Four Downs: NFC North

By Michael David Smith

Chicago Bears

Coaching Carousel

The Bears fired Terry Shea and replaced him with Ron Turner, recently fired as the head coach at Illinois. For a guy who's been on so few winning teams, Turner sure has had a stable coaching career. He spent four years in Chicago, eight years down the road in Champaign, and now he's back in Chicago. Bears fans seem excited about the arrival of Turner, who had some success in his first stint as the team's offensive coordinator. But the Bears' problem last year wasn't scheme; it was personnel.

Turner says the Bears will feature a balanced offensive attack. (Just once, wouldn't it be nice to hear a new offensive coordinator say, "I don't believe in balanced attacks. I'm pass-wacky and proud"?) But Turner's offense can only go as far as the players take it, so let's ask the two most important questions of the Bears' off-season: How is Rex Grossman's rehabilitation from his torn ACL coming along? And which veteran will back Grossman up next year?

In December the Bears said Grossman's progress was ahead of schedule. An ACL tear is a serious injury, but mobility is not a particularly important part of Grossman's game, so he should be ready to go by the time training camp opens. As for a veteran backup, most Bears fans seem to think Jeff George should be the man. The Bears signed George late in the 2004 season but never put him in a game. As volatile as George has been throughout his seven-team NFL career, it's hard to believe he could be any worse than Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, or Chad Hutchinson, the three quarterbacks who played last year after Grossman went down.

If the Bears are back to playing musical chairs with their quarterbacks, Turner has some experience with that. The last time he was offensive coordinator in Chicago, he went from Jim Harbaugh (1993) to Steve Walsh (1994) to Erik Kramer (1995) to Dave Krieg (1996).

Free Agent Overview

In each of the last two drafts the Bears have used five of their first six picks on defensive players. The result, predictably, is that their defense shows promise, while their offense looks terrible. The Bears will try to turn that around this off-season.

A good place to start would be the offensive line. Although Turner has praised center Olin Kreutz for his ability to get to his blocks immediately after the snap, the rest of the offensive line needs a major overhaul.

The good news in Chicago is that they're in excellent cap shape and have only three unrestricted free agents: backup cornerback Todd McMillon, backup offensive lineman Aaron Gibson, and backup running back Anthony Thomas. None of the three would be much of a loss to the Bears; Thomas is probably the only player on the roster who will get any real interest from other teams, and the Bears have made clear that they see Thomas Jones as their running back of the future. With their cap room, the Bears can afford to sign several players to improve the roster.

Expect the Bears to look for at least one offensive lineman. 2004 free agent arrival John Tait, the right tackle from Kansas City, had a very disappointing season. The Bears have talked about moving Tait to left tackle, but they'd be wise to bring in someone else to fill that role.

Detroit Lions

Coaching Carousel

Offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis retired at the end of the season. The Lions' offense often looked out of sync in 2004 and Steve Mariucci had the opportunity to bring in a coach who would shake things up. Instead, he went the safe route and hired Ted Tollner, who will fit in seamlessly with the Lions' offensive system.

Tollner was the head coach at USC from 1983 to 1986 and Mariucci's quarterbacks coach in 2002 in San Francisco. He plans to run an offense similar to what Mariucci and Lewis already had in Detroit, so expect few changes. Tollner replacing Lewis is one of only two changes among the Lions' coaches, making Detroit one of the most stable staffs in the league. The other change is Fred Graves replacing Kevin Higgins as wide receivers coach. Graves is the Lions' fourth receivers coach in four years.

Free Agent Overview

The Lions insist that a published report that Joey Harrington is on his way out is simply false. But they will definitely go shopping for a veteran to back Harrington up, or perhaps replace him as the starter if he doesn't progress. Last year's two backups, Mike McMahon and Rick Mirer, both are unrestricted free agents, and the Lions have expressed little interest in bringing either back.

Late in the season Matt Millen accomplished his No. 1 priority by re-signing defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. Rogers is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league, but there is some concern about his history of ankle problems. When you're carrying 350 pounds around, your ankles are under a lot of stress.

Two of the Lions' most disappointing players in 2004, Stephen Alexander and Tai Streets, are unrestricted free agents. Steve Mariucci liked Streets when they were together in San Francisco, but in Detroit Streets had too many drops. The same is true for Alexander, the tight end who hasn't shown any evidence that he's better than backup Casey FitzSimmons.

The Lions might look to upgrade the offensive line, with center Dominic Raiola and right guard Stockar McDougle both becoming free agents. Last year's top free-agent signing, guard Damien Woody, came to the team out of shape and played badly in the first month of the season. But as Woody got into shape, the Lions' running game improved dramatically. It's unlikely that Detroit will bring in another free agent lineman as expensive as Woody, but they very likely will sign at least one veteran lineman.

On defense, all 11 starters are under contract for next year, but the Lions could stand to get younger and faster at middle linebacker. Earl Holmes has played admirably against the run, but he's a liability on passes over the middle. The safeties, Brian Walker and Brock Marion, are in their 30s, so it might be time for a youth movement there, too. The team will save $1.2 million on the salary cap if it releases Brian Walker, so he's probably gone. Millen always says he wants a fast defense, which is odd for two reasons. One is that he was one of the slowest linebackers in the league. The other is that he's been there four years and the defense still has quite a few plodders.

Restricted free agents usually don't make much of an off-season impact, but an interesting one to watch is the Lions' return man, Eddie Drummond. When Drummond is healthy, he's the best in the business. But he can't seem to stay healthy for a full season. Might some team make Drummond an offer that the Lions don't want to match?

Az Hakim, slated to make $4 million, might be released. He had his best year as a Lion in 2004, but for all the money he got to leave St. Louis for Detroit, Hakim has to be considered a significant disappointment.

Green Bay Packers

Will Brett Favre Retire?

A bunch of people who don't know have speculated about No. 4's future. But Favre himself is mum. The best guess here is that there's no point in taking anyone's word for it because Favre himself doesn't know yet. If he returns next year, he's still going to be one of the league's top quarterbacks. The football media have excessively praised Favre for so long that after his horrid game against the Vikings in the playoffs, I got the sense that many people saw it as an opportunity to excessively criticize him. Is Favre as good right now as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Daunte Culpepper? No. He'll turn 36 next year, and every athlete (except Barry Bonds) declines as he reaches his mid- to late-30s. Is he still one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the league? Yes.

Coaching Carousel

I always thought Mike Sherman was wrong to fire Ed Donatell and replace him with Bob Slowik a year ago. This year, I think Sherman has found the right man for the job in Jim Bates, who did admirable work in a tough situation as the defensive coordinator and then the interim head coach in Miami last season. Bates brought two of his Miami assistants, Robert Nunn and Bob Sanders, with him to Green Bay. The defensive staff in Green Bay is undergoing a major overhaul, as defensive backs coach Kurt Schottenheimer has already left to coach the Rams' secondary, and defensive line coach Jethro Franklin left the Packers to become an assistant to Pete Carroll at USC.

Free Agent Overview

The Packers are projected to be over the salary cap by about $3 million, which makes them the only NFC North team in the red. How they handle this situation will be a crucial test for new general manager Ted Thompson.

It's unclear whether Bubba Franks will remain with the Packers, as he told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that there haven't been any talks, but his agent told the Green Bay News-Chronicle it's likely Franks will get the franchise player tag. If Franks leaves, expect the Packers not to worry too much about replacing him, instead employing more three-receiver sets next year. Franks is an effective receiver and blocker, but he hasn't shown much improvement and the Packers might be content to let him go. Two backup tight ends, Ben Steele and the underrated David Martin, also are unrestricted free agents.

Last year the Packers signed left tackle Chad Clifton to a six-year deal worth $32.4 million, including $11 million in bonuses. That pretty much guaranteed they wouldn't have the money to keep the rest of their offensive line intact this off-season. Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera is an unrestricted free agent. Guard Mike Wahle, who should have been in the Pro Bowl, is due a $6 million roster bonus and a $5 million base salary in 2005, which probably means the Packers will cut him loose. So the Packers could go from the team with the best pair of guards in the league to a team desperate to sign someone to play guard. I expect both players to get big contracts, but Wahle will probably get more money because he's five years younger. One possibility for the Packers: Centers Mike Flanagan and Grey Ruegamer both could move to guard, and Scott Wells could become the team's starting center. Flanagan, Ruegamer, and Wells all got playing time at center this year because of injuries. That would mean a Packers line that once had great depth would be stretched dangerously thin. Backup tackle Kevin Barry, who plays tight end when the Packers use their six-lineman formation, is a restricted free agent.

Running back Najeh Davenport is a restricted free agent. The 26-year-old Davenport is two years younger than Ahman Green and too good for the Packers to let him go without a fight.

Minnesota Vikings

Gathering Moss

The biggest story in the off-season this year might be the Vikings trading Randy Moss. Early rumors said Moss could go to the Raiders in exchange for Phillip Buchanan and the seventh overall pick in April's draft. If I were the Vikings, I'd pass. Buchanan is a speedster, but he doesn't seem to be enough of a hitter to become a good defensive back. I'm sure Al Davis would love to have a deep threat like that to open up Norv Turner's offense. If anyone does acquire Moss, I think the Ravens are the team that would make the most sense. Brian Billick is Moss's former offensive coordinator and he's desperate to get a big-play threat on his offense in Baltimore. Last year the Ravens showed they were serious about bringing in a big-time receiver with their courting of Terrell Owens. The Ravens also could afford to trade away a defensive starter and a first-round pick, which is apparently the Vikings' asking price.

Coaching Carousel

Miami offered Scott Linehan more money than Red McCombs was willing to shell out, so Linehan is now Nick Saban's first offensive coordinator. The Vikings -- as teams looking to save a penny always do -- promoted from within, tabbing offensive line coach Steve Loney. Both Linehan and Loney favor an offense similar to the one Joe Gibbs developed in Washington, so look for the Redskins, Dolphins, and Vikings all to employ an offense heavy on counters, with a blocking H-back an important part of the mix.

Free Agent Overview

The Vikings have about $30 million in cap space, by far the most of any NFL team. Is Red McCombs willing to spend it now, knowing he is selling the team? Will new owner Reggie Fowler be willing to spend it if the sale becomes official?

Guard David Dixon, one of the most effective straight-ahead run blockers in the league, is a free agent. At 343 pounds he's awfully big for a guard, but he's still got some mobility. No matter who their running back is, the Vikings are always effective at running up the middle, and Dixon is a big reason for that. He's 36 years old, though, which might scare some teams off. There's been some talk that the Vikings will move Chris Liwienski to Dixon's right guard spot and have a training camp competition for left guard, but I think Dixon will be a Viking next year.

Two players who got a lot of attention in January and played very well down the stretch this year are unrestricted free agents: linebacker Chris Claiborne and tight end Jermaine Wiggins. Wiggins emerged in 2004 as a very good possession receiver after several years as more of a special teams/role player. But the Vikings will probably let him go and assume that they'll be better off with a healthy Jimmy Kleinsasser next year. Claiborne would be a good one to keep because he seems to fit well in defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's schemes. Defensive tackle Chris Hovan, also an unrestricted free agent, is almost certainly gone.

If the Vikings do make a splash in free agency, expect it to be on defense. They're in desperate need of someone who can take on blockers and stop the run. Linebackers Edgerton Hartwell of the Ravens or Antonio Pierce of the Redskins would be good choices.

Later this week: AFC North by Ryan Wilson


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