Minnesota hopes RB Dalvin Cook can stay healthy and lead the way on the ground
We're nearly three weeks into the 2019 NFL preseason and each team is a mixed bag at this point. This especially holds true for teams in the NFC North. Each team has its positives, negatives, and unknowns. Those unknowns is what this article will dive into more below.
Each NFC North team has a player, or position, that has some unpredictability. Whether it's questions about production, health, or anything else related to on-field performance, chances are your team has to answer those questions to some degree. The players or positions in question could play a role in their team's success, or could adversely affect their team's season. We've already established each teams strengnths, and concerns, but here is the "wild card" for all four NFC North franchises.
Chicago Bears kicker Eddy Pineiro
For now, the second-year man out of Florida has won the Bears' placekicking job. He beat out former Alliance of American Football kicker Elliott Fry as he has converted 3-of-4 field goal attempts during the preseason thus far, and has had some strong showings in practice. Pineiro made close to 90 percent of his attempts as a Florida Gator but still went undrafted in 2018. The Oakland Raiders signed him as an undrafted free agent, but a preseason injury ended his rookie campaign before it officially got started.
Pineiro was traded to the Bears for a conditional 2021 draft pick earlier this summer. But that pick will only go through if he is on the active roster for a minimum of five games this season. Pineiro has proven himself thus far but the Bears front office has not ruled out bringing in a veteran, which could happen as final roster cuts loom over Labor Day weekend. Pineiro must continue to impress the Bears brass.
Detroit Lions defense
The offense looks like it's slowly coming together but the defense is the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde of this team. The Lions collected 43 sacks, 74 tackles for a loss, and 14 takeaways in 2018, but they also gave up 335 yards and 22 points per game. Part of the formula for getting the Lions back to the playoffs in 2019 is to be more consistent on defense. They need to continue to get pressure and force turnovers, but also must limit opponents' big plays and scoring opportunities.
Detroit has some talent on defense with former New England Patriot Trey Flowers (7.5 sacks last season) the big free-agent acquisition this offseason. He'll join defensive end Romeo Okwara (led the Lions with 7.5 sacks last season) and defensive tackle Damon Harrison (3.5 sacks) up front, while linebacker Jarrad Davis (team-leading 99 tackles), and cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Darius Slay (combined for six of the team's seven INTs) serve as the other anchors.
Green Bay Packers RBs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams
For most of Aaron Rodgers' tenure in Green Bay, the running game has been almost non-existent. But new head coach Matt LaFleur has vowed to change that so Jones and Williams figure to get the first crack at helping in this endeavor. The two backs combined for 1,192 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season over a total of 254 carries. Jones played in 12 games due to injuries but averaged 5.5 yards per carry when he was on the field. Sixth-round pick Dexter Williams out of Notre Dame also could factor into the backfield mix at some point this season.
Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in this league, but part of the reason why he gets banged up from time to time is due to the Packers being more of a pass-happy offense. If the running game can grind out yards, it should make defenses change up their approach and take some pressure off of Rodgers. Everyone knows Green Bay will only go as far as Rodgers can carry the team and that outlook improves if he's able to save some wear and tear on the body over the course of the season.
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
The Vikings used the 41st overall draft pick back in 2017 to take the Florida State standout in the hopes that he would help the franchise move on from Adrian Peterson. Just four games into his rookie season, Cook tore his ACL. He was back for Week 1 of the 2018 season but injuries limited him to just 11 games and he ended up splitting the carries with Latavius Murray. Murray signed with New Orleans in free agency, so that means Cook is the workhorse this season, right?
Cook figures to get every opportunity to run behind a revamped offensive line that will have first-round draft pick Garrett Bradbury at center, but the Vikings added some backfield depth in third-round pick Alexander Mattison. But Minnesota is hoping that this is the year Cook performs up to his draft status as a strong rushing attack can only help make quarterback Kirk Cousins' job easier.
— 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 Travis Ellison, courtesy of vikings.com)