Four Downs: NFC North

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).

Chicago Bears

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.

Major Free Agents: Prince Amukamara, CB; Zach Miller, TE; Dontrelle Inman, WR; Kendall Wright, WR; Kyle Fuller, CB.

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.

Detroit Lions

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.

Major Free Agents: Ezekiel Ansah, DE; Haloti Ngata, DT; Greg Robinson, LT; Tahir Whitehead, OLB; D.J. Hayden, CB; Paul Worrilow, LB.

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.

Major Free Agents: Morgan Burnett, S; Ahmad Brooks, LB; Davon House, CB; Jahri Evans, RG; Richard Rodgers, TE.

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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.

Minnesota Vikings

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.

Major Free Agents: Sam Bradford, QB; Case Keenum, QB; Teddy Bridgewater, QB; Terence Newman, CB; Emmanuel Lamur, LB; Joe Berger, RG; Tom Johnson, DT.

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.


36 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2018, 4:04pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

There exist alternate universes within which the Vikings make each possible choice for QB, and, being the Vikings, that winds up being the wrong choice in every single reality.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Vikings have a quarterback on their roster signed already.

I don't suppose there is any chance they roll with Kyle Sloter as the day one starter?

Either way I expect them to keep Sloter (they fended off trade offers from teams this year).

I don't see more than one of the three coming back.

If I had to gamble on it, I would say Bridgewater.

flash back to 1998. They started the season with Brad Johnson, who was terrific in week 1 (4 TD passes including first two of Moss' career). He then got hurt week 2 and Randall Cunningham stepped in and was terrific, far better than anyone expected him to be at that point. You can't quite say breakout because he had some really good years earlier in his career, but nothing like that recently. Johnson was healthy by the time the playoffs rolled around but they stuck with Randall, who lead them as far as the NFC championship game. They also spent a first round pick on Duante Culpepper (and another on a guy who didn't last two days in training camp).

In the offseason, the offensive coordinator who had gotten so much out of Cunningham (Billick) left for a head coaching gig. The Vikings traded Johnson to the Redskins and went with Cunningham. Without whatever Billick was coaxing out of him, Cunningham flopped. He had like one good half of football (first half vs Bucs) the rest was very mediocre, and by midseason they benched him for Jeff George, who was able to reignite things despite apparently not endearing himself to the coach. Brad Johnson went on to win a Superbowl.

That is the closest to the current situation the Vikings have been. None of the decision makers from back then are still around, of course, so there is no reason to assume they would make the wrong choice this time...

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Vikings qb dilemma is one in which randomness dominates. There is no good answer as to which way to go, if "good answer" means something more than a wild assed guess. I'd let all three hit free agency, and tell them that I might be willing to match. If they really love Sgt. Sloter, then they ought to let all 3 go. If they merely like the Sgt., then they ought to sign whichever guy they can give the shortest deal to, which is likely Bradford or Bridgewater.
Other than that, they really need at least two o-linemen, and two defensive tackles. They just aren't deep enough.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

You're not wrong, Will, but come on: they have to make a decision based on something, so they'll have to go with whom they feel is "the best", even if the error bars are quite wide on that value.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Fair enough, but when making a wild assed guess, I think it is important to be forthright with yourself, as to what you are doing.

Which is why I think they should sign whomever will take the shortest deal.

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

That and I believe Keenum was the best statistically, for whatever that data is worth. He also passes the eye test to me, showing capability to be a complete QB.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

It's a fascinating situation and like Will says, it could easily go wrong no matter who they choose. Injuries could derail Teddy and Bradford, and Keenum could go back to being Keenum. Best of luck, Will.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

"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... At least he played well when targeted, though, ranking fifth in success rate according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required)"

I spent just about every Bears game wondering if Fuller was any good...

But I'm not surprised by the number of targets. He's always been a looser-coverage player with minimal ball skills. He also- prior to this year- wasn't very good in general. So getting picked on with targets makes sense except... he was good this year? At least in terms of pass break-ups, tackling, etc. The not flashy stuff, I guess. So those two things (style and previous performance) meant a lot of QBs throwing his way. I'm sure that will change, as it usually does after a CB's breakout season.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

5th in success rate pretty much means 5th in quality at CB give or take a few big plays like INTs, sacks, non-coverage tackles, etc.

Not sure how that type of player isn't worth keeping as a high priority free agent.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Plus, the Bears now have $80 million in cap space. The price of the franchise tag is almost irrelevant, and I don't believe they have any players besides him they are considering using it on. To me it only hinges on what Fuller is worth, and what you think he might be worth after next season.

The other reason not to use it is if you think franchising him means he'll refuse to re-sign with you, since 2018 is not likely to be more than an 8-9 win season for the Bears so what's the point of bringing him back just for 1 year?

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I agree the Packers have a desperate need for pass rushers. There just aren't many available in this draft, unfortunate in a year the Packers have a rare first round pick in the first half of the draft. Perry has been okay, but CM3 is closer to just a guy these days with an occasional flashy play even if he led the team in sacks (7.5) and pressures (12). It's telling that the Packers second highest total of pressures on the QB was DT Kenny Clark (11.5).

They will also need a WR if they let Nelson or (more likely) Cobb go. Expect the one who stays to take a pay cut. Both Randall and Rollins are in contract years, so they will probably wait to see if either one clicks before letting them go to free agency next year. King, Randall, Rollins, and House is a below average CB corps, but one that would look better with a better pass rush.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I wonder if they can move Montgomery back to receiver and how he would do as a slot guy. He was fairly decent out of the backfield when he was playing running back, and it's pretty clear he can't physically stand up to being a running back, he'd take less hits in the slot. They have a couple of running backs so they shouldn't need Montgomery there anymore. Even if they keep Cobb and Nelson I still think that would be a good move.

I also keep hearing talk about moving Matthews back inside. I'm not sure that matters much. I don't see him as anything special regardless of where he is on the field. He isn't a player to build a defense around like they've tried in the past.

I'm hoping Gutekunst is a bit more active with free agency, though I'm not sure that will help with the edge rusher problem anyway as it's generally not easy to get one on the market either. The team isn't completely devoid of talent so a few hits in the draft and couple of FA and they are right back in the hunt, if Rodgers stays healthy of course since he does cover for deficiencies.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Specifically, a new center. I'm curious about what percentage of their running plays were blown up when Travis Swanson either got stood up or pushed into the backfield.

It is telling that they fired their offensive line coach at the same time they fired Caldwwell (while letting Patricia decide which other assistants to keep). The offensive line coach does more to design running plays than the offensive coordinator, so that's clearly where the team sees the problem.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

It was certainly telling that three supposedly bad former OL (Rieff, Waddle and Warford) moved on to start for other winning teams. I definitely thought the OL coach needed to go.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Vikings' QB decisions are clear once you apply the "what have you done for me lately" ethos. Case had a great year, better than Teddy's best years, so they should sign him. He looked like a slower Russell Wilson to me this year with great pocket presence and an underrated long ball.

If Teddy is willing to be a backup for another year, great, otherwise both Teddy and Sam can be traded.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

As noted, they are free agents. They reportedly aren't going to tag any of them so it looks like they don't want to pay the > $20M that would entail ala Cousins the last few years.

So presumably they are looking for something cheaper or more cap friendly than that. (in theory they could also have other franchise tag plans I suppose).

So at this point what each of them would take is probably a big factor in whether they would sign them, or rather where they (the QBs) would sign with them.

I have a feeling that each of the three wants at least one thing: A starting job. So unless they run out of options (a fair possibility given the number of starting jobs and influx of draft options) they may all look elsewhere, at least at first...

Obviously they see them in practice every day, or have seen them. Well, their new offensive coordinator hasn't (which may have played a role in them blocking the departure of their QB coach to the giants), and that may play a big factor in which ones they like.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I've seen a fair amount of scuttlebutt that Minnesota is going to go whole hog after Cousins. It makes sense. Examples:

Yesterday CBS Sports

Sporting News this morning

They had no probs opening up the vault to rent Favre, and Cousins will easily be the best available QB. I think Cousins works good with Diggs and Theilen, and would also better take advantage of Kyle Rudolf. It will shake up the NFC as much as Brees going to NO did.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

That scuttlebutt is almost certainly coming from Cousins' agent, since it is not in anybody else's interest to release that information. That doesn't mean it isn't true, but it is reason to be agnostic as to what "whole hog" means.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

If it is coming from Cousins' agent, all the better for the Vikings as he's the best currently available. Whole hog is somewhere between opening up the throttle and betting all your chips.

32 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

In a league with a hard cap, "best currently available" always has to be placed in the context of the contract needed to have the player on the roster. When the player is still playing at a 1st ballot HOF level, that context can be rather more generous, but Cousins has never been at that level. If Cousins is prioritizing his earnings over the next 3 years, more power to him, but the Vikings probably shouldn't participate, if the number gets north of 30 million a year, or maybe even north of 27 million.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

From the Sporting News article:
"The knock on Cousins has been inflated numbers against bad teams and little impact when the stakes are raised against better teams.

Huh? I've never heard anybody say that anywhere, and thank goodness for that because it's a pretty dumb thing to think. Not just about Cousins, it's kind of a dumb opinion to have about anyone.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I don't think it applies to Cousins, but how is it a dumb opinion to have about anyone? In fact, it's kind of what this very site's signature metrics are based upon, you need to adjust how well someone plays based on how good their opponent was.

A QB could consistently put up lower DVOAs against good teams than he does against bad teams, and that's a legitimate concern if your goal is to win with him in the playoffs.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Because every quarterback in the history of quarterbacking likely has better stats against bad teams than quality teams.

Furthermore, that opinion is formed by the results, i.e. Quarterback A beat this team, therefore they're not a good team.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Sure, but the degree to which a QB's stats degrade as the competition gets better is an interesting comparison.

I bet even Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady play worse against good teams than they do against bad teams, but that doesn't mean that all QBs are equal in this respect.

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

It's not just "better stats against bad teams", it's relative to expectations.

Every QB should have a higher YAR against bad defenses than good defenses; but if you look at their DYARs, they should be around the same no matter who the opponent is.

Assuming that every quarterback is equally affected by a quality opponent, relative to their own baseline, seems like a dangerous assumption.