2018 Countdown To Kickoff Power Rankings: NFC North
The Zone Press’ fifth annual countdown to kickoff is underway. Just like last year, we’re going division by division. Next, we take a look at the NFC North.
1. Minnesota Vikings (Overall Power Ranking: 3)
2017 Results: 13-3 (Lost in NFC Championship Game)
The Minnesota Vikings made it to the NFC Championship Game on a miracle play, but their 2017 season wasn’t nearly as fluky. It was well known that they had one of the elite defenses in the NFL, but they also got an unexpected boost from their former quarterback Case Keenum. Keenum entered the season as the backup with Sam Bradford starting and Teddy Bridgewater still healing from injury. Once Keenum took over, the Vikings became a threat on both sides of the ball. Now all three quarterbacks are in different cities, and the Vikings have a new quarterback to the tune of a fully-guaranteed $84 million deal. Kirk Cousins comes over from Washington to hopefully serve as the final piece to the championship puzzle. The elite defense and loaded offense remain intact. The only thing to do now is to go win the championship. It’s that or bust for the Vikings now.
Key Additions: Kirk Cousins, Mike Hughes, Kendall Wright, Tom Compton, and Sheldon Richardson.
Key Losses: Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, Jerick McKinnon, Joe Berger, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels, Tom Johnson, and Michael Floyd
Captain Kirk: There hasn’t been this much hype surrounding the Vikings quarterback spot since Brett Farve. Cousins is coming off of a productive pro bowl season. He threw 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, with a 64.3 completion percentage, and 4,093 yards. His passer rating on passes 20-plus yards down the field is 106.4 and ranked third in the league. With Stefan Diggs and Adam Thielen to throw to, this could result in an explosive offensive unit in Minnesota.
Dalvin Cook’s Health: Dalvin Cook got off to a good start to his NFL career before an ACL injury sidelined him for the season. Before he went down, Cook ranked in the top three in attempts, and 15-plus yard runs. After Cook went down in Week 4, the Vikings were still able to run the ball well with Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray. Now, only Murray remains on the roster alongside Cook. Cook will likely be called upon to shoulder most of the load this season. So his health will likely decide how effective the Vikings running game will be.
O-line Questions: If there’s one thing to question about the Vikings, it’s the guys protecting the quarterback. The offensive line entered last season with the same question. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit 28th in their offensive line rankings. Now, Joe Berger has retired and has created another hole on the line. Berger played in 83 percent of the team’s offensive snaps over the last seven seasons with the Vikings. So it’s safe to say that he was a solid fixture on that line. However, the Vikings were able to outperform the media’s low expectations. Maybe they do it again, or maybe they fall in line with those rankings. We’ll see what happens.
Season Outlook: The expectations for the Vikings are set at Super Bowl levels. Cousins is an upgrade at quarterback, and his supporting cast is top tier in the NFL. The Vikings defense remains one of the best in the league as well. Expect the Vikings to have a say in who will be representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Laquon Treadwell
2. Green Bay Packers (Overall Power Ranking: 9)
2017 Results: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North)
The 2017 season served as a learning experience for the Green Bay Packers. For example, they learned how bad they are without Aaron Rodgers. Secondly, they learned that maybe they don’t have as much around Rodgers as they should. After a strong 4-1 start to the season, Rodgers broke his collarbone in a game against the Vikings. The season spiraled out of control after that, and the Packers went 3-8 the rest of the way. Last season marked the first time since 2008 that the Packers missed the playoffs. With Rodgers back under center, the Packers will look to reclaim the NFC North and their playoff standings. Also, this season will be very telling for the front office and the coaches of this team. The whispers of the Packers allegedly wasting Rodgers career have now become regular discussions.
Key Additions: Jimmy Graham, Mercedes Lewis, Muhammad Wilkerson, Tramon Williams, Jaire Alexander, and Joshua Jackson.
Key Losses: Jordy Nelson, Jeff Janis, Richard Rodgers, Jahri Evans, Ahmad Brooks, Damarious Randall, and Morgan Burnett.
Offensive Returns: With Rodgers throwing the football, the Packers instantly become an offense to fear once again. But I doubt Rodgers or his résumé need any introduction. Someone who needs a re-introduction is Joe Philbin. Before his failed tenure in Miami as the Head Coach of the Dolphins, Philbin was the offensive coordinator for the Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl season. Since his departure, Head Coach Mike McCarthy has been in charge of the offense. Philbin is back in town to take over the offense. Rodgers has often cited Philbin’s influence on his play. Perhaps the two can recapture that Super Bowl magic.
Offensive Weapons: The Packers parted ways with Rodgers favorite receiver Jordy Nelson. While Nelson now wears the silver and black, the Packers still have Davante Adams and Randle Cobb. Adams is now the clear best receiver on the team as Cobb is regulated to a slot role for the team. The big new target for Rodgers to throw to is Jimmy Graham. Graham had initial struggles in Seattle, but ultimately became a big factor in their offense over the last few seasons. He will now be the dynamic weapon that replaces Nelson as a reliable pass catcher in the offense.
Secondary Help: The Packers defense has been average or below for a while now. Last season, they ranked 22nd in total defense. Over the offseason, they brought in several impact defenders to upgrade the secondary. The Packers used their first-round pick to select Jaire Alexander and their second-round pick on Josh Jackson. Additionally, the Packers have the returning Tramon Williams, Kevin King, and Josh Jones. The Packers should have a solid run defense in front of them to help as well.
Season Outlook: Assuming good health, the Packers are primed for a bounce-back year. Rodgers’ presence alone should be enough to make the offense one of the best in the league, and their defense could be formidable if their secondary makes the expected impact to match the run defense. Expect the Packers to be in the playoff discussion. And once they’re in, expect them to be a tough out.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Jamaal Williams
3. Detroit Lions (Overall Power Ranking: 19)
2017 Results: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North)
Over the past three seasons, the Detroit Lions have been stuck on the seven to nine win treadmill with consistency. They’ve made one playoff appearance during that stretch but were never good enough to be taken seriously as a threat in the NFC. Last season, injuries along the offensive line and a pedestrian defense spelled doom for this team. Now, the Lions will look to new head Coach Matt Patricia to help get them off the treadmill and headed in a forward direction. They’ve infused their roster with some veterans to try and make a difference on the field. We’ll see if it will be enough as Detroit enters their new era of football.
Key Additions: LeGarrette Blount, Luke Wilson, Kenny Wiggins, Ricky Jean-Francois, Sylvester Williams, Devon Kennard, Jonathan Freeny, Christian Jones, Frank Ragnow, and Deshawn Shead.
Key Losses: Eric Ebron, Darren Fells, Travis Swanson, Haloti Ngata, Jordan Hill, Tahir Whitehead, Paul Worrilow, D.J. Hayden, and Don Carey.
The Offense: While the Lions have a new head coach, the offensive coordinator remains the same. Jim Bob Cooter and the top-four receivers from last season are all returning. While continuity is a good thing for the Detroit offense, there are some improvements that need to be made. Over the last two seasons, Detroit’s front office has spent a lot of resources on the offensive line. Rookie Frank Ragnow is the latest addition to the unit. However, they’ll need to stay healthy unlike last year to make their needed impact. Also, the Lions must find a way to run the ball better. Speaking of which…
Backfield Logjam: The Lions have a lot of options in the backfield. Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner, Kerryon Johnson, and LeGarrette Blount are all competing for touches as of August 17. Riddick will likely be utilized in a pass-catching role, but that doesn’t answer who the lead back is. Either way, the Lions are clearly committed to getting Stafford help out of the backfield.
Patricia’s Defense: Despite having some talent at key spots, the Lions were below-average on defense last season. They finished in the bottom third of the league in both yards and points allowed. What’s interesting, however, is that Patricia’s defense in New England had its fair share of troubling statistics. But in the end, it turned into the prototypical ‘bend but don’t break’ unit that the Patriots usually have (with the exception of the last Super Bowl). New England’s opponents averaged fewer than 20 points per game over the last five seasons with Patricia. The Lions will want to improve their pass rush in order to get the most out of Patricia’s philosophy. Typically, his defenses specialize in gap control and generating pressure from the front via blitzes and extra rushers.
Season Outlook: The Lions went 9-7 last season despite the injuries they suffered. With a clean bill of health and the potential of a new coach, the Lions may hang around long enough to compete for a playoff spot. However, their schedule won’t be an easy one, the NFC is tough this year, and the division features two teams that project to be elite by many. It’s not impossible for them to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Fantasy Player to Watch: LeGarrette Blount
4. Chicago Bears (Overall Power Ranking: 22)
2017 Results: 5-11 (4th in NFC North)
The Chicago Bears are a team in transition as of now. Last season, their 5-11 record earned them their fourth last-place finish in a row. While it was yet another frustrating season in Chicago, there were some bright spots. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky showed that he has the potential to play in this league after just one lone season as a starter in college. The fact that the Bears actually pulled the trigger on a quarterback in the draft was good news enough. New head coach Matt Nagy takes over the franchise with the job of continuing the development of Trubisky. While in Kansas City, Nagy helped Alex Smith become a better downfield threat and has some fingerprints in Patrick MaHomes development. With depth issues addressed and a young team on the rise, Bears fans are optimistic that their team can continue the climb in the NFC North.
Key Additions: Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, Aaron Lynch, Roquan Smith, James Daniels, and Anthony Miller.
Key Losses: Markus Wheaton, Josh Sitton, Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Quintin Demps, and Jerrell Freeman.
New Targets: Part of helping any young quarterback is putting suitable targets around him. Chicago signed Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and drafted Anthony Miller to help with that. Robinson had his best season as a pro a couple of seasons back but was limited to three snaps in 2017 due to injury. Taylor Gabriel turned into a solid receiving threat in Atlanta. According to Pro Football Focus, Gabriel only ran 15.2 percent of his routes from the slot position despite playing behind Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Miller shined last season in college as a slot guy. So everyone should be able to fit in seamlessly. And if Chicago can get anything out of Kevin White and Josh Bellamy, it will only be a plus for them.
DROtY Candidate: The Bears drafted Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick in the last draft to lead their defense into the future. Just one look at his college tape shows a perfect linebacker for today’s league. He has the speed to cover the field quickly, the ability to stop the run, and can drop back and defend against the pass. In my opinion, he’s the favorite to walk away with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award once the season is over.
About the Defense: An interesting note about the Bears defense is that they featured zero pro bowlers despite having one of the better units last season. The Bears ranked 10th in years and ninth in point allowed. One knock against them is that they struggle to create turnovers. Over the past three seasons, they only have eight interceptions, and no Bear has had more than two picks in the past two seasons combined. Scary numbers for the wrong reason. Their ability to create those turnovers are what separates them from the truly elite defenses in the NFL. Getting pressure off the edge from their outside linebackers will certainly help. Leonard Floyd had the speed, quickness, and agility to get the job done. But the one thing he doesn’t have is luck in the health department. Sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts is in the same situation. Aaron Lynch will be the one called upon to be the mainstay of this effort. And that’s only if he can recapture the magic he had in his first two seasons.
Season Outlook: Despite the bad record, the Bears were a competitive team at times last season. They beat Pittsburgh and Carolina and should’ve beaten Atlanta to start the season. They also took the Vikings to the wire on Monday Night Football and fave he Saints a challenge in New Orleans. If absolutely everything goes right, playoff contention could be within their grasp. That makes them the darkest of dark horses in the league. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be surprised if they fell just short of that.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Taylor Gabriel