As we move into the OTA and mini-camp season, let’s take an early look at the starting rosters among NFC North teams, which could still see a few changes as position battles in training camp play out, and yet are pretty well established overall.
Overall Pro Football Focus (PFF) Grades
Below is a comparison of PFF grades by position for every team in the NFC North. This is for nickel/3WR situations, which these days account for more snaps than base units. For each team there could be a few differences from what some are projecting, but for the most part these are not big differences. For example, perhaps a rookie will start instead of a below average or worse veteran after training camp battles have been completed.
Also, I used the PFF average rating of 70 for rookies, instead of no grade as is normally done, to get a better comparison of across the board among the four teams.
Perhaps the most surprising stat in comparing NFC North teams is that the Chicago Bears have the best average grade. To be honest I had to double-check that, but it’s accurate. That comes not from having the best players, but a relative lack of poor ones - notice not so much red in the Bears column. It also reflects perhaps some improvement via free agency this off-season for the Bears as well.
Overall, after the Bears, the Vikings have the 2nd highest average PFF player grade, then the Packers, with the Lions last. Given that, last year’s division standings seem to correlate better with QB rating than average player rating, which stands to reason somewhat in a QB-driven league.
Let’s turn now to look at each team, their strengths and weaknesses, what looks improved for this season, and what may be worse.
Green Bay Packers
Quarterback. Aaron Rodgers has been a top 5 QB for many years, and that seems unlikely to change too much, although he’s not getting any younger and his offensive line isn’t getting any better.
Offensive tackles. Both David Bakhtiari and Brian Bulaga are coming off great years and are still in their prime.
Receivers. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and free-agent acquisition Martellus Bennett at TE are a solid trio. Beyond that, hard to say.
Defensive secondary. The Packers had the worst PFF-rated defensive secondary in the league last year, as injury and free-agent losses took their toll. Beyond that, both Quinton Rollins and Damarious Randall regressed substantially from their rookie years. The Packers used their top two draft picks to address this weakness, and brought back Davon House who had a poor year last season with Jacksonville, but overall this is unlikely to be a one-year fix.
Perhaps the defensive secondary. Being last in the league last year means there is only one way to go, but the Packers may start two rookies, and they seldom get better than average grades their first year- sometimes worse.
Offensive guards. Two years ago the Packers had the best guard duo in the league with Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. They’re both gone. That leaves Lane Taylor to start at left-guard and soon-to-be 34 year-old free agent Jahri Evans to start at right-guard. Both are downgrades from their predecessors, going from high-quality to average on both counts.
Quarterback. Matthew Stafford seems to have improved under the new offense installed by Jim-Bob (I may be crazy, but I ain’t dumb) Cooter, largely by limiting his mistakes, and looks to be solid going forward.
Offensive line. This is both a strength and upgrade this year. Decker and Wagner at tackles, and Lang and Swanson at G and C look pretty solid.
Receivers. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate have been on the downslide for a couple years now, and Eric Ebron and TJ Jones are poor.
Interior defense. I include the two defensive tackles and linebackers here, although Jarrad Davis should help improve that area. But Ngata has regressed substantially, Washington was never good, and Whitehead regressed substantially last year as well.
Offensive line. Wagner was an upgrade over Reiff at RT, and Lang arguably an upgrade over Warford.
Outside of Jarrad Davis at ILB, to replace Tulloch/Levy and the free-agency acquisition of RT Wagner, to replace Riley Reiff, there doesn’t appear to be any acquisitions likely to have much impact for the Lions this year.
Losing Anquan Boldin didn’t help the Lions’ receivers, but other than that, not much to downgrade either.
Interior offensive line. The Bears are similar to the Vikings in having the strength of their offensive line inside, and their’s is the better group overall.
Running back. Jordan Howard has emerged as a quality back for the Bears- 2nd overall in rushing yards last season and 4th best 5.2 yards per carry - and a little used receiving threat as well averaging over 10 yards a reception, but only about 2 receptions a game.
Quarterback. It looks like the plan for the Bears is to have Mike Glennon start and #2 overall draft pick Trubisky spend the year learning how to play QB at the NFL level. Not a bad strategy considering Trubisky only has basically one season of starts in college, but it remains to be seen if they stick to that or not. In any case, the Bears are the weakest in the division at QB, which is a clear disadvantage.
Too many average players. When it comes to match-ups, its hard to exploit anything with great success when much of your team and key position groups are about average. Conversely, the Bears could be susceptible to a strong opposing position group that could make a long day for, say, the Bears’ average receivers/QB/OTs should they face a team with strong edge pressure and defensive back position groups... like the Vikings.
Defensive secondary. The Bears signed safety Quinton Demps and CB Prince Amukamara to help shore up their pass defense, and hope Kyle Fuller will do OK at the other CB spot.
Wide-receiver. Losing Alshon Jeffrey hurt, especially as Kevin White has yet to do anything as a top 10 draft pick a couple years ago. Signing Kendall Wright as a slot receiver doesn’t make up for the loss.
Obviously the Vikings defense vs. Aaron Rodgers remains a key match-up. The key differences this season will be how well the Vikings secondary fares against largely the same receiver corps (Nelson, Cobb) and if the Vikings defensive front will be able to take advantage of the Packers’ losses at both guard positions.
Offensively for the Vikings, will the Vikings be able to take advantage of a weak spots in the defensive secondary for the Packers, how well will the Vikings new offensive line be able to protect Bradford and open lanes for Dalvin Cook?
Offensively for the Vikings, can they take advantage of a weak interior defense at DT and LB for the Lions? The Lions have 1st round pick Jarrad Davis, but not much else there. In the passing game, can the Vikings exploit weaknesses at nickel-corner and LB?
Defensively, can the Vikings defensive line keep Stafford in check against an improved Lions offensive line? Can the front seven keep the Lions from running the ball effectively?
Defensively, can the Vikings bring the edge pressure to pressure Glennon? Can the defensive front seven hold up better against Jordan Howard?
Offensively, can the Vikings take advantage of weak spots up front and in the secondary of the Bears defense? The Bears blitzed a fair amount in the first game last year, will the Vikings improved offensive line do a better job of picking it up this time?
A Note On Injuries
It’s worth noting that last year, the Vikings, Packers and Bears were all hit pretty well by the injury bug, while the Lions didn’t lose a starter until late in the season. That seems unlikely to be the case again this year, which has implications for the division race.
The Vikings had easily the best defense in the NFC North, whether measuring by yards or points allowed per game, or yards per play. In terms of points per game, the Vikings were 6th overall. Next were the Lions at 13th, the Packers at 21st, and the Bears last in the division at 24th.
The Packers had easily the best offense, particularly in points per game, where they ranked 4th. The next closest NFC North team was the Lions at 20th. The Vikings were just behind the Lions at 23rd, and the Bears once again last in the division at 29th.
Looking at the net result of off-season player additions and losses among all the NFC North teams, it’s difficult to see much in net upgrades on defense, except for the Bears. The Packers and Lions spent some top draft picks on defense, but also had significant losses there too. The Bears may have done the most to improve their secondary, and may be the most improved this year among NFC North teams.
Offensively, the Lions made some moves to improve their offensive line, but other than that, difficult to see much by way of upgrades outside of the Vikings. The Vikings upgraded their offensive line- arguably from bad to average- but still an upgrade, while also gaining an explosive play-maker in Dalvin Cook at RB, to help improve their league-worst rushing attack last year. Given that, the Vikings may have done the most to improve on the offensive side of the ball since last season.
Looking at the NFC North division race this year, and considering the roster changes since last year, I suspect the race will be between the Vikings and Packers for the division crown, followed by the Lions a couple games back, and the Bears bringing up the rear.
Who wins the NFC North this season?
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