Opening Drive 2019: NFC North
Each team has one burning question that encompasses their 2019 season, and it's being asked here. Projected finish is in presentation order.
Are the Chicago Bears legitimate Super Bowl contenders or a flash in the pan? Last season, head coach Matt Nagy was brought in develop the Bears' offense to complement a good defense. Shortly before the season began, general manager Ryan Pace gave away a package of premium draft picks to secure Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, who was signed a contract extension almost immediately landing in the Windy City. Those two factors led Chicago to their first division title in eight years. In 2019, however, the Bears will have higher expectations while losing the luxury of being underestimated. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will be expected to at least maintain that unit's elite status, as the offense were beneficiaries of the team's +12 turnover differential. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be under pressure to improve in Year Two under Nagy, who in 2018 were ranked ninth in scoring but 21st in passing yards & 22nd in average yards per drive. Even special teams will be under the microscope, as kicker Cody Parkey's partially blocked field goal attempt in the waning seconds of the Wild Card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles that bounced off both the left upright and the crossbar was the final moment of the Bears' 2018 season. Whoever will be lining up for field goals and extra points would be well served to have thick skin, as Bears fans were not shy about voicing their anger and frustration over Parkey's misses throughout the campaign. Chicago could regress, as the generation of 36 turnovers is both a league best in 2018 and a feat very difficult to replicate the next year. But due to the talent on the team and the state of the NFC North, which looks to be a highly competitive division, the Bears will be favorites to repeat as NFC North champs, and could challenge for a top playoff seed if all goes right.
Can the Detroit Lions take their new acquisitions and enjoy a bounce back 2019? When Lions general manager Bob Quinn fired head coach Jim Caldwell, he proclaimed that 9-7 non-playoff seasons are not the expectation of this franchise, ambitious stance for an executive whose employer has only won one playoff game since the NFL-AFL merger. Quinn hired Matt Patricia from New England under the guise of bringing in a piece of the Patriots winning culture to the Motor City... and proceeded to go 6-10 in Patricia's maiden campaign. His second season will see an influx of talent procured by Quinn that had the coach's philosophy in mind. Edge rusher Trey Flowers was brought in to shore up the Lions' anemic pass rush. Defensive back Justin Coleman was signed away from Seattle to give Detroit a top line nickel back, which will be needed in Patricia's defensive system and facing a pass happy division. Tight end Jesse James brings sure hands and experience with a winning football team to an offense that could use both qualities, along with veteran wide receiver Danny Amendola. Add to this the addition of TE TJ Hockenson through the first round of the draft, and that leads to a significant change in offensive personnel around QB Matthew Stafford. The 11 year veteran triggerman will be asked to hand the ball off to running backs Kerryon Johnson and CJ Anderson instead of being relied on passing with great frequency, which could make Stafford better in the long run. But admittedly, that's a lot of moving parts to incorporate and a short amount of time to turn the Lions into a well
oiled machine. But between a better understanding of Patricia's philosophy and a defense that improved by leaps and bounds through the second half of 2018, the Lions should to flip their win total from last and at least contend for a wild card berth. If this roster doesn't jell, the scrutiny that Quinn and Patricia found themselves in after a disappointing 2018 will grow exponentially going into spring of 2020.
Will Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers be able to get on the same page? The Packers had a tumultuous 2018, dismissing head coach Mike McCarthy after 12 years and sitting home during the playoffs for the second consecutive season. General manager Brian Gutekunst has put his stamp on the team this offseason, with the hire of LaFleur as head coach and his acquisitions of three young defenders in outside linebackers Preston Smith & Za'Darius Smith and free safety Adrian Amos to improve a long neglected unit. And with all due respect to the defense and special teams, the fate or destiny of the 2019 Green Bay Packers lies in the budding professional relationship between the young head coach and the veteran franchise cornerstone. Aaron Rodgers is the face of the Packers, no question. The accusations of him overriding McCarthy's offensive play calls, if true, should give LaFleur pause, as Rodgers would have no qualms about taking matters into his own hands if the situation warrants. The key here will be establishing trust in one another, that LaFleur puts Rodgers in position to win and Rodgers to give feedback to LaFleur to evaluate certain scenarios together. If they can find a common ground, the Packers could return to the playoffs. If the relationship starts on the wrong foot, then Green Bay's will feel extra cold after being froze out of the postseason for a third consecutive year.
Can the Minnesota Vikings improve upon last year's 8-7-1 record by largely standing pat? Last season, the Vikings made the biggest splash in free agency when that signed QB Kirk Cousins to a three year fully guaranteed contract. This past spring, they barely made a ripple, with LB Anthony Barr being re-signed as their biggest transaction. The culprit of the muted free agency activity in Minnesota this spring was due to very limited salary cap room, as seven players are consuming nearly 53% of the Vikings' adjusted salary cap. This could prove to be problematic, as their divisional rivals have remained proactive in improving their rosters through the offseason while Minnesota will be largely be roiling out the same team that missed the playoffs & won eight games in 2018. The one man who will be under intense scrutiny this year unquestionably will be Cousins. He was signed to that aforementioned contract to do one thing: elevate the Vikings to a conference championship or better. Individual statistics are completely irrelevant to a fan base starving for championship glory. It's all about winning games, both in the regular season and more importantly, the postseason. If Cousins can't get the job done either this year or next, not only will he be heading to another locale, it could very well cause the Vikings to institute wholesale changes throughout the organization. And with more salary cap pain waiting in the wings in 2020, 2019 may be this franchise's last shot with this collection of talent.