Welcome to our 10-part series in which we rank the four NFC North clubs at every position. Our rankings are based on performance to date, scouting reports and a consensus of evaluations from general managers, coaches and scouts around the NFL.
Part 2 – Running Backs
1. Minnesota Vikings – B+: The Vikings' running game is the division’s best in part because Dalvin Cook is the best back in the NFC North and one of the best in the league right now and, in part, because Mike Zimmer is completely committed to it. He is the only head coach in the division who’d rather run the ball than throw it.
Cook is that rare package who can handle 20 to 30 touches a game and is also a threat to hit a home run every time he touches the ball.
The Vikings' ground game was sixth best in the NFL last year and 12th in average gain per carry behind a barely mediocre offensive line that may be upgraded this season with the addition of rookie tackle Ezra Cleveland.
Depth is a concern, as Cook played only four games as a rookie, missed five games in 2018 and two last year.
All they have behind him is Alexander Mattison, who also missed three games last year as a promising rookie, Mike Boone, who was impressive in relief of Cook and Mattison last season and the oft-injured Ameer Abdullah.
2. Green Bay Packers – B: Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are the best one-two punch in the NFC North, and Jones is coming off a monster 2019 season in which he scored 19 touchdowns. Sixteen came on the ground, as he played all 16 games for the first time after missing four in each of his first two seasons in the league.
He is neither the workhorse nor big play threat the Vikings' Cook is, but he is the perfect lead back in a two-back tandem in which Williams is more the pounder and sledgehammer, and Jones and Williams were Aaron Rodgers' Nos. 2 and 3 receivers last year with 49 and 39 catches, respectively.
They were 15th in team rushing last year and 16th in average gain per carry, mainly because of coach Matt LaFleur’s preference to have the offense run through Rodgers.
Dexter Williams is interesting as the third back, and rookie A.J. Dillon is a fascinating prospect at 6-foot, 250 pounds, who is likely to be a fourth-quarter, 4-minute-offense specialist to begin his NFL career.
3. Detroit Lions – B-: The Lions' run game has struggled for years but appeared to get a boost last year from Kerryon Johnson before he tore a ligament in his knee in Week 9.
Backups Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic picked up the ball nicely in the second half of the season in a running back-by-committee plan, but the Lions finished the season just 21st in rushing and 22nd in average gain per carry.
Part of the problem, of course, was with Matt Stafford missing the second half of the season. Lions backs usually saw eight or nine defenders in the box.
The Lions added an absolute steal in this year's draft when D’Andre Swift out of Georgia, the top-rated back in this draft, was there for them at No. 35.
We can’t grade a player who’s never touched the ball in the NFL, but if Swift is who we think he is and Johnson makes a full recovery, along with the addition of free agent Halapoulavatti Vaitai at right tackle, the Lions' ground game could take off.
4. Chicago Bears – C-: Much like the quarterback position, the Bears don’t just begin the season fourth best in the division at running back. It’s a distant fourth.
The issue is not David Montgomery, who had a promising rookie season and still could emerge as one of the NFC’s top RBs, it’s the unknown of a sketchy offensive line, a new offensive line coach and questions as to whether head coach Matt Nagy really gets how to grow his ground game.
The Bears are also the thinnest in the division at this position.
Tarik Cohen is an outstanding third-down back, but the Bears don’t really have a No. 2 with only undrafted rookie free agent Ryan Nall and wide receiver/kick returner/athlete Cordarrelle Patterson behind Montgomery on the depth chart.