Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North

by Derrik Klassen

Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. 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 5).

Chicago Bears

Biggest Hole: Secondary

Chicago's secondary is the team's only position group hemorrhaging key starting talent this offseason. Safety Adrian Amos and star nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan are both due an extension this spring, but with a dire cap situation due in part to the Khalil Mack trade-and-sign, the team does not have room to keep both defensive backs. Which of the two players Chicago decides to keep, if they keep either, will dictate where resources need to be dumped into this offseason.

That being said, Callahan is the obvious choice to keep. Amos, while talented, plays a less valuable position and should be easier to replace than a high-end slot cornerback such as Callahan. In an NFL that plays primarily out of nickel sets, having a third cornerback of Callahan's caliber is valuable, especially in a division with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins.

Finding a replacement for Amos becomes tricky without a first- or second-round pick, however. The Bears' first two picks in the upcoming draft were shipped to the Oakland Raiders as part of the Mack deal. If it is any consolation, Amos is a former fifth-round pick and Eddie Jackson is a former fourth-round pick, so the Bears do have recent success in finding mid- and late-round success with safeties. The Bears will need to find similar drafting success this April unless they want to stick it out with a cheap free agent signing.

Major Free Agents: Bryce Callahan, CB; Adrian Amos, S; Kevin White, WR; Aaron Lynch, OLB; Eric Kush, OL; Bryan Witzmann, OL; Benny Cunningham, RB; Marcus Williams, CB; Pat O'Donnell, P

Depth is a concern for the Bears. Though not starting-caliber players, the likes of Aaron Lynch, Benny Cunningham, and Marcus Williams either provided great off-the-bench play or security in their depth. The same can be said of offensive linemen Eric Kush and Bryan Witzmann, who started seven games apiece in 2018. Injuries can be random and spikes in injury rate during a given season can crush even the deepest rosters. Potentially losing so many quality backups could haunt the Bears down the line if not remedied one way or another.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Hole: Pass rush

The entire structure of Detroit's defensive line is due for a change. By trading for defensive tackle Damon Harrison before last season's trade deadline, the Lions got a head-start on the impending overhaul, but there is plenty of work left to do.

Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah is surely on his way out. Ansah got off to a rock start in Detroit after being drafted in 2013, but has since left the Lions wanting more. Between a dip in production, a growing injury history, and what Ansah will likely demand on the market, the Lions are best to send Ansah packing.

In addition to Ansah, defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Kerry Hyder are up as restricted free agents this offseason. Effectively, the Lions gets an uncontested chance to re-sign the two players before they are thrown into true free agency. Hyder was a force for the Lions in 2016 before missing all of the 2017 season and most of the 2018 season. Okwara, a former bench player for the New York Giants, picked up the slack for Hyder in 2018, posting 21.5 pressures and a team-high 7.5 sacks.

Okwara is the most likely player to return and very well could be the only one of the three to be back in baby blue next season. That said, Okwara has no business being a team's top pass-rushing option. Look for the Lions to make use of their $38 million in cap space or early picks in the draft to swing for a new No.1 edge rusher.

Major Free Agents: Ezekiel Ansah, DE; Glover Quin, S; T.J. Jones, WR; LeGarrette Blount, RB; Ricky Jean Francois, DL; Luke Willson, TE; Levine Toilolo, TE; Kerry Hyder, DE; Romeo Okwara, DE; Andrew Donnal, OL; Matt Cassel, QB

Entire sections of Detroit's roster are in danger of being gutted. The defensive line, as mentioned before, is going to lose a handful of contributors, but the pass-catching group is a mess as well. Wide receiver Golden Tate was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for a third-round pick during the season, and now T.J. Jones is a pending free agent, leaving complete unknowns behind Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Luke Willson, who respectively played the first- and second-most tight end snaps for the Lions in 2018, have also had their contracts expire. Quarterback Matthew Stafford will be on edge this offseason until he sees how the Lions plan to fix his receiving corps.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Hole: Pass-catchers

Heading into another season with a wide receiver corps chock full of late-round and undrafted youngsters would be unacceptable. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers deserves a better investment at the position as he enters the back end of his career. Even with a new and (hopefully) more creative offensive-minded head coach in Matt LaFleur leading the way, the Packers can not field last year's receiving corps again, especially not with the likely losses of Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison.

As the roster stands now, Davante Adams is the only established receiving threat in Lambeau. The potential of youngsters such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown is enticing, but it would be foolish of the Packers to bank on their development without any other attempt to shore up the receiving crops.

Additionally, the tight end group needs an overhaul. Jimmy Graham is nowhere close to the player he was even in Seattle, much less in New Orleans. Green Bay's next two tight ends on the depth chart, Marcedes Lewis and Lance Kendricks, are set to be free agents this offseason. There is no reason for the Packers to bring either back, but replacing their snaps on top of trying to find fresh blood at wide receiver could stretch the team's resources thin. How well they juggle their cap and draft picks to equip Rodgers properly will be the key to their offseason.

Major Free Agents: Clay Matthews, OLB; Randall Cobb, WR; Muhammad Wilkerson, DL; Marcedes Lewis, TE; Bashaud Breeland, CB; Davon House, CB; Kentrell Brice, S; Dan Vitale, FB; Jake Ryan, LB, Byron Bell, OL; Lance Kendricks, TE

The ushering in of a new era of Packers football should signal the end of Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb. Matthews, a 33-year-old pass rusher clearly past his prime, is not worth bringing back unless he is willing to take a short, team-friendly deal. Likewise, Cobb is not quite the force over the middle of the field he was in the early 2010s. The Packers are likely better off supplementing their young receivers with a different veteran presence from Cobb. If the Packers spend anywhere to keep current players on the roster, it should be in the back end with Kentrell Brice and Bashaud Breeland.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Hole: Offensive line

It feels like a broken record at this point, but the Vikings still need to get better along the offensive line. Though a slew of injuries hit the unit early and often this past season, the primary issue is that 2017 third-rounder Pat Elflein has not developed the way the team hoped. Elflein's struggles at center ripple outward to already-subpar talents such as guards Tom Compton and Mike Remmers. Left tackle Riley Reiff has proven to be a fine blind-side protector, but the constant beating the interior of the offensive line takes is too much for Reiff to make up for.

The Vikings are also losing a number of players from this current offensive line group. Of course, "losing" underperforming talent does not sound so bad, but replacing offensive linemen is one of the toughest tasks in the NFL, and the Vikings are set to lose Compton, Brett Jones, and Nick Easton. Even Remmers could be a cap casualty. For an offensive line that already ranked at the bottom of Football Outsiders' rushing metrics and only posted a decent sack percentage due to a primarily quick-passing offense, losing about half of the group is going to create a mess to retool in one offseason.

Major Free Agents: Sheldon Richardson, DT; Anthony Barr, LB; Latavius Murray, RB; Tom Johnson, DT; Aldrick Robinson, WR; Dan Bailey, K; Anthony Harris, S; George Iloka, S; Marcus Sherels, CB/PR; Trevor Siemian, QB; Tom Compton, OL; Brett Jones, OL; Nick Easton, OL

Anthony Barr will fetch a pretty penny on the market, but likely not from the Vikings. Barr should be allowed to walk and go to a team that better utilizes his pass-rushing abilities, which may solve some of Barr's up-and-down play the last couple seasons. With Barr likely out, Sheldon Richardson should be priority No. 1. Interior pass-rushers are a premium in today's NFL and Richardson, despite his carousel around the league, is still a threat. Most of the Vikings' other free agents are depth players, a handful of whom have been valuable contributors, such as Anthony Harris and Marcus Sherels.


13 comments, Last at 25 Feb 2019, 5:48pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

When Elflein was healthy in 2017, the unit was productive, albeit that was when Joe Berger wasn't retired. and Rieff was healthy. Elflein started 2018 on PUP, and really was never healthy. Rieff was hurt, too. Neither Remmers or Compton should be NFL starters. Who knows if Easton will be healthy again; you can't sign him to much more than a 1 year show me deal. Ugh.

It's been a decade now since the Vikings have been average or better on the o-line, for more than a half season. Even Peterson's monster 2012 year was overall a question mark for the unit, and last year was only good through about week 8, when the injuries kicked in. The days of Birk, Hutchinson, and and a Mckinne who would rouse himself from the couch are now ancient history. I hate this more than I do having them suck at quarterback, which I also have seen plenty of.

I should say, however, that Tony Sparano's death was no doubt a significant factor in 2018's poor performance.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Srongly disgree with that Packers assessment. I think outside linebacker, safety, and arguably o-line are all bigger needs. Allison is also an RFA, so not sure why he wouldn't be back. A receiving corps of Adams, Allison, MVS, St. Brown, and maybe one addition is fine. Compare that to 500 year old Tramon Williams and... someone at safety, or always-injured Nick Perry and Kyler Fackrell at OLB.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Completely agree. I'd like another good receiver at either WR or TE, but it's not close to their needs at OLB/ pass rusher and at safety. They also have nobody besides Martinez at ILB, so just saying LB would also have been acceptable. I'm less concerned with OL; they definitely need to add at least one guard and a backup swing lineman, but I think they can fill those relatively easily.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Yup. I don't know how anyone looks at an offense with a qb, rb, number 1 wr and left tackle that are all arguably top five in the league and say, yup, need more offense when the front seven on D needs attention.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'll be the contrarian and say that while I agree that OLB is a bigger need, I don't think WR and TE are far behind. Adams is great but no one behind him is a known quantity - the floor is low, especially if (god forbid) Adams were to get hurt. I assume they like their younger WRs and I'd be in favor of bringing Geronimo Allison back, but it's hard to know what they have after only getting 5 games from him last year. A free agent starting WR could end up being a pretty high-impact acquisition.

They also flat out need a new TE because if they attempt to use Jimmy Graham at this stage of his career as an every-down TE in a Shanahan-style offense, he might be below replacement-level.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Of the guys currently on their roster, next-man-up for the Bears is Sherrick McManis at slot CB and Deon Bush at SS. I think they could live with McManis as their starting slot corner (as they did for several games last year without much trouble); Bush at safety would be a bigger weakness. They would both be downgrades and there's limited depth behind them, and they're each in the last year of their contract, so I agree that finding replacements is a priority if they don't re-sign Callahan & Amos.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm late to this conversation, but interested. How much do you figure the high quality that appeared all through the Bear secondary was exaggerated by the excellent pass rush? Not just the rush getting home or getting hurries but also the extra blockers kept in.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

There was probably some of this, but I think they also had a good group of DBs. Most of them looked about as good in 2017 as they did in 2018 (with the one big exception being Eddie Jackson, who was nothing special as a rookie in 2017).

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Dire cap situation is over egging the pudding. The Bears don’t have a huge amount of cap room but as you say only have two starters who might leave. They could probably find room for either Amos or Callahan if it were a desperate situation with no talent on their defense but they aren’t. If they end up playing Bush and McManis/Toliver it is probably still going to be a very good defense.

Losing Lynch doesn’t help but Cunningham, Kush and Witzmann aren’t much cop. And I had to look up Williams. Don’t remember him seeing the field.

The Bears are likely to be a similar team next season as they were last season. The personnel and coaching remain pretty similar.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Admit it--you just wanted to show that you could spell Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, didn't you? ;)

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Ya know what I literally never see?

"Heading into another season with a wide receiver corps chock full of late-round and undrafted youngsters would be unacceptable. Quarterback DREW BREES deserves a better investment at the position as he enters the back end of his career. The SAINTS can not field last year's receiving corps again...

As the roster stands now, MICHAEL THOMAS is the only established receiving threat in THE DOME. The potential of youngsters such as TRE'QUAN SMITH and KEITH KIRKWOOD is enticing, but it would be foolish of the SAINTS to bank on their development without any other attempt to shore up the receiving crops."

Just saying...

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

You mean like the Four Downs that was published today that identifies tight end as NO's biggest need, specifically discussing the lack of passing game production offered by the existing options on the roster, and that also mentions that they were thin at receiver last season while Ted Ginn was injured?