PFF: Young, Smith, Cook join Jennings as NFC North 'secret superstars'

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PFF: Young, Smith, Cook join Jennings as NFC North 'secret superstars'

Pro Football Focus is currently running a series on the "Secret Superstars" of the NFL. Players who performed better than the media or even the numbers said were dubbed as the secret stars of their respective teams. Last week the NFC North was broken down, and Bears Insider John Mullin wrote his story on cornerback Tim Jennings being named the Bears unknown star.

Here is a look at the rest of the division, and who Pro Football Focus named as each team's behind-the-scenes superstar.

Detroit Lions: Willie Young, DE

With all the star power on the Lions' defensive line, Willie Young had to fight to even make a roster spot in 2010. The sixth round draft pick was inactive for all but two games his rookie season, but Turk McBride's off-season departure bumped Young up to the No. 4 defensive end in 2011, behind Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson.

And Young made the most of his time on the field, as PFF notes "of all 4-3 defensive ends with at least 100 pass rushes, Young had the fourth highest Pass Rushing Productivity Rating (13.4)." In other words, Young knows how to get to the quarterback. He recorded 3.0 sacks in 2011, and could be in line for an even bigger role in 2012 alongside defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

Green Bay Packers: D.J. Smith, ILB

Packers' inside linebacker A.J. Hawk has been one of the few draft busts under Ted Thompson, but the general manager, like the Lions,also may have struck gold in the sixth round.

The 5-foot-11 linebacker was considered undersized coming out of Appalachian State last year, and was assumed to play a role on special teams more than anything defensively for the Packers. With starters Desmond Bishop and Hawk manning the 3-4 defense, the rookie Smith played zero defensive snaps until Week 12 against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Including that Week 12 game, Smith recorded 33 tackles and an interception in four consecutive starts.

Thompson and the Packers have been reluctant to part ways with Hawk, but Smith's impressive showing last year could force Green Bay's hand to insert him in the starting lineup.

Minnesota Vikings: Chris Cook, CB

Knee injuries cost the 2010 second round draft pick a decent amount of his rookie season, but Cook came back strong in 2011. PFF noted one play in particular, when Cook broke up a Matthew Stafford pass intended for Calvin Johnson late in the fourth quarter. That contest, which PFF called Cook's "coming out party," saw the second year cornerback allow just three catches on six targets, and two passes defended.

Cook was arrested for domestic assault during the year and was dismissed by the team, but he seems to have his legal troubles behind him. He is expected to enter the season as one of two Vikings' starting cornerbacks, and at 6-foot-2 will be valuable in defending the likes of Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Brandon Marshall.

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

In just the last three NFL seasons the Bears have changed every significant skill position on the offensive side of the ball. Gone are quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and tight end Martellus Bennett.

It's a new era in Chicago for more reasons than one, and Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King shared his thoughts on what that might look like in his latest NFL Power Rankings.

King has the Bears ranked 28th, ahead of just the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. But he's optomistic on a few fronts.

  • Free-agent signing Mike Glennon is grinding his teeth over the drafting of QB Mitchell Trubisky (second pick in the draft), and he has one season to stake his claim for the job. (I wouldn’t be optimistic in the Glennon household.)
  • Second-round tight end Adam Shaheen will step in early in a prominent offensive role.
  • The starting quarterbacks from 2016—Jay Cutler and Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley—were all let go, an odd development for a team that retains the same coach, offensive coordinator and GM
  • At quarterback, I don’t just assume that Glennon/Trubisky will automatically be better than what Chicago had last year. Thankfully, running back Jordan Howard came out of nowhere (the 2015 fifth round) to gain 1,313 yards, to rank a stunning second in the NFL. It’s vital he doesn’t have a sophomore slump. In short, I can’t see the Bears being .500 unless one of the quarterbacks emerges as a top 20 passer by early in the season.
  • Most important factor to this team this year: Of course it’s the quarterback race between Glennon and Trubisky. That one’s too obvious. There’s another one. Kevin White was the seventh pick of the 2015 draft. In two years, he’s played four of 32 games, caught zero touchdown passes, and had zero impact. This is the year the Bears have to see some degree of explosiveness and/or competence out of a player drafted ahead of Vic Beasley, Melvin Gordon and Marcus Peters.
  • Bears prediction of 10 words or less: Trubisky is the quarterback by Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter.

King's final thought might be his most interesting. Trubisky starting by Thanksgiving would put the Bears in Week 12. Quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone doesn't seem intent on delegating any starting duties out in the preseason, but perhaps that would change as the season moves along. Shaheen will be asked to do plenty of learning and growing in his first season, while it's clear White needs a breakout season after the Bears moved on from Jeffery in the offseason.

Bears QB coach Dave Ragone doesn't mind this type of turnover

Bears QB coach Dave Ragone doesn't mind this type of turnover

John Fox hates drama within his locker room. Through his first two seasons, it's one of two things we've definitely learned (see departures like Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett, trading hubris for harmony). The other thing is his hiding lineups and injuries from the media as best as possible.

With first round pick Mitch Trubisky spending a good chunk of last week in Los Angeles for NFL-mandated rookie events, he returns, now full-time, into the quarterbacks room with the man brought in to start this season, Mike Glennon. Veterans Mark Sanchez and Connor Shaw will provide the sidebars. But it's Glennon who'll have to ignore a sense of déjà vu. Not feeling this is his Jameis Winston 2.0 all over again, as much as the blueprint indicates that's exactly what it is.

Perhaps more so than offensive cooridnator Dowell Loggains, it's quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone who will be in charge of taking the room's temperature. But he truly believes he won't be preoccupied with that as the Bears take the field this week for OTAs.

"It's one of those things, within a quarterback room, about helping the starter, getting that starter ready to play,"  Ragone said two Fridays ago, following the first day of rookie minicamp in Lake Forest. "For anyone who's ever been in that room, egos are not egos when there's a starting quarterback, then the guys behind him.

"Mike's a professional, as well as Mark and Connor. Mike's done a good job of not just embedding himself within the system, but with his teammates. The draft was over, he came in Monday, we went in the classroom and Mike was asking questions about protections. It was as professional as you could imagine."

On Tuesday Glennon will speak publicly for the first time since Trubisky's name was called April 27. The workouts are still non-contact, only in jersey tops and shorts, and an opportunity to see how well the system and rhythm with new receivers is grasped, and how snaps are split.

"It is our job, at the end of the day, to get the starter ready, and obviously getting everybody else feeling ready to play. So we'll figure that out as time progresses," Ragone said.

We'll have to wait until late July and August for a cleaner measure of how practice time is split up, and even then the priority is to get Glennon ready for 2017. But last weekend was Ragone's first chance to see Trubisky on the field, on Halas Hall property.  And he liked the way the signal caller of the future handled the most basic of basics.

"Just calling the system, the new plays, getting out there and having 11 guys line up where they're supposed to, being in charge of that. It's all a process," he said. "Every quarterback is different. They all have different strengths, different weaknesses. So when is a guy ready? When can he play? That doesn't even enter my thought process. To me it's getting each guy – a veteran or a rookie – coached to how we want them, get them ready to play, and then, obviously, playing to their strengths when they're on the field."

So just as he did waiting his turn at North Carolina, the plan (which can always change) is to have Trubisky needing to master "mental reps" for the third time in four years.

"When you're not in, getting the physical rep, mentally you have to go through those exact same mechanics:  How you view the defense, what you're seeing from the back end, where you would go with the football," Ragone said. "If you're not getting that physical rep, that's what you have to do. It'll be the same for everybody that way."

It's not like Trubisky is a stranger to Ragone, who stays close to coaches at his prep alma mater, St. Ignatius High School outside of Cleveland. When the Bears' interest in Trubisky intensified, it brought him back to a 2012 state playoff game between Ignatius and Mentor High School. A triple-overtime, 57-56 loss. Trubisky threw for 411 yards, and ran for 138 more.

"I've known about Mitchell since high school. My high school coaches still have scars of what he was able to do against them his senior year. I think every highlight that gets shown, that's against my high school, so we have a rule, we don't talk about that. It's like Fight Club in the quarterback room."

And with the signing of Glennon and the drafting of Trubisky, the quarterback move in between - of signing free agent Mark Sanchez through much local wailing and gnashing of teeth – now gains more clarity.

"This early on you can feel his being in different buildings, his presence about that," Ragone said. "His ability to relate things, from a personal side and professional side, and you can see the interaction he's already had with Mike and Connor. Those are invaluable. He's been through a lot in a nine-year career.  

"He's a very talented individual and has a lot of experience to draw from. He was a top 5 pick in a big media market (New York) in which he was asked to play (helping the Jets reach the AFC Championship game each of his first two years). He was also asked to play as a veteran, so telling Mike, 'Hey, I saw this…I did this.' To me, he's been a great asset so far."

So Ringmaster Ragone has more excitement than dread about that quarterback room's energy, experience and potential. And he's more interested in serving them than policing them, all with a great sense of respect for whom he's spending all that time with.

"Every quarterback I've been able to coach at this level has been an honor," he said. "I understand being a quarterback at this level. At the end of the day, there aren't many of them. You do the quick math, there's less than 100 that play at this level. I hold that with a very high esteem when you're the top of your position in what you do."