COMMENTARY | The NFC North is known for its high-flying passing games. Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford all throw the ball frequently and usually have the stats to prove it.
However, it is not just the talented arms that make up these passing attacks. Some of the best receivers in the NFL reside in this division. Brandon Marshall has regained his chemistry with Jay Cutler in Chicago, Greg Jennings has a new home with the Vikings, Randall Cobb and James Jones are emerging stars in Green Bay, and Calvin Johnson is breaking records in Detroit.
Which team has the best group of receivers in the NFC North?
Can the talent of Marshall or Johnson put their respective teams in the top spot, or does the depth in Green Bay get the edge?
4. Minnesota Vikings
Top four receivers: Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright
Percy Harvin, the Vikings' top receiver from a season ago, left the team during the offseason and yet somehow the position actually looks stronger than it did a year ago. Harvin is undoubtedly a supreme talent, but Minnesota has struggled in the past to add depth to the roster.
The remedy for that problem was to add veteran pass-catcher Greg Jennings and draft Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. Patterson is a "high-risk, high-reward" type pick, but he gives quarterback Christian Ponder a quality No. 2 receiver to work with. Jennings will provide leadership in the locker room and should have a chip on his shoulder to prove he is still one of the better receivers in this league.
Last season, an injury kept him off the field for all but eight games, so Jennings has plenty of work to do in order to show he is healthy and capable of producing. Still, two promising receivers is better than one.
The problem is that Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright are below-average No. 3 and No. 4 guys. They combined for just 584 yards receiving and two touchdowns a year ago. It seems that Minnesota's receiving core is actually improving, but it is still the weakest in the division.
3. Chicago Bears
Top four receivers: Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Eric Weems
The Chicago Bears' receiving corps is extremely top-heavy thanks to Brandon Marshall, but the group is still slightly better than what the Vikings are bringing to the table. Again, that is thanks in large part to the contributions of Marshall. Jay Cutler's favorite target had 118 receptions for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns a season ago.
But there is talent to be found beneath Marshall on the depth chart. Alshon Jeffery started to display deep-threat ability before an injury prematurely ended his 2012 campaign. The former South Carolina Gamecock managed 24 catches for 367 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season. His average of 15.3 yards per reception was the best on the team.
Marshall will undoubtedly continue to be one of the best receivers in football this season, and Jeffery's development as a No. 2 option will be exciting to watch, but what about the guys behind them?
Devin Hester has finally been taken away from the receivers group so that he can focus solely on special teams, which leaves Earl Bennett and Eric Weems as the No. 3 and No. 4 options on the depth chart.
Bennett's history with Cutler goes all the way back to their time as teammates at Vanderbilt, so chemistry and timing make him a reliable weapon. He has great speed and will benefit from being able to operate mostly in the slot. Weems is an underwhelming option who may not even hang on to the No. 4 spot. He had just two catches for 27 yards last season.
Top four receivers: Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles, Mike Thomas
The Detroit Lions have the best receiver (and arguably the best player) in the NFL in Calvin Johnson, but some questions behind him keep the Lions from reaching the top spot in these rankings.
However, there is no denying what Johnson is bringing to the table. Last season, he set the single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964 and asserted his dominance against constant double-coverage. Johnson's receiving yardage has actually increased in each of the last three years, so perhaps 2,000 yards is attainable in 2013?
The Lions are probably hoping that other guys catch some passes and take yards away from Johnson. There is plenty of talent on the depth chart capable of doing so, but these guys have to find ways to stay on the field. Nate Burleson has had a lengthy career with some standout moments, but he has just 12 touchdowns in three seasons with Detroit and was only healthy for six games in 2012.
However, Burleson is not alone in coming back from injury, as Ryan Broyles is coming off his second knee injury since 2011. Broyles is expected to be the Lions' best slot weapon and showed glimpses of being a great intermediate pass-catcher when he was on the field last season. He has sure hands, runs excellent routes and is unafraid to go over the middle. Still, those skills are useless when not healthy.
As for Mike Thomas, he is a decent option as a No. 4 receiver but is never going to amaze anyone with his production. Thomas was actually the No. 1 guy in Jacksonville for a period of time, but he has just seven career touchdown receptions.
1. Green Bay Packers
Top four receivers: Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin
The Packers clearly do not have a single receiver who is as good as Calvin Johnson or even Brandon Marshall, but they do have one thing that every other team in this division craves: three talented targets who all produced last season.
Randall Cobb and James Jones broke out to the tune of a combined 1,738 receiving yards and 23 total touchdowns in 2012. Both men showed that they could step up in a big way with Greg Jennings hurt for a majority of the year. Obviously, it helps to have one of the game's best quarterbacks passing the ball in Aaron Rodgers, but these are two skilled weapons who are only going to get better in the coming years.
And the same kind of appreciation has to be given to Jordy Nelson, who caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last year.
Green Bay is a team that has lacked a consistent rushing game for years now, but this aerial attack has been able to more than handle the offensive burden. It was fair to wonder if the passing game would struggle without Jennings in the lineup, yet it flourished instead.
If Broyles and Burleson play to their ability for the Lions in 2013 then Detroit will make a fair argument for this top spot, but, for now, the depth of the Packers outweighs the (truly amazing) skill of Johnson.
Do you agree with these rankings? Do you think Calvin Johnson should have elevated Detroit to the top spot? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Nick Kostora lives in Michigan and has covered the Detroit Lions for 4 years. His work has appeared on CNN, the Detroit Free Press, Bleacher Report, Yahoo! and more. He is also the co-host of a Lions podcast @LionsCentralPFC.
You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickkostora.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Calvin Johnson
- Brandon Marshall
- Greg Jennings
- Randall Cobb
- Detroit Lions
- Nate Burleson