2009 NFL Preview: NFC North

NFC NorthTotal Pro Sports – Lets take a look at this years 2009 NFC North Previews and Predicitons.

Chicago Bears

Offseason: The Bears add a quarterback who can win which hopefully improves a receiver group that still lacks a standout option. What went under the radar during the whole Cutler fiasco was Chicago signing hall of fame left tackle Orlando Pace, who at 33 can still contribute and is a huge upgrade over John St. Clair. The price of Cutler was having no first or second round draft picks, so expecting their rookie class to make an impact day one is a stretch.

Offense: I’m not ruling it out, but I’m very sceptical of all this ‘Devin Hester is about to become a number one guy’ talk. Let’s see more than gadgets, streaks and bubble plays before we herald him. The truth is that Cutler’s top receiving options are not receivers; Greg Olsen looks set to rocket himself into the upper echelon of TEs and Matt Forte caught 23% of everything Kyle Orton threw last year, so expect these guys to be option 1 and 1a this year.

Defense: How the mighty have fallen. Urlacher and co were talked about as the best defense around in 2007, but thanks to a total disparity between pass and run (they ranked 30th against the pass but 5th against the run), providing you had an able quarterback, Chicago wasn’t quite the vaunted opposition they once were. 28 sacks is a very mediocre total for this side, and when you can’t get pressure up front it’s no wonder your secondary gets torched. Unfortunately the price of Cutler meant no Larry English for the Bears, leaving their only real additions defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert and corner DJ Moore. Chicago will have to bank on the now healthy Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris to restore former glory.

Key Games: This is a tough if unspectacular team and I can see them grinding out results against Green Bay, Minnesota and the Ravens.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Green Bay Packers

Offseason: When it comes to free agency the Packers are a franchise that likes to buy its clothes from Walmart because Hollister is pricey and impractical, they’re a franchise that would win the lottery and invest wisely instead of blowing it all on Ferraris. This conservative attitude is fine, but it’s seen them win one Super Bowl in 40 years and I honestly think the Pack had a genuine chance of wooing Julius Peppers to Wisconsin over the summer if this don’t-rock-the-boat attitude prevented a deal from materialising. They’re left with a rookie WILL linebacker and an awkward Aaron Kampman to steer this new 3-4. Drafting BJ Raji was a no brainer since the guy was born to be an NFL nose tackle.

Offense: Give the man some credit: Aaron Rodgers was magnificent last year. 4000 yards and a 2:1 TD/interception ratio are stats of a franchise quarterback, and with a second full season to mature Rodgers is waiting in the wings of elite level. My only criticism was a poor record late in games and a tendency to be flushed from the pocket a little too easily, but you can’t blame him too much when his offensive line is beginning to decline through a culmination of age and injury – the chief concern heading into 2009. Receivers wise, Greg Jennings is one of the league’s best, whilst Donald Driver’s game is built on crisp route running and play between the numbers so the effects of age shouldn’t impair him as much as other wideouts. I’ll admit that Donald Driver isn’t what he once was and I doubt he’ll eclipse 1000 yards, but Jordy Nelson is the heir apparent and will look to breakout in his sophomore season. My concern with Nelson, especially when compared to the dolphin-esque Jennings, is that he looked a little heavy and could do with becoming a bit leaner physique wise. Word out of training camp is that starting TE Donald Lee could be unseated by Jermichael Finley, whilst despite playing all of 2008 injured, poorly or against top run defenses Ryan Grant managed to finish 9th in yards… yeah I don’t know how either. Can we get a recount?

Defense: If you statistically rank teams in their ability to shutdown the opposition’s number one receiver in 2008, you would expect the Raiders and Nnamdi Asomugha to come out on top and you’re almost right (Oakland rank second). In reality it was Charles Woodson and the Packers who were most successful, an achievement made even more impressive when you consider this defense was devoid of a pass rush all year and Woodson turned 32. There’s a lot of talk about Woodson moving to safety in a bid to extend his career and Al Harris seems to be a hair’s width from being released, but what will cripple this team is if their new 3-4 fails and their pass rush can’t improve on the measly 27 sacks of a year ago. No one questions Aaron Kampman going forward but backpedalling in coverage is another matter for the 6-4 265lb goliath, and by all reports he’s struggling so expect Green Bay to concede a lot of yards in the middle of the field. Opposite him is rookie Clay Matthews so you can see what I mean when I advocated Green Bay pursuing Julius Peppers with a little more verve.

Key Games: If they want the playoffs they’ll have to win their divisional games. Outside of the NFC North the Browns and 49ers have to be lock wins, with results against Pittsburgh and Baltimore tougher propositions.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Minnesota Vikings

Offseason: I’m not mentioning him. I refuse to. Give Sage the stage.

Offense: Take away Adrian Peterson and this offense is no more potent than Tampa, and that isn’t good. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL you can’t ‘take away’ a player and Adrian Peterson stands alone as the best back in the league, meaning you always have to give the Vikings a fighting chance no matter the opposition. A great offensive line certainly helps, but their receivers are uninspiring and I think we’ve heard enough about how their quarterbacks can’t seem to get things done. If this team didn’t have a defense that could consistently keep opposition under 17 points then there would be absolutely no playoff talk at all, despite the fact they do, I’m still pessimistic about the possible playoff appearance being bandied about – especially in this division.

Defense: This is why ‘playoff’ and ‘Minnesota’ ever feature in the same sentence. You can’t run on the Vikings and that pass rush is demonic. Losing both Pat and Kevin Williams to suspension however, would strike the death nail in any playoff hopes. A lacklustre secondary is what stands between the Vikings D being considered in the same bracket as Baltimore, New York and Pittsburgh.

Key Games: The winner of the NFC North is the one that gets 3 wins out of their 4 divisional games (I’m not even counting the Lions as in this division), and I don’t see Minnesota doing this. Hosting the Giants and going to the Steelers will be their hardest extra-divisional tasks.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Detroit Lions

Offseason: 0-16 means reboot. 6 of their 11 projected starters on defense are new, including former Cowboy Anthony Henry, Buccaneer Philip Buchanon and Seahawk Julian Peterson. Matt Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew join the offense, with Calvin Johnson being the only returning receiver from 2008 as Detroit add Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, and rookie Derrick Williams.

Offense: Three new receivers, a new tight end and a new quarterback looks like progress, but the one area they failed to address was that torrid offensive line. Gosder Cherilus at right tackle was a 2008 draft gamble that didn’t payoff, whilst starting left tackle Jeff Backus conceded 9.25 sacks last year and needs a serious upgrade. Pettigrew is a blend of blocking and receiving skills rare in collegiate TEs so Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper will be happy to see him, as will starting running back Kevin Smith who along with Calvin Johnson and Ernie Sims was the only bright spot on that 0-16 team. This team should be lead by Culpepper because if Detroit put Stafford out there he’ll be sacked to death ala David Carr, but why would fans bother turning up – especially in this economy and city – to see a broken Culpepper lead the Lions to a 4 win season? Financial vs football sense isn’t a competition, so Stafford starts by week 6.

Defense: With 6 new starters it’s hard to judge this side without seeing them gel, but they can’t be worse than last year. Anthony Henry isn’t going to turn your defense into the ’01 Ravens all of a sudden so I think this D will still be in the bottom 5 of the league, but hopefully Jim Schwartz will work some magic and keep Detroit competitive in at least 5 games this year.

Key Games: Hosting the Redskins, Rams and Browns are their best hopes of wins in 2008.

Predicted Record: 3-13

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