State of the North Address

With the start of the 2020 NFL season under a month away it's time to take a look at the state of the NFC North.

Before we begin, let's have a quick recap of the 2019 NFC North standings.

The Green Bay referees.....I mean Packers (sorry but those hands to the face calls are going to sting for a long time) took the NFC North title away from the Bears with a 13-3 season which culminated in an NFC Championship showdown with the San Francisco 49ers. I won't lie but after suffering a nightmare second half to the season with the Lions I took a wholehearted amount of pleasure seeing Raheem Mostert do his best impression of a bulldozer and completely annihilate what little bit of a run defense the Packers mustered en route to a four-touchdown game-winning performance. But in all seriousness in my time watching the NFL I have not seen a game, especially one as big as a Championship game where the need for a quarterback simply didn't exist, with Garoppolo only throwing 8 passes all game. However kudos must begrudgingly go to the Packers as they swept the entire division and made it to the Championship game, but as we will discuss later I think they are in for a much more difficult time this coming season.

The Minnesota Vikings finished divisional runners up with a respectable 10-6 record before taking down the Saints in their own backyard in New Orleans which fair play to them was an unbelievable result which deserves a lot of respect. Unfortunately for them, they suffered the same fate as the Packers in the Divisional round when up against the 49ers high-quality running game, except this time it was Tevin Coleman who did the damage. There's no shame in losing to that 49ers side though and even with the loss of Diggs, I'm predicting them to have a very good season.

The Chicago Bears finished 3rd with a split 8-8 season as the Mitch Trubisky continues to not fulfil the potential that saw the Bears trade up to get him, and if it wasn't enough that their fans are constantly reminded they passed on a certain MVP and Superbowl winning quarterback to do so, Patrick Mahomes then went to Soldier Field last season and nearly blew them out just to rub that salt in a little more. And it hurts, as a million voices that said in unison "well the Lions drafted Eric Ebron above Aaron Donald" can bear witness to. With the quarterback issue up in the air in Chicago, it's hard to get a read on how they'll do this season.

And yes, in stone-cold last place were our Detroit Lions who after starting 2-0-1 ended up finishing 3-12-1, but if any of you other NFC North fans are laughing let it be stated we only lost 2 games by more than a single score and that was without our elite quarterback for half the season and a whole plethora of other talented players who ended up on IR so there is reason to look on this coming season in a positive light and although my predictions may seem optimistic we'll go through it in detail to back it up.

With last season recapped it's now time to take a look at the upcoming 2020 season so I'll be giving my thoughts and analysis on our divisional rivals and then finish with the team that matters.


NFC NORTH 2019: 1ST (13-3)

2020 DRAFT: Make no mistake about it, the Packers had a bad draft, even their own fans were highly critical of it. And I think it's going to hurt them this season. Aaron Rodgers (he says through gritted teeth) is an elite quarterback still playing at a high level and with what I think wasn't a really great Packers team managed to get them one win from a Superbowl, give the man some offensive weapons and he'll get them another ring, and in a receiver heavy draft, you couldn't ask for a better time to do so. But I think to the delight of the entire NFC North they've pulled the rug from under him and drafted his replacement in the 1st round, even giving up vital draft capital to do so when they probably would have got Love anyhow whereas Rodgers fell to them all those years ago. Then they drafted against their third-best player in Aaron Jones who is a great running back, yes he's in a contract year but look at the Running back FA next season, it's stacked to the brim and may well drive contract prices down, it certainly was not a pressing position for a side so close to the Superbowl. It does make me wonder though if we are going to see a Green Bay team this year that is going to transition to more of a ground attack team, Jones and Dillon working in tandem could be a dangerous duo and with Rodgers getting older it'll take some of the pressure of that back that has carried that franchise for over a decade. Then they got Deguira in at TE in the 3rd but having given up a 4th it was then a mix of a lot of late-round picks. They do not come out of that draft with a noticeably stronger upgrade at any position although the run game now has depth.


PREDICTION ANALYSIS: No this is not a completely lopsided and biased prediction by a petulant Lions fan. Last season is done and it needs to be taken in context, the North wasn't a high calibre league last season. Were the Packers the best team in the North last year? Most definitely. Did they overachieve? I think so. I believe they had some serious issues that were masked by a corps of elite players who excelled and were fit and healthy all season, but that Championship game brutally exposed those weaknesses. The most pressing of which was the run game. Their linebackers may as well not have been on the field given how easy the 49ers made the running game look that day and they assigned minimal draft capital (5th rounder Kamal Martin and 7th rounder Jonathon Garvin) to fix it. Christian Kirksey was signed but he's played 9 games in the last 2 seasons putting his reliability in doubt, and he's only a replacement for Blake Martinez not an additional player. Teams will have watched that game and you can bet your bottom dollar many will alter their tactics to expose that weakness. The next glaring problem they have is at receiver. You take Devonte Adams out that attack and their WR corps becomes very average. Lazard, Valdez-Scantling, Kumerow, St Brown, they are a mixture of fringe players not making the step up to WR2 status and draft picks not realising their potential. Devon Funchess was the only FA signing and he would have boosted that attack but he is one of the players who has opted out the season so they will be without his services. Then there is the situation with Rodgers, how will been completely screwed in the draft affect him and his performances? I've no doubt he's a professional and will get on with it but there's no way his trust in the back office is what it was and if things don't go well early season you may see the cracks appear. The only other signing of note was former Lion Ricky Wagner and I think I speak for most of us in saying his departure was met with more of a 'meh' than an 'oh no'. So really this prediction is based on my opinions that they have not improved their starting team noticeably whereas their rivals have, and I don't think they can do a second season relying on a corps group of elite players to carry the rest of the team, and if they lose them to injury like the Lions did Stafford, Johnson, Hockenson etc then they will struggle big time. 

ONE TO WATCH: Jace Sternberger. With the departure of expensive TE Jimmy Graham who was a massive bust in Green Bay and no reinforcements for the wide receivers, the opportunity for the 3rd round TE from Texas drafted in 2019 is there for the taking and much like TJ he is chock full of potential just waiting to be realised. I follow a few Packers commentators and YouTubers and they are all very high on him so expect to hear the name more this season.


NFC NORTH 2019: 2ND (10-6)

2020 DRAFT: Whereas the Packers had the worst draft in the North, I believe the Vikings had the best and knocked the ball out of the park. Yes, they lost Stefon Diggs and I don't think any other team in the North will be sorry to see him go, however they've still got established threats in Thielen and Rudolph and they used their first pick to find Diggs replacement in Justin Jefferson. If he even begins to slightly replicate his college form in the NFL then players in secondaries all over the NFC are going to have nightmares about him (apart from Jeff Okudah cause he's just going to shut down everything). They have lost a few pieces on their defense but they invested in the secondary with Gladney and Dantzler and managed to snag LB Troy Dye in the 4th round which I thought was a great pick, I didn't think he'd fall that far. The Vikings traded smartly as well to get extra picks and they used them to fix up a lot of holes they had around the team so for me they came out the draft looking stronger than they did before.


PREDICTION ANALYSIS: I just want to go one record as saying how painful that prediction is to make. That's me admitting to the world that I think Kirk Cousins is capable of winning this division before Matthew Stafford who is superior to him and I won't hear a word said otherwise. But I can't help but think the Vikings look a good outfit this year. Cousins is steady enough to get them to the top providing he avoids having to play too many monday night games and he has a group of high-quality targets to aim at who are capable of putting up serious points on the board. Dalvin Cook is a great running back and providing he doesn't hold out as whispers on the grapevine are saying he might do then the Vikings running game always poses a threat, and he's got decent backups in Matthiesen and Ham. The big question of their credentials comes on defense, with wholesale changes happening this offseason and then the big blow of losing Michael Pierce to the opt out scheme, but they have invested in replacements both through the draft and FA and traditionally the Vikings can be trusted to field a solid defense so I'm saying that it won't be a problem in their quest for the title this year.

ONE TO WATCH: Justin Jefferson. The speed demon from LSU who broke out spectacularly last year. More than capable of replacing the deep threat that Diggs provided and if he carries on last year's form then that Minnesota offense just got a whole lot more dangerous. I'd say a good shout for an outside bet on most receiving touchdowns.


NFC NORTH 2019: 3RD (8-8)

2020 DRAFT: The Bears were the only team in the North this year not to be picking in the first round owing to them still paying off Khalil Mack. However given their first opportunity to pick in the second round they soon employed their somewhat questionable policy of 'Death by Tight End' by picking Cole Kmet which I believe took the number of TE's on that squad into double figures. A decision made even more questionable given they spent a good chunk of money to brink Green Bay flop Jimmy Graham in during FA and they didn't really have that many premium picks to play with, in fact only having 2 picks in the top 150, the other one they spent on cornerback Jaylon Johnson who admittedly I know little about. After that is a smattering of picks in the later rounds so to an outsider unless they come up