NFC North rookie grades; biggest offseason needs –

With Super Bowl LIV in the books, the offseason is upon us. To get ready for the NFL Scouting Combine, free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, Nick Shook and Gennaro Filice are taking a division-by-division look backward to evaluate each team’s crop of 2019 rookies, weighing hits and misses — then looking forward at areas for each squad to focus on in the coming months. Filice examines the NFC North below.


» Round 1: (No. 12 overall)
Rashan Gary, DE, 16 games/0 starts; (No. 21)
Darnell Savage, S, 14 games/14 starts.

» Round 2: (No. 44)
Elgton Jenkins, C/OG, 16 games/14 starts.

» Round 3: (No. 75)
Jace Sternberger, TE, 6 games/1 start.

» Round 5: (No. 150)
Kingsley Keke, DE, 14 games/0 starts.

» Round 6: (No. 185)
Ka’Dar Hollman, CB, 4 games/0 starts; (No. 194)
Dexter Williams, RB, 4 games/0 starts.

» Round 7: (No. 226)
Ty Summers, LB, 16 games/0 starts.

Green Bay had three picks in the top 50, and
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst absolutely nailed two of them.
Sing it, Meat Loaf! For real, though: In the thoroughly researched crapshoot that is the NFL draft, two out of three ain’t bad at all. Every franchise would kill for a 66.7 percent hit rate on premium selections. So let’s start with the good. Draftniks didn’t anticipate Savage being the first defensive back taken, but
Packers brass clearly had the right plan in mind. Green Bay slotted the rangy playmaker alongside free-agent acquisition/box enforcer
Adrian Amos, instantly giving the Pack one of the stronger safety tandems in the NFL. Savage flies around the field in a blur,
closing passing lanes and
clobbering ball carriers. If there’s one thing the instinctive center fielder can work on, it’s learning to throttle down at times and make the sure tackle, but he’s a dynamic presence in the back end. Jenkins, meanwhile, showed extraordinary polish for a first-year starter at left guard. It’s hard to find flaws in his game: He didn’t allow a single sack and improved as a run blocker throughout the season. Savage and Jenkins each earned a spot on
the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. Here’s the rub, though: Green Bay’s first selection — the highest draft pick this franchise made the entire decade — was one of the least productive players in the entire first round. To be fair, Gary was always viewed as a raw athlete who’d take time to develop under NFL coaching. And with the free-agent additions of
Za’Darius Smith and
Preston Smith preceding his arrival, a rotational role was indeed expected in Year 1. That said, you’d like to get more than 16 total pressures from an edge rusher taken 12th overall.

Combine/free agency focus: Two years into Gutekunst’s tenure in the big chair, the general manager has shown a particular tendency in offseason roster management: When Gute sees a problem area, GUTE ATTACKS IT FROM ALL SIDES! In the 2018 offseason, when the sore spot was cornerback, the
Packers brought back old friend
Tramon Williams in free agency and spent their first two draft picks on
Jaire Alexander and
Josh Jackson. A year ago, Green Bay needed some edge rushers, so Gutekunst broke the bank on
Za’Darius Smith and
Preston Smith in the open market and took
Rashan Gary in the first round. So, which part of the roster is due for aggressive overhauling this offseason? The aerial armaments. Get
Aaron Rodgers some guys to throw to! Obviously,
Davante Adams is a fine WR1. And
Allen Lazard showed promise. Beyond that, though? Slim pickings at receiver and tight end. This draft is absolutely loaded at wideout — Green Bay could definitely land an instant-impact guy with its first- or second-round pick. During the NFL
Scouting Combine,
Packers fans should keep an eye on receivers like TCU’s
Jalen Reagor, Colorado’s
Laviska Shenault, LSU’s
Justin Jefferson, Penn State’s
K.J. Hamler and Arizona State’s
Brandon Aiyuk. When it comes to tight end — a position that doesn’t appear notably strong in this year’s draft, and one that typically takes time to master at the NFL level — Green Bay might be better served targeting someone in free agency.


» Round 1: (No. 18 overall)
Garrett Bradbury, C, 16 games/16 starts.

» Round 2: (No. 50)
Irv Smith Jr., TE, 16 games/7 starts.

» Round 3: (No. 102)
Alexander Mattison, RB, 13 games/0 starts.

» Round 4: (No. 114)
Dru Samia, OG, 2 games/0 starts.

» Round 5: (No. 162)
Cameron Smith, LB, 5 games/0 starts.

» Round 6: (No. 190)
Armon Watts, DT, 7 games/1 start; (No. 191)
Marcus Epps, S, 8 games/0 starts (now with Eagles); (No. 193) Olisaemeka Udoh, OT, 1 game/0 starts.

» Round 7: (No. 217)
Kris Boyd, CB, 16 games/0 starts; (No. 239)
Dillon Mitchell, WR, 0 games/0 starts; (No. 247)
Bisi Johnson, WR, 16 games/6 starts; (No. 250)
Austin Cutting, LS, 16 games/0 starts.

Former third-round pick
Pat Elflein struggled in his first two years at the pivot, so GM Rick Spielman used the No. 18 overall pick on an athletic center who appeared born to play in Minnesota’s zone-blocking scheme — and at times, Bradbury
was, adeptly blowing open running lanes for
Dalvin Cook and the
Vikings‘ sixth-ranked ground game. But he struggled mightily at times as a pass blocker and was too inconsistent overall. Minnesota has to hope for the kind of Year 2 improvement the division-rival
Lions just got from a first-round interior O-lineman of their own,
Frank Ragnow. The next two picks were on the mark, though, as Smith and Mattison both excelled in complementary roles. With
Kyle Rudolph providing his typically solid play as a traditional in-line tight end, Smith (36 catches, 311 yards, 2 TDs) gave the Vikes some juice at the position as a versatile athlete who lined up all over the place. As for all those draftniks who immediately labeled Minnesota’s third-round selection of Mattison a reach? Yeah, that was hogwash. He proved to be a fine running mate for Cook, and not just because the two backs posted nearly identical yards-per-carry figures (4.5 for Cook, 4.6 for Mattison) and sport matching dreadlocks. Mattison packs a ton of power into his 5-11, 220-pound frame, but he also displayed the kind of burst through the hole and soft hands in the passing game that make Cook such a terror in this offense. Lastly, Johnson was a seventh-round steal. Despite being one of the last 10 players selected in the entire draft, Bisi leapfrogged former first-round pick/bust
Laquon Treadwell for the WR3 spot in Minnesota.

Combine/free agency focus: Minnesota’s No. 1 priority this offseason should be re-signing safety
Anthony Harris. After a quietly excellent season in 2018, Harris was even
better in a contract year, tying for the league lead with six interceptions and
ranking 12th overall on Pro Football Focus’ Top 101 players of 2019. With Harris and
Harrison Smith, the
Vikings boast the best safety duo in the NFL. This is key, because the rest of the secondary, well … that leads us to our next order of business. Cornerback was the weak link of last year’s defense, if not team.
Trae Waynes and
Xavier Rhodes didn’t come close to living up to their pedigree as former first-round picks, and now Waynes is due for free agency, while Rhodes feels like a prime cap-casualty candidate. Not to mention,
Mackensie Alexander, who actually settled into the slot-corner role pretty nicely last season, is also set to hit the open market. Depending on whom the Vikes bring back/release, Minnesota probably has to fetch new CB blood via free agency
and the draft. Up front on the defense, a penetrating DT could really take this pass rush to the next level, providing interior disruption to complement dynamic DE duo
Danielle Hunter and
Everson Griffen. Speaking of Griffen, he can actually opt out of his contract this offseason, though he’s publicly expressed a desire to stay in Minnesota. But what happens if the
Vikings ask him to restructure his deal again? Offensively, the most glaring need is a new left guard, as Elflein’s move to the position last season clearly didn’t take.


» Round 3: (No. 73 overall)
David Montgomery, RB, 16 games/8 starts.

» Round 4: (No. 126)
Riley Ridley, WR, 5 games/0 starts.

» Round 6: (No. 205)
Duke Shelley, CB, 9 games/0 starts.

» Round 7: (No. 222)
Kerrith Whyte, RB, 0 games/0 starts (now with Steelers); (No. 238)
Stephen Denmark, CB, 0 games/0 starts.

Notable rookie FA signings:
Jesper Horsted, TE, 6 games/1 start.

Beyond the well-documented quarterback issue (SEE: next paragraph), the biggest culprit behind Chicago’s unexpectedly blah season was the offensive line.
Bears GM Ryan Pace openly acknowledged the unit’s shortcomings in his end-of-season press conference:
“We struggled in that area this year — that’s real.” And therein lies the problem in evaluating the rookie campaign of Montgomery, whose yards-per-carry mark (3.7) left a lot to be desired. But honestly, Chicago’s O-line hung Montgomery out to dry pretty routinely — and obviously, opposing defenses weren’t too worried about getting burned by the Mitchell Trubisky-led passing game on a snap-by-snap basis. Montgomery did his best to overcome these adverse circumstances, breaking the eighth-most tackles in the NFL (47) — which is how he finished second among all rookies in both rushing yards (889) and rushing touchdowns (6). Besides Montgomery’s production, the
Bears didn’t get much of anything out of the rookie class. This isn’t all that surprising, considering Chicago made just five selections last April, with Montgomery being the only player taken before Day 3 of the draft. Coming out of Georgia, Ridley was advertised as a polished route runner — like his brother, Calvin — but he couldn’t even crack the game day roster until Week 13. Adding insult to ineffectiveness: The very next two wideouts selected after Ridley —
Hunter Renfrow and
Darius Slayton — provided significant Year 1 contributions.

Combine/free agency focus: Going back to Pace’s end-of-season presser, the top headline from the proceedings was the general manager stating Trubisky
would indeed be the team’s starting quarterback in 2020. Predictably, this declaration was received in Chicago about as favorably as lake-effect snow. Let’s be real, though: That statement should be taken with a gargantuan grain of salt — like boulder-sized. It’s impossible to think Pace, a GM in a make-or-break year, will open next season without a viable alternative in the quarterback room. Now, exactly
how viable will that alternative be? That’s where the intrigue lies in Chicago’s offseason. The
Bears don’t have a first-round pick, so unless there’s a veteran trade option out there (
Nick Foles?), free agency will likely be Chicago’s QB hunting ground. The options there run the gamut, with potential menu offerings at every price point. Could it be a resurrection attempt like
Marcus Mariota? Something a bit more expensive, like
Teddy Bridgewater?
Philip Rivers? Mitch will have competition, one way or another. Two other offensive areas in need of offseason attention: tight end, guard. On defense, will Chicago re-up prove-it-year prover
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Keep
Danny Trevathan or
Nick Kwiatkoski around at ILB? And with an out in
Prince Amukamara‘s contract, who’ll open 2020 opposite
Kyle Fuller at corner?


» Round 1: (No. 8 overall)
T.J. Hockenson, TE, 12 games/7 starts.

» Round 2: (No. 43)
Jahlani Tavai, LB, 15 games/6 starts.

» Round 3: (No. 81)
Will Harris, S, 16 games/6 starts.

» Round 4: (No. 117)
Austin Bryant, DE, 4 games/0 starts.

» Round 5: (No. 146)
Amani Oruwariye, CB, 9 games/2 starts.

» Round 6: (No. 184)
Travis Fulgham, WR, 3 games/0 starts; (No. 186)
Ty Johnson, RB, 16 games/1 start.

» Round 7: (No. 224)
Isaac Nauta, TE, 6 games/0 starts; (No. 229)
P.J. Johnson, DT, 0 games/0 starts (now with Chargers).

Notable rookie FA signings:
David Blough, QB, 5 games/5 starts.

Lions took a lot of heat — especially in Detroit — after spending a top-10 pick on a tight end for the second time in six years. But the Eric Ebron-tinged snideness started to fade when Hockenson created a buzz in training camp and the preseason. And then he went out and racked up 131 receiving yards in the season opener — a record for a tight end in his first NFL game — with four catches of 20-plus yards and
a touchdown.
Eric WHO?! Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Hockenson totaled just 236 yards over the next 10 games before hitting injured reserve with an ankle injury in early December. Detroit’s second pick initially raised even more eyebrows than the first, given that most football fans had never heard of Tavai and most draftniks had never imagined him going 43rd overall, but the linebacker enjoyed a solid first season with a game as versatile as his box score numbers: 58 tackles, two sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble. He could push for a full-time starting role in 2020, which is exactly what the
Lions hope to get out of Harris. The
Lions‘ controversial deadline trade of
Quandre Diggs opened up the safety spot opposite
Tracy Walker, and Harris filled it with up-and-down play, though he did finish on a high note with his best game of the year in Week 17 vs. Green Bay. Oruwariye also earned more snaps in the back half of the season, and the lengthy corner flashed potential surpassing his fifth-round draft slot. Both of his picks were
impressive “GIMME THAT!”
literal takeaways. Blough, the
Lions‘ backup to the backup plan at quarterback, was clearly in above his head as a rookie starter. No surprise, given that he spent August as the fourth-string QB in Cleveland.

Combine/free agency focus: Honestly, it’s hard to find many position groups that
couldn’t use upgrades — or a full-scale makeover. And given the ultimatum
Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford delivered in December when announcing Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn would return for the 2020 season —
“We expect to be a playoff contender; that means playing meaningful games in December” — the Boston boys must significantly boost the talent on this 3-12-1 roster. One player
Lions fans will be following closely at the NFL Scouting Combine: Ohio State CB
Jeff Okudah. With
Darius Slay entering a contract year at age 29, his future in Detroit is unclear, and Okudah seems like the clear-cut top prospect at the position. If the
Lions stay put at No. 3 — which is indeed a big
IF, considering the potential trade-down opportunities with a QB-hungry team — the well-rounded cover man would make plenty of sense. As would Auburn DT
Derrick Brown, with
Damon Harrison mulling retirement while
A’Shawn Robinson and
Mike Daniels head into free agency. Edge rusher would seem like another area to hit hard in free agency and/or the draft, but Patricia seems hell-bent on generating pressure in cheaper, non-traditional ways. On the offensive side of the ball, Detroit needs more weapons in the receiving corps, especially if slot machine
Danny Amendola signs elsewhere. And if the
Lions allow versatile interior O-lineman
Graham Glasgow to walk in free agency — which they oddly seem quite open to — guard is an immediate need.

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter @GennaroFilice.

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