Chicago Bears: Erin Henderson

Eight in the Box: NFC North camp issues

July, 19, 2013
7/19/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?

CHICAGO BEARS

Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.

Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.

Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.

DETROIT LIONS

Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.

Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.

Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.

Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.

Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.

Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.

Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.

NFC North: Training camp issues

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
2:15
PM ET
Bostic, Lacy & Patterson Getty ImagesOpportunities await Jon Bostic, left, Eddie Lacy, center, and Cordarrelle Patterson in training camp.
In 10 days, all four NFC North teams will have stepped onto the practice field for their 2013 training camps. I can't think of a better way to wade through these final days than by identifying 10 key issues we will no doubt be focusing on over the next six weeks or so.

I'm staying away from some of the obvious ones and instead focusing on developments for which we have a reasonable expectation of resolution before the start of the regular season. We won't know by Labor Day, for example, if Jay Cutler is a good fit for the Chicago Bears' new offense under Marc Trestman. It'll be impossible to conclude whether Christian Ponder has taken a step forward as the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback, or whether the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford has fixed his mechanics or if the Green Bay Packers know how to stop the read-option.

Answers to those questions won't be evident until regular-season games start. I think it's reasonable to expect quicker resolution to the questions identified below.

Issue: Jon Bostic and the Bears' middle linebacker job
Analysis: General manager Phil Emery gave the team a safety blanket by signing veteran D.J. Williams, who is expected to open training camp in Brian Urlacher's old spot. But the Bears used a second-round draft pick on Bostic, and one day he almost certainly will have the job. If he can win it in training camp, the Bears can move Williams to the outside or use fellow newcomer James Anderson there.

Issue: A role for Bears defensive end Shea McClellin
Analysis: McClellin was the Bears' first-round draft pick just one year ago, but he'll have to compete hard to establish a role commensurate with that status. Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton finished last season as the Bears' starting defensive ends, and Wootton is in a contract year and thus will be highly motivated. The Bears cleared some space by allowing Israel Idonije to depart via free agency, but McClellin's path to regular playing time is far from certain.

Issue: Starting Kyle Long
Analysis: There has been an assumption that Long will be plugged into the starting lineup at one of the Bears' guard positions, but it's only fair to reiterate his relative lack of experience (four starts) in Division I. Moreover, Long was unable to participate in most of the Bears' offseason program because of NFL rules regarding the timing of college graduation. In other words, Long is as green as it gets for a first-round draft pick. It will be nice to see, finally, what the Bears have in him.

Issue: Ryan Broyles' status in Detroit
Analysis: Broyles tore his ACL in Week 13 last season and will push to be ready for camp. If Broyles is healthy and available, he will join Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson to form a really good trio. If he needs more time, the Lions will be thin at the position to start the season. Mike Thomas, a slot receiver acquired last season from the Jacksonville Jaguars, would be next up.

Issue: Ziggy Ansah's development
Analysis: Generally speaking, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft should be ready to step into the lineup and make an immediate contribution. Ansah, as has been well-documented, was a late arrival to football and might need more development time than most No. 5 overall picks. Idonije gives the Lions an option if Ansah isn't ready to start, and in truth snaps are more important than the starting lineup. But when you draft a defensive end at No. 5 overall, you expect him to be ready to handle a full-time load almost immediately.

Issue: Packers' running back rotation
Analysis: The Packers gave themselves a good problem this offseason by adding two draft choices, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that also included DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green. It seems unlikely that all of them will make the roster, but the more pressing matter is how they will be used and how often. Harris would have been the favorite to start entering training camp, but he missed the offseason because of injuries, and the position should now be considered wide open.

Issue: Mason Crosby's reaction to competition
Analysis: Crosby's extended slump last season prompted the Packers to bring a second place-kicker to camp for the first time since he established himself as the Packers' full-time kicker. There is every reason to consider Crosby the heavy favorite over Giorgio Tavecchio, but that's assuming Crosby handles the competition well. It has been a while since Crosby had to secure his job.

Issue: Replacing Charles Woodson in Green Bay
Analysis: Woodson played safety and cornerback for the Packers last season. Now, they have a competitive situation at both spots. Training camp should tell us whether M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian is ready to grab a safety spot next to Morgan Burnett. We'll also get to see a spirited competition at cornerback between Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Davon House and others for the chance to play alongside Tramon Williams.

Issue: Vikings linebacker alignment
Analysis: It is reasonable to expect Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop to start in the Vikings' 4-3 base. But what positions will they play? Training camp should make that clear. Bishop would seem best suited for the inside, with Henderson returning to his former role outside, but it's not out of the question that the Vikings could experiment in the reverse during camp to find the best combination.

Issue: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
Analysis: Shortly after the draft, we were led to believe that the Vikings rookie would fit in as a kickoff returner this season while he learned how to play receiver at the professional level. But if offseason practices were any indication, Patterson might be ready for a bigger role on offense right away. Can he emerge from training camp as a starter opposite Greg Jennings? That's the Vikings' best-case scenario, one that didn't seem possible in April but can't be ruled out on the eve of camp.

Williamson: NFC North offseason grades

June, 6, 2013
6/06/13
9:45
AM ET
Matt Williamson scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, and this week he revealed his offseason grades for all 32 teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the full file, but I've been authorized by high-level executives to leak a few NFC North snippets:

Chicago Bears
Williamson grade: B+
Williamson snippet: "Upgrading the offensive line, getting younger and better at linebacker and adding another weapon in the passing game were the Bears' top priorities this offseason -- and they accomplished all three."
Seifert comment: The Bears' offseason performance is particularly notable when you remember they entered the draft with only five selections. (They acquired a sixth via trade). The offensive line remains fluid, but has been addressed more aggressively than in years. Getting younger at linebacker was the first step in what will be a multi-part process of filling in behind 30-something starters Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Julius Peppers. (Jennings turns 30 in December).

Detroit Lions
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "Expect the Lions' pass defense to be significantly improved. … But another area of weakness was created this offseason for the Lions. Their offensive line played quite well overall last year but lost three starters to retirement and free agency."
Seifert comment: The signing of safety Glover Quin and the decision to (finally) draft a cornerback at a high position (second-rounder Darius Slay) bodes well for the pass defense. Even without a new receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, the Lions have plenty of skill position players on offense. The significance of an offensive-line overhaul is not to be underestimated, however. The Lions will be counting on as many as three untested linemen to come through.

Green Bay Packers
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "The Packers are the only team for which I didn't list a veteran 'key addition,' and their 'key losses' are rather extensive. Still, they remain one of the very best teams in football."
Seifert comment: It's not unusual for the Packers to avoid key veteran additions. But they certainly added some important pieces in running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, along with defensive lineman Datone Jones. In minicamp this week, Jones was working both as a defensive end in base defenses, and inside at tackle in the nickel. Once he learns the scheme, Jones is going to be a difference-maker.

Minnesota Vikings
Williamson grade: B-
Williamson snippet: "Minnesota brought in some big-time prospects in the draft, but the losses of two great players' contributions on game day will be hard to replace this season."
Seifert comment: Williamson was referring to the trade of receiver Percy Harvin and the release for cornerback Antoine Winfield. Both players wound up with the Seattle Seahawks. They also failed to find a replacement at middle linebacker, requiring the shift of Erin Henderson from the outside. The team's biggest personnel question mark, other than the continued development of quarterback Christian Ponder, is whether they can replace Winfield's presence in the slot.

ChatWrap: Why sign Brian Urlacher now?

May, 15, 2013
5/15/13
2:13
PM ET
One of the persistent themes of Tuesday's SportsNation chat was a Chicago Sun-Times report suggesting that free-agent linebacker Brian Urlacher was leaning toward signing with the Minnesota Vikings.

My sense at the time: The Vikings are in no rush to sign Urlacher at this point in the offseason. (Coach Leslie Frazier indicated as much during an interview Wednesday morning on NFL Network.) Here are the relevant exchanges from our chat:

Håvard (Norway)

Urlacher
Hi. What do you think about the rumours of Urlacher leaning towards Minnesota? Do you believe he has enough left in the tank to be a good one-year solution for Minnesota? What is in your opinion the best alternative for middle linebacker? Thanks for a interesting and entertaining blog, also for us Scandinavians!!

Kevin Seifert (2:10 PM)

Hey, do I know you? Anyway, my take is there shouldn't be a rush for the Vikings to sign Urlacher. If they didn't do it right after the draft, the guess is they want to see how their young players and/or Erin Henderson look at the position before signing a veteran.

Tom (Brooklyn)

Does the more time that passes without Urlacher signing with anyone make it more likely that he retires? After what the Bears did in the draft, the doors seems closed on a return to Chicago.

Kevin Seifert (2:23 PM)

Seems to be the best scenario for him is a team, possibly the Vikings, to decide it doesn't like its current options and wants a veteran presence. That could happen over the summer or just before training camp.

Beau (London . . (CANADA!))

If the Vikings do bring in Urlacher, do you really see any downside? They don't have a solid Mike at the moment and if they want to transition someone into the spot (Audie Cole, Henderson or [Michael] Mauti) wouldn't that be the perfect player to ease them into it for the season after?

Kevin Seifert (2:31 PM)

What if they don't think Urlacher can play anymore? That would be a downside. The Bears were clearly ambivalent at best about the possibility.

Wednesday morning, Frazier said: "At this point we want to look at the guys on our roster, give them a chance to compete for the middle linebacker position then we'll see where it takes us."

That seems a perfectly logical approach, assuming Urlacher doesn't have a mystery suitor ready to snatch him up at any moment.

The Vikings plan to take a spring look at outside linebacker Erin Henderson in the middle. That is exactly what OTAs are for. If they like what they see from Henderson, they'll move forward with him in training camp. If not, chances are Urlacher will still be available late next month or even in July. As we've discussed, Urlacher's most likely landing spot (if any) is with a team that decides after OTAs that it doesn't like its internal options at his position.

Eight in the Box: Next order of business

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
12:00
PM ET
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC North team’s agenda?

Chicago Bears: The top priority at Halas Hall, from now until the start of the season, is getting the offense organized in Marc Trestman's new scheme. This task has appeared annually for the Bears in recent years, but the failure to accomplish it played a big role in the firing of former coach Lovie Smith. There is also an additional level of urgency as quarterback Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract. The Bears might not want to make a decision on Cutler's future until seeing him adjust successfully to this scheme, but will he do it in time for the Bears to make a decision?

Detroit Lions: The next order of business in Detroit is to set up a plan for settling on the new right side of their offensive line. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency, right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right guard candidate Riley Reiff is likely to play left tackle. Rookie Larry Warford will compete with Bill Nagy and perhaps Rodney Austin at right guard, while right tackle will be a competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, among others.

Green Bay Packers: Suddenly, the Packers have an offseason-long project on their hands: Making a reconstructed offensive line work. After the draft, Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and flipped guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy now has his two best offensive linemen on the left side, with Lang pairing with a yet-to-be-named right tackle. There is no substitute for time when establishing continuity for an offensive line, so the Packers' next and continued order of business is getting Bulaga and Sitton comfortable on the left side. They'll also need to decide whether Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod or even rookie David Bakhtiari are best suited to be the right tackle.

Minnesota Vikings: Identifying the 2013 middle linebacker is the Vikings' most unanswered question. After allowing 2012 bridge starter Jasper Brinkley to depart via free agency, the Vikings set their sights on the draft to find a longer-term replacement for E.J. Henderson. There was widespread and justified speculation that the Vikings would draft Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but the unpredictable first round brought them three players they ranked higher on their board. Without second- or third-round picks, the Vikings weren't able to draft a starting-quality prospect. Veteran outside linebacker Erin Henderson told reporters this week that he was preparing to take on the role, apparently at the suggestion of coaches, but this is the time of year for experimenting with position changes that could be reversed before training camp. To this point, the Vikings haven't shown serious interest in free agent Brian Urlacher.

NFC North Week 4 Friday injury report

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
9:30
PM ET
Getting inside the Friday injury report:

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.

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.

SPONSORED HEADLINES