Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

Detroit Lions WR Kenny Golladay
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

All pressure, blown tackle, blown block, and coverage success data comes from Sports Info Solutions charting.

Chicago Bears

Biggest Need: Offensive line

The Bears were a bottom-10 passing and rushing offense and may lose their top quarterback and wide receiver with Mitchell Trubisky and Allen Robinson hitting free agency. There are holes to choose from, but many of the team's offensive shortcomings stem from the central problem of a bad offensive line. That line has fared particularly poorly in run blocking, where it has ranked 28th, 29th, and 25th in adjusted line yards the last three seasons. And it's the reason third-year running back David Montgomery has yet to become a star. His 3.7 and 4.3 yards per carry the last two seasons do not jump off the page, but his 19.9% and 23.9% broken tackle rates are 14th- and third-best among backs with 150 or more touches. He led all players in 2020 with 72 broken tackles.

James Daniels, a guard drafted in the second round in 2018, missed most of 2020 with a torn pectoral muscle, and his return in 2021 should help. That said, Daniels has never bested a 2.0% blown block rate in a season, and his addition at left guard may simply offset the potential losses of right guards Germain Ifedi and Rashaad Coward in free agency. Perhaps undrafted former Notre Dame teammates Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars can stick as starters. They blew just 1.8% and 1.4% of their blocks in 2020, and their promotions to the starting lineup coincided with Montgomery's streak of six straight games with 100 yards from scrimmage to end the regular season, but the Bears shouldn't trust those results as their new standard. Five of their final six opponents finished in the bottom 10 in adjusted line yards on defense. If they want to permanently turn the corner, the Bears need to invest significant draft or free agent capital in their line.

Major Free Agents: Mitchell Trubisky, QB; Allen Robinson, WR; Germain Ifedi, RG; Tashaun Gipson, S; Roy Robertson-Harris, DT; Cordarrelle Patterson, WR/KR; Artie Burns, CB; Cairo Santos, K

By traditional passing statistics, Trubisky outplayed Nick Foles in 2020, but Trubisky benefited from the same easy second-half schedule that buoyed Montgomery and his offensive line. Adjusted for his opponents, Trubisky (-7.5%) wasn't much better than Foles (-16.3%). And Trubisky had a negative DVOA for the second straight year and third time in his four-year career. The Bears won't lose much if they lose Trubisky in free agency. He may not find a starting job on any team.

Even if they are comfortable losing Trubisky, the Bears face a difficult free agency period with impact players from every unit. Robinson couldn't crack the top 20 at his position with 176 DYAR, but his total is impressive in context of a Bears offense that did not produce another wide receiver above replacement level. Ifedi should capitalize on his one-year prove-it deal after setting a new career standard with a 1.5% blown block rate. Tashaun Gipson played more than 1,000 snaps and drew just one defensive penalty. Roy Robertson-Harris averaged more than a hurry per game despite a rotation role that held him consistently under 60% of the team's defensive snaps. Cordarrelle Patterson is the best kickoff returner in NFL history and returned his eighth career kickoff touchdown in 2020. Even kicker Cairo Santos would be a major loss. He stabilized an infamous trouble position for the Bears with a 93.8% field goal conversion rate.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Need: Wide receiver

The Lions don't have a hole at wide receiver—they have a chasm. With Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, Mohamed Sanu, and even primary special teams player Jamal Agnew entering free agency and after waiving Marvin Hall last December, the team has just sophomore Quintez Cephus as an incumbent option at the position. His 20 catches, 349 yards, and two touchdowns are the only NFL wide receiver statistics on their roster, and his fifth-round draft status would not portend dramatic increases in those totals for most teams. The Lions may be the exception with their lack of other options.

Entering 2021 in a blatant rebuild, the Lions may not see their skill positions as a top priority, but they'll need to add some weapons to protect their new maybe-franchise quarterback Jared Goff. With his lack of mobility, Goff suffered a top-eight differential between his DVOA with (-107.3%) and without pressure (52.7%). One imagines he would have similar problems if none of his receivers could create separation. Running back D'Andre Swift (17.3% receiving DVOA) and tight end T.J. Hockenson (-6.3%) are premier receiving talents at their respective positions, but they can't carry an entire passing game.

Major Free Agents: Kenny Golladay, WR; Marvin Jones, WR; Danny Amendola, WR; Romeo Okwara, DE; Everson Griffen, DE; Duron Harmon, S; Adrian Peterson, RB; Matt Prater, K

Among those free-agent receivers, Golladay is the obvious prize. He produced receiving DVOAs between 13.3% and 21.9% on heavy volume in his first three seasons before a nagging hip injury cost him most of 2020, and he is still just 27 years old. That said, Jones has maintained similar efficiency into his 30s and will be a solid addition for a team better equipped to compete in the short term.

Defensively, the team has a handful of rotation players hitting the market. Safety Duron Harmon started every game in 2020, but now in his 30s, he may be a casualty of the Lions' surprising cap crunch that exists in part because of their willingness to absorb $19 million in dead Matthew Stafford money to gain better draft picks from the Rams. Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Everson Griffin led the team with 29 and 17 respective hurries; none of Detroit's other defenders even reached 10. Okwara is the closest thing the Lions have to a priority re-signing on that side of the ball since he will enter 2021 still just 26 years old.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Need: Second cornerback

Watchers of the Packers' NFC Championship Game loss to the Buccaneers saw this one coming. That week, Kevin King allowed five catches for 66 yards in primary coverage, looked bad doing it, and sealed the game with a Tyler Johnson jersey tug that was blatant if not universally demanding of a defensive pass interference flag. For the season, King allowed 8.4 yards per target and had a 45% coverage success rate, 54th and 62nd of the 79 cornerbacks who saw 25 or more targets. Neither he nor Josh Jackson has lived up to their second-round draft status, and the former's free agency would have created a hole at cornerback even if he had lived up to it.

That need for the Packers is less than it would be for other teams. They have likely the best cover corner in football in Jaire Alexander, whose 4.4 yards per target and 65% coverage success rate were second-best and best at the position last season, but the Packers have a deep and balanced roster that 2020 demonstrated is close to Super Bowl-caliber. Where other teams have obvious holes, the Packers need only to make refinements to better match up with the elite teams they would likely face deep in the postseason.

Major Free Agents: Corey Linsley, C; Lane Taylor, LG; Aaron Jones, RB; Jamaal Williams, RB; Kevin King, CB; Damon Harrison, DT

Beyond King, the Packers have a pair of starting offensive linemen in Corey Linsley and Lane Taylor and a pair of running backs in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams hitting the open market. Linsley and Jones are among the most valuable free agents at their positions, the former coming off a 0.6% blown block rate that was top-10 among regular offensive linemen and the latter coming off a 20.3% rushing DVOA that was top-five among regular running backs. Linsley will be the priority, especially after last year's controversial AJ Dillon draft pick. That said, Jones is a candidate for the franchise tag, which would be a modest $8.5 million at his position, and Taylor may merit some bounce-back interest—he bested a 2.0% blown block rate in 2016, 2017, and 2018 before missing the bulk of 2019 and 2020 with shoulder and knee injuries. Meanwhile, the Packers have already cut linebacker Christian Kirksey following a disappointing season with a 21.2% blown tackle rate, and if they want to spend some money to keep their best free agents, they may also cut pass-rusher Preston Smith. After a career year in 2019, Smith declined precipitously with just 11 hurries last season.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Need: Front seven

The 2020 season could hardly have started worse for the Vikings. They entered their Week 6 bye with a 1-5 record and were realistically if not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but despite that start and their efforts to fix their salary-cap nightmare with the preseason releasing of several talented veterans, the Vikings matured into a balanced team with an upper-half passing offense, rushing offense, and pass defense. Their major weakness was in run defense, where they finished 30th in DVOA and with a last-place rate of 5.16 adjusted line yards.

Defensive tackle Michael Pierce may prove to be the missing piece. After releasing All-Pro defensive tackle Linval Joseph, the Vikings spent the bulk of their limited 2020 free-agent budget to sign Pierce from the Ravens for three years and $27 million, then promptly lost him when he opted out of the season. However, it's unclear how well he will play after an off year. Elsewhere, Eric Kendricks can't play any better in 2021 than he did in 2020, when he led all linebackers with 50 or more tackle opportunities with a 6.3% broken tackle rate. Meanwhile, the team faces uncertainty in both their run defense and pass rush with linebacker Eric Wilson and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson hitting free agency, and with linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter coming off of lost seasons with pectoral and neck injuries. The Vikings may opt to cut Barr to save $7.7 million in cap space, and they may lose Hunter whatever their preference if his injury—a cervical spine disc herniation—is as serious as it sounds.

Major Free Agents: Anthony Harris, S; Eric Wilson, LB; Jaleel Johnson, DT; Dakota Dozier, LG; Rashod Hill, LT; Todd Davis, LB

Anthony Harris is the Vikings' biggest potential loss to free agency. He did not intercept a pass in 2020 after leading the league with six picks the year before, but he made up for the loss of those flash plays with consistent playmaking. Harris was a rare safety to eclipse 100 tackles in 2020, and he's three years younger than legendary teammate Harrison Smith and may be a priority to keep with Smith a year away from his own free agency. The linebacker Wilson did a bit of everything in his breakout fourth season. He tallied 112 tackles, eight defensed passes, three sacks, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble, and would be tough to lose if the team decided to release Barr. Jaleel Johnson is a run-only defender with just one hurry over a full 16 starts, but every body is critical for an already undermanned defensive interior.

On the other side of the ball, left guard Dakota Dozier and tackle Rashod Hill are entering free agency. That may not seem critical with Riley Reiff anchoring Kirk Cousins' blind side, but Reiff could be a cut candidate if the Vikings need that $11.8 million savings to continue their push toward solvency.

Comments

14 comments, Last at 05 Mar 2021, 8:35pm

2 Gotta love how the Packers…

Gotta love how the Packers tried to throw out the book on draft value in favor of cargo cult nonsense, and got rewarded by finishing the exact same way as the year before: getting steamrolled in the NFCCG due to fatal flaws in the roster. 

At least Gettleman plays the guys he overdrafts. But hey, now they don't have to worry about having a hole at the most replaceable position. Who were they afraid was gonna nab Jordan Love ahead of Jalen Hurts again?

3 Being a DPI call away from…

Being a DPI call away from having a GWD opportunity is hardly "getting steamrolled". A 5-point game with multiple close/what-if plays is a close game, not getting steamrolled. Or is every game either a win or a steamrolled loss to you?

11 You're wishful thinking, young Nevic.

Without Brady throwing a couple lame-duck INT, you are likely not in the game at all in the second half.

Those INT were long punts, basically, but they stopped the Bucs from continuing to chew clock and or adding to their lead.

I never felt the game was in doubt in the second half.  It felt similar to the SB, only that Brady gave the Packers a few chances to get back in it.

4 The Lions need receivers,…

The Lions need receivers, which is why I will tear my hair out if they use the 7th pick to take an off ball linebacker who likes to dry hump his teammates, like what a lot of mock drafts predict them to do.

5 Regarding GB

Linsley is gone. Per the player the club has not even contacted him about a contract.  I would be stunned if GB franchised Jones.  
 

GB will work the draft and some free agency just not their big ticket guys.  Suspect Williams at rb is a focus 

6 Transition tag would be better

In reply to by big10freak

Not being contacted (at that point in time at least) isn't too big of a surprise. It's still (was) early. But they don't have enough to re-sign him, without giving up more at more important positions. 

8 They didn't franchise Cobb

In reply to by big10freak

The Packers didn't franchise Cobb. They let him ask around and he ended up resigning back the first day of the contact period. I think they're letting Jones ask and it wouldn't surprise me if he resigned with the Pack but I'm not holding my breath. Linsley is gone as they'll need the money for Jenkins and Alexander. 

7 Obvious DPI by King?

In a vacuum, yes. In that actual game, not at all. There were equally obvious DPI no-calls earlier in the game. There was a good amount of writing about it on this website and others. 
 

“Aaron Schatz: It was clearly pass interference on King, if they had been calling things all game. But they haven't been calling anything all game, and now they're going to end the game with a jersey tug?

Bryan Knowles: Yeah, it was pass interference, but they have been letting everything go in the secondary. That's ... I mean, I don't know how you call that after letting everything else go all day.”

9 Bears biggest need

Look, I know it's boring to say the same thing year after year, but boring and obviously correct is better than out-of-the-box and kind of ridiculous. The Bears are historically bad at the most important position in pro sports. If you don't fix that, nothing else matters.

12 Exactly.

Someone in another thread suggested that the Bears would be in a different place if they'd drafted Mahomes.

I posited that they'd be exactly where they are now, except wasting Mahomes talent.

 

13 Given their track record of…

Given their track record of selecting and developing QBs (as division alludes to), I think the Bears would be better off trying multiple low-percentage options (including draft picks and free agents) than gathering all their assets and putting them on one guy again. I'm not convinced this regime is capable of getting it right, but if they try enough times they might get lucky with one of them.

14 Objectively, this team feels…

Objectively, this team feels like the 2016 Broncos. Basically a team without a qb but with enough residual talent to keep them out of the cellar. And what ensued has been a slow decay that has lasted more than 4 seasons. An eternity in football terms. 

I predict the Bears are headed for that kind of future, several seasons forestalling the inevitable collapse.