NFC North: Wes Welker

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- How much the Green Bay Packers value receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson won't be known until -- or if -- the team signs them to long-term contracts before they hit free agency next March.

But thanks to ESPN.com's Mike Sando, we have a better idea of how others in the NFL view the Packers' top-two receivers.

In an ESPN Insider piece, Insider Sando looked at what he called a loaded 2015 free-agent receiver class and, with the help of two NFL general managers plus an offensive and defensive coach, ranked the class in order of the likelihood of cashing in on big contracts whether with their current teams or on the free-agent market.

Both Cobb and Nelson ranked high on the list.

The 29-year-old Nelson came in at No. 4 behind Dez Bryant of the Cowboys, Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos and Michael Crabtree of the 49ers. Cobb, 23, was fifth.

The rest of the list was Torrey Smith of the Ravens, Wes Welker of the Broncos, Cecil Shorts of the Jaguars, Roddy White of the Falcons and Hakeem Nicks of the Colts.

The Packers and Broncos were the only teams with two free-agent-to-be receivers on the list.

Nelson is in the final year of a three-year, $12.6 million extension that turned out to be a bargain for the Packers, while Cobb is in the final year of the rookie contract he signed as a second-round pick in 2011.

Here's what Sando wrote based on evaluations by those he consulted:

On Nelson: Nelson and Crabtree virtually tied for the third spot. Nelson has benefited from consistently outstanding quarterback play. Over the past three years, Nelson trails only Welker and Thomas among players on this list in yards receiving per game. He is second to Smith in yards per reception and second to Bryant in touchdowns.

Nelson has competition from his teammate, Cobb, on this list. Nelson is primarily an outside receiver, while Cobb plays from the slot. Nelson polled higher than Cobb on three of four ballots. The defensive coordinator had Nelson sixth, one spot below Cobb. "I would put Jordy after Crabtree, but before Cobb," one of the GMs said.

The other GM joined the offensive assistant in placing Nelson among his top three. "You have to value that outside guy," the second GM said. "But that inside slot receiver can do a lot of damage."

A third GM I spoke with put it this way: "Nelson fits a big role for them. I would have a hard time saying he would be a hugely paid guy, though. He'll generate interest, but not at the $10-$11 million level. I do think he will come in over Eric Decker, though."

On Cobb: At 23, Cobb is easily the youngest player on this list. He missed 10 games last season and one in each of his previous two. That leaves him tied with Crabtree for the most games missed over the past three seasons when isolating the 10 players on this list. Cobb caught four passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns after returning for the Packers' final two games, counting a wild-card playoff defeat to the 49ers.

"Cobb and Crabtree are interchangeable on my list," the offensive assistant said. "Cobb is the model person and will always show up on time. Crabtree comes off whinier, and the guy from Seattle (Richard Sherman) got in his head. Cobb is coming from the right program with Mike McCarthy, one with structure and discipline and doing the right things. Crabtree does play outside more, but I'd rather coach Cobb."
Aaron RogersAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesDon't expect Green Bay to change its approach based on the terms of Aaron Rodgers' next contract.
Last week, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Green Bay Packers were progressing toward a contract agreement that will make quarterback Aaron Rodgers the highest-paid player in NFL history. Based on current context, the deal would average more than $20.1 million per year.

There are several ways to view this process and that number.

OH MY GOD THAT'S AN INSANE AMOUNT OF MONEY FOR PLAYING A GAME isn't one of them. I think most of you understand that professional sports exist in a financial fantasy land.

Some of you, however, are voicing a more subtle objection that's worth exploring: C'MON! WHY CAN'T RODGERS TAKE A HOMETOWN DISCOUNT AND HELP THE PACKERS BUILD A GOOD TEAM AROUND HIM? Eric of Madison put it this way in a note to the mailbag:
Regarding the talk on the Rodgers extension, don't you think that there's significant drawback to paying one player $25 mil a year? Maybe as a Packer fan I'm romanticizing him, but Rodgers seems like the kind of guy who would be open to something under market value -- say $18 million a year, although I don't know how anyone can live on that -- to give the team more financial flexibility to keep more talent around him. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Assuming recent reports are accurate, Rodgers hasn't made that offer and -- importantly -- the Packers haven't asked him to. At the very least, a "hometown discount" would put Rodgers below the $20.1 million threshold set last month by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. By definition, a record-setting deal can't be viewed as much of a discount.

But should Rodgers have stepped up and made that offer? After all, he has on several occasions lobbied publicly for the Packers to re-sign some of their free agents, from receiver James Jones to running back John Kuhn. NFL teams are operating under a relatively flat salary cap, and the chart shows how large the annual cap numbers have been in the most recent contract agreements for elite quarterbacks. It might be difficult for Rodgers to argue for future veterans if his cap number limits the Packers' flexibility.

To me, however, the answer is simple. The only value in taking a hometown discount is public relations. There is no reason to believe it would impact the Packers' future team-building.

Rodgers has acknowledged his role as the "face of the franchise" and the Packers undoubtedly love having one of the NFL's top quarterbacks on their roster. I know many of you think of him as the type of player who doesn't care about the difference between $15 million and $22 million. That might well be the case. But Rodgers would be naive to assume that the Packers or any NFL team would capitalize on the discount -- at least not in the desired fashion. There are no quid pro quos in the NFL, and if you don't believe me, look at what has transpired this offseason between the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady.

As NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I discussed on the Inside Slant podcast, Brady signed a contract extension that added $3 million in guarantees to his current deal but locked him in to below-market salaries for the 2015, '16 and '17 seasons. Although Brady never directly acknowledged it, the widely held assumption was that he had granted the Patriots extra financial flexibility to maintain an elite team. Weeks later, of course, the Patriots stood firm on an offer to free agent receiver Wes Welker -- one of Brady's favorite teammates -- and watched as he signed with the Denver Broncos.

And in case there was any confusion about the Patriots' operation after Brady's deal, owner Bob Kraft had this to say at the recent NFL owners meeting: "I don't answer to Tom Brady." Kraft went on to deny any hard feelings that might have arisen from Welker's departure and added:

"[Brady] never put a demand or expected anything when he did what he did. He never put quid pro quos, and to be honest, we wouldn't have accepted them had he done that. He did what he thought … and what he did was tremendous. It's given our team a real competitive advantage to be in a position to win. And now it's how well our personnel people make the decisions."

In other words, the Patriots continued doing business as usual after Brady's agreement. And there is every reason to think the Packers would do the same if Rodgers took a discount. Do you really think general manager Ted Thompson would, say, start signing free-agent running backs if Rodgers' average cap number is $17 million (almost twice what it is now) rather than $22 million?

In the end, the best thing Rodgers can do is cooperate on the timing and structure of the deal. As you look at the chart, you see that the Ravens pushed a disproportionate amount of Flacco's cap hit into 2016 and beyond. That means the sides almost certainly will have to renegotiate in three years or face a truly paralyzing cap problem. The same could be true for the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees, whose cap figure jumps to $26.4 million in 2015.

The best model is what the Denver Broncos did with Peyton Manning, whose cap figure averages just under $20 million. Manning's cap numbers over the five-year deal range between $18 million and $20 million, a smart pay-as-you-go approach.

Rodgers surely wants the Packers to be competitive. But by now, he must know how the Packers operate. They will use their cap space to re-sign key players and fall back on their draft-and-develop approach to fill in around them. Nothing about the value of Rodgers' next contract will change that.

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.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
10:55
AM ET
After the Detroit Lions' 26-24 loss to the Chicago Bears, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Lions were lulled into thinking they were on the brink of consistent success after last year's breakthrough, but they found out this year how difficult winning is to maintain. They lost six games by less than a touchdown, and those six losses represented the difference between 10 victories in 2011 and four in 2012. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has noted several times the Lions were a play or two away from winning several games, but that is a hollow lament. Close games are the primary difference between the NFL's good and bad teams each year. The point is not that you were close to winning. It's that you couldn't do it. That's often what separates 10-6 teams from 4-12 teams.
  2. For the record, I think it would be a quick hook if the Lions fire Schwartz in the coming days. I will say that the biggest pock on his resume, other than a 22-42 record, is that his team is still making way too many mistakes in the fourth year of his program. The Lions finished 2012 with 33 turnovers, the sixth-most in the NFL and their minus-16 ratio ranked was the league's third-worst. They tied for the 13th-most accepted penalties (103). Their brain locks were glaring and high-profile, from Schwartz's Thanksgiving Day penalty for challenging a touchdown to returner Stefan Logan taking a knee on a live kickoff return to center Dominic Raiola mistakenly snapping the ball when the Lions were trying to draw the Tennessee Titans offsides in Week 3. If there is a reason to be concerned about Schwartz's coaching results, it's the frequency of unforced errors. His teams have always played hard. They still don't play smart.
  3. Much like receiver Calvin Johnson a year ago, quarterback Matthew Stafford has substantial leverage over the Lions assuming they want to address his contract in the offseason. Several years of renegotiating have pushed forward some of the cap charges from his monstrous rookie deal. As a result, Stafford's contract projects to count $20.3 million against the Lions' 2013 cap. That's a near-untenable figure, especially for a team with nearly 20 pending free agents. Stafford's performance in 2012 is almost immaterial to this negotiation. He is their long-term quarterback and if he does nothing he will earn $23 million in cash over the next two seasons. The Lions might be highly motivated to extend his contract and lower his 2012 cap hit. If so, they will have to offer him a premium quarterback salary, unless he agrees to a below-market deal. That's just how the business works.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
How in the world did the Lions get Johnson in position to target him on 205 passes this season? I would consider it one of the top accomplishments in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's career. There were certainly some passes Stafford shouldn't have thrown in Johnson's direction, but for the most part over the second half of the season, Johnson seemed to be running free all over the field. For perspective, consider that over the last five years, no receiver had been targeted more than 194 times in a season. And in that case, it took the New England Patriots' Wes Welker 19 games -- including the playoffs -- to do it. Despite exotic coverages defenses played, and even with three other receivers out for the season, Johnson led the NFL with 122 receptions.
Our Wild Week 17 was so busy that we never got a chance to circle back on the historic Week 16 of Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. So on this final Saturday morning of the NFL regular season, let's follow up on two noteworthy angles.

First, we should establish some context for the intensity with which the Lions have helped Johnson pursue the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. As the chart shows, Johnson already has been targeted more times in the regular season than any player in the past five seasons. (ESPN Stats & Information's database of video analysis goes back as far as 2008.)

In fact, if the Lions target Johnson eight times Sunday against the Chicago Bears, he'll eclipse the 20-game total -- including the playoffs -- of Larry Fitzgerald in 2008 and the 19-game total of Wes Welker in 2011. That should give you a pretty good idea of how frequently the Lions have thrown Johnson's way this season relative to a five-year sample of NFL play.

(We should also point out that Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall has been targeted 175 times, the fourth-highest regular-season total over the past five years. If the Bears throw the same number of passes his way Sunday as they have averaged this season -- 11.6 -- he will finish with more regular-season targets over the past five years than anyone not named Calvin Johnson.)

The frequency of Johnson's targets, combined with the Lions' 4-11 record, has drawn the inevitable discussion of whether he has benefited from "garbage yards" that came during portions of games that were not close. As we discussed last weekend, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden asserted that Johnson had gained some "meaningless yards" this season that "tarnish the record."

There are a number of problems here, including how to establish a reliable parameter for "garbage yards." Once that happens, Johnson's "garbage yards" aren't relevant until you compare them to other receivers and also look at how his "non-garbage yards" measure up as well.

We've noted that Johnson has totaled 588 receiving yards in situations where the Lions either led by at least 10 points or trailed by 10 points in a game. That's the highest total in the NFL, but his 1,304 yards when the point differential is less than 10 points is also the highest total in the league. So if you want, you could argue that Johnson has been the NFL's most productive receiver in close games.

In the end, I would point you toward Bill Barnwell's thoughtful analysis and discussion of the topic earlier this week over at Grantland.com. Barnwell wrote that "you can make 'garbage time' mean anything you like, and eventually, you'll probably come to some sort of split that tells the story you want to tell."

To me, it's wrong to assume that receivers on the most successful teams only catch "meaningful" passes. Johnson has earned his targets this season, especially considering the exotic defenses he has faced, and his yards should be considered no less legitimate than any other receiver's.
Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall is averaging 7.6 receptions per game this season. So with a slightly better-than-average performance Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Marshall could achieve some hefty milestones with plenty of room to spare.

Marshall is nine catches away from hitting 100 for the season, an accomplishment that would place him among the most productive receivers in NFL history. As the chart shows, he would become the fourth player in NFL history to compile four 100-catch seasons in their careers. No one has done it five times, although the New England Patriots' Wes Welker is eight receptions away from doing so this season.

Whenever Marshall gets to 100 catches, he will tie Marty Booker's franchise record for receptions in a season.

We'll figure it all out when the final numbers come in, but I think we can safely project that Marshall is going to finish with the best season for a receiver in Bears history. As we noted Friday, Marshall leads the NFL in parentage of his team's targets (39.2 percent of all throws) as well as the percentage of his team's receptions (41.9) and passing first downs (44.9).

The real question is whether we can quantify it as the most productive year for a Bears player at any position. That will take some apples-to-oranges analysis to compare him to the likes of Sid Luckman, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton.

Putting a bow on Percy Harvin's season

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
11:30
AM ET
Plenty of virtual ink was spent this week trying to figure out the "real reason" why Minnesota Vikings receiver Percy Harvin was placed on injured reserve this week. It was difficult to believe that a sprained ankle could ultimately cost a player as tough as Harvin nearly half the season, and remains so, but no reliable explanations have surfaced from either the team or the player.

So as the week wraps up, let's leave this issue on a football note. Harvin was at his open-field best in the nine games he played this season, so much so that his performance remains the league standard even after a month away from the field.

As the chart shows, Harvin's average of 8.5 yards after the catch on his 62 receptions remains the league's best. In gross terms, he's only 2 yards off the pace of New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who has played three additional games and has 30 more receptions.

In addition, Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Harvin with causing 22 missed tackles by opponents this season. That remains the league's best among receivers and tight ends, and there are only nine running backs in the league with more.

In short, Harvin demonstrated this season just how much value he can add to an offense. Yards after the catch and missed tackles are, for the most part, generated by the individual. Whether he is lined up at receiver, running back or as a kickoff returner, Harvin has an exceptional ability to find the open area of the field and move through it. Whether it is vision or instinct, he always knows where to run.

There is no doubt Harvin produced a couple of quixotic moments this season as well, from his trade request during minicamp to some choice sideline words for coach Leslie Frazier shortly before his Week 9 injury. A friend of mine recently compared Harvin to the Hugo "Hurley" Reyes character from "LOST." Weird things seem to happen around him, but on the whole, I would think the Vikings saw enough positives this season to enter into contract extension talks this offseason.

That's just a guess, but Harvin seems too talented to give up on. And he's still only 24 years old. Some of the NFL's best players require intense maintenance, and in Harvin's case I would think it would be worth the trouble.

Final Word: NFC North

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 8:

Early issues: Every NFL team wants to start a game fast, and no team has been worse at it than the Detroit Lions. Get this: The Lions have reached the red zone just seven times on 37 first-half possessions in 2012, scoring a touchdown an NFL-low once in those instances. That failure speaks to the Lions' reliance on the big downfield play and illustrates how they have been unable to compensate with extended drives. It's another reason why opponents are outscoring them 77-37 in the first half this season. The Seattle Seahawks will arrive at Ford Field having outscored opponents 36-16 in the first quarter. Needless to say, the Lions won't win at a better rate than their current 33.3 percent if they keep falling behind early in games.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCalvin Johnson had 109 more targets than any other pass-catcher last season.
Transformer battle: As we noted earlier Friday, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tossed out a challenge to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson by changing his Twitter name to "Optimus Prime." Sherman has played well this season, intercepting three passes and batting away a total of 14, and the Seahawks have allowed only one 100-yard receiver this season (the New England Patriots' Wes Welker in Week 6). Johnson has been as productive as ever this season from a reception and yardage standpoint, but his drop-off in touchdowns is another illustration of the Lions' difficulty in scoring. At this point last season, he had eight more touchdowns (nine) than he has now (one). As Sherman no doubt knows, there's no shame in giving up catches and yardage to Johnson if you can keep him out of the end zone.

New connection: The Green Bay Packers are already down one receiver (Greg Jennings) and a second (Jordy Nelson) was struggling to make it through practice this week because of a hamstring injury. But Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars will have to deal with a new and undeniable connection quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made. Rodgers has completed 37 of the 43 passes he has targeted second-year receiver Randall Cobb on this season. That completion percentage of 86.0 is the highest in the NFL for a quarterback to a receiver with a minimum of 30 attempts. The Jaguars' defense has given up an average of 27.3 points per game this season, and it's hard to imagine it slowing down Rodgers, Cobb and the rest of the Packers' offense.

Defensive fill-ins: The Packers should be able to handle the Jaguars' underwhelming offense even with two of their top five defensive backs (Charles Woodson and Sam Shields) sidelined by injuries. Woodson's injury, however, will give us an extended look at rookie Casey Hayward and help us determine if he is playing as well as the statistics indicate. Hayward's four interceptions are tied with two other players for the NFL lead. And according to Pro Football Focus, opponents have completed only 44.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. The resulting 23.7 passer rating on throws in Hayward's direction is the NFL's best. Is Hayward really that good? Let's keep an eye on him Sunday and in the coming weeks.

Fighting chance: There aren't many people giving the Carolina Panthers (1-5) a chance to beat the Chicago Bears (5-1) at Soldier Field. The Bears were a nine-point favorite as of Friday morning. Among many other factors, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is 2-12 against opponents with winning records in his career. But if the Bears have reason to worry, it's about receiver Steve Smith. In three games against Bears teams coached by Lovie Smith, he has caught 34 passes for 568 yards and two touchdowns. That includes eight receptions for 181 yards last season. Is Smith the antidote to the Cover 2? Let's see if the Bears' top-ranked defense can corral him the same way it did Johnson last Monday night.

BBAO: Jahvid Best decision looms

October, 10, 2012
10/10/12
7:40
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Our SportsNation chat Tuesday brought a number of questions about Detroit Lions tailback Jahvid Best, who is set to undergo testing this week to determine if he will be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list when he's eligible next Monday.

As his team returned to practice from its bye week Tuesday, coach Jim Schwartz wasn't tipping his hand and it sounds as if the Lions simply don't know Best's status yet. Schwartz, however, did reiterate that Best has been participating in meetings and has conditioned himself into the best shape of his career.

Schwartz: "He's done very, very well. He's in the best shape he's been since he was a rookie. He’s in better shape now than when he was a rookie. He’s physically stronger. He's smarter in our schemes, done a really good job being at meetings and those kind of things. He's more flexible than he’s been. He's worked extremely hard. This isn't a guy that's been on vacation for the last couple months. This guy's worked extremely hard. But we try not to get ahead of ourselves. He's doing what he can. When he gets clearance he'll be back."

Indeed, the Lions are best served not to get ahead of themselves. Next Tuesday will be the one-year anniversary of Best's last game action. He suffered his most recent concussion on Oct. 16, 2011, against the San Francisco 49ers. NFL rules require him to be activated from the PUP at some point during a three-week window that opens Monday, if he is going to play this season.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Schwartz on the team's relatively unproductive rookie class, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "I think it's probably a little too much to be grading those guys after four games. I think we have some very good players in that class, and I think all those guys are going to help us. I think time will bear that out."
  • Fixing the Lions' special teams is a top priority, according to the staff at Mlive.com.
  • Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew did not practice Tuesday, but his injury won't be disclosed until Wednesday, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Green Bay Packers rookies "have not picked up what the practice tempo looks like, or the importance of the scout team looks as well as maybe it’s been in the past," according to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers lead the NFL in penalty yards, notes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "STATS’ research shows that 63 teams in NFL history started 2-3 and qualified for the playoffs. Since 2000 that number is 19, and only one of those teams, New England in the 2001 season, advanced to the Super Bowl, which the Patriots won."
  • The Minnesota Vikings' defense has been its most pleasant surprise this season, writes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Mark Craig of the Star Tribune on the number of bubble screens the Vikings run: "The bubble screen is something that ideally shouldn't be called as much as the Vikings call it. However, much like the Patriots with Wes Welker, the Vikings and [Percy] Harvin are at a point where the opposition's awareness of the play is irrelevant to the resulting success of consistently calling it."
  • The Vikings will decide a course of action with receiver Jerome Simpson's back Wednesday, according to 1500ESPN.com.
  • Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice said that right tackle Gabe Carimi played well last Sunday at Jacksonville with the exception of several mental mistakes. Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com has more.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Bears coach Lovie Smith's performance: "Not everybody in Chicago who still owns a fake Ditka mustache has to like Smith to respect the way he has done business in 2012."
  • The Bears might run more no-huddle offense coming out of their bye week, according to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Carter
Carter
In 1994, Cris Carter set an NFL record with 122 receptions over the course of a 16-game season. Shortly thereafter, the Pro Football Hall of Fame received and put up for display his full uniform, commemorating an achievement that figured to stand for some time.

The very next year, Herman Moore caught 123 passes for the Detroit Lions. Since then, the NFL has seen a 143-catch season (Marvin Harrison for the Indianapolis Colts in 2002) and another 123-catch campaign (Wes Welker for the New England Patriots in 2009). Welker also caught 122 passes this season. In fact, since Carter's 122-catch season, NFL wide receivers have produced 13 seasons that would have broken the record of 112 catches that Carter eclipsed in that 1994 season.

Carter was without question one of the best wide receivers of his era, but if I had to make an educated guess about why he has not yet been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, I would blame his timing. He produced his best seasons at the start of an NFL passing frenzy that has inflated statistics and left Hall voters reluctant to reward them.

There are 21 wide receivers in the Hall, fewer than any position except tight end, place-kicker or punter. And as the first chart shows, only four receivers whose careers began in the past 35 years have been elected. One of them, Art Monk, was enshrined 13 years after his retirement. A second, James Lofton, waited 10 years.

Hall voters might not agree, but the numbers suggest they haven't prioritized receivers as much as some other positions. And those who value the position have no doubt been torn in recent years by the presence of three quality candidates: Carter, Andre Reed and Tim Brown.

The second chart shows the receiving statistics of that trio over a relatively similar career span. Carter was a finalist in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Brown, who was also an elite kick returner, was a finalist in 2010. But Reed has been a finalist every year since 2007, and Carter's absence in 2011 suggests that Reed might have been pushed to the front of the line whenever a receiver (or two) is elected.

When he retired in 2002, Carter ranked second in NFL history in receptions and touchdown catches. He was No. 3 in total yards and total touchdowns. The NFL's offensive explosion has pushed him down in every category, and you hope he doesn't get permanently caught in the subsequent backlash. Catching 244 passes in two seasons, as Carter did in 1994 and 1995, was much more notable at the time than it is now.

While he will always be overshadowed by Jerry Rice, whose career more or less overlapped his, Carter also deserves some big-picture credit for sharpening the science of sideline footwork and warding off opponents with his arm. He was also as durable a receiver as this game as known, missing only four games in 14 seasons between 1988-2002.

I couldn't begin to tell you what might happen Saturday when voters convene to elect the class of 2012. Once again, Carter has joined Brown and Reed on the list of 15 semifinalists. Only five recently retired players, along with up to two nominees from the seniors committee, can make it.

I'll leave you with what the late Detroit Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski a said in a post-vote discussion last year. (He also tweeted it, so it's not as if I'm giving away a privileged conversation.) Kowalski, a member of the voting committee, looked at the projected ballots for 2012, 2013 and 2014 and predicted that the "snubs" of 2011 would be rectified over the next three years. If that's the case, it's just a matter of "when" for Cris Carter.

Note: Carter is one of several former players with NFC North ties among the 15 semifinalists. That list also includes former Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman, current Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and former Lions guard Dick Stanfel.
On Monday, we noted that Minnesota Vikings receiver Bernard Berrian took to Twitter in defense of his low production this season. When a follower told him he was "wide open at least 5 times," Berrian responded: "been like that the last 4 yrs."

[+] EnlargeBernard Berrian
Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesSince joining the Vikings in 2008, Bernard Berrian has caught roughly 50 percent of the passes thrown his way.
One of the fans who challenged Berrian on that point was a Minnesota state representative and a co-author of the team's stadium finance bill. That fact was dramatic but ultimately irrelevant. What concerned me was Berrian's implication that getting open is the extent of his job as a receiver, and beyond that, his production is in the hands of someone else -- presumably the quarterback or the play-caller.

So with help from several resources, I sought out some key facts that would help us understand whether Berrian is justified or if he needs to take more ownership for catching only two passes over the Vikings' first four games.

First, it should be noted that Berrian has been on the field more often than any Vikings wide receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, he has played on 182 of the Vikings' 248 snaps. Michael Jenkins is next with 175 plays, Percy Harvin has 141 and Devin Aromashodu has 36.

On those 182 plays, Berrian has been targeted on 13 passes. ESPN Stats & Information doesn't assign a target when one isn't clear, making its number different from press-box statistics that say Berrian has been targeted 15 targeted times. Regardless, Berrian has caught only two of the 13, or 15 percent.

The top NFL receivers typically catch between 60 and 70 percent of the passes thrown their way, according to a spreadsheet I viewed from ESPN Stats & Information. New England Patriots slot man, for example, Wes Welker has caught 70 percent this season. Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson is at 71 percent. Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills is at 66 percent and the San Diego Chargers' Vincent Jackson is at 65 percent.

Admittedly, 13 targets on 182 plays is a very small number. There are 84 NFL players who have been targeted more than Berrian this season. But this is where his career history, at least with the Vikings, needs to be reviewed for context.

Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information provided the following chart. It shows that in the four years Berrian was referring to, he's caught 52 percent of the passes thrown his way. Since the start of the 2010 season, that number is 45 percent.

There are many factors that go into how frequently a receiver should catch the passes thrown his way. Obviously, quarterback accuracy is one of them. So is the route a receiver is asked to run; a short route is more likely to be completed than one that takes a receiver 30 yards downfield.

But there are some factors that a receiver can control. Does he need the ball delivered precisely to his hands? How good is he at catching imperfect passes? Can he win a physical fight with the defender? To what extent can he twist his body or shield defenders or maintain control after a big hit?

All of these factors go into the pot when evaluating Berrian's past four years. He obviously hasn't gotten as many passes as he would have liked. But over that stretch, he's worked with four different veteran quarterbacks: Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb. Have they all inexplicably looked elsewhere when he Berrian was open, presuming he has been? Or did Berrian's extended history of catching about half of the passes thrown his way play a role in their (possibly subconscious) decision-making?

Berrian isn't totally at fault for his two-catch season. McNabb has under-and overthrown him on a number of occasions already. But I hope Berrian doesn't think that getting open is the sole factor in a quarterback throwing his way. That's only half of the battle, and perhaps Berrian hasn't won enough of the other half to justify additional attention. Just a thought.
On Tuesday, ESPN.com's NFL Blog Network kicked off a series of offseason posts using our power rankings template on individual players and coaches rather than teams. The first topic was receiver, and NFC West guru Mike Sando has compiled the final list over on his blog.

You'll see that Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans finished first and that two NFC North receivers, the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, finished fourth and sixth in the voting, respectively.

Regular readers know I don't take Power Rankings too seriously. They're just a fun debate starter and nothing more. My ballot is sure to draw some ire from the Texans' fan because I ranked Johnson No. 6, a position that in retrospect is probably low. But there is no taking it back, and the bottom line is a divisional blogger doesn't spread his focus equally among 32 teams.

In fact, thinking back, I believe I've seen one of Johnson's 115 NFL games in person. That game was nearly eight years ago in 2003. That doesn't mean I'm not aware of him and his production over the past seasons, but it hasn't registered with me to the extent of some other players I have seen more often.

For those interested, the ballot I submitted to Sando is below. From an NFC North perspective, I continue to cling to my choice of Johnson over Jennings in a battle that has no loser. I wonder if we'll ever see Johnson play a full season with a quarterback who performs at the level that Jennings now has three years with in Aaron Rodgers.
  1. Larry Fitzgerald
  2. Roddy White
  3. Reggie Wayne
  4. Calvin Johnson
  5. Greg Jennings
  6. Andre Johnson
  7. Wes Welker
  8. Brandon Marshall
  9. Santonio Holmes
  10. DeSean Jackson
Rodgers/CutlerAP Photo/Mike RoemerPackers QB Aaron Rodgers and Bears QB Jay Cutler share text messages off the field, not insults.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris was jogging off the field last month in Green Bay when he stopped Packers receiver Donald Driver.

"I said, 'We'll see y'all in Chicago in the NFC Championship Game,'" Harris recounted Sunday after the Bears secured their spot in that game with a 35-24 divisional playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks.

"I had a feeling that they would make it," Harris added. "I was very confident in what we could do, so we got that rematch."

To me, that encounter illustrated everything the run-up to Packers-Bears III will -- and won't -- be.

You'll hear about two teams that have peaked in the playoffs. The Packers have won four consecutive "elimination games," dating to Week 16 of the regular season, while the Bears have scored at least 35 points in five of their past six contests.

You'll hear more history than you probably ever associated with professional football. The Bears and Packers have played 181 games against each other, dating to 1921. The Bears hold a 92-83-6 advantage, including the only playoff meeting between the rivals.

But it would be a shock if you hear any of the raw trash-talking that took place last week between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. I would be stunned if you hear any of the threats that shuttled between the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

The Packers and Bears are direct division competitors, and it can get ugly between their fans. (A "Green Bay sucks" cheer surfaced in the second half at Soldier Field.) But from a player perspective, I don't sense anything close to the hatred that exists between those AFC teams.

In this rivalry, players stop before, during and after games to chat and exchange friendly barbs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has often expressed his appreciation to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for helping his brother get assimilated at Vanderbilt University. And Sunday, Cutler acknowledged he sent Rodgers a congratulatory text message this weekend after the Packers' 48-21 divisional playoff victory against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I'll probably have a few text messages from him, so we'll have friendly banter, I'm sure," Cutler said.

About the worst thing anyone in the Bears' locker room could muster was this from linebacker Brian Urlacher: "It's our closest rival. They're right up the street, so it's a big deal. We have a lot of history with them. I think it's the oldest rivalry in NFL history, so it's a big deal. We don't like them. They don't like us. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of hype around this game building up to it."

Indeed, there will be ungodly hype, especially on this blog. From this point forward, I'm tagging this game "Epicenter of Humanity." So I don't want to minimize how big and fun this is going to be for fans and media members alike.

But I also think it's important to draw a distinction between the history and physicality of Bears-Packers games and the kind of silly, attention-grabbing verbosity that consumed the AFC games last week. Sorry, the Packers and Bears don't hate each other.

"I don't think there is hatred," Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould said. "We have a lot of respect for their organization and they have, I'm sure, a mutual respect for us. It's just that they're not going to like us and we're not going to like them -- this week."

There is a big difference between that sentiment and the kind that left Jets linebacker Bart Scott threatening to end the career of Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Scott's comments came after Welker seemingly went out of his way to take subtle shots at Jets coach Rex Ryan. It might have been entertaining to some people. But to me, the regular season is the time for sideshows. The playoffs are all about the games.

We are by no means holier than thou here in the NFC North. But I don't think anyone is going to be making any jokes this week about the other team, either. From a football perspective, this is too good of a matchup to waste time on mind games.

"We just look at this as another obstacle," Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said Saturday night about the possibility of playing the Bears. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. The object is to win. Whoever it is, we look to play our game and come out on top."

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, a veteran of eight years of these games, said he'll look at this game as "Bears-Packers." With a smirk and wide eyes, Tillman added: "But I think the media will create 'IT'S BEARS-PACKERS. THE BIGGEST RIVALS IN HISTORY OF THE NFL SINCE 1900-SOMETHING.' I think at the end of the day it's still football. They're a great football team. They're in the playoffs. ... If you flip a coin, it's 50-50."

We're in an age where prominent players shift teams often via free agency and trades. They share agents and train together in the offseason regardless of team affiliations. In fact, Rodgers and Tillman have been a part of an offseason training group in California. NFL players sport far more commonalities than differences, and I'm always skeptical when they express hatred for teams or players based simply on affiliations.

To me, Harris got it right. This week will be the Epicenter of Humanity for us, but for the players it will simply be another week of playoff intensity.

"This will be great for TV," Harris said. "FOX is probably licking its chops. ... [But] it will be very respectful. We're not a team that does a lot of trash talking. We'd rather show it on the field. They're the same way. Two teams that definitely respect each other. Maybe I'll have a dislike for them, but you don't have to publicly come out and tell how bad we hate them, or whatever the case may be."

As a blog community, we most definitely are going to get it on this week. The players? Let them know when it's Sunday.
CHICAGO -- No sense devoting too much wordplay to this stinker.

It became abundantly clear very quickly the home-team Chicago Bears were more affected by the inclement weather conditions than the visiting New England Patriots, who rode Tom Brady’s arm to a 36-7 smackdown at Soldier Field.

Chicago’s embarrassing loss brings back the question that has hung over the club all season: Are the Bears the real deal?

They definitely didn’t look the part against the Patriots.

What it means: The Bears squandered an opportunity to pad their lead atop the NFC North by falling to the Patriots. Earlier in the day, the Green Bay Packers -- already a game behind the Bears in the division -- lost 7-3 to the Detroit Lions. Further complicating matters for Green Bay was the concussion quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered in the first half that casts doubt about his availability for the Packers' matchup next week at New England.

So had the Bears taken care of business Sunday against New England, they’d be two games up against a Packers team that could very well be on the way to yet another loss next week on the road against what appears to be the best team in the league.

Snow what? That’s probably what the Patriots say to the notion of inclement weather at Soldier Field affecting their offense. The Patriots racked up 273 yards in the first half, converting on 67 percent of third downs.

The team with home-field advantage, meanwhile, managed just 33 yards of offense in the first half as quarterback Jay Cutler succumbed to two sacks and finished with a passer rating of 58.3. The area the Bears hoped to lean on most -- the rushing attack -- produced just 19 yards in the first half, led by Matt Forte, who averaged 1.9 yards per carry. The club’s longest run in the first two quarters was a 7-yard scramble by Cutler.

Brady lights up Cover 2: Chicago made no secret of its plan to stay in Cover 2 and test Brady’s patience by forcing him to make short passes. Brady did that and more in the first half, lighting up the Bears' Cover 2 defense for 195 yards in the first half with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 124.1.

Brady displayed patience against Chicago’s Cover 2 in taking New England on 12- and 11-play scoring drives to start the game. Then, when the Bears started to take more chances in coverage, the quarterback and his receivers took advantage. On the final play of the second quarter, Brady hit Deion Branch -- who beat Bears corner Charles Tillman on the route -- for a 59-yard touchdown as time expired.

In the first half alone, the Patriots lined up in six different personnel packages on offense, in addition to no-huddle. The Bears seemed to have no answer, and by the end of the third quarter, two New England receivers -- Branch and Wes Welker -- had each racked up more than 100 yards on a combined 15 catches.

Record-setting first half: Chicago’s performance in the first half Sunday will go in the team's record books, just not the way it would like. The Bears allowed the most first-half points in franchise history, surrendering 33 through the first two quarters, shattering the old mark of 31 points scored on the club by the Detroit Lions on Sept. 18, 2005.

What’s next: Minnesota is next up on the schedule, but there’s uncertainty concerning whether the Bears will be able to play the Vikings at the Metrodome next Monday night because the facility’s inflatable roof caved in under the weight of heavy snows in the area.

Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission -- which operates the Metrodome -- reportedly said that extent of the damage was still being assessed. But Steve Maki, the facilities manager, told the Associated Press he is optimistic the roof can be repaired in time for the Monday night matchup.

The Detroit Lions have lost their past six Thanksgiving Day games and eight of the past nine. It won't be easy to reverse that trend this season when they host the 8-2 New England Patriots. Here are five things to watch in anticipation of this matchup:

1. Check out the big guy. If you're watching from a national perspective, make sure you keep an eye on rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. You'll see what Lions fans have watched all season: A nasty, high-motor play-maker who is every bit deserving of the Pro Bowl votes he's getting. Suh's seven sacks continues to lead all NFL defensive tackles, two ahead of the next-highest total (Tommy Kelly of the Oakland Raiders has five). He's part of a frenetic defensive line that has, for the most part, lived up to preseason expectations.

2. Flinging' it. This game could be entertaining from an aesthetic standpoint. The Lions have attempted 438 passes this season, tied for most in the NFL. Meanwhile, opponents have taken to the air against the Patriots, attempting 395 passes (third most in the NFL) and accumulating the second-highest total of yards against a defense (289.6). Multiple toe injuries to tailback Jahvid Best make it even more likely the Lions will attempt to put on an aerial show.

3. Mutual admiration society. Lions coach Jim Schwartz is a disciple of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who gave Schwartz his first NFL job (as a scout for the Cleveland Browns) in 1993. "I probably owe my entire NFL career to Bill Belichick," Schwartz said this week. Like Belichick, Schwartz studies analytic statistics and isn't afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. "They give you a lot of things to get ready for," Belichick said of Schwartz's team. "You can just see in their game plans and trying to match up against the Lions, whether it's us doing it this week or watching other teams do it from week to week, that it's hard. ... They put [players] in positions that make it tough for you to defend or to block them the way you want to block them."

4. Call this game the Drop Bowl. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Lions (28) and Patriots (25) rank first and second among NFL teams in passes dropped. Patriots receiver Wes Welker has six drops, while Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and tailback Jahvid Best have four drops apiece. The Patriots' 8-2 record suggests that drops might not be a singular statistical indicator of wins and losses this season, but it's still something to keep an eye on.

5. Defending CJ. Belichick went out of his way this week to note that the Lions' Johnson is a much different receiver than Randy Moss. But it will be interesting to see if Belichick uses anything close to the same scheme he employed against Moss earlier this month. In a 28-18 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the Patriots had safety Brandon Meriweather standing more than 20 yards off the ball for most of the game to discourage Moss from getting downfield. Listening to Belichick talk this week, you would think he has an alternative plan. "He's never covered," Belichick said, while adding: "It looks like Shaquille O'Neal going up for a rebound against two point guards."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD