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NFC NORTH: 2018 season preview

Week 1 of the regular season is finally upon us. All the speculating and projecting is over. Things now start to get settled between the white lines. Which team(s) will separate themselves from the pack?

Here's a quick offseason refresher and Week 1 preview for the four teams in the NFC North.


2017 record: 13-3 (won division)

Week 1 opponent: vs. San Francisco, Sun. 1 p.m.

New faces: QB Kirk Cousins, DT Sheldon Richardson

Key losses: QB Case Keenum, QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Jerick McKinnon, OL Joe Burger, WR Jarius Wright

Impact rookie: CB Mike Hughes, picked No. 30 overall: Hughes enters the league in a good position playing on a defense that should be one of the best in the NFL. Hughes will compete for early playing time in the slot, and could be a big part of special teams both as a cover man and returner.

Most significant changes: The addition of Cousins gives the Vikings a consistent playmaker at the quarterback position. Cousins has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. He was tied with Matthew Stafford last year with 39 completions of 25-plus yards, which was second most in the NFL. He brings a big-play element to the Vikings' offense they didn't have before. Team Cousins with receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and the Vikings' passing attack has the potential to be potent.

Player to watch: RB Dalvin Cook: He was averaging 4.8 yards per carry and about four catches per contest as a rookie before tearing his ACL Week 4 in a loss to the Lions. Cook is the kind of three-down weapon that can excel alongside Cousins, Thielen, Diggs and fellow running back Latavius Murray. If he's all the way back from the knee injury, which all reports out of Minnesota indicate he is, then Cook should pick up right where he left off last season and be an important weapon for this offense.

Quotable: "Well, I think you want to go somewhere with expectations, right?" Cousins told ESPN's NFL Countdown crew. "I mean, we're here to win and I was looking around and ultimately people kept me asking me what is going to drive your decision and it was all about winning. You know, where can we win football games? And Minnesota, I feel, was one of the, if not the best place to go to do that."

Twentyman: With a top-ranked defense, and the addition of Cousins at quarterback, Minnesota has to be considered the favorites heading into the season to win the NFC North. Heck, they wouldn't be a bad Super Bowl pick. If there's anything that derails those hopes, it's the stability and health of the Vikings offensive line. As it stands today, that's really the only question mark surrounding this team. The Vikings have lost Berger to retirement, Nick Easton to a season-ending injury and it's uncertain when center Pat Elflein (shoulder & ankle surgeries) will return.


2017 record: 9-7

Week 1 opponent: vs. New York Jets, Mon. 7:10 p.m.

New faces: HC Matt Patricia, LB Devon Kennard, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Christian Jones, DT Ricky Jean Francois, TE Luke Willson, DT Sylvester Williams

Key losses: DT Haloti Ngata, TE Eric Ebron, LB Tahir Whitehead, CB DJ Hayden

Impact rookie: RB Kerryon Johnson, picked No. 43 overall: He's expected to play a key role in Detroit's backfield this season alongside Blount and Theo Riddick. In Johnson, the Lions hope they have a three-down back who can help jump start their rushing attack.

Most significant changes: The Lions were last in the NFL in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry. They were also last in converting 3rd & 1 and 4th & 1 situations running the ball. GM Bob Quinn said that aspect of the run game bothered him, so he went out and signed a veteran battering ram running back in Blount, one of the best interior offensive linemen available in the draft (Frank Ragnow) and drafted Johnson in the second round. The Lions want to be able to run the ball with some sort of consistency in 2018.

Player to watch: LB Jarrad Davis: No rookie or first-year player recorded as many tackles as Davis' 96 last season. He's the heart and soul of the Lions' defense, and has been the defensive captain all throughout the preseason. Davis struggled in pass defense last season, and that was an area he said he really worked to improve this offseason. Teams will attack him until he proves he really is improved in that area.

Quotable: "Obviously a big week for us here," Patricia said Wednesday. "We have to get ready for the Jets. That's what we're solely focused on here right now. That's where all of our attention is getting into our first kind of, what we call regular season Wednesday.

"So, we're working on specific areas of the game plan here for our upcoming opponent. Obviously got a big challenge ahead of us on all three phases."

Twentyman: The offense returns a lot of pieces, and should be better running the football. Detroit will score points. I really don't have any doubts about that. The real questions surround the defense. What will Patricia's scheme look like, and does he have the right personnel in Detroit to run them the way he wants? The Lions have some nice players on defense in Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay, Glover Quin and others. How quickly will all the pieces come together in this new scheme?


2017 record: 7-9

Week 1 opponent: vs. Chicago, Sun. 8:20 p.m.

New faces: TE Jimmy Graham, CB Tramon Williams, DL Muhammad Wilkerson, QB DeShone Kizer

Key losses: WR Jordy Nelson, S Morgan Burnett, DB Damaroius Randall

Impact rookie: CB Jaire Alexander, picked No. 18 overall: Alexander was part of the Packers' plan to revamp their secondary (again) this offseason. He's in line for some early work in the slot.

Most significant changes: Last season, opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 102.0 and completed 67.8 percent of their passes vs. the Packers. The 30 passing touchdowns given up by the Packers secondary were the second most in the NFL a year ago. This is part of the reason why they signed Williams in free agency and drafted Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first two picks this year. That after drafting CB Kevin King and S Josh Jones with their first two picks last year.

Green Bay is hoping a revamped secondary can help steady their defense and propel them back into the playoff conversation in 2018.

Player to watch: WR Davante Adams: The fifth-year receiver is expected to be quarterback Aaron Rodgers' favorite target this season, now that Nelson is no longer with the team. Adams could be in line for the first 1,000-yard campaign of his career. He has the most touchdown catches in the NFL (22) over the last two seasons, and that number could grow exponentially this season playing with a healthy Rodgers.

Quotable: "This is a unique opener," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told prior to Green Bay's Wednesday practice. "A division rival, new offensive scheme, new head coach, a premier player (OLB Khalil Mack) acquired on (Saturday).

"We're ready to go. I'm past the changes, and I'm excited to take the next step with all the new individuals."

Twentyman: Rodgers missed nine games last year after breaking his collarbone against the Vikings Week 7. The Packers won just three games the rest of the way, and missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. Coincidence? I think not. The Packers go as Rodgers goes. He is fresh off signing a brand new contract, and has to be motivated by last year's disappointing injury and season. With Rodgers, the Packers are a threat to win the NFC North and make noise in the NFC playoff picture. It's really as simple as that.

View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Wednesday Sept. 5, 2018.


2017 record: 5-11

Week 1 opponent: at Green Bay, Sun. 8:20 p.m.

New faces: HC Matt Nagy, DE Khalil Mack, WR Allen Robinson, TE Trey Burton, WR Taylor Gabriel, K Cody Parkey

Key losses: G Josh Sitton, OLB Pernell McPhee, OLB Willie Young, ILB Jerrell Freeman

Impact rookie: LB Roquan Smith, picked No. 8 overall: People in Chicago are hoping Smith can be next in the great linebacker tradition the Bears have had throughout the years. He has all the skills to be a terrific inside linebacker in this league for a long time.

Most significant changes: After trading up to select their quarterback of the future last year in Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears didn't provide him much to work with in terms of skill position players in the passing game. So, GM Ryan Pace went out and signed veteran receivers Robinson and Gabriel. In Burton, the Bears think they have a talented pass catcher that can be among the league's best. The Bears can run the football with Jordan Howard, and they play pretty good defense, so if the passing attack becomes a more reliable weapon, they're in business.

Player to watch: OLB Khalil Mack: The Bears traded two first-round picks for Mack, one of the league's most dominate pass rushers over the last three seasons. They signed him to a massive $141 million deal. By getting Mack, the Bears have created a formidable edge tandem with him and Leonard Floyd. Will Mack pick up right where he left off last season (10.5 sacks)? Can he be even better in Chicago's talented front seven?

Quotable: "We're improved, but the other three teams haven't exactly been sitting on their keisters," Bears chairman George McCaskey told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. "The other teams have darn good quarterbacks. One of the things that's exciting to me about the acquisition of Khalil is that we have to get those quarterbacks on the ground in order to make hay in our division.

"This has been a long, hard, difficult struggle for our fans, and we've tested their patience. As Bears fans do, they've remained loyal. Now it's on us to reward that loyalty ... people are excited, and we need to match that excitement with wins."

Twentyman: The Bears are a sleeper team in the NFC North for me. This is a team that plays good defense, and can run the football. That's a good start, and it travels. Just like Lions fans are looking forward to the gains made in years two from players like Davis and Kenny Golladay, Bears fans are expecting the same kind of improved play from Trubisky in his second season. He now has some weapons to throw to, and if he's more consistent throwing the football, the Bears are going to surprise some people.

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