02 Mar 2011
by Mike Tanier
The Bears gave up 56 sacks in 2010, and only a little of the blame can be placed on Mike Martz' pass-happy offense. Martz reigned in his scheme, using tight ends as extra blockers and running the ball more often in the second half of the season, but the Bears lacked talent on the line, and their preseason personnel-juggling made matters worse. With so many other pieces in place, the Bears' road to the Super Bowl looks clear: fix the offensive line and everything else will fix itself.
The Bears made their first important move of the offseason when they retained offensive line coach Mike Tice, who was coveted as an offensive coordinator by the Titans. Tice took some heat for installing overly complicated blocking schemes at the start of the season, but he made adjustments and improvements throughout the season. The last thing the Bears line needs during the offseason is a shake-up of continuity.
No position on the Bears line should be considered "set," not even center. Olin Kreutz is 34, a free agent, and coming off a terrible year by his standards. Roberto Garza is 32 and flipped from left to right guard last year. Former first-round pick Chris Williams slid from left tackle to guard, a major demotion for a team in need of good tackles. Frank Omiyale moved from right to left tackle out of necessity, and J'Marcus Webb was overmatched at right tackle.
Tice and Martz must try to sort out this mess before the draft. If they think Webb, Omiyale, and Williams are adequate tackles, the team can draft a replacement for Kreutz (or select a guard like Mike Pouncey and move Garza to center for a year). If the tackle situation is desperate, the team must invest there and hope the interior line doesn't take another step backward.
Plugging in one draft pick or free agent cannot solve the Bears' offensive line problems. The team needs fresh bodies, but it also needs development from players like Webb and Williams. That's what makes Tice's return so critical -- the young linemen are comfortable with him, and he has the best chance to get the most of what's available.
At the Combine, Lovie Smith sounded committed to keeping Olin Kreutz in Chicago, and a lot of the writers and coaches I spoke to said things along the lines of, "What choice do they have?" All reports have Kreutz returning under a short-term deal. Smith also singled out defensive lineman Anthony Adams as a UFA the team hopes to retain; the release of Tommie Harris makes retaining Adams more important. The Bears will have to invest some internal free-agent dollars on special teams, with punter Brad Maynard and snapper Patrick Mannelly likely to stay in Chicago.
The free-agent offensive lineman market is deep, BUT the Bears could just muddle an already confused situation if they sign a bunch of mid-tier players to compete with the mid-tier players already in the system. The Chicago media seemed to think wide receiver was a high priority for the Bears; Smith fielded a few questions about bringing in a "big target" for Jay Cutler. There are plenty of big targets in all price ranges on the market -- Braylon Edwards, Malcom Floyd, medical marvel/Falcons historian Brian Finneran -- but I don't get the impression that the Bears are headed that way.
The good news for the Lions is that their four-game season-ending winning streak was no fluke. According to DVOA, the Lions played much better football in Weeks 14-17 than they did for the rest of the season. When you factor in how many close losses the team suffered during its 2-10 start (the Calvin Johnson non-catch against the Bears in Week 1, the Jets comeback in Week 9), it's easy to think that the Lions have finally, finally turned the corner.
|Lions' DVOA Rankings|
Now the bad news: There are still plenty of holes on the roster. The late-season offensive surge was built around journeymen like quarterback Shaun Hill, running back Maurice Morris, and wide receiver Nate Burleson. That isn't the nucleus of a "team of the future." It's a bunch of veterans getting hot at once. Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford missed most of the season, and rookie running back Jahvid Best faded down the stretch, with 22 carries for 70 yards in the final three games. The offensive line is still a patchwork of Lions lifers like Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola (33 and 32 years old) and penalty-prone stopgaps like Stephen Peterman (12 flags last season).
Defensively, the outlook is a little better. Ndamukong Suh has the potential to be the NFL's best defensive tackle, and Alphonso Smith played much better than he did in his rookie year for Denver. But Smith was injured for most of the four-game winning streak, and the defense is spackled together in too many places by players like Nathan Vasher and Bobby Carpenter. As exciting as the four-game winning streak was, the Lions could still use an upgrade on almost every unit.
The four-game winning streak proved that players have bought into Jim Schwarz's system and that the Lions scheme gets the most out of middle-tier talent. Those are encouraging signs, and the streak was a step in the right direction. The Lions have just been so bad for so long that it's going to take a few more steps to get any real momentum.
The Lions have breathing room under whatever cap is instituted for 2011, and none of their unrestricted free agents is a priority player. I promise not to plug Nnamdi Asomugha for every team I cover, but the Lions are as likely a landing strip for him as any. The Lions demonstrated with Kyle Vanden Bosch that they are willing to spend on premium free agents. Last year's four-game winning streak, the improved talent on the team's roster, and Jim Schwartz's reputation (plus lots of dough) could attract a free agent of Asomugha's caliber. If that happened, the Lions would officially become Everyone's Wild Card Sleeper, and I think many of us at Football Outsiders would join the bandwagon throng.
The team will face a tough decision on UFA Drew Stanton. He's a third quarterback, but he played a lot 2009 and 2010, and he went from penny-dreadful in 2009 to pretty good (19.7% DVOA, 231 DYAR in 119 passes) last year. Matthew Stafford's injury history suggests that the Lions will always need a Plan C on the roster. If Stanton keeps improving, he could easily overtake Shaun Hill. The problem for the Lions is that Stanton might have shown enough to attract attention as a second-stringer, or even a placeholder starter for a rookie, elsewhere in the league.
It's rare for a Super Bowl champion to get better by standing still, but the Packers will do just that this offseason. Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Brandon Chillar, and others should return from injuries and upgrade the Packers on both sides of the ball. The returnees also give the Packers payroll breathing room. Nick Barnett's return provides negotiating leverage with A.J. Hawk (due to make $10 million next season). With Grant joining James Starks in the backfield, re-signing running back Brandon Jackson is not a high priority.
With so many positions set, the Packers can afford some luxuries. The team needs to improve its return units. The Packers averaged just 7.9 yards per punt return and 20.1 yards per kickoff return, and starters like Tramon Williams and (in the playoffs) Charles Woodson were pressed into return duties. Ace free agent specialists like Brad Smith don't fit the team's frugal philosophy, but the Packers should use their late draft picks to mine for a full-time return man. A player like TCU receiver Jeremy Kerley (12.9 yards per punt return, 27.7 yards per kickoff return) can hold both positions and provide depth at wide receiver if James Jones leaves via free agency.
The Packers are rarely active in free agency. Look for them to target their own players, like defensive end Cullen Jenkins, fullback John Kuhn, and kicker Mason Crosby. The Packers may want to scan the wire for a backup quarterback who can provide better insurance than Matt Flynn. Someone like Matt Hasselbeck could cover a three-game injury to Aaron Rodgers and keep the Packers in the Super Bowl hunt. That's the kind of investment a team can make when it is already on top of the heap.
Cullen Jenkins said that he doesn't think he will be back in Green Bay next year. Ted Thompson said at the Combine that he planned to try to sign Jenkins. It was couched in the language of "we want to bring everyone back," but at least Thompson didn't swing his arms around and rant about "hypotheticals." If Jenkins leaves, the defensive line around B.J. Raji becomes the Packers' top draft priority.
This is a big year for free-agent fullbacks, with John Kuhn and Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain on the market. John Harbaugh said that the market may set McClain's price pretty high, and Kuhn may also earn a premium from a team that wants a combination fullback/power back. Korey Hall is an RFA, and the Packers keep bushels of fullbacks in a storage freezer, so the team has options if Kuhn leaves, including using Raji as a two-way player.
The Vikings start over in 2011 under new coach Leslie Frazier, new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, and a new quarterback, possibly a rookie. But before you say "rebuilding year," take a look at the roster. Tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams turn 39 and 31, respectively, next season. Guard Steve Hutchinson and cornerback Antoine Winfield will turn 34. The Vikings were built to win in 2010, and many important veterans don't have time to wait through a rebuilding cycle.
Grabbing a veteran quarterback like Vince Young and gearing up for a quick turnaround may sound appealing to the Vikings, but that quick-fix mentality led to the Brett Favre-Randy Moss catastrophe, which swallowed the season. Frazier and management must take a long-range view. The Williams Wall has been cracking for years -- opponent rushing totals have increased in each of the last five seasons, from 985 in 2006 to 1,635 last year.
The Vikings have problems that that go beyond the need for a better quarterback and better manners toward caterers. Pat Williams is a free agent and should be allowed to walk. Young would cost the Vikings an early round draft choice better spent on a defensive tackle or interior offensive lineman.
As for that pesky quarterback problem, free agent Tarvaris Jackson is viable stopgap and rookie groomer. He is used to playing the good soldier while getting yanked in and out of the lineup. Joe Webb proved he can play make-believe Michael Vick for the scout team and provide trick-play potential as a receiver, but the talk of him competing for a starting job is just talk. The Vikings have not taken quarterback development seriously since Daunte Culpepper faded. Jackson proved he wasn't the answer in 2007, but the team fiddled with Brad Johnson, Gus Frerotte, and finally Favre rather than grooming a long-term solution. It's time for the Vikings to make some harsh decisions about veterans, invest in a Cam Newton or Jake Locker, and deal with a year or two of growing pains. In other words, it's time for the Vikings to rebuild.
UFA Sidney Rice sniffed at the Vikings' contract offer and plans to test the market. That's no surprise coming from a young receiver who has no idea who will be throwing passes for the Vikings next year. The stadium issue will also play into the team's free-agent efforts. As of now, it sounds like the Metrodome roof will be patched for $25 million, and it will be a tight squeeze to get the repair done before preseason. Construction being construction, the Vikings could be playing some home games at University of Minnesota, or elsewhere. Try selling that to a free agent: "Hey, sign with us, and you may be dressing for games in a Division III college locker room, or possibly playing at unheated Gopher Stadium in early December."
UFA defensive end Ray Edwards is the youngest starter on the Williams Wall and should be an in-house priority. Kicker Ryan Longwell is an unrestricted free agent, and I have a feeling there will be a veteran kicker square dance in the offseason: Longwell signs with the Eagles, David Akers (transition-tagged but miserable) signs with the Colts, Adam Vinatieri goes to Seattle, Olindo Mare ends up in Minnesota. Or some other strange, closed loop like that.
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