NFC North: Adewale Ogunleye

Update: The (internal) replacements

September, 1, 2010
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As the preseason draws to a close, it's time to start updating some of our offseason threads. Let's begin with a Feb. 22 post that suggested four players whose potential development could ease depth concerns at their respective positions. As it turned out, we did a better job of identifying need positions than we did in suggesting candidates to fill them. Better luck next year, I guess.

Chicago Bears defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert


What we said then: The road couldn't be paved any more clearly for Gilbert, the Bears' top pick of the 2009 draft. Left end Adewale Ogunleye is a pending free agent and is expected to move on. Ogunleye's likely replacement, Gaines Adams, died last month. That left Gilbert and Henry Melton as the remaining internal candidates to start at left end. Good outside pass-rushers almost never become available on the free-agent market, and without a pick in the first or second round this season, it will be difficult for the Bears to draft one capable of making an immediate impact. To this point, Gilbert's greatest claim to fame is being the draft prospect who jumped out of a pool. He spent most of 2009 in an unofficial redshirt year under defensive line guru Rod Marinelli, so it's hard to know if Gilbert is capable of holding down a starting job in 2010. It's not even clear if the Bears consider him an end or a tackle. But if it's the former, Gilbert will get every opportunity to help the Bears out of this jam.


What's happened since: This year, a good outside pass rusher actually did become available via free agency, and the Bears pounced on Julius Peppers. Gilbert, meanwhile, has been nearly invisible in preseason games and could be waived this weekend.

Detroit Lions running back Aaron Brown


What we said then: Starting tailback Kevin Smith is rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while also trying to overcome two shoulder injuries that slowed him in 2009. Backup Maurice Morris is also under contract, but Morris doesn't have the kind of big-play abilities Brown displayed last season. The Lions were exasperated at times with Brown's mental errors, but perhaps an offseason of studying can help him move past those issues. He might not be an ideal every-down back, but Brown could add an explosive element to the Lions' offense if they trust him enough to put him on the field. His development could ease some of the urgency to add further depth behind Smith and Morris.


What's happened since: The Lions traded up to select Jahvid Best with the No. 30 overall pick in the draft. Best will fill the playmaker role we suggested for Brown. Can't argue with that one. But Brown has shown enough this summer to earn a spot on the Lions' roster.

Green Bay Packers defensive back Will Blackmon


What we said then: Because the Packers haven't revealed their tender offers for restricted free agents, we can't say with certainty that Blackmon will return to the Packers in 2010. But based on the typical timetable for ACL rehabilitation, Blackmon should be cleared for the start of training camp. And if he's healthy and ready, Blackmon would add experienced depth to a position ravaged by injuries at the end of last season. With Al Harris rehabilitating a similar injury on a later timetable, the Packers might have to open camp with nickelback Tramon Williams as a starter. It's always possible that a rookie could help at nickelback, but all things equal, the Packers would probably be more comfortable with veteran experience at the position. Jarrett Bush struggled in that role during some games last season, opening up an opportunity for Blackmon if he's up to it.

What's happened since: The Packers moved Blackmon to safety late in spring practice and instead gave Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee and rookie Sam Shields the opportunity we envisioned for Blackmon. It was probably a wise move; he continues to be bothered by knee soreness. It's not clear if he will make the team.

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Asher Allen


What we said then: The Vikings need Allen to become a full-time player, if not a starter, to avoid facing a sudden shortage at cornerback. Starter Cedric Griffin's status is uncertain after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game; it would be a surprise if Griffin is cleared for the beginning of training camp. The 2009 nickelback, Benny Sapp, is a pending unrestricted free agent and probably earned himself a decent contract after making seven starts in 2009. I'm guessing the Vikings don't want to overpay to bring back Sapp, especially considering Griffin will eventually return and that fellow starter, Antoine Winfield, is signed through 2013. As a rookie, Allen had a strong training camp but was buried on the depth chart when the season began. He's aggressive against the run, a decent tackler and displayed solid instincts when on the field. A natural progression would make him the nickelback in 2010, a role that would allow him to fill in for Griffin. Otherwise, the Vikings will have to shell out more money for Sapp or another free agent.

What's happened since: Injuries, attrition and solid play have put Allen in position to be the Week 1 nickel back. Griffin hasn't started practicing. Sapp was traded to Miami, and while the Vikings made cornerback Chris Cook their top draft pick, he will miss up to four weeks because of knee surgery.
Jmscooby offered a fair critique of Wednesday's Pressure Cooker post, suggesting I had overlooked a more obvious Chicago Bears player -- defensive tackle Tommie Harris -- in favor of defensive end Mark Anderson:
Mark Anderson
Kyle Terada/US PresswireThe Bears are counting on Mark Anderson to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
I think you have a poor pulse on the Bears to think Anderson is in the pressure cooker over Tommie. Worst case scenario, Izzy [Idonije] and [Corey] Wootton can cover LDE. Tommie was suspended by the team 1 game (and the year before), ejected early on another, and makes a heck of a lot more than MA. Who would back up Harris? [Marcus] Harrison? [Jarron] Gilbert? [Henry] Melton? What position is more of a priority in Chicago's scheme? Undertackle or LDE? Not to mention [Adewale] Ogunleye is still out there, although I don't want him. Is there a replacement on the street to replace Tommie?

All good points, jmscooby. In putting together the post, a few things came to mind. First, Harris appeared in our 2009 version of the Pressure Cooker. As we all know, he fell far short of those expectations and, in my mind, took himself off the list of potential playmakers for the 2010 season. I just think it's folly to suggest that, after mostly disappearing for two-plus years, Harris will once again become a player the Bears can count on for consistent disruption inside.

The Bears need more pass rush, whether it comes from the defensive tackle or defensive end. This offseason, the Bears bid farewell to defensive ends Alex Brown and Ogunleye. Tossing Anderson into the lineup suggests the Bears consider him an upgrade. They're counting on him in a way that I don't think anyone can reasonably be counting on Harris: To provide consistent pass rush. And I don't have any illusions that Idonije can be a full-time defensive end, or that Wootton is ready for that role.

That's where I'm coming from, at least. Often I'll respond to individual comments in the comment section, but I thought this one deserved a broader discussion.

Computing NFC North progress

May, 11, 2010
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Best/Bulaga/GerhartUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Lions, Packers and Vikings addressed some of their most urgent needs on offense by using early draft picks to acquire Jahvid Best, Bryan Bulaga and Toby Gerhart, respectively.
In the weeks since the NFL draft, we've taken some big-picture looks at the NFC North. We've made a run at naming a preseason division favorite, tried to identify a preseason rookie of the year and examined some faulty assumptions.

Through it all, I've struggled to incorporate a gold mine of statistical analysis forwarded by ESPN's Stats & Information, a series of numbers that help illustrate some of the division's most notable areas of concern entering the offseason. So with the help of ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin, I want to use some of that information to open a unique window into whether NFC North teams have responsibly shored up their weaknesses over the past months.

Chicago Bears

Issue: The short-yardage running game
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears had the NFL's worst per-carry average (1.5 yards) on third-and-2 or less last season.
How the Bears responded: Hiring offensive line coach Mike Tice, who brings a power-running sensibility to Mike Martz's passing offense. Moving left guard Frank Omiyale to right tackle. Signing free agent tailback Chester Taylor.
Seifert analysis: Much of the Bears' hopes rest on Tice's shoulders to make over this group; as many as four 2009 starters will remain in their positions. Starting tailback Matt Forte is known more for shiftiness than power, opening an opportunity for Taylor to take over some of those opportunities. But effective power running, especially in short-yardage situations, requires frequency in play calling. Martz isn't known for his patience in the run game.

Issue: Pass defense in obvious passing situations
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears ranked near the bottom of the NFL when defending against third-and-8 or more.
How the Bears responded: Overhauling their pass rush by signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and jettisoning incumbents Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye (for now). The safety position is also in transition after the re-acquisition of safety Chris Harris and the drafting of Major Wright.
Seifert analysis: That's about as much personnel change as you'll see generated in one offseason from an incumbent coaching staff/front office. (Unless you're in Detroit.) The Peppers acquisition speaks for itself. He'll cause more havoc than Brown or Ogunleye, and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli isn't expected to be a heavy blitzer. Harris is no world-beater, but even mediocre play would be an improvement. If nothing else, the Bears get an A for effort in addressing this issue.

Detroit Lions

Issue: Explosive running plays, or lack thereof
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions had five running plays of 20 or more yards last season, the second-fewest in the NFL.
How the Lions responded: Trading up to draft Cal tailback Jahvid Best, who runs the 40 in 4.35 seconds and averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his college career.
Seifert analysis: Best was widely considered the most explosive runner in the draft. The Lions did take a step to shore up their offensive line, trading for Seattle guard Rob Sims, but they're hoping Best will be the kind of player who can make big plays on his own. That would make a huge difference for a team that had to work too hard to score touchdowns last season. The Lions ranked No. 29 in the NFL last season in yards per play (4.6) and tied for No. 27 with 28 total touchdowns. To keep up in their division, they need to be able to score quicker and easier.

Issue: Historically horrible pass defense, especially on downfield throws
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions were the only NFL team to allow opponents better than 50 percent completion percentage on passes that traveled 21 or more yards in the air last season.
How the Lions responded: Overhauling their personnel on the defensive line and secondary. Of the eight combined starters in those two units, at least five will be new. Depending on how competition plays out, safety Louis Delmas might be the only returning starter among the eight.
Seifert analysis: The defensive line is far ahead of the secondary in terms of credibility and potential to impact games. At different points in their careers, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Corey Williams have been dominant pass-rushers relative to their positions. The sky is the limit for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Lions' pass defense will go as far as their pass rush takes them. It stands to reason they should at least cut down on opponents' downfield percentage; more pass rush equals less time to let long passes develop. As for coverage, it probably couldn't be much worse than last season.

Green Bay Packers

Issue: Although it settled in the second half of the season, the Packers' pass protection allowed NFL-high sack levels.
Stats & Information revelation: The Packers allowed 31 sacks against defensive formations of four or fewer pass-rushers, tied for the league lead. That rate speaks to consistent 1-on-1 defeats.
How the Packers responded: Re-signing both veteran tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Drafting tackle Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall.
Seifert analysis: Some might question the wisdom of bringing back a pair of 30-something tackles. But the Packers at least have smoothed out the cliff they started last season on. They have a more reliable safety net should Clifton or Tauscher falter or get injured, and Bulaga promises a solid future at one of the tackle positions. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also has agreed there are times he should throw the ball quicker. The combination of better depth and Rodgers' experience should minimize the issues Green Bay suffered through last season.

Issue: Elite quarterbacks scorched the Packers' pass defense last season.
Stats & Information revelation: Despite disappointing performances against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and -- in the playoffs -- Arizona, the Packers led the NFL in defense against four-receiver sets.
How the Packers responded: They took only one aggressive step to address their personnel here: Trading up to draft safety Morgan Burnett. Otherwise, they are counting on the healthy return of cornerbacks Al Harris, Will Blackmon, Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood. They also are hoping Brad Jones can provide consistent pass rush as an outside linebacker.
Seifert analysis: Although this statistic is culled from a relatively small sample of the Packers' defensive plays, it might help explain why they are not as worked up about this situation as some of us are. Like it or not, they have chosen not to overreact to some disappointing games against Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks. They're trusting their developmental system to give them the personnel reinforcements they need. It should also be re-emphasized that they'll take on "elite" quarterbacks in only three games this season: Twice against Minnesota's Brett Favre, assuming he doesn't retire, and once against New England's Tom Brady.

Minnesota Vikings

Issue: Minnesota's running game was less effective in 2009.
Stats & Information revelation: Nearly 27 percent of the Vikings' rushing attempts went for no gain or a loss, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
How the Vikings responded: Allowing Taylor to depart via free agency. Trading up to draft Toby Gerhart, a 231-pound tailback.
Seifert analysis: The Taylor-Gerhart swap will be secondary to the larger issues Minnesota must address. First, they'll need more even-handed performances from an offensive line that introduced two new starters in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Second, tailback Adrian Peterson must continue his career-long efforts to contain his aggressiveness long enough to allow the hole to develop. It's an especially important task in a zone-blocking scheme.

Issue: Minnesota nose tackle Pat Williams has flirted with retirement, and both he and teammates Kevin Williams might have to serve a four-game suspension after testing positive for a diuretic.
Stats & Information revelation: Even with Williams' advancing age, the Vikings' up-the-gut defense still led the NFL by allowing 3.0 yards per carry last season.
How the Vikings responded: Re-signed backup Jimmy Kennedy and issued a high tender to fellow backup Fred Evans, a restricted free agent.
Seifert analysis: The Vikings are satisfied with their depth at both defensive tackle positions and have long groomed Evans to replace Pat Williams. No matter whom they acquire, there will be a drop-off if their two starters are suspended concurrently. The bigger issue is finding a long-term replacement for Pat Williams. Is Evans the guy? He'll get his chance to prove it should the suspensions stand.
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Veteran experience in Chicago. When we look back at this offseason, we might see it as the moment when the Bears accelerated the breakup of their 2006 Super Bowl team. Already, right end Alex Brown and cornerback Nathan Vasher have been released. There is no indication the Bears will re-sign left end Adewale Ogunleye. Tight end Desmond Clark could be the next to go. Each decision was made on its own merits, and I doubt the Bears' brain trust is executing a systematic plan to tear down their team and start over. After missing the playoffs for three consecutive years, the Bears need to win in 2010. No matter what the intention, however, there will be more than a few new faces at prominent positions in Chicago this season.

Rising

Jimmy Clausen, potential Minnesota quarterback. Discussion of a Clausen free-fall has generated suggestions that the Notre Dame quarterback could be available close to the Vikings’ No. 30 overall pick. We’ve chronicled the team’s need to find a long-term direction at the position, and Clausen’s experience in a pro-style system is an attribute coveted by Vikings coach Brad Childress. It’s not clear how the Vikings feel about the rest of Clausen’s skills, but we might start learning more at an open throwing session Friday in South Bend, Ind. It now seems possible, at least, that the Vikings could have their pick of every quarterback in the draft with the exception of Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:00
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NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Chicago Bears

Last month: The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa 2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Now: The Bears have addressed some of the needs we first identified last month via the free-agent market, signing defensive end Julius Peppers to replace Ogunleye and Chester Taylor to provide premium depth in the backfield. But both safety positions remain noticeably untouched. There have been some suggestions that the Bears pursue St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, a restricted free agent who would require no compensation to pry from the Rams. Barring a run at him, safety ranks with offensive line as the Bears' top needs with the draft looming in five weeks.

Detroit Lions

Last month: Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free-agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Now: The Lions have addressed the interior of their defensive line, acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland and hosting defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, a restricted free agent, on a visit. Veteran guard Chester Pitts is scheduled for a visit, but the left guard position might ultimately be filled through the draft. It's also not out of the question that the Lions target Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 overall pick. The Lions have addressed their No. 2 receiver position with free agent Nate Burleson and re-signed Heller, two other areas of need we discussed.

Green Bay Packers

Last month: Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Now: Clifton and Tauscher have both re-signed, but finding a left tackle of the future remains one of the Packers' top priorities as the draft approaches. Clifton signed a three-year deal, but it's not clear how long he will play. As per their philosophy, the Packers haven't addressed any needs by signing free agents from other teams. They'll target their remaining need positions in the draft. In addition to left tackle, that positional list should also include outside linebacker and cornerback.

Minnesota Vikings

Last month: Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickelback Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Now: The Vikings re-signed Sapp to give them an alternative if Griffin isn't ready to start the season, but cornerback could still be a high priority in the draft. The loss of Taylor makes depth at running back an issue, but that is one position where it makes sense to go young. As draft boards begin to shape up, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings get an opportunity to fill their need for a long-term quarterback answer. Will there be anyone of that description available with the No. 30 overall pick? That debate remains unsettled.

Updating UFA movement in NFC North

March, 15, 2010
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As we head into the second full week of free agency, it's probably a good time to revise our look at each NFC North team's unsigned players. We haven't had a restricted free agent (RFA) receive an offer sheet yet, so we'll limit this post to unrestricted free agents (UFAs) -- who have total freedom to sign with another team.

Chicago Bears
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: None have re-signed. The Bears are trying to bring back Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Comment: Ciurciu, Heller and Jansen have re-signed. Foote seems likely to return to Pittsburgh.

Green Bay Packers
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.
Comment: Clifton and Tauscher have re-signed. Kampman signed with Jacksonville.

Minnesota Vikings
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Comment: Kennedy and Sapp re-signed. Taylor signed with Chicago. Hicks signed with Washington.

NFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
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Chicago Bears

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Josh Bullocks, safety Danieal Manning, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Jamar Williams.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: With no picks in the first or second round of next month's draft, the Bears are gearing up for a relatively major jump into free agency. They're expected to bid for defensive end Julius Peppers and possible safety Antrel Rolle and would also like to re-sign linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna could also be a target. Manumaleuna played for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.

Detroit Lions

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Copeland Bryan, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy, defensive lineman Jason Hunter, offensive lineman Daniel Loper, offensive lineman Manny Ramirez, safety Ko Simpson, linebacker Cody Spencer.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: The Lions aren't likely to be as active as they were last year, but general manager Martin Mayhew said over the winter that he could envision a five- or six-man free agent class. Running back, defensive end and defensive back are all positions they will investigate. They'll also need to find a backup quarterback, assuming Daunte Culpepper moves on.

Green Bay Packers

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.

Potential restricted free agents: Safety Atari Bigby, defensive back Will Blackmon, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, running back John Kuhn, offensive lineman Jason Spitz, cornerback Tramon Williams.

Franchise player: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett

What to expect: The Packers will have a demanding offseason filled with difficult decisions. To this point, they haven't re-signed either of their starting offensive tackles. They are clearly approaching injured linebacker Aaron Kampman with caution. And they have a long line of restricted free agents who would like long-term contracts, starting with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. The Packers have more than enough to keep them busy, but they haven't dabbled much in free agency in recent years, anyway.

Minnesota Vikings

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Potential restricted free agents: Offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive end Ray Edwards, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, fullback Naufahu Tahi.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Vikings are awaiting word from quarterback Brett Favre on the 2010 season, a decision that could impact their offseason plans. They would like tailback Chester Taylor back, but it's possible Taylor will at least test his value on the open market. As a Final Four team, the Vikings will be limited to signing players that have been released by other teams unless they lose one of their own unrestricted free agents first.

Peppers: LE or RE in Chicago?

February, 24, 2010
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Adewale Ogunleye, who would lose his job if Chicago signs free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers, made an interesting point Wednesday about the possible union.

Elite pass-rushers normally play right end, where they approach a quarterback from his blind side. That would be the sensible position for Peppers in Chicago, but as Ogunleye told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, right end is already occupied by Alex Brown. Moving Brown to the left side would force him to be more of a run-stopper.
“... It would kind of mess up the dynamics of what they have already,'' Ogunleye said. "Unless Alex would be ready to move over to the left side -- which I'm sure he would do because he's a team player -- but the left side is no joke. I think they would probably want to get a guy who rushes more primarily on that left side and who plays the run better than most.''

I’m pretty sure Peppers would make an impact on the left side as well, where he spent a good portion of his career in Carolina. Most teams’ top pass protectors play left tackle, so Peppers would conceivably face a less capable pass blocker (the right tackle) if he plays left end.

All of this, of course, is just funny talk until we actually get to the start of free agency. But as we discussed earlier Wednesday, the Bears’ lack of high draft picks this year leaves them with little choice but to pursue options in free agency as a primary avenue for improvement.
For the past month, NFL teams have evaluated and graded every player on their roster. They've determined whom they want to keep and who can leave. Their priority lists are stacked for offseason acquisitions. As they head to the scouting combine this week, they have a clear picture of their perceived strengths and weaknesses.

I'm all about improving a team through the draft, but I've never understood why some fans and media members put more faith in the nebulous form of a future draft pick over a player who has spent a year or more in the team's program. If everyone is doing their jobs well, those players should be in better position to help out than a rookie just out of college.

In that spirit, let's take a look at one player on each NFC North team who -- with reasonable development -- could help alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at his position. (Hat tip to Aaron of Kansas City, Mo., for suggesting the idea as part of last week's mailbag request.)

[+] EnlargeJarron Gilbert
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJarron Gilbert has an opportunity to fill a void on the Bears' defensive line.
Chicago Bears

Player:
Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert
Status: Entering second year. Turns 24 in September.
2009 performance: One tackle in four games.
2010 hopes: The road couldn't be paved any more clearly for Gilbert, the Bears' top pick of the 2009 draft. Left end Adewale Ogunleye is a pending free agent and is expected to move on. Ogunleye's likely replacement, Gaines Adams, died last month. That left Gilbert and Henry Melton as the remaining internal candidates to start at left end. Good outside pass-rushers almost never become available on the free-agent market, and without a pick in the first or second round this season, it will be difficult for the Bears to draft one capable of making an immediate impact. To this point, Gilbert's greatest claim to fame is being the draft prospect who jumped out of a pool. He spent most of 2009 in an unofficial redshirt year under defensive line guru Rod Marinelli, so it's hard to know if Gilbert is capable of holding down a starting job in 2010. It's not even clear if the Bears consider him an end or a tackle. But if it's the former, Gilbert will get every opportunity to help the Bears out of this jam.

Detroit Lions

Brown
Player: Running back Aaron Brown
Status: Entering second year. Turns 25 in October.
2009 performance: A total of 1,166 all-purpose yards, mostly via kickoff returns.
2010 hopes: Starting tailback Kevin Smith is rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while also trying to overcome two shoulder injuries that slowed him in 2009. Backup Maurice Morris is also under contract, but Morris doesn't have the kind of big-play abilities Brown displayed last season. The Lions were exasperated at times with Brown's mental errors, but perhaps an offseason of studying can help him move past those issues. He might not be an ideal every-down back, but Brown could add an explosive element to the Lions' offense if they trust him enough to put him on the field. His development could ease some of the urgency to add further depth behind Smith and Morris.

Green Bay Packers

[+] EnlargeBlackmon
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWill Blackmon is a veteran in the Green Bay secondary.
Player:
Defensive back Will Blackmon
Status: Entering fifth year. Restricted free agent. Turns 26 in October.
2009 performance: Played three games before tearing anterior cruciate ligament in left knee Oct. 5 at Minnesota.
2010 hopes: Because the Packers haven't revealed their tender offers for restricted free agents, we can't say with certainty that Blackmon will return to the Packers in 2010. But based on the typical timetable for ACL rehabilitation, Blackmon should be cleared for the start of training camp. And if he's healthy and ready, Blackmon would add experienced depth to a position ravaged by injuries at the end of last season. With Al Harris rehabilitating a similar injury on a later timetable, the Packers might have to open camp with nickelback Tramon Williams as a starter. It's always possible that a rookie could help at nickelback, but all things equal, the Packers would probably be more comfortable with veteran experience at the position. Jarrett Bush struggled in that role during some games last season, opening up an opportunity for Blackmon if he's up to it.

Minnesota Vikings

Player:
Cornerback Asher Allen
Status: Entering second year. Turned 22 in January.
2009 performance: 27 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble in 10 games.
Allen
2010 hopes: The Vikings need Allen to become a full-time player, if not a starter, to avoid facing a sudden shortage at cornerback. Starter Cedric Griffin's status is uncertain after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game; it would be a surprise if Griffin is cleared for the beginning of training camp. The 2009 nickelback, Benny Sapp, is a pending unrestricted free agent and probably earned himself a decent contract after making seven starts in 2009. I'm guessing the Vikings don't want to overpay to bring back Sapp, especially considering Griffin will eventually return and that fellow starter, Antoine Winfield, is signed through 2013. As a rookie, Allen had a strong training camp but was buried on the depth chart when the season began. He's aggressive against the run, a decent tackler and displayed solid instincts when on the field. A natural progression would make him the nickelback in 2010, a role that would allow him to fill in for Griffin. Otherwise, the Vikings will have to shell out more money for Sapp or another free agent.

Draft Watch: NFC North

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
12:00
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa-2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Detroit Lions

Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey FitzSimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Green Bay Packers

Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Minnesota Vikings

Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickel back Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Free agency: NFC North

February, 16, 2010
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AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free agency situation in the NFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Chicago Bears

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Key figures: Defensive end Mark Anderson and safety Danieal Manning are two key players who would have joined the list of unrestricted free agents if the NFL weren't on track for an uncapped offseason. The Bears can block both from moving now. Ogunleye is unlikely to return if he's seeking significant money. The Bears want to re-sign Tinoisamoa, even after his injury-shortened 2009 debut. Peterson's eight-year run with the team might be coming to a close.

Culpepper
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDaunte Culpepper could return to Detroit as Matthew Stafford's backup.
Detroit Lions

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Key figures: The Lions have a total of 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents, a product of the extended roster tryouts they held throughout the 2009 season. The biggest name among their UFAs is Foote, who seems unlikely to return and should be replaced by DeAndre Levy. Culpepper will seek offers on the open market, but it's not out of the question he could return as Matthew Stafford's backup. James had some moments in 2009 and might be worth a return engagement.

Green Bay Packers

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive tackle Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher.

Key figures: The Packers have a notable list that includes four starters and would have included six more if not for the uncapped year. Clifton will be 34 this summer and Tauscher will turn 33, and it's time for the Packers to begin a succession plan at both positions. T.J. Lang figures as Tauscher's replacement, but Tauscher was actually playing better than Clifton at the end of 2009. Kampman seems unlikely to return as a linebacker in the 3-4, especially while he rehabilitates a knee injury. Pickett could be phased out by B.J. Raji.

Minnesota Vikings

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy, receiver Greg Lewis, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Key figures: Taylor is perhaps the most valuable backup tailback in the league, considering his abilities as a receiver and third-down converter. He will be 31 when the 2010 season begins, but figures to get some attention if he enters the free-agent market. The Vikings want him back, but probably won't devote a huge salary to him with starter Adrian Peterson approaching the expiration of his contract. Sapp probably made himself some money with a credible replacement of injured starter Antoine Winfield.
MIAMI -- It was interesting to see Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers grimacing on the NFC bench Sunday night at the Pro Bowl. He appeared to have suffered a mild leg injury -- an auspicious start to an offseason journey that promises to be wild.


AP Photo/Nell RedmondUnhappy with his contract situation in Carolina, could Julius Peppers end up in the NFC North?
Peppers is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and Peppers agent said over the weekend that he isn’t expecting a long-term deal to materialize with the Panthers. A franchise tag would likely cost the Panthers more than $20 million, a prohibitive cost for most teams.

So George of Florida wondered: “Now that it appears that Julius Peppers will probably be a free agent in the offseason, what are the odds that the Bears will pursue him to bolster their defensive line?”

Theoretically, we I think we can expand this conversation to more than one NFC North team. With the expected loss of pending free agent Adewale Ogunleye, and the death of Gaines Adams, the Bears certainly have an opening for a pass-rushing defensive end in their 4-3 scheme.

But what about Green Bay? Last week, we discussed the possibility -- however fantastical -- of San Diego’s Shawne Merriman making his way to the Packers. But what about Peppers as a replacement for Aaron Kampman in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme?

Acquiring Peppers certainly wouldn’t follow the Packers’ recent personnel practices under general manager Ted Thompson. But last season, Peppers expressed interest in playing as a 3-4 linebacker. It’s not often that a player successfully makes that transition in the latter stages of his career, but Peppers might be the type of exceptional athlete who could do it.

As for the Bears, I think it’s something they would have to give strong consideration to given their lack of other available assets. You typically need to take pass-rushing defensive ends high in the draft, but the Bears don’t pick until the early portion of the third round. They don’t want to give up any additional draft picks to move up, and so paying Peppers a truckload of money might be one of their few legitimate options.

It’s hard to know exactly where the Bears are headed defensively until they hire a defensive coordinator, but we know they will keep the basic concepts of the Tampa-2 scheme. Peppers would be a great fit regardless. Will it happen? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Assessing Chicago's DE depth

January, 18, 2010
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A quick glance at Chicago’s defensive depth chart reveals why general manager Jerry Angelo was so eager to acquire defensive end Gaines Adams last fall.

After absorbing the shock of Adams’ death Sunday morning, the Bears are left with a thin group of incumbents to craft a starting lineup for 2010. Below are the five players on their roster as of Monday. And that list includes 2009 third-round draft pick Jarron Gilbert, who practiced mostly at tackle during the season.


As you can see, Adams would have had every opportunity to compete for a starting job next season. Veteran Alex Brown, who turns 31 this year, is a likely starter on one side. But Adewale Ogunleye will be 33 and is a pending free agent. Mark Anderson will either be a restricted or unrestricted free agent, depending on whether the NFL moves to an uncapped system.

Without a first- or second-round pick in the 2010 draft, the Bears will have limited options to add talent to one of the most difficult positions to develop in the NFL. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune writes, the Bears have little choice but to count on Gilbert and/or Henry Melton as significant contributors next season.

Gaines Adams, RIP

January, 17, 2010
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I’m guessing you’ve seen the terrible news Sunday morning out of Greenville, S.C., where Bears defensive end Gaines Adams was pronounced dead at 9 a.m. ET.

Adams
As of this posting, there are no details available about the circumstances. Adams was 26.

Needless to say, our thoughts and prayers should be with Adams’ family. The Bears’ loss is far less significant, but is nevertheless worth discussing.

The Bears acquired Adams from Tampa Bay last October as a bit of a long-term project. Adams had elite athleticism but hadn’t parlayed that into the sack totals normally expected from the No. 4 overall pick of a draft. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo hoped that some extended tutelage from defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, along with some offseason work in the weight room, would stabilize and elevate Adams’ play.

If so, there likely would have been a starting spot open for Adams in 2010. Veteran Adewale Ogunleye is a pending free agent, and it would have made perfect sense to slide Adams into that role rather than spend the money to bring Ogunleye back.

Make sure you check ESPN Chicago throughout the day as more details emerge.

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Third and one: Bears

January, 4, 2010
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After Chicago’s 37-23 victory over Detroit, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. Stranger things have happened, but I would be surprised if the Bears fire coach Lovie Smith. There’s no doubt they would prefer not to pay him $11 million to walk away, as his contract would require. But if they were looking for an excuse to do nothing, consecutive victories to end the season probably provided it. I think Smith and the front office should face serious questions for why the Bears lost seven of eight games during a crucial part of the season. But more than anything, I want to know who is in charge. Who makes the final decision on Smith? Is it the McCaskey family? Team president Ted Phillips? General manager Jerry Angelo? Will Smith stay because no there is no credible person authorized to fire him? Call me crazy, but I want to know who is pulling the strings these days at Halas Hall.
  2. Assuming it happens, part of Smith’s deal to return should be to hire a legitimate defensive coordinator. This season was a referendum on Smith’s ability to personally improve the defense; he took over as the primary playcaller and left quasi-coordinator Bob Babich to coach the linebackers. The defense had its struggles last season, but it fell off a cliff in 2009. The final numbers are in the books, and the Bears ranked No. 21 in the NFL in points allowed per game (23.4), and were No. 27 in third-down conversion percentage (41). Smith needs to devote someone else full time to the role of resurrecting this scheme.
  3. Quarterback Jay Cutler gave us plenty to consider as we head into the offseason. It appears that offensive coordinator Ron Turner is on his way out the door, but whoever calls the Bears offense next season should make a point to let Cutler out of the pocket as much as possible. There’s absolutely no doubt he feels more comfortable in that setting. Allowed to break free much more frequently over the past two games, Cutler threw eight touchdown passes and one interception. Three of those scores went to receiver Devin Aromashodu, whose late-season emergence provided Cutler another level of credibility within the organization. Cutler lobbied for his presence all season and finally got his wish in Week 14. From that point, Aromashodu caught 22 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns.
And here is one question I’m still asking:

Will the Bears blow up their defensive personnel this offseason or maintain the current nucleus? It’s already pretty likely that defensive end Adewale Ogunleye won’t be back. What will happen to defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who finished the season with a career-low 2.5 sacks? What about the secondary? Was Zack Bowman’s six interceptions enough to guarantee him a starting job opposite Charles Tillman? Does any safety on this roster deserve to return?

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