NFC North: Rob Gronkowski

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Clay Matthews wants his shot. So does Micah Hyde.

Both almost certainly will get the chance on Sunday against the New England Patriots.

But there's nothing on film to suggest that either of those Green Bay Packers' defensive players will be able to shut down – or even slow down – tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Whether it's a linebacker such as Matthews or a slot cover guy like Hyde – or even a safety or a cornerback – it does not seem to matter. Oh, the Packers will surely try some of all of those combinations, but ...

[+] EnlargeGronkowski
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesPatriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for any team, and keeping him in check is much easier said than done.
"I don't know that a lot of people have had great success covering him," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. "He can go vertical. He's a big guy. He's got a big wing span. You've seen him catch a ball thrown behind him and pull it in. He likes the physical part of the game. He's going to challenge you in terms of tackling. If you go up on his upper body, the guy's big and strong. Tacklers bounce off of him.

"You've got to have a plan to try to get the second and third guy there. He obviously gives them a matchup issue. And then Tom Brady's always aware of who's matched up on him."

After a slow start during which he was working his way back into form following ACL surgery, no tight end in the league has been more productive than Gronkowski. Since Week 5, he has 45 catches for 665 yards and six touchdowns. That's nine more catches and 200 more yards than any other tight end during that span, which encompasses the Patriots' current seven-game winning streak.

None of the Packers' three position coaches – Winston Moss (linebackers), Darren Perry (safeties) and Joe Whitt (cornerbacks) – whose players could conceivably be used in coverage against the Patriots' 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end -- could identify one type of player who has had the most success defending Gronkowski this season.

Said Moss: "It requires a mindset to where the entire defense has to be ready to handle their assignments."

Said Perry: "No, this guy just makes plays. It seems to not even matter who's covering him. He's going to find a way to make plays and we've just got to hopefully slow him down a little bit. He's a great player."

Said Whitt: "He's very hard on little guys because little guys can't bring him down. He's very hard on big guys because he can separate from them. So he's a dynamic player, and he plays with a great play speed and effort."

That sounds like what defenders used to say about former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

"I think you could say that," Whitt said. "He's a matchup issue; he really is."

So who will it be on Gronkowski?

Maybe Matthews.

"There could potentially be some opportunities in the game where I'm matched up against him," Matthews said this week. "Yeah, we'll see. Obviously, I enjoy those opportunities to kind of showcase my talents, especially at something that is not my normal pass rushing."

Perhaps Hyde.

"I didn't go to the coach and say, 'I want him,' but at the same time I think it will be fun," Hyde said. "Whoever is lined up against him, I have confidence in any one of our guys that lines up against him, and it's going to be a good opportunity."

And don't forget about outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who has dropped into coverage more this year than in perhaps his first 12 NFL seasons combined. He has a pair of interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, to show for it.

"I've had a little success with it this year," Peppers said. "It's something that I wanted to do, and I've been able to do it since I've been here."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The bigger the game, the more the little things matter.

That's how Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is approaching the preparation for Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (9-2) at Lambeau Field.

Brady
"Well, you have to be sharp," Capers said Monday. "There's not a lot of margin for error when you're going against a quarterback that's done it for as long as he's done it with the level of efficiency he's done it with. There's not many things he hasn't seen."

For a good portion of Monday's group session with reporters, Capers used words like "sharp" and phrases such as being "on top of your game" when talking about the Patriots.

When asked later what he meant by those, Capers pointed to three instances from Sunday's 24-21 win at the Minnesota Vikings that, if repeated against the Patriots, could prove more costly.

They were:
  • On a fourth-and-5 play in the second quarter, Morgan Burnett's interception was wiped out because of a holding penalty on Micah Hyde. The Vikings scored their first touchdown on that drive.
  • On a third-and-6 play in the second quarter, Hyde had a chance to tackle running back Joe Banyard short of the line to gain but instead Banyard carried him for 3 extra yards and a first down. (Hyde made up for it with an interception on the next play.)
  • On a third-and-4 play in the fourth quarter, outside linebacker Mike Neal was flagged for a neutral-zone infraction, which gave the Vikings a first down and led to the touchdown that pulled them to within three points with 3:23 left in the game.

"Those are the kind of things that in a game like this, these guys are efficient enough, you can't give them any advantage with, say, penalty-aided drives." Capers said. "Both of the [Vikings'] touchdown drives yesterday were penalty-aided."

The Vikings did not have the experienced quarterback or the playmakers to make Capers' defense pay for its mistakes.

The Patriots (9-3) do with Brady and his supporting cast of tight end Rob Gronkowski -- a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties alike -- receiver Julian Edelman and whichever running back they decide to use on a particular week. Two games ago, it was Jonas Gray, who rushed for 201 yards. The last game, it was the recently re-signed LeGarrette Blount, who had two touchdowns in his return to New England.

"We certainly have probably the biggest challenge coming in here Sunday," Capers said. "We've got to go back to work and make sure we're on top of our game and we're ready to go out and play our best, because that's what it's going to take to win a game like this."

When it was posed to coach Mike McCarthy on Monday that the Packers (8-3) would need to be sharp against Brady and Co., he replied: "So you're saying we're not sharp?"

Then how about extra sharp?

"OK, well extra sharp will be the focus," McCarthy said. "You gave me my theme for the week, I guess, there."

And then his tone turned more serious.

"New England is a great football team," McCarthy said. "Just the way they're hitting their stride right now, just watching the video this morning, very impressive. We'll stay in tune with that. We're not going to make a bunch of changes. We like the football team that we are, and we look forward to the competition."
There's another potential suitor for tight end Jermichael Finley, but it's with the same caveat as there is with the Green Bay Packers.

Bush
Finley
Everything hinges on Finley's surgically repaired neck.

The free-agent tight end visited the New England Patriots last Friday, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. The trip to Foxborough came less than a week after Finley was in Green Bay to check in with the Packers' team doctors.

Finley has reportedly been cleared by the doctor who performed his neck fusion surgery, Dr. Joseph Maroon. But the Packers' doctors did not put Finley through the full battery of tests that would need to be done in order to clear him to return to the team.

Last week, Packers tight end Brandon Bostick, one of Finley's closest former teammates, said he believes Finley will play in the NFL again but was not sure whether it would be in Green Bay.

Finley bruised his spinal cord -- an injury that left him briefly without movement and feeling -- after taking a hit in the Oct. 20 game against the Cleveland Browns. He has not played since. Less than a month later, he had his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae fused together.

He was in the final season of a two-year, $14 million contract when he was injured. As an unrestricted free agent, he is allowed to visit and be examined by any team.

The Patriots' interest in Finley makes sense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off ACL reconstruction. The other tight ends on their roster are former Packers draft pick D.J. Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson.
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson Getty ImagesGreen Bay Packers receivers Randall Cobb (18) and Jordy Nelson are both in line for raises as they enter the final season of their current contracts.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At some point in the next 11 months -- likely sooner rather than later -- the Green Bay Packers will extend the contracts of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Between now and when they scribble their names on their new deals there will be much discussion about each player's value.

Myriad factors come in to play during contract negotiations, but the most important ones are production, injury history (which is usually tied to production) and age (which can be tied to injury history).

Another factor you might hear thrown around when it comes to Cobb and Nelson is the unscientific term "No. 1 receiver" -- as in should either one or both be paid like one?

In an ESPN Insider piece, former NFL scout Matt Williamson helped define exactly what that term means .

He came up with four characteristics:

  • They need to have the ability to separate from man coverage, understand how to find the soft spots in zones and have very strong athletic traits.
  • They need to be strong, fast and play big, which often -- but not always -- can eliminate shorter wide receivers from this equation.
  • They must be productive, even when opposing defenses are scheming to take them out of the equation; No. 1 receivers can be uncoverable and never come off the field.
  • They must display the above traits with consistency.

What was perhaps most interesting about Williamson's list is that he came up with only 14 players in the NFL who fit his criteria.

"The term 'No. 1 receiver' is often thrown around loosely, but to me, there certainly are not 32 No. 1 receivers in the league just because every team has a favorite target," Williamson wrote.

Also, Williamson had two tight ends -- New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham -- among his 14.

Among his 12 receivers, only four were among the NFL's top-10 highest-paid receivers (see the accompanying chart). They were: Detroit's Calvin Johnson (No. 1), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (No. 2), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (No. 6) and Houston's Andre Johnson (No. 8).

However, six of the 12 are still playing under their rookie contracts and will be in line for significant raises on their next deal.

Back to the cases for whether Cobb and Nelson belong in that same category as they enter the final season of their current contracts.

According to Williamson, one of them should be considered a No. 1 receiver and the other is close. Also, it's possible for one team to have two No. 1 receivers, Williamson wrote, as is the case with the Bears (Marshall and Alshon Jeffery).

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson cracked the list at No. 13 under the heading "Just ask their quarterbacks if they are No. 1 receivers." Williamson also put San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in that same category.

"With great size for the position, he is often mistaken for a possession weapon, however only three receivers converted more receptions of 20 or more yards last year, Williamson wrote of Nelson. "His deep speed and big-play ability is vastly underrated, but Nelson also is Aaron Rodgers' go-to target when Rodgers needs a first down and has always proven to be reliable.

"Nelson had his best season in 2013, accumulating over 1,300 receiving yards, and bear in mind that he was playing without Rodgers for much of that time. He isn't a product of the system or his surroundings and would be great in any environment."

Nelson's next contract will be his third. Midway through the 2011 season, he signed a three-year extension that averaged $4.2 million per season. That average ranks 32nd among all NFL receivers in 2014.

Williamson ranked Cobb among 11 players who he termed as "close but not quite" No. 1 receivers.

Cobb, who like Nelson was a second-round pick, is entering the final season of his rookie contract. Two factors likely kept Cobb out of Williamson’s top 14: his size (5-10, 192) and that he missed 10 games last season because of a fractured tibia.

But in 2012, Cobb caught 80 passes despite missing one game, and there is room for growth. He is entering his fourth season but won't turn 24 years old until late in training camp this summer, making him more than 5 years younger than Nelson, who turns 29 in May.
INDIANAPOLIS -- One by one, the top tight ends in this year’s NFL draft rolled through Lucas Oil Stadium as part of Thursday’s interview session at the scouting combine.

There was Eric Ebron of North Carolina, Jace Amaro of Texas Tech, Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington, Troy Niklas of Notre Dame, C.J. Fiedorowicz of Iowa and on and on.

Most, if not all, were asked which NFL tight end they admired, emulated or resembled.

For some, like Ebron, it was San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCarolina likely would have to trade up in the first round of the NFL draft to have a shot at selecting Eric Ebron.
For others, like Amaro and Fiedorowicz, it was the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski.

For Seferian-Jenkins, it was the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the Denver Broncos’ Julius Thomas, who like him had a background in basketball.

Not one of them, however, mentioned Jermichael Finley.

Yet if the Green Bay Packers don’t bring back their starting tight end, which is a likely course of action given his neck injury and his expiring contract, one of those players could become the next Finley.

Most of the top tight end prospects said Thursday that they had either visited with the Packers or planned to talk with team representatives this week at the combine.

So too will Blake Baratz, the agent who represents Finley, but the Packers may have already decided that Finley’s neck fusion surgery was too much of a risk to bring him back. If that’s their plan, then there are plenty of viable options in this draft, which features playmaking tight ends of all sizes.

It starts with the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ebron, who likely will be the first tight end taken in the draft and could be gone before the Packers pick at No. 21.

“I’m very fast; I’m very different,” said Ebron, who along with the other tight ends will do their on-field testing this weekend. “I play the tight end role like no one else.”

In some ways, he plays it like Finley, whose physical presence is similar to Ebron’s.

Amaro (6-5, 255) is as much receiver as he is tight end. Most of last season, when he caught 106 passes for 1,352 yards (the NCAA record for a tight end), he played standing up away from the line of scrimmage.

“That’s why I’m so unique,” Amaro said. “It’s kind of a revolution into the game and how the tight ends are coming in across the board. I like to see myself as both a tight end and a receiver.”

But can he block?

That’s not an issue with Fiedorowicz (6-5, 265), who was more of a blocking tight end in Iowa’s run-heavy offense.

“A lot of tight ends in the NFL are either blocking tight ends or receiving tight ends,” Fiedorowicz said. “I like watching Rob Gronkowski. He can dominate both the line of scrimmage and down the field.”

Seferian-Jenkins (6-5, 262) said he was asked to do both last season at Washington, where he played basketball as a freshman.

“At the tight end position, you’ve got a lot of great players [in this draft],” he said. “But what I think I do is if you watched me play, I split out and played receiver. I’ve done fullback. I’ve played in line. I think I’ve showed I’m very capable of being a playmaker down the seam and run regular routes as a receiver, and I’ve shown the capability of being a blocker.”

Niklas (6-6 , 270) might be the biggest bruiser of this bunch. He began his college career as an outside linebacker.

“I can block, and I enjoy blocking,” Niklas said. “I think it’s something I can use to my advantage.”

Further down the tight end pecking order is Jacob Pedersen of Wisconsin. He grew up just north of Green Bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s a late-round prospect who would love the chance to be the Packers' next tight end.

“Growing up 45 minutes away from Green Bay, obviously it’d be a childhood dream to play for your home team,” said Pedersen, one of six Badgers invited to the combine. “But I’m just hoping to get drafted by a team. Whoever takes me, they’re going to get my best effort.”

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

December, 3, 2012
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After the Minnesota Vikings' 23-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
  1. Would you believe that Adrian Peterson already has produced his second-highest yardage total for an entire season in his career? That's right. Peterson's 210-yard performance Sunday puts him at 1,446 yards through 12 games. That pushed him past his season total of 1,383 yards in 2009 and left him behind the 1,760 yards he gained in 2008. Sunday, he gained 117 yards after contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's the most of any running back in the NFL this season, and quite frankly Peterson is running better than he has at any point in his NFL career. What's sad is that he was genuinely kicking himself afterward for not scoring on a 48-yard run in the third quarter, a play that put the Vikings in scoring position but did not lead to points because of a Christian Ponder interception. There have only been eight games in NFL history when a team has squandered a 200-yard game by a running back, and Sunday was one of them.
  2. There were no visible cracks in the Vikings' support for Ponder, not from coach Leslie Frazier or any of a number of players who spoke confidently about his promise. But we should note that Ponder is on the brink of putting the Vikings in a near-impossible situation this offseason. His play has been competent at some points this season, enough so to conjure a future vision of a smart, efficient quarterback who finds non-flashy ways to win. But he produced too many clunkers, games that are below standard for any NFL quarterback, to feel confident about him. Sunday, with a running back gashing the opposing defense for 210 yards, he still couldn't complete a pass between the 12:18 mark of the second quarter and the 3:32 mark in the fourth quarter. So unless Ponder finishes the season with four really efficient starts, the Vikings will be in the unenviable position of risking their 2013 season on an unproven third-year quarterback. Otherwise, they could either give up and start over or hedge their bet with a mid-level addition such as Alex Smith. None of those answers sound great to me.
  3. After a midseason disappearing act, tight end Kyle Rudolph has re-emerged as the threat we thought he would be when the season began. He has caught touchdown passes in three consecutive games, hauling in a total of 18 passes over that stretch, and had a chance at another score on a bootleg pass Sunday if Ponder had delivered the ball more crisply and accurately. He now has 45 receptions on the season and his eight touchdowns trails only Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots among NFL tight ends. An offense with a big tight end and a powerful running back can go places, if of course the quarterback does his part.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
We noted Sunday that Packers emergency right tackle Don Barclay did a nice job filling in for the injured T.J. Lang. But Barclay was the first to acknowledge his surprise that the Vikings didn't try more stunts and other games to confuse him. Defensive end Brian Robison crashed inside a few times when Barclay first entered the game in the second quarter, but by his count, the Vikings only tried one more stunt against him. "The whole second half," Barclay said, "they didn't move much." Obviously a lot goes into those kinds of defensive calls, and maybe they thought Robison should fare well by conventional means. But from the outside it sure appears the Vikings missed a chance to at least find out if they could exploit a backup.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 22, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 30-20 victory over the St. Louis Rams, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Opponents have had decent success against the Packers this season while playing back in coverage and sending only four pass rushers. Sunday, however, quarterback Aaron Rodgers torched the Rams' standard rush by completing 20 of his 24 throws against it for two touchdowns. Two of the completions went for at least 30 yards, and a total of 11 went for first downs. But this might be the portion of the season where Rodgers serves notice that no scheme can keep this offense down for any length of time. When the Rams blitzed him on the goal line in the first quarter, he calmly threw a back-shoulder pass to receiver Jordy Nelson for a three-yard touchdown. It was Nelson's 20th touchdown reception since the start of the 2011 season. Only New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (22) has more.
  2. Last season, we gave Chicago Bears guard Lance Louis a hustle award for sprinting 71 yards to chase down a interception return short of the end zone. Sunday, we saw a similar play from Packers linebacker Erik Walden on a screen pass to the opposite side of the field. Walden sprinted about 60 yards -- from the Rams' 14 yard line to the Packers' 26-yard line -- to catch receiver Chris Givens on what was a 56-yard screen pass. Walden was fortunate that Givens slowed down to cut back, but the energy required just to be in position to make that tackle was extraordinary. I realize the Rams scored a touchdown anyway five plays later, but those are the kinds of plays that generate confidence from coaches and teammates alike. Sunday was Walden's first start since the man who replaced him, rookie Nick Perry, suffered a knee injury. It doesn't appear that Walden wanted to leave anything to chance. He led the Packers with nine tackles, including a sack and a second hit on quarterback Sam Bradford.
  3. We touched on several important issues in Sunday's Wrap-up post, and you can review it here if desired. Here's one we didn't hit: In two starts, running back Alex Green has carries 42 times and has gained 95 yards. I can't argue with coach Mike McCarthy's decision to keep running the ball, especially on the road and based on how the Rams' pass rush opened the game. But it's fair to wonder if the Packers will consider mixing veteran James Starks into the rotation. And if they don't, it's fair to wonder why Starks is even on the roster. This isn't a rip on Green. I'm not sure that he's leaving a lot of yards on the field. But has he earned the leeway to continue as the Packers' exclusive back at this production level? Just something to think about as the Packers prepare for Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Is there any quarterback who takes better advantage of so-called "free plays" than Rodgers? It seems as though his aggressiveness moves to another level when he believes the defense has jumped offsides, putting him in position to make a high-risk, high-reward pass that can be nullified by the ensuing penalty if it goes wrong. Rodgers completed two such plays Sunday, a 52-yard pass to Nelson to set up one touchdown and a 38-yard scoring strike to Randall Cobb on the other "I think what he does best," Rams linebacker James Laurinatis said, "is that he's good at the improv."
MANKATO, Minn. -- Often we spend more time obsessing over what's missing rather than noticing what's right in front of our face. So it goes, I think, with the group of pass-catchers the Minnesota Vikings have assembled here at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

I think we can all agree that their wide receivers don't match up with the elite groups you'll find elsewhere in the division. But by all accounts, they have a tight end who could be as good as any player at his position in the NFC North.

[+] EnlargeKyle Rudolph
AP Photo/Jim MoneVikings Tight end Kyle Rudolph figures to be one of QB Christian Ponder's favorite targets.
Kyle Rudolph is in many ways a perfect target for a young quarterback who could use a security blanket in the early stages of his development. Quarterback Christian Ponder will look often for play-making wide receiver Percy Harvin this season, I'm sure, but I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Rudolph finishes the season as his most frequent target.

Why not? Rudolph is 6-foot-6 with 34-inch arms and bigger hands (10 3/4-inch) than new Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil (10 3/8th). I know we've had fun with discussion of long arms and hand size relative to left tackles, but for a tight end it means Rudolph has extraordinary range to reach and catch the ball. He's a balltrap that last season dropped only one of the 37 passes thrown his way, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He caught 26 of them, including three touchdowns.

"He's a guy that has a chance to be special," coach Leslie Frazier said when we spoke Thursday morning. "He works very hard and is very talented, there's no question about that. But the way he can catch the football is second-to-none. … His catching radius is amazing. If Christian gets it close to him, he knows that Kyle is going to come up with the football. That gives him a lot of confidence."

If you follow Rudolph or Ponder on Twitter, you know the spent a good portion of the offseason together -- not only at the Vikings' facility, but also in social settings. You might think it's silly, but it stands to reason that their friendship will only enhance Ponder's confidence in throwing Rudolph's way.

"It was kind of like we came in as freshmen together," Rudolph said after the Vikings' morning practice. "We naturally formed a bond. This team, it's been very well-documented how young we are, but we all get along really well. We have a good group of friends on the team that almost reminds us of when we were in college."

But Rudolph is thinking big, too, after spending the offseason watching video of the NFL's top tight ends. He has tried to emulate the way Tony Gonzalez creates separation at the top of his routes, and he also watched how the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez play off one another.

"I've got a full season under my belt, and then an entire offseason to rep all the stuff that we're installing now," Rudolph said. "Going into last year, installs were all new. Now it's just review, and you're able to work on more things other than just learning the plays."

The Vikings will be a run-oriented team as long Adrian Peterson is on their roster, so I'm not sure we can project a monster season for Rudolph from a statistical perspective. And we should also note that he'll eventually share some time with veteran newcomer John Carlson, who at the moment is nursing a sprained knee.

Carlson is a nice, professional tight end. But in my travels already this summer, more football people have asked me about Rudolph than any player on the Vikings' offense not named "Ponder." I'll get more of a chance to see him over the next few days, but already there is some buzz about him. Rudolph has a chance, as they say, to have a chance.

Podcast: Mortensen on Forte, Revis, more

July, 16, 2012
7/16/12
8:18
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ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen comments on Matt Forte, the deadline for franchise tag designations, Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis and more.

NFC North weekend mailbag

June, 2, 2012
6/02/12
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Hey, whaddya say we throw together a weekend mailbag? Comments, questions, criticism and praise are always welcome through the mailbag, Facebook, Twitter or skywriting.

Via Facebook, Kona reacts to the latest lively comments from Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley: "oh goodness.. As usual, the media blowing things out of proportion…."

Kevin Seifert: In truth, those of us who are used to hearing Finley hardly blinked at his comments, which came after last Wednesday's organized team activities (OTA).

For those curious, Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com offers a succinct rundown. Finley said that he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers "didn't have chemistry" in 2011, suggested he needs to "freestyle" more on the field instead of playing like a "robot" and insisted that Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are "going to have to show me a little more" before he assesses their level of play.

Some of those comments, particularly the one about chemistry with Rodgers, drew national attention. Here is what I'll say about them: We long ago learned that Finley has a way of making general sentiments sound more dramatic and that he rarely is as convinced about an assertion as he appears to be.

In the case of Rodgers, Finley was simply referring to their minimal work together last offseason because of the lockout. By "freestyle," he didn't mean he plans to ignore playcalls. He simply wants to play with more instinct, which is what the NFL's best players routinely do. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I can interpret his comments on Gronkowski and Graham other than to say he wants to see how they respond to defensive adjustments.

With all of that said, at some point Finley will need to clean up his method for public expression if he wants anything he says to be taken seriously. In Green Bay and around the NFC North, he's more or less viewed as a harmless loose cannon. But eventually something he says will strike a teammate or coach -- or opponent -- the wrong way, if it hasn't already. Trouble would ensue.

From a national perspective, there will be upwards of 2,880 players on NFL rosters this summer. It's too much to ask national media members and fans to know Finley well enough to brush off his words without taking a closer look.


Chris of Detroit questioned our criticism of Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew for not addressing his team's off-field issues in a public manner: I believe that you don't realize that Mayhew rarely addresses the media for good or bad. [Coach Jim] Schwartz is the face of the organization, he has and will always address such in-house issues. Since Mayhew took over he has addressed the media once before and after the season, rarely any other time especially with off the field issues. Mayhew has taken a lot of heat from local media for is lack of access to the media, however they all praise him for being consistent and allowing his coach to be the face of the franchise. While I agree that a GM should be held accountable for his draft class being in trouble, I give him credit for not being vocal during good and bad times as the Lions GM.

Kevin Seifert: Believe me, I'm well aware that Mayhew rarely speaks publicly and that the Lions' set-up calls for Schwartz to speak for the franchise on most matters. But I still don't think it's right for Mayhew to hide behind that structure in times of unique circumstances.

I fully understand why Mayhew wouldn't want to speak regularly. He wants his actions to speak for themselves and doesn't want to be put in a position to evaluate coaches and players in a public manner during the season. Rare is a general manager who comments on, say, a coach's decision to bench a quarterback or go for it on fourth down. And by all indications Mayhew maintains that policy on both a local and national level. It's not as if he has separate rules for different reporters or outlets.

I guess I just saw six incidents in five months to be beyond the daily operation and structure of any NFL team. It's not quite a crisis, but it is a dire-enough situation that team vice chairman Bill Ford called it "disappointing, very disappointing" and "a shame" last week.

I don't believe that Mayhew has an obligation to "to take the heat" from a throng of media because he "deserves" that punishment. Again, I thought it was unfair in this case for Schwartz to do all of the explaining and to be cast alone in the spotlight for something that is not only this serious, but also something an issue for which he does not have ultimate responsibility.


In the comments of this post on Chicago Bears offensive lineman Gabe Carimi, WINDYCITYWOMBRAIDERRETURNS notes that two first-round picks of former general manager Jerry Angelo -- Carimi and Chris Williams -- could "make or break the season."

Kevin Seifert: In a way, it's interesting to see so much discussion on the Bears' relative lack of attention to their offensive line when two former first-round picks could conceivably be among their five starters this season.

Our commenter is no doubt hoping that Williams makes a career comeback and overtakes the left tackle position from J'Marcus Webb. That might be too much to ask, and it's quite possible Williams is headed for a year as a swing left/right tackle before departing the franchise in 2013.

But even if that's the case, it's not clear if Webb has any better chance than Williams to develop into a fixture at left tackle. That circumstance places further scrutiny on Angelo's failed attempt to lock down the position with Williams five years ago.


Brandon of London, Canada, remains concerned about Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder after reading this post: While I would usually 100% agree with your feeling that you can't read too much into OTA's and off-season practices etc., but shouldn't the Vikings be extremely concerned that Ponder cannot even succeed when there's 0 pressure against their historically last bad secondary of last season (plus a few rookies)? Shouldn't now be when he's wowing people and being over-hyped?

Kevin Seifert: There is something to be said for that. I mean, it's far more common to read enthusiastic coverage of a player lighting it up during spring drills than the other way around.

And to be clear, my post wasn't meant to suggest that Ponder struggled through the OTA that I watched. He had one really bad mistake that I saw, one that seemed rare even in this kind of setting. But he also made his share of nice passes. He was inconsistent, which isn't totally unexpected for a player going through his first NFL offseason, and I thought that positive/negative was implied in the "fits and starts" headline.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Let's take a break from our (relatively) serious coverage of the Minnesota Vikings' stadium bill to note some highly significant intersections of the NFC North and reality television.

First, Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver made it through another week on "Dancing with the Stars" and is headed to the semifinals of the competition. I guess that means we'll need to ramp up our "DWTS" coverage. Via Twitter, Driver said: "I want to bring the Mirror Ball to Titletown." The question now is if Titletown is ready for the Mirror Ball.

Meanwhile, EW.com reports that Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is part of a new celebrity dating show on Fox called "The Choice." New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is also a cast member.

Whether this appearance fits into Suh's offseason image repair plan remains to be seen.

With that, let's continue around the NFC North:
Last week, it was serious. Now, I guess it's really, really serious.

Third-round voting to determine the cover of "Madden NFL 13" has concluded, and two NFC North players are among the final four players remaining. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson will square off in the semifinal round, meaning one will be eliminated but the other will be one step away from ultimate victory (or defeat, depending on whether you're a curse-spiracist).

(So much for Rob Gronkowski's video campaign, huh?)

The other bracket will pit Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton against San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. Voting will continue through April 18, and voting on the finals will conclude April 25.

For those of you concerned about the "Madden Curse," and based on your Twitter response there are a few of you, I point you in the direction of this quite thorough alternative discussion on the topic from SideLion Report. @ZacSnyder considers the curse "fabricated" and suggests it "has been blamed for things with logical explanations."

We'll hold off on a full-scale panic until we learn the exact final matchup next week.
We're not scared of you, Rob Gronkowski. Not here in the Black and Blue division.

Something tells me you wouldn't be quite this tough if you were sitting next to the actual Megatron and not a toy in your latest video campaign to be on the cover of "Madden 13."

But the Fathead is a nice touch. Really.

Most of you know that Gronkowski, the New England Patriots tight end, is the third-round opponent of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson in bracket-style voting for the cover winner. The winner, announced Wednesday, moves on to the semi-final round.

I don't expect to see Johnson return the favor, via video or otherwise. As we discussed last month, one of Johnson's most admirable traits is his refusal to act like an idiot.

And given the immediate futures of the most recent winners (call it a curse if you like), many Lions fans would be thrilled if Gronkowski wins this tournament. So go right ahead, Rob-o. Go right ahead.

It's getting serious, folks.

In results we learned a short time ago, two NFC North players are among the final eight candidates for the cover of "Madden 13." Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson have each advanced to the third round of voting. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen lost handily in the second round to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Rodgers now faces Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for a chance to reach the semifinals. Johnson will take on Gronkowski in voting that will take conclude April 11. We'll then spend a week on the semifinals and another week on the finals before we learn the winner on or around April 25. Time to get out your voodoo dolls.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- We've been all wrapped up in the NFL owners meetings this week, but don't think for a second that I lost sight of what's really important.

Yes, Wednesday marked the end of the first round of ESPN.com's "Madden 13" cover vote. Three of our four NFC North candidates have advanced, I'm happy to report. Only Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte has been eliminated. So here are the matchups you can vote on if you want to see your favorite player move through the second round of the bracket:
Second-round voting continues through April 4.

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