Minnesota Vikings 12-4
Heading into the 2017 National Football League season, the Minnesota Vikings were not expected to be one of the top teams in the league, but they didn’t receive that memo. The Vikings went 13-3 to win the NFC North as they adopted “the next man up” philosophy. The Vikings went into the season expecting Sam Bradford to be their starting quarterback; however a knee injury limited him to two games. Running back Dalvin Cook was Minnesota’s second-round pick in 2017, and he was expected to have an immediate impact for the Vikings as he joined them after a stellar collegiate career at Florida State which included him being a two-time All-American. But unfortunately for the Vikings and Cook, he would suffer a torn ACL in the team’s fourth game of the game of the year which ended his campaign. And with all of this adversity facing the Vikings, it would have been easy for them to pack it in, but they didn’t which is a credit to their head coach Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings played a smart brand of football as they protected the football on offense, while relying on the top defense in the National Football League. And when it was all said and done the Vikes found themselves in the NFC Championship Game. But in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings were overmatched by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles, who after spotting Minnesota the game’s first touchdown, torched them for 38 consecutive points.
Case Keenum was the starting quarterback for the majority 2017 as he had the best season of his career by far, however that would not keep him in the Twin Cities as the Vikings allowed him to leave in free agency. Minnesota felt that they needed an upgrade at the quarterback position, and thus they set their sights of Kirk Cousins.
Cousins was the Redskins starting quarterback for the last three years which included him helping them to win the NFC East in 2015, while earning himself a Pro Bowl nod in 2016. But Cousins and the Redskins could never come to terms on a long-term deal, and when he became an unrestricted free agent this off-season, Minnesota came calling.
Cousins was a prolific passer in his three years as the Redskins starting quarterback which included leading the National Football League in completion percentage in 2015 at 69.8%. However Cousins’ stats can be deceiving as with a high completion percentage, and passing for at 4,000 yards in each of those three years, his record as a starter is only 24-23-1 over that span. And now with the Vikings, Cousins cannot afford to be mediocre as a starting quarterback due to the fact that this teams feels it is ready to win a Super Bowl. Minnesota was 11th in the National Football League last year in total offense and all they are asking Cousins to do is keep the ship steady, while providing them with the occasional big play as balance is the name of the game for them.
In joining the Vikings last year, running back Latavius Murray was expected to split carries with rookie running back Dalvin Cook. But when Cook suffered a torn ACL early on in the season, Murray became the guy who was called on to be the main ball carrier for Minnesota. However with a healthy Cook back this year, the Vikes will have a solid duo with he and Murray as both running backs have the ability to lean on opposing defenses.
The past two years have seen wide receiver Adam Thielen emerge as an impact player for Minnesota in their passing game. Thielen is coming off of a year where he hauled in 91 receptions for 1,276 yards as he is go-to-guy on third down for this Vikings offense in the same fashion that we see wide receiver Julian Edelman operate for the New England Patriots. And that ability to move the chains will come in handy as I see Thielen being one of the main options in the Vikings passing game for Cousins.
And whereas that Thielen is the guy who can help Minnesota move the chains in their offense, the team’s home run hitter at the wide receiver position is Stefon Diggs. In three years with the Vikes, Diggs has shown flashes of being ready to be a breakout player in their passing game. Diggs is a speedster that can stretch the field, and he should be able to be on the receiving end of his fair share of deep passes from Cousins this season.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph has never been able to reach the 1,000-yard mark in any of his seven seasons in the National Football League, but his ability to keep safeties honest in the passing game is important to the Vikings offense. And if Minnesota is able to get the running game established as much as possible this year, Rudolph will be a willing recipient of play-action passes coming his way.
Dating back to Mike Zimmer’s days as the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, he has always been a proponent of having a staunch defense. And now as Zimmer is the head coach of the Vikings, that trend has continued. Minnesota possessed the top-ranked defense in the National Football League which included them only allowing 15.8 points per game last season which should carry over to this year.
The Vikings are able to create pressure from their front four along which includes defensive end Everson Griffen. In three of the last four years, Griffen has reached double-digits in sacks, while he has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three. At 6’3″, 273 lbs., Griffen knows how to use speed and leverage when he is going up against offensive tackles around the National Football League as he will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
In a move that will fly under the radar, Minnesota signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson this off-season as this will bolster their defensive line. A knee injury has threatened the once promising career of defensive tackle Shariff Floyd which has led to them signing Richardson. Both Richardson and Floyd were first-round picks in 2013, and now Richardson will look to fill his draft classmate’s void on this Vikings D-line. When Richardson is motivated, he is one of the top defensive players in the league as he not only knows how to get to the football, but he also is an effective run stopper. And being that Richardson will be looking to showcase himself for a big payday next spring, the Vikings will have themselves a player who could put together a Pro Bowl caliber season.
The ability of the Vikings defensive line to wreak havoc allows their linebackers to focus on tackling everything in front of them. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks led Minnesota in tackles last season with 113, while outside linebacker Anthony Barr has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three years.
Free safety Harrison Smith and strong safety Andrew Sendejo each act as extra linebackers on the field due to their ability to play the run, while cornerback Xavier Rhodes who is a two-time Pro Bowl selection is slightly underrated in regards to being one of the top cover corners in football.
The Vikings won’t have an easy schedule this year as their first three road games will be against the Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, and Philadelphia Eagles, while away games versus the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will be daunting as well.
Green Bay Packers 11-5
The 2017 National Football League season began with the Green Bay Packers in their usual spot. The Packers were once again expected to contend for the Super Bowl Title, and they backed that up with their 4-1 start. However things would change for the Packers in their Week 6 meeting with the Minnesota Vikings as quarterback Aaron Rodgers would suffer a fractured right collarbone which severely hampered Green Bay’s chances.
Without Rodgers, the Packers would go 3-5, and when the two-time National Football League MVP was able to return in Week 15, Green Bay’s playoff hopes were hanging on a string.
The Packers would finish the year with a record of 7-9 for their first losing season since 2008. And in the process it was further illustrated that Rodgers has been asked to do so much without a wealth of talent around him.
After 13 years as the Packers general manager, Ted Thompson would step aside and make way for Brian Gutekunst. Gutekunst has been with the Packers organization for the last 20 years and being the team’s general manager is something that he has been groomed for. Gutekunst has been at work this off-season attempting to upgrade the Packers roster, and only time will tell if he has given head coach Mike McCarthy enough to make this team contend.
The first order of business for the Packers is that they must find a semblance of order for their running game. Last year the Packers were 17th in the National Football League in rushing, but their leading rusher was running back Jamaal Williams with just 556 yards. Green Bay has not had a runner gain at least 1,000 yards since 2014 as it’s all about Rodgers making things happen.
However the Packers feel that Williams can break through and be the feature back for them which will be important as this offense is in need of some balance.
Green Bay keeps waiting for wide receiver Devante Adams to break out and become “the guy” in their passing game. And there is no time like the present for that as Rodgers needs Adams to be that guy after wide receiver Jordy Nelson was released this off-season.
The past several years have seen Rodgers lack a quality tight end to get the football to, but that will change this season as the Packers signed Jimmy Graham. This decade has seen Graham become one of the premier receiving tight ends in the National Football League as he can stretch the field, while keeping safeties and linebackers honest. Graham has worked his way back nicely from a torn right patellar tendon in 2015 that threatened to ruin his career. Graham may never have the explosion that he once had, but if he and Rodgers are able to develop a chemistry, he could be Pro Bowl bound for the sixth time in his career.
Last year the Packers were 22nd in the National Football League in total defense, but this team could be ready to improve. During the past few years defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was not a happy camper as a member of the New York Jets which showed up in his overall play. And after the Jets released Wilkerson this year, he was able to land on his feet with the Packers. When Wilkerson is motivated, he can be a force in regards to rushing the passer, and the fact that he’s now on a team that has a shot at making the playoffs, along with the fact that he is only on a one-year deal which is paying him $5 million should bring out the best in him.
In recent years Clay Matthews has not been the force that he was earlier in his career in regards to rushing the passer due to the fact that he’s been slowed down by injuries, along with the fact that has been asked to play middle linebacker in some situations. Matthews is now 32-years of age, but if he can find a way to get at least 10 sacks this season, it would be a huge shot in the arm for this Packers team.
It has not taken middle linebacker Blake Martinez that long to become a household name in the Wisconsin area. Martinez was a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2016, and the same work ethic that he displayed collegiately at Stanford has carried over to the National Football League. Martinez is a smart linebacker, while he also led the Packers last season in tackles with 144. Martinez has good lateral movement, while he is also solid versus the run as he will be in the mix for his first Pro Bowl selection this year.
It won’t take us that long to see if the Packers are back as their first two games of the upcoming season will be against NFC North foes in the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings as this team looks to regain its spot as one of the top contenders in the NFC.
Detroit Lions 7-9
In four years as the head coach of the Detroit Lions, Jim Caldwell only posted one losing season which included two trips to the playoffs. But after the Lions missed out on reaching the playoffs last year, the team’s front office decided that they needed to make a change. The Lions are turning to Matt Patricia to be their next head coach, and they are hopeful that he can bring with him some of that winning formula from his previous employer.
Patricia spent the last 14 years as an assistant coach with New England Patriots; most notably as the team’s defensive coordinator for the last six years. Patricia helped the Patriots win 11 AFC East Titles and three Super Bowl Titles as they’ve been the winningest franchise in the National Football League this century.
Patricia inherits a team that has some talent, but will he be able to get the Lions to contend in the NFC North?
It’s safe to refer to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford as the modern day Brett Favre. In 2012, Stafford set a National Football League single-season record with 727 pass attempts. Stafford has not slowed down since then as he continues to be among the league leaders in passing each year. But Stafford’s brand of football has not resulted in success for Detroit as in his nine-year career with the Lions, his record is only 60-65. Stafford is a fantasy football owner’s dream as you can all but pencil him in for 4,500 yards passing a 30 touchdowns with most of his passes this year being thrown in the direction of wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Tate. However can this aerial assault lead the Lions to January football?
Patricia must find a way for fix the Lions stagnant running game which has been the worst in the National Football League in recent years. Last year Detroit was dead last in the NFL in rushing a three individual players around the league had more yards on the ground than them. The Lions have attempted to remedy this as they signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount this off-season, while using a second-round pick on running back Kerryon Johnson, but it will all come down to whether or not that they can get some cohesion on their offensive line.
To put it mildly the Lions offensive line has not been good in recent years as aside from inability to pass block as Stafford was sacked 47 times last season, they cannot open holes in the running game either. Patricia has brought in Jeff Davidson to be the Lions new offensive line coach as this unit needs to begin play with an edge as this is something that they’ve lacked for a very long time.
Defensively the Lions have play makers as Patricia will look to get the most out of them. After recording 12 sacks last season, the Lions opted to place the franchise tag on defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Ansah has been up and down throughout his five-year career, and it will be interesting to see if Patricia will be able to get the most out of him in 2018. In recent years Detroit has focused heavily on their defensive front seven as they’ve used early picks in the draft on players such as defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and middle linebacker Jarrad Davis. Davis was the Lions second leading tackler last season with 96 as he has the makings to become a leader for them, but players such as Robinson and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams who was signed in free agency this year will need to have big impacts.
Cornerback Darius Slay is coming off of the first Pro Bowl season of his career as he tied for the league lead in interceptions with 8. Slay is an aggressive corner who can frustrate opposing wide receivers, but as we’ve seen in the National Football League, it is so difficult for players to put together consecutive high stats years as opponents make adjustments. I don’t foresee Slay once again being able to get 8 picks, but he will still be one of the better cover corners in the NFL.
This will be an up and down season for the Lions as they were a .500-team before Patricia, and now he will spend this year attempting to find his niche as a head coach in the National Football League.
Chicago Bears 7-9
It’s hard to believe, but you have to go back to the 2010 National Football League season to find the last time that the Chicago Bears reached the playoffs. For several years the Bears appeared to be in limbo until they decided that a full out rebuild was the only way for them to go. And now in the Windy City, the Bears are hopeful that they finally have the pieces in place to turn things around in order to compete in the NFC North.
Matt Nagy spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, and now the Bears are giving him the chance to be a head coach in the National Football League. Nagy is charged with getting things turned around in Chicago which begins with helping quarterback Mitchell Trubisky reach his full potential.
The Bears drafted Trubisky second overall in 2017, and he took his lumps as a rookie. In 12 starts, Trubisky posted a record of 4-8, while he threw 7 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. However Trubisky displayed toughness and poise as those intangibles will be important to his growth as a franchise player. Now Nagy needs to show his ability to not only be the Bears full-time starting quarterback, but also to have precision with his passes, and eventually become the first signal caller for the franchise to reach the Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon in 1986.
But if Trubisky is going to be the leader of this offense in Chicago, he is not going to do it by himself. Bears general Ryan Pace has been attempting to put talent around Trubisky and you can see that with the explosiveness of running back Jordan Howard. The Bears franchise has a long and storied history in regards to having quality ball carriers such as Walter Payton and Gale Sayers as Howard is well on his way to one day being mentioned in the same breath as these guys. Howard was a fifth-round pick by the Bears in 2016, and in just two years he has already gained 2,435 yards on the ground. What makes Howard so important to the Bears cause is that he is durable, while also being difficult to tackle. Already Howard has 528 carriers to his credit in the National Football League, and you can expect another healthy dose of him as he is indeed a tone setter for this offense.
The Bears also have an experienced offensive line in front of Trubisky which is also going to be important for the Bears to turn things around. In each season from 2013-2015, guard Kyle Long was a Pro Bowler for the Bears, but injuries have limited him over the last two years. Hands down Long is one of the best guards in the National Football League due to his athleticism in both the passing game as well as when the Bears are running the football. And if Long is healthy for 2018, Chicago will have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL.
Last year the Bears were tenth in the National Football League in total defense as they were stingy at times under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. And as Fangio looks to once again have one of the top defenses in the NFL, it will begin with the play of his linebackers.
The Bears are hopeful that outside linebacker Leonard Floyd will develop into being the dominant pass rusher that they envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2016. But since Floyd has joined the Bears, he has been unable to stay on the field as he only appeared in 22 games. In 22 games with the Bears, Floyd has 11.5 sacks, and if he is unable to begin living up to the hype that led to him being a top-ten pick in 2016, it will hinder Chicago’s chances of improving on defense.
Floyd will be greeting one of his former college teammates from Georgia in the Bears locker room. This years the Bears used the eighth overall pick in the draft on former Georgia middle linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith comes to Chicago as a highly decorated college player as he won the Butkus Award last year as the nation’s top linebacker, while also being named the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Smith was the engine for a stingy defense, and now he will be asked to do the same thing for this Bears defense. Smith showed tremendous instincts in college as well as an innate ability to get to the ball carrier. And now Smith will look to add his name to a who’s who of players who’ve played middle linebacker for the Bears which includes Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher who all happen to be Pro Football Hall of Famers.
But Smith’s transition to the National Football League will be made a little easier with the Bears due to the presence of inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Trevathan has six years in the National Football League under his belt which includes two with the Bears. But unfortunately for Trevathan, he has been unable to remain healthy with the Bears as he only appeared in 21 games for them. However hopefully this can be the year that Trevathan remains healthy as his smarts of the middle linebacker position will be a welcome addition for this Bears defense that needs his leadership.
But the Bears defense received a huge boost when they were able to acquire outside linebacker Khalil Mack. In fours years with the Oakland Raiders, Mack amassed 40.5 sacks, while also taking home defensive player of the year honors in 2016. But Mack found himself in a bitter contract with the Raiders which led to him joining the Bears. Now the presence of Mack solidifies the Bears pass rush as he gives their defense a player who will always command a double team.
As Nagy looks to establish himself as the Bears head coach, his team will show some signs of improvement, but it won’t be enough for them to be a contender in the NFC North.