NFC North: Vincent Jackson

Four keys for Detroit vs. Tampa Bay

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
12:00
PM ET
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Over the past three weeks, the Detroit Lions' schedule became a little bit more difficult.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at the time winless and apparently flailing, have played like a different team over the past three weeks. The Bucs played well in a loss to Seattle and then beat Miami and Atlanta in back-to-back weeks in Tampa Bay.

Now, Tampa Bay has to go on the road again, this time to Detroit, a former divisional rival that the Lions have beaten three of the last four times they have played. But this Buccaneers team is one with belief now.

"Guys are just excited," Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "I think that during the time when we were 0-8, it wasn't really, you know, the atmosphere wasn't positive. Guys were moping around and things like that.

"I think we kind of forgot how to win."

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson & Nate Burleson
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsCalvin Johnson (left) should be happy to have Nate Burleson back on the field this week as the Detroit Lions receiver will help in double coverages.
Now, though, there isn't as much of a winning issue in Tampa Bay. How does Detroit stop that from becoming a three-game winning streak? Here are four keys.

Burleson being back: Detroit has done a better-than-serviceable job in the absence of No. 2 receiver Nate Burleson with a variety of players making plays with him out with an broken forearm. Joseph Fauria had a massive game against Cleveland. Kris Durham has become a reliable option on the outside opposite Calvin Johnson. Brandon Pettigrew has seen more targets and production.

But the Lions' offense with the veteran is a much different operation. Burleson offers a reliable option in the slot who can help force teams from focusing too much on Johnson or running back Reggie Bush. And if teams do continue to pay the same attention to those two players, the middle of the field should be wide open for Burleson. Sunday begins the new proving ground for Burleson, who was playing well before the injury.

Rattle Glennon: At this time last week, it seemed an inevitable that the Detroit defensive line would pressure and sack Ben Roethlisberger multiple times. Pretty much everyone else had this season.

But the Lions couldn't really reach Roethlisberger for a multitude of reasons. Roethlisberger was getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback Detroit had faced this season. They also only blitzed 14.6 percent of the time, the Lions' lowest percentage since a loss to Cincinnati in Week 7. And they only sacked Roethlisberger once and hit him twice. A rookie like Mike Glennon against this defensive line, though, could have some issues.

Keep Johnson involved: Johnson was held without a catch and was only targeted three times in the second half against Pittsburgh, a rarity for the man considered the consensus best receiver in the NFL. Of course, Johnson still had a massive day with six catches for 179 yards, but they need to find Johnson in a more balanced manner to keep the Tampa Bay defense guessing.

Specifically, the Lions should try to target Johnson to the side of the field where Dashon Goldson would have been. The Buccaneers' starting safety won't play this week, so having a talented but relatively inexperienced player in Mark Barron could lead to some mistakes and some ways for Johnson to exploit Revis.

Focus on Vincent Jackson: The Buccaneers' top receiver is quietly having one of the better seasons of his career, already catching 56 passes for 827 yards and five touchdowns. In Tampa's destruction of Atlanta last Sunday, he had 10 catches for 165 yards, his fourth 100-yard game of the season.

He'll be a problem for the Lions' inconsistent cornerbacks. Rashean Mathis will likely draw the Jackson assignment initially, but don't be surprised if you see the Lions roll coverage toward Jackson as he has been their only true receiving option.
DeAndre Levy and Vincent JacksonUSA Today SportsDeAndre Levy and the Lions will need to keep Vincent Jackson in check on Sunday.
Tampa Bay started its season terribly before finding some answers the past two weeks. Detroit started its season strong but is suddenly vulnerable and has some questions.

Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.

The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.

Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?

Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.

Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?

Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.

Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.

That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.

I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.

Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?

Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?

That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).

One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?

Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.

You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?

Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.

Nick Foles and A.J. HawkGetty ImagesNick Foles and A.J. Hawk meet Sunday in Green Bay in a game that's turned in the Eagles' favor.
If you expected the Philadelphia Eagles to have the edge at quarterback for their Week 10 meeting against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, go to the head of the class.

The teams play Sunday, a week after their quarterbacks made headline news. The Pack's Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bears, a day after the Eagles' Nick Foles tied the NFL record with seven touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders.

A game that looked to be safely in the Packers' column is suddenly wide open. NFC North aficionado and all-around NFL expert Kevin Seifert breaks down the game with ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan.

Phil Sheridan: I'll start with the obvious one: Can the Packers win without Rodgers? Did they take his durability for granted in not having a better backup in place?

Kevin Seifert: On a local level, the backup quarterback has been an annual source of controversy for the Packers throughout Rodgers' career as a starter. Nationally, most people didn't find out about it until Monday night.

Seneca Wallace is the backup only because he was available when they realized none of the players they took to training camp was up to the job. He is 6-15 in his career as a starter, and his career seemed over in August 2012 when the Cleveland Browns released him.

The Packers' entire scheme is built around Rodgers doing things that only Rodgers can do. Think of what happened when the Indianapolis Colts played without Peyton Manning in 2011. The Packers will need to make fundamental changes to their offense -- and expect substantial elevation in other areas of their team -- to make it through this wilderness.

I have to imagine the Eagles can't believe their luck to be facing Wallace instead of Rodgers, huh?

Sheridan: They are saying all the right things about wanting to face the best and never wanting to see anyone get hurt, but they aren't oblivious. This game looked like a double-digit loss the day the schedule came out, and it still looked like an easy Packers home win until Rodgers' collarbone broke Monday night. So it not only becomes a winnable game for the Eagles, it comes when a win, combined with a Dallas loss (the Boys are in New Orleans), would move them even with the Cowboys at 5-5.

And it's not like the Eagles owe anybody an apology when it comes to luck. They haven't had a quarterback start and finish two games in a row since September, and they've been down to Matt Barkley twice.

They may not have a starter as good as Rodgers, but their backup isn't half bad. Foles threw for seven touchdowns Sunday against an Oakland defense that didn't blitz or, at times, even cover receivers. Given Dom Capers' background, how would you expect him to respond to a challenge like this?

Seifert: Capers is known for major scheme changes from week to week, depending on matchups. But as usual, the Packers are dealing with injuries that will limit his options. They are down four linebackers at the moment, although the Packers are hopeful that Clay Matthews can return soon -- if not Sunday -- and play with a club to protect his broken thumb.

In short, I'm not sure how many options Capers will have. He does have a group of talented cornerbacks -- Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. Capers will have to hope that they can stick with the Eagles' group of perennial All-Pros and future Hall of Famers better than the Raiders did.

Are the Eagles' receivers really that good?

Sheridan: If they are, they have managed to keep that greatness a secret until Sunday in Oakland. DeSean Jackson is a dynamic player, no question about that, but he has been taken out of games in the past when cornerbacks get physical with him. The Raiders did not, and Jackson went off.

As for Riley Cooper and Jason Avant, they have not made up for the loss of Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL during training camp. Cooper had great numbers Sunday -- five catches, three touchdowns, 139 yards -- but he has been neutralized more often than not during the season.

Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz had big numbers at Oakland too. So either the Eagles offense really turned a corner or the Raiders just didn't have anyone playing corner. Maybe a bit of both.

The Packers have added a more robust running game to their offense this season. Now that Rodgers is hurt, can Eddie Lacy & Co. carry the team until the quarterback is back? Is that even possible in this pass-happy league?

Seifert: I tend to doubt it. Up until Monday night's game against the Bears, much of the Packers' success in the run game came against light boxes (six men or fewer) designed to focus first on the pass, according to the charting we get from ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears brought a safety into the box Monday night and the Packers still rushed for 199 yards, but we should note that the Bears have the NFL's fourth-worst rush defense this year.

And even when you run successfully, it usually takes longer to score and thus your total points can drive down. The Packers were averaging 30 points per game before scoring 20 Monday night against the Bears.

How do you think the Eagles will approach it? Eight men in the box? Nine? How about 11?

Sheridan: This sets up a bit like the Tampa Bay game, I guess. Mike Glennon was making his second start, and the Bucs' passing game was not expected to be a big threat. The Eagles focused on shutting down Doug Martin, and they did, holding him to 67 yards on 16 carries. It helps, of course, to get a lead and force the opponent to throw the ball more.

All season, the Eagles' focus has been to stop the run while limiting big pass plays downfield. That made them vulnerable to intermediate passing and runs after the catch. Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, for instance, had nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns while the Eagles were focused on Martin.

That has to be the Packers' blueprint for success. If Wallace can get the ball out quickly and catch Jordy Nelson and Andrew Quarless in stride, the Packers can move the ball. The Eagles are better at tackling and covering underneath than they were, but there's opportunity there.

Brett FavreAP Photo/Andy KingBrett Favre's career ended on the frozen fields of TCF Bank Stadium during the 2010 season.
Editor’s note: ESPN.com revisits the NFL’s most interesting teams since Y2K with a five-part “Most Compelling Teams of the Century” series. We continue with the 2010 Minnesota Vikings.

Brett Favre retired and then he really retired and then three Minnesota Vikings teammates lassoed him on his Mississippi farm and he agreed to do them a "favor" and then suddenly he was old and slow and a sitting duck and the subject of off-field accusations and finally, no longer the Iron Man of football. Sidney Rice had a minor hip injury and major hip surgery and then fumed amid questions about his condition so the Vikings tried to trade for Vincent Jackson and then got the cockeyed idea of acquiring Randy Moss who caught 13 passes in four games and clashed with coach Brad Childress and finally got himself cut a few hours before Childress told reporters Moss was still a Viking. Percy Harvin was Moss' best friend on the team and never forgave Childress and later in the season had to be held back from fighting him during practice. Childress was fired and Leslie Frazier was the coach when the Metrodome roof collapsed under heavy snow and the Vikings played home games in Detroit and on a frozen field at TCF Bank Stadium on which Favre made a final surprise start before taking a concussed sendoff.

And … breathe.

That's what the Vikings' season felt like for those who spent time around it: One soap-opera installment after another in run-on, never-ending fashion. It was so wild that no one blinked when another snowstorm forced a three-night stay in Philadelphia for a Week 16 game ultimately played on a Tuesday night. Naturally, the Vikings managed a 24-14 upset of the playoff-bound Eagles, led by a quarterback, Joe Webb, who had been drafted eight months earlier as a receiver.

I remember waking up early on Dec. 12, 2010. I figured it would take a while to clear the exceptionally heavy and wet snow that began falling the previous evening, and I wanted to be done in time to start blogging by midmorning. Before heading outside, I took a quick look at Twitter. Several local news stations had posted photos of the stadium roof collapse, which had occurred overnight.

It was about 6:30 a.m. CT. I texted ESPN colleague Ed Werder, who as it turned out was in Minneapolis to chronicle what would ultimately be the first game Favre had missed in two decades.

"That's a joke, right?" Werder replied.

Nope, I said. Welcome to the 2010 Minnesota Vikings.

Surreal. Theater of the Absurd. Unprecedented. I had used those descriptions and others throughout the year, often as they related to Favre. It began in late July of that year, when he told Childress he wouldn't play in 2010. No one believed him. About midway through training camp, reports surfaced that he would remain retired rather than rejoin the team after camp, as he had in 2009. No one believed him.

In fact, no one believed Favre until the team broke camp, and he still hadn't joined the team. Childress panicked. He sent three key players in owner Zygi Wilf's jet to talk Favre into playing, all while ducking the media and instructing two assistants to lie about the players' whereabouts. It wasn't until 30 minutes before Wilf's plane was scheduled to depart that Favre finally relented, agreeing, in his word, to do the Vikings a "favor."

Right away, it was clear that the magic of 2009 -- Favre had arguably the best season of his career in leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game -- was gone. Favre was using lubricant injections to limit discomfort in his troublesome ankles, and he threw almost as many interceptions (six) in the Vikings' first three games as he did in all 16 games of 2009 combined (seven).

Something needed to be done. Rice had been his favorite receiver in 2009, and the Vikings didn't seem to trust his commitment to returning. Jackson and the San Diego Chargers were in a contract stalemate, and the Vikings worked for a week to complete a trade before declining the Chargers' steep asking price.

That brought them to Moss, who the franchise had already fired once. Moss had worn out welcomes in Oakland and New England since then, and the match seemed poor from the start. Childress was a strict disciplinarian, both on personal comportment and scheme, and Moss had never been much of a conformist. It was a connection made by the gods of the unemployment line. I was flabbergasted to learn the two didn't speak before the trade. One conversation would have been enough to scuttle it.

Moss cost the Vikings a third-round draft choice. He made no impact on the offense, floored Childress with typically salty demeanor and in his final act, conducted a question and answer session with himself because he was upset about media complaints that had led to a $25,000 NFL fine.

Childress cut him the day after his fourth game with the team, a 28-18 loss to the Patriots in which Favre had been carted off the field, nearly unconscious, after a hit below the chin.

There was one problem, however. Childress had passed over the tiny detail of informing owner Zygi Wilf before executing the move. He got caught lying to reporters about it a few hours later, telling them he expected Moss back with the team in two days even as media reports confirming Moss' demise were surfacing.

Childress was cracking. Favre was playing -- heroically or stupidly? -- on a fractured foot and, at one point, paraded through the locker room with a protective boot in full view of reporters. Deadspin.com reported that he had texted inappropriate photographs to a woman who worked for the New York Jets in 2008, bringing Favre to tears during a pregame address to his teammates.

A month after firing Moss, Childress himself was fired after the Vikings' sideline erupted in dysfunction during a 31-3 home loss to the Green Bay Packers. That came shortly after Harvin exploded in practice when Childress questioned the severity of an injury. How quickly had Childress flamed out? His dismissal came one year after he signed a three-year contract extension.

By the time the Metrodome roof decided it had had enough, Favre was taking more direct hits than at any time in his career. It was sad, really, watching a once-elusive athlete absorb so much punishment. In Week 13, he suffered a sprained sternoclavicular joint after Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats slammed him to the turf.

Backup Tarvaris Jackson was preparing to start the following week against the Giants when the roof collapsed. Two days later, we all jumped on planes to cover the "home game" in Detroit at Ford Field. Favre stood on the sidelines wearing a stocking cap indoors and seemed relieved that his streak of 297 consecutive starts had ended. With three weeks remaining in the season, and Favre telling everyone who would listen that he couldn't feel his right hand, it seemed clear he would never play again.

That is, until the morning of Dec. 20. Snow was in the forecast, and the Vikings' final "home" game was scheduled for "Monday Night Football" against the Chicago Bears at the outdoor TCF Bank Stadium. Favre telephoned athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and, later, Frazier. Would the NFL allow him to play after the team had already ruled him out on the injury report?

Why yes, it would. Was there really any other answer for the 2010 Minnesota Vikings? Favre took a few warm-up throws in the snow and decided he wanted one last hurrah. This was an NFL game, not a reality television show, but it felt more like the latter. He played into the second quarter before Bears defensive end Corey Wootton slammed him to the frozen turf.

(As you might recall, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe got his start as a rabble-rouser that week by tweeting his concerns about the frozen turf, which had no heating coils under it and clearly posed a danger to players.)

Favre recently said he felt like an "idiot" for playing in the game, as he recounted the resulting concussion. At one point, he said he asked Sugarman, "What are the Bears doing here?"

And that, my friends, is the most appropriate image I can recall of the 2010 Minnesota Vikings. One of the NFL's greatest players lying on the frozen turf of a college stadium, playing not because he could, but because he wanted to, asking why there was an opponent on the field. I mean, the only thing stranger would have been a local catering service gaining national attention after a player criticized its food. Oh, wait….

The Percy Harvin saga had gone quiet in the weeks since we last addressed it at the NFL scouting combine. Then, as you might recall, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was repeating a seven-word mantra whenever he was asked: "We have no intent to trade Percy Harvin."

That carefully-constructed phrase, of course, stopped short of denying the possibility that Harvin would be traded. "We have no intent" and "We will not" have different meanings. The Vikings might not plan to trade Harvin, but it could happen if they get the right deal and/or he forces the issue.

So it's worth noting this Star Tribune column from Sid Hartman, who suggests that Harvin is trying to force the issue. Harvin's leverage is limited at the moment, as Hartman notes; he is under contract for 2013 (at just under $3 million) and the Vikings could conceivably use the franchise tag to retain him after that.

There is precedent for teams strong-arming a disgruntled player. Notably, the San Diego Chargers allowed receiver Vincent Jackson to sit out 11 games of the 2010 season in a contract dispute. But as free agent running back Steven Jackson says in the NFL Live video, that approach rarely achieves the desired result.

"Anytime you let a player stay around that is disgruntled," Jackson said, "he may divide the locker room. You don't want that. Because typically, players tend to take the other player's side because they can relate to each other."

Throughout months of discussion, I've maintained it was the Vikings' responsibility to find a way to work through Harvin's misgivings because of his unique and enormous talent. And the appearance of a provocative report, amid possible contract negotiations, should at least be considered through the prism of finance and leverage rather than a true reflection of the player's feelings. There is a long history of NFL players who abruptly withdrew trade requests once the team hit the contract number they sought.

With that disclaimer, we should acknowledge Harvin's history of eccentric behavior and unpredictable decisions. If the Vikings are convinced he won't give them his maximum commitment in 2013, then perhaps a trade is their only option. For those asking, a player receives credit for an accrued season, according to the collective bargaining agreement, if he is on "full pay status" for six regular season games. That means Harvin, like Jackson, could hold out through Week 11 and still trigger expiration of his contract after the season.

There is no sense speculating on Harvin's presumed grievances. Money, offensive scheme and the quarterback are traditional gripes from elite receivers, but Harvin is far from a traditional thinker. There is no telling what is going on inside his head. What we do know, as if we had forgotten, is that this saga might go quiet from time to time but isn't going away -- until the Vikings either sign him to an extension or trade him away.

A line in a recent NFL.com analysis indicates the Miami Dolphins anticipate competing with the Minnesota Vikings for free-agent receiver Mike Wallace. In the video, ESPN's Adam Schefter mentions the Vikings as a likely suitor for free-agent receiver Greg Jennings. And for months, we've discussed the Vikings' looming contract discussions with their own star wide receiver, Percy Harvin.

So how will these tentacles mesh over the next week? I won't pretend to have direct insight into the Vikings' plans, other than an informed assumption that they know they need a better receiving group. I'll just return to what we discussed a few days ago: In a relatively tight salary-cap era, it would be surprising if the Vikings pay out two market-level contracts at the same time for one position group.

You figure that Harvin, 24, and Wallace, 26, are seeking deals similar to what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Vincent Jackson last season and the Kansas City Chiefs paid to Dwayne Bowe this week: Around $11 million annually. It's doubtful, but not impossible I guess, to envision the Vikings paying that to Harvin and Wallace. So in essence, it's one or the other (or neither).

Jennings, 29, won't exactly be cheap, although as Matt Bowen writes for ESPN Insider Insider, he won't be viewed by all NFL teams as a classic No. 1 receiver. You need an Insider subscription to read what is really an extraordinary breakdown of Jennings' skill set, but here is the bottom line, according to Bowen: "Jennings can still play and still produce. But he isn't a 25-year-old receiver in his prime who can consistently flip the field and put stress on the league's top corners in the vertical passing game."

Jennings' ability to get open -- Bowen wrote he is still "one of the top route runners in the game" -- and his history of turning short slants into big gainers mesh well with the Vikings' offense. Ideally, the Vikings could sign Jennings for the rate Bowen recommends: $6 million to $8 million annually on a shorter-term contract. That would give them more flexibility to retain Harvin, if that's their plan.

On the other hand, if you see the Vikings jump out and offer top dollar to Wallace and/or Jennings, you could reasonably guess they have at least delayed plans to re-sign Harvin. We're down to a few days before we find out.
The financial details of Dwayne Bowe's contract agreement with the Kansas City Chiefs give us a better framework for discussion of top-flight receivers in the NFC North.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, among others, Bowe received a five-year deal worth $56 million, with $26 million guaranteed. That's a notch higher than last year's free-agent benchmark: $55 million over five years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Vincent Jackson, with similar guarantees.

Those figures help you understand why the Green Bay Packers either haven't been able, or haven't tried, to re-sign pending free agent Greg Jennings, who turns 30 in September. It also illustrates why it's difficult to predict where the Minnesota Vikings will go with their multi-pronged needs and challenges at the position.

As you know, Percy Harvin is entering the final year of his contract. It's safe to assume he will eye Bowe's contract as a framework for an extension. Those of you who would like to see the Vikings sign Jennings or the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace, the top two free-agent receivers available, should ask if you think they would dole out two deals that average more than $11 million annually for receivers.

If you consider that scenario unlikely, you're probably right. You wonder if the Vikings' likeliest path is to either commit to Harvin or sign a free agent -- but not both -- while also hoping to address the position in the draft. When you look at the second tier of free-agent receivers, you realize that many of them would play the same slot role as Harvin -- Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Donnie Avery among them.

Regardless, we now have a better idea of what it will cost for the Vikings either to satisfy Harvin and/or add a top veteran to the mix. In short: A lot.

Final Word: Buccaneers-Vikings

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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Three nuggets of knowledge about an early installment of Week 8:

Home advantage: These Thursday night turnarounds are tough for both teams, but recent history suggests the Minnesota Vikings will get a big boost by playing this game at the Metrodome. Already, the Vikings are 4-0 at home this season. And over the past two seasons, the home team is 13-3 in Thursday games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are making a long trip after a physical and disappointing loss last Sunday to the New Orleans Saints. That's probably why the Vikings are a 6.5-point favorite Insider and have been picked to win by 13 of ESPN's 14 football experts. Frankly, the Vikings really need to win this game. Even with the 2-4 Bucs on the list, the Vikings have the NFL's third-toughest schedule (.593 opposing winning percentage) for the rest of the season. They still must play the Chicago Bears (5-1) and Green Bay Packers (4-3) twice, as well as the Houston Texans (6-1).

Offensive matchup: In starting 2-4, the Buccaneers' defense has been really good against the run and had some terrible games against the pass. We haven't yet seen a game where the Vikings couldn't or didn't run the ball, and tailback Adrian Peterson has looked better each week. Will this be the week the Vikings need quarterback Christian Ponder to carry the offense? Opponents are averaging an NFL-low 3.1 yards per carry against the Bucs this season, mostly because defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller are plugging up the middle. On the other hand, the Bucs have given up four 300-yard passing games this season, including 510 yards to the New York Giants' Eli Manning. My guess is the Vikings will do their best to get Peterson rolling before getting too pass-happy.

Veteran threat: Two alternate views of team-building will be on display this evening. Both the Vikings and Bucs entered the offseason needing a veteran downfield threat at receiver. The Bucs signed the NFL's top free agent at the position, Vincent Jackson, to a five-year contract worth $55 million. The Vikings took a flyer on veteran Jerome Simpson. Jackson is averaging 21.7 yards on 27 receptions and has caught five touchdowns. Simpson has five receptions for 58 yards in three games. But are the Bucs better off for having spent that kind of money? It hasn't translated into victories -- at least not yet.
Punter Tim Masthay's contract extension, reported Friday by NFL.com and multiple other news outlets, is a reminder of the massive challenge facing the Green Bay Packers as their talented group of core players matures.

Masthay was an important part of the Packers' late 2010 run to Super Bowl XLV, and a strong season in 2011 was enough to merit a four-year extension that includes a reported $1.2 million signing bonus. That figure, of course, is miniscule compared to what the Packers would have to pay out in order to secure quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Greg Jennings in the next year or so.

We discussed the issue earlier in the offseason when many fans wondered what the team would do with its salary-cap space and record-setting profits. Rodgers is signed through 2014, but his contract is outdated relative to the five-year, $100 million deal that quarterback Drew Brees signed this summer with the New Orleans Saints.

Matthews has two years left on his rookie contract, putting him in a window where many NFL teams try to re-sign key performers before they get close to free agency. Meanwhile, Jennings' deal expires after this season. This spring, at least, the market value for a front-line wide receiver was the five-year, $55 million deal that Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave Vincent Jackson.

Conservatively, the Packers could be looking at three contracts with a total value north of $200 million, depending on how long the deals are. There are no indications of acrimony or concern from either side, and I wouldn't consider any of the three an urgent issue. Eventually, however, these challenging and costly issues must be addressed.
By this point, the Green Bay Packers' quiet approach to veteran free agency should surprise no one. We've had endless debates about the pros and cons of their philosophy, but in the spring of 2012, I think we should all have a clear understanding of the "why."

In the next 12 months or so, the Packers will face contract negotiations with three of the best players at their positions in the NFL. Receiver Greg Jennings is entering the final year of his contract, linebacker Clay Matthews has two years remaining on his rookie deal, and there is a general understanding that quarterback Aaron Rodgers has outperformed the contract he signed shortly after taking over as the Packers' starter in 2008.

Free agent activity this week has offered us a peak at the numbers the Packers likely will hear, and to no surprise, they're going to be high. Let's start with Jennings, who has to be smiling ear-to-ear after watching the money thrown at receivers this week.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the market for the top receiver available by signing Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. If Jennings were to hit the open market in 2013, he could reasonably expect Jackson's deal to serve as a baseline for negotiations.

Both players have been fortunate enough to play with elite quarterbacks and in steady passing offenses. As the chart shows, Jennings is a bit younger than Jackson, and has produced at a much higher rate over his career.

We'll set aside the $132 million contract of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, as well as the $120 million deal Larry Fitzgerald signed last summer with the Arizona Cardinals. Both deals were inflated by unique forms of leverage that Jennings won't have access to.

Rodgers, meanwhile, is the reigning MVP and could expect a contract that comes close to the $18 million annual average the game's top quarterbacks -- including Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- have received in recent deals. Ongoing negotiations between Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints could raise that level, but Brees has the leverage of an expired contract.

Regardless, you can do the math. Rodgers said in November that he wants his next contract to be his last. If the Packers want to sign Rodgers to a new, say, seven-year deal, the total value could surpass $125 million. Nothing crazy there when it comes to quarterback salaries.

Of the three, Matthews might be the most difficult situation to assess. His sack total fell from 13.5 in 2010 to six in 2011, but it's fair to consider him one of the NFL's better pass-rushers. The top available pass-rusher on the market this spring is defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams, who has reportedly agreed to a deal with the Buffalo Bills for $100 million over six years, with $50 million guaranteed.

So we can be conservative and suggest that the combined contracts of Jennings, Rodgers and Matthews could surpass $200 million. That should give you 200 million reasons why the Packers are laying low, at least at the moment.

In the absence of information about -- and access to -- the Chicago Bears' new general manager, many of us took the logical step in classifying his philosophy. Like Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, Phil Emery spent most his professional career as a scout, beating the bushes around the country for college players. So it wasn't a bad guess to think Emery would be more likely follow Thompson's mantra of minimal free-agent activity while building his team through the draft.

[+] EnlargePhil Emery
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastPhil Emery's actions spoke loudly on Tuesday, acquiring Brandon Marshall and re-signing Tim Jennings.
And then Emery went and pulled off the highest-profile surprise in recent offseason memory Tuesday, giving up two third-round draft picks to acquire receiver Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins. He also re-signed cornerback Tim Jennings to a two-year deal and was working to sign veteran Jason Campbell as the Bears' new backup quarterback.

OK then.

The comparison still works if you remember that Thompson signed cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett to bolster those positions early in his tenure. Only after two drafts with the Packers did Thompson begin backing away from the free-agent market.

We have no idea what the long-term future holds for Emery's stewardship of the Bears. He hasn't uttered a word in public since his Jan. 30 introductory press conference, and probably as a result, both the Marshall courtship and the interest in Campbell came as complete surprises.

But Tuesday demonstrated the Bears have a bold thinker sitting in their Halas Hall trigger seat. Recognizing his team's biggest need, Emery acquired a better player than the top free agent available. (I would take Marshall over Vincent Jackson. You?) Knowing his team needed a better situation behind Jay Cutler, Emery is trying to sign a player who has been considered starting-quality by every team he's played for.

The Bears didn't get the first visit with defensive end Mario Williams, a big point of our discussions the past few days, and it's not clear if they have interest. Williams is already visiting the Buffalo Bills. But in a matter of minutes, Phil Emery replaced a void of information with a flood of action that spoke volumes about the way he will manage the Bears. Reporters and fans might not like being in the dark, but no one can argue with Tuesday's results.
Amid the chaos of the Brandon Marshall trade and the start of NFL free agency, Seth sent over a tweet that I'm guessing represented many of your thoughts: "Make me feel better about my Vikings doing absolutely nothing. Please."

I'm not sure if anyone expected the rebuilding Minnesota Vikings to jump into the first-hour bidding of free agency. But it's true they were quiet while many of the market's top receivers and cornerbacks -- two positions of acute need -- made plans to visit elsewhere.

Let's revise our list of the top seven receivers available with the best information we have on them, based mostly on the fast-moving Twitter feed of ESPN's Adam Schefter. At the moment, the Vikings aren't in on any of them.
  1. Vincent Jackson: Negotiating with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Brandon Lloyd: Being connected to the New England Patriots but nothing concrete
  3. Reggie Wayne: Connected with Peyton Manning's destination, but nothing concrete
  4. Mario Manningham: Nothing yet
  5. Pierre Garcon: Signed with the Washington Redskins
  6. Laurent Robinson: Visiting the Jacksonville Jaguars
  7. Robert Meachem: Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers have all expressed interest.

Meanwhile, cornerback Brandon Carr is receiving interest from the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, among other teams. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan is expected to visit the St. Louis Rams.

With all of that said, Seth and other Vikings fans, I wouldn't fall into hysterics quite yet. All the Vikings have done at this point is sit out the madness of the first few hours of free agency, a time best reserved for teams with fewer roster holes than the Vikings. I would frankly feel more critical if they had jumped out and paid, say, Garcon $20 million in guarantees. We'll judge the Vikings over time, but not based on the past two hours. As always, there will be value deals available in the coming days and weeks.

Feel any better, Seth?
We have two receiver-needy teams here in the NFC North, so for the sake of the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, if no one else, let's take a look at what's left of the receiver market after New Orleans Saints re-signed Marques Colston to a five-year deal earlier Tuesday.

As our guide, we'll use Matt Williamson's excellent ranking of the top 50 overall free agents available Insider. Below is how Williamson ranked the seven receivers (other than Colston) that he placed on the list.
  1. Vincent Jackson
  2. Brandon Lloyd
  3. Reggie Wayne
  4. Mario Manningham
  5. Pierre Garcon
  6. Laurent Robinson
  7. Robert Meachem

It's fair to say there is a significant drop-off after Jackson, one that will only enhance his value on the open market. The Bears have already had one go-around with Lloyd, and it wouldn't be surprising for Wayne to join quarterback Peyton Manning wherever he lands.

This is where free agency gets tricky, where contracts by rule are inflated. It's one thing to overpay for a Pro Bowl player. It's another to overpay for someone who can't play a lead role. Other than Jackson and perhaps Wayne, do you see a No. 1 receiver on this list? Nope. What you have is a list of players who fit closer into the No. 3 category than No. 2 seeking elite money. The Bears and Vikings must fight that temptation.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Take a moment to breathe it all in. Monday is the final full day of the NFL's 2011 league year. The "New Year" will begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. -- the moment when all teams must be in compliance with the $120.6 million salary cap, when free agents can begin signing with new teams and trades can be officially consummated.

Some work remains between now and then, however. We are awaiting word on what restricted free agents were issued tenders, and which (if any) will be allowed to depart without compensation. And we'll need to see what the Detroit Lions do to shave more than $11 million in cap space.

The Lions were $11.55 million above the cap as of the end of last week, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. That roughly jibes with our recent cap conversations that had them close to $121 million before they committed another $10.6 million to place the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril.

If the Lions can't lower their number by signing receiver Calvin Johnson to a contract extension, they'll need either to start releasing players or seek significant contract restructures. Stay tuned.

Skipping around the division on this merry Monday:

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.

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