NFC North Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate prize; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter while even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will be watching this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: An improved offense? – Chicago went out and traded for WR Brandon Marshall, reuniting the talented receiver with QB Jay Cutler from their days in Denver. They also picked up RB Michael Bush out of Oakland to provide depth for the RB Matt Forte who is coming off of a knee injury late last season. On top of all that, Chicago spent a 2nd round pick on WR Alshon Jeffery who has great size and leaping ability that, with a little determination and focus, could make Jeffery a force to be reckoned with with experience. Then there is the annual question about the offensive line. Is it good enough? All of these new pieces and questions will first be on display this preseason.
Short Term Question: How will RB Matt Forte return after his knee injury? – Last season, Forte was an absolute beast. He finished last season only playing 12 games because of his knee injury late in the season, but still amassed 997 yards rushing, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He also contributed 490 yards receiving as he was a huge part of the Bears offense even before Cutler went down with his own injury. The big question now is if Forte will be able to return and play as effectively as he was when he went down. Forte is a huge piece to a Bears offense that needs to stay balanced. Preseason is where we should get our first look.
Long Term Question: Will the offensive line be able to keep Jay Cutler upright? – This has been the question for years. Chicago used to have Mike Martz, the coach who led “the Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis, as their offensive coordinator. Many of his passing plays called for extended time in the pocket with solid pass protection. Cutler never consistently received that time and now Mike Tice is the offensive coordinator. While that change should be enough to have a major effect on the pass protection, Chicago needs to keep Cutler upright and off the injury report. When Cutler went down last season, the Bears went down. If Cutler can make it through the season with better pass protection, Chicago could make some noise.
Rookie to Watch: WR Alshon Jeffery – The guy is tall, athletic and has an uncanny ability to snag the ball out of the air above opposing defenders. The drawback is that he dropped off in his final year at South Carolina due to a sort of “lack of motivation”. He gained some weight and now he is trying to prove that he really does possess everything that I mentioned before. Jeffery is in a situation where he could have a good preseason and step in at the number 2 WR spot with Marshall on the other side.
Veteran to Watch: RB Michael Bush – Bush has size, and deceptive speed. He was brought in as a backup to Forte. With that said, Bush will also take some goal line carries because of his size. It will be interesting to see how Chicago uses their free agent investment.
What to Watch: The swagger – Pretty much, I want to see if Detroit thinks they are ready for the big time. They got to the playoffs last year and were then thoroughly out played by the New Orleans Saints. Detroit then dealt with a variety of off-field issues this offseason and now people are wondering if Detroit is still on the way up, like many thought they were following their playoff appearance. I want to see if Detroit focuses and uses this preseason as the better teams do around the league. I want to see if they believe that they are one of the big boys in one of the most competitive divisions in football.
Short Term Question: How do the offseason incidents affect the team heading into the season? – A distraction is a distraction. When a guy is holding out for a new contract, that is one thing. When a number of your players get arrested over one offseason and it gets so bad that other players are commenting on it… you have a whole different issue. There have been 7 Detroit Lions arrests this offseason (former Lions CB Aaron Berry – 2, RB Mikel Leshoure – 2, DT Nick Fairley – 2, OT Johnny Culbreath – 1). While getting arrested obviously brings some unwanted fan recognition (just ask the Bengals…), the Lions also have to deal with suspensions of two of their young, talented pieces in Fairley and Leshoure. Leshoure is already facing a two-game suspension, Fairley may still see some sort of suspension (who knows) and Berry was cut after his second arrest. Fairley and Leshoure, in particular, were supposed to be major contributors in their 2nd years, but now they remain risks, only one more arrest from possibly facing Berry’s fate. It will be interesting to see how Detroit handles the unwanted attention.
Long Term Question: Will their secondary hold up? – They place in the conference that houses QBs Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, just to mention the top two. Detroit has a lot of talent. They do. They have QB Matt Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, DT Ndamukong Suh and DE Cliff Avril to name a couple key players. With that talent though, they have a huge question mark with their pass coverage on defense. They played New Orleans last postseason and ended up looking like they simply didn’t belong on the field with them. Detroit couldn’t even limit the Saints passing attack. If Detroit can improve that secondary, they could be in business.
Rookie to Watch: QB Kellen Moore – I know that there aren’t really any people out there talking about the guy, but there’s just something about him. He is knocked because his isn’t the strongest, he isn’t the biggest and he simply doesn’t look like a NFL quarterback. Well, more often than not, those knocks are legitimate and they never become starting QBs in the NFL. Whenever I think of this sort of player, I think of this guy… yeah that’s Tom Brady. Now don’t get me wrong, its much more likely that Moore never sticks with an NFL team, but there is just something about the guy that makes me think he could do more. Preseason is where we can first look to find out.
Veteran to Watch: RB Mikel Leshoure – He’s already suspended for the first two regular season games and has yet to play this preseason, but I think he is a guy to watch when he does hit the field. This season he should get healthy and be able to contribute. He is a big, powerful back who has speed and can instantly boost a running back position that lacks any definition. Leshoure is the guy that Detroit is counting on.
Green Bay Packers
What to Watch: Renewed focus – Green Bay finished the regular season at 15-1 and then took their bye week before returning to Lambeau Field and losing to the New York Giants. After a season of near perfection, Green Bay was out. I think it will be interesting if Green Bay shows a determination and focus this preseason as they begin working their way towards the Super Bowl again. I also think that it could be interesting to watch their defense as they try to shake off a poor season last year.
Short Term Question: What do they do with the run game? – Green Bay recently went out and signed former Bengals RB, Cedric Benson, in an attempt to bolster their running back unit. They already have James Starks and… nobody else really. The don’t need much, because of QB Aaron Rodgers being awesome and all, but Green Bay does need to find a threat when they have the ball. Starks hasn’t been impressive as of late and Benson is aging so the answer may not be on the roster. It will be interesting to follow.
Long Term Question: Is the defense better? – Green Bay’s defense slipped last season to last in the NFL giving up over 410 yards per game. Obviously, this is something that Green Bay would like to improve on and something they need to improve on. They went out and drafted DE/OLB Nick Perry from USC to be a compliment pass rusher to OLB Clay Mathews. They also picked up DT Jerel Worthy from Michigan State with their 2nd pick in hopes that he could create push in the middle of the defense. All in all, long term, Green Bay’s success will not only rely on the arm of Aaron Rodgers, but also the ability of this defense to stop/slow down opposing offenses.
Rookie to Watch: DE Nick Perry – Perry is changing to the OLB position in the 3-4 defense after playing at USC as a DE. Perry is athletic enough that the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. He has the athleticism and ability to be a fine player on the other side from Clay Mathews. It will be fun to see his development early this season.
Veteran to Watch: WR Randall Cobb – Cobb is a guy who is kind of “hidden” on the Packers wide receiver depth chart, but he could be a big name come the regular season. He has tremendous speed and just seems to have a knack for finding space when he has the ball in his hands. He can create plays and when a player can create plays, he can get some playing time. Cobb could work his way up the depth chart with a solid preseason.
What to Watch: The beginning of the Christian Ponder era. – QB Christian Ponder showed glimpses last year of what made him a 1st round pick during last years NFL draft. He showed solid physical attributes and as the year went along, he seemed to be developing the mental aspects of the NFL game. This is his first year with an offseason and now should be when we get to see where the Ponder era is going.
Short Term Question: Can RB Adrian Peterson play? – He suffered a major knee injury (MCL and ACL tear) in Week 17 of last season. He has been working like crazy to get back in time for Week 1 and, honestly, if anyone could make that dramatic of a recovery, it would be Adrian Peterson. The question for the Vikings is what they will get out of him when he does return. In most cases, a player returning from this sort of injury doesn’t get back to their top form until their second season removed from the injury. When Peterson returns and which Peterson returns will play a role in how dangerous the Vikings are this season.
Long Term Question: Can Minnesota surprise some people? – I just said in the previous paragraph that Minnesota could be dangerous. Yeah, I don’t know about that either, but they have the makings of a team that could steal a win here or there. They are young, talented on the offensive side of the ball (especially with Peterson) and they have nothing to lose. Some of the reasons they will struggle this year would include a very suspect defense (minus DE Jared Allen of course) and the fact that they are… in fact… young. They also play in the division with Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit, which is a bit of a challenge for any team, much less a team that is rebuilding.
Rookie to Watch: S Harrison Smith – This is a guy who Minnesota took early, after LT Matt Kahlil. Smith has good size for safety and appears to be a very solid player in most regards. As I mentioned before, defense is a concern for Minnesota and Smith could be a major piece in turning Minnesota’s fortunes in the secondary.
Veteran to Watch: RB Toby Gerhart – Gerhart is the backup to Adrian Peterson, who is obviously pretty important to Minnesota, and Gerhart is in line for some carries in his absence. Gerhart isn’t a speed back by any means, but he has the power to be an effective player if Peterson misses regular season time. Preseason is where we will first see Gerhart in the starting role.