The 2014 NFL draft has positioned all four teams in the NFC North for a rebound next season.
All 32 teams in the NFL feel a sense of improvement after a draft, but the four in the rough-and-tough North—the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings—will especially feel like the upgrades secured over the three days last week have addressed needs and filled in obvious roster holes.
The result should be another entertaining season in the division.
A disappointing but highly engaging 2013 season saw the Packers capture the division crown with just eight wins. Both the Lions and Bears collapsed down the stretch, and the Vikings were never really a factor after a 1-7 start.
The NFC North is now primed for a big comeback. Even the Vikings have real reason for optimism.
Below, we recapped the entire 2014 draft for the four division teams, ranked the team's drafts in terms of value added and looked ahead for what this draft means for the NFC North moving forward.
- 1.14: CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
- 2.51: DT Ego Ferguson, LSU
- 3.82: DT Will Sutton, Arizona State
- 4.117: RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
- 4.131: S Brock Vereen, Minnesota
- 6.183: QB David Fales, San Jose State
- 6.191: P Patrick O'Donnell, Miami (Fl.)
- 7.246: OL Charles Leno, Boise State
The Bears smartly attacked their defensive issues, using four of their first five picks to help the secondary and beef up the defensive line. Fuller, who may turn out to be the best cornerback in this draft class, has ideal length, anticipation and ball skills to thrive in the pass-happy NFC North. Ferguson and Sutton give much-needed depth at tackle, with Ferguson providing run-stuffing qualities and Sutton bringing Henry Melton-like disruption potential.
The ultra-productive Carey will be a suitable backup to Matt Forte, while Fales—an accurate, rhythmic passer—could develop into a top No. 2 for Marc Trestman. O'Donnell is now the front-runner to be Chicago's punter in 2014. Leno has experience at both left and right tackle, but he will likely project inside in the NFL.
Best Pick: Fuller
The Bears needed an infusion of youth at cornerback. Chicago got that and more in Fuller at No. 14 overall. The Virginia Tech product enters the NFL as the best pure cover corner in this year's class. His impressive combination of length (6'0", almost 33" arms, 38.5" vertical), diagnostic skills and physicality will give him a real chance against the likes of Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson in the division. He's going to see plenty of the field as a rookie, even with veteran Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings the likely starters on day one.
Pick to Watch: Sutton
Sutton is boom-or-bust, but his boom potential was well worth the gamble in the third round. He played heavy as a senior and hurt his draft stock, but you watch his 2012 tape (13 sacks, 23.5 tackles for losses) and he looks like a surefire first-rounder. If the Bears can get him back to his junior year weight, he can be the explosive, penetrating 3-technique needed to replace Melton.
- 1.10: TE Eric Ebron, UNC
- 2.40: LB Kyle Van Noy, BYU
- 3.76: C Travis Swanson, Arkansas
- 4.133: CB Nevin Lawson, Utah State
- 4.136: DE Larry Webster, Bloomsburg
- 5.158: DT Caraun Reid, Princeton
- 6.189: WR T.J. Jones, Notre Dame
- 7.229: K Nate Freese, BC
Some didn't like the Lions taking Ebron at No. 10, but there were also plenty of pundits advocating for GM Martin Mayhew to move up and get Sammy Watkins. Ebron, a glorified receiver, can provide the same kind of impact in a Jimmy Graham-type role for Joe Lombardi's offense. And Van Noy, a college teammate of Ziggy Ansah, is the ideal pick to take on an attacking duty at outside linebacker.
The Lions then went offense in the third and sixth round, with Swanson being tabbed as Dominic Raiola's eventual replacement and Jones picked to give the Lions offense more juice from the slot. Defense carried the torch in the forth and fifth rounds. Lawson is undersized, but he's physical and will fight in the slot. Webster (6'6", 4.58) is a high-upside project, while Reid is the kind of pick that keeps Detroit dominant along the defensive line season after season. And Freese, who made all 20 of his kicks as a senior, appears to be the Lions' next answer at kicker.
Best Pick: Van Noy
Ebron could eventually catch 70 passes and find the the end zone 10 times on an annual basis, but Van Noy was the perfect mix of need, value and fit coming together in the second round. The Lions needed a more impactful player at strong side linebacker, and when Van Noy remained on the board at No. 40, Detroit moved up to get him.
He can rush the passer off the edge, run and hit against the run and play in space versus backs and tight ends in the passing game. Reuniting him with Ansah is also appealing, as the two combined for 17.5 sacks and 35.0 tackles for losses during the 2012 season at BYU.
Van Noy might not ever become a Pro Bowler, but he has the kind of complete game that will allow him to be a good player for many years.
Pick to Watch: Webster
The only defensive lineman with combine measurables comparable to Jadeveon Clowney was Webster, who ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds and had a 36.5" vertical jump at 6'6" and 252 pounds. He's green as a pass-rusher, but it's difficult to dismiss those athletic traits.
The Lions will first need to get him stronger and tougher. If they check off those boxes, Webster has real upside as an edge-rusher. And if he busts as an end, it's possible the team could give him a crack at tight end, where his speed, length and basketball background have appealing potential.
Green Bay Packers
- 1.21: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
- 2.53: WR Davante Adams, Fresno State
- 3.85: DL Khyri Thornton, Southern Miss
- 3.98: TE Richard Rodgers, Cal
- 4.121: LB Carl Bradford, Arizona State
- 5.161: C Corey Linsley, Ohio State
- 5.176: WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
- 6.197: CB Demetri Goodson, Baylor
- 7.236: WR Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State
Maybe the Packers' draft board simply fell this way, but it certainly looked like Ted Thompson identified needs and then attacked them with this class. Save for inside linebacker, the Packers took players at all the major need positions: safety, with Clinton-Dix; receiver, with three picks; center, with Linsley; and tight end, with Rodgers.
Clinton-Dix is a major upgrade and a day one starter alongside Morgan Burnett. Adams, who caught 131 passes at Fresno State last season, has been compared to James Jones, Michael Crabtree, Hakeem Nicks and Dez Bryant. He'll be joined at receiver by Abbrederis and Janis, two late value picks. Thornton is another penetrating interior rusher.
Rodgers feels like a reach, but he has some tools that are worth developing. Bradford isn't an ideal edge-rusher size-wise, but he was a good value in the fourth round, especially if he has potential at inside linebacker. Linsley is one of the strongest players from this draft, which will help him overcome a lack of ideal size. He could be the next Scott Wells. Goodson brings basketball skills and raw athleticism to the cornerback position.
Best Pick: Clinton-Dix/Adams
The Packers hit home runs with their first two picks. Clinton-Dix might not be an elite athlete, but he plays the game fast and brings to the next level Alabama football smarts and toughness. The upgrade he'll bring on 2013's 16-game starter M.D. Jennings could be staggering.
Adams isn't a burner, but he caught the football as well as any player in this class. He also brings ability after the catch and top red-zone production. Watch him become Thompson's next gem receiver found in the second round.
Pick to Watch: Abbrederis
His story is almost too good to be true. A former Wisconsin high school star, Abbrederis walked on at UW and became a stud receiver for the Badgers. Now, he'll be heading north to play at Lambeau Field for the Packers.
Abbrederis isn't a big or especially fast receiver, but he consistently got open against top Big 10 cornerbacks—both underneath and over the top. He also brings return experience to the Packers roster. If he can avoid injuries, he could eventually catch a lot of passes from Aaron Rodgers.
- 1.9: LB Anthony Barr, UCLA
- 1.32: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
- 3.72: DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State
- 3.96: RB Jerik McKinnon, Georgia Southern
- 5.145: G David Yankey, Stanford
- 6.182: CB/S Antone Exum, Virginia Tech
- 6.184: CB Kendall James, Maine
- 7.220: DL Shamar Stephen, UConn
- 7.223: OLB Brandon Watts, Georgia Tech
- 7.225: CB Jabari Price, UNC
Some felt Barr was a reach, but he has All-Pro potential if given the right teaching and guidance. Who better to mold and develop such a player than Mike Zimmer? Getting Bridgewater at No. 32 was a potentially franchise-changing moment. No quarterback in this class is more pro-ready. Crichton (poor man's Jared Allen), Yankey (eventual starter at either guard spot) and Exum (injuries wrecked his 2013 season) were all great values in the middle rounds.
McKinnon is a projection risk, but his athletic measuables are off the charts. James, Stephen, Watts and Price are depth picks on defense. James is small but feisty, while Stephen is a huge man who will be hard to move up front. Watts is one of the fastest linebackers in the draft and a potential special teams demon. Price also has the ability to become a core special-teamer.
Best Pick: Bridgewater
If Bridgewater proves his critics wrong and steadies the Vikings franchise at quarterback, Minnesota's decision to move up eight spots and grab him at No. 32 overall will go down as one of the club's better personnel moves in recent memory. He enters the NFL better than any quarterback in this class at reading a defense, anticipating throws and moving defenders with his eyes. Those are important tools.
He's also athletic in and out of the pocket and smart with the football. Sure, he had a bad pro day, and his size isn't ideal for an NFL starter. But the Vikings got a quarterback that could finally change this franchise's fortunes with the final pick in the first round. That's great value and a potential huge impact.
Pick to Watch: Crichton/Exum
Crichton was one of the more underrated defensive line prospects in this class. While not an explosive athlete off the edge, he's a never-quit player who will work his tail off to hold the edge and get after the quarterback on every snap. Two or three years down the road, it wouldn't be surprising to see him starting for Zimmer.
Also, don't sleep on Exum. He shredded up his knee before the 2013 season and then struggled once he eventually returned. But when healthy a year earlier, Exum picked off five passes and broke up 16 more. He looked like an early second day pick. Once he gets his legs back under him, Exum has starter-quality traits at a need position for the Vikings.
(Way-Too-Early) Draft Rankings
- Minnesota Vikings
- Green Bay Packers
- Chicago Bears
- Detroit Lions
The Vikings' draft class might produce as many as five starters when it's all said and done, including a potential franchise quarterback and a pass-rusher with elite tools. Hiring an impressive coaching staff and bringing in a draft class like Minnesota's are how bottom-dwellers become playoff teams in the blink of an eye.
The Packers addressed several needs with quality players. Clinton-Dix is an immediate impact player, and Rodgers got a bunch of shiny new toys in the passing game. No help came at inside linebacker, but Green Bay improved at several positions.
The Bears smartly continued their rehaul of the defense. With Fuller, Ferguson, Sutton and Vereen joining a strong free-agent group of additions, Chicago figures to take a big jump on that side of the ball next season.
The Lions didn't have a bad draft by any means, but the other three teams appear to have improved more over the three days. Of course, that statement might look really silly if Ebron becomes Jimmy Graham 2.0 and Van Noy turns into a versatile chess piece for Teryl Austin's new defense.
What the 2014 Draft Means for the NFC North
This division could get especially tasty in future seasons. If Bridgewater pans out, the NFC North will finally have four legitimate franchise quarterbacks: Rodgers in Green Bay, Jay Cutler in Chicago, Matthew Stafford in Detroit and Bridgewater in Minnesota. Having a stable, effective starter at the quarterback position gives any club the chance to win the division and make the postseason.
The Packers will still likely enter 2014 as the favorite to win the NFC North for a fourth consecutive season, but the gap is closing. The Lions and Bears are legitimate contenders, and the Vikings are playing catchup faster than anyone could have imagined. There's now a legitimate case to be made for every franchise taking the division next season. Buckle up.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.