NFC North: Will James
First, a bit of an explanation: Schatz and his staff evaluated every attempted tackle of the 2009 season. Quoting from this Insider piece, here's how they defined broken tackles: "Either the ball carrier escapes from the grasp of the defender, or the defender is in good position for a tackle but the ball carrier jukes him out of his shoes. If the ball carrier sped by a slow defender who dived and missed, that didn't count as a broken tackle."
Given those criteria, let's look first at the team rankings for highest percentage of broken tackles on offense, and lowest percentage of defensive players missing a tackle they should have made. They're to your right.
A couple of interesting points stood out to me:
- The Vikings, Bears and Packers all played versions of the West Coast offense last season -- a scheme that relies on open-field running after receptions. We don't have a breakdown of broken tackles on running plays versus passing plays, but we can see that the Vikings overall were among the NFL's best and that the rest of the teams in the division were relative non-factors in gaining extra yardage after contact.
- On the other hand, the Packers had one of the league's best tackling teams based on this evaluation. The analysis also confirmed a general sense that Minnesota's defense missed far too many tackles during the second half of the season.
- The Lions finished last among all NFL teams, so it's not surprising to see their players holding six of the top 10 spots on the chart below -- which lists the NFC North players with the 10 most missed tackles in 2009. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy's appearance on that list, despite starting only 10 games, confirms what some of us saw last season and provides at least a reason for pause amid the general optimism surrounding his future.
- Peterson ranked No. 3 among all NFL players, behind Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Combined with Percy Harvin's 25 missed tackles, tops among all NFL receivers, you can see why the Vikings ranked so highly as a team.
- Before looking at this chart, I wouldn't have guessed Matt Forte had more broken tackles than Ryan Grant. But if Forte averaged 3.6 yards per carry even after breaking more tackles than all but one NFC North player, maybe we need to shift more accountability to the Bears' scheme and blocking performance last season.
- Grant's number is lower than I would have guessed. Gaining 1,253 yards by breaking almost the same number of tackles as Kevin Smith? That speaks highly of the Packers' play calling and blocking, which gave Grant more favorable opportunities than, say, Forte had last season.
Veteran Chris Houston, acquired last month from Atlanta, is a likely starter at one cornerback position but there are no obvious candidates for the second role. Veteran Dante Wesley, signed earlier this month, was more of a special-teams addition.
Sheppard played in 11 games last season after Philadelphia traded him to the Jets, finishing with one interception and eight deflections on the NFL's top-rated defense. But the Jets released him rather than pay a $10 million roster bonus and replaced him by acquiring Antonio Cromartie from San Diego.
Sheppard turned 29 last week and should still have several productive years left. He doesn't have the upside of another cornerback the Lions have evaluated, veteran Adam "Pacman" Jones, but he is certainly a safer option.
Veteran Dante Wesley is putting the finishing touches on a two-year contract according to agent Russel Hicks, and will begin participating in the Lions' offseason program Monday. The Lions expressed interest in free agent Adam "Pacman" Jones, but as of Friday there had been no agreement.
Wesley has spent seven of his eight NFL seasons with Carolina, and played under new Lions special teams coordinator Danny Crossman when both were with the Panthers. Wesley will have a chance to participate in multiple coverage units, and it's possible he could compete for playing time at cornerback as well.
The Lions bid farewell to 2009 starter Philip Buchanon and haven't re-signed fellow starter Will James. They've acquired Chris Houston from Atlanta as one likely starter, but the other position is wide open.
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: None have re-signed. The Bears are trying to bring back Tinoisamoa.
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Comment: Ciurciu, Heller and Jansen have re-signed. Foote seems likely to return to Pittsburgh.
Green Bay Packers
UFAs as of March 5: Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.
Comment: Clifton and Tauscher have re-signed. Kampman signed with Jacksonville.
UFAs as of March 5: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Comment: Kennedy and Sapp re-signed. Taylor signed with Chicago. Hicks signed with Washington.
In addition to signing free agent Jonathan Wade, the Lions acquired Chris Houston from Atlanta in a trade we touched on Sunday evening. The Lions gave up a sixth-round pick for Houston and will swap fifth-round picks with the Falcons as well.
At this early date, I would consider Houston a likely starter while Wade would be in the mix for the nickel and dime positions. That still leaves at least one starting position left to fill after the release of Philip Buchanon last week. Two other cornerbacks from last season, Will James and Anthony Henry, are free agents.
Houston ultimately was expendable because the Falcons signed Dunta Robinson to replace him. FOB (Friend of the Blog) Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, who tracks the career arcs of NFL players, suggested Monday night that the Lions got a steal:
Let's see... Detroit's secondary has been Edsel-riffic for two years now. Chris Houston was a second-round pick just three years ago. Highly-drafted cornerbacks often take three or even four years to develop. Rashean Mathis and Corey Webster broke out in season four; Nnamdi Asomugha never intercepted a pass until season four. And to take a gamble on Houston's talent finally emerging, all the Lions have to do is give up a sixth-round pick and switch places with Atlanta in the fifth round? Uh, yeah, that works.
Those plans began to take shape Sunday night. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Lions are on the verge of acquiring cornerback Chris Houston from Atlanta, while multiple reports indicate free agent Jonathan Wade will visit the Lions on Monday. Wade played three seasons in St. Louis but was not tendered a contract.
We know the Lions had discussions about acquiring Antonio Cromartie from San Diego, and Schefter reports they also expressed interest in free agent Dunta Robinson, who eventually signed in Atlanta. I would expect the position to be a continuous focal point throughout the season.
Their other primary starter last season, Will James, is a pending unrestricted free agent. I'm not saying the Lions' dreadful pass defense should return intact next season, but you need to feel relatively assured you can elevate your personnel before you start jettisoning your incumbent players.
Between the draft, free agency and a potential trade for San Diego's Antonio Cromartie, the Lions must feel pretty confident they can do just that.
Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Josh Bullocks, safety Danieal Manning, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Jamar Williams.
Franchise player: None
What to expect: With no picks in the first or second round of next month's draft, the Bears are gearing up for a relatively major jump into free agency. They're expected to bid for defensive end Julius Peppers and possible safety Antrel Rolle and would also like to re-sign linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna could also be a target. Manumaleuna played for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.
Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Copeland Bryan, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy, defensive lineman Jason Hunter, offensive lineman Daniel Loper, offensive lineman Manny Ramirez, safety Ko Simpson, linebacker Cody Spencer.
Franchise player: None
What to expect: The Lions aren't likely to be as active as they were last year, but general manager Martin Mayhew said over the winter that he could envision a five- or six-man free agent class. Running back, defensive end and defensive back are all positions they will investigate. They'll also need to find a backup quarterback, assuming Daunte Culpepper moves on.
Green Bay Packers
Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.
Potential restricted free agents: Safety Atari Bigby, defensive back Will Blackmon, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, running back John Kuhn, offensive lineman Jason Spitz, cornerback Tramon Williams.
Franchise player: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett
What to expect: The Packers will have a demanding offseason filled with difficult decisions. To this point, they haven't re-signed either of their starting offensive tackles. They are clearly approaching injured linebacker Aaron Kampman with caution. And they have a long line of restricted free agents who would like long-term contracts, starting with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. The Packers have more than enough to keep them busy, but they haven't dabbled much in free agency in recent years, anyway.
Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Potential restricted free agents: Offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive end Ray Edwards, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, fullback Naufahu Tahi.
Franchise player: None.
What to expect: The Vikings are awaiting word from quarterback Brett Favre on the 2010 season, a decision that could impact their offseason plans. They would like tailback Chester Taylor back, but it's possible Taylor will at least test his value on the open market. As a Final Four team, the Vikings will be limited to signing players that have been released by other teams unless they lose one of their own unrestricted free agents first.
An early look at the free agency situation in the NFC North.
Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Key figures: Defensive end Mark Anderson and safety Danieal Manning are two key players who would have joined the list of unrestricted free agents if the NFL weren't on track for an uncapped offseason. The Bears can block both from moving now. Ogunleye is unlikely to return if he's seeking significant money. The Bears want to re-sign Tinoisamoa, even after his injury-shortened 2009 debut. Peterson's eight-year run with the team might be coming to a close.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Key figures: The Lions have a total of 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents, a product of the extended roster tryouts they held throughout the 2009 season. The biggest name among their UFAs is Foote, who seems unlikely to return and should be replaced by DeAndre Levy. Culpepper will seek offers on the open market, but it's not out of the question he could return as Matthew Stafford's backup. James had some moments in 2009 and might be worth a return engagement.
Green Bay Packers
Unrestricted free agents: Offensive tackle Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher.
Key figures: The Packers have a notable list that includes four starters and would have included six more if not for the uncapped year. Clifton will be 34 this summer and Tauscher will turn 33, and it's time for the Packers to begin a succession plan at both positions. T.J. Lang figures as Tauscher's replacement, but Tauscher was actually playing better than Clifton at the end of 2009. Kampman seems unlikely to return as a linebacker in the 3-4, especially while he rehabilitates a knee injury. Pickett could be phased out by B.J. Raji.
Unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy, receiver Greg Lewis, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Key figures: Taylor is perhaps the most valuable backup tailback in the league, considering his abilities as a receiver and third-down converter. He will be 31 when the 2010 season begins, but figures to get some attention if he enters the free-agent market. The Vikings want him back, but probably won't devote a huge salary to him with starter Adrian Peterson approaching the expiration of his contract. Sapp probably made himself some money with a credible replacement of injured starter Antoine Winfield.
For the most part, we'll leave the Brett Favre story in the rear-view mirror unless he or Minnesota starts having second thoughts about the sudden end of their pending marriage. (And we all know that would NEVER happen.) I am still planning to be in Mankato, Minn., later Wednesday, but the focus of the Vikings' story now shifts to how the team rebounds from Favre's decision.
We'll have access to whatever players have reported to camp starting in the early evening. Players technically don't have to be at camp until a mandatory meeting Thursday morning, so we'll get who we get and bring you what we can bring you.
For now, let's get caught up on rest of the division:
- Detroit worked out quarterbacks Cleo Lemon, Craig Nall and Brooks Bollinger on Tuesday but did not immediately sign any of them, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. The Lions have spoken about adding a veteran backup, but this workout could have been to build scouting files on all three in the event they need a passer in the future. The Lions did sign veteran cornerback Will James and announced a deal with seventh-round pick Lydon Murtha.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News offers a look at the Lions' defense by position.
- Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com notes Detroit could have four new starters in the secondary.
- Chicago defensive back Corey Graham is expecting to work with the first team at cornerback in the wake of Charles Tillman's back surgery, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
- Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders how much more Tillman's body can take.
- The Tribune's David Haugh writes the Bears should avoid signing a veteran cornerback along the lines of Mike McKenzie or Patrick Surtain. Haugh: "Charles Tillman's surprising back surgery that will keep him out of training camp might tempt the Bears to explore signing an experienced cornerback to help shore up depth at a suddenly weak position. But just like the unemployed veteran wide receivers that some fans have clamored for the Bears to sign, good reasons generally exist for players to be without a contract this close to the start of a season."
- Green Bay considers safety Atari Bigby a likely starter even though he missed offseason practices recovering from ankle surgery, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel takes a frank look at the attributes and limitations of tailback Ryan Grant.
- Minnesota is close to a deal with second-round draft pick Phil Loadholt, writes Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.