Around the NFC North
The release of starting defensive end Alex Brown to save $5 million after giving defensive end Julius Peppers a $91 million contract less than a month ago doesn't seem to make much sense, but that's what the Bears did Thursday afternoon.
Brown started all 16 games in six of the last seven seasons and, after sitting out his first game as a rookie in 2002, never missed another. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Brown is fourth in franchise history with 43 1/2 sacks, trailing only Richard Dent, Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton.
On the same day they signed Peppers, who will make $20 million this season, the Bears awarded a $15 million, five-year contract to Brandon Manumaleuna, a blocking tight end, who will make more than $6 million this season. But they didn't have $5 million to keep Brown, a proven two-way player who combined solid run defense with good pass-rush pressure.
Now the Bears have to hope that some combination of Mark Anderson, Israel Idonije and Henry Melton can do for them what Brown did by himself. They are also losing Brown's positive presence in the locker room and one of the team leaders.
Brown's tenure in Chicago also included 483 tackles, 55 tackles for losses, 5 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked kicks.
Brown has taken the high road ever since the Bears announced their plans to trade him or cut him.
"I am extremely grateful for my time as a Chicago Bear and I wish the Bears the best," he wrote on his Twitter account. "I am glad that they gave me an opportunity to realize a dream I had as a child. I appreciate the fans, but as we all know, this is the nature of the business. Bear down!"
While the addition of Peppers made the Bears better defensively, the loss of Brown makes them worse. That two-steps-forward-one-step-back philosophy doesn't bode well for a team that needs to get back to the playoffs after a three-year drought.
The jobs of everyone on the coaching staff and many in the front office hang in the balance this year, and another season without a playoff appearance will result in significant changes throughout Halas Hall by 2011. The Bears have several defensive linemen who possess potential, but none are the proven producers that Brown was, even though he was not the type of impact player that Peppers is.
Anderson showed occasional glimpses last season of the 12-sack talent he flashed as a rookie in 2006, but the bottom line is he finished 2009 with 3.5 sacks and has just 9.5 sacks in the three seasons since his rookie year of 2006.
Idonije has been a valuable backup at tackle and end for his six years with the Bears. But he has never been considered a starting-caliber player, and he's never had more than 3.5 sacks in any season and has a career total of 8 sacks.
If the Bears honestly believed there was any chance of Melton contributing last year, they wouldn't have parked the fourth-round pick on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Last year's third-round pick, Jarron Gilbert, could also be in the mix at defensive end, although he probably figures more prominently at tackle. Although he was on the 53-man roster for al 17 weeks last season, he made brief and forgettable appearances in just four games and did nothing to raise expectations for this season.
Shortly after the 2009 season ended, general manager Martin Mayhew made it clear the Lions would be looking for a new running back.
"This offseason we have to look at every situation and evaluate what kind of player we're going to bring in at what level," Mayhew said. "I anticipate adding somebody to that position, but the question will be what their role is going to be. Is it going to be a guy you bring in and say, ‘This guy is going to be our starter'? Or is it going to be a guy you bring in to supplement what you already have?"
The Lions have been curiously quiet since. Their only acquisition has been DeDe Dorsey, the most valuable player of the UFL title game last year. They didn't chase free agents like Chester Taylor and Thomas Jones. As Mayhew said in February at the NFL scouting combine: "Most of the guys out there have some miles on ‘em."
So is it safe to assume, then, that the Lions are focusing on the draft April 22-24?
"I don't think so," Mayhew said. "Frequently, running backs are out there available in free agency later in the year and that kind of thing. We also have the trade option. And obviously there's a draft coming up. So I think we have several different opportunities to improve in that spot."
And improve they must.
"We feel like as a team to be a better offense we need consistently better performances at our running back," Mayhew said.
Starting with Schwartz himself, there has been a lot of talk about the need for more explosiveness. Kevin Smith had only one run more than 20 yards last year — a 31-yarder — and then suffered a torn ACL. Maurice Morris busted a 64-yard TD filling in for Smith, but that was about it for big plays.
Mayhew stressed consistency, though.
"It's great to have a guy that can take it 80 yards, but if he's getting two yards a carry on every other carry, then that's a problem, too," Mayhew said. "We need consistent production from the running back position. We need that, and we didn't have that last year, I don't think."
Smith's rehab from a torn ACL is going well, by all accounts.
"I can do almost everything except run," Smith blogged at smith34.com. "I'm not even trying to run right now, though I know I could. It would probably make the knee swell up. I'm lifting weights and doing everything else I can do."
Smith wrote that he's "right on schedule," but also that "there's no timeline" for the knee.
"Whether he's ready at the beginning of training camp, whether he's ready during the season, he'll be ready," coach Jim Schwartz said. "It's just a matter of when."
Still, the Lions will keep looking.
"We have contingency plans," Schwartz said. "We'd like to be a good running team, and to do that, you need to continually take care of your running back situation. Good teams generally have more than one running back."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
As the Packers look ahead to having the No. 23 pick on the first night of the April 22-24 draft, they are keeping their fingers crossed that the investment they made at the outset of the 2007 draft will finally pay off.
Defensive tackle-turned-end Justin Harrell has been a flop since general manager Ted Thompson surprised many with the selection of the injured Tennessee player at No. 16 in the first round that year.
Harrell has played in only 13 regular-season games with two starts his first three years in the league. What's more, he missed the entire 2009 season.
Yet, despite all of the trouble caused by Harrell's litany of physical woes, the Packers are sticking with him and giving him one more shot to prove he can be a dependable and worthwhile contributor on the field.
"This is the best he's looked in the strength and conditioning part of it," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Harrell was cleared to participate in Green Bay's voluntary offseason program, which began March 15, seven months after a recurring back injury flared up in training camp and shelved him for the rest of the year.
A disk problem in his lower back required Harrell to undergo two surgeries in 2008. He didn't play until the second half of that season and was derailed again by season's end with a hip injury related to the back trouble.
McCarthy is tempering his enthusiasm about whether Harrell is out of the woods with his medical history — he was unavailable the first month of his rookie season because of a biceps injury from college — until the pads go on in training camp in the late summer.
"I know (team strength coaches) Dave Redding and Mark Lovat feel good about where he is at in the weight room, compared to where he was this time last year, clearly," McCarthy said. "So, he has made progress. But, until he gets in there and you see him torque and play with leverage, that's when the lower back will be tested."
Harrell is signed through 2012. His six-year, $14.5 million contract includes more than $1 million to be earned this year (including a $408,375 roster bonus), more than $1.2 million in potential earnings in 2011 (including a $575,000 roster bonus) and a base salary of more than $1.5 million in 2012.
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