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Monday, December 29, 2008
NFC North team evaluations


Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
The Vikings converted an offseason spending spree into their first division title since 2000. Most notably, the additions of defensive end Jared Allen (14.5 sacks) and receiver Bernard Berrian (964 receiving yards) turned a .500 team into a 10-win group. The Vikings still have some areas to work on, but they will enter the playoffs with victories in five of their past six games while boasting arguably the NFL's best player in tailback Adrian Peterson. Grade: B+

Biggest surprise: Coach Brad Childress benched protégé Tarvaris Jackson after an 0-2 start, a shocking admission that the quarterback Childress groomed as his starter was not ready to take the reins of a playoff-caliber team. Even more surprising, backup Gus Frerotte -- whom the Vikings coaxed away from retirement in the offseason -- replaced Jackson and won eight of 11 starts. Jackson has since regained the starting job, but it would have been hard to predict such a turn of events at the game's most crucial position.

Biggest disappointment: The Vikings have one of the NFL's best placekickers in Ryan Longwell, but overall their special teams were a surprising liability this season. Opponents scored seven special teams touchdowns against them, a league record. Some of the issues could be traced to individual mistakes -- punter Chris Kluwe dropping a snap or an incorrect alignment on field goal protection -- but for the most part the breakdowns were across the board. The Vikings missed coverage demon Heath Farwell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason, and created some disarray by failing to settle on return men for either kickoffs or punts.

Biggest need: Years of heavy offseason spending has left the team fairly well stocked, but one area of concern is right tackle. Ryan Cook was rarely effective in his 15 starts, and the Vikings tried to replace him with utility backup Artis Hicks before Hicks suffered a torn triceps muscle. Cook's three-year conversion to right tackle has been bumpy and the Vikings should consider replacing him in the offseason.

Second-guessing: Why did Peterson fumble nine times on the way to the NFL rushing title? Peterson's theory is that his strong running style leaves him upright more than most running backs, giving defenders more time to pop the ball loose. There is some merit to that explanation, but it doesn't explain every fumble. The bottom line is that Peterson at times lost focus on one of his primary jobs -- protecting the ball -- in his effort to break long runs.

Chicago Bears (9-7)
The Bears took early control of the NFC North but missed a chance to create a deep cushion after giving up leads against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. And yet even with those missed opportunities and a 1-3 stretch in late November, the Bears could have earned a wild-card berth had they won their season finale at Houston. That failure should jump-start a number of self-scouting exercises, especially to figure out why their defense slipped in nearly every area two years after leading the team to the Super Bowl. Grade: B-

Biggest surprise: There was a general consensus that Matt Forte could be a 1,000-yard back in the NFL. But Forte not only rushed for 1,238 yards, but he also led the team with 63 receptions. Those weren't all dump passes into the flat, either. Forte showed a natural ability to position his body for red zone receptions and was by far the most important player on the Bears' offense this season.

Biggest disappointment: The Bears finished the season ranked No. 30 against the pass, failing to mount much of a pass rush from its defensive line and displaying little coverage savvy in the back end. Cornerback Nate Vasher was a complete non-factor and might not return next season, while multiple other players alluded to frustration with defensive coordinator Bob Babich's schemes. The Bears blitzed more than any team in the NFL, according to STATS, an approach that too often left the secondary exposed for big plays.

Biggest need: Fantasy players need the Bears to upgrade their receiver position, which boasts no one who should be considered a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. But until they get their defense rectified, it's not going to matter how many offensive weapons they add. The Bears should look for defensive game changers -- no matter what position they play -- this offseason. No position, other than that of Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, should be considered untouchable.

Second-guessing: Was Devin Hester's performance as a receiver -- 51 receptions, 665 yards and three touchdown -- worth reducing his threat as a returner? There was no way Hester would have kept up the scoring pace of his first two seasons (11 touchdowns). But he never came close to returning a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season. There has to be some connection. Right?

Green Bay Packers (6-10)
It was reasonable to expect some drop-off following the departure of quarterback Brett Favre, but few could have predicted a second-half collapse that would leave the Packers with a 6-10 record. The defense fell into an injury-induced tailspin, and while quarterback Aaron Rodgers produced solid statistics, he didn't take over in the fourth quarter of close games as Favre often did. This team had far too much talent to finish with a losing record. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Tramon Williams stepped from obscurity into a substantial role as a part-time starting cornerback. He ranked third on the team with five interceptions while displaying solid coverage skills and undeniable big-play ability. Williams excited enough people that it seems possible the Packers will move veteran cornerback Al Harris during the offseason and install Williams as a full-time starter alongside Charles Woodson.

Biggest disappointment: Safety Atari Bigby seemed on the verge of big things at the end of last season, but he was never healthy in 2008. He managed only 21 tackles and one interception in seven games before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. The ripple effect of his injuries were notable throughout the defense. Backup Aaron Rouse struggled, and eventually the Packers were forced to use Woodson at safety for three games. Bigby is a tremendous athlete with big-time hitting ability but, like the Packers, had a very unlucky year.

Biggest need: It's a toss-up between offensive tackle and defensive line, but the need for defensive help seems more immediate. The Packers played most of the year with three healthy defensive tackles and they would be taking a huge risk if they count on former first-round pick Justin Harrell for anything next season. The Packers need to improve not only their interior run defense but also on the edge in passing situations. The losses of Cullen Jenkins (injury) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (ineffectiveness) left Aaron Kampman all alone in disrupting opponents' passing attacks.

Second guessing: The decision to part ways with Favre was defensible. Allowing the divorce to extend well into training camp was not. Because they didn't believe Favre really wanted to play for another team, the Packers decided to hold tight and assumed he would eventually go away. When Favre refused, the Packers were left with a monstrous distraction at a crucial time of team-building. No matter what anyone said at the time, the drama disrupted the team and played a role in the general confusion and miscommunication that has plagued the team all season.

Detroit Lions (0-16)
There are 16 reasons why Detroit will undergo yet another rebuilding program this offseason. The first 0-16 season in NFL history exposed a poorly-constructed team that needs help at nearly every position, most notably along both lines. They'll have two first-round draft picks to jump-start the process, including the No. 1 overall, but first will have to replace fired head coach Rod Marinelli. Grade: F

Biggest surprise: President and general manager Matt Millen had kept his job for so long, amid so much losing, that it seemed he had a lifetime appointment. So while his firing was not undeserved, it was downright stunning to see owner William Clay Ford -- with prompting from son Bill Ford Jr. -- pull the trigger after the Lions opened 0-3. Even Ford could see where Millen's incompetence had led the franchise. And if you're looking for the Lions' second-biggest surprise, it would be Ford's decision to retain Millen's top two subordinates -- interim general manager Martin Mayhew and chief operating officer Tom Lewand -- to rebuild the team. If there was ever a time for a clean slate, it's now.

Biggest disappointment: There are so many choices, but the best place to start is quarterback Jon Kitna. When the season began, you could have made an argument for Kitna as the best quarterback in the NFC North. But he was average at best during the first month of the season and never seemed comfortable with new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto. The Lions essentially fired Kitna by placing him on injured reserve with a relatively mild back injury. The move left the team shuffling through four different quarterbacks, and it's possible that none of them will be in Detroit next season. The Lions ended the season with the division's worst quarterback situation.

Biggest need
: The Lions' defense gave up almost 170 rushing yards per game and got pushed around on a weekly basis. The first step to rebuilding the defense is finding some defensive linemen who can control the line of scrimmage. You can't always add a star at this position, but there are plenty of free agents and likely draft picks who could add some muscle and physicality there.

Second-guessing: Why did Marinelli think that Colletto could transition the offense from Mike Martz's passing attack to a zone-blocking run scheme? First of all, the zone-blocking scheme can take several years to install. Marinelli should have known he didn't have that long. Second, Colletto had never been a coordinator in the NFL. As the season progressed, it didn't look like Colletto had many schematic answers for the way the Lions were playing. Colletto is a well-known offensive line coach who might have been in over his head in this job.