NFC North Draft Grades
Moving right along in our “better late than never” draft grades series, Aaron Aloysius takes a look at the NFC North.
Chicago Bears: B
The Bears were majorly short-handed this April, having traded away their first two picks for Jay Cutler and the late Gaines Adams. They still managed to bring in some promising prospects, in part because they drafted players who underwent injury, experience, or system-based draft slides. The major question, however, is whether the players they brought in are good fits for Chicago’s system. For a couple of their picks, the answer remains unclear.
With their first pick, coming early in the 3rd round, the Bears brought in Florida safety Major Wright. Wright’s a hard hitter and proved to be a better athlete than expected during his Combine workout, but he declared after a junior season in which he didn’t make many plays or generate very impressive tape. If he returns to his impressive ’08 form, the Bears will get a very good starting safety, but he may need to be limited to a special teams role as a rookie while he picks up the intricacies of the NFL game.
In the 4th round, the Bears selected defensive end Corey Wootton, who was one of the biggest sliders in this year’s draft. After coming back too soon from an ACL tear suffered in the ’08 Alamo Bowl, Wootton struggled to generate much pressure off the edge last fall. In addition, teams reportedly were concerned about a neck injury Wootton suffered earlier in his time at Northwestern. Consequently, Wootton is far more talented than your average 4th round pick, but he does come with multiple injury red flags.
Also, one could question whether he’s a great fit for Chicago’s Tampa 2 defense; if he doesn’t fully regain his explosiveness, Wootton could fail to be an impact rusher, even at the power end position. Wootton may have been better off going to a team that runs a 3-4 defense, where he’d fit naturally as a five-technique. And with the Bears having drafted a similar player last year in Jarron Gilbert, Wootton could struggle to make an immediate impact.
Chicago may have gotten a steal in 5th round corner Joshua Moore. A surprise early entrant, Moore did considerable to his draft stock at the Combine, running a 4.58 40 and putting up a measly two bench reps. Still, the aggressive corner appears to be a good fit for Chicago’s defense, provided he can add some bulk and strength to his lean frame.
Rumored to be in pursuit of a veteran backup to Jay Cutler, the Bears surprisingly took Central Michigan QB Dan LeFevour in the 6th round. Another draft slider, LeFevour was projected by Mel Kiper to go as high as the 2nd round. Ultimately, concerns about his arm strength and ability to go through his progressions – two things that weren’t tested much in Central Michigan’s offense – dropping all the way to the sixth frame. Though LeFevour is said to possess the intelligence and tremendous work ethic that Mike Martz covets in his quarterbacks, his inability to go downfield may limit his effectiveness as an NFL QB. However, the Fever’s above average mobility will help him playing behind Chicago’s average offensive line, which only was addressed via a late round flier on developmental offensive tackle J’Marcus Webb.
Round 3 (pick 75) Major Wright — S — Florida
Round 4 (pick 109) Corey Wootton — DE — Northwestern
Round 5 (pick 141) Joshua Moore — CB — Kansas State
Round 6 (pick 181) Dan LeFevour — QB — Central Michigan
Round 7 (pick 218) J’Marcus Webb — OT — West Texas A&M
Detroit Lions: A-
Since Matt Millen’s expulsion from the Motor City, the Lions have adopted the strategy of taking the best player available, which – on a team short on talent – almost always happens to address a positional need. But that strategy shouldn’t be mistaken for a team accumulating a cache of incompatible pieces; one can see a solid team forming in Jim Schwartz’s second year in Detroit.
Instead, the Lions were fortunate to secure our highest-rated player in the draft, Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh. While some speculated that the team might take a left tackle with their first pick, Detroit adhered to its BPA strategy and thereby acquired a tremendous talent. In fact, their entire offseason seemed to be built around drafting Suh: veteran defensive Kyle Vanden-Bosch, who helped mentor uber-talented d-tackle Albert Haynesworth, was brought in to play beside Suh; Corey Williams, who thrived as an interior rusher in Green Bay, was brought in to take advantage of the double teams Suh will command; and left guard Rob Sims was brought in to patch what was the most glaring hole on Detroit’s line, thereby making the Suh pick more palatable.
If Suh can stay healthy, he should be a dominant force like Schwartz had with Albert Haynesworth in Detroit; because he plays with a better motor, Suh – scarily – could be even better than the temperamental Hayesworth. Even if the rest of the Lions’ picks were awful, it’d be hard to give them a bad grade because of House of Spears.
Fortunately, the Lions also did a very good job with their later picks. The team traded back into the first round to select Jahvid Best, a game-breaking running back who likely would have gone higher, were it not for some durability issues. With Kevin Smith coming off an ACL tear, the team needed to add another starting-caliber back, and Best certainly qualifies. That said, the team has to hope that their top two backs don’t struggle with injuries for a second straight season.
The Best pick also highlights the Lions’ strategy of ensuring franchise quarterback Matt Stafford will be successful by surrounding him with weapons, not elite offensive lineman. Last year, the Lions passed on Michael Oher in favor of Brandon Pettigrew, who was becoming a nice security blanket for Stafford before getting hurt in Week 12. This year, the Lions opted to take Best instead of tackles Rodger Saffold and Charles Brown. In a way, that decision shows the coaching staff’s confidence in current starting left tackle Jeff Backus, who was an above average starter last season.
However, the team also managed to secure a talented developmental tackle prospect in Jason Fox. The very good pass protector could have gone a round or two higher if a knee injury hadn’t hobbled him all draft season. Fox does need to become a better run blocker and could use some more bulk, but he has a good shot at becoming Backus’s eventual replacement or starting at right tackle if Gosder Cherilus fails to develop.
The team also did a nice job with their other picks, defensive back Amari Spievey and pass rusher Willie Young. Both players went later than prognosticators expected because teams didn’t know exactly where they fit: Spievey was a corner in college, but he may need to move to safety because of speed concerns; Willie Young isn’t stout enough to be an every down defensive end yet lacks the hip flexibility to play linebacker. However, both should be able to carve out niches in Detroit’s defense.
With their weak secondary, Spievey should be able to find a spot somewhere, and Young resembles the situational pass rushers Jim Schwartz used in Tennessee. Those rushers had success had success because offenses were overwhelmed by Haynesworth. Young may get the same kind of help from Mr. Suh.
Round 1 (pick 2) Ndamukong Suh — DT — Nebraska
Round 1 (pick 30) Jahvid Best — RB — California
Round 3 (pick 66) Amari Spievey — DB — Iowa
Round 4 (pick 128) Jason Fox — OT — Miami
Round 7 (pick 213) Willie Young — DE — NC State
Green Bay Packers: B+
Last year, the Packers focused first on adding playmakers to their new 3-4 defense, only afterwards addressing their offensive line. Fortunately for them, Clay Matthews proved to be quite the playmaker rushing off the edge, and mid-rounder T.J. Lang appears to be the team’s long-term solution at either guard or right tackle.
The team flipped the script this year, going first with offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga. GM Ted Thompson waited patiently as the Iowa tackle slid down the first frame, and he was rewarded with what should be an excellent selection for the Packers. Were it not for an early season thyroid illness, Bulaga may have proven to be the top-rated left tackle in this year’s class. He does have shorter than ideal arms, but he’s a master technician who plays with a bit of a mean streak. If Lang eventually moves to left guard, he and Bulaga could form a dominant left side of the Packers’ line.
In the 2nd round, the Packers addressed their front seven, drafting Purdue defensive lineman Mike Neal. Neal was a bit of a surprise, as many had him projected to go a round or two later. In addition, many thought that the college defensive tackle would be a better fit as a penetrating three-technique in a 4-3 defense. Neal does occasionally flash the strength at the point necessary to play 3-4 end, but he’s failed to consistently harness that ability. While he could end up being a quality player for the Packers, there’s also a good chance that the scheme or his inconsistency will prevent that from happening.
Indeed, one can question whether the Packers would have been better off using the 56th pick overall on a position other than five-technique. Late last season, starting corner Al Harris went down with an ACL tear, and the team’s pass defense subsequently declined, surrendering 379 yards and 5 touchdowns in a post-season loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Instead of addressing the position in the draft, the Packers chose to rely on the 35 year old Harris continuing to be a high-quality contributor. Though Tramon Williams continues to improve, they Pack could have benefited from adding another talented young corner.
Green Bay didn’t completely ignore their secondary, drafting Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett in the 3rd round. Burnett is an aggressive safety who will gamble and get beat, but he’ll also make plays: over the last two years, Burnett picked off twelve passes and stopped eleven plays behind the line of scrimmage. Though pre-draft buzz had Burnett rising as high as the early second round, he went just about where his productive but risky play warranted; he was the the 69th player on our Top 100 Board and was drafted two spots later. Though his gambling ways could get him into trouble as a rookie, Burnett has a good shot at unseating starting safety Atari Bigby.
With their later picks, the Packers went with some boom or bust selections. Tight end Andrew Quarless is a gifted athlete who finally became a featured component of the Nittany Lions’ offense as a senior, but questions about his maturity and blocking ability dropping him to the fifth round. The Packers have had success developing talented but work-ethic challenged tight end Jermichael Finley, and they’ll hope to do the same with Quarless.
6th rounder James Starks is a very talented runner and a great receiver out of the backfield, but he was unable to play in ’09 because of a shoulder injury. Unfortunately, his upright running style leaves him exposed to further injury, but he could be a steal for the Packers if he stays healthy.
Lastly, the Packers added C.J. Wilson, a college 4-3 defensive end who will be moving to 3-4 DE. At this point, Wilson may lack the strength to hold up at the position and could benefit from a year’s development on the practice squad. However, Wilson also showed tremendous pass rush ability in ’08 before having a mediocre ’09. If he can re-harness that ability, he could carve out a role as a passing downs defender.
Round 1 (pick 23) Bryan Bulaga — OT — Iowa
Round 2 (pick 56) Mike Neal — DT — Purdue
Round 3 (pick 71) Morgan Burnett — S — Georgia Tech
Round 5 (pick 154) Andrew Quarless — TE — Penn State
Round 6 (pick 193) James Starks — RB — Buffalo
Round 7 (pick 230) C.J. Wilson — DE — East Carolina
Minnesota Vikings: B-
With Favre back in the fold for another season, the Vikings boast a roster capable of carrying them to the Super Bowl. A little help from their rookie class could be what gets them over the top and brings a Lombardi trophy to Minneapolis.
It’s not surprising, then, that the club opted to pass on taking a quarterback in the early rounds of this year’s draft. With Jimmy Clausen locked in free fall mode, the Vikings had two shots to pick up the Note Dame signal caller but decided to pass. Instead, they traded down before selecting Virginia defensive back Chris Cook. A college cornerback, Cook projects well to that position in Minnesota’s defense, but he also has the size to make the transition to safety. Cook should be able to contribute immediately as a nickel corner, possibly moving outside to cover bigger, more physical receivers. At the very least, he will provide some versatile depth to Minnesota’s secondary.
In addition to getting an immediate impact from Cook, the Vikings netted a fourth round pick by trading down from their trade-down. With it, the team selected USC defensive end Everson Griffen. An immensely talented physical specimen, Griffen fell in the draft because of concerns about his maturity and work ethic; he even drew comparisons to mega-bust Vernon Gholston. Unlike Gholston, however, Griffen won’t be asked to contribute immediately, instead providing depth behind Minnesota’s excellent pair of defensive ends. Also, the Vikings won’t have much angst about having spent a 4th round pick on him if he busts out of the league. But if he’s as good as many thought Gholston could be, the Vikings will have gotten a major steal.
While the Vikings’ trade out of the 1st round brought them solid value, their trade up to secure Toby Gerhart’s services was far too costly. In order to trade up eleven spots in the 2nd round, the Vikings gave up their 3rd round pick. The team may have been correct in thinking they needed to trade up to secure a power back, as Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty both came of the board before the team’s original 2nd round pick. And at pick #51, Gerhart was a solid value; he actually was the 51st prospect on our Top 100 Board.
However, the Vikings gave up quite a heavy ransom for a guy whose skill set doesn’t necessarily complement Adrian Peterson’s. As a former outfielder, Gerhart has little trouble catching the ball out of the backfield, but he lacks the elusiveness as a receiver that Chester Taylor gave the team on 3rd down. Gerhart could work as a closer, beating down on already worn-out defenses, but that’s a role Adrian Peterson adeptly has handled in the past. Yes, Peterson has struggled with some fumbling issues, but Gerhart more quietly struggled with the same problem last year.
Because of the Gerhart trade, the Vikings didn’t come out of the draft with any more immediate impact players. Chris DeGeare could develop into a nice swing reserve lineman, but he may need a year or two of development before he can hold down that role. The teams may have been interested in taking Boston College center Matt Tennant at that spot, but he went two picks earlier to the Saints.
Linebacker Nate Triplett is a nice try-hard player but probably is too limited in coverage to make an impact on defense. As such his upside may be earning a roster spot as a special teams player. Joe Webb’s an intriguing athlete and a very nice value in the 6th round, but the team will first have to decide which position he’ll play: many thought the Vikings would immediately move him to wide receiver, but the team instead opted to give him a shot at becoming an NFL quarterback.
The mid-to-late round player who could make the biggest immediate impact is Ryan D’Imperio, who’s converting to fullback after playing linebacker at Rutgers. But as a 7th round pick, he’ll have to battle to just make the team. As such, one can wonder whether the team could have gotten a more immediate impact from their picks.
Round 2 (pick 34) Chris Cook — CB — Virginia (got a 4th)
Round 2 (pick 51) Toby Gerhart — RB — Stanford (gave up a 3rd to move up)
Round 4 (pick 100) Everson Griffen — DE — USC
Round 5 (pick 161) Chris DeGeare — OG — Wake Forest
Round 5 (pick 167) Nate Triplett — LB — Minnesota
Round 6 (pick 199) Joe Webb — QB/ATH — UAB
Round 7 (pick 214) Michey Shuler — TE — Penn State
Round 7 (pick 237) Ryan D’Imperio — LB/FB — Rutgers
Check back soon to see draft grades for the rest of the NFL teams.