Green Bay Packers: The Packers lost longtime playmakers Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson to free agency, but their roles will be replaced by third-year receiver Randall Cobb and second-year cornerback Casey Hayward. The Packers still have the NFL’s best quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and will be favored in most games as long as he is healthy behind center. In addition to Cobb, Rodgers has a variety of weapons on the outside such as a healthy Jordy Nelson and James Jones, a breakout player from last season. The key to the Packers offense, however, may fully depend on two rookies. Firstly, rookie running back Eddy Lacy will be asked to carry the load after last year’s postseason starter, DuJuan Harris, injured his knee in the preseason and was placed on Injured Reserve (IR). Lacy had a monster training camp and the coaches believe he could be a huge threat, especially inside the red zone with his tackle breaking ability. If Lacy is able to break tackles and become a threat on the ground, it could open up the play action for Rodgers to pick apart opposing defenses. The second rookie, David Bakhtiari, will start at left tackle for Brian Bulaga, who tore his ACL at the beginning of training camp. Bakhtiari will have the difficult role of protecting All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blind side, which could ultimately make or break the Packers chances at making another Super Bowl run.
Green Bay has recently dominated the division, going 11-1 over the last two seasons against the NFC North, but their schedule this season is amongst the toughest in the league. Ultimately the Packers may feast on the division, much like they have for the previous few seasons. However, their success will ultimately be determined on how the defense stops the read option, which various teams around the NFC use. After allowing 579 total yards to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff game, the Packers know that in order to get through the NFC and return to the Super Bowl, they must stop the read option offense. Whether that be Kaepernick and the 49ers, Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, or Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, the Packers know the chances are likely they will play a read option quarterback in the postseason at some point. In order to prepare for the read option, the Packers coaching staff went down to Texas A&M to receive coaching tips from Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin. The team also added first round draft pick Datone Jones, while last year’s first round pick Nick Perry returns from a broken wrist that shelved him on IR last season. The two both have the potential and skill set to help the Packers defense stop or at least contain the read option. The team will be put to test by the read option in the first two weeks of the season when they open up at San Francisco and host the Washington Redskins in Week Two.
Key Additions: DE Datone Jones, RB Eddie Lacy, DT Johnny Jolly, QB Seneca Wallace Key Losses: WR Greg Jennings, CB Charles Woodson, LB Desmond Bishop, WR Donald Driver, Brian Bulaga (IR) Projected Record: 11-5, Division Winner
Chicago Bears: New head coach Marc Trestman arrives in the Windy City after spending the previous five years in Canada, where he won two Canadian Football League titles. Trestman will come in with a new direction on the offensive side of the ball and could be the perfect fit for Jay Cutler, who is playing in his fourth different offensive system in the last five years. Trestman brings a heavily balanced offensive philosophy to the Bears, which should help Jay Cutler spread the ball around and not force him to throw the football into tight spots, which has plagued him in the past. The Bears still have Matt Forte, who, when healthy, is one of the game’s top ten running backs due to his pass catching ability and tough running style in between the tackles. Brandon Marshall returns for his second season in Chicago after reuniting with Cutler last season and delivering All-Pro numbers. Something underrated to keep an eye on is the Bear’s acquisition of tight end Martellus Bennett, who arrived in free agency from the Giants. Bennett is a super athletic tight end who showed flashes of skill, but also frustrated many fans in his one season with New York. If Bennett is able to put it all together, the Forte-Marshall-Bennett combination could give the Bears something special on the offensive side of the football.
On defense, the Bears lost future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, who called it quits after 13 seasons with the team. The addition of D.J. Williams may not even be an upgrade over the aging Urlacher who was playing on a bad knee all of last season. Williams is not the player he used to be earlier in his career when was a part of the Broncos and is now entering his tenth season in the NFL. Aside from seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs, the player to keep an eye on at linebacker for the Bears is rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic, who delivered a couple bone-crushing hits this preseason. Bostic, a second round pick from Florida, could start at some point this season and has the ability to develop into a capable replacement for Urlacher. The Bears also still possess one of the top pass rushers in the league in Julius Peppers, while Henry Melton will look to build on his first career Pro Bowl last season. In the secondary, the Bears have one of the most underrated players in the league in cornerback Tim Jennings, who led the NFL with nine interceptions last season. Even without Urlacher, the defense still has a plethora of playmakers and should remain one of the top units in the NFL at forcing turnovers.
Key Additions: TE Martellus Bennett, OT Jermon Bushrod, LB D.J. Williams, LB James Anderson, S Tom Zbikowski, LB Jonathan Bostick Key Losses: LB Brian Urlacher, LB Nick Roach, Geno Hayes Projected Record: 9-7, Miss Playoffs
Detroit Lions: The Lions had some of the worst luck in the league last season, most notably their Thanksgiving fiasco against the Houston Texans. However, Detroit has some of the best young talent in the league led by 25-year old quarterback Matthew Stafford who only two years ago threw for more than 5,000 passing yards and should rebound this season. The offense will receive an additional boost with the addition of free agent running back Reggie Bush. Bush could make the Lions passing game even more dangerous and should have a lot of open space underneath as opposing defenses will focus on Calvin Johnson. Last year, Johnson, the best wide receiver in the NFL, broke the NFL single season record for receiving yards with a total of 1,964. The real pressure this season is on Lions head coach Jim Schwartz who is entering his fifth season with the team. Schwartz took the team to the playoffs in 2011, but aside from his postseason appearance, the Lions are 12-36 in their three other seasons under his guidance.
The Lions could also have one of the most talented defensive lines in the NFL led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Suh is a monster up front and Fairley had a strong year last season in the interior. Detroit lost defensive end Cliff Avril in free agency to Seattle, but after drafting Ziggy Ansah number five overall and signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije in free agency, the defensive line should boast more length and speed up front. However, the secondary is still a huge question mark and if the front four does not produce pressure, quarterbacks could throw all over Detroit. Safety Louis Delmas is one of the hardest hitting defenders in the league, but injuries have plagued him (missing 13 games in his last two seasons). The Lions signed safety Glover Quin in free agency from Houston and drafted cornerback Darius Slay in the second round of last April’s draft. Both will step in and be instant starters to try to boost a pass defense that generated only 11 interceptions as a unit last season.
Key Additions: RB Reggie Bush, S Glover Quin, DE Jason Jones, DE Ziggy Ansah, CB Darius Slay Key Losses: DE Cliff Avril, LB Justin Durant, OT Gosder Cherilous, DT Sammie Hill Projected Record: 8-8, Miss Playoffs
Minnesota Vikings: Running back Adrian Peterson had one of the best seasons in NFL history last year, coming only nine yards short of the all-time single season record. What made it perhaps even more memorable was that it was less than one year removed from a devastating ACL tear. His goal this season? How about 2,500 yards? However, in order to do so, Peterson will have to have better quarterback play from starter Christian Ponder, who has thrown 31 touchdowns, but 25 interceptions in his two seasons in the NFL. Teams will continue to try and force Ponder to beat them and contain Peterson as much as possible, but that did not appear to slow down Peterson last season. In order to improve Ponder’s efficiency, the Vikings signed wide receiver Greg Jennings from their NFC North rival Green Bay Packers and drafted the electric Cordarrelle Patterson to replace the departed Percy Harvin. Ponder’s favorite red zone target Kyle Rudolph accumulated a strong season in his second year as a pro, totaling nine touchdowns and being named to his first Pro Bowl.
On defense, the Vikings lost All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield who was released due to a high salary. Although 36 years old, Winfield still played at a level as one of the top corners in the NFL last season. The Vikings do have Harrison Smith, who is arguably the top young safety in the NFL. As a rookie last season, the 2012 first round pick totaled 103 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions. Minnesota has also invested other early round draft picks in recent years on their secondary such as Xavier Rhodes (1st round, 2013), Josh Robinson (2nd round, 2012), and Chris Cook (2nd round, 2010). The defensive line has been one of the strengths for the Minnesota defense over the last few years, but this upcoming season should be the last as a group together. Five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen enters the final year of his contract along with position group mates Kevin Williams, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffin. Luckily, Florida defensive tackle Sharif Floyd slipped to the Vikings in the first round of last April’s draft and should add quality depth at the least in his rookie season. Overall however, the Vikings face a difficult schedule, opening up with two road divisional games and then an eight week stretch beginning in late October against teams that finished at least .500.
Key Additions: WR Greg Jennings, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, DT Sharif Floyd, CB Xavier Rhodes, QB Matt Cassel Key Losses: WR Percy Harvin, CB Antoine Winfield, LB Jasper Brinkley Projected Record: 6-10, Miss Playoffs