2019 NFC North Division Team Previews

2019 NFC North Division Team Previews

The 2019 National Football League season kicked off Thursday night with a Packers-Bears divisional battle. Despite playing inside of Soldier Field in front of a sold-out Chicago arena the Bears offense showed the reasons why many pundits expect the windy city squad to take a step back in 2019. 2019 NFC North Division Team Previews.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky struggled against a below-average Packers defense. Chicago failed to score a single touchdown in a 10-3 loss. The credit goes to the Green Bay defensive scheme. However, some of why Trubisky scuffled was due to the offense being without receiving tight end Trey Burton to injury.

NFC North Division /  Chicago Bears

Prior to the ’18 draft, Chicago fired caveman Head Coach John Fox.  Prior to the draft I challenged (in print) GM Ryan Pace to “give me a better draft”.  After the draft I gave Chicago my tied 2nd highest draft grade!  Armed with a + point ratio and a 4th place schedule, the improvement was expected, especially with QB Trubisby in year #2.  My only regret as noted in my final draft report (sent out May ’18) was that the Bears did not draft an OLB.  Stunningly, that need was erased when Chicago traded for Khalil Mack prior to the start of the season.  While Chicago can’t sit on its laurels, the future could be very bright, indeed.

What went right: Trubisky went from 59.4% and a 7-7 ratio to 66.6%, a 24-12 ratio, and 6.2 yards-per-rush.  2nd year RB Tarik Cohen ran 4.5 per carry, led Chicago with 71 receptions and was solid on punt returns.  Mack had 12.5 sacks, almost as many as the entire Oakland Raider team!  The defense was elite!  The run D finished #1, allowing 80 per game.  The point D was #1 and the overall D was #3.  Chicago allowed only 278 1st downs, had a 50-33 sack ratio, and a +3:40 time of possession edge.  The 3rd down D was easily top five.  DB Fuller led a team that recorded 27 defensive interceptions.  Read the following sentence: Chicago had a total of 24 defensive interceptions in the previous 48 games (3 seasons)!  Amazing!  It should also be noted that Chicago’s 61.3% pass D was 3rd in the NFL.

What went wrong: The offense was only 21st overall, but that was not unexpected.  Opposing kickers went 25-26 vs. the Bears.  Luckily, that is random.  The special team ranking was just 26th, but overall this is a very thin paragraph!

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): Most of Chicago‘s free agency losses are not impactful.  Jordan Howard was not fitting Chicago’s scheme but he will be missed.  Dion Sims was the #3 TE.  Josh Bellamy was the #4 WR.  Other losses included back-up interior OL Eric Kush, back-up LB Sam Acho, decent starting safety Adrian Amos and their kicker.  Mike Davis was added at RB.  Ted Lawson is the new interior OL option.  Buster Skrine and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are new to the secondary.  Cordarrelle Patterson is average as a WR but is the NFL’s #1 kick return specialist.

2019 draft recap: The Bears started and ended the draft with just five picks thanks to ’18 trades, one of which got them LB Mack.  This was never going to be a splash draft considering how late they selected but certainly they could have done better.

RB Montgomery makes sense but WR Ridley was lower rated and in a draft of five you just can’t select two NR (not draft worthy) players and a * rated DL.  Respected analysts did not like the trade up to get a slow RB (Montgomery).  Stud TE was not addressed but UDFA Dax Raymond did receive a * rating.  Kicker was also on my list.  As you may remember, eight kickers were on the roster in early May.  The competition is down to two.  Chicago is a tough team to beat but this draft didn’t move the chain.  BEST PICK: Montgomery.  OTHER PICKS THAT WILL MADE A DIFFERENCE IN 2019: None.  Still left to do? They failed to add a stud TE or an OT to challenge the starters.  I still see a lack of depth in several other areas.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Mitchell Trubisky is getting better but is not yet at his peak.  Chase Daniel is the primary backup.

RB: The hope is that rookie David Montgomery will take on the lead RB duty.  Tarik Cohen can be a spot starter and change of pace receiving option.  Mike Davis and Ryan Nall have some talent, with rookie Kerrith Whyte hoping to earn a spot as well.

WR: Chicago has finally made this position relevant.  Allen Robinson is the lead guy, with Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller decent as well.  Raw rookie Riley Ridley will challenge role players Cordarrelle Patterson and Javon Wims for the #4 spot.

TE: The unit runs four or five deep but lacks anything close to a superstar.  Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen are the top two.

OL: Improving and becoming cohesive.  There are no true superstars but they work well as a full unit.

DL: The three man front has four interchangeable parts.  Overall I’d call them a bit above average.

LB: Danny Trevathan is a try-hard guy who starts, while Leonard Floyd has more natural talent but can’t stay on the field.  Once the pillars of the LB group, they are now second fiddle to Roquan Smith and the great Khalil Mack.  The backups are acceptable.

DB: Prince Amukamara is pretty much a poor man’s starting CB at this point, starting opposite very good Kyle Fuller.  No other CB talent is worth mentioning, meaning the Bears need help in this area.  I’d call the safety unit a bit above average.

Special Teams: The talent show continues at kicker.  Can anyone win the job?  Cohen is a good return specialist while Patterson is the NFL’s top kick returner with a bullet!  The unit needs to find a way to cover kicks and punts better.

Coaching: No one misses John Fox.  With Vic Fangio off to Denver, Chuck Pagano is the new defensive coordinator.  I fear that his pass defense will be too soft at times.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: Now the hunted, how does Chicago navigate a 1st place schedule?  Rookie RB Montgomery has to be charted.  Tarik Cohen is best used outside of the feature back role.  How will the kicking circus play out?

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? Mitch Trubisky sat.  Almost everyone on offense sat.  RB Montgomery was 3-16.  The backups looked a tad better than expected but that’s it from learning about the offense.  One projected defensive starter got in some stats!  Are the Bears taking it too easy?  Three or four of the 2nd string guys looked good.  For now, Eddy Pineiro is the kicker.  He was 8-9 but the highlights after week four showed his brutal PAT miss.  He was well thought of in Oakland before going on IR a year ago.   Kerrith Whyte was decent as the return guy as the main men sat like everyone else.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Chicago will be the hunted this year.  That means they will play many prime time games, doing so with a rare 1st place schedule.  In addition I don’t expect them to repeat their +10 turnover ratio.  They’ll try to come close to that figure so that “free” points won’t be lost.  The season opens on a Thursday with Chicago hosting Green Bay.  In my opinion neither team is ready for the opener!

Amazingly, this could be a strong start as they will have ten days to prepare for a trip to Denver and while they must play on the road on MNF, they play Washington, one of the worst prime time teams.  Situational conflict exists with the short week hosting the Vikings, but a win in London as the “road” team vs. Oakland should mean 3-2 or quite possibly 4-1 heading into their bye week.  Games 6-8 are tricky.  They host powerful New Orleans, host good team LA (Chargers) and travel to Philly, hoping for playoff revenge.  This looks more like 1-2 and not 2-1.

Chicago might be about 6-3 before they travel to face the Rams on SNF.  LA has cold weather revenge from a year ago and I expect a loss in this game.  Once again they play at Detroit on Thanksgiving.  They beat the Lions 23-16 a year ago.  The final four games are vs. Dallas (tossup), at Green Bay (Packers traditionally a strong December host), home to KC and at Minny.  These are certainly some challenging games.

BOTTOM LINE: Chicago had two positive indicators heading into ’18 but that is not the case this time around.  I think the ceiling is 10-6 but 9-7 is the more likely result and an unexpected dip could result if the kicking game lets them down.  Chicago is certainly good enough to return to the playoffs but I think the margin for error this year is very thin.

KEY GAMES: I’m going with the stretch vs. fellow playoff teams New Orleans, the Chargers and Philly.  These are NOT prime time games so the scheduling is fair.  Going 2-1 in these games makes Chicago clearly playoff relevant.  Handicapping Tip: None.  I like the team but the situations are tricky and my game by game notes show more conflict than clarity.  2019 POWER # SET: 29.

______________

NFC North Division / Detroit Lions

To say Matt Patricia had a rough 1st year as a Head Coach would be a clear understatement.  Consistent play was lacking, so even though the Lions shocked New England and held serve hosting Green Bay there was also the issue of a 48-17 loss vs. the Jets as well as five additional losses by 12 or more points.  I don’t think the Lions are that far off from playoff contention, but playing six games vs. Divisional opponents Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota makes that goal somewhat of a longshot right now.  Having a draft plan would be a very important 1st step.

What went right: Through games 1-8 the run D was 222-1,140-5.15.  In games 9-16 the run D was 181-621-3.45.  The October trade for DT Damon Harrison was a huge part of that turnaround.  Time of possession was +3:47 thanks in part to a solid 3rd down defense.  What else went right?

What went wrong: Offensively, the run game suffered when LeGarrette Blount (2.7 per carry) was in the lineup.  Kerryon Johnson hopes to fix that.  Poor TE play, coupled with the WR losses of Marvin Jones (injury) and Golden Tate (trade) led to the demise of the offense.  The offense scored 167 points in their final ten games, six of which were vs. non-playoff teams.  3rd down back Theo Riddick averaged just 6.3 per reception, with zero TD’s.  As usual the pass D% was below standard.  The punt return D was below average.  The loss of elite KR specialist Agnew (injury) impacted what was a strong suit in ‘17.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): The Lions have been active in free agency and for the most part the roster looks better.  New Lions include RB C.J. Anderson, TE’s Jesse James and Logan Thomas, WR Danny Amendola, edge rusher Trey Flowers and CB’s Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin.  Flowers is the big addition.  Losses include TE Luke Wiilson, WR/return guy Bruce Ellington, OG T.J. Lang, two back-up LB’s, CB Nevin Lawson and safety Glover Quin.  Only Lawson and Quin were starters.  Lawson was a liability, but Quin will be missed.  Jim Bob Cooter is out as offensive coordinator, replaced by Darrell Bevell.  This is an upgrade.

2019 draft recap: Let’s get this out of the way first: I took plenty of heat for my take on LB Tavai.  The ‘true” draft gurus realize he was over-drafted.  The Lion fan base has no clue!  Meanwhile, Detroit rebounded to have a somewhat productive draft.  Yes, the sun shines over all 50 states and does NOT avoid Michigan!  The Lions got tougher in the front seven and completely turned around their TE slot.  TE Hockenson starts now.  Tavai had 5th round value, costing this team a real 2nd round talent but he easily makes the current LB group deeper.  Will Harris was a necessary addition with Quin gone but he carried 6th round value.  DE Bryant (4-117) had a late 2nd round grade and CB Oruwanye (5-146) had a draft range of 55-70 so the Lions clearly made some solid moves.  RB Ty Johnson is an elite kick returner and perhaps a change of pace RB.  s

BEST PICK: CB Oruwariye.

WE GET THE MESSAGE, PART II: The Lions got bigger at LB and have added seven TE’s at one time or another under Matt Patricia.  The New England blood runs deep in Michigan.

LET’S MAKE A DEAL: Undrafted free agents usually sign for between 5K and 35K.  The Lions reportedly spent over 300K on three guys, two of them OL.  Yes, RG was a glaring need that somehow they did not wish to address earlier.  s

TWITTER AS IT RELATES TO HAVING A THICK SKIN: Tavai is classified as a 4-3 defensive run stopper with a solid NFL frame.  Better suited as an ILB, he can easily carve out a career as a complimentary two down run stuffer.  If that is what you want with pick 43 when you ignored stronger needs at OL, DB and DE then congratulations, you made the right pickStill left to do?  Even with the after draft additions RG may still be a sore spot.  I like Will Harris better than most, but the box safety wasn’t overly productive in college.  Who will clean up mistakes from the free safety spot?  Much more needed to be done with the pass rush (OLB).  Amendola is 34 years old and just a band aid solution.  He’s the #3 guy and the unrated Fulgham is the #4 option.  That’s not good enough for me.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Stafford fits as a top ten NFL QB.  There would be a sizeable drop in performance if he were to miss any time.

RB: Kerryon Johnson has a chance to be an impact RB.  C.J. Anderson is the veteran backup.  Rookies back them up.

WR: Marvin Jones needs to stay healthy.  Kenny Golladay is a solid #2 option who will push Jones.  Danny Amendola, Travis Fulgham, and perhaps someone named Brandon Powell round out the unit.

TE: Jesse James and T.J. Hockenson transform this unit into something potentially special.  Two others add quality depth.

OL: The Lions continue to work hard to make this unit better.  Ricky Wagner is just acceptable at RT.  The OG’s are average.  LT and center are in solid shape.

DL: Damon Harrison has been a find for the run defense.  I’m not a huge fan of DE Romeo Okwara, Trey Flowers is a nice DE addition.  Two other DL have some talent, while rookie Austin Bryant could be someone to keep an eye on down the road.

LB: ’17 rookie Jarad Davis has solidified the MLB spot.  Rookie Tavai is his new backup.  Devon Kennard and Christian Jones are the listed starting OLB’s.  This is hardly a deep unit.

DB: Darius Slay is good, yet the pass D% is never good.  Newcomers Coleman and Melvin will vie for the spot opposite Slay but in the long run I like 5th round rookie Oruwariye.  The safeties are Qunadre Diggs and Tracy Walker, with Will Harris the next best option?  This part of the secondary could be a liability in ’19.

Special Teams: Solid, and punt returner Jamal Agnew is top notch.

Coaching:  Matt Patricia may or may not be a good Head Coach.  Joe Bob Cooter was fired.  He was okay, but Darrell Bevell is a slight upgrade.  Paul Pasqualoni scares me defensively, just like I said a year ago.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: Will Darrell Bevell elevate offensive play like I think he will?  How will the Lions exploit their new found TE riches?  I’m concerned about how the slower LB’s (built to stop the run) handle pass coverage responsibilities.  Finally, how will the pass defense compensate without having the savvy Glover Quin to bail them out

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? The Lions went 0-4 with a 62-105 point ratio.  It’s only August, but Matt Patricia needed to win something just to get rid of the losing stigma.  The sack ratio was a putrid 4-20!  Still, Stafford looks fine and three RB’s do as well.  The starting WR’s were barely used, but Amendola could contribute as the WR3.  Rookie TE Hockenson looks ready, as do his backups.  Nothing special happened in the run defense.  The pass defense stayed subpar.  The players got their work in but how talented is the secondary, especially if the pass rush slumps (I think the pass rush will be fine).  Jamal Agnew looks ready to roll in the return game.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Detroit’s ’19 schedule seems to be favorable.  They have just one set of back-to-back road games (Lions not good in that role in the past).  They have a +12 rest differential, best in the NFL.  No opponents will be off a bye week before facing Detroit.  With that being said, games 1-6 won’t be easy.  After opening at Arizona they host the Chargers, travel to Philly and host KC.  After the bye week they play at Green Bay on MNF and with a short week, host Divisional rival Minny.

The 1st two games look like tossups.  Philly sometimes lets down at home but is the better team, especially if Detroit’s pass defense stays high.  KC is one of the top teams but will come to Detroit having just played physical Baltimore.  Green Bay went 0-2 vs. the Lions a year ago and will be focused.  This looks like a 2-4 start.  The record must get to at least 3-4 with a win over the visiting NYG.  Three of the four November games are on the road (Oakland, Chicago, Washington).

The home game is vs. Dallas.  The goal is to get to at least 2-2 in this stretch.  Games 12-16 give the Lions hope if they survived the tough start.  They host Chicago on Turkey Day, go to Minny, host Tampa, go to Denver in a possible cold weather game and close ’19 by hosting Green Bay.

BOTTOM LINE: I like the change at offensive coordinator, plus the Lions have a 4th place schedule and a partial plus point ratio.  Maybe they can sneak up on a few teams.  I hate their pass defense and even at LB they lack pass coverage speed.  Still, this is an improved roster so if Green Bay remains vulnerable, Minny continues to have chemistry issues and if they can win hosting Chicago on Turkey Day there is at least a chance the Lions can be a playoff contender.  All that sounds good but overall this looks like 7-9.  Can Matthew Stafford elevate his game?

KEY GAMES: The 1st two.  Going 2-0 at Arizona and hosting the Chargers instantly puts them into playoff contention.  A 1-1 split may not be good enough.  Handicapping Tip: The Lions are unreliable against the spread as a road favorite.  On the other hand, I have at least six spots where if they meet certain thresholds the Lions would be a solid dog.  I’m guessing I will have two-way action on their games in ’19, perhaps with a few more plays on the Lions if the situations hold true. 2019 POWER # SET: 24.5

______________

NFC North Division / Green Bay Packers

For years I lamented about how Green Bay routinely finished just one step away from a coveted playoff bye, awarded to the top two NFC finishers.  Having that bye week would have reenergized a defense that tended to fade each and every December.  Worry no more!  Green Bay’s 6-9-1 record last year might have been a signal that major changes were needed.  Mike McCarthy is out, replaced by Matt LeFleur.  With six of the top 120 picks in the ’19 draft it’s not too late to make another Super run.

What went right: GB found a run game, as Aaron Jones led the NFL with a nearly 5.5 per carry average.  WR Adams firmly established himself as a top ten target.  Aaron Rodgers had but two interceptions.  That’s it for the once vaunted offense.  The defense had 44 sacks.  LB Blake Martinez had a big season with 144 tackles and five sacks.  That’s it for the D.  As for special team play, the only thing that was positive was random.  Opposing kickers were just 23-31 vs. GB.  This is a very thin section

What went wrong: Aaron Rodgers is known for his deadly accuracy but in this era of pass happy offenses his 62.3% placed him just 26th of all QB’s who met the minimum attempt threshold.  The patched up OL allowed a very high 53 sacks, and 103 now in the last two seasons!  Injuries did hurt defensively, with six guys playing in ten or fewer games.  Two interceptions led the team as the Packers recorded just seven or eight in total!  I’ve noted various times how Rich Gosselin’s elite study of special team play has ranked all NFL teams in order of efficiency.  Close your eyes, Packer fans!  GB was last in this critical metric!  Three phases of the return game were substandard.  Punter J.K. Scott had nine touchbacks in 70 attempts.  Finally, the returners used fumbled eight times.  It’s hard to compete with that type of performance.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): It’s a new era as GB is now fully participating in free agency.  It’s quiet offensively, with only OG Billy Turner added and no one subtracted.  Edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos are here.  The only defensive losses are at LB, where Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Jake Ryan and Antonio Morrison all left.  LeFleur adds Nathaniel Hackett as his offensive coordinator, while keeping 2nd year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.  Shawn Mennenga was with Cleveland for seven years before having a positive effect on Vanderbilt’s special team play last year.  He’s entrusted to fix the NFL’s worst special team unit from a year ago.

2019 draft recap: I often disagree with how GB goes about filling its need board.  Impact pass rusher was in play early, but Gary may not be that guy.  If Jenkins doesn’t slide to OG then Green Bay missed out on some of their top areas of need (in my eyes).

GB has used its 1st pick on a defensive player every year since 2011.  Gary may end up as a 3-4 DE but he lacked college production and two sources feel he underachieved.  I like him, just not for this team.  Savage will help at safety.  TE Sternberger was properly drafted.  DT Keke is a typical rotational Packer type.  The other two back seven draftees received NR (not draft worthy) grades.  As usual my draft grade for this team was C+, which is not great with this being such a strong draft class.  BEST PICK: Gary and Savage have the highest ceilings, but could top out as routine starters.  SAFEST PICK: OL Jenkins.  Still left to do? LB was virtually ignored.  Maybe Jenkins goes to OG but I want a more traditional OG along with him.  Where’s the pass rush talent from a draft full of pass rush impact?  Finally, there were opportunities to add a pass catching RB

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Aaron Rodgers is elite but needs to take more chances. DeShone Kizer is an acceptable back-up in this system.  NOTE: He was one of the 8/31 roster cuts.  If no other move is made Rodgers better stay healthy.

RB: 3rd year RB’s Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams lead the way.  They are backed up by Tra Carson and Dexter Williams.

WR: Davante Adams is a top ten target.  Everyone else seems to be scrambling to prove that they are more than just #3 types.

TE: GB’s best days were when they had multiple TE options. They have three options now.  Rookie Sternberger is one to watch.

OL: Never great, the unit basically remains the same.  Rookie Elgton Jenkins hopes to unseat one of the average interior OL.

DL: Always serviceable, but never stocked by more than complimentary types.  The run D might suffer yet again.

LB: This unit can go six deep but may lack an impact playmaker.  New OLB’s Preston and Za’Darius Smith join ILB’s Oren Burks and Blake Martinez.  Where will rookie Rashan Gary fit in?

DB: Despite high draft choices used for this area the secondary continues to disappoint.  I like the top four CB’s so maybe we’ll see some improvement.  With Josh Jones (2nd round pick in ’17) recently cut the safeties could read Adrian Amos and rookie Darnell Savage.  Expect growing pains in ’19.

Special Teams: Mason Crosby can be streaky but has a good leg.  Punting is average at best.  The return game is unsettled.

Coaching:  Mike McCarthy wore out his welcome with Aaron Rodgers and the fan base.  I’m not sure how the offense will look in year one for Matt LaFleur.  I like that they retained 2nd year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.  Shawn Mennenga could be a step up as special team coordinator.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: Hoping Aaron Rodgers regains his swagger and becomes less risk averse.  I’d like to see better offensive schemes to limit sack vulnerability.  How ready is GB after not being able to play starters in August?

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? Set to play their 1st string week three of the preseason, the Packers instead sat everyone as the game was played on an unplayable 80 yard field!  Almost nothing was accomplished offensively!  Could WR Allen Lazard unseat one of the “heralded” ’18 rookies?  I liked him out of college.  Modest at best work was done defensively, with the secondary getting almost no action.  It seems like GB is still searching for answers in the return game.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: The roster is better thanks to free agency.  GB needed a fresh start with a new coaching staff.  The worry is how ready they are to start the season.  Games 1-5 are at Chicago, hosting Minny with ten days to prepare, hosting Denver, hosting Philly on Thursday night, and at Dallas, again with ten days to prepare.  Four of the opponents are good but this is a made to order home slate with excellent early pacing advantages.  Amazingly the Packers stay at home games 6-7 when they host the Lions on MNF and then host Oakland.  Anything less than a 5-2 start would be cause for concern.

Four of the next five games are on the road, with a home game vs. Carolina in the middle of this stretch.  They are 5-0 the last five at the Chargers, 3-1 the last four hosting Carolina, decent at SF (and GB will be well rested) and have a mixed history at the NYG.  This team has a real opportunity to take command of the NFC North but again, how ready are they to start the season?  I’ll clearly be periodically checking to see what’s happening with Aaron Rodgers, the TE’s and the OL as well as looking to see if year two for Mike Pettine’s defense is any better.

After playing Divisional games weeks 1, 2 and 6 the Packers wait until the final three weeks to finish up vs. the NFC North.  They host Chicago before playing at Minny on MNF and with a short week, at Detroit.  This is the 1st time since ’04 GB finishes with two late road games and the short week between games seems a bit unfair.

BOTTOM LINE: Can GB build up some early win equity to withstand the late road trips?  They have a 3rd place schedule and a chance to improve upon their 1-4-1 Divisional record armed with a partial + point ratio.  GB enters ’19 with the usual questions.  Will the OL adequately protect Aaron Rodgers?  Is there enough star talent along the DL and LB?  Will the defense break down as usual in December?  I’ll call this a soft 10-6.  The Packers have three sets of back-to-back road games and that could hold them back but if they can get off to a fast start then the NFC North race won’t be decided until late December.

KEY GAMES: 9/15 hosting Minny and 12/15 hosting Chicago.  These are Divisional home games that must be won.  The other key games will be their performance in the 2nd of each of their back-to-back road games.

Handicapping Tip: Green Bay is 39-21 against the spread in December home games.  I might be interested in backing GB 11/24 at SF.  If things go south and GB is eliminated 12/23 at Minny (MNF) then they may go through the motions in the finale at Detroit.  2019 POWER # SET: 26.5

______________

NFC North Division / Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota added Kirk Cousins in a move they expected would take them to at least the NFC title game and perhaps to a Super Bowl.  While Cousins had a solid season, QB play wasn’t really an issue prior to ’18.  Back seven injuries defensively played a role, but Minny made some (rare) draft focus errors and that, plus team chemistry held them back.  The roster is plenty deep but needs some fixes along the OL, #3 WR, and at LB (speed).  Fix these areas, and add safety help and Minny will be just fine.

What went right: Cousins hit 70.1% so clearly he’s fine, especially with two top tier WR’s and a decent TE to throw to.  When healthy, RB Cook (4.6) is an above average player.  He couldn’t stay healthy, and the rush differential of -322 is proof of that.  Even with injuries, the Viking pass D% remained at or near top five levels.  In addition, they allowed but 15 pass TD’s, #1 in the NFL!  The total D finished 4th.  It was #1 or #2 in the 2nd half of the season.  Minny had 50 defensive sacks.  The 3rd down D was #1 allowing barely over a 31% success rate.  Their punter had just two touchbacks on 72 punt attempts.

What went wrong: The 3rd down offense was successful just 36% of the time despite all their stars.  Everything else was fine except kicking, which was horrible at 22-32.  Minny was unlucky in that opposing kickers were 33-36 in their attempts.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): Minnesota saw little free agency action.  They swapped back-up OL, lost RB Latavius Murray, below par starting RG Mike Remmers, and three players on defense, DT Sheldon Richardson and safeties George Ikola and Andrew Sendejo.  QB Coordinator Kevin Stefanski is the new offensive coordinator.

2019 draft recap: Should Minny have taken Bradbury at 18?  Its fine, as the fringe 1st rounder fits their #1 need since their current starting center will move to OG.  Adding Samia seals the OL need.  Maybe Irv Smith lessons extra WR need but I think Minny overtraded later in the draft, or at least did not draft enough rated players, especially day three.  I’ve never seen this team draft five players listed as NR (not draft worthy)!  RB Mattison (3-102) lacks NFL play speed.  DT Watts, safety Epps, WR Olabasi Johnson and long snapper Cutting were the other misfires in my opinion.

Minny waited too long to address WR concerns and took an unrated safety in another area of need.  Far better RB’s were available at 102.  I like LB Cam Smith more than most (5th round pick, properly drafted) because of his football smarts.  A 3rd OL was selected and he was rated but at the expense of fixing another position.  CB Kris Boyd is part of a crowded group but was value in the 7th round.

My draft would have been completely different, as it’s time to move on from WR Laquon Treadwell.  I need them to draft two WR’s, two LB’s, a rated safety, a rated RB, a faster LB and youth along the DL.  I’m surprised this GM stumbled so much on draft day.

BEST PICK: Irv Smith.  Bradbury is the safe pick but if used correctly Smith can be special.

POSITION ADDRESSED CORRECTLY: OL.

STOP PLAYING FANTASY FOOTBALL: Most of the trades made by Minny were unnecessary.  Fix your draft board!

Still left to do? To summarize from above, two WR’s, a rated safety, a fast, cover LB and a better RB, and DL youth.  Bradbury might start in September, but I still wish they would have fortified their WR group and selected a stronger RB to team with oft-injured Cook.  Could Minny falter due to lack of depth behind RB Cook, the lack of a true 3rd and 4th WR option, the lack of speed at LB and depth at safety?  If so, blame the draft, as all four of these issues could have been easily addressed.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Kirk Cousins is a top ten QB and is not the problem.  There’s a huge drop in talent if he goes down.

RB: Dalvin Cook was injury prone in college and may never get through a 16 game NFL season.  Minny has more options than in the past should Cook miss time.  Rookie Alexander Mattison does not seem like a great fit to me but maybe I’ll be wrong.

WR: Adam Thielan and Stefon Diggs are a great one-two punch. Unfortunately, draft bust Laquon Treadwell is still the 3rd option.

NOTE: Treadwell was cut on 8/31.  The Vikings currently have only four WR’s on their roster!

TE: Kyle Rudolph is a top ten TE.  David Morgan and rookie Tyler Conklin are decent secondary options.  Despite this, Minny went after rookie Irv Smith in the draft.  Smith has the potential to be the best of the bunch.  This position is really deep.

OL: The line is average but shows potential to improve.  LT Riley Reiff, LG Pat Elfein and rookie center Garrett Bradbury are great building blocks.  The right side of the line is vulnerable.

DL: Solid, but not as deep.  I see no major issues up front.

LB: Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are back, but Barr has severe issues in coverage that were exposed last season.  Ben Gedeon is the other starter, while Kentrell Brothers is back healthy which helps the depth.  Cam Smith could help at times.

DB: Mike Zimmer has built this unit up to top three levels.  Last year the unit had cluster injuries at CB.  They have four legit NFL CB starters including top tier player Xavier Rhodes.  I like strong safety Harrison Smith but was disappointed that Minny didn’t try to provide competition for Anthony Harris.  Safety depth is lacking.

Special Teams: Punting is average at best, while kicking is a work in progress but has star potential if Dan Bailey regains his earlier form.  The return game could be interesting but for now it’s more about potential than production.

Coaching: Mike Zimmer is a top five NFL coach (or better).  He tells things the way it is which does rub some people the wrong way.  The new offensive coordinator is Kevin Stefanski.  He’ll need to answer to Zimmer directly when he game plans.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: Navigating tricky games 1-7 without reverting back to team chemistry issues.  Figuring out who can assume the WR3 role.  No one on the current roster can be that guy.  Demonstrating pass protection improvement, which really should happen?   Making triple sure RB Cook stays healthy.  Showing demonstrated kicking improvement.

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING?  RB Cook ran two times for 88 yards.  Just keep him healthy!  Rookie Mattison was just 25-89.  Three other guys actually looked good!  Plodder Laquon Treadwell was given every chance to step up his game.  His 8-89 stat line continues to show that he can’t separate in the NFL.  The TE’s are all good.  Sacks were held way down.  The defense was not as stout as I would have liked to have seen.  The LB’s got in great work.  Minny traded a 5th round pick for an unknown kicker (in August no less) but he was dismal in game situations.  Dan Bailey was 3-3.  The return defense was poor.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Minnesota hopes to rebound from a disappointing last season but the ’19 schedule won’t be easy.  The opener is vs. explosive Atlanta.  They travel to GB and Chicago weeks two and four.  They remain on the road to face the NYG week five.  The goal is 4-1, but a 3-2 start would be acceptable.  Games 6-7 are hosting Philly (tossup game) and at Detroit (also a tossup at their place).  0-2 would be unacceptable and possibly bring up more chemistry issues.  The Vikings have a whopping five prime time games between weeks eight and fifteen.

Every game carries a storyline worth noting.  They host Washington, QB Cousins former team.  They have no wins at KC but ten days to prepare.  They go to Dallas where the Cowboys will be off a short week but Cousins has a 1-6 record vs. Dallas.  Gary Kubiak is the new OL coach.  He bolted Denver, the team Minny hosts 11/17.  Minny has 15 days to prepare for playing at Seattle on MNF but the Vikings have been awful of late in MNF road games.  That gives them a short week before hosting Detroit.  Game #14 is at the LA Chargers.  Minny has had issues in late season road games and is facing a solid team.  Their final two games are at home in key Divisional matchups hosting GB (MNF) and Chicago (short week).

BOTTOM LINE: I like this team and they can win the Division but it won’t be easy.  The schedule is tricky and filled with drama.  The WR situation is crazy.  RB Cook needs to be kept in a bubble.  Head Coach Zimmer has to work his magic without rubbing people the wrong way.  Finally, both the Vikings and QB Cousins have to play better under the lights.  Could they be just 7-6 prior to closing games at the Chargers and home to GB and Chicago?  Stay tuned.

KEY GAMES: 10/6 at the NYG, prime time games at Dallas and Seattle, and the closing home Divisional games.  How will Minny play at the NYG a week after going to Divisional rival Chicago?  Can they split the prime time road games?  Can they take care of business at home in the closing Divisional games?  Handicapping Tip: Minny is 20-30 vs. the spread as a road favorite over 3 points.  That could come into play 10/6 at the NYG.  I like road dog Atlanta in the opener.  I think they could be flat hosting the Lions on 12/8 after a MNF game at Seattle.  2019 POWER # SET: 28.

SPECIAL NOTE:  Minny added WR Josh Doctson to the roster on 9/2.  While he did not have a great career at Washington I know this is an upgrade over WR Treadwell.  Doctson’s best trait was his red zone efficiency.  He’ll be given every chance to win the WR3 job on this team.

 

 

Have a Google Home and want to listen to the latest WagerTalk Podcast when it comes out this week? Say “Hey Google, play the WagerTalk Podcast!”

iHeartRADIO
iTunes
Google Play
SoundCloud
Spreaker
STITCHER
tunein
blubrry
acast

Latest Betting Odds and Public Action
Some of the top Vegas and offshore sportsbooks odds are updated in real-time and we also provide who the public is on.

Last Minute Handicapping Advice
Check out our extensive library of handicapping tips and advice from professional Vegas handicappers (we also recommend taking the time to look over our handicapping video library)

Want an expert opinion?
Check out the daily offering of Best Bets from the WagerTalk Handicapping Team (we also suggest checking out the Pick Your Team Program). Also, remember, you can save up to 60% on daily packages with WagerBuxx Plans

WagerTalk Text Club is FREE and includes FREE PICKS and Exclusive Discounts. Just text WAGERTALK to 33222 and get a $10.00 coupon just for signing up!


2019 National Football Conference North Division Team Previews