Wrapping up the offseason in the NFC North
News and circumstances have delayed our attempts to close the book on spring practices in the NFC North. But I've had all I can stands and I can't stands it no more. So let's get to some observations and other important points while the Black and Blue teams continue their summer vacations.
Chicago's acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler removed the offseason glare from its defense. Remember, before the Cutler trade, the Bears' biggest issue was whether coach Lovie Smith could turn around a defense that seemed old and unorganized last season.
So let's catch up: The Bears opened competition at two positions -- outside linebacker and free safety -- after overhauling their defensive coaching staff. Pisa Tinoisamoa is expected to win the former spot, and either Craig Steltz or Corey Graham will take over at the latter.
But neither of those personnel moves addressed this group's primary issue: Can the Bears revive their pass rush on their defensive line? It's a fundamental requirement of the Tampa 2 defense, and the Bears can't improve much without it. It's difficult to draw many conclusions from non-contact spring drills, but the state of defensive tackle Tommie Harris' knee is hardly encouraging.
Harris, the team's best pass-rusher when healthy, sat out most drills this spring to limit wear and tear. Despite the team's protests to the contrary, it was an ominous sign.
A quick glance at the Bears' top four receivers reveals that only one -- Devin Hester -- has caught a pass in an NFL game. Earl Bennett and rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox are as green as can be. Veteran Rashied Davis always could work his way back into the rotation, but at the end of the spring the Bears seemed all-in with youth.
General manager Jerry Angelo has noted the Bears' depth at tight end and expressed little concern about the receiver position, but it's a fact that he looked into acquiring Arizona's Anquan Boldin as well as free agent Plaxico Burress. The impact of this issue would be limited had Kyle Orton returned as the Bears' quarterback, but it's fair to wonder why Angelo would devote so many resources to acquiring Cutler and then leave him with such an inexperienced receiving corps.
Detroit took "competition at every position" to a literal level this offseason. By the end of June, the Lions had 25 veterans on their roster whom had either signed as free agents, been acquired in trades or claimed on waivers. All of these acquisitions came since the end of last season. Detroit was the NFC North's most-active team, selling itself as a land of opportunity for any player who accepted the challenge.
If they're lucky, half of that group will make a positive impact on the 2009 team. (Best bets: Linebackers Julian Peterson and Larry Foote, along with receivers Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt.) But the idea itself was important: Throughout spring drills, the Lions were able to demonstrate tangible evidence for their assertion that no jobs were safe after an 0-16 season. It also gives the Lions a better chance for short-term, program-building success in 2009 while they take a more long-term approach with younger players.
Nose tackle Grady Jackson will help the Lions if he can squeeze another season out of his 36-year-old body. But despite its offseason activity, Detroit otherwise failed to upgrade either of its lines. Of the nine 2008 starters -- five on offense, four on defense -- it's possible that seven will return in 2009.
That places a lot of pressure on the Lions' coaching staff to improve a group of players who got pushed around last season. (Repeating our oft-used statistic: Detroit ranked No. 32 in run defense last season and No. 30 in run offense.) It will be difficult to predict substantive improvement from this team until we see evidence of internal improvement along both lines.
While Detroit stood pat, both Green Bay and Chicago rebuilt their offensive lines. The Bears have more short-term certainty, while the Packers have multiple training camp battles brewing.
Free-agent acquisitions Orlando Pace and Frank Omiyale are expected to man the left side of the Bears' line, while 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams will start at right tackle. Those jobs are secure.
The Packers, meanwhile, will have competition at center (Jason Spitz and Scott Wells), at right guard (Spitz and Josh Sitton) and right tackle (Allen Barbre and T.J. Lang). The end result could be the same in Chicago -- three new starters on the line -- but the teams will have taken decidedly different approaches.
Green Bay had an edge in its locker room that I didn't see last season. But that's not necessarily a negative observation.
Defensive end-turned linebacker Aaron Kampman refused to endorse the switch to a 3-4 defense. Safety Nick Collins seemed deeply disappointed with his contract situation. Long-time teammates are competing for jobs on the offensive line.
You could view those issues as signs of permanent discontent. Or, they could represent an appropriate vibe for a team that slumped last season. In reality, it might have been more disconcerting if everyone was happy-go-lucky after such a disappointing finish. It can be a good thing if a few key players are angry or feeling slighted, as long as they channel it productively.
Very quietly, Minnesota also is in the process of re-tooling its offensive line -- though not to the extent of Chicago or Green Bay.
John Sullivan, a sixth-round draft pick in 2008, has taken over at center for the departed Matt Birk. And it would be a surprise to most people if rookie Phil Loadholt doesn't win the right tackle job.
The Vikings return three core linemen: left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Steve Hutchinson and right guard Anthony Herrera. But don't underestimate the significance of swapping out the center and right tackle for a team that expects to repeat as division champions. This transition merits further inspection this summer.
I wonder how the slow leak of the Brett Favre story will affect Minnesota's ticket sales. At last report, team officials acknowledged they were slightly behind last year's sales totals. And remember, the Vikings needed corporate help to sell out half of their home games in 2008 and narrowly avoided a local television blackout for the division round of the playoffs.
Will Favre's expected arrival boost sales when the announcement finally comes? Or has the moment passed?