With the final edition of this series, we have one of the most exciting divisions in the league; the NFC North. These teams carry some of the most storied rivalries in NFL history, boasting as much glory and heartbreak as any other division in the league. Led by three very good quarterbacks and the best running back in football, these teams are primed for yet another season of mutual disdain.
If you go by record alone, the NFC North was the NFL’s most competitive division; less than two wins separated the top three teams, with the Vikings finishing only three wins behind first place. I say less than two wins because the Packers won the division by just a half game; one fewer loss than the Bears thanks to a tie with the Vikings. Of course offseason performance is immensely important for every team, but when everyone starts on such even footing, a small edge can make the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs. With three regime changes in the last four years, most of these teams expected quite a bit of turnover this offseason. Let’s take a look at the action.
In just one year Mark Trestman transformed the Bears boring offense into a powerhouse that scored the second most points in the league. However the defense also underwent a massive performance change, falling from a top 5 unit in 2012 to bottom feeder in 2013. A lot of that has to do with aging veterans, as the Bears defense was third oldest in the league last year. Numerous players saw regression in performance, and key players (DT Henry Melton, CB Charles Tillman) missed most of the season due to injury. Not surprisingly, the Bears were very active in free agency, signing a whopping 15 free agents and letting 11 of their own players find new homes.
Trestman seemed to prioritize a change at DE this year, allowing his top two starters (Julius Peppers, Corey Wooten) to walk and replaced them with Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. Peppers and Allen are both fairly old, but Allen is two years younger and appears to have more left in the tank. He signed a 4 year $32M deal with $15M guaranteed. While that seems to be a fair price, Houston is the real bargain here signing a 5 year $35M deal with $15M guaranteed. He may not be as good of a pass rusher as Allen, but he is dominant against the run, still contributes against the pass, and is only 27 years old. Houston has never played opposite a DE anywhere as good as Allen, is in the prime of his career, and is still improving. All things considered, the Bears should be ecstatic about the rate that they are paying him. In another very nice move, CB Charles Tillman was resigned. While he isn’t young at 33 and coming off an injury plagued season, the contract is for just 1 year $2.3M, a deal he can easily end up outperforming.
In the draft the Bears continued to focus mainly on defense, with four defenders in their first five picks; CB Kyle Fuller, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Will Sutton, and FS Brock Vereen. Fuller was their first round pick, an incredible athlete who is adept in man coverage. With the uncertainty of Charles Tillman, and another aging CB in Tim Jennings, this pick makes a lot of sense. Ferguson and Sutton give them a much needed injection of youth on the interior defensive line, and while neither is an amazing pass rusher, their run defense represents a pretty solid upgrade over the 2013 Bears defense. Vereen is a nice athlete (brother of Patriots Shane Vereen), but is more of a project player. Their one offensive selection of note was RB Ka’Deem Carey, a shifty runner who should take over most of the 3rd down duties. He lacks top end speed, but should be able to contribute as a blocker and receiver right away.
The rest of the Bears moves mostly consisted of addressing depth. The ones that should have the biggest effect on snap counts included replacing safety Major Wright with M.D. Jennings, WR Earl Bennett getting let go in favor of Josh Morgan, and the signings of DE Israel Idonije and C Brian De La Puente. With mostly cost effective upgrades all over the defensive side of the ball (Jared Allen was the only gamble) I am very pleased with the Chicago’s performance the offseason. Grade: A
Having three #1 picks with pre-rookie scale contracts can REALLY mess up your finances. Thanks to the contracts of Stafford, Megatron, and Suh, it shouldn’t be a shocker that the Lions were somewhat tight in free agency for a second straight year. The only free agent starters that were added included SS James Ihedigbo, and WR Golden Tate, while oft injured players FS Louis Delmas and WR Nate Burleson were allowed to walk. Considering the lack of financial flexibility, these are nice upgrades at two positions that were in question. Ihedigbo may not be as talented as Delmas, but he will cost just $1.15M this year as oppose to $3.5M for Delmas. While that may not seem like a huge difference to a billion dollar corporation, when you are barely under the cap that extra couple million can make a huge difference. In this case, it gave them the flexibility to sign Golden Tate instead of sticking with Burleson (who again injured himself in May) to a 5 year $31M deal with 13M guaranteed. Considering the Lions ended up with just $400k in cap space, that tradeoff between Delmas and Ihedigbo is looking very worthwhile. Now the Lions finally have a decent receiver to play across from Megatron, and draw some more attention away from Reggie Bush. Tate doesn’t get a ton of separation on his own, but he is a very strong possession receiver, tough to bring down, and will have plenty of open space to work with when his teammates are attracting so many defenders.
In the 1st round of the draft, the Lions snapped up TE Eric Ebron. While I would have slightly preferred Odell Beckham here, I have no complaints about putting someone like Ebron on the same field as Megatron; Ebron has exceptional hands, and very good speed for his frame size. When it comes to scary athletes in a passing offense, the Lions may now have everyone in the league beat. With so many threatening offensive players, defenses will have to gamble a lot more with who they choose to lend double coverage. Don’t be surprised this year when Detroit receivers are running uncovered through the secondary.
Moving on, the Lions took DE/LB Kyle Van Noy in the 2nd round. Van Noy is an interesting player, as he has a ton of athleticism but no single position. He is capable of rushing the passer, but does not engage blockers well. He is competent in coverage, but also plays the run solid as well. As somewhat of a “Jack of all trades,” I think you are most likely to see him play at OLB in the Lions 4-3 defense where he will get to blitz fairly often. 3rd round C Travis Swanson might be my favorite pick of the Lions draft, and not even because I think he is an amazing player. While he is a solid two way player, I’m just happy to see them FINALLY move on from 35 year old C Dominic Raiola who has provided mediocre albeit consistent interior line play for quite some time.
The rest of the draft went so-so for the Lions, as I feel they reached on their 4th round picks CB Nevin Lawson and DE Larry Webster. Lawson is a very small corner with ok athleticism, and Webster doesn’t seem to be more than a spot player for 3rd down passing situations. That said, I do like DT Carraun Reid in the 5th and WR TJ Jones in the 6th. Reid played against very mediocre competition (he played for Princeton) but flashed some very good quickness off the snap. While its tough to project how he will do against NFL players, he has a decent chance of being a bargain in the 5th round. Jones is a solid all around receiver who seems very capable of contributing right away in the slot. I’m very happy that the Lions were able to add three legitimate receiving threats to what was already a dangerous pass first offense, but disappointed in the inability to upgrade their secondary. Top CB Chris Houston was cut, and while it seems he may have a serious injury (he remains unsigned), the Lions have not replaced him. Their corners were already somewhat weak, relying on aging veteran Rashean Mathis to anchor the unit last year. Even without considering regression, opposing receivers should be getting open quite a bit against this unit, meaning the Lions should have quite a few high scoring games this season. There was only so much money to spend this offseason, and I can’t complain about the Lions choosing to build around their star offensive players instead of a CB. Grade: B+
Green Bay Packers:
GM Ted Thompson has been notorious for refusing to sign free agents, fielding a roster almost exclusively through drafting and signing un-drafted free agents. Last season the Packers had an absurd 47 out of 53 players that had never played for any other team. Before free agency began, Thompson claimed that the Packers would be much more active this offseason, and they had plenty of cap room to do just that. They immediately began free agency with a splash, a 4 year $39M deal for CB Sam Shields…still a Packer for life! Plenty of other Packers for life were resigned, including edge rusher Mike Neal, DL BJ Raji, TE Andrew Quarles, and FB John Kuhn. When all was said and done, the Packers had signed 11 players…8 of whom were with Green Bay last year. The only new face of note ended up being DE Julius Peppers, signed to a 3 yr $27M deal with $7.5M guaranteed. At a cap charge of just $3.5M this year, Peppers could easily end up being a bargain now that he will be playing second fiddle to Clay Matthews. That said, he is 34 years old, coming off of his worst season, and will be playing standing up for the first time in his career. I don’t dislike this signing, but it seems quite clear that the Packers will NEVER take any aggressive approach in free agency aside from retaining their own players.
Moving onto the real section of the Packers offseason, their 1st round pick was spent on safety HaSean Clinton-Dix. “Ha Ha” was arguably the best safety in this draft, with extremely competent man and zone coverage skills as a center fielder. With James Jones exiting and Jermichael Finley’s future in doubt, additions at receiver were predictable. The Packers spent their 2nd and 5th round picks on a pair of 6’1” WR’s; Davante Adams and Jared Abbrederis. Adams seemed like appropriate value at his draft slot, a guy with good strength and hands, though lacking downfield speed. Abbrederis is the real gem here, as he consistently got open for Wisconsin last year. His hands are solid and could end up being a steal in the 5th round. The rest of the Packers draft was somewhat mediocre. 3rd round DT Khyri Thorton and 4th round edge rusher Carl Bradford have exciting athleticism, but are in that same Packers mold of very soft defenders who do not excel against contact. While the Green Bay roster is strong, and they are always a contender with Rodgers at the helm, I’m a little disappointed by the continued desire to pinch pennies wherever possible. The Packers left $13M in cap space on the table, and didn’t really upgrade the softness of their defense. They should still be decent against the pass, but good running teams will continue to make them look extremely porous. I don’t approve of this passive approach, but when you have the best QB in the world it’s not hard to construct a contender out of scraps. Grade: C
The Vikings underwent quite a bit of turnover this offseason, allowing many of their own starters to walk. Long time Vikings DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, CB Chris Cook, and RB Toby Gerhart were allowed to find new homes, and LB Erin Henderson remains unsigned. Replacing these faces are DT Linval Joseph who is essentially on a 2 year $13.5M deal, and CB’s Captain Munnerlynn and Derek Cox. Meanwhile, DE Everson Griffen, G Charlie Johnson, and WR Jerome Simpson were all resigned. That sums up most of the action for the Vikings this free agency; they appeared to be throwing in the towel on contending and moving towards the rebuilding phase.
This of course made the draft the main focus for the Vikings, and boy did they focus well. At #9 overall they selected DE Anthony Barr; an athletic freak with enormous potential. He is inexperienced and extremely raw, but thanks to solid DE’s Griffen and Brian Robison, he doesn’t need to step in to a major role right away. As much as I like Barr, the Vikings made the pick of the draft when they traded up to #32 to take QB Teddy Bridgewater. I cannot stress enough how shocked I am that he fell to the end of the 1st round. Bridgewater was far and away the most NFL ready QB in the draft, has exceptional accuracy on short to intermediate routes, and is fearless in the face of pressure. I know people will point to his poor pro day as the reason he dropped so far, as there were numerous reports about how awful it was. Those reports are complete crap. I watched his pro day, and did not see anything that bad at all. Even if coaches didn’t like it, I just don’t see how it possibly could be bad enough to erase his play on film. Pull up the 2012 bowl game against Florida where he kept making perfect decisions in the face of constant pass rush and you will see what I see; a very solid NFL prospect who can step in right now and provide a good floor of QB production.
Those two picks alone would have made a successful draft, but the Vikings weren’t done yet. The 3rd and 4th rounds saw them select DE Scott Crichton, OG David Yankey, and football player Jerick McKinnon. Crichton and Yankey will both be solid two way players who easily could have been drafted higher; everyone here at Zone Reads felt that they both could have been taken as early as the 2nd round. McKinnon doesn’t have a decided position yet, but his athleticism is off the charts and he could potentially contribute all over the field on either side of the ball. With their final five picks on day three, the Vikings took a bunch of gambles on CB’s, selecting three bodies. It’s very possible that none of these players manage to contribute anything, but they were desperate for depth at the position. I can’t stress enough how much I loved the Vikings approach this offseason; they were clearly the worst team in the division with no QB’s and a number of core free agents. Rather than try to fill all the gaps at once, they paid only their young stud DE Griffen, and focused on getting younger and cheaper. The draft ended up paying major dividends, and they will be in a very good position to strengthen the team next offseason. Grade: A