This NFL season will be unlike any other, with fans not in stadiums, at least to start, and teams under different protocols because of COVID-19.
Football will be football and the NFC North could be as topsy-turvy as it’s been in recent years, with three different teams winning the division each of the last three years. Could the Lions round out the quartet of champions this year?
With no preseason games, anything seems possible, but with quarterback Matthew Stafford back healthy and the offense looking to pick up where it left off last season, the Lions could be a surprise team to watch. The rest of the division got better too, so it’ll be an advantage for the teams that can adjust to the changes quickly in the COVID world.
From top to bottom, the North looks to be one of the most balanced divisions in the NFL. Here’s a look at how the North breaks down (in predicted order of finish):
► Last season’s record: 10-6
► Key additions: DE Yannick Ngakoue, WR Justin Jefferson
► Key losses: NT Michael Pierce, DE Everson Griffen, WR Stefon Diggs, DB Xavier Rhodes
► Outlook: Adding Ngakoue is as big a help as losing Pierce, who opted out because of COVID concerns. The defense again will carry the Vikings, but they’ll be without DE Danielle Hunter, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
Jefferson, their first-round pick, is projected to be an immediate-impact player to slide into Diggs’ spot. He’ll join Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook in a potent offense led by QB Kirk Cousins (Michigan State). If the offense clicks and the defense can be as good as it has in recent years, that should set the Vikings apart from the rest of the division this season.
Green Bay Packers
► Last season’s record: 13-3
► Key additions: OT Rick Wagner, LB Christian Kirksey, QB Jordan Love
► Key losses: WR Devin Funchess, LB Blake Martinez, OT, Bryan Bulaga, TE Jimmy Graham
► Outlook: The Packers made it to the NFC Championship last season, but getting back won’t be easy. As always, the conversation starts and stops with QB Aaron Rodgers — who turns 37 this season — but then who’s next?
The saga with Rodgers will be intriguing to watch, especially if the Packers hit some bumps in an unpredictable year. Drafting Love brought significant questions about how the Packers view the long-term future. It also fostered questions about why they didn’t try to build more around Rodgers on offense to make another run at the playoffs.
Questions remain about the defense and whether the offense can repeat the success of last season, especially with a tougher division around them. Aaron Jones rushed for more than 1,000 yards and had 19 total touchdowns. That production can bring some needed balance to take some of the pressure off of Rodgers to be other-worldly.
► Last season’s record: 8-8
► Key additions: TE Jimmy Graham, LB Robert Quinn, S Tashaun Gipson, QB Nick Foles.
► Key losses: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, DT Eddie Goldman, G Kyle Long
► Outlook: The Bears’ biggest decision may be what they do with QB Mitchell Trubisky in the long term — but for now, he looks to be the starter. Foles will provide some insurance as a second option in case things get sticky.
The Bears will lean on their defense, anchored by Khalil Mack, but no matter how good the defense is — and it’ll be good — they will only go as far as the offense can get them, which gets back to the Trubisky conversation.
Graham, along with second-round pick Cole Kmet, gives Trubisky an interesting set of tight ends and should help their pass production. If their offensive line can plow forward to improve the running game, it could be a surprising season, maybe even leading to the playoffs.
► Last season’s record: 3-12-1
► Key additions: RB Adrian Peterson, CB Jeff Okudah, LB Jamie Collins, DT Danny Shelton, S Duron Harmon.
► Key losses: DB Darius Slay, RT Rick Wagner, G Graham Glasgow
► Outlook: QB Matthew Stafford was having a spectacular first half of the season, but missed the second half due to a back injury, and the season went down the drain.
They’ll have a retooled defense, and new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin will have nowhere to take them but up, after finishing 31st in total yards allowed and spent more time on the field because of an anemic offense following Stafford’s injury.
After Peterson was released by Washington, the Lions quickly picked him up to bolster their young and injury-riddled backfield. It’s unclear how much Peterson, 35, can contribute, but his familiarity with Darrel Bevell’s offense could help his transition. After getting D’Andre Swift in the draft and getting Kerryon Johnson healthy, there’s optimism that the offense can be electric this season.