After an offseason of change and preparation, the battle for NFC North supremacy begins on Sunday. Detroit News sportswriter James Hawkins breaks down the top players, rookies, breakout candidates and games to watch, ranks the coaches, and offers the most overrated and underrated players throughout the division.
Ziggy Ansah, DE, Lions: Ansah labored through an injury-riddled 2016 and wasn’t much of a threat off the edge, finishing with a career-low two sacks. However, there’s still no other player on Lions roster who can impact and change a game quite like Ansah can. He’s been one of the most productive pass-rushers in the league since 2014, and if his ankle is fully healthy and he’s able to return to form, it spells bad news for the competition.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears: The second-year pro is one of the most promising backs in the league. Howard didn’t start until Week 4 last season and still managed to cap his stellar rookie campaign with 1,313 yards rushing and six touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 3.0 yards per carry after contact, and ranked third in the league with 19 rushes of 15-plus yards. Behind Chicago’s interior linemen, Howard has a legitimate shot at claiming the rushing crown this season.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: Even with his sub-optimal start through the first six weeks last year, Rodgers virtually carried Green Bay to the postseason and one game away from the Super Bowl. He finished 2016 with the most passing touchdowns (40), ranked fourth in passing yards (4,428) and passer rating (104.2), and led the league by a wide margin with a 93.8 passer rating when pressured, per Pro Football Focus. He’s in the midst of his prime and shows no signs of slowing down.
Harrison Smith, SS, Vikings: Smith has established himself as one the league’s most complete safeties. He excels in pass coverage and is dominant against the run. Despite being hampered down the stretch last season with an ankle injury, he ranked second on the team with 91 tackles. Smith is arguably the key piece in Minnesota’s vaunted defense.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions: Stafford was on pace to turn in his single-best season of his career before a finger injury slowed him down. Yet, he still threw for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns, and those numbers would’ve been higher if not for the 39 dropped passes he experienced, the most of any quarterback per Pro Football Focus. Stafford has elevated his game under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter the past two seasons and that upward trend should continue in Year 3.
FIVE ROOKIES TO WATCH
Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings: The Florida State product fell to the second round in the draft due to concerns about his checkered past but there are no worries about playmaking abilities. Cook showed flashes throughout the preseason and will help inject some life into Minnesota’s listless run game, which ranked last in rushing yards per game (75.3) and yards per carry (3.2) and tied for 26th in rushing touchdowns (nine).
Jarrad Davis, LB, Lions: Detroit’s first-round selection comes with high hopes at a position group that was continually picked apart and ranked among the worst in the league last season. Davis will have his share of responsibilities as he mans the middle and will need to bring more than his heavy-hitting presence to a defense that tied for the second-fewest sacks (26) while allowing the highest defensive passer rating (106.5) and completion percentage (72.7 percent).
Kenny Golladay, WR, Lions: The third-round pick has created plenty of buzz throughout training camp and preseason, and could turn out to be one of the top sleeper picks this season. Golladay (6-foot-4, 213 pounds) gives quarterback Matthew Stafford a big target as the No. 3 receiver in Jim Bob Cooter’s system, particularly in the red zone. Tallying around 600 receiving yards and four scores wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Josh Jones, S, Packers: Jones and fellow second-round pick Kevin King were brought in to help Green Bay’s woeful pass defense, which allowed the second-most passing yards per game (269.2) and tied for third-most passing touchdowns (32). His size (6-2, 220) allows him to play as an inside linebacker/defensive back hybrid, but Jones will likely carve out a sub-package role in Don Capers’ defense and help strengthen Green Bay’s most glaring weakness.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears: The No. 2 overall pick had a strong showing in the preseason and displayed his accuracy, touch, timing and athleticism. Trubisky will back up Mike Glennon to start the season but that could change by midseason. Chicago’s solid offensive line and run game will also help ease the burden on the rookie when he takes over.
FIVE BREAKOUT CANDIDATES
Eric Ebron, TE, Lions: The former first-round pick hasn’t lived up to the expectations that come with being a high draft selection, but his production has steadily increased over the last three seasons. If Ebron is able to stay on the field (he’s missed eight games in three years) and become a more reliable receiver (10.3 percent drop rate last season), a career year could be in store.
Leonard Floyd, OLB, Bears: He had a roller-coaster rookie year last season and still showed a lot of promise with 33 tackles and seven sacks in 12 games. Floyd (6-foot-4, 251 pounds) is long, quick and has a knack for putting constant pressure on the opposition. If he’s able to avoid injuries, he has all the tools to take the next step and become an elite pass-rusher.
Danielle Hunter, DE, Vikings: The third-year pro has gotten his career off to a strong start. After recording six sacks as a rookie, Hunter carved out a role last season as a pass-rush specialist and was one of the most productive third-down pass-rushers in the league, racking up 12.5 sacks over 16 games. Bigger numbers could be on the horizon as he moves into a starting role this season.
Ty Montgomery, RB, Packers: The switch from receiver to running back paid off for Montgomery and Green Bay down the stretch last season. As a Swiss Army knife in the backfield, he forced 24 missed tackles on 106 total touches and averaged 5.9 yards per carry and a league-leading 5.14 yards after contact per carry, per Pro Football Focus. Montgomery will look to pick up where he left off and possibly play an even larger role in one of the league’s most potent offensive attacks.
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Lions: Robinson flashed his ability in Detroit’s defensive line rotation last season as a rookie, accumulating five starts with 30 tackles, two sacks and seven batted passes, which led all interior linemen. With the unit already hampered by suspensions and injuries, the second-year pro will see a significant increase in his workload and be relied upon to make a substantial impact up front.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYERS
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers: He failed to stand out as the No. 1 receiver when Jordy Nelson was sidelined for the 2015 season and turned into the No. 3 option last year due to the emergence of Davante Adams. With the addition of tight end Martellus Bennett and pass-catching threat Ty Montgomery in the backfield, Cobb’s role and production could continue to diminish.
Mike Glennon, QB, Bears: He signed a three-year, $45 million deal in March before Chicago traded up to draft Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick. Glennon will have an average salary of $15 million per year, which seems absurd considering he hasn’t started a game since 2014, he’s 5-13 as a starter and he could be supplanted by Trubisky at some point this season.
Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: Matthews was a one-man wrecking crew early in his career but he’s not as disruptive as he once was. The Packers have been moving him from inside and outside linebacker to find the best spot, and the results haven’t been promising. The nine-year pro is coming off his least productive season where he posted career lows in tackles (24) and sacks (five) in 12 games last season.
Haloti Ngata, DT, Lions: The 12-year veteran’s best days appear to be behind him. Ngata is coming off an injury-riddled 2016 where he recorded a career-low 22 tackles in 13 games and his play took a considerable dip. According to Pro Football Focus, he registered 15 total pressures on 313 pass-rush snaps and earned a run-stop percentage of 5.9 percent, the second-lowest mark of his career, last season.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings: It only took six seasons for the former second-round pick — who is viewed as a key piece of the offense — to surpass 500 yards receiving in a year. Despite coming off his most productive season (83 catches, 840 yards, seven touchdowns), his role is largely limited to throws underneath zone coverages and on check downs. He has solid hands and is a reliable security blanket but his struggles with run blocking are alarming for an every-down player.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYERS
David Bakhtiari, LT, Packers: The fifth-year pro has the unenviable task of protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside but has excelled in his demanding role. According to Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari allowed 20 total quarterback pressures over the regular reason last year and received the best pass-blocking grade (93.4) among all offensive linemen.
Mike Daniels, DL, Packers: Daniels doesn’t post any eye-popping numbers because he spends most of his time eating up double teams. Nonetheless, he has been Green Bay’s most disruptive force up front, particularly against the run, and is an impact pass-rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Daniels posted 43 total quarterback pressures despite playing fewer snaps than most interior lineman.
Akiem Hicks, DT, Bears: He signed a two-year deal with the Bears last offseason and turned out to be one of the Chicago’s best and most consistent down lineman. Hicks put together the best season of his six-year career with 54 tackles, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He also showcased his ability to collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback, as evidenced by his career-high seven sacks.
Linval Joseph, DT, Vikings: The 6-foot-4, 329-pound behemoth earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season after tallying a career-high 77 tackles and three forced fumbles. Joseph does the dirty work for Minnesota’s menacing defense by clogging up the middle and making life easier for the defenders behind him. He has become increasingly more effective and valuable over his last three seasons with the Vikings.
Glover Quin, FS, Lions: The smart and savvy veteran has proven to be a steady and reliable defender. Quin recorded the third-most tackles for the Lions last year (68), tied for the team lead with two interceptions and had five passes defensed. He also serves as a mentor to Detroit’s young defensive backs and has started every game since joining the Lions in 2013.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Seahawks at Packers, Week 1 (Sept. 10): There’s no shortage of story lines in this season opener. Seattle running back Eddie Lacy doesn’t have to wait long to get a crack at his former team after being replaced by Ty Montgomery in the Green Bay backfield. Russell Wilson returns to Wisconsin to take on Aaron Rodgers in a showdown that features quarterbacks with the top career passer ratings in NFL history. And Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett will go head-to-head against his brother Martellus in a new uniform.
Bears at Buccaneers, Week 2 (Sept. 17): Perhaps no offseason signing generated as much instant backlash as Mike Glennon’s. The former Buccaneers backup quarterback will get the chance to return to Tampa Bay to prove to Jameis Winston and Co. he is a wanted commodity and worth the price tag.
Packers at Falcons, Week 2 (Sept. 17): Green Bay and Atlanta meet in a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s conference title game in the Falcons’ new digs. The Packers will have a sour taste lingering from January’s lopsided loss, while the Falcons are looking to wipe away the painful memories from their Super Bowl collapse in a duel between gunslingers Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan and their high-powered offenses.
Lions at Bears, Week 11 (Nov. 19): The last time the teams met, Matthew Stafford dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand, which essentially drove a nail into the Lions’ season. While there’s always added edge in divisional games, Stafford and his teammates could be out for payback in the form of a blowout victory.
Vikings at Packers, Week 16 (Dec. 23): As the regular season nears the finish line, this could be a game that decides the NFC North and has major postseason implications. While the Vikings have won two of the past three meetings between the teams, they’ve only won once in their past eight trips to Lambeau Field.
COACHES POWER RANKINGS
1. Mike McCarthy, Packers: While a lot of his success is tied to Aaron Rodgers, McCarthy doesn’t get enough credit for his quarterback’s development. His game management can be questionable at times yet his coaching ability has guided the Packers to a Super Bowl title in 2010 and eight straight playoff appearances. Not even Dolphins’ Don Shula-Dan Marino or 49ers’ Bill Walsh-Joe Montana reached the postseason eight years in a row.
2. Mike Zimmer, Vikings: Last season was one to forget for Zimmer. His two most important players – quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson – were non-factors but Minnesota still managed to get off to a 5-0 start. While the rest of the season went downhill and largely falls on Zimmer, he has still transformed the Vikings into one of the league’s stingiest defenses.
3. John Fox, Bears: He has won everywhere he’s been, just not in Chicago. The past two years Fox hasn’t been given a team capable of winning many games, but has assets in second-year running back Jordan Howard and a solid O-line to work with this season. Fox has led two stylistically different teams to the Super Bowl – the Peyton Manning-led Broncos in 2013 and the run-first, defensive-led Panthers in 2003 – and faces his most arduous task yet trying to turn the Bears into a playoff contender.
4. Jim Caldwell, Lions: Detroit has made the playoffs twice during Caldwell’s three years in charge, which counts for something. But the Lions don’t hang playoff appearance banners anymore and have nothing to show for it after being bounced in the wild card round in 2014 and 2016. He also had a chance to deliver Detroit its first division title since 1993 last year, but the Lions dropped their final three regular-season games and let the NFC North crown slip away after Matthew Stafford injured his finger.