It's rivalry week, with numerous conference championship and playoff berths still on the line.
25 Mar 2010
by Ned Macey
Sometimes games at the end of a season portend future breakouts. Sometimes they are just a couple of fluky games. Just ask Drew Bennett, the former Tennessee receiver who exploded at the end of the 2004 season, never to reach those heights again.
That's history that the Bears should study before falling in love with Devin Aromashodu, who totaled 196 yards and three touchdowns in the season's last two games. Somehow, those two games seem to outweigh nearly four full seasons in which Aromashodu was on an NFL roster and totaled 198 yards and one touchdown. Despite the obvious flukiness of Aromashodu's performance, the Bears harbor hopes that he will emerge as a starting-caliber receiver.
Aromashodu could conceivably be a starter, but only because the Bears' current starters are mediocre. Devin Hester, the once-dominant return man, has turned into an adequate but far from spectacular receiver. Earl Bennett's first season as a receiver showed some promise, but he struggled as the season progressed, totaling 427 yards in the season's first half and only 290 yards in the season's second half.
Most troubling is that the Bears appear unlikely to seek any help for this receiving corps. Bears fans won't find much help in the draft. The Bears have drafted a bevy of receivers in the middle rounds of the drafts in recent seasons, acquiring Bobby Wade, Justin Gage, Bernard Berrian, Airese Currie, Mark Bradley, Hester, Bennett, Johnny Knox, and Juaquin Iglesias since 2003. Only Berrian ever performed at a high level for the Bears, so finding a hidden gem in the middle rounds -- the Bears do not pick until the third round -- is extremely unlikely.
Among the remaining free agents, the most obvious answer would be Torry Holt, who has lobbied for a reunion with offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Holt, at age 34, has clearly lost a step, and most teams are wisely avoiding him. The Mike Martz factor, however, makes the potential signing somewhat intriguing. Isaac Bruce, another former Rams great, reunited with Martz in 2008 and amassed 835 yards and eight touchdowns. His performance ranked a very respectable 25th in Football Outsiders' DYAR, which measures total value. The last Bears receiver to rank that high was Marcus Robinson in 1999.
The Bears will probably continue to ignore Holt, content to wait for their current young receivers to develop. Time will tell if they offer anything more than promise, but nothing in their mediocre 2009 campaign suggests that they will.
The Lovie Smith era has had its ups and downs, with 2009 undoubtedly a down. Never before, however, as Smith had a below-average defense. Injuries, age, and a failure to infuse new talent created the worst Chicago defense of the DVOA era. Devoid of draft picks following the Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades, the Bears decided to make a splash in free agency, signing the biggest fish in the sea, Julius Peppers. Peppers has never emerged as a transcendent, Hall of Fame-type player, but he immediately becomes the best pass rusher the Bears have had under Smith.
The Bears did not stop there, trying to upgrade their offense with role players. They signed versatile back Chester Taylor to a four-year contract. But is he the best fit at backup running back? Taylor is best as a receiver at this stage of his career, and Matt Forte has already developed into a solid receiver. The Bears also paid relatively big money for tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. This signing is troubling because Manuemaleuna excels as a blocker. Since offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes to feature three wide receivers, that means starting tight end Greg Olsen will have to be split out as a wide receiver, losing his match-up advantages. Perhaps Manumealeuna will serve as an H-back, a move made more likely by the release of veteran fullback Jason McKie.
The Bears also made a couple of moves at cornerback. They cut Nathan Vasher, the once-emerging star cornerback who has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons and who was no longer was worth his contract. They also signed Tim Jennings away from Indianapolis; he is familiar with Smith’s Tampa-2 system but never excelled in it. Vasher will not be replaced by Jennings, at best a nickel back, and the Bears will go with Zack Bowman as the second starter.
The Lions' atrocious pass defense makes this an easy enough call, but the reports that they had Adam "Pacman" Jones in for a workout makes it a slam dunk. Last season, the Lions had zero quality cornerbacks on their roster. This offseason, they have acquired Chris Houston, a competent player who started for Atlanta. Still, the rest of the roster is a disaster. Opposite Houston, the likely starter as of today is Jonathan Wade, a player who was not good enough to start for the woeful St. Louis Rams.
The Lions are unlikely to address this hole in the first round of the draft. No cornerback appears worthy of the second overall pick (and the Lions certainly have sufficient needs that they can draft the best available player). The Lions will certainly add a cornerback in the first couple rounds, but it would be a tall task to expect a third-round cornerback to become an immediate starter.
Therefore, the flirtation with Pacman is perhaps not as ridiculous as it appears on its face. Head coach Jim Schwartz worked with Jones in Tennessee, and Jones emerged as one of the game's best cornerbacks under Schwartz before off-field demons ruined his career. A Jones signing remains highly unlikely, but the Lions are obviously being creative after missing opportunities to acquire Antonio Cromartie and Dunta Robinson.
A more likely possibility is Lito Sheppard, a talented but absurdly inconsistent cornerback who has fallen out of favor with teams two years in a row. Sheppard is a good upside play, and the Lions should continue to pursue that avenue. Otherwise, the Lions will remain extremely thin at cornerback in 2010.
Schwartz had one guy in his sights and showed up at his house the minute free agency started, intent on securing a deal. For that kind of effort, one would not expect the player to be a 31-year-old defensive end with a total of 7.5 sacks during the past two seasons. Of course, Kyle Vanden Bosch had two monster seasons with Schwartz as his defensive coordinator, but in that situation, Vanden Bosch was younger and playing with a guy named Albert Haynesworth.
Signing Vanden Bosch wasn't necessarily a bad move -- the Lions have plenty of money to spend, and Vanden Bosch presents an upgrade. The move raises flags because it is so reminiscent of the Lions' last big foray into free agency, the singing of Dewayne White before the 2007 season. White was acquired by then-head coach Rod Marinelli, who had worked with White when he was an assistant in Tampa. White never developed like Marinelli had hoped. He was released this offseason and will be replaced by Vanden Bosch.
Detroit's other big signing was also a player hoping to recapture his glory by reuniting with a former coach. Wide receiver Nate Burleson is rejoining Scott Linehan, the coordinator for Burleson's breakout 2004 campaign in Minnesota. While such an impressive season is unlikely, Burleson is a definite upgrade at the second receiver position and should provide a good option opposite Calvin Johnson.
More importantly, since the Lions appear only able to attract free agents that have previously played for their coaches, they turned aggressively to the trade market. As mentioned above, they acquired Houston, and they also acquired defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland. Both acquisitions cost very little in draft picks (a sixth-round pick for Houston, a fifth-rounder for Williams) and netted likely starters. Williams had one really good year for Green Bay in the 4-3, but even if he doesn't match that production, he still should be an upgrade on the interior (particularly if he gets to play alongside Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy).
This may seem an odd choice given the fact that the Packers feature the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year at cornerback in Charles Woodson. Still, Woodson, while exceptional last year, is just one player -- and an old one at that.
His long-time running mate Al Harris tore his ACL in November and is not guaranteed a roster spot. Otherwise, the cupboard is bare, as shown by the shredding the Packers secondary suffered at the hands of the Cardinals in the playoffs. Tramon Williams is extremely stretched as a starter, but it only gets worse after him. The re-signing of Will Blackmon, also coming off a torn ACL, hardly fills the need for cornerback depth.
Despite this obvious need, the Packers eschewed free agency and appear likely to target a cornerback in the draft. The Packers have other needs, interior offensive line and outside linebacker to name two, so a first-round pick is far from a certainty. Still, the Packers need to acquire a cornerback in the draft who is at least able to play the nickel if they hope to avoid a repeat of last year's playoff debacle.
The Packers have been quiet in free agency, but their moves have been important. They re-signed tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, and safety Nick Collins. All were crucial parts to the Packers' impressive season, and their re-signings ensure that the Packers will bring back mostly the same team next season.
The Packers did lose one important player, defensive end/outside linebacker Aaron Kampman. Kampman was one of the most important factors as the Packers' defense rose to respectability in the late-Favre/post-Favre era. Still, his skills were not maximized in the Green Bay 3-4 scheme, so his value to the Packers didn't match the enormous sum paid by Jacksonville.
The Vikings return to the playoffs in 2008 was fueled in large part by one of the league's best offensive lines. What a difference a year makes. Last year, the team never opened lanes for its running backs, putting the offensive pressure squarely on the shoulders of Brett Favre. Minnesota had a great season -- and a great offense -- so the deficiencies were somewhat obscured. Still, the line played mediocre or worse last season.
The two sensible places to upgrade are center and right guard. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Steve Hutchinson produced league-average results for Pro Bowler salaries, but both will undoubtedly be back and hoping for bounce-back seasons. Rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt was impressive at times as a run blocker, but he lacked consistency. It's reasonable to expect him to improve in his second year.
The middle of the line, however, was a small disaster with no firm, long-term plan in place. With the rest of the line struggling, the weakness of Anthony Herrera was exposed. At age 30, he is unlikely to get better. At center, John Sullivan was unable to adequately replace veteran Matt Birk, leading to too many situations where the line collapsed on running plays. The Vikings had the second highest percentage of runs that were stuffed for a loss or no gain.
The Vikings appear to have decided to sit out free agency, and collective bargaining rules that limit the free agent signings of a team that made the conference championship has had an impact on that decision. Therefore, the Vikings will be reliant on the draft for help. The team is mostly complete, with no obvious deficiencies for the 2010 season. A long-term strategy could focus on finding replacements for some of the Vikings' aging core, such as defensive tackle Pat Williams or cornerback Antoine Winfield. For 2010, however, the biggest impact would be drafting an interior offensive lineman in the early rounds. The fact that this team will likely sink or swim based on Favre's status makes playing for the moment a sensible solution.
In some sense, this section could just be left blank. As mentioned above, the Vikings lost Chester Taylor to the Bears. As mentioned last month, that might not be a bad thing. Taylor was not at all effective running the ball last year, and third-down backs simply are not worth millions of dollars per season.
More proactively, the Vikings re-signed cornerback Benny Sapp, wide receiver Greg Lewis, and defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. All contribute on some level (although Lewis only with one miraculous, game-saving catch), but none are starters. The Vikings, fresh off the NFC Championship game, will go into next season with basically the same team as last year, provided a certain Mississippi resident finds the desire to play once training camp is halfway finished.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.
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