Training camps aren't scheduled to open until next month, but we easily can identify now Super Bowl favorites (Chiefs, Saints, Ravens) and bottom-dwellers (Jags, Redskins, Panthers). Then there are teams that have neither substantial upward mobility nor rosters bad enough to outflank the dregs for a chance to draft Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick.
No division houses more members of this middling contingent than the NFC North. Entering 2020, this storied division has three teams firmly in the middle class. Bovada’s Super Bowl LV odds slot each between 14th and 25th.
The Vikings (14th), Bears (17th) and Lions (25th) will enter their respective seasons aiming to prove doubters wrong. But when viewed through a longer lens, this trio’s situations reveal plans that have veered off course or run the risk of doing so soon. And after the Packers' widely panned offseason, they are in danger of falling closer to their divisional brethren.
Although each team took a different route here, the division’s franchises face similar questions about their futures.
Bears: Trubisky hamstrings defense
Fourteen years ago, the Bears submitted one of the best-case scenarios for teams with below-average quarterbacks. Chicago’s dominant defense carried its Rex Grossman-piloted offense to Super Bowl XLI. This era’s Bears took a big swing at quarterback, but Mitchell Trubisky’s uneven play has given a high-caliber defense a task similar to the one the Brian Urlacher-fueled unit had. Trubisky’s stats nosedived last season, and with Chicago’s defense slinking from elite in 2018's NFC North title season to good last year (eighth in DVOA), this franchise has the look of one playing out the string of a failed plan.
Either teetering on bust status or having already crossed that border, Trubisky must compete with Nick Foles to keep his job. Foles worked with Matt Nagy in 2016, when the former was Alex Smith’s backup and the latter the Chiefs' first-year offensive coordinator. That's a start, but Foles again failed to inspire away from Philadelphia –- playing under ex-Eagles OC John DeFilippo in Jacksonville last season –- and represents a last-ditch effort for a Bears franchise hoping to salvage its veteran defense after a poor quarterback investment. The Broncos tried this for years, but their defense having previously powered a Super Bowl conquest softened the sting of the ensuing seasons.
The Bears still employ seven starters from 2018’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense and signed Robert Quinn as a hopeful outside linebacker upgrade on Leonard Floyd. In theory, the Bears’ serviceable-offense-plus-dominant-defense concept could still work. But defense-centered designs have limited shelf lives, and the Khalil Mack-led crew's margin for error will likely not expand significantly. The Bears’ offensive line ranked 29th in adjusted line yards last season. Four of the team’s five starters remain, including middle-of-the-road tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, adding the to-be-determined quarterback’s degree of difficulty.
Returning to the playoffs in a deep NFC will not be easy, and while the Bears should be done with Trubisky next year, Foles’ contract will be costly to shed before 2022. The back end of the Trubisky era may double as a Foles-fronted two-year plan, thanks to the trade with the Jaguars, while some of their top defensive bastions move past 30.
Lions: Aging Stafford a middling QB
Matthew Stafford has started 149 NFL games. Only two quarterbacks in league history –- Joe Flacco and ex-Bill Joe Ferguson -– have started more games for one team without making multiple Pro Bowls. Each started 163, putting the Lions’ one-time Pro Bowler on the brink of an unfortunate distinction. The gifted passer would be a drastic improvement for many teams, but he has long been a middling performer. And the 12th-year Lions centerpiece is now 32 and coming off a season-ending back injury.
The Lions bypassed Tua Tagovailoa in the draft, however, and Stafford staying healthy this season makes them likely too talented to land in Lawrence or Justin Fields range next year. Detroit went 0-8 without its QB1, and Stafford’s abbreviated season ranked sixth in QBR. But the Lions have tried this many times. Stafford’s 2014 Pro Bowl season (featuring Calvin Johnson) came with the franchise's best scoring defense ranking (third) in 30 years, and that team lost its playoff opener.
Head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn’s jobs may hinge on the Lions returning to the playoffs after three straight absences. Perhaps residing on the lowest end of the rung in the NFL’s middle-classiest division, the Lions would surprise most by doing so. While their now-four-ex-Patriot defense should improve on 2019’s 28th-place DVOA placement, they lack a bookend pass rusher opposite defensive end Trey Flowers and must hope No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah -– the highest cornerback drafted since 1997 -– quickly fills Darius Slay’s shoes. Having ex-Falcon No. 1 corner Desmond Trufant, though, could make Detroit’s secondary a better-balanced assembly.
The Lions have cycled through three head coaches and four offensive coordinators since Stafford’s 2009 debut. They may be trapped. The former No. 1 overall pick is still better than many NFL passers but has shown he needs more help than the embattled franchise has been able to provide.
Vikings: Unproven talent at key spots
GM Rick Spielman successfully moved on from the Brett Favre-era nucleus and gave the late-2010s Vikings one of the NFL’s best rosters. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s years-long blueprint has fallen short. Spielman’s defense-geared rosters have two playoff wins since 2017, but the Vikings followed each with blowout losses. After years of giving extensions for homegrown talents, the Vikings let a few go this year. Their 2020 roster looks worse than the ’19 edition the 49ers dominated in the divisional round.
QB Kirk Cousins extension created cap relief. So did shipping WR Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. But the Vikings, who gave the NFL's fifth-highest salary to a quarterback who has shown he needs tremendous support to lead a team to the playoffs, are set to rely on unproven talent at key spots in a year when continuity has never been more important. WR Adam Thielen missed seven games last season because of injury, and the Vikings lost their three most experienced cornerbacks. First-round receiver Justin Jefferson and Round 1 corner Jeff Gladney must be viable starters despite missing out on a true offseason.
The Vikings have deployed top-10 scoring defenses for five years but enter 2020 with major questions about their pass defense, which is also set to lose defensive end Everson Griffen, the franchise's No. 4 all-time sacker. It is unrealistic to expect Minnesota’s retooled defense to stay on its upper-crust level. That means more must be expected from Cousins. Counting the playoffs, however, the Vikings are 1-11 against 10-win teams with him. That is enough of a sample size to create big-picture concern.
Cousins’ two-year, $66M extension will keep him in the Twin Cities through at least 2021. The franchise drafted well to assemble the roster strength of the late 2010s, but Cousins did not push that core over the top. Unless the Vikings can coax high-end play from some new defensive starters quickly, their trajectory points downhill until an overhaul occurs.
Packers: Where's aid for Rodgers?
Matt LaFleur deserves credit for going 13-3 in his head-coaching debut in 2019. But 11 of the Packers' regular-season wins came against .500-or-worse opposition or a Chiefs team missing Patrick Mahomes. Green Bay ranked 15th in points scored. This was not the time to scale back on reinforcements for Aaron Rodgers, yet the Packers somehow left the first two days of the draft with a quarterback project (Jordan Love), a backup running back with 21 college catches (A.J. Dillon) and a fullback (Josiah Deguara). The franchise that made Rodgers carry teams for most of his career did little to ease that burden when he now needs more help at age 36.
Rodgers has not delivered his usual dominance since 2016, finishing 16th and 20th in QBR since his injury-shortened 2017 slate. This would seemingly support GM Brian Gutekunst’s decision to prepare another ahead-of-schedule quarterback transition. But Rodgers had one 500-yard pass-catcher last season – the first time that occurred in a non-strike-shortened Packers slate since 1977 -– and, unlike Favre, has given no indication retirement is near. Instead of building on 2019, the Packers traded up for a boom-or-bust passer and installed a clock on the Rodgers era earlier than necessary.
Despite the Packers doing more to address their defense in 2019 than they had in over a decade, Mike Pettine’s unit ranked 15th in DVOA -– 23rd against the run, a deficiency exposed by Raheem Mostert’s Terrell Davis impression in the NFC title game. Green Bay’s only key defensive addition: street free-agent linebacker Christian Kirksey, a former Pettine pupil who missed 23 games over the past two seasons. It was not just the receiver position on which the Packers passed in the draft.
Given the collective health the Packers enjoyed last season, it will be difficult for them to return to the 13-win ballpark. And unless they plan to waste the roster-building opportunities Love’s contract will create, Rodgers should be gone by 2022 at the latest. While it is difficult to argue with the Packers after a near-25-year run of quarterback excellence, their curious offseason may marginalize their best asset and drag them closer to their NFC North rivals in a division full of closing windows.