Chicago Bears: DeAndre Levy

Bears have NFL's oldest starters

May, 22, 2013
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As rosters shake out this summer, you'll hear a fair amount about the "youngest" and "oldest" teams in the NFL. Sometimes those figures and rankings can be skewed by aged kickers or an exceptionally youthful set of reserves, so I like what colleague Mike Sando compiled this week over on the NFC West blog.

Sando has a comprehensive chart ranking teams by the average age of their projected starters, ostensibly the most important 22 players on the roster. (Specialists weren't included, mostly because age isn't as relevant for them.) Naturally, there are some best guesses involved when you're looking at a starting lineup in May, but most teams have provided enough clues either through minicamps or organized team activities (OTAs) to make a reasonable projection.

As it turns out, the Chicago Bears have the NFL's oldest set of starters when viewed in this way. As it stands now, their starting defense includes four players who are at least 30 and two more who are 29. That figure could change if either (or both) of their two rookie linebackers, Jon Bostic (22) and Khaseem Greene (22) win a starting job. But for now, the Bears' starting linebackers are Lance Briggs (32), D.J. Williams (30) and James Anderson (29). They are set to play alongside defensive end Julius Peppers (33), cornerback Charles Tillman (32) and cornerback Tim Jennings (29).

The Detroit Lions rank No. 16 overall largely because their offensive starters are the NFL's sixth-oldest, headed by center Dominic Raiola (34), receiver Nate Burleson (31) and tight end Tony Scheffler (30). For the purposes of this projection, Corey Hilliard (28) is considered the right tackle over Jason Fox (25).

Meanwhile, starters from the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers rank among the NFL's nine youngest.

Making a value judgment here is much harder than compiling the figures. Younger isn't necessarily better, especially at key positions, unless it represents a longer-term fixture at the position. And in some cases, age represents the staying power of an elite player. For 2013, at least, I'm sure the Bears would prefer Briggs over, say, the Lions' DeAndre Levy (26) or the Packers' Nick Perry (23).

NFL team-building can be cyclical, however. What we can say, I think, is that teams with older starters have more urgency to identify and develop their next generation of players. Presumably, those with younger starters have already begun that process.

Related: The Packers and Vikings lead the division, respectively, with draft picks remaining on their roster.

All-NFC North midseason team

November, 7, 2012
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NFC Midseason Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

We've posted an All-NFC North team after every season since we started this blog five seasons ago. (Links: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008.)

Below, you'll find our first attempt at a midseason division team. As always, its composition is a blend of advice I've received from football professionals, my own eyes and consultations with some media services I respect. (For those interested, here is Pro Football Focus' All-NFC North team from last week.)

As we've learned in past years, there isn't always a direct correlation between individual frequency and team success. If there were, the Minnesota Vikings -- who sit in third place here in Week 10 -- wouldn't have a division-high eight players on this team.

Many of the choices are obvious and/or self-explanatory. Here are some thoughts on the more difficult decisions:
  • Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones has caught a career-high eight touchdown receptions, tying him for first among all NFL pass-catchers. But who would you remove from the three receivers I included to make room for Jones on this team? The Vikings' Percy Harvin leads the NFL with 62 receptions. The Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall ranks second with 797 receiving yards and fourth with 59 receptions. And the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson ranks third with 767 yards and 10th with 48 receptions. Yeah, I know.
  • I realize that Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has more sacks (five) in eight games than the Vikings' Brian Robison has in nine (4.5). But I also think Robison has made an impact in many other ways, most notably by batting down six passes at the line of scrimmage. He's also forced a fumble, by the Arizona Cardinals' John Skelton, on one of his sacks. Finally, Robison has been around the ball much more, contributing on 26 tackles to Peppers' 14. Close call here, but that's why I picked Robison.
  • I struggled at tight end between the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and the Vikings' Kyle Rudolph. Pettigrew had some early struggles with drops, and Rudolph caught five touchdowns in the Vikings' first six games. But Rudolph has disappeared over the past three games, while Pettigrew has continued to play a role in the Lions' offense. He has 39 receptions, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL for tight ends. Coaches have also lauded his run blocking.
  • If the left guard position were judged on versatility, the Packers' T.J. Lang would have won out over the Lions' Rob Sims. Lang is now the Packers' right tackle after Bryan Bulaga's injury. But Sims has been much steadier this season at left guard. PFF hasn't debited him with a sack allowed, while Lang has been beat for four.
  • There's no doubt that Bulaga struggled in Week 3 at the Seattle Seahawks. Football people, however, think that has been his only bad game and that he has been the Packers' best lineman in the rest of their games.
  • I picked what I thought was the NFC North's three best linebackers, regardless of what position they play. That's why the Lions' DeAndre Levy is listed as a middle linebacker even though he plays on the outside in Detroit. By most accounts, Levy is having his best NFL season. Clay Matthews (nine sacks) and Lance Briggs (two interceptions, two touchdowns, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed) were obvious choices.
  • There are four really good place-kickers in the NFC North, though the Packers' Mason Crosby is in a bit of a slump. But how do you pick against a place-kicker who has converted 19 of 20 attempts -- including a league-high five from at least 50 yards -- while also securing an NFL-high 31 touchbacks on kickoffs? The Vikings' Blair Walsh has had a stunning first 10 games of his professional career.

Looming: Three huge QB contracts

October, 25, 2012
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No NFC North teams appeared on John Clayton's list of the NFL's 10 worst contracts, and I really can't come up with an obvious nomination. There are no abominable contracts in this division at the moment, at least none any team entered by choice that will limit its flexibility moving forward.

Some of you might note the five-year, $25 million contract the Minnesota Vikings gave tight end John Carlson last spring. Carlson has played sparingly (27.2 percent of snaps), caught three passes and is currently sidelined by a concussion. But as Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com points out, the Vikings could void his contract after this season (provided he is not still injured) for a modest $4 million cap hit.

[+] EnlargeCutler
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireJay Cutler's contract is up following the 2013 season.
What Clayton's project did bring to mind is that the NFC North is primed for three monster-truck contracts that will be the types of deals that entire salary caps are structured around. For different reasons, quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford are all closer to new contracts than you might have realized.

Cutler's deal with the Chicago Bears expires after the 2013 season. He's making $8.2 million this year and is due to make $8.9 million next season. Would the Bears go into 2013 with their franchise quarterback in a free-agent year? It wouldn't be ideal, and if they want to avoid it, they would need to address it this offseason.

We've discussed Rodgers' situation several times. He is signed through the 2014 season but has obviously outperformed a deal that will pay him $9.75 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014. You would assume it's a matter of when, not if, Rodgers gets a new deal. The current benchmark is the five-year, $100 million contract the New Orleans Saints gave quarterback Drew Brees.

Stafford's situation, meanwhile, is no less urgent even though he is technically signed through 2015. The final year of his deal is voidable and, more importantly, Stafford is due to count $20.320 million against the Detroit Lions' 2013 salary cap after two years of renegotiations. The Lions could conceivably deal with a cap number that high, but you wonder if they'll seek an extension in order to lower his cap hit over the next few years. They will have a busy offseason given the pending free agency of seven starters: cornerback Chris Houston, safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive tackle Corey Williams, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, linebacker Justin Durant and place-kicker Jason Hanson.

Investing in a franchise quarterback is usually a sound policy, but it'll be costly in each instance.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

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