Preseason Watch List: NFC North

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

CHICAGO BEARS

The Bears head back to Olivet Nazarene University looking for a fresh start after two forgettable seasons under Marc Trestman; the team went a combined 13-19 and finished near the bottom of the league defensively while the offense -- a strong point in 2013 -- fell back to Earth last year. The Bears are looking at John Fox to right the ship, along with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fox has been successful in stints in Carolina and Denver, and will look to instill a sense of discipline to a defense that would make the '84 Bears cringe. Equally important will be trying to resurrect Jay Cutler's career. That task goes to Adam Gase -- the dynamic, young offensive coordinator that called plays for Fox' Denver squads.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- Miami 8:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @Indianapolis 7:30 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Cincinnati 7:30 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Cleveland 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Adam Gase a special offensive play-caller? -- Statistically speaking, Gase' offenses have ranked 1st and 2nd in points scored in his two seasons as an NFL play-caller. But we can't lose sight of the fact Gase was calling plays for a team with Peyton Manning. Manning is essentially his own play-caller, so we don't really know what Gase can do with an offense that doesn't have arguably the smartest quarterback to ever play the game.
  • Can Jay Cutler re-establish himself? -- It's not as though Jay Cutler plummeted statistically last season. He completed a career best 66% of his passes and threw 28 touchdowns in 15 games. The only fly in the ointment -- and it's a big one -- was his decision-making in key moments. Cutler led the NFL with 18 interceptions and Marc Trestman lost faith in the veteran passer. Gase was praised by Peyton Manning for his ability to coach the position, so there is hope that Gase can take an obviously talented arm and figure out if Cutler has the head to go with it.
  • How soon will Kevin White come along? -- Kevin White is supposed to step into Brandon Marshall's monstrous shoes, but it may not happen right away. The Bears are hoping it won't take too long because Marquess Wilson isn't the answer opposite Alshon Jeffery.
  • Can Fangio and Fox get more out of the front seven? -- Ego Ferguson (2nd round) and Will Sutton (3rd) were high picks in 2014 but did little as rookies to justify their draft positions. Fox and Fangio will need to get more out of them, along with 2015 rookie Eddie Goldman. Among the linebackers, free agent Pernell McPhee is expected to make an impact as a pass rusher. Mason Foster, another free agent, is being counted on to settle the middle with Jon Bostic. There are a lot of noteworthy veterans that have to earn roles during camp including Jared Allen, LaMarr Houston, Willie Young and Shea McClellin.

DETROIT LIONS

The Lions returned to winning ways (11-5) under first year head coach Jim Caldwell. While Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson may be household names, it was the Lions defense that led them into the playoffs. Offensively, the team ranked a below average 19th in yards and 22nd in points while the defense dominated (3rd in pointed allowed and 2nd in yards allowed). Detroit lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the offseason, but the Lions added Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker as replacements. For the first time in recent memory, the Lions have high expectations and return the bulk of their key veterans.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- N.Y. Jets 7:30 pm
  • Aug 20 -- @Washington 7:30 pm
  • Aug 28 -- @Jacksonville 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Buffalo 7:30 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Matthew Stafford an elite quarterback? -- Stafford is well regarded, but is he truly elite? He finished as the 16th best fantasy quarterback last year in spite of throwing 602 times. For most quarterbacks, 600 attempts would be more than enough to accrue top-tier metrics; but Stafford has only had QB1 seasons when he's setting NFL records for attempts. A 3.7% touchdown rate simply isn't going to get it done in today's NFL; not if you want to be considered a cornerstone franchise passer.
  • Is Calvin Johnson healthy? -- Johnson missed three games last year and two games in 2013. When healthy, there is no equal at the position. But last year his numbers were pedestrian (71 for 1,077 and 8 touchdowns) as he battled an elbow issue.
  • Joique Bell vs. Ameer Abdullah -- Abdullah is the explosive rookie while Bell is the underappreciated veteran. If Bell was healthy this might be a different narrative, but the early part of camp hints at Abdullah having a large role immediately; possibly as the starter.
  • Will Eric Ebron take a step forward? -- Ebron had no impact as a rookie (248 yards and 1 touchdown) but the team drafted him with the idea he could provide the offense with a second matchup nightmare (behind Calvin Johnson). A strong camp should (and would) put Ebron back on the fantasy map.
  • Can Ngata replace Suh? -- Suh received the largest contract in NFL history for a defensive lineman, which left the team in need of an anchor. Enter Haloti Ngata -- the long-time cornerstone of the Baltimore Ravens. Ngata should be an adequate starter in the middle, but he's not going to offer the disruptive pass rush Suh was known for.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers return to St. Norbert College as one of the NFC favorites. Green Bay finished 12-4 last season and lost an overtime heart breaker to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game. As is typical of the Packers, the offseason was about keeping their own and bolstering depth through the rookie draft. The fact the Packers return virtually all off their key contributors bodes well for another title run. Offensively, the Packers were the NFL's best (1st in points) and the defense, while not elite, was good enough (13th in points allowed).

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- @New England 7:30 pm
  • Aug 23 -- @Pittsburgh 1:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Philadelphia 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- New Orleans 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Will the offense look different under Tom Clements' watch? -- Mike McCarthy has ceded play-calling duties to Tom Clements this season; which is a bit of a surprise considering how successful the Packers have been with McCarthy at the helm. Needless to say, Clements has had a heavy role in the Packers offense for years, and won't change much. But any time there's a new play-caller, things can change -- for better or worse.
  • Who starts at tight end? -- The lone hole in the Packers offense is at tight end, where the team has struggled to find a suitable replacement since Jermichael finley got hurt a few years ago. Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers haven't done enough to expect a breakout, and the rest of the depth chart are unheralded rookies.
  • Shuffling the linebacking corps -- Sam Barrington and Clay Matthews will man the middle, but there is some thought that Carl Bradford could move into the middle allowing Matthews to move back outside; where he spent most of his career. Either way, the Packers are excited about their young, deep linebacking corps. The other question is whether Mike Neal or Nick Perry will see more snaps outside earl in the season.
  • Figuring out the cornerback pecking order -- Casey Hayward is being counted on replace Tramon Williams opposite Sam Shields, but Hayward has been most effective as the nickel, inside corner. Assuming Hayward sticks outside, expect safety Micah Hyde and rookie 1st rounder Damarious Randall to battle for the nickel role in the preseason.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The Vikings celebrate their 50th year of training camp at Minnesota State University (Mankato) with renewed optimism for a return to playoff contention. In spite of finishing 7-9 in Mike Zimmer's first season at the helm, the Vikings have reason to be optimistic. Teddy Bridgewater showed enough as a rookie to think he can evolve into a top-tier signal caller. Most importantly, Adrian Peterson is back after last year's off-the-field turmoil. The defense ranked 11th last year under defensive coordinator George Edwards and returns all of last year's key pieces. 

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 9 -- Pittsburgh 8:00 pm
  • Aug 15 -- Tampa Bay 8:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Oakland 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Dallas 7:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Tennessee 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Teddy Bridgewater's progression -- Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes as a rookie; a remarkable achievement. There is room for improvement (obviously) as he only threw 14 touchdowns (3.5% touchdown rate) and matched that with 12 interceptions. Many industry observers think Bridgewater could become one of the league's new stars at the position, but he wouldn't be the first young quarterback to regress in Year Two. All eyes will be on his progress in the preseason.
  • How does Adrian Peterson look? -- Peterson set a personal goal of 2,500 yards rushing. We know that's a pipe dream, but it does remind us that Peterson is genuinely a one-of-a-kind talent when he's motivated and 100% healthy. The Vikings are planning on keeping Peterson out of preseason game action, but as long as he looks sharp and healthy throughout training camp, his status as one of fantasy's most coveted commodities remains.
  • Charles Johnson or Mike Wallace? -- Charles Johnson came on late in 2014 and many see him as the breakout player in the Vikings young passing game. Others question Johnson's pedigree and prefer newly acquired Mike Wallace -- a dynamic player who just couldn't quite connect with Ryan Tannehill in Miami (in spite of having 10 touchdowns in 2014). Ideally both players will play to their potential, giving Bridgewater a dynamic pair of outside receivers.
  • Settling the guard situation -- The Vikings offensive line is set at tackle (Kalil, Loadholt) and center (Sullivan) but there is competition at guard. Brandon Fusco, David Yankey, Michael Harris and Tyrus Thompson all have designs on a starting spot. Fusco and Harris are the leaders entering camp, but Yankey and Thompson are talented, young players.
  • Is Audie Cole ready for full-time "Mike" duties? -- Jasper Brinkley left in free agency and Audie Cole is being asked to step into the key "Mike" (middle linebacker) role. Cole looked good in the role last year, but the Vikings drafted Eric Kendricks in the second round to add competition at the position.

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