NFC North: Eric Wright

In some ways, cornerback Aaron Berry has made it easy on the Detroit Lions. Over the weekend, he handed them a gift. Consider it the Lions' first break of the 2012 season.

To this point, the Lions have opted against their only option for major discipline in dealing with their too-long list of arrested players this offseason. The NFL handles suspensions and fines, leaving teams to decide if they want to continue employing the player. Berry -- along with Mikel Leshoure, Nick Fairley and Johnny Culbreath -- all remained on the roster as of early Monday morning.

Berry
Cutting a player for an off-field transgression isn't routine in the NFL, but it does happen. Perhaps the Lions were concerned about precedent. Maybe they didn't think any of the offenses rose to the level of termination. Something was clearly holding them back.

That obstacle, whatever it was, should no longer exist. Berry's latest arrest, this time on charges of simple assault in an incident that involved a firearm, gives the Lions more than a fair justification for release. It's an obvious way to raise the stakes and grab the attention of players who, in at least some cases, are exhibiting poor judgment at a time of high scrutiny.

The Lions would hardly need an explanation. No one in their locker room would be surprised, and the timing would set an appropriate tone for the opening of training camp later this week. Otherwise, Berry's continued employment would be a tacit endorsement of his behavior and leave us to wonder what -- if anything -- would compel the Lions to fire a player other than poor performance on the field.

I can understand the initial reluctance to start jettisoning promising talent as a result of this offseason run. Culbreath's offense was minor from a legal perspective, while Leshoure and Fairley were high 2011 draft picks. Berry is the top candidate to win the starting cornerback job vacated by the departed Eric Wright.

But unless this latest incident proves a complete misunderstanding, the Lions no longer need to waffle on the issue of roster termination. Aaron Berry made it easy on them.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is spending this July 4th week in the Persian Gulf, visiting U.S. troops as part of a USO tour. Former NFL coaches Bill Cowher and Eric Mangini, now television analysts, are also among the group.

From an Associated Press story:
"Frazier said when he got back, he'd remind his daughter that whenever she sees servicemen and women, to thank them. And he won't have much patience if his players gripe about the heat during training camp.

'It just puts in perspective that there's nothing you should ever complain about,' he said."

We're in the midst of the only downtime that NFL coaches have during the year -- the time between the end of offseason workouts and the start of training camp. There are lots of ways to spend that time, but I would imagine Frazier couldn't find anything more rewarding.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Under the NFL's previous collective bargaining agreement, it grew increasingly difficult to discern between organized team activities and minicamp. The only difference was obligatory attendance at minicamp as opposed to the voluntary OTAs, and even then there were exceptions.

The offseason schedule now seems more organic under the new CBA. Minicamps have been scheduled as the final installment of offseason workouts, kind of a grand finale for the two months that most players have spent at the team facilities. Whereas minicamps were once haphazardly scheduled during the spring, the final day of minicamp will in most cases be the last day teams gather before reporting to training camp at the end of July.

To that end, I'm heading this evening to Green Bay for two days of minicamp in the shadow of Lambeau Field. I realize the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions will also open minicamp Tuesday, and I will do my best to pass along Bears coverage from ESPNChicago.com and also to piece together the key developments from Lions camp.

But in many ways, the Green Bay Packers have the most untold stories (at least on this blog) in the division this offseason. This will be a chance to even the score a bit.

I'll be back with you early Tuesday morning. For now, here are some key questions to consider for the Bears, Lions and Packers. As we did with rookie camps in April, I'll try to follow up at the end of the week to answer them and provide other insight.

Chicago Bears: What shape has the offense taken over the course of the offseason? The expected absence of tailback Matt Forte might make that question difficult to answer, but we should at least have a feel for how often quarterback Jay Cutler will be out of the pocket, the balance of downfield passing and the extent to which the tight end has been re-introduced to the offense. Also, are the Bears using first-round draft pick Shea McClellin in a way that suggests he'll be a significant factor, and perhaps a starter, in Week 1?

Detroit Lions: How comfortable should the Lions be with their situations at cornerback and safety? The departure of Eric Wright has left a competition between Aaron Berry, Jacob Lacey and perhaps rookie Dwight Bentley for a starting spot. Meanwhile, safety Amari Spievey was held out of workouts until last week because of a concussion he suffered in January. Also, do we have any better idea of where rookie first-round draft pick Riley Reiff will start off training camp? Will he be a backup to left tackle Jeff Backus, or will he compete with Gosder Cherilus at right tackle? Or both?

Green Bay Packers: How are the Packers handling their defensive line rotation with an influx of newcomers this spring? Does rookie Nick Perry look comfortable yet as a linebacker? Are reports accurate of backup quarterback Graham Harrell's significant improvement? Who, if anyone, looks like they could challenge veteran Charlie Peprah to start in Nick Collins' vacated safety spot? How comfortable should the Packers be with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle? Now you see why I'm eager to arrive in Green Bay. As the kids say, TTYL.

Lions: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Did the Detroit Lions do enough to address their secondary?

When the offseason began, it was reasonable to lock in two starters among the Lions' defensive backfield: safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. That left the other two starters open and possibly subject to upgrade after a well-documented collapse of their pass defense.

Four months later, nothing has really changed about that arrangement. Cornerback Eric Wright signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and if there is a safety on the roster who will challenge 2010-11 starter Amari Spievey, he isn't easily identifiable.

It appears the Lions are set to open training camp with oft-injured nickelback Aaron Berry, free agent Jacob Lacey and perhaps Alphonso Smith competing for Wright's former position. Although they drafted three cornerbacks last week, the best-case scenario is probably for third-rounder Dwight Bentley to win the nickel spot.

You can't fill every hole in an offseason, and the Lions' secondary will continue to be protected by one of the best defensive fronts in the game. But there are some important questions remaining to be answered.

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Detroit Lions will return 21 of their 22 starters from last season's 10-6 team. The one exception is at cornerback, where Eric Wright grabbed a lucrative five-year contract from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opening stages of free agency.

So being the Negative Nancy I am, I asked coach Jim Schwartz to outline his plans at the position. (FYI: Negative Nancy is Nervous Nellie's second cousin.) Schwartz said that "everybody" on the roster is a candidate to replace Wright and indicated the personnel additions in the defensive backfield might not be finished. But Schwartz did speak highly of free-agent acquisition Jacob Lacey, who spent three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and did not receive a restricted free-agent tender from the rebuilding team.

"Lacey went under the radar as a signee," Schwartz said. "He's done some good things in his career. We see a good fit and we're excited to work with him."

Oft-injured nickelback Aaron Berry would also seem to be a candidate for the job, but I would have to think cornerback -- and perhaps safety -- remain high on the Lions' wish list as the draft approaches.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A good portion of our offseason salary-cap discussions have centered around a commonly-held notion that the cap limit will increase dramatically when the NFL's new television contract starts in 2014. The assumption appears fundamentally flawed, and the strong sense here at the NFL owners meetings is that the cap won't increase much -- if any -- when the transition occurs.

In all, the NFL figures to have at least five seasons -- 2011-2015 -- of nearly flat cap limits. This year, the cap increased minimally, by about $225,000, to $120.6 million.

Assuming the league's internal projections are correct, that will come as bad news to players who have signed short-term deals in anticipation of cashing in on surplus cap space in a few years. It also means that teams like the Detroit Lions, whose cap crunch became well-known over the past few months, can't expect the commitments they've pushed forward to dissolve into an expected surplus.

Lions president Tom Lewand freely acknowledged that reality while speaking here at the Breakers Hotel a short time ago. Lewand said that "history has shown very few spikes in the cap even with new television deals" and explained the fallacy of waiting out a cap crunch until the new television contract kicks in.

Laughing, Lewand said: "I hope that the other three teams in the NFC North want to wait it out."

What does this mean for the Lions? In essence, they'll have to manage their cap annually much as they did this past year, extending the contracts of key players (Calvin Johnson) at premium rates to spread out their cap hits and occasionally allowing a starter (Eric Wright) to depart.

"The danger you can get in from a cap perspective is thinking there is going to be some kind of amnesty year," Lewand said. "Or if you kick the can far enough down the road that somehow it will fall off the edge of the earth. It doesn't. The can is still there. And even with the new television deals, I think you've got to be pragmatic and you've got to be smart about the dollars you can spend now but cognizant of what you're going to spend."

Many of us thought the television contract would be a salvation of sort for the Lions as they restructured the contracts of quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and receiver Nate Burleson, among others. But we were wrong to think it would be that easy. Let's try to explain in simple terms why we were wrong, based on what Lewand said.

The average of the current deal is $1.93 billion. By the end of the new deal, the average will be $3.1 billion. But it is a gradual progression, and the NFL won't reach that top revenue number until 2022.

So in 2014, the league will shift from the high point of the old deal to the low point of the new one. Without getting specific, Lewand said: "There is not a big jump."

In the end, Lewand said: "I think that a lot of clubs have cap issues going forward. It's going to be a tight cap and it's going to be a challenge going forward. It's a challenging cap."

And that won't change anytime soon.

NFC North Quick Hits: Thursday

March, 22, 2012
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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.

Lions chipping away at secondary

March, 20, 2012
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Many of you wanted to see the Detroit Lions revamp their secondary after its late-season collapse in 2011. Through the first week of free agency, they have (wisely) allowed cornerback Eric Wright to depart. They have expressed interest in safeties LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe, and on Tuesday they agreed to terms with cornerback Jacob Lacey, whom the Indianapolis Colts non-tendered after three seasons as a part-time starter.

Is that what you had in mind?

The truth is there won't be any easy answers for the Lions as they look to build around presumed cornerstones Chris Houston and Louis Delmas. There aren't many accomplished cornerbacks available in any given year, and this year they went for annual salaries of $10 million or more.

Lacey's skill level probably puts him about even with Aaron Berry, the Lions' nickelback last season when healthy. Landry signed with the New York Jets, and if the Lions land Atogwe, they'll be his third team in as many seasons. He turns 31 in June.

We know enough about the Lions' approach to the draft to suggest they won't be focused on any one position, let alone cornerback or safety. But let's put it this way: They would be fortunate if a few good ones are available in the upper rounds.

NFC North Quick Hits: Wednesday

March, 14, 2012
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As usual, I don't know if I'm done for the day or if we're just starting. But for now, let's run through some NFC North tidbits from the second day of NFL free agency.

Item: Minnesota Vikings tight end John Carlson said the surgically-repaired torn labrum in his left shoulder has healed, and that a scary concussion he suffered in the 2010 playoffs "looked worse than it was."
Comment: There is no doubt Carlson is an above-average pass-catcher as a tight end. You hate to commit significant money to a player who has suffered two significant injuries in the past year, but the Vikings' medical staff gave him full clearance to resume all football activities after a physical Wednesday.

Item: Vikings general manager Rick Spielman asked for patience from rabid fans who wanted their team more involved in the opening round of free agency.
Comment: I agreed with the way Spielman put it in a conference call Wednesday. Spielman: "I don't think we're a player or two way to go out and spend the money that's being spent on all the players who got the contracts early. I think what we're trying to do is find players who can help us win ball games and be able to continue to build with the draft and keep our roster intact."

Item: The Chicago Bears hosted running back Michael Bush on a visit Wednesday.
Comment: Bush has always been a good backup for the Oakland Raiders, and he doesn't have the mileage that current backup Marion Barber has on him. It's probably safe to assume that Barber won't be with the Bears in 2012.

Item: The three-year contract the Vikings gave defensive tackle Letroy Guion is worth $9 million and includes $2.5 million in guarantees, according to Adam Caplan.
Comment: That's not an insignificant amount of money. I can only assume the Vikings plan for Guion to have an expanded role in 2012.

Item: The numbers are in on former Detroit Lions cornerback Eric Wright's contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The deal is worth $37.5 million over five years, including $15.5 million in guarantees.
Comment: I don't blame the Lions one bit for passing on Wright if that was going to be the price tag.

Item: The Vikings' stadium bill got its first committee hearing Wednesday at the Minnesota State legislature, but questions about the project prevented a vote.
Comment: The bill has been held for further discussion, which is better than outright rejection, right?
(The Detroit Lions are) Black and Blue All Over:

As I catch up on a wild morning here in the NFC North, many of you Detroit Lions fans are already wringing your hands at the departure of cornerback Eric Wright. Early Wednesday morning, Wright agreed to a five-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Other financial terms were not available, but as we've discussed a number of times, the Lions are tight against the salary cap and would have had to make significant moves to create the space to engage in any kind of bidding war. But the question you have to ask yourself is whether Wright would have been worth it.

The Lions' secondary crashed over the final six games of the regular season and in their wild-card playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. Part of the problem was the knee sprains of cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas, but the Lions would have been justified in taking a highly critical eye toward Wright's performance.

Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked every full-time NFL cornerback last season based on video study. Wright finished at No. 105, in large part because a league-high 75 passes were completed against him. His inconsistent tackling allowed receivers he covered to accumulate 319 yards after the catch, the eighth-highest total in the league, according to PFF.

To be clear, Wright proved more competent than many of the stiffs the Lions have rolled through their lineup in recent years. He intercepted four passes and had 10 pass breakups, according to PFF's ratings. But was he worth additional salary-cap strife for a team whose secondary finished the 2011 season in shambles?

The Lions didn't think so, and to me that's a defensible position. At this delicate stage in their development, the Lions can't afford a single contractual mistake. A reasonable person could argue they avoided one in Wright's case.

Let's take a Lions-only stroll through local coverage while we have a moment:

NFC North Quick Hits: Tuesday

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
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While we have a moment, let's post another edition of, uh, quick-hitting Quick Hits. I'm not sure if this will be our last post of the evening, but it will catch us up on some secondary news items that arose during the initial frenzy of the NFL's 2012 free agent and trade period.

Item: Chicago Bears tight end Kellen Davis is visiting the Dallas Cowboys, according to Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network.
Comment: Bears coach Lovie Smith has spoken highly of Davis, and it's been assumed he would return. But there was no deal when the free-agent period began, so it was off to the races.

Item: Brad Biggs' analysis of receiver Brandon Marshall's contract for the Chicago Tribune suggests there is no guaranteed money remaining in the deal.
Comment: That gives the Bears exceptional flexibility given Marshall's checkered history off-the-field.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms on a three-year contract with reserve defensive tackle Letroy Guion, accoring to Tim Yotter of Scout.com.
Comment: Who says the Vikings weren't doing anything Tuesday? The deal suggests the Vikings might give Guion an opportunity to compete with starting nose tackle Remi Ayodele, who had a disappointing first season with the Vikings in 2011.

Item: Detroit Lions cornerback Eric Wright has received interest from the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Comment: The Lions shaved more than $15 million in cap space just to comply with the NFL's cap limit of $120.6 million. I'm not sure if they have the space to complete a significant contract with Wright if a market develops around him.

Item: The Lions have a visit set for Friday with free agent offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Comment: Schwartz was a full-time starter for the Carolina Panthers in 2010, but a hip injury forced him to miss 2011. Regardless, he wouldn't be in line for a big contract given the Lions' cap situation.

Item: Already flush with about $25 million in cap space, the Vikings have deferred the $1.6 million in extra space the NFL disseminated after taking it from the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, according to Schefter.
Comment: The Vikings will get that $1.6 million credit in 2013. The Lions, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers all took it this year.

Item: Former Packers quarterback Matt Flynn has been contacted by the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, according to Omar Kelly of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
Comment: From this point, the Flynn story matters to us only in the sense that his contract value will impact the compensatory draft pick the Packers receive for his departure.

Item: Lions quarterback Drew Stanton has drawn interest from the New York Jets, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Comment: It would make sense for Stanton to seek opportunities to be a No. 2 quarterback, given he is likely to be the Lions' No. 3 quarterback if he returns.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

Leading Questions: NFC North

February, 13, 2012
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2012 season:

CHICAGO BEARS

In last year's version of Leading Questions, we wondered when the Bears would address the depth behind their aging defensive stars. That issue is still on the table, but of greater 2012 importance is this: How will the Bears manage their transition to new offensive coordinator Mike Tice?

Tice will retain much of the terminology and some of the philosophy from former coordinator Mike Martz. But Tice has his own spin on the "three-digit offense," and the Bears will need to realign behind a power running game and a passing approach that emphasizes downfield throws.

Tight end and receiver are two positions the Bears need to focus on this offseason, either by developing their existing players like Kellen Davis and/or acquiring a legitimate downfield threat. New general manager Phil Emery should have more than $20 million in cap space to work with, and the free-agent market should be deep with receivers.

But to make Tice's offense work, Emery will also need to ensure the return of free-agent tailback Matt Forte and find him a reliable backup as well.

DETROIT LIONS

In a tight salary-cap situation, can the Lions keep their nucleus together and add where needed?

Years of high draft positioning made the Lions a talented team but also one facing a cap crunch in 2012. Preliminary cap reconciliation leaves the Lions with $122 million in cap commitments, about $2 million above the estimated $120 million cap. And that total doesn't include three defensive starters who are pending free agents: defensive end Cliff Avril, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

The Lions will need to find ways to shave from that total, whether it's borrowing from future caps -- a tool now available in the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) -- or reducing the cap figures in existing contracts.

As we've discussed, receiver Calvin Johnson should be the first target for a cap-reducing contract extension. He's projected to account for about $22 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal. Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch are estimated to account for nearly half of the Lions' total cap allotment.

What does all this mean? We are all figuring out the NFL's new salary-cap rules together, but it's clear the Lions must make some difficult short-term decisions and weigh them against long-term prosperity.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

What can the Packers do to improve a pass defense that gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history?

The easiest answer is to address the pass rush, which weakened in 2011 when the Packers couldn't find a suitable replacement for departed free agent Cullen Jenkins. The rush could come from the defensive end position, where the Packers have waited two years for the highly touted Mike Neal to make an impact, or through acquiring a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

General manager Ted Thompson has been reluctant in recent years to utilize veteran free agency, and the truth is that few teams allow a legitimate pass-rusher to depart without compensation. But the situation was serious enough in 2011 that Thompson will at least need to consider every avenue available for a substantial and fast-acting solution. The Packers had 29 sacks in 2011, tied for the third-worst total in the NFL.

Parallel to that issue, however, Thompson will also have to monitor a situation at safety that contributed to the Packers' defensive problems in 2011. Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins will find out in March whether he can continue his career or if he must retire because of a serious neck injury. The Packers missed his leadership and instincts in center field and would need to acquire a long-term replacement if he retires.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The development of quarterback Christian Ponder will dominate many of the Vikings' offseason headlines, but there is an equally important question hovering over the team: How fast can it upgrade its historically poor pass defense?

Vikings opponents finished the season with a 107.6 passer rating, the third-highest figure in NFL history. Their eight interceptions tied for the league's lowest total in 2011 and only one player among the back seven who started the majority of games in 2011 -- linebacker Chad Greenway -- is assured a starting job in 2012.

It's difficult to replace six starters in one offseason, but the Vikings have already begun their defensive overhaul by hiring new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, bringing back Brendan Daly as their defensive line coach and making former coordinator, Fred Pagac, their primary linebackers coach.

The personnel situation is most dire in the secondary, where two of the Vikings' primary safeties -- Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson -- are free agents. Talented cornerback Chris Cook, suspended for the final 10 games of the season following a domestic-violence incident, remains in limbo. Cook's trial date is tentatively scheduled for March 5. The future of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield must be addressed as well; Winfield turns 35 in June.
We noted Thursday that NFL teams will face tight salary cap situations for the first time in years. A few hours later, the cap-related cuts started coming -- leading with the Oakland Raiders' decision to release cornerback Stanford Routt.

There were cash considerations in Routt's departure as well; he was reportedly due a $5 million bonus if he was on the Raiders' roster Friday. But Routt is a talented player who has six interceptions and 28 defensed passes in the past two seasons, and almost immediately you began filling the mailbag with questions about potential connections with NFC North teams.

Nick of Columbus, Ohio, wrote: "What might the chances be of [Green Bay Packers general manager] Ted Thompson going for another Oakland free agent cornerback? Maybe they could pair him with Tramon Williams on the other side, and move Charles Woodson to safety if Nick Collins still needs time, or if his career ends.

You could make a reasonable argument that all four NFC North teams have a need at cornerback, if in fact the Packers move Woodson to safety -- which is by no means a certainty. The Chicago Bears ended last season with uncertainty opposite Charles Tillman, the Minnesota Vikings had one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history and the Detroit Lions are facing the pending free agency of starter Eric Wright.

Generally speaking, I'm not going to post an item on the chances of every available veteran landing in the NFC North -- unless there is a reason to think it might or should happen. But this is the start of the speculation season, and I figured we should celebrate.

Alas, two non-division teams have jumped to the front of the line for Routt's services. He has visits scheduled with the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans. We'll let you know if an NFC North team comes into play for Routt or any other free agent.

*Update: The Vikings are one of five teams that have inquired about Routt, according to ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins. The others, including the Bills and Titans, are the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys. At this point, Routt's only scheduled visits are with the Bills and Titans.

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