2014 Scout NFC North Preview

Adrian Peterson

A look at the NFC North heading in to the 2014 season...

Chicago Bears
By Jeremy Stoltz, BearReport.com

OUTLOOK: Despite the talent level of recent rosters, the Bears have failed to reach the playoffs the past three seasons. The club will be looking to clear away the bad taste left in their mouths after a heartbreaking, last-second loss to the Green Bay Packers in last year’s season finale. The offense returns all 11 starters and could reach elite status, while the defense is undergoing major overhauls in both personnel and system. The early portion of Chicago’s 2014 schedule is brutal, so the Bears will need to weather the storm and finish strong if they plan on finally claiming a postseason berth.

OFFSEASON: The Bears signed QB Jay Cutler to a seven-year contract and extended wideout Brandon Marshall, keeping intact one of the top passing duos in the league. Pro Bowl corners Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings both re-signed, while the defensive line was boosted by the free-agent additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. The defense also received an injection of youth, with four defenders selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft.

OFFENSE: The Bears made significant strides in head coach Marc Trestman’s first year at the helm, and will be looking to improve a unit that finished second in scoring, fifth in passing and eighth overall. Bringing back every starter raises expectations for this group, which sent four players to the Pro Bowl last season. If they can stay relatively healthy, Chicago could finish with NFL’s top offense for the first time in franchise history.

DEFENSE:The Bears were historically bad on defense last year, necessitating an overhaul in personnel. The defensive line should improve, but there are still questions at linebacker and safety. In addition, coordinator Mel Tucker is installing a new system. The defense can’t be worse than last year, but a lot of pieces are going to have to fall into place if this unit is to again reach prominence.

SCHEDULE: The Bears will be on the road for six of their first nine games, including contests at San Francisco, Carolina, New England and Green Bay. If Chicago can’t maintain at least a .500 record through that stretch, they won’t be in a position to take advantage of the back half of the schedule. The Bears finish 2014 at home in five of the final seven contests, facing only one opponent – the New Orleans Saints – that reached the playoffs last season.

ROOKIES: The Bears invested heavily on defensive youth in this year’s draft, as four of the team’s first five picks were defenders: CB Kyle Fuller (1), DT Ego Ferguson (2), DT Will Sutton (3) and S Brock Vereen (4). All are expected to play significant roles this season. Offensively, RB Ka’Deem Carey should provide a spark in the backfield, while sixth-round punter Pat O’Donnell may end up being the club’s most valuable selection.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... the defense can be simply average. The Bears are supremely talented on offense and, barring any serious injuries, likely will finish at or near the top of the league. As a result, the defense doesn’t need to carry the team. If they can be the 16th-ranked unit or better, that should be more than enough to propel the Bears to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Jay Cutler

MVP - Offense:
RB Matt Forte

MVP - Defense:
CB Tim Jennings

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
WR Marquess Wilson

FAN FAVORITE:
CB Charles Tillman

OVERRATED:
OT Jermon Bushrod

SWAN SONG:
LB Lance Briggs

ROOKIE STUD:
CB Kyle Fuller

ROOKIE DUD:
DT Ego Ferguson

BEST FA SIGNING:
DE Lamarr Houston

WORST FA SIGNING:
CB M.D. Jennings

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
DE Corey Wootton

TEAM TO BEAT:
Green Bay Packers

MUST-WIN GAME:
Green Bay Packers

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Green Bay Packers

Detroit Lions
By Nate Caminata, RoarDigest.com

OUTLOOK: It is up to first-year coach Jim Caldwell to revive a talented group that stalled under the ousted Jim Schwartz a season ago. Caldwell is viewed as the antithesis to Schwartz’s more animated style, packaging an imaginative and meticulous reputation on offense with a calming demeanor. Whether the team’s talented core responds to Caldwell remains to be seen, but they return the bulk of a roster that many considered championship-caliber before a disastrous collapse in 2013. Caldwell and the Lions will rely heavily on the arm of sixth-year QB Matthew Stafford, who just might be entering the “make or break” stanza of his career.

OFFSEASON: An active offseason was headlined by a coaching change, a relatively quiet free-agency period, and a draft that left many scratching their heads. After essentially swapping receivers, favoring Golden Tate (Seattle) to aging but vocal leader Nate Burleson (Cleveland), they surprised many by spending their first round pick on another receiving threat -- TE Eric Ebron. If he didn’t before, Matthew Stafford has even fewer excuses entering 2014.

OFFENSE: Among the league’s best in passing a season ago, the Lions bolstered their weaponry by drafting Ebron and signing Tate. Other than the obvious returns of Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson, perhaps most notable is that the team’s surprise unit of 2013, the offensive line, returns entirely intact. With the pieces in place, the only question is how the offense responds to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s new system.

DEFENSE:New defensive coordinator Teryl Austyn will attempt to extract more from a strong defensive line unit, implementing more aggressive packages while hopefully limiting the inconsistent and undisciplined play that plagued the team in 2013. The team’s linebacking core returns Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy from impressive campaigns, and will be joined by stud rookie Kyle Van Noy, but the Achilles heel might again be the secondary, which loses CB Chris Houston (injury).

SCHEDULE: The Lions begin their 2014 quest in prime time when they host the Giants on Monday night, a game that could set the tone for the season. Although matchups against New Orleans and New England (Thanksgiving) are certainly intriguing, their divisional schedule should be top of mind, given they face a two-game road trip to complete the season against Chicago and Green Bay.

ROOKIES: The drafting of Ebron shocked a few, until you consider that Lombardi last worked with stud TE Jimmy Graham in New Orleans. Van Noy could start immediately as a pass-rush specialist, while C Travis Swanson, CB Nevin Lawson, DE Larry Webster, DT Caraun Reid, and WR T.J. Jones round out the draft class.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... That word “potential” that has been lingering around this Detroit team the last few years finally becomes a reality. Although Caldwell is in his first year, expectations are high, and the tread left on standouts Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush is waning. The talent at the major skill positions rivals any in the league, and new schemes on defense and offense will look to take advantage of those assets. If Detroit finally lives up to its potential, the playoffs will only be the start of what this roster has the capacity to accomplish.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Matthew Stafford

MVP - Offense:
WR Calvin Johnson

MVP - Defense:
DT Ndamukong Suh

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DT Nick Fairley

FAN FAVORITE:
WR Calvin Johnson

OVERRATED:
RB Reggie Bush

SWAN SONG:
RB Reggie Bush

ROOKIE STUD:
TE Eric Ebron

ROOKIE DUD:
CB Nevin Lawson

BEST FA SIGNING:
WR Golden Tate

WORST FA SIGNING:
QB Dan Orlovsky

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
WR Nate Burleson

TEAM TO BEAT:
Green Bay Packers

MUST-WIN GAME:
Green Bay Packers

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers
By Bill Huber, PackerReport.com

OUTLOOK: If the Packers stay healthy for a change, they’ve got as good a chance as any team to unseat Seattle and San Francisco atop the NFC. Last year was ruined when the top two defenders, Clay Matthews and Casey Hayward, were derailed by injuries. If Matthews returns and provides his typical production, if Hayward returns and can approach 2012‘s six interceptions and if Julius Peppers can be another big-play performer, a suspect defense starts to look pretty darned good.

OFFSEASON: The Packers made a splash by signing Peppers, who had been released by the rival Bears. By his standards, Peppers is coming off a down season, but he averaged almost 10 sacks per season during his four years in Chicago. In the draft, they addressed key needs with safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, receiver Davante Adams and tight end Richard Rodgers.

OFFENSE: The receiving corps lost Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones in the past two offseasons, but you can do a lot worse than Aaron Rodgers throwing passes to receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin. An underrated offensive line paves the way for the powerful one-two backfield punch of Eddie Lacy and James Starks. J.C. Tretter gets the first shot at center.

DEFENSE:Green Bay must find its knack for forcing turnovers. While they led the league in interceptions over the past five seasons, they had only 11 last season. If Matthews and Hayward are healthy, if Peppers can turn back the clock, if Clinton-Dix can make an impact and if Datone Jones can pair with Mike Daniels to form a formidable interior duo, the interceptions should come.

SCHEDULE: The Packers will be in the opening night spotlight with a game at Super Bowl champion Seattle. In fact, three of Green Bay’s first four games are challenging road contests, with a home game against the Jets followed by division clashes at the Lions and Bears. Following a Week 9 bye, Green Bay has four home games in five weeks.

ROOKIES: “Best Player Available” met need when Clinton-Dix fell to them in the first round. A starting job won’t be handed to Clinton-Dix, however. All offseason, coach Mike McCarthy called Micah Hyde a “four-down player.” The offense was bolstered by receivers Adams, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis, tight end Rodgers and center Corey Linsley. Watch out for sleeper OLB Carl Bradford.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... If the Packers can stay relatively healthy.  There’s no doubt that Green Bay remains the cream of the crop in the NFC North. After all, it won the division last year, even with Aaron Rodgers missing half the season with a broken collarbone. If Rodgers, Matthews, Hayward and Cobb can stay on the field -- they missed 31 games last year -- the Packers will be in the tournament again.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Aaron Rodgers

MVP - Offense:
QB Aaron Rodgers

MVP - Defense:
OLB Clay Matthews

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DE Datone Jones

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Aaron Rodgers

OVERRATED:
S Morgan Burnett

SWAN SONG:
FB John Kuhn

ROOKIE STUD:
TE Richard Rodgers

ROOKIE DUD:
S HaHa Clinton-Dix

BEST FA SIGNING:
OLB Julius Peppers

WORST FA SIGNING:
DE Letroy Guion

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
C Evan Dietrich-Smith

TEAM TO BEAT:
Seattle Seahawks

MUST-WIN GAME:
Chicago

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Chicago Bears

Minnesota Vikings
By Tim Yotter, VikingUpdate.com

OUTLOOK: In a season of transitions, the biggest one will be the players’ ability to adjust to new schemes on offense and defense, followed by how new head coach Mike Zimmer is able to get the players to buy into both systems. The opening five games are brutal – at St. Louis, vs. New England, at New Orleans, vs. Atlanta and at Green Bay – for a pass defense that was among the worst in the league last year, but so much is new that it’s hard to say how it will all look.

OFFSEASON: Offensive players were busying adjusting to the highly intense Norv Turner as their coordinator, but were excited about the possibilities in his more complex system, which will feature more pre-snap motion. Defensively, the scheme and many of the players will be new. The Vikings had great offseason participation, but they needed the extra work with so much to learn on offense and defense.

OFFENSE: The offense still will run largely through RB Adrian Peterson, but Turner would like to get him more involved in the passing game, too. QB Matt Cassel is likely to start the season, but rookie Teddy Bridgewater will push him. No matter the quarterback, the weapons are there with WR Cordarrelle Patterson primed for a breakout season and TE Kyle Rudolph looking for a contract extension.

DEFENSE:Zimmer is bringing his more aggressive and versatile scheme to the Vikings, so expect a heavier rotation and many more different looks. The changes extend to the personnel, where DE Everson Griffen and DT Sharrif Floyd will be in starting roles, NT Linval Joseph and CB Captain Munnerlyn joined as free agents, and the linebacker situation is up in the air.

SCHEDULE: As the Vikings transition to the outdoor world of TCF Bank Stadium while their new stadium is being built at the site of the now-razed Metrodome, they were given a bit of a break by the schedule-makers. While the opening five weeks are brutal because of the opponents, the Vikings don’t have any night games at the University of Minnesota’s open-air stadium.

ROOKIES: Bridgewater was pretty impressive in the offseason, putting in extra time to learn the new offense and displaying a strong understanding of it in spring practices. He might not start the opener, but his time will come. LB Anthony Barr is expected to grab a starting role on the outside, and third-round DE Scott Crichton should see a rotational role on the defensive line. OL David Yankey will challenge for the starting left guard spot and S Antone Exum could be a factor at safety.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... All the changes come together quickly. Players had a lot to absorb on offense and defense, and there are plenty of personnel changes on defense. But Zimmer is known for putting together solid defensive game plans, and Norv Turner is a well-respected offensive coordinator. The arrow is pointing up for both the coaching staff and the personnel.

THE FRANCHISE:
RB Adrian Peterson

MVP - Offense:
RB Adrian Peterson

MVP - Defense:
S Harrison Smith

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
WR Cordarrelle Patterson

FAN FAVORITE:
RB Adrian Peterson

OVERRATED:
WR Greg Jennings

SWAN SONG:
QB Christian Ponder

ROOKIE STUD:
QB Teddy Bridgewater

ROOKIE DUD:
CB Kendall James

BEST FA SIGNING:
CB Captain Munnerlyn

WORST FA SIGNING:
LB Mike Zimmer

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
DE Jared Allen

TEAM TO BEAT:
Green Bay Packers

MUST-WIN GAME:
at Chicago

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Green Bay Packers

PackerReport.com Recommended Stories