Four Downs: NFC North
by Andy Benoit
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Offensive line
Offensive line has become something of a perpetual hole for the Bears -– like wide receiver used to be for the Ravens, like pass rusher has recently been for the Patriots, or like quarterback was for the post-Marino Dolphins. We don’t even really analyze the Bears offensive line anymore: we just assume it will find a way to flounder. Thus, in this report, we ignore the possibility that left tackle J’Marcus Webb may build on the hint of improvement he showed in 2011. And we ignore the possibility of last year’s first-round pick, Gabe Carimi, being at full strength after missing most of his rookie season with a knee injury.
We ignore these things because we’ve seen Murphy’s Law work its devilry on Chicago’s offensive line too many times. If something can go wrong, it will. That’s not to say Carimi will get hurt again (though as of mid-May, he still wasn’t 100 percent). Even if he’s healthy, he still has a lot to learn. He looked mentally (and thus, at times, physically) overwhelmed in his five-and-a-half quarters of regular season action last year. The Bears are concerned enough about him to float the idea of moving Chris Williams from guard back to tackle. Webb has had some bright moments, but most of the time, he’s unable to overcome his slow feet. It’s not just a random fact that he led the league with 15 offensive penalties in 2011.
A good veteran swing tackle would do wonders for the Bears. Not only would it provide other options if Webb or Carimi don’t perform, it would also prevent guards Chris Williams and Lance Louis from having to slide outside should an offensive tackle vacancy arise. Neither player has performed well at tackle in the past (that’s why they’re guards now), and a lot of Chicago’s offensive line woes derive from the instability that’s come from players frequently changing positions. That, in turn, is a big part of why Jay Cutler sometimes stops trusting his protection and becomes erratic.
The Bears do at least have some quality depth at guard in Chris Spencer, but his adequacy inside doesn’t change Williams’ and Louis’ inadequacy outside.
It’s easy to say a team should find a quality veteran swing tackle. At this point in the offseason, there really aren’t any available -- if a player were truly of quality, he wouldn’t be unsigned. So the best thing a team can do is find a veteran niche player who is at least a specific fit to the team’s system. A year ago, the Bears offense under Mike Martz featured frequent seven-step-drop passes, which demanded all linemen to be adroit pass blockers. This year’s Bears will be more balanced and play-action-oriented under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, so a seasoned run-blocker -– which is easier to find than a skilled pass blocker –- should be able to fill any voids.
A possible free agent target is former Chargers tackle Marcus McNeill. He’s available because of knee problems the last two years and a serious neck injury from 2011. Sadly, it’s likely that the 28-year-old’s better days, if not his playing days altogether, are behind him. But McNeil has monstrous size and, if healthy, Pro-Bowl potential. The risk would be low at this point (veteran minimum contract), and the reward potentially sky-high. If the Bears want more reliability, they could sign former Steelers tackle Max Starks. He’s far from perfect, but he has experience on both sides of the line.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Offensive tackle James Brown draws the biggest spotlight amongst the Bears undrafted free agents. Many experts saw the Troy product as highly draftable -– Mel Kiper had him ranked as the 54th best player in the entire draft. Obviously, NFL teams were less impressed. The negative side of Brown’s scouting report says that he lacks the quickness to pass block at the pro level, but anyone who has watched J’Marcus Webb knows the Bears might actually somehow consider this to be a positive. The rest of the Bears undrafted rookie class includes three small-school wide receivers: Terriun Crump of Western Illinois, Chris Summers of Liberty, and Britton Golden of West Texas A&M. It will be difficult for any of them to make the final roster considering two of Chicago’s free agent pickups at wideout, Eric Weems and Devin Thomas, are already experienced special teamers.
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Cornerback
Cornerback is a gaping hole. Veteran Eric Wright left in free agency, thinning a cornerback position that was not deep to begin with. If the season started today, untested third-round rookie Dwight Bentley would likely start opposite the decent-but-inconsistent Chris Houston. The nickelback duties – which, in today’s NFL, are practically starter’s duties – would fall to Aaron Berry, who is fluid but struggles with man coverage. Berry got a few reps as a starter late last season, but that was only because Houston was either hurt or struggling. Former Colts corner Jacob Lacey was brought in over the offseason, and has experience in a similar defense, but he ranked 81st in success rate against the pass last year and 88th in 2010.
The good news, though, is that cornerback is the one position the Lions can best hide, and they know it. GM Martin Mayhew has adopted Bill Polian’s old strategy from Indy: invest heavily in your offense, building around your star quarterback. Then, defensively, play a simple zone-based scheme that features a great front four. This approach makes it easier to find passable defensive backs, because, in truth, just about every NFL corner can handle simple Cover-2 and Cover-3 zone concepts.
A basic zone defense works if you have a viable pass rush. Thus, the Lions ameliorated their cornerback weakness when they slapped the franchise tag on vastly underrated defensive end Cliff Avril. His return keeps Detroit’s four-man defensive end rotation (made up of Avril, the relentless Kyle Vanden Bosch, and contributors Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young) intact. Sandwiched between the ends is a rotation of Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill, which is as good a defensive tackle quartet as you’ll find. Thus, the hope is that a bad secondary can at least become average by playing with a lead and a pass rush. To be clear, the cornerback issues will still pose problems for Detroit. You can have a good pass rush and play vanilla schemes and hope to have a lead, but there will always be instances where you’re going to have to line up and win battles in man coverage. If the cornerback problems become too severe, the Lions could find relief with a veteran like Drayton Florence (recently cut by Buffalo due to a high salary), Dante Hughes (a better blitzer than cover guy, but still) or a Cover-2 retread like Lito Sheppard or Benny Sapp.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore was considered the story of the third day of the NFL Draft. Everyone was up in arms about the fifty-win collegiate star going unselected, and now everyone is touting Moore’s football IQ and praising the Lions for finding a potential long-term backup for Matthew Stafford. That’s undoubtedly the plan, but to throw a little cold water on the hype, let’s all remember that if the Lions were really that gung-ho about the scrawny-but-accurate Moore, they would have found a way to draft him in the seventh round. The rest of this undrafted group includes three linemen, which is notable given that Detroit’s offensive line depth is nothing special. Guard Rodney Austin of Elon went undrafted mainly because he missed most of his senior season with a broken foot. Guard Pat Boyle of Temple has drawn accolades for his intelligence. Penn State’s Quinn Barham may be the best off of the three linemen, and he has experience at all three positions.
[ad placeholder 3]
Green Bay Packers
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Backup quarterback
The Pack are six-deep at wide receiver, four-deep at tight end and -– assuming James Starks’ backup, Brandon Saine, can build on the flickers of potential he showed last year –- adequate at running back. Yes, the offensive line might be a little shaky. Jeff Saturday is a wily veteran, but he’s also a clear downgrade from Scott Wells (who himself was a wily veteran). And whoever is at left tackle, whether it’s Marshall Newhouse or 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod (doubtful as he’s coming off a gruesome late-season leg injury), will need help. But when you have a quarterback as mentally sharp and fundamentally sound as Aaron Rodgers, an iffy left tackle is rarely a major problem. We’ve seen this with other teams, too. Look at the Saints, who have thrived despite the enormously flawed Jermon Bushrod. The Colts, the Giants, and the Steelers won championships with Charlie Johnson, David Diehl, and Jonathan Scott respectively.
Defensively, Green Bay addressed its need for another pass rusher by selecting Nick Perry in the first round. They also got an early jump on their long-term rebuilding project at cornerback by taking Casey Howard in the second round. Maybe Howard can’t be Charles Woodson, but we won’t have to find out in 2012, because Woodson is still around, strong as ever. It’s almost unfair that Ted Thompson was also able to address the thinning depth at defensive end by signing Anthony Hargrove (suspended eight games, however) and drafting the highly-touted Jerel Worthy in the second round.
However, there is that one little empty spot at backup quarterback. Matt Flynn was so good the last two years that there was never any chance the Pack would be able to hold onto him. If any injury causes Rodgers to miss action, the Packers are looking at trotting out either super raw seventh-round rookie B.J. Coleman or undrafted and utterly untested third-year man Graham Harrell.
Suddenly, Donovan McNabb doesn’t look so vapid; Max Hall doesn’t look so inaccurate; and Luke McCown doesn’t look so erratic. None of those unsigned veterans would be as comforting as A.J. Feeley, though. The 35-year-old doesn’t have a great arm, but he’s very smart and could at least allow Mike McCarthy to consider every page of his playbook if disaster were to strike.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
Pay special close attention to this paragraph, as Green Bay over the years has shown a willingness – if not an outright desire – to put undrafted guys on the final roster. There are 14 members of this year’s undrafted rookie class, and the most recognizable is former USC running back Marc Tyler. The Packers may have solved the mystery on how to avoid disappointing results from rookie Trojan running backs: bring them in as free agents, not mid-round picks. Tyler will compete with fellow undrafted running backs Duane Bennett (Minnesota) and Nicholas Cooper (Winston Salem). The other notable undrafted Packer is Dale Moss, a basketball-player-turned-wide-receiver from South Dakota State who boasts a 41.5-inch vertical leap.
Biggest Post-Draft Need: Middle linebacker
We could characterize just about any position in Minnesota’s secondary as a "hole," but holes next to holes do not equal multiple holes –- they equal one giant space. That’s what the Vikings defensive backfield could resemble in 2012, especially if rookie safeties Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton can’t be effective starters right away. There’s no sense in analyzing how to "plug" a giant space. Besides, for a defense that runs Tampa 2-based concepts as much as the Vikings, the middle (Mike) linebacker can be every bit as important to pass defense as safeties and corners are. The Mike is responsible for essentially the entire middle of the field. He must be astute and athletic enough to identify and respond to interior passing concepts.
[ad placeholder 4]
Presumably in part because he lost a step in coverage, the Vikings opted not to re-sign the soon-to-be-32-year-old E.J. Henderson this past offseason. Fourth-year pro Jasper Brinkley is slated to start in Henderson’s place. You may remember Brinkley as the rookie who was thrust into the starting lineup late in 2009 after Henderson went down with a horrific broken leg. Despite a tendency to play too laterally, Brinkley performed decently in a tough spot that year. He doesn’t have Henderson’s downhill instincts, though, and in 2010 he returned to a backup role. He spent 2011 on injured reserve with a surgically-repaired hip.
There’s no evidence suggesting that Brinkley can handle the full slate of middle linebacker duties. This isn’t to say he can’t -– there’s just no evidence thus far that says he can. The Vikings brought in journeyman Marvin Mitchell to compete at that spot, but he struggled to take proper angles against the run as a fill-in starter for the Dolphins last year.
It’s possible Brinkley and Mitchell will both get backup-level snaps, as in today’s pass-happy NFL, defenses spend a majority of time with three corners and just two linebackers on the field. In that case, the Vikings could be counting on Erin Henderson to fill his older brother’s shoes as the nickel linebacker alongside Chad Greenway. Erin has decent quickness, but if he were anything special, the Vikings would not have taken him off the field on passing downs last season. And they certainly would not have waited several weeks to re-sign him to a measly one-year contract this past offseason.
The market for inside linebackers is sparse now, though former Colt Gary Brackett -– who is intimately familiar with a Cover-2 –- is available. Durability is a concern with Brackett though, and if the Vikings were willing to take a risk there, they might as well just bring back E.J. Henderson (which actually may not be an awful idea). Another option could be Rocky McIntosh, who was brought in for a tryout in May.
Important Undrafted Free Agents
The expansion of training camp rosters to 90 players allowed the Vikings to sign 15 undrafted free agents. Six of those free agents are defensive linemen, including Boise State’s Chase Baker, Penn State’s Eric Latimore, and Cal’s Ernest Owusu. UCLA running back Derrick Coleman Jr. is quite an impressive individual. He thrived on and off the field despite being deaf. Minnesota’s most intriguing undrafted rookie is Iowa linebacker Tyler Nielsen. Before the draft, he was pegged by Mike Mayock as a "sleeper" who has the potential to start down the road on the strong side. Nielsen has a great chance to make the team given that the Vikings’ only drafted backup linebackers are seventh-round rookie Audie Cole and 2007 seventh-round pick Marvin Mitchell, a recent free agent pick up.
(Note: Portions of this article appeared previously on ESPN Insider.)