Around the NFC North: 3 non-Packers ready to make the leap

In a perfect world, a handful of second-year players on the Green Bay Packers roster will follow-up promising rookie seasons by establishing themselves as good to great players in 2015. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams and Cory Linsley are three Packers poised to make that transition.

But what about the rest of the NFC North? Unfortunately, the Packers aren’t the only team with talented young players. Here are three second-year players who could become problems for the Packers in 2015.

Teddy Bridgewater
The Vikings second-year quarterback is probably the most obvious selection here, so let’s cover him first. I could never figure out why Bridgewater fell so far in the draft. In a league where QBs like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford command $100 million contracts, how can teams let a player like Bridgewater fall to the end of the first round?

Anyway, when Bridgewater took over last season, he showed why he might have been the steal of the draft. He completed 70 percent of his passes in each of his last four games and showed the mental makeup and intangibles of a five-year veteran. In 2015, Bridgewater should have Adrian Peterson, coming off a “bye” season, for a full year as well. Uh-oh.

Anthony Barr
Before his season was cut short by an injury, Barr racked up 70 tackles, four sacks, and a fumble return for a touchdown in overtime against Tampa Bay. In addition to having the perfect combination of size and speed to dominate a game, Barr is paired with one of the best defensive minds in the NFL in head coach Mike Zimmer.

As a defensive coordinator, Zimmer’s players rarely regressed. If that track record of developing defensive players holds up in Zimmer’s role as a head coach, Barr will be scary good.

Marquess Wilson, WR, Chicago
I’m going to cheat a bit and highlight Wilson even though he’s a third-year player. After showing flashes during his rookie season, Wilson broke his clavicle last training camp and never got on track. Some say Wilson could be on the roster bubble since he was drafted by the previous Bears’ management team. I say nonsense.

Wilson is 6-foot-4 and should get an opportunity to show what he can do now that Brandon Marshall is gone. If I’m right about Wilson, that’ll give the Bears three receivers (Alshon Jeffry, rookie Kevin White and Wilson) 6-foot-3 or taller. Combine those wideouts with 6-foot-6 TE Martellus Bennett and the Bears receiving corp will be tough to deal with, even for a Packers secondary with a basketball-playing background.

Let’s throw in a bonus category: Wild-card second-year player who could break out:

David Fales, QB, Chicago
What if John Fox and the Bears new coaching staff see Jay Cutler throw one too many backbreaking interceptions and find him a seat on the bench?

Fales would likely be Cutler’s replacement. Coming into a situation with Jeffry, White, Wilson and Bennett as your targets and Matt Forte in the backgroun isn’t a bad situation to come into. I’m not predicting we’ll see Fales play and play well in 2015, but stranger things have happened.

Here’s another bonus category: Second-year NFC North player who worries me the least:

Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit
He only caught 25 passes in his rookie campaign and dropped four. I don’t see Ebron as having the route-running skills to be an effective outside receiving threat and he’s not tough enough or sure-handed enough to consistently be a threat inside.

Around the NFC North: NFL Draft edition

The 2015 NFL draft is complete and the Green Bay Packers are still the best team in the NFC North. But that doesn’t mean we should completely ignore the other teams in the division.

Just like the Packers added a bunch of new players, the Vikings, Lions and Bears now have new faces as well. Let’s recap the draft for the Packers’ divisional foes and ask ourselves if any of these teams are now in position to grab the NFC North title belt away from the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

1 (11) — Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan St.
2 (45) — Eric Kendricks, LB, UCLA
3 (88) — Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU
4 (110) — T.J. Clemmings, T, Pittsburgh
5 (143) — MyCole Pruitt, TE, Southern Illinois
6 (185) — Tyrus Thompson, T, Oklahoma
6 (193) –B.J. Dubose, DE, Louisville
7 (228) — Austin Shepherd, T, Alabama

Are the Vikings ready to unseat the Packers?
No, but they’re getting damn close, in my opinion. Mike Zimmer is an excellent coach. Teddy Bridgewater barely scratched the surface of his ability last season. Waynes and Kendricks add to an emerging defense and offer two more weapons to try and slow down Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy & company. Even general manager Rick Spielman seems sensible, unlike Vikings GMs of the past.

With the exception of the Adrian Peterson drama, these Vikings don’t appear to be the bumbling and bungling Vikings we’ve grown to know and despise. They might be a year away from serious contention, but the Vikings are getting closer to being the real deal.

Best pick
Waynes. You can never have enough talent in the secondary when you play against the likes of Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffrey and Clavin Johnson twice per season.

Possible late-round sleeper
Clemmings. In addition to Clemmings, the Vikings also drafted two other tackles in the late rounds. All three will provide competition/motivation for former No. 4 overall pick Matt Kalil, who’s regressed big time since his rookie season.

Detroit Lions

1 (28) — Laken Tomlinson, G, Duke
2 (54) — Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
3 (80) — Alex Carter, CB, Stanford
4 (113) — Gabe Wright, DT, Auburn
5 (168) — Michael Burton, FB, Rutgers
6 (200) — Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas
7 (240) — Corey Robinson, T, South Carolina

Are the Lions ready to unseat the Packers?
LOL! No. I know it’s silly to dismiss a team’s draft class before training camp even starts, but I’m not worried at all about an offensive lineman from Duke and a fumble-prone running back doing much to close the gap between Green Bay and Detroit.

I thought last year’s Lions’ draft class, led by tight end Eric Ebron, wasn’t very impressive and I feel the same about the 2015 class.

Best pick
Tomlinson. I guess if I had to pick a best Lions’ pick, it’d be Tomlinson. He doesn’t frighten me at the moment, but I could change my mind once he lines up against the Packers’ smallish defensive front.

Possible late-round sleeper
Diggs. I almost like this kid more than Carter. He’s got the physicality that seems to frustrate Green Bay’s receivers.

Chicago Bears

1 (7) — Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
2 (39) — Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida St.
3 (71) — Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
4 (106) — Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan St.
5 (142) — Adrian Amos, FS, Penn. St.
6 (183) — Tayo Fabuluje, T, TCU

Are the Bears ready to unseat the Packers?
No way. Kevin White was the best receiver in this draft, but he can’t play defense, which is where the Bears needed help in order to prevent Rodgers from constantly carving them up. Having John Fox as your coach should automatically upgrade the defense a little bit, but the Bears need a lot more help on D if they want to even entertain the idea of unseating the Packers.

Best pick
White. Why did Packers GM Ted Thompson use his first two picks on defensive backs? Because the receivers in the NFC North keep getting better.

Possible late-round sleeper
Amos. The Bears desperately need re-enforcements in the secondary. If they are to have any shot at slowing down the Packes, Amos needs to quickly develop from the rangy prospect he currently is into a contributing player.

Around the NFC North: NFL Draft Edition

Teddy Bridgewater

Is Teddy Bridgewater the quarterback the Minnesota Vikings are desperate for?

The 2014 NFL draft is over and the Packers have a slew of new players to work with as they try to win another Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions also drafted a bunch of talented new players as they try to wrestle away control of the NFC North from the Packers.

Let’s take a quick stroll around the NFC North and look closer at how the Vikings, Lions and Bears stack up after the draft.

Minnesota Vikings

1 (9) Anthony Barr, lb, UCLA.
1 (32) Teddy Bridgewater, qb, Louisville.
3 (72) Scott Crichton, de, Oregon State.
3 (96) Jerick McKinnon, rb, Georgia Southern.
5 (145) David Yankey, ot, Stanford.
6 (182) Antone Exum, db, Virginia Tech.
6 (184) Kendall James, db, Maine.
7 (220) Shamar Stephen, nt, UConn.
7 (223) Brandon Watts, lb, Georgia Tech.
7 (225) Jabari Price, db, North Carolina.

Bridgewater….uh oh
Without a doubt, the NFC North team that worries me most after the draft is the Vikings. Watch 10 minutes of tape on Teddy Bridgewater and you’ll see a quarterback who always looks downfield when moving around and out of the pocket. You’ll also see a highly intelligent quarterback who is asked to set protection pre-snap and progress through multiple reads on passing plays. Finally, you’ll also see a helluva competitor. Bridgewater seems like the type of who will run into a brick wall over and over again if it means winning a football game.

As you can see, I’m high on Bridgewater and was hoping he didn’t end up with the Vikings. He probably won’t start right away, but Bridgewater to Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph could end up being a deadly combination down the road.

With the exception of 2009 when the Vikings had Brett Favre, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers have owned Minnesota, thanks mostly to the Vikings’ incompetence at quarterback. That could be changing with Bridgewater now in the division.

A 5th round steal
Keep an eye on Stanford guard David Yankey, who somehow fell to the fifth round and was snatched up by the Vikings. He’s a mauler, and if he cleans up his technique to fix some balance issues, he’ll be road-grating paths for Adrian Peterson in no time.

Reaching for Barr?
Anthony Barr seemed like a bit of a reach at No. 9 overall, but who am I to argue with defensive genius turned Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer? Barr is raw and, like Bridgewater, might need a year or so of seasoning. But if anyone can take Barr’s pure athleticism and turn it into on-field production, it’ll be Zimmer.

5 1st round picks
Under Zimmer, it’s a new regime in Minnesota. That new regime set out on draft day to solidify arguably the two most important positions on the field: quarterback and pass rusher. Time will tell if they accomplished what they set out to do, but I like the vision and love the Bridgewater pick.

Minnesota has had five first-round picks the last two drafts. Sure, they may have sacrificed some depth, but if three of those first-rounders turn into blue-chippers — especially Bridgewater — and the others competent starters, it will pay off.

Chicago Bears

1 (14) Kyle Fuller, db, Virginia Tech.
2 (51) Ego Ferguson, dt, LSU.
3 (82) Will Sutton, dt, Arizona State.
4 (117) Ka’Deem Carey, rb, Arizona.
4 (131) Brock Vereen, db, Minnesota.
6 (183) David Fales, qb, San Jose State.
6 (191) Patrick O’Donnell, p, Miami.
7 (246) Charles Leno, ot, Boise State

Thank you, St. Louis
I was crossing my fingers that the Vikings didn’t end up with Bridgewater. I was praying to St. Vince that the Bears didn’t wind up with defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Thankfully, St. Louis picked Donald at No. 13 and the Bears took cornerback Kyle Fuller with the next pick.

If you’re in the NFC North, you can never have enough defensive backs to chase around the likes of Jordy Nelson and Calvin Johnson. Fuller was a very fundamentally sound corner at Virginia Tech. He was also a solid tackler, which will come in handy against Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte.

I’m still happy that Donald was gone before Chicago picked, but that doesn’t mean Fuller won’t give the Packers fits down the road. He should be an adequate replacement for Peanut Tillman.

Another Micah Hyde?
Staying in the defensive backfield, the Bears picked Minnesota safety/cornerback Brock Vereen in the fourth round. Like the Packers’ Micah Hyde, Vereen is a player who can hold up well against slot receivers and slip back to play safety or shadow a tight end, if needed.

Aaron Donald…didn’t need him
Sure, the Bears might have been mad about getting so close to landing Donald, but that doesn’t mean they left the draft empty-handed at defensive tackle. Ego Ferguson out of LSU and Will Sutton from Arizona St. both need a lot of coaching, but have high ceilings. Ferguson, especially, appears to have the tools necessary to play multiple positions along the line and perhaps one day fill the shoes of the departed Julius Peppers, at least in terms of his versatility.

Defensive upgrades
The Bears allowed 30 or more points seven times last season, including a combined 77 points in the final two games to miss the playoffs. Second-year head coach Marc Trestman, known as an offensive innovator, now has some defensive toys to complement his two big receivers, versatile running back and enigmatic quarterback.

Will it be enough to finally unseat the Packers atop the NFC North? If Aaron Rodgers gets injured again, it could be. Otherwise, I’ll still take the Packers.

Detroit Lions

1 (10) Eric Ebron, te, North Carolina.
2 (40) Kyle Van Noy, lb, BYU.
3 (76) Travis Swanson, c, Arkansas.
4 (133) Nevon Lawson, db, Utah St.
4 (136) Larry Webster, de, Bloomsburg.
5 (158) Caraun Reid, dt, Princeton.
6 (189) T.J. Jones, wr, Notre Dame.
7 (229) Nate Freese, k, Boston College.

A shiny new toy
Doesn’t first-round pick Eric Ebron seem like another one of those shiny new toys the Lions pick up every year? These shiny new toys look impressive and get everyone talking, but rarely lead to additional wins.

Don’t get me wrong, Ebron seems like a heck of a player, but he also seems like a typical Lion: flashy, super-talented, a bit of a headcase, frustrating.

Detroit desperately needed help in the secondary, so we’ll see if they’ll end up regretting taking Ebron so high with plenty of good defensive backs still on the board.

Stealing Van Noy
The Lions did upgrade the defense by adding Penn St. linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round. I was hoping Van Noy, who can rush from the outside and cover the middle from the inside, would fall to the Packers to provide some long overdue competition for A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.

Sleeper of the draft?
One of the most intriguing players coming into the draft was “tight end” Larry Webster out of Bloomsburg. Webster is 6-foot-6, 252 pounds and played defensive end at Bloomsburg. He began playing football in 2012 after four years on the basketball team.

It sounds like Webster is going to play tight end in Detroit. If he ever figures out how to harness all that size, strength, speed and leaping ability, who knows what he could turn into.

Another new regime
Like the Vikings, Detroit also has a new coach. Jim Caldwell rarely blinked while coaching the Colts and Peyton Manning. Will he show more emotion watching Matthew Stafford try and get the Lions back into the playoffs?

I know this is a post about the 2014 NFL draft, but doesn’t the fate of the Lions still mostly rest on Stafford? If Caldwell can help Stafford become more than just a quarterback who puts up gaudy numbers, the Lions might have something.

Around the NFC North: 2013 NFL Draft Edition

Vikings first-round draft pick Shariff Floyd.

Vikings first-round draft pick Shariff Floyd.

The Packers used the 2013 NFL Draft to finally address the running back position and add a much-needed player on the defensive line. What were the Packers division opponents up to in the draft?

Well, two of them used fifth-round selections to take punters and another drafted an offensive lineman in the first round that most analysts pegged as a second or third rounder.

Those were a few of the moves that made people scratch their heads. But it wasn’t all bad in Vikings/Lions/Bears land. Let’s take a trip around the NFC North to see how the Packers’ rivals used the draft to (maybe) close the gap and challenge Green Bay for a division title in 2013.

Minnesota Vikings

The Picks:

1 — Sharrif Floyd, DT Florida
1 — Xaveir Rhodes, CB Florida State
1 — Cordarelle Patterson, WR Tennessee
4 — Gerald Hodges, LB Penn State
5 — Jeff Locke, P UCLA
6 — Jeff Baca, G UCLA
7 — Michael Mauti, LB Penn State
7 — Travis Bond, OG North Carolina
7 — Everett Dawkins, DT Floriday State

The Breakdown:

Just when it looked like the Vikings might be on the right track, they draft a punter in the fifth round. A punter! In the fifth round!

Ok, a fifth-round pick isn’t going to make or break a draft, but c’mon. A punter! In the fifth round!

Until that happened, the Vikings were doing some good things. At first glance, the trade to get a third first-round pick seemed like a horrible idea. Minnesota gave up a lot to move up and pick a receiver, a position you can usually fill later in the draft.

But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. How often do you have a chance to pick three players in the first round? Rarely. General manager Rick Spielman had some extra picks to work with so he was able to make the deal. When the draft was over, the Vikings still ended up with nine players, even after the trade. That’s a fair balance of using several picks to build depth and making a move that is risky, but could pay off.

Despite making the playoffs last season, the Vikings still need to be thinking long-term. I don’t think the trade altered that long-term mindset at all.

Sharrif Floyd is a tremendous value late in the first round. He was the best player on the board at that point in the night and will fill in nicely when Kevin Williams is likely gone after this season.

Xavier Rhodes and Cordarelle Patterson address immediate needs. The Vikings need all the help they can get in the secondary to try and contain the Packers and Lions passing attacks, especially with Antoine Winfield off the team. We all know how bad the Vikings receivers were last season. Any help in that area would be more than welcome.

Middle linebacker is probably the Vikings biggest remaining hole. They’re a little weak at guard as well (but with Adrian Peterson carrying the ball, who cares?). I also think safety leaves a lot to be desired despite Harrison Smith’s impressive rookie year.

The Vikings ran their 2013 draft the same way they run their organization: Make a big splash that may or may not work (trade) and do something really dumb that leaves people scratching their heads (punter in fifth round). Business as usual for the folks who like to wear golden braids and blow their own horns.

But if two of the Vikings three first-rounders develop into good players, watch out. Minnesota is stashing some interesting young players that could develop into blue-chippers.

Detroit Lions

The Picks:

1 — Ziggy Ansah, DE BYU
2 — Darius Slay, CB Mississippi State
3 — Larry Warford, G, Kentucky
4 — Devin Taylor, DE South Carolina
5 — Sam Martin, P Appalachian State
6 — Corey Fuller, WR Virginia Tech
6 — Theo Riddick, RB Notre Dame
7 — Michael Williams, TE Alabama
7 — Brandon Hepburn, LB Florida A&M

The Breakdown

Because when you have an opportunity to draft a punter from Appalachian State in the fifth round, you have to do it…

I’ve been hearing for the last three years about how scary the Lions defensive line is. As soon as Ansah was picked, everyone once again started talking about how scary the Lions defensive line is.

Sure the Lions defensive line is good, but good enough to contain Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson and make up for other deficiencies on the team? Nah.

Will the addition of Ansah change that answer from nay to yay? I don’t think so, but if he’s used right, he’ll have an impact. I don’t see Ansah as an every-down player, at least not right now. Put him out there as a pass-rusher in sub-packages for about 30 snaps per game and I think he’ll do some damage.

Thanks to the addition of Jason Jones and fourth-round pick Devin Taylor, the Lions defensive line may indeed become scary if managed correctly. Is Jim Schwartz capable of managing anything correctly?

Darius Slay has a knee injury that will probably linger into training camp. The Lions always need help in the secondary so you’d think they would avoid defensive backs with potential injury issues. Being 6-feet and possessing speed to run the 40 in 4.36 seconds goes a long way in helping teams get past injury concerns.

We know Jim Schwartz does a pretty good job of developing defensive linemen. Now it’s time to find out if he can develop anything else. With the right rotations on the defensive front, the line could go from good to great and maybe finally become as scary as everyone thinks they are.


Chicago Bears

The Picks

1 — Kyle Long, G Oregon
2 — Jonathan Bostic, LB Florida
4 — Khaseem Greene, LB Rutgers
5 — Jordan Mills, T Louisiana Tech
6 — Cornelius Washington, DE Georgia
7 — Marquess Wilson, WR Washington State

The Breakdown

All I’ve been hearing is how Kyle Long wasn’t a good “value” at 20th overall. I’ve got news for you: Coaches don’t care about value as it relates to draft position. They want guys who can play.

I think Long can play, and play right away. If you see a guy that you think can play and will be a good player, then pick him. Value be damned. I suppose you could try and trade down, but it takes two teams to trade. Perhaps the Bears didn’t like what was being offered.

I see Long playing guard right away, then one day moving to tackle or center because of his athleticism.

The Bears could always use help on the offensive line, but they’re biggest need is at linebacker after Brian Urlacher was shown the door. Jon Bostic should fill in nicely inside. In a perfect world, Khaseem Greene or Cornellius Washington will one day take over for Lance Briggs, but we’ll see if that actually pans out.

I’m surprised the Bears didn’t take a quarterback in the mid to late rounds. New coach Marc Trestman would have probably welcomed a development project and the Bears could use some insurance in case contract negotiations with Jay Cutler take a turn for the worst.

Are the Bears close to returning to the playoffs or are they in some type of rebuilding mode? The answer to that question depends on how Trestman and Cutler click, not so much on this draft class.

My gut tells me the Bears are rebuilding, but we’ll see.

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