2006 Season Previews
NFC North
Chicago Bears (Last Year: 11-5).
Major Additions:
QB Brian Griese, TE Tim Day, DE Mark Anderson, CB Ricky Manning Jr., CB Dante Wesley, S Danieal Manning, KR Devin Hester.
Major Subtractions:
CB Jerry Azumah, S Mike Green.

Offense This Year: The question Bears fans are asking is the same one they had last offseason. Can Rex Grossman stay healthy? It may sound difficult to clamor over a quarterback who has just five career touchdowns, but Chicago looked much more lethal when the snake-bitten signal caller took over for Kyle Orton in the second half of a Week 15 contest against Atlanta.

While Orton, a rookie, did a phenomenal job taking care of the football and avoiding mistakes, the Bears need Grossman if they want to advance deep into the postseason. No, I didn't forget that general manager Jerry Angelo signed Brian Griese this offseason; I just don't think Griese has what it takes to win in the playoffs. Grossman does; while his numbers don't reflect it -- 17-of-41 for 192 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- he played extremely well against Carolina's stalwart defense.

Should Grossman stay healthy for a change, he should be able to develop a rapport with a number of talented targets. Muhsin Muhammad (93 rec., 1,405 yards, 16 TDs in 2004) is one of the best receivers in the NFL; second-year Mark Bradley looks very promising; while Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian are young wide outs who will be more of a factor in 2006. That said, I think the Bears should have pursued a tight end to take over for Desmond Clark. The team acquired undrafted free agent Tim Day, but it could be a while until he's ready to slide into the starting lineup.

The staple of Chicago's offense, however, remains a stout running game. Thomas Jones, who garnered a career-high 1,335 rushing yards in 2005, will be able to match last season's results with all five of his linemen returning. Chicago's offensive front -- tackles John Tait and Fred Miller, guards Ruben Brown and Terrence Metcalf, and center Olin Kreutz -- is unquestionably one of the league's best. Brown (34) and Miller (33) are both past their primes, but they should each have at least one solid season left in the tank.

Defense This Year: In my 2005 season preview, I predicted Chicago to have one of the best defenses in the NFL. The team did not disappoint; it surrendered more than 20 points on only four occasions, compiled 41 sacks and 24 interceptions, and restricted the opposition to just 3.9 yards per carry.

Chicago's defense was so dominant that the front four itself registered eight sacks against Carolina in Week 11. Defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown combined for 16 last season; while the defensive-tackle rotation of Tommie Harris, Ian Scott and Tank Johnson dominated their opponents.

Of course, everyone knows that Urlacher is the best player on Chicago's roster, and the elite middle linebacker in the NFL. However, most people underrate outside linebackers Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer, especially the former, who has become a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

The secondary is also sound. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, who combined for 13 interceptions in 2005, are a great duo. Reserves Ricky Manning Jr. and Dante Wesley are also talented, although the former allegedly loves to beat up nerds at Denny's. Strong safety Mike Brown always seems to be in the right place at the right time. As for the free safety position, Chris Harris is the lone weak link on the Bears' stop unit. They selected Danieal Manning in the second round of April's draft, but it remains unclear if the rookie can immediately replace Harris, who was relentlessly burnt by Steve Smith in the postseason.

Schedule and Intangibles: Although the Bears were just 40-40 at home between 1995 and 2004, they were 7-1 as a host last year. Is the Soldier Field mystique back? ... Special teams should be better in 2006; Chicago drafted Devin Hester to take over for the brutal Bobby Wade at punt returner; while kicker Robbie Gould will improve on his 3-of-8 from beyond 40 yards, now that he has a season under his belt. ... Besides the misfits the Bears get to beat up on in the NFC North, they will have the luxury of crushing Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis and the Jets.

Analysis: Unless the Bears suffer significant injuries, I see no reason why they won't be in contention for the Lombardi Trophy.

Projection: 13-3 (1st in the NFC North).

Minnesota Vikings (Last Year: 9-7).
Major Additions:
QB Tarvaris Jackson, RB Chester Taylor, FB Tony Richardson, G Steve Hutchinson, G Artis Hicks, OLB Chad Greenway, OLB Ben Leber, CB Cedric Griffin, S Tank Williams, K Ryan Longwell.
Major Subtractions:
QB Daunte Culpepper, RB Michael Bennett, RB Moe Williams, WR Nate Burleson, G Toniu Fonoti, DE Lance Johnstone, OLB Keith Newman, MLB Sam Cowart, CB Brian Williams, S Corey Chavous, K Paul Edinger.

Offense This Year: It's hard to believe that the Vikings finished the 2005 campaign with a 9-7 record after starting 2-5, and getting humiliated by Chicago and Carolina. When Daunte Culpepper tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in a 38-13 loss to the Panthers, it seemed as though all hope was lost. However, Brad Johnson stepped in and commanded the Vikings to a 7-2 mark.

Unlike Culpepper, Johnson took care of the ball and rarely fumbled. Thus, Minnesota was able to score 22.6 points per game with Johnson, as opposed to just 14.7 with Culpepper. The Vikings made a great decision when they traded Culpepper to Miami because Johnson can actually get the team to the playoffs without some guy named Randy Moss.

Minnesota made other key moves this offseason, including the acquisition of All Pro guard Steve Hutchinson. The former Seahawk will vastly improve an offensive front that surrendered 54 sacks in 2005. The signing of full back Tony Richardson was also key. Richardson is one of the best run blockers in the NFL, and should help Minnesota's non-existent rushing attack.

That said, the Vikings still have a few problems on the offensive side of the ball. They signed Chester Taylor, but he's not a No. 1 running back. Neither is Mewelde Moore. Minnesota clearly should have made a run at Laurence Maroney or DeAngelo Williams in April's draft. The team also lacks a top-notch wide out, now that Nate Burleson is gone. The quartette of Koren Robinson, Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson and Troy Williamson combined for only 1,838 yards last year.

The Vikings also have a few issues on the line. The left side is set with Hutchinson, left tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Matt Birk, but what about the right side? Guard Artis Hicks is not good enough to be a starter, while tackle Marcus Johnson is only entering his second season as a pro.

Defense This Year: Although Minnesota's defense wasn't anything special last year, it was a lot better than the unit that was ranked near the bottom of every category in 2004. That's because the Vikings added nose tackle Pat Williams, defensive end Erasmus James, linebacker Napoleon Harris, cornerback Fred Smoot and free safety Darren Sharper to the roster last offseason.

For the second consecutive spring, the Vikings acquired defensive personnel who will help improve the stop unit. Perhaps the most important piece is weakside linebacker Chad Greenway, who is already slated as a starter. Greenway, the team's No. 1 pick in April's draft, has the talent to become a force in this league. Strongside linebacker Ben Leber will also help.

One thing the Vikings need to do is generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They registered 34 sacks last season, and 7 of those came from Lance Johnstone, who is no longer with the squad. James and former No. 1 pick Kenechi Udeze need to do a better job at defensive end. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams also needs to step up; he had 12 sacks in 2004 but saw that number dwindle down to four.

An improved pass rush -- which should materialize because the three former first-round selections on the defensive line will each have one more year of experience -- will assist a secondary that collected 24 interceptions in 2005. Although starting corners Smoot and Antonie Winfield didn't play up to their potential last season, they should be able to rebound with a new coaching staff. Cedric Griffin and second-year Dustin Fox will provide depth at the position. Sharper, who joins Dwight Smith at safety, led the team with nine interceptions.

The Vikings' defense still has some issues, especially at linebacker, but it should be better than it was in 2005.

Schedule and Intangibles: Minnesota is just 4-25 when playing outdoors the past four seasons. Remarkably, three of those victories came at Lambeau Field. The other was against the Giants. ... Mediocre kicker Paul Edinger was replaced with former Packer Ryan Longwell, who was just 13-of-20 from beyond 30 yards. Perhaps kicking indoors will help the 32-year-old. ... Mike Tice was brutal, but is new head coach Brad Childress any better? Childress has no head coaching experience, and despite being the offensive coordinator with the Eagles, he didn't call the plays. ... The Vikings have a few challenging non-divisional contests in 2006, including: Washington, Carolina, Seattle, New England and Miami. At least they get to play the Packers and Lions twice.

Analysis: Because the teams in the NFC East and the NFC South will cannibalize each other, the Vikings should be able to sneak into the playoffs.

Projection: 10-6 (2nd in the NFC North).

Detroit Lions (Last Year: 5-11).
Major Additions:
QB Jon Kitna, QB Josh McCown, OT Jonathan Scott, OT Courtney Van Buren, G Rex Tucker, OLB Ernie Sims, S Daniel Bullocks.
Major Subtractions:
QB Joey Harrington, QB Jeff Garcia, G Kyle Kosier, DT Dan Wilkinson, MLB Earl Holmes, CB R.W. McQuarters, CB Andre Goodman,

Offense This Year: Joey Harrington had the likes of Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Jones and Marcus Pollard at his disposal, yet he only threw for 2,021 yards and maintained a mediocre quarterback rating of 72.0. Thus, the Lions made the right move when they jettisoned the former No. 3 overall pick. Head coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Ted Tollner were also booted out of the Motor City.

It seems as though the desperate moves general manager Matt Millen made will pay off. New head man Rod Marinelli is instilling his tough demeanor, which neither Mariucci nor Marty Mornhinweg ever had. The new offensive play-caller is Mike Martz, whose elaborate schemes will bring the Lions out of the Stone Ages. Replacing Harrington and Jeff Garcia will be the duo of Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. The former, who is currently slated to be the starter, will not make as many mistakes as Harrington was responsible for the past couple of years. Kitna is not a long-term solution, but he has the ability to be a solid signal caller until the Lions find a franchise quarterback.

Kitna will have the same weapons Harrington had the pleasure of utilizing. The receiving corps is stocked with three former first-round selections, although the disruptive Rogers (2003) may not be with the team much longer. For Detroit to have any kind of success, Roy Williams needs to stay healthy; he registered 687 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 contests. However, he was hobbled during the majority of the games he played. The tight end position is fine with Pollard (46 rec., 516 yards, 3 TDs); while Jones, the starting running back, is one year removed from totaling 1,133 yards.

One area that will give Detroit problems is the offensive front. The guards -- Rick DeMulling and Damien Woody -- are fine, but offensive tackles Jeff Backus and Kelly Butler leave much to be desired. The Lions spent a pick on tackle Jonathan Scott, who may not be ready to take over for Butler until 2007.

Defense This Year: Just one year after being ranked ninth against the run, Detroit's defense regressed and was seeded 22nd in that category. The Lions were also guilty of managing only 31 sacks and surrendering 27 or more points on five occasions. I would like to tell you that Millen scoured the free-agent market and acquired lots of available defensive talent, but I can't do that. In fact, Millen made no significant moves on the defensive side of the ball, outside of the 2006 draft. The stop unit was so bad that the team's first two picks -- weakside linebacker Ernie Sims and free safety Daniel Bullocks -- are already penciled in as starters.

As you would expect, no portion of Detroit's defense is that good. Excluding defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, the line is very pedestrian; fellow tackle Shaun Cody is unproven; while the defensive-end rotation of Cory Redding, James Hall and Kalimba Edwards produced just 13 combined sacks in 2005.

The front seven is rounded out by Sims, middle linebacker Teddy Lehman and Boss Bailey, who plays strongside. Lehman is a young, talented player, but Bailey has been described as a sloth who neither works hard nor cares how his team fares.

Cornerback Dre' Bly led the team in interceptions with six, but is joined by mediocre Fernando Bryant. As for Bly, he may get a lot of picks, but he also gets burnt often. Playing next to Bullocks at strong safety is Kenoy Kennedy, who is notorious for being a fierce hitter. But that doesn't mean he excels in pass coverage.

Schedule and Intangibles: Eddie Drummond is a great returner, and since the Lions get to play against him in practice, you would think they could prevent other teams from scoring. However, that is far from true; Detroit surrendered two punt returns and one kickoff return for touchdowns. ... Jason Hanson, who has been a reliable kicker his entire career, was just 6-of-11 from beyond 40 yards in 2005. Perhaps the fact that he turned 36 in June had something to do with it. ... Although Detroit finished 5-11 last year, the team has a number of tough foes on the slate, including: Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, New England and Dallas. However, the Lions get to beat up on Buffalo, San Francisco and the Jets.

Additional Reading: Military Marinelli

Analysis: Under Marinelli, the Lions will be better than they were last year, and will not get blown out as often. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Projection: 5-11 (3rd in the NFC North).

Green Bay Packers (Last Year: 4-12).
Major Additions:
WR Marc Boerigter, WR Greg Jennings, G Daryn Colledge, C Jason Spitz, DT Ryan Pickett, OLB A.J. Hawk, OLB Ben Taylor, CB Charles Woodson, CB Will Blackmon, S Marquand Manuel, K Billy Cundiff.
Major Subtractions:
WR Javon Walker, WR Antonio Chatman, OT Kevin Barry, G Grey Ruegamer, C Mike Flanagan, DT Grady Jackson, OLB Na'il Diggs, S Earl Little, K Ryan Longwell.

Offense This Year: Just one season after scoring 26.5 points per game, Green Bay's offense sputtered in 2005, as the team saw that number plummet down to 18.6. The main reason for this drop was the disintegration of the offensive line; stud guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle defected for other squads, leaving the mediocre pair of Grey Ruegamer and Matt O'Dwyer to block for Brett Favre and Ahman Green. The latter couldn't find any running lanes and consequently gained only 3.3 yards per carry. Favre, meanwhile, threw a career-high 29 interceptions because he was constantly under pressure.

Ruegamer and O'Dwyer are history, which means the Packers' offensive line has improved, right? Not a chance. The two average linemen have been replaced by rookie Daryn Colledge and Junius Coston, who was a fifth-round pick in 2005. To make matters worse, center Mike Flanagan left via the free-agent market, creating a battle for the starting position between Scott Wells and rookie Jason Spitz. I'm very confident in stating that Favre, who turns 37 in October, will throw at least 30 picks, while an oft-injured Green will continue to struggle.

Not everything is a mess, however. Receiver Javon Walker is no longer with the team, but Favre still has Donald Driver (1,221 yards, 5 TDs), Robert Ferguson and Bubba Franks as targets. The offensive-tackle tandem of Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher is a potent one. And... that's about it. The Packers won't be able to score more than 16 points per game in 2006.

Defense This Year: While Green Bay's offense has gotten progressively worse the past few years, the defense has improved. In 2004, the Packers surrendered 4.7 yards per carry, and maintained one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. However, the team yielded only 3.9 yards per rush in 2005, and limited the opposition to 2,680 passing yards. In fact, Green Bay permitted 20 or less points nine times. There was the occasional 48-point blunder against Baltimore, but that occurred when the season was essentially over.

The most important thing that the Packers did was select A.J. Hawk in the first round. Hawk, a devastating linebacker for Ohio State, will be a cornerstone in Green Bay's defense for years to come. The Packers also signed Charles Woodson, a shut-down corner, just hours after Favre announced that he would be back for the 2006 campaign. Another positive was retaining defensive end Aaron Kampman, who combined with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to produce 14 sacks.

That said, the Packers still have numerous holes on defense. The newest is at defensive tackle, formerly occupied by run-stuffer Grady Jackson; Green Bay foolishly replaced him with underachiever Ryan Pickett this offseason. Weakside linebacker Ben Taylor, another acquisition, is not good enough to start in this league. There is still a void at strong safety (Marquand Manuel), while cornerback Al Harris is threatening to hold out.

Schedule and Intangibles: Mike McCarthy has replaced Mike Sherman as head coach. I'm not really sure why Green Bay hired McCarthy; after all, he was the offensive coordinator for the 49ers, who scored just 14.9 points per game in 2005. This looks like yet another mistake made by the organization. ... The Packers are 87-25 at home since 1992, but they are only 12-12 at Lambeau the past three seasons. Furthermore, they are just 1-2 in home playoff games since 2002, after going unscathed in franchise history. ... Kicker Ryan Longwell has been replaced by Billy Cundiff, who was 5-of-8 last year. ... Making matters worse for the Packers, they have to battle Philadelphia, Miami, New England and Seattle. Three winnable contests are against Buffalo, San Francisco and the Jets.

Analysis: It's hard to imagine that a 4-12 team actually found a way to regress. But the Packers somehow managed to do it.

Projection: 2-14 (4th in the NFC North).

2000 Season Preview
2001 Season Preview
2002 Season Preview
2003 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards

2004 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2005 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2006 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

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