Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on. Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.
Now we head up north and take a look at the NFC North. Now I stayed as unbiased as I possibly could when it comes to this division. The Packers have dominated this division for the past decade plus. This year looks to be no different. Next season will be extremely different but that is a story for another day. Let’s take a look at the 2021 version of the NFC North.
- Green Bay Packers (2021 Prediction, 13-4)
This might have been the quietest team this offseason. I mean except for that whole, “Will Aaron Rodgers retire or be traded,” thing. All jokes aside we now know Aaron Rodgers will be under center for the Green Bay Packers in 2021 and that immediately makes them Super Bowl contenders. The question now is can they break that NFC Championship curse?
2020’s top scoring offense will be almost completely the same this year. Aaron Rodgers is coming off of his third MVP season and showed everyone last year that he still has plenty left in the tank. He and Matt LaFleur have gone 26-6 in their first two regular seasons together and made the NFC Championship in both of those years. There are still a couple of things to worry about. First, is there any tension between the head coach and quarterback after the decision to kick a field goal late in the NFC Championship while down by eight? Both say that there isn’t but we never really know the whole story. Rodgers keeps saying is issues are not with the coaches or his teammates so we will see if that translates on the field
Another issue is the turnover on the offensive line. They lost their All-Pro center Corey Linsley in free agency when he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers. They will replace him with rookie Josh Myers out of Ohio State. Maybe even a bigger loss is the best left tackle in football in David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari will miss at least the first six weeks as he works his way back from a torn ACL suffered on December 31st last season. They felt his absence in the NFC Championship with Tampa Bay. They will slide one of the most underrated linemen in the game in Elgton Jenkins out to left tackle. Jenkins has played snaps at every position on the line in his young career and has excelled at every single one. The left side should be alright but the left side of that line could be an issue against good pass rushers.
The good news is the Packers re-signed Aaron Jones over the offseason. Many thought he was going to be gone in free agency but he took a pay cut to try to get over that hump in Green Bay. They also have Davante Adams who absolutely dominated the NFL last season. Adams finished second in catches with 115, 1st in touchdowns with 18, and fifth in yards with 1,374 all while missing two and a half games. He is in the final year of his deal which will be something worth monitoring this season and next offseason. Also, guys like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan have taken steps forward and they brought back Randall Cobb to be a mentor for the young receiving core.
On defense, Green Bay stayed the same except for replacing Christian Kirksey with De’Vondre Campbell at middle linebacker. Kevin King got absolutely picked apart by Tom Brady in the NFC Championship but Green Bay still decided to bring him back after what was a solid regular season in 2020. Jaire Alexander is also in the final year of his contract and he has played himself into being one of the top corners in the league. Za’Darius Smith has a back injury which is something to keep an eye on but that isn’t expected to hold him out for long or possibly at all. Rashan Gary is a sleeper to pay attention to as he continues to get much better and is becoming a great pass rusher.
The biggest question is whether or not Aaron Rodgers has his heart in it this season. If he doesn’t it could be a replay of the miserable 2018 season that saw the Packers finish under .500. But the team and Rodgers say everyone is 100% bought in which makes this team a legit contender. The free agency dilemma is something to worry about after this season. Now it’s one last ride for these guys with a Super Bowl or bust mentality.
- Minnesota Vikings (2021 Prediction, 10-7)
Now we go to a team that I think will get into the playoffs but nobody is really talking about. The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of a very disappointing season and Mike Zimmer is on the hot seat in 2021. Zimmer is a defensive minded coach but the defense was a mess last season. The offense found some new weapons that could get this team back on track.
Kirk Cousins has not worked out like Viking fans hoped. He has put up solid numbers but a lot of those are late in games when they are down multiple scores. Adam Thielen had a down year last season but that was in large part due to the emergence of rookie Justin Jefferson. Jefferson looks to be a future top receiver in the league and he and Cousins seem to have clicked. They know they will be without starting tight end Irv Smith Jr. for the season after a meniscus injury. The success of the passing game will be based on Kirk Cousins’ decision making and how well this young offensive line can protect him.
The recipe for success for the Vikings is to feed Dalvin Cook the ball as much as possible. Cook can do everything from being a power back to using his fantastic speed for explosive plays. He is fantastic in the passing game especially when it comes to the screen game. After already having some great seasons, I still don’t think we’ve seen the best version of this dynamic back. The best way to take pressure off of Cousins is to minimize his impact on the game.
The days of the dominant Vikings defense are now gone. They are young at corner and opposing quarterbacks took advantage of that in 2020. Minnesota gave up the 8th most yards through the air and 6th most total yards on defense. They got some experience on the outside with the signings of Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland this offseason. Harrison Smith is still a force to be reckoned with at safety. He can help shutdown the air attack or step up and be a run stopper. Lastly, Danielle Hunter is back. He alone gives the Vikings some sort of pass rush without having to dial up a blitz. Will he be the same as he was before his neck surgery? Only time will tell. I don’t think this is a top 10 defense, but they will be much better than they were in 2020.
The Vikings are not as talented as they were in 2018 or 2019 but they still have enough to sneak in the playoffs. I don’t think they are quite ready to take the NFC North crown, but they will be a tough out for the top teams in the NFC. If Kirk Cousins can figure things out, they could even pull out a playoff win in January. If they don’t they will be looking for a new head coach in 2022.
- Chicago Bears (2021 Prediction, 5-12)
Now the Chicago Bears were a tough team to preview because I don’t think Andy Dalton lasts very long as their starting quarterback. It seems to be a when and not if Justin Fields takes over under center in the Windy City. I do think it will be too late for them to make up ground and contend in the division or Wild Card. It should be about the midway point before Fields takes the starting job so take that into account for this preview.
Andy Dalton is coming off an up and down year in Dallas. It was mostly bad but there were some flashes in there from his days in Cincinnati. Now he won’t have as good of weapons in Chicago as he had in Dallas which will make things even harder on him. His success has always been decided by the number of interceptions he has thrown. If he doesn’t turn the ball over, he can help keep his team in games. Justin Fields will be able to utilize the weapons better once he takes over. Fields also adds in a scrambling ability that Andy Dalton just doesn’t have. Allen Robinson II is the top dog in Chicago and always puts up numbers regardless of who is throwing him the ball. Darnell Mooney had a good showing as well in his rookie campaign. He will see a bigger role in Matt Nagy’s offense this season. The offensive line is going to be in rough shape which means they need to use shorter, quick throws to have success through the air.
The running back room is quite full in Chicago with the addition of Damien Williams to go along with David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen. Montgomery will be the lead back to start the season and that is in large part to how he ran the ball at the end of 2020. He broke 1,000 yards and had over 100 yards in three of his final six games. Tarik Cohen is a dangerous back in the receiving game but has seen his role diminish in recent years. He looks to be the odd man out in 2021. Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season and now looks to make an impact in his first season with the Bears. He is the better receiving back of the two and should also see some carries as well. The tandem of Mongomery and Williams should help take pressure off of Dalton.
Now there is no denying Khalil Mack is one of the best defensive players in football. He is an absolute freak of nature that causes nightmares for everybody. Roquan Smith continues to improve and flies all over the field playing sideline to sideline. Also, Akiem Hicks and Robert Quinn can create some havoc as well. This secondary is still not scary. If they can’t get to the quarterback, they will get picked apart. This defense is good but not deep. The depth isn’t there and a couple of injuries can completely decimate everything on that side of the ball. They will need to stay completely healthy for this defense to win them games but that is a lot to ask.
The Bears are headed in the right direction at the right time. Every other team in the division has major quarterback questions and decisions to make after this season. Chicago went out and got their guy in this year’s draft. Now it will all be about letting Justin Fields develop. Matt Nagy has a quarterback who can be more explosive on offense. Now it is on the head coach to evolve a stagnant offense.
- Detroit Lions (2021 Prediction, 1-16)
The Matthew Stafford era is over in the Motor City. Trading him to the Rams in the offseason was like hitting the reset button on a video game console. Jared Goff takes over for the Lions and he will be paired up with a new head coach as well. Dan Campbell is fired up and ready to go and has already shown more emotion than Matt Patricia ever did. It might be a new era in Detroit, but it won’t be a fun beginning to it.
Jared Goff is an average NFL quarterback. His thumb injury hindered him last season and gave him issues in the playoffs. That injury shouldn’t be an issue anymore. What could be an issue is the lack of weapons at the Lions disposal. Tyrell Williams is the top receiver in Detroit and he is coming off a season where he didn’t even play due to an injury. Now he returns on a one year prove it deal for the Lions. His best year was in 2016 when Phillip Rivers was slinging the ball and having a great season. He has struggled since then and doesn’t seem like a top receiver. The other receivers such as Kalif Raymond and Amon-Ra St. Brown are completely unproven. Not an ideal situation for a new offensive regime. T.J. Hockenson is the best receiving weapon for Detroit but that isn’t saying much.
I will say that I like the running back duo in Detroit. D’Andre Swift had a decent rookie season and can hurt you with his hands in the passing attack as well as his legs. They also went out and got Jamaal Williams from Green Bay. Williams was one of the better second string backs in the league in 2020. I think we will see a more even split in carries between the two and that will be the most exciting part of the Lions offense.
The Lions run defense was atrocious last season. Offenses constantly gashed the defense and they gave up the 5th most rushing yards last season. The bad news is the pass defense was even worse. They gave up 38 touchdowns through the air and 4,558 yards in their 16 games. They had all around the worst defense in the league and that includes being worse than a one win Jacksonville squad. Jeff Okudah only played in nine games last season but showed glimpses of how good he can be. If he can stay healthy that will help this defense. They will still be towards the bottom at the end of the season unless they all play above what they’ve shown.
I think the Lions are the worst team in football. That isn’t a bad thing if you need a full scale rebuild like they do. There will be few miserable years. That could be what it takes to get this team back to the playoffs. They will sneak in a win but the Lions will have the first pick in next year’s draft.
Matthew graduated in 2019 from Washington State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication with a specialization in Media and Journalism Production. He currently is a broadcaster and writer at Eli Sports Network. Baseball and football are his specialties but Matt covers anything he can. Follow him on Twitter @matt_king19