NFL: King in the NFC North

In the NFL’s 100th season, the fierce rivalries in the NFC North look set to continue. Each team has a high level of stability and a realistic playoff chance. So who will establish themselves as King in the North in 2019?

Chicago Bears

Last Season

In 2018, the Bears had their first winning season since 2012 on their way to their first division title since 2010. Despite this, they were eliminated in the Wild Card round of the playoffs with Kicker Cody Parkey’s Field Goal that bounced off the crossbar. The team fielded 8 Pro Bowlers, 4 of whom were also All-Pros (Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Tarik Cohen).

In his second season, Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky showed sound progress, including athletic talent. Headlined by the acquisition of Khalil Mack, the Defense established themselves as one of the stingiest in the league. Matt Nagy showed promise in his first year as Head Coach, and should be more comfortable with a year under his belt.

Offseason

The biggest storyline of the offseason is the loss of last year’s Defensive Coordinator, Vic Fangio, who was hired as the Denver Broncos Head Coach. He was replaced by Chuck Pagano, who brings with him a shift in scheme that could see a slight regression by the Defense. The Bears also traded Running Back Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles after finding him unsuitable for Matt Nagy’s Offense.

Chicago had a quiet Draft, as they had no first or second round picks. They still managed to trade up to select Iowa State RB David Montgomery, who led the FBS in missed tackles in 2018. Their other notable selection was Georgia Wide Receiver Riley Ridley. The team has also spent much of the offseason trying out Kickers to replace Parkey.

Improvements to Expect

The biggest improvement the Bears are likely to show is on Offense. With an extra season, Trubisky should have better chemistry with his top receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller. Nagy’s scheme should also be better implemented, as bigger adjustments can be made to suit Trubisky, while Montgomery allows for more versatility out of the backfield.

Although the Defense is learning a new system under Pagano, it shouldn’t take too big of a step backwards. With the talent in place and the key pieces intact, the Bears should still be among the top units in the league. Furthermore, last year’s 8th overall Draft pick, Linebacker Roquan Smith, should emerge as a bigger playmaker having had a full offseason.

Detroit Lions

Last Season

2018 was always going to be an uphill battle for the Lions. Head Coach Matt Patricia was in his first season in charge, and widespread changes were introduced to the team. While there were flashes of success at times, neither the Offense nor Defense could do enough to win more games.

The Lions finished 6-10, leaving them last in the division. Yet the team had enough positive moments to build on heading into 2019, including sweeping the Green Bay Packers. Detroit was also able to defeat Patricia’s former team, the New England Patriots, for the first time since 2000.

Offseason

The big changes in the offseason have come from the talent acquisition to suit Patricia’s system. Among the players added were WR Danny Amendola and Defensive End Trey Flowers (both former Patriots), as well as Defensive Tackle Mike Daniels. Darrell Bevell, the former Offensive Coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings, was also brought in to replace Jim Bob Cooter.

The Lions used the first half of the draft to further design the roster in Patricia’s image. Iowa Tight End TJ Hockenson was their first selection, with their next four picks all spent on defensive players at all levels. LB Jahlani Tavai figures to be an instant starter, as do Safety Will Harris and DE Austin Bryant.

Improvements to Expect

Detroit may have finally found their identity on Offense heading into the 2019 season. They should have a more balanced attack as RBs Kerryon Johnson and CJ Anderson provide a strong ground attack, which Detroit has lacked for years. The passing game should also be improved as WR Kenny Golladay emerges as a WR1. QB Matthew Stafford also has a greater number of targets than he has for a while, with not only Golladay, Johnson, Hockenson, Amendola, but also WR Marvin Jones and TE Jesse James.

There is a good chance the Defensive Line also becomes one of the best in the league between Bryant, Flowers and Daniels. Patricia will also get the most out of his LBs to supplement the four-man rush from the DL. With the additions in the secondary, if the unit can make enough plays, the Defense is far from a walkover this year.

Green Bay Packers

Last Season

The 2018 Packers can only be considered a disappointment. They finished half a game ahead of Detroit with a 6-9-1 record, third in the division. It all culminated in the firing of Head Coach Mike McCarthy after Week 13.

As the season progressed, it became more and more apparent that QB Aaron Rodgers was becoming frustrated with the situation. Not wanting to waste the prime of the best QB in the league, the team decided it needed to turn the ship around. The last few weeks of the 2018 season became evaluations of players, with the hope of knowing what they had in 2019.

Offseason

With McCarthy gone, Green Bay added Matt LaFleur as their new HC. While it remains to be seen how he will manage Rodgers and the Offense, the early stages seem fraught with friction. However, if he can unleash the best of Rodgers, and if the latter can make the most of it, it will work out well for everyone.

The team also farewelled several big names, including LBs Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, WR Randall Cobb, and DT Mike Daniels. However, they added talent and youth in Free Agent pickups Safety Adrian Amos, and LBs Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. The Draft focused on strengthening the Defense with LB Rashan Gary and Safety Darnell Savage as the team’s top picks. However, 6th round RB Dexter Williams should also be a contributor to help re-establish the run in Green Bay. TE Jace Sternberger also figures to become a regular target in due course.

Improvements to Expect

With a fresh Offense installed, there is hope in Green Bay that they can become a dynamic force like the top teams in the league. The running attack should become more prominent, including having RBs play a larger role in the passing game. Rodgers will also be hoping to get better play out of his WRs not named Davante Adams. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had some good games in 2018, and needs to become the clear WR2 in 2019.

The Defense may have lost veterans in Matthews, but he was nowhere near the player he was when the Packers made the Super Bowl. The secondary needs to hold their own against tricky WR duos across the division. But with a more solid foundation at all levels, the Defense should help out more in 2019.

Minnesota Vikings

Last Season

Despite an 8-7-1 record and second place finish in the division, the Vikings would consider 2018 as underachieving. They were one game outside of the playoffs, but boasted one of the top Defenses in the league. Featuring All-Pros Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith, the team also has dynamic weapons on Offense in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.

With QB Kirk Cousins at the helm after signing in the offseason, he had trouble at times moving the chains. The team’s leaky Offensive Line compounded his struggles, and the Vikings found themselves behind in too many games. RB Dalvin Cook couldn’t get going, and the team became stale on Offense.

Offseason

One of the first moves the Vikings made in the offseason was to bring in Gary Kubiak as Offensive Coordinator. With him came Rick Dennison as Offensive Line coach, and the Vikings hope to take some of the pressure off Cousins. This was supplemented with three Draft picks on OL, including Center Garrett Bradbury, hoping to create holes for Cook.

Minnesota also managed to retain all of their major players, and used their other Draft picks on solidifying depth at different positions. TE Irv Smith could see playing time early in Kubiak’s play action scheme. With strengthening up front, the Vikings hope to be formidable against the other NFC heavyweights.

Improvements to Expect

If there’s one area where Vikings expect (and need) to improve, it’s the Offense. Not only does Cousins have to make more plays, but the running attack has to help out too. While it may be counter-cultural to move away from the innovative minds such as LaFleur and Nagy, Kubiak has a proven track record of success.

Although the Defense was strong in 2018, it also needs to be even tougher. It needs to force more takeaways and allow fewer points, after giving up 20+ points in 9 games in 2018. The biggest weakness on Defense was against the run, and closing that down will give them more chances to get in front.

Division Winner

Presumptive Favourite

Unlike many other divisions, the NFC North lacks a consensus winner. It largely falls to a divide between the Vikings and Bears, with the Bears having a slight edge as last year’s winners. Should Trubisky continue to progress, it will offset any decline by the Defense, if any. But the Vikings are knocking on the door should Chicago slip up.

My Pick

It’s hard to look past either Chicago or Minnesota as division champions. Detroit look nastier on Defense, and more balanced on Offense, and could enter the Wildcard race. The Packers also look to be reinvigorated, but both Green Bay and Detroit have too much ground to make up. If Trubisky can connect with his receivers more than he did in 2018, the division is Chicago’s for the taking. But, gun to my head, the Vikings are my pick with their deeply talented Defense, Kubiak’s past success, and Cousins getting a year to settle in with his receivers.

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