2015 NFC North Preview: Green Bay Is the Easy Favorite
Thanks to Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy, the Green Bay Packers have secured four straight division titles within the NFC North. That has made for a busy offseason for the rest of their division rivals.
The Bears did a complete overhaul of its coaching staff, going from the offensive-minded Marc Trestman to the defensive-minded John Fox. Also out is one of Jay Cutler's favorite targets. But even with a overhaul, it may be a year or two before they make some noise again.
The Vikings re-tooled their offense a little by getting younger in the receiving corp, but stayed the course for the most part. The Vikings were one of two defenses within the division that played much better than we predicted at the beginning of 2014, and they hope to build on that in 2015.
The other defense that performed better than expected was the Detroit Lions. Granted, they were the best defense in the division in 2013, but finished the season as the fourth best defense in the league according to our Adjusted (for strength of schedule) Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics in 2014.
But did each team make enough adjustments to catch up to Rodgers' squad? Let's take a look at our algorithm's projections for 2015.
4. Chicago Bears
The Bears no longer have Marc Trestman running this team (and offense), as he was shown the door this offseason. John Fox was brought in to right this ship and to push on more of the defensive side of the ball.
Also out is Brandon Marshall, who was traded for a fifth-round pick and replaced by Eddie Royal. Entering his fourth year in the league, that makes Alshon Jeffery the top receiver for the Bears. The Bears drafted Marquess Wilson last year and drafted Kevin White this year and could need contributions right away from each of them.
Though B-Marsh and Jeffery were a great tandem for Jay Cutler, keep in mind that Marshall was just 29th within our Target NEP (19.00) metric out of 40 receivers that saw at least 100 targets. Eddie Royal is coming off the best season of his career, as his 40.00 Target NEP total was the best mark of his career, and his 68.46 Reception NEP was the second highest of his career. Royal's Target NEP was also twice as much as Marshall's and good enough to finish 25th among all receivers in the league.
The changes may be good for Cutler, too, as he is coming off of one his worst year's as a quarterback. His Pass NEP of -1.24 meant he was a below-average quarterback, leading the Bears to the 12th-worst offense in the NFL according to schedule-adjusted NEP. But a reunion of Adam Gase, Cutler and Royal could lead to a resurgence in the Bears' aerial attack.
Getting Royal could also take some pressure off of Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett as well. Forte caught 100 passes last year, easily tops among all running backs and the fifth highest reception total in the league. But Forte was far from efficient -- among the 32 running backs that were targeted at least 40 times in 2014, Forte's 0.28 Reception NEP per target was 18th.
Bennett was more of the same, as his 20.07 Target NEP was 14th among tight ends but of the 32 tight ends that saw at least 40 targets, his 0.57 Reception NEP per target was 19th. A new offensive scheme may not feed both guys as much in 2015, but it could get this offense going in the right direction.
But the offense can only do so much if the defense can't even keep them in the game. Chicago had the fifth-worst defense in the league last year according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP metric.
The Bears were supposed to get some help on the line with the signing of Ray McDonald, but a day after he signed, he was release due to troubles with the law. The Bears big free agent signings were Pernell McPhee, who should provide help as the Bears transition to a 3-4 scheme, and Antrel Rolle, who should provide much needed help in the secondary.
But as they transition to a new defensive scheme, leadership will be needed. Brian Urlacher has been gone for a couple years and the Bears let Lance Briggs walk as well. Jared Allen could step into that role, but he only has so much left in the tank. John Fox is one of the better coaches to help this defense, but it may take him a year or two to acquire and groom the right pieces.
There's plenty of firepower within the offense for Gase, but until the defense gets in shape, the Bears will be staring at the bottom of the barrel for at least another year.
Projected Record: 6.6-9.4
Division Probability: 8.4%
Playoff Probability: 13.1%
3. Minnesota Vikings
Teddy Bridgewater finished the 2014 season with a 22.77 Passing NEP total -- not a great total for a quarterback, but it was actually the eighth best Passing NEP by a rookie since 2000 (among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks). Bridgewater didn't play the whole season either and had Greg Jennings as his top receiver, who has since moved on to the Miami Dolphins. So the Vikings know they finally have a quarterback of the future, but they have a lot of questions after that.
First is, of course, their running back situation. Not much is known with Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, as they finished with barely above average Rushing NEP. Adrian Peterson is back in the fold, but will another year missed plus the age of 30 limit his production? Mike Zimmer has his work cut out for him on the offensive side of the ball in just his second year coaching the Vikings.
But the Vikings did trade for Mike Wallace, who is coming off a bounce-back year with the Miami Dolphins. With the verdict still out on Charles Johnson, Cordarrelle Patterson yet to live up to his hype and some unknowns there with rookie Stefon Diggs, Bridgewater may be looking Wallace's way quite a lot this year.
As mentioned in the intro, the Vikings defense played better than expected. While being the 21st best defense in our Adjusted Defensive NEP metric isn't grand, it showed that Mike Zimmer was able to work his magic. And with losing no big-name players, Zimmer can continue to improve this defense.
Given the division they're in, facing the likes of Rodgers, Cutler and Matthew Stafford, the passing defense was the best aspect of the Vikings defense in 2014. Granted, they weren't as good as the Bills or Seahawks last year, but they weren't as bad as the Falcons or Redskins, either. Their 49.71 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP was middle-of-the-road, just a couple more points than an average pass defense.
Another year gives the Vikings a chance to be even better. They were weak in defending the run last year (fifth-worst) but picking up Eric Kendricks in the draft can only help. Another full offseason under Zimmer should improve things as well -- the Vikings could be a team to contend with in 2015 thanks to a defense that is on the rise.
Projected Record: 7.4-8.6
Division Probability: 17.1%
Playoff Probability: 25.2%
2. Detroit Lions
Calvin Johnson finally got a running mate in the receiving corp in Golden Tate last year, and it worked out pretty well. The Lions were ok, finishing 14th in Adjusted NEP and 11th in Adjusted Offensive Passing NEP. As a passing offense they weren't quite as good as the Falcons and Colts, but were better than the Eagles and Giants.
The Lions did lose Reggie Bush though, and replaced him in the draft with Ameer Abdullah. If Abdullah can fit in with Joique Bell right away, Stafford will have a nice crop of talent around him heading into 2015, one that includes Johnson and Tate, who finished 2014 as one of just three tandems of receivers to end the year in the top 15 within Target NEP and Reception NEP.
The key could be the offensive line though -- if it comes together after letting Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims go, the Lions could take that next step of becoming an elite offensive threat in the league.
While the Lions' defense has been one of the best in the league in recent memory, there are some question marks with their defense this year. According to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP metric, the Lions finished as the second-best in 2013 and the best in 2014. However, that was with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, two dominant defensive lineman that are no longer in Detroit.
The Lions did just extend DeAndre Levy (their leading tackler) and were able to trade for Haloti Ngata to plug the valve of some of those losses. The Lions may already have Suh's replacement ready though in Ezekiel Ansah -- but the team will have to rally together to keep themselves as a top run defense in the league. If they can and the offense can hit their next gear, the Packers' run at five straight titles could be in jeopardy.
Projected Record: 7.9-8.1
Division Probability: 23.5%
Playoff Probability: 33.0%
1. Green Bay Packers
Who wouldn't want to play on this offense? The Packers have been a top-11 offense according to our Adjusted Offensive NEP metric since 2008, Rodgers' first year as a starter. And in five of those seven seasons, the Packers have finished in the top five, including the top spot in 2014.
Per our metrics, the Packers also had the best quarterback in Rodgers last year (188.41 Passing NEP), two top-seven receivers in Target and Reception NEP (Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson) and a young running back in Eddie Lacy that grew into a nice double-threat out of the backfield with a 34.57 Reception NEP (third in the league among running backs) and a 25.35 Target NEP.
But that's just the beginning -- the Packers also have a growing third receiver in Davante Adams, and if Jeff Janis and Richard Rodgers impress in the pre-season, Rodgers will have a weapon for any situation. And for theIt will be hard to top last season's first place finish for the offense, but it would take a lot to see this offense fall out of the top-five in 2015.
But for all the accolades the Packers' offense gets, the defense has just as many questions, starting in the secondary.
Davon House was allowed to leave for the Jacksonville Jaguars while key veteran Tramon Williams left for a bigger contract with the Cleveland Browns. Sam Shields should be able to handle the top cornerback role, but Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward could get pushed for playing time if rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins impress early. Even if there isn't a true starter right away opposite of Shields, all could see playing time in different packages the Dom Capers likes to employ. With Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix set to start at safety, Capers will have a lot of flexibility in the secondary.
It's the linemen and linebackers that could really pose problems for the Packers' defense though. B.J. Raji is back after missing last year, but his contributions could widely vary. Letroy Guion was a great pickup last year, but he has to miss the first three games of the season. Julius Peppers isn't getting any younger while a position for Clay Matthews is still undecided, though it may not matter in Capers' scheme.
But the guys in Capers' rotation last year are going to have to play just as good if not better than they did last year. Mike Daniels and Mike Neal finally came around for the Packers last year, but was that just a flash in the pan? Datone Jones hasn't lived up to his first-round draft status yet and relying on rookie Jake Ryan too soon could stunt his development as well.
The Packers always seem to piece a good enough defense together every year to win the division, but a "good enough" defense won't help them capture another Super Bowl title.
Projected Record: 9.2-6.8
Division Probability: 51.1%
Playoff Probability: 61.3%