NFC North: Philip Merling

SportsCenter's divisional analysis moves to the NFC North on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). We've already discussed our most versatile players as well as potential breakout players, so let's give our television pals a pre-show primer on the biggest improvement (and regression) each division team made this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail:
The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression:
The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)

Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail:
The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.

Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail:
As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression:
The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.

Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail:
Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The details of the Green Bay Packers' renegotiated deal with receiver Donald Driver suggest the team has every intention of keeping him on the roster in 2012.

Initially, you wondered if the Packers would insist on a contract that paid Driver nothing if he were cut before the start of the regular season. But ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt reports that Driver received $500,000 in "upfront money" and would earn a total of $2.5 million over the course of the season.

NFL teams don't typically do financial favors for players, even celebrated veterans like Driver. So while $500,000 isn't exactly a mint in NFL terms, it's enough to confirm Driver is very much in the Packers' plans. All indications are that his skills will have to drop notably for him to lose a roster spot.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Packers tight end Jermichael Finley thinks he played like a "robot" last season, didn't have good chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and plans to "freestyle" more in 2012, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. Finley: "Play fast, not count my steps, not worrying about how the defense is playing me or what the defense is doing and just do me. If I do me, it can take my game to the next level. That’s where I struggle. I get out there and think too much. If I let my game speak for itself, I can take this league over at the position. If you go out there with too much on your head, it can mess up your game." Oh boy.
  • Packers linebacker Erik Walden on his brief incarceration last year, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Now, man, I feel good. Football is easy now. After going through what I went through last year, I look at it totally different. Football ain't hard. This is fun. That's my approach to it."
  • New defensive lineman Philip Merling reported to the Packers a bit heavy, notes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Here's what Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said when asked whether he has gone along with general manager Rick Spielman's rebuilding plan, via Mark Craig of the Star Tribune: "When we're building a team, it's we. It's not 'Rick.' Rick could not build this team without the head coach being in concert with him in doing that. That wouldn't be good for he or I. … There isn't a decision that's made that the two of us don't talk about and agree upon. It would just not be good. So the decisions that have been made are decisions that were discussed and we were in agreement that this is the right thing to do. It's hard to build a team if the general manager and the head coach aren't on the same page. And we are, thank goodness."
  • The Vikings are putting a big emphasis on offseason participation, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Receiver Percy Harvin (shoulder) hopes to participate in organized team activities (OTAs) next week, notes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The home of Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young was broken into over the winter, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions president Tom Lewand on the decision of defensive end Cliff Avril to work out on his own this offseason, via Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com: "I don't question Cliff's commitment, his work ethic, anything. He's made a choice to work out on his own. These are obviously voluntary sessions. We can only talk about the guys who are here."
  • Chicago Bears receiver/returner Devin Hester is emotional about the future of fellow Bears receiver Johnny Knox, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com checks in with Bears backup quarterback Jason Campbell.
  • There is already scrutiny of offensive lineman Gabe Carimi's durability, writes Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
Let's round up some newsbits on the open organized team activities (OTAs) hosted Wednesday by the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings:
  • Bears offensive lineman Gabe Carimi confirmed that he practiced Tuesday but said the decision to sit out Wednesday is part of a larger recovery plan for his right knee. Carimi, via ESPNChicago.com: "We're taking it slow right now. I feel like I'm explosive off it right now, and hopefully we'll keep on progressing."
  • Receiver Devin Hester suggested he can do a lot of damage with just a little more attention in the Bears offense. The team's plan for a "Hester Package," he told reporters, is "Just getting the athlete the ball. Getting the guy who you know can do a lot of damage with the ball in his hands ... getting him the ball regularly. I can go a season with 40 catches ... the way the offense is designed I only need about 40 to 50 catches and I can get close to 800 or 900 yards receiving. With this offense you might not have a lot of balls but you're going to have a lot of big plays."
  • Packers receiver Donald Driver was in uniform for Wednesday's practice and defiantly rebuffed suggestions that he might not make the 2012 roster, despite a newly renegotiated contract. Driver, via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "People talk about how this is a young man's game. But I have proven that age is just a number. And I haven't declined. People talk about, well, I didn’t have 1,000 yards. I didn’t have 80 catches. I don't control who throws the ball. Every ball I caught, it was amazing. I made amazing catches, amazing runs. Hopefully when it is all said and done, people will look at that as the game plays, not the age."
  • Coach Mike McCarthy didn't discount the possibility that the Packers could keep six receivers in 2012, according to the team website.
  • New Packers defensive lineman Phillip Merling did not participate in practice but will on Thursday. McCarthy said: "We'll have him involved in everything tomorrow and see where he is. He's added competition at the defensive line group. We feel he's a good fit for a 3-4 and the sub groups. You can't have enough big guys on your football team and we have excellent competition on the defensive line."
  • High upon a hill overlooking the Vikings' practice field, there was some serious talent. Tailback Adrian Peterson (knee) and receiver Percy Harvin (shoulder) got a little competitive during a conditioning drill that goes with their injury participation. The players would jog to the base of the hill and then sprint up it. Harvin admitted that Peterson, who is just about five months removed from surgery, beat him twice. "He's amazing," Harvin said. "I told him the other day that I don't think he's human."
  • The only veterans missing from Vikings OTAs this week are linebacker Chad Greenway, who is dealing with a family issue, and defensive end Jared Allen. Typically, Allen does not attend voluntary sessions, but coach Leslie Frazier said he hoped to see him in Minnesota next week. Harvin has been an inconsistent attendee in the past but said he made a point to be in town this year.
  • It's rare to see a healthy player walk away from the game, but that's what it appears Vikings cornerback Asher Allen did last week. Allen was a third-round draft choice in 2009 and started 21 games over the past three years before walking into Frazier's office and announcing his decision. Allen, 24, suffered a concussion last season but didn't mention health as a reason for retiring, according to Frazier. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall after the Vikings signed veterans Zackary Bowman and Chris Carr this offseason while also drafting cornerback Josh Robinson in the third round. In three years, Allen earned about $1.95 million, including a $725,500 signing bonus.

Draft Watch: NFC North

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: history in that spot.

Chicago Bears

The Bears' top pick is No. 29 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York Jets)

2009: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants)

2008: Defensive end Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco 49ers)

2007: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore Ravens)

2006: Center Nick Mangold (New York Jets)

2005: Defensive back Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis Colts)

2004: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins (Atlanta Falcons)

ANALYSIS: The bottom of the first round is a great place to find starting-caliber guards and centers. The top tackles are usually off the board. Fortunately for the Bears, they could use a guard or center just as much as a tackle. While coach Lovie Smith wants to bring back veteran center Olin Kreutz, a free agent, he will have to be replaced someday. And more depth at guard could allow the Bears to move 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams back to left tackle.

Detroit Lions

The Lions' top pick is No. 13 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Defensive end Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles)

2009: Defensive end Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins)

2008: Running back Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)

2007: Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (St. Louis Rams)

2006: Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (Cleveland Browns)

2005: Offensive lineman Jammal Brown (New Orleans Saints)

2004: Receiver Lee Evans (Buffalo Bills)

ANALYSIS: Unfortunately for the Lions, this isn't a great spot to get an elite cornerback. Those types of players are usually drafted in the top seven or eight picks. (The Lions are hoping that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara somehow slips through the cracks.) This is a nice area to draft a second-tier defensive lineman, and this year, the Lions will probably have their pick of offensive tackles as well.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers' top pick is No. 32 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Patrick Robinson (New Orleans Saints)

2009: Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers)

2008: Defensive end Phillip Merling (Miami Dolphins)*

2007: Receiver Anthony Gonzalez (Indianapolis Colts)

2006: Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants)

2005: Offensive guard Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)

2004: Tight end Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots)

*First pick of second round.

ANALYSIS: There are some awfully productive players on this list. Part of the reason is that the previous year's most successful organization was in that spot and thus was more likely to make a good scouting decision. But it also tells us the Packers should have an opportunity to select a player who can make an immediate impact as long as they don't limit themselves to certain positions.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings' top pick is No. 12 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Running back Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)

2009: Running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)

2008: Offensive tackle Ryan Clady (Denver Broncos)

2007: Running back Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills)

2006: Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens)

2005: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)

2004: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets)

ANALYSIS: This list tells us what we knew already: You can get a blue-chip, impact player here if you exercise good judgment. The Vikings' decision, of course, will be complicated by their need for a quarterback. What will they do if they have, say, a potentially elite pass-rusher like North Carolina's Robert Quinn available to them? Take Quinn and look for a quarterback later? Or prioritize the quarterback?

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