NFC North: Juaquin Iglesias

Jay Cutler and Julius PeppersUS PresswireThe Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Jay Cutler. Is he the reason Chicago is on the brink of the Super Bowl? Or does the credit go to Julius Peppers and the defense?
Let's play a game of addition.

  1. The starting quarterback is the most important player on any football team.
  2. The Chicago Bears finished the regular season 11-5, won the NFC North division title and will host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field.
  3. Jay Cutler is the biggest reason why.

So, in this case, does 1+2=3? Did the Bears need Cutler as their quarterback to advance this far? Was he the key to their resurgence this season? Or could they have followed the same path without making the 2009 blockbuster trade that cost them three high draft choices? In today's Double Coverage, ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson and ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert discuss that very question.

Kevin Seifert: Jeff, you've been covering the Bears for years. You saw them go to Super Bowl XLI with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. You've lived through Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton. You've seen a team win in spite of its quarterback, and you've seen quarterbacks single-handedly lose games. Let's start it off this way: How much credit do you think Cutler should get for the Bears sitting one step from the Super Bowl?

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) talks with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, right, and coach Lovie Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears quarterback Jay Cutler has thrived in Mike Martz's offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Cutler deserves plenty of credit, Kevin. As much as we want to hammer Cutler for his mistakes -- more on that later, I'm sure -- you can't overlook the fact his quarterback rating was above 100 six times in the regular season. And you guessed it: the Bears won all six of those games.

So if the most important player on the field was arguably the best player on the field nearly half the time, I find it impossible to minimize the positive impact Cutler had on the Bears' playoff run. Is he going to run for public office after he's finished playing football? No. Does he care that we're talking about him today, either good or bad? No. But to sit back and say Cutler was simply along for the ride wouldn't be doing his contributions much justice.

And by the way, thanks for bringing up Chad Hutchinson. I was trying to suppress that memory. What's next? Are we going to break down the NFL career of Jonathan Quinn? I could talk bad Bears quarterbacks all day.

KS: Any time. How about this: Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Shane Matthews and Steve Stenstrom. That pretty much covers it for our generation, I think.

Anyway, I agree it would be wrong to overlook some of Cutler's individual performances this season. He bounced back from some early hits in Week 2 to throw three touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys in a 27-20 victory. He forgot about the early interception against the New York Jets and went on to throw for another three touchdowns in a 38-34 victory. His performance against the Philadelphia Eagles -- four touchdown passes, 146.2 passer rating -- was superb. And don't forget his late-game drive against the Detroit Lions in Week 13, the one that locked up the division title.

But I think the question at hand is whether the Bears would have won 11 games with, say, Orton at quarterback. To me, Cutler was not among the top two reasons for the Bears' success this season.

More important was the defense, which limited opponents to 17.9 points per game, and the best special teams in the NFL. As a result of those two factors, Cutler and the rest of the Bears' offense had the best head start in the NFL. No offense had a better average start of its drive (33.7-yard line) than the Bears'.

Do you think the Bears win those games with Orton?

JD: I must first admit to being a card-carrying member of the Kyle Orton fan club. Is there a more underappreciated quarterback in the NFL? That being said, I think you could make the playoffs with a guy like Orton, but the Bears are in a better position to potentially win a Super Bowl with a guy like Cutler.

Let me explain.

I firmly believe if Orton quarterbacked the Bears in 2009 they probably would have won three more regular-season games (against the Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers). They would have finished 10-6 and perhaps earned an NFC wild-card playoff berth. Cutler cost the Bears those games because of a barrage of turnovers and terrible decisions. But that's where the ride would've ended with Orton, in my opinion.

Could Orton have beaten the Cowboys, Eagles or Jets in 2010? Maybe. But with apologies to Jim Mora, we're talking playoffs, Kevin, playoffs!

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireThe Bears' defense, led by Julius Peppers, gave the offense a head start on most drives.
Believe me, I know Cutler's only career postseason victory came against Seattle this past weekend, and he could easily go out Sunday and throw five interceptions against the Packers. But he could just as easily throw five touchdowns.

That's why the Bears are better off with Cutler -- because Orton hit his glass ceiling as an NFL quarterback. Cutler has not. Look at how Cutler tore up the Jets. The defense struggled, and it needed a lift from the quarterback position to beat a tough opponent. Cutler delivered. I'm not saying Orton is incapable of leading a team to victory over playoff-quality teams, but the chances Cutler can do it are greater.

Sorry, Kyle. I loved your neck beard. But I have to go with Cutler on this one.

KS: It's all fantasy talk, of course. We'll never know if Orton would have played well enough last year to compel the Bears to keep offensive coordinator Ron Turner this season. We also don't know if Mike Martz would have wanted Orton this season.

But the Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Cutler. Has he provided them enough value for those picks? Or could they have used those draft picks to improve themselves in other areas?

It would be wrong to say that Cutler hasn't had a positive impact on the Bears this season, but I'm not willing to say he was the key to the Bears' division title, either. But if the Bears go to the Super Bowl, no one is going to care about that distinction.

JD: And you know Cutler is happiest when nobody cares!

I guess it's possible Jerry Angelo would have turned those two first-round selections into starting-caliber players. But I've seen the Bears use high draft choices on the likes of Michael Haynes, Roosevelt Williams, Mark Bradley, Dusty Dvoracek, Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias. So to assume Angelo would've waved his magic draft wand and taken the right guys? Well, that would be misguided, to say the least. Despite all the warts, I'm happy with Cutler and feel the Bears are now in a better position to win their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season because of him.

I could talk bad Bears draft picks all day.

KS: Spoken like a longtime Bears follower. Basically what you're saying is that while Cutler has demonstrated some flaws, his acquisition nevertheless prevented the Bears from making another series of draft mistakes! Perfect. I love it.

On that note, Jeff, this has been fun. I think we can agree Cutler has made a positive impact on the Bears' run to the NFC Championship Game. Could they have done it without him? That's up for debate.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greetings from Titletown after a windswept drive across the prairie. Temperatures are in the single digits here, but it's the wind -- gusting at up to 29 miles per hour -- that is absolutely brutal. If Sunday afternoon's wind is anything close to this, we'll be assured of some altered strategy and a few chapped lips at Lambeau Field.

Now, let's get to a few news stories that popped up while your blogger took a few hours away from the computer Saturday:

1. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune has reported the Minnesota Vikings have entered serious discussions with interim head coach Leslie Frazier, presumably with the purpose of making him their permanent head coach. Zulgad followed up with a blog post Saturday evening that read in part: "It's become pretty clear that Frazier is the first choice of owner Zygi Wilf to take over the Vikings after going 3-2 (with one game left) as the interim coach since Brad Childress was fired in late November. But like with any coaching situation, that doesn't mean it's an automatic this is going to get done. In fact, this is one situation where until pen is actually put to paper assuming anything can be dangerous."

If this all comes to fruition, I realize I am going to have some explaining to do. We'll deal with that when the time comes. For now, however, I'll say this: If Frazier is the Vikings' top choice, it makes all the sense in the world to get the legwork done this weekend so Frazier can hit the ground running as the permanent coach on Monday morning.

Would it make sense for the Vikings to interview a wider swath of candidates? Perhaps. But I've learned my lesson. For now, I'll withhold comment until we have something close to announcement to comment upon.

2. ESPN's Ed Werder is reporting that quarterback Brett Favre passed one phase of his post-concussion impact test but that Frazier doesn't think Favre will be ready for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. After all, Favre hasn't practiced since Dec. 3. He's logged about 1 1/2 quarters of playing time over two games over that 29-day span.

But I think we've all learned our lesson on that one, too.

3. Finally, the Vikings signed receiver Juaquin Iglesias from the Bears' practice squad at about the same time they added receiver Bernard Berrian (quadriceps) to their injury report. Iglesias is now part of the Vikings' 53-man roster and thus is eligible to pay Sunday against the Lions.

With no practice time in the Vikings' offense, I'm not sure if Iglesias will be active Sunday. But again, stranger things have happened.
Some NFC North teams will continue tweaking their rosters over the next 24 hours, but for the most part, what you see is what you're going to get for Week 1 games. In that vein, let's take a look at some random but interesting (to me) trends we're seeing. Some of the observations are mine, and I've given credit to those who came up with the others:

  1. Of the 53 players on the Bears' roster, only 23 of them were drafted by the team over the past seven years. Seven drafts should form the foundation of any team, but for the Bears it represents only 43 percent of the roster. (Source: Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune)
  2. The Bears did bring back 2009 draft pick Juaquin Iglesias to the practice squad. The same could not be said for defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert.
  3. The Green Bay Packers have more fullbacks (three) than tailbacks (two) on their roster. I can only assume that John Kuhn, Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson will participate heavily in special teams. The Packers had hoped to bring back Kregg Lumpkin on their practice squad to serve as a quasi-No. 3 runner, but Lumpkin was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  4. [+] EnlargeDelmas
    Andrew Weber/US PresswireSafety Louis Delmas is the only Lions defensive back who was on the roster last season.

  5. By reaching an injury settlement with Will Blackmon and releasing Jason Chery, the Packers left themselves with no obvious kick returners. If that's their biggest problem, I'm not too worried about it. But in the short term, it looks like Jordy Nelson or possibly Brandon Jackson could fill the role. *Update: Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Tramon Williams and Greg Jennings are options at punt returner.
  6. The Detroit Lions have turned over their entire secondary with the exception of safety Louis Delmas. Every other defensive back is new to the team this year. (Source: Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.)
  7. To put a bow on a couple of trades: The Minnesota Vikings received a 2011 fifth-round pick and a conditional 2012 seventh-round draft pick from the New York Giants in return for quarterback Sage Rosenfels and kick returner Darius Reynaud. Meanwhile, the Lions and Denver Broncos exchanged undisclosed draft 2011 picks to complete the Alphonso Smith-Dan Gronkowski trade.
  8. In announcing their waiver claim of former Green Bay tight end/linebacker Spencer Havner, the Lions listed him as a linebacker. That makes perfect sense considering the Lions' strong depth at tight end and thin situation at linebacker.
  9. The Lions currently have five players listed as cornerbacks on their roster: Smith, Chris Houston, Jonathan Wade, Aaron Berry and Amari Spievey. But Spievey has been working at safety the past few weeks, and Berry is a rookie who missed much of training camp because of a hamstring pull. Your guess is as good as mine right now about who will fill the nickel and dime roles.
  10. The Vikings are in a similar situation. They have three cornerbacks on their active roster, and even if they bring someone in over the next day or so, it's hard to imagine him participating Thursday night at New Orleans. You figure Antoine Winfield, Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen will make up the nickel package. But who will the Vikings play if they need a sixth defensive back? At this point, it will have to be one of their backup safeties.

BBAO: Finding optimism in Chicago

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
11:26
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Happy Labor Day to you and yours. Hopefully you'll be able to enjoy it with as little labor as possible.

Speaking of working -- I specialize in brutal transitions -- ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg has worked awfully hard to offer a positive spin on the Chicago Bears' winless preseason. Greenberg wonders if an 0-4 record in "fake games" should change expectations for any team, but adds:
Fans, from what I can tell, are less optimistic. They are ready for an uprising. Bill Cowher could lead a coup of Coogi sweater-wearing, mustache-grooming clones to Halas Hall, if he chose.

Fans aren't owed 10 wins and a playoff berth. It doesn't come with those three-figure ticket prices and your cable bill.

But a return to optimism would be nice, wouldn't it?

Call me crazy, I think this team can win nine games and challenge for a playoff berth. But I won't lose a bet if they win six.

That's the beauty of Week 1. No matter what has happened to this point, hope springs once again.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune offers "the story behind the story" of 2009 third-round draft picks Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald predicts an 8-8 record for the Bears this season.
  • Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiles Bears receiver Johnny Knox.
  • The Detroit Lions remain unsettled at linebacker and in the secondary, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Waiver claim Stefan Logan will return punts for the Lions, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com, and perhaps kickoffs as well.
  • At this point, the average age of the Green Bay Packers' roster is 25.89, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "It certainly says a lot about Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and his scouting department that five of the players they released Saturday were claimed by other teams. It also says something else as the Packers enter a season with heavy Super Bowl expectations: Thompson and Co. better be right about the roster decisions they made. In the case of each player who was claimed, Thompson decided to keep a player who is green as grass but arguably has more potential."
  • It appears the Packers will go into the season with the sure-handed but moderately explosive Jordy Nelson as their primary kickoff and punt returner, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Mark Craig of the Star Tribune: "The Vikings' best bet to keep the Saints from knocking Brett Favre into an early third retirement might be to run the ball as well as they did against them in the NFC Championship Game eight months ago. Only this time don't fumble it six times."
  • New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is fully expecting Vikings players to take their shots at him Thursday night, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • It's not clear if the Vikings will have center John Sullivan for Thursday night's game, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.

Chicago Bears cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
8:42
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Check here for a full list of Chicago's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: There were no earth-shattering moments Saturday for the Bears. But it was sobering to see them give up on three members of their 2009 draft class, including defensive end Jarron Gilbert, receiver Juaquin Iglesias and safety Al Afalava. Defensive lineman Henry Melton squeezed onto the roster, and the class did produce two 2010 starters: Receiver Johnny Knox and right guard Lance Louis. Meanwhile, guard Josh Beekman was put out of his misery. The Bears have been trying to replace Beekman for two years and finally released him. Finally, the Bears kept four tailbacks -- Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell and Garrett Wolfe. Forte and Taylor are expected to get all of the offensive snaps, but Bell and Wolfe have special teams value.

No-brainers: There was plenty of excitement when the Bears drafted quarterback Dan LeFevour, an Illinois native, but it was apparent early in training camp that he wasn't destined to make the roster. The Bears devoted all of their offensive reps to starter Jay Cutler and then-backup Caleb Hanie. Todd Collins has taken over at No. 2 because of Hanie's shoulder injury, and there was no way the Bears were going to release Hanie and keep LeFevour. You wonder if he won't end up back on their practice squad.

What's next: The Bears are going to have to get their special teams re-situated after releasing Tim Shaw, who led the team with 30 special teams tackles last year. It appears Shaw was released to make room for linebacker Brian Iwuh, who the team believes is more suited for its defensive scheme.
Earlier Thursday, we looked at four established NFC North players who reside on the proverbial roster bubble. Now, let's take a broader look at some key questions our teams face in determining the final composition of their rosters.

Will the Bears wipe out a good bit of their 2009 draft? Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert, receiver Juaquin Iglesias and defensive lineman Henry Melton were the Bears' top three picks of that draft. They've all been invisible this summer and certainly haven't done anything to earn roster spots. Whether one is reserved for them is another question.

Can the Bears find room for special-teams stud Tim Shaw? He had 30 tackles on special teams last season but isn't much of a factor on defense. But he would qualify as a specialist, and there isn't always room for one on a 53-man roster. Do the Bears feel comfortable using him at linebacker, especially considering preseason injuries to Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Nick Roach? Uncertain.

How many running backs will the Detroit Lions keep? We know that Jahvid Best is the starter, and veteran Kevin Smith would be the likely No. 2 if he were completely healthy. But does Smith's offseason knee surgery make the Lions nervous? And if so, do they keep five backs behind Best -- Smith, Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, DeDe Dorsey and fullback Jerome Felton -- or does one get released?

If they keep an extra back, could the Lions take a roster spot from the quarterback position? That's not out of the question. The Lions have established Shaun Hill as the long-term backup to starter Matthew Stafford. So is there any reason to keep Drew Stanton on the roster?

Will the Green Bay Packers keep five tight ends? We mentioned the possibility of veteran Donald Lee meeting the end of the line. It's also possible that Tom Crabtree could be sneaked onto the practice squad. But you could make an argument that all five tight ends are among the Packers' top 53 players. General manager Ted Thompson has made odd numerical choices before; last year he kept three fullbacks for what is mostly a one-back offense.

Will both players who entered 2009 competing for the right tackle job be cut? It's very possible that Allen Barbre and Breno Giacomini have played their way off the team. This year's backup tackles are more likely to be Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang.

How will the Minnesota Vikings establish more depth at cornerback? Right now, their starters are Antoine Winfield and either Lito Sheppard or Asher Allen. The nonstarter in that group is the likely nickelback, but beyond him the Vikings have no viable candidates for depth. A waiver claim or trade would seem a near-certainty.

How many receivers can the Vikings keep? Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin are locks. You would think Greg Lewis makes the team, along with Greg Camarillo. Will Javon Walker make the Week 1 roster as a No. 5 receiver? Or would the Vikings be wary of guaranteeing his 2010 salary? Signing him back as early as Week 2 would allow them to pay him on a weekly basis.

Earlier: Final-week position battles and players on the bubble.
In the hours leading up to Miami's acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall, @jasherrera lashed out via Twitter:
@espn_nfcnblog Y wldnt Smith/Angelo trade 2011 1st rd 4 Marshall? Both r fired if they dnt win THIS year anyway, that content w/ WRs we got?

To translate from Twitter-ese: Please explain why the Bears didn't get involved with the sweepstakes for Marshall, who rose to Pro Bowl status while playing with current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and would provide a legitimate No. 1 receiver to a group known mostly for its potential. If the gambit didn't work, the resulting damage would almost certainly be the problem of Chicago's next general manager and coach. Do general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith really have that much faith in the Bears' current group of pass-catchers?

Let's work through those issues as systematically as we can.

  1. Without a first- or second-round pick in 2010, the Bears didn't have the firepower in this year's draft to complete a trade. If they were really desperate, it's possible they could have swung a multi-team deal to get the Broncos a second-round pick this year. Or, they could have offered a package that included their No. 1 pick in 2011, a scenario that would have diminished their draft for a third consecutive year. That deficit would be tough for any franchise to overcome.
  2. Miami is poised to make Marshall the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald. That would mean a deal that averages at least $10 million per season. While there is no salary cap this season, every team has the internal limitations of a cash budget. The Bears added three premium contracts to their payroll last month in signing defensive end Julius Peppers, running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. Just a guess, but I'm thinking their budget is about tapped out.
  3. At every opportunity, the Bears' actions have demonstrated a strong level of confidence in their current group of receivers. Not only have they sat out trade talks for Marshall and Anquan Boldin, but they've also expressed no known interest in a list of available veterans that includes Torry Holt and Kevin Curtis. In and interview on the Bears' Web site, Angelo said he have investigated some free agent offensive linemen and at least one veteran safety, but made no mention of receivers.

As a group, the Bears' receivers showed flashes last season. And a number of football people I respect have offered positive evaluations of the group. But it's simply a fact to note that analysis is based on potential, not necessarily prior production. Let's close with a look at the career catches of the Bears' receiving corps, a list I think should include tight end Greg Olsen:

Greg Olsen: 153
Devin Hester: 128
Rashied Davis: 79
Earl Bennett: 54
Johnny Knox: 45
Devin Aromashodu: 31
Juaquin Iglesias: 0
Eric Peterman:
0
MIAMI -- Detroit linebacker Larry Foote is planning to hit the free-agent market next month because the Lions have expressed little interest in granting his request for a multiyear contract. John Niyo of the Detroit News has the story here.

Foote started 14 games last season at middle linebacker, but a foot injury opened the door for rookie DeAndre Levy to establish himself as the likely 2010 starter. The Lions don’t have much depth behind Levy, but at this point Foote isn’t likely to agree to return as a backup.

It’ll be interesting to see if any of the Lions’ starting linebackers from 2009 return in 2010. Julian Peterson is due to make $7.5 million in 2010, and Ernie Sims did not appear to be a great fit for the Lions’ new defensive system.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Tillman, Knox and Smith updates

December, 29, 2009
12/29/09
4:31
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As promised, let’s circle back on a number of lingering news strands from Chicago’s perspective in the wake of Monday night’s 36-30 victory over Minnesota:
Tillman
Knox

  • Cornerback Charles Tillman, taken from Soldier Field on a stretcher in the fourth quarter, was diagnosed with fractured ribs and a bruised lung. It’s hard to imagine him playing in the season finale against Detroit.
  • Receiver Johnny Knox suffered a sprained ankle, but no fracture, in the third quarter. He’s also unlikely to play against the Lions. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune suggests his absence could lead to the first regular-season appearance for rookie receiver Juaquin Iglesias.
  • Speaking Monday to reporters, coach Lovie Smith wouldn’t address his future with the team. “I'm confident that I'll be coaching [against] the Detroit Lions this week, and that's about as far as you need to go,” he said. “... You coach and you work that day. You don't look any further than that. And it's been that way for me since I've been here. Nothing has changed. We have an opponent coming up this week. I'm excited about being able to coach the team coming off a big win.”

NFC North draft rewind

December, 23, 2009
12/23/09
3:00
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NFC Draft Rewind: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft class lists: Chicago | Detroit | Green Bay | Minnesota

Examining the draft classes of each division team:

Chicago Bears

Knox
Hit: Receiver Johnny Knox (No. 5a) ranks fourth among NFL rookies in catches (45), eighth in yards (527) and fourth in touchdowns (5). That is premium production for any fifth-round pick, especially a near-complete unknown out of Abilene Christian. Knox also has averaged 28.9 yards per kickoff return, including a 102-yard touchdown.

Miss: Rookie receivers don’t always contribute immediately, but it’s a major disappointment that Juaquin Iglesias (No. 3b) hasn’t so much as appeared in a game for a team that sorely lacks receiver depth. Iglesias fell behind Knox and Devin Aromashodu during spring drills and hasn’t been in uniform for a game this season.

Needs patience: Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert (No. 3a) is a tremendous athlete who has spent the season learning the pro game from line guru Rod Marinelli. Stuck behind Tommie Harris and Israel Idonije on the depth chart, Gilbert has played in only two games. But he has high athletic upside.

Detroit Lions

Delmas
Co-hits: Safety Louis Delmas (No. 2) and linebacker DeAndre Levy (No. 3a) have demonstrated athleticism, powerful hitting and playmaking ability. Both should be fixtures in future starting lineups.

As advertised: Quarterback Matthew Stafford (No. 1) has a powerful arm and excellent football instincts. Questions about his accuracy (53.3 percent) haven’t dissipated, but his competitive zeal and willingness to play in pain have solidified him as a cornerstone of the franchise.

Needs patience: Running back Aaron Brown (No. 6) is a bona fide playmaker when he has the ball in the open field. The Lions have been hesitant to expand his role because of repeated mental mistakes, but they hope Brown will minimize those as he develops.

Green Bay Packers

Matthews
Hit: Linebacker Clay Matthews (No. 1b) opened the season as a backup, but has put on a late run for defensive rookie of the year honors. He has 10 sacks in 11 starts, making good on general manager Ted Thompson’s decision to trade back into the first round to draft him.

Sleeper: Linebacker Brad Jones (No. 7) was the 218th player selected in the draft and slated for a deep reserve role, at best. But since taking over for the injured Aaron Kampman, Jones has more than held his own with three sacks.

Patience: The Packers haven’t gotten the kind of big plays they hoped for from defensive lineman B.J. Raji (No. 1a), who has spent the season adjusting to the 3-4 scheme while nursing an ankle injury. But he’s shown enough flashes to indicate he could be a dominant force on the line.

Minnesota Vikings

Harvin
Hit: For most of the season, receiver Percy Harvin (No. 1) has been a leading rookie of the year candidate. His open-field running has added a new dimension to the Vikings’ offense, and he’s also been the NFL’s most dangerous kickoff returner. Only migraine headaches have slowed him down.

As advertised: The Vikings had a need for a right tackle and waited patiently until Phil Loadholt (No. 2) fell to them at No. 54 overall. They had every intention of inserting him immediately into the starting lineup, and Loadholt has been a fixture from the first day of minicamp.

Needs patience: Cornerback Asher Allen (No. 3) displayed aggressive instincts during the preseason and in his relatively few appearances in the regular season. He’s spent the season as the Vikings’ No. 5 cornerback but projects as a regular contributor in the future.

Rookie surprise: Bears WR Johnny Knox

October, 7, 2009
10/07/09
12:00
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NFC Rookie Surprise: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Jerry Lai/US Presswire
Johnny Knox's versatility has been valuable for the Chicago Bears.

As part of an ESPN.com project, today we’re looking at the unlikely contributions of Chicago receiver Johnny Knox. To understand just how random Knox’s sudden rise has been, we should revisit general manager Jerry Angelo’s own depiction of the decision to draft Knox in the fifth round out of Division II Abilene Christian:
“We were in the fifth round of the draft and [coach Lovie Smith] looked at the board along with the scouts and said, ‘How about this Johnny Knox?’ He said, ‘We really don’t have anybody like him.’ We all talked together and we thought given the other players that we were considering that he had the traits we look for at the position. He was probably a little bit more unknown given his level of competition, but we knew that with Jay [Cutler] being on board, he could be another potential weapon, so we went ahead with it.”

Knox was overshadowed on draft day by third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias, and even after an impressive training camp, he seemed destined to be the No. 5 receiver on a team that dresses only four for games. But a preseason injury to receiver Devin Aromashodu opened the door, and Knox utilized all of his 4.3 speed to run through it.
Rookie Watch
Scouts Inc. is keeping a weekly watch on the league’s top rookies.
Rookie Watch

Over the first four games, Knox has 14 receptions for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Only one NFL rookie has more catches, Tennessee's Kenny Britt, and none have exceeded his touchdown total. Knox also has taken over as the Bears’ primary kickoff returner, and on Sunday he dashed 102 yards for a touchdown against Detroit. Surprise, surprise.

Cutler as a 'viper'

August, 27, 2009
8/27/09
4:23
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

If you have an ESPN Insider subscription, I highly recommend you check out David Fleming's essay on Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler's "split personality." Fleming describes Cutler as "an annoyed viper -- with a frat boy haircut and a slight double chin."

Consider this anecdote as evidence of the way Cutler approaches his job:
During Jay Cutler's first week of practice as the Bears' new quarterback, a rookie wide receiver dared to shag a few of his passes with just one hand. And even though this rookie, third-round pick Juaquin Iglesias, had been lectured a few times by coaches about the importance of proper technique, he was slow to break his annoying little habit. So when it happened again one afternoon, Cutler followed his pass upfield, darted toward Iglesias and screamed into his face mask: "If you ever do that again I will never throw another f--ing pass to you. EVER!"Interesting. We'll have more on Cutler for you as his Sunday night return to Denver approaches.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Detroit's training camp got a jolt Wednesday when rookie safety Louis Delmas put a big-league hit on running back Aaron Brown during a full-pads drill, causing a fumble and sending Brown sprawling to the turf near the sideline.

Players generally are asked to avoid such hits in practice to prevent injury, and media accounts report that coach Jim Schwartz told Delmas the hit was unnecessary. But I'm guessing no one was too upset to see the spurt of aggression from Delmas, who the Lions have been hoping would add some nastiness to their secondary. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham admitted he smiled when he saw it, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press:

"You shouldn't do that in practice, but I turned around and smiled. I loved every second of it. Boy, he blew him up. That's the kind of tackling we hope to get out of him."

Delmas had been limited during training camp because of a swollen knee and is just getting back to full participation in practice. He is expected to play Saturday at Cleveland.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Posted by ESPN.com staff

Chicago Bears

Detroit Lions
  • Rookie linebacker Zack Follett signed a three-year deal with the Lions on Monday. Follett was picked in the seventh round by Detroit.
  • Tom Kowalski of mlive.com says the signing of Phillip Buchanon could be the key to solving the Lions' secondary issues.
Green Bay Packers
Minnesota Vikings
  • Vikings coach Brad Childress said he wasn't concerned that rookie receiver Percy Harvin was sent home from the league's rookie symposium last month because of an illness.
  • It looks like it's possible Brett Favre may have a decision on his future in the NFL sooner than expected.

NFC North training camp preview

July, 21, 2009
7/21/09
11:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.

Chicago Bears
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)

Campfires
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.

The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.

Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.

It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.

O-verhaul
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.

Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.


Detroit Lions
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.

 
  Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI
  The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.

Campfires
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.

Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.

Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.

Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.

Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.

And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.

Linebacker city
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.

Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.

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