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Examining The Odds: NFC North

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Over the last few weeks, OTAs have offered us a chance to see how each NFL team looks as a summer full of preparation for the 2015 season begins. Minicamps over the next two weeks will paint an even better picture. In the meantime, we’re taking a glance at who the oddsmakers in Vegas have listed as the favorite in each division and which teams have the best chance of upsetting the odds to claim a division title.

Next up in the series is the NFC North, which runs in stark contrast to our last chapter in this series, the NFC East. While the East has seen four different teams wear the crown over the last four seasons, up North there has been just one dominant team, the Green Bay Packers.

But in each of the last three seasons, while the Packers have ruled the roost, there has been at least one other team at their heels within a game — or less — of knocking them from the top. Last season it was the Lions and Detroit is primed to push back toward the front of the line. After a quick turnaround in 2014, the Minnesota Vikings could be right back in the hunt this season as well.

FAVORITE
Green Bay Packers 1:4 (Opened at 2:7)

As long as Aaron Rodgers is still throwing footballs for the Packers, Green Bay is going to be an overwhelming favorite to win the NFC North, and with good reason. Rodgers is the league’s most talented player at the quarterback position. But what has made the Packers so great has also made them suspect the last two years, as injuries plagued Rodgers and nearly cost them a postseason trip each year.

Luckily for the Packers, they have all the tools in place to protect him going forward. After re-signing right tackle Brian Bulaga this offseason, they return all five members of an offensive line that ranked 1st in the league in pass protection last year according to Pro Football Focus. Green Bay can also run the ball with the best of them. After a rough start last season, Eddie Lacy finished with a flourish, averaging nearly five yards per carry in December and January to nearly equal the numbers he posted as a rookie. If the Packers can establish the run from the outset of this season, he is primed for his best year yet. Green Bay also prioritized keeping their wide receiving corps intact by re-signing Randall Cobb. Cobb and Jordy Nelson give the Pack one of the best tandems in the league at the position and as long as Rodgers stays healthy, he should thrive as a result.

The Green Bay defense finished right in the middle of the pack last season in total defense, hardly impressive, but steady enough to win football games. Still there was room for improvement, particularly against the run, where the Packers ranked 31st in the league last season according to PFF. But other than re-signing Cobb and Bulaga, Green Bay wasn’t very active this offseason and they will be hoping to make those improvements to their run defense internally. One thing that could help is the return of nose tackle B.J. Raji, who missed all of last season with a torn biceps tendon. Green Bay’s linebacking corps underwent some addition by subtraction. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are both gone making Clay Matthews a permanent fixture inside, and Green Bay is hoping that one of the young linebackers on their depth chart, perhaps 2014 fourth round pick Carl Bradford, steps up to fill the spot beside Matthews. The secondary was one of the team’s strengths last year and although the departure of Tramon Williams will hurt, the blow is eased by the arrival of versatile first round pick Damarious Randall, who will start at cornerback but could eventually switch back to safety where he would team with last year’s first round pick Ha-Ha Clinton Dix to form a dynamic last line of defense.

On paper the Packers look great. They have all the talent needed to succeed, and the current core has kept them at the top of the NFC North for four straight seasons. But their dominance of the division has been overstated. It’s been a battle for them just to claim the crown each of the last three seasons, with a Week 17 win just barely pushing them over the top each time. This is not to say that the Packers are not a great team. Each year, Green Bay fields one of the best squads the league has to offer. But they’re more vulnerable at the top of this division than we’re led to believe.

BEST CHANCE TO CHALLENGE
Detroit Lions 5:1 (Opened at 9:2)

The Detroit Lions nearly unseated Green Bay last season on the strength of their defense, and although Detroit was initially sent reeling by the offseason departure of a defensive star, the Lions have recovered and retooled in a way that should make them a threat to knock off the Packers again this season.

Detroit’s defense took a significant hit with the departure of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, as well as two other members of their league best defensive line. But the success of the Detroit defense was a team-wide effort and they still have outstanding defenders at each position. Up front, the Lions moved quickly to fill the hole left by Suh, acquiring Haloti Ngata in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. That addition gives the Lions the interior presence needed to thrive for some of the other key components of their defense, including end Ziggy Ansah and outside linebacker DeAndre Levy, two of the most complete edge defenders in the division. The return of Stephen Tulloch, after he infamously tore his ACL celebrating last season, should help hold things down in the middle of the Detroit defense. In the secondary, the Lions are in good hands thanks in large part to the safety pairing of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo, a tandem few teams in the league can match. The Lions also re-signed cornerback Rashean Mathis, who has experienced a career resurgence the last two years in Detroit, and 2013 second round pick Darius Slay has emerged as an excellent complement to Mathis with the skills to be the team’s No. 1 corner in the near future.

The Lions are pretty stacked offensively as well. Matthew Stafford threw the fewest passes he’s ever thrown over a full season last year and was more effective as a result. The arrival of Golden Tate to pair with Calvin Johnson last season helped diversify the offense, and Johnson is due for a bounceback in 2015 after injuries plagued him throughout the 2014 campaign. It’s also to be expected, after a full year in the offense and a quiet rookie season, first round pick Eric Ebron will make a leap to become a bigger asset from the tight end spot.

What the Lions need to find for their offense to truly thrive is a more consistent running game. Joique Bell and Theo Riddick remain at the top of the depth chart, but reports out of Detroit this spring have put the focus on rookie second round pick Ameer Abdullah, who has been making a big first impression out of the backfield. Whoever emerges to carry the load should benefit from an upgraded offensive line. After the Lions ranked 22nd in run blocking rating last season, they made some major upgrades to the interior of their line. The team first parted ways with underperforming center Dominic Raiola, clearing the way for 2014 third rounder Travis Swanson to step in. Detroit then acquired former Broncos guard/center Manny Ramirez in a draft day trade and followed that by selecting one of the highest rated guards in the draft, Laken Tomlinson out of Duke. That trio should shore up the inside of the Lions line and better blocking on the interior will do wonders for the running game.

So while the loss of Suh initially brought skepticism of the Lions’ chances to repeat last season’s 11-5 performance or perhaps even improve on it if they hope to knock off the Packers in 2015, that doubt has waned. Detroit made shrewd moves this offseason and despite losing one of the best players in the league, the Lions are set up pretty well to make another run at the Packers and the division crown.

THE WILD CARD
Minnesota Vikings 8:1 (Opened at 8:1)

By all accounts, the Minnesota Vikings should’ve been terrible last season. They were in the middle of a rebuilding process with a rookie quarterback taking the reins early in the season and without their franchise player and offensive catalyst Adrian Peterson, whose off the field actions served as a distraction for the franchise. Instead, Minnesota rose up to win seven games, a remarkable accomplishment for first year head coach Mike Zimmer. The encore has the potential to blow the debut showing out of the water.

The Vikings nearly managed to finish at the break even point last season despite an offense that ranked 27th in the league in yards per game. But that offense should be significantly better simply through the return of Peterson, who remains one of the most talented players in the history of the league. With a layoff of nearly a full year and a now 30-year-old body, Peterson probably won’t be breaking off another 2,000-yard season, but the Vikings don’t need that from him. The least he can give them will still be miles better than what the Minnesota running game accomplished last season. Just the mere threat of what Peterson can do should improve the offense, opening things up in the passing game for second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The addition of wide receiver Mike Wallace to play on the other side of Charles Johnson should help as well, but the team should still seek more out of receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who was shockingly mediocre last season after a dynamic rookie campaign. They’ll also need to get better blocking out of their offensive line to allow Bridgewater to thrive, particularly tackle Matt Kalil. But Peterson’s return should make the group better and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the individuals take a step forward as a result.

The reason the Vikings were able to stay out of the NFC North basement last year was the play of their defense and that unit remains almost entirely intact, with some notable upgrades. The team’s front four, one of the league’s most unheralded, is in place led by end Everson Griffen and tackle Sharrif Floyd. The Vikings landed the top inside linebacker in the draft when Eric Kendricks out of UCLA fell to them in the second round, and he’ll slot in nicely between former UCLA teammate Anthony Barr, the team’s first rounder in 2014, and veteran Chad Greenway. On the backend, the Vikings not only added veteran corner Terence Newman, but also used their first round pick on a corner, Trae Waynes. The two should upgrade a defensive backfield that already ranked in the Top 10 in PFF’s pass coverage rating last season.

It stands to reason, then, that Minnesota will be improved on both sides of the ball this season, and that could quickly transform them into a contender for a playoff spot. With a little push from Peterson, they might even challenge for the top spot in the North.

DON’T TAKE THESE ODDS
Chicago Bears 14:1 (Opened at 12:1)

While the Packers were trying to keep their core intact, and the Lions and Vikings were figuring out ways to improve, the Chicago Bears were coming apart. After a regime change, the Bears made some significant improvements to their roster, but the looming state of disarray and lack of continuity in Chicago is likely to doom the Bears to another finish in the basement of a strong NFC North in 2015.

Following two years under an offensive-minded head coach in Marc Trestman, the Bears are starting over again with another defensive disciple, John Fox. With the help of former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Fox is implementing a 3-4 defense in Chicago for the first time ever, and that’s going to take some getting used to for all parties. The Bears did make some progress through their offseason additions on defense, including the draft selection of space-eating defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, as well as the free agent signings of outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and inside linebacker Mason Foster. But the key for the new look Chicago defense will be the adjustment of their most important piece, Jared Allen, who has played his entire career with his hand in the dirt but is slated to play outside linebacker opposite McPhee in 2015. The move could reinvigorate Allen, who is coming off the worst year of his career in his first season with Chicago, or it could send the 33-year-old into an even steeper decline. The success of the entire front seven is reliant on the former being the case. One place that the defense should find some stability is in the secondary where the offseason addition of strong safety Antrel Rolle and the emergence of free safety Brock Vereen should complement the cornerback duo of Kyle Fuller and Tim Jennings well.

On offense, the Bears made waves this offseason by trading away receiver Brandon Marshall, but quickly replaced him with another incredible talent, first round pick Kevin White. The rookie will team with Alshon Jeffery to give quarterback Jay Cutler perhaps the most talented young receiving duo in the league. However, Cutler has to be better for those two to thrive and Chicago needs to do a better job of protecting him to allow the enigmatic quarterback an opportunity to succeed. To that end, the addition of center Will Montgomery will help and a bounceback campaign from Matt Forte would also be a significant boost. But there likely isn’t enough there for this offense to pick up the slack for a defense that’s going to go through some severe growing pains in 2015.

TAKE THESE ODDS
Detroit Lions 5:1

A look at the landscape across the North makes it seem pretty likely that Green Bay will continue their run of success atop the division, but those odds aren’t friendly. If you’re looking for odds with a solid return, the Vikings are a nice risk given their performance last season and the fact that they should be significantly better with Peterson back. But the bet here is on the Detroit Lions. The departure of Suh would have been a death knell for many teams but the Lions acted swiftly to fill the hole and use the savings to address other needs. If they can get something out of their running game for seemingly the first time since Barry Sanders retired, Detroit could be in for a big season.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys