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NFC North Breakdown

Ah, the NFC Norris division.  Often made fun of last year because of their lack of any skill, this is a division that could be on the upswing.  The Bears have the best defense in football and could even make a playoff push, while the Vikings and Lions could be simply a year or two away from the playoffs.  Learn a little more about the teams in our sixth divisional preview…Chicago Bears

Key Additions:
Brian Griese, QB; Ricky Manning Jr., DB; Dante Wesley, DB

Key Losses:
Jerry Azumah, DB

Strengths:
Again, this looks like the best defense in football.  Ex-UNH Wildcat, Jerry Azumah is the only notable loss and the team was fine without him most of last year due to injury.  In fact, they even strengthened the secondary with the additions of the underrated Manning and Wesley to go along with established superstars like Vasher, Tillman, and “Downtown” Mike Brown.  The linebackers are also very strong, led by Urlacher and Lance Briggs.  They instill fear in the best of opposing running backs and quarterbacks.  The line is also very solid, providing a great anchor to this incredible defense.  On the offensive side, the Bears seem to have developed the running game nicely, regardless of whether it is Thomas Jones or Cedric Benson getting the most touches.  The offensive line is very underrated and has two of the top linemen in football in Olin Kreutz and John Tait.  Both backs are good enough to get some damage done behind them.

Weaknesses:
Yes, the Bears brought in Brian Griese, but quarterback is still this team’s biggest weakness.  Rex Grossman may have a lot of talent, but we’d never know it considering he’s played 8 games in his entire 3 year career as the Bears first-string QB.  Those in Chicago shouldn’t get too excited about the possibility of seeing Grossman healthy for at least a quarter of the season in ’06, as in those 8 games, he has just 1303 yards and a 68.8 quarterback rating… not exactly the picture of a Super Bowl MVP.  While Griese may be a serviceable backup should Grossman be injured or play like, well, Rex Grossman, he’s a journeyman and isn’t capable of working miracles.  These two also won’t have much to throw to either.  Muhsin Muhammad may have some skills, but he’s 33-years-old and had a disappointing ’05 campaign.  The up-and-coming Mark Bradley looks like he’ll be number two on the depth chart, but he’s still young and inexperienced.  The offense is going to struggle again as they will be one-dimensional.  However, they were fine last year, so I don’t think it will bury them this year.

Prediction:
10-6, first in NFC North
It’s a good thing Lovie Smith has such a great defensive mind, because he may need to hold down the opposition to single digits several times this year.  However, they managed an 11-5 record last year and only seemed to mature in the off season, so I’m not expecting much of a drop off.

Detroit Lions

Key Additions
Jon Kitna, QB; Josh McCown, QB; Dan Campbell, TE; Corey Bradford, WR; Barry Stokes, OT; Rex Tucker, OT; Paris Lenon, LB; Ernie Sims (Draft), LB; Brian Calhoun (Draft), RB

Key Losses:
Joey Harrington, QB; Jeff Garcia, QB; R.W. McQuarters, DB; Andre’ Goodman, DB; Kyle Kosier, OT

Strengths:
I actually think this will be a very decent offense.  We already know Jon Kitna can step up and play quarterback with young weapons around him and Mike Martz knows how to create a winning offense.  Roy Williams is a stud receiver and will play the Chad Johnson/Torry Holt role as the primary receiver.  Then I believe Mike Williams is going to step it up and prove to be a solid receiver while Charles Rogers fades into a third or fourth receiver role.  Marcus Pollard is also a very underrated tight end and could step it up this year as another option as he did in Indy, should Martz choose to utilize him.  Kevin Jones could be primed for a breakout after last year’s sophomore slump.  He still has all the skills but just didn’t get the job done last year.  If he has problems, there is a pair of serviceable backs behind him in Shaun Bryson and Artose Pinner.  The Lions also drafted Brian Calhoun who could be waiting in the wings to take over the job, should Jones falter.

Weaknesses:
Well, I must say that this is a pretty easy team to categorize; good offense, bad defense.  It’s simple as that.  The killer M’s (Marinelli and Millen) took a big step in the right direction with the draft pick of Ernie Sims.  This guy will be a superstar in the NFL.  Unfortunately, he’s still a rookie and won’t be the superstar they need just yet.  They are weak at every layer.  Shaun Rogers can clog up the middle of the line, maybe preventing runs up the middle, but after that, there are a lot of problems.  Dre Bly is a decent corner, but nobody else can cover the pass. While Kenoy Kennedy is a great run stuffing safety, he has some issues dropping into coverage.  This team seems to be inept when it comes to covering elite receivers or containing dominant quarterbacks.

Prediction:
7-9, third in NFC North
Finally, there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel for these Detroit Lions.  They won’t be a playoff team this year, but if they can improve that defense next off season, after another year of offensive maturity, I think we could be looking at a contender in the NFC.

Green Bay Packers

Key Additions:
Charles Woodson, DB; Ryan Pickett, DT; Kenderick Allen, DT; Ben Taylor, LB; Marquand Manuel, DB; Billy Cundiff, K; Marc Boerigter, WR; A.J. Hawk (Draft), LB

Key Losses:
Mike Flanagan, C; Antonio Chatman, WR; Tony Fisher, RB; Craig Nall, QB; Ryan Longwell, K; Paris Lenon, LB

Strengths:
Despite Brett Favre’s confidence-manufacturing prediction that this is the best team he’s ever played with, I’m finding it very difficult to see any logic behind this statement.  No, I’m not one of those who think Brett Favre is completely washed up.  I think he’s still got something left in the tank and could still win NFL games on the right team.  However, this is definitely not the right team.  He’s got a few nice weapons around him with Donald Driver and Bubba Franks.  However, the rest of the offense is going in a bunch of different directions.  I love the draft pick of A.J. Hawk.  This guy will be a consistent star on the Packers roster for years and years.  He’s the kind of rock you build a defense around.  Unfortunately, the Packers have failed to build that defense just yet.

Weaknesses:
Al Harris and Charles Woodson will occupy both corner positions and, while both are serviceable, neither can shut down an elite receiver one-on-one.  Their jobs also become much more difficult when you consider the fact that the rest of the secondary will be barren.  The line and linebackers don’t show much more promise either.  On the offensive side, the running game looks to be an issue.  Ahman Green is a shadow of his former self and has developed a knack for timely injuries.  Then there’s Samkon Gado.  He doesn’t have blazing speed, can’t shed tackles and fumbles at the slightest ball knock.  He had a couple good games last year, but I don’t see him carrying that over to this season.  Najeh Davenport is probably the best back on this team, but sits third on the depth chart and won’t get many touches.  Losing Mike Flanagan made a weak line even weaker and they won’t be of much help to this troubled offense.

Prediction:
3-13, last in NFC North
A lot of questions here that new head coach Mike McCarthy will have to address.  How will he balance Favre’s over-inflated winning ego with a team that will be losing games?  Can he handle the pressure of losing in Green Bay?  Who’s going to step up at running back?  Too many problems…

Minnesota Vikings

Key Additions:
Chester Taylor, RB; Tony Richardson, FB; Steve Hutchinson, OG; Tank Williams, SS; Ryan Longwell, K; Ben Leber, LB; Mike McMahon, QB; Chad Greenway (Draft), LB; Tarvaris Jackson (Draft), QB

Key Losses:
Daunte Culpepper, QB; Corey Chavous, DB; Michael Bennett, RB; Brian Williams, DB; Nate Burleson, WR; Kelly Campbell, WR; Sam Cowart, LB; Raonall Smith, LB; Keith Newman, LB; Lance Johnstone, DE; Melvin Fowler, C

Strengths:
For the first time in years, the running game looks to be the Vikings’ biggest strength.  Chester Taylor is all set up to have a huge breakout year.  After spending his entire career behind Jamal Lewis on the Baltimore depth chart, Minnesota has given him his big break.  He’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and arguably the best fullback in the league, Tony Richardson.  I can’t wait to get this guy in the 4th round of my fantasy league and watch him dominate.  The defense also seems to be improving with a lot of good young players.  While the loss of Chavous certainly hurts, Tank Williams is a worthy replacement.  The loss of Cowart also leaves a mark, but rookie Chad Greenway will step in right away and should do well.  The secondary is still where this defense can hurt you though.  They’ve got a lot of good players who can shut down the pass.

Weaknesses:
This team will still have trouble stopping the run.  Their line still hasn’t totally matured and the linebackers look pretty weak.  This still isn’t a top defense in the league as they have a lot of maturation to go through, but they have moved in the right direction.  The passing attack will be a problem this year.  They lost two of their best receivers (not that that’s saying much) and really don’t have any great weapons for Brad Johnson to throw to.  Troy Williamson may be a good player eventually, but he still has issues now.  This will really hurt them.

Prediction:
8-8, second in NFC North
The Vikings, along with the Lions, are a team that looks poised to make a move in the next couple of years, but playoffs are out of the question right now.  I like Brad Childress as a head coach and he will help lead this young squad to a respectable record this year.

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Final Standings
Chicago  10-6
Minnesota  8-8
Detroit  7-9
Green Bay  3-13

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Stay tuned for the upcoming NFC South breakdown…

(Note: This article was originally written for The Bet Doctor.)

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