NFC North: Dave Rayner

Tuesday's SportsNation chat brought a nuanced discussion amid the continuing intra-division flow from the Green Bay Packers to the Minnesota Vikings. It's usually assumed that successful general managers only allow veteran players to leave when their careers are on the downturn, but that hasn't always been the case with the Packers' Ted Thompson.

The difference: Thompson is willing to part ways with still-productive veterans when he is relatively certain he either has a suitable replacement or that he can find one imminently. The relevant discussion:

JR. Eau Claire Wi [via mobile]

When will the Vikings start paying Ted Thompson for being their GM too?

Kevin Seifert (2:02 PM)

Ha. Was talking about this the other day with someone. The Packers have been so good at developing young talent that their castoffs are more than worth sifting through. When the Packers release someone or let them leave via free agency, it doesn't mean they can't play anymore. It just means the Packers have younger and/or cheaper players they want to use instead.

Mike (Wisconsin)

Referring to my earlier comment, Thompson had [Aaron] Rodgers and [Mason] Crosby to replace [Brett] Favre and [Ryan] Longwell. They're still trying to find a guard to replace [Mike] Wahle/[Marco] Rivera and a pass rushing 3 down DE like [Cullen] Jenkins. Nick Collins also effectively replaced [Darren] Sharper who also had a few good years left. The career ending injury was more of a fluke thing but you can't deny Packers had Collins to replace Sharper.

Kevin Seifert (2:26 PM)

There's a difference between having good players to replace departed veterans, which the Packers did, and letting players go when you judge their careers to be done, which the Packers did not. They have released players who still have some tread on the tires. In most cases it was prompted by having a worthy replacement on hand, but that doesn't mean those players' careers were over when they were released.

Otto (Happy Hour)

About the Thompson comments. It was definitely an unknown that Rodgers would develop into the league's best QB. Remember early in his career the talk was can he stay healthy enough to replace a legend.

Kevin Seifert (2:30 PM)

True from the outside, but while the Packers didn't know Rodgers would become an MVP, they did feel very confident that he was ready to play at a high level. If their backup at the time was, say, Graham Harrell, I think they would have been more receptive to Favre's return.

One addendum to that discussion: Longwell departed after the 2005 season, and in 2006 the Packers used Dave Rayner as their place-kicker. They made Crosby a sixth-round draft pick in 2007.

Lions-Bears II: Jason Hanson's status

November, 9, 2011
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Here's an interesting twist as we start looking at Sunday's rematch between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears: Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson might not be available.

Hanson didn't kick in practice Wednesday because he had stitches in his knee, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Hanson had no known injuries in the Lions' Week 8 game at the Denver Broncos, so it's not clear if there was an injury during the bye week or if some other ailment developed. But the Lions are concerned enough about his status that they worked out two free-agent place-kickers Wednesday.

Dave Rayner, who filled in for an injured Hanson in 2010 but lost in a training camp competition this summer, signed this week with the Buffalo Bills.

Hanson is having a near-perfect year in his 20th NFL season, converting 17 of 18 field-goal attempts -- including four of 50-plus yards. He's also managed 26 touchbacks among his 51 kickoffs. We won't get too worried about his status with half the work week remaining, but Hanson is a significant weapon and could figure prominently in a close divisional game.

NFC North Stock Watch

September, 27, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Concern about Ryan Grant's future: The veteran Green Bay Packers running back didn't exactly roar back from his ankle injury in the first two weeks of the season, totaling 65 yards on 15 carries. But against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, Grant broke through for 92 yards on 17 carries and emerged relatively unscathed from a hit to his ribs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "Ryan was Ryan today for the first time this season. He ran the ball hard. He made the right cuts." I'm sure the Packers aren't going to forget about second-year back James Starks, but Grant's performance was a reminder that this team has two legitimate options in the backfield.

2. Game-day awareness: Two weeks ago, the Bears allowed offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call passing plays more than 80 percent of the time in what was mostly a close game against the New Orleans Saints. Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings unintentionally limited tailback Adrian Peterson to a total of five carries in the second half against the Detroit Lions. In each case, Bears coach Lovie Smith and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier expressed regret the next day. You have to wonder about game-day communication when such an obvious trend goes unnoticed, or at least unaddressed, until it's too late.

3. Roy Williams, Bears receiver: Williams returned from a groin injury but continues to look totally out of sync with quarterback Jay Cutler, and it wasn't clear if he was even running at 100 percent because of the injury. Cutler threw four passes toward Williams. Two were intercepted and two fell incomplete. With Earl Bennett sidelined by a chest injury, the Bears really need Williams to step up as an option. But it seems increasingly unlikely that it will happen.

[+] EnlargeJason Hanson
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJason Hanson came through in a big way for the Lions on Sunday.
RISING

1. Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions place-kicker: It's hard to believe that we spent time this summer discussing whether Hanson was nearing the end of his career. The Lions had a legitimate competitor in Dave Rayner, but Hanson never appeared challenged. This past Sunday, he drilled all four field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder that might have been good from 60. Even at age 41, Hanson appears to have one of the most accurate deep legs in the league. He has converted all eight attempts this season, including two from at least 50 yards, and is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. The man is in his 20th NFL season.

2. Jarius Wynn, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle: How many of you had Wynn as the Packers' leading pass-rusher after three weeks? I wouldn't have guessed it. Wynn had his way with the Bears' offensive line last Sunday and now has three sacks on the season. The only other Packers player with more than one sack is cornerback Jarrett Bush (1.5). Much as C.J. Wilson did last year, Wynn is taking advantage of Mike Neal's latest injury to establish a permanent role. I can't say I spent a lot of time studying Wynn during the preseason, but on Sunday, he appeared powerful and aggressive and fully capable of capitalizing on attention paid to linebacker Clay Matthews. (And before you ask, the answer is "no." I don't think anyone should have concerns about Matthews' total of one sack this season. I feel like he's still affecting games, especially in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. And Sunday, all three of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage.)

3. Tight end play: We just saw a glimpse of the kind of tight end production the NFC North could have on a weekly basis. Our top four tight ends combined for five touchdowns in Week 3. The Packers' Jermichael Finley had three of them, while the Bears' Kellen Davis had a 32-yard score and the Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe had an 8-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew recorded 11 receptions for 112 yards and is tied for third among all NFL tight ends this season with 16 catches.

Reducing NFC North rosters to 80

August, 30, 2011
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As you know, NFL teams were required to reduce their rosters to 80 players by Tuesday. That high figure allowed most teams to save difficult decisions for Saturday's final cut down deadline for 53-man rosters. We'll take a look at some of the NFC North's top looming questions over the coming days, but for now let's get you up to date on how each team got to 80 players.

Chicago Bears: Released five players Monday, including defensive end Vernon Gholston. Running back Chester Taylor was not among those released and told reporters he expects to play in Thursday's preseason finale.

Detroit Lions: Released eight players Monday, including running back Mike Bell and place-kicker Dave Rayner, and released fullback Jerome Felton on Tuesday. The Lions appear to be moving away from the fullback position. Running back Mikel Leshoure, on injured reserve, no longer counts against the Lions' roster limit.

Green Bay Packers: Released three players Sunday, including tight end Spencer Havner and receiver Brett Swain, and three more Tuesday.

Minnesota Vikings: Released 10 players Monday, including quarterback Rhett Bomar.
The Detroit Lions are next up to the roster reduction plate. Among eight players released Monday morning were place-kicker Dave Rayner and running back Mike Bell.

Rayner's departure presumably returns the job to veteran Jason Hanson, who missed the second half of last season due to a knee injury. Hanson reported to training camp healthy and has converted both of his field goal attempts this preseason. And any concerns about his kickoffs at age 41 are mitigated by the NFL's offseason adjustment to the 35-yard line.

Rayner made some big kicks for the Lions last season and had converted two of three field goals during the preseason. But the Lions know that as long as Hanson is healthy, he is one of the NFL's top place-kickers.

In addition to Rayner and Bell, the Lions also released a fan favorite in receiver Demario Ballard. The full list is available on the team's website. The Lions must make two more cuts to comply with NFL guidelines by Tuesday.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 15, 2011
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?

After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.

But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.

By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.

What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all of them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.

"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.

Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford has looked strong during training camp.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. … Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."

In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.

2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.

I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.

"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."

3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.

Right?

The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.

I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."

The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.

The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.

BEST RELATIONSHIP

A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.

"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."

Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFinding a backup option to running back Jahvid Best remains a priority for the Lions.
UNANSWERED QUESTION

What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?

If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.

"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.

So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.

But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yard line, that’s to be expected.)
  • Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
  • Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
  • Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
  • One of my favorite sights of Lions training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
  • Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."
In this topsy-turvy post-lockout world, we have all assumed that the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) would be formally ratified by Thursday. In turn, all players who agreed to new contracts since last Monday would finally be allowed to begin practicing.

While there has been no formal announcement, it is by far a done deal that those players will be on the field Thursday -- especially for teams that have morning practices. Wednesday evening, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told The NFL Network that free agents might not be eligible to practice Thursday. As a result the Minnesota Vikings have pushed their main practice to a 4 p.m. ET start, hoping the CBA will be ratified by then.

In the NFC North, some big names have been standing on the sideline awaiting final ratification. I've included an extended, but not necessarily all-inclusive, list below. We'll keep you updated when and if final word comes down Wednesday night.

Chicago Bears: Defensive tackle Anthony Adams, running back Marion Barber, defensive end Vernon Gholston, cornerback Corey Graham, receiver Sam Hurd, linebacker Brian Iwuh, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, punter Adam Podlesh, linebacker Nick Roach, tight end Matt Spaeth, center Chris Spencer, receiver Roy Williams

Detroit Lions: Receiver Rashied Davis, cornerback Chris Houston, place-kicker Dave Rayner, linebacker Justin Durant, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, cornerback Eric Wright

Green Bay Packers: Place-kicker Mason Crosby, tight end Spencer Havner, running back John Kuhn, receiver James Jones.

Minnesota Vikings: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, nose tackle Remi Ayodele, receiver Bernard Berrian, receiver Michael Jenkins, offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Scramble'11: Lions get rolling

July, 27, 2011
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While we await word on the Detroit Lions' pursuit of linebacker Stephen Tulloch, let's pass along several moves the Lions have completed.

Safety John Wendling has agreed to terms on a three-year contract and quarterback Drew Stanton has re-upped on a one-year deal, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Wendling was a Pro Bowl alternate last season after making 30 special teams tackles. Stanton will resume his role as the No. 3 quarterback for at least one more season.

The Lions have now brought back three of their unrestricted free agents: Wendling, Stanton and place-kicker Dave Rayner.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Good early morning. Since our Tuesday-night signoff, the Donovan McNabb-Minnesota Vikings reports have strengthened. ESPN's John Clayton reported a trade is contingent on McNabb restructuring his contract, a move he would be wise to accept if he truly wants to play for the Vikings in 2011.

It seems we'll get resolution one way or the other on Wednesday. If the deal isn't going to work out, the Vikings will need to move on in order to grab another veteran quarterback before they are all signed elsewhere.

On Tuesday, I suggested McNabb would be an acceptable backup for the Vikings but questioned whether bringing him in as a short-term starter was the smartest move. I'm still working to get my head around this one. From what I can see via Twitter and the mailbag, you appear to be split in your views. Some of you don't want to see another in a series of Band-Aid moves the Vikings have employed, really, since Daunte Culpepper's 2005 knee injury. Others believe having McNabb is better than not having him.

At this point, all that matters is what the Vikings think. And it appears they want him and aren't enthused about the idea of starting rookie quarterback Christian Ponder in Week 1.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • McNabb would have to accept a mentorship role to Ponder in order for this deal to work, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "If completed, the deal would send a strong message to a veteran-laden locker room and several key free agents the Vikings intend to be contenders now, rather than suffering through growing pains with a young quarterback."
  • Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Despite drafting quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick, the Vikings apparently find themselves in 2009 mode all over again, searching for an aging quarterback to provide a short-term solution."
  • Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo faces pressure this week, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times: "There's plenty working in the Bears' favor. They have salary-cap space, they're the defending NFC North champs and they have a coaching staff and a roster that are largely unchanged."
  • The Bears remain in close contact with free-agent linebacker Justin Durant, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Detroit Lions will re-sign place-kicker Dave Rayner to compete with veteran Jason Hanson, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • The Lions believe they are a playoff team, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Iowa punter Ryan Donahue signed with the Lions and will give incumbent Nick Harris a strong training camp battle, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley: "He has the potential to become the finest player at his position in the National Football League. He also has the potential to become a divisive force if his desire for the ball and a lucrative new contract clash with team goals."
  • The Packers are unlikely to be able to trade linebacker Nick Barnett and ultimately will release him, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Free-agent place-kicker Mason Crosby didn't hear from the Packers on Tuesday but isn't concerned, according to the Press-Gazette.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

If I counted right, the chances of which are about 50 percent, the Green Bay Packers have received five* vaunted ESPY award nominations. Fans will determine the winners based on online voting, so if this matters to you, get busy. Voting closes July 9 for most categories, and the winners will be announced during the live broadcast July 13.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been nominated for two awards, including Best Male Athlete and Best NFL Player. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is among those nominated for best head coach/manager, and the 2010 Packers are also nominated as the best team. *Update: Linebacker Clay Matthews is also a candidate for Best NFL Player.

As you recall, ESPN The Magazine has already named the Packers the best pro sports franchise.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Rodgers' post-touchdown "Belt" celebration has spiked sales of wrestling belts, according to Tony Walter of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • McCarthy, via Earl Vaughn Jr. of the Fayetteville Observer: "When the lockout lifts, we'll attack it like everybody else. We're not interested in being paper champions. We're going to go back at it the same way we always have, working on fundamentals, the things you do prior to the season. Every NFL season is a long journey. The preparation part is important. Whatever block of time we have to get ready will be the same as our opponents."
  • Former Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank isn't expecting an offer to return to the organization as a coach, writes Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Bears' offense is ready to shine, tight end Greg Olsen told ESPN 1000: "For awhile here we've been the stepchild. The offense has always played second fiddle, deservingly so because we've had some of the top defenses and top defensive players in league history. But we feel like we have a good core nucleus of young offensive players and Jay being right up there as the guy. With Matt [Forte] and our receivers, Earl [Bennett], Johnny [Knox] and Devin [Hester], I think we've got a lot of guys who are ready to have a little bit of consistency."
  • Detroit Lions place-kicker Dave Rayner on the NFL's new kickoff procedures, via Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press: "If it was, like, 10 yards, I would say that would be a big deal. To me, I think the 5 yards is going to have those guys that already hit a ton of touchbacks just hitting more. Returners are going to bring it out if it's 5 [yards] deep. I mean, they do now. So if you're kicking now, and you're averaging [kicking to] the goal line, it's going to go 5 deep. They're still going to bring that back."
  • Minnesota Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, via Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune: "The reality is if they were really, really wanting me back then maybe something would have been said before the lockout. I had a good meeting with Coach [Leslie] Frazier and [vice president of player personnel Rick] Spielman at the end of the year. Each side expressed how much I'd like to be here and finish my career here. I am hopeful and hope that I can come back and be a Viking again. But I'm also a realist and I've been through this process before. It's not always up to you and you have to be willing to move on."
  • Fellow Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway harbors no bitterness about the franchise tag, writes Luke Hagan of the Daily Republic.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

We've spent a good portion of the offseason discussing the Chicago Bears' personnel options along the offensive line, most recently suggesting that rookie Gabe Carimi as the best option at left tackle. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune makes an important point along those lines: The NFL's lost offseason, and what could be a shortened training camp, could ultimately make the decision simpler for the Bears.

Carimi played left tackle at Wisconsin. Another candidate for the position, J'Marcus Webb, played right tackle last season. It would be easier for both players to make the transition after a full offseason of work. With less training time, it might make more sense to keep major changes to a minimum.
Biggs: "A case could be made for leaving Carimi at left tackle because there have been no offseason workouts and minicamps. He played there four years at Wisconsin. Let him go with what he's most accustomed to doing and see if he can excel. Meanwhile, Webb could remain where he made 12 starts last season. 'You're going to feel more confident in the stance that you have been playing your career at,' Carimi said last week from Madison, Wis., where he is wrapping up an eight-week training program he began after the draft. 'It doesn't matter to me as long as I can make an impact on the team that it needs.'"

Makes perfect sense to me.

Continuing around the NFC North as we begin another quiet week in June:

Rewind'10: Special teams

February, 14, 2011
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The release of Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings provides us an opportunity for a multi-front evaluation of how each NFC North team fared in an area that can be difficult to appraise intuitively.

Offenses and defenses are typically ranked by yards and points allowed. For his special-teams analysis, Gosselin ranked teams based on a composite score in 22 categories of measurable production. Below, I've paired Gosselin's rankings with those from our friends at Football Outsiders, who determine a value based on teams' performance above or below the NFL average.

Chicago Bears
Football Outsiders:
No. 1
Gosselin: No. 4 (tie)
Comment: Devin Hester recorded the highest punt return average in NFL history, and coordinator Dave Toub's coverage and blocking schemes are top notch.

Detroit Lions
Football Outsiders:
No. 11
Gosselin: No. 15
Comment: Stefan Logan was an excellent addition as both a punt and kickoff returner, and Dave Rayner converted 13 of 16 field goals after replacing the injured Jason Hanson.

Green Bay Packers
Football Outsiders:
No. 27
Gosselin: No. 29
Comment: Punter Tim Masthay made significant late-season improvement, but overall the Packers had no return game to speak of and injuries left their coverage teams in constant flux.

Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders:
No. 20
Gosselin: No. 18 (tie)
Comment: The Vikings had the best place-kicker and punter in the NFC North and their coverage was solid, but they had limited explosiveness in the return game.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions*

January, 3, 2011
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After the Detroit Lions' 20-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Lions head to the exam room on a season-ending four-game win streak.

  1. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh notched one final sack Sunday to bring his season total to 10.0. In so doing, Suh became only the second rookie defensive tackle in NFL history to amass 10-plus sacks since the statistic became official in 1982. (Dana Stubblefield had 10.5 sacks for the San Francisco 49ers in 1993.) Suh is the first Lions player to reach double digits in sacks since 2004 (James Hall), and from a bigger picture, he is the first nationally renowned Lions defensive player in, well, quite some time.
  2. Here is some perspective for you, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. The Lions were 4-0 in their final four games of the season. They were 4-41 in their previous 45 games, dating back to the 2007 season. I don't think anything more needs to be added.
  3. Veteran place-kicker Jason Hanson has said he hopes to return next season from a knee injury, but I wonder if the Lions have already found his replacement. Dave Rayner drilled a 55-yard field goal in Sunday's game and finished the season with 13 conversions in 16 attempts. Among them were 7 of 10 conversions from 40 yards or longer. Rayner, 28, could have a long future with the Lions.
*Truncated offseason version

Lions to end Jason Hanson's season*

December, 2, 2010
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Just making sure you saw the news from ESPN's Adam Schefter, who reported that Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson (knee) won't return this season and will be placed on injured reserve.

Hanson sprained his knee Nov. 7 against the New York Jets, and the Lions had been hoping he would recover in time to kick in their final few games. But obviously that's not the case. Dave Rayner, who has converted four of six attempts since replacing him, will continue in his current role.

Hanson, 40, is signed through the 2012 season. So it's probably a little early to wonder if he's kicked for the last time. He has had knee surgery in each of the past two training camps, but in 18 previous seasons, Hanson had missed only one game.

We'll let you know when the Lions announce the move and how they fill the open roster spot.

*Update: The Lions signed free-agent cornerback Tye Hill to fill Hanson's roster spot, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Hill hasn't played this season. The Tennessee Titans released him in September.

Wrap-up: Bills 14, Lions 12

November, 14, 2010
11/14/10
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A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ debacle in Buffalo:

What it means: The Lions broke their own NFL record by losing their 25th consecutive game on the road, dropping to 2-7 amid the some of the most dreary circumstances of their season. The Bills, by the way, entered the game 0-8.

Cutting deeply: The Lions have lost some heartbreakers this season, but this one appears to have hit especially hard. Trailing 14-3, they scored nine points in the final 5 minutes, 53 seconds of the game. The Lions were in position to force overtime if they had converted a two-point play, but quarterback Shaun Hill couldn’t find an open receiver in the end zone. Afterwards, receiver Bryant Johnson tweeted “So frustrated and disappointed. Disgusted.” Johnson also apologized to Lions fans for the loss.

Ick and yuck: There has to be a level of self-destruction involved when you lose to an 0-8 team, and the Lions cooperated with 11 penalties. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News notes seven of those penalties were false starts or offensive holding. Early on, I was also questioning whether the Lions made the right decision in bringing back Hill a month after he fractured his forearm. Hill looked pretty rusty and inaccurate, but you can’t argue with the way he brought the Lions back in the fourth quarter.

Inefficient: How do you run up 390 yards and score only 12 points? You miss on 14 of 19 third-down conversions and don’t convert all of your field goal attempts. I don’t blame newcomer Dave Rayner for missing on a tough 49-yarder in the rain, but being perfect elsewhere is the only way to compensate for poor a poor performance on third down.

Ole! I hate to keep harping on Lions linebacker Julian Peterson, who seems like a nice enough fellow and was once a dominant player. But I don’t think he’s going to want to watch the film of his missed tackle on Fred Jackson’s 16-yard touchdown reception. Jackson slowed around the 10-yard line and then easily slipped through Peterson’s attempt at an arm tackle to reach the end zone.

What’s next: The Lions will play at the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday.

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