Green Bay Packers: Brandon Pettigrew

On the eve of free agency two weeks ago, 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.

Only three of the original 15 remain unsigned as free agency enters its third week. One of them, former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, could remain that way for a while because of his neck injury.

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 shortly after free agency opened. He signed with the Packers on March 15.

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 in the last week:

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: Trying to come back from neck fusion surgery, Finley remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks during free-agency's first week. According a report in the Green Bay Press-Gazette over the weekend, the Seahawks failed Finley on his physical during the visit, leaving his status in doubt.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago 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, $4 million contract.

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: After going unsigned during the first week of free agency, Jones signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Raiders. The deal was similar to the three-year, $9.6 million deal he signed with the Packers three years ago.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Was weighing an offer from Seattle, where he has visited twice since the start of free agency. 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 signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys that could become a four-year deal if the team exercises an option after the first year.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Signed a three-year, $9 million with the Atlanta Falcons after the Bears decided not to pursue an extension with the kick return specialist.

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.
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
Mar 10
10:00
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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.

Things seemed focused completely on football this week -- at least for a day.

Then Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton changed all of that Tuesday evening when he went on WSSP Radio in Milwaukee and gave his opinion of the Detroit defense, particularly the defensive line.

It wasn't a pretty assessment.

“They go after quarterbacks. Their entire defense takes cheap shots all the time. That's what they do. That's who they are,” Sitton said. “They're a bunch of a dirtbags or scumbags. That's how they play, and that's how they're coached. It starts with their frickin' coach. It starts with the head coach, [Jim] Schwartz. He's a d---, too. I wouldn't want to play for him. It starts with him, and their D-coordinator and their D-line coach. They're all just scumbags and so are the D-line.”

Well then.

In a game with the feel of an elimination contest, Sitton added another layer of fun and intrigue -- at least in the pregame. ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down the Thanksgiving Day matchup.

Rothstein: There is a long history with these two teams -- even on Thanksgiving going back to the Ndamukong Suh stomp of Evan Dietrich-Smith -- so were you surprised at all that Sitton decided to rip into the Detroit defense and Lions coach Jim Schwartz?

Demovsky: If anyone on the Packers was going to pop off, Sitton would be the first guess followed by his offensive linemate T.J. Lang. They’re the two most outspoken guys on the team. Let’s face it: Sitton probably said what a lot of people around the league have been thinking about the Lions. That said, it probably wasn’t the smartest move to make before a game that you’re going into with your backup quarterback. It was already going to be an uphill battle. As entertaining and refreshing as it was, I don’t see how this helped the Packers’ cause.

Rothstein: I see your point there, but I also wonder how much it really matters. I've never been a believer that this type of talk -- especially on the professional level -- really matters a whole bunch in an actual game. It's fun for fans and gives us something to chat about, for sure, but when you're dealing with grown men, I just don't know how much it really changes a game.

Moving on, Rob, what happens at the quarterback position this week with Green Bay? Does Matt Flynn's history with Detroit play a role here?

Demovsky: When Mike McCarthy said Aaron Rodgers' chances of playing on Thursday were “slim to none,” it seemed obvious that Flynn would be the starter even though McCarthy wouldn't commit to anything. He was much more effective than Scott Tolzien because he can do more in the offense. He's much better versed in running the Packers' version of the no-huddle, which has become a staple of their offense in recent years. Flynn actually has played two games against Detroit. Everyone remembers that 2011 game -- the one that made him about $15 million with his 480-yard, six-touchdown performance -- but don't forget he also struggled in relief of Rodgers in the 2010 game at Ford Field after Rodgers left with a concussion.

How are the Lions approaching the Packers' quarterback situation?

Rothstein: Seemingly by preparing as if Rodgers was going to play. Detroit doesn't see much of a change in the offense from Rodgers to Flynn, so they are going to prepare for the same offense the Packers usually run. Of course, the Lions could be in better shape if Green Bay chooses to run the ball more since the Lions haven't given up a rushing touchdown since Week 4. So if the Packers roll with a heavy dose of Eddie Lacy, that could be a benefit for the Lions.

This obviously leads into the next question: How does Green Bay's offense change with Flynn in the lineup, or is Detroit accurate in how it says it is going to prepare? And how much different is this offense from what the Lions saw in October?

Demovsky: Of all the backup quarterbacks the Packers have played this season, Flynn is probably most like Rodgers, although none has the arm strength Rodgers possesses. But in terms of knowing the system, being able to read defenses and having the freedom to make checks at the line of scrimmage, Flynn is probably the next best option. Still, without Rodgers, there are major differences. Flynn doesn't throw the deep ball as well, and he doesn't have the touch. That was evident on the third-and-goal play in overtime when Flynn badly overthrew Jordy Nelson on a fade.

Speaking of different offenses, the Packers got a break by not having to face Calvin Johnson in the first meeting. Now, the Lions not only have Johnson but also have Nate Burleson back. What's the dynamic with those two?

Rothstein: The dynamic is pretty good and should give the Lions another playmaker the rest of the season. The biggest issue for Detroit's offense Sunday was Matthew Stafford's inaccuracy, but when he was on, the offense was able to move well with Burleson, Johnson and Reggie Bush out there. If teams focus on those three guys, Brandon Pettigrew and Kris Durham have shown, in spurts, to be effective. That's the entire plan with this offense.

Of course, it still only resulted in 21 points last Sunday, but that is at least Detroit's plan.

Both of these teams remain in the playoff picture despite fairly average seasons thus far. What do you think this says about the Packers -- and the NFC North?

Demovsky: It's amazing that the Packers haven't won since Rodgers got hurt yet they're only a half-game out of first place. Certainly, Rodgers gave them a nice cushion with a 5-2 record, but the Lions and Bears certainly missed opportunities to bury Green Bay over the last month. There's probably only two or three elite teams in the NFC, and none of them resides in the North. Can you see any of these teams going on the road in the playoffs and beating a team like the Saints or Seahawks? I can't.

The Packers might not admit it, but I think this is an elimination game for them. Do you think it would have the same consequences for the Lions if they lose?

Rothstein: Tough to say for the Lions, but it would certainly put them in a bad position having lost three straight games. I think it all depends on what Chicago does. If the Bears were to lose, then it's still a race. Otherwise, the Lions would be chasing two teams and that won't bode well for a team that hasn't won a division title this century. If Detroit loses, it becomes a very difficult path to the playoffs. It would still be possible, but there would certainly be a lot of doubt for a franchise that just doesn't make the playoffs all too often.

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