There's arguably no NFL division with more juice entering the 2021 season than the NFC North. Not only does the quartet boast the reigning conference runner-up in the Packers, who also happen to have the league's most dramatic storyline considering Aaron Rodgers' uncertain future. It also features the Bears, who finally have a new franchise quarterback waiting to debut; the Vikings, who are due for a rebound with a restocked Mike Zimmer defense; and the Lions, who are entering an entirely new rebuild.
As we look ahead to the 2021 campaign, here are three questions each of the North's four teams must answer before kickoff:
How long is Andy Dalton's leash?
Chicago has made almost as many headlines doubling down on Dalton's job security as QB1 than it did trading up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall. But the Bears need to be honest with themselves going into Week 1: Is this actually Dalton's job to lose, and if so, what will it take for the ex-Cowboys backup to do so? Would an 0-3 start (very possible) be enough? The answer may determine whether the Bears stay in the wild-card mix or enter 2022 with the same staff and front office.
Is the offensive line playoff-caliber?
The trenches aren't getting enough attention in Windy City. Yes, it's great that the Bears swung big for their QB (even though they're set to play small ball out of the gate with Dalton under center). But Chicago had better have a good read on its starting five, including rookie Teven Jenkins, when making QB plans. If it remains a genuine concern, wouldn't it almost behoove them to roll with the more mobile Fields? Alternatively, perhaps they'd rather not let their prized first-rounder take a beating if he doesn't have to? If this seems almost impossible to answer, that's because a real concern.
Who are the top pass targets (besides you know who)?
There are other pressing issues on defense (like, who's starting opposite Jaylon Johnson? and, is Robert Quinn awake?). But considering 2021 is all about what happens at QB for this team, it'd be nice to know who's gonna be asked to scare opponents other than Allen Robinson. Bears fans will point to Darnell Mooney, which is reasonable, but the rest of the bunch is awfully uninspiring. Anthony Miller, an unwanted man in town? Marquise Goodwin, who hasn't played in years? Someone needs to show up in camp.
Does Jared Goff have any chance of keeping the No. 1 QB job?
Maybe it doesn't have to be answered before Week 1, but it'd sure be ideal. We all know Detroit isn't fully committing to the ex-Rams standout with all kinds of future draft picks in its arsenal, but it might be helpful to know, going into 2021, whether team brass actually believes Goff can win a long-term commitment, or if he even has the adequate supporting cast to do it this year. Answering the question does nothing for the Lions' 2021 win total, but it does help frame the bigger-picture movement for a team with its sights set farther down the road.
What is an acceptable win total?
Again, this almost can't be accurately answered before the season, because you never know how games and divisions and playoff races will actually play out. There's also a difference between a hard-fought 5-12 and an apathetic 8-9. A better question might be, What does Dan Campbell have to do to inspire confidence as a head coach? Detroit isn't concerned with winning in 2021 as much as rebuilding its culture for the long haul, but there's got to be a general benchmark for the trial run.
What is 2021 all about?
As you can see, none of the Lions' questions have much to do with their roster, save for the QB spot. Because everyone and their mother, including those employed by the Lions, is aware that the current lineup is an unfinished product of an overhaul. But much like it'd be ideal to have a general expectation for the new coach, it'll be key for Detroit to somehow define what it's trying to be -- what it's really trying to accomplish -- entering such a blatant transition year, even if the season itself is unpredictable.
Is Aaron Rodgers the quarterback?
Seems pretty important. In fact, there isn't really a more pressing question in the entire NFL. With A-Rod, the Packers are essentially the same team that's come within one win of the Super Bowl in two straight years. Without him, they are ... a total unknown, thrust from the top of the NFC to an alternate dimension, in which apparent Rodgers successor Jordan Love takes over after playing zero snaps as a rookie. If Green Bay hasn't appeased Rodgers by Week 1, whether with a new deal, a new front office or renewed say in his Packers future, it's hard to believe he'll show up at all. So the clock is ticking. Either the Pack can accommodate their man, whatever that means, or they can enter the year with a franchise legend spiting the franchise. But they need to have this settled before the games begin and the NFC North crown is already within reach of rival hands.
Does the QB have enough support for a title run?
Presumably, if it's Rodgers, the reigning MVP believes Green Bay does have enough firepower to warrant a return. (Or maybe not, considering a new contract or GM might also do the trick.) But whether it's Rodgers or Love or even Blake Bortles (gulp) under center, the Packers have the reputation of an NFC contender; not only that, but the roster. They've sniffed the Super Bowl for two straight years. But is their wide receiver depth -- now featuring rookie Amari Rodgers -- enough to go the distance? And are the new O-line pieces -- namely new center Josh Myers -- trustworthy? If not, the Packers will either need to get creative with some last-minute veteran gambles or adjust expectations entirely. Obviously, Rodgers' situation dictates so much of this, but it also works the other way; if Green Bay, for whatever reason, isn't truly convinced it can win it all with this year's assembly, even with A-Rod, perhaps the move to Love becomes just a little bit easier to swallow.
Who's starting opposite Jaire Alexander?
The Packers don't have a ton of other questions (besides the biggest one in the NFL), but they could stand to have an answer at cornerback. Alexander is a stud, but Kevin King isn't a lock to reprise his role on the outside, nor should he be. That said, can rookie Eric Stokes do enough to steal the job out of the gate? This is a big X-factor for the defense.
Is Danielle Hunter fully healthy?
No one could've predicted the Pro Bowl pass rusher would miss the entire 2020 season with a neck injury. And boy did it hurt Mike Zimmer's defense. Hunter is still underrated as one of the game's most freakishly gifted edge defenders, and his return bodes extremely well for a defensive turnaround. Minnesota had just better hope he's all the way back to form, because the defensive line, while beefed up on the interior, remains relatively thin off the edges.
Is Christian Darrisaw ready to start at left tackle?
Because the Vikings are banking on that being the case, parting ways with Riley Reiff and spending the 23rd pick on the Virginia Tech product. Darrisaw was arguably a steal at that spot, but Minnesota needs to be sure he's prepared considering how important the line is to both Kirk Cousins' comfort as a play-action specialist and Dalvin Cook's role as offensive centerpiece. The alternative, at this point, isn't obvious, but that doesn't lessen the urgency here.
Do the veteran cornerbacks still have it?
Zimmer's "D" is due for a noticeable rebound, but that's dependent on a couple things: One, Hunter staying healthy up front; and two, the experienced new faces bringing more than just experience. We're talking chiefly about Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland, the safest bets to start throughout 2021 alongside Cameron Dantzler; as well as, to a lesser degree, returning familiar face Mackensie Alexander. If they look just serviceable, the Vikings can enter the year confident.