Today's question: Is it a stretch to think the Minnesota Vikings could have the best defense in the division by the middle of this season, if not sooner?
Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers: I know this: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has always raved about Mike Zimmer's defenses. Just look at the game in Minneapolis last season. Rodgers had all kinds of trouble moving the ball in that game. He threw for just 209 yards -- his second-lowest total in the final 11 weeks of the regular season. The Vikings only got better by drafting cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round and linebacker Eric Kendricks in the second round. They were just outside the top 10 in scoring defense last season, ranking 11th at an average of 21.4 points per game allowed. That was the second-best scoring defense in the division last season, ranking behind the Lions (who were third at 17.6 points allowed per game). This could be the best defense in the division in 2015.
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: I don't think it's necessary to wait until the middle of next season. Minnesota has the division's best defense in May, at least on paper. With all due respect to Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit, Zimmer's team is loaded on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings boast an impressive defensive line led by Brian Robison, Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen; three quality linebackers in Anthony Barr, Chad Greenway and rookie Kendricks; and ball hawk safety Harrison Smith in the secondary. Plus, Minnesota invested a first-round pick in Waynes, who is expected to contribute immediately. Despite losing Ndamukong Suh in free agency, the Lions still have a strong defense, but I give the slight edge to Minnesota. It also doesn't hurt that Zimmer's specialty is defense.
Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions: Definitely not a stretch at all. Other than at cornerback, the Vikings appear strong and somewhat deep at every spot on defense. Greenway is a smart, dependable linebacker and should pair well with Barr and Kendricks to form a young, talented linebacking corps. Smith, coming off a five-interception season, is one of the most underrated safeties in the league. How fast this defense takes that jump could depend on the progression of Waynes. Cornerbacks typically struggle as rookies and if he does, teams will pick on him often. That could be the weak spot on the defense, at least at the start, but should progress as the season goes along.
Today's question: They each have one Super Bowl victory in their spectacular careers. But which quarterback would you rather have, Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers?
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: That’s an easy choice: Rodgers. Favre is a future Hall of Famer with 508 career touchdown passes. But Favre also tossed 336 career interceptions in his 20-year career. Through 10 seasons, Rodgers has 226 regular-season touchdown passes to just 57 interceptions. NFL teams win and lose every week based on their quarterback's ability to protect the football. Rodgers attempted 341 regular-season pass attempts last year and was intercepted only five times. For all of Favre’s greatness, he threw some awful interceptions. Rodgers is also the more accurate passer of the two and has the stronger arm. The ultimate barometer for elite players is Super Bowl championships. Favre and Rodgers each has one title. But I suspect Rodgers adds at least one more ring to his collection before he eventually calls it quits.
Ben Goessling, Minnesota Vikings: I’ll preface this by saying that Favre probably never had the set of weapons -- or the freedom in the Packers’ offense -- that Rodgers enjoys now. But I’d have to take Rodgers over his predecessor. He throws a better deep ball, he’s more dangerous (though probably not quite as creative) on the run and most importantly, he doesn’t kill you with crucial interceptions the way Favre could. It’s easy to praise Favre’s improvisational skills and overlook how smart he was, how good he was at slinging it over the middle and how much more traditional of a West Coast scheme the Packers played back then. Rodgers, though, is probably performing at a level of efficiency Favre never reached.
Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions: Rodgers, and it isn’t as close as you think. Favre was an all-time great quarterback and is a lock for the Hall of Fame. He also had the propensity to force things and make horrific decisions. He threw fewer than 10 interceptions just twice in his 20-year career, and one of those seasons was when he played in two games in 1991 with Atlanta. His completion percentage of 62 percent was good, but Rodgers has never had a completion percentage lower than that since he became a starter in 2008. Rodgers has also thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in all but two of his seasons, including six or fewer interceptions in three seasons since taking over as the starter. Both are winners. Both are fantastic quarterbacks. But if I want to win games and I want a smart quarterback who won’t drive me crazy, I’m taking Rodgers, and I’m taking him every time.
To project which NFL franchises are in the best shape for the next three seasons, we asked our panel of experts -- John Clayton, Louis Riddick and Mike Sando -- to rate each team on a scale of 0-100 in five categories: roster (excluding quarterback), quarterback, draft, front office and coaching.
After averaging the results from the panelists, each of the five categories was weighted to create the overall score -- roster (30 percent), quarterback (20 percent), draft (15 percent), front office (15 percent) and coaching (20 percent). The result is a comprehensive rankings based on how well each team is positioned for the future.
We had a change at the top this year, along with having a perennial Super Bowl contender fall all the way to No. 14 and another team jump from 28th to sixth. Read through the full file 1-32, or jump to your favorite team using the quick links below.
2014 record: 12-4 (Lost in NFC championship)
NFC North future rank: 1st
Overall score: 91.3
The bar graphs reflect the average rating given by the voters for each category. Category averages are weighted by importance to generate overall score.
The overview: The Packers moved up one spot from a year ago, overtaking Seattle. What was the key? Green Bay's drafting improved from 11th to first, while holding on to the top spots in the quarterback and front office categories. Immediate contributions from the 2014 draft class helped the Packers' standing. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, receiver Davante Adams, center Corey Linsley and tight end Richard Rodgers were all key rookie contributors as Green Bay reached the NFC Championship Game. That is tremendous immediate impact for a team that was already a contender. --Mike Sando
The dilemma: The Packers are incredibly well positioned over at least the next two seasons in terms of having most of their core players under contract on both offense and defense. The lone exception is along the offensive line, where Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, David Bakhtiari and JC Tretter are all set to become unrestricted free agents following the 2016 season. How will the offense, which finished fifth, eighth and first in scoring from 2012-14, respond to having a new playcaller (Tom Clements) for the first time since Mike McCarthy became the head coach in 2006? This is the big question going forward, as it was situational play calling that arguably cost the Packers a berth in Super Bowl 49. --Louis Riddick
The youth movement: General manager Ted Thompson is the best homegrown farmer in the NFL. He's the master of getting three or four starters out of every draft -- and signing most to second contracts. The Packers' top overall ranking is two-fold -- Aaron Rodgers and a roster built almost exclusively with players who started their careers in Green Bay. Thompson drafted an offensive line that has become one of the top three units in football. Eddie Lacy, a 2013 second-rounder, has been the beneficiary thus far, and another monster year looks to be on the horizon. This team is loaded. --John Clayton
Today's question: The Green Bay Packers have won the NFC North for four consecutive years. What will it take for them to be supplanted as division champ?
Rob Demovsky, Packers: Their division foes could start by actually winning in Wisconsin; that hasn’t happened for the Lions since 1991. One game doesn’t make a division winner, but it’s emblematic of what has held back the Lions in their quest for a division title. The first thing Packers coach Mike McCarthy emphasizes every season is winning division games. He has created a culture in which those weeks leading up to division contests take on a special feeling. The Packers have won 65.6 percent of their division games in McCarthy’s nine seasons. That is well ahead of the Bears, who have the second-best division mark at 54.2 percent in that stretch. The Packers are even more dominant at home against division foes, winning 75.7 percent of those games under McCarthy. The Vikings are second at 61.1 percent during that same period. Notice that the Lions aren’t second-best in either category.
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: It would take an injury to Aaron Rodgers. That’s the only way I envision any NFC North team consistently beating Green Bay. But even when Rodgers has been hurt, good fortune seems to smile on the Packers -- like in 2013, when Green Bay still won the division despite Rodgers missing seven games after Shea McClellin broke his collarbone. Not even the lone highlight of McClellin’s career could keep the Packers out of the playoffs. Amazing. Now I firmly believe the Vikings, and maybe the Bears, will be better in 2015. But I just don’t see any of the three squads supplanting Green Bay until Rodgers retires. Brett Favre played 20 years. Rodgers is entering his 11th season. It might be a long time before the balance of power in the NFC North shifts outside of Green Bay.
Ben Goessling, Minnesota Vikings: The key to beating the Packers has been the ability to pressure Rodgers without sending extra pass-rushers. That’s how the New York Giants shut the Packers down in the playoffs after Green Bay went 15-1 in 2011. And even with Rodgers hobbled by a leg injury in the NFC title game, the Seahawks only blitzed him on nine of his 34 pass attempts. To supplant Green Bay, you’ve got to keep up with them in the division and probably steal one of the head-to-head matchups with them. The Vikings might actually be the team with the defensive formula to do it, especially if the additions to their secondary pan out.
Ex-Bears LB Brian Urlacher is spending his retirement catching -- and helping other people catch -- huge fish on his charter boat
Chances are this guy is better at football -- and fishing -- than you are.
Today's question: The Bears were ranked No. 30 in total defense last year in what was a historically bad season that was followed by a total overhaul of the coaching staff and the addition of several new players. Did the Bears make enough offseason moves to be considered a top-20 defense?
Rob Demovsky, Packers: That might not sound like a lofty goal, but it is considering where they’ve ranked recently. The Bears finished 30th in the NFL in total yards allowed for the second year in a row. In fact, the whole idea that the Bears are a defensive football team is really a flawed theory if you look at the past eight years. Only twice in that time have the Bears finished in the top 10 in total defense; they were fifth in 2012 and ninth in 2010. Otherwise, they were 30th twice, 17th twice, 21st and 28th. Pernell McPhee was a nice free-agent pickup, but is he a difference-maker? Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman was a nice pick in the second round, but again, is he a difference- maker? Neither seems like it. Maybe Jared Allen will be reborn in the Bears’ new scheme, and that could help.
Ben Goessling, Vikings: I don’t know that they have enough pieces who fit their new 3-4 scheme to assume anything yet. I like the decision to hire Vic Fangio, whose defenses were in the top 5 in yards allowed each year in San Francisco. But until we see how Fangio makes all the pieces work, I’m skeptical. Lamarr Houston could be a disruptive pass-rusher as an outside linebacker, but will Willie Young fit in that scheme? And is Jared Allen -- who’s become a bit of a one-trick pony -- really going to shift from defensive end at age 33? There’s some potential to fix a poor run defense with some of the bulk the Bears have on the defensive line (Ego Ferguson, Jeremiah Ratliff and rookie Eddie Goldman), but I’ve still got a lot of questions about the rest of the group.
Michael Rothstein, Lions: This is a tough question to answer because of the schematic shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this season. Add in the new coaching staff, including veteran coordinator Vic Fangio, and it’ll be a pretty large question until games actually start. Really liked the addition of Pernell McPhee and the Antrel Rolle signing could be underrated since it’ll give some stability to the team’s secondary. If Kyle Fuller takes a strong progressive step in his second season and the Bears can get an adequate pass rush, this team has a chance to make a move into the top 15 or 20 defensively.
Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers: A running back can take you only so far. The last time Peterson led the NFL in rushing (2012), all the Vikings could muster was a wild-card playoff berth. You still need a quarterback. Maybe Teddy Bridgewater will become good enough to make the Vikings a dual-threat offense, but we haven't seen enough to know that yet. That said, the NFC North isn't a murderers' row of run defenses. The Packers ranked 23rd against the run last season, and the Bears finished 17th. Sure, the Lions had the best run-stopping unit in the league in 2014, but they lost their best defensive player, Ndamukong Suh, in free agency, so it would be unrealistic to expect them to hold teams under 70 yards rushing per game again this season. As for the Vikings, is it a stretch to think they could have the best defense in the division by the middle of this season, if not sooner?
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: Peterson is a game-changer. Even at 30 years old -- the age after most NFL running backs decline -- Peterson is likely to return with a vengeance after playing in just one game last season. I don't expect Peterson to rush for 2,000 yards, like he did in 2012, but 1,200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns sounds realistic. I felt Bridgewater improved throughout his rookie season, and that was without the benefit of having Peterson in the backfield. A healthy Peterson should take pressure off Bridgewater and open up the vertical passing game for speedy wide receivers Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson. NFC North defenses won't fear Minnesota's offense, but Peterson forces opponents to take the group seriously because of his incredible ability to take it to the house on any given play.
Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions: It might possibly be a really difficult challenge, depending on the type of shape Peterson returns in. If he looks anything like his 2013 form, he'll be the best running back in the league and should open up time, space and defenses for Bridgewater. If Bridgewater takes the expected second-year jump, that could make Minnesota's offense multidimensional and much more effective than in 2014.
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: For my money, I take Cobb over Nelson. Cobb is 24 years old. He is the definition of a home run-hitter. I can’t wait to see what Cobb does for an encore after he caught 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. Now, Nelson is terrific. He had even better numbers (98 receptions for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns) than Cobb last season, but Nelson is 30 years old. I hate to call Nelson a system wide receiver, but I do wonder sometimes how productive Nelson would be if he didn’t have Aaron Rodgers. That works both ways; Cobb should also thank his lucky stars that Rodgers is the Packers' quarterback. However, in my opinion Cobb’s ceiling is higher due to his age and superior athleticism. Of the two wide receivers, I feel Cobb has the better chance of thriving in another NFL city, even though he turned down the Oakland Raiders in free agency to re-sign with Green Bay.
Ben Goessling, Minnesota Vikings: To me, it’s Nelson, simply because of his rapport with Aaron Rodgers. The 66-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Nelson against the Vikings in October is a perfect example of what makes the duo so dangerous. Nelson beat Captain Munnerlyn with one of his double moves, and once he got running in the open field against Harrison Smith, the Vikings knew they were in trouble. Nelson is so good at setting up defensive backs and so dangerous on the deep shots Rodgers likes to throw that he gets the nod over Cobb.
Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions: This is a tough question because both of them are so talented. If I had to, I’d pick Cobb for two reasons. The first is he can do more. Cobb can line up anywhere on the field, and he has the speed to be a game-breaker. The Packers can use him as an end-around option as well -- he has 27 carries for 9.33 yards per rush in his career. The second is his age (Cobb is 24, while Nelson is 30). He’s still emerging in the league, so though Nelson has the better numbers (back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons), Cobb has the higher potential for a breakout season in 2015. after his 1,287-yard output with 12 touchdowns in 2014.
Best move: Signing veteran Antrel Rolle to a three-year, $11.25 million contract should enhance the performance and leadership in Chicago’s secondary. Despite being an older player, Rolle is extremely durable. The 32-year-old has missed just one regular-season game in the past nine years and is an upgrade over injury-plagued Chris Conte, who joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason. The Bears need savvy, experienced players such as Rolle to help younger players adjust to the new defensive system. He can also still play at a high level -- Rolle intercepted nine passes in the past two years with the New York Giants. After years of enduring a revolving door at safety, the Bears are counting on Rolle and fellow veteran Ryan Mundy to stabilize the position and help stop the run.
Riskiest move: The Bears are still dealing with the aftermath of releasing defensive lineman Ray McDonald on Memorial Day. Money was not the issue; McDonald’s contract did not contain any guaranteed cash. Chicago has also moved past the public relations fiasco it brought upon itself bv signing a player with such pronounced character red flags. Rather, this is a performance problem. McDonald was supposed to be a major contributor on defense, one of the few players familiar with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s version of the 3-4. For all of McDonald’s lengthy off-the-field incidents, he is a talented defender, which is why the Bears agreed to bring him on board in the first place. Now the Bears have to scramble to fill the void. Losing a projected starter in late May is bad for business.
Sticking with Cutler: For better or worse, Jay Cutler is still the Bears’ starting quarterback. Cutler is now on his fifth offense, fifth offensive coordinator and third head coach since the Bears traded for him in 2009. So far, Cutler’s relationship with coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains has been productive. Cutler has known both coaches for years, and all parties seem enthusiastic about the quarterback’s chances of succeeding in the new system. From a physical standpoint, Cutler looked strong and fit in the offseason program. Cutler’s arm strength is never an issue. But how will Cutler handle the stress of the regular season if the Bears get off to a slow start? That question cannot be answered in the relaxed environment of OTAs and minicamp. One thing is clear: Cutler needs a strong 2015 to ensure he’s on the Bears’ roster beyond this upcoming season.
Training camp outlook: Now that tight end Martellus Bennett reported to minicamp, the Bears don’t have any potential training camp holdouts to worry about, so health permitting, the full roster is expected to be in Bourbonnais. The coaching staff, however, needs to evaluate linebacker Jon Bostic, cornerback Alan Ball and defensive linemen/outside linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young before knowing exactly what the team has on defense. The Bears have enough talent to win more than five games, but it’s way too early to forecast a playoff appearance for a team in Year 1 of a rebuild.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – We won’t hear much from John Fox until players arrive in Bourbonnais, Illinois, late next month, but the 60-year old Bears coach did recently reflect on his first offseason program in Chicago before embarking on the NFL’s annual vacation period prior to training camp.
Have you been able to establish the right environment throughout the offseason? “I think we’ve made progress. We’re by no means there yet. We’ve made a lot of changes, upstairs, downstairs, throughout the building. I think the guys have responded well. Guys have bought in and worked hard and that’s all I can ask.”
Do you wish the coaches had more time with players in the offseason? “I've always been an advocate of the offseason, but I think at times in our league in my experience we've gone a little overboard. So I think there's a happy medium. I think you can wear guys down, wear guys out. I kind of like some of the new rules. Some of them upset me because we kind of did some of them anyways and now people have to do it. I think you can overwork players as well. I feel good about where it is. I feel good about the work we got done. This is the first time as a new staff that we got the extra minicamp. Four years ago, when I went to Denver, it was the lockout, so we were a new staff and didn't get that opportunity and we're still able to have some success.
How do you plan to unwind during the down period before camp? “Just relax. Get some quality time with my family. I used to tell people what I did but then it would be in the newspaper. No, we'll just be, some nice quality time with the family.”
After watching the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup, do you have a sense of what a Super Bowl championship would mean to the city of Chicago? “Well, you know, this game is only fun when you win. My hat's off to coach [Joel] Quenneville, everybody, the organization. I was able to go there three times in a playoff atmosphere and see what they've captured there, and there's no doubt deep down inside you hope to re-create that. That's what we aspire to be. Those are things you look and learn; it doesn't really matter what sport. It does tell you a lot about Chicago and its sports fans. I kind of knew of that having competed here, so again, hat's off to what they've accomplished and surely that's something we want to accomplish with the Bears organization."
Will the team be healthy for training camp? “It's just like the 53-man roster. These guys understand that they pick the team. It's how they perform. How they practice. How they're evaluated. It's what to do, how to do, do it under pressure. So we'll try and create that the best we can at camp as we ready for the season, and where that's going to take us I'm not sure. But I've been very pleased with how they've gone about their business up to date.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The only conclusion that can be drawn about Shea McClellin from the offseason program is the coaching staff hasn’t given up yet on the Bears’ former first-round pick.
“I think he's a smart, young player,” Bears coach John Fox said. “I think he's been moved around. I think he's been in some different systems. I think he's adapted pretty well. We'll get to see where that goes when we get to training camp.”
True to their word, the Bears kept McClellin at one position since the end of last season. McClellin spent organized team activities and both minicamps at inside linebacker, where he presumably will be afforded the opportunity in the preseason to compete for a starting job against Christian Jones, Mason Foster and Jon Bostic.
“I feel comfortable. I haven't played inside for a long time, but it's starting to come back to me, the instincts to play in there are coming back,” McClellin said. “Personally I'm feeling good. It's just a start. It's not where we want to be, but we'll continue to build.
“It's definitely a new breath of life. We've got a lot of new guys. It’s a whole new defense and a whole new scheme. It's all new, and we know we have to improve on what we did last year.”
McClellin set a career high in tackles (84) last year, but the Bears failed to exercise his fifth-year option, leaving McClellin’s future in Chicago very much in doubt.
However, McClellin insists he’s not feeling any extra pressure this season despite the fact he is not assured of making the final 53-man roster. The man who drafted McClellin No. 19 overall in 2012, Phil Emery, is no longer employed by the organization.
“I'm just going to take it as another year,” McClellin said. “I'll just do the best that I can, that's all I can do. Nothing else matters, I'll do what I can to help the team. I don't really feel the pressure; pressure comes when you're not prepared, so I think we'll be all right.”
Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers: That depends on whether Adrian Peterson remains in the division. As much as the Packers respect Johnson, when you talk to defensive coordinator Dom Capers and coach Mike McCarthy, it all begins with stopping the run, no matter whom they’re playing. Think about it this way: The Packers have allowed Johnson to have some monster games -- he caught 11 passes for 244 yards against the Packers in the 2011 regular-season finale -- yet they’ve still won a good portion of those games, including that 2011 game. You could argue Peterson has been a bigger difference-maker. The 2012 game at the Metrodome comes to mind. Peterson rushed for 199 yards in a Vikings' win over the Packers. Everyone in the stadium knew Peterson would get the ball, yet the Packers could do nothing about him.
Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bears: Even at 29 years old, Johnson is a dangerous weapon on offense -- 71 catches for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014 -- but he’s not the division’s top skill-position player. That honor belongs to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning king of the NFC North. Since he led the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 2010, Rodgers has thrown for 15,855 yards, 139 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in his past 56 regular-season games. Johnson still commands extra attention on game days, but he doesn’t dominate games as often now. Rodgers seems to take over a game almost every week. The most accurate quarterback in the NFL, Rodgers makes everyone around him better. That’s a rare trait. Rodgers' fear factor is off the charts.
Ben Goessling, Minnesota Vikings: If we’re considering quarterback a skill position -- and most definitions do -- then no, it’s not Johnson. It is and has been Aaron Rodgers. Johnson is probably still the receiver with the scariest combination of size and speed in the division, but I think Alshon Jeffery is going to challenge him for that title. Jeffery is nearly five years younger than Johnson. And if Adrian Peterson is back to his old form -- and on the kind of mission many expect he’ll be on this season -- he could also challenge Johnson as the non-quarterback who keeps defenders up at night.