The major waves of free agency are squarely in the rear view, and now, the 2021 NFL Draft is right around the corner as the last big opportunity for teams to add talent for this season. Make no mistake, the draft can shift the power rankings in a monumental way, especially for quarterback-needy clubs that land -- or miss out on -- a potential franchise signal-caller. But before rookies roll in and rosters are basically finalized for the start of the offseason, we decided to take stock of each division as it currently stands.
Here, we're focused on the NFC North. Three of the division's teams own a top-20 pick in the first round of the draft, so it's safe to say our opinions of their lineups could look a lot different when the calendar flips to May. But if you're asking us now, going into the draft, how we'd rank the teams in the NFC North, this would be our order:
The Packers had one of the quietest offseasons of any team in the league, which isn't necessarily fun if you're Aaron Rodgers or a Cheesehead desperate for more juice after back-to-back NFC title losses. And we're not going to sugarcoat the missed opportunities: Taking a flyer on someone like Will Fuller or paying a little extra for someone like JuJu Smith-Schuster might've been wiser than committing top dollar to Jones. (A Jamaal Williams-AJ Dillon pairing wouldn't have been horrible, you know.)
But here's the deal: The Packers are still far and away the favorites in the North. Losing two starters up front hurts (and will require an early investment in the draft). It'd still be nice to get a more explosive No. 2 or No. 3 WR. And yet, as long as Rodgers is under center, there's no reason to pull them from the top spot. Jones, Davante Adams and Robert Tonyan are all Grade-A starters. And the defense, with some more competition at cornerback, is still playoff-caliber.
Much like their quarterback, Kirk Cousins, the Vikings suffer a bit from good-not-great syndrome: They're almost never bad enough to bottom out and require an overhaul, but they're also perpetually on the fringe, with playoff appearances serving as the plateau. This offseason fell right in line with that. The offense got younger, with Riley Reiff out at left tackle and Rudolph gone at tight end, but the defense just shuffled parts, with Tomlinson, Vigil and Peterson basically filling in for departed starters.
A bold move for a longer-term QB (Trey Lance, anyone?) would really give this team some juice, but barring that, they're still positioned to be right in the wild-card mix once again. Cousins can't be much worse than he was to open 2020. Cook, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are still great. And the big-ticket additions -- Tomlinson and Peterson -- should bring some stability to the defense. The question, as always, is whether they have what it takes to do more than just punch a ticket to the postseason.
They might be the toughest to decipher of the whole division. On one hand, their "big" plan at QB -- signing and then assuring (!) Dalton the starting job -- is maybe a slight upgrade on Trubisky and Nick Foles. On the other hand, they've still got some blue-chip defensive pieces in Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson; and they somehow sniffed the playoffs doing the Foles-Trubisky dance. If all things are equal, they could hover right around the .500 mark and try to sneak in once again.
Take another look at their roster, though. We're not buying it. In fact, they might be closer to the Lions than most realize. Yes, Dalton has familiarity with former Bengals assistant Bill Lazor, but he hasn't posted a winning season as a starter since 2015. Allen Robinson should help, even if he's not thrilled to be around. And the Williams-David Montgomery backfield is good. But they've still got question marks in the trenches, beyond A-Rob at wideout and now at corner, where Fuller is gone. They need a home run or three in the draft.
4. Detroit Lions
We know you're probably sick of coming in last on these rankings, Lions fans, but at least this is different than years past. Detroit didn't have any business earning much trust under coach Matt Patricia. Now, with Dan Campbell in the driver's seat and Matthew Stafford shipped out to kick off a total rebuild, the focus isn't on immediate results as much as gradual growth. That's the best way to explain putting Goff out there with Williams, Breshad Perriman and ... Quintez Cephus? ... as a potential Opening Day lineup.
Can the Lions be feisty in 2021? Probably. If Goff gets good protection from an underrated O-line and leans on D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, maybe he can keep Detroit in more games than expected. But the real goal in Motown has to be hitting on the draft picks that came back in the Stafford haul. The Lions too often failed to reach admirable heights even when Stafford was at his best. Now, they can't just assume collecting draft capital and adding cheap veterans is going to secure them a better future.