With training camp right around the corner, most of the more notable offseason transactions have taken place within the NFC North as all four teams look toward the 2018 season. With a large number of significant additions and subtractions in mind, today begins a three-part series ranking the division’s positional groups.
Today’s feature looks at offense, where each offensive line hopes to bounce back from injuries and disappointments in 2017 and the skill positions have gained a few household names. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ offense particularly hopes to return to its explosive ways with the development of a run game and stability on the right side of the offensive line.
With a future Hall-of-Famer and two-time MVP under center, Green Bay still leads the division with its quarterback group. On top of Aaron Rodgers, the Packers added a capable young backup to groom in DeShone Kizer and have a player returning with starting experience in Brett Hundley to battle with undrafted free agent Tim Boyle. Quality starter and positional depth for Green Bay here.
Adding Kirk Cousins stabilizes the Minnesota quarterback room for the foreseeable future, but Cousins has always been that one quarterback on the verge of greatness without making it over the top. It’s hard to envision Cousins having a better season than Case Keenum had last year, but even a replica would put Minnesota in position to challenge for an NFC crown. Minnesota and Denver basically swapped Keenum for Trevor Siemian in the offseason, giving the Vikings a seasoned spot starter behind Cousins.
Over the past three seasons, Matthew Stafford has cut down on his interceptions while posting the three highest completion percentages of his career. Stafford is still averaging around 4,300 yards through the air without great run support or being kept upright consistently. Behind Stafford is the the journeyman Matt Cassel and unproven third-year player Jake Rudock.
The development of Mitchell Trubisky in year two will play a key factor in these rankings for years to come. But for now, a cast of Trubisky, Chase Daniel, and Tyler Bray brings up the rear in the NFC North rankings.
Until any one player in the NFC North eclipses the 1,000-yard mark in back-to-back seasons like Jordan Howard has, it’s hard to place a running back group on top of the Bears. Though Howard didn’t have as good of yardage numbers as a sophomore, he still proved to be a quality back, especially later in the season. Small-school product Tarik Cohen offers a good change of pace option in addition to returning skills.
Dalvin Cook was on his way to NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors before a torn ACL in week four. He figures to be in the mix to start again in year two, along with Latavius Murray who gained 842 yards on the ground in Cook’s absence. This unit loses an all-purpose player in Jerick McKinnon, but should see a noticeable boost from Cook’s return.
Ranking the running back groups was difficult because each team is looking for a player to break out. The Packers are no different, with their group being ranked more on the sum of its parts than any one individual. Still, Aaron Jones looks like a potential home run hitter with Jamaal Williams providing that bruising, short-yardage presence. Ty Montgomery also figures to help as a pass catcher out of the backfield if he can avoid the injury bug.
For years, Detroit has been hoping to see a draft pick, or even a free agent signing, blossom into a consistent back. Detroit hopes Kerryon Johnson can eventually become that guy, but makes up one part of a running-back-by-committee tandem right now. Signee LeGarrette Blount should be the bellcow for Detroit with Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah helping on passing downs.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Minnesota gets the edge here from its proven impact players at both positions. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have become game-changing receivers that are emerging as two of the best in the NFL. Kyle Rudolph posted a 500-plus receiving yard season last year and the Vikings are hoping that former first round pick Laquon Treadwell or one of the free agent signings in Tavarres King and Kendall Wright emerges as a legitimate number three receiver.
Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both joined the 1,000 yard club last season, with Jones posted an eye-opening 18 yards per catch. The Lions’ offensive system relies on those two heavily, but also saw rookie Kenny Golladay average 17 yards per reception on 28 catches. The development of Golladay and T.J. Jones will be something to watch in Detroit this season. But the loss of Eric Ebron at the tight end position, despite his drop issues, will hurt this unit without a clear replacement.
This is a conservative ranking based on several unknowns. On paper, the additions of Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis should bolster the tight end group considerably and provide a significant veteran presence. Chemistry with Rodgers takes time, however. Losing trusty Jordy Nelson will be felt, but Davante Adams and Randall Cobb bring years of experience with the QB. Still, this unit will be looking for a third receiver to emerge between Geronimo Allison and the trio of rookies.
Similar to the Packers, the Bears have a lot of new names on the roster. Chicago overhauled its receiving corps, bringing in Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel through free agency and Anthony Miller via the draft. Former top ten pick Kevin White could be a dark horse player to watch if healthy. At tight end, the Bears signed Trey Burton and will look for improvement from last year’s second round pick Adam Shaheen. With a young quarterback at the helm and almost a brand new pass catching cast, this is a wait-and-see group.
The Bears have had some excellent draft pickups over the past five years, netting left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. and center Cody Whitehair. They added to that group with James Daniels in the second round this year and hope the rookie can fill in at guard after playing center in college. Kyle Long and Bobby Massie make up a solid right side of a line that figures to play a large role in the running game and protecting Trubisky in 2018.
Last year’s 51 sacks allowed is misleading with the team’s young, inconsistent quarterback play and injuries along the line. David Bakhtiari still has not received the attention he’s due after another stellar 2017 season at left tackle. Meanwhile, Corey Linsley started all 16 games last season and Lane Taylor started 15 while not being penalized once. The right side of the line is the alarming question mark with Bryan Bulaga’s status up in the air. Justin McCray looks to have the early lead for the right guard position, but a mix of Byron Bell, Kyle Murphy, and Jason Spriggs should battle for spot start duty at tackle and guard.
Detroit’s pass protection should be much better than the 47 sacks allowed last season after adding Frank Ragnow in the first round and getting a healthy Taylor Decker back at left tackle. Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang make up a solid starting right side for the Lions when healthy and, though this is still an “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of group, Detroit should be much better in 2018 with few holes on the line.
This group was absolutely bitten by the injury bug last season, but it kept chugging along. A unit that used seven different starting combinations only allowed 27 sacks and provided for almost 2,000 rushing yards. No starter graded out all that well, however, and the line remains a question mark heading into 2018. Riley Reiff will return at left tackle and Mike Remmers and Pat Elflein will be interior starters at guard and center, respectively. But right tackle is a major unsettled position with Rashod Hill and second round pick Brian O’Neill battling it out in training camp.