NFC North: Tyrell Johnson

Detroit Lions cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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Most significant move: There were no surprises for the Detroit Lions and, really, there were few big decisions. We noted earlier that the team decided to preserve a roster spot for No. 3 quarterback Kellen Moore, so the most significant move they did make was placing rookie tight end Michael Williams on injured reserve. The Lions had substantial plans for Williams this season as the third tight end in the jumbo package that lineman Riley Reiff filled last season. They also hoped to develop his receiving skills as veterans Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler enter contract years. Williams had surgery last week to repair a hand injury, and though coach Jim Schwartz said the team had no long-term injuries, Williams is in fact lost for the season. (NFL teams can't start placing players on short-term injured reserve until next week.) As a result, rookie Joseph Fauria -- a much better receiver but less of a blocker than Williams -- is on the 53-man roster with Pettigrew and Scheffler.

The dominoes: The Lions apparently chose veteran Michael Spurlock as their kick returner, necessitating the release of rookie Steven Miller, who could return on the practice squad. Spurlock is also a receiver, and for the now he is one of six on the roster, presumably because of Ryan Broyles' sore knees. The release of veteran Matt Willis means Kris Durham is the sixth receiver. You wonder if the Lions would change directions soon in that regard. The Lions sifted through their big group of veteran defensive backups by tapping Rashean Mathis as a swing cornerback/safety and Rocky McIntosh as a backup linebacker while releasing the rest. John Wendling and Don Carey are the backup safeties for now.

What's next: According to multiple reports, the Lions will place running back Montell Owens on short-term injured reserve. That can't happen until next week, so for now he is part of the 53-man roster. He must miss at least six weeks of the regular season. You would think the Lions will bring back a number of the players they cut Saturday for their practice squad, and it's worth remembering that they are No. 5 in priority for NFL waiver claims. Sunday could be a busy day.

List of players cut: WR: Corey Fuller, Matt Willis. RB: Steven Miller, Shaun Chapas. OL: Rodney Austin, Kevin Haslam, Darren Keyton, Jake Scott. DL: Andre Fluellen, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Xavier Proctor, Jimmy Sadler-McQueen. LB: Brandon Hepburn, Jon Morgan (waived/injured) Chris White. CB: Ron Bartell, Chris Greenwood. S: Amari Spievey, Tyrell Johnson, Martavius Neloms (waived/injured) P: Blake Clingan.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.

Leading Questions: NFC North

February, 13, 2012
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2012 season:

CHICAGO BEARS

In last year's version of Leading Questions, we wondered when the Bears would address the depth behind their aging defensive stars. That issue is still on the table, but of greater 2012 importance is this: How will the Bears manage their transition to new offensive coordinator Mike Tice?

Tice will retain much of the terminology and some of the philosophy from former coordinator Mike Martz. But Tice has his own spin on the "three-digit offense," and the Bears will need to realign behind a power running game and a passing approach that emphasizes downfield throws.

Tight end and receiver are two positions the Bears need to focus on this offseason, either by developing their existing players like Kellen Davis and/or acquiring a legitimate downfield threat. New general manager Phil Emery should have more than $20 million in cap space to work with, and the free-agent market should be deep with receivers.

But to make Tice's offense work, Emery will also need to ensure the return of free-agent tailback Matt Forte and find him a reliable backup as well.

DETROIT LIONS

In a tight salary-cap situation, can the Lions keep their nucleus together and add where needed?

Years of high draft positioning made the Lions a talented team but also one facing a cap crunch in 2012. Preliminary cap reconciliation leaves the Lions with $122 million in cap commitments, about $2 million above the estimated $120 million cap. And that total doesn't include three defensive starters who are pending free agents: defensive end Cliff Avril, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

The Lions will need to find ways to shave from that total, whether it's borrowing from future caps -- a tool now available in the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) -- or reducing the cap figures in existing contracts.

As we've discussed, receiver Calvin Johnson should be the first target for a cap-reducing contract extension. He's projected to account for about $22 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal. Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch are estimated to account for nearly half of the Lions' total cap allotment.

What does all this mean? We are all figuring out the NFL's new salary-cap rules together, but it's clear the Lions must make some difficult short-term decisions and weigh them against long-term prosperity.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

What can the Packers do to improve a pass defense that gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history?

The easiest answer is to address the pass rush, which weakened in 2011 when the Packers couldn't find a suitable replacement for departed free agent Cullen Jenkins. The rush could come from the defensive end position, where the Packers have waited two years for the highly touted Mike Neal to make an impact, or through acquiring a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

General manager Ted Thompson has been reluctant in recent years to utilize veteran free agency, and the truth is that few teams allow a legitimate pass-rusher to depart without compensation. But the situation was serious enough in 2011 that Thompson will at least need to consider every avenue available for a substantial and fast-acting solution. The Packers had 29 sacks in 2011, tied for the third-worst total in the NFL.

Parallel to that issue, however, Thompson will also have to monitor a situation at safety that contributed to the Packers' defensive problems in 2011. Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins will find out in March whether he can continue his career or if he must retire because of a serious neck injury. The Packers missed his leadership and instincts in center field and would need to acquire a long-term replacement if he retires.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

The development of quarterback Christian Ponder will dominate many of the Vikings' offseason headlines, but there is an equally important question hovering over the team: How fast can it upgrade its historically poor pass defense?

Vikings opponents finished the season with a 107.6 passer rating, the third-highest figure in NFL history. Their eight interceptions tied for the league's lowest total in 2011 and only one player among the back seven who started the majority of games in 2011 -- linebacker Chad Greenway -- is assured a starting job in 2012.

It's difficult to replace six starters in one offseason, but the Vikings have already begun their defensive overhaul by hiring new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, bringing back Brendan Daly as their defensive line coach and making former coordinator, Fred Pagac, their primary linebackers coach.

The personnel situation is most dire in the secondary, where two of the Vikings' primary safeties -- Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson -- are free agents. Talented cornerback Chris Cook, suspended for the final 10 games of the season following a domestic-violence incident, remains in limbo. Cook's trial date is tentatively scheduled for March 5. The future of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield must be addressed as well; Winfield turns 35 in June.
Titus YoungTim Fuller/US PresswireThe Vikings have struggled in pass coverage this season, giving up huge plays including a 56-yard touchdown to Lions receiver Titus Young last Sunday.
After taking permanent control of the Minnesota Vikings' coaching job, Leslie Frazier laid out a traditional and conventional vision for winning football games. His teams would run the ball and stop the run, a time-honored approach that sounds good in the locker room but is as outdated as the single wing.

If there were ever a season that could crush that theory, it's the one the Vikings are enduring in 2011. They rank among the NFL's top 10 in rushing yards and rush defense, but their punchless passing attack and tattered pass defense has driven the worst 13-game start in franchise history. At 2-11, the Vikings are obviously and glaringly swimming upstream in the pass-happy NFL.

Speaking generally last week, Frazier said he has reminded himself that this season is "a journey" and "part of what we have to go through to get to where we want eventually." He said he doesn't "foresee us forever being in this situation" and added: "I really believe that we will look back on it in time and say, 'OK, this is what happened in 2011 and this is why we are better in 2012, because of what happened in 2011.'"

Quite frankly, that will take some adjustment in vision.

Frazier built his hopes on offense around tailback Adrian Peterson, who averaged 94 yards and more than one touchdown per game before suffering an ankle injury in Week 11. Development from quarterback Christian Ponder would lead to a more balanced offense over time, but the Vikings' 2011 plan was either deeply flawed or a gross example of misplaced priorities. Both the quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and No. 1 receiver (Bernard Berrian) they opened the season with have already been waived. Neither has signed with a new team.

Their failures, and other reasons, have left Vikings quarterbacks with a combined 77.0 passer rating this season, ranking them in the bottom third of the NFL.

Peterson's presence, not to mention a $100 million contract extension, demands a strong commitment to the running game. So I don't think the Vikings need, say, the Packers' passing offense to be championship contenders. But there is no reasonable explanation to justify how the Vikings organized and executed a pass defense that is on pace to produce one of the worst seasons in NFL history.

Defensive end Jared Allen leads the NFL with 17.5 sacks, but even with his presence, the Vikings have allowed opponents to compile a 107.1 passer rating this season. As the first chart shows, that puts them on pace for one of the five-worst pass defenses -- based on opponent's passer rating -- since at least the 1970 merger. As the second chart shows, the Vikings have allowed more touchdown passes, intercepted the fewest passes and allowed the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL this season. Last Sunday, the Vikings did limit the yardage piled up by Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But even though he threw for a modest 229 yards, Stafford still completed 69 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and didn't have a turnover.

Their inability to slow down opposing pass offenses has all but negated a relatively strong run defense that ranks No. 9 overall in total yards allowed. And it's not as if teams aren't trying to run against the Vikings. Opponents have 352 rushing attempts against them, good for No. 17 in the NFL.

As with their pass offense, the Vikings didn't appear to make their pass defense a high priority entering the season. Their only starting-level addition was nose tackle Remi Ayodele, a run-stopper. And it's possible that none of the defensive backs considered starters in Week 1 will return in 2012.

Frazier has already admitted that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be playing if he had any better options. Fellow cornerback Antoine Winfield will be 35 in 2012, just had a playing-time clause reduce his salary by more than 50 percent and might not be a full-time player anymore. The careers of cornerback Chris Cook (off-field) and free safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) are in doubt, and a season-long rotation of strong safeties Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson revealed neither is up for the job.

Did the Vikings think they could cover themselves with their run defense? I hope not. These days, the best gauge for measuring the top teams is the differential between their passer rating (or QBR) and the passer rating (or QBR) allowed by their defenses.

Here are the teams with the top five QBR differentials through 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-0)
  2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (10-3)
  5. Houston Texans (10-3)

And here are the teams with the five worst differentials:

  1. Indianapolis Colts (0-13)
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
  3. St. Louis Rams (2-11)
  4. Vikings (2-11)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (6-7)

It would be fine if the Vikings continue running the ball well and can stop the run. But that can't be it. They won't compete in the NFC North, much less this league, until they rebuild their pass offense and reassemble a competent secondary. Until the NFL veers away from its love affair with the passing game, the Vikings have no choice but to shift their vision.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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After the Minnesota Vikings' 35-32 loss to the Denver Broncos, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their loss against the Broncos, the Vikings take a seat in the examination room.
  1. Coach Leslie Frazier has deserved some criticism this year, but let's cut him a break from demands that he should have allowed the Broncos to score once an interception gave them possession at the Vikings' 15-yard line. As the theory goes, the Vikings would have been better off giving the Broncos a 39-32 lead and then launching their own potential game-tying drive rather than letting the Broncos run off the rest of the clock and kick a short field goal to win. I checked with ESPN's analytics team to see if the Vikings would have increased their mathematical win probability with such an unorthodox move. The short answer from Alok Pattani was no, based on an ESPN model built off thousands of individual play results over the past decade. The Broncos had a 95.3 percent chance to win the game the moment they made the interception. Had the Vikings allowed an immediate touchdown, their chances of driving the field for a touchdown on their ensuing possession and ultimately winning the game in overtime was 2.5 percent. So statistically speaking, the Vikings had a better chance of stopping the Broncos' final possession, as they tried to do, than pulling off a non-traditional miracle.
  2. Frazier made a starling admission Monday at his weekly news conference when asked about struggling cornerback Cedric Griffin. In essence, Frazier said Griffin wouldn't be playing if the Vikings had a better option. Griffin is trying to come back from the second of two career ACL tears and has looked hesitant and a step slow all season. Frazier: "He's not the Cedric we saw before the second ACL injury and he's tried to battle through some things. But his confidence level has not been where it needs to be to able to play at a high level in our league. I'm sure it has a lot to do with coming off a second ACL. We're just so depleted depth-wise that we have to have him out there. I know he'd like to play better. I know he's trying to play better. It's been a tough year for him." That said, I would imagine that Griffin won't open training camp in 2012 as a starter.
  3. Quarterback Christian Ponder played most of Sunday's game with a hip pointer and is going to be limited, at best, in practice this week. Frazier said the team's medical staff is confident Ponder will be ready for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, but it's interesting to note that Frazier shot down the idea of newly-acquired backup Sage Rosenfels as a potential replacement if Ponder suffers a setback. Joe Webb would take whatever first-team snaps that Ponder doesn't this week. I'm fine with that. A 2-10 team might as well give young players every opportunity to gain experience provided they're equipped to give a credible performance.
And here is one issue that I still don't get:
Frazier told the truth Sunday when he expressed incredulity at how bad his defensive backs covered the Broncos' receivers. But given the situation, I'm not sure what anyone expects right now. The Vikings opened the game without a single defensive back who deserves to be part of their long-term plan. Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook, Husain Abdullah, Tyrell Johnson and Asher Allen -- five of their top seven Week 1 defensive backs -- were inactive for the game. Few teams have the depth to absorb that kind of attrition.

BBAO: Vikings roster shakeup

November, 30, 2011
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

I ran out of steam Tuesday before the news stopped pouring in, so let's catch up on a flurry of moves that ended the season of four prominent Minnesota Vikings players, including two starters.

Receiver Michael Jenkins (knee) and safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) were placed on injured reserve, along with safety Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) and long-snapper Cullen Loeffler. Among those signed to fill their spots were veteran safety Jarrad Page.

Abdullah hadn't played since Week 10. Jenkins, however, had been a reliable receiver for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder and leaves the team's receiving corps in shambles. Percy Harvin is the only remaining wide receiver with more than nine receptions this season.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Wrap-up: Falcons 24, Vikings 14

November, 27, 2011
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A few thoughts on another loss for the NFC North's last-place team:

What it means: Down 17-0 at halftime, the Minnesota Vikings made it interesting but ultimately absorbed their ninth loss of the season. It's the franchise's first 2-9 start since 1962.

Harvin Watch: With tailback Adrian Peterson sidelined by a high ankle sprain, receiver/running back Percy Harvin was the team's lone remaining offensive playmaker. And Harvin made two huge plays to give the Vikings a chance in this game, hauling in a 39-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-13 in the fourth quarter and also returning a kickoff 104 yards to the Atlanta Falcons' 3-yard line with six minutes, 28 seconds remaining. Harvin caught eight passes for 95 yards and, including special teams, accounted for 200 all-purpose yards.

Late-game questions here: The final seven minutes in this game will be hotly debated among Vikings fans. Here are the primary questions: Even without Peterson, were the Vikings justified in using Harvin on two consecutive inside running plays on the goal line after his kickoff return? Should coach Leslie Frazier have challenged Harvin's second run, in which he appeared to have crossed the plane on second effort? Down by 10 points, should the Vikings have taken an easy field goal rather than go for a touchdown on fourth down? And should they have given the ball to tailback Toby Gerhart, who hasn't been much of an effective short-yardage runner in his career?

Opinion here: My quick reaction to those questions goes as following. I'm fine with using Harvin. He was the Vikings' best player Sunday. Frazier would have had nothing to lose by challenging the ruling on third down. I would have taken a field goal, but either way you need a field goal and a touchdown to force overtime. But handing the ball to Gerhart on fourth down, especially with a quarterback in Christian Ponder who excels at plays that give him a pass-run option on the outside, was the least defensible of the decisions we saw from Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

Injury report: Already playing without safety Husain Abdullah and cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, the Vikings lost safety Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) and cornerback Asher Allen (shoulder) during the game. I thought their defense played well considering they had Benny Sapp, on the street two weeks ago, playing at one cornerback spot and rookie Mistral Raymond at safety. The Vikings also lost long snapper Cullen Loeffler to a back injury. Defensive end Jared Allen did a flawless job as Loefller's replacement and even made a special teams tackle after his first snap.

What's next: The Vikings will host the Denver Broncos next Sunday at the Metrodome. Remember, the game has been moved from CBS to FOX. As of last week, the team had more than 5,000 tickets to sell to avoid a local television blackout.

NFC North Friday injury report

November, 18, 2011
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Getting inside the Friday injury report:

Chicago Bears: Nickel back D.J. Moore (ankle) is doubtful for Sunday's game and isn't expected to play against the San Diego Chargers. Corey Graham will be the nickel back. All other players should be available.

Detroit Lions: Punter Ryan Donahue (quadriceps) was ruled out, confirming that newcomer Ben Graham will punt Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Safety Amari Spievey (toe) is probable and expected to play. The Lions could be thin on the defensive line, based on the availability of defensive ends Willie Young (ankle) and Lawrence Jackson (thigh). Both are listed as questionable.

Green Bay Packers: The only injury issue this week has been defensive end Mike Neal (knee), who made it through portions of all three practices. The Packers are listing him as questionable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an encouraging sign. Even if he doesn't play this week, it appears Neal hasn't had any setbacks to prevent an imminent return.

Minnesota Vikings: Guard Anthony Herrera (knee) and safety Husain Abdullah (concussion ) were ruled out for Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders. Joe Berger will again start at right guard, and it's expected the Vikings will use a three-man rotation at safety between Jamarca Sanford, Tyrell Johnson and rookie Mistral Raymond. Meanwhile, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring) is questionable, as is linebacker Erin Henderson (hamstring). Kyle Rudolph and Kenny Onatolu, respectively, could see additional playing time Sunday.

NFC North at night

November, 17, 2011
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Checking in on Thursday's news bits:

Chicago Bears: Cornerback D.J. Moore missed practice after suffering an ankle injury Wednesday. If he can't play, the Bears could look at Corey Graham or Zack Bowman in the nickel Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. Defensive end Julius Peppers (knee) practiced Thursday.

Detroit Lions: Safety Amari Spievey (toe) returned to practice Thursday as a limited participant. Running back Jahvid Best (concussion) watched practice but did not participate. Punter Ryan Donahue (quadriceps) didn't practice. Neither did defensive ends Willie Young (ankle) and Lawrence Jackson (thigh). Quarterback Matthew Stafford (finger) had full participation in practice.

Green Bay Packers: Linebacker Desmond Bishop and guard T.J. Lang, both of whom missed practice Wednesday for personal reasons, returned Thursday. Running back Ryan Grant (knee) also returned to practice and had full participation.

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive end Jared Allen has been filling in as the team's long snapper in practice because of Cullen Loeffler's shoulder injury. But coach Leslie Frazier told reporters there is "no chance" he would use Allen in that role Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. If Loeffler isn't ready, the Vikings will sign an emergency snapper. Safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) continues to be sidelined and doesn't appear likely to play Sunday. Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford would be the starters.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
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After the Minnesota Vikings' 45-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their loss to the Packers, the Vikings take a seat in the examination room.
    The Vikings talked big last week about ending the Packers' run at an undefeated season. Instead, they produced their most lethargic performance of the year. Defensive end Jared Allen called it "disgusting" and fellow defensive end Brian Robison felt compelled to say via Twitter: "We have not quit." When a team lays that kind of egg on national television, public discussion naturally turns to the effectiveness of the head coach. I'm not ready to go there yet with Leslie Frazier. He took over a complicated situation and is trying to navigate a roster transition while still prodding the remaining veterans. As an organization, the Vikings are approaching their situation as a remodel rather than a rebuild. They might have underestimated the work ahead of them.
  2. There is a line of thought in the NFL that you don't play rookies and/or backups just to play them, or in the blind hope that they will provide an upgrade over the status quo. But the Vikings have enough low-functioning players to justify it at several positions. I see no reason why rookie defensive tackle Christian Ballard shouldn't continue to start ahead of Remi Ayodele. It's worth seeing whether rookie safety Mistral Raymond is any better than Tyrell Johnson, Jamarca Sanford or Husain Abdullah. In basketball terms, at 2-7 and after displaying the kind of lethargy we saw Monday night, the Vikings need to empty the bench. If nothing else, it's a method for holding players accountable. No one has tenure in the NFL.
  3. Amid it all, we should note that Allen continues to bring it hard on every play this season. He was in the face of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers all game, finishing with seven tackles, including three for a loss, and one sack to bring his season total to 13.5. I would imagine his NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidacy will be negatively impacted by the Vikings' poor team performance, but that's too bad. One of this generation's best pass-rushers is having the best season of his career. Allen's production and energy level have never been higher. He's setting an example that, quite frankly, isn't being noticed by enough of his teammates.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What does the future hold for cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose season is probably over after fracturing his collarbone Monday night? He will be 35 when the 2012 season begins and has been limited by injuries in two of the past three seasons. The Vikings have uncertainty across the board at cornerback, from fellow starter Cedric Griffin to second-year player Chris Cook, who is inactive because of legal issues. And it's worth nothing that the Vikings negotiated a de-escalator into Winfield's most recent contract, one that would pay him $7 million if he is a starter but about $3 million if he is a nickelback. Winfield is part of an old guard of Vikings defenders who eventually will be phased out. Will it be this offseason?
Updating our earlier post, we now know that Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook won't play Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Arrested early Saturday morning and jailed without bond, it's not even clear that he'll be released from jail before kickoff. Even if he is, however, the Vikings have formally ruled him out of the game.

We've already discussed how that will impact their depth chart for Sunday's game. It's likely that dime back Asher Allen will start at cornerback, with punt returner Marcus Sherels serving as the dime back. Starting cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) and starting safety Jamarca Sanford (concussion) are doubtful for the game and not expected to play.

The Packers had a pretty sizeable matchup advantage even before Cook's arrest. So the bigger question now is what this incident means for the future of the Vikings' top draft choice in 2010. Two knee surgeries derailed Cook's rookie season, and he's now been arrested twice in the past eight months. (He was ultimately acquitted of brandishing a firearm last spring.)

Coach Leslie Frazier will have to make a short-term discipline decision about Cook, regardless of the outcome of this proceeding, and the NFL could also weight in with a fine or suspension. Stay tuned.

NFC North Friday injury report

October, 21, 2011
10/21/11
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Getting inside the NFC North Friday injury report:

Chicago Bears: All players are probable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers except for offensive lineman Gabe Carimi (knee) and defensive lineman Matt Toeaina (knee). Still, receiver Earl Bennett (chest) seems unlikely to play. Safety Major Wright (hip) might give way to veteran Chris Harris in the starting lineup.

Detroit Lions: The Lions officially ruled out running back Jahvid Best (concussion) for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, to no one's surprise. The good news: Linebacker Justin Durant and tight end Tony Scheffler, both of who whom have been dealing with concussions, are listed as probable. Durant has missed the past three games.

Green Bay Packers: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett was added to the injury list Friday because of a concussion and is questionable for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Packers coach Mike McCarthy indicated that Pickett should be cleared for the game, which would be a quick recovery. Cornerback Sam Shields is doubtful because of a concussion and isn't expected to play.

Minnesota Vikings: It looks like the Vikings will be missing two of their four starting defensive backs for Sunday's game. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (neck) and safety Jamarca Sanford (concussion) are both listed as doubtful. So is center John Sullivan (concussion). Chris Cook would continue starting for Winfield. Tyrell Johnson would start for Sanford and Joe Berger for Sullivan.

NFC North Stock Watch

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
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FALLING

1. Donovan McNabb, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: We've noted many times that McNabb deserves only partial blame for the Vikings' woes this season. The lockout, an imbalanced roster and some uninspired work from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have all contributed. Regardless, you have to wonder if McNabb has made the final start of his NFL career. Coach Leslie Frazier officially is still mulling his starter for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers, but it doesn't usually bode well for an incumbent when the coach doesn't immediately express support. If Christian Ponder assumes the job and stays healthy for the remainder of the season, what options would McNabb have in 2012? He would have been benched in consecutive years by two different organizations. I'm not sure if another team would offer him its starting job. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated reported McNabb will strongly consider retirement if that scenario plays out.

2. Perspective on postgame handshakes: I promise this will be my final comment on Sunday's postgame fracas at Ford Field. I've been surprised at how many people think this incident has been overblown. Rarely, if ever, in the modern history of the NFL has one head coach been restrained from going after another, regardless of provocation. To find even a similar example, the Pro Football Hall of Fame went back to a Chicago Bears-Los Angeles Rams game -- in 1947. After the game, a dirty affair from another era that featured five ejections and 16 penalties, a Bears player chased Rams coach Bob Snyder into the locker room and sparked a brawl. And this list of coaching confrontations, compiled by Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, hardly compares to what we saw Sunday. What exactly was Schwartz going to do Sunday if he reached Harbaugh? Were they going to fight right there on the field? When something so out of the ordinary occurs relative to history, it is by definition a significant event.

3. Vikings pass defense: The Vikings have gotten decent push from defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison this season, but they were largely stymied Sunday night by a Chicago Bears offense that held back extra blockers in pass protection. Robbed of the protection usually afforded by Allen and Robison, the Vikings' secondary was revealed as an undermanned group that doesn't have an anchor as long as veteran is Antoine Winfield (neck) sidelined. The Vikings rank No. 24 overall in NFL pass defense. They continue to run a rotation at safety between Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford, and cornerback Cedric Griffin is gamely fighting through his second return from an ACL tear in as many seasons. All secondaries are better when they have a pass rush, but the Vikings' is a real liability if Allen and Robison can't get consistent pressure.

RISING

[+] EnlargeJames Jones
Zuma Press/Icon SMIJames Jones celebrates his 35-yard touchdown catch against the Rams with the fans.
1. James Jones, Packers receiver: Jones wasn't happy with his playing time early in the season. But after agreeing to sit tight and wait his turn, Jones has caught a touchdown pass in each of the Packers' last three games. In fact, three of his last seven receptions have gone for touchdowns. Over that stretch, Jones has pulled himself even with the slew of receivers the Packers have behind Greg Jennings. Jordy Nelson has 20 receptions this season. Jones has 15. Donald Driver has 12 and Randall Cobb has nine.

2. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: We'll get to this in more detail later Tuesday, but Cutler has put together his best two games of the season over the past two weeks. He's completed 71 percent of his passes over that stretch with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He's even made a believer of Total Quarterback Rating, which gave him a season-high 91.4 score after Sunday's victory over the Vikings. It's interesting that Cutler has a better sense for what the Bears offense can do, and not do, than coordinator Mike Martz.

3. Desmond Bishop, Packers linebacker: Tackles are an unofficial statistic, but I usually prefer to use the set based on review from each team's coaches. Based on that film review, Bishop had a stunning 20 tackles in Sunday's victory over the St. Louis Rams. That unofficially gives Bishop a team-high 72 tackles through six games. He also has three sacks and a forced fumble. Consider that at this time last season, Bishop was only two games into his replacement of injured starter Nick Barnett. He has now blossomed into a key ingredient of a championship defense.

BBAO: Charlie Peprah understands job

September, 22, 2011
9/22/11
7:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

It's difficult to have a single reaction to the Green Bay Packers' loss of safety Nick Collins. On the one hand, the Packers can feel confident that replacement Charlie Peprah successfully navigated an in-season transition at the other safety spot last season. But on the other hand, Peprah was asked to replace a rookie -- Morgan Burnett -- and not take on the role of one of the NFL's best at his position.

Peprah appears to understand that dynamic. Here are the reassuring words he provided to Wisconsin media Wednesday, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "I think that's the thing you've got to know: I'm not going to go out there and make things look the way Nick made it look. But I'm going to get the job done, and I'm going to do it right, and I'm going to make plays. ..."

As we've discussed before, the Packers have a much bigger task at hand in replacing Collins than they did last year with Burnett. But Peprah will give them a professional effort and performance, and they are fortunate to have him in this position for consecutive years.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette notes that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers historically hasn't played his best games against the Chicago Bears.
  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports cornerback Tramon Williams (shoulder) was "very limited" in practice Wednesday.
  • The Chicago Bears will give Frank Omiyale a one-week test as their right tackle in the wake of rookie Gabe Carimi's knee injury, according to the Chicago Tribune.
  • Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz took the blame for imbalanced play calling last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Via Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com: "What happened, to be honest with you, I got into a two-minute mode too soon. That's one of the things I talked with [coach] Lovie [Smith] about. Going into that fourth quarter, once that turnover came, there's just a lot of things; it's just not simple. But none of them are a justification. We went into that game thinking we were going to run the ball quite a bit, again there are reasons for everything, it's not that we want to do that. Nobody wants to throw the ball that much. It's not fun."
  • Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is in survival mode, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Detroit Lions have increased their team speed on defense, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Lions cornerback Chris Houston has worked on his ball skills and already has two interceptions this season, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz on rookie defensive tackle Nick Fairley, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News: "He's going to play a lot of good football for us this year."
  • If they lose Sunday to the Lions, the Minnesota Vikings will need to re-evaluate their priorities for the season, writes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "[E]vidence is mounting that the Vikings (0-2) either do not have the playmakers to threaten defenses downfield or their playmakers simply are not up to the task."
  • Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson on his arrest this week for drunken driving, via the Star Tribune: "I made a mistake. I'm very regretful for the mistake. ... And I'm very fortunate and blessed that I didn't get hurt and no one else got hurt in the situation because of my selfishness." Coach Leslie Frazier said Johnson will be available to play Sunday against the Lions.
To address a question many of you have posed: If Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier follows previous form, it's unlikely he'll release or immediately discipline safety Tyrell Johnson, who was arrested early Tuesday morning on suspicion of driving while impaired.

Two other players have been arrested since Frazier took over as the Vikings' permanent coach over the winter. Defensive lineman Everson Griffen was arrested twice in the span of three days in February, first for on suspicion of public intoxication and then for allegedly assaulting a police officer following a traffic stop. Meanwhile, quarterback Rhett Bomar was arrested for drunken driving during training camp.

Griffen remained with the team and is part of the Vikings' defensive line rotation. Bomar wasn't released until the Vikings needed to reduce their roster during the first round of cuts last month.

Johnson's blood-alcohol level was 0.12 percent when he arrested, according to reports.

We'll wait to hear from Frazier during Wednesday's media availability, but it seems as though he set a precedent with Griffen, if not Bomar. First offenses, which this appears to be for Johnson, haven't merited severe discipline under Frazier to this point.

As we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat, which I appreciate everyone turning out for, the bigger question is whether Frazier sees anything in Johnson to merit his continued presence on the field. Johnson was the Vikings' top draft pick in 2008, but he has been locked in a two-year competition for a starting job with Jamarca Sanford. His drop of an interception in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was one of the key misplays of a stunning 24-20 loss.

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