Best-Case/Worst-Case: NFC North Edition
All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Up next in our Best-Case/Worst-Case series is the NFC North, a division that's been dominated by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for a decade. This year, though, the balance may shift. Davante Adams, who was what Marvin Harrison was to Peyton Manning, what Robert DiNiro was to Martin Scorsese, and what Keith Richards was to Mick Jagger, has exited stage left - all the way to Las Vegas to reunite with former college teammate Derrick Carr.
Without the ever-reliable Adams (though, calling him "reliable" is hardly enough praise for a guy who's been named a First Team All Pro two consecutive seasons), there's a good chance Green Bay's offense takes a step backward from its lofty 2021 standard. If that happens, could the Minnesota Vikings, who've been relegated to second-fiddle status, give the Packers a run for their money? And although the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears both look like rebuilding teams at the moment, there's still talent there.
Still though, until further notice, this is Green Bay's division, and it's up to the other three teams to knock them off that perch. Will this the year?
DT Justin Jones (free agent)
WR Byron Pringle (free agent)
CB Kyler Gordon (draft)
S Jaquon Brisker (draft)
WR Allen Robinson
DT Akiem Hicks
DT Bilal Nichols
OG James Daniels
Best-Case Scenario: 11 - 6, 1st in the NFC North
Come on now, the Bears? Really? Finishing at the top of the NFC North? That’s absurd.
Well, it might seem a little out there, but if everything goes the Bears way in 2022, this could be one of the major surprise teams of the season. They lost a lot of veterans in the offseason, sure, but their biggest move was actually addition by subtraction: firing former head coach Matt Nagy and hiring former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. It’s a “Matt”-ch made in heaven…sorry, I couldn’t help it.
On a serious note, given how pathetic the Bears appeared on offense (Nagy’s specialty) and how disappointing the defense performed last year (Eberflus’ specialty), this could be a team with bounce-back potential. There are still some talented players on this squad, and if new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who spent the last three years as Aaron Rodgers’ quarterback coach in Green Bay, can bring out the best in second year QB Justin Fields, the Bears could end up winning the NFC North, especially if the Packers and Vikings stumble.
Speaking of Fields, like the Bears 2021 season, it’s hard to imagine things getting worse for the former Ohio State Buckeye. Time after time, Fields was let down by incompetent play-calling, a porous offensive line, or a lack of reliable playmakers - and sometimes all three at once (i.e., September 26, 2021, versus the Cleveland Browns). With Nagy out of the way, Fields finally has a chance to shine.
Though Fields’ weapons aren’t great, the Bears still return wide receiver Darnell Mooney, their 2020 fifth-round pick. Mooney burst onto the scene last year despite the chaos surrounding him on offense, turning in a 1,000-yard season and usurping the departed Allen Robinson as the de facto #1 WR in Chicago. If Mooney can continue to build upon his success, Fields will have at least one good option in the passing game.
Likewise, Cole Kmet, the Bears’ third-year tight end, will look to improve upon his modest 2021 season. If he’s able to tap into his considerable potential, that gives the Bears two downfield options, opening up more room for Fields and stud running back David Montgomery to work on the ground. And although the offensive line still needs work, particularly after losing promising youngster James Daniels to the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, there’s enough in the cupboard to cobble together an above-average offense.
If the Bears can reach mediocrity on offense, that will go a long way toward helping the Bears overcome their meager pre-season predictions, because this defense could be nasty, particularly in the secondary. With impressive players at every level of the defense, such as defensive end Robert Quinn, linebacker Roquan Smith, and cornerback Jaylon Johnson, Coach Eberflus has plenty to work with as he implements his scheme. Throw in ascending talents like defensive end Trevis Gipson and rookie safety Jaquan Brisker, and the Bears could field one of the top defenses in the NFL - and that could be the right mix for an NFC North-shocker.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5 - 12, 4th in the NFC North
Basically, just take everything I said in the previous segment and make it the opposite. That’s how you end up with five wins on the season, one less than in 2021.
Although Eberflus may end up being the right man for the job, first-year head coaches aren’t always successful right away. It will take time to completely implement his style of defense and to find the right players for his system. If that’s the case, Chicago’s defense may not reach its full potential.
And while the defense may have too many competent players to completely sink their season, it’s the offense that could be Chicago’s iceberg. Fields may have tremendous upside, but he looked totally overwhelmed last year. It also appears that the Bears actually got worse on offense during the offseason, considering the losses of Robinson and Daniels. If that’s the case, the Bears could easily have the worst attack in the NFL. That’s a recipe for a lost season.
WR D.J. Chark (free agent)
CB Mike Hughes (free agent)
DE Aidan Hutchinson (draft)
WR Jameson Williams (draft)
DE Trey Flowers
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
Best-Case Scenario: 10 - 7, 2nd in the NFC North
There’s a lot of buzz in Detroit. Second-year head coach Dan Campbell has become an NFL-media darling with his macho, everyman disposition. The Lions were loveable losers last year - can they flip the script in 2022?
Considering the strong finish they had to the 2021 season and their promising draft class, it’s certainly possible. At times last year, the Lions looked like the least talented team in the NFL - by far. That won’t be the case this year.
First and foremost, the Lions have a future game breaker on defense. Aidan Hutchinson, the #2 pick in the 2021 Draft, arrives in Detroit after an outstanding senior season at the University of Michigan. The 6-7, 264 lbs defensive end has looked the part in preseason, and if he can translate his production to the NFL-level, the Lions will have a player who can single-handedly thwart opposing offenses.
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Jarred Goff returns to pilot the offense, but this year his weapons look significantly improved. Free agent wide receiver D.J. Chark arrives from Jacksonville and will team with second-year slot receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and the currently-injured-but-supremely-gifted rookie receiver Jameson Williams to form a potentially dynamic trio. Those three, combined with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson, versatile running back DeAndre Swift, and an emerging offensive line, give the Lions an offense capable of consistently sustaining drives, something they sorely lacked last year.
Most importantly for this team though, is how they continue to build the foundation under Campbell. Last year, this was a team that looked like they played with desperation and abandon; they were always the less talented team, but they never backed down. If they can continue to keep that aggressive attitude with a more talented roster, this Lions’ team could make a run for a Wild Card spot.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5 - 12, 4th in the NFC North
With all their improvements and the apparent-effect Campbell has had on his team, it’s unlikely that they don’t improve on their three-win 2021 season. Still, that doesn’t mean a winning record is assured. Not by a long shot.
This is, after all, a Detroit Lions franchise that is, simply put, not allowed to have nice things. This was a team that had Matt Stafford, maybe the greatest QB in franchise history, and Calvin Johnson, one of the greatest receivers in NFL history, on the same team and could never win a single playoff game. Few franchises can compete with that kind of misery.
Let’s start with Goff, who is heading into his second year with Detroit after spending his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. He wasn’t great last year, and things could get worse, especially if the weapons I mentioned previously fall short of expectation. Williams, in particular, will be out at least until October as he recovers from an ACL injury he suffered in the National Championship game with Alabama. Without any game-breaking players on the perimeter, Detroit’s offense could be a slog.
Defensively, things could be even worse. Hutchinson has considerable potential, but there’s no guarantee he’s a year-one success. Outside of him, there’s not a lot of top-end talent on this unit. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye flashed with six interceptions last year, but if he regresses, that leaves Detroit with a dangerously thin secondary. They’ll be counting on Jeff Okudah, who is recovering from a torn Achilles he suffered in Detroit’s season opener last year, Kansas City Chiefs’ castoff Mike Hughes, and 2019 third-round pick Will Harris, who is making the transition from safety to boundary corner - not exactly the most inspiring options.
The Lions were a heartwarming story last year, but nothing is assured for 2022. Campbell was able to get his boys to play inspired football last year, but what if that message rings hollow this year? If that’s the case, the Lions could be back to the drawing board.
Green Bay Packers
DT Devonte Wyatt (draft)
LB Quay Walker (draft)
WR Christian Watson (draft)
WR Sammy Watkins (free agent)
WR Davante Adams
OLB Za’Darius Smith
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Best-Case Scenario: 13 - 4, 1st in the NFC North
It’s all about Aaron Rodgers. The back-to-back MVP continues to look like a magical passer for the Packers as he heads into his eighteenth NFL season. Even with the trade of All-World wide receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders in the offseason, there’s little reason to expect Rodgers’ performance to dip.
Fourth-year head coach Matt LaFleur returns, along with the typically excellent Green Bay offensive line and a potentially devastating run game. Aaron Jones provides the lightning to A.J. Dillon’s thunder out of the backfield. Tight end Robert Tonyan is a reliable option in the intermediate passing game. Receivers Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb and rookie Christian Watson may not provide the elite play of Adams, but they each bring a unique skill set to the position.
If Green Bay’s offense can absorb the loss of Adams in adequate fashion, it’s the defense that could be winning games for this Packers’ team. With All-Pros at every level, the Pack might have the best defense in the league on their hands.
Up front, Pro Bowler Kenny Clark remains a headache in the middle of the defense, while 2021-revelation Rashan Gary brings the heat from the outside. The Packers added two Georgia defenders in the NFL draft, defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt and linebacker Quay Walker. Wyatt will provide Clark with another interior pass rushing buddy while Walker will slot in next to 2021 All Pro De'Vondre Campbell - giving the Packers one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league.
As crazy as it sounds, the Packers may have an even better secondary. Led by 2020 All Pro Jaire Alexander, who missed most of the 2021 season while dealing with a shoulder injury, the Packers’ field one of the strongest groups of cornerbacks in the NFL. Alexander works one side of the field while last year’s first-round pick Eric Stokes patrols the other. Rasul Douglas, discarded by so many teams in the past, came out of nowhere last year to record five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. With dependable safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage forming the last line of defense, the back end of the Packers’ D has almost no weakness.
Don’t get me wrong: losing Adams is a big deal. But this Packers team may be uniquely suited to overcome that loss because they might shift how they play altogether. Instead of being the “air-it-out” team of the past, this team could be a “ground-and-pound,” defense-first type of team. It might be a little unfamiliar to Packers fans, but this could be the most balanced team of the Rodgers-era.
Worst-Case Scenario: 8 - 9, 3rd in the NFC North
Let’s get something out of the way: when Aaron Rodgers is your QB, the worst-case scenario can only be so bad. Plus, given the current states of the Bears and Lions, the Packers will likely be looking at four wins right there. However, with the Minnesota Vikings looking like a dark-horse contender, a surprise playoff run by the Bears or Lions could be enough to thwart the Packers’ run of three-consecutive playoff appearances.
If the Packers are going to disappoint, it starts with the loss of Adams. While Rodgers is certainly talented enough to overcome the loss of a favorite target, Adams goes far beyond just being a favorite target. He might be the best WR in the NFL. His unique connection with Rodgers bordered on Vulcan mind-meld levels of efficiency. You can’t replace that.
And even though he’s recorded thirteen wins in each of his first three seasons as head coach, the jury is still out on Matt LaFleur. Is he actually this good a coach, or does he have a little “born-on-third-base” vibe after walking into a ready-made contender back in 2019? With a slightly diminished roster at the top, this year could be a wake-up call for LaFleur and his staff.
OLB Za’Darius Smith (free agent)
LB Jordan Hicks (free agent)
NT Harrison Phillips (free agent)
S Lewis Cine (draft)
CB Andrew Booth Jr. (draft)
LB Anthony Barr
NT Michael Pierce
Best-Case Scenario: 12 - 5, 1st in the NFC North
Another popular sleeper team of 2022, the Vikings offer a reliable quarterback in Kirk Cousins, a top running back in Dalvin Cook, and one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. With new head coach Kevin O’Connell brought over after spending the previous two seasons as offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams, the Vikings could have the most devastating offense in the NFL.
The relationship between Cousins and O’Connell will be critical to the Vikings’ success this season. After helping the Rams win the Super Bowl last year, O’Connell will be expected to bring the best out in Cousins. Fortunately, the two have already worked together, back in 2017 when O’Connell was Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in Washington. If the two can pick up where they left off, the transition from the Mike Zimmer-era to the O’Connell-era could be a smooth one.
On the defensive-side of the ball, the Vikings made a concerted-effort to bring in significant talent both in free agency and in the draft. Nose tackle Harrison Phillips comes over from the Buffalo Bills, replacing the injured and ineffective Michael Pierce in the middle of the defense. Jordan Hicks joined the team from the Arizona Cardinals, giving the Vikings a solid option to pair with former All Pro Eric Kendricks. Za’Darius Smith was poached from the Packers to form a fearsome pass rush opposite Danielle Hunter, and rookies Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. both will help plug a leaky secondary, along with longtime safety Harrison Smith.
This is a dangerous Vikings team. It’s hard to count on immediate success with a first-year head coach, but O’Connell could very well be the exception. With improvements on offense and defense, the Vikings look like a team that could make a surprise run to the Super Bowl in 2022.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the NFC North
For whatever reason, the Vikings just seem unable to get over the hump. And with Chicago and Detroit lurking at the bottom of the division, the Vikings could just as easily be a team that falls short of its preseason promise.
Despite all the warm and fuzzies about the O’Connell-Cousins union, there’s significant blow-up capacity here. O’Connell has very little coaching experience at this point. He’s been a coach in the NFL only since 2015 and has been an offensive coordinator for just three years. In his first year as OC with Washington in 2019, the team finished dead-last in the NFL in total points scored and second-to-last in total yards gained. The following year, his first as OC of the Rams, O’Connell’s offense finished 22nd in total points scored and scored on just 34% of drives, one of the worst marks in the league. They jumped to 8th in total points scored last year, but that coincided with the addition of elite QB Matt Stafford - all of this is to say, O’Connell’s track record isn’t exactly flawless.
The defense also has significant bust potential. Za’Darius Smith had a track-record of success in Green Bay, but he missed all but one game last year and was released in the offseason. Hicks has had impressive moments in his career as well, but the 30-year-old has seen his play decline somewhat from his fantastic 2019 season. With the Vikings counting on two rookies making a big impact in the secondary, there’s also a good chance offenses are able to move the ball through the air with little resistance.
Even if this team can’t make good on their promise, the division should still be soft enough at the bottom to avoid a complete collapse. But that would be little consolation to Vikings fans who thought this could be their year to break through in the postseason.