*To get us ready for the NFL season, I will be going division by division talking about what to look for from an overall view, a fantasy view, and a gambling view. I can hear the pads cracking already…enjoy!*
Editor’s note: DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) is a statistical measurement used by footballoutsiders.com that measures efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on the situation and the opponent
Last season finished standings:
Chicago Bears 12-4
Minnesota Vikings 8-7-1
Green Bay Packers 6-9-1
Detroit Lions 6-10
Monsters of the Midway made they’re welcome back party last year, and it started when Khalil Mack walked through the door. The class of the North, the Bears look to follow up last years defensive success but will surely need more help from its inconsistent offense. Meanwhile, the Vikings and Packers off-season moves show they too are ready for the next step, and the Lions will never be an easy out. It seems like the reoccurring theme when going through all these teams is QB play. With the NFC being so tight, winning this division may be key to getting in the playoffs. Can anyone dethrone DA BEARS? Let’s discuss.
Chicago Bears – Over/Under 9 wins; +188 to win the NFC North; 15.5/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: David Montgomery, Anthony Miller
Outlook: I have stayed very consistent in these previews, going offense then defense. If there was a team to change that, it would be the Bears, but I’ll stay strong. The offense is simple: how much can Mitch Trubisky progress. With a year of Matt Nagy under his belt, there should be a significant bump in his game. Mitch has some of the most bipolar stats I have seen as a QB. Fans of his can point to his QBR ranking of 72.8, good for 3rd in the entire NFL (Mahomes, Brees). They can also lean on his ability to extend plays with his feet, a luxury Nagy has taken advantage of, and one defensive coordinators lose sleep over – Trubisky was sacked or hit on just below 16% of his drop backs last year, which was the 6th lowest in the league for those who qualified. Then there are the naysayers, those who point to Tribusky’s ‘Poor Throw’ % of 16.4, basically 1 of every 6 throws, constant over throws that are drive ending, and a DVOA that was only good for 20th in the league, coming in at 2.5%. The cry for weapons that were present are no longer valid, as the front office has surrounded Trubisky with playmakers and speed – lots of speed. Allen Robinson is the #1, but Anthony Miller is expected to have a Sophomore breakout season, and should get help from the likes of Taylor Gabriel, Javon Wims (having an excellent camp) and Cordarrelle Patterson drawing coverage elsewhere. I haven’t even mentioned the human joystick that is Tarik Cohen, who was 6th in DVOA for receiving backs. The way Nagy uses him reminds you of a magic trick, and he will be accompanied by rookie David Montgomery, who could not have more hype if he tried. I loved him at ISU, and we’re going to love him in blue and orange. One thing of concern is the offensive lines ability to create push on run plays, as they ranked in the bottom of league in run blocking. Pass blocking? Top 8. If the running game can open some play action for Mitch, he should have all the tools he needs to take the next step(s) and bring an offense to life.
Could you imagine trading Khalil Mack? The bears defense was good in 2017, coming in the top half of the league. That’s something to live with, and obviously there were other circumstances involved, but in 2018, the Bears were the best defense in the league, and it was not even close. They had a defensive DVOA of -26%. In 2nd were the Bills, at -14.5%. There’s not a single weak spot in this starting 11. Which could be an issue if injuries start to play a factor: The Bears had the 4th best AGL defensively in 2018, and 3rd overall. You never want to plan on injuries, but it is something to keep an eye on. I don’t know if they can produce the scoring numbers they had last year, but if they do stay healthy, this is an elite defense with talent at every level. You want to run the ball? Have fun with Mack, Hicks, Goldman, and the three-headed monster of Roquan-Floyd-Danny T. You want to throw? Good luck blocking those guys plus worrying about an elite safety in Eddie Jackson, a safety on a prove it year in Ha Ha (I believe he does have IT too), and All-Pro corner Kyle Fuller. If you don’t believe in monsters, watch this unit. They’ll make you think again. Obviously, injuries will be something to keep and eye on, and they will play the 4th toughest schedule in the NFL. Defensive regression is likely probable, and they most likely won’t score 6 touchdowns themselves this year (I won’t bet against them though, did you read the names!). That playoff phone ringing is for Mitch, lets see if he picks up.
Minnesota Vikings – Over/Under 9 wins; +220 to win the NFC North; 25/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Kirk Cousins (LATE), Stefon Diggs
Outlook: YOU LIKE THAT!? The answer for most Skol fans after the 2018 season would probably be a resounding, “no”. Playing for a playoff spot against an already clinched Bears in week 17, the Vikings came out flat at home, and were forced to stay there to watch the rest of the season unwind. In Kirk Cousins first year of his fully guaranteed 3 year, 84-million-dollar contract, he was underwhelming. He came in ranking 16th in QBR, sandwiched between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton, and was 19th in DVOA, which was just above his division partner Mitch Trubisky. That’s not going to cut it for man making 28 million dollars, minimum, in 2019. Especially when we look at what the team has done for his supporting cast. They drafted rookie Irv Smith Jr, who will add to Kyle Rudolph and allow for 2 tight end sets and will go nicely with arguably the best 1-2 wide receiver combo in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Chad Beebe has surpassed Laquon Treadwell on the depth chart, and Kirk seems to have an eye for him in camp in short yardage situations, as his quickness is creating early separation. Dalvin Cook is someone to keep an eye on, as his health has been a question mark throughout his NFL stint. They did draft Alexander Mattison out of Boise State, and while the original thought was to use him in short yardage situations, he has impressed at camp doing a bit of everything. Expect to see a combination of Mattison and Ameer Abdullah to spell Cook when needed. Cousins was pressured a lot last year, so the Vikings went out and drafted Garrett Bradbury, who will immediately slide into the starting center position, and brought over Josh Kline from Tennessee, and he will be the new starting right guard. The skill players are in place. The line has been re-branded. All the talent in the world is there, an easy pass schedule defense, playing the 7 of the last 8 games of year in a dome or in Los Angeles, and getting paid like an elite quarterback. Your move, Kirk.
Not much has changed on the defensive side of the ball of a 2018 unit that was good enough for 4th in defense DVOA. Anthony Barr makes the front 7 go, as the defensive line is one of the worst groups against the run on their own, but as an entire “box”, they ranked 11th in rush defense. But the pass rush is fantastic, as they were 2nd in sacks last year, and tied for 1st in adjusted sack rate. One thing to look at, and has been reported from camp, is the worry that father time is catching up to some of these players, and coach Mike Zimmer – a well-known defensive minded coach – has some serious worries about the group. In the back end, they are led by top 5 corner Xavier Rhodes, who will shadow the oppositions best receiver from kick off until final whistle (ahem, Mr. Sherman). Harrison Smith is the quarterback for the defense and is always a menace no matter where he is on the field. For now, Trae Waynes (Go Green) is the other corner, but Mike Hughes, who is still recovering from ACL surgery, and Mackensie Alexander, who is the starting nickel back and receiving showers of praise out of camp, will both have a say in the matter, especially if Waynes struggles early. The bears will be tough, and there are so many teams eyeing those 2 wild card spots. With the friendly schedule down the stretch, the additions made to the offensive line, and a middle of the pack SOS, I think the Vikings are a playoff team this year.
Green Bay Packers – Over/Under 9 wins; +225 to win the NFC North; 20/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Devante Adams, Aaron Jones
Outlook: I think this is one of the hardest teams to predict for the 2019 season. On one hand, you have an all-world talent at quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who is now healthy, he got the new coach that he was longing for, they play the 16th easiest schedule, they were the 21st in Adjusted Games Lost, and it’s the freaking history abundant Green Bay Packers. On the other hand, the North is extremely tough, they are thin in certain areas, and the head coach brought in is not proven at all. And yet, in football, the quarterback has always been the great equalizer. You have a great quarterback, you have a chance. Simple and plain. Let’s not dance around the point: Aaron Rodgers is great. His numbers last year were sub-par: 18th in QBR and 13th in DVOA. However, he was hurt for most of the year, taking away his ability to use his legs as a weapon, and it was his first year with most of these young wide receivers. Another year of compatibility, and a healthy body should see a large jump in those numbers. Davante Adams headlines the young receiving core, and he is one of the elite talents in the NFL, with his ability to release off the line being second to none. He could be in for a career year. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is the wide receiver lining up across from Adams, and Geronimo Allison is the man who has spent most oh his time in the slot to take over the absence of Randall Cobb. I have to mention WR4 Jake Kumerow, who comes from the DIII powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater (trust me, they are good), as he has been pinned as the walking ‘Touchdown Jesus’. In the backfield, people are calling for a breakout from Aaron Jones, who apparently has dropped his body fat down to 5.3% (basically the same with all our writers). The offensive line can help with that, as they ranked 7th overall last year. Their 21st rank in pass protection raises eye brows, but remember Aaron was basically a statue for a handful of weeks last year, and had trouble avoiding any kind of rush, so again this should bump in the right direction. I think this offense could come back to what we are accustomed to it looking like. Again, we ask the quarterback when we ring a team in the NFC North: Aaron, your move.
The defense, to put it lightly, was bad last year. Very bad. 29th out of 32 teams bad. Don’t worry Green Bay, help is on the way in a large way, although the work is still not done. Up front they really weren’t very good, and those both Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels. Daniels did miss some games last season, but he was a pro bowler in 2017, and while Clay Matthews is on the back end of his career, he seemed to be the face of the Pack defensively. Enter a bunch of new faces on the back end. At the line-backing core, we see Za’Darius Smith – dominating everyone and anything in his path in camp, its reported – Preston Smith over from the Redskins coming off a solid year, and rookie Rashan Gary, who should provide impact right away. Blake Martinez is back to man the middle after a 144-tackle season, is the anchor of the front 7, now in a 3-4 (3 lineman, 4 linebackers) front. The secondary, for the first time in a long time, is solidified. Kevin King and Jaire Alexander man the corners, with Josh Jackson and Tramon Williams providing some depth. Alexander is the one to watch, as he could really take a step forward to a shutdown corner this season. In the back end, rookie Darnell Savage – is there a better name for a hard-hitting strong safety? – joins former Bear Adrian Amos, and both have shined in camp. There is a ton of potential in this group, especially in the back end. The front is a huge question mark, and this division, let alone the entire NFC, is not one for question marks. I do think it will be tight, but I think the Packers are one of the first teams out this year. You willing to count out Mr. Rodgers?
Detroit Lions – Over/Under 7 wins; +965 to win the NFC North; 70/1 to win the Super Bowl
Fantasy Players to watch: Kenny Golladay, Kerryon Johnson, Marvin Jones
Outlook: New NFC North team, same theme: quarterback play. What makes the North so unique from the other divisions in the NFC is there really is no bottom feeder team; the Lions have the ability to be a decent team. They were 2-4 in 1 score games, losing by a combined 7 points in those 4 losses. Matthew Stafford was subpar at best last year, ranking 24th in QBR and 21st in DVOA. Not exactly the numbers you want from your quarterback who at one time signed a contract to make him the highest paid player in NFL history. He did miss Marvin Jones last year after he went down with an injury, but this year there should be no shortages of weapons. Kenny Golladay, one of the most under appreciated receivers in the league, leads this group, coming off a year with a stat line of 70-1,063-5 in only 13 games started. Remember, he did this without a true #2 on the other side. Now, not only is Jones back, but they add Danny Amendola in the slot, who should draw some underneath coverage at the minimum. Jones himself should be free with tons of 1 on 1 opportunity, and it showed 2 years ago when he led the league in yards per catch. They also add two new faces at tight end: Jesee James from the Steelers, and TJ Hockenson from the Iowa Hawkeyes, who they used a 1st round draft pick on. He could be a security blanket, along with Amendola, for Stafford. One of my favorite rookies last year, and someone who could break out this year is Kerryon Johnson. They did bring in CJ Anderson, who is comparable to an actual bowling ball, to spell Johnson, but he had a rookie year of 118-641-3 (5.4 YPC), all while only starting 6 games, splitting time in a timeshare of 3 other backs, and battling minor injuries. Now he has the reigns, and I could see a big year ahead. The offensive line was mid pack in both run and pass blocking, and they stay in tact for the 2019 season. Hopefully another year together helps the continuity of the group, and they can help Stafford get back to form. He’ll need to – and he has no excuses not to – if the Lions want to surprise people this Fall.
The 2018 lions were a team of two tales in 2018. They were 13th in rush defense, and anyone could applaud being top half in the league. Pass defense? 31st. 2nd to last. CRICKETS. To add insult to injury, they were 2nd to last in forcing turnovers, and 2nd to last in interceptions. They did bring in Justin Coleman from Seattle to line up against Darius Slay – who is undoubtedly one of the top corners in the game – but he only started 5 of the 16 games he was available for. Jalen Tabor may be playing for his job in his 3rd year out of Florida and will hopefully contribute at the nickel back position. Quandre Diggs and Miles Killebrew will man the safety spots, as Will Harris, rookie out of Boston College, will bring some much-needed depth to the group. The biggest acquisition of the off-season for the Lions came with the reuniting of head coach Matt Patricia and Trey Flowers from New England. He’ll provide a huge boost for a defensive line that ranked 20th last year overall in efficiency. The offense should be there for the lions. It’s the defense that holds this team down, and having to play the Lions, Vikings, and Bears (oh my?) for 6 of the 16 games of the year, it just doesn’t equate to a playoff appearance. Hang tight, Lions fans
Overall 2019 Prediction: Bears, Vikings (Wild Card), Packers, Lions
Top Bets Summary
Chicago Bears make playoffs -125
Minnesota Vikings make playoffs +120
Kirk Cousins OVER 28.5 Touchdown passes (I took a Kirk MVP future at 72/1, but he is all the way down to 40/1. Wouldn’t bet it at anything under 60/1)
Green Bay Packers UNDER 9 wins