Where do the Green Bay Packers stand in the NFC?

Brett Hundley Under Pressure
Brett Hundley Under Pressure /

The NFC is as deep as it’s ever been. Similar to the western conference of the NBA, the NFL’s balance of power has tilted in one direction. Where do the Green Bay Packers fall in line?

The NFC this coming season will be extremely interesting to watch. There are only a handful of teams across the conference that can essentially be written off. The Packers obviously contribute to this extremely deep field of competitors but will have quite a hard time emerging on top.

To start, the champions from a year ago will be a pretty stiff challenge for anybody across the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles, who have added Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata and Mike Wallace through free agency and a trade, are also getting some valuable contributors back from injury.

Carson Wentz is the obvious one. Nick Foles was a star in the postseason for the Eagles and took home Super Bowl MVP honors after a tremendous showing against the Patriots. Wentz is a different player however, and has quickly ascended to MVP discussions even before the season begins.

Jason Peters will also be back after being lost for the year midway through last season. The nine-time Pro Bowler has a legitimate argument to be in the Hall of Fame one day, and will be an incredible help for the Eagles’ passing attack.

Jordan Hicks, the team’s best signal caller on defense, will be returning to the field after tearing his Achilles. The Eagles’ defense was already pretty stout without Hicks in the middle, but after getting him back and re-signing Nigel Bradham to a long-term deal, the Eagles’ linebacking group looks pretty scary in addition to their terrifying defensive line.

The Minnesota Vikings may have hijacked their ability to retain some of their defensive pieces in the future after inking Kirk Cousins to a huge contract, but in the short term the team is almost weakness-free. Packer fans can hope that Cousins can only match Case Keenum‘s coming out party got them to the NFC Championship Game, as when looking at the rest of the depth chart, the Vikings are going to be hard to game plan for.

Latavius Murray took a backseat last year in his first season with the Vikings as Jerick McKinnon emerged. McKinnon has since left, leaving Murray as the team’s most experienced tailback. Murray was a 1,200-yard rusher for the Raiders only a few seasons ago, and when teamed with Dalvin Cook, Cousins has two reliable running backs to feed the ball to in order to establish some offensive balance.

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Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen along with Kyle Rudolph will give any secondary fits. Thielen has transformed himself into an exceptional player despite being undrafted out of Minnesota State. Diggs is one of the best burners in football, and judging by the way the Packers’ defensive backfield looks at the moment, they won’t have any answers for Minnesota’s receiving corps.

Defensively, the line has made strides. While Tom Johnson departed to Seattle, the Vikings replaced him with one of the best free agent moves of the year. Grabbing Sheldon Richardson on a one-year deal for just under $10 million is a steal. He will be positioned in between Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter while next to Linval Joseph.

Of course, the rest of Minnesota’s number one ranked defense from a year ago is still intact. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith are all still around and are coached by a tremendous defensive mind in Mike Zimmer.

While the Chicago Bears aren’t considered too big a threat, the team will be improved from a year ago and has an outside shot of threatening for a wild-card berth. The team’s success rides on the development of Mitchell Trubisky, who impressed enough in his rookie season to earn the designation as the team’s starter for years to come. Trubisky also played well despite having the league’s worst group of receivers.

Next year will be a different story. Allen Robinson is arriving via free agency along with Trey Burton, who gave the Eagles a strong receiving presence despite being slotted behind Zach Ertz. General manager Ryan Pace still needs to add some more pass catchers for the offense, but Robinson and Burton combined with star Jordan Howard out of the backfield looks promising for Chicago.

The New Orleans Saints should have been in the NFC Championship Game if it weren’t for a Bill Buckner-esque error by Marcus Williams. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram comprise a strong offense, combined with an ascending defense. The Saints have had a disappointing offseason to this point, as they weren’t able to add any secondary passing weapons like Jordy Nelson or Jimmy Graham, and to this point have only secured aging Patrick Robinson to an expensive long-term deal on defense.

The Carolina Panthers are looking to build off of a strong season from a year ago. The offseason got off to a troubling start, as Bashaud Breeland‘s $24 million contract was voided after he failed a physical. Torrey Smith has arrived to give the team some speed on offense, but the organization still needs to supply Cam Newton with more reliable receiving threats.

The Packers also can’t forget about some of the teams coming up from underneath them as well. The San Fransisco 49ers are rebuilding about as fast as any team has ever done it, thanks to John Lynch‘s fearlessness. The trade for Jimmy Garoppolo was clearly a steal, as he went undefeated in his five starts with the 49ers.

The Richard Sherman signing has some questions attached, as a player soon to enter his 30s and coming off of an Achilles injury is always a red flag. With a top-10 pick still to come this season, the 49ers have a shot to be in the playoffs next year.

Even the Dallas Cowboys shouldn’t be written off just yet. Dak Prescott seems to have a bit of a ceiling, and Dez Bryant has become washed up. But a full season of Ezekiel Elliott will make a big difference for the Cowboys, who clearly relied on him to loosen up the passing game in his rookie season. Allen Hurns‘ arrival will give the team a true number two receiver, something Terrance Williams never developed into.

And of course, there’s the Los Angeles Rams. Sean McVay got his team into the playoffs in his first year in charge, and should have a good chance to improve upon that result next season. A lot has been made of the departure of Sammy Watkins, but it is worth noting that Watkins only hauled in 39 catches and didn’t give Jared Goff as much of a top-end receiving threat as they envisioned.

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The Rams undoubtedly have work to do offensively, but Goff, Todd Gurley, and Andrew Whitworth is a pretty good place to start. Defensively, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh will form the best run defense in football, with a fantastic secondary backing them up. Two separate trades brought in both Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, who form the best cornerback tandem in the game.

Sam Shields is a name to pay attention to this year. Shields has been out of football for over a year after sustaining his fifth concussion in Week 1 of the 2016 season with the Packers. Wade Phillips will know how to use Shields in nickel packages as well as dime. Shields’ injury risk is also diminished slightly because of him backing up the two Pro Bowlers directly in front of him on the depth chart. Nickell Robey-Coleman and Lamarcus Joyner are underrated players in their own right, and shouldn’t be overlooked in trying to game plan for the Rams’ defense.

So where do the Packers fall in line? We’ve heard it before. As long as Aaron Rodgers is around, the Packers will be one of the last teams standing. That has proven to be true, as Rodgers alone got them to the playoffs eight years in a row and only after missing the majority of last season did they miss the postseason.

The team finally parted with Dom Capers and replaced him with Mike Pettine, who has an infinitely better record as a defensive mind than Capers. Pettine fielded four top-10 defenses as the defensive coordinator for the Jets. The arrival of Muhammad Wilkerson will give the team at least some interior pass rush, but Brian Gutekunst will have to find some more through the draft.

A reunion with Tramon Williams is a nice signing sentimentally, but doesn’t exactly give the Packers much of an answer to their long-term questions at cornerback. Jimmy Graham’s signing was a big deal in the media, but his effectiveness will only be realized if the team finds better receivers.

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Davante Adams has come into his own the past two seasons, but is not considered one of the league’s most feared weapons the way some other receivers in the NFC might be. Randall Cobb has lost several steps despite being only 27 and mostly injury-free during his career.

The Packers are going to have an extremely hard time coming out on top of this packed group of teams, but will once again ride Rodgers through to the postseason. By my calculation, the Packers currently should sit fifth in the NFC before the draft:

  1. Philadelphia Eagles
  2. Los Angeles Rams
  3. New Orleans Saints
  4. Minnesota Vikings
  5. Green Bay Packers