We’re on the cusp of the 2021 NFL Season. Before we get there, it’s time to prepare by looking at each of these divisions and the prospects for the season. Next up is the NFC North, where the Green Bay Packers return the reigning NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers.
In 2020, Rodgers and the Packers dominated, winning the division and making a deep playoff run. Meanwhile, Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears did just enough to make the playoffs, the Vikings’ defense was a liability, and the Lions just fell apart. The question is, did much of anything change for the 2021 season?
Green Bay Packers
2020 Record: 13-3
Key Additions: Randall Cobb, WR, Amari Rodgers, WR, Eric Stokes, CB
Key Departures: Jamaal Williams, RB
Key Question: What can Rodgers do for an encore in 2021?
The Packers have been great the past two seasons, ending each in the NFC Championship Game. And yet, the biggest challenge this off-season was whether or not Rodgers would return. After seeing the team draft his successor in Jordan Love last off-season, Rodgers rolled off an incredible season in 2020, throwing for 4,299 yards and 48 touchdowns. He was the NFL MVP and guided the team to the NFC Title game, where they fell short. Worse yet, the coaching decisions at the end of the game seemed to rankle and deflate the mercurial quarterback, who spent most of the off-season trashing the Packers and implying he’d never play for the team again. Those feeling haven’t gone away entirely, and yet Rodgers is back thanks to a deal reached just before Training Camp. The team re-signed Aaron Jones and traded for Randall Cobb, all seemingly to appease Rodgers. Will it work?
That’s the question. The Packers didn’t have many major departures but didn’t grab many free agents, either. It’s all about the core—which includes Rodgers, Jones, and star receiver Davante Adams. The team has other receiving options with Cobb, the rookie Amari Rodgers, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, and tight end Robert Tonyan, who broke out big and finished as TE3 in 2020. In addition to Jones, the Packers have second-year running back A.J. Dillon to help shoulder the load. They should be the favorites in the NFC North and make another deep playoff run if the frosty relationship between Aaron Rodgers and Head Coach Matt LaFleur remains functional. It also might be Rodgers’ last ride with the Packers, so fans are hoping it’s a good one.
2020 Record: 8-8
Key Additions: Justin Fields, QB, Andy Dalton, QB, Jason Peters, LT, Damien Williams, RB, Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Tevin Jenkins, OT
Key Departures: Mitch Trubisky, QB, Anthony Miller, WR, Cordarelle Patterson, RB, Kyle Fuller, CB
Key Question: When do we see Justin Fields?
The Bears were an 8-8 team that vacillated between veteran Nick Foles and former No. 2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky in 2020. It was enough to make the playoffs, but no more. This off-season, Nagy decided to re-make his quarterback room. First, that meant signing veteran Dalton, who played his first few seasons with the Bengals, and 2020 with the Cowboys. But the real steal came in the draft, where Ohio State star Justin Fields fell to the No. 11 pick. Fields threw for 5,373 yards and 63 TDs in two seasons for the Buckeyes, leading the team to the National Championship Game in 2020. He’s the future, but when does the future begin? For now, Nagy maintains that Dalton will start Week 1. The Bears have star receiver Allen Robinson and up-and-coming Darnell Mooney. The TEs are Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham, and RBs are David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen. The pieces are there on offense—and defense—it’s just a matter of the right player under center. The pressure is on to make a move in 2021, and it’s quite possible Fields is the answer. He’s just waiting for the chance to prove it.
2020 Record: 7-9
Key Additions: Patrick Peterson, CB, Sheldon Richardson, DT, Xavier Woods, S, Christian Darrisaw, OT, Kellen Mond, QB
Key Departures: Mike Boone, RB, Kyle Rudolph, TE, Riley Reiff, OT
Key Question: Is Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins enough?
The 2020 Vikings were a disappointment. The offense produced some eye-popping numbers, but the defense struggled mightily. In the end, the team finished just under .500 and missed the playoffs for the second time in Cousins’ three seasons. Will that change in 2021? The Vikings invested in pieces to fix the defense, particularly the poor secondary. Offensively, the team still has great running back Dalvin Cook, a pair of strong receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and emerging tight end Irv Smith, Jr. The pieces are there, but it’s hard to get a read on the Vikings as a team. The frosty disposition at times between Cousins, playing on a contract extension, and Zimmer makes it fair to wonder if the two can co-exist well enough to help the Vikings navigate a dense NFC field. That’s what has Vikings’ fans holding their breath heading into year four of the duo’s time together in Minnesota.
2020 Record: 4-12
Key Additions: Jared Goff, QB, Jamaal Williams, RB, Tyrell Williams, WR, Breshad Perriman, WR, Penei Sewell, OT, Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR
Key Departures: Matthew Stafford, QB, Kenny Golladay, WR, Marvin Jones, WR, Kerryon Johnson, RB, Adrian Peterson, RB
Key Question: What will Detroit be like in 2021?
The 2020 Lions seemed to have the pieces to make a run, which was certainly the expectation placed on coach Matt Patricia. After the Lions got off to a 4-7 start, Patricia was fired, and it was clear the Lions weren’t going anywhere. This off-season, the team has looked to re-build around some of its young core. New Head Coach Dan Campbell has brought a fierce attitude, but the question is how that will translate to the field. Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford and the team’s top receivers are all gone. In his stead is former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, who’s looking to rebuild his career after things soured between him and Rams Head Coach Sean McVay.
Goff has thrown for 18,171 yards, 107 TDs, and 55 INTs in five seasons with the Rams. He’s a veteran but quite possibly a stopgap for a team in the early stages of a multi-year rebuild. The defense and the receiving corps are a work in progress, while the Lions will rely on excellent young tight end T.J. Hockenson and running backs D’Andre Swift and former Packer Jamaal Williams to carry the load. There’s some talent there, but it’s hard to see many wins for the Lions in 2021.
NFC North Prediction
It’s the Packers division, but the Bears and Vikings could make a playoff run if things break the right way. I think it’s just a matter of a few weeks before Fields takes the reigns in Chicago, which should be good enough to have the Bears in the playoff hunt to the end of the season. Meanwhile, I think the off-field tension will be enough to derail the Vikings while the Lions hope to have some close games.
Green Bay Packers: 11-6
Chicago Bears: 9-8
Minnesota Vikings: 7-10
Detroit Lions: 3-14
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL Fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.