Posted July 10, 2013

2013 NFL Preview: NFC North

Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Division Previews, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, NFC North
Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley may be the best DT combo in the league, but is that enough to get the Lions back in the playoffs? (Rick Osentoski/AP)

Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley may be the best DT combo in the league, but is that enough to get the Lions back in the playoffs? (Rick Osentoski/AP)

With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.

The NFC North has all of one Super Bowl title since the turn of the millennium (Green Bay, Super Bowl XLV) and Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota have all of one championship combined. In terms of raw star power, however, this division is living right.

The North boasts the game’s top receiver in Calvin Johnson, arguably its best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and superhuman running back Adrian Peterson, who lapped the field at his position last season. Then there’s Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers and Jared Allen and Brandon Marshall. In other words, the NFC North is loaded with talent.

What that means heading into the 2013 season is that, despite Green Bay jumping out as an early favorite, this division could finish any number of ways. There are four potential playoff teams here … and at least three that could bomb.

Time to take an early look at the Black and Blue Division:

Chicago Bears

Key moves: Signed TE Martellus Bennett, OT Jermon Bushrod, G Matt Slauson, WR/KR Eric Weems, OLB James Anderson, LB D.J. Williams, DT Sedrick Ellis; drafted OL Kyle Long, LB Jon Bostic, OLB Khaseem Greene; lost QB Jason Campbell, TE Kellen Davis, G Lance Louis, OL Gabe Carimi, DE Israel Idonije, LB Brian Urlacher, OLB Nick Roach; hired head coach Marc Trestman, OC Aaron Kromer, DC Mel Tucker

Where they got better: The left side of the offensive line. That’s the belief, at least, after Chicago spent big bucks on left tackle Jermon Bushrod and nabbed guard Matt Slauson. Bushrod will take over on Jay Cutler’s blindside — J’Marcus Webb allowed 30 QB hurries and seven sacks from that spot last season. And Slauson should provide stability at a position that was a revolving door during the 2012 season. If all goes according to plan, the right side of the line might get a boost, too, with Webb sliding to that tackle spot and rookie Kyle Long penciled in at guard.

Where they got worse: Linebacker. Say what you will about the declining skills of the now-retired Brian Urlacher, but losing him lands a significant emotional blow on the Bears. They’ll also feel the departure of Nick Roach, who’s now with the Raiders. The replacements for Urlacher and Roach are D.J. Williams and James Anderson, respectively, though rookie Jon Bostic may push Williams in the middle. Neither Anderson nor Williams made it through the full 2012 season. There’s a chance this all will come together, with incumbent Lance Briggs as the glue. For now, it is a question mark.

Breakout player: Alshon Jeffery, WR. Jeffery arrived in Chicago with high expectations but managed all of 24 catches during his rookie season. He’ll get every opportunity to bring those numbers up in 2013, as Marc Trestman’s aerial attack takes advantage of all available weapons.

Where they stand: Trestman’s hire signaled a sea change in approach for the Bears, who shucked Lovie Smith’s defense-first philosophy in favor of Trestman’s CFL-honed offensive stylings. Cutler ought to benefit from that change, but altering a team’s identity is risky and challenging. The Bears will be dangerous with the football — don’t overlook Martellus Bennett’s arrival. This defense, however, was a top-five unit last season, and Trestman will have to reach into his bag of tricks to keep it there. Anything short of a playoff berth would be a letdown.

Detroit Lions

Key moves: Signed RB Reggie Bush, K David Akers, TE Joseph Fauria, DE Jason Jones, DE Israel Idonije, S Glover Quin; drafted DE Ezekiel Ansah, CB Darius Slay, G Larry Warford, DE Devin Taylor; lost K Jason Hanson, OT Jeff Backus, OT Gosder Cherulis, G Stephen Peterman, DE Cliff Avril, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, OLB Justin Durant, CB Jacob Lacey

Where they got better: The run game. Reggie Bush’s impact will be felt up and down the offense (and possibly on special teams), as the Lions plan to feed him the ball early and often. Bush will be able to show off his talents as a pass catcher, but it is on the ground that Detroit must get better. Bush can only help, especially as the Lions spread the field with Calvin Johnson and the rest of their receivers. The revamped offensive line also may be better suited to grind it out a bit, thanks in no small part to rookie mauler Larry Warford.

Where they got worse: Offensive tackle. The Lions just handed QB Matthew Stafford a monster contract extension, so now they must get to work figuring out how to keep him upright. Riley Reiff will start at LT, with either Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox at RT. Detroit is very high on Reiff, its first-round pick in 2012, and yet any tackle combination will compare poorly to last year’s Jeff Backus-Gosder Cherulis duo.

Breakout player: Nick Fairley, DT. The light seemed to come on last year for Fairley, who finished with 5.5 sacks in his second NFL season and got stronger as the year progressed. He says that the Lions have the best DT combo in football with he and Ndamukong Suh paired. He might be right.

Where they stand: Realistically, the Lions’ talent level probably falls somewhere between last season’s 4-12 meltdown and 2011′s 10-6 playoff team. Johnson, Stafford and Bush will be thrilling to watch, while Ryan Broyles is a breakout candidate himself. Detroit’s worries are the same as usual: offensive line and defense. In the case of the latter, few teams shy of Baltimore and Oakland overturned as much of their starting lineup as Detroit — at least five new starters will take the field in Week 1. The Lions should be much improved over their 2012 selves, but will that result in enough additional wins to be playoff contenders?

Green Bay Packers

Key moves: Drafted RB Eddie Lacy, RB Johnathan Franklin, OL David Bakhtiari, OL J.C. Tretter, DE Datone Jones; lost RB Cedric Benson, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, C Jeff Saturday, OLB Erik Walden, LB Desmond Bishop, S Charles Woodson

Where they got better: Defensive end. Running back is an obvious choice here, too, with the Packers having spent two draft picks to upgrade that position with Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. They used their first selection, though, on DE Datone Jones, whose versatility will bolster a unit that slumped last season. If 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy can get all the way back from the ACL injury he sustained last season, this group will be even better. With B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett already entrenched up front, getting reliable production from Jones or Worthy would do wonders for pass rushers like Clay Matthews.

Where they got worse: Wide receiver. The loss of Greg Jennings to Minnesota is far from sounding a death knell in Green Bay — few teams have the depth at WR the Packers have, with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones back to catch passes in 2013. Still, even though Jennings played just eight games last season, he made 425 receptions over his Green Bay career and unquestionably had Rodgers’ trust. The Packers survived last season with Jennings banged up and they’re deep enough to excel without him now. But losing a player of that quality still stings.

Breakout player: Nick Perry, OLB. Another of the Packers’ 2012 draft picks (Round 1), Perry played a mere six games in 2012 before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. Back at 100 percent, he’ll man the OLB spot opposite Matthews. Given the attention offenses must pay to Matthews and that aforementioned improved D-line, Perry could be an eight- or nine-sack guy.

Where they stand: Despite Green Bay capturing a second straight division crown, last season was frustrating for the Packers. They faltered against teams in the NFL’s upper echelon, culminating in a 45-31 playoff loss to San Francisco. This year’s Green Bay team, despite the departures of Jennings and a few key defensive players, appears to be better. Adding a couple legitimate run-game threats will make Rodgers all the more dangerous — a scary thought for defenses, given the precision with which Rodgers has picked secondaries apart in past years. Green Bay remains the team to beat in this division and a definite Super Bowl contender.

Minnesota Vikings

Key moves: Signed QB Matt Cassel, WR Greg Jennings, LB Desmond Bishop; drafted WR Cordarrelle Patterson, DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes; lost WR Percy Harvin, WR Michael Jenkins, LB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antoine Winfield

Where they got better: Wide receiver. Put an asterisk next to this one, because now ex-Viking Percy Harvin is one of the league’s elite talents when he is healthy and motivated. But Minnesota got just nine games from him last season, and a secondary option at the WR position never materialized. Now, even though Harvin is in Seattle, this spot has more potential with Greg Jennings and exciting rookie Cordarrelle Patterson arriving. Between that 1-2 punch and TE Kyle Rudolph, QB Christian Ponder has no shortage of players to throw to this season. Plus, don’t count out the possibility of Jarius Wright or even Joe Webb emerging as a legit No. 3 receiver.

Where they got worse: Slot corner. First-round pick Xavier Rhodes figures to step in and start at one of the Vikings’ CB positions, but Minnesota may be deep into the season before it finds a true replacement for Antoine Winfield in the slot. Pro Football Focus graded Winfield as the best cornerback in football last season, with a substantial edge on the competitors in run defense. Josh Robinson, Winfield’s expected fill-in, has never played slot corner before and admitted this offseason, “This is all new to me.” All three of the Vikings’ division rivals will spread the field with multiple receivers, so getting Robinson up to speed is a necessity.

Breakout player: Harrison Smith, safety. Smith was everything the Vikings could have hoped for in his rookie season, after they traded up for him during the 2012 draft. Given another year of experience under his belt, the Notre Dame product might be ready to challenge for a Pro Bowl spot.

Where they stand: Last season was the Adrian Peterson Show. Yet, if the Vikings want to stay ahead of Chicago and Detroit, take down Green Bay and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the rest of this roster needs to start pulling its full weight. Ponder will be the wild card, with Matt Cassel now waiting in the wings at QB. The excuses should be no more for the young QB, who has ample weapons and experience now. The Vikings played the draft like a team that believes it’s close. They are capable of another run this season, but the margin for error is slim.

22 comments
nchantala
nchantala

To say the Lions talent is between the 2011 and 2012 teams is pretty laughable, mainly because the lineups for the 2011 team and 2012 team are nearly identical. Of the 22 starters in 2012 (ignoring injuries), 21 were the same starters in 2011. Only Eric Wright was no longer on the team.

For 2013, QB is better even though it's Stafford again (he is more seasoned), RB is definitely improved, WR is improved (CJ like Stafford is more seasoned and Young is no longer messing things up), TEs are the same, O-Line is not as good possibly (remember, Cherilus didn't really have a good season until last year in his contract year), DTs are better since Fairley will be a full time starter, DEs are actually better (even though Ansah is raw, their DEs are perfect now for the wide-9), LBs are worse but the only difference is no Durant, and the secondary is much better talent wise. 

I know you are paid to do this but I would love to hear your reasoning for saying their talent is less than their 2011 team. 

metalhead65
metalhead65

altering the identity of the bears is not a bad or risky thing. actually all they are doing is adding what was missing in the past and that is offense. Lovie smith knew nothing about it and could not hire anyone competent enough to run a NFL offense. he took one of the best young qb's in Jay Cutler and basically made him useless in Chicago. part of what made him good in denver was his ability to roll out and throw on the run which he was not allowed to with the bears.the big play on offense there before last year was the screen pass to Devin Hester. as soon as the bears got a field goal lead that was enough for lovie and from there they went into a prevent offense and hoped the defense would win the game for them. now they have finally addressed the offensive line and got him some weapons along with a coach who knows offense is part of the game. when it comes together the bears will be a complete team as the defense will still be pretty decent but will no longer be required to be on the field 58 out of 60 min. a game.

Dr.Killapatient
Dr.Killapatient

I like SUH and Fairly. Great tandem, when healthy. 

ianlinross
ianlinross

The Packers got worse at WR? Hey Burke, that's called an embarrassment of riches.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The problem with these teams, except Green Bay, is that while much is expected little is achieved. That is, they never seem to live up to expectations. I don't see that changing much this year. 

luvfoozball
luvfoozball

"Joe Webb emerging as a legit No. 3 receiver"

Ok... seriously? The guy is QB trying to become a WR. I am not sure expecting him to become even a number 3 WR is a good idea.

BY
BY

Josh Robinson admitted this offseason, “This is all new to me.” Admitted? Was he supposed to lie and see if anybody noticed? He has had all off season to work on this. I am not a Viking fan but silly choice of words.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

First, you don't the Packers at all. You back tracked after making the ridiculous comment that the Packers got worse at WR. They just let a now injury prone receiver go...VERY smart move. Baring a total injury epidemic similar to the Brewers this year, it's the Packers division to lose. After that, with a weak O-line this year, I'm not expecting the Packers to win the NFC at all. Maybe next year would be a better prediction. 

Kalzy
Kalzy

Throwing Chicago and Detroit in as more playoff ready than the Vikings. would be a mistake. The vikes were rolling at the end of the year. Crushing playoff bound Houston and scoring plenty against the pack. If Ponder can stay healthy. expect a deep run.

Jester1
Jester1

@Dr.Killapatient  

They didn't resign Lacey, they LOST Lacey. The Vikings picked him up as a body/backup.

impulse60
impulse60

@ianlinross I agree.  Maybe they slipped from extraordinary to just plain fantastic.  I'm more concerned about paddle-hands Finley at TE.


Jester1
Jester1

@ianlinross  

I believe Burke is sending a compliment with that statement. He's basically saying that the skills, experience & leadership that Jennings had, is rare & that the others that are on the roster don't necessarily have the experience & leadership. What the other WR's do have is skills, and Burke notes that they have plenty of that.

By saying that is the biggest weakness... he could have made an attempt at ripping the Packers at another position, but couldn't bring himself to do it.

RayHuggyBearYoung
RayHuggyBearYoung

@luvfoozball he started out on the Vikings as a WR.  he was a college QB but not good enough until the Vikings were pressed for a QB.  But again, he started out as a WR for them.

jamsub
jamsub

@luvfoozball He has shown some good hands in OTAs along with familiarity in the playbook. His size could make him a decent weapon as a WR3. Add to that the fact that any screen pass to him could quickly turn to a throw down the field to another receiver.

nfinitwordsfoto
nfinitwordsfoto

@Kalzy Reading comprehension for the win. 
Although I think the Lions are better than the Vikings.  Loss of Percy Harvin coupled with a once-in-a-lifetime season for Peterson that he's highly unlikely to repeat should bring them back to earth. 

Detroit's a better team that had a really bad year.  Adding Bush is going to help their running game and their defensive line is already fierce.  That's a top 3 NFL offense on a team that can be potent with the defense even playing kind of well.

luvfoozball
luvfoozball

@Kalzy " if the Vikings want to stay ahead of Chicago and Detroit, take down Green Bay and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders"

He is clearly saying that Vikings are ahead of Chicago and Detroit. You are just imagining a slight when there is none.

Kalzy
Kalzy

@nfinitwordsfoto @Kalzy  Detroit is a better team that had a bad year? That's laughable. Good players, horrific coach and "Team"

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

@nfinitwordsfoto @Kalzy   Much of Detroit's bounce back this year will be because of their schedule being based on being a last place team last year.

Over the years, there has been teams that have a good year and it was after a poor season the year before and then they don't play well the following year because if they finished 1st, they are now playing a 1st place schedule and they again go back to their losing way.

Just part of there only being 16 games and having 32 teams in the league.  Due to this, schedules can (don't always, but they can) have a great impact on the records of teams as it is so different from playing 82 or 162 games in a season...