Packers are passing division class

General manager Ted Thompson has positioned Green Bay to compete with the rest of the NFC North, PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence says.

Before the Green Bay Packers become regular Super Bowl contenders, they will have to regain their perch atop the NFC North.

In that sense, it's been an interesting off-season in Green Bay, as general manager Ted Thompson positions the Packers to compete against Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit.

Thompson's selection of defensive tackle Justin Harrell was widely panned among Packers fans and drew only slightly better reviews among league insiders.

But let's look at the big picture.

First, let's review what the division teams have done this offseason.

The Bears selected Greg Olsen — the best tight end in the draft — with their first-round pick. He's a guy many fans wanted the Packers to select, but with Olsen falling all the way to No. 31, it would have been a reach for Thompson to pick Olsen — a productive pass-catcher who's alergic to blocking — at No. 16.

The Vikings selected Adrian Peterson — the best running back in the draft — with their first-round pick. He'll pair with Chester Taylor to give the Vikings a formidable one-two punch at running back behind road-grader blockers Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinney. Minnesota will be a run-first team with unproven Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback and a suspect receiving corps.

The Lions selected Calvin Johnson — the best receiver in the draft — with their first-round pick. He'll join Roy Williams and Mike Furrey to give Detroit the type of high-octane receiving corps that offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes.

Like the Packers, neither the Bears, Vikings nor Lions were especially active in free agency. The biggest moves were the Vikings adding safety Mike Doss and the Lions trading standout cornerback Dre Bly to Denver for running back Tatum Bell. None of those moves will have the Packers shaking in their boots.

So, through the Packers' perspective, what does this mean? Well, Thompson has done well to match his rivals' moves.

Starting with Chicago, Olsen will be a big help to the Bears' offense in at least a situational role. But, if either Marquand Manuel, Marviel Underwood or Aaron Rouse can step up at safety, the Packers should be able to handle Olsen.

Can the Packers catch Chicago in the North? Probably not this year, especially if Rex Grossman shows some improvement at quarterback — and the addition of Olsen will help. But the Bears jettisoned 1,200-yard rusher Thomas Jones and could lose star linebacker Lance Briggs. The suspension of defensive tackle Tank Johnson will further weaken the defense.

Can the Packers stay a step ahead of Minnesota? Certainly, the Vikings should have a superior running game — on paper at least. But, there are two major questions. Is Peterson healthy enough to help? Can Jackson do enough through the air to keep defenses honest? Interestingly, the Vikings are building a run-first offense and the Packers are building a defense-first team. Throw in Harrell to an above-average defensive front seven, and the Packers seem well-suited to handle the Vikings' offense. On the other side of the ball, it will be interesting to see how the Vikings' defense fares without coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Finally, there's Detroit. The Lions' receivers should be terrific, but they still have Jon Kitna at quarterback. They still have a suspect running game — even with the addition of Bell — since Kevin Jones is coming off a serious foot injury. And the Lions' defense, especially without Bly, remains in the bottom third of the league.

Whether you like him or hate him, it's hard to say Thompson did much to help the 2007 Packers. At the same time, Thompson did enough to prevent the Packers from falling behind their NFC North rivals. If the second-year players show enough improvement, the Packers will be in fine position in December.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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