Monday, February 13, 2012
Leading Questions: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2012 season:
In last year's version of Leading Questions, we wondered when the Bears would address the depth behind their aging defensive stars. That issue is still on the table, but of greater 2012 importance is this: How will the Bears manage their transition to new offensive coordinator Mike Tice?
Tice will retain much of the terminology and some of the philosophy from former coordinator Mike Martz. But Tice has his own spin on the "three-digit offense," and the Bears will need to realign behind a power running game and a passing approach that emphasizes downfield throws.
Tight end and receiver are two positions the Bears need to focus on this offseason, either by developing their existing players like Kellen Davis and/or acquiring a legitimate downfield threat. New general manager Phil Emery should have more than $20 million in cap space to work with, and the free-agent market should be deep with receivers.
But to make Tice's offense work, Emery will also need to ensure the return of free-agent tailback Matt Forte and find him a reliable backup as well.
In a tight salary-cap situation, can the Lions keep their nucleus together and add where needed?
Years of high draft positioning made the Lions a talented team but also one facing a cap crunch in 2012. Preliminary cap reconciliation leaves the Lions with $122 million in cap commitments, about $2 million above the estimated $120 million cap. And that total doesn't include three defensive starters who are pending free agents: defensive end Cliff Avril, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.
The Lions will need to find ways to shave from that total, whether it's borrowing from future caps -- a tool now available in the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) -- or reducing the cap figures in existing contracts.
As we've discussed, receiver Calvin Johnson should be the first target for a cap-reducing contract extension. He's projected to account for about $22 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal. Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch are estimated to account for nearly half of the Lions' total cap allotment.
What does all this mean? We are all figuring out the NFL's new salary-cap rules together, but it's clear the Lions must make some difficult short-term decisions and weigh them against long-term prosperity.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
What can the Packers do to improve a pass defense that gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history?
The easiest answer is to address the pass rush, which weakened in 2011 when the Packers couldn't find a suitable replacement for departed free agent Cullen Jenkins. The rush could come from the defensive end position, where the Packers have waited two years for the highly touted Mike Neal to make an impact, or through acquiring a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
General manager Ted Thompson has been reluctant in recent years to utilize veteran free agency, and the truth is that few teams allow a legitimate pass-rusher to depart without compensation. But the situation was serious enough in 2011 that Thompson will at least need to consider every avenue available for a substantial and fast-acting solution. The Packers had 29 sacks in 2011, tied for the third-worst total in the NFL.
Parallel to that issue, however, Thompson will also have to monitor a situation at safety that contributed to the Packers' defensive problems in 2011. Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins will find out in March whether he can continue his career or if he must retire because of a serious neck injury. The Packers missed his leadership and instincts in center field and would need to acquire a long-term replacement if he retires.
The development of quarterback Christian Ponder will dominate many of the Vikings' offseason headlines, but there is an equally important question hovering over the team: How fast can it upgrade its historically poor pass defense?
Vikings opponents finished the season with a 107.6 passer rating, the third-highest figure in NFL history. Their eight interceptions tied for the league's lowest total in 2011 and only one player among the back seven who started the majority of games in 2011 -- linebacker Chad Greenway -- is assured a starting job in 2012.
It's difficult to replace six starters in one offseason, but the Vikings have already begun their defensive overhaul by hiring new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, bringing back Brendan Daly as their defensive line coach and making former coordinator, Fred Pagac, their primary linebackers coach.
The personnel situation is most dire in the secondary, where two of the Vikings' primary safeties -- Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson -- are free agents. Talented cornerback Chris Cook, suspended for the final 10 games of the season following a domestic-violence incident, remains in limbo. Cook's trial date is tentatively scheduled for March 5. The future of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield must be addressed as well; Winfield turns 35 in June.