NFC North 2020 NFL Preview: Aaron Rodgers still king in the North

aaron-rodgers-packers-vikings

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers throws during the first half of a game against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Green Bay, Wis. (Matt Ludtke/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 10.

Today, we look at the NFC North. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2020 standings.)

Green Bay Packers

2019 finish: 13-3, division champs, lost to San Francisco in NFC Championship

The good news: As long as Aaron Rodgers is the guy taking the snaps at Lambeau, they’re in good hands. And although we probably won’t hear No. 12 himself admit it, there seems to be a consensus out there that the quarterback will be particularly fired up after the Packers drafted his potential successor in April in Jordan Love.

The bad news: The Packers’ two biggest flaws — not enough offensive weapons for Rodgers and a weak run defence — were exposed in their NFC Championship loss to the 49ers back in January, and while GM Brian Gutekunst sort of addressed the deficiency on defence, he did absolutely nothing to help his Hall of Fame quarterback. In fact, he altogether ignored the deep pool of talented wide receivers available and traded up to grab… a quarterback. Drafting Jordan Love — widely considered a first-round reach — was easily the most flummoxing decision of the entire 2020 draft.

2020 opt-outs: Devin Funchess, WR

Your new favourite player: Former Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey brings veteran experience down the middle – a weak spot in last year’s Packers defence — and can be a dynamic player when healthy. That last part will be key, though — injuries have prevented us from seeing that athleticism of late.

Player you’ll miss most: Bryan Bulaga. Honestly, it’s going to be weird seeing Rodgers taking snaps without his long-time right tackle protecting him. Bulaga’s departure to the Chargers leaves a hole in the offensive line that could widen if his replacement, the injury-prone Ricky Wagner, can’t keep up.

Game you should be most excited about: vs. Jaguars, Sunday, Nov. 15. The first half of the Packers’ season has the potential to throw some punches: three divisional matchups plus four straight meetings with some of the best QBs in the league in Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson, followed by an NFC Championship rematch to top it all off. A 10-day week with a guaranteed win against Jacksonville at the end of it will be key.

Game you should be least excited about: at 49ers, Thursday, Nov. 5. On the road, on a short week, on the heels of a crucial division matchup against the Vikings — that doesn’t exactly set up the Packers for success against the team that dealt them their final blow last January. Considering their quiet off-season, this could be a painful repeat of that NFC Conference Championship game. (Also, the reason that Jaguars game mentioned above will be such a welcome reprieve.)

2020 season prediction: 11-5, a fired-up Rodgers challenges for MVP

Minnesota Vikings

2019 finish: 10-6, second in division, lost to San Francisco in divisional round

The good news: The Vikings had about as good a draft as you can get, and that will show this season. Headlined by wide receiver Justin Jefferson, cornerback Jeff Gladney and offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland, the club filled three openings while still being able to navigate a tough cap situation around the heavy contract of quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The bad news: That strong draft was crucial in easing the blow of what was a pretty tough free agency period for the cap-strapped Vikings, which saw notable veterans like Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen depart the defensive line. (Former Raven Michael Pierce was brought in to replace Joseph, but has since exercised his right to opt out due to COVID concerns.) The hardest hit position for Minnesota, by far, is the secondary. All three of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander moved on in free agency, making cornerback a potential weak spot for this defence.

2020 opt-outs: Michael Pierce, DT

Your new favourite player: Justin Jefferson looks poised to step up and fill the role of Stefon Diggs after the star wide receiver was dealt to the Buffalo Bills. The LSU star will give quarterback Kirk Cousins another solid weapon in a corps that also includes Adam Thielen, tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr., and dynamic running back Dalvin Cook.

Player you’ll miss most: Everson Griffen — and not just because he was their second-best pass rusher last year, behind the powerful Danielle Hunter. Griffen, who signed with the Dallas Cowboys in free agency as another cap casualty of the Vikings, has been a leading voice on defence, and that’s something that’s particularly important heading into a season as uncertain as this one.

“I don’t think it’s anybody that’s going to replicate him, obviously, and his personality and his demeanor,” Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said of Griffen, via the Star-Tribune‘s Mark Craig. “But I think the energy, especially without fans [at games] this year, it’s going to have to come from a collective effort.”

Game you should be most excited about: vs. Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 29. Back-to-back winnable games (they host the Jaguars the following week) will set the Vikings up well for the final stretch of the season and a chance to challenge for the division crown.

Game you should be least excited about: at New Orleans, Friday, Dec. 25. Minnesota has had New Orleans’ number in post-season meetings past, but don’t expect the Saints to gift them anything this Christmas. This will be must-watch (and nerve-wracking).

2020 season prediction: 10-6, another strong season spent nipping at the Packers’ heels.

Detroit Lions

2019 finish: 3-12-1, ending the year with nine straight losses

The good news: Matt Stafford is back, and his back is healthy. Stafford suffered fractured bones in his back in Week 8 of last year, and his absence for the second half of the season sent the already-struggling Lions into a spiral of nine straight losses to close out 2019. Here’s hoping he stays healthy all year — bringing in bodyguard Halapoulivaati Vaitai from the Eagles in free agency will help in that regard — because this offence has the potential to be really fun with him at the helm.

The bad news: Count the Lions among teams potentially hit hardest by the altered off-season, as a revamped defence featuring seven new faces – including prominent rookies in cornerback Jeff Okudah and defensive end Julian Okwara – would have greatly benefitted from more in-person practices and group sessions. The potential is there for greatness, however, as maybe this is the year we really see head coach Matt Patricia flex his defensive muscles. There could be some growing pains, though.

2020 opt-outs: Russell Bodine, C; Geronimo Allison, WR; John Atkins, DT

Your new favourite player: Jeff Okudah. The Lions’ defence got a serious makeover this off-season, and while Detroit’s latest depth chart has the cornerback coming off the bench, we suspect it won’t be long until the third-overall pick of 2020 is making his presence known opposite fellow newcomer Desmond Trufant.

Player you’ll miss most: Quandre Diggs. We’ve seen the Lions without Diggs in the secondary – Detroit traded the safety last October – and it wasn’t pretty. They’ll continue to feel that loss early this season. Yes, drafting Okudah and signing Desmond Trufant out of Atlanta of course helps, but just think of how strong this secondary could be with Diggs still in it.

Game you should be most excited about: vs. Washington, Sunday, Nov. 15. This should be an easy win, followed by another against Carolina the following Sunday. Those victories will be important to have when heading down the final stretch with three divisional matchups.

Game you should be least excited about: vs. Vikings, Sunday, Jan. 3. By the season finale, the Lions will either be out of the hunt or playing a post-season berth in a tough division. Either way, this one’s gonna be tough.

2020 season prediction: 8-8, fall just shy of playoffs and Matt Patricia’s job is in question.

Chicago Bears

2019 finish: 8-8, third in division, missed playoffs

The good news: Defence! It might even be good enough to drown out the offensive sorrows that come with another year of Mitch Trubisky. We’ve seen it at its best in 2018, and despite a regression all around last year, most of those key pieces are still there now. Now, we find out whether that 2018 run was the norm or the exception.

The bad news: Mitch Trubisky is your starting quarterback. The quarterback battle in Chicago between Trubisky and Nick Foles this off-season hasn’t exactly inspired much intrigue, because we know exactly what we get in both. Foles has been pedestrian since his remarkable Super Bowl run with the Eagles, and Trubisky serves as a weekly reminder of the Bears’ blunder at the 2017 draft.

2020 opt-outs: Jordan Lucas, S; Eddie Goldman, DT

Your new favourite player: Jaylon Johnson. The rookie cornerback could be the jolt this defence needs.

Player you’ll miss most: Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out leaves the Bears a little lighter on defence. He’s hard to replace with a single player, so a group effort will be required. Having a healthy Akiem Hicks back helps immensely.

Game you should be most excited about: vs. Buccaneers, Thursday, Oct. 8. Getting into prime time against Tom Brady & Co. could be fun, or a total disaster. Taking an optimistic approach here, especially considering this Week 5 matchup will feature a Bears squad that’s likely still hovering around .500.

Game you should be least excited about: vs. Texans, Sunday, Dec. 13. Trubisky vs. Watson. Ah, what could’ve been.

2020 season prediction: 7-9, and the Bears are on the hunt for a new QB in the draft.

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