Scouting the NFL: NFC North Players To Watch in 2015

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. He starts with identifying which NFC North players to watch in 2015.

Chicago Bears

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Adrian Amos Jeremy Langford / Ka’Deem Carey Antrel Rolle Kyle Fuller Kyle Long

The Bears open 2015 with a new coach (John Fox), a new defensive system and coordinator (Vic Fangio), and a determination to put last season’s 5-11 record behind them. First on the priority list is improving the -123 point differential. The Rookie Who Is Needed Early for the Bears is safety Adrian Amos, a fifth round pick out of Penn State, who has ascended to the top of the depth chart after a string of impressive performances this preseason, especially in joint practices against the Indianapolis Colts. Amos, with experience at both cornerback and safety, has exceptional speed but questions about his tackling dropped him down draft boards. The Bears are hoping his competitive toughness will translate on game day.

However, Fangio might find that starting safety Antrel Rolle is the Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The longtime New York Giants safety has made a career out of tough coverage in the slot and capable work in run support, but few safeties remain impact players into their 30s. The Bears and Fangio desperately need Rolle’s leadership and help in developing Amos, and must hope that he has one more good season in the tank.

The most Intriguing Player Player To Study is Kyle Fuller. After an up and down rookie campaign, Fuller will be the unquestioned #1 corner following the release of veteran Tim Jennings. Additionally, the transition from Mel Tucker’s Cover 2 scheme to the complex mixed zone coverages favored by Fangio means Fuller has to adapt and fit the new system. But increased responsibilities and a scheme change shouldn’t affect his ability to make plays like this:

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The Bears also need one of their recent fourth round running backs, 2014’s Ka’Deem Carey or 2015’s Jeremy Langford, to Develop Quickly. Matt Forte is entering the final year of his contract and it appears this could be his final season in the Windy City. Having one of these young rushers assert themselves in the rotation – and give the heavily-used Forte a break once in a while – would be a welcome development for the Bears front office.

Finally, third-year guard Kyle Long is one player to be Excited About An Expanded Role. A strong training camp has sparked talk he could be shifted outside to tackle, where he excelled at the University of Oregon. The Bears ability to protect the passer has been a constant issue in recent years and the glaring hole at RT has been evident throughout the preseason. Having Long grow into a crucial spot in the Bears’ line would go a long way to stabilizing the unit.

Detroit Lions

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Alex Carter Kyle Van Noy / LaAdrian Waddle Haloti Ngata Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah Caraun Reid

The Lions hope to improve upon last season’s first round exit from the playoffs and capture their first division title since 1993, which would also be their first NFC crown since the 2002 realignment.

Detroit’s offseason was filled with stories about departures from the defensive line, which creates Excitement About An Expanded Role for former Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid, 2014’s fifth round pick. The young lineman has blossomed under the tutelage of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and his assistant, Jim Washburn. The scheme favored by these coaches, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, features a “stop the run on the way to the QB” mantra, and Reid’s talents fit their one gap, penetrating system very well.

Key to Austin’s plans is the Most Intriguing To Study player on the Lions: third-year defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. A raw prospect coming out of BYU – where he played mostly in a four-point stance in a two-gap system – has incredible raw athletic ability. After recording 7.5 sacks in 2013 and 8 more in 2014, the Lions will be keen to see how Ansah performs when he’s the focus of opponent’s game plans, and not “third” on their list of worries. The departed Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley drew a lot of attention that will now go toward Ansah. However, watching Ansah on tape, it is easy to see why Austin and the Lions think Ansah will cope with the extra attention just fine:

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Part of the defensive line succession plan involved trading for Baltimore Ravens stalwart Haloti Ngata, a Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. Ngata missed time last season because of suspension for taking Adderall, and will be 32 before the playoffs begin. The immovable object was deemed expendable in Baltimore because of his contract situation, and some film from last season shows that Ngata has become a “pocket pusher,” reliant on his strength to win matchups. If his burst and quickness are gone, he may be a poor fit for Detroit on passing downs because strength alone is not enough to beat most guards.

Rookie cornerback Alex Carter, a third-round selection, is the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. Unfortunately, Carter will start the year on IR-Return, meaning he will miss at least half the season. Veteran Rashean Mathis is 35 and still capable of average play, but the Lions need Carter to compete for playing time when he recovers, both to keep Mathis fresh down the stretch and to have a succession plan in place for next year. Carter compiled some interesting tape at Stanford, with one of the concerns being his short-area quickness (poor times in the 3-cone and 10-yard dash drills at the NFL Combine) and ability to run with NFL receivers. However, his size, competitive toughness and play intelligence are a solid starting point, especially with Mathis as a mentor.

Meanwhile, linebacker Kyle Van Noy is one of the Players Who Need To Develop Quickly for the Detroit defense after a lost rookie season. Incumbent starter Tahir Whitehead is a player you can win with, in the right matchup, but his upside is limited and would be better off as a situational option. Van Noy, a 2014 second round pick, never got his feet under him after a training camp injury and had just six tackles in limited action. If he cannot beat out Whitehead for the majority of snaps, the Lions will have a harder time generating enough pressure on the QB.

Third year offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle also needs to shake off last season’s discouraging performances and injuries to stabilize the right side of the line. The knee injury that ended last season kept him out of the first weeks of training camp and he’ll need to knock off the rust quickly.

Green Bay Packers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Jake Ryan Richard Rodgers / Datone Jones Julius Peppers Nick Perry Casey Hayward

The NFC finalist Packers come into 2015 determined to overcome their devastating playoff loss to Seattle. Tight end Richard Rodgers is the Player Who Needs To Develop Quickly on offense, providing a big target in the middle of the field the way that Jermichael Finley once did for Green Bay. Becoming a more consistent threat in the passing game, and refining his blocking technique, Rodgers would help the Green Bay offense continue to be one of the most diverse and successful attacks in the league. The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection could be fruitful for the Packers, as evidenced by this play:

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Meanwhile, third-year defensive end, and former first-round selection, Datone Jones is testing fans’ patience after two inconsistent seasons and a suspension for an offseason marijuana arrest. While he did start three games last season, Jones recorded just 1.5 sacks, two fewer than his rookie campaign. Drafted as a 3-4 defensive end, Jones is somewhere between fourth and seventh on the depth chart. Because of the suspension, he is not in danger of being cut – yet. But the clock is ticking.

On the other end of the line from Jones is 35-year-old Julius Peppers – a Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline. The pass rusher did successfully transition to outside linebacker last season and posted similar statistics to those in his final season with the Bears as a defensive end. However, there are signs on tape that Peppers may have lost half a step and is no longer as explosive as he has been. For all pass rushers there comes a time where that first step no longer gets you the space you need, and Peppers might be in for a rough season.

The Packers’ biggest issue resides in their linebacking corps. Last season, injuries and ineffectiveness forced former All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside, where he performed ably. However, Matthews can have the most impact in his natural position, rushing the passer and setting the edge.

Nick Perry is the team’s Most Intriguing Player To Study because if the fourth year outside linebacker can harness his talent, Matthews will stay inside. However, Perry cannot stay healthy and does not translate his athletic ability to the field on game day, often losing out in 1-on-1 situations. Banged up in training camp already, time is running out for the pass rusher to seize the job.. Meanwhile, fourth round pick Jake Ryan is the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. A former Michigan man, Ryan can kick Matthews back outside – if the youngster can master Dom Capers’s system. The inside linebacker has a nose for the ball and is a sure tackler, but questions surround his ability to hold up in pass coverage. The Packers are better off with Matthews outside, pressuring the passer, but it will require one of these two – Perry or Ryan – to force a decision.

Fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward is the player to be most Excited About An Expanded Role, as he moves back into the starting lineup after last year’s successful return from an injury sustained in 2013. The defensive back has excellent ball skills, intercepting six passes his rookie season and three more from the slot last year. The depth at the position is enviable; the Packers have six players, including two rookies, pushing for playing time in the secondary. If Hayward builds upon the player we saw in 2012, the Green Bay pass defense figures to improve.

Minnesota Vikings

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Eric Kendricks Matt Kalil /

Kyle Rudolph

Brian Robison TJ Clemmings Charles Johnson

It starts up front for the Minnesota Vikings and head coach Mike Zimmer, now in year two of the Teddy Bridgewater era. The Most Intriguing To Study player for the Vikings is TJ Clemmings, a fourth-round pick in May and a likely opening day starter at right tackle after Phil Loadholt’s season-ending injury. Clemmings has only played on the offensive line for three seasons after being converted from the defensive line while at the University of Pittsburgh. The rookie will inherit a lot of responsibility, and it will be fascinating to watch him develop as an offensive tackle this season. Concerns about his injury history in college dropped his draft stock, and being forced into a starting role may not give him the time needed to develop his technique.

On the other end of the line, left tackle Matt Kalil is one of the Players Who Need To Develop Quickly. The former fourth overall pick in 2012, Kalil has been a reliable starter for the Vikings, but his play on the field has left something to be desired, as he was one of the worst-performing starters at LT in the NFL last season. The fourth-year player will soon be looking for a contract extension, and the Vikings will want to lock him up, but only if he shows that last season was a bump in the road and not a sign that he’s maxed out his potential.

The other player Minnesota needs to show improvement this season is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has seen his targets and catches decline for two consecutive seasons after a breakout 2013 campaign. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner likely wants to use the tight end more than last season, and Rudolph needs to show improved health and production to make the offense click. When healthy, Rudolph can be depended upon to make plays like this one, invaluable to a young quarterback:

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Another player Excited For An Expanded Role in Turner’s offense is wide receiver Charles Johnson, who worked his way up the depth chart since being drafted by the Packers in the seventh round of the 2013 draft. Johnson has followed Turner from the Cleveland Browns practice squad to Minnesota. Johnson, who is a lanky 6’2”, displayed big play ability last season, averaging 15.3 yards per catch and seizing the starting job late in the season. More playing time could make this former Grand Valley State player into a household name by season’s end.

On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Eric Kendricks is the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. A second-round pick in May, Kendricks is second on the official team depth chart, but observers expect the UCLA product to soon overtake incumbent Audie Cole in the middle of the defense. Zimmer’s defensive scheme produces lots of tackle opportunities for the middle linebacker and Kendricks will be asked to do more than a typical second rounder if he’s the starting MLB Week 1.

Meanwhile, defensive end Brian Robison is the Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline after a 2014 campaign that saw his production decline across the board. The 32-year-old dipped to just 4.5 sacks last season after three consecutive years of 8 or more. The edge rusher seems to have lost a half-step on tape, and is no longer winning the majority of his one-on-one matchups. Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards will need to monitor the veteran closely, possibly using more of a rotation to keep Robison’s legs fresh as the season wears on.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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