GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-2)
New faces: C Jeff Saturday, RB Cedric Benson, OLB Nick Perry (first-round pick).
Key losses: S Nick Collins, C Scott Wells, LT Chad Clifton, QB Matt Flynn, RB Ryan Grant.
Strengths: Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers directs what is arguably league’s most dangerous passing offense. Addition of Benson, signed as a free agent in middle of camp, could make Packers better running team and open up play-action passing game even more. Packers could use more no-huddle offense with addition of Saturday, given his experience in system where plays are called at line of scrimmage.
Weaknesses: Defense. Packers struggled to stop anybody last season, lost linebacker Desmond Bishop to a torn hamstring in the first preseason game and still are unsettled in the defensive backfield. Green Bay used its first six draft picks on defensive players and several of those players, including Perry, could be called upon to play significant roles. Also have questions about offensive line depth and backup quarterback, where Graham Harrell has struggled in preseason.
Expectations: With Rodgers at controls, Packers poised for another Super Bowl run — as long as defense can do a little more to hold up its end of bargain.
DETROIT LIONS (10-7)
New faces: CB Kevin Barnes, CB Bill Bentley, WR Ryan Broyles, OT Riley Reiff (first-round pick).
Key Losses: CB Eric Wright, CB Aaron Berry.
Strengths: One of best passing games in league with QB Matthew Stafford connecting with All-Pro WR Calvin Johnson, steady veteran Nate Burleson, second-year pro Titus Young, rookie Broyles and one of NFL’s better pair of TEs Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler. DT Ndamukong Suh and DE Cliff Avril lead seven-deep defensive line that will be counted on to provide pressure without lots of blitzing from back seven.
Weaknesses: Need to run consistently, and stop the pass more consistently. Speedy Jahvid Best slowed by concussions, second of which knocked him out of last season on Oct. 16, and he will miss at least first six games this season. RB Mikel Leshoure suspended by NFL for first two games. RB options are Kevin Smith and Keiland Williams. Detroit’s secondary is weakest link, and it got worse when Wright signed with Tampa Bay, and Aaron Berry was cut after an arrest-filled offseason.
Expectations: A second straight trip to the playoffs for first time since 1994-95. Backfield problems on both sides of the ball will likely keep them waiting for a second postseason victory since winning the 1957 NFL title.
CHICAGO BEARS (8-8)
New faces: WR Brandon Marshall, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, KR/WR Eric Weems, DE Shea McClellin (first-round pick).
Key losses: None.
Strengths: Jay Cutler and Matt Forte are healthy and happy and that’s best news at Halas Hall. Cutler had Bears headed back to playoffs last season but broke right thumb trying to make tackle on an interception return. From there, Bears collapsed, losing five straight before winning season finale. Forte has bounced back from season-ending knee injury and after long wait to get new contract he wanted. Add Bush and Marshall to mix and Bears should have potent attack under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
Weaknesses: Face-of-franchise LB Brian Urlacher had arthroscopics procedure on left knee during training camp and his status is not clear. Urlacher says he’ll be ready for season opener. Biggest question on offense is who will handle left tackle spot that protects Cutler’s blind side? J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams are vying to start. There’s also concern about depth at safety after preseason injuries to returning starter Chris Conte and backup Brandon Hardin.
Expectations: After new GM Phil Emery restocked roster, playoffs are a must or coach Lovie Smith will be feeling the heat big-time.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (3-13)
New faces: LT Matt Kalil (first-round pick), WR Jerome Simpson, TE John Carlson, SS Harrison Smith (first-round pick), CB Josh Robinson, CB Chris Carr, WR Jarius Wright.
Key losses: LG Steve Hutchinson, PK Ryan Longwell, LB E.J. Henderson, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, TE Jim Kleinsasser, RG Anthony Herrera, CB Cedric Griffin.
Strengths: Defensive line still as good as any group in league, led by All-Pro Jared Allen and his 22 sacks. TE Kyle Rudolph has become favorite of QB Christian Ponder and could have breakout year. Adding Kalil to offensive line that struggled often in 2011 should help Ponder feel safer in pocket. WR Percy Harvin, assuming he stays healthy and happy, one of most versatile players around. RB Adrian Peterson is in line to suit up for opener after major knee surgery last December, and CBs Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield are back from troubles that sidelined them down stretch last season.
Weaknesses: Ponder still unproven after erratic rookie year. Despite consistent pressure up front, secondary was decimated in 2011. Even with injury-free season, adding rookies Smith and Robinson, there is much to improve in NFC North division dominated by standout QBs and WRs. When Simpson serves three-game suspension, Harvin will be lone standout in a WR corps that’s been underwhelming for years. Carlson signed to big contract to complement Rudolph in two-TE sets, but sprained knee kept him out for most of training camp. Peterson, though he has been ahead of schedule throughout his rehab, up against torn ACL wisdom that insists a player doesn’t return to normal in first season back.
Expectations: Finishing anywhere but last place would be win for team in full rebuilding mode. First half of schedule favorable enough that one of league’s youngest teams could start strong and create confidence, but still huge talent gap before they can close in on Packers, Lions, Bears. Most important gauge of success will simply be progress for everyone from Ponder to Peterson to coach Leslie Frazier.
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