NFC North: Dwayne Bowe
Item: Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is a free agent.
Comment: Lost in the afternoon frenzy was that Urlacher had never reached free agency in his career. The Bears have interest in his return, but clearly the sides hadn't been able to find common financial ground. Perhaps Urlacher will test his value on the market before taking his next step.
Item: The Minnesota Vikings re-signed All-Pro fullback Jerome Felton to a three-year contract.
Comment: This deal needed to get done. Tailback Adrian Peterson averaged about twice as many yards per carry when Felton was on the field compared to when he wasn't.
Item: The Vikings re-signed linebacker Erin Henderson to a two-year contract.
Comment: If the Vikings chose Henderson over middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, also a free agent, they picked well. Henderson is more of a playmaker and could play in the middle if needed.
Item: The Seattle Seahawks gave receiver Percy Harvin a six-year, $67 million contract with about $25 million guaranteed.
Comment: If Harvin asked the Vikings for "Calvin Johnson money," then it was just to accelerate his departure. He didn't even get Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe money.
Item: The Indianapolis Colts made one of the more stunning deals of the day, signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden to a four-year deal worth $16 million, via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Comment: Walden won back his starting job last season only by default after Nick Perry's injury, and his poor performance against the San Francisco 49ers' read-option scheme in the playoffs will go down in Packers lore. There were few indications the Packers wanted Walden back. Clearly the Colts saw value that perhaps some others did not. I guess.
Item: The Colts also gave former Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus a five-year contract worth $34 million.
Comment: It has been clear for a while that the Lions planned to move on at the position. Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox are the top two candidates for the 2013 right-tackle job.
Item: The St. Louis Rams appear to be targeting Lions safety Louis Delmas.
Comment: The Rams' defensive coordinator, Tim Walton, is the Lions' former defensive-backs coach. The Lions appear ready to move on from Delmas and are hosting free agent Glover Quin.
Item: Defensive lineman Chris Canty, who had visited the Green Bay Packers, signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
Comment: The Packers reportedly had concerns about Canty's knee. Regardless, defensive line remains an offseason priority.
A line in a recent NFL.com analysis indicates the Miami Dolphins anticipate competing with the Minnesota Vikings for free-agent receiver Mike Wallace. In the video, ESPN's Adam Schefter mentions the Vikings as a likely suitor for free-agent receiver Greg Jennings. And for months, we've discussed the Vikings' looming contract discussions with their own star wide receiver, Percy Harvin.
So how will these tentacles mesh over the next week? I won't pretend to have direct insight into the Vikings' plans, other than an informed assumption that they know they need a better receiving group. I'll just return to what we discussed a few days ago: In a relatively tight salary-cap era, it would be surprising if the Vikings pay out two market-level contracts at the same time for one position group.
You figure that Harvin, 24, and Wallace, 26, are seeking deals similar to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Vincent Jackson last season and the Kansas City Chiefs paid to Dwayne Bowe this week: Around $11 million annually. It's doubtful, but not impossible I guess, to envision the Vikings paying that to Harvin and Wallace. So in essence, it's one or the other (or neither).
Jennings, 29, won't exactly be cheap, although as Matt Bowen writes for ESPN Insider , he won't be viewed by all NFL teams as a classic No. 1 receiver. You need an Insider subscription to read what is really an extraordinary breakdown of Jennings' skill set, but here is the bottom line, according to Bowen: "Jennings can still play and still produce. But he isn't a 25-year-old receiver in his prime who can consistently flip the field and put stress on the league's top corners in the vertical passing game."
Jennings' ability to get open -- Bowen wrote he is still "one of the top route runners in the game" -- and his history of turning short slants into big gainers mesh well with the Vikings' offense. Ideally, the Vikings could sign Jennings for the rate Bowen recommends: $6 million to $8 million annually on a shorter-term contract. That would give them more flexibility to retain Harvin, if that's their plan.
On the other hand, if you see the Vikings jump out and offer top dollar to Wallace and/or Jennings, you could reasonably guess they have at least delayed plans to re-sign Harvin. We're down to a few days before we find out.
According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, among others, Bowe received a five-year deal worth $56 million, with $26 million guaranteed. That's a notch higher than last year's free-agent benchmark: $55 million over five years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson, with similar guarantees.
Those figures help you understand why the Green Bay Packers either haven't been able, or haven't tried, to re-sign pending free agent Greg Jennings, who turns 30 in September. It also illustrates why it's difficult to predict where the Minnesota Vikings will go with their multi-pronged needs and challenges at the position.
As you know, Percy Harvin is entering the final year of his contract. It's safe to assume he will eye Bowe's contract as a framework for an extension. Those of you who would like to see the Vikings sign Jennings or the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace, the top two free-agent receivers available, should ask if you think they would dole out two deals that average more than $11 million annually for receivers.
If you consider that scenario unlikely, you're probably right. You wonder if the Vikings' likeliest path is to either commit to Harvin or sign a free agent -- but not both -- while also hoping to address the position in the draft. When you look at the second tier of free-agent receivers, you realize that many of them would play the same slot role as Harvin -- Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Donnie Avery among them.
Regardless, we now have a better idea of what it will cost for the Vikings either to satisfy Harvin and/or add a top veteran to the mix. In short: A lot.
- 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.
On Thursday, we identified the Big Receiver that Got Away from the Minnesota Vikings. But as they prepare for Sunday's game against Sidney Rice and the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings are trying to figure out why the current "big receiver" hasn't been more productive this season.
As Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes, Jerome Simpson has caught seven passes for 95 yards this season. (Simpson has also drawn more than 80 yards in pass interference penalties.) He has dealt with a back issue, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave admitted there have been a few plays where it appeared he was having trouble separating from defenders. But Musgrave also told reporters the Vikings need to use Simpson in different ways.
"[W]e need to do a better job of asking him to run different types of routes," Musgrave said. "... He ran some good routes in Detroit, that first week back (from a three-game suspension). Now we're still working through his issue with his [back], and I think he's getting better each and every week."
Continuing around the NFC North:
- The Vikings never seriously considered acquiring receiver Dwayne Bowe or any other receiver at the trade deadline, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
- Vikings safety Mistral Raymond (ankle) should be available for part-time work Sunday against the Seahawks, notes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
- Chris McCosky of the Detroit News on Detroit Lions executive James "Shack" Harris: "He's about as anonymous and unassuming a trailblazer as you will ever meet." Harris was the first black quarterback to start a season for an NFL franchise.
- Lions linebacker Justin Durant is looking forward to hitting some of his former Jacksonville Jaguars teammates Sunday, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz on having rookie receiver Ryan Broyles, via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com: "A lot of people were shocked when we drafted a wide receiver in the second round, but then you see what happens. Last year our wide receivers were healthy the whole year. We got very lucky last year." Broyles has replaced the injured Nate Burleson in the Lions' rotation.
- The Chicago Bears could turn to Kelvin Hayden as their nickelback if D.J. Moore doesn't straighten out his game, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
- The Bears might have the NFL's two best cornerbacks this season, writes Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com.
- It's "nearly impossible" to think of the Bears playing this kind of defense without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, despite Urlacher's bad knee, writes Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- The Green Bay Packers seem more focused on throwing to their receivers, and less on tight ends, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Packers cornerback Charles Woodson on the progress of his broken collarbone, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "We'll go with the medical timeline right now. I will say, it's feeling a lot better. I have pretty good strength in it. It's just a time issue with a bone. You have to let it heal. At this point, I feel pretty good. Hopefully I'll be back sooner rather than later."
- Packers linebacker Erik Walden has responded to the offseason challenge he received from the team, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Receiver Greg Jennings had his surgery Thursday to repair an abdominal tear, notes Wilde.
We'll move through one round a week, culminating with the final matchup during the week of April 21. If you're a fan of an NFC North team, I highly encourage you to vote for your representative's opponent …. er, your representative. There's nothing to the Madden cover jinx. Nothing. Really, I mean it.
Here are the first-round matchups for our players. Seeds are in parentheses:
- Aaron Rodgers (1) vs. Joe Haden (16)
- Calvin Johnson (6) vs. Dwayne Bowe (11)
- Jared Allen (7) vs. DeMarcus Ware (10)
- Matt Forte (6) vs. Patrick Willis (11)
Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus has reconciled and further analyzed some numbers we introduced as part of last week's discussion. Finley is among a group of hybrid pass-catching tight ends who are used all over the field, according to Hornsby's film analysis, Finley could argue that he was aligned away from the tackle on 51 percent of his plays in 2011 and that he was in a 2-point stance on 60 percent of his plays.
Because Finley was lined up as a receiver on a mathematical majority of plays, Hornsby concludes: "In every measurable category Finley should be considered a wide receiver for the purposes of the tender."
That might be true from a technical sense. But from this vantage point, a more equitable challenge would be to request a new franchise classification that takes into account the way tight end play has evolved for some NFL teams. Finley, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are used differently than earlier generations. On the one hand, they are higher-profile and have more impact on the passing game than traditional in-line tight ends. But it's hard to consider them receivers when true receivers play nearly 100 percent of their snaps away from the line of scrimmage and in a 2-point stance.
In that scenario, the value of Finley's franchise tag could rise above that of tight ends but fall short of the one assigned to wide receivers.
I'm not sure if that will happen, but that possibility seems much more realistic than putting players like Finley in the same category as, say, Vincent Jackson of the San Diego Chargers or Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs. Stay tuned.
What it means: The Vikings are 0-4 for the first time since 2002. Situated in a division with the NFL’s two undefeated teams, the Vikings can essentially kiss the playoffs goodbye. That leaves only one bit of drama left in their season. Namely ...
PonderWatch: Coach Leslie Frazier said "I don’t think" the Vikings are in a position where changing quarterbacks is required. But what is the value of playing a 34-year-old quarterback on a one-year contract when you’re 0-4 and four games back in your division? Donovan McNabb completed 18 of 30 passes against the Chiefs, including a nicely-thrown 34-yard touchdown pass to receiver Devin Aromashodu in the second quarter. Sunday’s loss wasn’t all on him. But the competitive portion of 2011 is almost done for the Vikings. That pushes our attention to 2012, when their quarterback almost certainly will be Christian Ponder. The only reason to delay the inevitable is if the Vikings feel Ponder hasn’t developed enough to give him a chance. I would find that hard to believe.
Tackling woes: I had my eyes mostly focused at Cowboys Stadium, but one play I saw from the Vikings really stood out. Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe blew past cornerback Cedric Griffin, who had slipped, and hauled in a Matt Cassel pass. Safety Jamarca Sanford bounced off Bowe on a shoulder-tackle attempt, and Griffin couldn’t bring him down either. Bowe scored on a 52-yard touchdown when all he had done was take about six strides past the line of scrimmage. Way too easy.
What’s next: The Vikings will try to avoid an 0-5 start when they host the Arizona Cardinals.
» 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 week 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: History in that spot.
The Bears’ top pick is No. 75 overall. Here are the last five players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2009: Ball State tackle Robert Brewster (Dallas)
2008: Oklahoma defensive back Reggie Smith (San Francisco)
2007: Illinois State receiver Laurent Robinson (Atlanta)
2006: Louisville guard Jason Spitz (Green Bay)
2005: Virginia Tech defensive back Eric Green (Arizona)
Robinson had 37 receptions as a rookie but has since moved to St. Louis. Spitz was the Packers’ opening-day center last season before a back injury sidelined him. He is a candidate to start in 2010. Smith has played in 13 games over the past two seasons for the 49ers, with seven tackles and no interceptions.
The Lions’ top pick is No. 2 overall. Here are the last five players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2009: Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith (St. Louis)
2008: Virginia defensive end Chris Long (St. Louis)
2007: Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson (Detroit)
2006: USC running back Reggie Bush (New Orleans)
2005: Auburn running back Ronnie Brown (Miami)
Brown, Bush and Johnson have all been dynamic playmakers for parts of their careers. Coincidentally, all three have been slowed by knee injuries of varying severity. The Rams are still waiting for elite payoff from Long and endured an inconsistent rookie season from Smith.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ top pick is No. 23 overall. Here are the last five players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2009: Mississippi offensive tackle Michael Oher (Baltimore)
2008: Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh)
2007: LSU receiver Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City)
2006: Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay)
2005: Nebraska cornerback Fabian Washington (Oakland)
Oher, Mendenhall, Bowe and Joseph have been full-time starters. Washington moved from Oakland to Baltimore.
The Vikings’ top pick is No. 30 overall. Here are the last five players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2009: Rutgers receiver Kenny Britt (Tennessee)
2008: Purdue tight end Dustin Keller (New York Jets)
2007: LSU receiver Craig Davis (San Diego)
2006: LSU running back Joseph Addai (Indianapolis)
2005: Virginia tight end Heath Miller (Pittsburgh)
All five are skill players, for what it’s worth. Davis has been a bust, but Miller, Addai and Keller are highly productive players. Britt is on pace to be as well.
|Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire|
|Greg Jennings could have a big season if he can stay healthy. Scouts Inc. rates him as a solid, but not top, receiver.|
We didn't hear as many protestations as we thought we might after last week's NFL preview. But we did catch a reasonable tongue-lashing from Joseph, who questioned a Scouts, Inc. rating of 78 for Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings. (A 78 rating falls in Scouts, Inc.'s "solid player" category.)
You need an Insider subscription to get to this, but overall Scouts, Inc. rated Jennings No. 21 on a list of the NFL's top receivers. Jennings actually ranked ahead of teammate Donald Driver (24) but was behind such players as Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes (T-12), Chicago's Devin Hester (T-14) and Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe (T-18).
Joseph of Atlanta writes: Okay, enough is enough and I've gotta ask: what's with the apparent consensus that Greg Jennings is a nonentity? The latest is the 78 rating ESPN gave him in the Packers season preview (8/27). He put up top 10 receiving numbers last year in everything but catches and yards, and with six more catches, would have broken 1000 yards receiving with 11 fewer catches than Plaxico Burress (fewest catches among 1000 yard receivers). And that was in 13 games. Yet Marques Colston is a top wideout? I understand he played with Favre, but did Reggie Wayne (P. Manning), Colston (Brees), or Chad Johnson (Palmer) put up the kinds of numbers Jennings has? Not to mention he's only in his second year, and caught Aaron Rodgers' only career touchdown pass. Add in the three game-winning touchdown catches last season alone, and we've got some pretty awesome numbers for a second-year player. Where's his hype?
Kevin Seifert: Scouts, Inc., had this to say about Jennings in their ratings: "He is a versatile player who can align in multiple spots in the Packers' spread offense. Jennings is a very productive player with enough size to be a big-time threat in the red zone."
I can't speak to the methods of their numerical ratings, but I think that's a pretty accurate assessment of Jennings on a qualitative level. The best thing you can say about Jennings is that's he's productive, especially with 12 touchdowns in 13 games last season. The worst thing you can say is that he hasn't been able to avoid the injury bug.
An ankle injury cost him one game in 2006 and two games last season, and a knee injury sidelined him during the 2008 preseason. To me, the only thing holding back Jennings from a higher ranking is showing that he can play a 16-game season. That would put him on track for surpassing the 1,000-yard barrier that generally brings receivers a level of acclaim.
"Greg Jennings definitely makes a difference when he's out there," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in Green Bay this week. Jennings will be especially valuable Monday night against Minnesota; highly productive No. 3 receiver James Jones could miss that game because of a sprained knee.