Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and the 10 Best Players in the NFC North
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The NFC North featured two of the top five offenses in the NFL last season with the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. Add the improved Chicago Bears offense to that mix, and now you have the most talented offensive division in football heading into 2012.
And that's why seven of the best 10 players in the NFC North line up on the offensive side of the football.
Some of the most explosive skill players in the NFL will surely affect what should be a hotly contested race in the NFC North. Constructing a list of the best offensive players in this division is difficult enough, but the NFC North also has a few future Hall of Fame players on the defensive end, too.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers directed the Packers to a 15-1 record in a historic season to capture the 2011-12 division title, but is he the top player in the NFC North heading into this year?
Here is a look at the top 10 players in the division.
10. Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears
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Brian Urlacher suffered a knee injury in the final week of the 2011-12 season at the Vikings' Metrodome, and much of the attention on the future Hall of Fame linebacker lately has been spent on his potential free-agent status at the end of this season, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
But let's not forget that Urlacher, even at age 34, is still one of the best middle linebackers in the game. He has played in every game in 10 of his 12 NFL seasons, and in nine of those seasons, he has recorded more than 100 tackles.
That consistency is why he is the heart and soul of the Monsters of the Midway. The Bears boast a reputation of defensive toughness, and no one is tougher at the middle linebacker position in the NFC North than Urlacher.
This season might be Urlacher's final year in Chicago, but the eight-time All-Pro can still get the job done leading the Bears defense, which was the best in the NFC North in 2011-12.
9. Clay Matthews III, OLB, Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews III
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After a breakout season in 2010-11 during Green Bay's run to the Super Bowl XLV title, Clay Matthews III and the Packers defense regressed in 2011-12, finishing last in the NFL in total team defense.
Matthews had 13.5 sacks and 60 tackles two years ago, but he followed that up with a six-sack, 50-tackle performance last season.
Perhaps Matthews and the rest of the Packers defense took the foot off the gas because the offense was rolling all season long. Maybe it was a Super Bowl hangover. Even after the step back last year, Matthews is still one of the most feared pass-rushers in the game, and he is one of the best playmakers on the Green Bay defense.
He still forced three fumbles and picked off three passes last season, and his forced fumble in Super Bowl XLV shifted the momentum in favor of Green Bay. He has the potential to cause a turnover on nearly every play, and that ability is why he is one of the top defensive players in football entering his fourth NFL season.
8. Brandon Marshall, WR, Chicago Bears
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The Chicago Bears have not had a legitimate top receiving threat since Marty Booker in 2002. They now have that go-to option at wide receiver with Brandon Marshall.
Marshall instantly makes the Bears offense one of the best in the NFL. Chicago offers arguably the best three-headed, QB-RB-WR combination in football with Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Marshall (assuming the Bears can sort out Forte's contract situation).
Marshall has five straight seasons with at least 80 receptions and at least 1,000 receiving yards. Marshall had a career-high 104 catches during the 2007-08 season with the Denver Broncos and a career-high 1,365 yards during the 2006-07 season, also with Denver.
His quarterback during that time? Current Chicago quarterback Cutler.
Marshall arguably possesses the most raw talent of any receiver in the NFC North that isn't named Calvin Johnson. Both Marshall and Cutler have matured as players since their days in Denver, and the Bears will reap the benefits of this dynamic duo in the passing game.
7. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
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Even with the most disappointing season in his career in 2011-12, this list can't go on without including Adrian Peterson. Before suffering a devastating injury to both his ACL and MCL in his left knee, Peterson was arguably the most electric ball carrier in the NFL.
Peterson failed to rush for at least 1,000 yards for the first time in his five-year career in 2011-12 due to the injury, but he still reached double-digit touchdowns for the fifth time. The Vikings expect Peterson to be ready to go early in the 2012 season. Judging by how he looked in one of his rehab training sessions, Peterson could be at full strength for Week 1.
Minnesota's primary running back is a physical specimen, and he is one of the best running backs the league has ever seen. The only reason why he is this low on the list is because it is unknown how he will perform after he recovers from the knee injury.
6. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
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Matthew Stafford's breakout season was the main reason why the Detroit Lions offense rose to elite status in 2011-12. The former No. 1 overall pick was superb in his first full NFL season in leading the Lions to their first playoff appearance since 1999.
Stafford put to rest any doubt regarding his talent by surpassing the 5,000-yard mark last year after suffering injuries in his first two NFL seasons. Now that Stafford has shown that he could perform at a Pro Bowl level, and because he is equipped with the best wide receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson, critics will look for Stafford to take the next step in 2012.
Anything less than another playoff appearance will be a disappointment for Detroit if the team remains healthy. Stafford is armed with one of the most electric offenses in the NFL, and look for him to post jaw-dropping numbers once again this season.
5. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
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Matt Forte was the most important component to the Bears offense in 2011-12 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 13. Even though he missed the final four games of the season, he led the team in rushing (by 575 yards) and receptions.
Forte's contract situation with Chicago has been perhaps the most publicized story of the Bears offseason. According to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, the team is now concerned with how Forte's knee's will hold up for the future, and this may get in the way of both parties reaching a long-term agreement.
Putting all contractual issues aside, Forte is one of the best dual-threat backs in the NFL. Few teams have a player who could lead the offense in rushing and receiving.
With the addition of Brandon Marshall and running back Michael Bush, the Bears won't expect Forte to carry as much of the load as he did last year. But with Chicago's rejuvenated passing game and a healthy Jay Cutler, Forte's average yards per rush should see a significant boost.
4. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
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Name one other player on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line besides Jared Allen.
And don't use Google.
Allen is the anchor of the Minnesota defense, and he would have set the NFL record for sacks in a season if Brett Favre didn't hand Michael Strahan the record. Allen had 3.5 sacks in the final game of the 2011-12 season against the Chicago Bears to finish with a career-high 22 sacks on the year.
Allen has recorded double-digit sacks in each of his four seasons in Minnesota, and he has collected double-digit sacks in six of his eight NFL seasons. Allen is the only dominant player on the Vikings' defense, and he completely shuts down the entire left side of the field with his ability to defend against the run in addition to the pass.
Allen is the best pass-rusher in a division that includes Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews III—that's saying something.
3. Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears
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Jay Cutler was playing some of the best football of his career as he led the Chicago Bears to a five-game winning streak and a 7-3 record in the middle of the 2011-12 season. He finally looked like the quarterback that the team had envisioned when they traded two first-round picks, a third-round pick and Kyle Orton for the former Vanderbilt standout.
Then, Cutler injured his thumb and missed the rest of the season. And the Bears sank.
But now Cutler is healthy, and he has big targets in Brandon Marshall and second-round pick Alshon Jeffery to throw to, and he has an offensive coordinator in Mike Tice who will cater to his strengths. Cutler is primed for the best year of his career in 2012.
Oh, and he has Matt Forte and Michael Bush to anchor the rushing attack and help out in the passing game.
Cutler has more weapons than he has ever had in his NFL career. As long as the young offensive line continues to make strides like it has in the past two years, Cutler will have a huge season.
Mark this down, and you saw it here first—Cutler will eclipse the 4,000-yard passing mark and toss for more than 30 touchdowns in 2012.
2. Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
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Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL.
Megatron had an outstanding 2011-12, with career highs in receiving yards (1,681), receptions (96) and touchdown catches (16). He is young, durable and has one of the best young arms in the NFL passing him the ball in Matthew Stafford.
The scary part for the rest of the NFC North is that we have just seen the beginning of the Stafford-Johnson connection. Stafford is 24, and Johnson is 26. This duo and the young Detroit Lions offense was just getting started in 2011-12, and the future looks bright.
The NFL has never seen the combination of speed, size, hands and athleticism that Megatron possesses. He is a unique talent who puts double coverage to shame. Johnson was one of the primary reasons why the Lions were able to put up points in a hurry and were able to erase insurmountable deficits.
And this future Hall of Fame receiver is in the thick of his prime entering the 2012 season.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
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Aaron Rodgers had a historic 2011-12 campaign, setting the NFL record for passer rating in a single season (122.5). The Super Bowl XLV MVP is still the king of the hill in the NFC North until someone knocks him off the top.
After a 15-1 season in which Rodgers passed for 45 touchdowns and tossed just six interceptions, the Packers bowed out of the postseason with a disappointing 37-20 loss to the New York Giants.
And you better believe that loss will only fuel the fire for last year's regular-season MVP. Green Bay will return just as strong this season.
Rodgers has arguably the best overall receiving corps in the NFL, and he did not lose any of those weapons. With this 28-year-old QB at the helm, the Packers will never be out of any game, and they will surely contend for a division title.
Rodgers has a laser for an arm, is a sharp play-caller at the line of scrimmage and has the speed to avoid sacks and make plays with his legs. He is excellent at finding mismatches for his talented receivers.
Rodgers is the complete package at the most important position in sports, and he is the top player in the NFC North.