2012 NFL Division Preview: NFC North

  • Jim Racalto
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Green Bay Packers

Key Pickups: DL Anthony Hargrove, C Jeff Saturday

The Packers aren’t really known for making big splashes in free agency, so not much was expected from them this off-season. The Pack did make a few good moves to improve the roster. Defensively, their front seven really needed some work, specifically their defensive line. Outside of Clay Matthews, there just isn’t much push. The addition of DL Anthony Hargrove should help with the situation. Hargrove has 19½ sacks in 102 career regular-season games. He had three sacks in 15 games for Seattle last season. Also, the Packers had replaced their center, Scott Wells who departed from the team earlier in the off season. I must say, the Pack couldn’t have found a better free agent center than Jeff Saturday. Saturday started at center for the Colts 12 straight seasons.

Key Losses: C Scott Wells, RB Ryan Grant

As addressed in the previous paragraph, the Packers center Scott Wells was released earlier this off-season. Wells was the starting center for the Pack from 2006 all up until 2011. The offensive line is a very important element of your offense, especially when you have to protect an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. The position became open, and the spot was filled with success. As for the spot opened up in the running game… not so clear. Ryan Grant was released by the Packers and is currently a free agent. The Packers have James Starks, Alex Green and Brandon Saine to carry the rushing and pass-blocking responsibilities, but they are going to have to find someone that will step up and pick up the slack in the running game. 

Draft Picks/Grade:  Nick Perry OLB, Jerel Worthy, DE,  Casey Hayward, DB, Mike Daniels, DE, Jerron McMillian, S, Terrell Manning, LB Andrew Datko, OT, B.J. Coleman, QB

In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Packers knew they had several holes to fill which everyone expected them to fill. One thing that nobody expected, was for the Packers to trade up three times and grab good players. They made some reaches I must say, but that’s what the draft is all about. OLB Nick Perry is going to make a great addition to a line backer core that is basically a one man show starring Clay Matthews. All the other picks were smart for the most part. The selection of Tennessee-Chattanooga QB B.J. Coleman surprised me, but someone has to take Matt Flynn’s back up role. This kid has the best mentor in the world in Aaron Rodgers. Hopefully Aaron won’t treat his back up like Brett Favre treated his.

Final Draft Grade, B

 

Coaching Staff:  

The Green Bay Packers did a little improving to their coaching staff this off-season. They named Jerry Fontenot tight ends coach, Ben McAdoo quarterbacks coach and Alex Van Pelt running backs coach. The team also announced that John Rushing will now serve as offensive assistant/special teams and Joel Hilgenberg will now serve as assistant offensive line coach. Other than that, not a lot of change was needed, how do you improve a Super Bowl winning coaching staff?… you don’t mess with it!


Offensive player to watch: RB, James Starks

With the departure of starting RB Ryan Grant, it’s going to be interesting to see if James Starks can come in and produce. Starks was placed on season-ending IR in 2010 and never has came back the same. The Packers have to establish a running game if they want to make it to another super bowl. If Starks can’t produce and the Packers miss the playoffs, there’s going to be a lot of finger-pointing.

Defensive Player to watch: OLB, Nick Perry

Who else is excited to watch this kid? I am! The Packers first round draft choice has a lot of pressure on him this season. The Packers are in bad need of a wing man for Clay Matthews. Perry can pass rush, drop into zone coverage, make clean tackles and was known to dominate top level OT’s while in college at USC. It’s going to be interesting to see if he lives up to his hype, or if the Packer’s defense will continue to be a one man show.

 Projected Outcome- 12-4

 

Chicago Bears

 

Key Pickups: RB Michael Bush, WR Brandon Marshall, QB Jason Campbell

This offseason the Bears wanted to address the offensive side of the ball and it shows. Grabbing Jason Campbell at a bargain to backup Jay Cutler was a shrewd move. But trading for talented, yet troubled wide receiver Brandon Marshall to help out Jay Cutler in the passing game could be the best pickup in the entire league. Signing Michael Bush gives Chicago another dimension in the running game and saves Matt Forte from taking another year of pounding that resulted in a torn ACL mid season.

 

Key Losses: QB Caleb Hanie, T Frank Omiyale

After a disastrous end to the 2011 season, the Bears really looked in the mirror. One of the many issues with this team was depth, especially at quarterback. Caleb Hanie showed, after a decent game in the 2011 NFC title game, that he was not the right guy as a replacement for multiple games. Another issue was offensive line, something Jay Cutler has publicly stated. Frank Omiyale was the first casualty on the offensive line after the unit allowed 49 sacks in 2011.

 


Draft Picks/Grade: DE Shea McClellin, WR Alshon Jeffrey, S Brandon Hardin, TE Evan Rodriguez, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Greg McCoy

While the offensive was a focus in free agency, defense was the main focus on during the draft taking three defensive backs and one defensive end. Shea McClellin was one of the fastest risers during the draft and shows a lot of promise according to NFL Network’s Mike Mayock.

“He’s one of the two fastest risers I’ve had in the last month. I didn’t think a 4-3 team would take him. He’s got so much versatility, but I love the football player. … He can put his hand in the dirt, and across from Julius Peppers, he will get a lot of one-on-one opportunities.”

The Bears taking corners Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy shows the Bears concern for a unit that isn’t getting any younger. After trading for Brandon Marshall, Chicago didn’t stop improving the offense by taking Alshon Jeffrey who was considered a 1st rounder.

Grade: B+


Coaching Staff:

Going into 2011 Lovie Smith and Mike Martz job were on the line. Injuries bailed out Lovie while Martz seemed to have enough of running the offense, thus leaving after his contract expired this past season. Enter in Mike Tice in what could be Lovie’s last chance at convincing new GM Phil Emery that he is still the right man for the job. Former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli returns for his third season, his second as defensive coordinator.

 

Off-season Changes:

Bringing in Mike Tice was a good move for the Bears. Tice has worked with a dynamic duo before(Culpepper and Moss) and will have a chance to create the same magic with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall in Chicago. Unlike previous seasons, Tice and that Bears offense are the main key as to whether the Bears make the postseason for the 2nd time in four seasons.

 

Offensive player to watch: RB Matt Forte

Many players from the past will tell you that holding out doesn’t equal a productive season. And if Chicago can’t get a deal with Forte he has already publicly stated that he will holdout which can be the worst thing for the Bears. Forte was the most productive player for the offense racking up 1487 yards before his ACL injury. And after reaching for offensive weapons in the offseason upsetting their top back could be a major setback.

 

Defensive player to watch: LB Brian Urlacher

Other than his rumored relationship with actress Jenny McCarthy, Urlacher has made headlines this offseason. With the heath issue going on in the NFL, Brian has admitted that he’d lie about having a concussion. Despite that interesting statement, Urlacher is still the anchor of this talented, but aging defense. But Urlacher, at 33, showed no signs of slowing down recording 227 tackles the last 2 seasons. Borrowing an injury, look for the same production in 2012.

 

Projected outcome: 11-5

 

Detroit Lions

 

Key Pickups:

The Lions didn’t really make any moves in free agency, but they did sign a plethora of undrafted rookie free agents.  CB Jacob Lacey will fill-in the departure of Eric Wright. They also resigned Jeff Backus, Erik Coleman and made Calvin Johnson the richest person on the planet. Other than that and a handful of unsigned rookies, Detroit has been pretty quiet.

The Lions have also been linked to Green Bay running back, Ryan Grant, which has been covered up more than Bounty-Gate. So who really knows at this point?

Key Losses: LB Bobby Carpenter, S Chris Harris, CB Eric Wright

Detroit takes he biggest hit by losing CB Eric Wright. Wright was a decent member of the Lions already depleted secondary. Bobby Carpenter also showed some nice promise in the soggy Detroit middle.

Draft Picks/Grade: OT Riley Reiff, WR Ryan Broyles, DE Ronnell Lewis, LB Tahir Whitehead, CB Chris Greenwood, CB Jonte Green, LB Travis Lewis.

I was personally impressed with the Lions draft. They have been nailing it ever since Martin Mayhew stepped in for Matt Millen. Detroit went based on value with almost every pick, snagging Riley Reiff in the first round well past where almost any mock draft had him still available.

Lions QB, Matthew Stafford, seems pretty impressed with Reiff thus far saying that…  “He’s a big guy, he’s a very typical offensive lineman, doesn’t say too much, but he goes in there and works hard. I think he’ll fit right in with the guys.”

I’ll give the Detroit a B+ for their draft efforts. They grabbed some great value picks and were also sure to grab two CB’s and two LB’s, easily their two weakest areas on the entire team last season.

Offensive player to watch: WR Calvin Johnson

‘Megatron’ earned himself an enormous payday heading into the 2012 NFL season. Johnson’s deal is worth $132 Million dollars and he’ll need to respond to that contract by having a season similar to last year’s where CJ caught 96 passes for 1,681 yards and 16 TD’s. Johnson is also the new face of Madden and we all know that tends to come with a price.

Can Johnson defy the ‘Madden Curse’ and keep on proving to Detroit fans that he’s worth more money than any other receiver before him? I believe he will. With a healthy Matthew Stafford and the ever-growing confidence of this Lions team, I feel like it’s very plausible that Calvin Johnson will help lead ‘Motor City’ back to the playoffs in 2012.

Defensive player to watch: DT Ndamukong Suh

Suh had a quiet 2011 season after breaking through as an elite force on the defensive end in his 2010 rookie campaign. Suh also saw his growing popularity take a nose-dive after many accusations of him being a dirty player arose throughout last season. Look for Suh to bounce-back and lead the Lions defense to a sack-filled season of pain for QB’s across the NFC North.

Projected outcome: 10-6

Minnesota Vikings

Key pickups:

CB Chris Carr, TE Chris Carlson, WR Jerome Simpson, G Geoff Schwartz

The Vikings have been quiet in free agency this year. Instead of making a big splash in free agency, it seems as though GM Rick Spielman is more focused on building through the draft and signing no-name free agents. Really the only free agents that have any name value that have been signed this offseason were former Ravens CB Chris Carr, TE Chris Carlson, and flashy yet troubled WR Jerome Simpson. Simpson will miss the first three games of the 2012 season due to a suspension by the league. With the releases of guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, Geoff Schwartz was signed as a replacement and will likely be the starting right guard when the season opens.

Key losses

 G Steve Hutchinson, G Anthony Herrera, CB Cedric Griffin

Cutting Hutchinson and Herrera were cap space moves that freed up about $9.6 Million in cap space, proving that the Vikings ARE in rebuilding mode.  The offensive line for the Vikings struggled to protect Christian Ponder and Donovan Mcnabb last year and made things harder for superstar RB Adrian Peterson. The Vikings will try again next year to protect Ponder with two different guards, one of which is newly signed Geoff Schwartz. Whether or not it was a good move is yet to be seen.

Key Draft Picks

OT Matt Kalil (#4 overall pick), S Harrison Smith (#29 overall), CB Josh Robinson (#66 overall)

Obviously, Kalil was the best pick for the Vikings at #4. He’s an NFL-ready left tackle, possibly one of the most important positions on the field. With a young quarterback like Christian Ponder at the helm, it’s a necessity to protect his blind side and give him time to throw. Kalil will give Ponder that protection for years to come. Harrison Smith is a playmaking cornerback, which the Vikings haven’t seen since Darren Sharper in 2008. They must see something special in him since they traded the No. 35 overall pick and their fourth-round pick (No. 98) for the Ravens first-round pick to select him. The Vikings third-round pick was CB Josh Robinson out of Central Florida. I like this pick for two reasons: firstly, the Vikings need to look toward the future for their secondary as Antoine Winfield is starting to climb in age. Second, Robinson can return kicks. I think he should return the kicks instead of WR Percy Harvin to avoid an injury to Harvin. Instead of risking him on kickoff returns, now Harvin can focus on the offensive side of the ball.
Overall, I like Minnesota’s draft and it was a good first step in the rebuilding process
Draft Grade-B+

Coaching Staff

Leslie Frazier has promoted his friend Mike Singletary to the position of “special assistant” to the head coach, which I think is a good move. Singletary, while seemingly not a good fit at head coach (at least judging by his time with the Niners) he definitely has the mentality of a former player that will help him connect with the players. He’s got tremendous heart and dedication to the sport which I think will translate well to his guys. The Vikings will also benefit from new defensive coordinator  Alan Williams. He was the defensive backs coach in Indy until being hired by the Vikings this year. This proves the team’s commitment to improving the secondary along with drafting a stud safety and a good cornerback. I think the coaching staff will come together this year and Leslie Frazier will see more success with the guys who surround him.

Off-season changes 

I like the new defensive coordinator, Alan Williams. I think that there will be a big improvement in the secondary, which will help the team all around. The problem with the team at the beginning of last season was that they couldn’t maintain a lead. The Vikings started out 0-3 because  they blew halftime leads of 10 points against the Chargers, 17 points against the Bucs, and 20 points against the Lions. One of the reasons this happened was because their secondary was not good at all, so when teams started falling behind they started increasing the amount of pass plays they called. Once teams realized how bad the secondary was, the Vikes were dead in the water. I think the biggest change that we’ve seen this offseason is a commitment to fixing the secondary and that it will definitely show improvement next season.

Offensive Player to watch 

Adrian Peterson, RB

Peterson’s career is at an cross roads this year. After requiring knee surgery to repair both the ACL and the MCL of his left knee after suffering a devastating injury in Week 16, Adrian Peterson will have a big mountain to climb next season. His ultimate goal has to be to return by week 1 and prove that he’s still one of the true elite RB’s in the league. So far this offseason, Peterson has blown his peers away during strength and conditioning drills. I expect Peterson to come back better than before and prove everyone that doubted if he’d be back wrong. It’ll definitely be interesting to watch him this upcoming season.

Defensive Player to Watch

Jared Allen, DE

Jared Allen amassed an INCREDIBLE 22 sacks last season. Sporting News named him their defensive player of the year. That might not be as prestigious as the AP defensive player of the year but it’s still a pretty big deal. His amazing season was kind of kept quiet because the Vikings were so bad, but 22 sacks is unbelievable. I would love for this guy to get the credit he deserves, and I have a feeling that he’ll have a similarly incredible season next year and people will start to notice that this guy is on another level at this point in his career.

Projected Outcome

5-11

I think the Vikings will be better this year, but their record won’t show it. Unfortunately for them, the NFC North is going to be incredibly difficult this year. I can’t see the Vikings competing with the Packers or Lions. They might be able to split with the Bears if they’re lucky, but it’s not out of the question that they could lose every divisional game this year. Keep your head up though, Vikings fans. Every team has a rebuilding period. Your time will come.

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