NFC North: Stuart Schweigert
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
Detroit’s depth at safety dwindled so much this summer that it suddenly became necessary to start shopping for more. That’s why they felt compelled Thursday to acquire Buffalo safety Ko Simpson.
As you might recall, the Lions finished up offseason workouts with five veterans -- Daniel Bullocks, Gerald Alexander, Kalvin Pearson, Marquand Manuel and Stuart Schweigert -- competing with rookie and Louis Delmas. Alexander was traded to Jacksonville to reduce the glut, Bullocks suffered a re-occurrence of an old knee injury and Manuel has been limited by injuries in training camp. Delmas and Pearson have been working with the first team, but Pearson has struggled and Delmas is still learning the NFL game.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has been rolling veterans in and out of his building for what amounts to extended tryouts. So I can’t say that Simpson is going to challenge Pearson for his starting job. But it’s pretty clear the Lions depth at the position has dissipated considerably.
|AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh|
|Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.|
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.
The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.
Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.
Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.
The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.
Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.
It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.
Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.
|Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI|
|The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.|
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.
Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.
Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.
Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.
Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.
Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.
Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.
And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.
Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.
I returned from a brief holiday respite Monday morning to read some interesting comments from Minnesota cornerback Antoine Winfield, who for the first time expressed serious doubts about his long-term future with the team.
In an interview with Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Winfield said he is "unhappy" that his contract has not been extended and said he might move his family to Houston after the season in anticipation of playing elsewhere in 2010. He wouldn't say for sure if he will report to training camp later this month, and in his most pointed comment, Winfield said he wants a resolution -- of some kind -- soon.
Winfield: "If they want me here, they should be able to get a deal done. There shouldn't be a problem. If they don't, then they need to say that and let's work toward a resolution that works out good for everyone."
Does that mean he wants to be traded if the Vikings don't extend his deal? Winfield wouldn't say. But he made clear he doesn't consider the Vikings' contract offer commensurate with their public proclamations of his value to the team.
Winfield made his first Pro Bowl team last season, but the Vikings probably have some concerns about his age (32) and the wear-and-tear of 10 NFL seasons on his 5-foot-9 frame.
Much of Winfield's comments can be read as typical posturing from a veteran in a contract situation. But it's also become clear the Vikings aren't ready to break the bank on his deal, especially considering the possible $10 million-plus contract they likely will give to quarterback Brett Favre later this month. As a result, the situation bears watching.
Continuing around the NFC North on a post-holiday morning:
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports that Favre is shopping for a condo in the Twin Cities suburb of Edina.
- Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has thus far turned down most endorsement opportunities he's received, according to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
- Here's a look at two safeties Detroit has brought in for competition opposite Louis Delmas. Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press profiles Stuart Schweigert and Marquand Manuel.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News passes along funeral arrangements for Lions director of security Ricky Sandoval, who died last week from pancreatic cancer.
- Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlines the large task of new Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "Probably not a day goes by that I don't spend a little bit of time thinking about this," Capers said.
- Progress has been incremental for Packers backup quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Here's how Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin put it: "Well, certainly they're better than they've been."
The Lions shipped Alexander to Jacksonville and managed to get a player that can probably help them this season. Receiver Dennis Northcutt isn't a Pro Bowl player, but like most of the Lions' offseason acquisitions, he is a serviceable veteran who can bring more credibility to his position. Detroit's receiving corps looks a bit more respectable with Bryant Johnson, Ronald Curry and now Northcutt competing for time opposite Calvin Johnson.
Alexander has recovered from a neck injury that limited him to five games last season, but he turned out to be the odd man out from a group that includes rookie Louis Delmas along with veterans Kalvin Pearson, Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel and Stuart Schweigert. Delmas almost certainly will start at one of the safety positions, leaving the other four veterans to compete for the second role.
It's worth noting that Lions senior personnel executive James Harris signed Northcutt as a free agent in 2007 when Harris was the Jaguars' vice president of player personnel.
I'll keep repeating this line about Detroit's efforts to improve its personnel: The team is leaving no stone unturned.
Tuesday, the Lions agreed to terms with free-agent safety Marquand Manuel, who played for Denver last season and was in Green Bay during the 2006 season. The Lions will be Manuel's sixth team in eight seasons, but his addition poses little risk for a team that is looking for help at every position.
Detroit's crowded safety position includes rookie Louis Delmas, the No. 33 overall pick of the April draft, and three other players who have been starters in recent seasons: Gerald Alexander, Kalvin Pearson and Daniel Bullocks. Veteran Stuart Schweigert also remains on the roster after joining the team late last season. Competition, of course, makes everyone better.
Manuel isn't the player who is going to push the Lions to the Super Bowl, but he has a chance to make them better. That's been the Lions' only mantra this offseason, and it sure beats the alternative of standing pat after an 0-16 season.
I'll circle back on this topic later this week. But a quick scan of the Lions' offseason transactions reveals they have either signed, claimed or traded for more than two dozen veteran free agents as part of their short-term roster overhaul. Manuel is the latest, but probably not the last.
Chicago kick returner Devin Hester ranks No. 57 in the NFL with a kickoff return average of 21.8 yards. His punt return average of 6.3 yards puts him at No. 51.
Hester has kept a mostly low public profile while compiling those pedestrian rankings this season, especially amid a transition to receiver that hasn't proved as explosive as the Bears would have hoped. But Hester spoke out this week, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. Hester admitted he was frustrated but spoke realistically about culpability:
"It's tough. Not only to myself, to the fans, to the team. I set a high standard for myself, not only for myself, but outsiders, that I'm that guy that's going to take five, six returns to the house, and I haven't taken none. It's tough on me. I don't even like going outside now. I've just got to find that edge and overcome it. I could sit here and say it's my fault, but there are 11 guys out there on the field. I'm not the only one out there. I know at the end of the day I get blamed for the return game."
Some of this issue will have to wait until an offseason postmortem, but there's already a decent argument to be made that the Bears stripped themselves of a huge weapon by trying to apply Hester's game-breaking skills at another position. Instead of having a dynamic returner who makes occasional appearances on offense, they have an average returner and a below-average starting receiver.
That dynamic appears to have been tough on Hester's psyche:
"I've been trying to dodge talking about it, but now I'm going to go ahead and express my feelings. I'm frustrated. It's hard. And I want to get back to where I was, not only as a player but as the home-run hitter. The return game was basically my success in football, and now that it's not there, it's tough, being just that football player that everybody knew about."
It's hard to say what the answer is. With the return of Brandon Lloyd from injury, should the Bears go back to using Hester only in predetermined packages on offense? Or has the damage already been done in terms of focusing on the return game for this season?
Elsewhere around the NFC North on a Thursday morning:
- Guard Terrence Metcalf rejoined the Bears after a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned amphetamine. Metcalf said he took the supplement to stay awake during a long drive this summer, according to Biggs.
- Green Bay cornerback Al Harris has been particularly focused -- and a bit short-tempered -- since he returned from a lacerated spleen, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Harris will turn 34 next month and might be fighting for his football future in Green Bay.
- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he does not believe Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen was trying to hurt him with a helmet-to-helmet hit at the Metrodome two weeks ago, according to Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. The NFL fined Allen $25,000 for the hit.
- Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf will accompany defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams to their appeal hearing Thursday at the NFL offices in New York, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
- Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield told Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune that he is having the best season of his career.
- Detroit signed safety Stuart Schweigert, a former prep star in Saginaw, Mich. Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press has details.
- Lions coach Rod Marinelli is second-guessing himself for not signing quarterback Daunte Culpepper earlier this season, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com