NFC North Draft: Division Foes Set to Test Vikings Weak Spot

Photo Courtesy of Luke Inman

They say when building a team, you must construct a roster that is built to win against your divisional opponents first and foremost.

As NFC North champions the Minnesota Vikings did exactly that, going an impressive 5-1 collectively against their division rivals. However, there is a cat-and-mouse dance continuously being played year after year as rosters are fine tuned to mirror and adjust to that of their divisional counterparts.

Before Vikings fans chalk up another division title in Year 3 of the Mike Zimmer era, they would be wise to take a step back and reflect on the offseasons and drafts of the rest of the division.

Vikings were PFF’s 31st ranked team in pass blocking efficiency.

From what we’ve seen it should be safe to assume the Vikings take another step forward with another offseason of tutelage and roster building from Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. Zimmer has watched his team improve night-and-day since his arrival in multiple categories. What’s more encouraging is the job Spielman and his staff have done over the past five years building a young core and nucleus of talent that is set up to have success both in the short and long term.

The Vikings have one of the youngest rosters in the entire league, but have still been able to get immediate success and playing time from numerous players like Danielle Hunter, T.J. Clemmings, Eric Kendricks and Stefon Diggs.

But looking around the league, starting within the division, it’s natural to sense why the Vikings could have an even tougher time protecting upfront in the trenches, an area this unit greatly struggled in a year ago.

Let’s start with what we know, shall we, as the Vikings were PFF’s 31st ranked team in pass blocking efficiency. While it’s easy to quickly blame injuries to original starters Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan, including their replacements the team did have their starters play all 16 games together.

his 54 total pressures had him tied for dead last among all guards

It was hot and cold when assessing the individual performances, as guys like Joe Berger and Mike Harris were a pleasant surprise when forced into the mix. Berger finished among the top three in the entire league for his position at center, while Harris was equally solid against the run and pass.

That was the hot. Still have your winter jacket? You’ll need it for the downright numbing performances the rest of the unit had.

It’s tough to be too hard on the fourth-rounder from Pittsburgh, as he was viewed to be a big time project coming into the draft. Sure, there were moments where he held his own, but T.J. Clemmings struggled when asked to protect the passer, posting the fourth-worst grade in pass blocking efficiency.

Opposite of him was Matt Kalil, who has watched his play regress since a Pro Bowl rookie season. Things have gotten so bad lately he’s given up 99 passing pressures over the last two years, which puts him in the bottom ten of all NFL tackles. However, Kalil wasn’t the only one who saw his once talented play decline dramatically on the team’s offensive line.

After watching the Vikings tapes back weekly from the All-22 perspective, it was clear to me even with the poor play around him, guard Brandon Fusco was struggling on a consistent basis the most. Fusco looked lost and confused play after play, struggling with his footwork, strength and technique on the inside.

Devil’s advocates would be quick to point out Fusco’s switch from the right to the left side and his inability to adjust to three-technique defensive tackles (as opposed to nose tackles), who are known to be quicker and more elusive off the snap.

The fact Fusco was coming off a pectoral tear just months prior could have certainly played a big factor in his decline of play as well. No matter how you view Fusco, though, the facts don’t lie as his 54 total pressures had him tied for dead last among all guards.

 Beavers by many was considered a reach even in the fourth-round

These are hard pills to swallow when you consider the Vikings worked hard, making it a priority to continue the development of Teddy Bridgewater. The sloppy and fragile offensive line play wasn’t easy on Bridgewater, whose strengths of play suggest he should be a pure-pocket passer, making his mark with good decisions and sharp accuracy on five- and seven-step drops.

The team brought in guard Alex Boone in free agency to help improve the woes they went through last year. But, even Boone, who has notoriously been reliable in the trenches since coming into the league, regressed in 2015 posting the first negative run-blocking grade of his career.

The front office also signed former top-ten pick and tackle Andre Smith. However, these guys are free agents for a reason, as I like to say, and Smith was no different. Smith was let go for steadily declining play over the last few seasons in Cincinnati while the Bengals were prepared to move on after drafting his replacement in Jake Fisher the year prior.

The Vikings’ last addition came in the fourth round of this year’s draft when Spielman plucked Central Michigan tackle Willie Beavers. Beavers was considered a reach by many even in the fourth round as he was ranked the second worst tackle in all of college football last season. I can attest after getting a first hand look at Beavers down at the Senior Bowl, where he looked lost and a step too slow play after play, and rep after rep.

The Vikings have already stated they will use Beavers inside at guard where he won’t have to move around in space (one of his glaring weaknesses), and where he will be able to use his strength and strong first punch more effectively. Even so, Beavers is nothing more than a project at this point and someone who shouldn’t be counted on during the 2016 season.  

The improvement of the glaring weak spot in pass-protection remains a silent but deadly topic as Bridgewater enters the critical third year of his career.

A lot to chew on, but most of that you already knew this. Now that I’ve got you refreshed on the bleak status of the team’s offensive line, the real topic of discussion lies in what the Vikings’ division rivals have done to take advantage of it.

By a national consensus the Bears put together one of the most complete drafts from top-to-bottom. As the 18th player overall on my big board, I will argue defensive tackle Jonathan Bullard was the most efficient pick of the entire draft as the 72nd overall selection.

Bullard got overlooked in the pre-draft process because of his limited snaps due to the heavy rotation the Florida Gators implemented throughout 2015. But make no mistake, Bullard was an absolute nightmare for opposing linemen, having the versatility to play both inside and outside as a defensive end.

When he wasn’t bullying offensive guards around in the passing game, Bullard was busy posting a nation’s best +51.5 grade against the run.

The Bears also used their first-round pick on what they hope to be a splash player off the edge in Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd.

While I was in the minority from the tape I saw, Floyd looked more natural as an off the ball linebacker dropping back in coverage. Regardless, though, John Fox will use him as an explosive speed rusher on the outside, similar to what he had in Von Miller during his time in Denver.

According to PFF, Floyd was above average against the run with a +18.4 grade while posting the fifth-highest pass-rushing grade in the country with a +28.9. After the additions of inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, who posted outstanding 2015 grades of +90.6 and +87.5, respectively, it was clear Fox wanted to balance out their power rushing talent on the inside, with a mix of speed on the outside.

Ted Thompson has never played by the rules when drafting new additions to his roster. Much like other teams such as the New England Patriots, Thompson throws away the value chart and doesn’t worry about “reaching” on a prospect, but instead grabs the player that best fits his specific scheme, while filling a need.

So when his defense ended the season 21st in total rushing yards allowed while giving up the eighth most touchdowns on the ground (13), Thompson drafted what he thought was the best run defender available the first chance he got.

After the 27th overall selection UCLA nose tackle Kenny Clark was wearing green and gold. With arguably the best bull-rush power move the class had to offer, Clark and his fifth-best 34 run stops should immediately improve the Packers’ production on first and second downs.

There’s still some debate as to where Mike McCarthy will line Clark up at as he has the ability to play both the nose tackle and defensive end in the team’s 3-4 defense. Regardless of where he plays, though, after the sudden retirement of B.J. Raji, it was imperative to get another big body in the starting rotation next to Mike Daniels.

Thompson later added Utah State linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who at 6’5” looked like an impressive ball of clay to work with at the Senior Bowl and had the sixth-best pass-rushing grade for a linebacker in the nation. Even the addition of Stanford inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who is undersized and slow, makes the defense better as it allows Clay Matthews to work back on the outside where he rushes the passer at an All-Pro level.

The Detroit Lions even got in the mix when they added more beef and better talent on their defensive line with A’Shawn Robinson. After receiving plenty of top-20 hype the selection was viewed as one of the better value picks of the entire draft when the Lions drafted him with the 46th overall pick.

By all accounts the Vikings offensive line was among the worst in the league, and I’ve given plenty of stats to back that up. While it’s still unknown what the starting five-man front will look like in September, incumbent starters like Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco were huge liabilities and were among the worst in the league when trying to give Bridgewater a clean pocket to step into. Even with their offseason acquisitions, it’s hard not to see both of them starting once again given how much money the team has invested in them.

The Vikings are looking to build off some solid momentum after stealing the division crown away from the Packers for the first time in five seasons. However, heading into a crucial year regarding the progression of Bridgewater, the team’s biggest liability may still have more questions than answers.

Meanwhile, the rest of the division has added players inside their front-seven and trenches that come in with big time pedigrees and will have an immediate impact, making things drastically more difficult for the Vikings’ already vulnerable offensive line.

It almost would seem these teams headed into the draft with a specific plan to pick the scab of the division champion’s biggest wound. Similar in fashion to the way the Vikings have built a physical defense to batter and bruise quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler and their passing games over the years.

After a full offseason, it’s clear the NFC North division will be more competitive than ever, and a tight race to the finish.

Now, with the shoe on the other foot, the Vikings will be forced to play this season with the target on their back, and look to prove why the division crown looks best hanging on the purple and gold throne, for at least another year.

As the golden rule goes, you build your team to beat your division foes first and foremost.

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