It is time to look at the NFC North and possible salary cap casualties. The "Black and Blue" division, as it was once called, has been extremely competitive over the course of the last decade or so. This didn't change in 2011 as the Detroit Lions took the next step towards relevance from mediocrity.
As Detroit improved a great deal both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears took a step back. Those two teams are going to have to restructure their rosters in order to contend with the Lions and Packers. If not, they are going to be consistently vying for last place in the division.
Green Bay Packers
LB- A.J. Hawk: $6.6 million cap hit
This linebacker is one high draft pick that just hasn't worked out too well for the Green Bay Packers over the course of the last couple of seasons. Instead, Hawk has saw his game regress a great deal in 2011 as he became nothing more than an marginal starting linebacker in the NFL.
I am not sure what the possible replacements for Hawk would be on Green Bay's roster. A possibility would be to move Erik Walden inside, which seems to be a fit for the up-and-coming backer. Either way, the Packers are not in the game of paying marginal players nearly $7 million on an annual basis.
S- Nick Collins: $3.5 million cap hit
This has absolutely nothing to do with performance. Rather, it is all about injury and a possibility that Collins might not play again. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that a decision will come down in March whether Collins will ever play again. For his part, Collins has pretty much said it is up to the doctors at this point. Considering that he needed fusion on that injured neck, my money is on Collins retiring.
While it is a sad end to what promised to be a great career, the Packers are going to have to make a strictly business decision. Releasing Collins would save them $3.5 million against the 12' cap.
WR- Donald Driver: $5.6 million cap hit
The idea of Donald Driver playing anywhere else than Green Bay makes me cringe, but it is a real possibility at this point. While I assumed the descending receiver would just retire than try to hang on with another team, that doesn't seem to be the case right now.
"If the Packers don't want me, I've got to go somewhere else and play," Driver said. "I don't have a choice. I'm not ready to hang the cleats up. My wife feels like I still got it. I feel like I still got it. If my family feels that way, then I'm going to continue to play. It's up to the organization to make that decision."
One thing is clear, either Driver agrees to restructure his contract or he will be looking for a new team in March.
DT- Corey Williams: $6.1 million cap hit
I am working under the assumption that the Detroit Lions remain high on Nick Fairley, if that is the case Corey Williams is as good as gone. While Detroit did some amazing things in 2011, they still have numerous holes to fill in order to be considered an elite team in the NFC. Among them is retaining the services of Cliff Avril. Short of getting Calvin Johnson to restructure his whopping $17 million cap figure for 2012, Detroit is going to have to get creative.
They also need to get a top tier offensive linemen, another linebacker and some secondary help. That all cannot be done via the NFL Draft. Instead, they are going to have to cut some fat from the 53 and Williams will be the first to go.
C- Dominic Raiola:$3.4 million cap hit
NFL free agency is all about upgrading at positions of weakness or relative mediocrity. This is where taking a look at the pending free agent class comes into play. Accordingly, the center position is going to be absolutely stacked when the league year begins in March.
Raiola is due $3.4 million in 2012 and has regressed a great deal over the course of the last couple seasons. Considering the San Francisco 49ers got an above-average center, Jonathan Goodwin, for pennies on the dollar last off-season, there is no reason to believe that Detroit cannot do the same thing this off-season. If not, the draft class is stacked at that position as well. Peter Konz (Wisconsin) comes to mind first.
WR- Earl Bennett: $3.4 million
If Bennett is in the Bears regular wide receiver rotation next season they are in a lot of trouble. This is a unit that needs more upgrades out of any "contending" team not named the San Francisco 49ers. The free agent class of receivers is absolutely stacked this season and I fully expect Chicago to make a play for one of the top ten players on that list. Additionally, it can already be concluded that they are going receiver in the first round if the board plays out to their liking.
With that said, Chicago seems to like Bennett a lot despite the fact that he has regressed a great deal since a breakout 2009 season. Maybe he was a pet project of Jerry Angelo, who is no longer with the team. If that is the case Bennett could be looking for a new team in a couple weeks.
OL- Frank Omiyale:$2.9 million
Right up there with Charlie Johnson( who you will see later) as well as Marc Columbo as the absolute worst offensive linemen in the entire NFL, Omiyale just cannot get it done. He is one of the primary reasons that Jay Cutler went down and consistently struggles in pass protection. It goes without saying that Chicago must address this unit in the off-season. If so, he is as good as gone.
C- Chris Spencer: $3.8 million
The former Seattle Seahawks center was a late addition last season when the Bears couldn't work out a contract with Olin Kreutz. He is a marginal starting center at best and struggled to pick up the middle blitz during the 2011 season. As I mentioned before, the center position in free agency is stacked. Look for Chicago to rid themselves of Spencer's $3.8 million price tag and acquire an upgrade at this position.
RB- Marion Barber: $2.9 million
This has nothing to do with Marion Barber's struggles against the Denver Broncos in the Hail Tebow comeback during the 2011 season. It has more to do with roster logistics than anything else. Kahlil Bell, who performed great in Matt Forte's stead, is an exclusive rights free agent. While he will only receive the league minimum next season, Bell needs to be inserted in as the Bears No. 2 back behind Forte. He has more explosiveness and is a better blocker than Barber. Is this happens, which I expect it will, Chicago isn't paying a third string back nearly $3 million. That slot is usually reserved for late round projects.
DT- Kevin Williams: $7.0 million
The "Williams Wall" will be no longer heading into the 2012 season. Instead, the Vikings are rebuilding and looking to get some young blood on both sides of the ball. Kevin Williams, who was suspended for the first two games of 2011, had the worst season of his career. He continually struggled in the run game and looked old, for a lack of a better word. With the direction that Minnesota is going in, I doubt very much they pay this nine year vet the $7 million that he is owed. This money would be better used going after an elite wide receiver for Christian Ponder in free agency or upgrading a poor offensive line.
OT- Charlie Johnson: $4.0 million
Speaking of poor offensive line performances, Charlie Johnson was one of the worst pass protectors in the entire league last season. After coming over from Indianapolis in free agency, Johnson consistently struggled on the outside in protection of Christian Ponder. You just cannot have a tackle struggle the way he did in front of a young quarterback. Just look at what happened to David Carr with the Houston Texans last decade. It has become a necessity to get a franchise offensive tackle when looking to groom a young signal caller. If you don't do that, all of the indicators of failure are going to be there.
Minnesota, who has the third pick in the draft, is probably going to Matt Kalil. Even if they don't, expect this team upgrade the left tackle position.