Detroit Lions: Josh McCown

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

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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.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Almost two weeks ago, after being called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Chicago quarterback Josh McCown, Willie Young voiced his displeasure with the current rules on where you could hit players.

Young
Young
Fairley
Mostly, that something needed to change, because in the high speed world of the NFL, calls protecting quarterbacks and offensive players were starting to become an issue for where defensive players were able to hit.

At the time, Young said the players should meet after the season to discuss the issue. When Young was asked this week about the Ahmad Brooks' hit on Drew Brees, which led to the NFL Nation Says question of whether quarterbacks are being too protected by the league, Young was still passionate in his defense of the defense.

Brooks’ hit, which he was fined for, was unintentional and happened during a regular play. For instance, on Young’s play where he was fined, he said he was going for the ball as McCown released it.

“Every defensive player feels the same way when they see another defensive player get fined on something like that, in that case or scenario,” Young said. “Every defensive lineman feels the same way, like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You know what I’m saying, you’ve got to be for real.”

Young, who was fined for the hit on McCown, is still hoping the players are able to meet in the offseason to discuss the rules and what can change, but he said that it has changed a lot in the game.

And it isn’t just with quarterbacks. Young said with the way Detroit’s front four aggressively goes after the quarterback, it makes the rules somewhat difficult, and that when you hit a quarterback when you're trying to make a correct tackle, if a guy moves, it could become an issue.

“It’s all the kind of ways you can and can’t approach guys now,” Young said. “It just makes it so awkward.”

He isn’t the only Lions player who has noticed this.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who was also fined against the Bears, said the Detroit defensive linemen were discussing these topics recently. His opinion? The rules are making them play smarter.

“We were just like, 'they just making us play fundamental football,'” Fairley said. “We can’t just be out there all wild and everywhere. They are really making you just play fundamental football.”

The problem comes in games, when everything is going fast and the main goal is to reach the quarterback or running back and disrupt the play. Then, he said, is when problems occur.

“That’s when the fines come out,” Fairley said. “Sometimes you’ll be in the heat of the game, heat of the moment and you go out and make a boneheaded play, but that’s the part of being a professional.

“You’ve got to exit those plays out of the game.”
CHICAGO -- Willie Young thought he had Chicago stopped, having pressured and then plowing into Bears backup quarterback Josh McCown just after the ball was thrown and the Detroit Lions looked like they had held on to win Sunday against the Bears.

Except when McCown's pass to Dante Rosario went sailing out of the end zone, Young was flagged for roughing the passer on what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit. Young wasn't happy on the field. He wasn't happy in the locker room after the game, saying players needed to call a meeting about certain calls made this season.

Young's personal foul, though, set up two things. First, it gave Chicago one last chance to tie. Second, it gave defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who had one of his better games of the season Sunday, a chance to make the game-clinching play.

Chicago lined up with three wide receivers and McCown in the shotgun with Matt Forte to the right of him. Fairley was lined up in his typical spot next to Ndamukong Suh, between center Roberto Garza and left guard Matt Slauson.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsNick Fairley celebrates his goal-line stop Sunday that clinched the Detroit Lions' win.
And considering the Bears had thrown on the last play and had limited success running Sunday, most people could have assumed Chicago was going to pass. Everyone except the Detroit defensive line.

“Just looking at the offensive linemen, I had a hunch they were going to probably run,” Suh said. “Just from the way they looked and that they were lined up. They didn't even come to my side but I know if Nick wasn't going to make the play, which he obviously did, I was going to help him clean it up.”

With Suh, defensive tackle C.J. Mosley and even Fairley potentially anticipating a run, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz explained Monday it actually wasn't much of a surprise at all considering the Bears' tendencies.

And that on the prior two-point conversion play wiped out by the Young penalty, McCown might have actually been looking for Forte to catch a ball first. As McCown rolled to his right, he looked in the direction of Forte, who was blanketed by linebacker Rocky McIntosh.

So reading potentially two straight plays to Forte was actually a smart call.

“They were a yard away and both of their two-point plays they tried to get the ball to arguably their best player,” Schwartz said. “They got a lot of good players on offense but Forte, the first play was a sprint-out and Rocky McIntosh did a fantastic job of getting him covered up. That's one of the reasons that play was incomplete. Even though we had a penalty on the play, that had nothing to do with Rocky or the execution of the scheme.

“But there's a lot of plays that the Bears get down to the red zone and they run the ball in. They ran one in the week before against Green Bay from 6-inch line and stuff like that. Anytime you're a defensive lineman, your first job is to stop the inside run. They attacked our perimeter for most of the game and for the most part we did a good job defending that, something that we were a little bit weak on in the first game we played them.”

Once McCown snapped the ball, Fairley broke right past Garza as Slauson moved to the second level to engage linebacker DeAndre Levy. Fairley was already past Garza by the time McCown handed the ball to Forte and was 2 yards from him moving at full speed.

No matter the direction, Forte had little chance.

With Garza trying to grab Fairley from the back after he blew by him, the Lions defensive tackle essentially swallowed Forte with a tackle, enveloping him as Forte took his third step to his left trying to stretch the field.

“Just read my keys, had a big A-gap and I just figured it would probably be a run or play-action pass,” Fairley said. “So I just got off the ball real good and it just so happened I made a play.”

Garza actually tried to wrap Fairley from the back but actually ended up falling over Forte once he was tackled. That's how dominant Fairley was on that particular play.

Fairley threw Forte down and then kept going down the field after that, high-stepping down the field in celebration.

“Just made the game-changing play,” Fairley said. “From the defense and the D-line in our room, that's what we always harped on as a D-line, 'let's go make a game-changing play. Somebody step up and make a play.'

“That was me [Sunday].”

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 10

November, 11, 2013
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CHICAGO -- A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 21-19 win over the Chicago Bears.

First place? First place: Detroit has not been in first place this late in the season this century. By beating the rival Bears and with the Green Bay Packers losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions are rolling solo in first place at 6-3. With just two teams -- the Packers at 5-4 and the Philadelphia Eagles at 5-5 -- at .500 or better remaining on the Detroit schedule, the Lions have what appears to be a clear path to their first NFC North title. At worst, they should have their second playoff appearance in three seasons.

Even more impressive during this run to the top of the division is how Detroit has done it. There have been come-from-behind wins and games in which the Lions had to hold on. They have been balanced. This isn’t a team that only wins at home. The Lions have three of their six wins on the road -- only the third time in the past decade Detroit has won at least three road games (the other years being the 2011 playoff season and 2004, when the Lions went 6-10).

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley and Jay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNick Fairley is one of the few players to produce for the Lions in their 2011 draft class.
Return of the pressure: Detroit’s defensive line took advantage of a clearly hobbled Jay Cutler, hitting him 10 times and hitting Chicago quarterbacks 11 times in all. Defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh hit the Chicago quarterbacks four times each and both had a sack. In all, five defensive linemen hit a Chicago quarterback on Sunday, with pressure coming from both the ends and the tackles. This is something the Lions have been missing the past few weeks.

Willie Young's point: The defensive end was clearly frustrated after the game with his roughing the passer penalty on Detroit’s first two-point conversion stop late in the fourth quarter.

Young’s argument on his penalty was that he was going for the ball as quarterback Josh McCown threw a millisecond earlier. Their helmets grazed each other, resulting in a helmet-to-helmet call he couldn’t really control. He argued it was more incidental than anything malicious.

"The players need to have a meeting after the season,” Young said. “We need to get that stuff straight. We need to sit down and talk about that thing, man, cause obviously we see guys getting tagged left and right all across the league.”

Young said he went up to McCown after the game and told him to go back and watch the play again to show he wasn’t trying to do anything malicious.

Open field tackling: Detroit’s defensive backs did a decent job making plays in the open field Sunday. Nickel back Don Carey made two open-field stops on receivers and cornerback Chris Houston had at least two as well. This was key as the Bears consistently tried to run outside with pitches against the Lions, who held Matt Forte to 33 yards rushing.

CHICAGO -- Calvin Johnson stood at the podium, his Detroit Lions having beaten the Chicago Bears in Chicago for the first time since his rookie season, and even then, there was a little disbelief.

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Matt Marton/USA TODAY SportsThe Lions won for the first time in Chicago since Calvin Johnson's rookie season as they keep overcoming losing ways of the past.
He had actually beaten the Lions in Chicago before? He had not thought that had happened, saying earlier in the week he had never won in Soldier Field. The misunderstanding is understandable considering that in Johnson's career the Lions had one good season before this one, surrounded by a bunch of mediocrity.

"Oh man, we won here my rookie year?" Johnson asked. "OK, that's how long it's been. Been awhile."

"Been awhile" is a way to describe this Detroit season. Been awhile since this, since that, since the Lions have beaten Chicago on the road (2007) and been in first place all alone this late in the season (1999). In beating Chicago 21-19, the Lions added to a list of things they have done for the first time in a while.

It's been the type of season that could wipe out those years of losing. In other years, the Lions likely would have let the Bears convert a tying two-point conversion and then go on to win in overtime. But on Sunday, Nick Fairley made a stop on the second conversion attempt following a Willie Young roughing-the-passer penalty.

These are the new Lions. Make a stop when the team needs it? Sure. Come from behind to win a game? No problem. Hold on to a lead? Most of the time, they can handle it.

All of that has led to this: In the toughest, tightest division in the NFL, the Detroit Lions are the ones in first place and the Detroit Lions are the ones who have complete control over whether they make the playoffs.

Sunday's win gives Detroit a tiebreaker advantage over Chicago and a one-game lead on Green Bay, a team that still has to go to Detroit on Thanksgiving, perhaps without its starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

Not a bad spot to be in at all.

"We control our own destiny now," wide receiver Kris Durham said. "That's big. First time in I don't know how long we've won here. Big win, and it kind of just keeps the momentum going for the rest of the games."

It is momentum that could have disappeared so many times during this season. It could have gone away after Detroit lost on a last-second field goal to Cincinnati in Week 7. Or it could have gone away with 62 seconds left in Week 8 against Dallas, with the Lions trailing. Instead, Detroit drove downfield and scored a winning touchdown with 12 seconds left.

And it could have gone away again Sunday, with the Bears driving with their just-inserted backup quarterback, Josh McCown, driving with two minutes left and scoring a touchdown, missing the two-point conversion but getting another chance because of Young's penalty.

"Oh man, I was nervous," right guard Larry Warford said. "It's the feeling you hate, but it's what makes the game exciting. I was pretty nervous.

"You've got that penalty toward the end, that roughing the passer and they scored the touchdown and it's like, ‘Oh my God, what do we have to do to put these guys away?' They just wouldn't go away for a little bit."

It led to one final chance for Chicago, that one last play to try to tie the game to steal all that momentum from Detroit, to have the Bears essentially do to Detroit what the Lions had done to Dallas two Sundays ago.

Then Chicago ran the ball and Bears running back Matt Forte ran right into a waiting Fairley, who flattened Forte and then kept running another 20 or so yards down the field, high-stepping the whole way.

Detroit still had its celebration. Had its momentum. Still had its confidence. And, for the first time all season, had complete control of the division all to itself.

Now, though, there is different pressure for Detroit, a group of players who are not accustomed to being in this spot even this late -- and to be fair, there are still seven weeks remaining in the season and the NFC North race is nowhere near over.

Detroit needs to learn to play in a role it is unaccustomed to -- the one of being the favorite to win its division. Beating Chicago did that.

"You've got to make it count," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "It's a good win, no question about it. Guys are happy in there, but at the same time, we're not satisfied."

They can't be. The Lions are in good position. They are trending toward becoming one of the better teams in the NFC and one that could make a playoff run.

Whether the Lions accomplish that, for the first time in a while, is up to them.

"That's the most important thing," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "We don't want to have to rely on anyone else to help us get to the next level of getting to the playoffs."

Right now, it is all up to Detroit. A new position, but not a bad one to be in at all.

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