Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
22 Mar 2005
By Michael David Smith
Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: NFC North? You'll find it here.
The Bears' brass identified a veteran backup quarterback as a top priority in free agency, but they appear to have been the last team standing when the music went off. Brad Johnson, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Jay Fiedler, and Gus Frerotte were all candidates to backup Rex Grossman, but all have signed elsewhere. Now the Bears say they may stick with Chad Hutchinson and Craig Krenzel behind Grossman next year. If they bring in another veteran, Jeff Blake appears to be the front-runner.
One development to keep an eye on: The Bears have acquired the rights to Kurt Kittner and allocated him to NFL Europe. New Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner had an unsuccessful reign as head coach at Illinois, but he did have one Big Ten championship season, and that was with Kittner at the helm. Perhaps Turner thinks Kittner can run his offense in the NFL as well. Bears fans, if you get bored this off-season, try to find an Amsterdam Admirals game. Perhaps you'll glimpse your future.
Although the Bears made a big splash by signing wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad right out of the gate, they've done very little since then. Tackle Fred Miller is the only other addition to a team that needs a lot of help on offense. Losing David Terrell and gaining Muhammad is a net positive, but this team needed a lot more than one net positive on offense. Which leads us to...
The consensus among Chicago fans seems to be that the Bears ought to take Michigan's Braylon Edwards with the No. 4 overall pick, adding a young wide receiver with talent to play alongside the experienced Muhammad. Because Edwards ran an adequate but not blazing 40 time, there's now some talk that he might not be quite the catch that teams previously thought. And some folks worry that when you've been bitten once by a Michigan receiver (Terrell), you should be twice shy. Some fans think a running back, such as Cedric Benson of Texas, would be a nice addition to a team that isn't certain it can count on Thomas Jones to carry the load. But the bottom line is that Jones actually played pretty well when you consider the quality of the players around him, and if Edwards is available at the No. 4 spot, the Bears are expected to grab him. If the Bears don't take a receiver in the first round, the incredibly athletic receiver Jerome Mathis of Hampton University would be a possibility in the second.
In 2000, the Bears drafted linebacker Brian Urlacher out of New Mexico State in the first round, and safety Mike Brown out of Nebraska in the second round. Both players made immediate contributions to the defense. The next year, the Bears thought they had a couple of playmakers who would make an immediate difference on the offense when they drafted Terrell and Anthony Thomas, both out of Michigan. Although Thomas had a good rookie season, that draft has to be considered a disappointment, as both picks are trying to find a new team this off-season.
Bears fans probably have more reasons for optimism than most fans of teams coming off three consecutive losing seasons. That's because recent drafts have added a bounty of defensive talent. Alex Brown, a fourth-round choice out of Florida in 2002, had a very productive season last year. The 2003 draft included defensive end Michael Haynes of Penn State, cornerback Charles Tillman of Louisiana-Lafayette, and linebacker Lance Briggs of Arizona. The 2004 draft produced defensive tackles Tommie Harris of Oklahoma and Tank Johnson of Washington in the first two rounds, and good-looking cornerback Nathan Vasher of Texas in the fourth. This team has put together a solid young defense. If Grossman develops and the front office can apply the same skills to building an offense around him, the Bears could be a good team a lot sooner than most people think.
Matt Millen might be learning. In the past he's opened the free-agent period by paying a large amount of money to a player who hadn't shown himself to be an elite at his position, most horribly when he paid a No. 3 receiver, Az Hakim, No. 1 money. This year the Lions have added four fairly significant players but no big-money contracts. Jeff Garcia, signed after one season with the Browns, is considered the backup right now but will compete with Joey Harrington for the starting job. Kenoy Kennedy is an upgrade at strong safety, Marcus Pollard is an upgrade at tight end (although perhaps a little too pricey for a 33-year-old), and Rick DeMulling is an upgrade at left guard. Four players who will improve the team without breaking the bank. Who are you, and what have you done with the real Matt Millen?
The Lions also re-signed center Dominic Raiola, a talented but inconsistent player who was part of Millen's first draft. Because they locked up defensive tackle Shaun Rogers before the season ended, the Lions entered the free agency period with very few players who would be eligible to leave the team. Raiola was the only one they really wanted to keep, and they kept him.
The only significant player the Lions have lost is right tackle Stockar McDougle, who signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins. McDougle was the Lions' first-round pick in 2000, and he was the only player the Lions took in that draft who was still with the team in 2004. It's hard to know how to classify McDougle in terms of his success as a draft pick. On the one hand, you can't call a guy who started 54 games in five years a bust. On the other hand, he's been nothing more than an adequate player, and it's hard to imagine that the Lions would have been any worse without him in recent years.
The Lions will almost certainly use their first-round pick on defense, and they would like one more linebacker to go with 2004 second-round pick Teddy Lehman and 2003 second-round pick Boss Bailey. If they decide to move up a round in their linebacker selection, Derrick Johnson would seem to fit the mold because he has two things Matt Millen loves: athleticism and a big-school pedigree. Those two traits were what Millen liked about Lehman and Bailey, and the three of them would form a versatile group. Most likely, Bailey would play the strong side, Lehman the middle, and Johnson the weak side. But the Lions would have plenty of options. If they don't opt for linebacker, a defensive end is a possibility, and Marcus Spears of LSU, Shawne Merriman of Maryland, or Erasmus James of Wisconsin all could be considered.
If the Lions go with offense in the first round, it might make sense to take an Oklahoma tackle, Jammal Brown, to replace the Oklahoma tackle McDougle, although they'd probably try to trade down if the want Brown, who would be a bit of a reach at No. 10 overall. Finally, there's some talk that the Lions, who took receivers Charles Rogers in 2003 and Roy Williams in 2004, would consider taking yet another receiver this year. With the possibility that Hakim will be released, they'd like to have another option, and the free-agent pool for receivers lacks depth.
The Lions are now made up almost entirely of players brought in by Millen. He has said the Lions were seriously devoid of talent when he arrived, but he's got no excuses now.
In general, Millen takes players from big schools on the first day of the draft and branches out to small schools on the second day. In Millen's four years running the war room, only one player, 2001 second rounder Shaun Rogers, can be labeled an unqualified success. Several players, especially 2003 picks Charles Rogers and Bailey, have shown flashes of talent but haven't been healthy enough to do more than that. The players from Day 1 of the 2004 draft, Roy Williams, Kevin Jones, and Lehman, all look promising. Kelly Butler, the Lions' 2004 sixth rounder, will compete with Victor Rogers to replace McDougle, which raises the question of why the Lions never gave either Butler or Rogers playing time during the season to get a better idea of whether they were up to the task.
The most important move for the Packers wasn't a free-agent signing, it was the announcement that Brett Favre will return for 2005. But the line in front of Favre will have a couple of 300-pound holes in it next season. That's because starting guards Marco Rivera, who made the Pro Bowl, and Mike Wahle, who in my opinion is even better than Rivera, have left for the Cowboys and Panthers, respectively. The Packers held on to guard/center Grey Ruegamer and should get Mike Flanagan back from the injury that cost him most of last season, but there's no doubt that they've gone from one of the league's deepest offensive lines to one of its thinnest.
The Packers' salary cap situation has precluded them from adding many free agents. They did sign guard Adrian Klemm, and let me just say that replacing Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera with Adrian Klemm would be like The Daily Show replacing Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert with Carrot Top. It appears that the Packers will try to fill any holes through the draft and make another run with the group of players already on the roster.
New general manager Ted Thompson will have his first chance to prove himself with the 2005 draft. The biggest criticism of coach Mike Sherman concerns his draft choices, so Thompson knows he needs to get some young players who can contribute right away and make up for the lack of young talent acquired in recent years.
The general consensus seems to be that Thompson will try to upgrade the depleted defense with a player like Oklahoma end Dan Cody, his teammate, safety Brodney Pool, or Georgia safety/linebacker Thomas Davis. Of course, the Packers thought they had upgraded their depleted defense with last year's draft, in which they didn't go for offense until the seventh round. An offensive lineman would make sense, too, but even with the losses of Rivera and Wahle, defense seems to be Thompson's most pressing concern.
There's some talk that the Packers might use a pick on a quarterback to be Brett Favre's heir apparent, but they've done that before with Craig Nall, Aaron Brooks, Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Wachholtz, Jay Barker, Mark Brunell, and Ty Detmer. Maybe the Packers should have used a few of those picks on players who could be on the field with Favre.
The Packers had an outstanding draft in 2000. First-round choice Bubba Franks has been a solid tight end, second-round tackle Chad Clifton has emerged as a very good player, fourth-round linebacker Na'il Diggs is athletic and tough, fifth-round defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is a very good pass rusher, and seventh-round tackle Mark Tauscher was an absolute steal.
Unfortunately, although 2002 picks Javon Walker and Najeh Davenport both look like good choices, the Packers' draft history since 2000 is filled with disappointments. Hunter Hillenmeyer might end up being the best player the Packers selected in 2003, but they let him go in training camp and he signed with the Bears. Last year the rookies who did the most for the Packers were Corey Williams and Scott Wells, and they were the sixth and seventh rounders. Packers fans are still angry that the team spent the 10th pick overall in 2001 on Jamal Reynolds. Sherman lost the GM job for a reason.
The first moves we'll discuss aren't free agent signings, they're trades. The Randy Moss trade has already been discussed in great detail, so all I'll add here is that the trade shows the Vikings are emphasizing a need to upgrade at linebacker and the trade might necessitate drafting a receiver.
The trade that hasn't gotten much attention is the Vikings' shipping a seventh-round pick to the Jets in exchange for linebacker Sam Cowart. It seems like a good move for Minnesota. Although Cowart will cost more against the cap than a seventh-round pick, the Vikings have plenty of cap space, and Cowart, though he's getting old and has a bad knee, can still contribute far more to a defense than any team could reasonably expect from a seventh rounder. He's also yet another guy who has played for Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, and Cottrell likes bringing in the players who have played for him in the past.
It's unclear if Mike Tice has used the cash he got from Super Bowl tickets to entice free agents, but however they're doing it, no team has done more to upgrade its defense than the Vikings. The best signing of the bunch was adding cornerback Fred Smoot, who was one of the best in the league last year with the Redskins. Pair him with Antoine Winfield and you've got one of the best pairs of corners in the league. Smoot is a big improvement for a team whose pass defense was abysmal last year.
The free-agent signings of Darren Sharper and Pat Williams also will help the Vikings' defense. Sharper is an experienced safety who isn't as quick as he used to be but is still good at reading opposing quarterbacks. Williams is a huge defensive tackle who won't do much for the pass rush, but he's tough to move against the run. Did I mention that the Vikings' run defense was abysmal last year, too?
The Vikings talked about replacing Moss with either Plaxico Burress or Rod Gardner, but they settled on signing Travis Taylor. Taylor was the 10th overall pick in the 2000 draft (it's funny to think that he actually went higher in his draft than Moss did in his), and he hasn't lived up to expectations. How much of that is because of the Ravens' lousy quarterbacking and how much of that is because of Taylor's own subpar performance is difficult to judge, but in each of the past two seasons Taylor's DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, explained here) has been below that of the Ravens' other receivers. It's hard to view going from Moss to Taylor as anything but a major decline. The Vikings also re-signed their own tight end, Jermaine Wiggins, who emerged as a surprisingly effective (and surprisingly fat) possession receiver.
Finally, Brad Johnson has returned to Minnesota and will back up Daunte Culpepper. Johnson is the kind of reliable veteran coaches love having around, but he's nowhere near Culpepper's class, and the Vikings will be in trouble if Daunte goes down.
Many people assume the Vikings will take a receiver to replace Moss with the pick they got in return for Moss. Braylon Edwards or USC's Mike Williams should be available at number seven. I'm not sure I see the logic in trading a player so you can pick his replacement, but whatever. With the 7th and 18th picks -- Oakland's and their own -- the Vikings have a lot of options. Erasmus James and Thomas Davis are both possibilities with the 18th pick, and any team that has two picks in the first round will be involved in plenty of trade discussions.
If you had told the Vikings' talent scouts in May of 2000 that they were going to have one of the league's worst defensive lines in 2004, they would have cried. The Vikings used their first three picks in 2000 on defensive linemen, grabbing Boston College's Chris Hovan, Wake Forest's Fred Robbins, and Miami's Michael Boireau. Hovan looked promising a couple of years ago but had a collapse in 2004. Robbins is now with the Giants; Boireau is out of football and never played a game in the NFL.
For three straight seasons, the Vikings have had good first-round picks, taking Bryant McKinnie of Miami in 2002, Kevin Williams of Oklahoma State in 2003, and Kenechi Udeze of USC in 2004. But later picks have been disappointing. They've taken linebackers in the second round for three straight years and have little to show for it. One positive note is that the Vikings had the best fourth round of any team in 2004, selecting both promising running back Mewelde Moore and right tackle Nat Dorsey.
Next week: AFC North by Ryan Wilson