The NFC North Division will ostensibly be a much closer race than it was a season ago. Will the Green Bay Packers be able to repeat as Division champions? How will the Minnesota Vikings offense fare after trading away 1000-yard receiver Stefon Diggs? Can the Chicago Bears dominant defense be enough for them to be serious contenders? Is there a possible worst-to-first scenario awaiting for the Detroit Lions now that quarterback Mathew Stafford returns from last year's season ending injury?
I will answer those questions and much more throughout the course of this article.
Below are the NFC North Division futures odds courtesy of BetOnline.
• Chicago Bears +300
• Detroit Lions +1000
• Green Bay Packers +125
• Minnesota Vikings +200
Chicago Bears (+300)
The Bears finished 7-9 a season ago and ended up 3rd in the NFC North Division standings. It was a disappointing year considering they won the 2018-2019 division title while posting a superb 12-4 season.
After having a solid 2018-2019 campaign, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky regressed last year in what was his third NFL season. As a matter of fact, during the offseason Bears management decided not to exercise their 5th year option on Trubisky's rookie contract. Furthermore, Chicago sent a 4th round draft choice in exchange for veteran quarterback Nick Foles. The question now becomes, do you go with a guy (Foles) who won a Super Bowl at quarterback, or the one (Trubisky) who has been a 1st round flop to this point? The answer is pretty evident to me.
The Bears have potentially a better than average running back tandem with Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery. Especially if they get any help from an extremely young offensive line. As we speak, Chicago has three projected offensive line starters who possess 2 or less years of experience.
The Bears wide receiver group is far from spectacular. Nevertheless, they have six interchangeable parts that can be inserted at any time with little if any significant drop off. Chicago also used a 2nd round draft choice this year on former Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet. He should eventually provide a weapon in the passing game at tight end that Chicago has seemingly been void of in recent years.
This was an offense that was #29 in scoring and total yards a season ago. I do think there will be vast improvement this year, and particularly if they opt to go with Foles at quarterback right from the onset.
The Bears defense will unequivocally be their strength. Their front 7 led by Khalil Mack is one of the NFL's best. They also added free agent linebackers Markevious Mingo (Houston) and Robert Quinn (Dallas). Additionally, Chicago signed another free agent at cornerback in former Steeler Artie Burns. A combination of Burns and Kyle Fuller at the corner positions is quite a formidable pair. They are in good shape at safety as well with Eddie Jackson and Deon Bush.
This was a defense last year that was #4 in scoring and #8 in total yards. I look for them to be just as good this year and possibly even better if their offense can sustain drives with any type of consistency.
Detroit Lions (+1000)
The Lions went a dismal 3-12-1 last season. Nonetheless, there is a bit of an asterisk that comes alongside that record. Their star quarterback Mathew Stafford missed the last 8 games of the year due to injury. Detroit was 3-4-1 when Stafford was their starter and a pathetic 0-8 without him under center. It also marked a first time that Stafford had not started all 16 regular season games for Detroit since 2010.
Despite only appearing in 8 games last year, Stafford still threw for 2499 yards and 19 touchdowns. At that pace and through a 16-game season Stafford would have put together his most productive season since 2011. Detroit is hoping Stafford can stay healthy and return to the form he displayed last season before being sidelined by an injury. I like the chances of both occurring.
The Lions possess a young tandem of running backs who have a sizable upside. Former Auburn back Kerryon Johnson is entering his 3rd NFL season and has flashed when healthy. Unfortunately, he has only appeared in 18 games for Detroit over the past two years but has combined to rush for 1044 yards and 6 touchdowns while doing so. Detroit used their #2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Georgia running back D'Andre Swift. During his 3-year college career Swift ran for 2886 yards and 20 touchdowns. Swift also accumulated a combined 73 pass receptions for 666 yards and five touchdowns. The future looks bright for Detroit's backfield.
I really like Detroit's trio of wide receivers in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola. Golladay and Jones can stretch the field vertically and Amendola remains to be an effective slot receiver. Golladay seems destined for stardom based on his output over the past two seasons. During that time, he collectively hauled in 135 passes for 2253 yards and 16 touchdowns. The 26-year-old has averaged a robust 16.7 yards per reception through his first 3 NFL seasons.
The Lions will look for 2nd year tight end T.J. Hockenson to make a significant leap. Last year's first round draft choice out of Iowa accounted for 32 catches for 367 yards and 2 touchdowns during his rookie campaign. Although it must be noted, he only appeared in 12 games. I look for improved numbers for Hockenson, especially if he can play an entire season with Stafford as his quarterback.
The biggest question mark for the Lions offense will be their line play. They allowed 43 sacks and ranked just 21st in rushing during the 2019-2020 season. On an encouraging note, Detroit bolstered the right side of its offensive line by signing free agents Oday Oboushi (guard/Arizona) and Halapoulivaati Vaiitai (tackle/Philadelphia).
The Lions defense was atrocious a season ago. They were 31st in yards allowed per game (400.4), tied for 31st in sacks (28), 26th in scoring (26.4 PPG), and 28th in 3rd down efficiency (43.9%). This all after hiring head coach Matt Patricia two years ago, who had the reputation of being a defensive genius during his days in New England.
Speaking of Matt Patricia, he had his fingerprints on moves being made over the last two years that have brought in former New England Patriots to bolster Detroit's defense. Last season defensive end Trey Flowers was signed as an unrestricted free agent. Likewise they acquired safety Duron Harmon from New England in a trade that transpired this past March. Additionally, also in March, they signed tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins who were both unrestricted free agents.
The defensive upgrades were not limited to just former Patriots. They signed veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant, who was a cap casualty in Atlanta. With their first pick in the 2020 NFL draft they selected Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. The rookie is expected to step right into a starting role.
On paper the Lions defense should be much better and progress nicely by virtue of their offseason acquisitions. Inopportunely, offseason minicamps and workouts have been derailed by COVID-19 health guidelines, which NFL teams were instructed to strictly enforce. It is yet to be seen how that will affect teams or specific units that lack continuity in personnel.
Green Bay Packers (+125)
According to NFL futures odds at BetOnline, Green Bay is favorite to repeat as NFC North champions. They were 13-3 a season ago and finished three games ahead of 2nd place Minnesota in the division standings. The Packers advanced to the NFC Championship Game where beaten soundly 37-20 at San Francisco.
The offense will once again be led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He will be entering his 16th NFL season. Rodgers is coming off another brilliant season in which he threw for 4002 yards and 26 touchdowns, while only being intercepted four times. More impressively, besides Davante Adams, he produced those stellar statistical numbers with a ragtag group of wide receivers.
Controversial and Questionable Decisions
The Green Bay front office has come under heavy criticism of late. Notwithstanding of their obvious need to add wide receiver depth, they failed to use any of its nine draft picks to select a wide receiver. Mind you, a plethora of NFL Draft gurus rated this 2020 rookie wide receiver class to be the deepest it has been in recent memory. Even more mind boggling was the Packers used their 1st round pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. This despite Aaron Rodgers having four years remaining on his existing contract. By the way, during his final season at Utah State, Love threw 20 touchdown passes and was intercepted an alarmingly high 17 times. Hardly numbers worthy of a 1st round pick.
Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams has put up monster numbers during the past two seasons. Even though he missed five games over that span, Adams still accounted for 194 pass receptions for 2383 receiving yards and scored 18 touchdowns. As I already alluded to, the Packers are short on quality depth at wide receiver. As of this moment, Green Bay has Allen Lazard listed as their other starting wide receiver. Lazard had just 35 catches for 477 yards last year while appearing in all 16 regular season games. A player to keep an eye on is 6'4" receiver Devin Funchess, who the Packers signed as a unrestricted free agent. Funchess appeared in only 1 game with Indianapolis last season before going down with a season ending injury. Green Bay is hoping Funchess returns to his 2017 form when he hauled in 63 catches for 840 yards and 8 touchdowns for Carolina.
The Packers have 36-year-old Mercedes Lewis penciled in to be their starting tight end. Lewis has spent the past two seasons with Green Bay and has proven to be durable while playing in all 32 regular season games. However, through that time he only collected 18 pass receptions for 195 yards and one touchdown. Green Bay is hoping that last year's 3rd round draft choice Jace Sternberger can develop into the player they projected him to be. The former Texas A&M Aggie appeared in only 6 games last year and had little if any productivity to speak of.
Aaron Jones has earned the right to be Green Bay's featured running back after putting together an outstanding 2019-2020 regular season campaign. Jones piled up 1558 total yards from scrimmage and scored 18 touchdowns. He will be backed up by rookie 2nd round draft pick A.J. Dillon out of Boston College. Dillon was a dominant running back throughout his 3-year college football career while rushing for 4382 yards and 38 touchdowns. You can do a lot worse than Jamaal Williams as your #3 running back. During three NFL seasons, Williams has rushed for a combined 1480 yards in a part-time role. The former BYU Cougar also has 91 career pass receptions of which 7 resulted in touchdowns.
The Packers offensive line has seen its fair share of turnover in recent years. One constant remains all-pro left tackle David Bahktiari, who has protected Aaron Rodgers blindside with a high degree of reliability. In any event, this may turn out to be the Packers weakest offensive line they have fielded in quite some time.
Green Bay's defense ranked middle of the pack in most statistical categories last season. They were 18th in yards allowed, 23rd in rushing, 14th in passing, and 15th on third downs. That is uninspiring when bearing in mind they were on the field less time than 26 other NFL defenses. On a positive note, and in the defensive category that matters most, they were 9th in points allowed per game at 19.6. Much of that can be attributed to their +12 turnover differential which was 3rd best in the NFL with only New England and New Orleans being better.
The Packers secondary will be young with projected starters Zaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Darnell Savage having a cumulative 6 years of NFL experience. The other starter should be safety Adrian Amos who will be the veteran of that group despite entering just his 6th NFL season.
Green Bay will have to replace arguably their best defensive player from last year. Linebacker Blake Martinez opted for free agency and signed with the New York Giants. Nose tackle Kenny Clarke has been a brick wall in the Packers 3-4 defensive scheme. Even with the loss of Martinez, Green Bay’s linebacking corps seems to be more than adequate.
Minnesota Vikings (+200)
Minnesota was 10-6 last season and finished second to Green Bay in the NFC North. That record was good for an NFC wildcard berth. They pulled off a shocker in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs with a win at New Orleans. Their season came to end the following week after suffering a loss at San Francisco.
The Vikings offense will be led by quarterback Kirk Cousins who enters his 3rd season in Minnesota. Since arriving on the scene two years ago, Cousins has thrown for 7901 yards, completed 69.6% of his attempts, and tossed 56 touchdown passes against only 16 interceptions. He has gone 18-12-1 in 31 starts for Minnesota.
When healthy, the Vikings Dalvin Cook is a Top 10 NFL running back. However, during his first three NFL seasons, Cook has missed 19 of 48 regular season contests due to injury or unavailability. Last season Cook appeared in 14 regular season games which was the most of his still young career. While doing so he amassed 1654 total yards from scrimmage and scored 13 touchdowns.
Cook's rookie contract included a $2.7M signing bonus and he is slated to make a base salary of $1.3M this season. His current contract squabbles, in which he is seeking an early extension, have made for unpleasant headlines in Minnesota. The two running backs behind him on the depth chart are Alexander Mattison and Mike Bone. Neither are close in terms of pure talent or potential output compared to Cook. That is what Cook's agent has been using as leverage in the current negotiations. The Vikings management has remained steadfast that they are not yet willing to make a long-term commitment based on Cook’s past injury issues. Furthermore, Minnesota has a 5th year option on whether they want to retain his services and can always stick a franchise tag on him if they so choose. It would be beneficial for the team’s sake to get this situation resolved sooner rather than later to avoid a possible negative distraction.
The Vikings wide receiver group makes for an interesting discussion. During the offseason Minnesota traded wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for 2020 first (22nd overall) and fifth round picks in addition to a 4th rounder in 2021. Diggs has topped the 1000-yard receiving mark in each of the past two seasons. During his three-year NFL career all spent with Minnesota, Diggs has averaged an outstanding 16.7 yards per catch.
The Vikings used that 22nd overall pick obtained from Buffalo to choose former LSU star wide receiver Justin Jefferson. The 6'3" Jefferson collected an enormous 111 catches for 1540 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, while helping LSU to capture a national championship. I think Jefferson will eventually evolve into a better than average NFL wide receiver. Nonetheless, expecting him to match Diggs’ productivity in his rookie campaign is unfair and unrealistic from this author’s viewpoint.
Adam Thielen now becomes the Vikings true #1 receiver. It is yet to be seen if he can thrive in that role, especially without Diggs playing opposite of him. Diggs often drew double teams, which freed Thielen up in single coverage. Thielen missed 6 regular season contests last season due to injury and only managed 30 receptions for 418 yards. It was a far cry from his prior two seasons when he racked up a combined 204 catches for 2649 yards. One thing is for sure, Thielen will see more double coverage this year than he has experienced in any of his first 6 NFL seasons.
Minnesota will once again have old reliable Kyle Rudolph at tight end. This will be Rudolph’s 10th NFL season and all have come with the Vikings organization. Rudolph is an excellent run blocker and red zone target. He has averaged 47 catches, 462 yards receiving, and 5 touchdowns per season during his 9-year career.
The Vikings offensive line will be extremely young with 3 projected starters having 2 or less years of NFL experience. How they mature as the season progresses will go along way in determining the Vikings offense success or failure.
Minnesota's defensive statistics were somewhat average last season. With a lone exception of amassing 48 sacks which tied with San Francisco for 5th best in the NFL. The pass rush will need to be just as good or not better this year considering their inexperience at cornerback. The Vikings projected starters at corner are rookie 1st round pick Jeff Gladney (31st overall/2020) and former top selection (2019) Mike Hughes. Not to say they will not develop into an outstanding tandem, but you can safely assume opposing offensive coordinators will be planning to attack Minnesota’s defense in this area. Although, they have 9-year veteran safety Harrison Smith to provide stability on their backend.
Final Analysis and Prediction
The Detroit Lions will win more than three games this season, if indeed Mathew Stafford remains upright. Yet, forecasting them to win a division title is a bit of a stretch.
Minnesota plays four of its first 5 games against teams that made the playoffs last season. The lone game in that stretch versus a non-playoff team is at Tampa Bay. That is a Tampa Bay team that now features Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowki, and a pair of outstanding wide receivers in Chris Godwin as well as Mike Evans. Furthermore, 4 of their eight road games come against 2019-2020 postseason participants. Additionally, they play two additional away contests at Indianapolis, who is my pick to win the AFC South Division, and previously mentioned Tampa Bay. That imposing slate makes it difficult for me to pick Minnesota to finish atop the NFC North Division standings.
I do not like what is going on and what has failed to transpire in Green Bay during the offseason. Besides, when I see a team that won 13 games last year, and their NFL regular season win totals odds is currently at 9.5, loud sirens go off in my ears. Moreover, and at least on paper, none of the other three NFC North teams have noticeably improved their rosters in any type of dramatic fashion.
Here is the thing about the Chicago Bears. If Mitchell Trubisky somehow puts together an outstanding season and silences his many critics, then rest assured Chicago will win this division. If he does not, they have a heck of an insurance policy with recently-traded-for Nick Foles, who has proven himself to be unfazed in big moments. The Chicago defense is undeniably a top 5 NFL unit. I am taking the longshot Bears for one of my NFL Division Futures predictions.
Pick: Chicago Bears (+300)