Thursday, September 5, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions - NFC North

1) Green Bay Packers

The Packers had double digit wins for the fourth straight year, but the ’12 season reeked of disappointment, especially being dominated by the 49ers in the playoffs.  Has the Packer magic worn off, or are the former champs under the radar heading into ’13?

He didn’t win his second MVP last year, but I still list Aaron Rodgers as the best player in the game.  Quarterback solidifies itself more and more each year as the most important position in the sport, and there’s not a better combo of arm, legs, guts, and intelligence in it.  What’s even more impressive is how Rodgers has become the game’s best while having no threat of a run game the last three seasons.  With the drafting of Eddie Lacy, the Packers are now dangerous on the ground.  I have no delusions that they’ll become a balanced offense, but adding a talented big back now forces defenses to respect the run.  When Rodgers does drop back to pass he won’t be looking for Greg Jennings anymore.  After seven years in Green Bay, Jennings has joined the rival Vikings.  That said, I don’t expect the passing game to miss a beat.  Randall Cobb exploded for 80 catches and 9 total TDs in ’12 and, not counting Rodgers, is the team’s most dangerous weapon.  James Jones figured it out and had a career year, doubling his previous season TD high of seven.  I think he has another strong season.  Jordy Nelson fought injuries most of the year and wasn’t the vertical playmaker he had been in ’11.  He’s slowed by an injury this preseason, so his will be a situation to monitor.  Jermichael Finley might be this year’s Jones.  Reports have him and Rodgers clicking better than ever.  We shall see.  Only the Cardinals’ excuse for an offensive line surrendered more sacks than the Packers last year, and Rodgers is one of the most mobile (not necessarily fastest) QBs in the game.  Some of that is on Rodgers.  I saw him try to make too much happen at times and hold the ball longer than he should have.  He wasn’t as decisive as he’d been the last two seasons.  The rest (and most) of the blame goes to the offensive line.  Sadly, they’re not off to a good start this year, as Bryan Bulaga is done with an ACL injury.  The fact that Mike McCarthy is starting a rookie on Rodgers’ blind side should tell you all you need to know about his opinion of Marshall Newhouse.  The guards flip flopped.  Josh Sitton moved to the left side, and TJ Lang moved to the right due in part to how well Sitton did at left guard in the Pro Bowl.

It won’t matter how good the Packers offense is if the defense doesn’t step up, especially considering the high odds of whoever wins the NFC having to go through Seattle and/or San Francisco.  Lacy gets the most attention from this year’s draftees, but Datone Jones, the guy picked first by the Packers, has a chance to be as impactful on the other side of the ball.  Green Bay tried and failed the last two offseasons to fill the hole left by Cullen Jenkins.  I believe adding Jones addresses the hole.  Projecting as a force against both the pass and the run, I love lining him up next to BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett.  The former is coming off what has to be a disappointing season, as he wasn’t the impactful player from the previous two seasons.  I’ve got to think adding Jones helps that.  At linebacker, Clay Matthews remains the Packers playmaker.  Impressively, he was able to tally 13 sacks despite the Packers not having any other legit pass rushers.  Nick Perry’s rookie season was basically a lost one, as he was unimpressive in the six games he did suite up.  They’ve got to get a lot more from him this season, and preseason reports have been positive.  The Packers are a solid three deep at corner with Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, and Sam Shields.  I like Shield and think he’s in line for a big contract real soon.  Charles Woodson was declining, but they didn’t work hard enough to upgrade the position.  I’m big on Morgan Burnett at strong safety but am holding my breath on MD Jennings. 

The Packers didn’t have a lot going for them last year, but the threat of a run game should work wonders this year.  I think they’re better defensively but still have to show that they can bang heads with Seattle and San Fran and emerge victorious. 

MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Breakout – Datone Jones
Disappointment – Jordy Nelson

2) Chicago Bears

Last year’s Bears owned the dubious distinction of being the league’s only 10 win team not to make the playoffs.  Their downfall was a 1-5 stretch from November through December, all games against teams that made the playoffs. 

Defense isn’t the problem in Chicago.  The Bears were able to make a run at the playoffs despite having the league’s 28th rated offense in terms of yards per game.  Enter Marc Trestman, the new head coach of the Chicago Bears.  The reputed offensive coordinator / QB coach is the best offensive mind this team has seen in quite some time.  I’m intrigued by this situation.  Jay Cutler is one of the more off-putting players in the game.  He’s rude.  He hits his teammates.  He’s just not a real friendly guy.  While he’ll never be confused with Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, Cutler does own a 34-22 record as QB of the Bears.  He’s got great chemistry with Brandon Marshall, and I think Alshon Jeffrey has a chance to be a threatening #2.  Free agent signing Martellus Bennett is a huge upgrade over Kellen Davis and his pathetic 19 receptions last season.  Matt Forte could be in for a career year, as I believe Trestman will make better use of his skills set.  In addition to Trestman, the Bears upgraded the offense by signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and drafting right guard Kyle Long.  They’re still a below average unit up front, but both the on-field and off-field additions should dramatically improve upon last year’s 28th place ranking. 

For the first time in 14 years the Bears will suit up without Brian Urlacher as a member of the team.  The eight time Pro Bowler retired after flirting with the idea of signing with another team this offseason.  Who replaces Urlacher?  Free agent DJ Williams and draftee Jon Bostic will replace him on the roster, but his presence will be sorely missed.  Lance Briggs returns on the weak side for what seems like his 50th year with the Bears.  He’s still productive, but I like Khaseem Greene as a guy to bring along slowly as his eventual replacement.  Julius Peppers is still the best player on defense.  I’m not sure it’s fair to consider him underrated, but due to his non-spotlight-seeking personality, I think Peppers goes a bit under the radar for as great of a player he is.  He’s missed just 6 games in his 11 year career (4 of those coming in his rookie year) and is consistently one of the league leaders in sacks.  I like the potential of Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin as complimentary pass rushers.  Henry Melton is one of the game’s best interior pass rushers and is a handful with or without Peppers’ presence.  Most teams would love to have a secondary as reliable as Chicago’s.  They’re not incredibly flashy, but Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are easily one of the best corner combos in the league.  Just ask Aaron Rodgers. 

I like the Trestman hire and believe it will be a much more productive (and stable) situation on offense than they’ve known, especially compared to what they were under the genius that was Mike Martz.  Unintentionally sadistically, I see these Bears team as another double digit winning, fringe playoff team. 

MVP – Matt Forte
Breakout – Shea McClellin
Disappointment – DJ Williams

3) Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Peterson put the Vikings on his back last year and was reasons 1, 2, and 3 why this team made the playoffs.  If I played the word association game with this team, a negative thought would come to mind, but this is a franchise that has made the playoffs three of the last five seasons, which is more than the Cowboys and Bears combined. 

If you didn’t already know, MVPeterson showed himself to be an absolute freak last year, winning the league rushing title in Usain Bolt style, all while coming back from a late ’11 ACL injury.  Dude is insane.  He’ll have to produce another MVP caliber season for this team to have any shot at making the postseason.  He’s the Miguel Cabrera of the NFL.  Unfortunately for the Vikings, they’ve been held back, not elevated, by the play of their QB, Christian Ponder.  I love Ponder and have an obvious bias, but he has an admittedly limited skill set that will keep the Vikings from being an elite team.  They signed Greg Jennings, who is the best pure receiver (non-Harvin tpe) they’ve had since Randy Moss, and took Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round of the draft.  If you look up ‘security blanket’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Kyle Rudolph.  Ponder relied on him heavily last season in the red zone.  If you consider his chemistry with Rudolph and the additions of Jennings and Patterson, you’ve got to like Ponder’s chances of showing progress this season.

This defense isn’t as feared as it once was.  That’s not a shot at Jared Allen, the team’s leading pass rusher who notched “only” 12 sacks a year after tallying 20.  They simply lack any presence outside of Rodeo and will struggle to consistently hang with the Packers, Bears, and possibly Lions.  Brian Robison and Everson Griffen had fine years as well, but they obviously benefit from Allen’s presence.  Sharrif Floyd fell in Minny’s lap in the draft.  I like their depth in the middle with him, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and Fred Evans.  I don’t like what’s going on at linebacker.  Chad Greenway isn’t fully recovered from knee surgery, and free agent signing Desmond Bishop can’t get healthy.  Instability at linebacker may be their downfall.  I’m not quite sure why the Vikings got rid of Antoine Winfield.  He was easily their best corner, despite being a decrepit 36 years old.  They did however take my favorite corner in the draft, Xavier Rhodes.  He and Ryan Cook will be tested heavily, especially within the division.  Harrison Smith had a strong rookie season, but they continue to lack at the other safety position. 

They were overachievers as a team last season thanks to an MVP season from Peterson, and I think he can come close to that kind of year again.  They’ll absolutely need it if they hope to be playing again in January. 

MVP – Adrian Peterson
Breakout – Xavier Rhodes
Disappointment – Desmond Bishop

4) Detroit Lions

There’s just something about this team that screams “loser” to me.  Great individual talent but a mess of a team.  How else can you explain a roster like this having a 4-12 record last season? 

Matthew Stafford finished second to Drew Brees is total passing yards last year but was a disappointing 19th in touchdowns with 20.  The fact that Sam Bradford and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for more touchdowns that the guy who was second in the league in yardage should say something.  Can Stafford produce when it matters?  Not to discount Stafford, but a great bit of his yardage comes via the beast of a man that is Calvin Johnson.  Easily the biggest downfield threat in football, Johnson, not Stafford, is the reason the Lions are a productive on this side of the ball as they are.  Ryan Broyles, he of the dual ACL injuries, is expected to rise to the task of #2 receiver.  I’ve never been a huge Reggie Bush fan, but this has to be the perfect fit for the former ‘Phin.  In this offense, he has a chance to be as productive in the passing game as he was in his first two years as a pro (88 receptions in ’06 and 73 receptions in ’07).  Calvin’s obviously the man, but don’t be surprised when Bush finishes second on the team in receptions, by a wide margin.  Mikel Leshoure led the team in rushing in ’12, but I think Joique Bell will end up being more of a factor on offense this season when (not if) Bush misses time with an injury.

The Lions have been a disappointment on this side of the ball as well, but the blame cannot be placed on the two men in the middle.  Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly may be the most dominant pair of defensive tackles in the game.  Farily closed the gap between the two significantly last season and may prove to be Suh’s equal before all is said and done in ’13.  First round pick Ziggy Ansah replaces free agent Cliff Avril at defensive end and gives them a raw, albeit athletic pass rusher.  Jason Jones is a steady, if not spectacular presence on the other side.  I like Stephen Tulloch, but I think the lack of playmaking potential at linebacker will hurt the Lions this year.  They got quite a bit better in the secondary with the additions of Darius Slay and Glover Quin.  I liked Slay more than his MSU teammate Johnthan Banks and think he’s going to be a solid cover man across from Chris Houston.  Quinn is a similarly strong pairing with Louis Delmas. 

Aside from ’11, which was their one playoff season that ended in forgettable fashion, this is a team that has gone 12-36 under Jim Schwartz.  Unless they can repeat the 10-6 season of ’11, the Schwartz won’t be with Detroit in ’14.  I just don’t get a good feeling at all about this team and have to place them fourth.

MVP – Calvin Johnson
Breakout – Joique Bell
Disappointment – Matthew Stafford

Division MVP – Aaron Rodgers
Division Breakout – Datone Jones
Division Disappointment – Matthew Stafford

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