With the completion of the Cutler deal I thought it would be fun to take a look at what it means for the AFC West and NFC North, the two divisions it effects the most, and particular the Broncos and Bears.
The AFC West was probably the weakest or second weakest division in football last year. With the trade of Cutler the dismantling of the Broncos appears to be complete. It is impossible to think that they have improved since December Since the end of the year Denver cut 14 players including several starters, most notably Dre Bly, while allowing 11 free agents to leave. They re-signed two of their own, along with the typical collection of NFL roster fillers. It is difficult to project their starters right now. They did sign Brian Dawkins, so there's one, but most of the rest of the team is a something of a mystery. With the impending suspension of Brandon Marshall and uncertainty surrounding Tony Scheffler's status we can only expect several Jabar Gafney and Correll Buckhalter sightings early in the year.
The upside for Denver is that they are returning all five offensive linemen and TE Daniel Graham, none of whom missed a game last year. Ryan Clady looks like a perrenial All-Pro. Eddie Royal, Marshall, Hillis, (potentially) Scheffler and a half dozen running backs provide the makings of an elite offense.
Orton is an outstanding solution for Denver, all things considered. We'll get to the Chicago offense momentarily, but if you blank a little on his targets that is perfectly understandable. What is overlooked is how efficient he was.
G GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int
15 15 9-6-0 272 465 58.5 2972 18 3.9 12
Project that to Denver's many weapons and you have a guy whose production is ... a lot like Cutler's.
The Denver defense was the downfall of the team and that's where the new braintrust scorched the earth. Their current starting depth chart only has five holdovers from last year, along with a reserve (Elvis Dumervill) who is being slotted in at a new position. The team brought in four thirty-plus defenders to start. Along with the Bailey brothers and end Kenny Peterson the Broncos are currently projecting to start seven players who are 30 or older on defense.
The realy haul from the Cutler deal though wasn't Orton, of course, it was the three draft picks that Cutler netted. With five picks in the first 83 and two more first rounders next year, the Broncos have the capacity to get healthy quickly.
As for the rest of the West, well it seems to be San Diego's division to lose. Usually when something is that obvious it doesn't work out that way but in this case the Chargers really have to be the prohibitive favorite. They had their usual underwhelming free agency period. A couple of starters walked, they became the only team to ever make two different backup running backs Franchise Players. They were right about Michael Turner so we'll see about Sproles. The most signficant change in their team is that Shawne Merriman will (presumably) return healthy in the fall. Otherwise though, the team is very similar to the '08 team that hit the rocks early and rebounded. The Chiefs are restarting their rebuild which began last year and the Raiders are mired in their typical turmoil. The only realistic challenge to the Chargers would be the Broncos and an awful lot would have to go right for Denver to compete this year.
Moving to the NFC North the first look is at Chicago. When I first heard about the deal I was very impressed, it seemed like both teams really came out ahead. Now I'm not so sure. Chicago's offense is not built for a vertical passing attack, it is built for a grind-it-out run and short passing game that emphasizes the running backs and tight ends. 58% of Chicago's completions went to backs and ends. Their most prolific wide receiver - Devin Hester - was also more of a short game receiver, running screens, slants and curls; trying to get the ball in space. Their "true" wide recievers accounted for 75 of Chicago's 300 completions.
This isn't to argue that Cutler isn't an upgrade over Orton. Of course he is. The real question is 'is Cutler an upgrade over Orton and a 1st round DT and a 1st round corner and a 3d round guard (or something)?' I think the answer to that is much less clear. If Chicago was a young team, lacking a quarterback to put together their run then this trade would make a ton of sense. As it stands, this team is no longer young. They still have a talented defense, but it is also a very veteran defense and prone to many more injuries and depth issues than they were when they went to the Super Bowl. The offensive line is due to be retooled and the team still doesn't have a legitimate #1 wide receiver. Normally these are holes that can be filled on the fly, but now Chicago will have to have perfect drafts to find the guys they need. I think this trade moves Chicago to the head of the class in the division, but really not by much. I do think it improves their playoff chances a bit, but that only from none to slim.
The rest of the North can't be particularly happy with this deal though. Chicago is certainly more dangerous than they were. They were tough but relatively one dimensional and not constructed for quick strike comebacks. They still aren't, but with Cutler the potential is far greater than it was with Orton
It is hard to say whether this trade alters any draft plans for Minnesota, Green Bay or Detroit. While the deal changes the entire dynamic of the division, it really shouldn't alter the way any of these teams plan for the upcoming season. Detroit is still going to try to for an influx of talent and to establish a representative competitive team. Minnesota is still going to struggle to develop a passing attack while they dominate lines of scrimmage. Green Bay is interesting, but mainly because they were probably the unluckiest team in football last year and are primed for a significant comeback. Once again, they are much more likely to draft the same player they would have drafted anyway.
Overall it seems that the AFC West is rocked much more than the NFC North, but this because of the enormous turnover in Denver, not simply because of this culminating trade. As always, the big moves always seem big but when they surprise it is usually because they disappoint.