NFC North: Kris Kocurek

Jim Caldwell is the new Detroit Lions coach, and though there has been a lot of consternation about the hire, the Lions will succeed or fail based upon his decisions and his ability to develop players, notably quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell will meet with the media for the first time Wednesday, and based on what I’ve heard and been told about his interview on Jan. 3, he has a detailed plan for how he is going to fix both the Lions and Stafford.

Those are his two most important tasks as Detroit’s head coach. If he is unable to do that, he’ll join the line of Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz as coaches who couldn’t quite reach the level the team wanted.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDeveloping Matthew Stafford is one of the most important tasks facing new Lions coach Jim Caldwell.
If he can succeed, he’ll have a chance to do something only one coach in the Super Bowl era, Wayne Fontes, has even come close to doing with the Lions: turn the team into a consistent winner.

Here’s a look at five things Caldwell will have to do early in his tenure with the Lions.

1. Hire a competent staff: He could have some names as early as his introductory news conference, but Teryl Austin is a name I’ve been told multiple times as a likely defensive coordinator. Bill Lazor was a name for offensive coordinator, but h has been hired by Miami. If Caldwell doesn’t put together a strong staff, that will be an issue early on. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also could end up on Caldwell’s staff.

2. Make smart decisions about free agents with GM Martin Mayhew: Dominic Raiola and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the bigger free agents for the Lions. Raiola is a strong presence in the locker room, and it might be smart to bring him back for continuity on an offensive line that was one of the best in the league last season. Pettigrew could be interesting. He is an important cog, as was Dallas Clark, Caldwell’s tight end in Indianapolis and with the Ravens this season. Of course, Clark is also a free agent, so Caldwell might push to get him to Detroit.

3. Matthew Stafford: Part of the reason Caldwell was hired was to work with Stafford, with whom the coach met on his interview. Stafford, according to receiver Kris Durham, seemed to like Caldwell. That relationship will be critical to any success Caldwell has in Detroit. He believes he has a plan to fix Stafford -- both Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning are high on Caldwell's ability to help quarterbacks -- and the coach will have to be able to implement that plan as soon as possible.

4. Keep at least two current assistants: This goes with the first point. John Bonamego did a really good job with special teams almost all season, including finding strong gunners in Don Carey and Jeremy Ross. Jeremiah Washburn turned an offensive line with two rookies on the right side into one of the top groups in the NFL, and players seemed to really like him. Jim Washburn and Kris Kocurek did a good job with the defensive line, and Matt Burke was strong with the linebackers. Consider at least some of them to keep some continuity.

5. Get out in the community: This might sound silly, but Caldwell is not a popular hire with the Detroit fan base. By all accounts, he is a good, well-intentioned man, so by doing a lot of community outreach early on, he could turn some people who are currently not pleased about the hire. Of course, the best way to do that is to win games, but getting out in the community would be a strong start.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He needed the experience. He wanted the opportunity. Yet for the first three years of Willie Young's career in Detroit, he mostly sat.

Watched. Waited. Understood he had a very specific role in the Lions defense as an end rushing opposing quarterbacks, backing up veterans Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the same guys he was learning from every day.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/John CordesWillie Young has waited three seasons for his chance to be a regular on Detroit's defensive line.
They taught him how to be a professional. Meanwhile, he had no choice but to bide his time. This, in some ways, was Detroit’s plan all along for Young when the Lions drafted him in the seventh round out of North Carolina State in 2010.

They saw a raw pass-rusher with a lot of skills that needed to be funneled into production. It was frustrating, but in some ways necessary for the success he is having now in his first year as a starter for Detroit.

“It’s all about growing up,” Young said. “All about growing up in this league. You just got to understand your position, understand your role and take advantage of every opportunity you get.”

He realizes how few those opportunities were initially. He played seven snaps his rookie season, 238 his second year and 307 his third year. That may sound like a lot, but then consider a third of the way through this season, Young has already played 223 snaps and has come close to matching his production from those other seasons.

He already matched his career-high in solo tackles (nine) and is one tackle away from tying his career-high in total tackles. He has 13 total tackles and only one sack this season, but he has become an integral part of a defensive line that is among the best in the NFL.

This opportunity started at the end of last season. Avril and Vanden Bosch did not return to Detroit, leaving holes on the Lions defensive line.

When Detroit drafted Young, the Lions coaches always envisioned him sliding into a larger role. Now that would happen.

“You’ve always seen the talent with him,” Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said. “You always knew Willie was, every time we put him in a game he always seemed to be around the quarterback, affecting the quarterback.

“You hoped as he got more experience under his belt that he would progress to where he is right now. We drafted him four years ago in the seventh round, we weren’t drafting a guy we didn’t think could play. We knew he had talent. His talent had to develop.”

What stood out to coaches initially and even to players now is how fast his first and second steps are. His explosion at the snap is part natural and part cultivated from studying offensive tackles and understanding where blocks are coming from.

When Detroit’s veteran defensive ends left and the Lions brought Israel Idonije in from Chicago, it was the first thing he noticed.

“He just has a lot of natural ability and a skill set,” Idonije said. “His quickness. His speed. Me coming in and watching him, he still has a ceiling he hasn’t reached. That’s what is exciting to watch about him.

“Just all the ability he has, he really understands that defensive end position and that dance between him and the O-lineman and putting together his personal plan of attack for the week. It’s going to be great to watch him for years to come.”

With Avril and Vanden Bosch gone, Young said he spends time with Idonije, picking up different tricks and hints the former Chicago Bear has used throughout his career to be successful as Young gets his first chance at a major role.

That goes back to the opportunity, the one Young waited for. The one that left him frustrated at times during his first three years. He always believed he had the ability to play as he is now, he just hadn’t received the chance to show it.

Multiple times in a 10-minute conversation, Young referenced being a professional, and learning how to be consistent. This season, combined with those opportunities, he has.

“That’s a part of my game, man,” Young said. “Always been a part of my game plan. Just, my opportunities, I have opportunities to get quality snaps and you’re just now able to see what I’m capable of doing.”
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Detroit Lions' decision to hire respected veteran coach Jim Washburn, confirmed this week by coach Jim Schwartz, is a creative way to adjust their defensive coaching staff without firing anyone.

The Lions have replaced three offensive assistants, all of whose contracts had expired. They retained defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and his staff, but Washburn will take on an unspecified role that will include partnering with current defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.

"The more eyes on those guys the better," Schwartz told reporters Wednesday, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "That can help with technique, that can help with scheme, it can help with the game plan, it can help with game day. There's a lot of positives there. He's very familiar with our scheme. He's had a lot of production."

Washburn, 63, has been an NFL defensive line coach for 14 seasons and coached Kocurek when both were with the Tennessee Titans. Washburn's role with the Lions is relatively unique on NFL coaching staffs, but in the end the Lions added a good coach without rocking the boat.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Schwartz said that receiver Titus Young's rant on Twitter earlier this week was "a pretty good example of a not-so-good idea." Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News has more.
  • Schwartz isn't worried about defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh's participation in a celebrity diving television show, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com. Schwartz: "Celebrity ice skating, that might be a little bit different. A lot of players did that celebrity dancing thing, even a big man like Warren Sapp. There's a high incidence of injury in all those things -- cheerleading, dancing -- a lot of foot injuries and stuff like that, but I don't think we have a lot to worry about with celebrity diving."
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examines the Green Bay Packers' salary-cap situation.
  • It's not clear which of the Packers' 2012 running backs will return in 2013, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, who played for new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman when both were with the Oakland Raiders, thinks Trestman can earn the Bears' respect by improving quarterback Jay Cutler. More from ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer has shown a knack for improving offensive linemen, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Offensive lineman prospects look good at the Senior Bowl, reports Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune speaks with Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, a former Minnesota Vikings player and St. Paul native, about reaching the Super Bowl.

BBAO: Rodgers stumps for Woodson

January, 23, 2013
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

It's fair to wonder if the Green Bay Packers plan to part ways with defensive back Charles Woodson before next season. As we've discussed, Woodson will turn 37 in October. He is due to earn $10 million next season and would count the same amount against the salary cap. Except in the cases of quarterbacks, NFL teams rarely commit that sort of cash or cap space to players of Woodson's age.

The Packers' quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, would like to see an exception made. Rodgers made clear during his ESPN 540 radio show Tuesday that he thinks it would be a mistake to bid Woodson farewell. Rodgers said: "I don't think you get better by taking from the whole, taking a core guy. And I think he is a core guy." Rodgers added:

"I think it’s got to be one of the top priorities. I'm not sure what that’s going to look like, but I know he is under contract and that he is an important part of our football team, and I think he adds a lot. He is still playing at a really high level."

Under general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have usually made the right decisions on when to part ways with aging veterans. (Receiver Donald Driver might be an exception.) We'll see if Thompson's evaluation lines up with Rodgers'.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Let the anticipation continue building for a certain rookie defensive tackle's NFL debut as we review the final injury report of the week:

Detroit Lions: Defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot) practiced for a fourth consecutive day and is listed as questionable for Monday night's game. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said Fairley worked with the first-team defensive line during a two-minute drill Saturday in practice. It's been more than two months since Fairley had surgery on his foot. If he plays, expect it to be in a limited package.

Cunningham added he has done some "political maneuvering" during the week as it relates to Fairley's availability.

"I think he's practiced really well," Cunningham said, "and all I said to [defensive line coach Kris Kocurek] was, 'I guess we weren't wrong' when I watched him in practice.' He’s moving really well, he’s running and I think he's got a cheering section out there. The linebackers all noticed him and I thought [linebacker Stephen Tulloch] was going to throw up after he saw him make a play. He said, 'My God is he fast.' And I said, 'I think he was faster than you at the combine.'"

Cornerback Aaron Berry (groin), defensive end Lawrence Jackson (hamstring) and safety Amari Spievey (hamstring) are also questionable. Keep an eye on Spievey. He didn't practice much this week.

Chicago Bears: Defensive end Corey Wootton is listed as probable despite a hand injury that was heavily wrapped during practice Saturday. Receiver Earl Bennett (chest) and offensive lineman Gabe Carimi (knee) remain out. All other players, including safety Chris Harris (hamstring) will be available.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

A national eye will be on the Detroit Lions during Saturday night's preseason game against the New England Patriots, scheduled to be televised by CBS. Will the country see the debut of the first high Lions draft choice to get on the field?

It appears possible, at least, that rookie receiver Titus Young will get an opportunity to play. He has made it through most of this week of practice while coming back from a hamstring injury. It's still possible the Lions will deactivate him for precautionary reasons, but Young has shown enough progress this week to make it possible to play.

Here's how coach Jim Schwartz put it, via Philip Zaroo of Mlive.com: "I don't know if he's over the hump yet, but he's close to it. He was able to put a week of practice together and was able to finish practices. We have done a lot ... doing individual, adding a little bit more, doing some 7-on-7, doing a little bit more here and there. But I think he's at the point where he can go out and get through a whole practice and be able to play in a game."

Young has spent most of the summer on the sideline. Whether he plays Saturday night, this week has provided significant encouragement that he will be ready to contribute on some level when the regular season begins.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Chicago center Olin Kreutz will have surgery on an ailing Achilles tendon but is expected to be ready to play once training camp begins in July, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.

Kreutz has been dealing with the injury for two years and sought the opinions of at least two specialists. The procedure is expected to require four to six months of rehabilitation. At this point, there’s no reason to believe the Bears plan anything other than to bring the veteran back for the 2010 season.

In the meantime, it’s possible the Bears will use Josh Beekman at center during spring drills.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • The Bears plan to re-sign linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa for 2010, according to Biggs.
  • Chicago coach Lovie Smith is feeling some urgency to wrap up his search for an offensive coordinator, writes Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times. Next up is Minnesota quarterbacks coach Kevin Rogers, who will interview Thursday.
  • Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield will see a foot specialist in the next two weeks to check on the progress of his recovery, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. Winfield fractured his foot Oct. 18.
  • Detroit assistant defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who could soon be promoted to defensive line coach, is known for his intensity. Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press watched Kocurek during Senior Bowl drills.
  • Kocurek is only 31, notes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
  • Green Bay president/CEO Mark Murphy won’t give a news conference at the Super Bowl after all, writes Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • New Cleveland president Mike Holmgren hired Green Bay executive Mark Schiefelbein to be his vice president of football operations. Here’s some background from the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

NFC North at night

January, 25, 2010
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Catching up on Monday's Black and Blue news:
  • Baltimore quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson is scheduled to interview Tuesday for Chicago's offensive coordinator job, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Jackson would be the Bears' third interview for the job.
  • There could be more shuffling on Detroit’s coaching staff, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz did not travel with the Lions’ staff to the Senior Bowl this week and could be contemplating retirement. If he does, assistant defensive line coach Kris Kocurek is the likely replacement. The Lions have already hired Danny Crossman as their new special teams coordinator. Coach Jim Schwartz indicated that he isn’t likely to hire a replacement for departed quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will take over those duties.
  • Lost in the shuffle of Sunday night’s NFC Championship Game was what appeared to be a serious knee injury to Minnesota cornerback Cedric Griffin. Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times reports Griffin suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would put his availability for the start of 2010 training camp in doubt. We should learn more Tuesday from coach Brad Childress, who is expected to address reporters at the team’s practice facility.
  • To no one's surprise, two Minnesota players have pulled out of the Pro Bowl: Quarterback Brett Favre and cornerback Antoine Winfield. According to multiple reports, Winfield will have another MRI on his fractured foot to determine its progress and an offseason rehabilitation plan.
  • Favre’s decision should make Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers the NFC’s starting quarterback in the Pro Bowl.

At long last, Lions announce staff

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

Busy day here in the NFC North. The latest comes from Detroit, where the Lions just announced their full coaching staff.

Coach Jim Schwartz's 18-man staff includes six holdovers from predecessor Rod Marinelli's staff. Here is the full list, with an asterisk (*) next to the holdovers:

  • Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator: Gunther Cunningham
  • Offensive coordinator: Scott Linehan
  • Quarterbacks: Jeff Horton
  • Offensive line: George Yarno
  • Running backs: Sam Gash*
  • Wide receivers: Shawn Jefferson*
  • Tight ends: Tim Lappano
  • Offensive quality control: Todd Downing
  • Defensive line: Bob Karmelowicz
  • Assistant defensive line: Kris Kocurek
  • Linebackers: Matt Burke
  • Secondary: Tim Walton
  • Assistant secondary: Daron Roberts
  • Defensive quality control: Don Clemons*
  • Special teams coordinator: Stan Kwan*
  • Assistant special teams: Bradford Banta*
  • Coordinator of physical development: Jason Arapoff*
  • Strength and conditioning: Malcolm Blacken*

Here is a link to a page with biographies for each coach. I'll have a bit more analysis on this list Thursday. Please don't go blue holding your breath.

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