Four Downs: NFC North
by Ryan Wilson
Offensive Line Is Kinda Important
Any discussion about the Bears inevitably begins with the sorry state of the a) quarterbacks, b) wide receivers, or c) Cedric Benson. Which is nice if you're an offensive lineman -- at least in the sense that you can go out in public without having to don a disguise. But of all the shortcomings on this team, the offensive line may be the biggest concern. Last season, the front five ranked 30th in Adjusted Line Yards (Benson's agent will point to this as proof that his client was set up to fail) and 18th in Adjusted Sack Rate.
The line is due an overhaul; whether that happens by August is another issue. Tackle Fred Miller and guard Ruben Brown won't be back, and left tackle John Tait could move to the right side. Terrence Metcalf and John St. Clair, two backups who logged time last season, were inconsistent and could stand some competition. Unfortunately, it won't come via free agency. As it stands, the Bears' depth chart at left tackle and left guard currently reads "gaping hole."
Oddly, the team never made much of an effort to sign Alan Faneca. At 31, he's not a long-term solution, but he could still play at a high level for a few years. In fact, Chicago didn't sign one offensive lineman during free agency, ostensibly because of the inflated prices resulting from the dearth of options. Regardless, the Bears now have to rely on the draft to find at least one -- and preferably two -- starters, in addition to adding a wide receiver, franchise quarterback, running back and safety.
Free Agency Recap
Heading into the off-season, the Bears front office presumably had plans to upgrade the wide receiver position (it was on the to-do list right after "sign left guard, sign left tackle"). The team released Muhsin Muhammad last month and chose not to franchise or re-sign Bernard Berrian. Muhammad underachieved during his three years in Chicago (while that can be partly blamed on the quarterbacks, Muhammad also shares some of the responsibility), and it's not clear Berrian is a No. 1 receiver. Both moves are hardly worth mentioning on their own, but when juxtaposed against the free-agency acquisitions, Chicago's offensive goals for next season become tough to figure.
The Bears managed to bring Marty Booker back to town after a four-year stint with the Dolphins, and outbid exactly no one for the right to watch Brandon Lloyd drop passes. D.J. Hackett spent the first few weeks of free agency on his couch waiting for his phone to ring. Hackett struggled with injuries last season, but he would've been a relatively cheap option with -- wait for it -- upside. He ended up signing with the Panthers and the Bears settled for Lloyd, a relatively cheap option with absolutely no upside.
Which means Chicago is still without a No. 1 and a No. 2 receiver, although former second-round pick Mark Bradley will finally be given an opportunity to play. So there's that.
It case it wasn't clear the first time: Offensive line and wide receiver are two humongous needs. Unfortunately, running back and quarterback are too. If the Bears choose to address the line, they can't go wrong drafting either a tackle or a guard. And since this is a deep draft for linemen, Chicago might be well served to take one in the first round and another a round later. The consensus is that Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Chris Williams and Jeff Otah are the top tackles, and conceivably all could be gone when Chicago picks 14th. Guard Branden Albert, who can also play tackle, could be a possibility.
The wide receiver class isn't very deep and the Bears could find Early Doucet, Mario Manningham or Andre Caldwell still on the board in the second round. Alternatively, it might make more sense to get a wideout and then a lineman. In which case, Devin Thomas and Sam Baker would be options.
Chicago could also choose to finally find a franchise quarterback in the first round (anybody but Matt Ryan could be available) or get around to replacing Benson (in all likelihood, only Darren McFadden will be gone).
The second day of the draft could be used as an opportunity to find a replacement for Adam Archuleta.
Add Kevin Jones to the List
At least it wasn't a wide receiver this time. Charles Rogers and Mike Williams are synonymous with team president Matt Millen's infatuation with big-play wideouts. That the team used three first-round picks on wide receivers in three consecutive drafts is well documented and not worth re-hashing here. But the team's second first-round pick in 2004, running back Kevin Jones, has now suffered the same fate as Rogers and Williams: Detroit sent him packing earlier this month.
To varying degrees, all three players were hampered by injuries during their time in Detroit, but Jones at least showed promise. The second half of his rookie season was encouraging (he had four 100-yard rushing games and another 99-yard effort, and scored four TDs), and he had average or close to average DVOA in 2005 and 2007.
Unlike Rogers and Williams, Jones was unlucky as opposed to unmotivated; he suffered a Lisfranc injury in December 2006 and a year later he tore his MCL. Jones leaves Detroit having carried the ball just 761 times for 3,067 yards (4.0 average).
The Lions also chose not to re-sign T.J. Duckett, but Tatum Bell will return, no doubt on the assumption that new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto will actually run the ball next season.
It's hard to divine what the running game might look like because we saw it so rarely in 2007. The Lions lost right tackle Damien Woody to the Jets and re-signed George Foster for depth, but the rest of the line returns intact, and is in relatively good shape. The unit ranked 23rd against the run, better than NFC North rivals Green Bay (26th) and Chicago (30th), but still nothing to brag about.
Free Agency Recap
The Lions aren't afraid of change. Six defensive players who saw extensive action last season won't be back with the team. Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is now Cleveland's problem, and defensive end Kalimba Edwards was cut. Linebackers Teddy Lehman and Boss Bailey weren't re-signed, and defensive backs Fernando Bryant and Kenoy Kennedy were released.
But the secondary is arguably better now than it was when the season ended. Detroit re-signed Travis Fisher and got Leigh Bodden and a third-round pick for the trouble of unloading Rogers on the Browns. The Lions also signed Dwight Smith and Brian Kelly.
The defensive line and linebackers are still huge question marks, however. Although Rogers was known just as much for taking plays off as he was for his jaw-dropping athleticism, Detroit will miss his presence in the middle of the defense. They signed former Seahawk Chuck Darby, but he's more of a role player than someone who opposing offenses must game-plan around. At middle linebacker, Al Wilson is still a possibility, but that will be contingent on his ability to pass a physical. The Lions showed interest in Jonathan Vilma but he was traded to the Saints, and with the free agency cupboard bare, Detroit will look to fill that need through the draft.
The Lions are in the market for a right tackle, but most of their needs are along the defensive front seven. The success of the Tampa-2 scheme is dependent on a four-man pass rush and a middle linebacker who can patrol the middle of the field. Since there aren't any Patrick Willis-types in this draft, Detroit could take a defensive end with their 15th pick. Derrick Harvey and Philip Merling are possibilities, although Merling is known more as a run-stuffer. Calais Campbell and Lawrence Jackson are second-round options, and Kendall Langford is a dark-horse candidate in the third round.
Dan Connor is considered the best middle linebacker in the draft, but he may not have the athleticism to play in Detroit's scheme. Jerod Mayo and Curtis Lofton should be available in the second round, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar is an intriguing second-day option.
Running back is also a need. Although, you could argue it was a need last year too. While it might not be prudent to take a running back 15th overall, it wouldn't be altogether surprising; Millen has a fondness for taking skill-position players in the first round. Still, this draft class is relatively deep at running back -- much deeper than at defensive end or middle linebacker -- and Detroit could add depth at other positions and still land a player like Matt Forte or Kevin Smith on Day 2.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers, This Is Not a Drill
Brett Favre has retired. After 17 NFL seasons (16 in Green Bay), 442 touchdowns, 288 interceptions, and 61,655 yards, it's over. Despite Favre's decision to call it quits, the Packers are still the favorites in the NFC North and are among the youngest teams in the league. Veteran wideout Donald Driver returns, and he'll play opposite Greg Jennings, who had a breakout sophomore season (53 receptions, 920 yards, 12 touchdowns). James Jones, who hauled in 47 passes as a rookie, will man the slot, and running back Ryan Grant will be looking to improve on an out-of-nowhere 2007 season that included 956 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in just seven starts.
Favre's understudy, Aaron Rodgers, has been waiting three years for this opportunity. He showed glimpses of an ability to handle the job last year; he was productive in the preseason and filled in nicely for Favre during a Week 13 loss to the Cowboys. Luckily, Rodgers won't be asked to do too much; Driver, Jennings, Jones and Grant should make the transition a relatively smooth one. Even more good news: The Packers were first in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate.
Although Rodgers has yet to prove himself, he's certainly in a much better situation than the quarterback taken 23 picks before him in the 2005 draft: Alex Smith. That could change, of course, but it only reinforces that the draft is more art than science.
Free Agency Recap
A team is in pretty good shape when one of their biggest off-season needs is to find a veteran backup quarterback. The Packers have yet to fill that need, but Craig Nall, the perennial clipboard-holder, could be re-signed before training camp.
The other pressing need was at linebacker, and the Packers signed Brandon Chillar earlier this week to address it. He'll battle incumbent Brady Poppinga for the strong-side job.
Green Bay franchised defensive tackle Corey Williams and then sent him to Cleveland for a second-round pick. The Packers have some depth along the defensive line and are hoping that 2007 first-rounder Justin Harrell will be a more consistent contributor next season.
The team also released its 2000 first-round pick, tight end Bubba Franks. In his eight-year career, Franks never had more than 442 receiving yards and only once caught more than 36 passes in a season.
Cornerback might be the primary need, but only because the two starters, Al Harris and Charles Woodson, are each entering their 11th season in the league. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin should be long gone by the time the Packers go on the clock with the 30th pick, but Aqib Talib could be available. He's a rangy cornerback who takes risks, but he's good in press coverage and has a knack for making big plays. Another option could be Antoine Cason, who timed faster than Talib, but doesn't possess the press-coverage skills.
With Franks now with the Jets, the Packers will also be looking to add depth at tight end behind Donald Lee. Purdue's Dustin Keller is strictly a pass-catcher, but he would be an intriguing choice if he's available. If the Packers opt to use one of their two second-round picks, Fred Davis might be an alternative.
What Would Purple Jesus Do?
Prior to Feb. 24, the Vikings' main concern was Tarvaris Jackson and how he would fare as the starting quarterback in 2008. But that changed when left tackle Bryant McKinnie was arrested in Miami, his fourth cuffing-and-stuffing since joining the team in 2002. The Star Tribune notes that the charges were dropped in two instances, but "the multiple offenses make him a candidate for decisive punishment from the NFL if he is found guilty or accepts a plea agreement in Miami-Dade (Fla.) County Court."
The new-and-improved Minnesota Vikings don't suffer law-breakers and troublemakers well. After the sex boat scandal a few years ago, then-new owner Zygi Wilf promised to clean up the organization. Head coach Brad Childress released Koren Robinson during the 2006 preseason after an alcohol-related arrest. Dwight Smith kept his job after some hardcore PDA, but was still sanctioned by the team.
(Ed. Note: In the Wilf household, this is known as "a shonda fer de dovim.")
Minnesota's offensive line ranked just 15th in Adjusted Line Yards last season, but were 10th on runs around the left end and ninth on runs between the center and left guard. For as dangerous as Adrian Peterson was, having McKinnie, Steve Hutchinson and Matt Birk make up 60 percent of the offensive line also had a lot to do with his success.
If the Vikings are without McKinnie for any length of time, not only will it affect the running game, but it will put even more pressure on Jackson. At the end of last season, defenses were putting eight and nine players near the line of scrimmage and forcing Minnesota to pass the ball. Jackson threw for at least 220 yards in two of his final three starts, but he had three touchdowns and five interceptions, and more importantly, the Vikings were 1-2.
Free Agency Recap
McKinnie's suspension, if it comes down, will be a huge negative, but a big positive could be Minnesota's new No. 1 wide receiver, Bernard Berrian. Yes, I mentioned above that Berrian hadn't proven himself worthy of a large free-agent contract because he had been a No. 2 receiver in Chicago. That doesn't necessarily mean the Vikings were hasty in giving him a six-year, $42 million deal. For starters, the team had gobs of cap room. Second, like the Bears, they very much needed to upgrade the wideout position. Unlike the Bears, the Vikings chose to do something about it in free agency.
And while it's unclear if Berrian is cut out to be a No. 1, his production in Chicago last year -- under some trying circumstances, by the way -- is noteworthy. He caught 71 passes for 951 yards and five touchdowns. (Bears quarterbacks tossed just 17 scores in 2007.)
Worst-case scenario: Berrian, Bobby Wade, Sidney Rice, Robert Ferguson and Aundrae Allison combine to give the Vikings a mix of Nos. 2 and 3 wideouts to offset Peterson and Chester Taylor in the running game. On paper, it's an upgrade over last year, but this assumes Jackson plays more consistently.
It took nearly 18 months, but Minnesota finally got around to releasing Dwight Smith. The Vikings signed former Bengals safety Madieu Williams to a six-year, $34 million contract, and they also added Michael Boulware.
Minnesota featured one of the NFL's best run defenses for a second consecutive season, but the pass defense continued to be a liability. Williams and Boulware are tough in rushing situations and Williams should also improve the defense on passing downs.
The Vikings signed Ellis Wyms to a one-year contract this month and he can play anywhere along the defensive line. The team will still be looking for a true defensive end to replace Kenechi Udeze, who will miss next season as he recovers from leukemia. Derrick Harvey or Phillip Merling would make sense with the 17th pick, although if Minnesota is truly concerned about McKinnie's future, they could also take a lineman.
More realistically, the team could look to the later rounds for an offensive lineman -- a center -- to eventually replace Birk. Kory Lichtensteiger might be a Day 2 option; if nothing else, he'd provide depth.
The specter of finding Jackson's replacement is forever looming, and it wouldn't be completely surprising if Minnesota used a second-day pick on a quarterback.