Four Downs: NFC North
by Bill Barnwell
What should the Bears do with their first-round pick?
Seemingly every Bears fan who doesn't immediately fall asleep or curl into the fetal position when the Chicago offense marches onto the field hopes for a quarterback or a wide receiver to come off the board with the 18th pick this year.
Instead of spending a pick on a quarterback who will take a year or two to develop, or a wide receiver who may very well struggle as the team's top target, we'd recommend the Bears to try to solve a problem on the other side of the ball. The Bears need to find a defensive end who can consistently rush the passer.
After the 2006 season, the Bears thought they were set for years at end -- Stalwart Adewale Ogunleye occupied one side, while across from him would be budding superstar Mark Anderson, who'd taken down quarterbacks 12 times as a rookie. They even had depth, with former starter Alex Brown giving up his spot to Anderson and serving as one of the league's best reserve ends.
Since then, the drop-off has been dramatic.
|The disappearing Chicago pass rush||Year||Pass Attempts||DE sacks||DT sacks||Other sacks||Total sacks|
Although the Bears faced more passes during the 2008 season, their sack total plummeted. The rush from the defensive tackles has been remarkably consistent, but the pass rush from Chicago's defensive ends has basically disappeared. Anderson lost his starting spot to Brown after a middling 2007 performance and had only one sack in 15 games this past season. Ogunleye had only five sacks and is turning 32, while Brown led the team in sacks with a measly six. None has been the consistently effective pass rusher the Bears need.
As a result of their lack of pressure, the Bears came out of their Tampa-2 defensive base significantly more frequently last season. This cost them yards downfield when blitzing linebackers and safeties, and unlike in 2007, they couldn't make it to the quarterback. (Fortunately for the Bears, the 3.9 average yards after catch allowed was best in the league.) Without an effective pass rush, the Bears' defense is waiting to be exploited. It'll take a huge return to prominence from Anderson or Ogunleye (both in contract years) or a splash in the draft for the Bears' defense to look like it did in 2006 and 2007.
Who Could Leave?
This section has been rewritten four times as the Bears keep changing their plans.
Safety Mike Brown is out; the defense's elder statesman hasn't played a full season since 2003 and turned 31 on Friday. Right tackle John Tait is rumored to be retiring; if so, that could create a reason to retain left tackle John St. Clair, who was expected to leave in order to open up a spot for 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams.
Departing players whose fame far outweigh their actual relevance include Brandon Lloyd, Marty Booker and Rex Grossman.
Who Could They Sign?
If they choose to upgrade at quarterback, the pickin's are thin indeed. With Kurt Warner rumored to desire a warm locale to peddle his aged wares and Kerry Collins likely to resign with the Titans, the Bears are left with more imperfect options. Trade a first-round pick for Matt Cassel? Sign Byron Leftwich or Chris Simms? Hope that Jeff Garcia doesn't break down? The advantage they'll have over other teams is the ability to offer a real chance at a starting job.
With $20 million or so in cap room available, they have a shot at adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh to play across from Devin Hester, but don't expect them to commit to a huge contract for a wide receiver after being the only party burned by Muhsin Muhammad in a Bears uniform. A cheaper and more plausible option might be former Bears wideout Bobby Engram, who would make sense in a possession role. They could also use more depth on the defensive line, which could mean someone like Ravens lineman Dwan Edwards or ex-Buccaneer Ryan Sims.
Should the Lions take Matt Stafford?
The Lions will need to make the most important draft selection in team history in April, and the front-runner for the pick appears to be Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford.
If they select Stafford, he'll become another player in the long line of Lions draft fiascos from this decade.
How can we be so sure? The answer has to do with the research first presented at FootballOutsiders.com by David Lewin -- namely, that the only two stats that matter for a college quarterback are games started and completion percentage. For quarterbacks taken in the first two rounds, the numbers are inextricably linked to NFL success.
In his three seasons at Georgia, Stafford started 33 games and completed 57.1 percent of the passes he threw. That puts him in some pretty uninspiring company.
|QBs similar to Stafford|
Yes, reigning rookie of the year Matt Ryan appears on that list, but with a bit of an asterisk. Ryan played for a Boston College team that had no running game and threw 654 passes in his final season, skewing his completion percentage some. Even if Ryan doesn't come with an asterisk, a one-in-five shot of picking a quarterback of Ryan's caliber shouldn't encourage Stafford's selection in the slightest.
One of the arguments against a statistical-based system for projecting college quarterbacks is that a system quarterback such as former Hawaii star Colt Brennan would put up inflated numbers that weren't true indicators of his NFL ability. Although scouts should sniff that stuff out and encourage teams to avoid taking such players in the first two rounds (something Lewin built into his system), another easy way to control for system quarterbacks is to compare the quarterback to the previous starter at his school.
Stafford was directly preceded at Georgia by the recently retired David Greene; both spent their entire college careers under head coach Mark Richt in similar offensive systems. Stafford's college numbers are actually worse than Greene's, with the latter completing 59 percent of his passes and averaging 8.01 yards per attempt to Stafford's 7.83. If Stafford was really a star in the making, wouldn't he have put up better numbers, in the same system, than a guy who washed out of the NFL without taking a professional snap? If it was our $25 million guaranteed, the answer would need to be yes.
Who Could Leave?
It's more like who hasn't left. The Lions have already released tight end Dan Campbell, guard Edwin Mulitalo, safety Dwight Smith, corner Leigh Bodden, and wideout Mike Furrey, and the purge isn't done. Releasing Daunte Culpepper would earn the team $5 million in salary cap savings, giving them a total of nearly $39 million to spend before the rookie cap hits. Expect unrestricted free agents like defensive tackle Shaun Cody, tackle George Foster, running back Rudi Johnson, linebacker Ryan Nece, fullback Moran Norris, and corner Stanley Wilson to leave. The only prominent free agent on the list is starting quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who could be brought back on a cheap deal depending on what the Lions do elsewhere.
Who Could They Sign?
Who wants to come play in Detroit? It'll be easier for Jim Schwartz to convince defensive players to make their way to Ford Field, and the first one that naturally comes to mind is Albert Haynesworth. Slotting him next to Cory Redding would give the Lions the most expensive pair of defensive tackles in the league, but Haynesworth already knows the defense and has a comfort level with Schwartz. At the very least, it would give the Lions an anchor to build around.
Schwartz will be looking to make some cheaper moves, naturally, in an attempt to try and find his Kyle Vanden Bosch. Packers defensive end Michael Montgomery has shown serious flashes of brilliance across from Aaron Kampman, and with the Packers moving to a 3-4, he's probably too small to play end for them. Montgomery won't turn 26 until August, so he's still youthful, will be cheap for a starting defensive end, and could end up being a very decent option on the outside.
The secondary's a trickier option, although Schwartz could elect to bring in former Titans corners Chris Carr or Reynaldo Hill. He tends to prefer undersized corners with decent speed, so potential options could include Cardinals nickel back Eric Green, former Browns corner Daven Holly, or Texans mainstay DeMarcus Faggins.
Green Bay Packers
Will it take the Packers long to adjust to the 3-4?
The arrival of new defensive coordinator Dom Capers in Green Bay brought a scheme change to the Packers' defense. Out is the 4-3 and in is a 3-4, with star defensive end Aaron Kampman becoming an outside linebacker in the process.
Switching to a 3-4 has worked for some teams. For example, the Patriots' dynasty was built upon core defensive players who thrived in the 3-4. Other teams, such as Dick LeBeau's Bengals and Romeo Crennel's Browns, have struggled to see their implementation turn into success.
The million-dollar question at the moment: Will Green Bay's defense improve because of a switch to the 3-4?
Since 1997, teams have switched to a 3-4 as a base defense 11 times, with last season's Dolphins the most recent example. Those teams have seen their defensive pass DVOA drop by four percentage points the season after the switch. Defensive DVOA against the run also fell by an average of four percentage points.
Some of that has to do with the nature of defensive changes, though. Inherently, defenses change because what they were doing the previous season wasn't working, and regardless of the scheme, those bad defenses tend to improve. If we look at teams that switched out of the 3-4 and back to a 4-3, those teams also saw their defensive pass DVOA decrease by four percentage points in the subsequent season. On run defense, however, those teams stayed roughly the same.
Who Could Leave?
The Packers have little in the way of impending free agents, thanks to a young team and proactive management by Ted Thompson. The only real unrestricted free agent of any note is tackle Mark Tauscher, who missed time with injuries in 2006 and 2008 while letting his play slip. Green Bay may choose to replace him with backup Tony Moll if Tauscher asks for a significant amount of money. The aforementioned Montgomery is a free agent who likely doesn't fit into the new scheme, but defensive tackle Colin Cole does; at 330 pounds, he has the size the Packers will want from their nose tackle. Expect him to stick around. Among the restricted free agents is strong safety Atari Bigby.
Who Could They Sign?
Green Bay only has $18 million in cap space before the rookie cap hits them, so in reality, they're not going to be able to make a huge splash. If Tauscher leaves, they could seek out a tackle in free agency, which could be someone like St. Clair or former Steelers tackle Max Starks. If they really commit to spending money, they probably still won't be able to grab Jordan Gross or Stacy Andrews, but could end up with Jaguars left tackle Khalif Barnes.
More than anything, they need players who fit into their new defensive scheme. They could use a big defensive end who's familiar with the 3-4, and fortunately, there are two who qualify: Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty and Chargers end Igor Olshansky each make sense, although the financing could be difficult. They could take a flier on Cowboys backup Stephen Bowen as well. They'll also need another linebacker on the interior; that could end up being Eric Barton, formerly of the Jets, or Andra Davis of the Browns.
Is Adrian Peterson's fumble-itis cause for concern?
Adrian Peterson's nine fumbles during the 2008 season were three more than any other running back. Although no fumble comes at a good time, Peterson's two fumbles in Week 6 nearly cost the Vikings a game against the lowly Lions, a loss that eventually could have knocked them out of the playoffs. In addition, the Vikings were lucky enough to recover five of Peterson's fumbles; any one of those that had bounced into the hands of the other team would have cost the Vikings even more.
Nothing can be done for those 2008 fumbles, but are Peterson's problems likely to recur next season? And will his fumble issues prevent him from being a Hall of Fame running back?
Breathe a sigh of relief, Vikings fans: The answer to both questions is "very likely not."
Of the 197 times in NFL history a back carried the ball 300 or more times in a given season, Peterson had the 27th-highest rate of carries to fumbles, coughing up the ball once every 40.3 rushing attempts. The average back fumbled once every 89.9 attempts. In the season after those campaigns, the average fumble rate was one in every 92.9 attempts, which is virtually the same figure.
If backs such as Peterson really had incurable fumble-itis, we'd see a dramatic difference between their fumble rates in subsequent seasons and the fumble rates of average backs. Instead, backs who fumbled once every 45 carries or fewer in a given season averaged a fumble once every 98.3 attempts in the following season; better than the league-average back.
Included in that group are Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Franco Harris, Earl Campbell, and Tony Dorsett. In other words, A.P. should be OK.
Who Could Leave?
Among the unrestricted free agents on the Vikings roster are center Matt Birk, tight end Jim Kleinsasser, and safety Darren Sharper. With nearly $28 million in cap space, the Vikings can resign all three if they want to, but the three are a combined 96 years old and have lost a few steps. There are replacements available for Birk (former Notre Dame center John Sullivan) and Sharper (rookie safety Tyrell Johnson), but in a year where Brad Childress will be coaching for his job, it seems logical to think that he'll be sticking in veterans wherever he can. It would be no surprise, though, if Gus Frerotte left the team.
Who Could They Sign?
A quarterback? Even the Chris Simmses and Byron Leftwiches of the world would be an upgrade on what they have behind center. They were willing to trade their first-round pick last year for Jared Allen, so you have to figure they'd at least consider trading draft picks for Cassel. They need another wide receiver to take the heat off Bernard Berrian, so adding a sure-handed receiver like Engram or the Giants' Amani Toomer could create some space for him downfield.
They've struggled to fill in spots on the right side of their line, particularly at guard; there's not a lot available at the position in free agency, but one player who could work is former Jets and Redskins guard Pete Kendall. They could also choose to move Ryan Cook inside and splash the cash out on someone like Jordan Gross, who would be the pass protector the line needs while also serving as an excellent run blocker. He was the best right tackle in the league in 2007, the place he'd occupy on the line in Minnesota.