Four Downs

Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

by Derrik Klassen

Chicago Bears

Biggest Need: Defensive front depth

Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Goldman: that's about as strong a defensive core as any team can ask for. This is a versatile, overwhelming group which propelled the Bears to rank ninth in adjusted line yards allowed last season. They also ranked third in the league with 50 sacks.

Depth, however, is a concern. Aaron Lynch, Isaiah Irving, and Kylie Fitts present an unsettling fallback plan in the event of injury to either Mack or Floyd. Likewise, rotational interior defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Roy Harris Robertson are both in contract years and need to step up their level of play to prove the Bears should not replace them in 2020.

Notable Free Agents: By any college football enthusiast's summation, Missouri wide receiver Emanuel Hall may end up one of the best undrafted players of this class after catching passes from Drew Lock in college. Hall is a devastating deep threat whose explosiveness was dearly missed when he was injured down the stretch last year. He does need to clean up some drops issues, but he has the tools to contribute right now. Utah State tight end Dax Raymond and Appalachian State cornerback Clifton Duck also have a chance to stick as the Bears have depth issues at both positions. Raymond, in particular, has the size and adequate athleticism to earn the No. 3 tight end spot as a stash-and-develop type.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Need: Right guard

The deterioration of T.J. Lang's health midway through last season thrust Kenny Wiggins into the starting lineup in his place. Lang was intended to solve Detroit's recurring issue of poor guard play, but since he was unable to stay on the field due to concussions and neck issues, the Lions were back to square one. Wiggins, who had formerly spent five years with the Chargers (including one as a starter), did not impress in the back half of last season. Though Lang had not been the force he was in Green Bay, Wiggins still failed to clear the middling bar Lang had set for the Lions' right guard spot that year. After ignoring offensive line entirely in the draft, Detroit is willingly opting into below-average play at the position for 2019.

Notable Free Agents: San Diego State offensive tackle Ryan Pope is a good bet to make the team. The Lions offered him $145,000 guaranteed to sign with the team, which is about the same signing bonus as a sixth-round pick. Given their offensive line struggles, Wisconsin guard Beau Benzschawel, a Senior Bowl participant, also has a good shot to compete at guard. Clemson's Tre Lamar could also sneak into the back end of the linebacker rotation to compete with Tre' Williams and Steve Longa.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Need: Pass-catchers

It is tough to fault the Packers for doubling down on defense with Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr. in the first round. The belief may be that the new head coach, offensive-minded Matt LaFleur, can do a better job of maximizing the current offensive talent than Mike McCarthy did.

Still, the sacrifice of investing so heavily in defense is that the Packers did not draft a pass-catcher until the third round, when they took tight end Jace Sternberger. Considering many tight ends struggle to contribute much right out of the gate, Sternberger likely does not move the needle for the offense in 2019. Jimmy Graham, who disappointed last year, will still be the primary tight end. Furthermore, Green Bay did not invest at all at wide receiver despite losing Randall Cobb. Aside from Pro Bowler Davante Adams, the Packers' wide receiver corps is thin and inexperienced.

Notable Free Agents: Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins was quietly one of the better passers in the Pac-12 over the past couple of seasons. His development over the course of his career was impressive, even if he does not necessarily have tools that warranted a draft pick. His stable, confident, mobile style should be favorable to keeping Tim Boyle around as the No. 3. On defense, Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton has the best chance to make the 53-man roster given the Packers' desperate need for depth at the position. Right now the only two players between Bolton and the starters are 2018 UDFA James Crawford and 2019 seventh-round pick Ty Summers, effectively putting Bolton on an even playing field.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

Similar to the Bears' defensive front, the top of the Vikings' wide receiver depth chart is impressive. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are arguably the best, most versatile duo in the league. Either one could be a regular All-Pro selection if they were not eating at each other's production. The group behind those two, however, leaves more to be desired.

In declining Laquon Treadwell's fifth-year option two weeks ago, the Vikings have declared their disinterest in seeing through on his potential. Treadwell has just 517 yards and one touchdown in three seasons in the league, never topping more than 35 receptions in a season. Minnesota also made a late-round draft effort to bring in new receiver talent with Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson in the seventh round, but to expect either of them to be reliable contributors this season would be overzealous. It would not be surprising to see the Vikings favor two-tight end sets with veteran Kyle Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr. to offset the issue of receiver depth.

Notable Free Agents: After a statistically impressive college career at Washington, quarterback Jake Browning could compete with Sean Mannion for the No. 3 spot. Though he does not have a wonderful arm or brash pocket presence, Browning sports a similar skill set to starter Kirk Cousins in that he can play within the system well and is willing to trust it. Wide receiver Davion Davis, who scored 40 touchdowns at Sam Houston State, and UCLA cornerback Nate Meadors, an early declaration who went undrafted, could also find a spot on the team.

Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.

Comments

6 comments, Last at 17 May 2019, 5:39pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by Dan // May 16, 2019 - 1:48am

The Bears are definitely thin on the edge. Mack, Floyd, and Lynch are the only guys who have shown at least adequate ability there, and Mack is the only one who is actually a good pass rusher.

Their interior DL depth seems like a strength. Last year they had a 5-man rotation and they're bringing back all 5: Hicks, Goldman, Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, and Bullard. Bullard has been kinda disappointing but the others seem like at least solid depth (and Nichols was just a rookie last year). Obviously it would hurt if Hicks missed time, but that's just because he's really good and not because they're lacking depth behind him.

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3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by andrew // May 16, 2019 - 11:23am

Detroit Lions:
Biggest Need: Right guard

Maybe they could try some Old Spice...

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2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by andrew // May 16, 2019 - 11:18am

I don't think at any point in the past few seasons have I looked at the Vikings and said the one thing they need is a wide receiver. Yes, Treadwell was dissappointing... Aldrick Robinson was probably their third best receiver last year, and he's still a free agent so they could bring him back if they wanted to. If they don't trade Rudolph I wouldn't be suprised to see them play more with two TEs, especially given Zimmer's mandate to run more and their offensive line woes....

As far as their quarterback depth, I still would hope Kyle Sloter can beat out both Manion and Browning, or at least be in the mix. They have invested a lot in him, and he has looked very good whenever he got playing time in preseason... I would have preferred him over Sieman for the #2 spot last year too.

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4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by ImNewAroundTheseParts // May 16, 2019 - 12:18pm

Packers biggest need is LB. As stated an UDFA has a good shot to make it on th 53.

Pass catchers are fine. Team was 7th offensively last year with rookies playing major roles. Wont be the same this year as they all gained experience. You don't give up on guys like them after 1 year. Not to mention the TEs were misused and play calling refused to get the RBs involved or set up the young guys for success. Dont need 5 WR1s. Davante Adams>like half the leagues WR1 anyway. Rodgers will turn em into gold now that he's healthy and Mike McCarthy isnt calling plays.

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5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by justanothersteve // May 17, 2019 - 1:12am

Agree the biggest need is LB, specifically ILB. (Between free agency and the draft, they have enough options to keep have a decent OLB rotation without utilizing Kyler Fackrell, who will be lucky to get half the 10.5 sacks he stumbled into last year.) They have Blake Martinez and ???? It's not good when you play a 3-4 and only have one ILB with experience on the roster. Martinez is decent, not an All-Pro but he's at least solid. Burks is the nominal other starter, but he wasn't all that impressive last year as a rookie. Every other ILB looks to be camp fodder. A camp addition like Antonio Morrison last year wouldn't surprise me.

I realize the Packers play nickel or dime about 75% of the time, but that's still leaves 1/4 of the snaps. One option would be to convert Josh Jones from safety to the new safety/linebacker hybrid position (which may be one way to salvage his career), but safety is already thin as they are counting on a FA signing (albeit a good one) and a first round rookie starting with only Jones and 800-year-old Tramon "Admiral Armbar" Williams in reserve.

I agree about the Packers pass catchers. Adams is one of the best #1 WRs. Geronimo Allison looked pretty good as the #2 before his injury last year, but it wouldn't surprise me if either MVS or especially "EQ" St Brown beat him out. Rodgers trusts Allison because he's so assignment sure and never drops passes, so I still think he's the favorite. TJ Hockenson is a great TE prospect, but I was happy the Packers got Jace Sternberger who I wanted more than Fant. (Also curious if the Lions miserable first round TE history will continue.)

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6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

by justanothersteve // May 17, 2019 - 5:39pm

Looks like we're not the only ones thinking this. I got this article in my Android feed this morning.

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