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NFC North Rankings, offense: An ultra-rare inside look
Nobody is more plugged into the NFC North than our Bob McGinn. He talks to coaches & scouts, and as one says on a certain quarterback, "Maybe he is truly an asshole, but I wish he was my asshole.”
The NFC North Division, and the NFC Central Division before that, hasn’t exactly been a springboard to the Super Bowl.
Ruled by Bud Grant’s Vikings in the 1970s, Mike Ditka’s Bears in the 1980s and the Packers of the three Mike’s (Holmgren, Sherman, McCarthy) followed by Matt LaFleur in the past 30 years, the once-proud Black and Blue division has fallen on hard, embarrassing times.
No NFC North team has reached the Super Bowl since 2010. Only the AFC South has a longer drought.
Despite their regional dominance, the Packers haven’t been to the Super Bowl in 11 years. Given their quarterback, that’s almost as bad as the Bears not having reached in 15 years, the Vikings in 45 years and the Lions in, well, forever.
This year, the NFC North staggered to a 30-37-1 finish. Among the eight divisions, only the AFC South, at 28-40, fared worse.
Look at the Pro Bowl teams. The NFC West and the AFC North each had 16 selections, twice as many as the NFC North. Count the positional votes for The Associated Press All-Pro team and the NFC North came in fifth.
Under LaFleur, who owns a 15-3 record against his divisional brethren, the Packers won the NFC North by three games in 2019 and by five games in 2020 and 2021. No team other than the Packers had so much as a winning record the past two seasons.
Since divisional play began in 1967, only four teams have won as many as four titles in a row: the Vikings won six from 1973-’78, the Bears won five from 1984-’88, and the Vikings (1968-’71) and the Packers (2011-’14) each won four. The way LaFleur has started, Grant’s string of six could be in jeopardy.
Since the Packers’ rebirth under Ron Wolf, Brett Favre and Holmgren in 1992, they’ve won 15 of the 30 division crowns. That compares to eight for the Vikings, five for the Bears, one for the Lions and one for the Buccaneers, who were aligned in the old NFC Central from 1977-’01.
Green Bay almost always encountered strong competition — until the past decade, that is. It has been like a walk in the park in recent years. Division-clinching victories have never been more muted. The Packers’ eighth divisional crown in the last 11 years was little more than a fait accompli.
The Vikings, with two straight losing seasons, just fired their general manager of 10 years, Rick Spielman, and Mike Zimmer, the head man since 2014. They haven’t been this low since the administration of Leslie Frazier.
The Bears, with two winning seasons in the last nine years, cashiered GM Ryan Pace, who had been on the job for seven years, and fourth-year coach Matt Nagy.
The Lions, under first-year GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell, are coming off a last-place finish for the fourth straight season. The Bears were last in four straight seasons before that. If the Lions take last again in 2022, it would mark the first time that a team in the division has wound up in the basement five years in a row.
Have the Packers been affected by playing in a weak division? It might be another excuse for their miserable playoff record of late.
Their Super Bowl triumph in 2010, with an injury-reduced roster and three consecutive games on the road as a No. 6 seed, was one of the great chapters in the Packers’ 100-year history. On Saturday night, they’ll open the playoffs against the 49ers at Lambeau Field as the well-rested, suddenly healthy favorite to reach the 56th Super Bowl in Los Angeles. They were favored to win it all last year, too, before the Buccaneers showed up.
This will be the Packers’ ninth playoff appearance since the franchise annexed its 13th NFL title. Despite their high seeds (first, third, fourth, second, fifth, fourth, second, first and now first again), they’ve suffered some crushing defeats in going 7-8 in the postseason.
With Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers have done the unthinkable by losing four NFC Championship Games in the last seven years.
Despite being the oddsmakers’ choice, the only blowout victory for the Packers came Jan. 2 when Sean Mannion quarterbacked the Vikings to a 37-10 defeat.
Green Bay’s point differential of plus-79 ranked no higher than 10th in the NFL. LaFleur’s first team was just plus-63; his second was plus-140. Each fell one step short of the Super Bowl.
Another measure of strength might be the combined rankings in yards gained and yards allowed. The Packers totaled 36 in LaFleur’s first season (18th offense, 18th defense), 14 last season (fifth offense, ninth defense) and 19 this season (10th offense, ninth defense).
Special teams has been the one area of abject failure under LaFleur. Using Rick Gosselin’s kicking-game metrics that date to 1985, Green Bay ranked 32nd this year after a 29th-place finish in 2020 and a 26th-place finish in 2019.
However, when it comes to turnover differential, the most critical ranking of all, the Packers tied for third at plus-13. They also tied for third in 2019 (plus-12) and were seventh in 2020 (plus-7).
The following is an extended look at the personnel on each of the four teams in the NFC North based primarily on interviews with personnel people. The rankings at each position ultimately were mine.
In order to be ranked, a player must have played at least nine games or have played at least 250 snaps.
Based on voting for The Associated Press All-Pro team, no position in the NFC North has more star power than wide receiver. Davante Adams was a unanimous choice (50 votes) and Justin Jefferson finished fourth with 20.
1. Davante Adams, GB (16 games, 16 starts, 886 snaps): Caught 123 balls, second to the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, while dropping only three. “He’ll get paid a lot of money in this off-season,” one scout said. “Franchise tag or whatever. He’s a guy I wouldn’t worry about paying. He’s a professional. There’s really no negatives.”
2. Justin Jefferson, Minn (17-17, 1,014): Second to Kupp in receiving yards with 1,616, 17 shy of breaking Randy Moss’s club record of 1,632 set in 2003. “Very good on crossing routes,” one scout said. “He has the speed to get deep but he’s also tough enough to work inside. Has the jumping ability to go get 50-50 balls. He’s a hard guy to match up against if you don’t get him at the line of scrimmage.”
3. Adam Thielen, Minn (13-13, 758): Productive starter for the sixth straight season. His 10 touchdown receptions gave him 24 in the past two seasons. Will be 32 in August. “Very good short-to-intermediate route runner,” said one scout. “He can get deep on occasion but not a consistent deep threat. A favorite of the quarterback (Kirk Cousins) in short yardage, third down and the red zone. Those injuries are starting to pick up more and more for him.”
4. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Det (17-9, 816): Came on like gangbusters in the second half of his rookie season after being drafted in the fourth round. “He’s not quite special but he’s really good at everything,” one scout said. “Just real solid.”
5. Allen Robinson, Chi (12-11, 617): Battled injuries and a revolving door at quarterback in his eighth season, one of disappointment. Won’t be 29 until August so he should draw considerable interest on the unrestricted free-agent market. “You can maybe get him on a discount one-year deal to see if he can come back,” one scout said.
6. Darnell Mooney, Chi (17-14, 986): Caught 81 balls for 1,055 yards in a break-out season. “He’s an ascending guy,” said one scout. “Not a true No. 1 but a good No. 2.” Dropped about 10 passes, a trend he must reverse.
7. Allen Lazard, GB (15-13, 716): Functioned as a heavy-duty blocker all season as one of the most formidable looking wideouts in the league. Over the last month, he made several tough catches tight to the boundary and amid traffic inside. “He’s not special by any means,” said one scout. “Those other guys have more route-running ability. What he does a good job with is all the dirty work. He’s not a quick-twitch guy, but if you use him the right way he can be very effective.”
8. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, GB (11-7, 455): Oversized deep threat with the speed and the stride to outrun almost every defensive back. “As a deep-shot guy he does a good job,” said one scout. “He’s really intriguing because of his size. The hands are a little bit questionable.”
9. K.J. Osborn, Minn (17-9, 774): Like Mooney, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. Played nine games returning kicks as a rookie but didn’t get a single snap from scrimmage. With Chad Johnson and Bisi Johnson on injured reserve, he produced as the season-long No. 3 receiver. “Very good speed,” one scout said. “Not great routes. His hands are the issue. They were his rookie year as well. He can make a really good catch but he’ll also come back and drop one that he shouldn’t.”
10: Josh Reynolds, Det (7-5, 333): A spot starter for the Rams from 2017-’20, he went to Tennessee as an unrestricted free agent in March but was on the street by midseason. Desperately looking for help on the perimeter, the Lions claimed him on waivers and played him extensively. “Similar to Lazard but not as big a body,” one scout said. “Not as physical. Little bit looser on his routes. He’d be a nice third or fourth receiver.”
Other qualifiers, in order: Randall Cobb, GB (12-3, 371): Kalif Raymond, Det (16-14, 742); Equanimeous St. Brown, GB (13-2, 292); Damiere Byrd, Chi (17-4, 620); Marquise Goodwin, Chi (14-2, 393); Dede Westbrook, Minn (15-0, 211).
Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings was the division’s best tight end from 2015-’19. They took Irv Smith in the second round of the 2019 draft hoping he would be an even more skilled successor to Rudolph. After catching 66 passes over his first two seasons, Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. When Robert Tonyan and T.J. Hockenson also ended up on injured reserve, it became a down year at the position.
1. T.J. Hockenson, Det (12-12, 658): As the eighth player drafted in 2019, Hockenson has been just an average performer. A thumb injury knocked him out of the final five games after he sat out four games as a rookie. “He’s got to stay healthy — that’s his problem,” one scout said. “He’s a good player. Receiver first, blocker second. His blocking has been a little bit disappointing. Good, solid receiver. I don’t think he’s a (Travis) Kelce or a top-level player. He’s a notch below that.”
2. Robert Tonyan, GB (8-5, 306): Tonyan was off to a mediocre start when he blew out his knee in Game 8. The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time with his contract expiring at season’s end. “He wasn’t having the production this year,” said one scout. “It (his market value) will be interesting coming off an ACL. Receiving type tight end.”
3. Tyler Conklin, Minn (17-15, 924): In his first three seasons, playing behind Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith, Conklin started six of 47 games and caught 32 passes. This year, he exploded to tie Hockenson in receptions with 61. “Very confident, very athletic,” said one scout. “Basketball player (at Northwood University). More reps he gets the better he gets.”
4. Cole Kmet, Chi (17-17, 935): Started nine games as a rookie in 2020, all 17 this year. “I like Conklin a little better as a receiver,” said one scout. “Kmet’s a better blocker and probably has more upside. He can kind of do it all but doesn’t excel in anything.”
5. Marcedes Lewis, GB (17-17, 478): Matt LaFleur believes in Lewis, 37, even though he can’t outrun anyone anymore and didn’t contribute a snap on special teams. “He can still block his butt off,” said one scout. “I’ll give him that.”
6. Jimmy Graham, Chi (15-6, 263): Three touchdowns were among his career-low total of 14 receptions. Kmet and Jesse James logged more snaps than Graham, 35. “He barely plays,” one scout said. “Basically, he’s just a red-zone guy. He played 15 snaps a game. Definitely on the decline.”
Others, in order: Jesse James, Chi (14-9, 265); Brock Wright, Det (10-5, 301); Tyler Davis, GB (14-0, 121); Chris Herndon, Minn (16-5, 184).
With David Bakhtiari out almost all season, the division was without a marquee performer. Four rookies — Penei Sewell, Christian Darrisaw, Larry Borom and Teven Jenkins — offered hope for the future.
1. Penei Sewell, Det (16-16, 1,039): A LT at Oregon in 2018-’19 (he opted out in ’20), Sewell played RT all summer in Detroit before a hand injury suffered by Taylor Decker forced him to move back to LT for eight games. Decker’s return enabled him to return to RT for eight starts. “He struggled a little bit (early) but then really settled in,” one scout said. “In the run game he climbs up to the second level, turns his hips, covers guys up. He does such instinctive stuff, and he’s such an athlete. He’s also got killer instinct. He wants to dominate you. He’ll be not only a Pro Bowler but an all-pro. He’s not always perfect but you see some rare, rare things.”
2. Taylor Decker, Det (9-9, 529): Solid six-year starter on the left side. Missed the first half of the season with the injury. “It took him a couple weeks to get rolling,” said one scout. “He is a very good pass protector and a good run blocker.”
3. Elgton Jenkins, GB (8-8, 496): The starting LG, he was forced to move to LT because David Bakhtiari suffered complications returning from reconstructive knee surgery. Then Jenkins suffered his own ACL tear in Game 11. “Hell of a football player,” said one scout. “I actually think he could be a tackle, guard or center. He could be real good at any one.”
4. Brian O’Neill, Minn (17-17, 1,141): He was the only tackle in the division to play 100% of his team’s snaps. “His game has never been about strength,” said one scout. “He’s not the strongest or the biggest guy. His game is about his feet. He’s a former basketball player that probably should be playing left tackle. I wouldn’t say he regressed. He didn’t have stability around him. Everything was him one on one.”
5. Billy Turner, GB (13-13, 810): He was cruising along in his third season as a starter in Green Bay when he suffered a knee injury in Game 13 and was done for the remainder of the regular season. “He is what he is,” said one scout said of the 30-year-old. “He’s an average starter. He gets a little sloppy at times with his technique, especially pass rush. Little bit tight and rigid. He does a good job using his size and length to stay in phase and not let guys pass him.”
6. Jason Peters, Chi (15-15, 853): His career appeared to be over before the Bears placed an S.O.S. call on the eve of the season. At 39, he managed to start 15 games on the left side. “He got better,” said one scout. “Early in the season you could see he was not in great football shape. If you try to rush him down the middle, and in the run game, he’s still very stout and powerful. He can create movement. Where he struggles and where teams were able to take advantage, like Cleveland, was against stunts. He has a really hard time redirecting laterally. He’s not quick. Straight up rushing, he can still anchor.”
7. Yosh Nijman, GB (17-8, 590): Hardly played a down in his first two seasons after making the club as an undrafted rookie from Virginia Tech in 2019. When opportunity knocked this season he responded positively. “He has done a good job,” said one scout. “I do like his physical skill set. They also do a good job on play-action stuff and the quarterback throws the ball quick. He struggles a little bit in pass pro. Not because of athleticism but just getting set up and working things. He’ll be late to shoot his hands. Awareness type stuff. There’s definitely some mental things there, instinctual things. He’s good in the run game. He hasn’t been an issue for them.”
8. Christian Darrisaw, Minn (12-10, 653): Core muscle surgery prevented Darrisaw from taking over for Rashod Hill at LT until Game 6. “He’s talented, but he was hurt too much to say he had a solid year,” said one scout. “He flashed a lot of athleticism to block edge rushers and get out in space and block on the second level. He has to get healthy and get a better understanding of working with the whole group. Very similar to O’Neill. You might see a different guy next year when he’s healthy.”
9. Dennis Kelly, GB (10-4, 305): Seeking insurance for a Super Bowl run, the Packers gave the former Titan a one-year, $1.325 million ($250,000 signing bonus) on July 29. He didn’t play a snap until Turner went down in Game 13, then started the rest of the way. “He’s a perfect backup,” said one scout. “He’s a muscle guy. He wants to lay it on ‘em. He’s a smart guy in that he knows his limitations. Is he the niftiest cat on earth? No.”
10. Larry Borom, Chi (10-8, 633): Borom, a fifth-round draft choice in 2021, took over on the right side after Germain Ifedi went down. “Looks the part,” said one scout. “I think he’s a left tackle. He’s bigger and has more creative feet than (Teven) Jenkins. He understands how to play the position.” Added another scout: “He’s got a chance. I wouldn’t say he’s a locked-in starter yet. Plays with patience but doesn’t drive anybody off the ball. He kind of occupies space.”
Others, in order: Germain Ifedi, Chi (9-7, 413); Rashod Hill, Minn (15-5, 342); Matt Nelson, Det (13-10, 675); Elijah Wilkinson, Chi (13-1, 120).
A few years ago this position was dominated by the likes of Josh Sitton, Kyle Long and T.J. Lang. The current group doesn’t begin to measure up.
1. Jonah Jackson, Det (16-16, 1,037): A third-round draft choice in 2020, he has started 32 of a possible 33 games. In no way, however, is he close to being an honors candidate. “Little inconsistent but really physically talented,” said one scout. “Has real good strength and explosion. He wants to maul you and finish you. He’ll have a slip-up every now and then and give up a pressure. He’s not there yet but he’s got a chance to be really good.”
2. Cody Whitehair, Chi (17-17, 1,122): He was either the best or second-best center in the division from 2017-’19 before moving to guard in ’20. “He can be a competitive Pro Bowl-type guard and play center at the drop of a hat,” one scout said. “When he’s allowed to play with power coming out of a three-point stance, he’s still the most powerful of their offensive linemen. His vulnerabilities come with a late start against a good rusher. He doesn’t have the feet to catch up.”
3. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Det (15-15, 953): Started 20 games at tackle for the Eagles from 2016-’19 before coming to Detroit and making 10 right-side starts in ’20. Manned RG throughout ’21. “There are times he can struggle against quicker guys but he’s this big guy,” said one scout. “Solid starter. Not great.”
4. Ezra Cleveland, Minn (17-17, 1,141): Was a three-year starter at LT for Boise State but the Vikings needed him more inside. Made nine starts at RG in 2020, 17 at LG this year. Of the Vikings’ top six offensive linemen, all but RG Olisaemeka Udoh fit the athletic, finesse mold. “He did OK at guard,” said one scout. “The strength factor got him, particularly against the Bears both times. Those guys just collapsed him. He’s smart and tough and competes. He loses a lot of physical matchups.” Added a second scout: “He’s OK, and OK doesn’t take you to the big one.”
5. Jon Runyan, GB (17-16, 1,053): With Jenkins forced to play LT, Runyan emerged from a crowded competition at LG and started from Game 2 on. “I would label him dependable,” said one scout. “He’s not prone to a clean miss or to give up a big play. He’s good on combo’s. In protection, I didn’t notice a consistent fault. Overall, he’s solid.”
6. James Daniels, Chi (17-17, 1,122): As a rookie, he was voted the best LG in the division. Since then, there was the move to center and then sustained inconsistency following the move back to guard. “He couldn’t do it at center,” said one scout. “I think the issue was making the calls. He went to guard and showed some lateral redirect in pass pro, but there’s just something missing. He’s not an overly powerful guy. He’s a low-end starter. I thought he was going to be a good starter but he never really got to that level.”
7. Royce Newman, GB (17-16, 1,084): Drafted in the fourth round, Newman started 12 games at LG and 10 at RT for Ole Miss. Won the RG job during training camp and held it until Game 17. “He has a pretty good upside,” one scout said. “He’s got enough ability. He’s strong enough. He moves his feet well enough. Not having the bonehead play is the next step for him.”
8. Olisaemeka Udoh, Minn (17-16, 1,076): A sixth-round draft choice in 2019, he played just 32 snaps in his first two seasons. “He’s a big, physical guy but he’s raw,” said one scout. “Played at Elon College. Not played a lot overall. Probably a better guy outside (tackle) because of his size and athleticism as opposed to having to rely on his hand quickness inside. I wouldn’t write him off at all. He’s got potential. He’s a very bright guy.”
Others, in order: Tommy Kraemer, Det (9-3, 238); Alex Bars, Chi (17-3, 92).
Detroit’s Frank Ragnow was right there with Green Bay’s Corey Linsley and Whitehair as the top center in the division the past two seasons. This year, he was finished after four games following foot surgery. This was a position of weakness in the NFC North.
1. Lucas Patrick, GB (17-13, 911): He started at LG in Game 1 before not playing at all in Games 2-4. When Josh Myers suffered a knee injury, Patrick took over. “I’m not so sure he might not be every bit as good as Myers,” said one scout. “He was a multiple inside player before. If anybody was a come-through guy in a challenging situation, it was him. He’s a pretty damn good player.” Added a second scout: “He’ll outwork somebody and dump their ass on the ground a couple times a game. His positives outweigh his negatives. He’s a try-hard guy who has become a good player.”
2. Evan Brown, Det (16-13, 755): Undrafted out of North Carolina State in 2018, he spent time with three teams before the Lions signed him to their practice squad in December 2020. When Ragnow went down in Game 4, Brown exceeded expectations. “He is supersmart,” said one scout, mindful of Brown’s score of 35 on the Wonderlic test (NFL average is 19). “He is tough. He is a good pass protector. He has a little problem with pure power in the run game.”
3. Josh Myers, GB (6-6, 293): When the Packers lost Linsley to the Chargers in unrestricted free agency, they drafted Myers in the second round to replace him. “He was learning the ropes when he got hurt,” said one scout. “For a big guy he moves OK. He’ll be a lot to get around.”
4. Garrett Bradbury, Minn (13-13, 883): The selection of Bradbury with the No. 18 choice in 2019 set back the Vikings’ offensive line. Though quick to the second level and an operational whiz, his inability to avoid getting displaced by bigger foes often compromised the offense. “The same things that bothered him as a rookie bother him now,” said one scout. “He just doesn’t have a big frame. He was very inconsistent all year with strength, like always. He can line guys up. He’s fine if it just comes down to athleticism. But when he has to deal with a big, physical nose he tends to lose. I don’t know how you can change that.”
5. Sam Mustipher, Chi (17-17, 1,122): An undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, he completed his second year as the starter. “He’s a scrappy, smart overachiever,” said one scout. “He’s going to position. He’s going to fight his ass off to the end. He just doesn’t have a whole lot of ass to move you. He gets tossed around. When he plays against better players he gets really exposed.”
6. Mason Cole, Minn (14-7, 472): Partially because of the coronavirus and partly because of Bradbury’s performance, Cole started seven games at center. Previously, he made 30 starts there for the Cardinals. “He’s even smaller than Bradbury,” said one scout. “He’s smart and competes, but if he has to match up one on one he’ll probably lose.”
The Lions moved on from Matthew Stafford, sending him to the Rams for multiple high draft choices. The Bears had seen enough of Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles. With new starters in two cities, the NFC North remained the same at the top with Aaron Rodgers entrenched as No. 1 and Kirk Cousins entrenched as No. 2.
1. Aaron Rodgers, GB (16-16, 983): The year began with Rodgers engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Packers’ management and sitting out the entire off-season. That led up to a 38-3 loss to the Saints on opening day. One of their other four defeats, in Kansas City, was brought about when the unvaccinated quarterback tested positive for Covid and had to sit out. Otherwise, he was on point and in complete command of a clever offensive scheme. “He makes everything around him better,” said one scout. “He’s the concealer. He makes all the warts go away. Maybe he is truly an asshole, but I wish he was my asshole.”
2. Kirk Cousins, Minn (16-16, 1,087): His passer rating of 103.1 ranked tied for fourth. His previous ratings in Minnesota were 107.4 in 2019 and 105.0 in 2020. He also fumbled 12 times, losing two, and went 8-8. “Statistically, he had a very good year,” said one scout. “Once again, he didn’t play big in the big games. Can he throw the deep over routes to Jefferson? Yes. Will he throw the ball in a tight window? Yes. He’ll always have fumbles because he does not have a clock in his head. That’s a big thing that hurts him. Most of the top guys have that.”
3. Jared Goff, Det (14-14, 918): Acquired from the Rams for Stafford, Goff treaded water with minimal weapons around him before showing signs of vitality in the final month. “I was down on him early,” one scout said. “But he has shown, with a little better passing game, that he can be a competent starter. He showed in LA that if you have good talent around him you can win with him.”
4. Justin Fields, Chi (12-10, 635): The Bears’ brain trust of GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy traded up for Fields at No. 11. In his 10 starts the Bears won twice. Some of his play was good, some was bad and some was in-between. Will Fields be any better than Trubisky and Jay Cutler? Who knows? “He has upside,” said one scout. “He has to be in a more structured offense.”
5. Andy Dalton, Chi (8-6, 412): Dalton entered the season as the starter, got hurt and later was benched. He came back as the starter late. His record was 3-3. He’s 34. “It was a disappointing season for him,” said one scout. “His first couple games were what you thought they’d be. Complete short passes, high completion percentage, low yards per attempt. He was able to move the offense but didn’t make plays. When he came in late they had gone to a more vertical passing offense when Nagy wasn’t calling the plays. He just didn’t have it anymore. His arm talent didn’t look like it did two years ago, even a little bit last year. For a veteran, I was kind of disappointed in his judgment.”
6. Tim Boyle, Det (11-3, 180). After a three-year apprenticeship in Green Bay under Rodgers, Boyle brought his big arm and inexperience to serve as Goff’s understudy. He started three games, losing them all. “I expected more,” one scout said. “You see the natural throwing talent but the ball kind of sails on him at times. There’s not much consistency with him but you can see the talent. He just hasn’t played a lot of football.”
The torch in the division was passed from Adrian Peterson to Dalvin Cook, who ranked as the best back in the NFC North for the third straight year. All four teams had a solid 1-2 punch.
1. Dalvin Cook, Minn (13-13, 608): Despite missing four games (three injury, one Covid), Cook ranked fourth in rushing with 1,159 yards. “He is an elite back with the ability to do it all,” said one scout. “Run, catch, pass protect. He’s tough. He’s a leader. There are very few guys that are counted on to make plays more than him … he gets nicked because everybody (keys) on him and he’s not a big-bodied guy. He is tough and physical.”
2. Aaron Jones, GB (15-15, 578): In Jones’s five-year career his highest playing time was 62.9% in 2019. With the arrival of AJ Dillon in 2020, Jones dipped to 51.3% last year and 51.8% this year. He’s an all-around threat as a runner or catching passes near the sideline. ”He’s so explosive,” said one scout.
3. David Montgomery, Chi (13-13, 642): Of the top eight backs, Montgomery’s playing time of 57.2% was the highest. Plus, he missed four games. “He’s underrated,” said one scout. “He runs very hard. Good vision. He can cut and bend, and is faster than people think.”
4 AJ Dillon, GB (17-2, 476): He provided the Packers with the big back to go with Jones. “I could live with that (Dillon as a starter),” said one scout. “He can’t do the same things in space that Jones can, but he’s proven to me he can be effective enough in the passing game and has value on all downs. When you get into the fourth quarter and you lead with 6 minutes to go, and you want to grind that clock out, Dillon has the push for that 2 yards to get you the first down.”
5. D’Andre Swift, Det (13-4, 560): A second-round draft choice in 2020, he was available for just 13 games for the second straight year and his production was just slightly more than in 2021. “He’s proven to be an explosive player but isn’t an every-down type player,” one scout said. “Very talented. Got to use him the right way.” Drops too many passes.
6. Jamaal Williams, Det (13-11, 317): Moving from Green Bay to Detroit as an unrestricted free agent (two years, $3.25 million guaranteed), he performed exactly the way he did in four seasons as a Packer. “Excellent converting third- and fourth-and-1,” one scout said. “Runs hard. Catches the ball well. Not a special athlete. He won’t make you miss but you know what you’re getting.”
7. Alexander Mattison, Minn (16-4, 377): This was his third season backing up Cook. “Comes from a military family,” said one scout. “That’s how he plays. It’s take no prisoners. He’s got enough speed and enough agility to avoid and play in space. He’s a very good complementary back. He doesn’t have Cook’s suddenness to avoid in small holes but he will run you over and jump over you, and he can outrun you. He does have good hands.”
8. Khalil Herbert, Chi (17-2, 313): A sixth-round draft choice, he had some bright moments filling in for Montgomery. “He’s got that little burst, little inside run ability with pick and slide,” said one scout. “He’s got a chance to be a good No. 2. He’s a quicker style runner, (not) a downhill thumper.”
Others, in order: Damien Williams, Chi (12-2, 166); Godwin Igwebuike, Det (17-1, 98); Patrick Taylor, GB (9-0, 63); Kene Nwangwu, Minn (11-0, 29).
Under Matt Nagy, the Bears didn’t carry a fullback. C.J. Ham was the only traditional fullback in the division. This is the third straight season in which Ham has been the best in the NFC North.
1. C.J. Ham, Minn (17-8, 376): He has done a little bit of everything since joining the Vikings in 2016 as an undrafted rookie from Augustana (S.D.). “Had another solid year,” said one scout. “Probably had to do more this year in that H-back hybrid role just because (Irv) Smith went down.”
2. Jason Cabinda, Det (14-4, 141): Played linebacker for the Raiders and Lions in 2018-’19 before moving to fullback. “He’s a tight end-fullback and he’ll give you everything he’s got as a blocker,” said one scout. “It won’t always be pretty. Not a great athlete. Good special teamer. (Josiah) Deguara’s a better athlete and receiver but I’d rather have Cabinda because he brings way more on special teams and is a little bit more of a thumper.”
3. Josiah Deguara, GB (16-2, 367): His rookie season a year ago was washed away by a torn ACL. His playing time expanded considerably from midseason on after Robert Tonyan underwent reconstructive knee surgery. “He probably should have been a fifth- or sixth-round pick,” said one scout. “Third was high. He has some interesting traits. He’s caught the ball good but he hasn’t proven to be any kind of a dynamic player.”
4. Dominique Dafney, GB (10-2, 167): Injuries cost him seven games in his second season.
5. J.P. Holtz, Chi (13-0, 71): Played sparingly as an extra blocker. Never touched the ball.