The NFC North: Five Things I Love

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Heading into the 2019-2020 NFL season, the NFC North is seen by many to be the best division in the league. The Bears are coming off their first division title since 2010 under a bright, young, head coach in Matt Nagy, the Packers are looking to get back to the playoffs after a two-year drought with the help of Aaron Rodgers and first-year head coach Matt LaFleur, the Vikings are looking to bounce back after a disappointing 2018 season with a very talented offense led by Kirk Cousins, and the Detroit Lions are looking to make a name for themselves under second-year head coach Matt Patricia. Regardless of the results of last season, most of which was greatly influenced by injuries and inexperience, the 2019 NFC North Division title is up for grabs.

The odds on favorites to win the division title are the Chicago Bears at +165 while the Detroit Lions are the distant long shots at +1500 with the Packers and Vikings stuck in between at +210 and +255 respectfully (SportsBook.ag). This season is going to be very entertaining with quality football destined to be played on each side during these divisional games, beginning with the Packers and Bears leading off the NFL’s 100th season. There are great things to be said about each of the four NFC North teams but there are also some glaring question marks regarding their respective depth charts, coaching staffs, and futures. To start off this column, we’re going to talk about five things I love about the NFC North for the 2019-2020 NFL season. 

Five Things I Love:

The Packers Defensive Additions

Despite the Packers’ investments in their defense over the past 3 seasons, they have yet to have any real improvement from their defensive unit. They’ve spent their last four first-round draft picks on defensive players and while they have had a quality return on some of their picks, mainly Kenny Clark (1st), Dean Lowry (4th), Blake Martinez (4th), and Jaire Alexander (1st), it’s been mainly disappointment so far. However, the Packers have made some significant defensive additions this off-season, starting with what they did in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Packers had two first rounds picks this year and they used them on Rashaan Gary (Michigan) and Darnell Savage (Maryland), two very intriguing players who seem to be locked in starters for the upcoming season. Although many believe Gary was drafted too high, I think it was definitely worth the investment. He might not have produced the numbers many looks for in a top draft pick but that is simply because he was double-teamed on almost every possession and that just won’t happen in the NFL. Savage is an extremely intelligent ball-hawk destined to become a key component in the Packers’ defense for years to come. Along with the draft picks, the Packers signed Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, and Za’Darius Smith in free agency. Adrian Amos was a 2017 All-Pro selection for the Chicago Bears, Preston Smith is a solid overall defensive end who has improved every season he’s been in the league, and Za’Darius Smith is coming off of an 8.5 sack season with the Baltimore Ravens. These additions should be extremely significant in the revamping of the Green Bay Packers this season and who knows what an improved Packer defense could mean for the rest of the NFC North.

Defensive Backs

The NFC North is extremely talented overall in the defensive backfield. The Minnesota Vikings have Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, the Bears with Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson, and Prince Amukamara, the Lions with Darius Slay, and the Packers with Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage. At this point, the Vikes’ and Bears’ defensive backs shine brightly over the rest of the division because they’re both extremely experienced and filled to the brim with All-Pro caliber players. Let’s start with the Bears, they’re coming out of 2018 as the #1 ranked defense in all of football and both Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller were named First-Team All-Pro selections. That in itself already shows you how talented this division is. The Vikings are headlined by formed All-Pro defensive backs Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, both of whom were First-Team All-Pro selections in 2017. You read that correctly, another NFC North duo was First-Team All-Pro teammates. That’s just ridiculous. Now onto the Pack, they’re extremely young. Going into the second year of Mike Pettine’s defense with a healthy Kevin King at corner to go along with All-Rookie Team selection, Jaire Alexander and first-round draft pick Darnell Savage lining up at the safety position, this unit has a very high potential to bring about the next NFC North First-Team All-Pro selections. And then there’s the Detroit Lions. Their starting cornerback, Darius Slay, was a First Team All-Pro selection in 2017 as well that year’s leader in interceptions and is just an extremely talented player overall. But besides Slay, the Lions have a huge deficit in the secondary.

The Bears’ Offense 

Wow. The Bears’ offense really was something special in 2018, wasn’t it? Now here’s a kicker, they’re going to be even better in 2019. I may not be a Mitchell Trubisky truther but he’s a competent starting quarterback with one of the best, if not THE best offensive line in the entire NFL along with offensive weapons galore at his disposal. With head coach Matt Nagy (offensive genius) leading the charge, this Bears offense is primed to be a dominant force in the league for the second year in a row. The offensive line, my favorite part of this Bears team, is headlined by three former All-Rookie team members, three Pro Bowl participants. Cody Whitehair and Kyle Long are the two starting guards this season and all opposing defensive linemen better watch out. Cody Whitehair is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and former Kyle Long is finally healthy after suffering multiple injuries over the course of the last few seasons. Starting at center is second-year sensation, James Daniels. Daniels was a rookie out of Iowa last season who was elected to the All-Rookie team with a sensational performance against the LA Rams being the highlight of his rookie campaign. He didn’t just play well against the Rams, he SHUT DOWN the best defender in the league, Aaron Donald, now that’s impressive. At the tackle positions are Charles Leno Jr. (coming off his first Pro Bowl selection) and a very talented and an underrated Bobby Massie. This offensive line is ridiculously talented and Trubisky couldn’t ask for anything more than that. Another reason why he couldn’t ask for anything more is that he already has more. He has “The Human Joystick” in Tarik Cohen alongside highly-touted rookie David Montgomery out of Iowa State. Fun Fact about Tarik Cohen: First Team All-Pro return specialist in 2018. Cohen can do it all. Literally. He’s run for touchdowns, caught touchdowns, returned punts for touchdowns, AND he’s even thrown a touchdown. The Bears have Trey Burton, the man is known worldwide for his touchdown pass during Super Bowl LII dubbed “The Philly Special” and 2017 2nd round draft pick Adam Shaheen lining up at the tight end position and although I think it’s the weakest position on the offense, there are a lot of teams who dream of having tight ends of their caliber. Now the wide receivers. Sheesh. These guys are good. The #1 WR position goes to Allen Robinson, 2x Pro Bowler, 1x First-Team All-Pro, and the 2015 receiving touchdowns leader. If I had one word to describe ARob, it would definitely be “stud” because when he’s healthy, there’s no stopping him. And then there’s the speedster Taylor Gabriel, the underrated Anthony Miller, and rookie Riley Ridley out of Georgia, brother of Calvin Ridley, a very talented wide-out for the Atlanta Falcons alongside Julio Jones. This team’s potential is insanely high and, barring any major injuries, they’re poised to make a very deep playoff run in Coach Nagy’s second year as their head coach.

Head Coaches

The NFC North has had an influx of new head coaches (outside of Mike Zimmer with the Vikings) and these new coaches look like they could be the most promising out of the next generation of NFL head coaches. Offensive guru Matt Nagy has already proven himself as an elite coach after coming over to the Chicago Bears in 2018 and leading them to a 12-4 record and an NFC North title after going 5-11 the previous season. Nagy had spent the previous year as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator under head coach Andy Reid. And let’s not forget about the rookie quarterback he spent the entire 2017 season developing: 2018 NFL MVP, Patrick Mahomes II. Nagy was also named the AP Coach of the Year during his first season with the Bears and all Bears fans out there should be very optimistic about their team going forward. Out in Detroit, the Lions have second-year head coach Matt Patricia who made his way over from New England in 2018 after being with the Pats since 2004 (defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2017). While with New England, Patricia helped coach the Patriots to 3 Super Bowl championships. Patricia’s Lions struggled pretty heavily during the 2018 season, defensively and offensively, but seeing as Patricia was one of the most sought after coaches for the past few years and this was only his first season, we really can’t judge him too harshly. This upcoming season, however, will be crucial if he wants to keep the hopes of Detroit Lions’ fans alive. Up in Green Bay, the Packers are a year into a major infrastructure reshuffling. Ted Thompson, general manager of the Packers for 12 seasons, was fired during the 2018 off season, replaced by Brian Gutekunst (director of player personnel), and not long after that his longtime friend and then head coach of the Packers, Mike McCarthy, was fired after a Week 13 loss to the horrid Arizona Cardinals. After all of these changes, it was announced in early January that Matt LaFleur was to be the next coach of the Green Bay Packers. After spending time under Mike Shanahan in Washington, Dan Quinn in Atlanta, Sean McVay in Los Angeles, and finally Mike Vrabel in Tennessee, LaFleur was finally a head coach. Being younger than his Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers might prove to be a little tricky but the Packers are a very talented and young team with a lot of potential so let’s see what LaFleur can do with the hand he’s dealt himself. Finally, up in Minnesota is the only veteran head coach in the NFC North in Mike Zimmer. Mike Zimmer has been the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings since the 2014 season and since then he has 2 NFC North titles under his belt. Zimmer has a very talented roster with the Vikings compiled of many accomplished veteran players. The Vikes were disappointing in 2018 with only an 8-7 record a year removed from a 13-3 record, the ‘Minnesota Miracle’, and a trip to the NFC Championship. All four coaches excel in many different facets and because of this, the NFC North is going to be ultra-competitive for many years to come.

Names

My favorite part about the NFC North is EASILY the names. You take a look at the Chicago Bears with guys like Prince Amukamara and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers have Geronimo Allison, Kingsley Keke, Gerhard de Beer, and Darnell Savage, the Vikings with Hercules Mata’afa, Dalvin Cook, and C.J. Ham, and then the Lions have Snacks Harrison (my personal favorite), Beau Benzschawel, and Teez Tabor and I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other players with awesome names. However, although all of these names sound really cool, none of them are my favorite part of the name game. The NFC North is the ONLY division in the entirety of the NFL with at least three coaches with the same first name and in this case, it’s Matt: Matt Patricia, Matt LaFleur, and Matt Nagy. NOTHING is cooler than that and I don’t care what anyone else has to say about it.  Now, all we need is for Mike Zimmer to change his name to Matt or we need him fired. Nothing else is acceptable. I will not stand by and let this go on any longer.  Who knows how this upcoming season is going to end, with so much talent in the NFC North, the division title is up for grabs. I love the changes the Packers have made throughout the off-season but the Bears are a very talented and promising, young team with the majority of the roster’s core signed through the 2021 season. And then there’s always the Vikings who are destined to have a comeback season after having an outstanding 2017 season. All I know for sure is that I cannot wait for this season and it’s going to be a great year.

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