Are Bears falling behind in the NFC North?
Probably not. The Vikings (Everson Griffen), Packers (Bryan Bulaga) and Lions (Darius Slay) all had significant offseason losses. Then again, all three division rivals have established quarterbacks, so ...
When you’re coming off a 13-3 season — one step from the Super Bowl — and have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, you can defy convention a little bit. But after an offseason that has been panned as anything from “too cute” to “bizarre,” the Packers are flouting a respected NFL cliché — if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.
The Packers have a little house money to play with after a strong season under first-year coach Matt LaFleur. But in an offseason in which they’ve replaced right tackle Bryan Bulaga with Rick Wagner and used their first-round pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love instead of a weapon for Rodgers, the Packers don’t appear to have improved their roster.
You can’t blame them for counting on their offense to improve in its second year under LaFleur. That was a disaster for the Bears last year under coach Matt Nagy. But that’s the difference between having a future Hall of Famer at quarterback and an unproven, developing Mitch Trubisky.
The Packers are emphasizing the running game to take some of the onus off Rodgers, with Aaron Jones rushing 236 times for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019. (It was the first time since 2009 that the Packers’ leading rusher gained more yards than their leading receiver.) But even with better balance, the Packers still scored only 12 more offensive points under LaFleur than they did in Mike McCarthy’s last season.
It remains to be seen if they’ll be more productive in Year 2 under LaFleur. As Bears fans know all too well, with Rodgers, anything is possible.
So as the Bears look to bounce back from a disappointing 8-8 season, here’s a look at the rest of the NFC North.
Key losses: RT Bryan Bulaga; LB Blake Martinez; WR Geronimo Allison; TE Jimmy Graham; LB Kyler Fackrell.
Key additions: RT Rick Wagner; LB Christian Kirksey; WR Devin Funchess; QB Jordan Love (draft); RB AJ Dillon (draft), TE Josiah Deguara (draft).
The upshot: Replacing even a banged-up Bulaga with Wagner is a potentially significant downgrade. Kirksey is a likely upgrade over Martinez if he can stay on the field — he played in only nine of 32 games with the Browns the last two seasons. It’s up to Rodgers to get more out of his complementary receivers — Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Funchess and tight ends Robert Tonyan, Jace Sternberger and the versatile rookie Deguara.
Key losses: WR Stefon Diggs; DT Linval Joseph; DE Everson Griffen; RG Josh Kline; CB Trae Waynes; CB Xavier Rhodes; CB Mackensie Alexander.
Key additions: WR Justin Jefferson (draft); DT Michael Pierce; DE Anthony Zettel; OT Ezra Cleveland (draft); CB Jeff Gladney (draft); CB Cameron Dantzler (draft); WR Tajae Sharpe.
The upshot: Pierce for Joseph is a potential upgrade as a run-stopper, but the Vikings have a ton of question marks heading into 2020: not only replacing Diggs (traded to the Bills) and revamping their veteran, albeit declining, cornerback corps, but losing Kline from a hot-and-cold offensive line. Starting the rookie Cleveland and moving Riley Reiff to guard might be their best option.
Key losses: CB Darius Slay; RT Rick Wagner; DT Damon Harrison; LB Devon Kennard; RG Graham Glasgow; DT A’Shawn Robinson; P Sam Martin; CB Rashaan Melvin.
Key additions: CB Jeff Okudah (draft); RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai; DT Danny Shelton; LB Jamie Collins; CB Desmond Trufant; RB D’Andre Swift (draft); DE Julian Okwara (draft); DT Nick Williams; G Jonah Jackson (draft).
The upshot: Change is usually good for three-win teams such as the Lions (3-12-1 in 2019), but they don’t look like a team ready to take a giant leap. Okudah could be a future star, but expecting him — or Trufant — to replace Slay in a defense that ranked 26th last season is asking a lot. The return of injured quarterback Matthew Stafford is the key upgrade.