NFC North: Jon Kitna

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit is back after a week off and so is the Detroit Lions mailbag.

A little bit shorter mailbag this week as we head into the second half of the season. Detroit heads to Chicago for a massive divisional game to everyone -- well, everyone except Brandon Marshall, who said this is like every other game -- and a game that could determine a wild-card slot or possibly the NFC North title.

Remember, the mailbag is only as good as your questions. To contribute to future mailbags, drop an email to michael.rothstein@espn.com and include your first name and hometown, or shoot me a note on Twitter @mikerothstein.

On to your questions.

.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

In 2007, Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna predicted the team would win more than 10 games. The Lions finished 7-9.

Six years later, Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley is talking Super Bowl. Fairley stopped short of predicting an appearance in the big game in an interview with Terry Foster of the Detroit News, but said: "I expect big things."

He added: "I am going to say we are going to the Super Bowl because I am competitive and that is what I want for the team and it is one of the goals. I am sure we are going to take it game by game and day by day."

The Lions are hoping for a big turnaround after last season's 4-12 crash. Their busy offseason has inspired some national prognosticators to promote them as playoff contenders. In these types of situations, I'm always fine with players expressing big hopes and plans. Based on NFL history, at least one team will turn around a losing 2012 season and drive deep into the 2013 playoffs. If you don't think you can be that team, then what's the point?

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions have agreed to terms with their bottom four draft picks, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • The Green Bay Packers are planning trolley tours along the Packers Heritage Trail, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Vic Ketchman of Packers.com wonders if Packers rookie David Bakhtiari could project as the team's future left tackle.
  • The Minnesota Vikings and the University of Minnesota have reached a user agreement for the Vikings to move into TCF Bank Stadium for 2014 and 2015. More from the Associated Press.
  • Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is researching alternative revenue streams to cover the state's $30 million annual commitment to building the Vikings' new stadium. Baird Helgeson of the Star Tribune explains.
  • Here's a good one: Dayton (a politician) chastised Vikings general manager Rick Spielman for not being "honest about what the heck is going on" in regards to the team's punting "competition" and eventual release of Chris Kluwe. More from the Associated Press.
  • Chicago Bears rookies are excited for their minicamp this weekend, writes Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com addresses whether Bears tailback Matt Forte will be used more often in the passing game in 2013.

Matthew Stafford and Lions history

December, 8, 2011
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During his 2009 job interview with the Detroit Lions, coach Jim Schwartz famously said it was time to find a replacement for quarterback Bobby Layne. The best quarterback in team history last donned a Lions uniform in 1958.

Matthew Stafford has a long way to go before overtaking Layne on that scale. But while the nation has fixated on the Lions' behavior here in 2011, Stafford has put himself on pace for the most prolific passing season in franchise history.

Granted, there isn't a long list of elite quarterbacks in the team's record books. And there is no doubt that raw passing numbers have risen steadily during the NFL's past two decades. But facts are facts, and if Stafford continues at anywhere close to his current pace, he'll set new team records for completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. He's got a shot at the top completion percentage and isn't that far off the team record for passer rating.

The chart shows the details of records set mostly by Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell, along with Stafford's current 12-game statistics. At this rate, Stafford is on pace to throw for 4,702 yards and 36 touchdowns, and he might get there Sunday against the injury-depleted Minnesota Vikings pass defense. (Mild sarcasm intended.)

I think we should save a full evaluation of Stafford's 2011 performance for after the season. But has there been a time since 1958 when the Lions felt as good about their long-term quarterback prospects as they do now? I would say not. Don't forget that Stafford entered the 2009 draft early and won't turn 24 until February. Some things are worth waiting for, I guess.

The Detroit Lions finished 0-16 in 2008.

Could they reverse that record in 2011?

During a visit to the NFL Network studio this week, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was asked if the "sky is the limit for the Lions." His response:

"No question. I don't see there [being] a reason why we can't be 16-0, as long as we put in that hard work ... throughout camp and so forth, getting ready for that 2011 season. As long as we stay healthy and are putting in that hard work, I think we should be happy where we end up."

As we discussed earlier this offseason, Suh's quiet confidence has become the national face of the Lions franchise. In an excellent mix of zoological metaphors in January, he referred to the Lions as a "tiger that is definitely going to have to be reckoned with in 2011."

If you're a Lions fan, you don't want Suh expressing anything other than optimism about the near future. But as you can see for yourself, he wasn't asked to predict the Lions' record next season. That was all him.

You might recall former Lions quarterback Jon Kitna making some unlikely predictions a few years ago. I'm not sure that Suh's is any more likely, but I think we can all agree on the original premise: The sky is the limit.

Rewind'10: Utilizing Greg Olsen

January, 6, 2011
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As we continue to look back on our preseason NFC North themes, let's examine how one of our most vigorous discussions turned out.

The Bears denied initial concerns that tight end Greg Olsen would be minimized in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, which had traditionally used tight ends more as an extra lineman than a receiver. As we noted many times, no tight end had caught more than 38 passes or scored more than six touchdowns in a season under Martz. Similar numbers in 2010 would have qualified as poor use of resources, and I suggested that Martz would find a way to get Olsen more involved than that.

In the end, Olsen exceeded that high mark by three receptions. On the other hand, Olsen's 41 catches were his lowest total since his rookie season. He scored five touchdowns, one off the high in a Martz offense and tied for the second-most in his career. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Olsen was targeted for 67 passes, tied for the 16th-most among NFL tight ends.

Keep in mind that Martz pulled back significantly on the passing game at midseason, and Bears quarterbacks combined for a total of 466 attempts. For context, consider that in his final full season with Martz in St. Louis, Kurt Warner threw 546 passes. Marc Bulger threw 532 passes in 15 games in 2003, and Jon Kitna threw 596 and 561, respectively, while with the Detroit Lions in 2006 and 2007.

In the end, Olsen wasn't as productive as he had been in previous seasons. But given the system foisted on him, and the midseason adjustments made beyond that, I would consider a 41-catch season a success. You?

BBAO: Another Tyler Thigpen appearance

November, 17, 2010
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

You're on the right track if the name "Tyler Thigpen" rings a bell. The quarterback expected to start Thursday night against the Chicago Bears was a seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. (It always goes back to the Vikings, doesn't it?)

The Vikings liked Thigpen and wanted to develop him as a long-term project. But they weren't willing to create a roster spot to do it, and instead tried to slip him through waivers and place him on the practice squad. (The backup quarterbacks they kept instead, Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb, are long gone.) The Kansas City Chiefs claimed Thigpen largely because he impressed them during a joint training camp practice, and he had an impressive stretch of 11 starts during the 2008 season. The Chiefs traded him to the Miami Dolphins in 2009.

Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald chronicles Thigpen's journey. Bears fans might be rejoicing in facing the Dolphins' No. 3 quarterback, but rest assured he has more experience and skill than the players that fill that job for many teams.

The Replacements: NFC North

June, 19, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Tait
Williams

A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:

Chicago Bears

Who's out: John Tait, right tackle (Retired unexpectedly)

Who's in: Chris Williams (2008 first-round draft pick)

Outlook: The Bears originally expected Williams to start at left tackle, and he still projects there in the long-term. But the fallout from Tait's unexpected retirement, as well as the free agent departure of John St. Clair, left Chicago scrambling.

The Replacements
Tuesday: AFC North | West
Wednesday: AFC South | East
Thursday: NFC South | East
Friday: NFC North | NFC West

As it turned out, veteran free agent Orlando Pace was the best option. Rather than shifting Pace out of his longtime spot on the left side, the Bears decided to let Williams break into the NFL at what is generally considered a less challenging position.

This seems to be a reasonable arrangement and a good response to Tait's decision. All things equal, new quarterback Jay Cutler would surely prefer backside protection from Pace rather than an untested player. Williams will get a chance to learn the NFL game without that pressure.

Kitna
Orlovsky

Detroit Lions

Who's out: Jon Kitna/Dan Orlovsky, quarterbacks (Traded to Dallas/Departed via free agency)

Who's in: Daunte Culpepper/Matthew Stafford, (Culpepper restructured his contract, Stafford was the No. 1 overall pick of the draft)

Outlook: The Lions didn't lose anyone they had hoped to retain, but the quarterback transition is the biggest item on their agenda this summer.

Culpepper
Stafford
Stafford ultimately will take over the starting job, but the question is when. Culpepper is viewing this season as a final chance to salvage
his career. The pieces are in place for him to have at least short-term success, most notably offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and receiver Calvin Johnson.

Unless Stafford proves to be the rarest of talents, it's likely Culpepper will open the season as the Lions' starter. If he can achieve modest success, he will give Stafford the long-term gift of a full season of development on the bench.

Tauscher
Barbre
Green Bay Packers

Who's out: Mark Tauscher, right tackle (Currently a free agent as he rehabilitates a torn anterior cruciate ligament)

Who's in: Allen Barbre/Breno Giacomini/T.J. Lang (A training camp competition is expected.)

Outlook: The Packers almost certainly would have brought back Tauscher were it not for the injury, and it's always possible he could return at midseason if and when he fully recovers. Until then, however, the Packers will have to determine if anyone on their current depth chart can handle the job.

Barbre will get the first chance. He's seen reserve action in 15 games over the past two seasons, mostly at guard, but has a mean streak that could serve him well in a primary run-blocking position of the offensive line. Some consider Lang, a fourth-round pick in 2009, a potential long-term answer.

Birk
Sullivan
Minnesota Vikings

Who's out: Matt Birk, center (Signed with Baltimore as free agent)

Who's in: John Sullivan (Sixth-round pick, 2008)

Outlook: The Vikings made a late run at trying to sign Birk but all along seemed prepared to pass the torch to Sullivan, a Notre Dame project who was one of the first players to report for offseason training this winter.

Sullivan doesn't have Birk's size, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep some of the game's top defensive tackles out of the Vikings' backfield. But from a mental standpoint, no one expects any difficulty with Sullivan's line calls or his capacity to otherwise handle the position.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Kevin Smith was rarely at loss for words during his rookie season with Detroit, and he's taking that talent to the blogosphere.

In one of the first posts of his new blog at smith34.com, Smith predicts your Lions will make the playoffs. In 2009.

Smith: "I won't make a prediction about how many games we're going to win, but I will say this: We will definitely make the playoffs this season. Believe it or not we weren't far off last year. Almost every game we could have won, we were one play or one player short. Except for Tennessee on Thanksgiving, they just came out and beat us to sleep. They manhandled us, but nobody else did."

I'm not sure everyone would agree with Smith's assessment of the Lions' 0-16 season. I saw Chicago pretty much crush them (34-7) at Ford Field in October. And maybe Smith has forgotten about New Orleans' 42-7 victory Dec. 21. But that's so last year.

One thing no one can dispute: It's now an annual tradition for a Lions player to predict a looming playoff appearance. Quarterback Jon Kitna did it in 2007 and 2008, and now Smith has picked up where Kitna left off.

Later in his blog entry, Smith notes he will have to earn his starting job but then suggests he is on the brink of stardom:

"But this is definitely my year. I've been thinking about how it's been kind of similar to my experience in college, which would make this a breakout year for me. I'm working toward a Pro Bowl, working toward a championship."

I presume Smith is referring to the jump he made between his sophomore and junior seasons at Central Florida; he rushed for 934 yards in 2006 and 2,567 in 2007.

Don't forget about Mark Sanchez

March, 25, 2009
3/25/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Throughout all the recent discussion on Detroit's quarterback situation -- Daunte Culpepper? Jon Kitna? Matthew Stafford? Jay Cutler? -- one prominent name has been overlooked. USC quarterback Mark Sanchez is generally considered the second-best quarterback in the draft, and the Lions have the ammunition to draft him if they want.

Lions officials will attend Sanchez's April 1 pro day, which is one day after the team's private workout with Georgia quarterback Stafford. The Lions won't give Sanchez a private workout, but coach Jim Schwartz said Wednesday they will host him on a visit to their practice facility in Detroit. The Lions also hope to tack some drills of their own onto his pro day throwing session, Schwartz said.

Typically, the schools control the workout procedure and plan the drills. Schwartz said the Lions hoped Sanchez will give Detroit the option of, say, throwing into the wind instead of with the wind.

"I'm sure his agent will be open to it," Schwartz said.

The Lions are in an interesting spot with Sanchez. Even if they prefer him over Stafford, it's unlikely they will choose him at No. 1. It's also risky to assume he will be available with their No. 20 overall pick. More than likely, the Lions would have to make some sort of trade -- either down from No. 1 pick or up from No. 20 -- to draft him in an appropriate slot.

A final catch-up on the weekend

March, 2, 2009
3/02/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We here in the Black and Blue didn't have the kind of blockbuster free agent weekend that a few other divisions enjoyed. That could change a bit if receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh agrees to terms with Minnesota, possibly as early as Monday, but otherwise the NFC North took a secondary position in the initial stages of the NFL's offseason player scramble.

But with a nod toward AFC North colleague James Walker's 7-step drop, and in recognition of my own absence over the weekend, let's touch on a few pertinent points before moving forward this week:

  • Chicago's acquisition of offensive lineman Frank Omiyale gives the Bears extra flexibility but doesn't necessarily answer the question of who will replace retired right tackle John Tait. Omiyale's $5 million in guarantees suggests he will start somewhere, but he has experience across the line and likely will focus on guard, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. This means the Bears likely will have three new starters on their line in 2009: Chris Williams at left tackle, Omiyale -- possibly at left guard -- and whoever replaces Tait. You would have to assume that current free agent John St. Clair remains the favorite for that job.
  • I can only hope Green Bay wasn't too serious about signing free agent defensive end Chris Canty, who agreed to terms with the New York Giants on Sunday evening. This quote from Canty's agent, Brad Blank, spoke volumes: "They acted like the Packers always do. They said, 'Good luck with [the Giants], and if it doesn't work out, we're interested.'" (Check out Pete Dougherty's full story in the Green Bay Press-Gazette.) Assuming Blank provided an accurate portrayal of the Packers' message, then it's the stance of a team that considered Canty a secondary target at best. If the Packers had serious designs on signing Canty -- and it's not as if they are overloaded with 3-4 defensive ends -- then they needed a much more aggressive approach.
  • This is just me talking, but what I liked the best about Detroit's weekend is that the Lions got something in return for quarterback Jon Kitna, who under no circumstances was going to be back with the team in 2009. I don't know whether cornerback Anthony Henry, whom the Lions acquired from Dallas in return for Kitna, is going to have a huge impact this season. But most teams simply would have released Kitna and went about their business. The trade sends the appropriate message that new general manager Martin Mayhew is going to leave no stone unturned and will try to capitalize on every asset possible to improve the roster. It's also a sign of Mayhew's negotiating skill that he was able to get a return on a player near the end of his career who had no future with the team.
  • I continue to be amazed at the way Minnesota is willing to throw money around at darn near every position except quarterback. The Vikings' latest target, Houshmandzadeh, figures to get a deal from someone worth around $6 million per season. Over the weekend, backup tight end Jim Kleinsasser signed a new three-year, $9 million deal. That's only slightly more than the Vikings will pay quarterback Sage Rosenfels, whom they acquired Friday to compete with Tarvaris Jackson for their starting job. (Rosenfels signed a two-year, $9 million contract.)
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

INDIANAPOLIS -- Take this for all that it's worth: On the first full day of the 2009 scouting combine, five of Detroit's key decision-makers went to dinner with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. The two-hour affair at a local steakhouse included:

  1. General manager Martin Mayhew
  2. President Tom Lewand
  3. Senior personnel executive James "Shack" Harris
  4. Coach Jim Schwartz
  5. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan

Check out reports from Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press, John Niyo of the Detroit News and David Birkett of the Oakland Press.

Stafford entered the combine as the consensus top pick of the draft, and the Lions are evaluating whether to take him, go the safer route with an offensive tackle or trade out of the position.

Stafford is scheduled to speak with reporters here at the combine on Friday. We'll bring you his thoughts as soon as we can.

For now, let's take a romp through the rest of the division:

  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com reports the Lions will release or trade quarterback Jon Kitna before he is due a $1 million roster bonus next month. Schwartz was vague on the issue Thursday.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times notes that it's possible the Bears could draft an offensive lineman with left tackle traits to play on the right side.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald looks at the top tackles in the draft: Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith, Ole Miss' Michael Oher and Virginia's Eugene Monroe.
  • Schwartz and Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert both noted the difficulty of making the kind of switch to a 3-4 defense that Green Bay is planning. Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal has details.
  • Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf loves to spend money in free agency, but there might not be enough targets available for his cash, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Former Vikings fullback Thomas Tapeh is likely to work out with Seattle next month, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Here is what we can tell you in the wake of Tuesday's revelation that Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper has renegotiated his contract: Culpepper is in the mix to start for the Lions in 2009.

  Culpepper

Actually, that's the term Lions president Tom Lewand used Tuesday during a meeting with Detroit-area reporters. Culpepper has not been given the team's starting job, and in fact Lewand said the team is also negotiating to bring back Dan Orlovsky -- a pending free agent who started seven games in 2008.

During the interview session, Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't sound anywhere close to deciding on a starter:

"We want to keep all options open and a lot of that depends on free agency, a lot of it depends on the draft and those kinds of things. I think you don't want to shut any door before it's time, so to speak."

It's possible that Culpepper agreed to change the timing of a roster bonus he was originally due to collect Feb. 27. If that's the case, the Lions will have bought more time to decide the direction of the position before giving him a multimillion dollar payout. (The original bonus was worth $2.5 million.)

This gives Culpepper a chance to earn a job -- and likely a future financial payout from the Lions' new regime. It doesn't mean the Lions wouldn't also draft a quarterback in April, and clearly it hasn't stopped them from pursuing at least one other veteran (Orlovsky). About the only conclusion you can reach is that Jon Kitna, himself due a relatively modest bonus later this month, almost certainly will be released or traded in the next two weeks.

Only the very best players from an 0-16 team should be guaranteed a starting job the following season. None of the Lions' 2008 quarterbacks fall into that category, so the team is doing what it should: maximizing its options, minimizing risk and moving forward.

Imagining Garcia in these parts

February, 16, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It's interesting -- at least to me -- that you can rule out only one NFC North team as a potential landing place for pending free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia, who officially learned over the weekend that he won't be returning to Tampa Bay in 2009.

It's relatively safe to assume that Green Bay, with Aaron Rodgers locked in as the starter, won't make a run at Garcia. But you could make an argument that the remainder of the Black and Blue, to varying degrees, could all benefit from signing a quarterback who has experienced immediate success in his two most recent stops.

Take a look at what Garcia did in those instances. In both cases, Garcia guided his team into the playoffs:

Jeff Garcia By the Numbers
Jeff Garcia has been told by the Buccaneers that he won't be retained for a third season. Here is a look at the quarterback's first year in his previous two NFL stops:
Team Year Comp Att Pct Yds INT TD Rat
Philadelphia 2006 116 188 61.7 1,309 10 2 95.8
Tampa Bay 2007 209 327 63.9 2,440 13 4 94.6

Now let's consider Garcia's NFC North possibilities, building up to the situation that makes the most sense from both sides:

DETROIT LIONS

Why it might work: The Lions have a logjam of potential "bridge starters" who could hold space for a young quarterback the team could acquire as early this spring. But new coach Jim Schwartz might want to make a clean break from the past, which would eliminate Daunte Culpepper, Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton and even Jon Kitna from consideration. All things equal, you might choose Garcia over each of those candidates regardless.

Why it won't happen: Garcia already has had one disastrous experience in Detroit. He is known primarily for his success in the West Coast offense, but new coordinator Scott Linehan is more closely associated with the "three-digit" downfield passing style. Garcia isn't likely to want to finish his career in a rebuilding situation.

Chances: Unlikely

  2008: Best of Jeff Garcia
  NFL.com Video
  The best moments from Jeff Garcia in 2008.

CHICAGO BEARS

Why it might work: The Bears aren't committed to starter Kyle Orton beyond the 2009 season, and general manager Jerry Angelo has made the position his highest priority. That makes it hard to believe the Bears will enter 2009 without at least an experienced backup for Orton; Garcia might be the best candidate available. The Bears don't run a West Coast offense per se, but Garcia would quickly develop relationships with the team's veterans.

Why it won't happen: Garcia might be more of a challenge than the Bears want to pose for Orton. If they're trying to coax Orton to long-term success, the Bears are best off with a backup who can fill in if Orton falters. That's different than a backup who can beat him out on merit in training camp. Garcia also does nothing to solve the longer-term quarterback issue should Orton fail.

Chances: Possible

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Why it might work: The Vikings run the type of West Coast offense Garcia has excelled in. He has a quick release, is mobile and has thrown only 14 interceptions in the past three seasons. He could assume the starting job right away and give Tarvaris Jackson more time to develop. Garcia should be attracted to the Vikings' offensive weapons, from receiver Bernard Berrian to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to tailback Adrian Peterson.

Why it won't happen: Coach Brad Childress has been loyal to Jackson and will give him every opportunity to succeed. The Vikings had a chance to sign Garcia two years ago and passed. If Garcia does his homework, he'll find out that at least two veteran quarterbacks -- Brad Johnson and Gus Frerotte -- ended their seasons disenchanted with their roles.

Chances: Possible going on intriguing

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

After introducing James "Shack" Harris as his new senior personnel executive, Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew made one thing clear: The Lions don't plan to lose placekicker Jason Hanson.

Hanson, a pending free agent, has been discussing a multi-year contract extension with the Lions this week. Mayhew told Detroit-area reporters that if the discussions don't lead to an agreement, the Lions will place the franchise tag on him. That move would come no later than Feb. 19.

Here's what Mayhew said, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News:

"I think we'll get something done prior to that. If we don't, we'll franchise Jason. ... It's Jason Hanson, and we appreciate everything he's done for us. And we're trying to work out a long-term deal with him."

The franchise figure for placekickers this season is $2.48 million. Mayhew also confirmed negotiations with two other pending free agents: Guard Stephen Peterman and fullback Moran Norris. He said discussions about the quarterback position -- where Daunte Culpepper and Jon Kitna are both due roster bonuses at the end of this month -- remain underway.

Continuing around the NFC North on a Friday morning:

Hot Button: NFC North

February, 11, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Chicago Bears

 
  Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
  Lovie Smith has some work to do with his defense.

Primary issue: The Bears gave up an average of 241.2 passing yards per game in 2008, third-worst in the NFL. The run defense ranked No. 5 overall, but coach Lovie Smith must find a way to re-balance a once-proud group.

Smith, however, isn't likely to get help from a personnel infusion this offseason. A series of recently-signed contract extensions means the Bears must largely rely on existing players to improve. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher, and defensive tackle Tommie Harris are all in the midst of long-term deals.
If players remain static, that leaves two avenues for adjustment: Scheme and coaching.

Solution: Smith already has overhauled his defensive coaching staff and seems poised to impose some level of scheme change himself by calling the game-day defensive signals himself. The Bears could also help themselves at two positions in the draft: Defensive end and safety.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East

Secondary issue: Ron Turner's offense could use more explosion, both from the backfield and at the wide receiver position. In 2008, there was perhaps one player -- receiver Devin Hester -- who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.

As a team, the Bears had 35 pass plays of more than 20 yards and three of more than 40. Those figures ranked No. 26 and No. 29, respectively, in the NFL.

Solution: The receiver position seems an obvious target in free agency. Turner also would be wise to follow up on his plan to get scatback Garrett Wolfe more involved in the offense.


Detroit Lions

Primary issue: The Lions finished 2008 with the NFL's 30th-ranked rush offense and 32nd-ranked rush defense. Valuing quickness over size, the Lions got pushed all over the field on both sides of the ball and need to overhaul both lines.

 
  Derick Hingle/Icon SMI
  Alabama's Andre Smith could fit in nicely with the Lions.

This is not a one-year project, and instead takes several good drafts, along with at least some isolated free-agent acquisitions, to accomplish. Conservatively, the Lions need to find at least two guards, two defensive tackles and an eventual successor for center Dominic Raiola.

Some fans probably would like to see left tackle Jeff Backus replaced, and many aren't sold on young right tackle Gosder Cherilus. But the interiors of Detroit's lines are the most pressing issues.

Solution: The Lions must take a lineman with at least one, if not both, of their No. 1 picks. Some believe Alabama left tackle Andre Smith could be the best player in the draft. Left tackle isn't the Lions' top need, but Smith could set a tone for the entire offensive line.

Secondary issue: The Lions have three veteran quarterbacks on their roster: Drew Stanton, Daunte Culpepper and Jon Kitna. They have the opportunity to re-sign Dan Orlovsky. None of those players, however, are long-term answers at the position.

New coach Jim Schwartz joked last month that it was time to replace former quarterback Bobby Layne, who last played for the Lions 51 years ago. The Lions need a permanent answer at the game's most important position.

Solution: The Lions will consider whether to take Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. That's a possibility. Here's another: Making Culpepper or Orlovsky a bridge starter and selecting a developmental quarterback later
in the draft.


Green Bay Packers

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  In the Packers' new 3-4 scheme, Aaron Kampman will move to outside linebacker.

Primary issue: The Packers believe their personnel is flexible enough to absorb a pending shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme, but it's inevitable that some positions are going to turn over.

Aaron Kampman's shift to linebacker means the Packers need a new defensive end. And there's no guarantee that the two primary outside linebackers on the roster, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga, will be able to handle the new scheme.

Unfortunately for them, the Packers will have to make those decisions months before training camp begins. Now is the time when the best alternatives are available.

Solution: General manager Ted Thompson needs to step out of his free agency shell and sign at least one linebacker and one defensive end to protect himself this summer. Those positions should also be a focus of the April draft.

Secondary issue: The offensive line got old in a hurry last season, and it's possible the Packers will have to replace at least one, if not both, of their tackles. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is headed to free agency while recovering from a torn ACL, a bad situation for both sides. And left tackle Chad Clifton struggled with both knees last season and has one year left on his contract.

The Packers aren't exactly set at guard, either. They rotated Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Josh Sitton through the position last year, but it's possible that Colledge could figure as a replacement for one of the tackles.

Solution: Colledge could replace Tauscher at right tackle. It's also likely that Thompson will select multiple linemen in the draft.


Minnesota Vikings

Primary issue: For three years, the Vikings have been looking for the long-term successor to Culpepper. Coach Brad Childress has given Tarvaris Jackson every opportunity to claim that position, and you better believe that Childress would love for Jackson to do that once and for all in 2009.

 
  Rick Scuteri/US PRESSWIRE
  The Vikings need Tarvaris Jackson to solidify himself as the starting quarterback.

The question becomes the extent to which the Vikings will protect themselves against the possibility that Jackson can't do it. Gus Frerotte isn't likely to return, so at the very least the Vikings will have to find a new veteran backup for Jackson.

Many fans are hoping that second-year player John David Booty can challenge Jackson for the job, but it's unlikely that will happen in 2009.

Solution: The Vikings have a veteran team that seems primed for a deep playoff run, but they need to elevate their quarterback play one way or the other. Signing the best free agent available, likely to be Jeff Garcia, is probably their best option.

Secondary issue: The Ryan Cook experiment could end for several reasons, leaving the Vikings in need of a right tackle. Cook could replace veteran Matt Birk at center, or he simply could be benched after nearly three inconsistent seasons as a starter.

Cook played center in college at New Mexico and never has looked entirely comfortable as a right tackle.

Solution: There are no internal replacements. This position will have to come from outside the organization. Childress has long been a fan of Philadelphia's Jon Runyan, a free agent this spring, but that would be a short-term decision.

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