NFC North: Tyler Thigpen

On the occasion of Matt Cassel's release by the Kansas City Chiefs, we should review the NFC North's pair of backup quarterback openings. Cassel figures in at least one, if not both, of those situations.

First off, the Detroit Lions (Shaun Hill) and Green Bay Packers (Graham Harrell) wouldn't seem like candidates to be in on the free-agent market at this position. But the Minnesota Vikings have acknowledged they plan to bring in a veteran to compete with Joe Webb to back up Christian Ponder, and the Chicago Bears don't have their 2012 backup (Jason Campbell) under contract either.

Cassel, Campbell and Ryan Fitzpatrick are the top three free agents available. The Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb could soon join them, and as we've discussed, the Vikings and general manager Rick Spielman have a long history with Tyler Thigpen -- dating back to the 2007 draft.

It wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings make a quick move toward Cassel, who has been a backup for four years and a starter for five in his career. Thigpen could be their backup (backup) plan. If the market continues to dwindle, the Bears might consider Cassel or, more likely, be able to bring Campbell back at a lower price than he might have been seeking.

Now that the first wave of free agency is largely over, these are the kinds of stories we'll be following.

Vikings: Joe Webb must win job back

February, 23, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Joe Webb's disastrous playoff performance didn't get him fired as the Minnesota Vikings' backup quarterback. It will, however, require him to beat out a yet-to-be-identified competitor to retain the position.

That's the best way I can put it after listening to Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman speak here at the NFL scouting combine. Both Frazier and Spielman said they were reluctant to judge Webb on how he played as the Vikings' surprise starter in a 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, but it's clear they aren't willing to usher him back to that role unchallenged.

[+] EnlargeJoe Webb
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJoe Webb, left, faced heavy pressure in his playoff start at Green Bay. Did that rough outing cost him his job as the Vikings' No. 2 QB?
"I still have confidence in Joe," Frazier said. "I feel like he had a tough situation to go into and I'd like to see him compete with whatever we end up doing there, be it a veteran guy or if we draft a guy. But we definitely need to solidify that position and feel good about whoever would have to step up if something were to happen to Christian [Ponder]."

As usual, the list of veteran free agents -- especially those willing to sign with a team offering no opportunity to start -- is small. A conspiracy theorist would recall that Spielman drafted free agent Tyler Thigpen in 2007, only to lose him to the Kansas City Chiefs in a botched practice squad move, and had interest in signing him two years ago.

I have no evidence the Vikings will target Thigpen next month, but he has the profile of the type of veteran they would have available to them. The draft would offer more opportunities, especially for a team like the Vikings with nine draft choices, but it could be a challenge for a mid-round rookie to win the No. 2 job in training camp.

That leaves Webb in a difficult position and one that probably won't make many Vikings fans happy. The team's insistence on developing him at quarterback, amid their complete commitment to Ponder as a starter, means one of its most unique players can't get on the field. Frazier seems no more open to Webb as a multi-positional playmaker than he was last year.

"If we got to the point where we felt that there was somebody that beat Joe out," Frazier said, "you've go to do whatever you've got to do to make your team better. If we felt like that was the best thing for Joe and the best thing for the team, then you consider it. That would be saying that you found someone that is better than Joe."

But, Frazier added: "I'm not so sure that Joe's not a good NFL quarterback. He's shown that at times, when you go back and look at the Philly game [in 2010], the game he had against Detroit [in 2011], the way he finished against Chicago [in 2011]. He's done some things, even the Washington game he stepped in [in 2011], he's shown that he can play the quarterback position. You hate for that one game against Green Bay to be the defining moment for Joe. You see some of the quarterbacks that are playing today, that was a tough spot for him."

I don't doubt that, and I suppose the best-case scenario has Webb elevating amid the competition. In the worst case, however, he loses the competition and leaves the Vikings no time to train him at other positions. At this point, it's all or nothing for Joe Webb.

Rookie Buzz: Vikings' Audie Cole

August, 20, 2012
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Another in a series of NFC North rookies who have generated buzz. (Full series here.)

You saw it. I saw it. Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier saw it. There is no doubt that rookie linebacker Audie Cole returned interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive defensive plays from scrimmage Friday night in the Vikings' 36-14 preseason victory over the Buffalo Bills.

[+] EnlargeAudie Cole
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireRookie linebacker Audie Cole, who had only one career collegiate interception, had two picks Friday night against the Bills.
What each of us does with that information, however, could be substantively different. Many of you are calling for Cole -- a seventh-round pick from North Carolina State -- not only to earn a spot on the roster but to unseat starter Jasper Brinkley, who hasn't had an impressive preseason. I'm including Cole in a series previously reserved for high draft choices. Frazier? He's doing exactly what you would expect from a coach: Tempering expectations and politely reminding everyone that "we'll look at his entire body of work as we're trying to make a decision on what's best for our team," as he told reporters Sunday.

Cole is a big dude; he measured a bit over 6-foot-4 and weighed in at 246 pounds at the February scouting combine. But a relatively slow performance in the 40-yard dash (4.81 seconds) gave teams reason for pause when considering whether he had the range that today's NFL linebackers need. (Consider that the draft's top middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly, ran a 4.58.) Here's a sample of Scouts Inc.'s report Insider on Cole prior to the draft:
"Makes plays in pursuit but effort has more to do with it that anything else. Not a sideline-to-sideline player and has to take sound angle or risks getting sub-par range exposed. Doesn't have the burst to chase NFL backs down from behind. Gets caught up in the wash a little too much."

Cole had one interception in his college career, but when you look back at the two he managed Friday night, you see a player who anticipated throws from two veterans -- Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith -- and didn't have much doubt about where he should go after he caught the ball.

"What some people think is a lack of speed," Frazier said, "he's really closing and moving fairly quickly. His length makes a big difference. Those quarterbacks who think they can line-drive a ball in like they did the other night because of his length, all of a sudden that pass is not a completion. It could be an interception. But he has good instincts, he has good anticipation, he's a smart football player and that can offset a guy who doesn’t have blazing speed."

Like most low-round draft picks, Cole's immediate future -- whether he makes the roster or is shuffled to the practice squad -- will be determined by his ability to contribute on special teams. But you don't have to spend much time with the Vikings' depth chart to realize that even a seventh-round draft pick has a good chance to win a roster spot this summer.

Brinkley's backup is technically first-year player Tyrone McKenzie, but it's thought that weakside linebacker Erin Henderson or veteran backup Marvin Mitchell would step in first for Brinkley if necessary.

We hadn't heard much about Cole before now, but it's hard not to take notice after Friday night's events. Preseason flashes don't always foreshadow productive careers, but they're always preferable to the alternative.

"It's what you sit the night before and think about," Cole said. "Doing stuff like that. I am trying to make the team, and I hope that helps my cause."
OK. Here goes.

I reacted forcefully Tuesday upon hearing news I honestly never expected. Never did I think the Minnesota Vikings would draft a quarterback No. 12 overall, declare him their Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco -- i.e., an instant starter on a veteran team -- and then acquire a veteran to start ahead of him just before training camp.

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
Geoff Burke/US PresswireDonovan McNabb -- a six-time Pro Bowl selection -- was traded for a 2012 sixth-round pick and a conditional sixth rounder in 2013.
If anything, I anticipated the Vikings pursuing an experienced quarterback who could start if Christian Ponder wasn't ready, but would otherwise provide competent insurance as a backup.

And after mulling it for most of Wednesday, I think that's exactly what the Vikings did. Their trade for Donovan McNabb, completed a short time ago, requires us to recalibrate how most of us view McNabb at this stage of his career. He will offer a professional presence during whatever time Ponder needs on the sideline, if any, but McNabb should in no way be viewed as the Vikings' unquestioned starter for the 2011 season.

If McNabb starts Sept. 11 against the San Diego Chargers, he'll become only the third post-merger quarterback in the past 41 seasons to be a Week 1 starter for three different teams in consecutive years. Yes, Donovan McNabb -- a six-time Pro Bowler -- is now a quintessential journeyman.

(Hat tip to ESPN's Keith Hawkins for digging out that Elias stat.)

Think about how this all played out. The Washington Redskins wanted no part of McNabb, even at a time when merely capable quarterback play is a much-valued commodity. The Redskins are prepared to start fellow journeyman John Beck, and the best deal they could find for McNabb is one that guarantees only a sixth-round draft pick.

It's also important to note that multiple media reports, including one by Jay Glazer of FoxSports.com, have the Vikings first pursuing free agent Tyler Thigpen for this role. Thigpen is a former Vikings draft pick. He's started 12 games in his career and fits the profile we've been discussing.

McNabb might be an upgrade over Thigpen as a short-term starter, but how he will accept Ponder's eventual ascension is anyone's guess and probably had something to do with the delay between the preliminary agreement and the deal's completion.

McNabb would need a career renaissance to fulfill the expectations I'm hearing from some of you. He'll have a much stronger set of skill players to work with than he did in Washington, but he'll also have a fraction of the time to learn the Vikings' offense and develop the chemistry necessary for this transition.

So I don't think this is a terrible move, especially if the Vikings first tried and failed to sign Thigpen. They needed to add a veteran quarterback one way or the other.

I just don't think it changes the franchise's big-picture dynamic. Ponder will start when he is ready and possibly sooner. If McNabb can buy the Vikings a few extra weeks or months, then bully for everyone.

If there is a downside, it's that the Vikings have added a layer of consternation to the eventual transition. Barring a McNabb injury, Ponder will get his first start after one of these scenarios:

  1. He beats out McNabb in training camp.
  2. McNabb struggles.
  3. McNabb plays well enough to keep the job but is cast aside anyway.

None of these scenarios would be painful if you substituted "Thigpen" for "McNabb." That's what we all need to get our heads around. The events of the past few days have told us this: In the summer of 2011, at least, Thigpen = McNabb.
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.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- From a national perspective, at least, there seems to be a natural assumption that the Minnesota Vikings have no choice but to acquire a starting-caliber veteran quarterback in the coming days. The cancellation of offseason work, the theory goes, doomed any chance of getting rookie Christian Ponder ready to start right away.

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Chuck Cook/US PresswireChristian Ponder is the Vikings long-term solution at quarterback, and possibly their short-term solution as well.
As recently as Monday morning, our friends at Football Outsiders Insider suggested the Vikings' top priority should be to trade for a veteran quarterback and named Kyle Orton (Denver Broncos) and Donovan McNabb (Washington Redskins) as possibilities.

I don't see it, never have seen it and won't see it until it hits me upside the head in a surprise. My sense is the Vikings drafted Ponder at No. 12 overall with the full expectation that he would be their immediate starter. He won't come to training camp completely cold, having studied a version of their new playbook for the past three months. There is no way he will be totally up to speed when the regular season begins, but would it be worth a draft pick to acquire the shortest of short-term starters?

My answer is no, and nothing team officials said during a news conference Monday suggested otherwise. I do think the Vikings will sign a veteran, but it will be someone to provide insurance against an unexpected hurdle in Ponder's development. I don't know who that person is, but I think it's much more likely to be someone of the Tyler Thigpen variety than Orton or McNabb.

Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman alluded to that scenario Monday. He acknowledged the Vikings have discussed every possible scenario but added: "I know we've talked about making sure the veteran quarterback will be the right fit, too. Not only for us to potentially win ballgames if we go down that route, but also the right fit in the room for Ponder and Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar."

Coach Leslie Frazier wouldn't rule out any possibility, but we know Ponder will be his quarterback in the long term. I have no doubt he wants Ponder as his quarterback in the short term as well.

"We're going to try to do what's best for the Vikings and what's best for our roster," Frazier said. "But I wouldn't put it past us to open the season with a young quarterback if that's the case."

As the muckety-muck of an unprecedented lockout transitions into the NFL's new free-agent template, we still must guard against being led astray by teams who don't want their competitors to get a preview of their game plan. If the Vikings were preparing an offer for Orton or McNabb, they wouldn't have jumped up and said so Monday.

But I'll go on record now and suggest it would be a mistake to invest the assets necessary, be it draft picks or salary cap space or both, to bring in a veteran starter. Frazier is building his offense around tailback Adrian Peterson and can employ an array of playmakers in the passing game, even if free agent Sidney Rice signs elsewhere. That kind of team can and should support a rookie quarterback, lost offseason or otherwise.
Joe WebbAP Photo/Paul Sancya"'Monday Night Football,' you can't get better than that," said Joe Webb of his probable first start.
Speaking on a conference call last week, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith turned the tables on a group of reporters. Asked about the rookie quarterback he's likely to face Monday night, Smith laughed and said: "You guys could probably tell more about him than me. So let's have your scouting report."

To put it bluntly, does it matter? Whoever takes the Minnesota Vikings' first snap will be the fourth backup quarterback the Bears have faced this season. Smith's team has won all three previous games, allowing a total of 26 points and limiting the passers to an average of 142 yards per game.

ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg suggested the "Bears are getting another break in a season full of fortune." Indeed, they appear to be living the kind of charmed existence necessary for most division winners in this era of NFL parity.

And let's be clear: The Bears won't simply be facing a backup quarterback at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings' starter will be a pull-the-ripcord-emergency replacement for Brett Favre and Tarvaris Jackson, both of whom suffered significant injuries in consecutive weeks.

The Vikings announced Saturday they will start Joe Webb -- a sixth-round draft choice once projected as a receiver and whose future position remains unclear. His backup will be journeyman Patrick Ramsey, whose first practice with the team was Thursday.

Webb's ascendance should please fans of both teams. For the Vikings, he represents the excitement of the unknown at the end of a deeply disappointing season. The Bears have remained publicly respectful of Webb, but surely they know he is the rawest quarterback they have faced this season and one who will start only through unique circumstances.

If common sense had prevailed in the spring, Webb would be into his 15th week as a receiver/kick returner/Wildcat quarterback. That was the original vision after Senior Bowl coaches switched him from quarterback to receiver in January. Webb, in fact, gained some national buzz after the emergence of a YouTube video that showed him jumping over seven stacked drill bags.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota's Joe Webb
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesIt will be Joe Webb (14), not Brett Favre, who starts for the Vikings on Monday night.
The Vikings drafted him as a receiver, but former coach Brad Childress switched him to quarterback during rookie minicamp. (My theory is that Webb was a pawn in Childress' vendetta against former backup Sage Rosenfels, whom he wanted to jettison. Making Webb the presumptive No. 3 quarterback provided the perfect avenue. But I digress....)

Is he a quarterback because of his skills or as the result of a Machiavellian sideshow? I'm not sure. Regardless, Webb has appeared permanently amused ever since. As in: Not even I can believe I'm a quarterback on a National Football League roster. Watching him practice and interact with teammates has been at once charming and frightening.

"I really like his attitude," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He's got great confidence in his ability. He's kind of an unflappable guy. He does come across like he doesn't know what he doesn't know [and doesn't know] what he's getting himself into. He just really does believe in his ability and that he can make plays in the field."

We'll find out Monday night if that confidence is justified or borne from blissful ignorance. Frankly, it could be either. Webb had the kind of training camp that made you cringe at times and raise an eyebrow at others. He'd throw a 6-yard duck followed by a 50-yard rope. He tantalized late-game preseason observers with a 48-yard touchdown run against the San Francisco 49ers and, as expected, helped nudge Rosenfels off the roster in September.


Considering Favre's 18-year streak of consecutive starts, the decision carried little weight at the time. But now Webb is set to make his first NFL start on "Monday Night Football" against a defense that ranks fifth in the NFL with 26 takeaways. Oh, and the game-time temperature is expected to be around 20 degrees -- or about 20 degrees lower than the coldest game he said he ever started at Alabama-Birmingham.

"I mean, it's a great opportunity. "Monday Night Football," you can't get better than that," Webb said. "You've been dreaming that ever since you've been a little kid. Watching the game ever since you've been a little kid and now I'm probably going to be a part of it. [I'd] love to take advantage of it."

Webb has carried himself as a happy-go-lucky interloper in an NFL locker room. Monday night, he'll have a chance to demonstrate he belongs on the big stage.

"Joe, he is a character," Bevell said. "He's got great personality. The guys like him. The players around him feed off his energy. But he has great confidence, and I don't think he has any doubt about stepping in the huddle, calling plays, doing what we're asking him to do. ... As long as he's working within the offense, who can't believe in him?"

Here's the better question: If the Bears took care of business against Jimmy Clausen, Tyler Thigpen and Drew Stanton, shouldn't they do the same against Joe Webb? Who can't believe that?

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

November, 19, 2010
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After the Chicago Bears' 16-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Bears enter the examination room on the heels of their 16-0 shutout of the Dolphins.

  1. I got a number of angry responses Thursday night after sending out an innocent tweet about the Bears' defensive resurgence. @packerinsider wrote: "the bears really did a good job shutting down the QB-less, OL-less, Brandon Marshall-less, Wildcat-less Dolphins offense." To the extent that the Dolphins' offensive approach was baffling, I agree. Why they felt compelled to put the game in quarterback Tyler Thigpen's hands, while ignoring tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, was beyond me. (In fact, the seven combined carries by Miami running backs was tied for the lowest full-game total in Dolphins history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.) But I don't think that decision should diminish the Bears' performance. The Dolphins might have shied away from the run based on pregame scouting of the Bears' run defense, which is now allowing the second-lowest average yards per game (78.0) in the NFL. And in this league, especially this year, teams deserve credit for doing what they should do. It doesn't always happen that way.
  2. The Bears' six-sack performance resulted from another instance of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli largely relying on a base number of pass-rushers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, five of six sacks came on plays where Marinelli had four men rushing the passer. At times, that four-man rush included a "zone blitz" in which a defensive lineman dropped into coverage while a linebacker rushed the passer. But overall, the Bears dominated the Dolphins' injury-plagued offensive lineman. Defensive end Julius Peppers tore up left tackle Jake Long, who was playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Ultimately, Marinelli sent an extra rusher on only 18 percent of the Dolphins' pass plays.
  3. The Bears limited the Dolphins to one third-down conversion in 11 opportunities, bringing the Bears' two-game total to two of 20 in that department. I know that the most important defensive statistic is points allowed. But the reason the Bears are allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL (14.6) is that they are stopping opponents' drives at such a high rate. Only one team, the New York Giants, has a lower third-down conversion rate (29 percent) this season than the Bears (31). It doesn't matter how many yards you give up. Your opponent can't score enough points to win if it is punting or attempting field goals.
And here is one issue I don't get:
What's gotten into offensive coordinator Mike Martz? Matt Forte's game-sealing touchdown run in the third quarter was the Bears' 29th running play of the game. To that point, they had thrown 21 passes. As we discussed in our pregame post, the Bears need balance from their offense even if they're not always getting equal production. In the Bears' three games since the bye, all victories, Forte and backup Chester Taylor have combined for an average of more than 30 carries per game. That's a significant adjustment from Martz, who would throw two passes per play if he could. Martz also smartly moved away from one of his favorite passes, the screen, when the Dolphins demonstrated why they are the NFL's best defense against them. As it was, quarterback Jay Cutler has to throw the ball away on two of the three screens I logged.

BBAO: Brad Childress contract details

November, 19, 2010
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We’re Black and Blue All Over:

ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton turned up an interesting nugget in his weekly "First and 10" column. According to Clayton, the contract of Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress is guaranteed for significantly less money than we thought.

The contract Childress signed last year was advertised as extending through the 2013 season. In fact, the final year is a team option. That means the guaranteed portion of the deal ends after 2012. Clayton reported that Childress is due a total of $6.6 million over those two seasons.

Looked at another way, the buyout on Childress’ deal is about 42 percent of what the Vikings are paying quarterback Brett Favre this season. That total is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s much less than the $12 million previously reported. The revised figures are something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Rapid Reaction: Bears 16, Dolphins 0

November, 18, 2010
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MIAMI -- The Chicago Bears turned a short week of preparation into a defensive shutout of a depleted team Thursday night in a 16-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Here are a few quick thoughts from the Bears’ third straight victory:

What it means: Like the Green Bay Packers, the Bears are also on a three-game winning streak. But the Bears continue to lead an NFC North race that is down to just two teams. Chicago’s victory over the Dolphins raises the stakes for the Packers, who face division rival Minnesota on Sunday needing to keep pace with the Bears.

Sackfest: Led by Julius Peppers, the Bears racked up a season-high six sacks Thursday night against a depleted Dolphins offensive line competing with a backup quarterback in third-stringer Tyler Thigpen.

Peppers finished with three sacks, and Israel Idonije, Brian Urlacher and Henry Melton registered one sack apiece.

Playing with an injured shoulder, Miami left tackle Jake Long surprisingly held his own for a half against Peppers, who seemed poised to have a breakout performance against the Dolphins. Peppers registered his first sack since Oct. 3. Peppers dropped Thigpen for a 1-yard loss with 1:25 left in the first half, in addition to batting down a pass. Two of Peppers’ sacks came in the first half, and he tacked on another sack in the fourth quarter.

Miami’s offensive line, meanwhile, was further banged up in the first quarter when backup center Cory Procter -- subbing for starter Joe Berger -- left the game with a knee injury. The Dolphins slid over guard Richie Incognito to fill in for Procter.

About time: Running back Matt Forte rushed for 97 yards. He has reached the century mark just twice all season.

Melton contributing: Considered almost an afterthought in the club’s plans on defense heading into the season, Melton seems to be making meaningful contributions in the defensive line rotation. He registered his second sack in two outings Thursday night.

Melton, a second-year player, has had at least two tackles in four of his past five games, and has been on the active roster every week. As a rookie last year, Melton was placed on the injured reserve before the regular season even started.

Law of threes: The Dolphins had their third center (Incognito) hiking the ball to the No. 3 quarterback (Thigpen). The Bears, meanwhile, seemed able to score solely in increments of three, taking a 9-0 lead in the third quarter on three field goals from Robbie Gould.

Taking it further, three different players -- Melton, Peppers, and Idonije -- were responsible for the Bears’ first three sacks, which also occurred within the first three quarters. The club didn’t post another sack until the fourth quarter.

What’s next: A week from Sunday the Bears will host a potent Philadelphia Eagles squad that stomped the Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football" behind a phenomenal effort by quarterback Michael Vick. Chicago’s defense has been consistent all season, but it faces by far its biggest test in containing the red-hot quarterback.

Five things to watch: Bears at Dolphins

November, 18, 2010
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The Chicago Bears are hoping to extend their winning streak to three games Thursday night at Sun Life Stadium. Here are five things to watch in anticipation of their matchup against the Miami Dolphins:

1. One for the record books? A victory would give the Bears their 700th regular-season victory in team history, the first franchise to reach that milestone. (The Green Bay Packers are next on the list with 660 franchise victories.) There would be something karmic about doing it in Miami, the site of their only loss of the 1985 season and also where they lost Super Bowl XLI.

2. Miami's run game. With No. 3 quarterback Tyler Thigpen making his first start in two years, the Dolphins figure to rely heavily on running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The Bears have been vulnerable to long runs this season, having given up an NFL-high 11 runs of 20 or more yards. But the Dolphins have broken only three runs of 20 or more yards, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL. As good as Brown and Williams are at grinding out tough yards, they might not be equipped to capitalize on the Bears' vulnerability against breakaway threats.

3. Wounded prey. Dolphins left tackle Jake Long is listed as questionable because of a shoulder injury. He's expected to play, but you would think the Bears will put defensive end Julius Peppers in position to test Long's agility at the outset. Thigpen is relatively mobile, but there is nothing worse than starting a game with concerns about whether your left tackle has all of his faculties. Thigpen, by the way, is an aggressive downfield thrower who will have to guard against the trap of the Cover 2 defense. The Bears have given up an NFL-low three passes of 30 or more yards this season. Thigpen will need the patience of a veteran to avoid throwing downfield interceptions.

4. Run-pass ratio. Including quarterback scrambles, the Bears have run the ball more than they have passed in each of their past three victories. It's hard to imagine them winning Thursday night if that ratio is reversed. The Dolphins have the NFL's sixth-ranked pass defense, holding opponents to a 58.4 completion percentage and a bit more than 200 yards per game. They also have 23 sacks. Quarterback Jay Cutler got much better protection last week against the Minnesota Vikings, but the Bears shouldn't push it.

5. Night fright. Strange things happen to Cutler at night. Last season, he threw five interceptions in one night game, four in another and a total of 13 interceptions in five. On a Sunday night earlier this year, he was sacked nine times in the first half by the New York Giants before departing with a concussion. Thursday night, Cutler could be without one of his favorite crutches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cutler has thrown the second-most screen passes (31) in the NFL this season. But the Dolphins' defense has been especially adept at stopping those plays. Opponents are completing just 55 percent of screen attempts against them, by far the lowest mark in the NFL. The Washington Redskins rank second at 71 percent. We'll see if Cutler can get through a night game without one of his favorite plays.

BBAO: Another Tyler Thigpen appearance

November, 17, 2010
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

You're on the right track if the name "Tyler Thigpen" rings a bell. The quarterback expected to start Thursday night against the Chicago Bears was a seventh-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. (It always goes back to the Vikings, doesn't it?)

The Vikings liked Thigpen and wanted to develop him as a long-term project. But they weren't willing to create a roster spot to do it, and instead tried to slip him through waivers and place him on the practice squad. (The backup quarterbacks they kept instead, Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb, are long gone.) The Kansas City Chiefs claimed Thigpen largely because he impressed them during a joint training camp practice, and he had an impressive stretch of 11 starts during the 2008 season. The Chiefs traded him to the Miami Dolphins in 2009.

Jeff Darlington of the Miami Herald chronicles Thigpen's journey. Bears fans might be rejoicing in facing the Dolphins' No. 3 quarterback, but rest assured he has more experience and skill than the players that fill that job for many teams.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2010
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NFC Needs Revisited: 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: Biggest needs revisited.

Chicago Bears

Last month: The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa 2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Now: The Bears have addressed some of the needs we first identified last month via the free-agent market, signing defensive end Julius Peppers to replace Ogunleye and Chester Taylor to provide premium depth in the backfield. But both safety positions remain noticeably untouched. There have been some suggestions that the Bears pursue St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, a restricted free agent who would require no compensation to pry from the Rams. Barring a run at him, safety ranks with offensive line as the Bears' top needs with the draft looming in five weeks.

Detroit Lions

Last month: Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free-agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Now: The Lions have addressed the interior of their defensive line, acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland and hosting defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, a restricted free agent, on a visit. Veteran guard Chester Pitts is scheduled for a visit, but the left guard position might ultimately be filled through the draft. It's also not out of the question that the Lions target Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 overall pick. The Lions have addressed their No. 2 receiver position with free agent Nate Burleson and re-signed Heller, two other areas of need we discussed.

Green Bay Packers

Last month: Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Now: Clifton and Tauscher have both re-signed, but finding a left tackle of the future remains one of the Packers' top priorities as the draft approaches. Clifton signed a three-year deal, but it's not clear how long he will play. As per their philosophy, the Packers haven't addressed any needs by signing free agents from other teams. They'll target their remaining need positions in the draft. In addition to left tackle, that positional list should also include outside linebacker and cornerback.

Minnesota Vikings

Last month: Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickelback Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Now: The Vikings re-signed Sapp to give them an alternative if Griffin isn't ready to start the season, but cornerback could still be a high priority in the draft. The loss of Taylor makes depth at running back an issue, but that is one position where it makes sense to go young. As draft boards begin to shape up, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings get an opportunity to fill their need for a long-term quarterback answer. Will there be anyone of that description available with the No. 30 overall pick? That debate remains unsettled.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Recent History: 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: Recent history.

Chicago Bears

The Bears have been unable to add fresh blood to their pass rush, striking out on defensive end Dan Bazuin in 2007 and getting nothing so far from defensive end/tackle Jarron Gilbert (2009). That void, along with a lack of first- or second-round picks this year, left the Bears no choice but to pursue free agent Julius Peppers. The Bears have also drafted seven defensive backs over the past three years, and only one of them -- cornerback Zack Bowman -- figures as a lock to contribute in 2010. Those failures have left the Bears still looking to fill perhaps both safety positions this offseason. That's one position where you can find a starter in the later rounds, and it almost assuredly will be a focus for the Bears next month.

Detroit Lions

About the only position the Lions have placed on the backburner is quarterback, thanks to their decision to draft Matthew Stafford last year. Although Stafford hasn't yet proved he is the Lions' long-term answer, the money he received as the No. 1 pick all but guarantees he will be their starter for the next few years at least. Otherwise, well-known recent failures have left the Lions scrambling to fortify nearly every other position. Given the frequency with which they have drafted first-round receivers, they never should have needed to sign free agents Bryant Johnson and Nate Burleson in successive years. The failure of defensive linemen Cliff Avril, Andre Fluellen and Ikaika Alama-Francis to provide impact has necessitated a 2010 overhaul that should continue with a defensive tackle coming with the No. 2 overall pick of the draft.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers' biggest problem is that several years of above-average drafting has left them with a lineup of restricted free agents who have established themselves as starters and are ready for their second contracts. In this draft, the Packers shouldn't need to focus on safety, thanks to incumbents Nick Collins and Atari Bigby. They are in pretty good shape at receiver with former draft choices Jordy Nelson and James Jones backing up Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Tight end Jermichael Finley's emergence makes his position a secondary priority. Injuries to former second-round pick Pat Lee has made cornerback a priority, and the inability to draft a successor at left tackle forced the Packers to re-sign Chad Clifton last week.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings head into the 2010 draft with quarterback at the top of their need list in part because they haven't been able to develop former second-round pick Tarvaris Jackson into a long-term starter. They also parted ways with second-day draft picks Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty. But beyond that position, however, focused drafting has left the Vikings able to draft the best available player with most of their picks this year. Although he is still developing, former second-round pick Tyrell Johnson is a starter. The same goes for former sixth-round pick John Sullivan at center and former second-round pick Phil Loadholt at right tackle.

Draft Watch: NFC North

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa-2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Detroit Lions

Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey FitzSimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Green Bay Packers

Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Minnesota Vikings

Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickel back Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

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