While the NFL seems to be embracing its identity of being a passing league, the NFC North seems to be hellbent on throwing things back to 1995. And while there is plenty of elite receiving talent in the division, some teams have been focused on taking more out of their quarterback’s hands and placing it in the running game.
For other teams, there’s the desire to make things as simple as possible for their underachieving quarterback. And for the Lions…we’ll get to them a little bit later.
But as much as the teams in the NFC North want to ground-and-pound each other into submission, the passing game still has a role. Even the San Francisco 49ers, who legitimately ran over the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, had to throw the ball in the Super Bowl, and with a raw stable of weapons they couldn’t hold off the Kansas City Chiefs’ high-octane offense.
That makes building a legitimate stable of pass catchers a top priority in today’s NFL. The Vikings had one of the best in the league, but with the trade of Stefon Diggs, their outlook is a little murkier. The Packers didn’t add a single receiver in the draft and the Bears basically reached into a hat and added a bunch of random guys. And the Lions…yes, we’ll get to them later.
So who has the best stable of pass-catchers in the NFC North and who could rise to the top in 2020?
4. Chicago Bears
The Bears’ passing attack has been effectively grounded by Mitchell Trubisky, but they still have an alpha receiver that can compete with the best in the league. Many may think that Allen Robinson has run out of gas after suffering a torn ACL in 2017 and having an uninspiring first season in Chicago the following year. But his 2019 campaign showed many glimpses of his old self even if the quarterback play wasn’t top-notch.
Robinson collected 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns last year, which were both more than Diggs put up for the Vikings. He ranked 12th in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grade and was a reliable target, ranking 11th in the league with a three percent drop rate. Even better, Robinson recorded 1.82 yards per route run, which was 31st in the league, but could have gone up with a more reliable quarterback.
Even with the quarterback issues, the rest of the receiving core hasn’t made Robinson’s job easier. There isn’t a single threat on the Bears’ roster that should keep defenses up at night and Anthony Miller‘s 1.60 yards per route run in the slot was 32nd among qualifying receivers last season. Viking fans know that receiving isn’t Cordarrelle Patterson‘s strength and the combination of Riley Ridley, Javon Wims and even fifth-round selection Darnell Mooney isn’t going to fuel the imagination.
With the lack of a second deep threat, the Bears added Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency, but even that is a flawed idea Ginn is known as a burner, but only had a 30 percent deep catch rate last season (67th in NFL). This number is even worse considering Drew Brees was a solid deep passer, compiling a 107.2 passer rating on deep throws. By comparison, Trubisky had a 62.4 passer rating on deep throws last season and even if Nick Foles unseats him, he’ll have a slight bump to a 75.9 passer rating.
As Trubisky has struggled to throw deep, the Bears decided to add more security blankets in the form of TEN (!!!) tight ends on the roster. The most prolific name is Jimmy Graham who doesn’t look anything like the game-changer we saw in New Orleans.
During his campaign in Green Bay, Graham was 39th among qualifiers in receiving grade but didn’t help himself out with a 7.3 percent drop rate (34th in NFL). His 1.11 yards per route run were also abysmal, but the Bears handed him a two-year, $16 million contract complete with a no-trade clause.
This means the Bears have to secretly hope that Cole Kmet is the answer, but there’s no way they should have taken him with a second-round pick. 23 of his 43 receptions were within 10 yards last season and his 30 percent contested catch rate means if someone is right next to him, he’s probably not coming down with the ball. There’s also the chance his 4.41-second shuttle drill and 7.44-second three-cone time are indicative he’s just a straight line burner, but at 6’6″, 262 lbs., he figures to be Ryan Pace’s revelation of David Kahn’s “long-and-athletic” fetish for the late 2000s Timberwolves.
This is a make-or-break season for multiple people in the Bears organization, but unless they plan on pumping Allen Robinson with 200 targets, anything that saves them won’t be through the air.
3. Green Bay Packers
We are nearly two months away from the conclusion of the NFL Draft, and I still can’t figure out what the Packers were doing. The most loaded receiver class in history wasn’t good enough for them, so they decided to load up on running backs, fullbacks and quarterbacks of the future to try to win in 2024 despite having a team that went to the NFC Championship Game a year ago.
But the positive of this group is superstar receiver Davante Adams. While he gutted through a turf toe injury, Adams was still productive on the field, ranking eighth in PFF’s receiving grades and almost putting up a 1,000-yard season in just 12 games.
Behind Adams, however, it’s not looking great.
The biggest issue with the Packers in recent years is they’ve relied on Aaron Rodgers to turn non-descript receivers into stars. Green Bay enjoyed such success with Brett Favre, who turned Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman into household names, but Rodgers hasn’t had the same magic touch.
If you’re wondering why things haven’t worked out so great for the Packers in this sense, an interview with Jace Sternberger in The Athletic shined some light on what it’s like coming in as a rookie to play with Aaron Rodgers.
“I mean that’s one of those things, that’s kind of like intimidating to even say because it’s Aaron Rodgers. I’m kidding, but when I first got there, I never even spoke to him. I was just learning from everything. I’m naturally a quiet person, especially with someone like that. I was just learning. I just knew I had to earn his trust. He would mess with me here and there, but we kind of got a little bit of the age difference, so it’s not like we’re the best of friends or we’re talking about ‘Fortnite,’ you know? It’s a little bit different, especially when I’m trying to learn all these different things just so I can be in his offense. As the season progressed, all I could really control is showing him that I wanted to be here and that I was trying. I made mistakes, but I was trying to get better. I hope he saw that. I hope he sees that. Our relationship was getting better. As I said, it’s weird even speaking on it just because he’s older than me. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, I hope he doesn’t see this and yell at me.’”
A line from The Audible’s Sigmund Bloom put this perfectly when he asked if Rodgers is actually Sternberger’s stepfather. All joking aside, the Packers seem to be OK just feeding practice squad guys at Rodgers and hoping he turns them into stars. That makes us wonder what will happen now that the Packers have done nothing to help him out.
Equanimeous St. Brown was last seen getting 86’d by Rodgers for running the wrong routes. Marquez Valdes-Scantling was fine but makes too many mistakes to be a frequent contributor. Allen Lazard was a nice find last year, but can he take a step forward. And can Sternberger gain Rodgers’ approval to the point he takes him out for ice cream? Time will tell.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Much like the other teams in the division, the Vikings can boast a great option at the top of their depth chart. Despite missing six games with a hamstring injury, Adam Thielen looked a lot like his old self when on the field, posting the third-highest QB rating in the league (131.9) behind Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman (153.9) and Baltimore’s Marquise Brown (134.4).
While Thielen fits the mold of reliability the Vikings want from their receivers, his role could look much different in 2020 with the addition of Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson is a fine addition to the Vikings receiving core, who needed a dynamic option after jettisoning Diggs to Buffalo. The 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft has a lot of the tools to make an immediate impact but played 92.3 percent of his snaps in the slot during his junior season at LSU.
That number has raised some white flags among analysts, but the Vikings don’t seem to be concerned. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s suggestion of a Michael Thomas role may suggest that it’s Jefferson who tries to do the dirty work underneath while Thielen becomes the deep threat that Diggs was last season, going deep at a 31.9 percent clip.
But even if the Vikings do figure out how to use Thielen and Jefferson appropriately, there’s still the issue of what’s behind them. Olabisi Johnson is a favorite of the coaching staff, but his 1.03 yards per route run is disappointing considering he started in a large chunk of Thielen’s absence.
That leaves free agent Tajae Sharpe as an intriguing fill-in as someone who was solid in Tennessee, but never saw volume to prove his worth. Sharpe didn’t drop a pass on 25 targets last season and his 127.0 passer rating when targeted would have ranked fifth among qualifying receivers last season. With back-to-back seasons of under 400 yards, however, it’s more of a believe it to see it scenario whether he steps up.
That leaves a wasteland of sorts at the bottom of the depth chart as K.J. Osborn projects more as a punt returner and Chad Beebe can’t stay on the field. Although UDFA Quartney Davis could be considered.a sleeper, that leaves the tight end position as a potential savior.
But again, the goal of that group is to provide a reliable target for Cousins. Kyle Rudolph led the way with a 139.5 QB rating when targeted (4th among tight ends) and didn’t drop a single pass. While both of those numbers are impressive, he recorded a 1.09 Y/RR, which means he’s more of a safety valve for Cousins.
While many expect a breakout for Irv Smith Jr., it’s hard to feel that way considering his usage. Although his 109.3 QB rating when targeted was good, he only ran a total of six deep routes. Even the idea of using him in the slot seemed to fizzled as he generated 0.54 yards per route run while in the slot, making him more of a Rudolph clone unless they expand his role.
The Vikings receivers are relatively unproven, but if Jefferson proves his worth early, this has a good chance to develop into a solid supporting cast for Cousins.
1. Detroit Lions
We end this article with something that Lions fans haven’t heard much of over the years: “The Lions win.” In a division that has decided to run the ball until teams beat them by passing, the Lions have zigged while the other three teams have zagged. At the head of this is the combination of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.
Golladay enjoyed his best season as a pro last fall collecting 1,190 yards and 11 touchdowns. How did he do this without Matthew Stafford for half of the season? He refined almost every point of his game by finishing 26th in passer rating (107.9) and finishing fourth with 18.3 yards per reception with 31.9 percent of his routes going 20 yards or more.
Jones was similarly efficient as a secondary option even though he didn’t get to 1,000 yards on the season. A 105.7 passer rating wasn’t that far off from Golladay and with three missed games, Jones could have hit that 1,000-yard marker. Viking fans should also know how Jones’ season went after he eviscerated Xavier Rhodes for four touchdowns last October.
Golladay and Jones are good, but the Lions could become even better if they unleash T.J. Hockenson. After missing most of his rookie season due to injury, the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft could take off this year. Hockenson was fourth in the NCAA in yards per route run during his final season at Iowa and with just one drop and half of his yardage coming after the catch, Hockenson is a scary addition to this group.
Of course, the utilization will come down to Matt Patricia, who seems more interested with the media’s posture than his actual football team. The Lions have a great group that can light it up with the best if everyone stays healthy. If that happens, it could make Detroit a sleeper team in 2020.