After fielding two playoff teams for the fifth time in six years, the NFC North looks to be even stronger in 2015.
The Chicago Bears are in the process of a full rebuild for the second time in four years, the Detroit Lions lost the face of the franchise in Ndamukong Suh, the Green Bay Packers did what they do each year - retain key players and draft well - and the Minnesota Vikings may be the most improved team in the division.
It’s fair to assume this division will send at least two teams to the playoffs for the sixth time since 2010. The biggest question is: Who will be those two teams? It’s also worth noting that no team in the division has finished in last place two consecutive years since 2009.
It’s time to dive in head first to a full preview of the NFC North for 2015.
Green Bay Packers (Projected 1st place finish)
General manager Ted Thompson is one of the few front office executives after whom each team should strive to model their franchise. His plan is pretty simple: draft well, retain your players and don’t spend big on out-of-town free agents.
The team’s biggest moves came from retaining their own players, including extending WR Randall Cobb (5 years, $50 million), RT Bryan Bulaga (5 years, $33.75 million), and DTs Letroy Guion (1 year, $2.75 million) and B.J. Raji (1 year, $1.75 million).
CB Tramon Williams (3 years, $21 million to the Cleveland Browns)
CB Davon House (4 years, $24.5 million to the Jacksonville Jaguars)
LB A.J. Hawk (Released)
QB Matt Flynn (1 year, 950K to the New England Patriots)
Although the team lost two starting-caliber defensive backs, they added younger and cheaper replacements through the draft, while moving Casey Hayward into a full-time starting role. Thompson also retained Julius Peppers for another year while they phase in their new wave of young contributors.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will relinquish play calling starting this year and will let offensive coordinator Tom Clements take over those duties. After a botched onside kick that ultimately cost the four-time division champs another super bowl appearance, McCarthy fired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum and hired veteran Ron Zook to take over special teams duties.
With minimal offseason changes yet again, it’s realistic to expect the Packers to win their fifth straight division title.
Projected Record: 12-4 (1st place)
Minnesota Vikings (Projected 2nd place finish)
The Vikings may be the NFL’s most improved team going into 2015 for multiple reasons. With a 3rd place finish last year, the team will get back RB Adrian Peterson, while young, key pieces such as QB Teddy Bridgewater, LB Anthony Barr and CB Xavier Rhodes got another year of experience.
Head coach Mike Zimmer is going into his second year and will have much more to work with heading into the new season. With a collection of young talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it’s not hard to see why the Vikings could sneak into the playoffs in 2015.
After a spending spree in 2014, Zimmer and the Vikings took a page out of the Packers’ book and added mainly through the draft this year and are counting on development from their recent draft picks to take that next step.
It’s also not ridiculous to expect this defensive unit to leap into the Top 10, maybe even higher depending on how well their young linebacker group develops.
Offensively, Bridgewater looks like a Top 10 quarterback in the making and with Peterson in the backfield, this combination should produce good results. It seems as if the Cordarrelle Patterson experiment as a top receiving option is over but adding Mike Wallace and drafting Stefon Diggs give them an upgrade at the position. The biggest question mark will be the offensive line, especially at tackle. Matt Kalil does not look like a good investment as a top-end first-round pick and Phil Loadholt will look to bounce back from an inconsistent year in 2014.
DE: Brian Robison
NT: Linval Joseph
DT: Sharrif Floyd
DE: Everson Griffen
SLB: Anthony Barr
MLB: Eric Kendricks
WLB: Chad Greenway
CB: Xavier Rhodes
SS: Robert Blanton
FS: Harrison Smith
CB: Terence Newman
Projected Record: 10-6 (2nd place)
Chicago Bears (Projected 3rd place finish)
The Bears are going through their second major facelift in four years. They hired a new general manager in former New Orleans Saints’ Director of Player Personnel Ryan Pace, former Denver Broncos head coach John Fox, who took the team to the playoffs four straight years, and a star-studded staff headlined by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who followed Fox from Denver.
On top of the major changes in the front office and coaching staff, the Monsters of the Midway traded star WR Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets for a 2015 fifth-round pick, which they used to drafted FS Adrian Amos. Ultimately, Pace and Fox worked quickly to rid themselves of potential issues and instilled leadership on multiple levels, all while improving the overall talent level, but will it be enough?
WR Brandon Marshall (Traded to the New York Jets)
DL Stephen Paea (4 years, $21 million to the Washington Redskins)
CB Charles Tillman (1 year, $2 million to the Carolina Panthers)
LB Lance Briggs (Free Agent)
FS Chris Conte (1 year, $1.5 million to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Following last year’s epic failures - drafting poorly and earning the crown of “winning free agency” - Pace toned it back in his first year and spent most of his free agent money on one-year prove-it deals. He then drafted based on best player available, instead of going strictly by team need.
Most of the same faces are in place for a team that was projected to be a Super Bowl contender just one year ago. Even though the offense had a down year under Marc Trestman’s one-dimensional play calling in 2014, this unit is one year removed from a Top 5 passing product with most of the same pieces, with key down-the-field play-making ability added.
Defensively, this unit will be improved in 2015. From the home run hire of Fangio to adding various much-needed veteran talent, combined with the young talent that will be developed under a much improved coaching staff, the arrow is trending in upward. The question remains, how big of an improvement will this defense make in Year One under new leadership?
Projected Record: 7-9 (3rd place)
Detroit Lions (Projected 4th place finish)
One win away from a division title in 2014 to last place in 2015? You read it right. It’s not as far out of left field as some may think, either. In 2011, the Lions finished 10-6 and lost in the opening round of the playoffs. They followed up the 2012 season with a last place finish of 4-12, which was a six game swing in just one year.
Second year head coach Jim Caldwell did a great job righting the ship in his first year but defensive coordinator Teryl Austin may have been his secret weapon. Just one year later, that Top 5 unit took a huge hit in losing three of four starters along the defensive line. With their top-flight offense still intact, can their defense duplicate their 2014 performance? Not likely.
DT Ndamukong Suh (6 years, $114.375 million to the Miami Dolphins)
RB Reggie Bush (1 year, $2.5 million to the San Francisco 49ers)
DE George Johnson (3 years, $9 million to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
DT Nick Fairley (1 year, $5 million to the St. Louis Rams)
C Dominic Raiola (Free Agent)
Coming off an 11-5 season and a heartbreaking playoff loss, most wouldn’t expect these same Lions to follow up with a last-place finish but after losing multiple impact defenders and being in one of the top divisions in football, it will be hard for them to make it back to the playoffs in 2015.
General manager Martin Mayhew did a very nice job adding talent through the draft this year but overall, it will not be enough to cover up the multiple holes that were left from losing Suh, Nick Fairley, George Johnson and C.J. Mosley.
Projected Record: 6-10 (4th place)
Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report.