Once renowned as the ‘Black and Blue’ division, the NFC North has a little more finesse about it these days, thanks to the presence of three high profile QBs. And it’s the teams led by Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford that our experts think will fight it out for the title this year–with the reigning MVP’s team the consensus tip to win the division.
While there’s little love for the Vikings, our experts do think the team is harboring a potential breakout star, or two.
So, here’s a preview of the what will be worth watching in the NFC North.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: There are a couple of obvious candidates for this: Randall Cobb for the Packers and Kyle Rudolph for the Vikings. Cobb should be able to get increased playing time, even in that congested Packers receiving corps, because he’s flashed big-time skills every time he’s been given the ball. This offseason I had cause to re-watch every snap of Rudolph’s and I saw a guy who really did have Rob Gronkowski-type skills. If Christian Ponder can improve, Rudolph should have a big year.
Khaled: I think quite highly of young tight end Kyle Rudolph. Has the look of an every-down player, and with a quarterback like Ponder, I think he could be in line for a heavy amount of targets (especially if they continue managing Percy Harvin’s snaps).
Neil: At PFF, we seem to be out on our own in thinking Erin Henderson has already broken out. He was ignored and unmentioned by those giving out end-of-season awards, and shunned by other NFL teams in free agency who probably hadn’t seen enough of him to justify a three-down role. The good news for them is they’ll all get another shot, as he only signed a one year ($1.75M) deal with Minnesota. The bad news? In his new three-down role he’ll show everyone (except us) that they missed the boat, because his price tag will escalate massively.
Ben: You can’t make a better first impression in the NFL than Stephen Paea made on his first drive as an NFL player, recording a safety. He ticked along with some solid displays late in the season but never again announced his presence. Well his offseason work-rate has apparently been excellent, supplanting Matt Toeaina in the starting line-up. He has an ankle injury to work through to be ready for the start of the season, but if the Bears’ coaching staff don’t allow him to lose his starting spot through injury he should give the them that really strong inside presence they have lacked since Tommie Harris left.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: Green Bay 12; Detroit 9.5; Chicago 8.5; Minnesota 6. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: It’s a good thing I’m not a betting man, because I’d have worried myself into a hospital bed on this $100 bet, along with half of the others in this series. The bookies to me seem to have picked the right over/under lines more often than not, and it’s tough to find one I think is way off. In this division I think topping 12 wins is always a tough task (even if the Pack managed it last year). If I’m betting $100 I’m expecting the Packers to come up short on that mark, or at least level it.
Khaled: If you look at Chicago, it was really only injuries that stopped them picking up more than eight wins last year. With that in mind, the signing of Jason Campbell could be huge because he’s good enough to start for more than a handful of teams in this league. The rest of the team looks better than last year and they seem to have finally realized that some bigger receivers might play to the strengths of Jay Cutler. They’ll challenge in this division, and so I take the over.
Neil: Everyone in Chicago moans as I pick the Bears to be over 8.5. Brian Urlacher’s knee injury is incredibly troubling, but I think they’ve made so many strides at wide receiver they should overcome any delayed entry (or patchy play) into the season.
Ben: I think the Lions are a little too reliant on too few players to carry the load for them this year, and I don’t think they’re set up to repeat last season’s success without similar phenomenal performances. They’ve been overtaken by the Bears this offseason and I simply can’t see them getting the 10 wins necessary to beat their over/under mark of 9.5 wins. I think they’re moving in the right direction, but they may suffer a slightly down season that will allow them to really strengthen and deepen the core of the team.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: People were expecting the Vikings to draft a corner early and often this offseason, but I was always of the opinion that safety was a far bigger problem than CB would be going into 2012. Evidently, they were too and went aggressively after Harrison Smith at the bottom of the first round. I loved the move and I’m really curious now to see if they got it right with the player they think is the answer at the position. The Vikings haven’t had a top flight safety since Darren Sharper left town, can Smith be that guy?
Khaled: I’ve seen a bit of Dwight ‘Bill’ Bentley of the Lions. He looks like an upgrade on what they had last year who could make some plays. It’s only preseason, but there’s more upside with him than Jacob Lacey.
Neil: Perhaps my biggest reason for thinking the Bears’ receiving corps will step forward this season is the drafting of Alshon Jeffery. In tandem with Brandon Marshall, and with Jay Culter willing to give any open receiver a shot (and sometimes those that aren’t), he’ll see plenty of action. He’s another big-bodied guy who will make plays and make the Bears a much more interesting proposition.
Ben: As he was one of the few rookies who actually made me want to go back and look at some college games to ‘check the hype’, I’ll be taking a close look at Matt Kalil this season. From viewing a handful of college games and his preseason games, I struggle to see the ‘franchise’ left tackle that he is purported to be. What I’m going to be fascinated to see play out is whether he really is a very good left tackle, with the expectation levels simply set too high?
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: The Packers are the class of the division, but the next two teams should be close too. Both the Bears and Lions will be in with a chance of the postseason. The Vikings…won’t. I think the Packers will take the division and be a Super Bowl contender, and the Bears grab second with some improved depth over the Lions, who take a step backwards. Once they’re in the postseason, I think Chicago could make some noise too.
Khaled: I’d be a fool to bet against Green Bay, and I think I’m saving my foolish predictions for tomorrow. I’m tempted to say the Bears will be joining the Packers, but the injury for Brian Urlacher is a massive concern. He’s more important to them than most give credit. The Lions may sneak in, but that defense still worries me with how ill-disciplined it can be.
Neil: I’m not as high on Detroit as some people, and see them missing out. The undisciplined carnage of the offseason was one thing, but they don’t look to have improved as much as other teams either in free agency or the draft. Aaron Rodgers is probably good enough to get the Packers into the playoffs on his own, but defensive woes will once again see them falling short of the big one. The Packers will be joined in the postseason by the Bears who will leapfrog Detroit for a playoff berth, but no more.
Ben: As I said above, I think the Lions have been overtaken this offseason by the Bears, who have become are a real wildcard threat. However, until proven otherwise this division is still the Packers to lose. Any losses on offenses have been mitigated by shrewd pickups, and the addition of Nick Perry could provide them with the two-pronged pass rush that has limited their defense in past seasons. Chicago are only two seasons removed from a division title, and an NFC Championship game appearance, so with their additions they could yet challenge Green Bay for the division. However, I’ll believe that when I see it.