NFC North: Jon Runyan
As promised earlier, here is a look at the prominent and available offensive linemen who can play right tackle. Consider it one guide for Chicago's apparent task of replacing veteran John Tait, who reportedly is leaning strongly toward retiring.
I've organized this list in order of the grades our own Scouts Inc. gave each player. Here's the link to Scouts' offensive tackle page. Insider subscribers also can view expert analysis of each player.
Jordan Gross (Carolina)
Vernon Carey (Miami)
Stacy Andrews (Cincinnati)
Jon Runyan (Philadelphia)
Max Starks (Pittsburgh)
Jon Stinchcomb (New Orleans)
Richie Incognito* (St. Louis)
Willie Colon* (Pittsburgh)
Mark Tauscher (Green Bay)
John St. Clair (Chicago)
Trai Essex* (Pittsburgh)
Fred Miller (Chicago)
Erik Pears* (Denver)
George Foster (Detroit)
Ray Willis (Seattle)
Some notes on the list above:
- Scouts considers anyone with a grade of 60 or above to be starter-caliber. To be safe, I included players who could fit in at right tackle with a score of 59 or above. If you think I missed someone, let me know.
- Players listed with an asterisk (*) are restricted free agents. The rest are unrestricted.
- The Panthers are expected to either sign Gross to an extension this week or make him their franchise player later this week.
- It's conceivable that Carey could also be franchised.
- Runyan has had microfracture surgery on his right knee and will need up to six months to recover. At 35, that's not a good combination.
- Andrews had reconstructive knee surgery and might not be ready to start the season.
- Tauscher is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
- Incognito has mostly played center and guard in his career but could move outside. It's a long shot.
- In general, this list shows why there are a lot of people suggesting the Bears really need to re-sign St. Clair. He's not the highest-rated player on the board, obviously, but he knows the offense and will need minimal adjustment to slide over to the right side.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
The top issues facing each team in the division:
|Wesley Hitt/Getty Images|
|Lovie Smith has some work to do with his defense.|
Primary issue: The Bears gave up an average of 241.2 passing yards per game in 2008, third-worst in the NFL. The run defense ranked No. 5 overall, but coach Lovie Smith must find a way to re-balance a once-proud group.
Smith, however, isn't likely to get help from a personnel infusion this offseason. A series of recently-signed contract extensions means the Bears must largely rely on existing players to improve. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher, and defensive tackle Tommie Harris are all in the midst of long-term deals.
If players remain static, that leaves two avenues for adjustment: Scheme and coaching.
Solution: Smith already has overhauled his defensive coaching staff and seems poised to impose some level of scheme change himself by calling the game-day defensive signals himself. The Bears could also help themselves at two positions in the draft: Defensive end and safety.
Secondary issue: Ron Turner's offense could use more explosion, both from the backfield and at the wide receiver position. In 2008, there was perhaps one player -- receiver Devin Hester -- who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
As a team, the Bears had 35 pass plays of more than 20 yards and three of more than 40. Those figures ranked No. 26 and No. 29, respectively, in the NFL.
Solution: The receiver position seems an obvious target in free agency. Turner also would be wise to follow up on his plan to get scatback Garrett Wolfe more involved in the offense.
Primary issue: The Lions finished 2008 with the NFL's 30th-ranked rush offense and 32nd-ranked rush defense. Valuing quickness over size, the Lions got pushed all over the field on both sides of the ball and need to overhaul both lines.
|Derick Hingle/Icon SMI|
|Alabama's Andre Smith could fit in nicely with the Lions.|
This is not a one-year project, and instead takes several good drafts, along with at least some isolated free-agent acquisitions, to accomplish. Conservatively, the Lions need to find at least two guards, two defensive tackles and an eventual successor for center Dominic Raiola.
Solution: The Lions must take a lineman with at least one, if not both, of their No. 1 picks. Some believe Alabama left tackle Andre Smith could be the best player in the draft. Left tackle isn't the Lions' top need, but Smith could set a tone for the entire offensive line.
Secondary issue: The Lions have three veteran quarterbacks on their roster: Drew Stanton, Daunte Culpepper and Jon Kitna. They have the opportunity to re-sign Dan Orlovsky. None of those players, however, are long-term answers at the position.
New coach Jim Schwartz joked last month that it was time to replace former quarterback Bobby Layne, who last played for the Lions 51 years ago. The Lions need a permanent answer at the game's most important position.
Solution: The Lions will consider whether to take Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. That's a possibility. Here's another: Making Culpepper or Orlovsky a bridge starter and selecting a developmental quarterback later
in the draft.
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|In the Packers' new 3-4 scheme, Aaron Kampman will move to outside linebacker.|
Primary issue: The Packers believe their personnel is flexible enough to absorb a pending shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme, but it's inevitable that some positions are going to turn over.
Aaron Kampman's shift to linebacker means the Packers need a new defensive end. And there's no guarantee that the two primary outside linebackers on the roster, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga, will be able to handle the new scheme.
Unfortunately for them, the Packers will have to make those decisions months before training camp begins. Now is the time when the best alternatives are available.
Solution: General manager Ted Thompson needs to step out of his free agency shell and sign at least one linebacker and one defensive end to protect himself this summer. Those positions should also be a focus of the April draft.
Secondary issue: The offensive line got old in a hurry last season, and it's possible the Packers will have to replace at least one, if not both, of their tackles. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is headed to free agency while recovering from a torn ACL, a bad situation for both sides. And left tackle Chad Clifton struggled with both knees last season and has one year left on his contract.
The Packers aren't exactly set at guard, either. They rotated Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Josh Sitton through the position last year, but it's possible that Colledge could figure as a replacement for one of the tackles.
Solution: Colledge could replace Tauscher at right tackle. It's also likely that Thompson will select multiple linemen in the draft.
Primary issue: For three years, the Vikings have been looking for the long-term successor to Culpepper. Coach Brad Childress has given Tarvaris Jackson every opportunity to claim that position, and you better believe that Childress would love for Jackson to do that once and for all in 2009.
|Rick Scuteri/US PRESSWIRE|
|The Vikings need Tarvaris Jackson to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.|
The question becomes the extent to which the Vikings will protect themselves against the possibility that Jackson can't do it. Gus Frerotte isn't likely to return, so at the very least the Vikings will have to find a new veteran backup for Jackson.
Many fans are hoping that second-year player John David Booty can challenge Jackson for the job, but it's unlikely that will happen in 2009.
Solution: The Vikings have a veteran team that seems primed for a deep playoff run, but they need to elevate their quarterback play one way or the other. Signing the best free agent available, likely to be Jeff Garcia, is probably their best option.
Secondary issue: The Ryan Cook experiment could end for several reasons, leaving the Vikings in need of a right tackle. Cook could replace veteran Matt Birk at center, or he simply could be benched after nearly three inconsistent seasons as a starter.
Cook played center in college at New Mexico and never has looked entirely comfortable as a right tackle.
Solution: There are no internal replacements. This position will have to come from outside the organization. Childress has long been a fan of Philadelphia's Jon Runyan, a free agent this spring, but that would be a short-term decision.
|Drew Hallowell/Getty Images|
|There will be plenty of similarities on display when Brad Childress' Vikings and Andy Reid's Eagles square off Sunday.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
When it came time to make his first big decision as Minnesota's new owner, Zygi Wilf looked east and hatched a plan. He would figure out a way to spell "Vikings" using "E-A-G-L-E-S."
In January 2006, Wilf made plans to hire Philadelphia's offensive coordinator as the Vikings' head coach and its linebackers coach as his new defensive coordinator. He wanted the Eagles' top personnel man as his general manager, and he was sold on the personnel and schematic approach -- draft a young quarterback to run the West Coast offense, upgrade the offensive line and blitz the bejeezus out of opponents -- that has made the Eagles a playoff team in seven of the past nine seasons.
"What we wanted was to be a first-class organization," Wilf said. "We wanted an organization that was patient and did things the right way with a goal of being a consistent winner that could challenge first for the division championship, and then for the Super Bowl, every season. We still have improvements to make, but that's always been what we have strived for."
As it turned out, Wilf hired Brad Childress as his head coach but couldn't lure talent evaluator Tom Heckert to be his general manager. The Eagles blocked Childress from hiring Steve Spagnuolo as his defensive coordinator, but a year later Childress tapped another former Philadelphia assistant -- Leslie Frazier -- for the job.
And in building the team that will host the Eagles on Sunday at the Metrodome, Childress has emulated his former employers on a number of levels. Among them:
- Signing a prominent free agent offensive lineman to a mega-deal with hopes he would add a level of nastiness to the offense. The Eagles did it in 2000 with right tackle Jon Runyan. The Vikings followed in 2006 by acquiring left guard Steve Hutchinson.
- Drafting a quarterback early in his tenure and put him on the developmental fast track. The Eagles had Donovan McNabb in the starting lineup by Week 10 of his rookie season. Tarvaris Jackson started the final two games as a rookie in 2006.
- Hiring all of his athletic trainers as well as his strength and conditioning staff from Philadelphia. Eagles coach Andy Reid blocked Childress from taking any position coaches to Minnesota, but several Vikings assistants nevertheless have Eagles ties. Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy played for them in 1999, Childress' first year as an assistant in Philadelphia. The Vikings' current quarterbacks coach, Kevin Rogers, was McNabb's position coach at Syracuse. And tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson was once an Eagles intern.
- Authorizing Frazier to mix creative blitz packages into the Vikings' cover-2 base defense. Frazier played in Chicago's "46" defense of the 1980s, but he learned the fundamentals of blitz schemes from Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson while serving as Philadelphia's defensive backs coach from 1999-02.
- Calling his own plays during the 2006 season, as Reid always did in Philadelphia. And coincidence or otherwise, Childress handed those duties to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell not long after Reid gave that role to Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.