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Bob McGinn's Mid-Season All-NFC North team
Based on extensive interviews with three NFL executives, our longtime scribe gets the unfiltered analysis. Could this be Detroit's year? How far will Joshua Dobbs carry the Vikes? And... Green Bay?
With the second half of the NFL season underway the NFC North Division is home to a pair of time-tested streaks that appear very much in jeopardy.
The front-running Lions (7-2), who haven’t won a divisional championship in 30 years, are 1 ½ games ahead of the Vikings (6-4).
Meanwhile, the back-sliding Packers (3-6), who haven’t finished last in the four-team division in 18 years, find themselves merely one-half game ahead of the Bears (3-7).
The Lions are the toast of Detroit. Ford Field has seen jam-packed bedlam since the exhibition season. Unlike 1993, the last championship season in Detroit, fans in southeast Michigan view this Lions aggregation as having the goods to go places.
Thirty years ago, the de-facto NFC Central Division title game between the Lions and Packers at the Pontiac Silverdome was blacked out in the Motor City because it wasn’t sold out 72 hours in advance. The date was Jan. 2, 1994, and the Lions faithful had good reason not to believe in coach Wayne Fontes’ club.
First of all, the great Barry Sanders was to miss a fifth straight game with a knee injury. Backup Derrick Moore was out as well, leaving Eric Lynch, a free agent from Grand Valley State, to do all the ball-carrying.
Secondly, the Lions were down to their third-string quarterback, Erik Kramer, after injuries to Rodney Peete and Andre Ware.
Despite a playoff victory in 1991 and a 9-6 record entering the 1993 finale, owner William Clay Ford refused to give Fontes a vote of confidence.
Today, quarterback Jared Goff has taken every snap, the running back duo of Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery is in high gear and immensely popular coach Dan Campbell probably could win any elective office in the state of Michigan if he were so inclined.
It took four interceptions from Brett Favre, 115 yards on the ground from Lynch and steady play by Kramer before the Lions emerged victorious (30-20) in 1993 and could don new caps that read: “Lions, Central Division Champions.” (Six days later, the Packers returned to the same venue in the wild-card playoffs to beat the Lions, 28-24).
Just as those Lions occupied part, or all, of first place in the division all season the current Lions have led since Week 1 as well. Buffeted by injury early, the Lions have regained the services of some important players and appeared primed for the stretch run.
They also have a more favorable schedule than the Vikings. Detroit’s eight remaining opponents own a collective record of 36-41 (.468) whereas Minnesota’s seven remaining foes are 34-31 (.523). Moreover, the Lions have four games at home balanced by four on the road compared to the Vikings’ uneven split of three home and four away.
Since the Packers bottomed out in last place at 4-12 during coach Mike Sherman’s swan song in 2005, they’ve won the division nine times while the Lions were finishing last eight times. Most recently, Detroit was a cellar-dweller four straight years: 2018, ’19, ’20 and ’21.
In fact, during the NFL’s 55 years of divisional play (the strike-shortened season of 1982 had no divisional setup), the Packers have endured a mere six last-place finishes. Before the crash in 2005, one must go back another 17 years and Lindy Infante’s 4-12 squad of 1988 to locate another last-place finish.
Green Bay, which won the NFC North in 2019, ’20 and ’21, appears to have suffered a substantial drop-off in talent.
Based on extensive interviews this week with three executives in personnel well-versed on the Lions, Vikings, Packers and Bears, the following is my mid-season All-NFC North team.
Of interest might be the breakdown of the 22 first-team players on offense and defense. The. Lions led with 11 selections, and the Vikings followed with eight. Then came the Bears, with two, and the Packers, whose only choice was defensive lineman Kenny Clark.
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ALL-NFC NORTH MIDSEASON TEAM
Wide receivers: JUSTIN JEFFERSON (MINN), AMON-RA ST. BROWN (Det) and D.J. MOORE (Chi). Others, in order: Jordan Addison (Minn), Josh Reynolds (Det), Romeo Doubs (GB), K.J. Osborn (Minn), Jayden Reed (GB), Kalif Raymond (Det), Darnell Mooney (Chi).
Jefferson was third in the league in receiving yards with 571 through Week 5 when he suffered a hamstring injury. In the five games with him the Vikings were 1-4; without him they’re 5-0. St. Brown has been magnificent for a third straight season. “No moment is too big for him,” said one scout. Moore, the former Panther, has given the Bears their best weapon outside since Brandon Marshall. “They haven’t had consistent quarterback play but he’s been outstanding,” said another scout. “His run-after-catch is as good as you’ll see in the league. He makes acrobatic catches. He’s a legit No. 1.” Addison stepped into Jefferson’s No. 1 slot and it didn’t look too big for him. “His talent showed up quickly,” said a scout. “Really good hands. He can be jammed.” Green Bay’s Christian Watson missed the first three games with a hamstring injury and has just one touchdown, eight fewer than in 2022. “He’s got a younger quarterback who’s not as accurate with the ball,” said one scout. “He missed some time with injuries and got off to a slow start and hasn’t really recovered. He had a couple drops. But he hasn’t been as bad as it’s been perceived.”
Left tackle: CHRISTIAN DARRISAW (Minn). Others, in order: Taylor Decker (Det), Braxton Jones (Chi), Rasheed Walker (GB), Larry Borom (Chi), Yosh Nijman (GB).
Darrisaw, the No. 23 pick in 2021, beat out Decker by a narrow margin. “He’s the Vikings’ No. 1 offensive lineman and it’s not even close,” one scout said. “He’s coming fast. He’s a dancing bear. He has the potential to be better than (Bryant) McKinnie.” Decker, an eight-year starter, doesn’t move as well as Darrisaw. “He’s played good football,” one scout said. “He did get power-rushed by the Ravens.” Jones, Walker and Borom were mid-to-late round picks in the last three drafts. “I really like Jones,” one scout said. “He came from a (small) program (Southern Utah). He needed to improve his lower-body strength, and he did this year.” Walker replaced David Bakhtiari, whose season ended after the opener because of chronic knee woes.
Left guard: JONAH JACKSON (DET). Others, in order: Elgton Jenkins (GB), Cody Whitehair (Chi), Dalton Risner (Minn).
Jackson was back in the lineup Sunday after missing three games with an ankle injury. “He was pulling and clearing guys out in space,” one scout said. “He can do things that Jenkins can’t do.” After two stellar seasons to start his career Jenkins has run into injury problems and several position switches. “He’s slipped,” said one scout. “He can’t match up with the best (opponents). He has limitations against quickness. He’d be their (left) tackle now if he moved better.” Another scout said Jenkins still ranked as Green Bay’s top offensive lineman but the gap was narrowing with improving Zach Tom. “Still big and strong,” the scout said. “Maybe not quite as fluid as he was earlier. He’s still playing at a starting level. There are little holes in his game in pass protection at times. Not quite the athlete that Jonah (Jackson) is. Jenkins is more consistent overall than Tom.” Whitehair, an eight-year veteran, lost his job at center because of numerous wayward shotgun snaps. “I doubt he’ll be back (in 2024),” one scout said. “He’s a pumped up 305, 308 (pounds). He gives his all but he gets manhandled. He’s the weak link on that line.” The Vikings have gotten four competent starts from Risner, the rough-housing ex-Bronco, after trading starter Ezra Cleveland.
Center: FRANK RAGNOW (Det). Others, in order: Garrett Bradbury (Minn), Josh Myers (GB), Lucas Patrick (Chi).
Ragnow, who must manage a chronic toe injury, has the size, strength and athletic ability to one day be in Canton. Bradbury sat out Games 2-4 with a back injury. Somewhat undersized at 6-3, 300, he will get overpowered at times. “Very quick but his problem is size,” one scout said. “He can’t help the guards. He is smart and makes all the calls.” Myers, said the scout, “is big but not a dominating guy.” Patrick, the ex-Packer, was projected to be the sixth or seventh lineman in Chicago before injuries and Whitehair’s snapping issues arose. “He’s been better than Whitehair,” one scout said. “But he needs to be replaced, too.”
Right guard: GRAHAM GLASGOW (Det). Others, in order: Teven Jenkins (Chi), Nate Davis (Chi), Ed Ingram (Minn), Jon Runyan (GB).
Cut by the Broncos March 13, Glasgow rejoined the Lions a week later for $2.76 million ($2.5M guaranteed) over one year. The plan was he would replace departed Evan Brown as the top backup at center and guard. But when Halapoulivaati Vaitai couldn’t overcome back problems and made just three starts, Glasgow stepped in without a hitch. In fact, this might be the best stretch of his eight-year career. “He’s played really, really well this year,” one scout said. “I don’t know if people realize it.” Davis came from Tennessee in unrestricted free agency to start at right guard. Family issues and an ankle injury have limited him to four starts. “When he’s played he’s played well,” said one scout. “Power player.” Jenkins was drafted early in the second round as a tackle but now finds himself at right guard. “He’s a monster,” said one scout. “He goes after people. Better run blocker than pass blocker now. He’s their No. 1 lineman.” Ingram, a second-year starter, is on the rise. “Lot of improvement,” one scout said. “Good lateral movement. Just not consistent.” Of Runyan, a three-year starter, one scout said: “I don’t love him. He’s probably their third-best lineman, with Myers fourth.”
Right tackle: PENEI SEWELL (Det). Others, in order: Brian O’Neill (Minn), Zach Tom (GB), Darnell Wright (Chi).
Sewell, a massive man at 6-5, 335, is nearing the pinnacle of right tackles. “He’s better than Ragnow,” said one scout. “It’s not close.” According to another scout, O’Neill’s performance level slipped in 2022 and has plateaued this season. The athletic Tom is coming off a strong showing Sunday against Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt. Wright, the No. 10 pick in April, is learning by trial and error. “Super physical in the run game,” said one scout. “He’s a mauler. You wish he was a little more consistent in pass pro. He has some penalty issues as well. You see a lot of tools to work with. He’s a rookie and he’ll get better.”
Tight end: SAM LaPORTA (Det). Others, in order: T.J. Hockenson (Minn), Cole Kmet (Chi), Luke Musgrave (GB), Brock Wright (Det), Josh Oliver (Minn).
LaPorta and Hockenson are former Iowa players. LaPorta, a second-round draft choice, would be a strong candidate for the NFL offensive rookie of the year award were it not for quarterback C.J. Stroud of Houston. “I’d take him over Hockenson,” one scout said after citing LaPorta’s edge as a blocker. “More of a complete player, and more consistent.” Hockenson, who was traded by the Lions last season, leads all NFL tight ends in receptions (71) and yards (681). “He missed basically all training camp (with a back injury),” one scout said. “He’s getting back to what everybody expected him to be. He definitely wasn’t close to that earlier in the year.” Kmet, a four-year starter, probably is having his best season. “He’s coming on strong the last few weeks,” said one scout. “(Tyson) Bagent has been targeting him more. He can block his ass off but he also runs well and is a bitch to bring down. Hockenson is a move tight end and Kmet’s your old ‘Y.’” Another rookie, Musgrave, went in the second round (No. 42) eight picks after LaPorta. He’s second on the Packers in receptions with 29. Wright and Oliver are effective blockers.
Quarterback: JARED GOFF (Det). Others, in order: Kirk Cousins (Minn), Joshua Dobbs (Minn), Justin Fields (Chi), Jordan Love (GB), Tyson Bagent (Chi).
Cousins ranked fifth in passer rating (103.8) before suffering a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in Game 8. Goff is eighth at 99.1. “Goff’s playing at a high level,” one scout said. “Had one bad game (at Baltimore). His decision-making has been very impressive. Just enough arm. I’m on board.” Cousins, according to one scout, was having the best season of his 12-year career. “He was making big plays and he was consistent,” he said. “The feeling was he’d be back (in. 2024). Now, with Dobbs, Cousins could go. They’ve got to sign Darrisaw, Justin Jefferson, Danielle Hunter. D.J. Wonnum. They need that money. But the holdup in the whole deal is the head coach (Kevin O’Connell) and Kirk Cousins are really good friends. I would say they’ll probably go with Dobbs for the long term.” The Vikings replaced Cousins by acquiring Dobbs and a conditional seventh-round draft choice from Arizona for a sixth-round pick. “I might be crazy but I’d take Dobbs over Love right now,” another scout said. “He’s just been playing lights out. Playing with confidence. He’s super smart. Not that the other guys aren’t, but those six years of experience in the NFL … he’s seen a lot of things, been in different systems … that gives me more confidence to have him in a game-winning drive right now. I feel like Fields and Love don’t have that right now.” Fields returns Sunday at Detroit after missing 4 ½ games with a thumb injury. “I think he’ll be on a short leash,” one scout said. “They’ve got to make a decision. Do they pick up a fifth-year option on Fields? Do they extend Fields? Or do they get rid of Fields and use one of those two high picks on a quarterback?” Bagent has gone 2-2 with a passer rating of 71.4. He has taken five sacks whereas Fields absorbed 24. “I like Tyson Bagent better than Fields,” one scout said. “He came in and was totally in charge. That rookie has some shit to him.” Bagent was undrafted out of Shepherd (W.Va.). Love has taken every snap after making one start in three seasons behind Aaron Rodgers. His passer rating of 80.5 ranks 26th. “He can throw the deep ball but, man, there’s a ton of yards he leaves on the field with placement and accuracy issues,” one scout said. “He started off hot and then the Lions exposed him a little bit (Sept. 28). To me, I think he suffers from the Aaron Rodgers syndrome. You look at him throw the ball, he throws it like Aaron does. On some stuff he doesn’t step into throws. He tries to do the same things Rodgers did but he can’t. They’ve got to break him of that habit. It’s so frustrating to watch him. He’s got arm talent. He just leaves so many yards on the field.” One scout admired Bagent’s composure but regards his ceiling as a solid backup. “He’s accurate short to intermediate, and he does well on boots,” the scout said. “But when he has to throw the ball down the field he really, really struggles. It’s not like he has a weak arm. But he doesn’t have a big-time arm, and the problem is when it gets further down the field he’s got to really drive the ball and that leads to inaccuracy.”
Running back: JAHMYR GIBBS (Det). Others, in order: David Montgomery (Det), Aaron Jones (GB), D’Onta Foreman (Chi), Khalil Herbert (Chi), Alexander Mattison (Minn), AJ Dillon (GB), Roschon Johnson (Chi).
Gibbs, the No. 12 pick in April, and Montgomery, the ex-Bear, have been excellent. “Montgomery is the real deal,” said one scout. “He’s better than Jamaal Williams. He has longer speed. Gibbs is much better running outside but he isn’t afraid to run inside.” Jones suffered a hamstring injury in the opener, missed three games and has been hampered for most of the other five. “He doesn’t have the production this year but I still see speed and explosion,” one scout said. “He’s been a good player. He’s still really fast.” Herbert (61 touches, 5.8 average) might be back Sunday after missing five games with an ankle injury. Foreman (95 touches, 4.4) and Johnson (57 touches, 4.5), a fourth-round pick in April, both have made major contributions. “As a whole, they (the Bears’ backs) have played well,” one scout said. “The best player is Foreman. Whether it’s Tennessee, Carolina or Chicago, every time he gets a chance all he does is make plays.” Mattison moved up to replace the departed Dalvin Cook. “Very up and down year,” said one scout. “The transition of becoming the No. 1 guy hasn’t been smooth. He’s got one rushing touchdown all year (actually, zero). Not the productivity probably he was expecting or they were expecting. They’re paying him like he’s a backup and telling him he’s a starter. I always did think he was a backup. Perfect backup.” Dillon has averaged 3.7 yards per carry, scored one touchdown and looked out of sorts in the passing game. “Early in the year he wasn’t running well,” one scout said. “I do think he’s gotten a little bit better. He’s been a little bit of a disappointment this year.”
Defensive line: KENNY CLARK (GB) and ALIM McNEILL (Det). Others, in order: Justin Jones (Chi), Harrison Phillips (Minn), Andrew Billings (Chi), Benito Jones (Det), DeMarcus Walker (Chi), T.J. Slaton (GB), Dean Lowry (Minn), Devonte Wyatt (GB), John Cominsky (Det), Jonathan Bullard (Minn), Gervon Dexter (Chi), Zacch Pickens (Chi).
Clark, in his eighth season, has been at or near the top of this position in the division almost his entire career. “I still respect him,” said one scout. “Seems like he disappeared a little bit in the middle of the year. I still think he’s a good player.” McNeill is the best of the Lions’ six-player clump inside. “He went from 330 to like 315,” said one scout. “Having less weight helped his pass rush. He flashes agility in pass-rush situations.” Jones, a starter for the Chargers from 2019-’21, leads the team in pressures (11) and tackles for loss (seven). “He disappeared last year and early this year,” said one scout. “The last three games he’s really come on. The reason is the two rookies (Dexter, Pickens) are pushing the shit out of him. He’s a 3-technique, and (Matt Eberflus) likes bigger people. It’s, like, ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Last week, the Bears gave Billings a two-year extension with $5.06 million guaranteed. “He’s a run stuffer,” one scout said. “Pretty good player.” Phillips, the former Bill, has been the Vikings’ stoutest run defender. “Strong, tough,” said one scout. “Ideally, you don’t want him to start, but because of his tenacity and brainpower he makes up for the lack of athleticism. He’s probably back because they can get him for cheap.” As for Lowry, the ex-Packer, one scout said: “Same thing. Same Dean Lowry.” The Bears took Dexter at No. 53 and Pickens at No. 64. “They have talent,” said one scout. “They both can play the 1 and the 3, but when they’re together Dexter is the 3 and Pickens is the 1. Dexter is the better athlete. Played high (from a stature standpoint) in college (Florida). Strong as hell.”
Edge rushers: DANIELLE HUNTER (Minn) and AIDAN HUTCHINSON (Det). Others, in order: Rashan Gary (GB), Montez Sweat (Chi), D.J. Wonnum (Minn), Preston Smith (GB), Yannick Ngakoue (Chi), Charles Harris (Det), Kingsley Enagbare (GB).
Hunter, 29, shares the NFL sack lead with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett at 11. “He’s having (a big year) and he wants big money,” said one scout. “Something’s gotta give. It doesn’t look like his play is gonna give because he’s giving everybody fits. He is a great player. Every team’s blocking scheme goes toward him. He’s not as big and strong as Myles Garrett but Danielle is basically the lone pass rusher. Wonnum has five or six sacks (five) but that’s all because of Danielle. And he plays the run a lot better than he used to play it. Pretty sound player and a great kid.” Another player encountering consistent chipping from tight ends and running backs is Hutchinson. “He’s a model of consistency,” one scout said. Gary bounced back from reconstructive knee surgery to play all nine games, the last five as a starter. “He just got the big contract,” said one scout. “Been OK. You see the flashes.” At the trading deadline the Bears, with a pass rush that had been null and void, sent a second-round pick to the Commanders for Sweat. “Hell of an acquisition,” said one scout. Nagakoue, according to one scout, “stinks this year.” According to one scout, Wonnum has played as well as the departed ZaDarius Smith did opposite Hunter in 2022. “Big effort guy,” one scout said. “He’s made a steady climb. He must be paid.” Preston Smith continues putting up solid numbers (five sacks, 10 pressures) but on a down-in, down-out basis probably hasn’t been as effective. “Not as good as in the past,” said one scout. Harris has been a keen disappointment rushing the passer against left tackles. “He disappeared,” said one scout.
Linebackers: ALEX ANZALONE (Det) and JORDAN HICKS (Minn). Others, in order: Quay Walker (GB), T.J. Edwards (Chi), Tremaine Edmunds (Chi), Jack Campbell (Det), De’Vondre Campbell (GB), Jack Sanborn (Chi), Ivan Pace (Minn), Derrick Barnes (Det), Isaiah McDuffie (GB).
Anzalone (6-3, 237) and Hicks (6-1 ½, 236) have had career years wearing the green dot and leading their top-notch defenses. Anzalone was the Saints’ third-round pick in 2017. “He’s been outstanding,” said one scout. “Great year.” Hicks was the Eagles’ third-round pick in 2015. “He was having a really good year against the run and the pass,” said one scout. “More because of his instincts than his physicality. He did a good job setting the defense with (Eric) Kendricks being gone. A lot of it (his success) is because they blitz so much. That takes the pressure off of him having to take on blockers. He’s just running through stuff all the time and making plays, and covering the tight end.” The Vikings suffered a major loss Sunday when Hicks suffered a leg injury and underwent leg surgery. He’s out indefinitely. Hicks, 31, scored 28 on the Wonderlic test while Anzalone, 29, scored 26. Walker, a first-round pick in 2022, has missed the last two games with a groin injury but his 66 tackles still are eight more than any other Packer. “He was playing well,” one scout said. “He showed progress early. He’s big, athletic and can run. I think there’s a little something missing mentally that’s off with him.” Edwards, the former Eagle, has made a team-high 110 tackles from the weak side. “He can’t run but he’s instinctive as hell,” said one scout. “His instincts bring him down to 4.65. If you get him singled up in coverage he’s going to get beat. But he makes a shitload of plays.” Edmunds, the former Bill, has missed the last two games with a knee injury. “He hasn’t played up to anticipation but not bad,” said one scout. “Entirely different defense than in Buffalo. He’s better in pass coverage than Edwards.” Replacing Edmunds in the middle has been Sanborn, a second-year free agent whose first-down role on the strong side in the 4-3 is negligible. “He moved to mike and has been a terror,” said one scout. “He can’t run but he’s smart as hell. He’ll make some money in the league.” Jack Campbell, a first-round pick in April, rotated behind Barnes before assuming the starting job in Game 6. De’Vondre Campbell sat out Games 4-6 with an ankle injury. “He had a good year a couple years ago (2021),” said one scout. “He hasn’t played as well this year. I haven’t felt him as much, especially early in the year.” Pace (5-10 ½, 231), an undrafted rookie, started alongside Hicks but now will have to take on an even larger role. His Wonderlic score was 10. “He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s quick, he’s agile,” said one scout. “He’s a poor man’s version of Ed McDaniel. Very instinctive. He’s a whirling dervish. Just not very big. But because of the style of defense they play guys aren’t on him right away. If he gets a running start then it doesn’t matter how big you are. He’s a thumper. Bulk-wise, he’s not small. He’s just not 6-2. As long as (Brian) Flores is the coordinator he does have a future there. They’re blitzing all the time. It’s unbelievable. Pace actually is probably better (blitzing) than Hicks.”
Cornerbacks: JAYLON JOHNSON (Chi) and BYRON MURPHY (Minn). Others, in order: Jaire Alexander (GB), Cameron Sutton (Det), Jerry Jacobs (Det), Tyrique Stevenson (Chi), Akayleb Evans (Minn), Mekhi Blackmon (Minn), Carrington Valentine (GB).
Johnson, a second-round pick in 2020, leads a less than stellar group. “His contract will be up and he wants (big) numbers,” one scout said. “The Bears want him back. He’s their best cover guy. He’s played good. Lot of PBUs. Legit No. 1 corner. I think he’s better than Kevin Fuller. Kevin Fuller had better hands but Johnson is more physical.” Murphy arrived in free agency from Arizona and immediately stepped in as the No. 1 corner. “Instinctive, quick and makes some plays,” said one scout. “In Arizona if you remember, he always made plays. Health has always been his biggest holdup. Not the biggest guy. He’s a good starter.” Alexander, who signed a lucrative extension in February, has missed four of nine games with shoulder and back problems. “I have a ton of respect for him,” said one scout. “I know he’s had a ton of injuries this year but he hasn’t played as well this year.” Sutton, the former Steeler, “is what he is,” said one scout, adding, “Very boring, but his grades are good.” Jacobs, a second-year starter, was ticketed for replacement by ex-49er Emmanuel Moseley before he suffered a season-ending knee injury on his second snap of the season. “Jacobs has been up and down,” said one scout. “But he has three picks and has made plays.” Stevenson, Evans, Blackmon and Valentine are either first- or second-year players with considerable promise. The only full-fledged starter is Stevenson. “Rookie being a rookie,” one scout said referring to Stevenson, a second-round pick in April. “Gets a little handsy. Very highly penalized. But a lot of talent there. Good size (6-0 ½, 198), long arms (32 7/8). He is very physical.”
Safeties: CAMRYN BYNUM (Minn) and HARRISON SMITH (Minn). Others, in order: Jaquan Brisker (Chi), Kerby Joseph (Det), Eddie Jackson (Chi), Darnell Savage (GB), Tracy Walker (Det), Rudy Ford (GB).
Drafted primarily as a cornerback in the fourth round of 2021, Bynum became a starting safety in ’22 and continues to blossom. “He’s their top safety because he has more man cover ability than Harrison because he’s a converted cornerback,” said one scout. “Being a converted corner helps you in the modern game. That’s what you’re looking for. He’s learned from Harrison but he also came in as a very smart, instinctive player. He’s made a lot of plays this year in coverage.” Does the scout think Bynum might have a career comparable to ex-Viking Darren Sharper? “Yeah, I do, actually,” the scout said. The 34-year-old Smith, with one pass defensed compared to Bynum’s eight, does have three sacks. “Obviously, you need to find that next guy and Bynum kind of stepped right into that,” one scout said. “(Smith) doesn’t have the range he once had but he gets a jump on the ball regardless. He’s playing pretty good football.” Brisker, a second-year starter, plays out of control at times. “He’s getting better,” said one scout. “Coming on a little bit. Tough strong safety. His (weakness) is coverage. You can get behind him. He gets a little bit influenced.” Jackson, a seven-year starter, has missed five games with a foot injury. “He’s a smart player but I don’t see the production,” said one scout. “I don’t think he’ll be back.” The Lions lost C.J. Gardner-Johnson in Game 2 with a torn pectoral muscle, giving Walker a chance to assume the starting job he held for much of the past four seasons. “He misses assignments,” said one scout. “Good backup.” Joseph, a third-round pick in 2022, is the Lions’ top safety. “He’s inconsistent but he has ball skills,” one scout said. “He can do that. Not a great player but he can make plays.” Savage, the first-round pick in 2019 who was benched a year ago, was the Packers’ top safety before suffering a calf injury in Game 6 that sent him to injured reserve. “He’s athletic,” said one scout. “I thought he was playing with a little more aggression this year.”
Nickel back: JOSH METELLUS (Minn). Others, in order: Brian Branch (Det), Kyler Gordon (Chi), Keisean Nixon (GB).
Metellus, a sixth-round pick in 2020, was a three-year starter at safety for Michigan. Used primarily on special teams in his first three seasons as a Viking, his snap counts on defense were 16, 54 and 258. This season, with Flores as the new coordinator, Metellus has played a vital role. “He plays the big nickel spot, the third linebacker spot, whatever you want to call it,” said one scout. “In that underneath role, he’s played really well making plays on the ball and stopping people in the run. He’s the reason why (first-round pick) Lewis Cine can’t get on the field.” Metellus scored 26 on the Wonderlic. Branch, a second-round pick in April, has been slowed by a lingering ankle injury that knocked him out of Games 5-6. “He’s 100% professional,” said one scout. “He’s a nickel. Can’t play corner.” Gordon, a second-round pick in 2022, is another solid new piece in the Bears’ replenished defense. “He was the star of the game against Carolina (Nov. 9),” one scout said. “He can cover and he can rush off the edge.” Nixon is a physical player but misses too many tackles and struggles in man coverage.
Kicker: CAIRO SANTOS (Chi). Others, in order: Greg Joseph (Minn), Anders Carlson (GB), Riley Patterson (Det).
Santos’ second tour of duty with the Bears is in its fourth year. He has made 15 of 16 field-goal attempts this season, making him 92 of 101 (.911) in 3 ½ seasons kicking off the often messy grass of Soldier Field. Joseph and Carlson own big legs. Patterson has hit 13 of 15 but doesn’t have much range.
Punter: JACK FOX (Det). Others, in order: Ryan Wright (Minn), Daniel Whelan (GB), Trenton Gill (Chi).
Fox, a four-year veteran, is one of the NFL’s premier punters and also doubles as a capable kickoff man. Wright won the job in 2022 as an undrafted rookie and has been solid. Whelan, a rookie free agent, is tied for 29th in net average at 38.7. Gill is last at 36.7. “Gill doesn’t have a big leg,” said one scout.
Long snapper: ANDREW DePAOLA (Minn). Others, in order: Matt Orzech (GB), Patrick Scales (Chi), Jake McQuaide (Det).
The Lions were forced to sign the veteran McQuaide after Scott Daly suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 8. McQuaide entered the NFL in 2011.
Return specialist: KEISEAN NIXON (GB). Others, in order: Kalif Raymond (Det), Brandon Powell (Minn), Jayden Reed (GB).
Nixon is one of the select few kickoff returners that has the green light to bring the ball out from a few yards deep. He leads the NFL with a 26.4 average one year after earning All-Pro honors with a 28.8 mark. “He’s good,” said one scout. “He’s ballsy taking it out.” Raymond ranks ninth on punt returns at 10.5. “He’s not having a great year,” said one scout. “But he does have the ability and he is consistent and catches it. Tough as shit.” Powell and Reed are punt returners only.
Special teams ace: JALEN REEVES-MAYBIN, LB (Det). Others, in order: Eric Wilson, LB (GB), Travis Homer, RB (Chi), NaJee Thompson, CB (Minn), Dylan Cole, LB (Chi), Isaiah McDuffie, LB (GB).
The Lions have seven inside linebackers on their 53-man roster largely because of special teams. Their top man is Reeves-Maybin, a seven-year veteran who lacks great speed (4.70) but flies around and loves hitting people. Thompson (5-10 ½, 200), an undrafted rookie from Georgia Southern, plays much faster than his 4.59 40 time. “He made the team as a gunner,” said one scout. “He can fly.”