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?
27 Mar 2006
By Michael David Smith
Did you miss the first 2006 edition of Four Downs: NFC North? You'll find it here.
The big stories in the NFC North are all about the quarterbacks. The Bears added a free agent and demoted the quarterback who started most of last year to third string. The Lions signed two free agents and said the quarterback who started most of last year won't be back. The Vikings traded the quarterback who just a year ago was coming off a historically great season. And the Packers still don't know if the quarterback who is one of the greatest and most popular players in the storied history of their franchise will be in Green Bay next year.
Starting quarterback Rex Grossman hasn't shown that he can stay healthy, and backup Kyle Orton hasn't shown that he has any business on an NFL roster, so the Bears added veteran insurance in Brian Griese, who entered 2005 as Tampa Bay's starter but left 2005 on a cart with a torn ACL. Griese is actually a lot like Grossman: he has shown flashes of talent but hasn't proven that he can be a consistent and healthy starter over the long haul. Griese says he wants to compete for the starting job, but the Bears' coaching staff seems to favor Grossman. A depth chart of Grossman, Griese and Orton isn't ideal, but it's the best group of quarterbacks the Bears have had in a long time.
The Bears started free agency by re-signing their only major free agent, guard Terrence Metcalf, to a six-year contract extension. Since then they've been mostly passive observers. They coveted Antwaan Randle El, but not enough to match the eight-figure signing bonus the Redskins offered him.
Last year's major free-agent signing, Muhsin Muhammad, indicated to the Chicago Sun-Times that he wasn't pleased with the Bears' efforts to get a playmaker in free agency.
"He's a good player,'' Muhammad said of Randle El. ''He's exciting. I think he would definitely add a dimension to the return game. Of course, you want to have high-caliber players on the team, and I'm not sure if the Bears are going to get a guy like that or if they are really chasing a guy like that.''
Jerry Azumah was one of the best running backs in Division I-AA history at New Hampshire, and the Bears turned him into a competent cornerback and an excellent kick returner. But a series of injuries, most recently an arthritic hip, have forced him to retire at the age of 28.
A judge dropped battery and resisting-arrest charges against defensive tackle Tank Johnson because the police officer involved in the case didn't want to prosecute.
Elsewhere on the defensive line, the Bears matched a four-year offer sheet for $7.5 million, including a $1.6 million signing bonus, that the Bills signed with defensive lineman Israel Idonije, a backup in Chicago last year. Idonije played mostly on special teams, but new Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who was the Bears' secondary coach last year, loves the athleticism of the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder and was disappointed that the Bears hung onto him.
Chicago gave the lowest tender to restricted free agent Hunter Hillenmeyer, a somewhat surprising move considering that he has been their starting strongside linebacker the last two years. But Hillenmeyer was always the weak link on the Bears' defense, and if he signs elsewhere they won't miss him.
The Bears are deep on defense and at running back, so the most likely option in the draft is a receiver (even though the Bears took receivers with two of their top four picks last year) or an offensive lineman. Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes is certainly worth a look, although a better option might be Georgia tight end Leonard Pope, a big and athletic player who would probably be an immediate upgrade over incumbent starter Desmond Clark. Auburn's Marcus McNeil can play either right or left tackle and would compete for playing time immediately with the incumbents, John Tait and Fred Miller.
Josh McCown is in. Jon Kitna is in. Joey Harrington is out. That's the focus in Detroit, where Harrington, the No. 3 overall pick in 2002, erased any lingering doubt that the Lions made a mistake when they chose him. The question now is whether McCown or Kitna will be the starter in Detroit, and whether Mike Martz can do for one of them what he did for Trent Green, Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger.
The Lions' other signings have been for middle-of-the-road players including offensive linemen Rex Tucker, Barry Stokes and Courtney Van Buren, tight end Dan Campbell and wide receiver Corey Bradford. Apparently they think if they add enough mediocre players with low salaries, one of them will pan out -- that's a better strategy than Millen's past strategy of signing mediocre players like Az Hakim to high salaries.
On defense the Lions haven't made any major moves. They hung onto two of their own free agents, Jared DeVries and LeVar Woods, and added linebacker Paris Lenon from the Packers. Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who has started every game the last three years and been one of the Lions' best defensive players, has skipped the team's off-season activities and might retire. Wilkinson was the first pick in the 1994 draft and didn't live up to expectations with his original team, Cincinnati, but he has been a very good player with the Redskins and Lions. If you want to get an idea of the impact he had with those two teams, check out their run defense DVOA with and without him. In 2002, Wilkinson's last year with the Redskins, Washington was No. 15 against the run and Detroit was No. 26. In 2003, when he moved to Detroit, the Redskins plummeted to No. 25 and the Lions rose to No. 5.
(For more on Football Outsiders' advanced metric DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, click here.)
We're all out of jokes about Millen taking another wide receiver in the first round, so we'll try to be serious here. The Lions let R.W. McQuarters and Andre Goodman get away in free agency and haven't signed anyone to replace them, so the defensive backfield is a concern. Michael Huff, the Texas Longhorn who can play cornerback or safety, would be a good fit if Millen decides to go with defense in the first round for the first time in his Detroit tenure. Detroit also could go for a middle linebacker like Ohio State's A.J. Hawk.
On offense, the player who would make the most sense is USC tackle Winston Justice. Last year's Detroit offensive line was a mess, and Kyle Kosier, who quietly had the best season of anyone on the Detroit front five, signed with Dallas as a free agent. No. 9 might be a little high to take Justice, but he looks like he's ready to step in and start immediately. The Lions need that, and Millen loves players from big-time football factories. The complete list of schools from which the Lions have taken players in the first two rounds in the Millen era goes like this: USC, USC, Texas, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Georgia, Texas, Oregon, South Carolina, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas.
The question on everyone's mind seems like it has been the question on everyone's mind for ages in Green Bay: Is Brett Favre retiring? We haven't heard anything yet, which would indicate that he'll be back. Favre doesn't want to put the Packers in an uncertain situation, so presumably if he were going to announce his retirement, he would have done it early enough in the off-season that the Packers could have signed another quarterback.
The Packers have started their off-season conditioning program, and Javon Walker is skipping it. Last year Walker threatened to skip training camp in a contract dispute, quarreled in the media with Favre, showed up to camp on time despite failing to get a new contract, tore his ACL in the season opener, and fired agent Drew Rosenhaus. It's been a turbulent year, and the Packers have to wonder whether Walker will be ready to contribute physically or mentally.
Speaking of the Packers' off-season conditioning program, Mike McCarthy insisted that the team radically overhaul its weight room when he discovered that the team had been lifting with machines much more than free weights. Strength training experts are nearly unanimous that free weights are superior to machines because they force the lifter to stabilize the weight, and it's surprising that an NFL team would still rely on machines.
In free agency, Green Bay lost center Mike Flanagan to the Texans. It wasn't long ago that the Packers had the best interior offensive line in football, but with Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera leaving last year and Flanagan leaving this year, the middle of the line is a problem in Green Bay.
Running back Ahman Green's value certainly has declined since his great 2003 season. He recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million. Najeh Davenport, who Favre once said would lead the league in rushing if he were a full-time starter instead of Green's backup, also signed a one-year deal. Of course, there's no guarantee that Green and Davenport will beat out the minimum-salary youngsters, Samkon Gado and Noah Herron, for playing time.
The four-year, $21 million contract Green Bay gave defensive end Aaron Kampman was a good deal for both sides. It allows the Packers to hang on to one of their top players from last season, and it gives Kampman a front-loaded deal worth more than $12 million this season. Looking to bolster the defense, the Packers have added two likely starters, tackle Ryan Pickett from the Rams and strong safety Marquand Manuel from the Seahawks. The Packers also plan to talk to free agent cornerback Charles Woodson. Signing him would be a mistake, though. He has never lived up to his promise and isn't worth the kind of money that he'll demand.
In one of those stories that isn't a big deal now but will be if a Vikings-Packers game goes down to the final seconds, kicker Ryan Longwell left to join the Vikings. Green Bay brought in Billy Cundiff to replace Longwell.
There has been some talk that if Favre retires, the Packers will take a quarterback, but that just doesn't make much sense. Aaron Rodgers was the first-round pick last year, and even though there's a new regime in the Green Bay front office, they'd be crazy not to at least give Rodgers a chance to prove himself before moving on to the next hot young prospect.
Defense makes a lot more sense, and Hawk seems to be the most common projection for the fifth spot, which Green Bay owns. Hawk is generally recognized as the best of a good group of linebackers in this year's draft. He would probably start immediately, in place of Brady Poppinga, who currently resides atop the depth chart at strongside linebacker.
Signing Steve Hutchinson away from the Seattle Seahawks gives Minnesota one of the league's best guards, and if center Matt Birk is able to return to health, the middle of the Vikings' line will go from a weakness in 2005 to a strength in 2006.
That will benefit Chester Taylor, the former Baltimore Ravens backup whom just about everyone agrees was better last year than the Ravens' starter, Jamal Lewis. (Taylor ranked 28th out of 53 running backs in FO's DVOA rankings; Lewis, with the same 10 teammates around him, ranked 49th.) The Vikings added Taylor to what looks like a very talented offense.
But that offense now depends on Brad Johnson, who became the starter at quarterback when the Vikings said goodbye to Daunte Culpepper, shipping him off to Miami for a second-round pick. Johnson played very well when he replaced Culpepper during the second half of last season, but he turns 38 in September, so the Vikings would be advised to make sure they have a competent backup. The only other quarterbacks on their roster are J.T. O'Sullivan, who has never thrown a pass in the NFL, and the recently signed Mike McMahon, a former backup with the Eagles and the Lions who doesn't rise to the level of "competent."
Restricted free agent Nate Burleson will leave to join Seattle, and that's good for Minnesota which will get a third-round pick as compensation. Burleson is an inconsistent player, and the Vikings are getting the better end of that deal, just as they got the better end of the Hutchinson deal.
On defense, two starters from last year's secondary, Corey Chavous and Brian Williams, have left via free agency. A secondary with Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot at the corners and Darren Sharper at free safety sounds pretty good, but Chavous and Williams were important parts of last year's unit and won't be replaced easily.
Some mock drafts have suggested that Brad Childress would like to have an all-purpose running back for his offense, and that Memphis's DeAngelo Williams, who plays a lot like Brian Westbrook, would fit nicely. But running back is probably the Vikings' deepest position, with Taylor as the starter, Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Faison as capable backups, and Onterrio "The Original Whizzinator" Smith possibly back from a drug suspension this year. Taking a running back here would be like spending three consecutive top 10 picks on wide receivers.
There is talk that the Vikings could choose a speedy wide receiver in the first round for the second straight year. Last year's pick, Troy Williamson, had a mediocre rookie season with 24 catches and 372 yards. This year the Vikings could add Chad Jackson of Florida, who was generally viewed as a mid-second round pick until he ran a blistering 40-yard dash time at the combine. Now most projections have him going in the first. Would the Vikings really take another receiver, making them only one 2007 first-round receiver away from following in Millen's footsteps? During draft season, stranger things have happened.
Coming later this week: AFC West by Mike Tanier
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