NFC North: NFL Nation: 4 Downs
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
Are the Detroit Lions thinking of moving up in the draft? If not, why did they host Jadeveon Clowney on a recent visit? But what about the possibility of moving up to take Sammy Watkins to pair him up with Calvin Johnson as a dynamic receiving tandem?
That’s one of the questions our NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky with the Green Bay Packers, Ben Goessling on the Minnesota Vikings, Michael C. Wright on the Chicago Bears and Kevin Seifert filling in on the Lions -- will tackle in this installment of 4 Downs.
With all of the offseason movement in the NFC North, which move will have the biggest impact? Will Julius Peppers have a bigger impact with the Packers or will Jared Allen make a bigger splash with the Bears?
Will the Bears’ defense, buoyed by offseason acquisitions, enjoy the kind of resurgence in 2014 that their offense did in 2013?
Now that Adrian Peterson has reached 29 years old, will his production decrease, or will Norv Turner’s offense invigorate him?
Find out what our reporters are thinking.
Fact or fiction: The best draft move the Lions could make is moving up for Sammy Watkins.
Rob Demovsky: Fact. There's something to be said for making your strength even stronger. Clearly, with Calvin Johnson, the Lions' passing game is their strength -- they were third in the league in passing yards per game last season -- so why not make it even more difficult to stop? The addition of Watkins would give Matthew Stafford another big-play option.
Kevin Seifert: Fiction. Adding Watkins to a group that includes Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate would be one of the top power moves in recent memory. And, yes, the best way to build a team is to draft the best players and fill in positional gaps via free agency. But mortgaging the next two drafts seems like a steep price for a wide receiver on a team that has already committed the NFL's third-most salary-cap space ($20.3 million) at the position. The Lions' best move would to be clearheaded and take the best player remaining at No. 10.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. By now, the Lions should've already learned their lesson about investing too heavily in receivers. Besides that, Detroit needs help on defense if it wants to win now. The club has several defensive tackles set to become free agents after the 2014 season, it needs a safety and a cornerback, and it could stand to use some help at linebacker, too. The Lions already have several weapons on offense in Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, in addition to free-agent acquisition Golden Tate. They can't neglect a defense that seems to always lack depth once injuries hit. This is also one of the deepest drafts in recent years for receivers, meaning the Lions could address defense first, then come back and add another target for Stafford in a later round. That would be the best course of action for Detroit. But the Lions haven't always done what's best (even though things seem to be improving with Martin Mayhew on board).
@mikecwright False. Megatron&Tate are a good one two punch & corner and safety are bigger needs.WR is deep; the opportunity cost is too high- Ragan (@DupesSA) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: Julius Peppers will make a greater impact on the Packers' defense than Jared Allen will make on the Bears' D.
Demovsky: Fact. The Packers didn't have a single defensive lineman record as many sacks as Peppers did for the Bears last year, when he had seven. Even if he's only able to replicate that, it'll be an upgrade for the Packers' defense, which badly needs another pass-rusher to complement Clay Matthews, who faces near-constant double teams.
Seifert: Fiction. Call me boring, but I don't foresee one having a dramatically different impact than the other. Both will provide something their teams didn't have last season. The Packers will get a player athletic and versatile enough to spur defensive coordinator Dom Capers' creativity and legitimately draw attention away from linebacker Clay Matthews. Allen offers a classic outside pass rush that Peppers failed to provide the Bears last season.
Wright: Fiction. The Bears played it very diplomatically publicly while ushering Peppers out of the door, but even if his base salary for 2014 wasn't so astronomical, the club still didn't want him back. That's because some within the organization felt Peppers gave the Bears just five to six solid snaps per game in 2013. That sentiment falls right in line with Peppers' longstanding reputation as a player who doesn't go all-out consistently. So even if Allen's impact with the Bears in 2014 is minimal, I'd venture to guess it would be more than what the Packers will get from Peppers. That's not to say Peppers has lost it. He hasn't. He can still play at a high level when motivated. And he'll definitely be motivated in Green Bay. At the same time, Allen has never been accused of taking plays off, and over several years has earned a reputation as a high-motor player. That's exactly what the Bears need. Besides that, Peppers will be playing in a scheme totally different than anything he's ever done in the NFL, while Allen moves to a scheme similar to what he did in Minnesota. Everything considered, Allen has the best chance to be the more impactful player.
@RobDemovsky true, because the bears will play Allen on every down and wear him out. Making him less effective.- kay oh (@shredmon) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: Chicago will achieve a turnaround on defense similar to what the team experienced on offense in 2013.
Demovsky: Fiction. Unless your definition of turnaround is a slight improvement, don't expect this defense to jump into the top 10 after ranking 30th last season. The Bears have added some nice pieces, especially on the defensive line with Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, but this defense was downright bad in 2013. A major turnaround could take several years.
Seifert: Fiction: Some important team-building remains, most notably through the draft. But I'm not convinced the Bears have done enough yet to expect such a dramatic turnaround. (Remember, the Bears' offense ranked second in scoring in 2013 after finishing No. 16 in 2012.) Free agency has promised a different lineup, but will it be better? As many as six projected starters will be at least 30 years old. That's not a profile for massive turnaround.
Wright: Fiction. The Bears will definitely turn things around, but I don't see the improvement being near as dramatic as what the club did in 2013 on offense. And that's OK. If the Bears can reach mediocrity on defense in 2014, that would be a huge win because the club now has a potent offense that can flat out stack points on the board. The Bears set single-season franchise records for net yardage (6,109), net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32), passer rating (96.9) and first downs (344) in addition to finishing eighth in total offense (381.8 yards per game), second in scoring (27.8-point average) and fifth in passing yardage (267.6). I don't see the Bears rewriting the franchise record books on defense next season, which would be incredibly difficult anyway given all the great defenses fielded in the past by this franchise.
@mikecwright False.There will be turnaround but nothing that great.Secondary still needs work and the chemistry might not be there for team- Matt Varney (@HeadCoachVarney) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: At age 29, Adrian Peterson will be invigorated by a new offensive scheme and buck the trend of running backs declining in their late 20s.
Demovsky: Fact. If we've learned anything about Peterson, it's that we should never doubt him. Not after what he did following his ACL tear. That said, 2,000 yards might not be realistic. If his 1,266 yards from last season was a disappointment, then so be it, but there aren't many teams in the league who wouldn't be happy with that right now.
Seifert: Fact. I'll say this: Peterson doesn't need to be invigorated as much as he needs a transition path for continued elite production. After all, he rushed for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season. But he has undergone significant surgery in each of the past three winters, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to involve him more in the passing game. More receptions and fewer carries sounds like a good plan for preservation.
Wright: Fact. But I'm not even so sure it will be as much about a new offensive scheme. Peterson just isn't human. Just kidding; sort of. Peterson is coming off his worst season since 2009 in terms of yards per attempt (4.5). But think about that for a second. Most running backs would be downright giddy averaging 4.5 yards per carry. I know Peterson has taken a pounding over the years and he's coming off yet another surgery. But doesn't that always seem to be the case for Peterson, dating all the way back to college? At Oklahoma, Peterson dislocated a shoulder in 2004, suffered a right high-ankle sprain in 2005 and a broken clavicle in 2006, which led to scrutiny going into the 2007 draft about his durability and longevity. Seven seasons and 10,115 yards later, Peterson's still here, giving defenses fits. Minnesota needs to get Peterson some help (like a quarterback) for sure. But I honestly think Peterson is such an extraordinary physical specimen, hard worker and determined player, he'll buck the trend for a while the way Fred Taylor did it. Taylor rushed for 1,202 yards in 2007, completing that season just weeks before his 32nd birthday. The year prior, Taylor rushed for 1,146 yards.
@GoesslingESPN false. Wear and tear catching up....he'll still be a good RB, but his glory days are behind him.- Vikings Fan Page (@Kevin_VFP) April 21, 2014