Even in what looks like an historically great class of running back prospects, LSU's Leonard Fournette comes out on top. The depth of quality options, though, makes it clear: 2017 is a great year to draft a runner.
26 Feb 2017
by Bryan Knowles
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
The Packers struggled mightily covering opposing receivers in 2016. Sam Shields suffered a massive concussion in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season; Green Bay has since released the veteran. Neither Damarious Randall nor Quinten Rollins really played up to expectations in their second years; Rollins had the third-worst success rate among qualified cornerbacks in our charting at just 36 percent, while Randall turned in a sub-50 percent season as well. They were also injured, with both players missing time with groin injuries throughout the regular season, and neither at full strength during the playoffs. The injuries and ineffectiveness forced Ladarius Gunter into the spotlight -- he had a solid season for an ex-undrafted free agent who played all of eight defensive snaps in 2015.
Essentially, the unexpected loss of Shields forced everyone else on the roster into a role for which they were not quite ready, and the end result was a porous secondary. Green Bay finished 31st in DVOA covering wide receivers, giving up the second-most passing yards and the fourth- passing plays of 15 yards or more in the NFL last year. In particular, both Dez Bryant and Julio Jones burned them in the playoffs, leading to a stretch where the Packers allowed eight touchdowns in 12 possessions to end their season.
It's worth noting that both Randall and Rollins played better as rookies in 2015, and there is a reason they were drafted in the first and second round, respectively. There is a reason to believe that, if healthy, the pair could bounce back next season. Improvements in the front seven could also have a significant impact on the passing defense as a whole, taking some of the pressure off of the young secondary. Still, entering next season with Randall and Rollins as the top two cornerbacks should make Packers fans nervous.
The Packers look to have about $41 million in salary cap room to play with this offseason, but before they even consider breaking with team tradition and looking at the free agent market, they have some notable names to take care of in-house. Eddie Lacy put up a 20.2% DVOA before an ankle injury sidelined him for the year. Jared Cook is one of the more frustrating tight ends in the league, alternating brilliant athleticism with hands of stone, but Aaron Rodgers was more successful with Cook on the field than without him in 2016. Both J.C. Tretter and T.J. Lang missed time with injuries in 2016; Lang played great when he was on the field, while the oft-injured Tretter was effectively replaced by Corey Linsley. Datone Jones and Nick Perry combined for 37 quarterback pressures on the year and were the Packers' two most prolific pass rushers. Micah Hyde is something of a utility player in Green Bay's secondary, playing both strong safety and nickel corner, as well as being Green Bay's primary punt returner.
Biggest Hole: Defensive Tackle
Back in 2014, the Detroit Lions had arguably the most dominant pair of defensive tackles in the league in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Both left as free agents, however, and the Lions have never really replaced them. Detroit ranked dead last in defensive DVOA last season, and a lot of that can be blamed on a lack of pressure up front. Detroit ranked 26th in the league in pressure rate, and simply couldn't get much pressure up the gut. They were slightly better against the run, ranking 21st in adjusted line yards, but their second-to-last place finish in power success shows that in those crucial third-and-short situations, they couldn't get the job done -- they allowed 608 rushing yards in their last four games, all of them losses.
An addition anywhere on the defensive line would help with these issues, but let's focus on the two tackle positions in the middle. The Lions only have two players under contract for next season at the position. At age 33, Haloti Ngata is still serviceable in run defense, but he's not the same player he was when he was making All-Pro squads in Baltimore, and he's an active liability in the passing game. His days as a full-time starting tackle should really be behind him at this point. A'Shawn Robinson was a second-round rookie who improved as the season went on, starting five of the last six games. Although he's still developing and needs to improve his performance in the run game, he was the Lions' best tackle last season and should be penciled in as a starter in 2017.
That's it, however -- Tyrunn Walker, Stefan Charles, and Khyri Thornton are free agents, and none of them were very effective in 2016 anyway. Even if the Lions do re-sign one or two of them for depth, they could use a young, athletic three-technique to pair with Robinson for the future, allowing Ngata to slip into a more comfortable rotational role going forward. It's a position they might address both in free agency and the draft as they begin to rebuild the defense.
In theory, age should eventually catch up to Anquan Boldin, but the 36-year-old remains a very solid possession receiver and he led the team with eight receiving touchdowns. He probably won't make a decision as to whether he'll return in 2017 until after minicamp, but if he's open to playing, the Lions could certainly do worse than welcoming him back. Larry Warford and Riley Rieff composed the right side of the Lions' offensive line last season -- an offensive line that ranked very poorly in run blocking. Warford, at least, was healthier than he has been since his rookie season and saw a linked improvement in his play; if he leaves, Laken Tomlinson or Joe Dahl would be the next man up in Detroit. Reiff moved from the left side to the right after Taylor Decker came along and reportedly still wants to be valued as a blindside protector. Detroit may try to keep at least one, as replacing 40 percent of their offensive line in one offseason is troublesome for a team that already struggled in the running game.
Biggest Hole: Offensive Tackle
Pick almost any position on the offensive line, and you'll find a problem in Minnesota. They ranked 30th in adjusted line years, and were absolutely porous all year long. They weren't much better in pass protection, with opposing teams often finding ways to get pressure with three-man rushes. You can argue about whether or not it was the worst line in football, but at least teams like the Seahawks had the excuse of scrimping by with budget players. The Vikings allocated $32.8 million of the cap to the offensive line in 2016, third-most in the league, and got nothing in return. Injuries certainly didn't help, but the expected starters played poorly to begin with. When those starters started going down, their backups redefined poor play.
Guard Alex Boone is the only lineman under contract who leaves the season with his reputation intact. Joe Berger was very good at both center and guard, but he's a free agent who's turning 35 this offseason. After that, things get nasty. Matt Kalil started out poorly, and then went on IR with a torn meniscus. His replacement, T.J. Clemmings led the league in blown blocks with 30. Andre Smith was a bust as a free-agent acquisition, and when he went on IR, Jeremiah Sirles wasn't much of an improvement. Brandon Fusco struggled mightily at right guard, especially in pass protection. Jake Long was added in the bye week and forced into action too early, and then injured his Achilles before he could gel with his teammates. Nick Easton underwhelmed when he was forced into the starting lineup late in the season, Mike Harris missed the entire season with a mystery illness. It was a nightmare all around. All in all, the Vikings started nine different players on the offensive line in 2016.
The Vikings have already started cleaning house, releasing Fusco and Harris. Both Kalil and Smith are free agents, and seem unlikely to be re-signed -- which leaves Boone as the only opening day starter from last season under contract. Boone has some experience playing left tackle in college, and serving as an injury replacement when needed in San Francisco. With the free agent pool looking deeper -- and cheaper -- at guard than tackle, kicking Boone to the outside might be the best first step the Vikings can take to patch up their line. Re-sign Berger, look for a guard or two in free agency, find a tackle in the draft -- there's a lot to be done in Minnesota if they want to keep Sam Bradford upright in 2017.
We talked about Berger above; he was probably the best lineman Minnesota had, though he'll be turning 35 in May. Patterson has not developed into the receiver the Vikings were hoping for when they used a first-round pick on him in 2013; he has put up a below-average DVOA in every season he's qualified for our leaderboards. He is, however, one of the most dynamic kick returners in the game, and has made noise about switching to running back like Ty Montgomery in Green Bay, which might increase his value. Munnerlyn is Minnesota's slot specialist, but he might be expendable thanks to last year's second-round pick, Mackensie Alexander.
Biggest Hole: Quarterback
It feels like Jay Cutler has been on his way out of Chicago for the past three seasons, but reports out of Chicago say that the long-awaited release is actually happening this time. Cutler is schedule to count $16 million against the cap in 2017, and cutting him would save the Bears $14 million. Cutler has always gotten more than his fair share of blame for Chicago's offensive struggles, but that comes with the territory when you sign a $126.7 million contract and then go 12-23 as a starter. Cutler only had an above-average DVOA twice in eight seasons in Chicago (in 2013 and 2015). He likely still has some value as a starting quarterback in the NFL, but it's likely best for all involved that his time in Chicago comes to an end.
|Jay Cutler's Time in Chicago|
Of course, part of getting rid of a long-time starting quarterback and beginning a rebuild is figuring out who's up next under center. Journeyman Brian Hoyer started five games for the Bears and put up a DVOA of 19.5%, but he's a free agent as well. So are Matt Barkley, who started six games this season, and developmental projectDavid Fales, a sixth-round pick out of San Jose State in 2014 with five career pass attempts to his credit. Scuttling Cutler would leave Connor Shaw as the only quarterback on the roster. It's safe to say that none of these options are likely to be the Bears' quarterback of the future, though Hoyer is a solid backup or bridge to a developmental player.
No matter what the Bears' plan is at quarterback in 2017 -- be it a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, a free agent like Kirk Cousins, or a rookie taken with the third overall pick -- the situation surrounding the position will be grim. Both offensive tackles need to be upgraded in order to keep their quarterback upright, and with Alshon Jeffery a pending free agent, they may well have no one to throw the ball to. A rebuild has to start somewhere, however, and no hole is bigger than the one behind center.
The Bears have about $51 million in cap space to work with, and very few contributors of their own to worry about re-signing. The biggest name is obviously Alshon Jeffery, but he has missed time in each of the last two seasons with injuries and a PED suspension. He played on the franchise tag this past season, so tagging him again would cost $17.5 million -- not really a feasible option for a wideout who hasn't had 1,000 yards receiving since 2014. Hoyer played well off the bench after Cutler went down with an injured thumb, but a broken arm ended his season in Week 7. Ted Larsen is a reserve interior lineman who ended up starting eight games thanks to injuries; he was more than adequate coming off the bench.
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