Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
01 Jun 2010
by Ned Macey
The Bears had little opportunity to remake their team in the draft. Their first-round pick was sent to Denver to acquire Jay Cutler, and their second-round pick was sent to Tampa Bay for the late Gaines Adams. With none of their late-round picks did they add a weapon to help Jay Cutler rebound from his horrible first season in Chicago.
Quite simply, the Bears’ fortunes over the next several seasons are tied to whether Cutler emerges as the above-average quarterback he was in Denver. Despite the massive investment in Cutler that the Bears made via both draft picks and salary, they have surrounded him with arguably the worst wide receiving corps outside of St. Louis. Devin Hester, Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, and Rashied Davis simply put no fear into an opposing defense. They can usually be covered one-on-one on anything more complicated than a go route, tightening the throwing lanes Cutler faces and allowing opposing safeties to gamble. The result is numerous opportunities for an interception-prone quarterback to throw interceptions.
Perhaps the strangest example of Chicago's desperate need for receivers is the excitement being built up in the media over Aromashodu. This is a player who has only seen the field in two of his four NFL seasons. Two years ago, he was behind Aaron Moorehead on the Indianapolis depth chart. Even his big end-season breakout last year had only average value according to FO's play-by-play breakdown.
The Bears have grounds for optimism on two levels. First, the receivers are all young, so it is possible that someone emerges as a legitimate number one receiver. Second, offensive coordinator Mike Martz once turned Mike Furrey into a 1,000 yard receiver, and Furrey would fit comfortably with the mediocrities the Bears currently employ at the position.
With only five draft picks, the Bears had to be active in the rookie free agent market, eventually adding 13. Among the more interesting ones are Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes who had an amazing statistical senior year, amassing an NCAA-record 155 receptions and 19 touchdowns. Michigan running back Brandon Minor is a talented player who battled injuries in college, including a torn rotator cuff as a senior. In the interest of providing equal time, I’ll note the Bears added Ohio State defensive end Lawrence Wilson, who was a huge recruit out of high school and played basketball with LeBron James. No word on whether Wilson competing for a spot to make the practice squad in Chicago increases LeBron’s chances of joining the Bulls.
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz oversaw a dominant defense in Tennessee that started seventh-round pick Cortland Finnegan and veteran undrafted free agent Nick Harper at corner. The key to the defense was a dominant defensive line. Schwartz is attempting to replicate that success in Detroit. He spent much of the offseason building the defensive line, adding Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, and Ndamukong Suh. At cornerback, however, a talentless void saw only tinkering at the margins.
Before the draft, the Lions acquired Chris Houston in a trade from Atlanta. Houston immediately became the Lions top cornerback -- which is extremely troubling. According to our game charting project, Houston was among the worst cornerbacks in football. He had the fifth lowest success rate among cornerbacks who were targeted at least 40 times. The one spot of hope is that highly-drafted corners like Houston often blossom in their fourth season, which happens to be the year Houston is entering.
In the draft, the Lions finally got to cornerback in the third round, selecting Amari Spievey, a physical corner and an interesting prospect. In Detroit, unfortunately, he will likely be a starter from Day One. To show their desperation, the Lions this week added C.C. Brown, who was a horrible safety in New York last year but will "battle" with Rams' washout Jonathan Wade for the nickel back position. The Lions defensive line is decidedly better, but unless they get to the quarterback immediately, opposing quarterbacks will have plenty of room to make big plays.
Every undrafted free agent must wait eagerly for a phone call from Detroit, the least talented team in the league. Twelve lucky men got that call, and anyone who plays defense or offensive line has a legitimate chance to stick. Perhaps the most intriguing prospect is Pitt cornerback Aaron Berry, who has speed and real upside. The biggest name may be linebacker Ryan Stamper, a defensive captain at Florida. Stamper is a step slow, but on a weak defense, his ability to play smart could endear him to the Lions coaching staff. Finally, offensive lineman Mike Hicks out of Connecticut could make the roster as a reserve guard.
The Packers' season collapsed in a series of secondary breakdowns that allowed opponents to march up and down the field. These failures occurred despite cornerback Charles Woodson having a career year at the advanced age of 33. Woodson's running mate, Al Harris, suffered a season-ending ACL injury and is 35 years old. Even with the age of their supposed starters, the Packers were content to make no major additions at cornerback in free agency or the draft.
The Packers are left with Woodson, Harris, and Tramon Williams as their top three cornerbacks. Williams was below average in our primary game charting statistics (46th out of 82 corners in success rate, 55th in yards per pass) despite spending much of the year as the nickel back covering lesser receivers. Harris, even before the injury, was showing marked signs of decline. His physical style has allowed him to age gracefully, but he appeared to lose some first-step quickness. which exacerbated his long-declining straight-line speed. Jarrett Bush is the fourth cornerback, but in limited time he showed a propensity to be beaten deep. .
The Packers have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, but the team has serious potential for a disaster with its cornerbacks. Any contribution from Harris will be a bonus, and the Packers cannot assume that Woodson will either remain healthy or reach last year's level. Unless Williams and Bush take major strides forward, the Packers will have to win a lot of shootouts.
One intriguing rookie free agent the Packers added was Tim Knicky out of Stephen F. Austin. Knicky was a defensive end in college, but the Packers project him as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Cornerback Sammy Shields out of Miami is an exceptional athlete who could compete for a job as a returner, but his value is limited based on how raw he is as a cornerback. He has to be clearly the team’s best option as a return man to make the roster. Nick McDonald is a tackle from Grand Valley State who has impressive talent. Given the Packers age at tackle, he would be a good candidate to land on the practice squad.
The Vikings have arguably the best pass rush in football. They have, undoubtedly, the best run defense in football. Playing safety for the Vikings should be a breeze. You are free to play pass defense, facing opposing quarterbacks who are forced to rush their passes. It was therefore more than a little disappointing that starting safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams totaled one combined interception.
Interceptions are obviously not the only measure of a defensive back’s ability, and plenty of good defenders have not very many interceptions. In this case, however, it represents an overall lack of aggression on the part of Johnson and Williams. They both too often let plays develop in front of them. Despite these flaws, Johnson is probably an average to above-average starting safety. Williams, however, rarely challenged opposing pass catchers and too often allowed deep completions despite contributing little if anything in run defense.
If both players stay healthy, the Vikings defense will be fine, but the Vikings have no proven depth at the position. The top backup is Jamarca Sanford, a seventh-round pick a season ago. Sanford showed flashes of talent in limited opportunities, but he is far from a proven commodity or a finished product. If Johnson in particular were to be injured, the back-end of the Vikings defense would become a very inviting target for opposing offenses.
The Vikings seem to be set for returners (Percy Harvin and Darius Reynaud), but they signed three speedy wide receivers who could potentially return kicks: Aaron Rhea of Stephen F. Austin, Ray Small from Ohio State, and Kelton Tindal of Newberry. Tindal may be the most intriguing because he has ridiculous speed, and playing for a small school (Newberry has an enrollment of 1,025 people) means his true ability is uncertain. Keep your eye on safety Terrell Skinner from Maryland who is 6-2 but only has average speed.
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