The NFL regular season is 13 days away with the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos hosting runner-up Carolina.
In the Chicago Bears’ division there is a ton of rivalry and competition between the four NFC North teams. Green Bay is always a contender with Aaron Rodgers under center, Minnesota won’t go away without a fight under Mike Zimmer, Detroit is just trying to find an identity once for all and the Bears are hoping their youth shines this season.
With that being said, I’m happy to bring to you the first of many NFC North roundtables.
Representing the division is Jason B. Hirschhorn (Packers), Jeremy Reisman (Lions) and Sam Ekstrom (Vikings).
Now to the roundtable discussion.
How effective can Jordy Nelson be coming off a torn ACL? Project his numbers and impact to GB’s offense.
Reisman: As long as Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback, I have no doubts that Jordy Nelson will, once again, be one of the biggest receiving forces in the league. Though Jordy is just now getting off the PUP list, I believe he has had more than enough time to recover from his torn ACL. The Packers were probably just being safe to make sure they didn’t hasten his return. I fully expect Nelson to cap the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. Let’s say 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.
Hirschhorn: The discussion of the torn ACL Jordy Nelson suffered just over a year ago somewhat ignores two very important factors. Prior to blowing out his knee, Nelson had endured several smaller but not insignificant injuries in recent years to his hamstring (2012), knee (2013) and hip (2014), all but one of which required some form of surgery. Nelson also turned 31 in March, putting him near the upper limit for the age wide receivers can reliably produce at a superstar level.
And of course, Nelson also faces the risk of re-injury. Already, he suffered a small setback in his other knee perhaps resulting from his body trying to compensate for the reconstructed knee, and the risk of a more significant issue only increases as the medical and training staff ramps up his workload. Still, Nelson has appeared to be ahead of the recovery curve for the majority of his rehabilitation, and his versatility and skillset suggest that he can return near to the All-Pro level of performance he displayed in 2014 so long as his health allows.
As for numbers, a season of over 75 catches and 1,200 receiving yards seems very achievable for Nelson if he plays most or all of the regular season.
Ekstrom: It was easy to tell that Green Bay was just a bit off at certain points last season, and it’s certainly no coincidence that they got out of whack while missing one of their most reliable route runners. Rodgers and Nelson have always had an incredible connection with certain patterns, especially the back-shoulder throw along the sidelines that is all about timing. Having that connection back should spark the Green Bay offense. ACL tears are no longer the intimidating beast they once were, so Nelson should have no trouble returning a year removed from the injury. I think he goes for 1,200 yards, 80 receptions and nine touchdowns.
Perper: After starting off his career with three straight seasons with just two touchdowns apiece, Nelson flipped a switch in 2011 with longtime Packer Donald Driver taking a backseat to him. Ever since then Nelson has added 47 touchdowns and three 1,000-yard seasons including a 98-catch, 1,519-yard 2014 campaign before missing all of last year due a torn ACL.
Nelson is the heartbeat of this offense, we saw what the Packers were without him. He makes Aaron Rodgers better and he makes Randall Cobb better wherever he lines up. Green Bay needs Nelson to be at 100 percent or this could be a disappointing year for a team with Super Bowl aspirations year in and year out. If he is right, he’s the top wideout in the NFC North. I think 75 receptions, 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns is manageable.
Do you see Teddy Bridgewater as a guy who can be more than a game manager at this point in his career?
Reisman: That all depends on how the Vikings plan on using him. Bridgewater has the talent to become a good, potentially great quarterback, but Minnesota has to develop the offense around his skillset. In the past, they’ve focused on Adrian Peterson instead. Bridgewater works the best in the shotgun, Peterson in a more conservative “pro-style” offense.
Minnesota finds themselves at a crossroads this year. Do they continue to make Peterson the focus of the offense? If that answer is yes, then Bridgewater won’t escape his “game manager” label. If the Vikings allow him to open up a little more, I think Bridgewater has the talent to surprise some people.
Hirschhorn: If developed and deployed correctly, Teddy Bridgewater absolutely possesses the potential of a high-quality quarterback. Already, Bridgewater has shown the ability to consistently convert short- and medium-length throws and has the poise in the pocket that few signal-callers his age display.
And it’s easy to forget just how young Bridgewater is compared to his peers. This past November, he turned the same age that fellow 2014 draft pick Derek Carr was on the day the Oakland Raiders selected him. Players mature physically as they reach their mid-20s, and Bridgewater doesn’t turn 24 until after the halfway point of the upcoming season. He should continue filling out and adding strength over the next two seasons, which could significantly improve some of his current shortcomings such as the deep-passing game.
The Minnesota Vikings still need to figure out how to blend Bridgewater’s strengths with that of running back Adrian Peterson, however. Bridgewater plays with far more efficiency when lining up in the shotgun, which generally hurts Peterson’s output and vice versa. Perhaps that changes this season as the former continues to mature, but at some point, offensive coordinator Norv Turner may have to sacrifice Peterson’s productivity to better utilize his quarterback.
Ekstrom: The fact that the Vikings were one of only two teams last season to pass for under 3,000 yards is evidence enough that something has to change. While Teddy Bridgewater’s 14 touchdowns against nine interceptions isn’t an aspiring bottom line, the onus is not entirely on the third-year quarterback to transform the offense. A great deal of it will be about the offensive line. If that improves, Bridgewater could finally blossom into the quarterback fans envision.
Yes, Bridgewater has his own issues, too. Last year he was too hesitant to throw the ball into tight windows, struggled passing it downfield and fumbled the ball twice at the end of close games against Denver and Arizona. But he was also getting pressured more than any other professional quarterback, playing his home games at a cold, windy college stadium and handing the ball off the fourth-most times in the NFL. He was not in many positions to succeed.
This year provides signs of promise. The Vikings added left guard Alex Boone and right tackle Andre Smith too sturdy the offensive line and moved Brandon Fusco back to his natural position at right guard. Elite center John Sullivan, who missed last season, is also returning from back surgery. The team is moving indoors, where Bridgewater has looked much more comfortable in his career. The 23-year-old adjusted his arm angle, put on some weight and increased his throwing velocity in the offseason. All those traits should aid him in making tougher throws.
In his first two seasons as a “game manager,” Bridgewater posted a 17-11 record. If that is the starting point of his career, the Vikings like his potential once he sheds that stigma, and he’ll be positioned well to do in this year with immense momentum for the franchise heading into their new home.
Perper: Entering his third season in the NFL, Teddy Bridgewater still has a baby face, but don’t that fool you. The 2014 32nd overall pick came at a solid value and he’s done a solid job at improving every year.
My concern with him is that he has 15 games including the playoffs with less than 200 passing yards and only three games with 300 yards or more through the air. The Vikings still have stud running back Adrian Peterson and I get that, but they need to let Bridgewater command the offense further and allow him to take some shots down field. He’s averaged 29 pass attempts per game in 29 starts. In Year 3, I expect Bridgewater to come into his own a bit and put up career numbers.
Who needs to step up the most on this young team for a turnaround season?
Reisman: Kyle Fuller. The Chicago Bears did just about everything they could to improve the front seven of their defense this offseason, but it won’t mean much if the secondary doesn’t improve drastically from 2015. Key to that improvement is third-year cornerback Kyle Fuller. Fuller’s career has had its ups and downs, but he has shown enough flashes to warrant some optimism for his future. Fuller is currently working his way back from knee surgery, but if he can start locking up No. 1 receivers, this Bears defense could have a remarkable turnaround in just one offseason.
Hirschhorn: The Chicago Bears need a big year out of their secondary to help turnaround their defense. In the front seven, the team has enough playmakers to stay competitive. Pernell McPhee proved last year that his situational efficiency with the Baltimore Ravens held up when taking additional snaps. Eddie Goldman looks like the long-term answer at nose tackle defensive coordinator Vic Fangio needs to anchor his defense. Meanwhile, at the next level, newly signed Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman offer a level of competency not seen from a Chicago linebacker tandem since the halcyon days of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
The secondary doesn’t have such foundational pieces, at least right now. Cornerback Kyle Fuller has displayed playmaking ability in the past, intercepting four passes as a rookie and another two last season. Consistency in coverage has proven more elusive, however, and the Bears expect him to cover the opponents top wide receiver on most occasions. Elsewhere in the unit, Tracy Porter can only give so much at this stage of his career, and none of the team’s potential starting safeties inspires much confidence heading into the season.
If the secondary shows more than marginal improvement, the defense as a whole could become a league average unit and potentially more as 2016 unfolds. Otherwise, Chicago could endure another year of yielding over 24 points per game on average.
Ekstrom: Since Jay Cutler is probably the most common answer, I’ll go a different route and say Jeremy Langford. In a post-Forte world, the Bears — for the first time in forever — don’t have a dependable do-it-all back. Jacquizz Rodgers may take a little pressure off the young Langford, but 3.6 yards per carry won’t cut it in Year 2 for the former Spartan. He’ll also need to become a better pass-catcher out of the back field if he wants to be useful in Dowell Loggains’ offense.
Perper: There is no doubt in my mind that the player that needs to step up the most is in the Bears’ secondary. The front-seven is much improved and veterans Pernell McPhee Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and at times rookie Leonard Floyd will get after quarterbacks. That will help take some pressure off of the back end.
Kyle Fuller is the guy who will be tested often if he can make it back in time for Week 1 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery seven days ago. Tracy Porter is always an injury risk, but if Fuller is inconsistent or struggles to make plays on the ball, the Bears will go with their younger options to see who they can develop. Fourth-round pick Deiondre’ Hall is a lengthy corner that they are really high on.
Who will be Matthew Stafford’s top target this season, Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, Eric Ebron, etc.?
Reisman: Though it was Golden Tate who stepped up in Calvin Johnson’s absences in the past, it looks like Marvin Jones may be the one who steps up to the plate this year. Jones and Stafford have been in sync during all of training camp, and in just two preseason games, it looks like Jones will be Stafford’s go-to option. Jones looks primed to break out as a No.1 receiver, despite playing behind A.J. Green for the past four years.
That being said, you are going to see the Lions spread the ball around more than they ever did with Calvin Johnson in town, which obviously makes a lot of sense. Detroit will need Eric Ebron, specifically, to step up his production after two somewhat disappointing seasons to start his career.
Hirschhorn: By targets and receptions, Golden Tate should lead the Detroit Lions if his health allows. In his two years with the team, Tate has averaged 135 targets per season, though his efficiency has varied significantly year to year. With even more defensive attention coming his way with Calvin Johnson retired, his yards per reception should more closely mirror that of last year rather than 2014.
As for most receiving yards, the picture appears a little murkier. Marvin Jones didn’t strength the field too often with the Cincinnati Bengals, though that could change in his new role with the Lions. If offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter decides to run him past the sticks on a regular basis, he could challenge Tate for most yards through the air on the team.
As for the only players mentioned in the question, Anquan Boldin probably doesn’t have another 1,000-receiving-yard season left in him, though he has proven many wrong on that front in the past. Eric Ebron has the physical talent to become a top-flight tight end, though injuries and inability to master the nuances of the NFL passing game have limited him to flashes interspersed between long stretches of pedestrian play.
Ekstrom: I’ll take the easy way out and say none of them because I think they’re going to spread the wealth. Detroit is reportedly going to speed up the tempo of their offense, so they’ll probably have a lot of fresh legs on the field and keep the ball going in different directions. It’s a sensible change in philosophy from their long-used chuck-it-to-Megatron philosophy that is no longer effective with Calvin Johnson retiring. In a way, it may behoove Detroit that teams no longer know who their clear top target is. If you are absolutely making me choose, I think the answer would be Tate.
Perper: Replacing Calvin Johnson is not an easy task, replacing his production as a whole is possible with the weapons the Lions have in place. Between Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin, Eric Ebron and even pass catching Theo Riddick, they should be able to make plays and produce.
I have a hunch that Jones is the leading receiver at the end of the season. Tate is a nice possession receiver, but he doesn’t have the size or catching ability over the top like Jones does. Boldin is going to alleviate some pressure as the third receiver but who knows what’s is left in his tank. Stafford and Jones have developed a good rapport and they gave the fifth-year pro a lot of money, I’d say he is the top wideout for this team.
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