2017 NFL season preview: Packers still class of NFC North

The Green Bay Packers got within one game of the Super Bowl last season and should once again be a championship contender and the class of the NFC North.

The signings of free agents Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks give Green Bay a dangerous tight ends group to go with Richard Rodgers. The Packers also used their first four draft picks on defensive players and selected three running backs late to add depth behind converted receiver Ty Montgomery.

What places the Packers head and shoulders above everyone else in the division is quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was imperious once again as he led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes last season.

The Minnesota Vikings, and their stellar defense, will be Green Bay's main competition in the division. But it is hard to see Minnesota preventing the Packers from claiming their sixth NFC North title in seven years.


Player to watch: Ty Montgomery, RB, Packers -- Montgomery began the 2016 season as a wide receiver, but injuries forced him into the switch to running back. He ran for 457 yards and three touchdowns, with a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. He has been a full-time running back through the offseason and training camp, so it will be interesting to see how well he adapts to being Green Bay's starter.

Impact rookie: Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings -- Cook looked impressive in preseason as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry. The Vikings need a strong running back to ease the pressure on quarterback Sam Bradford if they are to have any chance of overtaking the Packers and second-round pick Cook seems to fit the bill.

Coach on the hot seat: Jim Caldwell, Lions -- The Detroit Lions went 9-7 and sneaked into the playoffs last season, but it was not exactly an impressive playoff year. The Lions needed eight come-from-behind victories and change could be in store if they fail to reach the postseason in Caldwell's fourth campaign in charge.

Falling: Lions -- The Lions are still heavily reliant on Matthew Stafford's right arm and did not do much to upgrade a defense that ranked 18th overall in 2016.

Rising: Jordan Howard, RB, Bears -- Chicago's pass offense still has plenty of question marks and the Bears might still finish last in the division, but they are a million miles away from playoff contention. Howard was a surprise, finishing second in the NFL with 1,313 rushing yards as a rookie and figures to the focal point of Chicago's attack.

Circle this game on the schedule: Vikings at Packers, Dec. 23 -- The Saturday game on Christmas weekend could be huge if the Vikings are in a position to challenge the Packers for the division title.

Predicted order of finish:

Green Bay       12-4 (No. 1 seed, Super Bowl champions)
Minnesota       10-6
Detroit              6-10
Chicago           5-11

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