Blake Martinez leads a revamped Green Bay linebacking corps
The NFL preseason gets underway this week as we continue to approach opening night on Sept. 5, which will feature the Chicago Bears hosting the Green Bay Packers. There will be quite a bit of attention on the NFC North again as this division made headlines in 2018.
The NFC North as a whole posted a winning record last season (32-30) with the Bears winning the division. The four teams also fared well against their NFC counterparts (12-13). All four teams did their best to bolster their rosters in the offseason, and with this knowledge, here are the biggest strengths for each NFC North franchise heading into the 2019 season.
1. Chicago Bears' defense
This side of the ball was one of the bigger reasons why the Bears took the division title last year and made their first playoff appearance since 2010. The addition of Kahlil Mack (47 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for a loss) last Labor Day weekend made all the difference as Chicago fielded the NFL's top rushing defense (80 ypg), ranked seventh against the pass (220 ypg), third in sacks (50), and led the league in takeaways (36). Of course Mack didn't do it by himself as he had help from fellow linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevethan (combined for 224 tackles and seven sacks), defensive end Akiem Hicks (55 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss), and defense backs Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson (totaled 36 pass deflections and 13 interceptions) among others. The Bears bolstered their secondary this offseason by landing safety Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (445 career tackles, 14 interceptions) in free agency, and even with a coordinator change (Chuck Pagano replacing Vic Fangio) you can expect the Bears to be among the elite defenses again this season.
2. Detroit Lions' passing game
The defense is still a work in progress and the running game needs improvement, but at least the Lions have shown that they can get it done through the air. Matthew Stafford is a proven arm in this league, and wide receiver Kenny Golladay (1,063 receiving yards, 8 TDs) emerged as a breakout star last year, especially after Golden Tate was traded away. But the Lions used the offseason to add depth at both wide receiver and tight end to give Stafford even more options downfield.
Two-time Super Bowl champion Danny Amendola is the headliner at wide receiver. Heading into his 11th season, the veteran target best known for his tenure with the New England Patriots has caught 485 passes during his career for 4,684 yards and 20 touchdowns. Even at 33 years old, Amendola hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. If he can stay healthy, he can serve as a nice complement to Golladay. Also brought into the fold is another Super Bowl winner (XLVII) in Jermaine Kearse. Now entering his eighth season, Kearse has 3,291 receiving yards and 17 TDs in his career, along with a fair amount of playoff experience from his years with the Seattle Seahawks (2012-16).
Amendola and Kearse are expected to join a rotation fronted by Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., who was limited by injuries last season but led the NFL by averaging 18.0 yards per catch in 2017. Other wide receivers on the roster as of the starting of training camp include Brandon Powell, Tommylee, Chris Lacy, and Andy Jones, along with sixth-round draft pick Travis Fulgham out of Old Dominion and undrafted free agents Jonathan Duhart (also from ODU) and Tom Kennedy (Bryant University).
At tight end, T.J. Hockenson, this year's eighth overall pick from Iowa, and former Pittsburgh Steeler Jesse James (1,189 yards, 9 TDs in four seasons with Steelers) have been added to beef up that position. Another rookie, Isaac Nauta (seventh-round pick), along with veterans Logan Thomas, Jerome Cunningham, and Austin Traylor round out that position group. Last year, four different tight ends (Levine Toilolo, Luke Willson, Michael Roberts and Hakeem Valles) combined to catch 45 passes for 461 yards (10.2 ypc) and four touchdowns. None of those players remain on the roster, so it's a fresh start for the tight ends.
Detroit's offense has plenty of room for improvement, but with Stafford at the helm, if the revamped passing game can lead the way, the Lions could develop into a tough matchup for opposing defenses.
3. Green Bay Packers' linebackers
No Clay Matthews, no problem as the Packers have kept the pipeline at this position flowing. Blake Martinez (led team with 144 tackles last year) and Kyler Fackrell (team-high 10.5 sacks) are the anchors at this position. Joining them will be this year's 12th overall draft pick Rashan Gary (119 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks at Michigan), seventh-round selection Ty Summers (317 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks for TCU), as well as free-agent signings Za'Darius Smith (18.5 sacks for Baltimore from 2015-18), Preston Smith — no relation — (107 tackles, 24.5 sacks for Washington over the previous four seasons), and a host of other young talent eager to make a name for themselves.
When you combine this group with defensive end Dean Lowry, who just inked a new three-year contract extension worth $20 million (per Spotrac), and new safety Adrian Amos (former Chicago Bear signed a four-year, $37 million deal in free agency), alongside a few other key pieces, the Packers may become a formidable defense once again. Most of the attention in Green Bay may be how well rookie head coach Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers work together, but don't forget that the Packers ranked 22nd in the league in scoring defense (25.0 ppg) last season.
4. Minnesota Vikings' rookies
In order to keep pace with the Bears, the Vikings used their selections in this year's draft to add quality talent and depth at multiple positions. They selected center Garrett Bradbury (18th overall), along with fellow offensive linemen Dru Samia (114th overall) and Oli Udoh (193rd overall) to improve a group that yielded 40 sacks last season. Minnesota also drafted Boise State running back Alexander Mattison (2,289 rushing yards, 33 TDs at BSU) with the 102nd overall pick with the hopes of creating a one-two punch with oft-injured Dalvin Cook out of the backfield. And the Vikings used their second-round pick on Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. (838 yards, 10 TDs with the Crimson Tide) to complement Kyle Rudolph.
The defense wasn't ignored either, as USC linebacker Cameron Smith (354 tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss for the Trojans), Arkansas defensive tackle Armon Watts (8.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks), Wyoming safety Marcus Epps (22 pass deflections, 9 INTs), and Texas cornerback Kris Boyd (172 career tackles for the Longhorns) were selected. The Vikings' defense finished last season ranked ninth in the league but you can never have enough depth. Rounding out the team's draft picks is a pair of wide receivers in seventh-round selections Dillon Mitchell out of Oregon and Colorado State's Olabisi Johnson. Minnesota certainly wasn't hurting at the position to begin with, thanks to the presence of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but give credit to the Vikings' brain trust for using their 2019 draft class to not only address weak areas, but also add to the roster options at other positions. Don't be surprised if Minnesota improves in the win column this season.
— 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.