Jason B. Hirschhorn on the Chicago Bears
For a litany of reasons, coverage of the NFC North has focused on the surprising success of the Detroit Lions, the stark decline of the Minnesota Vikings, and whether the Green Bay Packers have rebounded in time to make a playoff run.
However, the plight of the 2016 Chicago Bears could affect all the teams in the division in future seasons.
After the Bears advanced to 3-9 following their victory over the hapless San Francisco 49ers, the team effectively took themselves out of the running for Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, the consensus top prospect in the upcoming draft and a talent capable of becoming the league's next great pass rusher. With Garrett, the Bears would have the key piece to constructing a dominant defense.
With him now effectively out of reach, the team will have to consider other enticing but less field-tilting options -- most likely Michigan's Jabrill Peppers, Alabama's Jonathan Allen, or a member of this year's underwhelming crop of quarterbacks -- who appear unlikely to shift the power within the division.
Better still for fans of Chicago's rivals, Garrett's most likely destination appears to be the Cleveland Browns, a team as far outside the NFC North orbit as any other. Unless a healthy Robert Griffin III somehow awakens the Browns from their current winless state, the 2017 NFL Draft's top player can begin reviewing his real-estate options in the 216 area code.
Mike Vieth on the NFC North race
Well, this is the week where we will know how the next month will play out for the Packers. If they can put together another solid performance and beat the Seattle Seahawks, I think they will have a legitimate shot at catching the Lions for the NFC North Championship. If they come out and lay a dud, the season will pretty much be over. Yes, there might be a chance the Lions falter down the stretch but beating the Seahawks will also give an idea where the Packers can stand with the rest of the NFC.
The Seahawks have been, arguably, playing the best football in the NFC behind Dallas and they always seem to play well in December. This will show that the Packers have found a way to work around all the injuries and find the swagger that has been missing on defense. This will set up more confidence for the team and fans for the Packers to run the table and challenge the Lions to win the division, as well as, give them a decent chance in the first round of the playoffs. What happens after that? Who knows, but this seems to be the week where everything will become clear.
Bob Fitch on parity in the NFL
I have the same conversation with my friends almost every week. It goes like this:
Me: “Man, the Patriots, Cowboys and Raiders sure look like real threats. Seahawks too I suppose, but that O-line is terrible.”
Friends: “Yea. Maybe the (Chiefs, Packers, Buccaneers, Broncos, Ravens, Colts, Steelers, Dolphins, Texans, Bills, Lions, Giants, Falcons, Vikings, Redskins, Titans) could make a run and surprise some people.”
Me: “I suppose. But didn’t they just lose to the (Chiefs, Packers, Buccaneers, Broncos, Ravens, Colts, Steelers, Dolphins, Texans, Bills, Lions, Giants, Falcons, Vikings, Redskins, Titans)?”
Friends: “You’re right. Football sure is fun, huh?”
Everyone, in unison: “Yay for parity! Three cheers for parity! Hip-hip, parity! Hip-hip, parity! Hip-hip, parity!”
Me, later, by myself: Does watered down skim milk taste good? Is that what parity tastes like? I bet that’s what parity tastes like.
Gary Zilavy on A.J. Hawk
Why isn’t A.J. Hawk on the Packers right now? OK, once you’re done chuckling, let’s examine the facts.
First, the Packers are perilously thin at inside linebacker with Jake Ryan nursing a hamstring injury and Blake Martinez out with a knee sprain. In Sunday’s win against the Texans, the Packers were forced to move Morgan Burnett down in the box to keep reserve Carl Bradford off the field.
Second, it seems foolish a contending team would continue to keep 2017 projects CB Makinton Dorleant and FB Joe Kerridge over a veteran inside linebacker who knows Dom Capers’ defense. Hawk, who spent nine years with the Packers, spent a brief three weeks with the Atlanta Falcons this season. Given the Packers’ urgency to win, why not kick the tires on Hawk?
Third, there’s precedent for a move like this. In previous years, the Packers have welcomed back elder Green Bay statesmen like WR Antonio Freeman in 2003 and RB Ahman Green in 2009 after their initial time with the team. Both the 2003 and 2009 Packers would make the playoffs.
But that’s fine, we probably need two fullbacks.
Paul Noonan on how all good teams are bad at something
Of all the “good” teams in the NFL right now, there are exactly 2 that are balanced. The Chiefs are 12th in offense and 11th in defense, and the Steelers are 8th in both. Everyone else is horrible at something.
New England is just 19th defensively. Atlanta is 28th. Dallas is 26th. Oakland is 22nd. All are top 6 teams in total DVOA despite those defenses. On the flip side, the Eagles still rank highly on defense, but just 22nd on offense (and that’s probably generous. The Baltimore offense is abysmal at 27th, but their 2nd overall has them 9th in total DVOA. Denver is 1st in defense, 24th in offense, and 11th overall. I’ve never seen anything quite like this season, and while it is cliche to point out unprecedented parity, and to point out that there are no “great” teams this season, it really does seem to be true. Specific matchups issues are much more important this season than in any time in recent memory as no one team is capable of blowing anyone else completely away.
Seattle isn’t balanced either with the 5th ranked defense in the league supporting the 13th best offense, but unfortunately for the Packers, those numbers look pretty great compared to the other elites. Then again, they did lose to Tampa Bay the other day.
Evan “Tex” Western on T.J. Watt
While watching the Wisconsin Badgers’ dominating first half (and even during the ensuing devastating collapse) on Saturday, a thought continued to nag me. How great would it be if the Packers landed T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft? There’s no guarantee that Watt will declare for the draft, but he has picked up where his two older brothers left off in Madison and has become a dominating player for the Badgers in his own right.
The most stunning part about Watt becoming a first-team All-Big Ten performer at linebacker (and quite possibly an All-American to boot) is that this was just his second season playing the position. He started his college career as a tight end, but his shift to the defense was a stroke of genius. Watt led the Big Ten in sacks this year and added a total of 14.5 tackles for loss and a pick-six as well. Furthermore, although he currently is a physical comparison to Kyler Fackrell (both about 6’5” and listed around 245 pounds), Watt’s frame has plenty of room to add some bulk in an NFL weight room, which should make him a more imposing figure. It is his frame that sets him apart from Joe Schobert, Wisconsin’s top pass-rusher last year who ended up as a draft pick of the Browns. Schobert, listed at 6’1” and 245, is a candidate to move inside, whereas there is no doubt that Watt should stay on the edge at the next level.
Then of course there is the fact that the Badgers are one of the few defenses to play a 3-4 scheme. Watt is already well-prepared for the schematic requirements of an outside linebacker, and although he has room to grow in coverage (shown when he lost Penn State running back Saquon Barkley on a wheel route on Saturday), the tools are all there. He’s also a cerebral player who understands his technique and scheme inside and out, as you can see here:
It’s probably a homer’s pipe dream to hope that Ted Thompson would draft a second Wisconsin-born and bred product in four years, but there will be a need at the position since Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, and Datone Jones are all scheduled to hit free agency. There’s also still no guarantee that Watt will leave early for the draft. However, if he does, the Packers will be hard-pressed to find another player at that position who would be more ready to pick up the defensive scheme and contribute on day one. The fact that he’s a Badger would just be icing on the cake.
Jon Meerdink on the impending free agent class
To Tex’s point about the impending glut of Packers pass rushers hitting free agency, I think we need to recognize what this season could represent for the Packers as a whole. Aaron Rodgers wants to “run the table,” but maybe we should look at this season less as a run towards greatness and more of a last stand for a significant group of players.
11 players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, and ten have been regular or spot starters throughout their time in Green Bay, including several on the wrong side of 30. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a lot of those guys walking out the door and never coming back. It’s not impossible that we could be seeing the final weeks of guys like Julius Peppers and T.J. Lang given their age, or even younger guys like Nick Perry, Micah Hyde, and J.C. Tretter. Even Eddie Lacy’s time with the Packers could be done, and he’s been on the shelf for weeks already.
It’s not unfair to wonder if the Packers have underachieved over the last few seasons, but the crop of players set to hit free agency has also been wonderfully successful and the departure of even a few would mean new faces at some high profile positions.