The NFC North could be in for a whirlwind of change in 2021. At least two of the four teams in the division figure to turn to new quarterbacks at some point this year, and depending on what happens in Green Bay, a third could be making the biggest QB transition of the entire league. Between the Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings, there’s plenty of drama to go around entering the new season.
With that in mind, here’s a look at one major burning question for each team in the North:
Bears: How soon will Justin Fields take over?Justin Fields
No one except for maybe coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace is buying the charade that Andy Dalton, who hasn’t been a winning NFL starter since he was throwing to Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu with the 2015 Bengals, is a sizable upgrade over Nick Foles or Mitchell Trubisky. But unless Fields really shows out in training camp, all signs point to Dalton — the veteran stopgap — opening the year under center.
The Bears face a tough road to playoff contention regardless of who’s throwing passes. They’ve still got questions in the trenches, their receiver depth is lacking, and they’ve downgraded at cornerback. But the inevitable turn to Fields, who brings more juice and physical talent than any QB they’ve had in years, will mark a pivotal change of direction for the franchise. It could help inject life into this unpredictable season, not to mention extend ownership’s leash on Nagy and Pace. More likely, it would open the door for Chicago to restart the process of building around a bona fide signal-caller.
Lions: Can Jared Goff survive the rebuild?Jared Goff
Like the Bears, the Lions acquired a potential long-term QB this offseason. Unlike the Bears, however, they gained assets by doing so, in part because Goff is considered more of a reclamation project than legitimate investment entering 2021. The ex-Rams standout is just 26 and has ties to Lions brass, so he’s guaranteed a shot at surprising detractors and making Detroit’s transition from Matthew Stafford less painful. But the reality is he’s all but on borrowed time as the throw-in of a deal headlined by two future first-round picks — trade chips that could ultimately be used to secure his replacement.
Detroit should be scrappy this year, having added to the trenches and inherited some true grit from new coach Dan Campbell. And yet Goff will undoubtedly be under more pressure to lift up his teammates than he ever was in Los Angeles. The Lions’ O-line is probably a tad underrated, but throwing to Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman is a lot different than throwing to Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods with Sean McVay in your headset. If he’s just OK, and the Lions stumble their way into another top-10 pick as expected, Detroit can get out of his contract in 2022 and gain salary cap space. So the clock is ticking.
Packers: Will Aaron Rodgers stick around?Aaron Rodgers
Did you really think it would be something different? Green Bay didn’t go above and beyond to upgrade its NFC championship roster this offseason, most notably opting to re-sign Aaron Jones while letting Corey Linsley cash in elsewhere. But as long as Rodgers is in tow, they’re a Super Bowl contender. The Rodgers-Matt LaFleur duo hasn’t gone 28-8 since 2019 (playoffs included) by accident. Without the reigning NFL MVP, they’d obviously be an entirely different animal: A well-rounded team with a total unknown under center — most likely 2020 first-rounder Jordan Love, who entered the league as more of an untamed arm and has yet to take a single snap in the pros.
It’s no secret that Rodgers is unhappy in Green Bay at the moment. Countless reports have indicated he’s discontent — with Packers management, their surprise investment in Love, their financial commitment to him (or lack thereof) — to the point of desiring a change of scenery. Whether it’s a real possibility he gets his wish depends on who you ask. CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco thinks Rodgers will be forced to either suit up or sit out, but that Green Bay will not cave to his demands. Joel Corry, meanwhile, doesn’t foresee the Pack deviating from their apparent plan to save money and turn to Love by 2022, which could spawn a future trade. Either way, a resolution is the only way to accurately project what lies ahead for the Packers this year.
Vikings: Can Mike Zimmer’s defense return to form?Mike Zimmer
You could make a case that Minnesota’s QB situation also belongs on the burning question list. Kirk Cousins has long been a solid but unspectacular starter, mirroring Zimmer and the Vikings as things that rarely bottom out but also rarely win huge games. And the new presence of third-round pick Kellen Mond, a 2021 motivational tool and potential 2022 challenger, adds some long-awaited juice to the position. But let’s assume Cousins remains a top-15 QB entering a crucial season alongside a reinforced O-line, stud play-maker in Dalvin Cook, and underrated receiving corps headlined by Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. That leaves the onus on Zimmer’s once-vaunted defense to step up and return Minnesota to the playoffs.
In his first season without handpicked coordinator George Edwards, Zimmer struggled to milk his preferred unit of its trademark production in 2020. After five straight finishes as a top-10 defense, the Vikings plummeted to No. 27 while battling injuries to veterans like Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. Now, they’ve swapped out some solid parts (Eric Wilson, Anthony Harris) for others (Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson). And they’ll be tasked with keeping the ball in Minnesota’s run-first hands. Like the rest of the North, the Vikings don’t have a cakewalk of a schedule en route to a hopeful return to the postseason, but if their “D” can at least partially return to form, they have the pieces for a winning season.