NFC NORTH- 3 Takeaways From Each Teams Offseason
The start of Matt Patricia's tenure with the Lions was less than ideal. Offseason issues, followed by a 6-10 record makes it seem like this is already a make or break year for Patricia. The Lions did acquire the most coveted free agent, Trey Flowers(DE), and drafted a top-five talent in T.J. Hockenson(TE). Maybe a drama-free offseason, and the addition of some "Patricia Guys," will put the Lions back in the mix in the North.
1: Tight Ends on Tight Ends
Patricia was trying to find his Gronk when he drafted T.J. Hockenson. He knows how an elite, two-way, tight end can optimize an offense. I'm not comparing a rookie to a future hall of famer, but Hockenson might turn out to be the best player from the 2019 draft. He's a complete tight end with hands like a wide receiver, and the tenacity of an offensive lineman. Although tight ends usually take time to develop, I believe that Hockenson will be the best tight end in the NFC North by 2020. Free agent Jessie James, and T.J. Hockenson will give offensive coordinator Derrell Bevell a lot to work in twelve personnel. The Lions also added veteran Logan Thomas (BUF) and drafted Isaac Nauta(Georgia). Detroit's tight end room will look brand new in 2019.
As I stated in the intro, the Lions want to bring in "Patricia Guys." Matt Patricia comes from the Parcells coaching tree. Every time Parcells took over a team, he needed a few of his guys, to install the culture. He coached some of the toughest, nastiest players the league has ever seen. "Parcells guys," needed to be all in, all the time. Matt Patricia is hoping to follow in Parcells footsteps. Familiar faces like Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola are part of the Lions 2019 free agent class. Although Flowers isn't known for his toughness, Amendola has taken some of the biggest hits coming across the middle I've ever seen. He's had three concussions, and that hasn't slowed him down a bit. Adding a bruiser like C.J. Anderson to pair with Kerryon Johnson, the tight ends, and scrappy receivers like Danny Amendola and Jermaine Kearse leads me to believe the Lions are determined to establish a running game this year.
3: Finally Get Stafford a Running Game
The Lions running game has been abysmal during Stafford's tenure with the Lions. The Lions have only had one 1,000 yard rusher, Reggie Bush(2013), since 2009. Other than Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, no Lions rusher has surpassed 800 yards with Stafford under center. The Lions added two interior linemen in the offseason as well as Anderson, and the tight ends. Offensive Coordinator Derrell Bevell's success in Seattle came from pounding the rock. Although the Lions don't have a Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, they're looking to run the ball. It won't be an easy task considering they will play two of the best defensive lines in the NFL twice this year. Either way, the Lions need to figure out a way to run the ball. Stafford has been top ten in the 'sacked' category since that 2013 season with Reggie Bush.
Green Bay Packers:
Years of accusations/rumors revealed in an article, and the story keeps snowballing. Green Bay finds itself in unfamiliar territory. I didn't want this article to be negative, but the Packers aren't making it easy. Everyone has said it, two legendary quarterbacks and only two rings. Extraordinary quarterback play has covered roster holes for the Packers in the past. Does Aaron Rodgers have another run left in him?
1: All New Everything
It all started last year when Mike McCarthy got fired after the week 13 loss to the Cardinals. The Packers searched for a new head coach and landed on Matt LeFleur. He coordinated under Sean McVay, and his offense has a little less freedom than Aaron Rodgers is accustom to. Rodgers has watched Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb walk out the door in back to back years. It sounds crazy to say, but even Clay Matthews was not re-signed, and he will be seen wearing a Rams jersey this season. The Packers are replacing Matthews with two new edge rushers, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. Both have shown potential in the past, but neither player is labeled as a proven pass rusher. The Packers also signed former Bears safety, Adrian Amos. Amos steadily improved throughout his career and has developed into a solid safety. He wouldn't be considered a "ball hawk," but he executes his assignments. The safety swap between Haha Clinton-Dix and Amos has been heavily disputed. Either way, the Packers wanted someone a little more disciplined on the back end, and that's what they got. The Packers also used their first two picks on defensive end Rashan Gary(Michigan), and safety Darnell Savage(Maryland). On paper, the defense seems to have improved, but the jury is still out.
2: Breaking the Bank and the Ghost of Previous Drafts Past
This offseason, the Packers spent $180.1 million on five free agents. The Jets were the only team to spend more money than the Packers, spending $216.31 million on sixteen players. Any team that relies heavily on free agency to fill roster spots pays a premium. The problem is, the Packers didn't fill many spots. Typically Green Bay has a small free agent class because they build through the draft. Any team that has sustained success drafts well. The Packers drafted eight players in 2015, and none remain on the roster. The deeper you go, the worse it gets. The Packers didn't resign one player this offseason, and let seventeen players become free agents. Of those seventeen players, only six received contracts. All the contracts received were 1-2 year deals, and the average yearly salary is only $2.7 million per year. A Bears blogger can lie, but numbers don't. Aaron Rodgers is good enough to win ten games on his own, but if this defense doesn't pan out, they won't compete for anything significant.
3. The Rodgers Situation
By now all of the reports are out there, and you know what they say. My take is, sometimes you hear stories and they don't seem too far fetched. Does Aaron Rodgers have a right to be arrogant? I mean, he's an unbelievable player. Favre may have had his issues, but the undying loyalty of his teammates was never in question. Rodgers is probably a better quarterback than Favre was, but he's definitely nowhere near as likable.
The Vikings thought they were a quarterback away from their Superbowl aspirations in 2018. They went out and signed Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed contract, thinking he would get them over the hump. Cousins' statistics were impressive, but unfortunately for the Vikings, they missed the playoffs posting an 8-7-1 record. Although he might have the best combination of skill players in the North to work with, his offensive line had trouble keeping him upright. Kirk Cousins was sacked 40 times in 2018. The offensive issues aren't all on Kirk, but he produced the lamest soundbite of 2018 all by himself.
1: O-Line Shuffle
The Vikings are looking at three new starters on the offensive line this coming season. Replacing more than half of your O-line isn't ideal, but the Vikings starting line should look much better than last season. The addition of first-rounder Garett Bradbury pushes former center, Pat Elflein, to guard. The Vikings also added veteran Josh Kline(TEN) through free agency, to help solidify the interior. Riley Reiff is returning to protect the blindside, who was their best lineman in 2017. The Vikings starters need to stay healthy this year because there is a lack of depth at every position on the O-line. If not, they will be back to square one.
2: Hiring of Kevin Stefanski
Continuity and understanding within a coaching staff will go a long way. Through the year the disconnect between Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo became more and more apparent. Zimmer is old-school, and he wants to pound the rock. Coach Zimmer criticized his OC on multiple occasions during interviews in 2018. As we know, DeFilippo got fired after a short stay in Minnesota, and quarterbacks Coach Kevin Stefanski stepped up as interim OC. Under Stefanski, the Vikings had their best offensive outputs of the 2018 season. His official promotion came in January. Stefanski has been with the team since 2006 and has coached every offensive unit besides lineman. He knows the players, he knows the organization, and most importantly, he knows what Mike Zimmer wants from his offense. Continuity is key.
3: The Draft, and Lingering Cap Issues
After a letdown season, the "Mike Zimmer 2019 Hot Seat," conversation has been in play. In reality, Mike Zimmer is sitting in a recliner right now. Rick Spielman's draft and offseason were way too Zimmer-friendly for me to believe his job is in jeopardy. They drafted two offensive linemen in their first four picks, a top tight end prospect, and running back Alexander Mattison(Boise State). Dalvin Cook has been injury-prone to start his career, and the Vikings don't want to miss a beat if he gets injured again. Mattison isn't a change-of-pace back. He is a bruiser and is about 15 pounds heavier than Cook. He had a full workload at Boise State carrying the ball 302 times for 1,415 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2018. Luckily, the Vikings had extra draft picks because their lingering cap issues forced them to let 14 people walk this offseason. They only had enough cap room to pay either Sheldon Richardson or Anthony Barr. They chose Barr. The Vikings have cap issues, but only because they have drafted and developed talent worthy of a payday. Out of the Vikings ten highest contracts, only three are free agent signings.
A new head coach and a free agent superstar paved the way for the Bears to win their first NFC North title since 2010. It took four years for the Executive of the Year, Ryan Pace, to completely overhaul the roster. The Bears made strides in 2018, and have the opportunity to prove they belong amongst the top-ranked teams in the NFL. Chicago has one of the toughest schedules in 2019, containing three of the top five teams from last year.
1. Loss of Fangio
The Bears defense was phenomenal last year, and the 'evil genius' behind it all was Vic Fangio. In four years Vic took a bottom ranked defense and molded them into a powerhouse. Fangio's work in Chicago earned him a head coaching position in Denver. His replacement, Chuck Pagano, coached alongside Fangio in Baltimore in the late 2000s. Both coaches run a similar base defense, but Pagano is known to have a much more aggressive approach. The Bears defense was special in 2018, partly because they didn't give up big plays. A more aggressive approach can result in letting up more chunk yardage, but it's not guaranteed. The Bears are hopeful Matt Nagy's Offense will pick up the slack until the defense can get back to form.
2. Little Off-season Wiggle Room/Kicking Competition
After spending a good chunk of the team's salary cap on free agents in 2018, the Bears pulled off a trade for Kahlil Mack. The move put the Bears in cap trouble, but you can't pass on a player like Mack(unless you're Gruden). Entering 2019 the Bears were amongst the lowest in cap space. They also traded their 2019 second round pick to draft Anthony Miller(WR) in 2018. It's hard to get better, with little money, and less draft capital. The odds weren't in Pace's favor, but he still found a way to improve the roster. He signed multiple players to cap-friendly deals, filling the majority of the teams' roster needs. Free agent, Cordarelle Patterson, should be the answer to the Bears Kick Return issues, and HaHa Clinton-Dix will replace Adrian Amos at safety this year. They also drafted David Montgomery(Iowa State), and now the Bears have the running back of Matt Nagy's dreams. The only thing the Bears haven't figured out is who's playing kicker. Chicago's kicking competition has become a circus. The Bears have tried out nine different kickers and have narrowed it down to two candidates. They don't want to invest in another big contract for a veteran kicker, so they're hoping an inexpensive UDFA kicker can get the job done.
3. It's All About Mitch
Let's be real here, Mitchell Trubisky's progression is what the Bears are leaning on most this offseason. Will he take that next step? If you read reports from within the organization, he's primed to have a breakout year, but national media still has a hard time buying in. Everyone saw the overthrows at the beginning of last season, but if you watch his tape, you'll see progress. Trubisky has the skill set to make every throw, and he is known for his work ethic. Not to mention, he's in a perfect situation. It's hard to believe he won't make strides in 2019. If he doesn't the Bears are in trouble, if he does, the rest of the league is.