Around the NFC North: Season Review

Looking back on a subpar season for the NFC North. 

It wasn't a great year in the NFC North. The Vikings rode a lucky streak to the playoffs and then lost to Daniel Jones, the Bears were the Bears, and the Lions were great for just about exactly half the season, We don't need to talk about the Packers. Let's review how we got here.

Minnesota Vikings

  • The Vikings were bottom 10 in DVOA, had a bottom 10 defense, and Kirk Cousins at QB. It was by the grace of the football gods that they even managed to finish the season above 500, much less as a playoff team. 
  • Of course, Justin Jefferson's play this season may cause some people to mistake him for a god. The third-year receiver led the league in receptions and receiving yards and came that close to challenging Calvin Johnson's season record for yards. Jefferson is a bona fide stud and currently has the belt for best receiver in the league. 
  • Cousins was Cousins. He accumulated plenty of counting stats and choked when it mattered. Cousins could be a Super Bowl-winning QB but only in the way that Joe Flacco was a Super Bowl-winning QB. The Vikings have an aging defense, 1.5 stars on offense, and negative $14mm in salary cap space for 2023. It might be time to ditch Cousins and start a rebuild. But that's for another article. 
  • On defense, the team combined a loose pass defense with a Swiss cheese run defense. They brought in Ed Donatell to run the Vic Fangio defense right when 50% of the league was adopting it. Unsurprisingly, the tactic didn't work and Donatell is already out of a job after just one season. Imagine moving on from a subpar washed-up defensive coordinator after one piss-poor season. Couldn't be us. :'(
  • The team's big off-season acquisition on defense was former Packer Za'Darius Smith. Smith was a roller coaster ride this season. He played well enough in his good games to make the pro bowl but also participated in several games where he didn't even make the stat sheet. The Vikings would save over $13 million by letting him go. If they decide to rebuild, don't be surprised to see him on the market again, looking for a new captain chain. 

Chicago Bears

  • Thanks to an insane ending in game 17 for the Texans, the Bears were the worst team in the league this season. They now enter an offseason with a potential starter at QB, $100 million in cap space, and the first overall pick. 
  • Speaking of the potential starter at QB. Justin Fields showed that he has the athletic ability to be the best mobile QB in the league. He also had a worse passing EPA than Zach Wilson. There's no easy decision for the Bears here. Fields probably had the worst weapons in the league but you'd think he could at least outperform Zach Wilson in year 2 in the NFL. If I were the Bears (the horror), I'd take Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter and invest in receivers this offseason. Build a team around Justin Fields and if he fails with that then you move on. It's not like the Bears franchise is a stranger to top 5 picks. 
  • As far as the weapons go, tight end Cole Kmet was the only player to surpass 500 receiving yards and Fields was the only one to go over 1,000 rush yards. There isn't a single spot on offense that couldn't be upgraded at this point. 
  • On defense, the team played hard and showed promise, but trading Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, and Roquan Smith all in the last twelve months kneecapped them. The best defensive performer was probably UDFA (and former Badger) Jack Sanborn. A few other guys have shown promise (Jaquan Brisker, Jaylon Johnson) but, like the offense, just about every position could be upgraded. The Bears are the only team that could have the first overall pick and $100 million in cap space and not have enough capital to become good. 

Detroit Lions

  • The Lions are the future of the NFC North. They have weapons on offense, play hard on defense, and both coordinators got head coach interviews this offseason. This isn't your father's (or your grandfather's, or your son's or your own) Lions anymore. 
  • The Lions had a top-ten offense with Jared Goff at QB. I'll say that again. The Lions had a top-ten offense with Jared Goff at QB. The Sun god's rise to prominence, DJ Charks late-season surge, and a creative run game allowed the Lions to move the ball against just about everyone. Of course, part of the reason the team put up so many yards on offense was that the defense was bad to meh. 
  • The Lions started the season running the same press-man scheme that the Saints run and that didn't work with their inferior talent last season. This led to having probably the worst defense in the NFL. Once the team made some changes, adapting to personnel, the defense evolved from terrible to just bad. 
  • There is some light at the end of the tunnel. Aidan Hutchinson was great and had the highest PFF grade on the defense. Alim McNeil showed a bunch of flashes. And no one can say the defense wasn't, at least, physical. The Lions have $15 million in cap space and can increase that number pretty easily. Look for them to make some moves to improve the defense and take the next step toward winning the division next season. 

Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.

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Comments (9)

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

January 23, 2023 at 06:16 am

MN should keep ZaDarius unless they rebuild. A rebuild seems doubtful. Z played for $9.5M (OTC valued his play at over $17M) and he is due $12M in 2023. He looks cheap. A trade would make more sense.

Detroit shouldn't generate cap space. They don't have enough to make waves anyway. Michael Brockers is a player one might part with given his $10M in cap savings. He only played in 6 games and wasn't good in them, plus he is 32, so he is not the future anyway. If they take Jalen Carter or another stud DL, Brockers should be a goner. Really, either way.

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GregC's picture

January 23, 2023 at 07:17 am

I think Cousins is a pretty good QB and a good fit for the Vikings at this point. He did fine in all of those close wins. The defense is what's kept them from being contenders. The Vikings defense peaked about five years ago, before they had a good offense, and now that the offense is good, the defense is in a shambles. So sad.

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T7Steve's picture

January 23, 2023 at 07:33 am

The Vikings look like Philly did a couple years ago. Could take a step forward with their new coach or fall off the charts. Almost (I say ALMOST) feel sorry for their fans. They finally won the division and are the third best team.

The Bears are just a couple owners, coaches, and a roster away.

The Lions have a good base to start with. Hopefully they'll go the direction they've taken the last couple centuries and screw it all up.

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Bitternotsour's picture

January 23, 2023 at 07:45 am

The Vikings clearly should stand pat. Extend Cousins, keep Smith, and probably extend everyone they can. Maybe hire Dom Capers as a Defensive consultant.

The Bears just need to stay consistent.

The Lions probably need to remember who they are. They're getting awfully feisty in Detroit.

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Coldworld's picture

January 23, 2023 at 08:36 am

The Vikings are at a crossroads. Cook may be a star of the past, their D is bad, but their O is possibly over the hill bar one player and he is going to want to get very serious money. This may be their high water mark.

The bears flushed themselves with a huge enema this year. They are at ground zero intentionally. They needed that. Now the question is will they get it right. Who knows, but my guess is that Fields will be a short term bridge. He can’t stay healthy and that likely gets worse. Their cap mountain probably ensures a bounce back in the short term, after that, it’s anyone’s guess.

The Lions look like the team with the biggest upside. If their D becomes just average, they have the pieces to contend and a coach that gets more from less and they all buy into visibly. Wouldn’t that be nice!

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ricky's picture

January 23, 2023 at 11:23 am

The Bears will draft or sign another QB in FA, make the wrong choice, and then mismanage the development of that QB. It's been their pattern for years. The Vikings are once again going to be looking for a QB. They will also choose the wrong guy. It's what they do. The Lions are finally on an upward trajectory. And it all started when they hired a HC who was laughed at because he wanted "knee biters" on his team. Yet, this team plays hard for the man, and seems willing to run through walls to please him.
What about the Packers? They have some hard decisions to make. And if recent history is any indication, they're going to make the wrong decisions. They seem content to kick the can down the road, and live in the past rather than face what is happening here and now. The team got rid of one MM (McCarthy); time to get rid of the other one (Mark Murphy), so the team can start to move forward.

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HarryHodag's picture

January 23, 2023 at 11:25 am

Lets put it into a word that most can relate to: sucks.

The Packers underachieved for a myriad of reasons. The chief reason has yet to make up his mind whether to hold the team hostage for another year.
The Vikings proved to be the Vikings. All bright and shiny on the outside but rotten on the inside.
The Bears found yet another way to be one of the two worst teams in the league. Even though it's still his family, that noise you hear is George Halas rolling around in his grave.
Enter the Lions. Finally drafting well, a few key free agents/trades and hiring a competent coach and the league doormat is set to move from the kids table to the adult table next year.

Three of the four teams in this division are on the slide backwards. You can figure out the rest.

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splitpea1's picture

January 23, 2023 at 12:40 pm

Lions: In the catbird seat with 5 draft picks in the first 81. Should be looking for their QB of the future, a better run-blocking TE to replace Hockenson, and the need areas on defense.

Vikings: Whatever happens with their defense, they still should be a winning team. Cousins must have had a mental fart with that last pass he threw in the playoffs.

Packers: Too many variables yet to be resolved as far as their contending status goes. Hopefully the real season will be more entertaining than the off-season.

Bears: Unless they can find the two-way football equivalent of Michael Jordan, they should be trading that first pick down to accumulate top-end talent; their next pick is a late second-rounder, with a pair of fourths and fifths later. Carter, though, is an excellent fit for their type of defense.

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jont's picture

January 23, 2023 at 02:22 pm

A quick look at the Packers
- Appear to be in a holding pattern while everybody's favorite lightning rod clears his head to decide his next move, but there are a few pretty obvious roster decisions to be made regardless of the QB: release several aging players who would be kept only for sentimental reasons (Cobb, Lewis, and Bahktiari among them) and probably renegotiate the contract of the still productive but old for a running back Aaron Jones.
- GB started the season with one of the weakest receiver rooms in the NFL and ended the season with one of the weakest receiver rooms in the NFL. Alan Lazard played enough to lead the team with 60 catches, but there wasn't much competition for that status: the presumed #1 was cut mid-season, Cobb's heir apparent was relegated to punt returns before being cut, Cobb himself was in and out with injuries, and the rest were rookies and practice squad guys who played like it for the most part. Watson turned in a very good second half and Doubs showed promise to give fans some home. The tight end room was no better.
- On defense several of last season's better players regressed. Maybe it was the system, maybe it was the player, probably lots of both. The were no notable mid-season pick-ups by the GM as there were in the previous season.
- Coaching was a mess. A long, mid-season slump killed any hope of a play off run, but it was the failure to improve that is the most telling. Play after play, game after game pass patterns looked chaotic as one player and then the next took turns messing up, and the defense, most notably the secondary, played back far too often and reacted, often late, rather than attacking.

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