|It's understandable if you can't see him at first glance, but that's Driver making the Lambeau Leap. (US Presswire)|
Chargers 31-20, the Bears were 7-3, and though we didn’t expect Chicago to catch the Packers in the NFC North, we thought the Bears had a good shot to land a wild card playoff spot. And then, Jay Cutler broke his thumb. And then Matt Forte tore his MCL. And then backup quarterback Caleb Hanie didn’t produce much of anything. And then, the Bears lost five-straight to fall out of the postseason race, including an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos (thanks Marion Barber!), leading to the firing of general manager Jerry Angelo and offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
So yeah, not a great end to the season in Chicago.
Free agents of note
The Bears have franchise-tagged running back Matt Forte, so they don’t have to worry about whether they can sign him to a long-term deal for the time being … If defensive end Israel Idonije wants to return, as he’s said in the past, he provides solid play on the defensive line … Tight end Kellen Davis is a candidate to return, simply because there’s not a great free agent market for tight ends … Defensive tackle Anthony Adams already has been let go.
The Bears are in bad need of a receiver. Especially considering Forte was the team’s leading pass-catcher and considering Johnny Knox and Roy Williams -- two actual receivers -- combined for just 74 catches and four touchdowns. That’s not so good. If Jay Cutler had some help from his receivers, he could be a top-10 quarterback in the league.
Chicago also needs help in its secondary with a number of Bears cornerbacks on the free agent market. Only Charles Tillman is a sure bet to return, and though he’s a solid player, Chicago could become a top-10 defense if it shores up the backside of its defense.
Plus, we saw just how important a backup quarterback is for the Bears. With Josh McCown and Caleb Hanie probably not returning, the Bears will need to find Cutler’s backup.
The Bears don’t have a true No. 1 receiver, but that would change very quickly if they could land San Diego’s Vincent Jackson, who would be a great catch for Chicago. The Bears are going to have to spend some money in this area, and they should have the cash to land a top-notch receiver. Texans defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams would look good on the other end of the line from Julius Peppers, but there’s probably little chance the Bears would want to sink so much money into two defensive ends. Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan might not be a bad idea at cornerback, if Chicago feels like paying top money to one of the better guys in the league.
PackersMost of the way through the regular season, Green Bay was the big-time favorite to win the Super Bowl. The Packers offense was ridiculously good -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers had one of the best seasons by a quarterback ever -- and though the defense clearly had problems, we thought Green Bay’s offense more than made up for that big deficiency. Hell, even when Matt Flynn played, he did nothing but set franchise records in passing yards and touchdowns for a single game.
And then the Packers played the Giants in the postseason, and though we thought Jason Pierre-Paul was a bit crazy to guarantee a victory against Green Bay, that’s exactly what New York accomplished, upsetting the defender Super Bowl champions. To make matters worse, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin left after the season to take over the Dolphins organization.
Free agents of note
One of the most popular free agents on the market is quarterback Matt Flynn, who has put together two amazing games as Green Bay’s backup in the past two years. The Packers could have franchise-tagged him, but there was no chance they were going to sink that much money into a backup quarterback. Better to let somebody else make that mistake … Already, the Packers have wrapped up tight end Jermichael Finley by signing him to a two-year, $15 million deal ... There’s a good chance the Packers won’t re-sign running back Ryan Grant … It sounds like Green Bay might be content to let go of center Scott Wells, though he’s been very solid his entire career.
Truthfully, the Packers don’t have a huge number of high-profile needs. If Grant leaves -- which seems like a pretty good bet -- they’ll need a running back to go with James Starks. The thing with Starks is that he wasn’t all that good last season. Not that the Packers necessarily need a big-time running back, because as long as Rodgers is on the team, the offense should be fine. But still, Starks probably won’t be asked to carry most of the load by himself.
The Packers had the worst pass defense in the league, but they also have talent in the secondary. Besides, that statistic is skewed because of how high-powered Green Bay’s offense was, meaning opponents had to throw the ball in order to try to keep up with the Packers. But Green Bay would do well to upgrade the linebacker corps with A.J. Hawk struggling and with Erik Walden most likely not returning.
If the Packers decide Wells isn’t worth paying, they could go after Texans center Chris Myers. The two sides apparently met at the NFL combine.
Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril and a return to health for quarterback Matthew Stafford, who could toss the ball with impunity to Calvin Johnson, it was an easy call to predict the Lions would make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
And that’s exactly what Detroit did this season, as Stafford and Johnson overcame a tepid running game and the defense was good enough to set the Lions on a five-game winning streak to open the season and to win three of their last four to earn a wild-card berth. Although Green Bay will always make it tough, the Lions could continue making waves in the NFC North.
Free agents of note
The Lions made the right move by franchise-tagging Cliff Avril after his monster season -- it’s the first time they’ve used the tag since 2007. Now, they need to sign him to a long-term deal to make him happy. They also need to make sure he doesn’t hold out. … Shaun Hill is one of those solid backups every NFL team wants to have. He probably won’t go anywhere. If you consider Stafford’s injury history, there’s a decent chance Hill will play in Detroit anyway … It seems like there’s a good chance linebacker Stephen Tulloch will leave for Philadelphia.
As good as Stafford was last season, throwing for 5,038 yards, the Lions running game struggled. Jahvid Best and rookie Mikel Leshoure couldn’t stay on the field with injuries, meaning the Lions had to go with journeyman Kevin Smith to handle most of the carries. Though Smith, who was out of the league until Detroit called him, was solid, he’s also a free agent (along with Jerome Harrison). If Best and Leshoure are healthy, the Lions running game should be fine.
Detroit also needs to shore up its pass defense. The Lions ranked 22nd in the league against the pass, and you really saw them exploited in the playoff game against the Packers when Rodgers threw for 466 yards.
If the Detroit doesn’t re-sign left tackle Jeff Backus, the Lions could go after Jared Gaither. Since they also need help in the secondary, signing New Orleans’ Tracy Porter, New York’s Aaron Ross or Pittsburgh’s William Gay could be a good idea. Christian Ponder, who replaced him, didn’t fare much better. In fact, the best quarterback performances came when Joe Webb, who originally was supposed to be a receiver in the NFL, led the team up and down the field. Making matters worse, Adrian Peterson sustained an ankle injury, came back too soon and then tore up his knee. At this point, it’s unclear if Peterson -- rewarded with a ridiculous contract before 2011 -- will be ready to play at the beginning of next season.
One interesting note for Minnesota going forward. In the offseason, the organization hired Rick Spielman to be the general manager, though he didn’t have much success as the Dolphins GM and he contributed mightily to Minnesota’s 3-13 season last year. But before, the Vikings had shared authority with Frazier and other team executives. Now, Spielman will control the player personnel and Frazier will control his coaching staff. If Minnesota fails, expect Spielman to get more of the blame.
Free agents of note
Longtime guard Steve Hutchinson is likely on his way out because he’s 34 and very expensive for the team’s salary cap needs … The Vikings very well could lose Visanthe Shiancoe, whose stock as one of the better tight ends in the league has taken a hit. They’d better hope Kyle Rudolph is ready to go … The Vikings would like to keep linebackers E.J. Henderson and Erin Henderson.
The offensive line badly needs to be upgraded, and that’s probably most likely going to happen in the draft when (we assume) Minnesota takes USC’s Matt Kalil with the No. 3 pick and moves last year’s left tackle, Charlie Johnson -- still a dependable lineman -- to one of the guard positions. So, the Vikings will upgrade the left tackle spot and one of the guards spots.
The secondary, which intercepted only eight passes last year (tied for the worst total in the league) needs to be improved as well. Minnesota would do well to find somebody who can force turnovers. Somebody like Tennessee’s Cortland Finnegan or Kansas City’s Brandon Carr.
If, for some reason, the team doesn’t draft Kalil, it could go after Jared Gaither, whose career was boasted by his performance in San Diego at the end of the season. Assuming the Vikings don’t want to pay tons of money to Saints guard Carl Nicks, the Vikings could go after a guy like Baltimore’s Ben Grubbs, who would be less expensive. The Vikings would also prefer to upgrade their receiving corps to give Percy Harvin some help. Pierre Garcon and Mario Manningham might be two options.
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