We've focused plenty of attention on the biggest NFC North additions and losses in our off-season report cards this week. But let's shift gears a bit and discuss which player is the most underrated addition to the NFC North. SI.com nearly agreed across the board on this one: the Bears' signing WR Eddie Royal was overshadowed by the loss of Brandon Marshall and the signing of Pernell McPhee, but Royal has a huge chance to make a splash when he's reunited with QB Jay Cutler.
And since it's a holiday weekend, we're going to throw in a bonus question: In honor of Doug Farrar's Silver Screen All-Pros, what's your favorite football movie?
Don Banks: Eddie Royal, WR, Chicago Bears—It feels like Royal has been around forever, but the proven and productive eighth-year veteran just turned 29 in May, and he’s getting better as he ages. Fifteen of Royal’s 25 career touchdown catches came over the course of the past two seasons in San Diego (seven last year and eight in 2013), and it bears noting that his career-best performance came in his rookie season of '08 in Denver, when he hung up 91 receptions for 980 yards and five touchdowns with Jay Cutler as his quarterback. It can’t hurt Chicago’s inconsistent passing game to re-unite that tandem in the Windy City.
Royal signed a three-year deal with the Bears in March, and while his acquisition wasn’t a top-shelf get in free agency, Chicago had a crying need for a play-making slot receiver to draw some of the pass coverage away from No. 1 target Alshon Jeffery, especially in light of the Bears trading Brandon Marshall to the Jets. With promising first-round receiver Kevin White lined up opposite of Jeffery, Cutler should be able to feed Royal early and often in the intermediate passing game, stretching defenses and creating matchup problems for opposing teams.
Favorite football movie—Brian’s Song. (“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees to pray, please ask God to love him, too.’’)
Chris Burke: Alan Ball, CB, Chicago Bears—Going back to the well here—Ball was one of three "underrated" cornerbacks I mentioned way back in our March free-agency primers. And if Ball is as healthy as he says he is after tearing his biceps last season, there's no reason to back down from that assessment.
Chicago does have Tim Jennings and Kyle Fuller as its projected top-two CBs, but with little reliable depth behind them. Ball helps solve that problem and he also stands as a sub-package option if the Bears opt to use Jennings in the slot. Veteran Tracy Porter could fill the nickel role himself, but he's been unable to stay healthy.
The 2013 version of Ball was an every-down defender for Jacksonville who held up even in very difficult matchups. A one-year, $3 million for a player with Ball's capabilities is a potential steal. He'll make more than that next season if he gets an extended look in 2015.
Favorite football movie—Does Ace Ventura count as a football movie? If not, I'll take Remember the Titans.
Doug Farrar: Eddie Royal, WR, Bears—Royal caught 62 passes for 778 yards and seven touchdowns for the Chargers in 2014, and he's got a shot at matching those numbers—and increasing his value—in Chicago's offense. Why? Because Royal is a great slot receiver, and the Bears didn't get real production out of a pure slot man last year—it was almost always about taking Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and putting them inside. Per Pro Football Focus Royal ranked sixth in the NFL last year with 46 catches, adding 584 yards and four touchdowns along the way.
Because Royal has great speed and route understanding, he'll allow offensive coordinator Adam Gase to devise slot/outside combos with Royal and Jeffery and rookie speedster Kevin White, adding an entirely new dimension for the Bears' passing game. And because Gase was part of Denver's coaching staff during Royal's time with the Broncos from 2009 through 2011 (including a two-year stint as Denver's receivers coach), he has a clear understanding of Royal's attributes, and how he can best be utilized. The reunion with Jay Cutler, who was Royal's quarterback in Denver in 2008 (Royal's first and still most productive season) won't hurt, either.
Chicago signed Royal to a three-year, $15 million deal with $10 million guaranteed, and there's a pretty good chance he's going to make that look like a relative bargain in the long term.
Favorite football movie—Everybody's All-American
Bette Marston: Eddie Royal, WR, Chicago Bears—I almost pinpointed WR Mike Wallace, but the former Dolphins WR was brought to Minnesota under the expectations that he’ll be one of Teddy Bridgewater’s main deep threats. Not quite underrated... which brings us to Royal, the newest member of the Bears receiving corps. Royal quietly had one of his strongest seasons with Philip Rivers and co. in San Diego last year, and, along with No. 7 overall draft pick Kevin White, will be expected to fill in the gaps left by Brandon Marshall’s absence. The veteran receiver grabbed 62 receptions for 778 yards and seven touchdowns, his best statistical season since his rookie season.
This isn't Royal's first dance with Jay Cutler, either—the two played together in Denver during Royal's successful rookie campaign. But no matter the outcome, success may not come that easily—Royal will either be dragged down by Cutler’s shortcomings, or the two will create fireworks. Hopefully under new offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Cutler and Royal can find their stride.
Favorite football movie—I’m going to break the rules and name a TV show: Friday Night Lights. Seriously, you cannot beat Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and high school football in Texas. (And here’s a recap of some of FNL’s best moments, published on SI.com back when the show's final episode aired.)
Amy Parlapiano: Eddie Royal, WR, Chicago Bears— Yes, I'm going to go with the crowd here, and the reasons are fairly obvious: The Bears need a veteran receiver to replace Brandon Marshall, who's now in New York. Royal isn't necessarily a complete game-changer on his own, but he’s coming off a fine year in San Diego, where he racked up 778 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He also has prior experience with both his new quarterback and his new coach—his best statistical season was as a rookie in 2008 in Denver, where he was catching passes from Jay Cutler, and he spent a year under John Fox with the Broncos in 2011. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be a perfect fit with either of them in Chicago, but the familiarity certainly can't hurt. He has good speed and will be a valuable asset in the slot for the Bears, who are in need of an offensive burst this season.
Yes, the absence of Marshall will hurt, but the new tandem of Royal, Alshon Jeffery and rookie WR Kevin White, the No. 7 overall pick in 2015, should give Cutler solid opportunities to make things happen—and he best do that, as Bears fans' patience for any other alternative has expired.
Favorite football movie—Remember The Titans. Doesn’t get much better than the Ain’t No Mountain High Enough locker room scene.