The NFC North did not have a top 10 offense in 2015. The Packers were 15th at 23 PPG and the Vikings were 16th notching 22.8 PPG. The Lions were 18th scoring 22.4 PPG and the Bears tallied 20.9 PPG for the 23rd ranking in the league.
Let’s take a look how each NFC North team improved this offseason in order to possibly reach the top 10 milestone during 2016. The 10th ranked team in 2015 was the Redskins which tallied 24.3 PPG in 2015.
The NFC North should face easier defenses in 2016 compared to 2015. However, this could change as many teams made defensive improvements and changes during the offseason (Jacksonville, Giants etc). However, based on the previous season, only the Vikings and Houston are in the top 10 in PPG defense for the Bears, Packers and Lions to play in 2015. The Vikings don’t have to play themselves but do play the Panthers and Cardinals, who were both top 10 defenses, and the Vikings must face Houston too. Only the Vikings play Carolina and Arizona in the North.
The Packers play Seattle which was the top ranked PPG defense while the Lions/Bears catch a break facing the 13th and 18th ranked PPG defense in Rams and 49ers. The Lions/Bears/Packers also catch a break playing the Saints/Falcons/Bucs as easier defenses. Atlanta was 14th but the Bucs and Saints were a firm 26th and 32nd respectively. The NFC North offenses can feast on the weak defenses in the AFC South (sans Houston) and NFC East (barring major improvement) in 2016.
Improvement could come within the division as the Lions, Packers or Bears could crack into the top 10 defenses in 2016 with improvements by each team this offseason. The Vikings should stay a top 10 defense. We’ll dissect how the North teams can become a top 10 defense in the next article.
Lions- 3 top 10 ranked defenses, face 6 15th ranked or better
Packers-4 top 10 ranked defenses, face 5 15th ranked or better
Vikings-3 top 10 ranked defenses, face 5 15th ranked or better
Bears-3 top 10 ranked defenses, face 5 15th ranked or better
Detroit-6 top 10 ranked defenses, 9 15th ranked or better
Packers- 7 top 10 ranked defenses, 9 15th ranked or better
Vikings-4 top 10 ranked defenses, 8 15th ranked or better
Bears- 6 top 10 ranked defenses, 9 15th ranked or better
It’s clear the schedule is easier for the North offenses even if the NFC East or AFC South improves in 2016.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers get Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery back. This is clearly a big boost to their offense if they can return to form after their injuries. It’s not a given that players are the same but it’s fairly probable they both can be good and impactful players in 2016.
The Packers protection took a dip from Week 8 and beyond in 2015. The Packers drafted 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs for better depth and have plenty of good pass protectors with experience in the system despite allowing more pressure in 2015 than previous seasons.
Eddie Lacy appears to have slimmed down to be a more effective runner than 4.1 YPC. If Lacy can get back to 2014 form, the Packers offense will be much better. Lacy and Starks both must reduce their fumbles.
Aaron Rodgers always has a chance for an elite season despite his struggles in 2015. Rodgers had 31 TDs and 8 interceptions without Jordy Nelson or much pass protection (mid 30 % pressure). He was 26th in completion percentage and 30th in yards per attempt and led the league in bad pass percentage in 2015. Rodgers is still an elite QB and always gives the Packers a shot for a top 10 offense though.
Mike McCarthy will return to play calling full time which overall will help the Packers. The Packers were 15th ranked and have Aaron Rodgers. They get huge weapon boosts with Nelson and Montgomery. Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers could play better for Green Bay in year 3 of their careers. The Packers have a good chance of having a top 10 offense in 2016.
The Vikings were 16th and had the 4th ranked run game behind Adrian Peterson (4.5 YPC). The Vikings problem was protection, a young QB and a lack of WR weapons. The Vikings QB, Teddy Bridgewater, has another year under his belt. The Vikings added a weapon in 1st round pick Laquan Treadwell. Stefon Diggs had a good rookie year in 2015 and Kyle Rudolph can be a solid tight end for Minnesota. The Vikings should have enough weapons for Bridgewater in 2016 even with a rookie in Treadwell.
The pass protection was improved with the additions of Alex Boone and Andre Smith in free agency. Phil Loadholdt returns from an Achilles injury (backup TJ Clemmings was terrible) and John Sullivan returns at center (though Joe Berger played well). Left tackle Matt Kalil must improve in a contract 5th year option year and guard Brandon Fusco must return to 2013 form.
Bridgewater only had 14 TDs despite the Vikings winning 11 games with a run game and defense. He completed 65% of his passes and had 9 interceptions as a game manager. Bridgewater needs to take the next step from game manager to solid/good QB.
If Bridgewater takes that next step with his new weapon and protection, the Vikings could have a top 10 offense to pair with their top 10 defense. This would be scary for the North.
The Lions lost Calvin Johnson to retirement but made many improvements on offense. A full year of Jim Bob Cooter will help Detroit’s scheme. The Lions had great success with Cooter in the last 8 games facing a similar schedule in 2015 that they will face in 2016.
The Lions improved their offensive line starters and depth. They added Taylor Decker in Round 1, Graham Glasgow in Round 3, Joe Dahl in Round 5 and Geoff Schwartz in free agency. Laken Tomlinson has experience going into year 2 at left guard and Larry Warford is no longer hurt (ankle in first half of 2015). Riley Reiff slides over and provides a huge boost at right tackle which was a major issue for Detroit in 2014 and the first half of 2015. The Lions protection and run game should improve tremendously with a better scheme and more depth and talent this year.
The Lions still have plenty of weapons without Calvin Johnson. Marvin Jones quickly stopped the bleeding by signing with Detroit. Jones has good size and speed and a double digit TD season in his career. He doesn’t have to be a 1,000 yard receiver but a good 750-900 yard season is in his wheelhouse. Golden Tate can be a legitimate number 1 WR and had a monster 2014 to prove it. Eric Ebron showed marked improvement in 2015 and has 700-1,000 yard potential. Theo Riddick is the best receiving RB in the league currently after a 700 yard season. All of these players can get YAC and separation. Tate, Jones and Riddick have excellent hands as well. They fit the Cooter scheme well and provide plenty of firepower for Stafford.
Stafford improved under Caldwell and Cooter. He was strong in completion percentage, had 32 TDS and fixed his interceptions in the second half of 2015 (only 2). Stafford had 19 TDs and 2 interceptions with a 110 QB rating in the last 8 games with Cooter. Stafford is on the cusp of a being a top 5 QB after a 97 QB rating season. He must continue his momentum with Cooter magic in 2016.
The Lions run game was solid with Cooter but terrible with former OC Joe Lombardi. Abdullah fixed his fumble woes and had 4.7 YPC in the final 8 games. Stevan Ridley and Zach Zenner will try to replace Joique Bell. Bell struggled with 3.5 YPC on 90 carries which sets the bar low for Ridley/or Zenner for improvement.
If Detroit can get a top 20 run offense and increase their carries by around 60-80, they will improve tremendously in the passing game efficiency and offense overall.
Detroit has plenty of weapons, a strong QB (97 rating in 2015) and improved offensive line/running game on paper. A top 10 offense is clearly obtainable for the Lions if they avoid turnovers.
The Bears lost Matt Forte which is a big loss. They also lost OC Adam Gase which will hurt them too. However, the Bears gain former 1st round pick Kevin White to add to their weaponry. Cutler had his best season with a 92 QB rating in 2015. Cutler has a strong repo ire with TE Zach Miller and stud WR Alshon Jeffrey missed 8 games last season. A full season from Jeffrey, Miller and White could mean very good things for the Bears offense while facing only 3 top 10 defense and 5 top 15 defenses.
Cutler had 21 TDs and 11 interception but on 483 attempts. Cutler must do more now with Forte out of town. Cutler will have a new OC but a similar scheme with Dowell Loggains. If Cutler can improve from a 92 QB rating season in 2015 with better weapons and protection in 2016, the Bears could sneak into a top 10 offense.
The Bears made some moves on the offensive line by moving Kyle Long back to right guard. Hronnis Grasu (3rd round pick 2015) could take a step forward in year 2 at center and Bobbie Massie was added to boost the right tackle spot in free agency. Second round pick Cody Whitehair adds talent and youth to the left guard position. Charles Leno could improve at left tackle after struggling in 2015.
The Bears take a hit in the running game but have some young and talented players in Jeremy Langford Kadeem Carey and Jordan Howard. If the Bears can have a top 20 run game, they have enough weapons to be successful on offense. The Bears ranking all falls onto Cutler’s shoulders for 2016.
How It Could Fall Apart
Jordy Nelson doesn’t return to form and the Packers protection woes continue. Eddie Lacy’s new svelteness doesn’t help improve his 4.1 YPC. Aaron Rodgers continues to be off with bad throws and low YPA. Davonte Adams and Richard Rodgers don’t take the next step in progression and Cobb is solid/good but not great like his 2015 season.
Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t take the next step, the protection continues to be terrible and Treadwell plays like a rookie could doom the Vikings top 10 offense ability.
The Lions issues could still be with their run game and offensive line. Taylor Decker is a rookie left tackle and Tomlinson and Swanson could still have run game issues similar to 2015. The Lions must be careful with the football as turnovers were a big problem ruining 2012, 2013 and the first half of 2015 seasons. Finally, we’ll see how much the Lions will miss Calvin Johnson. They have plenty of weapons but the weapons must win their matchups because there will be less bail out throws available if everyone is covered. The players with single coverage must win their matchups.
The Bears could have several issues as Cutler interception woes rears its ugly head without Adam Gase and Cutler reverts to a mid-80s QB rating. The Bears run game struggles without Forte and the changes on the offensive line don’t help the protection.
Finally, crushing injuries could hurt any of these offenses. An injury to a major player like Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Adrian Peterson, Laquan Treadwell, Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery could greatly hinder any of the offenses. All of these players besides Golden Tate have been injured in past seasons.
All four teams have a chance to be top 10 offensively. We’ll see which team takes their moves on paper into action on the field and avoids crushing injuries. The Packers, Lions and Vikings all have a similar chance for a top 10 offense for different reasons. The Bears have less of a chance for top 10 due to their run game and left tackle issue and Cutlers’ interception track record, however, Chicago has plenty of talent on offense.
The season should be exciting and we’ll see which offense could get the best defensive support in the next article. Turnover support can aid any offense with short fields and a good defense takes the pressure off the offense. A top 10 offense for any of these North teams should spell success for the 2016 season.