NFC North: Mario Williams

In the hustle and bustle of last week's owners meetings, our post on the five-year outlook of the NFL salary cap might have slipped your mind. I know it can be a dry subject, but now that ESPN's John Clayton has filled in many of the details, I hope you agree this is one of the most important stories of the offseason.

According to Clayton, the NFL management council informed teams last week that the 2015 salary cap projects to about $122 million. That's not much of an increase from 2011 or 2012, and it's actually lower than the $123 million teams had in 2009.

The explanation is complicated and multi-faceted, but Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand offered one set of reasons last week. While the NFL's new TV contract will feature a substantially higher annual average when it begins in 2014, the first- and second-year revenue will be lower than the average. The cap will increase gradually as a result, but won't spike in the first year.

Untenable salary-cap situations sparked some of the biggest moves of the NFL offseason, including the Lions' $132 million contract extension with receiver Calvin Johnson and the Buffalo Bills' $100 million deal with defensive end Mario Williams. The Lions needed to extend Johnson's deal to lower his 2012 cap number, and the Houston Texans couldn't justify retaining Williams because of the franchise tag figure he would have commanded. And unless and until there is a substantially higher NFL cap limit, the issue will drive offseason moves for years to come.

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 17, 2012
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Given how fluid this time of year is, I once again mined the mailbag for questions and topics that didn't figure to be impacted by breaking news over the weekend. You can get in touch with me via the mailbag, Twitter or our nearly full Facebook page.

Onward….

Mark of San Diego writes: I've seen several columnists comment on the high amount of drops Brandon Marshall has had in his career, but they all mention in almost the same breath how many targets he gets. Is there a chart someplace (like maybe a future blog post) that shows drops as a percent of targets?

Kevin Seifert: That's a good and fair question, Mark. Statistics are always more valuable when viewed in context, and it stands to reason that the more passes a player is thrown, the more likely he'll have a higher number of drops.

The raw number, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is that Marshall has dropped 26 passes since 2008, the third-highest total in the NFL over that stretch. I don't have his total targets over that stretch, but I can give you a glimpse into his drop percentage over the past two seasons and how that fits into the league rankings.

In 2010, Marshall had a drop percentage of 8.5, which ranked 60th in the NFL that season. That means 59 receivers caught a higher percentage of the catchable passes thrown their way.

In 2011, Marshall's drop percentage was 6.9, ranking him No. 52 in the league.

In this case, the percentage confirms what the raw numbers suggest. Marshall's drops weren't only a function of his high involvement in the Miami Dolphins offense. He missed more catchable passes than dozens of other NFL receivers.

To be clear, that shouldn't take away from Marshall's accomplishments as one of the league's most productive receivers over that period. The percentages merely give us a broader view of his performance.


Matt of Appleton, Wis., is curious about the long-term salary cap implications of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's new contract.

Kevin Seifert: Johnson signed what is technically an eight-year, $132 million deal. Deals that long often get restructured before the end, but usually teams at least leave the first three years intact before going back at it.

To that end, former agent Joel Corry provided a three-year cap breakdown for the National Football Post. The deal will count $11.5 million against the cap in 2012, $12.2 million in 2013 and $12.2 million in 2014, according to Corry.

It's never ideal to have a player count more than $10 million against the cap, especially in the case of the Lions, who have three players -- Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- who will always have high cap numbers because they were top draft picks under the previous NFL system for rookie contracts.

But remember, Johnson was going to count $22 million this season against the cap, and if he received the franchise tag, $26.4 million in 2013 and $31 million in 2014. Considered that way, his new cap charges seem quite reasonable.


Eric of Fariview Heights, Ill., isn't satisfied with our explanation for why the Minnesota Vikings didn't participate more actively in the opening days of free agency. Carl Nicks is 26 and probably if not absolutely is the best guard in the league. A five year deal helps Ponder and Peterson, neither of which are getting protected. Talks with an aged, twice injured TE is more important than a top WR signing? Explain! So we want Percy Harvin, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph clogging up the middle? Where is our deep threat? How can you write an article defending not going after Nicks, a top receiver, OR one of the top cornerbacks? I mean seeing how we've been HORRIBLE in the secondary... It's a joke. Let's hear the true talk on this inactivity please!?

Kevin Seifert: That's fair. First I'll give you a rundown of what I would guess the Vikings were thinking, and then I'll offer my own comments.

Six years ago, the Vikings signed Steve Hutchinson to the biggest contract for a guard in NFL history. Historically, however, NFL teams don't like to devote cap space to the guard position. There are too many instances of success when inserting younger, cheaper players into those jobs while spending your money on left tackle and center. Hutchinson, the Vikings thought then and now, was a once-in-a-generation player.

Rather than devoting $47.5 million to Nicks over the next five years, the Vikings figure they can move Charlie Johnson to left guard. Johnson signed a three-year, $10 million contract last summer. He might not perform to Nicks' level, but is the difference between Nicks and Johnson worth, say, twice or three times the salary cap space? The Vikings didn't think so.

The same goes for cornerback. The Vikings will get the promising Chris Cook back on the field in 2012, which is an automatic upgrade from what they finished with. I can only assume that they didn't think any of the cornerbacks available on the market, most notably Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, were worth the $10 million annual salaries they eventually received.

As for Carlson, none of us can pretend to understand whether he is a risk for injury moving forward. Beyond that, the Vikings saw him as a polished 27-year-old pass-catcher who could make their offensive more dynamic. Does he solve all of their problems, including the deep threat issue? No. But that doesn't mean he can't help.

General manager Rick Spielman said last week that the team wasn't "one player away" from contending for the Super Bowl. That's one of the reasons the Vikings weren't more aggressive. A fair counterargument, of course, is this: What if they are? What if quarterback Christian Ponder develops quickly, and tailback Adrian Peterson returns to form and the offensive line improves with the presumed drafting of Matt Kalil?

In that case, the Vikings would be vulnerable in their otherwise unaddressed secondary, and a chance to have a better-than-expected season could be quashed. I'm fine with the Vikings sitting out the crazy receiver market. I do question if they're going to be able to field a competitive defensive secondary, but we'll withhold final judgment until the full players acquisition period is complete.


Grayson of Roseville, Calif., writes: Why wouldn't the Packers have made a play for Mario Williams? I know they don't often do anything in free agency but Williams seems too good to pass up, like Reggie White and Charles Woodson were. It makes so much sense!

Kevin Seifert: It makes sense from the standpoint of the Packers needing a pass rusher (or two) and Williams is the best pass rusher on the market. Williams has more experience as a 4-3 end rather than a 3-4 outside linebacker, but perhaps the idea of playing opposite Clay Matthews -- and the presumably favorable matchups that would go with it -- might have been enough to lure him to the Packers.

But as we noted during the week, the Packers aren't really in position to start handing out $100 million contracts to free agents -- at least, not if they plan to re-sign a trio of players who are in line for extensions. Matthews, receiver Greg Jennings and quarterback Aaron Rodgers could have their deals addressed in the next calendar year. I'm guessing the Packers prioritized them over any free agent.

With that said, it doesn't mean the Packers couldn't afford to investigate other free agent pass rushers. I wouldn't be opposed to them pursuing Kamerion Wimbley, whom the Oakland Raiders released Friday.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Chicago Bears were rumored to be considering a run at free agent defensive end Mario Williams. They ultimately pushed hard to sign free agent Jeremy Mincey, who returned to the Jacksonville Jaguars. So on Thursday evening, they agreed to terms with incumbent Israel Idonije on a one-year deal.

The question is whether the Bears intend for Idonije to resume his full-time role, or if their pursuit of Mincey (and possibly others) indicate they will continue searching for another starting option. The Bears don't have much depth at the position, which is why they were forced to play Idonije -- a longtime reserve/swing lineman -- on 84.4 percent of their defensive spans last season.

Continuing around the NFC North:
By this point, the Green Bay Packers' quiet approach to veteran free agency should surprise no one. We've had endless debates about the pros and cons of their philosophy, but in the spring of 2012, I think we should all have a clear understanding of the "why."

In the next 12 months or so, the Packers will face contract negotiations with three of the best players at their positions in the NFL. Receiver Greg Jennings is entering the final year of his contract, linebacker Clay Matthews has two years remaining on his rookie deal, and there is a general understanding that quarterback Aaron Rodgers has outperformed the contract he signed shortly after taking over as the Packers' starter in 2008.

Free agent activity this week has offered us a peak at the numbers the Packers likely will hear, and to no surprise, they're going to be high. Let's start with Jennings, who has to be smiling ear-to-ear after watching the money thrown at receivers this week.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the market for the top receiver available by signing Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. If Jennings were to hit the open market in 2013, he could reasonably expect Jackson's deal to serve as a baseline for negotiations.

Both players have been fortunate enough to play with elite quarterbacks and in steady passing offenses. As the chart shows, Jennings is a bit younger than Jackson, and has produced at a much higher rate over his career.

We'll set aside the $132 million contract of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, as well as the $120 million deal Larry Fitzgerald signed last summer with the Arizona Cardinals. Both deals were inflated by unique forms of leverage that Jennings won't have access to.

Rodgers, meanwhile, is the reigning MVP and could expect a contract that comes close to the $18 million annual average the game's top quarterbacks -- including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- have received in recent deals. Ongoing negotiations between Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints could raise that level, but Brees has the leverage of an expired contract.

Regardless, you can do the math. Rodgers said in November that he wants his next contract to be his last. If the Packers want to sign Rodgers to a new, say, seven-year deal, the total value could surpass $125 million. Nothing crazy there when it comes to quarterback salaries.

Of the three, Matthews might be the most difficult situation to assess. His sack total fell from 13.5 in 2010 to six in 2011, but it's fair to consider him one of the NFL's better pass-rushers. The top available pass-rusher on the market this spring is defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams, who has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Buffalo Bills for $100 million over six years, with $50 million guaranteed.

So we can be conservative and suggest that the combined contracts of Jennings, Rodgers and Matthews could surpass $200 million. That should give you 200 million reasons why the Packers are laying low, at least at the moment.
For two days earlier this week, we debated whether the Chicago Bears should prioritize receiver or make a run at defensive end Mario Williams when the free-agent market opened. Ultimately, their first move was to acquire receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins.

It's uncertain whether they also reached out to Williams, but we just learned his price tag. After a three-day visit to the Buffalo Bills, Williams signed a six-year, $100 million contract that includes $50 million guaranteed, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The Bears did make a hard run at Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey, but Mincey signed a four-year deal to remain with the Jaguars. Their 2011 starter, Israel Idonije, remains unsigned.

Most people would agree that Marshall will improve the Bears' offense. But let's just say there are just as many people who are thrilled Williams didn't join him. Here's what Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted upon learning the news: "Congrats to Mario Williams signing in buffalo... far away from the NFC north, thanks big guy"

*UPDATE: Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford re-tweeted Rodgers' thought and added an appropriate "Ditto."
All things being equal, most of you wouldn't turn down the Chicago Bears' potential addition of defensive end Mario Williams. The unrestricted availability of one of the NFL's top pass-rushers is attractive to just about any football fan, and the prospect of Williams teaming up with current Bears All-Pro Julius Peppers is frightening.

Williams
Williams
In reading through our hastily-arranged Have at It post, I saw only a few objections. Most of them related to the salary-cap limitations Williams would impose on improvement in other areas. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Monday that Williams is likely to command a contract that averages $15 million per season, and signing him would make it tougher to improve their thin group of receivers in an immediate way for 2012.

Recoil47 rejected a comparison with the New York Giants, who have won two Super Bowls in recent years in large part because of their dominating defensive lines. But in 2011, at least, the Giants were also stacked at receiver.

Wrote recoil47: "The comparison with the Giants hoarding defensive ends is a bad one. The Giants also have three wide Receivers who are better than the Bear's best wide receiver. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are far better than anything the Bears have, and Mario Manningham would sadly be a #1 on this team. So it's easy to try to make that comparison, but try to remember that the Giants were also stacked in areas the Bears ALSO need to fill."

Point taken. But the allure of creating an elite segment of a team seemed overwhelming for many of you. Family_man1 wrote that "it's always temping to fix weaknesses so you can feel more "comfortable" but added: "Far more likely to succeed in the NFL is to be dominant at a few phases of the game then above be average in everything. The Packers, Patriots, Saints, 49ers all did this with great success this season. The champion Giants have a terrible secondary, but a stellar line and it paid off. Therefore, I say seek greatness in the pass rush and find cheap solutions in the other phases. "

In that vein, many of you suggested that Williams could team with Peppers for a few years of double-barreled pass rush before providing a relatively seamless transition when Peppers' career with the Bears ends. Williams just turned 27 in January, and is five years younger than Peppers.

"The one advantage of signing Williams is you are set at DE for the next 8-10 years," wrote adambballn. Added Family_man1: "He's a building block no matter what you do."

My take: I've been squarely on the side that believes receiver/tight end should be the Bears' top priority in free agency. As my colleague Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com notes, the Bears have spent more than twice as many draft choices in rounds 1-3 on defensive linemen than receivers since coach Lovie Smith's arrival in 2004. You get what you pay for. But I also acknowledge it's rare when a pass-rusher of Williams' abilities becomes available in free agency, and we've seen how Peppers has impacted the Bears.

So I won't hammer the Bears for signing a player of Williams' stature. I'll just take a rain check, because signing Williams doesn't mean the Bears can't address receiver through the draft and later during free agency. They might not get the prize of the receiver market, Vincent Jackson, but Jackson won't be the only receiver available. Stay tuned.

BBAO: Free agency is upon us!

March, 13, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

This is it. Tuesday is the day we find out who among our pending free agents will test the free-agent market, and who will sign last-minute deals to remain in the NFC North.

We have a good idea on most of them, and among those who appear set to hit the open market are Detroit Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, Lions cornerback Eric Wright, Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant and Minnesota Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson.

Packers center Scott Wells is one of the few players whose next step won't be clear until 4 p.m. ET, when the new league year begins. It's also not clear if the Packers will keep veteran receiver Donald Driver and left tackle Chad Clifton under their current contracts, whether they will restructure them or if they both will be released.

I'll station myself in front of the computer for as long as my eyes can stay open, and as always, we'll call 'em the way we see 'em. Hop aboard. The ride is about to begin.

Dashing through the division:
The question has arisen in our SportsNation chats, in the mailbag, on Twitter and Facebook. And each time you've asked if the Chicago Bears would pursue free agent defensive end Mario Williams, my answer has been the same. It's hard to imagine the Bears committing to a sky-high priced defensive end when they already have defensive end Julius Peppers signed to a deal that calls for cap numbers increasing from $12.4 million this season to $19.7 million in 2015.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceMario Williams could form a fearsome pass-rushing tandem with Julius Peppers, if the Bears were to land the free agent.
There's nothing wrong with having two elite defensive ends, even if they account for upwards of 30 percent of your total cap space, as a Peppers-Williams pairing might. But the Bears would appear to have too many other needs -- receiver tops among them -- to afford that luxury. But in this reasoned column, Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune considers the issue from another perspective.
Pompei: "It's true the Bears would have an inordinate investment in their defensive ends if they signed Williams. But collecting pass-rushers didn't hurt the Super Bowl champion Giants. The Lions have quite a group, too. As the subjects of the A&E series "Hoarders" might attest, you can't have too much of a good thing -- especially pass-rushers, and especially given the defensive and team philosophies the Bears subscribe to. A defensive end's value is much greater than that of a wide receiver to the Bears. It's true a great quarterback can make his receivers better. On the other side of the ball, it's the end who makes his teammates better. Many teams have won big without star receivers. Few have won without a pass rush that keeps quarterbacks up at night and down during games."

The Bears will have between $20 million and $25 million in cap space to work with, but I'm not ready to change my mind yet on how they should use it. I'm also not convinced that new general manager Phil Emery will be a front-line player on the free agent market.

But I reserve the right to change my mind, and as a result your thoughts are welcome in a very special offseason edition of Have at It. Let me know if you would be in favor of the Bears pursuing and signing Williams, even at the expense of other positions on their roster, and we'll circle back on the issue Tuesday morning while we're killing time and waiting for the 4 p.m. ET start of free agency. Have at It.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Take a moment to breathe it all in. Monday is the final full day of the NFL's 2011 league year. The "New Year" will begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. -- the moment when all teams must be in compliance with the $120.6 million salary cap, when free agents can begin signing with new teams and trades can be officially consummated.

Some work remains between now and then, however. We are awaiting word on what restricted free agents were issued tenders, and which (if any) will be allowed to depart without compensation. And we'll need to see what the Detroit Lions do to shave more than $11 million in cap space.

The Lions were $11.55 million above the cap as of the end of last week, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. That roughly jibes with our recent cap conversations that had them close to $121 million before they committed another $10.6 million to place the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril.

If the Lions can't lower their number by signing receiver Calvin Johnson to a contract extension, they'll need either to start releasing players or seek significant contract restructures. Stay tuned.

Skipping around the division on this merry Monday:

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.
Clay Matthews/DeMarcus Ware/Dwight Freeney/Jared AllenESPN.com IllustrationDeMarcus Ware (94) was the clear choice for the top spot when our writers ranked the best pass-rushers in the game.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 pass-rushers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 tight ends.

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).

[+] EnlargeDallas' DeMarcus Ware
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware had 15.5 sacks last season and has 80 sacks in six seasons in the NFL.
Kuharsky's familiarity with Freeney gave him a unique perspective.

"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.

Scouts Inc.: Ranking the top pass-rushers

October, 7, 2010
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Ware/Freeney/WilliamsIcon SMI, AP PhotosDeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney and Mario Williams are among the most dominant pass-rushers.
Pass-rushers come in all shapes and sizes. But they are always at a premium.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. [+] EnlargeClay Matthews
    Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireClay Matthews leads the NFL with seven sacks.

  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
Honorable Mention: Elvis Dumervil, Cameron Wake, John Abraham, Matt Roth, Ray Edwards, Trent Cole, Brian Orakpo, Terrell Suggs, Anthony Spencer, Justin Tuck.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Combine will put Lions in focus

February, 17, 2009
2/17/09
1:00
PM ET
 
  Getty Images
  Will the Detroit Lions choose Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (left) or Alabama tackle Andre Smith with the No. 1 pick? Or could it be someone else?

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The situation begins to focus this week. At some point, Detroit officials will find themselves face-to-face with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. They'll size up Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. They'll get a better sense for the handful of blue-chip players who could be the No. 1 overall pick of a draft that as of Tuesday is 67 days away.

The Lions are approaching a franchise-altering decision: Because of their 0-16 record in 2008, they will have their choice of any college player in the nation. There are no obstacles, no reasons to cross their fingers and no "if-then" scenarios to consider. It's the rarest of opportunities, even for a team with the Lions' recent history. In fact, nearly 30 years have passed since the Lions last owned the No. 1 pick.

  Preparing for the Combine
  NFL.com Video
  An inside look at how three players are preparing for the 2009 scouting combine.

(For the historically minded: Running back Billy Sims, 1980.)

The top pick annually carries a combination of opportunity and fear. You can choose anyone -- so don't make a mistake.

Occasionally, the choice is obvious. In 2001, for example, few people faulted the Atlanta Falcons for targeting Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. Sometimes there is a handful of players who seem equally worthy. In 2007, you could have made an argument for LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson or Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas at No. 1.

Then there are years when it seems no one might be qualified. Wouldn't it be the Lions' luck if that were the case in 2009? Media analysts have tabbed Stafford as the likeliest overall pick because he is the top quarterback prospect, but that might not have been the case had Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford not returned to Oklahoma. The Lions must determine whether Stafford is worthy of the No. 1 pick -- or if, like Utah's Alex Smith (2005) and Fresno State's David Carr (2002) before him -- he's merely the best quarterback in the draft.

If it's the latter, where would the Lions turn? Would it be Smith, whom Alabama coach Nick Saban kicked off the team last season? Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree? (The Lions history with drafting wide receivers works against Crabtree in this case.) Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry? Or would they trade the pick altogether?

With the annual scouting combine set to commence later this week in Indianapolis, let's take a closer look at the Lions' options. The Lions, after all, aren't just deciding whom to select. They must determine when they want to pick as well.

The franchise quarterback

Scouts Inc. Top 10
Player Year Pos. School
1. Michael Crabtree So. WR Texas Tech
2. Aaron Curry Sr. OLB Wake Forest
3. B.J. Raji Sr. DT Boston Coll.
4. Eugene Monroe Sr. OT Virginia
5. Matthew Stafford Jr. QB Georgia
6. Jason Smith Sr. OT Baylor
7. Malcolm Jenkins Sr. CB Ohio State
8. Mark Sanchez Jr. QB USC
9. Andre Smith Jr. OT Alabama
10. Vontae Davis Jr. CB Illinois
Mel Kiper Top 10
Player Year Pos. School
1. Michael Crabtree So. WR Texas Tech
2. Aaron Curry Sr. LB Wake Forest
3. Andre Smith Jr. OT Alabama
4. Matthew Stafford Jr. QB Georgia
5. Mark Sanchez Jr. QB USC
6. Jason Smith Sr. OT Baylor
7. Malcolm Jenkins Sr. CB Ohio State
8. Eugene Monroe Sr. OT Virginia
9. Jeremy Maclin So. WR Missouri
10. B.J. Raji Sr. DT Boston College
Even at this early date in the draft season, it seems clear that 2009 is not a banner year for so-called "blue-chip" quarterbacks. ESPN.com analyst Todd McShay has four underclassmen at the top of his quarterback rankings: USC's Mark Sanchez, Kansas State's Josh Freeman and Ball State's Nate Davis. The senior class of quarterbacks, McShay notes, "ranks among the worst in NFL draft history."

This set of circumstances has several implications for the Lions. Historically, underclassman quarterbacks are less likely to develop into NFL stars. That inherently makes Stafford a more difficult and potentially riskier prospect to evaluate. But conversely, it means the Lions will have less to choose from if they bypass him and target a lesser-known quarterback lower in the draft.

(The wild-card might be USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who hasn't generated much No. 1-pick buzz. Sanchez could change that if he decides to work out fully at the combine, as has been reported.)

Knowing they need to address the quarterback position in some way, the Lions have been working for months to evaluate the lower portions of the class. Starting with the combine, they'll be able to address the Stafford question more directly. Stafford isn't expected to work out, following a long-h
eld pattern of top quarterback prospects, but he will be scheduled to conduct interviews with team officials.

How smart is he? Does he display leadership attributes? What about his character? Those are questions the Lions can begin answering at the combine.

The fallback
If drafted No. 1 overall, Stafford figures to exceed the $30 million in guaranteed money that Miami gave offensive tackle Jake Long last year as the top pick in the draft. If anything concerns the Lions about Stafford's physical or mental makeup, they will have to consider possible fallback options to minimize the financial risk.

The Dolphins took that path with Long, opting for a talented but grounded player who could fill a hole for the next decade. In doing so, Miami passed over Virginia defensive end Chris Long, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, among other higher-risk but potentially higher-reward choices.

Houston followed a similar pattern in 2006, tapping NC State defensive end Mario Williams rather than a pair of offensive playmakers: USC tailback Reggie Bush and Texas quarterback Vince Young.

Does a "safe" pick exist for the Lions at No. 1? Could it be Curry? What about Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who would fill a tremendous need and probably accept less guaranteed money than Stafford? Those questions, too, the Lions will explore in Indianapolis.

The trade
Thanks to the October trade of receiver Roy Williams, the Lions already own five of the draft's top 82 picks. They could further speed up the rebuilding process by trading out of the No. 1 pick if they determine no player is worthy of that slot.

A quarterback has been involved the last two times the No. 1 pick has been traded. In 2004, San Diego moved down three spots in the draft so the New York Giants could have Eli Manning. For doing so, the Chargers received third- and fifth-round picks in 2004 and the Giants' first-round pick in 2005.

In 2001, the Chargers moved down four spots in the draft so that Atlanta could grab Vick. San Diego received kick returner Tim Dwight, a third-round pick in 2001 and a second-round pick in 2002 for its trouble.

So it stands to reason that the Lions' best hope for a trade is if another team falls in love with Stafford and is willing to pursue him aggressively.

With any luck, it's an option the Lions won't have to make again for a long time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Continuing our silly introduction of rock-inspired music selections, I've got Robert Tepper's "No Easy Way Out" running through my head Sunday morning. (Surely you saw Rocky IV).

For Chicago, there is no easy way out on the final Sunday of the regular season. To win the NFC North, the Bears need to beat a tough team in Houston and hope Minnesota loses at home to what likely will be a watered-down New York Giants team. If not, the Bears know they can clinch a wild-card spot only if they win Sunday, combined with losses by Tampa Bay and Dallas.

The Vikings, on the other hand, do have an easy way out. They could still win the division if they lose to the Giants, as long as the Bears lose to Houston. And wouldn't that be some way to end another year of bizarre occurrences in the Black and Blue.

I'll be at the Metrodome in a few hours and will keep my best to keep you up to date on the happenings in Houston as well. Figures to be a wild day, and thanks in advance for spending part of it with us.

For now, let's take a spin around the division:

  • Today we'll find out if the Vikings are winners, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. "The Vikings' failure to beat the Giants today not only would be a disappointment for a franchise whose simplest path to the playoffs would be a victory, it also could saddle Brad Childress' team with the reputation of not being able to get over the hump."
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has no problem if the Vikings back in to the playoffs: "Through the back door, through the front door, down the chimney or up through the sewer pipe, does anyone really care how the Vikings get into the playoffs?"
  • Bears coach Lovie Smith is better in this type of situation than Childress, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Smith's trust in defensive coordinator Bob Babich will be tested in Houston, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald wonders how Bears left tackle John St. Clair will fare against Texans defensive end Mario Williams.
  • Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings surpassed Donald Driver as the Packers' top receiving threat this season, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Packers running back Ryan Grant has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark but doesn't consider it an accomplishment, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. "No. No. No. No," Grant said.
  • Interesting angle: Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press asks Steve Sabol of NFL Films how he will come up with a highlight video of the Lions' 2008 season.
  • Retired executive Ron Wolf will not join the Lions this winter, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.

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