GREEN BAY – There may not be a single division in the NFL undergoing as much change this offseason as the NFC North.
Mike McCarthy has revamped his coaching staff in Green Bay, while Brian Gutekunst takes over as general manager. The Lions and Bears both have new head coaches, and even the Vikings, the class of the division who came one win away from the Super Bowl, have uncertainty at the game’s most important position.
With the first big media event of the offseason – the NFL Scouting Combine, at which nearly all the league’s coaches and GMs hold news conferences – fast approaching, packers.com will be taking a quick look at all of Green Bay’s 2018 opponents and discussing the biggest question facing each one.
This segment will focus on the Packers’ NFC North foes, while a follow-up piece coming soon will look at the rest of next season’s opponents.
Minnesota Vikings – What are they going to do at quarterback?
The Vikings have three quarterbacks who have all won games for them – Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater – but none of the three is under contract for 2018. Come the start of free agency on March 14, it’s possible Minnesota won’t have a QB on its roster.
Keenum was playing his way to a big contract with a 98.3 passer rating in the regular season (67.6 percent completions, 22 TDs, seven INTs) and his last-second miracle pass to Stefon Diggs to beat the Saints in the playoffs. But a dismal NFC title game (28-of-48, one TD, two INTs, 63.8 rating) seemingly put the brakes on a mega deal or franchise-tag situation.
Meanwhile, Bradford’s injury history makes him the least likely to return to Minnesota, and Bridgewater hasn’t started a game in two years during recovery from a horrific knee injury.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has made no secret of his fondness for Bridgewater, but handing him the keys after such a long layoff carries huge risk. At the same time, Keenum has little incentive to re-sign with the Vikings long term if Bridgewater is still in line for a shot at the job. If Keenum is going to cash in, with the Vikings or another team, the time is now. If nothing works out with the three incumbents to Minnesota’s satisfaction, does pending free agent Kirk Cousins enter the discussion?
Whoever is under center in 2018 will be in control of a potentially formidable offense, albeit under a new coordinator with Pat Shurmur’s departure to New York. Last season, the Vikings shored up their offensive line, which was their downfall in 2016. Diggs and Adam Thielen are a strong 1-2 receiving combo, and running back Dalvin Cook is expected back from his knee injury after starting 2017 in the conversation for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
But everyone is wondering who will be getting those weapons the ball.
Detroit Lions – What will become their defensive identity under new head coach Matt Patricia?
For most of this decade, the Lions’ defense has been built on the front. Going back to their 2011 playoff team, Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril and Kyle VandenBosch, with dynamic linebacker DeAndre Levy in the middle of it all, were the foundation. Over the years, Nick Fairley took over for VandenBosch and Ezekiel Ansah stepped in for Avril.
But Levy is out of football, unable to recover from a series of injuries, and Ansah is a pending free agent, with none of the other up-front mainstays still around. Top cornerback Darius Slay is Detroit’s best defensive player, but the defensive-minded Patricia will be looking to build a unit that can do more to help quarterback Matthew Stafford and a strong passing offense.
The other big question with the Lions is what they’ll do to fix a running game that has ranked at or near the bottom of the league for a few years now. Feature back has been a revolving door of sorts and no one has rushed for 100 yards in a game for the Lions since Thanksgiving of 2013 (Reggie Bush against the Matt Flynn-led Packers, for the record).
Stafford’s game continues to climb toward the elite level, with his season passer rating in the 90s the last three years. He’s thrown a career-low 10 interceptions each of the last two without Calvin Johnson at receiver. A reset on defense and running back could go a long way in Detroit.
Chicago Bears – Can new head coach Matt Nagy keep Mitch Trubisky on the path to being the franchise QB?
GM Ryan Pace staked his career on the trade for and selection of Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. Trubisky was treated with kid gloves at times, attempting 25 or fewer passes in his first three starts and in five of 12 overall, as the Bears tried to win with their running game and defense. The Trubisky of the future the Bears are counting on is the one who posted a 112.4 passer rating (25-of-32, 271 yards, one TD) in a 33-7 December road win at Cincinnati.
Nagy comes to Chicago off a successful run as Kansas City’s QB coach and then offensive coordinator. Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith’s best statistical season in more than a decade in the NFL was last year for the Chiefs under Nagy.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who was passed over for the head job, is sticking around to work with Nagy. He has kept Chicago’s defensive competitive despite some key injuries and lack of a superstar or two to build around.
The Bears found a 1-2 punch on the ground in 2017 with Jordan Howard and rookie Tarik Cohen, but Trubisky also needs higher-caliber receivers to throw to. Former first-round pick Kevin White has not been able to shake the injury bug, tight end Zach Miller suffered an awful leg injury, and no other pass catchers have made much of a name for themselves.
Better perimeter weapons will help Trubisky, and a better Trubisky will also help make Chicago’s offense more well-rounded and formidable. The QB’s second year will be a big one for the Bears’ future.