The NFC North is widely heralded as the toughest division in the NFL, with three teams generally regarded to have legitimate chances at making the playoffs in 2012. The teams within the division share a number of characteristics, but each team has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, ones that they'll hope to exploit or minimize as the year goes on.
The Chicago Bears enter the season with a deceptive 8-8 record to wash off. The return of Jay Cutler and Matt Forte to the roster should help correct some of the misperceptions that fans have about the team, along with the additions of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall in the offseason.
The Bears know as well as anyone else that backup quarterback is one of the most important positions on a team, and the Bears' backup quarterback Jason Campbell could likely start for a few teams in the NFL. Paired with top-10 quarterback Jay Cutler, and Chicago should be pleased with what they have. An excellent scrambler, Cutler's arm strength allows him to put throws into tight windows, either in the pocket or on the run.
Strength: Running Back
Chicago has a top-10 and a top-25 running back in Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Forte excels at reading blocks and has the total package: speed, agility and strength. An effective pass catcher, he was able to amass nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage in 12 game. That pace would have made him nearly league leader, only behind Ray Rice, who would had 2,068 yards. While Forte does well pushing a pile, Bush is even better, and this 1-2 punch is one of the best in the NFL.
People from around the league keep predicting Brian Urlacher's decline as a linebacker, but if it's happening, it's happening slowly. He had a great 2011, with one of the ten best performances in the league for an inside linebacker. While never an effective pass rusher, his play against the run is a model for a 4-3 linebackers and he did admirably in coverage as a Tampa-2 middle linebacker. His experience and savvy allow Chicago's defense to adapt to whatever offense fronts they encounter, and he can still play physically at the line.
With him are Nick Roach and Lance Briggs. Roach is an average outside linebacker that makes few mistakes. He does well taking on lead blockers and can enable other playmakers by slowing down offenses. Roach is a bit weak in coverage, but the Bears have been able to scheme around that.
Lance Briggs is an excellent complement to Roach and Urlacher, and can continue to play at a level that gave him several Pro Bowl nods in years past. He has good instincts, a great tackler and very athletic. While not as smart on the ball as Urlacher, his experience has allowed him to excel in the pass game or as a runner. Urlacher's recent surgery may cause some concerns, but it was merely a scope and he should be back quickly.
Outside backup Geno Hayes is a great backup and could start for a few NFL teams. He's better against the run than the pass, but fits Tampa-2 schemes well. Because Roach can play as a middle linebacker, expect good depth and rotation for their linebacking corps.
Weakness: Offensive Line
Anyone who has been following the Bears knows about their weakness at offensive line. They have potentially the worse center in the league in Roberto Garza, whose inability to create spaces for Forte, Bell and Barber bring into light exactly how good Forte really is.
J'Marcus Webb is one of the worst left tackles in the league, if not the worst, and gave up more sacks than anyone else playing on the left side. Chris Spencer at left guard is worrisome and mediocre backup Chilo Rachal is seriously pushing him for his spot. Lance Louis, who played right tackle last year in Carimi's absence is an upgrade over Spencer at right guard, but still an average guard at best (and a terrible right tackle).
Gabe Carimi is the biggest bright spot on the line, but he's still clearly raw and will continue to make mistakes in what is hopefully his first full season in the NFL. The first backup to nearly every position, Chris Williams, cannot beat out Webb for a starting spot, so depth is also an issue.
The Bears can generally shut down shorter routes as well as any team, but can be exposed deep. Charles Tillman is a good cornerback, but the competition for the other starting spot isn't revealing any stars. Kelvin Hayden, a poor corner with subpar ball skills is competing with Tim Jennings, who really should be doing far better than he is. Regardless, the second cornerback on the roster is really better suited as a fourth option on another team.
At safety, the Bears are in a bit of trouble. Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin both sustained injuries against the Washington Redskins, and while Conte's shoulder injury seems to have gone away, Hardin's neck injury is potentially a very big problem.
Both are competing for the free safety spot, and need to be much better in coverage for such a critical position. Conte is a sophomore, and his high-energy play has excited Bears fans. He'll need to improve in a big way if he's going to be a viable cover corner. If Hardin comes back from his neck injury, he wouldn't provide much of an upgrade.
Major Wright at strong safety is a big worry for the Bears, and he was regularly picked on in 2011 in coverage situations. An OK run-stopper, Major Wright is the best of a bad group in deep coverage.
Weakness: Tight End
Tight ends are what teams make of them, so this may not seem like a glaring weakness, but tight ends provide more versatility for offensive playcallers than any other position. Their presence on the field creates more uncertainty than either wide receiver or running back as to what the offense's intentions are, and tight end motions radically change the formation and potential offensive play.
The Bears tight ends are not dynamic, and starting tight end Matt Spaeth is no threat in the passing game. Neither is Kellen Davis, but he possesses slightly more ability to catch the ball. Both of them generally are required to block, but have made some big mistakes in this capacity.
Most likely the third tight end, Evan Rodriguez is an electric player who can do well running routes, but is a big liability as a blocker.
The Lions are best known for their world-class wide-receiver/quarterback duo, Calvin Johnson, Jr and Matthew Stafford. Despite this strong offensive talent, the Lions have a variety of strengths that they'll want to take advantage of and a few glaring weakness that they need to overcome.
Strength: Wide Receiver
Aside from having the NFL's best pass-catcher in Calvin Johnson Jr, they have depth in a position that many think they didn't need to invest in. Nate Burleson is a good receiver that can help the team grab first down conversions, and Titus Young has improved from last year.
Ryan Broyles, their second-round pick, has impressed the Lions faithful and for good reason. His offseason play has been very impressive and he has been showing this ability throughout camp.
Backing those two up are potentially Maurice Stovall, a veteran who can make plays, and Patrick Edwards, who has a lot of upside.
Strength: Offensive Line
Once considered a weakness for the Lions, the offensive line play has gotten better each year. Jeff Backus at left tackle won't make any Pro Bowls, but is solid in pass protection and performs well as a run blocker.
Guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman both had a better 2011 season than many expected and preseason play seems to indicate that they are well on that path again. Gosder Cherilus, at right tackle is also doing well and the continuity that the line has had with veteran center Dominic Raiola has helped in a big way.
Backups Riley Reiff, Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox can play anywhere along the line, and are better than many starting offensive linemen in the league.
Strength: Defensive Line
With Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril returning to camp, the defensive line has returned to the dominant state it found itself in 2011. They have a very good rotating corps of defensive tackles with Nick Fairley, Ndamakong Suh, and Corey Williams—perhaps the best such group in the NFL.
Alongside them are Shaun Lee Hill, who isn't bad and Andrew Fluellen who provides excellent depth as the fifth option. At the end position, Avril and Vanden Bosch have Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young, both of whom are also surprisingly good. It will be difficult to avoid pass pressure from this line.
Having cut Aaron Berry for consecutive arrests, the Lions are left with average cornerback Chris Houston as their best coverage option in the back seven. Inconsistent rookie Bill Bentley and mediocre free agent Jacob Lacey are competing to replace Berry, but both are clearly downgrades for an already poor unit.
At safety, they're best player Louis Delmas is coming off of a knee surgery and won't start the season. Journeyman John Wendling has been good at replacing him in the preseason, but clear questions remain at his overall ability. The other safety, Amari Spievey is extremely poor and could lose his job to unimpressive and aging veteran Eric Coleman. Overall, this is a unit that was bad in 2011, and has gotten worse.
Weakness: Running Back
Preseason starter Jahvid Best will miss the first six games on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and backup Mikel Leshoure is coming off of a surgery, and will also miss the first two games due to suspension as a result of two separate marijuana convictions. Keiland Williams and Kevin Smith will take those duties, but neither have been great here.
Smith had a high yards per carry in 2011, but they all have such poor yards after contact that it is unreasonable to expect that Smith continues his production. None of these running backs have forced a very high number of missed tackles or have sustained production over long periods of time. Stefan Logan is also expected to take snaps here, but his value is largely in kickoff and punt returns.
Weakness: Special Teams
The Lions have had a historically abysmal special teams unit, and getting rid of much-maligned special teams coach Stan Kwan did very little to resolve it. While blessed with good return men—particularly dynamic player Stefan Logan—coverage and return units have had trouble securing good field position. On punt returns, the team consistently finds themselves with one or two yard gains where better blocking units could get six or seven.
With the exception of 2010, the Lions have ranked in the bottom ten in average return yardage every year for the last five years—only doing better than the Eagles and the Colts on a consistent basis.
They aren't much better in punt coverage or kick coverage, and consistently rank in the bottom half of the league. Addition Maurice Stovall in the offseason should help their coverage unit, but the Lions still hurt here, despite good players in kicker Jason Hanson and returner Stefan Logan. Both punters competing for a starting position—Ryan Donahue and Ben Graham are performing well.
GREEN BAY PACKERS:
Coming off of one of the best quarterback performances in history and a 15-1 season, there's no question that the Green Bay Packers are one of the best teams in the NFL and do so off the strength of their high-octane offense. Worries with balance and defense have encouraged restraint from pundits however, and the concerns are valid.
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, and it's not very close. He's efficient, productive and had second the highest net yards per pass attempt in history last year. In particular, he excels at ball placement for his receivers, reading defenses and field awareness.
Strength: Wide Receiver
In addition to the quality of play they can expect from Rodgers, the Packers are also stacked at wide receiver. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson lead one of the deepest corps in the league. Nelson jumped into prominence last year and led the league by 20 points in passer rating when thrown to. James Jones is underrated, but has been effective as an outlet receiver.
Donald Driver remains a great option in the slot, while Randall Cobb has impressed as a receiver, returner and occasional backfield option. The Packers are also hosting a fierce competition for a potential sixth receiver between Tori Gurley, Dale Moss and Diondre Borel. One of the losers of this competiton will find themselves on another squad by year's end.
Strength: Offensive Line
It should come as no surprise that the final strength of the Packers is in their offense as well. While the Packers can be proud of their potential at pass rush, none of their defensive personnel groupings is better than their offensive line. They have a future Hall-of-Famer at center with offseason acquisition Jeff Saturday, and right guard Josh Sitton deserved a Pro Bowl nod.
Left guard T.J. Lang is good, while next to him sits rising prospect Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, who will perform much better than his poor showing last year as a result of massive improvements made in the offseason. Their best player is Bryan Bulaga, however, who only gave up one sack last year.
Their biggest worry is depth, as the talent behind them is poor. While guard Evan Dietrich-Smth is serviceable, their backup tackles have been horrendous. The Packers will need health here in order to maintain their projection as the best team in the NFL.
The Green Bay Packers gave up the most passing yardage of any team last year, and haven't improved their secondary much in the offseason. While it is true that much of the yardage comes from an extraordarily high number of attempts as a result of teams being forced to catch up, they still ranked sixth overall in pass yardage given up per play.
Young phenom Tramon Williams had a fantastic 2010 and an average 2011, but should be considered the best cornerback on the roster, even with the legendary Charles Woodson on the roster. Woodson has converted to safety, except in nickel packages, where he'll drop to play as the slot cornerback. His age is showing, and while he is best suited to play as the nickel corner, he's clearly lost a few steps and continues to rely on veteran guile to make up for physical ability—a race he will eventually lose.
The second cornerback is up for grabs with sophomore Davon House flashing ability before injury sidelined him. Inconsistent but exciting rookie Casey Harward is competing with a mediocre Jarrett Bush for the opportunity to backup or fill in for House, but the truth remains that the other cornerback will be seriously inexperienced.
Morgan Burnett is a starting safety, and he's not particularly great. The safety to replace Woodson in nickel packages is even worse, and currently Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings are competing to take that spot. They will be a weakness in coverage in a big way.
Weakness: Running Back
Green Bay isn't set at running back, despite their other offensive prowess. The very inconsistent James Starks is set to be the starter ahead of recent aging acquisition Cedric Benson, but Starks is currently out of commission for several weeks.
Backing up Benson and Starks is the injured Brandon Saine, who should be back soon but with some speed concerns. Saine was never great, and they'll need to find ways in the next offseason to acquire running talent in order to open up the passing game even more. A solid running game is important for teams who need to close out games, a problem that the Packers had in their Super Bowl season and something that plagued them during their historic 15-1 season as well.
Weakness: Run Defense
While the Packers sport a powerful pass rush with Raji, Perry and Matthews, they have not upgraded their ability to stop the run in several years. Middle of the road in total rushing yards allowed, many don't see this as an issue, but they ranked fifth in yards allowed per attempt—a better measure of their overall run-stopping ability, given the few attempts they had to deal with (second lowest in the league, with only 23.9 carries a game).
Ryan Pickett has done well against the run, but is largely inconsistent. C.J. Wilson is more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, but is only OK at both. B.J. Raji had a phenomenal 2010 against the run and as a pass-rusher, but was swallowed up in 2011, and even missed a number of tackles while also being forced out of position on running plays.
The Packers are lucky to replace underperforming linebacker Erik Walden, who was the worst at his position against the run despite his high tackle count, with Nick Perry. Still Perry is much more of a pass-rusher than anything else and is expect to struggle against teams that will pound the ball.
Clay Matthews is an average run-stopper for his position, and can occasionally use his athleticism to save plays. The inside linebackers have not been able to make up for any deficiencies, however, and nearly all of them have massively underperformed against running backs. Only Desmond Bishop, who is injured for potentially the entire season, has been doing well in this capacity. The Packers may lean on potential replacement D.J. Smith, who has looked good in the preseason, to resolve this issue.
The Minnesota Vikings have suffered a serious decline from their recent success in 2009, and are a team on the rise once more. After a historically bad 2011 campaign, the Vikings have made some key improvements in important areas, but are still expected to remain at the bottom of the division. Nevertheless, the Vikings have a number of strengths that they'll want to employ in their quest to regain relevance.
Strength: Running Back
Even coming back from rehabilitation, Adrian Peterson will be one of the best running backs in football. After just five years in the league, he has five Pro Bowl and five All-Pro nominations, and already holds three NFL records, and he currently has the highest average rushing yards per game total of all active NFL players. Fast and powerful, Peterson also makes lightning-quick cuts. Best known for bowling over defenders, the young Viking has had more than ten touchdowns each season, and season long gains of over 50 yards every year.
Backing him up is Toby Gerhart, who features less agility and speed than Peterson, but also potentially more power. He's a downhill runner that has an even higher average gain than Adrian Peterson, and would start for most teams in the National Football League. He's surprisingly good at breaking tackles and is an expert at quickly reading his blocks.
Strength: Defensive Line
The Minnesota Vikings led the league with the Philadelphia Eagles in sacks with 50, with a nearly record performance from Jared Allen, who had 22 sacks. In addition to his pass-rushing skills, Allen also accumulated 21 tackles for loss, second most in the league. In addition to his excellent work defending the run or pressuring the quarterback, he deflected two passes and grabbed one interception in 2011, bringing his totals to 42 deflected passes and five interceptions. He is considered by many to be the best 4-3 defensive end playing in the NFL right now.
Playing alongside Allen is Kevin Williams, one of the best defensive tackles in the league. While his sack numbers didn't start piling up until the end of the season, he was getting consistent pressure all season long, and had the third most quarterback hurries in 2011. No longer an automatic Pro Bowl consideration, Williams has shown he has significant gas left in the tank.
Aside from them, nose tackle Letroy Guion is a league average defensive tackle, and will effectively command a double team in order to allow other playmakers to have an impact, allowing the other defensive end—Brian Robison—to either sack the quarterback or make the tackle. Robison is a top-20 defensive end, and significantly better than a number of starters playing today.
Backing them up is athletic phenom Everson Griffen, who is fast enough to gun on punt coverage, and has an excellent array of pass rushing moves at defensive end. Fred Evans is a streaky tackle that can play at an extremely high level at times, and surprising sophomore D'Aundre Reed complements defensive swingman Christian Ballard at either tackle or defensive end positions. The Vikings will cut some pass-rushing specialists that will find themselves as reliable backups on other rosters.
Strength: Tight End
A somewhat surprising inclusion, tight end has developed into a real strength for the Vikings. They will likely keep four on the roster, and the fifth one left out will be the primary backup for another team.
Preseason play is a poor indicator of future performance, but sophomore Kyle Rudolph hasn't made a mistake yet. He flashed fantastic pass-catching ability in 2011 (4th highest catch rate out of tight ends), and has significantly improved in the offseason. Pundits are predicting a fantastic season for the 6'6" Notre Dame alum, and all indications are that they're right.
With him is former teammate John Carlson, who has also been outplaying his previous statistics. An injury worry, Carlson is probably for Week 1, but can effectively provide an outlet on passing downs.
To block, the Vikings have picked up Rhett Ellison, an H-Back/Fullback/Tight End hybrid from USC, and his pass-catching ability as well as crisp route running have come as real surprises. A versatile player that can line up anywhere on the field, Ellison will provide the Vikings with a number of options.
Battling it out for the fourth spot are Mickey Shuler and Allen Reisner, who are both very well-rounded, but perform better as route-runners than run blockers. Both have had impressive showings in the offseason, and what's more impressive is that over the course of the two preseason games, the tight ends together only made one or two mistakes. They will feature heavily in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's somewhat revamped two tight end offense.
The Vikings have a rising star in Erin Henderson and one of the best run-stopping strongside linebackers in the game with Chad Greenway, but don't have a reliable option for middle linebacker or any of the backups.
More than that, while Henderson will continue to improve his game, Greenway's coverage skills leave something to be desired—out of all outside linebackers in 4-3 systems, Greenway had the second highest passer rating allowed. Their middle linebacker, key to their coverage schemes, is coming off of several injuries and is better known as a run defender than a coverage linebacker. Jasper Brinkley is going to need to make big improvements in order to defend against the powerful passing offenses of the NFC North.
Their backups consist of undrafted rookies (Larry Dean, Tyler Nielsen, Corey Paredes), unsigned castoffs (Marvin Mitchell, Tyrone McKenzie) a seventh-round draft pick (Audie Cole) and a hard-hitting Canadian Football League star (Solomon Elimimian). While Mitchell has impressed in camp, none of the other linebackers had particularly stellar practices. Dean and McKenzie have done well in special teams play in both preseason games and only Audie Cole did well in the actual field of play, grabbing two (back-to-back) interceptions returned for a touchdown against third and fourth string quarterbacks and a sack.
While Cole's game ability has been noted, some are still asking if he is going to make the team because he has been unable to move from the third string linebacker corps and had a noticeably terrible training camp experience.
Weakness: Wide Receiver
The offseason acquisition to complement Percy Harvin's dominance in the slot, Jerome Simpson, is suspended for the first three games. Simpson is an athletic wunderkind, but has been plagued with inconsistency from his first year in the league. One of the faster receivers in the game, his sloppy route-running and streaky pass-catching will often overshadow his excellent body control and good intuition.
Behind him are a number of unproven young receivers and two veterans at risk of losing a spot on the roster. The Vikings had put a lot of faith in Greg Childs to become the field-strether they needed, but injuries in both knees derailed his season and potentiall his career. Former Arkansas teammate Jarius Wright is not built to replace Simpson and has been surprisingly dull in the offseason, while Stephen Burton, a sophomore drafted in the seventh round, has impressed coaches, but not enough to normally deserve a starting spot.
Burton is the leader in the race to replace Simpson for the first three games, but slow possession receiver Michael Jenkins is also a possibility. Predicted by many to be cut by the end of the offseason, his restructured contract may have saved his career. He struggles to get separation and cannot generate burst in his cuts.
Behind him are Devin Aromashodu and Emmanuel Arceneaux, neither of whom are reliable. Aromashodu was targeted 10 times this offseason and has zero catches. None of the undrafted rookies (Kerry Taylor, A.J. Love, Kamar Jorden and Bryan Walters) has separated themselves from the pack.
Vikings fans may be confident in their secondary, given the return of Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield and recent acquisitions Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson, but aside from Winfield, none of them are proven talent.
Cook looked great against Calvin Johnson last year, but does not have enough game on tape to be reliably called a good cornerback. Winfield's age (as well as a small accumulation of injuries) will reduce his snaps in a big way. Robinson has looked great in the offseason, but is still dealing with a hamstring injury that will limit his participation for some time. Ahead of him is veteran Chris Carr, who has looked unreliable in pass coverage in the offseason and has blown more than one assignment.
Special teams addition Zack Bowman doesn't provide much relief, and surprising additions Reggie Jones and Bobby Felder are more upside than current talent.
The depth is good—great, even, but the top-level talent is potentially wanting, especially with Winfield out for a significant level of snaps.
At safety, addition Harrison Smith is still prone to making rookie mistakes, and second-year Mistral Raymond is slated to start with him. Despite an impressive game against Buffalo, both players have a lot to learn before they can become reliably effective at stopping the pass. Backing them up are Jamarca Sanford, who was one of the worst starting safeties in the league and Eric Frampton and Robert Blanton both provide their own worries (frequent poor play for one, injuries and position conversion for the other).
The NFC North promises to be an exciting battle, but every team is beatable. With some bumps in the road on their schedule, including Super Bowl favorites San Francisco and Houston, these teams will need to do their best in order to meet the expectations of many that three teams make the playoffs. They know the roadmap that teams will take against them, and all that remains is making sure they can capitalize on their strengths and hide their weaknesses.753211