NFC North: Jasper Brinkley

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's probably wise to use some degree of filter when viewing the Minnesota Vikings' third preseason game as a facsimile of the real thing, given how skeptical coach Mike Zimmer was about the idea of the third game being a dress rehearsal for the regular season. But on a night where the Vikings played their starters well into the third quarter, we can glean a relatively solid impression of where the team is going with a few roster decisions.

We'll have a more complete overview of the Vikings' roster in our latest weekly roster projection on Monday, but for now, here are three takeaways from the Vikings' win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday night:

[+] EnlargeTom Johnson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsTom Johnson appears to have carved out a role for himself as a rotational player on the Vikings' D-line
Tom Johnson appears to have a key role on the defensive line: The former New Orleans Saints defensive tackle wasn't a high-profile pickup when the Vikings signed him this spring, but his explosiveness looked like it could help the Vikings at 3-technique tackle (outside shade on right guard). Through three preseason games, Johnson has shown he'll fit on the Vikings' roster. He's seen regular playing time as an inside pass-rusher in the Vikings' nickel package, and had two half-sacks on Saturday night. He shared a sack with Anthony Barr in the Vikings' first preseason game, and had two quarterback hits against the Chiefs. Johnson played 32 snaps in the game -- two more than Sharrif Floyd -- and appears here to stay as a rotational player on the Vikings' line.

Special teams, not receiver, might cement Adam Thielen's spot: Zimmer is fond of saying, "The more you can do, the more valuable you are," and wide receiver Adam Thielen has taken that to heart in the preseason. He'd earned attention during the Vikings' offseason program and training camp as a receiver, but he's done more to make an impression on special teams in preseason games than he has as a wideout. He had three punt returns for 53 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener, also registering a tackle for a 4-yard loss in that game, and showed great patience on a 75-yard punt return on Saturday. The Vikings haven't gone much deeper than three receivers with their first-team offense -- it's even been hard for Jarius Wright to find a role -- and if the Vikings wind up keeping just five receivers, Thielen's utility might put him in over Rodney Smith, who's also had a solid preseason and still could make the roster, especially if Jerome Simpson is suspended. If it's a decision between those two, however, it's hard to see the Vikings letting Thielen go. "He just keeps fighting and fighting," Zimmer said of Thielen. "He's got a lot of heart, and obviously, I like guys with a lot of heart. He seems to get better and better, and he makes plays. That's important."

Middle linebacker is still up for grabs: The closest competition in the final week could be at safety -- where Robert Blanton and Chris Crocker look like the favorites over a cast of other veterans -- or the third cornerback spot, where Josh Robinson's injuries have left plenty of playing time for Marcus Sherels in a role that's essentially a starting job, given how much time a third cornerback is on the field. But the one we've got our eye on is the battle for the middle linebacker spot, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole continue to battle. Brinkley started the game on Saturday, but he and Cole alternated series throughout the night, to the point where both were still playing into the fourth quarter with the Vikings' reserves. Cole got 33 snaps on Saturday, Brinkley got 27 and both players bring a different skill set; Brinkley is more forceful against the run, while Cole's size and instincts make him a better fit in pass coverage. Of any battle on the roster, this one might go down to the end of camp -- and even beyond, if the Vikings decide to tinker with their lineup during the season.

Camp preview: Minnesota Vikings

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Ben Goessling examines the three biggest issues facing the Minnesota Vikings heading into training camp.

Quarterback: This will be the biggest storyline surrounding the Vikings in training camp until head coach Mike Zimmer settles on a starter. Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have pledged to hold an open competition during training camp, though the race really figures to boil down to two quarterbacks: veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who both got a significantly larger share of snaps during the Vikings' OTAs and minicamp than Christian Ponder. Bridgewater was impressive in his first work with the Vikings this spring, but unless he's clearly the best of the Vikings' quarterbacks in training camp, Cassel figures to start the season as the quarterback. The Vikings re-signed Cassel so they wouldn't have to rush a young quarterback, and in the process, they created a situation in which they can afford to be patient with Bridgewater. If he's the best man for the job, it doesn't seem likely Zimmer will wait to play him. But if he's not fully ready by the end of camp, there's nothing forcing the Vikings to play the rookie.

Remaking the defense: The Vikings committed $20 million in guaranteed money to defensive end Everson Griffen and guaranteed another $16.95 million to secure the services of defensive tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. But until training camp, when players put on pads, cornerbacks play press coverage and there's actual contact at the line of scrimmage, it's difficult to assess where the Vikings are in their effort to rebuild a defense that allowed more points than any other unit in the league last season. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr only had a minicamp with the team as classes at UCLA kept him out of the team's OTAs, but he'll be a prominent figure as the Vikings plan to use the 6-foot-5 linebacker in several different ways. With questions at linebacker (does Jasper Brinkley start in the middle?) and in the secondary (is Josh Robinson good enough to get significant playing time at cornerback?), the Vikings will have plenty to figure out on defense.

New roles for Peterson, Patterson: At age 29, Adrian Peterson is intent on cruising along with his career at a time when most running backs his age start to break down. In Norv Turner, Peterson has a new offensive coordinator who is intent on using him differently. Peterson will be more involved in the Vikings' passing game this season, as Turner and Zimmer seek to convert some of his carries into receptions, giving him more room to work in the open field and making him less likely to take a pounding. Turner also has big plans for second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, whose emergence late last season made many wonder why the Vikings waited so long to make him a big part of the offense. Patterson, who played mostly at split end last season, moved to different spots during the Vikings' offseason program, and Turner seems interested in getting the explosive receiver the ball as much as he can; general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL scouting combine in February that Turner already had designed about 10 plays for Patterson. If the Vikings can turn him loose in Year 2, he could emerge as one of the NFL's premier playmakers.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A look at the highlights from the first day of the Minnesota Vikings' mandatory minicamp on Tuesday:

1. Loaded for Barr: The Vikings got first-round pick Anthony Barr on the field for the first time with their full team on Tuesday, after he graduated from UCLA over the weekend, and head coach Mike Zimmer didn't hesitate to try out some of the different ways he wants to use the linebacker. Barr was at the strong-side linebacker position the Vikings expect him to play, but he also lined up as an edge rusher on some third downs. At 6-foot-4, he's taller than defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, and if he can rush from the line of scrimmage, the Vikings can present a number of different looks to confuse opposing offenses, especially when Griffen's versatility enters the equation.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Anthony Barr
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsFirst-round pick Anthony Barr participated on the field on the first day of Vikings' mandatory minicamp.
2. Robinson returns: Cornerback Josh Robinson was back on the field on Tuesday, after missing the Vikings' organized team activities with a muscle pull. He was also back at an outside cornerback position, following last year's failed experiment at slot cornerback. Robinson got plenty of snaps in the Vikings' first-team defense on Tuesday, and could wind up playing in the nickel package once Captain Munnerlyn moves inside.

3. Quarterbacks look sharp: The Vikings ran plenty of play-action and bootleg plays on Tuesday, and all three of their quarterbacks had a successful afternoon practice. Matt Cassel missed just one of the nine throws he attempted in 11-on-11 and was 5-for-5 in 7-on-7 work. Teddy Bridgewater was 15-for-17 in 11-on-11 action and 4-for-5 in 7-on-7, and Christian Ponder hit all four throws he attempted. Ponder again got fewer snaps than Cassel or Bridgewater, but he looked good in what he was asked to do. "Everyone's getting reps with the ones and twos," Ponder said. "I'm not getting as many reps as the other guys, but I'm trying to take full advantage, and we'll see what happens. I don't know how long the evaluation process is going to be. I'm hoping it goes into training camp and preseason games, but we'll see."

4. Jennings impresses: Wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed the Vikings' open OTA last week because of a charity event, caught four balls on the first day of minicamp, and saved his best for last, reaching out for a one-handed grab over the middle on a throw from Cassel in 7-on-7.

5. Middle linebacker plan emerges? The Vikings used Jasper Brinkley, Chad Greenway and Michael Mauti at middle linebacker on Tuesday, noticeably keeping Audie Cole on the outside after Cole played the middle at the end of last season. Brinkley has gotten more first-team work than anyone else in the middle, so far, but Zimmer cautioned not to read too much into that. "We have to line them up somewhere when we go, but I don't look at this guy is the favorite or that guy is the starter," he said. "(Brinkley)'s lined up with the first team right now, but I don't know, once we get him in practice and games and the things that prepare us for games and for the season, that will determine who lines up there on Sept. 7."

6. Safeties still limited: Jamarca Sanford was able to do a little more work after missing OTAs with a muscle injury, but the Vikings were mostly using Robert Blanton, Mistral Raymond, Antone Exum and Kurt Coleman, with Blanton often pairing with Harrison Smith in 7-on-7 drills. Safety Andrew Sendejo was still limited with a back injury. Tight end Allen Reisner sat out, and running back Joe Banyard was a limited participant. Matt Kalil and Linval Joseph were again limited after knee and shoulder surgeries this offseason, but Zimmer said he expects both to be ready for training camp.
MINNEAPOLIS -- For the third straight year, the Minnesota Vikings' draft was marked by a bold first round, as the team traded back into the first round to take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater after selecting Anthony Barr ninth overall. The rest of the Vikings' draft, however, was all about projection, which means immediate draft grades -- like the one ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Vikings on Sunday -- could be underwhelming.

Kiper gave the Vikings a B-minusInsider for their efforts over the past three days, wondering why they didn't do more to address their middle linebacker situation or add depth at receiver. I'll admit I was a tad surprised not to see the Vikings add a wideout, given how many solid receivers were available in this draft, and there are still going to be questions about the Vikings' linebacker group despite the addition of Barr. But cornerback was the Vikings' biggest defensive need on the final two days of the draft, and Kiper thought sixth-rounder Kendall James could be a good value pick. The Vikings have two young middle linebacker candidates in Audie Cole and Michael Mauti, in addition to Jasper Brinkley, and I'm not sure how much more another late-round linebacker would change the situation there. Gerald Hodges, a fourth-round pick a year ago, could also help at outside linebacker, and I liked the seventh-round pick of Georgia Tech's Brandon Watts, who seems like the kind of speedy linebacker that might fit well in Mike Zimmer's defense.

As we discussed yesterday, the Vikings bet on upside with their approach to this draft, and the return on their 10 picks will probably take several years to realize (especially since their top pick, Barr, has only played linebacker for two years). But as Kiper wrote, the grade on the Vikings' draft could look much higher in a year or two, and the ability of this group to improve the Vikings' defense will matter much more than the immediate reaction to what the team did this weekend.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our review of the Minnesota Vikings' recent draft history today, with a look at how the team did in 2009:

First-round pick: No. 22 (Percy Harvin, WR, Florida)

Number of picks: 5

Total Draft AV: 109 (T-3rd; Green Bay was the best with a 136 AV)

Highest player AV: Harvin, 39 (4th; Green Bay's Clay Matthews was the best with a 50 AV)

Harvin
How they did: The 2009 draft, at this point, looks to be one of Rick Spielman's best with the Vikings. He gambled on Harvin when character concerns dropped the dynamic receiver to No. 22, and reaped the benefits both through an electrifying player and a trade package that delivered cornerback Xavier Rhodes (and a third-rounder in this year's draft) when the Vikings finally decided keeping Harvin was untenable. Second-rounder Loadholt has turned into a fixture at right tackle, fifth-rounder Jasper Brinkley is back for his second tour with the Vikings at linebacker, and seventh-rounder Jamarca Sanford has made contributions both as a special teams player and a starting safety.

Pivotal pick: Harvin's failed drug test at the NFL scouting combine had put his draft stock in jeopardy, but the Vikings spent enough time with him before the draft to become convinced they would be able to work with him if they selected him with the 22nd overall pick. He certainly presented some difficult situations for the team in his four seasons with the Vikings, but he proved himself to be a one-of-a-kind talent that could still fetch three draft picks in return when it became clear the Vikings were going to part with him last spring. Even after Harvin clashed with two head coaches, battled migraines and missed nearly half a season with a sprained ankle, it would be tough argue the Vikings weren't better off by rolling the dice on him.

Best pick: As dynamic as Harvin was, Loadholt is the one who could provide the most value in the long run. He's been an important part of the Vikings' offensive line, particularly as a run-blocker, has started all but two games since the team drafted him with the 57th overall pick, and signed a four-year contract with the Vikings just before the start of free agency last March. He's likely to remain on the team's offensive line for years to come.

Worst pick: Third-round pick Asher Allen is the only one who is not still in the league, and the only one the Vikings would probably say didn't work out. He'd started 21 games in three seasons for the Vikings, but had battled concussion issues and abruptly retired before the 2012 season.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It has been fairly clear from the Vikings' early forays into free agency that shoring up the defensive line was among the biggest priorities for new coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen before the start of free agency, gave former New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph a five-year deal on the day the market opened, and on Thursday, they added two more free agents to build the depth of the group.

Wootton
Wootton
The second of those two, former Chicago Bears lineman Corey Wootton, signed a one-year deal with the team on Thursday night, his agent Mike McCartney announced on Twitter. The 26-year-old end is coming off hip surgery, but seems like a solid fit in Zimmer's system; at 6-foot-6 and 271 pounds, he's got a similar lean, long-armed build to Michael Johnson, and has also played defensive tackle for the Bears. He had 7.5 sacks in 2012, starting seven games that season, and gives the Vikings a versatile reserve who's also, at the moment, the tallest defensive end on their roster.

Wootton also is the proprietor of a fairly significant footnote in Vikings -- and NFL -- history. The Vikings will play their next two seasons at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, where they played one game against the Bears after the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010. Wootton was a rookie that season, and got the first sack of his career that night, on what turned out to be the final play of Brett Favre's career. When Wootton took Favre down, he banged his head on the frozen field, sustaining a concussion that would usher him into retirement.

The Vikings have now signed six free agents from other teams: Wootton, Joseph, former Saints lineman Tom Johnson, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Chargers cornerback Derek Cox and Cardinals linebacker Jasper Brinkley (who's returning for his second tour with the Vikings). All six are defensive players, three are defensive linemen and four are playing on one-year deals. There's been a clear strategy to remake the defense to suit Zimmer's scheme, and with the exceptions of Joseph and Munnerlyn, the Vikings have done it with few long-term commitments.

We won't know for months how much Zimmer can use the pieces to improve the league's worst scoring defense, but the Vikings' free-agent strategy has been clear and decisive. The team had just over $13 million in cap space left before signing Wootton, and we're mostly in the bargain phase of the free-agent period at this point, so it's hard to see more splash signings. But the Vikings have added some youth to their defense, and they're betting on Zimmer's ability to put together a cohesive product out of those pieces. There have been teams with more high-profile signings than Minnesota, but the Vikings have moved efficiently through their shopping list.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Vikings began contract negotiations with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, they were initially looking for a longer deal than the three-year contract worth up to $15 million that they eventually gave him.

Munnerlyn
Munnerlyn liked the Vikings, had heard good things about them from former college roommate Jasper Brinkley, but had another reason for wanting a shorter contract: He was essentially betting on his own ability to get more money down the road.

"[I wanted] to get another contract before I’m 30," he said. "That was the key -- just to go out here for three years and see if I can win them over a little bit more, get an extension after Year 2 or something. Just try to go out here and make plays and win games."

Time will tell if that was the best strategy for Munnerlyn, but it does reflect a bit of the edginess that has gotten the 5-foot-9 cornerback from the seventh round of the draft to this point. Vikings fullback Jerome Felton, his former teammate with the Carolina Panthers, called Munnerlyn a "bulldog" in a tweet on Thursday, and Munnerlyn said he's patterned his game after former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who also stands 5-9 and played bigger than that.

"I’m tough and I’m feisty and I love getting after people," Munnerlyn said."That’s what I do. I get after people and I don’t shy down from nobody. I don’t care if you’re a 6-7, 6-8 lineman, I’m not shying down from. I going to try to make plays and I’m going to hit you."

If his feisty approach sounds similar to the one taken by new coach Mike Zimmer, Munnerlyn recognized it, too. "I think I’ve met my match. We’re a perfect match for each other, man. I’m excited about that," he said.

They'll both be counted on to help refine a defense that allowed more points than any in the league last season, largely because of its leaky secondary. Munnerlyn said he expects to start in the Vikings' base defense and move inside on third downs, which is what he said he'd done with the Panthers. And while he hadn't seen where the Vikings' defense ranked last season, he vowed it wouldn't stay that way for long.

"It’s just in the back end, I think we’ve just got to make more plays on the ball. I think that’s why they signed me and I’m sure they’ll probably some more guys or bring some more guys in or something," Munnerlyn said. "I’m sure with these signings and with these people they [brought] in, we’ll [be] ranked in the top 10."

Vikings re-sign LB Larry Dean

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings brought back another one of their free agents on Monday morning, re-signing linebacker Larry Dean, who has made his mark on special teams more than anywhere else during his last three seasons in Minnesota.

Dean
The undrafted free agent played all 16 games last season, forcing and recovering a fumble in addition to making 13 tackles. He made $555,000 last season, and was a restricted free agent headed into 2014.

As some of you have pointed out, the Vikings' linebacking group mostly consists of young, unproven players (Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti) and backup types (Dean and Jasper Brinkley) in addition to Chad Greenway and Audie Cole, who got some experience at the end of last season. The Vikings will bring in former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain for a visit Monday, and could pursue Bengals restricted free agent Vincent Rey, who wouldn't cost the Vikings a draft pick if they signed him. Otherwise, though, the Vikings could be relying on a young group and the upcoming draft, where a number of intriguing linebacker options could be there for the Vikings at No. 8.

Dean, though, was mostly brought back to help on special teams, and the fact he's been an important cog there is why he's got a new deal with the Vikings.
GriffenAP Photo/Jim MoneEverson Griffen's new contract could be followed by several more big moves by the Vikings.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings retained another one of their free agents on Sunday, giving defensive lineman Everson Griffen a whopping $42.5 million over the next five years, including $20 million guaranteed, according to a league source.

Now what?

In the past five months, they have signed Brian Robison and Griffen to contract extensions, committing a combined $33.15 million in guaranteed money to the players. That would seemingly set their defensive end tandem up for the next few years, with Griffen replacing Jared Allen on the line. But wait, there's more!

Once the NFL's three-day negotiating window opened on Saturday, the Vikings made it one of their first priorities to express interest in former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, and put themselves in the middle of what will likely be a heated race for Johnson. The 27-year-old stood out at right end for new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati, and the Vikings would have been working on Griffen's deal while calling about Johnson. But wait, there's more!

They also called about former Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played for new defensive backs coach Jerry Gray while he was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee and who has to be feeling emboldened today after news that Sam Shields signed a four-year, $39 million deal to stay with the Green Bay Packers. While the Vikings had more than $41 million in cap space last week, they have since signed Griffen and quarterback Matt Cassel, not to mention restricted free agent cornerback Marcus Sherels. They also reportedly brought back linebacker Jasper Brinkley for his second stint with the team, and according to a league source, they will host former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain for a visit on Monday.

While the pertinent question might be, "Who can the Vikings afford?" a better one might be, "On what does it make sense for them to spend their money?"

Without having seen the full breakdowns of the new deals yet, let's assume they account for about $16 million of cap space. That would still leave the Vikings with about $25 million of room for next season, with the cap likely to go up over the next few years. Paying both Johnson and Verner would be doable, but it could also chew up another $16-20 million in cap space for 2014, meaning the Vikings wouldn't have much leeway to sign tight end Kyle Rudolph to an extension, pursue other needs like a big-bodied nose tackle, or pay their draft picks. And in the case of Johnson, there is also the question of where the Vikings would use all their toys if they signed him.

Let's say Johnson came to Minnesota, filling the right end spot he played for Zimmer in Cincinnati. If Robison stayed at left end, the Vikings would be looking to move Griffen around again. He played 60.1 percent of their defensive snaps without starting a game last season, according to Pro Football Focus, but the Vikings aren't giving him $20 million guaranteed to use him in a part-time role. I think it's possible they could experiment with him at linebacker -- Zimmer likes his linemen to occupy blockers and allow his linebackers to run free, which isn't that different from a 3-4 scheme and could actually utilize Griffen's talents well -- but the previous regime tried a similar experiment, and the Vikings would have to see if Griffen could hold up in pass coverage. And with cornerback being a bigger need at this point, the Vikings might be better-served using their money to ensure they get an upgrade there.

It's also worth considering what Zimmer said last week, arguing for a reasoned approach to free agency while stating his preference for something with the dependability of a Ford F-150 over the flashiness of a Maserati. To this point, all the Vikings have done -- in fact, all they have been allowed to do by NFL rules -- is retain their in-house free agents. While they have expressed interest in two of the top defensive players on the market, that hasn't cost them anything yet. They could always clear more room by restructuring the contract of 31-year-old linebacker Chad Greenway, who is to make $8.7 million next season, and the Vikings still have enough room to do some contract gymnastics and sign a couple free agents while staying well under the cap, but for a team that has gone back to a draft-and-develop philosophy after years of shelling out for free agents, it might make sense not to get too carried away.

Could the Vikings still sign both Johnson and Verner? Yes. Would they have checked in with both of them so early, knowing Griffen's deal might get done, if they didn't have a scenario where they could land them? Probably not. But the size of Griffen's deal does mean the Vikings would have some pieces to fit in place if they were to get aggressive on the open market, particularly at defensive end.
Earlier this week, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Marvin Mitchell was the team's starting weak-side linebacker "as we sit here today." As tenuous as that plan sounded at the time, it's apparently the one the team is carrying into Sunday's season-opener against Detroit.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop said on Thursday that Vikings coaches told him he won't see much playing time on Sunday, with Mitchell set to start and Bishop not playing on special teams. The Vikings signed Bishop, who missed all of last year with a torn hamstring, to a one-year contract in June, and he looked stronger in the team's final two preseason games after missing the exhibition opener against the Houston Texans and turning in an uneven performance against the Buffalo Bills.

"(I'm) just waiting for my opportunity," Bishop said.

As much as the Lions throw the ball, Mitchell might not see a lot of playing time, either. Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway would be on the field in the team's nickel package, and if last year's two games against the Lions are any indication, the Vikings probably won't use more than two linebackers most of the time against Detroit.

In the first game last year, Greenway and Jasper Brinkley each logged more than 70 snaps, with Mitchell (the third linebacker that week while Henderson was hurt) only playing nine. Their linebackers got more playing time in the second game, with Greenway on the field for every snap, Henderson playing 73 percent of the team's defensive snaps and Brinkley seeing action on 52 percent of them. But defending the Lions starts with the pass, and that could mean more action for a third cornerback (like Xavier Rhodes) than a third linebacker, anyway.

What remains to be seen is how much Reggie Bush changes what defenses do against the Lions. Detroit threw the ball more than any team in the league last year, and Bush could see the ball almost as much in the air as he could on the ground. His presence might cause the Vikings to pay more attention to the run, but defensive coordinator Alan Williams said he doesn't see the Lions changing much.

"We can guess and try and predict what they’ll do with him," Williams said. "But we just make sure we have to go out and read our keys and focus on what we’re supposed to do, because if we hunt up too many snakes or too many ghosts, we won’t do anything. So we’ve got to look to see what they’ve done in the past with their backs and with their offense. I don’t think they’ll change a whole bunch from years past, last year or the year before that."
Football Outsiders, a statistics-based analysis service, has been producing division-by-division Insider files on remaining team needs. You'll need a subscription to read the entire NFC North post Insider, but below I've taken a few excerpts and written a few things about them.

Chicago Bears
Football Outsiders' issue: Receiver
Football Outsiders comment: "When we pointed to wide receiver as a major flaw for the current Bears early in the offseason, it was to the consternation of a lot of Bears fans who saw the offensive line as the larger issue. The problem is that Jay Cutler is a see-it, throw-it passer. He's still a solid quarterback, but he's never thrown receivers open on a consistent basis. That amplifies the Bears' receiving problems, and while scheming can create the occasional big play for Devin Hester, Eric Weems, or Earl Bennett, they can't defeat man coverage often enough to benefit Cutler."
Seifert comment: I'm not on board with describing Cutler as a "see-it, throw-it" passer. If anything, his arm strength and velocity give him too much confidence when it comes to throwing receivers open. (The phrase refers to putting the ball in a place that an otherwise covered receiver can catch it). I wouldn't argue that Bears' need for additional depth behind Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Bennett, but it's not because of any passing limitation on Cutler's part. There's just not much else behind them, especially as long as Hester works solely with special teams.

Detroit Lions
Football Outsiders' issue: Offensive line
Football Outsiders comment: "The strength of this line in recent seasons has been pass blocking, as Detroit's offense has finished in the top 10 in adjusted sack rate for the past three seasons, but that is likely to take a hit from this offseason's turnover."
Seifert comment: On the other hand, the Lions' new offensive line might be a better run-blocking group. That aspect has taken a back seat in recent years. I do think, however, that it's worth being concerned about putting your franchise quarterback behind a line with at least three first-time starters.

Green Bay Packers
Football Outsiders' issue: Offensive line
Football Outsiders comment: "[M]uch like the Lions, the Packers are putting their faith in their quarterback to evade the pass rush this season. Unlike the Lions, the Packers don't have a lot of personnel turnover in this unit, but, also unlike the Lions, they finished second-to-last in adjusted sack rate last season."
Seifert comment: There would be those who suggest that flipping the left and right sides of your line is football version of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But every quarterback needs more help from their blind-side pass blockers. If you're going to have a strength and a weakness, it makes sense to shore up the left side first.

Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders' issue: Middle linebacker
Football Outsiders comment: "Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway can take care of things in Leslie Frazier's nickel fronts, but the base 4-3 is lacking a thumper after Jasper Brinkley's departure in free agency. (Of course, given Brinkley's broken-tackle rate, they probably were lacking one even if he had come back)."
Seifert comment: The Vikings clearly fell short in their attempts to find a long-term solution at this position during the offseason. They will give Henderson a chance to grow into it during organized team activities, but he was not their first choice. This position could well be atop their list of 2014 needs as well.
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.
HIGH ABOVE THE MIDWEST -- I know what you're thinking, even as I blog from the friendly skies en route to NFC North headquarters. Many of you are tweeting it my way: Now that the Chicago Bears and Brian Urlacher have parted ways, would the Minnesota Vikings follow up on their reported discussions with the free-agent middle linebacker?

It's true that the Vikings, like the Bears, don't have a starting-caliber middle linebacker on their roster. But all I can tell you is that signing Urlacher would contradict nearly everything Rick Spielman has said and done in the 15 months since he has been the Vikings' general manager. If anything, Spielman has worked systematically to make the roster younger and to find long-term answers at positions of need rather than applying Band-Aid measures.

A few hours before the Bears announced their decision, I asked Vikings coach Leslie Frazier about the team's plan at middle linebacker. Jasper Brinkley, the Vikings' 2012 starter, has signed with the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the position barren at the moment.

"We've got the upcoming draft to try to address it," Frazier said, "and we'll also look at what's available in NFL free agency. It's definitely a position we need to address. We have a void there and we've got to find the right guy. It's a big part of our defense. We have to get better at the middle linebacker position."

Frazier made it clear he wants a "three-down middle linebacker" who stays on the field in nickel situations and said "our defense will take a big step this season" if one can be found.

Some of you might like the idea of signing Urlacher and drafting a middle linebacker as his heir apparent. Whether Urlacher would like that idea is another question. And in the end, it's really hard to imagine Spielman liking that idea. Stranger things have happened, but this one would be pretty strange.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

We have more overnight news in the NFC North's free agency frenzy. Former Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach agreed to terms with the Oakland Raiders, leaving the Bears without a versatile player who has been a starter -- at two different positions -- for most of the past five years.

Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com has the details. Bears general manager Phil Emery said this week that the Bears were up against the salary cap, and the Bears were either unable to match the Raiders' offer to Roach or unwilling to make the necessary adjustments. That means the Bears will have at least one significant change among their starting linebackers in 2013, and it could be two if veteran Brian Urlacher does not return.

There are no obvious replacements on the roster at strongside linebacker, Roach's primary position. The Bears will need to find a cheap starter in free agency or else look to the draft. Although he typically came off the field on third downs, Roach still played 66 percent of the Bears' snaps last season, because he also filled in for an injured Urlacher in the middle.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Here's what we know:
  1. The Chicago Bears have yet to find a common financial ground with linebacker Brian Urlacher, a free agent who wants to continue playing in 2013.
  2. The Minnesota Vikings' middle linebacker is a free agent and making the rounds.
Does that make the Vikings and Urlacher a realistic match? Probably not, and a Chicago Tribune report that revealed the sides have spoken also noted that Urlacher is more likely to play for the Bears -- if anyone -- in 2013.

I don't sense the Vikings are in a hurry to bring back Jasper Brinkley, who has visited the New York Giants and also has a stop scheduled with the Arizona Cardinals. But other than disrupting the Bears in the short term, I'm not sure how motivated the Vikings would be to pursue Urlacher. General manager Rick Spielman has converted to a draft-and-develop team-building model that wouldn't seem to have room for a middle linebacker in the twilight of his career, no matter his pedigree.

In the end, this is a story about Urlacher and the Bears. Much as the Bears' interest in right tackle Phil Loadholt motivated the Vikings to complete negotiations before the market opened Tuesday, the Vikings' situation could help spur movement in the Bears-Urlacher standoff.

Much stranger things have happened, but well, we'll see.

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