NFC North: Jim Kleinsasser

Revisiting Round 2 of the 2011 draft

November, 3, 2012
It seems a million years ago. In reality, it was 18 months. In the second round of the 2011 draft, three pass-catchers of diverse backgrounds and skills entered the NFC North. I've checked in on their progress at various times, and at the midpoint of their second seasons, let's take stock once again.

[+] EnlargeTitus Young
Tim Fuller/US PresswireTitus Young has undeniable talent, but the Lions have apparently grown tired of his attitude.
As you recall, the run started with the Minnesota Vikings selecting Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph with the No. 43 overall pick. The Detroit Lions followed by drafting Boise State receiver Titus Young at No. 44, and the Green Bay Packers picked up Kentucky receiver Randall Cobb with the final pick of the second round, No. 64 overall.

On the whole, the trio appeared to be luxury picks. The Vikings seemed set at tight end with Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan. The Lions already had Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson on their roster, while the Packers could boast a receiver group of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.

Not even two years later, we can see the value of judging draft picks with a long(er) term view. Rudolph's arrival allowed the Vikings to bid farewell to Shiancoe, who is 32 and has spent this season on the New England Patriots' injured reserve list. Kleinsasser and Dugan retired. Rudolph ranks third among NFL tight ends with five touchdown receptions, despite a quiet two-game stretch, and has played on 506 of a possible 540 snaps in eight games.

Young provided a much more dynamic three-receiver set as a rookie, and this season the Lions have appeared anxious to make him their No. 2 receiver. After a slow start, he caught two touchdowns among nine passes last Sunday in the Lions' first game since Burleson suffered a season-ending leg injury.

Cobb, meanwhile, gave the Packers an immediate bump as a punt and kickoff returner last season. In 2012, he has helped the team navigate injuries to Jennings and Nelson. He leads the Packers with 42 receptions, has caught three touchdowns in the past two games and "is probably going to go down as one of the best picks in [Packers general manager] Ted Thompson's career, if not the best," according to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The chart shows each player's relevant statistics as well as his playing time. It's worth noting that Cobb's production has come in less than half of the Packers' snaps, an important development as the Packers work to keep his playmaking skills part of their special teams as well.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Hello everyone. I hope you had a nice August weekend, one that felt more like September here in the Upper Midwest, but I doubt anyone was complaining.

It's starting to feel like September in the NFL as we pass the midpoint of the preseason and prepare for the third, and most significant, preseason game. (See what I did there?) Starters typically play a half or more of the third game, and as it turns out, the NFC North likely will see a host of important players take the field for the first time this summer.

That list includes Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings (concussion), Packers running back Cedric Benson (late signing), Detroit Lions tailback Mikel Leshoure (hamstring) and possibly Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson (knee). We will follow their progress as the week develops.

Meanwhile, I've been tinkering with our Facebook page, one that was getting dusty because I had reached the limit of 5,000 friends. It's tough being popular. Anyway, we've converted it to a "fan" page that you "like" instead of "friend," and now that I've reconnected it with our links feed, we should be up and running. So by all means go ahead and "like" the NFC North Facebook page ("Kevin Seifert Espn") if you weren't already a friend. We're still known there as "Kevin Seifert Espn." Spread the word.

Now, for our morning tour around the division:
  • Chicago Bears rookie safety Brandon Hardin was released from a hospital after suffering a neck injury Friday night, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. Hardin will be re-evaluated in two weeks to determine when he can return to the field.
  • The preseason has already shown us that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler should have an easier go of things this season, writes Dan Pompei of the Tribune.
  • The Bears aren't reading too much into preseason games, according to Michael C. Wright of
  • Former Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser is among those who spoke to Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune for the first of a three-part series on pain and painkillers in the NFL.
  • Wiederer examines the rare and pleasant personality of Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. Wiederer: "Yep, Frazier might just be the most likeable head coach in pro football. And while such kindness won't directly catalyze the Vikings' return to relevance, it might help buy Frazier extra time to see his vision through."
  • Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway opens up about caring for his father, who is in leukemia remission. Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has the story.
  • Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley has two weeks to prove to the Vikings he deserves a starting job, writes Fowler. To this point, Brinkley has appeared tentative in the preseason.
  • Frazier on Peterson, via Tom Pelissero of "We're going to give him a little bit more each day, see how he responds and continue to determine what's the next step. Just go day to day. We have some ideas of how we want to approach it, but a lot of it depends on how he feels with some of the things we're going to give him this week."
  • Benson practiced in full pads for the first time Sunday and is on track to make his preseason debut for the Packers, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • The Packers are trending more and more toward a no-huddle offense, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Packers tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) is expected to join Jennings on the preseason field Thursday night, according to Jason Wilde of
  • Jennings on the two weeks since he suffered his concussion, via the Associated Press: "I've been shut down completely for two weeks. When I say shut down completely, they wouldn't let me walk into the weight room. They wouldn't let me see a treadmill. They wouldn't let me see anything. It's going to be different for me getting my wind back, but today felt great."
  • Justin Rogers of "While it's a little early in the week to make a determination, Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure appears to be on track to see his first preseason action this Saturday against the Oakland Raiders. Leshoure, who has been battling a hamstring injury, took a significant step forward, participating in team drills during Sunday's practice for the first time in three weeks."
  • Lions running back/kick returner Stefan Logan is day-to-day after injuring his ankle Friday night, according to Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News. Logan did not practice Sunday.
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz on the preseason debut of rookie receiver Ryan Broyles on Friday night, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "The thing like I said after the game that you can tell with Ryan, there's a reason he's the all-time leading receiver in college football because he just knows how to get open. They blitzed, he set his route down, did a really good job. Set himself up. He's going to get faster, his physical skills are going to get sharper as he goes on. But he hasn't lost anything from a mental standpoint. He was sharp that way."

Camp Confidential: Vikings

August, 6, 2012
MANKATO, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings carry absolutely zero national expectations with them to training camp this summer. They parted ways with a half-dozen key members of the 2008 and 2009 NFC North champion teams, shifting into a transition period that will make it difficult to compete in a division filled with elite quarterbacks and playoff contenders.

As it turns out, the Vikings are devoid of internal expectations as well. They have in no way conceded a last-place finish in the division, but they appear realistic about their situation. Three days at Minnesota State University, Mankato, revealed an emphasis on the process rather than bottom-line results.

"This is the most focused and probably unassuming camp I've been a part of," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "And that's great. The last three or four years, we've been surrounded by hype, whether it be right or wrong or good or bad. There's been a lot of media fanfare, sometimes for good reasons but sometimes for bad. "

Greenway paused to choose his words carefully.

"There's no good way to say this, but we've sort of regained the youthful focus of having so many guys that are trying to make the team and make an impression. When you have that, you have guys just coming to work. … It's just about our work, less about what's going on outside of us and more about how we can try to get better. We haven't had perfect practices. We have maybe had some exceptional periods here and there. But we're grinding it out and having fun doing it."

"The only thing we're trying to do," cornerback Antoine Winfield said, "is come out each day and work to get better at something, whether it's technique or studying film. We're just trying to get better."

It's obvious the Vikings are more organized and have a clearer vision after a full offseason under general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier. Their camp is less hectic than the one they put together after the 2011 lockout, and as a result, Frazier said, "We've hit the ground running."

That's a good thing, because everyone agrees they have some catching up to do.

"Nobody is going to sit here from the inside and say we're going to be 10-6 and make the playoffs," Greenway said. "No one is going to talk like that, because we know it's about nothing but grinding it out every day. We just want to stack good days on top of each other."


[+] EnlargeMinnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIREVikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems more comfortable with his teammates in his second season.
1. Quarterback Christian Ponder's progress: By all accounts, including the amateur naked eye, Ponder has made strides since the end of an uneven rookie year. His throws in team drills came more often from the pocket than on the run. They were decisive and more accurate than what we saw last year, and Ponder has convinced most everyone surrounding the team that he will be better in his second season.

"He's much, much improved," Frazier said. "I was telling him the other day that we and his teammates all recognize how much more confidence he seems to have. He's communicating more as far as talking to players, telling them where to be and where to line up. He's in his second year. There is still some growth yet and some progress to be made, but he's come along."

During practice, Ponder circulates among veterans and young players with ease, discussing previous plays and keeping the mood light with a goofy but ever-present grin. After overthrowing receiver Jerome Simpson, Ponder stood next to him on the sideline, put his arm around him and said with a smile: "Well, I put it high and outside, just like you wanted it!"

Speaking later with reporters, Ponder said: "This is my team. I'm able to perform so much better and feel so much more comfortable knowing that, and knowing the situation I'm going to be in. I can play and I can prepare, and it's a good feeling."

2. Tailback Adrian Peterson's recovery: Aside from a one-day setback following an allergic reaction, Peterson continued to demonstrate a fanatical determination to rejoin the team in time for its Week 1 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. During the first day of my visit, Peterson spent more than 30 minutes trying to beat prescribed times in a 50-yard dash. The next day, he ran stairs at Blakeslee Stadium.

Although no one has an exact date in mind, the sense at camp is that Peterson's off-field recovery is nearing its end. Soon it will be time to be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and add football drills to his routine.

3. Changes up the middle: An overhaul of the middle of the defense remains a work in progress. The Vikings debuted new starters at nose tackle (Letroy Guion) and middle linebacker (Jasper Brinkley), and it's expected that rookie Harrison Smith will soon take over one of the safety spots. "We knew we needed to get better up the middle," Frazier said.

Brinkley has allayed any short-term fear about his availability after injuries limited him during offseason practices. "We missed him this offseason and that was a little scary," Frazier said. "But he's come back this training camp and he's looked good. He hasn't missed a practice. Hasn't missed any drills. You can see that thump he had before his injuries, so we feel good about where he is right now."

Brinkley figures to have limited reps during the season because he has been coming off the field in nickel situations, and Guion probably will serve as a placeholder until the Vikings find a longer-term solution at nose tackle. But Smith projects as a cornerstone player whose ascension to the first team appears imminent. "Drafting Harrison is going to be a good move for us," Frazier said. "He has some range, the athleticism to really help us." Mistral Raymond appears to be the likeliest option to start alongside Smith.


[+] EnlargeMinnesota Vikings tackle Matt Kalil
Bruce Kluckhohn-US PRESSWIRE Minnesota tackle Matt Kalil is a leader in a core of young players for the Vikings.
A favorable early schedule (at home against the Jaguars in Week 1 and at the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2) provides an opportunity for a 2-0 start, a confidence boost that could propel the Vikings to a more successful season than most have projected.

But from a big-picture perspective, the best thing you can say about the Vikings is they are following a clear long-term vision for the first time in years. They have rid themselves of players they believe no longer can contribute, pushed forward a core of young players -- a group that includes Ponder, Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and left tackle Matt Kalil -- and refused to overstep in their search for replacements at other positions.

What we've seen this summer isn't a finished product, but it can be viewed as a clearly identifiable step in building a winning program.


No matter how much progress the Vikings make, they are in a tough division and will compete against teams whose program-building began years ago. The Green Bay Packers, under general manager Ted Thompson, have been at it for eight years. The Chicago Bears' core has been together since the mid-2000s, in most cases, and the Detroit Lions are in Year 4 under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz.

Meanwhile, it's important to view Ponder's progress in the context of division foes. Even if he is much better in 2012, Ponder likely still will be the fourth-best quarterback in the NFC North.


  • New defensive coordinator Alan Williams isn't expected to make many schematic changes to the Vikings' Tampa 2 structure. "We're just going to try to take the things we've been good at in the past and do them better," Frazier said. With that said, Winfield said he has been encouraged by some minor tweaks that will allow corners "to play more aggressive and have a few more blitzes."
  • Winfield is healthy at 35 but the Vikings are protecting him with limited reps in camp. He has gotten some work as an outside cornerback, but it's expected he will serve mostly as a slot defender. "Who knows how much I'll be outside,'" he said, "but I'll definitely be inside. That's my home position."
  • It appears second-year player Brandon Fusco has won the right guard spot, even if by default. Veteran Geoff Schwartz was set to compete with Fusco for the job, but a sports hernia has put Schwartz behind and brought his availability for the start of the season into question.
  • Placekicker Blair Walsh, drafted to replace veteran Ryan Longwell, demonstrated an accurate and powerful leg early in camp. Unofficially, he missed only two of 26 kicks in team drills in the first nine days of practice, based on full-camp tracking from Tom Pelissero of
  • Tight end John Carlson's knee sprain provided extra practice repetitions for young tight ends Allen Reisner, Mickey Shuler and Rhett Ellison. It appears that Ellison, a fourth-round draft choice from USC, has quickly captured the imagination of his teammates. "We all love that kid," Ponder said. "He's got a little bit of [retired Vikings fullback] Jim Kleinsasser in him. He's tough. We watch his blocks, some of his one-on-one drills against linebackers. He's tough, man. He's got a little crazy in him. Great kid, too, and he's doing really good. ... He's got a little angry side to him. It's pretty cool."
  • Kalil's matchups with defensive end Jared Allen generated plenty of attention. But Kalil's early-camp performance was also notable for the energy with which he chased downfield blocks. "It's definitely an emphasis for me to finish downfield," Kalil said. "[Offensive line coach Jeff] Davidson makes a good point. You never know what can happen. You can grab a fumble or be there if something bad happens. It's always good to get downfield to be there or try to make that last block. Basically, the more effort, the better."
  • Greenway is among those who are trying to recalibrate the Vikings' locker room mentality to accommodate the influx of youth. "I think the biggest difference from years past," he said, "is that the veterans are trying to do a better job of embracing the rookies and help them. We need their help now, and we need their help to win now. We need them to come along as fast as possible."
  • The loss of receiver Greg Childs (knees) on Saturday night was a blow for the team's long-term plans, but in 2012 it's been expected that Simpson, Rudolph and Percy Harvin will be Ponder's top targets. Simpson has worked hard to earn Ponder's trust, while Rudolph's huge catch radius is a comfort for any young quarterback.

NFC North free-agency assessment

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

Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

Detroit Lions

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

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

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

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

Green Bay Packers

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

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

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

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

Minnesota Vikings

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

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

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

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
Previewing some of the big decisions facing NFC North teams early in the 2012 offseason:

Minutes after he was named the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in 2002, Mike Tice announced his first decision: Jim Kleinsasser would be moved from fullback to tight end. Some coaches discuss the quarterback while others focus on the defensive scheme. Stocking the tight end position ranked atop Tice's list of priorities, a revealing nugget about the kind of offense he planned to install.

[+] EnlargeKellen Davis
MRQ/Icon SMIIf Kellen Davis returns to Chicago, he could have an expanded role in the Bears' offense.
Times and circumstances have changed, but 10 years later, there is every reason to presume a continued focus on the tight end now that Tice has taken over as the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator. The Bears once boasted a strong tandem in Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, but they discarded both players when their offense veered away from the position under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

A tight end himself for 14 years in the NFL, Tice likes to use them extensively in the passing game as well as run blockers. In four seasons with the Vikings, tight ends caught a total of 308 passes. So the first order of business this offseason will be to determine whether the Bears' incumbent starter, Kellen Davis, is capable of blossoming in that role.

Davis is a pending free agent but his career total of 28 catches might not spur mass interest on the free-agent market. He did score touchdowns on five of his 18 receptions last season, however, and his 6-foot-7 build makes him a potential downfield mismatch for linebackers.

The Bears will probably be on the lookout for downfield threats in the passing game, but Tice's affinity for tight ends means that Davis could prove a crucial part of their offensive plan for 2012.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 30, 2011
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 17:

Lambeau Field rematch: The season's first game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions was a tense, physical and emotionally-charged Thanksgiving Day affair that included two ejections and eventually ended in a 27-15 Packers victory. The rematch figures to be less intense. The Packers are hoping to become the sixth team in NFL history to win 15 games in the regular season, but they aren't likely to sacrifice their health to do it. It's likely that coach Mike McCarthy will empty his bench at some point, even if most of his regular players start the game. Historically, the Packers have been strong finishers regardless of the circumstances. They have won their final regular-season game for eight consecutive years, the best active streak in the NFL, and are 16-1 in regular-season finales since 1994.

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Lions will also have to prepare for Matt Flynn for their Week 17 game against the Packers.
Lions positioning: The stakes are simple for the Lions. A victory would be their first in the state of Wisconsin in 20 years, ending the longest streak of consecutive road losses to one opponent in NFL history at 19. It would give them their first 11-victory season since 1991, and would also clinch them the NFC's fifth seed in the playoffs and a first-round matchup at the winner of Sunday night's game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Even if they lose, the Lions would still be the fifth seed if the Atlanta Falcons lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Otherwise, they will be the No. 6 seed and face a trip to play either the New Orleans Saints or the San Francisco 49ers.

Unleash Flynn: McCarthy hasn't said much about his personnel plans for Sunday's game, but he apparently told former NFL quarterback and current broadcaster Rich Gannon that backup Matt Flynn will get at least some action. Starter Aaron Rodgers has suggested that Flynn is ready to compete for another team's starting job, and Flynn could sign elsewhere this offseason as a free agent. But there is a limited amount of regular-season tape to evaluate Flynn on, and none of it is from this season. So that makes whatever time he gets in Sunday's game particularly valuable to his future.

Quarterback issues: The Chicago Bears will start 32-year-old journeyman quarterback Josh McCown at the Metrodome on Sunday, which I suppose is merited after his better-than-expected performance Sunday night against the Packers. But I strongly agree with Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote this week that the Bears would be ignoring the central flaw of their season by not giving rookie Nathan Enderle extensive playing time. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie flopped after taking over for injured starter Jay Cutler, sparking what is now a five-game losing streak. Part of developing backup quarterbacks is getting them regular-season playing time. If you can't squeeze a rookie quarterback into a Week 17 game after you've been eliminated from the playoffs, when can you? If Enderle is so ill-prepared that the Bears deem him unfit for even that assignment, they might as well cut their losses with him now.

Vikings stakes: I wonder if Vikings fans are rooting for a victory or loss Sunday against the Bears. A win would allow them to avoid tying the franchise record for most losses in a season (13). They would also circumvent their first winless division record in team history. On the other hand, a loss would give the Vikings a top-three pick in the 2012 draft. A victory could drop them as far as No. 6. One thing is for sure: Everyone will be rooting for the Vikings to get into a goal-line situation. Coach Leslie Frazier has already said he'll give the ball to tight end/H-back Jim Kleinsasser, who will be playing in his final career game.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson convinced Dr. James Andrews to perform a quicker-than-normal surgery on his injured left knee because he has been in "severe" pain, according to Tim Yotter of Viking Update, and wanted to get the rehabilitation process started as soon as possible.

Peterson will have surgery Friday, six days after tearing two ligaments and suffering other damage in the knee. Typically, doctors prefer patients to wait until swelling has reduced, but that was not the case in this instance.

The Vikings have set a goal of getting Peterson back for the start of the 2012 season, a timetable that probably represents a best-case scenario.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Vikings need a victory Sunday to avoid going winless in the NFC North, a sign of how much work they have ahead of them, notes Tom Pelissero of
  • The Vikings are investigating a number of stadium sites in downtown Minneapolis, according to Mike Kaszuba of the Star Tribune.
  • Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiles retiring tight end Jim Kleinsasser.
  • Sunday could be a chance to change the career of Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "It looks like Chad Clifton will get every chance in the next week and a half to move back into the Green Bay Packers’ starting job at left tackle for the playoffs after missing the last 2½ months because of hamstring and back injuries."
  • The Packers are still rotating players at right outside linebacker, notes Jason Wilde of
  • Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford knows he will be judged by how he plays in the playoffs. Mike O'Hara of the Detroit News explains.
  • Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has resurrected his career over the past few years, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Pro Bowl special-teams ace Corey Graham wants to play defense for the Chicago Bears, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune thinks the Bears are making a mistake if they don't use rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle extensively Sunday against the Vikings. Pompei: "You can't shove a young quarterback in the back of a freezer until you need him and then expect him to be microwave ready at a moment's notice. Getting a young quarterback ready to play is a process that should be deliberate and calculated."
  • Bears linebacker Lance Briggs didn't bite on a question about his request for a new contract, according to Michael C. Wright of

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 20, 2011
» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Health, Chicago Bears: The Bears led a charmed life on the way to their 2010 NFC North title, losing only a handful of starts because of injury all season. But their four-game dive in 2011 has coincided with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Receiver Johnny Knox has been lost for the season, and receiver/kick returner Devin Hester clearly has been limited by an ankle injury. Two members of their Week 1 offensive line, left guard Chris Williams and right tackle Gabe Carimi, are also on injured reserve. I've always considered it silly to say that injuries come in bunches, but that has been the case this season for the Bears and provides a ready-made excuse for why they are likely to miss the playoffs in 2011.

2. Offensive line, Green Bay Packers: It's very possible that the Packers will have replacement starters at three of their five positions Sunday night against the Bears. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse will make his 10th start at left tackle after taking over for veteran Chad Clifton, who has been working through hamstring and back injuries. Left guard T.J. Lang could move to right tackle, replacing Bryan Bulaga (knee) and Derek Sherrod (broken leg). And that would mean Evan Dietrich-Smith would return to the starting lineup in Lang's spot. Dietrich-Smith made two starts earlier this season in place of right guard Josh Sitton (knee). That's hardly the kind of continuity you want heading into the playoffs, but the Packers have dealt with such issues before.

3. Sleep totals in Detroit: Lions coach Jim Schwartz admitted it Monday. "I'm just tired as hell," he said during a news conference less than 24 hours after his team pulled off a wild comeback victory in Oakland. In the interim, the Lions made the long flight back east and immediately began preparations for the biggest week in recent team history. Playing a day early because of the Christmas weekend, the Lions are hoping to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999 with a win Saturday over the San Diego Chargers. There won't be much time to sit by the fire or sip eggnog this week. Serious business is at hand.

[+] EnlargeCliff Avril
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesCliff Avril came up big with a sack of Carson Palmer in the final minute of Sunday's win over Oakland.

1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I know we've been touting Avril regularly here on the blog, but something caught my eye late in Sunday's game that merits a mention. Moments after Calvin Johnson's go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, television cameras showed Avril pointing demonstratively at defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and then at defensive tackle Corey Williams. Poking both in the chest, Avril appeared to be saying something along the lines of: You make a play. As it turned out, Avril made one himself a few minutes later, sacking quarterback Carson Palmer and forcing the Raiders to use their final timeout. Suh went on to block the Raiders' attempt at a winning field goal. Avril now has 11 sacks this season, but it was also nice to see him recognize the moment and, as a leader, challenge his teammates in a positive way.

2. Questions about Jermichael Finley, Packers tight end: When the season began, there were those who thought Finley was the best young tight end in the NFL. The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (15 touchdown receptions) has captured that title, and Finley has regressed a bit in the past month with more drops than the Packers would like to see. He entered Sunday's game at Kansas City with five drops in 66 targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and probably had three more against the Chiefs, depending on how strict of a grader you are. Finley blamed no one but himself for the drops, and we should note that his 41-yard catch to set up the Packers' first touchdown required a high degree of skill and concentration. But through 15 weeks of the season, I'm not sure we can say Finley has broken through to the degree most thought he would. He'll need 10 catches over the next two weeks to match the career high of 55 he set in 2009 -- in 13 games.

3. Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota Vikings tight end: Multiple reports suggest Kleinsasser is prepared to retire at the end of his 13th season, marking the end of a career that is to be admired in many ways, even if it rarely was reflected in the box score. Few recall that Kleinsasser was emerging as a reliable receiving threat in the early 2000s before he tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2004 season. Since then, he has handled one of the NFL's most inglorious jobs with aplomb, serving as a blocking tight end/quasi-third tackle and earning the respect of three different coaching staffs along the way. His approach has been a model for anyone who wants to maximize an NFL career. For 13 years, Kleinsasser has hit people hard and kept his mouth shut.

BBAO: Matt Forte won't play Sunday

December, 15, 2011
We're Black and Blue All Over:

We've had several discussions already about the extent to which Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte should rush back to the field after suffering a second-degree sprain of the MCL in his left knee. While I'm sure Forte wants to return as soon as he can, it's clear he isn't going to be accelerated by the team's timetable.

An injury of this type typically sidelines a player from two to four weeks. Bears coach Lovie Smith wouldn't rule Forte out for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks, but Forte took care of that himself.

Forte told reporters he is progressing but "not good enough to" play Sunday, according to Michael C. Wright of

This week wasn't really an issue from the start, but Sunday will be his second consecutive missed game. After that, we can truly begin the judgment of whether his expiring contract will impact the timing of his return to the field.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie hasn't been able to connect much with receiver Earl Bennett, as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune explains.
  • Teammates still have Hanie's back, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • It's far from a certainty that the Green Bay Packers will have right guard Josh Sitton for Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has more.
  • The Packers' offense shouldn't change much with receiver Greg Jennings sidelined, writes Jason Wilde of
  • Rookie D.J. Smith looks like a "starting-caliber" linebacker, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints have gone in different directions since the 2009 NFC Championship Game, writes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune.
  • The NFL's new G-4 stadium financing program could provide the Vikings up to $200 million for their new stadium project, according to Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • It sounds like Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser, the team's longest-tenured player, is headed for retirement, notes
  • Former Packers offensive lineman Matt Brock offered an interesting anecdote in a radio interview about what might have antagonized Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the teams' Thanksgiving Day game. Justin Rogers of explains.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "Suh doesn't think he owes anyone further explanation, but he owes his teammates plenty. He owes them a hellacious effort the final three games, as the 8-5 Lions scrap to get into the playoffs. He owes them the professional obligation of determination without distraction. Suh's deep pride helped make him one of the NFL's premier defensive tackles. He needs to make sure he doesn't choke on that pride."
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "While Suh said it's important for players to be accountable for their actions, he said that doesn't necessarily include addressing them publicly."
  • Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) said he would be on the field Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, according to the Free Press.
Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier spent four seasons with the team as a defensive coordinator and has holdover assistants sprinkled throughout his coaching staff. It is now clear, however, that Frazier's promotion in no way ensured continuity within the Vikings roster.

Frazier released left tackle Bryant McKinnie at the start of training camp, and news is beginning to trickle out about the departures of some other stalwarts of the Brad Childress era. Linebacker/special teams ace Heath Farwell confirmed to multiple media outlets, including, that he has been released. Meanwhile, agent Ralph Cindrich tweeted that tight end/fullback Jeff Dugan will be a free agent as of this evening, implying he will be released.

Dugan confirmed the move to Mark Craig of the Star Tribune.

Reserves throughout their careers, Dugan and Farwell were nevertheless among the Vikings' most tenured players. Dugan was a 7th-round draft choice in 2004 and Farwell joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 2005. Only two players, tight end Jim Kleinsasser and linebacker E.J. Henderson, have been with the Vikings longer than Dugan, and both he and Farwell were the kind of easy-going glue players that Childress and former coach Mike Tice wanted in the locker room.

That's not a knock on Frazier and his staff for moving on. It's difficult to develop young talent if you keep veterans as backups. Schemes change, players age and circumstances transform. Dugan and Farwell are dependable, of high character and unfortunately for them, they are replaceable.

If there was any question, it's now clear that Frazier will be blazing his own trail despite his relatively deep roots within the organization.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The pending prison release of former NFL receiver Plaxico Burress will no doubt generate substantial speculation about where he might seek to play in 2011. Already, players on several teams have made public pitches. And I'm sure that in an NFC North context, we'll hear plenty of Chicago Bears speculation.

Will it be merited?

Here's all we know so far: Bears coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind acquiring a bigger receiver to join the trio of Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. Burress is 6-foot-5.

But would the Bears want the baggage Burress brings, not to mention the rust from two years of inactivity? Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune doesn't think so.
Pompei: "Burress has three things working against him. The first is he will be 34 when the season starts. The second is he has not played football, or even trained with a football team, for two full years. The third is he has a history of getting in trouble. I don't think the Bears are that desperate."

I tend to agree. We've spent plenty of time discussing receivers and the Bears, but I'm not sure Burress and the Bears will be a fit.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Bears rookie Gabe Carimi is making an impact on Chicago's Jewish community, writes Donald Liebenson of the Tribune.
  • The Detroit Lions' unwillingness to participate in "Hard Knocks" indicates they aren't sure how good they will be in 2011, writes Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions receiver Calvin Johnson hopes he will have fresher legs during games after the team drafted rookie receiver Titus Young. Dave Birkett of the Free Press has more.
  • Check out this Twitpic of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in London's Trafalgar Square. Suh is participating in the Gumball 3000 road race.
  • The Green Bay Packers have scheduled their annual shareholders meeting for July 28, according to Jason Wilde of
  • Packers linebacker Clay Matthews charmed the crowd at the Rochester Press-Radio Club's Day of Champions banquet. Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has more. Among Matthews' lines: "For all you guys out there, I'll be in each and every one of your showers," referring to his upcoming line of Suave shampoo.
  • A group of Minnesota Vikings are working out in the Twin Cities at a local fitness club, writes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune. The group includes: linebacker Heath Farwell, offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson, linebackers Ben Leber and Chad Greenway, center John Sullivan and tight end Jim Kleinsasser.
  • Receiver Hank Baskett and several Vikings teammates from 2010 participated in a charity event last weekend to benefit victims of child abuse, according to Lynn Hoppes of

Injuries didn't concern Vikings

April, 29, 2011
Kyle RudolphAP Photo/Darron CummingsKyle Rudolph was the top tight end in this class, but injuries cost him nine games the past two years.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Be it the truth or a wives tale, there is an adage about assessing the injury history of NFL prospects: Players with a high frequency of injuries in college often mirror that rate at the professional level.

Put more bluntly: Injury-prone is injury-prone, no matter where you're playing.

Clearly, the Minnesota Vikings are hoping the top of their draft proves the exception. Thursday night, we discussed the impact of shoulder and arm injuries on Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. (ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, for one, is skeptical that Ponder will have any better luck in the NFL.)

In the second round Friday night, the Vikings drafted Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph -- a top prospect who missed portions of the past two seasons because of shoulder and hamstring injuries, respectively. Both injuries required surgery.

The Vikings, however, gave Rudolph a clean bill of health, have no concerns about his future and considered him a first-round talent worthy of selection despite a more-than-competent trio of incumbents at the position.

"We had no issues with him medically after he was cleared by our doctors," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said. "When he fell to us, he was too good of a player for us to pass up. He has some unique skills as a tight end, and we're going to stay true to our board. Normally, if he hadn't had that hamstring injury, I don't think we have a shot to get him. We feel we got great value where we got Kyle."

Rudolph is a 6-foot-5, 266-pounder who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He caught 90 passes in 29 games over three seasons for Notre Dame. Typically a tight end with those measurables would be a surefire first-round pick. But Rudolph didn't just have a hamstring injury last season. It tore completely from the bone in October, three months after he originally pulled it. He missed the final seven games of last season and soon had surgery.

That episode was enough to drop Rudolph from the first round. Friday night, Rudolph insisted he's 100 percent healthy but admitted the injury was an issue for some teams.

"The hamstring checked out completely 100 percent," he said. "It was something that I got it fixed over six months ago. By the time my pro day came around, I was 100 percent. The MRI showed it is 100 percent healed. All the doctors dug and prodded on it and they couldn't find anything."

I don't doubt that to be the case, but when a player misses nine games over two seasons, it's fair to at least inspect his history further. The Vikings have done that and have no long-term questions.

Incumbents Visanthe Shiancoe, Jim Kleinsasser and Jeff Dugan are all under contract for 2011, but it's worth noting each is entering the final year of his deal. Rudolph could prove a fortunate turn of events for the Vikings, providing he can stay on the field.

"I know we'll sort it all out as we get there," Spielman said. "We just wanted to stay true to our board, and he was by far the highest player on our board at that time."

We're going to look forward and backward this week for Dirty Laundry. Let's look ahead first. Why? Because I feel like it.

It's interesting, at least to me, that the Minnesota Vikings will arrive at Soldier Field this weekend having committed 17 false start penalties in their first eight games. That total puts the Vikings alongside the Oakland Raiders atop the NFL rankings for such miscues.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings couldn't be headed to a worse environment under those circumstances. You might be surprised to know that opponents have committed as many false start penalties this year at Soldier Field (12) than at any other stadium in the NFL. I'm sure part of that total can be attributed to fan volume, but I wonder if it isn't another tangential by-product of defensive end Julius Peppers' presence.

If you were an offensive tackle or tight end, wouldn't you be a bit more focused on Peppers -- and less on the snap count -- than other players?

In case you're looking for likely suspects Sunday, here is the breakdown of the Vikings' false start penalties this season:
Now, to look back. Many of you were outraged Sunday when referee Al Riveron's crew called Detroit Lions left guard Stephen Peterman for two chop blocks in the New York Jets' 23-20 victory.

First, let's get to the general definition of a chop block as stated in the NFL rule book: "A chop block is a foul by the offense in which one offense player (designated as A1 for purposes of this rule) blocks a defensive player in the area of the thigh or lower while another offensive player (A2) occupies that same defensive player."

Indeed, the widely-held understanding of a chop block is one offensive lineman cut-blocking a defensive lineman while another blocks him above the waist. It's a dangerous approach that can lead to the defensive lineman getting twisted unnaturally and injured.

On both occasions Sunday, Peterman (A1) cut-blocked Jets defensive lineman Shaun Ellis while a second Lions offensive lineman (A2) -- right tackle Gosder Cherilus on the first and center Dominic Raiola on the second -- stood nearby but did not engage.

Unfortunately for the Lions, that play falls under a secondary section of the chop block rule known as the "lure." (Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press pointed out the explanation earlier this week.) Here is how that scenario is worded: "On a forward pass play, A1 chops a defensive player while A2 confronts the defensive player in a pass-blocking posture but is not physically engaged with the defensive player (a 'lure')."

The NFL seemed to confirm this interpretation by finding Peterman $10,000. Had the league office found Riveron's call was wrong, no fine would have followed.

I can't say I understand what the purpose of the "lure" rule is, other than to prevent A2 from being a "decoy" while A1 (Peterman) does the dirty work. To me, it falls under the category we discussed earlier this season: Too many rules in the rule book make for a, pardon the pun, choppy game.

If I'm a Lions' fan, I'm more outraged that Riveron didn't call a face mask penalty against Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie at the end of the second chop-block play. Cromartie spun receiver Bryant Johnson to the ground by twisting his face mask. At best, there should have been off-setting penalties and a replay of third down.

Now, on to our updated challenge tracker:

Vikings: Giddy and hoping for magic

October, 10, 2010
Brett Favre/Randy Moss/Adrian PetersonGetty Images/Icon SMIFavre, Moss and Peterson comprise one of the most dangerous QB-RB-WR trios in recent memory.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When he heard the news, receiver Percy Harvin grabbed his phone and called his mother.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield refused to believe it, even after seeing "Minnesota Vikings acquire receiver Randy Moss" on the ESPN news ticker scroll a few dozen times. "I didn't think it was possible," Winfield said.

Tailback Adrian Peterson was speechless. "I feel like words can't even express right now," he said. "It's like Christmas over and over again."

Even tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, a stoic 12-year stalwart who has lived through some of the wildest days in franchise history, was shocked.

"Every year I say I've seen it all," Kleinsasser said. "I've been saying it for the last 12 years here. I've seen it all. [But] this is it. I've seen it all now."

Grown men felt compelled to make emotional calls to their mothers. They rubbed their eyes in disbelief while staring at the television screen, rushed down the stairs at the crack of dawn and raised their expectations for what is truly possible. Internal reaction to the Vikings' acquisition of Moss this week offered a preview of what Vikings fans -- and much of the sporting nation -- will feel Monday night when Moss joins Peterson and quarterback Brett Favre to form arguably the most accomplished quarterback-receiver-running back trio in recent NFL history.

"The sky's the limit," said Moss, who will open his second tenure with the team Monday night against the New York Jets.

Yes, at some point early at the New Meadowlands Stadium, the quarterback who has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in NFL history will stride to the line of scrimmage. He'll have his option of throwing to the receiver who has caught the second-most touchdowns in league history, or handing off to the running back who holds the record for the single-highest rushing total in a game.

The Vikings' offense has struggled to finish drives this season and entered Week 5 averaging 14.3 points per game, the third-worst mark in the NFL. Can Moss offer a universal remedy? It's hard to imagine one receiver making a 180-degree impact, but the Vikings hope that his presence will elevate their already-substantial cadre of weapons into an unstoppable team offense.

"He obviously brings a different dimension to any team," Favre said. "I've seen it so many years against him. You just shake your head. He doesn't have to catch the ball. ... It's what he does to defenses."

After watching their first practice together this week, the normally reserved Winfield was gushing.

"If you're a defense, it's 'pick your poison'," Winfield said. "You can stop [Moss] or stop Adrian Peterson. ... Brett wants to get the ball down the field and now he has the best [downfield] receiver in history to do it ... We have that dual threat now."

For years, defenses have been playing at least one safety close to the line of scrimmage to slow down Peterson. But if there were ever a player who could draw that safety away, it's Moss.

Peterson already is off to the best start of his career, averaging 130.7 yards per game this season, but this week he acknowledged the new opportunities in front of him.

"His presence out there is really going to shake things up and make guys play honest," he said. "It's really going to help this offense be more productive. ... I feel like a kid in a candy store."

Sometimes a cliché actually provides a precise description. In different ways, the Vikings' new offensive trio has always dreamed of playing together.

Peterson was 13 years old when Moss entered the NFL in 1998. "He was my favorite receiver to watch," he said, probably because Moss' freakish athletic abilities came to mirror his own.

Moss and Favre, meanwhile, have been engaged in a 13-year mating ritual that dates to Moss' first game against Favre's Green Bay Packers on Oct. 5, 1998. In that game, a Monday night affair at Lambeau Field, Moss caught five passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns.

"We played Cover 2 and you should never get beat in Cover 2 over the top," Favre said. "But it just happened over and over again. And we were not the only team that happened to. I've seen it way too many times."

Favre lobbied the Packers to acquire Moss in 2007 and 2008, and was deeply disappointed when they failed.

"How could you not want to play with a guy like that?" Favre said. "It can't do anything but make us better and make the guys around us better."

Favre was not the only fan in uniform during that 1998 game, however. Moss offered a similar recollection.

"They wanted all the offensive guys to come sit down," he said. "[Coaches said], 'Everybody come and sit down and rest your legs.' I said, 'No, I want to watch Brett Favre and see his magic.'"

Indeed, both Moss and Favre used the "M" word to describe their hopes for this union.

"I hope that there is still some magic left with me, with him, with this team," Favre said. "Absolutely."

So let us add another cliché to the mix. Christmas came early for the Vikings -- and they're hoping for an extended stay.

Dirty Laundry: Intent in challenges

September, 22, 2010
"Dirty Laundry" originated as a feature to follow how each NFC North coach uses in-game challenges. It expanded to include questionable officiating decisions across the board, and usually I try to address calls based on comments and complaints sent to the mailbag.

But every now and then, I still like to look at the challenge process because I think it provides rare insight into a coach's in-game mentality. In the past two weeks, we've seen the Minnesota Vikings' Brad Childress and the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy challenge plays for reasons other than getting the call overturned.

First up: In the Sept. 9 season-opener at the New Orleans Saints, Childress challenged a third-down incompletion with 14:57 remaining in the game. Initial television replays confirmed what to me seemed evident from the high-altitude press box at the Superdome: Quarterback Brett Favre's pass bounced before landing in the arms of tight end Jim Kleinsasser.

Childress occasionally challenges plays as sort of an extended timeout, and in this case, it gave his defense a few extra minutes of rest after what would have been a three-and-out. Afterwards, Childress said he had an obscured view of Kleinsasser's hands during the play but admitted "it never hurts" to give the defense a break in that situation. In essence, Childress lost a timeout but gained more "rest time" than if he had simply called one instead of throwing the red flag. The cost was lowering his available challenges to one for the remainder of the game, a minimal risk considering the game was already in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, McCarthy challenged a first-quarter incompletion last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills even after replays clearly showed receiver James Jones' right foot coming down out of bounds. How could that happen? McCarthy, in his usual direct way this week, said: "It was a bad challenge."

The way McCarthy described it, his organized protocol worked. The assistant assigned to watch replays in the coaches booth told him Jones was out of bounds. But players and other people on the sidelines often lobby emotionally for a challenge, and the Lambeau Field crowd also seemed to be encouraging McCarthy -- who challenged more calls than any other NFC North coach last season -- to throw the red flag.

McCarthy did and immediately regretted it.

"I should have never challenged it," he said. "The clock was running down. I got some advice that I shouldn't have taken, especially when the guy in my ear was telling me that he was out of bounds. So it was a poor challenge, I shouldn't have challenged it. My intent was just to take the timeout. We were down to six seconds on the 40-second clock when I made the decision. I should have taken a timeout there."

As we like to say, honesty is always the best policy. Now, on to our updated Challenge Tracker: