NFC North 2018 Team Previews

Get an overview of NFL 2018 with our team-by-team previews. This time we look into the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings, the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers and then the Chicago Bears.

Overview

The NFC North is also known as the Black and Blue Division because of its tough rivalry games and the Frostbite Division since up until the mid-70’s all home games were played in the cold.

In 2017, the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings played their home games indoors and the only divisional game they lost was to the Lions. They came within one game of the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t close against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Vikings lost 38-7. With a hot new (and highly paid) quarterback and a stellar defense, Minnesota’s looking to repeat as NFC North champs.

The second place Detroit Lions started last season at 3-1 but then lost four out of five and ended 2017 the same as they did 2016, with a 9-7 second place record. But this time it was with no Wildcard spot, which led to the firing of four year head coach Jim Caldwell. The day after the Super Bowl they hired a guy from New England who knows a little something about offense.

Last season, the Green Bay Packers got to a promising 4-1 start, but then franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The Packers lost 8 out of the 11 remaining games and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a healthy Rodgers, the Pack is back in 2018 and will be gunning for the playoffs once again.

The 2017 Bears used a rookie quarterback to improve on their 2016 record of 3–13 and finish at 5–11. But by failing to make the playoffs, leading the Bears to their fourth consecutive losing season and going 14-34 overall, head coach John Fox and his offensive coordinator were let go and more offensive minds were brought in for the 2018 season.

The Minnesota Vikings

As fantastic as last season was for the Minnesota Vikings – they went from an 8-8 record in 2016 to a 13-3 record in 2017, they were champions of the AFC North, they advanced to the NFC Championship game – losing in that final game to the Eagles 38-7 was a bitter way to end the year.

The huge difference in that score reflected the unbalanced nature of the Vikings’ 2017 team. Their defense was ranked 1st in the league overall, first in points allowed per game (15.8) and 2nd in passing yards allowed (192.4), but their offense was ranked 11th in the league, 11th in points scored per game (23.9) and 11th in passing yards per game (234.4).

General manager Rick Spielman and fifth-year head coach Mike Zimmer decided that the Vikings were one pass rusher and one franchise quarterback away from the Super Bowl so this offseason they made their  moves.

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This Vikings offseason yielded a Cousins and a Richardson

In 2017, for the third consecutive season, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (aged 29) threw for over 4,000 yards, connected for 27 TDs with 13 picks for a passer rating of 93.9 while also running for 179 yards and 4 more touchdowns. Cousins ended up being a free agent ranked 94th on the NFL Top 100 Players of 2018 and the Vikings found their franchise man.

Spielman, having spent several seasons making $53 million in salary cap space, signed Cousins to the first ever fully guaranteed and highest paying NFL contract for $84 million over three-years. And he didn’t stop there.

Veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson was signed to a one-year deal. Richardson had 15 starts in 15 games for the Seahawks and finished with a total of 44 combined tackles (27 solo), 1 sack, 1 pass defended, 1 interception and a forced fumble.

Vikings defense will be just as good

Richardson will join fifth year defensive coordinator George Edwards’ solid line that includes defensive ends Everson Griffen (2nd team All Pro) and Danielle Hunter, who was good for 7 sacks last season and 12.5 the season before.

At the end of 2017, 2x Pro Bowl linebacker Chad Greenway retired so Anthony Barr has to step up in his place with effective middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who had 113 combined tackles, a sack and a pick last year.

The secondary that ranked 2nd in passing yards allowed per game (192.4) is returning including All Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes (56 combined tackles and 2 INTs) and hard hitting All Pro safety Harrison Smith (78 combined, 1.5 sacks and 5 INTs). Then add their first round pick from UCF, cornerback Mike Hughes, an aggressive interceptor who also excels in the return game, averaging 31.8 yards per kickoff return.

An improved offense ready to go

Offensive tools are in place for Cousins with second team All Pro wide receiver Adam Thielen (91 receptions for 1,276 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2017) and Stefon Diggs (64 catches for 849 yards and 8 TDs last season) both returning. 

Soft-handed tight end Kyle Rudolph, who snagged 57 passes for 532 yards and 8 TDs last season, should have even better numbers connecting with Cousins.

An improving offensive line mostly assembled last year should keep Cousins protected. The squad, including All Rookie center Pat Elflein, gave up just 27 sacks all season, which tied for the seventh fewest in the NFL. It will be new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s job to make sure they give Cousins plenty of time to throw and running backs Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook plenty of holes to run through.

Last year Murray ran the ball 216 times for 842 yards and his 8 TDs tied for fourth best in the NFL. Cook backed him up well with 74 carries for 354 yards and 2 TDs.

Auburn Kicker Daniel Carlson was drafted in the fifth round to probably replace Kai Forbath, who missed six field goals and five extra points in 2017.

Bottom Line: If 2018 isn’t the Minnesota Vikings’ year, it may never be, especially since a lot of contracts will be coming up soon. With an energized Cousins leading the way and a top notch defense  keeping opponents’ scores down, look for the Vikings to not only repeat as NFC North champions, but to make another run at the Eagles and the Super Bowl.

ESPN predicts the Vikings will go 10-6 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Vikings will go 10-6 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Vikings 2018 over/under win total at 10.5

The Detroit Lions

The 9-7 Detroit Lions only made second place in the NFC North last season because Aaron Rogers’ broken collarbone kept his Green Bay Packers from winning more than seven games. The Lions’ 27th ranked defense was pathetic against the pass, allowing 243.3 yards per game, while their 13th ranked offense only rushed for 76.3 yards a game, last in the NFL. 

By hiring famed defensive coordinator from the New England Patriots, Matt Patricia, for the job of head coach, the Lions are hoping the man who created a run game out of nothing in New England and who helped make Tom Brady tick will be able to do the same in Detroit.

And it all starts with Matthew Stafford

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Stafford is ready to shine

For all ten of his NFL seasons, quarterback Mathew Stafford has been a Lion. Last year he threw for 4,446 yards and 29 touchdowns (both good enough to rank 3rd in the league) and only 10 interceptions for a completion percentage of 65.7 and a rating of 99.3. He was sacked 47 times (only five teams allowed more) but was still able to throw for a 261.4 yards per game, which was sixth best in the NFL.

To help protect Safford better, second year general manager Bob Quinn drafted center Frank Ragnow (Arkansas) in the first round to replace departing free agent Travis Swanson, his mentor for that position in college. Quinn didn’t allow a single sack his entire time as a starter.

A healthy Taylor Decker returns at left tackle after undergoing shoulder surgery last season and missing the first eight games. Decker had played every snap on offense in 2016 and was voted Rookie of the Year by the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association.

The Lions offense has some tools

Fifth year offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s 32nd ranked running offense only averaged 76.3 yards per game. So the Lions signed Super Bowl LII winner LaGarrette Blount to a one year, $4.5 million deal. Blount will likely take most of the snaps until the powerful Auburn running back drafted in the second round, Kerryon Johnson, can become the man. In his final year at college, Johnson ran the ball 285 times for 1,391 yards and 18 TDs and caught 24 balls for 194 yards and 2 TDs.

Returning wide receiver Golden Tate is the centerpiece of the Lions passing game. Every season since 2014 Blount has averaged at least 90 catches and at least 800 yards, catching 92 for 1,003 in 2017 and there’s no reason to think he won’t do the same in 2018.

Wide receiver Marvin Jones returns for his sixth NFL season after having the best year of his career catching 61 balls for 1,101 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2017.

The Detroit defense needs work

Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqaloni was hired to help improve the Lions’ 27th ranked defense. He’ll get to work with drafted defensive end Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama), who the Lions got by giving up a 2019 third-round pick to move up in the fourth round. Hand gives the Lions an option on the defensive line in multiple spots.

After his numbers dropped a bit in 2016, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah had the big 2017 he needed combining for 44 tackles and getting 12 sacks. The Lions placed the franchise tag on him that will pay $17.5 million in 2018.

All Rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis is returning after a big 2017 combining for 96 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception. All Pro cornerback Darius ‘Big Play’ Slay hopes for a repeat of his 2017 when he combined for 60 tackles and had 8 interceptions, which ranked 2nd in the league.

Bottom line: Under Patricia and led by Stafford, the 2018 Detroit Lions have a great chance at being decent, especially if Pasqaloni is able to improve his defense at all. But the fact remains that to win the division they have to get past a Cousins led Vikings team and the Packers with a healthy Aaron Rogers. It looks like a third place finish in 2018, and that’s if all goes well.  

ESPN predicts the Lions will go 9-7 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Lions will go 8-8 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Lions 2018 over/under win total at 7.5

The Green Bay Packers

The 2017 Green Bay Packers started out winning 4-out-of-5 of their games and it looked like another playoff bound season. But when quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6, the Packers could only win three more games, missed the playoffs and ended up shedding their general manager and both their offensive and defensive coordinators.

Plenty of Packer fans are now remembering the last time Rodgers returned from a similar injury in 2014 and brought the team to a 12-4 record and an NFC Championship appearance while personally scoring the MVP award.

Rodgers claims he’s going to repeat that performance in 2018.

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The offensive line has to be better

Brett Hundley started at quarterback for the injured Rodgers and threw for 1,836 yards, 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, 270 rushing yards and 2 rushing touchdowns.

But he was sacked 29 times.

In fact, Green Bay allowed 51 sacks total in 2017, which is 30th in the NFL, and not a good indication that you’re keeping the franchise quarterback safe. The same offensive line returns including second team All Pro tackle David Bakhtiari, who was #91 on the list of Top 100 Players of 2018 as voted by his peers.

Tackle Brian Bulaga, who’s still healing his torn ACL, hopes to have a spot, but if not they’ve signed free agent tackle Byron Bell (DAL) to fill in. First year general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted tackle Cole Madison (Wash State) not to replace Bulaga but to play guard and give the line more versatility.

The Packers defense needs to improve, too

Green Bay ranked 23rd in pass defense, allowing 236.8 yards per game. In an attempt to fix that, Gutekunst fired long-time defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose defenses stopped being great in 2011 and kept getting worse, and hired Veteran NFL defensive coach Mike Pettine.

Gutekunst also drafted cornerbacks in the first round, Jaire Alexander (Louisville), and the second round, Josh Jackson (Iowa) and brought back free agent cornerback Tramon Williams who was a Packer from 2007 through 2014 and had 28 total interceptions during that time.

To help get at opposing quarterbacks, Green Bay brought in free agent left defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ) who had 3.5 sacks and a pick for the Jets last season.

Nose tackle Kenny Clark and right end Mike Daniels return and with Wilkerson’s help hope to get at the quarterback more than they did in 2017, when the Packers had only 37 sacks total, 19th in the league led by the Steelers, who had 56.

Brought depth to the linebackers by trading up for two fourth round picks and drafting Oren Burks (Vanderbilt) who’ll play inside linebacker so Clay Matthews won’t have to so much.

The Green Bay offense is ready to go

2018 will be head coach Mike McCarthy’s 13th season and he’s brought back offensive coordinator Joe Philbin who was the Packers OC from 2007 until 2011 before he was hired away as the Dolphins head coach. Philbin and a healthy Rodgers have a lot to work with, including new backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, who hopes to do something in 2018 that he was never allowed to do in 2017, his zero wins and sixteen losses rookie year in Cleveland – sit and learn.

Speedy second year running back Aaron Jones is primarily a rusher. Jones ran for 488 yards in 2017 and 4 touchdowns and only caught 9 balls for 22 yards but had 0 fumbles.

Returning wide receivers Davante Adams (74 catches for 885 yards and 10 TDs last season), Randall Cobb (66 catches for 653 yards and 4 TD’s) and Geronimo Allison (23 catches for 253 yards) can’t wait to catch balls from Rodgers again.

Second year tight end Emanuel Byrd will be seeing less playing time since veteran free agents Jimmy Graham (SEA) and Marcedes  Lewis (JAX) were signed. For a three-year, $30 million deal, Graham brings playoff experience and great hands – last year he caught 57 passes for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Lewis, about to play his 13th season, scored a one-year, $2.1 million contract and is no offensive slouch either – in 2017 he grabbed 24 catches for 318 yards and 5 touchdowns. 

Bottom line: The Green Bay Packers will give the Vikings and Lions a run for their money in 2018. Head coach McCarthy knows how to win, the proof being his 131-78-1 overall record. As long as Rodgers stays protected, the Packers could be a legitimate Super Bowl LIII contender.

ESPN predicts the Packers will go 11-5 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Packers will go 10-5 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Packers 2018 over/under win total at 10.5

The Chicago Bears

Though their 2017 record of 5-11 was a two-win improvement over the previous season, it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs or keep head coach Jon Fox his job. General manager Ryan Pace got busy, canned Fox and brought in the former offensive coordinator for the Chiefs Mike Nagy as well as a new offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich after Dowell Loggains left for the same job in Miami.

With a 10th ranked defense, the problem looked to be the offense, which ranked 30th, worse than every 2017 NFL team but two. It comes down to the Bears offense needing to score more points – they were 29th in the league scoring just 16.5 points per game. Probably because the Bears used their rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky after Mike Glennon got to a 1–3 start. 

In 2018, Trubisky’s numbers have to get better, and to do that this offseason Pace went out and got him some weapons.

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Players Trubisky can now throw to

Last season Trubisky only threw for 175.7 yards per game, which was last in the league, and he put up some other rookie numbers, too. Trubisky threw for 2,193 yards and 7 touchdowns but with 7 picks on top of 10 fumbles, 3 of which he lost. This offseason, Pace used free agency and the draft to gather Trubisky some more targets.

The Bears signed two new wide receivers – Allen Robinson (JAX), who’s healthy after missing 2017 with an injury, and Taylor Gabriel (ATL) who’s hoping Chicago will be the steady home he’s been searching for. Pace also traded two 2019 second-round picks and a fourth-round pick to trade up and pick wide receiver Anthony Miller (Memphis) in the second round. Miller’s considered a steal and should be an instant contributor on offense in the slot.

And finally, Pace brought in tight end Trey Burton (PHI) who caught 23 passes for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns last season and gives Trubisky a perfect quick out target.

The Bears running game is on point

The Bears rushing game did better than the passing side of the ball, ranking 16th with 111.8 yards gained per game. That was due primarily to Jordon Howard, who had an impressive season running for 1,122 yards and 9 touchdowns, following up his 1,313 yards and 6 touchdown rookie season rather nicely.

Once again Pace was moving in the direction of a more solid offense when he drafted center James Daniels (Iowa) in the second round to possibly play left guard and solidify the inside of the offensive line to create bigger holes for Howard and to keep Trubisky safe after allowing 39 sacks last season.

Chicago’s defense looks to be solid once again

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense ranked 10th in the league last season, but Pace still felt the need to improve on a squad that sacked opponent’s quarterbacks 42 times last season, good enough for 7th in the NFL. He drafted outside linebacker Roquan Smith (Georgia) in the first round while adding pass rusher Aaron Lynch, an outside linebacker from San Francisco.

With the return of cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (69 combined tackles and 2 interceptions) and Prince Amukamara (45 combined tackles) expect the Bears pass defense to be just as effective as in 2017 when they only allowed 211.1 passing yards per game, 7th best in the NFL.

Bottom Line: In 2017, no Chicago Bears players were selected to the Pro Bowl and it was the first season since 1969 that the Chicago Bears failed to win a game against a divisional opponent. With a schedule tied for 8th toughest and a potentially excellent but still very young quarterback and running back, 2018 might not be much different. It looks like the Bears will be hanging out in the bottom of the NFC North for at least another season.

 ESPN predicts the Bears will go 7-9 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Bears will go 6-10 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Bears 2018 over/under win total at 6.5

Final Take

With a Rodgers / Cousins / Stafford duel about to happen in 2018, the NFC North looks to become the Black and Blue division once again. If those three quarterbacks can stay healthy and Stafford’s play rises to meet his elite competition, it’s really anyone’s division. As long as you’re not the Chicago Bears, that is.

NFL 2018 Season Previews

American Football Conference (AFC)

National Football Conference (NFC)