Saturday, September 3, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions - NFC North

1) Green Bay Packers
(10-6, 2nd in ’10)

Key Gets – Derek Sherrod (OL, Mississippi State), Randall Cobb (WR, Kentucky), Alexander Green (RB, Hawaii), Davon House (CB, New Mexico State), DJ Williams (TE, steal, Arkansas)

Key Gones – Cullen Jenkins (DL, Eagles), Brandon Jackson (RB, Browns)

Key Games – wk1 v. Saints, wk3 @ Bears, wk5 @ Falcons, wk9 @ Chargers, wk11 v. Bucs, wk13 @ Giants, wk15 @ Chiefs, wk16 v. Bears

Told you so!

Even though I picked these guys to win it all last year, I was surprised at the way they took care of business at the end, going on that six game run after losing at New England. Aaron Rodgers is the man. He’s got the arm, legs, vision, smarts, and cajones it takes to be a truly great QB. How Rodgers got things done with Ryan Grant (his #1 RB) and Jermichael Finley (the next Antonio Gates) missing nearly the entire year is pretty impressive. Grant is back and looks to have reclaimed the starting job from James Starks, the second year back who shined down the stretch. I love Starks and still wish the Bucs had drafted him. In the end, I think that it’s Starks who separates himself as the superior back in this offense. He has a chance to be a really dangerous weapon, especially as a receiver out of the backfield; strong runner with nice hands. Thanks to James Jones re-signing, Rodgers’ arsenal is absolutely loaded, not that he needs it. In addition to Jones and Finley, the Packers will line up Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, and explosive rookie Randall Cobb as receiving options. Wow! The Packers were a perfect spot for Cobb, a guy I think is going to have a huge career. On the offensive line, Bryan Bulaga really came on at RT late last year, and while I like the addition of Sherrod, I’m not sure lining him up at LG is the best way to break him in. Speaking of guards, RG Josh Sitton is one of the league’s best at what he does. Even with the loss of Cullen Jenkins, there’s a lot to love about this defense. Clay Matthews is the star of the show, and there’s no reason to think he can’t improve upon his already impressive numbers thus far. BJ Raji is flat out dominant, and Tramon Williams is about to make himself a household name this season. Both Raji and Williams look to be establishing themselves as the league’s future at their positions. Last year I pointed out how Desmond Bishop really came on last year when called on to be a starter, and I’m eager to see if he takes his game to another level in ’11. I worry that Charles Woodson may slip a bit this year, but 75% of Woodson is better than 100% of a lot of other guys. Nick Collins does a great job of keeping the action in front of him at safety and is one of the league’s better backend defenders.

How scary was their ability to get really dominant on both sides of the ball really quickly? They’ll run away with this division.

Team MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Breakout Player – Tramon Williams
Disappointment – Ryan Grant

2) Detroit Lions
(6-10, 3rd in ’10)

Key Gets – Stephen Tulloch (LB, Titans), Justin Durant (LB, Jaguars), Eric Wright (CB, Browns), Nick Fairley (DL, Auburn), Titus Young (WR, Boise State), Mikel Leshoure (RB, Illinois, IR)

Key Gones – Julian Peterson (LB, free agent), Kevin Smith (RB, free agent), Bryant Johnson (WR, free agent)

Key Games – wk1 @ Bucs, wk2 v. Chiefs, wk4 @ Cowboys, wk5 v. Bears, wk7 v. Falcons, wk10 @ Bears, wk12 v. Packers, wk13 @ Saints, wk16 v. Chargers, wk 17 @ Packers

No longer the laughing stock of the league, the Detroit Lions won six games last season. It my not seem like much, but that’s four more wins than they had won the last two years combined. Still, it wasn’t quite what the Lions had in mind. Matthew Stafford missed all but 13 games, and turf toe limited Jahvid Best to 9 contests. This year isn’t starting off to hot either as rookie running back (and my personal favorite from the ’11 class) Mikel Leshoure is out for the year with an Achilles injury. Best is reportedly good to go, and they’re going to need him since Jerome Harrison is the primary backup. Best is an electric talent, and I look for him to have a big year. Stafford is reportedly healthy too, so if he can stay upright and unmaimed, this offense is finally going to have a chance to realize its potential. All this offensive talk, and I haven’t even mentioned Calvin Johnson. One of the game’s elite overall talents, Johnson’s further ascension has pretty much sat in neutral while those around him struggle to stay healthy. A stable Stafford ensures a career year for Johnson. Scary when you consider he’s scored 29 TDs over the last three years with the QB carnage the Lions have dealt with. His name is Ndamukong Suh, and he’s no mere mortal. The former Cornhusker brought his brand of domination to the NFL last year, and all he did was rack up 10 sacks and take home the Defensive ROY award. So what do the Lions do? They draft Fairley, another explosive defensive lineman with dominating potential to (eventually) line up along side of him. Wow. DE Cliff Avril no doubt benefitted from Suh’s presence putting up a career high 8.5 sacks. The Lions are playing a little bit of flip flop with the linebackers. Last year’s MLB DeAndre Levy has been moving back and forth with Tulloch at WLB, but I’m guessing Tulloch ends up inside. He was a really smart addition to this defense. The corners are pretty weak, even with the Wright acquisition. I like the safety situation better with a healthy Louis Delmas and favorite of mine from a couple years ago, Amari Spivey, at SS.

I believe! I believe! If these young guys can stay healthy, this team has a shot at barely missing out on the playoffs.

Team MVP – Ndamukong Suh
Breakout Player – Jahvid Best
Disappointment – Chris Houston

3) Chicago Bears
(11-5, 1st in ’10)

Key Gets – Marion Barber (RB, Cowboys), Roy Williams (WR, Cowboys), Amobi Okoye (DL, Texans), Chris Spencer (OL, Seahawks), Gabe Carimi (OL, Wisconsin), Stephen Paea (DL, Oregon State)

Key Gones – Oliln Kreutz (OL, Saints), Greg Olsen (TE, Panthers), Tommie Harris (DL, Colts), Daniel Manning (DB, Texans)

Key Games – wk1 v. Falcons, wk2 @ Saints, wk3 v. Packers, wk7 @ London Bucs, wk9 @ Eagles, wk11 v. Chargers, wk13 v. Chiefs, wk16 @ Packers

I’m not a Bears hater, but last year’s team was probably the worst 11-5 team I’ve seen in a while, winning more than a few games they shouldn’t have. And no, they’re not the “great teams win games they shouldn’t” type of team. As good as Aaron Rodgers season ended, Jay Cutler’s was the 180 of that last year. After getting knocked out of the NFC title game with a knee injury, Cutler was assailed with questions of his manhood and ability to perform as a leader. For me personally, I was more disappointed in the way he didn’t rally around and support the guy replacing him than sitting out with the injury. That’s not what a leader does. The offensive line is a real crapshoot. J’Marcus Webb is a huge unknown moving from right to left tackle as Cutler’s blindside guy, and Chris Williams has been unimpressive wherever they’ve put him. He and Lance Louis might be the worst guard pairing in the league. Carimi was a huge need and should shine playing with this bunch. Matt Forte rebounded a bit from a down sophomore season, and with any protection up front, I look for him to have his biggest year yet. He’s easily the team’s best offensive weapon. Roy Williams will try to resurrect his career in Chicago at the expense of Johnny Knox’s development. Bad move Chicago. A good move they made was picking up Julius Peppers last offseason. He and a healthy Brian Urlacher solidified a unit that led this team to the playoffs. Lance Briggs is still reliable at 30, but he’s not happy with his contract and just requested a trade. Aside from Peppers, I don’t like the rest of the defensive line as it currently stands and think they’ll struggle to keep this unit at last year’s level. Where I think they’ll really struggle is in the drop off in safety play from Daniel Manning to Major Wright. This will hurt them at least twice a year. Corner Charles Tillman is head and shoulder above the rest of this secondary talent-wise.

I think the mojo swings in the opposite direction this year and the Bears aren’t much of a playoff contender the second half of the season.

Team MVP – Julius Peppers
Breakout Player – Earl Bennett
Disappointment – Major Wright

4) Minnesota Vikings
(6-10, 4th in ’10)

Key Gets – Donovan McNabb (QB, Redskins), Michael Jenkins (WR, Falcons), Christian Ponder (QB, FSU), Kyle Rudolph (TE, Notre Dame), Christian Ballard (DL, Iowa), Brandon Burton (CB, Utah), Demarcus Love (OL, Arkansas)

Key Gones – Brett Favre (QB, retired…for real), Sidney Rice (WR, Seahawks), Tarvaris Jackson (QB, Seahawks), Ray Edwards (DE, Falcons), Bryant McKinnie (OL, Ravens), Madieu Williams (S, 49ers)

Key Games – wk1 @ Chargers, wk2 v. Bucs, wk4 @ Chiefs, wk6 @ Bears, wk7 v. Packers, wk10 @ Packers, wk12 @ Falcons, wk15 v. Saints, wk17 v. Bears

Sadly, I can pretty quickly and confidently put the Vikings in the NFC North basement. No, it’s not because Brett Favre is really retired this time. It’s that the Vikings are the one team in the division clearly moving in the wrong direction. That’s a tough thing to type when you consider they field two of the game’s most explosive offensive talents in Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. Peterson may be the baddest back in the league, but that’s one craptastic line he’s got in front of him. McKinnie being gone isn’t so much a loss himself, but he’s not gone because he was pushed out of the job by a backup. He’s gone because he was a fat, lazy mess. Like the Bills, there’s not one starter up front that I’d want on the Bucs. This isn’t my FSU bias speaking, but the McNabb acquisition makes zero sense to me. The Vikings aren’t on the cusp of a championship and bringing in the fading vet does nothing to get this team anywhere. The offensive line and McNabb are two reasons I predict doom and gloom for the Vikings. Losing Sidney Rice doesn’t help anyone’s passing game either. Jared Allen had his fourth straight double digit sack season and is still the leader of this defense. They’re really going to miss his LE counterpart Edwards though in my opinion, especially against the run. Everson Griffen hasn’t figured out adulthood yet, and I’m not sure Brian Robison is a three down player. Remi Ayodele is quite a drop off from Pat Williams at NT, and Kevin Williams is going to miss 2-4 games with his StarCaps suspension. Look for Letroy Guion to step up and make a difference in his absence and beyond. Two bright spots reside at LB, as Chad Greenway and EJ Henderson are difference makers. Starting corners Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin are football old, and third corner Chris Cook didn’t look near ready to take over anyone’s spot last year.

When I think about this team I literally just shake my head as my crystal ball says there are rough waters ahead for these Vikings.

Team MVP – Adrian Peterson
Breakout Player – Letroy Guion
Disappointment – Donovan McNabb

1) Green Bay Packers
2) Detroit Lions
3) Chicago Bears
4) Minnesota Vikings

Division MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Division Breakout – Tramon Williams
Division Disappointment – Donovan McNabb

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