NFC North: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Bryan Altman

You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway less than a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into. 

So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready for another NFL season. 

Up on tap for today is the NFC North, a division that could see last year’s two-team race for the division crown between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings potentially turn into a four-team competition if the Lions and Bears can improve on last year’s sub-.500 records.

cutler NFC North: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chicago Bears

Camp Begins: July 27 – Bourbonnais, IL

Can Jay Cutler build on last year’s progress, if you consider it progress?

Ah, yes, let’s start with the enigma wrapped in a riddle that is Jay Cutler and his maddeningly, consistently inconsistent, career.

Cutler, now a 10-year veteran in the NFL, has pretty much unarguably failed to live up to the hype of being a franchise quarterback in Chicago. In his seven years with the team, he’s played in a grand total of two playoff games and has thrown far too many interceptions (104, to be exact) to be considered a success story, but he still makes the occasional throw or play that keeps the Bears coming back to the mercurial quarterback.

Last year Cutler put together arguably his best season in a Bears uniform from a statistical standpoint. While his completion percentage fell slightly from 2014 to 64.4 percent from 66.0 percent as did his number of passing TDs (21 down from 28), his interceptions, which have plagued him his whole career, fell from 18 to 11 and he put together his best quarterback rating (QBR) of his career at 92.3.

Still, how good was it actually? The answer, ostensibly, is not good enough. Cutler’s career best QBR was only good for 15th league wide among quarterbacks with 200 or more passing attempts and according to sportingcharts.com, his TD to INT ratio was 20th best among QBs who threw at least 10 TDs or more.

Still, since John Fox has taken over for the Bears Cutler has definitely improved. Whether that improvement continues without offensive coordinator Adam Gase (head coach of the Dolphins) by his side remains to be seen, but Alshon Jeffery staying healthy and No. 7 overall pick in 2015, Kevin White, getting and staying healthy should help continue the Cutler revival, if you think there’s one in the works, that is.

Is the Bears’ defense ready to crack the Top 10? 

Last year Vic Fangio’s unit wasn’t a Top 10 one by any stretch but they were far from the embarrassment that 2014’s defense was. That group ranked second to last in points allowed per game (27.6) and third to last in yards per game (377.1), but improved last year to rank 20th in points allowed per game (24.8) and 14th in yards per game (345.4).

Not amazing numbers, but baby steps, Bears fans.

Now, with an influx of new talent in 2016, the Bears’ defense is one that will surely be trending upward.

The new blood starts upfront with talented DE Akiem Hicks, who signed with the Bears this offseason to give them a big body on the end of their defensive line and help free up Pernell McPhee, Jerrell Freeman and newcomer, Super Bowl champion and hard-hitting linebacker, Danny Trevathan, who will anchor the linebacking corps for Fangio.

While the front seven of the Bears promises to be stout, concern remains in the secondary. The Bears’ secondary forced just eight interceptions last year, and while a portion of that falls on the front seven and an upgrade there should help, that’s not good enough.

While they didn’t allow a lot of yards through the air (3,593, 4th), they still allowed far too many TDs (31, T-25th).

The success of the secondary and the unit as a whole will ultimately depend on the front seven. If they can stay healthy and play up to snuff, the Bears could easily find themselves a Top 10 unit by year’s end.

How well can Jeremy Langford replace Matt Forte?

It remains to be seen whether the Bears were correct in their assessment that the now 30-year-old Matt Forte is in fact, over the hill. Statistically, Forte still had a very strong year in 2015. His yards per attempt were up (though still down by his standards) from 3.9 to 4.1, which was good for 10th among all running backs with 100-plus carries in 2015 and he still proved to be a weapon out of the backfield with 44 catches and 389 yards receiving.

That’s a whole lot of production for anyone to replace, let alone a 24-year-old, second-year back taking on a full workload for the first time.

On top of that, Langford didn’t exactly wow when he was given the opportunity much of last year. Langford carried the ball 148 times in 2015 and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and struggled mightily gaining yards after contact, averaging just 1.8 yards after contact, which according to Pro Football Focus was worst among a sample of 100 running backs.

How he works as a receiving option out of the backfield remains to be seen as he hauled in just 22 passes on 42 targets and had eight drops, but at least when he did make catches, he made them count and averaged 12.7 yards per reception.

Adding to the potential pitfalls for Langford are questions surrounding the Bears’ offensive line. Their projected starting unit consists of five guys under the age of 28 – three of which were drafted in either this year or last years’ drafts and the other being Bobby Massie, who is new to the team this year after signing this offseason.

Replacing a local legend is hard and Langford will certainly have his work cut out for him this year.

calvin johnson NFC North: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Detroit Lions

Camp Begins: July 23 (Rookies), July 28 (Veterans) – Allen Park, MI

What does life look like post Calvin Johnson?

‘Delusional’ is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but I’m struggling to think of another word for quarterback Matt Stafford’s comments on the team’s offense in lieu of Calvin Johnson. Stafford explaining why the Lions will be ‘tougher’ to defend without the six-time pro bowler on the field is really the definition of pretzel logic, folks.

Anyway, the truth is how the Lions decide to attack opposing defenses post-Johnson will go a ways towards determining how well this offense and Stafford perform this season.

The Lions have done well to improve their offensive line over the last few seasons and continued that trend by drafting Ohio State’s Taylor Decker, Michigan’s Graham Glasgow and Washington State product Joe Dahl, with their first, third and fifth round picks, respectively, which will undoubtedly help shore up what’s been a porous line in front of Stafford.

That should also help give Stafford more time to find new No. 1 target Golden Tate as well as the newly signed (to a questionably large contract), former Bengals wideout Marvin Jones.

Those big bodies up front should also help pave the way for the team’s projected starting running back, Ameer Abdullah, who was pleasantly productive in his first year with a minimal workload as he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 143 tries.

Could the Lions embrace Abdullah as a workhorse back in Johnson’s absence as a way to take the pressure (both literally in the form of defensive linemen and figuratively) off Stafford?

Could Marvin Jones or Golden Tate step up and fill half of Calvin Johnson’s monstrous shoes? Let’s look at the man who will ultimately have a major influence on deciding who does just that.

Will Jim Bob Cooter’s offense get figured out? 

After Lions’ coach Jim Caldwell made the call to fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombari mid-season, 32-year-old quarterbacks coach and the man with the best name in the NFL, Jim Bob Cooter, took over the role and saved Stafford’s season in one fell swoop.

Cooter simplified the offense from Lombardi’s notoriously difficult scheme that was giving Stafford fits in the beginning of the year and the end result was the QB throwing 12 TDs and 9 INTs under his watch. With Cooter at the helm, Stafford threw for 20 TDs and just 4 INTs and maintained a 110.0 QBR in nine games. If you didn’t already realize, those are absurd, starter-of-the-pro-bowl type numbers.

So the question is, now that there’s a half a year’s worth of film and a full offseason to digest Cooter’s schemes and strategies, will they still be effective?

Clearly he hit on a style of play that helped his quarterback out and that could be enough to keep things going in the right direction. But with no Calvin Johnson and a lot more knowledge on Cooter’s ways, success could be harder for the young coach and his offense to come by in 2016.

Can the Lions’ secondary continue to improve? 

Before their bye week last year (Week 9), the Lions were arguably the worst passing defense in the NFL. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell they allowed opposing QBs to post a collective QBR of 83.0 over that stretch, which was the worst in the NFL.

After the bye, however, the Lions improved and dropped that figure down to 67.0 and finished ranked 23rd overall in the category, which as Barnwell points out “isn’t great,” but isn’t dumpster fire bad either.

Secondary coach Tony Oden has turned the unit around and while they still have one of the conference’s better cover corners in Darius Slay, the Lions lost their second half of the year starter at strong safety in Isa Abdul-Quddus to Miami in free agency, leaving the tail end of the secondary bare yet again beside four-year starter Glover Quinn.

Fourth round pick Miles Killebrew out of Southern Utah university is more of a project and might not be ready to start this year even though he has reportedly looked good in OTAs – leaving Rafael Bush and Tavon Wilson to battle for the position that Abdul-Quddus provided so much stability to at the tail end of the year last year.

The unit still struggled last year and in a division with Aaron Rodgers that’s never ideal.

nelson NFC North: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Green Bay Packers

Camp Begins: July 25 – De Pere, WI

Will Jordy Nelson be the same? 

Aaron Rodgers is an other-worldly talent at quarterback, but even he struggles when his No. 1 target disappears for an entire year. Excluding his injury-riddled 2013 campaign, last year Rodgers registered his lowest totals in yards passing (3,821) and TDs (31), had his lowest QBR ever as a full-time starter (92.7), and threw the most interceptions he’s thrown since 2012 (8).

The logical conclusion is that Rodgers simply missed Jordy Nelson, who led the Packers in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns both years prior to tearing his ACL in the preseason last year.

Once training camp begins we’ll have a better idea of how Nelson is fairing in his recovery from the surgery, but it’s a near certainty that mentally and physically he’ll have multiple hurdles to get over once he returns to game action.

His return to form is an absolute must for the Packers as the only target they’ve added for Rodgers this offseason is fellow Cal Bear Trevor Davis, who will compete for (but likely not win) the No. 3 receiver job against Davonte Adams, Jeff Janis, Ty Montgomery and Jared Abbrederis.

Can their run defense improve and make them a Top 5 defense?

By every meaningful metric, the Packers are a rock solid defense against the aerial attack. Against the run, it’s a bit of a different story. Here’s a quick look at how they stacked up with the rest of the NFL’s defenses last season:

Passing Defense

Opp. QB Comp. % – 58.3 (4th) 

Yards Passing – 3,642 (6th)

TDs – 20 (6th)

INTs – 16 (9th)

Rushing Defense

Yards Rushing – 1,905 (21st)

Yards/Attempt – 4.5 (29th)

Touchdowns – 13 (T-23rd)

Yards Allowed/Game – 119.1 (21st)

Clearly the area the Packers need to improve in is pretty obvious. So what have they done to address these issues? Not much it would appear on the surface.

After long-time tackle and running game stalwart B.J. Raji stunned the Packers and announced he’s taking a hiatus from football, the Packers scrambled and drafted NT Kenny Clark with their first pick in the draft. But with their other nose tackle Mike Pennel suspended for the first four games of the year due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, the Packers are perilously thin at a vital position when it comes to stopping the run inside.

That leaves inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington – both of whom have shown promise, but have little experience with 13 starts between the two of them – to likely deal with offensive linemen who penetrate to the second level if their rookie NT can’t get the job done, which could leave Green Bay vulnerable against the run once again in 2016.

Is Eddie Lacy ready to roll? 

When your weight is your primary attribute being discussed on TV for a number of months and you’re not a candidate on ‘The Biggest Loser’ you know there’s an issue. But that’s the situation running back Eddie Lacy found himself in more times than not this past season/offseason as head coach Mike McCarthy called out the running back for being overweight.

Lacy, who was an absolute menace for defenders his first two years in the league, maybe let the success go to his gut and couldn’t get things going last year.

Now, reportedly, Lacy has slimmed down and is prepared to revert to his 2013-14 form where he rushed for over 1,000 yards both years and 20 touchdowns over the two seasons combined, compared to last year’s 758 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Lacy is an integral part of the Packers’ offensive strategy when healthy and he can batter a defense into submission while making life easier for Aaron Rodgers, so the Packers are certainly hoping the new and rejuvenated Lacy makes an extended appearance in 2016.

vikings NFC North: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Minnesota Vikings 

Camp Begins: July 28 – Mankato, MN

Can Adrian Peterson continue to thrive at 31? 

Adrian Peterson has proved to any and all doubters multiple times that he is special on the football field regardless of his off the field transgressions. At 31, he’s returned from an ACL injury to win an MVP award and he’s returned from nearly a full year out of football at age 30 and rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 TDs.

Now, in his second full season on the wrong side of 30, Adrian Peterson is facing a new challenge: Father Time.

Of course, there have been many successful backs on the wrong side of 30 and that’s especially true in recent years. However, Peterson’s importance to the Vikings and the amount that they rely on him makes the need for him to defy age even more vital.

Peterson led all rushers with 327 attempts last year and led the next closest back – Doug Martin of the Buccaneers – by 39 carries, which is an awful lot to ask of an aging running back even if he is one of the all time greats.

Will that wear and tear catch up with Peterson this year? If it does, the Vikings are going to certainly need a positive answer regarding the next question.

Can Teddy Bridgewater continue his development in Year 3?

While Bridgewater ranked near the bottom last year in many of the most important statistical categories for ranking quarterbacks, he got his team to the playoffs and helped them win a division title in Year 2, which is a feat in and of itself for a young quarterback in this league.

Still, if he wants to retain a firm grasp on the starting gig, he’ll need to vastly improve in Year 3, which is universally considered a critical year for a quarterback to prove that he’s got the stuff to be a franchise QB.

In his favor, there’s the fact that the Vikings now have the most expensive offensive line in the NFL. Obviously spending money doesn’t equate to results all the time (See: New York Yankees), but at least the Vikings are investing in protecting their hopeful franchise quarterback.

The Vikings signed Alex Boone and Andre Smith in free agency and that combined with center John Sullivan returning from a knee injury that kept him out all last year should give Bridgewater more time to work in the pocket.

One thing in his way last year was the blitz, which opposing teams used early and often against Bridgewater in passing situations. According to Bleacher Report, Bridgewater faced more pressures per drop back than any quarterback in the league by a long shot. He was pressured on 46.9 percent of his dropbacks and was sacked on 44 of them, which was the sixth-highest total among all quarterbacks in 2015.

Getting his offense back in shape, continuing to develop a rapport with Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph while adding a receiver like Laquon Treadwell in the draft should help the Vikings realize sooner than later whether Teddy Bridgewater is the QB of the future or not.

Can their defense take another step forward? 

When Bengals defensive coordinator left Cincinnati for Minnesota, he inherited one of the league’s worst defenses. In 2013, the Vikings allowed the most point of any team in the NFL, a situation Zimmer quickly rectified by instill a tough, old school styled approach upon his arrival and the results were positive immediately.

In 2014, Zimmer’s unit was 11th best in points allowed and last year they finished fifth in points allowed.

So that begs the question, can they continue to improve as a unit this year? On paper, there’s no reason to believe they can’t.

Minnesota’s front seven of linemen Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd and Brian Robison are as dominant as any unit in the NFC and the Vikings linebacking group, led by Anthony Barr, is deep and talented as well, giving the Vikings one of the best front sevens in football.

In the secondary, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes headline a unit that only gets deeper thanks to the addition of Clemson DB Mackensie Alexander, whom they picked up in the second round of the draft this year. He joins Rhodes, veteran Terrance Newman and Captain Munnerlyn and could be a key component in getting the Vikings deeper into the conversation of best defenses in football once 2016 gets underway.

Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.

Questions or comments? Feel free to follow Bryan on Twitter or send him an email.

 

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