The 2016 NFL season was an interesting year for all the teams in the NFC North. We saw the Green Bay Packers go on a run and make it to the NFC Championship game while the Detroit Lions made the post season for the first time since the 2013 season. But the NFC North also had its lows as the Minnesota Vikings stumbled from a 6-0 start to an 8-8 finish. Finally, the Chicago Bears were a disaster as they finished 3-13 and were plagued by injuries all season long. But 2016 is now in the books and here at VAVEL USA, some of our NFL writers got together and shared our opinions for the upcoming 2017 season.
Which rookie in the NFC North will have the biggest impact?
Kudzi Musarurwa: The rookie with the biggest impact will be Jamaal Williams of the Green Bay Packers. The Packers had a poor running game last season by their standards and even though they made the playoffs, the lack of a running game was the reason they could not find a way past the Atlanta Falcons. During the offseason, they also released former Packers RB Eddie Lacy after deeming him not a good fit for the team any more. This is where Williams comes in. He has the power and the pace to be a great inside runner for the Packers and as the playoffs come into contention, a powerful RB is something most, if not all, offenses need. If Williams comes on as expected, he will give Aaron Rodgers some reprieve and also allow the Packers to play more option plays than they did last year.
Brighton McConnell: Despite the free-agent addition of Latavius Murray in the offseason, the Vikings’ choice of Dalvin Cook in the draft was a no-brainer. The bruising running back is built like a tank and has impressive speed for his size, which led to major success during his collegiate career at Florida State -- 5,399 all-purpose yards and 48 all-purpose touchdowns over three seasons. Considering Minnesota ranked last in rushing yards per game in 2016 and the departure of former MVP, Adrian Peterson, they clearly needed more firepower in the backfield. A stronger running game should remove some pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford -- or Teddy Bridgewater, if he wins back the starting job -- and open up their offensive attack more. Though Cook might not be the Week 1 starter, I fully expect his skillset and talent to provide a huge impact on the Vikings’ season.
Norman Tall: I agree with my fellow colleague in the choice of Dalvin Cook. Cook fell to the second-round and fell right into the lap of the Vikings. While he has big shoes to fill with the departure of Adrian Peterson, Cook is certainly a serviceable back. He was one of the leading rushers in college at Florida State and that should translate well in the NFL. In his senior season he rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns and proved to be a threat in the passing game adding 488 yards and a touchdown. With Cook taking pressure off whoever the quarterback is, it will be a big boost to the offense and the whole team.
Which free agent signing or player acquired via trade will have the biggest impact in this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: If he can remain healthy, Latavius Murray will be a real coup for the Vikings and a way to plug the hole that has been left by the end of Adrian Peterson's days in Minnesota. Murray was allowed to leave the Oakland Raiders after amassing over 1,800 total rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons. Murray is also a very good pass blocker and with the Vikings looking to keep Teddy Bridgewater out of potential trouble -- if he plays this season -- someone like Murray will be a great fit for Minnesota.
Brighton McConnell: The Green Bay Packers signing Martellus Bennett is the addition most notable to me. Bennett has a reputation of being one of the top tight ends in the NFL thanks to his combination of size and athleticism. At 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, Bennett is imposing as a blocker and dangerous as a receiver. He will serve as a huge upgrade at the tight end spot for Green Bay, since the Packers tight ends last year caught only 64 passes for 683 yards and 3 touchdowns. Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards and 7 touchdowns last season serving as an integral part to the New England Patriots’ offense. Along with the free-agent addition of Lance Kendricks at the position, the Packers are the strongest at tight end they have ever been during Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Although there are many receivers to share targets in Green Bay, I believe Bennett will separate himself from the pack (no pun intended) by giving quarterback Aaron Rodgers a more versatile option at tight end than he’s had before.
Norman Tall: I also think that the addition of Martellus Bennett was a huge one for the Pack. Bennett gives Rodgers another big target to throw to. After playing a year with Tom Brady, Bennett moves on to play with another elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. With other weapons like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams, Rodgers should have another MVP-caliber season for the Packers in 2017. Until now, the best tight end option that Rodgers had ever had was probably Jermichael Finley or Jared Cook and Bennett is a major upgrade over both. With all that being said, it should be a big year for the Packers.
Who will be the MVP of this division?
Kudzi Musarurwa: There are not many elite QBs in the league but Aaron Rodgers is definitely in that category. As long as he is available, Rodgers can almost single-handedly lead the Packers to another playoff run and although the NFC North has some formidable defenses, no one else comes close in terms of overall quality and ability to Aaron Rodgers.
Brighton McConnell: The Packers have an abundance of talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Along with Bennett and Kendricks, Green Bay still has wideouts Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and more. But the person who makes it all work, year in and year out, is Rodgers. Widely believed to be a future hall-of-famer, the 13-year veteran continues to deliver on the field no matter the circumstances around him. In 2016, facing injuries to his offensive line and a poor 4-6 start, Rodgers spearheaded a 6-game winning streak that landed the Packers in the postseason. His ability to use his legs to create plays, drop accurate passes deep downfield to receivers, and lead under pressure make him irreplaceable to the Green Bay franchise. Despite being 33 years old, and barring any kind of serious injury or unprecedented drop-off in production, there is no other player in this division that can compete with Rodgers for the MVP.
Norman Tall: Aaron Rodgers is the easy pick here. He is one of the best and also most valuable players in all of the NFL. Without him, the Packers would be left with Brett Hundley under center and that would be a total disaster for the Packers. The 33-year-old was in MVP contention last season finishing with over 4,400 yards and 40 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions. Those are incredible numbers for anybody and unless something crazy takes place, Rodgers should be able to accomplish something similar in 2017 and prove again that he is the most valuable player in the NFL.
Which coach or player is most on the hot seat in the NFC North?
Kudzi Musarurwa: How much longer will the Detroit faithful wait for their team to finally stop beating themselves and go for a deep playoff run? Jim Caldwell has done a lot for the Lions since he took over but there's still that feeling that the Lions are self-defeating and this may be the last season Caldwell has to change that culture.
Brighton McConnell: The initial reaction to this question would be to answer with Chicago’s John Fox, but considering the Bears’ questionable group of quarterback options and lack of elite talent on defense, the franchise seems aware that they are looking at a tough season. Maybe that makes Fox safe, maybe it doesn’t. Instead, I’m picking Detroit’s head coach Jim Caldwell to be on the hot seat. While Caldwell has not faced too many firing rumors the past three years, as the Lions have gone 27-21 under his guidance, they did lose their last three games in 2016 to drop them out of the wild card hunt. That was after they lost the division lead to Green Bay during the Packers’ hot streak. The Lions have not been particularly bad, but mediocrity does not lead to titles or even postseason contention. Entering his last season under contract, Caldwell will likely need to produce good results and a playoff berth for the Lions to consider keeping him around. Detroit leadership may even have plans to cut ties with him no matter the results of 2017 but either way, this season will be important for Caldwell’s near future in the NFL.
Norman Tall: While this may not be the most popular pick, I'm gonna go with Packers coach, Mike McCarthy. While he does have a record of 114-61-1 in 12 years in Green Bay, he has only brought the team one Super Bowl tittle. That is a major let down, especially when you have Aaron Rodgers as your quarterback. He is just 10-8 in playoff games and has not made the Super Bowl since they won it in 2010-11. Also, during this offseason, it was reported that some Packers players were not happy with his play calling at the end of games last season. If McCarthy and the Packers can't right the ship soon, it spell the end of his time in Green Bay.
Who will win the division and how many teams from the NFC North will make the playoffs this season?
Kudzi Musarurwa: The Green Bay Packers are poised to win another division title and make a run for the Super Bowl. They have too much talent, especially in head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers to not find a way to win the division. As for who will join them? I can't see any other team making it to the playoffs due to how strong other teams in the NFC are this year. The Vikings have a slim chance of winning a wild card spot but that will require a lot of misfortune to happen to the other teams in the NFC.
Brighton McConnell: Ultimately, this decision comes down to the pattern of recent history and amassed talent in the division. With the Chicago Bears going through a rebuild, the Lions trying to find consistency, and the Vikings still improving their offense, the Packers look to be much farther ahead than their rivals. Minnesota has been good the past few seasons, most notably when they claimed the division title in 2015. Their defense is unquestionably formidable and their offense should improve with Sam Bradford being more adjusted to the Vikings’ scheme. But the Packers have been a model of consistency since 2011 when they won the division and the Super Bowl. Green Bay has claimed the NFC North as their own for five out of the last six years, and they still made the wild card spot in 2015 when Minnesota won. The talent on this year’s roster appears to be just too good to fall to their divisional opponents, and Rodgers continues to amaze every season. I believe the Packers will win the North, and Minnesota will have a strong shot at competing for the NFC wild card.
Norman Tall: I believe the Packers will win the NFC North and be the only team from the division to make the playoffs. The Packers have been the gold standard for the NFC North for the past decade or so and that shouldn't change now. The Bears don't really have a chance and the Lions have failed to consistently make the playoffs in their team's history. As for the Vikings, they have a stellar defense but too many question marks on the offensive side of the ball. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm and with a multitude of weapons on offense, the Pack should be primed for another playoff berth, the only question is, how far will they go?