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2021 Season preview: NFC North

By Scott McCabe

With the NFL season right around the corner, we take a glance at some of the changes that have occurred, breakout candidates and mouthwatering fixtures for the NFC North.

Detroit Lions:

With Campbell only settling into his new role as head coach, its certainly worth keeping an eye on how this new-look Lions team will take to his style of coaching. Will the Lions come out 'biting off kneecaps' like Campbell said they would?

Well, Lions’ training camp has proven that the 2021/2022 Lions will be physical and in your face. Rookies Ifeatu Melifonwu and Amon-Ra St. Brown got into a tussle whilst competing against each other in practice. However, St.Brown made it clear that it was just friendly competition. Blood smeared jerseys have also been reported along with players throwing-up after intense practice sessions. The Campbell era has most definitely begun in Detroit... now, all that’s left to do is be patient and see how this season unfolds for the Lions.

Offensive Coordinator: Anthony Lynn

The former Chargers head coach will get his chance to showcase his ample coaching knowledge for the Lions this season. Granted, going from Justin Herbert to Jared Goff could be seen as a downgrade, but Lynn will certainly be up for the task of turning this Lions offense around.

Defensive Coordinator: Aaron Glenn

Glenn enters his first year as defensive coordinator for the Lions, but it's not like he’s unqualified for the position; Glenn spent five years on the Saints coaching staff and his main role was working with the Saints secondary, a unit that has dominated in recent years. With Glenn’s vast coaching experience with defensive backs, Lions cornerback Jeffrey Okudah could be a lethal weapon for Detroit.

One to watch: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

If you’re the average blow-in fan, then you’ve likely never head of St.Brown, but there’s a hype train departing very shortly from Detroit and we’re all aboard it. Lions fans need to pay particular attention to St.Brown. Re-read his name until it sinks in. The former USC wide receiver is expected to get a shot with the first team due to the Lions having one of the weakest receiving corps in the league. If the rookie impresses in minicamp and snatches at any opportunities that come his way, St.Brown could find his way into the starting lineup for the Lions and perhaps snatch the No.1 wide receiver position.

Standout matchup:

Week 7: Lions @ Rams

Oh, get the popcorn ready folks, we’re in for a thriller. Old faces in different places is the best way to describe this matchup. It's the former Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford suiting up for the L.A Rams and the former Rams Quarterback Jared Goff suiting up for the Detroit Lions. Expect to see both quarterbacks give it their all in this game as they’ll be eager to prove their worth to their new franchises.

Minnesota Vikings:

Maybe, just maybe this is the season where the Minnesota Vikings take the leap from average team to a great team. I mean, it's not like they don’t have the weapons to do it. With rookie quarterback Kellen Mond mounting the pressure on Kirk Cousins, there’s no guarantee that by week 17 Cousins will have the starting job. All it takes is a few below-average performances from Cousins and then you can expect the heat to turn up in the quarterback room in Minnesota.

Head Coach: Mike Zimmer

Zimmer is going into his eighth season with the Vikings. After last season’s disappointing finish to the season, it’d be out of line to say Zimmer is on the ‘hot seat’, but an improvement is needed. With the talent on the Vikings’ roster, they should be able to contend for the NFC North title. The last time we saw the Vikings in the playoffs was 2019, the year the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ occurred. The Vikings won’t need a miracle to make the playoffs, they’ll just need their big-name players to produce and be consistent.

Offensive Coordinator: Klint Kubiak

Klint Kubiak, the son of former NFL coach Gary Kubiak, will be taking over where his father left off in the role of Vikings offensive coordinator. Kubiak spent last year as the quarterbacks coach and has spent eight seasons in the NFL as a coach, so he’ll certainly be chomping at the bit to prove his worth.

Defensive Coordinators: Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer

The Vikings will also have not one, but two defensive coordinators. Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer will share the position. Zimmer has a knack for spotting talent in linebackers and crafting them into Pro Bowlers, that’s what he managed to do with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Therefore, you can expect to see a strong presence from Minnesota’s linebacking core this season.

Patterson will bring 39 years of experience to the coaching staff. Before his promotion to co-defensive coordinator, Patterson worked as the defensive line coach for the Vikings. Hopefully by having two co-defensive coordinators, the Vikings can get two minds wrapped around a defense which looked depleted last year. Free agency additions like Patrick Peterson and Xavier Woods will bolster the Vikings secondary but it's difficult to see the Vikings being a top-tier defense this season.

One to watch: Cornerback (CB) Patrick Peterson

Since his rookie debut for the Arizona Cardinals back in 2011, Patrick Peterson has been a regular face in the Cardinals’ secondary. However, this year, Peterson will be entering a new phase in his career as he looks to add stability to a rocky Minnesota secondary.

Look, we’re not saying Peterson is going to turn into Jalen Ramsey for the Vikings, but the veteran CB will bring a tonne of experience to the Vikings, and we expect him to thrive as the No.1 cornerback in Minnesota.

After standing in the shadow of Minnesota's veteran tight-end Kyle Rudolph for the past two seasons. Irv Smith was a major breakout candidate for the new season. Unfortunately for Smith, he’ll have to wait a little longer to prove his worth as he picked up a meniscus injury during a preseason game with the Chiefs, per Tom Pelissero.

The timeline for Smith really comes down to what type of meniscus tear Smith suffered. “If the surgery is Meniscectomy, then he will be out for 2-4 weeks. If the surgery is a meniscus repair, he will be out for the season.” PFF’s Mario Pilato explained on Twitter.

Standout matchup:

Week 16 Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay

Week 17 Minnesota Vikings host Chicago

It's far too difficult to pick out one important matchup for the Vikings this season. However, week 16 & week 17 will be vital in Minnesota's effort to challenge for the NFC North title and compete for a playoff spot. The Vikings will play the Bears twice in their last four games of the regular season [weeks 15 and 17] and then throw Green Bay in the mix and you’ve got mouthwatering fixtures with major consequences that could turn the NFC North on its head. Strap in Vikings fans, you’re in for exhilarating end to the season.

Chicago Bears:

You’ve got to feel like the Bears are one of those boom or bust teams heading into the new season. After such a phenomenal draft by Chicago's front office, it's almost time to see how this Bears team shapes up this season. Andy Dalton and Justin Fields is one of the most intriguing quarterback sagas this offseason. With every snap Fields takes, whether its training camp or preseason, the media are enthralled by his ability. Then there’s Dalton; the old reliable option.

“Justin’s going to have a great career, but right now it’s my time.” Dalton expressed his desire to compete for the QB1 job during a press conference.

Unfortunately for Bears fans, it doesn’t seem like Chicago wants to unleash Justin Fields too early into the season, Dalton seems like a safe bet to start for the first few weeks of the season and expect Fields to be eased into the game.

Head Coach: Matt Nagy

Matt Nagy will be heavily scrutinised for his decisions this year in regards to the quarterback position. If Dalton plays horrendously week one against the L.A. Rams, you can bet that journalists will be hounding Nagy with his decision not to play Fields. On the other hand, if Nagy takes a chance with Fields and throws him in right away and it doesn’t go to plan, well, that could get nasty. Either way, you’ve got to feel for Nagy. He’s in a tough situation, but this team needs to start proving their worth because the Mitchell Trubisky era is now over. The Bears have managed to piece together a solid roster on both offense and defense, so the potential is there. Nobody likes to say that any coach is on the ‘hot seat' but if the Bears have another lack lustered season under the coaching of Nagy, serious questions will be asked.

Offensive Coordinator: Matt Nagy

I know what you’re thinking, ‘Is that a typo?’ Nope. Nagy is not only going to be the head coach of the Bears this season, but also take on the duties of offensive coordinator. “The fun part right now is building what we want to do better and getting that right with the coaches and players that are going to be with us.” Nagy told reporters.

Well, ‘fun’ is a word that hasn’t been used to describe the Bears in a long time, but hopefully this season is the rebirth of the dominant Bears we once knew, and selecting Justin Fields is certainly a move that can kickstart this franchise.

Defensive Coordinator: Sean Desai

Desai will be taking over defensive duties from the well-respected Chuck Pagano. After 36 years of coaching, Pagano called his last play as an NFL coach during the 2020 season. It’s not all doom and gloom though, Desai has worked diligently to move up the ranks of the Bears’ coaching staff, and he’s finally being rewarded. Since 2013, Desai has been a familiar face around the Bears’ camp working as defensive quality control assistant, safeties coach, and now defensive coordinator.

One part of the Bears’ defense that could really shine this season is the secondary, in particular the safety position. With Desai having worked as the safeties coach before his bump up to defensive coordinator, you bet Desai will have free safety Eddie Jackson and strong safety Tashaun Gipson Jr. playing an influential part in a new defense that will look to be as ferocious as the 1985 Bears.

One to watch: Wide receiver [WR] Darnell Mooney

When you think Chicago Bears and wide receiver, your head normally goes straight to Allen Robinson II. However, last season, there was a slight shift in the number of targets Robinson saw. That was down to the rookie wideout Darnell Mooney proving to be a reliable down field option. Mooney totted up an impressive 98 targets and four touchdowns in 2020. As the season progressed, Mooney announced himself as the unequivocal WR2 for Chicago. Therefore, Mooney is certainly worth keeping tabs on as he could be in store for a massive leap in his second season.

Standout Matchup:

Week 7: Chicago Bears @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bears fans might be dreading this matchup, but they should be looking forward to it. It’s hard to think of a better way to see where your team’s season might be heading than by facing the current world champions. This matchup will give the Bears a platform to prove to the NFL that they need to be taken seriously. The Bears’ QB situation is also worth monitoring before this matchup commences. If Justin Fields starts for the Bears, has a solid performance against one of the top defenses in the league and keeps up with Tom Brady, well, he might just be the real deal...

Green Bay Packers:

This offseason, there was probably more drama in the Packers organisation than in an episode of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ Every week, fresh news would filter through to the media about Aaron Rodgers’ unrest in Green Bay and the possibility of him moving on from Lambeau Field. Overall, you get the sense that Rodgers is just a little frustrated with his current situation in Green Bay.

Rodgers wants a second ring, and in recent drafts, the Packers have neglected the veteran QB’s pleas for more offensive weapons. During an offseason press conference Rodgers showed his discontent with the Packers front office.

Shortly after the press conference, news emerged that the Packers had signed Randall Cobb. Green Bay is not a new setting for Cobb, the wide receiver spent eight seasons with the Packers before his brief time with the Cowboys and Texans. Cobb has found the endzone 41 times for the Packers, and a reliable slot receiver is just what the doctor ordered for the Packers.

“Having Randall Cobb in our building is a positive, there’s no doubt about that. Not only as a player, but as a person. He’s a positive, specifically to our quarterback. Which is a very important piece of what we’re trying to accomplish in 2021.” Gutekunst told reporters.

The signing of Cobb seemed to extinguish blazing tensions between Rodgers and the Packers. It’s a move in the right direction to keep 2021 MVP in Green Bay.

Head Coach: Matt LaFleur

After consecutive losses in the 2020 and 2021 NFC Championship game, LaFleur will be hungry to make it to the Super Bowl along with the rest of the Packers. LaFleur does boast an impressive resume and doesn't really need to prove himself to the Packers. However, he was heavily criticized for his play calling in the last years’ Conference Championship game.

Since the 1970’s only five coaches have made back-to-back Championship game appearance; last season LaFleur became the sixth coach to achieve such an accolade. The pressure is slightly mounting on LaFleur to produce victories at the highest level and failure to make it past the Conference Championship round this season could result in serious questions being asked about the direction this Packers team is headed in.

Offensive Coordinator: Nathaniel Hackett

The arrival of Randall Cobb will give Hackett more depth at his receiving core. Having a veteran receiver who already has a great relationship with the quarterback is something that NFL teams thrive on. With the instant connection between Cobb and Rodgers, we may see more of the ball spread around in this offense. Last year, well, it was really the ‘Davante Adams show.’ Adams proved he is one of the best receivers around as he tallied up 18 touchdowns and was in sync with Rodgers.

Hackett turned an average offense into a machine that terrified opposing defenses. With Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers in that mix and you’ve got the recipe for a lethal passing offense. The Packers won’t neglect the ground game by any means. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are two phenomenal runners. However, with tight end Robert Tonyan dominating last season to assert himself as the No.1 tight end, this Packers offense has only strengthened in the offseason and Hackett will have even more options which will open the playbook for this dynamic Packers’ offense.

Defensive Coordinator: Joe Barry

Joe Barry, former assistant head coach/linebackers coach of the L.A. Rams, will be the new defensive coordinator for the Packers this season.

Coming from a Rams defense that was ranked the No.1 in the league in 2020, the Packers will be hoping that Barry can replicate his achievements with the Rams. Now, granted Rashan Gary is no Aaron Donald, but there's still a number of talented players on the Packers defense who can flourish under Barry.

Getting to know LaFleur will be a straightforward task for Barry as the two previously worked together on the Rams’ coaching staff in 2017, and although Barry’s most recent coaching stint was as assistant head coach/linebackers coach, it's not like he’s never coached a defense before; he’s held the position in the past with the Detroit Lions and the Washington Football Team.

With Barry having experience as a defensive coordinator and most recently as a linebackers coach, you can anticipate the Packers to be very sharp at the linebacker position this season. With a solid secondary, an above-average defensive front and Barry getting to work on his linebackers, the Packers could easily finish this season as a top five defense.

Player to watch: Outside Linebacker [OLB] Rashan Gary

Under Joe Barry, Rashan Gary could take a massive leap this season. With Preston Smith struggling to stay fit, Gary saw an increase in his playing time last season. If he can have a positive training camp and preseason, Gary could sneak above Smith on the depth chart. There’s no questioning Gary’s talent but utilizing it in the right manner has become an issue in his first two seasons in the NFL. With Barry now taking control on the defensive side of things, we could be in store for a huge breakout year for Gary.

Standout matchup:

Week 8: Green Bay @ Kansas City

My, oh my is this going to be fun. Two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL battling against each other. It’s a fixture that many fans thought we might see last year in the Super Bowl, however, they doubted Tom Brady’s excellence- something you should NEVER do.

The only downside about this week eight matchup is the fact that we have to wait eight weeks to see it! It’ll come at a critical point in the season when the playoff hunt is under way. Just sit back and enjoy the excellence of these two quarterbacks.

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