Four Analysts, Four Questions – NFC North

| September 5, 2011

Some interesting suggestions for the NFC North’s breakout player highlight this edition of the “Four Questions” … though, a bit further in, we actually find that odd moment where all four of these analysts seem to agree on the division’s positional strength. Is it really that obvious?
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Jump in and compare their thoughts to yours as we have a look at an intriguing set of teams.
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Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
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Khaled: Easy choice here. The Vikings have never been big on rotation, so Brian Robison is a guy to look at. He’s never seen enough playing time because of the exceptional talent ahead of him, but when he has been on the field he’s produced (especially in 2008). I don’t know if he can replicate what Ray Edwards did, but he’ll likely get close.

Nathan: I like Sam Shields of the Packers to be much improved in 2011. He was an undrafted rookie last year who won a spot in the nickel defense which Green Bay uses quiet often. When the Packers were facing must-win situations late in the season and in the playoffs, his play went to the next level (other than during the Super Bowl). He was a raw talent when he joined the Packers, and was able to improve enough in one offseason to become an passable corner. I think after this offseason, he’ll have improved enough to become one of the league’s better corners.

Neil: After being picked on unmercifully by my colleagues for choosing too well known players in the previous “Four Questions,” I’m questioning whether even DE Mike Neal qualifies for the Packers; perhaps a better thing to do is ask if he’ll make the field due to health concerns. If he does, I’m sure he’ll make me look good. In Detroit, I’m know that Matthew Stafford won’t meet the criteria (well he was a first pick) so I’ll go with DE Lawrence Jackson who will see lots of playing time anyway but may get even more if Kyle Vanden Bosch is not ready to go. I’m confident however, they’ll let me have Erin Henderson, the Vikings new weakside, two-down backer as he only played 21 snaps last year, but less so Earl Bennett, the Bears’ slot guy, as he was closer to 600. When Chicago realizes Roy Williams is just another Mike Martz over projection (can you say Brandon Manumaleuna) I’ll have no chance next year as he’ll get closer to 900 in 2011.

Ben: With Pisa Tinoisamoa gone from the Bears the door is open for Nick Roach to really make an impression this season. Roach has impressed in limited action at both MLB and SLB in the last two seasons and with a full time starting spot now apparently his, even as a two-down linebacker, this is the year that the Bears re-discover a strong linebacking trio. Brian Iwuh could get a chance to make a similar impression if Lance Briggs’ injury and contract issues continue to be an concern through the season.

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The over/under lines for season win totals in the division are: Chicago 8.5; Detroit 7.5; Green Bay 11.5; Minnesota 7. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
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Khaled: If Matthew Stafford stays healthy, this is a slam dunk pick for the Lions. They could be very good. That said, I’m sure everyone else will say that, so I’ll take the under on the Bears. Not a great offseason, not a great offensive line, not a great chance of progressing in this division. 8-8 will be a good year for them.

Nathan: I don’t see the Vikings winning seven games. The offense lost Sidney Rice and Bryant McKinnie and the defense slipped too, with Ray Edwards and Pat Williams leaving, and I don’t think any areas have been greatly improved to counteract that.

Neil: The Lions at 7.5 is a joke right? Wow, I’m piling my mortgage on that one right now. What if Stafford gets injured though? Oh the pressure – will my wife handle it well?

Ben: Minnesota gambled everything on a two year run with Brett Favre and came up empty; this season is where they pay for that gamble. Teams prefer to reload rather than rebuild, but that doesn’t always happen and this is definitely a rebuilding year for the Vikings – one in which I expect them to finish with less than seven wins.

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What do you see as the positional strength of the division?
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Khaled: Holy linebackers! We already knew (last year) that the Vikings had talent with Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson, and that the Bears were stacked with Urlacher and Briggs. The emergence of Desmond Bishop gave the Packers two top linebackers (along with Matthews) which just left the Lions the weaklings of the group. Well no more. They brought in some guys who will help out the run defense big time in Tulloch and Durant.

Neil: Easy … inside linebackers. Brian Urlacher can do it all, Stephen Tulloch is maybe even better coming forward but not in the same class when dropping back. E.J. Henderson is one guy you really wouldn’t want to meet popping through a hole and if 2010 was a “recovery” year I dread to think how good he’ll be now. Finally in Green Bay you have the heavily PFF-promoted Desmond Bishop – how can you not like a guy who you call for to start and when the opportunity arises he  delivers, thank you sir. What’s that you say … A.J. Hawk? Well, he didn’t give up many penalties last year!

Nathan: I completely agree that inside linebacker is the strength, but to keep things fresh, there are some men playing on the outside that aren’t that bad either. Lance Briggs and Chad Greenway were both in the top five of the league in terms of stops for 4-3 outside linebackers. The Packers Clay Matthews is a sack machine when he is completely healthy. Finally the Lions added Justin Durant, who had the second highest run defense grade of all of the 4-3 outside linebackers.

Ben: There’s some real quality in this division at inside/middle linebacker. Stephen Tulloch’s arrival in Detroit brings one of the best run stopping MLBs to the division. A player of a very similar mold and quality is EJ Henderson of Minnesota who defied a horrible leg break in 2009 to come back with an outstanding 2011 season. Desmond Bishop took advantage of Nick Barnett’s injury to have a superb 2010 season for Green Bay. Then the division is rounded out by Brian Urlacher who played some of the best football of his career, particularly in run defense, last season.

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Who is going to make the playoffs and do they have a shot to win it all?
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Khaled: If you bet against the Packers you’re either mad, or just trying to be contrary, They’re the Super Bowl champions and they could be even better with all the players they are getting back. So you have to bank on them winning the division – the only question then is whether the Lions (who I have penciled in for second) can take a wild card spot. Unfortunately I have them as my sixth ranked team in the NFC, but ahead of all the NFC West teams which means they’ll just miss out.

Nathan: I can’t go against the Packers. They won it all last year, and they are upgraded in a few areas with players coming back from injury. They are just too good not to pick them to go all the way again this year. I think the Bears won’t do as well as last year but still come out as a winning team. I think the Lions can also end up with a winning record, but I will guess both miss the playoffs by a game.

Neil: Don’t you just love what Jim Schwartz has done? Is it enough for a divisional crown? I think not this year but if Stafford stays healthy he’s got a Wild Card team for sure. I’m going for Green Bay as champions and a hard fought loss in the NFC Championship game to the Saints, while Detroit maybe wins one playoff game.

Ben: It’s tough to see past Green Bay in this division and presuming complacency isn’t an issue, they will be a threat to win the whole thing again. Chicago could be in and around the playoff hunt and I’m not sure this is quite the year for Detroit, though if Matthew Stafford can be kept healthy they could prove me wrong and be within a shout of a wildcard slot.

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Follow the guys on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled, @PFF_Neil, @PFF_NateJahnke … and the main feed: @ProFootbalFocus
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  • PaulK

    My last year’s numbers point me to Green Bay over, Chicago over and Detroit over, all quality selections with Green Bay getting an early lead. I have to choose one. To inform these numbers I ask the following questions? Who lost the most free agents? Green Bay. Which rookies improved the most over the off-season? Matthew Stafford (but not Mikel LeShoure). Which first stringers played the preseason the best? Detroit by a good margin.

    And my winner: Detroit over.

    My goal is to best all four of you excellent analysts. Odds are 4:1 in your favor, but that’s fair. When about eight games have been played, I hope to privately remind you of all of your selections and my selections, and then you can ask, “Why didn’t we put this guy on our team?” Last year at this time I railed about you not giving the Patriots enough respect. This September I cover the whole NFL to not make it about one team only.