They open camp after missing the playoffs the season prior for the first time in nine years. Moreover, it’ll mark their first camp without Dom Capers as defensive coordinator since 2009 and without Ted Thompson as general manager since 2005.
It’s a new era of Packers football, but Aaron Rodgers’ healthy return means Green Bay’s old standard — division title or bust — remains.
Who steps forward in the backfields?
Mike McCarthy has stated his three talented tailbacks will share the load, but he’s been known to ride the hot hand. And we’ve seen Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones each author scorching spurts in small sample sizes.
With Jones suspended two games to begin the season, Montgomery, who ended 2017 on IR, and Williams, who averaged north of 20 touches but only 3.7 yards per carry each game over the final half of his rookie season, could distance themselves with a strong summer. Jones, despite his 5.5-yard rookie rush clip, must build trust on and off the field.
Top pick Jaire Alexander and second-rounder Josh Jackson give Green Bay three former top-45 picks at cornerback, along with 2017 draft pick Kevin King. But attrition and poor development, not pedigree, has been a woeful pass defense’s problems the past two seasons, and fresh blood — players and coaches — must fix them.
Rodgers is healthy … but will he be happy?
After missing nine games with a broken right collarbone, Rodgers’ return rekindles hope coming off a 7-9 campaign. But that doesn’t mean all is right in the world of the two-time MVP. What’s the holdup with his supposedly imminent contract extension? And do any ill feelings linger after McCarthy and new GM Brian Gutekunst jettisoned two of Rodgers’ closest allies — longtime QB coach Alex Van Pelt and telepathic top target, Jordy Nelson?
Rodgers is a terrific leader and still the game’s most talented triggerman, but Packers brass getting the deal done and Rodgers building a quick rapport with new TE Jimmy Graham are major priorities.
If Capers was the problem, is Mike Pettine the solution?
The new defensive coordinator will install another aggressive, press-coverage heavy scheme for the Packers. Pettine hopes — and quite possibly needs, depending on the health of a volatile OLB corps — to blitz frequently. Sure, the scheme switches from a base ‘30’ to ’40,’ but many of the principles remain.
The difference, then, could come in Pettine’s ability to maximize his talent —not only his young defensive backs, but reclamation project and his former Jets pupil, defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, among others.
After coming within one game of the Super Bowl, all the Vikings did was sign prize free-agent QB Kirk Cousins to an unprecedented contract and add 27-year-old former Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson to the game’s best four-man front.
Minnesota also welcomes back feature RB Dalvin Cook from a torn ACL and introduces another first-round corner, Mike Hughes, to the NFC’s top pass defense.
Can they recreate Case Keenum-Pat Shurmur-like synergy?
Don’t discount the importance of Shurmur, the NFL’s reigning Assistant Coach of the Year, to Minnesota’s offense last season and assume Cousins is a marked improvement over the 2017 version of Keenum. Sure, Cousins gets an improved pass-catching corps and the luxury of playing half of his games indoors, and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo cut his teeth under a Super Bowl-winning coach and coordinator last season.
But DeFilippo is much less experienced than Shurmur, and the Vikings’ new quarterback wasn’t better statistically than their old one last season. Even with gobs of skill talent, the offense could take time to click. Every practice rep will be closely scrutinized. We’d bet $84 million and a Super Bowl-or-bust season on it.
Will Mike Zimmer do things differently early to change the results late?
The NFL’s top-rated ‘D’ succumbed in the playoffs by allowing 48 points over the final five quarters, the second year in a row it left a funky taste in fans’ mouths at the season’s conclusion.
Personnel wouldn’t appear to be the issue. Zimmer’s play-calling is universally praised. So, did the Vikings run out of gas in January? Perhaps they enjoyed their press clippings that read — and we’re paraphrasing — Nick Foles can’t handle Minnesota’s heat? Whatever the cause, Zimmer must change the effect, starting now.
What starting combination will emerge up front?
When healthy, Riley Reiff and Pat Elflein would appear to be entrenched at left tackle and center, respectively, and LG Nick Easton is a keeper. But Elflein’s sterling rookie season ended sourly with an ankle injury sustained in the divisional round that required surgery, and his recovery paired with some moving parts: the retirement of RG Joe Berger and drafting of second-round OT Brian O’Neill.
In an ideal world, a strong camp for O’Neill pushes RT Mike Remmers inside to Berger’s vacated spot, and Elflein avoids the PUP list. But it’s imperative that Minnesota continues finding out exactly what it has in reserves Rashod Hill, Danny Isidora and newcomer Tom Compton.
GM Bob Quinn got his guy in head coach Matt Patricia, who replaces Jim Caldwell following three winning seasons in his four-year tenure, including back-to-back 9-7 campaigns.
That means the pressure is on Patricia to quickly guide the Lions back to the postseason, where their last victory came during President George H.W. Bush’s term. Doing so almost certainly means taking pressure off Matthew Stafford with — gasp — a functional run game and more consistent defense.
Is the ground game poised to finally get on track?
Optimism is abound regarding the offense’s imbalance and short-yardage woes soon being a thing of the past. But being optimistic and actually rectifying what’s been the NFL’s worst rushing attack are very different things.
Will rookie Kerryon Johnson relegate Blount to a reserve role, even on early downs? Is there a spot for Ameer Abdullah on the roster because of Theo Riddick’s cemented receiving role? And will better health up front for LT Taylor Decker and the veteran right side of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner surrounding top pick Frank Ragnow allow Detroit to have the increasingly powerful identity it has sought for some time?
How concerning is the pass rush?
Franchise-tag recipient DE Ezekiel Ansah tallied a quiet 12 sacks last season … and Detroit still finished 23rd in sack percentage. In a nearly invisible year marred by injuries rushing the passer two seasons ago, when Kerry Hyder was the team’s best pressure piece, Detroit ranked 30th in sack percentage.
Hyder returns from a lost season with a ruptured Achilles, but his inclusion here speaks to the group’s volatility and dearth of weapons. Ansah, 28, missed most of the offseason following a knee procedure and has been slowed by lower-body injuries of late. In a contract year, can he consistently be the slicing and stunting chess piece Patricia desperately needs? Can Hyder or Anthony Zettel (6½ sacks last season) continue their rise from obscurity, or can someone else help an undermanned group?
Will recent Day 2 picks become first-rate contributors?
The time is now for 2016 second- and third-rounders A’Shawn Robinson and Graham Glasgow to excel. They’ve both flashed, but Robinson must become sturdier for a leaky run ‘D,’ and Glasgow is central to the O-line’s improvements.
And last year’s second- and third-rounders, Teez Tabor and Kenny Golladay, are in great situations. Tabor battles the more experienced Nevin Lawson and DeShawn Shead to start opposite Pro Bowl CB Darius Slay, while Golladay looks to become Detroit’s go-to guy on the outside. But their progress as playmakers looms large for the organization.