The Black & Blue Division has welcomed a new member. The NFC North (or NFC Central as it was then) has for over 50 years been synonymous with smashmouth football and some of the meanest, toughest players the NFL has ever seen. Warriors like Dick Butkus, Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton, Walter Payton, Scott Studwell, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Ray Nitschke and Chris Spielman and superbly-nicknamed units like Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters and Chicago’s Monsters of the Midway have graced the field to the echo of shouts from coaching legends like Vince Lombardi, George Halas, Bud Grant and Buddy Parker.
And while Minnesota’s defense did a good imitation of their fabled predecessors in Mike Zimmer’s fourth year as head coach, there’s a new kid on the block. Chicago’s was a top 10 unit in 2017 and, despite a head coaching change, the Bears retained defensive co-ordinator Vic Fangio. Defensive end Akiem Hicks turned in a Pro Bowl-worthy performance in 2017, despite subsequently being snubbed for the all-star game, while Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller took the next step in their development. In May’s NFL Draft, general manager Ryan Pace spent his first-round pick on instant starter at linebacker Roquan Smith but his latest move may be the one that turns the defense into an elite proposition. A day after Los Angeles signed Aaron Donald to the highest ever contract for a defensive player, Pace pulled off an audacious trade with Oakland to bring outside linebacker Khalil Mack to Soldier Field. Mack, who promptly signed a deal to usurp Donald’s, was the NFL’s Defensive MVP in 2016, his third season, and has been to three straight Pro Bowls thanks to double-digit sack totals. His contract negotiations with the Raiders seem to have irked incoming head coach Jon Gruden, allowing Pace to snag arguably the game’s best defender.
Gruden’s loss is rookie Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy’s gain. Nagy was responsible for the explosive Kansas City offense in 2017 and was poached by the Bears in the offseason to ensure quarterback Mitch Trubisky makes the leap in his second year. As he did with the Chiefs, Nagy’s surrounded his passer with versatile weapons such as workhorse rusher Jordan Howard, jitterbug back Tarik Cohen, big receiver Allen Robinson from Jacksonville and Super Bowl-winning tight end Trey Burton. If the coach can get instant production out of his young offense and Fangio’s unit gels, the Bears could be contenders for the division for the first time since 2010.
Zimmer’s team took the North last year, heading to the NFC Championship Game on the back of a 13-3 record, despite losing starting quarterback Sam Bradford during Week 5 with the team at 2-2. Unheralded back-up Case Keenum came off the bench and helped the Vikings top the Bears and rattle off seven straight wins before throwing the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ touchdown pass that broke New Orleans’ hearts in the Divisional Playoff.
The Eagles dominated the Vikings in the Super Bowl semi-final, however, and Keenum translated the best season of his six-year/four-team career (3,547 yards, 22 TDs, seven interceptions) into a two-year $36 million deal to be Denver’s starting QB. Minnesota won the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, grabbing the hottest free agent passer in the offseason and it’s Cousins that will be expected to put this team over the edge and into the Super Bowl. With potentially the best defense in the NFL, anything less than a run to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will be a disappointment for the Vikes.
Cousins’ $84 million, three-year deal made him the richest NFL player in history in March but 34-year-old division rival and two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers pledged himself to Green Bay for four more years worth $134 million, taking that title.
Rodgers has his eye on another kind of title, however, after missing the second half of last season when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr slammed him into the turf in Week 6, breaking his collarbone. It’s been seven years since Rodgers was voted Super Bowl most valuable player as the Packers won their 13th NFL championship and the window is closing on another.
The Cal product will have an exciting red-zone target to throw to in 2018 in the form of tight end Jimmy Graham, who took a lesser contract to play with the passer. Rodgers won’t be throwing to Jordy Nelson for the first time since 2008 (the pair connected on 470 passes for 6,919 yards and 65 touchdowns) after the Pack let him go and he signed with Oakland.
Head coach Mike McCarthy replaced both co-ordinators after a 7-9 finish, welcoming back Joe Philbin as offensive boss and bringing in pressure-minded defensive coach Mike Pettine. Pettine has plenty of talent on his side of the ball but the likes of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry need to stay healthy to team with 2017 NFL tackles leader Blake Martinez, defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Mike Daniels. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix followed up his impressive third season with a disappointing fourth and will look to his new co-ordinator to make the most of his talents.
It’s been a quarter of a century since Detroit won the NFC North, with Wayne Fontes calling the plays for Barry Sanders, Rodney Peete and Herman Moore in the Run & Shoot offense while the aforementioned Spielman patrolled the heart.
Consecutive 9-7 finishes would be the stuff dreams are made of in Cleveland but weren’t enough for Lions GM Bob Quinn to retain the services of the respected Jim Caldwell as head coach. Quinn replaced him with Bill Belichick disciple Matt Patricia, who spent 14 seasons learning from the hooded Patriots boss.
Patricia retained offensive co-ordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who oversaw a solid season from ironman quarterback Matt Stafford. Defensively, Patricia and co-ordinator Paul Pasqualoni will be expected to weave their magic Patriots-style on a group that includes gifted pass rusher Ziggy Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay. After all, the division has a reputation to live up to.