There is little question that at least a couple of other teams in the NFC North are better than they were a year ago, but the Bears were so much better than the field it doesn’t seem likely the gap isn’t still significant. In addition to having four more wins than any other NFC North team last year, the Bears outscored their divisional opponents 153-109. That’s a differential of 44 points, meaning a +7.3 point average in divisional contests.
While the Lions and Packers made significant additions via free agency and, presumably, through the draft, they were so far behind the top two teams. The Lions were outscored by the other three teams 131-118, while the Packers were outscored 162-110. In fact, the Packers needed late field goals to avoid three double-digit losses and were handled by the Lions, twice.
Of course, the 2018 Bears were a great example of going worst-to-first, losing every divisional game in 2017, with most of them not being particularly close. But the Bears spent most of the 2017 season with a rookie quarterback and made more significant roster additions than any of the NFC North teams,
Here’s a quick look at the division.
Best Addition: Irv Smith Jr. The Vikings have some really good offensive players, but they reminded me of the 2014 Bears, who were basically playing 10-on-11 offensively without a decent second tight end or third receiver. Smith gives them another weapon, who should allow them to play big and run the ball.
Biggest Loss: Sheldon Richardson. Playing on a one-year deal, Richardson was second on the team with 20.5 combined quarterback hits and sacks last year.
Why They’ll Be Interesting: The addition of Gary Kubiak is certainly something to take note of. If Kubiak is allowed to control the offense, they will be able to run the ball and Cousins will be an effective passer. But, of course, Mike Zimmer has had a tough time getting along with offensive coordinators.
Why They’ll Struggle: I still don’t see how they can block on the edge. The Vikings couldn’t beat the Bears last year because they couldn’t block them. They possibly improved their interior offensive line in the draft — although rookie offensive linemen tend to struggle — but I don’t see a lot of reason to think they’ll be able to block Khalil Mack.
Green Bay Packers
Best Addition: Za’Darius Smith. He wasn’t the top guy in Baltimore, but he was very productive. The comparison to Pernell McPhee is accurate, but using it as a bad thing is forgetting that McPhee was great with the Bears before his knee gave way.
Biggest Loss: Clay Matthews. Matthews wasn’t close to being the terror off the edge he used to be, but he could still win and was a solid all-around player. He only had half a sack fewer than high-priced Preston Smith. Randall Cobb would be the pick, but he missed too much time last year.
Why They’ll Be Interesting: The biggest reason the Packers struggled in 2018 is because Aaron Rodgers was not great. Hell, he wasn’t even particularly good, but he’s still one of the most talented QBs in the league and has one of the best supporting casts. Watch out for Aaron Jones having a big year in 2019.
Why They’ll Struggle: This list is long. I’ll start with the rookie coach who really didn’t do anything to warrant becoming a head coach. They had a lot of assets to invest in the offseason and used them all on the same positions: edge and safety. This is fine, but if you’re paying $9 million per year for a safety, why do you need to draft another in the first round? I’m all for investing in edge players, but why bring in three of the same type of edge players? And, of course, there’s the simple fact that Rodgers hasn’t been a consistently great player in half a decade.
Best Addition: Trey Flowers. There wasn’t much competition for this. Flowers is just a good NFL player and that’s what the Lions needed.
Biggest Loss: Golden Tate. Technically, they lost him last year, but he still had 44 catches in seven games with Detroit (74 on the season), the third highest total on the team. They’re trying to replace him with 34-year-old Danny Amendola.
Why They’ll Be Interesting: They’re taking the ball out of Matt Stafford’s hands. They hired Darrell Bevell and he’s going to run the ball with Kerryon Johnson, while hopefully helping Stafford become more efficient.
Why They’ll Struggle: Man, that Matt Patricia hire seems weird. The players don’t seem to like him and his history does little to suggest he’s actually capable of fixing the defense. They spent the seventh pick on a tight end, one of the least impactful positions in the league. Combine a bad coach with a lack of playmakers and what do you have?