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?
21 May 2013
by Rivers McCown
Bears general manager Phil Emery and new head coach Marc Trestman deserve credit for attacking their weaknesses aggressively in both the draft and in free agency. While big signing Jermon Bushrod is far from an elite tackle, and his Pro Bowls should probably be viewed as a second slot the NFC used on Drew Brees, he's a definite upgrade over the dreck the Bears have been using at left tackle for years. The cascade effect of his signing is that J'Marcus Webb, part of the aforementioned dreck, will get a chance to play on the right side against pass rushers that are generally weaker than those who gave him major problems as a starter for the last couple of seasons. First-round pick Kyle Long should help right away on the interior line, new tight end Martellus Bennett will give the Bears a competent stretch tight end, albeit one who had never posted a positive qualifying DVOA until last year's 3.8%. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Second-round pick Jon Bostic and fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene are athletic move linebackers who should give the Bears plenty of fallback options if D.J. Williams and James Anderson have trouble replacing Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach.
But the unpopular weakness still remains. When we pointed to wide receiver as a major flaw for the current Bears early in the offseason, it was to the consternation of a lot of Bears fans who saw the offensive line as being the larger issue. The problem is that Jay Cutler is a see-it, throw-it passer. He's still a solid quarterback, but he's never thrown receivers open on a consistent basis. That amplifies the Bears receiving problems, and while scheming can create the occasional big play for Devin Hester, Eric Weems, or Earl Bennett, they can't defeat man coverage often enough to benefit Cutler. While the jury is still out on Alshon Jeffery, he also wasn't able to beat man coverage often enough last season to help out much. That means a lot of targets are going to be headed to Brandon Marshall and Bennett. Both of them performed competently in the face of that last season, but it's certainly not the most efficient way to build an offense. Rookie Marquess Wilson is a good fit -- Football Outsiders college analyst Matt Waldman thinks he has a very bright future -- but he's not necessarily likely to play right away.
The most well-known UDFA the Bears have brought in is Rutgers receiver Mark Harrison, who you may better know as "the other guy who denied pooping all over a hotel room with DeAndre Hopkins." Harrison is also the UDFA who has the best shot at making the Chicago roster this year, mostly for the lack of depth that we just went over. He'll need to work on his routes and releases to make that a reality. Cornerbacks Demontre Hurst (Oklahoma State) and C.J. Wilson (North Carolina State) also have a chance at cracking a roster that has a dearth of young talent in the secondary.
The Lions mostly focused on their defense this offseason, importing Glover Quin to help revamp the secondary and drafting defensive end Ziggy Ansah with the fifth overall pick after releasing Kyle Vanden Bosch and losing Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson to free agency. Depth is still an issue for this defense, especially in the secondary, but the new problem point for the Lions is keeping Matthew Stafford upright.
With Jeff Backus' retirement, Stephen Peterman's release, and Gosder Cherilus fleeing to Indianapolis for a huge free-agent contract, the Lions will have three new starters on the offensive line. The blind side will be manned by Riley Reiff, who played only 27 percent of the offensive snaps in his rookie year and was mostly utilized as a sixth lineman that sometimes lined up in the backfield. Reiff has the pedigree as a 2012 first-rounder, but it's a little troubling that Detroit's offensive coaches never found a way to hand him playing time over Backus and Cherilus last season (although admittedly, Backus probably did have his best season last year). Right tackle looks to be manned by Corey Hilliard, a sixth-round pick in 2007 with five career starts who did not even crack the roster last season. Is it possible that Hilliard can be competent this year and that the Lions have found a hidden gem? Sure. Is it likely? Probably not. Third-rounder Larry Warford is an acceptable replacement for Peterman's spot, as a highly-acclaimed lineman who probably would have been the first guard off the board in most years, but the depth behind him is shaky at best.
Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims, the holdovers, aren't exactly stars in their own right. Detroit finished in the middle of the pack in our Adjusted Line Yards metric, but they were 27th in Power Success, a statistic that measures effectiveness in short-yardage situations. The strength of this line in recent years has been pass blocking, as Detroit's offense has finished in the top ten in Adjusted Sack Rate for the last three seasons, but that is likely to take a hit due to this offseason's turnover. At least Stafford is good enough under pressure to negate some of those effects.
The best player the Lions signed is likely UCLA TE Joseph Fauria, the nephew of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria. Fauria's hands run hot and cold, but he's got all the physical tools and moves well for a 6-foot-7, 250-pounder. There's a void at the bottom of the Lions depth chart for tight ends, where Will Heller once roamed, and Fauria and seventh-rounder Michael Williams are the two likeliest players to claim the spot. The Lions also brought in a trio of offensive linemen: center Skyler Allen (Ohio), tackle Austin Holtz (Ball State), and tackle LaAdrian Waddle (Texas Tech). Given the poor depth on this line, it would not be surprising if one of them stuck to the roster.
The rich get richer. The Packers had another excellent draft where general manager Ted Thompson was able to shore up the running back position with Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, as well as pluck Datone Jones with his first-round pick and use him to shore up a defensive front line that never fully recovered from the loss of Cullen Jenkins. While Green Bay could use some more consistent and reliable play from their safeties and inside linebackers, Thompson doesn't have a problem cycling through multiple players at those positions, and the inside linebacker position in particular should be healthier than it was last season.
The Packers have made some interesting changes on the offensive line this offseason, but outside of fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, they haven't actually brought in anybody new. They'll move 2010 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga to left tackle, and stalwart guard Josh Sitton will join him on the left side after years of playing on the right. Despite flashes of inconsistency (particularly against the Seahawks last season), Bulaga is clearly the most talented tackle who was on the roster last season, and it makes some sense to put these two on Aaron Rodgers' blind side. The unit as a whole will be improved if 2011 first-rounder Derek Sherrod can come back from two years of injuries, but the more likely scenario is that Marshall Newhouse will be at right tackle to begin the season. That's not ideal, but at least Rodgers will have a better chance this season of being able to evade the multitude of rushers that find their way past Newhouse, since they'll now be closer to his peripheral vision. Bakhtiari is an interesting pick who could be ready to help sooner rather than later after being practically the only football player of note on a barren Colorado squad last season. Otherwise, much like the Lions, the Packers are putting their faith in their quarterback to evade the pass rush this season. Unlike the Lions, the Packers don't have a lot of personnel turnover in this unit, but, also unlike the Lions, they finished second-to-last in Adjusted Sack Rate last season.
Follow the money and you'll see that two of the most-desired Packers targets were center Travis Lewis (Texas A&M) and wide receiver Myles White (Louisiana Tech). Both received $4,500 signing bonuses and will walk into fluid depth charts, but Lewis is probably the better bet of the two because the Packers need more help at center. Bob McGinn's excellent piece on the newcomers featured this rambler of a quote by a scout on Mississippi nose tackle Gilbert Pena: "Big guy. Gonna be a nose. Not really a great player. He's a free-agent body that will get in there and bang. I don't expect him to make the team. Great kid. He may make the practice squad. They really liked him there (at Mississippi). Not really a very good player."
Seriously though, Gilbert Pena is the worst. Nice guy, though.
It's hard to find much fault with what general manager Rick Spielman did this offseason. After scoring a coup by receiving a first-rounder in the Percy Harvin trade, he was able to sign Greg Jennings and trade back up to get a third first-round pick that netted the Vikings arguably the most explosive wideout in the draft, Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson probably won't be ready to be a difference-maker right off the bat, as he wasn't exactly renowned for his work on the route tree at Tennessee, but the Vikings won't need him to be with Jennings in the fold. With Adrian Peterson behind him and Jennings, Patterson, and Kyle Rudolph lining up on the outside, Christian Ponder is officially out of excuses to take the next step.
The biggest hole Minnesota has after the draft is the place where countless words were spilled before it: middle linebacker. (Most of those spilled words were either "Manti" or "Te'o.") Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway can take care of things in Leslie Frazier's nickel fronts, but the base 4-3 is lacking a thumper after Jasper Brinkley's departure in free agency. (Of course, given Brinkley's broken-tackle rate, they were probably lacking one even if he had come back, but I digress.) The latest buzz has Henderson moving to the middle, which wouldn't be ideal, but it makes the most sense given that fourth-rounder Gerald Hodges is probably more talented than holdovers like Audie Cole and Tyrone McKenzie. Or the Vikings could give in and look at the veteran middle linebacker market, where players like Brian Urlacher, Michael Boley, and Nick Barnett could be bridges until the team can find a long-term fix next offseason. At least first-rounder Sharrif Floyd should help fill a few of those running lanes before the middle linebacker has a chance to be a factor, anyway.
Gil Brandt ranked this the fourth-best UDFA class behind the signings of SMU running back Zach Line, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg, and Florida State wideout Rodney Smith. One player he didn't mention was North Carolina wideout Erik Highsmith, a willing blocker who lacks polish and could hang around as a fourth wideout if the Vikings choose to make some changes to the bottom of their receiver depth chart.
(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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