The Vikings brought in the hottest name in free agency, while the Bears reinforced for the passing game, while the Lions look to lift the run game out of the cellar. But will these moves be enough to keep the perennial favorite Packers out of the playoffs for a second straight year?
The MMQB team made its way around the nation visiting NFL training camps this preseason. Up today we have a few observations and takeaways from visiting the NFC North teams.
• The biggest storyline with the 2019 Bears is quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s development. Head coach Matt Nagy keeps saying Trubisky is now at level 202 of his offense, meaning more will be asked and more will be expected of the third-year quarterback. Trubisky had some great games last year (against the Bucs and the Lions), and some games that exposed his weaknesses: staying in the pocket and getting to his second or third read (Eagles, Rams). Chicago’s defense can only do so much, and Trubisky will take on more responsibility for the Bears’ success this season. Don’t expect to see much more of the QB this preseason.
• The Bears are finally down to one kicker after starting the evaluation process with nine kickers at their rookie mini-camp in May. The last man standing is Eddy Pineiro, a Florida alum with no NFL experience that the Bears traded for after rookie mini-camp closed in May. Pineiro, who spent the 2018 season on injured reserve in Oakland, has a soccer background and didn’t pick up kicking until his senior year in high school, when he helped out his high school football team by kicking their extra points. He originally played soccer for a junior college, and then wound up transferring to Florida after YouTube videos of his long field goals went viral. Pineiro has a strong leg, but hasn’t shown reliable consistency in camp and preseason games so far. The Bears coaching staff is hoping that Pineiro will take control of the job now that he will have every rep in practice and every opportunity in the remaining two preseason games, instead of splitting time with the recently cut Elliott Fry. There’s still a very good chance the winner of this Bears kicking competition is not currently on the roster.
• Trubisky did not want for offensive weapons last season, and this offseason, Chicago added even more versatile pieces. Mike Davis, David Montgomery—who provides a pass-catching dimension that former running back Jordan Howard never could—and receiver Cordarelle Patterson can line up anywhere on the field and impact the offense.
• Chicago returns most of its dominant 2018 defense, and the group has continued to impress in practice. Linebacker Roquan Smith, who missed all of Chicago’s training camp last season during a contract holdout, looked sharp in his first camp and is developing into more of a leader on the defense.
• QB Matthew Stafford took a week off practice in between the Lions joint practices with New England and Houston. Before this, he’d missed only one day of practice since 2012, and that was to sign his current contract. Though the Lions said it was a pre-planned rest period, this odd absence and struggles with consistency in practice has led to some speculation about Stafford’s health. Is his back injury from last season the cause? Stafford also hasn’t played in the first two preseason games, but he told reporters Monday that his back is not a problem and that he’s feeling good.
• First round pick T.J. Hockenson, a tight end out of Iowa, looks to be headed for a big role in Detroit’s offense. Hockenson picked up 22 yards on a catch-and-run for his first pro catch in the Lions preseason game against the Texans. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell can do more with a revamped tight end room. Hockenson and veteran Jesse James are versatile players, which opens up the options the Lions can run out of the same personnel grouping with two tight ends.
• In January, the Lions hired Sean Ryan as quarterbacks coach—Stafford’s third QB coach in four seasons. Ryan joined the Lions from Houston, where he was the Texans quarterbacks coach, working with Deshaun Watson. It was a lateral coaching move for Ryan, but he said he’s excited to work with a veteran like Stafford, a different challenge than coaching Watson. Can he give Stafford, who is coming off one of the worst statistical seasons in his career, a boost?
• Detroit’s defensive line is loaded with talent. Damon Harrison was recently activated off the non-football injury list, and the Lions signed former Packer Mike Daniels and former Patriot Trey Flowers. Detroit also returns A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, who is coming off a strong rookie season. Daniels is day-to-day with a foot injury lingering from last season, but when fully healthy, this is line is stocked.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
• Aaron Rodgers is totally over Green Bay’s biggest storyline, the one surrounding his relationship with new head coach Matt LaFleur. “We have a great line of communication,” he told reporters last week. “I wish you just knew this: I don’t care. I don’t need to go out and prove to anybody how great Matt and I are getting along, or him stand up there and say how great it’s been. Look, we’re having a great time, we’re communicating and the conjecture is for clickbait, news stories that you guys can put on your websites.”
As much as Rodgers would like for it not to be a focal point this offseason, the reality is that Green Bay’s success hinges on the quarterback and the head coach getting along. Rodgers and LaFleur have to find the balance that will allow Rodgers to execute LaFleur’s offense while also using his own experience and talent.
• Rodgers really likes new right guard Billy Turner, who Green Bay signed to a four-year deal this offseason. He’s gone out of his way to hype Turner twice this offseason. Rodgers told NBC’s Chris Simms that Turner is someone people should be talking about. According to PFF, over Turner’s last seven starts with Denver (Weeks 11-17), he played the 4th most pass-blocking snaps at guard without allowing a sack. Rodgers says he feels really good about the Packers offensive line.
• Speaking of guys Rodgers goes out of his way to compliment... receiver Jake Kumerow is poised to make an NFL roster after preseason cut downs for the first time in his five-year career. Last year, Rodgers told the media he was really impressed with the then 26-year-old receiver, who at that point, had spent his career bouncing around practice squads and injured reserve. Kumerow, who went undrafted in 2015, was a preseason star last summer and then was injured while somersaulting into the end zone in the third preseason game, which killed his chances of making the 53-man roster for the regular season. Kumerow was activated off injured reserve in November and scored his first touchdown against the Jets. He’s continued to impress this preseason, and barring injury, will head into week one on a 53-man roster for the first time.
• Receiver Davante Adams will lead this receiving group again. On the day I watched practice, Adams beat double coverage for a fabulous leaping 42-yard catch on third-and-17.
• Rodgers had an interesting comment about Antonio Brown’s helmet saga. Rodgers is one of the 32 players who had to find new helmets to wear this season, as their former model is now forbidden because it didn’t meet the league’s safety minimums. Rodgers said he’s currently deciding between two different models, one a Vicis model and the other a Schutt. “There's a connection to a helmet, for sure,” Rodgers told reporters. “I love my helmet, every one that I've worn. I don't think that I would want to retire over it, and I obviously didn’t. But I'm sure [Antonio] will find one that he likes.”
Rodgers had been wearing the same helmet since he switched models after having two concussions during the 2010 season. I thought it was interesting that he spoke to the attachment to a helmet and that he hasn’t yet decided which model he will be going with this season.
• Packers defense looks very different this year with new additions free agent signings Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and draft picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is going to have a great season, building off an impressive rookie year.
• First-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury is part of a remake of the Vikings offensive line, one of the team’s most important weaknesses last season. Bradbury is the starting center, Pat Elflein shifted to left guard and Minnesota signed another guard, Josh Kline, in free agency. Along with right tackle Brian O’Neill, a second round pick in 2018, and left tackle Riley Reiff, in his third year in Minnesota, this line is built to support the run game.
• Gary Kubiak was hired in January as a senior offensive assistant, and he and Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski have teamed up to get the most out of Kirk Cousins. A commitment to more play-action throws, an outside zone running scheme, two tight-end sets and more time with the QB under center are all staples of an offense Cousins was familiar with in Washington.
• The Vikings traded a fifth-round pick for Ravens kicker/punter Kaare Vedvik. Incumbent kicker Dan Bailey has struggled in practice, and Vedvik was brought in to compete for either Bailey’s job or punter Matt Wiles’s job—and it’s unlikely Vedvik would make the team with both jobs. In his first preseason game as a Viking, Vedvik handled kickoffs, punted three times and kicked an extra point. Bailey took the lone field-goal attempt and added an extra point.
Minnesota has been a tough place for kickers to succeed recently. Rookie Daniel Carlson was cut after missing two overtime field goals in the second game last season, after beating out Kai Forbath for the job. And everybody knows what happened to Blair Walsh.
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