Chicago Bears: Darius Slay

Williamson: NFC North offseason grades

June, 6, 2013
6/06/13
9:45
AM ET
Matt Williamson scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, and this week he revealed his offseason grades for all 32 teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the full file, but I've been authorized by high-level executives to leak a few NFC North snippets:

Chicago Bears
Williamson grade: B+
Williamson snippet: "Upgrading the offensive line, getting younger and better at linebacker and adding another weapon in the passing game were the Bears' top priorities this offseason -- and they accomplished all three."
Seifert comment: The Bears' offseason performance is particularly notable when you remember they entered the draft with only five selections. (They acquired a sixth via trade). The offensive line remains fluid, but has been addressed more aggressively than in years. Getting younger at linebacker was the first step in what will be a multi-part process of filling in behind 30-something starters Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Julius Peppers. (Jennings turns 30 in December).

Detroit Lions
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "Expect the Lions' pass defense to be significantly improved. … But another area of weakness was created this offseason for the Lions. Their offensive line played quite well overall last year but lost three starters to retirement and free agency."
Seifert comment: The signing of safety Glover Quin and the decision to (finally) draft a cornerback at a high position (second-rounder Darius Slay) bodes well for the pass defense. Even without a new receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, the Lions have plenty of skill position players on offense. The significance of an offensive-line overhaul is not to be underestimated, however. The Lions will be counting on as many as three untested linemen to come through.

Green Bay Packers
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "The Packers are the only team for which I didn't list a veteran 'key addition,' and their 'key losses' are rather extensive. Still, they remain one of the very best teams in football."
Seifert comment: It's not unusual for the Packers to avoid key veteran additions. But they certainly added some important pieces in running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, along with defensive lineman Datone Jones. In minicamp this week, Jones was working both as a defensive end in base defenses, and inside at tackle in the nickel. Once he learns the scheme, Jones is going to be a difference-maker.

Minnesota Vikings
Williamson grade: B-
Williamson snippet: "Minnesota brought in some big-time prospects in the draft, but the losses of two great players' contributions on game day will be hard to replace this season."
Seifert comment: Williamson was referring to the trade of receiver Percy Harvin and the release for cornerback Antoine Winfield. Both players wound up with the Seattle Seahawks. They also failed to find a replacement at middle linebacker, requiring the shift of Erin Henderson from the outside. The team's biggest personnel question mark, other than the continued development of quarterback Christian Ponder, is whether they can replace Winfield's presence in the slot.
Reggie BushRonald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesIt's one thing for Reggie Bush to talk about titles, but it's another for the Lions to win them.
While the groundwork for every NFL campaign is primarily laid in the offseason, championships are never won in May.

But organizations need to set lofty goals. Have you ever heard of an NFL team striving for mediocrity?

So while a part of me wants to cringe when I read Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley quoted in the Detroit News saying that his team is "going to the Super Bowl”, or watch a video of Detroit running back Reggie Bush tell reporters that he signed with the Lions "to win championships," the reality is that every NFL player should feel that way about the prospects of his respective club this time of the year.

(Read full post)

NFC North draft analysis

April, 27, 2013
4/27/13
7:01
PM ET
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How top-heavy was the 2013 draft in the NFC North? We welcomed more players in the first round (six) than in the second and third rounds combined (four), the result of two big trades.

With the 2013 affair basically in the books, let's take a closer look at its highs and lows. So much happened that we might not get to the relatively rare occurrence of two punters being drafted.

Onward:

BEST MOVE

The Green Bay Packers have gone 43 games without a 100-yard rusher, the longest active streak in the NFL by more than twice. Their running backs have combined for 12 rushing touchdowns over the past three seasons, the fewest in the NFL, and their average of 3.8 yards per rush over that span is tied for last in the league.

After years of subordinating this segment of their roster, the Packers reacted aggressively in 2013. They drafted not one but two of the top running backs available. Alabama's Eddie Lacy came in the second round (No. 61 overall), and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin came in the fourth round (No. 125 overall).

The relative flurry came at a time when the rest of the league appeared to have devalued the position. It was the first time in the history of the modern draft that zero running backs were selected in the first round. Perhaps the timing was coincidence, but if general manager Ted Thompson intended to capitalize on depressed prices to load up, it was a brilliant thought.

Thompson and the Packers had been trying to patch together the position ever since Ryan Grant broke his ankle in Week 1 of the 2010 season. It was time to find a more permanent solution, and Lacy and Franklin give them the personnel infusion they needed.

Runner-up: Like the Packers, the Chicago Bears finally attacked an area of need. They used two of their first three selections in what was originally a five-pick draft on high-end linebackers who actually project as starters rather than special-teams contributors. Second-rounder Jonathan Bostic could be the Bears' middle linebacker as early as this season, and fourth-rounder Khaseem Greene was one of the best defensive playmakers in college football last season.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Minnesota Vikings used four draft picks to move back into the first round and select Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, taking on risk in two forms.

First, Patterson is a boom-or-bust prospect who spent only one year playing at the Division I level. He has the physical tools to be an exceptional player but has more development ahead of him than most first-round picks. Here's how ESPN analyst Todd McShay put it before the draft: "He scares me coming out of Tennessee, but I see the talent. … Patterson, with the ball in his hands, is just freakish, and even though he disappears for 30-40 plays [per game], he'll show up with one or two big plays a game that just kind of blow your mind and leave you wanting more."

At the very least, Patterson will need to be guided through the early part of his career. The Vikings hope to start him off as a kickoff returner and work him into their offense slowly. Expecting him to jump into the starting lineup alongside Greg Jennings for a full 70 plays per game is probably unrealistic.

Second, the trade left the Vikings unable to fill one of their most pressing needs: middle linebacker. Giving up picks in the second and third rounds left them watching as more than a half-dozen middle linebackers were drafted. The Vikings gave up the opportunity to fill that job on a long-term basis by jumping to draft a receiver who generated plenty of divergent viewpoints during the pre-draft evaluation process.

Runner-up: The Detroit Lions used the No. 5 overall pick on a pass-rusher who had 4.5 sacks in his college career. BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has all the physical tools to be a dominant pass-rusher, but his learning curve is steep and his potential for immediate impact is at least worth questioning.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeKyle Long
Reid Compton/USA TODAY SportsThe Bears were willing to overlook offensive lineman Kyle Long's inexperience because of his extraordinary athleticism for a man his size.
You would have been hard-pressed to find a mock draft that projected Oregon guard Kyle Long as a first-round pick. In a seven-round mock performed last week, Scouts Inc. suggested he would go No. 47 overall. And even that was based on Long's overwhelmingly positive athletic attributes rather than evaluation of his limited play at Oregon.

The Bears produced arguably the surprise of the draft by selecting Long at No. 20 overall, a time when even the most polished guards are rarely taken historically. But the Bears were blown away by Long's agility for his 6-foot-6 frame and were willing to overlook a one-season, four-start career at the Division I college level.

There is no doubt the Bears needed help on their offensive line, but you could have a spirited philosophical argument over the draft value of a raw, inexperienced guard. Even if the Bears are right about Long -- that his athleticism will make him a long-term starter -- it's fair to question whether they needed to take him in the first round. Did another team covet the draft's third-best guard enough to take him between picks 21 and 50, where the Bears were situated in the second round? One explanation: The Bears, with only five total picks in the draft at that point, thought it would be too difficult to trade up in the second round assuming Long got out of the first. I'm not going to say it was the wrong choice, but it sure was surprising.

FILE IT AWAY

The Lions bolstered their pass defense at the expense of some other positions of need. You can't have it all, and the Lions made some clear decisions.

On the plus side, they used three of their first four choices on Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay and defensive end Devin Taylor. Ansah (6-foot-5 with 35 1/8-inch arms) and Taylor (6-7 with 36-inch arms) will provide incredible length and a new look to the Lions' outside pass rush. Slay, meanwhile, has elite speed (4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash).

That focus left the Lions less able to surround quarterback Matthew Stafford with additional weapons and protection. The Lions didn't draft an offensive tackle after the departure of both 2012 starters, and they didn't get around to selecting a receiver until grabbing Virginia Tech's Corey Fuller with the third pick of the sixth round (No. 171 overall).

(The Lions did draft guard Larry Warford in the third round.)

From a roster-balance perspective, it made sense for the Lions to focus on pass defense -- long a weakness -- rather than their passing offense. But the Lions still finished the draft with less depth at receiver and offensive tackle than they would have liked. Life is a trade-off, after all.

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