The NFC North should be one of the better divisions in the league this year. Expectations for all four teams seem to be up, with a few eyeing the Super Bowl. Full Press Coverage editors Matt Urben, Jake Schyvinck, Eduardo Monk Jr. and Sam Smith share their thoughts on the NFC North in 2018.
Who in the Division (player, team, coach, etc.) do you expect to break out this year?
Matt Urben, Lions Editor: I expect this to be a big year for running back Dalvin Cook in Minnesota. He was electric before that injury against the Lions last season and he should be even better with a downfield passer in Kirk Cousins. Also lookout for Lions wideout Kenny Golladay to emerge if he can stay healthy.
Jake Schyvinck, Packers Editor: This is the season to watch for Kevin King to break out for Green Bay. King’s shoulder injury limited him to nine games in 2017, but he will be ready in 2018. He has the length and ball skills to make the jump in year two. Plus, with a new defensive coordinator, King will be put in a better position to succeed. The secondary is still very young, but it could get a big boost with a breakout year for King.
Eduardo Monk Jr., Bears Editor: Though Mitchell Trubisky may be a trendier and homier selection here, really keep an eye on Dalvin Cook. A torn ACL knocked him out the season after four games but he thoroughly impressed through those four contests. His numbers would have easily resulted in Rookie of the Year consideration had he remained healthy. In all honesty, a healthy Cook could have been a game changer in the playoffs and could have been enough to sway that NFC Title game a little more in the Vikings’ favor. Now a sophomore, he will be a massive boost to the brilliantly balanced Vikings offense.
Sam Smith, Vikings Editor: Cook is the obvious choice for me. He was one of the top producers in the league before his injury last season. By all indications, he is coming back strong from ACL surgery and should be good for preseason action. Backs rarely enter the league with Cook’s dual threat ability and given a full year to show it off, I expect some huge numbers from him.
Who do you expect to take a step back?
Urben: I expect the Vikings to take a step back, but only slightly. Minnesota had a crazy run last season and in my opinion, they are taking a big risk by letting a legit MVP candidate last season–quarterback Case Keenum–walk after an insanely efficient year. Cousins is a better, more talented passer, but he’s never been known as clutch, something Keenum was frequently last season.
Schyvinck: I expect the Detroit Lions to be the ones to take a step back in 2018. This team really didn’t get much better in the offseason to warrant a jump to contend for a playoff. Yes, they did get Matt Patricia as their new head coach, who has the defensive knowledge to help the team. The issue is that their personnel didn’t get much better, a group that finished 27th in yards per game and 21st in points per game. Patricia will help a little, but not enough to make them a top group.
Their offense still rests on Matt Stafford doing most of the work, and they are putting a lot of faith in LeGarrette Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson to finally get the running game going in Detroit. With the Packers getting Aaron Rodgers back and the Bears on the rise, it could be a tough season for the Lions.
Monk: While it won’t be a dramatic step backward, the Packers won’t live up to the expectations of Super Bowl hopefuls. Though Rodgers still keeps them from the brink, losing him again will almost guarantee a failure of a season. Though a couple of splashy free agent signings may the roster look a little prettier, it won’t do too much on the field. Losing his top weapon Jordy Nelson and replacing him with a washed-up Jimmy Graham could backfire hard. Falling-apart Muhammad Wilkerson won’t be as impactful as hoped. The Packers simply look like a former Super Bowl contender on their way out of contention.
Smith: I see Golden Tate starting his decline this year. He has had a solid career, especially since joining the Lions, and he is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. But he just turned 30 and circumstances in Detroit may be different this year. Detroit passed on 63 percent of plays in 2017, second-most in the league. Yet, Tate turned in a Jarvis Landry-esque year with high catch totals but without the yards to match. Now, as Detroit has committed more to the running game with Johnson, Blount and first round guard Frank Ragnow, the volume of passes Tate sees should go down. On top of that, Marvin Jones has emerged as the number one, and he is a couple years younger with more size. I am not predicting a poor year for Tate. I simply think this is the beginning of his down slope.
What rookie are you most intrigued by as we approach preseason games?
Urben: For me, it’s Kerryon Johnson, mostly because he has really impressed in camp thus far, both running and catching the football. It’s been so long since Detroit’s had any kind of ground game, it’ll interesting to see if he can finally be the guy the Lions have been searching for since Barry Sanders. I’m also interested to see Roquan Smith playing in Chicago’s young defense and Josh Jackson in Green Bay.
Schyvinck: The rookie I’m most excited to see is Mike Hughes. I’m sure Anthony Miller will be the most popular pick, but Hughes is battling for the slot corner spot with Mackensie Alexander. He excelled in man coverage in college and was outstanding when the ball was in the air. If he has a strong preseason, he could be starting by week one on a defense with no real holes.
Monk: Whether or not Anthony Miller can overachieve as hyped will be an interesting follow. He has garnered a lot of praise after a very successful camp, boasting all the footwork and route-running that he flashed in college. His blazing speed will be a dangerous weapon in the dynamic Bears arsenal. As of right now, the Bears expect immediate impact from him. Because of this, it will be quite the story to see if the Memphis product delivers on these dreams.
Smith: Anthony Miller is getting rave reviews in Bourbonnais. From what I have seen, he is smooth in his routes, lightning quick and has an edge to him that rookies rarely have. He seems to be a guy who will at least contribute immediately for Chicago and may have star potential as early as this season.
Arrange the Division as you see the teams finishing
Urben: Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota, Chicago. I think three teams make the playoffs, similar to the NFC South last season. Green Bay will bounce back, Minnesota will take a mild step back and the Lions will be right around 10 wins. Also, I expect each team to split with Chicago and a respectable six-to-eight win season for the Bears.
Schyvinck: Right now, with a month to go before the season begins, it’s hard to imagine anyone toppling the Vikings. They are loaded on defense and Dalvin Cook will return to show how good he is. The Packers will be better with Rodgers returning and a tight end group that will make things tough for defenses. The Bears will be better, but it might be a little early for them to push for the playoffs. The Lions will struggle this season and find themselves in the basement.
Monk: Vikings, Packers, Bears, Lions. The Vikings are the clear favorite to win this division. They have only improved after their season ended a single game from the Super Bowl. The Packers won’t be Super Bowl favorites as in years past. But the mere presence of Rodgers keesp the Packers competitive in every single game they play. While the Bears are young and on the upswing, it will be a little minute until they truly contend. The bottom three teams won’t be separated by much but the Lions’ tendency for late season collapses may be enough to do them in.
Smith: Minnesota, Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago tied. I would not be remotely surprised if all four teams finish above .500 this year. The Lions and Bears both seem like 8-8-ish teams to me, while the Vikings should be Super Bowl contenders and the Packers should be in the playoff mix. The only team I love moving forward is Minnesota, but Green Bay’s quarterback will at least keep them as a threat year-round.