NFC North Rankings, defense, ST: Who shined? Who slumped?
Nobody is more plugged into the NFC North than our Bob McGinn. He canvasses the coaches and scouts for Part II of this series. (Hint: Kenny Clark and Robert Quinn were extraordinary.)
Miss Part I on the offense? Catch up right here.
As he’s done for years, Bob McGinn rips through his Rolodex to give readers an extremely rare look at how NFL personnel views the talent in the NFC North.
Kenny Clark stands head and shoulders above the rest of the defensive linemen. Akiem Hicks is a descending player, as are Michael Brockers, Eddie Goldman and Michael Pierce. With the Packers’ release of Kingsley Keke on Wednesday, the division lost a player that was the best 3-technique in the division a year ago.
1. Kenny Clark, GB (16 games, 16 starts, 782 snaps): By far the best pass rusher among the group was Clark. His ability to play with strength, leverage and quickness means the world to the Packers’ run defense. “I do love him,” said one scout. “He’s a really good run player. For a nose tackle he does offer you pass rush, which is rare. His inside presence really changes how you have to block them.”
2. Akiem Hicks, Chi (9-9, 304): Hicks played just nine games after having been limited to five in 2019. Yes, he can still dominate, but as an unrestricted free agent his 11th season might be for another team. “If he was 15 pounds in better shape he would be undeniably compared to Reggie White,” one scout said. “But he’s injured so often and doesn’t have the (right) attitude toward how important the game is.” Added a second scout: “He can still play when he wants to. Still explosive. When he’s going he’s going and is hard to block. But injuries are starting to catch up.”
3. Sheldon Richardson, Minn (17-7, 690): His second tour with the Vikings began as a 3-technique. When Danielle Hunter suffered a season-ending injury and Everson Griffen went on the non-football illness list, Richardson started and played extensively at end. “He was their best D-lineman,” one scout said. “He had the best pass-rush ability of those guys and showed it throughout the year.”
4. Bilal Nichols, Chi (17-15, 678): He’s the rare small-school player (Delaware) that immediately looked comfortable in the NFL. His career has been on a steady upward trajectory. “He’s versatile,” one scout said. “He can play either end (in a 4-3). He’s not the biggest but he can play on the interior as a nose tackle or defensive tackle. He’s a good athlete, he really is, and he does (hold up) against doubles, surprisingly so. He’ll give you everything up and down the line of scrimmage.”
5. Dalvin Tomlinson, Minn (16-16, 641): The Vikings probably expected more than what they got from the high-priced Tomlinson, the ex-Giant. “Good in spurts,” said one scout. “Just nothing consistent, run or pass. Plays a little bit too high against the run. He didn’t consistently move the line of scrimmage like the expectations were.”
6. Dean Lowry, GB (17-17, 674): Played some of the best ball of his five-year career as a starter down the stretch. “He generally has more strength than the guy he’s playing against,” one scout said. “He’s an ideal two-gap type strength player, and he makes an occasional big play. Bat a ball or somehow overpower somebody and get a sack. You don’t see him out all by himself separating from a blocker. I think he’s really good.”
7. Armon Watts, Minn (17-9, 670): A sixth-round draft choice in 2019, he started just one of 23 games in his first two seasons. This season, he posted five sacks, twice as many as Tomlinson. “He had a surprisingly good year,” said one scout. “He had five sacks, which I would have never thought. He’s come on. He’s got a little pass-rush move inside.”
8. Alim McNeill, Det (17-6, 422): The Lions got much more as rookies from McNeill, their third-round draft choice, than Levi Onwuzurike, their second-rounder. McNeill was the team’s best big man against the run. “He’s got upside,” said one scout. “He’s the same style as Goldman and Pierce but just younger. There’s a lot of promise there. He’s really athletic for a squattier nose tackle. He flashes. Now he needs to put it all together.”
9. Michael Brockers, Det (16-16, 622): A throw-in to the Stafford-Goff trade, his 10th season might have been his poorest. He was adequate against the run as a 5-technique but offered less resistance when reduced inside. As a pass rusher, he contributed next to nothing. “He had been a pretty decent pass rusher the past few years,” said one scout. “I think a lot of that is the Aaron Donald effect. Everybody’s sliding to Aaron Donald. He’s on the decline a little bit.”
10. Michael Pierce, Minn (8-8, 251): After four seasons as a mammoth run player in Baltimore, he arrived in Minnesota projected as the next Linval Joseph or Pat Williams. That most-assuredly didn’t happen. After opting out in 2020, he lasted just eight games this season before heading to injured reserve. “He came in with a lot of ballyhoo as a free-agent signee,” one scout said. “When he did play you saw the power and the quickness and strength all come into play where he could move the line of scrimmage. Whatever the expectation was, it wasn’t achieved because he just didn’t play enough.”
Others, in order: Angelo Blackson, Chi (17-8, 583); Nick Williams, Det (17-17, 623); Eddie Goldman, Chi (14-10, 337); Mario Edwards, Chi (12-2, 212); Levi Onwuzurike, Det (16-0, 396); Tyler Lancaster, GB (16-3, 319); Khyiris Tonga, Chi (15-2, 216); T.J. Slaton, GB (17-0, 255); James Lynch, Minn (13-1, 305).
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Injuries shortened the seasons of Danielle Hunter and Khalil Mack not to mention Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers. Robert Quinn came through with a career year and a bunch of young players came to the forefront.
1. Robert Quinn, Chi (16-14, 755): He finished second in sacks with 18 ½, four behind sack champ T.J. Watt of Pittsburgh. He had a career season at 31. “I didn’t think he had 18 sacks left in him,” one scout said. “Credit to him. He had a real comeback year. Never been a great run defender but he’s been better this year.”
2. Danielle Hunter, Minn (7-7, 384): Sat out all of 2020 due to a neck injury and saw this season end after seven games with a pectoral injury. “He came back from injury and played well,” said one scout. “He picked up right where he left off (in 2019). They probably played him too much.” He averaged 54.9 snaps before going down.
3. Rashan Gary, GB (16-16, 681): In three seasons his sack total has increased from two as a rookie to five in 2020 to a team-leading 9 ½ this season. “He’s still a little deficient against the run but his ability to be an effective speed rusher off the edge, he’s proven that,” one scout said. “He gets caught inside. We have him listed at 277 but he plays like he’s 250. He doesn’t play firm, especially against the run. I think he wants to rush the passer but I don’t know if he wants to play the run. I do think he lacks some discipline as a run defender. He doesn’t always stay in his gap. He gets in poor positions. But he’s got 9 ½ sacks and 28 quarterback hits this year. I’ll take that.”
4. Everson Griffen, Minn (9-6, 457): After playing off the bench early, he made his first start at RE in Game 5. It wasn’t long before Griffen took over for the injured Hunter as the Vikings’ premier pass rusher. At age 33, he was playing the way he did at 25. Then his mental health issues arose again and his season was done after 10 games. “He signed late in camp and by Week 3 or Week 4 you said, ‘Hey, this guy really still has it,’” said one scout. “He’s got a mentality to beat you every time. He knows how to rush. Looked in good shape athletically. He can still play. With him, it’s all about where he is from a mental phase.”
5. Khalil Mack, Chi (7-7, 315): His fourth season in Chicago, and eighth in the NFL ended prematurely because of a foot injury. “He had a down year last year but he showed he could still play (this year),” one scout said. “I don’t think he’s quite what he was four years ago when he was elite. He can still rush the passer. He comes hard. He runs stunts, can play the run. His health has been the issue.”
6. Preston Smith, GB (16-16, 689): After a top-notch first season for the Packers, he was pedestrian in 2020. With his career on the line at 29, Smith was back getting after quarterbacks. “He had a much more solid year this year than last year,” said one scout. “More consistent. Maybe a better mindset.”
7. Charles Harris, Det (17-14, 872): He was the No. 22 selection by Miami in 2017. After three seasons for the Dolphins and another with the Falcons (total of 6 ½ sacks), he joined the Lions as an unrestricted free agent on a one-year deal and led the team in sacks with 7 ½. “He had a very productive year,” said one scout. “If he was on a playoff team everybody would be talking about him now.” Added another scout: “I have a little concern if he can repeat it.”
8. Trevis Gipson, Chi (16-9, 489): A fifth-round pick in 2020, he moved into the lineup when Mack went down and seemed to establish himself as a part of the Bears’ future. “If he develops as much as he did year 1 to year 2 he’ll fill a significant void,” said one scout. “He’s got good length, good size and runs well. He’s willing to go down and make hits on kickoffs and punts. He doesn’t shy away from contact. He has started to develop an arsenal of outside rush moves.”
9. D.J. Wonnum, Minn (17-14, 952): Like Gipson, he’s another mid-round draft choice (fourth) from 2020 that made strides in his second season. “He started out the year slow,” said one scout. “He picked up his rush as the year went on. He had to play the left end when Hunter and Griffen were gone. Probably better suited for the right side but doesn’t have the pass-rush arsenal yet to be consistent. He doesn’t play real physical against the run.”
10. Julian Okwara, Det (13-1, 362): With his older brother, Romeo, on injured reserve after four games with a torn Achilles, Julian began paying some dividends as a third-round pick in 2020. “He’s way more athletic and more explosive than his brother,” one scout said. “Not as violent or strong.”
Others, in order: Trey Flowers, Det (7-7, 304); Austin Bryant, Det (14-5, 436); Jonathan Garvin, GB (16-1, 395).
This might have been the best position in the division. Old standbys Roquan Smith, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr played well while De’Vondre Campbell was a tremendous free-agent addition in Green Bay.
1. Roquan Smith, Chi (17-17, 1,009): Did yeoman’s work in the fourth season of what is starting to look like a Hall of Fame career. “He is a good fundamental tackler,” said one scout. “He runs sideline to sideline with the best of them. His screen reading ability is one of the top two in the NFL … he doesn’t freelance. He doesn’t go rogue on you. He runs the defensive system. He understands how to put people in the right places … he’ll be up for a big contract soon. I wouldn’t be afraid of paying him.”
2. Eric Kendricks, Minn (15-15, 1,032): Continued playing at a high level in his seventh season. “He’ll always be right on the verge of a Pro Bowl slot,” said one scout. “He gets overlooked because he doesn’t have the household name and stature. He won’t make as many splash plays as Smith but he’ll be in the right spot all the time. He’s the leader of that defense.” A second scout added: “He’s always had a little issue taking on blocks, but he’s so instinctive. Good zone defender. He’s a playmaker.”
3. De’Vondre Campbell, GB (16-16, 988): On June 9, the Packers signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract ($1.01 signing bonus). It ranked as one of the team’s finest unheralded off-season signings since return ace Desmond Howard came aboard on July 11, 1996. “I was not shocked that he’s having a good season,” one scout said. “He’s a smart, instinctive guy. He runs well. His feel in zones, reading the quarterback and breaking to the ball, does a good job with that … he’s not an explosive, come downhill and take you on (player). That’s not his game. He’s just a good football player. He finds the ball. He’ll be a free agent this year. He’ll have a nice new contract.”
4. Anthony Barr, Minn (11-11, 784): Injuries have prevented him from playing a full season since 2017. A knee problem and other nicks knocked him out of six games this season. “That affected the defense tremendously,” one scout said. “Teams normally have to change their blocking schemes for him so they didn’t have to do that as much this year. When he played he flew around and made a lot of plays. Did more pass rushing than he had done in past years. Had more effect there. But you never knew what you were going to get from Barr this year. Looked awful good when he was playing.”
5. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Det (15-11, 616): A fourth-round draft choice in 2017, he had started merely three of 55 games in four seasons. His niche had been special teams in the Matt Patricia era. When the Lions pink-slipped Jamie Collins after the first month, Reeves-Maybin moved into the lineup and was something of a revelation. “He was their best linebacker but you still can’t say he’s a full-time starter,” said one scout. “He’s similar to Campbell, but lesser. He’s an instinctive, athletic zone defender. He won’t play big against blockers. That’s where his deficiencies show up.”
6. Alec Ogletree, Chi (16-16, 697): The league basically had forgotten about the ex-Ram when he arrived in Illinois to visit old pal Robert Quinn. The Bears asked him to work out and, less than two weeks later, he was starting the opener next to Roquan Smith. “He’s still instinctive against the run,” said one scout. “He formerly was a really good player. You can see that in glimpses, but he kind of wore down a little bit.”
7. Alex Anzalone, Det (14-14, 828): Routinely drew high praise from coach Dan Campbell for his balls-to-the-wall playing style. After four seasons and just 20 starts with the Saints, he started the first 14 games before injuries caught up to him again. This time it was a shoulder. “Captain of the defense, called the defense,” one scout said. “Not overly explosive downhill. Not durable. Good zone coverage player.”
8. Nick Vigil, Minn (16-12, 719): He started for the Bengals from 2017-’19, played in sub packages for the Chargers in ’20 and played extensively in his first season with the Vikings. “Smart, long, more of a strong-side linebacker but has the ability to play inside and ‘mike,’” one scout said. “Doesn’t make a lot of mental mistakes. He struggles against in-line blocks because he’s not the biggest guy. He can make plays in space and in coverage.”
9. Krys Barnes, GB (16-13, 527): As a rookie, he beat out Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin to become the club’s No. 1 linebacker as a rookie free agent. Took a backseat to Campbell after the awful opener against the Saints but remained ahead of Oren Burks and Jaylon Smith, who did receive an audition in Games 6-7. “You see some really good things, and other times he plays on the small side and gets worked,” said one scout. “He’s truly a really good No. 3 rotational guy. They trust Campbell a little more.”
10. Derrick Barnes, Det (17-7, 448): GM Brad Holmes traded up in the fourth round for Barnes, whose seven starts were spaced throughout the season. “Explosive, straight-line, physical,” said one scout. “Throws his body around. No fear. Sometimes he lacks feel for the game. Gets in trouble against play-action. But, when he sees it, he can get there. He still needs development in coverage.”
Others, in order: Blake Lynch, Minn (16-6, 218); Josh Woods, Det (12-2, 113); Oren Burks, GB (17-3, 205); Troy Dye, Minn (17-1, 54).
When Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander suffered a shoulder injury in Game 4 after 219 snaps, the division was without a high-level cornerback. “That’s why there’s only one playoff team,” one scout said. “If you don’t have corners you can’t make the playoffs. Without him (Alexander), it’s a terrible group. They’re all just guys.”
1. Jaylon Johnson, Chi (15-15, 933): As the 50th selection in the 2020 draft, he has been one of the top two cornerbacks in the division in each of his two seasons. “Is he a No. 1 (corner)?” said one scout. “No, but he’s a hell of a 1-b. I like his attitude. He is willing to come to the line of scrimmage and make tackles against fullbacks, tight ends or jet sweeps.” Added a second scout: “I thought he’d be a really good starter but I don’t think he took that step this year. He’s a good starter. (Eric) Stokes could definitely pass him by. He’s a little bit more explosive and a little better athlete. I gave Jaylon the nod for now.”
2. Rasul Douglas, GB (12-9, 680): Plucked from the Cardinals’ practice squad a month into the season, the former Eagle immediately started because of injuries to Alexander and Kevin King. Over the last 10 games he became a fixture on the right outside, where he returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. “Some day he may get exposed as being what he was,” said one scout. “But it’s a game of big plays, and he made a number of them for whatever reason.”
3. Amani Oruwariye, Det (14-14, 938): A fifth-round draft choice in 2019, he moved into the lineup in 2020 and then led the division in picks this year with six. “He’s a long corner with really good ball skills,” said one scout. “I don’t think he has the skill set to be like a true man cover guy. He’s got tightness to him. I think he’ll be a good No. 2 (cornerback).”
4. Eric Stokes, GB (16-14, 935): Played just eight snaps in the opener. Became a starter in Game 3 when King went down, and stepped into the No. 1 role on the left outside in Game 5 after Alexander was injured. “He’s done a good job and has a lot of upside,” one scout said. “I don’t think he’ll be a great player but he’ll be a good player.” Intercepted one pass and dropped six other good chances. “You want the INTs but you like the PBUs, too,” said the scout.
5. Patrick Peterson, Minn (13-13, 885): Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman and Peterson were the cornerbacks on the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2010’s. His first year in Minnesota wasn’t like his first 10 in Arizona but he clearly was their top corner. “He had a solid year,” said one scout. “Missed a lot of time with injuries and Covid. Doesn’t have the speed he once had to cover in space. Doesn’t get his hands on nearly as many balls. Relies more on his veteran instincts to make plays. Definitely not what he once was but still a smart, savvy guy.”
6. Jerry Jacobs, Det (13-9, 536): A rookie free agent from Arkansas, Jacobs (5-10, 208) ran 4.56 at pro day with 20 reps on the bench press. By Game 5, he was a starter in the wake of Jeff Okudah’s season-ending Achilles injury and Ifeatu Melifonwu’s injury woes. After starting nine straight games, Jacobs tore his ACL. “He really was a surprise,” said one scout. “Like a little pit bull. Loves to tackle. At times he’s too aggressive. He could be (a starter). You love everything about him except maybe his size.”
7. Chandon Sullivan, GB (17-10, 827): The former Eagles’ undrafted rookie in 2018 has played all 49 games for the Packers since ’19, almost all as the nickel back. “Nickel-only player,” said one scout. “Average athlete who is loose and fluid but lacks speed and the quickness to change directions. Most functional in zone, where he is aware with enough of a trigger off the spot to break on things in his underneath area. Very physical and grabby in man, and can get away with it inside. Below-average tackler, lacks physical strength.”
8. Mackensie Alexander, Minn (16-5, 690): After spending 2020 with the Bengals, he returned to Minnesota where he started 10 of 55 games from 2016-’19. “He has a good understanding of routes from slot receivers,” said one scout. “Doesn’t have great speed to close on the over routes. Solid nickel, just not a great nickel.”
9. Cameron Dantzler, Minn (14-7, 686): A third-round pick in 2020, he made 10 starts as a rookie. In 2021, he was unable to beat out veteran Bashaud Breeland, who was cut late in the season. “Very inconsistent year,” said one scout. “He had injuries and demotions. The expectations were high coming into the year and he basically didn’t come close to achieving any of them. The tools were there. He’s fast enough, quick enough, athletic enough to make plays. He just didn’t. That’s why Breeland was ahead of him, and Breeland’s not very good.”
10. A.J. Parker, Det (13-7, 557): A rookie free agent from Kansas State, he played various roles in the secondary and, like almost all the Lions defensive backs, served a stint on injured reserve. “Little undersized,” said one scout. “Did a nice job at nickel. He’s a very good No. 3 or No. 4 corner.”
Others, in order: Artie Burns, Chi (11-6, 254); Kevin King, GB (10-6, 303); Duke Shelley, Chi (10-4, 409); Kindle Vildor, Chi (17-12, 821); Kris Boyd, Minn (15-1, 160); Xavier Crawford, Chi (13-2, 139).
Harrison Smith, one of the greatest safeties in the history of the NFC Central-North Division, remained head and shoulders above the field. “What a bad group,” said one scout. “They’re all just kind of guys. After one (Smith), you can put them all in a hat and just kind of pull out whatever quality you’re looking for to fit your defense.”
1. Harrison Smith, Minn (15-15, 1,049): He and coach Mike Zimmer were a match made in football’s Valhalla. Zimmer plotted all those schemes and the wily, hard-hitting Smith carried them out for eight seasons. “Still smart and versatile,” one scout said. “Doesn’t have the speed he once had to cover as much ground but he can still make plays on a consistent basis.”
2. Tracy Walker, Det (15-15, 882): Bounced back from a down season under Matt Patricia to play well under Dan Campbell. “He’s physical,” one scout said. “He’ll strike you and throws his body around. Got a good skill set. Just doesn’t make a lot of plays. I still think there’s more upside there.”
3. Adrian Amos, GB (17-17, 1,048): Has played every game and almost every snap since leaving the Bears to join the Packers as an unrestricted free agent in March 2019. “What he is is a solid tackler,” said one scout. “He just can’t cover. If you get him isolated in coverage then you’ve got him. If he was in college he’d probably be playing linebacker right now. He’s a downhill, get to the line of scrimmage guy.”
4. Darnell Savage, GB (17-17, 1,038): A first-round draft choice in 2019, he has started for three years. “He has the ability to play more man than Amos,” one scout said. “He has the ability to play in space against slots when he has to but he has definitely flat-lined in his productivity. He benefits by the play of those corners when they’re healthy. He hasn’t shown to be a top guy … I don’t think his eyes have ever been good. He doesn’t see things like he should.”
5. Tashaun Gipson, Chi (12-12, 660): Has started 132 of 140 games for the Browns (2012-’15), the Jaguars (2016-’18), the Texans (2019) and the Bears (2020-’21). “He’s just a pro’s pro,” one scout said. “He’s been around the block. He understands what it takes to play in the NFL.” Added a second scout: “Kind of a dual safety. More strong than free. Nothing stands out about him. He can cover tight ends. He’s got some range. Doesn’t make a lot of plays. I am guessing he’s a smart guy so he winds up always playing but he never really makes any plays.”
6. Xavier Woods, Minn (17-17, 1,208): The only defensive back in the NFC North to play every snap. Started 48 games in four seasons for Dallas before joining the Vikings in March as Anthony Harris’s replacement. “He had an up-and-down year,” said one scout. “He started off slow, played pretty decent in the middle and then kind of took a dip at the end. He has a free safety body but struggles to consistently make good reads over the top. He’ll get influenced by the quarterback’s eyes. Coming downhill as a tackler he’s a little bit slight. He had some missed tackles that weren’t good. He’s a really good backup.”
7. Will Harris, Det (17-17, 1,012): A third-round pick in 2019, he started 11 games in his first two seasons before starting all 17 this year. When injuries thinned the Lions’ depth at cornerback he went to the right outside and started two games late. Primarily worked at free safety but also saw extensive duty as the nickel in midseason. “He’s the ultimate utility player,” one scout said. “He’s smart enough to play all the positions but his deficiencies showed at each one. He can tackle. His issue is he just doesn’t locate the ball.”
8. Eddie Jackson, Chi (14-14, 787): He had a tremendous season in 2018 after arriving as a fourth-round pick in ’17. His last two seasons have been subpar. “He was supremely disappointing,” one scout said. “I don’t think he’s committed when he approaches the line of scrimmage or that he’s got a willingness to make a one-on-one tackle anymore. He was avoiding tackles in the beginning (of the year).” Added a second scout: “He had that one big year and got paid. Now he’s like shut down. Just really a drop-off.”
9. DeAndre Houston-Carson, Chi (13-3, 419): Strictly a special-teams player for four seasons after arriving as a sixth-round draft choice in 2017. Played far more from scrimmage this year than he ever has before. “He showed he could be more than a special-teams guy,” one scout said. “He actually showed some coverage ability on tight ends. Has a little bit of range against the run. Kind of an exciting guy.”
10. Camryn Bynum, Minn (14-3, 211): A four-year starter at cornerback for Cal but was moved to safety by the Vikings. Showed enough in three starts at midseason to thrust himself into contention for a starting job in year 2. “He’ll take over next year,” said one scout. “He’s got upside. He didn’t look very good in preseason but he played those two games and looked good. He’s got range and ball skills.”
Others, in order: Deon Bush, Chi (14-4, 377); Dean Marlowe, Det (16-9, 700); C.J. Moore, Det (17-1, 158); Henry Black, GB (17-0, 262); Josh Metellus, Minn (16-0, 54); Marqui Christian, Chi (17-1, 126).
1. Cairo Santos, Chi: Kicking in windy Soldier Field, he made 26 of 30 field goals and 27 of 28 extra points. “The guy’s been pretty damn accurate,” said one special-teams coach. “He’s gonna make it. He doesn’t have the biggest leg but he’s been really solid kicking field goals. He’s put that problem behind the Bears.”
2. Mason Crosby, GB: The 15-year veteran made merely 25 of 34 field goals and 49 of 51 extra points. “A veteran guy like that, I think he just said, ‘F--- it, some of this stuff is out of my control. I’m just gonna be me,’” said one coach. “When he’s him, he’s pretty good. Those other two guys (snapper, holder) screwed him up. If I had to have one kick, I’m taking Crosby of these guys. It’s hard to do that with his stats … I know.”
3. Greg Joseph, Minn: Was signed off the street in February 2021. Made 33 of 38 fields and 36 of 40 extra points. “I just never felt good about that guy being my long-term answer,” said one coach. “To me, he’s a stop-gap guy. The jury’s still out.”
4. Riley Patterson, Det: When Austin Seibert went down at midseason, he finished the season in style by making 13 of 14 field goals and all 16 extra points. Punter Jack Fox kicked off. “He might be good but his body of work is so little I can’t say he is good,” said one coach. “And he gets to kick indoors. I have a hard time giving anybody any accolades if they don’t kick off.”
1. Jack Fox, Det: Ranked second in gross punt average (49.2 yards), sixth in net (42.3). “He’s got a big leg,” one coach said.
2. Corey Bojorquez, GB: Acquired via trade from the Rams to replace JK Scott shortly before the season, he tied for 12th in gross (46.5) and tied for 18th in net (40.0). “He might have the most talent but his whole career has been up and down,” said one coach. “It’s, ‘Wow, look at that punt.’ Then the next two and it’s, ‘Oh, whatever.’ That’s the way he’s always played.”
3. Patrick O’Donnell, Chi: This was his eighth NFL season. He ranked 15th in gross (46.2), 25th in net (38.5). “He’s really solid,” said one coach. “What he kicks most of the time are those end-over-end punts. He’s not much of a spiral punter. He’s got a good, solid leg but there’s always a ceiling what he’s going to do for you. He’s not a guy that will flip the field. Maybe some of that is because he’s in Chicago and it’s really windy. He knows he’s going to get his foot on the ball with those end-over-end punts. If you took him out there (for a workout) with Bojorquez, it’d be, ‘I want Bojorquez.’ He can kick it from 20 to 20. Where O’Donnell will give you that 44-yard kick just about every time. It’ll be 4.4, 4.45, and we can cover that. And that’s gonna be OK in Chicago. That’s what he is.”
4. Jordan Berry, Minn: In first season for the Vikings, he tied for 12th in gross (46.5) and 14th in net (40.8). “He’s a stopgap guy,” one coach said. “Pittsburgh was happy to get rid of him.”
1. Jakeem Grant, Chi: Acquired via trade from Miami, he tied for second with a 13.9 average on 18 returns. He had just two fair catches. “Absolutely fantastic,” one coach said. “He scares me. He’s one of those guys, I’d like to have him on my team. He doesn’t want to fair catch. Hey, man, that’s right up my alley. Let’s go. I like that kind of guy.”
2. Kalif Raymond, Det: He returned 21 for an 11.2 average with 15 fair catches. Detroit was his fifth team. “He’s been around and I’ve always felt he was pretty good,” said one coach. “He’s not Jakeem Grant but he’s a steady guy that can catch the ball.”
3. Dede Westbrook, Minn: He returned 22 for an 8.3 average and had 18 fair catches. “He was at the Jaguars,” said one coach. “Wouldn’t want him. He’s one of those guys who has one good return in him a year. The rest of the time he’s an 8-yard average guy.”
4. Amari Rodgers, GB: He returned 20 for an 8.3 average and had eight fair catches. “No speed,” said one coach. “Doesn’t really have a top end (speed). Solid catcher. He’s probably good in Green Bay catching the ball. What I’ve seen he makes good decisions. I don’t know if he’s thick or he’s pudgy.”
1. Kene Nwangwu, Minn: The rookie from Iowa State ranked second with a 32.2 average (two touchdowns) on 18 runbacks. “Somebody did a nice job of scouting there,” one coach said. “That guy’s good.”
2. Khalil Herbert, Chi: Trading off with Grant, he tied for seventh with a 24.7 average on 27 returns. “He looked like a pro returner,” said one coach. “I like a guy like that that weighs over 210. He can push the pile a little, too. He’s pretty good.”
3. Godwin Igwebuike, Det: He returned 28 for a 24.9 average, which ranked fourth.
4. Amari Rodgers, GB: He returned 11 for an 18.1 average. “I wouldn’t want him,” said one coach. “I’ve never seen him be impressive. He doesn’t have any long speed. So that’s a problem.”
1. Patrick Scales, Chi: Other than 2017, when he sat out all season with a knee injury, Scales has handled the Bears’ snapping since late 2015. “Not a great cover guy but a really solid snapper,” one coach said. “I’ve liked him ever since he came out of college (Utah State).”
2. Andrew DePaola, Minn: Assumed the job in midseason 2020 after stints with the Buccaneers, Bears and Raiders. “He’s bounced around as a fill-in guy,” one coach said. “He’s OK. You would always try to upgrade.”
3. Scott Daly, Det: Was handed the job last summer after the Lions said good-bye to Don Muhlbach, who held the job for 17 seasons. Daly’s only previous NFL camp was Dallas in 2018.
4. Steven Wirtel, GB: Was signed to the practice squad Sept. 2 before being promoted to replace Hunter Bradley, who was released after eight games. He struggled early, especially on placement snaps, before improving down the stretch. “His snaps have been OK,” said one coach. “Not a great cover guy. He has improved more than Bojorquez (the holder) has. I think Bojorquez misses the spot.”
CORE SPECIAL TEAMERS
1. Deon Bush, S, Chi: A six-year veteran, he totaled nine tackles playing 60% of the snaps in the Bears’ kicking game. “He has been really good,” said one coach. “But he’s probably declining.”
2. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Det: Served as a standout core player for 4 ½ years before becoming a starter on defense in mid-2021. Still led the Lions in the kicking game with 10 tackles despite playing merely 31%. “That guy was a great special-teams player,” one coach said. “He can run and hit.”
3. Jason Cabinda, FB, Det: Played 68% of the snaps, finishing with seven tackles. “He’s a solid guy,” said one coach. “He’s one of those guys you’d be really happy to have on your team. He’s a glue guy. I don’t know if you’d say he was elite as a special teamer.”
4. Dan Chisena, WR, Minn: Played 66% of the snaps, finishing with three tackles. “He’s a former track athlete (at Penn State) with size,” said one scout. “He relies on his speed and effort to make plays. Can outrun doubles on the outside. Solid tackler.”
5. Oren Burks, LB, GB: Played 78% of the snaps, finishing with nine tackles. “He’s going to give you the same production every day,” one coach said. “He is not a fast guy. He’s just a solid, pretty thick guy. He’ll do his job and be pretty good and maybe help somebody next to him. You’d like to have him on your team, but if he isn’t you’re not really going to lose a lot of production.”