1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)
They're in a perfect position to repeat as Super Bowl champions
2. Detroit Lions (9-7)
This is the year Detroit becomes a contender
3. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Last years playoff loss will hamper this seasons efforts
4. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
How long before they fully recover from the Brett Favre era?
Packers: WR James Jones (re-signed), FB John Kuhn (re-signed)
Lions: LB Stephen Tulloch, CB Eric Wright, S Erik Coleman
Bears: RB Marion Barber, WR Roy Williams, DT Amobi Okoye
Vikings: QB Donovan McNabb, WR Michael Jenkins, OT Charlie Johnson
Packers: OT Derek Sherrod
Lions: DT Nick Fairley
Bears: OT Gabe Carimi
Vikings: TE Kyle Rudolph
Everything went right for the Packers last year. They had no running game. There were key injuries at tight end and many positions on defense. Yet it all came together going into the playoffs. The scary thing going into this year is that they have stayed relatively intact. With those injured players returning and the depth they have at almost every position. This Packers team is set for a repeat no matter what obstacles may come their way.
You couldn't ask for a better scenario. Head coach Mike McCarthy is replacing QB Brett Favre with QB Aaron Rodgers after the 2007 season. Rodgers has been sitting and waiting for a long time. Now that Rodgers was given a chance, he has become one of the elite quarterbacks in the league after his first full season in 2008. He hasn't always had the best pass protection around him, but Green Bay has put enough weapons around Rodgers to help him succeed. Rodgers has developed great chemistry with all his receivers. WR Greg Jennings is a Pro-Bowl caliber receiver and one of the best deep threats in the game. WR Donald Driver might not be a Hall of Fame player in Canton, but will be in Green Bay once his career is over. The future looks good with WR Jordy Nelson and WR James Jones getting a lot of looks the last two seasons. The tight end position is incredibly deep with the return of Jermichael Finley. He was Rodgers favorite redzone target before he was lost last season. Green Bay still has good backups in TE Andrew Quarless and rookie TE D.J. Williams. The Packers deepest position was their weakest last season. If RB Ryan Grant can return to his former 1,000 yard self, the Packers will be fine using last years hero RB James Starks for 10-15 touches a game. They would love to keep them both fresh. Bringing back FB John Kuhn doesn't seem to be that important, but he's a big help for their redzone offense.
Even though Green Bay allowed DE Cullen Jenkins to leave, they are confident in their depth that they can overcome that loss. Both DE Mike Neal and DE Jarius Wynn will be counted on to step in and fill the void. Both aren't elite pass rushers, but are mobile enough to cause havoc in the backfield. DT B.J. Raji was all over the place last year in the playoffs and will be given a bigger role going into this season. Look for Raji to pick up the pass rush on the line. LB Clay Matthews was a big difference maker for so many games on defense. No one seemed to have any answers on how to stop him. The over/under on his sack total should be 15 from here on out. LB Nick Barnett is gone, but LB Desmond Bishop did a great job filling in for the injured Barnett last year. Bishop should do even better as a full time starter. Playing alongside Bishop will be LB A.J. Hawk. Hawk is among the best cover linebackers in the league. Green Bay can't afford to lose him for an extended period of time. The Packers will look to LB Brad Jones, LB Frank Zombo or LB Erik Walden to provide a pass rush opposite Matthews. CB Charles Woodson was a gamer last year. He thought about playing the second half of the Super Bowl with a broken collarbone. That toughness was shown all year and it inspired the Packers. He is among the best cover corners in the game. CB Tramon Williams and CB Sam Shields both feed off Woodson. Both Williams and Shields are ready to carry the torch once Woodson hangs up the cleats.
There have been so many disappointing seasons in Detroit that this must be the year that they finally break through and have a winning record. It's been over a decade since the Lions have finished the season with a winning record. That's a realistic expectation. Clinching a spot in the playoffs isn't far fetched, but in the past high expectations have led to massive disappointment. Head coach Jim Schwartz has Detroit going in the right direction and he believes this is the year they make that leap towards being a consistent contender.
The biggest key to the Lions success, as with every team is at quarterback. QB Matthew Stafford must stay healthy for an entire season. He has shown that he can compete in this league, but Detroit has struggled to keep him upright. Stafford has the talent around him to get the Lions on the right track offensively. With the trouble at quarterback since he was drafted, WR Calvin Johnson is among the best at getting the football no matter where it's thrown. His talent is unlimited. Him and Stafford have a good repertoire going forward. Detroit has a legitimate pass catching tight end in Brandon Pettigrew. He was second only to Johnson in catches and yards last season. WR Nate Burleson has to be a bigger presence to help take pressure off Johnson. RB Jahvid Best figured his workload wouldn't be a lot since Detroit drafted RB Mikel Leshoure in the 2nd round. Unfortunately that will have to be the case since Leshoure tore his achilles in training camp. The Lions will have a two back system in place since Best's size doesn't say he can carry the ball 20+ times a game. Best will be best utilized in passing situations and be given plenty of room to roam.
The defense's strength starts with their defensive line. DT Ndamukong Suh made his presence felt throughout the league last year with his 10 sack performance in his rookie season. It was a no brainer to take him after the Rams took QB Sam Bradford with the 1st pick last year. Suh has made everyone else around him better as a result. DE Cliff Avril recorded 8.5 sacks and DE Lawrence Jackson recorded 6 sacks. Those were career highs for Avril and Jackson. Expect those sack totals to remain the same. Drafting high motor DT Nick Fairley this year just makes the Lions defensive line that much better for the future. Detroit brought in LB Stephen Tulloch to take control of the middle of the field. He's familiar with the scheme from Schwartz's days in Tennessee. This bodes well for the run defense which must improve going forward. The Lions haven't had a perennial corner in some time. CB Chris Houston has done an admirable job since being acquired last season. They hope free agent CB Eric Wright can solidify the other side of the field. S Louis Delmas has been a force in the running game, but his coverage skills are suspect. Detroit hopes free agent S Erik Coleman can resolve that issue playing alongside Delmas.
It will be difficult for the Bears to get over the loss of last years NFC Championship game to Green Bay. For one, they play Green Bay two times during the season and two there will be constant doubts about Jay Cutler's leadership the entire season. Chicago was right to defend their quarterback after the game, but going forward Cutler will not be able to avoid that discussion until he wins a Super Bowl. There is no doubt the Bears and head coach Lovie Smith need an elite performance from Cutler this season to have another shot at the Super Bowl.
Not all the blame can be put squarely on Jay Cutler's shoulders last season. The offensive line in front of him was horrible. They allowed a league high 56 sacks. It was amazing that Cutler took that kind of a beating the entire year. Cutler did improve his decision making last season even under the constant pressure. Going forward that is the one good thing about Cutler's game. Who will be his favorite target is another thing. WR Johnny Knox is the best deep threat, but isn't a big yard after the catch kind of receiver. The Bears will be banking on an improved season from free agent WR Roy Williams. He had his best seasons under offensive coordinator Mike Martz when he was in Detroit. WR Devin Hester is the secret weapon. If he can be a constant threat as the slot receiver, the Bears will have a nice safety net for Cutler when he's in distress. RB Matt Forte is in a contract year and is among the best all around running backs in the game. He should be kept fresh with the addition of RB Marion Barber. He had rough season last year, but should have bounce back season.
Chicago's bread and butter is with their defense. LB Brian Urlacher is still among the best linebackers in the league. He is slowly losing a step every now and then, but is a force in the middle of the field. LB Lance Briggs since getting his big contract has been inconsistent far too often. He will need to find that spark again if the Bears are to improve their standing against the pass which ranked near the bottom. Chicago's pass defense won't be as prolific with the loss of S Danieal Manning. He was their safety net down the field. S Chris Harris will try to fill that void, but is better against the run. CB Charles Tillman is still a good cover corner, but he's better equipped at stopping the run. CB Tim Jennings did a good job playing opposite Tillman last year. Jennings played bigger than his size indicates. DE Julius Peppers made an instant change on defense. His pass rushing prowess made everyone better and the Bears defense returned to the top of the league. DE Israel Idonije matched Peppers 8 sacks last season. He greatly benefited from having a single blocker on him. The Bears interior figures to have a constant rotation that might hurt them against the run this season.
We all knew it was going to be a matter of time when the Brett Favre experiment was going to ruin Minnesota. Sure enough it happened before the season even ended last year. Brad Childress was fired as the head coach. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was hired as the interim head coach. He brought the Vikings back to respectability and finished the season 3-3. Now that Frazier is the full time head coach Minnesota wants to move on and go in a new direction.
The Vikings wasted no time in starting their new regime by drafting QB Christian Ponder with their 1st round pick. Ponder has the tools to be a good quarterback, but probably won't see much playing time with the acquisition of QB Donovan McNabb. Minnesota is putting all their chips in with McNabb hoping that he can have a bounce back season. His tenure in Washington was a disaster leaving some to question McNabb's work ethic. Either way the Vikings need him to keep them afloat in a competitive division. Minnesota lost their best wide receiver in Sidney Rice, but still have WR Percy Harvin and WR Bernard Berrian. Harvin is becoming a reliable target in the passing game. Berrian however is injury prone and must be healthy to be the deep threat. TE Visanthe Shiancoe is still a reliable target, but the Vikings drafted TE Kyle Rudolph in the 2nd round. They will bring Rudolph along to eventually replace Shiancoe. The Vikings still have an elite running back in Adrian Peterson. He's still a bruiser with deceptive speed, but the Vikings figure to lessen his workload by using RB Toby Gerhart more often this year.
Minnesota's defense will suffer on the defensive line with the departure of DE Ray Edwards. He was the perfect complement to DE Jared Allen. Now the Vikings will have to find a replacement to help keep Allen from having to fight off constant double teams. DT Kevin Williams is still an elite tackle, but he is losing a step in his pass rush. LB Chad Greenway is becoming one of the best linebackers in the league. He's not used as a pass rusher very often, but his coverage skills are what makes him a dangerous defender against tight ends and running backs in the flat. CB Antoine Winfield is approaching the end of his career. This must be the year that either CB Cedric Griffin or CB Chris Cook begin to step up and take command as the top cornerback. A lot is riding on the Vikings defense to carry them with the uncertainty of the offense.