NFC North: Jeff Backus

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
11:00
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."
The Detroit Lions have followed through on their plan to give safety Louis Delmas regular work along with consistent rest to pace his return from knee soreness and pain. Delmas has worked in roughly half of the Lions' practices, and Thursday they got him a second consecutive day of rest following Wednesday's day off for all players.

Delmas
As it turns out, according to general manger Martin Mayhew, the Lions are roughly using the same approach they took in 2011 with left tackle Jeff Backus, who reported to camp with a partially torn pectoral muscle. The Lions kept Backus on the non-football injury list until midway through the preseason and then practiced him sparingly until the start of the regular season. Backus went on to play 16 games as the Lions advanced to the playoffs.

"Louis is coming around," Mayhew told reporters earlier this week. "He's doing a little bit more every single day, and I think he's on track to be ready for the season. I talked to Louis about a couple years ago when Jeff got injured. Jeff got injured right before the season. And our emphasis on Jeff at that time was getting him ready for the [Tampa Bay] Buccaneers game. And I talked to Louis about making sure everything that he does during training camp is geared toward being ready for that Minnesota Vikings game. Then once we get to that game, we'll just take it week by week. That's the track that he's on and he's making progress."

There are a couple of obvious differences here. First, Backus missed only one game in his 12-year career. Delmas, on the other hand, has missed 15 in four seasons.

More importantly, Backus had a tangible injury with a clear timetable for recovery. Unless and until we learn more details, we're left to believe that Delmas is dealing with more of a chronic/managed ailment. In the end, however, the big picture is the same: The Lions are willing to sacrifice practice time -- perhaps indefinitely -- to give one of their key players his best chance to play when the games start to count.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The arrival of a new quarterback always generates offseason buzz, even if it's to a team such as the Detroit Lions -- whose starter and backup appear firmly in place. Just the same, the Lions claimed former Cleveland Browns quarterback Thaddeus Lewis on waivers this week, according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News among others, and he will at least give them an intriguing arm to evaluate this spring.

Matthew Stafford is the Lions' starter and veteran Shaun Hill would appear set as his backup, but No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore's job could be available. Also, Hill is recovering from minor foot surgery and has been in a walking boot this spring. If nothing else, Lewis gives the Lions a live arm during organized team activities while Hill completes his recovery.

Lewis, a second-year player out of Duke, started the Browns' season finale last season, completing 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions are looking for progress from linebacker Tahir Whitehead, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Retired left tackle Jeff Backus will work with the team's linemen as a part-time coaching intern, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji on his contract situation, via USA Today: "Obviously, the Packers are a great organization and I'm sure they'll do right by me. I'll leave it at that."
  • Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers on experimenting with defensive end Mike Neal at linebacker, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "The more he can do, the more versatile it's going to make us, make it harder for the offense to identify some of the things we're doing. He's been more of primarily an inside rusher for us, and we liked the way he rushed inside for us last year. We're just trying to expand his role. If he can be both an inside and an outside rusher, then that's an asset to us. … Mike's a guy that has a combination of strength, size, speed, quickness, power. We're trying to get him a little more work rushing outside than inside because we know what he can do inside. He'll be involved in different packages in different places."
  • Packers tight end Andrew Quarless apparently is recovered from a devastating knee injury and is ready to resume his role, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Defensive lineman Johnny Jolly hasn't joined the Packers yet this offseason, but the team remains supportive of his path. Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.
  • Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was the only missing player from the first day of organized team activities (OTAs), according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com. Allen traditionally works out on his own in the offseason.
  • Mike Wobschall of vikings.com offers highlights of the first OTA practice.
  • The NFC North is wide open behind the Packers, write Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Dickerson: "So the real question is: Have the Lions passed up the Bears in the offseason? That's tough to say for sure with the regular season still over three months away. Let's start with what we know -- both teams desperately need to make the playoffs in 2013."
  • Patrick Rishe of Forbes.com wonders if the Bears' decision to retire Mike Ditka's No. 89 was based on public relations.
If it wasn't apparent already, the Detroit Lions made it clear Friday evening: Riley Reiff will be their left tackle in 2013.

The Lions could have drafted a left tackle in either the second or third rounds of this draft, but instead they selected Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay and Kentucky guard Larry Warford, respectively. Both players fill needs and were better value picks than a left tackle, a position that drops off significantly after the top of the first round, and the Lions weren't in desperate shape there to begin with.

As we discussed Thursday, we'll never know how interested the Lions were in drafting an elite left tackle and moving Reiff to right guard or right tackle. The draft's top three left tackles were all off the board when the Lions' turn arrived at No. 5. Conventional wisdom suggested they would have taken advantage of the opportunity to have a stronger line across the board, but they have no incentive to confirm that now.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz told Detroit-area reporters, in fact, that the Lions were prepared to use Reiff at left tackle as soon as they learned of Jeff Backus' retirement.

"That's why we drafted him," Schwartz said. "Again, when Backus got hurt last year, that's why we played [Reiff] there. You never say never. You never know who is going to become available, what's going to happen. But we drafted him as a left tackle. We thought he could play right tackle, we think he can play guard.

"You know, Riley, if you gave him time, could probably play center too. He played tight end for us. He's that kind of athlete. He's a guy that can move around and do those things, but we drafted him as a left tackle. Probably, with the way things ended up here, we'll probably start him off there. We have a lot of confidence in him. I mean, that's why we drafted him last year. Last year, Riley was the second offensive lineman picked."

Reiff will play next to veteran left guard Rob Sims, and it's assumed that veteran Dominic Raiola will hold on to his job for another year. Warford could compete at right guard with Bill Nagy and Rodney Austin. Meanwhile, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard could compete at right tackle.

The Lions have five draft picks remaining Saturday, but it's difficult to expect a rookie starter coming after the third round. It happens, but not enough to count on it. Unless the Lions decide to jump back into free agency, chances are they'll roll this season with the offensive linemen now on their roster.

2013 #bloggermock: NFC North

April, 23, 2013
4/23/13
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Our 2013 #bloggermock took an early twist and left me only partially satisfied as the protector of NFC North interests. Of note: Not a single quarterback was drafted in the first round, something that hasn't happened in the real draft since 1996. We also passed up the running back position in the first round, which that hasn't happened since the common draft began in 1967.

Below are the players I would up picking for the NFC North and my reasoning in each instance.

Johnson
5. Detroit Lions
My pick: Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson
Final decision: Between Johnson, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah
Process and reasoning: The Lions' true intentions are tough to read at left tackle. When they drafted Riley Reiff at No. 23 overall last year, we all assumed he was the heir apparent at the position. Since the retirement of incumbent Jeff Backus, however, the Lions have emphasized Reiff's versatility and suggested he could play right guard or right tackle. To me, versatility is irrelevant if you have a true long-term answer at left tackle.

It's possible the Lions are deliberately clouding Reiff's future to hide their draft intentions. In the end, I thought the No. 5 pick was a great place to find a blue-chip left tackle and further strengthen the Lions' line by allowing Reiff to start at right guard or right tackle.

Johnson might be the third-best left tackle in the draft, but draft analysts have suggested that's a matter of experience more than aptitude. I had a brief pre-draft trade discussion with AFC East blogger James Walker, who wanted to use the Miami Dolphins' No. 12 overall pick to move up and draft a left tackle. But there was no way Johnson would be available at No. 12, so I needed much more than what Walker was offering (a second-round pick) to pass up getting him.

I know I've pushed the Lions to draft a cornerback like Milliner for years, but finding a left tackle can be even more difficult. I was tempted by Ansah, but decided to gamble that some decent defensive ends would make it to the top of the second round. In this mock, three of Mel Kiper's top five defensive ends would be available after the first: UCLA's Datone Jones, Auburn's Corey Lemonier and Florida State's Tank Carradine.

Ogletree
20. Chicago Bears
My pick: Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree
Final decision: There wasn't much debate.
Process and reasoning: I did not expect Ogletree to be available at No. 20 and knew it would be difficult for the Bears to move up. But once he made it past the New Orleans Saints at No. 15, I thought I had a chance. The New York Giants have been speculated as a possible landing spot, but the Giants haven't selected a linebacker in the first round since 1984 (Carl Banks).

I'm still not sure Ogletree will be available at No. 20 in the real draft Thursday night, but in this case -- with Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert already off the board -- I couldn't justify passing him up as a long-term replacement for Brian Urlacher.

Williams
Hayden
23 and 25. Minnesota Vikings
My picks: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden
Final decision: Between Williams, Hayden, Cal receiver Keenan Allen, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Process and reasoning: I really do think that Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has genuine interest in Te'o and wants to draft him. In looking back on this mock, I just got too greedy and sneaky for my own good.

I had enough ammunition to move up, but for whom? Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson went way too high (No. 8 to the Buffalo Bills), and West Virginia's Tavon Austin was gone at No. 13. Is Austin worth even an extra second-round pick to the Vikings? I couldn't do it.

Ogletree plays a position of need, but I felt sketchy about giving up extra draft choices for a player with multiple off-field flags in the past year.

So my plan was to grab two really good non-middle linebackers and then cross my fingers that someone, perhaps even Te'o, would be available in the second round, where Spielman could work some trade magic and grab one. It almost worked. Te'o made it to No. 32, where the Baltimore Ravens drafted him just after learning that Rolando McClain had been arrested once again.

Media analysis is split on whether Te'o is significantly better than the next tier of middle linebackers, and most people think the Vikings are most interested in him. So if the Vikings passed, I thought there was a chance he would tumble. In the end, that's why I passed him over even though I'm not sure Spielman will.

As for receiver, I had my eyes on Tennessee's Justin Hunter, but he went one slot ahead at No. 22. So I went with Williams, who could be a long-term replacement for Kevin Williams, and Hayden. I had a small chance to trade down, but the best offer I got to move from No. 25 to the top of the second round at No. 35 was an additional fifth-round pick. Not good enough. The cornerback class drops off after the first round, and Washington's Desmond Trufant was already off the board. In this scenario, the Vikings would be in position to maneuver in the second round for a receiver. Among those who are left is Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins.

Jenkins
26. Green Bay Packers
My pick: Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins
Final decision: Between Jenkins, Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh, Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson
Process and reasoning: The honest truth of the matter is that I was just guessing here. Congratulations to the Packers. No one ever knows for sure who a team is going to draft, but this year, no one really has anything more than a guess on the Packers. They appear to be interested in improving their defensive line, at least based on their limited activity in free agency, and Jenkins seemed the best of what was still remaining on the board. I don't mind saying he was even more of a guess than usual.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

No player has worn No. 50 for the Chicago Bears since Mike Singletary's last game 21 years ago, but it was not retired and apparently will not be anytime soon. The team issued it to new linebacker James Anderson, after a discussion between Singletary and chairman George McCaskey about the need to put it back in circulation.

McCaskey told Larry Mayer of the team's website: "I talked to Mike Singletary and told him that we hadn't assigned 50 to anybody since he retired and that we needed to put it back in circulation. He said he wasn't aware that it hadn't been assigned, that he's got no problem with it, and he's perfectly fine with it. In fact, he would prefer that it be assigned to somebody. He said, 'I'd rather somebody wear it than see it hanging it up in a window somewhere."

The NFL requires linebackers to wear numbers in either the 50s or the 90s. Two 50s have already been retired, No. 51 for Dick Butkus and No. 56 for Bill Hewitt. Singletary was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Bears are hosting California center/guard Brian Schwenke on a visit Wednesday, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • The Bears also signed a center, free agent Taylor Boggs, and two defensive linemen -- Andre Fluellen and Kyle Moore -- on Tuesday, notes ESPNChicago.com.
  • The Bears are "embracing change," said receiver Brandon Marshall via Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com on the career of retired Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson: "There was nothing common about Hanson's 21-year career."
  • Lions general manager Martin Mayhew on new place-kicker David Akers, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "Another solid veteran, a guy with a lot of experience and playoff experience. He's been kicking outdoors his whole career. We think he'll get a boost from kicking inside, so I think he'll be a good player for us."
  • Retired Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "I was extremely fortunate to play the number of years that I did. You start taking into account your age, the way your body feels -- it was an easy decision for me. I have three little kids. I want to run around the yard and play with them, have fun with them, coach them up and move on to that phase of my life. I've been extremely fortunate to play in Detroit for 12 years, to play for one team. The Ford Family has been great to me. The fans have been loyal. At the end of the day, it was just time for me to call it a career."
  • Tim Twentyman of the Lions' website spoke with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who visited the team's facility Tuesday.
  • Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel profiles Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers starter Aaron Rodgers.
  • Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Loyce Means would love to become the next Tramon Williams."
  • The Minnesota Vikings remain in contact with cornerback Antoine Winfield, but it's unclear if he wants to return, according to Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings officials spent some time at Nike headquarters in Oregon viewing their new uniforms, which will be revealed April 25, according to Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.

NFL Power Rankings: NFC North

March, 19, 2013
3/19/13
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PHOENIX -- Mostly on the strength of adding NFC North castoffs, the Seattle Seahawks sit atop ESPN.com's latest offseason Power Rankings. Let's take a look at how the regrouping NFC North fared in the voting:

6. Green Bay Packers
Comment: The Packers usually go unnoticed in March because of their limited forays into free agency. But at this point, they remain the voting committee's favorite to win the NFC North in 2013.

11. Chicago Bears
Comment: Voters are naturally impressed with the Bears' free-agency haul, one that gave them a legitimate left tackle in Jermon Bushrod and a multi-use tight end in Martellus Bennett. Questions remain at right tackle and linebacker, but generally speaking, voters see the Bears as a playoff team.

17. Minnesota Vikings
Comment: There was widespread disagreement on the Vikings, one of the surprise teams of 2012. Dan Graziano ranked them No. 10, while Jamison Hensley ranked them No. 22. That 12-place disparity was the largest in this edition of the Power Rankings.

22. Detroit Lions
Comment: The Lions have moved up six spots from the postseason edition of the Power Rankings after signing at least two new starters and retaining three core defensive players. But left tackle Jeff Backus' retirement is one of a number of remaining holes.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

PHOENIX -- The Detroit Lions drafted a left tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft. In 2013, their longtime left tackle retired. But it's apparently not as simple as connecting the dots between the retirement of Jeff Backus and the presumed ascendance of Riley Reiff at the position.

Speaking to Detroit-area reporters at the NFL owners meeting, general manager Martin Mayhew said "I could see [Reiff] at left tackle" this season but left open the possibility he could play another position as well. Mayhew also touted inexperienced backups Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard as promising, and noted that Reiff can play several positions.

Your best left tackle on the roster should play the position, even if he can also play guard. It's much easier to find a guard than a left tackle, generally speaking. The Lions' indecision on Reiff's position could indicate mixed beliefs on his attitude as a long-term left tackle.

On the other hand, Mayhew might simply not want to telegraph his draft strategy at No. 5 overall. If he names Reiff the starter, it probably rules out the possibility that he would draft a left tackle in the first round.

Continuing around the NFC North:
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:
We've known the possibility has existed for most of this offseason, but in the midst of the NFL's free-agent frenzy, the news still came as a surprise. Jeff Backus announced his retirement, meaning the Lions will enter the 2013 season with a different left tackle for the first time in 13 years.

Backus
Backus
I know Backus took some heat from Lions fans over the years, but the nature of his career speaks to how difficult it is to fill the left tackle position. Regardless of any mid-career struggles he might have had, he played in 192 of a possible 193 games -- including playoffs -- after the Lions made him their first-round draft pick in 2001. His departure will transition the Lions' offensive line makeover into an outright overhaul this offseason.

Already the Lions have bid farewell to right guard Stephen Peterman (via release) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus (via free agency). Center Dominic Raiola took a significant pay cut to remain with the team, and 2013 could be his final season with the team. Left guard Rob Sims is the only other established starter.

But before filling the right tackle and right guard positions, the Lions must prioritize Backus' replacement -- and decide whether it merits a push to the top of their draft strategy.

One option, of course, is 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff, who played left tackle at Iowa and made one start there as a rookie last season. But the Lions have never committed to Reiff as their long-term plan at left tackle, at least not publicly. At the NFL scouting combine last month, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz the Lions have said they were considering their options for Reiff's final destination, one of which includes right guard.

That was before Backus' retirement, of course, but when you are a bona fide left tackle in the NFL, there is never much of a conversation about whether you should play there or right guard.

If Reiff isn't the answer, the Lions could take advantage of their draft position at No. 5 overall and pick the best left tackle available, whether it is Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan's Eric Fisher. For what it's worth, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. Insider ranks Fisher as the best left tackle available, followed by Joeckel and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson.

In a way, the Lions are fortunate that Backus retired at a time when they had a high-enough draft position to ensure a blue-chip replacement if that's what they want. Consider it his final contribution to the team.
If the Detroit Lions have decided to move on from right tackle Gosder Cherilus, a believable scenario considering their recent moves and his injury history, then they have secured another competitor to replace him. Corey Hilliard, a swing backup at both tackle positions over the past four seasons, has signed a two-year contract extension, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Hilliard did not appear in a game in 2012, but would probably get a chance to win the right tackle job if the Lions open the competition this offseason. Based on the way Lions officials spoke last month at the NFL scouting combine, Jason Fox -- a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 -- is the leading candidate to win the job.

If Fox or Hilliard man the right tackle position, Riley Reiff -- the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012 -- could play right guard. That, of course, assumes left tackle Jeff Backus does not retire and returns for a 12th season. Cherilus, the Lions' right tackle since he was their first-round draft choice in 2008, recently sought treatment for his knee in Europe, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

Yes, as we've discussed several times, the Lions' offensive line is in flux this offseason. Hilliard gives them another option as they put the puzzle together.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Watching offensive linemen work out Saturday brought to mind the Detroit Lions' efforts in that regard.

The Lions have spent a few drafts building to a moment when they would turn over their own line, and that time has arrived. All that's left to know is whether it will take place in one season or be a two-year transition.

Already, the Lions have released right guard Stephen Peterman. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is a pending free agent and left tackle Jeff Backus could retire. Center Dominic Raiola appears to have bought himself another season by restructuring a contract that will expire at this time next year.

So who will take over? We know that 2012 first-round draft pick Riley Reiff will start somewhere, be it at guard or tackle. Here at the NFL scouting combine, I was a little surprised to hear general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz repeatedly mention Jason Fox -- a little-used fourth-round draft pick in 2010 -- as a leading candidate to start as well.

Fox was limited by injuries in college as well as in his first two seasons with the Lions. He has played in five NFL games, only one over the past two seasons, and that was a six-snap outing on special teams in Week 12 last season. But he is 6-foot-6, 314 pounds and won't turn 25 until May.

"Jason Fox obviously had the injuries in his first couple seasons," Mayhew said. "He was able to stay healthy all last year, but we also stayed healthy at the tackle position. He didn’t play very much for us. We think he has starter-type talent level. He has the size. He's a strong enough guy. He's a good technician. He's a hard worker. We think he has the ability to start for us."

It would be rare, but not unheard of, for an injury-plagued player to emerge from three years of inactivity to become a starter. But if the Lions need or want to replace most of their starters in one offseason, that's the kind of elevation they'll need to make.

There are some other little-used players remaining from the Lions' 2012 roster who could compete for starting jobs as well, including: guard-center Billy Nagy to guard Rodney Austin to tackle Corey Hilliard, a pending free agent himself.

In either case, by 2014, four of the five positions will assuredly have new starters. Left guard Rob Sims is the only player who figures to still be in his current role. The Lions are about to get young in a hurry on their offensive line.

NFC North links: Saturday's final snap

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Chicago Bears

New Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer has a history of developing players and getting the most out of them. "You look at the way we have turned our offensive line over," Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. "He has taken Jermon Bushrod as a rookie, now he's a two-time Pro Bowler. You see what he has done with Jahri Evans. You see what he has done with Brian De La Puente. You see what he has done with Zach Strief when Jon Stinchcomb left."

Former Bears safety Chris Harris has decided to call it a career.

Detroit Lions

Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press: "One year after finishing fourth in takeaway differential, the Lions were second-to-last in the category this season. The ball just never seemed to fall into the defense’s hands. In 2011, the Lions’ defense had 34 takeaways. In 2012, it had 17. 'The turnover ratio is really out of whack and a lot of it is because we didn’t get any,' general manager Martin Mayhew said this month. 'Now, for instance, some of our guys, like a guy like Cliff [Avril], we didn’t play with a lot of leads. And we played with some leads last year, so we had some opportunities really to tee off and get our pass rush going and everybody could just cut loose and just go. We didn’t have as many of those. That may have been a reason for some of the decline in sacks and quarterback fumbles. But our guys in the [secondary] didn’t make enough plays.'"

At a Super Bowl event on Sunday, San Francisco 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin had some kind words for Lions offensive lineman Jeff Backus.

Green Bay Packers

Despite being on the opposing team, Jeff Saturday delivered one final snap to Peyton Manning during Sunday's Pro Bowl. "You know what, man, this is what it's all about. I'll remember this one," Saturday said. "It's been a pleasure. We've had a great time. We had a great run together. I've enjoyed playing with him. He's a class act all the way across the board. I've been very appreciative of the time I got to spend with him in Indy and I know he'll do great things in Denver."

Minnesota Vikings

Tight end Kyle Rudolph claimed MVP honors Sunday in the NFC's 62-35 rout of the AFC in the Pro Bowl.

The Star Tribune's Jim Souhan details the similarities between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Well then. Wednesday evening got interesting pretty quickly. We weren't expecting Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin to be ready for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, but no one thought he was headed for injured reserve because of a sprained ankle, either.

Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com is among those who think there was more than a sprained ankle going on behind the scenes here. Zulgad termed the episode "another reminder of why the Vikings might be willing to sever ties with Harvin if he doesn't accept a contract on their terms."

Yes, Harvin has one year remaining on his contract and almost certainly is seeking an extension. The Vikings' hesitation could be simple business, but it could also reflect their concerns about his mercurial and eccentric personality.

Ultimately, Harvin proved himself a highly valuable asset this season on the field. You would think his performance would trump all. We'll see if the Vikings offer any context Thursday.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press thinks the Vikings overused Harvin this season.
  • Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder on his performance against the Green Bay Packers, via Chris Miller of the Star Tribune: "It was kind of a wake-up call that obviously I need to be doing some stuff differently, and change my game and elevate my play."
  • The Packers' secondary is getting healthy, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It appears that cornerback Sam Shields (shin) is ready to return.
  • Packers coach Mike McCarthy on the team's spate of injuries, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "Self-pity is a waste of time. It's a wasted emotion. Frankly, I think it’s a part of the National Football League. I don't think we've created any secret formula on how we go about it. We just stay focused on what's in front of us. You have to."
  • Don Barclay might end up starting this week at right tackle for the Packers, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Bears cornerback Kelvin Hayden is preparing to start against the Vikings in place of the injured Tim Jennings, notes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times thinks that linebacker Brian Urlacher will return next season because of "the organization’s deep aversion to change."
  • The Bears aren't likely to retaliate against Vikings defensive end Jared Allen for his season-ending hit two weeks ago on guard Lance Louis. Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com explains.
  • Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the team has gone "off track" this season but hasn't regressed, according to Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh denied accusations that he celebrated a concussion suffered by Indianapolis Colts offensive tackle Winston Justice. Via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, Suh said: "I am the type of person that would never celebrate anybody being injured. I was celebrating my team playing well."
  • The Lions weren't looking to replace left tackle Jeff Backus permanently with rookie Riley Reiff when Backus was injured, according to Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.

NFC North Friday injury report

November, 30, 2012
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Let's get inside the Friday injury report in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: We already knew that the Bears wouldn't have guard Chris Spencer (knee) or receivers Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery (knee) for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks. The rest of the Bears' roster, however, should be available. That includes tailback Matt Forte (ankle), linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle) and cornerback Charles Tillman (foot).

Detroit Lions: Left tackle Jeff Backus was a limited participant in practice Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts. Rookie Riley Reiff would start in Backus' place if necessary. Cornerback Jacob Lacey (foot/knee) and defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) did not practice and are listed as questionable.

Green Bay Packers: Linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) is one of six players who have been declared out of Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. He didn't practice all week and his designation is not a surprise. The "out" list also includes cornerback Charles Woodson (collarbone), defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee), running back Johnny White (concussion), cornerback Sam Shields (shin) and tight end Andrew Quarless (knee). Linebacker Terrell Manning (shoulder) is doubtful. Meanwhile, receiver Donald Driver did not practice all week because of a thumb injury. He is listed as questionable. Since he became a full-time player in 2000, Driver has missed only six games.

Minnesota Vikings: Receiver Percy Harvin (ankle) is doubtful for Sunday's game. He didn't practice Friday and almost certainly will miss his third consecutive game. All other players will be available. Coach Leslie Frazier said Harvin is having difficulty cutting and changing direction, which makes you wonder whether he'll be available for the Dec. 9 game against the Bears.

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