NFC North: Cliff Avril

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He needed the experience. He wanted the opportunity. Yet for the first three years of Willie Young's career in Detroit, he mostly sat.

Watched. Waited. Understood he had a very specific role in the Lions defense as an end rushing opposing quarterbacks, backing up veterans Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the same guys he was learning from every day.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/John CordesWillie Young has waited three seasons for his chance to be a regular on Detroit's defensive line.
They taught him how to be a professional. Meanwhile, he had no choice but to bide his time. This, in some ways, was Detroit’s plan all along for Young when the Lions drafted him in the seventh round out of North Carolina State in 2010.

They saw a raw pass-rusher with a lot of skills that needed to be funneled into production. It was frustrating, but in some ways necessary for the success he is having now in his first year as a starter for Detroit.

“It’s all about growing up,” Young said. “All about growing up in this league. You just got to understand your position, understand your role and take advantage of every opportunity you get.”

He realizes how few those opportunities were initially. He played seven snaps his rookie season, 238 his second year and 307 his third year. That may sound like a lot, but then consider a third of the way through this season, Young has already played 223 snaps and has come close to matching his production from those other seasons.

He already matched his career-high in solo tackles (nine) and is one tackle away from tying his career-high in total tackles. He has 13 total tackles and only one sack this season, but he has become an integral part of a defensive line that is among the best in the NFL.

This opportunity started at the end of last season. Avril and Vanden Bosch did not return to Detroit, leaving holes on the Lions defensive line.

When Detroit drafted Young, the Lions coaches always envisioned him sliding into a larger role. Now that would happen.

“You’ve always seen the talent with him,” Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said. “You always knew Willie was, every time we put him in a game he always seemed to be around the quarterback, affecting the quarterback.

“You hoped as he got more experience under his belt that he would progress to where he is right now. We drafted him four years ago in the seventh round, we weren’t drafting a guy we didn’t think could play. We knew he had talent. His talent had to develop.”

What stood out to coaches initially and even to players now is how fast his first and second steps are. His explosion at the snap is part natural and part cultivated from studying offensive tackles and understanding where blocks are coming from.

When Detroit’s veteran defensive ends left and the Lions brought Israel Idonije in from Chicago, it was the first thing he noticed.

“He just has a lot of natural ability and a skill set,” Idonije said. “His quickness. His speed. Me coming in and watching him, he still has a ceiling he hasn’t reached. That’s what is exciting to watch about him.

“Just all the ability he has, he really understands that defensive end position and that dance between him and the O-lineman and putting together his personal plan of attack for the week. It’s going to be great to watch him for years to come.”

With Avril and Vanden Bosch gone, Young said he spends time with Idonije, picking up different tricks and hints the former Chicago Bear has used throughout his career to be successful as Young gets his first chance at a major role.

That goes back to the opportunity, the one Young waited for. The one that left him frustrated at times during his first three years. He always believed he had the ability to play as he is now, he just hadn’t received the chance to show it.

Multiple times in a 10-minute conversation, Young referenced being a professional, and learning how to be consistent. This season, combined with those opportunities, he has.

“That’s a part of my game, man,” Young said. “Always been a part of my game plan. Just, my opportunities, I have opportunities to get quality snaps and you’re just now able to see what I’m capable of doing.”
Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:

We have all debated the potential for Ziggy Ansah's immediate impact as a Detroit Lions defensive end in 2013. Ansah was a late arrival to football, a late bloomer on the NFL scouting scene and was drafted based on his athletic potential rather than his college body of work.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worth looking at how a few other NFL teams have approached the rookie years of pass-rushers drafted under similar circumstances. For various reasons, we can classify the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and the Seattle Seahawks' Bruce Irvin in a similar category with Ansah.

Each player has his own story, but generally speaking, all three were drafted in the first half of the first round with limited résumés but extensive projections based on their physical attributes. The chart shows that none of them started a game and each played less than half of his team's defensive snaps. But even with that controlled playing time, they still combined to post 26.5 sacks between them as rookies.

The Lions have bid farewell to both of their 2012 starters at defensive end, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, so there is plenty of opportunity for a rookie to earn a starting job. Veterans Jason Jones and Willie Young are also in the mix, and the Lions drafted an imposing defensive end in 6-foot-7 Devin Taylor who could also compete for playing time.

If nothing else, we know a template exists for a developing pass-rusher to be used in a focused way while still having a highly productive rookie season. I wouldn't be too worried about whether Ansah will be on the field for the first play of games. More important to me is if he is out there for the most important ones -- and if he can influence them.

Earlier: The Minnesota Vikings know they need to have a plan for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson's rookie season.

NFC North links: Tom Zbikowski happy

March, 25, 2013
Chicago Bears

Chicago continues to move on from Brian Urlacher by signing veteran linebacker James Anderson.

Tom Zbikowski says he's "never been happier" after agreeing to terms on a contract with the Bears.

Detroit Lions

Jim Schwartz on free-agent acquisition Jason Jones: "Jason is going to spend most of his time at left defensive end. We think his talents fit the other guys around him. [He] is a different kind of player than Cliff Avril. Cliff was an edge speed guy. Jason is more of an inside effect-the-quarterback [player]."

Here's how receiver Nate Burleson described the signing of running back Reggie Bush: "It was like a little kid having a new toy to play with on Christmas. That's exactly how I felt. This is like the fastest remote control car at Toys R Us and we got it, and we're going to have fun when the sun comes out. That's exactly what was going through my head."

Green Bay Packers

Packers running back DuJuan Harris has no problem with the team brining in additional competition this offseason. "Teams have to make decisions," Harris said. "They're just to help the team out. So whatever decisions they make, they have to run with it because it's going to help the team out. It'd be a privilege to play with whoever they decide to bring in. Once they get here, it's time to get to work. Let's get out here and get the job done."

Minnesota Vikings

From Urlacher to next month's NFL draft,'s Mike Wobschall touches on a variety of subjects in his latest mailbag.
PHOENIX -- What is the old saying? Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don't make.

Last year around this time, the Detroit Lions offered defensive end Cliff Avril a three-year contract worth $30 million in lieu of making him their franchise player. Avril declined and played out the season with a $10.6 million salary and salary-cap number.

It's impossible to know the exact structure of the Lions' offer, but it's safe to assume Avril would have had a lower cap number in 2012 and a significantly higher one for this season. So in the end, his unchallenged free-agent departure this month allowed the Lions to use the cap space for at least two and maybe three other players. And as we'll note, it also provided a startling revelation of Avril's true value on the market.

Upon closer inspection of the numbers, Avril's two-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks could be viewed as a one-year, $6 million deal. (That total includes a $4.5 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million base salary.) The second year is guaranteed only for injury, meaning the Seahawks could release him before the fifth day of the 2014 waiver period and not owe him additional money, as long as he is not injured.

Avril will count $3.75 million against the Seahawks' salary cap this season, and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told local reporters at the NFL owners meeting that "it probably would have cost us two players to bring him back." That's not an exaggeration when you realize that the 2013 salary cap numbers for running back Reggie Bush ($2 million) and defensive lineman Jason Jones ($1.83 million) add up to a total of $3.83 million.

This isn't to render a judgment on whether Avril made a good decision to turn down the Lions' offer. We like to use salary-cap numbers and financial figures to tell bigger stories, and the lesson here is simple. The Lions have some work ahead of them in replacing Avril on the field, but from a long-term perspective, they were fortunate he turned down last year's offer.
NFL teams occasionally re-sign their own free agents after the market opens, as the Detroit Lions did Wednesday with cornerback Chris Houston. More often, however, those players sign elsewhere once they hit the open market -- a path defensive end Cliff Avril apparently has followed.

Avril agreed to terms on a two-year, $15 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and was en route to the team's headquarters Wednesday night. Further terms were not immediately available, but as NFC West colleague Mike Sando notes, it appears Avril agreed to a shorter team deal to give himself another chance in free agency in 2015, the year he turns 29.

Avril has 29 sacks in his past three seasons, numbers that you would have thought might earn a bigger payday. He played last season on a $10.6 million franchise tag after turning down a three-year deal reportedly worth $30 million.

The Lions had interest in bringing Avril back, from what I understand, and must now decide how to replace both of their starting defensive ends following Avril's departure and the release of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Willie Young is one option; the Lions placed a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Another is newcomer Jason Jones, whom coach Jim Schwartz would said Wednesday would mostly play end. Free agent Lawrence Jackson also has not re-signed, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent Michael Bennett is available as well.
We've been discussing the Detroit Lions' pending defensive overhaul for some time, a shift they've advanced through free agency by inviting two players -- safety Glover Quin defensive lineman Jason Jones -- for first-day visits. But the cornerback position is difficult to upgrade en masse, so it made sense for the Lions to prioritize the return of starter Chris Houston.

The Lions' five-year agreement with Houston, struck Wednesday morning, doesn't solve the Lions' deficiencies in the secondary or even at cornerback. It was, however, a wise move to salvage the most reliable and skilled member of what was by all accounts an underwhelming group. As the chart shows, the 2012 Lions were the NFL's worst pass defense on throws outside the numbers -- the typical domain of cornerbacks -- according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The 2013 market contains a glut of veteran cornerbacks, but Houston, 28, was surely one of the best available if your took a multiple-season horizon. Coach Jim Schwartz signaled his affection for and interest in bringing back Houston during the NFL scouting combine last month, noting the Lions used him as a true No. 1 cornerback last season to defend opponents' top receivers for the first time.

"Corners are tough to find in the NFL," Schwartz said, "and Chris started out the season hurt. He had an ankle sprain coming into the regular season and missed the first couple of games. You realize how much you miss a guy when he's not out on the field. Chris added some things to his résumé that he really didn't have before. There were a few games that he matched No. 1 wide receivers, guys like Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, people like that. That was something that we really hadn't used him for, he really hadn't done before.

"But he's played some quality football for us and has worked on some things early in his career that had been weaknesses. He's a vet, he's a pro, he's a guy that's been productive for us."

The key to the Lions' defensive improvement will be surrounding Houston with more players of similarly competent skills. Quin and Jones are their early targets, and they have also re-signed linebacker DeAndre Levy and retained defensive end Willie Young. That could mean the departure of safety Louis Delmas, and perhaps defensive end Cliff Avril and linebacker Justin Durant as well, but still leaves the Lions a few cornerbacks short.

The reality of the cornerback position is that you can add one or maybe two decent players in one offseason. If you already have one, it makes sense to keep him rather than dig a deeper hole.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears
HEAD COACH: Marc Trestman

Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.

Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.

Detroit Lions
HEAD COACH: Jim Schwartz

Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.

Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.

Green Bay Packers
HEAD COACH: Mike McCarthy

Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.

Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.

Minnesota Vikings
HEAD COACH: Leslie Frazier

Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.

Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.

At the NFL scouting combine last month, I asked Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew if he could accomplish his goals in free agency without first signing quarterback Matthew Stafford to a long-term contract. It was kind of a loaded question; if Mayhew said no, he would be ceding even more leverage to Stafford and his agent.

"We've got some ways to create cap room," Mayhew said at the time, adding: "I think we should be fine heading into free agency."

It looks like we're about to find out. We're a little more than 24 hours away from the official opening of the free-agent market, and there is no evidence that the Lions are close to a deal with Stafford. As it stands, Stafford will count $20.8 million against the Lions' salary cap when the books flip Tuesday from the 2012 league year to the 2013 league year.

After re-signing two of their own pending free agents, offensive lineman Corey Hilliard and linebacker DeAndre Levy, the Lions are projected to have around $6 million in cap space, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. (ESPN Stats & Information last had them at $9 million, but that was before the deals for Hilliard and Levy.) Remember, NFL teams need to save cap space if they plan to issue contract tenders to restricted free agents and to sign their draft class, so in essence the Lions wouldn't have much to work with if nothing changes.

As we've noted before, no NFL team is more hampered by the previous rookie salary structure than the Lions, whose three most cap-heavy players were all top-2 picks in their respective drafts. Stafford ($20.8 million), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million) and receiver Calvin Johnson ($12.2 million) currently project to account for about 42 percent of the Lions' total cap allotment of $123 million.

At the very least, it appears that many of the Lions' 21 pending free agents will at least get to test the market, including cornerback Chris Houston, defensive end Cliff Avril, safety Louis Delmas and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
As he embarked on the offseason in January, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew made clear he wanted to infuse his team's defense with playmakers. Here's how he put it during a meeting with local reporters:

"We need guys that can impact the game. We've got a lot of guys that are good guys. They line up right, they know what their job is, but they don't impact the game. We need interceptors. We need guys that sack the quarterback. We need guys that cause fumbles, guys that make plays on third down. Those are the kind of guys that can change the game for us."

No objective analysis would put linebacker DeAndre Levy in that category. In four seasons, Levy has intercepted five passes, forced two fumbles and notched one sack. But you also can't replace an entire defense in one offseason, which helps explain why Levy and the Lions agreed to a multiyear contract Wednesday, per the team's website.

Using Mayhew's words, Levy is a good guy who lines up right and knows what his job is. He will occasionally make his presence known, as he did during a game-winning interception return at the Miami Dolphins in 2010. But unless his game changes significantly, he won't spark the Lions at the "impact" level that Mayhew is seeking.

In the end, impact players are more expensive than good guys who line up right and know what their job is. The Lions don't have a lot of salary-cap flexibility, and their football decisions must reflect economics as well. And in all fairness, Levy started last season off well -- he was part of our All-NFC North midseason team -- before a groin injury limited him the rest of the way. Based on the full season, our friends at Pro Football Focus ranked him No. 41 among 43 outside linebackers who played in a 4-3 scheme.

The Lions have now re-signed two of the nine pending free agents they have targeted, Levy and offensive lineman Corey Hilliard. It's not clear what Levy's return means for fellow linebacker and free agent Justin Durant, who in two seasons with the Lions has 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.

Still on deck on the Lions' fre- agent list are a number of big names, from defensive end Cliff Avril to cornerback Chris Houston to safety Louis Delmas. NFL free agents can begin negotiating with teams this weekend.
The NFL's 4 p.m. ET deadline passed without another NFC North team using its franchise tag, meaning that Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton will be the only player with that designation this offseason. A few random thoughts on how the franchise tag deadline impacted the division:
  • Most importantly, some prominent players now have an unblocked road to the free agent market. The list includes Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings, Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril and cornerback Chris Houston, and Minnesota Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt.
  • Just so everyone is clear, NFL teams still have exclusivity with their free agents. That will end Saturday at 12:01 a.m. ET, when a new three-day window opens for free agents to enter negotiations with other teams. No deals can be made (officially) until Tuesday afternoon after 4 p.m. ET.
  • To this point, there have been no reports of substantive negotiations between the Packers and Jennings. You would think Jennings will test his value on the market unless the Packers surprise everyone with a big offer.
  • The Lions' activity, with Avril and Houston as well as outside free agents, would seem to depend in part on their success in contract negotiations with quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions want to lower his $20.8 million salary cap figure.
  • We've has some discussions about the Vikings pursuing free agent receivers, and that seems especially likely given the decision to release veteran Michael Jenkins, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. But I never considered the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe a credible candidate. He figured to get the Chiefs' franchise tag if he did not sign a long-term deal, and on Monday he got the latter. The Vikings' top two veteran options, if they choose to go that route, are Jennings and Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
  • Decisions to franchise two free agent left tackles, Ryan Clady of the Denver Broncos and the Chiefs' Branden Albert, reduced the size of that market should the Bears decide to get involved.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Green Bay Packers' limited use of free agency over the years means we should pay attention to every scheduled visit by a veteran to Lambeau Field. At the moment, at least, former New York Giants defensive lineman Chris Canty is set to drop by at the end of this week, according to many reports, including Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

The Packers had interest in Canty four years ago, but he declined a visit because the Packers wouldn't make an offer first. Canty has several other suitors, including the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans, but this go around he is listening to the Packers.

If nothing else, the Packers' decision to host a visit indicates they will once again be aggressive about improving their defensive line this offseason. They tried to do that last spring, signing veteran Anthony Hargrove and drafting Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. But Hargrove was suspended eight games by the NFL and later released, while Worthy suffered a serious knee injury in Week 17 and might not be ready for the start of the 2013 season.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Packers' safety position is in limbo, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News thinks the Detroit Lions should pass on BYU pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah and draft a "polished pass-rusher" in April. That's assuming the Lions allow defensive end Cliff Avril to depart via free agency and re-sign cornerback Chris Houston.
  • Justin Rogers of takes a look at the free-agent market at cornerback from the Lions' perspective.
  • Mississippi State cornerback Johnathan Banks is one of the draft-eligible cornerbacks claiming he could cover Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, notes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach on his pending free agency, via Jeff Dickerson of "I'm just looking to be fairly compensated for whatever my role is going to be. I've never been the kind of guy looking to break the bank, or make a statement. That's not me. I just want fair pay for the job I'm going to be called on to do. The most important thing is knowing the organization respects you and the job you do. Then it's up to the agent and the organization to make it happen. But the big thing is having the respect of your employer. That respect is usually reflected in the type of offer that is eventually made."
  • Former NFL player Matt Bowen reviews 10 draft choices who could help the Bears for the Chicago Tribune.
  • Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton on being named the Bears' franchise player, via Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times: "It just feels good to be thought of so highly. Been a long road, and now just want to get a long-term deal done and remain a Bear for years to come."
  • Tom Pelissero of thinks it is unlikely the Minnesota Vikings will franchise right tackle Phil Loadholt by Monday's deadline.

BBAO: Tom Brady impact in NFC North

February, 26, 2013
We're Black and Blue All Over:

So the New England Patriots signed quarterback Tom Brady to a far-below market value contract extension Monday, a three-year deal worth $27 million. That annual average of $9 million is less than half what the New Orleans Saints gave Drew Brees in a five-year, $100 million deal last year.

So how will Brady's deal impact negotiations for the three NFC North quarterbacks who will get new deals in the next year or so? My amateur guess: Not much.

Brady's deal is such an outlier, and the motivations are so clear -- a well-paid Hall of Fame quarterback wants to leave salary-cap space available for a final run to the Super Bowl as he approaches his 40th birthday -- that it would be difficult for a team to argue he brought the market down. It's not like the Brees deal vanished as a result. Like it or not, agents will continue to consider it the benchmark for future elite deals.

The guess is that the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford will be the first NFC North quarterback to complete his new contract, given the salary-cap implications. Stafford probably won't reach Brees money, but it won't be because of the Brady deal. Unless proven otherwise, I'll assume the Brady contract will stand on its own in terms of market direction.

Continuing around the NFC North:

BBAO: 'Schwartz rule' re-contemplated

February, 21, 2013
We're Black and Blue All Over:

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL scouting combine includes not only evaluations of draft-eligible players. Teams are also managing their salary cap and negotiating with their own free agents. Meanwhile, the league's competition committee meets to set the groundwork for rule changes and adjustments to be voted on later this spring.

One rule that seems certain to be re-written is the one that prevented the Detroit Lions from getting a replay on a call that gave the Houston Texans a touchdown in last year's Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field. According to the Associated Press, the competition committee will propose a rule change that still allows for a replay even if a coach illegally challenges a play that is automatically reviewed, as Lions coach Jim Schwartz did on Justin Forsett's 81-yard scoring run.

A similar instance occurred in the Week 17 game between the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, but officials did not take away a review from Packers coach Mike McCarthy because they said it had already been initiated when he threw his challenge flag. Beginning in 2013, the league plans to still penalize the coach but won't take away the replay opportunity.

"The bottom line is that we will get resolution on that play where we will get it right, where the play on the field is correctly administered," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations.

In the end, this issue was nothing more than a loophole that needed to be closed. It will be, and it should be made official at the annual league owners meeting in March.

Continuing around the NFC North:

NFL scouting combine preview: NFC North

February, 19, 2013
» NFC combine preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.

Chicago: The Bears have a glaring hole at left tackle, but with the No. 20 pick, they likely aren’t in a position to select any of the consensus top players at the position (Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher and Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson). The combine is another step in solidifying and ranking their targets among the second tier of left-tackle prospects for first- or later-round consideration. If the Bears don’t feel there is a draftable prospect with starting credentials for 2013, they could find a player in the tackle-rich free-agent market.

Detroit: With the No. 5 pick, the Lions can narrow their focus to a handful of prospects. Since Kyle Vanden Bosch has been released and Cliff Avril is a free agent, the Lions must hone in on the crop of top pass-rushers available and decide whether one is worth the substantial investment of the fifth pick. Taking a player such as Bjoern Werner, Damontre Moore or Barkevious Mingo would soften the blow of potentially losing Avril, and the combine will give the Lions a better sense of what each offers as a replacement. Team president Tom Lewand recently suggested the Lions need to find rookies who can contribute immediately, and being in Indianapolis will allow them to seek a pass-rusher who fits that mold.

Green Bay: There’s a shortage of top-rated running backs available in this draft, and the Packers discovered a bargain find in DuJuan Harris late last season. But there’s still room to upgrade the position, and the Packers need to search for a high-upside back who can be had in the middle rounds perhaps due to a lack of polish or concerns about an aspect of his game. Four of the top seven rookie rushing leaders from 2012 were drafted in the sixth round or later. There’s backfield talent to be had past the first round, and the Packers will head out to survey the landscape of mid-round running backs available.

Minnesota: Adrian Peterson stomped to nearly 2,100 yards in 2012 for an offense without a vertical passing game (or much of a passing offense at all), and finding a speedster to take the top off a defense would make one of the scariest sights in the NFL to an opposing defense even more frightening. The ability of defenses to stack the box helped to mildly contain Peterson; more space would open up if a vertical passing threat is on the field to stress the safeties in coverage. When the wideouts are running their 40s, the Vikings will have their stopwatches ready and be on the lookout for players who project as downfield receiving threats. Regardless of what the team decides to do with slot maven Percy Harvin (GM Rick Spielman recently shut down talk of a trade), adding a vertical receiver is a premium need for Minnesota this offseason.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to "Eight in the Box," a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Which free agent is essential for each team to keep from its 2012 roster?

Chicago Bears: In his two years as a starter, Henry Melton has 13 sacks -- more than all but one NFL defensive tackle over that stretch. Some argue his skills only fit certain schemes, but if that's the case, the Bears' new coaching staff should make sure it runs one that allows Melton to continue rushing the passer.

Detroit Lions: Defensive end Cliff Avril has his detractors, but there are plenty of teams that would love to have a player who has collected 29 sacks in his past three seasons. Safety Louis Delmas is important as well, but he has trouble staying healthy while Avril has started 40 consecutive games, including playoffs.

Green Bay Packers: The team can probably absorb the expected departure of receiver Greg Jennings, but there should be no debate about the value of keeping cornerback Sam Shields, a restricted free agent. Shields' starting-caliber play late last season means the Packers have no choice but to issue him a high enough RFA tender to prevent him from signing elsewhere.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings were one of four teams to use the same starting offensive line all season, and right tackle Phil Loadholt was a big part of their success. He won't command elite money and wants to return, so a deal shouldn't be difficult.