NFC North: 2012 NFL Free agency

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Free agent receiver Jerome Simpson was released from jail last Friday after serving a 15-day sentence in connection with a felony drug conviction. By mid-day Saturday, Simpson was in the Twin Cities, visiting with Minnesota Vikings officials and having lunch with several officials. By Tuesday, Simpson and the Vikings had agreed to a one-year contract, according to multiple reports.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference to discuss this week's NFL draft, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman refused to confirm the deal, because the contract has not yet been signed. But Spielman made clear his pursuit of Simpson was not a whirlwind affair, but instead dated back four years, when the Vikings targeted him as a high priority in the 2008 draft, and said the organization did exhaustive research on Simpson before bringing him in for last weekend's visit.

[+] EnlargeJerome Simpson
Frank Victores/US PresswireJerome Simpson, 89, has reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with the Vikings.
Spielman also cited previous decisions to bring in players with "character issues," from defensive end Jared Allen to receiver Percy Harvin, that have been "very productive, not only on the field but as citizens."

Spielman added: "We do our due diligence. I've talked to a lot of people. [Coach] Leslie Frazier has talked to a lot of people. We've had a lot of people in this organization reach out to a lot of different avenues besides inside the NFL, things that are outside the NFL, and that's why we brought him in. If we didn't feel comfortable enough with all the information that we have gathered, we probably wouldn't have had him in on a visit.

"But we felt comfortable enough ... that we brought him on a visit. [We had] very direct conversations and felt very strongly [about] Jerome Simpson. ... Did he make a mistake? No one is going to say he didn’t make a mistake, but [we] also think he has a chance to be one of those success stories as well."

There are three important points to be made here.

First, there is no use getting caught up in why the Vikings were willing to sign a player whose crime included having more than two pounds of marijuana delivered to his house. The reality is good players routinely get second and sometimes third chances in the NFL, and Simpson is most definitely a good player who probably qualifies as the Vikings' second-best receiver after Harvin.

Second, the Vikings have made little commitment here from a financial standpoint. Simpson has been suspended for the first three games of the 2012 season, and he isn't in position to make many demands. So the Vikings got a starting-caliber receiver at a bargain price with little financial repercussions if it doesn't work out. You could argue that their reputation would take a hit if Simpson runs into more trouble, but if public perception was this organization's top priority, it would have released cornerback Chris Cook long before he went to trial this winter on a domestic charge. (Cook was eventually acquitted of all charges.)

Third, I don't think signing Simpson should impact your thoughts about who the Vikings will draft at either No. 3 overall, or even in the second or third round. Although Spielman continued to insist that Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon is one of three possible picks at No. 3, I don't believe him. The Vikings don't seem likely to draft Blackmon with or without Simpson, and it's difficult to believe anyone would alter their draft board based on the arrival of a receiver who is probably one incident away from a year-long NFL suspension.

In the end, there is minimal risk here, and a potentially decent reward. Time will tell.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Just a quick post here to pass along that, yes, the Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms with receiver Jerome Simpson on a one-year contract. ESPN's Adam Schefter has confirmed the original report by Fox Sports' Jay Glazer.

As luck would have it, I'm heading into a news conference with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to discuss this week's NFL draft. I'm sure Simpson, who was released from jail Friday after serving a 15-day sentence on a felony drug charge, will come up.

I realize I said in Tuesday morning's SportsNation chat that there was no rush to get Simpson under contract and that perhaps the Vikings would wait until after the draft. But clearly they wanted him under contract before that. Back in a bit.
We spent some time this spring noting the Green Bay Packers' relatively thin depth in the backfield. This week, we wondered how much it really matters to have an established No. 1 running back in the NFC North.

Perhaps that explains why veteran Ryan Grant remains available on the market more than a month after his contract expired. Grant said last month that his "ideal situation" was to return to the Packers, and seemed satisfied with whatever role they had in mind for him. On Friday, however, he visited the New England Patriots along with veteran Tim Hightower, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Sometimes a visit can jump-start negotiations with the original team, and other times it means the sides have agreed to go their separate ways. In this case, the Packers might want to sit tight and see how they do in the draft before deciding whether to bring back Grant for another season alongside James Starks.

It's also worth noting that 2011 third-round pick Alex Green told the Packers' web site this week that his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury is progressing, and that he'll be ready for training camp. Stay tuned on that front.
I know we've been a little Minnesota Vikings-centric here on Friday, but that's what happens when the commissioner is making emergency trips to the state legislature, and the team is making plans to host one of the more toxic players available on the free agent market.

Simpson
Simpson
Receiver Jerome Simpson had 50 receptions last season for the Cincinnati Bengals, and his somersault into the end zone against the Arizona Cardinals was one of the NFL's highlights of the year. But he was sentenced this month to 15 days in jail and three years probation on a felony drug charge, and could be facing an NFL suspension.

That probably means the Vikings could sign him to a minimal-risk contract, or perhaps complete a file on him if they choose to pursue him once he is eligible to play. Simpson is 26 and presumably has a high ceiling for production. The Vikings signed free agent tight end John Carlson last month to give quarterback Christian Ponder another weapon, but it's fair to say that multiple openings remain among their corps of wide receivers.

Simpson pleaded guilty to a prohibited act relating to controlled substances, a felony in Kentucky, after 2 1/2 pounds of marijuana were shipped to his home there. Authorities later found another pound inside his home, but prosecutors determined he was not dealing drugs.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Simpson will visit the Vikings on Saturday. He has already visited the Rams. The Bengals have not ruled out bringing him back.
For the past five weeks or so, many of you submitted questions about potential matches between NFC North teams and a number of restricted free agents (RFA), from Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Ladarius Webb. You've also wondered if someone would make a run at one of our RFAs, be it Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy, Lions defensive tackle Sammie Hill, or even Chicago Bears running back Kahlil Bell.

The answer in each case was no, no, no, no, no and a big fat no.

As ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt pointed out this week, restricted free agency is a dying classification that appears to have run its course. The NFL's new collective bargaining agreement requires rookies to receive four-year contracts, which eventually will nullify a category that requires an expired contract and three years of accrued experience.

A conspiracy theorist would question what the future of restricted free agency has to do with how it functions in 2012. Are teams in unspoken agreement -- i.e. colluding -- to leave each other's RFAs alone, thus eliminating an entire class of players from movement? I guess everyone can draw their own conclusions on that, but here is what Brandt -- the Green Bay Packers' longtime contract negotiator -- wrote about it:
This is hard to pinpoint, though as a front office executive I was hesitant to present RFA offer sheets, thinking I was negotiating the contract for the incumbent team, as it usually matches. However, as noted above, the Wallace situation finds the Steelers susceptible.

Another factor is an increased emphasis on building through the draft. With a reduced financial obligation compared to the past, especially high in the draft, these picks are more valuable than ever. Combine that with the high financial price of prying away an RFA, and teams are shying away.

Beyond these reasons, however, an overriding concern for players is that teams are spending less on players than in recent years, and RFA inactivity is a symptom of a larger malady.

Friday is the final day for RFAs to sign an offer sheet with another team. Goodbye, restricted free agency. We'll miss you.
In the relief and euphoria of his long-awaited contract extension, linebacker Lance Briggs described the Chicago Bears' offseason as "a miracle" and one that "on paper" has put him on the Bears' best team since he arrived in 2003. So as long as we're talking about ideal scenarios, we should consider what could be next for the NFC North's most active team this offseason.

Urlacher
Urlacher
Forte
Forte
From a contract perspective, at least, the Bears have at least two significant issues to address. One is a resolution to their increasingly stark standoff with tailback Matt Forte. The other is the expiring contract of linebacker Brian Urlacher.

Forte has not signed his franchise tag tender of $7.74 million for 2012, and without an injury waiver he'll be ineligible to participate in offseason workouts. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported this week that Forte won't sign anything until he agrees to a long-term contract extension, which makes it quite possible the Bears won't see him again for a while.

One way or the other, someone will have to budge if Forte is going to be on the field when training camp begins at the end of July. By most accounts, the sides aren't close.

"He knows what his value is, and I think we all know what his value is," Briggs said, adding that he supports Forte's current stance.

Urlacher, meanwhile, is in the final year of a deal the Bears upgraded and extended in the summer of 2008. He'll earn $7.5 million in base salary with an opportunity earn a $500,000 workout bonus. It's hard to imagine the Bears doing anything other than extending him until they deem him unfit to play, and so his situation becomes a matter of timing more than anything.

Will the Bears let Urlacher play out the season with the understanding he will get a new contract next winter? Or will they move to extend sometime in the next five months before the 2012 season begins? For obvious reasons, players prefer security rather than waiting, especially for someone like Urlacher, who has no desire to play elsewhere.

"I think the Bears will do right by him," Briggs said. "He's coming off a great year. Hopefully we can play until we're 49 years old, if that's possible."

Hey Lance, we're talking about the ideal scenario, not fantasy.
Amobi Okoye was the Chicago Bears' top reserve defensive lineman in 2011, recording four sacks and providing an active presence with enough versatility to swing between tackle and end. His one-year agreement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the weekend suggests he had few, if any, opportunities for a bigger role.

So I don't want to say his departure leaves the Bears flummoxed. But when you combine it with their release of defensive tackle Anthony Adams over the winter, you can at least say the Bears will have some new faces in their 2012 rotation.

The question is where it will come from.

When you look at the chart, you see that the Bears essentially used three players at defensive end in 2011: Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Okoye. They split time at defensive tackle among Henry Melton, Matt Toeaina, Stephen Paea, Adams and Okoye.

Subtract Okoye and Adams from that list, and you're looking at a defensive line rotation that, at least for the moment, stands at five incumbents. No matter how much confidence the Bears have in their existing personnel, you would think they'll need a significant addition or unprojected progress from a reserve such as Corey Wootton to round out this group.

The Bears appear to agree, having aggressively pursued free agent Jeremy Mincey last month before he returned to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's fair to say that, given a choice, the Bears wouldn't prefer to have their starting defensive ends playing an average of four out of every five plays -- especially when one of them is 32 (Peppers) and the other is Idonije, who is probably best suited for the kind of swing role Okoye served in last season.

At this point, however, the free-agent market is largely picked clean of impact defensive linemen. So while we've spent plenty of time discussing the Bears' apparent needs at offensive line and receiver, you wonder if they won't target a defensive lineman in the opening rounds of the draft.

That's why ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Insider had the Bears selecting Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus with the No. 19 overall pick in his most recent mock draft. Stay tuned.

It's been a long time coming for the Chicago Bears and Kelvin Hayden, a graduate of Chicago's Hubbard High School and a cornerback the Bears have pursued for more than a year. We thought he might join the team last summer, but the Bears passed because of concern about his surgically-repaired neck.

Hayden
Hayden
Those concerns apparently have abated, because Hayden signed a one-year contract Thursday with the Bears. The Bears' top three cornerbacks from last season -- Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore -- will all return in 2012, but if he's healthy, Hayden could compete for playing time at least in the nickel. He is well-versed in the Bears' style of defense after playing under coach Tony Dungy for the Indianapolis Colts for six seasons, and you might remember his 56-yard return of an interception for a touchdown in the Colts' 29-17 victory against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

If nothing else, Hayden will offer depth in the absence of Zack Bowman and Corey Graham, both of whom have signed elsewhere this offseason. Better late than never, right?
When we last checked in on the Minnesota Vikings' defensive backfield, they had signed free agent cornerback Zack Bowman to a one-year contract and were continuing to fulfill the mantra of new general manager Rick Spielman: "Value" players from free agency and blue-chippers from the draft.

That's the way to view their latest move, a one-year deal with free agent Chris Carr that the Jason La Canfora of the NFL's web site first reported Wednesday. Carr was a full-time starter for the Baltimore Ravens in 2010 but appeared in only nine games, and 17.5 percent of the Ravens' defensive snaps, in 2011 because of a hamstring injury. He'll turn 29 later this month and will join a crowded if underwhelming group of contenders for the Vikings' 2012 cornerback rotation.

Carr and Bowman will compete for time with holdovers Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and Asher Allen. If you were hoping for a more significant addition, then I would suggest looking toward the draft. That's where Spielman has said his best players will come from, and it's fair to hold him to that assertion.
Dennis of Michigan asked during Tuesday's SportsNation chat if Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte had a right to be upset with the state of his long-term contract negotiations. My response remained the same as it has been for some time: It's hard to make a judgment without knowing the terms that have been exchanged. In full:
Forte
Forte
What we don't know is the exact value of what the Bears have offered, and what he's turned down. Has there been no agreement because the Bears haven't made him a serious offer? Or is it because he is seeking to be one of the top 2-3 highest-paid running backs in the game? We don't know that. I don't think Forte should be mad that the Bears have spent money on his backup unless they aren't offering him a fair deal. A fair deal, to me, would be something north of what the Seahawks paid Marshawn Lynch.

We might not know those terms, but ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt offers a glimpse into what would be a fair agreement based on current precedent and the state of the market. In his latest ESPN.com column, Brandt suggests there is a deal to be made if both sides agree to use the structure of a five-year, $43 million deal that DeAngelo Williams signed last summer with the Carolina Panthers. That deal includes $21 million in guarantees; Lynch received $18 million guaranteed over a four-year extension.

So using Brandt's analysis, we can say that Forte has a right to be upset if the Bears have come in south of Williams/Lynch money. But if he has rejected that deal, or something slightly higher, then it's possible he has overvalued himself in the market. As Brandt notes, the franchise tag the Bears used on Forte will make it difficult for him to achieve an elite-level running back contract like the one the Minnesota Vikings signed Adrian Peterson to last summer. That deal included $36 million in guarantees over seven years. Stay tuned.
We've reached the end of the third week in NFL free agency, a time when teams typically shift their gaze toward role players who project as limited contributors for the upcoming season. I think the Green Bay Packers' acquisition of defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove has the potential to exceed those parameters.

Hargrove's skill set meshes well with the two most common alignments used by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers: the base 3-4 and the nickel with two down linemen. He is big enough to play end in the base and quick enough to be a inside pass-rusher in the nickel; although he's listed at 272 pounds, Hargrove said he played last season between 285-290 pounds while with the Seattle Seahawks. His intensity, meanwhile, will add an element of attitude that might have been missing from recent Packers defenses. Don't forget that he covered kickoffs for the New Orleans Saints as recently as 2010.

"Hopefully I can be a guy that could add a bit of speed to the defensive line," Hargrove said, "and an extra dimension there. I want to be an explosive playmaker and get after the passer, at the right time. When it's time to play the run, you play run with proper technique. But I want to get after it when we convert from run to pass."

Without knowing the results of the Packers' draft, you would have to consider Hargrove a leading candidate to start at defensive end in the base defense. Mike Neal will serve a four-game suspension to open the season, and the Packers never found a successful replacement last season for the departed Cullen Jenkins.

The Packers pursued Hargrove with uncommon zeal, at least for them, bringing him in for a visit a few days after hosting free-agent center Jeff Saturday. They have been reported to have interest in a number of free-agent defensive ends and linebackers, but I think it's pretty clear the Packers viewed Hargrove as the best fit for their scheme and needs.

There is no doubt that Hargrove has a complicated past, one that we've coincidentally covered a number of times here on the NFC North blog. He served a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy in 2008, and in January 2010 we chronicled his drug use and rehabilitation. It's a fact that he's one positive drug test away from an indefinite suspension, but that also tells you he's passed every NFL drug test since returning to the league in 2009.

We also crossed paths with Hargrove earlier this month, when he released an extensive statement about his presence on the 2009 Saints team that has been implicated in an NFL investigation into cash bounties. Hargrove received a personal foul for a hit on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, but in his statement Hargrove denied he was either motivated by a bounty or received a payment for the hit.

I won't try to predict what's in store for the Packers and Hargrove, but most March 29 signings don't have the kind of potential that this one brings. Let's see where this goes.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Detroit Lions' contract agreement with Kevin Smith adds to the team's collection of running backs. But I would caution you against assuming that the Lions are done assembling their backfield.

When you look at it, Smith, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure have all dealt with injuries of various types in the past few years. Smith struggled last season with an ankle injury, Best (concussion) is awaiting medical clearance to resume football activities and Leshoure ruptured his Achilles' tendon in training camp last summer.

Even with Smith's return, it's worth noting the Lions have put some heavy early draft work into Oregon running back LaMichael James. Coach Jim Schwartz attended his pro day earlier this month, and James also visited the Lions' practice facility.

Could the Lions draft a running back in the top half of the draft for the third consecutive year? We don't know, of course, but their history suggests not to rule it out.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- On Sunday, we told you the Minnesota Vikings were committed to a slow and deliberate rebuild of their depleted secondary. General manager Rick Spielman said he was focused on the draft for "our top-of-the-line, blue-chip players" and would continue to search for "value" players in veteran free agency.

We saw another example of that Monday morning when the Vikings agreed to terms on a one-year deal with former Chicago Bears cornerback Zack Bowman, who never regained his starting job after being benched early in the 2010 season. Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com has the story. Bowman intercepted six passes as a starter in 2009, and in truth there isn't much risk in hoping that a fresh start will turn his career around.

Those of you who are protesting the Vikings' offseason approach probably won't change your mind based on the pursuit of castoffs from division rivals. But Bowman is the paradigm of a "value" free agent: one who has some upside and doesn't require much, if any, financial commitment. And like it or not, that's how the Vikings are moving forward.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- I know a lot of you have been asking about the status of free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who visited the Green Bay Packers last week, and to this point has taken no other visits around the NFL.

You're citing a Twitter account that appears to be Hargrove's, but is not officially verified but is implying he will soon agree to terms with the team.

Here's what I can tell you: Packers officials on their way into a meeting here Monday morning said there was no deal to announce. That doesn't mean they won't ultimately sign Hargrove, giving them two veteran free-agent signings in the span of a week, but it's not a done deal at the moment.

Obviously we'll keep you updated. As we discussed last week, Hargrove provides a versatile mix of pass rush and power who could play end in a 3-4 and tackle in the nickel.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove's visit this week to the Green Bay Packers, as first reported by Jason La Canfora of NFL.com, tells us the team is serious about using free agency to improve a vexing hole in its defense.

The Packers' conservative approach to the open market in recent years has been well-documented, and historically they don't bring in players for visits if they don't have significant interest. Hargrove is the second veteran free agent to visit Lambeau Field this month. The first, center Jeff Saturday, signed a two-year contract worth $7.75 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Hargrove, 28, is an aggressive pass-rusher who also plays the run well. He projects as an end in the Packers' 3-4 scheme and can also play tackle when they use their nickel. He's listed at 272 pounds but played close to 300 pounds as recently as the 2010 season, when he was with the New Orleans Saints.

For a player who has never signed with an NFC North team, we've crossed paths often with Hargrove here on the blog.

We spent some time with him prior to Super Bowl XILV, allowing him to tell his story of addiction and recovery in his own words. In 2010, Hargrove visited the Detroit Lions and earlier this month, he released an extensive statement denying that he received a bounty for an illegal hit in the Saints' victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers have also been in contact with two other pass-rushers who might project as outside linebackers: Manny Lawson and Dave Tollefson. But to my knowledge, neither player has visited Lambeau Field. I don't know if that means Hargrove is necessarily the Packers' top priority among pass-rushers, but their recent history makes every visit noteworthy. Stay tuned.

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