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49ers opponent preview: NFC North still belongs to the Packers

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In part three of our 2015 opponent preview, we take a look at the NFC North, which features the league's best quarterback and the offseason's trendiest team.

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Our preview of the San Francisco 49ers' 2015 opponents continues today with the NFC North. If you've missed the first two parts of the series, we looked at the 49ers' opponents in the NFC West and AFC North late last week, so be sure to check those out if you haven't already.

Chicago Bears

The shortest head-coaching tenure in post-Halas Bears history now belongs to Marc Trestman, who was canned following his second season with the team when the Bears dropped three games on the previous campaign to finish 5–11 at the bottom of the NFC North standings. Only the Panthers could top Chicago’s fall of 15 spots in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, as the Bears defense continued the implosion that began in Trestman’s first season and injuries prevented the offense from dragging the rest of the team to respectability.

Two years ago, Trestman somehow managed to coax a 32-touchdown, 13-interception season out of the combination of Jay Cutler (11 games) and Josh McCown (5) at quarterback. Combined with another stellar season from Matt Forte and the healthiest group of wide receivers and offensive lineman in football, per Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost, the Bears finished with year with the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense, which was the franchise’s best offensive output in nearly two decades. Unfortunately for the Bears, injuries derailed any chance they had of building on that effort in 2014.

Starting wideouts Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery battled myriad injuries all season long, with Marshall finally landing on IR for the final three games of the season due to a rib injury. Marquess Wilson, the team’s No. 3 receiver, landed on IR designated to return with a broken clavicle, causing him to miss the first half of the season. The damage along the offensive line was even worse, as only Kyle Long played more than 90 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Add up the carnage and the Bears dropped all the way down to 27th in AGL, a far cry from the above average health they experienced in 2013.

With the offense unable to keep the pace they set a season earlier, Chicago needed the defense to improve from the dregs of the league and approach mediocrity, and that simply never happened. In fact, the Bears defense got worse, falling to 28th in defensive DVOA while dealing with a litany of their own injuries. The unit was a shell of its former self, and the last recognizable pieces of the great Bears defenses from the past decade departed this offseason. Lance Briggs is out of work (possibly for good) and Peanut Tillman will play out his twilight years in Carolina. Joining them on the way out this offseason were D.J. Williams, Stephen Paea, and a pair of safeties.

Those departures led to a busy offseason for new general manager Ryan Pace, whose most notable moves centered around bringing in reinforcements for the defense. Outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho were added to improve a pass rush that ranked 22nd in adjusted sack rate last year. Antrel Rolle will slot into one of the starting safety spots. And Pace used his second-round pick in this year’s draft on Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman. But it just won’t be the personnel that’s new on defense. Chicago will be transitioning away from the 4–3 scheme that’s been in place since Lovie Smith first showed up to a 3–4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. McPhee, Acho, and Goldman represent future building blocks in Fangio’s 3–4, but there might be too many square pegs left over from the previous regime to see significant improvement in year one.

There are a few reasons to think the Bears might be able to bounce back and improve in their first season under new head coach John Fox. For starters, whenever an organization replaces an entire coaching staff, a lot of things typically have to go wrong, many of which were going to be unsustainable even if the team didn’t decide to clean house. We certainly see a bit of that with the Bears. Chicago was one of just two teams (Giants) to go winless in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their turnover margin flipped from plus–5 (10th-best) in 2013 to minus–5 (22nd) a year ago. They suffered from a dramatic swing in net starting field position, dropping from 10th in 2013 (and 3rd in 2012) all the way down to 31st last year. And that’s not even mentioning the injury issues discussed earlier in this section. Performance in those areas isn’t very sticky from year to year, and a bit more luck at the end of tight contests and in the turnover game could be enough to move the needle by a game or two on its own.

While the Bears should move a bit closer to .500, it’s difficult to get too excited about this team’s playoff prospects. Chicago’s prized draft pick, and Brandon Marshall replacement, Kevin White has likely been lost for the season after having surgery on a stress fracture in his left shin, taming some of the expectations that this offense could once again be a top–10 unit. And if the offense isn’t one of the best in football, they will need significant improvement from their defense, which seems premature to expect.

Nickel is the new base and we know Fangio will feature plenty of four-man fronts that put his defensive lineman and linebackers in more familiar alignments, but there are still a ton of holes on this defense and it might take another offseason of personnel changes before we see the sort of improvement this team needs to compete in a tough division. So while Fox and an improved coaching staff should get the Bears back trending in the positive direction, the postseason likely out of reach in 2015.

Minnesota Vikings

Every offseason there’s a team that grabs the collective attention of the NFL world and is designated thee team destined to make a significant leap forward. These teams typically feature a healthy amount of young talent that’s been collected in recent drafts. Bonus points for a young quarterback and recently hired head coach. And in 2015, there’s no question that team is the Minnesota Vikings.

Minnesota checks all of the trendy sleeper team checkboxes. Promising young quarterback? After mysteriously falling to the end of the first round in the 2014 draft, Teddy Bridgewater has the shared praise of tape nerds everywhere and many are expecting him to build on a rookie season in which he continued to get better as the year went along. Recently hired head coach? Mike Zimmer piloted the Vikings to a two-game improvement in his first head-coaching opportunity, going 7–9 and keeping the team within single digits in every game following a 14-point loss to the Lions in early October. Collection of young talent? Few teams boast more of them than the Vikings, particularly on defense where they now have six defenders selected in the first or second round since 2012. Oh, and they’ll be getting Adrian Peterson back following his year-long absence due to child abuse charges.

For as much optimism as checking off those boxes can provide, however, there are some reasons to think Vikings fans shouldn’t be booking trips to the postseason just yet and it begins with their underlying performance from last season. Minnesota’s performance on a play-by-play basis in 2014 wasn’t much better than it was during their 5–10–1 effort the year before. The Vikings improved only one spot in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, finishing 25th overall. Nothing in their point differential suggests Minnesota was really a playoff contender masquerading as a seven-win team, as their Pythagorean expectation was within one-half game of their actual win total. And all of that was actually with above average health, particularly on defense where the Vikings were the third-healthiest unit in football, per adjusted games lost.

With little in the way of quantitative factors pointing toward Vikings improvement, and few personnel changes of note outside of swapping Greg Jennings for Mike Wallace as the team’s No. 1 wideout, the case for a Minnesota playoff run centers around the development of their many young players, namely Bridgewater and the stockpile of defenders selected in the past few drafts.

General manager Rick Spielman has invested heavily in his defense early in the draft recently, a trend that continued in 2015 when he selected defenders at each level with his first three picks. Those three players (Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter) will join a promising core of youngsters that includes Anthony Barr and Sharrif Floyd in the front seven with Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith on the back end.

Not a single player in that group older than 26 years old, which makes it mildly terrifying to think of how good this defense could be in the coming seasons. But banking on the development of that many young players all at once can be a tricky proposition. Player development is rarely the smooth linear process we all want it to be and even players who appear to be sure things, the way several of these Vikings defenders do, aren’t impervious to snags in that process. There’s already reason to believe one of Minnesota’s young pieces, first-round pick Trae Waynes, might not be ready to contribute this season. And then there’s the matter of health.

Minnesota’s defense was one of the healthiest in football last season, finishing third in AGL on that side of the ball. The Vikings had their best defenders on the field for the wide majority of snaps in 2014 and still finished just 23rd in defensive DVOA, a sign that this young core has not yet arrived in full force. With depth a concern, a few key injuries could throw a significant wrench in this unit’s progression. And while injuries are unpredictable and you can make the previous claim about any number of teams, history has shown us that you’re better off assuming average health than exceptionally good (which the Vikings had last year) or bad health when attempting to predict a team’s fortunes in the coming season.

If you’re looking to hop on the Vikings bandwagon, you’ve arrived too late. If things break right for this team, they’ll be a shoo-in for the postseason and will challenge the Packers for the NFC North throne. And if Bridgewater takes the step forward he’s more than capable of making (note: he’s off to a good start), it might not matter if everything comes together on defense right away. But there’s enough uncertainty there to make me think that the Vikings bandwagon might have exited the station a year too early.

Detroit Lions

In previewing the rest of the NFC West and the AFC North we’ve had one playoff team in each division with a strong statistical case for decline in 2015, and the NFC North is no different.

To the surprise of many who questioned whether he even had a pulse on the Colts’ sideline, head coach Jim Caldwell led the Lions to a four-game improvement in the win column during his first season in Detroit, a leap exceed only by the seven-game jump from the Texans. The problem was that the Lions’ underlying performance didn’t rise with their win total. In fact, for the past three seasons the Lions performance has varied minimally despite wildly different records.

Year DVOA Rank Record Pythagorean Wins Difference
2012 0.2% 16 4-12 6.4 -2.4
2013 -1.5% 16 7-9 8.5 -1.5
2014 4.4% 14 11-5 9.2 1.8

Detroit has gone from an underperforming bottom dweller vying for a top-five pick to an overperforming playoff team all while playing at roughly the same level from a bird’s-eye view. The 1.8-game gap between Detroit’s Pythagorean expectation and actual win total trailed only Arizona and Cincinnati. And just like the Cardinals and Bengals, the Lions’ playoff run was fueled, in part, by an excellent record in one-touchdown games. After posting a 6–14 record in tight games during the previous two seasons, Detroit flipped the script, going 6–1 in 2014. The Lions were never going to continue floundering in close games the way they did from 2012–13, but it’s also unreasonable to expect them to continue winning 85 percent of their close games going forward.

The other major factor contributing to Detroit’s four-game improvement was a dramatic swing in turnovers. The Lions’ minus–12 turnover margin in 2013 was the fourth-worst in football; last season that number jumped all the way up to plus–7, good for a seventh-placed finish. Matthew Stafford posted a career-low interception rate (2.0%) to help limit how frequently Detroit coughed the ball up offensively. On the other side of the ball, safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo both put up career-best interception figures, totaling 11 picks between them in 2014, which seems unlikely to happen again considering they totaled just 11 interceptions in their entire careers (11 combined seasons) before that.

Detroit’s plus–7 turnover differential alone isn’t gaudy enough to raise any eyebrows, but how they got there does. If Stafford returns to throwing picks at a rate more in line with his career numbers, and if Quin and Ihedigbo haven’t suddenly morphed into Ed Reed late in their careers, the Lions’ turnover margin is likely to move closer to zero.

Looking at the changes to Detroit’s roster this offseason doesn’t bring much optimism to offset what the numbers are telling us. The strength of last year’s playoff team was the run defense. The Lions fielded the league’s best run defense by a wide variety of measures, including run defense DVOA and adjusted line yards. While the Lions boast a talented pair of linebackers in DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, that success was fueled primarily by a dominant defensive line that has subsequently been dismantled this offseason.

Ndamukong Suh took his talents to South Beach, removing one of the league’s best defenders from Detroit’s front seven. That departure alone would be enough to raise concern, but many of the supplemental pieces up front left as well. Defensive tackles Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley are both gone, as is rotational defensive end George Johnson. General manager Martin Mayhew did as good of a job bringing in reinforcements as you could expect, including trading for long-time Ravens run stuffer Haloti Ngata, but it’s difficult to imagine this unit repeating their dominant performance from a year ago.

The losses on the defensive line also puts what was already an average pass rush into question as well. Ziggy Ansah was great as a rookie, piling up 56 total quarterback pressures, but he clearly benefitted from the attention garnered inside by Suh & Co. Ansah will now clearly be the focus of the offense’s protections, and few others on the roster possess a proven track record of getting after the quarterback.

If you want to construct an argument for the Lions fighting off what seems like sure regression, you’d likely have to focus on improvement from an offense that has finished 19th in DVOA in each of the past two seasons. You’d hope that the additions of guard Laken Tomlinson and running back Ameer Abdullah in the top two rounds of the draft, along with former Broncos guard Manny Ramirez, will improve a ground game that’s been one of the worst in football in back-to-back seasons. You’d hope that Calvin Johnson can stay healthy and stop looking like the mere mortal he’s been since his historic near–2,000-yard season in 2012. And you’d hope that Eric Ebron delivers on the promise that made him a first-round pick in 2014.

But more likely, the defense takes a step back without the transcendent Suh in the middle, they’re unable to win the turnover battle as consistently, and a few bounces go the other way in close contests, causing the roller coaster that has been the Lions’ record in recent seasons to take a dip back down around eight wins.

Green Bay Packers

August was nearly a catastrophic month for the Packers. Star wideout Jordy Nelson, arguably the second-best player on the team, was lost for the season after suffering a dreaded non-contact preseason ACL injury. Randall Cobb’s shoulder scare threatened to leave Green Bay without their top two targets for much of the year, but luckily for Packers fans the injury is less severe than originally feared. Though his status for Week 1 is still up in the air, Cobb shouldn’t miss much game time.

Losing one of the league’s best receivers shouldn’t be discounted, but with Aaron Rodgers running the show it’s difficult to expect a major drop-off from the Packers offense. And outside of Nelson’s injury, Green Bay returns every significant piece from a team that went 12–4 last season and had a 99-percent win probability in the NFC Championship Game before completely collapsing in the final minutes.

From a roster standpoint it’s been an archetypal Packers offseason. There were very few offseason transactions of note. Green Bay moved on from veteran defenders Tramon Williams and A.J. Hawk, but it’s unlikely those losses will move the needle too much. Hawk has been a below-average defender for his entire career and his departure was long overdue. Williams was solid a year ago, but in typical Ted Thompson fashion, the Packers addressed the position via the draft. Thompson added a pair of cornerbacks with his first two selections in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. And with Casey Hayward and Sam Shields still around, the rookies should be able to be eased into more significant roles.

Despite a roster that’s nearly identical to the one that nearly reached the Super Bowl, the numbers suggest Green Bay might take a small step back. It’s logical to assume the Packers would be better in close games than your average team thanks to the presence of Rodgers, but that hasn’t consistently been the case. Before going 4–0 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2014, the Packers had been 7–6–1 in such contests during the previous two seasons.

Green Bay also saw massive upswings in both turnover margin and health. Their minus–3 turnover margin in 2013 ranked 19th; that number jumped all the way up to a league-best plus–14 a year ago. The swing in health was even more drastic, with the Packers finishing 2014 as the third-healthiest team in the NFL one season after finishing as the league’s third-most injured team, according to adjusted games lost. Nelson’s injury is already more severe than any injury the Packers dealt with last season. Though his injury alone won’t be enough to derail the season, it serves as a reminder that exceptionally good health doesn’t stick around for long.

The step back is all relative, of course. Green Bay won’t suddenly be a bad team with average health and more ordinary performance in close games, but it wouldn’t take a significant leap in logic to imagine decline in those areas removing them from the league’s regular season elite. Or perhaps it’s enough to open the door for the Vikings to claim the division if they deliver on all of the hype. But as long as QB1 is around and healthy, the Packers should remain the class of the North.