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.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
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.
2020 SEASON PREDICTION: 3RD
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.
2020 SEASON PREDICTION: 1ST
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 on a gem right away this draft appears to be bearing little fruit for the upcoming season.
2020 SEASON PREDICTION: 4TH
PREDICTION ANALYSIS: Probably the prediction I am most confident with this year. The Bears declined last season and they finally seem to have lost patience with quarterback Mitch Trubisky, not taking up the extension on his contract and then taking on that huge burden of a deal to bring in Nick Foles to take over his job. And despite what management says, he's there to take the starting job. You don't pay a hefty sum like what they have for Foles just to sit him behind a starter you have lost faith in. The only problem with that is Foles doesn't play full seasons and will be out at some stage meaning they have to turn back to their disillusioned first-rounder. Don't forget that Foles was beaten out by rookie Gardner Minshew in Jacksonville last year to the point that even his huge contract couldn't get him the starting job back, the Jags were comfortable letting their rookie go under centre whilst Foles ate money on the bench. The Bears defence will always be good enough to win games but that too regressed last year (even David Blough hit a pair of touchdowns and nearly 300 yards against them so imagine what Stafford would have done) and although they've improved it in FA that leaves their offense vulnerable. Forgetting the power struggle at QB, David Montgomery and the running game was criminally underused last season and the wide receivers don't have a great deal of quality passes to work with. For me Foles isn't really an upgrade over Trubisky and the offense hasn't been improved so I expect the same as last season and whilst that defense isn't the Bears defense of old they'll continue to lose more games than we are accustomed to them doing.
ONE TO WATCH: David Montgomery. The forgotten running back from last year has plenty of talent and would be a great offensive threat if only they used him more. With the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position, he might very well get his chance to shine if the Bears decide that the run game is the way to go instead.
NFC NORTH 2019: 4TH (3-12-1)
2020 DRAFT: There are three certainties in the life of a Detroit Lions fan. Death, Taxes, and the overwhelming feeling of disappointment at the end of draft weekend, that was until the 2020 draft rolled virtually into Town. For once a lot of the picks made sense and their was a genuine buzz when the draft was over that we had made progress as a team and addressed so long-standing issues.
Jeff Okudah was always going to be the number 3 pick, with Darius Slay heading to Philly leaving in the Lions secondary which needed replacing and Okudah has the potential to be as good if not better than his predecessor. All the noise coming out of camp is indicating a young man who is extremely talented, has a level head on his shoulders and has a work ethic that is second to none in his desire to keep improving as a player. Such attitudes are exactly what the Lions need in the locker room right now.
Next up the Lions opted for running back D'Andre Swift and I was surprised, I didn't think we would go in that direction. I love this pick for three reasons. The first is it shows an actual proactive investment in the running game which has not existed in years. If the Lions can create a dual threat offense with Stafford performing to his usual high standards and a run game that's dynamic and interchangeable and not the horrible laboured style of the LeGarrette Blount days then that makes us a far more dangerous team right away. The second reason is Kerryon Johnson, I think Swift is going to do him a world of good. I don't want to hear anything about them battling for spots or that Swift is his replacement, I want to see them working together. Kerryon is a talented player but he is an injury concern but he's had to do all the hard running trying to break his way through offensive lines whilst receiving precious little protection from his own. Swift is a power player capable of breaking his way through players and tackles, let him take on that role whilst we can utilise Johnson for outside routes or less crowded ones. It minimises the danger of losing Kerryon to injury and means he can show his talent cause he is capable of becoming a first choice running back. The third reason is Matthew Stafford. As mentioned he has never had a top-class running game to work with. For this last decade, every time Detroit has been in a hole and needed rescuing it has fallen on the arm of our illustrious number 9 to rescue the situation cause our run game has not stood up to the task. And he knows this, hence why he has played through the pain barrier time after time after time and it took a broken back for him to finally admit defeat and have to miss games. Now more than ever he needs protecting and the burden of winning games needs to be shared out so that it's not just on him. Drafting a top class prospect like Swift now means we have two very talented running backs and the best opportunity to create a dual-threat offense that means not only do other teams have to worry about more than trying to sack Stafford, but it means we can manage his workload as well. Stafford is elite, and he was playing MVP calibre football last season, so if we can ease the burden on him so he isn't throwing all the time then his quality will go even higher, a win-win for Detroit.
Third round the Lions invested in the pass rush with Julian Okwara, reuniting him with brother Romeo. It's no secret that the Lions pass rush only existed in books of Greek mythology last season and opposition quarterbacks often had time to sit down and have a beer before the pressure got to them (or pay the refs to call non-existent fouls in case they were sacked), so a 3rd round pick to help out was welcome, and with 2nd year Austin Bryant returning from a season on IR the defensive line now has few new options to hopefully make life uncomfortable for opposition quarterbacks this coming season. The club has also invested in Nick Williams and Danny Shelton who will be huge additions in that fight as well.
Next up the Lions took a pair of guards in Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg, the latter quite possibly been my new favourite player of this draft class. Stenberg quoting how he wants to make life so uncomfortable for his opponents that they'd wish they were retired by the end of the game. Obviously I hope that no one actually has to retire because of his actions but I like the determination and how he has the mindset that no one is going to beat him. Like Okudah it's heartening to see we are investing in players who have no interest in continuing the Detroit Lions story of woe and will make the opposition have to play out their skin if they want to get anything from us.
Next up the Lions took advantage of the deep receiver draft on offer and took Quintus Cephus. I'm quite happy with the Lions receiving corps, Golladay is fast-tracking to WR 1 status and is a huge deep threat whilst Marvin Jones is perfect as WR 2 and Danny Amendola is the experienced head who can make things happen and run the slot routes. And with Marvin Hall adding depth then Cephus has the benefit of being able to come into the team and learn his trade without getting thrown straight in the deep end and that's what you want for your project WR's taken in the late rounds, and he's got a lot of experience to learn from in Jones and Amendola.
Then back to the running game with Jason Huntley who has quietly amongst some become the big bet for sleeper pick of this Lions draft. He has pace to burn and could fulfil a number of roles in special teams or even in the main offense if needed, but again with Swift and Johnson leading the main running game, the Lions have time to bed him in and find out where he is most effective without him been under pressure to provide straight away.
The draft rounded off with a couple of additions to the defensive line in John Penisini and Jashon Cornell. Overall the draft addressed positions in desperate need of reinforcements and will give Darrel Bevill so many options to make this Detroit offense a feared unit in the division for years to come.
2020 SEASON PREDICTION: 2ND
PREDICTION ANALYSIS: This analysis is based on a lot of what if's and maybe's but I'm a Lions fan so of course I'm going to go with the positive scenario. As said earlier in this piece, the Lions were not as bad as their record made out last year. Only 2 games were lost by more than a score and we were without our star quarterback and our backup, our top running back, our first-round draft pick and our WR 2 amongst many others due to injury. It's like the Packers losing Rodgers, Jones and Adams they'd struggle to deal with such injuries and carry on winning games.
First though we must address the issue that can collapse our season potentially. The pass rush. Yes we have invested in EDGE rushers and have have more coming back from IR and have spent big in free agency to help rush the QB, but my god the standard was atrocious last year so it's not really a high bar to surpass, but it's a really high bar to get to what is acceptable and to give us a chance of getting out the division into the playoffs. The defensive line needs to perform this year and someone needs to step up and starting getting some serious sack numbers. Are we capable of becoming a great pass rush team with the signings we have made? Maybe not. Can we become a team that can provide enough of a pass rush so as to give the offense a chance to win games regularly, I think so. We may not have the huge names with the huge numbers but we certainly can improve enough to become a winning team. 10 times last year we lost by less than a score, one sack here or one pressure there and those defeats start turning into wins.
And looking from back to front, Matthew Stafford is playing the best football he has in some years and he's finally had some time off to let his many injuries accrued over the years heal which can only be good for him. He's now got more protection in the form of much-needed investment in the O-line to protect him and a running game to aid him and allow him to throw fewer passes but higher quality ones. We've finally addressed one of our longest standing problems in the team, the running game, in which we have an impact player in Swift, the pace threat of Johnson, the red zone threat of Bo Scarborough who has in my view more than earned a place in this team, and we have the raw talents of Jason Huntley to mix things up even further, it allows us so many more options to attack than we've had in previous years. The wide receiver corps is settled and has depth and raw talent in reserve. TJ Hockensen is back and healthy, and he showed at the beginning of last year that he has the potential to bury the memories of Eric Ebron and be a success as a first-round tight end pick for the Lions, that's yet another option for Stafford to throw to.
Yes, it requires players staying healthy, yes it requires players reaching the potential we know they are capable of which is easier said than done, yes it requires that the running game work with little to no time to prepare it. But if you look at the Detroit Lions squad this season can you honestly turn around and say with all the actual and potential talent in that side that they can't make the playoffs? Absolutely not. It's our year to start progressing into the postseason, that's my flag and I will plant it right here right now.
ONE TO WATCH: I could put about 10 names here but I'm going with TJ Hockensen. I am a huge fan of his and I saw enough in his early season form last year to see he can bring a genuine threat to this offense from the tight end position that we've not had in years. He's had a rough time of it with injuries and concussions but hopefully, now he's experienced his first season and is acclimatising to both the Lions' schemes and the NFL itself we'll see more performances as we did on his debut against the Cardinals sooner rather than later. He can fully justify his draft position of that I have no doubt.
And there we have it. The view of the NFC North from a Lions fan over the Atlantic. They are all just my own views and probably a lot of them will turn out to wrong but that's the fun in having opinions if nothing it creates a healthy debate on the issues discussed. Leave any thoughts or comments below, or on our Twitter, it's always great to have a chat about these issues and look forward to hopefully hearing people's opinions.