Chicago Bears: Mikel Leshoure
We'll take it team by team, of course:
Veteran report date: Wednesday
Analysis: Receiver Brandon Marshall missed almost the entire offseason program because of hip surgery, getting on the field for one day of mandatory minicamp. Place-kicker Robbie Gould also missed time as his surgically-repaired calf healed. Receivers Marquess Wilson and Alshon Jeffery also missed time with hamstring injuries, but there are no indications that any of them will be significantly limited when practice begins Friday.
Veteran report date: Thursday
Analysis: One of the biggest stories in Detroit this week will be whether safety Louis Delmas is ready to practice, and if so, whether the Lions let him do everything or if he is limited. Delmas missed the entire offseason because of ongoing knee issues, even after signing a contract extension that will pay him $1.715 million if he can't play this season. Receiver Ryan Broyles, meanwhile, is just under eight months removed from tearing his ACL. The Lions could put him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, or they could pass him on his physical and let him ease into practice. The assumption is that two other veterans who did little this offseason, place-kicker David Akers (sports hernia/hip) and running back Mikel Leshoure (hamstring) will be ready to practice.
Green Bay Packers
Veteran report date: Thursday
Analysis: Many of you have asked about offensive lineman Derek Sherrod, who hasn't had any football activity since suffering a gruesome leg injury in December 2011. The Packers had hoped he would be in the mix at right tackle this offseason, but that never materialized. If Sherrod still isn't ready to practice when camp opens, you wonder if he ever will be. Meanwhile, it's tough to expect defensive tackle Jerel Worthy to be ready anytime soon after he tore his ACL in Week 17 last season. The same goes for rookie offensive lineman J.C. Tretter (broken ankle). On the other hand, we're assuming that cornerback Davon House (shoulder) and running back DuJuan Harris (cyst) will be ready. The status of rookie receivers Charles Johnson and Kevin Dorsey, both of whom missed the entire offseason, is not clear.
Veteran report date: Thursday
Analysis: Center John Sullivan sat out the offseason after having microfracture surgery on his knee. Coach Leslie Frazier said at the end of minicamp that Sullivan was on track to be ready when camp opens. There have been no reports of a setback. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) didn't participate in the Packers' offseason, but he has said he will be ready for camp. Defensive end Jared Allen did not participate this offseason because of surgery to repair a torn labrum but has said he will be cleared for practice. Receiver Greg Childs was doing light running during the offseason and is now a year removed from tearing both patellar tendons, but he could be a candidate for the PUP list. Linebacker Chad Greenway's minor offseason knee surgery isn't expected to slow him in training camp. Cornerback Jacob Lacey broke his thumb in June, and his status merits observation. Rookie linebacker Michael Mauti (knee) got in some light work late in the offseason, but it's worth watching whether the Vikings deem him ready for contact drills.
How does each NFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
Chicago Bears: If you were drawing up plans for an experienced but diverse backfield, you could do a lot worse than modeling after the Bears. Starter Matt Forte is a shifty off-tackle runner and one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs, a collection of skills that will fit neatly into new coach Marc Trestman's offense. Forte has caught 267 passes since his career started in 2008, the third-most in the NFL by a running back over that stretch. Backup Michael Bush, meanwhile, is a bigger and stronger inside threat who gives the Bears a better option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He produced a first down on 24.6 percent of his rushes last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the 10th-best percentage in the NFL. As long as Forte and Bush are healthy, the Bears' relatively thin depth behind them is irrelevant.
Detroit Lions: Free agent acquisition Reggie Bush figures to benefit from opponents' attention on receiver Calvin Johnson to much greater extent than the Lions' backfield did last season. Early indications are the Lions will use Bush similarly to the way the New Orleans Saints did earlier in his career. With the Saints in 2006, Bush caught 88 passes. Training camp should bring competition for the right to be the "thumper" behind Bush. Will it be 2011 second-round draft choice Mikel Leshoure, who looked slow and not very elusive after returning last season from a torn Achilles tendon? (No NFL running back had as many touches as Leshoure without at least one play of at least 20 yards.) Or will it be the lesser-known Joique Bell, who as Pro Football Focus points out, made defenders miss regularly last season. He forced 26 missed tackles in 82 carries and actually averaged more yards after contact (2.99) than Bush did with the Miami Dolphins (2.06).
Green Bay Packers: The team re-made its backfield through the draft after years of transition, throwing the situation into unknown territory. At some point, the Packers will have to thin the herd of a group that includes returnees DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn, along with rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The competition is wide open, although both Starks and Green have failed when given previous opportunities. Lacy's build and pedigree suggests he has an excellent chance to ultimately win the starting job, but Harris impressed the team late last season and could get the first shot this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson. Is there much more to say? Historically, runners who put together a 2,000-yard season tend to fall back the following year. But nothing about Peterson's career suggests he will fit neatly into a trend. He has set a goal of 2,500 yards, and however unrealistic it might be, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Backup Toby Gerhart is in his fourth and presumably last season as Peterson's understudy. While Gerhart hasn't shown much explosion in short stints in Peterson's place, you would think he'll want to look elsewhere for more carries when his contract expires after this season.
2. Health in Green Bay: Nearly half of the Green Bay Packers' Week 1 lineup has missed at least one game because of injuries. All told, the Packers have lost 40 starts from players who were either listed as the starters on the team's opening depth chart or moved into that role as a result of other injuries. They face a post-bye landscape without receiver Greg Jennings, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back Cedric Benson, linebackers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews, and cornerback Charles Woodson, for various periods of time. Receiver Jordy Nelson's status is uncertain. Optimists recall the Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago with 15 players on injured reserve. A realist would wonder how likely it is to repeat that feat under such circumstances.
1. Cornerbacks in Chicago: Even in a passing league, NFL teams have devalued the cornerback position in favor of pass rushers in recent years. Conventional wisdom has suggested that rules inhibiting aggressive coverage made pressure a better defensive weapon. But the Chicago Bears have proved otherwise this season, getting dominant performances from cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings both in coverage and playmaking. Their coverage has helped the Bears' pass rush compile an NFL-high 21 sacks from a standard four-man alignment, and as playmakers they've contributed a combined eight interceptions, three touchdowns, 21 defensed passes and seven forced fumbles. Oh, and they're combining to earn $6.55 million this season. That might have to change between now and the start of the 2013 season.
2. Scott Linehan, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator: The Lions have faced considerable criticism for not forcing more downfield passes against defenses who are blatantly aligned to stop those plays. That strength-on-strength argument sounds good around the water cooler, but it's a suicidal long-term approach. Linehan and coach Jim Schwartz understood that and, from the beginning, have insisted on a traditional antidote: The running game. Personnel shortages made that difficult earlier this season, but the emergence of Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell provide hope for the second half of the season. The two combined for 149 yards on 29 carries last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Leshoure scored three touchdowns. Linehan deserves credit for maintaining a sane thought process amid early season panic around the team. A successful running game might not force radical defensive changes, but it will give the Lions a reliable way to move the ball and score if they don't.
3. Adrian Peterson, Vikings running back: Exactly 315 days ago, Peterson's left knee was a mangled mess. We've already noted his stunning comeback, but it's worth updating after his 182-yard performance last Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. In his past three games alone, Peterson has amassed 458 yards and four touchdowns, including breakaway runs of 74 and 64 yards. He leads the NFL in rushing yards (his total of 957 this season is 163 more than the NFL's next-most productive running back), yards from scrimmage (1,107), yards per carry (5.7), yards after contact (515) and runs of at least 20 yards (11). His comeback has been no less impressive than that of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and his recovery came in less than half the time.
4. Jay Cutler, Bears quarterback: From this vantage point, Cutler made substantial progress on multiple fronts over the past month. We got to the point where Cutler's quirks and sideline exchanges became a matter of course rather than cause for personality debates. We acknowledged how good he has been in clutch situations. And now we should note that the Bears are 12-1 in Cutler's past 13 starts dating to last season. Since the start of the 2010 season, in fact, the Bears have a .750 winning percentage in his starts (24-9). For reference, the Packers have a .769 winning percentage under quarterback Aaron Rodgers in that same span.
Commissioner Roger Goodell would never call off a season after seven weeks, of course. (Think of all the lost ticket revenue!) We're not even at the season's midpoint, but already, I think, we're beginning to see some clarity in this division. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings have each put themselves in position for the division title, while the Detroit Lions are on the brink of 2012 extinction.
That's right. After a 13-7 defeat of the Lions in a game that wasn't that close, the Bears have the second-best record (5-1) in the NFC. According to the updated standings, the Vikings (5-2) rank fifth and the Packers (4-3) sixth in the conference. The Lions, on the other hand, have more losses at 2-4 than 24 of the NFL's 32 teams.
I realize there is more football left to be played this season than has been played. But this is the time of year when patterns emerge and stories start getting written, and Monday night we saw the Bears emerge from their bye as sharp as they entered it. They forced four turnovers, three in the red zone, and were 30 seconds away from their first shutout in three years. And the Lions looked no different than the team that has won this season only when mounting a fourth-quarter comeback.
"This was two evenly matched teams," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward. "When you're playing a good team like Chicago, one that's leading the NFC North, we're on the road, we're not going to win the way we played."
To be clear, the Lions had a chance to steal this game largely because the Bears' offense slowed considerably after quarterback Jay Cutler suffered bruised ribs late in the second quarter. But there was never a time when I thought the Lions were matching the Bears blow for blow, as evenly matched teams do.
Evidence? Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did the impossible, matching up all night with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and limiting him to three catches on the 11 passes he was targeted on. The Bears surprised the Lions by blitzing more often than usual, on 28.8 percent of Matthew Stafford's dropbacks, according to ESPN's Stats and Information. And the Bears' two-deep safety look didn't give up a pass longer than 23 yards.
The Lions, in fact, absorbed most of the blows Monday. Bears defenders stripped the ball from running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell in the red zone. And in a sequence that defined the current situations for both teams, the Bears fought off the Lions at their most vulnerable moment.
It began when Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sacked Cutler violently but legally -- and cleanly, according to all involved -- with 4 minutes, 52 seconds left in the second quarter.
Cutler missed five plays while getting the injury attended to. (Asked if he received a pain-killing injection at halftime, Cutler said: "We did some stuff back here in the back room.") When he returned to open the third quarter, it was clear Cutler couldn't step into and drive his throws. He was short to tight end Kyle Adams on second down and managed a pair of 2-yard passes to tailback Matt Forte before the Bears punted.
"It was on my right side," Cutler said. "I couldn't really follow through. Couldn't get through the ball. It had an impact on our play calling, but defense was playing so well, we thought we could ride it out a little."
Still, at that moment -- with Cutler debilitated and the Lions' defense seemingly energized -- you could sense the potential for a turning point. But the Lions' Stefan Logan muffed the ensuing punt, and three minutes later the Bears took a 13-0 lead that stood until the final seconds of the game.
Schwartz kept it positive afterward, saying: "We can battle back. We've battled back in games, we can do it in the season." But the Lions now have six very similar games on their resume -- slow starts, special teams miscues and last-second dashes -- that suggest they have some fundamental issues they might not be equipped to address immediately.
"If I had all the answers," Stafford said, "it would be nice."
If the Lions seem stuck in a rut, the Bears appear as well-rounded and disciplined as they've ever been under coach Lovie Smith. Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs are having All-Pro seasons, and Monday they had reason to rally around their quarterback for positive reasons.
You might not realize it, but the Bears are 10-1 in Cutler's past 11 starts dating back to last season. While there was never a (rational) reason to doubt his toughness, Monday night felt like the moment when he earned his stripes in Chicago.
"That's what you should have as your Chicago Bear quarterback," Smith said. "And he does it time after time."
Put it all together, and the Bears are in their best-case scenario after six games. The Vikings and Packers aren't far behind. The Lions are on the short end of things. But no division is perfect, right?
But three games into Leshoure's NFL career, the Lions are finally starting to see a return on their investment.
Leshoure carried the ball 26 times for 100 yards and a touchdown in his debut against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 23, the first Detroit running back to reach the 100-yard rushing plateau in his first career game since Billy Sims did it back in 1980. Two weeks later Leshoure rushed for 70 yards on 15 attempts (4.7 avg.) in the Lions' 26-23 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Chicago Bears: Tight end Evan Rodriguez (knee) missed practice and isn't expected to play Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Linebacker Brian Urlacher took his regular day off Friday. Receiver Earl Bennett (and) and tailback Matt Forte (ankle) were limited. The Bears will announce game statuses Saturday.
Detroit Lions: Quarterback Matthew Stafford (leg muscle/hamstring/hip) is listed as probable. He had full participation in Friday's practice and he'll start Sunday at Ford Field. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) is doubtful, but he never practiced this week and won't play. Running back Mikel Leshoure (groin) and tight end Tony Scheffler (calf) are questionable but expected to play.
Green Bay Packers: The only players who might not be available for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints are safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Davon House (shoulder). All other players, including running back James Starks (toe) are at least probable. Coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Starks is no better than No. 3 on the depth chart behind Cedric Benson and Alex Green, an indication he might not be active Sunday.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings ruled out linebacker Erin Henderson (concussion) and safety Mistral Raymond (ankle), as expected. Safety Andrew Sendejo (ankle) and defensive end D'Aundre Reed (calf) are questionable, and all other players are expected to be available. Quarterback Christian Ponder (neck) returned to full participation in practice Friday.
Opponent: New York Giants
Location: MetLife Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: After an intense week of discussion about linebacker Brian Urlacher's future, there is more reason than ever to scrutinize Nick Roach's play at middle linebacker. Whereas we once considered it a lock that Urlacher will be ready to start the season, there now seems at least a chance that Roach will open the year at middle linebacker. It's not his best position. … Punter Adam Podlesh has a hip flexor, so rookie Ryan Quigley will handle all of the punting duties Friday night. His performance will determine whether the Bears need to consider other options if Podlesh isn't ready to start the season. … The game will be televised nationally on CBS.
Focal point: What else, if not for the Bears' offensive line? The Giants aren't expected to play All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul because of back spasms, but they should still give the Bears' line its best test yet. The Bears would like to make a final decision on their starting left tackle, where J'Marcus Webb is trying to hold off Chris Williams, as well as at left guard. Chris Spencer and Chilo Rachal are competing for that job.
Opponent: San Diego Chargers
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tailback Adrian Peterson won't play but will participate fully in pregame warmups, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. … Cornerback Chris Cook (concussion) and nose tackle Letroy Guion (knee) aren't expected to play. … The Vikings will continue to search for possibilities to replace receiver Jerome Simpson during his three-game suspension. Look for second-year player Stephen Burton, along with veterans Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu, to all get long looks. … Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson has impressed the Vikings in training camp and could get a chance to work with the first team Friday night. … Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst will start for the Chargers, who don't want to risk starter Philip Rivers behind an injury-riddled offensive line. Tight end Antonio Gates will also sit out.
Focal point: This might be middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley's final chance to secure the starting job. The Vikings haven't been thrilled with his tentative preseason performances, coming after a hip injury cost him the 2011 season. Another poor outing could put the team on a search for replacements.
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Location: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum
Day/Time: Saturday/7 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tailback Mikel Leshoure is expected to make his NFL debut, nearly 17 months after he was drafted and nearly 20 months from his last live game. Leshoure last played for Illinois on Dec. 29, 2010. He missed last season because of a ruptured Achilles and a portion of training camp this summer because of a hamstring strain. The Lions want to get him some preseason work because he'll has been suspended for the first two weeks of the regular season. ... New special teams ace Kassim Osgood isn't expected to play. ... Rookie Kellen Moore's chances of making the team increased with the release of R.J. Archer, but he still must earn a roster spot even though he is one of only three quarterbacks on the roster. The Lions could keep only two on their final 53-man roster.
Focal point: It would be nice to see defensive tackle Nick Fairley have a signature, breakout game to reinforce projections that he will be a significant factor this season. But in reality, a game with impact would suffice.
Opponent: Baltimore Ravens
Location: M&T Bank Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Lions continue to experiment with their arrangement in the defensive secondary, and Jacob Lacey is expected to start at cornerback with rookie Bill Bentley playing in nickel packages. … The first-team offense is looking to sustain some success after a scoreless preseason opener. ... Two prominent players who missed that game, receiver Titus Young (birth of child) and defensive end Cliff Avril (late camp report) are scheduled to play. … Coach Jim Schwartz grew up in Baltimore and was tweeting cityscapes from his hotel room Thursday evening. … The game will be televised nationally on FOX.
Focal point: Tailback Jahvid Best appears likely to open the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, once again placing an emphasis on depth behind Mikel Leshoure (hamstring) and current starter Kevin Smith. You would figure that Keiland Williams and Joique Bell will once again get a heavy workload.
Opponent: Buffalo Bills
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Vikings held a number of veterans out of their preseason opener, but most of them are expected to play Friday night. The list includes defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, cornerback Antoine Winfield and receiver Percy Harvin. … You should also get your first look at rookie cornerback Josh Robinson. … Tailback Adrian Peterson (knee) returned to practice this week but won't play. … The Vikings are looking forward to seeing rookie place-kicker Blair Walsh's big leg in the still conditions of the Metrodome.
Focal point: The most important task for the franchise is continuing to push the development of quarterback Christian Ponder, who made an encouraging 2012 debut last week. But almost as important is getting at least an even performance from backup Joe Webb, who hasn't had a good summer. The Vikings made Webb a full-time quarterback in the offseason, but if he falls short, he's too good of an athlete to cast aside.
Opponent: Washington Redskins
Location: Soldier Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Quarterback Jay Cutler will make his preseason debut, and the same is assumed for tailback Matt Forte and defensive end Julius Peppers. … The next installment of the Bears' left tackle drama is expected to include some first-team time for Chris Williams. The Bears want J'Marcus Webb to win the job, but at this point Cutler's safety is the primary goal.
Focal point: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's knee surgery brings new scrutiny on the Bears' emergency plan at the position, which for the moment includes moving Nick Roach inside from the strong side and inserting veteran newcomer Geno Hayes on the strong side. Is that an arrangement the Bears could use if Urlacher is forced to miss regular-season time? Or do they need to find help from the outside?
Last week, the Chicago Bears were revealed as one of the five new playoff teams in 2012. In the video, posted in my absence by ESPN.com blog editors, analyst Herm Edwards noted the Bears have made the appropriate moves to enhance their passing game around a healthy Jay Cutler. I set forth that argument, along with some other points, in a recent Blogger Blitz video.
Thursday evening, the Detroit Lions were revealed to be one of five 2011 playoff teams that will miss the postseason in 2012. I imagine this debate will continue throughout the summer and fall here on the blog, so for now I'll publish the primary talking points from ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth and Damien Woody as a foundation for our discussions.
- The Lions have had a poor reaction to success this offseason, noted Schlereth, with six arrests. "Can you play with more discipline this season?" Schlereth asked.
- Woody noted the Lions' defense ranked in the bottom third of the NFL last season despite its strength along the defensive line. "And there are still major questions in the secondary," Woody said.
- Woody is concerned that the Lions' top two running backs, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, are returning from injuries.
- The Bears' newfound strength has made it tougher to secure a wild-card, presuming the Green Bay Packers win the division, according to Woody. He added: "I give the edge to the Bears."
- Schlereth is concerned that the Lions "at times" struggled to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford last season.
If nothing else, what we've done the past month or so is set up the parameters for what public discussion of this division will soon look like. The Packers remain the title favorites, while the Bears have leapfrogged the Lions in the estimation of many. I have officially taken no position, a space that provides me maximum opportunity to stir the masses as training camp approaches.
By the time the Packers secured a 45-41 victory, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had exceeded 5,000 yards passing for the season and Packers backup Matt Flynn had convinced the league he was a starting-caliber quarterback. Where once we could have expected the teams to grind out a classic Black and Blue game, they instead combined for a total of 37 carries. No running back made it to the modest total of 50 yards.
We've spent some time this offseason noting what we could politely call a tilt toward the passing game in both Detroit and Green Bay. We've discussed the Chicago Bears' seeming ambivalence about signing tailback Matt Forte to a long-term extension, and we've pointed out the Minnesota Vikings' uncertainty as tailback Adrian Peterson rehabilitates his shredded knee.
If you looked at this division through a traditional lens, you could consider running back a significant draft need for at least half of the division, if not all of it. But the NFC North's frenzied quarterback acquisitions over the past few years have brought us to a precipice. Are we ready to jump off, once and for all, into the world of Air and Space? Or will our teams step away from that ledge and rebalance their personnel, if not their scheme, to double back on the running game?
As the NFL continues its push toward passing supremacy, it's hard to imagine any NFC North team making anything other than subtle changes. Why take the ball out of the hands Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler or Stafford? And why not give Christian Ponder every chance to take the next step in his development?
This offseason, we've heard the Vikings speak often about seeking more playmakers for Ponder. We've watched the Bears sign Michael Bush as insurance against Forte's possible absence, but otherwise the Bears have worked to fortify their passing game with the acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall and private meetings with many of the draft's top receivers, from Michael Floyd to Stephen Hill to Alshon Jeffery.
The Lions are the case study here, followed closely by the Packers. Injuries to Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith and the brain tumor of Jerome Harrison left them little choice but to rely on Stafford's arm last season. They finished 2011 with the second-fewest rushing attempts in the NFL, managed 71 rushing first downs (No. 29 in the league), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Stafford told reporters this week that "everybody on our team would like to be a little more balanced than we were last year." It's reasonable to think they will be if Best and/or Leshoure are available full-time. But a serious commitment to improve would almost certainly require a draft investment. Best (concussion) has not been cleared for football work, Leshoure (Achilles) is coming back from a serious injury for a running back, and Smith has had difficulty staying healthy throughout his career.
How much do the Lions value that balance? We should find out over draft weekend. Again, most of us would look at their roster and toss question marks all over their backfield. But in 2012, how important is it to have an established and traditional No. 1 running back?
"We want to score as many points as we can," coach Jim Schwartz said at the NFL scouting combine. "Whether you do it running or passing, it doesn't matter. I think you want to try to get the ball in playmakers' hands."
In the end, the Lions might be best-served by pursuing a more modest goal: Being in position to capitalize against imbalanced defenses. Dictating a game on the ground might well be an NFC North artifact.
"If teams take the approach of playing the pass first," Schwartz said, "we should be in the position of having running backs who can make them pay for that."
Yes, there is a more than reasonable argument to be made that you don't need an elite running back when you have elite quarterbacks and receivers. A competent running back who doesn't miss the obvious yards might well suffice.
I don't know if the Lions, or the Packers for that matter, will invest a high draft pick in a running back. None of us do. But is it necessary? Probably not, at least not in our new Air and Space division. Soon we'll know how far off the cliff we've fallen.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We focused quite a bit Thursday on the Bears after news of coach Lovie Smith’s extension broke, with general manager Jerry Angelo holding court in his hotel room just a couple of hours later.
So today, let’s focus a bit more on some of the local prospects working out here at the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
We spoke with former Illinois linebacker Mikel Leshoure, a second-team all-American selection who rushed for a single-season school record 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns, and was named Texas Bowl MVP after pounding Texas Tech for 187 yards and three TDs.
Here’s what Leshoure, a potential first-day pick, said during his time with the media at the combine.
Did you come in weighing less than your playing weight from the season?
Mikel Leshoure:I actually did. I had about six weeks of training down in McKinney, Texas, with Michael Johnson Performance. I came in about 230 and I weighed in today about 227 (Leshoure’s playing weight was 230 pounds).
Can less weight help with your time in the 40-yard dash?
Former Illinois running backs Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall have gone on to become successful in the NFL. Does their success give you hope about your potential NFL career?
ML: Definitely. I don't think it's any added pressure or anything like that to me. I feel like if I continue to do what I'm doing, and what I have done at the collegiate level, I'll be just fine. But for those guys to have the success that they did at the NFL is a plus to Illinois football, and the running backs that came out of there.
Do you think the scouts will take those guys into account when evaluating you?
ML: I think it will help; the running backs that have come out of Illinois and what they've done so far.
You rushed for a school-record 330 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Was that the game that helped solidify your decision to declare for the draft early?
ML: I would say just that game, but overall I felt like I exceeded my expectations for the season as far as my stats and, also my team goals. One of my goals was to make it to a bowl game and win. I feel like I did that and I was blessed to get MVP of the game. And as a running back, the time's running. You've got to go when the iron's hot, and I felt like this was the best time for me.
Have the Bears or Packers shown interest in you?
ML: I haven't gotten any special attention from those two teams or any one-on-one visits with those guys, just the meetings that we had with the 32 teams yesterday. That was about it.
Would you say you’re a complete running back?
ML: I definitely feel like I'm a complete back. I feel like I can run, I can pass-block and I'm very confident with my hands, not only the short 5- and 10-yard routes, but I feel like I can beat some of the safeties and linebackers downfield. So me personally, I feel like I'm a complete back.
Do you think you can be the first back taken in April?
ML: Yes, I definitely think I can be the No. 1 back taken. That's my goal. Everyone has their own opinion. You hear a lot of different stuff and see a lot of different things on T.V. But with my versatility and the things I can bring to the table, it will show a lot of scouts and GMs that I can be their guy.
Would you rather juke a guy or run him over?
ML: It depends on how that guy's looking. You can look in his eyes and that will tell you a lot. I feel like I can do either one of those, and that's what makes me a different back. One of those guys might just have the quickness and can move, and another guy might have the power that can run him over. But I feel like I have a little bit of both.
Are you a smack talker?
ML: I've never been a smack talker. I do like to celebrate a little in the end zone and with my teammates, but I'm not the type of guy that goes out on the field and talks a lot of smack.
With character being such an issue with teams these days, how will you address questions about your character with these teams in interviews?
ML: I feel like I've grown as man from my first year to my junior year. I made some mistakes earlier in my collegiate career, but if you were to go act and talk to any of the coaches, from the strength and conditioning coach to the head coach about me, they'll tell you that I'm mature for my age and I've learned a lot from my mistakes. I'm a guy that they can count on and I'll be there for my team or my coaches.
Can you tell us a little more about the game against Northwestern?
ML: It was a good game. That game we had something to prove. Our coach [Ron Zook] came in that Monday of practice and told us a little quote that was said by the head coach [Pat Fitzgerald] of Northwestern. He called some of our guys a bunch of thugs and all of us would've gone to their school, but weren't academically eligible to do so. That fired us up. You could look in my guys' eyes, my teammates before that game started and you could tell that we all wanted it. We proved it that game.
You had some adversity growing up. Could you tell us about that?
ML: Growing up, I grew up without my father for about 16, 17 years of my life. It was just me and my mother [Jacqueline Jones]. I'm an only child, so it was just me and her. I learned a lot from that. I learned from an early age that I have to be the man of the house and take care of my mother and myself, and it taught me a lot of responsibility. It made me the man I am today.
So this has to be an exciting time for you and your mother, right?
ML: Definitely. It's been a dream of mine since I was a little boy. If you talk to my mom, she'll tell you that when I was little, I used to walk around with a Nerf football. So to finally get an opportunity at the biggest stage in football, it's a blessing and I just want to take advantage of it and work hard.
Why did you choose Illinois out of high school?
ML: I definitely had other options as far as which schools I wanted to go to. Unfortunately, I didn't take any other official visits, which I wish I would've done. It may have changed my decision. But I was happy with the decision I made. I was happy with my teammates, with the coaching staff. If I could go back and do it again, I would do everything the same.
Are there any running backs in the NFL you like right now in terms of rushing style?
ML: [Rams running back] Steven Jackson. I love the way he plays. He reminds me of myself. He's a big guy, but he's very versatile. He shows good hands and he shows toughness. He plays through injuries, and I feel like I can do all of those things.