American Football

NFC North: NFL 2021 season preview

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 10:50, 9 September 2021 | Updated: 21:23, 23 September 2021

The 2021 season could mark the end of an iconic quarterbacking run in Green Bay. Their Windy City rivals are hoping that it marks the beginning of their own special era.

The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, We’re here to make sure you’re prepared.

We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this instalment, we kick off our look at the NFC with a look at the NFC North.

This division is home to some of the NFL’s most iconic franchises. One of these — perhaps the league’s most iconic — the Green Bay Packers, look poised for one last run behind their legendary QB. They’ll be pushed by a talented and balanced Minnesota Vikings squad, while the Bears address their age-old questions at QB. Detroit, meanwhile… they’ve got some work to do.

Green Bay Packers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship game to Buccaneers
  • Head Coach: Matt LeFleur
  • Starting Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 13+ wins, and an NFC title game rematch

In the absence of context, the 2021 Packers are a study in optimism.

The defense features a top-tier pass rush, led by Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith. The linebacking corps is an issue, particularly in pass coverage, but they A) almost certainly can’t be worse than they were a year ago, B) are supported by that outstanding pass rush, one of the league’s best cornerbacks, Jaire Alexander, and an excellent pair of safeties. The entire unit is now guided by defensive coordinator Joe Barry, formerly of the L.A Rams, who had the NFL’s top-ranked defense in 2020.

On offense, there are questions on the line, namely at center and right tackle. However, assuming the NFL’s best pass-blocking tackle, David Bakhtiari, is recovered from an ACL injury (the Pack are opting for secrecy), there’s enough experience, talent and continuity to avoid major issues. Plus, the experience and talent across the skill positions will paper over a crack or two.

In Aaron Jones, the Packers have a top-eight running back – strong, smart and reliable. The receiving corps includes a deep threat in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (20.4 yards per reception), a precise route-runner with size (Allen Lazard), and an incredibly sure-handed tight end (who caught 90.9% of 66 targets in 2020) in Robert Tonyan. Also making his return after a couple of years in Texas is Randall Cobb. Oh yeah… on top of all that, there’s a top-three receiver, Davante Adams, who’s coming off a season in which he caught 77% of his targets (115 of 149), for 1,374 yards, and an astounding 18 touchdowns.

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Tying the whole thing together is a top-10 all-time quarterback – and the reigning NFL MVP – Aaron Rodgers. There’s precious little to actually say about Rodgers as a player. He’s simply one of the smartest, most competitive and most gifted passers the game has ever seen.

Of course, Rodgers did just spend much of the offseason trying to engineer his exit from Green Bay. He ultimately dropped his trade demand, but only after the Packers restructured his contract so that he can become a free agent after the 2021 season.

By all accounts, this is it for Rodgers at Lambeau Field. That being said, It’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which the legendarily competitive Rodgers – a man as capable as anyone of transforming any slight into a monumental chip on his shoulder – isn’t completely dialled in.

Maybe the optimism doesn’t extend into 2022, but it’s tough to consider “Last Dance” Aaron Rodgers, surrounded by all of the talent on this roster, and not like the Packers’ chances in 2021.

The Bottom Line: The Packers are not a perfect team, but they are an excellent one. Their biggest weakness on offense, the line (which likely isn’t even that big of a weakness) is mitigated by Rodgers and a trove of offensive weapons.

On defense, the linebacking is, at best, average, and, in all likelihood, worse. A top-tier pass rush and an outstanding secondary should help, though.

If the Packers stay healthy, they’re a virtual lock for a dozen regular-season wins and another NFC North title. Add to that another scorched-earth season from Rodgers, and a third straight trip to the NFC Championship game seems a safe bet.

Minnesota Vikings

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 7-9, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Mike Zimmer
  • Starting Quarterback: Kirk Cousins
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 10-11 wins, and a playoff berth

There is a good bit to like in Minnesota.

Dalvin Cook, one of the league’s premier running backs, is fresh off of an incredible 2020 season, during which he set career-highs in rushing attempts (312), yards (1,557), yards-per-attempt (5.0) and touchdowns (16). After struggling with injuries in his first two NFL seasons, he’s played 28 games over the past two, at basically an All-Pro level.

The Vikings also boast one of the NFL’s top wide receiver duos. In Adam Thielen they’ve got an elite space-creator. After an injury-plagued 2019, he bounced back with 74 catches and 900 yards in 15 games. Opposite him is Justin Jefferson, who just turned in one of the best rookie seasons ever by a receiver. The 22nd pick in the 2020 draft perfectly filled the void that was created when Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo, with 88 catches (sixth-most ever for a rookie), a 70.4% catch rate, a rookie record 1,400 yards, and 14 TDs. His 15.9 yards-per-catch set a new record for rookies with at least 70 receptions. A reliable third option would be nice, but that need is less glaring when the top two is this good.

Meanwhile, at tight end, Irv Smith Jr takes over from Kyle Rudolph, who’s now with the Giants. Over his first two seasons, Smith matched Rudolph’s production. Encouragingly, in 2020, he not only topped his own rookie-year yardage (365 vs 319), but did so on fewer catches (30 vs 36), or 3.6 more yards per reception.

And, in Kirk Cousins, the Vikings have – on paper, at least – one of the better QBs in the NFL. Last season, he completed more than two-thirds of his passes, for over 4,200 yards (and a second-in-the-league 8.3 yards/attempt), and 35 TDs. With the skill players around him, Cousins should remain very productive. 

Where the problem lies is in his propensity for turnovers. Cousins’ 13 interceptions in 2020 were third-most in the NFL. He was also sacked a near-career-most 39 times, and fumbled nine times – bringing his four-season total to 41.

Unfortunately, the line, which struggled in 2020 (especially in pass protection), is, again, uncertain. The tackle spots are nominally in good shape – though this assumes that first-rounder Christian Darrisaw can step in ably as a rookie. On the interior, there’s real cause for concern, with both guard spots and center in flux. It’s vital that this crew jell quickly and keep Cousins upright. 

There’s quite a bit to like on defense as well.

On the interior of the line, tackle Michael Pierce is back after opting out of the 2020 season. He’ll be joined by free-agent signees Sheldon Richardson and Dalvin Tomlinson. On the edge, Danielle Hunter is back after missing the 2020 season with a neck injury. When healthy, he’s is one of the best in the business, with a combined 29 sacks and 142 tackles (solo + assisted) across 2018 and 2019.

Last season’s leading tackler, Eric Wilson, is gone, but Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr – who’ve led the group for more than half a decade – still anchor a quality linebacking corps. Kendricks is still a star-level performer, and Barr, who was limited to just two games in 2020, should be back at full strength.

In the secondary, former All-Pro Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander were brought in to revamp the cornerback spots. Anchoring the secondary, as he has for nearly a decade, is one of the NFL’s best safeties, Harrison Smith.

Over the past four seasons, the Vikings have ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency three times. They’d likely have done so again in 2020 had they not been ravaged by injury. If they can overcome seven (between newcomers, returns from injury and Covid opt-outs) new starters, the personnel and coaching are in place for a return to form.

The Bottom Line: The Vikings are a good team.

They’ve got a good (sometimes very good), if flawed quarterback. They’ve got elite skill talent, but not much depth, and an uncertain offensive line. The defense is extremely talented and reasonably deep, but needs to find health and continuity quickly.

With some luck, they’re very good. If the breaks go against them, they’re “decent”. There’s simply too much talent to be much worse. At the same time, there are enough holes to keep them from the league’s top tier.

All in all, this is, indeed, a good team.

The Vikings are a couple of pieces away from Super Bowl contention. However, given their top-end talent, they should break out of a recent middle-of-the-pack rut. With a bit of injury luck, double-digit regular-season wins are attainable. With the right matchup, a playoff win is in play.

Chicago Bears

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 8-8, lost in Wild Card round to Saints
  • Head Coach: Matt Nagy
  • Starting Quarterback: Justin Fields
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 5-6 wins, without a playoff spot, but with hope for the future

If Andy Dalton is your answer at quarterback, you’re asking the wrong questions.

In fairness, Dalton wasn’t actually brought to Chicago as a long-term solution. He’s merely a placeholder until Justin Fields – the eleventh overall pick in the 2021 draft – is ready to assume the starting job.

On the one hand, clamoring for Fields’ promotion to the top spot is completely understandable. After all, he’s looked great in preseason, and represents genuine hope at one of the NFL’s most snake-bitten positions. Late-period Dalton, meanwhile, is mediocrity, with a thin veneer of credibility. And yet, he’s the Week 1 starter.

The Bears just moved on from their latest attempt to secure a franchise QB, Mitchell Trubisky, whom the team traded up to draft #2 overall in 2017. Maybe they’re taking a measured approach. The key difference, in this case, is that Fields is actually a top prospect with a demonstrable track record of success. Trubisky, meanwhile, did little of note in college and was wildly overvalued in the draft.

Also factoring in is a perilous offensive line situation. Both longtime tackles are gone. The presumptive replacement on the left side, 2021 second-round pick Teven Jenkins, just had back surgery, and may miss the season. The situation elsewhere isn’t much better, with unremarkable veterans and unproven, untouted youngsters battling for starting spots. Especially troubling is the pass protection on the interior. It’s not an ideal scenario for a rookie QB.

Perhaps therein lies head coach Matt Nagy’s thinking. The Bears are rolling out an unsettled and subpar offensive line, while offering their quarterback one elite receiver – Allen Robinson II, one of the league best, particularly in traffic – and a rock-solid running back, David Montgomery, and little else in support. Maybe it’s best that the veteran placeholder gauge just how precarious the situation is. Justin Fields will be the Bears’ starting QB by October. In the meantime, Dalton will serve as a case study on how to scheme around the offense’s shortcomings.

On the other side of the ball, the components for a decent defense are in place. Future Hall-of-Famer Khalil Mack is the NFL’s premier edge rusher. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman is back after opting out of the 2020 season. He and Akiem Hicks anchor a strong D-line. Fourth-year linebacker Roquan Smith went from “very good” to one of the league’s best in 2020. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson had a solid rookie season, and should take another step forward.

The rest of the secondary, however, is one big question mark. At safety, Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson are serviceable – maybe solid – but not much more. At the second cornerback spot, the Bears are trying to replace former All-Pro Kyle Fuller with some combination of once-excellent veteran Desmond Trufant, who’s appeared in just 15 games over the past two seasons, and an unremarkable second- and third-year duo.

Barring injury to one of the stars up front or total disaster at cornerback, the Bears’ defense should fall in the middle of the pack.

The Bottom Line: Starting the season with Andy Dalton at QB suggests the Bears aren’t overly concerned with 2021’s win total. That’s fine.

Justin Fields will supplant Dalton, sooner rather than later. From that point on, the lone objective is to confirm whether he is, in fact, the quarterback of the future.

If Fields hits the ground running and the offensive line holds up, the Bears will rack up some victories. Of course, the transition for rookie quarterbacks is seldom completely seamless. And the offensive line is an awfully big “if”.

In reality, the Bears’ objective in 2021 is an optimistic 2022 offseason.

 

Detroit Lions

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 5-11, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Dan Campbell
  • Starting Quarterback: Jared Goff
  • Predicted 2021 finish: At most 3 wins, and a top-three draft pick

If the Houston Texans didn’t exist, the Detroit Lions would need to invent them.

Typically, when a franchise, even one stuck completely in the doldrums, overhauls the org chart, there’s a honeymoon period. The new crew, with fresh perspectives and ideas, can count on buy-in from fans and media.

When the face of the outgoing regime is former head coach Matt Patricia, the next person in the role will find it difficult not to inspire confidence.  

Hello there, Dan Campbell.

An NFL tight end from 1999 until 2009, and tight ends coach (and, briefly interim head coach) with the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints, Campbell is a vocal proponent of “old school football”. Though a bit archaic, that, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. What is, if not exactly “problematic” then at least cringeworthy, is that his first widely-disseminated statement, from his first day on the job, seemed like performance art:

“This team is going to be built on… we’re going to kick you in the teeth… And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off. And we’re going to stand up and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap. And we’re going to get up and then it’s going to take three shots to get us down. And when we do, we’re gonna take another hunk out of you. Before long, we’re going to be the last one standing. That’s going to be the mentality.”

No fan wants an eminently memorable introductory press conference from their incoming coach. This, my friends, was pure gold.

To be entirely fair, we can all infer the reasonable thing he’s trying to say. And, even in that moment, Campbell was decidedly more likeable than Patricia has ever been. And, given the mess that Campbell and new general manager Brad Holmes have inherited, “we’re going to try hard and be tough” is a reasonable aim. Because, while the Lions’ roster isn’t completely bereft of talent, but it’s tough to concoct a scenario that doesn’t involve some rather painful rebuilding.

On defense, the Lions have a nice pair of defensive ends in Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers. Okwara, the team’s sack leader in 2020, re-signed this offseason on a three-year deal. Flowers, meanwhile, was limited to just seven games last season, but was very productive (28 sacks and seven forced fumbles) in four healthy seasons before that.

The secondary is led by second-year cornerback Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft. Before a host of injuries cut his rookie season to just nine games, Okudah showed a lot of promise. If he’s back at full strength, he’s got star potential.

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers and linebacker Jamie Collins also warrant a mention here. Both are very good players. However, as Brockers is nearly 31 and Collins nearly 32, they’re unlikely to feature on the next good Lions team.

On offense, the line is potentially one of the NFL’s best. The guard spots are admittedly questionable but left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow are potential stars. This season they’re joined by #7 overall pick, tackle Penei Sewell. If he lives up to his gigantic (seriously, he’s 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds) potential, the line could be elite.

The only other clear plus on offense is Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson entered the NFL as an excellent receiver and run-blocker, and has improved in both areas. As long as he’s healthy, he’s a perennial top-ten guy at the position. 

Otherwise, things are pretty grim. At running back, as has been the case since Barry Sanders retired 23 years ago, there’s little to speak of. Star receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, both left in free agency. On defense, everything outside of a couple of clear positives is a weakness. This, seemingly, is by design.

Rather than committing today’s dollars and tomorrow’s flexibility to half measures in a misguided attempt at a quick turnaround, the plan for this offseason involved clearing the decks, cutting salary and racking up draft capital.

 No move more clearly exemplifies this than the biggest of the offseason. After twelve seasons, over 45,000 yards, 282 touchdown passes, a Pro Bowl and three trips to the playoffs (for a Lions’ QB, this is hugely impressive), franchise Matthew Stafford is gone, traded to the Los Angeles Rams, in exchange for his nominal replacement, two-time Pro Bowler Jared Goff.

Though he’s remained productive, the Goff’s place in the NFL QB hierarchy has slipped considerably since a disastrous Super Bowl performance against the Patriots in January 2019. Perhaps changes in scenery and scheme will restore his reputation as a franchise QB. Even in the (fairly likely) event that this doesn’t happen, the Lions will be thrilled with the draft haul that accompanied Goff: a 2021 3rd round pick (DB Ifeatu Melifonwu), and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023.

The rebuild is on.

The Bottom Line: Very little in Detroit is as it was. After a dozen years, a new quarterback is under center. A new GM is calling the shots. His first order of business is wiping the slate clean.

In the ultimate addition-by-subtraction move, Matt Patricia is no longer the head coach. In his place is Dan Campbell, a hard-nosed throwback who seemingly values “grit” above all else. That’s probably for the best, as there’s not much talent on hand. Silly press conference quotes (and some truly bizarre caffeination habits) aside, focusing on effort and toughness is not a bad way to kick off a wholesale rebuild.

As part of the overhaul, Aaron Glenn, a former Pro Bowl cornerback and, for the past five seasons, the Saints’ defensive backs coach, is the new defensive coordinator. If his schemes are as diverse and creative as those employed in New Orleans, he will be a huge upgrade. The good news is that it would be tough to get less creative than Patricia’s man-coverage-reliant scheme.

In short: the Lions are in a full rebuild. The cap sheet’s getting cleared, the roster’s stripped down, and draft coffers are filling. No team in the NFL will be less interested in racking up wins in 2021.

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