Surveying NFL analysts and insiders across the NFL you will find mixed previews everywhere on the NFC North including playoffs predicted for each of the division’s four clubs depending on who you’re listening to or reading.
While there is no clear consensus on where the division’s greatest strengths and weaknesses lie, it does appear the NFC North will be one of the league’s most competitive divisions, and with no real “weak sister,” one of the toughest.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
2019 record: 13-3
As impressive as the Packers 13-3 campaign ending in a trip to the NFC title game last year was, they were a team with no particular calling card and question marks in more areas than you’d expect.
The Pack was 18th in total offense last year, 15th running the ball, 17th throwing it and 14th in points scored.
Defensively, the Packers were 18th overall, 23rd vs. the run, 14th vs. the pass and 12th in points allowed.
Green Bay’s greatest strength was of course Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and they were tied for third in the NFL in TO/TA Ratio at plus-12.
The Packers entered 2020 built around Rodgers, as always, as well as one of the NFL’s deepest running back groups with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, along with Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams, Pro Bowl nose tackle Kenny Clark and one of the league’s top pass rushing duos in the “Smith Brothers,” Preston and Za’Darius.
Key departures included right tackle Bryan Bulaga and inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Free agents Ricky Wagner and Christian Kirksey were brought in to replace them, but neither is a clear upgrade, and Kirksey in particular must be watched as he has missed the better parts of the last two seasons with injuries. And a soft middle and porous run defense may be the Packers greatest weakness.
While most expected the Packers to focus on wide receivers in free agency and the draft, the Packers instead chose to draft quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, a move that puzzled many around the league. Devin Funchess was brought in to provide some help for Adams at wideout, but he then chose to opt out for the season, leaving the Packers with the same group that failed to protect Adams and Rodgers last season.
The Packers will contend again if Rodgers is healthy, happy and not distracted or angered by the selection of Love over weapons at other positions, and if the run defense is significantly improved.
2019 record: 10-6
Minnesota was a 10-6 Wild Card team last year before staging a huge playoff upset in New Orleans and then falling to the eventual NFC champion 49ers in the divisional round.
As usual, the Vikings featured a top defense, ranking 14th in total defense, 15th vs. the run, 13th vs. the pass and a stingy sixth in points allowed.
On offense, the Vikings found the balance head coach Mike Zimmer wanted, finishing 16th in total offense, but a sterling sixth on the ground, just 23rd throwing the football but 11th in points scored. It was enough to earn Zimmer a multi-year contract extension.
Facing serious salary cap issues, the Vikings jettisoned defensive stalwarts Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes during the offseason and made a blockbuster trade, sending receiver Stephon Diggs to the Bills.
Minnesota signed prized free agent Michael Pierce to replace Joseph, but Pierce then opted out of the season due to the coronavirus. The Vikings may have found an upgrade over Griffen though, trading for Jacksonville’s Yannick Ngakoue to pair with Danielle Hunter in what should be a top pass rushing duo; although, Hunter will spend at least the first three weeks of the season on I.R.
The Vikings used first-round picks on wide receiver Justin Jefferson to replace Diggs and cornerback Cameron Dantzler to step in for Rhodes, and Dalvin Cook returns as the focal point of the offense, coming off his best season as a pro.
If quarterback Kirk Cousins has finally shed enough of his big-game demons, with the playoff upset of the Saints, Minnesota could be poised for a deep run this year.
2019 record: 3-12-1
As disappointing as last season was in Detroit, the Lions looked like a much improved football team early in the season with Matthew Stafford off to an All Pro start before his back took him out for the year.
That improvement was all on offense though behind Stafford, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golloday, as the defense was a woeful 31st in total ‘D,’ 21st vs. the run, 32nd and dead last vs. the pass and 26th in points allowed.
Offensively, the Lions were 17th in total offense, 21st running the ball, 10th throwing it and 18th in points allowed, and that was skewed by Stafford’s hot first half.
If Stafford is healthy, and he appears to be, the Lions are already a much-improved team, but they entered the offseason seeking multiple upgrades, particularly on defense.
Head coach Matt Patricia started looking in his old New England stomping grounds and brought in free agents OLB Jamie Collins and NT Danny Shelton to pair with 2019 recruit Trey Flowers. He then actually traded his best defensive player, cornerback Darius Slay, and replaced him with the third overall pick in the draft, Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, and veteran free agent Marcus Trufant.
The Lions then added OSU offensive guard Jonah Jackson and the top-rated running back in the draft, DeAndre Swift, out of Georgia, to beef up the offense. Another key here is whether or not last year’s top pick, tight end T.J. Hockenson is completely healed after a season-ending ankle injury last year that may still be lingering.
While Detroit still appears just a notch below its three NFC North rivals in overall talent, Patricia did have them playing much better football the first half of last season, and 2020 will be a make-it-or-break-it year for him and general manager Bob Quinn.