NFC North: Scramble'11

Probably the top question I'm seeing from Minnesota Vikings fans is how their team is planning to replace receiver Sidney Rice, who agreed earlier this week with the Seattle Seahawks.

During the wild speculation over the first few days of free agency, the Vikings have been linked to some big-name free agents, including Malcom Floyd and Braylon Edwards. They might well end up with one of those players, but here is another name to keep in mind: Michael Jenkins.

The Atlanta Falcons released Jenkins on Friday morning, and already many people around the NFL are linking him to the Vikings because offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave used to be the Falcons' quarterbacks coach. That means Jenkins will know the Vikings offense and be ready to step in right away when newly signed free agents are able to begin practicing Aug. 4.

To be clear, Jenkins is a much different receiver than Rice. He's a classic possession type, with dependable hands and a good work ethic. He's not going to make plays happen downfield on his own, but he'll be in the place that Donovan McNabb (or Christian Ponder) expects him to be.

I have no inside knowledge a deal is imminent. It's just one that makes a lot of sense for both sides.

Recent Vikings posts: Remi Ayodele could be the Vikings' new nose tackle. The best way to view the acquisition of McNabb is as (expensive) insurance for Ponder. Rice wanted a fresh start. The Vikings made the right call to bring back place-kicker Ryan Longwell. Receiver Percy Harvin plans to play at about 10 pounds lighter this season. Adrian Peterson was surprised to see Rice leave. The Vikings have a tough decision on Peterson's contract.
Will Eric Wright be this season's Chris Houston? That comparison came to mind Friday morning when it became clear that Wright and the Detroit Lions had agreed to terms on a one-year contract.

Like Houston, Wright was a full-time starter throughout his tenure with his original team. And like Houston, that original team was willing to part ways with him. The Lions got Houston for a swap of draft picks. Wright was an unrestricted free agent whom the Cleveland Browns weren't interested in re-signing.

Coach Jim Schwartz emphasized Thursday that the Lions' player acquisitions would continue well into training camp and cautioned against drawing any conclusions based on the roster they take into the final days of July. But for now, at least, Wright is the only cornerback the Lions have acquired for a position that was arguably their biggest need entering the offseason.

Wright had some decent seasons with the Browns, combining for seven interceptions in 2008 and 2009, but struggled in 2010. He chose the right team to sign with if he's looking for an opportunity to rehabilitate his career.

Back in April, after they failed to draft a cornerback or a starting-caliber linebacker, the Lions noted that there were many other avenues available for filling their remaining roster holes. It's only fair to allow the process to play out, but after the first few days of the free-agent frenzy, the Lions' acquisitions -- Wright and linebacker Justin Durant -- have been underwhelming.
Last post of the night (probably).

The Detroit Lions will open training camp Friday morning with all of their draft choices under contract. First-round draft pick Nick Fairley agreed to terms late Thursday night, he said via Twitter. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reports it is a four-year deal worth $10 million. Keep those numbers in mind when the Minnesota Vikings go to sign quarterback Christian Ponder, who was taken one spot above Fairley in the April draft.

I expect most NFC North draft picks to be signed by the end of the weekend. We'll update you on everyone Friday.
Thursday afternoon marked the opening of the NFL's official waiver season, when teams can formally release players and begin adjusting their salary cap structure. We've already discussed the Chicago Bears' now-official decision to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, and now we'll hit some other NFC North-related personnel moves in quick-hitting fashion.

Item: The Green Bay Packers have informed linebacker Brady Poppinga and defensive tackle Justin Harrell they will be released, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
Comment: Poppinga was coming off a serious knee injury. Harrell now qualifies as the biggest bust of general manager Ted Thompson's tenure. Drafted with a history of injuries, Harrell couldn't stay on the field for the Packers.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings released safety Madieu Williams.
Comment: Williams was due $5.4 million in 2011, a high price for a player who might not have made the team. He was originally signed on the advice of now-coach Leslie Frazier, but a 2008 neck injury seemed to rob him of some aggressiveness as a tackler. I'm not sure if his replacement is on the roster yet, but Tyrell Johnson might get a chance.

Item: The Detroit Lions will release linebacker Jordon Dizon.
Comment: Dizon was a vestige of Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2 defense and too small to fit into the Lions' current scheme.

Item: The Bears lost out on two free agents they have been reported to have interest in, receiver Brad Smith and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod.
Comment:
They're too busy getting straight at tight end to worry about all that.
Who would have pegged the Chicago Bears' tight end position as a preseason source of drama? That's pretty much what has developed Thursday in a matter of hours.

The latest: According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bears plan to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna by the end of the day. That news comes on top of reports the Bears are shopping incumbent Greg Olsen for a trade and have agreed to terms with free agent Matt Spaeth.

I don't know if anyone outside of Halas Hall truly knows what is going on here. We've discussed the likely motivation behind trading Olsen, namely that Mike Martz's offense doesn't place a high value on pass-catching tight ends. But the Bears signed Manumaleuna specifically for this scheme and in large part because of his history with Martz, paying him a contract that guaranteed him $6.1 million.

Manumaleuna is due a roster bonus of $1 million before the start of the regular season. He has struggled with knee injuries and was also fined $22,000 last season for missing team meetings.

Spaeth is mostly known as a blocking tight end and would presumably replace Manumaleuna in that role. Does that mean Olsen will remain with the Bears this season? I don't think Spaeth's arrival changes that question one way or the other. The issue is whether the Bears want to pay market value for a tight end whose skills don't totally fit their system. If they were shopping Olsen this week, chances are they have made up their mind on that question. Stay tuned.

Recent Bears posts: Why would the Bears part ways with Olsen? Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
Earlier this week, the Minnesota Vikings told defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy that he would be released. That decision left us with some obvious questions: Who will start opposite Kevin Williams if free-agent nose tackle Pat Williams doesn’t return? And who would start in place of Kevin Williams during his presumed four-game suspension?

Ayodele
Ayodele
The Vikings answered one of those questions Thursday by agreeing to terms with free-agent nose tackle Remi Ayodele, who spent the past three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. I believe the Times-Picayune had the news first. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports the deal is worth $9 million over three seasons.

Ayodele figures as a prototypical nose tackle to play opposite the so-called “three-technique” position that Kevin Williams mans. At 28, he is 10 years younger than Pat Williams. And at 6-foot-2 and 318 pounds, he is appropriately squat for the position. (Although like Fletch, his hair style makes him closer to 6-foot-9.)

Recent Vikings posts: The best way to view the acquisition of quarterback Donovan McNabb is as (expensive) insurance for rookie Christian Ponder. Rice wanted a fresh start. The Vikings made the right call in bringing back place-kicker Ryan Longwell. Receiver Percy Harvin plans to play at about 10 pounds lighter this season. The Vikings have a tough decision on Peterson's contract. Adrian Peterson was surprised to see Rice leave.

Scramble'11: Greg Olsen's future

July, 28, 2011
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We've discussed the Chicago Bears' looming decision on the future of tailback Matt Forte. Left unspoken, for the most part, has been a similar dilemma they face with tight end Greg Olsen -- who is also entering the final year of his contract.

But unlike Forte, Olsen plays in an offense that doesn't maximize his skills or position. So in what qualifies as one of the surprises of Scramble'11, it appears the Bears are prepared to move on and at least seek compensation for his departure rather than let him walk as an unrestricted free agent next year.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Bob Donnan/US PresswireGreg Olsen had 41 receptions for 404 yards in 2010, the lowest totals since his rookie year.
That's the upshot of a report from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, who viewed an email sent to all 32 teams from Olsen's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. According to the report, Rosenhaus wrote that the Bears had authorized him to seek trade offers. Rosenhaus later sent a second email asking that the first be disregarded, but it's pretty clear that something is brewing.

We discussed this issue on numerous occasions after offensive coordinator Mike Martz's arrival in 2010. Martz had typically devalued the tight end in his passing game, and before last season no tight end had caught more than 38 passes or six touchdowns in a full season under Martz. In the end, I thought Martz was too smart to under-utilize a player with Olsen's unique size and skills.

Olsen finished the season with 41 receptions, a Martz-scheme record, but on a personal level it was his lowest total in three years. If Olsen wants a market-level contract extension for a tight end -- which, by the way, he deserves -- then he's not likely to get it from a team that prioritizes blocking rather than receiving from its tight end.

That's not to say there isn't blame here. Generally speaking, good coaching is about adjusting schemes to fit the skills of your players, not the other way around. And what if Martz leaves at some point in the next five seasons, which is certainly a possibility? I'm betting the next offensive coordinator would like a 6-foot-5 tight end who can outrun linebackers and outmuscle defensive backs in the end zone.

It's always possible the Bears will decide to play out the season with Olsen if they don't get an offer they like. But at the very least, it seems they are not jumping at the opportunity to lock him up long term.

Recent Bears posts: Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
Multiple reports suggest it's only a matter of time before the Green Bay Packers formally part ways with offensive lineman Daryn Colledge. The Arizona Cardinals appear to be the leading candidate for his services.

This news should come as no surprise because the Packers have declined numerous opportunities to sign Colledge to an extension in recent years. He is now an unrestricted free agent. Clearly, the Packers are comfortable with depth along the offensive line and decided to allocate their cash and salary-cap space elsewhere.

So who will take over for Colledge at left guard? The best guess, as suggested by ESPNMilwaukee.com's Jason Wilde, is T.J. Lang. I believe Lang has played every position except quarterback in his three seasons with the Packers, and if anything he's proved a quick study. And although it's totally irrelevant, Lang has also demonstrated a solid John Madden-like sense of humor on his Twitter feed (@TJLang70).

Recently: "I hate dropping ketchup on clothes I just washed."

Who doesn't?

Seriously, there are two other backups who could figure into this competition: Nick McDonald and Marshall Newhouse. But what interests me the most is if the Packers will feel compelled, as they have in the past, to shift a starter or rising starter from another position into an open spot in the name of getting their best five linemen on the field.

In this case: Would the Packers move right tackle Bryan Bulaga to left guard, where he spent a bit of time in training camp last summer? Or would they try to get first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, a left tackle in college, onto the field as a left guard?

We have no immediate indication on those possibilities. Coach Mike McCarthy is scheduled to speak with reporters Saturday morning. Stay tuned.

Recent Packers posts: The Packers trust Mason Crosby as their place-kicker of the future. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers really, really wants the Packers to re-sign receiver James Jones. To little surprise, the Packers told linebacker Nick Barnett he will be traded or released.
Chicago Bears fans understandably are pining for an infusion of free agent offensive linemen. I think that will come in the next day or so. In the meantime, the Bears took care of the roster hole created when they decided to move on from veteran punter Brad Maynard.

Free agent Adam Podlesh, who spent the past four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, has agreed to terms on a five-year contract, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. There had been heavy speculation that the Bears would pursue the New York Jets' Steve Weatherford, but ultimately Podlesh proved to be their man.

The Jaguars' fourth-round draft pick in 2007, Podlesh was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as acinic cell carcinoma in 2009. He returned in 2010 to have the best season of his career, earning Pro Bowl alternate status after averaging 43.8 yards per punt and dropping 26 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line.

Most important to the Bears, Podlesh is 11 years younger than Maynard and presumably will provide stability at the position for years to come.

Recent Bears posts: The team is working offensive line targets. Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.

Scramble'11: Lions get rolling

July, 27, 2011
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While we await word on the Detroit Lions' pursuit of linebacker Stephen Tulloch, let's pass along several moves the Lions have completed.

Safety John Wendling has agreed to terms on a three-year contract and quarterback Drew Stanton has re-upped on a one-year deal, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Wendling was a Pro Bowl alternate last season after making 30 special teams tackles. Stanton will resume his role as the No. 3 quarterback for at least one more season.

The Lions have now brought back three of their unrestricted free agents: Wendling, Stanton and place-kicker Dave Rayner.
As we noted earlier, the Detroit Lions haven't made a (public) move for a cornerback yet. That brings up the natural question: What about linebacker, the Lions' other well-known position of need?

According to a report from Brad Biggs for the National Football Post, the Lions might have prioritized linebacker over cornerbacks. They began pursuing free agent Stephen Tulloch on Tuesday, according to the report, and have offered him a contract with guarantees of at least $10 million.

Tulloch has been at the center of offseason speculation surrounding the Lions because he played under coach Jim Schwartz in Tennessee. Tulloch would likely play middle linebacker for the Lions, shifting DeAndre Levy to the outside and more or less closing one of the Lions' obvious personnel holes. A 4-3 team doesn't necessarily need three clear starters at linebacker because the third usually comes off the field in nickel packages, anyway.

It’s likely Tulloch has other offers as well. Earlier Wednesday, he tweeted: “Decisions,Decisions,Decisions....Feels like being drafted all over again....”

We'll keep you updated.
Earlier, we noted a reference to some concerns Donovan McNabb might have about a tentative trade that would send him to the Minnesota Vikings. ESPN's Adam Schefter explains the situation in the video below.

According to Schefter, some people in the McNabb camp became emotional Tuesday night because of the cool embrace the Vikings extended. They were concerned about reports the Vikings had first pursued free agent Tyler Thigpen as well as the Vikings' insistence that he dramatically reduce his contract terms.

Thigpen is the quarterback I thought the Vikings might pair with rookie Christian Ponder, but Thigpen smartly agreed to terms with the Buffalo Bills, where he will have a chance to win a long-term starting job.

Ultimately, the deal is expected to happen. The Redskins will get a sixth-round draft pick in 2012 and possibly a conditional pick as well. Stay tuned.

Via Twitter, @gregfairbanks expressed a common refrain from the fan base of any team that didn't make a Day 1 splash in free agency: "Awfully quiet on the lions front -- any news brewing??"

I haven't abandoned my expectation that the Detroit Lions will add at least one free-agent cornerback in the coming days. We should point out that one candidate is already off the market; the Pittsburgh Steelers agreed to terms with incumbent Ike Taylor late Tuesday night. Other than an expectation that the Lions won't "go big," there is no clear indication what direction they're headed in here.

So until we get a better feel for their approach, I'll leave you with the top 10 remaining cornerbacks on the free-agent market, as ranked by Scouts Inc. (You need an Insider subscription to see the entire list.)

Note that Chris Houston, the Lions' ostensible No. 1 cornerback last season, isn't in this ranking. And remember that restricted free agents require draft-pick compensation if the current team chooses not to match an offer sheet extended by the new team:
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha
  2. Johnathan Joseph
  3. Brent Grimes (RFA)
  4. Antonio Cromartie
  5. Josh Wilson
  6. Brandon Carr (RFA)
  7. Chris Carr
  8. Richard Marshall
  9. Drayton Florence
  10. Carlos Rogers
ESPN is reporting that all sides have now agreed on the terms of a trade that would send veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb to the Minnesota Vikings. The only hold-up now, according to our news report: "McNabb was concerned Tuesday night about how the Vikings' side of the situation was handled."

I don't know what concerns McNabb has, other than the obvious: He would be the shortest of short-term starters with No. 1 draft pick Christian Ponder also on the roster.

Along those lines, Ponder posted an appropriately conciliatory and competitive message on his Twitter feed Wednesday morning:

http://twitter.com/#!/cponder7/status/96200633518014464


And so it begins.

To be clear, the Vikings aren't the only team displaying reluctance to start a rookie quarterback following the lockout. The Tennessee Titans agreed to terms Wednesday with Matt Hasselbeck, relieving some immediate pressure on rookie Jake Locker.

I can't speak for the Titans and their plans for Locker and Hasselbeck. During pre-draft discussion, analysts suggested Locker would benefit from some development. Ponder, on the other hand, was advertised as the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft. McNabb will be looking over his shoulder from the moment he arrives in Minnesota. That's something he will have to accept if this trade is going to happen.
One final free agent update before we call it a night. (Probably.) ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks are in a bidding war for free agent Sidney Rice.

Rice
Rice
As we've discussed all along, Rice was intent on testing his value on the open market. It's interesting that he's talking to a pair of teams whose quarterback situation is far from unsettled.

The Seahawks won't bring back Matt Hasselbeck and instead will have a competition between Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart. The Vikings drafted rookie Christian Ponder, but are attempting to acquire veteran Donovan McNabb from the Washington Redskins.

It's not clear if other teams will get involved or if Rice has narrowed his options to the Vikings and Seahawks. From an NFC North perspective, this news tells us that the Vikings at the very least have not given up the possibility of bringing Rice back even though they couldn't re-sign him before the lockout began.

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