2015 NFC North Preview

Green Bay still rules the NFC North. I wonder if Rodgers will miss Suh?

Green Bay Packers 11-5
Minnesota Vikings 8-8
Detroit Lions 7-9
Chicago Bears 6-10

Chicago Bears

Expected Wins: 6.14
Scouting Wins: 5.75
DVOA Wins: 6.5
2014 Record: 5-11 (4.9 Pythagorean)

Bears fans thought they had found their next star wide receiver when Kevin White fell to them with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Dreams of White and Alshon Jeffery shredding defenses were dancing through fans’ heads. And then, disaster!

“White has suffered a stress fracture during OTA’s.”
“White will need surgery.”
“White will start the season on the PUP list.”
“White might miss the entire season.”

The hits just kept on coming for White. At this point, the Bears have no idea when he’ll see the field, or if he’ll retain the explosiveness that rocketed him to the top of the draft. That’s a bitter pill for a franchise still coming to terms with their worst season since 2004. Let’s look at the returning cast of characters.

Quarterback Jay Cutler has made it clear he is never going to reach the potential he flashed in Denver years ago. At this point, the Bears have to accept they are stuck with a gunslinger who has more balls than talent. Cutler isn’t terrible (-0.7% DVOA, 398 DYAR), but his decision-making process hasn’t improved over the years. Bears fans would love if they had someone else to turn to, but Jimmy Clausen isn’t going to cut it.

Cutler wasn’t the only Bears star to drive fans crazy last season. Matt Forte remained productive (240 combined DYAR) but struggled at the goal line and in pass protection. Oddly, so did 2014 fourth-round pick Ka’Deem Casey. Casey excelled in limited usage (64 DYAR in 42 runs+targets), but couldn’t be trusted to protect Cutler. Cutler’s skittishness makes a bit more sense in this context. Rookie fourth-round pick Jeremy Langford and free agent pickup Jacquizz Rodgers will also press for playing time. Rodgers isn’t as quick or as explosive as you’d expect given his size (5-6). Langford is a former cornerback and wide receiver. He was very productive at Michigan St. and may already be the best third-down back on the roster.

Alshon Jeffery is coming off another solid season in Chicago (11.1% DVOA, 278 DYAR). He was slowed by balky hamstrings, and is currently dealing with a strained calf. He’ll be out there week one, but at what gear is yet to be determined. With White gone, Jeffery will start across from free agent pickup Eddie Royal. Royal is familiar with Cutler and should adapt quickly to the Bears’ offensive system. He’s coming off a solid season (12.8% DVOA, 183 DYAR) in San Diego. Marquess Wilson has the inside track over Josh Bellamy in the battle for the #3WR job. Ugh. Typing that sentence made me feel bad for the Bears. They’re going to miss Brandon Marshall, although it’s the injury to White that has exacerbated the situation. Wilson is terrible (-38 career DYAR), but Bellamy is worse. Tight end Martellus Bennett has been remarkably consistent (4.6% DVOA in 2012, 3.4% in 2013, 3.0% in 2014). He’s much better than backup Donte Rosario (-32 DYAR last season). I anticipate the Bears will run Jeffery, Royal, and Bennett into the ground, but they’ll still need another receiver to step up.

Jermon Bushrod doesn’t get much respect, but I graded him as the ninth-best left tackle in the NFL last season. His struggles with Clay Matthews are well known, but he’s been strong outside of that matchup. Left guard Matt Slauson is coming back from triceps and pectoral tears. The dropoff from him to the various backups is large, so health is a concern here. The Bears view free agent pickup center Will Montgomery as a temporary starter while rookie third-round pick Hroniss Grasu develops. Right guard Kyle Long is a strong performer. The Bears have looked at moving him to right tackle, but for now they seem content to see if Jordan Mills develops. Mills struggled badly last season, although injuries were a part of that. If he struggles again, we may see Long move over and Vladimir Ducasse step in. Ducasse has never been better than mediocre, so the Bears are going to show some patience with Mills. There are better offensive lines out there, but much worse ones as well.

The Bears’ defense was terrible last season. Furthermore, they are switching to a 3-4, so some of their personnel are now poor fits for the new scheme. That might explain why the Bears saw fit to reach out to Ray McDonald. That turned out to be an embarrassing blunder by Chairman George McCaskey:

http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/13228267/ray-mcdonald-former-san-francisco-49ers-chicago-bears-defensive-tackle-charged-domestic-violence-false-imprisonment

Strictly in football terms, that leaves the Bears in a pickle. Nose tackle Ray Ratliff is getting up there in years and is beginning to see his numbers against the run suffer. He’s slated to play between free agent pickup Jarvis Jenkins and 2014 second-round pick Ego Ferguson. Ferguson is an odd fit at end, but the Bears don’t have many better options. 2014 third-round pick Will Sutton doesn’t have a natural position in the 3-4 defense, and may find himself squeezed out of the lineup. Rookie second-round pick Eddie Goldman was a great pickup. I was not expecting him to fall out of the first round. As with Ferguson, he’s a better fit at nose than end, but he’ll have to play wherever the Bears need him.

It will be a very bad sign if 2013 second-round pick Jonathan Bostic can’t beat out either Mason Foster or Christian Jones at inside linebacker. He struggled badly in the 4-3, but the 3-4 should play to his strengths. Jones played well last season, but he doesn’t have Bostic’s talent. Foster is a replacement level free-agent pickup. There are issues outside as well. Jared Allen was slowed by pneumonia last season and isn’t a great fit for this scheme. He’s also 33 years old and is beginning to slow down. He’ll be starting across from Pernell McPhee. McPhee was an absolute monster in Denver last season (7.5 sacks, 41.5 hits+hurries in only 515 snaps). The Bears would also like to get Willie Young into the rotation. He had ten sacks last season for the Bears but is still recovering from an Achilles tear that ended his season. Frankly, even with the addition of McPhee, this is an awkward front-seven. There’s some talent here, but I’m not sure it meshes all that well. Depth is also an issue, pretty much everywhere.

Things aren’t much better in the secondary. 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller struggled badly last season. He should be much better this season, but there are no guarantees. Tim Jennings no longer possesses the athleticism to consistently cover top receivers, which has led to numerous DPI penalties. The is some talk of moving him to safety. Alan Ball is going to get first crack at the nickel job. Free agent pickup Antrelle Rolle will start at free safety. He’s 33 and coming off a poor season, so this might not end up as a great move. The Bears would love for 2014 fourth-round pick Brock Vareen to step up and win the free safety job, but so far it still looks like it will belong to Ryan Mundy. Even with improvement from Fuller, this looks like a vulnerable secondary. The weak pass rush won’t help either.

Good coverage units helped hide just how poor kicker Robbie Gould and punter Pat O’Donnell were last season. O’Donnell should be better this season, but I would have liked to see Gould face some training camp competition. Marc Mariani is slated to return both kicks and punts this season. Gould and O’Donnell should see some regression to the mean, and I expect the Bears’ special teams units to be about average this season.

The Bears’ defense did them in last season, and it may have gotten worse. Offensively, the loss of White is a major blow given the lack of quality receiving options. This is a roster with a lot of problems. Cutler is going to take the fall on talk radio, but he’s just going to be the most obvious target. 6-10.

Detroit Lions

Expected Wins: 8.10
Scouting Wins: 7.99
DVOA Wins: 8.2
2014 Record: 11-5 (9.2 Pythagorean)

Why so much negativity towards a team that won 11 games last season?

1. Their record was fraudulent. They were the 14th-best team in the NFL, according to DVOA.
2. They had a soft schedule last season. That is very much not the case this year.
3. They lost the best defender in the NFL to free agency.
4. Matthew Stafford’s level of play has been steadily declining. So has Megatron’s.

The Lions’ offense had a clear plan last season. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate were going to dominate outside. Rookie tight end Eric Ebron would feast on linebackers and safeties inside. Joique Bell would take advantage of defenses that were focused on stopping Stafford. Stafford was going to make quicker decisions and get the ball out of his hands, with shorter routes for Johnson and Tate. Well, it was a plan, but the best laid plans of mice and men are usually about equal.

Let’s look at Stafford’s and Johnson’s numbers from the past three seasons. We’ll start with Stafford:

2012: 4,967 yards, 12.2% DVOA, 1,160 DYAR
2013: 4,650 yards, 4.9% DVOA, 690 DYAR
2014: 4,257 yards, -0.7% DVOA, 423 DYAR

He’s been throwing the ball less often, and less effective when he has. Some of that isn’t his fault (his tight ends were awful last season), but he’s failed to make any measurable improvement over the years. We may have seen the best of Matthew Stafford. As for Megatron:

2012: 1,962 yards, 16.0% DVOA, 488 DYAR
2013: 1,492 yards, 14.9% DVOA, 347 DYAR
2014: 1,077 yards, 10.2% DVOA, 231 DYAR

He’s battled injuries, missing five games over the past two seasons. He’s 30 years old, so we would expect him to start to slow down a bit. It’s entirely possible that both Stafford and Johnson bounce back this season. It would help if Eric Ebron took some of the pressure off of them.

The Lions’ tight ends combined for -111 DYAR last season. Ebron provided the Lion’s share, with -65 DYAR. His -28.6% DVOA was about as bad as that pun. He’s never going to be a great blocker, and would be best served as a hybrid tight end-wide receiver, similar to Jimmy Graham. Another bad season and the fanbase might notice who was drafted immediately following Ebron.

One bright spot was the performance of Golden Tate. After coming over from Seattle, he saw his targets rise from 100 to 144. Despite the increased attention, he maintained a respectable 6.7% DVOA (214 DYAR). Tate and Johnson form an excellent tandem, but they need some help. Deep threat Corey Fuller is the most likely option. Jeremy Moore, Greg Salas, and Moore will each get a look from the coaching staff as well.

Joique Bell is coming off a bad season. He saw his combined DYAR drop from 274 to -5. He’s currently sidelined with knee/Achilles injuries and might start the season on the PUP list. Rookie second-round pick Ameer Abdullah should be given a shot to step into the void. Abdullah is an undersized back, in the vein of Giovani Bernard. He was exceedingly productive at Nebraska. Theo Riddick may have found his niche as a receiver out of the backfield. We’ll see if the Lions are convinced by his results last season (34 receptions, 316 yards, 14.7% DVOA, 76 DYAR).

By my numbers, Riley Reiff was the best left tackle in the NFL last season. That wasn’t the case of the two people next to him (Rob Sims and Dominic Raiola), and both have been replaced. Reiff will start next to rookie first-round pick Laken Tomlinson. They make have taken Tomlinson a little early, but I think he’ll be a solid pro and he’s going into a perfect situation. Center Manny Ramirez came over in the Shane Ray trade, pretty much as a throw-in. He should help solidify the line. Right guard Larry Warford was very good last season (sixth in my rankings), and is the most respected Lions lineman. Right tackle LaDarian Waddle is still not back from knee surgery. If he can’t go, Cornelius Lucas will man the position until Waddle returns. It’s tough to project a line with three new starters, but I like both returning starters, as well as the new players coming in.

And now we arrive at the Vredefort Crater. Keeping Suh was financially impossible due to the salary cap. Running against the Lions was a fool’s errand last season. Speaking of:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Devils-Detective-A-Novel/dp/0385539347

Be warned, it is a dark novel. Information man Thomas Fool has stuck with me long after reading. Anyways, back to the Lions’ rebuilt defensive line. Where there was once Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, there are now new additions Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker. Ngata has reached the point where he has more name than game. He’s also dealing with a hamstring injury and might not be available to start the season. Rookie fourth-round pick Gabe Wright will see some time in the rotation. Wright had an embarrassing combine (he had to be re-taught a drill because he wasn’t paying attention). Some teams knocked him down on their draft boards after that, but the Lions can’t afford to be that picky right now. Free agent pickup Jermelle Cudjo looks good so far this preseason. He may end up fourth on the depth chart and work his way into the rotation. Ends Jason Jones and Ezekial Ansah combined for 12.5 sacks and 75 hits+hurries last season. Now they are going to have to play on “hard mode.” Ansah especially is going to have to get used to double-teams. Darryl Tapp looks to be the first man off the bench. He had 0.5 sacks to go along with his 20.5 hits+hurries. I don’t think he’ll be so unfortunate as to repeat that ratio again this season.

The loss of Suh is going to impact the linebackers as well. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch is coming back from injuring his knee celebrating a sack on Aaron Rodgers. The Lions anticipate he’ll be ready to start week one. He played very well in 2013 and early 2014, and the hope is he’ll be able to return to that form. He’ll likely be flanked by 2014 second-round pick Kyle Van Noy and DeAndre Levy. Van Noy may be reduced to a pass rush specialist if he fails to stay ahead of Tahir Whitehead on the depth chart. Whitehead played very well last season in Tulloch’s absence. As for Levy, he was a quiet star last season. If he maintains that level of play, and Tulloch plays at the level he reached in 2013, this will be a very strong unit. However, the big unknown is how it will perform without Suh sopping up offensive linemen. One thing to note: This group is built for speed. They can cover, rush the passer, and chase people down, but they can’t take on offensive linemen in space. They usually didn’t have to when Suh was around, but this is a brave new world.

Oddly, it may be the secondary that ends up most exposed in Suh’s absence. The Lions were able to play base nickel with confidence they could handle the run. That won’t be the case this season. The reduced pass rush will also make life harder. Free safety Glover Quin should be fine. He’s one of the best in the NFL. Strong safety James Ihedigbo is another story. He played well last season, when the Lions could station him close to the line. If he has to cover a larger area, he’s going to suffer. He also faded late last season, which could be a sign that he’s nearing the end of his shelf life. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis are both coming off excellent seasons. Mathis is 35 and may have serious difficulty keeping his numbers up. 2013 second-round pick Slay is expected to be the #1CB for years to come. There are some concerns about depth (especially if Mathis slips). Rookie third-round pick Alex Carter might step in at nickel. His lack of ball skills has become legendary, but he can cover and tackle, so strong safety is a possibility here.

Kicker Matt Prater rescued the Lions’ kicking game last season. It was incompetent before he showed up. The worst part is that punter Sam Martin handles kickoffs, so all the kicker has to do is make field goals (and XP’s). Martin was quite good last season, although his coverage units were not. That’s partly due to a lack of depth that has plagued the Lions for years. The Lions return games were mediocre last season, partially for the same reason. Jeremy Ross has excelled in both return roles previously, so perhaps last year was a fluke.

For years the Lions were a top-heavy roster with three well-paid stars. Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford remain, but may be fading. Suh was the best of them last season, and has taken his talents to South Beach. The Lions’ schedule is much harder than it was last season. I see a team that is in for a rude awakening. 7-9.

Green Bay Packers

Expected Wins: 10.60
Scouting Wins: 11.24
DVOA Wins: 9.7
2014 Record: 12-4 (11.2 Pythagorean)

Green Bay 2014 Passing DYAR:

Aaron Rodgers: 1,564
People not named Aaron Rodgers: -104

Green Bay 2014 Rushing DYAR:

Eddie Lacy and Aaron Rodgers: 293
People not named Eddie Lacy or Aaron Rodgers: 36

Green Bay 2014 Receiving DYAR:

Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Eddie Lacy: 1,073
People not named Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, or Eddie Lacy: -23

The Packers relied on four skill-position players last season. Jordy Nelson is gone for the season with a torn ACL. How much that hurts the Packers greatly depends on 2014 second-round pick Davante Adams. Back in June coach Mike McCarthy said this:

“If you want me to pick an MVP or all-star (of spring practices), it’s Davante,” said Mike McCarthy. “If you want a clear example of a first-year player taking a second-year jump, you just saw it the last few weeks.”

At the time he was talking up his #3WR. Now the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes depend on Adams living up to that praise. Rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery is a “slash” player. He isn’t a natural fit at receiver, and some teams viewed him as a potential running back. His greatest value is as a return man, but the Packers are covered there with Micah Hyde. Montgomery doesn’t have great hands, and his route-running skills aren’t where they need to be to make an immediate impact. 2014 seventh-round pick Jeff Janis is a noted weight room “Olympian,” but asking him to step up as the #3WR is a tough sell. Tight end Andrew Quarless doesn’t have the receiving skills to take on a major role in the offense. 2014 third-round pick Richard Rodgers might, but he didn’t show it last season (20 receptions for 225 yards, -10.9% DVOA, -8 DYAR). This was already a thin (top heavy?) group of receivers before Nelson went down. Now the Packers are going to have to find gold, either on their roster or in free agency.

The good news is that the single irreplaceable part of the Packers offense is still healthy. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has ended the debate and is the clear #1 quarterback in the NFL. His numbers from last season: 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 32.2% DVOA, 1,564 DYAR. His numbers will likely be down this season without Nelson. The real question is how much he’ll lean on Randall Cobb. Cobb was targeted 127 times last season, with fantastic results: 91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 35.7% DVOA, 479 DYAR. He’s a premier slot receiver, but asking for more than what he produced last season is rough.

Eddie Lacy accumulated 1,566 yards-from-scrimmage last season. Not bad, but he may be looking at a DeMarco Murray level of usage this season. The way I see it, is he’s on a rookie contract, so might as well use him up and draft someone new in 2017. James Wilder set the record for touches with 492 in 1984:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/touches_single_season.htm

Note that age-26 seems to be the sweet spot for a career high in touches. Lacy is 26. He’d better eat his Wheaties. James Starks followed up an efficient year (146 combined DYAR), with a lousy one (-20 combined DYAR). He may see his role increase due to sheer necessity.

One bit of good news is that the best offensive line in the NFL returns intact. 2013 fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari showed great improvement in his second season. He only graded out average by my metrics, but he’s clearly getting better. Left guard Jeff Sitton was first in the rankings by a mile. His play was damn near flawless last season. Center Corey Linsley was no slouch himself, finishing 11th in the rankings. Both right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga finished fifth in their respective rankings. Only the Cowboys O-line rivals this one.

B.J. Raji’s return gives the Packers some good options along the defensive line. Letroy Guion played well in his absence last year. The Packers may be tempted to play Guion at end across from Mike Daniels. Daniels made the leap to an every-down defender, grabbing 5.5 sacks and 14.5 hits+hurries. He’s not great against the run, but it’s a tradeoff the Packers are willing to make. 2013 first round pick Datone Jones has been a disappointment, grabbing five sacks in his first two seasons. If the Packers decide to use Raji and Guion in a traditional nose tackle rotation, then look for Jones to start.

Clay Matthews and Julius Pepper combined for 17 sacks and 67 hits+hurries last season. Peppers is 35, so he may need to have his load lightened this season. Sam Barrington will start inside. Whether he starts next to Matthews or Jake Ryan depends on how much the coaching staff trusts outside linebacker Nick Perry. The Packers declined his 2016 option, so Hawk will likely stay outside while Perry backs up Peppers. Altogether, this isn’t an intimidating front-seven.

Sam Shields is coming off of another solid year. The Packers are promoting 2012 second-round pick Casey Hayward to the #2CB from the nickel. Rookie first-round pick Damarious Randall can play either safety or slot corner, so he may step right into the lineup. He was a very surprising pick, but given the Packers’ needs and his ability to play immediately, it makes some sense. The team also grabbed cornerback Quinton Rollins in the second round to add some depth to a thin secondary. 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix exceeded expectations and looks to hold on to the free safety job for years to come. Strong safety Morgan Burnett had a very solid season as well.

The Packers’ special teams were awful last season. The blocking and coverage units were the single-worst part. Punter Tim Masthay had an off year and is currently battling Cody Mandell for the job. Kicker Mason Crosby was fine, but he’d have better numbers if the coverage units didn’t consistently let him down. The Packers’ failure against the Seahawks was just the culmination of a terrible season. Fixing their special teams is the single largest piece of low-hanging fruit available to the Packers.

With Jordy Nelson, the Packers were my pick to win the NFC. Without him, it’s going to be a brutal slog. While they face no true rival to win the division, the Packers recognize Seattle and Dallas are the foes they must surpass. They won’t be able to do it relying on solely on Lacy and Cobb to carry the offense. Rodgers is the best, but this handicap is a bit much. 11-5.

Minnesota Vikings

Expected Wins: 7.98
Scouting Wins: 7.99
DVOA Wins: 8.5
2014 Record: 7-9 (7.5 Pythagorean)

I love how the Vikings have been drafting lately. They’ve been willing to let the draft come to them. Case in point: T.J. Clemmings. He had first-round talent, but fell in the draft due to a foot injury. The Vikings grabbed him in the fourth round and now he is slated to start at right tackle due to Phil Loadholt’s torn Achilles. I also liked the value they got with their second- and third-round picks (Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter). As for their first-round pick, here is what I wrote about Trae Wayans before the draft:

Trae Waynes is the truth. The gap between him and Marcus Peters is much larger than the gap between where they’ll be drafted. Waynes will get his ass kicked as a rookie because rookie cornerbacks get their asses kicked, but he’ll be an excellent player in a few years.

Peters ended up with the Chiefs seven picks later. The Vikings are building a strong roster, but… there are a few issues they will need to deal with. I’ll get to those in a bit, but for now let’s talk about the single-best reason for optimism: Teddy Bridgewater.

Last year the Vikings sniped the Texans by trading up with the Seahawks and grabbing Bridgewater with the last pick of the first round. That move changed the arc of both franchises. The Vikings found their quarterback of the future. His rookie numbers weren’t great (-16.9% DVOA, -159 DYAR), but the signs are there. He clearly improved over the course of the season. He was also dealing with an awful offensive line that routinely failed to protect him. Whether or not that is the case again this season has yet to be determined, but if I were Bridgewater I’d be concerned.

The biggest problem was left tackle Matt Kalil. He finished DFL in my left tackle rankings. The Vikings are hoping that was due to his knees, which were operated on in the offseason. If Kalil is healthy this season, great! If not, the Vikings will need to figure out a replacement plan. They picked up his fifth year option, so they clearly have some faith in him:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/minnesota-vikings/matt-kalil/

I’m just not sure if it was justified or if it was a RG3 situation where the front office can’t admit the player isn’t who they hoped he would be. The return of right guard Brandon Fusco should help the line a bit. He was playing well before a pectoral tear ended his season. His return allows Joe Berger to move over to left guard. Center John Sullivan played very well last season. He and Fusco form a good pair, but that won’t necessarily keep Bridgewater upright if Kalil and Clemmings struggle.

Bridgewater was given a new weapon when the Vikings traded for Mike Wallace. After two awful years (combined -43 DYAR), Wallace bounced back with a solid season (11.8% DVOA, 228 DYAR). I’m guessing Miami would have asked for more than just a fifth round pick if they expected a repeat performance. It occurs to me that with Greg Jennings now in Miami, the Dolphins and Vikings effectively swapped receivers. Wallace’s arrival moves Charles Johnson into the #2WR role. Johnson worked his way up from the bottom of the depth chart last season. This was possible partly because 2013 first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson was moving in the other direction (-25.0% DVOA, -64 DYAR). Jarius Wright was another beneficiary of Patterson’s decline, seeing a career high in targets. The oft-injured Kyle Rudolph leads a surprisingly deep tight end unit. Chase Ford and Rhett Ellison both played well in limited usage last season. Overall this is a nice receiving corps, but unless Mike Wallace reaches back to his Steelers days, they lack a true #1WR.

And now we come to Adrian Peterson. He’s played in 15 games over the past two seasons. His combined DVOA over that time? -3.9%. He was a monster in 2012, but looked like he hit the wall in 2013. He’s 30, so some natural decline is to be expected. Backup Jerick McKinnon is coming off an excellent rookie season (11.5% DVOA, 82 DYAR). He’s one of the best scatbacks in the league, but he is coming off of back surgery so we’ll need to see if he still has his moves. Matt Asiata will also see some playing time due to his excellent blocking skills. He’s also acquired a reputation as a short-yardage specialist.

While the Vikings are expected to be able to run the ball, there are concerns about their ability to stop it. Tackles Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage. The Vikings have adjusted their defensive scheme to try and mitigate their issues. Things were better at end, where Everson Griffen had a tremendous year (12.5 sacks, 35.5 hits+hurries). Brian Robison seemed a step slow (4.5 sacks), but still managed to find his way into the backfield (34 hits+hurries). 2014 third-round pick Scott Crichton disappointed, and will have to improve if he wants to keep his slot in the rotation. Rookie third-round pick Danielle Hunter is a tremendous athlete and pass-rusher. His skills are fairly raw and it was a surprise when he declared for the draft.

2015 first-round pick Anthony Barr was exceeding expectations before a knee injury ended his season. He’s still feeling some inflammation and it’s a potential concern heading into the season. Rookie second-round pick Eric Kendricks was my pick for the best ILB in the class. He doesn’t have elite speed or size, but he makes up for it with excellent recognition and technique. He should be the starter for years to come. Chad Greenway has become the weak link. It was a surprise when the Vikings brought him back. Audie Cole might push Greenway for the job. Altogether, this is a decent front-seven, but perhaps a bit undersized.

The Vikings have built a very talented secondary. Xavier Rhodes is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Trae Wayans is going to start across from him and opponents will almost certainly look to target Wayans instead of Rhodes. As noted earlier, rookie cornerbacks usually struggle, so don’t worry too much if Wayans has a few bad games. Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman provide good depth here. Munnerlyn is an above-average nickel cornerback. Harrison Smith is excellent, both in coverage and near the line of scrimmage. Strong safety Robert Blanton is the only weak link, although he appears to be losing his job to converted cornerback Antone Exum Junior. If Wayans adapts quickly to the NFL, this secondary will be one of the best in the NFL.

The Vikings’ special teams were significantly improved in 2014. That wasn’t reflected in their DVOA (it dropped from 3.8% to 3.0%), but that was due to a regression to the mean in Cordarrelle Patterson’s kick returns. The coverage units went from terrible to excellent, which helped mitigate struggles from kicker Blair Walsh and punter Jeff Locke. Locke will need to bounce back this season or his job security will suffer. Walsh has a very strong leg, so he can be counted on to provide value on kickoffs even if he’s somewhat erratic on field goals. As for Patterson, he can either suck as a receiver, or be a mediocre return man, but he can’t do both and keep a spot on the roster. Decision time, sir.

There is a lot of optimism in Minnesota this year and I understand why. Improvement from Teddy Bridgewater + a young and talented defense is a recipe for confidence, but I see a few major problems. The first is an offensive line without a trustworthy tackle. Kalil was a turnstile last year, and T.J. Clemmings is a rookie. The defense still looks soft against the run. The schedule is also harder this year. As much as I believe in Bridgewater, I think next year is the return to glory. 8-8.

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