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?
06 May 2009
by Bill Barnwell
After years of waiting, the Bears finally secured their franchise quarterback; the arrival of Jay Cutler in a trade created hope around the Bears offense for the first time since the nascent days of Rex Grossman. Grossman and Kyle Orton are both gone, along with starting tackles John St. Clair and John Tait. 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams will be expected to fill in on one side, while former Browns tackle Kevin Shaffer will shore up the other end. If Williams isn't ready, it may not matter how good the Bears' quarterback is.
Cutler won't have the same breadth of options to throw to; after trading their first-round pick to acquire him, Chicago's first offensive selection was third-round wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Iglesias is a good blocker who should operate over the middle, and he should see immediate playing time in the Chicago offense while competing for a starting role with Earl Bennett.
Chicago's glaring hole heading into the offseason was at safety; as expected, longtime Bear Mike Brown was released, but instead of adding one of the prominent safeties available, Chicago chose former Saints free safety Josh Bullocks. Bullocks lost his starting job in New Orleans last year, which doesn't bode well considering how porous the Saints' secondary was. The Bears may very well miss Brown as the season goes along.
NOTE: I got a couple of e-mails from readers wondering -- well, yelling at me for being so stupid, but I'll go with wondering -- why I didn't mention Orlando Pace in the tackle discussion above. My answer was that I'm very skeptical on the likelihood that a 33-year-old player who suffered season-ending injuries in 2006 and 2007 and missed time last year is the solution at any position. You, as always, are welcome to disagree.
Rutgers linebacker Kevin Malast could stick as the backup weakside linebacker and on special teams; he has that college wrestler background that's all the rage with NFL teams these days, with the added benefit of having actually played college ball, serving as defensive captain for the Scarlet Knights this year while contributing against both the run and the pass. He's no pass rusher, though, so it might be hard for him to stand out.
New coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew applied a scorched earth policy to the Lions' roster; it's very possible that the number of players remaining from the 2008 team may be approaching single digits by the end of training camp.
The most prominent pick, of course, is rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford. He of the huge arm is extremely unlikely to start the season under center, so expect Daunte Culpepper to at least be the opening day quarterback. After adding second-division starters like Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry in free agency and tight end Brandon Pettigrew on draft day, the Lions will at least have other options besides Calvin Johnson to toss the ball up to.
Schwartz cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball, though, which is where the Lions will be expected to improve quickest. Detroit traded disappointing tackle Cory Redding to Seattle for former Pro Bowler Julian Peterson; he should combine with Ernie Sims to give Detroit at least one unit of strength. Schwartz is cognizant of building his defensive playbook to his team's strengths and weaknesses after undergoing the rebuilding effort in Tennessee, so expect few blitzes early on as he attempts to build around those linebackers and rookie safety Louis Delmas, who should be the defensive captain by 2011.
The most prominent of the team's UFA's would be one Demir "D.J." Boldin, who emerged as a senior after accruing only 26 receptions over his first three seasons. As a senior, he made the All-ACC first team with 77 catches for 782 yards, beating out Darrius Heyward-Bey in the process (as Cris Carter might remind you). Boldin's somewhat like his brother, lacking great speed and size, but showing off good hands and routes as a possession receiver.
The biggest switch for Green Bay comes on defense, where incoming defensive coordinator Dom Capers will move the team from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 alignment.
To account for the switch, the Packers will move Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman to the unfamiliar role of outside linebacker; first-round pick B.J. Raji should step in immediately as the team's nose tackle, while Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins will man the two defensive end spots. Green Bay traded up in the draft to acquire USC linebacker Clay Matthews, Jr.; the logical landing spot for Matthews is at the outside linebacker spot opposite Kampman, while Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk patrol the middle. If everything goes as planned, the Pack should have a fearsome front seven.
They'll have to be good if the secondary doesn't hold up; while it rode a string of defensive touchdowns to success over the first half of the year, Green Bay really struggled thanks to injury and age during the second half. Corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris will be a combined 68 years old during the 2009 season, and backup Tramon Williams is wildly inconsistent. If the guys up front can't get to the passer, the secondary probably won't be able to hold up their end of the bargain. That could make for a year full of blowouts.
Delaware defensive end Ronald Talley had an interesting path to Green Bay; a superstar recruit when he arrived at Notre Dame, Talley barely made an impact before leaving the Fighting Irish halfway through the 2006 season. Moving on to Delaware, Talley had 6.5 sacks over his final two seasons. He got the largest signing bonus of any undrafted free agent the Packers signed, and at 282 pounds, it's easy to envision him bulking up and finding a spot on a pretty thin defensive line.
Any discussion of the Vikings' offseason has to begin with their acquisition of Percy Harvin on Saturday. The Florida receiver unquestionably has good speed and is a downfield threat, but so is Bernard Berrian, who's already entrenched at one spot in the Vikings lineup. It's hard to envision a role for Harvin, who's not the polished route-runner that the Vikings could've used across from Berrian; you can safely take the under on any projection you'll see for his totals in 2009.
In lieu of replacing embattled quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, Minnesota supplemented him with former Texan Sage Rosenfels. Rosenfels was seventh in the league in DVOA a year ago, so if the right players are around him, he's capable of succeeding. He's a more accurate passer than Jackson, but lacks the deep arm that would seemingly fit an offensive scheme built around bombing passes to Harvin and Berrian, making Harvin's acquisition even more curious.
Minnesota also lost two prominent veterans in center Matt Birk (Ravens) and safety Darren Sharper (Saints). They didn't make much of an effort to replace either in free agency, so second-year players John Sullivan and Tyrell Johnson will be expected to step in.
Arguably the best-known player who wasn't drafted, Ian Johnson is best known as "The guy who scored on the Statue of Liberty play and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend a couple of years ago", which is a move I'd been plotting if I was dating a cheerleader and played running back for a bowl-eligible team. Johnson produced a Speed Score of 107.2 at the Combine, the third-best figure of the year; at Boise State, he was a versatile back and effective special-teams gunner. He's one of those guys who some team will find a spot for.
57 comments, Last at 17 Jun 2009, 6:16pm by Sparkyo