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Can The Packers Keep Their Stranglehold On The Division?
Green Bay Packers
2021 Record: 13-4
The Packers may have suffered a host of defections in the offseason, but they still have Aaron Rodgers which is enough to make them the favorite to claim the NFC North for the fourth consecutive year. While Rodgers is still at the top of his game, he has a new stable of wide receivers to get acquainted with after Devante Adams was traded, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling left in free agency in the offseason. The new additions to the receiver corps are veteran Sammy Watkins along with rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. They join holdovers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. While this is a decent group of wideouts it lacks the true number one receiver Green Bay had with Adams, which could hurt against the league’s top defensive backfields. The return of tight end Robert Tonyan from a torn ACL suffered in Week 8 last season and the pass catching acumen of running back Aaron Jones will supplement the wide receivers in the passing attack.
Jones and A.J. Dillon form one of the top running duos in the NFL. With the lack of star power at receiver, look for Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur to lean on this running attack more than in years past as a path to success on offense. As usual the Packers offensive line will be one of the NFL’s best units.
This will once again be an elite defense with a very solid front seven and an excellent secondary. Kenny Clark leads a defensive line that added former Chief Jarran Reed in the offseason. The outside linebackers will bring the pass rush with Rashan Gary and Preston Smith combining for 18.5 sacks in 2021. Tackling machine De’Vondre Campbell and 2022 1st Round pick Quay Walker combine to make a very stout run stuffing tandem. As good as the front seven is, the secondary is the best unit on this defense. All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander teams with Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas to for one of the top corner trios in the NFL. Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are a dynamic safety pairing.
Pat O’Donnell brings his big leg over from the Bears to handle the punts while veteran Mason Crosby is back to do the placekicking. Amari Rodgers be entrusted with both punt and kickoff returns.
The Packers have owned this division for the last three seasons and while the passing game may take a small step back due to the loss of top weapons on the outside, the potential is there for this Packers offense to become a dominant rushing attack. That coupled with an elite defense should keep Green Bay on top of the North once again in 2022. If things fall right Rodgers and company can even win a playoff game or two.
Prediction: 11-6, First Place in the NFC North
2021 Record: 8-9
After back-to-back sub .500 seasons head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Chris Spielman were fired and a new regime lead by head coach Kevin O’Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah were brought in to get the Vikings back on the winning path. O’Connell has the tools at his disposal to field a playoff caliber offense. With quarterback Kirk Cousins at the controls of a passing attack that features arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, along with tight end Irv Smith and running back Dalvin Cook, the potential for a potent, balanced attack is certainly there. With Cook as the feature back ably backed up by Alexander Mattison, the running game could put up much more than the 113.5 ypg they logged in 2021.
This unit was the sore spot in 2021, ranking 30th in total defense. The hope is that new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell can fix a group that will receive help from the return of defensive end Danielle Hunter and the addition of former Packer edge rusher Za’Darius Smith. While nose tackle Harrison Phillips was a smart addition for Donatell’s 3-4 scheme the rest of the defensive line is either lacking talent or a poor fit for Donatell’s defense. Inside linebacker with the pairing of Eric Kendrick and Jordan Hicks should be a strength, helping improve on last season’s 26th ranked run defense. There is potential for a secondary that under performed in 2021. Aging Patrick Peterson man’s one boundary corner with Cameron Dantzler at the other outside corner spot. The hope is that last year’s 2nd round pick Andrew Booth Jr. can stay healthy and supplant Dantzler as a starter. Former Green Bay Packer Chandon Sullivan is a solid slot corner. Harrison Smith leads a quality group of safeties that adds Louis Cine in the 1st round of this year’s draft.
It appears that the Vikings have finally solved their placekicking woes after years of struggles in that area. Well-traveled veteran Greg Joseph was a very solid 33-38 on field goal tries in 2021 and returns as the kicker this season. Jordan Berry is a capable punter and Kene Nwangwu had two kickoff returns for touchdowns last season and was named first team All-Pro kick returner by PFF. The punt return job is wide with K.J Osbourn emerging as the favorite from a crowded group of candidates.
The Vikings needed to hear a different voice and seemed to grow weary of playing for Mike Zimmer and their poor performances the last two seasons highlight that. First year head coach Kevin O’Connell is a bright, young offensive mind that should be able to get more out of this offensive personnel than Gary or Klint Kubiak were able to the previous two seasons. If that is indeed the case, this offense could rival Green Bay as the top attack in the division. Defensively, there are pieces and talent but the change from Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 to Donatell’s 3-4 result in some ill-fitting pieces that might hamstring Donatell’s progress this season. In a division with a weak bottom and a Packers team with some holes in their depth chart on top, look for the Vikings to get back on the right side of .500 and challenge for a playoff berth.
Prediction: 9-8, 2nd Place in the NFC North
2021 Record: 3-12-1
While the numbers weren’t great for this Lions offense in 2021, ranking 22nd in ypg last season, they are starting to form the foundation of a quality squad. Jared Goff may not be an elite quarterback but can score points and win games with good pieces around him. This offense is starting to accumulate quite a few of those pieces. Amon-Ra St. Brown looks to have the makings of a star wideout. He is complemented by former Jaguar D.J. Chark, Kalif Raymond and Josh Reynolds. Rookie 1st round pick Jameson Williams will start the season on the PUP list while he recovers from the torn ACL he suffered in January. Williams may be a factor in the second half of the season as all indications are that his rehab is going smoothly. Tight End T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift will also be important targets for Goff.
Swift will lead a vastly improved running game, which will benefit from the continued improvement of the offensive line. With Tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell along with center Frank Ragenow leading the way the Lions have developed a strong offensive front, so much so that Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis ranks this as the NFL’s fourth best unit coming into the season.
This is where the Lions have work to do. This defense was 29th in yards allowed in 2021 and while number two overall pick Aiden Hutchinson will help both the pass rush and run defense, this defense still has a way to go. The last two years have seen an influx of young talent and while the pass rush looks like it could be ready to break out this unit is probably another year away from showing real progress.
Punter Jack Fox followed up his Pro Bowl campaign in 2020 with another fine season in 2021. Austin Seibert will oversee the kicking chores. Punt returner Kalif Raymond ranked in the top five last season, but last season’s kick returner Godwin Igwebuike was cut with the Lions final cuts leaving the kick return job wide open. Detroit can also turn the tide of any game with a fake punt thanks to punter Jack Fox being a former high school quarterback.
After years of failure the Lions finally look like they are on the right track with the rebuild of this franchise. General Manager Brad Holmes is assembling some very good talent and head coach Dan Campbell gets maximum effort from his team every week. While this team is not ready to contend for a playoff spot just yet, they are in a position to start winning some games and finally climb out of the cellar in the NFC North.
Prediction: 7-10, 3rd Place in the NFC North
2021 Record: 6-11
There is not much in the way of weapons to help foster the development of 2nd year quarterback Justin Fields. Outside of emerging young wideout Darnell Moody, Fields has precious few weapons to throw the ball to. To make matters worse for Fields the leaky offensive line could have Fields running for his life.
The running back room has plenty of talent with starter David Montgomery and understudy Khalil Herbert. The problem is the same group of offensive linemen that can’t protect Fields can’t open holes for these backs.
The news isn’t much better on defense where new head coach and defensive wizard Matt Eberflus will have to rebuild a defense that loses Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks and will start two 2nd round rookie draft picks in the secondary.
Rookie 7th round pick Trenton Gill replaces Pat O’Donnell at punter with the Cairo Santos handling the kicking chores. Velus Jones Jr. is the favorite to return punts with Khalil Herbert returning kickoffs.
This is year one of a ground up rebuild and there is not enough talent on this roster to win many games. Many believe this in the worst team in the NFL and it’s hard to argue that point. It’s going to be a long season for Bears fans.
Prediction: 4-13, 4th Place in the NFC North