Since winning Super Bowl XLV in February of 2011, the Green Bay Packers have remained the dominant team in the NFC North, claiming seven of the past 10 division titles. Given recent events, including the strong drafts by the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and Detroit Lions, Green Bay’s grasp on the division is nowhere near as tight as it once was.
The Packers won the division by a commanding margin this past season. Their convincing 13-3 record easily outpaced the rest of the pack (sorry), with Chicago five games behind at 8-8, Minnesota slotting in at 7-9, and Detroit doing Detroit things at 5-11.
Even if Green Bay can make amends with Aaron Rodgers before next season starts, its division rivals have done a wonderful job elevating the overall talent level in the NFC North. By adding a number of current standouts and future stars to the mix, they’ve made the seat atop the division warmer and warmer, even with the Packers adding an influx of talent of their own.
The Bears may very well look back on their first two selections of this past draft as the picks that helped turn the tide of the franchise. You would have been hard-pressed to find a Chicago fan that was legitimately excited to see Andy Dalton line up as QB1 this season, but the Bears maneuvered their way into one of the steals of the draft, trading up to select Justin Fields at No. 11.
Not since the selection of Matthew Stafford first overall by the Lions in 2009 has there been a quarterback who brought this much excitement and potential into the division. If he lives up to his billing, Fields would presumably take the title of Best Quarterback in the Division from Aaron Rodgers, whenever he officially departs. Fields was rated as high as No. 2 on several draft boards, and Packers fans should definitely worry about what could certainly be an impending Rookie of the Year campaign.
Also, the Chicago brass liked their second selection, Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins, so much that they went ahead and released their incumbent left tackle Charles Leno. The Bears felt like they were getting a cornerstone first-round talent in the second round, and even though Jenkins had primarily been a right tackle in college, he’s going to be counted on early to step into a big role.
The Bears’ draft was top-heavy, as they were without a third- and fourth-round pick, but getting two of the most important positions solidified is an advantage they have on the Packers right now. When healthy and committed, you’d rather have Rodgers and David Bakhtiari, but Green Bay can’t say that right now, giving Chicago an advantage they didn’t have a week ago.
The Vikings had one of the best individual moves of the draft, trading back nine spots, adding two third-round picks, and still selecting the cornerstone tackle they needed in Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech. With three new defensive starters (Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, and Dalvin Tomlinson) already signed in free agency, they had a bit more flexibility in the draft, and general manager Rick Spielman had himself a heck of a weekend as a result.
Armed with four total picks in the third round, Minnesota made some moves for both the present and the future, adding another presumptive starting offensive lineman in Wyatt Davis from Ohio State, two defensive pieces in linebacker Chazz Surratt from North Carolina, and defensive end Patrick Jones II from Pittsburgh, as well as a project quarterback in Kellen Mond from Texas A&M.
Mond almost certainly won’t push Kirk Cousins for any meaningful snaps this upcoming season, but it’s the type of pick that smart teams make. A guy with great tools falls to you; when the value is right, you snap him up. Sometimes it can be a home run (Dak Prescott, for example), and sometimes there’s a reason they fell (like Brett Hundley). Regardless, it’s Minnesota’s answer to Jordan Love — a quarterback with as much upside as uncertainty — yet this move didn’t alienate a superstar and trigger a slowly detonating implosion.
The Vikings are better after this past weekend, and players like Justin Jefferson are only going to improve as well. Minnesota missed the playoffs a season ago, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see them on the sweet side of .500 this year.
I don’t think anyone is going to be rushing to Las Vegas to put down money on the Lions to win the Super Bowl, much less the division, but the Kneecap Biters helped shape what a future contender might look like with their first two selections. The quarterbacks got the majority of the early love, but if you envision the 2041 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it’s not a stretch to picture Penei Sewell donning a gold jacket in Canton. He’s that good.
Add him into an offensive line that’s young, gifted, and sick of losing, and the Fighting Dan Campbells definitely have an identity as they move forward.
BACK TO THE PACK
I still have all the confidence in the world that an Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers team will win the NFC North next year. With Jordan Love at the helm? Who knows. What I do know is that it is really hard to imagine a scenario where Green Bay clinches the division well before Christmas as they did last year.
It’s easy to see scenarios where both the Vikings and the Bears push for 10 wins, especially with a 17-game season, and it’s not crazy to think that the Lions might wind up with seven or eight victories in a new system. All those wins have to come from somewhere, and with each team having two shots against Green Bay, the Packers could easily fall back a game or two, even with Rodgers. They dominated the division last year and had the best odds in Vegas to win its respective division of any team as of just a few weeks ago, but the gap has most certainly closed.