NFC North: E.J. Henderson

MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday afternoon, with a couple lines of agate type in a news release, the Minnesota Vikings announced they'd parted ways with linebacker Erin Henderson, ending a six-year relationship with the linebacker and marking the first time since 2003 they didn't have either Erin or his brother E.J. on their roster.

[+] EnlargeErin Henderson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsOn Friday, Minnesota released linebacker Erin Henderson, who played 64 total games over his six-year career for the Vikings.
It was a move that had seemed inevitable since New Year's Day, when Henderson got in a one-car accident in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen and was arrested for the second time in six weeks on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of a small amount of marijuana. But it probably wasn't as clean and seamless as the transaction wire would indicate.

Since last April, when coaches first told Erin Henderson he should prepare to play middle linebacker in the event the Vikings didn't find a more proven option, the younger Henderson seemed to take extra pride in the idea of moving from weak-side linebacker, becoming the quarterback of the Vikings' defense and taking over the spot where his brother had become a Pro Bowler. He announced the move to reporters last May, fired back at doubters later that month and curtly replied, "I'm playing the 'Mike,'" when asked about the possibility of the Vikings signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop last June.

The pressure of holding onto something he wanted so badly seemed to get to Henderson; he admitted after his first arrest in November that he'd been struggling with the "the stress and pressure of playing in the NFL -- coming in here and fighting for your job day and day out and what goes with that." And on Dec. 30, as he cleaned out his locker and thanked former coach Leslie Frazier for his guidance, Henderson sounded like he'd done some more soul-searching toward the end of the season.

"I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player and as a person as well," he said that day. "You start to learn a lot about yourself when things can go wrong or bad, if you’re willing to try to learn, if you’re willing to look in the mirror and figure things out and I think I was able to do that. Not just as a player, but as a person as well. Started watching the film honestly, looking at tape and seeing stuff I can improve on and what I can do better. As opposed to, 'I’m here, I’m already the greatest ever.' That allowed me to progress and get better as the season went on."

This is not to say that Henderson -- or any NFL player -- is unique in his struggle to process the stress of keeping a job in a competitive industry, or that he's not responsible for his two arrests. He put his employment on the line by getting himself in trouble, and he'll have to deal with the consequences, legal and otherwise.

But Henderson's situation -- and his introspection in a couple of interviews about it -- does provide a glimpse into the darker side of the NFL, a game where young men are handed exorbitant sums of money at a tender age, put their bodies on the line to keep the cash coming in and are expected to navigate the churning waters at the confluence of wealth and physical toil.

As it is for many young American men, alcohol is often an accomplice when things go wrong; just over a quarter of the players polled in ESPN's NFL Nation Confidential survey this season said alcohol is a problem in the NFL. There's a reason teams invest so much time into educating rookies about the temptations of being a professional athlete -- as a safeguard against personal missteps that can range from the unfortunate to the tragic -- and a year after getting a two-year contract from the Vikings, Henderson is looking for a job not because of what happened on the field in 2013, but because of what happened off of it.

Did he make mistakes? Yes. Are the Vikings within their rights to cut ties with him for those mistakes? Yes. But Henderson seemed like he was battling some deep-seeded issues this season, and his release is a reminder that for players in the NFL, there is often shaky and treacherous ground to walk on the way from inexperience to success.

Vikings' Cole gets another shot at MLB

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
5:23
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Even if Audie Cole hadn't played so well this past Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the Vikings might have decided not to start linebacker Erin Henderson this week against the Chicago Bears. Henderson, who was arrested on Nov. 19 for possession of a controlled substance and a probable cause DWI, missed three days of practice and the Packers game for what both the linebacker and coach Leslie Frazier called a personal matter, and sounded on Wednesday like he needed to take a step back from football.

Henderson said the organization had given him the "tools and resources to ... become the person I know I can be going forward," and later added, "[It's] just to deal with life, man.

[+] EnlargeAudie Cole
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsA strong performance at Green Bay helped the Vikings' Audie Cole earn a starting nod on Sunday.
"Just to deal with the whole life process and dealing with, like I said, the stress and pressure of playing in the NFL, coming in here and fighting for your job day in and day out and what goes with that and what comes along with that. I have a family at home that I have to support and take care of. They’ve done a good job of giving me the chance to reach out to some people and talk to some people who understand better than I do what’s happening and what’s going on that will help me in the future.”

The Vikings, though, might be able to take a slower approach with Henderson in light of what Cole did against the Packers, registering 13 combined tackles, a sack and three quarterback hits. He'll start at middle linebacker again on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier said, and while Henderson will play, he'll go into the game as Cole's backup.

"Audie earned, from my perspective along with our coaches, the right to start this ballgame," Frazier said. "Based on his performance on Sunday, he did a very, very good job, had an excellent week of practice as well. As the week went on, I was saying to the coaches, ‘The way he practiced, I’m really curious to see how he plays.’ And then he went out and he performed very, very well.

"And we came back on Monday, looked at the tape and verified some of the things that we saw in the game. And you say, ‘How do you just sit this guy down and not give him a chance to show if he can continue this?’ So we made the decision based on the way he performed, and we’ll get a chance to see him play this Sunday and see how he does.”

Frazier said he wouldn't use Henderson at weakside linebacker -- his old position -- on Sunday, but I'll be curious to see how the Vikings move forward at linebacker if Cole continues to play well. Henderson had been serviceable this season after moving over from outside linebacker, and seemed to take quite a bit of pride in playing the spot where his older brother E.J. reached the Pro Bowl. But the Vikings have hardly come up with a good solution at Henderson's old spot, and it could turn out their best move is to put him back there.

"I've been in this situation, as far as not having to be a starter but having to be ready and prepared as if I am one," Henderson said. "So right now my job is to make sure I help the team as much as possible. If that means giving Audie whatever I have in my brain and whatever I know in my head that may help him be successful out there on the football field and help this team, then that’s what I’ll do.”

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As he assessed the progress of rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti on Thursday morning, defensive coordinator Alan Williams hit on an interesting point about what the Minnesota Vikings -- and most other teams -- want to see from their middle linebackers. And while he brought it up in the context of what those players (particularly Mauti, who projects more in the middle than on the outside) need to learn, I thought it had an interesting application to their veterans, as well.

[+] EnlargeErin Henderson
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings are relying on Erin Henderson to run the defense after having moved him to middle linebacker from the outside.
One of the Vikings' biggest, or at least most-discussed, defensive questions of the offseason was how they would handle the middle-linebacker position. That conversation began in February, with coach Leslie Frazier saying at the NFL scouting combine that the Vikings wanted "to potentially draft someone" who could play middle linebacker. It continued with rumors about their interest in ex-Bears (and now retired) linebacker Brian Urlacher. Erin Henderson said at offseason workouts in April that he had been told to prepare for a move from the outside to the middle, and reinforced his stance as the middle linebacker every time another player's name came up, whether it was Urlacher (again) or Desmond Bishop (whom the Vikings signed in June).

The Vikings appear set to go into the season with Henderson in the middle, and one of the things they're banking on is his ability to run the defense. He had some experience with the role last season, making calls in the Vikings' nickel defense, but he hasn't done it on a consistent three-down basis. Really, the Vikings haven't had a reliable solution in the middle since Henderson's older brother E.J. retired after the 2011 season. If Erin Henderson is to establish himself as the long-term answer at the position, Williams will be looking to see if he can be an extension of the coordinator's thinking.

"A good Mike linebacker can make a coordinator right. That is what we look for, that when I mess up, they make it right," Williams said. "If I send in a call that may not be what we had practiced, or what we want, or for that situation, they say, 'Coach has talked to me about this, I know that this is this certain call, and we may not want this call with this coverage.' And they can make you right. Or it could be a two-minute situation and they can make a call without me having to send one in because we have talked about, in this situation, what we actually want, in terms of coverage, front, and they can go ahead and make the call."

Williams said Henderson is at a point where he knows what the Vikings want, though the younger linebackers haven't reached that level yet. And with Bishop new to the defense, Chad Greenway entrenched on the strong side and few linebackers more familiar with the Vikings' defense than Henderson, the team is banking on him to be able to handle the job. Mauti might have been a second- or third-round pick if not for concerns about his three ACL surgeries, and could still turn into a prototypical middle linebacker; Williams called him a "natural linebacker" on Thursday, and if Mauti makes the team, he could give the Vikings another option if Bishop falters and Henderson eventually has to play outside.

But for now, the defense is Henderson's to run, and the Vikings are putting their faith in him to do the job.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC North team’s agenda?

Chicago Bears: The top priority at Halas Hall, from now until the start of the season, is getting the offense organized in Marc Trestman's new scheme. This task has appeared annually for the Bears in recent years, but the failure to accomplish it played a big role in the firing of former coach Lovie Smith. There is also an additional level of urgency as quarterback Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract. The Bears might not want to make a decision on Cutler's future until seeing him adjust successfully to this scheme, but will he do it in time for the Bears to make a decision?

Detroit Lions: The next order of business in Detroit is to set up a plan for settling on the new right side of their offensive line. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency, right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right guard candidate Riley Reiff is likely to play left tackle. Rookie Larry Warford will compete with Bill Nagy and perhaps Rodney Austin at right guard, while right tackle will be a competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, among others.

Green Bay Packers: Suddenly, the Packers have an offseason-long project on their hands: making a reconstructed offensive line work. After the draft, Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and flipped guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy now has his two best offensive linemen on the left side, with Lang pairing with a yet-to-be-named right tackle. There is no substitute for time when establishing continuity for an offensive line, so the Packers' next and continued order of business is getting Bulaga and Sitton comfortable on the left side. They'll also need to decide whether Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod or even rookie David Bakhtiari are best suited to be the right tackle.

Minnesota Vikings: Identifying the 2013 middle linebacker is the Vikings' most unanswered question. After allowing 2012 bridge starter Jasper Brinkley to depart via free agency, the Vikings set their sights on the draft to find a longer-term replacement for E.J. Henderson. There was widespread and justified speculation that the Vikings would draft Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but the unpredictable first round brought them three players they ranked higher on their board. Without second- or third-round picks, the Vikings weren't able to draft a starting-quality prospect. Veteran outside linebacker Erin Henderson told reporters this week that he was preparing to take on the role, apparently at the suggestion of coaches, but this is the time of year for experimenting with position changes that could be reversed before training camp. To this point, the Vikings haven't shown serious interest in free agent Brian Urlacher.
One of the most consistent themes of CampTour'12 has been the frequency with which we can expect NFC North teams to abandon their base defenses and shift into nickel or dime formations. It's based on an assumption that a majority of our teams will use extensive three-plus receiver sets, and in many cases it mitigates or helps explain roster holes that we've probably spent too much time obsessing about.

"It seems like everyone is in three or four wide receivers in this league nowadays," Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Especially in this division, you need to look at [the nickel as your starting defense.] Look at Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago. They're going to throw it all over the field."

The chart shows how often each NFC North team spent with at least five defensive backs on the field last season. The only defensive coaching change occurred with the Vikings, who hired Alan Williams to assist coach Leslie Frazier in maintaining his Tampa-2 structure, so in general there have been no scheme changes for the 2012 season.

Only the Detroit Lions ranked in the lower half of the NFL for using extra defensive backs in 2011, a schematic philosophy based largely on faith in their dominant defensive line as well as their athletic set of linebackers. Otherwise, the rest of our division actually used five defensive backs more frequently than they played their base defense in 2011, and the Packers used it more than any other team in the NFL.

That's why the "shift" of Charles Woodson to safety in the Packers' base defense isn't as dramatic as it might sound. If the Packers come close to last season's percentage, Woodson will be a true safety on perhaps 10 plays in a 70-play game. On the rest, he'll be a slot cornerback, where he's played extensively for several years now.

Plans to use the nickel help explain why the Bears loaded up at cornerback this offseason, signing Kelvin Hayden to compete with Tim Jennings for a starting job while maintaining D.J. Moore as the nickel. It also helps us understand why the Bears didn't prioritize linebacker deptn; in their nickel defense, linebacker Nick Roach comes off the field. That means the player in Roach's strong-side spot would play less than half of the Bears' plays this season. In terms of playing time, he's a part-time player.

The same is likely true for Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who has replaced E.J. Henderson amid much hand-wringing and concern about his skills in pass coverage. Brinkley will be forced to defend the pass at some point, but if the Vikings implement their nickel the way they have in recent years, Brinkley is likely to come off the field for more than half of the Vikings' plays. Their two full-time linebackers likely will be Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson.

We can't predict if the NFC North will debut any new wrinkles to defend the pass this season, but there aren't too many options. We can keep track, and we will, and the guess here is that the division's true base defense will be the nickel.
Looking over Matt Williamson's offseason grades for the NFC North compelled me to take a look back at our Big Decision series from the winter. In it, I tried to preview some of the most important issues facing NFC North teams in the coming months.

The list was by no means exhaustive, but I thought we would take this moment to circle back and comment on its resolution. We discussed seven issues at the time, which I've reviewed below, and I'll also add a few additional topics that ended up dominating our conversations.

[+] EnlargeCharles Woodson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCharles Woodson is expected to play both safety and cornerback for Green Bay this season.
Big Decision: Charles Woodson's 2012 position for the Green Bay Packers
Resolution:
A schematic adjustment that could feature Woodson as a hybrid safety-cornerback in the base defense. Woodson likely will play as a slot defender in nickel and dime situations.
Comment: The Packers answered (C) when faced with the question of Woodson as a safety or cornerback: All of the above. Given how malleable defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme is, there was no reason to make a black-and-white decision when gray might have been the best option all along.

Big Decision: Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs' trade request
Resolution: The Bears mollified Briggs with a $2.5 million raise for 2012. He would earn $5.5 million in 2013.
Comment: The Bears weren't ready to give a 31-year-old linebacker a huge upgrade, but as it turned out, it wasn't necessary. Briggs just wanted to see the most minor demonstration of love to be happy.

Big Decision: The future of Detroit Lions left tackle Jeff Backus
Resolution:
Signed a two-year contract in March.
Comment:
Backus will turn 35 during the season, but the Lions needed to protect themselves when they had an opportunity. They followed up by making tackle Riley Reiff their top draft choice, setting up an ideal succession plan that could begin next month or next year.

Big Decision: The Minnesota Vikings' middle linebacker situation
Resolution: Fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley will be given a chance to take the job of incumbent E.J. Henderson, who was not re-signed.
Comment: Brinkley missed all of 2011 because of a hip injury and was held out of June minicamp for precautionary reasons. There is no depth behind Brinkley, making this move a big risk. As a result, middle linebacker remains one of the Vikings' biggest question marks.

Big Decision: Backup quarterbacks for all four teams
Resolution: The Bears signed veteran Jason Campbell. The Lions re-signed Shaun Hill but allowed Drew Stanton to depart via free agency. The Packers allowed Matt Flynn to depart and seem committed to Graham Harrell. The Vikings re-signed Sage Rosenfels but appear set to make Joe Webb their No. 2.
Comment: Campbell represents a huge upgrade for the Bears. Hill is the perfect player to back up Matthew Stafford in the Lions' offense. Harrell is unproven but drew raves from Packers coaches this offseason. The Vikings are serious enough about Webb as their No. 2 that they stopped experimenting with him at other positions.

Big Decision: The Bears' commitment to Kellen Davis
Resolution: Davis re-signed with a two-year contract.
Comment: Davis feels confident the Bears will use the tight end more under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, a former NFL tight end. That's probably a good assumption.

Big Decision: The future of Lions defensive end Cliff Avril
Resolution: The Lions restructured their salary cap sufficiently enough to make room for Avril's $10.6 million franchise tag figure. The sides have until Monday to agree on a long-term extension.
Comment: The Lions made clear from the start of the offseason that Avril was a strong fit for their defensive system and a vital part of its success. Given the importance of pass rushers in this era, few if any would argue with the decision, even if it means he ultimately departs via free agency in 2013.

Honorable mention
The Bears jumped on the relative bargain rate of the franchise tag for tailback Matt Forte ($7.74 million) but the inability/unwillingness to sign him to a multi-year deal suggests some ambivalence about his long-term future. … The Bears re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler by acquiring one of his favorite receivers (Brandon Marshall) and coach (quarterbacks guru Jeremy Bates), giving Cutler by far his best surrounding cast since he arrived in Chicago. … The Lions nipped a pressing long-term issue by making receiver Calvin Johnson the highest-paid player in the NFL at the time of the agreement, a deal that actually lowered his 2012 salary-cap figure and set up the rest of the Lions' offseason. … The Packers addressed their pass defense by signing several free agent defensive linemen, including veteran Anthony Hargrove, and selecting six consecutive defensive players to open the draft. … The Packers made a wise decision not to place the franchise tag on Flynn, who did not receive the level of free-agent interest once anticipated. … The Vikings publicly hemmed and hawed about their direction for the No. 3 overall pick, but ultimately made the obvious choice by selecting left tackle Matt Kalil after trading down one spot to No. 4.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Despite a near-obsession with the every move of receiver Percy Harvin, I did take some time this week to report on some other facets of the Minnesota Vikings during the first two days of minicamp. We'll get to them in the days and weeks to come, but to me one of the most obvious issues of attention was what the Vikings acknowledged is a situation at linebacker.

At the three primary positions, the Vikings have a cornerstone (Chad Greenway), a returning starter who was retained with a one-year contract (Erin Henderson) and a complete mystery (Jasper Brinkley). Behind that trio is a special-teams player (six-year veteran Marvin Mitchell) and a pile of additional unknowns.

[+] EnlargeThe Vikings' victory over the Eagles guarantees Leslie Frazier at least a .500 record as interim head coach.
AP Photo/Miles KennedyLeslie Frazier will be counting on Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson to lead a thin group of linebackers in Minnesota.
With Brinkley continuing to feel the effects of hip surgery that took place more than 10 months ago, coach Leslie Frazier hasn't hidden his concern. "We still have some things to shore up," he said, "and we would like to improve our depth at linebacker, for sure."

There are plenty of teams with untested backups at linebacker, and in reality the Vikings' situation would be less alarming if Brinkley had been healthy and on the field during minicamp. Instead, he nursed a groin injury that he attributed to the torn hip labrum he suffered last summer and which cost him the 2011 season. In his place was second-year player Tyrone McKenzie, a practice squad player last season who appeared more of a space-filler than a legitimate prospect.

We've told Brinkley's story before. As a fifth-round draft choice in 2009, he replaced an injured E.J. Henderson late in the Vikings' playoff run, making a total of six starts. He spent 2010 as a special-teams player and dropped out of training camp last summer when the hip injury proved too limiting.

There is always a risk in anointing a new starter who missed the previous season, even when the injury is one that typically heals on a reliable timetable. Brinkley got significant work during organized team activities, but it's fair to be concerned about the connection between the groin and hip injuries.

In explaining why Brinkley was held out of minicamp, Frazier said: "We didn't want to create a situation where it became something that was going to be nagging him throughout the time that we are away from football.

"We believe that he'll be ready to go when training camp begins. With our depth at linebacker, it is something that you have to think about from my standpoint. But you can't make him go out there and practice if you know it's going to create some issues for him health-wise. But it does make you a little bit concerned."

I would offer two important caveats here.

First, if holding Brinkley out of minicamp allows him to open training camp with a clean slate, then that's an easy trade to make.

Second, the Vikings could easily protect themselves by taking Brinkley off the field in nickel situations. In a division filled with three-receiver sets, that would make Greenway and Henderson -- both healthy and still ascending -- far more important as linebackers than Brinkley.

Brinkley said this week that he is "not concerned at all" about the lingering physical issues. He is confident he showed coaches enough during OTAs and said: "If I hadn't shown what they needed to see, I'm sure they would have brought someone in here."

I see why Frazier would be concerned about this group. But with Greenway and Henderson, the Vikings are positioned to minimize those concerns.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- So as it turned out, receiver Percy Harvin did participate in a portion of the Minnesota Vikings' first full minicamp practice Tuesday. Adding to what has been a confusing set of messages from him, Harvin said that "nothing's changed" since both he and coach Leslie Frazier said Harvin would not participate in on-field work during this camp.

Harvin said there is "no question" he stands by his earlier statement, which included a threat to hold out from training camp if several unspecified issues are not resolved before then. He eventually said during his second media session that he only wanted to answer football questions, so I asked him about Frazier's plan to get him on the field more often than he was last season -- when he participated in 58 percent of the Vikings' snaps.

Harvin rolled his eyes, shook his head and said: "We'll see. We'll see."

So did Harvin not like the question, or was his body language an indication that the playing-time issue has contributed heavily into his current state of unhappiness? I'm not sure how to read it, but if you're convinced he is simply angling for a new contract, I can tell you that from what I understand, the Vikings' decision-makers were blindsided by his comments and had no inkling that he was upset about anything of substance.

This one will be continued, for sure.

Here are a few thoughts and observations from the first day of minicamp:
  • The first uh-oh moment of spring arrived came when new middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was unable to practice. Brinkley acknowledged afterward that his sore groin is related to the hip injury that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. Brinkley needs every offseason snap he can get if he is to replace free agent E.J. Henderson, and it's concerning that the hip is causing residual effects 10 months after surgery. This will be an area of concern for the Vikings all summer. Meanwhile, second-year player Tyrone McKenzie worked Tuesday in his spot.
  • Free-agent acquisition Chris Carr worked as the third cornerback. Carr played outside when the Vikings went to the nickel, with Antoine Winfield moving inside to play the slot receiver and Chris Cook holding down the other outside spot. My guess is that's the way the Vikings will go into training camp as well.
  • Winfield grabbed an easy interception during team drills when quarterback Christian Ponder seemed to think twice about throwing a pass. Ponder couldn't pull back his arm in time, and Winfield snatched the soft toss from the air.
  • The offensive play of the day was a red zone pass from Ponder to tight end John Carlson, who got free between two defenders and then dunked the ball over the goal post for good measure.
SportsCenter's divisional analysis moves to the NFC North on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). We've already discussed our most versatile players as well as potential breakout players, so let's give our television pals a pre-show primer on the biggest improvement (and regression) each division team made this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail:
The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression:
The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)

Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail:
The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.

Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail:
As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression:
The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.

Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail:
Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.
Our friends at Football Outsiders have reached the NFC North juncture of their annual post-draft needs series for ESPN.com. You'll need an Insider subscription to read the entire file Insider but I can provide you a snippet of the needs that Outsiders' statistical analysis points to for each of our teams.

Chicago Bears
Need:
Offensive line
Excerpt: Left tackle J'Marcus Webb "led the league with 15 offensive penalties in 2011."
Seifert comment: We've been through this before. Outsiders suggests the Bears seek a swing tackle via free agency, but indications are that the team envisions 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams in that role.

Detroit Lions
Need:
Cornerback
Excerpt: Free-agent acquisition Jacob Lacey "ranked 81st in success rate against the pass last year and 88th in 2010."
Seifert comment: The Lions prioritize the havoc they can create with a dynamic defensive line over whatever shortcomings they might have in the secondary. Lacey will compete with Aaron Berry and perhaps rookie Dwight Bentley for a starting job.

Green Bay Packers
Need:
Backup quarterback
Excerpt: "If any injury causes [Aaron] Rodgers to miss action, the Packers are looking at trotting out either super raw seventh-round rookie B.J. Coleman or undrafted and utterly untested third-year man Graham Harrell."
Seifert comment: In 2008, the Packers set a precedent of using an untested backup in Matt Flynn. There isn't league-wide certainty that Harrell is prepared to be a No. 2 in 2012, but the Packers are more likely to use him in that role than sign a veteran free agent.

Minnesota Vikings
Need:
Middle linebacker
Excerpt: "There's no evidence suggesting that [Jasper] Brinkley can handle the full slate of middle linebacker duties."
Seifert comment: All indications are that Brinkley will get the first chance to replace E.J. Henderson. There isn't a notable alternative on the roster, but it's a position where a temporary starter could be signed during training camp. But the Vikings are committed to getting younger and Brinkley is 26.

Vikings: A new defensive gut

March, 28, 2012
3/28/12
1:15
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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- If the nose tackle and middle linebacker represent the gut of a defense, then it's safe to say the Minnesota Vikings have signed themselves up for plastic surgery this season.

(Too much? I liked it. Come on. Lighten up.)

The takeaway from my time with Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on Wednesday morning was that he will have a new starting nose tackle in 2012 and is close to deciding on his next middle linebacker. Fifth-year player Letroy Guion will replace the released Remi Ayodele at nose tackle, while Frazier indicated that Jasper Brinkley is his top choice to start at middle linebacker.

Both players are longtime backups and draft choices of newly promoted general manager Rick Spielman, and their anticipated ascension is a reasonable illustration of how Spielman hopes to run the franchise.

Guion was a fifth-round pick in 2008 and has started three games over four seasons since then. His newly-prominent role became clear when the Vikings signed him to a three-year contract earlier this month that will pay him $2.5 million. Ayodele was subsequently released.

"We want him to be the starting nose tackle," Frazier said.

Brinkley, meanwhile, was a fifth-round pick a year after the Vikings selected Guion. He was the backup to starter E.J. Henderson in 2009 and 2010, starting six games after Henderson's broken leg in 2009, but missed all of 2011 because of a hip injury.

"We believe he is healthy now," Frazier said. "And he has started for us when E.J. was injured in the past. We think he is capable of doing it. We just haven't had him do it for 16 weeks. But we think he's about ready to take that role. We'll determine that in the weeks and months to come."

Doctors have cleared Brinkley for all football activities, and if there was any hesitation in Frazier's response, it should be attributed to the universal NFL caveat at this time of year. The Vikings have 10 draft picks, including seven of the top 138, and a starting-caliber middle linebacker could be a target.

Absent that event, however, the chances seem high that Brinkley will team with Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway to form the Vikings' 2012 trio of linebackers. During that 2009 stretch, Brinkley proved to be a physical run-stopper who is most likely not going to be on the field in nickel situations.

Again, everything could change after the draft. But regardless of the ingredients, it seems likely the Vikings will have a new defensive gut in 2012.
The NFL's relatively depressed market for linebackers allowed the Minnesota Vikings to bring back starter Erin Henderson at a low-risk rate. After an encouraging season as a first-time starter in 2011, Henderson agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth $2 million, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) have been singing Henderson's praises all offseason, concluding he had one of the best performances of any 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011. Among PFF's finds from a season-long analysis: Henderson led all players at the position by making a tackle on 16.1 percent of the plays he was on the field for. He also had the highest percentage of "stops," which are tackles that led to an offensive failure in the running game.
PFF: "Just looking at tackle figures you might not be drawn instantly to his name, but Erin Henderson made more positive defensive plays relative to how much he was on the field than any other linebacker, and showed a real knack for shedding blocks and affecting the play. Against the run he wasn’t just having a good season, but there may not have been a better player in the NFL at his position last year."

Henderson expressed frustration via Twitter recently about the seeming lack of urgency to re-sign him, but the reality is the market value for linebackers has either dropped or at best stayed flat as the NFL continues its shift toward the passing game and pass defense.

In any event, the Vikings can now say they have two of their three starting linebackers under contract in Henderson and Chad Greenway. It's not clear who will start at middle linebacker, where long-term starter E.J. Henderson remains on the market. One possibility is Jasper Brinkley, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hip injury.

NFC North Quick Hits: Thursday

March, 22, 2012
3/22/12
6:08
PM ET
A few newsbits from Thursday:

Item: The Detroit Lions re-signed tight end Will Heller and also signed defensive end Everette Brown.
Comment: Heller is back for another year as the Lions' third tight end, presumably at a lower salary than the $1.2 million he was scheduled to earn in 2012. Brown is a former second-round draft pick who didn't make much impact in three years with the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings are scheduled to host Baltimore Ravens free agent cornerback Chris Carr on a visit, according to multiple reports.
Comment: Carr has been a starter on one of the NFL's better defenses, but a hamstring injury limited him to one start last season. He is very much the definition of the second-tier free agent market.

Item: New Chicago Bears running back Michael Bush hasn't spoken yet with starter Matt Forte, who didn't react well Thursday to his arrival.
Comment: Hopefully no one takes out their anger on Bush. Forte's issue is with the team, not him.

Item: The Lions hosted Bears free agent cornerback Corey Graham on a visit Thursday.
Comment: The Lions have an opening for a starter after Eric Wright's departure, and Graham is looking for an opportunity to play more cornerback in addition to special teams.

Item: Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch's five-year contract is worth $25 million, including $11 million guaranteed, according to Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com.
Comment: As my NFC West colleague Mike Sando noted, the market for inside linebackers has been flat for a while, probably due to the NFL's passing focus. For context, consider that former Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson signed an almost identical contract six years ago.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

As an unrestricted free agent, tight end Kellen Davis had a chance to test his market value. He did just that, and after a trip to visit the Dallas Cowboys, Davis returned to the Chicago Bears with a two-year deal that will pave the way for him to become a significant factor in their passing offense.

The Bears have vowed to use the position more under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, and coach Lovie Smith has been singing Davis' praises for years. Now, barring the Bears making an unexpected play at another veteran tight end, Davis has a great opportunity to prove he can be the two-way blocking-receiving tight end the Bears envision he could be.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Bears think they can provide the right environment for receiver Brandon Marshall to succeed, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • They're also hoping his story about Sunday's altercation in New York City holds up, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune spoke with Rasheedah Watley, Marshall's high school sweetheart who has a civil lawsuit pending against him. Watley: "Brandon thinks he can bash people and get away with it because he has gotten away with it so I don't see why he'd think he can't get away with it again."
  • Bears general manager Phil Emery has put his reputation on the line in this trade, writes Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press on the Detroit Lions' monster contract agreement with receiver Calvin Johnson: "The Lions stood at the stake blindfolded, hoping the execution would be quick and painless. Guaranteeing $60 million for a wide receiver is a pretty big bullet, but the Lions had to take the hit. It would have been worse had they let these renegotiations linger, further bloating their salary cap while risking the ire of their lone genuine superstar and their long-suffering fans, who finally can see a little light after decades of darkness."
  • The Lions will host former San Diego Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeil on a visit beginning Thursday, according to Tim Twentyman of the team's website. They have also hosted receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and will host former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey.
  • Johnson never considered walking away, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • The receiver market has grown nicely for Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings, who has one year remaining on his contract. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains.
  • Jennings is currently on a trip to Africa, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • There is no word on center Scott Wells' status with the Tennessee Titans, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The felony strangulation case against Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook has gone to the jury, notes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
  • There is no standing offer to bring back Vikings linebackers Erin Henderson or E.J. Henderson, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The Vikings persuaded new tight end John Carlson to leave Kansas City before taking a visit with the Chiefs, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Vikings' roster rebuild begins

March, 10, 2012
3/10/12
4:50
PM ET
The Minnesota Vikings' roster moves Saturday were more symbolic than they were surprising.

It has been clear for some time that cornerback Cedric Griffin would not return in 2012, and the recent injury history of guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera made now a logical time to part ways with them as well. The trio were three of the team's longest-tenured players, with a combined 19 years spent in some fashion with the organization, and their departures mark the start of what is expected to be a major roster overhaul under new general manager Rick Spielman.

A few thoughts:
  • The departures clear more than $10 million in salary cap space, giving the Vikings a little more than a $20 million surplus this offseason. That's enough for them to be a significant player in the free-agent market if they choose to.
  • Unless there have been contract talks that have gone unreported, another longtime veteran could follow these players out the door. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is a pending free agent and dealt with a balky knee for much of last season.
  • Releasing both starting guards is a strong indication that the Vikings will draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall and move former left tackle Charlie Johnson to one of the guard spots. I would consider the other starting guard spot fluid at this point.
  • Hutchinson made it through six years of the landmark seven-year contract he signed prior to the 2006 season. The Vikings made him the highest-paid guard in NFL history, believing he was a unique player for the position and one they could build the rest of a championship line around. Indeed, Hutchinson was named an All-Pro in the first four of those seasons before injuries slowed him down. He probably would have been good for another year, and perhaps he'll play elsewhere in 2012, but the Vikings deemed his $7 million cap hit too high for a rebuilding scenario.
  • We discussed Hutchinson's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer. He is a seven-time All-Pro, was a member of the NFL's all-decade team of the 2000s and was one of the best players at his position during this generation.

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