NFC North: Roddy White

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How much the Green Bay Packers value receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson won't be known until -- or if -- the team signs them to long-term contracts before they hit free agency next March.

But thanks to ESPN.com's Mike Sando, we have a better idea of how others in the NFL view the Packers' top-two receivers.

In an ESPN Insider piece, Insider Sando looked at what he called a loaded 2015 free-agent receiver class and, with the help of two NFL general managers plus an offensive and defensive coach, ranked the class in order of the likelihood of cashing in on big contracts whether with their current teams or on the free-agent market.

Both Cobb and Nelson ranked high on the list.

The 29-year-old Nelson came in at No. 4 behind Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos and Michael Crabtree of the 49ers. Cobb, 23, was fifth.

The rest of the list was Torrey Smith of the Ravens, Wes Welker of the Broncos, Cecil Shorts of the Jaguars, Roddy White of the Falcons and Hakeem Nicks of the Colts.

The Packers and Broncos were the only teams with two free-agent-to-be receivers on the list.

Nelson is in the final year of a three-year, $12.6 million extension that turned out to be a bargain for the Packers, while Cobb is in the final year of the rookie contract he signed as a second-round pick in 2011.

Here's what Sando wrote based on evaluations by those he consulted:

On Nelson: Nelson and Crabtree virtually tied for the third spot. Nelson has benefited from consistently outstanding quarterback play. Over the past three years, Nelson trails only Welker and Thomas among players on this list in yards receiving per game. He is second to Smith in yards per reception and second to Bryant in touchdowns.

Nelson has competition from his teammate, Cobb, on this list. Nelson is primarily an outside receiver, while Cobb plays from the slot. Nelson polled higher than Cobb on three of four ballots. The defensive coordinator had Nelson sixth, one spot below Cobb. "I would put Jordy after Crabtree, but before Cobb," one of the GMs said.

The other GM joined the offensive assistant in placing Nelson among his top three. "You have to value that outside guy," the second GM said. "But that inside slot receiver can do a lot of damage."

A third GM I spoke with put it this way: "Nelson fits a big role for them. I would have a hard time saying he would be a hugely paid guy, though. He'll generate interest, but not at the $10-$11 million level. I do think he will come in over Eric Decker, though."

On Cobb: At 23, Cobb is easily the youngest player on this list. He missed 10 games last season and one in each of his previous two. That leaves him tied with Crabtree for the most games missed over the past three seasons when isolating the 10 players on this list. Cobb caught four passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns after returning for the Packers' final two games, counting a wild-card playoff defeat to the 49ers.

"Cobb and Crabtree are interchangeable on my list," the offensive assistant said. "Cobb is the model person and will always show up on time. Crabtree comes off whinier, and the guy from Seattle (Richard Sherman) got in his head. Cobb is coming from the right program with Mike McCarthy, one with structure and discipline and doing the right things. Crabtree does play outside more, but I'd rather coach Cobb."

Williams expects to return next season

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams did not want to hear the question.

Before it had even been completed, he interrupted.

"Don't do it," Williams said with a smile. "Don't do it."

Williams
The seventh-year veteran is savvy enough to know what was coming. He's at an age (30) and has a contract (due to pay him $7.5 million in salary and bonuses next season, the final year of his deal) that makes him an easy target. He's just the kind of player whom general manager Ted Thompson usually takes a long, hard look at bringing back.

"That's the reality of some things, like you said," Williams said this week. "But truthfully, I can't worry about that. I'm under contract for next year, so I plan on being here."

In the last month, Williams has stated his case -- not verbally, but with his play. He has two interceptions in the last four games and during that stretch, he has not allowed a touchdown and his tackling has been superb. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Williams has allowed just 8 total yards after the catch on six opponent receptions against him over the last three games. He allowed three completions in last Sunday's 22-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons, but none went for longer than 8 yards.

Williams has bounced between playing outside in the base defense and inside in the nickel and dime packages for much of the season. Against the Falcons, defensive coordinator Dom Capers returned Williams to his natural outside position for the entire game.

However, Capers no longer matches Williams exclusively on the opponent's best receiver like he used to. Fellow cornerback Sam Shields spent as much time (if not more) covering Atlanta's top receiver, Roddy White, as Williams did Sunday.

"You know we've been playing Tramon inside," Capers said. "I think he's a more natural outside player."

Shields is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and general manager Ted Thompson is trying to decide whether to pay Shields somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million per season. That could be another factor that might impact Williams' future.

If his contract remains unchanged for next season, Williams would be tied for the fifth-highest paid cornerback in the NFL based on players currently under contract for next season. He would rank behind only Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Denver's Champ Bailey ($10 million), the Jets' Antonio Cromartie ($9.5 million) and St. Louis' Cortland Finnegan ($9 million).

ProFootballFocus.com, which grades every play of every game, has Williams ranked as the NFL's 16th-best cornerback this season among those who have played at least 75 percent of the snaps. In pass coverage only, PFF ranked Williams 11th but based on opposing quarterbacks' passer rating against him in coverage, Williams ranks 22nd.

Williams has watched the Packers go to a veteran like A.J. Hawk for a pay cut or contract restructuring twice in the last three years, so he knows it might be coming.

"It's part of the business," Williams said. "But like I said, I'm under contract so I expect to be here."
Roddy White and Sam ShieldsAP PhotoCan Sam Shields and the Packers snap their slump against Roddy White and Atlanta on Sunday?
Last season, the Atlanta Falcons were one quarter away from reaching the Super Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Eleven months later, the teams have a combined record of 8-15-1.

That’s why the NFL moved the game, which was originally scheduled for prime time on Sunday, to a 1 p.m. ET start.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure break down the matchup:

Rob Demovsky: Vaughn, it’s hard to believe the Falcons are in playing-out-the-string mode with all of the talent they have on offense. Obviously, injuries have been an issue, especially losing a talented receiver like Julio Jones. But unlike the Packers, they didn’t lose their quarterback. How come Matt Ryan hasn’t been able to be a difference-maker?

Vaughn McClure: Well, it’s been hard for Matt Ryan to be himself, playing under duress most of the season. The Falcons have ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed per pass attempt, but that’s only because Ryan has taken shorter drops and delivered the ball quicker. He has still been sacked a career-high 30 times and has been hit countless other times. In the past two games alone -- against the Saints and Bills -- Ryan was sacked 11 times. True, being without Jones hasn’t helped Ryan’s cause. But also, Roddy White hasn’t been at full strength all season. Without Harry Douglas or Tony Gonzalez, Ryan would really be in trouble.

Speaking of quarterbacks, can you explain the different scenarios for the Packers at the position come Sunday, based on Aaron Rodgers’ injury status?

Demovsky: Well, it sure looks like Rodgers will be out for at least another week. This was the game he was really targeting to come back for, thinking he could lead them to the playoffs if he got back for the last four games. But his collarbone did not check out well enough Tuesday to be cleared. Even though he plans to practice this week, it doesn’t look good for him to play. I was a little surprised that coach Mike McCarthy appears to be going with Matt Flynn again. Flynn was completely ineffective in the Thanksgiving debacle at Detroit, and quite frankly, his arm strength does not look good. He didn’t have a lot of zip on the ball indoors against the Lions, and it sure won’t get any easier to throw in the cold, wintry conditions at Lambeau Field. I wondered if he might go back to Scott Tolzien, who looked good in a couple of his appearances but threw too many interceptions.

You mentioned pass protection -- the Packers had issues of their own against the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times, but on at least a couple of those, he held onto the ball too long. What has been the Falcons’ biggest problem in pass protection?

McClure: The biggest problem has been the offensive line, simply. The guys up front haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They’ve been physically dominated at times, particularly in the loss to the Seahawks. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery, and Baker wasn’t the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Left tackle Lamar Holmes, the guy trusted to protect Ryan’s blind side, admitted being out of shape at the beginning of the season and is still experiencing growing pains. Center Peter Konz, right guard Garrett Reynolds, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood and Holmes have all been benched at point during the season. Such turnover hasn’t helped the group develop any cohesion. And now, it has to face a capable Packers defense.

I know Clay Matthews was injured this season, but is he back to the dominant player he was when I covered the NFC North?

Demovsky: He’s starting to look like the player you remember, Vaughn. In his first game back from his broken thumb, he wasn’t a factor,because he had to wear that giant club cast. But the next week against the Giants, he was able to play with a much smaller cast. Ever since then, he’s been a playmaker again. In the past three games, he has three sacks and a forced fumble. The problem is he’s not getting a ton of help. And even when they make big plays like they did against the Lions last week, when they forced four turnovers, the offense can’t take advantage of them. Even with Matthews back on the field, the defense has been in a free fall over the past month.

About the only thing the Packers have been able to count on has been their running game, and even that has been a little up and down. But rookie Eddie Lacy looks like a force with 806 yards rushing in basically 10 games. I’m sure the Falcons will load up the box to stop him like most teams have tried to do since Rodgers got hurt. Do you think they can stop him?

McClure: No. Not at all. They struggled to contain speedy backs like Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller (149 rushing yards) just like they’ve struggled against powerful backs like Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (145 yards). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan counted 28 missed tackles for his defense over the past two games, which is unacceptable, particularly when they occur in the second level and lead to explosive plays. Although rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow has been a tackling machine, he can’t do it alone. Like the offensive line, the defense has been dominated physically at times. Lacy’s bruising style is the last thing the Falcons want to see. The Falcons are tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.

In retrospect, the Chicago Bears' 25-day search for a general manager played out exactly as they said it would. Team president Ted Phillips made clear he wasn't looking to turn the organization upside down after firing Jerry Angelo on Jan. 3. No, as we discussed at the time, the Bears wanted someone who could bring a better hit rate as a talent evaluator.

Kansas City Chiefs executive Phil Emery emerged as a favorite early in the process because of his unique qualifications under those criteria, and for that reason it was far from surprising to hear that the Bears hired him Saturday.

Emery spent seven years as a Bears scout from 1998-2004, making him relatively familiar with the inner workings of Halas Hall and unlikely to pursue a massive overhaul. He was part of a Bears scouting department that drafted eight future Pro Bowlers, from receiver Marty Booker to linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to safety Mike Brown and cornerback Charles Tillman. Later, he drafted receiver Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan, among others, as the Atlanta Falcons' director of college scouting.

Emery surely will bring his own tone and vision to the Bears' front office. But initially, at least, he'll do so by assimilating the existing infrastructure and minimizing the side effects of transition.

The Bears have missed the playoffs in four of the five seasons since their appearance in Super Bowl XLI. But whether you agree or not, Phillips said he thinks the team has suffered from inconsistent talent evaluation rather than larger-scale issues. So in essence, he has swapped one longtime scout-turned-general manager for another in hopes of getting better results.

Phillips said Jan. 3 that the Bears needed to close the "talent gap" that exists between the Bears and their two most competitive NFC North rivals, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. In many ways, the decision to bring back Emery reflects the Packers' hiring of general manager Ted Thompson in 2005.

Thompson spent eight years with the Packers in various personnel roles between 1992 and ‘99 before returning as general manager in 2005. Emery brings a similar reputation as a blue-collar scout and workaholic who figures to spend a good portion of his years on the road personally scouting college players.

Thompson, of course, had the authority to remake the Packers franchise as he saw fit. Much of the front office remained intact, but he fired coach Mike Sherman after one season and hired Mike McCarthy in 2006. The Packers won Super Bowl XLV with a 53-man roster that included 49 players acquired after Thompson's arrival.

That's a tough ideal for Emery and the Bears to pursue, but I wouldn't be surprised if it comes up at some point during Monday's news conference to introduce him formally. The Bears wanted a low-key leader who would focus on talent evaluation and, like Thompson, stay below the radar. By all accounts, Emery fits that bill.

NFC North Stock Watch

October, 25, 2011
10/25/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Patience of Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions defensive tackle: Suh forcefully and emotionally defended himself Monday against allegations of what would have been some sketchy trash talk by the Atlanta Falcons. Suh vehemently denied he called for the Falcons to bring out a medical cart when quarterback Matt Ryan injured his left ankle. Falcons receiver Roddy White stood by that allegation during an interview with the NFL Network on Monday night, so someone is not telling the truth. Crazy things get said and done on NFL fields all the time. But based on the passion of Suh's defense, you have to assume (and hope) he's not the one lying here.

2. Minnesota Vikings locker room: Coach Leslie Frazier has plenty on his management plate as he enters Week 8 of his first season as a permanent head coach. Cornerback Chris Cook, a rising young player on a roster of veterans, has been jailed since Saturday morning on domestic violence allegations. Receiver Bernard Berrian has apparently run afoul of team discipline on a number of occasions, resulting in two game-day deactivations and a looming departure from the organization. And although it went underplayed late last week, Frazier absorbed some rare and direct public criticism from soft-spoken defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who challenged Frazier's assertion that the defensive line hasn't played physically. Williams told the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "If you want to call somebody out, call who you're talking about out." There are growing pains in any head coaching transition, and Frazier is dealing with it on a number of fronts.

3. Silliness of criticizing Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers linebacker: Matthews had a sack of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, bringing his season total to three. But I thought his performance Sunday was a perfect example of how a rush linebacker can make a tremendous impact without sack totals. For one, his run defense was excellent. He was in on tackles that limited the Vikings to 2, 1, 2, minus-2, and minus-5 yards on rushing plays. On the latter, he beat Vikings left guard Steve Hutchinson to the backfield by several steps, as noted by Pro Football Focus.

RISING

[+] Enlarge Tim Masthay
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastPunter Tim Masthay has been a weapon for the Packers this season.
1. Tim Masthay, Green Bay Packers punter: It hasn't been a stellar season for Masthay, who entered Sunday's game against the Vikings with the second-worst net average (30.4) in the NFL. But he made the most of his three punts at the Metrodome, averaging 55.3 net yards. According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, that net average was the third best by an NFL punter in the past 35 years (minimum three punts). Masthay's 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter was especially important, flipping field position at a time when the Vikings were trying to get into position for a go-ahead score. The punt, downed at the Vikings' 2-yard line, increased the Packers' win probability from 75 to 80 percent, based on data from games compiled over the past 10 years.

2. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears running back: Forte notched his third 100-yard rushing game in the past four weeks Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's almost impossible right now to distinguish him from the top running backs in the game, as ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt writes for the National Football Post. Forte's 1,091 all-purpose yards is 211 yards ahead of the next-best mark in the NFL, and he has accounted for more than 50 percent of the Bears' offense. With Forte and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFC North might have the top two MVP candidates through Week 7.

3. Charles Woodson, Packers cornerback: Two interceptions Sunday brought Woodson's NFL-leading total to five after seven games. You can note that four of the five have come against rookie quarterbacks Ponder and Cam Newton, but I haven't noticed any asterisks in league rankings lately. Plus, half of what makes a good defensive player is getting in position to make plays that will eventually be afforded you. Woodson might not be blanketing receivers as he once did, but his playmaking has been a huge equalizer for the Packers' defense.

Earlier Monday, we noted that two Atlanta Falcons players made some serious and specific allegations of taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct by the Detroit Lions, taking place when quarterback Matt Ryan suffered a left ankle injury in Sunday's game at Ford Field. So it's only fair to allow the Lions to respond.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh and Cliff Avril.
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiNdamukong Suh, left, and Cliff Avril, accused by Atlanta players of unsportsmanlike conduct, responded Monday. Avril called it "mind-boggling" that the Lions were cast as a dirty team in comparison.
Let's just say that defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril have strongly rejected the accusations of Falcons receiver Roddy White and center Todd McClure. White told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Avril was "kicking at [Ryan's] feet" while we writhed on the ground in pain. McClure said Suh was taunting Ryan and calling for the Falcons to "get the cart."

Speaking to reporters Monday, Suh denied "trash talking" Ryan and noted the injury occurred when Falcons left tackle Will Svitek stepped on Ryan's ankle. Suh called the play "karma" for "all the bad stuff" the Falcons' offensive line has "done in the past."

Said Suh: "There are many, many, many plays that I could go back to that I watch on film all week that their offensive line has done," Suh said, "and that they've been coached to do, as far as I know. It's not anything that's not been said; it's not anything that's new."

Asked specifically if he said anything to Ryan after the injury, Suh said:

"I have nothing to say. The man's sitting on the ground. We've obviously continued to do our job, getting to him, causing havoc, his own quarterback takes him out. … I have no comment, no issues, no nothing -- nothing to say to him. At that time, when he's on the ground, there's nothing that I have to say to him. We've done our job, we've been in his face, we've caused him to go down, we've caused his offensive lineman to hurt him."

(Philip Zaroo of Mlive.com is blogging the entire interview.)

Meanwhile, Suh wondered why none of the Falcons' offensive linemen retaliated if Avril had truly kicked at Ryan. If the Falcons had kicked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Suh said, "all hell would have broken loose." In an interview with the Lions' web site, Avril backed Suh's assessment of the Falcons' offensive line. He said it is "mind-boggling" that the Lions were cast as a dirty team in comparison.

"You watch film of Atlanta's O-line and they're 20, 30 yards down the field cutting guys," Avril said. "You're running toward the pile and they're trying to clean you up. Everybody was protecting themselves. I guess since they couldn't clean us up in piles because guys were aware of it, they decide to make it like we're the dirty players."

Normally, a he-said, she-said gives us some comic relief during the monotony of an NFL season. But these allegations have come at a serious time in the career of Suh, and to a lesser extent, Avril.

A dirty reputation shouldn't change how anyone plays or limit his effectiveness. In some cases, in fact, it could help create a psychological advantage over opponents. But it's still a damaging stigma to carry because it implies your success has come outside of the rules, or at least the ethics of fair play. Few, if any, competitors want a stigmatic asterisk next to their achievements.

I imagine that's why Suh and Avril were so vehement Monday. There is a school of thought that suggests a response only gives further life to a one-sided story. But in this case, going silent would have been a tacit admission of guilt and provided another episode with which to tack the dirty tag on Suh.

As we discussed earlier, there is no evidence on the television copy that Avril got anywhere near Ryan nor of anyone reacting to something Suh might have said. I'm not sure if the Lions needed to publicize their thoughts on the Falcons' play. It sounded a little bit like, I'm dirty? No, you're dirty! But overall, it was important for Suh and Avril to stand up themselves. Good for them.

Did Shaq Suh strike again?

October, 24, 2011
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So here is what we know:

With 10 minutes and 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter Sunday at Ford Field, Detroit Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson drove Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Will Svitek back into the pocket. Svitek stepped on quarterback Matt Ryan's left ankle, leaving Ryan writhing on the field in pain.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Tim Fuller/US PresswireFalcons quarterback Matt Ryan is helped by medical staff after being sacked during the third quarter Sunday against Detroit.
What happened after that is a matter of hearsay. Multiple Falcons players told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Lions players were taunting and otherwise acting disrespectfully toward Ryan while the Falcons medical staff attended to him. I watched the TV replay and neither saw nor heard any evidence of that, but obviously much of what happens on an NFL field goes unheard by the public.

Receiver Roddy White said that Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cliff Avril behaved in a way that caused him to lose "a whole lot of respect" for them. White said Avril "was kicking at [Ryan's] feet and said, 'Get him off the field.'"

Falcons center Todd McClure said: "I had respect for Suh before the game. But when Matt was on the ground, the things [Suh] was saying and the trash he was talking was definitely uncalled for. There are certain things you don't do. [He said], 'Get the cart' and several other things that I can't repeat."

Via Twitter, Avril said: "Come on, I'm not in the business of hurting not one guy on the field... I would never taunt anyone on an injury."

Suh has yet to respond, as far as I'm aware.

Are White and McClure accurately depicting what Suh and/or Avril said and did? Are they exaggerating? Short of an NFL Films audio emerging, we might never know for sure. But this episode will only add fuel to the debate about the way Suh plays the game, and if he and his teammates are too often pushing the edge of aggressiveness and moving into the realm of being chippy or dirty.

Suh likened himself to Shaquille O'Neal this summer, suggesting he gets penalized based on his superior strength relative to opponents. Whether he likes it or not, he's also being judged by players and officials based on his reputation. There's nothing he can or should do about his strength, but if he acted the way the Falcons say he did after Ryan's injury, he's going to lose whatever benefit of the doubt he still maintained with officials and the league office.

One of the most notorious players in recent NFL history was safety Rodney Harrison, who is now an NBC analyst. Sunday night, Harrison said: "I don't think [Suh] is a dirty player, but I've talked to guys around the league, and they say he is a dirty player. The bad thing about that is it takes away from how good of a player you are. You don't want that reputation. He's too good of a player, and plus it hurts your team."

In the video below, ESPN analyst Antonio Pierce said: "If those things were said, that's wrong." But he also added that the Falcons' offensive line should take some ownership of the situation as well: "You have a job to do as an offensive lineman. If you don't want them to be dirty or hit your quarterback, keep him away."

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
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After the Green Bay Packers' 25-14 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their win against the Falcons, the Packers take a seat in the examination room.
  1. We more or less crowned quarterback Aaron Rodgers the league MVP in last week's edition of this post, so it would be hard to add any more hyperbole to his performance Sunday night. So let's move on to a whole new level of hype: Are the Packers going to go undefeated this season? No matter how well they've played to this point, I can't get remotely interested in that question until they are at least 10-0. And in Week 5, I don't know that we can even look ahead and place asterisks next to the teams who might pose the biggest challenge. It's all WAY, WAY too early.
  2. We touched on a variety of issues in Sunday night's extended wrap-up post, but here's one we did not. Watching Roddy White's 5-yard touchdown reception Sunday night, I made a note to question what Packers cornerback Charles Woodson was doing on the play. You see Woodson pick up White at the middle of his crossing route. But when White veered into the end zone, Woodson ran upfield. Did he think he needed to cover someone in the flat? Did he believe quarterback Matt Ryan was about to run? As expected when it comes to Woodson, he 'fessed up and told reporters: "My eyes were in the backfield. But once that receiver comes under, I have to take him. That’s on me not making a football play."
  3. The Packers have experience falling behind at the Georgia Dome, and in all seriousness, that was a big part of their ability to withstand a 14-point first-quarter onslaught Sunday night. If you remember, they trailed 10-3 in the second quarter during the 2010 regular season and 14-7 in the second quarter during their divisional playoff game. "There was no panic," Rodgers told reporters. "We just knew that games down here ... the last couple of games we've played down here have been similar. They've kind of started fast, got the momentum, got the crowd involved and we've had to kind of withstand that first wave of attack from them and, once we do, settle into the game, start making some plays and get back into the game."
And here is one issue I still don't get:
I haven't decided if I'm bothered by coach Mike McCarthy's decision to go for a 2-point conversion with a little less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Packers held a 15-14 lead at the time, and the conversion would have left the Falcons unable to take a lead with a field goal. As it turned out, the failure left the Falcons in position to tie the game with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion once the Packers extended their lead to 22-14. You always want your opponent to need more than one score. But I also think McCarthy was supremely confident that his team still had some scoring left to do. That's the way the game felt at the time, and it proved correct. Sometimes you manage by the book, and other times by feel.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

As we discussed last week, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had taken note of what he called "borderline disrespectful" comments made by Atlanta Falcons players since last year's playoff victory at the Georgia Dome. Falcons receiver Roddy White was among the principal talkers, saying he thought the Falcons were "the better team" despite the Packers' 48-21 victory.

It appears Rodgers wasn't the only one who noticed. Defensive lineman B.J. Raji laid it hard on the Falcons after Sunday night's 25-14 Packers victory. Via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com, here's what Raji said:
"We have better players, we have better coaches, we're a better team. Usually better teams win games. We settled down and played our game, and we won. … It's definitely another dagger in their chests. They've been talking the whole offseason. They were talking before the game. We don't worry about that. We're the champions. We play like champions. We coach like champions. People who talk generally don't get to where they want to go. And obviously with this team, it's evident."

The Falcons did defeat the Packers last year in the regular season, a game that now seems a distant memory. I'm not usually a big believer in the proverbial war of words, but the Packers sure got the last laugh on this one.

Continuing around the NFC North:
We noted last month that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t miss much about what’s said, written or implied about him or the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers offered another example Tuesday during his radio show on ESPN 540 .

Rodgers
Rodgers
Even I had forgotten that Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White took, by his standards, a mild shot last month. Thanks to those of you who responded to my Twitter query on the topic, which brought me to an interview White gave to the NFL Network.

Speaking about the Packers’ convincing 48-21 playoff victory at the Georgia Dome last January, White said:

"We were a better team than those guys. We went out there, and we didn't perform at our highest level. We're a run-first team, you know, and we throw the ball second. So once we get behind like that, it's hard for us to catch up. That was a tough lesson learned, but it was a good lesson learned because we're more focused this year. I feel like we're a better team this year, and we'll be ready to get after those guys."

Rodgers obviously took note. He didn't mention White by name Tuesday. But asked what he was expecting from the Falcons in Sunday’s night’s rematch, he said:

"I’m expecting a crowd that’s into the game. A defense that’s excited. It’s going to be a loud atmosphere, like it always is down there. We got after them pretty good last year in the playoffs. I know some of the comments that have been made this offseason have been borderline disrespectful about what happened in the game, but basically we went down there and beat them, and they were the No. 1 seed. I’m sure they’re upset about that.”

I don't tend to get too deep about these things. Generally speaking, the better team is the one that wins the game. Why else do they keep score?

White is a bit of a loose cannon when it comes to public statements, and in this case he served up an easy one for Rodgers to grab and, presumably, use to help motivate his teammates. Nothing more than that, really.
Earlier Tuesday, we broke down the sizzling start of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from multiple angles. At around the same time, ESPN analyst Cris Carter was updating his assessment of Johnson's standing in a mythical and irrelevant ranking of the NFL's top receivers.

Speaking on ESPN's radio's "Mike & Mike Radio Show," Carter said Johnson is "playing at a top-5 level" and added: "He's a phenomenal player." But it sounds as if Carter didn't go far enough for many of you, most notably Johnson's quarterback.

Carter said there are "really four elite wide receivers" in the NFL: Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers, Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals and Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was either listening or told about Carter's comment. Stafford's first tweet in about a month went like this:
Does anyone think 8 tds in 4 weeks will change chris carters mind about an "elite" receiver? #megatron

Johnson, of course, has six touchdowns in the Lions' first three games, giving Stafford's tweet an edgy projection about the two he would need to score Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. Stay tuned on that one.

I covered Carter at the end of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, and I can tell you he's not opposed to riling people up for the sake of riling people up. I don't doubt the sincerity of his viewpoint, but I'll say this: Y'all are letting old Cris get under your skin when the actual slight to Johnson is mild at best.

Carter paid plenty of homage to Johnson in his appearance Tuesday morning, saying: "Now, Calvin Johnson is playing the best football of his career. He's getting single coverage now and he's beating single coverage. They had double-coverage in the red zone. Him and Stafford have great chemistry together. He is playing at a top-5 level. But before this season, he wasn't better than the other four guys. He's starting to come into his own, which he should be. ... He should be coming into his prime and he's only going to get better. He's a phenomenal player."

You can listen to Carter yourself on this podcast . The Johnson segment begins at about the 17-minute mark.

And now back to our regular programming....
I know. I know. I KNOW. ESPN analyst and friend of the NFC North blog Cris Carter sent Detroit Lions fans into a rage Friday morning by omitting Calvin Johnson from his personal list of the NFL's best wide receivers.

You can listen to Carter's appearance on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" through this link . The receiver discussion begins at about the 16-minute mark.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireWhere does Calvin Johnson rank among the league's elite receivers?
Carter put six players in his group of elites. In order, they were:

  1. Andre Johnson
  2. Larry Fitzgerald
  3. Greg Jennings
  4. Reggie Wayne
  5. DeSean Jackson
  6. Roddy White

When a listener suggested that Calvin Johnson should be ranked on par with Andre Johnson, Carter said: "The only thing they have the same is the name."

Carter went on to say: "Calvin Johnson, he's very, very good at Madden and Tecmo Bowl or whatever they're playing now. But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he's not to the point of these guys yet. That doesn't mean he can't play. He just not there yet."

Carter also didn't accept co-host Mike Greenberg's suggestion that Johnson's career has been bogged down by poor and/or inconsistent quarterback play. Carter replied:
"... We're trying to determine greatness and impact on the NFL game. Calvin Johnson, you don't have to double-team him to take him out of the game. Now, I made eight Pro Bowls. I made it with five different quarterbacks. They weren't always great. So I don't want to hear the excuse that I'm not playing with a great quarterback.

"Larry Fitzgerald the last couple years, he hasn't played with a great quarterback, but he still gets the numbers. He still gets open. He still makes plays week in and week out. I don't want to hear about the quarterback situation. That's all part of the process. Now, [Calvin Johnson] is a good player. He's just not great yet."

I know these kinds of rankings spur debate and get everyone fired up, but you probably know by now how irrelevant I think they are. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and Carter provided his -- forcefully as always. Is Calvin Johnson the best receiver in the NFL? No. Is he one of the best? Most people would say yes. Is he among the top six? Who cares?
Peterson/JohnsonUS PresswireAdrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson were the two NFC North players to crack the top 10 ranking of offensive players.
Ranking the NFL's top 10 offensive players required an exercise similar to last week's defensive players project: Melding a number of individual rankings into one coherent list. In the end, it left us with two NFC North representatives despite my efforts to make it three.

Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson finished tied with Tennessee Titans tailback Chris Johnson for the No. 1 spot. Each received 70 points in our voting formula. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson finished No. 5, and Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings garnered only one a vote (from me) on the way to a No. 18 finish.

A few notes from my perspective:

  • Some of you will note that Chris Johnson finished ahead of Peterson on the running backs ballot earlier this offseason (by one point). Remember, the criteria for the best running back and the best player aren't necessarily the same. Running ability is foremost in both, but receiving, blocking and other jobs play a larger role in the latter. Also, Johnson and Peterson were competing against players at other positions. Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson, for example, received three No. 1 votes.
  • On the issue of Andre Johnson, I faced a quandary of consistency vs. accuracy. On our receivers ballot, I ranked Johnson No. 6. That was too low. So as you'll notice, I made a change for this ballot. I voted Johnson No. 4 overall, my second receiver behind the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald. Consider it a mea culpa if you want, but that should explain the inconsistency I'm sure you would have noticed and pointed out on your own.
  • My decision on Andre Johnson forced Calvin Johnson down the list. Calvin was now my No. 4 receiver, and I couldn't find room for a fourth receiver any higher than No. 8. You might argue that he deserved to be higher than Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons, who I had at No. 7, but White's production has been far superior over the past four years. Over that stretch, White has 371 receptions. Johnson has 270.
  • I didn't have much hope that Jennings would crack the top 10, and my vote was totally biased. But the sentiment wasn't from a rooting interest. It was based on experience. I had the advantage of seeing Jennings play far more often in recent years than any of my fellow voters. And if I was given 10 slots to build an offensive team for 2011, I know I would get high production and character from Jennings.
  • For those wondering, yes, there were two offensive linemen on my ballot, left tackles Joe Thomas (Cleveland Browns) and Jake Long (Miami Dolphins). Offensive linemen, specifically left tackles, will be the subject of a future ballot. But suffice it to say, I value offensive linemen enough to put arguably the best two in the league on a top-10 ballot.
  • *UPDATE: This was made clear in Paul Kuharsky's main post, but this ballot intentionally omitted quarterbacks to avoid a quarterback-dominated ranking.
I'm sorry, Chad Ochocinco, but have you done lost your mind?

I know you're bored with the lockout and all, but I'm not sure picking a Twitter fight with our guy Ndamukong Suh is the smartest thing you've ever done.

I'm aware of no history between the Cincinnati Bengals receiver and the Detroit Lions defensive tackle, and I fully realize that Ochocinco loves him some attention. I don't know if this qualified as Twitter trash talk or a set-up for cheap entertainment. It's suspicious that Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, at about the same time, randomly teed off via Twitter on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, but I have no idea if there is any kind of publicity-seeking coordinated effort here.

If nothing else, we have a fun way to close out the second full week of April.

Ochocinco started it off late Friday afternoon. I've pieced the series of exchanges together as best as I can. They ended with Suh and Ochocinco agreeing to a soccer-style shooout.
Ochocinco: @ndamukong_suh If we got into a fight at what point would you beg for mercy before i whooped your [expletive]?

Suh: HAHA NEVER, you don't want those problems!!!! RT @ochocinco If we got into a fight what point would you beg for mercy before i whooped ur..

Ochcocinco: @ndamukong_suh well we can get a hand held camera, fight, then put it on youtube of me beating you to a pulp

Suh: HA @ochocinco you couldn't beat me in soccer, let alone a fight.

Ochocinco: @ndamukong_suh Me and you on any ice rink and go at it Hockey fight style, everything goes until somebody hits the ground

Suh: @ochocinco bro I saw ur weak attempt at soccer..how bout we settle this w/ a shootout on the soccer field in #NYC @ #NFLDraft?#dontbescared

Ochocinco: @ndamukong_suh my attempt at soccer was awesome, we can have a shootout whenever you are ready, i will be the goalie also

Suh: That's a bet and I'll play goalie too!!! RT @ochocinco my attempt at soccer was awesome, we can have a shootout whenever you are ready...

For those who forgot, Suh played soccer growing up and is proficient enough to be the Lions' emergency field goal kicker.

I'll say this: Ochcocinco's got a better chance of beating Suh in a shootout than he does in a hockey-style fight. I'm afraid there would be only two sounds in the latter: One when Suh hit Ochcocinco, and one when Ochocinco hits the ground.
On Tuesday, ESPN.com's NFL Blog Network kicked off a series of offseason posts using our power rankings template on individual players and coaches rather than teams. The first topic was receiver, and NFC West guru Mike Sando has compiled the final list over on his blog.

You'll see that Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans finished first and that two NFC North receivers, the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, finished fourth and sixth in the voting, respectively.

Regular readers know I don't take Power Rankings too seriously. They're just a fun debate starter and nothing more. My ballot is sure to draw some ire from the Texans' fan because I ranked Johnson No. 6, a position that in retrospect is probably low. But there is no taking it back, and the bottom line is a divisional blogger doesn't spread his focus equally among 32 teams.

In fact, thinking back, I believe I've seen one of Johnson's 115 NFL games in person. That game was nearly eight years ago in 2003. That doesn't mean I'm not aware of him and his production over the past seasons, but it hasn't registered with me to the extent of some other players I have seen more often.

For those interested, the ballot I submitted to Sando is below. From an NFC North perspective, I continue to cling to my choice of Johnson over Jennings in a battle that has no loser. I wonder if we'll ever see Johnson play a full season with a quarterback who performs at the level that Jennings now has three years with in Aaron Rodgers.
  1. Larry Fitzgerald
  2. Roddy White
  3. Reggie Wayne
  4. Calvin Johnson
  5. Greg Jennings
  6. Andre Johnson
  7. Wes Welker
  8. Brandon Marshall
  9. Santonio Holmes
  10. DeSean Jackson

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