The NFC North features three rookie coaches....and another coach in just his 3rd season. To say the least, this is a division in flux. Every team has a QB controversy....even the Packers. Every team also has a running back by commitee...so to speak [well, maybe not the Lions]. And for as good as the Bears defense may be....every other defense sucks.
COACH'S STATE: Lovie Smith was named the AP Coach of the Year last year. His defensive background has helped cultivate one of the NFL's best young defenses. Oh, and he's the only head coach in this division that didn't lose his job after last season.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Ricky Manning Jr leaves one darn good secondary in Carolina and adds yet another great defensive back to an already great secondary in Chicago. He may not even get to start...but he didn't get to as a Panther either. However, he is aggressive and covers fairly well.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Manning will take the place of Jerry Azumah, who injured his neck in the NFC playoff game against Carolina. He has retired...just two years after being a Pro Bowl kick returner.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: This may be QB Rex Grossman's last shot at showing he is a true blue NFL quarterback. He has the skills....just not the stamina. Last year, the Bears won 10 games with Kyle Orton as the starter. The Bears can also lean back on Brian Griese, who has been a starter in this league before. Skill is one thing in this league...but consistency is another. And NFL teams want to have signal callers that can stay on the field. He's the starter for a reason. The team believes in him and their offense is at it's best when he's in the huddle.
OFFENSE: Even though the QB spot can be in a state of flux, the Bears want to run the ball. Last year, Thomas Jones had a career year as the main cog of the offense [only Tiki Barber accounted for more of his team's percentage of yardage]. But, the Bears drafted Cedric Benson to be the man...and he'll get a good look this year. Also, Adrian Peterson looked good when he got to play. So, the Bears will be pounding the ball. When they have to pass, it is Mushin Muhammad or nothing.
DEFENSE: This is where the bread is buttered. The Bears have a stingy defense that is also very opportunistic. They play a cover-two....that was exposed in the playoffs by Steve Smith. Still, this defense has strength in all three levels plus have great leaders like Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Nathan Vasher.
SCHEDULE: Well, getting six games against the NFC North is always a good thing...especially when you are the top dog. The first three games of the season [and the last two] are against division foes. They also get the NFC West which has doormats San Francisco and suspect Arizona and St Louis in it. The oddity in the Bears sked is that they play at New York two weeks in a row [Giants first, then Jets] before heading up to New England.
OUTLOOK: The Bears are the top dog in this division. Their offense isn't much, but their defense is better than an All Star defense from the other three teams. They don't have to have great offensive game to beat you...which allows for some off nights passing. And with a relatively easy schedule, the Bears could end back up as the #2 seed in the NFC.
COACH'S STATE: Brad Childress takes over the mess which is the Vikings. Mike Tice barely hung onto his job leading into last season....then Onterrio Smith's Whizzinator stunt and suspension, Daunte Culpepper's knee blew out and the Sex Cruise incident left this team as a laughingstock. Childress is about keeping order [odd, since he came from Philly which had it's own drama]
BIGGEST ADDITION: There are a couple...but Chester Taylor tops my list. Taylor may finally erase that 5-back offense in which they employed the last couple of years. Taylor could be the next LaMont Jordan. Like Jordan, Taylor sat as a backup for a premiere back [Jamal Lewis in Baltimore]. Like Jordan, Taylor is a very good receiver out of the backfield. Childress wants to run the ball more than what the Vikings have been used to....so Taylor could really break out this season.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Obviously, it is Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper was the face of this franchise...but the team never really reached it's potential in the Daunte Era. They'd always be in the hunt....but always found a way to lose it. The fact that he was in the center of the whole Sex Cruise incident didn't help either.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: LT Bryant McKinnie could have a breakout season too. He really developed a great pass blocking technique last year...and now with All Pro Steve Hutchinson lining up next to him at guard, McKinnie's pass blocking could soar too. If McKinnie can develop into the tackle they know he can be, the offense will be so much better.
OFFENSE: Minnesota will be more of a dink and dunk passing team with Brad Johnson as the QB. With Culpepper, they went up the field more often. Not so much now. Also, with a steady starting running back, they can try to move the ball on the ground a bit more. The receivers have something to prove. Troy Williamson fell off the Earth after the first month of the season. Koren Robinson found a home after the Seahawks kissed him buh-bye. As I said before, the line could improve as a unit with Hutchinson anchoring them.
DEFENSE: The defense was horrible last year early...then stepped it up a bit late in the year...only to fizzle at the end. The d-line looks good with second year guy Erasmus Jones and the Williams Boys, Kevin and Pat. The backers are in a transition year, as two new starters enter the year. The secondary is adequate...but can be had. They did lose a couple of key players on Brian Williams and Corey Chavious.
SCHEDULE: Interesting. They have the same sort of schedule as the Bears. Except that as the 2nd place team, the Vikings have to face Carolina and Washington in the first two weeks of the season. In Week 3, they get Chicago at home. Getting off to a good start could vault them into the playoff picture.
OUTLOOK: The Vikings aren't supposed to do much. Virtually everyone in the organization are entering their first full season in Minnesota. The entire coaching staff is new to the team....and many are new to their jobs. This means it will take time. But, if the Vikings can stay out of trouble off the field and stay respectable on the field then they have a good foundation to build onto for next year.
3-GREEN BAY PACKERS
COACH'S STATE: Mike Sherman was shown the door. Mike McCarthy takes over. He was Brett Favre's QB coach a while back and now takes over the Packers in what most likely will be Favre's final season. While he tries to get Favre back to a sliver of his greatness....his staying power may ride on how he deals with the future - Aaron Rogers.
BIGGEST ADDITION: If Charles Woodson can be the talent that he used to be....he'll be a huge find. His attitude and leadership have been questioned....but he may do fine in a lockerroom owned by Brett Favre and in a city that's out of the public eye. With Woodson on the opposite side of Al Harris, the Packers have a fairly decent set of corners.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Losing WR Javon Walker is huge. They lost him last season and never really recovered. He is a physical receiver who can make big plays....something this offense desperately needs.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: There are so many. But the key one will be Brett Favre. While everyone loves Favre in Green Bay...there are some that think his time has passed and that the franchise is in a holding pattern while he's still playing. The odds are stacked against him. The offensive line sucks and his running backs are all coming off injuries [or was a guy on the practice squad last year]. If he stumbles, then an awkward moment comes when he finally gets benched so they can start looking for the future.
OFFENSE: The offensive line is bad. Their stable of receivers is poor. The backs are all coming off big injuries. And their QB is 36 yrs old and coming off his worst season. Not good when you play in a division with strong defensive lines.
DEFENSE: It should be improved. They added AJ Hawk, Charles Woodson and Marquand Manuel to the squad. But, there is absolutely no depth at all. They were a bend-but-don't break defense last year and they really need it to keep bending this year.
SCHEDULE: Green Bay has an eccletic schedule. They go to Miami.....and to Seattle. They go to Buffalo....and to San Francisco. They also have some luck in that they don't face but a few explosive offenses [namely, Cards, Hawks and Pats]. But they do face some of the NFL's tougher defenses. They close the season with three straight division games....with two at home.
OUTLOOK: This is a young team everywhere....but at QB. With so many questions on the offensive line and at the offensive skill positions....it is tough to see how Favre can suceed. And if the season seems loss....they have to look at Rogers to take over. Favre would be best to announce that this is his last year and just take the sendoff tour and do the Cal Ripken move by stepping aside when it is ready. This isn't a playoff team.
COACH'S STATE: On to the next coach. Rod Marinelli is a John Madden type who like the BOOM and WHAP that happens in football. He will make this team tougher than it has been....which has already been the source of disdain by some veterans. However, if he fails, then GM Matt Millen could be shown the door. This is his guy....his kind of guy. And after flunking out with other coaches [and the draft] his leash is very short.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Two, kind off...that link with the subtraction. Both Jon Kitna and Josh McCown will fight for the starting QB job. McCown has the better physical skills....but Kitna is smarter and a better leader. He also knows his place. In Seattle, he held down the fort until Matt Hasselbeck was ready. In Cincinnati, he kept the seat warm for Carson Palmer.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The starting QB job is open since last year's starters are gone. Jeff Garcia is now in Philly swaping TO stories with McNabb....and Joey Harrington backs up fellow NFC North transplant Daunte Culpepper in Miami. Dumping Harrington is a bold move that admits failure over the past few years. It also sets the franchise back since they went from developing a young QB into just hanging on with two retreads.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The entire receiving corps, really. Roy Williams will be counted on heavily in the Mike Martz system. He could be the Issac Bruce of the offense. If he buys into what Martz is selling....he could break out for a great season. Could be even greater if one of the other top receiving picks, Charles Rogers or Mike Williams, develops into something.
OFFENSE: Matt Millen has drafted talented players on offense...and now Mike Martz will try to get the most out of them. As I said before, the Williams/Williams/Rogers corps can step up....the offense will be greatly improved. Also, Kevin Jones is a key. Injuries have held Jones back....and now Martz could as well. If Marinelli can work his wish for a more involved running game....Jones could have a decent year. But he could be a bad fit for the offense and may get on the outside looking in.
DEFENSE: If is a quick defense...but not a physical one. Because of that...the Lions may blitz more this year to try to take advantage of that. Detroit employs two rookie starters....LB Ernie Sims and FS Daniel Bullocks...into key positions. Also, in a new cover-two scheme....the guys that are holdovers may not adapt too well.
SCHEDULE: Again, not an entirely tough schedule. They do have to travel to Chicago, New England and Dallas....but there is nothing on the sked that's too difficult for them.
OUTLOOK: This will be a transition year to say the least. Everything is new. New head coach, new coordinators, new QB. The key will be the effect Marinelli has on the team as a whole. If they still end up soft, they aren't bothering to listen to him. If the mind him....they could be a moderate surprise. Still, I think this season is more of a weeding-out process in which he'll see what guys he wished to keep aboard for the future.