With training camp on the near horizon, teams are making their final roster moves of the off-season. Apart from a few veteran free agent signings, NFL teams should have an idea of what their roster will look like heading into 2019. That being said, a lot can change between now and Week One. Here is a look at how each NFC North team has changed this off-season and a preview of how the division could play out in 2019.
Outlook on the State of Each NFC North Team
Last year’s division-winning Chicago Bears lost a few pieces of their vaunted defense this off-season. They also lost its longtime coordinator, Vic Fangio, who took a job as the head coach of the Denver Broncos. The Detroit Lions were very active in free agency and are entering year two of the Matt Patricia era. The Green Bay Packers are undergoing their largest changes in a decade by embracing the new team-building from head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst. The only team without a large upheaval is the Minnesota Vikings. They mostly retained their own and brought Gary Kubiak into the building to help Kirk Cousins improve upon last season. Each team has a clean slate for 2019 and this division could be much closer than many realize.
The Vikings are in an interesting position. A team on the verge of making the Super Bowl just two years ago, the Vikings fell to 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs. The major issue concerning Vikings fans is that there was only one primary difference between the two teams: a change at quarterback. Cousins should be much more familiar with the offense in year two and has already developed chemistry with receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. The hiring of Kubiak is a very underrated off-season move. A strong play-action scheme with emphasis on tight ends Kyle Rudolph and second-round draft pick Irv Smith Jr. should fit the offensive style that Cousins succeeded with in Washington. This is a big year for the Vikings as they seemingly rotate between contender and pretender every other season. Coach Mike Zimmer is entering his sixth season with the team. He needs to find some postseason success to prove he can get this team back in contention for a Lombardi trophy.
Toughest Stretch: After Bye in Week 12
The entire NFC North has a tough draw this year as they have to face the AFC West and NFC East. Their own division doesn’t have a single pushover in it either. The Vikings have a particularly rough stretch over the final month and a half. After a Week 12 bye, the Vikings go on the road to face the Seattle Seahawks before coming home for a game with the Lions. Then they take a big trip to Los Angeles and finish off with two home division games against the Packers and Bears. A five-game slate full of divisional opponents and playoff teams from last year is a tough draw for an organization that has stumbled down the stretch in recent years.
Green Bay Packers
Every other team in the division officially has more continuity from top to bottom than the Packers. Sure, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams will do their part to stabilize the team, but there are a few other familiar faces from the team that made the NFC title game in 2017. Gone are Mike McCarthy, longtime stalwarts Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Clay Matthews. Enter new head coach Lafleur and his Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan-derived offense. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is back for year two of the post-Dom Capers-era and has a plethora of new tools to work with on defense. The front office was aggressive in free agency in order to address the team’s biggest needs. Moves to bring in outside linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith and to steal safety Adrian Amos from the Bears were expensive but team-altering. Pair those hefty free agent signings with first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage and the Packers should have at least four new starters on the defensive side of the ball. The offense remains nearly identical to last year’s 6-9-1 squad, so Rodgers and LaFleur will be tasked with improving upon a unit that finished middle of the pack in points and yards.
Toughest Stretch(es): Beginning and End
The Packers have a tough start to the season by facing the Bears on the road in Week One before hosting three straight home games against the Vikings, Broncos, and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. They could be facing four of the league’s best defenses while attempting to install a new offense in the first quarter of the season. Facing Khalil Mack, Danielle Hunter, Von Miller, and the Eagles’ esteemed waves of pass-rushers will quickly test the team’s new-look offensive line. The Packers also finish the season with three straight division games, the final two coming on the road against the Vikings and Lions. If the Packers can start off fast at home and handle their business mid-season, a division title should be on the line those last three weeks.
The Lions finished fourth in the North with a record of 6-10 in Patricia’s first season away from New England. Both sides of the ball underperformed and were inconsistent all year. There were some flashes from Patricia’s defense, though. Most notable was a 26-10 shellacking of the Super Bowl champions-to-be New England Patriots in primetime. The Lions have brought some ex-Patriots into the building by signing Trey Flowers to be the team’s primary pass-rusher and making Justin Coleman the league’s highest-paid slot corner. They also retooled the offense by signing several key veterans such as tight end Jesse James, receiver Danny Amendola and running back C.J. Anderson. None of these players are world-beaters but they are established players with winning pedigrees that should each have roles in new coordinator Darrell Bevell’s offense. Their draft was a bit lackluster, but they should get an instant boost in the run and pass game from tight end T.J. Hockenson. They also found incredible value on day three with the picks of Austin Bryant and Amani Oruwariye.
Toughest Stretch: First Four
The Lions will be tested out the gate in 2019. Typically facing the team that finished last in the league the previous season would be viewed as an advantage for the opponent. But don’t sleep on the Arizona Cardinals’ new regime and its innovative offense led by number one overall pick Kyler Murray. No one is quite sure how Kliff Kingsbury’s offense will look. There is an opportunity for the Cardinals to sneak up on opponents early in the season before opposing defenses figure out how to stop the offensive guru and his former Heisman trophy winner.
Things don’t get any easier as the Lions then host the Los Angeles Chargers before heading to Philadelphia to face the Eagles on the road. Then all they have to deal with is reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Sure, two of the Lions’ toughest games of the year are at home in the first four weeks, but they would be lucky to finish this stretch 2-2. The team then has an early bye in week five. They could have some tough decisions to make early in the season if things don’t break right.
The Bears are hoping to build upon last year’s surprise 12-4 season en route to an NFC North championship. This is a young team commanded by reigning coach of the year, Matt Nagy, who is entering just his second season as the leader of the Bears. Nagy made an instant impact for the Bears’ offense and was a huge part in the development of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Bringing in Nagy and Mack last off-season allowed this team to jump from worst to first in the NFC North. Now they have a target on their back with the rest of the division within reach.
The Bears lost a few contributors from last year’s squad including Amos, slot man Bryce Callahan, and running back Jordan Howard. They made patchwork replacements for each player though. The offense should only continue to get better with Trubisky entering year three and with the additions of Riley Ridley and David Montgomery through the draft. The defense should continue to be dominant if Mack stays healthy and the new secondary comes together. Replacing Fangio with Chuck Pagano will be the biggest impact this team feels in 2019. Fangio has kept this unit afloat for years with a dominant breakthrough last season. Pagano has the talent to work with, but it’s only fair to assume this team won’t record another league-leading 36 takeaways in 2019.
Toughest Stretch: Tested Over the Final Quarter
The Bears have a favorable schedule as they attempt to hold their division crown. Their last four include two against division opponents on the road and two primetime games at home. They play the Dallas Cowboys in Week 14 before heading to their second meeting with the Packers. Then the Chiefs come to town for the first matchup between 2017 first rounders, Mahomes and Trubisky. If Trubisky can beat his fellow rookie counterpart, it will go a long way towards justifying their thoughts in taking him number two overall. Not to mention, this game will pit one of the league’s best offenses against one of its best defenses. The Bears end the season as they did last year, with a divisional showdown against the Vikings. In a must-win last year, the Vikings couldn’t get it done. We’ll see if Cousins has what it takes if a playoff berth is again on the line.
The Packers and Lions have the toughest schedules out the gate, but both have some soft spots during the second half of the year. The Bears actually have their toughest opponents grouped together in subsequent weeks. In addition to those four difficult games to end the season, the Bears face the New Orleans Saints, L.A. Chargers, and Philadelphia Eagles from weeks 7-9. How they prevail in those seven games will determine if this team will be a true Super Bowl contender. The Vikings arguably have the smoothest schedule in the division. They have breaks between their toughest games and a late Week 12 bye week which can be beneficial for a stretch run. This team has the best chance to succeed based on schedule alone.
That being said, Cousins has shown nothing to prove he can perform in the biggest moments. This is a playoff team on paper, but Cousins could be the worst quarterback in the division next year. The Bears vaunted defense could carry them to the postseason on its own, but it makes more sense for this team to take a small step back from 12-4. The Lions brutal beginning might bury this team, but, if they can rattle off some wins at the end, they could make a push. The Packers could be a sleeper in this division for the first time in a long time. Everyone knows Rodgers loves to be doubted, so if this team can get on a run early, expect them to make a play for the division crown. There should be two playoff teams from the NFC North this year with the Packers and Bears the most likely to make the NFC playoffs.