NFC North Draft Needs: Can the Packers Fix the Holes on Defense?
The NFC North always seems to be in the mix when discussing the NFL’s most competitive divisions.
Although the Green Bay Packers have won the last four division championships, all four teams -- the Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, and Chicago Bears -- have made the playoffs at least once in the past five years, and every year brings hope for each team.
Despite the competitive nature of the division, postseason success has been missing. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, these four storied franchises have combined to win just three Super Bowls (Green Bay in 1996 and 2010 and Chicago in 985). That is one fewer Super Bowl than the New England Patriots have won in the past 15 years.
There is plenty of talent in the division -- featuring Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson -- but individual talent has not led to great success for the division as a whole. Each squad seems to have a few missing pieces each year.
Let’s take a look at what each NFC North team needs to get a step closer to a division crown and possibly an NFC Championship.
Biggest Need: Defensive Secondary
What don’t the Bears need?
New general manager Ryan Pace has done a good job of adding veterans to a team in desperate need of talent, but there don’t seem to be many long-term solutions to their problems on the roster outside of rising stars Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Long, and Kyle Fuller.
Both sides of the ball will need to be addressed in the draft, but what should be addressed first? Although the loss of Brandon Marshall and uncertainty surrounding quarterback Jay Cutler scream that the offense should be their primary focus in the draft, the Bears were much worse on defense in 2014 than they were on offense. According to our Net Expected Points Metric (NEP), which quantifies a team’s production in comparison to expectation-level production, the Bears ranked as one of the worst defenses in the league.
When adjusted for schedule, the Bears’ defense ranked 28th in the NFL, as its Adjusted Defensive NEP was 105.69. That means they allowed 105.69 points more than an average team would have. Only five teams in the NFL last year had scores worse than 84.72.
The 28th ranked passing defense based on Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play (0.10) lost cornerback Charles Tillman and safety Chris Conte. Even with a stud in cornerback Fuller and the addition of 10-year veteran Antrel Rolle, the Bears have to address the secondary early in the draft if they are going to regain their claim as a dominant defense, or even a respectable one.
Potential Picks: CB Marcus Peters (Washington), CB Trae Waynes (Michigan State), SS Landon Collins (Alabama)
Biggest Need: Running Back
The 11-5 Detroit Lions had a great year under new head coach Jim Caldwell. Despite losing offensive weapons Calvin Johsnon and Reggie Bush most of the year due to injuries, the Lions ranked 14th in Adjusted NEP per play (0.04) and 11th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play (0.10). The issues were mainly on the ground: the Lions ranked 19th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play (-0.03).
Caldwell has made it clear that he plans to focus on the running game and admitted that some of the problems they experienced last year on the ground were personnel-related. In 2014, running back Joique Bell received the Lion’s share of carries (224 to Bush’s 76), which is rare for a Caldwell-led offense. Dating back to 2008 in Indianapolis, Caldwell has only given one other running back over twice as many carries as the second leading back (Joseph Addai in 2009). Expect the Lions rushing attack to balance out next year and for Joique Bell to receive significantly fewer carries.
As for the defense and the offensive line, the Lions have developmental players that may be ready to step up, including Michael Williams who converted from tight end to tackle. They will need depth before the season starts, but there is a deep pool of veterans still looking for new homes. What they can't still find in free agency is a play-making running back that can move the chains.
Expect the Lions to take a running back very early in the draft.
Potential Picks: RB Todd Gurley (Georgia), RB Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin)
Green Bay Packers
Biggest Need: Inside Linebacker
The Green Bay Packers top need is clear when looking at the core of their defense. With the departure of A.J. Hawk, a massive hole opens up in the middle of a defense that struggled against the run. The Packers ranked 22nd in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play (0.02). They also allowed the 10th most yards per game on the ground (119.9).
The Packers’ explosive offense led by Aaron Rodgers depends on a defense that can get the opposition’s offense off of the field as quickly as possible. Their per game decreased from 71.5 in 2013 to 67.4 in 2014. Four plays a game might not seem like a lot, but taking the ball out of Rodgers hands is never a good idea.
Despite their need at inside linebacker, don't expect Ted Thompson to grab one too early. The front office in Green Bay has been able to find valuable pieces consistently in the middle rounds of the draft and stay true to taking the best player available on their board. Still, inside linebacker is their biggest need and will be addressed at some point in the 2015 NFL Draft, so they might try to wait on Denzel Perryman from Miami or Taiwan Jones from Michigan State, but there are options available sooner, as well.
Potential Picks: ILB Eric Kendricks (UCLA), ILB Bernardrick McKinney (Mississippi State)
Biggest Need: Wide Receiver
Is playing on the Minnesota Vikings offense a curse?
The Vikings aren’t catching many breaks these days, from losing their star running back Adrian Peterson last season to having each of their wide receivers seemingly lose their talent and ability when putting on a purple jersey. Even without Peterson, though, Minnesota was able to show some consistency running the ball. They finished third in the NFL in Rushing NEP on a per-play basis (0.04).
When it came to their offense through the air, the Vikings weren’t so fortunate. They were one of only six teams in the entire league to average a negative Passing NEP per drop back when adjusted for schedule, and the blame doesn’t lie on the shoulders of Teddy Bridgewater.
Bridgewater had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.05. That matched that of Andy Dalton and Nick Foles and exceeded the performance of Kyle Orton, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick, all of whom recorded a score of 0.04.
Charles Johnson might be a solid deep threat, but Greg Jennings, the Vikings most valuable receiver in terms of Reception NEP was released this offseason, leaving another hole in the Vikings passing game. It’s time for a reliable receiver with tremendous upside. Those two don’t always mix, but there’s someone Teddy used to play with in college that could be a perfect fit and should be available when they pick 11th in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Potential Picks: WR DeVante Parker (Louisville), WR Breshad Perriman (UCF)