NFC North Preview: Aaron Rodgers remaining in Green Bay keeps Packers in control of division

Broncos beat writer Ryan O'Halloran breaks down the NFC North ahead of the 2021 season.

NFC North Preview: Aaron Rodgers remaining in Green Bay keeps Packers in control of division

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1. Green Bay Packers

Coach: Matt LaFleur (third year — 26-6 regular season, 2-2 playoffs).

2020 record: 13-3 (first in NFC North; lost to Tampa Bay in NFC Championship Game).

Defensive play-caller: Joe Barry (first year).

Best player/best newcomer on defense: CB Jaire Alexander/CB Eric Stokes. A first-round pick in 2018, Alexander has four interceptions in three years, but 41 total pass break-ups and quarterbacks had a 67.4 rating when throwing his way in ’20. Stokes was selected 29th overall in April and he received first-team snaps in camp.

Key statistic: 28 — five-minute drives allowed by defense, tied for third-most in NFL.

Why they’ll finish first: Aaron Rodgers, period. The protracted offseason saga pitting Rodgers vs. the Packers in general and GM Brian Gutekunst in particular ended with an arrangement that will likely allow No. 12 to move on next offseason, possibly to the Broncos. Receiver Davante Adams is one of the league’s best and the addition of Stokes to play opposite Alexander will help the pass defense.

2. Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) ...
Kamil Krzaczynski, The Associated Press
Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) rushes with the ball during the second half of a preseason NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, in Chicago.

Coach: Matt Nagy (fourth year — 28-20 regular season, 0-2 playoffs).

2020 record: 8-8 (second in NFC North; lost at New Orleans in Wild Card Round).

Defensive play-caller: Sean Desai (first year).

Best player/best newcomer on defense: LB Roquan Smith/CB Desmond Trufant. Smith was the anchor of then-coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense as a 2018 rookie (121 tackles, five sacks) and has backed that up with years of two sacks/101 tackles and four sacks/139 tackles. The 31-year old Trufant was a seven-year starter in Atlanta and played 2020 for Detroit.

Key statistic: Zero — the only team last year without a red zone takeaway.

Why they’ll finish second: We’re not rushing to buy Andy Dalton stock, especially with quarterback Justin Fields waiting in reserve, but he’s an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears have dynamic receiver Allen Robinson, who makes any passer look good. Defensively, Khalil Mack will return to double-digit sacks for the first time since 2018.

3. Minnesota Vikings

Kris Boyd (29) of the Minnesota ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post
Kris Boyd (29) of the Minnesota Vikings points skyward as he celebrates with Camryn Bynum (43) after breaking up a pass by Drew Lock (3) of the Denver Broncos intended for Jerry Jeudy (10) during the first half at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021.

Coach: Mike Zimmer (eighth year — 64-47-1 regular season, 2-3 playoffs).

2020 record: 7-9 (third in NFC North).

Defensive play-caller: Zimmer (eighth year).

Best player/best newcomer on defense: DE Danielle Hunter/DL Dalvin Tomlinson. Still only 26, Hunter enters his seventh NFL season, but missed all of 2020 with a neck injury. He has three double-digit sack seasons. Tomlinson, all 318 pounds of him, became available in free agency when the Giants sunk all their interior defensive line money into Leonard Williams.

Key statistic: 12 — completions allowed of at least 40 yards, tied for most in the league.

Why they’ll finish third: Put the Vikings as “Team Most Likely To Blow Everything Up,” after the season. The early part of training camp was a mess after quarterback Kirk Cousins and two of his backups were put on the COVID-19/reserve list, drawing the ire of Zimmer. Receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook are stars, but this team isn’t good enough defensively to challenge Green Bay.

4. Detroit Lions

Coach: Dan Campbell (first year).

2020 record: 5-11 (fourth in NFC North).

Defensive play-caller: Aaron Glenn (first year).

Best player/best newcomer on defense: LB Jamie Collins/DL Levi Onwuzurike. Collins led the Lions with 111 tackles last year and has missed only two games in the last three years. Onwuzurike was drafted 41st overall and had seven career sacks for Washington.

Key statistic: 419.8 — yards allowed per game last year, most in the league.

Why they’ll finish fourth: The Lions have admitted they need to totally rebuild and that means some hard times and a last-place finish. Adding quarterback Jared Goff also netted the Lions two first-round picks for new general manager Brad Holmes. Problem is, the Lions aren’t in great cap shape thanks to the previous regime’s careless spending, so the key is drafting good players and developing them into starters.