Monday, June 5, 2023

NFC North burning questions for 2022: Will Justin Fields overcome Bears’ setup? How will Aaron Rodgers adapt?

The 2022 NFL season is fast approaching, and while some divisions have already gotten more than enough hype (looking at you, AFC West), others probably deserve more attention. Exhibit A: the NFC North, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are looking to make a fourth straight playoff appearance despite parting ways with All-Pro play-maker Davante Adams.

Green Bay isn’t the only team potentially approaching an inflection point, either. Here’s a look at burning questions for all four NFC North squads entering 2022:

Bears: Can Justin Fields overcome his supporting cast?

Remember when criticism of ex-Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky evolved into criticism of the entire Bears setup? The natural fear is that Fields is set for the same trajectory. New coach Matt Eberflus should keep Chicago’s defense feisty, especially alongside additions like Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker. But shouldn’t the top priority be developing the 23-year-old first-round QB investment? Their new regime isn’t acting like it, saddling Fields with another iffy line and even iffier weapons (Byron Pringle? Equanimeous St. Brown?). Maybe the QB’s athleticism will minimize the holes, but it feels like the organization is more interested in stocking up in 2023. By that point, it’s fair to wonder if Fields will have stepped forward or backward as a prospect.

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Lions: What’s going on at QB?

Unlike almost every other team with long-term QB questions, the Lions chose to stand pat this offseason, complete with Jared Goff’s $31.15 million price tag. Barring a stark reverse of course, like cutting Goff after June 1 to save $10.65M and trading for an alternative, they’re set to enter year two of the Dan Campbell era without taking any real steps toward securing a reliable arm under center. Goff is often serviceable, no doubt, and his offense is underrated, especially with more speed in the lineup via D.J. Chark and Jameson Williams. But what is the end goal here? The Lions are still rebuilding. Even a major leap from their 3-13-1 finish a year ago might not result in a playoff trip. Retaining Goff feels like treading water, even if the rest of the roster is shifting.

Packers: How will Aaron Rodgers thrive without Davante Adams?

To be clear, we’re not saying Rodgers cannot and will not thrive; the QB was a star for eight years before his favorite target arrived in 2014. But perhaps no QB and receiver had more chemistry in recent years. Now, with Adams in Las Vegas, Rodgers will be without a bona fide No. 1 wideout, unless rookie Christian Watson becomes the latest first-year pass catcher to explode early. Outside of Watson, the primary outlets are Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Robert Tonyan and Sammy Watkins — a fine but unspectacular bunch. In the end, Rodgers should be able to elevate most of his weapons, and the ground game, with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, may take on a bigger role. The question then becomes, do they still have NFC Championship stuff? 

Vikings: Can Kevin O’Connell eclipse the wild-card ceiling?

Minnesota made it clear with its actions this offseason that it’s not ready to reboot the entire operation post-Mike Zimmer. After pursuing Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh at head coach, the new regime doubled down on Kirk Cousins‘ pricey contract and restocked a veteran defense with starters like Jordan Hicks and Za’Darius Smith. The result is a roster more than capable of remaining in the wild-card mix. Now it’s up to O’Connell, just 36 with two years of experience under Sean McVay, to get the Vikings out of their own purgatory. The team, like Cousins, rarely bottoms out but rarely gets over the hump. Maybe O’Connell’s offensive touch will do the trick, especially in contrast to Zimmer’s old-school approach, which couldn’t even keep the “D” solid in recent years.

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