Kirk Cousins, Photo by All-Pro Reels
We’re moving along in our preparation for the 2022 NFL season by bringing you another installment in our series of NFL team previews.
We’ve gone division-by-division and covered half the league thus far, with breakdowns and roster analysis of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC West, and NFC West. Today, we’re breaking down the NFC North!
Even though many of the key players will be the same in 2022, Minnesota is entering a new era of football.
The Vikings have a new analytics-minded GM, and the defense-oriented curmudgeon, Mike Zimmer, was replaced with the young, energetic Kevin O’Connell as head coach. Moving from a coach who didn’t like and barely spoke to the quarterback to one who has confidence in the quarterback should go a long way for Minnesota this year.
Cultural differences aside, the Vikings needed to move past the conservative offensive approach of the Zimmer era. Minnesota ranked third in the league in run rate on second and long in 2021 – that’s over and done.
O’Connell, who comes over from McVay’s staff with the Rams, will implement a more aggressive pass-first approach. In camp, they’ve been working on getting Cousins to unlearn the risk-averse, check-down-laden approach and let things develop downfield more.
The Vikings were 27th in the league in a three-plus wide receiver formation rate, despite losing their top tight end Irv Smith early in the season. The Rams ranked first in three-plus receiver formations.
Smith was absent from the first three weeks of camp after undergoing thumb surgery.
Receiver Justin Jefferson is so good and so young, and with the new philosophy on offense, he’s in line for a monster year. Jefferson, Adam Theilen, and KJ Osbourne give Minny one of the best starting receiver trios in the league. O’Connell will be able to move all three guys all over the formation.
Depth behind them could become a problem if one of those guys misses time, especially considering they will be a heavy 11- personnel (3 WR) offense.
An early injury undermined first-round pick Christian Darrisaw’s rookie season in 2021, but he’s poised to ascend in year two and should be reliable at left tackle. However, the interior of the line does have some question marks.
Center Garrett Bradbury has been shaky in pass protection since being drafted in the first round in 2019, and there’s an unsettled competition at right guard.
Minnesota made a splash when they signed edge rusher Za’Darius Smith from the Packers to play opposite Danielle Hunter. If healthy, they form one of the best pass rush duos in the league – but that’s a big if. Za’Darius Smith played just one regular season game last year, and Danielle Hunter played just seven before a season-ending pectoral injury.
Minnesota added solid starters at defensive tackle (Harrison Phillips) and linebacker (Jordan Hicks), which should help bolster a run defense that ranked 25th in DVOA in 2021.
The Vikings turned to the draft to address their biggest weakness on defense, the secondary. They grabbed Georgia safety Lewis Cine at the end of the first round, then traded up in the second round for Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth. Booth was considered a first-round talent with good ball skills, but a major injury history precipitated a slide to the second.
The cornerback group outside veteran Patrick Peterson is still unproven, but at minimum, the depth is better on the back end, and it’s hard to be much worse than they were a year ago. We also like the safety depth with Harrison Smith. the rookie Cine, and Cam Bynum.
Many fans and commentators believed the Vikings needed to move on from Cousins and tear down, rather than retool, the roster after this core seemingly peaked a few years ago. But who were they replacing Kirk with? The new regime chose to seize the opportunity to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. We can’t blame them.
This team is thin in some key spots and unproven in others, but there is undoubtedly playoff talent here. Cousins may never be an elite quarterback, but a more aggressive approach, a better organizational culture, and some injury fortune can push them into the playoffs.
The NFC North’s out of conferences schedule features the AFC East.
The Vikings will face around a league-average schedule in 2022. They open with the Packers at home, and the Eagles on the road in Week 2, so they’ll need to clip off one of those and avoid an 0-2 start. Road games against the Saints, Dolphins and Bills, and home games against the Cowboys and Colts, highlight their non-divisional schedule.
Green Bay Packers
After the stunning offseason trade of All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, all eyes will be on the Packers’ patchwork receiver group early in the season.
Green Bay moved up in the second round to grab receiver Christian Watson, but it’s fourth-round rookie Romeo Doubs who’s received all the buzz during training camp. Allen Lazard will certainly be a safety blanket for Rodgers early on as he builds trust with the more inexperienced wideouts. Amari Rodgers, Sammy Watkins, and Randall Cobbs round out the receiver group.
The offense will not be as good without Adams, but we still expect it to be plenty good. After all, number twelve is still in the building.
We expect an offense that relies much more on the running game than in years past. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are as good as any running back duo in the NFL. With the weakness at wide receivers, Jones catching passes will become an even bigger element of the offense. Dillon led NFL running backs in success rate in 2021.
The most concerning development out of training camp for Green Bay is that All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari will not be ready to start the 2022 season after needing a third knee surgery this off-season.
Bakhtiari originally tore his ACL at the end of the 2020 season and only played 27 snaps in 2021. The Packers are not putting a timetable on his return, but Bakhtiari and the Packers believe he can potentially return early in the season.
Elgton Jenkins, their second-best offensive lineman, is returning from an ACL tear of his own this past November. Jenkins was activated off the PUP a few weeks into camp and was doing work at right tackle. It looks like Yosh Nijman, who was serviceable in spots starts last year, looks poised to start at left tackle in Bakhtiari’s continued absence.
Early on, this offensive line looks patchworked, but that was the case for most of last season.
The Packers added two offensive linemen in this draft, Sean Rhyan (third round) and Zach Tom (fourth, who reportedly looks like an immediate starter). Aaron Rodgers’ mastery of the quick game and the Packers’ ability to draft and develop solid offensive linemen temper our concerns about the line.
But make no mistake, they need Bakhtiari back.
On the other side of the ball, we believe this defense is poised to be among the league’s best and will allow the 2022 Packers to win differently than in years prior.
Green Bay used both their first-rounders to plug holes in the defense. Their first pick, Quay Walker, is a long, athletic linebacker who should contribute immediately in coverage. With only one reliable linebacker (Devondre Campbell) in 2021, defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s defense played a ton of dime, ranking sixth in the NFL in the number of snaps they used six or more defensive backs.
Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage give Green Bay one of the best starting secondaries in the league. Alexander, one of the league’s truly elite corners, missed most of last year with a shoulder injury. The 2021 first-rounder Stokes impressed in year one and will start on the outside.
Barry employs the Fangio/Staley-style two-high defense with light boxes, encouraging the run.
That run defense was dreadful in 2021, ranking 28th in DVOA. They need to improve this year for the Packers to become one of the league’s elite defenses. The addition of veteran Jarran Reed doesn’t move the needle much, and Devonte Wyatt is more of a penetrator.
Entering their second season in this scheme, with improved personnel and a healthy Jaire Alexander, this defense has top-five potential. We have faith in LaFleur and Rodgers to manufacture a good offense, but the ceiling of this may depend more on the ceiling of this defense.
The Packers will face about a league-average schedule in 2022. Road games against the Bucs (Week 3), the Bills (Week 8), and the Eagles (Week 12), and home games against the Cowboys (Week 10), and Rams (Week 15), highlight their non-divisional schedule.
The Lions have received more buzz than any team coming off a three-win season ever. As they enter year two of their rebuild, there’s good reason to be optimistic about the Lions
GM Brad Holmes has focused on building this team in the trenches.
Their first three picks in the 2021 draft were tackle Penei Sewell, defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, and defensive tackle Alim McNeill. This year, they took defensive end Aidan Hutchinson second overall, and with needs elsewhere, took another defensive end, Josh Paschal, in the second round.
The unquestioned strength of this team will be the offensive line.
There are no weak spots on this line. Penei Sewell starts his second season after a solid rookie season transitioning to right tackle, and Jonah Jackson is a powerful young guard. Center Frank Ragnow, who played just four games in 2021, is widely regarded as one of the best young centers in the league. The unit was never healthy all of last season, but in 2022 has a chance to be among the best few in the entire NFL.
Outside of standout rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, the wide receiver position was a major weakness a year ago.
This offseason, Detroit added former Jaguar DJ Chark, who gives them a big-bodied guy on the outside they were missing; Chark missed the second half of last year with a fractured ankle. In the draft, they made an aggressive move up into the first round to grab Alabama burner Jameson Williams. Coming off a torn ACL in the national championship game, Williams won’t be ready to start the season but could be back after a few games.
TJ Hockenson should be in line for a significant role in this offense as the new offensive coordinator, Ben Johnson, served as the tight ends coach the last two seasons.
The Rams discarded Jared Goff because of his limitations, but with time to operate within the structure of the offense, he’s an accurate, serviceable quarterback. In 2022, the pass-catching group will be better, and the offensive line should be excellent. In some games, they’ll have a chance to overmatch their opponent at the line of scrimmage.
Goff is an environment-dependent quarterback, and with the environment the Lions have put together, this offense can be pretty good.
This offseason, Detroit prioritized resigning their free agents like safety Tracy Walker and DE Charles Harris.
They have solid rotational depth along the defensive line, but no clear difference maker. Hutchinson hopefully becomes that guy, but it may take time. Their best pass rusher Romeo Okwara is coming off a torn ACL and may not be ready to return until midseason. Detroit needs their investments in the trenches, particularly Onwuzurike and McNeill to emerge this season.
The biggest weakness of this team is linebacker and corner.
Amani Oruwariye is not a number one cornerback, and Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in 2020, is coming off a torn Achilles. Okudah wasn’t great when he was out there. They brought in safety Deshon Elliot and corner Mike Hughes, but the secondary is mostly a collection of guys.
Detroit ranked 27th in DVOA against the pass in 2021 and there’s no obvious reason to expect much improvement. They will rely heavily on defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to coach this group up, but on paper, it still looks ugly.
The Lions will face one of the top ten easiest schedules in the league this year. Outside of the division, they’ll face the Seahawks, Commanders, Giants, Jaguars, Jets, and Panthers in 2022.
The Bears are blowing things up and starting over with a new young GM and a new head coach.
We’re optimistic about Justin Fields’ potential, but the question for the Bears is whether they’ve surrounded him with enough adequate talent to take steps forward in his progression.
The offensive line was atrocious in 2021. GM Ryan Poles (a former offensive lineman) elected to throw a bunch of bodies into the mix to compete.
Early in camp, rookie fifth-round tackle Braxton Jones looks like he’s seizing the starting left tackle position. 2021 second-round pick, tackle Teven Jenkins was moved inside to play guard, and Larry Borom (5th round) looks like he has the inside track on the right tackle job, with veteran Riley Reiff in the mix as well. They signed Lucas Patrick from the Packers to start at center, but he broke his thumb in camp and may not be ready to start the season.
It remains to be seen how it all shakes out, but it’s an inexperienced group and chemistry could be an issue early in the season. It will certainly be deeper and better than last year, the question is, how much better? Any way it slices, this is almost certainly a bottom five or ten unit.
Poles took a similar approach at wide receiver. We like Darnell Mooney as a down-the-field threat, but he’s more of a number two. Poles, who came over from Kansas City, signed for Chief Byron Pringle with the hope that he can be more productive with more usage. Third-round pick Velus Jones steps in as a 25-year-old rookie. Without a true number one, this projects to be one of the worst receiver groups in the league.
Is new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy building an offensive system that accentuates Justin Fields’ strengths? We’d expect them to take advantage of Fields’ athletic ability, arm strength, and out-of-pocket playmaking, with a heavy dosage of play action, bootlegs, and designed rollouts.
On defense, the talent up front that made the defense elite a few years ago is all gone, and their two best players may not be around too much longer either.
They traded Khalil Mack to the Chargers, and defensive linemen Eddie Goldman (retired) and Akiem Hicks (Bucs) have both moved on. Their best player, linebacker Roquan Smith wasn’t practicing for most of training camp after requesting a trade, but ended his holdout and returned to practice after no deal was made. Coming off a monster 18-sack season, Robert Quinn is a logical candidate to be traded to a contender at some point this season.
Chicago used two top fifty picks on defensive backs, Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker, and both are projected to start immediately and shoulder a heavy load in year one. Brisker has looked good during the preseason. There’s talent in the secondary, but it’s hard to bank on two rookies to step in as starters and perform at a high level in year one.
Matt Eberflus runs a Cover-2 heavy scheme with a low blitz rate that relies on the pressure with four up front. He played the third highest rate of nickel in the league in 2021, and his defenses are expected to swarm to the ball fast to help create turnover opportunities.
With significant personnel turnover, a brand new scheme, and their two best players’ future with the team uncertain, this defense could struggle early on.
The Bears’ schedule is one of the ten easiest in the league. While they’ll play a few games against high-quality opponents, they will also play many of the weakest teams in the NFL, with games against the Texans, Giants, Falcons, and Jets in 2022. They start the season with the Niners at home and the Packers on the road.
DVOA statistics & strategic tendencies sourced from Football Outsiders