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By Carmen Vitali
FOX Sports NFC North writer
At first glance, the NFC North doesn’t look like the toughest division to figure out.
The Green Bay Packers will emerge with the crown. Right?
The Packers are going to undoubtedly still be the Packers, with or without wide receivers, because they have quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm. It’s as plain and simple as that. But there’s another team emerging as a formidable challenger, and it’s one we aren’t talking about enough as a collective.
The Chicago Bears.
Kidding. Relax, I’m not that much of a homer. In my first filing for FOX Sports, this Chicago-based sports reporter may be in the middle of Bears country — and she may have grown up in Bears country — but she’s a realist to her core. Chicago could end up surprising some people this season, but it likely won’t be with a deep run into the playoffs.
The team I’m talking about is the Minnesota Vikings.
I’m not saying they’re necessarily going to win the division, but I’m not not saying it, either. With a diluted field in the NFC, Minnesota could end up in the postseason without winning the division pretty easily. So even with two teams that are very obviously still building, the North could still be well-represented come playoff time.
Let’s take a closer look.
Green Bay Packers
Overview: These aren’t the locked-and-loaded Packers of the last few years after they proved not to be immune… to organizational turnover coming into this season. Wide receiver Davante Adams decided to find out what really happens in Vegas, and with him went a quarter of the Packers’ end-zone production from last year. Now, the big question is if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can elevate an unproven wide receiver corps, headlined by Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb and perhaps a rookie in Romeo Doubs who has come on strong in training camp.
Rodgers also has continuity issues along his offensive line, as both tackle spots remain questionable to start the season. Both David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins are coming off ACL injuries, though both have the potential to be ready for Week 1 — but at what capacity? That could also affect the run game, which Green Bay could look to lean on a bit more heavily with the passing game in flux. There remains continuity there; Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will be the two-headed monster in the Packers’ backfield yet again, though their utilization could drastically increase.
Rodgers won’t even have his usual cast on the coaching staff, though the team brought in a familiar face in Tom Clements after former quarterback coach Luke Getsy departed for the rival Chicago Bears. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is now in Denver and the Packers have a former offensive line coach in his place for 2022. And let me be perfectly clear — I simply love a trench guy getting the elevation, but it’s still another change for the 18-year NFL vet.
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That’s also the good news, though; Rodgers will be reinforced with a top-10 defense yet again. Or, at least, he should. Green Bay is stacked at all levels. General Manager Brian Gutekunst went against the grain in this year’s draft, selecting two defensive players before he gave Rodgers more offensive weapons. Both of those rookies, Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt, could and should have an immediate impact. The former Georgia Bulldogs are about as ready as any player can be coming out of college, though Walker will likely be the one who sees near-constant snaps.
Wyatt will be part of an interior rotation on the Packers’ defensive line, providing rest for guys like Jarran Reed, who the team added this offseason, and Dean Lowry. The Packers also have a solid nose tackle in Kenny Clark to round out their base 3-4 front and have two guys on the edge in Preston Smith and Rashan Gary who could be even more productive. Gary had a career-high 9.5 sacks last season after posting 7.0 sacks in his first two seasons combined.
The aforementioned Walker will be paired with De’Vondre Campbell, who was named a first-team All-Pro in his first season with the Packers last year, at the middle level. And as far as the secondary goes, Jaire Alexander became the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback in May, signing a four-year, $84 million contract extension despite injury issues last season. He should be fully healthy this year and lead the Packers’ back level along with veteran safety Adrian Amos as they likely improve on their 10th-ranked pass defense unit last season.
It’s not a stretch to say that Green Bay’s defense could very well be their strength this year – especially as Rodgers figures things out with his receiving corps. Between the defense mitigating the damage from opponents and the offense potentially leaning on the run game more, Green Bay is going to be just fine – and probably be poised for yet another deep postseason run.
Breakout Player: Is it too simplistic to say Romeo Doubs? He had an excellent camp, as countless others have mentioned before, and with the limited options at receiver, there’s a clear path to significant work for a guy with Doubs’ separation ability. Reports have emerged this preseason of Rodgers bestowing both praise and criticism on the young player — which has to be a good sign. If Doubs wasn’t an integral part of the plan, Rodgers likely wouldn’t bother at all.
W-L Projection: 13-4
Overview: If there’s a team in the league we collectively aren’t talking about enough, it may just be the Minnesota Vikings. Looking at this roster, you’d struggle to find an obvious weakness, which is more than you can say for most.
They’re coupling that with a new staff led by Head coach Kevin O’Connell, who is fresh off a Super Bowl victory with the Los Angeles Rams. As the offensive coordinator, O’Connell dialed up all sorts of things with quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. Stafford, who had become stagnant in Detroit, thrived in Los Angeles — throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.
The Rams also had one of the league’s best receivers in Cooper Kupp at their disposal. Kupp quickly became downright feared by opposing defenses, catching 145 of 191 targets for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
That’s all to say, O’Connell now has Justin Jefferson and perhaps a somewhat stagnant quarterback in need of a little spark in Minnesota.
The Vikings went 8-9 in 2021. Cousins played 16 games, going a perfectly average 8-8 and throwing for 4,221 yards and 33 touchdowns. Now, those are also perfectly respectable numbers, boasting the league’s lowest interception rate on top of them, and it earned Cousins his third Pro Bowl nod of his career. But he’s hovered in that same statistical area for years. If Minnesota dreams of deep playoff runs, Cousins is going to need to be better — and he looks to have the tools to do it.
Jefferson is already a superstar, coming off back-to-back Pro Bowls to start his career. Last season, Jefferson caught 108 of 167 targets for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns, and given the way O’Connell can scheme receivers open (a la Kupp), expect both of those stats to go up in 2022.
Now consider that the Vikings have one of the best running backs in football in Dalvin Cook, who has had no fewer than 1,100 yards in each of the last three seasons, leading the way. They are a complete offense and with an innovative play caller now in charge, they could end up as one of the best in the NFL — yes, even with Cousins still under center. Especially with Cousins under center?
All this talk about offense isn’t to say the defense is deficient. The Vikings have a complete roster in general, save for maybe a secondary that could be left wanting. But even that may not be the case after they brought in some rookie reinforcements in safety Lewis Cine and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. Those two should complement veterans like Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith as part of Minnesota’s coverage unit.
Up front, you’ve got Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith who can play off each other on the edge. If they don’t take down opposing quarterbacks themselves, they can at least force them into some mistakes that should open up opportunities for the secondary — or even the linebackers. Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks are directing this whole production from the middle and on top of all of that, they have some depth, too.
This is all to say that Minnesota has one of the most complete rosters in the league. So, again, I ask, why aren’t we talking about them more?
Breakout Player: This isn’t a sexy pick, but it could very well be rookie right guard Ed Ingram. It’s going to have to be, as the team doesn’t really have another option but to start the former LSU Tiger. The offensive line in general is going to have to be much-improved, which won’t be hard given their 27th-ranked pass block rate according to PFF last season.
Win-Loss Prediction: 12-5, though it may be a slow burn to start the season.
Overview: Practically everything has changed for the Chicago Bears, as they came under a new regime and subsequently stripped the team down to the studs to start a rebuild. The catch here is they have a young quarterback who still needs to be protected and developed — which is hard to do with a talent deficiency. They’re essentially trying to have their cake and eat it, too, toeing the line of overhauling a roster to build a foundation that fits the current system while still insulating Justin Fields with enough talent so as not to stunt his growth. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition that doesn’t lend itself to a whole lot of patience. They essentially have a year to figure it out if they want to maximize having Fields, who could be the future of the franchise, on his rookie deal.
To their credit, the 2023 outlook does look much better. They’ll still be paying their quarterback relative peanuts, have a full slate of draft picks and have nearly $100 million in cap space if this all goes to plan. They’ll be in the second year of head coach Matt Eberflus’ system and may have a decision on where the team will call home going forward, eliminating some off-the-field distractions they’re currently contending with. That all sounds like a promising future, but it doesn’t really do much for 2022.
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Expectations are low this season. And that’s ok. Building something from the ground up that’s meant to last isn’t going to happen overnight. What’s the cliché? Rome wasn’t built in a day. Yeah, neither was Chicago.
As long as Fields takes a step forward and is kept upright enough to avoid injury and execute this offense as it’s supposed to be executed, the season will have served its purpose. The defense should even keep them in some games and with the fourth-easiest schedule of any team, winning seven to nine games isn’t out of the question.
Speaking of that defense: where the Packers’ defense could be their strength, the Bears’ defense will be their strength. They’re returning to a defensive-minded head coach in Eberflus and snagged two immediate-impact rookies in Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker with their first two picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. Gordon has already earned his stripes and is taking snaps as the team’s top nickel corner while Brisker continues to be everywhere the ball is. Brisker’s physicality has also allowed veteran safety Eddie Jackson to play ‘freer,’ in his words, so we should see a return to form for him. The team has a solid interior rotation on the defensive line thanks to a waiver-wire pickup of Armon Watts from Minnesota. They have an edge rotation that includes Robert Quinn, who broke the franchise sack record last season with 18.5, and the upward-trending Trevis Gipson on the opposite side. Gipson should rotate with Al-Quadin Muhammad, who Eberflus brought with him from Indianapolis. Muhammad had 6.0 sacks for the Colts last season and is now perhaps the most comfortable of any player in the team’s new 4-3 system.
That brings me to a linebacking corps that has Roquan Smith leading the way with something to prove. After a failed hold-in where he and the Bears couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension, Smith is now betting on himself. It’s clear from his trade-request comments just a few weeks ago that he has taken up the sword for inside linebackers league-wide. He’s fighting for the biggest contract he can, and the only way for him to get it now is to continue playing out of his mind. He clearly feels a deep sense of duty to his teammates too, so expect him to have a year — from whichever linebacker spot he ends up occupying.
Breakout Player: One player we haven’t talked about yet, but one who may also have a monster year, is tight end Cole Kmet. Every indication is that behind wide receiver Darnell Mooney, Kmet will be Fields’ second-most targeted player. Both Kmet and tight end Ryan Griffin talked this preseason about how much tight ends are asked to do in Getsy’s system and Kmet looks like he’s about to put it all together in his third year. Primarily a blocking tight end at Notre Dame, Kmet has developed into a receiving threat, making him that ever-coveted true ‘Y’ tight end that seems increasingly elusive in today’s NFL.
W-L Projection: 7-10
Overview: If you break enough kneecaps, eventually your opponent will just have to forfeit, right? We all got an up-close look at head coach Dan Campbell’s philosophies on HBO’s Hard Knocks this season, and somehow Campbell got us all to lean into the cliches right along with him. He’s easy to root for — and from what it seems like, easy to play for, too. He’s the ultimate player’s coach, employing plenty of former players on his staff, which makes it easy to connect with the guys actually taking the field on Sundays (usually at noon CT). He’s been there before and has been on the other side of cut days. But being the lovable-loser Lions has never been Detroit’s issue. It’s the loser part that they’re looking to change. Don’t look now, but they could be on their way in 2022.
With a culture shift comes belief, and that’s a crucial first step for a roster that isn’t quite there yet, much like their Chicago counterparts. Though unlike the Bears, the Lions offensive line is far from their biggest question mark. I’d go so far as to say the offensive line is the strength of this team and could be one of the league’s three best units. Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker are one of the best tackle tandems in the NFL. Frank Ragnow is one of the league’s best centers and guards Tommy Kraemer and Jonah Jackson round out the absolute unit that is Detroit’s front five.
That should bode well for running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. It should also give quarterback Jared Goff the time he needs to find some under-the-radar weapons in Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson, provided the latter is healthy. There’s also a new addition to the wideout room; more on him in a bit.
Detroit’s defense will be the bigger question mark. They added the homegrown Aidan Hutchinson with their second-overall pick in this year’s draft. He looks to be everything the coaches hoped he’d be, if we’re going off the testimonials in Hard Knocks and, well, his preseason performance.
The linebacking corps is unproven and the secondary has failed to meet expectations up until this point. Both corners Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah need to take a big step forward to give this defense a chance this year.
Breakout Player: Wide receiver D.J. Chark is going to get a fresh start in Detroit and could end up being a great complement to St. Brown for Goff. With the aforementioned offensive line, Goff should have no problem finding time to look around for receivers and I’d guess he’s going to find Chark quite a bit. If he does, I’m also going to have a popular children’s song in my head a lot when watching the Lions.
Win-Loss Prediction: 8-9
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her resume. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV
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