Giving our Best Future Bets: NFC North

As we get closer to the kick-off of the NFL Season, we start to develop a more realistic feel on each team’s expectations.  There are all types of things to consider such as free agent acquisitions, injury reports, rookie and second year player progressions, player holdouts, minicamp news, etc.

Team of focus: Detroit Lions

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 125:1

Conference winner: 60:1

Division winner: 9:1

To Make Playoffs: No -650; Yes +450

Regular Season Win Total: o6.0 -160; u6.0 +140

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: D.J. Chark Jr (WR), Mike Hughes (DB), Jarrad Davis (LB), Deshon Elliott (S)

Via Draft: Aidan Hutchinson (DE), Jameson Williams (WR), Joshua Paschal (OL), Kerby Joseph (S)

While I do not feel the Detroit Lions turned their franchise around in one off-season, I think they took a major step in the right direction.  Despite coming off a three-win season in 2021 (3-13-1), Detroit Lions fans have plenty to feel good about heading into the 2022 season.  Everyone always wants to gush about important additions, but if your foundation is not there the additions are almost fool’s gold.  And in my opinion, the Detroit Lions have plenty of bright spots on their roster that they can built on. 

For starters their offensive line has names that many clubs would be eager to have including tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, guards Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, and center Frank Ragnow.  And it is safe to say after of comradery this unit only stems to get better.  To go with that offensive line is their own thunder and lightning running back tandem in D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.  We didn’t get to see the impact that these two can have on a game last year due to the combination of injuries and lopsided games, but if a few things go their way the Lions can expect that to change.  And lastly, and maybe the most important piece on the offensive side of the ball, is top-notch tight end T.J. Hockenson.  Each year of this young man’s career has shown improvement and last year that was cut a little short with a season ending injury.  And now with a few years under his belt and some real threats on the outside, the sky is the limit for Hockenson.

Now, to the additions.  I am extremely impressed with the Lions’ determined approach to addressing their areas of weakness, such as the secondary, wide receiver, and defensive lines.   Signing WR DJ Chark will give QB Jared Goff another skilled weapon, and once WR Jameson Williams returns from his ACL injury, Detroit will have multiple options for Goff to target.  This may not be a top receiving room in the league, but it is drastically improved from last year.  On the defensive side of the ball, it is assumed that DE Aidan Hutchinson will instantly improve a defensive line that had one of the lowest pass rush win rates in the NFL.  At the same time, it is basically guaranteed that the backend of the secondary will improve.  It is hopefully they get their 2020 first-round pick CB Jeff Okudah for an entire season after he played in just one game in 2021, and newly signed safety DeShon Elliott should be an improvement.

Another key focal point for Lions truthers is their strength of schedule, which takes a turn in their favor.  Detroit played the fourth-toughest schedule in 2021 and experienced the third-highest adjusted games lost in the NFL.  Using the combined records of the Lions 2022 opponents, the Lions have the 4th easiest schedule in 2022.  Even more encouraging from a schedule standpoint, the Lions will not face a single opponent that has a rest advantage.

As is the case for all teams, Detroit will need to be on the winning side of close games.  During 2021 they let more than a few opportunities slip through their hands.  Given the upgrades on both sides of the ball (listed above), I think the Lions have a realistic chance to turn some of those 50/50 games into wins.  Additionally, the play calling in the first half of 2021, before Dan Campbell took the reins, was just awful.  Detroit started the first eight games last year winless, but when Campbell stepped in the Lions were able to put together a respectable 9 game record of 3-5-1.  There is no reason to believe Dan Campbell can’t improve on his play calling with most of his offensive starters returning and a few new threats.

I am fairly bullish on the Detroit Lions for this year.  I realistically feel they will finish third in the NFC North behind the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.  I do think they will be more competitive than expected and even be able to surprise some teams.  However, although improved, I think the there are some glaring weaknesses at all levels of the defense and in quarterback play that will hold this team back from making a tremendous leap this year. 

Strongest Lean: Detroit Lions over 6 wins.

Sticking within the NFC North the team of focus: Minnesota Vikings

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 40:1

Conference winner: 16:1

Division winner: 2.5:1

To Make Playoffs: No -125; Yes +105

Regular Season Win Total: o9.0 -135; u9.0 +115

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Za’ Darius Smith (LB), Jordan Hicks (LB), Jesse Davis (OL), Chris Reed (OL), Chandon Sullivan

Via Draft: Lewis Cine (S), Andrew Booth (DB), Ed Ingram (G), Brian Asamoah (LB)

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Anthony Barr (LB), Tyler Conklin (TE), Xavier Woods (S), Mason Cole (C)

It certainly seems like the Minnesota Vikings are one of the more snake-bitten teams in the NFL and it is hard to dispute as they have not been to a Super Bowl since the 1970’s (and have yet to win Super Bowl).  I wouldn’t go as far to say that last year was a letdown, but it certainly was not a success.  There have been a handful of stellar individual accomplishments over the course of the past few years, but with the plus talent on this roster there have not been many positive team moments since the Minnesota Miracle vs the New Orleans Saints during the 2019 playoffs. 

Starting in 2022, the Kevin O’ Connell era as Head Coach in Minnesota has begun.  O’Connell, a first-time head coach, came over from the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams with a new-school offensive approach that will hopefully help quarterback Kirk Cousins shed the reputation as an overpaid, stat-padding, middle of the pack leader.  Things will look different in Minnesota and that’s a good thing.  Zimmer is a well-respected coach, but his hard nose defensive minded style lost its flare.  And the fact that new management did not come in an totally gut the roster shows that they believe the talent and pieces to win are for the most part already in-house.

Let’s begin on the offensive side of the ball.  Minnesota certainly has a few question marks on the offensive line and at tight end, but Cousins, at times, has shown he can play on the big stage.  And there is no doubting that the rest of the skill position players are arguably in the upper echelon of the league.  While the Vikings did not do much to address the tight end position (in hopes that Irv Smith returns from injury and reaches his potential) they have brought in experienced linemen in Jesse Davis and Chris Reed and drafted highly thought of Ed Ingram.  Running back Dalvin Cook is dynamic and super star Justin Jefferson is arguably a top three Wide Receiver.  On top of that, Adam Thielen is more than just a side kick to Jefferson has he has repeatedly produced year-after-year.

With that being said, the offense was not the problem last year.  And that is most likely what led to the head coaching change.  Despite being defensive minded, the defensive unit ranked in the bottom third of the league in opponent yards per play, gave up 400 points or more in consecutive seasons, and continually failed to get crucial stops late in games when it really mattered.

The Vikings hired veteran defensive coordinator Ed Donatell to improve the unit and provide experience within the coaching staff.  But backend talent and health concerns are warranted for this unit.  The loss of Anthony Barr is nothing to lift your nose at, but Minnesota’s linebacking crew is more than solid.  Jordan Hicks was brought in and is vastly underrated, while Za’Darius Smith (when healthy) has proven himself to be one of the best pash rushers in the game.  And this doesn’t even consider Eric Kendricks who is already in-house.

Pairing Smith and Danielle Hunter would be any defensive coordinators dream, but the catch is making sure they both stay away from the injury bug.  Both are coming off seasons where they missed ample time due to injury.  Hunter only played seven games last year while Smith made an appearance in only one game. 

Health aside, the biggest question mark for this defensive unit is the secondary which lacks a true shut down corner, but the need was addressed in the off-season, and I like what they did.  Patrick Peterson was re-signed, and while he is no longer in his prime, he can certainly hold his own.  His side-kick Cam Dantzler was highly sought after coming out of college and has shown flashes of being a real player.  Harrison Smith can always be counted on to be the anchor of that secondary.  If rookies Andrew Booth and Lewis Cine come into their own this defense may sneak up on some teams.   I do feel it is noteworthy that the wide receiver position is not one of strength for the other teams within the NFC North. 

After combing through the roster, it is only normal to size up the competition for the season.  Based solely on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, the Vikings have the 20th toughest schedule.  The past is the past, but in the 2021 season, the Vikings has the 5th toughest schedule.  This season is a nine-home-game campaign for all NFC teams. Beginning last year, the NFL added an additional game to the schedule, and the AFC and NFC will alternate years on conferences receiving an extra home game.  Plus, Minnesota has one game in London, scheduled for Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints.  That “should” have been a road game at the Superdome. Instead, the Vikings take on the Saints on neutral ground.  If you’re keeping score at home, that’s nine home games, seven road games, and a neutral-site matchup.

Like all teams the Vikings have a few questions heading into the 2022 campaign, but I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives.  I think the shift to a more offensive minded head coach and a fresh look on the defensive side of the ball is what this team needs.  The talent on this roster and the softer schedule will prove enough to see the Vikings season extend past the regular season as I do not think there will be seven better teams in the NFC.

Strongest Leans: Vikings over 9 wins; Vikings to make the playoffs

As we continue through NFC North the team of focus: Green Bay Packers

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 11:1

Conference winner: 5:1

Division winner: 1.7:1

To Make Playoffs: No +360; Yes -475

Regular Season Win Total: o11.0 -110; u11.0 -110

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Sammy Watkins (WR)

Via Draft: Quay Walker (LB), Devonte Wyatt (DT), Christian Watson (WR), Romeo Doubs (WR), Sean Rhyan (G)

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Davante Adams (WR), Za’Darius Smith (LB), Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Billy Turner (OL)

Let’s not pretend that losing topflight players on both sides of the ball in the same off season isn’t eye opening, because it is.  But how does that saying go?  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Once again, the Green Bay Packers are favorites to win the division and coast right into the playoffs and it’s no secret that Aaron Rodgers is the reason.

At first it seemed that the Packers weren’t even going to address the loss of Davante Adams and Valdes-Scantling, and it was a bit worrisome.  Especially considering that with two first round picks they passed on wide receivers.  But eventually the Packers drafted Christian Watson (round 2) and Romeo Doubs (round 4), to pair with free agent signee Sammy Watkins.  And let’s not forget one of Rodgers all-time favorite targets, Randall Cobb and familiar face Allen Lazard.  So, despite the lack of a big name, big play receiver, Rodgers elite play should be able to lift the receiver by committee approach.

Outside of the receiver position, the Packer’s did not have to worry too much offensively.  Their head coach, Mike LaFleur has proven in his young career he knows how to put the team in the most effective positions to score (helps when you have Rodgers) and the offensive line always seems to figure it out (helps when you have a mobile QB).  And to top it off, the running back position is in good hands between the versatile Aaron Jones and bruiser A.J. Dillon. 

On the other side of the ball, it should be business as usual.  The Packers defense last year was more than stellar.  To think they were so good last year, and Za’Darius Smith only played in one game is remarkable.  And now they added two first round talents to the already stout defense is very scary for opposing offenses.  If 2022 first round draft picks Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt start this year, the Packers could end up starting seven first round draft picks; also including Kenny Clark (NT), Jaire Alexander (DB), Rashan Gary (DE), Eric Stokes (DB), and Darnell Savage (S).  Those names do not even include Preston Smith (LB) and Adrian Amos) (S) who are more than well respected.

Despite the concerns of play making ability from the wide receiver position, the talent level on this roster is not the issue.  What I fear is the schedule and the target on their back.  Teams are tired of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers waltzing to the playoffs year-in and year-out (had home-field advantage in the playoffs for each of the past two seasons).  And they think that with the connection of Rodgers to Adams gone they have a chance.  They might be right.

The Packers play a first-place schedule, facing three other division winners from the 2021 season.  Yes, the Packers play the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions twice (as they do every season) and both teams have low projected win totals for 2022, but divisional contests are not always a cake walk and there are 13 other games on the schedule.

Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, the Packers have the 11th-easiest schedule in the NFL.  However, Green Bay has eight games against 2021 playoff teams and each of those eight games are versus teams outside of the NFC North. 

The Packers’ schedule presents noteworthy challenges for the 2022 season, principally with the team’s travel schedule in October and November. Starting with their game in London in week 5 (Giants), the Packers will be away from Lambeau four out of five weeks (weeks 5 through 9), a stretch that includes a Sunday Night Football game on the road at one of the favorites in the AFC (Bills), before a tough two-game homestand against the Dallas Cowboys (week 10) their old head coach Mike McCarthy and the Tennessee Titans (week 11).  It should be noted that after week 11, the Packers will have to face off against the Eagles, Bears, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, and Lions.  Three divisional foes and three other potential playoff teams.

Furthermore, twice, the Packers will play a team that is coming off a bye; those games come against:

They also face teams coming off longer rest three other times this season:

  • Washington plays a Thursday night game in week 6 before their week 7 game against Green Bay,
  • the Vikings play on Christmas Eve (a Saturday in 2022) prior to their week 17 game in Lambeau,
  • the Dolphins will play on either a Friday or a Saturday before the Packers visit Miami on Christmas Day.

Additionally, the Rams play on Thursday night before their Monday game in Green Bay, giving them 10 full days of rest compared to the Packers’ 14.

The Green Bay Packers have won 13 games each of the last two seasons.  And I know at first glance the schedule seems friendly, but when you look at the ins-and-outs of the schedule it is not as welcoming as it may seem.  I personally think it will catch up to them.  I do not think the Packers are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs, but the value is not there.

Strongest Leans: Packers under 11 wins

The fourth, last, and some would certainly say least, of the NFC North: Chicago Bears

Caesars’s odds

Super Bowl winner: 150:1

Conference winner: 70:1

Division winner: 13:1

To Make Playoffs: No -475; Yes +360

Regular Season Win Total: o6.5 +130; u6.5 -150

Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings

Via Free Agency: Riley Reiff (LT), Michael Schofield (G), Dante Pettis, (WR), Tajae Sharpe (WR), Byron Pringle (WR), Equanimeous St. Brown (WR)

Via Draft: Kyler Gordon (DB), Jaquan Brisker (S), Velus Jones Jr. (WR)

Via Trade: N’Keal Harry

Key Departures:

Via Free Agency: Allen Robinson (WR), Akiem Hicks (DE), James Daniels (G), Jakeem Grant (WR)

Via Trade: Khalil Mack (DE)

After the last few disappointing seasons Chicago Bears ownership decided it was time for a new regime to step and take over.  In January 2022, the Bears hired new GM Ryan Poles and shortly after hired rookie Head Coach Matt Eberflus.  From the outside looking in the new guys brought in to turn this organization around have an uphill battle.  This was most likely recognized right from the jump as they did not have a pick in the first round of this years draft (traded it in the 2021 draft to obtain Justin Fields).  Furthermore, arguably their best player in Allen Robinson chose to join the Los Angeles Rams, while their best defensive player, Khalil Mack, was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers.  There is no doubt that the Bears got great value in return for Mack and were able to shed a significant amount of cap space in the process, but the trade does no favors to the current roster.

While the Bears do have a few bright spots and some potential pieces to build around, the team is very young.  The talent level is limited.  It is not a stretch to say this season is a “rebuild” year and will be deemed a success if potential franchise QB Justin Fields progresses and can stay healthy. 

Depending on where you look, the Bears offensive line has mixed reviews.  In an article released in early August, ESPN Analytics Seth Walder has the unit ranked as high as 11th (out of 32 teams), while PFF’s grade is next to last.  I should note that the PFF’s latest ranking took place in June and since then they added Riley Rieff and Michael Schofield.  And it is safe to say that much of, if not all of Justin Fields potential relies on this offensive line to come together and outperform expectations. 

But therein lies the problem.  Even if the offensive line steps up, Justin Field has limited options around him.  This is no knock-on David Montgomery who is a very reliable running back, but he can only do some much with a lack of receiving threats on the outside.  Cole Kmet has underwhelmed, and Darnell Mooney has all the makings to be a stud but has yet to put it all together.  The Bears did bring in some wide receivers through free agency, trade, and draft, but none have proven to be effective up until this point in their careers.     

The defensive side of the ball has a few pieces that really interest me.  Their secondary is young but will be put to the test.  Corners Jaylon Johnson, Duke Shelly and Kyler Gordon (rookie) have the potential to be a nice little trio. And veteran safety Eddie Jackson paired with Jaquan Brisker (rookie) could also surprise people.  But that is where I am afraid the strengths of the defense rest.  Robert Quinn had a record year last year, but it is hard to imagine he will repeat those kinds of numbers, and star linebacker Roquan Smith has formally requested a trade.

I have been quite harsh on the Bears outlook for the season, but they do catch at least one break.  That is their strength of schedule, which is one of the more favorable in the league.  And that is crucial for a team working through a transition.  Chicago’s overall schedule ranks as the fifth easiest in the NFL based on projected win totals for the 2022 season. There is a somewhat of a split for the Bears in terms of the difficulty of their schedule at home and on the road. Their road schedule ranks as the fourth friendliest, but their home schedule ranks as the thirteenth hardest.

All in all, regardless of the beneficial schedule rank, I believe the Bears are in for an uphill battle.  The important thing for them is to rebuild the right way and evaluate the talent on the roster.  It will be hard to truly gauge how promising Justin Fields will be based on the talent around him, but if the coaches can from time to time at least see glimpses of his potential it could be all they need in taking the right step as a franchise. 

Strongest Lean: Chicago Bears under 6.5 wins

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