NFC North preview: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
By Andy Charles
Last Updated: 14/09/20 11:53am
The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!
The action begins on Thursday, September 10 when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans, live on Sky Sports.
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Before then, it is time to assess 2020's contenders.
We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the NFC North...
Head Coach: Matt Nagy
Key Man: It's hard to see the Bears being a high-scoring offense this year - a tough schedule combined with a none-too-exciting offense meaning there could be a good few 17-14/20-17 games coming up in 2020.
The key is going to be getting some more space for Khalil Mack, whose huge trade cost continued to be questioned in his second season with the Bears. He was consistently double-teamed after Akiem Hicks was hurt and ended with only 8.5 sacks, easily the lowest mark since his rookie season in Oakland.
Those tactics might not be available quite so much to opponents this season and, if Chicago are to have any success at all, Mack is going to have to live up to what the Bears paid for him - their absence from the opening round of the draft finally ends in 2021 after some less than inspiring trades made by Ryan Pace and they could be picking quite high.
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Major Additions: One of the reasons Mack might get some more room to work is Robert Quinn playing opposite him. Quinn is an upgrade on the disappointing Leonard Floyd and gives the Bears a very good base to attack opposing quarterbacks from both ends of the line.
On offense, well it's not looking so good. Mitchell Trubisky's 2017 arrival also came at a big price and he may not even be a starter now heading into his fourth season with veteran competition in the form of Nick Foles. An open competition is underway, with neither making headlines so far, and that would have to be a concern for all Bears fans as is the money handed out to a surely past his sell-by-date Jimmy Graham.
Last Season: The Bears finished 8-8 but will think how much better it would have been with either Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson under center… two somewhat decent (!!) quarterbacks they passed on to take the inefficient Trubisky in 2017.
Things looked okay until Hicks was hurt at Tottenham against Oakland, a game they threw away, won back and then threw away again before losing three more on the spin coming out of the bye. There were positives, but it was ultimately a disappointing season after a divisional title in 2018.
Prospects: I am a Bears fan, and have been for more than 30 years, but I have a feeling we might be picking in the top five or six next year. The NFC North go up against the NFC South this year, probably the best division in the conference, and I figure they might only be favourites for one road game. It's all going to be about the defense in Chicago - if that does not work out well my prediction would be even worse.
Prediction: 4th (5-11)
Head Coach: Matt Patricia
Key Man: Not a whole lot of doubt here, because last season showed exactly how vital Matthew Stafford is to this franchise. They were already struggling a little when injury ended Stafford's season but they would go on to lose every remaining game to finish 3-12-1 and pick third in the draft (a bit unlucky to find two worse teams to be frank).
Stafford keeps this offense going, and was on track for one of his best statistical seasons when he was hurt, with his QB Rating well above 100 and his TD/Int ratio better than in every season apart from his injury-hit sophomore campaign back in 2010.
The Lions will be firmly keeping their fingers crossed Stafford's health is back to 'ironman' level - he had not missed a game in the previous eight years - because if he goes down again the Lions will have little chance of getting the ball to their top-grade receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.
Major Additions: Detroit's defense was easily this division's worst in 2019 and they have attempted to address that in free agency and the draft. Jeff Okudah was taken with the third pick of the draft, and will be expected to contribute straight away, while Jamie Collins comes in from the Patriots and will be a leader straight away alongside Jarrad Davis in a decent linebacker corps.
Desmond Trufant comes in at cornerback opposite Okudah but you would still have to question whether it will be enough to compete with the Packers and Vikings. Meanwhile, on offense they have competition at running back with D'Andre Swift taking on oft-injured Kerryon Johnson for snaps after a successful couple of college years with Georgia.
Last Season: 3-12-1 tells the story but there were signs the Lions were not far off until Stafford went down, especially in week four when they came as close as anyone to beating the Super Bowl champions from Kansas City and then only lost by a point to the Packers in Lambeau the following week from 13-0 and 22-13 in front.
Prospects: If Stafford stays fit this season, and there is no reason to think he will not at this point, the Lions would be very disappointed to finish in bottom spot again. They are going to need to be much better on defense though, and actually get something from Nick Williams and Danny Shelton, if the questions about Patricia's future as head coach are to go away.
Prediction: 3rd (7-9)
Green Bay Packers
Head Coach: Matt LaFleur
Key Man: As it has been since Brett Favre retired, the Packers are going to rely heavily on Aaron Rodgers this year, but the offense around him does not appear overly deep. Aaron Jones had an incredible 2019 and was possibly their most important player on the way to a 13-3 record, contributing 19 regular season touchdowns and another four in the post-season.
So what did the Packers do in the draft? A quarterback to push Rodgers in the first round and a running-back to annoy Jones in the second. When they had other obvious holes, it was a very strange draft night for the team and has led many to question whether they can match their 2019 results.
Rodgers recently said he was "not thrilled" to see Jordan Love picked but Jones said the A.J. Dillon pick would help him to "raise my game". How that plays out remains to be seen but all is not 100 per cent in the Packers camp heading into the season.
Major Additions: Might be a case of what they did not add when the season is summed up. Wide receiver was a glaring need for the Packers and they have failed to address that at all, leaving Davante Adams to face likely double teams all season unless Allen Lazard emerges as a more consistent threat. Free agent addition Devin Funchess has already said he will sit out the season because of coronavirus concerns.
The Packers have brought in Christian Kirksey at linebacker to replace Blake Martinez, and will hope his injury troubles do not return, but Bryan Bulaga has not been adequately replaced and it looks like being a tougher season for the Packers in general.
Last Season: 13-3, NFC North champions but lost NFC Championship game to the San Francisco 49ers. A massive improvement on their dreadful 2018 season when Rodgers was hurt, with Jones emerging as one of the league's best running backs to give the Packers offense something they had been lacking.
Prospects: Doubtful the Packers can repeat last year's numbers simply because their roster does not appear as strong and there have to be some doubts over their squad harmony after a draft which had the experts scratching their heads. Another Rodgers injury will see the Packers struggle badly as Jordan Love will not be ready to contribute quite yet despite his lofty draft position.
Prediction: 1st (10-6)
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer
Key Man: Dalvin Cook is undoubtedly the most talented player on the Vikings but the key this year is Adam Thielen. With Stefon Diggs gone to Buffalo, Thielen is going to have to get back to his 2017 and 2018 numbers after last season was wrecked by injury.
If the Vikings are to succeed in a very close division, Kirk Cousins needs at least one reliable target and based on the names available to him, if it is not Thielen there is not much more - at least among those receivers who have actually played an NFL game with Justin Jefferson clearly having a big future ahead of him if you base it on his first-round draft slot.
It would be no shock for Cook to be their second most-utilised receiver and their playoff hopes could well rest on those two players having some success. If one or both flops, the Vikings face a long season.
Major Additions: The Vikings barely got involved in free agency with their only significant money being spent on defensive tackle Michael Pierce, who then decided to opt out of the 2020 season over coronavirus concerns. That was the latest in a long line of defensive losses which also includes Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes and Linval Joseph.
However they did receive decent draft grades (they had 15 picks across the three days) and will hope Jefferson and fellow first-round pick cornerback Jeff Gladney can contribute straight away. Gladney has some big shoes to fill.
Last Season: 10-6, lost to San Francisco 49ers in NFC Divisional Round. The Vikings looked like strong challengers for the Packers as they came out of their bye week but a loss in Seattle set them back and they would also end up losing to the Packers and Bears at home in the final two weeks of the season
Prospects: The Vikings still have some stars on both sides of the ball but this appears to be something of a rebuild. Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks remain on defense but there are lots of veteran holes to fill which rookies or untested veterans are going to have to try and step in to and that would appear to make them a more vulnerable team this season.
Prediction: 2nd (8-8)