Around the NFC North
For most of Lovie Smith's tenure as the Bears head coach, the only constant at the safety positions has been change.
The last time the Bears went through a season with the same player at either safety spot for all 16 games was in 2004, when Mike Green made every start at strong safety. The revolving door has spun just as quickly at strong safety as it has at free. Since the start of the 2004 season there have been a combined 40 lineup changes at the safety positions — 20 at free and 20 at strong.
And the problem appears to be getting worse. Last year saw the most safety turnover in any of Smith's six seasons. There were 11 lineup changes, six at strong and five at free.
The Bears have browsed free agency for safety help but have yet to buy. So the search is expected to move to next month's draft, but they don't have a selection until the third round.
The Bears have had some success drafting safeties in later rounds but not much in terms of consistent, high-level production. Kevin Payne, a fifth-round pick in 2007, has started five games at free safety and 16 at strong safety. Craig Steltz, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has made minimal contributions, yet he started the final two games last season, one at each safety position. Chris Harris was a sixth-round pick in 2005, and Green was a seventh-rounder in 2000.
Several factors have accounted for the musical-chairs situation in the secondary, with inconsistent play and injuries at the top of the list. The Rams' O.J. Atogwe is the pearl of free-agent safeties this year. But he hasn't received much interest, primarily because snagging the restricted free agent would be expensive since the Rams are expected to match almost any offer, although that isn't a guarantee.
It's worth noting that, in addition to picking off 18 passes and forcing 14 fumbles in the past four years, Atogwe has started 60 of 64 games, providing productivity and durability. Atogwe is the kind of athlete with range and big-play ability that the Bears desire, and that kind of player might not be around by the time the 76th pick in the draft rolls around.
"We just ask that guy to do an awful lot," Smith said, "and you need to invest a little bit more into the safety position. We've hit well on some lower picks, but sometimes you need to invest a little bit more, whether that's through free agency or through higher draft picks."
There are four outstanding free safeties in this year's draft, but then there's a major drop-off in talent.
Tennessee's Eric Berry, Texas' Earl Thomas and USC's Taylor Mays are expected to be taken in the first 25 picks, and South Florida's Nate Allen could also sneak into the first round. After that the next true free safety might have only fifth-round value.
But there are a handful of strong safeties who could project to free and might be worth a third- or fourth-round pick, including Oregon's T.J. Ward, Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, South Carolina's Darian Stewart and Kansas' Darrell Stuckey.
"Right now everybody's looking for a more athletic safety," said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who has the final say on draft day.
"The demands of what they're being asked to do (are great), in coverage particularly (because) offenses are spreading defenses out. So teams are starting to look for more the athletic safeties, and in the last few years you're starting to see those players go higher in the draft.
"It's becoming a more and more difficult position to find and to play."
No one knows that better than the Bears.
Martin Mayhew is a man of mystery when it comes to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Lions' general manager has made it clear he would like to trade down. He has thrown out some other info to suit his purposes. But other than that, he's keeping his cards close to the vest.
"I've seen a lot of stuff written that I think is a little bit premature about what our thoughts are and who we're going to take and who we're down to and that kind of stuff," Mayhew said. "There's a lot of work to be done still."
Some of what has been written has been on the Lions' official Web site. The Lions have posted stories about visits by the apparent top candidates for the No. 2 pick: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung.
They wouldn't do that and then, say, draft Oklahoma left tackle Trent Williams, would they?
"You never know what we might do," Mayhew said. "That's one of the smart things about it."
Okung has not generated the buzz Suh and McCoy have. But teams generally are more comfortable paying a premium for a left tackle than they are for a defensive tackle, and Mayhew said Okung was a "tremendous talent" and it was "very possible" he has been underrated by the media.
Then he added this when asked if Okung clearly was the best left tackle in the draft: "I think big-picture, overall, taking everything into account, there are probably two guys that are the best two out there." He declined to go further.
Mayhew obviously thinks the smartest move would be to trade down if he can get enough in return for the pick.
"First of all, we don't have a desperate desire to move back," Mayhew said. "That's the first thing, because we're going to get a quality player there.
"But I think what happens is, you get a quality player at a premium price, whereas you might get a quality player later at a better price. If you believe that you want to take advantage of the opportunity to get value in the draft, it would make more sense to get more players at better prices than to get one player at a premium price."
Mayhew said he felt the Lions would receive an offer for the No. 2 pick based on his conversations with one team, but acknowledged they wouldn't necessarily take it.
"I feel confident that we'll have an opportunity to move back," Mayhew said. "Now, will that be an opportunity we want to take advantage of? Will it be a situation where we feel we'll get the appropriate value? I couldn't answer that question right now."
Asked if he also hoped to encourage more offers by making that comment, he said: "We'll see."
The common thinking is that a team would have to come up for a quarterback. Quarterback-needy teams include the Redskins at No. 4, the Seahawks at No. 6 and the Browns at No. 7. The Rams could take Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford No. 1 overall.
"It's going to be interesting to see the way it all shakes out," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Quarterbacks make people move at the top of the draft, and I think it will be interesting to see when it's all said and done how much interest there is in those guys and where we go with that second pick."
Asked if his trade-down opportunity depends on what the Rams do first, Mayhew said: "I didn't really get into that. By my way of thinking, if we go back, we have to have a comfort level with going back. It doesn't matter what happens ahead of us."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Injuries and inconsistencies conspired to put the Packers' offensive line in constant flux for most of last season. They used six different starting combinations.
Those same nuisances could rear their ugly heads again next season, but head coach Mike McCarthy feels the unit will be better equipped to handle any more upheaval.
"I know the competition along that line will be the best that we have had during my time in Green Bay," said McCarthy, in his fifth year on the job. "That's all you can ask for. You try to rotate them the right way, and you try to get that starting five."
McCarthy acknowledged at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., that keeping the same top five linemen intact for a full season — something that has eluded him in his tenure — isn't likely to happen in 2010, either.
The Packers rolled the dice this offseason by re-signing veteran tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, both unrestricted free agents, to long-term contracts. They have been competent starters since they were rookies in 2000, but recent injury setbacks and advanced age are working against them.
"History will tell you that Chad Clifton is not going to play 16 games," McCarthy said.
Clifton, who has been hampered by knee and ankle injuries in the past, last played a full season in 2007.
Yet, he returns to the Packers as the starter at left tackle, just as Tauscher remains the starter at right tackle. He is a little more than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery that kept him sidelined until the second half of last season.
Green Bay is more settled on the inside with Josh Sitton at right guard and Scott Wells at center. McCarthy said they were the team's best linemen in 2009.
What happens at left guard is up in the air. Incumbent starter Daryn Colledge, whose play regressed down the stretch last season, and Jason Spitz are restricted free agents who remain unsigned. Spitz was the starting center to open last season but suffered a season-ending back injury after Week 4 and gave way to Wells, who had lost his long-time job to Spitz in the preseason.
The wild card is T.J. Lang, a versatile lineman who had practice and game reps at three positions as a rookie last year and started a total of three games at the two tackle spots.
Although Lang is a natural tackle, the uncertainty of Colledge and Spitz's future with the team perhaps prompted McCarthy to tout Lang's attributes as a left guard.
"I think T.J.'s long-term (position) is at guard," McCarthy said. "I think he is a natural left guard when I look at his body, but he is young (22 years old). He needs to develop strength to hit that because he is a very young second-year player."
Lang also will be in the mix to challenge Tauscher for the starting job at right tackle, but for now, McCarthy is looking at Lang to be the backup to Clifton on the left side.
That would change should the Packers put a high-round priority on drafting a starting tackle of the future in the draft, which seems likely based on comments McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson made at the league meetings.
"I would think so," McCarthy said of taking a tackle, "but crazier things have happened through the draft.
"A guy in T.J. Lang, where does he compete this year?" McCarthy added. "There is a lot of conversation about that young man. What is going to happen in the draft? That may affect the rotation, too. I clearly think that we could have almost two guys per position competing for starting spots. That's a very good situation to be in."
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