GREEN BAY - When quarterback Teddy Bridgewater blew out his knee Aug. 30 in practice, the Minnesota Vikings’ chances to repeat as NFC North Division champions dimmed.
Four days later, after the acquisition of Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles for first- and fourth-round draft choices (the fourth could be as high as a second), the Vikings looked to be right back in the hunt.
“The trade is going to help them,” an AFC executive in personnel said. “I always thought Minnesota was going to be really good this year. Sam Bradford is going to make some of these throws Teddy Bridgewater can’t and will fit Norv Turner’s offense better.”
That AFC personnel man was the only one of four scouts Thursday who forecast a repeat divisional championship for Minnesota. Three others picked the Green Bay Packers, whose streak of four titles was ended by the Vikings, 20-13, on the final day of the regular season at Lambeau Field.
Each scout was asked to predict the order of finish, and assign a final record. The Packers received an average of 11.3 victories compared to 10 for the Vikings, eight for the Detroit Lions and 5.8 for the Chicago Bears.
“If healthy, which Green Bay is and Minnesota is not, then I think Green Bay dominates that division, and I seriously do mean dominate,” a personnel man for an AFC club said. “I think things get back to the norm this year in the NFC North.”
NFC NORTH: What scouts say
DOUGHERTY: Bridgewater injury changes outlook
Three of the scouts forecast the Packers edging the Vikings by one game. The AFC man who wasn’t bullish on Bradford saw the Packers winning by four games.
“Bradford is cerebral but I don’t think his arm is lively,” the AFC scout said. “I think at this point you’re just getting a guy who has had durability issues since day one.
“Bridgewater could improvise when things broke down. With Bradford, everything’s got to be drop back, hit my back foot, boom and get it out. There’s not going to be a whole lot of movement in the pocket because of his legs.”
With Bridgewater, he estimated the Vikings would have finished 11-5 and tied with the Packers rather than his projected mark of 8-8 with Bradford. Another scout said Bridgewater’s loss would cost the Vikings one victory and, in his forecast, a division title.
“The Vikings had all systems go,” the scout said. “They were going to feed off that guy. They can say what they want to say, but with (Bradford) it’s not like they’re throwing an elite guy in there.”
Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer isn’t saying whether Shaun Hill or Bradford will start Sunday in Tennessee.
“I think they break Bradford out for the Green Bay game (Sept. 18), and he wins that game,” one scout said. “He’s with the best team he’s ever been on. Best line he’s ever had.
“He should be able to throw a little bit deeper. Bridgewater has never been able to go deep. Don’t ever underestimate Norv Turner. He’s really good.”
Another scout who had the Packers at 11-5 and one game ahead of the Vikings also saluted Turner and Zimmer, who runs the defense.
“Proven successful coaches will overcome Bridgewater’s loss,” he said. “A healthy Bradford will challenge the Pack in December, for sure.”
Over the last eight months, the Vikings took a dramatically different approach to their roster than the Packers. They stressed continuity where the Packers once again opted for youth.
Unlike Green Bay, which kept all seven of its draft choices on the 53-man roster, the Vikings waived fourth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks in keeping five of their eight selections.
When the Packers kept a record four of their originally signed rookie free agents and the Vikings kept none, Green Bay’s roster contained 12 rookies to Minnesota’s five (Detroit has 10, Chicago has nine).
When the total of rookies and first-year players were combined, the five for the Vikings will be their lowest opening-day number since the Journal Sentinel began charting the statistic in 1995.
Minnesota’s 53-man roster has merely nine players who saw no time on its 53 or reserve lists last year. Just once in the last 15 years (2010, eight) have the Vikings had less.
Meanwhile, the Packers will take the field with 15 newcomers, their highest total since 2006. Detroit, under new general manager Bob Quinn, has 21 new faces and Chicago has 20.
The Vikings easily rank as the oldest team in the North with an average age of 26.67 years. They’re followed by Chicago at 26.04, Detroit at 26.00 and Green Bay at 25.08.
It’s the Packers’ youngest squad in 30 years, and quite possibly ever. It broke their previous mark of 25.23 from last year. General manager Ted Thompson’s clubs become younger season after season.
Minnesota didn’t change a starter on defense from last year and, with Bradford being the fourth on offense, totaled four. The Packers and Lions made five lineup changes whereas the Bears made 10 one year after making 11.
“As long as they’ve got that guy (Zimmer) at the helm, that head coach, they’re always going to be tough,” one of the AFC executives said. “He’s really a player’s dream because you don’t have to wonder where he stands.”
Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy, however, owns records of 3-1 against Zimmer, 15-4-1 against the Vikings and 45-16-1 against the division in 10 seasons.
“You can’t ever count out the Packers,” an executive said. “The Packers are always going to play well as long as they’ve got that quarterback there.”
Besides winning four straight titles from 2011-14, the Packers finished just a game out in 2009, ’10 and ’15. Last year, they were 3-3 for their first non-winning season against divisional foes since coach Mike Sherman’s swan song in 2005.
“Class of the division,” said another scout. “The defense should have another gear this year with improvement by the young secondary.”
Quinn took a heavy blow on March 8 when Calvin Johnson, the incomparable wide receiver, retired at age 30. Following in the footsteps of Bill Belichick, his boss for 16 years at New England, Quinn signed a slew of veterans in the offseason.
“They’re really not a bad team,” one scout said. “A lot of it is where the quarterback (Matthew Stafford is).
“He’s talented. It’s getting the ball to playmakers and not doing the knucklehead things he can do to turn the ball over.”
The Bears were a unanimous pick among the four personnel men to finish last for the third year in a row.
“I think they’ll go 0-fer in the division,” said one executive. “Their wins will come in the AFC South.”
Another scout called it “Cutler’s Last Stand.”
The NFC North, which tied for the fourth-best record (34-30) among the eight divisions last year, is matched against the AFC South and NFC East this year. In 2015, the AFC South (25-39) ranked eighth and the NFC East (26-38) ranked seventh.