NFC North: 2012 NFL Training Camp

Packers turn attention to roster

August, 24, 2012
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As we noted Friday in discussing the NFL's officiating situation, intensity around the NFL starts picking up once a team's third preseason game is complete. The first round of cuts, from 90 to 75 players, is Monday. The fourth preseason game for most teams is Thursday, and rosters must be trimmed to 53 by Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.

After arriving home from Cincinnati on Friday morning, the Green Bay Packers immediately began personnel meetings to discuss the next roster steps. Coach Mike McCarthy offered a few tidbits during a Friday afternoon session with reporters:
  1. McCarthy said that linebacker Desmond Bishop's situation "will probably resolve here in the next 48 hours or so." That suggests Bishop, who recently had surgery on his hamstring, could be placed on injured reserve to save a roster spot by Monday.
  2. Cornerback Davon House, who suffered a shoulder injury two weeks ago, is improving but there is no clear timetable for his return. Surgery could still be an option.
  3. Tight end Tom Crabtree's shoulder injury does not appear serious, but defensive end Ryan Pickett suffered a calf injury that will probably cause him to miss some time.
  4. McCarthy didn't award Graham Harrell the backup quarterback job, but he told reporters: "We don't make roster decisions today. There's still plenty of work to be done. We have three more practices. We have a game. Graham will play in that game, will have more opportunities. Graham Harrell improved from the first two weeks last night. He graded out higher than the first two weeks, so he’s making improvement." Again, the Packers are far less worried about Harrell than others might be.
It appears Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley won't make his preseason debut Thursday night after all. Finley tweeted a few minutes ago that his wife gave birth, presumably Thursday morning, and that he is headed back to Green Bay.

The team traveled to Cincinnati on Wednesday afternoon for tonight's preseason matchup against the Bengals.

Finley, via Twitter: "A blessing has came into the world! #BabyFin … Sorry Fans 88 is Heading back to GB from Cinny to take care of my Family. #Family1st"

Finley has been limited by a concussion and a quadriceps strain this summer. He was scheduled for significant duty Thursday night, partly because many NFL teams use key players sparingly in the fourth and final preseason game. The Packers haven't made any announcement, but I'm guessing he won't return to Cincinnati in time for Thursday's 7 p.m. ET kickoff.

I wouldn't be too concerned about that. As we discussed in Wednesday's Inside Slant podcast, the preseason has become less about developing timing for established players and more about giving unproven players a chance to earn a roster spot or speed up their development.
Defensive tackle Nick Fairley arrived at training camp amid as much anticipation as any player on the Detroit Lions' roster. As we discussed in the offseason, Fairley was healthy for the first time in his NFL career. He had added some 18 pounds during intensive rehabilitation workouts and given the Lions reason to believe he would break out as an elite player in 2012.

Here's the best thing we can say about that hope: Midway through the preseason, Fairley hasn't provided much to support it. He has three tackles and one silly personal foul penalty in two games, but more concerning are the ambivalent (at best) and critical (at worst) comments coming from the team's coaching staff.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairey
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireFormer first-round pick Nick Fairley has shown the Lions improved conditioning, but little production this preseason.
During my CampTour'12 visit to Lions camp, I kind of naively asked coach Jim Schwartz to discuss the extent of the progress Fairley had presumably made. I was surprised by his answer: "I don't want to read too much into practice. He's running well. He's strong. He's still developing in our scheme. This is a very important preseason to evaluate him. Last year, even when he was playing with us, he was never 100 percent. He is now, and this will be a good preseason for him to show that."

That was before the start of the preseason, which helps explain why defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham told reporters Wednesday that while Fairley has "all the tools to be a very good player," he needs to "grow up fast and be consistent." Cunningham implied that Fairley hasn't played hard on every snap during the preseason, and said: "In that position, you can't have a part-time guy, and I'm talking about through the game, because if the offensive line smells blood, they're going to go get him."

Wednesday, Schwartz said that Fairley "just needs to play more reps" but added: "Every time that we've tried to get him on the field for extended periods of time he hasn't been able to stay out there. He's done a good job of his conditioning. He's worked hard. He has ran well. He just needs to be on the field more."

We should consider some context here. Fairley fell in the 2011 draft in part because of maturity concerns. He was arrested twice in the offseason and faces a likely NFL suspension during the regular season. I understand why the Lions would be inclined to issue some public tough love rather than continue a campaign to anoint him the next Ndamukong Suh.

But if there were ever a time for Fairley to produce a signature game, even if it's in a meaningless preseason affair, it will be Saturday night at the Oakland Raiders. We still have every reason to believe there is a great player somewhere inside of Nick Fairley. But as the regular season approaches quickly, it would be nice to see some extended evidence of it.

CampTour'12: What we learned

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
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Marshall-Ponder-YoungGetty ImagesFinal training camp thoughts: Chicago is excited about Brandon Marshall, Christian Ponder has started to embrace his role as a leader, and Titus Young has been a training camp star.
We came, we saw, we conquered. Veni, vidi, vici and all that stuff. Yes, CampTour'12 wrapped up late last week, ending a stretch of spending 11 days at four NFC North training camps over a 15-day period. I took three flights, logged 938 miles on the NFC North blogmobile and limited my Jimmy John's/Chipotle intake to an average of one ingestion per day.

You can find everything I produced on location through this handy one-stop link, and the four Camp Confidential posts are all grouped here.

This division looks every bit as tough as we thought it was before the tour began, and I figure it's going to take 12 regular-season victories (or more) to win it. With that in mind, let's wrap up CampTour'12 with, well, 12, final thoughts and semi-behind-the-scenes observations from my time abroad.

1. The Chicago Bears' risk-reward: Our pre-camp discussion centered around the Bears' improvement and possible eclipse of the Detroit Lions in the standings. After seeing them in camp and in the context of the rest of the division, I still think the Bears are a really good team. But I also think they run the biggest risk of imploding among our top three teams. Already, two offseason decisions to stand part have left them vulnerable. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has not yet demonstrated the progress expected of him, and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's now surgically-repaired knee has drawn genuine concerns about his health over a 16-game season. Those are two huge positions on this team, and neither have a credible alternative at this point.

2. Genuine excitement: It was fascinating to watch longtime Bears employees and observers during receiver Brandon Marshall's first full-pads practice Aug. 1. Marshall made the kinds of plays that only a true No. 1 receiver makes, including some fancy sideline footwork at the end of a 35-yard pass from Jay Cutler. Several people gushed that Marshall will prove the team's best skill-position player since Walter Payton. A glance at recent Bears history suggests that's a sound judgment by default. I didn't see Marshall do anything that we haven't seen, say, Calvin Johnson do in this division. But it's been forever since the Bears have had someone do it in their uniform.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMike Tice seems more relaxed with the Bears than when he was at the helm in Minnesota.
3. Tice games: I told Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice that he seemed less frantic and more chill than he was during his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. "I still have my moments," Tice said in words that proved prophetic. Since then, he has reached deep into his bag of tricks to cajole better play from Webb, putting him in a yo-yo personnel rotation and playing him for almost all of the preseason opener. When he was the Vikings' coach, Tice once pulled fans into a non-contact drill to demonstrate mistakes to starting linemen. On another occasion, he required linemen to practice with their hands tied together to emphasize footwork. Sometimes those tactics work. Sometimes they don't.

4. Concussion impact: I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this summer as the moment concussion treatment -- not just concussions themselves -- began impacting the game. Already, we've seen the Lions and Green Bay Packers acknowledge they are taking a much more deliberate approach to putting players back on the field after they've been concussed or if they are even suspected to have suffered a concussion. Front-line players including Greg Jennings, Marshall Newhouse and Amari Spievey missed the preseason opener because of them.

5. Traffic nightmare: Would you believe that the worst traffic in the NFC North is in the NFL's smallest market? Some of the key roads surrounding Lambeau Field have been torn up for months, including Oneida St. and Hwy. 41 near Lombardi Ave.. I pray to the construction gods that everything is finished by next month. Based on the amount of holes, gravel roads and lane closures I saw, I'm not optimistic. All I can say is to arrive early and often.

6. Camp routine: Because of the new collective bargaining agreement, players were on the field once a day in three of our locales. The only team coming close to two-a-day practices were the Vikings, whose first workout was a 60-minute, half-speed walk-through. Veterans like the Packers' Jeff Saturday were thrilled with the reduced wear-and-tear. Privately, others noted that coaches filled the time once set aside for a second practice with additional meetings. "Some really tedious days," one player said. Said another: "Sometimes the grass is not always greener, you know?"

7. Imagination movers: The Packers lead the division with unique drills and sideline gizmos. For years, they've had sideline speakers set up to broadcast the ravings of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. This year, they added a set of red and green lights that flash exactly 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped in team drills. In essence, they are designed to simulate the quarterback's head clock. I also saw offensive linemen catching passes from a JUGS machine and tight ends doing a basketball-like drill where they weaved the ball around their ankles and through their legs.

8. Ponder charisma: Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems to have made some strides as a pocket passer. But I can say without a shred of doubt that Ponder has mastered the more ethereal parts of NFL quarterbacking. He has taken ownership of a young roster and moves easily between the inevitable cliques that develop. He is just as likely to share a laugh with fellow second-year player Kyle Rudoph as he is veteran receiver Jerome Simpson, a newly-signed free agent. I watched him call team staffers by name and treat them with genuine respect. Ponder has some work to do on the field, but he has the makings of a franchise pillar off of it.

9. Defensive dilemma: Much of the camp discussion surrounding the Vikings has centered around Ponder and the changes they've made to the offense. But the Vikings have just as much, if not more, work to do on defense. There are at least four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots -- where the presumed starter remains completely unproven. The San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 260 rushing yards in the preseason opener.

10. Eye-opening: Someone asked me along the trail to name the best NFC North player no one has heard of. The first two names to come to mind are both on the Lions' roster. You've no doubt heard of receiver Titus Young, but probably for the wrong reasons after his offseason fight with safety Louis Delmas. Young has been a training camp star, twisting and turning over defensive backs in every drill I watched. From a physical standpoint, Young can be a star. The other was defensive end Willie Young, who got elevated reps because of Cliff Avril's holdout and Kyle Vanden Bosch's knee injury. Willie Young is a high-energy, full-effort pass-rusher who has to get on the field more substantially this season.

11. Redshirt season?: Perhaps the most notable sign of the Lions' roster strength is that their top two draft picks might get a quasi-redshirt season, assuming the players in front of them stay healthy. Offensive lineman Riley Reiff isn't going to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus and probably not right tackle Gosder Cherilus, either. And receiver Ryan Broyles has been limited all summer because of residual soreness from knee surgery. At best, he will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver when he does get on the field.

12. Serious bid'niss: I realized how serious this NFC North race would be shortly after returning from CampTour'12. Check out this photo tweeted by Chris Jenkins of The Associated Press. It shows Saturday, Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in Packers uniforms. These three are the kind of veteran free agents the Packers turned away from for years under general manager Ted Thompson. This season, Thompson has loaded up on a relative scale. In this division, this year, there is no time to wait for development. Answers are needed now.
During my time at the Minnesota Vikings' training camp, one of the hottest topics of conversation was whether the team had the personnel to follow through on plans to reduce snaps for starting defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison. The third-best defensive end on the team, Everson Griffen, was working exclusively as a linebacker and depth beyond him was unknown.

In the end, we wondered if Griffen was destined to return to defensive end.

That appears to be the case, provided he isn't sidelined by a knee issue that arose Monday.

Griffen was back to working at end during Monday's practice, and coach Leslie Frazier told reporters: "We saw enough of him at linebacker where we feel like this is going to be better for him. … He agrees that it's better for him to focus on that position."

Griffen wasn't going to beat out Erin Henderson for playing time at weakside linebacker, and there was an obvious need for a credible backup at defensive end. But the experiment wasn't a total waste, I don't think. Griffen has appeared effective as a stand-up defensive lineman in the Vikings "3-3" nickel package, and spending some time in a linebacker role could only help his comfort level in that alignment.

In the end, the real test will be whether defensive coordinator Alan Williams can find a way to get Griffen regular work at defensive end. Allen played more snaps (1,004) than any defensive end in the NFL last season. Robison was close behind. There is no reason to wear down starters to that extent -- as long as there is a viable alternative. Now, there is.
We spent much of the offseason discussing the Green Bay Packers' plan to add "juice" and improve the pass rush from their front seven. As we approach the three-week mark of training camp, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has seen enough.

Appearing on ESPN Radio's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd," Matthews said the Packers' pass rush is "back" and has the team positioned to reclaim its spot among the NFL's better defensive teams.

"I think it's back for sure, definitely," Matthews said, "with the addition of Nick Perry on the opposite side of me. I mean, he's a big kid who is only going to push the pocket back. We've got some new characters, some new faces on the defensive line. Jerel Worthy, our second-round pick, has been playing real well. Mike Daniels out of Iowa has been playing well.

"We've added some free agents here who are definitely going to give this defense a spark. And that was definitely an area we need to address, and it's been a concern of ours, and it looks like we've got it back. So I look for us to get back up there with how we used to play on defense, and that's a top 5 defense."

You can listen to the entire interview via this podcast .

Rookie Buzz: Packers' Casey Hayward

August, 13, 2012
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Latest in a series of posts on NFC North rookies who have generated buzz. (Full series here.)

Seasoned observers take notice when a team trades up in the draft. It's a clear signal of particular affinity for a targeted player, making it more than reasonable to project both immediate and long-term plans.

So it goes for the April trade that secured Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward for the Green Bay Packers at the bottom of the second round (No. 62 overall). You figured it would only be a matter of time before Hayward got a chance to earn significant playing time, and it appears that injuries and a solid training-camp performance have generated that opportunity already.

[+] EnlargeCasey Hayward
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellRookie cornerback Casey Hayward is earning work with the Packers' first-team defense.
Hayward worked with the Packers' first-team defense over the weekend after injuries sidelined Davon House (shoulder) and Sam Shields (elbow). Jarrett Bush, who opened camp as a first-team cornerback, apparently has been leapfrogged on the depth chart. It's easy to view Hayward's ascendance as a function of injuries, but the Packers' eagerness to draft him suggests he could win the permanent job outright by the end of the preseason.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that Hayward got off to a "good start" in the Packers' preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers, and Hayward is thrilled to have countered what he said were pre-draft assessments of limited ability.

"Not too many people can come in and just start, especially at the corner spot," Hayward said, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. "I feel I can start in this league. A lot of people said I couldn't be a starter -- [that] I'm more of a nickel person. I just want to come in and prove them wrong. They drafted me high, and when they draft you that high, they've got expectations for you, and I just want to live up to them. … It's my opportunity and I'm going to try to make the best of it."

You probably noticed the Chargers target Hayward last Thursday on a 36-yard pass play to receiver Vincent Brown. But when you watch the replay, you see Hayward do a nice job of recovering after biting on a double move. He caught up to Brown and got his hand near the ball as it dropped, increasing the difficulty of Brown's reception. It was an exceptional catch given Hayward's recovery. (Video here courtesy NFL.com.)

Regardless, Hayward's ascendance is of particular interest from an NFC North perspective. With elite quarterback play in nearly every locale, Hayward is one of three rookie defensive backs who appear on track for starting jobs. We've discussed the status of Detroit Lions cornerback Bill Bentley, and it appears the Minnesota Vikings are on the verge of elevating safety Harrison Smith as well.

If Hayward maintains this role, the Packers would have found immediate and prominent roles for each of their top three draft picks. First-rounder Nick Perry appears locked in at outside linebacker, and second-rounder Jerel Worthy is working as one of two tackles in the Packers' nickel defense, a scheme they ran last season almost 70 percent of the time.

Young and new players doesn't always translate into better. But given the task facing defenses in this division, there is nothing to be lost by exhausting every possibility. In Green Bay, the Packers hope they have a new, young player in Hayward who makes them better.

Some clarity on Packers injuries

August, 11, 2012
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Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy dropped a bunch of news on local reporters after a Saturday night practice, one that was abbreviated because a total of 21 players were sitting out due to injury. Let's run through the news one issue at a time.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop's season is "in jeopardy," McCarthy said, because of a hamstring injury that will require surgery. Bishop also has a knee sprain.

It's a freak injury for a player that has struggled with calf strains in the past year. When healthy, Bishop is one of the Packers' most physical defenders, and a pretty crafty playmaker as well. Bishop won't have surgery until some of the swelling reduces, and it sure sounds unlikely that he'll play again in 2012.

The Packers might be able to utilize a new rule that allows teams to place one player on a separate injured reserve list and be activated by midseason, but at the moment the NFL Players Association hasn't signed off on the rule change. And there are no guarantees that Bishop would be ready to play at that point, anyway.

The likely replacement is second-year linebacker D.J. Smith, who acquitted himself well in three starts last season, but there is a big difference between being a spot starter and taking over a position for a season. Make no mistake: Losing Bishop is a significant blow to the Packers' defense.

Cornerback Davon House, who emerged from the first few weeks of camp as a starter, will miss two or three weeks because of a shoulder separation. At the moment, he is not scheduled for surgery.

It could have been much worse for House, who had his arm in a sling Saturday. But despite the relatively optimistic outlook, we should remember how much a shoulder injury impacted the way fellow cornerback Tramon Williams played last season.

You can be healthy enough to play but not strong enough to succeed in press coverage or to stick your shoulder into a ball carrier. Just something to think about.

Finally, tailback James Starks has been diagnosed with turf toe and is "week to week," McCarthy said.

Starks' condition, previously unknown, goes a long way toward explaining why the Packers are expected to sign veteran running back Cedric Benson. Backup Alex Green remains on a snap count as he recovers from a torn ACL, and Brandon Saine has been sidelined by a hamstring injury. In short, the Packers are almost out of running backs.

I suppose we could argue about the wisdom of making an offseason commitment to Starks, who has a long history of injuries, with a limited safety net behind him. But it's late on a Saturday night and we're all tired. That's for another day.
The good news Saturday was that linebacker Brian Urlacher re-joined the Chicago Bears. The neutral news is that neither Urlacher nor the team cleared up why he left the team for three days last week other than to say it was for personal reasons. The bad news is that he once again missed practice because of a sore knee, his seventh consecutive, and coach Lovie Smith said he did not know when Urlacher will return.

Urlacher
Here's what Smith told reporters about Urlacher: "Knee is sore and he's been gone for personal reasons. That's all we're really going to talk about on the subject."

Urlacher declined comment to reporters after practice.

Many of us prefer the simplest explanations to all unanswered questions. Often, they are the right ones. In Urlacher's case, it would go something like this:

He began experiencing soreness in a knee he injured and spent a long time rehabilitating during the offseason. He is 34, knows the defense as well as anyone on the team and doesn't need practice reps or preseason appearances. The Bears are taking it slow because they can, and in the end this is the best way to prepare him for the rigors of a 16-game season.

In the midst of that approach, a personal issue arose that Urlacher needed to attend to. He did and it's now taken care of. End of story.

It's quite possible that's what has happened. But I also understand why some of you aren't willing to accept that explanation. NFL teams are notoriously secretive about injuries, and during training camp they are under no obligation to provide any information under league rules. Urlacher's knee was originally injured more than seven months ago. That's a long time to still feel soreness. Is it reasonable to think that a week or more of rest in August will get Urlacher to a place that seven months of offseason rehabilitation did not? Or is the injury more serious than the Bears have let on?

Soon enough, we'll know if those questions are relevant.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen blew me away Friday afternoon with his report that free-agent running back Cedric Benson is in Green Bay and preparing to sign a contract with the Packers. I don't necessarily stand in judgment against it, I'm just totally surprised. A few thoughts on this deal, assuming it occurs:

  1. General manager Ted Thompson stepped out of his comfort zone a couple of times this offseason to sign veteran free agents, in each case for a specific reason. He didn't think his team could go with an untested player at center, so he signed Jeff Saturday. And he thought the Packers needed multiple infusions of juice at defensive line, leading to the acquisitions of Anthony Hargrove, Daniel Muir and Phillip Merling. So he must have thought his backfield was in worse shape than it appeared to be to pursue Benson.
  2. [+] EnlargeCedric Benson
    AP Photo/Tony TribbleCedric Benson has rushed for at least 1,000 yards for the Bengals in each of the past three seasons.
    The Packers clearly committed to James Starks as their lead back in the offseason, and while he struggled in Thursday night's preseason opener, that would be an awfully quick hook on that commitment. Starks is still just 26 and the Packers are usually pretty patient with their player development.
  3. The Packers have downplayed the significance of experience and veteran depth in the backfield since Ryan Grant injured his ankle in Week 1 of the 2010 season. Since then, they have passed up numerous opportunities to add veterans with cache, including then-Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, and instead remained committed to their internal depth. The timing of this move is a legitimate question. Why now?
  4. With all of that said, the Packers had a need for some experience in the backfield. At this point, Alex Green and Brandon Saine, with a combined 21 NFL carries, were Starks' backups. But the Packers had not acted on that need for so long that most of us had given up on pushing it.
  5. I reached out to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., who liked the deal from a pure football perspective. Williamson doesn't think Benson will help the Packers in their passing game, but it's worth noting he produced more than 1,000 rushing yards for the Cincinnati Bengals in each of the past three seasons. "Benson is a better runner still than anyone the Packers have right now," Williamson said. "He can get what is blocked still -- and a bit more. And he should be a decent inside zone runner, especially against unstacked boxes." In other words, Benson should be able to capitalize more than Starks on defenses situated to play the run.
  6. Benson is 29 and has a long history of legal problems. We all know the Chicago Bears released him in 2008 as a result. He was suspended one game last season after a pair of misdemeanor assault arrests. That's only relevant to the Packers in that another incident would probably lead to a significantly longer suspension, per the NFL's policy against repeat offenses.
  7. Overall, this move is notable mostly for what it reveals about the Packers' internal view of their backfield. To me, you don't go through the trouble of signing Cedric Benson just for a look-see. You bring him in because you think you need him. I think a reasonable argument could be made that the Packers needed more juice in their backfield. I'm just surprised they acted on it when they did.

CampTour'12: Lions Day 2

August, 9, 2012
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Some thoughts and observations from our second day of training camp with the Detroit Lions:
  • It's only fair to note that after a relatively sloppy practice Wednesday, the Lions came back with a sharp and fast-paced workout held indoors because of rain. The team opened with work on its no-huddle offense, and it set the pace for a crisp day. I like how the Lions' coaching staff sets the pace for high tempo by personally sprinting from one drill to the next. It's tough for players not to follow.
  • We noted earlier that rookie cornerback Bill Bentley has been elevated to the first team, at least for the time being. The Lions also had veteran safety John Wendling working with the starters, alongside Erik Coleman, while one-time starter Amari Spievey was working with the second and third teams. Coach Jim Schwartz said Wendling has "had a very good camp." He added: "He's knocked down a lot of passes. He's been in the right spot all the time." Look for Bentley and Wendling to start Friday night against the Cleveland Browns.
  • The practice had some tense moments during one of the final team drills when hot-headed center Dominic Raiola fell, got up and whacked rookie linebacker Tahir Whitehead on the helmet. The two jawed for several more plays but Whitehead did not retaliate, which Schwartz considered a good sign for a team that lost its composure often last season. "The players showed some restraint," Schwartz said. "That's a good step, particularly for a rookie."
  • Because the practice was held indoors, reporters saw running back Mikel Leshoure running for one of the few times since he strained his hamstring early in camp. (Most of his rehabilitation has been conducted indoors while the team practiced outside.) Leshoure ran hard, with his helmet on, during a sideline session with the team's medical staff. It wouldn't be surprising if he returned to practice sometime next week.
  • Backup quarterback Shaun Hill had a little fun during second-team work, twice taking option-like runs deep down the left sideline and encouraging defensive players to chase him. I timed his 40-yard dash in approximately 5.01 seconds.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- I caught myself thinking back to April as I watched the Detroit Lions' training camp practice Thursday morning. Back then, so many of you were bemoaning the Lions' draft-day decision to pass up a number of highly regarded cornerbacks in the second round in favor of receiver Ryan Broyles, whose short-term future was unclear as he rehabilitated a torn ACL. The fervor was strong enough that few noticed when the Lions grabbed Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Dwight Bentley one round later.

Things can have a funny way of working out.

Dwight Bentley
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDwight Bentley's path to the starting job was cleared once the Lions released Aaron Berry.
Thursday, it became clear that Bentley has earned the chance to win a starting job opposite Chris Houston. After spending most of training camp as the Lions' third cornerback, joining the first team in nickel situations, Bentley has leapfrogged veterans Jacob Lacey and Alphonso Smith for the moment. It's expected he will start Friday night's preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, and coach Jim Schwartz left little doubt that Bentley has reached the cusp of an important opportunity.

"We wouldn't put somebody out there that's going to break down in coverage and doesn't know what to do, regardless of where we've drafted him," Schwartz said. "We've never been that team. You've got to earn your way on, and he's done a lot in training camp.

"This is an important stretch for him because you go from rookie camp, doing something there. [Organized team activities], doing something there. Training camp, making some plays there. And then you need to maintain that through preseason games. And then if you continue to see that, you feel a lot better going into the season. He's done well every step along the way. This is the next step for him."

Bentley is a bit on the small side, having measured a shade under 5-foot-10 at the NFL scouting combine and weighing in at 182 pounds. NFL scouts held him in mild regard until the Senior Bowl, where a strong performance raised him into a third-round prospect.

I never pretend to be a personnel expert, but amateur eyes can at least clue in to a player's general demeanor on the field and the reaction of coaches. All indications during two days of training camp are that Bentley knows what he's doing.

"I've just tried to be a student of the game, executing my plays and learning at the same time," he said. "You want to execute fast and play fast, and that's what I've got to do. I've had some great opportunities to showcase my talent, and I'm thankful for that."

Truth be told, Bentley's opportunity is tied to the Lions' late-July decision to release presumptive starter Aaron Berry. Sometimes, however, all a young player needs is a chance.

"No doubt," Bentley said. "My goal is to go out and solidify myself as a starter in this preseason. When we open the [regular] season against St. Louis, I want that to be me. So I've to go out and put it on the game film."

Note: The NFL lists Bentley as "Dwight" but he said he prefers his nickname, "Bill." So we'll start referring to him that way from now on.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In an unusual moment Wednesday morning, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz called his team into a huddle near the far end of a practice field. The previous 75 minutes had produced one too many false starts and encroachment penalties, and it appeared Schwartz had had enough.

Officials called 146 penalties on the Lions last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and opponents accepted 128 -- the third-highest total in the NFL. By the looks of it, at least, Schwartz has made the issue a significant emphasis in training camp. Spectators and reporters couldn't hear what he said during that mid-practice huddle, but it was unlikely he was discussing the lunch menu in the Lions' cafeteria.

"It's definitely been an emphasis," cornerback Chris Houston said. "Coach has been more on guys if they jump offsides or make dumb penalties. He's much more aware of that. If you do have penalties, you're going to get it. He's going to yell at you."

There are no drills that can minimize the kind of penalties Houston is referring to. Coaches have to ensure players know the rules and then create accountability when they don't or can't follow them. Wednesday, it appeared the Lions removed right tackle Gosder Cherilus from team drills after he had a false start.

You could argue that pre-snap penalties can be a function of the physical drain of training camp, but as Schwartz noted, the Lions had just returned from a day off Tuesday.

"[W]e weren't at our best [Wednesday]," Schwartz said. "We need to be better, particularly after a day off. There are days off that are built into our schedule now with the new CBA and things like that. When we take advantage of a day off, we don't need it to bleed over into the next day. We've got to make sure that doesn’t happen."

The chart shows the Lions' most penalized individuals last season. Seven of tight end Brandon Pettigrew's 11 penalties were false starts. Defensive end Cliff Avril was called for five offside penalties/neutral zone infractions. Left tackle Jeff Backus had three false starts and seven of defensive tackle Corey Williams' eight penalties came before the snap.

Coaches generally consider those type of penalties preventable, as opposed to illegal blocks on special teams that seem more open to interpretation from officials. To borrow a cliché from professional sports, you can only control what you can control, and the Lions are focused on controlling that large section of mistakes that went unchecked last season.

As we discussed Wednesday, one apparently lackluster practice doesn't make a big impact on me in the context of a three-week training camp. What was more notable to me was the Lions' recognition and the steps they are taking to minimize the issue.

"The next step for us is being disciplined with the penalties," Houston said, "and not making bonehead mistakes. If we can do that, take some of those penalties down, those after-the-play penalties, and if we can do all of that and play within the lines, we'll be OK."

It'll be a while before I forget the sight I witnessed Saturday night at Minnesota Vikings training camp. Here's all I can say about NFL careers: They come and they go. Rookie receiver Greg Childs is hoping to return from a catastrophic double-knee injury, but there is no known example of a player doing so in NFL history.
Tuesday's SportsNation chat included some discussion about the perceived frequency of concussions in the Green Bay Packers' training camp, including one -- that of tight end Jermichael Finley -- that occurred in a no-contact situation. Finley has since returned to practice, but three other players -- left tackle Marshall Newhouse, receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Ryan Taylor -- aren't expected to play in Thursday night's preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers.

Jennings
That's relatively high total during the first two weeks of training camp. The question is whether we should view it in the context of the NFL's heightened sensitivity to concussions -- or mere coincidence. After all, it's not the least bit cynical to note that the league is facing a class-action lawsuit from more than 3,000 former players who allege their concussions were not properly handled.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy actually addressed the topic a few hours after our chat, saying the team has improved its rehabilitation procedures for concussions. It appears that one of the bi-products is that players aren't allowed back on the field as quickly as they once were if they report concussion symptoms.

"I wouldn't say there are different guidelines [for diagnosing]," McCarthy said. "I would say the improvement as far as the safety comes in the rehab, is my understanding of it. The process of a player coming in, communicating to the doctor, all that is very similar. But there is an awfully high end of caution once they feel the player is in danger of a concussion or close to a concussion or diagnosed with a concussion. That is clearly my opinion of what I've seen change from prior years to now. The rehab, the timely fashion that you bring an individual back is different probably than in prior years."

Often NFL teams are more cautious in the preseason with injuries, requiring players with muscle pulls or knee sprains to sit out practice longer than they might during the regular season, hoping to minimize the possibility of a long-term issue. I wouldn't view concussions in the same way. If this were Week 1 of the regular season instead of Week 1 of the preseason, it's fair to assume that Newhouse, Jennings and Taylor would not play.

NFL teams have no other choice in this matter, lawsuit or otherwise, and I applaud the Packers for being open about it.

In the end, you hope this means better care and healthier futures for players who have suffered head injuries -- and that it doesn't discourage players with less solid footing on the roster from reporting symptoms. That, I'm afraid, will be an entirely separate sub-issue in 2012. Surely there will be some young players who don't want to risk their standing and sit out an extended time because they might have a concussion. Regardless, we should view this heightened sensitivity as progress.

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