Let’s call the rest of this division the Wanna Be’s and decide who, if anyone, is close to overtaking the PACKERS before AARON RODGERS retires, which isn’t likely to be any time soon from the looks of things.
The VIKINGS look to me like the most serious competition for the PACKERS, and a team with a legit chance to earn a Wild Card spot as early as this season. The key to their climb will be the development of QB/TEDDY BRIDGEWATER. The organization cleared the way for Bridgewater in part by cleaning house amongst the back-up QBs. CASSEL was traded and PONDER was released. The new guy is vet back-up SHAUN HILL, who should have no logical reason not to help nurture and develop the youngster. BRIDGEWATER showed steady improvement during his Rookie campaign and it currently looks like he will have even better weapons to work with him as he grows into his starting/leadership role.
It looks now like ADRIAN PETERSON/RB will indeed be back in the fold and ready to give the team one of the best running games in the League, unless a year off has robbed him of his edge. The team also did some serious rework of it’s receiving corps this off-season. MIKE WALLACE is in purple after a disappointing year in Miami, and Rookies STEFON DIGGS & DaVARIS DANIELS are in town to stir things up on the depth chart. The No. 2 receiver looks to be a former PACKER but but not VFA GREG JENNINGS from a few years ago. JENNINGS was let go and CHARLES JOHNSON, who got lost in the numbers game 2 years ago, appears to be the ex-Packer to fill that job. KYLE RUDOLPH, who pretty much missed the 2014 season, is on track in his recovery from injury last season and should be a solid boost in the passing attack as well. DAVID YANKEY, 2nd year man, is expected to start at LG and TYRUN THOMPSON/R was added to push LT MATT KALIL, who has struggled the past couple of years with nagging injuries.
On the defensive side of things expect 3 Rookies to lend a hand in improving the VIKES pass rush, which slumped last year in part because of the departure of JARED ALLEN. DANIELLE HUNTER/ER is the biggest potential boost in this area, though MIKE ZIMMER and DC GEORGE EDWARDS will have to find a way to take advantage of his edge rushing skills. If they can also find a place for super athletes TRAE WAYNES/CB/R and ERIC KENDRICKS/LB/R. There could be some serious competition in Camp for secondary jobs. In addition to WYANES & NEWMAN, two significant URFA in JUSTIN COLEMAN/CB & ANTHONY HARRIS/S should also be battling for jobs… incumbents beware. The VIKES ranked 11th in scoring D which isn’t bad, but the D was poor in the takeaway department. The team generated only 19 takeaways, while giving up the ball 20 times for a minus 1. Clearly, new defenders like WAYNES, HUNTER, KENDRICKS, TERENCE NEWMAN/CB/VFA & B.J. DUBOSE/R/DE will all be given chances to help the team get on the plus side in the Turnover Table.
The present roster of 89, includes 32 new players, 21 of whom are Rookies. GM RICK SPIELMAN is doing a solid job in his Draft efforts and the young core group is growing nicely. Between 2011-2014 the team exercised 39 picks which has netted 10 starters. Only 3 of those picks are not on NFL rosters. This years group looks above average again. This team could battle for a Wild Card spot this season.
The DETROIT LIONS seem to be a franchise that takes 1 step forward and two steps back. This year they found themselves in a situation where both their DT, and 1st Round draftees, SUH & FAIRLEY were allowed to leave as VFA. So they had to trade for HALOTI NGATA (post 30) and draft GABE WRIGHT to fill two gaping voids. They drafted RB/RS/AMEER ABDULLAH but in the process waived REGGIE BUSH/RB. They lost long time OC/DOMINIC RAIOLA to forced retirement and cut ROB SIMS/G, so they traded with Denver for MANNY RAMIREZ/G and drafted LAKEN TOMLINSON/G in Round 1. MATTHEW STAFFORD/QB has been around for 6 seasons, and even though he is only 27 he needs more help around him if they are ever going to cash in on his overall talent. GOLDEN TATE and a healthy CALVIN JOHNSON are a great start, but one of the young TE, in particular ERIC EBRON needs to step it up. Some surprise help may come from WR/T.J. JONES, who was injured his Rookie year in 2014.
Between 2011 and 2014 the LIONS made 30 Draft Picks, but only have 4 starters to show for it. The current roster has 71 vets and only 18 Rookies. It also contains 12 players 30 or older. It seems like a roster in transition again, but never seems to get appreciably younger.
JIM CALDWELL, and his calm, steady influence is a good fit for this franchise right now. But I’m not convinced that GM MARTIN MAYHEW is really qualified as an NFL GM and his personnel work seems to prove it at times.
Clearly, DA BEARS have hit rebuild mold big time. What looked like a solid leadership team of TRESTMAN/EMERY only two years ago went up in flames in 2014 when the team sank to 5-11. Ownership blew the duo up, as well as an aging, underachieving defensive unit. Out of the current roster of 88 players, 38 are new to the team, including 23 Rookies. But for a team in rebuild mold having 14 players 30 or older is just too damn many. The team may have caught a break in landing the surprisingly unemployed steady vet JOHN FOX as Head Coach. But then again he’s not exactly known for developing young players under his watch.
The players leaving the team this off-season read like a list of BEARS who’s who of the past decade: LANCE BRIGGS/LB, CHARLES TILLMAN/CB, ROBERTO GARZA/OC, BRANDON MARSHALL/WR. Now the harder part, players have to be developed to replace these guys. Good luck in that task for the 2015 season. To stir up the chaos a bit more, new DC VIC FANGIO is implementing his beloved 3-4 scheme. So now, for instance, 33-year old JARED ALLEN must learn to play standing up at OLB, unless he just becomes a passing down rush specialist. There may be more than a few round pegs trying to fit into square holes in reconstructing the team’s Defense.
I like the additions of EDDIE ROYAL/WR/VFA and Round 1 Pick KEVIN WHITE/WR, but I am skeptical they will make up for the loss of BRANDON MARSHALL, at least this season. Enigmatic JAY CUTLER, may find some solace that he will have a deep and talented RB group to work with in MATT FORTE, JAQUIZZ RODGERS/VFA, KA’DEEM CAREY, and JEREMY LANGFORD/R. It is likely that FOX and OC ADAM GASE (who followed FOX from his Denver tenure) will try to pump-up the running game and reduce the pressure on CUTLER to win every game with his arm.
I’m just not convinced this is all going to work out the way DA BEARS would like, especially this season. I say mark them down for another double-digit Loss season, and watch for them to move JAY CUTLER to another team before the 2016 season starts.
This division looks to clearly belong to the PACKERS right now, and everyone else is likely to be consigned to playing the spoiler role most Sundays in 2015.