Four Downs: NFC North
by Sterling Xie
In a series of articles over the next few days, Football Outsiders will be looking division-by-division at the biggest weakness left on each team's roster after free agency and the 2015 NFL draft.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Secondary
You can really pick your poison with either cornerback or safety here, and unfortunately the Bears will have to. They have little in the way of surefire foundational pieces at defensive back. In fairness, switching to Vic Fangio's multiple 3-4 scheme requires a multi-year commitment to overhauling the old personnel. Most of the carryovers from last season are misfit toys now (looking at you, Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston), and given the equally pressing turmoil in the offensive passing game, there simply weren't enough resources to fix everything in a single offseason. Chicago chose to address the front seven this year, drafting Eddie Goldman in the second round and pouring their free-agent dollars into Pernell McPhee, Mason Foster, Ray McDonald, and Jarvis Jenkins.
Of course, that means the Bears will bring back virtually the same secondary that spearheaded the 29th-ranked pass defense in 2014, according to Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. Kyle Fuller was a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate at the end of September, with three picks in his first three games, but tailed off significantly afterwards. By the end of the year, our charting ranked him as the most targeted cornerback in the league, and his 9.6 adjusted yards allowed per pass ranked 68th out of 77 qualifying corners.
And Fuller is the most promising hope for the unit. Even after letting longtime starter Charles Tillman leave, the Bears still employ four defensive backs older than 30, all them feasible bets to make the final roster. Antrel Rolle and Tim Jennings are firmly in their twilight years and no locks to hang around past this season. Ditto for Ryan Mundy and Alan Ball, who could carve out roles in sub packages. As for youth, nickelback Demontre Hurst came out of our charting with a horrid 13.5 adjusted yards allowed per pass. Brock Vereen received plenty of reps filling in for the perpetually dinged-up Chris Conte, but didn't distinguish himself and will receive competition from fifth-rounder Adrian Amos for the starting free safety spot. Even if you want to chalk up Fuller's second-half struggles to the cocktail variety of injuries through which he played, the 2014 first-rounder might be the only defensive back on the roster worth keeping past 2015.
Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Perhaps with that need in mind, Chicago signed three defensive backs in the post-draft frenzy. UCF corner Jacoby Glenn is the most intriguing of the trio that also includes UCLA safety Anthony Jefferson and Rice corner Bryan Callahan, as Glenn was the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference after picking off seven passes. Glenn was one of those unfortunate cases of an underclassman declaring early and going undrafted, but he could still salvage his decision and push someone like Demontre Hurst off the roster. East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden will receive the most pub of Chicago's free-agent signings, but he's also probably competing with David Fales and Pat Devlin for one roster spot behind Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Defensive Tackle
If you step back, it's pretty remarkable that neither Ndamukong Suh nor Nick Fairley garnered a second contract in the Motor City. The duo anchored a dominant front seven that ranked first in run defense DVOA and adjusted line yards, both by fairly wide margins. With both former first-rounders departed, Detroit loses the core foundation of its roster. Trading for Haloti Ngata was a shrewd short-term decision that only cost the organization fourth- and fifth-round selections, which they figure to recoup through compensatory picks next year.
But Ngata has been on a steady decline from his All-Pro peak, and he's no longer capable of creating the type of ripple effect that elevates an entire unit, much like Suh did. A bigger question is, who plays next to Ngata? Tyrunn Walker, an interesting pass-rusher who has been productive in spurts for the New Orleans Saints, signed a modest one-year, $1.75 million in free agency. Ngata and Walker both arrive from 3-4 systems, something that might augur more hybrid fronts from Teryl Austin's defense, even if Austin still employs four down linemen. C.J. Mosley also remains available in free agency, though a return to Detroit appears unlikely. Mosley was a serviceable starter the second half of the season after Fairley went down with a sprained MCL. Assuming Mosley doesn't return, the defensive tackle rotation currently consists of Ngata, Walker, Caraun Reid, rookie Gabe Wright, and other assorted pieces.
In some ways, it's not necessarily a concern if this position is Detroit's biggest personnel hole. Unless the Lions magically conjured J.J. Watt onto their roster, no one in the league was really capable of fully replicating Suh's impact. Rather than throwing too many darts at a fruitless proposition, the cap-strapped Lions resisted the temptation to carry out another massive loan and mortgage their future for Suh. Detroit addressed many of its most pressing 2014 needs in the draft, retooling their interior offensive line, adding an explosive backfield option in Ameer Abdullah, and supplementing the cornerback depth with Alex Carter and Quandre Diggs. With proper development, the Lions might be better off in the long run, but the re-tooling leaves real short-term issues.
Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson received by far the largest signing bonus at $12,000, so he's the free agent to watch here. Johnson apparently turned down offers from four other teams, and with starting strong safety James Ihedigbo in a contract spat, the opportunity for playing time could be there immediately. South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner was a deep-sleeper favorite of FO's Matt Waldman, and with the versatility to also play fullback, Zenner could theoretically compete with either Michael Burton or fourth-string halfback George Winn for a roster spot.
Green Bay Packers
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Edge Rusher
Truthfully, Green Bay didn't enter the draft with many holes. Most observers highlighted cornerback and inside linebacker as the Packers' two biggest need areas, and Ted Thompson used three of his first four picks on those positions. We're also assuming here that Clay Matthews plays the majority of his snaps at inside linebacker in 2015. Matthews was actually more productive as a pass-rusher when he moved inside, with 9.5 of his 12 sacks last year coming during the final eight games. Moreover, he produced nearly as many combined sacks, hits, and hurries in the second half of the season (20.5) as he did in the first half (23.5), despite dropping into coverage much more frequently. However, there's no guarantee Matthews will continue to produce from a non-traditional rushing spot in 2015, and he'll likely need to remain inside on prime passing downs. It's certainly not out of the question that either third-year man Sam Barrington or rookie fourth-rounder Jake Ryan could emerge as a viable three-down option in 2015, but counting on both seems like a longshot.
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Julius Peppers was still productive last season, generating a league-high 11 disruptions (a stat combining batted passes and incompletions caused by hitting the quarterback), but the 35-year-old alone wasn't able to keep the Packers from experiencing an overall pass-rushing dip. After finishing in the top five in adjusted sack rate each of the past two seasons, the Packers dipped to 14th last year. Apart from Peppers and Matthews, most of Green Bay's pressure came from interior linemen Mike Daniels and Datone Jones, who ranked 75th and 85th, respectively, in total hurries. With nine career sacks, former first-rounder Nick Perry is teetering towards the "bust" label, as evidenced by Green Bay's decision to decline his fifth-year option. Mike Neal is fine as a supplementary contributor, but it's probably not ideal that the Packers have given him 700-plus snaps each of the past two seasons.
It says a lot about Green Bay that an average pass rush profiles as its biggest problem, but if the callow cornerback corps doesn't shake out as expected, this could become a bigger issue than it appears at the moment.
Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: The Packers were quite egalitarian in their signing bonus distribution, with 11 of their 16 undrafted rookies receiving either $5,000 or $4,000 in bonus money. Green Bay interestingly brought in five wide receivers, with small-school prospects Adrian Coxson (Stony Brook) and Ricky Collins (Texas A&M-Commerce) returning after taking pre-draft visits. The name that might draw the most intrigue is 6-foot-1 corner Ladarius Gunter, who ran an appalling 4.69-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine but impressed at the Senior Bowl and was a two-year starter at Miami.
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Left Guard
Is Rick Spielman slowly building a powerhouse? The Vikings' past three drafts have received rave reviews from draftniks, and apart from Matt Kalil and Cordarrelle Patterson, the returns have largely been encouraging. Quarterback is the most important position, of course, and Teddy Bridgewater's rookie season suggested that he was clearly the top passer in an otherwise shaky 2014 class. With the Adrian Peterson saga looking like it will end with the former MVP begrudgingly wearing purple, the Vikings have the core of a legitimately exciting contender in place.
However, protecting Bridgewater was an issue for Minnesota, which ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate. Much of that stemmed from Kalil's struggles and season-ending injuries to Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt, but all three will be back and presumably starting in 2015. Depending on how Kalil bounces back after offseason surgeries on both knees, the Vikings' biggest hole along the offensive line may actually be at left guard, where four-year starter Charlie Johnson was released in the offseason. Johnson has largely earned apathy for subpar play, and while you'd like to do better than him in the long run, the 31-year-old was one of the few Minnesota linemen who was both consistently available and passable. Last season, our game charters marked Johnson down for a blown block once every 62.4 snaps, fourth-best among Minnesota linemen and a general middle-of-the-pack rate among all offensive linemen. Veteran journeyman Joe Berger was slightly better at 72 snaps per blown block at right guard, and could compete with 2014 fifth-rounder David Yankey for Johnson's old spot.
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The left guard battle belies a general lack of interior line depth as a whole. Minnesota did extract nice value from a pair of tackles in the draft, nabbing T.J. Clemmings in the fourth round and Tyrus Thompson in the sixth. However, the loser of the Berger-Yankey battle is probably the top interior backup, along with rookie seventh-rounder Austin Shepherd. For a team that ended last season rolling out the likes of Vladimir Ducasse and Mike Harris, it might have been a wiser idea to slightly overinvest in the offensive line to provide maximum insurance for Bridgewater's development.
Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Virginia safety Anthony Harris seemed like one of the more intriguing options in a woeful class, but a knee injury coupled with his wiry frame (6-foot-1, 183 pounds) ended up pushing him out of the draft entirely. Harris was one of three undrafted free agents who received $10,000 signing bonuses from Minnesota, along with Old Dominion quarterback Anthony Heinicke and Notre Dame receiver DaVaris Daniels. Harris and Heinicke also had their base salaries guaranteed for 2015. The former could compete with Robert Blanton and friends for the starting safety spot next to Harrison Smith, while Heinicke should be the third quarterback if Minnesota decides to keep one behind Bridgewater and Shaun Hill.