As I noted previously, we're getting close to the time when actual, meaningful football gets played in the Fall. Because of this I've spent some time analyzing all the teams in 2015 for both the NFL and College Football.
Next: NFC North
Green Bay Packers
Projected Record: 14-2 First place
For Green Bay, it's all about offense. Specifically, it's mostly about Aaron Rodgers, with a healthy dose of Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson thrown in for good measure. On the defensive side of the ball, you talk about Clay Matthews Jr and Julius Peppers and you think Wow! This team is loaded!
However, then you look at the rest of the roster, the other players who are OK but not great, an offensive line that's good but not great, a group of defensive backs that are slightly above average, and a defensive line that's just "meh" and you start to think 'why in the world am I picking this team to win a lot of games again?'
The reason I'm picking Green Bay to win a lot of games again is because what's good about this team, is among the best in the league. Aaron Rodgers is the type of quarterback who can will his team to a win, Clay Matthews Jr. is a controlling type of linebacker, and Julius Peppers has been on the top of his game for years now with no signs of falling off. Coach Mike McCarthy is a good coach who understands what makes this team work so well, and he seems to have the players ears in the locker room.
So, it's Green Bay again for me, with a team that's threatening to nip at their heels if they suddenly get old.
Projected Record: 11-5 Second Place
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. IF Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson stay healthy and IF Haloti Ngata is the same player as he was with the Ravens and IF RB Ameer Abdullah is as good, and runs as hard, in the pros as he did at Nebraska then this team can be very good.
If Abdullah is not an NFL quality back and Stafford and/or Johnson get hurt and Ngata gets old in a hurry this team could finish 6-10 because the rest of this roster is pretty average, lacks depth and still seems to have an infuriating tendency (for Lion's fans) to shoot itself in the foot in key moments. They thought that they were going to solve this issue by hiring head coach Jim Caldwell to replace Schwartz but they still have problems with little things like penalties at key times etc. Getting rid of Suh might help some of that however.
My issue with the Lions is that my problems with them aren't entirely surrounding the talent on their roster, it's the amount of maturity in their heads. Because of that I've a feeling I'll never pick the Lions to win until after they do. So this year I'm not picking them to win but wouldn't be surprised if they had the ability to take advantage of things should Green Bay falter.
In this division, there's a long way between the top two and the bottom two.....
Projected Record 6-10 Third place
As goes Jay Cutler, so go the Bears. Unfortunately for Chicago fans I'm not much of a believer in Mr. Cutler. Yes, he likes to sling the ball around the field and he's been given some decent offensive tools to play with. Matt Forte is a top RB in the NFL and is perpetually underappreciated. I think that the team is really hoping Michigan State draft pick Jeremy Langford develops into a quality back-up to Forte. At WR the Bears have Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal, and seem to be hoping that former Baylor WR Kevin White will emerge as their new #1 option. The problem I think they might have is that Baylor players are severely impaired coming out of college, in terms of digesting and absorbing NFL offenses. I worry that what's good about the Bear's O-line is getting old, and their draft picks do not inspire feelings of joy.
Defensively I still think this team's strength is at LB. Lamarr Houston and Mason Foster are two pretty solid players and I think 3rd year player Christian Jones has the physical talent to become a solid contributor. The worries, in my mind, lie with the defensive line. There is some talent there in the persons of Ego Ferguson and Jarvis Jenkins and they are big (only one DL on the current roster is under 300 lbs). I do worry that they lack a true edge rusher. The coaching staff is relying heavily on Theo Ratliff (aged 34 and oft-injured last year) which should worry Bears fans a little.
On the coaching front the Bears are going with dismissed Denver man John Fox, who couldn't get Manning and the talented Broncos over the finish line. Vic Fangio is a proven defensive coordinator, so there is a chance my worries about the defense are overblown. I just don't think Fangio has enough raw talent with which to work a miracle.
The best news for the Bears is that they play in the same division as the.....
Projected Record 3-13 Fourth place
One of my biggest nits to pick with so-called "professional" NFL analysis is that most analysts are reluctant to pick a team to have a horrible record. Despite this in every season there are some that do. The key is to honestly assess who you think is most likely to have the wheels come off.
In the NFC North I think this team is the Vikings. I say this despite liking quite a lot of the talent on their roster.
Offensively, when he's focused and healthy, Adrian Peterson is still the top RB in the NFL and it's not close for second. The WR duo of former Steeler Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson is fine as well. In the slot I even like Jarius Wright OK. The Vikings have a good line, but I do worry about Loadholt, Sullivan and Berger getting old. Where I really worry on this team is at the QB position. I've yet to see anything from Teddy Bridgewater that convinces me he's a QB that can lead a team to the playoffs.
Defensively I think the Vikings have two above-average CB's in Captain Munnerlyn and Terrance Newman, although the latter is entering his 14th season. I think the S position is weak, and the Vikings lack depth throughout the DB. At LB I like (don't love) Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway. I'm uncertain about the other two positions however. It's the DL that I think is suspect. DE Everson Griffen is a player, but I just don't see all that much around him. With little pressure on the QB I'm afraid that the Vikings could be on the downside of some higher scoring games.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer waited a long time to finally get his first head coaching nod. Now that he's gotten it I think the jury is still out on whether or not he's a coordinator or a head coach. I think he will be tested this year as the off-season mess surrounding his best player will not fully disperse and the locker room could be a shambles. All that said, if there's any team on the bottom in my predictions that I could be wrong about it's the Vikings. As I said, I really like a lot of their talent on both sides of the ball. If this team stays healthy, and most things go right, then they could contend for a playoff spot. However, when I analyze the games on their schedule right now I have a hard time putting them there.
I really think that this is going to be Green Bay's year to do some damage. I also think that we're starting to see the Lions figure things out. In the future I think this will be the strongest division in the NFL with four pretty solid teams duking it out. Right now however I think the Bears and Vikings still have some growing pains to work through.