Who’s the best quarterback in the NFC North? If you spend as much time on Twitter as yours truly and follow enough sports accounts, this is one of the debates you’ve undoubtedly seen frequently in recent weeks as we drift aimlessly in sports-free waters. Essentially, it boils down to non-Packers fans and various other football observers trying really hard to convince others – as well as themselves — that the answer, for the first time in 12 years, is someone other than Aaron Rodgers.
With that in mind, I decided to weigh in with my objective pick for the best quarterback in the NFC North.
But why stop there?
Selecting the best players at every position in the NFC North sounds like more fun. So, that’s what we’ll endeavor to do this week. In Part One of the mini-series, I’ll recognize the best players at each skill position. In Part Two, John Tuvey will hand out the accolades to the finest offensive linemen in the division – or as he calls them, “The Big Sexys.” And lastly, I’ll wrap things up in Part Three with the best defensive players in the NFC North.
This series shall hereby serve as the definitive, albeit temporary, answer on the topic… as far as you know. How’s that for couching things?
This is the big question that inspired our little series, so we’ll spend a little extra time on the marquee matchup. Unfortunately, last year’s stats and rankings alone won’t do anything to quell the debate. My answer is still Rodgers, though — even entering his age-36 season. The chasm between Rodgers and the likes of Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford isn’t as great as it was a few years ago. In fact, based on just its 2019 analysis, Pro Football Focus had the three closely bunched in terms of overall offense and passing grades, with Cousins getting the slightly better grades in both. Overall, they were the sixth, seventh and eighth-rated quarterbacks in 2019 by PFF.
If you prefer the Passer Rating formula, Rodgers was a distant third in 2019. It was a career-high for Cousins. <Insert eyeball emojis here>
Or if adjusted total QB Rating – which is based on a 0-100 scale and takes into account strength of opposing defenses faced – is more your jam, Stafford was the best of the three quarterbacks last year.
If you dig deeper into the PFF premium stats, you’ll find Cousins had a better completion percentage and adjusted completion percentage than Rodgers and Stafford when throwing under pressure in 2019.
But I’m not basing my projection for the best quarterback in the NFC North in 2020 solely on 2019 data. I’m baking the entire body of work into consideration. No, he’s not the same quarterback he was five years ago. Age and injuries have taken their inevitable toll, but Rodgers still has his fastball. His slight statistical decline in recent seasons is not enough to hand over the divisional championship belt to Cousins or Stafford. Not yet. Rodgers still has the arm talent to make every throw – even some we’ve never seen before. Though he’s not as quick or agile as he used to be, he still has supreme play-extending capabilities. His pocket awareness and ability to duck away from trouble to fire off a shot downfield or simply tuck it and run for a gain is still among the best in the game. He has few peers in his football smarts, reads and decision-making.
At his peak, Rodgers was the best all-around quarterback I’ve ever seen. I’ll say that a smidge louder so those in the back can hear: best I’ve ever seen! The good news for Vikings fans is that he’s no longer in his prime, but Rodgers remains one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the game, and assuming he rips a page from Michael Jordan’s book and turns the slight of his team drafting Jordan Love into motivation, he could put on quite a show this season. Note, I said “could” put on a show. He’ll need to find more than one reliable receiver on the Packers depth chart first.
We’ll see if the Bears plan to actually use David Montgomery in year two or what transpires with Kerryon Johnson and rookie D’Andre Swift in Detroit, but for now the race for best running back in the NFC North is between two guys who went in the same draft. Cook was the Vikings’ second-round pick (41st overall) in the 2017 draft, while Jones went in the fifth round (182nd overall). Both are set to become free agents following the upcoming season and there are reports that both are working toward contract extensions this offseason following very similar production in 2019.
Vikings fans know what kind of weapon Cook can be. When healthy, which he was in 2019, he’s one of the top five backs in the NFL. The eye test tells you Cook is the more lethal runner, though PFF gave him a marginally lower run grade (79.8) than Jones (79.9) in 2019. The folks at PFF also graded Jones as a much better receiver in 2019, giving him an 82.8 receiving grade compared to just 66.4 for Cook.
In short, Jones isn’t far behind, and his ability to cash in on his ample opportunities to get into the end zone can’t be discounted. In addition to scoring 19 times in the regular season, Jones added four touchdowns in the playoffs last season (three rushing, one receiving) to break the Packers’ all-time record for total touchdowns in a season with 23. The previous record of 22 was set by Ahman Green in 2003. Jones’ gaudy touchdown total came at the expense of Rodgers’ passing touchdown total. Frankly, it was just easier for the Pack to score that way last season due to their lack of viable receiving options and Jones’ nose for the stripe. Overall, his performance in 2019 was the result of what some suspect is a shift toward more of a power-run offense in Green Bay – perhaps not unlike the approach Minnesota prefers under Mike Zimmer. But that’s an article for another time.
Picking between the two of these guys is tough if you aren’t drinking the purple Kool-Aid. However, Jones displayed flashes in 2018 before busting out in 2019, while Cook has shown game-breaking talent from Day 1. Cook’s beefier track record sets him apart. Combine that with the likelihood of defenses scheming more to stifle Jones and the Packers’ one legit receiving threat (who will be mentioned below) and the pick for best NFC North running back in 2020 goes to the Vikings’ Pro Bowler.
It’s C.J. Ham, folks, and it’s not particularly close right now.
Fullbacks don’t post juicy stats, but consider this: Ham played 380 snaps in 2019 – the second-most by a fullback in the league behind only the 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk (500). The next closest fullback was Alec Ingold of the Raiders at 210.
Among fullbacks who played more than 100 snaps in 2019, only four received a better offensive grade from PFF than Ham, and only three had a better pass-blocking grade.
Let’s move on.
Buckle up, Vikings fans. This one could sting a little. Stefon Diggs is gone, as you might have heard, and Adam Thielen, who couldn’t stay on the field last season, is entering his age-30 season. From our current vantage point, the two best wide receivers in the NFC North in 2020 project to be the Packers’ Davante Adams and Kenny Golladay of the Lions.
At the risk of losing all credibility in terms of their football takes, even the most ardent Vikings fans must admit Adams is the best in the division right now. He fought through injuries and incessant double-teams to post 997 yards and five touchdowns in just 12 games last season. Over the past four years, he’s averaged 86 receptions, 1,066 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Plus, he’s still just 27 years old. He’s a slam dunk.
Meanwhile, the uber-talented Golladay doesn’t turn 27 until November and is the only current NFC North receiver to post over 1,000 yards receiving each of the past two seasons. Diggs did, too, for the record. However, Golladay has more yards and touchdowns than Diggs over the past two seasons. So even if Diggs were still a Viking, Golladay might deserve the nod here. Fortunately, I won’t have to poke that nest of purple murder hornets since Diggs isn’t eligible for our All-NFC North squad.
I’m relegating Thielen to third on our list of best wide receivers in the division for 2020. He’ll play the slot on this imaginary team as he attempts to be the Comeback Player of the Year. Speaking of imaginary teams, those of you in the fantasy football community will probably be quick to ask me about Marvin Jones Jr. and Allen Robinson. If we go empty backfield/no tight ends and five-wide in 11 personnel, they’re next up. Robinson had surprisingly good numbers in 2019 (98 receptions, 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns) but I smell an outlier, especially given the Bears’ precarious quarterback situation.
As for Jones, it should be noted that his Lions face the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8 this season, setting the table for another stat-inflating matchup with Xavier Rhodes, whom he shredded last season as Vikings fans undoubtedly recall. Too soon? Anyway, show some consistent production outside of one or two big games a season and then we’ll talk about a 30-year-old wideout having career-best numbers in 2020. I’m not buying the Jones steam.
Our final skill position goes to Kyle Rudolph. Honestly, the NFC North wasn’t exactly a hotbed of tight end brilliance last season. Even for a statistical down season in 2019, Rudy had the most receptions (39) and most touchdowns (6) among NFC North tight ends. Only four NFL tight ends played more snaps than Rudolph (895) last season. The next closest NFC North tight end in terms of snap count was Vikings rookie Irv Smith Jr., who might be the heir apparent on this list.
Lions second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson, who was selected eighth overall in the 2019 draft, has arguably the most upside of any player at his position in the division, but we need to see it first. Staying healthy would help. As for the talk about the Packers’ 2019 third-round draft pick, Jace Sternberger, wake me up when he catches his first pass. Yeah, I know, that will probably be Week 1, but still… let’s see what he’s got before we toss too many bouquets his way.
Oh, and the Bears currently have nine (!) tight ends on their roster including Packers cast-off Jimmy Graham and their top pick in this year’s draft (second round) Cole Kmet. And you know the old saying: If you have nine tight ends, you don’t have one.
So, there you have it – the best skill position players for 2020 in the NFC North. Stay tuned for the upcoming pieces on the best offensive linemen and best defensive players in the division.