Black and Blue Preview: Sizing Up the NFC North Offenses

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Black and Blue Preview: Sizing Up the NFC North Offenses
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With final rosters being set over the weekend and the real games finally set to begin in less than a week, I wanted to take a look at where each NFC North team stands at each position, starting on offense.

Looking at starting talent, depth, and potential, here is my positional depth chart for the division on offense. A look at the defense, special teams, and overall predictions will be coming later in the week.

 

Quarterback

1. Green Bay 2. Chicago 3. Minnesota 4. Detroit

Aaron Rodgers is following up his statistically brilliant 2008 with an even better preseason performance to kick off 2009.

The offense punted only once in 13 preseason possessions in large part due to the brilliance of Rodgers, who looks poised to add victories to his gaudy stats this season.

Backup Matt Flynn has also looked much improved this preseason, and while Packer fans hope they only see the former seventh-round LSU product in mop-up duty, he has looked competent enough to keep the offense rolling if pressed into action.

I'm not sure how Ted Thompson was able to pull the wool over the eyes of the entire league and sneak the juggernaut that is Brian Brohm onto the practice squad, but it appears the Packers may go with just two QB's and promote him if necessary.

The Bears may boast the most physically dynamic quarterback in the division with the acquisition of Jay Cutler from Denver, and he should eventually make their offense far more balanced and dangerous.

It feels like Chicago hasn't had a elite quarterback since Sid Luckman, and my grandparents think that statement was dated.

With apologies to Erik Kramer and Jim McMahon fans across the nation, Cutler will make a huge impact on how teams gameplan for the Bear offense and offer a dimension they haven't had in a long time.

However, Cutler is coming to a new team, learning a new offense, and looks to have a lack of playmakers at receiver, which is why I give the edge to Green Bay behind center.

The Bears also have a muddled backup situation, with unproven, undrafted Caleb Hanie set to back up Cutler and no third-stringer on the 53-man roster.

Most teams are sunk if the starting QB goes down anyways, but Chicago and Green Bay will likely need their No. 1's to stay on the field for 16 games in order to make it to the postseason.

You may have heard that Brett Favre decided to come back and play football, the game that he loves more than anyone has ever loved anything.

But at nearly 40 years old, that makes him only the third-best quarterback in his division.

Coming off a very short preseason and stepping into a new system with new players, there may be an adjustment period for Favre as he goes from throwing to high schoolers in Mississippi to the real deal in the NFL.

While it has been said that he knows the offense well enough to teach a class on it, Favre still needs to develop a rapport with his receivers.

Favre has always relied on 'feel' as a passer, and throws a lot of timing patterns at this point in his career. That feel was lacking in the preseason and will need to be ironed out over the first several regular season games.

Luckily, the Vikes have a charmin soft opening schedule, starting with Cleveland, Detroit, and San Francisco.

The Vikings also boast one of the deepest quarterbacking situations in the league, with Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels both possessing extensive starting experience.

With recent rumblings suggesting that some players believe one of those two give Minnesota a better chance to win than No. 4, perhaps that depth will become a problem if Brett gets off to a slow start in 2009.

Detroit comes in last at quarterback, though the position is far from hopeless for the league's first-ever 0-16 squad.

First, overall pick Matthew Stafford has had a solid preseason and should eventually get the chance to work out his rookie mistakes later in the season.

Daunte Culpepper has slimmed down a bit and looks as good as he has since suffering a devastating knee injury that derailed his promising career in 2005.

And hey, at least Lions fans don't have to watch Dan Orlovsky forget what that thick white line in the back of the opposing end zone is for.

 

Running Back

1. Minnesota 2. Chicago 3. Green Bay 4. Detroit

The Vikings were an easy choice for the top spot here, with the dynamic Adrian Peterson having emerged as perhaps the best back in the league.

Throw in the fact that Chester Taylor is one of the finest backups in football, and a guy that would likely start for 10-12 teams, and you have a great offensive backfield in Minnesota.

If Minnesota is to have the kind of Super Bowl-type season that many predict, it will undoubtedly be on the legs of their running game.

Chicago's Matt Forte stepped up in a big way last season, rushing for 1,238 and eight scores with defenses keying on the running game.

Forte also proved to be a multi-dimensional back, catching 63 passes for 477 yards as he carried the offense for much of the season. With Jay Cutler in town to take some of the pressure off, Forte should be more explosive in 2009.

I don't think 1,500 yards is out of the question for him, unless he ends up catching too many passes to get there.

Backups Adrian Peterson (the other one) and Garrett Wolfe are both solid backups talented enough to give Forte a breather here and there.

Green Bay should improve its running game in 2009 with starter Ryan Grant going through an entire camp and looking much healthier than he did last season.

Grant lacked big-play burst in 2008 and saw his yards-per-carry average slip significantly, but has looked quicker and sharper throughout the preseason.

If he can regain his late-2007 form, the Packer offense will be extremely difficult to slow down.

Backup Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn are both talented but haven't been able to step up and spell Grant consistently in their short careers.

Jackson has battled injuries and Wynn isn't exactly known for his work ethic, but both look poised to play more of a role this season in the Packer offense.

Someone needs to emerge to keep Grant fresh, and I think this will be the year that Wynn cashes in on his natural talent.

The Packers also chose to keep three fullbacks. While I would have liked John Kuhn or Korey Hall's spot go to rookie RB Tyrell Sutton or S Anthony Smith, the Packers opted for more special teams help.

Detroit has a solid if unspectacular starter in Kevin Smith, and made a nice pickup in signing Maurice Morris from Seattle.

However, they lack a guy who can really gash your defense or shape a gameplan around, and that hurts a team looking to break in a rookie quarterback at some point.

 

Wide Receiver

1. Green Bay 2. Detroit 3. Minnesota 4. Chicago

One through five, the Packers may boast the most loaded receiving corps in football.

Greg Jennings has emerged as a big-play No. 1 receiver, and is flanked by a great possession receiver who can still break an occasional big one in Donald Driver.

Jordy Nelson has looked a little more explosive this preseason, hauling in a 76-yard touchdown reception against Arizona.

And James Jones is a proven commodity as well, with prototypical size, speed, and catching ability as the No. 3 or 4 guy.

Brett Swain looks to hang on as a special teams guy and takes Ruvell Martin's spot at the back end of the rotation, but has shown some ability in camp as a sure-handed option in some five-wide sets.

Detroit lacks Green Bay's depth, but Calvin Johnson may very well be the best receiver in the division.

Johnson caught 78 balls for 1,332 yards last season and it still feels as though he has only scraped the surface of his potential. At 6'5'', he is going to be a big problem for the division over the next several years.

Bryant Johnson is a solid No. 2 on the other side, and Dennis Northcutt brings experience and speed as a No. 3.

Minnesota has a somewhat suspect receiving corps, but Bernard Berrian is a proven big play threat that teams have to account for.

He is good for close to 1,000 yards and several long touchdowns per season, but can be shut down with a solid gameplan.

Outside of trying to stir up trouble in Chicago, Bobby Wade is more of a No. 3 or 4 guy than a starter, but Minnesota will have to make due with him and Sidney Rice at receiver until Percy Harvin can get up to speed.

Harvin is the wildcard in this group. If he can learn his assignments and get crisp enough with his route-running, his speed and natural ability could really improve this offense.

Otherwise the rest of the guys aren't too scary.

Chicago may finally have a quarterback, but he won't have too many options in the passing game.

Devin Hester can outrun just about anyone, but he is still really raw as a receiver. He has no business being a No. 1, but he is the best they have.

Perhaps Cutler can rediscover his rapport with college teammate Earl Bennett as a No. 2 or 3 receiver. Look for Bennett to emerge as the No. 2 as he hooks back up with his old Vandy QB.

Outside of those two, Chicago will rely on Rashied Davis, a serviceable possession guy, and Juaquin Iglesias, a rookie out of Oklahoma to round out an underwhelming receiving corps.

 

Tight End

1. Chicago 2. Green Bay 3. Minnesota 4. Detroit

Greg Olsen is a stud that may very well take the next step and join the likes of Antonio Gates and Jason Witten as an elite TE.

Especially with their shortcomings at WR, I see Olsen catching 70 balls as they line the versatile TE up all over the field. Stopping Olsen will be key to slowing down the Chicago offense, and Cutler is going to wear him out with passes in 2009.

Add in Desmond Clark as a reliable blocker and pass catcher as the No. 2, and the Bears look set at tight end.

Jermichael Finley has been one of the big stories of Green Bay's offseason, and looks to be a force in the red zone for the Packers this season.

Along with Donald Lee, who is usually good for 40-50 grabs and a handful of touchdowns per season, and the Packers should be able to run some two TE sets harkening back to the days of Chumura and Keith Jackson.

Brett Favre loves his security blanket tight ends, and Visanthe Shiancoe should be a good one for him in Minnesota. He is an athletic guy who should thrive with more touches from Favre.

Backup Jim Kleinsasser is more of a blocking threat and is getting up there in age, and it looks like Minnesota lacks the depth at TE of Green Bay and Chicago.

Tight ends can be a young quarterbacks best friend, but unfortunately for Matthew Stafford, the Lions lack a veteran pass-catching guy at the position.

First-round pick Brandon Pettigrew has great physical tools, but it remains to be seen whether he can produce as the No. 1 guy and be the safety valve Stafford needs.

Will Heller and Casey FitzSimmons are slated to be the top two guys outside of Pettigrew, and neither offer much more than solid blocking.

 

Offensive Line

1. Minnesota 2. Chicago 3. Green Bay 4. Detroit

None of the NFC North offensive lines are particularly dominating, but I still give the nod to Minnesota.

Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie still anchor a pretty potent left side of the line, and while losing long-time center Matt Birk hurts, they still have the ability to open holes for AP and keep Favre upright.

Which may be critical for the Vikings, with Favre looking a bit slow in the preseason.

If second-round pick Phil Loadholt can hold down the right tackle spot for the Vikes, this could still be a formidable unit.

Chicago added former All-Pro left tackle Orlando Pace to pair with some decent pieces along the line.

If Pace can stay healthy, a big if for the aging tackle, Chicago should have a solid unit with Olin Kreutz anchoring the middle, and Roberto Garza and Chris Williams manning the right side.

Williams has been inconsistent, and the Bears need the former first-round pick to play like one, but I think Chicago just has a little more talent along the line than the Packers.

Green Bay finally seems to have some stability on the offensive line, after moving guys around for a few years. Daryn Colledge has looked solid most of the preseason, and the Packers appear to have settled on a center in the bigger, more physical Jason Spitz.

If anything, the unit should improve with continuity, something they have lacked due to injury and inconsistency in the past.

However, I still feel like this is the weakest link on the Packer offense, and something to watch as Green Bay goes up against some physical fronts later in the season.

Bad teams tend to have bad line play, and the Lions are no exception to this rule.

Detroit surrendered a brutal 52 sacks last season, and Detroit looks like they will be starting four of the same five guys this season.

Adding in the fact that Lions rushers averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, Detroit looks poised to struggle moving the ball yet again in 2009.

For the sake of Matthew Stafford's future, it may be wise for Detroit to let Daunte Culpepper take some of those licks this season, as it could be another long year for Lions quarterbacks.

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