Four Questions: NFC North
As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, next up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam – Packers. I think this division could be wide open. I expect the Bears to be pretty strong, the Lions won’t be poor, and the Vikings have potential depending on a few different pieces playing well. Green Bay, though, has the best quarterback and probably the best roster top to bottom. That offense is virtually unstoppable when it has a strong running game and Eddie Lacy gives them that.
Ben – Even without Aaron Rodgers for half of the season last year the Packers still snuck the NFC North, with him at the helm I can’t look past a repeat for Green Bay. The emergence of Eddie Lacy last season only makes this offense all the more dangerous. The offense should carry them to the division crown, what strides they can make on defense will determine how far into the postseason they can go.
Steve – Assuming he stays healthy, I think this is Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ division to win. Rodgers is one of the league’s best and the Packers have amassed some impressive depth in the back-7 of their defense. If they can piece together some solid defensive line play, certainly a big “if,” they should be able to make a deep playoff run.
Gordon – Just like I couldn’t go against the Broncos and Peyton Manning, I can’t go against Rodgers and the Packers. One of the few teams I think can beat the Seahawks in the NFC, they are a genuine Super Bowl contender with Rodgers back healthy. Add in the talented weapons on offense in Jordy Nelson, Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb, to go along with the likes of Clay Matthews on defense and I just can’t see any other team in the North beating them.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – The Minnesota secondary. Mike Zimmer has a reputation as something of a defensive guru, and his defenses in Cincinnati were certainly usually good, but somehow never fearsome. The Vikings have invested picks on the D in recent years but the old scheme was clearly too vanilla to really succeed in today’s NFL. Now we’ll see if Zimmer can breathe some magic into some of the holdover defensive backs and get legit play from them.
Ben – Watching the Bears’ defensive line last season was, at times, torturous. The personnel has been upgraded but will that lead to a big improvement? I want to see how much of last season’s struggles were down to personnel and how much of it was down to potential scheme flaws and teams just finding plays that worked. I expect improvements, but will it be the leaps and bounds that the new blood dictates or were their other factors at play that will remain in 2014?
Steve – The Packers’ secondary has a number of interesting players. Second-year cornerback Casey Hayward returns from injury after a strong rookie campaign as the slot corner in 2012. Last year’s slot corner, Micah Hyde, may be the movable chess piece as a corner/safety hybrid and he does good work around the line of scrimmage. If CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields play to their abilities and you throw in first-round free safety Haha Clinton-Dix, this secondary has as much potential as any around the league.
Gordon – Detroit’s pass catchers. We already know how good Calvin Johnson is, but I really liked that the Lions went out this offseason and finally added a viable No. 2 option opposite him in Golden Tate. Tate can make people miss when he gets the ball in his hands and when you factor in Reggie Bush coming out of the backfield and the addition of Eric Ebron at tight end, Matthew Stafford suddenly has a plethora of weapons to choose from.
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – It’s too easy, but you can’t look beyond Cordarrelle Patterson, who is one of the game’s most electrifying playmakers. He has the ability to take it to the house whenever he touches it, whether that is in the return game, as a receiver or even running with the ball out of the backfield. If the Vikings can get a little bit more from the quarterback position Patterson could have a huge year.
Ben – After a frustrating rookie season, Sharrif Floyd is destined to start at 3-tech this season and in Mike Zimmer’s defense will have the chance to go some way towards filling the Geno Atkins role. I don’t foresee him being that good immediately, but Floyd will be asked to be a disruptive presence in the defense and I think that’s something he can get done, continuing the fine legacy of interior penetrators that the Vikings have had over the years.
Steve – Right guard Kyle Long has a chance to take a big step forward after a solid rookie season. He wasn’t as good as some of the hype a year ago — some of which was our doing after he graded so well in the preseason — but he put together some really good games last year and guards tend to start slowly when entering the league.
Gordon – Joique Bell. I say this because I don’t think the rest of the league — or the Lions, based on last season, for that matter — have quite realized how good Bell is yet. He was fifth amongst all running backs with an Elusive Rating of 52.2 a year ago, and really should be seeing more than 166 carries. Capable of beating defenders by running over them and cutting round them, Bell is one of the best running backs in the league right now in my eyes.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – Since Nick Collins was forced out of the league with injuries, the Packers have had a problem area at safety, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has the talent to fix that, even as a rookie. He should be helped out by the fact that Green Bay’s corners are excellent on paper, allowing him the freedom to not need to try and do too much. If he can just play within the scheme and let his natural playmaking instincts come out I think he’ll have a fantastic season.
Ben – Preseason would suggest that Anthony Barr will get the chance to contribute on all three downs for the Vikings, ample opportunity to make his mark (positively or negatively) as a rookie. Some impressive work in run defense and as a pass rusher shown already, the shift to a pass-rushing role on third downs should limit the ability of opposing offenses to exploit him in coverage.
Steve – It’s hard to say how many opportunities he’ll have this season, but Lions TE Eric Ebron adds an interesting dimension to the Lions’ passing attack. They already added WR Golden Tate this offseason and with two dynamic weapons in the backfield in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Ebron’s emergence could make the Lions one of the league’s most feared aerial attacks.
Gordon – Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. I’m going to cheat and pick the two players that the Bears added to the middle of their defensive line during the draft. The defensive line in general was an area that saw a massive overhaul this offseason, but they really need at least one of Ferguson or Sutton to step up and be a solid contributor in their rookie year. If not it could be another long season for the Bears’ defensive front.
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