The NFC North has a good case for being the NFL’s most fascinating division. From a Vegas perspective, the over-under on the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears is nine wins. That gives you an idea of how difficult it is to predict this division. So what can we learn over the first few weeks of practices? Let’s have a look…
Will the Lions buy into Matt Patricia in Year 2?
By this time last year there were already warning signs that Detroit’s head coach was losing some of the team’s veterans, including Golden Tate, who was traded mid-season to Philadelphia. We have seen coaches try to bring the “Patriot Way” to other cities and time after time it has failed. Combining his struggles to connect with players with an adversarial relationship with the media in Year 1 and you have a coach who is already on the hot seat. If Patricia changes his approach, the Lions actually have a shot at being a surprise team. They have greatly improved the roster on defense and hired an experienced offensive coordinator. We will probably know by the end of preseason which way this one is trending.
Can TJ Hockenson adapt quick enough to make an impact on the Detroit offense?
From 2015-2017 Matthew Stafford averaged more than 4,300 yards, 28 touchdowns, 11 interceptions per season and posted a 96.5 rating. Last year he failed to clear 3,800 yards, tossed 21 TDs and 11 INTs with an 89.9 rating. Ironically his Pro Football Focus grade of 77.8 was nearly identical to his last two seasons and better than 2015. The difference in his raw numbers was partly the supporting cast around Detroit’s franchise QB. Tate was traded, Eric Ebron left for Indianapolis and Marvin Jones only played nine games. Jones will be back but the only major weapon added to the mix was tight end TJ Hockenson, who was the highest drafted tight end since Vernon Davis in 2012. Hockenson has good hands, impressive athleticism and enough blocking skill to translate quickly but tight ends don’t always make the jump quickly. If he struggles in camp it will be a bad sign for Detroit’s chances in the NFC North.
Can Matt LaFleur get Aaron Rodgers up to speed on a new offense?
It’s been a long time since Rodgers had to learn a new offense. With the head coach for his entire career Mike McCarthy out and former Titans OC Matt LaFleur in, Rodgers will have to adjust to a new scheme and new coach handing down the orders. Over the past four years, the Packers’ QB hasn’t quite been as dominant as he was from 2009-2014. From 2015-2018, he’s gone just 30-24-1 with 7.1 yards per attempt and a 98.2 rating. Those numbers are still solid but nowhere near the 64-23 record and 109.0 rating he posted from ’09-’14. If he shows signs during preseason and camp of quickly mastering LaFleur’s offense, watch out NFC North. If not, we could see another so-so season from the Packers’ offense.
Will one of Green Bay’s young receivers turn into a star?
Surprisingly the Packers did not make major efforts to improve the weapons around Rodgers. In fact the only significant move was selecting Jace Sternberger in the third round. That means the Pack are banking on players making big jumps in the LaFleur offense. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a 2018 fifth-rounder was Green Bay’s second leading receiver last year with just 38 receptions. Geronimo Allison caught 20 passes in just five games and Equanimeous St. Brown grabbed 21 in 11 games. Training camp will give them all an opportunity to emerge as a true No. 1 weapon behind Davante Adams, who was targeted 162 times in 2018 (per PFF).
Is there another step for Mitch Trubisky to take?
The Bears’ young quarterback took a leap forward in production in his second season but the underlying numbers have red flags abound. Pro Football Focus graded Trubisky 29th of 30 QBs with at least 350 drop backs. Chicago’s bevy of weapons and scheme combined to cover up some of his weaknesses, especially when it came to throwing the ball accurately. Per PFF he ranked 26th in adjusted completion percentage and 28th in accuracy when under pressure. With the group of playmakers around Trubisky, he will have an opportunity for a special season if he fixes some of his shortcomings. If not, the Bears might not have everything go their way on defense this season as they did in 2018 and winning the North will be far more challenging.
Can Chicago figure out its kicking situation?
Minnesota Vikings fans can relate to this feeling. The Bears have it all figured out except quarterback and kicker. From the moment Cody Parkey doinked a 43-yard field goal, head coach Matt Nagy started looking for kickers elsewhere — sometimes using bizarre tactics, including having everyone go silent and having tryout kickers take their shot from 43 yards. Considering how weird things got in OTAs and minicamp, it’s possible we could have more kicking drama in camp. And in a tight division, a few kicks here or there could make the difference (see: 2018 Vikings).
Is Gary Kubiak’s offense the right fit for Kirk Cousins?
During minicamp Cousins had some interesting comments about the offense, saying that it was still going to take a lot of work before he was fully comfortable. His analysis took apart the narrative that he would be running the same offense that he had with Sean McVay in Washington D.C. The big question becomes: How long will it take Cousins and the offense to get on the same page? Will we see the defense continue to dominate the offense in camp as they did in minicamp? Will Cousins be able to bring his teammates along or will there be a lot of bumps along the way?
Will rookies instantly improve the Vikings offense?
The Vikings went with four straight offensive players in the NFL draft, three of which could see significant action right away. But that all depends on the progress they make. It would be stunning if Garrett Bradbury lost his starting center job but tight end Irv Smith and Alexander Mattison are wild cards on the offense. If they step into the mix and succeed early in camp, the Vikings will have solid depth. If they sputter, it will feel like they are walking a tightrope on offense.