New Green Bay tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham provide Aaron Rodgers with even more quality targets to throw to
While every team has weaknesses, they also have their strengths. The NFC North is full of talent this year and could be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL in 2018. We are starting to get a glimpse of these teams in the preseason and while the starters have played very little, we've seen enough in training camp to identify each team's biggest asset. Here are the biggest strengths for each NFC North franchise.
1. Chicago Bears' wide receivers
Whether it was injuries, lack of talent, or a combination of both, this position was an Achilles heel for the Bears over the last couple of seasons. So heading general manager Ryan Pace spent more than $50 million in the offseason to upgrade the position by bringing in proven veteran Allen Robinson, up and coming slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, as well as drafting Anthony Miller in the second round. Pace also re-signed Josh Bellamy, who became the team’s go-to receiver last year in part due to the injuries.
It’s now or never for 2015 first-round pick Kevin White as he’s in the final year of his rookie contract after spending most of his career on the injured list. Last year’s preseason surprise, Tanner Gentry, is back for more, and the Bears also have former Bronco Bennie Fowler and former Raven Marlon Brown in training camp. They are joined by a collection of young wideouts – Javon Wims, Malachi Jones, Garrett Johnson and Demarcus Ayers.
Many of these players will be cut by September as the Bears will only keep about five or six receivers on the active roster. But the fact that they have this many players at the position shows the team’s commitment to getting more from its wide receivers.
2. Detroit Lions' running back depth
The Lions' running game has never really been the same since the retirement of Barry Sanders. The team has only had three 1,000-yard rushers since No. 20 hung up his cleats 20 years ago. Reggie Bush was the last Lion to reach the century mark, gaining 1,006 on the ground in 2013. But after beefing up its backfield in the offseason, Detroit is hoping to change that this year.
Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, and Zach Zenner have spent their entire careers with the franchise but have never posted a 1,000-yard season. Enter second-round draft pick Kerryon Johnson, who ran for 1,391 yards as a junior, as well as LeGarrette Blount.
A nine-year veteran, Blount has two 1,000-yard seasons (2010, '15) and three Super Bowl rings (XLIX, LI, LII) on his resume. He has plenty of playoff experience and should be a good mentor for the other running backs. How much Blount has left in the in the tank at age 31 remains to be seen, but Detroit has plenty of options to carry the load as the Lions looks to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
3. Green Bay Packers' tight ends
After Jermichael Finley retired due to a spinal cord injury he suffered in 2013, the tight end position for the Packers has been pretty much a revolving door. Seven different players attempted to replace Finley but with differing results. Richard Rodgers was the most successful, accumulating 120 receptions for 1,166 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2014-17, but he's now in Philadelphia. Andrew Quarless had his moments (89 rec., 940 yards, 6 TDs) when he was with the team from 2010-15, but isn't currently on an NFL roster, while Jared Cook had more success with the Raiders (54. 688, 2) last season than he did with the Packers in '16 (30, 377, 1). Others to fill the position include the likes of Justin Perillo, Brandon Bostick and Kennard Backman, but that trio has a combined 24 career catches and each is a free agent.
Then there was the failed Martellus Bennett experiment, who played in just seven games for Green Bay last season before he was waived in November for "failure to disclose a physical condition." The Packers decided to go the free agent route to fill their tight end position again this offseason, signing five-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham to a three-year, $30 million contract. They also added former Jaguar Marcedes Lewis, who has 375 catches for 4,502 yards and 33 touchdowns in his 12-year career. They will be joined by Lance Kendricks, who caught 18 passes for 203 yards and a score in his first season with Green Bay after spending his first six with the Rams.
The Packers also have Emanuel Byrd, Kevin Rader, Ryan Smith and Robert Tonyan in training camp, but their chances of making the 53-man roster seem very unlikely given the options ahead of them. This is all good news for Aaron Rodgers, who is entering his first season without favorite target Jordy Nelson and outside of Davante Adams and Randall Cobb has a young, unproven wide receiving corps.
4. Minnesota Vikings' defense
The Vikings won the NFC North and fell one game shy of the Super Bowl last season thanks in large part to boasting the league’s best defense. They may have the top “D” again in 2018 as pretty much everybody on this side of the ball is back. Defensive end Everson Griffen (13 sacks last year, above, right), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (68 total tackles), linebacker Anthony Barr (52 solo tackles), cornerback Xavier Rhodes (56 tackles, 10 pass breakups), and safety Harrison Smith (78 tackles, 5 interceptions) all made the Pro Bowl. They are joined by other rock-solid starters in linebacker Eric Kendricks, corner Trae Waynes and safety Andrew Sendejo If anything, Minnesota's defense should be even deeper after the additions of lineman Sheldon Richardson in free agency and first-round pick Mike Hughes at cornerback.
Kirk Cousins' signing has generated most of the buzz for the Vikings entering this season, but for this franchise to finally break through with its first Super Bowl victory the defense will need to lead the way once again.
-- Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo by Evan Siegle, courtesy of Packers.com)