NFC North: Ray Edwards

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
11:30
AM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 26-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    We've noted several times that quarterback Christian Ponder had an efficient, if late-starting game. We should give some credit for his performance to receiver Percy Harvin, who was a hard-running multipurpose threat for the entire game. He turned some high-percentage plays into productive gainers, finishing with 104 total combined offensive yards on six receptions and five carries. He made most of those yards on his own. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), 77 of his 84 receiving yards came after the catch and 17 of his 20 rushing yards were after first contact. In a word, that's awesome. Harvin has slimmed down to his college weight of 190 pounds but is still running both through and around people.
  2. I watched the game while monitoring the other two early NFC North games in the Lambeau Field press box. Every time I glanced at the Vikings, it seemed defensive end Brian Robison was making a play. According to PFF, here was his final line: six pressures, three additional hits on Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a batted pass and three tackles. There are plenty of things to pick at on the Vikings' defense, but know this much: The team continues to be rewarded by its decision to promote Robison and allow free agent Ray Edwards to depart two years ago.
  3. Very quietly, the Vikings' 14-year sellout streak ended Sunday. Attendance was announced at 56,607 at the Metrodome, enough to ensure a local television broadcast under new rules enacted for this season but not enough to fill a stadium that technically has capacity for 64,111. To be clear, there have been many games in recent years where far less than capacity showed up. The NFL's new rule simply alleviated the need for a corporate sponsor, or the Vikings, to buy leftover tickets to avoid a television blackout. From what I understand, fans were plenty loud in the second half Sunday. And I don't necessarily blame locals for not flocking to a home schedule that includes matchups against the AFC South in a building whose days are numbered.
And here's one issue I still don't get:
Is there anything Adrian Peterson can't do? I'll be the first to admit I didn't think Peterson would be the Vikings' primary rusher in Week 1, just 260 days after he tore two knee ligaments. Sometimes possibilities are limited only by what can be conceived, and Peterson never wavered on his intent to be ready in time. Coach Leslie Frazier said he targeted Peterson for 10 to 15 carries. He finished with 17. To the naked eye, Peterson looked awfully spry. Said Frazier: "Some of those runs, I told him afterwards, 'I'm not sure you weren't just faking that ACL [injury].'" The Vikings will monitor Peterson carefully for soreness and swelling. But as we've discussed before, as long as the medical people have signed off on his physical recovery, coaches are confident in his ability to play and everyone trusts that Peterson will tell the truth and report any discomfort, there is no reason not to play him as early as possible.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Green Bay Packers have received the maximum number of extra draft picks available to teams through the NFL's compensatory draft program, while the Minnesota Vikings have received two.

That's our local upshot of Monday's always-anticipated announcement of compensatory draft picks. The Packers got four extra picks and will now have 12 in next month's draft, while the Vikings will have a total of 10. Neither the Chicago Bears nor the Detroit Lions were expected to receive a compensatory pick.

The NFL doesn't reveal its exact formula for determining the extra picks, but in essence it's based on the difference in value between the free agents a team loses and the ones it signs the previous year. In 2011, the Packers bid farewell to free agents Daryn Colledge, Brandon Jackson and Cullen Jenkins, among others, and did not sign a significant free agent of their own.

The formula granted the Packers two fourth-round picks and two additional seventh-rounders. The Packers' total of 12 picks includes three in the fourth round and four in the seventh.

Meanwhile, the Vikings received two fourth-round picks, No. 33 and No. 39 in the round, after losing receiver Sidney Rice, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and defensive end Ray Edwards in 2011. They signed nose tackle Remi Ayodele, but he made little impact.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
1:20
PM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 34-10 victory against the Arizona Cardinals, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their win against the Arizona Cardinals, the Vikings take a seat in the examination room.

  1. I honestly don't get what people expected from quarterback Donovan McNabb this season. He is generally a well-respected NFL citizen. So when the Vikings acquired him this summer from the Washington Redskins, no football person was going to come out and say how far his career had plummeted. But the evidence was all there for the taking. The Washington Redskins were willing to give him away for a sixth-round draft pick and take their chances with Rex Grossman and John Beck. The Vikings were able to leverage McNabb into a contract worth $5.05 million, one that befits a top backup. And that's the way he has played so far this season: Like a veteran seat-warmer. McNabb has been inaccurate on short and deep passes and has mustered one victory in five games. None of this should be a big surprise, nor should coach Leslie Frazier's decision to retain him as his starter. Frazier wanted a veteran to start ahead of a rookie he didn't think would be ready to play. The NFL doesn't have enough good quarterbacks for a team to find a high-functioning one who can fit that description. Frazier got a seat-warmer who is playing like one.
  2. Let's give defensive end Brian Robison some credit. A few of us wondered if the Vikings had made the right decision by allowing starter Ray Edwards to depart via free agency and inserting Robison into the starting lineup. Robison had been a backup for four seasons, and usually you are what you are by that point. But Robison's two-sack day Sunday brought his season total to 4.5, tying his career high. (It's also three more sacks than Edwards has for the Atlanta Falcons, but that's an apples-to-oranges comparison.) The Cardinals couldn't single-block Robison on Sunday, and his forced fumble on quarterback Kevin Kolb in the first quarter was one of the key plays in springing the Vikings to a 28-0 lead.
  3. I didn't think it was possible, but tailback Adrian Peterson ran with more purpose than I've seen him with the possible exception of the 2009 NFC Championship Game. That's not to say there are games that he doesn't run hard in. But you could just see in Peterson's eyes and movement that he wasn't going to be denied. The most impressive of his three touchdown runs was the last one. I doubt that rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson will forget coming in high and taking a 5-yard ride into the end zone. It's difficult for a non-quarterback to accomplish, but all superstars at times need to will their team to scores. Peterson did that Sunday.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
This is truly a question I don't know the answer to: How does the Vikings' mostly veteran roster truly feel about McNabb? Most veterans want an experienced quarterback to avoid the roller coaster performances of a rookie. They want someone who knows where to throw it, gets them the ball on time and mostly on target. McNabb has done those things only sporadically this season. Are players OK with what they've seen? Or are their eyes starting to wander toward rookie Christian Ponder? Of course, players would know better than us if Ponder has a chance to be any better at this point.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

September, 12, 2011
9/12/11
11:15
AM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 24-17 loss Sunday to the San Diego Chargers, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertAfter falling to the Chargers in the opener, Minnesota takes its turn in the examination room.
  1. Quarterback Donovan McNabb told reporters that his passing production -- seven completions and 39 yards -- was "embarrassing." But it would be wrong and unfair to blame him alone for the Vikings' passing woes Sunday. McNabb was under pressure for a good portion of the game and, quite frankly, the passing offense is short on explosive playmakers outside of receiver Percy Harvin. McNabb isn't in a spot to get much help unless tailback Adrian Peterson starts averaging 150 yards per game or some gaudy number. That dynamic leaves me with a split thought on the immediate future of the position. On the one hand, it probably makes sense to leave rookie Christian Ponder out of this mess if the Vikings quarterback -- whoever he is -- will be put in such a tough situation. But part of me wonders if the Vikings would get any big-picture benefit out of treading water with McNabb, if it comes to that. You know what they say: If you're not moving forward, well, there is only one other way to go.
  2. I understand why coach Leslie Frazier wasn't willing to let Harvin take every kickoff Sunday, even after Harvin opened the game with a 103-yard return. I don't think it has as much to do about injury as it does priority. As Devin Hester demonstrated in recent years with the Chicago Bears, it's awfully difficult to be a full-time receiver and a dynamic returner at the same time. There are only so many things you can focus on during a given week, and Harvin is the Vikings' quasi-No. 1 receiver. But I will ask this: Would it make sense to use him as a full-time returner at least until the Vikings get more flow in their offense? At the moment, the team's best scoring opportunity could be Harvin as a returner or at least a catapult for excellent field position.
  3. I saw a portions of this game live while working in the Raymond James Stadium press box, and it seemed like every time I looked up at the screen, defensive end Brian Robison was making a play. He finished with three tackles, a half-sack and a tipped pass. One of his hits on quarterback Philip Rivers led to an Antoine Winfield interception. It's always interesting when a long-time backup gets a chance he probably thinks should have come a long time ago. The Viking gave Robison a genuine opportunity when they allowed Ray Edwards to depart via free agency. I'm sure he's determined to return the favor.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Quarterback Joe Webb made his 2011 debut as a Wildcat quarterback, taking two unproductive snaps in third quarter. I'm hoping the Vikings have a more creative plan in store for Webb than a few Wildcat plays per game. His athletic skills make him a candidate to play receiver, perhaps return kickoffs and be a factor in any number of trick plays that could involve throwing the ball. But that type of role requires training and practice, neither of which the Vikings were able to devote while Webb took the No. 2 quarterback snaps during most of training camp. It's nice that they forced Ponder to earn that job, but I hope they didn't sacrifice a more dynamic role for Webb in the process. This is an offense that needs all the playmaking it can get.

Cliff Avril re-joins Lions

August, 4, 2011
8/04/11
1:30
PM ET
Many of you have been asking about the status of Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, who as of Wednesday hadn't signed his restricted free agent tender. That formality appears to have been taken care of, and Avril will be eligible to practice whenever the NFL's collective bargaining agreement is formally ratified.

There was no rush for Avril to sign because he wouldn't have been eligible to practice any sooner. Any team that wanted to sign him to an offer sheet would have been required to send the Lions a first-round draft pick to secure his services.

Avril tweeted Thursday that "I'm back at it... Feels good to be back in the lockerroom..."

I'll be interested to see how aggressively the Lions pursue a long-term contract with Avril, who has 19 sacks in his three seasons. Pass rushing is a valued commodity in the NFL, and we've seen this offseason what teams are willing to do for it.

The Carolina Panthers gave defensive end Charles Johnson, who has 21.5 sacks in four seasons, a six-year contract worth $72 million. It included $30 million in guarantees.

Avril would at least seem in line to receive what the Atlanta Falcons gave defensive end Ray Edwards: A five-year deal worth $30 million, including $11 million in guarantees.
The writing has been on the proverbial wall since February, when the Minnesota Vikings signed reserve defensive end Brian Robison to an eye-popping contract worth $14 million, of which $6.5 million was guaranteed.

[+] EnlargeBrian Robison
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireBrian Robison is now in line to take over for the departed Ray Edwards.
Backups don't generally receive that type of money. But if it wasn't before, it's now clear: The Vikings view Robison as the successor to free-agent left end Ray Edwards.

Edwards agreed to terms Friday with the Atlanta Falcons on a five-year contract that ESPN's Adam Schefter reports is worth $30 million, including $11 million guaranteed. To my knowledge, the Vikings never offered Edwards a long-term deal. And to be clear, he did not want to return after a series of events in February when the Vikings issued him a restricted free-agent tender but went ahead and gave Robison his lucrative deal.

So why did the Vikings choose Robison, with 13.5 career sacks, over Edwards, who had 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons? Coach Leslie Frazier has alluded to remaking a defensive line that had been aging, and the Vikings have now let Edwards walk and seem to have swapped nose tackle Pat Williams for free agent Remi Ayodele.

They are clearly confident about Robison's future, and I think they also have high hopes for second-year player Everson Griffen. And frankly, I think the Vikings drew a line at the amount of salary-cap space and cash they were willing to devote to one position. Between the two of them, defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams are scheduled to earn nearly $16 million in base salaries this season. Combined, they will count about $19 million toward the $120 million salary cap.

Edwards brought a consistent pass rush that isn't easily replaced. But in the end, I'm guessing the Vikings couldn't justify another big financial commitment to make up for whatever drop-off they might realize.

Recent Vikings posts: Receiver Michael Jenkins might be a fit for the Vikings. Ayodele could be the Vikings' new nose tackle. The best way to view the acquisition of McNabb is as (expensive) insurance for Ponder. Rice wanted a fresh start. The Vikings made the right call to bring back place-kicker Ryan Longwell. Receiver Percy Harvin plans to play at about 10 pounds lighter this season. Adrian Peterson was surprised to see Rice leave. The Vikings have a tough decision on Peterson's contract.

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.

Vikings back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Since the end of last season, the Minnesota Vikings have promoted Leslie Frazier from interim to permanent head coach, revamped their offensive staff and forged a new path at quarterback. The lockout hasn't just cost Frazier the chance to set a new tone in the locker room. He's also been unable to get his offense introduced, much less installed, and will enter training camp with a truly blank slate at quarterback. For those reasons, the lockout has hit the Vikings as hard as any team in the NFL. It will be a struggle to bring their offense online.

Biggest challenge: One way or the other, the Vikings must quickly identify and prepare a Week 1 starting quarterback. Rookie Christian Ponder received a playbook during the one-day lockout respite in April, but he has still missed valuable offseason prep work. Ponder is said to be smart, but starting as a rookie in Week 1 is difficult enough even with a full offseason. Should the Vikings seek a short-term answer in free agency? At the very least, they'll need a backup plan if Ponder needs more time.

Peterson decision looming? Tailback Adrian Peterson is entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $10.72 million in 2011. Will the Vikings allow him to play out the final year of the deal? Will they offer him an extension, if for no other reason than to lower his salary-cap number? Those questions were intentionally put off until after the lockout. Well, we're here. Peterson's future with the team hangs in the balance.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.
Over on FoxSports.com, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick recently posted a list of the top 10 presumed free-agent defensive linemen. It's worth noting that four of the top five played in the NFC North last season.

But I'm less interested in where Ray Edwards, Cullen Jenkins, Tommie Harris and Cliff Avril will play in 2011 than in who might be joining one of our teams. (All indications, by the way, are that Avril will be a restricted free agent and thus will return to the Lions.)

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mebane
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesBrandon Mebane has spent the first four seasons of his career with the Seahawks.
Billick's ninth-ranked defensive lineman almost certainly is of some interest to the Chicago Bears, who are expected to be $37 million below the salary cap when free agency opens. I'm not in the business of indiscriminately throwing names against the wall just to foster free-agent discussion, but I think you'll agree that there are more than a few reasons to tie the Bears to defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who played the first four years of his career with the Seattle Seahawks.

First, the Bears should be in the market for experienced defensive tackles after releasing Harris. They've already made some moves, drafting Stephen Paea in the second round and indicating that Henry Melton could shift from end to tackle. But veteran Anthony Adams is a pending free agent, and Mebane's career track suggests he would be an upgrade.

Most recently, Mebane made two tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the Bears' 35-24 victory over the Seahawks in the divisional playoffs. Scouts Inc. offers this take on his strength as a player: "He has enough power to hunker down and clog things up on the inside and can be extremely quick off the ball to penetrate and create problems in the backfield."

Second, connections are always important when trying to predict free-agent movement. Mebane has two critical associations with the Bears. The man that drafted him in Seattle, Tim Ruskell, is now the Bears' vice president of player personnel. And the Bears' new defensive line coach, Mike Phair, spent the past six seasons with the Seahawks.

As we've discussed several times, offensive line should be the Bears' top priority in free agency. But on a secondary level, it makes sense to keep an eye on whether they'll take the seemingly obvious step of pursuing a player who makes sense for their team.
Does Christian Ponder have the kind of team around him to succeed the way Mark Sanchez did with the Jets in his rookie year?

That was the question proposed to me. First off, I will define the "success" that Sanchez had during his rookie season as how far the Jets went into the playoffs, rather than how well the rookie signal-caller performed on the field -- which didn’t impress me.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Chuck Cook/US PresswireCan rookie quarterback Christian Ponder lead the Vikings to early success?
So, by those standards, I think the answer here is no. Of course, like every team in the NFL, free agency will have a major effect on the Vikings. They could lose exceptional players such as Ray Edwards and/or Sidney Rice. And they obviously will add some new faces during the process as well.

But still, I find it hard to believe that Minnesota ends up as a playoff team in 2011. I love Adrian Peterson. And if Rice is re-signed, the Vikings' skill position players could be very strong with a starting unit of Peterson, Rice, Percy Harvin (another player I love), Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph as the base personnel. You could do a lot worse than surrounding a first-round rookie quarterback with those five.

And, I am very high on Ponder and see him as the most pro-ready quarterback in the 2011 draft class. He is smart, athletic and comes from a more advanced offensive system than many of his fellow high draft pick quarterbacks. I expect Ponder to adjust quite quickly to the NFL, all things considered.

But where the argument in the Vikings' favor falls short is along the offensive line, on defense and with their divisional foes. Of those three factors at work, the defense is the thing that I feel best about for Minnesota to make a deep playoff run. But in reality, outside of Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Edwards (if he returns), I don’t see enough quality players or depth on this side of the ball for Minnesota to end up among the top half of the league defensively.

Minnesota’s offensive line, particularly the run blocking, is a huge worry for me. And that isn’t a good recipe for a rookie quarterback. I also think this line is going to prove to be very difficult to fix during just one free-agent period before the season starts. There isn’t one starter with whom I am really comfortable -- and that includes Steve Hutchinson -- nor is there much position versatility among the top linemen on this club.

But maybe the biggest hurdle for the Vikings in 2011 will be their divisional opponents. I don’t think I am alone in saying that Packers are the strongest team in all of football. The Bears, of course, were a final four team last season. Could the Bears take a step backwards? Sure. But I still think they have more going for them than Minnesota right now. And Detroit is building an amazing young nucleus of talent that looks ready to burst out.

So, as it stands during the first week of July, I see the Vikes as the fourth-place team in the NFC North.

BBAO: Back in the (tech) saddle

June, 29, 2011
6/29/11
6:50
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Thanks for your patience Tuesday as ESPN.com worked through some technical issues that left me unable to post to the blog for most of the afternoon and early evening. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

The outage forced me to cancel our SportsNation chat, but we did hold an impromptu 30-minute "chat" over on Facebook. That's where all the cool cats hang out, anyway.

Rather than dump a bunch of posts late Tuesday night, I decided to roll them out Wednesday. We'll get to my reaction to what is likely our final offseason Power Rankings effort and also a radio interview with Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins that you might find interesting.

But first, let's take our morning tour around the NFC North:
  • Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent time Tuesday at a youth football camp at William & Mary College in Virginia. He told Jim McGrath of the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily that succeeding Brett Favre "forced me to improve as a football player, but also as a person. I knew that the opportunity was going to come and I was going to have to make the most of it. People were going to be watching, and I knew that the way I prepared for that situation would go a long way in the locker room with those guys."
  • Packers receiver James Jones, a pending free agent, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "To be honest, I just approach it as, I'm just truly blessed that after the lockout, I'm going to be on somebody's team -- whether it's the Packers or any other team."
  • Details of proposed tweaks in the Minnesota Vikings stadium proposal have proved elusive, according to the Star Tribune.
  • It's possible that Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder will gather with teammates in the Twin Cities before training camp, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings defensive end Brian Robison on the status of teammate Ray Edwards, via Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "He deserves that payday, and at the same time, I feel like I deserve the right to start. I feel like I've fought every year for that right to start and haven't really got the shot that I deserve yet, and hopefully, now I'll get that shot and he'll go get his payday and we'll all be happy."
  • Detroit Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson participated Tuesday in a youth camp organized by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Mike Brundell of the Detroit Free Press has more.
  • Suh said he has talked to new teammate Nick Fairley on "numerous occasions," writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
  • Former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, whose season ended last year because of a concussion, is still weighing whether to play in 2011 or retire. Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com has more.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Dhani Jones is a journeyman NFL linebacker who is promoting a book. Why so many people are worked up about his opinion on the best players at his position is beyond me.

As you know by now, Jones did not include Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher among his top 10 and, in an interview with the NFL Network, asked when Urlacher had last gotten off a block. There is no doubt that Urlacher's best days are behind him, and that taking on offensive linemen isn't his strong suit, but I think anyone who watched the Bears last season know he played at a high level.

Jones' comments spurred a Hot Button debate from our friends at ESPNChicago.com. Jon Greenberg put Urlacher at No. 12 on his list. For what it's worth, ESPN.com ranked Urlacher No. 8 in its offseason positional Power Rankings.

Ultimately, I'm on board with Jeff Dickerson's take: "Here's the easiest way to sum up Brian Urlacher's importance at the linebacker position for the Chicago Bears: When he doesn't play, they lose. The Bears went 0-7 without Urlacher running the defense in 2004, and 7-9 in 2009 when a wrist injury sidelined the middle linebacker for roughly the entire season. The following seasons after those injuries, the Bears won the division (2005, '10), due in large part to the play of a healthy Urlacher."

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Former Bears running back Garrett Wolfe won't face felony charges as part of an arrest in Miami last month, according to Dickerson.
  • With the rules of free agency becoming more evident, Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com thinks it is very unlikely that left guard Daryn Colledge will return to the Green Bay Packers. Wilde takes a look at the Packers' free-agent class in the context of the expected rules.
  • Former Packers quarterback Lynn Dickey is still popular among older Packers fans, writes Jon Gast of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com: "Barring a surprise change, 17 players who finished last season on the Minnesota Vikings' 53-man roster or injured reserve would become unrestricted whenever the league year begins, with [Sidney] Rice and [Ray] Edwards the highest-profile."
  • The franchise tag that the Vikings put on linebacker Chad Greenway is expected to translate into the new agreement, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • Re-signed cornerback Chris Houston, who will be an unrestricted free agent, remains one of the Detroit Lions' top priorities. Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News has more.
  • Lions players believe they have a tight locker room, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
Some of you might have seen Adam Schefter's report on the expected state of NFL free agency when a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached, presumably next month. In short, it will return the games to pre-2010 rules that made players unrestricted free agents after four accrued seasons.

Most NFL players with expiring contracts already knew whether they would be unrestricted or restricted free agents whenever the 2011 market opened. But this nugget is important to a handful of young NFC North players who have at least four seasons but were concerned that a future agreement could permanently raise the bar for unrestricted free agency to six years.

So if the CBA is written as expected, the players below would join the unrestricted ranks and be eligible to sign with any team for no compensation.

Chicago Bears
Detroit Lions
Green Bay Packers
Minnesota Vikings

Had any of these players been restricted free agents, their movement would have required the new team to compensate their old team. Most would have had no choice but to return to their old teams. But players like Jones, Edwards and Rice would now have a much, much better chance of cashing in with a new team.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I hope everyone had an outstanding weekend and is ready for a full week of NFC North bloggage. I know I am.

We start this week with Dan Pompei's look at the career arc of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler this weekend in the Chicago Tribune. Pompei compared Cutler's career to 10 other established starting quarterbacks and found a few lessons to be learned.

Among them: Cutler's production matches up favorably, but his career winning percentage ranks last among the group in part because he's one of only two to change teams over his first five years. Pompei's conclusion: "The circumstances of Cutler's career make it difficult to judge him. We should find out if he has the fiber that made [Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben] Roethlisberger a champion in the coming seasons, assuming he continues to mesh with [offensive coordinator Mike] Martz and Bears receivers. Cutler has an excellent base to build on. If he has the will and stability around him, he still can become a premier quarterback."

Cutler's career certainly was sidetracked when he departed the Denver Broncos, a move he must share significant responsibility for. But he advanced to the playoffs for the first time in his career in 2010, and at age 28, it's too early to make any permanent career judgments.

Continuing around the NFC North:

BBAO: Packers top franchise rankings

June, 3, 2011
6/03/11
9:34
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Chicago Bears

CSNChicago.com's John Mullin continues his look at Bears history with an analysis of the franchise's best linebackers.

Larry Mayer reports that the Bears' coaches did not support -- or know about -- the brief filed last week by the NFL Coaches Association.

Detroit Lions

Coach Jim Schwartz sees the second coming of "Thunder and Lightning" in the duo of running backs Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.

Former Lions quarterback Eric Hipple told a forum that he's on a mission to combat head injuries.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers came in first in Adam Schein's ranking of NFL organizations.

The rosters have been set for Donald Driver's charity softball game, which is set for Sunday afternoon.

Minnesota Vikings

Arden Hills, Minn., mayor David Grant says he didn't see "any red flags for me" regarding the proposed Vikings stadium.

Defensive end Ray Edwards will follow up his boxing debut by taking on Larry Butler in a four-round bout on June 24.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

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