NFC North Offensive Needs, Strengths Analysis

The Vikings' needs are pretty well known by their fans, but what about the needs of their divisional competitors? See where the Bears, Lions and Packers could use a boost in free agency and their potential losses.


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

Grossman is an unrestricted free agent whose chances of returning are 50-50. The Bears won't pay him starting money but would welcome him back at a moderate price to compete for the job. He was benched after a poor start but played much better, though not great, when he got a second chance later in the season. After two years of sitting, Orton finally got another chance to start the final three games and showed enough to be a contender for the No. 1 job next season. He has the best chance of any of the quarterbacks returning next season. Griese is too expensive to keep as a No. 3, so if Grossman re-signs, Griese is gone, unless he takes a pay cut. He's still a decent backup capable of managing a game but unlikely to be a difference maker.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Cedric Benson, FB Jason McKie. Backups — RB Adrian Peterson, RB Garrett Wolfe, FB Lousaka Polite.

Benson was a major disappointment for most of the season, averaging 3.0 yards per carry through the first nine games with no runs longer than 16 yards. He seemed to find a rhythm in Games 10 and 11, averaging 7.0 yards per carry, but then suffered a season-ending fractured ankle. It wasn't nearly enough to guarantee him the starting job next season, but he will be in the mix. Peterson is a competent third-down back with solid receiving skills, but he's nothing special as a runner and not the guy you want starting. Wolfe showed some wiggle and quickness, mostly as a receiver out of the backfield. He tended to get engulfed between the tackles, although he has enough speed and quickness to get the corner on a team with a decent o-line. McKie is a solid blocker, period. Polite is about the same and can contribute on special teams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Desmond Clark. Backups — Greg Olsen, John Gilmore.

Despite the presence of a talented first-round pick (Olsen), Clark held on to his job and had one of the best seasons of his nine-year career. His 545 receiving yards were third best on the team, and his 44 catches were fourth. If Clark can maintain the same level of play, the Bears will utilize even more two-TE sets next season because Olsen looks like a star with the ability to stretch the field and the athleticism and sticky hands to take the ball away in a crowd. Gilmore does most of the dirty work (blocking).

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Bernard Berrian, Muhsin Muhammad. Backups — Devin Hester, Rashied Davis, Mark Bradley.

Berrian probably won't be back, although his departure would leave the Bears severely short-handed at wideout. They could make an effort to bring him back but won't pay him as a star, and he might not want to come back to an offense with a lot of holes to fill. Muhammad is clearly on the decline and no longer close to a No. 1, but he still makes some tough catches and is physical and a good-sized target. Hester is a work in progress who has shown flashes of greatness but is not a quick study. Davis is tough but small and not that fast. He's a decent No. 4. Bradley seems to have all the physical tools but, after three years, he hasn't figured out how to use them.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT John Tait, LG John St. Clair, C Olin Kreutz, RG Roberto Garza, RT Fred Miller. Backups — G Ruben Brown, G Terrence Metcalf, G/C Josh Beekman, G/C Anthony Oakley.

Most of the offensive troubles can be traced to this overaged, underachieving unit that is in dire need of an infusion of young talent. It was supposed to be a cohesive unit because of the abundance of experience, but the Bears were plagued by false starts all season and neither the pass protection nor run blocking were adequate. Brown started the first eight games at LG before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery, which could end his long, illustrious career. He's a free agent and will be 36 before next season starts. Metcalf had been groomed as a replacement for six years but was a bust when he got his chance to replace Brown and wound up benched in favor of St. Clair, a journeyman backup tackle and not a long-term solution. Tait is OK at LT but would be better off on the right side, although that means the Bears would need to draft or sign a standout LT since there are no prospects on the roster. Kreutz is still outstanding, although he wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time in seven years. Garza is solid but nothing special, and the 34-year-old Miller needs to be replaced. He's become increasingly susceptible to speed. None of the backups are potential starters with the possible exception of Beekman, who never got a chance as a rookie.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Jon Kitna. Backups — J.T. O'Sullivan, Dan Orlovsky. Injured reserve — Drew Stanton.

Kitna became the first quarterback in Lions history to post back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. He threw for 4,208 yards last season, second most in team history. He threw for 4,068 this season, third most in team history. He said the coaches consistently gave him high grades. But he should have thrown for a lot of yards as much as offensive coordinator Mike Martz passed the ball, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio was unimpressive again. It was 21-to-22 last season. It was 18-to-20 this year. More was expected, considering the additions of wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Shaun McDonald. Kitna continued to take a ton of sacks. He took 63 last season, 51 this season. A lot of that is on Martz's system and the offensive line. But some of that falls on him for not feeling the rush and getting rid of the ball quickly enough. His play fell off toward the end of the season. He is expected to return as the starter even though he is 35 and Martz is gone. Coach Rod Marinelli loves his leadership. But the Lions need to develop Stanton or Orlovsky. Stanton, a second-round pick last year, went on injured reserve early in training camp with a knee problem but is fine now. Orlovsky, a fifth-round pick in 2005, virtually hasn't played. O'Sullivan isn't expected to figure in the Lions' plans without Martz.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Kevin Jones. Backups — T.J. Duckett, Aveion Cason, Tatum Bell. Injured reserve — Brian Calhoun.

Last year, the Lions finished last in rushing. This year, they finished second to last. But that's more because Martz didn't run the ball than because the Lions couldn't run the ball. The Lions were at their best this season when they were balanced, like during their three-game winning streak and in their one-point loss to Dallas. Jones couldn't be more frustrated. He busted his behind all offseason to return from a serious foot injury, and he came back in Week 3, earlier than most people expected. But he didn't get the ball all that much. Then he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December. He faces yet another long offseason of rehabilitation. Duckett was one of the biggest mysteries of the season. He seemed to run well whenever he ran the ball, but Martz gave him the ball hardly at all. Bell was acquired as an insurance policy for Jones. As Jones' role increased, Bell's role decreased. He asked for a trade — and never saw the field again. The Lions plan to run the ball more with offensive line coach Jim Colletto taking over as offensive coordinator, but the Lions have issues at running back. Jones is hurt. Duckett's contract is up. He might consider re-signing now that Martz is gone. Cason was a favorite role player of Martz's and the Lions' plans for his future are unclear. Bell's contract is up, and he is not expected back. Calhoun, a surprise third-round pick in 2006, has struggled to find a role and stay healthy.

TIGHT ENDS/FULLBACKS: Starters — TE Sean McHugh, FB Jon Bradley. Backups — TE John Owens, FB Casey Fitzsimmons. Injured reserve — TE Dan Campbell.

When Campbell went on injured reserve with an elbow injury, it was a bigger loss for the Lions than most people realized. Campbell showed last season he could make big catches as well as block effectively. Without him, the Lions lost a weapon downfield and stability on the right side of the line. Sean McHugh averaged 14.8 yards per catch, second only to Johnson's 15.8. But he caught only 17 passes. He was involved sporadically. Casey Fitzsimmons, more of a fullback, was involved even less. Neither blocked as well as Campbell could have. The only good thing about Campbell's injury was that he had most of the season to heal properly. He should be able to return next season at full strength. Bradley, a former defensive tackle, developed into a strong lead blocker and should have more of a role with more of a running game.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson. Backups — Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey, Troy Walters, Brandon Middleton.

Williams led the NFC in receiving yards and Furrey led the conference in receptions last season. Their numbers were expected to decrease this season with the additions of Johnson and McDonald, and they did. Williams didn't get a chance to make as many big plays with defenses taking away the deep ball, and he suffered a knee injury in December. A lot of the balls that went to Furrey last season went to McDonald this season, and McDonald ended up leading the team in catches (79) and yards (943). Expectations were sky-high for Johnson after the Lions drafted him second overall, and he didn't live up to them. When the ball was in his hands, he made big plays. But sometimes Martz didn't throw to him, and other times he simply dropped the ball. A back injury bothered him most of the season, and he struggled with Martz's complex system at times. Now that Jim Colletto is the offensive coordinator, the Lions are expected to run the ball much more. But their strength is still their wide receivers, and they still need to stretch the field and be explosive. Williams and Johnson are the Lions' young guns — big, dynamic threats on the outside. McDonald and Furrey are small, quick, veteran slot receivers. Walters and Middleton provide good depth. Not that there isn't room for improvement, though. Williams needs to study more and make fewer mental mistakes. Johnson also needs to absorb the offense better and stop dropping catchable balls with the game in the balance.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Jeff Backus, LG Edwin Mulitalo, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT Damien Woody. Backups — G Blaine Saipaia, G Manny Ramirez, G/T Barry Stokes, T George Foster. Injured reserve — Frank Davis, Jonathan Scott.

Last year, the Lions allowed 63 sacks, most in the NFL. This year, they allowed 54, third most. Martz put a ton of pressure on the linemen. He didn't run the ball, allowing the opposing defensive line to tee off. He didn't give much help in pass protection, leaving linemen vulnerable. They weren't up to the task. Backus struggled while playing through injuries. Mulitalo dropped weight and played well. Raiola played consistently well. Woody dropped a lot of weight in the offseason and took a pay cut to stay in Detroit. Then he suffered a rib injury and lost the starting right guard job to Peterman. The coaches love Peterman's competitiveness, but he doesn't have Woody's athleticism. Foster was a major liability at right tackle, and the Lions couldn't find anyone to replace him — Scott got hurt twice, Saipaia was overmatched — until they tried Woody there. Woody, who hadn't played right tackle since high school, solidified the position. But it was too little, too late. Woody is set to be a free agent, and though he is open to returning, he wants to explore his options. If all is equal, he'll probably leave. The Lions need to shore up that spot. If the Lions become more of a physical running team next season, as expected, the line should at least look a little better. In theory.


QUARTERBACK: Starter — Brett Favre. Backups — Aaron Rodgers, Craig Nall.

The ball is in Favre's hands for coming back in 2008. He was leaning late in the season toward giving it another season with a young offense on the rise, but after breaking all of the league's premier passing records and a Super Bowl victory already in his possession, the 38-year-old has little else to accomplish. Still, the ultra competitor likely won't go out on a bad note, after his poorly thrown pass in overtime was intercepted and turned into the game-winning field goal by the Giants in the NFC Championship Game. Favre turned back the clock this season in a profound way. More often than not, he played within the confines of head coach Mike McCarthy's low-risk West Coast system and prospered with three-step drops and short throws. Favre had a career-high 66.5 completion percentage in the regular season, cut his interceptions to 15 and, thanks to a workout program with a personal trainer in the offseason, was elusive to avoid many a sack. The notorious arm strength hasn't escaped Favre. Heir apparent Rodgers didn't let his third season of waiting in the wings go to waste. He is much more comfortable in the offense, is a polished passer and showed he is ready for the starting gig, whenever that time comes, by coolly rallying the Packers to a near-victory at Dallas late in the season after Favre was injured. Green Bay went most of the season with two quarterbacks until re-signing Nall to cover itself when Rodgers missed time with a hamstring injury. Nall isn't inclined to come back as the third wheel.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — RB Ryan Grant, FB Korey Hall. Backups - RB Brandon Jackson, RB Vernand Morency, FB John Kuhn. Injured reserve — RB DeShawn Wynn, RB Noah Herron, FB Ryan Powdrell.

The season ended as miserable as it started for Green Bay's running game. Second-half godsend Grant mustered just 29 yards in the NFC title game, which evoked nightmares of the team's inability to get anything going on the ground at the outset of the season. The Packers still might not be out of the woods heading into next season, but the unexpected emergence of Grant is something to build on. The former Giant, acquired in a trade for a sixth-round draft pick before the season started, was the fourth starter of choice but proved to be the best fit with his combination of ambitious burst, keen vision and tenacious cutting in the zone-blocking scheme. Morency, Jackson and Wynn squandered their starting opportunities with injuries, allowing Grant to step in at midseason and rack up 956 yards with eight touchdowns. His encore was even better, going for a franchise-record 201 yards and three TDs in the divisional playoff win over Seattle. Jackson, a second-round draft pick, wasn't ready to be the lead guy at the start of the season, but he gradually found his way late in the season and has room to grow. Morency, the anointed starter before he suffered a knee injury on the first day of training camp, is nothing more than a serviceable third-down back. Wynn and Herron will have a fight on their hands in the offseason to try to regain a roster spot. The young duo of Hall, a converted linebacker, and Kuhn gained plenty of seasoning as lead blockers and wound up working in tandem late in the season in a wrinkle put in by McCarthy with an inverted wishbone.

TIGHT END: Starter — Donald Lee. Backups — Bubba Franks, Ryan Krause. Injured reserve — Tory Humphrey.

Lee didn't let go of the starting job handed to him last offseason and established himself as one of the better downfield threats at tight end in the league. He was second on the team with six touchdown catches and ranked third with 48 receptions for 575 yards. Conversely, three-time Pro Bowler Franks languished through a season in which he lost the top job after seven years, sustained a knee injury in Week 6 that cost him eight games and finished with a career-low 18 catches with three touchdowns. Franks has only 68 receptions and four TDs in the last three seasons, all of which are in the midst of a seven-year, $28 million contract extension he received in 2005. He might not be long for Green Bay anymore, especially if young prospect Humphrey can rebound from the season-ending broken fibula he suffered on the first day of training camp. Krause is considered a better receiver than blocker but had only two catches after being promoted from the practice squad at midseason.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — FL Donald Driver, SE Greg Jennings. Backups — James Jones, Koren Robinson, Ruvell Martin, Shaun Bodiford. Injured reserve — Carlyle Holiday.

The collection of Driver, Jennings, Jones, Robinson and Martin inherited nicknames of "Big Five" and "Fab Five" with McCarthy's deploying them (and occasionally Lee at one of the spots) in five-receiver sets. Jennings, though not regarded as No. 1 on the depth chart, was the leader of the big band that topped the league charts with nearly 2,300 yards after the catch in the regular season. Jennings had a knack for making big plays out of Favre's short throws across the middle, averaging 17.4 yards per catch and leading the club with 12 touchdown receptions despite missing the first two games with a hamstring injury. Jennings benefited from Driver's remaining the focal point of defensive schemes, periodically drawing double teams. Driver shook loose for another 80-catch, 1,000-yard season. Yet, until he sprinted for a team-record 90-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the NFC title game, Driver had only two TDs in the regular season and none after Week 3. Jones pushed Jennings for a starting job with a dazzling preseason and was a home-run threat as the No. 3 receiver with his quickness in separation, but he wasn't much help down the stretch. Martin (four), a tall target in the red zone, and Robinson, who returned from a one-year suspension at midseason, combined for five TDs in situational roles.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LT Chad Clifton, LG Daryn Colledge, C Scott Wells, RG Jason Spitz, RT Mark Tauscher. Backups — T/G Tony Moll, G Allen Barbre, T Orrin Thompson. Injured reserve — G/T Junius Coston, G Tony Palmer, G Tyson Walter.

The starting line with which the Packers ended the season was the same from when it opened the schedule in early September. Yet, injuries and inconsistencies in the interior prompted shuffling at the guard spots on an almost weekly basis. Consequently, the running game suffered until Grant entered the picture and the execution by the linemen finally percolated the last couple months. Spitz was the best of the guard options the team had, though Colledge responded well upon his return to the lineup following a late-season demotion. Both guard spots figure to be open for competition, with Coston and solid run blocker Palmer returning from injuries. Barbre, who trained all season at left guard after playing tackle in college, also has a chance to jump up next season. Wells was as steady as ever. Venerable bookends Clifton, going to his first Pro Bowl, and Tauscher were less than 100 percent physically for most of the season, but they started every game and were the catalysts in the line's allowing only 19 sacks in the regular season (15 for Favre).

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