The NFC North was already a division of unpredictability last year, but this year could take the cake. Chicago emerged as the alpha in 2019, thanks to a smothering defense and surprisingly explosive offense. But, as always, Green Bay will be in play so long as Aaron Rodgers remotely resembles his former self. Minnesota, with the overall talent on both sides of the ball, may have done enough this offseason to return to the elite of the NFC. And then there is Detroit, a team that can at any time push towards the top of the division.
No one team appears to be a heavy favorite post-draft, pre-camp. Injuries will likely play a major part in who ultimately takes first place, as will unexpected rise and fall of performance. Until those trends manifest themselves, all we can do is examine each team’s roster as currently constituted. Without further ado, here is a pre-training camp preview of the NFC North.
Key Addition: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Most Significant Loss: S Adrian Amos
Ryan Pace did a nice job this offseason of covering up key losses. Jordan Howard could also have gone here, but simply by nature of his position and play style, he is an easier guy to replace. Amos played a key role in the emergence of the Chicago defense the last couple of years. As a stout in-the-box safety, Amos played disciplined and smart, allowing Eddie Jackson’s more free-flowing ball hawk style to make play after play. That is not necessarily as simple a replacement as it may seem.
With Clinton-Dix, Chicago essentially swapped Amos for another ball hawking free safety who does not play as often in the box. He is, however, an excellent zone cover on a cheap deal. While he plays more like Jackson than Amos, Clinton-Dix should provide a strong option in the defensive backfield to complement a fast, play-making defense.
Rookie to Watch: RB David Montgomery
The loss of Howard left a void in the offense, but not one that a rookie cannot fill. That is why Montgomery will play such a pivotal role in the Matt Nagy system right off the bat. Tarik Cohen is a dangerous weapon, but not one who can handle a massive workload, so expect a lot of Montgomery touches out of the gate.
Biggest Question: Is it realistic to hope for a repeat of the takeaway-heavy defense?
Overall, Chicago was a great team last year thanks to a solid, open offense and a fast takeaway defense. In fact, their 36 takeaways was the most by any defense since the Super Bowl Panthers of 2015. A number that high may be tough to duplicate, especially with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio moving on to Denver. If Chicago’s offense does not take a step this season, leaving the team again reliant on takeaways, the Bears may be ripe to take a step back.
Key Addition: DE Trey Flowers
Despite losing Ezekiel Ansah, the Lions are going to put forth a fairly strong defensive line with the addition of Flowers. FLowers was a consistent, if unspectacular pass rusher in New England up until a strong 2018, and now he gets the chance to work next to one of the top space-occupiers in the game in Damon Harrison. Flowers is making a lot of money, but he is in a good position to earn it as part of a potentially fearsome unit.
Most Significant Loss: G T.J. Lang
On the other side of the trenches, Detroit has some questions. Lang missed a lot of time last season, so his loss is not necessarily a significant one, but it is indicative of the Lions’ offensive line situation, particularly inside. They have a gap at right guard, and it is unclear who is going to fill it. The pieces are in place outside of that slot. That said, much will depend on the second-year performance of Frank Ragnow. He was shaky in his rookie season, but he was elite in every category at Arkansas, so there is reason for optimism with his progression.
Rookie to Watch: TE T.J. Hockenson
Detroit has put many pieces in play to help Matthew Stafford, particularly with some of the pass catchers. Kenny Golladay has emerged as a number one and Danny Amendola is a reliable safety net out of the slot. The drafting of Hockenson could add another dimension to the offense. He is a jack-of-all-trades, master of many tight end who can run routes at every level, block and dominate in the red zone. Of course, the caveat with that is the last time Detroit drafted a tight end in the top-10, it did not work out so well. But Hockenson is not Eric Ebron. He has immediate impact potential that goes beyond just his physical tools.
Biggest Question: Have they addressed defensive deficiencies enough?
The Lions’ greatest question will be the second two levels of the defense. While they have built a strong defensive line, they have questions in the defensive backfield, most notably. There is depth there, but also potential holes, with veteran Rashaan Melvin and second-year safety Tracy Walker slated in as starters. Darius Slay can lock down a side of the field. But beyond him and Quandre Diggs, Detroit could be a bit vulnerable.
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Green Bay Packers
Key Addition: S Adrian Amos
The second appearance of Amos in this preview. As stated before, Amos brings a steadiness to the defensive backfield with a sprinkle of versatility. He can patrol the line of scrimmage, step into the box, cover the slot or drift deep if need be. Green Bay’s secondary overhaul got off to a good start last year with Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, and Amos can only help with their development.
Most Significant Loss: WR Randall Cobb
The Packers lost several mainstays in Cobb, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, but Cobb’s loss seems the most significant. Green Bay has consistently been able to counter a weaker defense by simply dominating ball possession and having one of the top passing games in football. Cobb was a major part of that for years. While his injury troubles and overall decline in production has been ongoing for several years, it still hurts the Packers mightily to have one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite short targets walk, especially since they have not really replaced him.
Rookie to Watch: DE Rashan Gary
Back to the Packers’ pass rush. It is no secret that it has been fairly pedestrian for quite some time now. As such, it makes sense that they looked to address the issue early in the draft. While Gary’s college production did not match his enormous hype and athleticism, his upside may be as high as any pass rusher in this rookie class. Mike Pettine’s greatest task moving forward is unlocking all that freakish athletic ability in Gary and channeling it into an effective football player.
Biggest Question: What will be the Matt LaFleur-Aaron Rodgers relationship?
The Aaron Rodgers-Matt McCarthy era seemed unsalvageable by the end, despite the success those two had over the years. Reports emerged that Rodgers dismissed McCarthy often last season, so now the question is how the new wunderkind head coach in LaFleur works with Rodgers. In his later years, Rodgers has evolved into a master improviser, implementing every facet of his immense ability whenever he can rather than operating in a system. Given that LaFleur is a Sean McVay disciple, the system is going to play a central role in the new Packer identity. How Rodgers operates within that will define the 2019 season.
Key Addition: OL Garrett Bradbury
Simply put, the Vikings needed offensive line help in a bad way. It was the primary scapegoat for their disappointing 2018, and Minnesota had not fully addressed this need for years. So for the first time since 2012, they went offensive line with their first round pick. It is unclear if Bradbury will start at guard or center, but what is clear is that his athleticism and zone expertise should fit right in to the Vikings system while also helping to keep their high-priced quarterback afloat.
Most Significant Loss: DT Sheldon Richardson
Minnesota held onto most of their defensive starters, including snatching back Anthony Barr from right under the Jets’ noses. But the loss of Richardson is going to sting. Richardson provided solid disruption from the three-technique, putting together some of the best defensive line performances the team had all year. While they did find bodies to replace him, most notably former-Viking Shamar Stephen, it is tough to imagine filling the same role that Richardson did a season ago.
Rookie(s) to Watch: WRs Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson
There are a host of options, not the least of which is the aforementioned Bradbury. Fourth-rounder Dru Samia could emerge as a starter at guard. Alexander Mattison should be a solid replacement for Latavius Murray. But the reason Mitchell and Johnson take this spot is the position they play, even though they were late-day three picks. For all we know, neither of these guys will even make the roster. But the Vikings have two top-flight receivers that were drafted in the fifth round and not drafted, respectively. They know how to find these diamonds in the rough. Plus, Laquon Treadwell, who the Vikings have already decided to move on from, is their current number three. Minnesota needs receivers who can make plays when Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs get locked down, and Mitchell and Johnson showed in their college careers they can be those guys.
Biggest Question: Is Kirk Cousins a playoff quarterback?
Somehow, seven years into his career, this is still an unknown. Cousins has led one team to the playoffs, despite putting up gaudy numbers since becoming a full-time starter in Washington. Everyone thought last year was Cousins’ chance; the Vikings roster was overly talented, he had two great receivers and they were coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance. Alas, he underperformed and the team underperformed in kind. Well, the Vikings have brought back much of the same talent, only this time, they have given Cousins an interior line in front of him. Frankly, if it does not happen for him this year, it probably never will.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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