Making Strides

Ten days into free agency, the Vikings are the only team in the NFC North to actually improve itself. While being aggressive early, the Vikings have added talent, while the other teams in the division have either spun their wheels or taken a step backward.

The initial flurry of free-agent signing activity has slowed, as teams have stepped up with blank checks to play the players that they most covet on the free-agent market and have made their statement about trying to improve themselves heading into 2008. If the early returns are any indication, the Vikings have clearly made the biggest impact in free agency of any of the NFC North teams.

For the Vikings, it has been all about upgrading and replacement. The biggest name thus far has been Bernard Berrian, who signed a lucrative deal with the Vikings, and perhaps just as importantly, took away a player from the division rival Bears. A couple of weeks before the free-agent period began, it appeared the Bears were going to simply let Berrian hit the market without putting up much in the way of a fight to keep him. However, in the final days before the start of free agency, Chicago stepped up with a substantial offer to its wide receiver, only to be rebuffed. That was addition by subtraction in two respects – Berrian replaces former first-round bust Troy Williamson and took away the Bears' top deep threat.

Madieu Williams is also viewed as an upgrade over 2007 starter Dwight Smith. Reunited with Leslie Frazier, many of the NFL experts agree that the Vikings made a strong signing to get a young, aggressive safety that can play opposite veteran Darren Sharper in the Vikings secondary. Their other two signings – fullback Thomas Tapeh and RB/return man Maurice Hicks – also address needs the Vikings knew they would have. Although Tony Richardson made the Pro Bowl last year, the Vikings viewed Tapeh as a younger, stronger version of Richardson that not only came at a lower price, but a player with experience in the Eagles' version of the West Coast Offense Brad Childress brought to the Vikings. Hicks replaces Mewelde Moore as a third-down back and gives the Vikings their first true return specialist in years after almost a decade of simply throwing people at the job that had little to no previous experience.

While it can be argued that the Vikings have upgraded themselves over the past 10 days, the same is more difficult to argue for the other three teams. The Packers have signed nobody in free agency and lost Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre, leaving many to speculate that the team will be sliding back to the competition, as the period of mourning continues.

The Bears' only big splash in free agency was to re-sign linebacker Lance Briggs, a decision most felt was required if the Bears didn't want to repeat as the last-place finisher in the division a year after going to the Super Bowl. Aside from that, their only free-agent signings have been wide receivers Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd, a pair of wideouts discarded by their former teams and a clear step down from the 2007 starting tandem of Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad.

As for the Lions, they continue to spend money, but they made more news for trading away their disgruntled stars. A year ago at this time, it was Dre Bly who wanted out and the Lions got fleeced in a trade that sent them Tatum Bell and George Foster – neither of whom panned out whatsoever. This year, it was Shaun Rogers who was moved – much to the delight of the interior offensive linemen of the other teams in the NFC North. He has been replaced by Chuck Darby, who doesn't bring the fear of God into opposing offensive coordinators.

At first look, it would appear that the Vikings have improved themselves in free agency – not tremendously, but somewhat – while the other three teams have either been in a holding pattern or taking a step backward. Without Favre, Rogers and Berrian, three of the impact players of the division are no longer concerns for the Vikings, which has made the free-agent period, for one reason or another, a successful one for the Vikings and their fans.

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