For every team, in every season, there’s a new guy that can make a huge difference. Here are my picks to change the fortunes of all thirty-two teams.
Up first, the NFC North
Impact Addition: Tight End Cole Kmet
Chicago Arrival: Draft, 2nd round, 43rd pick from Notre Dame
Yes, yes, the Bears picked up Super-sub QB Nick Foles in free agency, and veteran tight end pass catcher Jimmy Graham as well, but I have a hunch that Kmet is the player that will make some waves.
I don’t think that Chicago brought Foles in to be QB1. I think he got brought in as a motivational factor and emergency plan, should Trubisky’s inexplicable slide continue. Graham is a pass catching vet, but he’s toward the back end of his career and his stints in both Seattle and Green Bay were both disappointing. The Bears defense was among the league’s best last season, so returning to contention in the NFC North will be more about getting the offense, and specifically Mitchell Trubisky, back on track.
The key to doing getting back on track will be finding a reliable connection that can help keep Trubisky calm when the pressure is on (think Brady to Gronk in New England). Kmet can do exactly that, especially if deployed in a two tight end set that will put the opposing defense’s focus on Graham. Cole Kmet wasn’t a primary option at Notre Dame, but he was exceptionally productive when targeted, averaging twelve yards per catch on forty-three receptions with a dozen touchdowns for the Fighting Irish. That potential, paired with his plus blocking abilities in the run game, will make him a standout factor for the Bears on offense in 2020.
Impact Addition: Edge Rusher Julian Okwara
Detroit Arrival: Draft, 3rd round, 67th pick from Notre Dame
The Lions had a bunch of needs headed into this season, but chief among those might be the ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Only the lowly Dolphins sacked quarterbacks less than Detroit, whose defensive unit could muster only 1.8 sacks per game.
Okwara might have been a huge steal in round three, as the Notre Dame defensive lineman simply crackles with potential at the next level. His breakout 2018 season in college was impressive, as he racked up 8 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, setting expectations sky high for his 2019 senior season. A broken fibula (ouch) shortened the season, but Okwara still racked up 5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss in only eight full games. He has the type of burst and athleticism that will make him hard to contain regardless of scheme.
I expect Okwara be used situationally early on as he recovers from the broken bone, but assuming the rehab goes as planned, I expect he’ll provide Matt Patricia’s defense with exactly the kind of spark they need to get out of the basement.
Green Bay Packers
Impact Addition: Wide Receiver Devin Funchess
Green Bay Arrival: Free Agency- Colts
I’ll be clear. I don’t like what Green Bay did in free agency, and I absolutely hated their draft. So, it’s a matter of splitting hairs here.
Funchess might be a bright spot because he will give the Packers receiving corps some much needed veteran savvy. Funchess was a monster in his first few seasons, averaging over fifteen yards per catch, even as Cam Newton’s second favorite target in Carolina. He missed all but one game in 2019 for the Colts with a broken collar bone suffered in September, but he should be raring to go when the season starts.
I’d love to tell you that the Packers added a monster run-stuffing defender to shore up that porous rush defense, but they’ve added only rotational defenders in free agency and drafted primarily on offense through the first several rounds. Unless fifth-rounder Kamal Martin blows our doors off, Funchess is the guy who can make the most difference. If Aaron Rodgers has options, the Packers have a chance.
Impact Addition: Cornerback Jeff Gladney
Minnesota Arrival: Draft, 1st round, 31st pick from TCU
First off, Minnesota was very quiet in free agency, hoping to retain both the core and the chemistry of this 2019 playoff team. So, that leaves the draft, and I know what you’re thinking: WR Justin Jefferson from LSU is sure to make more noise than cornerback Jeff Gladney, right?
First off, Jefferson will replace the departed Stefon Diggs and equaling his production will be tough, especially since he’ll be deployed alongside Adam Thielen, who’s done the heavy lifting between the twenties in Minnesota’s offense the past few seasons.
Secondly, Jeff Gladney is just what the doctor ordered for a secondary that has become pretty mediocre over the past two seasons. Minnesota was the only passing defense among playoff teams that allowed opponents to complete more than 65% of their passes in 2019, and they ranked 27th in the league by that metric. Worse yet, Minnesota allowed the second-highest passing first down percentage in the league at 64.84%. Only Tampa Bay was worse.
Gladney should be able to infuse some quickness and enthusiasm to that listless unit from day one. He’s a smaller (5’10”, 191 Lbs) corner who excels at press coverage and mirroring speedy wideouts. He hauled in five interceptions in his time at TCU (with a number of drops), but his return game is crazy, averaging over 25 return yards per interception. Don’t be shocked to see him take one to the house. He’s also increased his passes defended totals every season, finishing with 14 in 2019. He’ll need to brush up on his open field tackling as he’s taken some bad lines in college, but overall, he’s a pro-ready corner that should impact Minnesota’s playoff chances from day one.
For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.
Image Source: AP Images