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Projecting NFC North hierarchy for 2023 season: Who will win NFL's tightest division race?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he handicaps the most wide-open division race in 2023.

If you expected the Green Bay Packers to wave the white flag after the departure of Aaron Rodgers, Pro Bowl offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins is here to disabuse you of that notion.

"Winning the division is always the standard," Jenkins said Monday on NFL Network's Good Morning Football. "It's always the standard in our locker room and in our building. We feel like we're the best team in our division, and we're gonna go out there every week wherever and show that we are the best team in the division and the best team in the NFC."

Jenkins' proclamation directly contradicts the oddsmakers at Caesars Sportsbook & Casino, who give Green Bay the longest odds of any team to win the NFC North in 2023. Yup, despite taking the division crown in eight of the past 12 years, the Packers are apparently bigger underdogs than the Bears, who finished last season with the league's worst record. Meanwhile, the Vikings, who just claimed the North by four whole games last season, have longer odds than the Lions, who haven't won a division title since 1993 -- back in the days of the NFC Central!

Simply put, 2023 projections are all over the place for the NFC North. It's the most tightly packed division in the NFL, according to Caesars' odds. With that in mind, I took some time to study each team in the North. With training camp weeks away, here is how I would rank the four contenders in the most wide-open division race. As you can see, I trust Elgton over the oddsmakers.

NOTE: The lines provided by Caesars Sportsbook & Casino are current as of 1:30 p.m. ET on Friday, June 30.

Green Bay Packers
2022 record: 8-9 | 3rd place
  • Odds to win NFC North: +420
  • Last division title: 2021

Why the Packers can win the North: Despite the loss of a four-time MVP quarterback who cast a spell on the rest of the division throughout his starting tenure, Green Bay could reclaim the crown behind a stingy defense and a balanced offense that features Jordan Love as a complementary playmaker. The former first-round pick is flanked by a talented running back tandem (Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon) with the potential to bedevil and bruise opponents on the ground. Factoring in the big-play ability wide receiver Christian Watson showcased as a rookie, the Packers have enough firepower to control the game with a balanced offense that mixes runs and play-action passes, keeping opposing defenses guessing at the line of scrimmage. If the defense plays up to expectation, given its extensive collection of first-round picks on that side of the ball -- SEE: Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt, Rashan Gary, Lukas Van Ness, Quay Walker, Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes and Darnell Savage -- Green Bay could definitely nab its ninth division title since 2011.

Potential Achilles' heel: Love's inexperience could prevent Green Bay from climbing back to the top of the North this season. Although the fourth-year pro has shown significant improvement from his first regular-season action in 2021, the Packers are accustomed to all-star-caliber play from the position. If Love fails to make enough timely plays to extend drives or produce points, immense pressure will fall on Green Bay's defense to carry the squad to a division title. While the unit is loaded with blue-chip talent, the plight of consistently winning low-scoring games could overwhelm Joe Barry's troops down the stretch.

Detroit Lions
2022 record: 9-8 | 2nd place
  • Odds to win NFC North: +120
  • Last division title: 1993

Why the Lions can win the North: Dan Campbell has impressively whipped Detroit into a playoff contender with his old-school methods that turn tough guys into winners. The Lions smash foes with their physicality at the point of attack -- particularly on offense, with ground success allowing Jared Goff to shred thin defensive backfields with pinpoint passes. The combination of force and finesse made Detroit's offense an unstoppable force for most of 2022, with the Lions finishing fourth in total offense and fifth in scoring. And the unit has even more explosive potential this year, with dynamic first-round pick Jahmyr Gibbs joining the backfield and a fully healthy Jameson Williams poised to give the receiving corps a true speed element upon conclusion of his six-game suspension. As Ben Johnson spends more time in the lab developing creative ways to keep defenses in conflict, the Lions' offensive coordinator could help his squad swipe the division crown with an attack that imposes its will on the ground and through the air.

Potential Achilles' heel: Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn must find a way to keep his unit from faltering as the team's weak link. Last season, Detroit's defense was absolutely horrendous during the 1-6 start. To his credit, though, Glenn turned things around in the Lions' 8-2 finish by tweaking his personnel and implementing a schematic shift that enabled a group of young defenders to play fast and furious. That said, Detroit still finished the season ranked dead last in total defense and 28th in points allowed. On the plus side, general manager Brad Holmes fortified the unit -- particularly the secondary -- with a series of additions in free agency (DBs Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley) and the draft (first-round LB Jack Campbell and second-round DB Brian Branch). This influx of talent should significantly raise the floor on the Lions' defense, though Glenn has to make sure everything comes together and the chemistry is right. It looks much better on paper, but the game is played on the field.

Minnesota Vikings
2022 record: 13-4 | 1st place
  • Odds to win NFC North: +330
  • Last division title: 2022

Why the Vikings can win the North: The Vikings can repeat as division champs behind an efficient offense headlined by an unstoppable playmaker on the perimeter. As the reigning Offensive Player of the Year, Justin Jefferson is a big-play machine with the potential to take over any game at any moment. Ideally, though, he won't have to be a one-man show week in and week out. GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah nabbed a big-bodied pass catcher (tight end T.J. Hockenson) at last year's trade deadline, and in this year's draft, Minnesota spent its first-round pick on a polished route runner (Jordan Addison). This could alleviate some of the pressure on Jefferson to constantly put the team on his back. I'm excited to see what this offense looks like in Year 2 under Kevin O'Connell. The coach has been pumping up Kirk Cousins' growth in the system this offseason. It's not hard imagining an aerial circus with Cousins throwing the ball all over the yard. Minnesota could win the division by torching opponents with a high-powered offense that pushes the pace for 60 minutes.

Potential Achilles' heel: The team's offseason roster purge included longtime franchise stalwarts Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks. Decorated veterans Za'Darius Smith and Patrick Peterson have also exited stage. Defensively, Minnesota's coming off a disastrous season that saw the team finish 28th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed. Brian Flores was an inspired offseason hire, but the new defensive coordinator takes over a unit hurting for experience and expertise in key spots (SEE: pass rusher, middle linebacker and cornerback). This will force Coach Flo to utilize a smoke-and-mirrors approach that features a myriad of blitzes and games to mask the unit's deficiencies. While the new DC is a masterful tactician and strategist, Minnesota might simply lack the Jimmys and Joes to make Flores' Xs and Os come to life.

Chicago Bears
2022 record: 3-14 | 4th place
  • Odds to win NFC North: +380
  • Last division title: 2018

Why the Bears can win the North: Justin Fields showcased explosive ability last season, and Chicago might have set him up for a true star turn by substantially fortifying his supporting cast this offseason. The acquisition of D.J. Moore gave the Bears a true No. 1 receiver, capping off a pass-catching corps that already featured size (Cole Kmet and Chase Claypool) and speed (Darnell Mooney). With the Bears also upgrading the offensive line (first-round tackle Darnell Wright and free-agent guard Nate Davis) and running game (free agent D'Onta Foreman and fourth-rounder Roschon Johnson), Fields could be poised to take a major leap forward in Luke Getsy's offense. If the third-year pro improves as a passer, Chicago could emerge as the dark horse that takes the division in a worst-to-first turnaround.

Potential Achilles' heel: Despite the buzz created by the Bears' offensive potential, Matt Eberflus' squad will only realize its playoff dreams if the unheralded defense plays up to the standard in the Windy City. GM Ryan Poles signed linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards in free agency to add more speed and playmaking potential to the unit, but the lack of an established pass rush could limit the duo's impact. Although Eberflus is not afraid to incorporate secondary defenders into the pass rush -- rookie safety Jaquan Brisker led the team with four sacks last season -- it is hard to rely on blitz pressure to get the job done against offenses with elite playmaking personnel on the perimeter. Until Chicago solves its pass-rush dilemma, the one-dimensional team faces an uphill climb to the top of the division.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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