Four Downs: NFC North
by Scott Kacsmar
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. Over the next three weeks, we'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise-tagged or re-signed before March 6).
Biggest Hole: Pass-Catchers
Rookie head coach Matt Nagy has his work cut out for him. Sure, he has a possible franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky to groom, but what kind of toys will he have for the youngster to play with? In Kansas City, Nagy had an outstanding trio of weapons in Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, and Tyreek Hill. In Chicago, there's not enough Elmer's Glue to keep Kevin White in one piece. Markus Wheaton wasn't any fun in Pittsburgh, and he's not going to get better in Chicago. Cameron Meredith flashed some potential in 2016, but is coming off an ACL tear and is a restricted free agent. Kendall Wright and Dontrelle Inman are impending free agents, and neither is really a true WR1 or WR2 at this point. Even Josh Bellamy, who was third on the team with 46 targets, is a restricted free agent, and tight end Zach Miller is a free agent after he almost lost his leg due to a dislocated knee.
With all of those problems, you can see why this was the most conservative passing offense in the league last year -- built heavily on failed completions to running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard. For that reason, any receiver coveted in the draft or free agency can be linked to Chicago. Whether it's a slot receiver or a pass-catching tight end or a speed demon or a jump-ball winner, the Bears should find plenty of upgrades over anyone they currently have or had last year. If that means signing Green Bay rival Randall Cobb should he become available, then so be it. Trubisky is going to need some reasons to throw the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.
In addition to the massive turnover that will take place in the receiving corps, the Bears also have to revamp their cornerbacks. Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara were the unit's top two corners, but both are free agents, and the team's third-most targeted corner (Bryce Callahan) is also a restricted free agent. The Bears may want to think twice about bringing these guys back. Fuller tied for the league lead with 110 targets faced, which isn't a good argument for a pricy franchise tag as a top corner should be limiting targets thrown his way, or make quarterbacks pay with more than two picks. Fuller had three interceptions in the first three games of his career back in 2014, but has just five picks in his last 45 outings. At least he played well when targeted, though, ranking fifth in success rate according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required); Amukamara, on the other hand, ranked 71st in success rate.
Given how Marcus Cooper was quickly demoted in the first year of his three-year deal, the Bears have to prioritize better pass coverage, especially in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and [insert someone solid] in Minnesota.
Biggest Hole: Running Back
This one is tricky, because Detroit has done a lot of recent work to build up a roster around quarterback Matthew Stafford. He has a very good trio of wide receivers in Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Kenny Golladay. The offensive line added T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner last year, and hopes to get a full season out of left tackle Taylor Decker again. You could go with tight end as a weakness, but Eric Ebron is under contract for one more year (fifth-year option picked up). Defensively, there's either a recent first- or second-round pick or established player at each level.
So we end up going back to the familiar story of the Lions not being able to find a quality running back ever since Barry Sanders retired. Ameer Abdullah stayed healthy enough in 2017 (14 games), but ranked dead last in rushing success rate (35 percent) for a running game that brought up the league's rear in rushing yards and yards per carry. Some of that has to fall on the offensive line that ranked dead last in adjusted line yards too. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Lions ranked 29th in yards before first contact per rush (1.97). Even after breaking tackles, the Lions still ranked 30th in yards after first contact per rush (1.40). Theo Riddick is solid as a receiving back, but the Lions could still use that workhorse, do-everything back that can be a reliable part of this offense.
According to Over the Cap, the Lions have six free agents with a current annual deal of at least $3 million per year. The rest of the NFC North has six such free agents combined (two for each team). This sounds worse than it really is. Greg Robinson was just a fill-in starter for Decker at left tackle when he was injured. Bringing back Haloti Ngata at 34 years old may not be a wise choice after he only played five games last season. Tahir Whitehead is certainly more valuable than Paul Worrilow, and the Lions should look to retain some of the linebacker leadership next to Jarrad Davis as he goes into his second season. Center Travis Swanson and strong safety Tavon Wilson also could be starters not expected to return, but the Lions have been grooming Graham Glasgow to play center, and they recently drafted Miles Killebrew at safety in 2016.
The big decision to make is on Ezekiel Ansah, who posted the second-highest sack total of his career with 12. However, nine of those sacks came in three games, and his meager total of 21.5 pressures (according to Sports Info Solutions) shows that he wasn't as stellar as the sack total suggests. The franchise tag is certainly an option here, because a loaded long-term deal doesn't sound very reasonable.
Green Bay Packers
Biggest Hole: Edge Rusher
You can argue the Packers are still lacking in the cornerback department, despite numerous premium draft picks in recent years there, or that the tight ends have underwhelmed for years now. Martellus Bennett in particular was a big disappointment last season. Those are still needs, but what about a consistent pass-rushing force off the edge? Clay Matthews has only hit 8.0 sacks once in the last five years, and he'll be 32 in May. Nick Perry had a career season back in 2016, but the Packers didn't have any defender rank in the top 50 in pass pressures in 2017.
Since this is Green Bay, the draft is the expected option to get better at this position. Mike Pettine is taking over for Dom Capers at defensive coordinator, so Green Bay should be fielding another aggressive 3-4 defense. The outside linebackers tend to shine in that scheme, but the Packers could have their work cut out for them in a draft pool that doesn't appear to be overflowing with talented edge rushers.
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Safety Morgan Burnett has been with the Packers since 2010, but could hit the open market for the first time in his career, leaving an opportunity for 2017 second-round pick Josh Jones to take over for him. Davon House was often beat for big plays last season, and he ranked 77th in yards per pass allowed (9.4). Ahmad Brooks only signed a one-year deal with Green Bay in September, but had a marginal impact with the team. Likewise, veteran right guard Jahri Evans (who turns 35 in August) should be moving on, possibly into retirement, as he was never part of the long-term plans for the Packers. Richard Rodgers will always be known for the Hail Mary he caught in Detroit in 2015, but he has always been a marginal receiver, and the Packers could use an upgrade there as well.
Biggest Hole: Guard
The Vikings have a very good roster, so I almost went with kicker, as Kai Forbath is a free agent who has missed eight extra points in two years with the team. Then I almost went with quarterback, because this is really one of the most unique situations in NFL history, with three viable Week 1 starters all ready to hit free agency: Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Case Keenum. No shortage of options there, and the Vikings are likely to re-sign one of them before a hole actually opens up.
So we finally get back to the offensive line, which was the major problem a year ago, but the team helped solve a lot of that issue by adding Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers at tackle, and drafting center Pat Elfein. Still, right guard Joe Berger is a free agent and could retire, leaving an opening in the starting lineup. A right guard won't make or break your team's season, but it is Minnesota's biggest weakness -- which is a testament to the strong roster the Vikings have assembled.
Of course, the strength of the roster needs to be maximized by choosing the right quarterback, and it is hard to envy Minnesota's decision-makers with this one. Do you give Sam Bradford another shot given his lengthy injury history? He had his best season in 2016 and was spectacular against the Saints in Week 1. Do you give Teddy Bridgewater his job back after that terrible knee injury in the summer of 2016? He was drafted to lead the franchise, but he doesn't have anything recent in his favor. Then there was Case Keenum's breakout year in what is really the oddest name to ever lead the NFL in passing DVOA. Keenum flopped in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, but he had the kind of season neither Bradford nor Bridgewater ever really have achieved in the NFL.
Then there's the idea that Kirk Cousins could be the expensive free-agent answer to this whole problem. Cousins' level of sustained play is greater than what these three quarterbacks have done, so he is another option for the Vikings to consider.
Once they figure quarterback out, the Vikings can concern themselves with cornerback depth as Terence Newman will be 40 years old in September. Defensive tackle could also use some depth, especially if starter Tom Johnson is not re-signed.