NFC North: Mike Thomas

Along with the rest of the NFL, the Detroit Lions must reduce their roster to 75 players by Tuesday. They'll play their preseason finale Thursday at the Buffalo Bills and then cut their roster again to 53 players by Saturday. On the cusp of a busy week, both in the NFL and here on ESPN.com, let's review some of the biggest personnel issues the Lions have been working through this summer:

Right tackle/right guard
Seifert comment: Jason Fox started at right tackle and rookie Larry Warford at right guard in the presumably pivotal third preseason game, and that's the combination many of us thought would ultimately emerge from this competition. But the Lions haven't announced any winners, and coach Jim Schwartz said: "We have a lot of different options and a lot of guys that can potentially get the job done."

No. 2 receiver
Seifert comment: As we noted over the weekend, the Lions reportedly are making calls to see if they can upgrade here. That's understandable. Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are both working in the slot position. Patrick Edwards hasn't done much in the preseason after being given a nice opportunity to earn the role. Journeyman Matt Willis has been more productive. Chaz Schilens and Mike Thomas have already been released.

Strong-side linebacker
Seifert comment: The Lions started off veteran Ashlee Palmer in this role and he has not relinquished it. Second-year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis have not mounted a serious challenge, and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has suggested Lewis might be better suited in the middle. Two recent veteran acquisitions, Rocky McIntosh and Chris White, seem targeted more for special teams roles.

Safety
Seifert comment: So far, it appears that the Lions' limited plan for Louis Delmas' camp participation has worked. Delmas looked healthy and active in 12 preseason snaps last week, and barring a flare-up of his knee condition, he is expected to start in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings.

Cornerback
Seifert comment: Rookie Darius Slay had some predictably tough moments last week against Tom Brady, but there doesn't seem to be much reason to go back to veteran Ron Bartell. If anything, newly-signed Rashean Mathis will push for playing time, perhaps at nickel in competition with Bill Bentley.

Kick/Punt returner
Seifert comment: The Lions have gotten returns from five different players in preseason games. They're trying to decide whether to dedicate a roster spot for a returner or use a backup player to handle the job. To this point, none of the participants

Place-kicker
Seifert comment: Once David Akers proved he was healthy, it was clear the job would be his. Havard Rugland has been a fun camp story, but it's hard to imagine the Lions finding a spot on their roster for him -- especially with punter Sam Martin kicking off. Akers has converted seven of eight field goals in the preseason.
On Friday, the Detroit Lions released Chaz Schilens, the veteran they signed just before training camp to hedge against the injury rehabilitation and depth issues among their receiver group. With Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles apparently healthy, and Patrick Edwards generating significant training camp buzz, questions about the position seemed to be allayed.

The Lions seemed so confident, in fact, that they had already released veteran Mike Thomas despite a $1 million guarantee in his 2013 contract.

Did those moves reflect confidence? Or did they suggest the Lions simply weren't satisfied with the makeup of the position? I'm beginning to wonder if it is the latter, a belief fortified by Jason La Canfora's report that that the Lions are making league-wide calls to check availability of starting-caliber receivers.

What exactly is going on here?

The first and arguably most important fact to remember is that Burleson and Broyles are both assigned primarily to the slot position, a new role for Burleson as he enters his 11th NFL season. (Thomas is also a natural slot receiver, but the personnel logjam there had him working mostly on the outside.)

With Burleson and Broyles working the slot, the Lions have been hoping that Edwards could lock down the outside spot opposite Calvin Johnson. Yet for all the glowing reports of his work in practice, Edwards hasn't done much in the first three preseason games. He has caught four passes for 16 yards, working mostly against first-team defenders, and in an instructive moment, he lost a battle for a ball in the end zone against New York Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the preseason opener.

If anything, Edwards has been matched by six-year veteran Matt Willis, a journeyman trying to make his third NFL team.

Johnson hasn't played much this preseason, accentuating these question marks. And we all know the Lions have a number of proven receiving threats at other positions -- from tailback Reggie Bush to tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

But despite it all, it is beginning to looks like they don't have a No. 2 receiver -- a hole that jumped out from their roster all offseason. With NFL roster cuts looming, the Lions might have a chance to do something about it this week.

Note: According to Tim Twentyman of the Lions' web site, the team released four more players Sunday morning and have five left to go to meet the NFL's requirement of 75 by Tuesday. Those released were: defensive end Ronnell Lewis, receiver Cody Wilson, cornerback Myron Lewis and safety Chris Hope. Lewis was a fourth-round draft pick last season but got only one snap on defense. Hope's release suggests the Lions are comfortable with the health of starters Louis Delmas (knee) and Glover Quin (hip).
We're Black and Blue All Over:

For much of the offseason and early summer, I assumed that if the Detroit Lions' competition at strongside linebacker was close, it would go to one of the second-year players -- Travis Lewis or Tahir Whitehead -- who were among those in contention. Apparently the competition was not close.

Veteran Ashlee Palmer, who has spent his career as a special-teams ace, has worked exclusively with the first team for the past two weeks, points out Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Coach Jim Schwartz hasn't named Palmer his Week 1 starter yet, but said: "I don't know that race is over yet, but he has certainly taken the lead."

Palmer has had a good camp by all accounts, but the competition must also be viewed in part as a disappointment after the Lions drafted Lewis and Whitehead last summer knowing that both of their 2012 outside linebackers -- DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant -- were in the final year of their contracts. Levy re-signed in the offseason, but neither Lewis nor Whitehead has been able to slip into Durant's role. (We discussed the Lions' late-round draft issues Tuesday.)

Continuing around the NFC North:

BBAO: Lions' David Akers is back

August, 20, 2013
8/20/13
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

There was never a kicking controversy in Detroit, not as long as veteran David Akers could demonstrate he had moved past an injury-plagued 2012 season for the San Francisco 49ers. That moment appeared to take place Monday, at least symbolically, when Akers converted a 63-yard field goal during the Lions' training camp practice.

That kick confirmed Akers' leg strength and fortified the decision to bring him along slowly during the early part of camp. Although challenger Havard Rugland has impressed with his strong leg and quick assimilation of the game, it seems pretty clear that Akers will be the Lions' Week 1 place-kicker.

Said coach Jim Schwartz: "We've monitored him through training camp. We didn't just throw him out there every day, particularly early in training camp. But he's developed into a good rhythm. We knew he would, he's a veteran player and we had a good idea where he was with the injury and things like that. He's made steady progress through camp and looks to be just about full speed."

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • This press release should answer most of your questions about ESPN.com's expansion of its NFL Nation coverage. It also addresses the new role I'll be taking on as a national writer.
  • Justin Rogers of Mlive.com offers observations from the Lions' practice.
  • Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is not shaken by the team's poor offensive start this preseason, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. Stafford: "Anytime you step on the field you want to put points up, no question. This is the time of year when you are still trying to jell, still trying to get better. We want to do that through the whole season. Hopefully you aren't playing your best in Week 1. You want to play well throughout and be peaking toward the end of the season."
  • My post on the pricey failure to the Lions' Mike Thomas experiment.
  • Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd had a minor knee procedure and won't play again in the preseason, notes Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.
  • It will help the entire team for Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson to play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune speaks with Vikings cornerback/returner Marcus Sherels, who is dealing with the death of his father as he tries to make the team.
  • Vikings linebacker Desmond Bishop is likely to get first-team reps in Sunday's game, notes Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Someday Mason Crosby might look back on his career and realize the person he should thank the most for overcoming a career-threatening bout of inaccuracy was a 5-foot-10, 182-pound bundle of positive energy named Giorgio Tavecchio. Just maybe, Tavecchio has been what the Green Bay Packers' veteran kicker has needed to overcome a troubling case of the shanks."
  • Tight end Brandon Bostick has impressed Packers players and coaches, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The Packers haven't given Don Barclay their right tackle job, but he looks close to winning it, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers finally got cornerback Casey Hayward back at practice. More from Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com.
  • Veteran Chicago Bears linebacker D.J. Williams continues to miss practice because of a calf injury, notes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • That makes it more likely that rookie Jon Bostic will be the Week 1 starter, writes Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Bears won't use starter Jay Cutler or backup Josh McCown in their final preseason game, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
The Detroit Lions' acquisition of receiver Mike Thomas last season could go down as one of the most expensive player moves in recent NFC North memory.

You'll recall that the Lions sent the Jacksonville Jaguars a future draft pick to complete a trade for Thomas midway through last season. (According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, it was a fifth-round pick in 2014.) Thomas caught five passes for 28 yards and one touchdown in nine games, and the Lions released him Monday, but in between they must have had genuine plans for him in 2013.

How do we know that? According to ESPN's Roster Management System, Thomas' contract called for $1 million of his base salary this season to be guaranteed against injury only. But on April 5, that became a full guarantee -- for injury and skill -- and thus the Lions could be on the hook for paying him $1 million this year even though he won't be on their roster. He would count the same amount against their salary cap.

According to the information available to me, there is no offset language in Thomas' contract that would relieve the Lions' burden if and when he signs with another team. But if there is in fact an offset, the Lions would owe Thomas the difference between $1 million and his new base salary.

Even if that's the case, and Thomas signs a veteran minimum deal worth $715,000, leaving the Lions to pay $285,000, that's still a significant amount of money and cap space for a player whom the Lions got almost nothing out of.

For now, the Lions seem more comfortable with a receiver group that includes Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Patrick Edwards behind All-Pro Calvin Johnson. Part of the problem might have been that Thomas is a slot receiver, but the Lions had a logjam there with Burleson and Broyles both working at that position as well. In all, the circumstances surrounding this trade are murky and the details don't add up.
Matthew Stafford Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford's unconventional arm angles earn the fifth-year quarterback scorn, but his ability to freelance when a play breaks down has been more of a benefit than a curse for the Lions.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- You say mechanics. I say creativity. You see a pass sail out of the pocket. I see another that twists around the pass rush, underneath a defender and into the receiver's hands.

We could play this game all day. To be sure, I haven't charted all 1,863 pass attempts in the career of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But I'm willing to put forth a working theory about his much-discussed mechanics: That non-traditional approach has benefitted the Lions as much, if not more, than it has victimized them.

I understand the utopian desire to see perfect fundamentals. That's why Robocop and Ivan Drago made it to the big screen. I also get that people want answers when a quarterback makes a poor throw or has a lower completion percentage than desired (Stafford's is 59.8 in four seasons). Without a doubt, Stafford's more-than-occasional throws from unanticipated angles or with unexpected mechanics are an easy target.

But after spending three days at Lions camp this week, I'm more convinced than ever that the Lions would be wrong to bleed such plays from his game.

Happily, they don't want to. There is a time and place for everything, but turning Stafford into a classic pocket quarterback wouldn't give the Lions a net gain.

I pulled Stafford aside for a few minutes Thursday and asked him how he has approached the issue this summer as he prepares for his fifth season. He made clear that he will maintain a level of freelance, a plan coach Jim Schwartz backed when I spoke with him a bit later.

"I focus on fundamentals and mechanics every time I step on the field," Stafford said. "When everything is right in front of you, you want to be as good as you possibly can. It gives you the best chance of being accurate and making plays. But we play in a league where it's not always perfect. We've got to make plays. I understand that. People are going to say what they want to say. I'm trying to win ball games for this team and it's definitely something I'm always working on."

I can tell you that I saw Stafford make no unconventional throws this week during three training camp practices, all of which began with fundamental drills led by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. His shoulders were square, his feet were set and his arm was traditionally placed. In standard situations, he threw the ball flawlessly.

"Really," Schwartz said, "his mechanics are outstanding. Come out here to practice and watch it. But the games do not always go that way."

You might suggest that Stafford loses proper techniques when under duress. I see it as a knack for finding alternative ways to make plays when the primary route is blocked. As with any other skill, it doesn't work every time. But if you've watched closely enough, you've seen instances where it has in fact made the difference between a positive and negative play.

Consider the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game last season against the Houston Texans, when his sidearm pass made it through two inside pass rushers and past a surprised defender before Mike Thomas caught it for a touchdown.

"I'm obviously not a robot back there," Stafford said. "I see things, they happen a certain way in my head and it dictates a certain response in my body. I'm not thinking before the snap that I'm going to throw this one sidearm or I'm going to throw that one sidearm. It's just a feel for the game. There are definitely times when everything was right in front of me and maybe I didn't do the best, and there are times when I did it the other way and it was good. It just happens that way."

Look, there are times when Stafford's mechanics have gotten him in trouble. But sometimes I think that kind of microanalysis clouds what should be the larger observation: The Lions have a quarterback with a pretty deep repertoire of options when plays break down, as they inevitably do. The alternative is the so-called "system quarterback" who does only as he is trained and is thus confined to the scheme and its execution.

"In a lot of ways," Schwartz said, "in a lot of sports, football included, a quarterback with that kind of creativity is rewarded. The quarterback that is scrambling and throws with his left hand, everybody is like, 'Wow, what a great play.' That's not bad mechanics. He did what he had to do.

"There are have been a lot of guys where the criticism has been that they're robotic and they couldn't make the 'feel' plays. I think you need to balance both of it out. We're very comfortable with Matt's mechanics. He's a classic thrower. But game situations come and it's about making an accurate pass. That's what we're judging him on."

No matter how it gets there.
We noted recently the Detroit Lions' relief in the apparent healthy return of receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles. That post, however, failed to emphasize the emergence of a relatively unknown receiver who has continued his push to be part of their regular rotation.

My vast array of worldwide sources have passed along confirmation that first-year receiver Patrick Edwards, whom Burleson said this spring was poised for a breakout, has performed well over the first 10 or so days of camp. Edwards spent last season on the practice squad, and this summer has demonstrated the explosiveness and playmaking ability to suggest the Lions have better depth at the position some of us once feared.

I'll get a first-hand look this week when I arrive at Lions camp, but Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News suggests that Edwards has outperformed veteran Mike Thomas and "might be a perfect fit" as the Lions' No. 4 receiver. It's always important to remember that training camp success must be followed by production in preseason to have the desired carryover, but first things first. Edwards has, by all accounts, put himself in position to be in position for a regular role in the Lions' offense this season.
Depth among the Detroit Lions' receiving corps was one of our most consistent late-summer topics, so I would excuse those of you who got jumpy when word broke Friday morning that free agent Chad Johnson (AKA Ochocinco) was at their training camp. You never know, after all, when the Lions might decide they need extra help.

Johnson, of course, was in town for family reasons and was merely a training camp guest. He hasn't played in the NFL since the Miami Dolphins released him last summer, and if the Lions decide to search for further depth, he isn't likely to be atop their list.

Still, the news ripple affords us a chance to check in on the Lions' receivers after a week of training camp. To this point, the news has been almost all good. Most importantly, veterans Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles -- both of whom are working back from leg injuries that ended their 2012 seasons -- have not missed a rep.

Broyles' performance has been exceptionally notable, providing a level of assurance that the Lions will have a well-functioning group around Calvin Johnson when the season begins. Broyles is about eight months removed from tearing the ACL in his right knee.

"Sometimes we tend to lose sight of where he is with the ACL and the rehab," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters after Thursday's practice. "He's much farther ahead than where he was last year and he really came on last year. It’s tough. You're not going to feel great every day. There are going to be some days where you're out here and you're trying to push through. Our trainers do a good job at managing him and he does a very good job of rehabbing. [Wednesday] we had a day off and I think there's no coincidence that Ryan was able to come out here [Thursday] and make some plays."

It's worth noting that Broyles' most recent ACL tear came a month later on the calendar than the one he suffered in his final season at Oklahoma, once again demonstrating that every ACL tear is different. The Lions worked him into their lineup slowly last season; he didn't appear in a game until Week 3 or make a catch until Week 7.

At this point, there appears to be no concerns about immediate availability for either him or Burleson. That leaves the Lions in a more comfortable position of evaluating depth for their No. 4 position and beyond, a group that includes Mike Thomas, Chaz Schilens, Patrick Edwards and Kris Durham. No need to add Chad Johnson to that list.

BBAO: Lions and their WR depth

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

Good mid-morning. I got fired up and posted early Tuesday morning on the vehement defense that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers once offered for now-disgraced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, but I'm told there are three other teams in the NFC North that merit daily coverage as well.

So we'll begin (again) today with news that the Detroit Lions are continuing to acknowledge their lack of depth at receiver, a topic we've discussed in several SportsNation chats and in two separate posts last week. Via Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com and others, the Lions have scheduled three veteran receivers for workouts this week: Laurent Robinson, Steve Breaston and Chaz Schilens. Robinson, who apparently has been cleared after suffering multiple concussions last season, worked out Monday for the New York Jets.

Once again, the fact is the Lions are thin at receiver behind Calvin Johnson. Nate Burleson has recovered from a broken leg that ended his 2012 season, but he will turn 32 in August and has played all 16 games of a season only once since 2007. Ryan Broyles is recovering from his second torn ACL in as many years, and Mike Thomas is entering his first full season with the team after arriving last year via trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Lions pursued free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency and it's clear they recognize this need hasn't gone away. We'll see if they believe it is acute enough to bring in a veteran off the street on the eve of training camp.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Undrafted rookie Steven Miller will get the first chance to win the Lions' return job when training camp opens Friday. More from Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Indeed, the Lions made wholesale changes to their special teams this offseason, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Justin Rogers of Mlive.com looks at the Lions' competition at cornerback opposite veteran Chris Houston.
  • Receiver Randall Cobb is the fourth-most important player on the Packers' roster, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wonders if the Packers' defensive line will be broken up for salary-cap reasons after this season. McGinn: "Big men Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly all have contracts expiring at season's end, and pass rusher Mike Neal will become an unrestricted free agent in March as well. Mindful of upheaval ahead, general manager Ted Thompson prepared by selecting defensive ends Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Josh Boyd in the first five rounds of the past two drafts. For now, however, it's steady as she goes."
  • Jones should give the Packers an added dimension, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Wilde on Rodgers' predicament: "We have all, to varying degrees, had friends let us down. Some of us have been the ones who let their friends down. Such moments can end friendships or, in some cases, lead to relationship growth. It’s all in how those friends handle the aftermath."
  • The Minnesota Vikings will report to training camp as a playoff team with much higher expectations than last season, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder will play well enough to eliminate any chance that tailback Adrian Peterson might have of rushing for 2,500 yards this season, according to Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com on the Chicago Bears' defense: "Are there still questions about the defense? Sure. But if the veteran leaders can find a way to keep themselves on the field and if the Bears can locate a consistent pass rush up front to complement Peppers, then new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker should be able to keep the Bears' defense among the NFL's elite."
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune doesn't see the Bears making a quick run at re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler during the season. Pompei: "My read is it will take more than four to five games for Cutler to prove he is worthy of being paid like one of the best quarterbacks in the game -- which is likely what it would take to sign him. "
  • Former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist on Cutler and the Bears, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times: "It just didn’t seem like under Lovie [Smith] that the emphasis was there to get [Cutler] the things that he needed to succeed. And that's just me and that may not be fair. Maybe they were trying to do everything they could. But at least this year, from the outside looking in, [Cutler] is the focal point. From that perspective, I applaud the Bears because I think that's what you have to do."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the one move each team in the NFC North needed to make but didn't.

Chicago Bears: General manager Phil Emery approached the draft with hopes of selecting a quarterback, and there were reports of the Bears privately working out North Carolina State's Mike Glennon. The plan made sense for a number of reasons. First, the team was bidding farewell to 2012 backup Jason Campbell. Second, new coach Marc Trestman is known as a quarterback guru and the Bears could benefit from having him develop a rookie. Third, starter Jay Cutler is entering the final year of his contract. Ultimately, however, the Bears couldn't justify using any of their six selections on a quarterback. For now, 2012 third-stringer Josh McCown is penciled in as Cutler's backup.

Detroit Lions: It sounded greedy, but a need at wide receiver existed all offseason. After releasing Titus Young and shepherding Ryan Broyles through his second ACL rehabilitation in as many years, the Lions don't have many sure things behind receiver Calvin Johnson. Veteran Nate Burleson participated in offseason practice but suffered a major leg injury last season. Mike Thomas remains on the roster after being acquired last year from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and several players have talked up the potential of first-year player Pat Edwards. The Lions tried to supplement via free agency, pursuing Darrius Heyward-Bey, among others, but in the end, they added no one of experience and drafted no one with major potential.

Green Bay Packers: Did the Packers do enough from a personnel standpoint to improve their defense against the type of run-heavy offenses that gave them trouble last season? We all know they worked hard on developing a better approach and scheme, even sending their defensive coaching staff to a college coaching clinic at Texas A&M. But they added only one notable player, first-round draft pick Datone Jones, to their front seven. They also hope that 2012 first-rounder Nick Perry can establish himself as an outside linebacker. The Packers are hoping to play a different way with largely the same players.

Minnesota Vikings: It's true that the Vikings chose a cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, with one of their three first-round draft choices, but it's still fair to question whether the team did enough to make up for the departure of slot cornerback Antoine Winfield in the offseason. Winfield had an excellent season in 2012 and was one of the underdiscussed reasons why the Vikings finished 10-6. The Vikings have what appears on paper to be a promising young core of cornerbacks, with Rhodes, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson. But none of them has played the nickel role that Winfield excelled at last season, and Cook has never been able to stay on the field.

NFC North Thursday practice report

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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Let's take a quick look through Thursday's news in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Tailback Matt Forte (ankle) returned to practice on a limited basis, giving him a chance to play Sunday at Ford Field. Cornerback Charles Tillman (ribs/elbow) also returned to practice. The Bears won't have safety Chris Conte (hamstring) for Sunday's game, and it's beginning to look like linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring) won't make his return this week, either. He has yet to practice. Running back Armando Allen (knee) hasn't practiced this week, either.

Detroit Lions: Returner Stefan Logan told reporters that he has been benched for Sunday's game against the Bears after a series of mental mistakes in last week's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. As we discussed earlier this week, the Lions had no choice but to demand accountability. Earlier this week, coach Jim Schwartz implied that receiver Mike Thomas and running back Joique Bell were potential replacements. … Center Dominic Raiola responded to public criticism from Bears defensive lineman Henry Melton, questioning Melton's Pro Bowl qualifications and calling him "a clown." So there's that. … Schwartz said Thursday that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has done "a great job" this season, quelling speculation that he could be replaced this offseason.

Green Bay Packers: Receiver Randall Cobb told reporters he will test out his sprained ankle Friday in practice. It's not yet clear whether he will play Sunday at the Metrodome, but it's possible he'll pass the baton to receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring), who has been practicing this week. Right guard Josh Sitton (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis.

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder) participated in a limited portion of practice and has a chance to play Sunday. The Vikings held out tailback Adrian Peterson (abdomen/groin) and cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand), but there is no question about either player's availability for Sunday.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
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After the Detroit Lions' 31-18 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Benching a kick returner qualifies as a mild message at best, but nothing would be weaker than sending Stefan Logan back onto the field Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Logan had two brainlocks that would be inexcusable for a rookie, let alone a four-year veteran who has returned 301 kicks in his career, and he hasn't had a good enough season to merit tolerance. His accidental fair-catch signal and his inexplicable downing of a live return are the exact type of mistakes people refer to when calling the Lions undisciplined. Most of Logan's potential replacements are unavailable because of injury, but coach Jim Schwartz still has a ready-made opportunity to demand accountability. Speaking to reporters Sunday, Schwartz brought up receiver Mike Thomas and running back Joique Bell as potential replacements -- which for him is a major hint that Logan's job is in jeopardy. Quite frankly, it should be.
  2. Schwartz was asked Sunday why a team with the production of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson is 4-11. Schwartz pointed squarely at the Lions' turnover ratio, and the comparison between this season and last year is striking. They have endured a 23-turnover swing between last year's plus-11 ratio and this season's minus-12. The Lions have forced exactly half of the turnovers they created last season (34 versus 17) and have committed 29 as opposed to 17 in 2011. Their three turnovers Saturday night led to 17 points for the Falcons in a game decided by 13 points. Their defense, on the other hand, did not have a takeaway. It's as good of a place to start as any when analyzing the Lions, and again, it fits the undisciplined narrative the Lions seem to object to.
  3. If Saturday night's game wasn't an indication that the Lions need to prioritize their secondary in the offseason, I don't know what is. The Falcons have a pair of really good receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, but it couldn't have been more clear that their game plan was to take deep shots every time they indentified man-to-man defense. White beat cornerback Chris Houston for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and White later weaved through a host of defensive backs who had been blocked to the ground for a 39-yard score. Meanwhile, while Jones beat Houston for a 16-yard score just before halftime. Ryan is one of the league's best quarterbacks, but statistically he had a near-perfect game despite a significant pass rush from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (half-sack, four quarterback hits). The Lions need more playmakers in their back end. End of story.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Stafford is going to finish with one of the most contradictory seasons in recent memory. He leads the NFL in completions, attempts and yardage and is 305 yards away from becoming the first player in league history to throw for 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Saturday night, he also set the Lions' franchise record for career completions, breaking Bobby Layne's mark of 1,074. Stafford is 24 years old. On the other hand, as we noted last week, it's hard to look at his actual game performances and see this season as anything other than a step back from 2011. He has thrown for only 17 touchdowns, and his statistical splits show he has been much less effective when games are close. In the end, I guess we should all be so lucky to have a near-5,000 yard season be a disappointment.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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After the Detroit Lions' 27-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Here is a scary snapshot of 3 3/4 seasons under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz. Beginning with the start of the 2009 season, the Lions lost 20 of 28 games. Then they won nine consecutive games to bridge the end of the 2010 and the beginning of 2011. Since then, they have a 9-15 regular-season record. That's a lot of losing mixed around one intense winning streak. It's easier to argue that 9-0 as an aberration, at least from a statistical perspective, than it is to view their current slump as a temporary blip. To borrow a political phrase, the Lions are better off than they were four years ago. But they clearly weren't good enough to parlay what seemed a breakthrough moment last season into lasting success.
  2. The decision to start receiver Kris Durham, days after his promotion from the practice squad, was revealing only in that it passed over veteran Mike Thomas, whom the Lions acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars last month. I realize Thomas is a 5-foot-8 slot receiver, and perhaps not ideally suited to playing a full game on the outside. But in a game the Lions were without Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, Thomas saw only 17 of a possible 84 snaps. Durham, meanwhile, played 78 snaps. Thomas is due $1.45 million next season, of which $1 million was originally guaranteed. If the Lions planned to make him a big part of their offense next season, you would think he would have played more Sunday night. Durham is a big target and made a wonderful one-handed catch in the first quarter, but he understandably looked like he needs more work as a professional route runner.
  3. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley added another sack Sunday night and brought his season total to 5.5. That's the third-most among defensive tackles in the NFL at the moment, behind the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins (10.5) and the Chicago Bears' Henry Melton (6.0). That's an impressive figure considering he was not even a full-time player when the season began. Fairley was playing about a third of the Lions' defensive snaps until Week 4, and he really didn't become a full-time starter until a month ago. I think we can all agree Fairley has earned a full-time job playing next to Ndamukong Suh for the rest of the season and beyond.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What should the Lions do with safety Louis Delmas, who has been trying to limp through his fourth season with a knee injury that has plagued him since the start of training camp? He was inactive Sunday night after playing a part-time role in the Lions' past two games, and he'll play in no more than half of the team's games this season. He missed five games last season and the Lions have been forced to fill in with a parade of special teamers, practice squad promotions and street free agents. Delmas' contract expires after this season, making him one of six defensive starters who will be eligible for free agency. The Lions are clearly a better defense when he is healthy and plays, but those moments have been relatively rare over the past 1 1/2 seasons. How much money can you afford to offer a valuable but unreliable player, at least from a health standpoint? That's a difficult question the Lions must decide in the coming months.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
12:29
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 14:

Recent dominance: The Chicago Bears have won six consecutive games against the Minnesota Vikings, their last loss coming in 2009 when Brett Favre was the Vikings' quarterback. There might be some mild animosity directed at the Vikings' Jared Allen, whose illegal hit on guard Lance Louis two weeks ago ended Louis' season. But for the most part, the Bears should win this game if they can slow down Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, who has put together the best four-game stretch (671 yards) in his career. The Bears actually held him to 108 yards, his least productive game during that period. The Bears are favored by three points, and 11 of ESPN's 14 experts have picked them to win.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
AP Photo/John FroschauerChristian Ponder has thrown for more than 200 yards in only one of the Vikings' past four games.
Last chance: The Vikings entered Week 12 with an opportunity to win the NFC North, but quarterback Christian Ponder struggled in games against the Bears and Green Bay Packers, largely scuttling those chances. Ponder completed 50 percent of his passes for a total of 278 yards in those games, and another poor performance Sunday could send him to the bench in favor of backup Joe Webb. Coach Leslie Frazier left open that possibility this week by saying: "We believe that Christian is our No. 1 and we've gone through offseason, training camp, during the season, now. That being said, if things get to a point where your No. 1 is really costing you some situations that could preclude winning, you do have to do what's best for the football team." We'll see if Ponder can avoid that fate against a Bears team that won't have linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring); cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) is listed as questionable.

Touchdown receptions: The Bears-Vikings game will feature two players with eight touchdown receptions: Chicago receiver Brandon Marshall and Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph. Each has his own statistically impressive story to tell considering the relative lack of production around him. The Bears have found a way to target Marshall more than any other NFL receiver on a percentage basis this season (39.2 percent of all throws). Marshall also leads the NFL in percentage of a team's receptions (41.9) and passing first downs (44.9). Rudolph, meanwhile, is the only NFL player to have caught more than half of his team's total touchdown passes (eight of 14). Marshall is tied for second at 50 percent (eight of 16). In both cases, it's awfully impressive for one player to continue to produce even when defenses know how limited his offense has been.

Wisconsin's spell: There are a lot of historic numbers heading into Sunday night's Lions-Packers game at Lambeau Field, and all of them favor the Packers. They have won 21 consecutive games against the Detroit Lions in the state of Wisconsin, including the playoffs. The Lions haven't won in Green Bay or Milwaukee since the 1991 season, the longest streak of consecutive road losses to one team in NFL history. The Packers have won 10 consecutive NFC North games, the longest current divisional streak in the NFL, and coach Mike McCarthy is 12-1 against the Lions in his tenure. Finally, the Packers are 19-6 all-time in Sunday night games, the best Sunday night winning percentage in the NFL. The Packers are seven-point favorites and all 14 ESPN experts have picked them to win.

Rebuilding at WR: The Lions will be playing without three of the top four receivers with whom they entered the season. Calvin Johnson remains on the field as he pursues Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a season, but Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Ryan Broyles are all on injured reserve. Newcomer Mike Thomas likely will start next to Johnson, but expect the Lions to make heavy use of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler in their multiple-receiver sets. Last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, the Lions used multiple tight ends on 90.7 percent of their snaps. That was the Lions' highest percentage use of multiple tight ends in a single game, by far, in the past five years. The previous high during that period was 77.8 percent in Week 2 of 2010.

Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Already Sunday, we have two NFC North receivers sidelined by injury in their first quarters of their respective games.

Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson injured a hamstring in the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings. It wasn't immediately clear if it was the same hamstring that has given Nelson trouble for the past month or so, but with Greg Jennings active for this game, you wonder if the Packers will take a cautious approach with Nelson's return. His return is officially listed as questionable.

Meanwhile, Detroit Lions receiver Ryan Broyles went to the locker room to have his left knee examined. It's not the same knee Broyles injured last season at Oklahoma, but for the moment it has left the Lions awfully thin at receiver against the Indianapolis Colts. Remember, Titus Young is inactive for this game and Nate Burleson is out for the season. Newly-acquired Mike Thomas is the next man up.

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