NFC North: Julian Peterson

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.
NEW ORLEANS -- The truncated NFL owners meeting still allowed for a 90-minute coaches breakfast Tuesday morning, one that gave us an opportunity to assemble reams of information for future blog posts. I plan to sift through it over the coming days and weeks, and we'll start with what I thought was the most interesting part of the 20 minutes I sat with Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Many of you have noted the Lions' depth deficiency at outside linebacker and wondered if the team would be tempted to move middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to that position, especially if the Lions draft or sign a starting-quality middle linebacker later this spring or summer. Levy has told Detroit-area reporters that he wouldn't fight the change, which would return him to the position he played at Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Levy
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMiddle linebacker DeAndre Levy could end up moving to the outside if the Lions don't add upgrades at the position.
When asked Tuesday, Schwartz noted how comfortable he is with Levy calling defensive signals and getting players lined up. But notably, he wouldn't rule out the possibility of a position change.

"Part of our criteria for linebackers is we like multidimensional players," Schwartz said. "And that means the ability to play inside and outside. That means the ability to play pass and run, all those things. One of the reasons we drafted him is that he is a multidimensional player. He's a little bit like [quarterback] Matt Stafford. We just need to keep him on the field. When he's played and he's been healthy, he's done very, very well for us. He could move around a lot of different places."

The Lions have released 2010 starter Julian Peterson, and Zack Follett's neck injury makes him a wild-card at best to resume his role as a starter in 2011. The Lions have two reserves who could figure into the equation, Ashlee Palmer and Bobby Carpenter, but a big-picture look at their roster still suggests outside linebacker is a top offseason priority.

Moving an established middle linebacker might not be your first choice, but it might be the Lions' best option depending on how the draft plays out.

"We're very happy with him inside," Schwartz said. "One of his strengths is his ability to control the defense. It's something we were very pleased with when he was a rookie [in 2009]. ... It's very rare that a rookie can do the things that he did. ... [Then] he was very, very impressive in our offseason program, just in getting us set, what our checks were, all those different things. He's a very, very good communicator. So there is also a value to having him in the middle of your defense."

Schwartz said he didn't talk to Levy about changing positions before the lockout started, but added: "I don't need permission."

If all things are equal, my guess is the Lions don't want to move Levy. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of a 4-3 defense, and Schwartz has been talking about him playing this position since the day of the 2009 draft. Chances are, Levy isn't going anywhere. But if multiple breakdowns occur elsewhere, the Lions can be comforted knowing they have this option.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

It's no secret that the Bears patched together a serviceable offensive line last season, one born of trial, error and desperation. But with an entire offseason to prepare, they will need a better Week 1 plan. The Bears need help across the line, and you could make an argument for any of the five positions as their top need. Center Olin Kreutz could relieve the situation by re-signing when the free-agent market opens, but otherwise the Bears don't have a single position with an established starter. It's not clear where incumbents Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza or J'Marcus Webb will play in 2011. Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris highlighted the Bears' need for an upgraded interior pass rush. The Bears would benefit from a pass-rushing defensive tackle as well as some depth behind defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije.

Detroit Lions

The Lions have only two experienced cornerbacks under contract, Nate Vasher and Alphonso Smith. They offered 2010 starter Chris Houston a contract tender, but he is likely to be made an unrestricted free agent when the market opens. The Lions would like him to return but the situation's uncertain. In either event, cornerback is the Lions' top need this offseason. Running a close second is outside linebacker after the Lions released one starter, Julian Peterson, and issued a qualifying tender for another, Zack Follett, whose 2010 neck injury could preclude his return. There has been some discussion about moving middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to the outside, but that probably would still leave the Lions in search of two new starters. Finally, the Lions want more production from their No. 3 receiver after Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for 21 receptions last season. Good depth at tight end mitigates the urgency of this need, but the Lions are one injury away from a shortage at receiver.

Green Bay Packers

The Super Bowl XLV champions will get an internal boost at several positions from the 15 players who finished last season on injured reserve. As a result, this roster doesn't have many obvious shortcomings. But at the top of a short list is outside linebacker, where the Packers rotated three players opposite Clay Matthews last season. The Packers also must continue crafting their succession plan for longtime offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Last year's No. 1 pick, Bryan Bulaga, replaced Tauscher in Week 5. Bulaga could stay at right tackle, or he could ultimately take over for Clifton. In either case, the Packers eventually will need further reinforcements. The same is true at receiver, where veteran Donald Driver is 36 and No. 3/4 receiver James Jones could sign elsewhere as a free agent. Jordy Nelson remains under contract, but Driver's age and Jones' uncertain status make receiver a secondary area of need for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

As we've been discussing for months, the Vikings need to acquire at least one and perhaps two new quarterbacks. Their dream scenario is to draft one who is ready to start right away, but that might be difficult if they stay in the No. 12 overall slot. Short of that eventuality, the Vikings might be forced to draft a future starter and sign or trade for a short-term answer. The Vikings are also looking to replace two starters on their defensive line, left end Ray Edwards and nose tackle Pat Williams, and could have three starting positions in their secondary up for grabs. Only cornerback Antoine Winfield seems guaranteed of a starting spot. The receiver position could need an overhaul if they lose Sidney Rice to free agency and Bernard Berrian is ultimately released, as has been speculated.
As we await final word on the state of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which appears headed into a bonus day of Friday negotiations, we have a few last-minute NFC North personnel moves to review.

Most notably, multiple media outlets are reporting the Detroit Lions decided against offering a tender contract to running back Kevin Smith, who has accrued three NFL seasons and thus would be a restricted free agent under any circumstances. It's possible the Lions could re-sign Smith at a later date, but that seems unlikely.

Smith, who was a part of Matt Millen's final draft class with the Lions, dealt with knee and shoulder injuries over the past two seasons and had been supplanted by Jahvid Best as the organization's top running back.

"I've been hurt the last two years, so to me, it was more of a business decision," Smith told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "In this business, you can never be surprised. It's strictly business, and they did what they had to, and I'll do what I have to do."

The Lions have Maurice Morris and Aaron Brown on their roster behind Best, but I would think that running back will be a priority in the April draft. A few other notes:
Now more than ever, it makes sense to identify the NFC North players who will be most involved in resolving the NFL's looming labor dispute. Below you'll see each team's union representatives, based on the most recent list published by the NFL Players Association.

Chicago Bears
Rep:
Place-kicker Robbie Gould
Co-alternates: Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and receiver Rashied Davis
Comment: Hillenmeyer was released earlier this week and might retire, but he is expected to remain active in union activities regardless.

Detroit Lions
Rep:
Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch
Co-alternates: Place-kicker Jason Hanson and linebacker Julian Peterson
Comment: Vanden Bosch took over this year for offensive lineman Jon Jansen, who was released. Peterson is expected to be released this spring.

Green Bay Packers
Rep:
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Co-alternates: Cornerback Charles Woodson and receiver Donald Driver
Comment: Rodgers took over the lead role during the 2010 season. Woodson recently released a statement supporting Wisconsin public workers in their ongoing dispute with the state.

Minnesota Vikings
Rep:
Left guard Steve Hutchinson
Co-alternates: Defensive end Jared Allen and linebacker Ben Leber
Comment: Hutchinson predicted last summer the NFL would lock out its players. Leber is unsigned for 2011.
Whether we're at the Epicenter of Humanity or not, there's no beating down ESPN's draft coverage. Mel Kiper Insider and Todd McShay Insider each weighed in Wednesday with mock drafts. You'll need an Insider subscription to see all of the picks, but I can slip you each man's choices for the two NFC North teams whose draft positions are locked in.

12. Minnesota Vikings
Kiper's pick:
Colorado offensive lineman Nate Solder
McShay's pick: USC offensive lineman Tyron Smith
Seifert's comment: I'm presuming Solder or Smith would be envisioned as replacements for two-year starter Phil Loadholt. I wouldn't count right tackle as the Vikings' biggest need, but an upgrade wouldn't hurt. Quarterback is the Vikings' top priority, but Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton are already off the board in both mocks. McShay also has Washington's Jake Locker taken ahead of the No. 12 spot.

No. 13. Detroit Lions
Kiper's pick:
UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers
McShay's pick: Solder
Seifert's comment: The Lions are expected to release veteran linebacker Julian Peterson, and Zack Follett's neck injury has left his future cloudy. So along with cornerback, outside linebacker ranks as the Lions' top need. If all things are equal, Ayers seems a smarter pick than Solder -- even if Gosder Cherilus had his moments last season.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

It appears the Green Bay Packers are on track to get one of their injured players back in time for the playoffs.

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins returned to practice Wednesday and expressed confidence that he will be available for Sunday's wild-card game at the Philadelphia Eagles. Jenkins hasn't played since straining a calf muscle Dec. 5.
Jenkins, via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I'm pretty encouraged. I was able to do a lot of stuff. My biggest thing was that I didn't want to just go out there and do running on the side, because you can favor it and you can kind of anticipate everything that you're going to do. I told the coaches and the medical staff that I wanted to go out in a team situation so you have to react and you can't favor it. You have to just adjust out there on the fly. It was pretty good for my confidence to be able to make it through all that without any problem."

It's not clear if Jenkins will be ready to play a full game, especially considering how active the Eagles are on offense under quarterback Michael Vick. But the Packers can't help but benefit from the return of a defensive lineman who had seven sacks in 11 games this season.

Continuing around the NFC North:

BBAO: The offseason begins for some

January, 3, 2011
1/03/11
10:00
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We're Black and Blue All Over:

Half of the NFC North will spend its first full day of the offseason Monday, anticipated to be one of the most unusual in recent times for the NFL. But this is not the time to start discussing the league's impending lockout of its players. We'll have plenty of time to hit that one.

I'm planning a final look at the Week 17 through our Free Head Exam feature, and I'll also sprinkle in some updated information you've been requesting -- including the projected 2011 draft order and the 2011 opponents for each NFC North team, presuming there is a 16-game season this year. A bigger-picture season wrap-up will post later this week.

But first, let's take a quick spin through the local media in each Black and Blue market:
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times on the Chicago Bears' 10-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers: "The Bears lost, but they get major points for effort."
  • The Bears rediscovered their suffocating defense Sunday, writes Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune: "Ugly as any of the first 15 games, this one did no damage to the Bears' playoff viability."
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press has a warning for those who will carry high expectations for the Detroit Lions into the offseason: "Hope is always encouraging. It inflames expectations, accelerating the demands for results far more tangible than a rare divisional third-place finish. But don't think for one minute that it can't ultimately prove as emotionally torturous as despair."
  • Terry Foster of the Detroit News after the Lions finished the season on a four-game winning streak: "Welcome to Day 1 of the most anticipated Lions offseason in a decade."
  • Lions linebacker Julian Peterson was inactive Sunday and almost certainly won't return in 2011, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Nothing has come easy for the Packers this season, so why should the regular-season finale be any different?"
  • Packers receiver Greg Jennings atoned for an early-game drop Sunday, writes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "Not only did the Green Bay Packers accomplish their goal of rendering Chicago Bears record-setting return man Devin Hester a non-factor Sunday, punter Tim Masthay and the special teams units made it look downright easy."
  • The Minnesota Vikings finished in last place in their division for the first time since 1990, notes Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Leslie Frazier will be introduced as the Vikings' permanent head coach early this week, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • The Vikings hit rock bottom this season, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com, and need to cut out the drama that plagued them all year. Pelissero: "There's no way to stop allergic reactions to medication, collapsing roofs or snow emergencies. But gag orders, covert missions to Mississippi, trades for known locker-room losers, heated spats with star players -- that junk has to stop."

Wrap-up: Lions 7, Packers 3

December, 12, 2010
12/12/10
4:18
PM ET
Some thoughts on a low-scoring game at Ford Field:

What it means: The Detroit Lions snapped their NFL-record 19-game division losing streak by defeating a Packers team that lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers (concussion) in the second quarter. The Lions hadn't won an NFC North game since Oct. 28, 2007 and last defeated the Packers in Week 1 of the 2005 season. The Packers (8-5) are now 1.5 games behind the division-leading Chicago Bears pending full Week 14 results. I'll have updated playoff scenarios after the Bears' game against the New England Patriots.

FlynnWatch: Packers quarterback Matt Flynn played the way you would expect an inexperienced backup to play after replacing Rodgers. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 177 yards, but threw a bad interception to Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy in the end zone during the third quarter, had a communication mixup with tailback John Kuhn on a failed third-and-1 run in the fourth quarter and overthrew an open Greg Jennings for what could have been the game-winning touchdown.

RodgersWatch: The Packers didn't score with Rodgers in the game, but they should have had at least one touchdown in the first quarter. Jennings tipped what would have been a 73-yard score into the air, allowing Lions safety Amari Spievey to intercept it. Rodgers has now suffered two concussions this season, and you wonder if that fact will force him to sit out next Sunday's matchup at New England.

Lions break through: The Lions had either led or been within five points of the lead in all 10 of their losses this season, unable to make a clinching or go-ahead play. Coach Jim Schwartz said during the week that "great things" were in store for the Lions if they learned how to make that final step. In the fourth quarter Sunday, tight end Will Heller would not be denied on a 13-yard screen pass that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown. And just as notably, the Lions' defense rose to the occasion. Linebacker Julian Peterson made a key stop of tailback Brandon Jackson on a second-and-1 on the Packers' final possession, and pressure from the defensive line kept Flynn off-balance all game. Overall, Lions defensive linemen had four sacks as the Packers netted 286 total yards.

ChallengeWatch: Should Packers coach Mike McCarthy have challenged a pass ruled incomplete to Jennings in the end zone prior to Mason Crosby's 42-yard field goal? Jennings seemed to think he caught the ball, but none of the two replays I saw provided enough evidence to overturn the play.

The Packers' final play: I wasn't offended by Flynn's decision to target Jennings deep down the left sideline on fourth-and-1. Jennings has been the Packers' top playmaker all season. He beat Lions cornerback Nate Vasher, as he has done many times in his career, and was open for the game-winning score. The Packers have won a lot of games over the years doing that. Flynn just overthrew the ball.

What's next: As noted, the Packers will travel to New England for a nationally televised game next Sunday night against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The Lions will play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

Wrap-up: Jets 23, Lions 20 (OT)

November, 7, 2010
11/07/10
7:43
PM ET
Hitting a few points on a wild game at Ford Field:

What it means: Late Sunday afternoon, it appeared the Detroit Lions were poised to leapfrog the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North standings. They held a 20-10 lead fourth-quarter lead over the New York Jets amid a raucous Ford Field crowd, while the Vikings trailed the Arizona Cardinals 24-10. Alas, at the end of the day, the Lions were 2-6 and the Vikings were 3-5 after a crazy turnaround befitting the Lions' recent history.

StaffordWatch: Quarterback Matthew Stafford did not return after re-injuring his right shoulder in the fourth quarter. Coach Jim Schwartz said the Lions are "going to take a pretty serious look at it," prompting questions about whether Stafford will be shut down for a period longer than the five games he got the last time. I have no questions about Stafford's toughness, but I think it's fair for all of us to wonder why his body has been so brittle in the first 1 1/2 seasons of his career.

Numbskull play: Of all the crazy things that happened in the fourth quarter and overtime, the one I can't get over is linebacker Julian Peterson's blatant and inexcusable hit out of bounds against LaDainian Tomlinson with about 40 seconds remaining. The mistake in essence put the Jets in range for the game-tying field goal. The Lions use a number of young players who might have made that mistake, but it was stunning for it to be a veteran like Peterson who apparently had no idea where he was on the field.

Suh kick: The novelty of having defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh attempt an extra point after a Jason Hanson injury quickly gave way to some serious questions. Why is Suh, not punter Nick Harris, the backup kicker? Why wouldn't you go for two points in that situation? Schwartz said "we have a lot of confidence" in Suh but admitted he was put in a difficult situation. "He went out there without any warm-ups," Schwartz said, "where a kicker that's not playing a position generally has time to take his time. Probably should have called a timeout, given him time to get ready." Had the Lions made the kick or a two-point conversion, the Jets would have been playing for a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end of regulation.

What's next: The Lions play at the Buffalo Bills next Sunday.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Many of you have been asking about a timetable for the return of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the best answer right now is that it will be a while.

As we've discussed, an injury to a quarterback's throwing shoulder is usually treated with extreme caution. But 10 days after the injury, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, Stafford still can't use his right arm to tie his shoes. He can lift the arm over his head, but obviously he has significant work to do before he can begin throwing.

There aren't many tea leaves to read on this one. It's obvious the Lions think Stafford will return at some point this season, or else they would have placed him on injured reserve. But initial discussions of a six-week timetable seem to be a solid baseline at this point.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions benched linebacker Julian Peterson for the final two series of Sunday's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, notes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com. Peterson will presumably remain in the starting lineup, in part because of the concussion-related absence of fellow outside linebacker Zack Follett.
  • Here's another scary concussion story from Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: Follett said he suffered the concussion during a first-half kickoff against the Eagles and played the second half "in kind of a dream." Ouch.
  • ESPN's John Clayton reports the Minnesota Vikings ultimately refused the San Diego Chargers' asking price for receiver Vincent Jackson. The Chargers wanted second- and fourth-round draft picks.
  • Vikings receiver Greg Camarillo on his infrequent use in the Vikings' first two games, via Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "I didn't really know what to expect. I feel I'm capable of catching the ball. I'm capable of making plays. Then again, we have talented receivers here. It's not like I'm going to come in and replace anybody. I've got to find my spot. I've got to figure out what the offense needs and fulfill whatever role they need me to."
  • Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley was a close friend and college teammate of Kenny McKinley, the Denver Broncos receiver who committed suicide this week. The Star Tribune has more.
  • The Vikings are trying to preach patience this week, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "While General Manager Ted Thompson has been criticized for the Packers' perceived thin ranks at outside linebacker, halfback and cornerback, those complaints have overshadowed the team's overall strength. Consider that in the past year the Packers have lost seven starters to injuries, suspension or free agency. Every team suffers from attrition, but the Packers have not only weathered the loss of roughly one-third of their starting lineup from last season, but continue to flourish in spite of it."
  • Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf missed the first two weeks of the NFL season while traveling in Europe and recently caught up on tape at Lambeau Field, writes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • The Chicago Bears' offense is unpredictable under new coordinator Mike Martz, writes Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald: "Now that the Bears' offense has rolled up 771 yards of total offense in the first two weeks of the season, the Mike Martz bandwagon is filled to capacity. But players say they've had confidence in the new offensive coordinator's scheme for a long time, despite an inauspicious preseason."
  • The Bears demonstrated deft ability to make in-game adjustments Sunday against Dallas, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is back to his ball-stripping ways, according to Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Feeling the Detroit Lions' pain

September, 14, 2010
9/14/10
10:15
AM ET
JohnsonAP Photo/Greg TrottCalvin Johnson's apparent game-winning touchdown was overruled, sending the Detroit Lions to another heart-breaking defeat.
Sympathy is a dirty word in the NFL. It's rarely given and never sought out. The system gives everyone a fair chance to build and compete, via the draft and with rules ostensibly applied with equanimity. So I don't feel bad for the Detroit Lions, nor do I think they want me or anyone else to.

What I do sense, however, is the overwhelming crush of what a steep hurdle the Lions face -- in both real and karmic terms --- to close a 53-year gap since their last championship. Consider me a Lions newbie if you wish, but it was difficult to sit at Soldier Field for three hours Sunday and not say, "These guys are absolutely cursed."

Consider the journey the Lions traveled from late in the second quarter, when they led the Chicago Bears 14-3, through the rest of the afternoon. Their franchise quarterback departed with a right shoulder injury that could sideline him for a month or more. Their lead dripped away like some kind of water torture until it was finally gone with 92 seconds remaining in the game. They appeared to have regained it a minute later, only to be denied by a call that quickly became the NFL's most-discussed play of Week 1.

When I arrived in the Lions' postgame locker room, I saw some knowing looks mixed with shock and some anger. Publicly, the Lions said the right things about putting the events behind them and moving on to Week 2. But as a friend of mine likes to say, people are human. No one in that locker room missed the departing whoosh of eight months' worth of optimism. In a matter of hours, it had dissipated.

"You're the Detroit Lions," said linebacker Julian Peterson. "You never get breaks."

[+] EnlargeStafford
AP Photo/Jim PrischingQuarterback Matthew Stafford's shoulder injury will keep him sidelined for at least one week.
No one is owed a single break, but it sure helps to get one once in a while. And the truth is many of us considered the Lions' Week 1 schedule a break of sorts. You looked at the Bears' circumstances -- a winless preseason, an offense in transition and a defense with more than its share of age and injuries -- and figured the Lions had a decent chance for a tone-setting upset/victory that would symbolically remove them from doormat status in this division.

You probably did the same. Trust me, you were not alone. To use a Lions/Bears analogy, safety Louis Delmas viewed Chicago as wounded prey.

"I told the defense that if we had any chance of beating these guys, it would be right now," Delmas said. "It's the first game of the season. Everybody there was just now getting used to one another." It was "overwhelming," he added, "to go out there for four quarters the way we did and come out on the short end of the stick."

Don't take it from just me or even Delmas. I think Lions fans produce some of the best fan blogs in the NFL, and I was struck by the emotions of DrewLions over at Pride of Detroit. Here's an excerpt from a Sunday evening post:
As I sit here staring at a blank page, I feel as if I scarcely have the heart to start writing. Today's game has rocked me to my core as a Lions fan. When Stafford went down, I honestly got nauseous. No lie. ... I watched all the hope and optimism that I've carried since the end of the 2009 season come crashing down as hard as Julius Peppers on Stafford's shoulder. All the cheering and excitement came to an abrupt halt and the vision of Shaun Hill warming up after halftime chilled me to the bone. ...

A few weeks back, I playfully commented in someone's fanpost about a nightmare scenario with Stafford going down for the year. Now I was staring at that scenario in week one. In my mind, there was no worse situation. This was it. The season is lost. My optimism was completely drained from my body. Right or wrong, that is the way I felt. My mind started to reel at the thought of all of the lost progress losing Stafford would mean. I came unraveled.

A part of me simply wants to fall to my knees with arms reaching to the sky, screaming "Why? Why? WHY!?!?" What in the hell have we done to deserve such cruelty and suffering?

Never has a [loss] felt so empty or a season felt so lost so early. One play has changed the course of our entire season.

It might seem that way, but the Lions can still have the kind of season they want -- one that, by the end of the year, suggests they have unquestionably moved closer to playoff caliber -- if they can regroup quickly. It will start with Hill, a nine-year veteran with a 10-6 career record as a starter. At the very least, the Lions should draw some comfort from the fact that Stafford's replacement will neither panic nor run out of the back of the end zone.

"In the locker room," Hill said, "you could see [disappointment] in everyone's eyes. But I kind of got the sense that people's shoulders were back and their heads were up. That's a positive thing, for sure. That's all you can ask for. We've got to re-group and put this behind us."

You hear similar statements in every losing locker room in the NFL. But can the 2010 Lions put such a devastating turn of events behind them? Or are they doomed to 15 games of expecting the worst?

Add that to the list of difficult tasks piled up on the desk of coach Jim Schwartz, who if he didn't know before, knows now what he's gotten himself into. The best thing that can be said about Sunday's game is that it revealed the Lions finally have a strength -- their defensive line -- to build off of. New defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch produced a paradigm performance in his first regular-season game with the Lions, collecting 10 solo tackles and harassing Bears quarterback Jay Cutler throughout the afternoon.

Schwartz personally recruited Vanden Bosch during free agency and will lean heavily on him to provide steady leadership in this early rough patch. Vanden Bosch was one of the last Lions players to leave the locker room Sunday. I don't really know him yet, but I would say he looked angry more than shell-shocked.

"We're going to win some of those and we're going to lose some of those," he said. "I like the way we as a team battled. We had a lot of adverse situations. We had guys play with a lot of intensity and attitude. The things that I saw from this team today will serve us well. We'll win some games this year."

That attitude provides some hope for the rest of the season. There's no reason to feel bad for the Lions. But if you didn't understand before, you probably do now. Man, oh, man. This is going to be hard.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

September, 13, 2010
9/13/10
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(We're sprucing up our day-after-game posts here on the NFC North blog, but the structure remains the same.)

After the Chicago Bears' 19-14 victory Sunday against the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Chicago Bears take their turn in the examination room after beating Detroit.

  1. I wasn't a big fan of linebacker Lance Briggs' post-game manifesto against the "critics," but I did agree with one of his statements: Linebacker Brian Urlacher was all over the field in his first regular-season game since dislocating his wrist in the 2009 season opener. Urlacher finished with eight solo tackles, including a sack and three others behind the line of scrimmage, and showed some of his old sideline-to-sideline speed. The play that really stood out came in the first quarter, when he chased Lions tailback Jahvid Best to the sideline and dove over a pile of players to take him down for a two-yard loss. It's a long season. But so far, so good for Urlacher.
  2. It's been interesting to watch the evolution of the Bears' safety position. Transition was expected, but not necessarily in the manner it played out Sunday. While Danieal Manning played the entire game at strong safety, Chris Harris split time with rookie Major Wright at free safety. Harris had a poor preseason, and his history with the organization and coach Lovie Smith might have earned him the respect of getting the Week 1 start. But when a team's top draft choice starts rotating with a veteran, you figure it's just a matter of time before you have a new starter. "The plan was to rotate both," Smith said. "Major had been doing some good things. We feel good about all three of our safeties. Major has a lot of range."
  3. As the Bears lined up for what would be their winning touchdown play, Lions safety Louis Delmas originally thought the ball was coming his way. The Lions were playing a straight man-to-man defense, Delmas said, and he was assigned to tight end Greg Olsen. "He's an excellent receiver," Delmas said. "But I think they saw a matchup they liked better." Indeed, credit goes to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for spotting tailback Matt Forte lined up wide against Lions linebacker Julian Peterson. Forte is going to win that matchup every time, and Cutler put just enough air under the ball for Forte to collect a 28-yard scoring strike.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Why isn't Forte a better goal-line runner? As we noted Sunday, Forte had one of the worst goal-to-go ratio of carries to touchdowns in the NFL last season. In the fourth quarter against the Lions, he got three cracks from the 1-yard line and was stopped for no gain on all three. Is this a power issue? An offensive line issue? Poor use of personnel? Playcalling? A combination? One way to find out is to use backup Chester Taylor in those situations and see if the result is any different.

Two early mistakes from Bears

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
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CHICAGO -- Two Chicago Bears mistakes have conspired to leave them trailing the Detroit Lions 7-3 after the first quarter here at Soldier Field.

The first was receiver Devin Aromashodu's drop of what should have been a 38-yard touchdown pass on the Bears' opening possession. The Bears later settled for a 20-yard field goal.

The second was Jay Cutler's ill-advised pass to receiver Johnny Knox on their second possession. Knox was surrounded by three defenders. Linebacker Julian Peterson tipped the ball to safety C.C. Brown, who tipped the ball to rookie cornerback Aaron Berry for the interception. The Lions took over at the Bears' 42-yard line and eventually capitalized on Jahvid Best's 7-yard touchdown run.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 31 of their past 33 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 million in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going to play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.

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