With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Gennaro Filice tackles the NFC North below.
Most significant changes from 2017
CHICAGO BEARS: Before we get to the blockbuster acquisition of a certain former Defensive Player of the Year, let's go back a bit. Ryan Pace made a bold move in the 2017 NFL Draft -- not only selecting Mitchell "13 College Starts" Trubisky with the second overall pick, but giving up valuable draft currency in the process. (Remember Chicago's roundly mocked one-spot jump?) One offseason later, the Bears general manager doubled down on that venture by adding a host of QB-friendly characters, beginning with new head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Chicago also scooped up a bunch of intriguing pass catchers via free agency (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton) and the draft (Anthony Miller). All in all, this was an offseason devoted to the well-being -- and hopeful Year 2 breakout -- of the 24-year-old signal-caller. And then came the trade heard 'round the world, when Chicago sent a passel of picks (including a pair of first-rounders) to Oakland for Khalil Mack (and a second-round pick!). Mack, an elite pass rusher in the prime of his career, wasn't even the only fun new toy given to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: There's also No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith, who could assume the mantle as the next great Bears middle linebacker.
DETROIT LIONS: The new head coach, Matt Patricia, has a defensive background. And it will be very interesting to see what he can get out of a unit featuring some high-grade pieces in the back end (first-team All-Pro CB Darius Slay and the eternally underrated Glover Quin) and a whole heap o' question marks in the front seven. That said, the most enticing offseason activity took place on offense -- specifically, in the run game. This is key, considering the Lions haven't finished in the top half of the league in rushing yards since Barry Sanders retired two decades ago (seriously), ranking dead last in two of the past three campaigns. Detroit added 247-pound hammer LeGarrette Blount in free agency, then spent its first two draft picks on road grader Frank Ragnow and slippery back Kerryon Johnson. Could this be the season Matthew Stafford finally receives some ground support?
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Out with Jordy, in with Jimmy. Aaron Rodgers lost his longtime go-to guy this offseason -- and the quarterback wasn't too pleased about Jordy Nelson's unceremonious release. Not to fret, Aa-Rod: Here's another gifted pass catcher with a firsty-firsty name and distinguished red-zone savvy! Jimmy Graham appears to be forming a good rapport with his new quarterback -- the two hooked up in Week 2 of the preseason for the first of what could be many scoring strikes -- and fantasy fiends are taking note. Meanwhile, Green Bay swapped out Dom Capers for Mike Pettine and provided the new defensive coordinator with an influx of talent, including free-agent defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (who initially emerged on the Jets under Pettine's tutelage) and premium rookie CBs Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Hard to see these refurbished Packers posting back-to-back losing campaigns for the first time since the Majkowski years.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Have you heard about The 84 Million Dollar Man? Minnesota drew up a game-changing contract -- full of guaranteed guarantees that are purportedly fully guaranteed (who even knows anymore?) -- to lure in the most coveted free-agent quarterback since Peyton Manning. Though what kind of a fortress have the Vikings built to protect such a costly investment? The O-line's interior is currently in tatters, thanks to Joe Berger's retirement, Nick Easton's season-ending injury. At least center Pat Elflein is off the PUP list. Last week's trade for C/G Brett Jones was further proof that the Vikings are fully aware of this talented roster's Achilles' heel, the blot on Rick Spielman's otherwise-sparkling record as Vikings GM: a sieve of an offensive line. As for the defense? Rich get richer. 2017's top-ranked unit -- in both scoring and total defense -- added another O-line wrecker up front (Sheldon Richardson) and a talented cover man in the back end (rookie Mike Hughes).
One player to watch on each team
CHICAGO BEARS: Leonard Floyd, outside linebacker. Forgive me for plagiarizing esteemed colleague Kevin Patra, who implored you to watch Floyd in last year's version of this file, but I'm telling you to keep your eyes fixed on the ninth overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft once again this fall. Going up against Rodgers, Stafford and Kirk Cousins in this division, the Bears must generate pressure. Yes, obviously, adding Mack will go a long way toward doing that. But it could also help precipitate a breakout season from Floyd, who's currently rehabbing a broken hand, just the latest in a string of injuries that have spoiled his young career. The duo of Mack and an emergent Floyd would give Fangio's D some much-needed bite off the edge.
DETROIT LIONS: Jarrad Davis, middle linebacker. While Patricia inherits one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, the first two levels of Detroit's defense are riddled with talent deficiencies. Can the new head coach solve the enigma in the No. 40 jersey? Taken 21st overall in last year's draft, Davis has the kind of size, tenacity and athletic tools you want in a modern ILB. Not to mention, his work ethic is routinely lauded by Allen Park inhabitants. But the 23-year-old has followed up an uneven rookie season with an underwhelming August. Yes, many engaged in the public Twitter shaming of Davis after practice footage emerged of Raiders rookie Chris Warren trucking him into another dimension -- HOW 'BOUT A TIGHTER CAMERA SHOT?? -- but his continued struggles in coverage are the real concern. Giants RB Wayne Gallman made the linebacker look silly on an angle route in Week 2 of the preseason, and that wasn't a unique experience for Davis in pass coverage. The second-year man, who has served alongside Stafford as a team captain throughout the preseason, needs to grow up quick on a defense with more questions than answers.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Davante Adams, wide receiver. The fifth-year wideout has yet to post a 1,000-yard campaign, but he's poised to blow through that barrier as Rodgers' top target this season. It's not like Adams hasn't been productive -- he has the most touchdown catches in the NFL over the past two seasons with 22, one more than Antonio Brown. And he finished the 2017 season as the NFL's best receiver on third/fourth down, according to PFF. But 2018 feels like the year it all comes together for the 25-year-old route artisan. With Adams now earning WR1 money, full WR1 production is soon to come.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Dalvin Cook, running back. Through the first three games of his NFL career, Cook piled up 370 yards from scrimmage, putting him on pace for a monstrous 1,973-yard debut campaign. And he continued to gash the Lions in Week 4 ... until one hard cut at the end of a 10-yard run sent him to the turf in a heap. Just like that, one of the league's most enticing rookies was done for the season with a torn ACL. Cook's 2018 preseason debut in Week 3 was short (one series) and uneventful (two carries, 1 yard), as Mike Zimmer "just wanted him to get tackled." Mission accomplished! When the games count, will Cook be the same tackle-breaking home-run hitter Vikings fans (briefly) fell in love with last September? Minnesota had better hope so, given the suspect O-line and offseason departure of satellite back Jerick McKinnon.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
Rodgers is a golden god. Yep, this is the part where yet another keyboard jockey bows at the altar of No. 12. Like Mr. QB Index himself, Gregg Rosenthal, wrote over the summer, it just feels like Rodgers is due to take over the league, much less the NFC North. Mack's presence in Chicago obviously presents Rodgers with an additional obstacle. But with his collarbone intact and his bank account flush, the Packers quarterback is about to even the MVP score with Tom Brady at three apiece.
With question marks on both sides of the trenches, the Stafford-led Lions seem destined for genuine adequacy in the 7-to-10-win range -- nothing more, nothing less. Meanwhile, the Bears created a bunch of offseason buzz, beginning with the offensive makeover around their second-year quarterback and reaching a crescendo with the acquisition of Mack. But all those Rams comps still feel a little too rich for this writer's blood. And while the Vikings roster is deliciously deep, particularly on defense, that depleted O-line has fatal flaw written all over it -- especially with a stationary quarterback who was pretty well-protected in his former life with the Redskins.
In 2018, the North is once again Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood.
Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.