2016 NFL Preview: NFC North

The 85 Bears are the only non-Packers champion the NFC North has produced. Technically, it was the NFC Central, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2002 the Bucs were moved to the NFC South, and promptly won the Super Bowl. The Vikings are 0-4. The Lions are 0-1… in NFC Championship games. Even now, the Packers are the premier team, and the rest of the division is just hoping for good fortune.

NFC North:

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

 

 

 

Chicago Bears

Talent Wins: 7.76

Expected Wins: 6.94

DVOA Wins: 7.2

Last Year: 6-10 (6.3 Pythagorean Wins)

The Bears don’t seem able to put it all together at one time. When their defense was elite, the offense stank. Last year, the offense overcame injuries, but the defense continued its downward slide. This year, the offense will get a shot in the arm from the addition of Kevin White. The defense gets some new faces too, but I’ll get to that.

Over the past three seasons, Jay Cutler has been competent (4.1% DVOA, 35 DYAR-per-game). He’d produce above 566 DYAR over a full season… if he played one. He hasn’t actually played all sixteen games since 2009. He’s 33, so it’s hard to expect him to become more durable. His arm wasn’t quite what it was. With age comes wisdom, and he doesn’t make as many mistakes as he used to. His gunslinger reputation has become an anachronism. Dare I say, Jay Cutler has become… a game manager? Actually, that’s not quite fair. Game managers try to do no harm and let the talent around them carry the team to victory. Cutler overcame the decimation of the talent around him last season. With Kevin White and Alshon Jeffery healthy, we should see Cutler threaten the 4,000 yard-mark for the first time since… 2008 in Denver? Seriously? Is it really that hard to throw the ball in Chicago? I guess we’ll find out this year.

The Bears have been waiting for Kevin White since April 30th, 2015. He’s had plenty of practice time to prepare. White’s speed will test defenses. The question is, will his hands test Cutler’s patience? The fact that White played in the Bears’ final preseason game indicates that he isn’t where the Bears expect their starters to be. He’s still going to be a work in progress for some time. Injuries limited 2012 second-round pick Alshon Jeffery to nine games last season. He saw his play slip a bit:

2014: 145 targets, 85 receptions, 1,133 yards, 11.1% DVOA, 278 DYAR

2015: 94 targets, 54 receptions, 807 yards, 4.1% DVOA, 126 DYAR

The Bears were unwilling to sign Jeffery to a long-term deal, and instead hit him with the franchise tag. Expect him to be highly motivated to impress potential suitors this season. With Wilson Marquess on the PUP list with a foot injury, the depth chart is rather thin after the top two receivers. Eddie Royal did not perform well after coming over from San Diego:

2014: 91 targets, 62 receptions, 778 yards, 12.8% DVOA, 183 DYAR

2015: 50 targets, 37 receptions, 238 yards, -34.0% DVOA, -81 DYAR

The Chargers averaged 8.55 yards-per-target to Royal in 2014. The Bears averaged 4.76. That’s… not good. Kick return specialist Marc Mariani excelled in limited usage last season:

2015: 33 targets, 22 receptions, 300 yards, 18.8% DVOA, 82 DYAR

They are currently battling for the #3WR job. Royal is expected to win, but I wonder if Cutler will push for more playing time for Mariani. Royal is currently sidelined with a concussion, so we may see Mariani week one. Tight end Zach Miller was just cleared by the concussion protocol. He was great in Chicago last season:

2015: 46 targets, 34 receptions, 439 yards, 25.6% DVOA, 104 DYAR

Injuries limited him to four games in 2011, and zero in 2012-2014. I admire his fortitude, but the Bears better have a backup plan. Right now, that plan is named Khari Lee. Lee has one career reception. It’s difficult to trust that this is a good plan.

The Bears’ offense was remarkably balanced in 2015 (462 rushing DYAR, 464 receiving DYAR). Matt Forte had 304 of those 926 DYAR. 2015 fourth-round pick Jeremy Langford will attempt to fill Forte’s shoes. Langford was solid last season (8.4% DVOA, 139 DYAR). He lacks Forte’s receiving skills, so that may put a cap on his playing time. Shotgun specialist 2014 fourth-round pick Ka’deem Carey has excelled in limited usage over his two seasons (87 touches, 394 yards, 35.3% DVOA, 138 DYAR). I’d be tempted to run more shotgun and increase his role this season. Rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Howard is an upright power runner. I thought he was a nice value for the Bears. Scatback Jacquizz Rodgers will also be in the mix after missing most of last season with a broken arm.

Left tackle 2014 seventh-round pick Charles Leno was a bit below-average last season. His bend-but-don’t-break style has its flaws. Then again, the Bears found a starting left tackle in the seventh round, so perhaps I should cut them some slack. Rookie second-round pick Cody Whitehair was another nice choice by the Bears. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Cody Whitehair: Whitehair played left guard for three years at Kansas State before moving to left tackle as a senior. His arms are too short for him to stay at tackle. He projects as a left guard in the NFL. I’m a little higher on him than most observers. I like his technique and general knowledge. I’ve seen him beaten, but rarely due to a mental error.”

Ted Larsen is moving over from guard to center. He was mediocre at guard, so perhaps this will better serve his skill set. Right guard Kyle Long is moving over from right tackle. That’s to make room for free-agent pickup Bobby Massie. Massie was pretty good last year in Arizona. Four of the five starters are playing either a new position, or for a new team, so it might take some time for this line to gel. I expect it to be fine after that. (Update: So much for Whitehair at left guard. He’s been moved to the bench to make room for late waiver wire pickup Josh Sitton. I had Sitton as the tenth best left guard in the NFL last season, with the division rival Packers. A nice get for the Bears.)

The Bears utterly failed to stop the run last year. I know stopping the pass is more important, but it’s hard to build a good defense when opponents can grind out first downs against you. The Bears made a few moves in the hopes of solving the problem. First, they brought in defensive end Akeem Hicks. Hicks played well in New England last season. Then the Bears grabbed DE/DT hybrid Jonathan Bullard in the third round of the draft. I thought he was another good value pick for the Bears. 2015 second-round pick nose tackle Eddie Goldman got better as the season wore on. His improvement can do a lot to help the Bears return to respectability. Hicks and Goldman will start alongside Mitch Unrein. Unrein would be better served as the back end of a rotation. 2014 second- and third-round picks Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton will provide depth. In Ferguson’s case, the Bears will have to wait a month, as he is suspended for the first four weeks of the season. Injuries have slowed Ferguson, but he is in some danger of being considered a bust if he doesn’t produce this season.

The Bears upgraded their linebacker corps, grabbing Leonard Floyd in the first round. Floyd has been slowed by hamstring injuries and hasn’t yet seen the field for Chicago. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Leonard Floyd: A SackSEER favorite. He’s flown up on various draft boards and may even crack the top ten. I like him, but he hasn’t produced consistently enough for me to feel comfortable taking him as high as he’s looking to go.”

For the record, Floyd went ninth overall. I liked a lot of the Bears’ picks, but this one might have been a reach. The Bears’ linebackers weren’t bad at providing a pass rush. Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, and Lamarr Houston combined for 20.5 sacks and 77.5 hits+hurries. McPhee is currently on the PUP list and might not be available week one.

The Bears were unhappy with their inside linebackers, so they acquired Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Trevathan will attack the line of scrimmage, while Freeman focuses on coverage. Trevathan needs quality defensive line play to keep blockers away. He’s not great at fighting through a scrum. Overall, the linebacker corps should be better than it was last season. The defensive line is the bigger concern.

The Bears got demolished by #1WR’s and tight ends last year. In the case of the former, cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter didn’t get much safety help in the short-to-midrange passing game. Tight ends feasted on the Bears’ linebacker corps. 2014 first-round pick Fuller is still adjusting to man-to-man coverage. He showed some improvement later in the season. Even with safety help deep, Porter had some bad moments. This is a pairing that needs a good pass rush to hide their flaws. It looks like Bryce Callahan is holding off rookie fourth-round pick Deiondre’ Hall for the nickel job. Unfortunately for the Bears, their top three cornerbacks are all hurt. Fuller recently underwent knee surgery and may be out for the first few weeks. Porter is out with a concussion and his availability is unknown. Callahan is dealing with a hamstring injury. This is not a deep group of cornerbacks, so the Bears might be forced to scour the waiver wire. Safeties Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey are effectively janitors in this scheme. They sit back and clean up the mess. Right now it looks like they’ll have a lot of work to do.

Punter Pat O’Donnell was solid last season. Kicker Robbie Gould was not. Part of the problem was poor coverage units, but some of the blame rests on Gould. Gould occupies that frustrating space between replacement level and average. Right now, the plan is to have Deonte Thompson return punts while Marc Mariani returns kicks. Neither excels at the job. Overall, the Bears’ special teams look mediocre at best. (Update: Mariani was waved, and Thompson will do both jobs. Gould was waved and replaced by Connor Barth

I expect to see one more good season from Jay Cutler. The schedule isn’t too rough. I like a lot of what the Bears have done this offseason, but there are still some major flaws with the defense. They look particularly soft right now, which may put a winning season out of reach. 7-9.

 

 

 

Detroit Lions

Talent Wins: 6.97

Expected Wins: 7.19

DVOA Wins: 8.1

Last Year: 7-9 (6.9 Pythagorean Wins)

Last year, the Lions started slow, shook up their coaching staff, and finished fast. This year the coaching staff will return, but the biggest star on the team will not.

Is the retired Calvin Johnson going to be a victim of the “Ewing Theory?” Johnson was his usual awesome self in 2015 (14.0% DVOA, 319 DYAR). That is a lot of talent to replace. The Lions plan to do so in a piecemeal fashion. They’ve added Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin. Will that be enough? I suppose that will depend on the play of Matthew Stafford. Last year, he came on late and finished the season as a top-ten quarterback:

2015: 592 attempts, 398 completions, 4,262 yards, 32 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 8.0% DVOA, 804 DYAR

Not too shabby. Stafford has matured as a quarterback. After the bye week, he thrived in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. This year opponents have more film on the scheme and will be better prepared to stop it. Stafford (and Cooter) will have to overcome that.

Golden Tate hasn’t quite excelled in Detroit. 2014 wasn’t bad, but 2015 was a step back in pretty much every fashion:

2014: 144 targets, 99 receptions, 1,331 yards, +/- +4.9, 6.7% DVOA, 214 DYAR

2015: 128 targets, 90 receptions, 813 yards, +/- +1.7, -1.7% DVOA, 113 DYAR

That’s a pretty steep drop in terms of yardage and efficiency. Without Johnson, there will be more pressure on Tate to produce. How much of the load will Marvin Jones be able to carry? It’s tough to know. He exploded in 2013 and missed 2014 with an ankle injury. Last year he was a solid #2WR:

2013: 80 targets, 51 receptions, 712 yards, +/- +4.2, 32.4% DVOA, 279 DYAR

2015: 104 targets, 65 receptions, 816 yards, +/- 5.3, 7.6% DVOA, 171 DYAR

The Lions are going to ask a lot more of him than the Bengals did. #3WR Anquan Boldin has to be ecstatic to be out of San Francisco. He struggled last season (-7.9% DVOA, 41 DYAR), but that may have had more to do with the quarterback play than anything he did wrong. Tight end Eric Ebron has been held out of the preseason with an ankle injury. His availability for week one is unknown. Ebron bounced back from a disastrous rookie season (-28.6% DVOA, -65 DYAR), with a decent year (6.5% DVOA, 64 DYAR). That’s a pretty big jump, but the Lions are expecting more from the 2014 first-round pick. Backup Orson Charles is suspended for week one, so Ebron’s health is an immediate concern. The depth chart is very thin at both WR and TE. Injuries to Tate, Jones, or Ebron could stunt the offense.

2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdulah had a rough rookie season (-8.9% DVOA, 4 DYAR). Fumbles were a problem, but he just wasn’t very dynamic. Over the past two seasons, Theo Riddick has accumulated -51 rushing DYAR and 277 receiving DYAR. At this point, he should be considered a wide receiver who lines up in the backfield. Frankly, there isn’t a running back on the Lions’ roster that I trust (to run the ball).

Conventional wisdom says that 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff has been a disappointment in Detroit. He’s being switched over to right tackle this season. I had him as the tenth-best left tackle in the NFL last year. He should be able to handle the switch with ease. Rookie first-round pick Taylor Decker will be taking over for Reiff. Here is what I wrote about Decker before the draft:

Taylor Decker: He may have to move inside due to his arm length. He’ll get a chance to prove himself on the outside first, though. As with Conklin, he’s a scout favorite. He was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the year over some tough competition (including Conklin). If I had to guess, I’d say he ends up at right tackle.”

Here’s his chance to prove himself. 2015 first-round pick Laken Tomlinson struggled at left guard last year. He should be better able to do the job this year. 2014 third-round pick center Travis Swanson was solid, ranking eighth on my list. 2013 third-round pick Larry Warford struggled at right guard. I’m less confident in him than I am in Tomlinson. Rookie third-round pick Larry Glasgow will provide depth along the interior of the line. Michael Ola provides decent depth at tackle. Overall, this is a young and talented line. It should be one of the better units in the NFL.

2013 first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah is a monster. Last year he picked up 14 sacks and 50 hits+hurries. The Lions have picked up his fifth-year option and will have to sign him to a long-term deal fairly soon. 2013 fourth-round pick Devin Taylor was no slouch across from Ansah, picking up 7.5 sacks and 18 hits+hurries. Both of them struggled against the run. It’s a weakness you can tolerate, but a weakness nonetheless. Wallace Gilberry and Brandon Copeland will provide depth at end. Inside, Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker will try to hold the line. The Lions grabbed one of the steals of the draft, picking up A’Shawn Robinson in the second round. I had him as a top-ten talent, and wrote about his potential fall before the draft:

A’Shawn Robinson: I’ve seen him taken as high as 13th overall, or fall out of the first round entirely. Clearly I am much higher on him than the collective scouting hive mind. I love him as a 4-3 defensive tackle and expect him to be one of the best values in the draft.”

He’ll split time with Walker, and may be the starter by the end of the season. As for Ngata, he’s still a disruptive force, if not the star he was in Baltimore. Overall, this looks like a very strong defensive line.

The Lions either have 0 or 1 elite linebackers. If DeAndre Levy is healthy and returns to form, he’ll lead a decent unit. If he’s unavailable or hindered, the Lions will be vulnerable. When healthy, he’s a dominant star. He missed almost all of last season with a hip injury. He hasn’t been seen much this preseason, so I’m not sure if he’ll be 100% week one. Josh Bynes and Tahir Whitehead are fungible linebackers that would be better served focusing on special teams and coming off the bench. That they are starting in Detroit shows just how bad the 2014 second-round pick of Kyle Van Noy was. I’d say the depth here is awful, but frankly, the drop off from Bynes or Whitehead to their backups isn’t all that steep. The question here is “Levy or bust?” (Update: The Lions might have changed their minds to start Van Noy just to spite me. He’s still been a washout in Detroit.)

2013 second-round pick Darius Slay is a very good cornerback who thinks he’s a great one. I suppose confidence is important when you are left out on an island against the opponent’s top receiver. 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson looks like a potential star. By the end of the season, 2015 sixth-round pick Quandre Diggs was holding his own in the slot. With his first year under his belt, he should be better this season. Free safety Glover Quin saw his play slip a bit last season. I’m not sure if it was a fluke or if he’s begun to decline. Strong safety Rafael Bush missed almost all of last season in New Orleans. I generally don’t turn to New Orleans to find defenders. Bush should be able to do a reasonable job in the box, but opponents will attack his coverage skills. Overall, this should be a solid defensive backfield.

The Lions made a concerted effort to beef up their coverage units. That should help Sam Martin with his nets on punts and kickoffs. Kicker Matt Prater bounced back from an awful 2014 with an above-average 2015. We’ll see if he can keep that up. I don’t mind sending Ameer Abdullah back to return kicks, but risking Golden Tate on punts is foolhardy. It’s not like he excelled in the job.

I feel like the Lions have done a good job addressing most of their weaknesses. They could use a bit more receiver depth, but adding Jones and Boldin helps take away the sting from Megatron’s retirement. The linebacker corps may prove to be an issue. Still, the schedule isn’t that tough, and there are strengths elsewhere on the roster. I’m a bit more optimistic about them than I was expecting. 8-8.

 

 

 

Green Bay Packers

Talent Wins: 10.65

Expected Wins: 10.86

DVOA Wins: 10.0

Last Year: 10-6 (9.3 Pythagorean Wins)

It’s difficult to explain just how weird the Packers were last season. Jordy Nelson’s injury left Aaron Rodgers struggling to find targets. He had one of his worst seasons:

2014: 520 attempts, 341 receptions, 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns, 32.2% DVOA, 1,564 DYAR

2015: 572 attempts, 347 receptions, 3,821 yards, 31 touchdowns, -1.0% DVOA, 406 DYAR

That is an enormous drop. Despite that, the Packers came extremely close to returning to the NFC Championship game. The defense and special teams improved. Rodgers was closer to his normal self in the playoffs, picking up 126 DYAR in two games. He’ll turn 33 in December and should still be in the tail end of his prime. I don’t expect to see him produce a negative DVOA this season. Will the defense be able to maintain its level of play? Probably not, but we’ll get to that. Rodgers will be expected to carry the Packers to the playoffs. Let’s see how much help he’ll get.

Jordy Nelson’s return should boost the offense. Here’s what the Packers were missing without him:

2013: 127 attempts, 85 receptions, 1,314 yards, 26.7% DVOA, 402 DYAR

2014: 151 attempts, 98 receptions, 1,519 yards, 26.8% DVOA, 482 DYAR

Nelson is 31 and hasn’t seen game action in over a year. No one knows just how effective he’ll be when he returns. Randall Cobb missed him:

2014: 127 targets, 91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 35.7% DVOA, 479 DYAR

2015: 129 targets, 79 receptions, 829 yards, -5.1% DVOA, 77 DYAR

The number of targets remained the same, but the defensive attention did not. Life is a lot easier when a #1WR is taking on the opponent’s top cornerback. After the top two, it gets a bit questionable. 2014 second-round pick Devante Adams has been an absolute disaster (-27.8% DVOA, -109 DYAR). #4WR Jared Abbrederis was no better (-36.2% DVOA, -29 DYAR). Thankfully, Abbrederis was only targeted 16 times. 2015 third-round pick Ty Montgomery was having a great year before an ankle injury ended his season (32.3% DVOA, 74 DYAR). Like Jared Abbrederis, it was in a small sample (19 targets). We’ll see who the Packers and Rodgers favor as the #3WR as the season wears on.

The Packers did acquire one new target for Rodgers. They signed tight end Jared Cook. Cook is sitting behind 2014 third-round pick Richard Rodgers on the depth chart. Cook wasn’t exactly a splurge:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/green-bay-packers/jared-cook-6042/

Cook’s hands of stone have been a problem (+/- -14.7, -118 DYAR over the past two seasons). Richard Rodgers was decent last season (-3.7% DVOA, 21 DYAR). We’ll see what Aaron Rodgers can do with his upgraded tight end corps.

Eddie Lacy wasn’t expecting to face eight men in the box with Aaron Rodgers handing him the ball, but that’s exactly what was happening later in the season. That may be why he bulked up* (*got fat). His weight gain did not help him much (2014: 12.2% DVOA, 301 DYAR, 2015: -7.3% DVOA, 23 DYAR). Backup James Starks wasn’t much better (-7.1% DVOA, 51 DYAR). Lacy has looked much closer to his 2014 shape and form this preseason. The Packers will need him to play well if they want to clinch home field advantage through the NFC playoffs.

The Packers’ offensive line is supposed to be a great unit, but I must confess that only right guard T.J. Lang excelled by my metrics. Left guard Josh Sitton barely snuck into my top ten. The rest of the line was roughly average or worse. Collectively, they ended up ranking in the bottom half of the NFL. I’m going to assume they just had an off year. From left to right David Bakhiari, Josh Sitton, JC Tretter, T.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga will return. (Update: Sitton was waved, replaced by Lane Taylor. Taylor hasn’t played much, but signed fairly decent contract for a supposed backup this offseason. The Packers must have some confidence in him from what they’ve seen in practice.)

I’m expecting better things for the Green Bay offense. I’m less optimistic about the defense. The defensive line lacks a proven star. Mike Daniels grabbed four sacks last year. He’s had 16 over the past three seasons, so perhaps he can do a little better this year. He was solid against the run and is probably Green Bay’s best defensive lineman. Mike Pennel has one career sack. He’s suspended the first four games. Letroy Guillon can play end or nose tackle, but he’s a space eater. Rookie first-round pick Kenny Clark might give the line a shot in the arm:

Kenny Clark: May sneak into the first round. I wouldn’t take him there, but I’ve heard some teams view him as the second best DT on the board.”

He provides quality depth in an area where the Packers needed it. The Packers also picked up Dean Lowry in the fourth round. I thought he was a bit of a reach, but I hope he succeeds in the NFL. I like the idea of there being an NFL player named Dean. If the rookies develop quickly, this could be a good line. Daniels is the only player I trust right now.

Julius Peppers will turn 37 in January. Clay Matthews turned 30 in May. Last year, they combined for 17 sacks and 57 hits+hurries. If Peppers and Matthews slow down on the outside, it’s unlikely that backups Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliot pick up the slack. That puts a lot of pressure on a young defensive line. 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington will start inside. It’s hard to know what to make of Ryan, as he was slowed by a hamstring injury last season. Barrington is the kind of player who should be providing depth and working on special teams. The Packers haven’t made much of an effort to beef up their linebacker corps, especially inside.

Cornerback Sam Shields is coming off of an excellent year. When he missed four games, the Packers’ defense clearly missed him. 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall showed nice athleticism, but made a few too many mistakes. He should be sharper this year. Micah Hyde had a solid year as well. He played at nickel and at safety, when needed. 2014 first-round pick free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has lived up to expectations. Strong safety Morgan Burnett has done everything the defense has asked of him. LaDarius Gunter is challenging 2015 second-round pick Quinton Rollins for the dime job. My money is on Rollins. Overall, this is a pretty good secondary.

Green Bay really should have better coverage units than they do. They have unusual roster stability, which means players should have time to learn their roles. Perhaps there is a lack of team speed. Whatever the case may be, it is a consistent weakness. Mason Crosby has become remarkably consistent, which is what you want from a kicker. Jake Schum has taken over the punting duties. He was pretty bad last season in Tampa Bay. I have no idea who is going to return kicks or punts because every returner listed on the depth chart is dinged up. If I had to guess, I’d look for Micah Hyde in both roles. Overall, the special teams are probably going to be a bit below-average.

The window might be closing for Green Bay. They have a very favorable schedule this year, getting the Seahawks at home. They face the AFC South and NFC East. The rest of their division looks soft with Bridgewater hurt in Minnesota. I’m expecting Green Bay to make a run at the #1 seed in the NFC. 11-5.

 

 

 

Minnesota Vikings

Talent Wins: 8.91

Expected Wins: 8.56

DVOA Wins: 8.6

Last Year: 11-5 (9.8 Pythagorean Wins)

I should note that the Talent and DVOA wins are not taking the Sam Bradford Experience into account. Losing Bridgewater was a tremendous blow to a team that won 11 games last season. To be fair, Bridgewater had a rough season (-5.1% DVOA, 187 DYAR). Still, that was better than what Bradford produced last season in Philadelphia (-8.2% DVOA, 107 DYAR). Furthermore, Bridgewater is young and getting better. We’ve seen what Bradford can and, for the most part, cannot do. The Vikings gave up a first round pick and a conditional fourth round pick (it could be a second or a third rounder depending on how Bradford performs). That’s a lot for a player who was questionable to beat out Chase Daniel for his previous team’s starting job.

Is Bradford better than Shaun Hill? Hill’s career DVOA is -6.1%. He’s produced -81 DYAR over the past three seasons. He’ll turn 37 in January and has no real shot of leading the Vikings to the playoffs. I can understand wanting to find a better option. Undrafted free-agent Joel Stave was not ready to start. The Vikings didn’t have an acceptable plan B when Bridgewater went down. Given that, the trade has some merit:

http://presnapreads.com/2016/09/04/what-sam-bradford-brings-to-the-minnesota-vikings/

I am not nearly as optimistic regarding Bradford as Cian Fahey is. Bradford’s career DVOA is -9.3%. That more than a few dropped passes. He’ll have to adjust to the new offensive system fairly quickly. As for help from his receivers, it’s going to be a mixed bag.

#1WR Stefon Diggs holds his position by default. The 2015 fifth-round pick had a decent rookie season (3.9% DVOA, 108 DYAR). He doesn’t have the talent to threaten defenses deep. He had four receptions in the playoff loss to Seattle, but they only totaled 26 yards (worth 22 DYAR though, because of three first downs). #2WR Charles Johnson had nine receptions last year. He wasn’t hurt; they just didn’t bother playing him. Apparently, he was great in OTA’s. This is the least-talented top pair of wideouts in the NFL. I’m actually a little concerned that rookie first-round pick Laquan Treadwell hasn’t worked his way up higher on the depth chart. He was the slowest of the first-round receivers, but I rated him as the most likely to succeed:

Laquon Treadwell: Treadwell had a lousy combine, turning teams off with his attitude in interviews. Wide receivers are notorious for being divas, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. The real issue teams have with Treadwell is his (lack of) speed. He has an excellent catch radius, and he blocks, too. He’s been compared to Anquan Boldin. Boldin pulled in 69 receptions for 789 yards last season, at the age of 35. Treadwell’s skills translate to the NFL and I expect him to provide value to whichever team ends up drafting him.”

I’m not kidding about that lack of speed. I’ve seen his 40-yard dash listed as 4.63 or 4.64. There is a risk he can’t separate from NFL coverage. That’s not what I expect, though. 2013 first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson has the speed Treadwell lacks. Patterson ran a 4.37 40-yard dash, but has never learned how to run routes or beat coverage. His -60 career DYAR is only excusable because of his value returning kicks. 2011 second-round pick Kyle Rudolph may be the living embodiment of a replacement-level tight end. He’s been worth 1 DYAR over the past three seasons. Bradford has his work cut out for him.

Adrian Peterson worked hard last season (357 touches, 1,707 yards-from-scrimmage). His advanced stats weren’t quite as impressive (0.4% DVOA, 138 DYAR). He didn’t get much help from his offensive line and I’m not sure he can repeat that workload without suffering a decline. He turned 31 in March and his days of being the best running back in the NFL are over. 2014 third-round pick Jerick McKinnon excelled in limited usage last season (10.7% DVOA, 77 DYAR). If the Vikings lean on their running game, he should be given a chance to take more of the workload.

There are a few changes to the Vikings’ O-line, but it looks like it will remain thoroughly mediocre. Matt Kalil returns at left tackle. Alex Boone is coming in from San Francisco and will start at left guard. That moves Brandon Fusco over to right guard. Joe Berger remains at center. Andre Smith has arrived from Cincinnati to play right tackle. There are no stars on this line. No true disasters either, though.

If everyone is healthy, the Vikings have an excellent defensive line. Everson Griffen is coming off a monster year (10.5 sacks, 49 hits+hurries). He’ll play across from Brian Robinson. Robertson was no slouch himself (five sacks, 32 hits+hurries). Robinson was also excellent against the run. 2015 third-round pick Danielle Hunter grabbed six sacks in limited usage. That he only had nine hits+hurries suggest he was a bit fortunate. On the inside, Linval Joseph and 2014 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd combined for 25 starts last season. When available, they are a formidable pairing. Backup Tom Johnson ended up playing more snaps than either of them. He had another strong season (5.5 sacks, 27.5 hits+hurries). Not quite the 6.5 sacks he had in 300 fewer snaps in 2014, but more disruptive overall.

Linebackers Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Chad Greenway, and Emmanuel Lamar would make a wonderful foursome in the land of Oz. They could go down the yellow-brick road together in search of the Wizard. Each has one thing to request. For 2014 first-round pick Barr: Good health. 2015 second-round pick Kendricks could ask for a bit more size. Greenway is running short of time in the league and perhaps the mighty Wizard would perhaps bestow on him a touch of youth. As for Lamar, he just wants Greenway’s starting spot. Barr is healthy and might manage his first full season. Kendricks isn’t getting any taller and must make do with his current mix of size and speed. He led the team in tackles last season despite missing two games. Greenway definitely isn’t getting any younger, so it’s just a matter of time before Lamar gets his wish. Barr is a potential star. Greenway is still playing at a reasonably high level, but is clearly fading. For now, this is a good linebacker corps.

You don’t see many 38 year-old cornerbacks. Last season, Terence Newman tied Deion Sanders as the oldest cornerback to intercept two passes in a game. Newman’s coverage numbers weren’t great and the Vikings might need to promote one of their young cornerbacks to the starting lineup. 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes played very well last season and looks like the Vikings #1CB for years to come. 2015 first-round pick Trae Waynes didn’t manage to get on the field much last season, but played well when he was. Expect to see him a lot more this season. Rookie second-round pick Mackensie Alexander is competing with Captain Munnerlyn for the nickel job. Here is what I wrote about Alexander before the draft:

Mackensie Alexander: He’s quick, but he isn’t fast. Like most rookie cornerbacks, I expect him to get his clock cleaned as a rookie. The question here is whether he’ll be able to maintain his composure and continue to improve. He’s expected to fall out of the first round. I think he’s a decent value in the second.”

The Vikings are not short on quality cornerbacks. 2012 first-round pick free safety Harrison Smith has become a very good player. He’s one of the best at his position in the NFL. Free safety Andrew Sendejo is the weak link, but the Vikings haven’t been able to find a suitable replacement. Overall, this is a strong secondary.

The Vikings have excellent special teams. Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and punt returner Marcus Sherels are both above-average at their jobs. Patterson, in particular, is a dangerous specialist. Punter Jeff Locke trades distance for hang time, which has worked out reasonably well for the Vikings. Kicker Blair Walsh will never live down his miss against the Seahawks. He was good in the regular season. The only real weakness for the Vikings was their kickoff coverage. It’s been an issue for a while and I wonder if it is a problem related to roster construction.

The Vikings went 11-5 last season. That was despite Bridgewater’s struggles. This year, they’ll have Bradford lead their campaign to repeat as division champions. The schedule will be a bit easier this season. The defense is still strong. Even without Bridgewater, they should manage a winning record and a potential return to the playoffs. 9-7.

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