Thursday, July 21, 2005

Vikings Heading for an NFC North Free Fall

The NFC North has two teams who are young, stocked full of talent and anxious to challenge the Green Bay Packers for the division title. I’m talking about the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions, two teams who are ready to cash in on their on their stockpiles of early draft picks from the past few years. Then you have the Minnesota Vikings, a team that could free fall into the division basement or challenge for first place. Here is a team by team look at the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS Projected Finish 8-8 (3rd)
KEY QUESTION: How much improvement can the Bears show in Lovie Smith’s 2nd season?

Chicago will start the season with Rex Grossman at the QB spot and really no one behind him who is a proven QB. The Bears drafted QB Kyle Orton in the 4th round but he will be far from ready to be thrown into the fire. Chicago is just hoping that Grossman will be able to stay healthy all season, something he didn’t do last season, and take care of the football.

At running back the Bears used their first pick of the draft to take Cedric Benson as a compliment to Thomas Jones. Look for Benson to be the full-time starter by season’s end if he can hang on to the football.

Chicago traded their go to wide receiver Marty Booker before last season to the Miami Dolphins and then turned around and released last season’s No.1 receiver David Terrell. This off-season the general Manager Jerry Angelo spent $30 million dollars on free-agent receiver Muhsin Muhammad and drafted Mark Bradley and Airese Currie. This new trio of receivers will have to get acquainted with each other and the play book quickly because they will all be expected to produce from day one.

Overall the Bears offense should be improved over last season and will give the defense, which is not lacking in big name talent, the support it lacked last year.

On the defensive line Adwale Ogunleye (acquired in the Booker trade) should be healthy and return to the way he was in 2003 when he led the AFC in sacks. Also second year player Tommie Harris should develop into an impact player and help Ogunleye anchor the line.

Also looking to be healthy is linebacker Brian Urlacher who was limited to just nine games last season because of injuries. Along with Lance Briggs the Bears have one of the best linbacking duos in the NFL.

Nathan Vasher led the team in interceptions and will be the star this season on a secondary that is very deep.

If Chicago gets a break here or there and stays healthy they could reach double digit wins and make a post season appearance.

KEY LOSSES: RB Anthony Thomas

KEY SIGNINGS: G Roberto Garza, T Fred Miller, WR Muhsin Muhammad.

DETROIT LIONS Projected Finish 9-7 (2nd)
KEY QUESTION: Can QB Joey Harrington take advantage of the best WR corps in the NFL?

There is no question that the Lion offense should be smoking this season. With three number one draft picks (Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams) lining up at receiver along with second year tailback Kevin Jones in the backfield, the Lions are going to have several defensive coordinator’s burning the midnight oil. Detroit’s offensive line is solid as well giving the Lions the ability to shoot it out with anyone.

On defense the Lions drafted DT Shaun Cody in the second round to help pro-bowler Shaun Rogers out on the line. The Linebackers are very solid and fast led by third year man Boss Baily. The Lions also added Pro Bowl corner Dre Bly and safty Kenoy Kennedy to the secondary.

KEY LOSSES: TE Stephen Alexander, WR Az Hakim, FS Brock Marion, T Stocker McDougle, QB Mike McMahon.

KEY SIGNINGS: QB Jeff Garcia, WR Kevin Johnson, SS Kenoy Kennedy, TE Marcus Pollard.

GREEN BAY PACKERS Projected Finish 10-6 (1st)
KEY QUESTION: Does Brett Favre have enough people around him to make one last play-off run?

There is no question that Favre is still a gun slinger and he has the right personnel on offense to sling the ball to. A solid offensive line led by center Mike Flanagan, a dangerous receiving corps led by Pro-Bowler Javon Walker and Donald Driver, and a consistent 1,000 yard rusher (five years in a row) in Ahman Green. The problem for the pack is going to be on the other side of the ball.

Pretty much everyone from a lousy defense last year is back again this year which means more shoot-outs for Favre’s offense and more late game chances the aging QB will have to take.

The Defensive line is the strongest part of the defensive unit led by Kabeer Gbaja-Biama and Cletidus Hunt. Also, look for End Aaron Kampman to have a Pro-Bowl type season.

From there is goes down hill for Green Bay’s defense. Outside linebackers and Hannibal Navies combined for a total of 1.5 sacks, 0 interceptions and no forced or recovered fumbles. However, they do have middle linebacker Nick Barnett who made the Pro-Bowl as an alternant and recorded the most tackles of any Packer since 1983 (162). Having Barnett ranks the linebackers just ahead of the defensive backs.

The Packers pass defense ranked 25th in league last season so the Packers are re-loaded with defensive backs. Look for free agents Arturo Freeman and Earl Little along with rookie Nick Collins to make an immediate start.

KEY LOSSES: DB Michael Hawthorne, S Bhawoh Jue, G Marco Rivera, S Darren Sharper, G Mike Wahle.

KEY SIGNINGS: S Arturo Freeman, S Earl Little, G Matt O’Dwyer.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS Projected Finish 7-9 (4th)
KEY QUESTION: Do the Vikings have answers for all their questions?

Many people are predicting great things for the Vikings, but not me. I think there are too many legitimate questions at key positions that need to be answered. Daunte Culpepper has developed into one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league, but his receiving corps is question mark number one. Nate Burleson led the team in receiving yards last season and will now be expected to step up his play to become the team’s primary target because of the departure of Randy Moss. He does not have the speed or the size of Moss and you can argue that much of his success last season came as a result of teams focusing on Moss.

Question mark number two is the running back position. The Vikings should have one of the deepest backfields in the NFL with rookie Ciatrick Fason and returning veterans Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith and Mewelde Moore, but here is the problem. Smith has been suspended for the year for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and Bennett has been hampered by injuries. This leaves Moore and the rookie Fason which should be decent unless you take into account question mark number three. Not a single returnee on the offensive line was healthy in late spring and coaches are keeping their fingers crossed that they will be ready to go next week when training camp opens up.

The defensive line could be dominant led by Pro Bowler Kevin Williams, but they did lose end Kenny Mixon and tackle Chris Hovan. I think there is enough talent still there for this unit to be successful with Kevin Williams and free agent tackle Pat Williams.

The defensive backs are solid as well with the addition of Fred Smoot to complement Antoine Winfield as the best corner combo in the division. The Vikings also added free safety Darren Sharper during the off-season.

Question mark number for is the linebackers where the Vikings went from one extreme to the other. Last years group was young and inexperienced and this year’s version features veterans Sam Cowart at the middle spot and Napoleon Harris at strong side. Harris has been injury prone his entire career and Cowart is nearing the end of his.

Green Bay Packers 10-6
Detroit Lions 9-7
Chicago Bears 8-8
Minnesota Vikings 7-9