The Chicago Bears won the NFC North last season, returning to their rightful place and making the playoffs for the first time in far too long. Can they repeat? Obviously, coaching is a factor, as is luck. Injuries matter. However, the players on the field probably matter the most. This series is going to compare the rosters of the teams in the NFC North position group by position group. Note that although this is a Bears fansite, this is not intended to be an exercise in declaring that the Bears are best at everything. Game play, objective stats, and historical trends will all be used to try to come up with informed analysis about how to rank these players. Note, however, that there is a difference between informed analysis and truly objective assessment. THere is, of course, room for interpretation. That’s the fun.
To launch the series, we’re starting with the most important position in professional sports, the quarterback.
#1). The Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is probably not a very nice guy. He might or might not have gotten a coach fired. He is also, inarguably, one of the greatest passers of his generation. Once a certain level of talent is reached, it’s hard to differentiate between amazing and spectacular, but Rodgers is just freakishly good.
Last year was a down year for him, and so his indexed passer rating was only 110. For those unfamiliar with Pro Football Reference, indexed passer rating takes a quarterback’s traditional passer rating and compares it to the average achieved by quarterbacks around the league for the season in question, with 100 representing average. In eleven seasons, Rodgers has never recorded an indexed rating below 105.
It is true that in pure passer rating, Kirk Cousins beat Rodgers last season (99.7 vs. 97.6). If you believe that means that Kirk Cousins actually played better than Aaron Rodgers last season, you need to look away from spreadsheets and watch some football. Rodgers did have a down year last year, and he might actually be declining. However, the over-the-hill husk of Aaron Rodgers is probably one of the ten best quarterbacks in the NFL, and Rodgers is far from over the hill.
Of course, this comparison is supposed to consider the entire quarterback room, and DeShone Kizer does little to inspire confidence. Neither to Tim Boyle and Manny Wilkins. Given the near-certainty that Rodgers is going to get hurt at some point in 2019, that should matter. However, the rest of the NFC North doesn’t exactly have the backup quarterback position locked up, and 13 games of Rodgers and 3 games of anyone else is probably better than 16 games from any of the other starters in the NFC North.
#2) The Minnesota Vikings
I do not want to say good things about Kirk Cousins. The contract Minnesota signed him to was an embarrassment, and it legitimately handcuffed the construction of the team around him. So what? Cousins is actually a better quarterback than people want to admit, even if all that means is that he is an overpaid veteran with a consistent ability to move the football. Like Stafford and Trubisky, he has a single Pro Bowl to his name.
For his career, he has a 95.0 rating and 6.69 ANY/A. If you’re trying to remember a Bears quarterback with at least 300 attempts and an ANY/A anywhere near that, stop trying. Trubisky gets closest with his 5.91. Cousins has started every game of the season for the last four seasons, and in each of those seasons he has posted a passer rating above the league average. In other words, on paper, Kirk Cousins is a better-than-average quarterback with moments of being much better than that.
What about in actual games instead of a stat sheet? Cousins once had an ability to lead a team to victory with aggressive play, but he seemed to leave that ability in Washington. After orchestrating multiple game-winning drives per season for his prior team, he faltered in Minnesota. It’s easy to blame the contract he was handed and to claim that it was simply that the Vikings overpaid him, forcing the roster to degrade, but that’s not all there is to it.
The reality is that Cousins did not do anything to show that the Vikings should have given him the contract he received, but he was an accurate passer who played within himself. Minnesota should have gone with Keenum or Bridgewater. They didn’t. Was signing Cousins a mistake? Probably. Independent of his contract, though, he is a solid player. He manages games, and he will not hold his team back all that often. Like every quarterback in the NFC North not named Aaron, he has yet to record a playoff win. However, he has shown greater consistency in the last few seasons than his competition.
One of his best features is his availability, and that’s good, because Cousins is backed up by Sean Mannion, Jake Browning, and Kyle Sloter. If I were to move the Vikings down, it would not be because of the limitations of Cousins. It would instead be because of his backups.
#3) The Chicago Bears
I know Trubisky improved last year. I know that he showed a lot of potential in a handful of games. However, let’s be honest--everything possible was set up for him to do well. He played while backed up by a smothering defense that limited what he needed to do in order to win. He had an offensive coach who custom-designed an offense to his strengths. His entire receiving corps was revamped and improved with free agents and draft picks. With all of that going for him, if his performance didn’t improve it would have been a chilling condemnation of his ability.
Instead, Trubisky did improve, and he managed to be just a little bit above average (107 indexed passer rating; 95.4 raw passer rating), sneaking into the Pro Bowl as an alternate. He dragged his career ANY/A up to 5.91, and he was 20th in DVOA and 18th in DYAR (he was, in fact, just a little bit better than Matthew Stafford in these two metrics). In other words, he was roughly an average quarterback, more or less. He didn’t play badly. He just didn’t stand out.
As a fan who watched his play, I was impressed by his ability to make plays with his legs and I was happy with his progression as a passer. However, he left points on the field any number of times. Once the scripted plays ran out, he struggled to keep drives alive. There were bright spots, and his ability to stay aggressive while still managing the game was promising. With a decent offensive system around him, he played well enough to win games. He did not, however, take games over. At times, the Bears were limited in what they could do offensively because Trubisky limited them.
Meanwhile, Trubisky is not backed up by a lot of talent, either. Chase Daniel is a second-tier backup, the kind of guy a team signs because he knows the system and because better players are not available. He is probably better than what the Vikings have, however, and so an argument could be made to move the Bears ahead of the Vikings on that basis. Tyler Bray’s next completed pass in the NFL regular season will be his first.
#4). The Detroit Lions
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way--Matthew Stafford is a solid, veteran quarterback. He has a Pro Bowl under his belt, and five of his ten NFL seasons have seen him post a passer rating above the average for the league that year. His last four seasons, especially, have seen him play at least at the league average, if not better.
There are good reasons not to list the Lions above fourth place, however. To begin with, last year Stafford was statistically the least accomplished starting quarterback in the division. His passer rating was a pedestrian 89.9. He had the lowest adjusted net yards per attempt for the group (5.79), the worst TD:Int ratio (21:11), and added the least threat potential with his legs. He was behind both Rodgers and Trubisky in Football Outsiders’ ALEX measure, which basically measures how reliably a quarterback was able to stretch the field and keep drives alive (there is much, much more to it than that, but it’s basically a decent metric for successful quarterback aggressiveness).
Of course, boxscore scouting only goes so far. Stafford is a bit of a gunslinger, and he does have the ability to make big plays and to get a team going. That doesn’t always show up in a stat box, but it does matter. Stafford is not, however, able to reliably lead a team from behind. I actually think his play has gotten better without Calvin Johnson around, mostly because he has had to spread the ball around and has been able to showcase some legitimate talent at making plays. However, he plays in what is now a quarterback-rich division, and there is no sign that he is on the way to his second Pro Bowl.
Worse, from Detroit’s perspective, is that they do not have any quality depth behind Stafford. Generally, a team wants to know that its backup has a decent shot at going 2-2 if its starter is out for any stretch of time. The Lions, on the other hand, have Tom Savage and Connor Cook. While both of these players have managed to hang around the league for a while, neither has exactly done amazing, or even adequate, things in that time.
Overall, then, the Lions have the worst quarterback group in the NFC North. Note that’s not the same as saying that they have the worst quarterback situation in the NFC North. That belongs to Minnesota. Still, Lions fans find themselves in territory that the Bears fans know well—they have a talented-ish quarterback who seems only to need one more piece to put him over the top.
Up next: who has the best rushing attack in the NFC North?