NFL Nation: Olin Kreutz

If nothing else, two relatively minor decisions this week serve as an important reminder that the Chicago Bears never replaced center Olin Kreutz after his final season with them in 2010.

Former guard Roberto Garza has done his best to make it work at the position, but most people would agree that guard is his best position. (Pro Football Focus has made him one of their lowest-ranked centers in each of the past two seasons). He is also 34 and entering the final year of his contract.

So it's worth noting, at least, that the Bears signed free agent center Taylor Boggs on Tuesday and are hosting California guard/center Brian Schwenke on a visit Wednesday. The Bears don't necessarily need to find a new center for 2013, but much like their short-term transition at middle linebacker from Brian Urlacher to D.J. Williams, it is time to construct a longer-term plan.

In this case, of course, the Bears have some flexibility. If they find in training camp that they have another starting-caliber center on the roster -- be it Boggs, a draft pick or another free agent -- Garza could conceivably move back to guard. The Bears signed free agent Matt Slauson presumably to replace the departed Lance Louis, but there is still one guard position without an obvious starter.

As we've discussed before, the best time to initiate a transition is before it's immediately necessary. It appears the Bears are looking to take that intermediary step now.
There are some necessary ingredients for a team even to consider signing receiver Randy Moss in 2012. It needs a strong and established coaching staff. A rifle-armed quarterback, with experience in handling high-maintenance receivers, is a must. And it needs a personal advocate who knows Moss, understands him and can serve as an internal facilitator/translator.

Moss
There is an NFC North team that fits every aspect of that description, and the minimal chances of a deal highlights how difficult it will be for Moss to get a job for 2012, as he said Monday he wants to do. And that assumes Moss, now 35, can still play at a reasonably high level.

Lovie Smith is one of the NFL's longest-tenured coaches and his locker rooms rarely, if ever, display the type of discord Moss has caused in his various stops. Quarterback Jay Cutler throws one of the NFL's best deep balls, and his longstanding friendship with receiver Brandon Marshall is an example of his social flexibility.

And offensive coordinator Mike Tice was Moss' coach for three seasons when both were with the Minnesota Vikings. Tice lived through the best and worst Moss has to offer, coaxing 217 receptions and 24 touchdowns in their first two seasons together while also dealing with Moss' arrest for nudging a traffic officer with his car and his decision to leave the field early in the 2004 regular-season finale, among other episodes.

So in the Bears, you have a team with an established head coach, a quarterback who could handle Moss on the field and off, a longtime connection in Tice and a clear need for a downfield receiver. So are the Bears a front-runner for Moss' services?

Here's what I know: The same reasons that make Chicago a logical landing point also suggest the Bears won't pursue him.

One of the reasons Smith's locker rooms have been peaceful is the type of people he has brought into it. You don't have to worry about Brian Urlacher loafing on a play or Olin Kreutz insulting his teammates or Lance Briggs publicly questioning coaching decisions.

Cutler's connection with Marshall is based in part on the receiver's well-known work ethic. Marshall has demonstrated some unstable personality traits, but his effort on the field has never been questioned. A quarterback can count on Marshall doing his best.

And it's only fair to point out that Tice shed no public tears when the Vikings traded Moss to the Oakland Raiders in April 2005. Too much of Tice's tenure had been devoted to Moss and his ancillary issues.

In short, the Bears are in a good position to understand what Moss is --and what he probably isn't. For lack of a better term, Moss has been a pathological contrarian for his entire NFL career. He has undermined every coach he's played for, and to think otherwise now would be to suggest he has made a 180-degree personality change.

And as Cutler and anyone else associated with the Bears could attest by turning on film, Moss took an obvious back step on the field in 2010 and was a shell of his former self. Defenses still devoted extra attention to him, but that attribute wasn't enough for three different teams to give up on him that season.

In most situations, the Moss-Bears connection would make a whole lot of sense. But this is an entirely unique scenario. Moss is one of a kind. And if it doesn't make sense for the Bears, who would it make sense for?

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Certainty in the short term, Chicago Bears: Their season derailed by injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and tailback Matt Forte, you wonder if the Bears are approaching the end of days for their nucleus of the past eight years or so. Already, they have bid farewell to center Olin Kreutz, tight end Desmond Clark, tight end Greg Olsen and defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Linebacker Lance Briggs asked for a trade last summer. Will the Bears oblige him this winter? Will they start over on offense (again) by replacing offensive coordinator Mike Martz? And is there any chance that general manager Jerry Angelo, 62, will retire this winter, as rumored? Those questions are at least fair game at this point.

2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Sunday's turnover-riddled performance was one of the worst for an NFL quarterback in the last four seasons, according to the Total Quarterback Rating system. Above all else, Ponder carried with him into the draft a reputation for smart play and solid decision-making. There are typically a combination of factors that go into a stretch of turnovers, and that includes a lack of playmakers surrounding the quarterback. But there is no defending some of the mistakes Ponder has made. He was dealing with a hip pointer last week, but for his sake I hope he is able to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings need to see him bounce back from the inevitable adversity rookie quarterbacks face.

3. Left tackle confidence, Green Bay Packers: The decision to rotate Marshall Newhouse and rookie Derek Sherrod makes me nervous. Perhaps it was too much to expect Newhouse, the final pick of the fifth round in the 2010 draft, to be able to hold down the position indefinitely while starter Chad Clifton recovered from a hamstring injury. Newhouse doesn't fit the pedigree of an NFL left tackle. He's 6-foot-4, and fair or not, starting-quality left tackles aren't usually available late in the fifth round. Sherrod, on the other hand, is of classic left tackle size and was the Packers' first-round pick in 2011. If anyone projects as Clifton's long-term replacement, it's Sherrod. But I hate seeing a playoff team's left tackle position unsettled in Week 15. That's asking for trouble.

RISING

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh and Cliff Avril.
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiWhile a lot of the attention goes to teammate Ndamukong Suh, left, defensive end Cliff Avril, left, actually leads the Lions in sacks.
1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I wonder how many people outside the NFC North realize that Avril -- and not Kyle Vanden Bosch or Ndamukong Suh -- leads the Lions in sacks. Avril added two more to his season total Sunday against the Vikings and how has a career-high nine through 13 games. Avril has also forced six fumbles, a figure that is tied with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs for the NFL lead. As we discussed Monday, Avril has made himself some money this season. The only question is whether the Lions will be the ones writing the check next year.

2. Moment of truth for Packers receiver Jordy Nelson: The caveat has followed Nelson this season, even as he has caught 51 passes for average of 18.8 yards and scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. He has been beating favorable coverage, the theory goes, after opponents prioritize receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley. That might have been the case for some of Nelson's big plays this season, but now we'll get an opportunity to see what Nelson can do against what figures to be more attention from opponents as Jennings recovers from a sprained knee. The guess here is that Nelson won't miss a beat.

3. Arrow, Detroit Lions: They have absorbed more than their share of national criticism this year, but the Lions are also deserving of some significant big-picture praise. Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, as nail-biting as it was, ensured the franchise its first non-losing season in a decade. Their next victory would be their first winning season since they finished 9-7 in 2000. In all reality, 9-7 represents the high point of what most national observers thought possible for this team. For as hard of a time as I've given coach Jim Schwartz this season, he would deserve a special award -- Coach of the Past Three Years -- for turning out a winning record so quickly after the 0-16 disaster of 2008
Zach StriefScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesThe return of right tackle Zach Strief from injury has helped the Saints offensive line find its groove.
Drew Brees is on pace to break all sorts of passing records. Darren Sproles might be the best free-agent pickup of the year and Jimmy Graham is well on his way to becoming the best tight end in the NFL.

Oh, and let’s not forget a group of receivers (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem) that’s as deep as any in the league. All of the above are huge reasons why the New Orleans Saints are 7-3 and sitting atop the NFC South.

But if the Saints are 8-3 on Tuesday morning, it won’t necessarily be because of the previously mentioned guys. It will be because of the best thing the Saints have going for them right now.

That’s the offensive line. Yep, seriously. A group that struggled with adversity from training camp right up until the midseason mark suddenly has become one of the team’s biggest strengths. That offensive line will have to be stronger than ever Monday night when the Saints host the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Giants come into New Orleans tied for second in the league with 31 sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul is No. 3 with 9.5 sacks, and Osi Umenyiora is tied for 12th in the league with 7. There’s no doubt the Giants can get after the quarterback, but I’d give the edge to the New Orleans offensive line right now.

This unit has suddenly found itself, and it’s only going to keep getting better.

“The offensive line is the group that has to play with the most continuity,’’ Brees said. “They have five guys that need to be on the same page every play. It’s hard to do, and yet I feel like we have smart, tough guys that do that.”

But it wasn’t always this way. The New Orleans offensive line has been flawless only the last two games. In victories against division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Saints haven’t allowed a sack. Note what Brees said about continuity. That’s why I’m saying the New Orleans offensive line will continue to get better.

Coach Sean Payton has a brilliant offensive mind, and his offensive coaches have worked very hard to fix some early problems. The linemen have put in a lot of work after a flaw that could have ruined the season was fully exposed to the rest of the league.

On October 30, the Saints strolled into St. Louis as huge favorites against the Rams, who were winless at the time. The Saints left embarrassed, and Brees was battered like he’d never been battered since joining New Orleans in 2006. He was sacked six times and hit at least an additional 10 times.

It added up to a 31-21 victory by the Rams and a lot of tape for the rest of the league to look at. The season could have spiraled out of control right then, but it hasn’t.

That’s because the Saints limped out of St. Louis knowing something like that could never happen again, and it hasn’t. Brees hasn’t been sacked a single time – or even pressured very much – since that day.

That’s because the Saints finally have figured out who their five best linemen are, and they’ve finally been able to get them all on the field at the same time. It just took about half a season for all the pieces to be on the table.

The Saints came out of the lockout knowing they were going to have to mess a bit with the continuity of the offensive line, which might have been the league’s best during the 2009 Super Bowl season and wasn’t bad last year.

The Saints liked Jonathan Goodwin, but they weren’t going to pay huge money to keep a 32-year-old center. They let him sign with San Francisco. They’d prepared for Goodwin’s eventual departure by drafting Matt Tennant in 2010.

But the Saints looked at Tennant for the first few days of training camp and quickly realized he was nowhere near ready. They quickly went out and signed Olin Kreutz, who was two years older than Goodwin, to a much cheaper deal and hoped he could act as a bridge for a year until Tennant was ready.

The bridge collapsed quickly. Kreutz started three games before being sidelined for two games with a knee injury. Kreutz came back for one game and then decided to walk away from the Saints, saying he no longer had the desire to play. Subsequent reports said Kreutz’s decision might have been made because the Saints were about to bench him – not to go with Tennant, but to throw in the ultimate no-name player.

That was Brian De La Puente, who’d been bouncing around training camps since 2008 but had never appeared in a regular-season game until he started when Kreutz first was injured.

About the same time Kreutz was walking away, right tackle Zach Strief was dealing with a knee injury that sidelined him for five games. Strief didn’t exactly have a great pedigree to begin with. He’d been with the Saints as a backup since 2006 but was thrust into the starting job when the Saints decided to cut aging veteran Jon Stinchcomb in training camp. The Saints initially hoped the Goodwin departure would be the only change and they could squeeze one more season from Stinchcomb. But training camp quickly showed that Stinchcomb was at the end of the road, and the Saints handed the starting job to Strief. He started off pretty well, but then went down with the injury. Charles Brown struggled as Strief's replacement.

But Strief has returned to start the last two games, and de la Puente is getting very comfortable in the middle.

“Certainly the time on task, snaps and experience for a young center and Zach Strief coming off an injury, all those things help,’’ Payton said. “They’ve played very good football here of late. We think it’s a key to us playing good football games. Certainly from a repetition standpoint, the more those guys get to work together, the more they become comfortable with the center, who is going to making a lot of the calls and (identifying) the defense along with Drew, I think that’s very important.’’

It’s important to note that the Saints already had and continue to have the league’s best guard tandem in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is never going to be a superstar, but he’s been starting for three seasons now and has become a very dependable player.

The Saints went through some changes and early adversity on their offensive line. But now that Strief and de la Puente have emerged as nice complementary players to Nicks, Evans and Bushrod, things have stabilized.

The Saints might have taken a couple initial steps back when they let Goodwin walk and released Stinchcomb, and they certainly took a hit when Kreutz didn’t work out.

But, all of the sudden, it’s looking like the adjustment period is over. The Saints might have an even stronger offensive line than before.

They’re going to need that against the Giants.
Chris Harris is 29 years old. Last season, the Associated Press named him a second-team All-Pro. So how could it be that Harris made it through only seven games for the Chicago Bears this season before his surprise release Thursday morning?

A couple of factors are in play here, not the least of which is the Bears' pathological compulsion to swap out players at the safety position. Since taking over as coach in 2004, Lovie Smith has made 29 changes to his lineup at safety. When the Bears return from their bye next week, they'll be looking for a new starter to pair next to the sudden anchor of the position, rookie Chris Conte, who has started two games in his NFL career.

It's fair to say that Harris struggled some in coverage this season, most recently when receiver Dezmon Briscoe beat him for a touchdown in last Sundays' 24-18 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But I think even Harris would admit he is best used near the line of scrimmage as a run enforcer. A starting safety must be able to function in pass coverage, but the Bears could have protected Harris more if they had a better option to play alongside him. Wright, Conte and newcomer Brandon Meriweather -- who has been a healthy scratch the past two weeks -- all have similar run-first styles.

Finally, I think it's impossible to ignore the systematic breakup the Bears are engineering of their long-held core of veterans. Since the end of last season, they have bid farewell to defensive tackle Tommie Harris, center Olin Kreutz, tight end Desmond Clark and now Harris. (You wonder if linebacker Lance Briggs, who requested a trade last summer, will be the next to go.)

The Bears had justifiable football reasons for parting ways with each of those veterans. If Smith was ready to bench Harris permanently, there was no sense keeping him as a backup/special-teams player. NFL teams routinely make harsh decisions about key players, but the Bears have made a number of them in short order. So it goes.

Wrap-up: Saints 62, Colts 7

October, 23, 2011
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 62-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

What it means: A week after a disappointing loss to Tampa Bay, the Saints went back out and claimed sole possession of first place in the NFC South. They did it by going out and doing pretty much everything you could ask of a very good team playing against a very bad Indianapolis team (without Peyton Manning). The Saints were precise and controlled the game all the way. Plus, they play another struggling team (the St. Louis Rams) next week. The Saints are 5-2 and they may hold a bigger edge over the 4-3 Falcons and Buccaneers, who each had to play difficult games on Sunday, than it appears. You can pretty much pencil in the Saints for a 6-2 record before their Nov. 6 home game with Tampa Bay and their Nov. 13 game at Atlanta. The Saints get a bye after the Atlanta game. For now, the Saints have a firm grip on the division.

What communication problems? There was some understandable concern that the Saints might encounter some problems with coach Sean Peyton relegated to the press box after suffering major damage to his leg and knee last week. Payton certainly had some input in the overall game plan, specifically the offensive side. But offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael did a masterful job of calling the plays. He and quarterback Brees worked as smoothly as Payton and Brees usually do. That was a very encouraging sign because Payton is probably going to have to supervise from above for most of the rest of the season.

Almost perfect: Brees left the game in the fourth quarter as the Saints gave Chase Daniel some playing time (and showed the Colts some mercy). But Brees was almost flawless while he was playing. He completed 31 of 35 passes for 325 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

Absolutely perfect: The Saints scored on their first nine possessions. They added a defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter when Leigh Torrence intercepted a pass and took it in for a touchdown. The Saints finally punted on their 10th possession.

Stat of the night: The last time an NFL team scored 62 points in a game, it was Jacksonville in a 1999 playoff game against Miami. The 62 points were also a franchise record for the Saints.

What I liked: The running game. The Saints got Darren Sproles more involved and gave him 10 carries. He gave them 82 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Mark Ingram carried 14 times for 91 yards.

What I didn’t like: Ingram limped off the field with an apparent leg injury in the fourth quarter. We don’t know the severity of the injury, but the Saints have been doing a nice job of mixing Sproles, Ingram and Pierre Thomas. If Ingram’s injury is serious, the good news is the Saints have Chris Ivory, who says he’s healthy, waiting to come off the physically-unable-to-perform list.

Interesting twist: New Orleans center Olin Kreutz walked away from the team during the week with his agent saying he had lost his passion for the game. On a Westwood One Radio broadcast of the game, it was reported that Kreutz made his decision after learning he was going to be benched this week.

What’s next: The Saints play at St. Louis next Sunday.
News that center Olin Kreutz has left the New Orleans Saints brings the obvious question: Are the Chicago Bears now justified in taking a hard-line stance in contract negotiations with him over the summer?

Kreutz
Kreutz
It's a convenient explanation, but I'm not sure it's the complete one.

To review: Kreutz's performance slipped noticeably in recent seasons. The Bears offered him a one-year contact worth $4 million when the NFL lockout ended in July, but they would not negotiate beyond that. Kreutz rejected the offer. The Bears signed free agent Chris Spencer, moved right guard Roberto Garza to center and watched as Kreutz signed with the Saints.

Agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN that Kreutz had lost his passion for the game. Would that have happened if he had remained with the Bears? I'm guessing not. Kreutz played 13 seasons in Chicago and wanted to finish his career there. His pride took a hit when he sensed the Bears' ambivalence. Not all players are prepared or interested in changing teams in the twilight of their career, especially when their identity is as intertwined with the franchise as Kreutz's was with the Bears.

It's also worth noting that Kreutz hadn't exactly experienced a career renaissance in New Orleans. Pro Football Focus, which evaluates offensive linemen based on their per-play blocking effectiveness, has Kreutz ranked as its second-worst center this season.

This summer, I suggested the Bears had made the right move at the wrong time in jettisoning Kreutz. The opposite was true for Kreutz. He made a mistake in turning down the Bears' offer, even though it was probably the right time for him to end his career.

NFC South Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Ron Rivera, coach, Panthers. I like just about everything this guy has done since he arrived in Carolina and he’s got the Panthers on a good track. But I think Rivera flashed a little of the stubbornness John Fox was so famous for on Sunday in Chicago. Rivera had his team kick and punt to Devin Hester and it cost the Panthers dearly. Rivera used to be an assistant coach in Chicago. As much as anyone, he should be aware that it’s not a good idea to feed the ball to the most dangerous return man in NFL history.

2. Brian VanGorder, defensive coordinator, Falcons. It’s still early and things can straighten out, but Atlanta’s off to a very rocky start. Sunday’s near disaster in Seattle is being viewed by fans as being almost as bad as a loss. This is a team that entered the season with huge hopes and so did the fans. Most important, owner Arthur Blank also felt that way and he’s not the world’s most patient man. If things don’t straighten out, there will be a scapegoat for this season and, so far, VanGorder is looking like the leading candidate. Atlanta’s defense has talent, but the results have not been there.

3. Ray Edwards, defensive tackle, Falcons. Speaking of Atlanta defensive talent that’s not producing, you’ve got to start with this guy. It’s not like Edwards has been a complete bust. He plays the run quite well and has shown he can pick up a fumble and make a nice return. But the Falcons paid him a lot of money and a lot of people thought he was the missing link. He was supposed to help generate a stronger pass rush. Through four games, Edwards has not produced a sack.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireSteve Smith recorded 181 yards receiving in Carolina's loss at Chicago.
RISING

1. Steve Smith, wide receiver, Panthers. You don’t have to like everything about him and he does have some of the diva traits that so many great receivers have. But a lot of those guys are still happy if their team loses, as long as they put up big individual numbers. Smith put up big numbers against the Bears (and has been doing that all season), but he was extremely frustrated in the locker room after the game because his team didn’t win. You have to respect his competitive desire.

2. New Orleans’ offensive line. Right tackle Zach Strief and center Olin Kreutz were out with injuries and Charles Brown and Brian De La Puente had to take their places. Yes, the Saints did allow Drew Brees to be sacked three times, but he still had enough time to throw for 351 yards. More important, the running game really worked well with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. The Saints finished with 177 net rushing yards. The offensive line has to be doing something right for that to happen.

3. Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers: Lots of people are talking about Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan as the potential defensive rookie of the year -- deservedly so. But I think Clayborn at least belongs in the conversation at this point. This guy is showing up every week and getting better. So is second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It might not be too long before Tampa Bay has one of the league’s better defensive lines.

Checking the injuries that matter most

September, 30, 2011
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The Friday injury reports are out for the Falcons, Saints and Panthers. The Buccaneers don’t have to put out statuses yet because they don’t play until Monday night. So let’s take a look at the most significant injuries for Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.

The Falcons are listing Roddy White (thigh) as questionable. This is one to keep an eye on. If White can’t play against the Seahawks, the Falcons are going to have to juggle Harry Douglas, Kerry Meier and Eric Weems opposite Julio Jones. As expected, the Falcons also declared defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (calf) and running back Jason Snelling (concussion) out for Sunday’s game.

The Panthers listed cornerback Chris Gamble (concussion) as doubtful. Coach Ron Rivera said he expects Darius Butler to take Gamble’s place in the starting lineup. Right tackle Jeff Otah (back) is probable.

The Saints have the NFC South’s longest and most significant injury list. The team said tight end David Thomas, linebacker Will Herring, right tackle Zach Strief, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Martez Wilson will be out for Sunday’s game with Jacksonville. Charles Brown is expected to start in Strief’s place and Brian De La Puente is expected to start at center. The Saints also are listing linebacker Jonathan Vilma and receiver Marques Colston as questionable.
On the surface, the New Orleans Saints are in a great spot.

They’re 2-1 and tied with Tampa Bay atop the NFC South. The Saints also have what looks like a very winnable game at Jacksonville on Sunday.

But you don’t have to look too far beyond the surface to see some possible problems. The Saints had two starters on their offensive line leave Sunday’s game with injuries. Right tackle Zach Strief and center Olin Kreutz each suffered knee injuries.

At his Monday news conference, coach Sean Payton, like many NFL coaches, declined to talk much about the injuries. Teams don’t have to issue injury reports until Wednesday.

But the Saints were down to just five healthy and active offensive linemen after Strief and Kreutz were injured. Second-year pro Charles Brown took over for Strief and Brian De La Puente filled in for Kreutz. The team also has center/guard Matt Tennant on the roster, but he was inactive Sunday.

If Strief and or Brown miss any time, the Saints likely will activate Tennant. He can be a backup at all three interior positions. But, if Strief’s injury is serious, the Saints might have to go out and find a tackle. They do have a couple of tackles on their practice squad, but they likely would first look at the waiver wire and available free agents.
SaintsDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireAubrayo Franklin (left), Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram will all be role players to start the season.
What had been suspected for a month or so became official when the New Orleans Saints made their roster cuts last week. They now have the deepest roster in franchise history.

Deeper than the 2009 team that won the Super Bowl?

By far. Let’s start with two prime examples -- Chris Reis and Pierson Prioleau -- and work our way back up to the top of the roster. On that 2009 team, they were bottom-of-the-roster guys, but they were still important. Both were backup safeties, but they made their real impact on special teams. Although Jonathan Casillas officially was credited with recovering the famous onside kick in the Super Bowl, Casillas and others involved in the play said Reis actually made the recovery. He and Prioleau made lots of other important plays on special teams that season and also helped last year when the Saints went 11-5.

They’re gone now. Both were released in moves that demonstrated the Saints have upgraded the bottom of their roster.

They’ve also upgraded the middle and the top by adding guys like running back Mark Ingram, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, running back Darren Sproles, center Olin Kreutz, defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Sproles was the franchise player for the Chargers last year, and Franklin held the same tag with the 49ers.

On the Saints, they’re going to be role players. Same with Ingram and Jordan, a pair of first-round picks, at least at first. This roster is jammed with talent that runs from established stars such as quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, to rising stars such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and tight end Jimmy Graham, and right on down to rookies Martez Wilson and Johnny Patrick.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Patrick
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere's so much depth in the New Orleans secondary that rookie cornerback Johnny Patrick may only see playing time with special teams.
Wilson and Patrick are third-round picks, and the Saints have high hopes for Wilson as a linebacker and Patrick as a cornerback. But that’s down the road. The Saints are so loaded at those positions -- and everywhere else -- that Wilson and Patrick will probably be nothing more than special-teams players this season.

Think of them for the moment as replacements for Reis and Prioleau. A pair of journeymen have been replaced by third-round picks with the possibility of big futures. That’s called upgrading.

“I’d like to think we’re a little deeper in our roster,’’ coach Sean Payton said. “We were able to, during that brief free agency period, pick up a couple players. Each year is different, but I feel like we’re a little deeper right now.’’

Maybe that’s why observers repeatedly said Payton seemed slightly more relaxed during training camp than any of his five previous seasons. He’s still intense, like just about every head coach in the league, but those who’ve watched him throughout his tenure say he showed signs he knows he has the deepest team he’s had and one of the best rosters in the league.

Does that automatically translate into the Saints getting back to winning the Super Bowl? Of course not. The 2009 Saints were good, but, like most Super Bowl champions, they also were a bit lucky at various times throughout the season.

There’s also the matter of a very well-stocked NFC, with the Atlanta Falcons also loaded with talent in the same division, and the Philadelphia Eagles considered the conference favorite by many. Oh, and there are the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions whom the Saints open their season against Thursday night at Lambeau Field.

The last two Super Bowl champions kicking off the season in an historic venue -- it’s the stuff movie-script writers come up with, not NFL schedule makers. But the Packers might be carrying more of a burden than the Saints. They’ll carry the title of defending Super Bowl champions, a load the Saints toted last season.

“You’ve got to answer all the questions about the hangover and you feel like you’re being scrutinized every step of the way,’’ Brees said. “You lose a game and people are like waiting for something bad to happen to your team so they can say 'I told you so.' There’s pressure with that and obviously the expectation level after winning a Super Bowl.’’

The Saints don’t have to worry about that this year. And the fact their roster is so deep and talented could open the door for them to step right back into Super Bowl form. At least on paper, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Saints are so much better than they were in 2009 in many ways. Guys like Jenkins, guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis were all very young players on that 2009 team. Now, they’re just hitting their primes.

The offensive backfield should be dramatically better. In 2009, the Saints used a combination of runners that included Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell. Thomas was the best of the bunch that year, but he should be just a role player this season.

Ingram might be better than the Saints have let on. He might be the most complete back this franchise has had since Deuce McAllister was young and healthy.

“He’s a really talented back,’’ Brees said. “He’s just got great instincts and he’s a pure runner. You watch him run and you say, 'Man, this guy was born to be a running back.'"

Throw in Sproles, who should be able to do everything Bush did, except get injured often, and the backfield should be much better. So should the run defense.

Rogers and Franklin are proven run-stoppers, and both made it clear they wanted to finally play on a team that has a chance to win big. That’s going to make life easier for Ellis, who was pretty good even when he was playing next to a very ordinary Remi Ayodele the last couple seasons.

[+] Enlarge Jonathan Casillas
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints got younger at outside linebacker by giving Jonathan Casillas increased playing time.
That’s also going to make things easier for Vilma and a linebacker corps that should be better than it was in 2009 and last season. The Saints won the Super Bowl with Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle as their starting outside linebackers. They were nice complementary players, but not big playmakers. It looks like the Saints will go with Casillas and Will Herring on the outside this year. They’re younger and fresh legs could lead to more big plays.

The secondary should be better than 2009. Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter are firmly established as the starting corners, and the Saints have high hopes for Patrick Robinson, a first-round pick last season, as the nickel back. I know free safety Darren Sharper was a fan favorite in 2009 and there’s no question he was an important part of that team’s success. But he wore down at the end of that season and is gone now. For those who don’t believe me when I say Jenkins now is better than Sharper was early in 2009, let’s talk at the end of the season.

The receiving corps -- Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem -- is pretty much the same as it was in 2009. But Graham has replaced Jeremy Shockey as the pass-catching tight end. Graham’s younger and more athletic than Shockey.

Consider that another upgrade on a team that has plenty of them. A lot of teams like to intentionally sell themselves short as they enter a season. The Saints aren’t doing that, and that’s probably because they’re looking at their roster and seeing what they have.

“We all know the potential here,’’ Brees said. “But we’re not going to take anything for granted and assume that we can walk out there with the talent that we have and we’re going to scare people away with our talent. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to go out and make plays and prove it every time out. I like what we have. I think we have the opportunity to be great. But we still have a lot of work to do.’’
With Peyton Manning's regular-season starting streak in question, I revisited the list of active leaders to see which NFC West players might be gaining.

There is one.

The San Francisco 49ers' Justin Smith, the NFL's active ironman among defensive linemen with 155 starts in a row, would have to remain in the lineup continuously through the sixth game of the 2014 season to surpass Manning's 208-game streak.

Smith, 31, would be turning 35 at about the time he reached 209 starts.

The chart shows current starting streaks of at least 100 games, according to the NFL. Alan Faneca is retiring, so he'll come off the list. Atlanta Falcons center Todd McClure, tied with Faneca on the list, will miss the regular-season opener after having knee surgery.

Players need toughness, luck, consistency and talent to maintain such streaks in such a physically demanding sport. The position they play also matters.

The longest active starting streak for running backs stands at only 48 games, with the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte atop the list. The Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson is next at 32 games, with the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson third at only 17 regular-season starts in a row. Only three other running backs have started more than 12 games in a row.

Update: The NFL's internal statistics engine listed Ronde Barber with 179 consecutive regular-season starts. The Bucs' figure is 183. Game logs available on NFL.com confirm 183. I updated the chart to 183.

Chicago Bears cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
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Check here for a complete list of the Chicago Bears' roster moves.

Surprise move: The Bears have now bid farewell to three locker room stalwarts: Center Olin Kreutz, receiver Rashied Davis and now tight end Desmond Clark. The Bears released Clark as part of Saturday's roster cutdown, deciding to keep undrafted rookie Kyle Adams instead. Clark said via Twitter that "I played my butt off but sometimes it's more about the business." The Bears indicated that he was released with an injury. Regardless, intentionally or otherwise, the Bears have at least temporarily created a player leadership void.

No-brainers: After last week's communication fiasco, there was little doubt that running back Chester Taylor would be part of this cutdown. The Bears need only two tailbacks behind starter Matt Forte, and those roles will be filled by Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell. They also kept fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou. I don't know if the Bears entered training camp planning to keep undrafted rookie receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, but his quick ascension as a slot receiver was obvious by the midpoint of the preseason. Quarterback Jay Cutler loves throwing to him.

What's next: The Bears' depth at linebacker is a little scary. They kept only five at the position, with Brian Iwuh and undrafted rookie Dom DeCicco as the reserves behind Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach. You would think the Bears would at least scan the waiver wire for additional depth, especially with Briggs nursing a knee injury. And with Barber and Bell having suffered preseason injuries, the Bears might check out emergency running back depth as well.
There were a number of takeaway thoughts from Jerry Angelo's 22-minute appearance Friday on ESPN 1000's "The Waddle & Silvy Show." But for me, the most notable quotes from the Chicago Bears general manager came on the state of tailback Matt Forte's contract negotiations.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMatt Forte is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
As you know, Forte is entering the final year of a rookie deal that will pay him $550,000 this season. He considered holding out from training camp until Angelo pledged to get a deal done. But the sides don't appear close on an agreement, and when asked if he hoped a deal happens sooner than later, Angelo said: "It's got to happen sooner. I don't like to necessarily go into training camp and negotiate with players. We like to do that in the offseason. Unfortunately, we didn't have the ability to do that, but again we want to do the right thing by Matt so we are talking. We're hopeful, but at some point we have to draw a line in the sand and just now focus on the season."

I guess there are several ways to interpret that statement, but whenever I hear "line in the sand" in regards to a contract negotiation, I tend to raise an eyebrow. You would be well within your rights to think Angelo was suggesting the discussions are close to a "take it or leave it" stage.

If Forte "leaves it," he would at least start the season with a contract set to expire this winter. It doesn't mean the sides couldn't come to an agreement by the end of the season, and it would be smart from a salary-cap perspective to do just that. But if you were hoping for an imminent resolution, Angelo's comment suggested one might not be coming.

Angelo spoke on a wide variety of subjects, including:

  • The condition of the playing surface at Soldier Field. Angelo admitted he has "always been in favor of a fast track" that goes along with an artificial surface, but is on board with the organizational decision to maintain a grass field for safety reasons.
  • The offensive line. Specifically, Angelo said he isn't concerned that the presumptive replacement for center Olin Kreutz, free agent acquisition Chris Spencer, is working with the second team while guard Roberto Garza handles the first-team center duties. "Roberto had ... familiarity with the offense," Angelo said. "How it is eventually going to unfold, the coaches and the players always determine that."
  • Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's contract. Martz has had substantial sway in personnel decisions over the past two years but his contract is set to expire after this season. It wouldn't make sense to part ways with him after basing so many moves on his scheme, and Angelo said: "Historically we've always dealt with our coaches in the offseason and we'll continue to follow that protocol. ... It's not a big deal. Mike gets it. It's part of doing business. Not a story."
  • The Bears' linebacker depth. Angelo admitted: "We've had better depth over the years, but this year is probably the least amount of depth that we've had." He noted that the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 linebackers will all be mostly special-teams players, but that leaves an obvious hole should a starter get sidelined.
  • His draft-day failure to complete a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Angelo said he reached out to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who had accused the Bears of intentionally botching the trade, and "we cleared the air." Angelo said he thinks he will be able to conduct normal business with the Ravens moving forward.

Saints pay inside out on O-line

August, 16, 2011
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There’s a general rule of thumb in the NFL that you pay offensive tackles big money and don’t spend nearly as much on interior linemen.

Then, there are the New Orleans Saints, who turn that rule inside out. After Monday’s release of veteran tackle Jon Stinchcomb, the disparity became even more pronounced.

The Saints likely will start Jermon Bushrod at left tackle, generally the highest-paid position on an offensive line. They’re letting Zach Strief and Charles Brown compete for Stinchcomb’s old starting job.

Bushrod is scheduled to make $1 million in base salary this season and could earn up to $150,000 more in incentives. That’s got to rank him among the lowest-paid starting left tackles in the NFL. There are backups who make more than that.

Right tackles don’t make as much as left tackles, but the theme is similar here. The Saints don’t have a lot of money invested in Strief or Brown. Strief is scheduled to make $1 million in base salary this year. Brown has a $450,000 base salary and a $310,000 roster bonus. Whichever one wins the job, is going to be among the lowest paid starting right tackles in the league.

On the inside of the line, things are much different. Guard Jahri Evans has a $3 million base salary. Fellow guard Carl Nicks signed a restricted free-agent tender for $2.611 million, but it’s likely the Saints will try to get him signed to a massive long-term extension. There’s no way they want perhaps the best guard in the league getting anywhere close to hitting the free-agent market next year.

The Saints let veteran center Jonathan Goodwin leave in free agency. They could have gone with second-year pro Matt Tennant as his replacement. But they decided not to be cheap. They went out and got veteran Olin Kreutz, who is scheduled to make $2 million in base salary and can make another $225,000 in incentives.

So why do the Saints pay their interior linemen so much more than their tackles? It’s because the interior guys are far more important in their system. I’ve got a theory about why that is. Look at quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints list him at 6-foot.

I’ve stood next to Brees when he’s been wearing cleats and I’m pretty sure he’s more like 5-11 or 5-10. When you’ve got a guy that size in the pocket, you need dominant interior linemen who can keep defenders from getting any penetration. If they do, they’re going to knock down a bunch of Brees’ passes.

That’s rarely happened in recent years. That’s because the Saints have paid a premium to make sure they’re strong in the middle of the line.

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