The NFC North has been run by the Green Bay Packers for years, with the other three teams typically hoping to sneak into the playoffs with a wild-card berth. It’s not just that the Packers have the best quarterback or coach in the division, but their overall roster is usually the best among the four teams.
Will that be the case in 2017?
To put the division into perspective talent-wise, we ranked the 15 best players in the NFC North. This doesn’t determine which team is best or worst, but it does give you a look at the number of great players in the division.
USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
Golden Tate, WR, Lions
Anthony Barr, OLB, Vikings
Riley Reiff, LT, Vikings
Nick Perry, OLB, Packers
Martellus Bennett, TE, Packers
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Bears
If not for two concussions, Floyd could have put up even better numbers than the already solid ones that he did. He had seven sacks in 12 games and looked every bit like the pass rusher the Bears hoped they’d be getting in the first round of last year’s draft. He’ll continue to develop into a well-rounded player who can also stuff the run on the edge, which is an area of his game that could use some improvement. He’ll almost certainly eclipse double-digit sacks in 2017 and will be a big part of the Bears’ defense.
Darius Slay, CB, Lions
Slay missed three games in 2016 due to a hamstring injury, which did hinder his play a bit. However, he was terrific in 2015 and should return to that sort of form this season. He’ll once again be the team’s No. 1 cornerback, which will require him to cover the league’s best receivers on a consistent basis, but he’s never backed down from a challenge. His toughness and willingness to tackle make him one of the most versatile corners in the league.
Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings
Hunter broke out in a big way last season, finishing tied for third with 12.5 sacks. He did that while only playing 58 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, which is a remarkable feat. He should absolutely become a full-time player for the Vikings this season and continue to rack up sacks on a consistent basis, even with the amount of talent they have at defensive end. He’s a player to watch as a prime candidate to lead the league in sacks this season after seeing what he did in a part-time role.
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Kyle Long, RG, Bears
Long has bounced around a bit on the offensive line in recent years, going from right guard to right tackle and now back to guard. This past season was his first without a Pro Bowl appearance, which was solely because he missed eight games. When he’s healthy, which is the majority of the time, Long has proved to be a key piece on the Bears’ offensive line in both the passing game and ground attack.
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Everson Griffen, DE, Vikings
There’s no doubt Griffen can get after the quarterback on a consistent basis, creating pressure on 68 snaps last season – the most of any player at his position. While his sack total may not look impressive (8.0), he’s always wreaking havoc in opposing backfields and forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quicker than they’d like. That’s a huge asset for a defense and it’s a big reason the Vikings were so dominant on that side of the ball for much of the season. He and Danielle Hunter are one of the best duos in the league.
Rick Wagner, RT, Lions
The Lions went out and made Wagner the second-highest paid right tackle in the NFL this offseason, doling out $9.5 million per year. He’s worth the money as right tackle has become nearly as important as the blindside protectors are, and with Taylor Decker going down, Wagner will be an even more valuable asset on the offensive line as Detroit rebuilds that unit. Hopefully he can be the player he was last season and not the one that showed up in 2015 when he struggled.
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Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers
Nelson bounced back after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL to catch 97 passes for 1,257 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns. While he didn’t exactly look like his old self – he’s certainly lost a step and isn’t the vertical threat he once was – Nelson was still the team’s best receiver, and one of the most productive in the game. With another year to get over the ACL injury, hopefully Nelson can regain some of the explosiveness he had in 2014 when he was a Pro Bowler.
T.J. Lang, RG, Lions
When healthy, Lang is one of the best guards in the league. He’s outstanding in pass protection and is still rock solid when blocking in the running game, which is why the Lions coveted him this offseason. Matthew Stafford needs all the help he can get on the offensive line, and signing a player who didn’t surrender a single sack in 2016 will certainly go a long way.
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Jordan Howard, RB, Bears
If not for the hype and impressive season for Ezekiel Elliott, Howard would have garnered much more attention in 2016. He was second in the NFL in rushing with 1,313 yards and six touchdowns, putting together a remarkable season for a fifth-round rookie. One can only assume he’s going to continue to get better as he improves his receiving skills and as a pass blocker, which will keep him on the field even more. He doesn’t have elite traits or breakaway speed, but he finds ways to get extra yardage and break arm tackles.
Harrison Smith, FS, Vikings
Smith has unfortunately dealt with injury issues over the course of his career, causing him to miss 13 games in the last four seasons. Despite the fact that he didn’t play a full season in 2016, he still racked up 91 tackles and two sacks in 14 games. Some would say he’s the best safety in the game because of his versatility as a free and strong safety who can do it all – somewhat like Eric Berry – but he’s not there yet for me. Hopefully he can stay healthy for all of 2017 and put up even bigger numbers.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Packers
Clinton-Dix is a huge part of the Packers’ defense, playing that centerfield role as a free safety. Few are better in that spot than he is, proving to be rock solid in coverage and a reliable run defender. He had his best season to date in 2016, picking off five passes with seven passes defensed, one forced fumble and 79 tackles. He earned his first Pro Bowl bid as a result, which should be an annual trip for him going forward. He’s improved each season thus far and will continue to do so as Green Bay’s defense improves.
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Xavier Rhodes, CB, Vikings
Rhodes had himself a breakout year in 2016, making his first Pro Bowl and proving to be an elite cornerback for the Vikings. He picked off five passes, one of which was returned 100 yards for a touchdown, and was rock solid in coverage. According to Next Gen Stats, he only allowed a passer rating of 39.2 in coverage and a completion rate of 41.8 – the best in the league. There’s no doubt he’s solidified himself as a true shutdown cornerback, giving the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson and Kelvin Benjamin. There’s very little he can’t do in coverage, be it man or zone.
David Bakhtiari, LT, Packers
Bakhtiari flies somewhat under the radar in Green Bay when it comes to the best left tackles in the game. Tyron Smith, Joe Thomas and Trent Williams are among the players who get mentioned in that conversation, but Bakhtiari certainly deserves to be in it. He was one of the best linemen in pass protection last season, allowing just 20 pressures all year – a remarkable number for a left tackle. And that’s with facing some of the best pass rushers in the league. He’s a premier offensive lineman.
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Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Stafford doesn’t get much recognition for being an elite quarterback, mainly because he’s right on the fringe of becoming one. He puts up big numbers, but his teams never make deep runs into the playoffs, or make the postseason at all. That’s a huge factor. However, when considering what he has to work with around him, it’s hard to fault him for Detroit’s struggles. Without Calvin Johnson last season, Stafford still threw 24 touchdown passes and had just 10 interceptions with 4,327 passing yards. It was one of his best seasons yet – while dealing with a finger injury late in the year – and he’s the sole reason Detroit made the postseason.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Was there any doubt about this one? Rodgers isn’t only the best player in the division, he’s one of the three or four best players in the league. Without him, the Packers are probably a seven-win team and wouldn’t have the number of playoff appearances that they do. What makes Rodgers so great is that he elevates the entire team. His savvy on play action, his calls at the line of scrimmage, his freelancing outside the pocket. It all works in unison to make him an elite quarterback, allowing him to pull off plays that very few other people on this planet could.