Mediocrity continues to thrive in Minnesota, as yet another new head coach has taken over in hopes of rebuilding the struggling franchise.
Mike Zimmer takes over for Leslie Frazier, who took over for Brad Childress, who took over for Mike Tice.
That’s ugly trio of head coaches that have been in place before Zimmer. When you fail on that many head coaches, that shows a deep-rooted problem at the top of the organization.
Zimmer will try to begin his rebuild by drafting his quarterback of the future in Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings want to take their time in developing Bridgewater, and won’t start him to begin the season. Instead they’ll begin with veteran Matt Cassel. Cassel threw for 1,800 yards with 11 touchdowns a year ago, he was the best of the the three guys (himself, Christian Ponder, and Josh Freeman), though that doesn’t say much.
Adrian Peterson remains the engine for the team’s offense, and his great seasons continue to be wasted to some terrible Minnesota teams. He’s still performing like a top five running back, and there are times where he can carry the offense by himself. Its a shame that he’s only been able to appear in a couple of playoff games during his career.
Cordarrelle Patterson is expected to take a big step forward in his second season. The electric wideout was primarily a contributor on special teams in his rookie year, but he’ll have a chance to start. Veteran Greg Jennings starts opposite Patterson, but his effectiveness will be limited by the effectiveness of the quarterback position.
Defensive end Jared Allen is now in Chicago, and even though he’s been declining a bit, he still led the team with 11.5 sacks. The team hopes that former fourth-round pick Everson Griffen will be able to step up and replace Allen. Griffen will have his first chance to start after performing primarily in a part-time role.
Chad Greenway fought through a wrist injury to lead the Vikings with 167 tackles. He’ll have a new partner to work with on the outside with first-round pick Anthony Barr replacing departed veteran Erin Henderson.
The Vikings also have some good talent in the secondary. Recent top draft picks Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes have developed nicely, and the team added veteran Captain Munnerlyn to start opposite Rhodes.
The Vikings have some nice pieces in certain areas of their teams, but make no mistake, this is a long-term rebuilding project. They’re in the basement of this division for another year, and the best case scenario for 2014 is that Zimmer installs some toughness into the lineup and Bridgewater takes over at some point and shows some promising signs for the future.
Projected Finish: 5-11, 4th Place
The Detroit Lions have had the talent to make it to playoffs for years, but they’ve only made it to the Wild Card round once in the Matt Stafford/Calvin Johnson era.
For whatever reason, this talented team just doesn’t know how to do anything other than put up numbers. They’re at the top of the stat boards in every fantasy football league, but they’re always stuck in the middle of the pack in the win column.
Stafford is a guy who can easily throw for over 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns a year. The problem is that he remains a turnover machine. He tossed 19 picks in last season alone, and has never quite been able to figure out how to cut down on his mistakes.
Stafford doesn’t have any shortage of weapons. Calvin Johnson is still one of the league’s top receivers, and he’s coming off of a season in which he produced 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s an All-Pro talent, and a matchup nightmare for any defense. The Lions went out and upgraded the talent around him, signing Golden Tate from the Seattle Seahawks, and spending their first-round pick on Eric Ebron. Ebron has the potential to be on the level of San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell gives the team a solid one-two punch at running back. Bush has issues staying healthy and making it through a full season, which makes the emergence of Bell last year all the more important.
The defensive side of the ball is where things really start to fall apart for the Lions. There’s good talent here, but not a lot of consistency.
Ndamukong Suh is the face of the defense, and is the one guy that you can count on to perform like a Pro Bowler each season. 2011 first-rounder Nick Fairley is in a contract year, and has a lot to prove if he expects the team to bring him back. Second year man Ziggy Ansah led the team with eight sacks a year ago, and the Lions hope they can get an even bigger sophomore season from him.
Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy intercepted six passes, and is settled in to start alongside veteran middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Rookie second-round pick Kyle Van Noy figures to be the third starter.
The secondary is a major weakness. Chris Houston was one of the league’s worst starters, Darius Slay struggled heavily as a rookie, and safety Glover Quin didn’t do a good job either. All three of these guys are back as starters, and the only decent guy in the unit (Louis Delmas) departed in free agency.
The Lions have the offensive firepower to be relevant and competitive. But they’re a team that just doesn’t know how to win. The defense is still a major concern, as are turnovers from the quarterback. Until these problems are addressed, it doesn’t matter how weapons they add to their offense, this is a team that will struggle to get over the .500 mark.
Projected Finish: 8-8, 3rd Place
One of the most puzzling moves that I’ve seen throughout the off-season was the new contract extension that the Bears awarded to Jay Cutler.
Cutler has been an incredible disappointment ever since arriving in Chicago back in 2009. He’s thrown for over 3,000 yards just once in the last three years, and hasn’t thrown 20 or more touchdowns since the 2010 season. While Cutler hasn’t been horrible, the fact is that this is a guy who I wouldn’t even put among the top 15 quarterbacks in this league.
If not for the elite weapons around him, I don’t even think Cutler would do half as well as he has. He’s very fortunate that he has Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffrey to throw to.
Forte is coming off of a top year where he ran for over 1,300 yards and also caught 74 passes for nearly another 600 receiving yards. His durability is a bit of a concern, but when healthy he’s a difficult guy to account for.
Brandon Marshall had another season in which he registered 100 catches to go with 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s got a good rapport with Cutler, and he’s made even more difficult to account for thanks to the emergence of Alshon Jeffrey. In his second season, Jeffrey broke out for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. He and Marshall are both tall, powerful receivers.
The Bears defense isn’t nearly as strong as its been in the past. They added Jared Allen from Minnesota to help their pass rush, and while he’s coming off of a year where he had 11.5 sacks, but there’s questions about whether or not he can still produce at a high level as he enters his 12th year.
Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, and Tim Jennings are their other veteran leaders. They’re all still capable of holding their own and making plays, but they’ve all got a ton of miles on them and they’ve certainly lost a step or two.
The team really hopes that former top pick Shea McClellin will finally break out with a position change to linebacker.
The Bears will go as far as Forte/Marshall/Jeffrey carry them. These three guys are going to do most of the damage on offense, and they’re what other teams fear about facing Chicago. The quarterback and the defense can only be described as average at best.
Projected Finish: 9-7, 2nd Place
Green Bay Packers
As a testament to how poor this division really is, the Green Packers played the entire second half of their season without the services of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and managed to sneak into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record.
Now healthy once again, Rodgers should be able to guide the Packers to back to the top of the division, and back into the Super Bowl conversation. Rodgers is one of the few true elite quarterbacks in today’s game, and is absolutely surgical when he’s on the field. He’s one of those guys that makes the other players around him better.
Jordy Nelson leads the team’s talented receivers, and is coming off of his best season with 85 catches for 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns. Randall Cobb will return from injury and join Jarrett Boykin to give Rodgers a pretty dynamic trio to work with. The Packers also used three high draft picks to replenish their depth at this position, taking Davante Adams in the second round, tight end Richard Rodgers in the third round, and Jared Abbrederis in the fifth.
Rodgers will enjoy a strong support from the running game thanks to the emergence of Eddie Lacy. Lacy ran for over 1,100 yards with 11 touchdowns, bringing a dynamic to the position that Green Bay hasn’t had since Ahman Green. Lacy runs hard, and can also contribute as a receiver. Lacy seems primed to have another strong season, and emerge as one of the league’s top backs.
Defensively, the Packers went out and signed veteran Julius Peppers to help boost their pass rush. They hope that former Carolina and Chicago standout has something left in the tank, and can support Clay Matthews in their rush attack.
They also spent their first-round pick on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, hoping that he’ll join with excellent cover man Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to give them one of the league’s more reliable secondaries.
Green Bay is clearly a cut above both the Lions and Bears in this division. The fact that they made the playoffs despite an average record and no Aaron Rodgers just speaks volumes about how inept and incapable the other two franchises are when it comes to seizing an opportunity. With Rodgers healthy, the Pack should take this division without breaking a sweat.
Projected Finish: 11-5, 1st Place