NFC North: Steve Hutchinson

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was in April 2012 at the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital, shortly after former Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson had signed with the Tennessee Titans, that Hutchinson pulled center John Sullivan aside and asked him to take the mantle of leadership for the Vikings' work with the hospital.

Sullivan had been going to charity events there since his rookie season, following a player he looked to as a mentor on and off the field, and Hutchinson knew he needed to ask a current player to keep the relationship with the hospital strong now that he was leaving. Sullivan was an easy choice.

Sullivan
"He asked me at Amplatz, at their annual event, WineFest," Sullivan said. "I was sitting with him -- he knew he was going to Tennessee, and he said, 'They'd like to have a current player hosting the events. I'd love it if you could take over.' I learned a lot from Steve -- how to go about handling myself here, and this being the right thing to do. He deserves some credit for that."

Sullivan dove into the work to such a degree that on Tuesday, at Amplatz Children's Hospital, the Vikings named him their 2013 Community Man of the Year, making him a nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in February. Sullivan personally donated $150,000 toward the medically-friendly playground built in his name over the summer, has sponsored Halloween, Thanksgiving and December holiday parties over the past three years and is the celebrity chair for the hospital's golf event each year. On Tuesday, he hosted the 2013 holiday party with five other Vikings players -- quarterback Matt Cassel, punter Jeff Locke, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and offensive linemen Charlie Johnson, Matt Kalil and Kevin Murphy -- continuing a tradition passed to him by Hutchinson.

NFL teams are approached regularly with opportunities for charity work, and the Vikings are no different. But the relationship between a team and a charity tends to thrive when there's a player who's personally invested in it.

"There are so many great charities out there. There are so many things you want to do," Cassel said. "We get a lot of opportunities to go out to other guys' charities -- they might be passionate about something, where we might be more passionate about something else. But supporting each other -- because we've all been blessed to be put in this position to go and give back -- is a pretty special and unique opportunity for all of us."

Cassel has been involved with the NFL's Play 60 initiative to promote youth fitness since his time in Kansas City, and has continued his work there in Minnesota. That particular cause can travel with a player around the country, but something like a local children's hospital obviously cannot. In those cases, players often find a younger candidate to make sure the work continues after they're gone.

"Some of those charities, it's a great opportunity for guys to step in," Cassel said. "Maybe somebody's stepping out, and they need that void filled. John has done a remarkable job here, obviously."

Said Sullivan: "Just like I was here to support somebody hosting these events before, (my teammates) make this all possible. You need a lot of guys out here to support you and support this cause. It doesn't take much. It's a positive experience for everybody involved, so it's not a hard sell."
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Reviewing the Pro Football Hall of Fame's list of middle linebackers is a sobering experience.

The position is well-represented, but almost all of the enshrinees -- Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier among them -- are drawn from a long-gone era of NFL defenses. In fact, former Chicago Bears star Mike Singletary is the only current Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose career started in the past 36 years.

The best case to be made for Brian Urlacher's candidacy, now that he has announced his retirement, is that his career reversed the decades-long decline in the value of the position. Along with the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, Urlacher modernized middle linebacking by adding speed and regular playmaking to the traditional role of helmet-jarring hits and fierce leadership.

Hall of Fame players can't simply be top performers over a period of NFL seasons. In a competitive environment where ballots are limited to five enshrinees per year, candidates must stand out. Some might be the best players in a generation, but if their position is as undervalued as middle linebacker has been over the past few decades, they also would need to have changed or impacted the game in a unique way.

I think Urlacher did that. It helped that he was drafted by a team that soon moved to a scheme that perfectly fit a middle linebacker who could run like a safety. It also helped that in his best years, Urlacher had some stud defensive tackles in front of him who limited free shots from offensive linemen.

Regardless, the Bears' defense in the Lovie Smith era wouldn't have worked without Urlacher covering the deep third of the field while also holding his own at the line of scrimmage. His ability to get 25 yards downfield, in between chasing runners from sideline to sideline, was a new development for the modern-day middle linebacker.

When Urlacher was sidelined, for 15 games in 2009 and four games last season, the Bears' defense dipped noticeably and obviously, especially against the pass. In the games that Urlacher missed over that stretch, opponents' Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) rose from 39.5 to 60.1 (on a scale of 0-100), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He is one of four players in NFL history with at least 40 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career, as the chart shows, and he is one of seven players to win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award. Of the other six, three are in the Hall of Fame and two others aren't yet eligible.

Urlacher's résumé of sustained elite performances, even after his 2009 wrist injury, and his notable impact on how the game is played merit Hall of Fame enshrinement. How long it will take for him to be elected is almost a silly discussion. We don't know what the backlog will be like in 2018, but there is a pretty strong group of players who will be eligible for the first time alongside Urlacher. The group includes Lewis, Steve Hutchinson, Ronde Barber and perhaps Randy Moss.

Timing, of course, is but a detail. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion between now and then. But you would think Canton has room for Brian Urlacher. Frankly, he made that space for himself.
ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton has theories on questions you've never thought of asking, and here is one of particular note to NFC North teams. When evaluating the future of an offensive line, Clayton writes, teams would be wise to follow the "Theory of 150."

Here's how Clayton explained it: "If a team lets its starting offensive line exceed the total age of 150 years for five starters, the clock is ticking on its remaining success."

A cumulative age of 150 means an average age of 30 for five starters, an intuitive if arbitrary benchmark for signaling transition. As Clayton notes, there is one NFC North team that exceeds the limit: the Detroit Lions, whose five starters total 152 years old.

The Lions have already started the process of getting younger, having drafted Riley Reiff as a possible replacement for 34-year-old left tackle Jeff Backus. Even so, they still have a 33-year-old center Dominic Raiola and a 30-year-old right guard in Stephen Peterman.

The Theory of 150 also helps explain why 2012 was the right time for the Minnesota Vikings to overhaul their line. Last year's starters, which included left guard Steve Hutchinson (34) and right guard Anthony Herrera (32) would have combined for an age of 147 when the 2012 season began. By drafting left tackle Matt Kalil and moving Charlie Johnson (28) to left guard, the Vikings ensured themselves of the youngest offensive line in the NFC North this season. (Geoff Schwartz, who will be 26 in Week 1, or Brandon Fusco, 23, will start at right guard.)

The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, brought their cumulative age down from 140 by replacing left tackle Chad Clifton (36) with Marshall Newhouse (23). The Packers stand at 133 because new center Jeff Saturday will be 37 in Week 1, but it's worth-noting the second-oldest Packers offensive lineman is right guard Josh Sitton at 26.

Finally, the Chicago Bears are expected to have two starters of at least 30 years old -- left guard Chris Spencer and center Roberto Garza. Their cumulative age will be 138 with J'Marcus Webb at left tackle and 141 if Chris Williams wins the job.

As with anything, the "Theory of 150" is more relevant for some teams than others. The line is a position group where younger isn't always better; the fading of speed and athletic ability don't affect linemen as much as running backs, receivers and other skill positions.

But if you are a team that wants to plan orderly transitions, the "Theory of 150" is a decent benchmark for timing. Whether or not we added the cumulative ages of the Lions' linemen, we could eyeball the roster and know it's time to begin the process. In that regard, Reiff was drafted at an ideal time. So was Kalil in Minnesota, and it's not surprising to see the Packers move on at left tackle as well.

Soon, we'll move on to the "Theory of 10:" How watching 10 hours of television a day is a sign it's time to find a hobby.
Fans of NFC North teams might be aware of the Griese-Hutchinson-Woodson fundraising weekend, which includes a gala and a golf outing to benefit the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. The headliners include former Minnesota Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson and Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, both of whom played at Michigan along with former NFL quarterback Brian Griese.

Stafford
Stafford
Based on local reports, it sounds as if another NFC North player made a really nice charitable gesture during the Saturday auction. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford bid $15,000 for a gift that included six tickets to the Lions' Oct. 22 game against the Chicago Bears on ESPN's "Monday Night Football," according to Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News.

Stafford had already donated the tickets to the event and, along with his girlfriend Kelly Hall, had been sitting with a girl named Faith Falzone, who is scheduled to have surgery this week. Stafford plans to give the tickets to Falzone and her family.

In a text message to the News, Stafford said: "They have been through so much in the past couple years, and to see how much they all supported each other and faith through their tough times was really inspiring. I wanted to give them something they could really be excited about and something I know they deserved."

Hutchinson was particularly moved by Stafford's commitment to being involved in the Michigan community. Stafford is from Texas and played at Georgia.

"Let's be honest," said Hutchinson, who is now with the Tennessee Titans. "The state of Michigan hasn't gone through the greatest times with the economy and the jobs around here. To have a guy that's from Georgia get drafted by the Lions and be a very integral part of that team turning their franchise around and then to be able to come to a U-M event that he has no affiliation with and donate $15,000 and buy his own tickets that he donated and then give them to a family whose daughter is going to have surgery in the next couple days here ... you couldn't write a better fictional story if you had to."

This is not to single out Stafford as the only charitable player in our division. As we've noted before, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson donated $1 million to the University of Oklahoma last month. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has pledged more than $2 million to the University of Nebraska. And Woodson hasgiven $2 million to the Michigan children's hospital that benefited from this weekend's efforts.

But impact comes in all shapes, sizes and denominations. Stafford's gift will no doubt leave an intense impression on one family, giving it something to look forward to and cherish for some time.

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
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» AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 17, 2012
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Given how fluid this time of year is, I once again mined the mailbag for questions and topics that didn't figure to be impacted by breaking news over the weekend. You can get in touch with me via the mailbag, Twitter or our nearly full Facebook page.

Onward….

Mark of San Diego writes: I've seen several columnists comment on the high amount of drops Brandon Marshall has had in his career, but they all mention in almost the same breath how many targets he gets. Is there a chart someplace (like maybe a future blog post) that shows drops as a percent of targets?

Kevin Seifert: That's a good and fair question, Mark. Statistics are always more valuable when viewed in context, and it stands to reason that the more passes a player is thrown, the more likely he'll have a higher number of drops.

The raw number, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is that Marshall has dropped 26 passes since 2008, the third-highest total in the NFL over that stretch. I don't have his total targets over that stretch, but I can give you a glimpse into his drop percentage over the past two seasons and how that fits into the league rankings.

In 2010, Marshall had a drop percentage of 8.5, which ranked 60th in the NFL that season. That means 59 receivers caught a higher percentage of the catchable passes thrown their way.

In 2011, Marshall's drop percentage was 6.9, ranking him No. 52 in the league.

In this case, the percentage confirms what the raw numbers suggest. Marshall's drops weren't only a function of his high involvement in the Miami Dolphins offense. He missed more catchable passes than dozens of other NFL receivers.

To be clear, that shouldn't take away from Marshall's accomplishments as one of the league's most productive receivers over that period. The percentages merely give us a broader view of his performance.


Matt of Appleton, Wis., is curious about the long-term salary cap implications of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's new contract.

Kevin Seifert: Johnson signed what is technically an eight-year, $132 million deal. Deals that long often get restructured before the end, but usually teams at least leave the first three years intact before going back at it.

To that end, former agent Joel Corry provided a three-year cap breakdown for the National Football Post. The deal will count $11.5 million against the cap in 2012, $12.2 million in 2013 and $12.2 million in 2014, according to Corry.

It's never ideal to have a player count more than $10 million against the cap, especially in the case of the Lions, who have three players -- Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- who will always have high cap numbers because they were top draft picks under the previous NFL system for rookie contracts.

But remember, Johnson was going to count $22 million this season against the cap, and if he received the franchise tag, $26.4 million in 2013 and $31 million in 2014. Considered that way, his new cap charges seem quite reasonable.


Eric of Fariview Heights, Ill., isn't satisfied with our explanation for why the Minnesota Vikings didn't participate more actively in the opening days of free agency. Carl Nicks is 26 and probably if not absolutely is the best guard in the league. A five year deal helps Ponder and Peterson, neither of which are getting protected. Talks with an aged, twice injured TE is more important than a top WR signing? Explain! So we want Percy Harvin, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph clogging up the middle? Where is our deep threat? How can you write an article defending not going after Nicks, a top receiver, OR one of the top cornerbacks? I mean seeing how we've been HORRIBLE in the secondary... It's a joke. Let's hear the true talk on this inactivity please!?

Kevin Seifert: That's fair. First I'll give you a rundown of what I would guess the Vikings were thinking, and then I'll offer my own comments.

Six years ago, the Vikings signed Steve Hutchinson to the biggest contract for a guard in NFL history. Historically, however, NFL teams don't like to devote cap space to the guard position. There are too many instances of success when inserting younger, cheaper players into those jobs while spending your money on left tackle and center. Hutchinson, the Vikings thought then and now, was a once-in-a-generation player.

Rather than devoting $47.5 million to Nicks over the next five years, the Vikings figure they can move Charlie Johnson to left guard. Johnson signed a three-year, $10 million contract last summer. He might not perform to Nicks' level, but is the difference between Nicks and Johnson worth, say, twice or three times the salary cap space? The Vikings didn't think so.

The same goes for cornerback. The Vikings will get the promising Chris Cook back on the field in 2012, which is an automatic upgrade from what they finished with. I can only assume that they didn't think any of the cornerbacks available on the market, most notably Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan, were worth the $10 million annual salaries they eventually received.

As for Carlson, none of us can pretend to understand whether he is a risk for injury moving forward. Beyond that, the Vikings saw him as a polished 27-year-old pass-catcher who could make their offensive more dynamic. Does he solve all of their problems, including the deep threat issue? No. But that doesn't mean he can't help.

General manager Rick Spielman said last week that the team wasn't "one player away" from contending for the Super Bowl. That's one of the reasons the Vikings weren't more aggressive. A fair counterargument, of course, is this: What if they are? What if quarterback Christian Ponder develops quickly, and tailback Adrian Peterson returns to form and the offensive line improves with the presumed drafting of Matt Kalil?

In that case, the Vikings would be vulnerable in their otherwise unaddressed secondary, and a chance to have a better-than-expected season could be quashed. I'm fine with the Vikings sitting out the crazy receiver market. I do question if they're going to be able to field a competitive defensive secondary, but we'll withhold final judgment until the full players acquisition period is complete.


Grayson of Roseville, Calif., writes: Why wouldn't the Packers have made a play for Mario Williams? I know they don't often do anything in free agency but Williams seems too good to pass up, like Reggie White and Charles Woodson were. It makes so much sense!

Kevin Seifert: It makes sense from the standpoint of the Packers needing a pass rusher (or two) and Williams is the best pass rusher on the market. Williams has more experience as a 4-3 end rather than a 3-4 outside linebacker, but perhaps the idea of playing opposite Clay Matthews -- and the presumably favorable matchups that would go with it -- might have been enough to lure him to the Packers.

But as we noted during the week, the Packers aren't really in position to start handing out $100 million contracts to free agents -- at least, not if they plan to re-sign a trio of players who are in line for extensions. Matthews, receiver Greg Jennings and quarterback Aaron Rodgers could have their deals addressed in the next calendar year. I'm guessing the Packers prioritized them over any free agent.

With that said, it doesn't mean the Packers couldn't afford to investigate other free agent pass rushers. I wouldn't be opposed to them pursuing Kamerion Wimbley, whom the Oakland Raiders released Friday.

Vikings' roster rebuild begins

March, 10, 2012
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The Minnesota Vikings' roster moves Saturday were more symbolic than they were surprising.

It has been clear for some time that cornerback Cedric Griffin would not return in 2012, and the recent injury history of guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera made now a logical time to part ways with them as well. The trio were three of the team's longest-tenured players, with a combined 19 years spent in some fashion with the organization, and their departures mark the start of what is expected to be a major roster overhaul under new general manager Rick Spielman.

A few thoughts:
  • The departures clear more than $10 million in salary cap space, giving the Vikings a little more than a $20 million surplus this offseason. That's enough for them to be a significant player in the free-agent market if they choose to.
  • Unless there have been contract talks that have gone unreported, another longtime veteran could follow these players out the door. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is a pending free agent and dealt with a balky knee for much of last season.
  • Releasing both starting guards is a strong indication that the Vikings will draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall and move former left tackle Charlie Johnson to one of the guard spots. I would consider the other starting guard spot fluid at this point.
  • Hutchinson made it through six years of the landmark seven-year contract he signed prior to the 2006 season. The Vikings made him the highest-paid guard in NFL history, believing he was a unique player for the position and one they could build the rest of a championship line around. Indeed, Hutchinson was named an All-Pro in the first four of those seasons before injuries slowed him down. He probably would have been good for another year, and perhaps he'll play elsewhere in 2012, but the Vikings deemed his $7 million cap hit too high for a rebuilding scenario.
  • We discussed Hutchinson's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer. He is a seven-time All-Pro, was a member of the NFL's all-decade team of the 2000s and was one of the best players at his position during this generation.

BBAO: Finalists in Bears' GM search

January, 24, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Chicago Bears are moving forward with their general manager search and have received assurance they won't lose their just-promoted offensive coordinator. Such was the upshot of two developments for the franchise Monday night.

The finalists to replace general manager Jerry Angelo are Kansas City executive Phil Emery, a former Bears scout, and Jason Licht of the New England Patriots. Both will receive second interviews this week, after which the Bears will presumably make a decision. There have been reports that Emery -- a relatively quiet, hard-working meat-and-potatoes candidate -- is seen as the favorite in many NFL circles, but the team insisted that no decisions have been made.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Tice was dropped from consideration for the Oakland Raiders' head-coaching job. Tice had been scheduled to interview for the job Tuesday, but the Raiders have already moved to the second round of their interview process, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Vikings regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 30
Preseason Power Ranking: 20

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Geoff Burke/US PresswireAdrian Peterson's uncertain future hangs over the entire franchise.
Biggest surprise: It has never been clear why anyone thought acquiring Donovan McNabb as a stopgap starting quarterback was a good idea. All indications were that McNabb had taken a significant step back since his heyday as an annual Pro Bowler, and in truth, he had no more familiarity with the Vikings' new offense than did rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. He threw for an embarrassing 39 yards in a Week 1 loss at the San Diego Chargers, was benched after six starts and waived with five games remaining. I'm not sure the Vikings would have won more games with Ponder or Joe Webb as their Week 1 starter, but the entire episode was a failure waiting to happen. Why wasn't that obvious to everyone?

Biggest disappointment: Tailback Adrian Peterson's shredded left knee will cast a shadow over the organization for months. The Vikings have said they hope to have Peterson back on the field when the season begins, but the truth is no one can know for sure how a running back will come back from two torn knee ligaments and other assorted damage. Newly-promoted general manager Rick Spielman will have a difficult decision to make: Can the team continue to build its offense around Peterson? Does it necessitate the acquisition of a replacement or a philosophical shift? Of all their positions, running back represented the least of the Vikings' concerns at midseason. Now it's among their first priorities.

Biggest need: On a roster full of holes, no positions are more needy than defensive back and offensive line. The Vikings finished the season with Week 1 backups playing both cornerback and one safety positions, and the only incumbent who should have a decent chance to start in 2012 is veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. Although they led the NFL with 50 sacks, the Vikings' coverage was so poor that opposing quarterbacks still compiled a 107.1 passer rating, the second-highest mark in NFL history. Meanwhile, the Vikings must find a long-term replacement for deposed left tackle Bryant McKinnie and might have to find a new left guard if Steve Hutchinson retires. The future of right guard Anthony Herrera is also up for debate.

Team MVP: Defensive end Jared Allen finished a half-sack shy of tying Michael Strahan's record for sacks in a season (22.5), along the way setting an example of how to continue playing hard despite the weight of a lost season. Runner up goes to Percy Harvin, who shed his migraine issues to become the kind of all-purpose receiver/running back the Vikings envisioned when they drafted him in 2009. He caught a team-high 87 passes and also took 52 carries, combining for 1,312 total yards and eight touchdowns.

Questionable call: Cornerback Chris Cook was arrested in October and eventually charged with strangulation and domestic abuse. In the end, the Vikings took the highly unusual path of dismissing him for the season while keeping him on the active roster and paying him game checks for the final eight games of the season. Coach Leslie Frazier said the organization wanted to give Cook a chance to get is life in order, but Frazier admitted this week that it's unclear what progress he has made. Unless he is incarcerated as a result of his upcoming trial, Cook seems likely to return to the team in training camp.

BBAO: Lions, Packers move on

December, 29, 2011
12/29/11
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

As it turns out, the Green Bay Packers' reserve offensive lineman who got stomped on Thanksgiving Day by Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh likely will be in the starting lineup Sunday for the rematch between the two teams. But Suh and guard Evan Dietrich-Smith long ago made amends via phone, and the incident hasn't exactly been at the tip of either teams' lips this week.

"There's no hard feelings and that's pretty much it," Dietrich-Smith told reporters in Green Bay. He'll likely start at left guard Sunday, which would put him on the opposite side that Suh usually lines up on.

Said Suh, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "My main focus is on the guy who is in front of me. If he's in front of me, then maybe I will chat with him, go against him, beat him and try to get some sacks."

Continuing around the NFC North:

NFC North at night

December, 28, 2011
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Sifting through Wednesday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Running back Marion Barber (calf), tight end Kellen Davis (illness), defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related) and linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) did not practice. Barber doesn't seem likely to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Meanwhile, coach Lovie Smith was angered by questions about the future of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and wouldn't answer. Martz's contract expires after this season.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback Chris Houston was wearing a cast on his left hand but told reporters he injured his pinky finger and does not have a fracture. Hmmmm. Coach Jim Schwartz said it wasn't a long-term injury. Houston, safety Louis Delmas (knee), receiver Calvin Johnson (Achilles), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip) and defensive end Willie Young (ankle) did not practice.

Green Bay Packers: Tight end Jermichael Finley reported knee soreness Wednesday and did not participate in practice. Neither did offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga (knee), receiver Randall Cobb (groin) nor running back James Starks (knee/ankle). Receiver Greg Jennings ran on the side during practice but was declared out for Sunday's game against the Lions. Offensive lineman Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) practiced. So did defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, who has been cleared after suffering a concussion earlier this month.

Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback Christian Ponder (concussion) was cleared to practice after and will start Sunday against the Bears, according to coach Leslie Frazier. Left guard Steve Hutchinson, who was placed on injured reserve this week because of a concussion, will "have some decisions he'll have to make after this season is over," according to coach Leslie Frazier. That suggests retirement could be an option.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I've finally finished a roundabout return to NFC North headquarters and appreciate you sticking with us during a lighter-than-usual Tuesday. Although none were surprises, some pretty significant names in the division have been placed on injured reserve in the past few days.

The list begins with Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson (knee). He was replaced by practice squad running back Caleb King.

Tuesday, the Chicago Bears shelved quarterback Jay Cutler (thumb) and running back Matt Forte (knee). Cutler was scheduled to have the pins removed from his thumb this week but obviously wasn't going to be ready to play Sunday against the Vikings. He will end up missing the Bears' final six games, while Forte will have sat out their final four.

The Vikings, meanwhile, also placed guard Steve Hutchinson on injured reserve for the second consecutive season. He missed last week's game against Washington because of a concussion and was replaced on the roster by running back Jordan Todman, who was on the San Diego Chargers' practice squad and was signed with an eye toward training camp in 2012.

Continuing around the NFC North:

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 23, 2011
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Holiday and travel constraints have required us to shorten our weekly Friday injury report. I've got some important bits and pieces to share, but for those who need the entire rundown, please see the injury pages on both ESPN.com and NFL.com.
Have a great evening, everyone.

NFC North at night

December, 22, 2011
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Checking in on Thursday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Tight end Kellen Davis (back) and defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related) returned to practice Thursday. Still missing were linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle), running back Marion Barber (calf) and kick returner/receiver Devin Hester (ankle). None have been ruled out for Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

Detroit Lions: Cornerback Don Carey (concussion), safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Nick Fairley (foot), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip) and defensive end Willie Young (ankle) all missed practice. The Lions re-signed cornerback Brandon McDonald to bolster their depth as Carey's concussion lingers.

Green Bay Packers: Running backs James Starks (ankle) and Brandon Saine (concussion) participated fully in practice and should be ready to play Sunday night. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf) and offensive lineman Chad Clifton (hamstring/back) made it through their second consecutive day of practice. Defensive lineman Howard Green (foot) was limited in practice. Defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) has still not been cleared.

Minnesota Vikings: The decision by USC quarterback Matt Barkley to return to school could have an indirect impact on the Vikings. If the Vikings ultimately want to trade down from their perch atop the first round, it would have helped to have another blue-chip quarterback to increase the value of their pick. Meanwhile, cornerback Asher Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson (concussion) missed practice for the second consecutive day.

NFC North at night

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
6:00
PM ET
Taking a look at Wednesday's newsbits in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: A high number of prominent players didn't practice Wednesday. The list included running back Marion Barber (calf), linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle), tight end Kellen Davis (back), receiver Devin Hester (ankle), defensive tackle Henry Melton (shin) and defensive end Julius Peppers (not injury related). Melton doesn't appear to have a great chance to play Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.

Detroit Lions: Safety Louis Delmas (knee), defensive tackle Corey Williams (hip), right tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck) didn't practice. It doesn't appear that Delmas will be ready for Saturday's game against the San Diego Chargers.

Green Bay Packers: Left tackle Chad Clifton finally returned to practice Wednesday but it's almost impossible to imagine him playing Sunday against the Bears. Instead, T.J. Lang is likely to start at right tackle with Evan Dietrich-Smith at Lang's left guard spot. The healthy backups will be Ray Dominguez and newcomer Herb Taylor. Running back James Starks practice an could be on track to play Sunday. Running back Brandon Saine (concussion) also practiced, as did linebacker Desmond Bishop (calf). Defensive end Ryan Pickett (concussion) did not.

Minnesota Vikings: Cornerback Asher Allen and guard Steve Hutchinson both sat out practice Wednesday because of concussions. Joe Berger would start for Hutchinson if he can't play Saturday against the Washington Redskins.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8