Early NFC North takes

With the draft in the past and the vast majority of free agency complete, we can make some early judgments on the outlook in the NFC North. It has a familiar look to it, but the bottom of the division could be slowly catching up to the top.

With the Brett Favre ankle surgery out of the way, it's appearing more and more likely that the veteran QB will be returning for another Super Bowl run. In the coming weeks and months, NFL analysts will check in on their predictions for 2010. If the early inclinations mean anything, the NFC North may be the most improved division in the league.

Here's a quick first take on what to expect in 2010:

MINNESOTA VIKINGS – The Vikings didn't (and couldn't) do much in free agency and lost Chester Taylor and Artis Hicks. However, the Vikings had all 22 starters from the 2009 season under contract, so there wasn't nearly the sense of urgency to add starters in free agency or the draft. This is a veteran group built for a three-year run at a championship – many consider 2010 as the second year of that process. With veteran stars on both sides of the ball – Favre, Steve Hutchinson, Bryant McKinnie, Bernard Berrian and Visanthe Shiancoe on offense and Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams, E.J. Henderson, and Antoine Winfield on defense – as well as a slew of young stars either in or approaching the prime of their careers – Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt on offense and Ray Edwards, Chad Greenway and Cedric Griffin on defense – the Vikings remain the team to beat in the NFC North. Few teams have the balance on offense and defense the Vikings possess. Early Division Odds: 3:2.

GREEN BAY PACKERS – Had the Packers beaten the Vikings once last year, they would have finished 12-4 and earned a first-round playoff bye. After going 6-10 in the first post-Favre season, the Packers defense allowed 18.6 points a game (more than five points a game less than in 2008) and finished 11-5. The Packers weren't overly aggressive in the free-agent market, but made the point to re-sign both veteran starting offensive tackles (Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher). With a young, improving defense and veteran leaders in the secondary, the Packers have become one of the more balanced teams in the league. Look for them to be the chic pick to win the NFC North this year and expect many of the "experts" to jump on their bandwagon. The team still needs to do a much better job of protecting Rodgers, but there is a growing sentiment that this could be an MVP-type season for the Packers QB. Unlike so many other franchises that have struggled to replace a Hall of Fame QB – Steve Young in San Francisco, Troy Aikman in Dallas, John Elway in Denver and Dan Marino in Miami – Green Bay has made an nearly seamless transition from Favre to Rodgers. There are still some question marks, most importantly on both lines, but the Packers have all the ingredients to be a 10- to 12-win team in 2010. Early Division Odds: 2:1.

CHICAGO BEARS – Nobody made a bigger early splash than the Bears when free agency began, signing Chester Taylor and Julius Peppers in the opening days of the free-agent market. However, this is a team that has more questions than answers. Anointed as the next big thing last year and the Cinderella choice to be an underdog Super Bowl contender, the Bears fell flat and Jay Cutler didn't look nearly as impressive without talent like Brandon Marshall on the receiving end. Devin Hester and Johnny Knox both have speed, but neither would be a starter on most teams. For the Bears to succeed, they will need to become a more wide-open offense, which goes against the formula that has made them successful over the years. Mike Martz tends to confuse players with his complicated offense, much less a corps of young receivers that have never played in his system before. In 2011, the Bears may be the team to beat, but, as they adjust to the complicated offense and were again unable to add defensive studs through the draft, 8-8 looks to be about as good as the Bears will do this year. Early Division Odds: 5:1.

DETROIT LIONS – Few teams have made more additions than the Lions, who immediately improved their defense by drafting Ndamukong Suh and helped the offense by trading up to get RB Jahvid Best. The Lions are a far cry from the team that went winless in 2008, but there is a still a long way to go to get back to respectability. If they don't lose double-digit games this year, it will be viewed as a huge step forward. That kind of goal doesn't bode well in the short-term, but if Detroit can keep its young core of star talent that it has drafted (Suh, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson), it may not be long before the Lions get back into the equation … just not yet. Early Division Odds: 20:1.


  • From the Dumb Bulletin Board Material Department comes this: Former Viking Darren Sharper commented on his Twitter account Friday night that he heard Brett Favre had his ankle surgery, following it by tweeting, "Come Thursday night 1st game. X marks the spot" – a reference that the Saints defense will again be bounty hunting for Favre. The problem with that? After what the Saints did to Favre last year, expect to see the Vikings defense inspired against Drew Brees. Sometimes, it's the smarter move to simply shut up and let your play do your talking. Early prediction: Vikings defenders get at least two personal foul penalties Sept. 9 for late hits on Brees.

  • A couple of weeks after anointing the Detroit Lions as having one of the best offseasons in the NFL, ESPN's John Clayton said the Vikings had one of the worst offseasons. He mentioned the injury to Cedric Griffin, the potential four-game suspensions of Pat Williams and Kevin Williams (apparently pre-ruling by Hennepin County District Court Judge Gary Larson) and that E.J. Henderson is coming off another surgery. He failed to mention that the Vikings were hamstrung in free agency, severely limiting what they could do. Considering they didn't lose any starters to free agency and did their best to replace Chester Taylor, Artis Hicks and, if he is unavailable, Griffin in the draft, it may not be as bad as "The Professor" seems to think.

  • The Bears are going to honor the late Gaines Adams this season by putting a No. 99 decal on their helmets. Adams, who was acquired last year in a trade with the Buccaneers, died this offseason in what the autopsy report described an enlarged heart defect.

  • One of the topics to be discussed at this week's owners meetings will include a proposal to expand the recently approved changed to the overtime rule in the playoffs into the regular season as well. If approved, the rule would take effect in September. Some have argued that the rule should apply only for playoff games, while another camp seems to believe the rule should be applied uniformly for all games. The Vikings were one of the few teams to vote against the proposal at the last owners meetings.

  • In an interview with NFLFanHouse.com, Tarvaris Jackson said he was initially bitter with the signing of Favre, but that went away when he arrived and saw how genuine he was. However, he added that he hopes it doesn't become a "year in and year out" thing.

  • The contract details on Ryan D'Imperio's contract are as follows: four years, $1.837 million; Signing bonus: $47,000; base salaries: $320,000 (2010); $405,000 (2011), $490,000 (2012); $575,000 (2013).

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