NFC North: Nnamdi Asomugha

Mathews-KaepernickAP PhotoClay Matthews and Green Bay had all offseason to digest what Colin Kaepernick did to them in January.

The final season at venerable Candlestick Park begins in style as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

It is a rematch of an NFC divisional playoff game in the same building. The 49ers completely outclassed the Packers on Jan. 12, as first-year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and crew had their way with a defense that looked slow and lost in a 45-31 San Francisco victory.

Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and 49ers team reporter Bill Williamson have plenty to discuss. To the questions:

Williamson: Rob, I think we have to start this off with this simple query: Can the Packers stop the read-option of a Kaepernick-led offense?

Demovsky: Bill, that’s what everyone has wanted to know since Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against them in the playoff game. The number 579 -- the total yards of offense the 49ers piled up that day -- has been burned into the brains of the Packers’ defensive players. Almost every day in practice during training camp, the defense went off to one end of the field by itself and worked against the read-option. But the Packers haven’t seen any of it in live action since that playoff game, so at this point, there’s no way to know whether they’re any better equipped to handle it now.

Williamson: That’s the thing. Green Bay will be coming into this game nervous. The read-option has been on the minds of this coaching staff and its players all offseason, yet the Packers don’t know for sure if they can handle it any better than they did the last time they saw Kaepernick. Kaepernick and his coach, the always-confident Jim Harbaugh, believe in their system and their personnel. They are going to challenge the Packers right away. I fully expect Kaepernick to come out gunning to make a statement -- a full-tilt San Francisco offense. If Kaepernick has early success, it could open the offensive floodgates. Now, if the Green Bay defense holds Kaepernick early, the Packers will get a confidence boost and should hang around all day.

Rob, just how confident do you think the Packers will be if they get a ton of read-option right away?

Demovsky: Clay Matthews said this week that the Packers know they have to take their shots at the quarterback when he tries to get outside the pocket, and if they do, perhaps they can get Kaepernick to sit in the pocket more, which ultimately is their goal. They want to make him a pocket passer if at all possible. That’s their best chance for success.

There are other issues to this game, of course. Bill, considering the fact that the Packers will start a rookie, David Bakhtiari, at left tackle and a former undrafted free agent, Don Barclay, at right tackle, how big of an advantage does a pass-rusher like Aldon Smith have against Green Bay?

Williamson: Other than Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers, Smith might be the most important player on the field Sunday. He can change the game by himself, as his 33.5 sacks in two NFL seasons attests. Bakhtiari and Barclay have an incredible challenge ahead of them. It is also bad news for Green Bay that 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is healed from a triceps surgery. Aldon Smith had all 19.5 of his sacks in the regular season with Justin Smith playing with him, and none in 2012 without him. Having the Smith & Smith show together could mean a long day for Rodgers.

Demovsky: But won’t the 49ers have to respect the Packers’ running game a little bit more with the addition of rookie Eddie Lacy? He looks like their first legitimate running back since Ryan Grant in 2009. If the Packers can establish Lacy on first down, they might be able to keep themselves out of obvious passing situations, and then Aldon Smith wouldn’t be able to tee off and jet-rush up the field on every second and third down.

Williamson: That is certainly the Packers' hope. It is clear that getting their ground game back on track was a focal point of the offseason. This is a passer’s league, but getting yardage on the ground and keeping Kaepernick off the field will surely help Green Bay’s cause as much the relief that it would give Rodgers. But here’s the rub -- San Francisco is a monster against the run. The 49ers allowed just 3.7 yards per rush last season, third-best in the NFL. The Packers will be hard-pressed to break their streak of 43 regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.

Demovsky: Bill, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Packers are going to defend Kaepernick & Co., but don’t forget that January's playoff game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter, and the Packers' offense was having a decent day -- Rodgers throwing for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Can the 49ers secondary hold up against Rodgers and the likes of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson?

Williamson: A fine point. Look, the Packers are legitimate. They will not be embarrassed in this game. Rodgers is the best player on the planet. He and his receivers must be accounted for. If the 49ers are vulnerable on defense, it might be in the secondary, where they have the oldest defensive backs in the league. Can older players like Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha (who may be slowed by a collarbone injury) keep the Green Bay passing game honest? If Green Bay is going to win this game, it’s going to be because Rodgers is unstoppable. That’s possible.

Rob, as we have discussed the major talking points of this anticipated matchup, an intriguing side story has developed. The Packers have brought in a pair of former 49ers backup quarterbacks in Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien. Do you think they can help Green Bay pull out a victory from the meeting room?

Demovsky: I doubt Wallace can. He wasn’t even with the 49ers for a full week. But you'd better believe they’ve grilled Tolzien about the 49ers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the biggest reason they brought him in, and if they end up cutting him from the practice squad in a week or two. Now, Tolzien probably won’t know much about the 49ers' game plan for this week, but considering he was with them for both meetings against the Packers last season, he likely has a good working knowledge of how Harbaugh wants to go after Green Bay.

Williamson: I’m with you. These moves add some strategy elements, but this is going to be a big-boy game pitting two of the NFL’s finest teams against one another. Once the game starts, this thing is going to all about Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Kaepernick, Rodgers and Matthews.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

It appears that a tough market for former Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson is loosening a bit. According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, Woodson will visit the Denver Broncos on Wednesday and has an offer from the Oakland Raiders, the team he began his career with in 1998.

Late Raiders owner Al Davis allowed Woodson depart as a free agent in 2005, but the team's football decisions are now made by general manager Reggie McKenzie, a longtime Packers executive. And anyone who saw the Broncos' season-ending loss to the Baltimore Ravens knows why they are at least looking at a future Hall of Fame defensive back.

Woodson has previously met with the San Francisco 49ers, who went on to sign veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and draft safety Eric Reid in the first round.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Many of you have been wondering what will become of former Green Bay Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, who has taken one free-agent visit since the Packers released him in February. It sounds as if Woodson is wondering the same thing.

Appearing Friday on "NFL AM" on the NFL Network, Woodson says he is having no "substantial" talks with any team and is "just waiting around" for interest to develop. He visited the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago, but the 49ers since have signed veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

"Just have to be a little patient," Woodson said of his current mindset. "I will land somewhere and help somebody win."

Even so, the relative inactivity surrounding a still-productive and surefire Hall of Fame player has been eye-opening.

"That just how it goes with older guys in the NFL," Woodson said. "I am 36 years old, so of course, I am considered ancient in the game right now. If you are an older guy, they kind of push you to the side and maybe they will look at you later down the road and when they figure they can get you much cheaper than what you are asking for. I don't worry too much about it right now."

Woodson described himself as "seasoning salt," as in: "You can put me in anything and I will make it better."

I'm sure you're wondering if this process could lead its way back to Green Bay. You never say never, but I'm guessing the Packers have moved on. It's hard to imagine Woodson not ultimately finding a landing place, but for the moment his 2013 destination is a mystery.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
11:00
AM ET
After the Detroit Lions' 26-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com

  1. In the 2012 debut of safety Louis Delmas, the Lions doubled their season's takeaway total (three). They hit quarterback Michael Vick 11 times, including three sacks, and made 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage against the run game. It was no coincidence. As we noted last week, there was a clear drop-off in takeaways and playmaking last season when Delmas departed the Lions lineup. Sunday, he had an interception and two tackles for loss, but his biggest contribution was his frenetic attitude and energy. You might think that kind of boost doesn't exist on the professional level, but coach Jim Schwartz said: "It was real on the field. It was real this week in practice. It was real in the locker room before the game, pregame warm-ups. He's that kind of guy. He's got personality." Said Delmas: "No matter what the circumstances are, I can motivate them and get them to play that extra [bit] and use that energy and effort." I would equate Delmas' impact to the role of the first confident souls on a dance floor. If they're kicking it and having fun, as the kids say, soon the floor will be full of crazy people. If not, you have a lot of people standing nervously near the punch bowl. (Not that I would know anything about dancing or the dance floor. Although I am familiar with punch.)
  2. We've had plenty of discussions this season about the Lions' ineffective downfield passing. But an interesting split has developed. During the first three quarters of games, quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed only eight of 22 passes that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. One has been intercepted, none have gone for touchdowns and only one has resulted in a play of at least 30 yards. In fourth quarters and overtime, however, Stafford has completed 10 of 19 such passes. Why is that? One explanation: Lions players are pretty good at ad-libbing with each other when the game turns into a scramble. One example came in the fourth quarter when Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson discussed a potential adjustment to an inside route if Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha took it away, as they expected. That adjustment led to Johnson's 16-yard sideline reception that set up Jason Hanson's game-tying field goal. Johnson: "I'm supposed to get inside, but Nnamdi was taking away the inside for most of the game, especially in the second half. I just found open space back there. The crazy thing is me and Matt had talked about it. It was there and I just took it." Sunday went pretty much as the matchup might have suggested for three quarters, as Stafford was 1-of-5 on downfield throws against the Eagles' elite secondary. After the start of the fourth quarter, however, he completed 4 of 7 such throws.
  3. Place-kicker Jason Hanson is 42 years old and in his 21st season, and guess how he felt as he jogged onto the field for the game-winning field goal in overtime? "I was nervous," Hanson said. Obviously, Hanson wasn't hand-shaking nervous. I interpreted his sentiment as the Lions' most overt admission of how important they considered the outcome of this game. There is only one game's difference between 2-3 and 1-4, but a loss Sunday would have pushed a losing streak to the other side of their bye week. "We needed it," Hanson said. "We needed it bad … We needed it to get our season back on."
And here's one issue I still don't get:
Did Delmas' return also help settle the Lions' special teams? I'm not sure if we can make the connection, but here goes: With Delmas and 2011 partner Amari Spievey each making their first start of the season at safety, the special teams got two of their better players back on a full-time basis. John Wendling and Erik Coleman both focused on their special-teams duties -- although injuries forced Coleman to play a handful of defensive snaps -- and the Eagles' return game was largely stymied. The Eagles averaged 24.4 yards on five kickoff returns and didn't have a punt return longer than 11 yards. Lions cover man Kassim Osgood bottled up the Eagles' DeSean Jackson on his only return, a loss of 3 yards at the end of the first half.
Already this week, we've heard several Detroit Lions players express optimism that the Philadelphia Eagles will ignore a season's worth of video evidence and use man-to-man coverage against their pass-catchers Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Most recently, receiver Calvin Johnson wrote on his DetroitLions.com blog:

"I'm looking forward to going up against the Eagles' defense. This might be a chance where we get quite a bit of one-on-one in a game, which we haven't seen since early last year, really. It's going to be good for us at the receiver positions, tight ends, everybody that's touching the ball on offense has the chance to have a good game."

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiCalvin Johnson and the Lions haven't seen much man defense this season as teams seem to be disregarding Detroit's run game.
It's true that the Eagles like to play man coverage, mostly because they have two excellent cover cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. It's also reasonable to expect them to stick with their strength, even if it runs contrary to what has worked so well against the Lions this season. (According to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, opponents have used a traditional man defense on only five of 296 snaps against them this season.)

But I don't think we should necessarily assume that the Eagles' man defense is a better matchup for the Lions, especially when you realize that no matter what scheme they run, the Eagles aren't likely to leave Johnson in single coverage too often if ever. John McTigue of ESPN's Stats & Information passed along some research this week that helps explain what has happened to the Lions' offense this season and also how the Eagles have played, ultimately noting that the Eagles provide a quite formidable obstacle for the Lions to get on track via the downfield pass this week.

According to McTigue, opponents have blitzed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on 12 percent of his dropbacks, an NFL low. That means Stafford has faced maximum coverage from a numbers standpoint 88 percent of the time.

In fact, opponents are using at least one extra defensive back almost exclusively against the Lions: 90.8 percent of the time. They're staying in nickel for the most part even when the Lions are using two or more tight ends (76 percent to be exact). Presumably, that's to cover Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. The approach exposes an almost total disregard for the Lions' running game, an issue we'll come back to. So are the Lions failing to get downfield only because of deep zones? Or is it possible that the nickel and dime packages, and ignoring the run game, have been at last partially to blame -- regardless of the actual scheme run?

We'll find out the answer to that question Sunday, because the Lions are still likely to face maximum coverage in terms of numbers from the Eagles defense. No team has put seven or more players in coverage more often than the Eagles this season, about 80 percent of the time, and their approach has worked as well as can be reasonably expected in today's passing era.

The Eagles are limiting downfield passing attacks better than any other NFL team, and it's not close. Opponents are completing 28 percent of passes that travel at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage against them; the next-best defense is the San Francisco 49ers at 37.8 percent.

The obvious answer is to run against schemes that are so obviously geared for the pass, and the Lions have tried to do that this season. They have run on 42.9 percent of their first-quarter plays this season and 43.1 percent of their plays in the second quarter. Those numbers have dwindled in the second half as they've worked to overcome halftime deficits, but to me, their inability to take what defenses are so obviously giving them is as big of problem as any they've experienced this season.

I realize that some of you don't like drawing conclusions from a select cross-section of analytic stats. I still think we can say this much: The Eagles have been excellent at stopping what the Lions are hoping to be better at Sunday. The Lions have their work cut out for them, no matter what scheme the Eagles play.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Most of the Green Bay Packers' starting positions were set long before training camp began, and now the two positions with legitimate competition are beginning to favor at least a mid-August winner.

T.J. Lang appears to have moved ahead of rookie Derek Sherrod at left guard, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And for at least the time being, the Packers have stopped their three-way rotation at right outside linebacker and installed Erik Walden as the player taking consistent first-team repetitions, writes Bob McGinn.

Obviously these arrangements could change at any time. Typically a first-round draft choice like Sherrod will have an advantage in a position competition, but the Packers aren't looking to make any projections when it comes to protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Walden, meanwhile, probably has more playmaking ability than Frank Zombo or Brad Jones. Stay tuned.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Packers have pulled back the practice reps even more for left tackle Chad Clifton to protect his knees, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Cornerback Pat Lee made a stunning interception during practice Wednesday, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz has gotten into the head of backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, and not in a good way, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Bears right guard Lance Louis left practice Wednesday because he was ill, forcing center Roberto Garza to slide over and reserve Chris Spencer to play center during team drills. Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com has more.
  • Bears receiver Roy Williams is (playfully) lobbying quarterback Jay Cutler for more passes, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz stopped practice Wednesday and forced his team to run gassers to "expel" energy they had channeled into a number of practice fights, writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News on the NFL's $20,000 fine of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: "For fans in Detroit, it's all the more exhilarating. Honestly, when's the last time Detroit had a defensive star who was cheered -- and feared -- quite like this guy already is after one full season?"
  • Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, via the Detroit Free Press: "You've got one guy in the league, Nnamdi, and all he does is press. You ever see him make a tackle? He presses the wide receiver, and he's great at it. But there's more to playing DB than just pressing wide receivers."
  • Minnesota Vikings tight end Allen Reisner is one of a handful of rookie free agents with a chance to make the final roster, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice told Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the Vikings didn't demonstrate much interest in re-signing him.
  • Vikings receiver Percy Harvin might not play in Saturday's preseason game against the Seahawks because of a rib injury, notes the Star Tribune.
The available free agent cornerbacks for the Detroit Lions to choose from are dwindling. The latest name off the board is Johnathan Joseph, whose monster agreement with the Houston Texans reportedly includes $23.5 million guaranteed.

Earlier this week, we posted Scouts Inc.'s top 10 free agent cornerbacks, including those who are restricted free agents. That list is down to seven, and there is no indication the Lions are in on negotiations for Nnamdi Asomugha. I've published the amended list below.

Let's not consider these names the Lions' only possibilities. General manager Martin Mayhew is well known for his trading prowess, and it's possible 2010 starter Chris Houston will return. But if you were hoping they would splurge on one of the top two or three cornerbacks available, you're probably going to be disappointed.
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha
  2. Brent Grimes (RFA)
  3. Antonio Cromartie
  4. Brandon Carr (RFA)
  5. Chris Carr
  6. Richard Marshall
  7. Carlos Rogers
Via Twitter, @gregfairbanks expressed a common refrain from the fan base of any team that didn't make a Day 1 splash in free agency: "Awfully quiet on the lions front -- any news brewing??"

I haven't abandoned my expectation that the Detroit Lions will add at least one free-agent cornerback in the coming days. We should point out that one candidate is already off the market; the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to terms with incumbent Ike Taylor late Tuesday night. Other than an expectation that the Lions won't "go big," there is no clear indication what direction they're headed in here.

So until we get a better feel for their approach, I'll leave you with the top 10 remaining cornerbacks on the free-agent market, as ranked by Scouts Inc. (You need an Insider subscription to see the entire list.)

Note that Chris Houston, the Lions' ostensible No. 1 cornerback last season, isn't in this ranking. And remember that restricted free agents require draft-pick compensation if the current team chooses not to match an offer sheet extended by the new team:
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha
  2. Johnathan Joseph
  3. Brent Grimes (RFA)
  4. Antonio Cromartie
  5. Josh Wilson
  6. Brandon Carr (RFA)
  7. Chris Carr
  8. Richard Marshall
  9. Drayton Florence
  10. Carlos Rogers

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:27
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flier on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane, as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine his changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives if Ponder needs some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.
In an Insider piece for ESPN.com, our friends at Football Outsiders have put together a list of first free agency steps Insider for each NFL team. You'll need a subscription to see all of it, but below I've passed along their recommendations for the NFC North along with my thoughts for a free-agent market that will open in the coming days:

Chicago Bears
Football Outsiders:
Sign defensive tackle Brandon Mebane
Seifert comment: We've discussed this possibility and it makes a good bit of sense. But anchoring the offensive line should take top priority. That can't happen without re-signing center Olin Kreutz, a job the Bears will get to right away, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.

Detroit Lions
Football Outsiders:
Sign cornerback Johnathan Joseph
Seifert comment: Sounds like a good idea to me, especially if the Lions have decided that Nnamdi Asomugha is too expensive.

Green Bay Packers
Football Outsiders:
Trade or release linebacker Nick Barnett
Seifert comment: We've gone over the cap implications of Barnett's departure; it would save the Packers more than $4 million against the cap. But the Packers have other ways to create cap space, and the biggest motivation would be to avoid the potentially uncomfortable situation of a veteran starter returning from injury to find his job filled (by Desmond Bishop). If egos can be managed, the Packers would be stronger with Barnett, Bishop and A.J. Hawk sharing the two inside linebacker positions, at least to guard against training camp injuries. If so, the Packers' top priority should be re-signing place-kicker Mason Crosby.

Minnesota Vikings
Football Outsiders:
Trade for a veteran quarterback
Seifert comment: Everyone wants to know what the Vikings will do with rookie Christian Ponder. I think they want him to play right away. Even if Ponder isn't ready for Week 1, should the Vikings sacrifice a draft pick just to find the shortest of short-term starters? I'm not sure. But I agree that establishing their training camp depth chart at quarterback, one way or the other, should be their top priority.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I was half-kidding when I suggested last weekend would be the NFL's final dark weekend of the offseason. But maybe it's true.

Multiple reports have suggested the Green Bay Packers are planning a meeting Saturday for at least some players, assuming NFL owners ratify a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on Thursday as hoped. Teams would technically be able to open their doors starting Friday, and they would no doubt aggressively begin preparations for training camp at that point.

NFL teams are prohibited from contacting players during the lockout, so it's not clear how the Packers are communicating their plans to players, if they are. It would make more sense to "invite" younger players who need playbook updates than veterans. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said via Twitter: "I definitely haven't been contacted about anything in gb this weekend, for the record."

No matter how it plays out, it's clear that NFL teams are motivated by end-of-July urgency and are taking news of CBA progress the same way we are -- it's a matter of what day, not if, an agreement occurs in the coming week.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Packers receiver Donald Driver to Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "The lockout gave me the opportunity to heal and not try to rush back to prove to people or prove to the media I'm not done yet. If I didn't show up for OTAs, and I'm hurt and everything, people would say I may be winding down. It always seems like every year I've got to go in and I've got to prove myself. At this point, I am the starter and no one can take that from me."
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune believes the NFL should cancel the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game.
  • Former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon is in pain but doesn't have life-threatening injuries following a limo accident in Nevada, according to the Associated Press.
  • The Chicago Bears might have trouble re-signing cornerback Corey Graham, writes Brad Biggs of the Tribune.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "The Lions likely will be moderate in free agency this year, passing on the most-talked-about talents (Nnamdi Asomugha and Stephen Tulloch) at their most-needed positions (cornerback and linebacker). But they should be able to re-sign most of their priority free agents (Bobby Carpenter, Drew Stanton, John Wendling, etc., with Chris Houston being the wild card) and add a starter or two in free agency. And if that happens to be Drayton Florence and Keith Bulluck instead of Asomugha and Tulloch, know those players fit the Lions' dual desire to be competitive this year and build for next year and beyond."
  • Long-injured Lions cornerback Jack Williams will get a chance to prove himself, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder displayed a strong arm during workouts Monday, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said he was told by team executives that his playing time will increase dramatically in 2011, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Welcome back from what will probably be the NFL's last dark weekend for the next six months. Owners and players are hoping to reach a handshake agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement within the next 48 hours, providing time for owners to ratify it during a meeting Thursday in Atlanta. The lockout would then be lifted and a process for opening the free-agent market would be established.

Around here, the big question remains whether the Chicago Bears would open training camp Friday under that scenario. If they do, it would be with a skeleton roster. Their draft picks couldn't possibly be signed and in uniform by then. They would have just started signing the undrafted rookies who fill out camp rosters, and they wouldn't have had the opportunity yet to sign any veteran free agents.

So would the NFL have the Bears open training camp under that scenario just to preserve their Aug. 7 preseason opener? Would they delay the start of camp and simply shorten preparation time for the Hall of Fame game? Or would they cancel the game, instruct the Bears to report the following weekend with the rest of the NFL and have them play a four-week preseason game?

The latter scenario seems more likely. Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times reported over the weekend that the league has already informed affected parties that the game won't be played, but the NFL has not confirmed its cancellation yet. Regardless, the lockout could be days away from ending.

Continuing around the NFC North:
This, my friends, could be our last "dark" NFL weekend until, oh, February 2012 or so. Yes, if all goes as hoped and the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is ratified in the coming days, we'll at least be readying for a wild free agent marketplace next week at this time.

It's possible we could even be at training camp if the Chicago Bears report as scheduled to Olivet Nazarene University. In either event, things will most definitely be on.

If that's the case, I think we'll look back on this lockout and wonder what all the fuss was about? What exactly did we miss out on? Free agency is always a fun early-spring activity, but we'll get it soon enough. The draft took place as scheduled. Only the most hard-core fans (and media members) could seriously be dismayed about the loss of organized team activities and (gasp!) minicamp.

Sure, the NFL subjected itself to public scorn over the unseemly specter of billionaires and millionaires fighting about $9 billion in revenues. But based on how often I heard some version of Let me know when it's over from you, I really think the damage is minimal.

That sentiment might have been different if regular-season games were canceled, but to me that never seemed likely. There was way, way, way too much money at stake.

Enough on that -- hopefully forever.

If we're going to get back in football mode, I can think of no better way than to resume the weekend mailbag. It got a bit thin in there over the past few months, but I'm thinking we'll have plenty to discuss in the coming days, weeks and certainly months.

For the uninitiated, I read everything sent to the mailbag, to Facebook and via Twitter. I can't reply to every submission individually.


Brian of Urbana, Ill., writes: What do you think of the Chicago Bears' age on defense? Do you feel they are more susceptible to injuries or will be a little slower than usual? I guess what I'm asking is if you feel the Bears' age will catch up with them this season.

Kevin Seifert: I don't necessarily think the Bears' age will catch up to them in 2011, but what's clear is that their roster is aging. One illustration: Only one of their players, rookie tackle Gabe Carimi, made ESPN.com's list of nominees for a mythical Dream Team of Tomorrow.

Think about it. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are 33 and 30, respectively. Their starting defensive ends, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, are at least 30. Cornerback Charles Tillman is 30. Center Olin Kreutz (a pending free agent) is 34. Longtime guard Roberto Garza is 32.

A team with key players at those ages can compete in 2011. But in a perfect world, you would like to see more potential replacements in the pipeline than the Bears have. Who will take over for Urlacher? What are the Bears' long-term plans for center and guard? Some of those questions could get answered in free agency, but they can't all be addressed at once.

The Bears' nucleus isn't old. But it's aging.


Kyle B of Kentwod, Mich., wants to know if there is anything of substance in our continued discussions about the Detroit Lions possibly signing free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Kevin Seifert: Despite months and months of speculation, all we really know is this:
  • Asomugha is in line for free agency.
  • The Lions need a starting cornerback (or two) and will have about $16 million in salary cap space to work with.

Nationally, discussion has centered around Asomugha choosing a team on the East Coast, which we call EAST COAST BIAS. The reality is the Lions have an interesting situation to offer a cornerback: A potentially high-scoring offense and an elite defensive line to account for consistent pressure.

During our SportsNation chat Tuesday, we discussed the merits and pitfalls of devoting the kind of cash and salary cap space that would be required (for any team) to reel in Asomugha. Would the Lions be better off with, say, a starting cornerback and a starting linebacker or one elite difference-maker?

You could make arguments on both sides, but to me there are only a handful of players like Asomugha in the game. They almost never become available on the free market. It's true that the Lions have more than one need, but how many chances will they have to land a veteran, instant-impact player who is one of the best at his position in the game?

I think they owe it to themselves to at least pursue the idea. But that's just me.


Ryan of Louisville is worried that Green Bay Packers players never came together this offseason for group workouts as many other teams did: I certainly can understand that being SB Champs is a HUGE accomplishment and players deserve to celebrate but as a fan I am afraid that they are gonna oversleep on the opportunity to get some fine tuning done.

Kevin Seifert: I guess we're getting ready to find out whether the Packers overslept or were the smart ones. I truly think the answer varies per team. But most of the Packers' offensive players have been together for at least three years.

The opportunity for fine-tuning is minimal, but the chances of a mishap is greater. Coach Mike McCarthy was planning a more laid-back offseason regardless of the lockout, allowing players to physically recover, from their extended playoff run, and I would be really surprised if the Packers are rusty in training camp because they didn't work out en masse during the offseason.


Big Fan writes: Any chance we could get some Vikings news BESIDES stadium issues? I know it's a lockout, but EVERY day I look on your blog and every day it's nothing but stuff about the stadium. We're really, really tired of reading about it.

Kevin Seifert: No issue is more critical to the future of the franchise, and I make no apologies for the frequency of posts on it. But you have a point. There is still a team, a 2011 schedule and a roster to fill. So here is one football-related topic I think we're going to hear a lot more about in the coming weeks: Sidney Rice's hip.

A lot of you are wondering why the Vikings weren't more aggressive in their attempts to re-sign a 24-year-old receiver who is one year removed from an 83-catch season. Part of it, I think, can be attributed to Rice's interest in at least testing the market. It's not often a player of his age qualifies for unrestricted free agency. (Remember, he entered the NFL as a 20-year-old.)

But I think the surgery Rice had on his hip last summer, known as a mircrofracture procedure, has at least given the Vikings pause as they contemplate how much of a future financial commitment they might make to him. Are they using the fear of long-term health issues as a negotiating tactic or is it real? I'm not sure, but if anyone gives Rice big-time money this summer, they will need a high level of assurance that the hip does not present a long-term issue.
Thanks to everyone who joined in on a festive and well-attended SportsNation chat. I'll circle back on a number of the issues you brought forth during the week, but I wanted to get to one right away because it applies to the latest installment of our Calling Canton series on the prospects of Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
Jay (Boston)

Kevin, enjoyed the Calling Canton article today. One stat that wasn't mentioned--and might be difficult to compare--that I always sing Woodson's praises on is tackles for loss. I think that there is what sets him apart from so many of the other topflight CB's currently playing--he does an decent job shutting down receivers and plays above average defending the run. Any idea how his tackles for loss numbers stack up against others?

Kevin Seifert (2:37 PM)

Not off the top of my head, but it would be worth checking out. I'll do a follow-up post if I can find it. Thanks, Jay.

As it turns out, the pro-football-reference.com database doesn't track tackles for loss, which are as unofficial as straight tackle statistics. But the Packers' public relations staff forwarded a modern-day comparison, via STATS Inc., that confirms Jay's suspicions.

Over the past five seasons, here are the NFL's unofficial leaders in tackles for loss among cornerbacks (or "stuffs," as STATS refers to them as):
  1. Nate Clements: 18
  2. Ronde Barber: 17
  3. Antoine Winfield: 17
  4. Charles Woodson: 16
  5. Nnamdi Asomugha: 11.5

You ask, we tell. Sort of.
Charles WoodsonJeff Hanisch/US PresswireCharles Woodson's longevity and nose for the ball have him on the path for the Hall of Fame.
Another in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectories put them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

All of our previous Calling Canton nominees carry some kind of caveat among their credentials. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been a starter for just three seasons. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and Jared Allen (Minnesota Vikings) fall in a category that hasn't always rewarded high-sack producers. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson plays an uncelebrated position amid some equally talented contemporaries.

I don't know that we'll find a substantive flaw in the candidacy of Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, however. Packers columnist Vic Ketchman recently suggested Woodson will win election on the first ballot he appears. It's always difficult to predict the first-ballot tendencies of voters, but I'm guessing Ketchman's perspective reflects that of the football establishment: It would be a stunner if Woodson isn't inducted soon after his career ends.

Why such a slam-dunk case? In 13 career seasons, Woodson has already put himself in the appropriate statistical range for Hall of Fame cornerbacks. He has enough interceptions. His coverage skills have never been in question. He won a defensive player of the year award at age 33, a testament to the longevity of his elite skills, and has a particular talent -- stripping the ball -- to hang his figurative hat on.

That's my case in a nutshell, but let's examine the details:

  • Fair or otherwise, interceptions are always a key measure for defensive backs. Woodson has 47, which places him No. 49 on the NFL's all-time list. Obviously, interceptions don't tell the whole story. But as the first chart shows, there are 11 Hall of Fame players who spent their careers almost exclusively at cornerback. The range for their career interceptions is 46-68. To me, that tells us Woodson's low(er) interception total, which should grow as his career concludes and is based at least in part on how often teams throw his way, won't hold him back.
  • Interceptions aside, Woodson has risen to near the top of several all-time NFL lists. His 10 interception returns for a touchdown ranks No. 3 all-time, behind Rod Woodson (12) and Darren Sharper (11). And Woodson has more forced fumbles (27) than any other cornerback in NFL history, according to the database at pro-football-reference.com.
  • Forced fumble records don't go back more than a few decades, as you probably noticed if you followed the link to the database. Even so, we can safely say Woodson is the best of several generations and one of the best ever. A forced fumble is less valuable than an interception, because it still requires recovery to qualify as a turnover. Regardless, the candidacy of any potential Hall of Fame player is buoyed by a skill that stands out from his peers. Woodson without question has that.
  • The performance that led to his 2009 DPOY award provides a strong illustration for Woodson's multi-faceted success. That season, he became the fourth player in NFL history to record at least nine interceptions and two sacks in a season. Against the Detroit Lions, Woodson became the first player in league history to record two interceptions, a touchdown return, a sack and a fumble recovery in the same game.
  • There is no reliable way to quantify a player's coverage skills. But throughout his career, Woodson has been well-known for his instincts, ball skills and physicality at the line. Scouts Inc.'s report on Woodson includes these plaudits: "Woodson does a great a great job anticipating break points and jumping routes. He does a great job at jamming and rerouting his opponent off the line of scrimmage in press coverage." And lest anyone doubt his one-on-one skills, go back and watch the play Woodson broke his collarbone on in Super Bowl XLV. He was running stride for stride with Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Mike Wallace, who, among other things, is 10 years younger.

As with our other Calling Canton posts, I think it's important to measure Woodson against his contemporaries, knowing that only the best of any given era typically find their way to the Hall.

Woodson was one of four cornerbacks to make the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s, joining Ronde Barber, Champ Bailey and Ty Law. As the chart shows, Woodson has three more interceptions than Law and trails Bailey by one. Current stars Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha will also enter the conversation at some point but will need several more years of sustained success to do it.

It's also important to note that since he entered the league in 1998, Woodson has more forced fumbles than any player -- at any position -- other than safety Brian Dawkins. Typically speaking, linebackers and safeties should have more opportunities to force a fumble than a cornerback. Woodson's numbers in that category are a testament to his all-around play and should be a big part of any argument for his inclusion on the first Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot he is eligible for.

Earlier: Rodgers has put himself on the path toward Canton. Peppers and Allen face stiff competition. Hutchinson has all the credentials.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider