2013 NFL Preview: NFC North
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:
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.
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.
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.