16 Feb 2006
by Michael David Smith
Chicago's defense reminded local fans of the '85 Bears. Chicago's offense reminded local fans of every offense that played the '85 Bears. There's not a Bears fan on earth who would have objected if told before the season that the team would win the NFC North and earn a first-round playoff bye, so it's hard to see the 2005 season as anything other than a major success.
And yet, the loss in the playoffs to the Carolina Panthers exposed some serious problems. Everyone knows the offense needs major improvements, but that playoff loss also showed that the defense, as great as it is, can be exposed by an elite wide receiver. In the playoffs it was Steve Smith, but there were also problems in the regular season. Chad Johnson had touchdown catches of 18 and 40 yards against the Bears. Joey Galloway burned them for seven catches and 138 yards. Santana Moss had four catches for 96 yards. The Chicago secondary is good, but it won't be great until it can shut down some of the league's top receivers.
The Bears are in good salary-cap shape and Hunter Hillenmeyer is the only free agent from that great defense. Hillenmeyer is a restricted free agent, and he's the least valuable player of the starting 11, so there's every reason to believe the defense can be very good again in 2006.
Although defensive tackle Tank Johnson is still under contract, the Bears must be somewhat concerned that he could be unavailable this year. Johnson, who was already on probation, was charged on Sunday with aggravated assault and resisting arrest. The Bears had one of the best four-tackle rotations in the NFL last year, and Johnson was an important part of it. If he misses part of the season (either because he's in jail or because his off-field activities get him suspended), the Bears will miss him.
Guard Terrence Metcalf is the only unrestricted free-agent starter on offense, but with that offense, having everyone come back isn't necessarily a good thing.
Chicago will almost certainly bring in another quarterback, but the team's most important question is whether that quarterback is someone who will challenge Rex Grossman for the starting job, or someone who will be able to fill in if the oft-injured Grossman gets hurt again. The Bears hope that Grossman will prove both that he can stay healthy and that he is a legitimate NFL starter. Because they're optimistic that Grossman can lead them through the 2006 season, they probably will bring in a low-priced free agent backup, like Charlie Batch of Pittsburgh or Chris Weinke of Carolina. Last year's veteran backup, Jeff Blake, is an unrestricted free agent and most likely will not return. Kyle Orton, who started for most of his rookie season, probably will be demoted to third string.
Chicago native Antwaan Randle El seems like a natural fit for a team that desperately needs an upgrade to the passing game. But the Bears might be a bit gun-shy about spending big money on a wide receiver after giving a huge contract to Muhsin Muhammad last year and getting very little out of him. And Randle El was just a mediocre receiver when Ben Roethlisberger was throwing him the ball. It's hard to imagine him playing better with a lesser quarterback. On the other hand, Chicago could use an upgrade to its punt return game, and Randle El could help out there.
Yet another meltdown for the Lions, who had raised hopes high enough that there was some talk that they could be a playoff team. Instead, all six of Matt Millen's first round draft choices (tackle Jeff Backus, quarterback Joey Harrington, running back Kevin Jones, receivers Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams) struggled as the Lions' offense fizzled. Steve Mariucci was sacked and Rod Marinelli is the new coach. But fans are most intrigued by new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Jeff Garcia, the starting quarterback in the middle of last season, will almost certainly not be back. Backus' rookie contract has expired, and he will probably go elsewhere.
Third-down back Shawn Bryson is an unrestricted free agent. He was a better runner than Jones last year, and he's a good receiver who should fit well into the Martz offense. Detroit should try hard to keep him.
Defensive end Kalimba Edwards is an unrestricted free agent. When he's healthy he's a very good situational pass rusher, but he has frequently struggled through injuries. Although he played in all 16 games in 2005 and recorded seven sacks, he had only one sack in the final nine games after being hobbled with a series of injuries. Signing him likely will not be a high priority.
Special teams, which have usually been a strength for Detroit, were a disaster in 2005 and could be in for a major overhaul this off-season. Return man Eddie Drummond was the best in the league in 2004, but he was ineffective in 2005, and he and agent Drew Rosenhaus have indicated that he'll demand a significant raise as an unrestricted free agent. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters filled in admirably as a kick returner when Drummond missed time, but he's an unrestricted free agent, too. The Lions should let Drummond go and try to re-sign McQuarters, who also played well on defense and was one of the team's best all-around players last year. Punter Nick Harris doesn't have a strong enough leg and should be replaced, perhaps by Carolina's Jason Baker, an unrestricted free agent who had an excellent 2005.
Does Martz believe in Joey Harrington? That's the question on everyone's mind. If he thinks he can turn Harrington into the high-quality quarterback the Lions thought they were drafting in 2002, they won't make any major waves in the off-season. But if Martz looks at the tape and decides that Harrington isn't his kind of quarterback, things will get interesting. Before he re-signed with Arizona, Kurt Warner would have been a possibility. Martz and Warner haven't always seen eye to eye (or, more precisely, Martz and Warner's wife haven't always seen eye to eye), but the Lions might have wanted a veteran quarterback who knows Martz's offense. Now it seems more likely that the Lions will either use their first-round pick on a quarterback like Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler or stick with Harrington.
Elsewhere on offense, Detroit needs to improve its line. With Backus most likely on the way out, Philadelphia's Jon Runyan could be on the way in. Runyan is the biggest name among the offensive tackles on the market, and Millen has a penchant for signing big names.
Speaking of that penchant for big names, if Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is on the trade market this off-season, the Lions might be interested. Their 2005 starter at middle linebacker, Earl Holmes, is an unrestricted free agent who might sign elsewhere or retire.
The biggest question mark on defense is at cornerback: McQuarters could leave, and Fernando Bryant's situation is uncertain. The Lions gave Bryant a big contract with a $7 million bonus before the 2004 season, and he's played 12 games in two years because of injuries -- and played badly when he's been healthy. The Lions might target a cornerback to play across the field from Dre' Bly.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Javon Walker was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the first game. Injuries reduced the Packers to their fifth-string running back. Brett Favre started the season playing well but regressed badly as the season wore on, and by the end of the season he was just chucking the ball down the field and hoping it would land in the right place. The defense was every bit as bad as the offense, and the special teams were even worse.
The first question, of course, is whether or not Brett Favre will be back at quarterback. There haven't been any clear indications, but when he last spoke publicly he said he was leaning toward retirement. The best choice for Green Bay in that case would be Jon Kitna, who showed in Cincinnati that he is a capable player when his team needs him, but also that he won't stand in the way of the development of the team's quarterback of the future.
Even if Favre is back, the Packers' offense will look different. Running backs Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher are all unrestricted free agents. Given that they're all coming off injuries and subpar seasons, there's no reason to think Green Bay should spend a lot of money to keep them.
The defense will return most of its starters, but two starting defensive linemen, Aaron Kampman and Grady Jackson, are unrestricted free agents.
If Favre retires, Aaron Rodgers, last year's first-round draft pick, will get every opportunity to earn the job. But the Packers will sign some veteran free agent to be there in case Rodgers shows that he's not ready. Craig Nall, the Packers' fifth-round pick in 2002, has spent the last four seasons on the bench behind Favre and is now an unrestricted free agent. If the Packers planned to use the same offense they used in years past, it would make a lot of sense to keep Nall around. But with new head coach Mike McCarthy bringing in his own schemes, Nall might not fit with the plans.
Assuming Green, Davenport, and Fisher all go elsewhere, Green Bay might be tempted to sign one of the big-name free agent running backs, like Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James or Jamal Lewis. That would be a mistake. The best choice would be to keep Samkon Gado and Noah Herron, two players coming off their rookie years and making the league minimum, and see whether they can develop. Gado and Herron were just as effective last season as Green was.
With Kampman and Jackson leaving the defense, Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard would be a good signing. Bernard isn't as stout against the run as Jackson was at his peak, but he's a very good pass-rusher, and he's sturdy enough on the inside that he'll take some heat off middle linebacker Nick Barnett.
Daunte Culpepper struggled in the first half of the season, then missed the second half with a torn ACL. Brad Johnson took his place and played much better than Culpepper did. When Culpepper's agent, Mason Ashe, asked the Vikings for a new and improved contract last month, it must have been hard for the folks in the Vikings' front office to conceal their laughter. Culpepper is a player whose contract still has seven years on it, who received an $8 million raise seven months ago, who threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2005, who was lost for the season in the seventh game with a serious knee injury that might not be healed in time for the start of the 2006 season, whose backup demonstrated his expendability in the final nine games of the year, and who was charged with indecent conduct after a salacious boat party that embarrassed the franchise. It's not clear why Ashe and Culpepper subsequently parted ways, but it is clear that Culpepper won't get a new deal.
Despite all the problems with Culpepper on the field and with the Love Boat off the field, the Vikings managed a respectable 9-7 record. That means new coach Brad Childress doesn't have as large a rebuilding effort as it might appear at first glance. If the Vikings make the right moves this off-season, there's no reason they can't be in the playoffs in 11 months.
Minnesota has to pay Culpepper a $6 million bonus on March 14, and it's possible Culpepper could be gone by then. But more likely he'll be back as the starter when the season begins. Johnson is under contract for 2006, so Minnesota fans could be treated to a quarterback controversy this summer.
Koren Robinson, who played relatively well in limited action last season, is an unrestricted free agent, as are running backs Michael Bennett and Moe Williams. The Vikings have good depth at both positions, so they'll probably allow Robinson, Bennett and Williams to leave, although Robinson's value as a returner makes him the most likely of the three to stay. At receiver the Vikings expect Troy Williamson to make a bigger contribution in 2006, and at running back, Mewelde Moore is likely to be the starter, with Onterrio "The Original Whizzinator" Smith set to make his return as a backup.
Melvin Fowler and Cory Withrow, who split time at center last year, both are unrestricted free agents and unlikely to return, with a healthy Matt Birk set to start in 2006. If Birk is back to top form, he's a big upgrade to the line.
On defense, four starters are unrestricted free agents: Middle linebacker Sam Cowart, strongside linebacker Keith Newman, strong safety Corey Chavous, and cornerback Brian Williams. Backup defensive end Lance Johnstone also is a free agent, but the Vikings spent first-round picks on defensive ends each of the last two years, so he seems unlikely to return.
Birk will help the middle of the offensive line, but the Vikings could also use an upgrade at guard. The Vikings could make a serious play for the best lineman available in free agency, Seattle guard Steve Hutchinson. Signing him would make a big difference to the running game, which was ineffective last year. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Seahawks will likely put the franchise tag on Hutchinson and keep him in Seattle.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Will Witherspoon would give the Vikings an upgrade at linebacker. At cornerback, Oakland's Charles Woodson will hit the open market, and the Vikings might be the high bidders for his services, although Woodson is an inconsistent player who will probably come with a cost that his productivity doesn't warrant. Other options in the secondary include Deshea Townsend, Ty Law, Will Demps, and Adam Archuleta. With more than $20 million in salary cap space, the Vikings will definitely be players in the free-agent market.
Monday: AFC West by Mike Tanier
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