Chicago Bears: Matthew Stafford
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
“We just got back to the fundamentals,” Bears safety Chris Conte said. “We knew we didn’t play well the last time we came out and played against them. We just wanted to improve on that today, and I thought we had a good game plan and good energy on defense today.
“It always hurts to lose, but I think there are things we can take out of this game that are encouraging, and we can see that we can be a really good team. We have a lot of young guys and they are improving and getting better each week. I think you can tell we are starting to come together a little bit on defense.”
Conte, in particular, enjoyed more success versus the Lions than he had in recent weeks. Although Conte did commit at least one obvious mistake in the third quarterback when he took a poor angle and whiffed on Lions running back Reggie Bush in the open field on a play that gained 39 yards, the safety bounced back with a key interception in the fourth quarter.
With the Bears trailing 14-10, Conte picked off an errant Matthew Stafford pass and returned it 35 yards to the Lions' 9-yard line. The Bears eventually settled for a field goal to cut the Detroit lead to one point.
“We were just playing Cover-2 and I was just reading the quarterback,” Conte said. “He put the ball up and I just went up and got it. But I needed to score on that. So I need to help out the offense and score there.”
In addition to the interception, Conte finished the game with three tackles and three passes defensed.
“(Conte) has been in the tank for a little bit,” Bears safety Major Wright said. “With me, I’m trying to motivate him and help him get back together. For me, he came out and had a great game for us, and that is what he needed.”
However, the game ended on a low note for the defense when Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson caught what turned out to be a game-winning 14 yard touchdown pass with 2:22 left on the clock. Johnson beat veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, who appeared to be in man coverage, in the back corner of the endzone for the score. Johnson did end the game with a pair of touchdowns, but he caught just six passes for 83 yards on 17 targets.
“It’s pretty tough (to defend Johnson one-on-one) when you look at his size, look at his speed,” Wright said. “He’s pretty good at catching the ball. You really can’t ask for much more with how this defense played him, not just one guy but all of us.”
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.
I'm staying away from some of the obvious ones and instead focusing on developments for which we have a reasonable expectation of resolution before the start of the regular season. We won't know by Labor Day, for example, if Jay Cutler is a good fit for the Chicago Bears' new offense under Marc Trestman. It'll be impossible to conclude whether Christian Ponder has taken a step forward as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback, or whether the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford has fixed his mechanics or if the Green Bay Packers know how to stop the read-option.
Answers to those questions won't be evident until regular-season games start. I think it's reasonable to expect quicker resolution to the questions identified below.
Issue: Jon Bostic and the Bears' middle linebacker job
Analysis: General manager Phil Emery gave the team a safety blanket by signing veteran D.J. Williams, who is expected to open training camp in Brian Urlacher's old spot. But the Bears used a second-round draft pick on Bostic, and one day he almost certainly will have the job. If he can win it in training camp, the Bears can move Williams to the outside or use fellow newcomer James Anderson there.
Issue: A role for Bears defensive end Shea McClellin
Analysis: McClellin was the Bears' first-round draft pick just one year ago, but he'll have to compete hard to establish a role commensurate with that status. Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton finished last season as the Bears' starting defensive ends, and Wootton is in a contract year and thus will be highly motivated. The Bears cleared some space by allowing Israel Idonije to depart via free agency, but McClellin's path to regular playing time is far from certain.
Issue: Starting Kyle Long
Analysis: There has been an assumption that Long will be plugged into the starting lineup at one of the Bears' guard positions, but it's only fair to reiterate his relative lack of experience (four starts) in Division I. Moreover, Long was unable to participate in most of the Bears' offseason program because of NFL rules regarding the timing of college graduation. In other words, Long is as green as it gets for a first-round draft pick. It will be nice to see, finally, what the Bears have in him.
Issue: Ryan Broyles' status in Detroit
Analysis: Broyles tore his ACL in Week 13 last season and will push to be ready for camp. If Broyles is healthy and available, he will join Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson to form a really good trio. If he needs more time, the Lions will be thin at the position to start the season. Mike Thomas, a slot receiver acquired last season from the Jacksonville Jaguars, would be next up.
Issue: Ziggy Ansah's development
Analysis: Generally speaking, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft should be ready to step into the lineup and make an immediate contribution. Ansah, as has been well-documented, was a late arrival to football and might need more development time than most No. 5 overall picks. Idonije gives the Lions an option if Ansah isn't ready to start, and in truth snaps are more important than the starting lineup. But when you draft a defensive end at No. 5 overall, you expect him to be ready to handle a full-time load almost immediately.
Issue: Packers' running back rotation
Analysis: The Packers gave themselves a good problem this offseason by adding two draft choices, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that also included DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green. It seems unlikely that all of them will make the roster, but the more pressing matter is how they will be used and how often. Harris would have been the favorite to start entering training camp, but he missed the offseason because of injuries, and the position should now be considered wide open.
Issue: Mason Crosby's reaction to competition
Analysis: Crosby's extended slump last season prompted the Packers to bring a second place-kicker to camp for the first time since he established himself as the Packers' full-time kicker. There is every reason to consider Crosby the heavy favorite over Giorgio Tavecchio, but that's assuming Crosby handles the competition well. It has been a while since Crosby had to secure his job.
Issue: Replacing Charles Woodson in Green Bay
Analysis: Woodson played safety and cornerback for the Packers last season. Now, they have a competitive situation at both spots. Training camp should tell us whether M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian is ready to grab a safety spot next to Morgan Burnett. We'll also get to see a spirited competition at cornerback between Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House and others for the chance to play alongside Tramon Williams.
Issue: Vikings linebacker alignment
Analysis: It is reasonable to expect Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop to start in the Vikings' 4-3 base. But what positions will they play? Training camp should make that clear. Bishop would seem best suited for the inside, with Henderson returning to his former role outside, but it's not out of the question that the Vikings could experiment in the reverse during camp to find the best combination.
Issue: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
Analysis: Shortly after the draft, we were led to believe that the Vikings rookie would fit in as a kickoff returner this season while he learned how to play receiver at the professional level. But if offseason practices were any indication, Patterson might be ready for a bigger role on offense right away. Can he emerge from training camp as a starter opposite Greg Jennings? That's the Vikings' best-case scenario, one that didn't seem possible in April but can't be ruled out on the eve of camp.
And now, on a random July day in 2013, we must acknowledge a crossroads. Regardless of our hopes and no matter our assumptions, we can count only one of our quarterbacks as an undeniable long-term starter with his team.
Rodgers' seven-year contract with the Green Bay Packers, signed in April, removes any doubt about his status. We can't say the same, however, for Cutler, Stafford or the Vikings' Christian Ponder. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract, Stafford and the Lions haven't reached a long-term agreement on a deal that should expire after 2014, and Ponder is preparing for what might be a final chance to establish himself as a franchise starter.
UPDATE: Stafford agreed to terms on a three-year contract extension shortly after this post published. The pros and cons of his status, detailed below, remain valid.
The chances for 75 percent turnover in one year are remote, of course. Across the league this season, we'll likely see 25 percent change: eight new starters among 32 teams. But for different reasons, we have reached a uniquely tenuous time that begs close observation over the next nine months. Let's start the conversation today with a more detailed status check in each outpost.
Contract status: Total compensation of $8.97 million in 2013, its final year.
Crossroads in brief: Looming contract expiration coincides with the arrival of new coach Marc Trestman, who has stopped short of calling him a franchise quarterback. General manager Phil Emery said this offseason: "The No. 1 thing is that our team wins and that Jay improves, and all of our players improve."
From the stat page: Cutler is 34-22 as the Bears' starter and has cut back dramatically on interceptions. After throwing 26 interceptions in 2009, he has thrown 37 over the following three seasons. But he has taken a tremendous beating, absorbing more sacks per drop-back (7.6) since he joined the Bears than any NFL quarterback over that time period.
Analysis: If any team knows how difficult it is to find a franchise quarterback, it's the Bears. This is a team whose all-time leading passer, Sid Luckman, has been retired for 63 years. It's no stretch to call Cutler the Bears' best quarterback in a generation, and his arm strength empowers coaches to incorporate every possible pass in the playbook. Despite his regular-season success, however, Cutler has taken the Bears to the playoffs only once in four years. Emery, it should be noted, fired former coach Lovie Smith despite a sparkling regular-season record largely because of the Bears' playoff drought. In the end, replacing a coach requires fewer assets than finding and developing a franchise quarterback. The Bears must remember how long they searched before acquiring Cutler, and also how dearly they paid. Cutler's leadership skills are questionable at best, but the Bears would be setting a high standard if they decide they can do better at the position.
Contract status: Set to earn $12 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014 before deal voids.
Crossroads in brief: Salary-cap number of $20.82 million hasn't yet provided the expected incentive to reach a long-term extension. If the Lions absorb that figure in 2013, then they can presumably do the same for a projected $19.32 million cap hit in 2014. Both sides have said they expect to remain together, but in reality the Lions have preserved an exit strategy if they choose to use it.
From the stat page: The Lions have been one of the pass-happiest teams in NFL history during Stafford's two years as a full-time starter. Over that stretch, he has attempted 1,390 passes and thrown for 10,005 yards. His career completion percentage of 59.8 is on the low side for a player who has averaged a relatively modest 6.9 yards per attempt, a combination of statistics that has sparked an ongoing debate about his mechanics.
Analysis: Stafford took a step back last season, most notably producing 17 fewer passing/running touchdowns, but context is once again important. At 25, he already ranks second on the Lions' all-time list in passing yards and is the only Lions quarterback to so much as have two seasons with at least 20 touchdown passes. He also has demonstrated the moxie to lead eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 44 starts. From a historic standpoint, it makes more sense to ride with Stafford than begin what could be a decades-long process to find someone better. But any analysis of Stafford's passing numbers, fourth-quarter excitement and potential for future growth must also be viewed through his impact on the team. The Lions are 17-28 overall in his starts, but only 1-22 against teams that finished the season with winning records, per the Elias Sports Bureau. (They are 5-21 against teams that had winning records at the time of the game.) Those numbers mean Stafford hasn't yet achieved a primary tenet for franchise quarterbacks: making the team better. He hasn't guided the Lions to enough victories over good teams. Stafford isn't solely to blame for that record, of course, and there is a reason why quarterbacks aren't assigned winning percentages the way pitchers are in baseball. But it is part of his overall assessment.
Contract status: Will earn $1.299 million in 2013 and has a guaranteed $1.76 million salary for 2014 before expiration.
Crossroads in brief: Ponder was one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks during an eight-game stretch in 2012 that unfortunately has come to define his entire season. General manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier want to justify their decision to draft him No. 12 overall in 2011. But Ponder's rookie contract provides an easy exit strategy if he hits another extended downturn.
From the stat page: Much of the criticism of Ponder's 2012 slump arose from the relative simplicity of the Vikings' passing offense. Only 31 of his 483 attempts traveled more than 20 yards in the air, and he completed only six of them -- none for touchdowns. His average pass traveled 6.43 yards in the air, the lowest among all qualified quarterbacks. The theory: Running a conservative offense, one built around a 2,000-yard rusher in Adrian Peterson, should have resulted in far better efficiency numbers than an 81.2 passer rating and a 53.8 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR).
Analysis: Ponder was so bad in the middle of last season that people forget he was one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks in the first four games and final four games of the season. (We discussed that dichotomy in detail last month.) The decision to sign a premium backup in Matt Cassel has sparked national speculation about a brewing competition, but in truth all Cassel will do is provide the Vikings a better option than Joe Webb should Ponder falter again. Cassel will be irrelevant if Ponder can simply smooth over his 16-game performance, something that will ensure a starting job in 2014 and perhaps beyond. The Vikings have provided him with an ample opportunity when you consider Peterson's presence along with Pro Bowl-caliber players at left tackle (Matt Kalil), center (John Sullivan) and tight end (Kyle Rudolph), as well as the acquisition of receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. This season should be make-or-break for Ponder.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: How each NFC North team needs to address the quarterback position.
Chicago Bears: First, the new coach Marc Trestman must decide whether he thinks Jay Cutler is the team's long-term starter. Cutler's contract expires after the 2013 season, giving the Bears a chance to move on if Trestman is disappointed. Assuming he is not, the Bears must get Cutler signed to an extension over the next 12 months or be forced to use their 2014 franchise tag on him.
Of more immediate concern is Cutler's backup. Jason Campbell is a pending free agent, but the Bears might not want to devote the $3-$4 million in cap space it would require to re-sign him. Josh McCown, the 2012 third-stringer, could be an option.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford's $20.8 million cap figure needs to be lowered, and talks are underway on a contract extension. Regardless, he is the Lions' long-term starter. Backup Shaun Hill, 33, is signed through the 2013 season. He is a favorite of the coaching staff and is unlikely to be replaced by Kellen Moore, the 2012 third-stringer.
Green Bay Packers: Starter Aaron Rodgers' 2013 compensation of $9.75 million is well below market value and will lead to contract talks, but there is every expectation that he will play his entire career in Green Bay. Backup Graham Harrell played sparingly last season and could conceivably be challenged by 2012 draft choice B.J. Coleman.
Minnesota Vikings: Team officials have committed to Christian Ponder as their unquestioned starter, buoyed by his strong performance at the end of last season. Ponder will need a more consistent season in 2013 to generate "franchise" status, but the Vikings will give him every opportunity.
Backup Joe Webb will be forced to win his job back, probably in a training camp competition against a veteran to be acquired. Webb was thrown into an admittedly tough position as a surprise playoff starter, but his performance still cast doubt on whether he should be entrusted with the role moving forward.
That's more than most divisions can say. In fact, the NFC South might be the only other group that can make a similar claim. While we have a moment, let's take stock of each quarterback's season-long performance using the information we've got from Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information, along with other sources.
The players are ordered based on their Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), which judges a larger swath of performance than passer rating.
Passer rating: 108.0
Comment: Rodgers led the NFL in passer rating for the second consecutive year, and his rating of 114.9 since the start of the 2011 season is the best two-year performance in league history. He led the league in touchdown percentage (7.1), throwing 39 in 552 attempts, and compiled the fifth 4,000-yard season of his career. He also had the NFL's best QBR on third down among regular starters, and he was the league's fourth-most effective scrambler based on QBR. Still, Rodgers' season didn't quite stack up to his 2011 MVP performance. His turnovers doubled from six to 12, he took 15 more sacks and his total of 51 led the NFL. Not all of the sacks were Rodgers' fault, but some were and as a total they were costly. According to ESPN's advanced analytics, the sacks cost the Packers 32.5 points this season via clutch-weighted expected points.
Passer rating: 79.8
Comment: It's difficult to put dramatic credence in Stafford's 4,967 yards given his NFL-record 727 attempts. The Lions were the pass-happiest team in league history in part because of the number of games they trailed in. His touchdown passes fell by more than half, from 41 to 20, and his completion percentage dropped below 60 percent for the first time since his rookie season -- accounting for the low passer rating. (He did run for a career-high four touchdowns, however.) Stafford threw the NFL's second-most passes of at least 15 yards (158) and tied Drew Brees for the most completions in that category (67). But his late-game magic, which helped the Lions to comeback victories over the St. Louis Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks, trailed off in the second half of the season. His QBR after Week 8 ranked No. 21 in the NFL.
Passer rating: 81.2
Comment: For a good chunk of this season, Ponder was one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks. He had nine turnovers in a five-game span, finished three games with fewer than 100 yards and had the lowest average pass length for most of the year. All of this came against defenses aligned to stop tailback Adrian Peterson's run toward history. But after a disastrous Week 13 performance against the Packers, Ponder quietly turned himself around and had the NFL's second-best QBR (86.8) over the final four games of the season, trailing only Peyton Manning. Over the second half of the season, Ponder's QBR on third down -- measuring not only passes but also his scrambles -- was the league's second best. He finished the season with the NFL's third-lowest average of yards per attempt (6.08), but at least part of the blame for his lack of explosiveness should be attributed to a substandard group of receivers. If nothing else, Ponder minimized any offseason discussion about his status as the Vikings' unquestioned starter in 2013.
Passer rating: 81.3
Comment: Cutler pushed the ball downfield as much as any NFL quarterback after reuniting with receiver Brandon Marshall, but with modest success. His average pass traveled 10.0 yards in the air, the second-highest in the NFL. But his average yards gained per attempt, 7.0, ranked No. 16. He was vexed when defenses sent blitzes, partially because of the Bears' patchwork offensive line, but in the end Cutler had the league's fourth-worst QBR against it. The only NFL quarterbacks worse against the blitz were Brandon Weeden, Mark Sanchez and Brady Quinn. Cutler played well late in games, registering the third-best QBR in the fourth quarter and overtime, and it's worth noting the Bears won 10 of his 15 starts. Over the past three seasons, the Bears are 27-13 in games he starts and 2-6 in all others. In 2012, QBR deemed Cutler the league's most effective scrambler. He rushed for a first down on 36.6 of his scrambles.
Read the entire story.
Passer rating: 80.7
Action plays: 32
Comment: To me, Sunday night was an example of how QBR tells a fuller story. Rodgers didn't throw a touchdown pass against the Detroit Lions, limiting his passer rating, but two big scrambles helped boost his QBR. Both came on third down, one converting a first down and the other ending in a 27-yard touchdown. QBR heavily credited the scoring run; if Rodgers had not gained yardage, the Packers were looking at a difficult 45-yard field goal in the snow. Rodgers was effective on mid-range throws, completing five of six that traveled between 11 and 20 yards in the air. His biggest mistake was fumbling on a sack at the Lions' 21-yard line on the Packers' first possession.
Passer rating: 74.7
Action plays: 53
Comment: Like the rest of the Lions, Stafford struggled in the fourth quarter Sunday night. Based on QBR, it was his second-worst fourth quarter of the season. When the Lions were trailing by one score, Stafford completed 1 of 4 passes for 5 yards, and both of his third-down throws were incomplete. Since Week 9, Stafford's fourth-quarter QBR is the fourth worst in the NFL after he spent the first eight weeks of the season near the top of the league's rankings. It's no surprise, then, that the Lions tied an NFL record for losing three consecutive double-digit leads. On the plus side, even with a depleted roster, Stafford was able to target receiver Calvin Johnson on 13 passes and complete 10 of them for 118 yards.
Passer rating: 57.0
Action plays: 52
Comment: Cutler's two interceptions accounted for the two biggest swings in the game, positive or negative, based on ESPN's win probability tool. That makes sense intuitively as well. The first set up the Minnesota Vikings at the Bears' 5-yard line, resulting in a touchdown, and the second was returned for a touchdown outright. In a 21-14 game, those plays loomed large. Cutler did not have much success against the Vikings' blitz, completing 1 of 8 passes against it for 10 yards.
Passer rating: 53.8
Action plays: 24
Comment: The good news: Ponder committed only one turnover, on a deep throw to receiver Jarius Wright, and took only one sack. Otherwise, Ponder seemed an afterthought in a game plan that called for 32 rushes on 53 non-kneeldown plays. Ponder didn't complete a pass that traveled longer than 9 yards in the air, and has completed one of 21 such throws over his past five games, including 17 consecutive incompletions.
Passer rating: 114.2
Action plays: 42
Comment: Ponder's QBR was a career high, mostly because he opened with a game-changing play -- a 54-yard deep post to receiver Jarius Wright -- to put his team in position for an early lead. After that, he was efficient and nearly mistake-free. Although he didn't attempt a pass that traveled more than 14 yards downfield after the big throw, Ponder completed eight of 10 third-down passes overall. He didn't commit a turnover and took only one sack. How successful can the Vikings be when Ponder simply plays at an average level? This season, they are 5-0 when his QBR is above 50 (considered exactly average). They are 1-4 when it has been below 50.
Passer rating: 104.2
Action plays: 50
Comment: The entire Lions offense had a rough go of it in the first half, and Stafford's role was throwing a first-quarter interception and taking two sacks on third down. He rallied in the second half, completing six of seven passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, but by then the Lions were too far behind for him to fashion one of his signature fourth-quarter comebacks.
Passer rating: 70.9
Action plays: 23
Comment: During the final 11 minutes, 45 seconds Sunday night, Campbell was too careful. With the Bears trailing by a touchdown, he attempted only two passes that traveled more than 10 yards in the air. Both fell incomplete. The Texans also knocked him off stride with their blitz, against which he completed only three of 10 passes -- including none of his four when the Texans rushed a defensive back. Campbell looked uncomfortable throughout, and he implied afterwards he would be better with a week's worth of practice with the first team. We'll see if he gets it this week.
Passer rating: 16.7
Action plays: 17
Comment: In the rain and wind Sunday night, it was surprising to see Cutler and the Chicago Bears throw as much as they did in the first half. Cutler completed half of his 14 throws, but two others were intercepted. Cutler did have three nice scrambles that totaled 37 yards, and he was out of the pocket on the play that presumably caused his interception. But the blame for that hit doesn't go to Cutler for recklessly scrambling or the Bears for calling a pass. It was a flat-out illegal hit by Houston linebacker Tim Dobbins.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:
Big-time clash: As we noted earlier this week, Sunday night's game at Soldier Field will feature a rare matchup in the second half of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it will be only the fifth time since 1970 that a pair of one-loss teams have met in Week 10 or later. Ten of ESPN's 14 experts are predicting a Bears victory, but the oddsmakers have made the Bears slim 1.5-point favorites playing at home. One reason: The Texans have not been prone to the kind of mistakes the Bears have capitalized on this season. The Bears lead the NFL with 28 takeaways, but the Texans have the fewest turnovers (six). That's not good news for those who hope the Texans will collapse under the pressure of a prime-time game at Soldier Field. It could happen, but so far the Texans are 3-0 on the road this season.
Paring down: Over the past six weeks, the Detroit Lions have simplified their offense in ways that are obvious to knowledgeable outside observers. In preparing for Sunday's game at the Metrodome, Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams said the Lions have "narrowed down" their offensive menu. "They've streamlined what they're doing," Williams said. "Not a lot of formations like we saw last time [in Week 4]. They are sticking to a package and doing that well." That doesn't mean the Lions have been more conservative. In fact, quarterback Matthew Stafford has nine attempts that traveled at least 21 yards in the air over the past three weeks. It just means they have gotten back to one of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's most basic tenets: having the ability to run a wide variety of plays with the same personnel packages.
Preparing for Reiff: We've spent plenty of time discussing the Lions' increasing frequency and impact of using offensive lineman Riley Reiff as a sixth offensive lineman/tight end. It has shifted from a novelty to a significant part of the Lions' offense, and the Vikings spent considerable time discussing and preparing for the look this week. Williams said: "[T]his might be a stretch in some sense, but he's a little bit like Adrian Peterson in that you can't simulate him in practice. Everyone thinks with Adrian that, 'Hey these are just designed plays for him and we stop this.' But when you get in a live situation, Adrian Peterson is a different deal. That's the same thing with the extra lineman coming in. He does a great job. He's athletic, he gets his pads down and he's going to be a handful." That's high praise from an opponent.
Peterson's power: What's most amazing about Peterson's 458-yard spurt over the past three weeks has been how it's largely come against defenses with at least one extra defender near the line of scrimmage. How is Peterson defeating those schemes? The answer is nothing more complicated than flat-out breaking tackles. Not only is Peterson leading the NFL with 515 yards after contact, 156 yards more than the next-best running back, but he is also averaging 3.1 yards per rush after first contact. The Lions have every reason to bring at least one of their safeties into the box to defend him, but if Peterson continues his current surge, they'll have to be prepared to gang-tackle him.
(Statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)
Some of you might note the five-year, $25 million contract the Minnesota Vikings gave tight end John Carlson last spring. Carlson has played sparingly (27.2 percent of snaps), caught three passes and is currently sidelined by a concussion. But as Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com points out, the Vikings could void his contract after this season (provided he is not still injured) for a modest $4 million cap hit.
Cutler's deal with the Chicago Bears expires after the 2013 season. He's making $8.2 million this year and is due to make $8.9 million next season. Would the Bears go into 2013 with their franchise quarterback in a free-agent year? It wouldn't be ideal, and if they want to avoid it, they would need to address it this offseason.
We've discussed Rodgers' situation several times. He is signed through the 2014 season but has obviously outperformed a deal that will pay him $9.75 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014. You would assume it's a matter of when, not if, Rodgers gets a new deal. The current benchmark is the five-year, $100 million contract the New Orleans Saints gave quarterback Drew Brees.
Stafford's situation, meanwhile, is no less urgent even though he is technically signed through 2015. The final year of his deal is voidable and, more importantly, Stafford is due to count $20.320 million against the Detroit Lions' 2013 salary cap after two years of renegotiations. The Lions could conceivably deal with a cap number that high, but you wonder if they'll seek an extension in order to lower his cap hit over the next few years. They will have a busy offseason given the pending free agency of seven starters: cornerback Chris Houston, safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive tackle Corey Williams, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, linebacker Justin Durant and place-kicker Jason Hanson.
Investing in a franchise quarterback is usually a sound policy, but it'll be costly in each instance.
Commissioner Roger Goodell would never call off a season after seven weeks, of course. (Think of all the lost ticket revenue!) We're not even at the season's midpoint, but already, I think, we're beginning to see some clarity in this division. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings have each put themselves in position for the division title, while the Detroit Lions are on the brink of 2012 extinction.
That's right. After a 13-7 defeat of the Lions in a game that wasn't that close, the Bears have the second-best record (5-1) in the NFC. According to the updated standings, the Vikings (5-2) rank fifth and the Packers (4-3) sixth in the conference. The Lions, on the other hand, have more losses at 2-4 than 24 of the NFL's 32 teams.
I realize there is more football left to be played this season than has been played. But this is the time of year when patterns emerge and stories start getting written, and Monday night we saw the Bears emerge from their bye as sharp as they entered it. They forced four turnovers, three in the red zone, and were 30 seconds away from their first shutout in three years. And the Lions looked no different than the team that has won this season only when mounting a fourth-quarter comeback.
"This was two evenly matched teams," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward. "When you're playing a good team like Chicago, one that's leading the NFC North, we're on the road, we're not going to win the way we played."
To be clear, the Lions had a chance to steal this game largely because the Bears' offense slowed considerably after quarterback Jay Cutler suffered bruised ribs late in the second quarter. But there was never a time when I thought the Lions were matching the Bears blow for blow, as evenly matched teams do.
Evidence? Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did the impossible, matching up all night with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and limiting him to three catches on the 11 passes he was targeted on. The Bears surprised the Lions by blitzing more often than usual, on 28.8 percent of Matthew Stafford's dropbacks, according to ESPN's Stats and Information. And the Bears' two-deep safety look didn't give up a pass longer than 23 yards.
The Lions, in fact, absorbed most of the blows Monday. Bears defenders stripped the ball from running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell in the red zone. And in a sequence that defined the current situations for both teams, the Bears fought off the Lions at their most vulnerable moment.
It began when Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sacked Cutler violently but legally -- and cleanly, according to all involved -- with 4 minutes, 52 seconds left in the second quarter.
Cutler missed five plays while getting the injury attended to. (Asked if he received a pain-killing injection at halftime, Cutler said: "We did some stuff back here in the back room.") When he returned to open the third quarter, it was clear Cutler couldn't step into and drive his throws. He was short to tight end Kyle Adams on second down and managed a pair of 2-yard passes to tailback Matt Forte before the Bears punted.
"It was on my right side," Cutler said. "I couldn't really follow through. Couldn't get through the ball. It had an impact on our play calling, but defense was playing so well, we thought we could ride it out a little."
Still, at that moment -- with Cutler debilitated and the Lions' defense seemingly energized -- you could sense the potential for a turning point. But the Lions' Stefan Logan muffed the ensuing punt, and three minutes later the Bears took a 13-0 lead that stood until the final seconds of the game.
Schwartz kept it positive afterward, saying: "We can battle back. We've battled back in games, we can do it in the season." But the Lions now have six very similar games on their resume -- slow starts, special teams miscues and last-second dashes -- that suggest they have some fundamental issues they might not be equipped to address immediately.
"If I had all the answers," Stafford said, "it would be nice."
If the Lions seem stuck in a rut, the Bears appear as well-rounded and disciplined as they've ever been under coach Lovie Smith. Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs are having All-Pro seasons, and Monday they had reason to rally around their quarterback for positive reasons.
You might not realize it, but the Bears are 10-1 in Cutler's past 11 starts dating back to last season. While there was never a (rational) reason to doubt his toughness, Monday night felt like the moment when he earned his stripes in Chicago.
"That's what you should have as your Chicago Bear quarterback," Smith said. "And he does it time after time."
Put it all together, and the Bears are in their best-case scenario after six games. The Vikings and Packers aren't far behind. The Lions are on the short end of things. But no division is perfect, right?