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Have at it: Utilizing your top players

12/10/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

One of a coach's primary responsibilities is to maximize the time his best players are on the field, regardless of position or scheme. That philosophy, for example, explains why Chicago made kick returner Devin Hester a full-time receiver in the offseason.

But where is the appropriate balance between getting those players on the field and maintaining integrity around them?

That question can be applied to the three top teams in the NFC North this season, all of whom have faced quandaries on utilizing some of their best players. And it makes for a pretty interesting "Have at it" question as well. Do you like the way these teams have dealt with this issue? Or do you think they should have been handled differently?

Let's look at some team-by-team examples:

Chicago: Hester was the NFL's top kick returner in 2006 and 2007, and the Bears hoped to capitalize more consistently on his big-play abilities in their offense. Hester has steadily improved as a receiver, but his returning production has dropped off dramatically. Did you think the shift to receiver wiped Hester out as a returner? Other Chicago examples include the use of tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. Have the Bears done that enough?

Here's a look at Hester's receiving and return numbers entering the season and in 2008:

Green Bay: The example that stands out is the shift of Charles Woodson to safety, where he replaced the injured Atari Bigby. The Packers inserted nickel back Tramon Williams at cornerback. The move eliminated one of the NFL's best cover men from a coverage-intensive position, but the Packers judged their overall defense to have a better chance with Woodson at safety and Williams at cornerback than if backup safety Aaron Rouse were inserted into the lineup. Did these changes take things too far, considering the 414 passing yards the Packers gave up Sunday to Houston? Another example was the shift of linebacker A.J. Hawk to the middle following the season-ending injury to Nick Barnett.

Here's a look at the Packers' passing defense in Woodson's two starts at safety:

Minnesota: The Vikings have faced a two-year battle to get the most out of their Adrian Peterson-Chester Taylor tailback duo. They've tried a rotation, they've made Taylor their exclusive third-down back and now are working hard to mix things up more on first and second downs. On rare occasions, they play together in the same backfield. Do you like the approach the Vikings are taking now?

Here's is a breakdown of the duo's touches during the Vikings' three-game winning streak:

This is a bit of a nebulous topic, so you can take it in whatever direction you want. Let us know your thoughts, either in the comments section below or in the mailbag, and I'll publish a representative sample, along with my own take, Friday morning. Have at it.