NFL 2012 Season Preview: NFC North
We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions and pick our division winners, likely wild cards for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes.
Today, Zak Lansing and Steve Sabato take on what might be the most competitive division in the NFL; the NFC North.
ZL: The Packers were last year’s presumptive Super Bowl favorite before we even made it out of September. Despite having possibly the most efficient passing offense in the game courtesy of Aaron Rodgers 45-to-6 passing touchdown-to-interception ration, they too fell to the eventual champion New York Giants, and now enter the 2012 campaign with a humungous chip on their shoulder. Despite having a dismal passing defense (299.8 yards per game allowed last year – worst in the league), Gunslinger 2.0 and the Packers had the 2nd highest point differential in the league (+201, 2nd only to New Orleans’ +208). That defense needs to find a bit of the identity of past Packer squads to support the most dangerous quarterback in the game and his deep receiving corps if the Packers hope to have any chance of taking home this season’s Lombardi Trophy.
When you go 15-1 in the regular season, it’s hard to restock your team through the draft, but the Packers did manage to find some quality defensive help. DE/OLB Nick Perry from USC is likely to get the nod at left outside linebacker in the Green Bay system, reinvigorating a pass rush that already included the always-scary Clay Matthews. DT Jerel Worthy from Michigan State will give depth on the defensive line and spell NT B.J. Raji, and if Worthy can improve his workrate, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. The Packers spent their first six draft picks on defense, showing their dedication to righting the wrongs of last year.
Rodgers retains most, if not all of his receiving targets from last year. Breakout wide receiver Jordy Nelson caught 68 balls for 1,263 yards and 15 TDs last year, outshining Greg Jennings’ 67-catch, 949-yard and 9-TD performance. Admittedly, Jennings missed the last month of the season due to injury, so having both men healthy for a full season could bring even more devastation to opposing secondaries. James Jones and Donald Driver will stretch the field as well, and that’s without mentioning TE Jermichael Finley’s potential re-emergence as a viable threat.
The Packers even strengthened their offensive line with the signing of C Jeff Saturday. The one true offensive concern is the running game. James Starks was solid in limited action last year, but it was just that – limited. Green Bay got some insurance this past week by signing Cedric Benson, a signing that could actually have more positive effect on the defense than the offense… as in, maybe the Packers will be able to run the clock at the end of games instead of having to rely on a defensive stop.
It’s hard to say this team is going to lose more this year than last, because Green Bay really didn’t incur many losses… they only got better. However, the league (and division) has improved. Everyone’s had a full year to digest this Packers offensive scheme. And maybe – just maybe – the Packers were just a tad lucky. In the regular season, at least.
ZL: The Bears, however, have nowhere to go but up. Chicago lost their star quarterback, running back, and starting right tackle to injuries within a span of a few weeks last year. Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Gabe Carimi will get the Bears closer to an offensive stability they certainly didn’t have during the stretch run last season, when a 5-week losing streak ruined any shot Chicago had of making the playoffs. That’s what happens when you rely on Caleb Hanie to carry an offense, much less a Mike Martz offense.
The acquisition of Brandon Marshall (reunited with former teammate Cutler) brings a legitimately huge receiving threat to Chicago for the first time in a long time, and second-round draft pick WR Alshon Jeffery from the University of South Carolina will be no slouch, either. Through free agency, the Bears found themselves Matt Forte-injury insurance by grabbing the best backup RB in the business, Michael Bush. Bush was the glorified starter in Oakland due to injuries to Darren McFadden, and he proved himself worthy of at least 15 touches a game.
Mike Tice taking over the offensive coordinator job from Mike Martz only helps. Despite now having to adapt to yet another new offensive mentality, Martz and his ways just weren’t working in the Windy City. Both Cutler and new backup Jason Campbell will be put in a position to succeed. Barring a problem from one of Chicago’s two major weaknesses…
The offensive line. It’s terrible. Bears QBs were sacked 49 times last year, 5th most in the league and 12 times over the league average. With an offensive backfield with such an injury-prone history, having a swiss cheese protection package is bound to cause too much trouble (you can only run the screen play so many times a game).
The other problem with Chicago is its true strength: the defense. The linebacker corps are already banged up, but that’s not the major concern. Many major players on that side of the ball are getting up there in age. Charles Tillman? 31. Israel Idonjie? 31. Lance Briggs? 31. Julius Peppers? 32. Brian Urlacher? 34, and on pace to lose a knee sooner rather than later. While the defense is still rather effective and intimidating, it might be time to think about retooling and getting younger before a full rebuild is deemed necessary.
Nonetheless, this is a team that definitely has the capability of making the playoffs. If they stay healthy.
SS: There are few teams in the NFL that are harder to gauge than this year’s Detroit Lions. After last year’s coming out party, where do they go from here? Nobody doubts their ability to chuck the rock. Matt Stafford proved that, when healthy, he’s about as effective a passer as anybody in the league with his 5,000-yard season in 2011. While there are still question marks in the running game; Will Jahvid Best play this season, if ever? Could Mike Leshoure be the real deal? Can Kevin Smith hold down the fort until Mikel Leshoure finishes serving his two game suspension for chewing weed? Despite all of this, it looks like it is Detroit’s defense could end up being their great undoing. This isn’t a gasp-worthy development, as it was the case for the Lions last season. However there just is not a wealth of talent beyond the defensive line and it could end up costing them, again.
Losing Aaron Berry or Eric Wright would not have been the end of the world for Detroit. However, losing Aaron Berry and Eric Wright certainly isn’t going to help. However, losses like this can usually be negated by making the right moves through free agency and the draft. Do you know what the wrong move is? Adding Jacob Lacey, who ranked in the bottom 3 among corners in Success Rate last season. If Lacey continues to flounder this season, they may be asked to rely heavily on rookie, third-rounder, Bill Bentley (who, for what it’s worth, did show some promise in the preseason opener against Cleveland. But let’s not go crazy.)
The Lions are going to need to beat teams this season the way they did last year: By carpet bombing them. Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson is already one of, if not the best QB-WR tandems in the league. Teams can game-plan for that all they want, and they did last season, but these two set the world on fire despite that fact. They will need to do so again to maintain the level of success Detroit had last season. In addition to that, Detroit has a defense that can create more penetration than just about anybody, with Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Boesch, and, of course, Ndamukong Suh. This team has its share of problems, but that isn’t to say they aren’t still a threat. I think, overall, they will take a marginal step back, but remain a playoff contender, in a division that will very likely send three teams to the playoffs this season.
SS: I really liked what Minnesota did in the draft this year. I think Matt Kalil is going to be an anchor on that offensive line for years to come, and I have a high opinion of Harrison Smith, the safety they took at the end of the 1st round. The rest of the draft had its high points, but, obviously, those were two solid cornerstone picks. That’s nice for the Vikings’ future. The present, however, does not look quite as bright.
In 2011, only one defense allowed more points per game than Minnesota, who allowed 28.1 (it was Tampa with 30.9.) That was with Jared Allen nearly breaking the single-season sack record. I feel like that probably should have set the tone for a pretty solid defense, but, alas, it did not.On the offensive side of the ball, it’s going to be all about what development they see from Christian Ponder. He will certainly be tested. Despite the fact that I think Matt Kalil is going to be a good Left Tackle in this league, he will undoubtedly go through his growing pains. Teams will also be daring the Vikings to run either with Toby Gerhart or a just-returning Adrian Peterson. This will mean Ponder is going to have to make strides in the passing game. With Percy Harvin possibly fighting off double teams, this could be a good sign for Ponder’s relationship with Jerome Simpson and rookies Stephen Burton and Jairus Wright, along with the rest of the Vikings WR depth.
I think this is a team that’s going to find itself down the stretch. I could see them giving Green Bay a game in Week 17 (and not just because Green Bay might just be resting their starters.) But, I still think it’s going to be a long season for the Vikings, a season that harps on development, and establishing what depth they have among the young core of their team. If anything, this should probably be reassuring for Vikings fans. Last year I said the Bengals would be the worst team in the NFL, and well, you know the rest.
Zak Lansing and Steve Sabato are staff writers for WaiverWireBlog.com.