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Aaron Rodgers has had a hold on the NFC North, as he’s lead the Green Bay Packers to eight division titles since the 2011 season. But with two new head coaches and the emergence of the team from the Motor City, might we see the first NFC North division champion not from Wisconsin since the 2018 season?
Record In 2021: 6-11
Key Players: The entire Receiving Corps
Player To Watch: Linebacker – Joe Thomas
New Head Coach Matt Eberflus has his work cut out for him in his rookie season as head coach. On the positive side, he has second year Quarterback Justin Fields as his signal caller. Fields struggled as the Bears’ offensive line and offensive scheme did not fit the former Ohio State Buckeye star. New Offensive Coordinator Luke Getsy will implement a style similar to the one he had success alongside Aaron Rodgers with in Green Bay.
The backfield of David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert should take some of the pressure off Fields, but his receiving corps will be the key to any success in the Windy City this year. The Bears return leading receiver Darnell Mooney (81 catches for 1055 yards) and the emerging Cole Kmet at Tight End. But the rest of the group is either unproven (Velus Jones Jr), in a new role (Byron Pringle) or looking to breakout of the shadows (Equanimeous St. Brown). If Fields can develop one, the Bears passing game could surprise people.
But if the offensive line continues to struggle (last season they gave up 58 sacks) and no one develops to help Mooney and Kmet, the Bears offense might continue be in the bottom five in points scored again this season.
The defense was the bright spot last season. Only allowing the sixth fewest yards in the NFL would have put most teams in the playoffs. But the offensive struggles forced the Bears defense to be on the field more than they should have. Robert Quinn should continue to be one of the elite pass rushers in the game today. His 18.5 sacks not only lead the Bears, but he led the NFC for the second time in his career, earning his third career Pro Bowl selection.
Eddie Jackson leads the secondary but they need to find someone who can create turnovers. The Bears had eight interceptions on defense and only six of them came from the secondary. Prediction- 4-13
Record In 2021: 3-13-1
Key Player: Quarterback – Jared Goff
Player To Watch: Defensive End – Aiden Hutchinson
The Detroit Lions have started to make some major moves over the last season and look forward to making even more noise in 2022. They drafted the best pure Defensive End available in the NFL Draft (Aiden Hutchison) and traded up to get potentially the most explosive Wide Receiver in the class (Jamison Williams). Adding these two pieces and having a potential breakout season from their star running back could make the Motor City apart of the NFC conversation.
D’Andre Swift provided Lions fans so many highlights in 2021, either running the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield. But like his rookie season, injuries forced Swift to miss all or part of five games last season. Having him on the field not only gives Goff another weapon in the passing game, but someone who can run the ball, allowing his group of receivers to get open.
Goff will have plenty of players to throw to as Williams recovers a torn ACL that he suffered in the National Championship game for Alabama. T.J. Hockenson is one of the best young Tight Ends in football and his 61 catches was third on the team last year, even though he missed five games due to injury. Leading pass catcher Amon-Ra St. Brown and the newly acquired D.J. Chark will man the outside and Josh Reynolds should spend most of his time in the slot.
The drafting of Hutchinson should help one of the worst pass rushing units in the NFL. Only one player (Charles Harris) had more than six sacks last season and the team finished with 30 in total. Hutchinson finished third in the NCAA with 14 sacks and plays with a motor that head coach Dan Campbell is hoping can lead his defense into the future. Prediction: 6-11
Green Bay Packers
Record In 2021: 13-4
Key Player: Wide Receiver – Sammy Watkins
Player To Watch: Defensive Lineman – Jarran Reed
Even though the Packers lost one half of one the most prolific duo’s in the NFL (Davante Adams) in the off-season, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers still will have one of the most talented offensive groups in the entire NFL. Without Rodgers favorite target, the running back duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will take some of the pressure off the passing game.
Losing a player who has produced at the level of Adams, as well as Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the off-season, has allowed Allen Lazard to take over as the number one receiver in Green Bay. Lazard should post career-high numbers in all receiving categories after catching 40 passes last season. Newly acquired Sammy Watkins and the returning Juwann Winfree and Romeo Doubs should see an increase in production as well. Someone has to help replace the 149 catches and 14 touchdowns that Adams and Valdes-Scantling brought to the offense last season.
On defense, the Packers have Pro-Bowl caliber players at all three levels in their starting lineup. Kenny Clark leads the defense from his Defensive Tackle position. His ability to rush the passer and stop the run are key for the Packers defensive line success. He’s joined by Dean Lowry (who had a career-high five sacks last season) and the incoming Jarran Reed from the Kansas City Chiefs. Reed is looking to regain his 2018 form, when he had 10.5 sacks for the Seattle Seahawks.
Joe Barry’s defense will also return all-pro De’Vondre Campbell, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith at Linebacker positions and Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas at cornerback. But the most important return is the one of 2021 Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander, back after missing the final 13 games of the regular season and all of the playoffs with an injured AC joint in his shoulder. Prediction- 11-6
Record In 2021: 8-9
Key Player: Defensive End – Danielle Hunter
Player To Watch: Linebacker – Za’Darius Smith
For the last four seasons, the Minnesota Vikings have been the biggest threat to the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North division title. But something has caused the Vikings to fall just short and that cost long time head coach Mike Zimmer his job. Now with the Packers losing key members on offense, this could be the Vikings’ best chance to win the division for the first time since the 2017 season.
All of the main offensive pieces return for Minnesota, as Kirk Cousins will start at Quarterback and Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison are in the backfield. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen will continue as one of the best Wide Receiver duos in football. New Head Coach Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips (both from the Super Bowl Champion L.A. Rams) should have this offense back to elite status in 2022.
But all of the questions will fall on a defense that has finished in the bottom five overall in both of the last two seasons. Former Green Bay Packer Za’Darius Smith will look to find the form that had him with double digits sack totals in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The team also gets a healthy Danielle Hunter back after only playing in seven games last year, registering six sacks. If both can get back to double digit numbers, Minnesota has a chance to become a real sleeper in the NFC.
With an increased pass rush, the Vikings secondary will have a chance be a lot better than the 28th overall ranking they had last season. The key will be how fast that rookie Andrew Booth Jr. can pick up and join the starting lineup. Booth J.r, Cameron Dantzler Sr. and Patrick Peterson have to come up big this year because if not this could be a repeat of last season. Prediction: 9-8