Dougherty: Balance of power tilting away from Packers in NFC North
This isn’t the NFC North the Green Bay Packers have been dominating for nearly a decade.
In the nine seasons from 2009 through last year, the Packers won five division titles and finished second three other times. They only time they missed the playoffs was when Aaron Rodgers missed 9 ¾ games last year.
The Packers achieved those results by pounding their division rivals. They won more than two out of every three division games over that time (37-12-1, .694), while the other three were under .500 (Minnesota .472, Detroit .463 and Chicago .370).
But 2018 is looking like not just a new season for the Packers but a new world. No other division in the NFL has seen as much offseason change as the NFC North.
The Vikings, who played in the NFC championship last season, went all in by signing quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency for a fully guaranteed $84 million.
The Bears, who traded up to draft quarterback Mitch Trubisky at No. 2 overall in 2017, swung big again this year. General manager Ryan Pace hired a new coach (Matt Nagy), fully guaranteed $61.5 million to sign three free agents (Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel) to upgrade his receiving corps, and then made the blockbuster move of training camp by trading for one of the league’s best defensive players (Khalil Mack).
And Lions general manager Bob Quinn, himself a Bill Belichick protégé, went all the way in turning the Lions into New England West by hiring another Belichick protégé, Matt Patricia, as coach.
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The Packers still have the best quarterback in the division, by a lot. But their competition has made some big moves to try to nullify that advantage.
“Chicago is interesting, I like the young quarterback,” said a scout for an NFC team. “Just looking at pure talent, Minnesota is ready. All they were missing was a QB. (Patricia) is going to be a Bill Belichick clone.”
None of the three scouts works in the NFC North but followed the division in the preseason. Each agreed to predict the order of finish this year, and all three picked the Vikings first. Two picked the Packers second, while another chose the Bears. And all pegged the Lions for last.
Here’s a quick look at each team:
Mike Sando of ESPN.com produces the most thorough, credible NFL quarterback rankings available going into each season. This year he surveyed 50 GMs, coaches and scouts, and for the fifth straight season, Rodgers tied Tom Brady at No. 1. That’s why odds-makers tab the Packers as one of the five or six Super Bowl contenders every year.
“Green Bay has the best quarterback in the game,” one of the scouts I consulted this week said, “so you always have a chance when you’re good at that position.”
Another of the scouts, who works in the NFC West, said he was tempted to pick the Packers to win the division because he sees their signing of tight end Jimmy Graham as a key move.
“(Graham) was misused in Seattle, they tried to turn him into a blocking tight end,” the scout said. “He’s going to be in Green Bay what he was in New Orleans. They’re going to spread him out, sling him the ball. That’s Jimmy Graham. I think everything’s in place. That should be an exciting year for those guys up there.”
Minnesota’s roster, top to bottom, is as good as any in the NFL and the cream of the division.
Coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is very good – last season the Vikings gave up the league’s fewest points and yards allowed – but not dominant. In the playoffs it twice surrendered leads to Drew Brees in the final minutes of a divisional-round game against New Orleans, then allowed 38 points in an NFC championship blowout loss at Philadelphia. That doesn’t happen to the best defenses of recent years. Think the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 or Denver Broncos in ’15.
The question with how far the Vikings go this year is whether Cousins is more than a marginal upgrade over Case Keenum. Cousins tied with Alex Smith for No. 15 in Sando’s rankings, just behind Jimmy Garappolo and Deshaun Watson, and just ahead of Eli Manning and Dak Prescott. Keenum, who’s now Denver’s starter, was eight spots behind Cousins at No. 23.
One of the scouts I consulted works in the division (NFC East) where Cousins played the last three seasons. He was skeptical of Cousins making the Vikings much better than they were last year.
“All I know is, it seemed like every time we played him he’d throw for 500 yards and lose the game,” the scout said.
Another, though, considers Cousins a noticeable upgrade even if he barely cracks the top half of quarterbacks in the league.
“He’s got to prove what he can do in a new system, new surroundings,” the scout said. “But from what I’ve seen in the preseason and what I’m hearing up there, it’s looking really good.”
Chicago made the biggest news of camp by trading for Mack, who is one of the best defensive players in the game. According to Bovada.lv, the Bears’ odds of winning the division after signing Mack didn’t improve much (from 9-to-1 to 8-to-1), but he still could have a profound effect on any given game.
“Khalil Mack is just going to wreak havoc,” one scout said.
More important is whether Pace’s decisions to draft Trubisky and hire Nagy to develop him pan out.
Trubisky was No. 29 in Sando’s rankings and the first player in Tier 4, which is defined as unproven quarterbacks with upside and veterans who are better suited to be backups. As a rookie last year Trubisky went 4-8 as a starter with a 77.5 rating.
Is he going to be good?
“Who knows?” once scout said.
Said the scout who picked the Bears to finish second and Packers third: “He’s a mentally tough guy. A gritty, tough, competitive guy. The more knowledge he gains he’s going to be a pretty good quarterback.”
Nagy doesn’t have a long NFL coaching resume as a former Arena Football League quarterback who was coaching in high school as recently as 2009. He was quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator for Andy Reid in Kansas City from 2013-17.
“They’re getting an innovative, offensive-minded guy,” said a scout who has worked with Nagy. “He had a lot to do with Doug Pederson’s success and Andy Reid’s success as far as coming up with schemes. He’s a pretty sharp guy, pretty sharp offensive-minded guy. He’s very confident in what he’s doing, not afraid to take chances. On the surface not knowing him you (might have) thought, why are they going after this guy? But if you know him … he’s really a sharp guy.”
Bovada has Detroit’s odds of winning the division at 13-to-2, which is ahead of Chicago’s 8-to-1. The Lions didn’t make any eye-catching roster moves in the offseason, but those odds are primarily based on Matthew Stafford, who was No. 7 in Sando’s quarterback rankings, just behind Russell Wilson and just ahead of Philip Rivers.
All three scouts picked the Lions to finish last as the franchise undergoes a huge culture change with Patricia, the former aeronautical engineer who had been a Belichick assistant since 2004 and defensive coordinator the last six.
“(Patricia) is a defensive guy and he’s going to stock that up first,” one of the scouts said. “He already has the quarterback, so that gives him a little bit of an edge. But in that division, it’s going to be tough (to win) right off the bat.”
My pick? I’m going, in order, the Vikings, Packers, Bears and Lions. You never know how teams are going to be until they start playing real games, but it looks like things are getting tougher for the Packers in the NFC North.