By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. We already took a look at the best players on offense and defense in the NFC East, along with the AFC East’s best offensive and defensive players. Now it is time to check out the NFC North’s top players on offense.
QB: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
This should come as a surprise to no one. Despite getting off to a slow start in 2016, Rodgers went on a tear from Week Seven on, finishing the season with 4,428 yards, a league-leading 40 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. The two-time NFL MVP has the ability outside of the pocket that no other quarterback in the NFL can even come close to matching, with the talent to throw with pinpoint accuracy while on the run, as well as the athleticism to carry the ball himself. Rodgers rushed the ball 67 times for 369 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns last season. Pro Football Focus recently ranked Rodgers fifth in their Top 50 Players of 2017, and barring any injuries, he should once again be in the running for league MVP.
RB: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Howard’s performance during his rookie season tends to get overlooked due to the success of Ezekiel Elliot. While the latter finished as the NFL’s leading rusher in 2016, Howard was right behind him as the second-leading rusher, despite not truly becoming the starting back until Week Four. The young back ran the ball 252 times for 1,313 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and six touchdowns, adding 29 receptions for 298 yards and a receiving touchdown, and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his first NFL season. The rookie back ranked seventh out of 62 eligible running backs with an 81.0 overall grade from PFF, making him one of the more promising young backs. With Chicago’s lack of talent at quarterback, along with the strength of the Bears’ offensive line, Howard will be relied upon early and often in 2017.
WR: Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
After a torn ACL forced him to sit out the entire 2015 season, Nelson came back as strong as ever last year. The veteran wide receiver caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and a league-high 14 touchdowns, and was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Nelson was also by far the NFL’s most efficient receiver from the slot. Nelson averaged 2.75 yards per route run from the slot, the highest among the 54 receivers that ran at least 130 routes from the slot (Tyrell Williams was second with 2.48). Generally a perimeter receiver, Nelson caught six of his 14 touchdowns when lined up inside. While the Green Bay offense is certainly very talented, Nelson continues to be the only reliable, downfield weapon for Rodgers. With one of the league’s best players throwing to him, look for Nelson to make it three consecutive seasons of double-digit touchdown receptions.
WR: Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
His numbers have not been that flashy since he signed with Detroit in 2014, but Tate has quietly been very consistent over the last three years. During this three-year span, Tate caught 280 passes for 3,221 yards and 14 touchdowns while not missing a single game. Even more impressive than his durability has been Tate’s elusiveness. According to PFF, Tate has forced more missed tackles per average reception (0.28) than any other player in the league over the last four seasons. This means that on nearly one out of every three receptions, Tate makes the defender miss. As the most dangerous catch-and-run receiver in the NFL, Tate is a playmaker with the ball in his hands. Look for him to once again lead the Lions in targets and receptions.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
Selected in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Diggs has been an absolute steal for the Vikings. The 23-year-old finished the year with 84 receptions for 903 yards and three touchdowns. While those numbers may not be jaw-dropping, keep in mind that he is playing in Minnesota with a very sub-par passing attack. Diggs has also had some of the best hands in the NFL over the last two seasons. The young receiver has posted a drop rate of a mere 4.1, which is the seventh-best mark among all pass-catchers during that span (six total drops in two years). In addition, his catch percentage of 75 percent was the fourth-best in the NFL of players lining up exclusively at wide receiver with at least 50 targets. If the Vikings offensive line can provide Sam Bradford with some protection, Diggs statistics could improve even more this season.
TE: Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers
Bennett signing with the Packers instantly gives Aaron Rodgers one of the most talented tight ends the quarterback has ever played with. The 6-foot-6 tight end played one season with the Patriots last year, and despite playing second fiddle to Rob Gronkowski, still had a very solid 2016 campaign. Bennett caught 55 passes for 701 yards and seven touchdowns, and finished the year as the 10th-highest graded tight end by PFF with an overall grade of 79.9. Bennett was also fifth among qualified tight ends in yards per route run, and has amassed the sixth-most receiving yards of all tight ends since 2012. Rodgers is going to have a field day targeting his new tight end in the red zone this season.
OT: David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Bakhtiari has been good in pass protection over the last two years, but he took it to another level in 2016. Bakhtiari allowed only 20 QB pressures during the regular season, which is great even before you take into consideration that Rodgers tends to hold on to the ball longer than most quarterbacks. The left tackle had a 97.6 pass-blocking efficiency, which was the second best of any tackle in the league. What makes this more impressive is the fact that Green Bay finished last year with the second-most lopsided run:pass split at 32:68. Despite the extra stress this split puts on the offensive line, Bakhtiari still excelled. His performance last season earned him the honor of PFF’s Best Pass Protector Award, and you can bet Rodgers is grateful to have Bakhtiari blocking his blindside.
OG: Josh Sitton, Chicago Bears
For years, Sitton served as one of the top guards in the NFL, making numerous Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams during his eight seasons with Green Bay. After the Packers surprisingly cut him last offseason, the Bears quickly picked him up, and Sitton continued right where he left off. Starting in 12 games for the Bears, Sitton allowed only six QB pressures in 440 pass-blocking snaps. PFF ranked him the 10th-best guard in 2016, finishing with the fourth-highest pass-blocking grade at the position. Sitton was named to his fourth Pro Bowl last season, as well as an honorable mention on PFF’s All-Pro team. Now entering his 10th NFL season, Sitton is still playing like one of the best interior linemen in football.
C: Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears
Whitehair was not supposed to play center for Chicago last season, but boy are they happy he did. After an August injury to Hroniss Grasu forced the Bears’ recent second-round pick to line up at center, the rookie performed better than anyone could have expected. Whitehair finished 2016 with a grade of 87.2, which was good for sixth-highest among centers league-wide. That grade was also the third-highest grade for a rookie center in the last 10 years for PFF, finishing just behind Travis Frederick and Nick Mangold’s rookie seasons. That is some amazing company to be in. If Whitehair can improve even marginally in 2017, he will be one of the top centers in the NFL.
OG: TJ Lang, Detroit Lions
Lang had been one of the most consistent pieces of the Packers offensive line for the last eight seasons, which made his departure to Green Bay’s division rivals in Detroit even more surprising. But Lang, who started 13 games for the Packers in 2016, accepted the more lucrative offer from his hometown Lions, and immediately bolsters Detroit’s offensive line. Lang finished the 2016 season with the eighth-highest grade among the league’s guards, as he did not allow either a sack or hit over the entire year, including the playoffs, and allowed only 11 total pressures in 964 snaps. Matthew Stafford will certainly be happy with the addition of Lang, as the 6-foot-4 lineman should upgrade the Detroit pass protection immensely.
OT: Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers
The amount of current and former Packers’ offensive linemen on this list shows part of the reason why Aaron Rodgers has been so good throughout his career. Bulaga has consistently been one of the better offensive tackles in pass protection over the last few seasons, and 2016 was no different. Bulaga’s pass-blocking efficiency score finished in the top 10, but his game was somewhat one-dimensional, as the veteran tackle struggled a bit in the run game. Even so, Bulaga and Bakhtiari combine to provide Rodgers with two of the best pass-protecting tackles in the NFL. As long as Green Bay’s interior linemen can step up, the Packers will likely finish the season with a top-10 offensive line.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.