Summer Scramble 2010: NFC North Burning Questions, Bold Predictions
Coming July 16: AFC South Players to Watch
Will Julius Peppers live up to his six-year, $84 million contract?
Peppers terrorized Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie late last season, forcing the Pro Bowler to the bench, while Peppers kept putting his mitts on Brett Favre. The Bears see Favre -- assuming he plays, which virtually everyone thinks he will -- and the Vikings twice. Can Peppers continue to create nightmares for the Vikings line? Will he be hurt by the Bears' decision to cut veteran Alex Brown, allowing him to sign with the defending champion Saints as a free agent? Peppers has been a pretty consistent force over his career, with the notable exception of 2007. The Bears shouldn't be excessively worried about injury or ineffectiveness, but the reality is there is a ton of pressure on Peppers and Brian Urlacher to resurrect this one-proud defense. If one or both falter, it doesn't matter what the offense does. It'll be another long year.
Is Matthew Stafford ready to take the next step?
We saw a lot from the 2009 No. 1 overall pick last season. Stafford displayed the big arm that scouts fell in love with. He played with energy and emotion, which the fans were able to catch on to. The ending of the Lions' win over Cleveland showed Stafford's toughness and moxie, two greatly important parts of being a good NFL quarterback. Now, he has to make some real strides in his performance. Stafford hit just 53 percent of his throws as a rookie, and he threw 20 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns. He has to get significantly better in both areas before the Lions have a prayer of improving significantly. The offensive line should be better, allowing Stafford to work on his play in the pocket. His running game will improve. Oh, and they still have Calvin Johnson.
Will Green Bay get the necessary consistency out of their defense?
It doesn't matter what the numbers were (in case you care, the Packers were No. 1 against the rush, No. 2 overall, No. 5 against the pass, and No. 1 in interceptions). The Packers simply must get better on the defensive side of the ball. They were scorched by Cedric Benson in Week 2, destroyed twice by Favre and the Vikings, couldn't make enough stops in the second half against Tampa Bay and their rookie quarterback, and were embarrassed in losses to Pittsburgh (late in the season) and Arizona (playoffs). Shutting down Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Cleveland might look good statistically, but it doesn't work when you can't stop good teams. The hope in Green Bay is that a full offseason in Dom Capers' 3-4 system will bring the kind of improvement necessary. The pass rush could see a huge boost from the presence of healthy nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Should Vikings fans be concerned about Adrian Peterson?
This isn't going to be a crack about fumbles, nor a rant about player contracts. It's a serious question. Peterson is a great running back, but those who thought his game would benefit from Favre's presence were only partially right. "All Day" set a career high with 43 receptions, and he still found the end zone 18 times. On the flip side, he averaged less than 20 carries per game, lost nearly 400 yards off his 2008 rushing total, and averaged just 4.4 yards per carry. For a dynamic, big-play back like Peterson, it's probably not a good thing to average as many yards per carry as Ryan Grant. Now, we're hearing of potential contract issues, which only compound this concern. Can Peterson regain the mojo he had in 2008, or did the Vikings overuse him (more than 380 touches in 2008)? Without Chester Taylor as a running buddy, Peterson may carry more of the load while the team gets rookie Toby Gerhart acclimated. A.P. may also benefit from a second year with Favre. No question, though, that the more teams try to hit Favre the way the Saints did in January, the more pressure there is for Peterson to be consistently great, like he was two years ago.
• Peterson will have a nice season, running for at least 1,500 yards and finding the end zone more than 15 times. That'll be a good thing, because Favre -- assuming he starts all 16 games again -- will double his interception total from 2009 (seven).
• Minnesota's run defense will take a step back, as the Williams Wall continues to age and depth remains questionable. Unless the pass defense improves, this will make the Vikings more vulnerable, especially as the offenses within the NFC North get better.
• Aaron Rodgers will make more plays than he did in 2009, finishing with nearly as many yards and more touchdowns. Like Favre, Rodgers will add to his pick total (he also threw seven in 2009). Meanwhile, Jermichael Finley will become a star for the Packers, topping 1,000 yards and scoring at least eight times.
• Charles Woodson will regress, but the Packers will be more balanced on defense. The key will be at linebacker, where Nick Barnett will grow into a bigger and better leader, thanks to having a full offseason to work in Capers' system (he missed much of last summer recovering from a torn ACL). Also, rookie Morgan Burnett will have a say in who starts at safety opposite Nick Collins.
• Expect a lot of footballs in the air in Chicago, where Jay Cutler might not cut much off his interceptions from last year, but he'll still put up numbers. The biggest beneficiary in Mike Martz' offense will be Johnny Knox, who will at least come close to doubling his rookie total of 45 catches and five touchdowns.
• Peppers won't hit his eight-year average of 10 sacks this season, but the Bears will still be pleased with his presence.
• Offseason acquisitions Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, and Ndamukong Suh will lead the way as Detroit climbs out of the NFL cellar defensively. Williams -- miscast in Cleveland as a 3-4 defensive end -- will benefit both from his return to the 4-3 and from playing next to Suh, who is a safe pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
• Fully established as the No. 1 quarterback, Stafford will complete at least 58 percent of his passes, throw more touchdowns than interceptions, and lead the Lions to their first five-win season in three years.