NFL

NFL training camp 2019: NFC North preview

By Sports Desk July 17, 2019

The NFC North might just be the strongest division in the NFL.

It was the Chicago Bears who surprisingly took the division title in 2018 as the league's stingiest defense helped first-time head coach Matt Nagy make an immediate impact.

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers took steps back but, given the wealth of talent on the two teams, it would not be surprising if either or both made deep playoff runs this time around, while most of Chicago's roster remains intact.

Here is the outlook for the NFC North heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Green Bay Packers

Surely the only way is up for a Packers team coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992? Aaron Rodgers will have extra motivation to prove it was former coach Mike McCarthy and not the quarterback that was the problem in Titletown. The defense already had a fine young core in Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Throw in first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, and free-agency acquisitions Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and Mike Pettine's unit has top-10 potential.

That, coupled with some typical Rodgers magic, should be enough for the Pack to get back on track under new coach Matt LaFleur.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Detroit Lions

The other NFC North teams enter the 2019 season all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, leaving the Lions as the odd ones out. Detroit finished 6-10 in Matt Patricia's debut campaign — losing seven of nine before a meaningless Week 17 clash with Green Bay — and the dip may get sharper in 2019. 

Patricia's old-school methods reportedly rubbed some the wrong way and the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder if Detroit cannot get off to a good start, with the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Packers and Vikings all on the schedule in a tricky opening six-game stretch. Then there is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for a paltry 3,777 yards across 16 starts in 2018. At 31, he is running out of time to prove he can take the next step.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions: Former Patriots defensive coordinator Patricia saw in New England how a do-it-all tight end can transform an offense and Detroit drafted Hockenson eighth overall in the hope he could have a Rob Gronkowski-like impact in the Motor City. Only one Lions receiver — Kenny Golladay (1,063 yards) — accrued more than 517 receiving yards in 2018 and Levine Toilolo (263 yards) led all tight ends so Hockenson should provide an immediate upgrade.

David Montgomery, RB, Bears: Having traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft, Chicago moved up in the third round to pick Montgomery, an elusive back seemingly more suited to Nagy's offense. Tarik Cohen will once again provide the pizzazz outside the tackles but Montgomery can do plenty of damage inside for a team that had the sixth-most rushing attempts in 2018. If Kyler Murray doesn't live up to the hype, Montgomery might walk, or run, away with the Rookie of the Year prize for a Bears team likely to lean on the rush again given Mitchell Trubisky's limitations.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Kirk Cousins

He was supposed to be the man to push the Vikings over the hump but Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018 after reaching the NFC championship game in the campaign before. Cousins begins the second season of a three-year, $84million, fully guaranteed contract desperate to prove he can be spectacular, and not just steady, and Minnesota has to find a way to better protect a QB who was sacked 40 times in 2018. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. If the offensive line can hold up, he has no excuses.

KEY INJURIES

Dalvin Cook, knee and hamstring: Cousins' life will become a lot easier if Minnesota's star running back can stay healthy. Cook has missed 17 games over his first two seasons in the league but has flashed plenty of ability in his time on the field. The Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to aid their offense this season and Cook figures to thrive in his zone-blocking scheme if he can put his injury troubles behind him.

Kerryon Johnson, knee: Rookie Johnson snapped Detroit's 70-game streak of not having a 100-yard rusher, and he might have become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013 had a knee injury not ended his campaign prematurely. Heading into his second season, the Lions need Johnson to pick up where he left off as he will be the focus of the ground attack in an offense that might be one of the more run-oriented in the entire NFL.

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    And, on paper, City's trip to Arsenal is hardly the ideal follow-up match.

    Under the guidance of Ljungberg, Arsenal ended a wretched run on Monday as they beat West Ham away from home.

    While it was by no means vintage Arsenal, the Gunners did at least show some of the attacking verve many expect of such a talented forward unit.

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    Mesut Ozil is back in favour at Arsenal again since Ljungberg's temporary appointment and they will need him at his very best if they are to even get remotely close to a top-four finish.

    He certainly has not been at that level since the start of last season, when he averaged a goal involvement (five goals, two assists) every 249 minutes. This term that has dropped even more to one every 610 minutes.

    At his best, Ozil got six goals and 19 assists in 35 top-flight matches back in 2015-16, having a hand in one or the other every 122 minutes.

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    The Belgium international is averaging four chances created in each match in 2019-20, while Ozil's record of 18 opportunities laid on in seven matches is significantly less impressive.

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    Although Arsenal traditionally are seen as one of the Premier League's best teams, they go into Sunday's game without back-to-back wins in the top flight this season.

    Of the Gunners' past six domestic games, they have won only once, while also drawing three.

    But City's away form will not offer Ljungberg's men with much reason to quake in their boots, given the champions have lost twice in their six most recent league trips away from the Etihad Stadium.

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    Germany – Bundesliga: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig

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    Italy – Serie A: Atalanta, Juventus, Napoli

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    Juventus' tally of 16 points in Group D saw them equal their own record – set in 1996-97 and matched in 2004-05 – while Napoli hammered Genk 4-0 on Tuesday to book their last-16 berth, though it was not enough to keep Carlo Ancelotti in his job.

    There will be no place in the last 16 for Serie A leaders Inter, though, with Antonio Conte's side dropping into the Europa League.

    Spain – LaLiga: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia

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    Valencia were involved in a mighty tussle with Chelsea and Ajax, who beat them 3-0 in their first home match, but eventually topped Group H thanks to a 1-0 win over the Eredivisie champions on Tuesday.

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