NFC North: Larry Fitzgerald

Kyle RudolphTimothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsVikings tight end Kyle Rudolph expects his production to improve under new coordinator Norv Turner.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It generally isn't until about now, with training camp just around the corner, that Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph starts keeping a close eye on his weight. He has always worked out in the offseason, with an eye toward getting ready for the season, but Rudolph will admit he has also used his training regimen as justification to cut some nutritional corners.

(We'll pause here and let those of you who have never sneaked a couple extra cookies after a hard workout cast the first stones.)

"It was more of just a focus on my diet in February and March, versus, you are out in California, you work out every day, so you feel like you can eat whatever you want," Rudolph said. "Nothing really changes, because you make up for it with the workouts, but when I really focused on eating lean meats, eating the salads, you see the results."

Rudolph started keeping a closer leash on his diet in February, with an eye toward slimming down before the Vikings' voluntary veterans' minicamp in April. He is now about 260 pounds, he said, after playing at 275 last season, and with a more active role in the Vikings' passing game likely awaiting him this season, Rudolph has been working to refine his skills as a receiver. He is working out at Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's training camp this week, training with the All-Pro wideout and a group of receivers for the fourth year, and has been drilling his speed in and out of his cuts with Fitzgerald's trainer, Bill Welle.

In a scheme that has traditionally rewarded tight ends, Rudolph could see the payoff this season.

"Becoming more explosive in and out of cuts, that was the big emphasis for me, going back and watching a ton of (Cleveland) Browns tape (when Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the coordinator there last year)," Rudolph said. "I've always watched a lot of (San Diego Chargers tight end) Antonio Gates (who played for Turner from 2007-12), and I don't know that there's anyone as good as him at getting in and out of breaks. That's been the big point of emphasis for me the whole year, and getting the weight down has helped a ton, I think. I feel like I run a lot smoother than I did at 275."

It's no secret that Turner's offense will use Rudolph differently than Bill Musgrave's scheme did, but based on what Gates and Browns tight end Jordan Cameron have done, the change figures to be stark. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Cameron ran 322 pass routes from the slot last season, which was the second-most of any tight end in the league. Gates was third at 290. Though he only played in eight games last season, Rudolph was flexed into the slot just 76 times.

He said there are also plenty of situations that call for him to be in the same spot he's always occupied, but in a two-point stance. In any case, Rudolph will get opportunities to put his route-running work into practice.

"As a bigger guy, if I'm just running, I can pretty much run with anybody," Rudolph said. "I'm very comfortable with that. But being bigger and taller, it's harder for me to get my weight down, and a lot of times, we focus on getting in and out with the fewest steps possible. I don't think I really felt comfortable running our new routes until about halfway through OTAs. We drilled it over and over again, and it just started clicking."

Rudolph has said many times, and said again on Tuesday, that he would love to sign a new contract to keep him in Minnesota beyond this season. He's clicked with Turner, whom Rudolph said is more hands-on in practices than the Vikings' previous offensive coaches, and wants to be with the team when its new stadium opens in 2016. But with training camp just 2 1/2 weeks away, Rudolph said he is not focused on a contract extension, concentrating instead on the kind of big season that could land him a lucrative deal.

"I love it here. I don't know why anyone wouldn't want to stay here," Rudolph said. "It's a very exciting time to be a Minnesota Viking. But first for me, it was learning the new offense, so I can go out there and let my ability take over. Now, at this point, I'm comfortable with the offense. It's just getting in the best shape possible, so when we report on July 24, I can have the best training camp I've ever had."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Don't think the Green Bay Packers and the agents for receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson didn't notice the contract extension that Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall signed on Monday -- even if none of the parties involved had on ABC's "The View."

Nelson
Cobb
Marshall's deal could impact negotiations between the Packers and their top-two receivers, both of whom are entering the final year of their contracts.

Marshall's three-year, $30 million contract extension also came with him entering the final year of his contract. His last deal averaged $11.194 million per season, making him the NFL's sixth-highest-paid receiver, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data.

While Marshall isn't an exact comparison for either Cobb or Nelson -- at age 30 he's closer in age to Nelson (28) than Cobb (23), but he has five Pro Bowls and one All-Pro selection compared to none for either Nelson or Cobb -- every deal signed by a marquee receiver will help shape the market for the Packers' duo.

Nelson's last contract averaged $4.2 million per season, an average per year that currently ranks 32nd among NFL receivers. If nothing else, Nelson's camp certainly has a strong case that he's better than the 32nd-best receiver in the NFL, especially coming off a season in which he ranked 13th among receivers in receptions (85) and 10th in yards (1,314).

Cobb is still playing under his original rookie contract -- a four-year, $3.233 million deal that ranks 79th on the list of receivers in terms of average per year. Again, there certainly are not 78 receivers better than Cobb in the NFL, but the injury that kept him out of 10 games last season could impact the negotiations. Also, the fact Cobb plays primarily in the slot could limit his value. The highest-paid slot receiver is Victor Cruz ($8.6 million per season) of the New York Giants.

As of Monday, there were eight receivers with contracts that average at least $10 million per season led by Detroit's Calvin Johnson ($16.207 million per season) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ($16.142 million).

Before the Packers began signing their latest round of rookie contracts last week, they had $15,078,037 in salary-cap space available for this season.
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson Getty ImagesGreen Bay Packers receivers Randall Cobb (18) and Jordy Nelson are both in line for raises as they enter the final season of their current contracts.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At some point in the next 11 months -- likely sooner rather than later -- the Green Bay Packers will extend the contracts of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Between now and when they scribble their names on their new deals there will be much discussion about each player's value.

Myriad factors come in to play during contract negotiations, but the most important ones are production, injury history (which is usually tied to production) and age (which can be tied to injury history).

Another factor you might hear thrown around when it comes to Cobb and Nelson is the unscientific term "No. 1 receiver" -- as in should either one or both be paid like one?

In an ESPN Insider piece, former NFL scout Matt Williamson helped define exactly what that term means .

He came up with four characteristics:

  • They need to have the ability to separate from man coverage, understand how to find the soft spots in zones and have very strong athletic traits.
  • They need to be strong, fast and play big, which often -- but not always -- can eliminate shorter wide receivers from this equation.
  • They must be productive, even when opposing defenses are scheming to take them out of the equation; No. 1 receivers can be uncoverable and never come off the field.
  • They must display the above traits with consistency.

What was perhaps most interesting about Williamson's list is that he came up with only 14 players in the NFL who fit his criteria.

"The term 'No. 1 receiver' is often thrown around loosely, but to me, there certainly are not 32 No. 1 receivers in the league just because every team has a favorite target," Williamson wrote.

Also, Williamson had two tight ends -- New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham -- among his 14.

Among his 12 receivers, only four were among the NFL's top-10 highest-paid receivers (see the accompanying chart). They were: Detroit's Calvin Johnson (No. 1), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (No. 2), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (No. 6) and Houston's Andre Johnson (No. 8).

However, six of the 12 are still playing under their rookie contracts and will be in line for significant raises on their next deal.

Back to the cases for whether Cobb and Nelson belong in that same category as they enter the final season of their current contracts.

According to Williamson, one of them should be considered a No. 1 receiver and the other is close. Also, it's possible for one team to have two No. 1 receivers, Williamson wrote, as is the case with the Bears (Marshall and Alshon Jeffery).

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson cracked the list at No. 13 under the heading "Just ask their quarterbacks if they are No. 1 receivers." Williamson also put San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in that same category.

"With great size for the position, he is often mistaken for a possession weapon, however only three receivers converted more receptions of 20 or more yards last year, Williamson wrote of Nelson. "His deep speed and big-play ability is vastly underrated, but Nelson also is Aaron Rodgers' go-to target when Rodgers needs a first down and has always proven to be reliable.

"Nelson had his best season in 2013, accumulating over 1,300 receiving yards, and bear in mind that he was playing without Rodgers for much of that time. He isn't a product of the system or his surroundings and would be great in any environment."

Nelson's next contract will be his third. Midway through the 2011 season, he signed a three-year extension that averaged $4.2 million per season. That average ranks 32nd among all NFL receivers in 2014.

Williamson ranked Cobb among 11 players who he termed as "close but not quite" No. 1 receivers.

Cobb, who like Nelson was a second-round pick, is entering the final season of his rookie contract. Two factors likely kept Cobb out of Williamson’s top 14: his size (5-10, 192) and that he missed 10 games last season because of a fractured tibia.

But in 2012, Cobb caught 80 passes despite missing one game, and there is room for growth. He is entering his fourth season but won't turn 24 years old until late in training camp this summer, making him more than 5 years younger than Nelson, who turns 29 in May.
Reggie Bush and Carson PalmerGetty ImagesReggie Bush and Carson Palmer have given their respective teams major upgrades on offense.

A lot has happened since the Detroit Lions' most recent trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, last December.

The Arizona Cardinals hired an entirely new coaching staff and enlisted a veteran quarterback to bolster the offense. The Lions, meanwhile, added a shifty new running back by the name of Reggie Bush. In last year’s meeting, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford played poorly, and it allowed the Cardinals to break a nine-game losing streak.

My, how times have changed. The Lions are flying high off a season-opening victory against NFC North rival Minnesota, while the Cardinals are still trying to find their footing in 2013.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss Sunday’s matchup.

Josh Weinfuss: A lot has been made of offseason additions on both sides. How has the Lions' offense changed by adding Bush?

Michael Rothstein: It has definitely become much more dynamic. You'll see a lot more screen passes and short passes to get Bush in space and allow him to create. The perfect example came on the 77-yard screen that went for a touchdown against the Vikings. Not sure the Lions had anyone with that kind of speed out of the backfield last season. Add to that Bush's ability to run between the tackles when he needs to, and it creates another dimension for defenses to be concerned about. No longer is it pay attention to Calvin Johnson and make Detroit's other pieces find a way to win. If teams do that, Bush will force them to abandon that strategy.

Sticking with offense, has the addition of Carson Palmer aided the passing game for both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd?

Josh Weinfuss: Without a doubt. Palmer has brought not only stability to a position that's been a hurricane in the three seasons since Kurt Warner retired, but also talent. The proof of that came Sunday when Palmer and Fitzgerald connected for two touchdowns -- one on a 4-yard fade to the back left corner, the other on a 25-yard beauty that dropped into Fitzgerald's hands. Last season, Cardinals quarterbacks targeted Fitzgerald nine times in the red zone and didn't complete any. Palmer is already 2-for-3 in the red zone to Fitzgerald. Floyd also will benefit from Palmer's accuracy. With Floyd being a larger target than Fitzgerald, Palmer can get a little more creative with where he throws the ball, an issue all four Arizona quarterbacks had last season.

Let's switch sides of the ball. After his incident against the Vikings, is Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh becoming a distraction already this season?

Michael Rothstein: Distraction? No. The reason I say that is most people around the Lions have been around this situation before with Suh. If his teammates are telling the truth and indeed accepted his apology, it should be a nonissue for most in the locker room -- for now. Where it becomes a problem, perhaps, is if Suh does something like this again. It should become a distraction or an issue only if he were to be suspended in the future.

Since you asked about Suh, how does Arizona's offensive line deal with him, Nick Fairley and the rest of Detroit's deep, talented defensive line?

Josh Weinfuss: This is a different situation from Week 1, when the Cardinals focused on stopping two very strong outside rushers. With Suh and Fairley coming up the gut, Arizona will have to rely on its guards and center more -- which could be an issue, considering that right guard Paul Fanaika played in his first game in almost two years Sunday. Don't expect the Cardinals to overload the box with blockers. Palmer said he'd rather have less time to throw and more options downfield, but the Cardinals more than likely will keep a running back home to pick up that inside rush and a tight end on the outside to allow the tackle to cheat over and help the guard.

Speaking of the offense, has any team figured out how to slow down Johnson, because stopping him is unlikely -- and if anyone has slowed the stud receiver, how'd they do it?

Michael Rothstein: Kind of, Josh. Kind of. Johnson had four catches for 37 yards against Minnesota on Sunday. While he was targeted nine times -- and missed two touchdowns by not much -- the addition of Bush to the Lions' offense has taken some pressure off Johnson. When Minnesota chose to try to take away Johnson, Detroit focused on letting Bush operate. While I don't think teams will ever take Johnson out of the game while he is in his prime, it wouldn't shock me if he has some games in which Detroit looks to Bush more instead of always featuring Johnson. That, of course, just makes the Lions' offense much more difficult to stop.

I'll wrap it up with a question to you. How much is Patrick Peterson going to be involved in the offense? And can he be a true two-way player, be it this week or beyond?

Josh Weinfuss: Ideally, Peterson would play a prominent role in the offense. And the Cardinals have planned for that, installing a package specifically for him that was, at last check, 60 plays deep. They want him out there, so much so that on cut day, coach Bruce Arians said Peterson would be considered the Cardinals’ fifth receiver. But with all the hype, he played only three offensive snaps. Granted, Peterson’s involvement will always be dictated by the situation, but I think a lot of people were expecting more in Week 1. As to your second question, that’s tough to answer. Peterson is already playing nearly every down on defense and is the Cards’ primary punt returner. He’s young -- 23 in July -- so his body can handle it, but I don’t know whether there’s anyone these days getting significant time in all three facets. He’s more likely to get hurt on offense, but if he can make an impact on defense, special teams and offense, you’re looking at a potential MVP.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Forbes Magazine recently used its 2012 valuations of NFL teams to rank them among the world's 50 most valuable sports franchises. All four NFC North teams made the cut, and it's worth noting our lowest-valued team relative to Monday's post on player payroll.

The Chicago Bears ($1.161 billion) ranked No. 16, the Green Bay Packers ($1.119 billion) were No. 18, the Minnesota Vikings ($975 million) were No. 35 and the Detroit Lions ($855 million) were No. 43. The Lions, according to the magazine, carry substantial debt load because of their contribution toward constructing Ford Field.

As we discussed Monday, the Lions have the NFL's highest payroll -- the sum of cash they will pay their players in 2013 -- at the moment. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson will receive $56 million alone. We all know that salary-cap rules played a part in ballooning those contract values, but in the end, one of the NFL's lowest-valued teams is paying out the most cash to its players this season. There's a note in there somewhere.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Our Wild Week 17 was so busy that we never got a chance to circle back on the historic Week 16 of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. So on this final Saturday morning of the NFL regular season, let's follow up on two noteworthy angles.

First, we should establish some context for the intensity with which the Lions have helped Johnson pursue the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. As the chart shows, Johnson already has been targeted more times in the regular season than any player in the past five seasons. (ESPN Stats & Information's database of video analysis goes back as far as 2008.)

In fact, if the Lions target Johnson eight times Sunday against the Chicago Bears, he'll eclipse the 20-game total -- including the playoffs -- of Larry Fitzgerald in 2008 and the 19-game total of Wes Welker in 2011. That should give you a pretty good idea of how frequently the Lions have thrown Johnson's way this season relative to a five-year sample of NFL play.

(We should also point out that Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has been targeted 175 times, the fourth-highest regular-season total over the past five years. If the Bears throw the same number of passes his way Sunday as they have averaged this season -- 11.6 -- he will finish with more regular-season targets over the past five years than anyone not named Calvin Johnson.)

The frequency of Johnson's targets, combined with the Lions' 4-11 record, has drawn the inevitable discussion of whether he has benefited from "garbage yards" that came during portions of games that were not close. As we discussed last weekend, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden asserted that Johnson had gained some "meaningless yards" this season that "tarnish the record."

There are a number of problems here, including how to establish a reliable parameter for "garbage yards." Once that happens, Johnson's "garbage yards" aren't relevant until you compare them to other receivers and also look at how his "non-garbage yards" measure up as well.

We've noted that Johnson has totaled 588 receiving yards in situations where the Lions either led by at least 10 points or trailed by 10 points in a game. That's the highest total in the NFL, but his 1,304 yards when the point differential is less than 10 points is also the highest total in the league. So if you want, you could argue that Johnson has been the NFL's most productive receiver in close games.

In the end, I would point you toward Bill Barnwell's thoughtful analysis and discussion of the topic earlier this week over at Grantland.com. Barnwell wrote that "you can make 'garbage time' mean anything you like, and eventually, you'll probably come to some sort of split that tells the story you want to tell."

To me, it's wrong to assume that receivers on the most successful teams only catch "meaningful" passes. Johnson has earned his targets this season, especially considering the exotic defenses he has faced, and his yards should be considered no less legitimate than any other receiver's.

BBAO: Injuries piling up for Bears

December, 14, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

There has been so much talk this week about, well, talk, that we've reached Friday of Packers-Bears week and have a pile of injury information to sort through.

Thanks to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, we know that Chicago Bears receiver Earl Bennett (concussion) won't play Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. That will leave the Bears with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester as their three main receivers.

Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, reports that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is dealing with a sprained MCL in his knee but is a certainty to play Sunday. The main question about the injury is whether it will impact Cutler's mobility against a pass rush that sacked him seven times in the teams' first meeting in Week 2.

Other Bears players who will need to make quick late-week recoveries in order to play are cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder), running back Michael Bush (ribs) and defensive end Shea McClellin (knee). Linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring) won't play, either. The status of defensive tackle Henry Melton (chest), who hasn't practiced this week, is unclear.

The Packers aren't expected to have receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring), running back James Starks (knee), defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee) or defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone) for this game. Offensive lineman T.J. Lang appears on track to play, probably at left guard, and linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) apparently has had no setbacks in his return to practice this week.

Whew. Let's continue with our morning tour of the division:
  • Urlacher fired back at Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, who suggested the Bears might be better off without him this season. As Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times notes, Urlacher said on SiriusXM NFL radio: "Just like a couple of years ago, I think, he tore his ACL and the Packers were actually better without him. You know, they won the Super Bowl."
  • The Bears' special teams are scrambling because of injuries, notes Dickerson for ESPNChicago.com.
  • Packers receiver Greg Jennings mimicked Brandon Marshall's group interview this week and jokingly challenged the Bears to cover him one-on-one instead of in Cover 2. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette explains that statement and what the final three games of the regular season could mean for Jennings' future.
  • Jennings, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "I mean, your pride wants to say, 'I can guard you man-to-man,' but why do it? Why do it when you don’t have to? Hey, that's why we're a team. We help one another."
  • Packers receiver Randall Cobb is on the verge of breaking the Packers' record for most net yards in a season. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has more.
  • Winning the MVP award would "mean a lot," said Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, via Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The Vikings expect that cornerback A.J. Jefferson (concussion) will be ready for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams, according to Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune takes us through the ways the Vikings failed to find a deep-passing threat this season.
  • Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is closing in on his second consecutive 5,000-yard season, notes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan on Stafford, via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com: "I don't know where Peyton [Manning] was after four years, but I think Matt's definitely on track to be one of the best quarterbacks to ever play this position."
  • Lions receiver Calvin Johnson understands the difficult season of Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, writes Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News.

BBAO: Lions and Stephen Tulloch

March, 19, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

We haven't heard too much about the Detroit Lions' attempts to re-sign middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, but you wonder if his status will shake loose one way or the other this week.

The Lions are scheduled to host free agent linebacker David Hawthorne this week, notes Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com. Hawthorne was a starter the past three seasons for the Seattle Seahawks and could be a backup plan to signing Tulloch. If nothing else, his visit could trigger a break in negotiations that haven't yet yielded a deal.

Continuing around the NFC North:
By this point, the Green Bay Packers' quiet approach to veteran free agency should surprise no one. We've had endless debates about the pros and cons of their philosophy, but in the spring of 2012, I think we should all have a clear understanding of the "why."

In the next 12 months or so, the Packers will face contract negotiations with three of the best players at their positions in the NFL. Receiver Greg Jennings is entering the final year of his contract, linebacker Clay Matthews has two years remaining on his rookie deal, and there is a general understanding that quarterback Aaron Rodgers has outperformed the contract he signed shortly after taking over as the Packers' starter in 2008.

Free agent activity this week has offered us a peak at the numbers the Packers likely will hear, and to no surprise, they're going to be high. Let's start with Jennings, who has to be smiling ear-to-ear after watching the money thrown at receivers this week.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the market for the top receiver available by signing Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. If Jennings were to hit the open market in 2013, he could reasonably expect Jackson's deal to serve as a baseline for negotiations.

Both players have been fortunate enough to play with elite quarterbacks and in steady passing offenses. As the chart shows, Jennings is a bit younger than Jackson, and has produced at a much higher rate over his career.

We'll set aside the $132 million contract of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, as well as the $120 million deal Larry Fitzgerald signed last summer with the Arizona Cardinals. Both deals were inflated by unique forms of leverage that Jennings won't have access to.

Rodgers, meanwhile, is the reigning MVP and could expect a contract that comes close to the $18 million annual average the game's top quarterbacks -- including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- have received in recent deals. Ongoing negotiations between Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints could raise that level, but Brees has the leverage of an expired contract.

Regardless, you can do the math. Rodgers said in November that he wants his next contract to be his last. If the Packers want to sign Rodgers to a new, say, seven-year deal, the total value could surpass $125 million. Nothing crazy there when it comes to quarterback salaries.

Of the three, Matthews might be the most difficult situation to assess. His sack total fell from 13.5 in 2010 to six in 2011, but it's fair to consider him one of the NFL's better pass-rushers. The top available pass-rusher on the market this spring is defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams, who has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Buffalo Bills for $100 million over six years, with $50 million guaranteed.

So we can be conservative and suggest that the combined contracts of Jennings, Rodgers and Matthews could surpass $200 million. That should give you 200 million reasons why the Packers are laying low, at least at the moment.
One of the NFC North's most important issues has been resolved. The Detroit Lions have announced a seven-year contract extension with receiver Calvin Johnson, ending a two-month discussion about his unique situation and the heavy burden it had placed on the Lions' salary cap structure.

Johnson
The full numbers are not yet in, but ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the total value is worth $132 million over the course of the next eight seasons with almost half -- $60 million -- in guarantees. That makes it the richest deal ever handed out in the NFL, according to Schefter, exceeding the eight-year, $120 million deal the Arizona Cardinals gave Larry Fitzgerald last summer. Fitzgerald's deal included almost $50 million in guarantees. Johnson is one of the league's best players, but the size of the deal speaks to the leverage he had in this situation.

A key detail unresolved at the moment is how much the extension will lower what had been a $22 million cap hit for Johnson. As we discussed in January, that figure made these negotiations difficult because Johnson would have been eligible for a $26.4 million franchise tag in 2013.

We'll sift through the numbers when we get them. The Lions have called a 1 p.m. ET news conference to discuss the deal. But for now, it's probably safe to assume the Lions have more salary cap space now than they had when you woke up Wednesday morning. (Assuming you didn't sleep until 11 a.m.) More in a bit.
As we discussed Saturday night -- or was it early Sunday morning? -- the Detroit Lions deserve to get big-boy treatment and analysis moving forward. First up: what appears to be a sizable conundrum on the financial future of All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johson
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Lions have a big decision to make financially when it comes to receiver Calvin Johnson.
We noted earlier Monday that Johnson finished the season in historic fashion and might be in line for the most lucrative contract extension for a receiver in NFL history. After doing some digging Monday, it appears the NFL's salary-cap rules will leave the Lions with several options -- all of which would require mind-boggling numbers and difficult decisions.

The bottom line: The Lions could be forced to pay Johnson $77 million over the next three seasons alone. That number would cripple the cap structure of many teams, let alone one with as many high draft choices as the Lions have. Here's why and how that would happen:

Johnson's salary cap number is projected to be around $22 million in 2012, thanks to a $14 million base salary, a $4.5 million roster bonus and a debit for the $4.5 million performance bonus he earned in 2011. (I know those numbers don't add up. The debit is part of a bigger cap reconciliation process that hasn't happened yet.)

Obviously, the Lions would like to lower that cap number and could do so with a long-term extension that would spread out the hit over multiple years. But that's where Johnson's unique situation gets tricky. It would be a rare occasion where the NFL's franchise tag rules would work in favor, rather than against, the player.

As you know, the alternative to a long-term contract for a star player is to work under a series of yearly franchise tags. In most cases, the team has the advantage because it doesn't have to guarantee money beyond the current season. But in Johnson's case, it would require monstrous single-season salaries that would actually make the Lions' cap situation worse.

Under the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the franchise tag figure for a player is determined by the higher of the following two values:

  1. The average of the five highest salary cap figures at the player's position over the past five years
  2. A figure equal to 120 percent of his prior year's cap number.

Johnson's $22 million cap figure for 2012 is much higher than the projected franchise tag number for receivers. So the alternative to signing Johnson to a long-term deal would be letting him play out the final year of his current contract in 2012 and then franchising him at $26.4 million in 2013. Without a deal at that point, Johnson's franchise tag would rise to $31.7 million for 2014 and would account for perhaps 25 percent of the Lions' total cap structure.

That nuance shifts extraordinary leverage to Johnson in any negotiations that might occur over the next few months. If he does absolutely nothing, the Lions would be required to pay him about $77 million -- and substantially limit their cap flexibility -- to keep him on their roster for the next three seasons.

Often, the average of a series of franchise tags provides a rough starting point for negotiations on long-term deals for star players. The three-year average of $25.6 million in Johnson's case is monstrous. Johnson would have to make a concession for getting more money guaranteed up front than he would in the franchise scenario, but keep in mind that the highest average salary for an NFL receiver is currently about 45 percent lower than that: $15 million for Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, who signed an eight-year deal last summer that included $50 million in guarantees.

What does all of this mean? No matter which way they turn, the Lions will be on the hook for a ceiling-crushing commitment to Johnson. Unless he makes a cash concession to lessen the cap hit, the Lions are in a really, really tough spot.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

For the second time in three months, an NFC North team will be honored at the White House.

The Green Bay Packers visited President Obama in August to celebrate their victory in Super Bowl XLV. And Friday, the 1985 Chicago Bears finally will get their due for winning Super Bowl XX. That's right. As Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com writes, about 100 players, coaches and staffers from that team will be present for a ceremony that moved off the White House's radar due to circumstances in 1986.

Two days after the Bears' victory over the New England Patriots, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The White House hadn't yet planned a trip, and the tragedy pushed its priorities in other directions. Obama, of course, is a longtime Bears fan who agreed to host the team if there was still interest. There was.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Earlier Tuesday, we broke down the sizzling start of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from multiple angles. At around the same time, ESPN analyst Cris Carter was updating his assessment of Johnson's standing in a mythical and irrelevant ranking of the NFL's top receivers.

Speaking on ESPN's radio's "Mike & Mike Radio Show," Carter said Johnson is "playing at a top-5 level" and added: "He's a phenomenal player." But it sounds as if Carter didn't go far enough for many of you, most notably Johnson's quarterback.

Carter said there are "really four elite wide receivers" in the NFL: Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers, Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals and Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was either listening or told about Carter's comment. Stafford's first tweet in about a month went like this:
Does anyone think 8 tds in 4 weeks will change chris carters mind about an "elite" receiver? #megatron

Johnson, of course, has six touchdowns in the Lions' first three games, giving Stafford's tweet an edgy projection about the two he would need to score Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. Stay tuned on that one.

I covered Carter at the end of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, and I can tell you he's not opposed to riling people up for the sake of riling people up. I don't doubt the sincerity of his viewpoint, but I'll say this: Y'all are letting old Cris get under your skin when the actual slight to Johnson is mild at best.

Carter paid plenty of homage to Johnson in his appearance Tuesday morning, saying: "Now, Calvin Johnson is playing the best football of his career. He's getting single coverage now and he's beating single coverage. They had double-coverage in the red zone. Him and Stafford have great chemistry together. He is playing at a top-5 level. But before this season, he wasn't better than the other four guys. He's starting to come into his own, which he should be. ... He should be coming into his prime and he's only going to get better. He's a phenomenal player."

You can listen to Carter yourself on this podcast . The Johnson segment begins at about the 17-minute mark.

And now back to our regular programming....
I know. I know. I KNOW. ESPN analyst and friend of the NFC North blog Cris Carter sent Detroit Lions fans into a rage Friday morning by omitting Calvin Johnson from his personal list of the NFL's best wide receivers.

You can listen to Carter's appearance on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" through this link . The receiver discussion begins at about the 16-minute mark.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireWhere does Calvin Johnson rank among the league's elite receivers?
Carter put six players in his group of elites. In order, they were:

  1. Andre Johnson
  2. Larry Fitzgerald
  3. Greg Jennings
  4. Reggie Wayne
  5. DeSean Jackson
  6. Roddy White

When a listener suggested that Calvin Johnson should be ranked on par with Andre Johnson, Carter said: "The only thing they have the same is the name."

Carter went on to say: "Calvin Johnson, he's very, very good at Madden and Tecmo Bowl or whatever they're playing now. But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he's not to the point of these guys yet. That doesn't mean he can't play. He just not there yet."

Carter also didn't accept co-host Mike Greenberg's suggestion that Johnson's career has been bogged down by poor and/or inconsistent quarterback play. Carter replied:
"... We're trying to determine greatness and impact on the NFL game. Calvin Johnson, you don't have to double-team him to take him out of the game. Now, I made eight Pro Bowls. I made it with five different quarterbacks. They weren't always great. So I don't want to hear the excuse that I'm not playing with a great quarterback.

"Larry Fitzgerald the last couple years, he hasn't played with a great quarterback, but he still gets the numbers. He still gets open. He still makes plays week in and week out. I don't want to hear about the quarterback situation. That's all part of the process. Now, [Calvin Johnson] is a good player. He's just not great yet."

I know these kinds of rankings spur debate and get everyone fired up, but you probably know by now how irrelevant I think they are. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and Carter provided his -- forcefully as always. Is Calvin Johnson the best receiver in the NFL? No. Is he one of the best? Most people would say yes. Is he among the top six? Who cares?
We're Black and Blue All Over:

If all goes as expected, NFL teams will soon enter a three-day exclusive window to sign their own free agents.

The Minnesota Vikings will get their chance to re-sign receiver Sidney Rice, who has previously indicated a desire to test the market. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, will get three days to, in the words of the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh, avoid fielding the "NFL's worst offensive line."

That's how important it is to re-sign center Olin Kreutz, according to Haugh. "Nothing would sabotage their season quicker" than allowing Kreutz to depart. The Bears have no obvious replacement in house and need an anchor amid the moving parts they're expected to have at both tackle and guard positions.

Kreutz acknowledged he will return to the Bears as long as he's offered "a fair deal." Haugh suggests it should fall in line with the three-year, $12 million deal the Baltimore Ravens gave Matt Birk two years ago. The Bears will be some $37 million under the cap and will need to dish out a number of contracts in order to meet the NFL's new minimum for cash expenditures.

Concern arose when the Bears opted not to re-sign him before the lockout, but it's possible they were awaiting the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, as many other teams chose to do as well.
Kreutz: "Everybody knows the way I feel about the Bears. I've chosen them many times. You hate to toot your own horn but I've left a lot of money on the table to be a Bear. The guys at Halas Hall have to decide what's best for the Bears. That's the decision they're going through this off-season and probably why I'm not signed yet."

We'll find out soon enough.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Don't expect a free-agent splurge from the Bears, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal said his surgically repaired shoulder won't be 100 percent until October and that he'll have to participate in training camp with slight pain in the area. Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has more.
  • Former Packers linebacker Dave Robinson has come to grips with his own mortality, writes Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The artificial playing surface at the Metrodome will be replaced following work to replace the roof, according to Dave Orrick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Ted Mondale, the political appointee who serves as the liaison on the Minnesota Vikings' stadium issue, sought to calm tensions after Gov. Mark Dayton turned a cold shoulder on the issue. Via Rochelle Olson of the Star Tribune: "Everyone's tired and angry. It's time to cool off. Have a glass of iced tea. Walk the dog. Everything will be all right." My opinion: The time for backing away is over. The state has used up that leverage. A better idea: Put down your ice tea and do your job.
  • The opinion of Tom Powers from the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Sit down, clam up and wait until another special session is called this fall. And tell Zygi Wilf to back off. From what I hear, our elected officials are beginning to consider him a royal pain in the keister. I'm not sure how many people around here actually are fond of him. I'm pretty sure not too many trust him. The Vikings will get their stadium. We're in, like, the sixth inning of this whole process. Progress has been made. A site and a local partner have been established. Financing figures have been tossed around. Infrastructure has been addressed. It's going to happen. The word is that a special session likely will be called in the fall."
  • Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald has been working out with new Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and compared him to former New York Giants star Mark Bavaro. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has more.
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com views Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and former running back Barry Sanders the same way in one sense: "[B]y and large, they're both loners in the locker room."

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