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


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.

How Cubs offense plans to approach Indians pitching in World Series

How Cubs offense plans to approach Indians pitching in World Series

CLEVELAND - The Cubs obviously aren't going to share specifics on their gameplan against the Cleveland Indians pitching staff, but the overall approach remains the same.

The Indians are blowing away the competition with a 1.77 ERA in the postseason, striking out 81 batters in 71 innings and tossing three shutouts in eight games.

The Cubs offense sent a new franchise record for postseason futility by going 21 straight innings without scoring a run during the middle of a tense National League Championship Series only to break out and plate 23 runs in three games since to send the Dodgers back to Los Angeles and an early winter.

Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell were struggling in particular, combining for only three hits in the first seven postseason games before exploding for 13 hits in the final three games.

"It really wasn't physical at all," Cubs hitting coach John Mallee said. "When you struggle a little bit, usually it's because the pitcher's making pitches that are just executing very well and then you try to change things or try to do too much and then you start chasing out of the strike zone and those types of things.

"Like anybody, they want to do well for their team and then they start to press and that's what slumps are - just pressing. And then with them getting a couple hits and squaring some balls up, all of a sudden the confidence comes back and they feel better again."

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Mallee believes Rizzo and Russell getting hot created a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup and the Cubs suddenly got back to their "pass the baton" ways that helped net 103 wins and the No. 3-ranked offense in the majors.

As veteran catcher Miguel Montero said after the Cubs' second straight shutout loss in Game 3 of the NLCS, everybody needs to just focus on doing one good thing and then passing it on to the next guy.

"It's nine on one," Mallee said. "As an individual, you feel like you're letting your team down if you don't get a hit. Pass the baton. You can have a good at-bat even if you make an out if you saw seven pitches on the guy. 

"It's the nine-on-one mentality. Just pass the baton to the next guy. Not trying to think you have to do it all yourself."

Mallee also pointed out how much different everything is in the postseason. There are no fifth starters and in some cases, there aren't even any fourth starters.

Teams are throwing their top starters and relievers as much as possible, bringing typical late-inning guys like Indians star Andrew Miller in during the fifth inning and utilizing them for more than three outs.

"You're facing their best guys all the time," Mallee said. "You're facing better pitching: These are the better teams and you're facing the best of the better pitching."

The Cubs also aim to come out firing against the Indians with an eye on getting on the board first.

The team that scored first won eight of the Cubs' 10 postseason games, including all six in the NLCS.

"Overall, it's just to win this series - like every other - score first and win innings," manager Joe Maddon said. "You need to get on top and not have to face their better [relievers] at the end of the ballgame, otherwise you're going to be in trouble."

Cubs see Kyle Schwarber looming as potential World Series hero

Cubs see Kyle Schwarber looming as potential World Series hero

CLEVELAND — Even as the Cubs went through their World Series workout and media-day responsibilities here, team officials kept their eyes on Kyle Schwarber in the Arizona Fall League, watching his at-bats on a live video feed from their spring-training complex.

The Cubs clearly didn’t use Schwarber as a distraction for their anxious fan base or a misdirection play against the Cleveland Indians. This is all about maximizing the chance to win the franchise’s first world championship since 1908 — and the Cubs believe Schwarber’s thunderous left-handed swing could be the X-factor.

Schwarber planned to fly to Cleveland on Monday after going 1-for-3 with a double, a walk and a run scored for the Mesa Solar Sox, another giant step in his recovery from what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.

“He looked really good,” said team president Theo Epstein, mentioning that Schwarber did the necessary running/sliding/diving drills pregame — and then hit a ball with 110-mph exit velocity.

The rotating images on the big video board at Progressive Field even showed a dummy Game 1 lineup with Schwarber batting ninth as the designated hitter against Corey Kluber. It’s a long way from the Arizona Fall League to facing a Cy Young Award winner, especially after going more than six months without seeing live pitching. But if anyone can do it, well, the Cubs would never bet against Schwarber.

“He’s a pretty special person and a special hitter,” Epstein said.

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One week ago, Dr. Daniel Cooper, the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL, surprisingly green-lighted a return to baseball activities. The Cubs had been focused on getting Schwarber ready for winter ball and Opening Day 2017, a more realistic timeline after that brutal outfield collision with Dexter Fowler on April 7.

The Cubs still won 103 games — even with Schwarber making only five plate appearances during the regular season and spending his time working on scouting reports, analyzing video and observing in the draft room.

“We’ve seen first-hand the work that he’s putting in and how hard he’s been going,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Honestly, I saw him out — maybe a couple weeks after his surgery — and he’s moving around, walking. And I’m like: ‘Dang, this guy’s not human. How? I saw your leg bend in half, and you’re walking around. This is unbelievable.’

“(It’s) watching him dripping with sweat every single day. Every single day, this guy is drenched. I feel like he’s in the best shape of his life (now). There was no doubt in my mind that he could do it. It was just a matter of if they let him.”

Schwarber is such a presence that Cubs executives left their seats and moved to the back of their Wrigley Field suite on Saturday night to watch his at-bats on the Sloan Park SpyCam — even as the best team in baseball eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers from the National League Championship Series and won the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years.

Everyone around the Cubs remembers how Schwarber starred during that wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ball he smashed off the St. Louis Cardinals onto the top of a Wrigley Field video board, putting up five homers and a 1.308 OPS during last year’s playoffs, which happened to be the end of his first full season in professional baseball.

“You see when he gets introduced how much everybody loves him,” Game 2 starter Jake Arrieta said. “He’s a legend already at such a young age. That’s awesome. It just speaks to the importance of what he was able to do last year for us.

“I think he’s going to be here. He wouldn’t have been playing in the Fall League if they weren’t seriously considering him being here. And not having to put him in the field is huge. If he hits a ball over the fence, he can trot around the bases. If he happens to line out or ground out, then he can just kind of jog to first.

“That just speaks to how special of a bat he is — and how hard he worked these past six months to put himself in the position to be ready to play in the World Series.”

At the age of 23, Schwarber is positioned to become yet another young Cub who wants to own this October. Jason McLeod — the senior vice president of scouting and player development heavily involved in the decision to draft Schwarber with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft — joked about how Fowler’s one-year, $13 million deal came together during this unreal year.

“We have to one-up Dexter’s entrance into spring training,” McLeod said.