NFC North Divisional Breakdown: Rodgers and the Packers Repeat
In a division that features some of the most storied franchises in the NFL, such as the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, I’ll breakdown who has the best shot to win the NFC North. While some of the teams in the division made significant additions to their squads in free agency and the draft, others failed to improve as the division is once again up in the air without a clear favorite to claim the throne.
|Team||Odds to win Division||Win Totals||2019 Record||2019 PF||2019 PA||DIFF|
1. Green Bay Packers
The Packers and the Vikings both hold the same odds at winning the division this season (+175), and I view the NFC North as one of the few divisions in football as an open race. Last season, first-year head coach Matt LaFleur managed to guide the Packers to a 13-3 record and also received his first playoff win as a head coach versus Seattle. Although the Packers handled the Seahawks easily, they looked lost against the San Francisco 49ers.
Of course, the Packers remain relevant with a quarterback of Aaron Rodgers’ caliber leading the team. In his 15th in Green Bay, the Packers’ signal-caller regressed, although many teams would more than enjoy a “down year” of 4,002 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, to only 4 interceptions. The fact that we’re even talking about Rodgers season as somewhat unproductive speaks volumes about the QB’s greatness throughout his career. On offense, Rodgers led a unit that finished 14th in scoring, putting up 23.6 points per game. To me, that number is pretty astounding considering how little weapons Rodgers had to work with last season.
At wideout, the Packers are pretty much a one-man band with Davante Adams, who was also limited to just twelve games this season. Despite missing four games, the star wide receiver recorded a team-leading 83 receptions and 997 yards receiving, along with 5 touchdowns. Had Adams been healthy, he most definitely would have posted his second consecutive one thousand yard receiving season. With so few weapons on offense, Green Bay heavily relied on the production of running back Aaron Jones. In his increased role, Jones posted the best season of his young career and racked up 1,084 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. Jones also caught 49 passes for 474 yards and 3 touchdowns. The UTEP product led the NFL in total touchdowns (for a non QB).
In free agency, the Packers added former Colts receiver Devin Funchess and former Lion, Rick Wagner. The addition of Funchess seems a little odd to me, as they already have an elite “X” receiver in Davante Adams. Wagner joins an offensive line that ranked 6th in the NFL by Pro Football Focus last season. The Packers didn’t exactly connect big in the draft either. As scouts considered this draft class to be one of the best at wide receiver, the Packers passed on players like Denzel Mims and Michael Pittman Jr. Instead, Green Bay drafted former Utah State QB Jordon Love with the 26 pick whom they traded up with the Houston Texans to get. While Love does have considerable upside, the Packers already have Aaron Rodgers and failed to give him another weapon on the outside.
Defensively, the Packers were solid and ranked 12th in points allowed per game (20.7). The additions of Za’Darius and Preston Smith seemed to have paid off there. At corner, they have one of the best cornerbacks in Zaire Alexander, who helped the Pack rank 10th in passing yards per game. The big free-agent signing for them on defense was the addition of linebacker Christian Kirksey, who agreed to a 2-year contract with the team. If Jones can replicate the season he had in 2019 and Rodgers returns to his old form, the Packers are more than capable of winning the NFC North again.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Last season, Minnesota finished with a 10-6 record and made the playoffs as a wild card. The Vikings beat the Saints in the wild-card round before losing to the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. Although they were overmatched against the 49ers, Kirk Cousins was playing against one of the top defenses in the NFL. With a couple of new additions to the team, the Vikings look like a better overall team this season, and I believe they could win the division this season.
Coming off one of the best seasons in his career in 2018, quarterback Kirk Cousins quietly had a terrific season in 2019. Although his passing yards and touchdowns were down, Cousins threw only 6 interceptions while compiling a career-best 107.4 passer rating. If anything, Cousins showed he’s capable of leading the Vikings to a deep playoff run.
In 2019, Minnesota finished with the 11th ranked scoring offense, putting up 24.6 points per game. A large part of their success came on the ground as Minnesota finished inside the top 10 with 127.2 rushing yards per game. For the first time in his career, running back Dalvin Cook looked healthy and scampered for 1,135 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. As a pass-catcher, Cook showed his versatility by catching 53 passes for 519 yards receiving. Although Cook has made it a point to receive a new contract from the Vikings, he solidified himself as one of the top backs in the league.
The Vikings traded star wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills but selected LSU’s Justin Jefferson in the first round of the NFL Draft. I expect Jefferson to start right away, as he was one of college football’s best receivers last season, putting up 111 receptions, 1.540 yards and 18 touchdowns. With Jefferson and Adam Thielen on the outside, the Vikings have two tremendous route-runners who should help Kirk Cousins put up another terrific year. Along with Thielen, tight end Kyle Rudolph should receive more targets in the absence of Stefon Diggs. The team also added the 5th ranked tackle in the draft by selecting Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland.
Minnesota had one of the NFL’s best scoring defenses in 2019, holding opponents to 19.4 points per game. The unit should be even stronger in 2020, as they added TCU’s Jeff Gladney (4th ranked CB) in the draft and DT Michael Pierce in free agency. The team also picked up S Anthony Harris’ franchise tag in the offseason. Harris posted six interceptions in 2019, tied for 1st in the NFL.
3. Chicago Bears
Coming off of a disappointing season, the Bears made a few quality additions in the draft and free agency. The quarterback position is still a huge question mark for the team as they acquired veteran QB Nick Foles from Jacksonville, who should compete for the starting job with Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears have the 3rd best odds (+320) to win the division and are projected to win eight games this season. Unless the offense takes a huge step forward, I don’t see Chicago competing with the Packers or Vikings.
The Bears offense had another lackluster performance in 2019, finishing 29th in scoring per game (17.5). Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had another season in which he threw at least 10 interceptions (his second in a row). Trubisky looks for like a backup than a player taken with the 2nd overall pick in 2017. For a team that relied so heavily on the run in 2018, Chicago managed only 91.1 rushing yards per game, 27th in the NFL. That’s a disappointing number for a team with multiple talented running backs (David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen).
In free agency, the team did add a few pieces by signing WR Ted Ginn Jr, Jimmy Graham, and Robert Quinn. Ginn should provide the Bears with an excellent deep threat on the outside and allows WR Anthony Miller to play in the slot. The two receivers should form a terrific trio with star wideout Allen Robinson, who is fresh off of a 1,000-yard receiving year. Chicago also added the number 1 ranked tight end, Cole Kmet, in the draft. Kmet should help a tight end group that finished 31st in the NFL last season.
Defensively, the Bears finished in the top five in terms of points allowed per game (18.6). They still have an elite pass-rusher in Khalil Mack, and two players in the secondary that can cover a ton of ground (CB Kyle Fuller, S Eddie Jackson). The team also re-signed starting linebacker Danny Trevathan on a 3-year deal and added pass-rusher Robert Quinn in free agency. Quinn is one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL and has recorded 26.5 sacks in the last three seasons combined. The Bears also drafted CB Jaylon Johnson in the 2nd round of the draft. Johnson was the 5th highest-graded corner in the draft and whom I believe is a steal for the Bears.
The Bears could outpace their 8-game win projection and compete for the division title. A lot needs to happen right for them on the offensive end. They have all the talent surrounding Mitchell Trubisky to do so, but Trubisky needs to make a huge leap this season for this team to achieve its full potential.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions again proved to be one of the NFL’s worst franchises, finishing with a 3-12-1 record in 2019. A large part of Detroit’s losing record was the absence of quarterback Mathew Stafford, who was limited to eight games because of a bone fracture in his back. The team also parted ways with standout corner Darius Slay, whom they traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.
As I mentioned earlier, Detroit’s success largely depended on the health of Mathew Stafford, who missed the majority of the 2019 season. Despite the injury, Stafford was on pace for one of the best seasons in his career, as he finished with 2,499 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a 106.0 passer rating through eight games. The Detroit offense managed only 21.3 points per game and finished 18th in the NFL in scoring. The offense does provide some promise, as the offensive line was ranked 11th by Pro Football Focus. Center Frank Ragnow was the 6th highest-graded player at his position in 2019, and both G Graham Glasgow and T Taylor Decker finished in the top-10 at their respective positions.
On offense, the Lions have plenty of weapons that feature a wideout group of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., and Danny Amendola. Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson also showed flashes of his first-round potential last season. Wide receiver Kenny Golladay followed up an impressive 2018 season with another 1,000-yard showing. The wideout caught 65 passes for 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns. Opposite of Golladay, Jones Jr also recorded 62 receptions for 779 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Lions also have a talented running back in Kerryon Johnson out of the backfield. Johnson was limited to eight games as he sustained a knee injury against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6 of the 2019 season. Following Johnson’s injury history, Detroit selected Georgia running back D’Andre Swift in the second round of the draft. Many scouts had Swift pegged as the best running back in the class.
Detroit looked much worse on the defensive side of the ball in 2019, surrendering 26.4 points per game along with having the NFL’s worst passing defense (284.4 YPG). I expect the Lions to be much better on defense this season as they made an array of moves during the offseason. The team agreed to free-agent deals with linebackers Reggie Ragland and Jamie Collins, as well as lineman Nick Williams and former first-rounder Danny Shelton. All four additions should help Detroit improve a run defense that ranked 21st in 2019. Cornerback was Detroit’s biggest need entering the offseason, and the team addressed that in a big way. They first added former Falcon’s CB Desmond Trufant and then traded for Patriot’s corner, Duron Harmon. With the 3rd pick in the draft, the Lions selected Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, the fifth highest-ranked prospect in the draft. Okudah gives Detroit a legit No. 1 corner right away and should be a cornerstone for their defense for the next decade.