Bears Still Tops

BtB Previews the 2007 NFC North
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 19th 2007

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, leaders, award winners and playoff results. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football. Each regular season game is simulated 61 times, with the sum of the averages of those games being our final predicted outcome. This allows us to account for ever player and stat as well as assign probabilities of winning for each team for every game. Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 10, 2007. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content is listed here.

Today we will preview the NFC North.

Chicago Bears (11-5)
The Chicago Bears have a quarterback who almost entirely fell apart down the stretch last season, an unproven, one-dimensional running back and drama all across the defense; yet, this is still one of the weakest divisions in the NFL and the defense should still be the best in the NFC. Chicago will score 23.5 points per game and allow 16.3, against a schedule that features games versus five 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 23.5 points a game are 13th in the NFL and seventh in the NFC. After losing starting running back, Thomas Jones, even more pressure will be placed on Rex Grossman and the passing game. Grossman, who may have hurt the team when it mattered in 2006, and still led his team to the Super Bowl, makes 13 starts and does "just enough" to keep this a winning team. He finishes with 2,844 yards, 19 TDs and 15 interceptions. Grossman's backup, Brian Griese is actually a downgrade in 2007, with eight interceptions and seven touchdowns on 206 attempts. Fortunately for the Bears, Grossman's launch and pray, Hail Mary attitude is conducive to the wide receiving corps' strengths. Bernard Berrian, Mushin Muhammad and Mark Bradley are three of the better deep threats in the NFL. So when, Bears - and not their opponents - are catching the ball, they are generally gaining a lot of yards. Throw in return specialist turned multi-purpose threat Devin Hester and the receivers average 14.92 yards on 200 receptions, accounting for 18 touchdowns. Traditionally, a slow, sure-handed tight end would be a good accent to such a group of receivers as a safety valve. With the Bears, Desmond Clark and first round draft choice Greg Olsen are two athletic tight ends who can stretch the field, to open up the sidelines for the speedsters. In 2007, Clark and Olsen combine for 78 catches for 984 yards and six TDs. The passing game is loaded with weapons, it just needs consistency at quarterback. That does not really happen in 2007, but yet again, it's enough. Cedric Benson is the man at running back now; however, his lack of pass catching ability will force Chicago to rely on Adrian Peterson, rookie Garrett Wolfe and Hester to change the pace. With offenses keying on him, Benson struggles a bit with just 908 total yards and seven scores. As scary as it sounds, the Bears need to throw the ball to score in 2007.

Defensive Outlook: The 16.3 points a game allowed are third in the league. The Bears technically take small step back, but it is with good reason as Tank Johnson and Lance Briggs miss portions of the season with their own respective personal issues, Mike Brown is banged up and fellow safety Todd Johnson has moved on to the Rams. Those four players may not necessarily be replaceable, but no team may be better equipped to rebuild quickly around all-world standouts Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris. The line is solid with a front four that can do all the damage in the pass rush. Harris, Johnson (when not suspended), Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye are as good as it gets. Add an end in Mark Anderson who got to the quarterback 12 times in his rookie season and offenses have little hope against the line with the run or the pass. Urlacher quarterbacks the defense better than any other middle linebacker in the league. He is not a concern. In previous seasons though, with Briggs, Urlacher and a line that allows OLBs to concentrate more on the run and coverage, the Bears could somewhat hide Hunter Hillenmeyer on the weak side. In 2007, Chicago uses ultra-athletic Jamar Williams, Michael Okwo and Brendon Ayanbadejo in a rotation with Hillenmeyer in Briggs' temporary absence. Even with some new pieces starting at safety, the secondary is strong and makes plays. Both Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher are capable of leading the NFC in interceptions. In 2007, they combine for 12 picks and 123 tackles. With a better, smarter team around him, Adam Archuleta is able to make the type of game-changing plays that he made in St. Louis. Joining Archuleta and the oft-injured Mike Brown at safety is second-year player Danieal Manning. The defense is definitely thinner than it was in 2006, but it still has skill at every position and is tops in the NFC.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @San Diego (11-5), Kansas City (9-7), Dallas (8-8), @Detroit (6-10), @Green Bay (8-8), Minnesota (7-9), @Philadelphia (8-8), Detroit (6-10), @Oakland (7-9), @Seattle (6-10), Denver (11-5), NYG (6-10), @Washington (6-10), @Minnesota (7-9), Green Bay (8-8), New Orleans (10-6)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Rex Grossman (26) 2,844 yards, 19 TDs, 15 INTs; Cedric Benson 806 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 7 TDs; Bernard Berrian (32) 63 receptions, 923 yards, 5 TDs; Mushin Muhammad (35) 62 receptions, 895 yards, 5 TDs; Desmond Clark (10) 48 receptions, 574 yards, 3 TDs; Robbie Gould (7) 37/37 XPs, 31/36 FGs; Defense (2) 22 INTs, 49 sacks, 261 points allowed.

Green Bay Packers (8-8)
The Packers cannot improve on last season's record, nor can they win a tie-breaker to earn a berth in the playoffs, yet an 8-8 record with this squad is not to be looked at lightly. The young defense is quickly improving into one of the best in the conference and the offense is putting together pieces for a future with or without Brett Favre. Green Bay will score 22.3 points a game and allow 20.8, against a schedule that features seven games versus 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 22.3 points a game are 15th in the NFL and eighth in the NFC. After getting so close to the playoffs with an injury-riddled team in 2006, Brett Favre is back again in 2007, yet without a clear starter at running back or much proven depth at receiver. Favre has thrown the ball over 600 times in the past two seasons. This year is not a whole lot different as he launches it 590 times for 4,053 yards, 24 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. Favre, already the all-time leader in completions and interceptions, surpasses Dan Marino to become the NFL's leader in passing yards and touchdowns. With three MVPs and a Super Bowl ring, the debate as to where Favre belongs among quarterbacks in NFL history is discussed tirelessly throughout the season. What is not in doubt, is his durability and toughness. Who is he throwing to in 2007? As usual, Donald Driver is the main target, but then everyone else on the roster seems to get a shot. Driver finishes with 102 catches for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns. 2006 rookie Greg Jennings, a Favre favorite, breaks out with over 1,000 yards receiving as well. After those two, eleven other players on the team make at least ten receptions. Mike McCarthy favors the zone-blocking running schemes popularized by the Denver Broncos. Green Bay spends the season looking for the best one-cut running back to fit into the system. This yields a running back by committee with Vernand Morency, Noah Herron and Brandon Jackson. Morency leads the way with 781 yards rushing and six total touchdowns. Jackson shows flashes of brilliance, yet is clearly not ready to be a feature back in the NFL.

Defensive Outlook: The 20.8 points a game allowed are 12th in the league. The defense is young, yet has enough experience to turn heads in 2007. The line is deep with over-achievers Aaron Kampman and Mike Montgomery, speedster Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and big man Cullen Jenkins at end. On the inside, run-stuffer Ryan Pickett and pass-rushing specialist Corey Williams ultimately give way to all-around standouts Colin Cole and rookie Justin Harrell. Together, the Packers make 55 sacks to lead the NFL. The linebacking corps is not as deep, but it may be stronger. A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga are athleltic freaks who make plays everywhere on the field, while Nick Barnett records more than 100 tackles for the fifth straight season. All four players in the secondary started all 16 games in 2006 and return for 2007. Al Harris and Charles Woodson have both been shutdown caliber cornerbacks in the NFL. They may have lost a step since their respective primes, yet they can still gain ground when it counts, accounting for a total of 11 interceptions. Safety Nick Collins has continues to mature and impress in his third season. If the cornerbacks were a couple years younger, the Packers' defense may be looking to unseat the Bears as the best defense in the division by 2008. And, especially if the Bears endure another dramatic off-season, that still may happen.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Philadelphia (8-8), @NYG (6-10), San Diego (11-5), @Minnesota (7-9), Chicago (11-5), Washington (6-10), @Denver (11-5), @Kansas City (9-7), Minnesota (7-9), Carolina (10-6), @Detroit (6-10), @Dallas (8-8), Oakland (7-9), @St. Louis (8-8), @Chicago (11-5), Detroit (6-10)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Brett Favre (15) 4,053 yards, 24 TDs, 21 INTs; Vernand Morency (35) 781 yards rushing, 17 receptions, 6 total TDs; Donald Driver (12) 102 receptions, 1,361 yards, 8 TDs; Greg Jennings (26) 74 receptions, 1,022 yards, 5 TDs; Bubba Franks (35) 25 receptions, 248 yards, 2 TDs; Mason Crosby (6) 34/35 XPs, 31/42 FGs; Defense (8) 19 INTs, 55 sacks, 333 points allowed.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
If it were not for a shaky situation in the passing game, the Vikings defense and explosive attack, could help this team make a playoff run. In 2007, Minnesota scores 19.1 points a game and allows 20.9, against a schedule that features seven games versus 2007 playoff teams, all in the last 12 weeks of the season.

Offensive Outlook: The 19.1 points a game are 27th in the NFL and 15th in the NFC. It would be great to start the discussion of the Vikings' offense with an analysis of Adrian Peterson and all of the talent at running back, but that takes a backseat to talk of Tarvaris Jackson and the issues at quarterback. Jackson made just two starts in 2006 and did not look great, throwing four interceptions and just two touchdowns. He has a live arm and some great mobility, yet his decision-making is more than questionable. Couple that with a group of young, unproven receivers who are far more deep threats than route-runners, things actually get worse in 2007. Jackson finishes the season with as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns and just 2,534 yards as the season-long starter at QB (Brooks Bollinger and Tyler Thigpen are NOT upgrades). Bobby Wade is a nice addition to the team, but his role is closer to departed tight end Jermaine Wiggins than it is successful possession receiver who can help the young players learn and grow. After that, former Gamecocks Troy Williamson and Sidney Rice seem like clones of each other, with neither prepared for the spotlight in 2007. If Jackson is the answer, it is not for this season - unless the question is "Which quarterback can almost single-handedly keep us from playoff contention?" Obviously, the news at running back is far more optimistic. In fact, the situation there may be as interesting as it gets in the NFL. Chester Taylor is coming off his first season as the starter when he picked up over 1,200 yards on the ground. All-purpose back Mewelde Moore, who caught 46 balls out of the backfield also returns. Added to the backfield are a healthy Tony Richardson, who helped Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes to monster seasons in Kansas City, as well as the much-heralded rookie Adrian Peterson. Peterson gains a few more yards on the ground than Taylor (895 to 824), while Taylor accounts for more yards from scrimmage with 1,016 for six touchdowns. Not too surprisingly, the best help for Tarvaris Jackson also comes from this group. Moore and Richardson each have more than 20 receptions.

Defensive Outlook: The 20.9 points a game allowed are 13th in the league. The Vikings flew under the radar a little bit in 2006 with a historically low 2.8 yards per rush against. Three big pieces to that puzzle, Fred Smoot, Napoleon Harris and defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin have departed, but the line is intact and the rush D is still as strong as it gets in the NFL. Two tackles who far exceed 300 pounds (and that's the listed weight), Pat and Kevin Williams, almost completely plug the middle against the run. The ends are talented, yet very injury-prone with Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James the projected opening-game starters. Neither makes it the full season, though Udeze does well with five sacks and 41 tackles. Darrion Scott fills in to lead the team in sacks for the second-straight season with 6.5. The backbone of the defense is middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. He works perfectly with the Williamses to any running back who does cross the line of scrimmage. Flanking Henderson are former Charger Ben Leber and 2006 first round pick Chad Greenway. Greenway's inexperience and injury concerns give way to more playing time for Rod Davis and rookie Rufus Alexander. Dwight Smith and Darren Sharper may be old, but they work well together at safety. At corner, Cedric Griffin steps in more than adequately for Smoot with 53 tackles and two interceptions. Sure tackler Antoine Winfield mans the other corner position with 99 tackles and five interceptions. Last year, all the Vikings lacked was a pass rush. In 2007, the pass rush improves a little bit, but a brutal non-division schedule hurts the defense's overall numbers against the run.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Atlanta (6-10), @Detroit (6-10), @Kansas City (9-7), Green Bay (8-8), @Chicago (11-5), @Dallas (8-8), Philadelphia (8-8), San Diego (11-5), @Green Bay (8-8), Oakland (7-9), @NYG (6-10), Detroit (6-10), @San Francisco (11-5), Chicago (11-5), Washington (6-10), @Denver (11-5)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Tarvaris Jackson (29) 2,534 yards, 15 TDs, 15 INTs; Adrian Peterson (30) 895 yards rushing, 7 receptions, 7 total TDs; Chester Taylor (31) 824 rushing yards, 6 total TDs; Bobby Wade (50) 56 receptions, 744 yards, 4 TDs; Sidney Rice (52) 49 receptions, 721 yards, four touchdowns; Visanthe Shiancoe (26) 39 receptions, 355 yards, 2 TDs; Ryan Longwell (25) 32/32 XPs, 27/33 FGs; Defense (16) 18 INTs, 30 sacks, 334 points allowed.

Detroit Lions (6-10)
With a veteran quarterback and a ton of promise at receiver, the Lions are almost in the opposite position of the Minnesota Vikings - on offense. The defense may also be the opposite, in that it is bad. In 2007, Detroit will score 21.5 points a game and allow 30.5, against a schedule that features six games versus 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 21.5 points a game are 19th in the NFL and tenth in the NFC, and to Lions fans, that is a good thing, as the offense shows quite a bit of promise under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. After two receivers, Mike Furrey and Roy Williams, combined for 180 grabs in 2006, Detroit added another weapon with Georgia Tech All-American Calvin Johnson. Johnson blows up in his rookie season with 74 catches for 1,204 yards and seven touchdowns. Possession receiver Mike Furrey still keeps defenses honest over the middle with 61 grabs, while Roy Williams is freed up to gain 1,338 yards and score eight times. It is probably every quarterback's dream to have the receivers mentioned before him in any write-up like this. This means that veteran Jon Kitna has plenty of talent around him and just needs to get the ball near these playmakers. Kitna totals over 4,000 yards for the second straight season, throwing a career-high 26 touchdowns and cutting down on his turnovers with 15 interceptions. The running game is not as exciting. Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell are both capable of breaking long runs, but they also both struggle to stay healthy. Jones plays in just 12 games, rushing for 638 yards and scoring seven times. Bell plays in 14 games, many as backup, totaling a team-high 724 rushing yards and six scores. The line improved with the additions of George Foster and Edwin Mulitalo alongside Jeff Backus, so there is the potential for the running game to be great if Bell and Jones are 100%. Kitna's career may be nearing its end, yet the pieces are there for any quarterback to succeed in the future. If the team can stay healthy at running back, the Lions could be a serious offensive threat for years to come.

Defensive Outlook: The 30.5 points a game allowed are last in the league. This is the bad part. In acquiring Foster and Bell, the Lions gave up Dre' Bly. This leaves with Detroit with two talented defensive tackles with issues and two young outside linebackers around which to build. Shaun's Rogers and Cody are huge run-stuffers who can also pressure the quarterback. Health and a suspension cost the pair twenty total games in 2006. They are back in 2007, but so are those issues. Cory Redding must fill in again at tackle, making four sacks and 43 tackles. At end, Dewayne White, Jared DeVries and Kalimba Edwards are all undersize, yet lack the speed and athleticism of similar players in that role who get to the quarterback more frequently. Ernie Sims and Boss Bailey are the bright spots on the Lions' defense. Like seemingly everyone on this team, Bailey has battled injuries in the past. He played a full season in 2006 and misses just one game in 2007. He and Sims combine for 204 tackles, three sacks and an interception. We know long-time Buccaneer coach Rod Marinelli would never consider it, but with tackles who can play like ends, undersized ends who get beat on the line and fast outside linebackers who can make a lot of plays all over the field, this defense looks like a 3-4 team stuck in a 4-3 with everyone shifted around. That puts a lot of faith in interior linebackers Paris Lenon, Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis, but each has had a great deal of previous success at either the collegiate or professional levels. In the secondary, Bly's absence will hurt Fernando Bryant. Bryant is a decent tackler, who keeps plays in front of him, yet rarely makes a big play. In fact, the entire secondary, only returns two total interceptions from 2006, both of those coming from strong safety Kenoy Kennedy. When the returning ends on a 4-3 roster total just eight sacks and the secondary only two interceptions, the defense will have issues that will carry over to the offense and greatly hurt the team.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @Oakland (7-9), Minnesota (7-9), @Philadelphia (8-8), Chicago (11-5), @Washington (6-10), Tampa Bay (7-9), @Chicago (11-5), Denver (11-5), @Arizona (8-8), NYG (6-10), Green Bay (8-8), @Minnesota (7-9), Dallas (8-8), @San Diego (11-5), Kansas City (9-7), @Green Bay (8-8)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Jon Kitna (8) 4,044 passing yards, 25 TDs, 16 INTs; Kevin Jones (37) 638 yards rushing, 23 receptions, 7 total TDs; Tatum Bell (38) 799 total yards, 6 TDs; Roy Williams (11) 83 receptions, 1,338 yards, 8 TDs; Calvin Johnson (16) 74 receptions, 1,204 yards, 7 TDs; Mike Furrey (46) 61 receptions, 738 yards, 4 TDs; Dan Campbell (39) 16 receptions, 199 yards, 2 TDs; Jason Hanson (5) 37/38 XPs, 30/34 FGs; Defense (31) 17 INTs, 32 sacks, 488 points allowed.

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