NFC North getting tougher

By this Sunday, Packers fans will be hailing Mike Sherman as a genius for his first-round draft selection, or they'll be begging Bob Harlan to strip Sherman of his GM duties and do whatever it takes to bring back the retired-again Ron Wolf.<p>

Of course, none of what happens in the two-day draft should be praised or panned for a couple of years. Remember when the Cowboys were ripped for drafting Troy Aikman with the first overall pick when they could have had Tony Mandarich?

What is eligible for immediate critique, however, is what teams have done in the off-season, particularly free agency. While money can't buy love or happiness or a good football team — just ask the Redskins the last couple seasons — it's clear the NFC North should be one of the league's more improved divisions next season. Every team, from the cash-strapped Packers to the no-talent Lions, took steps to field better teams when their training camps start this summer.

Green Bay did what it had to do by opening the vault for left tackle Chad Clifton. Could the Packers have gotten by without Clifton, given the flexibility of guard Mike Wahle and center Mike Flanagan along with the promise of tackle Kevin Barry? Probably. But the offensive line is the team within the team, the unit most likely to be affected by a change in personnel. Bringing back Clifton keeps the league's best offensive line together, which is critical given the diminishing escapability of Brett Favre and the reliance on the running game. Safety Mark Roman, meanwhile, eliminates a glaring weakness in the secondary.

Meanwhile, the Packers didn't lose anyone of dire importance, thanks to the sign-'em-early approach to free agency taken by Sherman and financial guru Andrew Brandt.

Minnesota struck big in free agency by literally stealing cornerback Antoine Winfield from the Jets. Winfield gives the league's 26th-ranked pass defense a big-time coverage ace.

"I was real close (to signing with the Jets)," Winfield said during his introductory news conference. "Everything was pretty much printed out. But when it came down to it, I just wasn't ready. I'm a man of my word. I promised (head coach Mike) Tice and (defensive coordinator Ted) Cottrell I would visit. I told my wife before this even started that I would make two visits."

The other intriguing move was signing receiver Marcus Robinson away from Baltimore. Robinson, a former Pro Bowler in Chicago before suffering a knee injury, is purely a vertical threat. His addition makes the Vikings the ultimate home-run team when put on the field with Randy Moss and Michael Bennett.

Chicago upgraded its offensive line and backfield in hopes of assembling an actual NFL offense under new coach Lovie Smith. The days of run, short pass, shorter pass, punt are over, as Smith brings his version of the Rams' high-octane offense to Chicago.

The Bears made perhaps the boldest move in all of free agency by signing right tackle John Tait away from the Chiefs. Tait, a perennial Pro Bowler at right tackle for the offensive juggernaut Chiefs, was the only transition player in the league to switch teams, thanks to Chicago coughing up $33.65 million over five years. In another big move, the Bears landed eight-time Pro Bowl guard Ruben Brown, who was released by Buffalo in a cost-cutting maneuver. That gives the Bears three Pro Bowlers up front, including center Olin Kreutz. The all-important left tackle spot remains a weakness, but with the rest of the line so strong the Bears should be able to compensate to protect second-year starting quarterback Rex Grossman.

The key to everything will be the play of running back Thomas Jones, a first-round bust in Arizona who emerged in Tampa Bay last season well enough to earn a big free-agent payday. Smith is counting on Jones to be the Bears' version of Marshall Faulk. Is Jones up to the task? That depends on whether his career-best season in Tampa — he gained 134 yards against Green Bay last season — was a sign of a bright future or a player playing for a big contract.

Detroit picked up four starters in cornerback Fernando Bryant, safety Brock Marion, wide receiver Tai Streets and guard Damien Woody. Bryant and Marion are huge upgrades on one of the league's worst secondaries. Put those two with corner Dre Bly and the Lions have the start of a solid defensive backfield. Woody started for Super Bowl champion New England. Streets, meanwhile, gives the Lions a threat opposite last year's promising rookie, Charlie Rogers.

The Lions remain short of big-time players on both sides of the ball, but holding the sixth overall pick in the draft should allow them to get a playmaker like tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., any one of the standout receivers, or maybe even safety Sean Taylor.

With the gap between Green Bay and the rest of the division tightening, this weekend's draft takes on greater importance for the Packers. If the Packers can't win the North, it's going to be doubly difficult to win the Super Bowl.

Huber is a copy editor and Sunday sports columnist for The Green Bay News-Chronicle and regular Packer Report columnist. Contact him via e-mail at packwriter@hotmail.com


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