NFC North Offensive Analysis

The Vikings' rivals in the NFC North haven't exactly been known as offensive juggernauts the last year or two. So where do things stand with the Bears, Lions and Packers after an offseason of shuffling players?

BEARS OFFENSIVE UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Rex Grossman. Backups — Brian Griese, Kyle Orton.

The mere presence of a healthy Grossman for 16 games is supposed to guarantee improvement on the offense. Grossman is in his fourth year and appears to be the real deal. He gets rid of the ball faster than most NFL quarterbacks, reads defenses quickly and gets the ball to the right receiver, usually with great accuracy. But, because of injuries, Grossman hasn't played enough yet — just seven starts — to justify the Bears' faith in him. That's why bringing in a quality veteran backup like Griese was imperative. He's a proven winner with 72 NFL starts and a 39-33 record. Third-stringer Orton started 15 games last season as a rookie, going 10-5, and he was behind center for each of the Bears' eight straight wins.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Thomas Jones, FB Jason McKie. Backups — RB Cedric Benson, RB Adrian Peterson, FB Bryan Johnson, FB J.D. Runnels.

The Bears have enough talent and depth that they could consider trade offers for Jones. They could decide the 1,335-yard rusher is expendable with last year's first-round pick Benson waiting in the wings. They insist that they need at least two quality running backs in their run-first attack, and the case could be made that they had three last season. Jones had the best season of his six-year career. In limited opportunities, Benson showed flashes of why he was the fourth overall pick. Special-teams standout Peterson averaged 5.1 yards per carry, the best on the team. If fullback Johnson is back to full speed after an injury-plagued 2005, he is an effective lead blocker and decent receiver but not much else. McKie is a similar player but younger and healthier.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Desmond Clark. Backups — John Gilmore, Gabe Reid, Tim Day, Cooper Wallace.

The Bears' conglomeration of tight ends may be one of the league's weakest. Incumbent Desmond Clark's production keeps declining (24 catches for 229 yards last year), and the Bears came up empty in the draft, when 17 tight ends were taken. In an effort to become a bigger contributor in the passing game, Clark lost 10-15 pounds, and he appeared quicker and faster in the off-season. Gilmore has the frame to be the best in-line blocker of the bunch, while Reid is an undersized pass catcher with some run-after-the-catch ability. Both Day and Wallace have a chance to make the final roster. Day is the better receiver, Wallace the better blocker.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Muhsin Muhammad, Bernard Berrian. Backups — Mark Bradley, Justin Gage, Rashied Davis, Airese Currie.

Aside from the aging Muhammad, who will be 33 on opening day, the Bears don't have any special receivers. But they've got some young players who could become effective complements and more. That could be significant this year because it's not for sure that Muhammad is very special anymore, coming off a pedestrian 64-catch, 750-yard season. Bradley, the second-round pick in 2005, appeared on the verge of stardom as a rookie when he suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 30. If he's back to 100 percent, and he appears close already, he's a solid No. 2 who could become a go-to guy. Skinny, fragile Berrian has big-play speed, and he started to step up at the end of ‘05. He's currently running ahead of Bradley on the depth chart but will have to prove he's more durable than in the past to hold on to the starting job. The 6-foot-4 Gage was the team's second-leading receiver last year, but he needs to take another step in his fourth season or he'll be passed up by younger players like Currie, another deep threat who missed all of his rookie season with injuries, or Davis, a former Arena League star who is converting to offense after playing corner for the Bears last season.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT John Tait, LG Ruben Brown, C Olin Kreutz, RG Roberto Garza, RT Fred Miller. Backups: G-C Terence Metcalf, T John St. Clair, G-T Steve Edwards.

This is a veteran unit with good continuity and is better blocking for the run than the pass. The only projected change is Garza for Metcalf at right guard. Garza started three games there last year and four more at left guard, where Brown is beginning to break down. For now, Metcalf, who was a 13-game starter last year, is the swing guard. Tait moved to left tackle last season and performed well. He's better on the right side but is above average on the left. In his first year with the Bears, Miller started 15 games at right tackle, including one just nine days after his jaw was broken by Kreutz, who made his fifth straight Pro Bowl and retained his heavyweight title. Age is a concern. Tait is 31, Miller 33 and Brown 34. Kreutz is 29 but entering his ninth season. The backups are mostly underachievers who failed in the past as starters.


LIONS OFFENSIVE UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter — Jon Kitna. Backups — Josh McCown and Dan Orlovsky.

Kitna was originally signed as a backup to push Joey Harrington in the Mike Martz offense but when Harrington wanted out, Kitna became the top candidate for the starting job in 2006. McCown, who had an up-and-down first four NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, will be given a shot at winning the No. 1 job but it appears Kitna has the inside track. Although he will be 34 years old in September, Kitna hasn't taken many hits in the past two seasons as the backup to Carson Palmer at Cincinnati and age should not be a factor. He has experience as a starter both in Seattle and in the pre-Palmer era with the Bengals, and seems to have picked up on Martz's offense quickly. McCown has plenty of arm strength but has not shown the consistency necessary to win at the NFL level. At the age of 27, he still has time to develop. Orlovsky was relatively unheralded when the Lions drafted him out of Connecticut in the fifth round last year but the team likes his arm strength and his attitude. He will compete with McCown for the backup job and — if nothing else — is likely to stay as the No. 3 quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Kevin Jones, FB Cory Schlesinger. Backups — RB Shawn Bryson, RB Artose Pinner, RB Brian Calhoun, RB Arlen Harris, FB Will Matthews, RB Matt Bernstein.

One of Martz's top priorities in training camp will be to get the Lions running game back on track. They were a flimsy 26th overall in rushing, averaging only 91.9 yards per game on the ground. Jones, who had an impressive 1,133 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in 2004, suffered through a disappointing second season with 664 yards, a 3.6-yards per carry average and five TDs. He had injury problems in the second half of the season and was the victim of former coach Steve Mariucci's determination to use a three-man rotation at the RB position. He might be a one-cut runner but Martz seems determined to get production out of him. Bryson is a quality backup at the RB position, a capable blocker, runner and receiver. Calhoun, a third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin, has good quickness and will get a chance to compete with Pinner and Harris for the third RB slot on the depth chart. Schlesinger, 34, is showing the wear of 11 seasons as a lead blocker and special teams demon but Marinelli likes his dedication and he should be good for at least one more season.

TIGHT END: Starter — Marcus Pollard. Backups — Dan Campbell, Casey FitzSimmons, Sean McHugh, Kori Dickerson, Darius Williams.

The addition of Campbell gives the Lions the experienced blocking TE they have been lacking in recent seasons and that should make a difference in the running game. Pollard, at 34, can still run and, although he had more drops than the Lions expected last season, he is still a reliable and dangerous receiving threat. FitzSimmons can make the short to intermediate receptions and is a valuable contributor on special teams.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — FL Roy Williams, SE Scottie Vines. Backups — Corey Bradford, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Eddie Drummond, Mike Furrey, Paris Hamilton, Glenn Martinez, Brett Fischer.

This is the group that stands to gain the most from the presence of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and don't think they don't know it. Roy Williams, who caught 99 passes for 1,504 yards and 16 touchdowns in an ill-suited, impotent West Coast offense in his first two NFL seasons, could become a legitimate top tier receiver in Martz's offense. He has size, speed and strength but still has to show he can play over injury and must eliminate the occasional drops from his game. The jury is still out on the Lions' other two first-round receivers — Rogers and Mike Williams. Rogers has been hampered by two broken collarbones and last season sat out a four-game drug suspension, then came back with a lackadaisical attitude. Mike Williams has to control his weight and it's safe to say he has to develop better work habits if he hopes to play for Marinelli and Martz. Bradford brings the veteran presence needed on a young WR corps and Drummond, the kick returner, is hoping to get playing time in the slot. Vines made it the hard way, as an undrafted player, without significant speed but he's a willing worker and a reliable receiver. Furrey has played in Martz's system before, which gives him an edge.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Ross Verba, C Dominic Raiola, RG Damien Woody, RT Rex Tucker. Backups — C Brock Gutierrez, T Kelly Butler, G Frank Davis, G Fred Matua, G Barry Stokes, C/G Tyrone Hopson, T Victor Rogers, T Jonathan Scott, T Courtney Van Buren.

The Lions will have a new look up front in 2006 and they need it. Last year's offensive line play was only slightly short of a total disaster. The presence of respected veteran line coach Larry Beightol should help, in both coaching the mechanics of the job and scheming. Raiola is not big enough to go head-up against the bigger DTs in the league so if he's not used right, he gets mauled. Look for Beightol to correct that situation. Verba and Tucker were both signed as UFAs and are expected to make an immediate upgrade at LG and RT respectively. Verba — who sat out the 2005 season after a misadventure in Cleveland — and Woody give the Lions their best guard combination in years, although Woody has to win his on-going battle with the scales if he is to play at a high level. Backus, a five-year veteran, is a hard-nosed player who stands to gain significantly from Marinelli's tough approach. He needs contact work in practice to prepare himself and will get much more of it under the new system than he got under Mariucci. The addition of veterans Stokes and Van Buren upgrade the line depth; rookies Matua, Davis and Scott have a chance to develop.


PACKERS OFFENSIVE UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Brett Favre. Backups — Aaron Rodgers, Ingle Martin, Brian Wrobel, Tom Arth.

Provided his home schooling went well in the month preceding the start of training camp, Favre is poised to make amends for his career-worst, 29-interception season last year. Physically, the 36-year-old Favre is as spry as ever and hasn't lost any zip on his throws. His biggest challenge in his 15th year as the team's starter will be processing the new terminology in the West Coast offense incorporated by first-year head coach Mike McCarthy. Favre still will take chances, but the no-nonsense McCarthy, a QB guru who worked with Favre in 1999, won't hesitate to rein him in if there's a carryover from 2005. Keeping Favre healthy yet another season figures to be critical because heir apparent Rodgers, the team's first-round draft pick last year, still has to prove he can sufficiently run the offense. He was inconsistent in off-season workouts and didn't distinguish himself when he had ample opportunity to direct the No. 1 unit on the sporadic days Favre wasn't present. Martin, a fifth-round pick this year, has a live arm and should stick as the No. 3 guy with the possibility of challenging Rodgers once Favre calls it quits.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — HB Ahman Green, FB William Henderson. Backups — HB Najeh Davenport, Samkon Gado, Noah Herron, Arliss Beach; FB Vonta Leach, A.J. Cooper.

Green, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, is the starter when he returns, but there's no telling how soon that will be in camp. He likely won't get his first taste of contact since being felled by a torn quadriceps tendon nine months ago until mid-August. The jury is out on how much Green has left to offer once he's deemed healthy because age (29) is working against him and he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry prior to the injury last season. Uncertainty also hangs over Davenport, who's been anything but durable his first four years in the league. He should be ready at the outset of camp after recuperating from a broken ankle sustained early last season. Gado had his moments of brilliance as an undrafted rookie in a fill-in role the second half of last season, but he's not featured-back material in the new zone-blocking scheme. Herron adapted better to making the required reads and will push Gado for a roster spot. Henderson, at 35, refuses to relinquish the fullback job. Undrafted rookie Cooper, a converted tight end, catches the ball better than incumbent backup Leach.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Bubba Franks. Backups — Donald Lee, David Martin, Tory Humphrey, Zac Alcorn.

The tight ends won't be purely window dressing in McCarthy's version of the West Coast. For Franks, coming off an injury-marred season, that means topping his career-best numbers of 54 catches for 442 yards in 2002 should be doable, even if his forte will remain as a red-zone threat. Lee was one of the few receivers who earned Favre's trust last year, catching 33 passes, and knows how to get open between the 20s. The underachieving Martin has managed to keep a job for five years in Green Bay, but there's no guarantee he'll stay for a sixth, especially with the intriguing Humphrey and undrafted rookie Alcorn making strides in the off-season.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson. Backups — Rod Gardner, Marc Boerigter, Greg Jennings, Cory Rodgers, Chad Lucas, Ruvell Martin, Leo Bookman.

McCarthy plans to give Favre as many weapons as possible and keep six receivers when camp breaks in late August. Other than the dependable Driver, who was rewarded with a four-year, $17 million contract extension in May, Favre can't be sure of what he'll have at his disposal. There's a huge void to be filled in the starting lineup after the Packers caved in to Pro Bowler Javon Walker's trade demand and jettisoned their deep threat to Denver on the first day of the draft. Ferguson gets the early nod to jump up to No. 2, but the second-round pick in 2001 has failed in previous years to establish himself as a starter and he just as easily could be cut by camp's conclusion. Former first-round draftee Gardner was re-signed after being a serviceable late-season pickup last year. Free-agent addition Boerigter, likewise, brings a veteran presence to a young corps and is a tall target for Favre. It might not be long before Jennings, taken in the second round this year, joins Driver in the lineup. The Western Michigan product is on the short side at 5-foot-11, but he's quick out of his breaks and has adjusted well to the complexities of the pro level. Lucas has to get his legs back under him after starring in NFL Europe during the spring. The 6-4 Martin, a first-year player, jumped out in off-season workouts with his pass-catching ability.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG Daryn Colledge, C Scott Wells, RG Jason Spitz, RT Mark Tauscher. Backups — T Adrian Klemm, Will Whitticker, Tony Moll; G Junius Coston; C Chris White.

At least the Packers won't have to address the perimeter of the line, where they're set for a seventh season with Clifton and Tauscher as the bookends. Clifton missed all off-season workouts after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery but will be cleared for the start of camp. The interior of the line will be under the gun, where two rookies (Colledge and Spitz) could be starting. Colledge, a second-round pick, has settled in at left guard since the post-draft minicamp and reminds some of ex-Packer Mike Wahle for his athleticism, know-how and feisty attitude. Still, Colledge is playing guard for the first time after starting at left tackle for four years at Boise State. At about 315 pounds, Spitz is on the heavy side for what the coaches would like in their inside guys for the zone-blocking scheme, but the third-round draftee plays with a mean streak and has the nod over Coston entering camp. Wells is undersized at 6-2 and about 300 pounds, but his agility and leverage on blocks and intelligence make him a good fit to replace free-agent departure Mike Flanagan at center. Klemm and the hefty Whitticker, the starting guards at the outset of last season, have a fight on their hands to make the team. The season-ending loss of tackle/guard Kevin Barry to a ruptured quadriceps in May impacts the depth of the unit.


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