Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

The Packers struggled mightily covering opposing receivers in 2016. Sam Shields suffered a massive concussion in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season; Green Bay has since released the veteran. Neither Damarious Randall nor Quinten Rollins really played up to expectations in their second years; Rollins had the third-worst success rate among qualified cornerbacks in our charting at just 36 percent, while Randall turned in a sub-50 percent season as well. They were also injured, with both players missing time with groin injuries throughout the regular season, and neither at full strength during the playoffs. The injuries and ineffectiveness forced Ladarius Gunter into the spotlight -- he had a solid season for an ex-undrafted free agent who played all of eight defensive snaps in 2015.

Essentially, the unexpected loss of Shields forced everyone else on the roster into a role for which they were not quite ready, and the end result was a porous secondary. Green Bay finished 31st in DVOA covering wide receivers, giving up the second-most passing yards and the fourth- passing plays of 15 yards or more in the NFL last year. In particular, both Dez Bryant and Julio Jones burned them in the playoffs, leading to a stretch where the Packers allowed eight touchdowns in 12 possessions to end their season.

It's worth noting that both Randall and Rollins played better as rookies in 2015, and there is a reason they were drafted in the first and second round, respectively. There is a reason to believe that, if healthy, the pair could bounce back next season. Improvements in the front seven could also have a significant impact on the passing defense as a whole, taking some of the pressure off of the young secondary. Still, entering next season with Randall and Rollins as the top two cornerbacks should make Packers fans nervous.

Major Free Agents: Eddie Lacy, RB; Jared Cook, TE; T.J. Lang, G; J.C. Tretter, C; Nick Perry, OLB; Datone Jones, OLB; Micah Hyde, S

The Packers look to have about $41 million in salary cap room to play with this offseason, but before they even consider breaking with team tradition and looking at the free agent market, they have some notable names to take care of in-house. Eddie Lacy put up a 20.2% DVOA before an ankle injury sidelined him for the year. Jared Cook is one of the more frustrating tight ends in the league, alternating brilliant athleticism with hands of stone, but Aaron Rodgers was more successful with Cook on the field than without him in 2016. Both J.C. Tretter and T.J. Lang missed time with injuries in 2016; Lang played great when he was on the field, while the oft-injured Tretter was effectively replaced by Corey Linsley. Datone Jones and Nick Perry combined for 37 quarterback pressures on the year and were the Packers' two most prolific pass rushers. Micah Hyde is something of a utility player in Green Bay's secondary, playing both strong safety and nickel corner, as well as being Green Bay's primary punt returner.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Hole: Defensive Tackle

Back in 2014, the Detroit Lions had arguably the most dominant pair of defensive tackles in the league in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Both left as free agents, however, and the Lions have never really replaced them. Detroit ranked dead last in defensive DVOA last season, and a lot of that can be blamed on a lack of pressure up front. Detroit ranked 26th in the league in pressure rate, and simply couldn't get much pressure up the gut. They were slightly better against the run, ranking 21st in adjusted line yards, but their second-to-last place finish in power success shows that in those crucial third-and-short situations, they couldn't get the job done -- they allowed 608 rushing yards in their last four games, all of them losses.

An addition anywhere on the defensive line would help with these issues, but let's focus on the two tackle positions in the middle. The Lions only have two players under contract for next season at the position. At age 33, Haloti Ngata is still serviceable in run defense, but he's not the same player he was when he was making All-Pro squads in Baltimore, and he's an active liability in the passing game. His days as a full-time starting tackle should really be behind him at this point. A'Shawn Robinson was a second-round rookie who improved as the season went on, starting five of the last six games. Although he's still developing and needs to improve his performance in the run game, he was the Lions' best tackle last season and should be penciled in as a starter in 2017.

That's it, however -- Tyrunn Walker, Stefan Charles, and Khyri Thornton are free agents, and none of them were very effective in 2016 anyway. Even if the Lions do re-sign one or two of them for depth, they could use a young, athletic three-technique to pair with Robinson for the future, allowing Ngata to slip into a more comfortable rotational role going forward. It's a position they might address both in free agency and the draft as they begin to rebuild the defense.

Major Free Agents: Anquan Boldin, WR; Riley Reiff, OT; Larry Warford, G

In theory, age should eventually catch up to Anquan Boldin, but the 36-year-old remains a very solid possession receiver and he led the team with eight receiving touchdowns. He probably won't make a decision as to whether he'll return in 2017 until after minicamp, but if he's open to playing, the Lions could certainly do worse than welcoming him back. Larry Warford and Riley Rieff composed the right side of the Lions' offensive line last season -- an offensive line that ranked very poorly in run blocking. Warford, at least, was healthier than he has been since his rookie season and saw a linked improvement in his play; if he leaves, Laken Tomlinson or Joe Dahl would be the next man up in Detroit. Reiff moved from the left side to the right after Taylor Decker came along and reportedly still wants to be valued as a blindside protector. Detroit may try to keep at least one, as replacing 40 percent of their offensive line in one offseason is troublesome for a team that already struggled in the running game.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Hole: Offensive Tackle

Pick almost any position on the offensive line, and you'll find a problem in Minnesota. They ranked 30th in adjusted line years, and were absolutely porous all year long. They weren't much better in pass protection, with opposing teams often finding ways to get pressure with three-man rushes. You can argue about whether or not it was the worst line in football, but at least teams like the Seahawks had the excuse of scrimping by with budget players. The Vikings allocated $32.8 million of the cap to the offensive line in 2016, third-most in the league, and got nothing in return. Injuries certainly didn't help, but the expected starters played poorly to begin with. When those starters started going down, their backups redefined poor play.

Guard Alex Boone is the only lineman under contract who leaves the season with his reputation intact. Joe Berger was very good at both center and guard, but he's a free agent who's turning 35 this offseason. After that, things get nasty. Matt Kalil started out poorly, and then went on IR with a torn meniscus. His replacement, T.J. Clemmings led the league in blown blocks with 30. Andre Smith was a bust as a free-agent acquisition, and when he went on IR, Jeremiah Sirles wasn't much of an improvement. Brandon Fusco struggled mightily at right guard, especially in pass protection. Jake Long was added in the bye week and forced into action too early, and then injured his Achilles before he could gel with his teammates. Nick Easton underwhelmed when he was forced into the starting lineup late in the season, Mike Harris missed the entire season with a mystery illness. It was a nightmare all around. All in all, the Vikings started nine different players on the offensive line in 2016.

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The Vikings have already started cleaning house, releasing Fusco and Harris. Both Kalil and Smith are free agents, and seem unlikely to be re-signed -- which leaves Boone as the only opening day starter from last season under contract. Boone has some experience playing left tackle in college, and serving as an injury replacement when needed in San Francisco. With the free agent pool looking deeper -- and cheaper -- at guard than tackle, kicking Boone to the outside might be the best first step the Vikings can take to patch up their line. Re-sign Berger, look for a guard or two in free agency, find a tackle in the draft -- there's a lot to be done in Minnesota if they want to keep Sam Bradford upright in 2017.

Major Free Agents: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR; Joe Berger, C; Captain Munnerlyn, CB

We talked about Berger above; he was probably the best lineman Minnesota had, though he'll be turning 35 in May. Patterson has not developed into the receiver the Vikings were hoping for when they used a first-round pick on him in 2013; he has put up a below-average DVOA in every season he's qualified for our leaderboards. He is, however, one of the most dynamic kick returners in the game, and has made noise about switching to running back like Ty Montgomery in Green Bay, which might increase his value. Munnerlyn is Minnesota's slot specialist, but he might be expendable thanks to last year's second-round pick, Mackensie Alexander.

Chicago Bears

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

It feels like Jay Cutler has been on his way out of Chicago for the past three seasons, but reports out of Chicago say that the long-awaited release is actually happening this time. Cutler is schedule to count $16 million against the cap in 2017, and cutting him would save the Bears $14 million. Cutler has always gotten more than his fair share of blame for Chicago's offensive struggles, but that comes with the territory when you sign a $126.7 million contract and then go 12-23 as a starter. Cutler only had an above-average DVOA twice in eight seasons in Chicago (in 2013 and 2015). He likely still has some value as a starting quarterback in the NFL, but it's likely best for all involved that his time in Chicago comes to an end.

Jay Cutler's Time in Chicago
Year DYAR DVOA QBR Yards C% TD INT Record
2009 -390 -21.4% 48.2 3,454 61.3% 27 26 7-9
2010 81 -8.5% 48.5 2,930 60.4% 23 16 10-5
2011 157 -3.5% 59.7 2,140 58.1% 13 7 7-3
2012 -81 -13.8% 51.9 2,787 58.9% 19 14 10-5
2013 392 5.5% 66.4 2,481 64.1% 19 11 5-6
2014 398 -0.7% 54.0 3,554 66.0% 29 15 5-10
2015 659 8.6% 60.7 3,499 64.5% 21 11 6-9
2016 -46 -16.1% 33.2 955 59.1% 4 5 1-4

Of course, part of getting rid of a long-time starting quarterback and beginning a rebuild is figuring out who's up next under center. Journeyman Brian Hoyer started five games for the Bears and put up a DVOA of 19.5%, but he's a free agent as well. So are Matt Barkley, who started six games this season, and developmental projectDavid Fales, a sixth-round pick out of San Jose State in 2014 with five career pass attempts to his credit. Scuttling Cutler would leave Connor Shaw as the only quarterback on the roster. It's safe to say that none of these options are likely to be the Bears' quarterback of the future, though Hoyer is a solid backup or bridge to a developmental player.

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No matter what the Bears' plan is at quarterback in 2017 -- be it a trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, a free agent like Kirk Cousins, or a rookie taken with the third overall pick -- the situation surrounding the position will be grim. Both offensive tackles need to be upgraded in order to keep their quarterback upright, and with Alshon Jeffery a pending free agent, they may well have no one to throw the ball to. A rebuild has to start somewhere, however, and no hole is bigger than the one behind center.

Major Free Agents: Brian Hoyer, QB; Alshon Jeffery, WR; Ted Larsen, G

The Bears have about $51 million in cap space to work with, and very few contributors of their own to worry about re-signing. The biggest name is obviously Alshon Jeffery, but he has missed time in each of the last two seasons with injuries and a PED suspension. He played on the franchise tag this past season, so tagging him again would cost $17.5 million -- not really a feasible option for a wideout who hasn't had 1,000 yards receiving since 2014. Hoyer played well off the bench after Cutler went down with an injured thumb, but a broken arm ended his season in Week 7. Ted Larsen is a reserve interior lineman who ended up starting eight games thanks to injuries; he was more than adequate coming off the bench.


21 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2017, 2:42pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I haven't been following the Packers chatter this off-season as much as I have in the past. However, here are my impressions.

There is a general feeling that Ted Thompson may actually sign a couple of FAs this off-season. He's aware that Rodgers SB window is closing. They also have more than enough cap room to make some noise. I don't expect them to sign anyone the first couple of days, but he may sign a couple players in the second wave. Likely FA possibilities include CB, OLB, TE, and RB. A trade wouldn't surprise me either.

Everyone knows just how bad the secondary was. It wouldn't be surprising if one of those FA signings were here. Either that or he will probably draft another CB early. (It wouldn't surprise me if he does both.) It's supposed to be a good draft for CBs and he's drafted several over the years.

Eddie Lacy, RB - Expected to sign a one-year prove-it contract.

Jared Cook, TE - Can probably get a decent two-year contract from the Packers. Probably worth more to GB than other teams due to his consistant inconsistancy.

T.J. Lang, G - Not expected to be resigned. Will be able to get more money elsewhere.

J.C. Tretter, C - Probably gone. The Packers really like Spriggs. Tretter has shown he can play both center and LT. Will probably get offered more by someone else than the Packers will offer.

Nick Perry, OLB - Played really good when Matthews was also on the field. Almost disappeared the rest of the times. No idea on whether he stays or goes. I'd guess he's gone.

Datone Jones, OLB - Inconsistant, but the Packers probably have a 50% shot at keeping him since he may not be worth as much to other teams.

Micah Hyde, S - The Packers would love to keep him, but I think he'll be paid starting money from someone.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Bob McGinn would disagree with you on Spriggs, at least so far and maybe it's not fair to Spriggs for being thrown at guard out of necessity. Here is McGinn's end of season grade.

JASON SPRIGGS: He left an awful final impression in 30 snaps against Atlanta. Obviously, he’s a fine athlete. Anyone can see that within two minutes. But if a lineman can’t anchor it doesn’t matter how athletic he is. Opponents will just go right through him. That’s kind of where the Packers find themselves with Spriggs. He’s soft, plays light and gets knocked off balance routinely. Even as an extra TE, a confidence-building role for a young player, he whiffed too much. His 21.4% playing time included 31 snaps at TE, 34 at LT, 183 at RG, and 29 at RT. Still, he gave up 14 pressures and 7 ½ “bad” runs. Spriggs’ future must be at tackle. He was mauled, and would continue to be mauled, if he has to play guard. Grade: F.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I don't disagree with McGinn. I said the Packers (i.e., Thompson) think he has a decent future. Personally, I don't think they have a replacement for Lang on the roster. They could use Don Barclay and try to draft a replacement. Not a great plan, but it wouldn't be the first time TT has gone into a season woefully thin at a position.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm pretty sure the Bears rebuild started 2 years ago, just on defense. At least the offense has an interior line, a RB, and a #2 receiver in place. I think they really only need one tackle though, Leno would be alright on one side. They shouldn't make any trades though, they are bad at that. Marshall for a 6th, Bennett and a 6 for a 4, Greg Olson for a 3, 2 1st rounders and Kyle Orton for Cutler. Terrible.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I want Cutler back here in Denver! If our QB cubs aren't ready for the spotlight, Cutler will make our awesome WR tandem work to catch wild throws all over the field.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Am I the only one who thinks the Lions were REALLY stupid to not draft Aaron Donald the year they lost 4 of their top 5 DTs for a luxury in Ebron. That's why they suck, if you ask me.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

No, you're not the only one, pretty much every Lions fan agrees it was stupid. It looked like a questionable pick at the time when it was made by the previous GM, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly a huge mistake.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Totally agree as a Lions fan. While Ebron was much improved last year I think about this every time he drops what appears to be an easy pass. I'd also add that Taylor Lewan, O'Dell Beckham Jr., Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin, CJ Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were all drafted after Ebron and would all likely be better fits today than Ebron. Of course, I think, at the time Donald would have made most sense, but I think you could have possibly argued for O-line or an LB at that time too. I think ODBJ is wishful hindsight on my part because Megatron and Tate seemed like a pretty solid longterm combo at that point.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Spielman has done a decent job for the Vikings, especially after getting full personnel control after The Ponderous Fiasco, but the one mistake he's made is trying to scrape by with low draft picks, and mid tier free agents, on the o-line, while using number 1 picks on wide receivers. The Vikings used a number 1 on Kalil in 2012 (who has not been a complete disaster, even if he was a disappointment), a number 2 on Loadholt in 2009 (pretty good, now retired), and everybody else on the o-line for about a decade was a 4th rounder, or, more usually, lower than that.

Make me choose between a good blocker or a good receiver, and I'll pick the blocker more often than not, because the former gives me a better chance to have a healthy, functional, offense, as long as my defense is at least decent.

I have no idea what the Vikings should do at this point, given at least 3, and perhaps 4, needs on the o-line. Lang obviously has to be considered. They might have to re-sign Kalil, if he'll take a discount to stay in Minny, where he has 3 successful restaurants. No 1st round pick, of course. Ick.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Morning sir -

I often argue that GMs and HCs with personnel control make "fire me, please" - scale mistakes. Houston's QB situation last few years perfect example, SD sending powerful messages in how they handled Weddle and Bosa also qualifies.

If the Vikings, with oft-injured Bradford and who-knows-how-he-is Bridgewater at QB, do anything this offseason other than throwing resources at the OL, y'all should form a firing squad.

That said, how much you wanna bet...


14 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

They actually had a decent o-line strategy a year ago, with two free agent signings and the thought that other guys would get healthy. One free agent flamed out/was injured, and 7 other o-linemen got hurt/sick, their HOF running back was hurt or started his career death spiral, and that's how a potential season saving Bradford trade resulted in a 8-8 record instead of 11-5.

Spielman's had the benefit of Adrian Peterson hiding offensive deficiencies (the idea that Peterson has been overrated for most of his career is just dumb) for about a decade, and that era is definitely over. They have zero room for error now when drafting for offense, and that is not a good spot for any GM to be in, especially one without a first round pick. Spielman, and by extension, Zimmer, better get some luck.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I had not realized their run of injuries along OL was quite that bad. Reminds me of Detroit's CBs a few years back.

I know this is an insane suggestion, but one wonders how many draft picks and/or healthy OLs you could get for your three best defenders? Tearing down one of the best units in the league is loco, but if you can't protect your QBs, well, you know.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Well, it is an insane suggestion. If you wanna get fired, trading away guys who have proven to be elite performers in the NFL, for the right to draft college guys who haven't, would be a good way to accomplish the task.

(edit) It actually was 9 other guys who got hurt/sick/retired, along with the right tackle they signed to start at right tackle. It was beyond ridiculous, and it was amazing that they were within about 3 or 4 plays of winning 11 games.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Yes, 100%. I think I'm just fatigued of watching great defenses drag teams halfway to the promised land over and over again. The number of defensive teams that were able to make a final Tampa-style Gruden + Keyshawn push over the hump is few and far between, and I just don't see it for Minnesota, esp with Teddy and Sam on perhaps 2.5 good knees and a weak OL...

But then that's what next year is for, ain't it?

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Don't forget Denver just 12 months ago. I actually wished they had drafted a dominant interior defensive lineman in the 1st last year, instead of any offensive player, if such a defensive player was available, because I thought that was the one thing the defense lacked, given how much time Floyd misses due to injury. Just go all-in on defense.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

... and particularly if you believe the defense is but one piece away...

I have to admit my perspective here is powerfully influenced by my team's recent past: Oakland was a steaming pile, and while we certainly have invested in our D, what made the difference has been an average QB + good receivers + a great OL (and some pretty purposeful coaching).

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Apologies if someone's brought this up already, but I think Joe Berger is a UFA next off-season. They extended him in September, Spotrac has under under contract for 2017, UFA in 2018.