Chicago Bears: Jermichael Finley

On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC North

March, 10, 2014
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A few deals have been signed around the NFC North in the days leading up to free agency, but plenty of valuable players are about to hit the open market.

Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).

We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.

1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.

Cassel
Cassel
6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year deal with the Vikings on Friday, just before teams could start contacting his agent. He will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.

McCown
10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: He proved he is capable of filling in for Jay Cutler in a pinch and is instrumental behind the scenes for nearly every skill player on the offense. It's not a slam dunk he will be back, and talks with the Bears haven't been especially productive.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
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On the day former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith got the job, he said that one of his priorities was to beat the Green Bay Packers.

First-year Bears coach Marc Trestman made no such promises about this rivalry, but it goes without saying that he's eager to end Chicago's six-game losing streak to the Packers.

The last time Chicago beat Green Bay was on Sept. 27, 2010, on "Monday Night Football." The teams meet again in prime time Monday night at Lambeau Field.

ESPN.com's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Rob Demovsky: We all know how much Smith wanted to beat the Packers. He stated as much the day he got the head coaching job. What has Trestman's approach to this rivalry been like?

Wright: Rob, my man, you know that rivalries have to cut both ways in terms of wins and losses for it to be truly considered a rivalry. Counting the postseason, the Bears have lost six in a row and nine of the last 11. So, if anything, this is more Green Bay dominance than a rivalry. But the interesting thing about Trestman is he's a guy who likes to compartmentalize everything. He looks at today rather than the past or the future. So while it sounds cliché, Trestman is looking at the Packers as just another opponent on the schedule. That's just the way Trestman likes to operate, and I think for him it sort of makes things easier.

I keep looking at Green Bay's sack numbers, and I'm a little surprised the club is still in the top 10 in sacks with Clay Matthews out the last three games and other key members of the defense missing time. What is Dom Capers doing over there schematically to keep up the production?

Demovsky: I figured when Matthews broke his thumb, Capers would have to blitz like crazy. Now, he's picked his spots, but he hasn't gone blitz-happy like I thought he might. However, he has been sending different pass-rushers to keep offenses off guard. One game, against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker A.J. Hawk came a bunch and sacked Joe Flacco three times. Also, they've finally found a defensive lineman with some rush ability in second-year pro Mike Daniels. Three of his team-leading four sacks have come in the past two games.

As long as we're on the topic of quarterbacks, in 2011, backup Josh McCown played a halfway decent game against the Packers on Christmas at Lambeau Field, but he threw a couple of interceptions. What do you expect from him this time around as he starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have limited Brandon Marshall to 8 catches for 80 yards in their past two meetings.
Wright: Believe it or not, I expect little to no drop-off from McCown in this game. The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2011, McCown joined the team in November, fresh from a stint as a high school football coach in North Carolina, and four weeks later became the starter. So he basically came in cold and still played relatively well. This time around, McCown has become immersed in the offense from the ground level, when Trestman first came on board, and even had some input as the team constructed the scheme. In fact, during the offseason, McCown was holding film sessions with all the club's new additions to teach everyone the new offense. So he's got complete mastery of the offense just like Cutler, which is why McCown came in against the Redskins and the offense didn't miss a beat. Obviously, McCown doesn't possess Cutler's arm strength. But he'll make up for that deficiency with anticipation. I'm quite sure the Bears won't scale down the offense to accommodate McCown at all, because they don't need to. So I expect McCown to play well. I'm just not sure Chicago's offense can keep up with Green Bay's in what I expect to be a high-scoring game.

Speaking of high scoring, the Packers put up 44 points on the Minnesota Vikings. How is Green Bay handling the preparation process for the Bears?

Demovsky: Well, they certainly don't have as much time as the Bears do, considering the Bears are coming off their bye week. But the Packers have gotten themselves into a rhythm. They've won four in a row after their 1-2 start and look like a different team than they did the first three weeks of the season. Mike McCarthy probably doesn't get enough credit nationally, but show me another coach who has stared injuries in the face and hasn't blinked. What other team could lose playmakers like Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Matthews and still keep winning? That's a testament to the program he has established here. You can argue with some of his in-game coaching decisions, but you can do that with every coach. What you can't question, though, is the team's preparation.

The Bears, obviously, have had their share of injuries, too, losing Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. What's a bigger loss -- Cutler to the offense or Briggs to the defense?

Wright: Well, Cutler's replacement is a veteran in McCown who has plenty of experience and a ton of weapons surrounding him on offense, while rookie Khaseem Greene will likely fill in for Briggs on a bad defense that will also feature rookie Jon Bostic in the middle. From my vantage point, losing Briggs is much more significant. The Bears have already proved to be horrible against the run (ranked 25th), and that issue certainly won't improve with two rookies at linebacker and a defensive line decimated by injury. It's also worth noting that Briggs made all the defensive calls and served as somewhat of a coach on the field for Bostic. Given that Green Bay seems to be running the ball so well, the current situation with Chicago's front seven could be devastating.

Now that the Packers are running the ball so well, how has that changed the way the offense is called? It seems Green Bay runs well regardless of which running back they line up in the backfield.

Demovsky: It's remarkable -- and even a bit stunning -- to see Aaron Rodgers check out of a pass play and in to a run play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of thing hasn't happened around here in a long, long time -- probably not since Ahman Green was piling up 1,000-yard seasons nearly a decade ago. Teams no longer can sit back in a Cover-2 look and dare the Packers to run. Because guess what? The Packers can finally do it. It also has given the receivers more one-on-one opportunities, so it's helped the passing game, too. Right now, this offense almost looks unstoppable.

If the Packers keep playing like this, they might be tough to catch in the NFC North. What are the Bears' prospects for staying in the NFC North race until Cutler and Briggs return?

Wright: To me, this game is the measuring stick for making that determination. But I'm not really confident about Chicago's chances, and that has more to do with the team's struggling defense than Cutler's absence. There have been conflicting statements made about Cutler's recovery time frame. Some teammates think he'll be ready to return by the time the Bears face Detroit on Nov. 4, while Trestman said the plan is to stick to the minimum four-week time frame prescribed by the doctors. Either way, if the Bears lose to the Lions you can kiss their prospects for the playoffs goodbye. The Bears might be able to afford a loss to the Packers because they'll face them again on Dec. 29. But a sweep by the Lions kills Chicago's chances to me because just from what we've seen so far, it appears one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC North with the other coming from the NFC West. Obviously it's too early to predict that, but that's the way things seem to be shaking out.

Without two of his top receivers and tight end Finley, Rogers still hit 83 percent of his passes against the Vikings. Is that success a product of the system, a bad Minnesota defense, or is Rodgers just that good at this point?

Demovsky: The more I see other quarterbacks play, the more I'm convinced it's Rodgers. For example, seldom-used receiver Jarrett Boykin makes his first NFL start two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and he ends up with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. How many catches do you think he would have had if he were playing for the Browns that day? Their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, completed only 17-of-42 passes. That's not to minimize what Boykin did or what players like Jordy Nelson do week in and week out, but Rodgers is special, and special players elevate the play of those around them. Look at what Greg Jennings has done since he left for the Vikings. Now tell me the quarterback doesn't make the receiver, not vice versa.

Speaking of receivers, other than Anquan Boldin, who lit up the Packers in the opener at San Francisco, they've done a solid job shutting down other team's No. 1 receivers -- most recently Jennings and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. How do you think the Bears will try to get Brandon Marshall involved against what has been a pretty good Packers secondary?

Wright: This question brings me back to the 2012 massacre at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. The Packers bracketed Marshall with two-man coverage, and the Bears struggled tremendously. Shoot, cornerback Tramon Williams caught as many of Cutler's passes as Marshall, who finished the game with two grabs for 24 yards. Obviously, this offensive coaching staff is a lot different than last year's group. So the Bears will go into this game with a lot more answers for that coverage. I definitely see McCown leaning on Marshall and trying to get him involved as early as possible, but the only way he'll be able to do that is for the Bears to establish the rushing attack with Matt Forte so the quarterback can operate off play action. When the Bears go to Marshall early, expect to see a lot of short passes that will enable the receiver to gain some yardage after the catch.

Over the years, Green Bay has been pretty successful at limiting the impact of return man Devin Hester. So I was a little shocked to see the Packers give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson. As you probably know, Hester is coming off a pretty strong return game against the Redskins. Do you think the Packers fix the problems they encountered last week, and minimize Hester's impact?

Demovsky: Part of the Packers' problem on special teams has been that all the injuries have created a trickle-down effect. Here's what I mean: On the kickoff coverage until they gave up the 109-yard return to Patterson, they lined up six rookies, two of whom weren't even on the opening day roster. The Packers always have feared Hester, as they should, and in various games in recent years have shown they'd almost rather kick the ball out of bounds than give him any return opportunities. He's one of those special players who make rivalry games so entertaining.

Dreaming: Jermichael Finley and the Bears

March, 1, 2013
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Just to keep things spicy around here, I kept this discussion about Jermichael Finley's future decidedly within the NFC North.

Finley, of course, said this week he would "walk" from the Green Bay Packers if he was asked to take a pay cut to stay with the team in 2013. Asked in the video by ESPN's Prim Siripipat where Finley could land if the Packers release him, the first team to come to mind was the Chicago Bears.

General manager Phil Emery has said the team needs more out of its tight ends in the passing game, putting starter Kellen Davis and backup Matt Spaeth on notice. Would the Bears target Finley if he were available? He has had some huge games against the Bears in the past, catching three touchdowns in Week 3 of 2011 and totaling 115 receiving yards in Week 3 of 2010, but both of those games came before the arrival of Emery or coach Marc Trestman.

This discussion will be moot if Finley remains with the Packers, but if he's set loose, he would be an intriguing option. It's something to consider over the coming weeks, if nothing else.

Briggs: Finley an 'idiot' for Urlacher remark

December, 13, 2012
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The war of words between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers continued Thursday as Lance Briggs called Jermichael Finley "an idiot" for suggesting the Bears will be better off without Brian Urlacher on Sunday.

"He's an idiot," Briggs said. "Just suit up and play ball."

Read the entire story.

Packers TE: Bears better without Urlacher

December, 12, 2012
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The Bears will be without star linebacker Brian Urlacher when they face Green Bay, and Packers tight end Jermichael Finley said that actually might be a good thing for Chicago.

Read the entire story.

NFC North drop totals and percentages

November, 1, 2012
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I've found over the years that dropped passes tend to generate high levels of angst among readers, regardless of their frequency. I get it. There are few things more frustrating in football than seeing a good-looking play have the proverbial rug pulled out from under it.

I tossed out a few of ESPN Stats and Information's raw numbers Wednesday on Twitter and was quickly deluged with individual questions and requests for more context. So I'll endeavor to pass along all relevant information in this post.

Drops are a subjective statistic, and my experience with ESPN Stats & Information is that an incompletion has to be an obvious, clear drop for it to be recorded as one. As a result, you might see other statistical services hand out more drops. But to me it's all relative, as long as the same standards are applied to each team, we can get a clear perspective on who is dropping lots of passes and who isn't.

As the chart shows, the Green Bay Packers have the most drops in the NFC North (19) as well as the highest drop percentage (6.6). The 19 drops is tied for the NFL lead, but as we discussed on Twitter, percentage is more important because it adjusts for teams who throw more often. It stand to reason that a team like the Packers would have more drops than the Bears, who have thrown 155 fewer targeted passes over the first eight weeks of the season.

For the Packers, receiver Jordy Nelson has been debited with five drops. Tight end Jermichael Finley has four, receiver Randall Cobb has three and receiver Donald Driver has two (on nine targeted passes). No one else has more than one drop, and receiver James Jones -- who has some of the most notorious drops in recent Packers history -- has not been debited with any in 2012.

Below are some other notable drop figures in the NFC North. For reference, the NFL leader in drops based on this standard are Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who have seven drops apiece.

Blogger Blitz: Tight ends in end zone

September, 20, 2012
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Three years ago, there was so much excitement about NFC North tight ends that we monitored their progress regularly throughout the season. For different reasons, we've reached a similar point in 2012.

I'm sure fans of each NFC North team has had some angst about their top tight end this season, but the bottom line is that all four have scored a touchdown during the first two weeks of the season. I've set up a chart in this post to help us monitor their usage, performance and efficiency over time, and in this post I've offered some context and specifics in the Blogger Blitz video.

Drops are based on ESPN Stats & Information's evaluation and standards. They're an unofficial statistic and it's quite possible you'll see different numbers from other evaluators. It's a judgment call.

On the Packers' drop in explosiveness

September, 11, 2012
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RodgersAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers' downfield passing attack has been held in check over the Packers' last four games.
You might not believe this even if I tell you and back it up with facts and remind you that I have nothing to gain by pulling your chain.

OK, here goes.

As you probably know, the Packers are 1-3 in quarterback Aaron Rodgers' past four starts, including January's playoff loss to the New York Giants. Here is what you might not realize: Over that stretch, the Packers' downfield passing offense has plummeted to the absolute bottom of the NFL's rankings.

That's right. At this moment, no team is having a harder time being explosive than the Packers. The Packers!

Anecdotally, I think we would all agree their offensive production has slowed since the Kansas City Chiefs ended a 19-game winning streak last December. But the drop in efficiency and production of their best attribute has been acute, and it continued into Sunday's season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

ESPN Stats & Information defines downfield throws as those that travel at least 15 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage. As the first chart shows, Rodgers' completion percentage has fallen by more than half in those situations to 25.8, and his Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) has dropped to 17.4 (on a scale of 0-100). Both figures are league lows for starters with at least 25 plays/attempts over that stretch.

In short, Rodgers and the Packers hit a wall at full speed and haven't recovered. They were setting NFL records for downfield efficiency during their winning streak, but most recently they were reduced to dumping off 20 of their 30 completions to receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley (for a total of 124 yards) against the 49ers.

To be clear, a reduced ability to hit big plays shouldn't be a death knell for any team, even in a passing league. For the Packers, however, it has been their team-wide identity during one of the most successful periods in team history, and it has helped cover for deficiencies in other areas of the team. In response, the Packers must find an antidote or make substantive adjustments to their approach.

I don't expect that to be an easy job during a short week of preparation for an opponent, the Chicago Bears, that has stood up well against the Packers' downfield passing throughout Rodgers' career. As the second chart shows, Rodgers has a 65.7 passer rating on throws of 15-plus air yards against the Bears and a 102.7 passer rating against everyone else.


(Thanks to ESPN's Keith Hawkins, Jason Starrett and John McTigue for their research.)

Those are the facts. Naturally, the far more difficult task is understanding what has happened and how it can be fixed. There isn't likely to be one "magic bullet" answer other than to say defenses are prioritizing the deep pass and taking their chances with other aspects of the Packers' offense.

The 49ers, for one, used a secondary with exceptional man-to-man coverage skills, combined with deep safeties, to limit the Packers' downfield chances. They displayed little regard for the Packers' running game, and the Packers complied by calling only nine running plays (all to tailback Cedric Benson) and going without a running back on the field for more than half (31 of 61) of their plays.

"Their key thing was to keep us up front," said receiver Jordy Nelson, who caught five passes for 64 yards. "They don't want to give up any big plays. They did a good job of making us go the long way. That's tough against a defense like that. Going 10 yards at a time, three downs to get a first down. It makes it real tough on us. But it's going to be no different on Thursday. Chicago is going to do the same thing. They'll keep us in front."

Said Rodgers: "We didn’t have the opportunity to take a lot of shots downfield, but when we did, they made some plays on it."

Indeed, Rodgers directed three deep sideline passes in the first half of Sunday's game. None of them were ideal matchups. All were to receiver James Jones, who is talented but must be considered the Packers' third-best downfield threat after Nelson and Greg Jennings. Two of the passes fell incomplete, largely because Rodgers couldn't drop the ball into the tiniest of windows available because of coverage from cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. On the third, Jones committed offensive pass interference to create space to make the catch.

(Jones did haul in a 49-yard pass in the fourth quarter to set up the Packers' final score.)

For the most part, the 49ers played their safeties deep and kept Nelson and Jennings in front of them. Case in point: Safety Dashon Goldson stymied one of the Packers' most successful downfield routes by diagnosing a play-action post to Nelson early in the third quarter.

To be clear, the 49ers might have the NFL's best defense. But even a moderate defense can take steps to take away a single weapon. If you were the Bears or anyone else, why wouldn't you play as deep as possible and challenge the Packers to beat you with short passes and a running game they sometimes ignore?

These are some of the questions the Packers must face in this short week. Do they still want to be a downfield team? Or did their extensive game plan for Cobb on Sunday indicate their planned response to defenses that sit back to take away the big play? And would that mean for a defense? Its margin for error is lower when not protected by an explosive offense.

Four games isn't a huge sample size. When it carries over from one season to the next, however, it's fair to call it a trend. But like all trends, it can be stopped, redirected or reversed. Let's see what the Packers come up with.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 10, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Results were inconclusive, at best, on the Packers' primary offseason thrust. On the positive side, press box statistics show their pass rush got to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith for four sacks and two other post-throw hits. Linebacker Clay Matthews was credited with 2.5 sacks and defensive back Charles Woodson got the other 1.5. And two of Smith's biggest throws -- 29 yards to tight end Vernon Davis and 14 yards for a touchdown to Randy Moss -- were the fault of busted coverages. Smith threw plenty of quick-release passes, but in the end he had enough time to connect on nearly three-quarters of his throws. So to me it was a mixed bag. And for what it's worth, the Packers were blitzing heavily for a good portion of the game to ratchet up their pressure. They sent at least one extra rusher on 10 of Smith's first 21 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Woodson insisted the Packers' pass defense is "nowhere close to where it was last year" and said he liked the energy he saw. We'll see.
  2. Tight end Jermichael Finley was targeted a team-high 11 times and caught seven passes for 47 yards and a score. He also had one clear drop, another that could have been called one if you're a tough grader and a third play where he had enough trouble controlling the ball that the 49ers challenged the ruling of a completion. Afterwards, it was interesting to note how Finley responded when asked about the Packers "dropping" their first game. He misunderstood the question and belied his insistence that he isn't going to mourn drops this season. Here's what he said: "I thought about it all last year. I let it stress me. But this year, a drop is a drop. An interception is an interception, and we've got to move on from it. And go to the next play."
  3. If there was any doubt before, it's clear now: Veteran Donald Driver ranks no better than fifth on the Packers' receiver depth chart. He doesn't play on special teams, so the blunt truth was that he was active Sunday for insurance purposes. He didn't play until the final three snaps of the game, when starter Greg Jennings waved himself off the field. Before that, Driver did not get a snap. As we noted Sunday, second-year receiver Randall Cobb was a key part of the primary set the Packers used Sunday: Four receivers with Cobb lined up, initially, in the backfield. They used a variation of that formation on 31 of their 61 plays. Still, I actually think it makes sense to keep Driver on the roster as injury protection. If the Packers lose Jennings, Cobb, Jordy Nelson or James Jones, they could plug in Driver and not lose any formational versatility. Without him, they would be limited to three-receiver sets if someone were injured. It's worth a September roster spot.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Who did officials initially believe had committed an illegal block on Cobb's 75-yard punt return? I hope it was linebacker Brad Jones, whose block seemed questionable at best, and not linebacker Terrell Manning -- who blatantly hit Anthony Dixon in the back. The officials eventually picked up the flag, allowing the touchdown to stand. Such plays aren't reviewable, but Manning's illegal block was clear and undeniable. For the sake of the integrity of this replacement experiment, I hope they simply missed it altogether and didn't actually judge Manning's block to be legal upon further consideration.

Catches and drops in the NFC North

July, 7, 2012
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Some of you might already be aware of the cool feature running this week over at Pro Football Focus: A three-year study of a performance on a number of levels, including drops and their frequency relative to opportunities.

NFC North players were ranked at the top and bottom of this analysis, so let's take this fine Saturday morning to run through most of them. Remember, drops are an unofficial and subjective statistic that sometimes varies significantly from outlet to outlet. The good thing, as always, is that all players in this study were subjected to the same standard.

THE GOOD

Earl Bennett
Statistic:
Lowest drop rate (3.15 percent) of any NFL receiver
Comment: Bennett dropped four passes in 127 opportunities, partially explaining why quarterback Jay Cutler has so much confidence in him.

Michael Jenkins
Statistic:
Had 12th-lowest drop rate (5.88).
Comment: He had eight drops in 136 opportunities. Jenkins isn't a game-breaker, but is the definition of a reliable possession receiver.

THE BAD

Brandon Marshall
Statistic:
No. 1 overall in raw drops (35).
Comment: Marshall also had the third-most opportunities over that stretch, 303. That made his drop rate 11.55, the 10th-worst mark among receivers.

Brandon Pettigrew
Statistic:
Tied for the most drops (24) and highest drop rate (11.5) of any NFL tight end.
Comment: Pettigrew saw the fifth-most opportunities (208) over the time period. Most everyone would agree he has dropped a few too many.

Jermichael Finley
Statistic:
Fourth-highest drop rate (10.9) among tight ends.
Comment: Finley has vowed to clean up that part of his game.

James Jones
Statistic:
Second-highest drop rate (14.39) among all NFL receivers.
Comment: In total, he dropped 20 of 139 opportunities. His difficulties in 2009 have been well-documented.

Donald Driver
Statistic:
Seventh-most drops (22) and seventh-highest drop rate (12.3).
Comment: At best, Driver will be the Packers' No. 3 or No. 4 receiver this season.

Devin Hester
Statistic:
Had 15th-highest drop rate at 10.3.
Comment: Overall, Hester dropped 14 of 136 opportunities. If he gets more opportunities this season, as promised, well …

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
3/30/12
2:47
PM ET
» AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
11:12
AM ET
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

Tentative NFC North salary-cap status

February, 9, 2012
2/09/12
1:02
PM ET
The NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has brought an issue we haven't faced in a number of years: Tight salary-cap situations.

After jumping considerably in the final few years of the old CBA, the league's cap limit isn't expected to rise much, if any, for the 2012 season. That means teams will have roughly $120 million to work with as they assemble the top 51 players on their training camp roster.

Based on the numbers I've been able to dig up, it appears that three of our four NFC North teams are going to be relatively tight against that number, especially considering they need to save room for signing a draft class. All teams must be in compliance when the new league year opens, and free agency begins, on March 13.

The following is how much each team currently has committed to its 2012 cap. Keep in mind that the numbers probably will change between now and March 13 as teams re-sign, re-negotiate and release players from their rosters.
A few thoughts:
  1. We've already discussed the Lions' situation at some length. Simple math tells us they're going to have to adjust some current salaries just to get under $120 million, and the first candidate is receiver Calvin Johnson, who is projected to count about $22 million against the cap alone. As we've noted, four players -- Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch -- account for nearly half of their total cap projection.
  2. There are tricks available for teams like the Lions who want to keep or re-sign their players in a tight environment. They come with risks and the potential for future problems, but there is always a way to squeeze players into a given year's cap. The new CBA has a provision that allows teams to borrow against future caps, providing another option.
  3. One positive bi-product of the Bears' decision to trade for quarterback Jay Cutler in 2009: It relieved them of the cap commitment associated with two first-round draft picks. That's one of the reasons new general manager Phil Emery has some $18 million to work with if he wants to sign veteran free agents and/or use his franchise tag on tailback Matt Forte.
  4. The Packers have a number of veterans they want to re-sign, including tight end Jermichael Finley and center Scott Wells. With about $5 million in wiggle room, based on these numbers, they'll need to make some adjustments to fit both players in. As Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has already suggested, the Packers could carve out some space by either releasing receiver Donald Driver or renegotiating his contract. The same could happen for left tackle Chad Clifton.
  5. Still, it should be clear why it seems unlikely that the Packers would place their franchise tag on quarterback Matt Flynn for the purposes of trading him after March 13. Doing so would require a $14 million cap commitment, require more cap maneuvering than would be comfortable and likely exposing either Finley or Wells to the free agent market.

Finally: Your 2011 All-NFC North team

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
3:33
PM ET
Calvin Johnson and Aaron RodgersGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson, left, and Aaron Rodgers were easy picks for the All-NFC North team.
It took longer than expected. Preliminary decisions were questioned. Debates extended into the wee hours. We went through a first draft, then a second and even a third. Countless observers were consulted. It wasn't until I had a full week to mull the 2011 All-NFC North team that I was prepared to make the big reveal.

Via Twitter, @jpberthiaume asked: "Do people really care about these 'teams?'" I guess it's a fair point. I doubt few, if any, of the players listed in the chart wrote a fifth-grade essay about their plans to one day make the All-NFC North team on ESPN.com, even if it was only because the NFC North hadn't yet been formed in those days and ESPN.com was operating out of a Bristol-based closet.

So I'll let you be the judge. This is annually a fun exercise, even if it doesn't lead to a deep understanding of the human condition or even reveal any breakthroughs about the just-completed season. If nothing else, it offers us a blank template to recognize the best-performing players in the division without the hindrance of the politics and reputation.

Some notes on some of the tight decisions, for which I seriously received input from multiple angles:

  • One of the fiercest debates came at wide receiver. Everyone agreed that the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson deserved one spot, but there was a split about the other two. Did the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, who missed three games because of a knee injury, deserve an automatic bid? And if he did, should the Packers' Jordy Nelson or the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin get the third spot? I thought Jennings' 67 receptions, 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games merited a spot. And ultimately I chose Nelson over Harvin. I realize Harvin caught 87 passes in a punchless offense and added 345 rushing yards to his total, but in the end I couldn't overlook a player who scored more touchdowns (15) than all but four players in the NFL this season. Plus, as Hatterbot pointed out: "Rushing yards don't count in the WR category."
  • I went with the Lions' Rob Sims at left guard in part on the advice of John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, who noted that Sims was the only NFC North left guard to play the position for 16 games this season. Sims also had the best pass-sack ratio (19.7 passes per sack) of the group, based on video study.
  • There is no doubt that the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew (83 catches) had a more productive season than the Packers' Jermichael Finley (55). But the Lions often used Pettigrew as a substitute for their punchless running game, and that's why his per-catch average of 9.4 yards was lower than any other tight end with at least 30 catches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average pass to Pettigrew this season traveled 6.5 yards in the air. The average pass to Finley traveled 11.4 yards. Finley caught five passes of at least 30 yards. Pettigrew's longest was 27. Both players had their share of drops, combining for a total of 15, but I thought Finley made a bigger impact on his catches than Pettigrew did.
  • I really debated the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Lions' Cliff Avril at defensive end. Avril (11.5) had a half-sack more than Peppers (11) and forced twice as many fumbles. But one of the advantages we have on this team is investigating beyond the conventional numbers. Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Peppers with 53 quarterback pressures, the second-highest total in the NFL. Avril ranked No. 8 with 37, but in a close race I chose the maximum number of plays impacted over Avril's slight edge in "playmaking" statistics.
  • I used a similar approach in choosing the Vikings' Kevin Williams and the Lions' Ndamukong Suh as my defensive tackles. It's true that the Bears' Henry Melton led the NFC North's defensive tackles with seven pressures, but PFF had Suh with 27 quarterback pressures, an NFL high for an interior lineman. Williams tied for No. 3 with 25. Melton wasn't that far behind at 23, but I also took into account that the Bears nearly benched him for inconsistency at one point in the season. (Coach Lovie Smith in November: "He hasn't showed up as much. Whether teams have adjusted to him or whatever, we need to get more production from him because he's capable of it.") Meanwhile, I thought Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji took a step backward in 2011. PFF credited him with only 10 stops (the cumulative number of plays made that constitute an offensive failure) in 842 snaps.
  • If you want to say I chickened out at linebacker, go ahead. I originally left open the middle and one of the outside spots, but in the end I went with our division standbys: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. For starters, Briggs was one of six non-offensive linemen to play 100 percent of his team's snaps in the NFL this season. There's something to be said for being available to your team. And while I do think that the Packers' Desmond Bishop and the Lions' Stephen Tulloch had good seasons, I couldn't find a statistic or an opinion that convinced me they were better than Urlacher. Someday, there will be turnover among NFC North linebackers. But it didn't happen this season.
  • Safety play was poor throughout the NFC North, so I'm not at all ashamed to have chosen a third cornerback to replace one of the safeties on this team. It came down to the Lions' Chris Houston and the Packers' Tramon Williams. Both had their ups and downs in coverage. Houston had five interceptions and two touchdowns in 14 games, while Williams had four interceptions and one touchdown in 15 games. In the end, I chose Williams because I think it was pretty clear he was pushing through a really limiting shoulder injury for much of the first half of the season.
  • I chose the Packers' specialists, kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay. Crosby converted 24 of 28 kicks, including a 58-yarder, and ranked third in the NFL with 49 touchbacks. Masthay downed a division-high 23 punts inside the 20-yard line despite a division-low 55 punts.
  • I mistakenly left off a coverage specialist from our original post. There should be no debating that the Bears' Corey Graham deserves that spot.
  • Go ahead. Rip away....
Coming later this week: Some supplementary NFC North awards, including our top coordinators.

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