You would be hard-pressed to find a division with more lofty expectations than the NFC North. All four teams have legitimate reasons for optimism. Star power runs rampant. Everything is set up for a season-long division shootout.
The FPC NFC North editors make their predictions for what figures to be an exciting 2018 season in the division.
1. Which coach could find themselves on the hot seat by the end of the season? Which coordinator could see his stock rise this season?
It’s hard to find a coach who would be on the hot seat in the NFC North by the end of the season. Both Matt Nagy and Matt Patricia are in their first seasons as head coaches and it is highly unlikely either gets fired after just one season. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s job is safe as well, especially after a trip to the NFC Championship game last season. If anyone in the north could be on the hot seat, it might just be Mike McCarthy. Now, it won’t happen if Aaron Rodgers and company get back to the playoffs this season. However, the NFC is extremely tough, with almost any team in the conference having a chance to make the playoffs. If the Packers do not reach the postseason, the question about McCarthy’s effectiveness could arise. Ted Thompson was ousted as general manager last offseason, and if the chips fall the right way, McCarthy could be next.
If any coordinator could rise, it’s Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. He did an excellent job as the Eagles quarterbacks coach during their Super Bowl run and will be an excellent offensive coordinator in Minnesota. His name came up last offseason as a potential head coach candidate, and his stock in that should rise even more after 2018.
2. Which team will have the best offense? The best defense?
Offensively, the NFC North has three above-average quarterbacks with varying levels of talent surrounding them. Minnesota is probably the best and most complete team in terms of being able to run and pass. Although, being that it’s Kirk Cousins’ first year as a Viking, there could be some growing pains.
Green Bay has not been the same for the past few seasons but a healthy Aaron Rodgers paired with Jimmy Graham could be lethal. Detroit still needs to prove they have a running game and Chicago could be better than people think if Mitchell Trubisky makes any progress.
Defensively, it’s a two-horse race between the Vikings and Bears for the best defense. Chicago adding Khalil Mack is a huge addition that could change the dynamic of the conference over the next few years. Minnesota should be as good as ever, though, with yet another year under Mike Zimmer. Just because the Bears have a new head coach I’m going to give the nod to the Vikings here.
3. Who will have the best position group on offense? On defense?
The obvious answer would be the Vikings’ receivers with two Pro Bowl-caliber players in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The much-maligned Laquon Treadwell also looked good in the preseason and appears poised for a breakout. Simply put, this unit gives Kirk Cousins a myriad of options. But for the sake of painting outside the lines, the Bears’ running backs deserve a look, as well. Jordan Howard has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, doing so while the Bears had no semblance of a passing game. Second year back Tarik Cohen is the type of back that fits perfectly into Matt Nagy’s system. If he can build on his rookie season in which he amassed over 700 scrimmage yards, the Bears could have a devastating thunder-and-lightning duo.
Every position group in Minnesota could be labeled top defensive corps, as could the Bears’ linebackers. But one group stands out a little above the rest. At a glance, the Vikings secondary looks completely impenetrable. They return all four starters from a defense that was an elite group a year ago, and then they added George Iloka and Mike Hughes. Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith are All-Pros and two of the best cover men at their positions. Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo took a massive step and are now more-than-capable starters. All in all, teams are going to have a tough time throwing on Minnesota night-in and night-out.
4. Which rookie will have the best season in 2018?
Though Packers corner Josh Jackson or Vikings corner Mike Hughes could take this spot, Bears linebacker Roquan Smith will be an immediate defensive star. With incredible sideline-to-sideline ability and textbook open-field tackling, Smith comes into the league designed to combat its modern style. Speed at the linebacker position comes at a premium for a reason and Smith’s 4.5-40 speed gives him coverage capabilities for the entire field. As the Bears’ defense has grown into a characteristically sluggish crew in recent years, Smith’s impact will be game-changing.
5. Who is getting too much love? Too little?
As shocking as this may sound, I think the Vikings are getting too much love around the league. It’s not because their team isn’t a talented bunch. The issue with them arises for a couple reason. For one, the Packers, Bears and Lions will all be tough outs this season. It is entirely possible they split with all of them. Second, their schedule is tough to start out the season. They have to visit the Packers, Rams and Eagles all in the first five weeks of the season. It isn’t crazy to think they could start the year 2-3. Now, I’m not saying I think this team is going to fall out of contention, but the NFC is strong this year. Analysts picking the Vikings to go 13-3 and 12-4 are assuming last season’s NFC strength. It’s a different season.
It sounds like a broken record by now, but Matt Stafford consistently gets too little love. He has been a top-eight quarterback in the league for some time now, and he’s carrying the Lions offense with no running game to back him up. In the offseason, Detroit went out and loaded up at running back, drafting Kerryon Johnson and signing LeGarrette Blount. With a stronger running game in place, Stafford becomes even more dangerous.
6. Which offseason acquisition will be the best? The worst?
A week ago, I would have been all ready to label Cousins or Allen Robinson as the best newcomer to the division. Alas, Jon Gruden and his odd disdain for stud pass rushers changed all that. Khalil Mack is, for my money, one of the five best defensive players in all of football. And the Bears nabbed him a week before the season starts. He completely redefines their defense from solid across the board to potentially elite. Suddenly, the Bears very well could be pushing for a playoff spot, as long as they get enough development from their quarterback.
The worst acquisition in the division is not so much a bad move by itself, but rather an indicator of what I feel was a misguided philosophy. The Vikings’ greatest weakness was and remains its offensive line. The only move made to fix it was veteran swing guy Tom Compton. Now, Compton is not a bad player to have as a sixth or seventh lineman. But the Vikings have questions at virtually every line position. Adding a stud through free agency or the draft should have been high on the priority list. Alas, they did not agree and instead allocated money to the quarterback, defensive line and extending key pieces. It is hard to fault that logic, but now Compton is expected to start week one. Thus, the group designated to keep the new franchise quarterback upright remains a bit shaky.
7. Who will be the offensive and defensive MVP of the division?
The Bears running back Jordan Howard and the Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford could fill this spot. But per usual, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will always be an MVP favorite when healthy and an easy choice for the finest offensive specimen in the NFC North. While he missed all but seven games last season, it opened an opportunity to witness the Packers crushing dependence on Rodgers. Painstakingly falling apart with their first sub-.500 record since 2008, a healthy Rodgers alone elevates the Packers from mediocre to Super Bowl contenders. An injury-free season from the two-time MVP nearly guarantees a playoff run.
Defensively, a brand new addition to the NFC North, Khalil Mack annually makes a case for the most dominant defensive player in the league, let alone the division. After an uber-aggressive move to infuse generational talent in an otherwise-budding Bears defense, the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year’s impact single-handedly pushes the Bears from dark horse to bona fide playoff contenders. With 36.5 sacks in the past three seasons, Mack instantly alleviates all nerves concerning the Bears lackluster pass rush. That said, Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes and Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah also make strong cases for this spot.
8. What will be the best game (assuming standing and importance) within the division in 2018?
It really doesn’t get much better than Packers versus Vikings in week two. Both teams have high expectations and we get to see the first meeting between Rodgers and Cousins. Will Minnesota pick up where they left off? Will Aaron Rodgers return to his elite self? Week one should be interesting.
Aside from that, Thanksgiving between the Bears and Lions could be a great matchup, along with the season finale between the Lions and Packers, which has given us some good games in recent years.