The NFC North will challenge the NFC East this year for being the toughest division in the conference. Three of the four teams are legit playoff contenders, while the Lions only continue to improve as a whole.
Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.
What to Like: Given how well he played last year, Aaron Rodgers should be considered a MVP candidate this season. The fact that he was able to throw for 4,434 yards and compile a 103.2 QB rating despite constantly being under pressure is rather amazing. Just think about what he could accomplish this year if the O-line gave him even a fraction of a second more time to throw. Rodgers will lead a passing attack that racked up 261.3 yards per game last season, which was good for seventh in the NFL. He also has an assortment of weapons to throw to, namely receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, as well as rising talent Jermichael Finley. In the backfield, Ryan Grant continues to be underrated and is coming off a 1,253-yard, 11-touchdown season. Defensively, Dom Capers was a miracle worker in his first year, as Green Bay led the NFC in total defense despite switching to the 3-4 (most first-year 3-4 teams struggle). Rookie Clay Matthews turned out to be a phenomenal pass-rusher and Nick Barnett was outstanding in the middle, both against the run and in coverage. Despite his age, Charles Woodson (33) continues to play at an elite level.
What Not to Like: The offensive line was a disaster at times last year, save for the play of right guard Josh Sitton. If Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher can make it through an entire season without suffering injuries, this will be a much-improved unit and then Rodgers won’t have to spend most Sunday afternoons running for his life. But both tackles are in their 30s and injuries always seem to be an issue. At left guard, Daryn Colledge struggled, although it’s only fair to point out that he was out of position subbing at tackle. While Tramon Williams is more than capable of handling the starting corner position opposite Woodson, losing Al Harris (knee surgery) was a huge blow to Green Bay’s depth at secondary. The concern is that given Harris’ age (35) and the nature of his injury, he may never play again. The other potential issue on defense is whether or not B.J. Raji can handle playing nose tackle after a lackluster 2009 season as a 3-4 end. All good 3-4 teams have a stout nose tackle to eat up space and if Raji isn’t up for the task, it will certainly have an effect on the linebackers.
Keep Your Eye On: Jermichael Finley
Finley put himself on the map last season by catching 55 passes for 676 yards and five touchdowns in just 13 games. He finished the year by hauling in six passes for 159 yards in Green Bay’s loss to the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, leading to high expectations this year. If he can stay focused (which is the biggest concern with this youngster), he could put up fantastic numbers in the Packers’ explosive passing attack this season.
The Final Word: Expectations are high for the Packers this year, as well they should be. If the offensive line can stay healthy then this is the team to beat in the NFC North. The great thing is that Ted Thompson spent his first round draft pick on tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga, meaning Green Bay now has depth in case injuries do start to mount. Rodgers is the real deal and could lead the Pack deep into the playoffs if his O-line doesn’t get him killed first. Defensively, there are some concerns but Capers will make up for them by being aggressive. If the Packers can win the division and force opponents to come to Green Bay come January, then this will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season. The pieces are in place for this team to make a serious run.
What to Like: After a playing a rousing game of “Who can be more annoying?” with head coach Brad Childress, Lord Favre has decided to return for another year. (As if anyone had any doubts.) That’s good news given that a) Favre led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game last season and b) he’s a significantly better option at quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels. Adrian Peterson will once again join Favre in Minnesota’s backfield and as long as the fourth year back can cut down on the fumbles, he’ll punish opposing defenses on a weekly basis. Assuming migraines don’t hamper him like they did in training camp, Percy Harvin should continue to produce as one of the team’s top playmakers. He was highly impressive as a rookie last year and he’ll get even more opportunities to make plays now that Sidney Rice (hip surgery) will miss at least the first six weeks of the season. Defensively, the strength of the unit remains the front four thanks to massive DTs Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, as well as outstanding pass-rushers Jared Allen and Ray Edwards. E.J. Henderson returns in the middle after missing the team’s final four regular season games and all of the playoffs due to an injury.
What Not to Like: Although the man has never missed a game in his professional career, injuries are always a concern with the 192-year-old Favre. It remains to be seen if his surgically repaired ankle will hold up for an entire season so that he can lead the Vikings back into the playoffs. As previously mentioned, fumbles are a concern with AP, as is the O-line’s ability to open up running lanes, believe it or not. Steve Hutchinson struggled mightily in the running game, presumably because of lingering back and shoulder issues, as did Bryant McKinnie, who also dealt with plantar facilities in his feet. Phil Loadholt was a nice surprise, but even he had problems in the run-blocking department, as did center John Sullivan. Defensively, the secondary is a huge question mark, especially when you consider Cedric Griffin is likely to miss a lot of time due to the ACL injury he suffered in last year’s NFC title game. Lito Sheppard is coming off a decent year with the Jets, but he’s inconsistent and it remains to be seen whether rookie Chris Cook (who has impressed this offseason) and/or Asher Allen can be starters. Safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson only add to the coverage concerns.
Keep Your Eye On: Percy Harvin
While the receiving corps shouldn’t be a concern this season, not having Rice will be. Rice really came into his own last season with Favre’s help and now that he’ll be out for most the year that means Harvin will be counted on even more than he was last year. Again, if migraines don’t slow him down, Harvin could be in store for a huge 2010.
The Final Word: I’m going with my gut here and predicting a major step back for the Vikings this season. There seems to be a different feel to this team this year, even with the return of Favre. I don’t think he’ll capture the magic he did last year and the defense (save for the line) could struggle because of its secondary. That said, this is still a winning team – I just don’t know how far they’ll go in the playoffs, or if they’ll even make the postseason. They play eight (count ‘em – eight!) playoff teams from a year ago and I have little to no faith in Childress over the course of an entire season. I think the Vikes come up short this year.
What to Like: Adding a skilled pass-rusher like Julius Peppers was a major coup for the Bears, who paid dearly for his services. Even though he has a tendency to take plays off, he has the ability to make the rest of the defense better around him and don’t forget he’s so athletic that new DC Rod Marinelli can use him in coverage to free up a linebacker to rush. I’ve never bought into the idea that Brian Urlacher (who missed virtually the entire 2009 season because of a wrist injury) was/is overrated. He’s not a dominant run-stuffer, but you saw what happened to Chicago’s defense last year when Nick Roach and Jamar Williams were manning the middle. One guy who will love having Urlacher back in the middle is Lance Briggs, whose play fell off a cliff last year because of Urlacher’s absence. Offensively, the hiring of Mike Martz will turn out to be a boom or bust decision for this team. Jay Cutler could wind up leading the league in passing touchdowns or set a new record for interceptions thrown in a single season. The good thing is that he’ll be throwing to a couple of receivers on the rise in Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu.
What Not to Like: For the second straight offseason, GM Jerry Angelo failed to upgrade the offensive line. Right guard Lance Louis may be an intriguing player, but he’s inexperienced and he’ll be playing next to a guy in Frank Omiyale that can’t seem to cut down on the penalties and mental errors. The Bears better hope that center Olin Kreutz can play as well as he did last year, and that third-year player Chris Williams can build off his decent second-half performance, or else Cutler will see a ton of pressure again this year. Defensively, whether it’s because of injuries, lack of focus and/or motivation, Tommie Harris hasn’t played well in two years. And if he doesn’t snap out of it, then the Bears are going to be thin on talent up the middle. The secondary is also a massive concern, as Charles Tillman was highly inconsistent last year and who knows what the team can expect out of other corner Zackary Bowman. Chris Harris was a good add this offseason, but the bottom line is that the entire unit has to play better or else the addition of Peppers and the re-addition of Urlacher will mean nothing.
Keep Your Eye On: Johnny Knox
Knox is the perfect fit at receiver in Martz’s offense and is already drawing comparisons to Torry Holt in terms of his route running. Whether or not he’ll become the playmaker Holt was is uncertain, but considering how good he has looked this offseason, there’s a good chance Knox will shine.
The Final Word: If the offensive line can’t open any holes for Matt Forte (who struggled last year in his sophomore season) and Chester Taylor, then the offense will become too one-dimensional and the passing game could suffer. Of course, thanks to Martz the offense will probably be one-dimensional anyway. One of the biggest complaints about Martz is that he’s too quick to ditch the running game and because he often uses three and four-receiver sets, that leaves one less blocker in to protect the quarterback. That doesn’t bode well for Cutler, who had a habit of chucking passes into coverage last season just to avoid taking sacks. Defensively, obviously Peppers and Urlacher are going to help, but the secondary is a massive concern. How will Marinelli fair in his first year as a defensive coordinator? Is Lovie Smith the answer at head coach? A lot of people love the Bears to make the playoffs this year and potentially be a sleeper in the NFC, but I see this team being no better than 8-8 with their O-line and defensive backfield concerns.
What to Like: Believe it or not, the offensive line became one of the Lions’ strengths in 2009. Before suffering a season-ending injury, right guard Stephen Peterman was playing great football and even Jeff Backus played more consistently. Center Dominic Railoa was solid as usual and there were signs that former first round pick Gosder Cherilus was starting to get it. Adding Rob Sims will only make this unit better, which is great news for young quarterback Matthew Stafford. And speaking of the young signal caller, he should make strides in his second year and he’ll have a couple of new weapons to throw to in Nate Burleson and Bryant Johnson, although Calvin Johnson will still receive the bulk of Stafford’s looks in the passing game. The defensive tackle issue has also been addressed thanks to Ndamukong Suh, who has already proved in preseason that he’s going to be one hell of a player. Bringing in Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch were solid moves to improve the defensive line, which is easily the strength of the defense. (Aside from free safety Louis Delmas, who is a rising star.)
What Not to Like: The secondary is a major concern for this team. Chris Houston (trade/Falcons) has all the athletic talent in the world, but he can’t seem to put it all together. He usually puts himself in position to make plays and then just can’t, as evidenced of the 66% of passes that were completed on him last season. On the other side, the Rams had an opportunity to re-sign restricted free agent Jonathan Wade on the cheap and decided to let him walk. Now the Lions are counting on him as a starter, which is troubling to say the least. The addition of C.C. Brown only compounds the team’s pass defense issues. And does this team have enough overall talent at linebacker?
Keep Your Eye On: Ndamukong Suh
I know you were already going to keep your eye on Suh, but I’ll remind you in case he gets lost in the shuffle of another losing season in Detroit. Most defensive tackles don’t make an impact until their third years, but Suh has the makings of something special. He’s a physical specimen at 6’4” and 307 pounds, one that can be a force against the run as well as a pass rusher. He’s going to beat slower offensive linemen at the snap and create a ton of havoc in opponents’ backfields. I can’t wait to see what this kid does on Sundays.
The Final Word: There’s no question that GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have this team moving in the right direction, but it’s still going to take some time. Mayhew knew when he took over last year that it would take a couple of years before he could field a roster that could compete and that hasn’t changed. The roster is still devoid of overall talent, even though players like Johnson, Stafford, Suh and Delmas have Detroit fans excited for the future. The Lions are the Ly-Downs no longer and will certainly give teams trouble this year, but a fourth place finish is probably on the horizon yet again.
Posted in: NFL
Tags: 2010 NFL Predictions, 2010 NFL Preview, Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Brett Favre, Calvin Johnson, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Greg Jennings, Jahvid Best, Jay Cutler, Julius Peppers, Matthew Stafford, Mike Martz, Minnesota Vikings, Percy Harvin, Ryan Grant, Sidney Rice