Digging deeper into NFC North offseasons

March, 15, 2010
3/15/10
3:00
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Ryan Pickett, Chester Taylor and Brett Favre AP ImagesWhile the Packers locked up Ryan Pickett, left, and the Bears gave Jay Cutler another weapon in Chester Taylor, middle, the Vikings are still waiting to see if Brett Favre returns for another season.
Sometimes the NFL offseason moves so quickly that we don't have a chance to consider the causes, meaning, repercussions and lingering questions created by each move. So while we have a chance, let's consider four NFC North-related topics on Day 11 of Free Agency 2010.

Why was Green Bay so committed to retaining 30-year-old nose tackle Ryan Pickett a year after drafting defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who ostensibly plays the same position?

Raji finished his rookie season splitting time between nose tackle and defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 scheme, an assignment that seemed designed to groom him for a full-time role in 2010. That progression would have been logical for a highly drafted player. I presumed Raji's destination would be nose tackle, but the Packers first placed their franchise tag on Pickett and then signed the veteran to a four-year extension worth $28 million.

Pickett's new deal will pay him $10 million in 2010, a clear sign they intend for him to start. I suppose it's possible he could move to end, but it's more likely he'll be anchored on the nose.

Where does that leave Raji? Either as a starter at end, which might not be his best position, or in another year as a swing player who spells Pickett and also plays defensive tackle in the nickel formation.

Given how infrequently the Packers play their 3-4 defense, I suppose the "starting" designation isn't as important as it might be on other teams. But when you draft a player as highly as the Packers took Raji, you expect him to quickly find a consistent and full-time role -- somewhere.

Speaking last month at the NFL scouting combine, general manager Ted Thompson said: "We feel like Ryan's a good player. We feel like he's a good teammate, a good leader of that group. I personally like him quite a bit."

In an uncapped environment, there's no penalty for paying a player $10 million for those attributes. But the decision leaves Raji's short-term status less predictable.

Any guesses on Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew's phone bill over the past 18 months?

For the sake of Detroit owner William Clay Ford, here's hoping Mayhew has an unlimited plan. In attacking the Lions' talent shortage, Mayhew has demonstrated a thoroughness that would leave some general managers exhausted.

He's made some splashy decisions when necessary, drafting quarterback Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall last year and signing free-agent defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch earlier this month. But the most unique aspect of Mayhew's approach is the way he has so often conjured something out of nothing.

[+] EnlargeShaun Hill
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe acquisition of quarterback Shaun Hill gives the Lions an experienced backup behind Matthew Stafford.
The most recent example is about to come full circle. It started last September, when Mayhew capitalized on the Lions' top priority in the NFL waivers system to claim former New England quarterback Kevin O'Connell. A week later, the Lions traded O'Connell to the New York Jets for a seventh-round draft pick in 2011.

On Sunday, the Lions reportedly sent a seventh-round pick in, yes, 2011, to San Francisco for backup quarterback Shaun Hill.

You might not be impressed with the magnitude of the names or draft rounds involved in that swap. But to me, Mayhew made the Lions a better team with no net loss of assets. O'Connell spent a couple of practices with the Lions. Hill had a .625 winning percentage as a starter in San Francisco, and I know you'll be impressed if he comes off the bench this season to help the Lions win a game.

Detroit needs to fill more holes before it can be considered a challenger for the NFC North title. But Lions fans should know their front office is working into the far peripheries of personnel acquisition to get there.

Have the Bears gotten enough help for Jay Cutler?

In order of significance, here is how I would rank the Cutler-related moves the Bears have made so far:

1. Hiring offensive coordinator Mike Martz
2. Hiring offensive line coach Mike Tice
3. Signing tailback Chester Taylor
4. Signing tight end Brandon Manumaleuna

Notable omissions from that list:

1. Acquiring a starting-caliber offensive lineman
2. Adding an experienced receiver

As Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson pointed out last week, the Bears' 2010 season hangs more on Cutler than any individual player -- and that includes new defensive end Julius Peppers. To this point, the Bears have addressed Cutler's 2009 struggles more through scheme than personnel.

If Cutler is going to be better protected in 2010, it will be because Tice gets more out of an inherited group of offensive linemen. And it will be up to Martz to find better ways to use a talented but still-green group of receivers.

Are the Vikings really planning to employ Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels as their contingency plan for quarterback Brett Favre?

To this point, there is no evidence that the Vikings have made a play to acquire a quarterback this offseason. That's a fine approach -- as long as you are very, very sure Favre is returning. Otherwise, you're teasing history.

Jackson and Rosenfels' 2009 camp battle was so uninspiring that coach Brad Childress felt obligated to make a mid-August run at Favre. Could either player have improved enough for the Vikings to feel comfortable with a 2010 competitive rematch? Er, I'm not so sure about that. The Vikings' lack of urgency here is the most telling sign yet that Favre is likely to return.

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