Heading into the 2016 campaign, Around The NFL is taking a closer look at each division over the course of this week. Which storylines -- and players -- will define the coming months within each of the league's eight sectors? Check out the NFC North entry below.
Most significant changes from 2015
Chicago Bears: Defensive front seven. The Bears overhauled a flimsy front seven in short order and Chicago now has quality talent surrounding whirling dervish Pernell McPhee (whenever he makes it on the field). The linebacking corps added run stuffer Jerrell Freeman and dynamic sideline-to-sideline tackler Danny Trevathan, which immediately boosts a weakness. Akiem Hicks playing alongside rising nose tackle Eddie Goldman also upgrades the defensive line. First-round pick Leonard Floyd needs to gain mass and experience but has the talent to become a disruptive playmaker by season's end. The back end of the defense is riddled with questions, but Chicago's front seven should be much improved in John Fox's second season.
Detroit Lions: No more Megatron.Matthew Stafford goes from one of the greatest receiving threats of all time to Marvin Jones. That's not to knock Jones, who has flashed rapport with the Lions quarterback and spectacular sideline catching acumen. The question will be how Stafford handles pressure situations without his security blanket, Calvin Johnson, on the field. The Lions will spread the ball around more and utilize a ton more no-huddle in 2016. Detroit should have an entertaining and prolific passing offense in Jim Bob Cooter's first full season as offensive coordinator, even without Megatron on the field. The running game, on the other hand, could be difficult to watch.
Green Bay Packers: Jordy's return. A healthy receiving corps is a huge change from 2015, when the Packers relied on an aging, hoodied James Jones to lead the way. Jordy Nelson's return should not be understated. His absence totally threw the Packers' pecking order out of whack. We still haven't seen him on the field this preseason, but even if he starts the regular season slow, the presence of a top-10 NFL receiver alone will cause defenses to adjust. Randall Cobb, who battled injury all last season, will slide back to his role in the slot, taking advantage of No. 2 corners. Davante Adams is also back healthy and appears to have put last year's nightmare campaign behind him. The Packers boast a deep wipeout group (we didn't even name the rising young guns). The top of the corps enters 2016 exponentially healthier than last season.
Minnesota Vikings: Offensive line upgrades. The Vikings set out this offseason to upgrade a sieve offensive line. They added Alex Boone and Andre Smith. Both have been better run blockers than pass blockers the past several seasons. The additions should be good news for Adrian Peterson, who too often had to fight through tacklers behind the line of scrimmage last season. Let's also not overlook that Matt Kalil is coming off his first surgery-free offseason since 2013 -- but he did suffer a leg injury in the past week. A rookie Pro Bowler in 2012, the left tackle just turned in two poor seasons back-to-back and caught the ire of the Vikes fan base. Kalil earned positive reviews early in training camp, before the injury. Improved offensive line play is the linchpin for the Vikings taking a step forward in 2016.
One player to watch from each team
Chicago Bears: Jeremy Langford, running back. Langford was one of the least efficient running backs on balance last season, struggling to break tackles and get to the second level. The rookie earned just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015 -- fourth-worst among backs with at least 100 totes -- and posted a paltry average of 1.13 yards after contact. Despite these menial figures, Langford is in line for the featured role in Chicago. In 2016, he has shown improved vision and decisiveness hitting the hole. Langford also boasts potential in the passing game. If the 2015 fourth-round pick takes giant strides in Year 2, the Bears will have a balanced offense. If not, Chicago will have to rely heavily on Jay Cutler and the passing game, which hasn't worked out well in the past.
Detroit Lions: Taylor Decker, left tackle. The Lions will baptize their first-round offensive tackle by fire. Decker will start the season protecting Stafford's blind side. The 6-foot-7 left tackle has gone through preseason growing pains but has improved by leaps and bounds each week. Decker could struggle with athletic pass rushers and will need to improve his technique. The Lions' offensive line was atrocious last season. If Decker improves, it should help solidify a line that boasts a bevy of early-round draft picks. If he struggles, it could be a tough season for Stafford in the pocket.
Green Bay Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, safety. Clinton-Dix is already an upper-echelon safety. And if his early-career trend continues, he'll thrust his name into consideration for the top of the board by the end of 2016. The free safety is around the ball constantly, plays the ball well in the air and can be a maven against the run. Ha Ha's on-field acumen will lead to many more chances for game-changing plays in his third season. In reality, Green Bay's entire defensive backfield is worth watching. With rising young corners in Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter to go with vet Sam Shields, this will be a potent secondary that will give quarterbacks fits.
Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback. Bridgewater might be the obvious answer, but the third-year quarterback making the leap in 2016 is the most vital factor in the Vikings continuing the franchise's upward trajectory. Adrian Peterson will be Adrian Peterson (Father Time be damned). Mike Zimmer's defense will be as stout as ever. The biggest question will be whether Bridgewater can become a difference maker in the passing game. (That offensive line cited above will be a big factor in the QB's performance.) Bridgewater might not have tools scouts drool over, but his deep-ball accuracy has improved and he looks poised maneuvering the pocket of late. If his decision making follows its current flight path, the Vikings will be in great shape come playoff time. Some might not view Teddy as a high-ceiling NFL quarterback, but I believe he can win playoff games (plural) in Minnesota.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Vikings acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from the Eagles in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2017 and a fourth-rounder in 2018 on Saturday. Bridgewater is done for the season after suffering a torn ACL and a dislocated knee on a non-contact play at practice Tuesday.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
Chicago Bears: The gaping holes in the secondary and offensive line were too much for the Bears to overcome. The building blocks on defense are there, but Ryan Pace has to add more overall talent. The first of 3,700 reports on whether the Bears should walk away from Jay Cutler -- even though they still have no viable replacement -- comes in early December. Rampant speculation about whether Alshon Jeffery is worth Dez Bryant-money on the open market also muddles the end of a middling season in the Windy City.
Detroit Lions: The depth is better under GM Bob Quinn, but even the magic of Jim Bob Cooter couldn't help overcome the lack of a running game and lack of quality starters on defense. Stafford throws the ball a ton and puts up monster Fantasy Football numbers, but the Lions continue to be a mid-tier team with 8-8 talent.
Green Bay Packers: A focused Eddie Lacy beasted out all season, helping take pressure off Aaron Rodgers. The all-world quarterback returns to his MVP-caliber ways in 2016, but with Lacy and a healthy group of receivers, Rodgers finally doesn't have to shoulder the entire playmaking load. While the offense is quite efficient, we'll remember this young, growing defense as the best Green Bay has employed since its 2010 Super Bowl squad.
Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer continues to build a team that will be a handful for years to come. The deep Vikes' defense comes in waves, never relenting -- even after injuries mount. Teddy Bridgewater proves he's more than just Adrian Peterson's caddy. This isn't a one-hit roster, but rather one ready to take on Seattle and Green Bay as a perennial NFC contender.