Tag Archives: Mike Zimmer

2017 NFC North Projections

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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?

Mike McCarthy

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.

Devante Adams

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.

Morgan Burnett, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix

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?

Dalvin Cook

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.

Stefon Diggs

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?

Jim Caldwell

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?

Matthew Stafford

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.

John Fox

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.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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Still Snakebitten

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At the conclusion of Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977, little did the Minnesota Vikings know what was waiting for them. The 32-14 loss to the Oakland Raiders marked the Vikings fourth Super Bowl loss in eight years with each defeat being more painful than the previous one. By this time the Vikings were an aging team with a core that included future Hall of Famers such as quarterback Fran Tarkenton and defensive tackle Alan Page. That era of Vikings football would be remembered for producing quality teams who couldn’t win it all. However since then the Vikings would love to have that problem.

Since that time the Vikings have never been able to get back to the Super Bowl as they’ve been denied a trip back to the big game in five NFC Championship Game appearances. In 1977, the Vikings were no match for the precision of the Dallas Cowboys who won 23-6. In 1987, Minnesota was five yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown against the Washington Redskins when running back Darrin Nelson dropped an intended pass. In 1998, the Vikes were 15-1 and appeared to be destined for a Super Bowl Championship. But at home in the NFC Championship Game, kicker Gary Anderson who hadn’t missed a field goal or extra point all season long failed to connect on a 38-yard field late in the fourth quarter which would have sealed a win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons would score a touchdown to tie the game at 27, and subsequently win in overtime on a 38-yard field goal from Morten Andersen to send the Vikings home heartbroken. Two years later the Vikes made it back to the NFC Championship Game where they appeared to be the better team against the New York Giants. However the Giants would win the opening kickoff and march down the field on a touchdown and never look back as they won 41-0. In 2009, the Vikings would once again make the NFC Championship Game; this time as they were led by former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre and running back sensation Adrian Peterson as this appeared to be their year. And with the game tied at 28 late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota had a chance to win. However with the Vikings on the edge of field-goal range, Favre was intercepted by New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracey Porter. The game would go to overtime and after the Saints won the coin toss, they marched down the field as their kicker Garrett Hartley would connect on a 40-yard field goal which once again denied the Vikings a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

But all of the Vikings heartache hasn’t necessarily been saved for the NFC Championship Game. In 2003, Minnesota began the season with a record of 6-0, however they would fail to make the playoffs as that year will always be remembered by them allowing the Arizona Cardinals to complete a touchdown pass on 4th and 25 to defeat them in Week 17. During the 2015 NFC Wild Card Game, the Vikes welcomed the Seattle Seahawks to town with a game-time temperature of minus-six at TCF Bank Stadium. Late in the contest the Vikings were trailing 10-9, but they would have a chance to win. However kicker Blair Walsh would miss a 27-yard field goal. And how could we forget about last season when there was a consensus that the Vikings could make the Super Bowl. But late in training camp, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL and this team never recovered.

Since the Vikings lost to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, they have failed to win a playoff game and in the process they’ve wasted to play making ability of Peterson.

Adrian Peterson

Aside from being of the better players of this era, Peterson is arguably one of the better running backs in National Football League history. Through ten seasons in the NFL, Peterson’s 11,747 career rushing yards are 16th all-time, while his 97 rushing touchdowns are tenth. Peterson is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, while he was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. But what solidified Peterson’s legacy was in 2012 when he gained 2,097 rushing yards after suffering a torn ACL in the previous season. However Peterson isn’t immune to age, or the NFL’s salary cap crunch catching up to him as he was limited to just three games last season, and thus the Vikings weren’t willing to pick up the $18 million option for the 31-year old running back heading into the 2017 campaign. There is still the possibility that Peterson could return to Minnesota on a reduced salary. However I see Peterson going to a team that’ll give him a chance to win the Super Bowl, which would lead a huge hole for the Vikings to have to fill.

Mike Zimmer

The Vikings had a championship defense last year under head coach Mike Zimmer, but they could not win games without a consistent offense which could see them take a turn for the worse during the upcoming season.

Aside from potentially losing Peterson, the Vikings have questions at the quarterback position once again which could cast doubt over the upcoming National Football League season before it starts. It’s not a guarantee that Bridgewater will be ready when the regular season rolls around. And even though that quarterback Sam Bradford who was acquired by the Vikings last year from the Philadelphia Eagles was able to complete 71.6% of his passes while only throwing 5 interceptions in Bridgewater’s place, he isn’t a signal caller that you envision ultimately being able to lead Minnesota to a Super Bowl Title as he has never appeared in the postseason.

Sam Bradford

The Vikings were desperate for a quarterback last year and thus they surrendered a first and fourth-round pick in the upcoming National Football League Draft to the Eagles in order to obtain Bradford which could hurt them this April when the league’s selection process rolls around. The Vikings want to compete, but with questions at the quarterback position, along with having a tough chore in potentially replacing Peterson, the term rebuilding might have to be thrown around with this franchise that has been so close in the past to glory, only to always fall short.

And with U.S. Bank Stadium set to host Super Bowl 52 next February, I will go out on a limb and state that the National Football League’s streak of the host team not making it to the big game will remain in tact.

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2016 NFC North Projections

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X-Green Bay Packers 11-5

The Green Bay Packers have been the model of consistency in the National Football League as their seven consecutive trips to the postseason are tied with the New England Patriots for the longest current streak in the league. For Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, the last two Januarys have ended in heartbreaking losses on the road against teams from the NFC West. In January 2015, the NFC Championship Game saw the Packers in control for the majority of the game until the very end when they lost to the Seattle Seahawks. And this past January saw the Packers scrap and claw to force overtime against the Arizona Cardinals before coming apart at the seams during the extra frame. Now the Packers are looking to put all of the playoff disappointment of the recent years behind them and get back to the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers

Luckily for the Packers, they still have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Rodgers is a two-time National Football League MVP that is one of the best signal callers in the business. But recently Rodgers ability has masked some of the Packers flaws on offense which can no longer be the case if Green Bay wants to get back to the Super Bowl.

Last year weight issues plagued running back Eddie Lacy as he is an important part of the Packers offense. Lacy only gained 758 rushing yards as he drew the ire of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy due to his conditioning. This off-season has seen Lacy dedicate himself to getting in better shape, and the slimmed down running back should become a bigger contributor in Green Bay’s offense.

 

Rodgers had to go all of 2015 without the services of wide receiver Jordy Nelson who has been his most reliable pass catcher. Nelson tore his ACL last summer, and although that he is back on the Packers roster, it is going to take him some time to regain the form that he had in 2014 when he tallied 1,519 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. In the Packers receiving corps, they also have Randall Cobb, Ty Montgomery, and Davante Adams, but somebody needs to step up from this trio and become more consistent.

The Packers offensive line isn’t full of Pro Bowlers or household names, but they have been together for awhile. However Rodgers was sacked 46 times last year which isn’t going to cut it in 2016 if Green Bay wants to win the NFC North.

For Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, he must find a way to get more usage of outside linebacker Clay Matthews as a pass rusher. In 2014, injuries to the Packers defense forced Matthews to play inside linebacker. Matthews tends to line up at different spots defensively for Green Bay, but he is a better player as an outside linebacker. The Packers used a fourth-round draft pick on inside linebacker Blake Martinez this past April, and if he is ready to fill Green Bay’s void at that position, Matthews should be able to see more time as a pass rusher. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers is 36-years of age, but he still can put plenty of fear into opposing quarterbacks. Peppers is a freak of nature and there is a strong possibility that when this season is over, he will be in the top-five on the National Football League’s all-time list for sacks.

There is plenty of potential for the Packers in their secondary, but it is just a matter of whether or not that cornerbacks Sam Shields and Damarious Randall, along with free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and strong safety Morgan Burnett will come to play on a weekly basis.

Kicker Mason Crosby can be shaky at times on field goals, but he is still a player that McCarthy relies on, while punter Tim Masthay has the strong leg needed for when the temperature drops during the Wisconsin winter.

The Packers have a chance to set the tone for themselves early as three of their first six games will come against the foes from the NFC North as they know that they must scrap and claw to win this division.

Y-Minnesota Vikings 11-5

 

Last year saw everything beginning to come together for the Minnesota Vikings as they won the NFC North for the first time since 2009, but they suffered a heart breaking loss in the NFC Wild Card Game to the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings are hopeful that they can learn from that experience as they look to make it consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2009 as they are set to begin life in their new home of U.S. Bank Stadium in Downtown Minneapolis.

Mike Zimmer

For Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer it has not taken him that long to make Minnesota a contender once again as he has two years under his belt. Zimmer has always preached having a strong defense, while he also has an offense that can take care of the football.

Running back Adrian Peterson is set to begin his tenth season in the National Football League. But unlike most 31-year old running backs, Peterson isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Peterson gained 1,485 yards last year, however he led the league in carries with 327 as it marked the fourth time in his career that toted the rock at least 300 times in a campaign. Peterson is still extremely vital to the Vikings offense as his running ability sets up the pass. And as Peterson will look to keep his legs churning, another 1,000-yard campaign on the ground will put him in the top 10 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.

But as Peterson is still important to the Vikings offense, is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ready to take the next step? From the early stages of Bridgewater’s National Football League career, he doesn’t appear to be a quarterback that is going to be hot commodity in fantasy football, but he has been accurate to the tune of completing 65.3% of his passes last season. However Minnesota’s passing offense was 31st in the NFL in 2015 as they have been know to shy away from taking chances down the field which is something that must change if the Vikings want to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And that will come down to whether or not that Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turnver is ready to take the kid gloves off of his young quarterback.

Stefon Diggs

Last year as a rookie, wide receiver Stefon Diggs showed promise as he averaged 13.8 yards per catch, but he will need to develop more consistency with Bridgewater. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is still a very dependable pass catcher at his position while the Vikings have high hopes for rookie wide receiver Laquon Treadwell.

But make no mistake about it that Minnesota’s team has a blue-collar feel to it which starts with their defense. Defensively the Vikings were 13th in total defense as they have a unit that can get after opponents.

The Vikings defensive line might not be “The Purple People Eaters” of the 1970’s, but they can still bring the noise. The combination of defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, along with defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd have the potential to combine for 25 sacks, while at least one member of the quartet could end up in the Pro Bowl.

Chad Greenway

Minnesota has solid corner linebackers in Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway, but their secondary is littered with play makers such as free safety Harrison Smith which is important in a division such as the NFC North that has Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.

Since joining the Vikings in 2012, kicker Blair Walsh has been one of the more accurate kickers in the National Football League, but he must put last year’s meltdown in the playoffs behind him. Last year Walsh had a field goal percentage of 87.2 which included making six kicks from beyond 50 yards and his strong right leg will have an impact on the upcoming season for the Vikings.

It won’t take us long to see if the Vikings are for real as in Week 2 they will host the Packers which will be followed by a trip to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers who are the defending NFC Champions. But comes Christmas, Minnesota should still have plenty to play for.

Chicago Bears 9-7

2015 was an up and down year for the Chicago Bears as they finished with a record of 6-10. It marked the fifth consecutive season in which the Bears failed to qualify for the postseason which is their longest stretch since 1995-2000. And during the Bears current streak, they have employed three different head coaches over that stretch. But however the Bears appear to be committed to their current head coach in John Fox. Fox is coming off of his first year in Chicago and he knows a thing or two about turning around struggling franchises from his previous work as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos respectively.

Jay Cutler

After leading the National Football League in interceptions in 2014 with 18, quarterback Jay Cutler threw just 11 in 2015. Cutler improved under offensive coordinator Adam Gase last year. But Gase is now the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Dowell Loggains was the Bears quarterbacks coach last year and he will now take over the play calling duties with Gase being in Miami and he must continue to build off of what Chicago’s former offensive coordinator was able to accomplish with Cutler last season.

What helped Cutler improve as a quarterback in 2015 was the fact that he began to trust throwing the football to his running backs as opposed to simply trying to force his passes down the field. Last year Bears running backs accounted for nearly 70 receptions and Jeremy Langford could once have a big impact in Chicago.

Jeremy Langford

After the Bears parted with longtime running back Matt Forte this off-season, Langford should take a bigger role in Chicago’s offense this year. Langford only averaged 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie in 2015, but I expect him to be a guy that gets at least 20 carries per game, and he can also be a solid contributor on swing and screen passes.

Kevin White

Last year saw the Bears use a first-round pick on wide receiver Kevin White, but a shin injury prevented him from taking the field. Now 2016 will be White’s de facto rookie season as he theoretically gives the Bears another first-round pick this season. White’s presence should take some of the pressure off of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery as the Bears look to open up the passing game some more.

As Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are in their second year with the Bears, they’ve gone about putting more play makers on that side of the football. The Bears have high hopes for outside linebacker Leonard Floyd who was their first-round pick this past spring. At 6’6″, 240 lbs., Floyd has a slender build, but the Bears are optimistic that he will have a smooth transition to the National Football League. The Bears also have outside linebackers that can rush the passer in Willie Young and Lamarr Houston as this is a part of their arsenal that will be needed as they look to compete with the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

The Bears first six opponents this season did not make the playoffs last year, and a quick start could be just what the doctor ordered as they look to sneak up on the Packers and Vikings in the NFC North.

Detroit Lions 6-10

Last year was an up and down one for the Detroit Lions as they began the season with a record of 0-5 only to rebound and finish 7-9. Assistant coaches were dropping like flies while general manager Martin Mayhew was also relieved of his duties and replaced by Bob Quinn. But somehow Jim Caldwell was able to maintain his post as the Lions head coach. And although that Caldwell was able to avoid the chopping block this past January, he is still on the hot seat and he’ll be fighting an uphill battle to get the Lions back to the postseason after missing out on it in 2015.

It is going to be difficult for the Lions to replace the contributions of wide receiver Calvin Johnson who decided to retire after nine seasons in the National Football League as his presence alone caused matchup issues for opposing defenses. And in Johnson’s final season with the Lions, he led the team in receptions (88), receiving yards (1,214), and touchdowns (9) as quarterback Matthew Stafford is going to now have to rely on committee of wide receivers where nobody stands out.

One of the Lions biggest issues in 2015 was their inability to run the football. The Lions were last in the National Football League in rushing with rookie running back Ameer Abdullah being their leading rusher with just 597 yards. Abdullah’s struggles summed up the Lions issues on offense which began with their offensive line. The Lions were never able to get the right combination on their offensive line which made their offense one dimensional, while Stafford was running for his life in the pocket.

Ezekiel Ansah

Defensively the Lions do have a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in defensive end Ziggy Ansah who had 14.5 sacks last year, but overall this is a unit that lacks play makers as they could once again be fighting an uphill battle in the NFC North.

Three of the Lions first four games here in 2016 will be on the road, with two of those contests coming against NFC North foes in the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears as another slow start will get the folks in Motown gearing up to run Caldwell out of town.

X-Division Winner

Y-Clinched Wild Card

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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Not Ready For The Spotlight

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Through three quarters of the 2015 National Football League season, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in the thick of playoff contention in the NFC with a record of 8-4. And all signs point to the Vikings being able to earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2012. But for anyone that has followed the Vikings this season knows that they have some questions that must be addressed by them if they intend on being contenders in the playoffs next month.

Of the Vikings eight victories this year, only one has come against a team that currently has a winning record. The Vikings are 1-3 this season against teams that have winning records and they failed miserably in their last two opportunities against playoff contenders.

In Week 11, the Vikings welcomed the Green Bay Packers to town with first place in the NFC North on the line. At the start of the contest, the atmosphere was electric at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. But by the third quarter, the Packers had seized firm control of the game as they went on to win by a score of 30-13. For the game, the Packers defense sacked Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater five times along with limiting running back Adrian Peterson to just 45 yards rushing.

This past Sunday, the Vikings had another shot to prove themselves at home against the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are the defending NFC Champion and they also find themselves right in the middle of the wild card hunt in the conference. But the Seahawks never gave the Vikings an opportunity to breath as they raced to a 21-0 halftime lead. The Seahawks would go on to defeat the Vikings by the score 38-7 with Minnesota’s lone touchdown coming on a 101-yard kickoff return by wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in the third quarter. The Seahawks defense limited the Vikings offense to just 125 yards for the game while Peterson only had 18 yards rushing and Bridgewater was only able to muster 118 passing yards as he was sacked four times.

And it won’t get any easier for the Vikings who’ll be on the road this Thursday night to face the Arizona Cardinals who are currently in first place in the NFC West along with a rematch with the Packers in Week 17 which will more than likely determine the winner of the NFC North. The Vikings are now entering their stretch run with a potential trip to the playoffs where your flaws tend to get exposed.

The Vikings are a team that is not built to come back from large deficits which is something that the Packers and Seahawks each displayed. Offensively, the Vikings rely heavily on their rushing attack which is fifth in the National Football League and it is led by Peterson who is the league’s leading ground gainer with 1,182 yards. But in last Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks, Peterson was a non-factor due to Vikings falling into an early hole. Bridgewater is in his second year as the Vikings starting quarterback, but he is not at the point of his career where he can put the team on his back. And when the Vikings offense becomes one-dimensional in leaning on their passing game, they are in trouble. The Vikings defense is 16th in the NFL in total yards allowed while their 35 sacks are seventh in the league, but in the big games they’ve been unable to get to the quarterback or prevent other teams from scoring which won’t bode well in January against quality opponents.

Anything can happen in the playoffs which is something that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knows. But what Zimmer must do over the final month of the season is to make sure that his team doesn’t get to down on themselves after suffering losses in games where they failed to announce themselves. Zimmer is in his second year with the Vikings and he’s made this team a contender, but there is still work that has to be done.

Teddy Bridgewater

The Vikings will continue to be committed to their running game and Peterson, but their potential trip to the postseason will be a quick one unless Bridgewater is able to make more impact passing plays from within the pocket. This season the Vikings have the 31st best passing offense in the National Football League while they only have 27 passing plays this year that have gained more than 20 yards while Bridgewater is just averaging 6.9 yards per pass completion.

Right now the Vikings offense is good enough to win in the regular season, but they are too predictable to have sustained success come January. And if the Vikings are unable to get more production out of their passing game, opposing defenses will simply stack the box with eight and maybe nine defenders to stop Peterson while forcing Bridgewater to beat them. Zimmer has done a good job of magnifying the Vikings strengths while attempting to minimizing their weaknesses. But in the postseason, there is no place to run and no place to hide. And unless the Vikings offense can get it going, they’ll have an early exit next month.

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2015 NFC North Projections

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X-Green Bay Packers 12-4

This off-season began quicker than expected for the Green Bay Packers. For the first 55 minutes of the NFC Championship Game, the Packers did everything right in order to secure a berth in Super Bowl 49. But the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and in the few moments of overtime, the Packers fell apart and lost to the Seattle Seahawks. And now all that the Packers can do is reassemble and prepare for the 2015 National Football League season.

Aaron Rodgers

But luckily for the Packers, they still have Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. Rodgers is set to enter his eighth season as the Packers starting quarterback and he is one of the best field generals in the NFL. Rodgers threw 38 touchdown passes last season to only 5 interceptions en route to being named as the NFL MVP for the second time in his career. Rodgers has that rare combination a strong throwing arm, precision, and overall awareness on the gridiron which makes the job of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy that much easier.

Around Rodgers, the Packers have talent as in a very short period of time, running back Eddie Lacy has proven himself to be very dependable. The Packers have taken care of Rodgers in the last two off-seasons as they re-signed his top two wide receivers in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb while Davante Adams has the ability to emerge as a bigger part of the passing game in 2015. But whereas Nelson has been Rodgers most dependable target in recent year, things will be different in 2015 due to the fact that Nelson suffered a torn ACL in the preseason. The Packers offensive line might not be full of Pro Bowl caliber players, but they have played together for quite some time and they now have that cohesion which is important to any unit.

Defensively, the Packers have the potential to be really good in 2015 under defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Nose tackle B.J. Raji is returning after missing the entire 2014 NFL season with a bicep injury. And anyone that has followed Raji’s career knows that he is difficult to stop on the interior defensive line as he constantly commands a double team.

Clay Matthews

Last year injuries forced outside linebacker Clay Matthews III to play middle linebacker, but he is once again expected to mainly concentrate on being an edge rusher this year and he’ll have his tag-team partner back on the opposite side of him in outside linebacker Julius Peppers.

The Packers secondary took a ton of criticism following Green Bay’s loss in the NFC Championship Game, but they do return some talent there as strong safety Morgan Burnett and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix each has the potential to be All-Pros this season.

The Packers will begin the season with a very familiar foe as they’ll travel to meet the Chicago Bears while they’ll host the Seahawks in Week 2. And a quick start could be just what the doctor ordered for the Packers as far as them securing home-field advantage in the NFC which could be the difference in them making the Super Bowl this year.

Y-Detroit Lions 10-6

Jim Caldwell

2014 was a good year for the Detroit Lions. The Lions went 11-5 in their first season under head coach Jim Caldwell as they had one of the better teams in the National Football League. The Lions had the second ranked defense in the NFL and they saw quarterback Matthew Stafford enjoy his fourth consecutive season in which he passed for more than 4,200 yards. But we’ll see a different Lions team when they take the field this season.

The Lions didn’t go overboard in attempting to keep defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in spite of his immense production on the field. Suh left the Lions as a free agent to join the Miami Dolphins while defensive tackle Nick Fairley left Detroit to join the St. Louis Rams. To offset the loss of Suh and Fairley, the Lions were able to acquire defensive tackle Haloti Ngata this off-season in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Ngata is a five-time Pro Bowl selection at defensive tackle, but up until this year he has spent his entire NFL career in a 3-4 defensive scheme which will make it interesting to see how he will be able to transition to the 4-3 in Detroit.

The Lions also have talent at linebacker in the form of outside linebackers Kyle Van Noy and DeAndre Levy along with middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch as each player can hit along with cover.

Offensively the Lions still possess one of the best units in the game as explosiveness is what they are all about. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off of his fourth consecutive year in which he threw for at least 4,000 yards and folks that love fantasy football covet the opportunity to have him put up big numbers for them. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson was limited last year due to a bum knee, but the Lions are hopeful that is ready to re-emerge as one of the better receivers in football. Johnson’s injury gave wide receiver Golden Tate the opportunity to prove his worth and the combination of him and “Megatron” aka Johnson could be tough on secondaries in the NFC North.

The Lions were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing, but a change could be on the way. The Lions drafted running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round of the NFL Draft this past spring and he is a home-run hitter at the tailback position as he has the potential to be the team’s first consistent threat at that position in a very long time.

The Lions will be on the road for the first two weeks of the upcoming National Football League season as they’ll take on the San Diego Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings. But Detroit’s biggest test of the year will come during a four-game stretch in the second half of the year where they will meet the Green Bay Packers twice. And if the Lions want to win the NFC North for the first time in franchise history, they are going to have to find a way to defeat the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings 9-7

Mike Zimmer

The Minnesota Vikings were fighting an uphill battle in 2014 under head coach Mike Zimmer, but they found a way to get through it. The Vikings started a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater while they only had the services of running back Adrian Peterson for one game as the National Football League didn’t allow him to play as the result of off-the-field issues. The Vikings were able to survive as they went 7-9 and in 2015, Minnesota feels that they can make the playoffs.

For Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, he can take solace in knowing that Bridgewater showed fight and resolve as he improved as his rookie campaign went along. Bridgewater was able to put the notion to bed that his throwing arm wasn’t strong enough for the brutal elements of Minnesota as the Vikings appear to have their franchise quarterback. And under the tutelage of Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Bridgewater could flirt with completing nearly 70 percent of his passes this year.

The Vikings passing game should also receive a boost after the team acquired wide receiver Mike Wallace from the Miami Dolphins this off-season. Wallace is one of the fastest players in the National Football League, but it is just a matter of him being motivated on each play.

Adrian Peterson

But the Vikings offense will come down to Peterson. It seemed as if the Vikings and Peterson were heading towards a messy divorce, but cooler heads have prevailed which is a good thing for Minnesota and bad for every other team within the NFC North. Even with the return of Peterson, the Vikings running game game suffered a blow in training camp when offensive tackle Phil Loadholt ruptured his Achilles tendon and his absence will leave a big void to be filled.

Prior to becoming the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer made his name in the NFL on the defensive side of the football which included stints as the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Cincinnati Bengals. And whereas the NFC North features high-profile quarterbacks in Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, and Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, Zimmer knows that he needs a strong defense that is going to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in order to win games.

The Vikes were 14th in the National Football League last year in total defense and that number has the potential to improve this year being that their defensive line can disrupt things. Defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph can plug up the middle while defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison could both be in the running to be selected to the Pro Bowl which should make life a bit easier for the back seven in the Vikings defense.

If the Vikings are able to remain relevant in the playoff picture until November when the temperature begins to drop, they can become a very formidable team as opponents won’t be thrilled to have to play them in cold of Minnesota.

Chicago Bears 7-9

The past few years have seen a tremendous overhaul in the front office of the Chicago Bears and the result has been an unsuccessful football team. Ryan Pace is the Bears third general manager since 2011 while John Fox is the third head coach in Chicago since 2012. The Bears are Pace’s first shot at being a general manager in the National Football League while this will be Fox’s third stop as far as being a head coach. Fox has a career record of 119-89 in 14 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. And at each stop along the way, Fox was able to take his team to the Super Bowl at least once. Fox is still one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, but his time in Chicago will be defined by what he will be able to do with Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler.

Jay Cutler

Cutler has all of the physical tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and to also lead the Bears to a Super Bowl Title, but it comes down to whether or not that he’ll be dialed in mentally. Part of Cutler’s problem is that 2015 will be his seventh year in Chicago and new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be the fifth different offensive coordinator that he will be working with in the Windy City. And Cutler is also coming off of his second season with the Bears in which he led the NFL in interceptions.

The Bears played the old switcheroo this off-season when wide receiver Brandon Marshall was traded to the New York Jets. Pace didn’t waste any time in replacing Marshall as he used the Bears first round pick at the 2015 National Football League Draft on wide receiver Kevin White. At 6’3″, 215 lbs., White has the physical tools to be good, it is just a matter of him getting adjusted to the professional game. But the bigger problem for the Bears and White right now is that a shin injury has kept him on the sidelines during training camp which could carry over to the regular season. The Bears still have wide receiver Alshon Jeffery who will be looked at as being the go-to-guy for Cutler in the Bears passing game now that Marshall is no longer with the team.

But the best thing that can help a struggling quarterback is a strong running game. And when Fox was with both the Panthers and Broncos, he had teams that were able run the football effectively. Since joining the Bears in 2008, running back Matt Forte has been one of the better and more reliable players at his position in the NFL. And only Walter Payton has rushed for more yards in a Bears uniform than Forte. Forte has been durable as well and you can expect him to carry the football at least 200 times this season.

But for both Cutler and Forte, this will be a very young offensive line that will be blocking for them in 2015 and with that it will be important to get some cohesion early on if this offense will be able to enjoy any success this season.

The Bears finished last season ranked 30th in total defense which means that there will be some changes on that side of the football in Chicago. Fox has allowed new Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to switch the Bears from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme which will ask more of the linebackers. Fangio spent the last four seasons as the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers where he coached some of the best defensive players of this era. The Bears don’t have any defensive play makers currently as this scheme will be a work in progress for both Fox and Fangio.

The Bears first three games of 2015 will be against playoff teams from last season in the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, and Seattle Seahawks as Fox, Cutler, and crew can ill-afford to begin the new season in the basement of the NFC North.

X-Clinched Division

Y-Clinched Wild Card

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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2015 NFC North Draft Grades

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Green Bay Packers

Grade: A 

Best Pick: Round Three-Ty Montgomery-Wide Receiver-Stanford

It was another stellar trip to the National Football League Draft for the Green Bay Packers. Packers general manager Ted Thompson was able to find new players that he’s hopeful will be able to keep the machine in Green Bay going.

The first round saw the Packers drafted Arizona State safety Damorius Randall who will team with last year’s first round choice, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to give Green Bay one of the youngest duos as far as starting safeties in the NFL. The Packers would go on to select cornerback Quinten Rollins in the second round. Rollins spent the majority of his collegiate career at Miami (Ohio) playing basketball which shows you his athleticism as he was still selected by an NFL team. The Pack found good value in the third round when they selected wide receiver Ty Montgomery. At Stanford, Montgomery didn’t play in a pass oriented offense, but he will be good on special teams as far as returning kicks and he’ll develop into another viable option for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the passing game.

Brett Hundley

The Packers also got more value in the fifth round when they selected quarterback Brett Hundley. Entering the NFL Draft, Hundley and his representatives felt that he could go in the first round, but he suffered a long fall until he finally heard his name called. Hundley primarily played in the spread offense in college at UCLA and the Packers incorporate the spread into their offense. Hundley can learn from one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in Rodgers and there won’t be any pressure on him.

This draft class should help the Packers make it seven consecutive trips to the postseason.

Detroit Lions

Grade: A+

Best Pick: Round Two-Ameer Abdullah-Running Back-Nebraska

Since Martin Mayhew has taken over as the general manager of the Detroit Lions, the organization is finally getting it right as far as analyzing talent. The Lions are coming off of a postseason berth and they are hopeful that the upcoming season will be the first time since 1995 that they’ll make consecutive trips to the playoffs.

The Lions were expected to select a running back in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. But when running backs Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon were gone by the Lions turn to pick came around, the settled on guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round who will fill a void on the offensive line in Detroit. Tomlinson will be busy opening holes for his fellow draft class mate with the Lions, running back Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah was selected by the Lions in the second round after a stellar career at the University of Nebraska and he should be an impact player coming out of the backfield in Detroit.

The Lions and Mayhew were also able to find a steal in the fourth when they selected Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright who will be another athletic body on their defensive line as in order for them to win the NFC North this season, they must find a way to get to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

In spite of their losses in free agency, the Lions will still contend in 2015 as they picked up quality players and more importantly, character guys.

Minnesota Vikings

Grade: A

Best Pick: Round Four-T.J. Clemmings-Offensive Tackle-Pittsburgh

Mike Zimmer

Under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota Vikings showed improvements and a quality draft class could help them reach the postseason in 2015. I expected the Vikings to select wide receiver DeVante Parker in the first of the 2015 NFL Draft, but instead they opted for cornerback Trae Waynes. Zimmer built his reputation in the NFL as a defensive coordinator and he’ll coach up Waynes and make him a quality player in his system.

Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks had first round potential, but he fell to the Vikings in the second round and I won’t be surprised if he is starting when the regular season rolls around. The fourth round saw the Vikings select offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings. Leading up to the NFL Draft, Clemmings was looked at as being a player that could have been selected late in the first round, if not early in the second. Clemmings had injury issues while in college, but he is looked at as a player that can be a solid right tackle in Minnesota. The Vikings selected wide receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round. Diggs didn’t put up big time numbers in college which can be attributed to the fact that he didn’t play in a prolific offense at the University of Maryland. But it won’t take Diggs that long to realize that he is no longer in college as Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater won’t have a problem in getting him the football.

Zimmer and the Vikings are building a winning football team in the Twin Cities.

Chicago Bears

Grade: B

Best Pick: Round Four-Jeremy Langford-Running Back-Michigan State

The new regime for the Chicago Bears which consists of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox used the 2015 NFL Draft to find quality talent. After trading wide receiver Brandon Marshall this off-season to the New York Jets, I expected the Bears to select another wide receiver early in the draft. And when the Oakland Raiders selected wide receiver Amari Cooper, it was a no-brainer that the Bears would select wide receiver Kevin White. at 6’3″, 215 lbs., White has freakish athleticism and he’ll be able to bully smaller defensive backs while providing a big body for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to lock in on.

Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman was teetering on the brink of being a first round selection, but the Bears were able to tab him early in the second round as Chicago is trying to stock up on bodies for their defensive line. The Bears already had depth in their backfield and they were able to add to it when they used the fourth round to select running back Jeremy Langford.

The Bears only had six picks in the NFL Draft, but Pace and Fox made the most out of them.

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