NFC North: 2010 Camp Confidential NFC

ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 3

MANKATO, Minn. -- The question typically follows The Question. After Minnesotans ask, "Is Favre going to play?" they almost always follow with this one: "How does the rest of the team look?"

In a sign of what has been a wild summer already, the former is much easier to answer than the latter. Quarterback Brett Favre still seems likely to re-join the team later this month, but his once-and-future teammates missed so many training camp practices that it was nearly impossible to gauge the state of the team. Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice missed all 24 practices because of a mysterious hip injury. Receiver Percy Harvin (funeral/migraines) missed 21, tailback Adrian Peterson (hamstring) sat out 16, center John Sullivan (leg) was significantly limited in 20 and right guard Anthony Herrera (back) missed seven.

In all, more than half of the Vikings' offensive starters missed a majority of training camp. It might prove a manageable total for a team that has returned nearly intact from the one that advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but the injuries and indecision conspired to make for some nervous days at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Coach Brad Childress did his best to weather what he termed a minor storm, but his skill for finding the bright side has surely been tested.

"People ask me if this is the most number of players that I can remember sitting out," Childress said. "No, it's not. I read the [news] clips. Philadelphia, they had 14 guys sitting out at one point. I guess [the media] is the one that has to determine whether it's the key guys or not. As the mother hen, I would like them here taking every turn and taking everything. The downside is they're not getting those turns. But the upside, and I have to look at the upside, is you have other players who are getting elevated reps."

Indeed, the Vikings will have the most well-trained junior varsity team in the NFC North. The state of their varsity team, however, remains unknown.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Brett Favre
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIt seems the Vikings are expecting Brett Favre to return this season.
1. To what extent did Favre's uncertainty impact the rest of the team's preparation? Most players experienced a similar drama last season, and it doesn't appear that many are fretting his ultimate decision or are distracted by the indecision. But that's largely because they all expect him to return, and it was telling when tight end Visanthe Shiancoe blurted that a surprise retirement "would be a blow to the team." Not coincidentally, a muzzled Shiancoe has hardly been heard from since.

Another respected veteran, cornerback Antoine Winfield, said: "We are all hopeful that he comes back. It would be nice to spend another season with him, but at this point we don't know. But either way, it's not going to make my job any easier or harder. I still have to go out there and perform and make as many plays as I can."

As far as on the field, history trumps intuition. It makes sense to suggest that an offense is behind for as long as its quarterback stays away. But Favre's remarkable mid-August adjustment last season makes it difficult to make that argument.

2. Have the Vikings done enough to fortify their secondary? Starting right cornerback Cedric Griffin is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the Vikings have opened his job up to four players: Lito Sheppard, Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and rookie Chris Cook. Sheppard makes the most sense as a short-term starter, but Cook was impressive on every level in training camp.

Cook displayed sophisticated cover skills, enough speed to stay with most receivers and, at 6-foot-2, an imposing physical presence. Sheppard has held on to his first-team job, but it could be a matter of time before Cook displaces him.

Meanwhile, the Vikings have created a legitimate competition at strong safety between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford. If all things are equal, I'm guessing the Vikings will favor Johnson, a high second-round draft pick in 2008. But Sanford is a live wire, a strong hitter and won't go quietly.

Coaches believe Johnson has responded well to the challenge, but they want to see it translate into more plays -- big tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles -- during preseason games.

[+] EnlargePeterson
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAdrian Peterson has missed 16 training camp practices.
3. Is there a connection between Favre's indecision and the lengthy absences of Rice, Harvin and Peterson? I can't tell you how often I've heard that question in the past week or so. It comes down to whether players resent the double standard Favre has enjoyed since the end of last season, and if some of his most prominent teammates are passively protesting. All I can say is that no overt evidence exists to support that charge.

I agree that it seemed suspicious when the Vikings' three top skill players all came up with reasons to miss most of training camp. Conspiracy theories are great, but in the end that's all they are -- theories. The most important fact is there is every reason to believe all three players will be ready to play when the regular season begins.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

When middle linebacker E.J. Henderson first fractured his left femur last December, initial reports suggested he would need a year to recover. That timetable suggested that Henderson wouldn't return to the field, if at all, before the 2011 season. Given his age (30) and history of significant injuries, you wondered if his career was over. But Henderson has cut his recovery time in half and appears on his way to re-claiming the starting job in time for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans. By the second week of camp, Henderson was taking all of the first-team repetitions while his understudy, Jasper Brinkley, was pushed back to the second team. Considering the titanium rod that holds Henderson's leg in place, such a quick return would be nothing short of a miracle.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Ever since the Vikings made him a second-round draft pick in April, Toby Gerhart has figured as the heir to Chester Taylor's vacated role as the No. 2 tailback. But when the Vikings broke camp Thursday, Albert Young was clearly ahead of Gerhart on the depth chart. There is plenty of time for that order to change, but however you look at it, Gerhart had a tough camp. He somehow incurred the wrath of a number of defensive veterans; nose tackle Pat Williams and defensive end Ray Edwards both took their shots at him during practice. Perhaps it was just a visible portion of the NFL toughening process, but there's no doubt Gerhart has some climbing to do before the season begins.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarvaris Jackson
    Icon SMITarvaris Jackson played only a handful of snaps in 2009 but would be the starter if Favre retires.
    There is no doubt that Tarvaris Jackson, and not Sage Rosenfels, is the No. 2 quarterback and will be the starter if Favre ultimately decides not to play. Jackson has developed a realistic mentality after living through various incarnations of FavreWatch the past three years, and as he does every summer, he threw some tantalizing passes during individual camp drills. But there is a big difference between unleashing 60-yard ropes in practice and playing quarterback at an NFL level during games, and Jackson remains somewhere in the middle.
  • Rosenfels reportedly struggled during the early stages of camp, but he looked decent during the three days I watched practice. I once thought Rosenfels would be traded or released if Favre returned, but now I'm not so sure. To this point, there is no way the Vikings could choose rookie Joe Webb over Rosenfels for the No. 3 job -- and keep a straight face. Frankly, Webb flashed some athletic skills but otherwise looked overwhelmed during camp. There is no way he is ready to be on an NFL roster. One option: Keep two quarterbacks on the active roster and put Webb on the practice squad.
  • Although the Vikings are splitting kicking duties between Ryan Longwell and Rhys Lloyd in the preseason opener at St. Louis, it's hard to believe Longwell won't be the team's place-kicker this year. Lloyd will be a high-priced kickoff specialist. But in explaining the initial split, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said: "There is no preconceived notion about how this roster will develop. We want to see everyone compete at their highest level. We want to see them put in every position possible. If we get that at every position, we will be a better football team."
  • Of all the veterans who missed significant camp time, Sullivan's absence might have been the most significant. He struggled at times during his first year as a starter and needed every practice repetition he could get. It's especially important to see if Sullivan has improved his core strength to stand up to NFL nose tackles.
  • After noting the Vikings' long list of camp absences, it's only fair to note that two of their biggest -- and older -- players participated in every practice. Pat Williams, 37, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, 30, were on the field every day.
  • It appears as though Winfield has made it all the way back from a foot injury that made him a part-time player in 2009. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admitted the team wasn't certain that would be the case when camp began, but Winfield experienced no setbacks after an offseason of rest and rehabilitation.
  • Childress has used a John Wooden maxim as one of his primary messages of training camp. "It's in all of their manuals and I'm talking to them about it," Childress said. "It's this: 'The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.' It's a great statement. We'll find out how much guys can put their stuff away for the greater good."

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
8/07/10
11:30
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 31 of their past 33 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 million in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going to play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.

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