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As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Kevin Patra tackles the NFC North below.
Most significant changes from 2016
CHICAGO BEARS: With the Jay Cutler era finally over, the Bears brought in $18 million stand-in Mike Glennon and traded up one spot in the draft to take Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick. The underwhelming Glennon is set to start the season under center, but the more athletic, accurate Trubisky is nipping at his heels due to a stellar preseason campaign. In Trubisky, the Bears finally seem to have found a young signal caller of the future. The rookie’s accuracy is undeniable. His pinpoint ball placement on the move is marvelous to watch wholesale jerseys authentic and something that can’t be taught. Trubisky’s reign in Chicago should (will) start at some point in 2017.
DETROIT LIONS: The Lions swapped out two offensive linemen in free agency, then watched starting left tackle Taylor Decker sustain an injury that will keep him out well into the season. Detroit is set to start newcomers Ricky Wagner at right tackle, T.J. Lang at right guard and Rams draft bust Greg Robinson at left tackle. The former two are immediate upgrades. The latter is a major question mark, but he hasn’t been a disaster this preseason. The Lions would love to run the ball more with a healthy Ameer Abdullah in 2017. How the offensive line gels early in the season will determine the success of that enterprise.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Last September, the Packers entered the 2016 season with Eddie Lacy and James Starks atop the running back depth chart. After Ty Montgomery’s conversion to full-time RB, the Pack’s tailback crew has been completely remade. Behind Montgomery sits a gaggle of rookies scooped up on Day 3 of the 2017 NFL Draft: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays. Monty will be the lead back, but with pass-blocking questions and concerns about his ability to handle a major workload, one of the rookies will play a key role this season in Green Bay’s run at a ninth straight postseason appearance.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Adrian Peterson is gone. In his place is rookie Dalvin Cook. It’s odd to think a second-round pick could be an upgrade on a future Hall of Famer, but Cook fits the type of offense these Vikings want to run better than “All Day” did. Cook should get a workhorse role from the get-go. The rookie owns a willingness to lower his shoulder between the tackles, plus speed to the edge and he can make plays in the passing game. It should be his show in 2017.
One player to watch on each team
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CHICAGO BEARS: Leonard Floyd, outside linebacker. While all of Chicago goes gaga over Trubisky, the Bears need to get more production from their three previous first-round picks (Floyd, Kevin White, Kyle Fuller). Floyd is the best bet to make the leap in 2017. The pass rusher has shown improved hand technique in August. (Yes, he left the third game of the preseason with an injury, but it appears minor.) Floyd owns the speed to the edge, and if he can mix in counter moves and get off blocks more consistently in 2017, he can be a much-needed difference maker along the Bears’ front.
DETROIT LIONS: Ameer Abdullah, running back. Abdullah looked like he was in for a monster campaign in 2016 before suffering a foot injury that sidelined him for the season after just two games. The shifty runner has flashed in the preseason and is the clear-cut No. 1 back in the Lions’ offense. A dual-threat weapon, Abdullah can be a three-down player next to Matthew Stafford. If the offensive line improves and Abdullah stays healthy, the Detroit ground game should be a factor for the first time in years.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Martellus Bennett, tight end. Jared Cook came on strong down the stretch for the Packers last season. However, Green Bay let him walk in free agency and instead signed an upgrade. Bennett is an improvement in both run blocking and the red zone. After a seven-touchdown season with Tom Brady, Bennett could see similar numbers with Aaron Rodgers. The 6-foot-6 tight end will take pressure off Jordy Nelson in the red zone, and he should be a dangerous target against linebackers when Rodgers freelances.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, offensive tackles. So these are two players to watch — sue me. We keep harping on this, but Minnesota’s offensive line appears to be the biggest obstacle to the Vikings returning to the playoffs. For the umpteenth season, they are attempting to plug a hole-filled barrier with questionable materials. This go-around, they are doing it with two players whose previous teams had little intention of retaining them. Reiff also just returned from nursing an injury. Coach Mike Zimmer called the starting offensive line’s performance this past week “sporadic,” which sounds ominous. If Reiff and Remmers aren’t an upgrade on last year’s disaster, it could sink the Vikings’ ship.
What we’ll be talking about at season’s end
After years of wandering the quarterback wilderness, the Bears finally found a young passer they can grow with. Meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers continues to carry Teflon Dom Capers and his hole-filled defenses. Matthew Stafford is worth every penny of the $135 million contract the Lions handed him. And in Minnesota, Dalvin Cook is the real-deal workhorse to fill Peterson’s shoes.