By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Good enough is simply not good enough in the NFL.
You may want to build a balanced team with strength in all areas, but unless you can dominate in one of five key areas on the football field, it’s going to be difficult to contend for a championship.
The Green Bay Packers understand this better than just about anyone else. They won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season and were the best regular-season team in the NFL last year. They appeared to be on track to win a second straight Super Bowl until they played their worst game of the year in the NFC divisional playoffs against the Giants.
But that loss didn’t indicate the Packers were on their way down. As they head into the 2012 season, they have the top-ranked quarterback and the best set of receivers in the NFL. That gives them membership on this year’s preseason “A” team because they grade out better at those positions than any other team in the league.
Any time a team can have the best set of players at the most important positions, they have a chance to contend. For the purpose of this piece, we view the most important position groupings at quarterback, receiver, offensive line, defensive line and defensive backs.
Notably absent from this list are the running back slot and the linebacker position. Strength at running back can give a team balance and the ability to control the clock, but without a great passing game, a running game won’t help a team win. It is a complementary factor.
On the defensive side, pressure from the defensive line and excellence in the secondary takes precedence over linebackers in a 4-3 set. (With teams that use the 3-4, linebackers may be more important than defensive linemen.)
Here’s our look at the “A” teams in the league at each of the position sets.
Quarterback – Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is the best in the business. He has plenty of competition from Tom Brady and Drew Brees, but Rodgers gets the nod based on his remarkable 45-to-6 touchdown to interception ratio last season. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes last year. Rodgers, 28, is just starting the prime of his career. He should continue to perform at an exceptionally high level for at least five more seasons before age begins to assert itself.
Rodgers is a brilliant technical thrower, but he’s also got the intangibles in a way that predecessor Brett Favre never had. Favre always knew he was a top-level quarterback because of his unquestionable arm strength, Rodgers’ teammates love him because they know he has their back and he will always stand up for them. This characteristic indicates why his teammates will sell out to make a play for him every time out and not just once in a while.
Running Back – Houston Texans
If Adrian Peterson was at full strength, this category might belong to the Minnesota Vikings but Peterson still has to prove himself after knee surgery at the end of last season. Arian Foster is the best running back in the game right now. He has the power to run through interior holes and break tackles. He can also get to the outside and bust long plays He has the kind of vision that makes him dangerous and allows him to evade tacklers and he’s also an excellent receiver.
When Foster needs a break, no backup running back can do a better job than Ben Tate. Foster finished the season with 1,224 yards last year, while Tate had 942 yards.
Since the Texans have a solid passing game led by Matt Schaub, the running game gives them invaluable balance.
Receivers – Green Bay Packers
No team can approach the Packers when it comes to the number and quality of the receivers that Rodgers has to choose from. In the end, this may be the factor that gives the Packers the NFC North title over the Bears and Lions. Greg Jennings made a recovery from a knee injury, but a concussion suffered in an Aug. 3 practice hasn’t allowed him to get back on the field yet.
When (if) he does return, he will join Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Donald Driver along with tight end Jermichael Finley. This is an abundance of riches for Rodgers.
The Bears are much improved in this area and deserve a B-grade compared to the Packers’ A. Brandon Marshall is a potential Pro Bowler and Alshon Jeffrey should be a top rookie receiver. The Bears already have Earl Bennett, so quarterback Jay Cutler has a very adequate crew at the position.
Offensive Line – New England Patriots
Every team has questions about its offensive line, but no team has fewer issues than the Patriots. The greatest strength of this unit is the play of center Dan Koppen along with offensive guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters. Mankins and Waters were Pro Bowlers a year ago and should continue to open holes and protect Brady. Koppen is more of the “dependable” type at this point in his career. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a solid pass blocker and he overcame injuries last year. Left tackle Nate Solder is very athletic for the position and got better as a pass blocker as the year improved.
If Cutler had this group in front of him, he would be a top-5 quarterback.
Defensive Line – New York Giants
The Giants defensive line has gone up against the Patriots’ offensive line in two recent Super Bowls. Score two wins for the New York Giants. Tom Coughlin’s defensive linemen combine superior athletic ability with a hunger to put opposing quarterbacks on the ground. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is at the height of his ability, but Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and a slew of powerful defensive tackles all but assure the Giants will remain a dominant team.
Linebackers – Dallas Cowboys
There’s plenty of depth and firepower here with Anthony Spencer, Dan Connor and Sean Lee, but it’s the presence of DeMarcus Ware that gives the Cowboys the No. 1 spot at the linebacker position. He is a punishing tackler who had a remarkable 19 ½ sacks last year. He is capable of destroying the opponent’s pass protection schemes. If Ware gets an early sack, it often lights a fuse and he becomes a one-man wrecking crew.
Defensive Backs – Baltimore Ravens
Ed Reed may have lost a step at the free safety position but he has been the best player at that spot in the last 20 years. He has incredible hands and football instincts, and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott once told me that he wished he could have done the things on the football field that Reed does so well.
It’s not just about Reed. Left cornerback Lardarius Webb is one of the best cover men not named Darelle Revis, while right cornerback Daryl Williams is also very good. He had 18 passes defensed. Strong safety Bernard Pollard has issues in coverage but he is one of the nastiest hitters and is solid vs. the run.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.