Every team in the NFC North managed to make significant improvements in the offseason, whether it be through the draft, free agency, or trades. It should be a tight race throughout the season, as every team has a shot at winning the division.
To determine what teams have the best shot at the divisional crown, each team has been ranked in each key position.
1. Green Bay Packers: The Packers have Aaron Rodgers behind center, and he more than proved himself last season, throwing 26 TD's to just 13 picks. He has arguably the best receiving tandem in the division as well with Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. With a full season under his belt, he should be even better than he was last year.
2. Chicago Bears: In what was easily the biggest trade of the off season, the Chicago Bears traded for Jay Cutler. Cutler is just 25 years old and coming off a pro-bowl caliber season. The only reason I won't rank Cutler higher is the lack of weapons he has to throw to in Chicago, and the fact that he has to adapt to a new offense.
3. Minnesota Vikings: The starting QB in Minnesota is likely to be free agent pickup Sage Rosenfels, who did an admirable job backing up Matt Schaub in Houston last year. He should provide some of the same stability that veteran Gus Frerotte gave the Vikings in '08. Tarvaris Jackson could take back the starting job if he can perform like he did towards the end of last season.
4. Detroit Lions: Daunte Culpepper will start the season as quarterback, and it will be his job to lose, as the Lions don't want to rush Matthew Stafford into the starting role. He claims he's in the best shape of his life, and he has one of the best receivers in the game in Calvin Johnson. If he is anywhere near the form he was in when he played in Minnesota he'll do well. Unfortunately I don't think he's as good as he says.
1. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, arguably the best running back in the NFL. He will challenge for the rushing title again this year, and his only weakness appears to be his tendency to fumble on occasion.
2. Chicago Bears: Last season rookie Matt Forte exceeded all expectations and carried the Bears offense on his back. He provided a solid rushing attack that the Bears haven't had since Thomas Jones left, and showed that he can catch the ball as well as any back in the game.
3. Detroit Lions: The Lions took a chance in drafting Kevin Smith last year, as he racked up a ton of carries in college. It paid off, however, as he quickly established himself as a solid NFL running back. He very nearly topped the 1,000 yard mark in '08, despite sitting behind Rudi Johnson for the first few games.
4. Green Bay Packers: Two years ago Ryan Grant came out of nowhere and put up some sick numbers, running all over everyone. Last year he came back down to Earth, and his YPC average dropped tremendously. If he doesn't start to play like he did in 2007, the Packers will start looking for another option in the backfield.
Wide Receiver / Tight End
1. Detroit Lions: "Megatron" AKA Calvin Johnson, maybe just be the most gifted athlete in the NFL. If Daunte Culpepper can consistently be mediocre or better, then CJ will put up some gaudy numbers. The additions of Brandon Pettigrew, Bryant Johnson, and Ronald Curry should also help whoever starts at quarterback.
2. Green Bay Packers: They have the deepest receiving core in the division. Jennings and Driver are both great, although Driver's getting old. Behind him they have some more solid options in James Jones and Jordy Nelson. They also have two decent tight ends in Donald Lee and Jermichael Finley.
3. Minnesota Vikings: This is a team that has some serious speed at the wide receiver position. Bernard Berrian, Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, and Bobby Wade can all fly down the field. There are still question marks, however, as the Vikings still need a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. None of the receivers in Minnesota are good enough to go up and get the ball on a bad pass, with the exception of maybe Berrian. Visanthe Shiancoe will be the QB's best friend this year, as he's the safest option the Vikes have.
4. Chicago Bears: The Bears took steps to improve their receivers, but Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox are not the immediate answer. Devin Hester should continue to improve, and will make a few big plays, but he's too small and inexperienced to be a true No. 1. Rashied Davis and Earl Bennett are both gifted athletes, and have underperformed so far. They need to step up. The real bright spot comes from the tight end position with Desmond Clark and Greg Olson, who are both reliable options.
1. Minnesota Vikings: Steve Hutchinson is one of the best guards in the game. Throw in Bryant McKinnie and the Vikings have one of the best left sides out there. John Sullivan and Anthony Herrera are both decent, and the addition of Philip Loadholt will immediately strengthen the right side of the line for them. Adrian Peterson is licking his chops.
2. Chicago Bears: They aren't the youngest offensive line, but they're still good, at least for a few more years. Orlando Pace, Olin Kreutz, and Chris Williams are all top- notch linemen. Beekman and Garza aren't quite pro-bowl caliber, but they can get the job done as well.
3. Green Bay Packers: The Packers adressed their line in the draft by grabbing Jamon Meredith, who could turn out to be one of the biggest steals this year. Tony Moll is a stud as well, but the rest of the line could use some work.
4. Detroit Lions: The Lions offensive line is improving, and Gosder Cherilus could become a dominant player, but that won't happen this year. Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola have both underachieved, and need to play better if they want to keep their jobs.
1. Minnesota Vikings: This is not even close. The Vikings have the most dominant defensive line in the NFL. Kevin and Pat Williams are pro-bowl tackles, and Jared Allen might be the best defensive end in the league. Ray Edwards is the odd man out, and he still got 5 sacks last year.
2. Chicago Bears: Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye are both great pass rushers and run stoppers, and both will be possible pro-bowlers again this season. in the middle, Tommie Harris is an absolute beast. Dusty Dvoracek is decent, but they could use an upgrade there in the future.
3. Green Bay Packers: Moving to the 3-4 defense, the Packers needed a top-notch nose tackle, and they got one in B.J. Raji. Cullin Jenkins and Justin Harrell will join him on the outside, and are both athletic run stoppers.
4. Detroit Lions: The Lions chose not to improve their defensive line very much in the off season. The addition of Grady Jackson helps, but it's not nearly enough. Draft pick Sammie Lee Hill could turn out to be a stud, but that'll take a couple years. As it is, the Lions line still needs a ton of work.
1. Green Bay Packers: This was tough, as the NFC North is filled with deep linebacking cores. The Packers need 4 good linebackers to run their defense, however, compared to every other team's 3. That gives them the edge. Aaron Kampman, A.J. Hawk, and Nick Barnett are both young, athletic, and electrifying playmakers. The addition of Clay Matthews gives them one of the smartest linebackers in this year's draft class.
2. Detroit Lions: The Lions got a lot of flak for passing on Rey Maualuga in the draft, but they made up for that by picking up a guy named Larry Foote. Foote will start in the middle with Julian Peterson and Ernie Sims on either side of him. The additions of Foote and Peterson give the Lions one of the scariest trio of linebackers in the game.
3. Chicago Bears: Brian Urlacher is perennially one of the best players in the NFL, and Lance Briggs is just as good. The only reason they aren't ranked higher is Nick Roach, who just isn't that good. Also, Urlacher isn't getting any younger.
4. Minnesota Vikings: Chad Greenway is an excellent young player, and he will be a starting linebacker for a long time. E.J. Henderson missed most of the '08 season, but if he stays healthy he should have a good year as well. Ben Leber is serviceable, but that's about it.
1. Greenbay Packers: Nobody will want to throw the deep ball against the Packers with Al Harris and Charles Woodson sitting back there. Will Blackmon and Tramon Williams are good backups as well. While Atari Bigby is nothing special at strong safety, Nick Collins is a game changer at the free safety spot.
2. Chicago Bears: Like the Packers, the Bears are deep at cornerback with Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher leading the way. Josh Bullocks and Danieal Manning are both solid free safeties, although they're a bit weak at strong safety with Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz.
3. Detroit Lions: Like they did with their linebackers, the Lions improved their secondary by leaps and bounds. At the cornerback position they grabbed Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, who will compliment Travis Fisher. At safety, Gerald Alexander and Daniel Bullocks are both young and talented, and are primed for breakout years. The addition of Louis Delmas in the draft gave them a playmaker that can immediately contribute as well.
4. Minnesota Vikings: Antonie Winfield is a solid corner, and so is Cedric Griffin. Neither of them are spectacular, however. The same goes for their safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams. While Williams has moments of greatness, he is barely above average.
In an attempt to tie these numbers into some sort of cohesive ranking, this is what I came up with. I just added each teams ranks in each category, and re-ranked them lowest to highest.
Using my calculations, this is how the division should pan out.
1. Packers (15 points)
2(tied). Vikings (17 points)
2(tied). Bears (17 points)
4. Lions (21 points)