(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
(Matthew Stafford photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)
Talk of Fame Network
A four-year stranglehold on the NFC North by the Green Bay Packers ended in 2015 with the emergence of the Minnesota Vikings as a formula team.
The formula is a simple, time-honored one – run the ball and play defense. The Vikings ran the ball with Adrian Peterson, who won his third NFL rushing crown, and chased quarterbacks with one of the league’s best pass rushes. That combination allowed the Vikings to finish 11-5, a game ahead of the Packers, with the division-clinching victory coming on the final day of the season in Green Bay.
But can formula football hold off Aaron Rodgers and the Packers again this season? That’s the subject of this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll – who’s the best team in the NFC North? Here are your candidates:
Chicago Bears. The Bears finished in last place a year ago with a 6-10 record. To take a step back in a winning direction, Chicago needed to address the NFL’s 21st-ranked offense. But that may be difficult with the departures of running back Matt Forte in free agency and tight end Martellus Bennett by trade. Both are past Pro Bowlers. Second-year man Jeremy Langford takes over for Forte in the backfield, but the Bears will need more from quarterback Jay Cutler, who passed for only 3,659 yards and 21 touchdowns. Chicago moved to upgrade the blocking front by signing tackle Bobbie Massie away from the Arizona Cardinals and drafting Kansas State guard Cody Whitehair in the second round. The Bears were light in both sacks (35) and plays (17 takeaways) on defense a year ago, but that may have been addressed. They signed linebacker Danny Trevathan away from the Super Bowl-champion Broncos and used a first-round pick on Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd.
Detroit Lions. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson has retired, stripping the Detroit roster of its best player. He contributed 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns to a team that finished 7-9 a year ago. The Lions waved a $40-million contract at Marvin Jones to lure Cincinnati’s No. 3 wideout away from the Bengals, hoping he can restore some of Johnson’s departing production. But the offseason priority was to firm up a leaky offensive line that allowed franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to be sacked 44 times a year ago. So the Lions used three of their first five draft picks on blockers, selecting tackle Taylor Decker in the first round, center Graham Glasgow in the third and tackle Joe Dahl in the fifth. As Stafford goes, so go the Lions. Giving him protection gives him a chance to return the Lions to the playoffs after a year’s absence. Golden Tate assumes the role as Detroit’s lead receiver, and the Lions are expecting tight end and former first-round draft pick Eric Ebron to take the next step. He caught 47 passes and scored five touchdowns in his second NFL season in 2015.
Green Bay Packers. In Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have the best quarterback in the division and one of the 2-3 best quarterbacks in the game. He already has one Super Bowl ring and gives the Packers a shot at another each and every season. But the Packers need a bounce-back season from slimmed-down running back Eddie Lacy, whose production from 2014 fell off by almost 500 yards and eight touchdowns. Green Bay also will benefit from the return of Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who missed the 2015 season with a preseason knee injury. He’s Rodgers’ go-to guy and will make Randall Cobb a more dangerous weapon on the other side. The defense took a couple of offseason hits with the retirement of defensive tackle B.J. Raji and the free-agent defection of cornerback Casey Hayward. But the Packers moved quickly to replace Raji with first-round draft pick and pass-rushing defensive tackle Kenny Clark of UCLA. GM Ted Thompson also addressed the offensive line, selecting Indiana offensive tackle Jason Spriggs in the second round. But Green Bay is going to need even more from Rodgers, who passed for 3,821 yards and 31 TDs last season.
Minnesota Vikings. The arrow is pointing up for the Vikings with a young QB in place in Teddy Bridgewater. Leading receiver Stefon Diggs proved to be a steal in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, and the Vikings doubled-down on the flank with the selection of LaQuon Treadwell of Ole Miss with their first-round selection in 2016. Add TE Kyle Rudolph, who caught a team-high five TD passes a year ago, and the Vikings may finally have a passing attack to complement the legs of Peterson. Free agent offensive linemen Alex Boone (San Francisco) and Alex Smith (Cincinnati) upgrade the blocking front. But for the Vikings to take the next step as a contender they must take another step on defense, a specialty of head coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings finished 13th in the NFL on defense a year ago. Second-round draft pick Mackensie Alexander will be an asset at cornerback, as will free agent Michael Griffin at safety. The Vikings will also get a boost moving into their new home in downtown Minneapolis.
(Teddy Bridgewater photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings)