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NFL Draft

NFC North First-Quarter Superlatives

  • The Draft Network
  • October 7, 2021
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The first quarter of the 2021 NFL season is in the books and it’s time to take a look at which players are leading the way in the NFC North with a classic breakdown of the best at each position. There’s a bonus ‘best coach’ at the end, too.

Best Quarterback: Kirk Cousins (Vikings)

The Minnesota Vikings are 1-3 but don’t let that fool you: Cousins is playing the best football of his career and was on pace for an MVP-level season before coming back to earth in Week 4’s loss to the Cleveland Browns. Cousins has passed for 1,121 yards, nine touchdowns, and just one interception through the first quarter of the season and is tracking to set franchise passing records as well as a new high watermark for his Pro Football Focus grade. The issue facing Cousins is whether he’ll be able to maintain this level of play if the Vikings continue their overall team struggles.

Best Running Back: David Montgomery (Bears)

Montgomery has the highest PFF grade among all starting running backs in the NFC North and it’s easy to understand why. He’s been the heartbeat of the Bears’ offense through four games, which is notable considering the sprained knee he suffered in Chicago’s win over the Detroit Lions is expected to sideline him for at least four weeks. Montgomery is averaging 4.5 yards per carry—up from 4.3 in 2020—and has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in two of his four games this season.

Best Wide Receiver: Davante Adams (Packers)

It’ll be hard for any NFC North wide receiver to knock Adams from this perch as long as he’s playing with Aaron Rodgers. He’s been targeted 45 times this season and has flipped those looks into 31 catches for 373 yards and one touchdown. His 90.3 receiving grade from PFF is nearly seven points higher than the next pass-catcher in the division (Justin Jefferson), yet it feels like the best is yet to come from Adams this season. 

Best Tight End: T.J. Hockenson (Lions)

Hockenson is in a class of his own in the NFC North. Cole Kmet (Bears) is developing at a slow pace, Irv Smith (Vikings) is injured, and Robert Tonyan (Packers) is experiencing a very real touchdown regression. That leaves the Lions’ former first-rounder, who’s emerged as the blue-chip player he was expected to be as the eighth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Hockenson has 22 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns to go along with the highest PFF run-blocking grade among the division’s starting tight ends.

Best Offensive Lineman: Frank Ragnow (C, Lions)

Ragnow is the second Lion on this list, which is encouraging for a team that’s still searching for its first win. He’s been an elite performer in the run game and has established himself as one of the best all-around offensive linemen in the league. Detroit has a sneaky-good offensive line that will continue to develop as rookie Penei Sewell gains more experience.

Best Defensive Lineman: Dalvin Tomlinson (Vikings)

This one was close between Tomlinson and Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark, but Tomlinson gets the nod after stacking two quality games together versus the Seattle Seahawks and Browns. He’s totaled five pressures and one sack over those two games and is flashing some pass-rushing upside that could result in 2021 being the best year of his career. HIs 77.4 pass-rush grade from PFF leads all defensive linemen in the NFC North.

Best EDGE: Danielle Hunter (Vikings)

Another Vikings defender makes this list, this time at EDGE, where Danielle Hunter edges out the Bears’ duo of Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. Hunter leads the division in pressures (23) and sacks (5) and has been something of an ironman at the position. His 229 snaps are 41 more than the next closest NFC North EDGE, Romeo Okwara (Lions). Hunter missed all of the 2020 season with a neck injury. In 2019, he registered an incredible 18 sacks.

Best Linebacker: Roquan Smith (Bears)

Smith won’t have many allies in the analytics world, but the impact he makes on the field for the Bears is undeniable. He’s been a sideline-to-sideline warrior in 2021 and has filled the stat sheet with 25 tackles, two sacks, and an interception through four games. Smith is playing at an All-Pro level right now and the Bears will need him to remain at that pace if they want to present any kind of challenge to the Packers for the division crown.

Best Cornerback: Jaylon Johnson (Bears)

This one’s easy. The best cornerback in the NFC North has been Johnson, and it isn’t particularly close. His 42.1% reception rate is best in the division among starting corners and he has yet to surrender a touchdown. Johnson has emerged as one of the NFC’s top cornerbacks and by the time the season is over, he could join the elite fraternity of true lockdown guys.

Best Safety: Adrian Amos (Packers)

Amos remains a consistent presence in Green Bay’s secondary, and while this pick could’ve gone to either of the Vikings’ safeties—Harrison Smith or Xavier Woods—it’s Amos who’s manning the backend of a 3-1 team and leading the division’s position group in tackles (25). This one was close, though, and can very easily flip to Smith or Woods by the time we reach midseason.

Best Coach: Matt LaFleur (Packers)

LaFleur doesn’t have much competition right now. Matt Nagy has been a trainwreck and Dan Campbell is too early in his tenure to know exactly what he is as a head coach. Mike Zimmer is, well, Mike Zimmer, and his Vikings team is two games behind LaFleur’s Packers. Considering the traumatic summer Green Bay endured with the Rodgers drama, LaFleur’s done a great job keeping the train on the tracks so far.

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