End of the Line for Kendricks, Hicks in Minnesota?

Minnesota Vikings LBs Erik Kendricks and Jordan Hicks
Minnesota Vikings LBs Erik Kendricks and Jordan Hicks
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - The Chicago Bears need wide receivers, desperately. The Minnesota Vikings need to find a way to get younger on defense. The Detroit Lions need to sort through their free-agent cornerbacks. The Green Bay Packers just need some clarity from you-know-who. Find out how to help Justin Fields, give Jeff Okudah some company in the meeting room, clean up the Vikings cap mess, and keep Aaron Rodgers happy(ish) in this pre-free agency NFC North edition of Four Downs.

Chicago Bears

Biggest Need: Wide Receiver

The Bears roster has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese left out on a firing range, but wide receiver is their most immediate need. After all, either Justin Fields (probably) or the rookie the Bears draft after trading Fields (possibly) will need someone to throw to.

Darnell Mooney led Bears wide receivers in both receptions (40) and receiving yards (493) despite missing the final five games of the season with an ankle injury. Mooney, a tiny target who is in the final year of his rookie contract after catching 81 passes in his breakout 2021 campaign, would be the second or third option in a productive passing offense.

Equanimeous St. Brown started 16 games in 2022 but caught just 21 passes, duplicating his career-high in receptions as a rookie for the 2018 Packers. St. Brown looks like he should be a 6-foot-5 mismatch nightmare but has never developed into anything more than a curiosity.

The Bears foolishly squandered a second-round pick on Chase Claypool at the 2022 trade deadline only to learn what the Steelers already knew: Claypool is a talented tease who may never fulfill his rookie promise. The rest of the Bears receiver depth chart looks like it was scavenged from the XFL waiver wire.

In summary, the Bears need to add at least two starting-caliber wide receivers, plus a depth piece or two, through free agency and/or the draft if they hope to evaluate and develop ANY young quarterback.

Bears Free Agent Report

Top Free Agents: LB Nicholas Morrow, C Sam Mustipher, RB David Montgomery, OT Riley Reiff

Nicholas Morrow started all 17 games on an understaffed defense. He didn't conjure any images of Mike Singletary, but he held down the fort while everything else collapsed.

Morrow is the sort of player Ryan Poles should have extended during the season: the Bears have so many needs that it made sense to spend a little extra money on a young veteran stabilizer before he reached the market. Morrow may still return, as the Bears have the cap space to outbid other suitors, but there was no reason for them to get stuck in a bidding war in the first place.

David Montgomery may be the Bears' biggest-name free agent. Montgomery is a useful rusher/receiver who never quite lived up to rookie expectations and is often upstaged by Khalil Herbert. Montgomery ranked second in receiving DVOA among running backs (albeit on just 40 targets), so he has value as a committee back. The free-agent running back market is absolutely flooded, with far more supply than demand, so the Bears should be able to bring Montgomery back if they want him.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Need: Cornerback

The Lions pass defense ranked 26th at stopping opponents' No. 1 wide receivers, 26th against No. 2 receivers, 26th against tight ends, and 16th against "other" wide receivers. At least they were very consistent!

Former third-overall pick Jeff Okudah had a breakout campaign in 2022, though he "broke out" from "injury-plagued megabust" to "adequate starter." The Lions are likely to pick up Okudah's fifth-year rookie option for 2024. Mike Hughes and Amani Oruwariye, both of whom started several games in 2022 with mixed-at-best results, are free agents, as is safety/cornerback tweener Will Harris, the team's slot corner down the stretch.

Fortunately, the Lions picked an outstanding year to be needy at cornerback: the 2023 draft class is absolutely loaded with potential starters. And the Lions, of course, are loaded with high draft picks. They could use the sixth overall pick on a potential shutdown corner such as Oregon's Christian Gonzalez and the 48th overall pick on a ready-to-start prospect such as Maryland's Deonte Banks or Kansas State and Senior Bowl standout Julius Brents, and they would still have a first- and second-round pick available for upgrades elsewhere.

Lions Free Agent Report

Top Free Agents: LB Alex Anzalone, S DeShon Elliott, WR DJ Chark, CB Amani Oruwariye, CB Mike Hughes, RB Jamaal Williams, C Evan Brown, DT Isaiah Buggs, S/CB Will Harris

Oruwariye was a disappointment and is likely gone. The Lions can prioritize either Hughes or Harris for an extension but probably cannot afford to keep both if they hope to do some free-agent shopping. The versatile Harris is the likely keeper.

DJ Chark was a serviceable deep threat as a one-year free-agent rental: 11-of-23 for 336 yards and two touchdowns on passes of 16-plus air yards in 2022. But the future at wide receiver for the Lions belongs to Jameson Williams and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Chark will draw free-agent interest elsewhere as cheap speed for hire.

Michael Brockers is now 32 and breaking down quickly, having played just six games in 2022. He will be cut.

Jamaal Williams is yet another free-agent running back in a class headlined by Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Miles Sanders. Williams led the NFL in rushing touchdowns, of course, but the Lions probably realize that it's their offensive line that drives their running game, not the backs. Williams is also a clubhouse leader type, so the Lions will probably welcome him back with a modest, incentive-heavy deal if the market turns out to be a non-starter.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Need: Edge Rusher

Preston Smith recorded 8.5 sacks in 2022, but the 30-year-old finished 34th in the NFL with just 45 pass pressures. Rashan Gary tore his ACL in November and is in the final year of his rookie contract. Gary will likely get an extension, but the Packers must add reinforcements to a pass rush that ranked 17th in adjusted sack rate and produced just 34 sacks.

The Packers must also repair a run defense that allowed 139.5 yards per game and 5.0 yards per rush in 2022, but they are likely hoping that linebacker Quay Walker and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt, last year's first-round picks, can step up to keep opponents from gashing them between the tackles.

Packers Free Agent Report

Top Free Agents: S Adrian Amos, WR Allen Lazard, TE Robert Tonyan, OT Yosuah Nijman, DT Jarran Reed, DT Dean Lowry, K Mason Crosby

Robert Tonyan averaged just 8.9 yards per reception last year after tearing his ACL in 2021. Randall Cobb caught just 34 passes on 50 targets, most of them underneath, though he was just efficient enough on third downs (eight conversions on 11 targets) to finish the year with league-average DVOA. Both players, particularly Cobb, are Aaron Rodgers binkies, making them canaries in Rodgers' darkness-retreat coal mine. Tonyan may have outside suitors, but don't be surprised if the Packers sign Cobb to a short deal in the free-agency equivalent of sending Rodgers an Edible Arrangement.

Kicker Mason Crosby bounced back mildly from a miserable 2021 campaign in 2022: he was perfect inside 40 yards (after some shaky moments the previous year) but 1-of-4 from beyond 50 yards and recorded just 15 touchbacks on kickoffs. A rebuilding team has no use for a kicker who will turn 39 before the start of the season; a contender with a Hall of Fame quarterback can use a reliable chip-shot specialist who won't burst into flames when glared at after a missed extra point. The Packers must decide who they are—scratch that, Rodgers must decide who the Packers are—before any decision is made on Crosby.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Need: Linebacker

Erik Kendricks and Jordan Hicks are both respected veterans who have been around almost long enough to have played with the Purple People Eaters. Both have lost at least a step, which is why their coverage technique in 2022 consisted of staggering into underneath zones and watching receivers blow past them like traffic on the interstate. The Vikings ranked 29th in DVOA against short passes, and the Giants dinked-and-dunked them into surrender in the playoffs.

Kendricks and Hicks are in the final years of their contracts. The Vikings can save $9.5 million in much-needed cap space by releasing Kendricks, $5 million by releasing Hicks. The cuts should be no-brainers, but the Vikings have a habit of extending veteran contracts far past the point of diminishing returns.

The good news for the Vikings is that there are several starting-caliber off-ball linebackers in this year's draft class, headlined by Drew Sanders of Arkansas and Trenton Simpson of Clemson. Even premium linebacker prospects are typically available when the Vikings pick 24th overall in the draft. So the Vikings can address their problem at linebacker affordably … assuming they don't choose to get even older, slower, and more expensive at the position.

Vikings Free Agent Report

Top Free Agents: CB Patrick Peterson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, C Garrett Bradbury, CB Chandon Sullivan, K Greg Joseph

Center Garrett Bradbury was enjoying the best season of his four-year career when he suffered a December back injury, which he further aggravated in a minor car accident after the Vikings' historic comeback against the Colts. Bradbury returned for the playoffs but got pushed around by the Giants defensive tackles, reminding fans that he was never more than an adequate starter. Neither Austin Schlottmann nor Chris Reed impressed in Bradbury's absence, so the Vikings will need to draft a replacement if they choose to move on. With center-needy teams such as the Bears likely to splurge for an experienced starter to provide some stability and the Vikings in salary cap receivership, they might be left with no choice but to part with Bradbury.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson remains a valuable rotation player with a knack for preventing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket, but the Vikings don't have the cap space to keep investing in veteran role players. Patrick Peterson is a charcoal briquette. Alexander Mattison could return at a reasonable price after he dips his toe into the teeming running back market.


14 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2023, 9:46am

#1 by BigRichie // Mar 01, 2023 - 11:10am

So you think neither Claypool nor Mooney is even a legitimate 3rd receiver? No way I go that far.

Points: 2

#2 by ImNewAroundThe… // Mar 01, 2023 - 11:23am

"Depth piece" goes beyond them too. Need at least 5 total. 

Points: 0

#3 by ImNewAroundThe… // Mar 01, 2023 - 11:26am

At this point, I don't care about any of those Packers UFAs. 

I'll be sad when they go defense again instead of pass catcher (don't need a repeat of '18 class with those 3 WRs). 

Points: 0

#4 by Will Allen // Mar 01, 2023 - 11:30am

The Vikings defensive scheme was so bad it makes it hard to evaluate how bad the players were. What a mess.

Points: 1

#5 by Drivster // Mar 01, 2023 - 1:36pm

Justin Field's 2nd year is a bit like Randall Cunningham's isn't it?  Rambling Randall was sacked 70+ times at rate high of 25%(!) in 1986 while leading the lead in QB rushing yards.  And he had Mike Quick to throw to. Not all the negative traits disappeared, but dude became a 4 time Pro Bowler any maybe the most exciting player in the league.

By my (limited) eye test, Fields looks a better prospect than Cunningham.  And I don't think he looks materially worse than Young or Stroud and definitely better than Levis or Richardson.  Bears had the worst defence in the league. Just draft Will Anderson and don't try to outsmart yourselves.  This a good draft class to go quantity and not be picky at WR days 2&3.

Points: 2

#6 by rh1no // Mar 01, 2023 - 1:56pm

Both Stroud and Young have more upside as passers, though I agree that Fields is am exciting player with enough talent to become a Pro Bowl QB under the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, he is the QB for the Bears, which means he is in the wrong circumstances. Bad coaching, no supporting cast ... it will be difficult for him to achieve his full potential in Chicago. But I think the same is true for Stroud and Young.

Rather than drafting another QB and praying that a twenty year-old kid can save the franchise by himself, I think the Bears are better off trading down so they can stock up on extra draft picks to build depth. They can even come away with Will Amderson, too.

Points: 2

#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 02, 2023 - 9:31am

Both Stroud and Young have more upside as passers

Based on?

Fields's 2021 perception was about the same as Young's and better than Stroud's.


Points: 0

#9 by Scott P. // Mar 02, 2023 - 10:19am

Yes, but we now have a couple of years of Fields in the league to update our priors.

Points: -2

#12 by Aaron Brooks G… // Mar 02, 2023 - 10:45am

What's your source for the updated prior for Young and Stroud?

\remember, there was legitimate debate about Leaf vs Manning, and Giovanni Carmazzi and Spergon Wynn were seen as superior to Tom Brady.

Points: 0

#14 by Scott P. // Mar 03, 2023 - 9:45am

It's Fields we have more information on now. As a 2023 prospect, Fields is lower than he was in 2021.

Points: -1

#13 by Pat // Mar 02, 2023 - 2:41pm

Yes, but we now have a couple of years of Fields in the league to update our priors.

No, we don't. Remember: there is no Krenzel. There is no Quinn. There is no Hutchinson, Trubisky (top 10 Bears quarterbacking season of all time!), Foles, or Dalton. There is no Fields. There is only "Bears QB."

Never underestimate the downward pull of the Bears on QB performance.

Points: 1

#15 by Scott P. // Mar 03, 2023 - 9:46am

Then I will leave you with this blessing: May your team trade two first round picks for him.

Points: -1

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Points: -5

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