Monday, August 14, 2017

NFL Preview: NFC North

Hello and welcome to the third installment of the joint NFL season preview that I’m doing with my friend and classmate Joe from A Hoosier on the Potomac.  This week, we’re previewing the NFC North.  Previous installments are archived below:
Division Overview
In researching this week’s post, I finally realized why sportswriters fixate so singularly on NFL quarterbacks.  It’s because sportswriters are lazy.
If you don’t watch or follow a team closely, the easiest way to try to talk about that team’s prospects is in terms of its quarterback play.  The quarterback is the only guy on the team who touches the ball on every offensive snap.  He’s also—typically—the face of the franchise.  Add in the fact that quarterback stats are basically straightforward as well, and we have a league where quarterback play rules, even if the QB’s actual play is often dictated by the comparative play of the rest of his offense.
The NFC North features three very good quarterbacks, and if one has had decidedly more success in terms of wins and losses than the other two, it’s still true that all three could easily play well enough to take their teams deep into the postseason.  Yes, we could be reductive and say, “The Packers are going to win because Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback.”  However, it’s probably a little more correct to say, “The Packers are going to win because they have the best teamaround Aaron Rodgers, to the point where their biggest offseason concern might even have been solved with their fifth round pick in this year’s draft.”  The rest of this division has at least one serious question at a major position group, and that makes sustained winning a Hell of a lot harder.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers finished last season 10-6 and made it to the NFC Championship game.  They then lost to the would-be world-beating Atlanta Falcons.  Though QB Aaron Rodgers showed glimpses of mortality at times last season, he is still arguably the best quarterback in the League, and he can still stretch defenses with both his arm and his legs.  He also still has elite WR Jordy Nelson as his primary target.  The Packers struggled at times to run the ball last year, but they still ran better than a team like the Giants, and in the current NFL, you can often make the playoffs without an honest-to-God power running game.  
Nevertheless, the Packers spent a good part of the offseason trying to improve their running game.  They moved WR Ty Montgomery to running back.  This is extremely unusual, especially in a league where starting-quality RBs are generally available even late in the draft.  To prove the point, the Pack also drafted UTEP super stud Aaron Jones in the 5th round.  Jones was extremely productive last year behind even a C-USA doormat’s offensive line and against truly elite collegiate defenses.  Behind the Packers’ O-Line and alongside Rodgers’s throwing ability, my guess is that Jones is has a breakout rookie campaign.
Beyond that, reports say that the Packers had a strong draft focused on defense and especially their defensive secondary.  With the quality of their offense, they should be in good shape going forward so long as they can get at least decent play out of their D.  That’s basically what they got last year, and they made it to the NFC Championship Game.
-- FPI: +4.8, 9.9 wins
-- Over/Under: 10 (-130/even)
Vegas and FPI are both taking the Packers to win ten but leaning over.  I’m not sure I would go that way.  That may very well happen.  Still, I don’t know that I would bet that way, based solely on the Packers’ schedule.  They face their own (mostly very good) division, and the NFC South and the AFC North.  That’s a tough road forward in a League that is already extremely competitive.  
Detroit Lions
All these logos are from Twitter.  So
the fur on this logo?  The Lions did
that themselves.
The Detroit Lions look a lot like the Green Bay Packers, but their defense isn’t as good, their running game is even spottier, and their quarterback is not quite as otherworldly, even when he’s in theoretical contention for league MVP honors.  Still, the Lions finished a very respectable 9-7 last year and made the playoffs, though they got smoked by the Seattle Seahawks, 26-6.
Lots of folks thought Matthew Stafford was one of the best quarterbacks in the league last year, and at least some folks are expecting a return to form—and maybe even a run at league MVP.  He had a very respectable 65.3% completion rate with 24 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.  That’s good, but I think maybe the MVP talk is still premature.  Or not.  Stafford was good enough to get the Lions into the playoffs for the third time in just six years, and he has carried his team at least as much as Rodgers has carried Green Bay.
But.  The Lions’ defense was not good last year, and their secondary was actively terrible.  Most of their draft was spent trying to shore up that defense, though draftnik opinion has been decidedly mixed on how successful they were.  The Lions drafted two players off of Florida’s historically great defense, and I personally think that’s good.  But if you’re a Lions fan, I can also see why you might be disappointed.  “Yay, we drafted a linebacker!” said no one ever.  And yet, if a linebacker is what you needed…
-- FPI: -0.7, 7.5 wins
-- Over/Under: 8 (even/-130)
As of this writing, Vegas is leaning under eight wins.  I think that I might personally take the over, though, especially given the Lions’ recent track record.  Even moderately better play from the Lions’ D would mean a true step-change in on-field performance, and though it’s just one preseason game, the D looked great last week against the Colts.  Again, though, this looks to be a very competitive division with a generally tough non-divisional schedule.
Minnesota Vikings
I'm starting to think that you can learn
something about these teams from the
design basis of their logos.
I don’t follow the Vikings.  They finished 8-8 last season, and when I saw that they have Sam Bradford as their long-term solution at quarterback, I thought, “Eh.  Those guys are gonna be 8-8 until the end time.”  But actually, this is one of those times when you need to throw your preconceived notions out the window.  In fact, Bradford was outstanding last year, throwing a league-leading 71.6% completion rate with 20 touchdowns against just 5 interceptions.  Holy Hell!!! Those are some amazing stats, and Bradford did it behind an O-Line that most folks considered an unmitigated disaster.  
Sam Bradford could have been the League MVP!
If Dalvin Cook can develop into the kind of quality workhorse running back that the Vikings are used to fielding at that position, then the Vikings ought to have a truly prolific offense.  This is important because the Vikings traded their first round pick this year to acquire Bradford in 2016, and they traded their 4th round pick to move up seven spots and grab Cook at the top of the 2nd round. Thus, the Vikings have about half of their 2017 draft tied up in just two players.  If those trades don’t work brilliantly, then the Vikings are totally screwed.
In general, the Vikings’ defense continues to look strong, with its defensive line arguably the team’s strongest position group.  It looks like there’s some shuffling ongoing in the secondary, but otherwise, this unit ought perform to expectations at a minimum.
-- FPI: +0.8, 8.5 wins
-- Over/Under: 8.5 (even/-130)
Take the over.  Vegas wants the under, but this is a team with an elite quarterback, an improved running game, and a legendary defense.  If they can learn to blockeven a little, they ought to contend for the division title.
Chicago Bears
Alas, the once storied Chicago Bears.  They finished last season 3-13 and then started the new year by sending four picks to the San Francisco 49ers, just so they could move up one spot and make the highly questionable decision to draft QB Mitchel Trubisky #2 overall.  Huh?  Trubisky is a one year collegiate starter out of a UNC program that’s been a perennial middling performer.  That combination is almost always bad, even if Trubisky’s stats last year were excellent: 304/446 passing (68.2%) with 30 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions.
That is one Hell of a risk.
What else can go wrong?
Well.  The Bears’ secondary is terrible, and the team is in arguably worse shape than the Browns long-term with coaches and management who aren’t on the same page about the team’s overall direction.  Yikes!
-- FPI: -5.2, 5.7 wins
-- Over/Under: 5.5 (even/-130)
Y’know what?  Smash the under.  In addition to all of its other challenges, this team has a very hard schedule.  The Packers, Vikings, and Lions are all would-be playoff contenders.  The Bears look like preseason road-kill.
* * *
I’m feeling very conflicted about the Steelers.  I hate them from my days living in Tennessee, back when the Titans and the Steelers were both in the old AFC Central.  Also, Steelers fans tend to be amongst the most obnoxious.  But.  Pittsburgh is playing an Army grad at left tackle, and they drafted Josh Dobbs out of Tennessee in the 4th round.  I really like Dobbs.  He’s a genius aerospace engineer who also happens to play football.  And he’s a Steeler.
Anyway, Joe will be back Thursday to talk about the Steelers and the rest of the AFC North.  Don’t miss it!

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