NFC North: Al Afalava

Wrapping up the 2011 draft

May, 2, 2011
5/02/11
2:40
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Cleaning out my notebook with the 2011 NFL draft in the books:

The Chicago Bears love their safeties. Cal's Chris Conte is the ninth they've drafted since general manager Jerry Angelo took over in 2002.

(Extra credit if you can name all nine. They're at the bottom of this post.)

The Bears have given most of the players on that list a chance to start, and there's no reason to think they have a different plan for Conte. The Bears are targeting 2010 third-rounder Major Wright as a starting safety, and it's only fair to note that his presumed 2011 partner -- veteran Chris Harris -- is entering the final year of his contract. Is Conte the long-term replacement for Harris?

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said the Bears "spent a lot of time" scouting Conte and noted that his conversion from cornerback means he has some cover skills. Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke received a strong recommendation from Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and Angelo said it's "very, very hard to find free safeties." Call me crazy, but I'm thinking we'll see Conte on the field sooner rather than later.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIFormer Lions running back Barry Sanders said via Twitter that he might visit Detroit's training camp this offseason.
It was nice to see Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders announce the Detroit Lions' choice of Boise State receiver Titus Young in the second round. Sanders hasn't taken much of a public profile in recent years, so it was interesting to follow his draft thoughts via Twitter (@BarrySanders). I noticed this tweet in particular:
"Very impressed with what the team has done over the past few drafts.... I might even stop by training camp to see the guys this year..."

The Lions have a distinguished history that predates that disastrous Matt Millen era that many modern-day fans associate them with. The endorsement of one of their best-ever players shouldn't be taken lightly.

Only a few minutes after drafting Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, Lions coach Jim Schwartz was already facing the question: How will he dole out playing time between Leshoure and incumbent Jahvid Best?

Schwartz said he won't use a "Randy Ratio," the Minnesota Vikings' ill-fated attempt to ration throws to receiver Randy Moss in 2002. (Current Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was in the same position with the Vikings at the time.) Schwartz said there was "definitely a possibility" of using both in the same backfield, but made clear that the approach could "change from week to week."

Schwartz: "It might change due to injuries and player availability. It might change based on opponent. I think there's a lot of different things that happen in our division. We see a 4-3 team like the Chicago Bears. We see a 3-4 team like the Green Bay Packers. That's a different style of running back. [You] play 3-4 teams that are two-gapping, that are holding on -- you need a big back who can run through some arm tackles. You want to get guys matched up on different teams, you need guys who can match up and beat linebackers and people that want to play man and trick coverage up for a certain player."

A few years ago, we celebrated when the Bears drafted the "pool guy." Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert had made waves during the pre-draft process by jumping out of a pool and posting the video on YouTube. Unfortunately, Gilbert couldn't play and was waived last summer.

The Green Bay Packers drafted their own pool guy, Arizona defensive end/linebacker Ricky Elmore, but there is reason to believe he has a better future than Gilbert.

True, Elmore has posted videos of him both jumping out of a pool and into a truck on YouTube. But it's also worth noting that Elmore actually had more production last season than his more-famous teammate, defensive end/linebacker Brooks Reed.

Elmore finished last season with 11 sacks and a total of 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Reed had six sacks and 10 tackles behind the line. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, I'm eager to see if Elmore's athleticism and college production can translate in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.

Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder is expected to be the starter sooner than later, if not immediately. Assuming that's the case, it's quite possible the Vikings will look for other ways to get Joe Webb onto the field -- possibly in a way that reflects the New York Jets' use of Brad Smith. In either event, it's likely the Vikings will need a veteran backup.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave endorsed that suggestion, saying over the weekend that it "balances out a position." There continue to be reports, most recently from NFL.com, that the Vikings' most likely target is Washington's Donovan McNabb. If Ponder is going to take over at some point in 2011, that wouldn't make much sense to me.

But what do I know?

The Vikings might be the only NFC North team looking to add to its quarterback depth chart. Angelo strongly indicated that rookie Nathan Enderle will be the Bears' No. 3 quarterback behind Jay Cutler and Caleb Hanie. The Packers seem set with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell. And Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has said he plans no changes from the trio of Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton.

South Florida safety Mistral Raymond, drafted by the Vikings with the No. 170 overall pick, has endured an incredible three years. As Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune explains, a group vowing retaliation for a shooting mis-identified Raymond's childhood home in Florida and burned it down using Molotov cocktails. No family members were killed, but one of Raymond's sisters was shot four times and airlifted to a trauma center for emergency surgery.

Then, last month, another sister was murdered. Raymond said over the weekend that he hoped his selection in the draft provided a joyful outlet for his family.

"Just having my family here with me, having them see my name come across the screen and seeing the excitement that it brought them, I think it was a relief for all of us," he said. "It helped me realize what type of position that the Lord has put me in. He has blessed me to be an outlet for my family. For them to have excitement no matter what at any given time of the day. It's just a great feeling for me personally, and I'm very grateful to be in the position I'm in."

And finally, your trivia answer: Bobby Gray (2002), Todd Johnson (2003), Chris Harris (2005), Danieal Manning (2006), Kevin Payne (2007), Craig Steltz (2008), Al Afalava (2009), Major Wright (2010), Chris Conte (2011).

Chicago Bears cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
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Check here for a full list of Chicago's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: There were no earth-shattering moments Saturday for the Bears. But it was sobering to see them give up on three members of their 2009 draft class, including defensive end Jarron Gilbert, receiver Juaquin Iglesias and safety Al Afalava. Defensive lineman Henry Melton squeezed onto the roster, and the class did produce two 2010 starters: Receiver Johnny Knox and right guard Lance Louis. Meanwhile, guard Josh Beekman was put out of his misery. The Bears have been trying to replace Beekman for two years and finally released him. Finally, the Bears kept four tailbacks -- Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell and Garrett Wolfe. Forte and Taylor are expected to get all of the offensive snaps, but Bell and Wolfe have special teams value.

No-brainers: There was plenty of excitement when the Bears drafted quarterback Dan LeFevour, an Illinois native, but it was apparent early in training camp that he wasn't destined to make the roster. The Bears devoted all of their offensive reps to starter Jay Cutler and then-backup Caleb Hanie. Todd Collins has taken over at No. 2 because of Hanie's shoulder injury, and there was no way the Bears were going to release Hanie and keep LeFevour. You wonder if he won't end up back on their practice squad.

What's next: The Bears are going to have to get their special teams re-situated after releasing Tim Shaw, who led the team with 30 special teams tackles last year. It appears Shaw was released to make room for linebacker Brian Iwuh, who the team believes is more suited for its defensive scheme.
As previously noted, Friday marks the start of a five-day whirlwind of player movement through the NFC North and the entire league. Teams have already started trimming their rosters in anticipation of Saturday's 6 p.m. ET deadline, and they will continue making adjustments via trades, waiver-wire claims and free-agent signings up until they resume practicing in earnest next week. (For most teams, that day is Wednesday.)

I'll do my best to collect the names that trickle out before Saturday's official announcement and update them in this post. From an NFC North perspective, it appears the Bears are the only team that has gotten a head start.

The Bears will release safety Al Afalava, cornerback Cornelius Brown and linebacker Kelvin Smith, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Afalava started 13 games as a rookie last season, but was buried after a renovation of the position. *Update: Tight end Richard Angulo will also be released.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reports the Bears will also release linebackers Tim Shaw and Kevin Malast. Receiver Freddie Barnes, cornerback Woodney Turenne, safety Quentin Scott and center Tim Walter will be released as well, according to the Tribune.

BBAO: Camps winding down

August, 16, 2010
8/16/10
7:35
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

One sign that we're getting closer to the start of the regular season: By the end of this week, half of our NFC North teams will have broken training camp.

The Minnesota Vikings, in fact, broke camp last week and will resume practicing Monday in Eden Prairie, Minn. The Chicago Bears' final day at Olivet Nazarene University is Friday.

The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers both hold training camp at their permanent training facilities and thus have more flexible schedules. Officially, the Lions break camp Aug. 25. The Packers' final day of two-a-day practices is Aug. 19, but they will continue holding public practices through Aug. 31.

It should be a busy week. If you haven't already caught up on Week 1 of the preseason, please see this handy one-stop review. Afterward, take a spin around the division:
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune reviews the film of the Bears' loss at San Diego. Among his conclusions: Safety Al Afalava had a rough night, while receiver Johnny Knox proved to be "the best route-runner" on the field.
  • Injuries to Bears safeties Craig Steltz and Major Wright have clouded the competition at that position, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
  • Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said Devin Hester has made fewer mistakes in training camp than any Bears receiver, according to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Detroit Lions started undrafted rookie Randy Phillips at one of their safety positions Saturday night at Pittsburgh. But that left depth thin, and the secondary remains a concern, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions coaches were excited by quarterback Matthew Stafford's performance against the Steelers, writes Chris McCoskey of the Detroit News.
  • The Lions' starters played well against the Steelers, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com, but their backups struggled.
  • Two weeks into training camp, the Packers feel more at ease with cornerbacks Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee. Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.
  • Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sparkled Saturday night against Cleveland, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Browns blitzed on 84.6 percent of Rodgers' passes, writes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That's a high number even for a regular-season game, let alone the first week of the preseason.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com reviews the tape of the Vikings' victory at St. Louis. Receiver Jaymar Johnson was among those who helped his cause.
  • The Vikings' second-team defensive line had a strong showing against the Rams, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.

Reviewing preseason Week 1

August, 15, 2010
8/15/10
9:00
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All four NFC North teams made their preseason debuts Saturday night. Hooray and yippee.

As we discussed last week, preseason games don't rank high on my list of NFL excitement. But I understand not everyone feels this way, so what follows is an attempt to reasonably account for each game while giving direction to those seeking more information. We'll tweak and continue this format throughout the preseason.

San Diego Chargers 25, Chicago Bears 10
Preseason record:
0-1
Of interest: Quarterback Jay Cutler played only one series and threw only two passes, but it was notable that both went to receiver Johnny Knox. Early in training camp, Cutler clearly was favoring Knox, and many people around the NFL consider Knox the Bears receiver who best fits this offense. On the other side of the ball, the Bears had to be happy with rookie safety Major Wright's debut. In limited action, he was credited with seven tackles before leaving with a left hand injury. And, finally we heard from the long-forgotten Al Afalava. The 2009 starter intercepted a pass, but also appeared responsible for a blocked punt when he let San Diego's Brandon Lang pass into the backfield easily.
Local coverage: Wright had a "pad-popping" debut, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is still looking for the right combination, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz went with a vanilla approach, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie suffered a right shoulder injury of undetermined severity, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
Next: Saturday vs. Oakland Raiders

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Detroit Lions 7
Preseason record:
0-1
Of interest: The Lions' new defensive line performed as advertised. Right end Kyle Vanden Bosch got to Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich twice, forcing poor throws, and left end Cliff Avril had a sack. As we discussed during our camp tour, that's the kind of game-to-game performance the Lions' defense will need to improve this season. Quarterback Matthew Stafford's interception came off a rushed, high pass that was tipped by his receiver. Call it a wash. On the other hand, his 2-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson clearly reflected elevated communication.
Local coverage: Running back Jahvid Best's quickness was as advertised, writes Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "Several of the players and position groups the Lions are counting on to push them toward respectability made encouraging first impressions Saturday. However, there were still too many remnants of the old horror show on display." The Lions lost linebacker Jordon Dizon (knee) for the season, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
Next:
Saturday at Denver Broncos

Cleveland Browns 27, Green Bay Packers 24
Preseason record:
0-1
Of interest: You're reading this right: The Packers' starters were down 14-0 midway through the first quarter of this game. And I wouldn't say their defense was playing vanilla schemes, either. I know I saw cornerback Charles Woodson on at least one blitz. Take that for what you will. More concerning to me was the night of tailback Ryan Grant, who lost a rare fumble on his first carry and later stumbled to the sideline after a head injury. It's not believed serious, but it was a reminder of the Packers'questionable depth behind him. Oh, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 12 of 13 passes for 159 yards. Ho hum.
Local coverage: Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "[T]he Packers were looking to be better than they showed entering their second year in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme." The Packers' performance "made it clear that the team has some work to do before making travel plans for Dallas in February," writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "There's no shame in giving up an 80-yard drive to crafty veteran Jake Delhomme, who probably will be the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback opening day, but when your starters give up 162 yards and three touchdowns, it makes it look as though you've been pussyfooting around all summer."
Next: Saturday at Seattle Seahawks

Minnesota Vikings 28, St. Louis Rams 7
Preseason record:
1-0
Of interest: Six players didn't make the trip because of injury, and two others -- middle linebacker E.J. Henderson and running back Adrian Peterson -- were in uniform but didn't play. The Vikings followed through on their plans to play quarterback Sage Rosenfels for most of the game, but to me it was odd that Tarvaris Jackson, who would be the team's starter if Brett Favre retires, got only one series. Doesn't he need more repetitions? And even though Rosenfels finished with 310 yards and three touchdowns, television cameras caught Brad Childress giving him an animated, one-sided coaching point in the first quarter.
Local coverage:
Rosenfels downplayed his discussion with Childress and a separate incident with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, according to Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune: "With their stars either in Mississippi, on the sideline or sitting at home, the Vikings early on looked like a team playing its first preseason game without its best players." Rosenfels exploited blown coverages, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
Next: Aug. 22 at San Francisco 49ers
Mike of Atlanta suggested an interesting exercise to kick off the week: Who do you think will be the biggest name to NOT make the 53-man roster for each of the NFC North teams?

We obviously can't foresee training camp surprises and disappointments, but I do think we can begin focusing on some relatively well-known players who -- at the very least -- have their work cut out to ensure another year on the roster. Let's take a look:

Afalava
Afalava
Chicago Bears
Look out:
Safety Al Afalava
Comment: After starting 13 games last season, Afalava seems to have fallen off the map. Last week, general manager Jerry Angelo mentioned five players while discussing the Bears' safety position. Afalava was not among them.
Not far behind: Tight end Kellen Davis
Comment: Earlier this offseason, it was fair to wonder whether the Bears would keep the younger Davis over veteran Desmond Clark. But based on spring practices, at least, Davis is the one who should be worried.

Ramirez
Ramirez
Detroit Lions
Look out:
Guard Manny Ramirez
Comment: He started 12 games last season, but the Lions acquired Rob Sims to take over at left guard. Stephen Peterman remains in place at right guard, leaving Ramirez to compete for a backup position.
Not far behind: Receiver Bryant Johnson
Comment: The Lions demoted Johnson by signing free agent Nate Burleson, and it's unlikely that Johnson and Dennis Northcutt will both make the team. Based on age and contract, you figure Johnson has the upper hand. But you never know, especially if Johnson's hands don't improve this summer.

Bigby
Bigby
Green Bay Packers
Look out:
Safety Atari Bigby
Comment: We've discussed his situation pretty thoroughly. If rookie Morgan Burnett is ready to start, the Packers aren't likely to hold him back.
Not far behind: Defensive lineman Justin Harrell
Comment: Johnny Jolly's trial notwithstanding, this might be Harrell's final chance with the Packers. Even if he's healthy, it's difficult to see a spot on the roster for him.

Johnson
Johnson
Minnesota Vikings
Look out:
Receiver Jaymar Johnson
Comment: Not many backup punt returners make a team.
Not far behind: Receiver Bobby Wade
Comment: Whoops. Wrong year.
One word describes my general impression of organized team activities in the NFL: dull. But that clearly wasn't the case Thursday in Detroit, where players brawled near the end of a two-minute drill on an 85-degree day.

Right guard Stephen Peterman and defensive tackle Landon Cohen were the two main combatants, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News. But as the scrum widened, coach Jim Schwartz found himself in the middle breaking it up.

Said Schwartz: "No, that was Greco-Roman wrestling -- that wasn't boxing. Guys were hot, guys were competitive and guys crossed the line a little bit too much. And I think they all know in OTAs that I can't fine anybody. So they didn't miss their opportunity to get a free one in."

Continuing around the NFC North as we head into the holiday weekend:

Chicago's safety roller coaster

April, 27, 2010
4/27/10
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Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune has dutifully chronicled the Bears’ near-constant upheaval at safety during the Lovie Smith regime. According to Biggs, there have been 41 lineup changes at safety since the 2004 season. That’s an astounding average of one for every 2.3 games.

The Bears thought so highly of their safety depth that they traded the promising Chris Harris to Carolina before the 2007 season. On the occasion of his reacquisition Tuesday, I thought I would give you a look at who has manned the Bears’ safety positions during his absence.

The bottom line: eight different starters for two positions over three years. Quite simply, that illustrates incredible turnover. Here you go, with games started in (parenthesis):

Sullivan, Bowman cash in

March, 23, 2010
3/23/10
11:17
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The two biggest beneficiaries of the NFL's performance-based pay bonuses this year were both NFC North players.

Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan received $397,555 from the program, which rewards relatively low-paid players for extended playing time. Chicago Bears cornerback Zack Bowman ranked second on the list in receiving $355,355.

For those interested, here's the NFL's verbatim explanation for how the bonuses are determined:
Performance-based pay is computed by using a "player index." To produce the index, a player's regular-season playtime (total plays on offense, defense and special teams) is divided by his adjusted regular-season compensation (full season salary, prorated portion of signing bonus, earned incentives). Each player's index is then compared to those of the other players on his team to determine the amount of his pay.

Other NFC North players who received significant bumps were Green Bay guard Josh Sitton ($300,622) and Chicago safety Al Afalava ($297,450). The program won't exist for the 2010 season because of rule changes related to an uncapped year.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Chicago Bears

Last month: The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa 2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Now: The Bears have addressed some of the needs we first identified last month via the free-agent market, signing defensive end Julius Peppers to replace Ogunleye and Chester Taylor to provide premium depth in the backfield. But both safety positions remain noticeably untouched. There have been some suggestions that the Bears pursue St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, a restricted free agent who would require no compensation to pry from the Rams. Barring a run at him, safety ranks with offensive line as the Bears' top needs with the draft looming in five weeks.

Detroit Lions

Last month: Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free-agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Now: The Lions have addressed the interior of their defensive line, acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland and hosting defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, a restricted free agent, on a visit. Veteran guard Chester Pitts is scheduled for a visit, but the left guard position might ultimately be filled through the draft. It's also not out of the question that the Lions target Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 overall pick. The Lions have addressed their No. 2 receiver position with free agent Nate Burleson and re-signed Heller, two other areas of need we discussed.

Green Bay Packers

Last month: Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Now: Clifton and Tauscher have both re-signed, but finding a left tackle of the future remains one of the Packers' top priorities as the draft approaches. Clifton signed a three-year deal, but it's not clear how long he will play. As per their philosophy, the Packers haven't addressed any needs by signing free agents from other teams. They'll target their remaining need positions in the draft. In addition to left tackle, that positional list should also include outside linebacker and cornerback.

Minnesota Vikings

Last month: Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickelback Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Now: The Vikings re-signed Sapp to give them an alternative if Griffin isn't ready to start the season, but cornerback could still be a high priority in the draft. The loss of Taylor makes depth at running back an issue, but that is one position where it makes sense to go young. As draft boards begin to shape up, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings get an opportunity to fill their need for a long-term quarterback answer. Will there be anyone of that description available with the No. 30 overall pick? That debate remains unsettled.

Draft Watch: NFC North

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa-2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Detroit Lions

Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey FitzSimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Green Bay Packers

Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Minnesota Vikings

Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickel back Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.
You could make an argument that all four NFC teams are approaching the 2010 with a significant need at safety.
  • Chicago manned the two positions with Danieal Manning and Al Afalava for most of 2009. I’m not sure you could consider either a player a slam-dunk starter in 2010.
  • Detroit has one fixture in Louis Delmas, but a half-dozen players rotated through the other position with no obvious up-and-comer on the roster.
  • Green Bay has two clear starters in Nick Collins and Atari Bigby, but both players’ contracts expire in a few months. You would assume both will return, but stranger things have happened.
  • Minnesota saw some progress from Tyrell Johnson at the end of the season, but neither he nor Madieu Williams had the kind of regular season the Vikings were hoping for.

So where should our teams look? On Thursday, we noted Nebraska’s Larry Asante for his apparently strong work during Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala. Via Twitter, @cgoldberg13 suggests an alternative: Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who was out of football last year while studying at Oxford University as part of his Rhodes Scholarship.

If you have an Insider subscription, you can read Todd McShay’s evaluation of Rolle here. Among other things, McShay wrote that teams want to know how serious Rolle is about playing football.

Over on si.com, Tony Pauline wrote that Rolle was one of the most surprising players this week during Senior Bowl practices.

Pauline added: “Rolle certainly did not look like someone who has not played football in over a year. He never embarrassed himself on the field. In fact by weeks end he was making plays and playing at a higher level than many of his teammates.”

At Florida State, Rolle was known more for his physicality than his coverage skills. At 223 pounds, he would be a pretty big safety in the NFL. As the draft evaluation process continues, I’ll be interested to see if he projects as a full-time safety or a hybrid player.video

NFC North Friday injury report

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
5:07
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Getting inside the final Friday injury report of the 2009 season. (Sniff, sniff….)

Chicago Bears: Safety Al Afalava (knee), receiver Johnny Knox (ankle) and safety Danieal Manning (calf) are all listed as doubtful and not expected to play Sunday at Detroit. All other active players, including safety Craig Steltz (foot) should be available. Defensive tackle Israel Idonije (foot) and cornerback Charles Tillman (ribs) were placed on injured reserve earlier this week.

Detroit Lions: Linebacker Larry Foote (foot) won’t play against the Bears. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) and cornerback Phillip Buchanon (shoulder) are questionable. Delmas seems likely to play. Buchanon will be a Sunday decision.

Green Bay Packers: Safety Derrick Martin (ankle) is out and linebacker Brandon Chillar (back) is doubtful for Sunday’s game at Arizona. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) is listed as questionable, but it will be a surprise if he plays. Fullback Korey Hall (elbow) and defensive end Michael Montgomery (ankle) are questionable.

Minnesota Vikings: Nose tackle Pat Williams (elbow) made it through a week of practice and coach Brad Childress said he thinks Williams might be over the hump with the injury. His primary backup, Jimmy Kennedy, isn’t likely to play Sunday against the New York Giants because of a thumb injury. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (thigh) is questionable but expected to play.

NFC North at night

December, 31, 2009
12/31/09
5:00
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Chicago Bears: Receiver Devin Hester (calf) and safety Kevin Payne (ankle) both had full practices Thursday and seem on track to play Sunday at Detroit. Safety Al Afalava (knee), receiver Johnny Knox (ankle) and safety Danieal Manning (calf) did not practice.

Detroit Lions: As we noted earlier, the Lions sold out Sunday’s season finale. … Safety Louis Delmas (ankle) and linebacker Larry Foote (foot) missed practice. Delmas seems to have a better chance than Foote of playing Sunday.

Green Bay Packers: Linebacker Brandon Chillar (back) sat out his second consecutive day of practice, but fellow linebacker Nick Barnett (knee) participated fully. So did left tackle Chad Clifton (knee) and defensive end Johnny Jolly (foot). Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) didn’t practice and doesn’t seem likely to play Sunday at Arizona. The same goes for safety Derrick Martin (ankle).

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy (thumb) missed his second consecutive day of practice. If he can’t play Sunday against the New York Giants, the Vikings could be short-handed at the position. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (thigh) returned to practice on a limited basis. Starter Pat Williams (elbow) was limited in practice Thursday and isn’t a sure bet to play.

NFC North this weekend

December, 26, 2009
12/26/09
6:19
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greetings from the snowy Upper Midwest. I’ve been in three of the four NFC North locales in the past 36 hours -- Minnesota, Chicago and Green Bay -- and I can tell you we’re all getting pretty well socked.

It snowed for most of my drive from the O’Hare area to Green Bay, and flurries are forecast to continue here through Sunday. But we push through such things around here, so in that spirit, let’s catch up on news that has taken place during the holiday weekend.

Chicago Bears: Safety Kevin Payne (ankle) is listed as doubtful for Monday’s game against Minnesota, and fellow safety Al Afalava (knee) is questionable. According to Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago, Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz might end up being the Bears’ starting safety duo against the Vikings. Receiver Devin Hester (calf) is questionable.

Detroit Lions: The Lions signed free-agent quarterback Patrick Ramsey to give them a full depth chart behind starter Drew Stanton for Sunday’s game at San Francisco. Ramsey takes the roster spot of Matthew Stafford, who was placed on injured reserve this week. … Cornerback Phillip Buchanon (shoulder) won’t play against the 49ers.

Green Bay Packers: Nose tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) is questionable for Sunday’s game against Seattle. His status will be determined Sunday morning. B.J. Raji would start in his place.

Minnesota Vikings: Nose tackle Pat Williams (elbow) is listed as questionable for Monday night’s game but is expected to play.

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