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WCG’s 2021 NFC North top 50: Nos. 20-11

In the fourth article of a five-part roundtable series, the staff of Windy City Gridiron come together to rank the top 50 players in the NFC North heading into 2021, this time ranking players 20-11.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

We’ve reached the low period in the NFL offseason.

An exciting 2021 NFL Draft for Bears fans has come and gone. Free agency, while technically still ongoing, features very few notable names and players likely to make an impact on the course of a team’s season.

However, with the draft concluded and the free agency market dried up, now is as good of a time as any to compare how teams in certain divisions square up to each other.

In an exercise similar to that of the annual NFL Top 100 list, multiple staff members from Windy City Gridiron have come together to vote on a list of the top 50 players in the NFC North. The voting process had similarities to that of the league-official list: each staff member who participated in the exercise was asked to list their top 35 players, and a certain amount of points was assigned to each ranking slot. For example, if a player was ranked first, that player would receive 35 points. The player ranked second would receive 34 points, so on and so forth. A consensus list was then compiled from how each staff member ranked each player.

Here are the players who have been ranked thus far:

  • T-50. Preston Smith, Jimmy Graham
  • T-49. Darnell Mooney, Robert Quinn
  • 47. James Daniels
  • 46. Billy Turner
  • 45. Rashan Gary
  • T-44. Christian Darrisaw, D’Andre Swift
  • 42. Teven Jenkins
  • 41. Jeff Okudah
  • T-40. Jamie Collins, Bilal Nichols
  • 38. Brian O’Neill
  • 37. Jared Goff
  • 36. Tarik Cohen
  • 35. Darnell Savage
  • 34. Cody Whitehair
  • 33. Jaylon Johnson
  • 32. Robert Tonyan
  • 31. Penei Sewell
  • 30. Justin Fields
  • 29. Taylor Decker
  • 28. Elgton Jenkins
  • 27. Michael Pierce
  • 26. Anthony Barr
  • 25. David Montgomery
  • 24. Eddie Goldman
  • 23. Patrick Peterson
  • 22. Adrian Amos
  • 21. Kirk Cousins

Let’s continue to break down Windy City Gridiron’s second annual consensus top 50 NFC North players as we head towards the home stretch, ranking players at Nos. 20 through 11.

20. Harrison Smith, S, Vikings

High: 13 (Orbinger)

Low: 32 (Zeglinski)

Last year: 18

Smith remains one of the league’s best safeties, a title he has held for a majority of his career.

His ball production since entering the league has been nothing short of impressive; he has tallied 28 interceptions and 66 pass deflections in nine seasons. Even as he approaches the back-half of his career, he’s still incredibly productive, as he has had 16 interceptions and 39 deflections in the last four years alone. A ball-hawking safety with a nose for the football and an aggressive demeanor, Smith has shown no signs of slowing down.

19. Akiem Hicks, DL, Bears

High: 6 (Sunderbruch)

Low: N/R (Obringer)

Last year: 9

As Hicks enters the final year of his contract, the Bears find themselves with a tough decision to make.

On one end, Hicks has had just 4.5 sacks over the last two seasons and isn’t finishing plays at the same rate he has for much of his tenure in Chicago. Plus, he’ll be 32 in November and will likely be expensive for a cap-strapped team. On the other end, he is still an impactful force who generate pressure along the interior and serves as a quality run defender at the very least. Regardless of whether he returns to the Bears beyond 2021, Hicks is a talented player whose presence both on and off the field is notable.

18. T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions

High: 9 (Sunderbruch)

Low: 26 (Wiltfong)

Last year: 38

The narrative has long been that rookie tight ends don’t produce well in the NFL. After a decent Year 1, Hockenson took a major step in his second season.

Hockenson finished the season with 67 receptions, 723 yards and 6 touchdowns in a campaign that earned him a Pro Bowl nomination. In those respective categories, he finished fourth, third and ninth among tight ends league-wide. As he continues to come into his own, his athletic and pass-catching prowess combined with his blocking temperament should only see him rise higher into the upper echelon of NFL tight ends.

17. Eric Kendricks, LB, Vikings

High: 7 (Obringer)

Low: 29 (Salo)

Last year: 12

Had Kendricks not missed five games in 2020, he very well may have made his second career All-Pro appearance.

The incoming seven-year veteran finished with 107 tackles in 11 games, putting him on pace for a 16-game total of 156 that would have been the second-highest tally in the league. He also contributed 3 interceptions and 6 pass deflections as a disruptive playmaker at the second level in coverage. There don’t seem to be any signs of slowing down for Kendricks, and in the prime of his career, he figures to put together another strong season this year.

16. Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings

High: 11 (Salo)

Low: 24 (Infante)

Last year: 11

Since breaking into the Vikings’ starting lineup full-time in 2016, Thielen has been a reliable target every single year.

After having a down year with injuries and inconsistent play in 2019, Thielen bounced back last season. He caught 74 passes for 925 yards and finished with a career-high 14 touchdowns, placing him third in the NFL in that area. His reliable hands and route-running expertise have kept him firmly in a major role in Minnesota’s offense, and even as he approaches the age of 31 in August, he figures to still be plenty productive in 2021.

15. Kenny Clark, DL, Packers

High: 9 (Schmitz)

Low: 22 (Salo)

Last year: 15

Although he missed three games in 2020, Clark was still able to make an impact for the Packers.

The Pro Bowl nose tackle had two sacks and 42 tackles in 13 games, and while that statline may not jump off the page, his impact went beyond the stat sheet. He generated 12 pressures from the interior, and with his combination of sheer girth and athletic ability, he showed once again that he is a force to be reckoned with on both passing and rushing downs.

14. Eddie Jackson, S, Bears

High: 11 (Duerrwaechter)

Low: 21 (Leming)

Last year: 5

After looking like one of the NFL’s best ball-hawking safeties to start his career, Jackson cooled down significantly in 2020.

Jackson finished without an interception for the first season of his NFL career, and he finished with a career-low five pass deflections. His completion percentage allowed jumped from 53.5 to 67.4 percent, and his passer rating allowed from 57.6 to 110.1. While the two-time Pro Bowler took a step back both on the field and in these rankings, the substitution of Chuck Pagano to Sean Desai could help revitalize Jackson’s playmaking ways.

13. Aaron Jones, RB, Packers

High: 6 (Salo)

Low: 26 (Zeglinski)

Last year: 17

With a large contract extension in tow, Jones looks to continue to build off of his fantastic past two seasons.

After leading the NFL with 16 touchdowns in 2020, Jones finished with a career-high 1,104 rushing yards, placing fourth in the league despite missing two games. His 5.5 yards per carry placed fifth, as well. His ball-carrier vision, contact balance and explosiveness have made him a valuable asset for the Packers’ offense. Now that he’s locked in for the long haul and no longer has to compete for touches with Jamaal Williams, expect another big season out of Jones if healthy.

12. Roquan Smith, LB, Bears

High: 9 (Infante, Robinson)

Low: 17 (Schmitz)

Last year: 31

Though he had shown flashes before, Smith was able to put it all together in his third NFL season.

Despite being snubbed for a Pro Bowl berth, Smith was still named a second-team All-Pro for his tremendous 2020 campaign. He finished sixth in the league with 139 tackles and would have surely jumped to the fourth spot had he not gotten hurt early in the Bears’ Week 17 matchup. He also led all off-ball linebackers with 18 tackles for a loss and made significant strides in coverage. An athletic and intelligent sideline-to-sideline linebacker, Smith is setting himself up for a massive payday down the line.

11. Frank Ragnow, C, Lions

High: 6 (Duerrwaechter)

Low: 24 (Zeglinski)

Last year: 42

2020 was the year that Ragnow made the transformation from underrated interior blocker to one of the best centers in the NFL.

After starting his career at left guard, he has truly been able to come into his own over the last two seasons at center. The former first-round pick was named a second-team All-Pro and made the first Pro Bowl of his career. He didn’t allow a single sack and was one of the best run-blocking centers in the league. With a contract extension that made him the highest-paid center in league history, Ragnow figures to be a fixture for Detroit’s offensive line for years to come.