Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North
Four Downs: NFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Tanier

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defensive Line

With Cullen Jenkins expected to leave as a free agent and Johnny Jolly in legal trouble, the Packers hoped to replenish their defensive line in the draft. Unfortunately, the players they wanted most were selected before the Packers could pick them. Instead of settling for consolation prizes on the defensive line, the Packers opted to draft the best available players. "We didn't get caught up in our depth chart and feel like we needed another defensive lineman or a linebacker," head coach Mike McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We really stayed true to the board."

The Packers depth chart now includes B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and many question marks. There's Howard Green, a 365-pounder best known for pressuring Ben Roethlisberger into a pick-six in the Super Bowl; Mike Neal, last year's second-round pick who missed most of the season with a shoulder injury; and C.J. Wilson, a 2010 seventh-round pick whose playing time increased at the end of last season. The lone new guy is Lawrence Guy, a seventh-round pick from Arizona State. Guy was a three-year starter for the Sun Devils and appears to be a solid system fit -- he's a gap plugger, not a pass rusher -- but the Packers have more needs than one seventh-round pick can fill.

Raji and Pickett are the only linemen on the roster who made more than 15 solo tackles last season. Green, Veal, Wilson, and others may step up -- or the Packers may use even more of their 2-4-5 personnel package next season.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Both Trenches

The Vikings had no choice but to select a quarterback with the 12th pick. After that, the team had so many holes that they couldn't go wrong: They needed an upgrade at every position but running back. Still, it was surprising to see the Vikings wait until the fourth round to address their defensive line and the sixth round to improve their offensive line.

The mighty "Williams Wall" has been crumbling for years. Pat Williams and Ray Edwards are not expected this season, and Kevin Williams may be suspended in the StarCaps case (which has now been going on for 67 years). Christian Ballard of Iowa is a high-effort player and was a good fourth-round value, but he will not replace Edwards' eight sacks, nor will he command double teams like Pat or Kevin Williams.

On the offensive line, Phil Loadholt drew 15 penalties. While he committed just three Blown Blocks, our charters noted numerous instances of Loadholt's defender chasing Brett Favre or Joe Webb out of the pocket. Bryant McKinnie only grades out slightly better, and unlike Loadholt, the soon-to-be-31-year-old McKinnie isn't getting any better. Steve Hutchinson, meanwhile, is 33 years old and missed five games last year. Late-round picks DeMarcus Love and Brandon Fusco are developmental projects, not players who can challenge the tackles or step in immediately if Hutchinson declines.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback

With Nick Fairley joining Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the defensive line, the Lions hope that opposing quarterbacks will be knocked on their butts before they get a chance to throw. That's certainly going to happen once in a while. But when quarterbacks do have time to set and throw, the Lions will be in trouble, because the team did nothing to upgrade its secondary.

Chris Houston, the Lions' top cornerback last season, ranked just 42nd in the league in Success Rate. Houston intercepted just one pass. Alphonso Smith recorded five interceptions but ranked 63rd in Success Rate; opponents learned that he liked to bite on double-moves, and the rest was deep-fried history. Both Houston and Smith are coming off shoulder surgeries, and top backup Nathan Vasher (who replaced the injured Smith late in the year) will turn 30 during the season.

The Lions did bolster their safety corps by signing free agent Erik Coleman during the brief window between the end of the regular season and the lockout. Coleman and Louis Delmas give Jim Schwartz a versatile pair of safeties. But the Lions did not draft any cornerbacks or safeties at all. They are counting on either a bounce-back from Smith or a chance to enter the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes if free agency ever happens. Or, just a lot of Suh-Fairley sandwiches, with crunchy Cutler filling.

Chicago Bears

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Interior Offensive Line

Gabe Carimi filled a big need for the Bears. But can he snap?

Carimi should beat beat out journeyman Frank Omiyale at left tackle, but the Bears needed offensive line help inside and out. The Bears have gotten very old on the interior line. Olin Kreutz and Roberto Garza are fading quickly, and there is no one waiting in the wings to replace them.

The Bears committed 27 Blown Blocks that led to sacks or penalties, the third highest total in the league, but Blown Blocks only tell part of the story. The Bears ranked 30th in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on runs up the middle last season, where Kreutz and Garza do most of their dirty work. The FO game charters noted many instances of missed blocks by Garza that led to stuffed running plays, and even Kreutz whiffed on his fair share of blocks against quicker defenders.

Kreutz, who will soon turn 34, is a free agent but will almost certainly re-sign with the Bears. Third-year all-purpose lineman Edwin Williams is currently his backup. Omiyale could move from left to right tackle, allowing J'Marcus Webb (7.5 Blown Blocks last year) to move inside to challenge Garza. Early season starter Lance Louis (benched after Week 4) and 360-pound project Herman Johnson are also in the mix. It's a jumbled situation, populated by lots of stopgaps and few solutions. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley will be looking for weaknesses in this line come Week 5, so the Bears must sort things out quickly.

A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.


36 comments, Last at 23 May 2011, 9:12pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Loadhold? that shoudl be guy's new name. Crap lineman on crap tema.

Loisn, on upswing,

Bears? okay.

Packers? Greta. Well maybe not great only 10-6 last year butb then go on run to sb and win ti. Good team, chance to get better.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Jeez, I know CJ Wilson bulked up to transition from the pen to starter for the rangers, but playing DL for the Pakcers? Craziness...

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Or, just a lot of Suh-Fairley sandwiches, with crunchy Cutler filling.

Shouldn't that be a Cutler sandwich served on Suh-Fairley?

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I have a question about the charting numbers for sacks. When it says J'Marcus Webb had 7.5 blown blocks, does that include plays where he was clearly supposed to try to block a blitzing defensive back and blocked down instead? Or does it only include plays where he tried to block defender and failed?

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The latter. You can't always tell what a player's assigment was -- on the play you've described, maybe the back was supposed to pick up the blitzer, or the receiver was supposed to adjust his route, or the quarterback was supposed to hit his hot read -- so rather than try to guess or read minds, charters are instructed to mark a blown block only if the offensive lineman tried to block someone and failed.

32 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

That particular play had an empty back-field, but this being the Martz Bears offense that doesn't completely rule out that the back was supposed to block somehow...

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

dont know whwre elese to ask this ut is that photo real? one with guy with huge arms and shoudlers but 10 inch waidt and two bubbles in groin and two big growths on side of legs. guya has ro do a lot of steroids

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm guessing it's about 1 part steroids and about ten parts photoshop. Even if the return of Catholic Match Girl would be too much to ask for, I'd still gladly settle for the return of last seasons porn chicks.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Neither of the dudes from these ads is even remotely real. I'm involved semi-seriously in the world of bodybuilding, and if such people existed, I would most certainly know about them.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Bowers was available for the Packers, I wouldn't exactly call him a consolation prize but I guess the risk of injury was too much.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

After the Justin Harrell experience, I don't think TT was ready to use another first round pick for an injury-prone DL. Once bitten, twice shy. I do think he may have taken Cameron Heyward had not the Steelers taken him one pick earlier. Though he may have taken Sherrod regardless.

35 Four Downs: NFC North

Had Bowers been available at end of third round then Packers may have picked him
but needed to fill two 2012 holes so can resign big name free agents and let two
veterans retire with ready replacements.

36 Four Downs: NFC North

Had Bowers been available at end of third round then Packers may have picked him
but needed to fill two 2012 holes so can resign big name free agents and let two
veterans retire with ready replacements.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

67 years. Seriously, what is the situation.
And about the CBA... what about it. I'm more interested in that.
When can we wrap it in bacon strips and bacon strips.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

My humble apologies.
Mike Tanier is my all time favourite writer with Aaron Schatz.
Wait. That did not need a apology.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The article mentions CJ Wilson and BJ Raji of the Packers, but not AJ Hawk or fifth-round pick DJ Williams. Ted Thompson is rumored to have an eye on Minnesota linebacker EJ Henderson. Thank goodness there's still two-thirds of the alphabet left before the re-signing of TJ Rubley.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

as a winnipeg blue bomber fan, the mere mention of tj rubley's sucktastic play just about has me in the fetal position under my desk.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

From what I've read from the Bears official site, it sounds like they're planning on moving Webb to LT and playing Carimi at RT. Which is perplexing at best. I actually trust Mike Tice to a degree to build this line, but I still have doubts about Webb being a useful starter.

I'm was depressed about the line going into last year, I'm worried this year. They do have some players who could improve the line, but I'm not very hopeful.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Tice clearly likes what he sees in Webb but maybe that is just because he likes linemen that are even bigger than him. The guy does have proto-typical physical skills for the position but it isn't just polish that he needs it is learining quite a lot about the position. I would have thought it would be better to leave him at RT and let him get comfortable. I remember reading a Ross Tucker article in which he ranked the most difficult spots to play on the offensive line and he conceded that LT was the most difficult but only because of the physical demands of playing against elite pass rushers. In terms of variability of blocking assignments and having to coordinate with other teammates LT was the easiest place to play. So I can understand why Tice would try that; Carimi is probably better refined as a tackle than Webb right now so play him on the right side where he has to work with TEs and so forth.

Whoever plays wherever aside, I think the Bears could be OK if they add a quality starter at RG as it seems that they want to draft Kreutz's replacement and that will have to wait a year.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'd say the biggest need for the Packers is OLB. A front line starter should be a larger need than lack of depth. Raji, Pickett, Green, and Neal form a more than adequate rotation for a 3-man DL. Toss in Wilson and Guy for depth and I don't see any problems unless there is another rash of injuries like the middle of last season. Other than Matthews, the Packers have a collection of average (at best) OLBs. Lots of depth. Nobody better than replacement level. Still, as befitting a SB champ, the Packers really don't have many holes to fill.

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Not sure I can completely agree about OLB. I wouldn't have been surprised at GB going after a stud ROLB, as that is probably their weakest starter position, but I think last year proved how important depth is.

Plus, I think there's a decent chance one of the young guys could develop into a pretty good player. Zombo has only played one season and was learning a new position after playing DE in college. Jones has only played about one full season after dealing with injuries. Both of these guys could improve significantly. I could see Barnett transitioning to ROLB if GB doesn't cut him. He always seemed better suited to playing on the outside than inside to me anyways, though I'm not sure he brings enough as a pass rusher.

Agreed that GB is fairly set at D-line. They'll only keep 6 players, so after Wilson they wouldn't only need maybe one more player for the last spot on the depth chart. Additionally, after so many teams took DEs in the draft, and the lockout preventing free agents from being able to participate in mini-camps and possibly training camp with new teams, the odds of Jenkins returning to GB have increased a bit. If Jenkins is resigned GB's D-line looks very formidable.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Not to mention the Packers actually got 8 (maybe 9) sacks from that position. Chillars's sack came when playing outside and I think Popinga's did as well. Interestingly, Brad Jones got 0 of those sacks in his 5 games. Though all 3 of Walden's did come in just one game (the last regular season game). It got 2 sacks in the postseason vs the 3.5 for Matthews too. So again same level of production.

I think Capers/Greene really like Zombo though. He was in the rotation or the starter all year except for the last 3 games when he was injured.

I'll say this. If Green Bay needs another outside linebacker, so does Dallas, as they got basically the same level of production opposite Ware (7 sacks from their OLB's not named Ware).

It's not a strength, don't get me wrong, but it's not completely anemic. They've got another late round pick up who could end up being a small upgrade over Zombo. I think Zombo could be a 7-8 sack guy over a full season as a starter, though I don't think he would be a 3 down player, he'd be in rotation still with Jones/Walden/Elmore/Poppinga whichever 2 or 3 make the team and those guys might get 3-4 sacks on the year (some of those would be while spelling Matthews as well who I figure is only going to play 80% of the snaps or so as well, Capers likes to rotate players when folks are healthy to keep people fresh). So that could be 10-15 sacks on Matthews side and 8-11 on the other side. That is just fine by me. 1 - 1.5 sacks a game from the OLB spots seems good enough. Pittsburg got 1.28 last year. Green Bay got 1.34 and like I said I think they will improve that a little bit (Dallas was at 1.41 since I brought them up earlier too).

I've said it before. I think the draft addressed the needs pretty well.

Sherrod probably won't be a starter at the beginning of the season but he'll get playing time, and the 6th round pick Schlauderaff will have a legit chance to win the starting LG spot because I think College ends up in Seattle or Chicago via free agency. But they addressed the need to not have to rely on Clifton and Tauscher anymore.

Randall Cobb should make an immediate impact on the teams 2nd biggest weakness last year (the biggest was running back depth), and that was the return game. Yeah the Packers special teams in general were ranked (by FO metrics) 14-28th in the league, but the return games were the worst. Well the kick off coverage may have been worse, but the rule change helps boost that, and that unit was a revolving door because of the injuries. He might be able to step up if Jones leaves in free agency and I feel he'll be better than Swain in the 5 wide sets regardless. He provides a potential replacement for Driver in the long run as well. Oh and as mentioned, a huge special teams upgrade potential.

Alexander Green adds some depth to the running back position and honestly I think he has the chance to be another Ahman Green. Grant is in the last year of his contract, if Green or Starks show flashes, Grant will be gone and one of those two will be given the chance to start in 2012. Green, if he can handle blitz pick-up could take over as the 3rd down back this year as Jackson could be a free agent depending on the rules and they may not be able to keep him. But you give Green a year to mostly develop (like Ahman had in Seattle) and I think he could be special. He oddly enough not only shares the same last name and first initial, they have similar builds (6 foot 220 range). They were both taken in the 3rd round. Ahman Green was clocked faster in the 40, but Alex was still a 4.45 at the combine for a solid speed score. He also has special teams experience.

Davon House has a great chance to come in as the dime back and I think has the potential to be a solid starter in 3 or 4 years, which is fine because they can wait that long. Pat Lee may have also finally bloomed, though I think everyone was hoping he would only take a year or two, not the 4 he did need (though he was injured for 2 of those so maybe that makes some sense). So I think the backfield got the help it need. Oh and he can play special teams too.

DJ Williams will mean that when Kuhn and Hall leave in free agency we won't worry because while he will line up at tight end at times, he will also fill the roll the a full back. Quinn Johnson will stick around as the only player listed as a full back, but the Packers will still have the heavy backfield option it will just be Williams and not Crabtree as the tight end back there. Crabtree can be on the line with Finley but you'll have much better blocking and with Williams a lot more danger of the formation shifting and still having scary receivers. Oh and he can play special teams too. :)

The rest of the draft I've basically covered. Taylor I'm not sure about, but he was also a good special teams player in college. I do think Guy has great potential. A 305 pound man that can run a 4.94 in the 40, and had the 2nd best 20 yard shuttle of of all the DTs at 4.43 and a 29 inch vertical. He has athletic talent and since he came out as a junior, can develop. But I think he will make an impact right away in the rotation and might even get featured in some sub packages late year. I'm really high on the guy as a 7th round pick.

So yeah, they addressed special teams, though they still have Slocum to coach them poorly and waste some the talent, they addressed running back, and they addressed succession plan at tackle, added another hopeful for a Woodson replacement, and decided to rest on what they had at OLB.

I'm excited. The potential in the new offensive weapons I'm really hoping will solve the highly inconsistent offense from last year. I think the special teams will be better (Masthay over the last 9 games was I think the 5th best punter in the league believe it or not), even if kick off coverage could still be bad, but rule changes should help that some. Even if you don't count on anyone coming off IR as anything but depth on either side of the ball, and you assume injuries regress towards the mean I think the defense will still be a top 5 unit and I think the offense will be a top 5 unit with special teams hopefully averaging out in the 10-14 range (yes they were 26th last year but 18th in weighted they were getting better). That to me sounds like a good chance to make the playoffs.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Houston and Coleman? The Detroit DL better rock, cause reassembling the 2009 Falcon's secondary isn't the answer.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

If the spelling 'Veal' (instead of Neal) in hr second to last line of the Packers summary is intentional, it's an good joke. If that isn't intentional it's a typo that should be fixed.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

In reply to by Ed Schoenfeld (not verified)

Well, this was before he saw you pounding that sweet piece of Veal! -Mrs. Featherbottom

The D-line depth of the packers is a little more impressive than it's given credit here. Howard green is certainly known for more than just a big hit in the superbowl. Together with Pickett, he is the best Run stopper on the team. Mike Neal was tearing up training camp and weeks 1-2 before injury, and CJ wilson has progressed nicely. Pickett can play any position on the D-line. That's five solid starters including one genuine star in Raji. Then intention for Thompson had to be to let his 2nd round pick Neal take over for Cullen Jenkins this year.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

regarding the Vikings...I think letting Edwards walk would be a mistake.

People forget how young Edwards is (26 next year). Here's a list of the top ten sackers of all time plus Ray Edwards and the sacks they accumulated by 25 years of age.

Smith,B 44.5
Dent,R 37.5
White, R 31
Edwards 29.5
Oneil, L 29
Taylor, L 28
Randle 22
Strahan 18
Taylor, J 16.5
Greene, K 13.5
Doleman 3.5

They signed Robison to a 4 years 14M contract and he is two years older than Edwards.

Maybe Edwards is a class A jerk or something. But from what I see stat wise he's got good reason to expect a big pay day.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Just a minor quibble that makes no difference to your point: Reggie White's total only includes 2 years in the NFL because he had previously played in the USFL, where he had 23.5 sacks in two years.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Thanks, I didn't know that. When I was putting the list together I wondered why he seemed to come into the league so late. I forgot about the USFL.

They don't seem to talk about age in projecting players in the NFL as they do in baseball. I guess the careers are so much shorter people are just looking for the few peaks years from say 24-29.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm not sure this list is all that useful. Mainly because some of these players didn't get on the field in their first year or two. Sacks per game played would be more enlightening.

Still, 30 sacks over 4 years is nothing to sneeze at.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Those numbers are misleading because Edwards started unusually young. On this list he's a compiler, accumulating those sacks over 5 years while never topping 8.5 in a season (he went: 3.0, 5.0, 5.0, 8.5, 8.0). Look at the 3 players closest to Edwards on the list. Reggie White got his 31 sacks in only 2 seasons, joining the NFL at age 24. Leslie O'Neal played only 2.5 seasons, missing a year and a half due to a knee injury after getting 12.5 sacks as a rookie (and then getting another 12.5 sack season in at age 25 after he recovered). LT didn't miss a game during his first 4 years, but he also only had 2.5 seasons worth of games to get his 28 sacks - his rookie season (1981) came before sacks were recorded and then half of 1982 was lost to the strike.

If you look at the players who had the most total sacks during their age 23-25 seasons, Ray Edwards comes in 69th at 21.5 sacks, tied with Eric Hicks, Joe Johnson, Tony Tolbert, and Bryant Young.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I wouldn't necessarily expect to see Carimi at LT this fall (or winter, or whenever). He seems like more of a natural at RT, which probably puts Webb at LT and Omiyale at RG. Maybe the other way around, but the Omiyale at tackle project wasn't working out very well. Not that Webb was all that great either, but I think his ceiling is higher, maybe just because he is younger.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

While I agree that the Lions' secondary is a significant concern, it's actually the LB corps that was in far worse shape, thanks to Bad Millen and injuries. The Lions were dismal against the run up the middle and against TEs and RBs out of the backfield. If they can somehow shore up those aspects it will be harder to nullify the pass rush by the D-line. Unfortunately, the Lions did not do much to obviously upgrade the LBs either, except for drafting Hogue. Obviously they weren't going to do it in the 1st round, but they gave up 3rd and 4th round possibilities to get Leshoure (not that I'm complaining too much). I think the Lions were hoping to get some help through FA and trades but the blasted lockout is taking a serious bite out of that. I'm not sure how easy it is either because Schwartz and Cunningham like LBs that are flexible enough to play either Will or Sam.