2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - NFC North
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the NFC North division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft this upcoming Thursday!
Team Needs: NFC North
Green Bay Packers
Picks: 29, 62, 92, 135, 142, 173, 178, 214, 220, 256
Set: Quarterback, running back, safety
For those unfamiliar with this series, we are essentially giving you the most likely picks in our opinion. If something is listed as “immediate” that is typically a glaring hole where they need an impact player in the early rounds to at least compete for a starting spot. “Depth” is where they may have some expiring contracts or some needs but primarily for the future. And you are “set” at a position if you either A) have little to no need for it or B) you are in a position like the Seahawks where you only have three draft picks and you need to be content with what you have at some spots.
The Packers are “set” at quarterback. In fact, if they were to use another high pick on QB after drafting Jordan Love in a year Aaron Rodgers was the league MVP, I’m pretty sure you’d have a craft beer fueled riot on your hands. They also decided to pay to retain Aaron Jones . And with that contract you should expect them to get their money’s worth out of him. They just used a second-round pick on AJ Dillon and they have Dexter Williams , Patrick Taylor Jr., and Mike Weber to round out the RB group so they should be alright here.
Essentially every team has at least two safeties even if they use a lot of Cover 1 or Cover 3. Adrian Amos was graded out by PFF as the third best safety and Darnell Savage was the 14th. They are both locked up for a minimum of this year and next. Behind them you have at least four or five other players who can play safety as well. This team has bigger needs to fill with their early picks but perhaps they do sprinkle in some depth.
Immediate: Wide receiver, cornerback
The Packers have been trying for YEARS now to find a split end opposite Davante Adams . Or really any big body to tether his foot to the line so Adams can play flanker (hence the attempts to use two tight ends with Marcedes Lewis and either Jimmy Graham or Robert Tonyan as the two mandatory tethered players). They have brought in the following WRs who are all 6’3” or taller: Geronimo Allison (6’3”), Jeff Janis (6’3”), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6’4”), Jake Kumerow (6’4”), Devin Funchess (6’4”), Allen Lazard (6’5”), and Equanimeous St. Brown (6’5”). Guys like MVS and Lazard have had their moments but, despite his size, even a guy like Lazard has found more success in the slot than outside. The Packers are one of the more coveted wide receiver landing spots though this draft does have a number of smaller, speedy wideouts in the ranges where they are picking which isn’t exactly what they need. At 6’1” Davante Adams isn’t as big as he plays and he’s also had concussion issues in the past so it would be best to have him at flanker or slot where he has a buffer or can go in motion rather than forcing him to play split end where he would be tethered to the line facing the jam. That said, given the talent available, they might be looking at sticking with one of MVS, Lazard, or Funchess at split end with a rookie mixing and matching with Adams in the slot/flanker roles. Will depend which of their early picks they use and on whom but the Packers fan base has been pounding the table to get Aaron Rodgers more help.
If you check any of our other draft needs articles, you’ll quickly realize that cornerback is going to be a bloodbath this year. And Green Bay is likely to be right there in the fray. They have one stud corner with Jaire Alexander who should be with the team through next season as well once they exercise his fifth year option. Besides Alexander, they only have Ka’dar Hollman beyond this season. After Kevin King let up the touchdown right before half-time in the NFC Championship fans probably would have been happy to see him gone but they brought him back on a surprising one year incentive heavy deal. Given that King was actually pretty good against the run despite doing poorly in coverage, he could actually make for a much better slot corner than an outside guy if the Packers choose to bring in a CB with an early pick.
Potential early round picks: Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Asante Samuel Jr (Florida State), Terrace Marshall (LSU), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Josh Palmer (Tennessee), Nico Collins (Michigan), Simi Fehoko (Stanford), Seth Williams (Auburn)
Depth: Edge rusher, defensive line, offensive tackle, tight end
When you take a quick glance on paper, the Packers feel alright with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith signed through 2023 and Rashan Gary signed through 2024. But when you dig down into the contracts and understand the posturing that’s gone on via restructuring, there is no way they can pay Preston the $20 million he’s due next year or Za’Darius the $30 million he’s due. In all likelihood, they already have some sort of handshake agreement in place to extend Za’Darius long term and, unless there is a dramatic turnaround, Preston Williams is on his way out. That makes pass rush something they’ll want to consider with one of their mid round picks as it gives them some leverage and helps plan for the future.
This team has won 13 games in back to back years and has managed to keep a lot of pieces in place in the meantime. And as a team projected to win a lot of games once again, they can afford luxury picks. They have what they need in terms of starters for this season at offensive tackle, defensive tackle, and tight end. But an ideal configuration on the offense would see either another tackle that lets Billy Turner play his natural position of guard or simply just a solid swing tackle to develop for the future (especially considering Bakhtiari might not be ready to start the season). Same with defensive tackle. You can get the job done with guys like Kenny Clark , Tyler Lancaster , and Kingsley Keke but it wouldn’t hurt to take a stab and see if maybe you can find a guy who breaks out and is a true difference maker at the position. If you think about guys like Aaron Rodgers , Davante Adams , Aaron Jones , Jaire Alexander , David Bakhtiari etc. these guys are mega stars in this league. So it doesn’t hurt to keep taking stabs in case maybe you can find a George Kittle or Darren Waller who comes from the fifth or sixth round and lights the league up.
Picks: 14, 78, 90, 119, 125, 134, 143, 157, 168, 199
Set: Running back, defensive tackle
This one could fall under depth since maybe they want someone to replace Mike Boone but they signed starter Dalvin Cook to a big extension and have one of the best backups locked up for two more years in Alexander Mattison. They also have Ameer Abdullah , Jake Bargas, and fullback CJ Ham.
Most 4-3 fronts like to rotate guys based on whether it’s an obvious pass or run down so depth along the D-line is always good but the Vikings are looking solid enough. They brought in Dalvin Tomlinson on a two year deal in free agency and have Michael Pierce coming back after opting out of the 2020 season. Like running back, maybe they add some depth in the mix with one of the late picks but they are unlikely to target an impact player to start right away.
Immediate: Offensive line, pass rush, pass catcher
Offensive tackle being listed here should come as no surprise. Riley Reiff had been playing left tackle for them even though offensive line guru and former Vikings coach Mike Tice has said that Reiff was better off playing any position on the line besides that one. They lost Reiff to the Bengals in free agency and didn’t do a whole lot to replace him. There were rumors that they were in the market for Ravens tackle Orlando Brown but he ended up going to the Chiefs for a lower pick than what the Vikings could have offered. Which makes sense - Brown wanted to play and be paid like a left tackle but, with the 14th pick, the Vikings are in a position to draft a left tackle that they could have on a rookie deal for four years plus the fifth year option. If they don’t go this route, then current guard Ezra Cleveland likely has to shift over to play tackle and now they need a guard at the very least. They’re also kind of stuck with center Garrett Bradbury after picking him in the first round a couple years ago but he hasn’t lived up to expectations at all in his first two years. I don’t think the Vikings leave the first few rounds without doing something along the offensive line.
Last year there were rumblings of the Vikings maybe switching to a 3-4 defense from the 4-3 but Mike Zimmer poured some cold water on that suggesting those things need to be done well in advance. This year however he did mention there may be some changes though its difficult to speculate whether he’s talking about more 3-4 fronts or more nickel or dime or what. What we do know is that the Vikings were a bottom five defense in sacks and they don’t really have much pass rush opposite Danielle Hunter . So whether it’s 3-4 or 4-3, they could use another defender who can come off the edge and get to the quarterback. Although the Vikings don’t have a second round pick, they have four fourth round picks which is exactly the kind of ammo usually needed to move up.
With the New England Patriots in the AFC East article and the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North article, we talked about how those team configurations meant they don’t necessarily NEED a wide receiver. Well the Vikings may be undergoing the opposite transformation. For a long time (especially under Kevin Stefanski) they featured a lot of two tight end sets. What they would do last year is have Adam Thielen at split end, Justin Jefferson at flanker, Kyle Rudolph at in-line tight end, and then they would mix and match guys like Chad Beebe and Irv Smith Jr. in the slot. But now Kyle Rudolph is gone and Tyler Conklin , though a serviceable blocking tight end, isn’t much of a threat in the pass game. And Chad Beebe wasn’t exactly a huge playmaker in the slot. So this team is likely poised to either add another wide receiver and transition to more 11 personnel or add another tight end and continue with the 12 personnel. Considering Adam Thielen turns 31 in August, they only have six wide receivers under contract, and guys like KJ Osborn and Dan Chisena are primarily special teams players, I lean towards them making a splash on another wide receiver. We use the term “pass catcher” rather than strictly wide receiver or tight end though because it’s likely they use high end draft capital on one of a wide receiver or tight end but unlikely they use high end picks on both - especially since they do like using a fullback as they used 21 personnel on a fourth of their snaps. You would only use high end capital on both if you are giving up on Irv Smith Jr. and I don’t believe that to be the case.
Potential early round picks: Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Walker Little (Stanford), Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jayson Oweh (Penn State), Joe Tryon (Washington), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss), Dyami Brown (UNC), Tylan Wallce (Oklahoma State), Brevin Jordan (Miami), Hunter Long (Boston College)
Depth: Quarterback, linebacker, secondary
Quarterback is an interesting one because Cousins has two years left on his deal which includes a $31 million cap hit this year and $45 million next year. They could take a look at their quarterback of the future here. Some of the guys that might be available like Mac Jones and Kyle Trask have similar arm strength deficiencies to Cousins so they seem a little too lateral of moves. It’s not even a lock that they are interested in a “QB of the future” but worth mentioning. If they wanted to go a different direction with the offense, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Kellen Mond are options for mobile QBs.
At linebacker they have enough for this year (especially if they are shifting more towards a 4-2-5 nickel setup as some speculate) but Anthony Barr is a free agent after this year so they might want to start planning there. Same with the secondary - they have guys like Harrison Smith and brought in Patrick Peterson but both of these guys are now on the wrong side of 30 so it might be time to start adding depth to see if you can hit on someone.
Picks: 20, 52, 83, 164, 204, 208, 221, 228
Set: Linebacker, running back, tight end
This team has invested heavily at linebacker with Roquan Smith as a first round pick and Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn as the two highest paid players on the team. Danny Trevathan may be 30 but he’s still solid and he’s signed for both this year and next. If there is one place they are set, it’s here.
David Montgomery may be a third round pick but you have to remember that they traded most of their other high end picks away that year for Khalil Mack so he was not only their earliest pick in that draft but they traded up to get him. They have Tarik Cohen returning to help in the pass game as well as signing Damien Williams (who played for Nagy in Kansas City) so they are pretty much locked in at RB.
At tight end they brought in Jimmy Graham as a bridge to rookie second round pick Cole Kmet and he did a great job of that scoring eight touchdowns himself before ceding a lot of his slot and wide receiver snaps to Kmet. They not only have both of them back but have blocking tight ends JP Holtz, Darion Clark, and Jesper Horsted to round out the room so it’s unlikely they splurge on another tight end. The system that Nagy ran with the Chiefs was primarily a one tight end system with various blockers coming in for run downs so the end goal is likely to shed Graham after this season as well.
Immediate: Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback
I’ll make this one quick since there are a lot of more important things to talk about - even if you somehow love Andy Dalton , he turns 34 this season. So he’s not a long term answer at quarterback. Neither is Nick Foles . You need to continue to look for an answer. That said, the coach and GM are on a short leash so perhaps they realize that, if they don’t win some games this year, quarterback becomes someone else’s problem next season.
Since he arrived in Chicago, Matt Nagy has clearly been trying to replicate the offense from his Chiefs days. It requires versatile backs so he traded Jordan Howard then gave Mike Davis a tryout while trading up to get David Montgomery . He brought in Allen Robinson to play the Sammy Watkins split end role. He used a combination of Jimmy Graham and rookie Cole Kmet in the slot in the Travis Kelce pass catching role. Besides missing the obvious in Patrick Mahomes , they need arguably the second most important piece in a field stretching flanker. In doing that, they have accumulated 11 wide receivers on the roster but they haven’t used a whole lot of capital to do it. Perhaps Matt Nagy thinks that you can just find Tyreek Hill s in the 5th and 6th round because that’s how it worked when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs? And maybe he’s right as the speedy Darnell Mooney looked pretty good as a fifth round pick. That said they weren’t shy to try Taylor Gabriel and Javon Wims before moving to Mooney and, as we mentioned, it’s a do or die year for this front office so I wouldn’t be surprised if they went all out and brought in a high end speedster to compete with Mooney for that crucial Tyreek Hill role.
The other two biggest positions of need are what are quickly becoming the “old reliables” for early round picks across the league. You can never stop improving the offensive line. And, with the abundance of nickel and dime packages, you can never have too many solid corners either. The Bears moved on from Bobby Massie and didn’t exactly splurge to fill that tackle position. They also only have four tackles on the depth chart in general so the writing is on the wall to a certain degree that they take one. They also lost both Kyle Fuller on the outside and Buster Skrine in the slot (who was terrible anyway). That leaves them with Desmond Trufant who will turn 31 at the start of the season and Jaylen Johnson, who was the #144 graded corner per PFF. In fact, he only ranked fifth among corners named Johnson. It would be smart for them to bring in another CB even if he starts off as a slot corner.
Potential early round picks: Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Jackson Carman (Clemson), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Tay Gowan (UCF)
Depth: Defensive front, safety
New defensive coordinator Sean Desai is a disciple of Vic Fangio and the assumption is he will continue to operate a base 3-4 front. The Bears are pretty solid in terms of starters on the outside with Mario Edwards Jr. and free agent Akiem Hicks . They have Nichols Bilal as a pass rushing nose tackle but Brent Urban was graded as the third best run stopping interior defensive lineman in the league per PFF and they lost him to the Dallas Cowboys. They only have six total defensive lineman signed so they could use depth across the board but replacing Urban as a two gap nose tackle on run downs would be the first direction I’d go.
They have Eddie Jackson and Teshaun Gipson as the starters at safety, both playing over 1,000 snaps last year. They have Jackson signed through 2025 but the other six safeties on the team, including Gipson, are all free agents after this year. Fangio (and therefore Desai’s) defenses are famous for bringing a safety all the way to the line of scrimmage at times and that is primarily the responsibility of the 30-year old Gipson so perhaps they look for depth in a safety who’s comfortable against the run in the box.
Picks: 7, 41, 72, 101, 112, 153
Set: Running back, wide receiver, tight end
This team is pretty obviously following in the Dolphins footsteps for their rebuild. They fired their coach. Traded their QB. They have the most dead cap of any team. Yet are still rolling $20 million in cap to next year. They let their high end free agents leave and only signed Jamaal Williams to a multi-year deal to ensure they get the four max comp picks. It’s nearly identical to the 2019 Dolphins. Which is smart.
We talked about it in-depth in this article on D’Andre Swift but the Lions with Swift, Kerryon Johnson , and Jamaal Williams have more than they need at RB. In fact, it’s a shame that so much of Swift’s rookie deal will be wasted in a rebuild. The stupidest move they could probably make in a year when they have the worst odds to win the super bowl, is drafting another high end running back.
A lot of people are going to say wide receiver is their immediate need for this draft right now. And a lot of people would be wrong. I understand that Kenny Golladay , Marvin Jones , and Danny Amendola left and they need WRs for the future. But that’s not the rebuild formula. Look at teams like the Dolphins, Rams, Bills, Bears. You don’t want to start the clock on a high end weapon in a year you're not winning anything. The Lions did the smart thing and filled out the depth chart with one year contracts for journeymen like Tyrell Williams , Breshad Perriman , Geronimo Allison , Damien Ratley etc. You have more than enough to get by this season while you are burning off dead cap and coasting to a good pick in 2022. Then next year you go out and get your version of Stefon Diggs , John Brown , Cooper Kupp , Robert Woods , Brandin Cooks , Sammy Watkins , Allen Robinson , Will Fuller etc. Those players weren’t acquired in the years when they were tanking. They were acquired afterwards so that their contracts lined up with the window of the new franchise QB. Otherwise you end up having to pay guys before you are truly ready to compete to win.
In a similar note you have TJ Hockenson through 2023 (assuming they pick up the fifth year option), you draft Bryant Hunter, and are bright in blocking tight end Josh Hill . No need to reload at tight end again either. Forget drafting weapons for now.
Immediate: Quarterback, offensive line, and front seven
First and foremost, they traded their quarterback Matt Stafford for Jared Goff and multiple first round picks. That value doesn’t necessarily make you super excited for the future of Goff when the picks seem to be the most valuable part of the deal. If the right player presents itself, the Lions might go for a quarterback this year. But the current over/under win total for the Lions this year is five. In a season with 17 games. Only the Houston Texans are lower at 4.5 and their quarterback might never play another snap. So the Lions are highly likely to have a high pick next year if they want to go for the BEST quarterback in the class in 2022 rather than the fourth best in this class this year.
The simple and smart solution is to work on building the team from the inside out. Quarterback and offensive line are pretty much the only positions that get 8+ year contracts (like Tyron Smith ’s 10-year, $100+ million dollar deal in 2014). And on the defensive side, guys like Aaron Donald , Fletcher Cox , Khalil Mack , Von Miller have gotten six year deals. When you are a team that is expected to be one of the worst in the league, you load up on positions with longevity and lock those down for many years. Then you go for the flashy, expensive positions that have shorter shelf life like running back, wide receiver, cornerback etc. If the Lions do this the right way, you won’t see them making a lot of flashy picks this year. It might even be smart to trade back out of the seventh spot to acquire more picks or push picks into the future the way the Dolphins have.
Due to the nature of the rebuild, the Lions can honestly spend their later picks on whatever they want. As they lost Jamaal Agnew in free agency, they may want to try out some guys to see if they can find a long term solution at punt or kick return (like the Dolphins did locking down Jakeem Grant to return both punts and kicks). They have needs pretty much across the board after letting so many players leave while not bringing anyone on so it’s hard to argue there is a position where they wouldn’t simply take the best player available