NFC North: Dwight Freeney
He could be a good fit for a team like Denver as a pass-rusher, but it seems unlikely the Broncos would lean on him for 1,083 snaps like the Vikings did last year. Allen struggled at times against the run, when it seemed like he was too far upfield to maintain his gap against the run, and collected many of his 11 1/2 sacks against patchwork offensive lines. If he wasn't asked to take a pounding against the run on a regular basis, he might have enough energy to be a more consistent presence against the pass; it should be noted that Allen collected 6 1/2 sacks in the Vikings' final five games last season, after scuffling through the first part of the season.
New Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said in a Pro Football Talk interview on Tuesday that he sees a way that Allen could still return to the Vikings, but it would likely be in the situational role that Allen could find with other teams. If that's the case, one would have to wonder what would keep Allen from signing with a team that's closer to a championship than the Vikings are. But what's next for Allen could depend on whether or not, like veteran pass-rushers Dwight Freeney and John Abraham before him, he's willing to accept less money to catch on with a new team.
We've talked about the modest deals Dwight Freeney and John Abraham found in free agency in recent years, and while Allen is younger than both players were when they hit the market, he's also fighting a perception that he's lost a step. Allen has seven sacks this season, and is in danger of not reaching double digits for the first time since 2006, though as Allen pointed out, he's among the league leaders in quarterback hits and hurries. But those things are often byproducts of a sack, when a pass-rusher isn't able to get there quite soon enough.
"Me and 'B-Rob' were laughing about it today," Allen said. "The (league) lead is 15 (1/2 sacks, by Indianapolis' Robert Mathis). I said, 'If we would take the ones that we had in our hands that we either missed or (we) knocked the guy and the ball falls forward, which is an incomplete pass versus a sack/fumble, I think we both would be sitting right around 12 or 13.' But again, that's kind of what football is. I look back at the year I had 22 (in 2011). You just didn't miss an opportunity. Boom, you got them on the ground."
Allen said he's still grading out well, taking into account how he plays against the run, how many passes he's able to knock down, etc. But he's always been defined by his sack totals, and Allen knows it. He said getting to double digits "means the world to me," and he needs three to pass Derrick Thomas for 13th place on the NFL's career sack list.
Where he'll be climbing that list next year is anyone's guess, especially after Allen said on Thursday he wouldn't accept a role as a rotational pass-rusher. "(I'll keep playing) as long as I feel good and compete at a strong level and I feel like I can still help a team win and be an active (participant). I'll retire vs. taking a step-down role and being a rotate guy. That's for the birds."
Teams might have a different perception of Allen next spring, and it remains to be seen what he'd accept if he can't find a suitor to treat him (and pay him) like a three-down lineman. But Allen still feels he'd be worth the investment.
"I'm playing good ball. I watch film. I'm probably more critical on myself than anybody can be," Allen said. "I'm there. It'd be one thing if you weren't there. ... I'd be telling myself if wasn't playing good ball. Technique's still good. I still know how to process things."
"I'm in a situation where I've been blessed, I've been taken care of. The Lord's been good to me," Allen said. "And that's where I leave it. Where I'm going to be at is totally up to Him. That's not a stressor on my mind."
Allen won't hit free agency for another five months, but short of a change in the Vikings' approach, it seems the defensive end is likely playing his final games in purple and gold. He'll be headed into a market that's been uncertain for older pass-rushers -- Dwight Freeney and John Abraham got modest two-year deals last offseason -- but Allen will be younger than both players were when they hit free agency, and he's still putting up better numbers than they did in their final seasons with their old teams.
"Let’s be honest: This is a business and we are expendable," Allen said. "You just look at our team right now, guys are in and out. You look at the NFL, it’s a revolving door. So any time anybody can get paid and provide for their family for a long time, I’m happy for them. And Brian’s a good player and a friend of mine, a good teammate. So yeah, absolutely, I’m ecstatic for him. I wish he would have gotten more.”
Specifically, the Vikings set a lofty goal of completing 75 percent of their first- and second-down passes. It's a feat that has never been accomplished in the post-merger era, as far as we know, so it's worth noting Ponder exceeded that goal in the Vikings' 26-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The chart has the full breakdown of Ponder's performance on all three downs. All told, he completed 17 of 20 passes on first or second down, or 85 percent.
The success is attributable to Ponder's accuracy as well as offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's sensible play-calling. With downfield receiver Jerome Simpson serving a suspension, the Vikings didn't wander too far past the line of scrimmage. In fact, only two of Ponder's attempts traveled longer than 20 yards in the air. He completed one of them, a 24-yard pass to Devin Aromashodu in a hectic last-minute drive.
As much fun as it is to watch downfield passing, there is every reason to think the Vikings will continue this approach Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Although the Colts might not have pass rusher Dwight Freeney (ankle) in their lineup, the Vikings would be well served to manage their offense efficiently at least until Simpson returns.
We noted Monday that receiver Greg Jennings showed up on the Green Bay Packers' injury report with a groin injury, one that presumably was the reason he left the field late in Sunday's 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The question now is whether Jennings can recover with a quick turnaround in order to play Thursday night against the Chicago Bears.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday night he wasn't sure if that can happen. The leg had improved between Sunday evening and Monday morning, but he'll be re-evaluated Tuesday to determine if he can practice. Jennings missed the final three regular-season games of 2011 because of a knee injury and was limited in training camp because of a concussion.
As we discussed Monday, the Packers appear to have kept veteran Donald Driver on their roster mostly for insurance reasons. That decision might pay off earlier than they had hoped.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- A whiff in the open field against 49ers running back Frank Gore might have cost Packers safety M.D. Jennings his starting job, notes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Rookie Jerron McMillian replaced him thereafter.
- The Packers need to fix communication problems in their secondary and also their running game, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- The Packers reinstated linebacker Erik Walden to their roster Monday after a one-game NFL suspension, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
- A review of the video reveals Chicago Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb played well Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, according to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune. The Bears didn't give Webb much help at all after Colts linebacker Dwight Freeney departed because of an ankle injury.
- Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said on his ESPN 1000 radio show that he audibled "50-60 percent" of the time in Sunday's victory over the Colts.
- The Bears' defensive line is out to prove it's not just Julius Peppers and three nobodies, writes Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- The Detroit Lions should bench receiver Titus Young for one game, write Justin Rogers of Mlive.com. Young was called for a personal foul Sunday after head-butting St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
- No matter how much Jim Schwartz or Jim Harbaugh tries to minimize it, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News, their ill-fated postgame handshake last year will be a focal point for the hype of Sunday night's game between the Lions and 49ers this week.
- Lions cornerback Chris Houston (ankle) said he plans to practice Wednesday and wants to play Sunday, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
- Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com breaks down the tape of the Minnesota Vikings' victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Among the numbers: Receiver Percy Harvin played on 47 of 59 offensive snaps, while tailback Adrian Peterson played 31 snaps.
- Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on quarterback Christian Ponder, via the Star Tribune: "The poise that was needed in that sequence [at the end of the game] and the leadership that was needed, that's good stuff. That's what this league is made of -- when you have a quarterback who can take you down in the last 2 minutes of a game and put you in a position to win the game. He did something we hadn't seen very much of."
- Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield played Sunday days after his brother was murdered in Ohio, notes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:
History-making: The Green Bay Packers have a nine-game winning streak against the San Francisco 49ers, who haven't defeated the Packers in the regular season since Nov. 4, 1990. (They did knock the Packers out of the 1998 playoffs.) Both starting quarterbacks for this game, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith, were 6 years old at the time. Eleven of ESPN's 14 experts picked the Packers to win Sunday, but overall it's one of the best Week 1 matchups in recent memory. The teams combined for 28 victories last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has been only one opening game in NFL history where the opponents have combined for more. (1999, Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons.)
Lions' advantage: The St. Louis Rams enter the season on a seven-game losing streak, have lost 33 of their past 40 road games and don't appear equipped to capitalize on the Detroit Lions' injury-riddled secondary. (Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston aren't expected to play.) All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win at Ford Field, and this should be an easy Lions victory. One development I'll be watching: How will the improvement of receiver Titus Young, and the presumed emergence of new slot receiver Ryan Broyles, affect the Lions' attack? We saw only glimpses of both players in the preseason. Let's see what they can put on tape Sunday for future opponents to fret about.
Testing Urlacher: The Chicago Bears' revamped offensive scheme will get an early test from the Indianapolis Colts' bookend pass-rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But if I'm the Colts, I'm doing a little testing of my own. Despite middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's insistence that his surgically repaired knee is sound, there is every reason for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to test him repeatedly in the deep middle portion of the field. The Colts are heavy underdogs in this game, and aren't likely to win if they play it safe. It's quite possible Urlacher will do his thing and keep the middle mostly clean of big gains. But it would be criminal for the Colts not to at least find out.
Immediate urgency: Almost all of the national attention on the Vikings-Jaguars game has centered on the extent to which tailback Adrian Peterson will play after a 260-day recovery from two torn knee ligaments. But from the bigger picture, this game -- and next week's affair at Indianapolis -- represents a referendum on whether the Vikings can be written off as a rebuilding team. If they have any designs on competing in 2012, based on how their schedule shapes up, the Vikings need to claim victory in both of these highly winnable games. Owner Zygi Wilf told players this week that Sunday is the most important season opener in his eight-year tenure. Suffice it to say, however, the Vikings haven't engendered much national confidence. Six of ESPN's 14 experts have picked the Jaguars to win in the Metrodome.
New coach Chuck Pagano has scrapped that approach in favor of a hybrid 3-4 scheme, one that technically converts Freeney and Mathis to outside linebackers. On an otherwise rebuilding team, Freeney and Mathis present the most notable challenge to a Chicago Bears team that is heavily favored to win Sunday at Soldier Field.
You might not need to be reminded of the details, but here you go: As the chart shows, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was under duress more often last season than all but one NFL quarterback. The Bears have overhauled their scheme to provide him better protection in 2012, but it took most of the summer for left tackle J'Marcus Webb to secure his starting spot. And this week, offensive coordinator Mike Tice admitted that right tackle Gabe Carimi is still working his way back from a knee injury that cost him most of last season.
Whether Freeney and Mathis line up as 3-4 linebackers in the base or 4-3 ends in the nickel, their primary obstacles to Cutler will be Webb and Carimi. There is some concern in Indianapolis about the impact of Pagano's scheme on their pass rushers' effectiveness, but it should at least be matched by uncertainty the Bears feel with Webb and Carimi.
Tice told reporters this week that "I don’t feel good about where we're at yet" but added: "I feel good about where we're going." Cutler said he thought the line has been "holding up really well" since the start of the preseason but acknowledged: "We can only do as much as they can handle."
The Bears hold most of the advantages in this matchup. That's why they're favored by 9.5 points and all 14 ESPN experts have picked them to win. But if they're going to run into any trouble Sunday, you would expect it to come on the edges. For what it's worth.
Note: For those interested in the details, the Colts rushed four or fewer pass rushers on 81.3 percent of their snaps over the past four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The next-highest team was the Tennessee Titans (75.8).
What you might not know: Doleman also retired with the most forced fumbles of any player since the NFL began tracking the statistic. He forced 44 fumbles in 232 career games, and on the eve of his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it might be Doleman's most enduring legacy.
As fun and momentum-shifting as a violent sack might be, Doleman was among the first to realize that pulling back a bit on the force provided a better opportunity to achieve a more impactful play.
"The era that I played in, we had some pretty good defensive linemen," Doleman said in a conference call this week. There was Bruce Smith. Reggie White. They had their own style. When I was at that defensive end position, I definitely wanted to be perceived as a pass-rusher. But would I be a speed rusher? A power rusher? A guy that takes plays off? One of the things I found I [had a knack for] was separating the quarterback from the ball.
"When you separate the ball from a running back, you just have a fumble. But for a quarterback, that's a sack and a fumble. That's a much bigger play. It wasn't about putting brutal hits on them, but controlling them and getting the ball from them."
As the chart shows, the recently-retired Jason Taylor passed Doleman on the all-time list, and the latest generation of pass-rushers have achieved a higher ratio of forced fumbles per game. Players like Taylor, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis made an art of reaching their hand toward the ball even when they're being blocked away from the quarterback. Doleman deserves his share of credit for proving the value of those efforts.
We smelled a Double Coverage.
Is one of those zeros going to last? We got our AFC South and NFC North wizards together to talk it out.
Paul Kuharsky: For starters, Kevin, on behalf of those who follow the AFC South, we'd like to thank the NFC North representative for deeming us worthy to be a conversational partner. I mean, your teams are a combined 21-11 and mine are a measly 12-22. You are indeed very gracious.
Kevin Seifert: No problem, Paul. As the blogger for the NFL's most dominant division, I thought it would be interesting to see how the other half lives. Maybe those of us in the Black and Blue could learn something. Perhaps the untold value of mediocrity?
PK: More graciousness. The Colts and Jaguars thank you for the compliment. They haven’t been viewed as even mediocre in some time.
OK, we’re here to discuss what’s more likely, the Colts going winless or the Packers going undefeated. I think finishing a 16-game season with a zero in either the W or L column is equally hard. Over in the AFC South, we’ve actually seen the flip side of this. The 2009 Colts had a shot at an undefeated regular season, and they took their foot off the gas, pretty much sacrificing the final two games of the season in the name of resting and preserving people.
It was their prerogative of course. They said it wasn’t about going undefeated, it was about winning it all. I thought they were stubborn, acting as if they couldn’t conceivably do both and suggesting there would be no extra meaning to it. When they lost the Super Bowl to the Saints, it was all moot. It’s remarkable that just two seasons later, we’re talking about an 0-9 Colts team with a shot to go winless. Maybe karma is in play.
KS: There is no doubt that winning all 16 regular season games is a difficult task and requires some luck.
But I think it's harder to go 0-16, and I speak from experience.
You forget, Paul, that three years ago I covered a team that didn't win a game all year. The 2008 Detroit Lions were a terrible team, hitting rock bottom with poor drafts and mismanagement, but they proved how hard you have to work to lose 16 games.
Just one example: The margin of victory in the Lions' 12-10 loss at the Minnesota Vikings that year was a safety. It occurred when quarterback Dan Orlovsky forgot where he was on the field and ran out of the end zone -- by a solid three yards -- while attempting to elude a pass rush. It was the easiest sack of defensive end Jared Allen's life.
Even someone like you, who isn't averse to embarrassing yourself on camera for your blog readers, could probably have avoided a safety on that play.
The point is that even a historically bad team is liable to get its chances to win a game. A really good team has a better chance of limiting its chances of losing. Hopefully that makes sense to your AFC South people.
PK: I didn’t forget, Chief, I was setting you up. And I know Mr. Orlovsky personally, as he’s been with the Texans and is now on the very Colts team we are talking about. Imagine, he and linebacker Ernie Sims could be part of two winless teams in a four-season span. That’s not a very good line on the old resume.
Though they’ve given me little reason to believe it, I still think the Colts win a game “by accident” in their final seven. Many people seem to think the big chance comes with Jacksonville coming to town this weekend. But apparently those people have not seen the Jaguars’ defense, which is capable of squashing the Colts. Dwight Freeney might need to score for Indy to win.
I look through what the Colts have left after the Jags and I can’t pick one to win -- Carolina, at New England, at Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and at Jacksonville. Those games at New England and Baltimore were expected to be monster AFC contests when the schedule came out. Now they might be breathers for the Patriots and Ravens.
I love the Packers, but they have a far more difficult road to a singular season -- they could lose on Thanksgiving at Detroit, they could lose a week later on the road against the Giants. They could lose on Christmas to Chicago or on New Year’s to the Lions, though it’s awfully nice that those last two are at home.
KS: They also could have lost last week to the San Diego Chargers, or in Week 1 if Mark Ingram had gotten the New Orleans Saints one more yard or in Week 3 if Cam Newton had converted one more fourth down for the Carolina Panthers. The point is the Packers have demonstrated to everyone watching that they have the tools and guile to pull out victories of all shapes and sizes and regardless of the circumstances.
There has been a fair amount of consternation about their pass defense, and even Charles Woodson has spoken out about it. They've been giving up gobs of yards all season, but to this point, they've minimized the impact by grabbing an NFL-high 16 interceptions.
The concern is that the Packers could be done in by a more efficient and careful quarterback than the ones they've played so far. The list of remaining quarterbacks on their schedule includes these names: Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford (twice), Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler.
So if the Packers don't do anything to improve their pass defense, that leaves the Lions and Giants as probably the best candidates to beat them. That assumes, of course, that Stafford and/or Manning not only play mistake-free but also match Aaron Rodgers in a score-fest. The Packers are averaging 34.4 points per game.
PK: I think the Colts' best stretch of play might actually be behind them. They nearly found a way to beat Pittsburgh in Week 3 but lost by 3, they were in it late in Tampa Bay on a Monday night but lost by a touchdown, they were in range of Kansas City but lost by four.
Every week is a new deal. We just saw the Dolphins emerge from a similar quagmire and win in Kansas City. The Colts could stumble into a game where things align for them. My gut still says they will, because 0-16 is so hard.
So my verdict: The Colts are more likely to go 0-16 than the Packers are to go 16-0. But I don’t think we’re seeing either.
KS: We can agree on that: Neither is happening. But on the relative scale, I like the chances of Rodgers throwing a touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in Week 17 and sealing a perfect season more than the chances of Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of the end zone again.
Just a guess.
Green Bay Packers 24, Indianapolis Colts 21
Preseason record: (2-1)
Of interest: The Packers offense opened with a three-and-out and then shifted to its increasingly intriguing no-huddle offense. It led to a total of 10 points for the starters in the first half, including Aaron Rodgers' 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermichael Finley. Rodgers finished with 204 passing yards in the first half. But the Packers walked away with plenty to work on. Rodgers continued to take more hits than you would like. Left tackle Chad Clifton struggled with defensive end Dwight Freeney, contributing to a pair of sacks and also producing a holding penalty that wiped out a 20-yard touchdown pass to Chastin West. Right guard Josh Sitton gave up a sack for the second consecutive week, this time to former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris. ... Tailback Ryan Grant managed 16 yards on six carries, an effort that will keep his competition with James Starks in play. Starks got only one carry but caught five passes for 38 yards. ... The first-team defense blitzed Colts quarterback Curtis Painter extensively but eventually gave up a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter. One came on a busted coverage by safety Morgan Burnett, while the other came with the always-shaky Jarrett Bush in man coverage. ... Coach Mike McCarthy worked hard to ensure this victory, however, ordering a 2-point conversion after Ryan Taylor's 11-yard touchdown reception with 35 seconds remaining. After a successful onside kick, place-kicker Mason Crosby atoned for an earlier miss with a 50-yard game-winner. ... Quarterback Graham Harrell's late-game heroics could go a long way toward making the team.
Local coverage: McCarthy said he never considered kicking an extra point after Taylor's touchdown to leave with a 1-point loss, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. McCarthy: "I understand the mindset of kicking the extra point and going home a little healthier. That's a terrible message to send to your team, in my opinion. ... I thought it was a tremendous boost for our football team. I think anytime you win a game in that fashion, it's healthy." ... The Packers starters should have scored more points, Demovsky quotes right tackle Bryan Bulaga as saying. ... Players seemed tired at times as a result of the no huddle, but Clifton (via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) said: "There's no excuse for it. I need to play better. Our job is to perform and perform at a high level. I didn't do that tonight. I know it wasn't one of my finest performances. I'll just have to learn from it." ... Burnett admitted he was at fault in the busted coverage that led to Reggie Wayne's 57-yard touchdown. Via Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel: "That was on me all the way. I should have stayed deep in my half. It's just a routine play. I need to really work on that. I can't put too much thought in it. Just need to bounce back." ... Rodgers on his touchdown pass to Finley, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "It was two guys on the same page. It was nice to be able to have that non-verbal acknowledgement of what we're trying to do there."
Up next: Thursday against Kansas City Chiefs
NFL teams value pass-rushing more than any skill outside of quarterbacking, and here in the NFC North we have two of the best of this generation. Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (89 career sacks) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (83) have outright dominated many games during their careers. But is either on track for future enshrinement in Canton, Ohio?
My short answer: It could go either way.
Sacks didn't become an official statistic until 1982. In reviewing how Hall of Fame voters have judged pass-rushers since then, a few tenets seem clear:
- Sack totals alone, no matter how high, don't guarantee enshrinement. Otherwise, linebacker Kevin Greene (currently a Green Bay Packers assistant coach) and defensive end Chris Doleman would have been elected a long time ago. Greene has 160 career sacks, the third-most in NFL history. Doleman's 150.5 rank No. 5. They are two of 25 players with 100 or more career sacks, and eight of those 25 are in the Hall of Fame.
- The first chart is a list of the eight Hall of Fame defensive linemen and linebackers whose careers took place during the sack era. I included Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, whose careers began in 1981, and eliminated Bears linebacker Mike Singletary because pass-rushing wasn't much of a factor in his enshrinement. All but Long had at least 100 sacks. So although 100-plus sacks doesn't guarantee enshrinement, it's almost always a prerequisite. There is every reason to believe that Peppers, who is 31, and Allen, 29, can and will pass that milestone.
- Voters clearly perform a subjective judgment to determine which players with high sack totals deserve enshrinement. Generally speaking, players who seem classified as "pure" pass-rushers, including Greene and Doleman, face a higher bar than those who were more generally regarded as "havoc-wreakers." Examples: Long, Andre Tippett, Taylor, Rickey Jackson and John Randle.
Given their career arcs, both Peppers and Allen might have to justify a "havoc-wreaker" enshrinement. They've got good chances to break the 100-sack barrier, but how much further will they go? Peppers could reach Randle-Taylor-Richard Dent territory by averaging 10 sacks a year for the next five seasons. I would say that 50 sacks between the ages of 31 and 36 represents the high end of what Peppers might achieve.
Allen is 2 years younger, and a similar 50-sack run over the next five years could put him in the same territory by 34. That's a reasonable projection, but I wonder whether voters will discard Allen into the "pure pass-rusher" category that currently houses Greene, Doleman, Leslie O'Neal (137.5 career sacks), Simeon Rice (122) and Clyde Simmons (121.5).
One gauge to consider is ESPN.com's positional power rankings, although I recognize that it simply represents the thoughts of eight slappy bloggers. (But remember, Hall of Fame election is determined by 44 other slappy writers and broadcasters.) Allen was rated as the No. 4 pass-rusher but didn't receive a single vote for best defensive player.
For what it's worth, Peppers ranked No. 8 on the overall defensive player list. And I found it interesting last week that when asked to name the NFL's best player at the moment, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher quickly responded: "Peppers."
In an admittedly subjective question, I ask: If Peppers and Allen finish their careers with similar sack totals, who is more likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame? I'm going to guess Peppers, barring a dramatic career arc adjustment for either player.
Comparing current players to Hall of Famers is only part of the discussion, however. As we noted in our post on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, candidates also must be compared to their contemporaries. In theory, only those who dominated their respective eras should be enshrined.
Our next two charts address that topic.
Since he entered the league in 2002, Peppers ranks third in sacks. Allen, meanwhile, has more sacks than any other NFL player since he was drafted in 2004.
So let's say Peppers and Allen finish their careers in the 130-140 sack range. Both will have been among the most productive pass-rushers of their time, but they'll also be "competing" against a number of contemporaries with similar credentials. We of course hope that all deserving players eventually get in, but the definition of "deserving" can be relative.
To that end, it should be noted that defensive end Michael Strahan (141.5 sacks) would seem relatively assured of enshrinement. End/linebacker Jason Taylor (132.5) and Dwight Freeney (94) also will be considered.
Both Peppers and Allen have potential career spans long enough to settle this debate definitively on their own. But as it stands now, with Peppers entering his 10th season and Allen his eighth, we can say they've done enough to enter the Hall of Fame conversation. Both have more work to do, and it needs to be at the same standard they've set thus far.
Earlier: Rodgers has put himself in on the path toward Canton.
ESPN.com's panel of power rankers had no trouble identifying the best pass-rusher in football. The rest of our Top 10 list? It was easily the most difficult to compile so far in what will be a 10-week project.
Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware received seven of eight first-place votes. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked him No. 2, putting Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney at the top of his ballot. Overall, a total of 17 players received votes, and the crowd was dense enough to exclude established veterans such as Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams, New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Colts defensive end Robert Mathis.
The category was tough, explained NFC West blogger Mike Sando, because "sack numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year and it's tougher to know which pass-rushers are truly the best. I think the proliferation of 3-4 defenses also made this a tougher call. We weren't evaluating defensive ends exclusively. We were also looking at 3-4 outside linebackers. That deepened the pool while forcing us to compare players at more than one position."
Ware, for one, wasn't a difficult choice -- as long as sacks are the primary statistical representation of pass rushing. Ware led the NFL in sacks last season with 15.5, and he has also had more combined sacks over the past two, three and five seasons combined than any other NFL player. At 28, he would seem to have several ultra-productive seasons remaining in his career.
Beyond Ware, however, the debate was fierce. The Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews received the second-most votes (61), but there wasn't much separating him from Freeney (58) or Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (52).
"I've had coaches and scouts I trust tell me, repeatedly, that Freeney is the best pure pass-rusher in the league," Kuharsky said. "They say he's the guy they'd want if they could have anyone and the most difficult guy to stop because of the way he plots out his game. That's stuck with me and was a big factor for me as I put together my ballot."
From an NFC North perspective, I think it's interesting that Ware is the only NFL player who has recorded more sacks than Allen over the past five seasons. Allen's total of 11.0 last season was his low-water mark over the last four seasons, however, and the explicit instructions for voters were to base judgments on what we can expect for the 2011 season.
Given a choice between Allen, Matthews or Freeney in building a Super Bowl team for 2011, whom would you choose? With all due respect for Freeney (and Kuharsky, such that he deserves it) Matthews, 24, seems the right answer to me.
Matthews, Allen and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers gave the NFC North a league-high three members of this exclusive group. Peppers' all-around contributions last season earned him a spot on The Associated Press' All-Pro team, but his total of eight sacks left him ranked eighth on our list.
Illustrating the difficulty of this exercise, two voters left Peppers off their ballots entirely and a third -- AFC North blogger James Walker -- ranked him No. 10. The Atlanta Falcons' John Abraham, The Associated Press' other first-team All-Pro defensive end, ranked a composite No. 7.
NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who covers Abraham and until 2010 covered Peppers as well, ranked Peppers No. 5 and said: "I know the sack numbers can rise and fall, but he has the ability to completely take over a game at any time." Meanwhile, a younger Abraham would have ranked higher.
"He had 11 sacks last year but 5.5 the year before," Yasinskas said. "At 32, you have to at least question whether he would sustain 2010 numbers in 2011."
Finally, if you're outraged about the absence of Williams, Tuck, Suggs, Mathis, the Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole or even the Denver Broncos' Elvis Dumervil, you probably need to focus your ire at the inclusion of Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. In his second NFL season, Wake exploded for 14 sacks.
Does one elite season merit inclusion on this list? Opinions varied widely among our voters. Wake was left off three ballots and voted No. 10 on three others. AFC East blogger Tim Graham, who saw more of Wake last season than any other voter, placed him No. 4.
"If we're ranking the best overall defensive ends or outside linebackers, then maybe Cameron Wake doesn't make my list," Graham said. "He's not a run-stuffer and is lacking when it comes to pass coverage. But we're rating pure pass-rushers, and that's the one thing Wake does on an elite level. He's a freakishly gifted athlete who creates havoc in the backfield.
"I also don't view Wake as a one-year wonder because he had a strong season in 2009 despite playing behind Joey Porter and Jason Taylor in most situations and under a different defensive coordinator. He should continue to thrive under Mike Nolan's guidance. I view Wake as a legitimate star who was overlooked on a mediocre team."
Your thoughts? I'm expecting them.
Although they are difficult to find, there are a few tremendous interior forces when attacking quarterbacks. Those can be true upfield defensive tackles or even ends such as Justin Tuck who are versatile enough to move inside on passing downs.
But most great quarterback killers come off the edge, and this list reflects that. But edge-rushers also come in all shapes and sizes. Some are defensive ends in the 4-3, while others are pass-rushing outside linebackers in the 3-4. Some are tall, linear athletes with great wingspans, while others are shorter and built for leverage. Some pass-rushers rely on power, technique or speed. But every esteemed member of this group is more than just a one-trick pony.
One thing is certain: All can harass quarterbacks extremely well. These are the best of the best.
- DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys: Ware has it all. He has great quickness, but is also incredibly smooth and fluid with all his movements. Ware has a very long, lean athletic body type that he uses extremely well to keep blockers away from his frame, but also gets low and demonstrates great leverage. He also has a full array of pass-rush moves and a great motor to cap it all off. Ware already has four sacks in three games this year. Oh yeah, he also had 20 sacks in 2008.
- Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts: If Freeney has lost a step, it is hardly noticeable. His body of work is amazing, but so is what he is doing now. Before his ankle injury last season, Freeney might have been rushing the passer at a higher level than at any point of his career. I also tend to think that the Super Bowl might have ended a little differently if the Colts’ best defensive player had been healthy. Despite that injury, Freeney did notch 13.5 sacks in 2009.
- Mario Williams, DE, Texans: This ultra-talented young man has come into his own in 2010. Only two players have more sacks this season than Williams (five). And he is one player on this list who is continually double-teamed. Few players look the part like Williams, and his skill set is off the charts. He has power, the body and closing speed. Now he is putting it all together. The league is taking notice.
- Julius Peppers, DE, Bears: Peppers was great in Carolina, but looks rejuvenated -- and much more dangerous and consistent -- since joining the Bears. Peppers and Williams are the two players on this list who are just a different breed of athlete. Peppers and Williams are bigger and more gifted than the others. Although the Bears invested a small fortune in this great player, they must be happy with their investment to this point.
- James Harrison, LB, Steelers: One of the functionally strongest players in the league, Harrison is a master at staying low and bullying his opponent. But his flat-out tenacity is what sets him apart. He got to the quarterback 16 times in 2008 and is also one of the very best in the business at dislodging the football when he does reach the quarterback. Harrison arrives with violence. Harrison and teammate LaMarr Woodley (see below) are probably the two best of this top 10 at setting the edge and playing the run.
- Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: Bred to play the game, Matthews leads the NFL with seven sacks. Despite more or less learning a new position, he notched double-digit sacks as a rookie. He is a terrific blend of athletic ability, which he displays really well bending the edge without losing leverage or speed. But it is his technique -- most noticeably his use of his hands -- and overall tenacity that make Matthews special.
- Robert Mathis, DE, Colts: Mathis is averaging a sack per game thus far in 2010, and the Colts have not played with their accustomed leads. Mathis benefits from Freeney being on the other side and also plays in the ideal conditions to use his amazing speed, but that should not take away from what he brings off the edge.
- Jared Allen, DE, Vikings: Allen was second in the league in sacks last year, and from 2007 to 2009, Allen notched a whopping 44.5. Allen has begun this season rather slowly in this department, but the Vikings have played only three games and his track record speaks for itself. Not only is he a tremendous hustle player, but he uses his length extremely well.
- Tamba Hali, LB, Chiefs: Hali doesn’t get the credit he deserves or the accolades of the others on this list. In fact, Kansas City has really struggled to get after opposing quarterbacks over the last few years. But don’t blame Hali. He has recently blossomed into a great 3-4 outside linebacker after spending time as a defensive end in Herm Edwards’ Cover 2 scheme. The Chiefs are starting to get some recognition. Go out of your way to watch Hali. You will not be disappointed.
- LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers: He has been great this year, but was out-of-this-world the second half of last season. He is one of the few pass-rushers on this list who usually lines up against slower-footed right tackles, but he can win one-on-one with technique, quickness or power. Woodley is just reaching his prime and will only get better.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
This list includes 10 players who led their teams in adjusted quarterback hurries by the greatest percentage over their teams' next-best rusher. In some cases, it's an example of exemplary achievement by the lead rusher. In other cases, it's a sign of substantial dropoff elsewhere.
Tied for No. 9 on the list was Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, whose 21 hurries -- defined by Football Outsiders as pressures that "either cause a hurried throw or prompt offensive holding penalties" -- led the team. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins ranked second with 14 hurries. Matthews' 150-percent increase over Jenkins' total was the ninth-highest discrepancy in the NFL.
I can't give away the store because there is a paywall involved, but for context consider that the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney led the NFL with 34 adjusted hurries last season. Matthews' total tied him for No. 17.
What does this mean? It's a statistical way of demonstrating what we've discussed a number of times this offseason: The Packers' need to find a consistent pass rusher opposite Matthews in the position once occupied by Aaron Kampman. Some of us thought the Packers would draft a linebacker in the first round, but they understandably jumped on left tackle Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall. There were some indications the Packers would seek a veteran free agent at the position, but at this point they appear set to give second-year player Brad Jones a chance there. The shift of B.J. Raji to nose tackle could also produce some additional pressure.
What do you think? Are you satisfied with the current personnel?
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings are crossing their fingers and hoping to avoid an all-out crisis at the most important position on the offensive line.
Down to his third left tackle at the end of Monday night's 24-19 loss at Green Bay, Vikings coach Brad Childress expressed hope Tuesday that short-term starter Artis Hicks will recover quickly from an elbow injury that sidelined him in the second half.
"We think he's going to be OK," Childress said of Hicks. "Which is a good thing."
Otherwise, the Vikings' options are limited. Starter Bryant McKinnie is suspended through the fourth game of the season. Hicks was replaced by Marcus Johnson on Monday night, but Johnson has never played left tackle in his four-year career. The Vikings also have undrafted rookie Drew Radovich on their roster, but he is recovering from a preseason shoulder injury.
McKinnie picked a tough month to get suspended. The Vikings face three Pro Bowl right defensive ends in the next three weeks: Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, Carolina's Julius Peppers and Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch.