This season ESPN and NFL.com both made, what I consider to be, a mistake. Like any sports media they issued grades for the free agency period post lockout but they did so while players like Braylon Edwards, Steve Smith, Malcolm Floyd, and Ronnie Brown were still on the free agent market. Additionally they did not factor in any pre-lockout acquisitions or re-signings (though these were few) into the free agency grades. Free agency grades also don’t take into account one of the most important free agent acquisitions of all – coaching hires.
The first offseason grades that we saw were in the hours following the NFL Draft for how well each team drafted. While draft grades (as are free agency grades) are speculation based on how well the collective media think players will fare for a team years down the road, we as fans still enjoy having an “expert opinion” on how well our team drafted.
What is rarely done however, is a combination of the two grades where the entire offseason activity is graded. A lot of teams we will see a team have a great free agency period and a poor NFL Draft or the other way around so in actually being patient enough to wait until all the big names were signed, I feel like I can do something that we don’t see enough of – grade an NFL team’s entire offseason. I provide an idea of what my grades mean below:
A Range – Outstanding
B Range - Good
C Range - Some Good, Some Bad (a.k.a. Hard to Determine)
D Range – Pretty Bad
F Range – What the heck were you thinking?!?
Today I give you the NFC North, a division that many believe could be among the best in the NFL this season but what do the grades say?
GREEN BAY PACKERS
2011 DRAFT PICKS – Derek Sherrod, OT (1-32), Randall Cobb, WR (2-64), Alex Green, RB (3-96), Davon House, CB (4-131), D.J. Williams, TE (5-141), Caleb Schlaunderaff, G (6-179), Rick Elmore, DE (6-197), Ryan Taylor, TE (7-128), Lawrence Guy, DT (7-233)
After winning a Super Bowl with many of their best players on the sidelines, the Green Bay Packers clearly felt they needed to improve an already dynamic defense by using their first three picks on the offensive side of the ball. The past couple of years, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Ray Edwards spent more time in the Packers backfield than Ryan Grant so finding a strong offensive tackle like Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod was an obvious choice with the 32nd overall pick. While there are concerns about how agressive Sherrod will be there is no question about his desire to work and ability to run block which plugs a major hole for Mike McCarthy’s offense. The two players I love in this draft for Green Bay are Hawaii’s Alex Green and Kentucky’s Randall Cobb. Green Bay desperately needed to find a running back but really were not in a position to fill this hole before the third round. Thompson has always been about getting the best player on the board and there is no reason to question his tactics. I think Cobb will make an immediate impact as part of the Green Bay offense and was a great insurance policy for James Jones (who did re-sign after lockout) and opens the door for the departure of Jordy Nelson after this season. With the emergence of wildcat -type schemes in the NFL, do not be surprised if the SEC quarterback is used in this role as well. While I do like the Packer’s draft, I really thought they would try and find a pass rusher in the first three rounds but instead waited until late in the sixth round to select a defensive end.
KEY ADDITIONS: James Jones, WR (Packers); Mason Crosby, K (Packers); John Kuhn, FB (Packers)
KEY LOSSES: Nick Barnett, LB; Cullen Jenkins, DT; Mark Tauscher, OT; Jason Spitz, G
The Packers could have looked across the NFL and seen the NFC powers (Eagles, Saints, Falcons) gathering arms and bolstering their rosters. The difference between the Packers and these other teams though is that the Packers just won a Super Bowl. They had very little cap room and did what they do best – kept their best guys and made few moves. They brought back a solid kicker in Crosby (which teams with playoff experience know is important), a guy who can get in the endzone when he has to in John Kuhn, and were able to keep James Jones from signing with the rival Vikings which makes Green Bay loaded at wide receiver. Additionally, the Packers will see a number of their stars back off the DL this season which makes another Super Bowl run very feasible.
2011 NFL DRAFT PICKS – Nick Fairley, DT (1-13); Titus Young, WR (2-44); Mikel Leshoure, RB (2-57); Douglas Hogue, OLB (5-157); Johnny Culbreath, OT (7-209)
In one swoop, the Lions were able to get their hands on a top 5 talent in Nick Fairley and potentially establish the best defensive tackle tandem in the NFC North with Fairley and Suh. That’s saying something considering that for many seasons, the North has boasted the Williams Wall who are historically speaking, the best run stopping tackle pair of all time. And the Lions are going to have to be able to stop the run when their division has the likes of Matt Forte, Ryan Grant, and Adrian Peterson. Additionally Titus Young provides another great young target for quarterback Matthew Stafford and Mikel Leshoure paired with 2nd year running back Jahvid Best could give Detroit a powerful 1-2 punch. In Douglas Hogue, the Lions got a hard-hitting and speedy linebacker that could have gone a lot earlier. Overall, with only a few picks, this was an excellent draft for the Detroit Lions.
KEY ADDITIONS: Eric Wright, CB (Browns); Justin Durant, LB (Jaguars); Stephen Tulloch, LB (Titans); Chris Houston, CB (Lions); Drew Stanton, QB (Lions)
KEY LOSSES: Bryant Johnson, WR
Detroit gave themselves a solid defensive front four in the draft after taking Nick Fairley 13th overall. The Lions focused their free agent signings on tightening up the rest of their defense. The Lions should have a pretty solid rush defense (important against Chicago and Minnesota) with the addition of Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant. Tulloch is a great tackler who, behind Suh and Fairley, keep Peterson and Forte from doing too much up the middle. Eric Wright is a risk worth taking at the cornerback position as he has great upside and it was important for the Lions to get Houston back on board as well as bring back Stanton given Stafford’s injury history. While there weren’t any “big names” signed, the Lions addressed their needs on the defensive side of the ball but there remain some major questions on the offensive line.
2011 NFL DRAFT PICKS: Gabe Carimi, OT (1-29); Stephen Paea, DT (2-53); Christopher Conte, S (3-93); Nathan Enderle, QB (5-160); J.T. Thomas, LB (6-195)
If Nick Fairley wasn’t the best value pick in the first round, then Gabe Carimi might have been. I really did not believe that Carimi would fall that late in the first round. Regardless of what you might say about Big Ten football, the Big Ten produces two things better than anyone – offensive linemen and middle linebackers. Carimi is no different – he is a big athletic, run blocking tackle who can start immediately. I really like the Christopher Conte pick-up in the third round for the Bears. Though he only started at Cal for his senior year, he made the most of it. He has great size and is pretty fast which makes him a hard-hitting safety, he’ll be right at home in that Bears’ defense. Enderle kind of confuses me because they have a very capable back-up in Caleb Hanie (as seen in the 2011 NFC Championship) but Enderle does have a big arm and some real upside. I think they should have tried to use what few picks they had on a wide receiver or another offensive lineman.
KEY ADDITIONS: Roy Williams, WR (Cowboys); Anthony Adams, DT (Bears); Chris Spencer, C (Seahawks); Corey Graham, CB (Bears); Amobi Okoye, DT (Texans); Brian Iwuh, LB (Bears); Matt Spaeth, TE (Steelers); Vernon Gholston, DE (Jets); Adam Podlesh, P (Jaguars); Marion Barber, RB (Cowboys)
KEY LOSSES: Greg Olsen, TE; Tommie Harris, DT; Olin Kreutz, C; Devin Aromashadu, WR
The Bears did a lot during free agency, I just don’t know how good it was. The four biggest signings are probably the ones that Bears fans either dislike or don’t know about. Roy Williams is a perfect fit for the Chicago Bears given that he fluorished in Mike Martz’s offense in Detroit and I really believe that he will rebound this year and lead the Bears in receiving. I like the addition of Adam Podlesh who is a good punter and should help that Bears defense play with some longer fields this year. Vernon Gholston and Amobi Okoye were both great value signings. While they are both first round draft busts, the Bears gave up next to nothing for them and if Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli can get one of them to even realize half of their potential – it was definitely a risk worth taking.
I hate the Chris Spencer move because even though Kreutz is in decline he is still a strong center and good locker room guy. Spencer is unproven and the Bears may have been better off signing Kreutz for one to two years and looking for a center in next year’s draft. Marion Barber does provide some competition for Chester Taylor and is an okay signing. Spaeth was a good signing as well but is in no way a replacement for Greg Olsen.
2011 NFL DRAFT PICKS: Christian Ponder, QB (1-12); Kyle Rudolph, TE (2-43); Christian Ballard, DT (4-106); Brandon Burton, CB (5-139); DeMarcus Love, OT (6-168); Mistral Raymond, S (6-170); Brandon Fusco, C (6-172); Ross Homan, OLB (6-200); D’Aundre Reed, DE (7-215); Stephen Burton (7-236)
Whether or not Brett Favre will play in the NFL this year remains to be seen but it is rather clear that he will not be back with the Vikings. In what many viewed as a rather weak quarterback class, the Vikings took the 4th quarterback off the board with the 12th overall pick in Florida State’s Christian Ponder. Nobody has reached as hard as the Vikings did taking Ponder 12th overall since Santa Claus last tried to touch his toes. Many consider Ponder the most “NFL ready” of the class but when Andy Dalton was taken in the 2nd round, it seems Minnesota could have gotten their guy later in the draft. Many comparisons have been made between Ponder and Hassleback and if Christian Ponder is indeed Matt Hassleback in a couple of years – then this looks like a stroke of brilliance. For now, it seems to be a reach. For Vikings fans not only will Ponder be compared to Dalton and Ryan Mallett but he will also be compared to Prince Amukamura, Jimmy Smith, Gabe Carimi, Nick Fairley, Nate Solder, and Adrian Clayborn – all players who could have filled immediate needs for Minnesota. The Vikings had a solid rest of the draft however in taking the best tight end in the draft in Kyle Rudolph and getting a steal with Christian Ballard in the 4th round. He could be a great defensive tackle in another year or two. I believe that Brandon Fusco will prove to one day be a steal and can be a great center in the league, a position the Vikings have struggled to fill since Matt Birk left for the Ravens. And Stephen Burton was a risk worth taking in the 7th round.
KEY ADDITIONS: Donovan McNabb, QB (Redskins); Michael Jenkins, WR (Falcons); Charlie Johnson, G (Colts); Remi Ayodele, DT (Saints); Ryan Longwell, K, (Vikings); Devin Aromashadu, WR, (Bears); Leslie Frazier, Head Coach (Vikings Defensive Coordinator)
KEY LOSSES: Bryant McKinnie, OT; Jimmy Kennedy, DT; Madieu Williams, S; Sidney Rice, WR; Tavaris Jackson, QB; Ben Leber, OLB; Ray Edwards, DE
Of course the big news out of Vikings free agency is getting Donovan McNabb for next to nothing. This is a great pick-up by Minnesota as it provides them a quarterback who can help them win now while Ponder learns the ropes. While Hasselback may have been the better fit given Ponder’s style, McNabb is a great pick up for a Minnesota team just two years removed from an NFC Championship berth. The Vikings also got two very solid pick ups in Charlie Johnson from the Colts who now will be forced into the left tackle role and Michael Jenkins, a sure handed receiver who is familiar with new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Vikings have seen three of their coordinators be hired away to coaching jobs in the last 15 years only to go on and win Super Bowls (Tony Dungy, Brian Billick, and Mike Tomlin) and were not about to let hot coaching prospect Leslie Frazier leave. He has the respect of the locker room and this is a win for the Vikings. Frazier also has brought in Mike Singletary to help the linebacker corps. Ryan Longwell’s re-signing was a priority given that he is one of the league’s most accurate kickers and there wasn’t much available on the free agent market.
Minnesota’s biggest loss is without a doubt Sidney Rice, a young deep threat with leaping ability who was the best wide receiver available in free agency. Overnight, Minnesota went from having a great receiving corps to a decent one at best. Ray Edwards will be missed opposite Jared Allen as will Ben Leber. Overall this is going to be a very different Vikings roster than was seen the past two years.
Overall, the NFC North has taken significant strides forward. The Green Bay Packers have put themselves in a great position to become the first NFC team since, well, the Green Bay Packers to make back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and the Lions continue to build a promising young team. The Bears have solidified their defense and brought in some help on offense while the Vikings have taken some risks that could pay off big or could leave them where they were last season. Overall, I see the NFC North being a tough division that could once again send multiple teams to the playoffs.
Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ‘em!