NFC North: Matt Toeaina

The dust began settling Wednesday for the Chicago Bears following their triumphant dive into free agency. After signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod (five years, $39.5 million) and tight end Martellus Bennett (four years, $20 million), the Bears cut ties with three veterans and watched a fourth begin taking visits elsewhere.

Tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth, along with defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, will all be set free. Their departures will carve out a modest salary-cap savings, a little over $5 million, but it's still fair to ask how much more the Bears can do this offseason given their financial constraints.

"We are up against the cap," general manager Phil Emery told reporters. "There isn't a lot of wiggle room."

Whether it was genuine or for the consumption of agents, Emery painted a limited picture of the Bears' future action.

Emery: "Are we going to be able to go out and sign in the UFA market a starting guard? No."

As a result, linebacker Nick Roach planned a visit to the Oakland Raiders. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's future remains in limbo.

"We've approached him about coming back," Emery said. "As far as working it out, that's an ongoing process."

As with most things, free agency is a give and take. The Bears have taken two of the best players off the market. As a result, they'll have to give in other areas. That's usually how it works.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Good morning from the snowy Upper Midwest. Snow has been falling outside the Metrodome since Saturday night and the snow has begun in Green Bay, Wis., as well, I'm told by reliable sources. Week 14 is gonna be sweet (and slick).

Remember to tweet me your Week 14 photographs, hopefully with snow included, at @espn_nfcnblog. I've gotten things started over at our Instagram account (kevinseifert_espn).

Let's roll through a few pregame notes before this Chicago Bears-Minnesota Vikings game cranks up:
  • ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has a Grade 2 strain of his hamstring, which typically sidelines players three to six weeks. That would make Urlacher's availability for the playoffs at least in question. And because his contract expires after this season, it's possible that means he has played his last game with the Bears or the NFL. At this point, though, that's a lot of "ifs."
  • The Chicago Tribune reported that rookie Alshon Jeffery will start at receiver opposite Brandon Marshall, with Devin Hester working probably as the No. 3 receiver.
  • Most of both teams' injured players were ruled out during the week, so there were no surprises among the gameday inactives. The Bears deactivated guard Chris Spencer and nose tackle Stephen Paea, leaving bigger roles for Edwin Williams and Matt Toeaina, respectively.
A few Saturday afternoon updates before starting the trek to Detroit:
  • The Detroit Lions have activated cornerback Drayton Florence from short-term injured reserve and created a roster spot by placing safety Amari Spievey (concussion) on injured reserve. Florence will play Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, it's fair to question Spievey's future. He's not ready to resume playing a month after suffering a concussion. Last season, a concussion he suffered in the playoffs did not clear until spring practice.
  • The Chicago Bears have ruled out three players from Monday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers. We already knew about quarterback Jay Cutler and defensive end Shea McClellin, both of whom have concussions. The Bears also won't have defensive tackle Matt Toeaina (toe). Everyone else will be available, including receiver Alshon Jeffery (hand).
  • Former Bears coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Ditka, who suffered a minor stroke Friday, is hoping to be released from the hospital in time to watch Sunday's games.

NFC North Friday injury report

November, 9, 2012
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Let's get inside the NFC North's Friday injury report:

Chicago Bears: Receiver Alshon Jeffery (hand) returned to practice Friday but is doubtful for Sunday night's game against the Houston Texans. It is highly, highly unlikely that Jeffery will play but could be ready for next Monday night's game at the San Francisco 49ers. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina (calf) is also doubtful. All other players will be available.

Detroit Lions: As expected, the Lions won't have safeties Louis Delmas (knee) and Amari Spievey (concussion) for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Nose tackle Corey Williams (knee) did not practice all week and is questionable. Receiver Calvin Johnson (knee) practiced Friday and is listed as questionable but will play. Cornerback Chris Houston (illness) returned to practice Friday as well and is probable.

Minnesota Vikings: Receiver Percy Harvin (ankle) didn't practice Friday and is listed as doubtful for Sunday's game. Coach Leslie Frazier wouldn't rule out the possibility of Harvin working out before the game to see if he can contribute, but that scenario remains unlikely. As we've been discussing for most of the week, it sure appears the Vikings will have to play without the NFL's leading receiver (62 receptions). Among other domino effects, Harvin's absence probably means rookie Jarius Wright will be active for the first time this season. Nose tackle Letroy Guion (toe) was also listed as doubtful.

Sunday afternoon: Roster maneuvers

October, 7, 2012
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome, where we're about an hour from kickoff here between the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans.

The Vikings' list of inactive players had no real surprises. Linebacker Erin Henderson (concussion) is back after a two-game absence, and his backup, Marvin Mitchell (calf) is inactive.

The Vikings do have an extra receiver, Stephen Burton, active for this game. That could be because of a rib injury that made receiver Michael Jenkins questionable (but active) for this game.

Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, the Chicago Bears deactivated receiver Earl Bennett (hand) for the second consecutive week. They left themselves a little heavier at defensive tackle than normal, keeping Matt Toeaina active, probably to help against the Jaguars' running game.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greetings from the shadow of Lambeau Field. Rolled into Green Bay just before midnight (CT) Monday and am raring to go for Day 1 of Green Bay Packers minicamp. Practice starts at 11:45 a.m. ET (10:45 a.m. in Green Bay). I'll offer some pithy thoughts via Twitter (@espn_nfcnblog) in real time, and the blog will start filling up by mid-afternoon.

Before we hopscotch around the division, I want to make special note of what I thought was a smart take on the apparently ongoing contract talks between the Detroit Lions and coach Jim Schwartz.

Most of us have assumed the sides would find common ground this offseason to eliminate the distraction of Schwartz opening the season with an expiring contract. But that makes more sense for the Lions than Schwartz, as Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com notes, and Schwartz could probably increase his leverage by waiting until after the 2012 season to do this deal.

The worst-case scenario is Schwartz leaving the team for, presumably, another head-coaching job. Otherwise, he could enhance his value to the Lions with another winning season. Even without one, the Lions' offer isn't likely to get lower from what it is now.

Chances are it won't come to that, but Richardson provided another angle to what could grow into a more significant story at some point.

Now for our division tour:
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "He didn't consider a career change or spiral down into a state of depression, but Aaron Berry had a couple of sleepless nights after the way he finished last season."
  • Complacency doesn't appear to be an issue for the Lions as they prepare for the start of minicamp, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • The Lions signed veteran receiver Jarrett Dillard on Monday, notes McCosky.
  • Competition at left tackle tops Michael C. Wright's list of minicamp storylines for the Chicago Bears over on ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bears defensive tackle Matt Toeaina has a broken right hand but will participate in minicamp nonetheless, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The total guaranteed money in the contract of Packers receiver Donald Driver is $1.2 million, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, yet another indication that the Packers plan to keep him on the roster this season.
  • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the right to discipline Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove in the New Orleans Saints' bounty case, an arbitrator ruled.
  • It's been a wild few years for Minnesota Vikings backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels, writes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The three-game suspension of Vikings receiver Jerome Simpson also includes an additional one-game fine, notes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
Amobi Okoye was the Chicago Bears' top reserve defensive lineman in 2011, recording four sacks and providing an active presence with enough versatility to swing between tackle and end. His one-year agreement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the weekend suggests he had few, if any, opportunities for a bigger role.

So I don't want to say his departure leaves the Bears flummoxed. But when you combine it with their release of defensive tackle Anthony Adams over the winter, you can at least say the Bears will have some new faces in their 2012 rotation.

The question is where it will come from.

When you look at the chart, you see that the Bears essentially used three players at defensive end in 2011: Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Okoye. They split time at defensive tackle among Henry Melton, Matt Toeaina, Stephen Paea, Adams and Okoye.

Subtract Okoye and Adams from that list, and you're looking at a defensive line rotation that, at least for the moment, stands at five incumbents. No matter how much confidence the Bears have in their existing personnel, you would think they'll need a significant addition or unprojected progress from a reserve such as Corey Wootton to round out this group.

The Bears appear to agree, having aggressively pursued free agent Jeremy Mincey last month before he returned to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's fair to say that, given a choice, the Bears wouldn't prefer to have their starting defensive ends playing an average of four out of every five plays -- especially when one of them is 32 (Peppers) and the other is Idonije, who is probably best suited for the kind of swing role Okoye served in last season.

At this point, however, the free-agent market is largely picked clean of impact defensive linemen. So while we've spent plenty of time discussing the Bears' apparent needs at offensive line and receiver, you wonder if they won't target a defensive lineman in the opening rounds of the draft.

That's why ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Insider had the Bears selecting Illinois defensive end Whitney Mercilus with the No. 19 overall pick in his most recent mock draft. Stay tuned.

NFC North Friday injury report

October, 21, 2011
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Getting inside the NFC North Friday injury report:

Chicago Bears: All players are probable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers except for offensive lineman Gabe Carimi (knee) and defensive lineman Matt Toeaina (knee). Still, receiver Earl Bennett (chest) seems unlikely to play. Safety Major Wright (hip) might give way to veteran Chris Harris in the starting lineup.

Detroit Lions: The Lions officially ruled out running back Jahvid Best (concussion) for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, to no one's surprise. The good news: Linebacker Justin Durant and tight end Tony Scheffler, both of who whom have been dealing with concussions, are listed as probable. Durant has missed the past three games.

Green Bay Packers: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett was added to the injury list Friday because of a concussion and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Packers coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Pickett should be cleared for the game, which would be a quick recovery. Cornerback Sam Shields is doubtful because of a concussion and isn't expected to play.

Minnesota Vikings: It looks like the Vikings will be missing two of their four starting defensive backs for Sunday's game. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) and safety Jamarca Sanford (concussion) are both listed as doubtful. So is center John Sullivan (concussion). Chris Cook would continue starting for Winfield. Tyrell Johnson would start for Sanford and Joe Berger for Sullivan.

NFC North at night

October, 13, 2011
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Thursday's practice report:

Chicago Bears: Receiver Earl Bennett (torso) returned to practice Thursday in a limited fashion. He won't play Sunday night against the Vikings but obviously is making progress. Defensive end Julius Peppers (knee), defensive tackle Matt Toeaina (knee), cornerback Charles Tillman (hip), and right tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) all sat out practice on Thursday. Toeaina and Carimi aren't expected to play against the Vikings.

Detroit Lions: Linebacker Justin Durant and tight end Tony Scheffler both missed practice again Thursday because of concussion symptoms. Safety Vincent Fuller (elbow) also missed practice. Meanwhile, the Lions placed safety Erik Coleman (ankle) on injured reserve, ending his season. They replaced him on the roster with tight end Joe Jon Finley, presumably to give them depth while Scheffler recovers.

Green Bay Packers: Offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga (knee) participated in a portion of practice for the second consecutive day and told reporters he thinks he'll be ready to play Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. As per usual, linebacker Clay Matthews (quadriceps) and cornerback Charles Woodson (foot) did not practice. Wide receiver Greg Jennings (groin) was added to the injury report as a limited participant. Nothing to panic about there, as far as I know.

Minnesota Vikings: Receiver Percy Harvin missed practice because of sore ribs, but tests showed no fracture and he is expected to play Sunday against the Bears. There is some hope that cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) will get some work in practice Friday, which would give him a chance of playing against the Bears.

NFC North at night

October, 12, 2011
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Taking a look at Wednesday's practice report:

Chicago Bears: Coach Lovie Smith confirmed that defensive end Julius Peppers has a knee sprain. The Bears did not practice Wednesday, but Smith said he hoped to get Peppers on the field by the end of this week. It sounds as though Peppers has a decent chance to play Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina has a knee injury that could keep him out several weeks, opening the door for rookie Stephen Paea to make his first appearance of the season.

Detroit Lions: Like the Bears, the Lions did not practice Wednesday. Linebacker Justin Durant (concussion) told reporters he will visit a doctor Thursday in hopes of being cleared to play after missing the past two games.

Green Bay Packers: Offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga (knee) returned to practice on a limited basis. Coach Mike McCarthy said he didn't know whether Bulaga would be ready for Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. McCarthy also wasn't ready to declare a starter at left tackle for Chad Clifton (hamstring). There are three conceivable candidates: Bulaga, Derek Sherrod and Marshall Newhouse.

Minnesota Vikings: Cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) did not practice Wednesday, but coach Leslie Frazier is holding out hope for a late-week return to practice. Winfield did not play last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 11, 2011
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After the Chicago Bears' 24-13 loss to the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Bears and their suddenly vulnerable defense head to the exam room following a loss to the Lions.
    Last week, I suggested holding off on a full-scale panic about the Bears' defense. I'm still not there yet. But a second look at Lions tailback Jahvid Best's 88-yard touchdown run revealed a Bears defense that hardly looked like a group that has seen it all. Of course, the Lions got two great blocks at the point of attack to create the hole. Guard Stephen Peterman and center Dominic Raiola double-teamed defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, while right tackle Gosder Cherilus turned out defensive end Israel Idonije. But linebacker Brian Urlacher and safety Chris Harris filled the same gap, between Peterman and Cherilus. Peterman got a piece of Urlacher and Best cut inside of Harris. Meanwhile, linebacker Lance Briggs fell for quarterback Matthew Stafford's play-fake and chased tight end Tony Scheffler away from the play for a few steps before realizing it was a run. The Lions deserve credit for their blocking and Best's speed, but the Bears played themselves out of position as well.
  2. By the end of the game, the Bears had moved right guard Lance Louis to right tackle and had inserted Edwin Williams at right guard. Right tackle Frank Omiyale was benched for a second consecutive week, and it's hard to imagine him starting Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. We'll get more clarity as the week progresses, but in many ways it feels like the Bears are back where they were midway through last season: Playing mix-and-match until they can find even a semi-permanent arrangement of offensive linemen.
  3. As we discussed earlier Tuesday in Stock Watch, quarterback Jay Cutler can't possibly feel great about the situation around him. Often Cutler makes it difficult on himself by making poor decisions, but on Monday night I saw a quarterback gamely trying to make the best of near-constant harassment and substantial limitations of his receiving corps. Even on a night when tailback Matt Forte rushed was rushing for 116 yards, Cutler was under duress more than any NFL quarterback in a game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He took hits, dealt with an inexcusable nine false starts and kept looking for plays from a receiving group whose depth chart has been overturned by production. Dane Sanzenbacher and Sam Hurd were the Bears' leading receivers with six and four catches, respectively. When you see a player stand in as gamely as Cutler did Monday, you wonder what he might do with a better supporting cast.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
The Bears have been historically fluid at safety under coach Lovie Smith, and so I guess it shouldn't be surprising that we've reached Week 6 with little to no idea if the Bears have one credible safety on their roster, let alone two. Veteran Chris Harris returned to the lineup Monday night, but he got exposed while trying to cover Lions receiver Calvin Johnson downfield in the second quarter. Brandon Meriweather, signed just before the season, has yet to demonstrate he is an improvement over Major Wright, whom the Bears spent most of the offseason planning to use as a starter. You have to think it's a matter of time before we see rookie Chris Conte in the lineup.
One of the least heralded engines of the Chicago Bears' run to the Super Bowl in 2006 was a pair of well-matched defensive tackles. Tommie Harris was the quick playmaker who had five sacks in 12 games. Tank Johnson was a 315-pound run-stuffer who kept centers and guards away from linebacker Brian Urlacher.

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Bears are counting on defensive lineman Henry Melton, 69, to be a disruptive force this season.
That duo came to mind the other night as I watched the Bears' first-team defense practice with Henry Melton at Harris' former position and Matt Toeaina at Johnson's nose tackle spot.

Veteran Anthony Adams was sidelined by a minor injury and could ultimately supplant Toeaina, and it's also possible that rookie Stephen Paea could work his way into the rotation. But based on recent personnel moves, and the lack thereof, it seems clear the Bears are counting on Melton to provide the interior disruption at the so-called "under tackle" position that is considered a fundamental building block of the Bears' scheme.

Fans who follow the Bears closely know that Melton flashed a few signs of promise at the end of last season, collecting 2 1/2 sacks over the final two months of the season, but no one can credibly stand up and say he is indisputably ready to take on a such a critical role on the defense.

"I'm just trying to establish myself right now," Melton said. "It's time for me to go out there and prove something."

Melton's relative inexperience at the position is stunning. He began his college career at Texas as a 280-pound running back, scoring 16 touchdowns during his first two seasons. He transitioned to defensive end midway through his career, actually losing 15 pounds to meet the program's size requirements, and didn't become a defensive starter until his senior year.

The Bears made him a fourth-round draft choice in 2009, and after a year on injured reserve, Melton played in 16 games last season as a reserve defensive end and occasional inside pass-rusher.

Is that the type of pedigree a Tampa-2 defense should be looking for in its under tackle? It's true that you can't have a proven veteran at every position, and the Bears can put All-Pro defensive Julius Peppers next to him. But they are without question taking a leap of faith with a player of unique athletic background but little seasoning at the position.

When I asked Peppers how he thought the Bears line was shaping up this summer, his answer was revealing.

"It hasn't shaped up," Peppers said. "It's still early. When we make the final team and see who we've got, we'll see what our expectations are. Right now it's kind of up in the air."

I don't think Peppers was implying the Bears will seek a new lineup via free agency or trades later this summer. He just put words to what is obvious: It's impossible to know if Melton is ready to take on this job. But the Bears have been talking up his candidacy for months, so I expect them to give him a long leash as the season begins.

To wit: In March, general manager Jerry Angelo said: "We feel, physically speaking, he's got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. That's not any question. Now it's just a matter of learning the position and that will come with the repetition of more play."

To prepare for the role, Melton gained nearly 30 pounds and is now 295. He said the footwork he learned as a running back will help him because "you've got to position your feet around your opponent before you start using your hands" and suggested it is just a matter of time before he locks down the position.

"It's really just repetitions," he said. "You've got to really get in your groove. Once you get things going, the game really starts slowing down for you."

We'll see.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Not long after the Chicago Bears drafted Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea, one of his new teammates reached out to him. Defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, who like Paea is of Polynesian descent, called to welcome him to the team.

Since then, the two have spawned a friendship that continued Thursday during a workout in the suburban Chicago area. Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com was there to cover it.
Paea: "It meant a lot getting that call. It showed he couldn't wait for me to get here because he's going to be my buddy now. We play the same position, we play for the same team, and we're both Polynesian. Getting his call, I really appreciated that, and it's going to create a great friendship."

Said Toeaina: "I reached out to him to congratulate him on the accomplishment of getting drafted in the NFL. I'm definitely excited to team up with him. In our Polynesian culture, it doesn't take much to get introduced, especially out here in the Midwest because there aren't too many of us. To see another Polynesian is like seeing family. You immediately gravitate to another Polynesian."

Toeaina was raised in American Samoa and Paea hails from the Tongan Islands.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Bears safety Chris Harris isn't a fan of players-only workouts this offseason, writes Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times. Harris: "Being the competitors we are, we're going to compete. You are in 7-on-7 or 1-on-1, and one bad move and you can hurt yourself. Teams don't have an obligation to keep you. They can let you go because you did that on your own. You're not protected doing these organized things. You could end up at a local emergency room paying out of your own pocket to get fixed up."
  • Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas said he tweaked his surgically repaired hamstring injury earlier this winter and is trying his best to take his recovery slow. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press has more.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "If Matthew Stafford throws the ball really well, and looks really strong, and sounds really confident, and no Lions coaches or fans are there to see it, did it happen? Oh, it happened, as the Lions conducted players-only workouts the past four days at Detroit Country Day. I almost feel guilty doing this to you, stoking your anticipation and slowing you down at the same time. Stafford is all healed up after right shoulder surgery with no place to go."
  • Delmas is lobbying the Lions to sign free-agent veteran Dre Bly, who worked out with Lions players Thursday. James Schmehl of Mlive.com has more.
  • Richard Ryman of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "The Green Bay Packers are considering moving the Packers Pro Shop and Curly's Pub to the east parking lot at Lambeau Field and moving the Packers Hall of Fame into the space vacated by the two businesses."
  • Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette offers a rundown of a recent radio appearance Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made.
  • The site of the Minnesota Vikings' stadium proposal is "one of the most-polluted pieces of ground in Minnesota," according to Josephine Marcotty of the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards on his future athletic career, via 1500ESPN.com: "It all depends on what route is taking place. I've openly said I won't play for the Vikings, because of the simple fact of my backup is getting paid 70 more percent than I am -- there's no way I can do that to myself. I'd rather do what I love doing. I love doing football as well. But if there's nobody that's going to trade for me, I will be definitely focusing on boxing." Edwards will make his boxing debut Friday.
  • Edwards could wind up fighting ex-UFC fighter Kimbo Slice, according to MMA Weekly Radio via Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
Tuesday came and went without much clarity on when this period of lockout purgatory will continue in the NFL. But for those interested, let's wrap up what happened in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Three players showed up at Halas Hall, according to team president Ted Phillips. Place-kicker Robbie Gould, defensive end Israel Idonije and defensive tackle Matt Toeaina were allowed into the building but were restricted from using the facilities. "... [W]e're not opening the building for business yet,' Phillips said. "Hopefully we will soon."

Detroit Lions: According to multiple reports, no Lions players showed up at the team's Allen Park practice facility. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the team's player representative, advised players against it. Vanden Bosch, via Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: ""My understanding is that the doors to the facility would be open but we wouldn't be able to work out or talk to our coaches much. I don't know how much progress would be made or what the benefit might be. We'll wait until things become clearer."

Green Bay Packers: According to team president/CEO Mark Murphy, no players showed up at Lambeau Field. Murphy, who has a key NFL role as a member of the Management Council Executive Committee, said he anticipates more clarity by the end of this week. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.

Minnesota Vikings: Backup linebacker Erin Henderson was the only player to visit the Vikings' Winter Park facility. He departed after being told he could not use the cold tub. Coach Leslie Frazier said he had a "very brief conversation" with Henderson as he moved through the building.

According to NFL.com, the NFL Players Association has recommended that agents immediately begin initiating contract discussions with teams. But it's safe to say that teams aren't going to respond. Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said teams were instructed to maintain the lockout "status quo" -- when contact with veteran players and agents was barred -- until further notice.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

NEW ORLEANS -- When the Chicago Bears benched defensive tackle Tommie Harris last season, they replaced him with third-year player Matt Toeaina. But are the Bears targeting another third-year player as Harris' permanent replacement?

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo seemed to give that impression during a wide-ranging interview with Michael C. Wright of ESPN Chicago. Angelo suggested that Henry Melton, who technically has been listed as a defensive end, could make the conversion to defensive tackle.
Angelo: "... Obviously, the plan is for him to play more, and hopefully be the starter. He's still a work in progress. But everything we saw this past year, in particular during the season, we liked. He just kept getting a little better, a little better. The arrow's going up. We feel, physically speaking, he's got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. That's not any question. Now it's just a matter of learning the position and that will come with the repetition of more play. We feel real good. No guarantees, but everything we look for, he has. That's the good thing. He has shown that at some point or another."

I still think the Bears need to consider defensive tackle one of their top offseason priorities. But with such uncertainty about the timing of offseason acquisitions this year, there could be some weight behind Angelo's suggestion. If there were ever a year to rely on an internal replacement, it's this one.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Angelo isn't concerned about the Bears losing their ability to return kickoffs even if new rules are established, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune speaks with outgoing Bears chairman Michael McCaskey, who will give way to younger brother George this spring.
  • Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy is likely to make dramatic changes to his training camp schedule this summer, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier might use Lorenzo Booker, and not Percy Harvin, as his primary kickoff returner in 2011. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune has more.
  • Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, via Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "We can literally die when we're out there on the field."
  • Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford was one of five NFL owners to receive an American Spirit Award from the National World War II museum in New Orleans.
  • The Detroit Lions are prepared for free agency -- when and if it starts, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Lions president Tom Lewand, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "We have put ourselves in a position where there are not a lot of moving parts for us. There's not a lot of gaps and we have a lot of guys under contract. There are fewer things we have to prepare for and fewer contingencies we have to be ready for."
  • The status of unsigned cornerback Chris Houston doesn't appear to be a big concern to the Lions, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8