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NFC North Preview: It’s Up for Grabs

The Packers are set to fall from last year's win total, the Vikings are scrambling to fill in new pieces on defense, the Bears are still in search of a QB and the Lions are in need of a defensive identity. It's four flawed teams competing for the division title.

Last year the NFC North looked as if it could be the class of the NFL. All it needed was for Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to break out, Aaron Rodgers to be rejuvenated under his new coach in Green Bay, the Vikings to continue dominating on defense and coach Matt Patricia to successfully implement the Patriot Way in Detroit. One year later, it’s a different story—any of the four teams could win it, but does the North have a single team that belongs in the Super Bowl discussion?

Start with the Packers, who are experiencing the kind of chaos you rarely see from a team coming off a 13-win season and conference title game appearance. After trading up in the first round to take QB Jordan Love rather than finding more help for Rodgers, there are question marks on offense. Perhaps just as telling as the Love pick, in the second round Green Bay took Boston College back AJ Dillon, a 250-pound hammer with open-field speed reminiscent of the Titans’ Derrick Henry. It looks as if coach Matt LaFleur is aiming to make the Pack more like his former team in Tennessee, built around wide-zone runs and play-action (of which Rodgers did more last year, but it is not a relative strength of his game).

Minnesota has no questions as to the QB depth chart after Kirk Cousins signed an extension that locks him in for at least two more seasons. But Cousins has always been more of a role player on a team built around its defense. That unit, however, underwent more turnover than perhaps any in football this offseason. Gone are Pro Bowl linemen Everson Griffen (10 seasons in Minnesota) and Linval Joseph (six), as well as three of the team’s top four cornerbacks, including mainstays Xavier Rhodes (seven seasons with the Vikings) and Trae Waynes (five). Coach Mike Zimmer has been historically loath to rely on rookies in the secondary, but first-rounder Jeff Gladney (TCU) and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler (Mississippi State) may have to play big roles immediately. While Minnesota brings back several stars—linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, edge rusher Danielle Hunter and safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are All-Pro candidates—the defense will remain solid only if the new pieces in the secondary deliver early.

The Bears have few questions on defense, especially with free-agent acquisition Robert Quinn providing a pass-rush bookend for Khalil Mack. But they have many issues on offense, starting with Trubisky. After a shaky 2018 was masked by team success, the Bears couldn’t overcome Trubisky’s regression in ’19. It impelled them to bring in Nick Foles, a high-priced free-agent bust in Jacksonville. Foles does have a Super Bowl pedigree and knows Matt Nagy’s system from their time in Kansas City, but both QBs lack the support they need; Chicago has little beyond Allen Robinson as far as passing-game weapons, and its rushing attack was hopeless a year ago.

In a wide-open division, Detroit could make a run. Before his season-ending back injury midway through 2019, Matthew Stafford was playing at an MVP level. No one noticed because the defense was flailing. Patricia’s D must deliver. Last year the pass rush was toothless, and that placed an unreasonable burden on the secondary. New corners Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick, and former Falcons star Desmond Trufant, plus a rotation of young safeties, will have their work cut out for them.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The offseason drama is much ado about nothing, as Rodgers executes LaFleur’s offense to near-perfection, and RBs Aaron Jones and Dillon running wild. Behind its young secondary, the defense is one of the league’s five best. The Packers don’t equal their 13 wins of 2019, but they are better equipped to win come January.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Rodgers bristles all season, both because of his continued discomfort with LaFleur’s heavily schemed offense and his lack of pass-catching weapons. The defense’s putrid performance last January proves to be a harbinger. The offseason talking points focus on whom the Packers would be better off without, the coach or the quarterback.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Zimmer turns in his finest coaching performance, getting immediate results out of a revamped secondary while the offense continues to be efficient and opportunistic. Questions about Cousins’s ability to win the big games disappear, as he engineers multiple fourth-quarter comebacks to squeeze out a division title.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The massive turnover in personnel proves to be too much to handle in a shortened offseason, and the defense regresses, especially in its revamped secondary. Cousins can’t carry the load, and Minnesota is one of 2020’s most maddeningly inconsistent teams. By December, the Vikings are reframing this lost season as a rebuilding year.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: With Stafford picking up at the elite level he left off at before last year’s back injury, and the defense improving as Patricia gets more of his hand-selected pieces in the lineup, the Lions break through. They go 6–2 at Ford Field and consistently hang around on the road, pulling off enough miracles for 10 wins and a division title.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Stafford can do only so much, especially in front of a revamped interior offensive line. The pass rush once again struggles, and that puts far too much stress on the young secondary. Another season is lost, and GM Bob Quinn and Patricia are gone well before Black Monday rolls around.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Either Trubisky or Foles are serviceable at quarterback, but it’s the surprising ground attack, led by David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, that makes the offense go. Mack and Quinn become football’s best pass-rush duo, and the defense piles up 30-plus takeaways, bringing back memories of its 2018 dominance.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Nagy can’t make his offense go with either of his quarterbacks, as he toggles between the skittish Trubisky and the turnover-prone Foles all season, with no help from the run game. The defense is sturdy, but the turnovers fail to materialize for a second straight year.