NFC North 2019 offseason grades: Packers and Lions make upgrades as they look to catch up to Bears
The Packers and Lions were both big spenders in free agency while the Vikings and Bears mostly idled
After maintaining the status quo for what felt like ages, there's finally been a power shift in the NFC North. For the first time since the dawn of the Jay Cutler era in Chicago, the Bears are reigning division champions.
The change in power dynamics has made for an unusual offseason in the NFC North. For once, it was the Bears getting gutted in free agency. For once, it was the Packers opening up their wallet in an attempt to accelerate their revival -- not to mention the fact that
The short version is that the Bears got bad marks because they got gutted the way most good teams inevitably do, the Packers and Lions earned good grades because they acquired a ton of talent in free agency and the draft the way most incomplete teams do, and the Vikings received a poor grade because they've been mostly restricted by Kirk Cousins' monster contract.
The longer version is below.
Grades for all 32 teams can be found.
- Key additions: DC Chuck Pagano, CB Buster Skrine, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson, RB Mike Davis
- Key losses: DC Vic Fangio, CB Bryce Callahan, S Adrian Amos, RB Jordan Howard, K Cody Parkey
- Key rookies: RB David Montgomery
It was inevitable. Like all contenders that piece together quality rosters by consistently drafting well, the Bears eventually got gutted. Just as the Bears emerged as the best team in the division, they were forced to part ways with players they could no longer reasonably afford. Circumstances saw to that. They couldn't pay all of their ascending players.
First, the Bears lost safety Adrian Amos to the Packers. Then, they lost slot cornerback Bryce Callahan to the Broncos. Both departures were exacerbated by the loss of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who
Replacing those three key defensive contributors satisfactorily was always going to be impossible. The Bears did manage to find replacements, but with varying degrees of success.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a former high pick of the Packers, might. He's a great buy-low kind of signing with 14 interceptions in five seasons. Given the Bears' price range and what they were looking for, Clinton-Dix was likely the best Amos replacement available in free agency. He's got the potential to outplay his contract.
The Bears had less success replacing Callahan, who emerged as one of the better slot corners over the past couple seasons. They signed Buster Skrine, who graded out as an average cornerback and allowed a 124.2 passer rating in coverage with the Jets this past season, according to Pro Football Focus. Callahan graded out as PFF's seventh-best cornerback while allowing a 78.9 passer rating in coverage. Going from Callahan to Skrine is a clear downgrade. The Bears' depth in the secondary was a concern last season, which ended up mattering late in the year when Callahan went down injured. It's going to be a concern again this year.
Spearheading the defense will be Colts' coach. Pagano likely won't be able to be everything that Fangio was for the Bears over the past few seasons, but his success as the Ravens' defensive coordinator back in 2011 bodes well. The natural response might be to say Pagano only succeeded with that Ravens defense because of how insanely talented it was, but it's not like Pagano is inheriting a bad defense in Chicago. Even without Callahan and Amos, they're still arguably the most-talented defense in football. Pagano has a ton to work with. Losing Fangio hurts, but it's going to be tough for Pagano to mess up what the Bears have going for them defensively., who is well regarded even after his ultimately unsuccessful run as the
The Bears' best overall signing without factoring in positional value might've been Cordarrelle Patterson, who should improve their dismal return game in addition to functioning as a dangerous weapon in Matt Nagy's creative offense. Patterson has averaged 28.6 yards per kick return since he left Minnesota following the 2016 season. This past season, the Bears averaged 19.1 yards per kick return, which ranked dead last.
Like free agency, the draft also provided the Bears with limited options. Due to their trade for Khalil Mack a year ago, the Bears entered the draft without much ammunition. While GM Ryan Pace did well to address a pressing issue by taking running back David Montgomery in the third round, he had to trade up to get him. So on the bright side, Pace got the guy he wanted. On the other hand, he entered the draft with barely any picks and proceeded to trade away future picks for a player who plays the least important position in the sport.
Pace also failed to find a solution to the Bears' biggest problem: They still don't have a reliable kicker. After cutting Cody Parkey, the three kickers on the Bears' roster are Elliott Fry, Chris Blewitt (you just can't make this up), and Eddy Pineiro, none of whom have kicked in a regular-season NFL game. Barring a costly trade for Robbie Gould, the kicker position figures to be the Bears' fatal flaw during the upcoming season., the Bears have tried to replace him with an assortment of kickers. As it stands,
The Bears get a C for their offseason efforts because there's no doubt they got worse. They got gutted on the defensive side of the ball and were forced to sign replacements who aren't as good as the outgoing players. While they addressed a need in the draft, the way in which they went about filling that hole can be called into question. Draft picks matter a lot. Running backs don't really matter all that much. The Bears traded up to get a running back even though they were short on draft picks to begin with. And finally, the Bears' problem at kicker still hasn't been fixed.
All that said, just because the Bears' received a bad grade doesn't mean they're destined to falter come September. Most good teams lose talent in the offseason. It's not entirely the Bears' fault. It's just what happens to good teams. This is still a strong team that is good enough to return to the playoffs assuming the players already on its roster (cough cough Mitchell Trubisky cough cough) continue to improve.
- Key additions: EDGE Trey Flowers, CB Justin Coleman, WR Danny Amendola, TE Jesse James, RB C.J. Anderson
- Key losses: EDGE Ezekiel Ansah, CB Nevin Lawson
- Key rookies: TE T.J. Hockenson, LB Jahlani Tavai
Perpetually a middling team stuck in 9-7 and 7-9 purgatory, the Lions took a step back during Matt Patricia's first season in charge, finishing in last place in the NFC North with a 6-10 record. That set up a crucial offseason for Patricia.
So it should come as no surprise that the Lions were active in free agency. Their biggest catch was he graded out as PFF's sixth-best edge defender. Clearly, he should improve a defense that ranked 27th in DVOA a year ago -- not great considering Patricia is supposed to be a defensive mastermind. Flowers is also an upgrade over Ezekiel Ansah, who ., who played for Patricia in New England. Flowers has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, recording sack totals of 7.0, 6.5, and 7.5 over the past three seasons. This past season,
The Lions also improved at slot cornerback, swapping in Justin Coleman (PFF's 54th-best cornerback in 2018) for Nevin Lawson (PFF's 91st-best cornerback in 2018). Coleman ranking No. 54 at his position group might not seem impressive, but he was also PFF's fifth-ranked slot cornerback with the Seahawks last season.
The Lions polished off their free agent class Golden Tate, who was moved before last season's trade deadline. They also signed former Steelers tight end Jesse James, but that signing takes on less importance after factoring in what they did in the draft.. Danny Amendola should help fill the void left by
With the eighth overall pick, the Lions landed top tight end prospect T.J. Hockenson, who has a chance to develop into their version of Gronk. Taking a tight end might've seemed like a luxury pick for a 6-10 team, but if Hockenson cashes in on his potential, he could be a legitimate game-plan nightmare. Matthew Stafford is now armed with an assortment of weapons, from Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay (two of the most underrated receivers in football) to Amendola to Hockenson.
The Lions got better this offseason without losing any significant contributors. There's no denying that. But there's a reason why they had to spend big in free agency. They were a bad team to begin with. The gap between them and the Bears was wide. It's not clear if their newcomers will be enough to push them into the playoff conversation. Still, let's give them credit for upgrading their roster in the offseason.
Trouble could still be looming, though. Both defensive lineman Damon Harrison and cornerback Darius Slay -- two very important players in Patricia's defense -- didn't attend the beginning of mandatory minicamp as they reportedly seek new contracts. That's a problem that needs to be addressed at some point.
Green Bay Packers
- Key additions: Coach Matt LaFleur, S Adrian Amos, EDGE Za'Darius Smith, EDGE Preston Smith, G Billy Turner
- Key losses: EDGE Clay Matthews, LB Jake Ryan, WR Randall Cobb, CB Bashaud Breeland, EDGE Nick Perry, DL Muhammad Wilkerson
- Key rookies: EDGE Rashan Gary, S Darnell Savage, C Elgton Jenkins, TE Jace Sternberger
The balance of power has shifted. As a result, it was the Packers who were suddenly among the most active teams in the division when it came to free agency. Long gone are the days of the Packers idling as they watch the teams around them overpay for players they'd end up cutting in just a few seasons. With Aaron Rodgers nearing the end of his reign, the Packers tried their hand in free agency as they sought instant upgrades.
They. Amos, a good but not great safety, should bring a measure of stability to the backend of their defense the way he did in Chicago.
The Packers upgraded at edge rusher by bringing in Za'Darius Smith, who is coming of an 8.5-sack season with the Ravens. There's certainly an argument to be made that the Packers overpaid for Smith by giving him a four-year, $66 million deal -- it's difficult to imagine Smith playing out all four years of his contract -- but there's also no doubt the Packers got better on the edge. Smith is better at this stage in his career than Clay Matthews, who left for the Rams in free agency.
With 24.5 sacks over his first four NFL seasons, Preston Smith is another upgrade at the position. Like the other Smith signing, there's an argument to be made that the Packers overpaid for his services. He's probably not worth the four-year, $52 million deal the Packers handed him. He's probably going to get cut well before the contract expires. But again, like the other Smith, there's also no doubting Smith can help the Packers win right now. And immediate success is what the Packers are chasing.
On the other side of the ball, signing Billy Turner helped solidify the offensive line. Turner, a versatile guard/tackle option, graded out as an average player last year, according to PFF, but his flexibility might be important, especially with injury prone Bryan Bulaga slated to begin the year at right tackle. If Bulaga goes down, Turner, who is expected to start at right guard, can bounce outside to right tackle. Depth behind Turner, however, remains an issue. The Packers could be one injury on the offensive line away from unraveling.
The Packers continued to focus on the defensive side of the ball in the draft by taking edge rusher Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage with their two first-round picks. At this point, with all of the recent investments they've made, the Packers' defense can't afford to be an average unit in 2019. They need to be good -- certainly better than their 29th ranking by DVOA last season.
But the biggest change the Packers made this offseason was hiring Matt LaFleur to replace long-time coach Mike McCarthy. It's the move that will likely come to define their season and quite possibly, the final years of the Rodgers era.
At this point, there's no way to know how it'll work out.
On the plus side, LaFleur is regarded as an innovative offensive coach and he's replacing a coach who refused to update his antiquated offense to the point where. We've been telling the Packers for years to put Rodgers in a modern NFL offense. They might've finally done it.
On the down side, LaFleur's credentials as an innovative offensive coach mainly exist because he worked under Sean McVay as the Rams' offensive coordinator in 2017, which means he didn't call the plays. He did, however, call the plays for the Titans last season. With a combination of a hurt Marcus Mariota and a still bad Blaine Gabbert, the Titans averaged 19.4 points per game and ranked 22nd in DVOA. There's simply not much evidence to back up LaFleur's reputation as an offensive mastermind. He's a 39-year-old first-time head coach with one season of experience as a play-calling offensive coordinator and he's now being paired with a quarterback who doesn't appear to be the easiest person to work with.
Overall, the Packers got better this offseason. It's just not clear how much better they got and if the prices they paid for their upgrades will end being worth it. They also might come to regret their pricey additions in the long term. From a pure talent standpoint, the Packers are still trailing the Bears, even if the gap did shrink this offseason. If the defense makes an improvement and if Rodgers is liberated by a new offense, the Packers should compete for the division crown, but those are both big ifs.
- Key additions: G Josh Kline, DT Shamar Stephen, assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak
- Key losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, C Nick Easton, RB Latavius Murray, RT Mike Remmers, G Tom Compton, S Andrew Sendejo, S George Iloka, CB Marcus Sherels
- Key rookies: C Garrett Bradbury, TE Irv Smith Jr.
It turns out, giving a quarterback a three-year, $84 million deal really limits a team's ability to go out and sign more big-name players to big-time contracts., the Vikings were mostly inactive in free agency, which means they were mostly unable to fill the holes on their roster -- chiefly on their offensive line. That's a problem. Cousins proved in 2018 that he's not good enough to overcome bad protection in front of him, and the Vikings were unable to completely rectify the issue in free agency.
Nick Easton is gone. So are Mike Remmers and Tom Compton. Newly signed Josh Kline (who received an average grade from PFF last season) should start at guard while first-round rookie Garrett Bradbury should slot in at center, which sends Pat Elflein out to the other guard position. Left tackle Riley Reiff, who graded out as PFF's 23rd-best tackle last season, will be back. Brian O'Neill, who was PFF's 55th-best tackle last year, should man the right side. The point being, the offensive line still doesn't project to be a strength of the team.
What might be their most important changes are Gary Kubiak in as an offensive advisor and Kevin Stefanski in as the offensive coordinator, both of whom are replacing John DeFilippo after who benefited from play-action earlier in his career. The Vikings are essentially hoping that a few tweaks in personnel and a change in scheme will be enough to overcome the overall lack of talent up front.. Kubiak's offenses historically lean on play-action, which could help Cousins,
The Vikings also lost a couple key players on defense, but the damage actually could've been worse. They were lucky to find a way to keep linebacker Anthony Barr, who agreed to a contract with the Jets during the legal tampering period, but to return to the Vikings. That's a huge get for the Vikings.
The best aspect of the Vikings' offseason was the draft, where they got the best center prospect in the first round, a good tight end prospect in the second round, and a running back in the third round to replace Latavius Murray. In all, the Vikings made 12 selections in the draft.
Overall, though, the Vikings were rather limited this offseason. They didn't really improve substantially as a team by acquiring outside talent, which might be OK. This is a team that only just barely missed out on the playoffs. A year ago, they were considered by some to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If they can make modest improvements on offense, they should be in play for a playoff spot.
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