NFC North Divisional Preview

by Eric Eager|July 17, 2023


The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

After starting with the AFC South last week, we move onto the division with the second-fewest projected wins in the league, the NFC North. The NFC North is projected to win 31.8 games between the Lions, Vikings, Packers, and Bears, and is in somewhat of a transition phase.

Gone is Aaron Rodgers, a Hall of Fame talent that led the Packers to more division titles since 2011 than the rest of the division combined. In are the Detroit Lions, who are favored to win the NFC North for the first time since 1992. The Lions have not so much as hosted a playoff game since Brett Favre’s first-career playoff start in 1993 and have not won one since 1991.

The Vikings, who won 13 games last year while having a negative point differential, appear to be taking a small step back in 2023 while the Bears used their draft capital and cap space to load up around third-year signal caller Justin Fields.

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

Detroit Lions

2022 Record: 9-8

Judging by things like point differential and the betting markets, the Lions finished last season as the best team in the NFC North. They narrowly missed making the playoffs for the first time since 2016 due to a Seattle win in Week 18 at home against the Rams and a Seattle win earlier in the season at Ford Field against Detroit.

As such, the efficient NFL futures market has them favored to win the NFC North and a favorite to make the playoffs. Dan Campbell returns for his third year as head coach with one of the best in-game coaching records in the NFL since he entered the league.

SumerSports In-Game Coaching Model: An Introduction | SumerSports

Jared Goff, who came over in the Matthew Stafford trade in 2021, improved substantially under Ben Johnson in 2022, finishing sixth in Comeback Player of the Year voting and fourth in net adjusted yards per pass attempt. Goff will always be viewed as limited, as quarterback analyst Derrik Klassen chronicled in his quarterback charting project, but he has shown he is good enough to direct high-level offenses when surrounded by support and armed with a good play caller.

The Detroit offensive line, led by Penei Sewell, dealt with injuries last year but played well when healthy. Jahmir Gibbs was drafted 12th overall to replace De’Andre Swift at running back, complimented by former Bear David Montgomery. Jameson Williams, who missed much of his rookie year with an injury, will miss the first six weeks of the 2023 season with a gambling suspension.

The offense goes as Amon-Ra St. Brown, the third-year player from USC, goes. He was one of the most efficient players in the league last year at 2.40 yards per route run. His impact on the offense was seen even more when he was slowed by injuries. As St. Brown became healthy, the offense regained its footing.

Only the Bears were worse than the Lions defensively a season ago, but help is on the way. Much like the Bengals in 2021, the Lions acquired veteran depth in the secondary in a numbers play. In are Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Mosely, and Chauncy Gardner-Johnson and out is third-overall pick Jeff Okudah.

Aidan Hutchinson, who made play after play as a rookie, was supplemented late in the year by James Houston. Houston, seemingly undersized at 6’1’’ 225lb, earned 17 pressures and was involved in eight sacks in just 140 snaps last year. Add in Jack Campbell in the first round from Iowa, and the Lions could have the middle-of-the-pack defense necessary to win this division and make a run in the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings

2022 Record: 13-4

After years of hovering around seven or eight wins, the Vikings broke out in the first year of the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah/Kevin O’Connell regime, winning 13 games and their first NFC North title of the Kirk Cousins era. The Vikings won a staggering 11 one-score games in the regular season before falling at home to the New York Giants in a rematch of a game played on Christmas Eve a few weeks earlier.

The Vikings were in a difficult position going into the 2022 offseason with a roster that had atrophied under Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer. With cornerstone players like Justin Jefferson and Christian Darrisaw at premium positions, a full rebuild was going to be a hard sell (even if someone like me would have liked to see it at the time).

Thus, they extended Cousins a couple more years and have slowly turned over the roster, bidding farewell to Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Cook, Anthony Barr, and others. This turnover, and the market’s view on Cousins, has the Vikings sitting with a market win total of 8.5 games despite last season’s success.

Our models tend to agree with the pessimism surrounding the purple, but there is a path to success. With Jefferson, arguably the most-valuable non-quarterback in the NFL, and first-round pick Jordan Addison, the Vikings could have a top-10 offense in the NFL, especially if Cousins plays to the upper half of his distribution.

Almost as impressive as Jefferson’s production has been his consistency, having averaged 2.66, 2.59, and 2.55 yards per route run in each of his three seasons. His next contract will likely be the richest in the history of the wide receiver position, and another year with a proven commodity at the quarterback position should simply continue his statistical accumulation.

Where the Vikings could falter, though, is on the defensive side of the ball, where Ed Donatell was replaced by Brian Flores after a year in which the Vikings allowed the fourth-most points in the league. The ultimate success of this unit hinges on the growth of recent draft picks Lewis Cine, Andrew Booth, Brian Asamoah, Akayleb Evans, Mekhi Blackmon, and Jay Ward.

Danielle Hunter, who was back to his elite form in 2022 after two seasons plagued by injuries, is on the trade block due to an awkward situation with his contract, which will pay him only $5.5 million in new money while costing $13 million against the cap. Flores will be looking to build on his past success with a new group of players.

Green Bay Packers

2022 Record: 8-9

The Packers won 13 games in each of Matt LaFleur’s first three seasons as Packers head coach including three first-round byes and three pre-Super Bowl playoff exits. That changed in 2022 with an 8-9 finish and a loss at the feet of the Detroit Lions at home with a chance to earn a playoff spot in Week 18. Aaron Rodgers, who won four league MVPs and a Super Bowl as Brett Favre’s successor in Green Bay, will no longer be suiting up for the green and yellow. While he was arguably the best player in franchise history, it was clear at times a season ago that the relationship had run its course. Taking his place is 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love out of Utah State.

Love is complimented by one of the youngest receiving corps in modern league history. Christian Watson, their second-round pick out of NDSU in 2022, emerged towards the end of the season with seven touchdowns and 2.26 yards per route run. He and Romeo Doubs, along with rookie tight end Luke Musgrave, have the potential to be a very diverse and productive bunch. Aaron Jones continues to be one of the most efficient backs in all of football, when used, and A.J. Dillon is a good low-variance complement.

In 2022, the Packers baked into the cake a defensive surge that simply did not happen with rookies Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt slow to come on and the 2021 brilliance of De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas not quite reclaimed. Rashan Gary, who was even a Defensive Player of the Year candidate coming into the year, exited early with a torn ACL.

The Packers finished 27th in EPA per play allowed, which leaves plenty of room for improvement in 2023 with a schedule that is in the upper half of the league in terms of ease. Lukas Van Ness enters from Iowa to add some inside-outside punch as a pass rusher, and Jaire Alexander remains one of the league’s best and most versatile cornerbacks. If the Packers are going to exceed market expectations, as our simulation suggests, an improvement on defense will be one of the main reasons why.

Chicago Bears

2022 Record: 3-14

The Bears earned the first-overall pick in the 2023 draft by virtue of their loss in Week 18 to the Vikings at home and the Texans improbable triumph over the Colts. Faced with the decision to stay the course with third-year pro Justin Fields or to stay put and draft from the likes of Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson, the Bears traded the pick to the Panthers for roughly $200 million in value, including a veteran player in wide receiver D.J. Moore. The world is Justin Fields’ oyster, and Bears fans are excited for the future.

The market is low on Fields as a passer, which is understandable given how poorly he has performed as one through two years. He led the league in sack percentage in 2022 and has been one of the least-accurate players at the position since entering the league in 2021. This is in stark contrast to what he was at Ohio State, where he was incredibly accurate. Any movement towards his college ability as a passer would lead to an efficient offense in Chicago as his rushing (1143 yards, eight touchdowns) provides an ample floor from which to jump.

With Moore in the fold, the Bears have a sneaky-good supporting cast for Fields, one that includes a former 1,000-yard receiver in Darnell Mooney, a former Steeler in Chase Claypool, and last year’s leading receiver, Cole Kmet, who hauled in 50 passes and scored seven touchdowns. If the offensive line, fresh off drafting Darnell Wright with the 10th overall pick, can do a better job than they have done in previous seasons, this offense could score enough points to make things interesting.

The Bears were the worst defense in the NFL a season ago in terms of EPA per play allowed. They traded Khalil Mack in the offseason as well as Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn during the season. The results were predictable.

The Bears have begun the rebuilding process this offseason with the addition of T.J. Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds, and DeMarcus Walker to the middle of their defense and still have defensive backs Jaylon Johnson and Eddie Jackson. However, they were the worst in the NFL in producing sacks a season ago (20) and have done relatively little to address the situation in the offseason.

A trendy pick to surprise people in 2023, it is more than likely the Bears will be more entertaining than they are a quality football team, with eyes towards 2024 before they are truly competitive.

Next up, NFC West.


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