Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - NFC North

1) Green Bay Packers

Key Gets – Jeff Saturday (C, Colts), Nick Perry (DE/OLB, USC), Jerel Worthy (DL, Michigan State)

Key Gones – Chad Clifton (T, FA), Nick Collins (S, FA), Matt Flynn (QB, Seahawks), Ryan Grant (RB, FA), Scott Wells (C, Rams)

Key Games – wk1 v. 49ers, wk2 v. Bears, wk4 v. Saints, wk6 @ Texans, wk7 @ Rams, wk11 @ Lions, wk12 @ Giants, wk13 v. Vikings, wk14 v. Lions, wk15 @ Bears, wk17 @ Vikings

2011 can be considered nothing short of disappointing for the Packers.  The team that won the previous Super Bowl reeled off thirteen wins to start the year before suffering their only regular season blemish.  They took a 15-1 record into the playoffs looking to repeat as champs.  Instead they picked a bad time to have their worst game of the year in a season ending loss to the eventual champs. 

Aaron Rodgers was the league’s MVP last season.  Those things tend to happen when you put up video game-like numbers – 45 TDs to 6 INTs, 4,643 yards passing, and a 122.5 passer rating on the year.  I could throw out numbers all day long, but they still wouldn’t tell you how awesome he was last season.  The guy is in more control of his offense than any other QB in the league, and yes, that includes Tom Brady.  He sees plays before they happen, and borrowing the old marksman adage, he could knock the wings off a fly on a receiver’s shoulder pads 40 yards downfield.  There’s no reason to believe Rodgers won’t be as good if not better this season.  His weapons return intact.  Greg Jennings gets the label of #1 receiver, but he was outdone by Jordy Nelson last season.  Nelson exploded for 15 TDs and nearly 70 receptions in taking over the #2 receiving role for Donald Driver.  While he may not repeat those stats again this year, it’s clear that Rodgers has two legit #1 receivers.  Look for Randall Cobb to establish himself as the team’s third best receiver this year.  He brings an explosive element to the offense and is more consistent that perennial disappointment James Jones.  Jermichael Finley has all the talent in the world but needs to solve his drops problem.  James Starks and Ryan Grant held down the running game last year, but Grant is gone and there are rumblings that Starks may not even make the final squad.  Enter Cedric Benson.  The veteran back coming off three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons enters a perfect situation.  The starting job is his for the taking, and he’s part of a potent offense anchored by arguably the league’s best offensive line.  The only question mark up front is how third year tackle Marshall Newhouse will do in replacing veteran Chad Clifton on Rodgers’ blind side.  Bryan Bulaga is entrenched on the right side, and they’re stacked in the middle.  TJ Lang and Josh Sitton form the league’s best pair of young guards, and veteran Jeff Saturday is a nice replacement for Scott Wells.  They’re solid.

If you’re going to pick on the Packers, you’ll do it on this side of the ball.  They allowed nearly 300 yards passing per game which was worst in the league.  They weren’t much better against the run either, surrendering 4.7 yards per rush attempt.  The Packers simply couldn’t make stops.  If you want to pick one play to summarize their season on defense, it was LeGarrette Blount running over nearly every player on defense on his way to a future bloopers reel score.  Last year I said they’d miss Cullen Jenkins after he left for Philadelphia, and boy did they.  It didn’t help that just about everyone on this side of the ball had a down year.  The Packers are looking to ensure that this kind of let down doesn’t happen again.  Jerel Worthy was taken in the second round of this year’s draft and will join Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, CJ Wilson, and free agent signing Ryan Pickett in a rotation at end.  With the added depth, expect to see Pickett spelling BJ Raji a bit this year at the nose.  They need these guys to be fresher at the end of the year than they were last season.  Clay Matthews saw his sack total sink from 13.5 in 2010 to just 6 last year.  The primary reason for this was the amount of attention paid to him by offenses due to having the ineffective Erik Walden and Frank Zombo at the other outside backer position.  Enter Nick Perry.  The rookie from USC gives Matthews the best pass rush help he’s had in his four seasons as a Packer.  They got some bad news on the inside this preseason when Desmond Bishop sustained a ruptured hamstring.  He’ll miss most of if not all of the season.  That’s a huge loss unless second year man DJ Smith can step up quite a bit in his absence.  Charles Woodson is the unquestioned leader of the defense.  He’ll be moving all over the secondary again this season, jumping between corner and safety based on the situation.  Tramon Williams was on the verge of taking his game to the next level when he sustained a shoulder injury in the first game of the season which limited his effectiveness all year.  He’s still not fully recovered and is someone to keep an eye on.  They need him to be 100%.  Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush, and rookie Casey Heyward will combine to man the other corner spot with Woodson at strong safety.  Next to Woodson on the back end will be Morgan Burnett; a safety who is primed to take his game to the next level.

I’m sure they’d like to repeat last year’s 15-1 regular season record, but the goal is to win another title.  Benson could be the missing ingredient on offense, but unless that defense steps its game up, they may not make it to New Orleans.

Team MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Breakout Player – Morgan Burnett
Disappointment – Jermichael Finley

2) Chicago Bears

Key Gets – Brandon Marshall (WR, Dolphins), Michael Bush (RB, Raiders), Jason Campbell (QB, Raiders), Shea McClellin (DE, Boise State), Alshon Jeffery (WR, South Carolina)

Key Gones – None

Key Games – wk2 @ Packers, wk3 v. Rams, wk4 @ Cowboys, wk7 v. Lions, wk10 v. Texans, wk11 @ 49ers, wk12 v. Vikings, wk14 @ Vikings, wk15 v. Packers, wk17 @ Lions

They probably won’t find it interesting, but the Bears finished with an exact 8-8 record for the first time since 1983. 

Look for Jay Cutler to have his best year yet in Chicago, resembling more the Bronco version than the one seen the last couple of seasons with the Bears.  Part of it would be the acquisition of Cutler’s former #1 target in Denver, Brandon Marshall.  The Dolphins couldn’t get rid of Marshall fast enough, and the Bears may be the recipients of a huge gift.  Marshall is his own worst enemy, but when he’s focused, as he was in 2008 when he caught 104 passes from Cutler, he’s nearly unstoppable.  I still don’t love Devin Hester as a receiver, but the drafting of Alshon Jeffery should eventually give them a reliable #2 across from Marshall, assuming the latter can behave long enough to see that happen.  Franchise running back Matt Forte and the front office had a contentious offseason as Forte refused to sign his franchise tender, demanding a long term contract.  Forte got his wish and will look to bounce back from a knee injury that cut short his 2011 campaign.  Marion Barber fizzled in a backup role to Forte.  Even with the reuniting of Cutler and Marshall, Mike Tice and the Bears want to feature a strong running game.  That’s why they signed Michael Bush in free agency.  The man who has spent his pro career as Darren McFadden’s backup now gets to assume that role for Forte.  Having two starting caliber runners is a great asset, especially against a team like the Packers where you want to control the ball and limit their offensive touches.  To maximize this tandem’s effectiveness, they’ve got to do a much better job up front.  This is an offensive line that has seen Cutler get sacked 89 times over the last two years under its watch.  These guys were bad, and the front office didn’t make any personnel changes during the offseason.  Gabe Carimi is a hopeful bright spot at right tackle, but J’Marcus Webb is dismal on the left side.  Center Roberto Garza is the only reliable piece on the interior. 

Julius Peppers continues to be one of the league’s best pass rushers.  He added another 11 last year to what is looking like a Hall of Fame resume.  Not that I’m expecting it to happen, but if for some reason Peppers’ play begins to slip at age 32, the fact that his salary jumps from $8.9 million to $12.9 million next year might become a factor.  Rookie Shea McClellin will be worked into a rotation with Israel Idonije on the other side, and I really like his potential.  I’m interested to see how he develops across from Peppers.  Henry Melton had a huge year at defensive tackle, and they’ll be better off when noseman Stephen Paea gets over his ankle injury.  They have depth, but Melton and Paea will be the keys inside.  There’s concern about Brian Urlacher heading into the season as he’s still dealing with a knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines this preseason.  Needless to say, they need him on the field to have a chance in this division.  Steady Lance Briggs returns for what will likely be another All Pro season at WLB.  I like their starting corners.  Charles Tillman doesn’t get enough credit for as good as he is, and Tim Jennings is solid on the other side.  I do worry that their depth is a bit untested.  I’m not as enamored with their safeties as Major Wright hasn’t started more than ten games in a season and Chris Conte can’t get healthy this preseason. 

They’re not the Packers, but the Bears got a lot stronger offensively this offseason.  If they can get and stay healthy on defense, they might find a way back into the postseason, that improved running game might become the key to a run at a title.

Team MVP – Jay Cutler
Breakout Player – Shea McClellin
Disappointment – Brian Urlacher’s health

3) Detroit Lions

Key Gets – Riley Reiff (T, Iowa), Ryan Broyles (WR, Oklahoma)

Key Gones – Bobby Carpenter (LB, Patriots), Eric Wright (CB, Bucs)

Key Games – wk1 v. Rams, wk2 @ 49ers, wk4 v. Vikings, wk6 @ Eagles, wk7 @ Bears, wk10 @ Vikings, wk11 v. Packers, wk12 v. Texans, wk14 @ Packers, wk16 v. Falcons, wk17 v. Bears

0-16 seems like decades ago.  The Lions made the playoffs for the first time since ’99 and won ten games for the first time since ’95.  They’re a young team that took what they hope was the first step toward being a perennial contender. 

Yes, yes he can stay healthy for an entire 16 game season.  Matt Stafford made it through the year unscathed and finished behind only Brees and Brady in yards passing and Brees and Rodgers in TDs.  Talent was never the question; just his ability to stay on the field.  When he was on the field, Stafford was heaving it up early and often to the game’s best receiver.  Calvin Johnson is a freak among freaks and is coming off career highs in receptions, yards, and TDs.  I’m guessing he has his first 100+ reception season in 2012 and will threaten if not reach 20 TDs.  Stafford has a few other weapons too.  Titus Young had his moments as a rookie, and I think he’s on the verge of busting out in a big way.  Nate Burleson is still in the mix as is Brandon Pettigrew, the tight end who caught 83 passes last year.  They’re not currently as deep at the RB position.  Jahvid Best just can’t get over his concussions and is likely to start the season on the PUP list.  Mikel Leshoure is coming back from an Achilles injury and is suspended for the first two games.  That means Kevin Smith sits back atop the depth chart.  As I write though, Smith sustained an injury to his right ankle and may end up joining Best and Leshoure on the sidelines.  The offensive line is an older unit that performs much much better in pass protection than run blocking.  Rookie Riley Reiff will start right away at right tackle and may be the eventual replacement for Jeff Backus on the left side. 

Practices at Lions camp have to be a little one-sided up front given the wealth of talent they’ve got on their defensive line.  Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams are monsters on the interior.  His sophomore season may have not have lived up to his rookie campaign, but I think a lot of that had to do with the Lions not maximizing his talents.  Look for them to move him around on the line a lot more this year to take advantage of mismatches.  You know you’re good when Nick Fairley and Sammie Lee Hill are relegated to backup snaps.  Outside are the team’s leading pass rushers, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch.  Avril put together his second strong season in a row and was tagged as the Lions’ franchise player this offseason.  The veteran Vanden Bosch tallied 8 sacks of his own which was his highest total since ’07.  Middle linebacker Steven Tulloch thrived in his first year with the Lions and was rewarded with a five year contract this offseason.  They could stand to be a little more talented outside where DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant hold the starting jobs.  They were weak in the secondary last year, and that was before Eric Wright left as a free agent.  Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith might be the worst starting corner duo in the league, and I don’t think drafting Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood was the answer to the problem.  I think strong safety Amari Spievey is the best player in the secondary.  He took hold of the job in his second season and was the most consistent defensive back on the team.

They’ve got a high powered passing game and a dominant defensive front.  What’s not to love?  I think the offensive line’s weaknesses will show more than they like and that the secondary won’t be any better at shutting down the pass than they were last year when they ranked 22nd in TDs and yards allowed. 

Team MVP – Calvin Johnson
Breakout Player – Titus Young
Disappointment – Nick Fairley

4) Minnesota Vikings

Key Gets – Matt Kalil (T, USC), Harrison Smith (S, Notre Dame), John Carlson (TE, Seahawks), Chris Carr (CB, Ravens), Jerome Simpson (WR, Bengals), Josh Robinson (CB, UCF), Rhett Ellison (TE, USC)

Key Gones – Cedric Griffin (CB, Redskins), EJ Henderson (LB, FA), Steve Hutchinson (G, Titans), Jim Kleinsasser (TE, retired), Ryan Longwell (K, FA)

Key Games – wk3 v. 49ers, wk4 @ Lions, wk10 v. Lions, wk12 @ Bears, wk13 @ Packers, wk14 v. Bears, wk15 @ Rams, wk16 @ Texans, wk17 v. Packers

Surely the Vikings didn’t head into the 2011 season thinking that they’d finish with the team’s worst record since 1984, or a year before Adrian Peterson was born.  As if the patheticness (yes patheticness) of the Donovan McNabb era wasn’t enough of a bad thing to happen to the team last year, they had to watch their franchise running back tear his ACL in the fifteenth week of the season.  And that game happened to be one of the three they won on the year.  Good times!

It shouldn’t surprise anything that Peterson is already running at full speed and making cuts on a knee that he severely injured just eight months ago.  If anyone can make a near miraculous recovery from a major injury it’s this guy.  Since he’s likely to go the entire preseason without taking any snaps, I’m sure he’ll be limited early on.  That’s ok because, given his history, I have no reason to believe that he won’t be back better than ever.  The guy who needs him back most is QB Christian Ponder.  The former Nole’s rookie year had more downs than ups.  Poor decision making, a concussion, and hip injury were the stories of Ponder’s first season.  Call it bias, I’ll believe we’ll see substantial improvement in his performance this year, specifically in the decision making department.  Again, he’ll need Peterson because his receiving unit is lacking in quality and quantity.  Not this guy though.  Percy Harvin is an irreplaceable playmaker.  It was good to see him play all sixteen games last year and set a career high in touches with 138.  They’ll need him to be big again, especially since free agent signing and #2 receiver Jerome Simpson has been suspended three games for being an idiot and having week fedex’d to his house.  Second year tight end Kyle Rudolph has been the buzz of camp this preseason and looks to have developed strong chemistry with Ponder.  His talent is well documented, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if he has a big year.  On the offensive line, their best player was in college this time last year.  Matt Kalil will be the protector of Ponder’s blind side and moves Charlie Johnson back to guard and away from a position he struggled at mightily.  They extended center John Sullivan after he showed signs of being a reliable long term piece of the unit.  Guard Geoff Schwartz was a good pick up, but he’s likely to miss the start of the season after having surgery for a sports hernia. 

Already established as one of the game’s best, Jared Allen fell ½ sack short of tying Michael Strahan’s single season record of 22.5 last year.  He needed 3.5 in his final game against the Bears to get that close, and he almost had Josh McCown another time for the record.  Brian Robison stepped up quite well after Ray Edwards’ departure last offseason, tallying 8 sacks of his own.  After a failed experiment at linebacker, Everson Griffen goes back to focusing on defensive end and party planning.  Kevin Williams is past his prime, but he remains one of the game’s better defensive tackles at age 32.  Keep an eye on the guy next to him, Letroy Guion, the nose tackle who’s dealing with a knee issue this preseason.  His backup Fred Evans is a noticeable downgrade.  Chad Greenway is the one recognized stud in their group of linebackers, but I think Erin Henderson is due more credit than he receives.  Greenway was wisely extended last September or else he very likely would be playing somewhere else this year.  They’ll flank new MLB Jasper Brinkley who is limping into this season with a groin injury.  There will be big changes in the secondary.  Corners Cedric Griffin and Ahser Allen and safeties Tyrell Johnson and Husain Abdullah are no longer with the team.  Chris Cook will get a chance to take ownership of a starting cornerback job if he can stop beating his girlfriend.  Veteran Antoine Winfield returns at the other starting spot.  The safeties that remained, Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond, don’t figure to do measurably better than the ones that left.

It would be a real shock if the Vikings finished anywhere other than fourth in the division.  The other teams are just too strong, and they have too many questions.  The biggest question will be answered soon enough as All Day begins to take contact on that surgically repaired knee. 

Team MVP – Adrian Peterson
Breakout Player – Kyle Rudolph
Disappointment – Chris Cook

Division MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Division Breakout Player – Titus Young
Division Disappointment – Nick Fairley 

No comments:

Post a Comment