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Ask a former NFL player: Which team can challenge the Bears in the NFC North this year?

In this week’s mailbag, retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz checks in on an NFC North “sleeper,” the Bengals’ offensive line, and Jason Garrett’s job status.

Kirk Cousins and Mitchell Trubisky, shaking hands
Kirk Cousins’ second year in Minnesota looks more promising.

All right folks, we are getting there. The third week of preseason games is upon us and the season will be starting before we know it.

Let’s get right into this week’s mailbag, after this reminder: If you have a question you’d like me to answer next time, hit me up on Twitter or Instagram.

Hey Geoff! Big question for ya: How do you think the NFC North will end this year? I’m anxious to see how the Packers do with a first-year head coach, but I don’t see the Bears’ defense falling off very much with [Vic] Fangio leaving. — @SEMI_PROffer

This is a tough division to predict, and I think I’m going with a “sleeper” team in the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings’ defense will always be legit with Mike Zimmer at the helm. The last three years, the Vikings’ defensive DVOA has ranked eighth, second, and fourth, according to Football Outsiders.

The issue for them is on offense, which underperformed under Kirk Cousins last season. This year, they will be better. For one, they’ve improved their offensive line with the drafting of Garrett Bradbury to play center.

Second, and this is most important, I LOVE what I’m hearing from Cousins and their offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, about adding more play-action passing into the offense. Play-action passing is amazing, and Cousins is good at it. It makes sense they’d do it more often.

After the Vikings, the Chicago Bears are probably the best bet, but I’m a tad down on them. First, I don’t exactly like the tone of how people have discussed Mitchell Trubisky in training camp. We shouldn’t be hearing much negative at this point in his career, but then we get reports that Matt Nagy has pulled back on the offense. On defense, clearly this unit will be elite, but the departure of Fangio as defensive coordinator will hurt. He’s an outstanding defensive mind, and I don’t think we can discount his loss.

I’m not sure what to make of the Packers yet. I haven’t seen much from them this preseason. I don’t think the Lions will contend for the division either. So, I like the Vikings in the NFC North.

The Bengals are still rotating LG, C, and even moving some of those guys that are competing at LG/C to RG and OT as backups. Now that three preseason games are in the books for them, shouldn’t it be figured out by now? At what point would an offensive lineman want to know who’s playing next to him and what position he’s playing? Could chemistry be an issue going into the regular season? @JoeGoodberry

The easy answers would be: yes, sooner than later, and yes. But there are many things to consider.

Ideally, you’d like to have your unit set before camp, but competition is always going to happen. Multiple offensive line rotations clearly means you’re worried about the talent on the line and trying to find the “right” unit. This is typically what practice is for, which there is far less of now.

With veteran linemen, it’s easier for them to rotate. They are used to it and most of them have done that at some point. For younger guys, it’s tough. Your head is swimming, and now you have to switch positions in the middle of a game.

I don’t know if this answers the question well enough, but this is a nuanced discussion and one we might not have real answers to until the season begins.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is it that Jerry Jones fires Jason Garrett after this year? — @cmigbear

I think this is low, around a 2. Barring injuries, the Cowboys should win nine or 10 games. That puts them in the playoffs, which means he’s not getting fired. Let’s say the season goes sideways, again assuming everyone is healthy, and they go 7-9. I still think it’s fairly low because Garrett is the perfect coach for Jerry Jones.

He lets Jones have the shine when things are going well and Garrett takes the blame when things are going poorly. He doesn’t seem to mind that Jerry gets all the attention and he’s more than happy to just be Jerry’s guy. I think Jones loves that. There’s no drama with Garrett, either. It’s a perfect match.