Four Downs: NFC North

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

by Rivers McCown

Chicago Bears

Biggest hole: Wide receiver and tight end

Remember when the Bears traded for Brandon Marshall? That was a fairly adept move by new Bears GM Phil Emery, because if Marshall hadn’t been around last season, Jay Cutler might not have completed a pass. Marshall absorbed 192 targets, third-most in the league behind Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne, and he had to do this because the Bears had no other receivers who could beat man coverage. While part of that falls on the diminishing returns of year five of the Devin Hester Experiment™, as well as the general lack of receiving depth Chicago had while waiting for Alshon Jeffery to develop, another big factor was the trade of Greg Olsen to the Panthers back in 2011 by predecessor Jerry Angelo. Without a reliable tight end to serve as an underneath threat, Cutler was forced to spend a lot more of last season scrambling while waiting for his targets to get open.

Kellen Davis had a truly magical season, dropping seven passes on just 44 targets, and finishing with a -26.6% DVOA rating that placed him 46th out of 49 qualifying tight ends. Secondary tight end Matt Spaeth, primarily a blocker, caught the ball about as well as you’d expect a blocking tight end to, accumulating a -34.6% DVOA on the 10 passes thrown his way. The Bears often had no choice but to use both of their tight ends as blockers rather than waste their time trying to throw to them.

The Bears will have a decent amount of cap space, but assuming they wouldn’t chase an upper-echelon free-agent receiver like Dwayne Bowe or Mike Wallace, they don’t figure to have a lot of enticing options to fill this hole on the market. With tight ends like Jared Cook and Dustin Keller possibly drawing franchise tags, the Bears could opt to try a relatively underused player like Texans fullback/tight end James Casey. Or they could simplify the whole process and draft Stanford’s Zach Ertz or Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert with the 20th overall pick.

Detroit Lions

Biggest hole: Secondary

While we’re pretty sure we could get away with just listing "defense as a whole" here, the Lions have been a destination for scrapheap cornerbacks and high-round picks long before the days of 0-16. Ever since Dre' Bly headed to Denver after the 2006 season, the Lions have had a hard time finding any consistent success in their secondary. Louis Delmas has been a very good box safety with nice instincts when he actually sets foot on the field, but he’s missed 14 starts over the past two seasons, and finds himself a free agent. High-round picks like Amari Spievey have been busts, once-promising finds like Aaron Berry have run afoul of the law, and a secondary depth chart littered with the likes of Don Carey, Jacob Lacey, and Drayton Florence is only a Marlin Jackson or Will Demps signing away from winning "Bad AFC South Defensive Backs" Bingo. (Originally we were going to use C.C. Brown for this joke, but the Lions already signed up for that once.)

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Lions are wrong to look through the scrapheap; it’s much safer to do that than to overpay cornerbacks who aren’t worth it, and sometimes you do find a fairly solid corner like Chris Houston or Leigh Bodden. The problem is operating with a philosophy that this is all you need to do in the secondary, period. The Lions need only look at how much different things seemed for the Patriots secondary this year after acquiring Aqib Talib to see the ripple effect an upper-echelon corner can have on a pass defense. With Houston, Lacey, and Delmas hitting free agency, they need both the scrapheap and the top-of-the-line options this offseason.

And there are plenty of good options out there in free agency. Talib wore out his welcome in Tampa Bay, but for the Lions he might not even be distraction 1A. Brent Grimes has had fairly good numbers in our charting project when healthy, and Miami’s Sean Smith could be a good fit as well. With their top-five pick, the Lions could buck consensus and look at Dee Milliner, who isn’t regarded as a lockdown corner but should be a stalwart pro.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest hole: Offensive line

The Packers aren't likely to have as many receiver injuries in 2013 as they had in 2012, so they now can move towards fixing the other reason their offense had some stagnant games last season: their offensive line. Think back to the replacement-ref debacle against Seattle in Week 3: the reason that game was close in the first place was due to the eight sacks Aaron Rodgers took. Yes, Rodgers is always going to find more than his share of sacks while trying to buy extra time, but last season the Packers fell to 31st in our Adjusted Sack Rate. That’s a bit too extreme.

Jeff Saturday’s timely retirement will help, as will Bryan Bulaga’s return from a hip fracture, but Green Bay will have to do more to surround stalwart guard Josh Sitton with talented players this offseason. Our game-charting project seems to indicate that most of the problems came from the left side of the line. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse was directly responsible for 17 blown blocks that led to hurries or sacks, and left guard T.J. Lang added another 11 of his own on the inside.

[ad placeholder 3]

Green Bay’s cap situation and organizational philosophy will likely keep them from pursuing an upper-echelon tackle on the free-agent market even after shedding Charles Woodson, but they could have plenty of acceptable options in the back of the first round. Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson and Oregon’s Kyle Long are a couple of players with multi-dimensional backgrounds that could be available that late. Providing Rodgers the extra second-and-a-half he needs to get back to dominating games would be the biggest improvement Green Bay can make this offseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest hole: Wide receiver

While Minnesota may have found something in 2011 fourth-round pick Jarius Wright late in the season, the rest of their depth chart provided little reason for optimism. Jerome Simpson continued to be an enigma, and Michael Jenkins’ biggest contribution to the Vikings’ success was motioning to the line to block on Adrian Peterson runs. That’s before we even get into the debacle happening with Percy Harvin over his contract and (apparently) his attitude problems.

While Harvin may want off the Vikings, Minnesota has virtually zero reason to trade him. He’s a special receiver in open space, and a lot of the early success the Vikings had keyed off Christian Ponder finding him on gadget plays in the backfield. Since any team trading for him would likely require an assurance that he’d sign an extension and not test free agency, Minnesota would likely be looking at a similar return to what the Dolphins got for Brandon Marshall, and two third-round picks just isn’t enough to justify that in a world where teams have a franchise tag to keep players from hitting the open market.

So, as annoying as it may be for either side to swallow their pride in this scenario, trading Harvin only gets the Vikings further away from their goals. With a fairly tight cap situation and the 23rd pick in the draft, Minnesota may be hoping hard that Cal’s Keenan Allen falls to them. Or they could try the same approach they did last season, trying to mix-and-match unheralded free-agent receivers. May we suggest Legedu Naanee in the Jenkins role and Brandon Gibson for actual passing plays?

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


24 comments, Last at 11 Mar 2013, 12:04am

#1 by Podge (not verified) // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:16am

I'm curious about what the opinion is on how good you need a CB to be for him to be worth a top five pick? I mean, I would think that if you can draft a guy who can walk in and instantly become your top player at his position, which is a premium position in the NFL, it seems like a no-brainer that you should draft him?

Points: 0

#4 by Pottsville Mar… // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:54am

I think there's some debate as to whether CB is indeed a premium position. Bill Parcells' "planet theory" - the idea that there are a limited number of people on the planet both big and athletic enough to play on the line or at LB - holds some weight. It's much easier to find mid- or late-round picks who become valuable members of the secondary than it is to find unheralded guys who become impact defensive linemen. For instance, look at both of this year's Super Bowl participants, and the relative draft status of the members of their front seven versus their corners.

Points: 0

#9 by Dean // Feb 26, 2013 - 1:43pm

Unless there are 5 comparable or better players at more important positions.

Points: 0

#13 by RickD // Feb 26, 2013 - 4:19pm

Patrick Peterson was taken 5th. I think he's worth it. I'm sure that many of the GMs who didn't take Revis would go back and take him in the top 5. Charles Woodson was #4 overall back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I think he's shown that was a good pick. Champ Bailey was taken 7th. He would have been worth a top 5 pick.

I think anybody taken in the top 5 should be somebody who will be expected to play at an all-Pro level. CBs usually prove themselves very quickly. It's not a position where fifth-year pros suddenly reveal themselves to be elite.

Points: 0

#2 by Steve in WI // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:23am

Wow. No mention of the Bears' desperate need to upgrade their offensive line? (Well, I guess the comment about how they were often forced to keep their tight ends in to block counts as a reference to the O-line).

I agree that they could be better at wide receiver, but no way is that their number one need. I'd put offensive line first, followed by tight end, and then *maybe* wide receiver. I certainly don't want to see them take a wide receiver any earlier than the 4th round, if that. Marshall's clearly great, Jeffery seems like a satisfactory #2 if he stays healthy and improves a little, and I still think Earl Bennett's decent enough. In terms of pass catchers overall, by all means they should look for an upgrade at tight end, but I don't think WR is important enough given their other needs. (Now, if they can sign a free agent without really impacting their ability to fix other positions, I'm in favor of that. I just don't want to see them draft one in the 1st or 3rd rounds).

Points: 0

#3 by iwatt // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:51am

Yup, the Bears have a decent WR corp with Marshall, Bennet and Jeffery. The latter suffered through injuries and rookie struggles.

Bears need OL help. Either a great OG like the Bama kid, or a good to decent tackle if any are left (I think there's going to be a run on OTs) by pick 20.

Points: 0

#12 by Dan // Feb 26, 2013 - 4:10pm

I'd rank their needs as 1) tackle, 2) guard, 3) tight end, 4) wide receiver.

Their leading options at RT right now are Jonathan Scott and the guy who they benched for Jonathan Scott. Ideally they'll add a good LT, move Webb back to RT, play Carimi at RG, and add someone new to play LG (and/or to take over for Garza at C in a year). If they had to field an OL with the guys they have under contract now, I guess it would be Edwin Williams at LG and James Brown backing up almost every spot on the line.

Points: 0

#14 by Podge (not verified) // Feb 27, 2013 - 7:01am

I dunno how much cap space the Bears have, but with the tackles available in free agency (both left and right) should give them the chance to upgrade both those spots and have Webb as a swing tackle (where he would be a decent enough backup). Even just signing a good LT (Long? Albert?) would upgrade the entire line.

If they did that, and managed to draft say Jonathan Cooper, they'd feel like a wildly upgraded team. Moreso than if they added Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe and then added Ertz or Eifert through the draft.

Points: 0

#15 by Jimmy // Feb 27, 2013 - 11:44am

I'd go LG, TE, RT.

The Bears LG and TE spots are as bad as any in football (if not the worst). They need an upgrade at both positions but given how bad they are that should be acheiveable - a guy in a coma would be better than the play the Bears got from LG because at least the defenders would have to run around the gurney.

Right tackle may need work too depending on how Carimi progresses (or not). It seemed to me that his knee still wasn't right last year, if it isn't going to improve then neither is his play. He played way too upright last year and tried to compensate by bending at the waist rather than the knees with pretty dire consequences. Scott wasn't awful when he played, at least he looked like an NFL lineman; yes it was the sort of lineman you would want to upgrade but not awful.

Points: 0

#5 by Marc (not verified) // Feb 26, 2013 - 11:56am

Seriously...not a word about the Bears' complete inability to run the bal inside or ptotect Cutler? Good Lord. That unit is TERRIBLE. I know...I root for those guys, and yeesh.

Points: 0

#23 by Rivers McCown // Mar 11, 2013 - 12:00am

Look, these aren't long pieces. I'm not going to spend a paragraph in a piece defending why I chose receiving help over the offensive line.

Yeah, the Bears offensive line is fairly bad. When I watched the Bears this season, I saw an offense that could still generate yardage despite that. I saw that Cutler was able to generate some time on his own, but wound up having to do more scrambling and take some throw-away shots because nobody was open. Yeah, they have had some horrendous games. The one that stood out to me last year was in SF, and I thought that had a lot to do with Campbell being under center.

I guess my main point is that while I acknowledge that OL is a problem, I think the perception of it being a problem has swollen to the point where it's just an automatic answer. Carimi could still become a useful piece, and I think Chicago effectively got the best out of the poor talent they utilized. I think it's possible that they could win with some bad offensive linemen; I don't think it's possible that they can win with just one talented receiving option.

Points: 0

#6 by battlered90 (not verified) // Feb 26, 2013 - 12:11pm

What is the opinion on James Casey at FO? I feel like he is criminally under-utilized in the Texans offense.

Points: 0

#7 by dcaslin // Feb 26, 2013 - 1:03pm

So I'm starting to notice a trend where most team reviews mention cap space issues, the releasing of a still-decent veteran due to cap and the fact that only second-tier or below replacements make cap sense. Unless the Bucs and Bengals absorb all these expensive vets and first-tier free agents, isn't the market just going to have to drive down their salaries and make them more affordable again?

Points: 0

#8 by justanothersteve // Feb 26, 2013 - 1:20pm

The Packers sacks tend to come in streaks because McCarthy and Rodgers forget you actually have to run the ball occasionally. In the Seattle game, Green Bay ran the ball all of three times in the first half. The Seahawks ignored even trying to stop the run (Cobb had a run out of the backfield for 20 yards) and got seven of those sacks in the first half.

Still, I agree they need more OL. Sherrod may never play again. EDS is a nice guy, but is probably no better than a career backup interior lineman who shouldn't be a starting center. And Bulaga's hip injury worries me. Given AR's value to the team, I wouldn't mind if the first two picks were OL.

The other Packers hole is the gaping one still left from the Nick Collins injury. Burnett is fine at one safety position, but I'm not real confident any of the trio of MD Jennings, McMillian, and Richardson. I would not be surprised if they went with a starting backfield of three corners of T Williams, Shields, and Hayward (with House as the nickel DB).

Points: 0

#10 by DisplacedPackerFan // Feb 26, 2013 - 2:54pm

I think you covered it well. I will point out the first half of the Seattle game was by far the worst game Bulaga has played in his career. His footwork was sloppy, his punch was non existent. For a guy who when he was healthy was actually one of the better RT in the league it was just dumbfounding how bad he played.

Of course some of the running game woes are also oline related. Newhouse can't run block, Lang should be able to, but generally sucks at it. So the left side of the line is just bad at it. As you said we have no idea if Sherrod can play.

They do have Andrew Datko stashed on the PS/PUP (I can't remember just how he was designated). They had no intentions of playing him this year, they wanted to give him full recovery time from the college injuries and get him learning time as well. His upside really is Mark Tauscher level though. But it's a big if. They gambled on upside with Allen Barbre and Breno Giacomini and didn't get anything out of them after 3 or 4 years of development and moderate play time.

I agree that safety is still an issue. We still don't know what Nick Perry might be as an OLB, he wasn't transitioning all that well from a hand in the dirt player before the injury, as they were giving snaps to Walden because he was playing better (and Walden is not good). They still need DL help. Pickett is aging and the ends haven't turned into anything close to what we want. Bishop coming back at ILB should help give the D a little more pop, but he's still just average at best, and we all know about Hawk (if he is back).

So I still put safety higher up the list than o-line, especially when the base D is a 2-4-5. McMillian has the most upside of the bunch but I'm still not that happy with him.

The best part is that while there are several holes, I'm not sure any of them are gaping, even with how bad the oline looked at times last year. I hope they get another safety, a center, a tackle, a middle line backer, a wide receiver (they play 4 and 5 wide somewhat frequently and really only have 3 assuming Jennings leaves), then just get whatever talent they can find. If that happens to be d-line OLB or running back, so much the better.

I still think they might be more active in free agency than in past years. Really since they got Woodson and Pickett in Ted's first year they didn't do much big name or even moderate name stuff, but the market is open enough and they are close enough that I could see that well being tapped a bit more. Or maybe I'm just dreaming, but there is trend data to support that Thompson's approach has been changing to target more specific needs as opposed to just building and maintaining a general talent base.

Points: 0

#11 by ebongreen // Feb 26, 2013 - 3:20pm

The best part is that while there are several holes, I'm not sure any of them are gaping, even with how bad the oline looked at times last year.

This is my take on the Packers too - nearly every position outside QB and maybe CB has depth issues, but none are in horrifically bad shape (see Chicago OL, Minn WR, Detroit DB). There's youngsters at every position who can push, especially considering how well-stocked the Packers IR was this year. Can you find better players than Newhouse, CJ Wilson, or AJ Hawk? Sure - but all of them have some level of competence and are not cover-your-eyes bad. There are teams in SO MUCH WORSE SHAPE than Green Bay; that's why they're drafting late instead of early.

Knowing Ted, he'll look for an offensive or defensive lineman in the first round, and save the WR/TE/HB and ILB/Safety depth for 2nd and later. If for some reason he feels he can't pass up Justin Hunter at 26, okay - but that would be a major break from habit.

Points: 0

#16 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 27, 2013 - 11:51am

"Ever since Dre' Bly headed to Denver after the 2006 season, the Lions have had a hard time finding any consistent success in their secondary...That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Lions are wrong to look through the scrapheap; it’s much safer to do that than to overpay cornerbacks who aren’t worth it, and sometimes you do find a fairly solid corner like Chris Houston or Leigh Bodden. The problem is operating with a philosophy that this is all you need to do in the secondary, period. The Lions need only look at how much different things seemed for the Patriots secondary this year after acquiring Aqib Talib to see the ripple effect an upper-echelon corner can have on a pass defense."

Two problems with this logic:

1. What on Earth makes you think Dre' Bly provided consistent success? He was merely a slower Deangelo Hall, or at best, a homeless man's Asante Samuel. I've followed the Lions since 1987. In that entire period, 1991 was the only time they had a cromulent secondary.

2. Aqib Talib *is* a scraphead cornerback. The Pats emulated the Lions tactic there.

Points: 0

#17 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Feb 27, 2013 - 4:49pm

"In that entire period, 1991 was the only time they had a cromulent secondary."

The secondary in '99-'00 was fairly good (before Bryant Westbrook got injured again), as they kept the team competitive despite the offense being led by the likes of Charlie Batch, Gus Frerrotte, and Stoney Case. I would kill for a secondary like that these days.

"Aqib Talib *is* a scraphead cornerback. The Pats emulated the Lions tactic there."

Talib is more talented than your average scrap heap DB, but he has the same character issues that bit the Lions in the ass in 2012.

Points: 0

#22 by LionInAZ // Mar 09, 2013 - 5:19pm

Yeah, Talib was above average, but there would have been a big uproar if the Lions had signed yet another questionable character.

The question for me is how the Lions went from 4th in DVOA in pass defense in 2011 to the mid-20s in 2012. The only major DB losses were Eric Wright and Aaron Berry. Were they a lot better than we thought or was a less effective pass rush the issue? I just can't say for sure -- the team has had too much turnover in the secondary the past three years.

I can get behind the idea that the secondary needs to improve, but at the least it needs to stabilize. They drafted 3 CBs last year, and I'd be fine with giving them another year of testing (despite Bentley's 4 DPIs in 6 games), but the Lions need to look seriously at safeties. Delmas has missed too many games and Spievey never saw a play fake he didn't like to bite. I wouldn't cry if they spent their 5 pick on Kenny Vaccaro. Wouldn't bother me if they used it on say, Eric Fisher to bookend Riley Reiff, or a DE.

Points: 0

#24 by Rivers McCown // Mar 11, 2013 - 12:04am

Fair point on 2, but as the commenter above noted, not in terms of pure talent.

I'm not saying that Dre' Bly was a world beater or anything, but he was consistently a solid cornerback. That's a lot more than you can say for Jacob Lacey.

Points: 0

#18 by justanothersteve // Feb 28, 2013 - 7:30am

And just when you didn't think the Bears OL problems couldn't get worse, left turnstile J'Marcus Webb just got busted for marijuana. I admit I don't think having less than 2.5 grams is a big deal (about two joints worth). But it will still put him on Goodell's radar to enforce the NFL drug policy. (I know first offense for steroids is four games, but I don't know if a marijuana bust gets the same suspension.)

Points: 0

#19 by Dean // Feb 28, 2013 - 7:59am

Regardless of whether you or I personally believe it should be a criminal offense (I don't believe it should be either), it is. And if Webb works for an employer who tests (he does, when the NFLPA isn't dragging their feet), and works in an industry where he stands to lose his livelyhood if he tests positive (he does), and he chooses to smoke anyway, then Webb is a complete and utter moron.

If you have that much to lose, and you decide that a bag of weed is more important to you than your career, that reveals something about your character which you should probably keep concealed.

Points: 0

#21 by Steve in WI // Feb 28, 2013 - 10:53am

Reportedly, the charges were already dropped (which seems weird), so while it's never possible to predict the punishment Goodell might hand out, it would seem less likely in this case.

Bottom line, I don't believe the Bears would be hurt at all to lose Webb, and if this tilts the scales toward getting rid of him, great. I think he's a complete and total bust physically and mentally, and the sooner they move on the better.

Points: 0

#20 by DisplacedPackerFan // Feb 28, 2013 - 10:05am

Well this news puts another mildly interesting thought on the Packers offseason decisions.

Jolly was a solid player and could fit a 3-4 (or a 4-3 that I still wonder if they may switch to, Caper is only under contract till the start of the 2013 league year and I've heard no news about him signing a new one), of course assuming they trust his character, and he can actually play after 3 years. He is a Ted pick. I still think the DL is weak (though not as weak as the linebackers) and if he could play at the 08-09 level he'd be a rotational guy at worst.

It was just a bit of an interesting tidbit I ran across this morning.

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support rivers
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and rivers mccown. Use promo code RIVERS to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip rivers.