NFC North: Sammie Lee Hill

Our SportsNation chat brought fair criticism, and reasonable debate, to the Detroit Lions' late-round drafting in the five-year tenure of general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz. The relevant exchange:

Jordan K. (Newark, Ohio)

Do you think the Lions are sub-par at developing young talent? It seems as though unless they are natural born studs, our draftees don't seem to grow as players as much as other teams'.

Kevin Seifert (2:29 PM)

I'm not sure how they compare with the rest of the league, but I see what you're saying. Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Suh, Fairley, etc. have all become good players but were all first-round picks. Players like Ronnell Lewis, Travis White and Tahir Whitehead seem to be treading water. It's always a chicken or egg argument: Were they poor draft picks or were they not properly developed? I think the answer for the Lions lies in between.

Jordan K. (Newark, Ohio)

I'm trying to think of one player this Lions regime has drafted in the 4th round or later that is a significant contributor...my only thought is Jason Fox, but that's only this year and a maybe. Who am I missing?

Kevin Seifert (2:40 PM)

Sammie Lee Hill was and is a pretty good player. He was a fourth-rounder in 2009. But yeah, overall, not a sparkling record.

Here is a one-step link to every draft in Lions history. Between 2009 and 2012, the Lions drafted 19 players in the third round or lower. Ten are still with the team. (Hill departed via free agency last spring.) Only one of them, linebacker DeAndre Levy, is an established starter. Cornerback Bill Bentley and Fox could have significant roles in Week 1 if they are not starting.

To be fair, we would need to do a much larger study to understand where this performance ranks in context with the rest of the league. Everyone wants their teams to find good players in the later rounds of the draft, but many more of those players fail than succeed. And we shouldn't just write off the success of the Lions' first-round picks, and some of those selected in the second. They are not immune to failure, either.

In the end, however, we can look at the Lions' starters and other key contributors and conclude that no more than 11 came from the drafts between 2009-12. That has left the Lions searching elsewhere -- free agency, trades, undrafted rookies -- to find the majority of players they plan to use regularly this season.

NFC North links: Raiola's contract changes

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Chicago Bears

Former safety Chris Harris retired from playing in the NFL last month. A day later, he was embarking on a new career after the Bears hired him to be their defensive quality control coach. Harris told ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson that he's ready to get started. "Being a coach will be something to adjust to," Harris said. "But I don't think the players will view me as a buddy just because I was teammates with a lot of them. I was pretty respected when I played here on the defensive side of the football. I don't see that being a problem. I'm just excited to do this."

Coach Marc Trestman has talked with longtime Bears Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester, but he won't comment about their futures with the team, writes the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs.

Bears tight ends have had the fewest receptions in the NFL the past two seasons, reports Biggs, so it's no surprise that the team is looking for more production at the position. “We need a tight end that can threaten the defense,” tight ends coach Andy Bischoff said. “We need a tight end that can create stress in the middle of the field, or wherever we place him, because we’re going to line him up next to the tackle and we’re going to line him up outside the numbers and we’re going to line him up in the backfield and we’re going to expect the defense to figure it out."

Detroit Lions

Center Dominic Raiola has agreed to restructure his contract, likely keeping him in a Lions uniform for a 13th season.

Former Bills safety George Wilson visited with the Lions Thursday and left without signing a deal, reports Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. But the free agent was "very optimistic" about his visit. The Lions currently only have three safeties under contract.

The team promoted Marcus Robertson to defensive backs coach to fill the void after Tim Walton left to become the defensive coordinator of the Rams, reports Mlive.com's Justin Rogers.

Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill made Pete Prisco's list of lesser-known players who could be good values in free agency.

Green Bay Packers

Greg Jennings tops Sam Munson's list of free agent wide receivers. "If teams are satisfied that Jennings isn’t a durability concern going forward, he should be the marquee receiver and the first guy pursued by multiple teams trying to answer their question at the position. Fast, fluid and efficient with zero character questions, he makes the most sense," Munson writes.

ESPNMilwaukee.com's Jason Wilde takes stock of where the Packers stand at tight end, where the big question is whether Jermichael Finley will be back with the team.

Minnesota Vikings

SI.com's Chris Burke recaps the Vikings' 2012 campaign and looks ahead to what's in store for 2013 season.

The team made some changes to its Norseman logo.

Pro Bowler Cris Carter was back at Vikings headquarters Thursday and thanked the team for its role in overcoming his substance abuse problems. Carter: "Personally, what they did for my life, that changed my life," Carter said. "Besides my mother, there's a lot of people that helped me out but there's not a lot of people that can say that I wouldn't have made the Hall without their involvement. But I can stand here today as a man to tell you if you wouldn't have helped me that day when I came here, that second week in September, I wouldn't have made it."

The Vikings picked up Leslie Frazier's contract option for 2014 instead of giving him a new long-term deal. What does that mean for Frazier's future with the club? Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press explores.
If you had a choice between addressing a weakness or enhancing a strength, what choice would you make? There's no easy answer.

Fairley

Fairley


The Detroit Lions landed on the latter, and I can’t criticize them for it as long Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley proves inaccurate the character questions that caused his fall from the top 10. Because when you talk about a defensive line with a shaped-up Fairley, along with Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Sammie Lee Hill and Lawrence Jackson, you’re talking about probably the best defensive line in football.

The Lions surely have needs at cornerback and outside linebacker, but an elite defensive line can cover up weakness in the back end much easier than the other way around. I still have no idea who the Lions will line up at three of their four secondary positions and two of their three linebacker spots, but I can tell you one thing: They’ve got a chance to have a lights-out defensive line.

“Nasty,” is the way Fairley described it on ESPN Radio.

General manager Martin Mayhew has drafted fairly predictably in his first two years in the job. He faced his first really difficult draft decision Thursday night, and we can only trust he feels comfortable with Fairley from a character standpoint. I wonder if he would have made this pick without strong personalities like Vanden Bosch and Suh already in the locker room.

The Lions aren’t in a personnel position to be flippant with their first-round picks. But if Fairley proves him right, it’s a home run for Mayhew.

Soon to be stars: Sammie Lee Hill

April, 6, 2011
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Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at NFC North players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

Hill
Hill
With the amazing rookie season that we witnessed from Ndamukong Suh, it was easy to overlook what another young defensive tackle did for the Detroit Lions' fantastic front four.

Like everyone on this line, Sammie Lee Hill certainly benefited from Suh’s emergence and the attention the defensive rookie of the year received from opposing blocking schemes. But Hill also became a rotational player with Corey Williams and Suh, making up one third of one of the best groups of defensive tackles in the NFL. Don’t discount Hill’s contributions. This is a very good emerging player.

A huge-bodied defensive tackle, Hill’s power, bulk and strength complement the upfield abilities of Suh and Williams very well. And this young player should only get stronger and stouter at the point of attack with refined technique and leverage.

But Hill isn’t just a big run-stopper. His pass-rush was apparent as well in 2010. He can push the pocket. And once again, he should only improve in this department with more technique work and adding more to his pass-rushing arsenal.

Maybe the most important aspect to remember when discussing Hill is that he is only 24 years old and hails from a tiny football school, Stillman. So his development still might only be in the infant stages. That is obviously extremely encouraging.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 24, 2011
3/24/11
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

Chicago Bears

As they look for offensive linemen, particularly tackles and even tight ends, the Bears need to make sure those players are quick enough to handle most one-one-one situations that come their way. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme emphasizes the number of players in pass routes and relatively rarely gives offensive linemen help against the pass rush. Running backs need to have receiving ability, and wide receivers need to have precise route-running skills. Defensively, the Bears' "Tampa-2" scheme puts a premium on active interior linemen who might be on the small side but can use quickness and technique to overpower opponents. Cornerbacks on the bigger side are also sought after so they can be physical with receivers of the line.

Detroit Lions

The Lions are continuing to transition from a former emphasis on smaller defensive players to ones with size. Their starting defensive tackles, for example, now weight 320 (Corey Williams) and 307 pounds (Ndamukong Suh), respectively. Backup Sammie Lee Hill is listed at 329 pounds. That philosophy will no doubt guide their search for outside linebackers and perhaps cornerbacks as well. Lions coach Jim Schwartz likes linebackers who can play multiple positions. Offensively, the Lions run a multiple scheme that puts an emphasis on pass-catching tight ends and multi-purpose running backs.

Green Bay Packers

As a 3-4 team, the Packers have to take special care that their outside linebackers are big enough to play on the line of scrimmage and their defensive ends are stout enough to play inside the tackle. For a 3-4 linebacker, pass rush takes precedent over coverage skills. Many 3-4 NFL linebackers played defensive end in a 4-3 at some point during their college careers. Offensively, the Packers like to zone block, and they look for offensive linemen who can play multiple positions and flip between both sides of the line. If you have trouble catching the ball, you're not going to get on the field much at any skill position -- including tight end and fullback -- in Packers coach Mike McCarthy's system.

Minnesota Vikings

New Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave won't finalize their offensive scheme until they find out who their quarterback will be this season and moving forward. Musgrave plans to incorporate aspects of the team's West Coast scheme, but the Vikings won't be shopping for any particular body type or skill set. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has hit big on a number of attempts to draft playmakers in recent years, from running back Adrian Peterson to receiver Sidney Rice to receiver Percy Harvin. Defensively, the Vikings will be looking for safeties who can cover the deep half of the field and for interior linemen who can stuff the run.

BBAO: Packers to open minicamp

June, 21, 2010
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

Our spring season will conclude this week as the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions hold their veteran mandatory minicamps. Players will participate in three days of practices and then be dismissed for the summer. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, are scheduled to hold their final organized team activity Thursday. The Minnesota Vikings wrapped up offseason work last week.

It'll be interesting to see who is on the field -- and who isn't -- when the Packers kick off Monday at 11:45 a.m. ET. There was a lot of confusion last week about whether cornerback Tramon Williams signed his restricted free-agent tender; assuming he did, which has not been announced by the team, he would be obligated to attend this camp. Defensive end Johnny Jolly has been excused, while safety Atari Bigby remains unsigned.

The Packers have one practice apiece on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The first two are open to the public. The Lions' camp doesn't start until Wednesday. They forfeited OTAs scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "If last week is any indication, Mark Murphy, the president of the Packers, will be one of the key voices National Football League fans will be hearing from in public as the collective bargaining talks between the NFL players union and the owners wends its way to agreement or impasse."
  • The Packers released cornerback Trevor Ford, safety Khalil Jones, linebacker Tim Knicky and quarterback Noah Shepard on Friday, according to a press release.
  • Lions defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill is expected to take a secondary role with the team this year, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Guard Manny Ramirez is down to his last chance with the Lions, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Tight ends will be a frequent target of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2010, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
  • Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway didn't expound much on his reasons for not practicing during minicamp in an interview with the Argus Leader. Greenway: "There is no contract issue at all. Coach [Brad] Childress gave me some time off for the minicamp, and that's really all that matters."
  • Joe Webb mania is out of control, both nationally and in Minnesota. ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli provides details on the decision to shift Webb from receiver to quarterback, while the Star Tribune's Sid Hartman writes about how big Webb's hands are.
  • Receiver Johnny Knox is firmly entrenched as a starter for the Chicago Bears, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Knox is also in the kick-return mix, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times talks to Bears cornerback Joshua Moore about his decision to enter the draft last year so he could support his pregnant girlfriend.

Detroit: What if it isn't Suh?

April, 22, 2010
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In these final hours before the NFL draft opens, you would have to look pretty hard to find a media analyst who is convinced the Detroit Lions won't take Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the No. 2 overall pick. But what if they don't? What if the Lions, led by one of the more mysterious general managers in the league, pull a surprise and look elsewhere?

(That means you, Martin Mayhew.)

What would that mean for the Lions? Who would they pick? Where would that leave the rest of the draft? (Why am I asking so many questions?) Let's consider some possibilities while we await the opening bell:

  • As we discussed a few weeks ago, many media draft analysts actually favor Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy as a pure prospect. Suh is considered the so-called "safer" choice because of his heavy college production. Still, we've got nothing other than conventional wisdom and peer pressure telling us the Lions rank Suh over McCoy. For all we know, it could be McCoy.
  • We could be wrong in assuming the Lions aren't factoring in the finances of paying No. 2 money to a defensive tackle. As we noted earlier this offseason, it is one of the game's lowest-paid positions. Let's not totally rule out the possibility that the Lions would look at a left tackle for that reason, even though coach Jim Schwartz has said he is happy with current starter Jeff Backus. Two of the draft's top left tackles visited the Lions' complex: Oklahoma State's Russell Okung and Oklahoma's Trent Williams. No one should be stunned if either were the pick.
  • If the Lions went with a left tackle instead of Suh or McCoy, it's very possible the rookie would open the season as a reserve. Backus could well remain at left tackle, with newcomer Rob Sims the likely starter at left guard. The Lions are one year removed from giving right guard Stephen Peterman a five-year contract extension. And it seems that right tackle Gosder Cherilus will get one more year to establish himself.
  • Without Suh or McCoy, the likeliest starting defensive tackle duo would be Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill. Unless the Lions trade for Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, another possible impediment to drafting Suh.
  • If the Lions draft McCoy, you would figure Tampa Bay will snatch Suh at No. 3. The rest of the draft would be unaffected.
  • If the choice is Okung or Williams, the draft could get turned on its heels. Either Suh or McCoy could fall as far as Cleveland at No. 7, but probably no further.
  • Finally, we shouldn't assume the Lions will react to popular sentiment, including that of their own fans. Don't forget that last year, Lions fans were urging them to take linebacker Aaron Curry over quarterback Matthew Stafford.
I'm not trying to shake up any Detroit fans who are lighting by cyberspace in hopes that Suh becomes a Lion this evening. But we should all be realistic and accept that anyone who thinks they absolutely, positively know what's going to happen is either lying, delusional or an NFC North blogger for ESPN.com.
Monday's trade of linebacker Ernie Sims prompts us to update our, uh, visual depiction of Detroit's decade-long draft woes. Sims was the last remaining player from the 2006 class, meaning the Lions have only two players on their roster from the seven drafts from 2000-06.

If you want to know how you become a team whose top need is talent, take a look. Enough said.

2000: 0
2001: 2 (Left tackle Jeff Backus, center Dominic Raiola)
2002: Nada
2003: Zip
2004: Nothing
2005: Nil
2006: Zilch*
2007: 3 (Receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, guard Manny Ramirez)
2008: 7 (Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, linebacker Jordon Dizon, tailback Kevin Smith, defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, defensive end Cliff Avril, fullback Jerome Felton, defensive tackle Landon Cohen)
2009: 9 (Quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy, receiver Derrick Williams, defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, running back Aaron Brown, linebacker Zack Follett, tight end Dan Gronkowski)

*Update: Safety Daniel Bullocks signed his tender Monday, officially returning him to the Lions' roster. So technically, one player remains from the 2006 draft even though Bullocks is battling a serious knee injury.
Detroit's acquisition of defensive tackle Corey Williams made veteran Grady Jackson expendable, and the Lions announced Jackson's release Friday afternoon.

The Lions have a much younger, healthier and cheaper version of Jackson already on their roster in Sammie Lee Hill. Williams and Hill could share time with either Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy if the Lions make one of the latter two players the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

Meanwhile, the Lions have also re-signed two of their unrestricted free agents Friday. Offensive lineman Jon Jansen and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu each agreed to one-year extensions.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
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NFC Schemes/Themes: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: schemes and themes.

Chicago Bears

No matter what scheme they run, the Bears will have limited opportunity to find impact players in this draft without a first- or second-round pick. The Bears, however, have specific schemes on both sides of the ball that require special personnel attention. They don't run their "Tampa 2" defensive front on every play, but they still place emphasis on athletic interior linemen who can mount their own pass rush. And while they value coverage ability, they also need cornerbacks who are big enough to redirect receivers on the line of scrimmage before passing them on to the secondary cover man. Offensively, new coordinator Mike Martz needs quick receivers who run precise routes more than bigger deep threats. Running backs must also have above-average receiving skills to play in his system.

Detroit Lions

After three years in a defense that emphasized speed, the Lions now focus on size when it comes to linemen and linebackers. Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, who weighs 330 pounds, never would have been a Lions draft pick under the previous regime. They aren't likely to select many 285-pound defensive tackles or 240-pound defensive ends. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham wants his line to push back against pressure, not run around it. Offensively, the Lions are lucky to have a flexible scheme that emphasizes the strengths of their players. They don't need a prescribed height, weight or skill set for that side of the ball.

Green Bay Packers

Because they play the 3-4 defensive scheme, the Packers will keep an eye out for college defensive ends who are athletic enough to make the transition to outside linebacker in the NFL. They'll also look for college defensive tackles who could move to the end position in their scheme. And with Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator, you shouldn't rule out a wild-card draftee: A player with 'tweener skills who could be used in a creative way. USC safety Taylor Mays comes to mind. Offensively, the Packers look for linemen who can play multiple positions and can operate in a zone blocking scheme. And every offensive skill player, including tight ends and running backs, must have a high comfort zone in the pass game.

Minnesota Vikings

Under vice president Rick Spielman, the Vikings take a nuanced approach to the draft -- identifying specific players they want and then trading up or down in a round to make sure they get them. Second-round pick Tyrell Johnson (2008), a big and athletic safety the Vikings considered a perfect fit for a Cover 2 defense, is an example. They also prefer offensive players with experience running a version of the West Coast offense. That, for example, is why they traded up to get quarterback John David Booty in 2008. The offense Booty ran at USC has the same passing tree as the Vikings'.
I was sitting at Brett Favre's Wednesday news conference when he said: “Honestly, I see us sitting here next week having this press conference again. If that doesn't happen, to me it will be a shock.”

It was in response to a question about whether he plans to play next season, and I took it as Favre’s way of saying he hasn’t thought about it because he remains in the routine of the season. He has said many times in his career that the end of the season always comes abruptly and is in fact “a shock.”

I didn’t make anything of it -- and trust me, I’m always looking to make something of nearly nothing. Somehow, however, it ignited a war of words with Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh, who joined some media members in claiming Favre had guaranteed a victory over Dallas in Sunday’s divisional playoff game.

“We'd have to beat ourselves to lose," Sensabaugh told local reporters, according to my NFC East buddy Matt Mosley. “The way we're playing right now, I don't think we can be beat.”

Favre made a rare Thursday appearance before local reporters to say “I’m not guaranteeing anything.” According to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune, Favre added: “The last thing I ever want to do is be bulletin-board material. Of course, I gave the Cowboys a ton of respect. They deserve it. They are playing outstanding. They are playing -- and I'm speaking NFC -- as well if not the best maybe in the league. San Diego, obviously, would argue that. How could I sit there and say, 'Well, next week possibly [we] could be home?' That very well could be true, could be over, for both teams. I'm sure people want to take it [as] he's guaranteeing a victory.”

Favre doesn’t need me to defend him, but I really don’t think anything about what he originally said should be interpreted as a guarantee. It’s silly hype for a huge game that doesn’t need any. Sensabaugh, however, took the bait and offered up a genuine bit of trash talk for the Vikings. Excellent work, Gerald. See you Sunday.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press discusses what life is like to be named Jasper Brinkley, as in the Vikings’ middle linebacker, when your twin brother is named Casper Brinkley.
  • Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune hasn’t gotten over the 1975 “Push Pearson” playoff game between the Vikings and Cowboys.
  • Struggling in its search for coordinators, Chicago should consider Mike Martz for offense. Writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune: “If the process remains as open as [general manager Jerry] Angelo says it is, then he needs to open his mind wider than it seems to the idea of Mike Martz. For reasons that defy logic, the most qualified, interested candidate still has his nose pressed against the Halas Hall glass. The most dynamic moves the Bears could make this offseason would be hiring Martz and installing FieldTurf at Soldier Field to provide the right surface for his offense. This organization could use some firm footing.”
  • If there is a Plan B for the Bears defense after getting spurned by Perry Fewell, ESPN Chicago’s Jeff Dickerson isn’t aware of it.
  • Green Bay’s special teams weren’t much better this season than in 2008, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The Packers are awaiting news of CBA negotiations so they know whether a group of eight players, including five starters, will be free agents or not this offseason. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looks at the situation.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill made an impact on Detroit’s run defense this season, writes Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
  • It’s too early to know if Lions coach Jim Schwartz will be a top-flight coach, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.

NFC North Team Wrap-ups

January, 6, 2010
1/06/10
2:30
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South
Clayton: Video | AFC grades ... NFC More: Fantasy MVPs | FB Outsiders | Awards

A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.

Minnesota Vikings

Final Power Ranking: 3

Biggest surprise: Against all odds and previous trends, Minnesota became a passing team. Coach Brad Childress prefers a power running approach, one honed during his time as the offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, and he built one of the league’s best behind Adrian Peterson over the previous two seasons. The recruitment of quarterback Brett Favre was intended to provide a viable alternative when defenses ganged-up on Peterson. Instead, the Vikings proved they are better equipped to throw than force the run against defenses stacked to stop Peterson. All told, the Vikings threw 101 more passes in 2009 than they did last season -- an 18 percent increase. Their net yardage rose nearly 25 percent, and they threw as many touchdown passes (34) as they did in the 2007 and 2008 seasons combined.

Biggest disappointment: Play at both safety positions was invisible at its best and glaring at its worst. Veteran Madieu Williams, signed two years ago because of his alleged coverage ability, started all 16 games but failed to make a single interception. Along the way, he proved to be a poor tackler and broke up only four passes. Second-year player Tyrell Johnson, who the Vikings targeted last season as Darren Sharper’s eventual replacement, was average at best. It was no coincidence that he lost some playing time to rookie Jamarca Sanford at the end of the season.

Biggest need: A ball-hawking safety would help, but as odd as it sounds, the biggest organizational need is a long-term plan at quarterback. Favre turned 40 in October and is very much a year-to-year proposition. Childress remains supportive of backup Tarvaris Jackson, but the success of the 2009 offense was another indictment of Jackson’s previous ineffectiveness. Childress has never seemed comfortable with No. 3 quarterback Sage Rosenfels. If there were ever a time for the Vikings to draft their quarterback of the future, it’s now.

Team MVP: Brett Favre. As the Vikings hoped, he was the final piece in making them a Super Bowl contender. He was the difference between 10-6 and 12-4, and gives the Vikings a legitimate chance to push deep into the playoffs.

Best thing that never happened: Signing free-agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Vikings targeted Houshmandzadeh at the start of free agency and were on the brink of signing him. Concerns about the pre-Favre quarterback situation prompted Houshmandzadeh to spurn their offer and join Seattle. Had he signed in Minnesota, however, one of the Vikings’ key players would never have emerged. They would have either stunted the development of third-year receiver Sidney Rice, who made the Pro Bowl with an 83-catch season, or might not have drafted slot receiver Percy Harvin. The NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, Harvin, made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner but also ranked second on the team with 60 receptions and 790 yards.


Green Bay Packers

Final Power Ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: The sudden pass-rushing prowess of rookie linebacker Clay Matthews. Packers general manager Ted Thompson thought highly enough of Matthews to trade back into the first round and select him with the No. 26 overall pick. Matthews had only 4.5 sacks as a senior at Southern California, and a series of spring and summer leg injuries suggested he would have a slow rookie season. But after being inserted into the starting lineup in the fourth game of the season, Matthews collected a team-high 10 sacks. By the end of the year, he couldn’t be blocked. Matthews finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award voting and should be a force for years to come.

Biggest disappointment: The Week 1 offensive line. Quite simply, the Packers are lucky that quarterback Aaron Rodgers survived the first half of the season. Rodgers might have held the ball too long on occasion, but for the most part he was under constant pressure from opposing defenses. Rodgers, in fact, took 37 sacks over the first eight games. The Packers took an unjustified risk in starting Allen Barbre at right tackle and didn’t have a good plan to replace left tackle Chad Clifton when he was sidelined by injuries. They deserve credit for finding a multi-pronged solution, including the return of right tackle Mark Tauscher, but that came only after they dug themselves a huge hole.

Biggest need: Depth behind tailback Ryan Grant would help, but the Packers need a long-term answer at both offensive tackle positions. Clifton and Tauscher will be free agents after the season. Rookie T.J. Lang could figure at one of the positions, but the Packers must address the other high in the 2010 draft.

Team MVP: Cornerback Charles Woodson. A favorite for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, Woodson was at his best in Dom Capers’ attacking 3-4 scheme. He has retained his coverage skills at age 33, and he also proved to be the Packers’ best blitzer and all-around playmaker. His final tally was nine interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns, along with two sacks and four forced fumbles.

A dark moment turns bright: After finishing 6-10 last season, coach Mike McCarthy retreated to Lambeau Field and went underground for nearly a week. When he emerged, McCarthy had decided to turn over much of his coaching staff. Out of that tumultuous time period came the decision to change defensive schemes and, ultimately, hire Capers. The end result was the NFL’s No. 2 defense, one that allowed the league’s fewest rushing yards (1,333) and created its highest total of turnovers (40).


Chicago Bears

Final power ranking: 22

Biggest surprise: That new quarterback Jay Cutler would turn into an interception machine. Cutler brought a gunslinging mentality from Denver, but never in his previous three seasons had he finished with more interceptions than touchdown passes. In his first 14 games with the Bears, however, Cutler threw 25 interceptions against 19 touchdowns. A late surge reversed that ratio, but it won’t hide the fact that Cutler personally submarined at least three losses -- at Green Bay, Atlanta and San Francisco -- with multiple interceptions. He threw a total of 11 in those games.

Biggest disappointment: Tailback Matt Forte. There were reports recently that Forte played most of the season with a sprained knee. That could explain the drop-off from his rookie season and especially his lack of power near the goal line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Forte had the third-most goal-to-goal carries in the NFL this season (33). But he managed only three touchdowns on those carries, a ratio that ranked him No. 102 among all rushers who got a carry in that situation. How many more games would the Bears have won if they had converted more of those runs? Among other things, it would have left Cutler in fewer positions where he felt compelled to force a pass into the end zone.

Biggest need: The Bears need an enforcer on their defense, which has lost the intimidation factor it carried into the Super Bowl three years ago. That player could come at any position, but it’s most needed at safety. The Bears need someone who can put fear in receivers and influence quarterback decisions. That’s not necessarily a hallmark of the Tampa 2 defense coach Lovie Smith plans to continue using, but it could change the way the Bears are perceived by opposing offenses.

Team MVP: Only because it’s a required category: Linebacker Lance Briggs was the Bears’ lone Pro Bowler and their leading tackler. He was also a 15-game starter on a defense that played terribly for most of 2009.

In hindsight: The Bears executed only 50 percent of their goal to improve their quarterback play. They paid a premium price to get a young and potentially elite arm in Cutler. But they failed to follow through with appropriate integration. Cutler didn’t appear comfortable in a pocket scheme and, despite what anyone says, had mostly limited targets. None of his receivers required a double team, which made the offense easier for opponents to defend. The Bears will have to spend the offseason reformulating their plan around him.


Detroit Lions

Final power ranking: 31

Biggest surprise: We knew quarterback Matthew Stafford had an elite arm. It’s what rocketed him to the top of the draft charts at this time last year. But was there any way to know how much of a “gamer” he is? Opponents battered Stafford in several games this season, none more so than his now-legendary Nov. 22 victory over Cleveland. Every player on the Lions’ roster -- from the biggest offensive linemen to the smallest receiver -- knows how tough their leader is. When the Lions refused to rest his separated left shoulder, Stafford made two more starts with the help of painkilling medication before finally shutting it down. Stafford's greatest contribution would be spreading that determination to the rest of the roster.

Biggest disappointment: The Lions hired two respected defensive minds last winter in head coach Jim Schwartz and coordinator Gunther Cunningham. But ultimately their defense made only incremental improvement from last season’s 0-16 group. Opponents threw at will against Detroit, completing 68.1 percent of their passes for 35 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Personnel is thin at all defensive positions, but the Lions could have used more help from a scheme perspective.

Biggest need: Schwartz had a blunt answer when asked this week of his team’s biggest offseason need: “Improve the talent level of the team.” Let’s focus that goal on the defense, where depth is frighteningly thin. Entering the offseason, the Lions have three defensive players who seem locked in to start in 2010: Defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Louis Delmas. What do the Lions need? Starters at the other eight positions and depth behind everyone. That should about do it.

Team MVP: Safety Louis Delmas. Stafford would have been in the running if he had made it through the season. But time and again over 16 games, Delmas proved to be a player the Lions can build around. He demonstrated aggressive tackling, strong ball skills and an admirable competitive edge. Like many young safeties, he ventured into unsportsmanlike conduct territory a few times, and he needs to level off that portion of his game. But in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with having a feared player on a defense that has long been anything but.

In hindsight: We were among those who questioned the decision to draft tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the No. 20 overall pick, especially with offensive lineman Michael Oher and linebacker Rey Maualuga still available. No matter how good Pettigrew proved to be, is the tight end position more important than an offensive tackle or linebacker? The answer is no. The Lions still have tremendous needs at both positions. But we should say this much: Pettigrew proved not only a strong blocker, but also a dynamic part of the passing game before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He was a good tight end, but having one of those is generally a luxury.

Third and one: Lions

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
11:40
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After Detroit’s 37-23 loss to Chicago, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. The Lions hired two well-respected defensive minds last winter in head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. But in the end, opponents gashed them at nearly the same rate as they did last season. After the Bears put up 418 total yards Sunday, the Lions once again finished last in the NFL in yards allowed (392.1) and points (30.9) per game. Their run defense actually improved slightly, moving up from No. 32 to No. 25, but their pass defense plummeted to No. 32. Opposing quarterbacks had an incredible 107 passer rating. Of all the players directly involved in pass defense this season, only one stood out as a long-term keeper: Rookie safety Louis Delmas. The Lions have a long way to go on that side of the ball.
  2. The most positive aspect of the Lions’ season was the emergence of multiple members of their draft class, with Delmas at the top of the list. Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill all figure as starters in 2010. The same goes for tight end Brandon Pettigrew when he returns from knee surgery. But the Lions’ talent pool is so thin that it will take several years of similar drafts to pull its roster to NFL standards.
  3. Backup tailback Maurice Morris rushed for 228 yards in three starts after Kevin Smith was lost for the season, including 65 yards Sunday against the Bears. That represented an uptick from Smith’s 13-game production, but it’s still hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lions must address their offensive line more seriously in future offseasons. Their decision to mostly stand pat last winter was not rewarded. Perhaps this is the year they find a replacement for left tackle Jeff Backus, who could then move to left guard.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
What kind of season would the Lions have had if they didn’t finish the year with 17 players on injured reserve? That list includes significant contributors like Stafford, Pettigrew, Smith, right guard Stephen Peterman and cornerback Eric King. Linebacker Ernie Sims, receiver Calvin Johnson and cornerback Phillip Buchanon were also limited by injuries for much of the season. From the first day of training camp, the Lions were the most hobbled team in the NFC North. I imagine the Lions will spend a good part of their offseason evaluating their training, strength and conditioning practices.
We spent some time Thursday discussing the possibility of Detroit drafting Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh next April, and two weeks ago about the Lions’ across-the-board needs at most positions.

But as Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com writes, the Lions feel confident that they’ve filled at least three defensive holes already -- in the 2009 draft. Safety Louis Delmas, linebacker DeAndre Levy and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill all project as long-term starters. The Lions appear especially happy with Levy, whom they think has given them more versatility than a higher-rated player they passed on in the draft: Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who eventually went to Cincinnati.

Here’s what Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said about the Levy-Maualuga comparison: “I watched Rey Maualuga in this last game and he's a good player, but when it comes to third down, he’s off the field. Our guy doesn't come off the field. You can say that Cincinnati's winning and I’m going to say ‘We'll see down the road who was right.’ I'm not being disrespectful to Rey, I think he's a heckuva football player. But I think if you draft a guy [high], that guy shouldn't come off the field -- ever. He should be good enough to be able to play all three downs and Levy can do that.”

OK then. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Delmas and Levy, although I’ve seen Levy bounce off a lot of missed tackles. Hill, on the other hand, has been injured for a good bit of the year. But when we evaluate draft impact at the end of the season, I think we’ll have kind words for the Lions.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Black and Blue all over: FavreDay II

November, 1, 2009
11/01/09
9:06
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

APPLETON, Wis. -- I rolled into my makeshift NFC North headquarters late on Halloween night, just as a citywide costume party appeared to be under way. I couldn’t tell whether I was on College Ave. or Bourbon St. as I weaved through the revelers. That’s living -- and it’s only the start.

I imagine at least some of those partygoers have already migrated up to Lambeau Field for today’s showdown between Green Bay and Minnesota. I’ll be up there soon as well. As I like to say, I’ll see what I see and write when I write upon arrival.

For now, let’s take a quick spin through Sunday morning coverage in the division:
Ed Werder on how Brett Favre and the Vikings are preparing for Favre's return to Lambeau.

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Sunday, 9/21
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