DE Julius Peppers (Jim Prisching/AP)
The Chicago Bears threw around free-agent money like a political lobbying convention, but they still didn’t address their biggest weakness. The Detroit Lions also made some upgrades, but, really, it’s the Lions and did they really add the right players?
Parity is a word that is thrown out often in the NFL vernacular and for good reason. Teams that have the worst records get higher draft picks to add the top college talent and every team has the potential to improve themselves via free agency. With the salary cap expiring early Friday morning, the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions wasted little time in getting involved in free agency, while the Vikings were forced by post-salary cap protocol to remain on the sidelines.
The Bears were clearly the biggest beneficiaries of the free-agent period in the opening hours of the 2010 season. Free agency began at 11:01 p.m. Thursday Chicago time, but within 14 hours, the Bears had made a huge splash in the free-agent pool. The Bears plucked the player viewed as the plum of the free-agent Class of 2010 when they signed defensive end Julius Peppers to a six-year contract worth as much as $91.5 million with $42 million of that in guaranteed money over the first three years of the deal. The team also signed former Vikings running back Chester Taylor to a four-year deal worth $12.5 million – $7 million of that guaranteed to be paid out this season. The team also shelled out $17 million ($6 million guaranteed) for a five-year contract to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who spent the first years of his career playing under new Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.
When the dust had settled on a very hectic morning and early afternoon, the Bears committed as much as $121 million in the three players, although the conventional wisdom is that none of the contracts will be paid out in full – not unusual in contract signings around the league. However, it was a clear indication to Bears fans that the team is committed to making a difference in their approach.
While it didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Bears’ megabuck signings, Detroit was busy as well. The Lions signed former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch to a four-year deal worth $26 million, with $10 million in guarantees, made a trade with the Cleveland Browns for former Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams (giving up a fifth-round pick for Williams and a seventh-rounder from Cleveland) and re-signed offensive lineman Jon Jansen to a one-year deal. Detroit currently sits with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, which could further bolster its trenches, as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska or Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma are expected to be selected by the Lions if they don’t trade out of the second spot in the draft.
With a late-night visit from Lions offensive coordinator and former Vikings coordinator Scott Linehan, the Lions also gave Seattle (and former Vikings) wide receiver Nate Burleson a five-year, $25 million contract to be a No. 2 receiving option alongside star receiver Calvin Johnson, adding another piece to the Lions roster puzzle.
While the signings made headlines, did they really have the impact that giddy fans in both cities anticipate? Keep in mind that when the Bears gave up two first-round picks and a third-rounder to acquire QB Jay Cutler last year, many pundits all but handed the NFC North title to the Bears. The same day the team signed future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace, who it was thought would protect Cutler’s blind side. Instead, the Bears quickly learned that Pace had nothing left in the tank – so much so that he was released earlier this week. Cutler was dismal in his first season with the Bears. His 26 interceptions in 2009 were by far the worst in the league – the only other players with 20 interceptions were rookies Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez.
While there is no denying Peppers’ ability, Taylor is likely going to be in a time-share at best with third-year man Matt Forte and Manumaleuna is likely going to be little more than a glorified blocker. In nine NFL seasons, he has missed just two games. But, in 142 career games, he has caught just 110 passes for 965 yards and 12 touchdowns. That comes down to an average of 12 catches a year for 107 yards and one touchdown a year – not the kind of dual-threat production that one would expect for a $17 million deal.
While the Bears fans, as well as their media types, are once again self-proclaiming their team as the next NFC North champs, when one looks at the problems Chicago had last year, most of those issues were on offense and centered on an ineffective offensive line and a young cast of wide receivers devoid of top talent – their top wide receiver was converted defensive back Devin Hester, who would likely be a No. 2 or 3 receiver at best on most NFL teams. The Bears stole the headlines Friday, but they failed to address their most pressing needs. Add to that Chicago’s problems stopping the run (they ranked 23rd in the league last year), Peppers likely won’t do a lot to help that aspect of the Chicago defense.
The Lions had the 32nd-ranked defense last year and were equal-opportunity dismal – 26th vs. the run and 32nd vs. the pass. The production for Vanden Bosch has significantly decreased each of the last two years with a much better Tennessee team, two teams have all but given up on Williams (Green Bay and Cleveland) and both have traded him away. Burleson, while a talented player, is a complementary receiver, not a game-breaker, who is being paid substantial money to be the No. 2 guy in Detroit.
In the end, the Bears and Lions may have tightened the gulf that lay between them and the Vikings and Packers at the top of the NFC North, but did they really make up enough ground to be viewed as playoff contenders in 2010? The Bears don’t have a draft pick until the third round and the Lions are one of the few non-expansion teams in league history to have the first overall pick in one year and the second overall pick the next. They’re just awful and a few big-money signings here or there aren’t going to change that.
As Bears fans wake up this morning and read the stories about the new players they have signed, the chatter will likely be much the same as it was a year ago when they mortgaged their 2009 and 2010 drafts to get Cutler. They are anointing the team as the next big thing in the NFC North. It didn’t work out last year and, as the team tries to adjust to a new, complicated offense that historically has left its quarterbacks beaten and battered, it would seem the Bears are a long way from being the Monsters of the Midway or the second coming of the Greatest Show on Turf.
In truth, $121 million bought the Bears some quality players, but, in the end, it may be money that was spent at the wrong positions to make an immediate difference.
In a move that surprised few, the Vikings have opted to give kicker Ryan Longwell a $500,000 bonus he was set to receive Sunday as he enters the final year of the five-year deal he signed after Green Bay let him hit the free-agent market following the 2005 season.
Artis Hicks has visits scheduled with Washington, Arizona and Detroit in the coming days, but is still on the Vikings radar. However, now that he has hit the free agent market, he is under the same rules and regulations of other free agents who had expiring contracts, which lessen the likelihood of him returning the Vikings in 2010.
Brad Childress didn’t need to watch Brett Favre’s appearance on “The Tonight Show” to hear what he had to say. After the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Childress reportedly flew to Mississippi Wednesday to talk with Favre face to face, according to the Star Tribune. Favre apparently asked if Childress was setting a deadline to decide and was told he has as much time as he needs to make a decision. Given that neither the Packers nor Jets showed that kind of concern for him and personalized input on wanting him back, that visit could go a long way to getting the Hall of Famer back for another season.
After word leaked a week ago that running back Brian Westbrook was going to be released by the Eagles, Philadelphia made it official Friday by releasing him without a team statement of any kind.
Former Viking Vinny Ciurciu, who was signed by the Lions last year after being released by the Vikings, re-signed with Detroit for one year on Friday.
Kyle Childress, 25, the son of Vikings head coach Brad Childress, was scheduled to appear in court Thursday on DWI charges, but his case has been postponed until September. The younger Childress was arrested in St. Paul in January with a blood-alcohol level of .23, almost three times the legal limit in Minnesota. But his prominent attorney, David Valentini, is challenging the reliability of the Intoxilyzer 5000, which was administered for testing by St. Paul police. Childress’ case is one of hundreds being challenged on the same grounds – the fallibility of the Intoxilyzer 5000 – and all of the cases have been postponed until September in Scott County. If it is proved that the machines aren’t reliable, some or all of the cases could be thrown out.
In other court-related news, the StarCaps case involving the suspensions of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams is scheduled to get underway Monday, but the NFL wants the case moved back into federal court. Federal Judge Paul Magnuson previously ruled that the claims made by the Williams’ attorney concerning state drug-testing laws should be heard in a Minnesota courtroom – a decision that was upheld on appeal. Magnuson received the petition Wednesday, but ruled Thursday that the NFL’s effort to move the case back to federal court after the ruling and appeal “seems calculated only to avoid trials on the merits and, in this court’s opinion, borders on abuse of process.” Barring any other legal entanglements, the case is scheduled to proceed in state court as planned.
If the Williams case comes off as planned, attorneys for the Williamses plan to call both Childress and Commissioner Roger Goodell as witnesses in the trial.
The Packers announced Friday that they have re-signed offensive tackle Chad Clifton to a three-year contract worth $20 million with $7.5 million guaranteed.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.