Minnesota's season outlook will depend on how its retooled offensive line fares
We're just a month away from kicking off the 2019 NFL season. The league's 100th anniversary should be an entertaining and exciting season, especially when it comes to the rough and tumble NFC North. This division will once again be extremely competitive, and rest assured that the four franchises have already done their homework on each other. And just as each team has their strengths, they also have their weaknesses. Here are the biggest concerns for each NFC North team in 2019.
1. Chicago Bears tight ends and kickers
These positions have undergone the biggest changes for this team in the offseason. Trey Burton had a solid 2018 campaign in his first season with the Bears (53 receptions, 569 yards, 6 TDs). But he hasn't quite been the same since then. He missed the playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles with a groin injury and underwent sports hernia surgery in the offseason. He missed OTAs and has been somewhat limited in training camp thus far. If he isn't 100 percent to start the regular season then that could be problematic for the Bears.
The rest of the depth behind Burton is questionable at best. Ben Braunecker (83 career receiving yards) has yet to make an impact for the team, 2017 draft pick Adam Shaheen (175 career receiving yards, 4 TDs) has dealt with injuries, while converted offensive tackle Bradley Sowell is trying to make the position change work for him and the team. The other tight ends taking part in training camp is a quartet of undrafted free agents — former Michigan Wolverine and Cal Golden Bear Ian Bunting, former Princeton Tiger Jesper Horsted, Utah State's Dax Raymond, and Ellis Richardson from Georgia Southern. Of this group, Raymond (873 yards in three seasons) enjoyed the most success, while Horsted is making the switch from wide receiver to tight end, and Richardson played in an option-based offense at Georgia Southern. It seems very unlikely that any of these UDFAs will make the final roster but one could end up on the practice squad for the Bears or another team.
Elsewhere, Chicago's placekicking woes have been well documented. The Bears have had more misses than hits in the post-Robbie Gould era, and Cody Parkey was supposed to be the answer to the revolving door at the position. Instead, Parkey put together a forgettable season that will be forever remembered for the "double doink" in the playoff loss. But his issues started well before then as Parkey missed seven field goal attempts and three PATs in the regular season alone.
So not surprisingly, the team elected for a fresh start at kicker. The Bears auditioned 10 kickers during minicamps and OTAs with Eddy Pineiro and Elliot Fry emerging as ones invited to training camp. Both men have been impressive in their competition for the starting job but both are unproven in the NFL. Pineiro signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent last season but landed on injured reserve during the preseason and has yet to kick in a game that counts.
Fry played for the Orlando Apollos of the short-lived Alliance of American Football earlier this year. During his time in the AAF, Fry converted all 16 of his field goal attempts as the league didn't allow for PATs. Kicking in the NFL is a whole different beast and the Bears must make the right decision in September.
2. Detroit Lions running backs
The 2018 season was yet another one that the Lions went without having a 1,000-yard rusher. In fact, 2013 (Reggie Bush) was the last time that a Lions player reached the century mark on the ground. It took 14 different ball carriers for the Lions, including quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Kenny Golladay, to post 1,660 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. As a team, Detroit finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing offense (103.8 ypg) last season. This season, the team is hoping that better health and some fresh faces in the backfield will lead to better results running the ball.
It all starts with Kerryon Johnson, the second-year player from Auburn who showed flashes last season. Johnson led the team with 641 rushing yards (and three TDs) despite playing just 10 games due to injury. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry on his 118 attempts and also made an impact as a receiver out of the backfield with 32 catches for 213 yards and a touchdown.
In free agency, the Lions added veteran C.J. Anderson to serve in a complementary role similar to what LeGarrette Blount (418 yards, 5 TDs, 2.7 ypc) did last season. Anderson had his own 1,000-yard campaign with Denver in 2017 and served as a sparkplug late last season for the Rams after Todd Gurley was hurt. For his career, Anderson has averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
Others looking to get in the backfield mix include Zach Zenner, Mark Thompson, fullback Nick Bawden, and rookie Ty Johnson. Detroit has already cut ties with Theo Riddick, who was second on the team with 61 receptions last season, so the coaching staff will be looking for someone to replace him as the primary pass-catching back. That could end up being Johnson, the sixth-round pick who was productive (2,953 yards from scrimmage, 19 rushing and receiving TDs) in his career at Maryland.
3. Minnesota Vikings offensive line
Kirk Cousins was sacked 40 times last year, the first of his three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract. Those sacks played a part in the Vikings losing four of their final seven games, which cost them a trip to the postseason. So the team made a heavy investment in its offensive line this offseason. Through the draft they added NC State center Garrett Bradbury (18th overall), Oklahoma guard Dru Samia (4th round), and Elon offensive tackle Oli Udoh (6th round).
The Vikings also brought in some new faces via free agency, including Josh Cline (64 career starts with New England and Tennessee) and six-year veteran Dakota Dozier. With the Bears having the best pass rush in the division, and with the Lions and Packers both upgrading theirs, it only makes sense that Minnesota would focus on protecting its quarterback.
4. Green Bay Packers backup quarterback
This was a concern for Green Bay last year but for a different reason. Last year, it was about the lack of both skill and experience behind Aaron Rodgers. This year the options behind Rodgers are still young, but the depth chart is a little more crowded. Rodgers gets banged up from time to time, so having a quality signal-caller behind him is key. The backup with the most experience is DeShone Kizer, who played in three games last season after starting 15 for Cleveland in 2017.
Kizer has yet to record a win (0-15 as the starter), and he's thrown twice as many interceptions (24) as TD passes (11) thus far. He's also been sacked 42 times in 18 career games. He didn't look that comfortable when he was on the field last season, but the Packers are hoping he'll continue to develop.
Behind Kizer, are a couple of undrafted free agents in Tim Boyle and Manny Wilkins. Boyle spent last year on Green Bay's practice squad after going undrafted out of Eastern Kentucky (also played at Connecticut). Wilkins was not picked this year after a solid career at Arizona State where he totaled 8,624 passing yards, 1,035 rushing yards, and 72 touchdowns (52 passing, 20 rushing). Wilkins will definitely give Boyle a run for his money, but does he have enough talent to push Kizer for the No. 2 spot? Time will tell.
(Top photo by Andy Kenutis, courtesy of www.vikings.com)