NFC North Player Analysis: Every Team, Every Unit, Every Player

Know your Players: A unit-by-unit breakdown on every team in the NFC North by The Sports Xchange

CHICAGO BEARS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Mitchell Trubisky. Backup -- Chase Daniel.

In his second preseason, Trubisky displayed better on-field leadership, along with more accuracy throwing on the move as well as from the pocket. Still, he needs to improve his overall accuracy and also his arm strength in the deep passing game. Last year's offense lacked any receivers of note, and Trubisky never really tested the deep passing aspect of his game. He completed no preseason passes to Allen Robinson. So finding a way to get it to his go-to receiver is a key in development. Daniel seemed dialed into the offense in preseason, as he should after spending time in Kansas City and Philadelphia. The ball often came out of his hand faster and to more open receivers than it did with Trubisky -- although it was usually against reserve defenders. Daniel lacks regular-season experience but can offset it with scheme knowledge.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Jordan Howard, FB Michael Burton. Backups -- Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham.

Throughout camp and preseason, Jordan Howard gave indications of better hands in the passing game. Whether his improvement carries over to the pressure of regular-season games remains a great unanswered question. Howard had college experience running the ball on RPO plays and has quickly adapted to finding holes behind a new blocking scheme. The undisputed load back on this team, he will likely get fewer runs because of a new emphasis on the passing game, and he must make the most of carries. Cohen should be an ideal fit as a weapon in this offense and his potential in it is still largely a secret in head coach Matt Nagy's mind. He'll line up anywhere and present a big-play challenge to defenses. Cunningham combines the skills of Howard and Cohen, and remains possibly their best blocking back in passing situations. It's safe to anticipate Burton taking on a bigger role in the offense, especially as an occasional receiver circling out of the backfield. He showed it right away in preseason with a TD catch.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Trey Burton. Backups -- Dion Sims, Daniel Brown, Ben Braunecker, Adam Shaheen (IR/could return later in season).

Burton will begin plays on the line or in the backfield and displays skills like an extra wide receiver, with good hands and better speed than most tight ends. He's not going to be an in-line blocking asset the way Sims is. Sims has flashed multiple skills throughout his career and Nagy's offense could be the catalyst allowing him to put it all together. Shaheen starts on injured reserve, but GM Ryan Pace said the second-year tight end will likely be brought back when eligible after his ankle/foot injuries heel. He did not require surgery. Shaheen made major strides as a red-zone receiver and at running seam routes prior to the injury, which may now delay his growth. Brown and Braunecker possess similar skills, although Brown is probably a better blocker. They're not vertical receivers to the level of Burton, Shaheen or Sims. At the outset, Brown has a severe leg bruise suffered in the fifth preseason game and his status is uncertain.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel. Backups -- Kevin White, Anthony Miller, Javon Wims, Josh Bellamy.

The ingredients for a well-rounded receiver group exist, but starters haven't shown much as the season approaches. Robinson says he's no longer overly conscious of his rehabbed knee after ACL surgery, but he'll have to prove it because he's been brought along slowly. The Bears need his ability to get downfield and elevate to stretch defenses. Slowed in camp by a foot injury, Gabriel appears set now to use 4.3-second 40-yard speed to beat the single coverage for the catch and run. He'll see time in the slot and hopes to burn teams who rotate an extra defender toward Robinson. Miller and Wims were both pleasant surprises in camp for being more advanced at route running than many rookies. Miller, in particular, has a knack for finding open spots and making tough catches. In what could be his final Bears season, White has to justify his early draft status by being the all-around explosive receiver who complements Robinson. His great natural talent sporadically surfaced in preseason. Bellamy will be active on Sundays ahead of younger, more talented receivers due to special teams skills and leadership.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Charles Leno Jr., LG Eric Kush, C Cody Whitehair, RG Kyle Long, RT Bobby Massie. Backups -- T Bradley Sowell, G James Daniels, T Rashaad Coward.

Long's health status continues to be key for a potentially solid line. He's had no problems to date after three offseason surgeries and in limited preseason action his aggressiveness and experience came to the forefront. The only real line issues in preseason were Whitehair's long snaps and whether Daniels was more of a guard or center. He performed at both spots adequately, and was close to overtaking Kush as starter. As a result, the center/guard situation is deep. The Bears will get by again with two tackles who rate lower than many at their positions in the league. Both are effective enough run blockers, but have their trouble when speed rushers take the outside shoulder. Fortunately for Leno and Massie, the idea is to have the ball out of Mitchell Trubisky's hand quickly and with fewer seven-step drops. So interior pass blocking looks more critical. Avoiding presnap penalties will be a key, and it's something this line struggled with in the past.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Eddie Goldman, RDE Jonathan Bullard. Backups -- DE Bilal Nichols, DE Roy Robertson-Harris, DT Nick Williams.

Possibly the greatest strength of the team last season, the defensive front appears deeper and stronger at rushing the passer. Robertson-Harris and Bullard have settled in after acquiring experience. Goldman needs a big year in the final year of his contract, and the only problem he's ever had is staying healthy. Hicks remains a force, and last year commanded double-team pass blocking. This will be more difficult for opponents to achieve now with Khalil Mack rushing off the same side. The chief line problem will be lack of depth at nose. Nichols, Robertson-Harris and Williams all can rush the passer and play aggressively, but a blob in the middle of the line to sub for short-yardage situations is one luxury this line lacks. The health of Goldman and Hicks will be keys.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Khalil Mack, ILB Danny Trevathan, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski, ROLB Leonard Floyd. Backups -- ILB Roquan Smith, LOLB Aaron Lynch, ROLB Sam Acho, OLB Kylie Fitts, OLB Isaiah Irving.

The obvious strength of this team now, the Bears upgraded in the draft and through trade with the acquisition of Mack. It's a group that should take a few weeks to display dominance, but when they do the potential is limitless. They've heightened overall linebacker speed and scare quarterbacks into getting rid of the football quickly. Floyd's broken hand bones will be an issue in early weeks, as will Mack's inexperience in the system. Smith's lack of experience in the league will initially keep Kwiatkoski in the starting lineup, but this won't last long. Trevathan's calming veteran influence and ability to call the defense will be important until Smith is able to assume this duty, as is eventually expected. Depth exists inside and outside, as Acho has been a spot starter. Fitts and Irving both had strong preseasons as pass rushers, but need to polish up against the run. They liked Lynch enough as a third or fourth outside linebacker to keep him on the roster despite doing virtually nothing due to nagging injuries.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Kyle Fuller, FS Eddie Jackson, SS Adrian Amos, RCB Prince Amukamara. Backups -- CB Marcus Cooper, S Deon Bush, S DeAndre Houston-Carson, CB Bryce Callahan, CB Sherrick McManis, CB Kevin Toliver II.

The Bears secondary made the most surprising climb of all units last season, and returns intact with a goal of ending a string of three straight years with a franchise-record low of eight interceptions. With the pass rush bolstered by Khalil Mack, it should be easier for Amos and Jackson to make plays on the ball, and for Fuller and Amukamara to peel off from coverage and do the same. Amos is in a contract year and needs to continue drastic improvement getting to the ball like he displayed last season. Jackson has to become more physical, even at a time when tackling rules make it difficult. Depth-wise they're not hurting, with Callahan back at nickel and Cooper possessing great experience. They saw something in Toliver during limited practice early, possibly his (6-foot-2) height matched up on taller receivers. Bush and Carson have grown up in this system the past few years and are now ready to fill in at safety despite lacking extensive game experience.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Cody Parkey, P Patrick O'Donnell, LS Patrick Scales, PR Tarik Cohen, KR Benny Cunningham.

Parkey's consistency looms as the largest special teams issue despite his solid 2017 effort with Miami. His short miss in the preseason finale set off warning signals. The Bears will keep an eye on the waiver wire just in case. O'Donnell won a real camp battle despite inconsistency with his hang time, and must continue the gradual improvement shown in each of his NFL seasons because he received only a one-year deal this year. After ACL surgery, Scales proved he could get downfield and cover on punts. There had never been a question about his snapping consistency. It's possible Cohen will be called upon to return both punts and kicks again, but league-wide, teams are taking advantage of new rules by using higher, shorter kickoffs to try and pin opponents deep. Protecting the undersized Cohen on those type of plays would be difficult, so using Cunningham instead is a wise move. Coverage units are battle-hardened behind Sherrick McManis, Josh Bellamy and Nick Kwiatkoski.

DETROIT LIONS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matthew Stafford. Backup - Matt Cassel.

Stafford is right about at the midpoint of his NFL career, 30 years old and entering his 10th NFL season. Statistically, he's one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, but his resume is devoid of playoff success. The Lions have made the postseason just three times since drafting Stafford first overall in 2009, and have yet to win a playoff game. If they're going to finally get over the hump this year, Stafford will have to be a reason why. He committed 17 turnovers last year, and while several of those were due to poor protection, he can't afford to be as careless with the ball. Cassel beat out Jake Rudock for the backup job in part because of his experience and previous relationship with Patricia.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - LeGarrette Blount. Backups - Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, FB Nick Bellore.

Blount is listed as the starter here, but it could easily be Johnson as the two are expected to share the workload much of the season. The Lions traded up to get Johnson in the second round of April's draft and he's looked every bit as good as expected. He's a shifty runner with good patience and the ability to do almost anything on the field. Blount, at 250 pounds, is a more physical runner and he'll play a primary role in goal-line and red-zone situations this fall. Riddick is one of the better receiving backs in the NFL, while Abdullah is a cheap insurance policy who doesn't appear to have much of a role after losing his starting job late last season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Luke Willson. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Mike Roberts, Hakeem Valles.

The Lions showed a lot of faith in Willson this offseason, signing him to be their move tight end even though he's never been a big pass catcher in his career. Willson had a quiet training camp, but he appears fine after leaving the third preseason game with a knee injury. Toilolo and Roberts are best known for their blocking, though their size alone makes them intriguing red-zone threats. Valles is no Eric Ebron, and that's a good thing. He's a solid pass catcher, though he's likely in for the tiniest role of the group.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay. Backups - TJ Jones, Brandon Powell, Bradley Marquez.

The Lions have one of the best top-to-bottom receiving corps in the NFL. Tate, who's entering the final year of his contract, has caught 90 or more passes each of the last four seasons. He's sure-handed and slippery in the open field, the perfect inside complement to the two big bodies the Lions have on the edge. Marvin Jones got appreciably better at the line of scrimmage during his first two seasons in Detroit, and that helped him become a dynamic threat downfield. Golladay knows how to use his massive frame and appears primed for a breakout season after missing five games last year with a hamstring injury. TJ Jones can play inside or out as the No. 4 receiver, while undrafted rookie Brandon Powell might be the heir apparent to Tate if he doesn't get a new deal.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Taylor Decker, LG Frank Ragnow, C Graham Glasgow, RG T.J. Lang, RT Rick Wagner. Backups - T Tyrell Crosby, T Andrew Donnal, G Kenny Wiggins, G Joe Dahl.

With three high draft picks and two high-priced free agents starting, there's no reason for the Lions not to have one of the better offensive lines in the league. Decker is back healthy after missing half of last season with a torn labrum, and keeping him on the field is essential to the Lions cutting down on their sacks. Ragnow, the rookie first-round pick, has impressed everyone with his tenacity and technical know-how. He's slotted to play left guard for now but could wind up at center or right guard down the road. Lang is the biggest injury concern on a line that shuffled through 11 different starting combinations last year. He did not play in the preseason because of a shoulder injury and is a good bet to miss time during the year. The Lions are high on Crosby, their rookie fifth-round pick, but he doesn't have a place to play yet with Wagner locked in as starting right tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Ricky Jean Francois, NT Sylvester Williams, RDE Ziggy Ansah. Backups - DE Kerry Hyder, DL Da'Shawn Hand, DT A'Shawn Robinson, DE Romeo Okwara.

The Lions will work out of both odd- and even-man fronts this fall, but Jean Francois, Williams and Ansah should see a majority of the time no matter what package is on the field. Ansah is the only proven pass rusher on the team, but he's battled through two injury-riddled seasons and is returning from offseason knee surgery and a summer hamstring injury. The Lions need to keep him healthy and productive or their defense could struggle. Jean Francois didn't sign until July, but he's one of Patricia's must trusted players and has been a good mentor for the rookie Hand. Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016, is entering a make-or-break fall.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Devon Kennard, MLB Jarrad Davis, OLB Christian Jones. Backups - OLB Marquis Flowers, OLB Eli Harold, MLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB Miles Killebrew.

With so little reliable pass rush up front, the Lions need a big year from Kennard, their top free-agent addition of the offseason. He'll play as a stand-up outside linebacker, where he looks to be a reliable edge-setter in the run game. Davis could hold the keys to the entire defense. He's a physical run-stopper who oozes leadership, but he's yet to prove he can be a three-down player as he continues to struggle in pass defense. If Davis can't effectively cover running backs and tight ends, the Lions may have to give more snaps to Reeves-Maybin, whose lack of size can be an issue stopping the run.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Darius Slay, CB Nevin Lawson, S Glover Quin, S Quandre Diggs, S Tavon Wilson. Backups - CB Jamal Agnew, CB Teez Tabor, CB Dee Virgin, S Tracy Walker, S Charles Washington.

It didn't happen overnight, but Slay has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He tied for the league lead in interceptions last year and has an exceptional ability to mirror routes. The Lions are shaky at the cornerback spot opposite Slay, as Tabor is speed deficient and Lawson is prone to getting penalties. Agnew will see time in sub packages, though the Lions will play Quin, Diggs and Wilson a majority of the time. Diggs has made the conversion to safety full-time. He's a monster hitter with a good nose for the ball. Quin, 32, stayed away from the team to be with family most of the offseason and there were concerns he'd lost a step during training camp.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Sam Martin, LS Don Muhlbach, KR Kerryon Johnson, PR Jamal Agnew.

The Lions have one of the best all-around special-teams units in the NFL. Prater made seven field goals of 50-plus yards last season, Martin was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016 before a foot injury cost him half of last year, and Agnew was an All-Pro return man with two punt-return touchdowns. The Lions have not yet picked a kickoff returner, but Johnson, Agnew, Ameer Abdullah and TJ Jones all could see time at the position.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Aaron Rodgers. Backups - DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle.

Rodgers, a two-time MVP and the NFL's highest-paid player, remains one of the best signal-callers in football. But the Packers desperately need him to stay healthy to have any chance at making noise in the NFC. Rodgers broke his left collarbone in 2013 and his right collarbone in 2017. Counting the games Rodgers was injured, Green Bay is 5-12-1 without its Pro Bowl quarterback. Rodgers, 34, remains one of the most gifted passers in football and currently holds the all-time mark for passer rating (103.8). In Rodgers' last 17 games, he's thrown 43 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Kizer - who went 0-15 as a starter with the Browns last year - was handed the backup job when Green Bay traded Brett Hundley. Boyle impressed this summer and was given a roster spot when the Packers feared they couldn't sneak him through to the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Jamaal Williams. Backups - Ty Montgomery, Darius Jackson, Aaron Jones (SUS).

Williams sat in mothballs for nearly half of his rookie season, yet still finished as Green Bay's leading rusher (556 yards). There's no mystery to Williams' game. He's a sledgehammer who loves contact and brings it down after down. Williams averaged 65.3 yards over the final eight games of 2017 and has the ability to wear out a defense. Jones, a one-cut runner and one of the most explosive players on the roster, will miss the first two games of the year after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Jones finished 2017 with 448 yards and averaged 5.53 yards per carry. With Jones out, injury prone, converted wide receiver Montgomery becomes the top backup. Jackson was signed from Dallas' practice squad on Monday.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Davante Adams, Randall Cobb. Backups - Geronimo Allison, J'Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, Trevor Davis, Jake Kumerow (IR/could return later in season).

Adams has terrific feet, is tough to disrupt off the line of scrimmage and can execute the entire route tree. The diminutive Cobb is the No. 2 by default. Cobb is a slot receiver only these days, is entering his eighth season and has taken a beating through the years. Allison had a terrific summer and is in line for a much bigger role in the offense. It remains to be seen if rookies Moore, Valdes-Scantling or St. Brown can help at all in 2018.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Jimmy Graham. Backups - Marcedes Lewis, Lance Kendricks, Robert Tonyan.

Graham has the potential to be the Packers' best tight end in years. Graham doesn't run like his early days in New Orleans, but is coming off a 10-touchdown season and quickly developed chemistry this summer with Rodgers. Lewis is a terrific blocker who will be used in two-tight end sets. Tonyan is a fast riser who could play some fullback, as well. Kendricks, now in his eighth season, had a rough summer and must shine early to stick around.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT David Bahktiari, LG Lane Taylor, C Corey Linsley, RG Justin McCray, RT Bryan Bulaga. Backups - Jason Spriggs, Byron Bell, Lucas Patrick, Alex Light.

Bakhtiari has been one of the NFL's best left tackles in recent seasons. Bakhtiari is athletic, light on his feet and extremely consistent. At just 26-years-old, Bakhtiari is in the prime of his career and should keep Aaron Rodgers' blind side clean for years to come. Linsley and Bulaga are also high-level starters, while Taylor is a classic overachiever who finds a way to get it done each week. The weak link is McCray, who was in the Arena Football League in 2016. Depth is non-existent as the Packers' reserves all had rough summers.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DE Mike Daniels, NT Kenny Clark, DE Muhammad Wilkerson. Backups - Dean Lowry, Montravius Adams.

Clark blossomed last season and is on the brink of becoming a Pro Bowler. Clark has impressive power and flashed surprising quickness a year ago when he had 4.5 sacks and 18 quarterback pressures. Daniels has a motor that doesn't quit, but saw his pressures fall to 19.5 last season, his lowest number since 2012. Wilkerson could be the key for the entire unit. Wilkerson had 12.0 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl with the New York Jets in 2015, but slipped badly in recent seasons. If Wilkerson returns to past form, Green Bay's front could be devastating.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Clay Matthews, ILB Blake Martinez, ILB Oren Burks, OLB Nick Perry. Backups - OLB Reggie Gilbert, OLB Kyler Fackrell, ILB Antonio Morrison, ILB James Crawford, ILB Korey Toomer.

Matthews and Perry count a combined $22 million against the salary cap. Both are above average starters when healthy, but the problem is that isn't very often. Matthews, 32, is the Packers' all-time sack leader (80.0), remains quick around the edge and strong enough to overpower tackles. But Matthews has played all 16 games just twice in the last eight years. Perry, now in his seventh season, has never played a full 16-game season and has missed 26 games since entering the league in 2012. Gilbert had a breakout summer and will try carrying that momentum into the regular season. Martinez almost never leaves the field, is extremely bright and tied for the NFL lead with 144 tackles in 2017. Burks is an elite athlete who steps into the starting lineup after incumbent Jake Ryan tore his ACL this summer. Morrison is a thumper, but can't run.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Kevin King, CB Tramon Williams, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S Kentrell Brice. Backups - CB Jaire Alexander, CB Josh Jackson, CB Davon House, S Josh Jones, S Raven Greene, S Jermaine Whitehead.

King (6-3, 200) has terrific size, but has also suffered injuries to both shoulders since being drafted in 2017. Williams, 35, has found a way to hold off Father Time and had another impressive summer. Rookies Alexander and Jackson were terrific in training camp and will be a part of the defense from day one. One year after setting franchise marks for futility in 2017 in opponent's passer rating (102.0) and completion percentage (67.8), this appears to be the most improved unit on the team. Clinton-Dix is the most experienced safety on the roster, but he's coming off a dreadful year. Brice is a terrific athlete who has far too many concentration lapses. The reserves have proven little.

SPECIALISTS: K Mason Crosby, P JK Scott, LS Hunter Bradley, KR/PR Trevor Davis.

Crosby made just 78.9 percent of his kicks a year ago, but was hurt by lousy snappers and an inconsistent holder. Return ace Davis ranked third in the league on punt returns (12.0) and seventh on kickoffs (22.8) last season. Scott has a huge leg, while Bradley struggled all summer.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Kirk Cousins. Backups -- Trevor Siemian, Kyle Sloter.

The Vikings' Super Bowl hopes really begin and end with Cousins. Cousins was the big offseason prize and the pressure is on now to lead a team built to contend for the Super Bowl. That's what a three-year, $84 million contract will do. Cousins threw for at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns each of the past three seasons as Washington's starter, but he's only started one playoff game in his career. He might not need to pass as much as he did in Washington, but he'll need to lead the team and make big throws. Siemian came to the Vikings in a trade after starting games in Denver. He offers an experienced backup, but he struggled in the preseason. Minnesota stuck with Sloter, who led the team to three fourth-quarter wins in the preseason, on the active roster believing he likely wouldn't pass through waivers. Head coach Mike Zimmer said Siemian is his backup, despite how the team's backups played in the preseason.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Dalvin Cook, FB C.J. Ham. Backups -- Latavius Murray, Mike Boone, Roc Thomas.

A big return from a torn ACL; where have the Vikings heard that before? No, Cook isn't on Adrian Peterson's level -- at least not yet -- but he's had his own impressive recovery from knee surgery. Cook went down in the fourth game last year, ending his promising rookie season. Cook only played four snaps in the preseason but has looked ready to contribute when the regular season starts. Minnesota can take it easy in the early going and ease Cook back into a full role if they choose because they have Murray as the 1B to Cook's 1A. After recovering from his own injury last year, Murray came on in Cook's absence and had 842 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. The Vikings were seventh in the league in rushing even with Cook playing the equivalent of three-and-a-half games. Expect them to stay reliant on the running game even with Cousins in town. Ham is a strong blocker as the starting fullback and has shown a knack to make some plays of his own. Boone and Thomas were undrafted free agent rookies who impressed in the preseason.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kyle Rudolph. Backups -- David Morgan, Tyler Conklin.

The roles at tight end are clearly defined. Rudolph is a reliable pass catcher and red-zone threat due to his size and strong hands. Blocking has never been his forte but he's worked to improve. Morgan is the blocking tight end and can catch the ball when needed. New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo could bring more two-tight end sets like the Philadelphia Eagles, where DeFilippo was the quarterbacks coach. Conklin was a fifth-round draft pick. He didn't show much in the preseason but has potential as a receiver and blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen. Backups -- Laquon Treadwell, Stacy Coley, Brandon Zylstra.

Cousins has plenty of talented targets at his disposal. From Rudolph to, perhaps, one of the league's best 1-2 combinations at receiver in Diggs and Thielen. Rudolph and Thielen were in the Pro Bowl last year. Thielen broke out with 91 catches and 1,276 receiving yards. Diggs is a big play waiting to happen. He had 64 catches, 849 yards and tied Rudolph with a team-high eight receiving touchdowns in 14 games. Making matters more difficult for opponents, Diggs and Thielen are almost interchangeable. Both can play outside and inside. Thielen is likely to be the slot receiver in three-receiver sets with third-year receiver Laquon Treadwell going to the outside. Treadwell, a first-round draft pick in 2016, has been slow to develop, but he's been a constant target of Cousins in practice and has shown improvement. Coley and Zylstra are young receivers. Coley is quick but has dealt with injuries. Zylstra was a star in the Canadian Football League where he had a league-leading 1,687 receiving yards on 100 catches last season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Riley Reiff, LG Tom Compton, C Pat Efllein, RG Mike Remmers, RT Rashod Hill. Backups -- T/G Aviante Collins, C/G Danny Isidora, C/G Brett Jones, RT Brian O'Neill.

The group protecting Cousins comes with plenty of questions. Reiff is the anchor at left tackle. The rest of the line has been in constant flux. Elflein is coming off a solid rookie season, but he didn't play in the preseason or practice throughout because of offseason ankle and shoulder injuries. Elflein was activated off the physically unable to perform list but isn't expected to play in Week 1. Zimmer hasn't announced who will start at center in Week 1. The decision comes down to Isidora, who is making the move to center after playing guard, and Jones, who was acquired in a trade last week. Compton has been filling in for Nick Easton, who was lost for the season after surgery to repair a bulging disk in his neck. It's possible Jones or Isidora could challenge Compton when Elflein returns. Remmers is the former right tackle who seems a better fit at guard. Hill took over at right tackle last season and held his own until a tough playoff run against New Orleans and Philadelphia. O'Neill was seen as more of a development pick in the second round this year and is being groomed to take over at right tackle eventually.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Danielle Hunter, NT Linval Joseph, DT Sheldon Richardson, RDE Everson Griffen. Backups -- DE Tashawn Bower, DT Jalyn Holmes, DT Jaleel Johnson, NT David Parry, DE Stephen Weatherly.

Perhaps the strength of Minnesota's top-ranked defense is the line. Hunter is a budding star with 25.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, two as a backup. Joseph is an unmovable force inside at nose and a big reason the Vikings had the second-ranked run defense last year. Griffen is one of the league's top pass rushers coming off his third straight Pro Bowl appearance after 13 sacks in 2017. Richardson is the lone starter on the defense. The former first-round pick is filled with talent but needs to be motivated to get the most out of himself. The Vikings made the decision to part with longtime leader Brian Robison. The youth at the backup spots ultimately led to the decision. Robison was well-respected but lost his starting spot to Hunter last year. Johnson is the top backup inside with the ability to play both spots. Holmes is a bit of a developmental pick after being a fourth-round draft selection. He's being moved inside for the first time. Bower and Weatherly show potential as pass rushers and Parry provides a true backup nose tackle.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Anthony Barr, MLB Eric Kendricks, WLB Ben Gedeon. Backups -- MLB Kentrell Brothers (SUS), MLB Devante Downs, OLB Eric Wilson.

Minnesota only kept five linebackers on the roster, but they usually only have two on the field while playing the majority of nickel defense. Brothers will miss four games. Barr and Kendricks are playmakers who have the speed to range all over the field. Kendricks is the leading tackler and signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason. Barr is still waiting for his extension. His sacks have dwindled each of his four seasons down to just one sack last season. He's still adept in coverage and playing the run. The Vikings are also considering using Barr more in an outside pass-rushing role. He spent parts of practice with the defensive line to learn some of the techniques. Gedeon is steady in the base defense and as a backup. Wilson is emerging after being a core special teams player. Downs was a seventh-round draft pick who has been injured.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Trae Waynes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Andrew Sendejo. Backups -- CB Mackensie Alexander, S Anthony Harris, CB Holton Hill, CB Mike Hughes, S George Iloka, S Jayron Kearse, CB Marcus Sherels.

Minnesota's top-ranked defense was built with a pressuring defensive line supporting a strong cover group on the back end. Smith is the leader and one of the best safeties in the league after his first All-Pro season. Rhodes is a true shutdown cornerback who is able to go all over the field to shadow the opponent's best receiver. Waynes is a former first-round pick who has grown his game. He's steady in coverage and is a willing tackler in run defense. Sendejo has held his starting spot for three seasons even as it appeared he would eventually be replaced. The Vikings added Iloka midway through the preseason after he was released by Cincinnati. Iloka has plenty of experience in the system after playing for Zimmer with the Bengals. Minnesota has also experimented a bit with a big nickel package where it has three safeties on the field. Harris is reliable and Kearse has been a key special teams player.

Alexander, the former second-round pick, has finally embraced the nickel role and shown progress throughout the preseason. Hughes was the team's first-round pick and he's picked up the defense quickly while playing both inside and out. Hill was an undrafted rookie who the team decided to keep for his potential as longtime veteran Terence Newman retired and immediately joined the coaching staff.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Daniel Carlson, P Matt Wile, LS Kevin McDermott, KR Mike Hughes, PR Marcus Sherels.

Carlson was a fifth-round draft pick and beat out incumbent Kai Forbath. Carlson has a big leg but needs to work on consistency. He missed two field-goal attempts in the first preseason game after Forbath was released. He did come back with a steady performance in the final preseason game. Wile was claimed off waivers after teams made their initial cuts to the 53-man roster and the team released punter Ryan Quigley. Quigley was unchallenged in training camp but struggled, leading to the change. Zimmer has said Wile has good hangtime on his punts and Wile had strong averages in the preseason for Pittsburgh before being waived. Hughes is expected to get the first shot as the kickoff returner. He's quick and shifty. Sherels is the reliable veteran who can return punts, kickoffs and is on the coverage units.

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