NFC North: Johnathan Joseph

Everyone remain calm. By all accounts, all is well.

You might have noticed Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers limping at the end of Sunday night's 42-24 victory over the Houston Texans. And you might be alarmed to learn he was limited in practice Wednesday because of a calf injury. But coach Mike McCarthy told reporters the injury is not a major concern, and Rodgers himself said on his ESPN 540 radio show that he will be "good to go" for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams.

Rodgers said he suffered the injury during an 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, one that was called back because of penalty but not before Rodgers popped up with an exceptionally demonstrative scoring celebration.

"I probably should have slid," said Rodgers, who instead kept running, cut inside of cornerback Johnathan Joseph and dove into the end zone. "I hurt my leg a little bit, but I think I'll be OK."

The Packers are counting on it.
The available free agent cornerbacks for the Detroit Lions to choose from are dwindling. The latest name off the board is Johnathan Joseph, whose monster agreement with the Houston Texans reportedly includes $23.5 million guaranteed.

Earlier this week, we posted Scouts Inc.'s top 10 free agent cornerbacks, including those who are restricted free agents. That list is down to seven, and there is no indication the Lions are in on negotiations for Nnamdi Asomugha. I've published the amended list below.

Let's not consider these names the Lions' only possibilities. General manager Martin Mayhew is well known for his trading prowess, and it's possible 2010 starter Chris Houston will return. But if you were hoping they would splurge on one of the top two or three cornerbacks available, you're probably going to be disappointed.
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha
  2. Brent Grimes (RFA)
  3. Antonio Cromartie
  4. Brandon Carr (RFA)
  5. Chris Carr
  6. Richard Marshall
  7. Carlos Rogers
Via Twitter, @gregfairbanks expressed a common refrain from the fan base of any team that didn't make a Day 1 splash in free agency: "Awfully quiet on the lions front -- any news brewing??"

I haven't abandoned my expectation that the Detroit Lions will add at least one free-agent cornerback in the coming days. We should point out that one candidate is already off the market; the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to terms with incumbent Ike Taylor late Tuesday night. Other than an expectation that the Lions won't "go big," there is no clear indication what direction they're headed in here.

So until we get a better feel for their approach, I'll leave you with the top 10 remaining cornerbacks on the free-agent market, as ranked by Scouts Inc. (You need an Insider subscription to see the entire list.)

Note that Chris Houston, the Lions' ostensible No. 1 cornerback last season, isn't in this ranking. And remember that restricted free agents require draft-pick compensation if the current team chooses not to match an offer sheet extended by the new team:
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha
  2. Johnathan Joseph
  3. Brent Grimes (RFA)
  4. Antonio Cromartie
  5. Josh Wilson
  6. Brandon Carr (RFA)
  7. Chris Carr
  8. Richard Marshall
  9. Drayton Florence
  10. Carlos Rogers

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:27
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flier on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane, as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine his changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives if Ponder needs some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.
In an Insider piece for ESPN.com, our friends at Football Outsiders have put together a list of first free agency steps Insider for each NFL team. You'll need a subscription to see all of it, but below I've passed along their recommendations for the NFC North along with my thoughts for a free-agent market that will open in the coming days:

Chicago Bears
Football Outsiders:
Sign defensive tackle Brandon Mebane
Seifert comment: We've discussed this possibility and it makes a good bit of sense. But anchoring the offensive line should take top priority. That can't happen without re-signing center Olin Kreutz, a job the Bears will get to right away, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.

Detroit Lions
Football Outsiders:
Sign cornerback Johnathan Joseph
Seifert comment: Sounds like a good idea to me, especially if the Lions have decided that Nnamdi Asomugha is too expensive.

Green Bay Packers
Football Outsiders:
Trade or release linebacker Nick Barnett
Seifert comment: We've gone over the cap implications of Barnett's departure; it would save the Packers more than $4 million against the cap. But the Packers have other ways to create cap space, and the biggest motivation would be to avoid the potentially uncomfortable situation of a veteran starter returning from injury to find his job filled (by Desmond Bishop). If egos can be managed, the Packers would be stronger with Barnett, Bishop and A.J. Hawk sharing the two inside linebacker positions, at least to guard against training camp injuries. If so, the Packers' top priority should be re-signing place-kicker Mason Crosby.

Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders:
Trade for a veteran quarterback
Seifert comment: Everyone wants to know what the Vikings will do with rookie Christian Ponder. I think they want him to play right away. Even if Ponder isn't ready for Week 1, should the Vikings sacrifice a draft pick just to find the shortest of short-term starters? I'm not sure. But I agree that establishing their training camp depth chart at quarterback, one way or the other, should be their top priority.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We are working on a story that pegs Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson as an emerging star in the NFC North, and Johnson keeps giving us more material.

Quite simply, he put on a show Sunday night in the Lions' 27-10 preseason victory at Cincinnati -- catching three passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in the first two series of the game. Here's a breakdown:

  • Lions' first play from scrimmage: 40-yard reception, leaping over Bengals cornerback Leon Hall.
  • Lions' fifth play from scrimmage: 9-yard reception.
  • Lions' sixth play from scrimmage: 27-yard touchdown. On the play, Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph was flagged for illegal contact at the line of scrimmage. It didn't matter. Johnson shoved Joseph aside and ran his route.

We are only midway through the preseason here. But if nothing else, Johnson appears unencumbered by the back injury that slowed him his rookie season. He is showing why he was the No. 2 overall pick of the 2007 draft, having caught seven passes for 154 yards in FOUR offensive series, and the Lions are giggling with excitement.

As are we ... as we head into another week covering the NFC North.

  • Technically, Lions quarterback Jon Kitna has been perfect this preseason. He has achieved the NFL's highest passer rating (158.3) in both of the Lions' preseason games.
  • Detroit started a rookie backfield Sunday night: Tailback Kevin Smith and fullback Jerome Felton.
  • The Green Bay Packers are planning no changes to the configuration of their offensive line, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. So despite a rough night Saturday in San Francisco, Jason Spitz and Josh Sitton are expected to continue working with the first team when practice resumes Monday night.
  • Packers running back Noah Herron opens up about a scary summer incident in which he fought off intruders inside his Wisconsin home.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune thinks Chicago coach Lovie Smith should do everyone a favor and name Kyle Orton the Bears' starting quarterback. "... There hasn't been enough carry-over into games to convince anybody the drawn-out process was better than just naming a starter from Day 1," Haugh writes.
  • As quarterback Tarvaris Jackson heals from a sprained right knee, the Minnesota Vikings are trying to figure out if they have a roster spot for receiver Martin Nance. Nance is competing for the No. 6 receiving job -- if the Vikings end up keeping six receivers -- but was impressive Saturday night in Baltimore, catching three passes for 74 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

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