If you want an NFC North prediction in May, I’d consult the expert opinion of a three-sided die (sorry, Lions). Parity throughout the NFL has made preseason power rankings as relevant as the Flying Wedge formation.
But by no means should that keep us from examining the issues that will shape the Norris Division.
The Bears are a team with national intrigue after acquiring QB Jay Cutler. But success won’t come on a silver platter for the ex-Bronco, who inherits one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL. The secondary is also a major uncertainty—the Bears D ranked 30th against the pass in ’08.
The Vikings, coming off a 10-win season, are the most talented team top-to-bottom in the division. But can they advance past the first round of the playoffs with a plant species named Sage Rosenfels? Or Tarvaris Jackson? Or a bum-biceped Brett Favre?
The passing game is the least of Green Bay’s concerns. The Packers defense, however, must adjust to the new 3-4 scheme of incoming coordinator Dom Capers after underachieving in ’08.
The Lions pose little threat in the division. But drafting QB Matt Stafford and trading for LB Julian Peterson are steps in the right direction.
Once starved of celebrity status, the lineup of NFC North quarterbacks is now rife with national intrigue after the additions of Cutler and Stafford (and possibly Favre).
But once the offseason dust settles, the Packers will still have the most stable quarterback situation.
Granted, Cutler has better arm strength and mobility than Aaron Rodgers. But the ex-Bronco is entering an unfavorable situation: He must learn a new system and inspire confidence out of a rag-tag receiving corps, all while facing sky-high expectations.
As WR Rashied Davis poignantly said to the Chicago Tribune, “He’s expected to [defecate] gold.”
The Lions won’t expect such gastrointestinal stunts from Stafford, who will likely be brought along slowly behind Daunte Culpepper.
Minnesota has the most unsettled situation under center, with the undesirable QB battle brewing between Rosenfels and Jackson amid all the Favre comeback speculation. Favre further substantiated rumors in early May, when he made the ominous decision to undergo bicep surgery.
The good news for the eventual starter is that he will have all-world rusher Adrian Peterson in the backfield, which means plenty of eight-man fronts and single coverage on the edges.
Front Fours at the Forefront
Whether it’s suspensions, lingering injuries or schematic changes, no NFC North team is immune to defensive line issues this offseason.
The Vikings will likely be playing the first four games without its Pro-Bowl defensive tackles, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.
Both tested positive for a steroid-masking diuretic in December. They appealed the suspension and should ultimately learn their fate at a June 15 hearing.
“The Williams Wall," as they’re known, has been a big reason why the Vikings have led the league in rush defense for three straight seasons. Fortunately for Minnesota, the team has a favorable opening quartet of games, traveling to Cleveland (29th in yards rushing last season) and Detroit (30th), followed by home games against San Francisco (27th) and Green Bay (17th).
The defensive line is a major concern in Packer camp, where Capers has instituted a new-look 3-4 base scheme.
The transition won’t be easy, especially for converted nose tackles Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. The nose tackle is the backbone of the 3-4, and is the most physically demanding position in football. Pickett and Raji must draw double teams to spring the inside linebackers.
Nor will it be easy for elite pass rusher Aaron Kampman, who moves from defensive end to outside linebacker. Kampman has been one of the best 4-3 ends in the game the past three seasons. Now, he will stand more upright and be asked to occasionally drop back into coverage.
For all of you who think Capers is destroying Kampman’s career, keep this in mind: Capers instituted a 3-4 in Miami in 2006, causing Jason Taylor to move from DE to OLB. That year, Taylor won Defensive Player of the Year.
The Bears, meanwhile, are looking to DT Tommie Harris to reignite the Tampa 2 defense after a rocky ’08 season.
Harris—more so than LB's Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs—has the ability to galvanize the Tampa 2, which generates the bulk of its pass rush through the front four. During Harris’ Pro Bowl seasons of ’06 and ’07, a disruptive front allowed the guys behind it to fly around the field and force turnovers.
But Harris has yet to recapture his dominant form since suffering a left knee injury in ’07. The front four struggled to create pressure last season, forcing coach Lovie Smith to blitz far more than he’d like.
It didn’t help much: the Bears finished 22nd in sacks in 2008. DEs Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye had 11 of those sacks, a number that leaves a great deal to be desired.
The front four is one of many problem positions for the Lions Defense, which ranked last against the rush last season. It lost its best tackle in Cory Redding, who was sent to Seattle in the Peterson trade. But promising second-year end Cory Avril may be primed for a breakthrough season.
More Questions Than Answers
We keep debating. Ultimately though, when assessing the NFC North’s most burning questions, the only certainty is that nobody knows anything.
Is Cutler the Bears’ savior? Give him a robe and sandals and see if he can walk across Lake Michigan.
Will the Packers "D" improve going from an even to odd front? Test it out on one of those old-school electric football games. I discovered that Raji spends way too much spinning in a circle.
Am I a slave to every preseason power ranking and positional report card that comes out from now until September?