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NFC NORTH: 2021 season preview

Week 1 of the regular season is finally here, so it's time for a quick offseason refresher and Week 1 preview for all four teams in the NFC North:


2020 record: 13-3 (NFC North champions)

Week 1 opponent: at New Orleans, Sun., 4:25 p.m. (To be played in Jacksonville)

2021 strength of schedule: 4th hardest (147-124-1)

New faces: LB De'Vondre Campbell, P Corey Bojorquez

Key losses: C Corey Linsley, RB Jamaal Williams, LB Christian Kirksey

Impact rookie: C Josh Myers

Green Bay's second-round pick has the tough task of trying to replace arguably the top center in football last year in Linsley, who signed a big free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason. Those are big shoes to fill in the Packers' offense.

Most significant changes: The Packers return a good portion of their 2020 team that made it to the NFC Championship Game last season. The most significant change, however, might be along the offensive line, where Green Bay is expected to start Myers at center, and fourth-round pick Royce Newman at guard.

The Packers will also be without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari to start the year as he's on PUP. Guard Elgton Jenkins moved to left tackle, which opened the door for the two rookies to get the start inside.

Player to watch: QB Aaron Rodgers

Is this the last hurrah for Rodgers in Green Bay? His contract was restructured this offseason to make way for a potential trade next offseason, if Rodgers wants it. He's coming off a 2020 season where he completed over 70 percent of his passes – his highest percentage since taking over as starter – and racked up 48 touchdowns to win his third MVP title.

Is Rodgers 100 percent all in on Green Bay in 2021? Or could he have one eye towards his future in 2022? It's really an interesting situation to watch develop in Green Bay this season.

Twentyman: The NFC North title still travels through Green Bay as long as Rodgers is under center. He's got all his top skill position weapons back, and the offense should be a strength again as long as the offensive line holds up.

Defensively, Green Bay's secondary looks to be an emerging strength.

Jaire Alexander has become one of the top cornerbacks in football with Pro Football Focus' top coverage grade among cornerbacks in 2020. Safety Adrian Amos finished as PFF's top cover safety last year. Third-year safety Darnell Savage had four interceptions in his final six games and defended 12 passes on the year. Can Kevin King or rookie Eric Stokes be good opposite Alexander at the other corner spot? That's the only real question in the secondary.

Green Bay has a front seven that can get after the quarterback, and they can cover behind it. Overall, it's a pretty complete team in Green Bay, and they should be in the thick of things in the NFC when it's all said and done.


2020 record: 8-8 (lost Wild Card)

Week 1 opponent: at Los Angeles Rams, Sun., 8:20 p.m.

2021 strength of schedule: 3rd (149-122-1)

New faces: QB Andy Dalton, DE Robert Quinn, WR Marquise Goodwin

Key losses: QB Mitchell Trubisky, CB Kyle Fuller, WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson, OL Charles Leno Jr.

Impact rookie: QB Justin Fields

Dalton is the starting quarterback Week 1, but it will be interesting to see if head coach Matt Nagy has some packages for the super athletic Fields. Kyle Shanahan is expected to have some packages for his rookie quarterback Trey Lance when they play in Detroit Sunday. Will Nagy do the same with Fields?

If Dalton doesn't play well to begin the season, the calls for Fields to play will get louder and louder.

Most significant changes: The biggest task for Nagy and the Bears is improving an offense that ranked just 22nd in scoring in 2021.

The offensive line is a major question mark for this offense. Second-round pick Teven Jenkins was expected to start at left tackle, but he is having back surgery and could miss the entire season.

The team signed Elijah Wilkinson as a tackle option and are hoping veteran Jason Peters still has something left in the tank. There are still a lot of question marks along Chicago's offensive front.

Player to watch: QB Andy Dalton

The veteran will begin the year at quarterback, but Fields had a terrific preseason and according to the media in Chicago was just as impressive on the practice field in training camp. Fields will get the reins of the offense at some point, but when will that be?

Can Dalton play well to begin the year and quiet the talk from Bears fans who want to see Fields sooner rather than later? The Bears have a championship-level defense. How far this team can go in 2021 will depend on how well Dalton and the offense play.

Twentyman: The Bears will count on their defense to overcome any questions about their offense. Led by Khalil Mack, Quinn, Roquan Smith and Akiem Hicks, Chicago ranked 11th in total defense last year. They'll be looking for more playmaking on that side of the ball. They ranked 17th in sacks and 25th in takeaways last season.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson, who received the franchise tag after a 102-catch 2020 season, is one of the more underrated receivers in the league. David Montgomery handles the load very well in the backfield. Chicago has the weapons offensively to win and support their defense, if the quarterback and offensive line do their jobs.


2020 record: 7-9

Week 1 opponent: at Cincinnati, Sun., 1 p.m.

2021 strength of schedule: 5th (144-127-1)

New faces: DT Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Patrick Peterson

Key losses: S Anthony Harris, T Riley Reiff, TE Kyle Rudolph, K Dan Bailey

Impact rookie: T Christian Darrisaw

The Vikings traded back from 14 to 23 in this year's NFL Draft and were still able to snag one of the top tackle prospects in Darrisaw. He missed training camp after core muscle surgery, but is expected to return to practice this week. His game status for Week 1 is in question. Rashod Hill is filling in for him for now. Still, the Vikings expect Darrisaw back this season if everything goes well with rehab.

Most significant changes: The Vikings' defense let them down last year, which is the first time in the Mike Zimmer era we can say that. Injuries and opt outs devastated the defensive front, and the most significant change for the 2021 season is getting some of those players back.

Danielle Hunter is one of the best edge rushers in the game. He had 14.5 sacks in both 2018 and 2019. Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season, was a huge offseason pickup in 2020, and the Vikings finally get to the see the impact he can have upfront alongside Tomlinson. I don't expect Minnesota to be as bad as they were against the run last year with the defensive line looking to be a strength for them once again.

Player to watch: WR Justin Jefferson

What will Jefferson do for an encore season? All he did as a rookie was rack up 1,400 receiving yards, the highest by a rookie since the AFL-NFL merger, and the fourth most among all receivers last season. He's a star in the making, and if players take their biggest leap from year one to year two, what can we expect from Jefferson in 2021?

Twentyman: The Vikings have talented skill-position players on offense in Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook. Kirk Cousins threw for 4,265 yards with 35 touchdowns a season ago, though he'll want to limit the 13 interceptions.

The question mark on defense is in the secondary. Can the veteran Peterson give them a boost there?

I expect the Vikings to get back to their winning ways under Zimmer, if they stay healthy. It's a really good starting 11 on both sides of the ball, but there's limited depth behind it.

The Vikings have the defensive and offensive weapons to give the Packers a real run at the NFC North title.


2020 record: 5-11

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

2021 strength of schedule: 6th (143-127-2)

New faces: QB Jared Goff, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams, DE Michael Brockers, LB Alex Anzalone

Key losses: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones Jr., WR Jamal Agnew, RB Adrian Peterson, LB Jarrad Davis

Impact rookie: T Penei Sewell

There are a number of rookies who are expected to have a big impact for Detroit this year, but all eyes will certainly be on Sewell, the No. 7 overall pick, to begin the season.

The top tackle prospect in this year's draft slotted into the right tackle spot Day 1 in Detroit. Sewell had an up-and-down preseason, but he is a smart, athletic tackle, who's been touted as a fast learner.

Detroit's offense will only be as good as their offensive line, and Sewell is expected to be the piece that solidifies that unit upfront for Detroit.

Most significant changes: A new general manager, new head coach, new quarterback and new defensive scheme. What isn't a significant change for the Detroit Lions franchise in 2021?

Fans will probably notice the biggest changes on defense, where new coordinator Aaron Glenn has switched to a base 3-4 scheme. The defense will be much more aggressive and creative with their blitz packages. It's a pretty young group, so there will be mistakes, but how quickly they learn from them and take the right steps forward will be a big factor in how much better Detroit's defense can be from the one that gave up the most points and yards in team history.

Player to watch: CB Jeff Okudah

Goff certainly fits here, but the No. 3 overall pick last year, Okudah, had an injury-plagued rookie season that didn't live up to his draft status. Now healthy, Okudah has come into his second camp with much greater confidence. He's been good in camp, and he's expected to take a huge leap forward in his second season. If he can lock down one side of the field, it will make things a lot easier on defense.

Twentyman: There's some talent on this roster on both sides of the ball, but it's a young team. There will be some growing moments.

The biggest question in Detroit is how big of an impact this coaching staff can have. Players play and coaches coach, but this staff is made up of a lot of former players, and is highly regarded around the league.

Can Glenn's scheme make things easier for defenders to play faster and make plays? Can offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn push all the buttons with a veteran quarterback in Goff under center? This Lions team is young and should be fun to watch.

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