A Super Bowl berth could be decided by the Patriots' ability to contain Le'Veon Bell -- and by Pittsburgh's ability to avoid their usual defensive breakdowns against New England.
14 Jun 2005
By Michael David Smith
Not much has happened since we last visited the NFC North. But it's never too early to speculate on what will happen in some important training camp battles.
Thomas Jones last year signed a four-year, $10 million contract to be the Bears' running back. Although his 2004 numbers don't look good (12.3 DPAR, -2.7% DVOA, those numbers are explained here), he actually played fairly well when he was healthy. Remember, with the Bears' quarterback situation, Jones was always the top priority for opposing defenses. Against teams that stacked the line of scrimmage against him, he still managed to find some holes. When you consider that Anthony Thomas had a -8.9 DPAR and -31.4% DVOA in the same offense, you realize that Jones earned every dollar the Bears gave him last year.
The Bears, apparently, disagree. They spent the fourth pick in the draft on Cedric Benson, the running back out of Texas who pounded his way for 1,112 carries and 5,577 yards during his college career.
Sometimes a team will draft a second running back because he can do something that their current running back can't: Maybe he's a better receiver out of the backfield or better in short yardage. But Benson and Jones actually have many of the same skills: They're about the same size, they both have a physical running style, they both have good quickness but not great breakaway speed. The Bears likely will choose one and make him the every-down back, and the other will have to settle for a few carries in spot duty.
My pick: Benson. Although I personally think the Bears had bigger needs than running back, once they chose Benson it wouldn't make sense to keep him on the sidelines. If he develops the way the Bears think he will, new offensive coordinator Ron Turner will have filled in an important piece of his offensive puzzle. There is, by the way, some talk that in certain situations the Bears could put Jones and Benson on the field at the same time by lining Jones up as a slot receiver.
Bears-allocated quarterback Kurt Kittner won the MVP of the World Bowl on Saturday. He's still a longshot to make the roster, with Rex Grossman and Chad Hutchinson definitely ahead of him, and rookie Kyle Orton almost certain to make the team. But new offensive coordinator Ron Turner coached Kittner at Illinois and would love to have him around in Chicago.
Coach Steve Mariucci insists that Joey Harrington is the starter at quarterback and Jeff Garcia is the backup.
But in Mariucci's mind, how could he possibly think of Garcia as a backup? The two of them spent four years together in San Francisco, and in three of them Garcia made the Pro Bowl. Garcia played very well for Mariucci.
They've since spent two years apart, and neither has fared well. Mariucci has sputtered to an 11-21 record, while Garcia had a DVOA of 5.0% in 2003 in San Francisco and of -2.8% in 2004 in Cleveland. (With the 49ers he was outclassed by Tim Rattay, whose DVOA was 45.0% during one of his rare healthy stretches, while in Cleveland he was in the middle of the Browns' three-headed quarterback -- on that same Cleveland team, Kelly Holcomb had a DVOA of 21.4% while Luke McCown had a DVOA of -58.0%.)
Garcia has always been a much better runner than Harrington, but at 35 years old, it's hard to believe he can continue to be a running threat for much longer.
Harrington played badly last year, but not quite as badly as most people believe. Remember, he spent the entire off-season working on the assumption that Charles Rogers would be his No. 1 receiver. That lasted three plays of the regular season. Roy Williams became a solid rookie, but he couldn't stay healthy. Neither could Az Hakim or Tai Streets. How many quarterbacks do you think could put up big numbers when Scottie Vines is a starting receiver?
At the same time, the Lions' brass spent all of last off-season saying 2004 would be the year that Harrington would have to prove himself. He didn't. Although media reports from a few months ago that the Lions might cut Harrington clearly were wrong, Mariucci doesn't think he can trust Harrington to play well for 16 games.
My pick: I think Mariucci will have an extremely quick hook with Harrington. Look for Harrington to open the season but be quickly replaced with Garcia. Then look for Garcia to get hurt and Harrington to return. This, by the way, is not how you develop a young group of receivers.
R.W. McQuarters, who spent last year playing safety and cornerback with the Bears, has signed with the Lions. McQuarters entered the league playing for Mariucci in San Francisco and later played with current Lions defensive coordinator Dick Juaron in Chicago. The Lions say he'll be a backup to starting corners Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant. But depth at safety is a much greater need for the Lions than depth at corner, so McQuarters will probably get plenty of practice time at free safety if Terrence Holt either gets hurt or shows he's not ready to be a starter.
Return specialist Eddie Drummond is an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning he doesn't have a contract, but the Lions are the only team that can sign him. That gives Drummond very little leverage in negotiations, but he wants a long-term deal and hasn't signed the one-year tender offer. Drummond is one of the league's best return men when healthy, but he's played only 17 games in the last two years, so the Lions are apprehensive about giving him a long-term deal. Return specialists with no prospects for taking their services elsewhere usually resign themselves to taking whatever they can get, but Drummond's agent is Drew Rosenhaus. This could get ugly.
Last year the Packers had the best pair of guards in the NFL in Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Rivera left for a big contract in Dallas; Wahle left for an even bigger contract in Carolina. No matter who replaces Wahle and Rivera, the line won't be nearly as good this season as it was in 2004. Offensive line coach Larry Beightol is a good coach with what looks to be a long year ahead of him.
No one knows for sure who will start at guard. Ourlads.com lists the starters as Grey Ruegamer and Adrian Klemm. The NFL.com depth chart says the starters are Matt O'Dwyer and Steve Morley. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's depth chart says it'll be O'Dwyer and Klemm. Other reports have said that Kevin Barry, the most famous backup tackle in football the last couple of years because of his effectiveness in Green Bay's six-lineman formation, will move inside to be a starting guard. Here's a thumbnail on each of the candidates:
Ten years ago, when the Jets drafted O'Dwyer, he looked like a very promising blocker. He was a tough, physical player and was known for having something of a nasty streak. But he's been hurt in the past two years, and he's only played in eight games with one start during that stretch.
Ruegamer is a very versatile lineman who's probably better as a center than he is as a guard. Last year, when Mike Flanagan went down, Ruegamer started 11 games and played fairly well.
Morley is a huge guy who has never played in an NFL game. He was one of the best college players in the country a couple of years ago, but in this case the college was St. Mary's and the country was Canada. He was chosen first overall by the Calgary Stampeders in the 2003 CFL Canadian College Draft, but he decided to try his hand at playing in the States. After receiving a $100,000 signing bonus, he hasn't played in the States yet, but he did spend the past few months playing for the Rhein Fire. He didn't impress his coaching staff in Rhein and was only a part-time starter there. It's hard to believe he could be a full-time starter in Green Bay.
Klemm has been in the league a long time, and, well, he sucks. Playing in the June Jones offense at Hawaii, Klemm attracted attention as a pass blocker. But the defensive linemen he fought off in the WAC weren't of the same quality as the ones he needs to block in the NFL, and his run blocking skills never have developed.
When Barry got on the field the last couple of years, it was as a tight end in what the Packers called the U-71 package. He played that position well because all it required of him was to fire off the ball and hit the closest guy. From the looks of him in past years it's hard to believe he could be quick enough to play guard, but he reportedly has slimmed down and become more agile.
Finally, the Packers could consider second-year man Scott Wells, who started two games at center last year, or second-day picks Junius Coston or William Whitticker.
My pick: I think they start the season with Ruegamer and O'Dwyer as the starters, but O'Dwyer won't last long, and Barry will move to guard to take his place.
It's hard to believe the Packers have done much to develop their passing game during their minicamps. Brett Favre has been absent at coach Mike Sherman's urging, receiver Javon Walker has been absent because he wants a new contract, receiver Robert Ferguson has been sidelined with a bad back, and tight end Bubba Franks has been absent because he doesn't have a contract. No doubt Aaron Rodgers is getting plenty of work with Terrence Murphy, though.
Nate Burleson played well enough last season to establish himself as the go-to guy for Daunte Culpepper, now that Randy Moss is in Oakland. But who will earn the No. 2 receiver spot in the Vikings' offense?
The obvious choice would be rookie Troy Williamson, who the Vikings took with the seventh pick overall. When they said goodbye to Moss, they wanted a speedy receiver to replace him, and Williamson was one of the fastest players in this year's draft. But can a rookie who totaled only 91 catches in three years in an archaic college offense really be ready to be an opening-day NFL starter?
Marcus Robinson had a quietly solid season last year, starting seven games and garnering a DPAR of 14.6 and a DVOA of 11.9%. Kelly Campbell played quite well in limited duty, but he's had a difficult off-season, after being charged with possession of marijuana and theft by receiving stolen property involving a handgun. He's also the Vikings' primary kickoff return man, so it's unlikely that he'd get a starting spot on the offense.
My pick: Robinson will emerge as a full-time starter for the first time since he was with the Bears five years ago. Williamson will get plenty of playing time in three-receiver sets and show off his speed as a deep threat, but he won't be ready for every-down action.
Safety Corey Chavous has skipped the team's voluntary minicamps, apparently unhappy with his contract, and some media outlets have speculated that he could be released. The Vikings have greatly improved the secondary during this off-season by adding Darren Sharper and Fred Smoot, but releasing Chavous would be a big step backward. Chavous is a smart player who has been the most reliable member of the Vikings' defense in the last three years.
Next week: AFC North by Ryan Wilson.
22 comments, Last at 17 Oct 2005, 5:11am by Shone