NFC North Defensive 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 defensive boost in free agency and their potential losses.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LDE Adewale Ogunleye, DT Tommie Harris, NT Darwin Walker, RDE Mark Anderson. Backups — DE Alex Brown, DT Anthony Adams, NT Dusty Dvoracek, DL Israel Idonije, DT Antonio Garay, DE Dan Bazuin.

Ogunleye had his best of four seasons in Chicago, leading the team with nine sacks and the linemen with 70 tackles. Harris, a standout at the three technique, made his third straight Pro Bowl because he had seven sacks in the first half of the season but just one in the second half. He was ineffective for long stretches, although he played through the kind of injuries that sidelined other less-committed players. Walker did not play through injuries after getting a big signing bonus in a renegotiated deal, and he was a non-factor most of the season. Walker is due a $5.2 million roster bonus in March that would be a ridiculous waste of money given his production in 2007. Anderson was given Brown's starting position in training camp but suffered through a sophomore slump, as his sacks dropped from 12 to five. Brown is a better two-way player, and although the Bears play three in their DE rotation, Brown should be the starter. Dvoracek is a force as a run stuffer and earned a starting job, but he played just one game before a knee injury ended his season. He could be back as the starter next season. Adams was paid a lot less than Walker but was a much better player and can play both the 3-technique and the nose. Idonije's versatility makes him invaluable. He plays tackle and end in addition to special teams. Garay is a backup at best, while Bazuin is an unknown quantity who barely got on the field before landing on injured reserve.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer. Backups — Jamar Williams, Rod Wilson, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Nick Roach.

Briggs is history and Williams is slated to take his spot. Briggs has made three straight Pro Bowls but won't get the money he wants from the Bears, who have been impressed with Williams' smarts and versatility in two years as an understudy at all three LB spots. Urlacher's demise was greatly exaggerated. Except for a brief slump when he was hampered by an arthritic back, he played at or near his Pro Bowl level. But he didn't get his seventh trip to Hawaii, although he may have deserved it more than Briggs, considering he had the rare combination of five sacks and five interceptions. The assignment-sound and reliable Hillenmeyer was given more responsibility in nickel situations last season and he is a solid starter, even if he isn't in the same class as his LB mates. After Williams, the other 2007 backups are all primarily special teams players, but very good ones. Pro Bowl coverage ace Ayanbadejo is an unrestricted free agent with one foot out the door.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Nathan Vasher, SS Brandon McGowan, FS Danieal Manning. Backups — S Mike Brown, CB Trumaine McBride, CB Ricky Manning Jr., SS Adam Archuleta, CB Corey Graham, S Kevin Payne.

The corners form an excellent tandem when they're healthy, but that wasn't the case in ‘07, when Vasher, an excellent ball athlete and interceptor, missed 12 games with a nagging groin injury. The big and physical Tillman is well suited to play press coverage in the Bears' Cover 2 and is excellent in run support. Safety was a disaster last season, starting with the season-ending knee injury to 2005 Pro Bowler Brown in Game 1. Trade acquisition Archuleta was a bust, a liability in coverage and an inconsistent tackler. The Bears would love to have a healthy Brown back, but he's missed 43 of the past 64 games with a variety of injuries and will have to accept less money to return. McGowan turned out to be a physical presence, but he's still suspect in coverage and has an injury history, too. Manning is big, fast and can be physical, but his play is way too inconsistent for someone with his tools. He needs to take another step next season or step aside. McBride was a most pleasant surprise, playing much better than his size and draft status would indicate. Graham has a future, at least as a special-teamer, where he was excellent. Payne impressed with his athleticism and heavy-hitting, and he could challenge for a starting job soon.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Robbie Gould, P Brad Maynard, LS Patrick Mannelly, KOR Devin Hester, PR Devin Hester.

Gould's FG kicking was only slightly less accurate (31 of 36) in 2007 than it was a year earlier (32 of 36) when he went to the Pro Bowl. Maynard was his usual consistent, accurate self. Mannelly remains as steady as clockwork, while Hester was arguably the Bears' MVP, breaking his own NFL record with six return touchdowns, four on punts and two on kickoffs, and he is already arguably the greatest returner in NFL history.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — DLE Jared DeVries, UT Cory Redding, NT Shaun Rogers, DRE Dewayne White. Backups — DE Kalimba Edwards, DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, DE Corey Smith, DT Shaun Cody, DT Langston Moore.

Marinelli said the defensive line needed to drive the franchise, and the Lions got off to a strong start. When the Lions were 6-2, they had 24 sacks, tied for fourth in the NFL. But during their six-game losing streak that eliminated them from the playoffs, they had only eight sacks. Rogers stood out during the first half of the season, but then he disappeared when the Lions needed him most. He was overweight and wore down over the course of the season. Redding always provided leadership and a full effort, but he didn't provide production. After racking up eight sacks in 11 games last season and landing a big contract, he had only one sack this season. White was a good free-agent pickup, and DeVries and Moore were valuable in their roles. But Edwards was a huge disappointment. He had only three sacks for the second straight season. He went from starting right end to out of uniform altogether. Cody hasn't developed as hoped, and Alama-Francis, a raw project, made virtually no impact as a rookie. Edwards is almost certainly gone. The big question mark is Rogers.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Ernie Sims, MLB Paris Lenon, SLB Boss Bailey. Backups — Teddy Lehman, Alex Lewis, Buster Davis, Anthony Cannon.

Sims is just what was advertised when the Lions drafted him ninth overall in 2006. He flies all over the field making tackles. The rest, though, needs to be stronger. Lenon is not the prototypical Tampa Two middle linebacker the Lions need and might move to the strong side. Bailey didn't seem to make enough plays. Lewis made more of an impact on special teams than on defense. Lehman was awfully quiet and hasn't been the same player since suffering a major foot injury. Davis, a first-day draft pick last year cut by Arizona before the season, is an intriguing prospect.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — RCB Fernando Bryant, LCB Travis Fisher, FS Gerald Alexander, SS Kenoy Kennedy. Backups — CB Keith Smith, CB Ramzee Robinson, S Greg Blue, S Patrick Body, CB Dovonte Edwards. Injured reserve — S Daniel Bullocks, CB Stanley Wilson, S Idrees Bashir, LaMarcus Hicks.

The Lions ranked second to last against the pass, and they allowed the biggest completion percentage against by far. Some of that is because the rush wasn't good enough. But a lot of it was because the coverage was poor. Like the defensive line, the secondary made big plays in the first half and then faded. When the Lions were 6-2, they led the league with 14 interceptions. During their six-game losing streak, they had only two. Bryant struggled with injuries again. He got through the season but expects to be gone, even though he has two years left on his contract. The Lions badly need help at corner. Wilson and Smith have not developed as hoped. Kennedy hasn't been the fierce hitter he was reputed to be when he left Denver, and his tackling was poor. Alexander struggled at times when pressed into service as a starter as a rookie. The Lions missed Bullocks, who should be back from a knee injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jason Hanson, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KOR Aveion Cason, PR Troy Walters.

Hanson's season will be remembered for one kick — the field-goal attempt he missed, at home, on turf, from just 35 yards, at crunch time against Dallas. That miss might have cost the Lions the game and a shot at the playoffs. Harris had an excellent season, with 26 punts downed inside the 20 and only five touchbacks. Cason returned kicks well. Walters was unspectacular on punt returns, but Marinelli wanted to play it safe. No one noticed snapper Don Muhlbach — perfect.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — DLE Aaron Kampman, DRE Cullen Jenkins, DT Corey Williams, NT Ryan Pickett. Backups — DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DE Michael Montgomery, DE Jason Hunter, DT Justin Harrell, DT Daniel Muir, DT Conrad Bolston. Injured reserve — DT Johnny Jolly, DT Colin Cole.

General manager Ted Thompson cut across the grain in keeping 11 defensive linemen at the outset of the season. The strength in numbers was needed because season-ending shoulder and arm injuries sustained by Jolly and Cole, respectively, in late November sapped the unmatched depth of the unit. Jolly, a beast starting alongside Pickett, could miss most of the offseason as he recovers from surgery. The significant losses contributed to the Packers' not being stout against the run the final month and a half. Green Bay has to have Pickett, who nursed a groin injury before the playoffs, on the field. Williams is the team's marquee free-agent-to-be and should command a lot of interest that could price him out of returning. That would mean a greater dependency on Harrell, the team's first-round draft pick in 2007 who was a disappointment as he missed most of the season for injury reasons. The tapped-out line wasn't effective down the stretch in getting to the quarterback. Linemen accounted for 31.5 of the team's 36 sacks in the regular season, but the defense was shut out in four of the last five games. Repeat Pro Bowl selection Kampman and situational pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila had productive seasons in combining for 21.5 sacks. Jenkins, though, was a disappointment after being rewarded with a four-year, $16 million contract in the offseason. He had only one sack, though he fought through a slew of injuries to be somewhat disruptive with nine pass breakups.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Brady Poppinga, MLB Nick Barnett, WLB A.J. Hawk. Backups — MLB Desmond Bishop, OLB Tracy White. Injured reserve — LB Abdul Hodge.

The strength of the defense is at linebacker, never mind that try-hard Poppinga is a liability for his lapses in pass coverage. The playmaking duo of Barnett and Hawk covered a lot of things up in covering a lot of area to track the football. Barnett turned in his best season in the five he's logged in the league, all as the starter in the middle. He led the team with 165 tackles (109 solo) and played with a vicious demeanor that rubbed many an opponent the wrong way, which probably cost him a deserving first trip to the Pro Bowl. Hawk, the team's top draft pick in 2006, has yet to have a breakthrough season, but he is precise and relentless in getting to the football. Since all three starters held up for the entire season, the lack of depth never became an issue. Bishop took his hard hits to special teams in his rookie season, but he will give the coaches pause to consider moving him outside and contend for a starting job. White will be a free agent but is worth bringing back because of his value on special teams. Hodge, a promising third-round draft pick in 2006, has been plagued by patellar tendinitis in both knees since his rookie season.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — RCB Al Harris, LCB Charles Woodson, SS Atari Bigby, FS Nick Collins. Backups — CB Tramon Williams, CB Will Blackmon, CB Frank Walker, CB Jarrett Bush, S Aaron Rouse, S Charlie Peprah. Injured reserve — S Tyrone Culver.

Harris was an unsuspecting goat in the season-ending loss to the Giants. His aggressive bump-and-run tactics were countered by Plaxico Burress, who pushed Harris aside and had a field day with 11 receptions and more than 150 receiving yards. Not the way Harris wants to head to Hawaii for his first Pro Bowl. Although he won more battles than he lost in taking the opponent's top receiver, Harris didn't play like the premier cover corner he's talked up to be in some circles. He had nine pass breakups and just two interceptions. Woodson had the better season (four INTs, 10 breakups), but advanced age and an assortment of nicks and bruises are slowing him down. This offseason shapes up to be a key one for Ted Thompson to prepare for the future and have guys ready to take over for 30-somethings Harris and Woodson. Green Bay has a gaggle of young prospects at cornerback and played Bush, Williams and Blackmon quite a bit in situational roles, but not one of them jumped out as starter ready. Blackmon has the biggest upside, but he's been besieged by one complication after another with his right foot. Walker, the lone acquisition by Thompson in free agency last year, offered little as a dime back and probably won't be re-signed. The situation is more stable at the safety spots. Although Collins is an established starter, his hold on the job at free safety might be no better than tenuous. The imposing Rouse shined with two interceptions as a three-game replacement for an injured Collins in the second half of the season. Bigby's starting role also was in jeopardy, until he came on like gangbusters late in the season and knocked ball carriers senseless with punishing hits. The first-year starter led the team with five interceptions and 11 pass breakups and was behind Barnett and Hawk with 121 tackles (95 solo).

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mason Crosby, P Jon Ryan, LS Rob Davis, KOR Koren Robinson, KOR/PR Tramon Williams, PR Will Blackmon.

Suffice it to say, the Packers didn't bring up the rear in the composite special-teams rankings for a third straight season. Their opportunistic units scored four touchdowns, with ace Tracy White setting the tone with a fumble recovery in the end zone in an opening-day win over Philadelphia. Williams and Blackmon each returned a punt for touchdowns. The infusion of young talent engendered reckless abandon in coverage, led by Jason Hunter's 25 tackles. Rookie Crosby was hardened by a laborious training-camp battle with incumbent Dave Rayner and led the league with 141 points, a franchise record for a kicker. His strong leg is an asset late in the season at Lambeau Field, though accuracy on field-goal kicks was an issue when the weather initially turned for the worst. Frigid, windy conditions didn't agree with Ryan, a Canadian incidentally, and his second NFL season didn't end so hot. He shortened his delivery to two steps in the offseason in an effort to improve get-off and hang times, which resulted in a modest improvement of two yards in his net average to 37.6. Davis, at 39, remains one of the best at his craft and would like to re-sign for another year if the team is willing to have him.

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