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Packers still class of NFC North

While Bears have closed talent gap, evaluators still rate rivals higher

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

4:30 PM CDT, July 28, 2012

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There is little doubt that, on paper, the Bears have a highly talented team.

But how does their talent stack up against their competition?

With that in mind, the Tribune asked five personnel evaluators from different teams who have studied the NFC North to rate the division position by position.

In their professional opinions, the Packers clearly are still the class of the division. The Bears have the second best team, barely, over the Lions.

"It's going to be a real good division," one player personnel director said.

Four were given for a position group that was best in the division; three for second best; two for third best and one point for worst.

Here is how each team ranked at each position.

Quarterbacks

1. Packers (20); 2. Bears (13); 3. Lions (12); 4. Vikings (5);

Each of the five personnel men thought the Packers had the best quarterback, but they were split on who was second best. Three of them chose the Bears' Jay Cutler and two picked the Lions' Matthew Stafford.

Some of the pro-Cutler comments:

•"Stafford is gaining on Cutler, but Cutler gets the benefit of the doubt because he has done it more years in a row."

•"Stafford has Megatron (Calvin Johnson) to throw to, and just has to get it out to him. Cutler has had to make smart decisions and accurate throws on a consistent basis. He hasn't had the dominant receiving weapons until now."

And some pro-Stafford comments:

•"They are equally athletic in terms of escaping pressure, but Stafford is more accurate, and he has gotten it done without a running game."

•"Stafford won't make as many bad decisions."

Running backs

1. Vikings (20); 2. Bears (15); 3. Lions (9); 4. Packers (6).

The personnel men voted as if Adrian Peterson, who is coming off a knee injury, will be healthy and as capable as ever. Each of them had the Vikings best and the Bears second best. The only question was if the Lions or Packers are third.

The Lions have more talent, but Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are coming off injuries and Leshoure is facing a two-game suspension.

"It seems you never are sure who is available for the Lions," one front office man said. "Who knows with that group?"

Wide receivers

1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (16); 3. Bears (10); 4. Vikings (5).

The acquisition of Brandon Marshall failed to move the Bears into the top two because the Packers and Lions both are stacked.

"Even with Marshall, the Bears receivers leave something to be desired," one scout said.

Another pro personnel man had a different take.

"If they had Johnny Knox healthy, the Bears would have a really strong receiver group," he said.

Despite the presence of Johnson for the Lions, probably football's best receiver, the Packers were given four of five first-place votes.

"The Packers have more depth than anyone," a personnel man said.

Tight ends

1. Lions (20); 2. Packers (14); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Bears (5).

The personnel men were unanimous that the Lions had the best group and the Bears the worst.

One said, "The top three in the division are almost a tie. The Bears group isn't as good."

Offensive lines

1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (16); 3. Vikings (8); 4. Bears (7).

"This position is where the talent falls off in the division," an assistant pro personnel director said.

Indeed, each of these lines has question marks. Even the Packers, who received four first-place votes, lost two starters and are not sure who their left tackle will be.

"Aaron Rodgers makes that line look good by getting rid of ball, but the run blocking is not impressive," one scout said.

Two of the five polled said they would not be surprised to see significant improvement in the Bears' offensive line.

"I really think it's a decent group of players that got a bad rap," the assistant director of pro personnel said.

Defensive lines

1. Lions (20); 2. Vikings (13); 3. Bears (12); 4. Packers (5).

Voters were split between the Vikings and Bears as to which team was second best, but each of the front office men had praise for the top three lines.

"If Chicago's young guy (Shea McClellin) comes through, the Bears can give Detroit a run," one pro personnel man said.

Another cited the need for Bears defensive linemen other than Julius Peppers to step up and make plays.

Linebackers

1. Bears (18); 2. Packers (15); 3. Lions (10); 4. Vikings (7).

Of the nine area graded (excluding special teams and coaching), the Bears scored highest here, and it was the only position in which the Bears were ranked first.

There were mixed opinions, however. The Packers and Lions linebackers each received a first place vote.

"Given the age of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, I'm not quite sure how to judge them," a personnel director said. "It's close between them and the Packers."

Safeties

1. Packers (19); 2. Lions (15); 3. Bears (11); 4. Vikings (5).

There is more uncertainty here in the NFC North than at any other position. One front office man said he wouldn't be surprised if the rankings completely flipped during the season.

The Packers likely will use cornerback Charles Woodson at safety more this year, and the Vikings hope to start rookie Harrison Smith.

"Chris Conte and Major Wright are solid players for the Bears," one pro personnel man said. "They are smart, tough and can run. They might be limited in some areas of the passing game, but Chicago uses them well."

Cornerbacks

1. Packers (19); 2. Bears (15); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Lions (5).

The Packers came in first place even though Woodson likely will spend more time at safety and the team finished 32nd in pass defense last year, which does not say much about cornerback talent in the division. None of the NFC North teams were in the top 21 of pass defense.

The Bears received one first place vote.

"The Packers have better talent, but the Bears corners played better as a group," he said. "The Bears protected their corners better with that zone scheme, and eliminated big plays better than the Packers."

Special teams

1. Bears (19); 2. Packers (15); 3. Vikings (11); 4. Lions (5).

The Bears received four first-place votes. The man who placed them second cited the loss of Knox as a kick returner. Another scout voted the Bears first, but said he thought "their return game could fade."

Coaches

1. Packers (19); 2. Bears (16); 3. Lions (10); 4. Vikings (5).

Every ballot was the same except one, in which a personnel assistant ranked the Bears first, ahead of the Packers.

His justification?

"Lovie Smith has had to deal with quarterback issues, job speculation and inconsistencies that Mike McCarthy has not," he said.

Another front office man voted the Bears staff second but said, "Lovie does a nice job. He is steady and that is a team that is well coached, well prepared and ready to play."

One more noted the Packers "took a shot losing Joe Philbin, but McCarthy can overcome it."

Overall

1. Packers (170); 2. Bears (141); 3. Lions (138); 4. Vikings (101).

What was impressive about the vote for the Packers is they finished first in six of 11 categories, including the two most would say are most important — quarterbacks and coaches.

The conclusion to draw is that as impressive as the Bears are on paper, they still are not the most impressive team in their division.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei