NFL off-season outlook: NFC North

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Green Bay playing the Super Bowl - but how did they get there? (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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With the NFL ‘non-playing season’ continuing, and after taking a look at the prospects of the AFC north, I turn my gaze to the NFC north division.

Chicago Bears

In theory
Chicago can now take their rightful position on top of the NFC North. Three years removed from an NFC Title game in which they well could have won if not for a Jay Cutler injury and the Bears have solidified their only problem.

That problem in recent years has most notably been the offensive line which to say was reminiscent of a sieve would quite frankly be an insult to a very helpful piece of pasta straining equipment.

All is now well in the Windy City with the $50 million dollar addition of former Drew Brees bodyguard Jerome Bushrod as well as yet another prodigy from the Howie Long football tree, son and guard out of Oregon, Kyle Long.

With Jay Cutler finally able to stand for more than two seconds and a game changing tight end in Martellus Bennett, the Bears will finally be able to have a consistent passing game to supplement their rushing attack.

In reality
Daaaah Bears will have to wait. Apologies to Bears fans, but you may be better off watching the Cubs this year (transcended sport references, yeah).

Much to the ire of Chicago fans, Jerome Bushrod does not an offensive line make.

While a resume consisting of being a left tackle for a Superbowl winning team and a record setting quarterback is impressive, the paperwork will probably not include that the Saints offensive line during their most successful years had the two best guards in the NFL, Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks.

Also, much like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees has the ability to make up for sub-standard pass blocking with a machine gun like release on his passes.

Unfortunately, desperation breeds necessity and this seems to be the case here.

This applies for Kyle Long as while he is an athletic freak at 6’6, 305 running a 4.94 40 yard dash, those statistics work well for a franchise tackle to which Long has played very little given the fact that he started only one year at Oregon at the guard position.

Those expecting Kyle Long to reshape the Bears line will more than likely be disappointed but at very least in his first year will provide a slight upgrade at the G, versatility and a nasty streak that comes with the family name.

Oh, and one other thing, Mark Tressman is a first year coach from the CFL. This isn’t Greg Schiano and this isn’t Tampa Bay.

People will be watching Chicago and people will realise how difficult it is to win in the NFL.

The O-Line will improve but not enough to make the Bears the clear favourite people would like to envision.

Remaining questions
How will 2013/14 success (or lack thereof) affect Cutlers job security going forward? How do the Bears re-load an ageing, albeit opportunistic, defence?

Can Devin Hester become the game changer he once was? Peppers aside, where will the sacks come from?

Detroit Lions

In theory
Both the Lions defence and offense should be significantly more explosive with the additions of Ziggy Ansah out of BYU in the first as well as Reggie Bush, providing the Lions with their first real explosive threat out of the backfield since Jahvid Best’s rookie season.

Detroit made the first steps towards cleansing the locker room asylum perception by cutting talented but wayward (putting it politely) wide receiver Titus Young only two years after giving up a second round pick to secure the Boise State product.

With Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh seemingly hell-bent on becoming the best DT tandem in the league and with the long JPP like presence of Ansah coming off the edge, the Lions should have a pass rush to be reckoned with which should provide great help to a previous struggling secondary.

Slight improvements in both the secondary and running game will allow Detroit to limit the number of shootouts they engaged in last season and thus cull their reliance on Calvin Johnson.

In reality
Where to go with the Lions.

It’s hard to believe and – we all seem intent on forgetting – that this was the same team that made the playoffs two years ago and if not for being faced with the Saints in the first round, probably had enough firepower to go far.

The Lions woes on defence will not be solved merely with Ziggy Ansah.

Only one year of college football under his belt and while freakishly athletic he may be, veteran tackles will find ways to nullify him during games.

That’s not to say he won’t be effective, just not as an every down JPP type pass rusher.

Reggie Bush provides an immediate upgrade at the running back position as not only has he proven to be a pass catching commodity but his last two seasons in Miami have shown him to be a capable every down back.

His speed out of the backfield will provide a great change of pace to between the tackles banger Mikel Leshoure, affectionately known as ‘the least explosive’ running back in the NFL.

Unfortunately for the Lions, given how they set the NFL world on fire two years ago an improved season will most likely come in the form of an 8-8 or 9-7 season most likely without a playoff berth.

Another season of 6-10 or under will have media and fans alike questioning whether these are just the same old Lions and whether Jim Schwartz has the temperament to really improve this franchise.

Remaining questions
Will Matthew Stafford curb his gunslinger ways? Will the Lions find a legit No.2 receiver?

Can Suh and Fairley be more known for their on-field exploits? Will Titus Young achieve more off-the field than the Lions on? How long can Jim Schwartz ride the coattails off one playoff run?

Green Bay Packers

In theory
The Pack will be back and better than ever. Mike McCarthy will no doubt balance the attack to a more 50/50 front given the draft day additions of Eddie Lacy and Jonathon Franklin, who in many scouts eyes were the first and second ranked running backs in the 2013 class.

The defence will be improved given the return of injured players, impact of rookie DE Datone Jones and second year defenders Nick Perry and Jerrell Worthy.

In reality
While many would love to see a return to the Pack days of equal proportion with Brett Favre and Ahman Green, this simply is not going to happen in Green Bay.

This is because not only do Green Bay have the best player in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers, but also the recently made highest paid player in the league.

Rodgers received his substantial pay increase based upon the increasingly HOF numbers he’s been putting up and the fact that he has led the Packers to four straight playoffs as well as a Superbowl victory and individual MVP.

A man with this resume was not made to be a 50/50 caretaker, and he was certainly not made to have his impact on the game quelled by two RB’s unproven at the pro level.

What’s more likely is that Lacy/Franklin will be used in clock killing situations, so that while Rodgers numbers may not look as gaudy, this is merely due to the lowered number of shootouts.

The goal will still be to score through the passing game.

On defence, it is too easy to merely say ‘injured players’ returning, especially when those were previously rookies whom while showing glimpses, hadn’t proven anything consistently.

Nick Perry will have to provide fellow USC Trojan Clay Matthews with support off the edge if the packers are any chance of keeping shootouts to a minimum and the line backing corps took yet another hit by letting talented starting linebacker Desmond Bishop walk (across the border into Minnesota).

In the secondary, while Charles Woodson was long in the tooth his football acumen will be sorely missed from a corps of defensive backs that have sorely underperformed since their Superbowl winning campaign.

Remaining questions
Will BJ Raji earn that big money contract? Will Jermichael Finley finally live up to the hype?

How much impact will Lacy and Franklin really have? How much offensive input with Randall Cobb have?

Minnesota Vikings

In theory
The Minnesota Vikings are poised to make the biggest leap forward out of any NFC North team due to their aggressive mentality in both free agency and the NFL draft.

The Vikings addressed two key needs while also stealing talent from inside the division by signing wide receiver Greg Jennings and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop.

Jennings provides Minnesota with their first true number one receiver since Sidney Rice (Harvin was more of a slot receiver) and Desmond Bishop fills a must need LB slot previously filled by Jaspar Brinkley and which was hot spotted for Manti T’eo throughout the draft process.

Other needs were met throughout the draft process as Shariff Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarelle Patterson were taken to fill the defensive Tackle, cornerback and slot receiver/returner roles.

The Vikings in theory look significantly stronger on defence and provide more dimensions on offense as to lighten the load on Adrian Peterson.

In reality
Two words. Christian. Ponder.

All the money, all the offensive weapons will be for nothing if Christian Ponder does not show significant improvement this season.

The Vikings D will be stout as Jared Allen is still playing at a high level, Floyd was pegged as the most pro-ready of any D-lineman in the draft and the young secondary has added talent and another years experience to its arsenal.

The offense however will live and die with Ponder.

As dominant as Adrian Peterson was last year, the running game is not conducive to winning Superbowl championships, just ask the Colts, Giants, Steelers, Packers and Ravens.

Sooner or late the Vikings will have to get the man under centre who can consistently feed the ball to Jennings and Patterson without providing them with the all to prevalent 16-35, 179yds, 0 Td, 2 Int games that Ponder is so capable of dishing out.

In many ways, the Vikings grossly over achieved last year so don’t be surprised to see a better year only rewarded with a worse win-loss record.

Remaining questions
Can AP even come close to his 2012 form? Will Christian Ponder progress?

Can Cordarelle be an instant impact? Will we find out why Shariff Floyd dropped so far in the draft?

Next article I’ll be covering the AFC South and why the Jacksonville Jaguars are just that bad. I actually harbour no ill-will towards the Jags, they just make it too easy some times.

Blue 23, Omaha, Omaha, Hut, Hut.

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