NFC North: Maurice Hicks
Those of you with ESPN Insider subscriptions can view this comprehensive Football Outsiders analysis of the NFC North's salary cap situations.
Individual cap numbers have grown less significant to the general public in recent years as the salary cap ceiling has grown exponentially. Most NFL teams can fit every player they want under their cap limit. Some have resorted to artificially inflating cap numbers to consume excess space, a polar reversal from the frenzied cap years of the late 1990's -- when teams were forced to release players or renegotiate their contracts in order to make the cap work.
With all that said, I thought I'd give you a snippet of FO's analysis. You might have heard of the term "dead money." It refers to the amount of cap space devoted to players who no longer are on the roster. Some degree is unavoidable, as teams release players all the time when they are in the midst of multi-year contracts. The player no longer receives the cash, but by NFL rule he still counts partially against the team's cap allotment.
Careful planning and reasonable contracts can limit dead money, leaving more cap space to use for players who are on the roster. Below, you'll see the player on each NFC North team that consumes the most amount of "dead money." This year, Minnesota has done the best job of limiting its excesses. Here you go:
Tailback Cedric Benson ($2.509 million)
Defensive tackle Cory Redding ($7.333 million)
Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila ($1.571 million)
Tailback Maurice Hicks ($300,000)
Will Glenn Holt represent Minnesota's 2009 attempt to lock down its kickoff return job? That's probably the most optimistic way of viewing Holt's contract agreement, which the Vikings officially announced Thursday by designating Holt as a wide receiver/kickoff returner.
The Vikings haven't settled on a returner during the first three years of coach Brad Childress' tenure, instead instituting a rotation based on which player figured most prominently in the game plan that particular week. That player handled kickoff returns and the alternatives were generally inactive for the game. Over that span, the Vikings used seven different players as their primary kick returners.
(A similar routine has taken place at punt returner, where the Vikings finished last season using a rotation of starting receivers Bobby Wade and Bernard Berrian. Holt, however, doesn't return punts. Oh well. Rome wasn't built in a day. Or even in four years.)
Holt averaged 24.3 yards per return in three years with Cincinnati, including a 100-yard return in 2007. After the release of Maurice Hicks last month, Holt could get the first chance to be the Vikings' primary kickoff return in 2009. Being in uniform is likely to be his biggest obstacle.
Minnesota had one of its best-ever offseasons in 2008, acquiring high-impact receiver Bernard Berrian and All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen. Safety Madieu Williams, meanwhile, proved a steadying force after returning from a neck injury.
Two lesser-known acquisitions didn't work out quite as well. Fullback Thomas Tapeh made it through only two games before the Vikings released him, and Wednesday the team waived tailback/kick returner Maurice Hicks. The Vikings did not announce it, but Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune has the news on his blog.
The Vikings envisioned a significant special teams role for Hicks, hoping he would return kickoffs and participate in the other three coverage teams. But a foot injury and general ineffectiveness limited him to 11 games. Hicks returned 29 kickoffs, none for more than 38 yards, and made 12 special teams tackles. His departure could be considered the first of what will likely be several moves to upgrade special teams under new coordinator Brian Murphy.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Vikings gave the Packers seven -- yes, SEVEN -- chances to score starting with a first-and-goal at the six-yard line.
Three penalties -- encroachment by Jared Allen, a hold by Vinny Ciurciu and an offsides call on Ben Leber -- extended the Packers' drive. Finally, on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Aaron Rodgers hit fullback Korey Hall for a score to give the Packers a 7-3 lead with 10:07 left in the second quarter.
No defense, no matter how good it is, can give an opponent that many chances.
It seems like ages ago, but I did spend a few days at the Chicago Bears' training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., this July. The Bears were in the early stages of their quarterback competition, but one thing struck me about Kyle Orton: He looked lean and athletic and was displaying a low-key personality -- pretty much the opposite of the impression I had of him from the outside during the early part of his career.
Orton once had a reputation as a typical early-20s party animal, if for no other reason than a few unfortunate pictures that circulated on the Internet during his rookie year in 2005. I didn't know if I had misjudged the situation or not (wouldn't be the first time), but as David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune writes, it turns out Orton has made a conscious effort to get more serious about his profession and his personal life.
"I've learned a lot of stuff, and obviously I'm a different guy from '05 in all aspects of my life," Orton said. "I'm different just like everybody else is three or four years down the road."
He was married in March and dedicated the rest of his offseason to relearning the Bears offense to give himself the best chance to win the starting job.
"I'm still the same guy," Orton said. "I'm still a fun guy and like to hang with my teammates. It's not like I'm trying to live in a hole or anything. But [I] certainly have to be careful and not put myself or my family in jeopardy."
That sentiment doesn't guarantee Orton success this season, but at least he's given himself the best chance possible.
Elsewhere around the NFC North, A MERE 54 HOURS UNTIL THE BLACK AND BLUE REGULAR SEASON KICKS OFF:
- Having lost his spot as a starting receiver, the Bears' Mark Bradley has been working as a gunner for punt coverage, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Asked if he was upset that he is no longer a first-team receiver, Bradley said: "I'll say I'm just confused."
- Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress said any intensified emotions he might feel against the Green Bay Packers shouldn't impact the teams' game Monday night. "Last time I checked, I won't be out there between the white lines or anything physically like that," Childress told members of the Wisconsin media.
- Vikings left tackle Artis Hicks spoke Thursday for the first time about replacing the suspended Bryant McKinnie. "It's not that big of an adjustment," Hicks said, according to the Star Tribune. "The biggest thing is guys are a little bit faster out there, a little bit more athletic."
- Vikings running back/kick returner Maurice Hicks has a sprained foot and might not be ready for Monday night's game, according to the Star Tribune.
- Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was cleared to practice Thursday as he recovers from a strained chest muscle. But he hasn't been cleared to play yet Monday night, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- There has been plenty of discussion about the Detroit Lions' new running game. But of equal importance is the Lions' efforts to improve their run defense, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
Even with all this talk of NFC North running games (well, at least ours), it would be easy to overlook one name who could end up a surprise contributor this season.
When tailback Maurice Hicks signed with the Vikings this spring, it was assumed he would return kickoffs and contribute to Minnesota's special teams coverage units. After all, how much room could possibly exist for a third tailback on a team that already includes Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor?
As it turned out, however, the Vikings held Peterson out of some spring workouts and Taylor missed most of them for personal reasons. Their absences gave Hicks much more work in the backfield than expected. He made the most of his opportunity -- coach Brad Childress called his showing "exceptional" -- and in training camp the Vikings will work on ways to find Hicks a regular role in the offense.
"[Hicks] is a bright-eyed guy," Childress said. "I don't see a lot of errors in terms of protection or carrying the football."
Hicks spent the past three seasons in San Francisco, where he was stuck behind Frank Gore. The Vikings like Hicks' quickness and his ability as a receiver, and Childress appreciated how quickly Hicks assimilated his offense.
Hicks could still wind up returning kickoffs for the Vikings, and special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro almost certainly will incorporate him into coverage units. But Hicks could also play in some third-down personnel groupings, and he is one mishap away from an even more prominent role. (Last season, Peterson and Taylor each missed two games because of injury).
"I'll play wherever the coaches need help," Hicks said. "Wherever they put me, I'm going to just go."