Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North

by Rivers McCown

Chicago Bears

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Wide receiver

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.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

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.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Offensive line

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.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

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.

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Green Bay Packers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Offensive line

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.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

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.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Middle linebacker

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.

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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.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

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.)


36 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2014, 8:23am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

For a piece published today this is out of date. Mark Harrison failed his physical with the Bears over a week ago & today signed with the Patriots.

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

This piece actually appeared on ESPN Insider several days ago, so it might not reflect recent roster changes. Including the fact that the Lions cut Skyler Allen 10 days ago.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

also have a chance at cracking a roster that has a death of young talent in the secondary.

Other than starting safeties Wright and Conte and Hardin their primary backup. What you mean is 'Charles Tillman is old' because Jennings - the other Pro Bowl corner - isn't.

As for Alshon Jeffery, when you catch in traffic as well as he does, do such a good job of shielding the ball from the defender with your body and go up and get it as well as Jeffery does you don't need a huge amount of separation. He'll be fine.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Tim Jennings and slot corner Kelvin Hayden (both due to turn 30 this season) aren't old, but they aren't young either. You're absolutely right about the safeties.

I have high hopes for Jeffery, but hopefully Brandon Marshall has taught him how to push off without actually pushing off, if you know what I mean. Otherwise all that great size and shielding ability will be wasted on a bunch of offensive PI calls. I'm also not sure that the come backs and button hooks that Jeffery is best at are the focus of the west coast-type offense that Trestman is reportedly building.

I'm not setting high expectations for the Bears offense (4th system in 5 years), but the one thing I desperately want to see is better time of possession, or at least the ability to sustain drives significantly longer than they have the past few years. The Bears defense (even without Urlacher) have proven that they can play incredibly well when they aren't tired and broken from playing 60+ snaps a game.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

As far as pushing off without getting flagged for it, he just needs to keep his hands down. If you push at the DB's hips or waist they never throw the flag. Some of the flags against the Pack were BS anyway. He is big and strong, and has long enough arms that it should be fixable. There will be plenty of hooks for Jeffery to run and he was pretty good on slants last year, I think it is a great system fit for him.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I had just skimmed the Bears part as I initially read this over my lunch time. I believe that should read a DEARTH of young talent. A death of young talent would indeed be tragic (e.g., Sean Taylor).

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Packers RT is as likely to be Don Barclay as Sherrod or Newhouse. Barclay finished the season at RT after taking over following Bulaga's injury. While he wasn't very good the first few games, he got significantly better by the season's end. He's a much better run blocker than pass blocker, and with the drafting of two RBs in the top 4 rounds the Packers may finally have figured out they need a running game. Basically, RT is up for grabs in what looks like a three-way camp battle (assuming Sherrod is able to play).

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

As far as turnover on the O-line for the Pack, technically they return the same 5 as the end of last year but the reality is that terrible sack rate primarily describes a line that included Jeff Saturday... Evan Dietrich-Smith appeared to be an upgrade in the last few games. And yeah, don't overlook Barclay at RT as justanothersteve noted

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Follow the money and you'll see that the most-desired Packers targets were NOT center Travis Lewis (Texas A&M) and wide receiver Myles White (Louisiana Tech). The highest paid free agent was Lane Johnson at $7000, followed by 4 others at $5000 a piece BEFORE you get to those two. According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Apologies; keep in mind these are written well before they run and that UDFA turnover is ridiculous -- didn't have that information in front of me at the time.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Has there ever been a NFC North Four Downs article for the Bears that didn't have biggest need listed as WR or OL?

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Packer O-line will be okay,but they can't afford to take plays(or in the case of Bulaga, whole halves) off or else Aaron Rodgers is toast...Can you see Graham Harrell leading the Pack to the playoffs? I'm sorry,but I can't... that's a Packer fan's worst nightmare,and it will come true unless Bulaga and Sitton make the committment to protect Aa-Rod at all costs!

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Packer O-line will be okay,but they can't afford to take plays(or in the case of Bulaga against Seattle, whole halves) off or else Aaron Rodgers is toast...Can you see Graham Harrell leading the Pack to the playoffs? I'm sorry,but I can't... that's a Packer fan's worst nightmare,and it will come true unless Bulaga and Sitton make the committment to protect Aa-Rod at all costs!

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Very few teams have competent backups for more than a year or two, because the good backups either move on (Flynn) or become starters (Kaepernick). If they do have a backup as good as the starter, chances are the starter isn't that great. It's a financial luxury few teams can afford. The Pats had enough talent around Cassell, but they still (barely) missed the playoffs. Look what happened to the Colts when Peyton went down. And while the Packers had Doug Pederson behind Favre for several years, they would have been a .500 team at best had Favre ever missed part of any of those seasons.

17 Urlacher retires

I'm sure there will be an Extra Point on this soon, but, as a Bears fan, I must say I'm happy Urlacher decided to hang it up rather than catching on somewhere right before training camp, maybe making the team, then deciding five games in that it wasn't much fun anymore. It would have been nicer if it had happened before the contract issues and the Bears' cutting him, but that will probably be forgotten in a few years.

19 Re: Urlacher retires

Not so sure about the XP, a receiver with one decent season misses half the year gets an XP, Patriots cut a mediocre lineman gets one, one of the most dominant players of the last decade retires...... Nah, he didn't play in the right division.

If he had played for the Pats FO would have organised a parade for him by now.

21 Re: Urlacher retires

Don't forget the Ronde Barber XP: I don't get why Barber and not Urlacher either. Urlacher is a much stronger HoF candidate than Barber. 8 Pro Bowls in 13 seasons, 5 times All-Pro, All-Decade Team, 22 INTs, 41.5 sacks. Starting MLB and leader of defense when Bears made it to SB. Not sure if he'll get in when first eligible because Ray Lewis will be in his class.

27 Re: Urlacher retires

I had assumed there would be an XP, but I don't really care either way. Worrying about that is sort of like complaining that the guys in Audibles didn't watch your game.

28 Re: Urlacher retires

I suspect that there are a lot of regular posters who would enjoy sharing their thoughts about the guy and reminiscing about one of the great LBs of recent history.

We might even get into heated arguments about pedantic differences!

20 Re: Urlacher retires

In reply to by TomC

Tanier, unsurprisingly, already did a nice piece on this at his Sports on Earth Blog (

While the business side of things made it a little uglier than it could have been, I'm glad he was only ever a Bear in the NFL. While the Packers - Bears rivalry has gotten a bit on sided recently (18-9 in favor of the Packers including playoffs during Urlacher's career) there wasn't a player I respected or feared more than Urlacher during that time. He was a fun to watch play and fits in well with the Bears tradition of great linebackers. He was generally the first player I would choose if I could steal just one player from a division rival to come play for the Pack.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm a little late to this party, but I have to disagree that the OL is the Lions' biggest hole. It's a question mark, for sure, but I think the CB and WR situations are much more dire at this time.

First, despite the turnover on the OL, the Lions have four players with starting experience, RG being the one exception. Rieff may not have wrested the starting spot from Backus and Cherilus, but let's give Backus some credit and acknowledge the wisdom in giving a potential starter a year to acclimate behind a steady (if not spectacular) starting LT. (At least Ben Muth had nice things to say about Jeff Backus.) On the other side, Hilliard has shown himself to be adequate as an injury replacement for Cherilus at RT, although he stank at LT, but there will be an open competition for the RT spot anyway with Jason Fox and others. The RG spot is the only one where there are no experienced players. If Warford plays well, then the weak spot on the OL will be at center, which is normal for this team.

On the other hand, the Lions will have Chris Houston and four CBs with less than a year's experience all competing for starting slots. While it's great to have Quin and Delmas backing up, this is not a great situation.

The situation at WR is also not great. Titus Young is gone, and while he might be a head case, he was more productive than a lot of his Lion predecessors. That leaves Broyles coming off a knee injury and an aging Burleson coming off a broken leg, plus non-producers like Mike Thomas and Brian Robiskie. In the worst case, this puts too much in the hands of Calvin Johnson in the same way that the Bears have to depend too much on Brandon Marshall.

The depth at LB is also a problem, although that pales compared to the situations at CB and WR.

34 DelerAreTruskix

Nadeszedl czas na kolejny komentarz ten komentarz bedzie bez polskich znakow bo nie wiem czy wszedzie by sie dalo sie dodac. A nikt nie chce niepowodzen, ech no sam juz nie wiem, mam nadzieje ze nikogo nie wkurze za bardzo tym spamowaniem - powaznie mam taka nadzieje

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart

36 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I disagree about the Raiders biggest hole - that scheme was so out of place in Oakland last year that its hard to say it was the talent. Virtually the same personnel were able to open up enough holes in 2011 under the old scheme! For me, the biggest hole is clearly D-line - they've got a lot cheaper by losing Kelly and Seymour but whilst they appear to have signed some players more appropriately-valued, its a stretch to say that the front-4 is NFL starting quality, with only Houston returning. And its not as if the D-line had been playing well anyway. The revamped LB corps better be fast at attacking the line of scrimmage.

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