NFC North: Vinny Ciurciu

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
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Getting inside a truncated Friday injury report. The Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, who are playing Monday night at TCF Bank Stadium, don't have to classify their injured players until Saturday.

Detroit Lions: Quarterback Shaun Hill (finger) was listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Drew Stanton is the more likely starter. Landon Johnson (neck) is doubtful and won't play. Defensive end Cliff Avril (rib) is questionable but could see some action, as is the case for linebacker Vinny Ciurciu (concussion). All other players should be available.

Green Bay Packers: Defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) is ruled out for Sunday's night's game against the New England Patriots. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (concussion) and linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) are doubtful, and it would be a shock if either played. Cornerback Pat Lee (ankle), safety Anthony Smith (ankle) and linebacker Diyral Briggs (ankle) are all questionable. All other players will be available.
One of the dynamics that prompted this week's Have at It topic took a turn for the worse Wednesday. At least, if you're a Detroit Lions fan.

Two key members of the Lions defense sat out practice because of injuries that have hampered them for a good part of the summer. Linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Louis Delmas both are dealing with strained groin muscles, and neither appears to be a sure thing for Sunday's game at the Chicago Bears.

Delmas practiced Monday and has been working through a limited practice schedule for several weeks, making his absence Wednesday less alarming. He could practice Thursday and essentially remain on schedule.

But Levy hasn't practiced since suffering the injury Aug. 28, and his status is one of the biggest questions heading into this game. The Lions really don't have a backup after Jordon Dizon's season-ending knee injury and the release of Vinny Ciurciu. Two reserve linebackers designated primarily for special teams roles are the best guesses to replace Levy if necessary -- in this order: Landon Johnson and Isaiah Ekejiuba. As we suggested earlier in the case of Bears safety Major Wright, stay tuned.

Detroit Lions cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
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Check here for a full list of Detroit's's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: Veteran cornerbacks Dre Bly and Eric King were among six cornerbacks released. The Lions' secondary was hardly exemplary during the preseason, but you figured Bly or King would make the team to provide some level of veteran presence. As it stands now, the Lions' cornerbacks include starters Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, rookie Aaron Berry and newcomer Alphonso Smith. I'm not saying it was a mistake to cut Bly and King. Just a bit surprising. Defensive tackle Landon Cohen, meanwhile, saw the Lions overhaul his position in the offseason, but seemed to make enough plays in training camp and during the preseason to earn a roster spot. Instead, his spot went to Andre Fluellen. Finally, the Lions chose Aaron Brown over DeDe Dorsey for the final running back spot. Dorsey made two big plays in the preseason finale, but coaches chose Brown's speed and potential special teams contribution.

No-brainers: I give the Lions credit for releasing linebacker Vinny Ciurciu. He entered training camp as a player focused on special teams, but spent most of it filling in for injured middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. Ciurciu hasn't played much linebacker in his career, and unfortunately for him, the extended time revealed that he wouldn't be able to hold down the position should he be called on in a relief role during the season.

What's next: The Lions need to settle their secondary following this weekend of flux. Who is their nickel back? What about the dime? Will rookie Amari Spievey remain at safety or move back to cornerback to provide more depth? The team is also going to need to spend some more time looking for depth at linebacker. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them focus at that position over the next few days.

Catching up on some reported moves

September, 4, 2010
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We're planning posts on each NFC North team's cuts once they are official. Announcements could come at any point Saturday afternoon or evening, but for now let's round up some of the bigger names who are already reported to be on the way off their respective rosters.
After watching the Detroit Lions give up short pass after short pass Saturday to the Cleveland Browns, I'm sure you joined me in wondering about the team's linebackers.

The presumed starter in the middle, DeAndre Levy, had departed during the first series with a strained groin. A knee injury had already felled backup Jordon Dizon earlier this month, leaving the Lions to use veteran Vinny Ciurciu at the position.

Ciurciu has been a special-teams player throughout his career and should be considered only the shortest of short-term solutions. Of all the areas the Lions will be scouring the waiver wire for this week, I would have to imagine that linebacker depth is at the top. Levy's summer-long inability to stay on the field -- he missed most of training camp with a back injury -- adds some urgency to the situation.

The Lions, in fact, began to address it Monday morning. According to the NFL Network, they plan to sign free-agent linebacker Rocky Boiman. I'm not sure if Boiman can address the Lions' issues at middle linebacker; he was mostly a special-teams player when he was in Tennessee with current Lions coach Jim Schwartz from 2002-05. But it's clear the Lions know they are far from settled at the position.
Occasionally, a preseason injury -- or even a scare -- can cast light on a depth concern we haven't previously addressed. I thought a number of those situations jumped out in the NFC North's first preseason weekend, so let's take them one a time.

(Before anyone gets all worked up, I didn't include the Minnesota Vikings in this post because they didn't suffer any significant injuries or scares Saturday night at St. Louis. After all, they were already without nearly a dozen starters and other prominent players.)

Chicago Bears
Position:
Quarterback
The injury: No. 2 quarterback Caleb Hanie suffered a right shoulder injury and had his arm in a sling Saturday night. His status is uncertain.
What it revealed: Other than Hanie, the Bears have no one on their roster they should feel comfortable with as a backup to starter Jay Cutler. Because of the complexity of his offense, coordinator Mike Martz has been limiting quarterback repetitions to Cutler and Hanie for most of camp. Rookie Dan LeFevour has gotten little work. If Hanie is sidelined for an extensive period of time, the Bears might have to seek a veteran with familiarity in Martz's scheme.

Detroit Lions
Position:
Linebacker
The injury: Middle linebacker Jordon Dizon suffered what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury.
What it revealed: Presumed starter DeAndre Levy has missed most of training camp because of a back injury, and Dizon had recently replaced Vinny Ciurciu as the top backup. Dizon, in fact, started Saturday night at Pittsburgh. It's pretty clear the Lions don't have another player they trust with the position until Levy returns.

Green Bay Packers
Position:
Running back
The injury:
Tailback Ryan Grant stumbled off the field with a head injury after his third carry. The injury is believed to be minor.
What it revealed:
Grant hasn't missed a game since the Packers made him their full-time starter midway through the 2007 season, and the Packers clearly are counting on him exclusively. Their official depth chart lists Brandon Jackson as their backup and Kregg Lumpkin as the No. 3 tailback. Rookie James Starks, a sixth-round draft choice, remains on the physically unable to perform list. The Packers have continued their annual pump-up of Jackson, but to this point he remains a career backup. Consider it this way: How much different would the Packers' offense be without Grant?

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 31 of their past 33 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdditional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 million in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going to play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.

Updating UFA movement in NFC North

March, 15, 2010
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As we head into the second full week of free agency, it's probably a good time to revise our look at each NFC North team's unsigned players. We haven't had a restricted free agent (RFA) receive an offer sheet yet, so we'll limit this post to unrestricted free agents (UFAs) -- who have total freedom to sign with another team.

Chicago Bears
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: None have re-signed. The Bears are trying to bring back Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Comment: Ciurciu, Heller and Jansen have re-signed. Foote seems likely to return to Pittsburgh.

Green Bay Packers
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.
Comment: Clifton and Tauscher have re-signed. Kampman signed with Jacksonville.

Minnesota Vikings
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Comment: Kennedy and Sapp re-signed. Taylor signed with Chicago. Hicks signed with Washington.
Detroit's acquisition of defensive tackle Corey Williams made veteran Grady Jackson expendable, and the Lions announced Jackson's release Friday afternoon.

The Lions have a much younger, healthier and cheaper version of Jackson already on their roster in Sammie Lee Hill. Williams and Hill could share time with either Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy if the Lions make one of the latter two players the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

Meanwhile, the Lions have also re-signed two of their unrestricted free agents Friday. Offensive lineman Jon Jansen and linebacker Vinny Ciurciu each agreed to one-year extensions.

NFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
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Chicago Bears

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Josh Bullocks, safety Danieal Manning, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Jamar Williams.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: With no picks in the first or second round of next month's draft, the Bears are gearing up for a relatively major jump into free agency. They're expected to bid for defensive end Julius Peppers and possible safety Antrel Rolle and would also like to re-sign linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna could also be a target. Manumaleuna played for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.

Detroit Lions

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Copeland Bryan, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy, defensive lineman Jason Hunter, offensive lineman Daniel Loper, offensive lineman Manny Ramirez, safety Ko Simpson, linebacker Cody Spencer.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: The Lions aren't likely to be as active as they were last year, but general manager Martin Mayhew said over the winter that he could envision a five- or six-man free agent class. Running back, defensive end and defensive back are all positions they will investigate. They'll also need to find a backup quarterback, assuming Daunte Culpepper moves on.

Green Bay Packers

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.

Potential restricted free agents: Safety Atari Bigby, defensive back Will Blackmon, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, running back John Kuhn, offensive lineman Jason Spitz, cornerback Tramon Williams.

Franchise player: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett

What to expect: The Packers will have a demanding offseason filled with difficult decisions. To this point, they haven't re-signed either of their starting offensive tackles. They are clearly approaching injured linebacker Aaron Kampman with caution. And they have a long line of restricted free agents who would like long-term contracts, starting with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. The Packers have more than enough to keep them busy, but they haven't dabbled much in free agency in recent years, anyway.

Minnesota Vikings

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Potential restricted free agents: Offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive end Ray Edwards, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, fullback Naufahu Tahi.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Vikings are awaiting word from quarterback Brett Favre on the 2010 season, a decision that could impact their offseason plans. They would like tailback Chester Taylor back, but it's possible Taylor will at least test his value on the open market. As a Final Four team, the Vikings will be limited to signing players that have been released by other teams unless they lose one of their own unrestricted free agents first.

Free agency: NFC North

February, 16, 2010
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AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free agency situation in the NFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Chicago Bears

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Key figures: Defensive end Mark Anderson and safety Danieal Manning are two key players who would have joined the list of unrestricted free agents if the NFL weren't on track for an uncapped offseason. The Bears can block both from moving now. Ogunleye is unlikely to return if he's seeking significant money. The Bears want to re-sign Tinoisamoa, even after his injury-shortened 2009 debut. Peterson's eight-year run with the team might be coming to a close.

Culpepper
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDaunte Culpepper could return to Detroit as Matthew Stafford's backup.
Detroit Lions

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Key figures: The Lions have a total of 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents, a product of the extended roster tryouts they held throughout the 2009 season. The biggest name among their UFAs is Foote, who seems unlikely to return and should be replaced by DeAndre Levy. Culpepper will seek offers on the open market, but it's not out of the question he could return as Matthew Stafford's backup. James had some moments in 2009 and might be worth a return engagement.

Green Bay Packers

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive tackle Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher.

Key figures: The Packers have a notable list that includes four starters and would have included six more if not for the uncapped year. Clifton will be 34 this summer and Tauscher will turn 33, and it's time for the Packers to begin a succession plan at both positions. T.J. Lang figures as Tauscher's replacement, but Tauscher was actually playing better than Clifton at the end of 2009. Kampman seems unlikely to return as a linebacker in the 3-4, especially while he rehabilitates a knee injury. Pickett could be phased out by B.J. Raji.

Minnesota Vikings

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy, receiver Greg Lewis, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Key figures: Taylor is perhaps the most valuable backup tailback in the league, considering his abilities as a receiver and third-down converter. He will be 31 when the 2010 season begins, but figures to get some attention if he enters the free-agent market. The Vikings want him back, but probably won't devote a huge salary to him with starter Adrian Peterson approaching the expiration of his contract. Sapp probably made himself some money with a credible replacement of injured starter Antoine Winfield.

NFC North at night

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Catching up on Thursday’s news from the best division in football:

Chicago Bears: Defensive tackle Tommie Harris usually misses one day of practice each week, but Thursday marked the second consecutive day he’s rested his chronically sore knee. At this point, it still looks like he’ll play Sunday at Cincinnati, but he’ll probably need to practice Friday to ensure it. … Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer (ribs) had full participation Thursday in practice, but it looks like he’s now competing with Jamar Williams to play on the strong side. Nick Roach appears entrenched at middle linebacker.

Detroit Lions: In a bye-week practice Thursday, quarterback Matthew Stafford took a few light throws but otherwise did not participate. Here’s Carlos Monarrez’s report in the Detroit Free Press. … As we noted earlier, the Lions signed special teams linebacker Vinny Ciurciu and placed defensive lineman Copeland Bryan on injured reserve.

Green Bay Packers: ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde caught up Thursday with linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has seen his playing time reduced dramatically in the past two weeks. Here’s the key quote from Hawk: “This exact moment, today, it’s obviously not my ideal situation of what I’d want to be doing.” … Left tackle Chad Clifton (ankle) and center Jason Spitz (back) sat out practice again. … Fullback Quinn Johnson (ankle) returned to practice.

Minnesota Vikings: Cornerback Antoine Winfield (foot sprain) sat out practice again. The Vikings haven’t ruled him out of Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh, but it seems pretty unlikely at this point.

Lions addressing special teams

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Just making sure you saw this report from ESPN.com’s John Clayton: Detroit has signed veteran linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, presumably to help their special teams coverage.

Ciurciu was a special teams ace with Carolina earlier this decade, but he was largely a disappointment after Minnesota signed him to a premium free-agent contract in 2007. He managed eight special teams tackles in 15 games last season, after which the Vikings released him. Ciurciu was among New England’s final cuts.

To make room for Ciurciu on the roster, the Lions placed defensive end Copeland Bryan on injured reserve.

All the same, it’s encouraging that the Lions aren’t sitting pat after their kickoff and punt coverage proved especially weak in the first six games of the season. Opponents are starting their average drive at the 31.2-yard line, the worst mark in the NFL.

Tillman, Vasher out for Bears

October, 19, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

CHICAGO -- Both of Chicago's top cornerbacks will miss Sunday's game against Minnesota

Charles Tillman (shoulder) and Nate Vasher (wrist) are among the Bears' inactive players. Corey Graham and Trumaine McBride will start. The possibilities for the nickel back position are Marcus Hamilton, Craig Steltz and Zackary Bowman.

Meanwhile, Vikings receivers Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice will both play. The Vikings also said that Vinny Ciurciu will start at middle linebacker. There had been a lot of discussion last week about whether Ciurciu, Dontarrious Thomas or Napoleon Harris would start. Thomas and Harris are both active for this game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Linebacker Napoleon Harris returned to Minnesota in a late-night transaction Wednesday and should be in uniform for practice Thursday, the second ex-Vikings linebacker to sign with the team this week. Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune have details.

Harris and Dontarrious Thomas have re-fortified the team's depth after injuries to E.J. Henderson (toes) and David Herron (ankle, head). (This summer, backup Heath Farwell was lost for the season because of a knee injury). It also wouldn't be surprising if either Harris or Thomas starts at middle linebacker Sunday at Chicago; the Vikings' other option there is special teams player Vinny Ciurciu.

Harris was originally scheduled to visit Detroit first after Kansas City released him Tuesday, but the Vikings represent a better option on many levels. Harris' best seasons in the NFL have come under Vikings linebacker coach Fred Pagac, who also coached Harris in Oakland, and his best NFL season came in 2006 when the Vikings moved him to middle linebacker.

Minnesota officials opted not to re-sign him during the offseason, instead sliding Henderson to the middle. But Harris knows the Vikings' defense well enough that he can be more than an emergency pickup. The Chiefs obviously were down on Harris, deactivating him for every game this season, but the Vikings can't afford to be picky right now at one of the most important defensive positions.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • There was no resolution Wednesday to the odd situation between Minnesota and fullback Thomas Tapeh. Speaking after practice, Tapeh indicated he had been told not to discuss the situation publicly. Typically, a player on the verge of release wouldn't be allowed to practice for fear of injury. Zulgad reports details in the Star Tribune.
  • Injured Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna continued criticizing the Lions' decision to place him on injured reserve Wednesday. Speaking on WJR-AM in Detroit, Kitna said in reality he was benched and could have played later this season: "They decided they wanted to go in a different direction. And I guess the thing for me is, that's fine. Let's just say that." The Lions have to be careful because NFL rules require them to document Kitna would have missed six games because of his back injury before placing him on IR.
  • Rob Parker of the Detroit News writes the Lions aren't fooling anybody by saying they haven't given up on the season: "It would have been refreshing to hear the Lions face their situation honestly and admit they failed miserably this season."
  • Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris joked Wednesday that he got high school star Adrian Peterson to commit to Oklahoma by promising he would return for his senior season in 2004. As recounted by John Mullin of the Chicago Tribune, Harris entered the NFL draft instead. Peterson and Harris will square off Sunday at Soldier Field.
  • The Bears are still working through their injury situation in the defensive backfield. One possibility for the nickel back position is rookie safety Craig Steltz, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Green Bay defensive tackle Justin Harrell was highly motivated Wednesday in his first full practice of the season, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "You don't want anybody talking bad about you," Harrell said. "All the people that said I was a bust, that's the kind of stuff that gives you added motivation to go out there and prove them wrong."
  • Packers receiver Greg Jennings is on pace for the NFL's highest total of receiving yards since 1995. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel breaks down Jennings' first six games.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22