NFC North Offseason Report Cards: Vikings Go All-In for Kirk Cousins, Packers Bring in TE Help

Kalyn Kahler
Sports Illustrated

CHICAGO BEARS

2017 record: 5–11

Crucial veteran additions: WR Allen Robinson, WR Taylor Gabriel, TE Trey Burton, K Cody Parkey, QB Chase Daniel, LB Aaron Lynch

Crucial veteran losses: QB Mike Glennon, Qb Mark Sanchez, G Josh Sitton, WR Cam Meredith, WR Kendall Wright, DE Willie Young, LB Jerrell Freeman, S Quintin Demps, K Connor Barth

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

Chicago had one of the weakest receiving groups in the NFL last season—the team ranked dead last in passing yards per game (175.7)—so that position was clearly an area of focus this offseason for general manager Ryan Pace. The additions of Allen Robinson from Jacksonville, Taylor Gabriel from Atlanta and Anthony Miller via the draft will boost a stagnant group, assuming Robinson returns fully healthy from last September’s ACL tear. If 2015 first-round pick Kevin White can stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his ill-fated career, it’s an added bonus.

What needs work?

New offensive-minded head coach Matt Nagy will be charged with developing second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky’s strength is his on-the-move passing, but that can’t be the main part of his game. As our Andy Benoit pointed out, because of Trubisky’s good-not-great arm strength, his success depends on how well he can develop as a timing and rhythm passer.

What can we expect?

Look for a complete overhaul of the Bears offense as we knew it under John Fox. Nagy is of the Andy Reid school, which means there will be more creative play-calling. The Bears return defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and 10 starters from the 2017 unit, which ranked 10th in yards, 11th in yards per play and ninth in points allowed. With the addition of first round pick linebacker Roquan Smith, this defense should be just as solid.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamps

White has looked better and healthier this offseason than he has in the past coming off surgery. New tight end Trey Burton was reportedly one of Trubisky’s favorite targets during minicamp and the two are quickly building chemistry.

Best offseason tweet

GRADE: A

The Bears made many changes this offseason that look great on paper, but in the first year of the Nagy era, the team might still be one year away from a real turnaround.

DETROIT LIONS

2017 record: 9–7

Crucial veteran additions: RB LeGarrette Blount, C Wesley Johnson, TE Levine Toilolo, LB Jonathan Freeny, DT Sylvester Williams, TE Luke Willson, RB Zach Zenner, OL Kenny Wiggins, CB DeShawn Shead, LB Devon Kennard, LB Christian Jones, QB Matt Cassel, G/C Wesley Johnson

Crucial veteran losses: TE Eric Ebron, CB DJ Hayden, TE Darren Fells, S Don Carey, DT Haloti Ngata, LB Tahir Whitehead, DE/LB Brandon Copeland, C Travis Swanson, LB Paul Worrilow

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

The Lions ranked dead last in rushing last season, averaging 76.3 yards per game (the Bengals, who were ranked 31st, averaged 85.4 yards per game), and the team hasn’t had a player break the 100-yard threshold in a game since Thanksgiving 2013. Ameer Abdullah came close to breaking the drought last season with 86 yards against the Giants and 94 yards against the Vikings, but then went the final 12 weeks without reaching 55 yards. To put that in perspective, the Cowboys have had 34 games with a 100-yard rusher since then, and the next-worst team, the Colts, have had four.

So Detroit drafted offensive lineman Frank Ragnow in the first round (No. 20 overall) and running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round to improve the unit. Ragnow played mostly at center for Arkansas, but reportedly practiced at left guard for much of the Lions’ offseason program. Johnson has impressed in OTAs and minicamp, and if left tackle Taylor Decker can stay healthy, Detroit’s run game should be much better.

What needs work?

QB Matt Stafford was sacked 47 times in 2017, a career-high for him. Detroit has to improve in pass protection and shield Stafford better than last season. Ragnow, the Lions’ rookie offensive lineman, didn’t give up a single sack in his entire college career—2,246 snaps (though it should be noted that centers usually give up fewer pressures on the quarterback than any other offensive line position along the line).

What can we expect?

New head coach Matt Patricia’s experience as New England’s defensive coordinator should mean a nice turnaround for the Lions defense, which ranked 27th in the league last season.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamps

Per reports out of Lions minicamp and OTAs, Patricia is shaking things up. He’s more vocal than Jim Caldwell, his practice tempo is speedier and the players have less down time at practice. Patricia had players run sprints after OTAs and minicamp practices. Also, the Lions have reportedly adopted the Patriots’ catchphrase, “Do Your Job.”

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach

GRADE: B

In a division with the still surging Vikings and a healthy Aaron Rodgers, this team will likely be third-best in the NFC North.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

2017 record: 7–9

Crucial veteran additions: TE Jimmy Graham, QB DeShone Kizer, DT Muhammad Wilkerson, DB Tramon Williams, TE Marcedes Lewis

Crucial veteran losses: WR Jordy Nelson, S Morgan Burnett, LB Joe Thomas

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

Tight ends. Last season, Martellus Bennett was brought in to replace Jared Cook—who departed for Oakland in the 2017 free agency—as the athletic, pass-catching tight end in Mike McCarthy’s offense, but played just seven games last season before ultimately retiring. Green Bay signed two veterans, Jimmy Graham, who will be that athletic, No. 1 tight end; and Marcedes Lewis, who is a great blocking tight end.

What needs work?

Green Bay signaled their most important area for improvement in their top two draft picks—cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round and cornerback Josh Jackson in the second. By drafting two highly-touted cornerback prospects, there’s a better chance that one of them will pan out. Green Bay also signed veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House to round out the depth in the secondary. This is an area the Packers have to get right if they want to maximize Aaron Rodgers’s championship window.

What can we expect?

A healthy Aaron Rodgers with a new weapon in Jimmy Graham should lead the Packers return to their usual playoff berth.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamps

Last season, running back Ty Montgomery played just eight games and was placed on injured reserve after struggling with rib and wrist injuries. In his absence, rookie running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams emerged as viable options, so much that by the end of the season, it looked like Montgomery could be phased out of the Packers plans on offense. Per offseason practice reports, Montgomery was frequently used in no-huddle and two-minute drills, and head coach Mike McCarthy told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky that he plans to handle running back by committee this season, until someone proves themselves to be the full-time guy. That could still be Montgomery.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach

GRADE: B

If the additions to the secondary pan out, this Green Bay defense will be able to support Rodgers’s dominance.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2017 record: 13–3

Crucial veteran additions: QB Kirk Cousins, DT Sheldon Richardson, WR Kendall Wright, QB Trevor Siemian, OL Tom Compton, TE Josiah Price, LS Nick Dooley, LB Reshard Cliett

Crucial veteran losses: QB Case Keenum, QB Teddy Bridgewater, QB Sam Bradford, WR Jarius Wright, RB Jerick McKinnon, OL Joe Berger,DT Tom Johnson, DT Shamar Stephen, LB Emmanuel Lamur, CB Tramaine Brock, OL Jeremiah Sirles

2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

The Vikings completely overhauled their quarterback room this offseason, letting Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all walk in free agency in favor of big-ticket free agent Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Keenum were pretty comparable stats-wise in 2017, but Cousins is a safer choice for the long haul. He’s proven to be consistently good, unlike Keenum, whose 2017 season could be a fluke. Siemian, who has started 24 NFL games in his career, is a solid and economical choice at backup behind Cousins.

What needs work?

The offensive line. Guard Joe Berger retired in March after a 13-year NFL career, but the Vikings didn’t sign a guard in free agency and didn’t use their first round pick draft on an NFL-ready offensive lineman. This unit remains a question mark.

What can we expect?

Cousins will be helped by one of the best receiving duos in the league, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and with the return of running back Dalvin Cook from an ACL injury, these Vikings will finish at the top of the division and make a postseason run.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamps

Dalvin Cook started participating in team drills during the Vikings third week of OTAs. The second-year running back tore his ACL early last season, four games into a fast start to his rookie year. It looks like Cook is on track for full participation in training camp and will be ready to go Week 1.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach

GRADE: B+

The league’s No. 1 defense will be even better with the additions of veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and first round cornerback Mike Hughes.

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