NFC North: Rhys Lloyd

Jason Hanson returns to Lions practice

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
2:55
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Let's update the still-unsettled state of the Detroit Lions' kicking game.

Place-kicker Jason Hanson tested out his injured left knee during practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday's workout. Hanson returned from the bye week with stitches in his left knee and still isn't certain whether he'll be able to kick Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

Hanson wouldn't reveal how he suffered the injury but it appears to have resulted from an accident during the Lions' bye. Asked about a report that it involved an ATV, Hanson told Detroit-area reporters: "I'm not even sure what classifies as an all-terrain vehicle, but I was not out riding a four-wheeler and goofing around when this happened. But I was with my kids, and all the other details of what happened, I don't feel like sharing."

The Lions worked out free agent place-kickers Shayne Graham and Rhys Lloyd, but as of Thursday afternoon hadn't signed either. Presumably, they'll test Hanson out Friday before and possibly wait until Saturday to decide whether he'll be available for Sunday's game.

Meanwhile, three punters -- Matt Dodge, Robert Malone and Glenn Pakulak -- worked out Thursday, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Current punter Ryan Donahue strained the quadriceps muscle in his kicking leg Wednesday while practicing as an emergency place-kicker. His status remains uncertain as well.
An odd Wednesday leaves us with no real need for an NFC North at night post. An update on the kicking game for Sunday's matchup at Soldier Field will suffice.

The Detroit Lions were the only division team that practiced Wednesday, and they wrapped it up with place-kicker Jason Hanson and punter Ryan Donahue both dealing with injury situations. That turn of events doesn't bode well when preparing for a game against Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears, but we should point out that the Bears acknowledged Hester wouldn't have practiced Wednesday because of an ankle injury.

Initial indications are that Hester should be ready for Sunday's game. The same can't be said of Hanson, who as we noted earlier, returned from the bye with stitches in his left knee. The Lions worked out two veteran place-kickers Wednesday, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: Shayne Graham and Rhys Lloyd.

And according to Birkett, Donahue injured his right quadriceps Wednesday and was due to undergo an MRI. The Lions had hoped to find out if Donahue could serve as an emergency replacement for Hanson if needed. I guess they got their answer.

Minnesota Vikings cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
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Check here for a full list of Minnesota's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: Veteran receiver Javon Walker had a difficult task: proving he was back to his playmaking self after three years of relative inactivity. Two touchdowns in two preseason games suggested he was on his way, but ultimately the Vikings weren't willing to risk a roster spot -- and, because he is a vested veteran, guarantee his base salary for the season. If nothing else, Walker seemed likely to make the team as a No. 5 receiver. But the move leaves the Vikings with four receivers on their 53-man roster. For me, it was also a minor surprise that the Vikings apparently will keep cornerback Cedric Griffin on the active roster, rather than place him on the physically unable to perform list. Griffin hasn't practiced since the end of last season because of a knee injury, but he must be close to returning. For now, he counts against their 53-man limit. Finally, the Vikings kept rookie Mickey Shuler among four tight ends. But that could be an attempt to pass him through waivers on a delayed basis for the purposes of getting him on the practice squad.

No-brainers: Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd didn't have a touchback until the fourth preseason game, and his roster spot was simply too valuable. The only reason to keep a kickoff specialist is if he consistently puts the ball into the end zone. Lloyd didn't do that, and give some credit to the Vikings for eating the $200,000 bonus they gave him this spring. No sense throwing good money after bad. Ryan Longwell isn't the NFL's leading kickoff man, but he is good enough to prevent the Vikings from forcing this issue.

What's next: You have to assume the Vikings will add a cornerback, either through waivers or via trade. Cutting DeAndre Wright and Marcus Sherels leaves the team with three healthy cornerbacks. It's almost mandatory that the Vikings find at least one more. Walker's departure makes you wonder if the Vikings have another receiver targeted, but it's also possible they will keep four until Sidney Rice returns at midseason. Finally, Friday's trade of Darius Reynaud to the New York Giants means the Vikings need to identify a punt returner.

Final arguments: Four on the bubble

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
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Preseason play mercifully will end Thursday night, opening what is really a five-day window for NFL teams to settle on their final 53-man rosters and practice squads. Some teams will begin making cuts as soon as Friday morning. Everyone must be down to 53 by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET, but waiver claims, trades and other player movement could continue as late as next Tuesday before Week 1 practices begin in earnest.

As we approach the NFL's flea market season, let's identify one player who seems most at risk on each NFC North team.

Chicago Bears

Player: Running back Garrett Wolfe
Comment: We've been waiting for Wolfe's speed to translate into regular playmaking for three years, and his time might now be up. Although he's been a good special-teams player in the past, Wolfe is on the wrong side of the Bears' Matt Forte-Chester Taylor tailback tandem. If the Bears keep a third running back, it could be second-year player Kahlil Bell.

Detroit Lions

Player: Offensive lineman Jon Jansen
Comment: Jansen started two games last season as an emergency fill-in and has spent the summer competing with Gosder Cherilus for the starting right tackle job. But if Cherilus wins the job, as expected, the Lions might choose a younger player such as Corey Hilliard as a backup.

Green Bay Packers

Player: Tight end Donald Lee
Comment: The Packers have five tight ends that probably should make the team: Jermichael Finley, Spencer Havner, Tom Crabtree, rookie Andrew Quarless and the veteran Lee. But that's a high number, and you wonder if Lee wouldn't be the odd man out. He's scheduled to make $2 million this season, all of which would be guaranteed if he's on the Week 1 roster. That's premium money for a part-time player.

Minnesota Vikings

Player: Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd
Comment: A kickoff specialist is a luxury reserved for only the biggest, most consistent boomers in the NFL. Lloyd, on the other hand, doesn't have a touchback this preseason and has been a big disappointment. It's possible the Vikings will give him time to straighten out, but their health-induced duress at other positions might make his roster spot too valuable.

BBAO: Getting right to it

August, 31, 2010
8/31/10
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

We've got a big day coming here on the NFC North blog, so let's get straight to our morning roundup:
  • Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith didn't agree Monday when a reporter referred to his defense's coverage as "soft," writes Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald looks at the struggles of the Bears' defense on third down this preseason.
  • Former NFL quarterbacks Joe Theismann and Rich Gannon aren't ready to panic about Jay Cutler' preseason performance, writes Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune on the Bears: "Where the Bears likely will end up is where they have been in recent years -- somewhere in that no-man's land between 7-9 and 9-7. Their record will depend on injuries, breaks and whether they can clean up some of these issues and develop some of their potential in other areas."
  • The Detroit Lions' depth at middle linebacker remains shaky, write Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • We discussed the likely discipline headed the way of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Lions coach Jim Schwartz, however, wondered if Cleveland Browns linebacker David Veikun should be disciplined for a low hit on quarterback Shaun Hill.
  • Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Barnett has missed twice the number of training camp practices this year as he missed from 2003-08 combined, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • The Packers are going to have to trim their total of eight running backs and tight ends before final cuts, notes the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Rookie defensive end Mike Neal is making an impression on the Packers, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Mark Craig of the Star Tribune: "To the highly untrained eye, Sage Rosenfels looks more accurate, more comfortable and more qualified than Tarvaris Jackson to stand next in line behind a 40-year-old quarterback with leaky pass protection that threatens the greatest streak of longevity in sports history."
  • Vikings kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd doesn't have a touchback this preseason, notes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin expects to get his starting job back when his injured knee is healed, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 3

MANKATO, Minn. -- The question typically follows The Question. After Minnesotans ask, "Is Favre going to play?" they almost always follow with this one: "How does the rest of the team look?"

In a sign of what has been a wild summer already, the former is much easier to answer than the latter. Quarterback Brett Favre still seems likely to re-join the team later this month, but his once-and-future teammates missed so many training camp practices that it was nearly impossible to gauge the state of the team. Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice missed all 24 practices because of a mysterious hip injury. Receiver Percy Harvin (funeral/migraines) missed 21, tailback Adrian Peterson (hamstring) sat out 16, center John Sullivan (leg) was significantly limited in 20 and right guard Anthony Herrera (back) missed seven.

In all, more than half of the Vikings' offensive starters missed a majority of training camp. It might prove a manageable total for a team that has returned nearly intact from the one that advanced to the NFC Championship Game, but the injuries and indecision conspired to make for some nervous days at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Coach Brad Childress did his best to weather what he termed a minor storm, but his skill for finding the bright side has surely been tested.

"People ask me if this is the most number of players that I can remember sitting out," Childress said. "No, it's not. I read the [news] clips. Philadelphia, they had 14 guys sitting out at one point. I guess [the media] is the one that has to determine whether it's the key guys or not. As the mother hen, I would like them here taking every turn and taking everything. The downside is they're not getting those turns. But the upside, and I have to look at the upside, is you have other players who are getting elevated reps."

Indeed, the Vikings will have the most well-trained junior varsity team in the NFC North. The state of their varsity team, however, remains unknown.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Brett Favre
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIt seems the Vikings are expecting Brett Favre to return this season.
1. To what extent did Favre's uncertainty impact the rest of the team's preparation? Most players experienced a similar drama last season, and it doesn't appear that many are fretting his ultimate decision or are distracted by the indecision. But that's largely because they all expect him to return, and it was telling when tight end Visanthe Shiancoe blurted that a surprise retirement "would be a blow to the team." Not coincidentally, a muzzled Shiancoe has hardly been heard from since.

Another respected veteran, cornerback Antoine Winfield, said: "We are all hopeful that he comes back. It would be nice to spend another season with him, but at this point we don't know. But either way, it's not going to make my job any easier or harder. I still have to go out there and perform and make as many plays as I can."

As far as on the field, history trumps intuition. It makes sense to suggest that an offense is behind for as long as its quarterback stays away. But Favre's remarkable mid-August adjustment last season makes it difficult to make that argument.

2. Have the Vikings done enough to fortify their secondary? Starting right cornerback Cedric Griffin is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and the Vikings have opened his job up to four players: Lito Sheppard, Asher Allen, Benny Sapp and rookie Chris Cook. Sheppard makes the most sense as a short-term starter, but Cook was impressive on every level in training camp.

Cook displayed sophisticated cover skills, enough speed to stay with most receivers and, at 6-foot-2, an imposing physical presence. Sheppard has held on to his first-team job, but it could be a matter of time before Cook displaces him.

Meanwhile, the Vikings have created a legitimate competition at strong safety between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford. If all things are equal, I'm guessing the Vikings will favor Johnson, a high second-round draft pick in 2008. But Sanford is a live wire, a strong hitter and won't go quietly.

Coaches believe Johnson has responded well to the challenge, but they want to see it translate into more plays -- big tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles -- during preseason games.

[+] EnlargePeterson
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAdrian Peterson has missed 16 training camp practices.
3. Is there a connection between Favre's indecision and the lengthy absences of Rice, Harvin and Peterson? I can't tell you how often I've heard that question in the past week or so. It comes down to whether players resent the double standard Favre has enjoyed since the end of last season, and if some of his most prominent teammates are passively protesting. All I can say is that no overt evidence exists to support that charge.

I agree that it seemed suspicious when the Vikings' three top skill players all came up with reasons to miss most of training camp. Conspiracy theories are great, but in the end that's all they are -- theories. The most important fact is there is every reason to believe all three players will be ready to play when the regular season begins.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

When middle linebacker E.J. Henderson first fractured his left femur last December, initial reports suggested he would need a year to recover. That timetable suggested that Henderson wouldn't return to the field, if at all, before the 2011 season. Given his age (30) and history of significant injuries, you wondered if his career was over. But Henderson has cut his recovery time in half and appears on his way to re-claiming the starting job in time for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans. By the second week of camp, Henderson was taking all of the first-team repetitions while his understudy, Jasper Brinkley, was pushed back to the second team. Considering the titanium rod that holds Henderson's leg in place, such a quick return would be nothing short of a miracle.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Ever since the Vikings made him a second-round draft pick in April, Toby Gerhart has figured as the heir to Chester Taylor's vacated role as the No. 2 tailback. But when the Vikings broke camp Thursday, Albert Young was clearly ahead of Gerhart on the depth chart. There is plenty of time for that order to change, but however you look at it, Gerhart had a tough camp. He somehow incurred the wrath of a number of defensive veterans; nose tackle Pat Williams and defensive end Ray Edwards both took their shots at him during practice. Perhaps it was just a visible portion of the NFL toughening process, but there's no doubt Gerhart has some climbing to do before the season begins.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarvaris Jackson
    Icon SMITarvaris Jackson played only a handful of snaps in 2009 but would be the starter if Favre retires.
    There is no doubt that Tarvaris Jackson, and not Sage Rosenfels, is the No. 2 quarterback and will be the starter if Favre ultimately decides not to play. Jackson has developed a realistic mentality after living through various incarnations of FavreWatch the past three years, and as he does every summer, he threw some tantalizing passes during individual camp drills. But there is a big difference between unleashing 60-yard ropes in practice and playing quarterback at an NFL level during games, and Jackson remains somewhere in the middle.
  • Rosenfels reportedly struggled during the early stages of camp, but he looked decent during the three days I watched practice. I once thought Rosenfels would be traded or released if Favre returned, but now I'm not so sure. To this point, there is no way the Vikings could choose rookie Joe Webb over Rosenfels for the No. 3 job -- and keep a straight face. Frankly, Webb flashed some athletic skills but otherwise looked overwhelmed during camp. There is no way he is ready to be on an NFL roster. One option: Keep two quarterbacks on the active roster and put Webb on the practice squad.
  • Although the Vikings are splitting kicking duties between Ryan Longwell and Rhys Lloyd in the preseason opener at St. Louis, it's hard to believe Longwell won't be the team's place-kicker this year. Lloyd will be a high-priced kickoff specialist. But in explaining the initial split, special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said: "There is no preconceived notion about how this roster will develop. We want to see everyone compete at their highest level. We want to see them put in every position possible. If we get that at every position, we will be a better football team."
  • Of all the veterans who missed significant camp time, Sullivan's absence might have been the most significant. He struggled at times during his first year as a starter and needed every practice repetition he could get. It's especially important to see if Sullivan has improved his core strength to stand up to NFL nose tackles.
  • After noting the Vikings' long list of camp absences, it's only fair to note that two of their biggest -- and older -- players participated in every practice. Pat Williams, 37, and left tackle Bryant McKinnie, 30, were on the field every day.
  • It appears as though Winfield has made it all the way back from a foot injury that made him a part-time player in 2009. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admitted the team wasn't certain that would be the case when camp began, but Winfield experienced no setbacks after an offseason of rest and rehabilitation.
  • Childress has used a John Wooden maxim as one of his primary messages of training camp. "It's in all of their manuals and I'm talking to them about it," Childress said. "It's this: 'The main ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team.' It's a great statement. We'll find out how much guys can put their stuff away for the greater good."

Vikings camp Day 3: A steambath

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Mother Nature saved its steamiest effort for our final day at Minnesota State University, Mankato. It was 90 degrees with a heat index approaching 100 for the Minnesota Vikings' 75-minute afternoon practice. A few notes and thoughts before we return to NFC North blog headquarters:
  • Harvin
    Harvin
    Coach Brad Childress said he was in contact Wednesday morning with receiver Percy Harvin, but it appears Harvin won't re-join the team until next Monday at the earliest. The Vikings' final training camp practice is Thursday morning and they depart Friday for their preseason opener at St. Louis. Harvin has missed all but two practices of camp because of his grandmother's death and migraine headaches. "It doesn't make any sense [to return this week] because I don't have a magic beamer or anything like that for the migraines," Childress said. "So I think that the path that he's taking right now is the path that he needs to be taking."
  • Tailback Adrian Peterson (hamstring) participated in the morning session but sat out the afternoon practice, and it's unclear if he'll play Saturday against the Rams. It's also hard to imagine that center John Sullivan, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe or receiver Sidney Rice will play, either.
  • Wednesday brought a somewhat surprising admission from special teams coordinator Brian Murphy: The team has decided to rotate preseason halves between place-kicker Ryan Longwell and kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Saturday, Longwell will handle all placekicks and kickoffs in the first half; Lloyd will handle all of the duties in the second half. I still don't think there is a true competition here, but Murphy said: "This is the time when you find out who has got what in their bag. That's not a reflection of anybody. That's just this time of year. You want to see where everyone is at. You want to see everyone at their best. We'll figure it out from there."
  • Wednesday was the first day of reserve safety Husain Abdullah's annual observance of Ramadan, during which he neither eats nor drinks between dawn and dusk. Working with a nutritionist, Abdullah has a plan to eat a big breakfast at 5 a.m., a big dinner and then a protein shake at 2 a.m. "Everything is going fine," Abdullah said Wednesday. "I've been doing this since I was seven years old."
  • Left guard Anthony Herrera returned after sitting out four practices, leaving Sullivan as the only member of the starting offensive line on the sidelines. Sullivan has missed most of training camp because of a calf injury.
  • In the morning session, rookie cornerback Chris Cook made another play on a deep ball, catching up to receiver Bernard Berrian on the right sideline and helping knock away a pass from Tarvaris Jackson.
  • And that's a wrap from Mankato. Our formal Vikings Camp Confidential will post Saturday. Today also marks the end of our 2010 training camp tour. We spent three days in each NFC North camp over the past two weeks, and I'll have a handy-dandy review at some point Thursday. Until then....

Vikings camp Day 2: Storms roll in

August, 10, 2010
8/10/10
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Some thoughts and observations after one of the wackiest weather days I've ever seen at an NFL training camp:
  • The Vikings had to work awfully, awfully hard to push through their final full-pads practice of camp. It was originally scheduled to start at 10 a.m. ET, but lightning forced them off the outdoor fields at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Coach Brad Childress then flipped his intended schedule, devoting the rest of the morning session to an indoors special teams practice and then restarting the full-pads practice at 3:45 p.m. ET. Clouds rolled in about midway through that session, darkening the skies to near-night conditions, before passing over. Between the two sessions, the Vikings got about two hours' worth of full-pads practice in.
  • Tailback Adrian Peterson participated in a "live" tackling drill for the first time in camp. He had been limited by a strained hamstring and pulled up late in the practice after a run down the sideline. It's not clear if Peterson was re-injured, but he did not return to practice.
  • Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, working to make his way back from a fractured femur, made a nice stop of Peterson at the line of scrimmage during a short-yardage drill.
  • Quiz time: Who is the Vikings' backup long snapper? Check the end of this post for the answer.
  • Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd handled field goals during the early portion of practice, converting five of six attempts, including a long of 50 yards. To respond to a number of questions on this topic, I have no evidence of a place-kicking competition here. Lloyd isn't going to beat out Ryan Longwell when it comes to field goals. He is here for kickoffs only.
  • The Vikings released an unofficial depth chart before practice. It listed Asher Allen as the starting right cornerback. But during team drills Tuesday, Lito Sheppard worked as the right cornerback with the first team.
  • Defensive end Jared Allen handled long snapping Tuesday while Cullen Loeffler attended to a family issue. Allen was drafted primarily as a long-snapper out of Idaho in 2004.
Daggone it. I got too cute for my own good at the end of Monday morning's daily mailbag post. In looking for a way to reference last year's receiver brouhaha, I whiffed on arguably the most notable veteran in the entire division whose job could be in jeopardy.

As rovibe71 was quick to point out in the comment section, it's Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels. You have the floor, rovibe71:
Seifert, you missed the obvious one in Minnesota -- Sage Rosenfels! Easy money. Take it to the bank. (My bank, please). Joe Webb will take Rosenfels' roster spot, and not because I buy the local hype that Webb is going to do anything anytime soon, but because Sage is overpaid for a 3rd stringer who couldn't beat out Tarvaris Jackson, and is now giving up reps to Webb in the recent minicamp. He's gone! Of course, that is all contingent on [Brett] Favre's return.

Agreed on every point. For reasons that are difficult to understand, Rosenfels has appeared a marked man ever since the Vikings acquired him from Houston last season and gave him a two-year, $9 million contract extension. The saga opens itself to all kinds of Machiavellian speculation, but as of now it's nothing but connecting the dots between a personnel director (Rick Spielman) who has traded for Rosenfels twice in his career and a coach (Brad Childress) who has always backed project Tarvaris Jackson.

Joe Webb mania is totally out of control these days. But regardless, it's hard to imagine the Vikings paying Rosenfels nearly $5 million -- almost three times more than Jackson -- to be the No. 3 quarterback again this season. I wonder if the Vikings will even keep a third quarterback this year; the decision to sign kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd means they'll have to cut another position somewhere. Barring Favre's retirement or an injury to Jackson, I think rovibe71 is making a pretty sure bet.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The final two days of the Minnesota Vikings' veteran minicamp were most notable for the apparent phase-out of backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels, as detailed by the Star Tribune and 1500ESPN.com.

Rosenfels unofficially received six snaps in team drills during a pair of practices Saturday and none on Sunday. Tarvaris Jackson worked with the first team and rookie Joe Webb, a sixth-round draft pick the Vikings originally planned to convert to receiver, worked mostly with the second team.

Coach Brad Childress said he was "just rotating him around a little bit" and suggested not to "make anything of that other than we were trying to expose" the rest of the depth chart to maximum snaps.

Rosenfels, however, declined to comment both Saturday and Sunday. We wondered about Rosenfels' future when the Vikings first decided to keep Webb at quarterback. It's now reasonable to wonder if they aren't tempted to keep Jackson as the backup to Brett Favre and then groom Webb -- or another young quarterback -- as their No. 3.

Another possibility is keeping only two quarterbacks on the active roster. That's an option they'll need to consider after deciding to use a roster spot on kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd.

A lot could change between now and September. But it's rare to keep a 32-year-old quarterback as a No. 3. And it's long been obvious that Childress prefers Jackson over Rosenfels. I'm not sure what Rosenfels' trade value is, but it's not out of the question that he will be elsewhere when the 2010 season begins.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Jackson said he has "grown the most this year over the first couple years," according to Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley is planning to participate in an elite receiver's camp run by the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The camp typically takes place in late summer at the University of Minnesota.
  • Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas: "It's no surprise if we come out and get eight wins -- I won't be surprised at all. We know we can do it." More from Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit News.
  • Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh also has a 2010 expectation, if not prediction, according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News: "My expectations are the playoffs at the least, and I don't see why we can't get that."
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune: "If what we have seen so far is a reliable indication, Matt Forte might improve the Bears as much as Mike Martz, Julius Peppers or Brian Urlacher."
We're Black and Blue All Over:

It appears the Chicago Bears' defense is continuing to outperform their offense during organized team activities. ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson's most recent OTA report notes a rash of interceptions and broken-up passes during a 7-on-7 red zone drill.

Dickerson also reports it was a "rough afternoon" for backup quarterback Caleb Hanie.

It's always difficult to keep score during non-contact practices, some of which coaches intentionally rig to favor one side. But frankly, the Bears' once-proud defense needed a confidence boost after last season. If some big plays during OTAs can boost spirits and unity this spring, the Bears will have taken an important step prior to the start of training camp.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • It appears the Bears have removed veteran Kevin Shaffer from the mix at left guard, reports Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, and have left Lance Louis and Johan Asiata to battle for the position.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald on Matt Forte's reaction to the acquisition of veteran Chester Taylor: "He is neither put off by the competition nor surprised that Taylor was brought in."
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on Packers rookie safety Morgan Burnett: "Though he's still learning the Packers' version of the 3-4 defense, his instincts have already come through in his play. In all three of the OTA practices that have been open to the media, Burnett has made at least one big play."
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com provides the lowdown on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' burgeoning career as a media critic.
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com on Detroit Lions backup quarterback Shaun Hill: "The only problem with Hill is that he's only got one year left on his contract so he'll likely be moving on in 2011. That means the Lions will be looking for another player just like him and that's going to be very difficult to find."
  • The Lions are using a six-foot tire during OTAs. Find out why in this report from Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon spoke with Minnesota Vikings rookies on Wednesday, according to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com.
  • Soccer is the first love of Vikings kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.

Icing the kicker in Minnesota

June, 3, 2010
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In an extensive interview Wednesday with Twin Cities reporters -- detailed by the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and 1500ESPN.com -- Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Ryan Longwell made clear he was surprised and disappointed when the team signed kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Longwell said he considers himself "at the peak of what I've done," questioned the connection between long kickoffs and victories and said he has often used kickoffs to test wind conditions for late-game field goals.

Ryan Longwell
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireRyan Longwell had the second-lowest gross average on kickoffs in the league last season.
"Certainly, I've never seen a touchback win a game at the end," Longwell said.

As a group, the Vikings' kickoff team made substantial improvements last season. So what happened here? Longwell, 35, had the most accurate season of his career in 2009 while handling both jobs. If you didn't know any better, you would think that the Vikings -- hamstrung by the Final Eight rule and carrying a mostly established roster -- could find nothing better to do this winter than mess around with the kicker.

I can't rule out that explanation; layers of personnel staffers can sometimes overthink ways to improve a team. But thanks to our friends at Football Outsiders, I think we can come up with a pretty reasonable explanation for why the Vikings took a shot at Longwell's professional pride to bring in Lloyd.

Among the special-teams statistics tracked by Football Outsiders is "gross value" of kickoffs. It measures where a kickoff lands relative to the NFL average. Return yardage isn't included. The comprehensive list will be available in Football Outsiders' annual almanac, due out July 6, but president Aaron Schatz advised me that Longwell had the NFL's second-lowest gross value on his kickoffs last season. Lloyd, on the other hand, had the league's second-highest gross average while handling kickoffs for the Carolina Panthers.

Longwell would point out the Vikings' shift to a directional kickoff style last season, one that emphasizes placement over distance. But generally speaking, I think most teams would prefer longer kickoffs over accurate placement.

The question comes down to whether Lloyd's expected increase in distance is worth the potential impact it could have on Longwell's field goal accuracy. There should be none, and I don't think there will be any. Longwell is a pro and isn't likely to allow hurt feelings to cloud his performance.

But I'm also reminded of the common concern in baseball: That a slugger will have trouble shifting from a full-time position player to designated hitter. In sports, unintended consequences are always possible.

So what to do with this? We're already planning to track the Chicago Bears' short-range pass defense and the Detroit Lions' downfield pass defense. So why not add Minnesota's kickoffs to the list, tying it in with Longwell's field goal accuracy? OK, it's a deal.
Jake, Aaron and others notified the mailbag soon after Tuesday's SportsNation chat, and it's important to note both were correct: Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd was not classified as an "unrestricted" free agent when Minnesota signed him Monday, meaning that as of today, the Vikings have two slots to sign a free agent who does fall under that category under the NFL's Final Eight rule.

Lloyd, in fact, was a restricted free agent that Carolina chose not to offer a tender. That made him available to sign with any team but left him out of the "unrestricted" classification. The Vikings can sign two unrestricted free agents with contracts comparable to the ones signed by running back Chester Taylor (Chicago) and offensive lineman Artis Hicks (Washington).

I misstated his status during our chat. As always, thanks to those of you who straightened me out.
Monday's activity concluded late in the evening when Minnesota signed kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd to a two-year contract, according to Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.

Lloyd said Vikings coaches told him they hope he can one day be their full-time kicker, but that in 2010 they would retain veteran Ryan Longwell -- who was the NFL's fourth-most accurate kicker in 2009. Longwell managed only five touchbacks on kickoffs last season, creating the need for a specialist like Lloyd.

The Vikings also have mild interest in running back LaDainian Tomlinson, the Star Tribune reported, but there is nothing imminent on that front. They will need to identify a primary backup to Adrian Peterson after losing free-agent tailback Chester Taylor to Chicago.

Continuing around the NFC North:

News emerged over the weekend that Minnesota's first free-agent visit would come from none other than ... a kickoff specialist.

That's right. Rhys Lloyd, formerly of Baltimore and Carolina, is scheduled to arrive Monday at Minnesota's facility. Why? From this angle, it appears the Vikings are acknowledging they have an extraordinarily accurate and reliable field goal kicker who lost a bit off his kickoff fastball last season.

Ryan Longwell converted 92.8 percent of his field goal attempts last season (26-of-28) but managed only five touchbacks on kickoffs. Opponents started their average drive at the 27.5 yard line, ranking the Vikings' kickoff team No. 23 in the NFL.

I'm not sure if the Vikings are committed to carrying a kickoff specialist on their roster next season, but it appears they're at least considering taking part of the load off Longwell, who turns 36 in August.

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