In this new series, we’ll be reviewing each division in the NFL - taking a look at each team’s 2019 season, their ups and downs, as well as looking ahead to what their 2020 might look like. This week, it's NFC North.
With two playoff teams in 2019, the NFC North played home to two pretty good teams who never quite made the leap to Super Bowl contention.
Green Bay have to feel like the end is near for Aaron Rodgers, while Minnesota look like a team at their ceiling already. Elsewhere, Chicago replaced one hapless quarterback with a slightly less hapless quarterback, and Matt Patricia has one more season to save his job.
Does anyone in the NFC North have what it takes to represent the NFC in Tampa next February?
Here is a list of the Bears’ starting quarterbacks since Aaron Rodgers took over in Green Bay:
- Mitch Trubisky
- Matt Barkley
- Jay Cutler
- Kyle Orton
And you can add Nick Foles to that mix now too. Putting aside their Super Bowl defeat in 2007, there hasn’t been much for them to get excited about of late, and Nick Foles doesn’t get the juices flowing much either.
A question for Chicago: How do you expect to win your division when they’re your starting quarterbacks over the last 12 seasons? In 2018, Chicago whiffed at that question by making it to the playoffs, only to narrowly lose in the wildcard round to Philadelphia.
In 2019, the Bears had the decency to remain mediocre throughout the season, so as not to get their fans’ hopes up too much. A good defense is something, sure, but their issues with Mitch meant that they could never really get too excited.
That defense ranked eighth in total yards per game, fourth in points per game, ninth in passing yards and ninth in rushing yards. A top 10 defense across the board.
That is a drop off from being 2018’s number one defense, but still, it’s a unit you can hang your hat on. There aren’t too many improvements to be made on that side of the house, but the Bears did land Robert Quinn to replace Leonard Floyd on a five year $70million contract.
The offense needs to improve. Putting the quarterback position to the side for a moment, landing Jimmy Graham is a questionable move. Graham keeps getting paid, but the reality is he hasn’t been that productive since 2016.
In 2018, he signed a three-year $30 million contract with Green Bay, never looked like his former self, and now the Bears have paid him $16 million over two years. He did play basketball in high school though (as every NFL commentator ever will tell you).
But let’s face it, the Jimmy Graham contract isn’t the big talking point with Chicago, and he won’t be the main reason they succeed or fail. That glory (or blame) will likely belong to Nick Foles.
Big Nick is on big money, and barring any injuries, will probably overtake Mitch for the starting job. Overtaking Mitch Trubisky should be easier than overtaking Marge Simpson go-karting, so it’s over to you, Nick.
The Lions have the luxury of a high draft pick to play with. With the third selection, they could go a few different ways. They could find Stafford’s successor, they could replace Darius Slay, they could (potentially) have the best player in the draft in Chase Young, or they could trade down to fill a few gaps.
Assuming Stafford comes back healthy, it’s more likely that they’ll look to improve the second-worst defense in the NFL. The Lions gave up 400.4 yards per game on average in 2019 (the second-worst in the league) and 26.4 points per game (the seventh-worst in the league).
The question now is whether they take the best defensive player off the board, or trade back in the hope of landing multiple? The second option makes sense for the right switch, but that’s not always attainable.
Head coach Matt Patricia comes from a defensive background, so you would expect last year’s performance, on that side of the ball in particular, ate away at him. If they can trade back with Miami, for example, and get two first-round picks or a first and a second, then they’ll be in a position to stack up talent quicker.
This season is make-or-break for Patricia. Since taking over in 2018, his teams have finished 6-10 and 3-12-1. Another season that results in a top 10 draft pick will mean his departure.
So the quickest way for him to make Detroit relevant is to turn their defense from second-worst in the league to, at least, a respectable unit.
Signing Jamie Collins will help, so a strong draft could see them achieve this. It’s not unthinkable to picture Detroit challenging for a Wildcard spot, but realistically, they don’t feel like a team well-coached or talented enough to do it.
Green Bay Packers
Matt LaFleur’s debut season as the head coach of Green Bay looked pretty good on paper. They finished 13-3 and made it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The question marks around whether their defense could step up in 2019 started off well, but eventually levelled out. That unit finished 18th in yards per game (352.6), and 9th in points per game (19.6).
That’s a pretty good defense, but equally, they hardly endured the toughest schedule that you will ever see, coming up against three playoff teams all season (one of which resides in their own division).
You can only beat who is in front of you, and 13-3 is a good finish, regardless of opposition. And yet, there is a feeling that Green Bay overachieved.
A contributing factor to that feeling is Aaron Rodgers. LaFleur was brought in to help get the most of Rodgers’ backend of his career, but he stuttered in 2019.
He still had his moments – his throw against Kansas City was vintage Rodgers, and you never felt like he would throw five picks a game, but he just wasn’t himself. Maybe that’s what Rodgers will be from now on though.
On the plus side, Aaron Jones looked like he found his stride. He rushed for 1,084 yards, and received 474 yards in the passing game, and 19 touchdowns meant he was the tied-top scoring running back in 2019.
Between that level of production and Davante Adams receiving 997 yards in 12 games, the Packers have some strong skill players to help dig Rodgers out of his dip (by his own high standards) in form.
In spite of that production, the Packers may look to add from the depth of talent at receiver in this NFL draft. Rodgers only has so much time left, so unless they look to find his replacement, expect another weapon in his arsenal in 2020.
The Vikings were good, but not great in 2019. That sounds like a familiar story, because although they’re consistently good, they’re never quite good enough to go all the way.
With Stefon Diggs leaving, there’s a gap to fill in terms of production. Can their well-paid quarterback carry the team? In short, not by himself.
That’s the knock-on Cousins – he will complement a team, but rarely dig them out of a hole or put a team on his back. However, if Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook can keep up their end of the bargain and stay fit, then Cousins may not have to do too much more than he already is.
A 2018 Adam Thielen and a 2019 Dalvin Cook would make for one of the best receiver/back combinations in the NFL.
Minnesota essentially managed to get a first-round pick for Diggs, so much like Green Bay, they might look at the wealth of options available in the draft in that position.
Their defense was one of the better groups in the league. However, losing players such as Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and more means that there are now holes in that unit.
They can point to some of those departures aging, but there’s an element of a loss of leadership to account for too. Performance aside, Minnesota lost some big names this free agency.
So how will they fare in 2020? The NFC North is a consistently solid division. Green Bay won’t be handing them easy victories, and the Bears defense is the best of the four teams.
Minnesota’s roster, in general, seemed to eclipse the others in the North, but with so many departures and few big names incoming, 2020 could be a year of regression for Zimmer’s men.
Written by Matthew Carolan.
Check out the rest of Matthew Carolan's divisional series reviews here: