NFC North: Ranking the Top Skilled Position Players
While most notable free agents have locked on to new teams, the balance of power in the NFC North has shifted.
Johnny Lawrence breaks down position by position the top four players at each skill position within the division:
Cutler, from Santa Claus, Indiana, was traded to the team he rooted for as a child on April 2, 2008, becoming the first Pro Bowl quarterback to take center with the Bears since Jim McMahon in 1985.
Without multiple big name receivers, Cutler may not post numbers quite like last year's, but make no mistake, Cutler is the most distinguishable quarterback of the bunch.
2) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
2008: 341 for 536, 4,038 yards, 28 TD, 13 INT. 63.6 percent.
Rodgers' 4,000 yard season was reminiscent of his predecessor Brett Favre. Destined to duplicate the success of Green Bay's 16-year starter, his receiving corps lacks no shortage of talent.
A healthy and improved defense should open up the passing game, making the Packer offense hard to contain. Rodgers ranked third in the NFC in passer rating and has Pro Bowl potential if all the pieces fall into place.
3) Daunte Culpepper, Detroit
2008: 60 for 115, 786 yards, 4 TD, 6 INT. 52.2 percent.
Culpepper looks to be the front runner to start over this year's first overall draft pick, Matthew Stafford.
How long he holds onto the job may depend on his production. If he can post average to above average numbers, and not cost the Lions any games...he should stave off Stafford until 2010.
His track record with new Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was impressive in Minnesota, but he needs to prove the injury bug has not permanently infected his game.
4) Tarvaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels, Minnesota
2008: Jackson—88 for 149, 1,056 yards, 9 TD, 2 INT. 59.1 percent.
Rosenfels—116 for 174, 1,431 yards, 6 TD, 10 INT. 66.7 percent.
Let's face facts, it doesn't appear either Jackson or Rosenfels are qualified to lead this team down the field.
The weakest link on a well rounded team, any success the Vikings achieve will be despite these unheralded players. Minnesota fans can only hope Favre's shoulder doesn't require major repair or else inefficient passers will take the lead into the playoff race.
Last year, Jackson did not perform as poorly as two years ago, but he was unimpressive enough to hand his livelihood to a 15-year veteran with a 74.2 percent career rating (Gus Frerrote).
Rosenfels completed a majority of his passes, but made an inordinate number of mistakes in limited time.
1) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
2008: 363 rushes for 1,760 yards, 10 TD. 21 catches for 125 yards, 0 TD.
Possibly the most feared running back in the game, he led the NFL in rushing yards last season. Even a 25th ranked passing game in Minnesota couldn't help defenses that knew what was coming.
Peterson plowed through offensive lines and mowed down linebackers, averaging 110 yards per game. Only the fifth running back in NFL history to rush for 3,000 yards in his first two seasons, look for Peterson to run through the heart of division rival defenses again.
2) Matt Forte, Chicago
2008: 316 rushes for 1,238 yards, 8 TD. 63 catches for 477 yards, 4 TD.
Forte had a breakout rookie season in 2008, grabbing the starting gig for the Chicago Bears. Combining his rushing and receiving yardage, he gained 1,715 yards from scrimmage.
The acquisition of the division's only 2008 Pro Bowl quarterback, Cutler will make Bears' offensive plays harder to predict this year. Forte will benefit from confused defenses and Cutler will be sure to find him for at least another 40 receptions.
3) Kevin Smith, Detroit
2008: 238 rushes for 976 yards, 8 TD. 39 catches for 286 yards, 0 TD.
With two exceptional running backs ahead of him in the NFC North rankings, Smith will often be overlooked this offseason.
But as a rookie, he proved to be the most talented tailback on the roster. This third round steal was inexplicably sidelined in favor of Rudi Johnson several times, but still racked up 976 yards. In the passing game, look for a pressured Culpepper to continue to dump the ball off to Smith.
4) Ryan Grant, Green Bay
2008: 312 rushes for 1,203 yards, 4 TD. 18 catches for 116 yards, 1 TD.
Grant's yards per rush average suffered a significant dip, falling from 5.1 per carry in 2007 to 3.9 last year. Hamstring issues plagued him for much of 2008, so Packer fans hope a healthy Grant will show up at camp.
The Packer front office remains split on whether they view the undrafted Notre Dame product as the long-term answer at running back, despite his signing of a four-year contract in August.
He will receive the vast majority of touches again this year for Green Bay.
1) Calvin Johnson, Detroit
2008: 78 catches for 1,331 yards, 12 TD.
There may not be another receiver in the NFL more difficult to tackle than Johnson.
Nicknamed Megatron by former Lion receiver Roy Williams, he stands 6'5" tall, weighs 235 pounds, runs a 4.35 40-yard dash, and has a 43-inch vertical.
Nearly impossible to shut down on fade routes in the end zone, Johnson tied Larry Fitzgerald for the touchdown title (12).
Whether it's Culpepper or Stafford tossing the ball up for grabs, this electric route runner is a weapon few teams can match.
2) Greg Jennings, Green Bay
2008: 80 catches for 1,292 yards, 9 TD.
Jennings posted five 100-plus yard games in 2008, en route to leading the division in receptions.
At 5'11", he might sometimes be the shortest receiver on the field, but he is exceptionally physical. His ability to elude tacklers keeps cornerbacks at a distance.
After the season, he will be a free agent and Jennings knows if he wants to be paid like an elite receiver, he must repeat his 2008 performance.
Count on another strong year from Jennings.
3) Bernard Berrian, Minnesota
2008: 48 catches for 964 yards, 7 TD.
Though he caught 23 fewer passes than in 2007 with Chicago, Berrian asserted himself as Minnesota's No. 1 target last season.
This legitimate deep threat finished second in the NFL in yards per catch with 20.1, racking up just under a thousand yards. The Vikings added a talented piece to the wideout position in Percy Harvin via draft, but Berrian is still projected to pace the group in all categories for the foreseeable future.
With improved quarterback production, Berrian's could grab 70 or 80 catches.
4) Donald Driver, Green Bay
2008: 74 catches for 1,012 yards, 5 TD.
A model of consistency, Driver has grabbed more than 70 passes in six of the past seven years. He truly understands what it is to be a team guy, once calling Terrell Owens a "selfish little brat" for his incessant complaining about not getting enough touches.
His numbers may decline in coming years and he may no longer be the first option for Rodgers, but he is still a top flight receiver in the NFC North.
Just Missed: Minnesota's Percy Harvin and Chicago's Devin Hester.
1) Greg Olsen, Chicago
2008: 54 catches for 574 yards, 5 TD.
Though he only started seven of 16 games, he provided the most bang for his teams' buck at tight end. Splitting time with Desmond Clark, the 2007 first round pick earned his first Pro Bowl appearance as an alternate.
In time, Olsen will supplant 32-year-old Clark as Chicago's full time starter, but probably not for another year or two. Until then, expect hefty but subdued contributions with the addition of Cutler.
2) Vinsanthe Shiancoe, Minnesota
2008: 42 catches for 596 yards, 7 TD.
Born in Birmingham, England, this international star nearly doubled his career offensive production in 2008. A quick dump-off option, his sturdy hands provide Minnesota quarterbacks a reliable target under pressure.
He gained web fame last year when he was accidentally filmed naked during a postgame show, but he looks to gain notoriety making plays.
In an interview with Pioneer Press, the determined Shiancoe said, "I just want to build on to my game, add some bricks to my building. I want to be the best tight end in the NFL."
3) Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit
2008: (With Oklahoma State) 42 catches for 472 yards, 0 TD.
Pettigrew has the tools to sprout into a top five tight end in the league, but he was drafted into a division known for its strong tight end play. A 6'6", 260-pound blocking machine, Pettigrew takes pride in his exceptional blocking abilities and will provide an instant upgrade to Detroit's offensive line, allowing halfback Smith to scamper for additional yardage.
Don't let his focus on blocking distract from his great hands; however, he will prove a legitimate passing target for Lions' quarterbacks.
Expect around 50 catches his rookie year.
4) Donald Lee, Green Bay
2008: 39 catches for 303 yards, 5 TD.
He idolized legendary tight end Shannon Sharpe growing up and shares two similarities with his hero.
Sure handed and physically imposing, Lee becomes an instant threat once the Packers enter the red zone. Lee may lose some playing time to emerging backup Jermichael Finley, but he will continue to get looks in situations where experience is necessary.
Unless Green Bay coaches speed the development of Finley, Lee should produce parallel numbers to 2008.
Just missed: Chicago's Desmond Clark and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley.
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