NFC North: Hoarders

The question has arisen in our SportsNation chats, in the mailbag, on Twitter and Facebook. And each time you've asked if the Chicago Bears would pursue free agent defensive end Mario Williams, my answer has been the same. It's hard to imagine the Bears committing to a sky-high priced defensive end when they already have defensive end Julius Peppers signed to a deal that calls for cap numbers increasing from $12.4 million this season to $19.7 million in 2015.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceMario Williams could form a fearsome pass-rushing tandem with Julius Peppers, if the Bears were to land the free agent.
There's nothing wrong with having two elite defensive ends, even if they account for upwards of 30 percent of your total cap space, as a Peppers-Williams pairing might. But the Bears would appear to have too many other needs -- receiver tops among them -- to afford that luxury. But in this reasoned column, Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune considers the issue from another perspective.
Pompei: "It's true the Bears would have an inordinate investment in their defensive ends if they signed Williams. But collecting pass-rushers didn't hurt the Super Bowl champion Giants. The Lions have quite a group, too. As the subjects of the A&E series "Hoarders" might attest, you can't have too much of a good thing -- especially pass-rushers, and especially given the defensive and team philosophies the Bears subscribe to. A defensive end's value is much greater than that of a wide receiver to the Bears. It's true a great quarterback can make his receivers better. On the other side of the ball, it's the end who makes his teammates better. Many teams have won big without star receivers. Few have won without a pass rush that keeps quarterbacks up at night and down during games."

The Bears will have between $20 million and $25 million in cap space to work with, but I'm not ready to change my mind yet on how they should use it. I'm also not convinced that new general manager Phil Emery will be a front-line player on the free agent market.

But I reserve the right to change my mind, and as a result your thoughts are welcome in a very special offseason edition of Have at It. Let me know if you would be in favor of the Bears pursuing and signing Williams, even at the expense of other positions on their roster, and we'll circle back on the issue Tuesday morning while we're killing time and waiting for the 4 p.m. ET start of free agency. Have at It.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
8/07/10
11:30
AM ET
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 31 of their past 33 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 million in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going to play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8