Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

Green Bay Packers WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Chicago Bears

Biggest Need: Offensive line

With only two picks in the first two days of the draft, the Bears weren't able to address the majority of their holes. Chicago didn't address their offensive line until Round 7, drafting Colorado's Arlington Hambright and Tennessee State's Lachavious Simmons with their final two picks. Neither are likely to make a significant impact in 2020 -- Hambright will likely shift from tackle to guard, while Simmons is a multi-year project who will probably spend at least 2020 on the practice squad. The Bears' offensive line was charted with 124 blown blocks last season by Sports Info Solutions and has ranked 28th and 29th in adjusted line yards the past two seasons. Chicago will have to count on new line coach Juan Castillo to get more out of the talent already there than has been shown over the past couple of seasons.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Chicago's undrafted free agent class may be the weakest in the division; they only guaranteed money to four players, with none topping $30,000. The most recognizable name belongs to edge rusher Ledarius Mack (Buffalo), who got a $1,500 signing bonus in part for being Khalil's brother. Perhaps more likely to make an impact will be Duke's Trevon McSwain, an undersized but agile defensive tackle with solid fundamentals; he'll need to bulk up and add strength to make it at the NFL level. The Bears also added Kentucky's Ahmad Wagner, who played in just eight games for the Wildcats, as he was mostly a basketball player for Iowa. At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, he's an interesting red zone project -- he drew 11 pass interference penalties on 43 targets last season. Western Illinois' LaCale London will need to find a position in the pros -- he's listed as a linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle in various places. He rushed the passer plenty in college, but probably has to move to the line in Chuck Pagano's scheme.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Need: Inside linebacker

Detroit could have spent all their draft picks on defense and been justified, having ranked 28th in DVOA in each of the past two seasons. First-round cornerback Jeff Okudah will be a great fit in the secondary, and third-rounder Julian Okwara is an interesting prospect at edge rusher. That leaves unaddressed the middle of the defense, where Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones are once again penciled in as the starters, alongside free-agent pickup Jamie Collins. Davis is not the every-down linebacker the Lions were hoping for when they used a first-round pick on him in 2017; his 31.8% broken tackle rate in 2019 was the worst among players with at least 30 solo tackles, and he struggled mightily in coverage. The Lions opted not to pick up Davis' fifth-year option, leaving the team with no long-term plan in the center of the defense.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Tight end Hunter Bryant (Washington) is an interesting prospect. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com compared him to Jordan Reed, which fits in both his playmaking skills and his lengthy injury history; he has missed plenty of time over the last two years with knee injuries. He's more of a big slot receiver in the pros than a tight end, but he has skills with the ball in his hands -- he averaged 16.4 yards per catch in college. Detroit also added a pair of safeties with a chance to make the roster. Notre Dame's Jalen Elliott is limited as a cover guy, but he's a competitive thumper, a three-year starter, and a team captain -- he seems to fit the mold of "special teams maven" to a tee. Auburn's Jeremiah Dinson is, to quote Zierlein again, "a cornerback playing safety who runs more like a linebacker," which screams "guy without a position in the NFL." Still, he has excellent instincts and impeccable intangibles, so if he can find a spot that matches his size, he has a chance to contribute.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

In what was billed as the deepest receiver draft in recent memory, the Packers drafted zero wide receivers. Davante Adams was the only Packers receiver with more than 35 receptions last season, and the Packers have zero proven options anywhere else on the depth chart. Allen Lazard did flash in limited action and could potentially be a solid second or third option in 2020, but the rest of the corps is a shambles. Geronimo Allison is now in Detroit (which is no great loss -- he had the second-worst receiving DVOA in the league); Marquez Valdes-Scantling had the worst catch rate in the league. New signing Devin Funchess is coming off of a collarbone injury and has only had one positive DVOA season in his career. The rest of the depth chart is made up of flyers and lottery tickets. Even if Lazard is twice as good as he was in 2019, the Packers could still have used a third receiver to flesh out their 11-personnel sets. It's hard to see how taking Jordan Love instead of Tee Higgins or Michael Pittman Jr. makes the Packers a better team in 2020 … or 2021.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Don't worry, Packers fans -- Green Bay went out and finally added some receivers in free agency. Reggie Begelton is a really, really interesting prospect, as he's not REALLY a rookie -- he's listed as a UDFA out of Lamar, but he has played the last three years for the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL, where he was the team's most outstanding player a season ago, with 102 receptions for 1,444 yards and ten touchdowns. Don't be shocked if he plays a huge role in 2020, considering Green Bay's depleted depth chart. Michigan State's Darrell Stewart has size and athleticism to spare, but he's a developmental prospect who has trouble with drops and with sloppy route running. The Packers' UDFA class also includes Florida State's Stanford Samuels (a tall, physical, man-cover corner with some concerns about his slim frame), Utah State's Tipa Galaei (an explosive edge rusher who went undrafted because he's just 235 pounds) and Memphis' Patrick Taylor (a 6-foot-1, 217-pound running back who ended up with a -31.1% BackCAST, slightly above the middle of the pack and ahead of first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire).

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Need: Guard

With 15 picks, the Vikings did a lot of work overhauling a roster that was gutted by salary cap constraints, replacing Stefon Diggs, providing much-needed secondary help, and shoring up offensive tackle. One area they didn't significantly improve, however, was the interior offensive line. Oregon State's Blake Brandel and Washburn's Kyle Hinton are late-round projects, and neither are likely to challenge Pat Elflein or Dru Samia anytime soon. Elflein may well have been the worst starting guard in football in 2019, while Samia, last year's fourth-round pick, had just 31 offensive snaps last season. Perhaps Dakota Dozier replaces one or the other, but that would still leave the Vikings weak inside, where they were bullied and beaten out of the playoffs in 2019.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Vikings won the Quartney Davis sweepstakes, guaranteeing him $100,000 to come to Minnesota. The Texas A&M receiver had disappointing numbers in college (54 receptions for 616 yards and four touchdowns as a junior), but there's no doubting his measurables -- 6-foot-1, 201 pounds; a 4.54s 40 and a 35.5-inch vertical leap. The Vikings are hoping that poor quarterbacking kept him from reaching his full potential. Minnesota also grabbed a pair of interesting offensive linemen -- Michigan State's Tyler Higby has started at left guard, left tackle and center; Oregon's Brady Aiello is an excellent run blocker. On defense, Minnesota added Baylor's Blake Lynch, who started at cornerback, linebacker, safety, wide receiver and running back in college; he's probably a linebacker in the pros. Finally, there's Central Florida's Nevelle Clarke, who was a first-team All-ACC cornerback; concerns about his speed, fluidity, and footwork made him a priority free agent rather than a Day 3 draft pick.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.

Comments

21 comments, Last at 22 May 2020, 11:38pm

6 What's the longest streak of…

What's the longest streak of a team's Four Downs biggest need staying the same? This is 2 straight offseasons (and 4 straight articles) where the Packers' biggest need has been "Wide receiver" or "Pass-catchers".

Feb 2019: "Heading into another season with a wide receiver corps chock full of late-round and undrafted youngsters would be unacceptable."

May 2019: "Aside from Pro Bowler Davante Adams, the Packers' wide receiver corps is thin and inexperienced."

Feb 2020: "Aaron Rodgers isn't getting any younger, so it's time to get him some offensive playmakers not named Aaron Jones or Davante Adams if the Packers want to take that next step and get back to the Super Bowl."

11 Seattle's biggest need was…

Seattle's biggest need was offensive line in every Four Downs from the summer of 2014 until February of 2019. Dallas had a long streak of corner/safety as well.

It would be interesting to go back and catalog these and note which teams have blind spots for certain positions.

21 Packers Brass.

It begs the question:  Did the GB FO think Rodgers was expected to boost an unathletic WR corps or did they think Rodgers was the problem?

Based on the draft, it was the latter.

Sad to say that GB did not appreciate Rodgers all that much based on their apathetic approach to getting him quality WR over the years.  If he had been drafted by SF, would he have had the same career?

8 Maybe the Bears don't think…

Maybe the Bears don't think a season will be played this year, or maybe Nagy just loves his roster, but the Bears rookie free agent signings appear to be consistent with a parsimony that goes all the way back to Papa Bear himself, who could get away with it better when players had no leverage. Madam McCaskey is about 157 years old now, isn't she? Who's next in line for the throne? It'd be interesting to see the team operated without a bare bones budget, after a century.

12 Not sure what you mean. This…

Not sure what you mean. This offseason the Bears have effectively signed three free agent starters at some of the highest-paid positions (QB, Edge, TE), plus a presumably starting OG. The only reason they have any cap money left at all is because Foles gave them a ridiculous break in exchange for future freedom.

All of those moves might be stupid, but they're not parsimonious.

13 I said rookie free agent…

I said rookie free agent signings. If they are really right up against the cap, fine, but when you don't have many draft picks, you ought to be bringing in rookie free agents, unless the cap prevents it. The thing is, rookie free agents hardly cost anything.

9 I'm probably the only person…

I'm probably the only person in the world that thinks the Packers' receivers will be fine. Not saying they're the 2011 version with Jennings, Nelson, Jones, Driver, and Cobb, but fine. Of the guys they had last year:

  • Adams - Obviously good
  • Lazard - I'm bullish on him as a #2. He's a big target (6'5", 227), and I think as long as he's opposite Adams he should be able to at least match his numbers from last year
  • Equanimeous St. Brown - I haven't seen his name mentioned anywhere lately whenever people are talking about Packers receivers, but he quickly worked his way up the depth chart and was a decent #3-4 in 2018 before he lost all of 2019 with an ankle injury
  • Valdes-Scantling - Was better in 2018, so it remains to be seen which of his two years was the anomaly and which was the standard. Most of his damage last year was done when forced to play above his role, so if last year was the standard, he'd be fine as a #4 and the expectations that go with it. If last year was the anomaly, all the better for the receivers being good
  • Kumerow - Decent, and plays the role of the guy who went to a smaller Wisconsin university a la Bill Schroeder (And is apparently cousin to the Bosas, per PFR)

Of the new guys, Funchess and Begelton could each be anywhere between #2-#4. Funchess is the same build as Lazard and could be a similar role, and Begelton is obviously the wild card we're hoping will bring his productivity south of the border.

14 Funchess is better than…

Funchess is better than Lazard. He hasn't played up to his draft status, but if Funchess had been a third round pick people would be fine with him. I think they also believe Begelton will compete for a top three WR slot. Right now I'd make the depth chart as Adams, Funchess, Lazard/Begelton, EQ, Kumerow, MVS, and Shepherd/rookies. I don't see MVS even making the practice squad unless he's significantly improved his ball tracking ability in the offseason. 

15 If I had to guess, MVS will…

If I had to guess, MVS will be given every chance to make the team because he is the only guy on the depth chart with elite speed. The only thing more frustrating to me than GB's lack of investment at WR over the last 5-6 years is that they haven't brought in anyone who profiles as a deep threat other than MVS and, like, Jeff Janis. (Who also, coincidentally, could not track or catch the ball.)

Anyway, on a more positive note - if I had to put money on anyone who might break out as a pass catcher this year I'd pick Jace Sternberger. Not worried about his lack of contribution last year, because rookie TEs just historically don't put up numbers. He'll definitely get opportunities in this offense.

20 Jace showed enough at the…

Jace showed enough at the end of the year to give me hope he was ready to take over the TE job and contribute more this season than Graham did over the last two seasons. I expect him to have the second-most targets by the end of the season. 80 receptions would be the top end but I wouldn't be surprised if he does that. It's not like anyone else besides Adams is likely to have more targets. I'm also expecting a lot of 2 TE formations with Jace and either Lewis or Deguara. 

18 That is indeed faint praise…

That is indeed faint praise for Funchess. He has a career  catch rate of about 50% with an average depth of about 7 yards (so pretty short on average) for only 35 y.p.g.  these stats are not good.

17 I agree, maybe this group…

I agree, maybe this group isn't Moss-Carter-Reed, but it's acceptable (especially if Aaron Jones is included; he's almost like their Marshall Faulk). I said in another thread, it's actually better than some of the other contenders' receiver groups (SF, Baltimore, Minnesota unless that first-round kid sets the world on fire right away). Come to think of it, this might be the second-best receiving corps in the division after Detroit's, which tells you all you need to know about how critical this "need" is.

And I'm particularly bullish on Lazard as well. For what it's worth, he actually had a top-20 DVOA last year. He's huge, he can jump, and he can catch, so he ought to at least be a strong possession receiver. You can certainly live with him as your second option.