NFC North: O.J. Atogwe

The Detroit Lions haven't entirely given up on finding another veteran to plug into their safety mix.

The Lions hosted O.J. Atogwe before the draft, and on Tuesday they confirmed that Chris Crocker visited their facility. Crocker, 32, started 16 games for the Cincinnati Bengals last season and has also played for the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns.

I'm not sure that the Lions would project Crocker as a starter, but it's fair for them to seek alternatives to third-year player Amari Spievey, who was shaky at times last season as a starter. They also re-signed veteran Erik Coleman this winter.

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.

NFC North Quick Hits: Tuesday

March, 20, 2012
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A few odds and ends to clean up on a busy Tuesday here in the NFC North:

Item: The Green Bay Packers signed special teams captain/defensive back Jarrett Bush to a three-year deal, according to multiple reports.
Comment: Bush had every right to find out if another team would consider him more of a full-time defensive back. That he returned to the Packers tells you all you need to know.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings hosted receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. on a visit Tuesday, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Comment: Presumably, the Vikings see Ginn as a full-time returner who would lessen their compulsion to use receiver Percy Harvin on special teams.

Item: The Detroit Lions will host defensive end Everette Brown and safety O.J. Atogwe on visits Tuesday and Wednesday, notes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Comment: The Lions don't have a lot of cap space remaining, and they're now very much into the secondary free agent market.

Item: In his ESPN 1000 interview Tuesday, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said his only concern with the acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall is the possibility the NFL could suspend him as discipline for an incident two weeks ago in New York City.
Comment: Marshall's attorney has said Marshall did nothing wrong. If that's the case, Urlacher has nothing to worry about.

Lions chipping away at secondary

March, 20, 2012
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Many of you wanted to see the Detroit Lions revamp their secondary after its late-season collapse in 2011. Through the first week of free agency, they have (wisely) allowed cornerback Eric Wright to depart. They have expressed interest in safeties LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe, and on Tuesday they agreed to terms with cornerback Jacob Lacey, whom the Indianapolis Colts non-tendered after three seasons as a part-time starter.

Is that what you had in mind?

The truth is there won't be any easy answers for the Lions as they look to build around presumed cornerstones Chris Houston and Louis Delmas. There aren't many accomplished cornerbacks available in any given year, and this year they went for annual salaries of $10 million or more.

Lacey's skill level probably puts him about even with Aaron Berry, the Lions' nickelback last season when healthy. Landry signed with the New York Jets, and if the Lions land Atogwe, they'll be his third team in as many seasons. He turns 31 in June.

We know enough about the Lions' approach to the draft to suggest they won't be focused on any one position, let alone cornerback or safety. But let's put it this way: They would be fortunate if a few good ones are available in the upper rounds.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Ford family doesn't always attend the annual NFL owners meetings, but this week, Detroit vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. has represented ownership. He also spoke to local beat reporters for the first time since suggesting in 2008 that he would fire former general manager Matt Millen if it were up to him.

Millen was fired days later. On Monday, Ford offered a resounding endorsement of the Lions' new direction under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz.

Ford called Mayhew "the most prepared guy I've been around" and added: "It is the early stages. Early with Martin, early with Jim. But the early returns are, I think, very good. And I know my father's [William Clay Ford] very pleased with both of them."

Here is coverage from the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Mlive.com.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
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NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Chicago Bears

Last month: The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa 2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Now: The Bears have addressed some of the needs we first identified last month via the free-agent market, signing defensive end Julius Peppers to replace Ogunleye and Chester Taylor to provide premium depth in the backfield. But both safety positions remain noticeably untouched. There have been some suggestions that the Bears pursue St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, a restricted free agent who would require no compensation to pry from the Rams. Barring a run at him, safety ranks with offensive line as the Bears' top needs with the draft looming in five weeks.

Detroit Lions

Last month: Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free-agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Now: The Lions have addressed the interior of their defensive line, acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland and hosting defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, a restricted free agent, on a visit. Veteran guard Chester Pitts is scheduled for a visit, but the left guard position might ultimately be filled through the draft. It's also not out of the question that the Lions target Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 overall pick. The Lions have addressed their No. 2 receiver position with free agent Nate Burleson and re-signed Heller, two other areas of need we discussed.

Green Bay Packers

Last month: Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Now: Clifton and Tauscher have both re-signed, but finding a left tackle of the future remains one of the Packers' top priorities as the draft approaches. Clifton signed a three-year deal, but it's not clear how long he will play. As per their philosophy, the Packers haven't addressed any needs by signing free agents from other teams. They'll target their remaining need positions in the draft. In addition to left tackle, that positional list should also include outside linebacker and cornerback.

Minnesota Vikings

Last month: Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickelback Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Now: The Vikings re-signed Sapp to give them an alternative if Griffin isn't ready to start the season, but cornerback could still be a high priority in the draft. The loss of Taylor makes depth at running back an issue, but that is one position where it makes sense to go young. As draft boards begin to shape up, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings get an opportunity to fill their need for a long-term quarterback answer. Will there be anyone of that description available with the No. 30 overall pick? That debate remains unsettled.
We have emerged from the first weekend of NFL free agency with what I would imagine to be a 50-50 split in the NFC North. Chicago and Detroit fans appear happy with their teams' multiple acquisitions, while those affiliated with Green Bay and Minnesota are awaiting a first move.

I'm working on a post for later Monday on the irony of the Bears and Lions feeling compelled to pursue pass-rushers in this (formerly) Black and Blue division. Detroit has at least one deal pending for a cornerback. And we're also going to monitor the opening of the Williams Wall trial, which will start as scheduled Monday after working through a motion that threatened to delay it.

It's all coming on an NFC North blog near you. For now, let's catch up on the reaction to free agency in each market:

  • Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com: "Friday's bonanza was born as much of desperation as football savvy."
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: "It's unfortunate that Ted Phillips, Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith weren't in full butt-saving mode three years ago, when the Bears began their headfirst slide into mediocrity. If they had felt the urgency they're feeling now, who knows where this franchise would be?"
  • Defensive end Julius Peppers will have to adjust to playing in the Chicago media market, writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Bears should pursue Rams safety O.J. Atogwe, suggests the Tribune's Dan Pompei.
  • To complete the Kyle Vanden Bosch deal, Detroit needs to draft Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh next month. John Niyo of the Detroit News explains why.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "Before the Lions lose the patience and squander the star ability of [Calvin] Johnson, they have to find someone to help him. That's why they paid an eyebrow-raising $25 million over five years ($11 million guaranteed) for [Nate] Burleson."
  • Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press: "The Lions have tried to make a big splash in free agency before, only to discover that there was no water in the pool. But this feels different. The signings of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson and the trade for Corey Williams make sense, not just in a vacuum but in the context of what the Lions are trying to do. Finally, there is a plan."
  • New Jacksonville defensive end Aaron Kampman will play on the right side for the Jaguars, notes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Unless the Packers get linebacker Clay Matthews some help rushing the quarterback, they will be vulnerable to the kind of pass-happy attack that took them out of the playoffs in a 51-45 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in January."
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Relax. If Brett Favre decides not to return in 2010, most of these mediocre free-agent quarterbacks still will be available. Plus, there isn't a college player in the upcoming draft that could step in and play the position immediately. So unless you want to get involved in the Donovan McNabb sweepstakes, what's the rush?"
  • Minnesota is scheduled to host kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd on a free-agent visit Monday, according to Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com.

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