This Position Group Could Decide the NFC North

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The Green Bay Packers are expected to be the front runners once again for the NFC North title in 2021. After a tumultuous offseason, they are bringing back MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers for at least one more season. Green Bay has also made major efforts towards improving their defense by hiring a new defensive coordinator in Joe Berry and drafting cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round. 

 

While the Packers are the cream of the crop right now, the Vikings look like a solid second. Similarly to what’s going on in Green Bay, Minnesota’s front office has spent most of the summer revamping a defense that ranked 28th in points allowed during the 2020 campaign. Specific free agent signings of Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Everson Griffen, and others should lead the Vikings to a much improved 2021. 

 

With that said, there is one area on both teams with a ton of question marks going into the season, and depending on how these groups play for both teams, it could mean winning or losing this division. I am, of course, talking about the offensive lines.

 

Youth in Green Bay

 

The Packers lost All-Pro center, Corey Linley, this offseason to a more lucrative deal in Los Angeles with the Chargers. Since being drafted in 2014, Linsley has been a strong anchor on the interior o-line. He’s started 99 games for the Packers and has played over 1000 snaps in three separate seasons. 

 

The Packers found his successor in the draft by taking former Ohio State Buckeye, Josh Myers, in the second round this spring. Like most rookies, Myers had his ups and downs throughout training camp and preseason. He is certainly not going to replace an All-Pro talent overnight, but how close can he get? That is the question we have to wait for the answer to. We do know one thing, though, and it’s that the Vikings won’t make it easy on him with Tomlinson and Michael Pierce.

 

Not only do they find themselves with questions in the middle, but their LT David Bakhtiari, arguably the best LT in the NFL, is starting the season on the PUP list. This means he is set to miss at least six weeks as he continues to recover from his ACL tear. In order to try and replace him, Matt LaFleur has decided to kick All-Pro guard, Elgton Jenkins, out to tackle. This means the Packers will start another rookie, fourth-round pick Royce Newman at RG. 

 

Green Bay doesn’t exactly have a cakewalk to start the season, either. It’s gotten somewhat easier now that they play week one “at” the Saints, except the game is taking place in Jacksonville. In the first six weeks, they also have games against the NIners, Steelers, and Bears who should provide big tests for a young o-line. Then Bahktiari gets a very tough test in his return against Washington. 

 

Why is this important? Well, we all remember the 6-9-1 2019 Packers. We assumed Aaron Rodgers was on the decline, and it led to Green Bay’s…interesting choice of selecting QB Jordan Love in the first round. During that season, the Packers were 22nd in pressure rate. Then in Rodgers’ MVP campaign of 2020, while they battled injuries to Linsley and Bahktiari, the Packers o-line led the league in pass block win-rate at 74%, per ESPN

 

Of course, at the end of the day, Green Bay does still have the reigning MVP, one of the best WRs in the game, and a solid defense. There’s still a chance that if the o-line gets off to a slow start, there could be some bumps in the road early in the season. 

 

Vikings Injury Questions

 

While Minnesota spent most of their free agency money on the defense, their big focus in the draft came along the o-line. After losing LT Riley Reiff to Cincinnati, they drafted his replacement in the first round by taking Christian Darrisaw. Then, after living through the Dakota Dozier experience, they selected top guard Wyatt Davis in the third round. 

 

This was a very necessary change for a Vikings unit that has been, put frankly, horrendous in pass protection. None of their three interior starters (Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Dakota Dozier). ranked within the top-32 at their respective position in pressure rate. Kirk Cousins was also pressured the most in the entire league at 30.2%, per Pro-Football-Reference. 

 

Things were looking great for about a month, but now neither of them are expected to start week one. Darrisaw has missed almost every practice and all of preseason with injury, and Davis was flat out beaten by Oli Udoh for the RG spot. Until Darrisaw finds himself healthy enough to play, Rashod Hill is set to take snaps at LT. That is, unless the Vikings use the $7 million in remaining cap space to bring in a veteran option at the 11th hour. 

 

That said, there is some good news to take away here. As Dustin Baker recently discussed here on VikingsTerritory, the Darrisaw injury might not be as bad as initially thought. Going into this season, the expectations were that the rookie would be placed on the short-term IR, forcing him to miss three weeks at minimum. However, Darrisaw’s name remains on the active roster, giving some hope that he may return to action sooner than later. While I would still be shocked if he played week one, there is a far greater chance that he returns by week two or three. 

 

Like the Packers, Minnesota’s schedule isn’t exactly a cake walk. In their first six weeks, they have games at Arizona, versus Seattle, and versus Cleveland. As promising as the Vikings o-line’s future is, they may have their own struggles to start the season. More good news, though, Oli Udoh has been more than up to the tasks thrown at him this summer. If he can take over at RG, he can help stabilize this team’s interior pass protection while also opening up lanes for Dalvin Cook. 

 

Final Thoughts

 

At the end of the day, the Packers should and will be favored to win this division. Again, they still have this dude named Aaron Rodgers that is pretty good and can make up for a few faults on the o-line. That said, there are still a lot of questions that can’t be answered until we see some meaningful snaps.

Green Bay’s o-line has shown versatility in the past, and they absolutely could do that once again. But if there are some struggles, it is imperative that the Vikings take advantage and keep the standings close. The Packers and Vikings don’t play each other until week 11, and by then, we will have a lot more of those answers. No matter what, this is going to be a fun divisional rivalry to watch.

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