Aug. 23, 2017
Countdown to Kickoff 2017: NFC North
1. Green Bay Packers (Overall Power Ranking: 3)
Last season showed that Aaron Rodgers can only take the Packers so far. After ending the regular season on a hot streak and ending the Cowboys dream season, the Packers weaknesses were made very apparent. Against the Falcons, the Packers defense was lit up like a gasoline induced fire. They were run right out of the Georgia Dome and into the doldrums of the offseason. After a humbling defeat, people began to wonder if the Packers are actually a good team or if they’re riding the greatness of their quarterback. There’s probably some truth in that statement since the Packers only have one ring to show for Rodgers’ greatness. Coming into the 2017 season, the Packers will once again be reliant on his arm. Their defense has suffered losses and will have to rely on their draft picks to fill the glaring holes on defense. Offensively and division wise, it’s business as usual for the Pack.
Key Additions: Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, Jahri Evans, Ricky Jean-Francois, Davon House
Secondary: If there’s one thing that was very clear last season, it’s that the Packers secondary was awful beyond measure. I’m sure you remember LaDarius Gunter being flambéed by Dez Bryant and Julio Jones during the playoffs. That woeful outing inspired the drafting of Kevin King. King is a tall and athletic cornerback who’s a bit raw but offers physical talent. Anything is an upgrade over Gunter. Hopefully, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins can remain healthy following an injury riddled season. The Packers also brought back Davon House, who had a few flashes the last time he was in Green Bay. The bad news is he struggled in Jacksonville last season. The only sure thing in this unit is at safety with Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix.
Losses on the Line: The Green Bay Packers had one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. The key word is had as they’ve suffered losses from that unit. T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter departed from the team during free agency. One replacement, Corey Linsley, is coming off of ankle surgery. Durability will be an issue with him as he’s missed 10 games over the past two seasons. The other replacement is a declining Jahri Evans. Yes, Rodgers can throw on the run, off one foot, while going in the wrong direction. But he’ll still need reliable blocking up front.
Running Game: Eddie Lacy’s unreliable nature was a thorn in Green Bay’s side for a long time. Now that he’s gone to Seattle, the hole he left remains mostly unfilled. Ty Montgomery converted from wide receiver to fill the hole and had some bright moments, but he couldn’t shoulder the entire workload. While he averaged 5.9 yards per rush and caught 44 passes, he only had more than 11 carries in a game once. With no suitable replacement in sight, Montgomery will likely be the workhorse in the backfield this season. We’ll see how that goes.
Season Outlook: Even with holes on the line and question marks at running back, the Packers will be the team to beat in the North as long as Aaron Rodgers is throwing the football. How far they go in the postseason will be up to the play of everyone else.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Ty Montgomery
2. Detroit Lions (Overall Power Ranking: 15)
The Detroit Lions are the embodiment of what it means to be a treadmill team in the NFL. They’re good enough to make the playoffs, but they’re not likely to get past the wildcard game. That was the case once again last season when they were sent home by the Seahawks. The surprising thing was that the Lions were 9-4 at one point last season until injuries and inconsistencies dragged them back down to earth. Without the services of Calvin Johnson, the Lions offense remained about the same in its production. The credit for that goes to quarterback Matthew Stafford who enjoyed a great season before injuries slowed him down. Their defense didn’t get a break from the injury bug either. Detroit was missing a key player from every level of their defense ranging from a few games to most of the season. A cleaner bill of health would do wonders for the Lions. If that happens, maybe they could maintain a lead in the NFC North.
Key Additions: Darren Fells, Ricky Wagner, Greg Robinson, Cyrus Kouandjio, T.J. Lang, Armonty Bryant, Akeem Spence, Nick Bellore, Paul Worrilow, D.J. Hayden, Jarrad Davis
Running Game Rehab: The Lions ranked an abysmal 30th in rushing yards last season. The reason for that stat comes down to injuries. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick were both lost during the season. Abdullah only played two games while Riddick was done for the season in early December. With their return to the roster, expect an improvement in this category. One other thing to note here is that Abdullah has now been injury prone for two straight seasons. His ability to stay healthy is suspect at best.
O-line Upgrades: The Lions will benefit from two big changes along the offensive line this season. The first of these changes will be the return of Center Travis Swanson. A concussion sidelined Swanson for the final five games when the Lions were in the middle of a free fall. Without a decent replacement for him, the Lions suffered. His return will be huge for Detroit’s offense. The other big change in this unit is the acquisition of T.J. Lang from division rival Green Bay. Lang is one of the better guards in the league and will be an upgrade over Larry Warford.
Defense: As previously mentioned, the Lions defense suffered from injuries at every level of the defense. Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy, and Darius Slay all missed time and they were arguably the best player at each level of the defense. Ansah will be expected to return to form since he’s back at full strength. The same could be said for Slay. Levy, on the other hand, was let go as his recovery from knee surgery hasn’t gone as planned. So the Lions used their first-round pick on Jarrad David to replace him. The real issue for this unit is depth. If they suffer injuries like they did last year, they may be in trouble.
Season Outlook: With some better injury luck, the Lions may actually be able to be a more consistent threat to win the division. Even with holes on defense, their offense will benefit from an improved line and the return of healthy running backs.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Theo Riddick
3. Minnesota Vikings (Overall Power Ranking: 21)
The sleeper team of choice going into last season, the Minnesota Vikings experienced a roller coaster ride of a season that began before the regular season. To start, the Vikings lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season following a non- injury during practice. To replace him, the Vikings sent a package to the Eagles to bring in Sam Bradford. For five weeks, it looked like this team was still the sleeper team to be feared. They were 5-0 behind the efforts of their defense, but eventually, the burden became too much to bear. Entering 2017, the Vikings are in a strange limbo like state. They have the defense to compete right now, but their offense is rudderless thanks to the lack of a real answer at quarterback. It’ll be up to the defense to carry this team without fail if they want to make it to the playoffs. But just like last year, it may not be enough.
Key Additions: Case Keenum, Latavius Murray, Michael Floyd, Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, Datone Jones, Dalvin Cook
Quarterback Controversy?: If there was a game film on what it meant to be a below average quarterback, you’d likely see Sam Bradford flash by more than a few times. But this is the fate the Vikings are resigned to. Now he did set a completion percentage record last season, but that’s only because he couldn’t take any shots down field. Why is that? It’s because the Vikings offensive line doesn’t do anyone any favors. Which brings me to the second part of this argument; Mr. Bridgewater. It was once believed that Bridgewater would miss most of if not all of this season as well. Well, there are reports that Bridgewater may be closer to actually hitting the field this season. Which raises the question: would the Vikings play Bridgewater this season if they needed him? And what would he look like upon return?
Life After AP: The Adrian Peterson era is over in Minnesota. To move on from the hall of fame running back, the Vikings brought in Latavius Murray from Oakland and drafted Dalvin Cook. Murray was a big name in fantasy football last season but averaged just four yards per rush behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. Cook, on the other hand, will be the long term running back. He showed great vision in college, but he may not see many holes behind the Vikings offensive line.
All on the Defense: The Vikings defense looked all-world at the beginning of last season. The team’s 5-0 start can mostly be credited to them. Unfortunately, injuries caused this unit to stall down the stretch. The best player to miss action was Sharrif Floyd, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back for this season. Other than that, this unit will still be effective if they remain healthy.
Season Outlook: The Vikings defense will carry the load again, but they’re too many unknowns on offense to feel good about this team. They have too many jokes on offense, ranging from a pedestrian at best quarterback, a poor offensive line, and a questionable running game thanks to that offensive line. The playoffs will be a difficult goal to reach for the Vikings.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Vikings Defense
4. Chicago Bears (Overall Power Ranking: 30)
The Bears are a hard team to figure out. And when I say that, I mean it’s hard to figure out just what the heck they’re doing. Last season was rock bottom for the Bears. If it wasn't for the Cubs winning the World Series, Bears fans probably would’ve suffered from some sort of alcohol induced depression. A 3-13 season pretty much speaks for itself. On the bright side, the Jay Cutler era is over for Bears fans. The bad news is the team still doesn't know what exactly it’s doing. To start, the Bears gave $15 million to career backup Mike Glennon. So quarterback is solved…I think…maybe not. Then the draft comes around and the Bears squandered resources to move up a grand total of one spot to draft Mitchell Trubisky…another quarterback. Huh? And to make matters even funnier, Trubisky only has one year as a college starter under his belt. He didn’t know what a hard count was until he got to the NFL. So the Bears just spent all of those resources on a project. Where the Bears do excel at is running the ball and stuffing the run. So basically, it’s the worst possible version of your typical Bears team. They can run the ball, they can defend, but they don’t know if they have a quarterback. They have no idea.
Key Additions: Mike Glennon, Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz, Markus Wheaton, Prince Amukamara, Quintin Demps, Mitchell Trubisky
Quarterback: This storyline has already been covered to death. Glennon will be the starter until Trubisky shows that he’s ready or Glennon plays himself out of position.
Running game: The engine that makes the offense go for the Bears is their running attack. The combination of a strong interior offensive line to go along with Jordan Howard is the only stable part of the Bears offense. The bad news is the opponents will see a quarterback with zero track record of NFL success and receivers like Kevin White, Kendall Wright, and Markus Wheaton. After focusing the secondary on Camareon Meredith, opposing defenses will just load up the box and make the Bears beat them through the air.
Defense: The strength of the Bears defense is their front seven. Last season, the strength of their defense was decimated by injury. Both inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman will be back along with lineman Eddie Goldman and pass rusher Pernell McPhee. Chicago has also made an upgrade at cornerback by bringing in Prince Amukamara. He can be a big addition if he’s finally able to stay healthy. Quentin Demps also comes over from Houston after a solid season.
Season Outlook: If the Bears had a quarterback to go along with their running game and defense, they’d be higher on this list. However, there’s no reason for anyone to believe that either Glennon or Trubisky will get this team anywhere near the playoffs.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Jordan Howard