Chicago Bears: Percy Harvin
What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?
Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.
Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.
Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.
Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.
Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.
Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.
Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.
Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.
Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.
Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.
Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.
Which begs the question: How does the rest of the receiver class stack up for our teams?
That was one of the topics ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay discussed during a conference call last week. McShay ran through six other names, most of whom should be available when the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers choose between No. 20 and No. 26 overall.
The Lions have hosted three of the six names below on visits, in addition to Austin, while the Vikings had at least two in their building this month. The names are listed in order of McShay's evaluation. Note McShay's upside-down thoughts on the pair of Tennessee receivers.
McShay: "He scares me coming out of Tennessee, but I see the talent. Everyone I talk to in the league, I think he's gone in the top 20. … Patterson, with the ball in his hands is just freakish, and even though he disappears for 30-40 plays, he'll show up with one or two big plays a game that just kind of blow your mind and leave you wanting more, and I think that's why he's going to be able to go where he's going."
McShay: "Keenan Allen is not 100 percent [because of a knee injury]. He ran a 4.7 the other day. It's not a perfect situation. But he's a late-first, early-second round prospect and should play like that. He runs on tape, we estimate him at 4.53, 4.55 range. I think he is going to be a really, really good No. 2 in the league. He would be a good fit. He was catching the ball better than ever this year. He knows how to use his body. He's got size and he's thickly built. He's not a burner, but he's quick and he's athletic and he's got enough speed to challenge you and take advantage of mistakes. Keenan Allen to me would be the highest rated wide receiver when Tavon Austin and Patterson are off the board." [After the conference call, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Allen's drug test at the NFL scouting combine had been "red-flagged," requiring a re-test.]
McShay: "If you're looking for someone to run vertical routes and stretch the field … a poor man's Randy Moss, that's what Justin Hunter is. … He's a silky-smooth route runner, and he's the guy quite honestly when they needed a throw, when they needed to pick up a first down, when they needed a play at Tennessee, that's where they went. It wasn't to the other guy, Patterson. He's the one who showed up consistently on tape. I think he's a better football player than Cordarelle Patterson."
McShay: "After that group, you start getting into Robert Woods, DeAndre Hopkins, and Quinton Patton. They're all kind of in that same range -- 6-1, 200, 210, 212 pounds -- and they're all in mid-4.5's in terms of speed. Hopkins has the best hands of the three."
McShay: "I think you have to look at the whole picture and what has gone on throughout his career and the ups and downs. It might amount to nothing … The thing so often that's difficult to predict is, in addition, what are guys going to do when they have all this free time on their hands. … He could end up in Atlanta with a guy like Roddy White who will be [on him] all day … and he'll be fine. Or he could go to Detroit, where Calvin Johnson is the greatest guy in the world but he's not going to get on you for making mistakes. He's not that kind of leader. If [Woods] is not going to be around guys that are going to make him accountable, maybe he's not the player he would be if he goes to an Atlanta and plays with Roddy White. That's the tricky part. That's why there is some more risk with him, because he's not necessarily the greatest self-starter."
School: Louisiana Tech
McShay: "He doesn't like going over the middle, but he's very athletic, he has great hands and ball skills 90 percent of the time, but he'll have some focus drops. He's a wild-card to me. If he plays to his potential, he could be the third- or fourth-best receiver of this group in the NFL."
Note: The Lions hosted Patterson, Hunter and Woods, according to the team's web site. The Vikings, according to 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero, hosted at least Allen and Hopkins.
A look at whether each NFC North team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.
Chicago Bears: A hot start in free agency netted left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett. The Bears had been trying for five years to find a genuine left tackle, and Bushrod's arrival should boost the faith of quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett, meanwhile, gives the Bears the kind of pass-catching tight end they once had in Greg Olsen. But Bushrod and Bennett accounted for most of the salary-cap space the Bears had budgeted to use, and now they are nibbling the edges. Overall, however, the Bears improved two important positions, making them winners in free agency.
Detroit Lions: The NFC North's most active offseason team has added three new starters in running back Reggie Bush, defensive end Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. Bush will have a big impact on balancing the explosiveness in the Lions' offense, and Quin will pair with the returning Louis Delmas to give the Lions their best safety duo in recent memory. The Lions have improved as many positions as they could have given their tight salary-cap situation.
Green Bay Packers: It's difficult to win when you don't play, and general manager Ted Thompson is notoriously reluctant to compete financially in the market. He allowed receiver Greg Jennings to sign with the Minnesota Vikings and didn't make a good enough offer on running back Steven Jackson. But the Packers have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons by following a similar approach. These days, their focus is on saving enough salary-cap space to re-sign quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews. The Packers won't find two players better than that on the free-agent market.
Minnesota Vikings: In essence, the Vikings traded receiver Percy Harvin for Jennings, along with a first-, third- and seventh-round draft pick. They won't replace Harvin's unique skill set, but that's not a bad recovery. The Vikings are also in a better spot at backup quarterback with Matt Cassel rather than Joe Webb. But they don't have a middle linebacker after bidding farewell to Jasper Brinkley, and they remain thin at cornerback after releasing Antoine Winfield. The Vikings remain a work in progress this offseason. They haven't won or lost yet.
5. Detroit Lions
Kiper pick: BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah
Seifert comment: This pick has been gaining media steam but leaves unanswered the question of whether Ansah could excel right away. The Lions have said they need an immediate contributor with this pick.
20. Chicago Bears
Kiper pick: Alabama offensive lineman D.J. Fluker
Seifert comment: This pick would make sense on many levels but might not be necessary depending on what the Bears do in free agency. Because he is projected as a right tackle, Fluker figures to be available at this point in the first round.
23. Minnesota Vikings
Kiper pick: Cal receiver Keenan Allen
Seifert comment: The receiver position will be a big need for the Vikings even after free agency. They've cleaned house and need a total rebuild with a combination of veterans and rookies. Allen is big enough (6-foot-2) to be a legitimate downfield threat.
Kiper pick: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams
Seifert comment: The Vikings added this pick in exchange for Percy Harvin. One way or the other, they'll need to add some youth to a defensive line that includes three starters who are at least 30 years old.
26. Green Bay Packers
Kiper pick: Alabama running back Eddie Lacy
Seifert comment: Are the Packers really ready to spend a first-round draft pick on a running back? Media analysts seem to think so. It would be a departure from general manager Ted Thompson's recent history, for sure.
NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.
Chicago: The Bears have a glaring hole at left tackle, but with the No. 20 pick, they likely aren’t in a position to select any of the consensus top players at the position (Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher and Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson). The combine is another step in solidifying and ranking their targets among the second tier of left-tackle prospects for first- or later-round consideration. If the Bears don’t feel there is a draftable prospect with starting credentials for 2013, they could find a player in the tackle-rich free-agent market.
Detroit: With the No. 5 pick, the Lions can narrow their focus to a handful of prospects. Since Kyle Vanden Bosch has been released and Cliff Avril is a free agent, the Lions must hone in on the crop of top pass-rushers available and decide whether one is worth the substantial investment of the fifth pick. Taking a player such as Bjoern Werner, Damontre Moore or Barkevious Mingo would soften the blow of potentially losing Avril, and the combine will give the Lions a better sense of what each offers as a replacement. Team president Tom Lewand recently suggested the Lions need to find rookies who can contribute immediately, and being in Indianapolis will allow them to seek a pass-rusher who fits that mold.
Green Bay: There’s a shortage of top-rated running backs available in this draft, and the Packers discovered a bargain find in DuJuan Harris late last season. But there’s still room to upgrade the position, and the Packers need to search for a high-upside back who can be had in the middle rounds perhaps due to a lack of polish or concerns about an aspect of his game. Four of the top seven rookie rushing leaders from 2012 were drafted in the sixth round or later. There’s backfield talent to be had past the first round, and the Packers will head out to survey the landscape of mid-round running backs available.
Minnesota: Adrian Peterson stomped to nearly 2,100 yards in 2012 for an offense without a vertical passing game (or much of a passing offense at all), and finding a speedster to take the top off a defense would make one of the scariest sights in the NFL to an opposing defense even more frightening. The ability of defenses to stack the box helped to mildly contain Peterson; more space would open up if a vertical passing threat is on the field to stress the safeties in coverage. When the wideouts are running their 40s, the Vikings will have their stopwatches ready and be on the lookout for players who project as downfield receiving threats. Regardless of what the team decides to do with slot maven Percy Harvin (GM Rick Spielman recently shut down talk of a trade), adding a vertical receiver is a premium need for Minnesota this offseason.
We've posted an All-NFC North team after every season since we started this blog five seasons ago. (Links: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)
Below, you'll find our first attempt at a midseason division team. As always, its composition is a blend of advice I've received from football professionals, my own eyes and consultations with some media services I respect. (For those interested, here is Pro Football Focus' All-NFC North team from last week.)
As we've learned in past years, there isn't always a direct correlation between individual frequency and team success. If there were, the Minnesota Vikings -- who sit in third place here in Week 10 -- wouldn't have a division-high eight players on this team.
Many of the choices are obvious and/or self-explanatory. Here are some thoughts on the more difficult decisions:
- Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones has caught a career-high eight touchdown receptions, tying him for first among all NFL pass-catchers. But who would you remove from the three receivers I included to make room for Jones on this team? The Vikings' Percy Harvin leads the NFL with 62 receptions. The Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall ranks second with 797 receiving yards and fourth with 59 receptions. And the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson ranks third with 767 yards and 10th with 48 receptions. Yeah, I know.
- I realize that Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has more sacks (five) in eight games than the Vikings' Brian Robison has in nine (4.5). But I also think Robison has made an impact in many other ways, most notably by batting down six passes at the line of scrimmage. He's also forced a fumble, by the Arizona Cardinals' John Skelton, on one of his sacks. Finally, Robison has been around the ball much more, contributing on 26 tackles to Peppers' 14. Close call here, but that's why I picked Robison.
- I struggled at tight end between the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph. Pettigrew had some early struggles with drops, and Rudolph caught five touchdowns in the Vikings' first six games. But Rudolph has disappeared over the past three games, while Pettigrew has continued to play a role in the Lions' offense. He has 39 receptions, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL for tight ends. Coaches have also lauded his run blocking.
- If the left guard position were judged on versatility, the Packers' T.J. Lang would have won out over the Lions' Rob Sims. Lang is now the Packers' right tackle after Bryan Bulaga's injury. But Sims has been much steadier this season at left guard. PFF hasn't debited him with a sack allowed, while Lang has been beat for four.
- There's no doubt that Bulaga struggled in Week 3 at the Seattle Seahawks. Football people, however, think that has been his only bad game and that he has been the Packers' best lineman in the rest of their games.
- I picked what I thought was the NFC North's three best linebackers, regardless of what position they play. That's why the Lions' DeAndre Levy is listed as a middle linebacker even though he plays on the outside in Detroit. By most accounts, Levy is having his best NFL season. Clay Matthews (nine sacks) and Lance Briggs (two interceptions, two touchdowns, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed) were obvious choices.
- There are four really good place-kickers in the NFC North, though the Packers' Mason Crosby is in a bit of a slump. But how do you pick against a place-kicker who has converted 19 of 20 attempts -- including a league-high five from at least 50 yards -- while also securing an NFL-high 31 touchbacks on kickoffs? The Vikings' Blair Walsh has had a stunning first 10 games of his professional career.
I tossed out a few of ESPN Stats and Information's raw numbers Wednesday on Twitter and was quickly deluged with individual questions and requests for more context. So I'll endeavor to pass along all relevant information in this post.
Drops are a subjective statistic, and my experience with ESPN Stats & Information is that an incompletion has to be an obvious, clear drop for it to be recorded as one. As a result, you might see other statistical services hand out more drops. But to me it's all relative, as long as the same standards are applied to each team, we can get a clear perspective on who is dropping lots of passes and who isn't.
As the chart shows, the Green Bay Packers have the most drops in the NFC North (19) as well as the highest drop percentage (6.6). The 19 drops is tied for the NFL lead, but as we discussed on Twitter, percentage is more important because it adjusts for teams who throw more often. It stand to reason that a team like the Packers would have more drops than the Bears, who have thrown 155 fewer targeted passes over the first eight weeks of the season.
For the Packers, receiver Jordy Nelson has been debited with five drops. Tight end Jermichael Finley has four, receiver Randall Cobb has three and receiver Donald Driver has two (on nine targeted passes). No one else has more than one drop, and receiver James Jones -- who has some of the most notorious drops in recent Packers history -- has not been debited with any in 2012.
Below are some other notable drop figures in the NFC North. For reference, the NFL leader in drops based on this standard are Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who have seven drops apiece.
- Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has four drops on 79 targeted passes.
- Bears receiver Devin Hester and tight end Kellen Davis have three drops apiece on a combined total of 40 targeted passes.
- Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew has four drops on 55 targeted passes.
- Lions receiver Calvin Johnson has three drops, including two last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, on 73 targeted passes.
- The Vikings' seven drops are split among tight end Kyle Rudolph (three) and running backs Toby Gerhart (two) and Adrian Peterson (two). That means receiver Percy Harvin doesn't have a drop among the 76 targeted passes he's seen.
How about Charles Tillman?
The 10th-year cornerback earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time last season. He blanketed the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson during a 13-7 victory Monday night.
With two forced fumbles against the Lions, Tillman has 32 for his career. That ranks tied for third since Tillman's rookie season (2003) and the most for a defensive back, according to the Bears. Tillman has two picks and scored on both.
Tillman is playing very well. He's playing for a dominant defense. His team is winning. He makes the MVP Watch list this week, his first appearance.
Tillman joins MVP Watch mainstay J.J. Watt as the only defensive players to appear on the list this season. Lawrence Taylor was the most recent defensive player to win the Associated Press version of the award. He won following the 1986 season.
Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
After a tough and physical game last Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, the Detroit Lions have begun preparations for Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears with only two healthy cornerbacks.
The Lions aren't required to issue an injury report until Thursday at 4 p.m. ET, but as Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes, rookie Bill Bentley (shoulder) and veteran Jacob Lacey (concussion) appeared to sit out Wednesday's practice. Both players didn't return after suffering their injuries against the Eagles. That left veteran Chris Houston and rookie Jonte Green as the only healthy cornerbacks on the 53-man roster.
Fellow rookie Chris Greenwood was activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list this week but hasn't yet been added to the 53-man roster. It would be asking a lot for him to be ready to play Monday night.
The Bears aren't expected to have their full arsenal of receivers Monday night because of Alshon Jeffery's fractured hand, as ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright notes, but the Lions appear shorthanded for the moment regardless.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Lions center Dominic Raiola on gaining respect in the Lions-Bears rivalry, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "Yeah, we can say that now that we are talented enough to compete. Back in the day the Lions were, you know, bad, and there are some that still feel that way about us -- same old Lions. It's going to be that kind of thing for a while until we can do what we want to do consistently against them."
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz on defensive tackle Nick Fairley's encouraging performance against the Eagles, via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com: "We expected stuff like that when we drafted him in the first round. I don't want to be giving pats on the back for doing what we expect from you."
- Bears running back Matt Forte appears fully recovered from last month's ankle sprain, according to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune: "[I]t is safe to say the Bears failed Chris Williams as much as he failed them."
- Green Bay Packers running back Alex Green spent a lot of time studying the way Cedric Benson plays, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Packers cornerback Davon House is hoping to regain his starting job, writes Sarah Barshop of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
- Packers center Jeff Saturday joked that the team will speak in Pig Latin on Sunday to avoid former Packers center Scott Wells providing any insight into their approach against the St. Louis Rams. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com explains, complete with a Pig Latin headline.
- There remains "some question" about why the Minnesota Vikings only use receiver Percy Harvin on short passes, writes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
- The Vikings aren't looking ahead despite a schedule that has them playing two games in five days, notes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
- Vikings defensive end Brian Robison addresses the Arizona Cardinals' troubles in pass protection with the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Opponent: Baltimore Ravens
Location: M&T Bank Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Lions continue to experiment with their arrangement in the defensive secondary, and Jacob Lacey is expected to start at cornerback with rookie Bill Bentley playing in nickel packages. … The first-team offense is looking to sustain some success after a scoreless preseason opener. ... Two prominent players who missed that game, receiver Titus Young (birth of child) and defensive end Cliff Avril (late camp report) are scheduled to play. … Coach Jim Schwartz grew up in Baltimore and was tweeting cityscapes from his hotel room Thursday evening. … The game will be televised nationally on FOX.
Focal point: Tailback Jahvid Best appears likely to open the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, once again placing an emphasis on depth behind Mikel Leshoure (hamstring) and current starter Kevin Smith. You would figure that Keiland Williams and Joique Bell will once again get a heavy workload.
Opponent: Buffalo Bills
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Vikings held a number of veterans out of their preseason opener, but most of them are expected to play Friday night. The list includes defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, cornerback Antoine Winfield and receiver Percy Harvin. … You should also get your first look at rookie cornerback Josh Robinson. … Tailback Adrian Peterson (knee) returned to practice this week but won't play. … The Vikings are looking forward to seeing rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh's big leg in the still conditions of the Metrodome.
Focal point: The most important task for the franchise is continuing to push the development of quarterback Christian Ponder, who made an encouraging 2012 debut last week. But almost as important is getting at least an even performance from backup Joe Webb, who hasn't had a good summer. The Vikings made Webb a full-time quarterback in the offseason, but if he falls short, he's too good of an athlete to cast aside.
Opponent: Washington Redskins
Location: Soldier Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Quarterback Jay Cutler will make his preseason debut, and the same is assumed for tailback Matt Forte and defensive end Julius Peppers. … The next installment of the Bears' left tackle drama is expected to include some first-team time for Chris Williams. The Bears want J'Marcus Webb to win the job, but at this point Cutler's safety is the primary goal.
Focal point: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's knee surgery brings new scrutiny on the Bears' emergency plan at the position, which for the moment includes moving Nick Roach inside from the strong side and inserting veteran newcomer Geno Hayes on the strong side. Is that an arrangement the Bears could use if Urlacher is forced to miss regular-season time? Or do they need to find help from the outside?
Via Twitter, @jpberthiaume asked: "Do people really care about these 'teams?'" I guess it's a fair point. I doubt few, if any, of the players listed in the chart wrote a fifth-grade essay about their plans to one day make the All-NFC North team on ESPN.com, even if it was only because the NFC North hadn't yet been formed in those days and ESPN.com was operating out of a Bristol-based closet.
So I'll let you be the judge. This is annually a fun exercise, even if it doesn't lead to a deep understanding of the human condition or even reveal any breakthroughs about the just-completed season. If nothing else, it offers us a blank template to recognize the best-performing players in the division without the hindrance of the politics and reputation.
Some notes on some of the tight decisions, for which I seriously received input from multiple angles:
- One of the fiercest debates came at wide receiver. Everyone agreed that the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson deserved one spot, but there was a split about the other two. Did the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, who missed three games because of a knee injury, deserve an automatic bid? And if he did, should the Packers' Jordy Nelson or the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin get the third spot? I thought Jennings' 67 receptions, 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games merited a spot. And ultimately I chose Nelson over Harvin. I realize Harvin caught 87 passes in a punchless offense and added 345 rushing yards to his total, but in the end I couldn't overlook a player who scored more touchdowns (15) than all but four players in the NFL this season. Plus, as Hatterbot pointed out: "Rushing yards don't count in the WR category."
- I went with the Lions' Rob Sims at left guard in part on the advice of John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, who noted that Sims was the only NFC North left guard to play the position for 16 games this season. Sims also had the best pass-sack ratio (19.7 passes per sack) of the group, based on video study.
- There is no doubt that the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew (83 catches) had a more productive season than the Packers' Jermichael Finley (55). But the Lions often used Pettigrew as a substitute for their punchless running game, and that's why his per-catch average of 9.4 yards was lower than any other tight end with at least 30 catches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average pass to Pettigrew this season traveled 6.5 yards in the air. The average pass to Finley traveled 11.4 yards. Finley caught five passes of at least 30 yards. Pettigrew's longest was 27. Both players had their share of drops, combining for a total of 15, but I thought Finley made a bigger impact on his catches than Pettigrew did.
- I really debated the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Lions' Cliff Avril at defensive end. Avril (11.5) had a half-sack more than Peppers (11) and forced twice as many fumbles. But one of the advantages we have on this team is investigating beyond the conventional numbers. Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Peppers with 53 quarterback pressures, the second-highest total in the NFL. Avril ranked No. 8 with 37, but in a close race I chose the maximum number of plays impacted over Avril's slight edge in "playmaking" statistics.
- I used a similar approach in choosing the Vikings' Kevin Williams and the Lions' Ndamukong Suh as my defensive tackles. It's true that the Bears' Henry Melton led the NFC North's defensive tackles with seven pressures, but PFF had Suh with 27 quarterback pressures, an NFL high for an interior lineman. Williams tied for No. 3 with 25. Melton wasn't that far behind at 23, but I also took into account that the Bears nearly benched him for inconsistency at one point in the season. (Coach Lovie Smith in November: "He hasn't showed up as much. Whether teams have adjusted to him or whatever, we need to get more production from him because he's capable of it.") Meanwhile, I thought Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji took a step backward in 2011. PFF credited him with only 10 stops (the cumulative number of plays made that constitute an offensive failure) in 842 snaps.
- If you want to say I chickened out at linebacker, go ahead. I originally left open the middle and one of the outside spots, but in the end I went with our division standbys: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. For starters, Briggs was one of six non-offensive linemen to play 100 percent of his team's snaps in the NFL this season. There's something to be said for being available to your team. And while I do think that the Packers' Desmond Bishop and the Lions' Stephen Tulloch had good seasons, I couldn't find a statistic or an opinion that convinced me they were better than Urlacher. Someday, there will be turnover among NFC North linebackers. But it didn't happen this season.
- Safety play was poor throughout the NFC North, so I'm not at all ashamed to have chosen a third cornerback to replace one of the safeties on this team. It came down to the Lions' Chris Houston and the Packers' Tramon Williams. Both had their ups and downs in coverage. Houston had five interceptions and two touchdowns in 14 games, while Williams had four interceptions and one touchdown in 15 games. In the end, I chose Williams because I think it was pretty clear he was pushing through a really limiting shoulder injury for much of the first half of the season.
- I chose the Packers' specialists, kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay. Crosby converted 24 of 28 kicks, including a 58-yarder, and ranked third in the NFL with 49 touchbacks. Masthay downed a division-high 23 punts inside the 20-yard line despite a division-low 55 punts.
- I mistakenly left off a coverage specialist from our original post. There should be no debating that the Bears' Corey Graham deserves that spot.
- Go ahead. Rip away....
When: Noon Sunday | TV: Fox | Radio: 780-AM WBBM & 105.9 FM
Coach: Lovie Smith | Record including playoffs: 73-59
Career head-to-head record (including playoffs) vs. Leslie Frazier: 2-0
Career record (including playoffs) vs. Vikings: 9-6
Last week: Lost to Packers 35-21
Key stat: In 10 drives against the Packers, quarterback Josh McCown led the team to two touchdowns, and two field goals. The team punted twice and had two drives ended with interceptions. By comparison, in the previous four games with Hanie, the Bears punted 29 times in 55 drives, scoring four TDs, and four field goals in addition to ending drives with nine INTs.
Offense rank: 20th (321.1 ypg) | Defense rank: 18th (353.7 ypg).
Offensive leader: Quarterback Josh McCown made his first start since 2007 against the Packers and showed poise in leading the offense to its best production in terms of yards (441) of the season. McCown needs to show that the performance against Green Bay wasn’t a fluke, because last year, this team was fooled by the play of Caleb Hanie in the NFC title game.
Defensive leader: Cornerback Charles Tillman was recently named to his first Pro Bowl, and is by far the most consistent player in Chicago’s secondary, despite criticism about his age. More players in the Bears’ secondary need to model their play after Tillman, who plays a physical brand of football replete with seemingly endless effort. Tillman ranks fourth in franchise history with 29 INTs.
" A loss would give the Bears their first six-game losing streak since 1998. The Bears haven’t lost their last six games in a row since 1989.
" The Bears are 6-1 this season when they gain 301 to 400 yards and 32-14 under those conditions since 2004.
" The Bears haven’t won a game this season (0-2) in which they gained 401 yards or more.
" The Bears are 0-2 this season in domes after finishing last year 3-0 in indoor stadiums.
Coach: Leslie Frazier | Record: 6-15 | Last week: Defeated Redskins 33-26
Career head-to-head record vs. Smith: 0-2 | Career record vs. Bears: 0-2
Key stat: The Vikings have had three different players -- Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and quarterback Joe Webb -- rush for more than 100 yards in a game this season, which is the first time that’s happened since 2003 and the third time in franchise history.
Offense rank: 18th (331.6 ypg) | Defense rank: 25th (368.1 ypg)
Offensive leader: Receiver Percy Harvin is just 16 yards away from setting a new career high in receiving yards for a season. Harvin leads the team with 852 yards receiving and is tied for eighth in the NFL in receptions (77). Harvin averages 9.1 yards per touch and is the first Vikings player to score on a run, reception and return multiple times in his career.
Defensive leader: Defensive end Jared Allen is second in Minnesota single-season history with 18.5 sacks, and has also forced four career safeties. Allen is also tied for first in the league with four fumble recoveries, and eight overall as a Minnesota Viking. From 2005-2011, Allen is tied for third with 26 forced fumbles.
" Former Bears receiver Devin Aromashodu needs 42 yards receiving to surpass 2,000 yards receiving for his career.
" Allen needs 2.5 sacks to tie the franchise’s all-time single season sack record of 21 set by Chris Doleman in 1989.
" Tight end Jim Kleinsasser is set to play in his 181st and final career game in the NFL.
Knox got behind Vikings safety Madieu Williams to haul in his third touchdown reception of the season. The TD gave the Bears their first lead of the game.
Minnesota took the early lead 7-0 lead, showing no adverse effects from the treacherous footing at TCF Bank Stadium.
Taking the ball at its own 40 on the opening possession, Minnesota used just three minutes and 38 seconds to put the first points on the board. With the Bears sliding on the icy Field Turf, the Vikings scored in six plays. Brett Favre hit Percy Harvin on a short screen for a 23-yard touchdown with 11:22 remaining in the quarter to cap the scoring drive.
Minnesota’s shortest gain on the drive was a 3-yard run up the middle by Toby Gerhart, who finished the drive with 26 yards on just four attempts.
Chicago punted on the ensuing possession, but Minnesota breathed new life into the Bears with two consecutive Favre miscues. First, Favre threw an interception to Tim Jennings on a deep ball, which was negated when defensive Julius Peppers was called for an offsides penalty.
On the next play, Henry Melton batted down a pass intended for Visanthe Shiancoe, with Peppers intercepting it to set up the Bears on the Vikings' 14. Chicago failed to take advantage of the situation, and moved the ball just 3 yards in four plays, settling for Robbie Gould’s 29-yard field goal with 5:18 left that made the score 7-3.
After the Bears surrendered a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Percy Harvin -- thanks to a mistake in coverage by defensive backs Tim Jennings and Chris Harris -- Cutler and the offense took over in Vikings' territory because of a heads-up play by Rashied Davis, who picked up a short kick and returned it 32 yards to the Minnesota 49. Despite a few costly penalties, the Bears were able to find the end zone on a Cutler to Devin Hester 19-yard touchdown pass.
Earlier in the quarter, Cutler found Greg Olsen on a 17-yard touchdown strike.
Johnny Knox leads all Bears receivers with 4 catches for 68 yards.
The Bears had a chance to tack on more points after Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre fumbled the football in the final minute of the half, but Robbie Gould's 43-yard field-goal attempt missed wide left.