During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC North offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2016 NFC North Breakdown by Position: The Offense
The Best: Green Bay Packers
The Rest: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings
The Green Bay Packers enter 2016 with arguably the best quarterback in football commanding the huddle. Aaron Rodgers had a pedestrian season in 2015, putting up numbers that most quarterbacks would love to have. He threw for 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. With a healthy Jordy Nelson set to return to the lineup after missing all of last season, Rodgers is poised to see an uptick in production this season.
Matthew Stafford is entering his eighth season as the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Stafford will be asked to throw a lot of short to intermediate passes in the Lions’ new up tempo offensive game plan. Which could be a boon considering Stafford’s skillset and the weapons around him. In 2015 Stafford threw for 4,262 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. All while leading the division in completion percentage (67%).
The Chicago Bears might not be a great team in 2016, but any success they do have will all be tied back to Jay Cutler. Cutler’s risk taking style has always left him open to criticism. Some may say that Cutler is overrated, but ultimately the jury is still out. Although he has all the physical strengths and traits coaches look for in a signal caller, Cutler has always lacked the mental makeup, awareness, and ball protection skills to put it all together for a full season. Yes, at any given moment he can make the perfect throw, but his consistent ability to be inconsistent is what drives coaches and fans alike insane.
The Minnesota Vikings were in the perfect situation to develop a young quarterback. Entering his third NFL season, Teddy Bridgewater was primed for a statistical breakthrough in production. Unfortunately, during Tuesday’s non-contact team practice Bridgewater dislocated his knee and tore his ACL, thus ending his season before it even started. Suddenly, the Vikings number one option at quarterback is Shaun Hill. Minnesota is also scouring the market for potential signal callers. The injury to Bridgewater is absolutely devastating for a team that was really counting on their young quarterback.
The Best: Minnesota Vikings
The Rest: Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears
Adrian Peterson is entering his 10th season in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. During any season in which he played at least 13 games Peterson has finished with no less than 1,266 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Which is right around where he should finish again this season. Being the physical specimen that he is, Peterson would have to be injured or cut from Minnesota’s roster to not finish as the best running back in the NFC North.
The Green Bay Packers head towards the 2016 season with high hopes for Eddie Lacy to return to his dominant form. At several different points in the season last year Lacy looked heavy and sluggish. A strict diet and hard work during the offseason led to a slimmer, more agile Lacy once training camp rolled around. All signs are pointing to Green Bay having a solid running game with Lacy leading the way in front of backup running back, James Starks. Nonetheless, it won’t take much for Lacy to top his 758 yard mark from last season.
The Detroit Lions have a stable of able bodied running backs including second year starter, Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah carried the ball 143 times last season, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. He also chipped in with over 1,000 return yards on the year. Along with Abdullah, Theo Riddick will also share the load and should see an uptick in third down opportunities as well.
The Chicago Bears are left to fill the void of perennial Pro-Bowl running back, Matt Forte. Jeremy Langford filled in nicely for an injured Forte last season; and while his projections for this season seem a bit high, it is justified in the sense that he should be getting almost all the carries on early downs and he should have a decent role on third downs too. Behind Langford is where it gets tricky, the Bears have no proven, quality depth behind him. Journeyman Jacquizz Rodgers and Ka’Deem Carey would both be in line for expanded roles if Langford went down with an injury.
The Best: Green Bay Packers
The Rest: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings
As long as wide receiver Jordy Nelson comes back at full strength (or close to it), the Packers receiving core is as deep as ever. With Randall Cobb returning to his prominent slot role that he filled so well before last season, things are definitely looking up for the Green Bay wide outs. Albeit having a perennial pro bowl quarterback at the helm doesn’t hurt. Look for Rodgers to let it fly on a regular basis this season.
Alshon Jeffery will lead the Chicago Bears receiving core into 2016. Along with Kevin White, the duo could be a dominant force on the outside for Jay Cutler and the offense. The only problem lies on the health of both receivers, who have both missed significant time in their young careers. Additionally, Cutler’s up and down style of play may prevent the receivers from really hitting their true potential any time soon.
The Detroit Lions addition of Marvin Jones was a necessary one. For the first time in nine straight seasons, the Lions are preparing for a season without Calvin Johnson. After deciding to hang it up, Jones comes into town looking to replace Johnson on the roster and in his role on offense. Surely Jones won’t compare to the likes of Megatron, but his tremendous skillset isn’t too far off. Now in a pass-happy offense compared to the one he was in with Cincinnati, Jones has a real opportunity to prove his value in the NFL. Along with Jones is Golden Tate, a receiver who always seems to be open. Look for Tate to secure over 100 passes this year and lead the team in receiving yards.
The Minnesota Vikings receivers were already considered to be one of the weaker units in the entire NFC, plus the injury to Bridgewater also complicates chemistry development among all the receivers who have to rebuild new timing and rhythm with a different quarterback this late in training camp. Players like Steffon Diggs, Charles Johnson, and Cordarrelle Patterson were all expected to take that next step in their development. Meanwhile, adding a talented rookie to the mix like LaQuon Treadwell only helps brighten the future of the team. While the depth chart isn’t likely to be shaken up dramatically, it remains to be seen how the Vikings plan on using all of their receivers. It’s basically a disaster scenario for one of the most important position groups on the team.
The Best: Green Bay Packers
The Rest: Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions
Many would argue that the Packers don’t have the best tight end in the division, but the pairing of Richard Rodgers with Jared Cook makes a ton of sense. Having two players of that caliber at tight end instantly makes them the best tight end group of the NFC North. Rodgers has shown the ability to make tough catches, and Jared Cook has never had the luxury of playing with a solid playmaking quarterback; but with his size and speed he should see a lot of targets from Aaron Rodgers in 2016.
Moving along to the Chicago Bears, it’s apparent that tight end Zach Miller is a legit candidate to break out this season. With Martellus Bennett gone to New England, Miller is the lone man atop the depth chart and he should see significant volume from Jay Cutler throughout the year. Miller has been underrated to this point in his career, but that could all change this season.
For the Minnesota Vikings, tight end Kyle Rudolph has seen his fair share of big moments. But the six year veteran out of Notre Dame has also shown signs of inconsistency each season he’s played in the NFL. Perhaps a replacement level quarterback like Shaun Hill could target Rudolph more often as more of a traditional safety blanket. Until more clarity on the situation arises the entire Minnesota offense is in flux.
The Detroit Lions tight end situation is becoming clearer as the season rapidly approaches. Eric Ebron is recovering from an ankle injury that could cause him to miss the opening game. If he is forced to miss any time it will likely be a combination of Cole Wick and Andrew Quarless taking over at tight end. Many speculated that it would be Matthew Mulligan taking over in the absence of Ebron however the Lions released Mulligan on Monday and clearly intend on going a different route.
The Best: Green Bay Packers
The Rest: Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears
The offensive line for the Green Bay Packers has undergone a lot of scrutiny over the past few seasons. But in 2015, the group showed that they can be the best unit in the division. T.J. Lang at left guard and Josh Sitton at right guard make up one of the best guard pairings in the NFL. Plus, long time veterans like Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari bring that extra element of experience to the table for the Packers week to week.
The Minnesota Vikings have done a decent job patching up their offensive line this past year as they were in complete desperation mode heading into the 2015 season. Although, the line held together for the most part, the team decided to upgrade at guard during free agency. The Vikings signed left guard Alex Boone to be the leader of the offensive line. All the team needs now is for Matt Kalil to solidify his spot at left tackle to provide the protection needed for whoever lines up under center for the Vikings.
The Detroit Lions have had a hard time keeping Matthew Stafford up right for most of his career. The offensive line issues continue onward into 2016 as well. With a solid but unspectacular core of young linemen, the Lions will need to scheme their protection plans properly in order to give Stafford a chance to succeed in Detroit’s new up tempo style. Along those lines, it only makes sense for the team to transition to a quick, pass-first offense to help mask their weaknesses.
The Chicago Bears lack depth at almost every position on the roster. The offensive line notwithstanding, right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Bobbie Massie are the only ones who have truly earned their starting spots. Other than that, the offensive line could be shuffled around all season until a stable collective unit emerges, if at all. 2016 could be a very long season for Jay Cutler behind that atrocious arrangement of offensive linemen.