It’s that time of year again, so let’s take a spin around the league to look at the questions and controversies before the preseason starts. Next up, the NFC North and South.
The Bears have the look of a team in transition this coming season. Will Mitchell Trubisky become the franchise quarterback he hinted at last year? Will the defense become the fearsome unit that Chicago fans expect in the Windy City? Bears brass went all-in to shore up the defense in the draft, using four of their first six picks to select defensive players. The headline has to be Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, who was selected eighth and looks to me like a guy who can become the next great Chicago linebacker. Smith is on the smaller size for an effective run stopper, but he’s lightning fast, which will be an asset in the pass game, especially covering tight ends who are accustomed to enjoying a mismatch. He can play sideline to sideline and lay the wood when its needed. It will be guaranteed fireworks when Green Bay’s new weapon at tight end comes to town.
Last season, the Lions started the year by rewarding Matthew Stafford with the richest (at the time) contract in NFL history. At the time, I mentioned that while Stafford was good, his best seasons were aided by having now-retired WR Calvin Johnson as a major stat booster. While he had an average/good season by his standards, Stafford was unable to bring Detroit to the post season, going 9-7 and missing out on a wild card berth. New coach Matt Patricia has hit the Lions with a dose of discipline, rankling some veterans with extra laps and pushups. Most players have fallen in line behind their new coach, but it will be interesting to see if the approach can elevate the Lions into the playoff conversation this year.
Green Bay Packers
All you need to know about the Packers this year is this: Aaron Rodgers is healthy, and he has some new weapons. TE Jimmy Graham will be a coverage nightmare as he has been in seasons past, with his combination of length and speed. If he can get on the same page with Rodgers early, expect them to rival Brady and Gronk in New England for the top QB/TE tandem in the league. He’s likely to become Rodgers’ favorite target after the departure of Jordy Nelson. Perhaps more importantly, the Packers spent their first three picks in the draft on defense, where they’ll need to improve greatly in the secondary to compete with Minnesota and possibly Detroit for the division. Tony Romo called the Packers the team to beat this year, but that could be because he was at a football camp, in his native Wisconsin…
Despite a season that ended in the NFC Championship game last year, the Vikings parted ways with BOTH third-string hero Case Keenum and presumed franchise QB Tedy Bridgewater this offseason. The reason? Kirk Cousins, the strong, but beleaguered Washington signal caller was available. I will be clear here. I HATE this move by the Vikings. They were tremendous last season on both sides of the ball, and projected to be even better this season. Does bringing Cousins in make them better on paper? Maybe, but Keenum threw half as many interceptions as Cousins, and their yardage was right on par with each other. Keenum’s completion percentage was a good chunk higher, as well. I just dislike breaking up the heart of one of the NFC’s most promising young teams to bring in a disgruntled free agent QB who, if he has a great year, will still likely be only the third-best quarterback IN THE DIVISION.
After a setback year that still landed the Falcons in the playoffs as part of the NFC’s toughest division, is Atlanta ready to reclaim the South? I’m not sure. I’m not sure at all. Julio Jones was a holdout from the team’s mandatory minicamp, pushing (rightfully so) for a gigantic new deal. Assuming that they will get the deal inked (they had better), Atlanta should have a slew of weapons for Matt Ryan to play with. They added one of the top WR’s in the draft in Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, who will be an exceptional accent piece to Atlanta’s dangerous air game. On the defensive side of the ball, Vic Beasley will move back to defensive end, after spending all last season playing from the linebacker slot. This will likely mean very bad things for opposing quarterbacks in the NFC South.
Next up is the Panthers, who tied for the division lead last season at 11-5, only to be taken out by the Saints in the wildcard round. All year long in 2017, this team was a baffling mystery. From the sudden trading away of Cam Newton’s top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, to maddeningly inconsistent play all year, the Panthers simply didn’t look like a team that knew where they were headed. They seem that way this offseason as well, drafting all over the place, with no likely impact player emerging yet. Then there’s LB Thomas Davis, who might, or might not retire following this upcoming season. Defensive lynchpin Luke Kuechly is not yet cleared to return, and Norv Turner (dear god, why?) is trying to teach Cam Newton to check down more often. Will they win the division? I’d doubt it. Can they snatch a wild card berth? I haven’t a clue. They have a lot of talent, so anything is possible.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were a shockingly competitive team last year, coming out of nowhere to top the division with a balanced offensive attack that featured a two-back system with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The two-headed dragon may look different next season. Veteran Mark Ingram is expected to miss the first four games of the season as the result of a PED suspension. This could be exactly the opportunity second-year back Kamara needs to snatch the heavy workload he’s looking for. If so, he’ll be one of the top running backs in the entire league. The defense was an underrated unit last year, but Marshon Lattimore, Sheldon Rankins, and the crew are looking to make some serious noise this season. On paper, as long as Drew Brees remains healthy and they keep to a balanced attack, the Saints should be on top this year. Maybe. This division could be extremely exciting again.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This young team looked ready to contend last year, but they never gelled together and Jameis Winston took a step back, posting career lows in yardage and TD/INT ratio after missing three games. To add to the confusion, the Bucs just re-upped their young QB’s contract, despite a looming suspension for an encounter with an Uber driver who claims that Winston drunkenly groped her, then lied about having another passenger in the vehicle. No charges were filed, but it seems like the league’s investigation is gaining steam. No word has come down from the league office yet, but it’s far more than likely that Winston will start the season under suspension for violating the personal conduct policy. If that happens, the Buccaneers will likely start journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick for a brutal opening stretch that includes not just the incumbent division champion Saints, but also the Super Bowl Champion Eagles and the always tough Steelers.
UPDATE: Winston has been given a three game suspension for the incident in question.
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Image source: Chicago Sun Times