Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
22 Mar 2007
by Ned Macey
For a Super Bowl team with sufficient cap room, Chicago has faced major upheaval. The defensive coordinator was not retained. The head coach had protracted contract negotiations which his agent took public. The Pro Bowl linebacker received the franchise tag and is now threatening to never play for the team again. The starting running back, arguably Chicago's most valuable offensive player, was traded away for an exchange of slots in the second round of the draft.
The first story was covered in the last NFC North Four Downs. The second one requires little comment other than to say Lovie Smith clearly deserved the raise. The Lance Briggs situation is more difficult. He is an outstanding player who is incredulous that he is not cashing in on this wild market. The Bears have the right to franchise him and have exercised it. Briggs then has the right to be upset and threaten a holdout to force the Bears into giving him a long-term contract. Until he signs the tender, he is not under contract and cannot be fined for not reporting.
The question on everyone's mind is why the Bears seem unwilling to dish out a long-term deal. They have plenty of cap space, and the power of the franchise tag should mean that Briggs gets less than full market value. He has never missed a game and is in the middle of his prime at 26 years old. If any long-term contract for a linebacker makes sense, it would be an extension to Briggs. Based on our defensive statistics, he had the highest stop rate (stopping plays short of offensive success) among linebackers that were in on at least 15 percent of defensive plays.
Maybe Briggs is asking for the moon, but in a free agent climate where Leonard Davis got the equivalent of a small island nation, the moon might not be too much to pay. The biggest mistake in an escalating market is overpaying for replaceable commodities. The second biggest mistake is letting go unique difference-makers because you refuse to pay market value.
The Bears took their other unhappy performer, Thomas Jones, and shipped him to the Jets along with the 63rd pick in the draft for the 37th pick. In a world where all second-rounders are often treated equally, it seemed like a low return for a 1,200-yard rusher. The truth, however, is that not all second-round picks are created equal. Research shows that the most valuable picks on a cost basis in the entire draft may be those at the early stages of the second round, with the single best pick based on value per dollar being the 43rd. The Bears also now have the luxury of two picks in the 30s, enabling them to move up if they spy a player they really want.
On the football field, the loss of Jones will be of little consequence provided Cedric Benson stays healthy. The veteran will be 29 this year, and Benson proved down the stretch that he can provide similar production to Jones. The question is: how likely is the former first-round pick to stay healthy? He battled injuries throughout his rookie season and suffered a knee injury in the Super Bowl. In his favor, he has a clean prognosis for the upcoming season and was a workhorse in college.
This move was probably wise for 2008, but it remains to see how it will impact 2007. Adrian Peterson should see an increased role as a third-down back, a spot in which he should excel. But if Benson should falter, Peterson may be exposed as an every down back.
The Bears have signed as many free agents as the Miami Sharks. Safety Todd Johnson and defensive tackle Alfonso Boone have signed with St. Louis and Kansas City respectively. Ian Scott has yet to sign but appears headed elsewhere, although the Bears may make a late play for him.
Chicago did acquire Adam Archuleta in a trade with Washington. The Bears gave up only a sixth-round pick and renegotiated a contract with only $5 million in guarantees. That seems reasonable on the hope that the safety can recapture the form he showed when playing for Lovie Smith in St. Louis. Archuleta was a disaster in Washington, but so was Jeremiah Trotter. Some players perform better in certain systems. This minimal gamble was worth taking by the Bears.
The Bears have two primary needs as they approach the draft: defensive tackles and offensive linemen. Tank Johnson was recently sentenced to four months in jail. The Jamal Lewis training regimen is not recommended, and the NFL may hand out additional penalties. With the departure of Boone and perhaps Scott, the Bears can only rely on Tommie Harris. They also have second-year tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who was injured last year, but the defensive tackle position must be addressed. The Bears are also a little long in the tooth on the offensive line, and right guard Ruben Brown is still an unsigned free agent.
The draft is still over a month away, so precise names are a little difficult to project. The Bears are in a tricky spot, balancing winning now with staying consistently competitive. Defensive tackle Tank Tyler out of North Carolina St. will likely be available, but presumably the Bears have had enough Tanks.
Looking down the road, they may also need to add an outside linebacker because of the Briggs situation. Many writers have them considering a tight end, but Desmond Clark was highly productive a season ago. Also, Mark Bradley's development could forestall finding a replacement for Muhsin Muhammad. Therefore, despite the defensive nature of the team, the draft could be defense-heavy with offensive linemen sprinkled in.
The Lions made headlines not through acquisitions but by shipping Dre' Bly to the Denver Broncos. The increasing salary cap space of teams has led to an increase in player-for-player trades, and this trade provided not draft picks but tackle George Foster and running back Tatum Bell. Under the theory that the team that got the better player won the trade, the Broncos clearly came out winners. The Lions switched to the Tampa-2 last season, but Bly remained much more likely to cover opposing number one receivers than the average top cornerback. He did not have the year he did in 2005, but our game charting data indicates he was by far the Lions' best hope at controlling top receivers.
Foster does represent an upgrade on the offensive line and will likely be installed at right tackle. He was too big for the Denver offensive line, but Mike Martz has never feared big tackles.
Bell's acquisition is a hint that the Lions are worried about the recovery of Kevin Jones from his Lisfranc injury. Bell is a solid but unspectacular player. The Lions claim to be intrigued with his possibilities as a receiver, but he has provided nothing as a receiver in Denver. Of course, Kevin Jones never was known as a receiver either before Mike Martz came to town. Making Bell the centerpiece of the trade indicates that Matt Millen missed the memo revealing that non-elite running backs are not extremely valuable.
The Lions have made some interesting tinkers that should help them add the solitary win they need to get into the playoffs. What's that? They were 3-13 with the sixth worst DVOA in football? Well, then, the Lions have just made some interesting tinkers.
The Lions targeted two players when free agency opened, Dewayne White and Kevin Curtis. They went one for two, which is the closest to .500 they have been in the Millen era. White was a reserve defensive end who played under Rod Marinelli in Tampa Bay. White is the type of player teams should target in free agency. He is young, athletic, and provides upside. Of course, this market dictated that this usual mid-level signing cost the Lions $29 million over five years. He immediately becomes the Lions' best defensive end, which tells us much more about Detroit than it does about White.
Detroit struck out on Curtis and instead settled for his twin, Shaun McDonald. The two were drafted in the third and fourth round of the 2003 draft, and have served as third and fourth receivers for the Rams behind Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Curtis parlayed his status as the third receiver into a $32 million contract in Philadelphia. McDonald got less than $3 million. The truth is that Curtis is not that much better, and we must remember that both were well ahead of Mike Furrey on the depth chart in St. Louis. Furrey only led the NFC in receptions in his first season in Detroit. No word on when Dane Looker will be joining the Lions.
Other additions include cornerback Travis Fisher from St. Louis and running back T.J. Duckett from Washington. Fisher will battle for a starting role with the other mediocre cornerbacks the Lions have retained. Duckett is the presumptive short yardage back. The Lions were horrendous in power situations a year ago, so it was a hole to be filled.
Departing Detroit is a myriad of disappointing and/or aging players. Terrence Holt has bolted to Arizona, leaving the safety position for Daniel Bullocks. Marcus Pollard was released and headed to Seattle. Fan favorite Cory Schlesinger signed with Miami.
The Lions have a bevy of needs as they approach the draft, allowing them to apply the Best Player Available Strategy in almost every round. They are weak at defensive end, linebacker, cornerback, offensive line, wide receiver, and tight end. Those positions not mentioned above are often manned by aging players such as quarterback Jon Kitna or safety Kenoy Kennedy, spots where a good team would be looking for a long-term replacement. The Lions, sadly, have no such luxury.
The second pick in the draft is potentially extremely valuable because presumptive best overall player Calvin Johnson will likely be available. The Lions should not fear drafting a wide receiver just because they have failed in the first round so many times before. The real reason they should avoid Johnson is because with so many other needs they should trade down, even if they do not get fair value. A player like Gaines Adams fills a much larger need and additional picks later can build depth.
In later rounds, the Lions desperately need linebackers. They have nobody fit to play in the middle of the Tampa-2, and they do not really have anyone fit to play on the weak side. Alex Lewis was retained, but while decent in coverage, he is a limited player overall.
Green Bay management insists there is nothing to the rumored Aaron Rodgers for Randy Moss trade despite numerous reports to the contrary. As self-described "outsiders" we have no information to confirm or deny that report, but we can take a look at whether such a trade makes sense.
From 1998-2003, Randy Moss was a game-breaking receiver who forced defenses to account for him unlike any other active receiver. The 2004 season saw him battle injuries throughout. He was traded to Oakland that off-season and had an underwhelming season in 2005 before an embarrassing season in 2006. The assumption is that the bad situation in Oakland was the cause of his problems, but are there other reasons to be concerned?
Similarity scores are a tool used to compare people to other players who posted similar numbers over a given time period. A quick glance at Moss' three-year similarity profile is very alarming. (Only yards are listed, but similarity scores also compare catches, touchdowns, and average yards per catch.)
|Name||Years||Yards Yr 1-3||Age +1||G+1||Rec +1||Yds+1|
|Randy Moss||2004-06||767, 1005, 553||30||???||???||???|
|Drew Pearson||1978-80||714, 1026, 568||30||16||38||614|
|Sam McCullum||1979-81||739, 874, 567||30||11*||21*||233*|
|James Jett||1997-99||804, 882, 552||30||11||20||356|
|Freddie Solomon||1980-82||658, 969, 574*||30||13||31||662|
|Ernie Jones||1990-92||724, 957, 559||29||10||5||56|
|Nat Moore||1978-80||645, 840, 564||30||13||26||452|
|Andre Rison||1996-98||593, 1092, 542||32||15||21||218|
|Webster Slaughter||1990-92||847, 906, 486||29||14||77||904|
|Antonio Freeman||2000-02||912, 818, 600||31||15||14||141|
|Ernest Givins||1992-94||787, 887, 521||31||9||29||280|
|Earnest Gray||1982-84||757*, 1139, 529||28||5||3||22|
|*(Pro-rated for strike)|
The names on the left are acceptable if not overly impressive. More than half had over 7,000 receiving yards in their careers. The numbers on the right represent the next season after the similar three-year stretch. Only one receiver had more than 700 yards. Some of these guys had another good season or two in them, but nobody hit 1,000 yards again.
Moss is a different animal because his peak was higher even than that of Rison or Freeman. The other assumption is that Oakland was too dysfunctional and/or Moss just did not care when he was there. Of course, both Ronald Curry and Doug Gabriel had success there the past two seasons. How much of that was attributable to attention paid to Moss is impossible to discern.
The truth is that Moss is 30 years old, and he always relied heavily on his speed to get open. He is not the physical receiver that Terrell Owens is or the master route-runner that Marvin Harrison is. As such, he is not likely to age gracefully, even if freed from Oakland.
A properly motivated Moss is still a valuable commodity for an offense, but whoever acquires him should realize that they are not likely getting that superstar from Minnesota. As such, the rumored trade for Rodgers can only be evaluated based on what is known about the young quarterback. If he is the quarterback of the future, then the Packers should hold on to him. If they think he is limited after watching him in practice for two years, then by all means ship him to Oakland.
The Packers are in a win-now mode, but when Favre, Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Donald Driver and Chad Clifton all ride off into the sunset, they will need competent players to mold with the young talent like A.J. Hawk, Aaron Kampman, and Greg Jennings. If Rodgers is a crucial part of that future, the Packers should not give him up for an aging deep threat.
The Ahman Green era came to an end when Green signed with Houston. The acquisition of Green spearheaded a nice run by the Packers earlier this decade, when a dominant running game helped the Packers be a consistent playoff team. Green's decline along with decimation of the offensive line is what led to the two consecutive playoff misses for Green Bay. The Packers acted prudently in not matching the offer for the 30-year-old running back, but he will be missed.
More tears should be shed for the release of William Henderson. A member of the 1996 Super Bowl champion team, Henderson has blocked for Dorsey Levens, Darick Holmes, Edgar Bennett, Green, Najeh Davenport, Samkon Gado, and every other running back in Green Bay since 1995. Losing Henderson and Schlesinger the same year will make the NFC North a little less fun to watch next year.
The only addition the Packers have made is signing Frank Walker. Adding cornerback depth is a good move, and Walker should compete for the playing time in nickel situations.
The Packers select 16th in the draft, making it near impossible to predict what they will do with the pick. They have a gaping hole at running back that could easily be filled by Marshawn Lynch. If Lynch is gone, the Packers can wait comfortably until the second round to add a running back. Adding a player like Antonio Pittman in the second would be a solid move.
Assuming Brett Favre is desperate for a new toy, the Packers could go after tight end Greg Olsen. Bubba Franks has lost all effectiveness, and David Martin signed with Miami. The Packers could also use safety help with someone like Reggie Nelson. Later in the draft, the Packers could stand to beef up the interior of their defensive line, add cornerback and receiver depth, and maybe add a fullback.
Open auditions for the Vikings quarterback and wide receiver position will be held at their training camp facility in Mankato on July 25-26. Inspired by the movie Invincible, the Vikings have decided to take things to the next level by holding open tryouts for the team's most high profile positions.
While the above is obviously fiction, is there another explanation for the Vikings' absolute lack of effort to field a professional passing offense? They brought several wide receivers in for visits, including Curtis, but they have only signed Bobby Wade.
The Matt Schaub-to-Houston trade at least reopens the possibility of David Carr coming to Minnesota. He would be a reasonable solution, and the Vikings' only competition would be from Miami (who is reportedly interested in Trent Green). Pity David Carr. He gets his fundamentals ruined by a miserable line in Houston, and now he might be headed to a team that is starting Troy Williamson and Bobby Wade at receiver.
The Vikings should move quickly to acquire Carr, even possibly sending a late-round pick. Tarvaris Jackson may or may not emerge as a top-shelf quarterback, but he looked very raw a season ago and would likely struggle with such a mediocre receiving corps.
Like their NFC North brethren, the Vikings have been pretty quiet in the early stages of free agency. Besides the aforementioned Wade, the Vikings have added tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu. They also signed Drew Henson, but he has proven not to be a future starter. Needless to say, these moves are only fiddling on the fringes.
The Vikings are hoping to improve with addition by subtraction. They jettisoned Brad Johnson and Fred Smoot and let Napoleon Harris walk to open up a position for Chad Greenway. Jermaine Wiggins was released as well, as he lacked the athleticism Brad Childress wants in a tight end. None of these departures is crippling, but since they have done little to replace them, it is hard to see how the Vikings are possibly better today than they were at the end of the season.
One major way to get better is through the draft. With the seventh pick, the Vikings could add a high-impact player. The two stud quarterbacks will likely be gone, although the Vikings would have to consider Quinn if he dropped. Many projections have them going after Ted Ginn. The Vikings may perhaps be a bit wary of going after a speedy receiver with the seventh pick given former seventh pick Williamson's slow development. The similar skill set of the two players is also troubling, and the Vikings would be better served adding more of a possession receiver in the second round.
The Vikings are desperate to add a pass rushing defensive end but face some of the same pressure as Detroit not to draft a wide receiver. Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze were taken in the first round in 2004 and 2005 respectively. James returns from an injury this season, but he is not exactly a sack machine when healthy. Finding this year's Mark Anderson could make the Vikings a dominant defense. If I knew who that was, I would be employed by an NFL front office. They could also go after Gaines Adams in the first round and spend later picks building offensive line and secondary depth.
Next Tuesday: NFC West by Doug Farrar
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