While the seemingly endless period between the NFL Draft and the beginning of the preseason can be a boring time for many NFL fans, it is never too early to analyze the best players in the league. This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be compiling a list of the ten best players in each division heading into the 2016 season. The focus of this article is the NFC North.
Top Players of the NFC North Heading into 2017
It doesn’t matter which way you look at it or which way your bias toward NFC North teams may slant. Aaron Rodgers is the undisputed king and no player on this list comes all that close. Rodgers is arguably the NFL’s best quarterback pure talent wise, perhaps even over Tom Brady. There isn’t a guy in the league who can orchestrate game-winning drives or ridiculous pass plays quite like Rodgers. Just think back to the 61-yard Hail Mary prayer he threw up against the Detroit Lions in 2016 that somehow, some way ended up in the hands of his guy in the end zone. Nobody can pull that off. Nobody but Rodgers.
Matthew Stafford knows how to sling the rock. The Lions quarterback put the team on his shoulders this season and carried the Lions to their first playoff berth in five years. He’s aired it out for over 4,000 yards and 20 or more touchdowns for five straight seasons in his eight-year career. Stafford is a gifted quarterback with a big arm and as he tacks on experience he will only continue to get better and serve as the face of the Lions franchise. He is already arguably a top ten quarterback in the league but with more offensive weapons the sky’s the limit.
“The Hit Man” comes in as the top defensive player on this list and rightfully so. He is a leader on the Vikings formidable defense and perhaps the best safety in the league. Over his five-year career he already has 412 tackles, 12 interceptions, 7.5 sacks, and four touchdowns. To put this in perspective, let’s look at the first five seasons of some of the greatest safeties to play the game.
Through his first five seasons John Lynch had 274 tackles, eight interceptions, one sack, and no touchdowns. Brian Dawkins in that time frame had 348 tackles, 16 interceptions, 5.5 sacks, and two touchdowns. Troy Polamalu in his first five seasons: 360 tackles, ten interceptions, seven sacks, and one touchdown. One more comparison, just to solidify the point, will be Ed Reed. Reed had 329 tackles, 27 interceptions, four sacks, and three touchdowns. Smith beats every one of those all-time greats in tackles and sacks and stacks up well in the other categories as well. One day, Harrison Smith’s name will be in elite company if he keeps up this pace.
4. Jordy Nelson
Jordy Nelson has been Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target and the best receiver in the North for some time. This past season he eclipsed the 1,000 receiving yard mark and led the league in touchdown catches with 14. The big, physical wideout can win contested catches with ease and though he isn’t the fastest, his superb route running allows him to get great separation. Nelson has been catching Aaron Rodgers passes since 2008 and this duo doesn’t seem to be slowing down one bit.
The NFC North had one true shutdown corner in the 2016-2017 season and he wore purple and gold. Not many people noticed, but Xavier Rhodes performed like the best corner in the NFL this past season. In 1-on-1 coverage with the aforementioned Jordy Nelson, Rhodes held him to just two catches for nine yards, effectively shutting him down. Carolina’s big man Kelvin Benjamin did not have a single catch. Electric New York Giants star Odell Beckham, Jr. caught just three passes for 23 yards. Rhodes could be consistently lined up against any team’s number one option and every time it was “Rhodes Closed”.
Rhodes also flashed his impressive ball skills along with his shutdown coverage abilities. This season, Rhodes snagged five interceptions, one of which was returned for a 100 yard score. Just for good measure, he also had 11 pass deflections as well.
Everson Griffen is the pass-rush king of the NFC North. The monster defensive end gave quarterbacks nightmares all season. He only registered eight sacks, but Griffen was a consistent source of pressure all season long. Him and young defensive end Danielle Hunter formed one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league, combining for 20 sacks.
It’s hard to be a good left tackle in this league, but David Bakhtiari was elite protecting the blind side of Aaron Rodgers. Per Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari was the league’s top pass protector this past season, surrendering an incredibly low 20 pressures all season. Protecting Aaron Rodgers so well was no easy task either; Rodgers loves to hang on to the ball and extend plays. Not only that, but the run game was non-existent, so defenses were constantly geared up for the pass.
Jordan Howard was a rookie with little surrounding talent in 2016, but that didn’t stop him from being second in the league in rushing. The product of Indiana and UAB ran the ball for 1,313 yards and six scores, with a respectable 5.2 yards-per-carry average. This is even more impressive considering the Chicago offense essentially ran through him as a rookie. The team’s leading receiver had only 888 yards and four touchdowns, just over half of Howard’s scrimmage yards and touchdowns (1611 scrimmage yards, seven total touchdowns).
9. Darius Slay
The North’s second best cornerback makes his appearance at number nine on this list. “Big Play Slay” has a knack for coming up with game changing interceptions and pass break-ups. This past season he made his presence felt by snagging two picks and registering 13 pass deflections. The anchor in Detroit’s secondary consistently puts out solid performances against team’s top receivers.
10. Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford doesn’t receive the love he deserves. The seemingly nomadic quarterback looks to have finally found a place to settle down, as he had a great season for the Vikings in 2016. He set a completion percentage record with 71.6 percent, having the most accurate season of all time. Bradford also passed for a career high 3,877 yards along with a career second best 20 touchdowns. Despite having arguably the worst offensive line in football, Bradford performed at a truly high level and carried the Vikings offense on his back throughout a season with next to no run game. That is an impressive feat and more than earns him a spot among the North’s top players.