The NFC North is turning into one of the most interesting divisions in the NFL. Green Bay has won the division six times out of the last ten years, and 12 out of the 21 years it has been the NFC North with the Vikings and Bears winning it five and four times in that same 21-year timeframe with the Lions having not won the NFC North since 1993 when it was called the NFC Central. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won that division more recently than the Lions. With Aaron Rodgers leaving for the Jets, Justin Fields emerging as potentially the best running threat at the quarterback position, Kirk Cousins becoming even more likable through the Netflix show Quarterback, and the Detroit hype train going at full speed, this is shaping up to be the most exciting year for the NFC North in the past decade. Let’s take a look at each team and what they have to offer.
Lovie Smith will never have to buy another beer in Chicago as his victory in the final week of the season for the Texans helped give Chicago the first overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Bears would then trade back with the Carolina Panthers and acquire a load of picks and wide receiver DJ Moore. Justin Fields emerged as arguably the best rushing threat at quarterback last season, and their offensive line is sneaky average, but I still think they’re a .500 team at best. Why? Their defense, and Justin Fields.
I know I just admitted that Fields has a case as the best rushing threat at quarterback, but he still has miles to go as a passer. Was the Chicago offensive line good last year? Not particularly. They have some players I like in Teven Jenkins and Cody Whitehair, but the decisions to move on from Charles Leno and James Daniels are two puzzling ones that I still don’t understand. The Bears threw a lot of money at Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards in free agency, but their defensive line and secondary leaves a lot to be desired. In a division against Justin Jefferson, you either have to be able to cover him or get to Cousins fast enough so it doesn’t matter if your corners get cooked. Jaylon Johnson is entering a contract year, and although he’s solid he can’t do everything himself. We’re getting further removed from Eddie Jackson’s great 2018 year and as he ages the chances of him replicating that year continues to get slimmer, although he remains a good player. Second-year cornerback Kyler Gordon had a rough rookie season, and the Bears will need him to take a step forward as well. The Bears did sign edge defender Yannick Ngakoue to a one-year deal worth $10.5 million, but that’s one decent pass rusher across a defensive line of replacement-level, rotation players. You can expect about 40 pressures from Ngakoue, but he’s not the great difference-maker that Chicago needs to escape the NFC North basement.
The Lions may be the most hyped team of the offseason, and it’s easy to see why. They narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 2021, have an electric head coach that makes you want to run through a wall, and with the Aaron Rodgers departure from Green Bay, the NFC North is seemingly up for the taking. However, they are also the most overhyped team of the offseason. I don’t know if a team underplayed their hand more than the Detroit Lions. They had house money with the high first-round selection they got from the Rams, and they used it on a running back. Yes, they traded down, but this video of the behind-the-scenes of their draft room makes it seem like they would’ve taken Jahmyr Gibbs at six and over Bijan Robinson. Then they drafted Jack Campbell in the first round as well. I love the player, but they had a number of opportunities to improve their receiving group. Now they have to rely on someone with one career reception to be the majority of their down-field passing attack, after he comes back from a suspension. With their first four picks, the Lions drafted a running back, an inside linebacker, a tight end, and a slot corner (Brian Branch, played 271 of his 495 total snaps at slot corner in 2022). Those positions make up four of the five lowest contract AAVs in the NFL. They got good players, but not true difference makers and not at positions of value.
The Lions are good at what they want to be, they have a top-five offensive line in the NFL. They have a great backfield combo with Gibbs and Montgomery. Their skill sets complement each other very well, and they’ll be able to take some pressure off of Jared Goff. The receiving room leaves a lot to be desired. Amon Ra St. Brown is great, but he can’t be relied upon to be the provider of a deep passing attack. Jameson Williams was their bet to help there, but he has one career catch and is currently suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s gambling policy. The defensive line looks bleak, with Aidan Hutchinson being the best guy. This team is very unproven, and their moves and priorities in the offseason don’t give them a ton of upside. They underplayed their hand, and have fumbled their opportunities to jump from good to great.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers continue to be one of the best stories to follow. With Aaron Rodgers now being a Jet and Jordan Love being thrust into the starting spot, this is the first time in over a decade that quarterback is a question mark in Green Bay. Love has had an exciting training camp, with a number of highlight reel throws. They keep a respectable running back duo together with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, while betting on wide receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs to step up. Similarly to the Lions, a lot of Green Bay’s passing production is based on gambling on young talent. They have a strong offensive line, with Bakhtiari still being a top tackle and Elton Jenkins being a rock-solid guard, Love’s blindside is safe. Zach Tom started games at left tackle, left guard, and right tackle in 2022 while playing reasonably well at all three spots. It’s likely that he gets slotted in at right tackle, but the position flexibility is always a good thing.
Their defense looks to be a threat again, with Rashan Gary holding it down on the edge. Gary’s 2022 campaign was cut short due to injury, but we’re still talking about someone who had over 80 pressures in 2021. Kenny Clark is still a very good run defender, and Jaire Alexander is a premiere cornerback in the NFL. While their linebackers leave a bit to be desired, still not a Quay Walker fan and De’Vondre Campbell is entering his age-30 season, this has the potential to be the best defense in the division.
The Minnesota Vikings were a wild ride in 2022, with 11 wins and zero losses in one-possession games in the regular season to losing in heartbreaking fashion to the New York Giants. They underwent some retooling through the offseason and while they won’t be 13-4 good, they’ll still be a playoff team. Although they will be without Dalvin Cook, that doesn’t really concern me too much given the nature of the running back position and if they really wanted to, Cook is still available as a free agent. Kirk Cousins has an excellent case to be a top ten quarterback in the league, top three in the NFC, and best in the NFC North. Justin Jefferson isn’t going anywhere and is a force multiplier for this offense and unlocking a more aggressive Kirk Cousins like the one we saw in 2022. Captain Kirk was slinging it, and taking more chances which showed in his career-high 30 big-time throws, and I can live with his career-high 23 turnover-worthy plays. The Vikings also have a sneaky good offensive line with a top-tier tackle duo in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill. Ezra Cleveland and Garrett Bradbury are starting-caliber players and their only
Defensive changes and concerns are alleviated by the addition of Brian Flores at defensive coordinator. Danielle Hunter is a 70-pressure guy, with health being the biggest factor in his success. Their defense is aging though, with many of their best players being well into their 30s and some decline already setting in. They opted for a youth movement in the off-season by moving on from edge defender Za’Darious Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks. They let Patrick Peterson walk in free agency, and are moving forward with a very young and inexperienced group of defensive backs, outside of Harrison Smith. It’s a massive gamble on Brian Flores and if his man-heavy scheme can get the best out of this group, time to see if it pays off.
We’re in the middle of what could be a transition period here for the NFC North. The Vikings are in the driver’s seat to repeat as champions, while Green Bay has some incredibly sneaky upside to sneak into a playoff spot via a wildcard and maybe beat Detroit out for second in the division. The Lions had a solid offseason and have a good floor, but their upside is questionable and if both everything clicks for them and Green Bay, the Packers become the better team. The Bears are the Bears. If they get eight wins it’ll be an incredibly successful season.