NFL Football 2017-18 Season
NFC North Division Preview
With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s the outlook of NFC North teams.
After eight years of teasing with rare flashes of talent but always underachieving, Jay Cutler is gone as the Bears leading quarterback. Mike Glennon is the successor. But Glennon is in a win-now-or-else situation, because the Bears used the second overall pick in the draft on Mitchell Trubisky, who general manager Ryan Pace hopes will become the team’s franchise quarterback. If Trubisky doesn’t deliver, Pace will soon follow Cutler out of town. Glennon got a three-year $45 million deal, but after the $16 million he’s guaranteed this year, just $2.5 million more is guaranteed. The hope is that by 2018, Trubisky will be ready to replace Glennon, or that Glennon plays well enough to keep the rookie on the bench for another year of seasoning.
Chicago lost its best offensive weapon in wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. To replace Jeffery, the Bears added free-agent wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright, both of whom fit best as slot receivers and are young enough to duplicate promising seasons they enjoyed earlier in their careers. They also add some much-needed speed to complement 6’3″ Cameron Meredith, an undrafted free agent in 2015 who had a breakout sophomore season in 2016 with 66 receptions for 888 yards.
The tight end position should be much improved within the Bears organization with the return of talented pass catcher Zach Miller and the addition of ascending, three-down player Dion Sims in free agency. The Bears also used a second-round pick on 6’6″, 277-pound Adam Shaheen, who could also contribute on all three downs provided he can make the jump from Division-II Ashland.
The run game is in excellent hands. Jordan Howard may have been the biggest steal of the 2016 draft after Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. The fifth-round choice from Indiana rushed for a Bears rookie-record 1,313 yards. He had a higher average per carry (5.2 yards) than Ezekiel Elliott.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off one of his best seasons. He passed for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, despite playing the last month with the middle finger on his throwing hand in a splint. Prior to that, he led the team to an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comeback wins. And he looked comfortable in his first full year with Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator, spreading the ball around in a controlled short passing attack.
What would make him even more comfortable this season would be an improved run game. The Lions ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing and didn’t have a back gain more than 70 yards in a game all season. But starter Ameer Abdullah is back after suffering a season-ending foot injury in Week 2 last season. He could form a dynamic tandem with Theo Riddick, a matchup nightmare out of the backfield. Riddick’s 80 receptions in 2015 tied for the lead among NFL running backs. The emergence of Zach Zenner as a viable fill-in starter provides some depth, but if Abdullah can’t stay on the field, it’ll spell trouble again.
Last year’s big free-agent addition — receiver Marvin Jones Jr. — started fast while trying to fill the cleats of retired star Calvin Johnson. But after a 205-yard, two-TD day at Lambeau Field in Week 3, his per-game averages the rest of the season (three catches for 44 yards) didn’t measure up. That’s one reason the Lions targeted another big wideout in the draft, Northern Illinois’ Kenny Golladay. He’ll compete for the No. 3 role behind Jones and Golden Tate. The wild card remains Eric Ebron, an athletic tight end who may never validate his top-10 draft choice but who has steadily improved.
Green Bay Packers
As quarterback Aaron Rodgers goes, so go the Packers. When he was less than stellar to start last season, the offense sputtered and suddenly critics began whispering about his magic being gone. Then he uttered his “run the table” remark, the Packers won their final six regular-season games and a pair of playoff games, and all was right with the world as Rodgers finished the season on perhaps the best run of his career. In the final seven regular-season games (six wins, one loss), he completed 69.7 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions (120.0 rating) — reminding everyone that he’s one of the game’s best.
The free-agent additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, combined with holdover Richard Rodgers, will create intriguing wrinkles to an offense that still has Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the emerging Davante Adams at wide receiver. The passing game will have to be its high-flying self, however, given the unproven situation at running back, where two-time 1,100-yard rusher Eddie Lacy left in free agency after last year’s season-ending ankle injury. Converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery is the starter, but with three draft picks at the position, that could change.
For the first time since 2006, the Vikings head into a season without running back Adrian Peterson as the face of their franchise and the engine that drives their offense. After nine weeks of coordinating a hybrid offense on the fly following Norv Turner’s surprising resignation last November, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has an entire offseason to install his own attack. He runs a West Coast system with a heavy dose of the shotgun looks that quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater prefer but Peterson struggled with.
At quarterback, Bradford is the undisputed starter in part because the Vikings believe Bridgewater will miss a second straight full season. as he works his way back from the career-threatening knee injury suffered last August. Bradford was exceptional last season. He arrived eight days before the regular season and set an NFL record for completion percentage (71.6) while throwing only five interceptions. He was durable, quick-minded, smart with the football and steady in spite of losing Peterson in Week 2, both starting tackles by Week 6 and Turner heading into Week 8.
Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook improve the league’s worst running attack instantly. Murray, a free agent acquisition, is a big back who can pass protect and make people forget last year’s repeated failures in short-yardage situations. Cook is a three-down back with first-round talent who fell into the second round in the 2017 draft. He needs polish in pass protection and ball security, but he’s a home run threat.
Shurmur is a pass-oriented coach but has worked to change the team’s run-blocking schemes to include more outside zone plays that could benefit Murray and Cook. Head coach Mike Zimmer is determined to run the ball to control the game and prevent a repeat of the plethora of three-and-outs that caused his defense to wear out down the stretch last season.
At receiver, the Vikings have two overachievers as starters in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Neither has the size of a typical number 1 receiver, so it’s time for the underachiever in the room — 2016 first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell — to bounce back after an injury-marred season saw him start only one game and catch one pass.