Welcome to our 10-part series in which we rank the four NFC North teams 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 9 – Special Teams
Rating special teams is tricky because how do you rank the importance of placekicking, punting, kickoff and punt returns and kickoff and punt coverage in relationship to each other? Also, the Vikings and Lions kickers are indoors half or more of the time, while Packers and Bears kickers face some of the most difficult conditions in the league.
For purposes of this exercise, we go with the teams that rank the highest in the most categories.
1. Detroit Lions – B: The Lions start with a solid return game, ranking seventh in the league last year returning kickoffs and 11th returning punts, thanks to cornerback Jamal Agnew, who averaged 26.7 and 9.2 yards, respectively.
They also were excellent covering punts, ranking second in the NFL, but they did struggle covering kickoffs, where they stood 24th last year.
Matt Prater has had one of the biggest legs in the league for sometime, and he proved it again last year, hitting seven of eight field goals outside the 50 and finishing 10th among NFL placekickers with 113 points. Only the Vikings' Dan Bailey had more points in the division, but he had nowhere near the distance.
Sam Martin was the best of a mediocre group of NFC North punters finishing 11th in the NFL with a 41.8 net average and sixth with 31 punts downed inside the 20.
2. Bears – B-: The Bears had the best return and coverage games in the NFL in 2018 and continued that trend last season on the return side, ranking first in the NFL returning kickoffs and seventh bringing back punts behind All-Pros Cordarrelle Patterson and Tarik Cohen.
But the coverage units fell off to 16th covering kickoffs and 26th against punts, even though Patterson was named second-team All-Pro in coverage.
The Bears' kicking game was improved last year but still just mediocre in a division that doesn’t boast a lot of special kicking.
Rookie Eddy Pineiro was 21st in points among NFL placekickers and a clear upgrade over Cody Parkey, but a midseason slump caused him to hit only 23 of 28 field goal attempts. He only tried twice from outside the 50, but he did hit both of them.
Punter Patrick O’Donnell was only 22nd in net average, and he was 15th in punts inside the 20-yard line and third in the NFC North with 26.
3. Minnesota Vikings C+: The Vikings' return game was middle of the road, finally settling on cornerback Mike Hughes to return punts after losing Marcus Sherels and Chad Beebe to injury, with Hughes finishing at 7.4 yards a return and the team 21st in the NFL. With ex-Lions running back Ameer Abdullah in the lead role, they were 16th in the NFL in kickoff returns.
Minnesota was a solid 12th in the NFL on punt coverage but finished last season 27th covering kickoffs.
Journeyman placekicker Dan Bailey had an excellent 2019 season, ranking sixth among NFL kickers in points with 121 while converting 27 of 29 attempts, but only 10 were outside the 40, where he hit eight, including all three tries beyond the 50.
Vikings punter Britton Colquitt was an NFC North-best sixth in the league last year with a 42.6-yard net average but a division-low 24 punts inside the 20, 20th in the NFL.
4. Green Bay Packers – C-: The Packers clearly had the weakest special teams in the NFC North last season, ranking 21st returning kickoffs, 31st returning punts and no better in coverage, where they were 22nd in kickoffs and 25th in punts.
The Pack tried six guys returning kickoffs and four on punts before backup running back Tyler Ervin was claimed from the Jaguars around midseason and took over both jobs the last two games of the season and in the layoffs with some success.
Second-year punter J.K. Scott has plenty to learn, as he was 31st in the NFL in net average at 39.9 yards, actually a full yard better than his rookie season. He was 10th in the league and second in the NFC North with 29 punts downed inside the 20.
Veteran Mason Crosby had a heroic, bounce-back 2019 season, converting 91.7% of his field goal attempts, 22 of 24, after hitting on only 78.9% and 81.1% in 2017 and 2018 and adding two walk-off game winners while dealing with his wife’s battle with cancer and the loss of his sister-in-law to cancer during the year.
He was, however, still only 14th among NFL kickers in points.