2017 NFL Season Preview: NFC North

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green bay packers

2016 was a typical season for the Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers guided the Pack to another NFC Championship Game, and once again they fell short of a Super Bowl appearance in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

It is becoming clockwork in Green Bay to have Rodgers perform heroics to get the Packers within striking distance, only to fall painfully short of a trip to the Super Bowl.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson did his best this offseason to address the problems that have caused his team heartbreak in recent years. Several draft picks were spent on running backs to provide support to converted wideout-turned-feature back Ty Montgomery.

Thompson also spent his first four draft picks on defense in typical Packers fashion to build through the draft rather than on free agency spends.

The Packers front office philosophy has paid dividends for years now, but restless Packers fans are growing tired of years of near misses at this point and the pressure is on for Thompson to deliver a second Super Bowl in the Rodgers Era.

To satisfy Packers fans, Martellus Bennett was provided a handsome payday to leave the champion New England Patriots to come catch passes at tight end in Wisconsin.

The Bennett signing proved to be the lone free agency splash this spring, which begs the question if the Packers did enough to get over the hump this season.

It is fine and all to build through the draft and depend on Rodgers, but the Packers current state of floating one level below a championship-caliber team is a concern. At 33, Rodgers is using his prime years to carry a team with just enough holes to lose in January.

Rodgers is an elite enough of a talent to do it all himself and that makes the Packers contenders for another season. The supporting cast will need to step up and improve their play if the Packers are to win a Super Bowl, but a trip to the playoffs is almost a guarantee for one of football’s most consistent franchises.

minnesota vikings

The Minnesota Vikings bounced back from Teddy Bridgewater’s tragic preseason injury last summer to post a 5-0 record heading into their bye week.

At that point, it appeared as if everything would be okay for the Vikings. Sam Bradford appeared to be a competent game manager at quarterback and the Vikings defense shutdown everything in its path over the course of the five game win streak.

Then, the wheels completely fell off for the Vikings.

Thanks to awful play from the offensive line and a regression on offense, the Vikings finished the year with an 8-8 record.

A 3-8 finish to the year with two of those wins coming against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears turned the Vikings from a feel good story to a team that imploded to undo all of the work they put in to start the year as the hottest team in football.

Now – with their franchise quarterback in Bridgewater back from his season ending injury – the Vikings will hope to take the good from a promsing start to 2016 and look to move onwards after an offseason trying to fix one of the league’s worst offensive line groups.

Carolina Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers and left tackle Riley Reiff were added to address the key issue of pass protection for Bridgewater.

The Vikings also moved on from Adrian Peterson and let the former face of the franchise to walk after he became toxic in Minnesota. Peterson will be replaced by former Oakland Raiders feature back Latavius Murray and Florida State star Dalvin Cook, who was drafted in the second round.

Cook appears to be the back who will earn the majority of touches as he earned the starting job in the preseason. The veteran Murray even conceded the fact he lost out on the job to the talented rookie who dominated for years in Tallahassee.

With fixes at both running back and on the offensive line, the Vikings are the Packers biggest threat in the NFC North this season. An upgraded offense and a defense that is still one of the best in the league will carry Minnesota a hell of a lot further than they went last season. Expect a division title race with the Packers and a playoff appearance for the Vikings this season.

detroit lions

Like the Minnesota Vikings, the Detroit Lions also spent the 2017 offseason overhauling their offensive line with the goal of competing with the Packers for a division title to get back into the playoffs.

Unlike their division rivals, the Lions managed to make the postseason in 2016. Finishing with a 9-7 record. Unfortunately for Detroit, they drew a road Wild Card game with the Seattle Seahawks and bowed out with a humiliating 26-6 loss.

Detroit loaded up with two big money signings. Right tackle Ricky Wagner signed for a five year contract that will pay him $9 million per season in one of the richest deals in NFL history at the position.

Not done there, the Lions stole hometown product T.J. Lang from the Packers to fill in at guard with a year three year deal. The signing of Lang is a massive coup for the Lions, who stole Lang after a decade in Green Bay.

The Lions were also forced to make further moves on the offensive line after a longterm injury to starting left tackle Taylor Decker. Former Auburn star Greg Robinson was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams via trade and former Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio was also brought in to make up for the loss of Decker.

Robinson – a former top pick who disappointed in Los Angeles – will be a key factor to the Lions success in 2017 as his play will dictate just how impactful the injury to Decker will be on the team’s hopes of making a run at the NFC North title.

Beyond the moves on the offensive line, the Lions appear to have found an exciting young wideout in Kenny Golladay. Golladay – a third round pick out of Northern Illinois – shined in the preseason with a sampling of big plays and will be a name to watch all season long.

A playoff team from last year, the Lions will figure to have a similar ceiling in 2017 after an offseason where they maintained their talent level and signed quarterback Matt Stafford to a long-term deal.

Stafford’s massive contract puts the pressure on the Lions franchise quarterback to deliver a playoff win, which could finally happen should they earn a place in the Playoffs come January with an NFC North title.

Chicago bears

While the other three teams in the NFC North have hopes of January football, the Chicago Bears will spend 2017 in the early stages of a rebuild after a collapse in fortunes in recent years.

Gone are Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery – two faces of the Bears who brought some level of success – and in is first round pick Mitch Trubisky from North Carolina in the hopes of becoming a franchise quarterback for the Bears.

Trubisky looked solid in the preseason and posted solid numbers to earn the backup job in his rookie season.

The Bears top pick will sit behind Mike Glennon, who was paid handsomely to leave his job as Jameis Winston’s backup in Tampa Bay to become the stopgap quarterback in Chicago.

Glennon earned a three year, $45 million contract in free agency from the Bears. With $18.5 million of that contract guaranteed, the Bears will be motivated to give Glennon the starting job for awhile over a quarterback they drafted with the second overall pick.

The decision to pay Glennon and use their second overall pick on a quarterback is a head scratcher that could prolong what is a clear rebuilding phase for the Bears.

That draft pick could have yielded the Bears a cornerstone piece at another position where they didn’t already spend $45 million on a backup quarterback to come to their franchise.

At the moment, the Bears are a mess and their handling of the quarterback situation is proof of the lack of direction in Chicago. With little talent on the roster and a team that has Mike Glennon at quarterback, it will be a long year at Soldier Field for a Bears team that is a lock to finish in the cellar of the NFC North.