns to 109 interceptions.
At the conclusion of the 2016 National Football League season, Cutler announced that he was going to retire after 11 years as a professional. But when Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a knee injury during training camp, Cutler decided to unretire to take his spot in South Florida.
Pace and Fox have spent this off-season attempting to find Cutler’s replacement with the Bears. The first move by the Bears was to sign quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon spent the last four years as a backup quarterback. Glennon has 18 starts under his belt in the National Football League and he has a career record of 5-13. However the Bears saw enough and they decided to sign Glennon to a three-year deal for $45 million.
The Bears would not stop there as they made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers to move up to the second overall pick in the National Football League Draft this past April to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The jury is still out on Trubisky who only had one year as a starter collegiately for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But this was enough for Pace and Fox to be convinced that Trubisky will be the Bears quarterback of the future.
But whereas the Bears were only able to go 3-13 last year and that they are in the process of rebuilding, it means that there have been plenty of opportunities for young players to earn roster spots. Last year as a rookie, running back Jordan Howard exploded for 1,313 yards, while he also made the Pro Bowl. Howard did have 252 carries last year and as there is plenty of wear and tear on running backs in the National Football League, the Bears must make sure that he stays fresh here in 2017.
There is potential in the Bears receiving corps, but potential is only go on paper. In 2015, Chicago used the seventh overall pick of the National Football League Draft on wide receiver Kevin White. However through two seasons, White has only appeared in four games for the Bears. White’s absence gave wide receiver Cameron Meredith the opportunity to be “the guy” last year, but he’ll miss the entire upcoming season as the result of a torn ACL. Wide receiver Kendall Wright was first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2012, but in five seasons in Nashville he was never able able to reach his potential. Now after Wright signed a one-year deal to join the Bears, he will get a shot at redemption, however it won’t be easy as he’ll have to rely on a rookie quarterback in Trubisky to get him the football.
Like the Bears receiving corps, the defense in Chicago has potential, but it is just a matter of everyone staying healthy for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Outside linebacker Danny Trevathan has been out of action since he suffered a torn patellar tendon last November. In 12 games as a rookie in 2016, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd was able to record 7 sacks, and I can see Fangio using him in the same role that he used outside linebacker Aldon Smith in when he was the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers. Floyd missed four games last year due to injury, and the Bears are going to need the combination of him and Trevathan to be healthy in order to consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Right out of the chute the Bears are going to have to deal with some heavy hitters as they will face the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers in their first four games. Only the Buccaneers didn’t make the playoffs last season, and as the Bears have questions surrounding their quarterbacking situation, this could be a long season in the Windy City.