Just a brief word about this division before I get started. I like most of these teams this year, but they have a less-than-kind schedule and their improvements may not show up in the standings. Naturally, some improvements will, but just because I have your team at 4-12 does not mean I think they are only one game better than the Bills or Browns. Yes, that was directed at you, Chicago.
P.S. This article will not use the F Word. You will see what I mean.
1. Green Bay Packers OTC Projected Record: 13-3
Calling Card: Passing Game
Weakness: Offensive Line
Franchise Player: Aaron Rodgers
Last year, the Green Bay Packers were everyone’s sleeper. With their new 3-4 defense and a rising star at quarterback, they made a lot of sense as a team to sneak up on people and make a run beyond the first round of the playoffs. However, things did not get off to a good start for the Pack. The offensive line was a sieve, the defense did not learn the 3-4 especially quickly, and, to add insult to injury, that old QB was in Minnesota tearing it up. However, as the year went on, the 3-4 started to stick, and the Packers were suddenly a team that no one wanted to play. That is about where we stand this year with the Packers. They have a fast, mean defense, an offense to rival any offense in the league, and no more sleeper label. The Packers are favorites in the NFC North.
Aaron Rodgers is headed for elite quarterback status beyond fantasy ranks, but there is more to this offense than Rodgers. The Packers quietly seem to construct a respectable running game every year, and they got a steal in the draft in Brian Bulaga to give the offensive line some much needed help. Greg Jennings is still the most popular Jennings in Wisconsin (over Brandon) and Donald Driver is still solid enough to hold down his deal with Time Warner Cable and haul in Rodgers’ passes. Add Jermichael Finley to the mix at tight end, and the Packers really do not have a weakness on offense. I went ahead and listed the offensive line as a weakness as Bulaga has yet to prove anything, but I think you can tell by my projected record that I think the offensive line will hold this year.
Last year gave a glimpse of what Dom Capers wanted to turn this defense into. Going into year 2, I expect the metamorphosis to be complete. They lost Aaron Kampman, but lately it seems like the easiest thing to find is a fast linebacker who can rush the quarterback off the edge. They also have B.J. Raji (remember him? Highly touted DT out of Boston College?) healthy now to help clog the middle and push the offensive line back into the quarterback’s face. They finished in the top 5 in defense last year, but they lacked consistency at times, like the 503 yards passing they gave up to Big Ben in Pittsburgh. Year 2 means fewer wrinkles to fix and more consistency. This is a championship caliber defense.
Mason Crosby is as solid as anyone can be kicking in conditions bordering on arctic for half the year, and the return game is solid, though not explosive, with Will Blackmon. Don’t expect anything wild out of them, just solid.
The Green Bay Bandwagon is filling up fast, and while I am hardly the only one to like the Packers this year, I feel I am not without reason in picking them to finish with such a good record. I am not sure if they are ready for a Super Bowl run, but there is little doubt in my mind that they will have a chance to prove their worth in the playoffs. Hopefully for the Cheeseheads, someone can block a rusher in overtime.
2. Minnesota Vikings OTC Projected Record: 11-5
Calling Card: Offense
Weakness: Head Coach
Franchise Player: Adrian Peterson
The Vikings had yet another offseason filled with news about a 40 year old QB who decided to return. However, there is way more to talk about with this team than him right now. Sidney Rice will miss about half the season after hip surgery, the QB has to try and replicate the best statistical season of his career, and a relative shortage of young guys to step in and fill voids. It will be hard for the Vikings to repeat their performance from last year.
This team is still incredibly talented on offense, but they seem to be guys on their down side rather than upside. Their QB is from the Mesozoic Era, their RB, while an elite talent, has fumble issues, their leading WR (Rice) is out for 8 weeks, their rookie stud from last year has had more migraine scares (Harvin), and no one on that offensive line is getting younger. Now all these guys are very good players, and should have good seasons, but last year, they all had great seasons. Even Visthante Shiancoe had a great year, cashing They were a juggernaut last year with those great years, and it is very much up in the air if they can repeat any of those performances. Now 11-5 is still very good, but it is a clear sign that they are no longer a lock to blow division opponents out and run roughshod over everyone. Definitely an offense on its down side.
Late breaking as I write this, the Vikings have acquired Greg Camarillo from the Dolphins. I like it a lot for him, but he doesn’t offer the same things as Rice. Javon Walker is a joke.
The defense is a little bit different. They are full of veterans who are still very solid, especially up front with the Williams Wall, Jared Allen, and Ray Edwards. The Williams Wall is getting a bit old, but it still is good enough to clamp down and clog up the line like one of their arteries. Edwards plays Robin to Jared Allen’s Mullet Batman, but everything up front is solid for the Vikings. They did lose a bit of their luster last year as teams started to run the ball on them, but they should still be able to be a very good run defense even if they are no longer the best. The secondary is not great on its own, but with the pressure of the front 4, they are more than fine. The linebackercorps is solid too with standouts Chad Greenway and EJ Henderson being the main attractions. They are not as good as they once were, but they are still plenty good to shut down the mediocre teams and limit most of the good teams. They will have problems with the really good offenses, but who doesn’t? I like the defense more than the offense, but it is clearly not what it used to be.
As long as Harvin can avoid looking into the sun and it triggering a migraine, he should be a gamebreaker in the return game, and the Vikings kicking and punting seems to be solid every year.
Brad Childress will kill this team. I haven’t seen a main piece of a group so spineless since calamari. He plays second fiddle to his quarterback, has little to no respect in the locker room, and still looks like a child molester. Low blow? Maybe, but I am not backing off the statement. He will cost this team, though the offense’s upcoming struggles will certainly not help.
3. Detroit Lions OTC Projected Record: 4-12
Calling Card: None
Franchise Player: Matthew Stafford
I really like the Lions this year. Their schedule does not. Their division is very tough, they have to play the NFC and AFC East (both of which are very good), and some of their more winnable games come on the road. This is a team for the future, but with this schedule, they are not a team for the present just yet. They will be watchable; they might even be a C+ team, but it will not show up in the win column.
They do not have a calling card yet, but they are going to be a quality passing team this year and Jahvid Best should be a nice shot of life to the offense. No calling card yet.
The offense should be good this year, but not quite enough to make up for the defense. Matthew Stafford’s rookie year looked a lot like Peyton Manning’s and Calvin Johnson is still a freak so it follows that they should be pretty decent through the air. I even like Nate Burleson’s chances of being a very solid #2 in the offense. However, they have more than that with Jahvid Best, the Barry Sanders-esque RB out of Cal. They even have Brandon Pettigrew, the 2nd year athletic TE out of Oklahoma State, to hold the safety in the middle of the field. I can’t believe I’m saying this many good things about the Lions, but I think their offensive line can even be on the verge of respectable this year with a few guys getting some key experience last year.
Consider me firmly on the Lions’ offensive bandwagon.
Different story here. Ndamukong Suh is a beast and should help immediately, but there are just problems here that he cannot fix. Like coverage. The secondary, even with veteran Dre Bly, gets torched every year but little seems to change back there. They did add some young pieces to the secondary, but they still might get torched more often than they do the torching. Consider it, like the entire defense, a work in progress.
Not much to say. Not the best special teams.
I like the growth of this team, but it will not show up in the win-loss column. Jim Schwartz has the team heading in the right direction, but between their opponents and a defense still progressing, the Lions may be in line to get another high draft pick while still being solid on the field.
4. Chicago Bears OTC Projected Record: 4-12
Calling Card: Defense
Franchise Player: Right now, none
Before Chicago collectively shouts me down about this, allow me to explain. Just like Detroit, the Bears have a very difficult schedule this year. They also had serious offensive line issues last year and decided a good way to fix this would be to bring in an offensive coordinator who has the QB sitting in the pocket until he grows a beard. This offensive coordinator also prizes QBs who make good decisions, and dislikes using tight ends. Could you pick a less perfect team for Mike Martz than the Chicago Bears? We have a lot to talk about with the Bears, but you might not like it, Chicago.
Cutler is still talented. He also still makes bad decisions, and still has no protection. Bad news. Matt Forte had a bad year last too, and while some of that can be pinned on the offensive line, not all of the blame can be placed there. Cutler didn’t throw to him, he couldn’t run effectively, and he drove many fantasy owners to suicide. I do like Devin Aromashodu as a breakout guy, but that is largely as the main target in Martz’s offense, not necessarily because he is the best WR on their roster. Devin Hester is still a playmaker, but I just can’t get excited about anything in this offense.
One example of fantasy football helping us understand regular football right here. Many feel that Martz will ignite the Bears offense and get them throwing down the field productively. However, as Matthew Berry has taken to pointing out, the Bears already threw the ball 4th most in the NFL last year. How much more can they really throw, and how much more effective can they really be with the same bad offensive line another year toward the retirement home.
Oh, and the Over/Under on Mike Martz undermining Lovie Smith is Week 10.
On paper, this defense is solid. However, the stalwarts on the defense like Urlacher might spend more time on the training table than on the table. Hell, he is already hurt, imagine what happens when he starts playing real games. The addition of Julius Peppers is very nice on paper, but I sense that once the Bears make their race to the bottom like a cheap-labor dependent economy (high-brow there, apologies if it didn’t make sense). He is still a fantastic defensive end, but there is a reason he has not had an elite season in a while. I like it on paper, but the papers change with injuries, and the Bears do not have answers.
A good point for the Bears. Hester may not have run one back in a while, but the field position he gets them purely by being on the field is huge. I think the Bears should stick him back in the kickoff return game. Danieal Manning is good, but I doubt teams kick to Hester if he is out there so he should not be too tired. Play some mind games, Chicago. Good unit.
Again, much better than their record, but not a good team. Lovie Smith might get fired in season (though we think this every year), and Mike Martz/Mrs. Doubtfire is not a good thing for Chicago. Bear down, Chicago Bears fans. Things are going to get worse before they get better. If they get better…