In my continuing series on impact players for 2009, here's my assessment of four players in the NFC North who need to produce this season to make their teams contenders.
Harris, right, is a hard one-on-one matchup for OTs.
(Todd Rosenberg/US Presswire)
The Bears were subpar on the defensive side of the ball in 2008. Despite the fact new quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) has been getting all the attention this offseason, if Chicago wants to compete for an NFC North title, it will need production from its defense, especially Harris.
Although the Bears were fifth in the league in '08 against the run (93.5 yards allowed per game), they were 30th against the pass (241.2 ypg), and that can be attributed to the lack of a pass rush from their front four. As I've written before at the NFP, Tampa 2 defenses such as Chicago depend on a solid push from their front four, which allows the secondary to keep receivers in front of it and limit the explosive plays in the passing game. Harris, although he contributed five sacks in '08, needs to return to the dominant form he had during the Bears' Super Bowl run in '05.
He has the ability and talent to be a Pro Bowler when he's healthy. Chicago brought in new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli – the former head coach in Detroit who's considered one of the best teachers in the league, for a reason – to push Harris and the entire front four. Cutler or not, this ball club needs to play better defense to win games, and it starts up front.
The Lions have a franchise wide receiver on the field in Calvin Johnson(notes), but they need more production from role players like Johnson, especially if rookie Matthew Stafford(notes) is put under center early in the season.
Bryant Johnson isn't going to be expected to produce like a No. 1 target, but the Lions need to find away to exploit defenses that continue to roll their coverages toward C.J. To do that, they need players like Bryant Johnson to make plays in the passing game, especially in third-down situations. If he produces, he will not only open up coverage schemes for C.J. – and some man-to-man coverage – he'll also allow the Lions to open up the middle of the field for rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes), who could be an essential target for Stafford.
I like the idea of the Lions playing Stafford as early as possible, depending on his ability to command the huddle and the offense at the pro level. However, they need to give him as many weapons and as many outlets as possible in the passing game to ease his transition.
It's a lot to ask for a rookie to step into a starting lineup and contribute for 16 straight weekends in the NFL. However, Raji is a top-10 pick and top-10 picks are expected top play and produce immediately in this league.
The 3-4 defense was brought to Green Bay when the Packers hired Dom Capers as the team's defensive coordinator, and a key to any new system is finding the right players to fit it. The 3-4 has officially made its mark in the NFL, and with that comes a shortage of players at key positions – and the nose is essential to the success of not only the defensive line in the 3-4, but the entire defense. The Packers can use defensive tackle Ryan Pickett(notes) in a rotational system with Raji, but they drafted Raji for a reason: to start and to make plays.
I'm not concerned about the Packers' ability to score points on offense, but I am concerned about their ability to transition to a new defensive scheme and become a dominant unit over the course of one offseason. However, it can be done, and it starts up front with Raji. If he grasps the pro game and does whatever Capers asks of him, the rest of the defense will benefit and this team can become a playoff contender. Playing nose in this scheme is a big job, but the Packers envisioned that when they used the ninth overall pick on Raji in April.
The issues surrounding the quarterback position in Minnesota are far from resolved, but the Vikings made a smart move by drafting Florida's Harvin in the first round. That will add some creativity to an offense that has depended on the legs of running back Adrian Peterson.
The Vikings ranked 25th in the league last season in passing (184.8 ypg), and although I still believe that Peterson is the key to another division title, the addition of Harvin allows them to open up their offensive attack and count on some explosive plays in the passing game. Harvin is the type of player who can win when aligned in favorable matchups, and he also allows wide receiver Bernard Berrian(notes) to play the role that best suits him and this offense as a deep-ball threat outside the numbers.
Harvin is only a rookie, but the Vikings will use him in a number of different ways to put the ball in his hands. Brett Favre(notes) or not, this offense will always be dependent on the production of its running back, but it has to give head coach Brad Childress a sense of comfort knowing that Harvin will allow him to expand his offensive scheme.
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