NFC North: Kyle Vanden Bosch

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.”

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."
Freeney
Dwight Freeney's claim that NFL owners colluded during free agency, made during an interview with CBSSports.com, brings to mind last month's post about the tough market for some high-profile and veteran NFL players. As you might recall:
(Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch doesn't appear to have received any offers after the Detroit Lions released him -- and his $7 million salary -- in February. But the presumption for months has been that Vanden Bosch, 34, will retire.)

So were Woodson, Urlacher and Winfield victimized by collusion? Or were they just valued harshly in a league that prefers younger players?

ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt, whose column now appears on SportsIllustrated.com, addressed the topic this week. Brandt noted that "far more money has been shed from veteran contracts than spent on them" but attributed it to factors other than collusion.

Brandt explained the spread of "draft and develop" franchises who prefer to use younger, less-injury prone and cheaper players rather than veterans who are past their prime. The "Moneyball" approach, placing numerical values on players, is also gaining traction, Brandt notes. Teams have also grown to appreciate the flexibility of a roster populated by young players on their first contracts.

In the end, there is a fine line: Are owners conspiring to keep costs down as a matter of course or because they think spending less on free agents is a better way to build a team? Could it be both?
Three well-regarded former NFC North players made Jeffri Chadiha's list of "seasoned, big-name free agents still sitting on the open market, hoping to find homes." Let's take a look at each:

Cornerback Charles Woodson
Chadiha: "The best Woodson can hope for is a minor role on a team that could use a veteran presence in its secondary. … It's not hard to see Woodson retiring given the way his offseason is going. He has too much pride.
Seifert take: The best chance for Woodson seemed to be the San Francisco 49ers, who went on to sign veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and then draft safety Eric Reid in the first round. Woodson could help an NFL team, but it will have to be one willing to carve out a specialized role in its defensive scheme.

Linebacker Brian Urlacher
Chadiha: "This doesn't look good for Urlacher at this stage. He may have played his last NFL game."
Seifert take: Earlier this offseason, the word around the NFL is that Urlacher would play for the Bears or no one else in 2013. The Bears' final contract offer, one that that didn't guarantee him much beyond the veteran's minimum, suggested that the team who knew him best wasn't very interested. The Minnesota Vikings would be a possibility only if none of their internal candidates, including Erin Henderson, can handle the job.

Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch
Chadiha: "Vanden Bosch essentially made about $20 million with the Lions by being a good guy who could still play. Don't expect him to be so lucky going forward."
Seifert take: Vanden Bosch has always kept himself in shape and hasn't made any announcements. But it wouldn't be a surprise if he retires.
Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:

We have all debated the potential for Ziggy Ansah's immediate impact as a Detroit Lions defensive end in 2013. Ansah was a late arrival to football, a late bloomer on the NFL scouting scene and was drafted based on his athletic potential rather than his college body of work.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worth looking at how a few other NFL teams have approached the rookie years of pass-rushers drafted under similar circumstances. For various reasons, we can classify the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and the Seattle Seahawks' Bruce Irvin in a similar category with Ansah.

Each player has his own story, but generally speaking, all three were drafted in the first half of the first round with limited résumés but extensive projections based on their physical attributes. The chart shows that none of them started a game and each played less than half of his team's defensive snaps. But even with that controlled playing time, they still combined to post 26.5 sacks between them as rookies.

The Lions have bid farewell to both of their 2012 starters at defensive end, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, so there is plenty of opportunity for a rookie to earn a starting job. Veterans Jason Jones and Willie Young are also in the mix, and the Lions drafted an imposing defensive end in 6-foot-7 Devin Taylor who could also compete for playing time.

If nothing else, we know a template exists for a developing pass-rusher to be used in a focused way while still having a highly productive rookie season. I wouldn't be too worried about whether Ansah will be on the field for the first play of games. More important to me is if he is out there for the most important ones -- and if he can influence them.

Earlier: The Minnesota Vikings know they need to have a plan for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson's rookie season.
NFL teams occasionally re-sign their own free agents after the market opens, as the Detroit Lions did Wednesday with cornerback Chris Houston. More often, however, those players sign elsewhere once they hit the open market -- a path defensive end Cliff Avril apparently has followed.

Avril agreed to terms on a two-year, $15 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and was en route to the team's headquarters Wednesday night. Further terms were not immediately available, but as NFC West colleague Mike Sando notes, it appears Avril agreed to a shorter team deal to give himself another chance in free agency in 2015, the year he turns 29.

Avril has 29 sacks in his past three seasons, numbers that you would have thought might earn a bigger payday. He played last season on a $10.6 million franchise tag after turning down a three-year deal reportedly worth $30 million.

The Lions had interest in bringing Avril back, from what I understand, and must now decide how to replace both of their starting defensive ends following Avril's departure and the release of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Willie Young is one option; the Lions placed a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Another is newcomer Jason Jones, whom coach Jim Schwartz would said Wednesday would mostly play end. Free agent Lawrence Jackson also has not re-signed, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent Michael Bennett is available as well.
Here's what I can tell you about the busy-bee Detroit Lions in the opening minutes of free agency:
  • As expected, running back Reggie Bush is headed to Detroit for a visit, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. I think there's a pretty good chance Bush will sign with the Lions to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best. More on that if and when it happens.
  • Schefter also reports the Lions have Seahawks defensive lineman Jason Jones on the way in for a visit. Jones went to high school in Lathrup Village, Mich., played at Eastern Michigan. He was a backup defensive tackle last season for the Seahawks, and his season ended in December because of a lingering knee injury. Earlier I wrote he could project as a starter at defensive end, either for the released Kyle Vanden Bosch or for Cliff Avril if he signs elsewhere in free agency, but that doesn't seem likely.
  • Earlier, the Lions gave defensive end Willie Young a second-round restricted free agent tender. That suggests they have significant plans for him in 2013, possibly as a starter.
  • According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, among others, the Lions have re-signed safety Amari Spievey to a one-year deal. Spievey was a restricted free agent but his concussion history figured to limit any interest on the open market.

More to come, I'm sure.

Eight in the box: Biggest cap casualty

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who will be each team's biggest salary cap casualty this spring?

Chicago Bears: There aren't likely to be any players released purely for salary-cap reasons. The Bears' biggest cap question is whether they will renegotiate defensive end Julius Peppers' contract to reduce what is currently $16.383 million. That could be done by converting most of his $12.9 million base salary to a signing bonus. But it's hard to imagine the Bears dismissing Peppers for cap reasons.

Detroit Lions: Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was released last month to save about $5 million in cap space. But Vanden Bosch is probably at the end of his playing career. Two other veterans, center Dominic Raiola and receiver Nate Burleson, avoided similar fates by restructuring their deals.

Green Bay Packers: The release of defensive back Charles Woodson saved the Packers about $10 million in cap space. It's still possible the Packers will do something with tight end Jermichael Finley, set to count $8.75 million, or linebacker A.J. Hawk ($7.05 million), but neither departure would save the Packers as much as Woodson's did.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings' young roster doesn't lend itself to many salary-cap issues. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams' $7.50 million cap hit makes him a candidate for restructuring, but he probably would accept a reduced deal. Defensive end Jared Allen will count $16.863 million, but is entering the final year of his contract.
A newsy week has delayed my plan to circle back on the Detroit Lions' release of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, a move that gives us an opportunity to reflect on the unique role he filled for the team.

[+] EnlargeKyle Vanden Bosch
AP Photo/Jim PrischingKyle Vanden Bosch, who was cut Tuesday, helped out the Lions' defense beyond on-field statistics.
A Pro Bowl pass rusher in his prime with the Tennessee Titans, Vanden Bosch managed 15.5 sacks over three seasons with the Lions. But when the Lions made him their top free agent target in 2010, we all knew they were paying for his non-stop motor as much as his pass-rushing skills. After years of listless defensive play that spanned multiple coaching staffs, the Lions needed a player who could demonstrate the energy necessary to play the kind of aggressive defense every team aspires to.

Vanden Bosch caught my eye that summer in training camp, chasing running backs 25 yards downfield as part of his practice to touch the ball after every rep in every drill. And while everyone remembers the 2010 regular season opener as the "Calvin Johnson game" -- officials ruled that Johnson did not "complete the process" of a game-winning touchdown catch -- it was also one of the most remarkable games you'll ever see from a 4-3 defensive end.

Vanden Bosch was literally all over the field in that game, a 19-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. He played 78 of the Lions' 79 defensive snaps in that game (via Pro Football Focus), by far the highest snap total in his three years with the Lions, and was credited with 10 solo tackles. That's a huge number for a defensive end and it was the highest total in Vanden Bosch's 12-year, 152-game career.

He did not sack Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in that game, but Pro Football Focus credited him with seven quarterback hurries and four "stops" -- solo tackles that constituted a failure by the offense. It was quite literally a template for the way any coach could hope a defender at any position would play: Ferocious, non-stop effort and productive.

"Coach [Jim] Schwartz brought me in to help change the culture and change the attitude and the first day I got there I gave it everything I had," Vanden Bosch told Tim Twentyman of the Lions' web site.

It's possible that some Lions teammates, and maybe Vanden Bosch himself, went too far with his "play-through-the-whistle" approach. But let's not forget how weak the Lions' defense was before his arrival. Ultimately, the Lions were much closer to playing winning defense after his arrival than they were before, and I hope anyone with mildly trained eyes would agree.

"That’s the thing that’s always been the most important to me, just the impact that I have on other players and the pride I took as a leader," Vanden Bosch told the Lions' web site. "The thing that’s important to me is my legacy. … I was just somebody who did things the right way and didn’t take anything for granted. It was important to me that while I was playing [I was giving] 100 percent every practice and every game, so that if I don’t get to play another snap then I could look back and just be proud of what I did and have no regrets and have the respect of the people I played with and played against."

In the end, the Lions paid a lot of money -- about $20 million over three years -- to employ an example-setter. If a player ever wanted to know what he should be doing at any given moment -- be it during practice, games, offseason workouts or during down times in the locker room -- he could watch Vanden Bosch and find out. Not everyone took advantage of that opportunity, but the Lions did well to provide it.

This, my friends, is big. It doesn't get a whole lot bigger during the first full week of February to get a double dose of mock drafts.

That's what we have on this fine Thursday: Mock drafts 2.0 from ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider. You need an Insider subscription to access the full posts, but as always I'm willing to sneak you the NFC North portions as long as no one tells on me.

5. Detroit Lions
Kiper: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones
McShay: Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan
Seifert comment: The Lions are going to have plenty of starting positions to fill on defense after the release of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the likely departure of defensive end Cliff Avril and other possible departures. To me, the best 4-3 defensive end available makes the most sense at No. 5.

20. Chicago Bears
Kiper: Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker
McShay: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Seifert comment: Te'o was the best linebacker in the country for most of 2012. Will last month's bizarre revelations push his draft stock down? Who knows. But the Bears obviously have a need for a long-term replacement for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, a pending free agent.

23. Minnesota Vikings
Kiper: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams
McShay: Connecticut cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Seifert comment: A lot of you would like to see the Vikings draft a receiver here, but that could be contingent on free agency. Defensive tackle and cornerback are also key positions of need.

26. Green Bay Packers
Kiper: Alabama running back Eddie Lacy
McShay: Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Jenkins
Seifert comment: I'll be interested to see how much public momentum builds for the Packers to draft a running back. General manager Ted Thompson has drafted two running backs in the first three rounds during his tenure, and neither Brandon Jackson (2007) nor Alex Green (2011) have had the impact the Packers hoped for.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier's appearance this week on ESPN 1500 in the Twin Cities provided two points of interest.

First, Frazier confirmed that receiver Percy Harvin returned to the team's practice facility recently for a postseason exit physical. Frazier said Harvin was "cleared" from an ankle sprain that ended his season and that "all the medicals were good."

Second, Frazier indicated that he and Harvin had an in-depth conversation, no doubt covering some of the behind-the-scenes issues that seemed to arise after Harvin's injury.

"We definitely had to talk just in general about a lot of things," Frazier said. We had a good conversation. We talked, and it was good conversation. So, hopefully, everything will work out."

That, of course, stops well short of suggesting the Vikings are prepared to offer Harvin a contract extension that would alleviate some of the previous tension between him and the team. Harvin has one year remaining on his deal. You wonder if he will participate in the Vikings' offseason program if he is unsigned. I'm guessing this will be a story we'll be monitoring for months.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The retirement ceremony of Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver will take place at 11 a.m. Green Bay time (noon ET) and will be streamed on the Packers' website.
  • Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is set to participate in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Brett Favre on his joint appearance with Rodgers last weekend, via Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "It wasn't awkward. We had some laughs about it prior to going out. Aaron has up to this point an unbelievable career. That goes without saying. You know, I'm proud of what I've done. There is no ill feelings. There isn't. There might be from other people."
  • The agent for Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, Kevin Poston, on the Packers' upcoming decision, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I guess the Packers have to make a decision. Is having Charles out there worth $11 million a year? I would think so because he's one of the better defensive players. He's not what he was but he's much more valuable than most defensive players, period."
  • Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "The housekeeping has begun for the [Detroit] Lions."
  • Defensive lineman Kyle Vanden Bosch on being released by the Lions, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "I had a good opportunity to talk to everybody and kind of said my good-byes. It was OK. I understood the decision. From the first day I was with the Lions, I was treated with nothing but respect by starting with the Ford family and then my coaches and my teammates. I knew if I’m finished playing football, I always prepared and played as hard as I could so that when I would be finished I had no regrets. And if I don't get an opportunity to play again in the NFL, I'm very happy about my career, my years in Detroit and really just the relationships that I developed."
  • Justin Rogers of Mlive.com has some Twitter reaction from Lions players to the release of Vanden Bosch.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune takes a deeper look at the Chicago Bears' defensive line.
  • Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com looks at the free-agent defensive tackles available to the Bears.
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if Bears quarterback Jay Cutler deserves to be on a list of most-disliked NFL players.

Lions commence defensive overhaul

February, 5, 2013
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I updated our earlier post to confirm that the Detroit Lions had released their third player in two days, this time the highly respected defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. That makes three players cut -- Vanden Bosch, Stephen Peterman and Titus Young -- and about $8.45 million in salary cap space recouped over the past two days.

Young's departure leaves the Lions thin at receiver, as we noted Monday. (The St. Louis Rams claimed Young on waivers Tuesday). The Lions will have some decisions to make at offensive line after Peterman's release, and now the same is true at defensive line. It's quite possible that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will be the only opening-week 2012 starter who will return in 2013. That fits a theme general manager Martin Mayhew sounded shortly after the season: The Lions defense is likely headed for a significant personnel overhaul.

Vanden Bosch has already been released, and fellow defensive end Cliff Avril is a pending free agent who seems unlikely to get another year as the Lions' franchise player. Veteran defensive tackle Corey Williams is also a pending free agent, and the emergence of Nick Fairley in 2012 probably means Williams will move on as well.

So who will start alongside Suh and Fairley in 2013? A promotion could be in store for Willie Young, a seventh-round draft pick in 2010 who didn't have a sack in 2012 but managed 19 quarterback hurries in a relatively low 259 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). That's a hurry rate of 7.4 percent. For context, consider that Avril's rate for 38 hurries in 821 snaps worked out to 4.6 percent.

There is a big difference between being a situational pass-rusher, as Young as been for the past two seasons, and a starter. But even if the Lions focus on defensive end in the draft, they're not likely to find two new starters in the same draft at the same position. Young, a pending restricted free agent, should get every opportunity to fill one of those roles.

Rewind'12: Lions penalties

January, 23, 2013
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(Another in a series of posts circling back on the 2012 season and some of our preseason themes.)

Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz halted one of the training camp practices I covered last summer to, uh, remind players that he would have a low tolerance level for the kind of penalties they committed far too often the previous years.

In fact, the 2011 Lions were called for 146 penalties and had 128 accepted -- the third-highest total in the NFL. Cornerback Chris Houston said the issue had "definitely" been an emphasis in the Lions' 2012 training camp and added: "Coach has been more on guys if they jump offsides or make dumb penalties."

So it's worth noting that the Lions dropped their penalty total in 2012 by about 15 percent, and their 103 accepted penalties ranked No. 19 in the NFL. The chart shows how each NFC North team fared in this department, and you'll note the Lions weren't even the most-penalized team in the division if you add penalties that were also declined. That distinction shifted to the Green Bay Packers. (The league uses accepted penalties for its official rankings.)


The Lions' accomplishment amid a 4-12 season reinforces the generally accepted theory that penalty totals aren't directly correlated to wins and losses over the course of a season. But fewer is better than the alternative, and the Minnesota Vikings' total of 90 accepted penalties fits their season narrative of playing efficient, relatively mistake-free football en route to a 10-6 record. Only four teams had fewer penalties accepted against them.

Of course, anyone who watched the Lions over the course of the season knows they still struggled at times with the kind of pre-snap penalties Houston referred to in training camp. According to the ESPN Stats & Information database, the Lions were called for a total of 46 such penalties, including:
  • 20 false starts
  • 11 defensive offside
  • Eight encroachments
  • Seven neutral zone infractions

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley accounted for eight of the 46 pre-snap penalties. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus had five and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch had four.
The NFL draft is a year-round enterprise, and so I'm sure plenty of you will eat up every word in this week's Hot Read. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay addressed 10 key questions about the 2013 draft, and here are some NFC North-related nuggets with my comments:

McShay: "It's not a good 'TV draft.' NFL teams want great talent at every single position, but a vast majority of teams are not in dire straits and looking for a quarterback, and would rather see the depth where it is in this class: on the offensive and defensive lines."
Seifert comment: I could see that sentiment applying to all of our teams except perhaps the Minnesota Vikings. We have some deep groups of receivers and three ultra-established quarterbacks, the positions McShay is referring to by 'TV draft.' The Chicago Bears in particular should be on the lookout for offensive tackles.

Kiper: "For just 'pure sleeper' in the sense of a guy nobody has seen, I'll go with Eric Fisher of Central Michigan, who could be starting for someone at tackle next season.
Seifert comment: NFC North fans can also be MAC fans, so I'm guessing a few of you have heard of Fisher. He is a 6-foot-8 tackle who might end up on the radar of, say, the Bears or even the Green Bay Packers. Are we sure that Marshall Newhouse is the Packers' long-term left tackle? And can we trust that 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod will ever play again? Sherrod isn't ready to play now, nearly a year after suffering a gruesome broken leg.

McShay: "This [quarterback] class better resembles the 2011 class than the 2012 class."
Kiper: "Right now, I don't have a QB rated among my top 20 overall players... ."
Seifert comment: A relatively weak group of blue-chippers, led by USC's Matt Barkley and West Virginia's Geno Smith, could factor in for the Vikings. If you assume that quarterback value is artificially inflated, Barkley and Smith will be drafted higher than where they should be based on pure potential. That would leave even fewer options for the Vikings if they decide to give Christian Ponder some legitimate long-term competition.

McShay: "If you talk to front office personnel, they would agree that the defensive linemen in this draft are really an impressive group. You have the elite guys, but you have guys late in the first round, early in the second who can become a centerpiece on your defensive line for many years."
Seifert comment: I wouldn't consider defensive line an area of need for any particular NFC North team, but some key players are at least in the second half of their careers. Among them: the Bears' Julius Peppers (32), the Vikings' Kevin Williams (32) and Jared Allen (30), the Detroit Lions' Kyle Vanden Bosch (34) and the Packers' Ryan Pickett (33). The best way to look at this aspect of the draft is that NFC North teams will have an opportunity to fortify their strengths.
Matthew StaffordEric Hartline/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford led the Lions, who are now 2-3 overall, to an OT victory against Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA -- I'll admit it. They fooled me again. Yep, I wrote off the Detroit Lions when their deficit grew to 10 points Sunday with 5 minutes, 18 seconds remaining at Lincoln Financial Field. I had this game marked as a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles and was already researching the history of 1-4 teams -- a cardinal sin in the Matthew Stafford Era.

"We're never out of any game," as coach Jim Schwartz summed it up.

Stafford led the Lions to three scores in the final 9:18 on this particular afternoon, flipping that deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. As the Lions faced essentially the end of postseason contention, Stafford pulled off the seventh come-from-behind victory in his career. What was once an impressive oddity is now a habit: Comebacks now represent nearly half of his 15 career victories.

"We just don't think any other way," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We look at the score and we start figuring out what we need to do. We say, 'We're going to score right there and then the defense will get the ball back to the offense or whatever.' Our offense, we have Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. As long as we have them, we're never out of a game."

The worst mistake we could make, however, is to classify this occasion simply as another Stafford-Johnson production. Sure, Stafford threw for 220 yards and Johnson caught five passes for 107 yards after the start of the fourth quarter. But their late-game focus was clearly contagious Sunday.

"We don't ever give up," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, "because we know we have a quarterback that doesn't give up."

The Lions sensed the Eagles' vulnerability even after a blown coverage allowed Jeremy Maclin to dash 70 yards on a slant pattern for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 23-13 lead. The Lions' defense elevated their game-long pounding of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and their offense started ad-libbing in a way that only a group of supremely confident teammates can do.

You saw tight end Tony Scheffler break downfield after a Stafford scramble to haul in an unplanned 57-yard pass to get in position for one score. There was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh batting down a third-down pass by Vick, allowing the Lions to regain possession for the game-tying drive.

Johnson redirected his route on the fifth play of that possession, looking for open space and then tight-roping the sideline moments after he and Stafford had made the adjustment during a brief conversation. The catch, confirmed by replay, put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's game-tying 19-yard field goal.

The Lions then opened overtime with consecutive sacks of Vick, one by Cliff Avril and a second shared by Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley. At that point, there suddenly was no doubting who would win the game. An angry crowd knew it as well and began filing out even before the Lions took over possession. Hanson won it on a 45-yard field goal on the Lions' fifth play of overtime.

"The crazy thing is, we almost expect it," Vanden Bosch said. "If we're close and we're in the fourth quarter, we almost expect that we'll come back and win it. I guess that's a good thing, but it would be nice to jump out to a lead and hold on to a lead."

Yes, it's fair to wonder when the Lions can start mixing in some conventional victories. They've needed fourth-quarter comebacks in both victories this season -- including Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams -- and Stafford said, "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week."

And let's not forget that the Lions had 16 penalties enforced against them Sunday -- including 10 for a false start or encroachment -- and didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Stafford had completed only 7 of 21 passes and was on the way to one of the worst games of his career.

The rational part of me wants to suggest that most every team will lose under those circumstances. But Stafford gives the Lions an edge in those situations, and his teammates are now running with it. His ability to brush aside failure and embrace hope is real and undeniable.

"I know those guys believe in me," Stafford said, "and I believe in them. We had chances to make plays, whether I missed them or they weren't made, we understand that's part of the game of football. It's not always going to be perfect and it's not always going to be pretty."

The Lions can't win all of their games with comebacks, but with Stafford we can say with some confidence that they're going to steal a few more than most teams. It's an extra boost of confidence that a 2-3 team needs in a highly competitive division.

"You could feel this was a big step for us, as a team, playing team football," Schwartz said. "A lot of spirit, guys picking each other up. That's a good sign for things to come for this team."

We can't say where this victory will take the Lions. But we should darn well know not to count them out. Not for the playoffs or anything else. I won't make that mistake again.

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