Let me start off by telling everyone that despite the topic of this column, it will remain Joey Harrington Free. It’s a holiday weekend and the poor guy deserves a break, from me and everyone else who has ever doubted him. With that said, below are ten NFC North players whose performances could have the greatest impact on their team’s success, or lack thereof, in 2005.
Having regained his Olympic sprinter’s speed – Bennett was recently clocked in the 9.9 range in the 100 meters – and seemingly having erased the health problems that have dogged him in recent years, Bennett looks primed to carry the offensive load for the Vikings in 2005.
With the departure of WR Randy Moss and the probable season-long suspension of Captain Whizzinator, RB Onterrio Smith, Bennett must produce and remain healthy to take the pressure off the Viking’s star QB, Daunte Culpepper.
If he goes down again, the Bears will be in deep trouble – as once again they have no reliable backup to replace him. It is amazing that after the QB mess that the Bears went through last season, that they didn’t adequately address the problem.
Chad Hutchinson is a poor man’s Bob Avellini, while Kurt Kittner and rookie Kyle Orton are both too green to provide anything but cannon fodder for opposing pass rushers should Rex get deep-sixed again next season.
As Green goes, so will the Packers. With Green Bay’s ever fleeting talent due to free agency departures, Green must be a bigger workhorse than ever before if the Pack is to find success in 2005. With the lack of talent and depth on the offensive line after the departures of Pro Bowl Guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, a big season for Ahman looks like a tall order.
It has been a long time since the Lions had a young headhunter in their secondary. Kennedy should bring that element to Detroit’s pass defense in 2005. His presence and playmaking ability could make the Lions already talented front seven that much better.
Lions fans everywhere now have their fingers crossed that Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron doesn’t misplace the blitz package section of his “revamped” playbook anytime soon.
5. Jim Kleinsasser – TE Minnesota Vikings
Some of you maybe scratching your heads with this selection, but trust me, Kleinsasser was missed big time by the Vikings last season. With Moss now gone to Oakland, Kleinsasser is the team’s best offensive player after Daunte Culpepper. He is vital to both their running and passing attacks and will be an even more important cog in their schemes in 2005.
6. Marcus Pollard – TE Detroit Lions
As much as Kenoy Kennedy could serve to catapult the Lions defense to the next level, Pollard could do the same for the Lions’ offense. Pollard is the most polished Tight End the Lions have had since David Hill 25 years ago. His terrific hands and veteran experience will provide a QB – who will remain nameless – with the third down weapon and safety valve that he has never had before in Detroit.
7. Pat Williams – DT Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings couldn’t stop a cold on the ground last season. The 6’3” Pat Williams, listed at a conservative 317 pounds, should provide the remedy for that problem. He and bookend DT Kevin Williams could provide the Vikings a tough run-clogging/pass rushing combo that could be hell for opposing offensive lines.
8. Adewale Ogunleye – DE Chicago Bears
Ogunleye finally returned to practice in a limited capacity on June 15 after undergoing postseason ankle surgery to repair a torn tendon. The 2003 AFC sack leader (with the Miami Dolphins) was hampered most of last season by the nagging injury and managed just five sacks, which was 10 fewer than the season before.
9. Mushin Muhammad – WR Chicago Bears
The Bears made a major upgrade when they released the underachieving David Terrell and replaced him with the tough and talented Muhammad, who has averaged 75 receptions, 1,004 yards and six touchdowns over the past seven seasons while working with seven different starting quarterbacks. Last season, he had 93 catches, for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns with the Carolina Panthers. His presence should pay big dividends for Rex Grossman as the Bears try to climb out of the NFC North doldrums next season.
10. Boss Bailey – LB Detroit Lions
Bailey returns this season from a knee injury that sidelined him for all of
last season. If he can return to his rookie form of 2003, he could challenge
Kevin Jones and Shaun Rogers for the title of the Lions’ best player.
As a rookie, Bailey recorded 88 tackles, 6 passes defensed and 1 1/2 sacks at
strongside linebacker. His versatility, speed and tackling ability will give
the Lions linebacking core a dominant presence that they haven’t had on
the outside since the days of Reggie Brown (1996-97).