David Syvertsen continues his look at the needs of every team, division-by-division. On deck today is the NFC North.
Franchise Signal Caller
Enough is enough already. Treating the most important position in sports the way Minnesota has since Daunte Culpepper’s prime is the one thing that has kept them from legitimate Super Bowl contention. A team with the strength in the trenches on both sides of the ball and a top tier running game, their postseason success should pave its way into late January. However, their inept strategy in finding a franchise quarterback has kept them out of the race. If Brett Favre and his almost useless shoulder give the Vikings a whole season of quality play, good for them. But that does not fill the gaping hole that will exist in the same exact spot a year from now. The Vikings need to bite the bullet and get their guy, even if the word “overpayed” litters the headlines from the media and armchair GMs across the country.
Speed in the Back Seven
The Vikings defense has the potential to be a top five unit in 2009. They have one of the top defensive lines in the league from top to bottom and they play the run extremely well on all three levels. However in a game that favors speed more than it ever has, the Vikings are lacking in that department in the back seven. The replacement of Darren Sharper with second year safety Tyrell Johnson will help, but the likes of Cedric Griffin, Antoine Winfield, Charles Gordon, and Marcus McCauley all have to be protected by the Cover 2 scheme to hinder their lack of speed. Linebackers Ben Leber and EJ Henderson are classic thumpers that play the run very well, but struggle in space and can be easily exposed.
Cutler’s Number One Target
The acquisition of Jay Cutler was a brilliant move by Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo. He provides the stability to a position that has been a roller coaster for far too long in Chicago and this is the exact move I am talking about when it comes to Minnesota’s offensive issues. Now that Cutler is in the picture, the Bears need to find the receiver that is going to Chicago a top tier duo. Peyton had Harrison, Brady has Moss, Palmer has Johnson and had Houshmanzadeh, Warner has Fitzgerald. Cutler can get by without a stud number one receiver but you saw what he did with Brandon Marshall in Denver. To get the most out of him after paying a rather hefty price for his services, one has to think the next objective for the almost-there offense is to bring in his go-to-guy, perhaps even the trade demanding Marshall himself.
Balanced Pass Rush
When your leading pass rusher comes up with six sacks to lead the team, something has to change. The Bears are capable of wrecking havoc inside with Tommie Harris, Marcus Harrison, Israel Idonije, and Jarron Gilbert. All four of those defensive tackles are capable of creating severe mismatches against guards because of their size/speed combinations. However, without a more balanced attack from the edges, it will be much easier for opposing offensive lines to stuff them up the middle. Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye are no longer the feared speed rushers that led that defense to the Super Bowl a few years ago and Mark Anderson seems to be a rotational guy at best. Their scheme needs penetrators from all angles along the front and until they get that, the dominance on that side of the ball will continue to be a thing of the past.
Green Bay Packers
Dual Threat Tight End
In the NFC North, the running game is absolutely vital. Bubba Franks was tied to Brett Favre and the passing game when it came to the media clippings but what a lot of people do not realize is how valuable he was to the team’s consistent rushing attack during his prime. Donald Lee and Jermichael Finley are the only two sure things to make the Packers 53 man roster in September barring injury. Considering the versatility that Mike McCarthy demands out of his fullbacks, it is very possible the team will go into the season with just Lee and Finley on the depth chart. However that may be a decision because of a lack of talent behind those two. Although both can bring adequate receiving and blocking skills to the table, neither are what you want out of en every down tight end. They do not work the underneath passing game with the precision to throw off linebackers, nor do they dominate in the trenches. With the balanced offensive attack that McCarthy prefers, a tight end that can do it all would be a beneficial and efficient weapon.
3-4 Scheme Linebackers
The transition to the 3-4 defense is rarely an easy one, especially after just a single offseason personnel tweaking. Ted Thompson has done a fabulous job putting together the defensive line, a unit that should produce in a variety of ways right away. However outside of AJ Hawk and rookie Clay Matthews, the linebackers are a unit stacked with question marks. Nick Barnett has given Green Bay seven great years as the man in the middle of their 4-3 scheme but his ability as an uncovered inside linebacker in the 3-4 is questionable. He does not shed blocks well and that is a must for someone in his position in this new scheme. The Green Bay defense is going to heavily depend on the edge rushing skills of Aaron Kampman, whom has never played outside linebacker in his eight year career. If he struggles with the transition, the talent behind him is severely limited as the likes of Jeremy Thompson, Brady Poppinga, and Brandon Chillar will not offer much as pass rushers. The 3-4 scheme is the most dominant defense in the NFL right now, but if the personnel is not right, it could get very ugly.
Compliment to Kevin Smith
The future is in Matthew Stafford’s hands and the future may very well begin right away on September 13th. Keeping that in mind, the Lions are need to have a few components set in place for Stafford to succeed. Just look at what the Ravens and Falcons did in 2008 with their respective rookie quarterbacks. They pounded the football and took advantage of durable, powerful running backs. Kevin Smith and the Lions offensive line really turned it on late in the 2008 season and if they can pick up where the left off, Stafford’s transition to the NFL game will be much easier. However Smith and his record setting amount of carries in college need break here and there. Maurice Morris was signed to take some carries away but beyond him, the Lions have nobody worth giving the ball to. If they can bring in a back with some youth, their offense appears to be set for the early portion of the Stafford era.
Physical Defensive Backs
When looking over the Lions depth chart and comparing it to what Jim Schwartz built in Tennessee, one has to believe he is lacking the kind of defensive backs he needs for this unit to succeed. The cornerbacks will have a tough time playing physical at the line and running downfield with their cover assignment as most of them lack the complete package. Phillip Buchanon has done a nice job reviving his career but can he play within the physical scheme Schwartz has brought in? Eric King and Anthony Henry have proven to be quality, reliable cover men but how will they do when matched up with the division’s more physical receivers? With a defense that had nowhere to go but up from a dismal 2008, the defensive backs are going to be relied upon to come up and make tackles at the edge. Outside of the oft-injured Henry, none of these starting caliber defensive backs can give you that kind of confidence outside of rookie Louis Delmas.