Four Downs: NFC North
by Rivers McCown
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.
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.
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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.
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.)