Dannehy: Trip Around the NFC North

| June 8th, 2023

The Chicago Bears shouldn’t be favored to win the NFC North, but they certainly have a shot to take what is now a weak division. The Lions are the favorites, and rightfully so, but Detroit missed a major opportunity to improve at key positions and further separate themselves from the rest of the division. The Minnesota Vikings are the defending champions, but their limp to the finish line brings up many questions. And the Packers, well, where do we start?

These are things Ryan Poles was surely looking at when he told The Athletic the team should contend for the NFC North. Here’s a quick snapshot at each of the teams and why the Bears could top them.

Detroit Lions

There’s a lot to like about the Detroit Lions but that can be found all over the internet. In short, the Lions had a top-five offense in 2022 and their defense allowed a hair over 20 points per game in the second half of the year. They finished 8-2 with convincing wins over the Vikings and Packers.

But there are issues with the Lions that are largely going ignored.

  • They need quarterback Jared Goff to continue playing at a level at which he has not previously played.
  • They need him to do this while being shorthanded at wide receiver. Losing DJ Chark wasn’t supposed to be significant because Jameson Williams was going to fill the void, stretching the field vertically, but Williams has been suspended for six games for gambling. Without Chark’s speed on the field — he missed six games — the powerful Lions offense averaged fewer than 20 points per game last year.
  • The team made considerable investments in the running back position, but was that really a weakness last year? Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift combined for more than 1,600 rushing yards, with an average of 4.45 per carry and had 22 rushing touchdowns. Swift caught 48 passes for 389 yards and three more touchdowns. If they upgraded, it’s hard to see them being more productive.
  • There’s also the matter of Ben Johnson. There’s no question that he is a bright offensive mind, but now teams will have a full season of work to study and figure out how to stop him.

We can comfortably assume Detroit’s defense will improve, after being bottom-five in both scoring and yardage last year. How much is a bit of a mystery, though. They made some improvements in the secondary but spent a first-round pick on an inside linebacker — a position that wasn’t a strength, but also not necessarily a weakness.

On paper, the Lions should be favored to win the NFC North. But it isn’t hard to see why that might not happen.

Minnesota Vikings

While the Vikings surprised everyone by winning 13 games last year, it was one of Kirk Cousins’ worst seasons. Cousins threw a career-high 14 interceptions and had a passer rating of 92.5, the lowest since he became a full-time starter in 2015. While they have an offensive head coach and perhaps the best wide receiver in the entire league, Minnesota’s offense was shockingly streaky last year.

Their defense was downright bad.

The Vikings had an anemic pass rush and replaced Za’Darius Smith’s 10 sacks with Marcus Davenport’s half a sack. (Of course, that doesn’t tell the entire story, but the Vikings are in a weird place.) Their front seven is still bad — Dean Lowry and Khyiris Tonga are slated to start for them. Their secondary should be better. Two 2022 top-50 picks Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth barely played last year, so getting them back should help tremendously, but it will likely still be a horrible defense.

They added Jordan Addison to their wide receiver group, but is he going to be an upgrade over Adam Thielen as a rookie? While their offense was top 10 in points scored and yardage, they were 20th in DVOA and 12th in points per drive.

It looks like a team that is going to have a fringe top-15 offense and a bottom-5 defense. What does that get you?

Green Bay Packers

Love is what they got, but the rumors are all you need is Love.

There’s no question that Aaron Rodgers’ play dropped last year, but part of that can be attributed to the team’s insistence on going into the season with Allen Lazard as its best wide receiver. Rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs might be stars, but it was clear that Rodgers didn’t trust them — Watson, especially — at times last year. The Packers will need both to be greatly improved because they’re clearly the top two wide receivers with rookie second rounder Jayden Reed as the third.

The team also let its tight end group get depleted, replacing Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis with a couple of rookies. As Bears fans know from watching Cole Kmet, rookie tight ends rarely contribute in a meaningful way. The Packers should have a good offensive line, with David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins being healthy entering the year, but they still have major questions at center and right tackle.

Green Bay hopes the improvement its defense showed down the stretch carries over, but it’s easy to look improved when playing Goff, Cousins and Baker Mayfield outdoors in December and January. (Tua Tagovailoa was tearing them up before suffering a concussion that, reportedly, led to three interceptions.)

But the only thing that really matters for them this season is Love. There’s no denying he looked great when he came in relief of Rodgers in prime time against the Eagles. There’s also no denying that the Eagles were up two scores and likely let their guard down with a backup quarterback coming in. Throughout his NFL career — regular and preseason — Love has been mostly bad, throwing seven touchdowns and nine interceptions on just 192 passes. His interception rate of 4.7 percent is eyepopping, though wouldn’t be concerning if he hadn’t thrown interceptions on 3.6 percent of his passes his last year at Utah State.

But nobody should pretend to know what Love will be. If he’s adequate, the Packers will be right in the mix. If he’s not, it seems they’re prepared for that too.

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