NFL training camp 2018: NFC North preview
The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers have dominated the division every year dating back to 2011, but could they be on the verge of being dethroned in the NFC North?
Minnesota appear well prepared to build on their run to last year's NFC Championship game with the addition of Kirk Cousins, and Aaron Rodgers is poised to return from injury for Green Bay with a significant new weapon in tight end Jimmy Graham.
Once again, the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears will face an uphill battle to contend for the division, but it isn't an impossible one for them to win.
Here's the outlook for the NFC North:
Team on the rise
The Vikings didn't sign Cousins to his lucrative deal with modest expectations. The Pro Bowl passer is sure to make an impact right away in Minnesota, but a change at the most central position could pose problems if it is executed wrong.
On the other hand, the franchise could be set for the long term if Cousins is able to produce at the level he's anticipated to. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in three straight seasons, and the Vikings are betting on him continuing that streak. With the talent they have on the both sides of the ball, the Vikings should be a strong bet for a deep playoff run if he does.
Team on the decline
The Lions went 9-7 in each of the last two seasons under former coach Jim Caldwell and are not expected to show much improvement as the team adjusts to new coach Matt Patricia. The former Patriots defensive coordinator was hired in February and quickly attracted criticism as a scandal from his past resurfaced.
In the months since, Patricia has issued a stern warning to his players about enforcing the strict values of the "Patriot Way", as he did in New England. However, in a division with two playoff regulars and an improving Bears team, it's tough to see the Lions immediately replicating the success of his former employers.
Rookies to watch
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Lions
Detroit has no shortage of options in the backfield but might have found the franchise’s next featured back in Johnson. The second-round pick has garnered positive reviews for his workhorse ethic and looks poised to post big numbers for a rushing attack that ranked last in the league in 2017.
Roquan Smith, LB, Bears
The reigning SEC defensive player of the year and eighth overall pick by Chicago in April, Smith is expected to help turn around a Bears defense that ranked 10th in the NFL last season. Smith was absent as the Bears began to report to training camp, but general manager Ryan Pace has expressed optimism he will sign his contract and join the team soon.
Player on the spot
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
The Pro Bowl signal-caller has set every passing record in franchise history but has yet to win a playoff game after almost a decade in Detroit. Perhaps new coach Patricia can help him end that drought.
Stafford already has strong support in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who was retained by the Lions this offseason. Since Cooter was promoted in 2015, Stafford has completed 66.3 per cent of his passes for 73 touchdowns in 41 games. Before Cooter took over, Stafford had completed just 60.1 per cent of his passes.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6 last year, making it just the second time in 10 seasons that he failed to play at least 15 games. But Rodgers, who turns 35 in December, has since fully healed and revealed ahead of camp that he wants to play in Green Bay until he's 40.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings
Cook tore his ACL in Week 4 against the Lions but is well on his way to getting back to 100 per cent. He showcased his progress with an impressive number of reps during minicamp and took on a full load in practice for the first time in June.