TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings of the NFC North.
Green Bay Packers
In the NFC North, all four teams need to improve defensively to match their potential offensively.
The Packers are no different, after finishing 24th in scoring defence and 25th in yards allowed last year.
They have to face Adrian Peterson twice a year, Brandon Marshall , Alshon Jeffery and now Santonio Holmes twice a year, and finally Matthew Stafford with Calvin Johnson twice a year.
In many ways the winner of the NFC North may not be due to the strength they all have with the ball, but instead may be who improves the most without the ball. The Packers are trying to be that team.
Again, outside of one player, free agency was quite quiet for the Packers. Year after year as their opponents try to purchase talent to build a team, the Packers draft, develop and retain what they have drafted and developed. Still, Julius Peppers is a big signing. If energized - at 34 years old and moving into his 13th year - his talent with Clay Matthews could give the Packers the best third down pass rushers in the division.
It will also be really interesting to see how Peppers adapts to more linebacker play on first and second down, after spending his career to date at defensive end. Dom Capers has an excellent chess piece in Peppers if he is rejuvenated this season.
In the draft, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be a great colourful name but he was a need pick for Green Bay as safety was a concern.
As is consistent with his winning ways, general manager Ted Thompson kept as many Packers from last year to this year as he could. Cornerback Sam Shields, nose tackle BJ Raji and outside linebacker Mike Neal were all re-signed in free agency. So defence is the worry, offence is not.
I think Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football and, if he can stay healthy all 16 games, what happened previously will happen again, and that's football success.
With Rodgers' arm teams can't overload the tackle box, but with Eddie Lacy they have to overload the tackle box. Rodgers will be able to ying and yang defences into submission because he now has a top running back to complement his top receiver Jordy Nelson.
With Bryan Bulaga at right tackle and the experience David Bakhtiari got last year at left tackle, Rodgers has everything he needs - most importantly himself. We will know a lot about Green Bay once they play the Seahawks in Seattle on Thursday September 4. They win that one, they are on their way.
When you talk about good coaches that run solid programs, Mike McCarthy is not as praised as the Belichick's or the Harbaugh's, but he is an amazing 82-45 in his career, and in 2011, he won 15 regular season games. Many organizations are run very well in NFL football today, and the Packers are as good as any. Packers take first in the NFC North.
The Chicago Bears were a really good 8-8 football team in 2013. If they can turn around their defence the way they turned around their offence in one year, then the Bears will not only be a playoff team but could win a tough NFC North.
On offence the Bears improved from No. 28 to eighth in total yards achieved and from 29th to fifth in passing yards created. They also improved from 27th to fourth in protecting the quarterback. That is an absolutely remarkable turnaround. The problem is on defence as they gave up 478 points, an all-time franchise high.
Chicago is similar to Dallas in the disparity from offence to defence but the Bears were extremely proactive in improving their defence while Dallas lost their middle linebacker, had their safety suspended and were salary cap limited in creating a high number of new players. Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston are all good pass rushers who were brought in through free agency. M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy all play either free or strong safety. Their No. 1 pick Kyle Fuller is a top cornerback and the Bears drafted two other defensive tackles and another safety. Chicago realized their trouble and overloaded the effort to find a defence as good as the offence.
When the 2013 season started no one was 100 per cent confident that Marc Trestman was going to slide in to one of only 32 NFL jobs and be respected. But his ability to get a lot out of Jay Cutler and even more significantly out of Josh McCown who found a good payday in Tampa Bay. And as a head coach Trestman has the courage to start young players. One of the obvious aspects of Chicago's success is the trio of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. But the secret of the Bears' success was the play of two rookies that played side by side. And side by side is very unusual. Yet Kyle Long at left guard and Jordon Mills at left tackle out of Oregon and Louisiana Tech were outstanding as rookies. They played like players with four or five years of experience. Without their emergence, Cutler would not have connected with Marshall, Jeffery and Forte the way he did.
The Bears will look for similar protection this year as Cutler attempts to pass to what may be the best top-three receiver group in football; Marshall, Jeffery and free-agent signee Santonio Holmes.
The Bears are going to score points, but can they stop Green Bay from scoring on them with Aaron Rodgers, and stop the Vikings from running on them with Adrian Peterson, and contain the best receiver in football from scoring touchdowns on them who resides in Detroit by the name of Calvin Johnson? If they do this they could be one of the best teams in Chicago in a long time. The challenge is huge as the Bears is on defence, where the group ranked 30th overall, 32nd in run defence, tied in points allowed at 30th and were the 31st in getting to the quarterback.
Can what happened on offence last year happen on defence, marking an instantaneous improvement? I say yes. Bears finish second in the NFC North.
The single greatest question ever spoken is why? In the case of the Detroit Lions, the question is 'why did this team start the season 6-3 but end the season 1-7?'
There are conversations of discipline and professional apathy and the reality of Matthew Stafford's 14 turnovers and 54 per cent completion rate over the last seven games but the answer remains somewhat inconclusive going into the 2014 season. When you lose your final four and go 1-7, something has to happen, and it did. Jim Schwartz has moved on to run the defence not very far away in Buffalo and Jim Caldwell has been hired to try a different approach.
It's good for Caldwell in that his previous head coaching experience had Peyton Manning at quarterback. His present coaching experience he will have Stafford at quarterback. Stafford threw the ball 634 times last year, an extremely high number. I am sure the goal for this year's Lions team is not to put so much focus on pass protection and quarterback production.
Or maybe not. The best receiver in football is Calvin Johnson. His physical gifts are intense and sometimes so oblivious his skills as a receiver are overlooked. There are only five or six receivers that dictate coverage every play. Johnson is one of them. The closer you play your strong safety to the line of scrimmage, the more room Johnson has 1-on-1 in open space.
Stafford's success is due to many, including himself. But Johnson can make Stafford look good more than any other player. With 634 passes thrown by Stafford and only 19 interceptions, a key for Detroit will be to create more turnovers as they ended the season with a minus-12 takeaway/giveaway ratio. Detroit will score points but have to stop others from scoring as well. With Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler in the division, you can't expect to outscore everyone and win 10 games. The pass rush and pass coverage has to improve for dramatic success.
Caldwell has a calm demeanour as a head coach. He has taken a job where off-field issues created on-field concerns. I am sure his message has been given and heeded by the players. If not, Caldwell, with his wealth of experience, will sacrifice talent for conduct if needed.
The Lions have not had a home playoff game in 20 years. If the team was to be the surprise of the league this year, the fan response would be phenomenal as it has been so long. And to achieve an enthusiastic response this year, the most important weeks for Detroit are the last two (Week 16 at Chicago and Week 17 at Green Bay). To Lions fans, those two weeks mean everything to set up a first in 20 years: a home playoff game.
Detroit - Third in the NFC North.
The Minnesota Vikings will be an interesting team this year after hiring Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as head coach.
Some coaches are pullers and some are pushers. A puller is a coach that pulls you in to a program and works with you to improve. As you begin to believe in the program, you buy in and begin to win. Jim Caldwell comes to mind as a puller.
The other type of coach is a pusher and as you would expect, he pushes. He is the boss, no doubt, and uses pressure and confrontation sarcasm with a rare compliment to keep you sane. Bill Belichick is a pusher.
Both styles work and, as a pusher, Zimmer given time will work out well as coach of the Vikings. The best move he's made was hiring Norv Turner to run the offence and develop a quarterback. You can't say that Turner was a great head coach, but you can say he gets a lot out of quarterbacks.
The Vikings will also improve on defence and given time you will see the Bengals of just last year in purple uniforms. They will use multiple fronts, but with four or more good pass rushers and two exceptional cornerbacks, Zimmer knows exactly what he wants.
The number one question for the Vikings is how fast Teddy Bridgewater progresses. You don't trade up into the first round unless you believe in a player's future and have confidence in his past. With a running back like Adrian Peterson, two good offensive tackles in Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil, and a surprise player with Cordarrelle Patterson, Bridgewater is in an excellent situation.
This will be a tough year for the Vikings. They won only five games last year and looking at their schedule they may only win five again. In a five-game stretch this season, they play Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. And that run starts after playing an improved Rams team in St. Louis to begin the season.
I'm not sure if you can expect another 2,000-yard season from Peterson, but I am sure you can see an improved Vikings team under the demands of Zimmer, given time. Vikings finish fourth in the NFC North.