2011 NFL Preview: NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers, 12-4.

What a season for the Packers. They entered the NFC Playoffs as the 6th and final seed, barely beating out the Buccaneers and Giants for the final Wild Card berth. The team then proceeded to win in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago before knocking off the Steelers in the Super Bowl. The team was "only" 10-6, a record most people blame on injuries. The Pack suffered their fair share, with Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Nick Barnett missed major time. The teams 6 losses were by a total of only 20 points, meaning a couple breaks they could have been 12-4 and 13-3. Of course, none of that matters since they won the games that mattered. And they have a great chance to be the first team to repeat since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004.

Let's start with the explosive offense. Aaron Rodgers continued his climb into the upper echelon of passers, despite what Colin Cowherd may have been saying all January. Fans of the Dolphins, Bills and Broncos have got to be jealous of how Rodgers has taken the torch from former legend Brett Favre and kept the team winning. It helps that he has a plethora of receivers to throw to. Finely was off to a great start before his season ending injury, and should not lose a step as a huge, strong and fast weapon over the middle. The Packers have one of the best receiving groups in the league, led by Greg Jennings. To go with him is the ageless Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. The offensive line improved after allowing a league leading 51 sacks in 2009. But that is still the weak link on the offense, which is why Green Bay has spent back to back first round pick on offensive tackles.

The Packers are equally loaded on defense. Led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Clay Matthews and his luscious blonde locks, the team attacks from all angles. The team was one back of the league lead in sacks, interceptions and points allowed, showing that it truly was a team effort that brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay. The team brought back virtually it's entire defense as well, with only Nick Barnett and Cullen Jenkins gone. Neither were a factor for the Packers during their playoff run and won't be missed. Desmond Bishop, AJ Hawk, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, BJ Raji, Nick Collins. Take your pick on who is the Packers best defender. This defense is simply loaded with talent.

The Packers are absolutely stacked and poised for another deep playoff run. GM Ted Thompson may be the best in the business, he has used the draft and a few good trades and signings to rebuild this team into a quick, young and exciting unit on both sides of the field following the Brett Favre days. I think the Saints and Eagles will give them some pretty tough competition in the NFC, but the Packers have an excellent shot to repeat. The only reason I have them at 12-4 is they will win the division by the beginning of December, so I had them losing their last 2 games to rest starters.

2. Chicago Bears, 8-8.

It's hard for me to get a good read on the Bears. I thought they were not nearly as good as their record through the first half of last season. But they just kept on winning, and didn't stop until the NFC Championship game. Even though they had Mike Martz and Jay Cutler, the Bears once again won because of their defense.

Few 2010 free agents had the impact that Julius Peppers provided. His stats weren't eye popping; 8 sacks and 54 tackles, but he completely changed this Bears defense. He was a beast against the run, was constantly pressuring the quarterback, and allowed the other end Israel Idonije to register 8 sacks of his own. Brian Ulracher's healthy season was another big reason the Bears unit was so effective. They were fourth in the league with under 18 points per game allowed.

With Mike Martz in control, everyone thought the offense would explode. After all, they had Jay Cutler, a running back who excels at catching the ball and several speedy wideouts. On paper, it looked like a good fit reminiscent of the Marshall Faulk/Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt/Kurt Warner days. The offense really struggled however, generating just over 289 yards per game.

Cutler has been heavily scrutinized during his Bears tenure, and it all came to a boiling point in the NFC Championship game. His toughness shouldn't be questioned however. He has been sacked approximately 8.637 times in his two years in Chicago, and has only missed one game. We all remember the game on October 3 against the New York Giants where Justin Tuck and Osi Umeniyora almost ended Cutler's life. The offensive line is not very good, and raw second year player J'Marcus Webb will now be protecting Cutler's blind side.

The rest of the offense has talent, but will Martz utilize it? They already traded away talented tight end Greg Olson, and Johnny Knox has been inexplicably buried on the depth chart behind Roy Williams and Devin Hester, two veterans who have shown on many occasions they are average receivers.

The Bears could go 12-4 or 4-12 this year, so I put them somewhere right in the middle. Cutler cut down on his interceptions and improved from 2009, and he has some pieces to work with. The defense also rebounded quite nicely. The schedule is very manageable, as the Bears are lucky enough to beat up on the AFC West as well as the Seahawks and Panthers. I don't think they have quite enough to navigate through the brutal NFC this year, but I thought the same thing in 2010, and they were 4 quarters away from the Super Bowl.

3. Minnesota Vikings, 7-9.

How fast things fall apart.  A year ago the Vikings were a trendy Super Bowl pick. But Favre worked his drama queen magic, the offensive line stopped blocking, the defensive line stopped trying and their season was over not too long after it started. Leslie Frazier took over as head coach in November and led the Vikings to a 3-3 record to finish out the season.

I wouldn't say the Vikings are entering a flat out rebuilding phase, more of a transition phase. Gone are key starters Favre, Bryant McKinnie, Sidney Rice, Ray Edwards, Pat Williams, Ben Leber and Madieu Williams. Several of whom were key players for Minnesota throughout the decade. The Vikings really didn't replace these players with anyone worth while, so there will be holes all over the roster.

Let's talk about who they still do have. Adrian Peterson might be the best running back in football. He is smack dab in the middle of his prime at 26 years old. There are few players who can tackle him one on one, and he has improved on his fumbling issues, losing only one football last year. He is also working at becoming a better receiver. He has a great work ethic and drive. What he doesn't have is a good offensive line. Not even an average one. 34 year old guard Steve Hutchinson is the only player worth mentioning on what will be a disastrous blocking group.

That spells trouble for Donovan McNabb, who is on his last legs anyway. It may have been a stupid move by Mike Shanahan to bench McNabb for Rex Grossman last year, but if McNabb was any good that probably wouldn't have happened. He is simply a placeholder for first round pick Christian Ponder at this point, and probably won't end the season as the starter. For now he will have a couple weapons to throw to, most notably Percy Harvin and rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph.

The defense is in transition this year, though it still has plenty of talent. The Williams Wall was finally broken up, as Pat has moved on. So has Ray Edwards. The loss of those two players will significantly hurt their very good run defense. Jared Allen's production will likely suffer as well, as he will be constantly double teamed if new starter Brian Robison can't step up in Edwards absence.

Even with the loss of Ben Leber, the linebacking group is one of the better in the league. EJ Henderson and Chad Greenway are two studs, and EJ's younger brother Erin has shown promise in very limited action. The secondary could use an upgrade on talent, but the group played well in 2010. The only loss, Maideu Williams, will not be missed. Antonie Winfield and Cedric Griffin are a decent enough duo, although the Vikings may have whiffed on top 2010 pick Chris Cook.

It's hard to tell how the Vikings will do this year. They will want to lean heavily on Peterson, one of the only backs in the NFL who can shoulder a 300 carry burden. Things could be tough with an offensive line in shambles and a passing game that won't scare anyone. But with a very solid defense I think they will still flirt with an 8-8 season.

4. Detroit Lions, 6-10.

Before I get into the 2011 season let me just say that I love what the Lions have done since their 0-16 season. They have placed an emphasis on adding talent to skill positions on offense. Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and Brandon Pettigrew have all shown flashes of brilliance. And of course they already have Calvin Johnson, who might be the best receiver in the league. He has a Greek God-like worth ethic and continues to improve his body and skills. I would take him over any receiver in the NFL.

The Lions are a sexy pick to make the playoffs. However, I don't think they are ready to compete for a playoff berth yet.  First of all, Stafford has been completely unable to stay healthy thus far. Which is a shame because when he is on the field he shows tremendous talent, grit and leadership ability. Detroit has a very average offensive line, and the two starting tackles, Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, are constantly banged up. It could be another long year for Stafford if he can't get some protection. Best has also been unable to stay healthy, but he will have to be on the field more now that second round pick Mikel LeShoure is out for the year.

On defense, it starts with the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh was everything as advertised, running away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He is already an elite pass rusher, dropping a rare 10 sacks for a defensive tackle. He is not the best run defender, but Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill help out with that. They are one of the best three man tackle rotations in the NFL, which is why I absolutely hated the Nick Fairley pick. That was the last position they needed to add more talent to. I get the Lions philosophy of adding best player available, but they are still too starved for talent at too many positions to afford a luxury pick. How about adding another defensive end? Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch are simply an average end duo.

The back seven needed a major upgrade, and the Lions worked hard in the shortened off season to add talent. Especially at linebacker, where they added Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant to go along with their only good holdover, DeAndre Levy. That unit should be much improved.

Detroit's secondary played much better after a putrid 2009 season, but they still severely lack talent. I think the team would have been better off drafting Prince Amukamara over Fairley, but that doesn't matter now. They really don't have anyone worth mentioning other then Louis Delmas, another great find as a second round pick that has had trouble staying healthy.

The Loins have a manageable schedule and could break even at 8-8 if Stafford and Best stay healthy. But I think the defense is still too much of a work in progress and the offensive line is too weak for them to have a winning record right away. They are only 3 years removed from their historic 0-16 year. Jim Schwartz was a great hire and the front office has done an amazing job of adding talent. Even though I picked them at 6-10 I think they are much better then last year.

Jonathan Carrano

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1 comment:

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