Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
SIRI, tell me who is good in the NFC.
As the NFL gets back to work next week with the beginning of training camp, we will start the process of figuring out which teams appear ready to compete for a Super Bowl and which teams would be lucky to hang around in the race.
Every franchise can argue that everything is going great when they’re drafting and signing players but once they get rolling in training camp and we see the actual product on the field, things become a little more clear. For example, we find out how much key rookies will realistically impact each team and get an idea of how healthy they’re going to be to start the year. Those aspects alone can give us pretty good hints at where things are going.
This will be a welcome feeling since last year’s August intrigue was covered with a wet COVID blanket and the NFC is wide open this year. In 2020, camp opened late and preseason games were canceled, leaving everyone to go into the season feeling blind about what the league would look like. Heck, Justin Jefferson didn’t even have enough time leading up to the season to prove he could start at outside wide receiver for the Vikings.
Even with COVID concerns still lurking, things are back to normal with camp and preseason and we have a lot to figure out in the NFC before Week 1.
For starters, who is playing quarterback for the Packers, Bears, Saints and 49ers?
If you think of the Aaron Rodgers drama through the lens of Vikings fans, it must be like waiting for Christmas Day to come and then not being sure if you’re getting any presents.
If Rodgers shows up to Packers camp after a summer of flirting with the idea he might retire rather than return to Green Bay, the Vikings get coal in their stocking and are relegated to once again chasing the Packers for the NFC North. That means everything in camp will be about whether the roster looks strong enough to track down the Packers. Green Bay will be considered a Super Bowl-caliber team and the presumptive North champ while the Vikings will start off with expectations of a wild card spot.
If Jordan Love is under center, everything is different. While he might turn out to be a good quarterback someday, Pro Football Focus looked at how much expectations would drop from Rodgers to Love and the answer is a lot. They would go from an 81% chance at the playoffs and 11% odds for the Super Bowl with Rodgers down to 41% for the postseason and 1.5% in the Super Bowl.
The problem when predicting Love’s Packers is that nobody knows if Love can play. If the second-year QB is in charge in Green Bay, Packers preseason games will become must-watch for folks across the border.
In the Windy City, the Bears have a different type of QB conundrum. They signed Andy Dalton to be a bridge to their next quarterback and then traded up to pick Justin Fields from Ohio State. You would think that Fields would easily get the nod over a QB who has gone 24-40-1 with a 86.5 QB rating since 2016 but coach Matt Nagy has indicated that Dalton is QB1 to start camp.
The Bears have shown over the last few years that they can still find ways to win despite poor QB play, making the playoffs twice with Mitch Trubisky and winning two key games that eliminated (or mostly eliminated) the Vikings from playoff contention. With competent play from Dalton, they might have a chance to be a shade better than with the rook but Fields represents a much more exciting future.
The Vikings would prefer to see the Bears start Dalton until the wheels come off and have Fields get a late start to his rookie season because if the rookie wins the job right away, it means he’s shown something in camp. Considering he runs a 4.4 and throws laserbeams, the thought of him flashing greatness right away would be concerning to NFC North foes.
Similarly, we have no idea who is going to start at QB for the 49ers when they face off against the Vikings midway through 2021. Can Trey Lance beat Jimmy Garoppolo for a starting job having played just once since 2019? How would his mobility and deep throwing fit with Kyle Shanahan?
And we don’t yet know if the Saints would really start Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston for 17 games -- or if they can fight for a playoff position with either.
These are just some of the things we don’t know yet about the Vikings’ competitors for postseason spots.
There are plenty more. What will the Falcons’ offense look like under a new head coach? Does Sam Darnold appear to be better when out from under Adam Gase? Do the Detroit Lions look more capable now that Matt Patricia is gone? Is Jalen Hurts a starting QB? How is Dak Prescott bouncing back from his severe injury? Can Ryan Fitzpatrick finally take a team into the playoffs? Is Daniel Jones ready to take the next step with an improved group of weapons?
The thing about all of these questions is that they will set the stage for what the Vikings are up against this year. The NFC is expected to have a down year with the retirement of Drew Brees and possible exit of Rodgers but there are plenty of things that could fall into place that would make the path a lot more difficult.
The preseason won’t tell us all the answers, but it will give us hints. And with a Vikings team that is in the mix with plenty of questions remaining, we will be looking for all the hints we can get.