Friday, March 28, 2014
End result remains to be seen in NFC North
By Ben Goessling
It will be interesting to watch Jared Allen and Julius Peppers face their old teams this season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The subplots behind the roster moves -- among teams that have lived on intra-division player hopping over the last five years -- are particularly juicy.
Jared Allen jumps from the Minnesota Vikings to the Chicago Bears, just four days after Julius Peppers emigrates from the Bears to the Green Bay Packers? We sure do love our star-player-faces-his-old-team melodrama up here in NFC North country, and even by the lofty standards of a division that gave us Favre vs. Rodgers in 2009 and the hottest existential question of 2013 (who is Greg Jennings?), this week's game of musical chairs between pass rushers created intrigue. After all, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers and Jennings never got to hit their former teammates on the field.
But behind the flurry of roster moves lies three teams with distinct defensive problems, and three disparate approaches to solving them. How each strategy pans out could have a large hand in untangling the NFL's most mediocre division a year ago.
The Vikings had lived for years on a defensive line anchored by Allen and tackle Kevin Williams, who were named to 10 Pro Bowls between them in Minnesota. But when that foundation aged, and the arrival of coach Mike Zimmer brought a new approach to the 4-3 defense this winter, the Vikings decided they needed to revitalize the position more than they needed to give Allen a new contract before he turned 32. Instead of retaining Allen, they gave $20 million guaranteed to 26-year-old defensive end Everson Griffen, who has so far delivered production mostly in flashes.
The Packers, decimated by injuries in 2013 and forced to generate much of their pressure by bringing extra rushers, needed a player who could give blockers something to think about other than linebacker Clay Matthews. They gave Peppers a three-year, $30 million deal, with plans to add linebacking duties to the defensive end's resume and hopes that Peppers could learn a new role in a 3-4 defense at age 34.
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And the Bears, who couldn't get to the quarterback or stop the run in 2013, let Peppers and Henry Melton walk and pivoted to Allen, giving him a four-year contract worth up to $32 million and crossing their fingers he could be a complete player at age 32 and beyond.
All three strategies carry considerable risk, but all three teams had substantial incentive to make changes. Zimmer's defense called for Vikings linemen who would be stout against the run before chasing quarterbacks, and Allen didn't fit that profile. The Packers and Bears were 30th and 32nd in the league in quarterback pressures, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and both teams were among the league's worst at getting to the quarterback with four pass rushers.
What's more, all three teams have central figures on offense who aren't getting any younger. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson turned 29 earlier this month, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler will be 31 in April and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers turns 31 in December. If some of the changes seem rash, it's because keeping the status quo probably carried greater risk.
Still, the moves should command headlines as much because of their boldness as the players they involve. The Vikings, Packers and Bears are all gambling they've got the best way to fix an anemic defense -- the Vikings by reinventing their defense, the Packers by trusting an aging player can reinvent himself and the Bears by believing a veteran pass rusher needs no reinvention. How their respective strategies work could swing the NFC North race in any number of directions next season, which might ultimately be the most compelling outcome of this week's moves.
But next fall, when Peppers is bearing down on Cutler or Allen is trying to corral Peterson? Well, we'll still have fun with that, too.