Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Kurtz

Chicago Bears

Biggest Hole: Interior Run Defense

In the 10 years between 2003 and 2012, Chicago boasted a top-10 DVOA defense seven seasons, a top-5 defense in five of those, and led the league outright in DVOA twice. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The 2012 Bears defense led the league with -26.8% DVOA, the team's best performance in our 25 years of data going back to 1989. (Better defense is negative, not positive, because it is preventing scoring.)
Last year, the defense disintegrated. The 2013 Bears defense languished near the bottom of the league with a 8.6% DVOA, the team's worst performance over that 24-year span. After a ten-year reign of terror, and absent Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher, the Monsters of the Midway were decisively vanquished.

By the end of the season opponents had learned there was no reason to ever pass against the Bears' horror show of a rushing defense, a unit ranking second-worst in the league in Adjusted Line Yards (4.45), and worst in the league in Second Level Yards (which measures the run-stopping ability of the linebacking corps). While defensive ends Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin were merely uninspiring against the run, the major headaches came up the middle, as defensive tackles Corey Wootton, Stephen Paea and Landon Cohen were gashed for the worst ALY in the league between the tackles when they were actually healthy enough to be on the field. Backup linebacker Jon Bostic did not help and was often lost in space on run support.

Unfortunately for Bears general manager Phil Emery, there are no easy fixes for this quagmire. The ends and outside linebackers played reasonably well considering their age (Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, James Anderson) or their lack of experience (McClellin). McClellin should get better, but Peppers, Briggs and Anderson are on the downward slope of their career arcs. Bostic has potential, but it's too early to pencil him in at Mike, especially after a disappointing rookie campaign. Wootton, Anderson and two starters up the middle who missed significant time, middle linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive tackle Henry Melton, are all free agents this offseason. The cash-strapped Bears have to hope they can swing the low but significant outlay on Williams while shoring up both defensive tackle and linebacker through the draft as they plan ahead. Chicago is in a good position to get a potential impact tackle like Tim Jernigan or Louis Nix near the middle of the first round and draft projects at both positions in later rounds as the defensive retrenchment begins.

Detroit Lions

Biggest Holes: Running Back, Safety

Aside from a blip of respectability in 2011, the Lions' pass defense continues to underwhelm. More experience for young linemen Ezekiel Ansah and Nick Fairley should help take some pressure off Ndamukong Suh and lead to a more potent pass rush, but the team is talent-poor at cornerback and the release of Louis Delmas leaves them with a hole at safety. While there is a large pool of free agent safeties available, the few exciting names like Jairus Byrd come with too large a price tag for a team that just cut Delmas and Nate Burleson to free up cap space. Considering the organization's history with the secondary and financial concerns, Detroit could be well served by looking at cheaper, medium-risk, medium-reward options like Ryan Clark or Chris Clemons while adding the ball-hawking coverage safety Haha Clinton-Dix with the 10th pick to add depth and help generate turnovers out of the nickel in passing situations.

The biggest issue with Detroit's offense is that it all must flow through Matthew Stafford, who is maddeningly inconsistent to the tune of a 59.1 completion percentage (worse than Mike Glennon) and an extremely underwhelming QBR of 52.5, sitting right above Carson Palmer at 20th in the league. The Lions' offense is one-dimensional and will not find consistent success unless they establish some semblance of a running game. Detroit has a fairly talented offensive line, sporting a solidly above-average 3.95 ALY and genuinely impressive 76 percent success rate in power (short yardage) situations. Despite this, former undrafted free agent Joique Bell managed barely above-average production on a per-play basis at 2.0% DVOA. The committee's greater half, Reggie Bush, produced at essentially replacement level as a running back. Both players were excellent as receivers, but that's partly a product of Stafford and the Detroit scheme. Over the last five years, nine of the 11 Detroit running backs with at least 25 targets in a season put up a positive receiving DVOA.

Andre Brown would be an ideal pickup, as he fits Detroit's strengths on the cheap, but Maurice Jones-Drew might better option if and when he and his agent sober to the low market value for a workhorse back from a bad team coming off an injury. Either back would give the team some breathing room to pick from the many talented tailbacks projecting as mid-second rounders.

Green Bay Packers

Biggest Holes: Defensive Line, Safety

The Packers' offseason revolves around the majestic orb of B.J. Raji. Last year, the veteran defensive lineman turned down an $8 million/year extension and expressed frustration at the lane-clogging role he predominantly played in 2011 and 2012, only to receive and squander opportunities playing on the end in 2013. Despite ample cap space available, the combination of headache, ineffectiveness and unreasonable salary demands could mean the Packers might not want the former Pro Bowler back in town for 2014.

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Regardless of whether Raji stays, the defensive line is thin and likely to be thinner as the Packers try to improve on a rushing defense that ranked third-worst in the league in 2013. Stout run defense is critically important in Green Bay's 3-4 scheme because it plays to the linebackers' pass-rushing strengths; the Packers had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 8.1 percent in 2013, ranking fifth in the league, but failed to provide adequate run support. Green Bay's best case scenario is that Raji's price nose-dives to affordability, young linemen Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd turn their potential into performance, and Ryan Pickett stays healthy and productive. When the best-case is relying on two baby-faced linemen, a disgruntled and ineffective veteran, and a 34-year-old's health, your team has serious depth issues. The Packers under McCarthy have shown a clear preference to build from within and extend home-grown talent, so a big splash in free agency is unlikely. Fortunately, quality linemen like Ra-Shede Hageman and Louis Nix should be available late in the first round, and there is some chance the Packers will have a few options to mull as they try to avoid another stumble like last year's disappointing first-rounder Datone Jones.

The beneficiary of McCarthy's organization-first spending strategy is likely to be Sam Shields, who the coaching staff seems to believe will blossom into a shutdown corner any day now. Right or wrong, the team will not be looking at cornerback to shore up a suddenly leaky pass defense. After giving Morgan Burnett a large extension last year, Burnett failed to produce by any measure and will be an expensive anchor to drag going forward. M.D. Jennings, Burnett's partner in crime, is a restricted free agent and was so bad that there is no reason for the Packers to even make an offer. This is a deep draft for safeties and cornerbacks, so the Packers should be able to find some relatively polished safeties in later rounds, if they hold off early in an attempt to find some young impact talent on the line.

Minnesota Vikings

Biggest Offseason Hole: Quarterback

After years of toiling with quarterback projects and coaches' favorites while squandering the magnificent career of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings are exactly where they have been, absent their brief Brett Favre affair, for the better part of a decade. Minnesota gave third-year quarterback Christian Ponder almost two-thirds of last year's snaps and had only a 22nd-ranked 51.2 Total QBR to show for it. After adjusting for opponents, Ponder's -13.4% DVOA was even worse, finishing only slightly better than pick-six machine Matt Schaub. Ponder's replacement, Matt Cassel, was similarly ineffective. Josh Freeman was brought in post-Prescriptiongate -- but was quickly swept under the rug after being flattened by the Giants, against whom he managed only 190 passing yards on 53 attempts. In the end, it did not matter who was taking snaps for the Vikings; all three players were terrible.

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In the past, Minnesota has responded to similarly dreadful production by waiting things out and giving the players another year to turn the ship around. Ponder is still on his rookie contract and therefore dead weight, but Freeman is an unrestricted free agent and the Vikings and Cassel share a mutual, $3.7 million option for 2014. Considering the extremely short rope the team afforded Freeman, it is unlikely he returns for another, even partial, year. Cassel should concern the Vikings faithful, as his pedigree still has some cachet and is exactly the kind of veteran trap the Vikings love to fall face-first into. Indications are that Cassel will decline the option, but he could still be brought back.

Instead, Minnesota should walk away, take their lumps with Ponder and look to the draft for a quarterback (or two). The Vikings are in an uncomfortable position, as Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater will almost certainly be gone by Oakland's fifth pick, much less Minnesota's eighth. If the Vikings were a better all-around team, trading up with a truly talent-starved team like Cleveland or St. Louis might be an option, but the Minnesota defense is also mediocre and could use a depth infusion. Staying put could mean the Vikings find themselves with Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. While eighth overall might be a reach for a 1-2 round talent, there is no team in the league with as gaping a hole as the Vikings suffer at quarterback.

This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.


35 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2014, 6:15pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Vikings defense is not mediocre. It is terrible. The Vikings o-line is ok, as are, in a major reversal from most of the past decade, their receivers. The Vikings should draft, with the number 7 spot, whichever defensive player or qb ranks highest on their board, although if it is close, they should draft a qb. I seriously doubt that any of the remaining qbs when the Vikings pick, will rank that high. They have some cap space, however, and I strongly suspect that Mike Zimmer's staff will produce better defensive play than Leslie Frazier's, so maybe their path will be more clear come draft day.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

All the team needs is a NT, a DE, a LB or two, a S and a couple CBs.

If Bortles somehow makes it to 8, grab him. If he makes it to 5 and Oakland is reasonable, trade for him. Otherwise trade down a few spots and grab Carr late in the first and defense the rest of the way or defense in the first, Garoppolo later, and defense the rest of the way.

And a guard.


14 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I gotta say that I don't understand NFL qb scouting at all. How somebody could look at Bortles, and say he's worthy of a top 10 pick, and look at a Russell or Kaepernick, and think that they aren't worthwhile to take a risk on until the 2nd or 3rd round, is beyond me. What the hell is so exciting about Bortles, except for size and straight line foot speed, and if those two factors are so dominant, why isn't Vernon Davis playing qb?

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Arm strength, pocket presence, and accuracy? Bortles completed 67% of his passes last year and has shown steady improvement throughout his college career. He's also played well in the big games.

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

From the limited time I saw him, I didn't see anything remarkable at all in those areas, and 67% with the wide windows available against college coverage isn't terribly remarkable. I don't think he throws the ball especially well.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I find the characterization of Briggs here odd. He barely played enough to show he is declining. He very well may be, but it is hard to say. The final game of the season, the Bears rush defense was markedly improved, which was Briggs's second game back from injury. I think we can chalk up the first game against the Eagles as knocking off of rust and well everything going wrong.

Now, Briggs is old and the Bears should be trying to find good linebackers because he's their only one. I just think it's more everyone else that was the problem over him.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Yeah, I think Briggs gets an incomplete for last season. Is he old and likely to decline in the next couple years? Sure. But the only problem with him last season was that he got hurt.

Not to minimize how bad the run defense was or the need to improve in the front seven, but I'd say the Bears need at least one good safety just as much as a DT or LB. With better injury luck and 2nd year improvement from Bostic, I can envision them putting together a mediocre defense with the personnel they've got. (Of course, I hope they draft well and pick up a guy or two who can contend for a starting spot). I cannot envision Major Wright and Chris Conte elevating their play to mediocre.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I think the safeties look a lot worse than they are because of bad coaching, trying to cover for the mistakes of the front 7, and general desperation in trying to make something good happen.

They were both key players on the 2012 defense, which was one of the best ever by DVOA.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I absolutely agree that safety is a problem. Unfortunately, the organization has never prioritized the position, and I don't think this year is going to be any different. Given the choice between impact talent up the defensive middle (with a big drop off in later rounds) and NFL-ready safety help (also with a big drop off in later rounds), I think the front office goes with the front seven every day of the week.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I agree that the safety play was awful (and I would claim that even though the 2012 defense was very successful, the safety play that year---at least from Conte---was still really bad), and I also agree with Mike that it's very unlikely to be a priority. I expect to get some undersized guy you've never heard of in the 3rd round or later.

Where I disagree with Mike (and most mock drafts I've seen) is that I don't think DT should be a high priority. Melton and Paea were pretty effective in 2012 (the Bears were #3 in ALY, #8 in ALY up the middle, and #5 in stuffs), and the depth is potentially pretty good, especially if they move Wootton inside permanently (I'm not counting on J. Ratliff, but I'd be fine if he wanted to come back too). I'm much more terrified about the situation at DE. I disagree that McClellin was "merely uninspiring"; I think he's demonstrated conclusively that he's no more a starting NFL DE than I am. The fact that the Bears front office is now whispering about moving him to LB even part-time speaks volumes, because they were adamant when they drafted him that he would only ever play DE. And Peppers, of course, is nowhere near as dominant as he once was and ain't gonna suddenly get younger. As far as I can tell, they have no one in line to take over either DE spot (there's last year's 6th-rounder, but he couldn't get on the field even in the middle of last year's Antietam). I think they should grab a couple high-round DEs this year and another one next year, because the success rate is pretty low.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I'm expecting Wooten to move back to end. He's got to be the best one on the roster. Priority number has to be an impact d-lineman. We don't know if Melton will be any good coming back from injury. Priority number 2 should be effective linebackers. I don't know what to expect from DJ Williams, but outside of about the 2 games Briggs played well in, we didn't have any last year.

Man, how weird is it to feel that the offense is squared away and we need defensive help?

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Melton and Peppers seemed to me the biggest immediate questions for the Bears. Melton was the nightmare for both sides -- he spent most of the season on IR, hurting both the team and his future prospects. Peppers, from what I saw in a handful of games, wasn't nearly as effective in securing the edge against the run as in previous years, and I found I was more impressed by Peppers' run defense than his pass rush skills. What do you expect the Bears to do with these two players who soak up so much cap room?

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Most Packers fans consider BJ as already gone. He likely wants more than the team is willing to pay him at this point and he's flashed enough in the past that some team will be willing to pay him more. Pickett will probably be back as he likes GB and he's more valuable to the Packers than other teams. They also like their DL under contract (Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy, and Josh Boyd) and TT probably hopes that Jones and Worthy can avoid injury next year. Jolly may have to retire due to a neck injury which sucks because he had really become a leader after coming back from his drug problems. In any case, I doubt they'll draft yet another first round pick on the DL after two #1's and two #2's in the last five years.

Plus, they really need a safety. The need is so glaring, I think TT may try to sign one in free agency and still draft one early. They have the #21 pick which may be too late for either Pryor or Clinton-Dix, but I can hope. If all those plans fall through, I wouldn't be surprised to see them try Hyde out at safety. He looked ok as a slot corner, but if they can resign Shields and Hayward comes back decently from his injury, they can play Shields and Admiral Armbar on the outside with Hayward and House at nickel and dime. TT has also drafted at least one DB every year he's been GM despite both Shields and Williams being UFA, and several picks have been in rounds 1-3.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I wouldn't discount the Packers trading out of the first round and using their top pick on a pass catcher. Assuming that James Jones and Jermichael Finley are not retained, the Packers will be down to three receivers with any kind of experience: Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and Randall Cobb. Boykin is still a bit of an unknown; Cobb has had trouble staying healthy, and both he and Nelson are in the final year of their contracts. It would be the thinnest receiving corps that Aaron Rodgers has played with. From 2005 to 2008, the Packers spent five picks on receivers/tight ends in rounds 2-3; since then, they have drafted only Cobb.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I think that depends on whether they can resign Quarless. I'm pretty sure Jones is gone. (Don't blame him. He got screwed when his FA coincided with the lockout and he's shown he can play at a high level, albeit inconsistently.) They're also really high on Bostick who ran a sub 4.5 40 on two separate pro days. I don't know if he can catch, but a 6'3" 250# TE who can run that fast will probably be given a few chances. If they can resign Quarless I don't know if they draft a WR or TE early, but I wouldn't be surprised if they draft one at each position.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Agree that the Packers should definitely be thinking pass catcher. I think what they specifically need is someone who can work out of the slot. They were caught really short-handed there last year with Jennings leaving, Driver retiring, and then Cobb and Finley getting hurt. Jordy is great and can line up anywhere, but his biggest strengths are top-line speed and adjusting to the ball in the air and I think the offense is far more dangerous with him lining up outside rather than inside. It might be tough to find a rookie WR or TE who is able to contribute out of the slot right away, but like you said, if Jones is gone and Cobb can't stay healthy it's suddenly one of their biggest positions of need.

More interesting to think about than the defense, anyway, where they just pretty obviously need better players everywhere.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

They have enough players who can work the slot. Cobb is mostly a slot WR, though he can play outside if needed. Franklin is coming back from injury, but is a RB who can line in in the slot. They can probably find another slot WR cheaply in free agency, preferably one who can return punts.

Any position can quickly go from strength to weakness with enough injuries. I didn't think OT or OLB would be a weakness last preseason either. Unless the NFL goes to college-sized rosters, injuries will occasionally decimate a position.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Yeah, finding slot receivers doesn't seem to be a problem for the Packers. Seems to me a bigger problem would be finding a replacement for Finley if he isn't cleared to return. There's a lot more competition for TE's like Finley now, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of them reclassified themselves as WRs, depending on the Jimmy Graham situation.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I argued before against Graham being called a WR just because he is usually split outside. I don't think that would be possible under the current bargaining agreement. Not that it shouldn't and may be a bargaining chip in the next CBA.

Finley hasn't been the same since his 2010 injury, but agree that uber-athletic TE's are becoming harder to acquire. Does Fauria fall into that category? I know he was mostly used in goal-line situations (where he's a match up nightmare), but he did play multiple sports in HS which would lead me to believe he's even more athletic than he's shown so far. I personally don't relish the idea of my team defending CJ and a Graham-type on the same team, but I wouldn't blame Lions fans being excited by the idea.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Fauria's not particularly fast or agile. He's just very tall and he has a decent vertical (35") for a 260 lb TE, so makes for a very tall target -- a bad matchup for a LB in the end zone, as you noted. He was an UDFA, after all.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Does the 14th ranked team (by DVOA) really classify as "truly talent-starved"? I mean sure they need some help and trading down would be nice, but I think that's a pretty harsh way to describe the Rams.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

There's no way the Lions would invest anything in replacing their current running backs, nor should they. In a league where passing is (usually) king, they should stand pat with backs that are excellent receivers and average runners (unless Bush can't solve his fumble problems). There are needs way more pressing. Given their need for a competent non-Megatron wideout, if Sammy Watkins is still available at 10, I think it's a no-brainer. Only after that should they think about replacing Delmas or upgrading at corner.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Agreed. The logic of the article for RB was Bell (super cheap $) had average VOA and Bush had below average VOA, but why not add another guy with even lower running VOA. What!?

I agree with the CB/S need, but the easiest way to explain the Lions' most glaring need is that our second best WR (VOA) was INJURED BY A PIZZA (and was cut and was barely replacement level when he played). Our 3rd best receiver--who filled in as our 2nd best--is comparable to Darius Heyward-Bey and the dregs of the Cleveland receiving corps. The only reason he's on the team is because he roomed with the teams QB in college.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

You said it. This team showed it can generate plenty of offense with a mediocre running game. What it can't do is win with a group of crappy receivers. Lions receivers dropped more than 8% of passes thrown to them last year, according to ESPN Stats. They need guys who can catch the ball; Ogletree, Durham, and Spurlock ain't it.

I'm not sure what should be done at CB. They spent 4 picks on CBs the past two years, and we haven't seen much yet, but none of them have seen much playing time yet. Even Bentley was essentially a rookie in terms of game experience. It takes time to develop corners, so I'm not sure I'd to see them drop a high pick on another one, unless somehow Gilbert lands in their laps.

As far as Stafford's QBR rating is concerned, QBR ranked Ryan Fitzgerald and Jake Locker as better QBs in 2013. The reader can decide for himself whether this is a sane judgement.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

ESPN's QBR takes rushing into account. Between them, Locker and Fitzpatrick averaged 7.1 YPC on 55 non-kneeldown carries, totaling 5 TDs and 2 fumbles; Stafford had only 3.2 YPC on 23 carries, 1 TD and 4 fumbles. That could account for some of the discrepancy.

35 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I also agree. Fix the engine: worry about a spoiler later. If the Lions had receivers who could get separation and catch passes (even Megatron started to have issues with drops, but then that was probably because he was about 50% healthy most of the year), the running game would suddenly open up because as other high-powered passing offenses can attest, defenses are suddenly less concerned about the run when you can eat up large chunks of yards in the air.

I don't know that the Lions need starting help at CB as much as they need health. Depth never hurts, but there are plenty of guys vying for the top three CB spots. Similarly, they've had half of Delmas most of his career, so a year with a replacement-level S next to Quin probably doesn't matter as much if the DL can focus on pressure rather than jumping offside and committing personal fouls.

A center would be nice to groom for Raiola's impending retirement; an OL can only put up with so many seasons in a Lions uniform before he can't take no more. The rest of the OL was surprisingly good, and three of the five starters are young. The DL could probably use some depth. I'm not sure there were eight solid guys in the rotation last season.

Also, carrying two TEs turned out to be a problem late in the season. Fauria can't fill more than one spot on the depth chart; pick up a few and find out who can block and who can catch passes.

I'm not sure I'd use a pick on a kicker, although the last two the Lions took turned out OK, but they need someone new. Only New Orleans and Houston had worse FG/XP units than the Lions last season. (At least Ross temporarily solved the return issues, and I don't just mean against Philadelphia.)

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Yeah, my initial response to reading the lion entry was... What?

No way a team that needy goes into FA and and drafts to fill the hole of two average runners with above average receiving talent unless everything else is filled.

And everything else is Safety, Corner, probably linebacker, and receiver, receiver.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I would put corner before safety (you can get away with an average safety, and there are maybe 3-4 safeties in the league worth paying premium money for).

As far as linebacker goes, Tulloch and Levy seem to be solid, and the Lions spent so much time in nickel that the 3rd 'backer hardly saw the field. I don't know what Teryl Austin's scheme will be like, though.

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Bears need defense. They need a pass rush, they need a stout DT, they need reliable LBs, they need a new starting corner, they need safeties who won't get embarrassed so often. They should go BDPA for the first two rounds (pending free agency).