Chicago Bears: John Carlson
The development tells us two things. First, the Vikings are nearing a deadline for keeping intact the offensive line they believed they had established for the long term last season. Second, the Bears are serious about addressing their offensive line -- so much so that they would spend relatively premium money, perhaps more than $5 million annually -- to replace the player they drafted in the first round just two years ago.
Yes, if the Bears land Loadholt, the best-case scenario for Gabe Carimi would seem to be competing for a starting guard position. There have also been multiple reports, including this one from Alex Marvez of Fox Sports, that connect the Bears and free-agent left tackle Jake Long. Loadholt figures to be a more affordable option if the Bears want a starting tackle in free agency.
The Vikings already had more than enough salary-cap space to sign Loadholt, but it's worth noting they created more Tuesday morning by restructuring the contract of tight end John Carlson. (Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has details.)
Again, these are the types of exciting/agonizing moments that the free-agent deadline brings. I really don't think the Vikings want to lose Loadholt, given their lack of an internal replacement, and they certainly don't want to see him strengthen one of their division rivals. I wouldn't be surprised if we have a resolution on this one by the end of Tuesday.
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.
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.
Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail: The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression: The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)
Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail: The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.
Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail: As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression: The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.
Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail: Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.
Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.
Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.
Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.
What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.
Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.
Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.
All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.
What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.
Green Bay Packers
Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.
Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.
What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.
Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.
Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.
What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned following the Chicago Bears 35-24 divisional round victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
1. Jay Cutler passed the first test: Cutler wasn't perfect. And if Cutler throws that goal line pick in the first half, an errant throw dropped by Jordan Babineaux, maybe the game takes on a different feel. But the Bears' quarterback certainly made big plays in the first playoff game of his professional career and should be applauded for the overall effort. Until Mike Martz got goofy in the second half, the Bears complimented Cutler with a balanced running attack and pretty decent pass protection, two keys to any quarterback's success in the postseason. Cutler even morphed into Tim Tebow on two running plays that resulted in touchdowns. But as always with Cutler, the most important stat was zero turnovers. Atlanta's Matt Ryan showed everybody Saturday night how not to beat the Packers: turn the ball over. Cutler was careless with the football in Week 17 at Lambeau Field, and the Bears lost. If Cutler can protect the ball in the NFC Championship Game, the Bears have a good shot at advancing to their second Super Bowl under Lovie Smith.
2. Charles Tillman took the rematch: I don't care if Mike Williams caught two touchdowns, Charles Tillman won the battle against the Seattle wide receiver. Unlike in Week 6, the Bears played tighter coverage against the Seahawks wideouts, and Tillman pestered Williams all over the field the entire afternoon. Matt Hasselbeck targeted Williams a game-high 13 times, but connected on only four of those throws for a measly 15 yards. While Williams appeared to be loafing, Tillman played like this game was one of the biggest of his career. Obviously, next week represents a big step up in class with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, but Tillman showed Sunday he can still be an effective shut-down cornerback when required.
4. Tommie Harris can make an impact: This did not look like the guy who was a healthy scratch when the Bears played the Packers at Soldier Field in Week 3. Coming into the playoff matchup with Seattle, most people assumed Julius Peppers would the most impactful Bears defensive lineman. Wrong. It was Harris. The defensive tackle led the team in sacks (2), tackles for a loss (2) and quarterback hits (2), according to the NFL stat book distributed in the press box. The Bears may decide to cut ties with Harris after the season, but Sunday showed the former Pro Bowler still has life left in those legs. Imagine if the Bears can get that push up the middle from Harris next week against Aaron Rodgers. That would certainly help the overall defensive effort. If Harris is done in Chicago, what better way to go out than to help this team reach the Super Bowl, which would be a first for Harris. Remember, he was on injured reserve when the Bears made their Super Bowl run in 2006.
5. John Carlson's injury was a big loss for Seattle: First of all, it's good to hear Carlson and Marcus Trufant are okay after both had to leave the field on stretchers. But you simply cannot overstate how much losing Carlson in the first quarter threw the Seahawks off their game on offense. One veteran Bears defender said in the postgame locker room that without Carlson, Seattle lost its ability to run numerous formations and attempt numerous plays that otherwise might have been successful vs. the Bears' defense. It's hard to understand why Carlson decided to jump in the air when running toward the sidelines, since Danieal Manning clearly was in position to cut off the edge. If surrendering the 58-yard touchdown pass to Olsen wasn't bad enough, watching Carlson get carted off the field sucked any remaining momentum out of the Seahawks. For all practical purposes, they were done with 11:40 left to play in the opening quarter.