It's the dawn of a new era in the NFC North. The division ran through Green Bay from the beginning of the 2010s into the 2020s, with the Packers winning eight of the last 13 division titles while Aaron Rodgers put together one of the greatest quarterback careers in NFL history.
Now that Rodgers is in the AFC East with the New York Jets, the Minnesota Vikings (the 2022 NFC North champions) and the Detroit Lions (the 2023 division favorite with +120 odds) each have a new opportunity to establish divisional supremacy. However, the drop off from the 2022 version of Rodgers, who dealt with a broken thumb on his right throwing hand, to Jordan Love .
The Chicago Bears, who earned the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft with a 3-14 record, are likely still a few years away. Last year, their defense ranked last in the league in scoring (27.3 points per game allowed), third downs (49% conversion rate allowed), passing yards per attempt allowed (8.0) and sacks (20). Quarterback Justin Fields improved as the 2022 season progressed (20 total touchdowns and seven turnovers in his final nine games after compiling five total touchdowns and six turnovers in his first six games), but their offensive line and passing game chemistry are also a work in progress.
Training camps will be in, and there are many questions that need to be answered among each of the four NFC North teams. If any of them want to break away from the pack, these three questions for each team must be addressed.
1. Can they handle being the hunted instead of the hunters?
A year ago, the Lions were on HBO's "Hard Knocks" looking to prove they were more than just head coach Dan Campbell soundbites about biting people's kneecaps. Fast forward to today, and these Lions, who last won a division title in 1993 when the teams were members of the NFC Central, are the betting favorites. The NFL even included them in the 2023 season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs!
Detroit won eight of its final 10 games in 2022, which included eliminating Rodgers and the Packers from playoff contention in the final game of the regular season on "Sunday Night Football." That was awesome, except for requiring a 1-6 start to develop a sense of urgency. That early-season slide hindered their end-of-year hot streak from catapulting the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 2016. The Lions have all the ingredients to realize their potential after pairing a rebuilt secondary with their high-powered offense. Now, they just have to put it together.
2. Can Jared Goff and the Lions offense maintain their high-level play from the end of 2022 into the 2023 season?
Jared Goff's resurgence helped power a top-five scoring offense (26.6 points per game, fifth-best in NFL) as he led the league in touchdown to interception ratio (29 touchdowns to only seven interceptions). Goff closed out the season on fire, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in the Lions' final nine games. His 324 consecutive passes without an interception mark the longest such streak in franchise history.
Jared Goff's Lions career
|First 22 games||Last 9 games|
Goff's connection with 2021 fourth-round pick wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown shined bright, as Brown broke out with 106 receptions, 1,161 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns, which led to the first Pro Bowl selection of St. Brown's career. According to The Athletic's Nate Tice, St. Brown led the NFL with an 18% success rate per target given the total amount of routes run, meaning the second-year wideout made the most of the chances he received from Goff given all of the chances he could have received.
It will be interesting to monitor how much 33-year-old Marvin Jones has to give in his second stint in the Motor City given they'll need to lean on him as one of their top options outside of St. Brown, at least through their first six games (the length of 2022 12th overall pick Jameson Williams' gambling suspension). Tight ends typically don't begin their careers as high-end pass-catchers since only two (Hall of Famer Mike Ditka in 1961 and Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts in 2021), but rookie second-round pick Sam LaPorta could be incorporated into the offense quickly based on their current receiving options.
Detroit will also be breaking in a new running back duo in 2023 with 12th overall pick Jahmyr Gibbs out of Alabama and former Chicago Bears rusher David Montgomery (signed a three-year, $18 million deal) following the departures of D'Andre Swift (traded to the Eagles) and 2022 rushing touchdowns leader Jamaal Williams (signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Saints). If offensive coordinator Ben Johnson can once again find the right mix this season, the Lions could once again have a top-five scoring offense (26.6 points per game in 2022, fifth-most in the NFL).
3. How quickly can the Lions rebuilt defense come together?
As great as Detroit was on offense last season, it was equally awful on defense.
Lions defense (2022 season)
Total YPG Allowed
Pass YPG Allowed
Pass Yards/Attempt Allowed
Passer Rating Allowed
Lions general manager Brad Holmes swiftly addressed their secondary, which surrendered the third-most passing yards per game (245.8) in the league. He did so through free agency -- signing cornerbacks Cameron Sutton (three years, $33 million), Emmanuel Moseley (one year, $6 million) and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson (one-year, $6.5 million, co-led NFL with six interceptions) -- and in the 2023 NFL Draft -- selecting the draft's top safety, Alabama's Brian Branch, in the second round (45th overall). Sutton was a sneaky smart signing since his 54.6 passer rating allowed in coverage was the fifth-best in the NFL last season among 50 players with at least 75 targets against them. Moseley is solid, but his health has been a question in prior seasons.
If the secondary holds up, allowing the offense to provide the team with a lead, their pass rush could pick up simply because opponents' offenses will be more predictable and forced to pass more. That was the case when Detroit went on its run to conclude last season, and it would be a predictable outcome with a better secondary and playing consistently with the lead in 2023.
Lions pass push (2022 season)
|First seven games||Last 10 games|
QB Pressure Pct
1. Can the Vikings avoid the typical hangover that follows teams who heavily relied on one-score victories the season prior?
The Vikings were the 2022 NFC North champions with a 13-4 record, but they were the most flimsy team with at least 12 wins in NFL history. Minnesota earned the notorious distinction as the only team in NFL history to have 12 or more wins and a negative point-differential (-3). Eleven of their 13 wins were by one score, the most such wins in a single season in league history. On the flip side, all of the Vikings' losses were by at least 10 points: 11 points (34-23 loss at the Lions in Week 14), 17 points (24-7 defeat at the Eagles in Week 2), 24 points (41-17 loss at the Packers in Week 17), and 37 points (40-3 defeat versus the Cowboys in Week 11).
Worst point differential by 12+ win team in NFL history
*Only team on the list that won 13 games
A team as reliant on close-game finishes as the Vikings were could be in for a steep regression in 2023, given only four of the prior 12 teams with at least nine one-score victories in a season returned to the postseason the following year. Their close-game magic ran out at home in the postseason when quarterback Kirk Cousins couldn't lead a game-tying drive to force overtime in Minnesota's 31-24 NFC Wild Card loss a year ago. Will they rediscover it, or discover new ways to win in 2023?
2. How much can new defensive coordinator Brian Flores turn around the Vikings defense in one season?
The biggest question mark in the Vikings' effort to go 2-for-2 on NFC North titles under head coach Kevin O'Connell is their defense, the worst of any team to make the playoffs in 2022. That side of the football ranked in the NFL's bottom five in scoring defense (25.1 points per game allowed, T-28th), total defense (388.7, 31st), pass defense (265.6 passing yards allowed per game, 31st), and yards per play allowed (5.9, 30th).
Vikings defense in 2022 season
Total YPG Allowed
Pass YPG Allowed
*All worst among 2022 playoff teams in each category
Due to that poor showing, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was relieved of his duties. O'Connell replaced him with former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who spent the 2022 season as the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach/senior defensive assistant on Mike Tomlin's staff. One of the biggest areas Flores will likely be focusing in Year 1 running Minnesota's defense will be their pass rush. The Dolphins were a top-five team across the board in getting after opposing quarterbacks his final season as their head coach in 2021, but last year's Vikings were below average in that department. Having a strong pass rush takes a ton of responsibility off of a secondary, something that would be a significant benefit for the Purple and Gold.
Brian Flores' 2021 Dolphins pass rush vs. 2022 Vikings pass rush
|2021 Dolphins||2022 Vikings|
Minnesota made two big moves to supplement their defense on the field in free agency this offseason: signing former New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Marcus Davenport to a one-year, $13 million contract and signing former Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. to a two-year, $17.5 million deal. Davenport led New Orleans in pressure rate in each of the last four seasons, and his cumulative percentage since 2019 of 14.8% is the 10th-highest in the league, mere percentage points behind Cleveland Browns All-Pro pass-rusher Myles Garrett in that span. If Flores can get the Vikings defense to just league average in Year 1 in 2023 and take a little pressure off of Cousins and Jefferson, there's a realistic road for Minnesota to repeat as NFC North champions.
3. Can Justin Jefferson have an even larger encore performance than his 2022 Offensive Player of the Year campaign?
In case you've been living around a rock, Minnesota employs the league's reigning Offensive Player of the Year in wide receiver Justin Jefferson, a 24-year-old who has already made Vikings and NFL history. His league-leading 128 catches and 1,809 receiving yards in 2022 were both the most in a single season in Vikings history, and that output allowed him to break Hall of Famer Randy Moss' record for the most receiving yards in a player's first three seasons (4,163) by 662 yards (4,825). His 24 career games with 100 or more receiving yards are already the most for any player through their first four seasons, and Jefferson hasn't even touched the field for Year 4 yet!
Naturally, his 1,809 receiving yards accounted for 37.5% of his team's total receiving yards, the highest rate in the NFL, so Minnesota added a young running mate for him in USC wideout Jordan Addison, the 23rd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. He's far from the most physically imposing receiver in his draft class at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, but the 2021 Biletnikoff Award winner had some of the better route-running chops in the most recent draft. If Addison can be an early upgrade, maybe Jefferson's talk can become reality.
Green Bay Packers
1. How good will Jordan Love be in Year 1 and will it be enough to make the postseason?
The Packers are entering their first season since 1991 without either Hall of Famer Brett Favre or future first-ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback. The Green and Gold have used two starting quarterbacks, Favre and Rodgers, in their past 30 season openers, with each starting 15 Week 1 contests. Every other team has used at least five different Week 1 starting passers in that span.
Trading Rodgers to the Jets certainly removes the "Super Bowl or bust" narrative that has surrounded the franchise for the last several years, but that doesn't mean they can't contend for the NFC North title. Even though Love has only thrown 83 passes in his career since being selected 26th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, he displayed plenty of growth in 2022. He completed six of his nine passes when he came off the bench in Week 12 of the 2022 season on "Sunday Night Football" while on the road at Philadelphia Eagles for 113 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown pass to Christian Watson. Love's second and final drive of the night culminated in a 33-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby, the final points in a 40-33 defeat.
Love has categorized his own growth since becoming a Packer as "Rams, the 2016 Browns, and the 2018 Ravens. Now, at 24 years old, Love gets to help lead the growth of his wide receivers and tight ends, just about all of whom are younger than him:." Green Bay agrees as it went all in on his development by becoming the fourth team in Common Draft Era (since 1967) with four wide receivers and tight ends drafted in the first five rounds, joining the 1979
- 2023 second-round pick tight end Luke Musgrave (22 years old)
- 2023 third-round pick tight end Tucker Kraft (22 years old)
- 2023 second-round pick wide receiver Jayden Reed (23 years old)
- 2022 fourth-round pick wide receiver Romeo Doubs (23 years old)
- 2022 second-round pick wide receiver Christian Watson (24 years old)
Both of Green Bay's running backs, Pro Bowler Aaron Jones, and AJ Dillion, aka "Quadzilla," have gone out of their way to praise Love. Jones told CBS Sports this week that Love is " ." Dillon said, " ."
The Packers had an opportunity to sneak into the postseason in 2022 with a win in the final game of the regular season. They weren't able to do it, but with comparable quarterback play to an Aaron Rodgers who was playing through a broken thumb, Green Bay could right on the doorstep of the postseason once again.
The Packers last season were a game away from the playoffs with this production from their QB:— Nathan Marzion (@nathanmarzion) July 18, 2023
217 yards per game
26 TD, 12 INT
#20 in Comp%
#26 in QBR
#17 in Passer Rating
#21 in EPA/Play
#21 in DVOA
#17 in CPOE
#20 in ANY/A
If Love is average, they should win 8-9 games.
2. At what point in the season does Rashan Gary return and how much of an impact does he make coming off a torn ACL?
The Packers had the 10th-best pressure rate in 2022 at 34.6% -- a strong year from a macro view in terms of bothering opposing quarterbacks. However, that figure is propped up by the first nine weeks of the season when their 39.8% rate was the second-best in the NFL. During that span, Gary dominated with 38 pressures, tied for fifth-most in the NFL, and six sacks. Once Weeks 10-17 rolled around -- after the 25-year-old Gary went down with a torn ACL -- they plummeted with the sixth-lowest rate in the league (29.7%). In addition to Gary and Preston Smith, who had a solid year as one of 23 players in the NFL with at least 20 quarterback hits and eight sacks, Green Bay drafted help at the top of the 2023 NFL Draft in pass-rusher Lukas Van Ness out of Iowa. However, for the Packers to make real noise in 2023, they need Gary back and flustering quarterbacks.
3. Can defensive coordinator Joe Barry coach the Packers' defense to become more than the sum of its talented parts?
The Packers defense is loaded with talent, possessing eight former first-round picks and three Pro Bowlers or All-Pros: defensive tackle Kenny Clark, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and cornerback Jaire Alexander. That much draft capital and financial resources should be rewarded with a borderline top-five scoring defense, for sure top-10. Instead, it has ranked 13th across the last two seasons, allowing 21.8 points per game. Too many moments have been marred by questionable coverage calls and inconsistent performance. Barry's defense living up to expectations is one of the most critical questions the Packers face in 2023.
The Chicago Bears maximized the value of the 2023 NFL Draft's first overall pick, acquiring two first-round selections and two second-round picks from the rebuilding Carolina Panthers in addition to 26-year-old wideout D.J. Moore, a legit number one wide receiver option.
It's nice general manager Ryan Poles found a way to upgrade quarterback Justin Fields' offensive line, too, because that unit allowed the second-highest quarterback pressure rate in the entire NFL (43%) as Fields was sacked 55 times, tied for the most in the league with Russell Wilson. Help came on the right side in tackle Darnell Wright (No. 9 overall pick) out of Tennessee and the signing of guard Nate Davis in free agency for $30 million over three years. Fields' blind side could use more options beside just 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones.
Can those additions be enough to lift the Bears last-ranked passing offense (130.5 passing yards per game, the fewest since the 2009 Cleveland Browns) out of the mud? Fields was an outstanding scrambler last season, turning many instances of being flushed out of the pocket into major gains with his legs as well as on designed runs. His 1,143 rushing yards rank as the second-most in a single season by a quarterback in NFL history, trailing only Lamar Jackson's total of 1,206 from his 2019 NFL MVP season. That year, Jackson also led the NFL with 36 passing touchdowns. Fields needs to take a significant step forward as a passer in 2023 to validate Poles' decision to pass on Alabama quarterback Bryce Young this past spring. like he did on the ground last season? That's the most important question for the Bears in 2023 and beyond.
2. How much growth will be there for the NFL's worst defense?
The Bears had the worst defensive dumpster fire in the NFL last season. Their scoring defense (27.3 points per game allowed), third-down defense (49%), and passing yards/attempt allowed (8.0) all ranked last in the NFL. Poles attempted to remedy these deficiencies by handing inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds a four-year, $72 million deal to become their new Roquan Smith after sending the former top-10 pick to the Ravens at least season's trade deadline.
It feels like wishcasting a level of play on someone who hasn't shown Smith-like play to be in his development to this point. Signing another inside linebacker in T.J. Edwards to a three-year, $19.5 million deal was a nice pickup. Even more worrisome was how the Bears, whose 20 sacks and 24.4% pressure rate both ranked dead last in the league last season, didn't find notable upgrades in terms of their edge rusher position. Head coach Matt Eberflus admitted they're still lacking in that area at the end of their organized team activities and minicamps.
Chicago did sign 26-year-old defensive end Rasheem Green, who has 17.0 career sacks in five NFL seasons, to a one-year, $2.5 million contract after he spent last season with the Houston Texans. Green spent his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks from 2018-2021. Chicago also added soon-to-be 29-year-old defensive end and six-year NFL vet DeMarcus Walker, who has 19.5 career sacks, in free agency. The former Denver Bronco (2017-2020), Houston Texan (2021), and Tennessee Titan (2022) signed a three-year, $21 million deal after recording a career-high seven sacks in 2022. Neither of those additions appear to have moved the needle noticeably in the eyes of Chicago's coaching staff. The Bears have made some huge steps in the right direction with their rebuild, but they still have a ways to go. How much further that is will be heavily influenced by the progress this defense makes in 2023 because the only way it can go up is up.
3. Can the Bears supplement their edge rusher group before Week 1?
Chicago has just over $32 million in cap space entering training camp, the most in the NFL. As stated above, they desperately need help in the pass-rushing department.
if the Bears truly go through the process of surveying which defensive ends and outside linebackers are left on the open market, their first call needs to go to one player: defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue, who turned 28 in March, has recorded eight or more sacks in each of his first seven seasons, including 9.5 in 2022, his only season with the Indianapolis Colts. Those eight-sack seasons have come with the Jaguars (2016-2019), a season split between the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens (2020), the Las Vegas Raiders (2021), and the Colts (2022). Need sacks? They will follow Ngakoue wherever he goes.
Only four others have registered at least eight sacks in each of their first seven seasons since individual sacks have been recorded, since 1982: three Hall of Famers (DeMarcus Ware, Derrick Thomas, Reggie White) and Los Angeles Rams defensive Aaron Donald, a future Hall of Famer. Will the Bears be able to land him ahead of training camps beginning across the next few days?
If not Ngakoue, they could go after any of the aging, former Pro Bowl edge rusher like Jason Pierre-Paul (34 years old, three-time Pro Bowl selection), Carlos Dunlap (34 years old, two-time Pro Bowl selection), Jadeveon Clowney (30 years old, three-time Pro Bowl selection), Melvin Ingram (34 years old, three-time Pro Bowl selection), Justin Houston (34 years old, four-time Pro Bowl selection) and Robert Quinn (33 years old, three-time Pro Bowl selection). Players like this will likely look to sign right before camp at the end of July in order to go through whatever offseason training they would like without being obligated to show up to team facilities before then. The time is now for the Bears to make a move.