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As expected, much has changed in Green Bay. But among the surprises is something that’s stayed the same in Titletown — Aaron Rodgers stayed put.
Rodgers somehow went from unhappy with the Packers front office and teasing retirement to a commitment to Green Bay that includes the highest average annual salary in NFL history. Now that Davante Adams ditched him to form his own wolfpack with Derek Carr in Las Vegas, it’s fair to question whether this offseason’s kumbaya stuff will be enough to lift a younger, less experienced roster, especially when juxtapositioned with the “scorched earth” version of Rodgers that won back-to-back MVPs.
Even as the defense lost Za’Darius Smith, it’s still likely to be ranked in the top half of the league in 2022. So while these Packers aren’t likely to enjoy another of the 13-win seasons that have become customary in the Matt LaFleur era, there’s still enough to stay atop the weak NFC North.
Not to contradict what I literally just said about the Packers, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Minnesota take this division.
New head coach Kevin O’Connell (the latest Sean McVay protege to get fast tracked to a head gig) comes in with a Super Bowl ring and promises of Kupp-like production for star receiver Justin Jefferson and a partnership with his former pupil in Washington, Kirk Cousins.
There’s a case that the Vikings will be instantly better just because they got Mike Zimmer out — regardless of whether O’Connell is successful in his bid to replicate a McVay-like culture.
But along with Zimmer, most of Minnesota’s 2021 draft class is gone, so even with veteran Za’Darius Smith forming an impressive bookend rush tandem with Danielle Hunter, the Vikings are going to need a quality draft or two to better shift the defense to a 3-4 alignment and find out once and for all whether Cousins is their long-term solution at QB, and from there build the kind of team that can regularly punk the Pack for control of the division.
The Vikings may conquer the NFC North in due time. However, I just think a bad record against winning teams will prevent it from happening in 2022.
Look, I actually kinda like Detroit. Head coach Dan Campbell is a whole football vibe. Jamaal Williams’ Hard Knocks speech made me want to run through a wall. No. 2 overall pick Aiden Hutchinson is staying home in Michigan, and could develop into everything fellow second overall pick Chase Young has yet to be in Washington. But there’s a serious talent deficit in Detroit.
Hutchinson might already be their best defensive player by default. And while the offense has some underrated weapons, Campbell still for some reason thinks he can win with Jared Goff, which is far crazier than the whole biting-kneecaps thing. The Lions are toothless at least until they get a real QB.
Change blew into the Windy City in the form of general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus, but their prediction that they’ll “take the North and never give it back” won’t come true any time soon.
Chicago is clearly rebuilding, as evidenced by the departures of veterans Khalil Mack and Allen Robinson. Unfortunately for second-year quarterback Justin Fields, that rebuild has yet to start among an offensive line that might just be the worst in pro football.
Oh, did I mention the Bears are trying to squash beef with their best player, Roquan Smith? A player betting on himself in the last year of his contract is nothing new, but trying to negotiate an extension with “shady” representation makes a divorce seem likely, which hurts a defense in dire need of leadership and talent as Eberflus switches it from a 3-4 scheme to his preferred 4-3 base.
But here’s a positive: Chicago will play nothing but home games in December, for the first time since 1964. The caveat, however, is that those games are against teams projected at the top of their divisions (Packers, Eagles, Bills), so the Bears are going to have to settle for doing their best to be late-season spoilers.