Our list of the 30 best players in the NFC North under 30
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org December 28, 2011 9:06PM
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2011, file photo, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Packers' 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL Super Bowl XLV football game in Arlington, Texas. Rodgers is the 2011 Male Athlete of the Year chosen by members of The Associated Press after his MVP performance in the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl victory in February and his stellar play during the team's long unbeaten run this season. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Updated: February 20, 2012 1:28PM
The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers clinched the NFC North nearly a month ago and they secured the NFC’s No. 1 seed by defeating the Bears at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
But as they prepare for another championship run, the Packers’ dominance of the division doesn’t appear fleeting, based on their bountiful roster, ripe with young talent.
With insights from 10 NFL scouts, personnel executives and assistant coaches, the Sun-Times has ranked the best 30 players in the NFC North under the age of 30. Eliminated were players who turn 30 before next training camp – like Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen – and rookies who haven’t played in at least 10 games.
Here’s how the players stacked up:
1) Aaron Rodgers – Packers, QB, 27, D1-05 – He limits his turnovers, he carries his offense, and he represents his franchise with distinction. What’s not to like?
2) Calvin Johnson – Lions, WR, 26, D1-07 – He’s a specimen (6 foot 5, 236 pounds, and he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds), but he’s also highly productive, leading the NFC in receiving yards and scoring 14 touchdowns.
3) Adrian Peterson – Vikings, RB, 26, D1-07 – While most athletes may need a year to recover from an MCL and ACL tear, the Vikings insist they are targeting a full return by the regular season. Who is going to doubt one of the NFL’s most feared runners?
4) Jay Cutler – Bears, QB, 28, T-09 (from Denver) – With the division’s weakest receiver corps and arguably the weakest offensive line, he’s reinforced his importance to his team’s offense in his absence because of a broken right thumb. Several scouts said he has the physical tools to be one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, although he hasn’t shown the consistency.
5) Matthew Stafford – Lions, QB, 23, D1-09 – After playing through injuries, he’s been dominant the last three games, with no interceptions and nine touchdowns, including a game-winner in Oakland to Johnson.
6) Greg Jennings – Packers, WR, 28, D2-06 – The numbers don’t do him justice, as scouts and coaches insist that he is one of the toughest receivers in the NFL to defend, because of his hands, his smarts and his bursts of speed.
7) Ndamukong Suh – Lions, DT, 24, D1-10 – His production and play have significantly tailed off from his rookie season, but he is still one of the most feared defenders in the game because of his size and speed.
8) Clay Matthews – Packers, LB, 25, D1-09 – He’s mostly likely going to fall short of double-digits sacks for a third consecutive season. But he’s still a terror, tied for second in the league in quarterback knockdowns and hurries, according to STATS.
9) Matt Forte – Bears, RB, 26, D2-08 – His season was cut short by four games, just three rushing yards short of 1,000. But he showcased his versatility and importance to the Bears during a 7-3 start.
10) Jordy Nelson – Packers, WR, 26, D2-08 – An ideal complement to Jennings, he had his breakout performance in Super Bowl XLV (9 catches, 140 yards and one touchdown), and he hasn’t slowed down since with 1,101 yards and 12 touchdowns.
11) Cliff Avril – Lions, DE, 25, D3-08 – He’s already got a career-high 11 sacks, but he’s also forced six fumbles, and his interception for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers Sunday showcased his athleticism.
12) Percy Harvin – Vikings, WR, 23, D1-09 – Despite sketchy quarterback play the last two seasons – as well as migraines that have limited him in practice and even in games – he is still one of the NFL’s most versatile playmakers.
13) Devin Hester – Bears, WR, 29, D2-06 – He hasn’t been able to make a breakthrough as a receiver, but he’s still the league’s most feared return man, capable of turning a game or at least changing the field position.
14) Chad Greenway – Vikings, LB, 28, D1-06 – After signing a lucrative contract, he hasn’t been nearly the playmaker he was the last couple seasons. But, scouts and coaches insist he’s still a cornerstone defender because of his athleticism and football IQ.
15) Henry Melton – Bears, DT, 25, D4-09 – Coach Lovie Smith predicted his emergence, and he hasn’t disappointed with seven sacks. Scouts say he’ll only get better, but he needs to become more consistent and well rounded.
16) B.J. Raji – Packers, DT, 25, D1-09 – His impact can’t be measured in sacks, since he’s the anchor of his team’s 3-4 defense. But he had 6 ½ sacks in 2010. This season, though, he hasn’t been as effective but remains a force.
17) Tramon Williams – Packers, CB, 28, UFA-06 – Undrafted out of Louisiana Tech, he was released by the Houston Texans then claimed by the Packers. A 2010 Pro Bowl selection, he’s intercepted four passes and defended 20 others.
18) Jermichael Finley – Packers, TE, 24, D3-08 – In the year of the tight end, he’s been awfully quiet. But he remains a tough match up for opposing defenses because of his size, speed and hands.
19) Chris Houston – Lions, CB, 27, T-10 – Consistently still a concern, but he’s tied for eighth in the NFL with five interceptions, including two he’s returned for touchdowns.
20) Josh Sitton – Packers, G, 25, D4-08 – In his third season as a starter, he’s established himself among the league’s best guards. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s rated sixth overall, at his position.
21) Brandon Pettigrew – Lions, TE, 26, D1-09 – There’s plenty he can improve on, like reducing his penalties, but there’s no denying his athleticism, which he shows off in pass catching and pass blocking.
22) Stephen Tulloch – Lions, LB, 26, FA-11 – The veteran accomplished his goal, gambling on himself by signing a one-year deal to play under former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, now the Lions head coach. He should get a healthy long-term deal.
23) Desmond Bishop – Packers, LB, 27, D6-07 – One of the keys to his team’s Super Bowl run last season, he had a strong start to 2011, until he was slowed by a calf injury. He returned with 12 tackles against the Bears on Sunday.
24) Bryan Bulaga – Packers, OT, 22, D1-10 – After an up-and-down rookie season, he’s asserted himself as the division’s best young offensive tackle in 2011. Pro Football Focus, in fact, has him second in the NFL only to Philadelphia’s Jason Peters.
25) John Sullivan – Vikings, C, 26, D6-08 – The former Notre Dame lineman is wrapping up his third season as the Vikings’ starting center. And according to Pro Football Focus, he’s the league’s second-highest rated center this season.
26) Stephen Paea – Bears, DT, 23, D2-11 – He started the season among the regular scratches, but he’s become a key part of his team’s rotation, flashing both his brute strength and his burst of speed.
27) Mason Crosby – Packers, K, 27, D6-07 – He possesses one of the league’s strongest legs, but he’s also very accurate, even at Lambeau Field, where the conditions are sometimes less than ideal.
28) Johnny Knox – Bears, WR, 25, D5-09 – Two scouts said he’s not used properly by the Bears and that he’d be an ideal complement to a more traditional lead receiver. But, his ability to stretch the field and return kickoffs can’t be ignored.
29) Brian Robison – Vikings, DE, 28, D4-07 – In his first full season as a starter, he more than held his own opposite NFL sack leader Jared Allen. He’s got seven sacks, and he’s also forced two fumbles.
30) Louis Delmas – Lions, S, 24, D2-09 – He doesn’t have the sexy stats, like other safeties in the division, but he’s smart, he’s reliable and he oozes leadership.
Other players considered: Morgan Burnett, T.J. Lang, DeAndre Levy, Lance Louis, D.J. Moore, Kyle Rudolph, Sam Shields, Eric Wright, Titus Young.
• Three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins wasn’t considered, because of a potentially career threatening neck injury.