Bucky Brooks is performing a division-by-division assessment of the 2014 NFL Draft, spotlighting notable picks and handing out grades for each team. You'll find the NFC North evaluation below; click here for other divisional breakdowns.
The explosive firepower in the NFC North makes it imperative for decision makers to load up their offensive lineups with playmakers on the perimeter. Yes, this strategy runs counter to the defense-first philosophy preached by many coaches, but the division is defined by the presence of three established franchise quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford). Thus, draft decisions routinely come down to enhancing the supporting cast around (and in front of, when it comes to blocking) the signal-caller -- or, in the case of Minnesota, finding a signal-caller in the first place.
NFC North notables
Bridgewater experienced a major slide down the charts during the pre-draft process, but he is arguably the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2014 class. He thrived directing an advanced version of the West Coast offense at Louisville while displaying a polished game from the pocket. Although his widely discussed pro-day workout exposed concerns about his arm strength and accuracy, Bridgewater would seem to be an ideal fit for Vikings coordinator Norv Turner's scheme, based on the offensive wizard's work with Philip Rivers in San Diego and a host of other signal-callers in the past. With a dominant runner (Adrian Peterson) and a capable set of pass catchers (headlined by Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph) in place to support him, Bridgewater could outplay his draft slot early in his career.
While the addition of Ebron to an already-potent Detroit attack will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night, the team ignored a pressing need in the secondary to make the pick. Detroit hasn't featured a Pro Bowl cornerback since 2004 (Dre' Bly), and the leaky coverage on the perimeter has been the defense's biggest weakness for years. However, new head coach Jim Caldwell has taken a team to the Super Bowl on the strength of a dominant offense led by a host of explosive pass catchers. Ebron is a dynamic athlete capable of exploiting the middle of the field with his combination of size, speed and ball skills. If Caldwell can keep his young star focused, the challenge of slowing down a Lions offense with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Brandon Pettigrew and Ebron will loom large for every foe on the schedule.
It's crazy to think that a runner who eclipsed 3,800 rushing yards over the past two seasons -- thanks to 22 100-yard games -- would be knocked down draft boards due to a pedestrian time in the 40-yard dash (4.70 seconds), but that was the case with Carey. Regardless, the film suggests that the Arizona standout is a punishing runner with the vision, quickness and physicality to thrive as a feature back in the NFL. Additionally, Carey is an underrated pass catcher out of the backfield who can run every route in the book. Given coach Marc Trestman's reputation for designing effective schemes around impact playmakers, Carey could shock observers with his production as a situational back spelling Matt Forte.
Note: Click on team names to see complete draft classes.
CHICAGO BEARS: The Bears' defense lost its bite in 2013 -- ranking 30th in total D -- but the future looks much brighter with general manager Phil Emery restocking the lineup with a number of intriguing defenders. Kyle Fuller, the No. 14 overall pick, gives Chicago a versatile cover corner with the potential to play inside or outside in nickel situations. Day 2 selections Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton are imposing defensive tackles with the size, strength and athleticism to excel in the Bears' 4-3. Sutton in particular is a dynamic 3-technique with terrific initial quickness (when he has his weight under control). On offense, the addition of Carey will further allow Chicago to employ a ball-control strategy when needed.
DETROIT LIONS: There's no doubt that Caldwell inherited a talented roster in Detroit, but the team needs a handful of crucial pieces to really push it over the top. While most expected GM Martin Mayhew to spend a top pick on a cover corner, he instead added a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end (Ebron) and a versatile linebacker (Kyle Van Noy), upgrading the athleticism on both sides of the ball. Travis Swanson will serve as an apprentice for a year before taking over the pivot from Dominic Raiola. Cornerback Nevin Lawson and defensive tackle Caraun Reid, both selected on Day 3, are developmental prospects with intriguing potential. Most importantly, they add depth to positions of need. GRADE: B-
GREEN BAY PACKERS: GM Ted Thompson strictly adheres to the premise of taking the best player available. He has executed this masterfully throughout his tenure in Green Bay, which is why the Packers have consistently contended in the NFC. And last week, for good measure, he just happened to address the team's biggest areas of need. Entering the draft, Green Bay appeared to be lacking some oomph at safety and linebacker, with an additional depth concern in the receiving corps. Well, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and outside linebacker Carl Bradford will upgrade the defense with their collective speed and athleticism, while the additions of Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis give the Packers a young set of pass catchers to develop. Adams is a big-bodied playmaker with a game that is eerily similar to that of free-agent departee James Jones. Meanwhile, Abbrederis and Janis are the kind of developmental prospects who routinely become key contributors in coach Mike McCarthy's offense GRADE: B+
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: It's always challenging getting a new head coach on the same page with an established general manager, but based on Minnesota's draft success, it appears that the marriage between Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman is off to a fine start. The Vikings walked away with a talent-rich haul, securing a number of blue-chip prospects at bargain rates. No. 9 overall pick Anthony Barr is a disruptive force with the athleticism and length to become a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher early in his career. Despite limited experience on the defensive side of the ball, the former UCLA running back has all of the traits defensive coordinators covet in edge players. Bridgewater slid down the charts due to concerns about his arm strength and size, but his college tape is spectacular and his game ideally suits Turner's system. If he plays to his potential, Bridgewater could make this draft class a special one for the Vikes' faithful. Add in a number of value picks in defensive end Scott Crichton, cornerback Antone Exum and offensive guard David Yankey, and it's clear Minnesota is poised to bounce back in a major way in 2014. GRADE: B+
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