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29 May 2014

Four Downs: NFC North

By Rivers McCown

Chicago Bears

Biggest post-draft hole: Safety

Every offseason, Bears general manager Phil Emery picks his team's biggest weakness and attacks it. He rebuilt the entire offensive line in the 2013 offseason. This offseason, Chicago's spent its aggression on the defensive line. Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen are big splashes added to a line that needed improvement. Willie Young and Israel Idonije are the types of smaller pieces that could have prevented the defensive collapse Chicago had in 2013. The Bears also spent two second-day picks on help at defensive tackle, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.

The Bears were not quite as aggressive in the back seven. Tim Jennings was re-signed, and Lance Briggs should be healthy. First-round pick Kyle Fuller should help solidify the other starting cornerback slot if Charles Tillman has lost what made him special. While the Bears also have question marks at linebacker, they also have some draft pedigree there. Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin were both picked in the first two rounds, and Khaseem Greene also has some promise. Unshaped potential isn't production, but it's at least a starting point.

But at safety, the Bears added only bit pieces. Journeyman Ryan Mundy will be in line to replace the departed Major Wright. Incumbent starter Chris Conte has range, but accumulated more broken tackles (16) than any defender in the NFL last season. Projected top backup M.D. Jennings was so bad last season that the Packers didn't tender him an offer as a restricted free agent,despite that being a need area for Green Bay. Fourth-rounder Brock Vereen out of Minnesota could climb this depth chart in a hurry. Draftniks see Vereen as a rangy player who will fit well at free safety. He also had cornerback experience for the Gophers.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Some draftniks saw Florida State linebacker Christian Jones as a possible second-day pick. He fell all the way out of the draft by failing a drug test at the combine. With the Bears unsettled at linebacker, he stands a pretty good chance of making the roster. The other name that stands out is former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch was a Heismann Trophy finalist, but has embraced the idea that he is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Unlike, say, some other Heismann Trophy quarterback who was a media phenomenon. No, don't try to remember his name now. Lynch is converting to running back, and on a Bears depth chart that includes dregs like Shaun Draughn, he could crack the 53.

Detroit Lions

Biggest post-draft hole: Secondary

Detroit's secondary must continue to be a mess, no matter how much capital they spend on it. Anything else would just seem weird.

The Lions let injury-prone safety Louis Delmas walk in free agency, choosing not to meet his asking price. Replacement James Ihedigbo had the best season of his career in Baltimore last season. Yet, it is true that he's been more of a journeyman than a solid starter in the past. The 30-year-old Ihedigbo may well wind up being an improvement on Delmas in that he can stay on the field, but he's more of a thumper than a deep coverage player. Plus, if you need some narrative in your analysis, Baltimore let him leave. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn't make mistakes often.

Cornerback is the real issue here. Not a single Lions cornerback had a Success Rate above 55 percent according to the Football Outsiders charting project last year. (Success Rate is the percentage of plays targeting a defensive player on which the offense did not have a successful play.) Chris Houston, the supposed leader of the secondary, allowed a startling 10.8 adjusted yards per pass. That ranked him 83rd out of 87 qualifying corners. 2013 second-rounder Darius Slay is the other projected starter outside. He managed to allow only 10.2 adjusted yards per pass. (He didn't play enough to qualify for the big board.)

Detroit solved some of their roster problems this offseason. They picked up Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to solidify the receiving corps. They found a long-term replacement for Dominic Raiola by selecting Travis Swanson in the third-round. Second-rounder Kyle Van Noy should shore up an outside linebacker slot manned by dregs last season. But outside of Glover Quin, the secondary should again be a wasteland.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

Kansas State offensive lineman Cornelius Lucas drew a $20,000 signing bonus from the Lions. Lucas runs 6-foot-8 and had the longest wingspan of any tackle at this year's combine. Given that Detroit gave a chance to UDFA LaAdrian Waddle last season, Lucas could well find himself on this roster. A name that will be more familiar to college football fans is quarterback James Franklin. Franklin finds himself on a depth chart with Kellen Moore and Dan Orlovsky. If he can't beat those two out for an NFL job, he doesn't belong on any roster.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest post-draft hole: Inside linebacker

Green Bay found solutions to a few of their bigger issues this offseason. First-rounder Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix should solidify a safety corps that had issues with both the run and the pass last year. Second-rounder Davante Adams and fifth-rounder Jared Abbrederis give depth at wideout, where James Jones fled for the Raiders and both Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are set for free agency after the season. The Packers also added Julius Peppers to rotate with Nick Perry across from Clay Matthews.

One area where Green Bay didn't add much was inside linebacker. A.J. Hawk has been hanging around as a starter for years despite not bringing much of anything to the table. If there's ever a zombie attack in Green Bay, Hawk will be the lone survivor of it. Brad Jones signed a huge contract before the 2013 season, but was replacement-caliber after the first month. Backup Jamari Lattimore was a special teamer for most of the season. While the trio found their way into 10 sacks last season, most of them came in zone blitz situations. Their lack of range was a key factor in the Packers finishing 30th in run defense DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)

Of course, this is par for the course for general manager Ted Thompson. Thompson doesn't believe in investing in inside linebackers as a general rule. Fair enough, Ted. I hope you're investing some of the savings in your medical staff this year. Green Bay could make another strong playoff run if they could just keep their core healthy for more than four games at a time.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

The biggest name with Green Bay is someone who had to survive a tryout camp. Long has Draftnik Nation trumpeted Colt Lyerla as a move tight end with the potential to be Aaron Hernandez-esque. (That's ON the football field, people.) Unfortunately, Lyerla ran afoul of cocaine and quit the Oregon football team. If Lyerla's head is on straight, he has a chance to replace Jermichael Finley and jump third-round pick Richard Rogers. If it's not, it cost Green Bay nothing. Jake Doughty and Joe Thomas, a pair of inside linebackers, wound up with the highest signing bonuses Green Bay handed out this year. They both have a chance to make the roster at a position of weakness.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest post-draft hole: Secondary

To be sure, Rick Spielman's draft was one worthy of praise. Trading up to select Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick will pay immediate dividends. No longer will this franchise have to pretend that Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel are long-term answers.

Yet, when a team is as bad as Minnesota was last season, it's almost impossible to fix everything in one go. Minnesota finished with the 30th-ranked pass defense by DVOA last season. Their secondary was in shambles. Part one of the offseason plan to fix that seems to be praying that Harrison Smith stays healthy. Part two was slapping some potential bargain band-aids on a depleted cornerback depth chart. Captain Munnerlyn had an excellent season in 2013, and Xavier Rhodes held his own as a rookie. But the problem is more about depth than talent.

The Vikings finished 32nd in DVOA on passes thrown to "other" receivers in 2013. ("Other" being non-No.1 or No.2 receivers.) Josh Robinson finished 86th among 87 qualifying corners in Success Rate last year. Newcomer Derek Cox was so bad for San Diego that the Chargers benched him. Yes, the Chargers deemed Cox unfit for the worst DVOA defense in the NFL in 2013. The Mistral Raymond/Jamarca Sanford strong safety battle is the kind of position scrum emblematic to bad teams. The only winner is other NFC North quarterbacks. Spielman couldn't fix everything in one offseason, but this unit still needs more re-tooling.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

The player you've most likely heard of in Minnesota's UDFA haul is Kain Colter. Colter, of course, is more well-known for his focus on trying to unionize college football and ruin the NCAA's quaint idea of amateurism. On the football field, he'll be converting from quarterback to wide receiver. Remember that Jerome Simpson has held a roster spot for the past two seasons in Minnesota. Colter isn't going to be a star, but he could stick at the back end of that depth chart. Another player to focus on is Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson. Richardson is a 6-foot-6, 325-pounder who goes by the nickname "Tiny." After going undrafted due to medical concerns, Richardson will have a chance to grab a swing tackle role. The Vikings signed four different UDFA tackles. You can infer that they're not thrilled with their depth at the position.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 29 May 2014

39 comments, Last at 04 Jun 2014, 7:03pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by CBPodge :: Thu, 05/29/2014 - 2:40pm

"Lynch was a Heismann Trophy finalist, but has embraced the idea that he is not an NFL-caliber quarterback. Unlike, say, some other Heismann Trophy quarterback who was a media phenomenon."

A bit cruel to dismiss Johnny Manziel so soon.

9
by Sakic :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 8:55am

Maybe it's just me but I think he was referring to Tim Tebow.

12
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 9:02am

I think he knew that.

17
by ChrisS :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 1:16pm

I think he knew that he knew that. But maybe not

18
by TomC :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 1:22pm

I didn't know that he knew that he knew that until I looked at the poster's name, then I definitely knew that he knew that he knew that.

22
by commissionerleaf :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 3:05pm

Works either way.

34
by paytonrules :: Tue, 06/03/2014 - 2:31pm

YOU'VE SAID HIS NAME! SKIP BAYLESS WILL BE HERE ANY MOMENT!

dear god what have you done?

2
by Guest789 :: Thu, 05/29/2014 - 2:59pm

Can't help but feel like ILB for the Packers this year will be like safety last year - completely ignored in the off-season for whatever reason, and the defense will suffer for it.

-----

“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

3
by JoeyHarringtonsPiano :: Thu, 05/29/2014 - 4:24pm

"Kyle Van Noy should shore up an outside linebacker slot manned by dregs last season".

I'm assuming by "dregs" you mean Ashlee Palmer (who rarely saw the field anway, since nickel was the de facto base defense). It would be unfair to apply that label to DeAndre Levy, who had the finest season of his career (even if you discount the interceptions as an outlier).

But since Teryl Austin plans to use less nickel and more base and hybrid formations, Van Noy will be needed.

10
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 9:00am

Right, that's a Palmer-based criticism.

4
by Theo :: Thu, 05/29/2014 - 4:54pm

"If there's ever a zombie attack in Green Bay, Hawk will be the lone survivor of it."
Because he goes around unnoticed?
Because he has no brain?
Because he knows how to fight zombies?

7
by tuluse :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 1:52am

I think the implication was that he would fit right in and the zombies wouldn't notice him.

11
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 9:01am

Because he's been a mediocre MLB since he was drafted, and nobody has bothered to try to remove him, was my insinuation. Hawk's a survivor.

13
by dank067 :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 9:57am

The Packers brass have generally cited Hawk's leadership and ability to run the defense on the field as reasons they keep giving him new contracts, but they actually did try to phase him out in 2010 by removing him from everything but their base 3-4 (which they never line up in). In particular I think he was only on the field for like 3 snaps in Week 1 of that year against Philly. But then Nick Barnett went on IR early in the season, Hawk was back to being an every down player, and before you know it he's being handed a huge contract. Which they had to have almost immediately realized was a mistake, but by the time they would have been able to cut him or try someone younger, Desmond Bishop had just missed an entire season with a torn ACL and they didn't really have anyone else... so he got to re-do his deal. Less money, sure, but he's still there.

Basically, he's made it this far in GB because everyone else gets injured around him and he's the only one still standing. The zombie survivor metaphor is very apt.

20
by Arkaein :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 2:57pm

Yeah, people calling for Hawk to be replaced is a constant discussion point for GB fans, but every time it comes up I cringe at the though of losing the one LB GB has that is almost permanently healthy.

Matthews, Nick Perry, Desmond Bishop, Nick Barnett, Brad Jones, Mike Neal, DJ Smith, Rob Francois. The list of GB LBs who have missed more games in one season that Hawk has missed in his entire career is a very long one. I think that coaching staffs, more than fans, appreciate having healthy players that don't require cutting other players at the bottom of the roster to make room for mid-season street free agent injury fill-ins when the starter gets injured.

5
by TomKelso :: Thu, 05/29/2014 - 5:33pm

I can guarantee you Minnesota noticed that Ihedigbo is now in Detroit. Cordarelle Patterson certainly has.

25
by jonnyblazin :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 4:14pm

I thought Ihedigbo was a competent SS, nothing special but he does the job.

6
by theslothook :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 1:13am

THe vikings pass defense was and is a lot like the bears offensive line...consistently cringe worthy for a shockingly long period of time.

This division reminds me a bit of the nfc east, only more random. Aside from the vikes, the passing games of all the nfc north teams are good. Unlike the nfc east though, many of these teams can rush the passer, but their secondaries full of question marks, so who knows.

Personally, I actually think the packers are being totally underrated. They have the receivers, qb, and run game to be dangerous and several pieces on defense to be reasonably effective. If they can avoid having colts' level injury luck, they'll be very dangerous.

8
by tuluse :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 1:52am

I think everyone is expecting the Packers to win the division. Hard to call that underrated.

14
by dandoepke :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 10:11am

"If they can avoid having colts' level injury luck, they'll be very dangerous."

I suppose there's a first time for everything.

15
by nath :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 10:48am

Vikings added a bunch of late-round DBs. You can never really count on late-round picks, but Antone Exum mostly fell for health reasons, so if he stays healthy he coukd play a significant role early.

16
by Insancipitory :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 10:55am

Can't count on late round DBs? Why not?

19
by theslothook :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 2:34pm

The same reason you can't count on late round anythings(aside from kickers and fullbacks), most will be gone in one or two years.

21
by Insancipitory :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 3:01pm

I knew I should have included a Go Hawks or something. Oh well, it's the thought that counts.

24
by theslothook :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 3:44pm

I get into this debate all the time with 49er fans. I truly don't believe the hawks had any insight that other teams didn't have with the players they drafted. They just got very very lucky that those low round picks not only became solid starters, but extremely talented players.

26
by Perfundle :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 4:56pm

Well, what would it take to make you believe that Carroll coached them up after they got drafted?

I went and looked at Chancellor and Sherman's scouting reports. Sherman:

Strengths
Sherman possesses rare height for a corner with enough bulk and speed. Effective when lined up at the line in press man coverage. Uses length well and established sound initial positioning. Flashes the ability to turn and run. Flashes the ability to high-point the football. Willing to help out in run support.
Weaknesses
Can be baited out of position when in zone and a tick late to diagnose underneath routes. Tall, high-cut prospect who displays some hip-stiffness. Not explosive when transitioning or when changing direction. Lacks great recovery skills when beaten off the line. Can struggle tacking in the open field at times.

Chancellor:

Strengths
Chancellor has outstanding size for the safety position. Plays with great strength and has the toughness needed to consistently help up in the box in run support. Has been a highly productive player. Durability is not a concern. Exhibits a really impressive motor, refuses to be blocked and plays hard through the whistle.
Weaknesses
Chancellor can play over aggressive at times, take poor angles and is susceptible to play fakes. Taller player who could improve his pad level. Needs to be lower in his back peddle. Is more comfortable in the box and doesn’t possess the coverage skills, ball skills and instincts to be consistently relied upon against the pass.

Some of those weaknesses were borne out in their NFL play; Fahey remarked that Sherman can be too aggressive in zone coverage, for instance. So Carroll decides to have him not play underneath routes at all, and puts him in a cover-3 with press-man characteristics. He also teaches Sherman to use his size and physicality to hinder wide receivers from changing direction in the first place, which helps cover up his stiffness relative to smaller corners.

As for Chancellor, he played free safety at Virginia Tech, so being out of position didn't help his draft position. His strengths all sound like those of linebackers and strong safeties, so Carroll has him play as a SS/LB hybrid mainly in the box, and reduces his coverage responsibilities to playing zone most of the time.

Would another coach have put them in the best position to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses? Their college coaches certainly didn't, and Beamer and Harbaugh are top-notch coaches.

27
by theslothook :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 6:02pm

I have no doubt Carol is an excellent coach. My issue comes with how are exactly are we crediting the team/FO.

THere are a number of players on the seahawks defense that will have significantly outplayed their expected draft value(based on my model anyways). They are Kj wright, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor. We can debate Bobby Wagner, but I do know he was a 2nd rounder.

My question is - are these players great or just because they play in the seahawks scheme? I think they are legitimately great.

Would they be great if they had been drafted by another team? I still think they would be.

SO then the question is, did the Seahawks see these players and think, "wow, they are this awesome, but only if used in this particular way." I am skeptical because if that were the case, why did they wait so long to draft them? Why take a risk some team snatches them early. And if it really is just scheme magic at identifying undervalued assets, they really shouldn't have paid Sherman or Chancellor.

Its the same argument I have with people who really believe the pats knew Brady would be what he is. No they didn't. They saw him as undervalued as a 6th rounder, but even they admitted it was never in their mind he'd be this.

And as a last example, consider James Harrison. Even the Steelers, who have a reputation for "developing" pass rushing linebackers lucked out with him. If they really did know, they wouldn't have cut him several times and only brought him back the last time because Clark Haggan got hurt in a freak accident.

Here's my impression. Pete Carrol is a very good coach. If you give him average talent, he will make the defense above average. There are very few coaches I actually believe have this particular skill. In fact, its basically just Rex Ryan, Chip Kelly, Bill Belichick, Peyton Manning, and Carrol. Throw in Harbaugh and maybe Trestman if you want. However, getting the talent to me is luck. Finding SHerman and Chancellor and Wagner and Wright is unsustainable good fortune. That's how I see it.

28
by Perfundle :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 7:38pm

"Would they be great if they had been drafted by another team? I still think they would be."

I'm not so willing to accept this. Brees wasn't particularly great in San Diego, and only when Payton constructed an offense according to his strengths did he really flourish. Brees' biggest weakness was his height and the problems that would lead to. Wagner's scouting report suggests that was his as well, and Chancellor and Sherman were both considered too tall for their positions. Even Chancellor wasn't his 2014 playoff form in 2012; he gave up a touchdown to White in the playoffs because of inadequate coverage on one of the rare times he was playing deep safety.

As for drafting players so late, perhaps there were players they really wanted that were snatched away from them. In fact, there certainly were. But if they have enough such targets, then they're bound to land some of them. I don't think they were expecting perennial Pro-Bowlers in those rounds, but they clearly saw more potential than other teams who only saw backup/special teams material.

Not resigning Sherman and Chancellor? It's a different situation when teams now know how to best use them. There's the added factor of seeing a rival snatch them away from you, especially San Francisco with their questionable secondary. They must've seen what happened with the Jets and Revis.

The secondary is pretty much set now, but their ability to draft and coach will be put to the test with the linebacking corps, since I don't think they can resign more than one of them, and that one will probably be Wagner.

29
by coboney :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 8:19pm

One other point to consider is that the Seahawks were somewhat benefiting from something similar to when everyone but a couple teams were running 4-3s. Because they wanted tall, aggressive corners that other teams weren't looking for and they knew how to use those skills to make them more productive.

Now, several years later, people are copying that, therefore there's no way a Sherman-esq prospect would go as late because more teams are looking for players with that type of portfolio.

30
by theslothook :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 8:44pm

Drew Brees wasn't a bad player in SD. True he sucked his first few years, but his last two seasons were very good. Now, he did become elite once he entered No, but its hard to know if that was because of Payton or brees' natural progression. I think if brees was on most teams, he'd be the same qb.

We seem to be disagreeing about semantics. I do believe the coaching staff is shrewd in how they use the talent they have. Sherman would probably make a lousy corner if he was asked to do things that he's not very good at. Ditto for Chancellor, but that is true other teams as well, not just Seattle. I also read somewhere that the trend for bigger corners was already starting before Sherman came on the stage. The receiver heights have actually been on that trend for years so I suspect the corner back needs were based off that. But ultimately, I think I'm saying that Seattle is probably not going to be any more successful developing late round picks than most other franchises. I say that based off the historical evidence of the draft. There really hasn't been any franchise that has consistently outdrafted in the late rounds year after year. Most late round picks just never survive and that's true for the 80s niners, 90s cowboys, and 2000 patriots.

31
by Perfundle :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 9:51pm

Well, they're going to be less successful in keeping late-round draft picks going forward for no other reason than that their team is stacked, so it'll be hard to make a comparison. But I think if you continue to select the most athletic players regardless of playing ability, as Seattle has been doing with their devotion to SPARQ scores, you're going to have players with very high ceilings, which gives late-round picks a better chance to become great than the drafting strategies of other teams. They've certainly had their share of misses in the late rounds, just like every other team; the difference is that some the hits have been extremely good.

33
by Jimmy :: Tue, 06/03/2014 - 1:17pm

What would have been really nice is if you had used the NFC West Four Downs page to have your back and forth about the Seahawks.

32
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 05/31/2014 - 12:29am

It seems to me that there is one big factor missing in this discussion: Earl Thomas. Without Thomas, Carroll might not be able to fine-tune the scheme to fit Sherman and Chancellor so well.

35
by JimZipCode :: Tue, 06/03/2014 - 4:33pm

Love that you have Peyton Manning listed among those coaches. No real argument here. Maybe throw in Sean Payton?

36
by theslothook :: Tue, 06/03/2014 - 5:12pm

You know, I might have said Sean Payton, but that year he took off, the saints offensively were still pretty good. I thought they were undone by an incredibly awful defense but the offensive side of the ball was plenty scary with Carmichael.

37
by Noah of Arkadia :: Wed, 06/04/2014 - 9:34am

I think what he means is that you were listing people capable of making a defense better. I'm guessing you meant a unit.

------
Who, me?

38
by theslothook :: Wed, 06/04/2014 - 6:54pm

Well, I certainly don't think Peyton Manning is a good defensive coach. If anything, his presence seems to coincide with comically awful special teams and injury health along with coaching blunders.

23
by commissionerleaf :: Fri, 05/30/2014 - 3:06pm

Yeah, short contracts mean that by the time someone is good, they're gone.

39
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 06/04/2014 - 7:03pm

Yes,it can be said the Lions didn't do much to improve their secondary this year, but it's hard to see how they could have done more. Cap issues limited what they could have done in free agency. The stories are they tried to move up to draft Watkins, Evans, or Gilbert, but barring that what they did makes some sense. The team has invested four draft picks on CBs the past two years. It takes time to develop CBs, and at sime point you have to put your draft picks out there before giving up on them. It doesn't make sense to put rookies out there every year.