Tuesday, August 27, 2013

NFC North Preview

We've been East, and then South, Weston Hannan-Bogosh takes us up north.

Projected Breakout Player: Minnesota TE Kyle Rudolph

Entering his third year in the NFL, the red-nosed reindeer is my pick to be the breakout player of this conference.  With opposing defenses focused on RB Adrian Peterson, and some progression from QB Christian Ponder, Rudolph is poised to shatter last year’s receiving numbers.

Projected Letdown: Green Bay Running Game   
      It’s no secret that, like most teams in the NFL, Green Bay has a pass-first offense.  In 2012, Green Bay ran the ball 41.2% of the time, which is very close to average.  However, Green Bay RBs only rushed for 1702, which was 20th in the league.  With two incoming rookie RBs leading the attack this year and competing with each other for touches, it will be the passing game that gets them where they need to go.    

Head Coach with the Most to Prove: Chicago 1st-Year Coach Marc Trestman
Trestman, the former CFL head coach and long-time NFL assistant, was signed by the Bears after the departure of defensively-minded coach Lovie Smith.  Trestman takes the mantle of a team that missed the game due to a tiebreaking loss to Minnesota earlier in the season.  Currently, the Bears are a bubble team that could bust in 2013, ascend to be an elite franchise this upcoming year.

Detroit Lions
2012 Record: 4-12, 4th in NFC North
QB Matt Stafford posted nearly 5,000 passing yards, WR Calvin Johnson broke the single season receiving record, and Detroit finished 4-12.  Something sound off there? Despite the pure talent that the Lions offense has, they repeatedly fail to execute, and consequently, lose games.  The addition of elusive RB Reggie Bush should improve consistency problems.  In 2012, the Detroit offensive line gave up only 1.8 sacks per game, good for ninth in the NFL.  If the Lions have all these things going for them, then why can’t they win? That is a           commonly asked question that’s only answer is simple; the Lions just aren’t as good as they look on paper.  

    After losing DE Cliff Avril (9.5 Sacks in 2012), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Former All-Pro), DT Corey Williams (2 Sacks), Sammie Lee Hill (Signed with Tennessee for $11.25 million), and DE Lawrence Jackson, the Lions are focusing on revamping their defensive line.  Detroit signed DE Israel Idonije (7.5 Sacks), DE/DT Jason Jones (3 Sacks), and drafted DE Devin Taylor and freak athlete DE Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah.  Ansah is a football anomaly.  Ansah is a native of Ghana, and attended and played college football at BYU.  At this year’s combine, Ansah recorded a 34-inch vertical, as well as a 4.56 40-yard dash time.  Despite his almost superhuman numbers, Ansah’s biggest question is his experience.  Ziggy only started one year at Brigham Young, and is one of the NFL’s few international players.  This past offseason, Detroit lost 10+ regular defensive players to free agency.  Ansah and fellow highly-touted rookie CB Darius Slay look to fill the voids of last year’s defense. 
While the lack of a legitimate secondary receiver, or more accurately, a Calvin Johnson understudy, has plagued Detroit for years now, WR Nate Burleson will be finding himself open more often as the season goes on.  After the Titus Young implosion, Detroit will probably stop experimenting and stick Burleson out there as the de facto secondary receiver.  With the addition of RB Reggie Bush, opposing defenses will have their hands full trying to stop Bush and Megatron, and QB Matt Stafford will have no trouble finding Burleson this season.
Detroit’s letdown will not be an individual player, but instead their execution.  More specifically, turnovers: in 2012, Detroit ranked 15th in the NFC with a -16 giveaway-takeaway total.  In the upcoming season, turning the ball over will be game-deciding for the Lions, mostly favoring losses.
2013 Projected Record: 6-10, 4th in NFC North

Minnesota Vikings
2012 Record: 10-6, 2nd in NFC North
Minnesota ended last year’s regular season by beating division rival Green Bay to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs.  Adrian Peterson topped off his 2,097 rushing yard season a historic 8 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single season record, so let’s get one thing straight.  Minnesota’s offense is the Adrian Peterson assault.  Opposing defenses do their best to make the Vikings pass the ball, and it rarely works.  With Peterson showing no signs of slowing after his ACL tear in the 2011 season, Minnesota is focusing on improving other areas.  Playmaker Percy Harvin was signed by the Seahawks, so the front office managed to ink WR Greg Jennings from the clutches of Green Bay.  As old as he is getting, Jennings still has enough left in the tank to improve Minnesota’s receiving core as well as be a mentor to talented rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson.  Patterson, after bouncing around for 3 years, accepted a scholarship to Tennessee, and burst onto the national scene.  He recorded 778 receiving yards and 5 TDs, and even 308 rushing yards and 3 TDs.  Patterson has a huge upside, but his downside is his inexperience.  The Tennessee product will be very influential in QB Christian Ponder’s hopefully improved numbers this season.
Defensively, Minnesota is focused on building a long-term defense.  After selecting DT Sharrif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes, and LB Gerald Hodges in the draft, the Vikings also signed LB Desmond Bishop, who was formerly with division rival Green Bay.  Aging CB Antoine Winfield did not re-sign, and LB Jasper Brinkley was also lost to free agency.  After being touted as one of the top DTs in the 2012 draft, Floyd will join a deep Minnesota defensive line, which includes All-Pro linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. 
 In just his second professional season, TE Kyle Rudolph snagged 53 passes for 493 yards and 9 TDs.  Measuring in at 6’6”, 260 lbs, Rudolph is a ridiculous athlete, and at 23 years old, was named Pro Bowl MVP.  Rudolph’s potential, despite playing with a subpar QB, is completely untapped.  Rudolph is poised for a breakout 2013 season.
Unless Adrian Peterson breaks the single season rushing record of 2,105 yards, his numbers will regress.  How many times do you hear that? Unless he has the NFL’s best rushing season in history, it will not be up to his potential.  That just goes to show what an incredible athlete Peterson is, which is why he is not my pick to be Minnesota’s 2013 letdown.  Instead, it will be the passing attack as a whole, which finished 31st in the league in yards per game in 2012, that lets down any positive thinking about the Vikings aerial arsenal.
    2013 Projected Record: 9-7, 3rd in NFC North

Green Bay Packers
2012 Record: 11-5, 1st in NFC North
    After finishing 11-5 in 2012, Green Bay looks to improve with a youthful, talented roster. Over this past offseason, the Packers lost many cheesehead cornerstone names.  RB Ryan Grant, WR Greg Jennings, C Jeff Saturday, and CB/S Charles Woodson were all lost to free agency. The Packers’ all-time leader in receiving yards, WR Donald Driver, was lost to retirement.  On the other hand, the draft produced college superstar running backs Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy, from UCLA and Alabama, respectively.  Franklin and Lacy certainly have the potential, but the biggest setbacks to the fruition of each rookie will be their own competition for game reps between themselves. 
On the other side of the field, the Packers drafted fellow UCLA product DL Datone Jones, who recorded an absurd 19.0 tackles for loss last year as a senior.  The Packer’s Defensive coordinators, as well as Jones himself, will look to fill the void lost by DE Erik Walden and DE Frank Zombo, who successfully explored free agency this summer.

WR Randall Cobb
TE Jermichael Finley, WR Jordy Nelson, and WR James Jones will solely benefit from the available targets from the loss of Driver and Jennings, barring injuries.  Unfortunately, none of those previously named will have the best receiving season for the Packers in 2013.  After recording 80 receptions for 954 yards and 8 TD’s in 2012, WR Randall Cobb will be QB Aaron Rodgers’ primary target this year.  Cobb, the top receiver on the Packers depth chart, when paired with the best Quarterback in the NFL, is a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
    Following the departure of former Defensive Player of the Year CB/S Charles Woodson, the Packers picked up Big Ten Defensive Back of the year CB/S Micah Hyde, who was also voted first team All-Big Ten.  Despite all these accolades, why did Hyde drop all the way to the fifth round? This question is best answered not by what he cannot do, because Hyde has ideal size and is good at being a defensive back.  But that’s the thing; he doesn’t accomplish anything exceptionally.  The Packer’s banged-up secondary has the most to prove this season, and is most prone to being a letdown.
    2013 Projected Record: 12-4, 1st in NFC North

Chicago Bears
2012 Record: 10-6
        In 2012, the Bears produced their first Pro-Bowl WR since 2002 (Booker), and just their third since 1971 ().  That shows that Chicago is actively solving issues, but, as usual, the Bears’ offensive line needs improvement.  GM Phil Emery made sure to bolster the offense line, and spent a first round pick on Oregon G Jake Long.  Long has loads of potential, but has a very raw skillset at this point, which brought up questions on whether or not Long should have been a first round pick.  Additionally, the Bears locked up former saints LT Jermon Bushrod.  Bushrod allowed just 4 sacks to Saints QB Drew Brees in 2012, which is partly due to Brees’ ability to get rid of the ball quickly.  Incoming Head Coach Marc Trestman’s offensive playbook is an excellent match for RB Matt Forte, who has only caught fewer than 50 passes in one of his 5 NFL Seasons (2012).  Trestman will have QB Jay Cutler look for Forte as a primary receiver in a Ray Rice-like system. 
    Last year, Bears TEs combined for less than 10% of their passing offense.  Free agent signee TE Martellus Bennett, who logged 55 catches for 626 yards last year as a New York Giant, will be a huge upgrade over TE Kellen Davis.  Measuring in at 6’7”, 246 lbs, Bennett is a superb athlete and blocker. 
        In 2012, the Bears’ defense led the entire NFL in takeaways with 44.  CBs Tim Jennings and Charles “Peanut” Tillman combined to form one of the most effective coverage duos in the NFL, snagging an absurd 12 interceptions between them and racking up 4 TDs in the process.  CB Major Wright, while not excelling at anything in particular, has virtually no weaknesses, and S Chris Conte will hopefully continue to improve his pass defense numbers for his 3rd NFL season.
        After the contract dispute and loss of Bear legend LB Brian Urlacher, Chicago will attempt to replace the future hall of famer with D.J. Williams, a former Bronco who, at 31 years old, is a short term option at best.  Chicago acquired LBs Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. Greene, a Rutgers product, was considered a steal in the fourth round.  The Bears were above average against the run in 2012, and the loss of DE Israel Idonije shouldn’t hamper their productivity, especially with their young core of DE Shea McClellen, DT Henry Melton and DT Stephen Paea.  Aging cornerstones Lance Briggs (33) and Julius Peppers (33) have been productive as ever, but will be more injury prone as the season goes on.

        Is this the year that the Bears’ offensive line breaks off from the treadmill of mediocrity? Maybe, maybe not, and with such a young group it will be hard to tell until midseason.  Alshon Jeffery, instead, will be the Bears’ breakout player in 2013.  The 6’3” second-year WR showed flashes as a rookie in 2012, but injuries sat him out for 6 games.  QB Jay Cutler will be looking for another target when fellow WR Brandon Marshall is double- and triple-teamed, and Jeffery should be the man to step up. 
As horrible as they have been the past few years, the Bears newly hyped offensive line is the most letdown-prone area on the Bears roster.  Signee Jermon Bushrod surrendered just 4 sacks to Drew Brees last year, but that number may approach double-digits with a QB who has problems holding the ball too long, as Cutler sometimes does.  Rookie G Jake Long will be a wild card; he is a great athlete, but his inexperience can really hamper his effectiveness this season. 
    2013 Projected Record: 11-5, 2nd in NFC North

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