Detroit Lions: Brandon Marshall
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
While that may be more true in the NBA and MLB, where the faces of players aren't obscured by helmets and facemasks, those same principles can carry over to the NFL.
And unsurprisingly, quarterbacks dominated the top 50 player sales list for the fiscal year from March 1, 2013, to Feb. 28, 2014.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the highest-rated player in the NFC North on the list, coming in fifth behind Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson was No. 13 and the second-highest-rated running back behind Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (No. 7). Right behind Peterson was Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, at No. 14.
Detroit's Calvin Johnson was the only Lions player on the list and the top-selling wide receiver at No. 20, just ahead of Victor Cruz of the New York Giants at No. 21. Two tight ends -- Dallas' Jason Witten and New England's Rob Gronkowski -- were ahead of Johnson.
Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was the highest-rated Chicago player at No. 31 and his quarterback, Jay Cutler, was No. 36. Their running back, Matt Forte, was No. 49 on the list.
Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson was No. 43, just ahead of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
At least among Lions players, there weren't many surprises of who was not included, although running back Reggie Bush, quarterback Matthew Stafford and even defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh all could have ended up toward the bottom of that list.
Jeremy Ross had an idea last week he might see more snaps this past Sunday against Chicago. The receiver knew Nate Burleson might be out and Ryan Broyles was done for the season.
So the Green Bay Packers returner to start the season found himself playing a lot in the slot against the Bears -- 39 plays (63 percent of the snaps), making two catches for 28 yards. Both the catches and yards were career highs for Ross.
"I knew I was going to play a lot," Ross said. "I was just trying to do my best out there and serve the best way I could out there for the team.
"I feel like I did solid. I feel like I did well. Always room for improvement. Feel like I could have done a better job in the run game by just attacking them more and staying square. They were kind of running away, kind of trying to shake and stuff like that. So do a better job next time of being grounded and being patient and stuff like that. But I feel like I did OK."
Ross' snaps will likely fluctuate a bit whenever Burleson does return, be it this week against Pittsburgh or not.
And now a look around the Interwebs in search of Lions news:
- Inside Nick Fairley's two-point conversion stop. Jim Schwartz says it is too soon for playoff chatter. The Rookie Report, a playoff picture and Upon Further Review.
- From colleague Michael C. Wright, Brandon Marshall called some of the Lions' plays "borderline illegal."
- The Lions are enjoying the top of the division, writes Drew Sharp in the Detroit Free Press. Dave Birkett writes in the Free Press that Jim Schwartz has confidence in David Akers.
- The Lions haven't lost confidence in Darius Slay, writes Chris McCosky in the Detroit News.
- Brandon Pettigrew is becoming a consistent asset for the Lions, writes Kyle Meinke of MLive. Meinke also writes that LaAdrian Waddle is not a fluke.
The Bears wide receiver, through a teleconferenced-in phone line, couldn’t seem to help himself. He was asked how much better his offensive line is this season versus last season.
And he laughed.
“There is no comparison,” Marshall said. “I think that’s a testament to coach (Aaron) Kromer. They don’t stop working. Once they cross that line, there’s no down time for them.
“They are relentlessly walking through stuff, schemes, twists and what we’re trying to accomplish that week. So our offense, they are coming together, jelling well and the two rookies that we have, it’s just amazing to see their growth, day-in, day-out.”
So far, the Bears offensive line has protected their quarterbacks well, allowing only 12 sacks this season, tied for third in the NFL with San Diego just behind Detroit (10) and Denver (11).
One of the rookies Marshall mentioned was drafted specifically for this assignment, for this particular game. The Bears selected Kyle Long in part to try and contain Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The first time around didn’t go so great for Long. Suh had four tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble leading to a Nick Fairley touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, Long had his worst graded game against Detroit in Week 4 with negative numbers, overall, in pass blocking and in run blocking.
Suh, meanwhile, had his best game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, grading out positively in every facet. Suh said he likes going against Long -- much like he always wants to face the best possible offensive lineman every week.
“I do. That’s their prodigy, their golden boy,” Suh said. “That’s the best that they have, that’s who I want to go against.”