NFC North: Questions, Concerns and Odds Entering Camp

The Minnesota Vikings won the NFC North and ended the 2017 regular season with a 13-3 record. The oddsmakers say they are the favorites to repeat but let’s preview all four North entries and see what the oddsmakers are dealing to win the division, the conference, and the Super Bowl.

Minnesota Vikings (2017 record: 13-3) – The heartbreaking news coming out of Minnesota is the passing of their respected offensive line coach Tony Sparano. It wouldn’t be out of the question to consider that his death may serve as a rallying cry throughout the season for a team that fell one game shy of the Super Bowl, courtesy of a 38-7 loss to the eventual champion Philadelphia Eagles. However, it should also be noted that the offensive line is not a strength for the Vikings and the only potential upgrade will be second-round pick Brian O’Neill out of Pittsburgh. That goes to the heart of the matter for Minnesota because last year they had a much more mobile Case Keenum under center, but this season they went all-in on free-agent QB Kirk Cousins, who may be a more poised passer but could be doomed if the pass protection is absent.

If Cousins can make the plays he has a pair of legit wideouts in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs with former Bears top pass catcher Kendall Wright added to the mix this season. The backfield will see Dalvin Cook return after an early-season ACL tear and the tight end position is anchored by one of the best in Kyle Rudolph. Defensively, the Vikings got even better in their secondary with the arrival of UCF standout Mike Hughes, chosen as the 30th overall pick in the draft. The oddsmakers are bullish on Minny and tagging them as the top choice to win the division at +120, and +650 to win the conference, as well as +1250 to win the Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers (2017 record: 7-9) – If you’re not convinced quarterbacks are important in the NFL, then take a gander at the Packers’ 2017 season after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 against Minnesota. Green Bay was sitting pretty at 4-1 before that game and went 3-8 the rest of the way. Fortunately, Rodgers has recovered and is ready to do his thing but his offensive line is – meh – while his stable of receivers is no longer top tier with Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb as his top targets. However, Jimmy Graham was wooed to the frozen tundra in the offseason and with Rodgers as his battery mate, there is no question he will be targeted more than he was in Seattle. In addition, the Packers have a decent running back tandem in Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones with veteran Ty Montgomery as a third option.

Green Bay was adamant about getting tougher defending the pass and used their first and second-round picks on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander of Louisville and former Iowa Hawkeye Josh Jackson, as well as welcoming back veteran corner Tramon Williams. The Packers also signed former Jet Muhammad Wilkerson, who should beef up an already decent defensive front. A quick click over to Sportsbook Review, the absolute definitive word for all things sports betting, tells us that the best online sportsbooks are expecting the Pack to be back as evidenced by their odds as the close second to Minnesota to win the division at +160, and the second choice behind the Eagles to win the NFC, while checking in at +1300 to win it all.

Detroit Lions (2017 record: 9-7) – The Lions duplicated their 2016 record at 9-7 last season although they were not as good at home (4-4) but better on the road (5-3) than the year before. The offensive line sustained injuries throughout the season but they appear to be back healthy and that bodes well for quarterback Matt Stafford. Thus, the selection of Arkansas center Frank Ragnow was curious at best and deleterious at worst because Detroit needed far more help on the defensive line and passed over Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry and Florida nose tackle Taven Bryan. It would seem that Ragnow could have been had late in the first if the Lions were inclined to trade up but it’s a decision that should benefit Stafford in terms of protection so there’s that. The backfield should be better this season with smash-mouth running back LeGarrette Blount coming to the Motor City and the selection of Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round.

The pass rush was a problem last season and the only real upgrade is that defensive end Kerry Hyder will be back after tearing his Achilles early in the season. Other than that this is a defense that should have been attended to early in the draft but was not. Perhaps the addition of former Patriots’ defensive guru and now Lions head coach Matt Patricia calling the shots will help. The oddsmakers tend to believe it will be a pedestrian at best season for the Cats and are offering +675 to win the division, +2500 to win the conference, and +6500 to win the Super Bowl.

Chicago Bears (2017 record: 5-11) – The Bears ranked 29th in scoring last season and that spelled pink slip for head coach John Fox. Chicago recruited KC’s offensive coordinator Matt Nagy to replace Fox and that hiring should bolster quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s stats. Wide receiver Allen Robinson was signed, and if he mirrors his production from 2015 then the Bears will have hit a home run, although he is returning from a washout season in 2017 when he tore his ACL. Taylor Gabriel was also added to the receivers’ stable and he will be joined by second-round Memphis wideout Anthony Miller. Former Philadelphia Eagle Trey Burton will provide a nice twin tight end set with 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen as credible big targets for Trubisky. Second-year tailback Tarik Cohen should get a lot more touches in the backfield with Nagy now calling the shots. And that’s a good thing as the talented scat back can be used as an outlet receiver as well.

The Bears ranked ninth in points allowed but the Chicago brass saw that Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith was available at No. 8 in the first-round, and they didn’t hesitate to snatch him. The 2018 SEC Defensive Player of the Year will make a formidable duo with Danny Trevathan in the middle of the linebacking corps. Chicago’s secondary has plenty of talent to go around but their defensive pass rush could use a bolt of lightning. Nevertheless, the Bears could shock a few of the big name teams along the way this season and should undoubtedly be better than last season. Clicking over to Sportsbook Review, we see that the oddsmakers are making the Bears a longshot to win the division at +1050, +5500 to win the conference ahead of only Arizona, and lastly an even +10000 to win the Super Bowl.

Make sure to check out our friends at SBR for all the team and player props at the industry’s best online sportsbooks.

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