NFC North: Ellis Wyms
We offered a thorough breakdown of Detroit's situation heading into this week's scouting combine, but we've recently learned there are three other teams in the NFC North. So let's play a little catch-up and check in with Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota on the eve of the year's greatest draft-related event held during the third week of February:
Three points of interest:
- The Bears must prepare for right tackle John Tait to retire, even though general manager Jerry Angelo has said he hopes Tait plays at least one more season. As we noted, the free-agent market at right tackle is pretty thin. But 2009 might prove to be a strong year for tackles in the draft. It's not out of the question, according to ESPN.com's Todd McShay, that four tackles could be off the board by the time Chicago picks at No. 18. In either event, McShay has five offensive linemen with first-round grades.
- The Bears signed free-agent quarterback Brett Basanez earlier this month, but at this point you have to assume they will further stockpile their depth. The free-agent market should continue to clarify as the weekend approaches, giving us a better idea if players like Chris Simms plan to re-sign with their current teams or test the market.
- The draft rarely offers immediate impact at the receiver position, so the Bears almost certainly will have to scour the free-agent market if they want to upgrade their corps. We've suggested Pittsburgh's Nate Washington as a potential fit, but there are plenty of other possibilities. Here are the receiver rankings from Scouts Inc.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Three points of interest:
- We should get a better sense of how much, or little, personnel turnover the Packers are planning as part of their shift to the 3-4 defense. General manager Ted Thompson isn't a big fan of free agency, and he offered a bit of a winding answer when Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal asked about the Packers' personnel plans.
- Many mock drafts are suggesting the Packers will draft Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins with the No. 9 overall pick. Some analysts have suggested Jenkins might project better as an NFL safety. This topic should be well-discussed at the combine.
- The Packers used tailback Ryan Grant an awful lot in 2008, giving him 312 carries. You would think they'll look to spread the ball out a bit more in 2009. Will Grant's partner be backup Brandon Jackson? Or will the Packers seek help from elsewhere? Here's a link to Scouts Inc.'s ranking of running backs.
Three points of interest:
- The big question is whether the Vikings will pursue a starting-caliber quarterback or merely look to add depth behind starter Tarvaris Jackson. At least two veteran starters are available. Will we get any hint that the Vikings are going to pursue Matt Cassel, New England's franchise player? Or will they attempt to sign Jeff Garcia?
- The Vikings will join the Bears in the hunt for a right tackle. Starter Ryan Cook is under contract for 2009, but it's possible he'll be moved to center to replace veteran free agent Matt Birk. If not, Cook is one of the few personnel weak links on the Vikings' otherwise talented roster.
- It'll be interesting to see how the Vikings will approach their defensive tackle position with the suspension of Pat Williams and/or Kevin Williams still a possibility. (Their legal cases remain under consideration.) Both of their 2008 backups, Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms, are pending free agents. Evans is restricted, so the Vikings could match any offer he receives. The Vikings might need to amplify their depth when it's available so they aren't caught surprised later if either Williams loses his legal case.
Mike of Sacramento asked, and I've listened (Finally).
We're still six weeks away from free agency and the start of what we like to call the "new league year," but already it's time to start looking at the NFL's hot stove season.
So over the next four days, we'll roll out an analysis of each Black and Blue team's situation as it begins making plans for the offseason. Let's be fair and move in order of the 2008 finish, starting with Minnesota.
Minnesota Vikings offseason analysis
- 2008 record: 10-6
- Coaching changes: Special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro took linebackers job in St. Louis. Replacement unannounced.
- Salary-cap space: $20.4 million before end-of-year credits and adjustments.
- Restricted free agents: Defensive tackle Fred Evans, cornerback Charles Gordon, defensive end Otis Grigsby, defensive end Jayme Mitchell, fullback Naufahu Tahi.
- Unrestricted free agents: Center Matt Birk, linebacker Heath Farwell, linebacker Napoleon Harris, offensive lineman Marcus Johnson, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms.
- Draft highlight: They own the No. 22 overall pick
- Free-agency comment: The Vikings seemingly have made the decision to let Birk and Sharper seek employment elsewhere, although that could always change in the days leading up to free agency. They have an in-house replacement for Sharper in Tyrell Johnson, but they'll have to further evaluate the situation at center. Among the other free agents, Farwell is a likely target as he recovers from a torn ACL.
- Three biggest needs: (1) A quarterback to compete with Tarvaris Jackson; (2) A right tackle to compete with or replace Ryan Cook; (3) A kick/punt returner to count on weekly, rather than relying on a mix-and-match approach.
The two components of Minnesota's Williams Wall packed up their lockers this week and shifted into offseason mode. They have plans to attend next month's Pro Bowl and soon will begin preparing for their fifth season together on the Vikings' defensive line.
At some point between now and then, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will find out whether they will be eligible for all 16 games in 2009 or if the legal system will uphold their four-game suspensions for violating the NFL's banned substances policy. At some point this winter, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson will rule on their lawsuit against the NFL, one that has been amended recently to include charges that the league's policy violates Minnesota state law.
(Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has a good primer on the latest legal maneuverings.)
The pair accomplished the goal of remaining eligible during the Vikings' playoff run, although Pat Williams missed the final three games because of a fractured scapula. The Vikings were 3-1 in the games they would have missed. But in listening to them talk earlier this week, it didn't sound as if either is willing to drop the legal fight now.
Kevin Williams said he was proud of the approach they took and would be "shocked" if the NFL prevailed in court.
"I hope it didn't distract my teammates much," he said. "You still had to go out and play ball, and that's the way I looked at it. We felt we were in the right, so it didn't really bother me."
Both players reportedly tested positive for a substance known as bumetanide, a banned diuretic contained in a weight loss supplement. Their legal filings indicate both were trying to make weight, were unaware of the presence of bumetanide and did not take steroids.
Players are not paid for the games they are suspended for, but Pat Williams said he is primarily motivated to clear his name.
"Basically to prove to everybody that I was innocent," Williams said. "I don't want to take no suspension. I basically [want to] just prove I'm innocent altogether."
It will be interesting to see whether the Vikings utilize the free agent market to help craft a contingency plan in the event either player is suspended for part of 2009. When news of their discipline surfaced in 2008, they scrambled to sign veteran defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy.
Kennedy, however, is a pending unrestricted free agent. So is Ellis Wyms, who would have replaced Kevin Williams in the starting lineup had the suspension occurred. Backup nose tackle Fred Evans, who replaced Pat Williams after the injury, will be a restricted free agent.
|K. Williams||P. Williams|
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Amid jokes and barbs from their teammates, Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams returned to the practice field Thursday -- thanks to a Minnesota judge who lifted their four-game NFL suspensions with a temporary injunction a day earlier.
Both players participated in a morning walk-through and are scheduled for Thursday afternoon's full practice, barring a legal reversal of their injunction. There is still no clear indication whether they will be able to play Sunday at Detroit; the NFL Players Association has filed a second legal action in U.S. District Court. But for one morning, at least, life was relatively normal at the Vikings' practice facility.
"Guys were asking them if they had enjoyed their vacation, as short as it was," said defensive tackle Ellis Wyms, who would start Sunday if the suspensions are upheld. "Everybody is just upbeat and happy to have them back. I guess there is still a cloud in the air as to how long they're going to be able to stick around. But as long as they can stick around, we're a better team with them in here."
Neither Pat Williams nor Kevin Williams made themselves available to speak to the media. It is believed the Vikings had to make a move to get them back on their active roster, but that personnel change was not immediately evident Wednesday morning.
UPDATE: Veteran receiver Robert Ferguson was not at practice Thursday, indicating he was the roster casualty.
Both players were suspended after taking a weight loss supplement that was laced with a banned diuretic that can be used to flush steroids from the body. Their court documents insist that neither player knew about the presence of the diuretic and that neither has ever taken steroids.
Nevertheless, the mistake has sent mild reverberations around the Vikings' locker room.
Wyms said the suspensions "bring some attention" to the possibilities when taking supplements but he had harsh words for the NFL's steroids policy.
"The league is kind of too tough on us sometimes," Wyms said. "I don't think the other leagues have as tough of a policy as we have in this league. Those guys aren't doing anything to gain an unfair advantage. Those guys are just taking stuff to help them with their weight.
"It's kind of sad the way the league attacks us and fines us and kind of takes from our livelihood. Guys work hard to earn their salaries. For something silly like that, to even threaten taking money out of their pockets or even threatening to hurt us in a playoff run right now, is just silly and stupid to me. But I guess it brings a little more attention to it and guys have to be a little more careful."
Other than a few more media members in the locker room Thursday, players insisted they are preparing for Sunday's game in a normal environment.
"It is what it is," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Right now Pat and Kevin are back, and we're excited about that. I'm not going to sit here and think about what could be, what might be or what had been. We're here to play the Detroit Lions this week and that's all what we're thinking about."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings are moving on without defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, regardless of whether the players seek a legal injunction to lift their four-game suspensions.
Coach Brad Childress acknowledged the team plans to make at least one roster move to add defensive line depth. One possibility is veteran free agent Jimmy Kennedy, who was released last week by Jacksonville. Speaking extensively Wednesday about the suspension, Childress said he is expecting backups Ellis Wyms, Fred Evans and Letroy Guion to step into more prominent roles.
Childress chose his words carefully, but made clear he isn't totally on board with Pat Williams or Kevin Williams taking weight loss supplements. He called the entire situation "unfortunate" said he had "a lot of mixed feelings" on it. Ultimately, Childress said: "When you go through a season, at some point you're going to have some adversity."
Here are some bullet points on the story to this point:
- As of early afternoon, neither player had initiated any legal action. That doesn't mean it won't happen by the end of the day. Unless and until they are granted an injunction, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are barred from the Vikings' practice facility.
- Wyms and Evans are the likely starters for Sunday's game at Detroit. Guion practiced Wednesday with a wrap on his injured left ankle. Anyone the Vikings sign, including Kennedy, wouldn't participate in practice until Thursday at the earliest.
- Here's what Childress said when asked if he was disappointed that both players took weight loss supplements instead of using other methods of making weight: "You know, those guys do a good job of keeping themselves in shape. Really, when you say 'resort' to staying in shape, that's not something that you stay in shape with. I'll leave it at that. Those guys do a good job taking care of their bodies."
- Pressed on the issue of weight-loss supplements, Childress added: "All I know about water pills or weight loss is that Miss America uses them, and neither one of these guys would fall under that category of using them for looks, I don't think. But I know that they're used and obviously available throughout. You can buy them off the shelves. You'd have to ask them."
- Childress wouldn't rule out defensive end Brian Robison from Sunday's game at Detroit, but it seems highly unlikely that Robison will play. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Tuesday and did not practice Wednesday.
Quick. Name the defensive tackles on Minnesota's roster.
Evans has nine tackles this season. Wyms has three Guion, a fifth-round draft pick, has been active for one game all season and missed practice last week because of an ankle injury.
(You didn't ask, but there are no defensive tackles on the Vikings' practice squad.)
This precarious depth situation is one of many examples you could cite to illustrate just how impactful these suspensions are. Kevin Williams is a three-time All-Pro, and both players have participated in the past two Pro Bowls. They are the key reasons why the Vikings led the NFL in rushing defense during the past two seasons; the team ranks No. 2 through 12 games this season. Kevin Williams also has eight sacks and has helped draw attention away from defensive end Jared Allen (11 sacks).
ESPN's Chris Mortensen has reported that at least one player will file an injunction Wednesday in an effort to continuing playing through the suspension. That effort would be fraught with its own risks: If the injunction merely delays the inevitable, the suspensions would carry into the playoffs, if applicable.
So if the Vikings end up losing both players for the remainder of the season, the question will be whether they can hold on to their one-game lead in the NFC North and earn the franchise's first postseason invitation since 2004.
My take? It's very possible.
Start with Sunday's game at Detroit. Yes, the Lions have a better chance of running through a line made up of Evans and Wyms. But let's face it, the Vikings should defeat the woeful Lions with or without the Williams Wall.
A victory at Detroit would lift the Vikings to 8-5. Practically speaking, they would need only one more victory against an admittedly difficult schedule -- at Arizona, followed by home games against Atlanta and the New York Giants -- to secure the NFC North title.
How do I figure that? Based on a review of the NFL's playoff system, the Vikings will take the division title at 9-7 unless either Chicago or Green Bay wins its final four games. (Feel free to check my work. It wouldn't be the first mistake I've made. Here is the tiebreaker system and here are the NFL's expanded standings.)
As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, the Bears are unlikely to win a tiebreaker with the Vikings as long as Minnesota defeats Detroit this weekend. (The best the Bears could hope for is winning the No. 5 tiebreaker, strength of victory, which can't be determined until the regular season is complete.)
As a result, the Bears almost certainly would need four victories to finish 10-6 and win the division outright over a 9-7 Vikings team. Will the Bears, who haven't won more than two consecutive games since 2006, suddenly grab four straight?
The Packers, meanwhile, need four victories to get to 9-7. (One would have to come against Chicago on Dec. 22, thus eliminating the possibility of a practical three-way tie.) Green Bay would win the title in that scenario because of a better division record. But can the Packers, who have lost seven of their past 10 games, reel off four in a row?
So, in summary, the Vikings very likely can win the NFC North with victories in two of their final four games, with one of them coming against the hapless Lions. It's by no means a slam dunk, but not nearly as insurmountable as it might have appeared in the initial emotion of the NFL's ruling.
Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian spoke out Tuesday on an aspect of the NFL's policy for supplement use, telling a national radio audience he has experienced difficulty getting information from the league's toll-free hotline.
The league provides the hotline as a resource for players unsure about the contents of supplements they are considering using. It's designed as a failsafe against taking a supplement that might be tainted or otherwise could cause a player to test positive for an illegal substance. Berrian told Sirius NFL radio that he hasn't always gotten through on the line:
"You've got to take some responsibility and call into that hotline. But I know one thing about that hotline. I've called twice before and actually never gotten a hold of anybody sometimes. So even when you try to do the right thing sometimes it is still hard to get a hold of somebody and really find out what you're really taking."
The topic came up during a discussion about the possible suspension of Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, who reportedly took a supplement that contained a substance banned by the NFL. League spokesman Greg Aiello told the Star Tribune the league will follow up on Berrian's comments.
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press takes a look at the Vikings' backup defensive tackles, Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms, in the event they are forced into more prominent duty this season.
- Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette takes a look at the Packers' tough task Sunday of stopping the Tennessee running game. The Green Bay defense is allowing 141.9 rushing yards per game this season.
- Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly appeared in a Harris (Tex.) County court Tuesday and was given a Dec. 2 pretrial hearing as part of his indictment for felony drug possession. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has details.
- Dan Pompeii of the Chicago Tribune notes that Bears quarterback Kyle Orton has a 144.7 passer rating in the no-huddle offense this season. His rating is 84.8 after a huddle.
- Bears center Olin Kreutz on the team's unexpectedly potent offense: "We have a good group of guys, and sometimes that overrides talent." Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times has the story.
- Detroit needs to decide whether Kevin Smith or Rudi Johnson is the starting tailback, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com
- Lions coach Rod Marinelli on rookie defensive end Cliff Avril: "I think we've got a special player." Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press has details.
If you're a Minnesota fan, the scariest thing about the Vikings' latest off-field incident is the potential to lose both Pro Bowl defensive tackles at the same time.
FOX Sports reported Sunday that Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are among eight NFL players who could be suspended after testing positive for a masking agent during a random drug test. (These drugs are sometimes known as "water pills" because they can be used to "wash" illicit substances from a player's system.)
According to the report, the Williamses are awaiting an appeal hearing. There is no confirmation on how many games they would be suspended, but New Orleans offensive lineman Jamar Nesbit received a four-game suspension for what was reported to be a similar violation.
The Vikings already have lost middle linebacker E.J. Henderson for the season because of a foot injury. If they're forced to play a stretch of games without either Williams, their once-feared run defense will be a shell of its former self.
The Williamses have started all 39 games next to each other since coach Brad Childress installed a one-gap system. The results have been astounding: The Vikings led the NFL in rush defense for the past two seasons and rank No. 2 this season after Sunday's games. Kevin Williams was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team each year, and Pat Williams made his first Pro Bowl in 2007.
Whether they are ultimately suspended -- and the timing of the punishment -- will be determined by the NFL appeals process. But before anyone asks, I'm aware of no precedent for intentionally staggering the suspensions to lighten the blow on the Vikings. Other sports have manipulated multiple suspensions, but usually to ensure that a team can put the required number of players on the field.
The Vikings will return to the practice field Monday after their bye week. Both Williamses are scheduled to be there -- for now. If nothing else, however, the Vikings are looking at the possibility of their greatest strength transforming into a huge weakness with one strike of an arbitrator's gavel.