NFC North: O-lines are big difference

Our position-by-position breakdown of the NFC North continues with the offensive line, where Green Bay could use some help up front to catch up to the rival Minnesota Vikings. Fortunately, there are several quality free agents who could help, and offensive tackle could be a target early in the draft.

If there's one thing that separated the Green Bay Packers from the Minnesota Vikings — more than Adrian Peterson, perhaps — it's the offensive lines.

While there weren't any weak links on the Packers' line, there wasn't a dominant blocker who could ensure a third-and-1 conversion. In contrast, the Vikings have left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Steve Hutchinson and center Matt Birk to run behind.

An even bigger issue is at offensive tackle, where Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are getting up there in years. Both will be entering their 10th seasons. Clifton battled through a variety of aches and pains, especially with his knees, and Tauscher will be coming off of reconstructive surgery to his left knee.

Tauscher is a free agent, and between that and the knee, his status is in limbo. Outside of left guard Daryn Colledge, the Packers don't have ready-to-go replacements for either, so tackle might be a target in the draft or free agency.

There are several quality veteran offensive tackles available, including Philadelphia's tandem of Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas and Pittsburgh's Marvel Smith, Willie Colon and Max Starks.

Speaking of free agents, the Vikings' Birk will be available on Feb. 27. Sources say he and coach Brad Childress don't see eye-to-eye, and Birk will be free to shop his services. He's one of several quality centers who will be on the market.

Here is a look at the NFC North's offensive lines.

Packers

Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG Daryn Colledge, C Scott Wells, RG Jason Spitz, RT Tony Moll. Backups — G Josh Sitton, G Allen Barbre, T Breno Giacomini, G Nevin McCaskill. Injured reserve — T Mark Tauscher.

The return of Tauscher, a starter at right tackle since his rookie year in 2000, is up in the air. His value as an impending unrestricted free agent diminished when he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee with three weeks left in the season. Tauscher probably won't be ready for the start of training camp, wherever he winds up, after undergoing surgery this month. So, the Packers could be ready to move on with his spot, and doing the same with the similarly aging and wounded Clifton on the left side also is a possibility. Fortunately for Green Bay, many of their young linemen are well-versed in playing different positions. Moving Colledge to one of the tackle spots is a good possibility. He came on at the end of the season but isn't a polished inside player after primarily being the starter at left guard the last three seasons. The shakeup could further continue between the tackles as the offseason progresses. Sitton, who started at right guard in the season finale, is ready for a full-time shot after his possible starting assignment as a rookie at the outset of the season was derailed by a preseason knee injury. Spitz, the regular starter at right guard, is better suited to play center, which could bump the dependable, but injury-prone Wells from the lineup. Barbre has been billed as starting material, but it hasn't happened, though the spot at left guard could be his for the taking. Depending on what happens with the trio of Tauscher, Clifton and Colledge, Giacomini is a candidate to start at right tackle after a year of development as a rookie.

Bears

Starters — LT John St. Clair, LG Josh Beekman, C Olin Kreutz, RG Roberto Garza, RT John Tait. Backups — T Chris Williams, G Terrence Metcalf, G Dan Buenning.

This group performed adequately considering its lack of talent. St. Clair served as the place holder for 2008 first-round pick Williams, whose development was derailed by a back injury on the second day of training camp that required surgery and kept him off the practice field the first half of the season. He should be the starter at LT in '09. Beekman played well enough to unseat perennial tease Metcalf, who has been given a job several times but has always played himself out of it. Kreutz may no longer be a Pro Bowl player, but he's still above average and a coach on the field. Garza is solid enough, but an upgrade wouldn't be difficult to find. Tait will be 34 next season, and he's not getting any better at this stage of his career. Buenning isn't what any team is looking for in a starter or even someone who has to play significant minutes.

Lions

Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Edwin Mulitalo, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Gosder Cherilus. Backups — C Andy McCollum, G Manny Ramirez, T George Foster, G Damion Cook.

The Lions started eight different combinations, thanks to injuries and ineptitude, which hurt the continuity and consistency. Backus played well against some top pass rushers but also took some killer penalties. Mulitalo lost his job to Cook at times. Raiola brought passion and seemed to play OK, but the Lions actually started to run better when he was out with a broken hand and McCollum was playing. Peterman wasn't exactly dominant. Cherilus struggled to beat out Foster early in the season. While he showed potential, he made too many mistakes.

Vikings

Starters — LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Steve Hutchinson, C Matt Birk, RG Anthony Herrera, RT Ryan Cook. Backups — T/G Artis Hicks, C John Sullivan, T Marcus Johnson. Injured reserve — T Drew Radovich.

This group deserves credit for helping Peterson win the NFL rushing title, but they also gave up 43 sacks. While Birk, Herrera and Hutchinson did not miss a start, the same couldn't be said for the tackles. McKinnie, who was arrested last offseason after a brawl outside a Miami nightclub, was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. When he did return, it took him some time to get back into the swing of things. Cook, meanwhile, started the first 10 games but was benched in favor of Artis Hicks after making a variety of mental and physical mistakes. Cook did not remain on the sideline very long because Hicks aggravated a triceps injury he had suffered in the regular-season opener at Green Bay while playing in place of McKinnie. It's believed that right tackle will be a primary focus of the Vikings this offseason as they look to upgrade. But this does not mean Cook's days on the roster are numbered. With Birk set to become a free agent after 11 seasons in Minnesota, Cook could get an opportunity to shift back to his college position of center. Sullivan also could get a look at that spot in training camp if Birk departs. Hutchinson, a perennial Pro Bowl player, and Herrera are solid at the guard spots, although the latter still has plenty of room to improve. Hicks is a valuable backup with the ability to play either tackle or guard position. Johnson, the lone remaining member of the Vikings' 2005 draft class, could find himself elsewhere next season. The Vikings liked Radovich enough that they kept him on injured reserve this season after the undrafted free agent from Southern Cal suffered a shoulder injury.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.


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