One burning question for each NFC North team ahead of the 2024 season: Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings in focus

NFL: Combine
One burning question for each NFC North team ahead of the 2024 season (image credit: IMAGN)

With the 2024 NFL season slowly creeping closer, it's time to examine the NFC North in more detail. After spending a month analyzing every single draft pick and their new roles on all 32 NFL teams as part of my divisional draft and roster reviews and then outlining the most improved position groups across the league this offseason, I wanted to hit on every single team, but in a much more compact format.

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I asked myself, “What is the one burning question for each of these franchises heading into the upcoming season?” So today we’re looking at the NFC North, before moving around the compass until we get to the West and then switching conferences next week.

One burning question for each NFC North team

#1, Chicago Bears

How early does Shane Waldron unleash Caleb Williams and that aerial attack?

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NFL: Chicago Bears OTA (Image credit: IMAGN)
NFL: Chicago Bears OTA (Image credit: IMAGN)

We’ve seen the Bears offense undergo a pretty drastic shift across the past two years. In 2022, they led the NFL with an insane 56.2% run play rate and while that dropped 48.7%, that still ranked second league-wide.

Across that time and now leading into this upcoming season, they’ve completely overhauled their wide receivers, with the combination of D.J. Moore, Keenan Allen and rookie Rome Odunze. They also moved on from a former first-round pick to what I consider a generational quarterback prospect in Caleb Williams.

Now the question becomes how quickly new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron is willing to put games in the hands of his young signal-caller and put stress on defenses through the air. Looking at that same two-year stretch, Seattle’s offense under his coaching, ranked 20th and 28th respectively in percentage of run plays, at a substantially lower 38.4%.

Obviously, Waldron was working with a veteran QB in Geno Smith and had one of the better receiver collections there as well. But even under a more old-school head coach in Pete Carroll and with a highly talented back in Kenneth Walker, their offensive identity was built around pushing the ball vertically through the air.

Chicago did surprisingly spend up D’Andre Swift despite already having a quality young backfield, and they’ve constructed their offensive line in a way that would support winning on the ground. With how good their defense was over the latter half of last season, we could certainly see them opt for a more conservative approach, but the true ceiling of this attack won’t be fulfilled until they put the ball in the hands of their young play-maker.

So what the plan is at this point to bring him along and how things may change on the fly will definitely be something to pay attention to.

#2, Detroit Lions

Can a secondary edge rusher emerge for the Lions?

Syndication: Detroit Free Press (image credit: IMAGN)
Syndication: Detroit Free Press (image credit: IMAGN)

I had a second question here originally – "Can Jameson Williams become a consistent component of their offense?" The Lions have their possession-style receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown to keep the offense on schedule and convert on third downs, but they need that big-play option and someone who really threatens the deep parts of the field.

With that being said, who can be that complement to Aidan Hutchinson off the edge defensively may be equally important, considering how little they got out of that group last season. Hutch’s 101 pressures in the regular season ranked behind only Dallas’ Micah Parsons.

Second on the list for Detroit was Alim McNeill with 34 despite missing a month and the next-closest actual “EDGE” was Charles Harris with 24. That was tied for 81st at the position for the year. The former second-overall pick was double-teamed at nearly a 30% rate, which was right up there with Defensive Player of the Year Myles Garrett, behind only Parsons yet again.

Not only does that make his production even more impressive, but it also speaks of the incapability of the rest of the group to take advantage of their one-on-one matchups. The guy who has really flashed in the past was James Houston IV, who shockingly racked up eight sacks in just seven games as a sixth-round rookie in 2022, but was placed on injured reserve in week two last season.

A top-50 pick from the same class, Josh Pascal, has turned himself into a solid run defender, but hasn’t gotten to the quarterback a whole lot. And the guy likely starting at that strong-side D-end spot is free agent Marcus Davenport, who turned himself into a productive player as a former first-round pick in New Orleans. However, he was limited to just four games due to a high-ankle sprain with Minnesota and is now on his second one-year, prove-it deal.

#3, Green Bay Packers

How much more aggressive will new DC Jeff Hafley be in how he constructs this defense?

There’s already been a lot of buzz around the Packers pretty much since last season came to an end, with how bright Jordan Love’s star was shining over the second half of the year. Additionally, a lot of the young pieces around him on offense have had another year to grow together and they have a defense that is loaded with (former) first-round picks.

With that being said, there is a lot of uncertainty on that other side of the ball and what this unit will actually look like now that they (understandably) moved on from Joe Barry. Their new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley is one of the more intriguing figures across the NFL because we have such little information on what defensive scheme he intends on running Green Bay.

At the pro level, he’s only ever been a defensive backs coach, before he started to make a name for himself as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and then was signed as head coach for Boston College for the last four years. Looking at the back-end, Hafley’s defenses have consistently been near the top of the FBS in terms of single-high coverages, while up front he used a lot of more traditional 4-3 looks.

However, the quality of competition you face, the offensive designs of your opponents and even just the geometry of the field – due to the wider hashmarks – are different at the collegiate level. Green Bay has some big players on the edges and Devonte Wyatt could be a breakout guy when allowed to penetrate more on the interior.

The second level is built on speed, but in terms of the secondary, while they have a couple of outside corners that thrive in isolated situations, their safety types would dictate more split-safety structures, since they’re all more comfortable breaking on stuff in front of them or dropping down in the slot rather than patrolling the high post. So I’m fascinated with what this may look like.

#4, Minnesota Vikings

Can Sam Darnold hold up the fort or do we see the rookie early?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (image credit: IMAGN)
NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers (image credit: IMAGN)

The Vikings had a massive decision to make this offseason – How much are they willing to pay up for Kirk Cousins or are they ready to move into the next phase of this operation altogether?

Clearly, they weren’t ready to commit another 100 million dollars guaranteed across the next three years to the veteran signal-caller, who this organization has continuously needed to extend further in order to limit his cap charge – even as they’ve overhauled the front-office and coaching staff.

Yet, while Kirk finished sixth in EPA per play among quarterbacks last season until tearing his Achilles at the mid-point of the year, it was time for Kevin O’Connell to find his own long-term solution under center and do so with the benefit of being on a rookie QB deal.

While there was discussion around how Minnesota might want to trade up as high as number two overall, they actually just swapped spots with the Jets one spot ahead of them at pick ten to secure themselves Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and recently we actually received reports around them moving up for LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers.

Instead, they just extended their superstar pass-catcher Justin Jefferson and now the rookie who might throw him the ball could be someone they didn’t spend massive capital on and isn’t necessarily the most pro-ready. That leaves the door open for veteran Sam Darnold, who only just turned 27 years old himself and is earning 10 million dollars this season to prove himself.

People may argue that he’s received plenty of opportunities, but across the five seasons, he’s received actual playing time only for one-half of those he had an offensive line that wasn’t bottom-five in the league. Other than now leaving Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, every offensive play-caller he’s worked with for a full season ended up getting fired. I believe Sam should be a tremendous fit for this play-action-heavy offense, with more mobility than Cousins previously.

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Edited by John Maxwell
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