As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the NFC North.
Surprise Player: Kyle Fuller, CB
I was tempted to plug in Eddie Royal here, but for reasons I explain with the rookie pick, I had to discount him here until more information is made available. Fuller enjoyed a rookie year that had plenty of highlights (four interceptions, over 60 tackles, ten deflected passes, occasionally lock-down coverage) intermixed with periods of poor play, where Fuller was burned by star and average receivers alike. Fuller showed real potential last season, and after the growing pains heendured last year, he should take another step forward toward Pro Bowl status this year.
Bust: Pernell McPhee, LB
I had my choice here narrowed down to two linebackers at varying stages of their careers: one was failing to develop, and the other had developed and been rewarded for it. I went with Pernell McPhee over Shea McClellin because, while McClellin hasn’t been worth the first-round pick the team invested in him, McPhee has to justify earning a five year contract worth just south of forty million dollars based largely on one good season. Of his four seasons, McPhee has only started games in one of them, and it turned out to be his worst. After just 21 tackles and two sacks two years ago, McPhee registered seven and a half sacks last year, and Chicago gambled on him. For a smaller dollar amount, it would’ve been a good gamble. For this much, McPhee will have the hardest job of his NFL career living up to his contract.
Best Rookie: Eddie Goldman, DT
With the length of time Kevin White will miss because of his shin surgery unknown (but potentially as bad as the entire season), I made the choice to disqualify him from this particular post, which in turn made this choice a lot harder. After White, the Bears have plenty of rookies who are poised to make marginal impacts in backup roles. Jeremy Langford will see a few snaps as the third running back. Hroniss Grasu is set to backup center Will Montgomery. Eddie Goldman is in the same situation at defensive tackle behind Jay Ratliff. And, finally, Adrian Amos looks to open the season as a backup safety behind Brock Vereen and Antrel Rolle. Any of those players could make a bigger impact than the others in a reserve role, but for now the edge goes to Goldman. Ratliff will need breaks throughout the games, and Goldman is more than capable of stepping in as a nose tackle. I’m also inclined to believe in a player who was drafted the way he was: by the Bears, in Chicago, announced by arguably the greatest Bear ever, Dick Butkus (who said on-stage he liked the pick). That may not be on-field related, but oh well.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Quarterback, Cornerback, Outside Linebacker
Surprise Player: Darius Slay, CB
On a team composed largely of established veterans (and the few younger players starting are mentioned elsewhere in the piece), few names stand out as potential surprise players. But of those names, Slay has a legitimate chance to become a defensive cornerstone for the team. Starting the entire season for the Lions last year, Slay only recorded two interceptions, but he did tie for sixth in the NFL with 17 passes defended. He may not get the number of interceptions the casual fan associates with a “star” corner, but as long as Slay prevents big plays through any means, deflections included, he will become a better and better player for Detroit.
Bust: Tyrunn Walker, DT
After three seasons of existing in a reserve role (he didn’t even play in one of them), Walker is finally getting his chance to establish himself as a starter. Unfortunately for him, he has the misfortune of bad timing: he is being asked to replace the dynamic tandem of Nick Fairley and the 114-million-dollar man Ndamukong Suh, a task that he and Haloti Ngata stand little chance of completing. Ngata will most likely play at a level close to what they wanted when they traded for him, but Walker will be the defensive tackle to worry about. Granted, he had moments in limited time last season, but he will be getting his first extensive starting experience, something that will make him a step down from the defensive tackles he is replacing.
Best Rookie: Ameer Abdullah, RB
Despite a strong preseason from fellow rookie running back Zach Zenner, if any rookie back will find their way onto the playing field for Detroit, it will be the elusive Abdullah, who has had an impressive preseason in his own right. It may not be exclusively as a running back (Abdullah has the explosiveness to occasionally create matchup problems at other positions), but Abdullah provides too much upside to be kept in a third-string role for all sixteen games.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Defensive Line, Cornerback, Outside Linebacker
*Additional Thought: Though not highlighted in any of the above paragraphs, something that will be interesting to watch is the use of tight ends Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, and Joseph Fauria. They offer a variety of different playing styles (athletic, prototypical, red zone threat), and together could wreak havoc upon defenses if used correctly. Their usage could (and likely will) warrant an argument for belated inclusion on the surprise player or bust sections, depending on what the usage is.
Green Bay Packers
Surprise Player: Davante Adams, WR
Jordy Nelson’s injury may have been terrible for the Packers, but it comes with a silver lining: Davante Adams has a chance to explode for them. Adams has a starting job for the entire season, and is playing with Aaron Rodgers. Remember, Adams was the receiver who caught 233 balls for over 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in two seasons in college. He has experience lighting up the stat sheet, and is playing for arguably the best offense in the NFL to do that. My only regret in placing Adams here is that I had to remember how I didn’t get a waiver claim in on him in my fantasy league on time.
Bust: One of two linebackers
The more talented a team is, the fewer key players they have that are not established and talented players. Green Bay is no different, with barely any holes in their starting group. They do, however, have a potential Achilles’ heel: their linebackers. They have drafted players with their first pick to try and fix that problem twice in the last four years (2012 and 2013), and the results are one player who plays defensive end and one player who can’t stay healthy (and doesn’t play too well when he is). As a result, two of Green Bay’s last four picks from the 2013 draft are starting at linebacker: sixth-rounder Nate Palmer and seventh-rounder Sam Barrington. Both had limited chances last season to start, and the results could be described as average. Will both embrace their new roles and lead this defense through the 2015-2016 season? That is the question that will need answered, but the likely result is that at least one of the two becomes a player that the team is looking to replace before the season is over.
Best Rookie: Ty Montgomery, WR/KR/PR
Easily the hardest rookie pick from the division. Green Bay has four rookies who are in positions to try and make an impact. In fourth place is Quinten Rollins, who I think should be in a higher spot on the depth chart, but is currently stuck behind many players in the secondary, including this year’s first-round pick Damarious Randall. In third is Jake Ryan, who stands a chance to work his way into a starting role, but for now seems to be firmly entrenched behind two third-year linebackers in Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington. Second place goes to the previously mentioned Randall, who has the best opportunity to make an impact, but also has some work to do, despite his impressive play against Pittsburgh earlier in the preseason. The pick here is Ty Montgomery, who has gone from a third or fourth-string receiver to a potential starter because of an injury to Jordy Nelson. Even as a third-string receiver, Montgomery will get targets thanks to the team and quarterback he plays for, and he also has the opportunity to make an impact as a returner.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Linebacker, Tight End, Defensive Line
Surprise Player: Teddy Bridgewater, QB
I’m going to go ahead and avoid overthinking on this pick: Teddy Bridgewater looked good in his rookie season, and he is going to look twice as good his sophomore year. Minnesota went out and got him a better weapon in burner Mike Wallace, he has another candidate for the Vikings’ surprise player Charles Johnson entering his first season as a starter, and he got arguably the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson back (and ready to angrily steamroll over the entire league). His interception numbers might been a little high last year in limited time (12 interceptions in 13 games, 12 of them starts), but better players to work with and more experience will see Bridgewater’s ranking among NFL quarterbacks skyrocket in 2015.
Bust: Trae Waynes, CB
Again, it’s a pick that people have heard before for this team. Many already had Bridgewater pegged as a breakout player, and many also have Waynes disappointing fans after being selected eleventh overall off the hype train. Waynes has all the athleticism to be a Pro Bowler, but needs work to get his ability on-field up to par. After watching him get abused in the preseason by multiple receivers (some of whom didn’t even make a roster), it appears Waynes will need the majority of the year to catch his ability up to his measurables.
Best Rookie: Eric Kendricks, LB
Minnesota had one of the best drafts of any team this year (in my opinion), but not every rookie they took will have a chance to make an impact this season. For example, Stefon Diggs was an excellent value pick for them, but is buried on the depth chart. Kendricks is no lock to start himself, but he was a first-round player the Vikings were fortunate to get in a later round. The likely scenario sees Audie Cole start ahead of Kendricks, but with only 22 tackles and one start last season, that shouldn’t last long. Kendricks has every reason to appear to be the Vikings’ defensive captain of the future.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Offensive Line, Safety, Tight End