NFC NORTH: 2019 season preview

Week 1 of the regular season is finally here. All the speculating and projecting is over. Things start to get settled on the field, starting with NFC North foes Green Bay and Chicago Thursday night.

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

CHICAGO

2018 record: 12-4 (division champions)

Week 1 opponent: vs. Green Bay, Thurs. 8:20 p.m. (NBC)

New faces: RB Mike Davis, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, CB Buster Skrine, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Key losses: RB Jordan Howard, CB Bryce Callahan, S Adrian Amos

Impact rookie: Running back David Montgomery, selected in the third round, is expected to play a big role in Chicago’s backfield alongside Tarik Cohen and Davis. Montgomery was good in the preseason, showing off the complete package at the position. He’ll get carries early on. What he does with those carries will determine how big of a role he ultimately plays in Chicago’s offense.

Most significant changes: The Bears had one of the top defenses in the league last year. And while most of the personnel that made up that unit are back, led by Khalil Mack, the Bears have a new man running the show in Chuck Pagano. Vic Fangio, Chicago’s defensive coordinator from 2015-18, is now the head coach in Denver. Pagano is going to add his own wrinkles on defense. How different will it look and will that defense still be as dominant?

Player to watch: Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky: This is year three for Trubisky. People in Chicago will expect him to take a big leap in development. He’s had a year under Matt Nagy’s offense, and will look to improve on his 3,224 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season.

Quotable: “The word ‘legacy’ has been used with a lot of different teams, and in particular us being in our 100th year this year,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s been some great teams. Let’s do what we do. Let’s create our own. By doing that, we got to only worry about one thing, and that’s today’s practice. That’s real. We got to worry about today and then worry about tomorrow and then let’s go get the first win.”

Twentyman: With a top-ranked defense and a year under their belt in Nagy’s offensive system, Chicago enters the season as the favorites to repeat as division champions. Chicago has one of the best front sevens on defense. Can Trubisky take the next step and can they find some consistency in the kicking game? Those are really the only question marks heading into the season for Chicago.

MINNESOTA

2018 record: 8-7-1

Week 1 opponent: vs. Atlanta, 1 p.m. (FOX)

New faces: G Josh Kline, DT Shamar Stephen, QB Sean Mannion

Key losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, S Andrew Sendejo, RB Latavius Murray

Impact rookie: Center Garrett Bradbury, the No. 18 overall pick, will begin the season anchoring the Vikings’ offensive line as its starting center. Bradbury is the highest drafted center in franchise history, and will try to help improve a Vikings' offense that finished 30th in rushing and allowed 40 sacks last season.

Most significant changes: After filling in at offensive coordinator for the fired John DeFilippo late last season, Kevin Stefanski enters 2019 leading that unit. Stefanski will lean on Gary Kubiak, who the team brought in as an offensive advisor to help guide Stefanski. I expect Stefanski to be much more of a conservative play caller than DeFilippo, as Minnesota tries to be more balanced and feature the run game more.

Player to watch: Running back Dalvin Cook: In Stefanski’s first game as interim OC last year, Cook carried the ball 19 times for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Cook averaged 4.62 yards per carry last season and also caught 40 passes. I expect him to be a big part of what the Vikings do offensively.

Quotable: “I think we have a good team. I think these guys have a chance to, if we go out and we play hard, we play smart, we play together as a team – it’s going to be important that we do that – but I like this group of guys,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told Vikings.com. “I think they’ve got a chance to be really good. But, you know, we have to go out on the field and do it.”

Twentyman: Defensively the Vikings are stacked with star power – Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, etc. Zimmer’s pressure scheme is a lot to deal with. Minnesota had the fourth ranked defense last year and they were No. 3 against the pass. They’ll be good on that side of the ball again in 2019.

The real question marks are on offense with a new coordinator and a revamped offensive line. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was good last year, but it can’t be all him and the passing game. There needs to be some balance on that side of the ball. If they can achieve that balance and be better offensively, the Vikings should be right in the division hunt.

GREEN BAY

2018 record: 6-9-1

Week 1 opponent: at Chicago, Thursday, 8:20 p.m. (NBC)

New faces: OLB Za’Darius Smith, OLB Preston Smith, S Adrian Amos, G Billy Turner

Key losses: OLB Nick Perry, OLB Clay Matthews, CB Bashaud Breeland, WR Randall Cobb, ILB Jake Ryan

Impact rookie: Safety Darnell Savage Jr. was the second pick in the first round for the Packers. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary, Green Bay’s top pick, is also expected to have an impact as a rotational rusher, but Savage is the only rookie slated to start for Green Bay when they open their season Thursday night in Chicago.

Most significant changes: Matt LaFleur is the new head coach in Green Bay. He’s brought with him a new wide zone scheme on offense. The health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’s been dinged up the last two seasons, is obviously a big key. LaFleur’s offense is expected to be more balanced. Green Bay is poised to give opponents a lot to handle with the triple threat of Rodgers, wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones.

Player to watch: Running back Aaron Jones: Jones tied for 11th in rushing touchdowns in 2018 with eight, despite only starting eight games. He also led the NFL in yards per attempt (5.5). Despite playing only 51 percent of the snaps last season, Jones averaged 60.7 rushing yards per game. He is the favorite to lead a committee of backs that includes Jamaal Williams.

Quotable: “I’m just ready to play fast with my teammates and just cause mayhem and make my presence known to this defense and coaching staff,” linebacker Preston Smith told the Green Bay Press Gazette this week.

Twentyman: The Packers have re-tooled their defense this offseason with the signings of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Amos, and the drafting of Gary and Savage. Green Bay was top eight in the NFL last year in sacks (44), and with the improvements they’ve made on that side of the ball, I’d expect those numbers to be even better in 2019.

Green Bay improved their offensive line, and they have a nice collection of skill position players. If Rodgers can stay healthy, and this offense steadily improves in the new scheme throughout the year, the Packers can get back to competing for NFC North titles again.

View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.

DETROIT

2018 record: 6-10

Week 1 opponent: at Arizona, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. (FOX)

New faces: DE Trey Flowers, DT Mike Daniels, CB Justin Coleman, CB Rashaan Melvin, WR Danny Amendola, TE Jesse James, RB C.J. Anderson

Key losses: DE Ziggy Ansah, G T.J. Lang, S Glover Quin, CB Nevin Lawson

Impact rookie: Tight end T.J. Hockenson, the No. 8 overall pick in the draft, is expected to play a big role both in the pass game and as a blocker on the edge. He had a strong training camp and really seemed to build a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford, especially in the red zone and around the goal line.

Most significant changes: It’s a brand new offense in Detroit led by new coordinator Darrell Bevell. For the a long time the Lions have relied too heavily on Stafford’s right arm to be their offense. Bevell is expected to bring better balance. Bevell’s offenses have ranked in the top 10 in run percentage in eight of the 12 years he’s been a coordinator.

Player to watch: Running back Kerryon Johnson: Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year and gave the Lions’ run game a real jolt, until a knee injury forced him to miss the last six games of the season. Johnson’s going to get a chance to be the featured back in this new offense as both a runner and pass catcher.

Quotable: “I’m happy where we’re at,” Bevell said this week of the progress they’ve made implementing his new scheme. “Really, all of the guys have done a nice job of coming in, and learning the system, and working hard. We sure would like more time on-task, but we’ll just continue to work each and every day to get better.”

Twentyman: Detroit should have one of the best defensive fronts with Flowers, Daniels, Damon Harrison Sr., A’Shawn Robinson and the rest of the guys upfront. Detroit finished the year with a top 10 defense. I expect the defense to be the strength of the team again this year.

How will Stafford bounce back from a poor 2018 season by his standards? Will the changes upfront along the offensive line improve that unit? Will all the resources spent to bolster the tight end position pay off? There are definite question marks on offense, but if everything sorts itself out on that side of the ball, Detroit could be a surprise team in 2019.

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