Pelissero: On roster retooling, Vikings cannot learn a lot from Bears
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If there's a blueprint out there for the Minnesota Vikings' forthcoming roster retooling, it's probably not the one the Chicago Bears have followed.
Few NFL personnel departments would have the audacity to stand behind a roster that had gone 23-25 with no postseason appearances for three years, throw $55 million in guarantees at three 30-somethings and count on internal improvement or low draft picks to address several key deficiencies.
But that's precisely what Bears general manager Jerry Angelo did, leaving scouts around the league wondering whether Jay Cutler and company would threaten Detroit for the bottom spot in the NFC North -- only to watch them head into TCF Bank Stadium on Monday night with a chance to wrap up their first division title since 2006.
"Much of it's the same personnel," an AFC executive said last week. "At the start of the season, I think you would have thought Green Bay would have been a team that would have excelled through the season, in terms of win-loss record. And then the Vikings' failures this season -- you talk about that decision, I'd say majoratively speaking, many people would have had the Bears after the Vikings and the Packers."
Instead, it's the Bears on top at 9-4, the Packers slipping toward the fringe of the playoff picture at 8-6 and the Vikings dead and buried at 5-8, their season a melancholy menagerie of the baffling and bizarre that will yield plenty of mirror-gazing in the months to come.
It's too soon to speculate what directions the Vikings may or may not go with the roster. The rules of free agency aren't set, the draft can't be projected with more than remote accuracy this far out and there's a decent chance the people who will make the final decisions aren't even on the Vikings' payroll yet.
Three of the same old holes are so obvious to scouts, though, it's hard to imagine any new coach/GM/football czar ignoring them -- especially with a team that in some ways remains more complete than the Bears squad that could board the plane back to Chicago early Tuesday morning with a playoff berth in tow.
The high price the Bears paid to acquire Cutler -- two first-round picks, a third-rounder and incumbent starting quarterback Kyle Orton, with a fifth-rounder tossed in the return package from Denver -- was widely panned after the temperamental 26-year-old pouted and threw 26 picks as the Bears went 7-9 in 2009.
Cutler's numbers this season aren't exceptional either: 61.9% completions for 2,697 yards with 17 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and an 88.3 passer rating in 12 starts for the NFL's 26th-ranked passing offense. But his elite arm strength and ability to extend plays has shown up time and again despite a young, thin receiver group that lacks a fully dimensional threat.
No one gives up an ascending, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback entering his prime, save for then-Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. So, even if rookie Joe Webb impresses down the stretch, the most likely scenario has the Vikings drafting and developing another quarterback to eventually replace Brett Favre, while also finding a veteran stopgap as Tarvaris Jackson gets shown the door.
Easing the transition would be a group of core players that's superior to the Bears' options at every spot -- provided the Vikings can retain receiver Sidney Rice and amenably restructure the contracts of halfback Adrian Peterson and, less important, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
"They do have firepower," the AFC executive said. "They have a tight end who can be a player in the pass game. They have one of the top three or four running backs in the league. They have balance in terms of their receiving group with Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin.
"Right now, poor quarterback play is an issue for them. What's the answer long-term? I don't think they have an answer long-term in the building."
The loss of cornerback Cedric Griffin to another ACL injury on Oct. 11 hurt the Vikings worse than anyone could have imagined.
Top draft pick Chris Cook never was the same after twin meniscus tears, leaving Pro Bowl slot man Antoine Winfield surrounded by the likes of Asher Allen, Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker -- three subpackage-only sorts incapable of making up for the mediocrity of safeties Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah behind them.
"The secondary's awful," an NFC personnel man said. "Cook looks like he kind of got thrown into the mix there a little early, and they needed him to. Asher Allen can't play -- he's a nickel guy at best. Frank Walker's a stopgap, and so is Lito."
Williams most likely is gone, with no justification for the $5.5 million he's due in 2011 and talented former second-round draft pick Tyrell Johnson riding the bench behind him. Winfield will be 34 next season and Griffin will be back on two reconstructed knees, leaving major short- and long-term questions at multiple spots in the nickel defense the Vikings play on more than half of all snaps.
Chicago used its top 2010 draft pick (a third-rounder) on free safety Major Wright, who hasn't started a game, and a fifth-rounder on defensive back Joshua Moore, who has played sparingly in three. But the Bears nonetheless have jumped from 19th in net yards per pass play to seventh, thanks in part to Julius Peppers' impact on the pass rush and 32-year-old middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's surprise resurgence.
Even with a talented front seven that can cover the Vikings' back-end weaknesses to an extent -- re-signing strongside linebacker Chad Greenway is a must, with left end Ray Edwards and 38-year-old nose tackle Pat Williams far more replaceable -- it's hard to believe they won't try to do more to upgrade the last line of defense.
It's also hard to believe the Bears have won so many games with such an atrocious offensive line -- even if their league-leading sack total (47) was somewhat predictable.
"With (offensive coordinator) Mike Martz, you basically have a free runner all the time," an NFC executive said. "It's like you look at his teams and you can probably look at them offensively, they're going to have the most explosive plays, but they're also going to have the most amount of sacks and negative plays."
In essence, the Bears shuffled the same bad deck with the addition of rookie seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb, who joins left tackle Frank Omiyale outside to form perhaps the worst duo in the league. Their stunning No. 30 ranking in total offense is a reflection -- and one more reason to view that 9-4 record with a measure of skepticism.
The Vikings are in better shape here without question. But left tackle Bryant McKinnie has declined for years, left guard Steve Hutchinson is quickly joining him at a borderline prohibitive rate ($6.73 million in 2011), right guard Anthony Herrera blew out a knee last month and the jury is out on injury-plagued John Sullivan as the long-term solution at center.
Worse, there are no clear developmental players on the verge of pushing their way towards the starting lineup. Ryan Cook probably is gone after the season, rookie fifth-round draft pick Chris DeGeare has struggled in two emergency starts and Patrick Brown remains a bit of a project.
The good news is the Vikings remain well-stocked at several skill positions and talented in the defensive front seven. They don't need to drop $42 million in guarantees on a pass rusher such as Peppers, or $7 million on a situational halfback such as Chester Taylor or $6 million on a blocking tight end such as Brandon Manumaleuna. And they have more than their standard allotment of 2011 draft picks, despite blowing a third-rounder on the Randy Moss experiment.
The bad news for the Vikings is their offseason wish list will include at least one player at the most important position and what could amount to programmatic overhauls at two others, with simple patch jobs unlikely to take them where they want to go.
"Quarterback and cleaning the o-line up and getting some secondary guys," the NFC personnel man said, "but it's like anything -- you've got to be smart and you've got to be lucky a little bit, too. Get a couple studs, maybe one o-lineman and then a couple guys that can fill in for a year and go from there until you can get more studs."