<
>

NFC North getting expensive

The NFC North, known forever as the Black and Blue Division, turned green this offseason.

Contract extensions for quarterbacks currently have the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers with the two highest payrolls in the NFL. Matthew Stafford received a $27.5 million signing bonus and a $4 million base salary. That took the Lions' payroll to $155.9 million just counting the top 51 players on the roster. They have $62.3 million alone in signing bonuses for Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh.

The Packers gave Aaron Rodgers a $35 million signing bonus and $5 million more in base pay and bonuses. Clay Matthews got a $20.5 million signing bonus. Their current payroll for 51 players is $144 million.

Believe it or not, the Chicago Bears are No. 5 in payroll, but they might drop to sixth in the next week if the Atlanta Falcons extend the contract of quarterback Matt Ryan. The Bears are at $128 million.

And don't think the Minnesota Vikings are going to come out of this cheaply either. They are currently 12th at $117.16 million, but they still have three unsigned first-round draft choices. Those players are in draft slots that should add between $11.5 million and $12 million to the books.

It shouldn't be a surprise that every team in the division is "cash over cap." The division is immensely competitive, and teams giving extensions to quarterbacks will be seen at the top of the pay charts. The Lions are taking some unfair criticism for giving Stafford a three-year, $53 million contract extension, but that's the current price to re-sign top quarterbacks.

The top quarterbacks now make $20 million to $22 million a year. The next level drops to between $17.5 million and $18 million a year. Ryan should get close to $20 million a year, pushing the number of quarterbacks making more than $14 million a year to 13.

At the current pace, there could be between 22 and 24 quarterbacks making more than $15 million a year because so many good young quarterbacks have entered the league in the past couple of years.

The Bears face a tough decision after the season. Jay Cutler, whose contract averages $14.6 million a year, is a free agent after the season. Marc Trestman was hired to get the most out of Cutler and help to make a decision whether to give him a new contract. If the Bears keep him, they will be near the top of the 2014 pay charts.

Christian Ponder is halfway through his rookie contract, giving the Vikings two additional years to bulk up the rest of the roster before determining whether Ponder should be highly paid or let go.

These are interesting times in this division. The Packers are in their prime. The Vikings are building while Adrian Peterson is in the prime of his career. The Bears are in transition, and the Lions have to figure out if they are a 10-win or a four-win team.

At least fans of the division know their teams aren't holding back on the money. The NFC North has gone green.

From the inbox

Q: At first this may sound crazy, but hear me out. What do you think of the Vikings pulling off a Herschel Walker-like trade for Adrian Peterson in an effort to land a QB and/or more pieces in the draft? I am thinking two first-rounders, a second-rounder, plus a third-rounder. My reasoning is that I believe the Vikings absolutely maxed out last year. Peterson, by far the best RB in the game and on pace to be an all-time great, almost broke the single-season rushing record and yet they still just squeaked into the playoffs and got eliminated in the first round. You can't win a Super Bowl with an RB as your best player. Look at the past Super Bowl winners -- none of them had a stud at RB. If you want to win a Super Bowl, you need a QB and outside threats, which the Vikings can land with premium draft picks gained in a trade.

Tony B in Lackawanna, N.Y.

A: What team is going to give up a quarterback good enough to take a team to the Super Bowl? Great quarterbacks are too hard to find. Following your thinking -- which is right -- you need a great quarterback to win a Super Bowl in this day and age. If a team gives away that type of a quarterback, it is in the same spot as Minnesota. It would be looking for a quarterback to fill that void, and by that time, Peterson might be too old to be a factor for the new team. Don't see that happening.

Q: With two Broncos executives getting charged with DUI, why did the league not step in and suspend them? When players get into trouble, the commissioner comes down hard on them. Is there a double standard in place from the commissioner's office? Shouldn't all be held equal?

Sam in Waterloo, Ontario

A: I'm sure the league is giving the Broncos the chance to figure out punishment for their employees first. If that doesn't happen, I'm sure Roger Goodell will jump in and make a decision. From the league's standpoint, it's better if the team determines the penalty. The league is there to fix the problem if the team doesn't.

Q: How exactly do teams determine who is an outside receiver and who is a slot receiver? I know some of these stats may not be accurate, but take a look at this list: Victor Cruz: 6-0, 200 pounds; Reggie Wayne: 6-0, 198; Greg Jennings: 5-11, 198; Torry Holt: 6-0, 200; Marvin Harrison: 6-0, 190. All of these WRs made top-10 money during the prime of their careers and played X (split end) or Z (flanker). Could we argue that playing outside versus slot is more a byproduct of scheme than size?

Yosh in Irvine, Calif.

A: It's more the ability to separate from coverage that determines whether a player is going to be featured in the slot or featured on the outside. Mike Wallace got $12 million a year because of his speed. He can burn a defender down the field on the outside because of his speed. Cruz didn't have enough speed coming out of college. He worked well in the slot because he can stretch the field and average better than 15 yards a catch. But his skills might not work as well on the outside. Because it's harder to find receivers who can consistently win on the outside, they have more value. There are more options in the middle of the field. You can insert a tight end. You can find a slower receiver who can work the slot. It's a supply-and-demand position.

Q: With the almost complete revamping of the defensive backfield with the addition of Darrelle Revis, et al, and the return of the two Pro Bowlers to the offensive line plus a few other additions, will the Bucs be strong enough to make the playoffs -- if the play of Josh Freeman is up to where it should be? If Josh plays well, I would think they will be in the running.

Jim in Clearwater, Fla.

A: Next to Seattle, the Bucs might have one of the best secondaries in football. Mark Barron has Pro Bowl ability. Dashon Goldson is a Pro Bowler. Revis is one of the best corners of this era. Eric Wright has plenty of talent. If Freeman does well, the team has a chance. It runs the ball well. It has a good offensive line. Still, on paper, I think the Falcons and Saints have more talent.

Q: I have heard all the talk of improving the Pro Bowl. I have a solution that solves the competitive aspect that is missing and also the NFL's desire to have more games to televise without going to 18 games a season, which the players union seems to not want. How about an end-of-year tournament made up of division all-stars? Each division can select a 75-man roster to at least minimize a player's chance to get injured. Divisions are seeded by win percentage. The top two get a first-week bye. You can do a lottery system before the tournament to see which teams in their division get to host a game. I believe these games played after the Super Bowl would be a ratings bonanza as they would be competitive and feature high-quality teams playing competitively. Everyone wins in this situation. Can it work, John?

Carlos in Sydney, Australia

A: It can work, but it can't happen. No team is going to risk their best players to potentially suffer serious injury at the end of season. If you have a tournament, the chance of injury to top players increases. Star players who are entering their free agency year aren't going to participate and ruin their bargaining power. And how will that prevent all-stars from going through the motions? There aren't enough good players to go around now. If you have a tournament like that, you potentially drain the supply of talent.

Q: After the Aaron Hernandez blowup, the NFL has announced that they are considering not inviting academically ineligible players to the combine. Well, we all know that these players will still get drafted based on their talent rather than their grades. The players will still have pro days, right? So not inviting these players doesn't really achieve much. However, the better incentive is pay. So do you think the NFL should consider in the next CBA lowering the minimum salaries for rookies that are academically ineligible or have arrest records or drug backgrounds.

Kyle in Conway, Ark.

A: I can't see the union going for that. The NFLPA has to represent all players whether they are kicked out of school or not kicked out of school. I agree with you that not inviting such players to the combine achieves little. Potentially good players with troubled pasts are the ones teams need to interview as opposed to chasing them around the country for pro days. For teams to be successful drafting, they need more information and more access, not less. An agent for a player with a troubled past will minimize access to his client if he's left outside the combine.

Q: I have a question regarding hits on players and fines/penalties. I'm a huge Ravens fan and stationed overseas for the Air Force and still manage to watch all of my games, but I feel like week after week I see replays of hits on players that get flags thrown on them, and eventually result in a fine for the player when the hit on the player doesn't seem to warrant a flag. A good example of this is when Ed Reed hit Victor Cruz in Baltimore or when Kam Chancellor hit Vernon Davis in Seattle last season. Reed also received a $55,000 fine with it. As a fan I couldn't believe a flag was even thrown for these plays. Is there anything us fans can look forward to down the road regarding hits and tackling? I am all for player safety, but the NFL has felt softer in recent seasons. Should plays such as these be able to be talked over or reviewed by multiple referees before ultimately deciding their worth a penalty?

Aaron in Aviano, Italy

A: Because officials are human, there are going to be inconsistencies on calls on the field. The league can educate officials only so much. It's the officials' jobs to make quick decisions. The NFL and the fans don't want a game of flag. They don't pay all that money to watch referees march off penalties. But there needs to be more consistent calls. The fine system is a way to look back after a couple of days and correct a wrong. The number of fines shows me the league isn't softening up. I still believe if an official has doubts, it's better not to throw the flag.

Q: With the NBA Summer League going on right now, it's got me thinking a bit about how the NFL offseason could be perhaps a little more interesting. What do you think of an early-summer seven-on-seven or flag football tournament for rookies and other players who are on the roster bubble? Both games are a lot safer than actual football, so there's not much concern for injury, and the players might actually try (unlike in the Pro Bowl). It might give rookies a bit more experience and a chance for everyone to get a better idea of what they can do. This idea isn't perfect of course -- linemen would be basically excluded and the games aren't "real football" games. Still, I think it's an interesting proposal and I was wondering what your opinion was on this idea. Is it feasible? Do you think a similar event could ever happen?

Dylan in West St. Paul, Minn.

A: Normally, I wouldn't go for an idea like that, but this offseason may have changed my mind. The league isn't going to go for an extra activity that risks their players to injury, but you may be on to something. From the third week in June until the last week in July, the NFL takes a serious P.R. hit. You have more arrests than player transactions. It hurts the sport. A seven-on-seven game or flag football tournament that could keep players active and still be safe might be a good way of keeping players active and out of trouble.