The time between the end of one NFL season and the next, boring as it may be, presents the perfect time to go over the top 10 players in every division. In that vein, Last Word on Pro Football is doing a series on the best players in each division heading into 2020. In this installment, we will cover the top 10 in the NFC North.
Top-10 NFC North Players of 2020
1. Danielle Hunter
In football, the adage is it all starts in the trenches. In this case, seeing as we are discussing a defensive player in Danielle Hunter, perhaps we should say it all ends in the trenches. After racking up back to back 14.5-sack seasons, Hunter has a pretty strong claim for best EDGE in the NFC North. His dominance plus the importance of his position land him atop our list. He doesn’t just get after the quarterback either. He forced three fumbles and had 36 pressures to go with an additional 22 quarterback hits. The Minnesota Vikings have a talented defense and it’s anchored by this fearsome pass-rusher.
2. Khalil Mack
Many harped on Khalil Mack’s failing to record double-digit sacks (the first time since 2014) during a wayward season for the Chicago Bears. But if 30 hurries and 47 pressures to go along with those 8.5 sacks constitutes a down year, then a lot of guys would sign up for that. Mack suffered when teammate Akiem Hicks went down and drew even more attention than usual. Double-teams turned to triple-teams as well as constant chips from tight ends and running backs. With Hicks expected to be healthy and an entire off-season worth of negative news stories to fuel the fire, expect Mack to remind the doubters why he cost the Bears two first-round picks.
3. Aaron Rodgers
All the talk of the demise of Aaron Rodgers holds some truth, but that might speak more to the otherworldly standards he’s set. His 62 percent completion percentage and 4,002 yards were indeed his fewest (in a healthy season) since 2015. He ranked 8th and 11th, respectively, in those categories. What is also true, however, is that his 0.7 interception percentage was the lowest among qualifying passers. He still led the Green Bay Packers to a 13-3 record, the division title for the sixth time, and the NFC Championship. All that with a receiving corps that was rife with question marks entering last season.
4. Harrison Smith
Right behind our first quarterback comes the quarterback of the Vikings secondary. If Harrison Smith isn’t the best safety in the NFL, he is right there in the discussion. A Pro Bowler in each of the last five seasons, Smith is extremely versatile. He has recorded at least three interceptions in each of the last three years, including last season when he also forced three fumbles. A year ago he recorded three sacks. He’s recovered a pair of fumbles each of the last two seasons too. Smith is the model of consistency and must be identified pre-snap by opposing quarterbacks.
5. Akiem Hicks
It was alluded to in the Mack section, but the Bears sorely missed Akiem Hicks on the field in 2019. Mack may have felt it most, but it affected everyone. As a unit, the Bears defense went from allowing three yards per carry over their first four games to 4.2 after Hicks went down against the Oakland Raiders in Week 5. Not just a run-stuffer, Chicago also struggled to replace the pressure he provided up the middle. His 16 sacks over the 2017 and 2018 seasons was fourth behind only Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, and Cameron Heyward, among 3-4 defensive ends.
6. Za’Darius Smith
Green Bay struggled defensively for years, repeatedly finishing in the mid-teens and, over the past few years, in the 20-plus range. Last season, they finished 18th in yards for the second consecutive season, but they were ninth in points allowed. That was their best finish since 2010 and Za’Darius Smith was a large part of that. He racked up 13.5 sacks, good for sixth in the NFL, and came in 5th with 50 pressures. He also led the league with 22 quarterback knockdowns. He and his running mate Preston Smith form one of the most ferocious pass-rushing duos in the NFL.
7. Kirk Cousins
When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a three-year, fully-guaranteed contract worth $84 million, many said they’d regret it. All they ended up doing was signing him to an extension worth $66 million. Minny took a step back at first, going 8-7-1 after Case Keenum led them to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship. However, Cousins and the Vikings bounced back last season to a 10-6 record where they lost in the Divisional Round. He ranks fifth in touchdown passes in the last two years and also has one of the highest completion percentages (69.71) and lowest interception percentages (1.52) in the NFL over that time.
8. Matthew Stafford
Two quarterbacks in a row! Matthew Stafford is often overlooked when discussing that group of passers right below the elite. But he had seven straight seasons passing for 4,200 yards and 20-plus touchdowns before 2018 when he went for 3,777 yards and 21 scores. Typically an iron-man, he got hurt and missed half of last season, but he still threw for 2,499 yards and 19 touchdowns. He has the weaponry at wide receiver and tight end, but the Detroit Lions running game is middling at best, ranking 16th in attempts and 21st in yards. Expect another stellar season for the former Georgia Bulldog, who just came off the COVID-19 restricted list.
9. Davante Adams
Coming off of his first 1000-yard season in 2018, many expected Davante Adams to insert himself into the conversation for the best receiver in 2019. He did not. Adams caught 83 balls for 997 yards while only playing in 12 games. The time off combined with Green Bay going from 32nd to 13th in rushing attempts helped to suppress his numbers. One of the best route runners in the league, Adams routinely wins his matchup even though defenses know the ball is coming his way. New Packers receiver Devin Funchess opted-out for the season so continue to expect a lot of Adams when the Packers do go to the air.
10. Trey Flowers
Lions head coach Matt Patricia has gone about recreating some of what he had when coaching the New England Patriots. Detroit even inked linebacker Jamie Collins this off-season. They brought Trey Flowers in last season with the hopes that he could revitalize their woeful pass rush. Unfortunately, Flowers, who averaged seven sacks a year, was only able to muster…seven sacks in his first go-round in Detroit. That was one-quarter of the Lions total. He needs a running mate but is still a solid all-around end and the only real threat.
The Top 10 of the NFC North is Loaded
Many names were begrudgingly left off this list and the top 10 of the NFC North is loaded with talent. Notable players like Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Anthony Harris, Aaron Jones, Eddie Jackson, Allen Robinson, and Kenny Golladay all have claims. By season’s end, this list could look very different. But heading into 2020, these are the NFC North’s top-10 players.