Saturday, September 8, 2007

False Starts Kickoff Edition: NFC North

It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it? Birds are chirping, the grass is green, and large men are bashing into each other while wearing plastic armor. After a Thursday-night taste, the NFL gets into the swing of things today with a full slate of action. Even better, I have managed to get the final division preview up in time! So as you settle in for a day on the couch, here’s the action-packed conclusion to the False Starts previews: the NFC North.


The dictated-from-on-high order of finish for the 2007 NFC North:

4. Detroit Lions

How good is Calvin Johnson? Answering that question will very likely be the only reason to watch the 2007 Lions, because aside from their new first-rounder there isn’t much on this roster. A particularly horrendous offensive line, and sub-par defense, and a questionable running game all will do their part to ensure yet another crappy Lions season.

The Lions traded their best defensive player (cornerback Dre’ Bly) to Denver for two lesser players who will in theory fill a pair of needs. Running back Tatum Bell never fit into the Bronco running system, and Detroit is hoping the speedy Bell will be able to hold down the starting spot in Mike Martz’s offense. Bell has always seemed to struggle late in games (he isn’t a big man by any means) and has had fumble issues, but he’s also shown flashes of supreme talent. He’s the starter, at least until Kevin Jones’s foot heals.

George Foster, the other part of the Bly trade, slides into the right tackle spot. That at least shows that Lions management is aware of their horrible offensive line, but I’d be surprised if Foster is really the answer. He’s a decent enough player, but far from dominant. This line needs “dominant.” The rest of their starters range from mediocre (Jeff Backus) to overwhelmed (Dominic Raiola). The offensive line will hold back what could be a pretty nifty passing attack.

Roy Williams has comfortably established himself as an elite wideout, and Mike Furrey came out of nowhere last season to provide QB Jon Kitna with a respectable #2. When you throw Calvin Johnson into the mix, you’ve got a recipe for a damn fine passing game. Kitna played fairly well, all things considered, last season, and if he has a running game and time in the pocket he should be able to get the ball around to his weapons. That’s a pretty big “if”. . . .

You could do worse at defensive tackle than the trio of Shaun Rogers, Cory Redding, and Shaun Cody. They give Detroit a solid up-the-middle presence. Kalimba Edwards had a poor 2006 at end; he’ll be joined by ex-Buc DeWayne White. The Lions linebackers struggle with health (I’m looking at you, Boss Bailey), and they don’t really have a decent starting MLB. (Paris Lenin won that job in camp.) SS Kenoy Kennedy is a solid, but aging player, and he’s joined by rookie FS Gerald Alexander. Both safeties will be plenty busy cleaning up the mess left over by the linebacking and cornerback groups. With any luck, Matt Millen will finally lose his job this season, and the Lions will be able to start building a real team again.

3. Minnesota Vikings

The 2007 Minnesota Vikings would have no problem winning the 1948 NFL championship. Unfortunately, the modern game involves frequent use of this “forward pass” doohickey that all the kids love so much, and the Horns just don’t have the players.

The running game could be a lot of fun, unless opponents start creeping ten guys into the box (which, at this point, seems likely). The Purple Jesus is an immediate impact player, and Chester Taylor is no slouch himself. If the Vikings can find a good rhythm in their HB rotation, they have a potent combo.

Those ten-man fronts are going to make things tough, unfortunately. Maybe Tarvaris Jackson has a bright future, and maybe not, but in either case he’s not going to give you much this season. The learning curve will be steep, and the Vikings don’t really have anything behind him in case he falters. Until the Vikes prove otherwise, opponents will just stack the line of scrimmage and chuckle when a Jackson pass misses Troy Williamson by five yards (or hits Williamson in the mitts).

The run defense was, of course, outstanding last season. That shouldn’t change in 2007; the Brothers Williams at defensive tackle will see to that. Pat and Kevin give the Vikings an outstanding pair of run defenders up the middle, but unfortunately neither man really provides much in terms of a pass rush. That is going to have to change, because opponents spent most of 2006 ignoring the run and simply throwing over the top. According to Pro Football Prospectus, the 2006 Horns were with first losing team in the history of modern passing to have opponents throw at least 60% of the time. They faced 348 rushes and 628 passes, a 64% pass rate. With all of those attempts, the Vikings should have been able to mount a pass rush, but they couldn’t. (They finished 31st in PFP’s Adjusted Sack Rate.)

Hopefully Chad Greenway will provide some help in pass coverage, because E.J. Henderson struggled there last year. Henderson gives you excellent run support, but with teams throwing as often as they did (and will) you need some coverage ability in your linebackers. Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin both played pretty well at corner last year, and the Vikings are deep at the safety position. They’ll need that pass defense to excel.

It won’t really matter, in the end. The NFL is a passing league, and the Vikings can’t do it.

2. Green Bay Packers

The Packers are sort of the anti-Lions, having built their team from the inside out. Instead of putting together a formidable collection of skill players only to have the entire effort submarined by substandard line play, the Packers have focused on putting together solid units on both the offensive and defensive fronts. That strategy will likely pay dividends, and if Chicago stumbles the Pack will be ready to step into the divisional penthouse.

The Packer offseason narrative has focused entirely on Brett Favre for the past few summers; whether or not he’ll be coming back for another season has blocked out pretty much any other story. Having Favre back for another year will help in 2007; Aaron Rogers remains entirely untested and unknown, so stability at the QB position will keep the Pack in the hunt. It’s the offensive line that will make Favre’s decision to return a wise one, though. Green Bay threw two rookie guards into the lineup in 2006, and the experience gained in that trial-by-fire will be invaluable this year. Both Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge improved as the season went on, and they’ll be assets in 2007.

Scott Wells enters his second year as the starting center after growing into the role in 2006. Along with Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, Wells fills out a strong Green Bay offensive front that will keep Favre upright and looking downfield.

There are serious questions at the offensive skill positions, however. Donald Driver is 32 and could begin to decline at any moment, and Greg Jennings continues to deal with hamstring issues that slowed him late last year. The departure of Ahman Green has left a notable gap in the running game; Vernand Morency and rookie Brandon Jackson will be relied upon heavily to keep defenses honest.

Green Bay’s defense is strong and improving, led by a good set of linebackers. A.J. Hawk played well in his rookie year and looks every bit the stud the Packers were expecting when they took him in the first round, and Brady Poppinga had a good year at strong-side linebacker in 2006. Nick Barnett gives Green Bay good play in the middle, but all of the linebackers benefit from playing behind an excellent defensive line.

Aaron Kampman is an out-and-out stud, strong against both the run and the pass from the defensive end position. Cullen Jenkins replaced Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila towards the end of the 2006 season and showed flashes of potential; Jenkins should give the Packers a solid second DE. Ryan Pickett does a good job of clogging the middle from the DT spot. The secondary could pose some problems, as both Charles Woodson and Al Harris are getting up there in years. They played well in 2006, but Green Bay will have to get younger in the defensive backfield sooner rather than later.

1. Chicago Bears

This pick makes me nervous to say the least; I’m putting the Bears first mainly because I expect Rex Grossman’s 2007 collapse to happen in the playoffs, not the regular season.

The Bears defense should be about as good as ever, at least for one more season. They’re starting to get old and expensive, but for 2007 at least they’ll be mighty effective. Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher form one of the league’s best linebacking tandems, and the defensive line is deep and talented. The defensive backfield has a couple of good corners in Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman, but questions remain at safety. Mike Brown struggles to stay healthy, and Adam Archuleta had a terrible 2006 with Washington. The Bears will need him to turn things around.

Cedric Benson inherits the bulk of the carries from the halfback spot, now that Thomas Jones is a Jet. As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t be effective. Bernard Berrian and Mushin Muhammad both give Grossman decent targets downfield, and the offensive line does a good job of containing the pressure.

To put it simply, this team will go as far as Rex Grossman can take him. I think that will be to a division title, but not much further than that. In fact, I think there’s a good chance he’ll have a really nice regular season; after all, he’s headed into just his second full year as a starter, so some improvement is to be expected. It’ll probably be enough to sucker everyone into thinking that “Rex has turned the corner.” Then come playoff time, Sexy Rexy will melt down, and the Bears will be left wondering what could have been with their own version of Trent Dilfer.


So, to sum up the NFC:

East: Eagles
South: Saints
West: 49ers
North: Bears
Wild Card: Packers, Redskins
NFC Champ: Eagles
SUPER BOWL: Patriots 31, Eagles 17

And you can beat heavily on that. I guarantee it. Enjoy the season. . . .

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