Barnwell's offseason report cards on Bears, Lions, Packers, Vikings
Bears facing challenge in balancing QB reps
It's time to reflect on the 2017 offseason. There are a few stray veterans left in the free-agent pool, and teams could still execute something unexpected if injuries arise, but organizations have mostly closed their checkbooks and built the rosters they're going to take onto the field in September.
Of course, we can know only so much right now. This time last year, there was no way anybody knew that the Cowboys had drafted a franchise quarterback. Kyle Shanahan was lucky to survive the offseason in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator, let alone be considering head-coaching roles.
At the same time, we can look at what each team's goals were (or should have been) heading into March and gain a sense of whether they did enough to address those concerns. In most cases, we also can plot what they have to do before hitting Week 1.
We'll run division by division over the next two weeks. Time for the NFC North, where everyone's trying to dethrone the Packers yet again ...
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What went right
The Bears' secondary is better. After fielding a series of truly terrifying defensive backfields since Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings left town, they finally invested in upgrades this offseason. They found a good deal on Prince Amukamara, signing the former Giants corner to a one-year, $7 million deal after he had a solid season in Jacksonville. The three-year, $16 million deal they gave Marcus Cooper isn't quite as promising, but it's reasonable money for a player who has looked competent at times for the Chiefs and Cardinals. Quintin Demps isn't a star, but he's a functional safety. These are all upgrades for a unit that sunk below the depths of replacement level far too frequently last season.
What went wrong
They threw assets at their quarterback situation and came away with question marks. Even if the Bears end up finding a useful quarterback out of the combination of Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky, it's difficult to admire how they approached the market in doing so. General manager Ryan Pace committed $18.5 million in guarantees to Glennon despite suggestions that nobody else was interested in coming close to matching Chicago's offer. It's hard to imagine that there was an enormous market of teams lining up to give Glennon starting quarterback money, given his relative ineffectiveness during his time with the Bucs and perennial inaccuracy dating back to college.
Pace then usurped Glennon before the QB ever took a snap by trading up one spot with the 49ers to grab Trubisky in the draft at No. 2 overall. Chicago was able to recoup some of the picks it gave up in the Trubisky deal by trading down with Arizona on Day 2, but it's telling that the Browns and 49ers -- two teams in desperate need of a quarterback -- didn't think Trubisky was worth taking with the first or second overall selection. (The Bears also could have made that Day 2 trade with the Cardinals without making the Trubisky deal and just enjoyed extra picks.)
The argument that any price is worth paying if the Bears are right isn't really logical; there's a reasonable chance the Bears have wasted millions of dollars and multiple draft picks in signing two mediocre players. They might also have two useful quarterbacks, to be fair, but they appear to be out on an island in terms of their evaluations. Usually, that's a recipe for failure.
They went all-in for small-school prospects in the draft. I'm not fond of hipster-shaming, but there's something painfully obscure about most of Chicago's picks. Their second-round pick was Ashland's Adam Shaheen. After drafting Eddie Jackson from the decidedly large school of Alabama in the fourth round, Pace finished up his draft with North Carolina A&T's Tarik Cohen and Kutztown's Jordan Morgan.
There's nothing inherently wrong in drafting small-school players, as NFL teams have found success with players such as Ali Marpet of Hobart and Pierre Garcon of Mount Union in recent years. When you're using three of your five picks on small-school players, though, it's difficult to believe that an organization is effectively sorting through the player pool and accurately evaluating talent, if only because the sheer number of players at larger schools suggest that you should be more likely to take them than the handful coming out of tiny institutions. And if you're really spotting diamonds in the rough, chances are you should be able to trade down and grab them in later rounds.
The most recent example of a general manager who repeatedly fell in love with small-school players was Gene Smith of the Jaguars. Smith had mixed success at best with his small-school picks. Again, it's too early to say confidently that Pace's selections will suffer the same fate, but breaking through to the mainstream isn't easy.
Wait to find a trade partner for Glennon. Glennon is not particularly useful to the Bears at this point because they basically have him signed to a one-year deal and have every intention of transitioning to Trubisky as their long-term quarterback in the near future. It's tempting to try to hold out for a Sam Bradford-sized trade offer, but it's rare for teams to lose their starting quarterback in training camp or the preseason and send a first-round pick to another team to acquire a quarterback.
It's also more plausible that a team in that situation would look up Jay Cutler or Tony Romo before sending away a first-round pick to get a relative question mark like Glennon. The Bears would probably do well to get a mid-round pick for Glennon, and it would help if they restructured his contract to turn some of his $8 million salary into a roster bonus, which would make Glennon a cheaper (and more palatable) trade chit.
What went right
The Lions continued to invest in their offensive line. I can applaud them for having a plan and continuing to stick with it, even if I have a few reservations. Detroit basically swapped out one side of its line, allowing Larry Warford and Riley Reiff to leave in free agency and replacing them with a pair of big-ticket items, importing Rick Wagner from the Ravens before winning the bidding war on T.J. Lang, which has the added benefit of hurting a division rival by taking away Lang from the Packers.
It's also fair to have concerns about the finances of both deals. The Lions totally reset the right tackle market with the Wagner deal. He picked up $29.5 million over the first three years of his contract. Outside of Lane Johnson, who is a left tackle in waiting, no right tackles really approached those numbers before. Mitchell Schwartz, who was the best right tackle on the free-agent market last season, got $19.6 million over the first three years of his deal from the Chiefs.
The Lions then had to guarantee all of Lang's $8 million base salary in 2018, meaning that $19 million of the $28.5 million Lang received on his three-year contract is guaranteed. General manager Bob Quinn will pay Lang that $19 million over two years and either have to hand Lang an extension if he works out or watch him hit free agency again after the 2019 season. These are defensible moves -- Lang has been one of the best guards in the league, and Wagner is a solid right tackle -- but there is risk.
What went wrong
They still haven't locked up Matthew Stafford and Ezekiel Ansah. I'm not going to be especially harsh on the Stafford move because it's basically an inevitability. There's no way the Lions are letting Stafford leave, and there's every indication he's going to stay in Detroit. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler suggested Stafford is waiting for Derek Carr to reset the market before getting a new deal, which makes some sense. Both deals will get done.
Ansah is more concerning, because there shouldn't be any peg to wait for in figuring out what to give the former BYU star. The 27-year-old will enjoy a hefty raise as he enters the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, with his base salary rising from $2.9 million to $12.7 million, but the truly big money will come with his next contract. Ansah's agent will likely be eyeing the Chandler Jones deal, in which the Cardinals star picked up $51 million in his first three seasons.
The Lions could theoretically franchise Ansah twice and pay him something in the ballpark of $53 million over the next three years, which gives them some leverage in terms of cost savings. In addition, Ansah is coming off a down season, producing just two sacks while missing the better part of four games with a high ankle sprain. This should be the best time to lock up the pass-rusher, given that the Lions would be buying relatively low. It's a little disconcerting they haven't quite made it to the dotted line.
They're dangerously thin at defensive end outside of Ansah. While the 2015 Pro Bowler is a great starting point for any team on the edge, the Lions don't really have many other options along their defensive front. Devin Taylor flopped in a larger role last season and is still a free agent. Kerry Hyder had an out-of-nowhere eight-sack, 19-hit season, but he had quite a few coverage sacks while picking up just three sacks over the final three-quarters of the season after Ansah returned to the lineup.
The Lions signed former Bears end Cornelius Washington to a two-year, $5.8 million deal, but otherwise, they didn't really address the position this offseason. That's particularly vexing in light of the widely held belief this was a great draft for edge rushers and defensive linemen. If Ansah misses time again, or if Hyder's hot month was a flash in the pan, the Lions could be seriously lacking a pass rush.
Sign Ansah. Stafford isn't going anywhere, and the realistic threat of the franchise tag should make it easier to sign their quarterback to a long-term extension. Franchising Ansah at a salary that might top $18 million next year isn't as appealing of an option. The Lions have more than $60 million in cap space next year before signing their two best players, so even if they combine to eat up $40 million in room, Detroit should be able to keep its cornerstones around for years to come.
What went right
The Packers threw resources at the defensive backfield. Cornerback was Green Bay's biggest weakness last season, as it lost Sam Shields for what would be a season-ending battle with concussions in Week 1 and never really recovered. Undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter was forced into a starting role after playing limited reps in two seasons, while 2015 first- and second-round picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins struggled both to stay on the field and play well once they got on the field.
The Packers cut Shields and let Micah Hyde leave this offseason, but they made three meaningful additions. Former Packers corner Davon House, who lost his job to standout rookie Jalen Ramsey in Jacksonville, returned to Wisconsin on a one-year, $2.8 million deal. General manager Ted Thompson then used his top two draft picks on cornerback Kevin King and speedy safety Josh Jones.
Suddenly, despite really having only one Pro Bowl-caliber player in safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Packers have one of the deepest secondaries in the league. They have three young corners taken in the top two rounds rotating with House, and while there aren't any guarantees any of them will develop into stars, they've thrown enough at the problem to assume that they should be able to find at least a pair of worthwhile contributors. They also are deep at safety with Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett and Jones, who could end up contributing in a Deone Bucannon-esque role as a hybrid safety/linebacker as a rookie.
They bought low on Martellus Bennett. For whatever Jared Cook flashed while healthy last season, his inconsistency and lack of blocking ability seems to consign him to the books of the perennially frustrating. Thompson has a mostly earned reputation for avoiding free agency, so it was exciting to see him make a rare foray into the market to come away with a new tight end in Bennett, who's a massive upgrade on Cook as a blocker. While Bennett lacks Cook's pure speed, he's a more reliable receiver and has plenty of athleticism to spare.
The ankle injury that sapped Bennett after Oct. 5 might have kept down his numbers (and price tag), leaving the Packers with what could be a team-friendly price for an every-down tight end. Green Bay can also really get out of the deal after one year and $7.8 million if everything goes wrong, although it's more plausibly a two-year, $14.5 million deal. That's a similar annual salary to what guys such as Dwayne Allen and Jermaine Gresham earned with their extensions.
What went wrong
The offensive line could be a problem. We were wondering last year whether the Packers would keep both of their Pro Bowl guards in the fold, given that Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were both a year away from free agency. It has to be a surprise that neither of them are on the roster now. Sitton was surprisingly released before the 2016 season and is now in Chicago, while the Packers chased Lang before eventually losing him to the Lions. JC Tretter, who started at center in Corey Linsley's absence last season, also departed for the Browns in free agency.
The interior of the line is a work in progress. Lane Taylor kept his head above water in Sitton's absence, which will be plenty fine for 2017. Linsley is back from his hamstring injury, but right guard is a major question mark. Jahri Evans was surprisingly effective for the Saints after failing to make the Seahawks last year, but the former star is 33 and had been declining for years. Don Barclay has been a problem when forced into the lineup over the past few years. Last year's second-round pick, Jason Spriggs, was drafted as a tackle, but he also could move inside to guard with David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga locked in on the edges for years to come.
Linebacker could be a problem again. Inside linebacker is hardly a new issue for the Packers, who seem vehemently opposed to ever investing on the interior. They are relatively deep with passable options, but Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas don't appear to offer a ton of upside. It wouldn't be a surprise to see second-round pick Josh Jones take snaps at inside linebacker against pass-happy teams like the Lions.
On the outside, depth is the issue. Clay Matthews is perennially an injury concern, although he made it through all 16 games in 2014 and 2015 before sitting out four games last season with a hamstring injury and playing in a reduced role later in the season thanks to a shoulder injury. On the opposite side, Nick Perry had an 11-sack season out of nowhere and picked up a five-year, $60 million extension.
Perry will earn $38.9 million over the first three years of the contract, but if he doesn't maintain his 2016 level of production, the Packers will be in rough shape. Julius Peppers returned to Carolina this offseason, and the only player the Packers brought in to replace him is Wisconsin product Vince Biegel, a fourth-round pick who profiles as a special-teamer. The role of rotation edge rusher will likely fall to 2016 third-rounder Kyler Fackrell, who played just 151 snaps as a rookie.
Sign Vance Walker. With 2016 first-round pick Kenny Clark likely to start at nose tackle, as projected by ESPN's Rob Demovsky, the Packers have a hole at defensive end, where rookie third-round pick Montravius Adams could compete with journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois for snaps. Walker was a useful contributor on excellent defenses for the Chiefs and Broncos in 2014 and 2015 before missing all of 2016 with a torn ACL. His market has yet to materialize, but having just turned 30 and with his knee injury taking place last August, Walker should still have something left in the tank.
What went right
The offensive line! The offensive line! It would not have been particularly difficult for the Vikings to upgrade on the offensive line they ran out in front of Sam Bradford for most of 2016. Shuffling in fresh bodies would have been enough. In the long run, that may essentially be what the Vikings did, but at least they brought in players who are more likely to stay healthy than their last set of linemen.
Massively in need of an upgrade at tackle, general manager Rick Spielman paid a premium to find veterans at both spots. On the left side, he imported Lions tackle Riley Reiff, who spent four years on the left side amid regular speculation that Detroit didn't particularly value him there before moving him to the right side after drafting Taylor Decker in 2016. The Vikings are paying Reiff $36 million over the first three years of his deal, so Reiff will need to stick on the left side and play well to justify his contract.
Carolina tackle Mike Remmers steps in on the right side, where he should offer more as a run-blocker than a pass protector. His five-year, $30 million deal is really a two-year, $17 million contract. It's a lot for a competent right tackle, but if Remmers can keep T.J. Clemmings on the bench, Vikings fans will be delighted. The interior of the line is fluid, as it's possible that Joe Berger could start at either center or guard, as could rookie third-round pick Pat Elflein.
The Vikings moved on from Adrian Peterson. Peterson might still have something left in the tank at 32, but there was no way the Vikings could have justified bringing him back at a cap hit of $18 million. Some organizations would have insisted on finding a role for a franchise icon and restructured Peterson's deal while still paying a premium for their stalwart back. Given Minnesota's needs elsewhere, though, the time was right for a clean break.
What went wrong
They committed a lot of money to Latavius Murray. With that said, it does seem weird that the Vikings paid significantly more to Murray than the Saints ended up giving Peterson in April. Murray flashed promise with a couple of big runs while in a limited role in 2014, but in two years as the Oakland starter, he has averaged an even 4.0 yards per carry behind one of the league's best offensive lines. The two backs he split time with last season -- DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard -- averaged 5.6 yards per rush behind the same line.
Murray's three-year, $15 million deal is really just a one-year, $4.4 million contract with a pair of options, but it seems like a relative waste of money given that the Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round later during the offseason. It's true that Spielman couldn't have known Cook would be available, but in a running back-heavy draft, it was likely the Vikings would have had a shot at least one useful running back to team with Jerick McKinnon.
They weren't able to lock up Bradford. Bradford had the best season of his career in Minnesota, staying healthy behind a dismal offensive line. It appears likely that the Vikings expect Bradford to be their long-term quarterback, especially given the uncertainty surrounding Teddy Bridgewater's future. (The Vikings declined their former starter's fifth-year option this offseason.) Bradford is entering the final year of the two-year contract he signed with the Eagles, so it seems logical for Minnesota to sign Bradford to an extension.
Look into signing Nick Mangold. The longtime Jets center slipped some in 2016, so it wasn't a surprise when New York general manager Mike Maccagnan cut Mangold as part of the rebuild. Mangold is recovering from ankle surgery, but he appears to be interested in extending his career. If the 33-year-old can pass a physical, the Vikings should consider signing him to be their starting center, which would allow Berger to play guard and Elflein to serve as depth during his rookie season while learning from a seven-time Pro Bowler.