By SAM SPIEGELMAN
The NFC North has the potential to be the deepest division in all of football, and it has a strong chance to produce two playoff teams in 2014.
Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler each missed time last season due to various injuries, but the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears still finished first and second, respectively, in the standings. The Detroit Lions disappointed, again, and as a result Jim Schwartz was fired. The Minnesota Vikings also made a change, bringing Mike Zimmer in to replace Leslie Frazier.
Here are 10 burning questions for the NFC North in 2014:
1. Assuming Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler stay healthy, do the Packers or Bears have a better shot at winning the division?
I lean toward the side of the top-three quarterback, one that now has a well-rounded offense to work with. The Bears have a potential to have the league's top offense, too, but in terms of winning games I trust Rodgers a bit more.
2. Can Eddie Lacy build upon his rookie season?
A 1,200-yard, 11-touchdown rookie year is good no matter how many years you've been in the league, but I expect some decline in Year 2. For one, the Packers will have Rodgers back in the fold, so the pass volume could be back up. There have also been reports that the team wants to lessen Lacy's workload and get the other backs more involved.
3. Will Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall continue to dominate?
No question. These two twin towers are a worst nightmare for opposing secondaries, and the threat of Matt Forte, Marquess Wilson and Martellus Bennett makes it an even more difficult task. Jeffery and Marshall, in my opinion, are far and away the best receiver tandem in the NFL.
4. What will the Lions look like under Jim Caldwell?
Caldwell is a Tony Dungy disciple, and I think he got a tough break taking over the Colts after Peyton Manning went down with an injury. I think he'll be a great mentor for Matthew Stafford, helping him cut down on his interceptions and instead having him be more of a cerebral player. I also think he'll balance out the Lions offense, plus help transform the defense.
5. Is this the year Adrian Peterson declines?
It's hard to bet against Peterson, but he's entering the age 29 season and will have Matt Casselunder center to begin the season. He's only two years removed from a 2,000-yard season, but it's hard not to factor age and injury history into the equation.
6. How does Julius Peppers change the Green Bay defense?
Finally Clay Matthews has a pass-rusher opposite him to alleviate some pressure. Peppers forces pass protection to pay attention to him, so it wouldn't surprise me to see Matthews' production back on the rise.
7. How much better is the Bears' D after the offseason additions?
I think it's going to be either hit or miss. I like Lamarr Houston, and I believe first-rounder Kyle Fuller is going to be a good corner. I have less confidence in Jay Ratliff and Jared Allen, two older defensive linemen who are surely on the downside of their careers.
8. What impact will Golden Tate, Eric Ebron have?
Finally Calvin Johnson will have some other capable weapons to draw double-teams away from him. Tate is a strong No. 2 option, while Ebron should be used much like Jimmy Graham is with the Saints. There's also Reggie Bush coming out of the backfield to pay attention to.
9. When will Teddy Bridgewater take over at quarterback?
It's hard to see Cassel as a season-long starter, given his low ceiling and the fact he's been benched mid-season before. Letting Bridgewater sit and learn for a few games is smart, but he's the future of the organization and should get a chance at some point in 2014.
10. Does the NFC North have the best starting quarterbacks of any division?
You could make an argument for the NFC East and the NFC South, but I think for sure the trio of Rodgers, Stafford, and Cutler are the best in the NFL. Rodgers is a perennial MVP, while Cutler and Stafford are both candidates to lead top-10 offenses. They're among the best passers in all the league.