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2018 Season Preview – NFC North

In the run up to the 2018 NFL season, we’re previewing each division. Have a read of our other previews here. Next up: NFC North.

Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins’ fully-guaranteed contract is less significant for the Vikings season than the fact they have a franchise quarterback for this next few years of Super Bowl window. Because make no mistake, that’s what the Vikings are in. They look deep on offensive skill positions with Dalvin Cook and the underrated Latavius Murray at running back. Their wide receivers are interesting because the stars can thrive outside or in the slot. In fact, they’ll go as far as their offensive line doesn’t stop them from getting.

A double negative? For sure. The O-Line was a bad unit last year and will be this year, too. Cook is a good enough player to find the gaps and Cousins is gritty, but if injuries mount up and backs keep getting hit behind the line of scrimmage, Minnesota will be up against it more than a contender should be.

Lucky then that their defense is full of stars and chemistry. Harrison Smith might be the best safety in the league, and he headlines a secondary ripe with sticky coverage and instinctive plays. The perfect storm of leaving no open receivers and getting pressure on the quarterback is a joy to behold. Minnesota have developed situational rushers into full-time players, used inside linebacker rushes intelligently, and built a defense that can beat you every which way.

Detroit Lions

Ameer Abdullah, so nearly the running back Arizona drafted instead of David Johnson, is emblematic of Detroit’s run game struggles. A second-round pick who could never put together a complete game, he may well be cut by the time you read this. Whether one of Kerryon Johnson, LeGarette Blount or Theo Riddick can give Detroit their first 100-yard rushing game from a back since 2013 remains to be seen. Certainly the offensive line looks ready to step up – the hype around first-round guard Frank Ragnow has been encouraging.

Detroit still look like a pass-first offense. Watch for Kenny Golladay to emerge from this three-headed monster at receiver with another big year. Just as well really – Eric Ebron might’ve been a pain but he was a playmaking threat at tight end. Either way, expect Matthew Stafford to continue on his current trajectory, whether you think that’s elite, average, or somewhere in between.

The defense? Well, as always it looks like it can contribute but lacks wow players beyond cornerback Darius Slay and mercurial edge rusher Ziggy Ansah. Generally, Detroit need stars they might not have to go from 8 or 9 wins to contender.

Green Bay Packers

In recent Green Bay may have just given themselves an instant cornerback tandem having had a maligned group there for years. Rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson have looked excellent in preseason. I had Josh Jackson as a top-10 prospect in the draft, I rated him that highly. If both start as they look as if they might, that anaemic-looking outside pass rush may not be so much of a problem. Mind you, they’ll also have the strong front three – particularly the continually excellent Mike Daniels – to pick up some slack.  Given the Packers also fleeced New Orleans out of their 2019 first-round pick in the draft, even the future is looking positive.

Everyone knows about Aaron Rodgers’ continued jaw-dropping, newly-minted excellence, so let’s look elsewhere. Green Bay took the 2016 Browns approach to stocking up on late-round receivers. Unlike Cleveland, it might work for the Pack. Early reports from J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown and Marques Valdes-Scantling are positive. Ok, ok, I just wanted to write those three excellent names. Still, there’s enough confidence that Randall Cobb was briefly floated in trade rumours. We still don’t know whether we’ll get elite and dynamic or fragile and tentative Jimmy Graham, but if anyone can tease out his best, it’s Rodgers. And they’ll all play behind a strong O-Line, particularly on the left three-fifths.

Chicago Bears

Chicago’s offseason through pundit eyes went through the cycle. First they were a popular time to get even worse. Then they became everyone’s sleeper darling. Now they’re overhyped. So it goes. The offseason is long.

Sure there’s cause for optimism, though hoping Mitchell Trubisky has a Jared Goff-like Year 2 turnaround is perhaps optimistic. John Fox was a superannuated, overmatched buffoon in his final year, but he was still streets ahead of late era Jeff Fisher. Still, Trubisky should be expected to kick on with a QB-friendly head coach and an expanded arsenal of weapons.

Can Mitch Trubisky kick on in Year 2? (Patrick Gorski/ USA Today Sports)

New HC Matt Nagy is an interesting one, he ascended very rapidly last year in Kansas City, but we’re not confident about what his offense will look like. We can use KC as an example and expect big workloads for Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen, which fits emerging trends across the league. He’s retained lauded DC Vic Fangio, too. That said, the defense – like much of the roster, to be honest – looks a bit hodge-podge. There are near stars like Adrian Amos and Akiem Hicks and promising youngsters like Nick Kwiatkoski and Eddie Jackson. But it lacks that breakthrough potential. What you’re left with is a good D and okay O when healthy. Which might be enough to break even in the W-L column, to be fair.

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