Around the NFC North
Almost before the ink was dry late last week on the monster contracts signed by free agents Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, fans wondered how the Bears could upgrade the free safety position.
Bears coach Lovie Smith has been wondering the same thing since the 2009 season ended.
"We need to improve our safety position, period," Smith said. "Maybe by adding a couple guys. We haven't been pleased with the production we've gotten."
There are several ways the Bears could go. They could use their first draft pick, 76th overall, to possibly get a starting-caliber free safety. But, as with any draft pick, that's a gamble.
If the Bears want more of a sure thing, free agency is the way to go, but it's also a lot more expensive than a third-round pick would be.
The best option, in terms of talent, is the Rams' O.J. Atogwe. In his five NFL seasons, Atogwe has been involved in 41 takeaways, more than anyone in the league. If head coach Lovie Smith, who has preached takeaways from Day One, were to create a free safety for his Cover-2 defense, it would be the 28-year-old Atogwe.
All Bears safeties combined had a total of one interception last season. Atogwe had just two in 2009, but he had a total of 13 picks in the two previous seasons.
The former second-round pick had started 60 straight games for the Rams before a shoulder injury knocked him out of the final four games last season. The injury required surgery, but Atogwe's rehab is on schedule, and he's expected to be back well before the start of training camp.
The Bears would not owe the Rams any compensation for Atogwe, since he was tendered at a low level. But St. Louis retains the right to match any offer, and it would take a lucrative bid to get them to fold. It's assumed that the Rams wouldn't let one of their best players go without a fight, but it's hard to figure out what the team and its new owner are doing lately.
Atogwe would not come cheaply. Antrel Rolle last week became the NFL's highest paid safety by signing a five-year, $37 million deal with the Giants that includes $15 million in guaranteed money, and Atogwe is worth that much at least.
"He's a better player than Rolle," one NFL source said of Atogwe. "The Rams say they want to keep him, but he's more than willing to move on if the money's there."
There are cheaper options available, especially if the Bears are willing to settle for a quick fix.
The Saints' Darren Sharper is coming off postseason knee surgery, and he's 34, but he tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions last season, three of which he returned for touchdowns. He should get more than the $1.7 he received last year but would probably cost less than half of Rolle's annual salary.
Cornerback Lito Sheppard had six interceptions and 13 passes defensed in 2006 for the Eagles, but he was cut by the Jets last week, before he was due a $10 million roster bonus. Sheppard would only make sense if the Bears revisited the idea of moving cornerback Charles Tillman to safety, which Smith has vehemently opposed in the past.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's real meticulous when it comes to details of how you run plays, especially in the passing game. He's real meticulous when he's helping hone the skills of the quarterback. He's real focused on details, so I think he'll add a lot of discipline. Not that there wasn't any before, but he'll bring more discipline to the offensive group." — Recently acquired, free-agent TE Brandon Manumaleuna, who played for Mike Martz for five years in St. Louis, discussing the Bears' new offensive coordinator.
Perhaps we should have known the Lions would sign wide receiver Nate Burleson as a free agent.
Late last season, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was asked if he was surprised how defenses paid so much attention to wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"No, I've seen Randy get it," said Linehan, who once was Randy Moss' offensive coordinator in Minnesota. "I'm sure when they do their PowerPoint presentation getting ready for the game, they're adding not just one but maybe two people extra — three total people — to defend him."
Linehan said the Lions needed "some kind of eraser" to wipe out that game plan.
"Something has to give there because you can't keep trying to get a guy the football that's being triple-covered and not feel good about some of the other things we've got to do," Linehan said. "I think the players know that's going to be a big part of our goals in the off-season."
Burleson had spent the first two years of his NFL career with Linehan and Moss in Minnesota. His best NFL season remains 2004, when he caught 68 passes for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns for the Vikings. About a year ago, as the Lions' new coaching staff was preparing for free agency and the draft, Linehan kept bringing up the same guy.
"So many times he'd say, ‘We really need a guy like Nate Burleson,' and, ‘Nate Burleson had this,' and, ‘Hey, this is the way I used Nate Burleson,' " Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "It got to the point with saying, ‘Well, let's not get a guy like Nate Burleson. Let's go after Nate Burleson.' "
No wonder, then, that as soon as the free agent market opened at 9 p.m. PT March 4, Burleson received a text message from Schwartz, a call from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and then another call from Linehan — who had flown to Seattle to see him.
"I remember being in Minnesota, and they were just rolling every coverage towards Randy Moss," said Burleson, who broke into the NFL under Linehan in 2003 and ‘04. "They were putting linebackers in front of him, a cornerback over the top and a safety running over at the snap of the ball — two or three guys just about every play.
"And Scott, he would preach to me, ‘You've got to get open. I know you're young. I know you just got here. But you have to get open. Do what you did in college and make plays.' "
That's what Linehan will be preaching to Burleson again now.
"This is a unique offense from the standpoint of a weapon like Calvin Johnson and a quarterback like Matt Stafford, and we need to round that out," Schwartz said. "We need to round it out with another guy that can make a play, another guy that can move the chains for us and can make defenses pay when they want to trick coverage up and they want to try to take Calvin Johnson out of the game plan.
"This is the first step to making sure we don't see those kind of defenses again."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "All due respect to Kid Rock ... Detroit has another American badass." — Lions coach Jim Schwartz, introducing defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Consider general manager Ted Thompson to be one up on the scoreboard early in free agency.
Although the Packers suffered a notable loss when Aaron Kampman bolted for the Jacksonville Jaguars, they held on to two more key players in left tackle Chad Clifton and free safety Nick Collins.
Clifton wasn't interested in leaving Green Bay, where he has been a starter since his rookie season in 2000, never mind that he visited with the Washington Redskins on the opening day of free agency March 5.
That purported courtship probably helped Clifton's financial cause with the Packers, who meted out a three-year contract that is worth about $19.5 million. The deal is loaded with all sorts of roster bonuses, including an upfront payout of more than $6.3 million.
"I can finish my career here in Green Bay, and that's what I really wanted to do," said Clifton, a Pro Bowl player who will be 34 in June.
Clifton's signing March 6 came a day before former teammate Kampman landed a lucrative four-year, $24 million deal from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The writing was on the wall last season for Kampman to go elsewhere after playing eight years with the Packers. He wasn't happy to be moved from defensive end, where he was a two-time Pro Bowl selection, to outside linebacker in Green Bay's new 3-4 scheme.
Kampman will return to end with the Jaguars.
"I'm excited to put my hand back on the ground, very excited," he said. "I have a fire burning to do that."
The Packers have plenty of depth at linebacker to compensate for the loss of Kampman. Brad Jones figures to be given the first shot to win the full-time job at left outside linebacker after he started eight games there as a rookie last season, including the final seven after Kampman suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Meanwhile, the Packers are in the process of taking care of one of the cornerstones of their defense.
They are in negotiations with Collins, a Pro Bowl player the last two seasons, on a long-term contract after he showed good faith in the team by signing its one-year, $3.3 million qualifying offer as a restricted free agent.
"He is a marvelous athlete," Thompson said. "He's got range. He's got hands. He's got anticipation. He's a good tackler. He's a good player. He's one of the core guys that we want to have."
Collins is expected to participate in the team's offseason program, which begins March 15, after he skipped some of the voluntary workouts last spring in protest of not having a contract extension.
Incumbent left guard Daryn Colledge could do something similar this offseason. Colledge, a restricted free agent, isn't happy that the team made him a qualifying offer at only the second-round level.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This team has so much talent from top to bottom, a ton of young talent on both sides of the ball. That's undeniable, and it would be foolish not to want to be a part of that." — Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton, on re-signing with the Packers as an unrestricted free agent March 6.
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