Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Three questions each NFC North team must answer before 2022 season: Who will be Aaron Rodgers’ go-to target?

The Green Bay Packers have owned the NFC North in the Aaron Rodgers-Matt LaFleur era, winning the division all three years the pair have been together and finishing with a top-two record in the conference all three times. Green Bay still remains among the elite in the NFC, even though the Packers will have some hurdles to jump in 2022. 

In the NFC North, every team is looking to dethrone the Packers. The Minnesota Vikings have a new coach in Kevin O’Connell, a Sean McVay disciple who will attempt to get the most out of Kirk Cousins and an explosive offense featuring Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. Ed Donatell will look to revamp a defense that has been lackluster in recent years. 

The Detroit Lions are looking to surprise the league in year two of the Dan Campbell era with a young offense full of playmakers at wide receiver (Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, D.J. Chark) and one of the best players in the draft in Aidan Hutchinson looking to transform the defense. The Chicago Bears are restarting under new head coach Matt Eberflus, as Justin Fields looks to take strides in year two with a new offensive system. Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith are back on a defense that looks to be the backbone of the team. 

Training camp is on the horizon in the NFL, and there are many questions that need to be answered among each of the four NFC North teams over the next several weeks. If any of the NFC North teams want to compete for a Super Bowl, these three questions for each team must be addressed.

Green Bay Packers

1. Who is Aaron Rodgers‘ go-to target now that Davante Adams is gone? The Packers have a plan to develop in-house wide receivers after trading Adams — who has the most receiving yards and receiving touchdowns over the last four years — to the Raiders. Allen Lazard has excellent chemistry with Rodgers and Randall Cobb is a reliable veteran for the MVP, but the development of Amari Rodgers and Christian Watson will determine how effective Green Bay’s passing game will be in 2022. 

Sammy Watkins is looking to bounce back after a poor season with the Ravens and could vault into the picture as a deep threat to help replace Marquez Valdes-Scantling — who also departed in free agency. The Packers could also seek outside help via the free agent route. Regardless, it’s tough to replace a player as productive as Adams. 

2. Will this team find secondary depth? The Packers secondary has an opportunity to be great in 2022. Jaire Alexander will be back to play the slot, while Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas will man the outside. What if one of those three go down? Keisean Nixon appears to be the next man up, but he has played just 273 defensive snaps in his three-year career. 

At safety, Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are one of the top units in the league. Green Bay has little behind them, as Shawn Davis is the third safety on the roster. Davis has played just nine snaps in his short career, and none on defense. None of the Packers backup safeties played a snap on defense in 2021.

Green Bay has to add depth in the secondary next month, or hope one of these young players develops. 

3. What’s the offensive line going to look like? David Bakhtiari is back at left tackle, as huge boost for Rodgers as he gets back one of the best tackles in the league. Elgton Jenkins is recovering from a torn ACL and should be back at some point in 2022, meaning Bakhtiari is the only sure thing after right tackle Billy Turner and center/guard Lucas Patrick departed in free agency. 

Green Bay is deep on the offensive line after using three picks on the line in three consecutive drafts. Who’s going to play where? Royce Newman and Jon Runyan were mainstays on the line last year, but will be challenged by rookies Sean Rhyan and Zach Tom for playing time. Yosh Nijman and rookie Rasheed Walker will also compete for spots on the offensive line. 

Right now, the offensive line is a puzzle that needs to be put together. The unit will be fine, but the starting lineup for Week 1 is still to be determined. 

Minnesota Vikings

1. Can Kevin O’Connell get Kirk Cousins to the next level? Cousins has been good with the Vikings, as evidenced by his 100-plus passer rating in each of the last three years in Minnesota (103.5 career rating with Vikings). Despite the success throwing the football, the Vikings have just one playoff win since Cousins arrived in 2018. Hard to tell if that’s Cousins’ fault or not, but teams he quarterbacks can’t seem to make deep playoff runs. 

O’Connell’s job is to get Cousins past the top-10-to-15 level of quarterbacks and firmly into the top-10. Cousins will have to be better in December to start, as that was his worst month in completion rate (62.41%) and passer rating (89.1). Seeing how O’Connell helped Matthew Stafford last year and his prior relationship with Cousins in Washington, Cousins may be set up for his best season yet with an offense that favors his skillset. 

2. Will the offensive line be any better? The Vikings don’t have many issues at the skill positions, but the offensive line always seems to be the Achilles heel. Christian Darrisaw is set for his first year as the full-time starter at left tackle and will have the opportunity to prove he can play the position long term. 

Garrett Bradbury is back at center, but there’s a major drop off if he were to miss games. Ezra Cleveland is still settling in to left guard (started 26 of 30 career games at guard), and right guard will be a competition between Jesse Davis, Ed Ingram, and Chris Reed

This unit should be better, but that story has been told over the past few years. Perhaps new offensive line coach Chris Kuper gets the most out of this group. 

3. Did the secondary improve enough? The Vikings addressed the secondary in the draft by selecting safety Lewis Cine at No. 32 overall and cornerback Andrew Booth at No. 42. Chandon Sullivan was also added to the mix, replacing the departing Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods. Patrick Peterson is back at cornerback, along with Cameron Dantzler — but both appear to be challenged by Booth for a starting job. 

If the Vikings can play Booth in the box, that can solve their run defense issues (which also depends on the development of Cine). There isn’t much depth in the slot if Sullivan goes down, either. There are concerns with Peterson’s speed at 32, and he’s looking for a bounce back year.

The Vikings were 28th in pass yards allowed and 23rd in yards yards per attempt allowed. Hard to tell if they’ll improve on those marks in 2022.

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Chicago Bears

1. Is Justin Fields in the right situation to succeed? This may be harsh to Fields as he enters his second season (and nothing can be worse than what Matt Nagy did for him in Chicago last year), but the Bears didn’t exactly give their quarterback enough offensive talent for him to thrive in year two. 

David Montgomery and Darnell Mooney are young talents to compliment Fields — and Mooney has the skill set to be an elite receiver in the league — yet there doesn’t appear to be much else. The Bears signed Byron Pringle and drafted Velus Jones Jr. (who’s older than Mooney). They also traded for N’Keal Harry last week, hoping a fresh start in Chicago is what he needs. Cole Kmet is also back at tight end, looking to build off a solid second season. 

Just focusing on the skill positions here, there’s a reason why the Bears are the only franchise without a 4,000-yard passer or a quarterback that’s thrown for 30 touchdowns. This isn’t ideal for Fields to develop his game, even in a new system. 

2. The offensive line can’t be worse than last year, right? Notice the theme with this division so far. The Bears offensive line may have been the worst pass-blocking unit in 2021, giving up a league-high 58 sacks (3.41 sacks a game). Fields faced immense pressure all season long, which led to cracked ribs in the middle of the season. 

So what did Chicago do to improve the offensive line? Rookie Braxton Jones took OTA snaps at left tackle with the first team and the team signed Lucas Patrick away from Green Bay to play center. Dakota Dozier is more of a depth signing, as Cody Whitehair and Sam Mustipher line up at guard. Larry Borom and Teven Jenkins are fighting for a spot at right tackle (but Borom can also play left tackle). Julie’n Davenport is a valuable reserve at tackle. 

Chicago could sign a veteran guard in camp, but the offensive line is a work in progress. The main goal is to give Fields time in the pocket and keep him upright. 

3. What’s the future with Robert Quinn? If the Bears defense is going to have any chance to be elite in 2022, they’ll have to have Quinn in the fold. Quinn’s future with the team is uncertain after he skipped mandatory minicamp, and the Bears are reportedly looking to trade him.

The saga is an awkward one, as Quinn reportedly doesn’t want to be on a rebuilding team. He saw the Bears move on from Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks this offseason, signaling the team is in transition for this year. His 18.5 sacks set a franchise record for sacks in a season and were second only in the NFL to T.J. Watt. A second-team All-Pro selection in 2021, Quinn had 49 tackles, 22 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, 47 pressures, and 35 run stops. 

Quinn said he wanted to stay with the Bears, but those plans may have changed. Without Quinn, Chicago has Trevis Gipson and Al-Quadin Muhammad (who played for Eblerfus in Indianapolis) at defensive end. The pair can get the job done, but the pass rush will be significantly better with Quinn in the fold. Chicago would be wise to hold onto Quinn — unless he makes it clear he wants to be traded. 

Detroit Lions

1. How good can this offense be? There’s a reason for Lions fans to be excited heading into 2022, given the young offensive core the team is putting together. All of the main skill position players are 27 or under and none of the starting offensive linemen are over 28. That’s a core Detroit has assembled for several seasons. 

Jameson Williams (21), Amon-Ra St. Brown (22) and D.J. Chark (25) are a talented wide receiver trio, while T.J. Hockenson (24) is one of the top-10 tight ends in the league. D’Andre Swift (23) is an emerging back with a good compliment in Jamaal Williams (27). Quarterback Jared Goff is protected with a good offensive line that includes Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and Penei Sewell

The Lions have the ability to score a lot of points, but this comes down to how Goff performs in a prove-it year as the starting quarterback in Detroit. The Lions certainly gave Goff the pieces to have a big year. 

2. Will Jameson Williams be ready for the season? The Lions passing game reaches another level if a healthy Williams is on the field. Will Williams be ready in time for the start of training camp? Head coach Dan Campbell doesn’t see Williams being ready for that time, which is what the Lions have prepared for. 

Williams will likely start camp on the PUP list, but Detroit can pull him off that at any time. Based on the ACL injury Williams suffered in January, an expected timetable would be mid-to-late October for a return. If Williams comes back earlier, that’s immensely beneficial for the Lions offense. 

Detroit still has Chark and St. Brown to carry the wide receivers, also having Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond as solid WR3 and WR4 options. The Lions can afford to be patient with Williams here.

3. Can the pass rush carry the defense? The Lions are banking on Aidan Hutchinson to transform a pass rush that immensely struggled in 2021, a major reason why they drafted him No. 2 overall. Hutchinson had the second-highest pressure rate (14.2%) in the FBS since 2019, second only to Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. To measure Hutchinson’s value, Michigan had a 35% pressure rate when Hutchinson was on the field (fifth in NCAA), but just 28% when he was off the field (62nd in NCAA) in 2021.

The Lions finished with just 30 sacks in 2021, third-fewest in the NFL. Detroit’s 24.4% pressure rate and its 147 pressures were the second lowest in the league. This unit badly needed pass rushing help. 

With Hutchinson around, the Lions have some depth on the edge with Romeo Okwara and Charles Harris. Detroit will need to get pressure on the quarterback to help a secondary with cornerback Jeff Okudah and safety DeShon Elliott coming off injuries. Safety Tracy Walker and cornerback Amani Oruwariye are reliable players on that unit, but can be even more effective with a better pass rush. 

This comes down to how Hutchinson performs in year one. If he makes an immediate impact, the Lions defense will play a huge role in helping Detroit becoming the surprise team in the NFC. 

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