It’s not easy for any NFL front office to adhere to the strict parameters of a hard salary cap.
While offseason additions in the free agent market and via the recent draft may have galvanized the spirits of at least some fans, no NFL team is exempt from managing multiple roster deficiencies.
It’s the price of doing business in a 32-team conglomerate, where everyone operates on an even playing field.
“Over time, it has worked better for our sport than any economic system in sports,” once explained former Indianapolis Colts Team President and longtime general manager Bill Polian. “Part of the reason is because [players] have short careers, and free agency at four years is exactly the right time.”
All of which brings us to the present day NFC North, which like other divisions, consists of four organizations with varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses as they approach their respective training camps — which could be pushed to September as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s how the members of the Black and Blue branch currently stack up.
Green Bay Packers
1.Quarterback- Surprise! While Aaron Rodgers’ rapid “decline” has been the subject of a number of articles and sports talk shows (hello, Colin Cowherd), the 15-year veteran only recorded the lowest interceptions rate among NFL quarterbacks with 100 pass attempts or more in 2019. And though AR12 has been slammed for reportedly not “sticking to the script” as far as following the offensive game plan, the 36-year-old field general’s improvisational magic continued to pull his team out of a few jams last season, including a Monday Night victory over Detroit and a playoff win over Seattle. Both tilts could have easily resulted in losses if not for the two-time MVP’s smarts, instincts and unique ability to uncork pinpoint off-balance throws in the face of pressure. He may have conceded the throne of the top NFL quarterback to Patrick Mahomes, but one would be hard pressed to leave Rodgers out of the top five players at the position.
2.Outside Linebacker- Since taking over for Ted Thompson as the GM in Titletown, Brian Gutekunst’s greatest success has been adding Za’darius Smith and Preston Smith via free agency in 2019. Za’darius, in particular, was a weekly tone setter, creating pressure as both an inside and outside rusher. In total, the former Raven led the NFL with 93 pressures on the season, along with leading the team with 13.5 sacks. The other half of the Smith Brothers, Preston, wasn’t as omnipresent, but served a valuable role in often setting the edge versus the run and providing a little pressure of his own, as he chipped in with 12 sacks. Opponents around the league are forced to account for both Smiths whenever the Packers are on the schedule. The coaching staff is hoping that 2019 first round pick Rashan Gary catches fire in a support role, as well as drawing contributions from Tim Williams and rookie Jonathan Garvin.
3.Running Back- The thrilling exploits of Aaron Jones were one of the key ingredients in Green Bay’s turnaround, with the darting back using his vision and quickness to gain 1,084 yards on the ground, 474 yards as a receiver and score a total of 19 touchdowns. Partner in crime, Jamaal Williams, isn’t nearly as nimble or elusive, but is one of the better blockers at his position, while also scoring a combined 6 touchdowns. In-season addition Tyler Ervin showed glimpses of his receiving prowess late in the season. Though sixth round pick Dexter Williams was a non-factor in 2019, the Packers have further augmented the backfield by selecting 247-pound pile driver A.J. Dillon in the second round of this year’s draft. In time, the former Boston College Eagle should be able to provide a sustaining element to the running game, particularly when Green Bay is playing with the lead.
1.Defensive Line- Though many fans found themselves in a state of stunned disbelief when the Packers failed to draft a single receiver, the fact that they didn’t select a defensive lineman with one of their nine picks had to be just as puzzling. For much of 2019, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s seemed more concerned with preventing big passing plays than stopping the run. Proof of that was in the numbers, with the Packers ranking 23rd against the run and actually allowing nine yards more per run in 2019 compared to the year prior (128.7 versus 119.9). Up front, Green Bay features a playmaking space eater in Kenny Clark, but not much else. While Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster are serviceable end-of-roster types, they rarely generate any game-changing splash plays. Free agents Treyvon Hester and Gerald Willis were signed after the draft and the hope is that at least one of them could show the ability to hold their ground against opposing blockers.
2.Wide Receiver- After months of speculation and analysis on the part of fans and media on the range of wide receivers that Packers were going to claim in this year’s draft from Jalen Reagor to Brandon Aiyuk to Denzel Mims, among others, Gutekunst and company came away empty handed. With the exception of Davante Adams, no one from the team’s receiver corps topped 35 receptions or 500 yards. Third-year speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling was especially putrid by ranking last in catch rate (46.43 percent) among qualifying wideouts and tight ends, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Though 6’5” Allen Lazard flashed promise, his sample size of production is too small to anoint him as Rodgers’ hands-down No. 2 target. Newly-acquired Devin Funchess brings size to the equation, but lacks the speed and sure-handedness to be an outside threat. Rounding out the lackluster crew are Equanimeous St. Brown, Jake Kumerow, Malik Taylor, Darrell Stewart and CFL import Reggie Begelton. Signing or trading for a veteran pass catcher before or after the preseason may elevate the level of this position, but currently there are far more questions than certainties here.
3.Cornerback- Former second round pick Kevin King is the classic riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma in that he features the physical tools and ball skills to come down with big interceptions, but is severely challenged in other areas. The 6’3” corner, in fact, ranked sixth overall among defensive backs in passes defensed (15). But he also gabe up a ton of chunk plays. In total, King surrendered 864 passing yards to opposing receivers, third-most in the NFL, along with allowing a gaudy 17.3 yards per completion. Unlike fellow starter Jaire Alexander, the Pac-12 product is far from a shutdown coverman and beyond Chandon Sullivan, the Packers don’t offer much in terms of reliable depth, particularly with 37-year-old slot corner Tramon Williams out of the picture, as he remains unsigned. Youngsters Ka’Dar Hollman and Josh Jackson are unproven, with the latter being among the team’s biggest underachievers who has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff. Physical rookie Stanford Samuels may have what it takes to make the final 53. But clearly more is needed on the back end.
1.Running Back- Dalvin Cook is everything you want in a running back, from his explosive burst to elude defenders and his ability to finish his runs with authority. The 25-year-old back ranked eighth in rushing with 1,135 yards and caught 53 passes along the way. One major question with Cook since entering the league is his durability. To date, he has yet to play a full 16-game season. But Minnesota is well covered from that aspect, as they feature a solid stable of runners, led by hard-charging second-year man Alexander Mattison, who absorbs and delivers punishment in equal measure. The smaller Mike Boone also packs a punch and shows serious wiggle when attacking the line of scrimmage. Rounding out the group is former second round bust Ameer Abdullah who fills in as a pass-catching back and special teams return man.
2.Safety- It would be hard to argue against Harrison Smith annually being among the top three to five NFL safeties since entering the league as a first round pick in 2012. The 31-year-old defender polices the backfield by often chipping in to alleviate coverage lapses by Minnesota’s corners. But Harrison does more than patrol the deep middle. He is a menacing blitzer and also excels in supporting the run. His consistent versatility earned him the title of Pro Football Focus’ highest graded safety in 2019. The Georgia native is flanked by the ball-hawking strong safety Anthony Harris, who intercepted a team-high 6 passes. The 6’1” enforcer is a student of the game who frequently positions himself in the right spots to make plays and is especially adept at disguising his intentions pre-snap to get an accurate read of the personnel.
3.Linebacker- The Vikings roster a formidable contingent of starters across the board, starting with the team’s most-improved player, per Pro Football Focus, in Eric Kendricks. He received a remarkable 90 rating in pass defense, as the ubiquitous veteran forced 14 incompletions, a league-high among linebackers. Outside ‘backer Anthony Barr uses his great length and speed to pursue ball carriers as an off-the-ball defender. Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer called the 28-year-old the “smartest player” he’s ever coached during a podcast appearance, comparing Barr to Jonathan Vilma in terms of his mental approach. Unheralded weakside linebacker Ben Gedeon is still developing, but has made strides in locating the ball and getting off blocks.
1.Cornerback- The Vikings’ brain trust really had no choice but to cut ties with the overpaid and underperforming Xavier Rhodes in the offseason. The longtime starter’s speed and coverage skills took an astounding tumble in 2019, as Rhodes gave up a catch on 83.5% of targets for a passer rating of 131.1, per Pro Football Focus. Similarly, the Wisconsin-born Trae Waynes has moved on by signing with the Bengals. His tenure with the Vikings was a spotty one in which he flashed glimpses of his ability, but more often struggled as an outside coverman. All eyes will be on the 23-year-old Mike Hughes entering the regular season. The oft-injured former first round pick has shown a mixed bag of good and bad in limited action. Going forward, he’ll need to improve his coverage technique and prove he can handle big physical receivers if he plans on being a long-term starter. TCU’s Jeff Gladney was selected with Minnesota’s 31st pick will also get a chance to start. He brings sticky man coverage skills and great instincts to the defense, but his lack of size at 191 pounds is a concern when he matches up versus bigger opponents. Cameron Dantzler is a tall, yet slender, rookie at 6’2”, 185 pounds and can make plays in off-coverage, but needs to shore up his run support.
2.Offensive Guard/Center- While Minnesota’s interior performed well in adapting to a newly-adopted zone blocking scheme last season, the same can’t be said for their pass protection. Center Garrett Bradbury labored with the concepts of taking the proper angles and hand usage. Guard Pat Elflein continued to showcase poor footwork, which resulted in the fourth-year pro allowing 6 sacks and getting flagged for 8 penalties. Former Viking Josh Kline wasn’t quite as disastrous, but never dominated. Dru Samia is currently penciled in as Kline’s replacement and should be viewed as nothing more than a shot in the dark at this juncture.
3.Defensive Tackle- Starters Shamar Stephen and ex-Raven Michael Pierce add some major beef to the defensive line, with both tipping the scales at well over 300 pounds. Stephen didn’t step up versus some of the top ground attacks in 2019 (see playoff loss to the 49ers) and produced a meager 2 pressures in his nearly 600 snaps. And though Pierce comes from a Baltimore defense that finished in the top five in rushing yards allowed in three of the previous four seasons, he isn’t expected to contribute much as a pass rusher either. Brooklyn-born Jaleel Johnson is a solid, but rarely spectacular depth piece. While Hercules Mata’afa is someone who could emerge as an interior disruptor, the reality is the Vikings have never found a suitable replacement for Sheldon Richardson.
1.Defensive Line- Fresh off a career-best 7-sack campaign in 2018, Akiem Hicks was primed for an encore that never materialized during an injury-plagued season. Known as one the league’s premiere run stuffers among 3-4 defensive ends, Hicks only suited up for five games. His loss had a profound impact on the defense, which still held opposing running backs to under 4 yards per carry and ranked eighth-best in first downs against. Flanking Hicks is a combo of run enforcers who know how to get down and anchor in Bilal Nichols, Brent Urban and Roy Robertson-Harris, who possesses heavy hands and quick feet to wreak havoc, while also contributing on special teams. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman does a lot of the dirty work by taking on double-teams and also uses his big motor and rare agility to slip by blockers and blow up plays. This unit is poised for a bounceback barring the injuries it endured in 2019.
2.Outside Linebacker- A lingering ankle injury and the aforementioned loss of Hicks made it much easier for opposing teams to neutralize all-world edge rusher Khalil Mack. He still notched 8.5 sacks, forced 5 fumbles and ranked seventh among pass rushers in defending the run, per Pro Football Focus. Look for newly-acquired free agent Robert Quinn to lift the burden off Mack’s shoulders, as the former Cowboy is a proven disruptor, with five seasons of 8.5 sacks or more in his career, including 11.5 in 2019. Expect Quinn to bring some added physicality and technique that former first round bust Leonard Floyd couldn’t provide.
3.Inside Linebacker- Embattled GM Ryan Pace chose to re-sign 30-year-old veteran Danny Trevathan over the younger Nick Kwiatkoski in the offseason. While Kwiatkowski is an emerging player who demonstrated the ability to defend the run, drop into coverage and blitz the quarterback, Trevathan was viewed as an emotional leader and more reliable presence. The one-time Denver Bronco has the instincts and versatility to continue on as a three-down linebacker. Just as important is his veteran presence that allows him to line up teammates and serve as an on-field coach. Joining him will be the 23-year-old Roquan Smith, who comes with some character concerns, but has uncommon speed to elude blocks and the ability to drop back and mirror pass catchers in coverage. His numbers were down last season due in part to missed action resulting from injury and an undisclosed personal issue.
1.Quarterback- Well, you knew this was coming. Despite publicly announcing that the beleaguered Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles will compete for the starting quarterback job, it’s hard to believe that it won’t be handed to the Super Bowl Champion journeyman. Coach Matt Nagy has gone to great lengths to simplify the offense for Trubisky over the past two seasons by limiting him to a steady diet of short, safe throws. Still, the North Carolina product has done nothing but regress in terms of handling pressure or developing the deep accuracy to keep defenses honest. In his third season as Chicago’s starter, “MVP Mitch” was PFF’s 30th ranked NFL signal caller, trailing the likes of Dwayne Haskins, Gardner Minshew and Andy Dalton. Foles, on the other hand, can run hot and cold, but a couple of elements he does offer are the toughness to hang in the pocket and the timing/ball placement to hit targets in stride. Allen Robinson, ageless speed merchant Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Miller should all greatly benefit from catching passes delivered by the fearless Foles. Robinson, in particular, should anticipate more 50-50 balls coming his way. On the flip side, the 31-year-old is about as mobile as a 40-yard construction dumpster, which could make him susceptible to injuries, sacks and turnovers. The good news for Bears fans is that next year’s draft is shaping up as a strong one for quarterbacks.
2.Offensive Line- The loss of right guard Kyle Long to retirement left Chicago with limited options in replacing the 3-time Pro Bowler, who was clearly in physical decline. They settled for signing one-man penalty machine Germain Ifedi. During his tenure with the Seahawks, Ifedi twice led the league in accepted penalties in 2017 (16) and 2019 (13). The former first-round pick couldn’t curb his penchant for holding calls or jumping off sides. Raw left guard James Daniels is still learning on the job. Collectively, the Bears inside run blocking has been subpar throughout Nagy’s reign, with his team ranking 27th and 29th in that area over the past two seasons. At the bookends, Charles Leno Jr. is average at best on the left side, where he gets overpowered and knocked off-balance by quality defenders in pass protection and is serviceable, but hardly dominant in opening up holes in the running game. In addition, the blindside blocker is coming off a year that saw him earn the dubious distinction of being the fourth-most flagged player (12). Right tackle Bobbie Massie, 30, seems to be breaking down physically and missed six games in 2019. The lack of depth is also alarming considering that former Packer and waist-bender extraordinaire Jason Spriggs was signed to be the team’s swing tackle.
3.Tight End- At this stage, Jimmy Graham is your run-of-the-mill catch-and-fall tight end, who may stumble his way to 4 or 5 touchdowns due to his imposing 6’7” frame near the goal line. Yes, he is Chicago’s TE1 entering the season and is being handsomely paid for it to the tune of $9 million guaranteed. Second round pick Cole Kmet — unlike Graham— has some speed and suddenness to his game, but will have to be more of a technician at the pro level in terms of running routes and cleanly catching the ball in his hands. Demetrius Harris is an ancillary piece who can block, but his proneness to error will get exposed if given a hearty portion of snaps. As a backup, though, Harris looks to be an upgrade over Adam Shaheen, who since being drafted by GM Ryan Pace in 2017, has yet to master the footwork needed to run block. The man once dubbed “Baby Gronk” has struggled to stay on the field and has hauled in 26 career receptions in his three years of service. Anticipate Chicago cutting ties with Shaheen in the very near future.
1.Wide Receiver- Kenny Golladay’s imposing 6’4”, 218-pound frame, soft hands, ample wingspan and ability to separate downfield make him the type of vertical threat most teams can’t defend one-on-one. The third-year veteran is coming off his best season yet that saw him gain 1,190 receiving yards and score 11 touchdowns. Wing man Marvin Jones is a contested-catch specialist and deep threat who scored 9 touchdowns of his own. Danny Amendola is a steady slot man who moves the chains. Marvin Hall is a speedy 5’10” field stretcher. The Lions also brought in Geronimo Allison as a reclamation project. The 6’3″ wideout was miscast as a slot receiver during his last season in Green Bay. Rookie Quintez Cephus may end up being a fifth round steal. The former Wisconsin Badger recorded 901 receiving yards as a junior in a run-heavy offense, where his strong hands, separation skills and leaping prowess allowed him to consistently beat coverage. He’ll have an opportunity to quickly work his way up the depth chart in Motown.
2.Running Back– Knee injuries in consecutive years have sparked concern among Lions diehards pertaining to Kerryon Johnson’s ability to perform as team’s RB1. The explosive three-down back may soon be supplanted as the feature ball carrier thanks to Detroit investing a second round pick in Georgia playmaker D’Andre Swift, who has a similar three-down skill set. He combines quick burst, balance and home-run hitting speed, along with possessing natural hands out of the backfield. Bo Scarbrough is a 236-pound hammer who’ll continue playing a role, while rookie Jason Huntley is a sub 200-pound scat back.
3.Quarterback- At 32 years old, Matthew Stafford may be on the tail end of his prime considering a slew of injuries he’s endured, including thoracic spine fractures that landed him on the IR list halfway through the 2019 season. The Texas-born flamethrower still has one of the biggest arms in the league, while also boasting deep accuracy on passes of 25 yards plus. Stafford averaged a career-best 8.6 yards per attempt the last time we saw him in action and was PFF’s eighth-ranked passer alongside Deshaun Watson. The reason why No. 9 gets overshadowed in the conversation of great quarterbacks is his lack of success in the postseason. Sadly, Detroit doesn’t have the look of a playoff team in 2020, but that shouldn’t minimize Stafford’s standing among his NFL peers.
1.Linebacker- The Lions front office acknowledged the fact that 2017 first round pick Jarrad Davis hasn’t panned out by declining to pick up his fifth-year option. The 25-year-old is currently listed as the starting middle linebacker on the team’s depth chart, but newcomer Reggie Ragland will be counted on to compete for the job. Davis can be an intimidating presence, but his shortcomings in pass coverage negate any physical play he brings as a downhill defender. In fact, the former Florida Gator gave up a 78.4 percent completion percentage and a 116.6 percent passer rating against last year, per Pro Football Reference. Ragland — also a former first round pick — has battled injuries early in his pro career with the Buffalo Bills, but bounced back physically as a Kansas City Chief. Coming out of college, Ragland was often referred to as a “throwback,” which is a code word for guys who can’t run. As one of many former Patriots on Detroit’s roster, Jamie Collins is a sound free-agent addition. The thumping downhill aggressor led New England in sacks, tackles and tackles for a loss. But he alone can’t elevate this thin group. The curious release of the versatile Devon Kennard won’t help matters. Christian Jones will man the other outside spot and though he is a physical, try-hard competitor, his lack of instincts often translate into misplays.
2.Defensive Tackle- Inconsistent two-down lineman Danny Shelton was signed to occupy one of the starting spots inside. He’ll be joined by anonymous worker bee John Atkins, who ranked 110th at his position, according to PFF. Long-armed Da’Shawn Hand can supply a dose of inside pass rushing if he can overcome his injuries. Rookie John Penisini is a wide two-gapper with poor lateral agility. Injuries to fading veterans Damon “Snacks” Harrison and former Packer Mike Daniels really hurt the Lions run defense in 2019, as the Silver and Blue gave up the 12th most rushing yards. Both are out of the picture, but things don’t look to improve any time soon.
3.Cornerback- The 2019 season was a tough one for Detroit’s defensive backfield that gave up the most air yards and produced the lowest interception rate (1.1 percent) in the NFL. The coaching staff will need first round pick Jeffrey Okudah to be an instant difference maker as a defender who can press receivers at the line and shadow them up and down the field. Will Okudah fill in Darius Slay’s shoes in Year One, the odds are against that happening since the rookie will need to refine his hand technique to avoid penalties and show better ball skills on passes that need to be picked off. The 29-year-old Desmond Trufant has incurred his share of injuries in recent years and while he still shows flashes of being a lockdown corner, he has lost some of his trademark quickness and speed. Justin Coleman gets his hands on a lot of balls, but also surrendered a passer rating of 100-plus. Ex-Jet Daryl Roberts is a player they couldn’t wait to get rid of in New York after seeing him systematically being outrun and overpowered by opposing receivers.——————
When ~Reverend~ Ralph Mancini is not tackling hard news in New York City, he enjoys analyzing his favorite sports team, the Green Bay Packers. You can follow him on twitter at ReverendRalph.