The major question facing each team in the NFC North as summer break looms.
Chicago Bears: Offensive line. Jay Cutler has been sacked a whopping 148 times over the past four seasons. That won’t do. I commend the Bears for their efforts to improve their abysmal offensive line from 2012, but did they do enough? Honestly, I think they did, but I am having a tough time finding holes in Chicago’s roster right now, so offensive line is still my choice for its biggest remaining question. One more wide receiver or defensive back would be great, but with all the changes in the front five, there could be growing pains in terms of continuity and determining exactly who should be the starter at each position. From left to right, the Bears most likely will be starting Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long and J'Marcus Webb. Only Garza and Webb were on the team in 2012, and Webb is moving from left to right tackle. Change was needed, but continuity is a key aspect of offensive line play, and I don’t see a singular great player in this group. That could be an early problem for the Bears. The scheme will help, though, as will former offensive line coach Aaron Cromer as the offensive coordinator. This line will be better, but it does remain a question. Detroit Lions: Offensive line. Quietly, the Lions’ offensive line did a fine job last season. But three of their starting five are gone, including both offensive tackles. My hunch is Detroit would have loved to select Lane Johnson to plug in at left tackle with the fifth pick overall in this latest draft, but three offensive tackles, including Johnson, went in the top four picks. As a result, Riley Reiff, who is best fit as a right tackle, will start on the left side and highly unproven Corey Hilliard or Jason Fox will man the right side, which is an obvious concern. I loved the drafting of Larry Warford, a mauling pure guard who should upgrade the right guard spot. He should solidify the interior of Detroit’s offensive line, especially in the run game, along with incumbent Dominic Raiola at center and the vastly underrated Rob Sims at left guard. But the tackles certainly worry me, especially considering the edge pass-rushers in the division, headlined by Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Jared Allen. Matthew Stafford is very tough and has been durable over the past two seasons, but the Lions certainly don’t want their franchise quarterback taking a lot of punishment, particularly considering how passing-oriented this offense has become.
Green Bay Packers: Offensive line. Seeing a trend developing in this division? The reality is, like the Bears, I don’t have a lot of major concerns with Green Bay’s roster at this point of the process. I understand moving Bryan Bulaga to left tackle, as he is the best candidate on the roster for that job. And moving Josh Sitton, Green Bay’s best offensive lineman, to left guard to keep that continuity intact between the two players while improving Aaron Rodgers’ blindside protection also makes sense. But I also feel like it was messing with a very good thing on the right side, which gives me mixed feelings on those changes. Marshall Newhouse is clearly better suited for the right side, but it wouldn’t shock me if he was unseated as the starter by David Bakhtiari, who I thought was a mid-round steal for Green Bay. T.J. Lang is solid, the loss of Jeff Saturday should be addition by subtraction and maybe Derek Sherrod is finally healthy and can contribute at tackle. I also liked the selection ofJ.C. Tretter, a small-school prospect who is tough and smart. Improved play at the running back position also should help this line immensely. Still, there are quite a few questions that need answering from this unit overall, and the Packers can’t afford for Rodgers to be sacked anywhere close to the 51 times he was in 2012.
Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback. I still have hope for Christian Ponder, but he was extremely up and down during his second season. Many ask me during my chats and radio hits, “What would be a successful season for Ponder?” My response is that he needs to play within himself -- allowing his impressive supporting cast to do what it does best -- and show composure and leadership late in games. He doesn’t have to become Dan Marino as a passer for this offense to be successful. In case you forgot, the Vikings do still haveAdrian Peterson as the foundation of this offense. But in addition to Peterson, Minnesota has one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, and I expect that group to be further improved in 2013 with Matt Kalil developing into one of the league’s better left tackles in his second season. The line, fullback blocking and Peterson will allow Ponder to see many favorable matchups in the passing game. Gone is Percy Harvin, but the trio of Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph should be able to exploit single coverage with a varied skill set. Patterson is far from a refined wide receiver, but if the Vikings limit him to deep routes or quick hitters where he can use his amazing run-after-the-catch abilities, he can be very effective in his rookie season. Jennings is a true professional who understands the position well, and Rudolph’s ability in the red zone and in the middle of the field should provide Ponder with plenty of throws that won’t challenge his average passing skills. It also must be noted that Minnesota upgraded its backup quarterback spot by signing Matt Cassel. Cassel had a nightmare of a 2012 season, but before that, he showed the caretaker quarterback skills that Ponder needs to develop.
SAN DIEGO -- There have has been some talk that perhaps San Diego first-round pick D.J. Fluker could be moved to guard.
But San Diego coach Mike McCoy said that is not what the team is currently thinking.
“Anything is possible,” McCoy said Wednesday. “But where he is right now is where we think we are keeping him.”
The Chargers did rotate their offensive line some Wednesday in minicamp to prepare for injury situations that may pop up in the season. It’s a good idea. San Diego has been ravaged by injuries on the offensive line in recent seasons. This year, the team appears deeper and better equipped to handle injuries.
“It just takes one injury to change the entire line,” McCoy said.
Mel Kiper Jr. is listing the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals among five NFL teams he thought enjoyed outstanding offseasons to this point.
This comes a couple days after Matt Williamson gave "A" grades to the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks for their offseason work. He gave the Rams a B-plus, and had the 49ers close behind with a solid "B" grade.
Meanwhile, opportunistic bettors have been throwing cash at the Seahawks above all others, driving down their Super Bowl odds from 18-1 to 8-1 in short order. Las Vegas even initiallyinstalled Seattle as a road favorite against the Houston Texans and New York Giants, with the Seahawks' visit to Atlanta considered a toss-up.
It's getting to be a bit much. In the interests of balance, here's a look at the other side of this shiny NFC West coin, couched as reasons for at least some restraint:
Arizona Cardinals: Coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim are putting down what appears to be a solid foundation, but producing immediate results could be tough. Opening with three road games in the first four weeks increases the level of difficulty. From there, Arizona faces the 49ers, Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Texans over a five-game period taking them into their Week 9 bye. The Cardinals were riding a four-game losing streak at the midpoint last season, but they had a 4-4 record. Is anyone taking the "over" on four victories through eight games in 2013?
St. Louis Rams: Excitement about the future is justified for a team with so many young and highly drafted players. How ready will those players be in September? That question is difficult to answer. By my early calculations, the projected starters for the Rams' division rivals will rank among the NFL leaders in most combined 2012 starts. The Rams' projected starters will rank at or near the bottom. That's probably a good thing for the Rams in the long term. It's just tough to know for sure what it all means right away.
San Francisco 49ers: Injuries at wide receiver hurt the 49ers in their NFC Championship Game defeat to the Giants two seasons ago. Last season, injuries in the defensive front seven, specifically to defensive end Justin Smith, proved costly. Well, guess what? Injuries are a big concern at receiver once again. Michael Crabtreerecently had surgery for a torn Achilles' tendon. Mario Manningham remains a ways away from rejoining the team for practice. And while initial reports paint an encouraging picture for Smith, he'll turn 34 in September and is coming off triceps surgery. Can he hold up?
Seattle Seahawks: Top pass-rusher Chris Clemons is five months past reconstructive knee surgery while his heir, 2012 first-round choice Bruce Irvin, faces a four-game suspension to open the season. Two other key pass-rushers, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, have their own less serious injury concerns. That has to be a little concerning given that the team hasn't even put on the pads yet. Pass-rush issues doomed Seattle once Clemons was hurt in the playoffs. Will injuries and Irvin's suspension cost the team early in the 2013 season? Every game counts in a tight division race.