NFC North: Willie Young

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman drew laughs Monday attempting to repeat the word “trepidation” in response to whether he feels any regarding the defense, as the club prepares to open the regular season against Buffalo.

While the defense performed average to below average most of the preseason, Trestman remains unconcerned about the unit’s ability to get the job done once the season kicks off.

[+] EnlargeMarc Trestman
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesCoach Marc Trestman is hoping that the Bears' defense can build cohesion in the coming weeks.
“I don’t feel that word trepi, trepi … what was it again?” Trestman asked, smiling. “Trepidation? If it’s more than three syllables, I’m out of business. I don’t feel that trepidation. The whole defense wasn’t together at one time during [the preseason]. We’re going to have to come together. It’s going to be a process working together, getting to know each other, how each other works. But the talent level’s there.”

The Bears revamped the defensive line by adding Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston in free agency, in addition to drafting defensive tackles Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson. The club also signed several players to compete for two open spots at safety, and used its first-round pick to select rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller.

But throughout the preseason, the entire group hasn’t performed together. Allen played in only the club’s second preseason outing against the Jaguars after missing the opener due to family reasons and exhibition contest No. 3 due to a bruised shoulder. Safety Chris Conte didn’t make his preseason debut until Aug. 22.

The Bears held out all the starters on defense for the preseason finale at Cleveland.

“There's always concern, but I think we're going to have our guys hyped up, ready to go,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “It's a full game. We're not going to just play a quarter here, two quarters here. We're going to play a whole 60 minutes of football. So this first one is a good test to see where we're at. It's still hard to tell [how good we can be] because we were missing Jared Allen some games. We finally are going to get everybody back together and play a whole game. We played one quarter, two quarters here, and Seattle was a tough test for us. It lets us know that we still have some work to do and we've got to get it together and work hard this week and see what we have for Buffalo.”

Trestman declined to name the starters at safety, saying, “We’ll talk more about that on Wednesday,” while Conte hasn’t yet been cleared to play after suffering a concussion on Aug. 22. Meanwhile, veteran linebacker Lance Briggs missed Monday’s workout with Trestman saying his absence was excused.

“We think the talent level is in a place right now where we’ve got a chance to go out each and every week, get better and improve,” Trestman said. “That’s what we’re going to try and do as we work through this week of practice and the start of the season.”

Bears Camp Report: Day 13

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
5:20
PM ET
BOURBONAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp:
  • Morning showers soaked the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University on Tuesday. So the Bears moved their session across the street to Ward Field, where the club could practice on FieldTurf. “The players handled the transition today and the weather. We moved some things around, went indoors for our walk-through, came out here for the first time in full pads, got a lot of work done, moved some guys around and we made it through the day,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We wanted to make sure we got this one in. We had Plan B and Plan C. Plan A worked pretty good and we got a lot of work done.” According to a school official, the same company that installed the surface inside the Walter Payton Center laid the FieldTurf at ONU, with the work being completed approximately three weeks ago. The school’s soccer teams used the field for the first time on Monday, and the Bears were the first football team to put the surface to use.
  • Zach Miller continues to state a strong case to win the job as the club’s No. 2 tight end. Miller put together another solid outing, catching every ball thrown his way during the various team periods.
  • Backup quarterback Jordan Palmer struggled during Tuesday’s workout, throwing a pair of interceptions to safety Chris Conte and defensive end Willie Young. The INT thrown to Young hit the defensive end squarely in the chest. Conte secured his pick in the end zone during a red-zone drill on a pass intended for Micheal Spurlock. Trestman declined to say whether Jimmy Clausen had overtaken Palmer on the depth chart. “I don’t think we’ve had any movement there at all,” Trestman said. “We’ll move people around. We’ll see how they play in different environments and we’ll make a decision when we have to.”
  • Trestman said “it’s too soon to talk about” whether Conte will play Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Conte came off the physically unable to perform list on Monday and has practiced just two days.
  • Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take snaps at safety with the starters. The club did work in Conte and Adrian Wilson with the starters as well.
  • Brandon Marshall spent time catching punts during special-teams periods, but don’t expect the club to use him in that capacity during games. “Brandon Marshall likes to get into some drills that maybe he shouldn’t be in,” special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said.
  • Non-participants for Tuesday’s session included Chris Williams (hamstring), Eben Britton (hamstring), Jordan Mills (foot), Brian De La Puente (knee), Marquess Wilson (collarbone), Isaiah Frey (hamstring) and Lance Briggs. Briggs isn’t injured. He was given a day off, which Trestman routinely does for veterans.
  • Keep an eye out for linebacker Jerry Franklin, who is taking snaps with the starters on some of the coverage and return units on special teams. He’s also been taking reps with the second team on defense.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Arguably the best drill conducted in full pads is the one-on-one pass-rush competition between offensive and defensive linemen.

Granted, football is not an individual sport, but players are required to win individual battles in the trenches for the betterment of the team.

Collins
Perhaps no defensive lineman flashed as often as fifth-year defensive tackle Nate Collins did on Sunday during the 15-minute exercise. That is an encouraging sign for the Bears. Collins missed the final 11 games last year because of an ACL tear that required surgery, and the Bears depth on the defensive line suffered because of it.

Collins spent months rehabbing the left knee before returning to the Bears on a one-year deal in March. Equipped with a bulky knee brace, Collins received medical clearance to participate in the offseason program in May and has been relatively full-go ever since.

"I have a mentality where the moment you get comfortable something bad can go wrong or something unexpected can happen," Collins said. "I do everything I can and focus on what I can control and everything else will work itself out. I just know if I come out here and perform my best every single day then good things will happen."

Collins showcased a variety of moves the handful of times he lined up opposite reserve offensive linemen in the drill, relying on his speed and technique on certain rushes, and brute power to push up the field on others.

"It really felt good to get out there. There was a lot of adrenaline and energy running through me. I'm just glad I was able to come out here and do what I love because I love football. I love football, I love these guys and I love this team. It's a blessing I was able to come out here and compete with my brothers."

Other observations from the drill included: defensive tackle Stephen Paea winning a memorable one-on-one matchup with veteran center Roberto Garza. Defensive end Trevor Scott continued his strong start to camp by beating an offensive tackle off the edge on one rush, then winning another matchup with an inside move. Rookie second-round pick Ego Ferguson ended up on the ground on two separate occasions, but Ferguson did manage to push his way into the backfield on one snap. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod got the best of defensive end Jared Allen the one time they squared off in the session. Right tackle Jordan Mills held his own versus ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.

Bears Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
4:25
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp.

" Day 1 of training camp Friday brought about a spirited workout that included a minor shoving match between Sherrick McManis and Eric Weems. On Saturday, the Bears experienced a full-blown dust-up that appeared to involve defensive end Lamarr Houston and right tackle Jordan Mills initially, and escalated to include defensive end Willie Young and Kyle Long, who still isn’t practicing because of a viral infection.

At first, Bears coach Marc Trestman joked “we’ve got to start charging” for people to watch, but took a more serious tone in pondering the implications such an event could have on the team. Trestman believes in simulating game situations whenever possible. So “if we’re practicing like it’s a game, we would have lost both players today,” he said.

Trestman also called the skirmishes “a disciplinary issue” in addition to “a major safety issue.” Interestingly, Mills and Houston were involved back in June in a similar incident during organized team activities.

" What should have been a touchdown to Martellus Bennett from Jay Cutler during a red-zone drill instead became a breakup by linebacker Jonathan Bostic.Bennett and Cutler refused to let it go. So after practice, the two stood in the end zone discussing ways they could be more effective in the red zone as the rest of the team walked off the field.

Bennett explained to ESPN.com that Cutler thought he fired the pass in the end zone high enough to get it past the outstretched arms of Bostic, and into the tight end’s hands. But at 6-foot-6, Bennett said, “What might be a high pass for someone else is different than my high,” meaning his catch radius is wider than most of the team’s targets.

“We’re just trying to take the thinking process out for both of us and make it more of a reaction thing; me reacting to his throws instead of him reacting to my body,” Bennett said.

Bennett hopes the 10 minutes spent in the end zone after practice Saturday will ensure touchdowns instead of incompletions once the season starts.

" The Bears held out Tim Jennings (quadriceps) from Saturday’s practice, and defensive end Willie Young left near the end of the workout after experiencing soreness in a quadriceps. Both are day to day. Other non-participants included safeties Craig Steltz (groin) and Chris Conte (shoulder) along with Long (viral infection).

" Despite repetitions typically being scarce for rookies, sixth-round pick David Fales received an extended period of snaps to run the offense during a team session. Although his delivery appears somewhat unconventional, it’s clear the quarterback knows where to go with the ball, makes quick decisions and doesn’t take risks. Fales was accurate on the majority of his throws, but most of his passes traveled fewer than 10 yards.

" Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh is splitting the reps between Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen as the two compete for the No. 2 job behind Cutler. Clausen played most of the snaps with the second-team offense during the first half of practice, and the quarterback delivered several strikes while making virtually no mistakes. Palmer, meanwhile, struggled with accuracy working with the third team and threw an interception to linebacker Khaseem Greene. Palmer worked with the second team later in practice and improved significantly.“

"You shouldn’t draw any conclusions by who the guy [is] that goes in there after Jay’s in there,” Trestman said. “We’re just moving people around and giving each guy a chance to work with different people and different centers and so forth.”
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Even with temperatures in the low 70s, the Bears momentarily lost their cool for the second consecutive day.

Friday’s brief shoving match between wide receiver Eric Weems and cornerback Sherrick McManis lasted only a couple seconds, but Saturday morning’s dustup involved multiple players and took several members of the team to restore order.

The main combatants appeared to be defensive lineman Lamarr Houston and right tackle Jordan Mills, along with defensive end Willie Young. At one point guard Kyle Long tried to play peacemaker and separate the players, even though Long is still not practicing due to a viral infection. Multiple players from both sides then jumped in to quiet down the situation.

There were no further problems, and all the parties involved downplayed the incident after practice, as expected.

Shoving matches and minor fights are commonplace at NFL training camps, but Bears head coach Marc Trestman prefers that his players avoid engaging in that type of behavior, and for good reason.

“We know that there are times in practice where a player may lose his mind,” Trestman said. “The bottom line is when we talk about it in meetings: fighting is a disciplinary issue. We would have lost both players. If we’re practicing like it’s a game, we would have lost both players today.

“Not only that but it’s a major safety issue. The guys involved are remorseful about it. They don’t want it to happen and they know it hurts the football team. The thing you like to see is that it didn’t linger. The team got back to work and there were no other altercations. But one play can hurt a football team. That’s how we sell it to each and every guy. On one play we can lose players. And it’s a safety issue. We have to continue to move forward with that and I know we will.”
DEARBORN, Mich. -- There was a chance that Willie Young could have returned to Michigan much earlier than Saturday, that his cameo appearance at Stephen Tulloch's charity softball game would have been just another weekend.

Young spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, first as a reserve defensive end before blossoming into a starter in 2013. Then, with a chance to move on after last season, he took it, he departed for the division rival Chicago Bears during free agency.

Even if staying in Detroit was an apparent option.

Young
“They did [show interest] but we definitely broke ways on good terms,” Young said. “I definitely enjoyed my years here, I can say that. Thankful for the opportunity I was able to create for myself here and landing me in Chicago right now.”

Thus far, his time with the Bears has been uneventful. He lives by the team’s practice facility. He said in his first month or so of living in Chicago, he has been downtown twice.

He’ll eventually get down there more often, but he said he has spent his time trying to learn his second NFL playbook with his second NFL team and to be comfortable with all of the new things he is learning. He said the Bears’ scheme, a 4-3 like what the Lions ran under Gunther Cunningham, isn’t too much different than what he played in during his time in Detroit.

But getting used to new surroundings is still a change.

One thing that won’t change for Young this season is Thanksgiving. Even though he’ll be part of the opponent, he’ll spend his fifth straight Thanksgiving playing football at Ford Field -- this time as part of the Bears.

“It’s a little bit more than another game,” Young said. “I keep saying it’s just another game, but the thing is you’re playing against guys that you practiced against for so many years.”

Young felt a bond formed there. It’s part of the reason why even though he left the Lions, he drove the four-plus hours -- including, he said, traffic and a flat tire -- to show up at Tulloch’s charity event.

He wanted to show support and visit with his former teammates, much the same as Cleveland wide receiver Nate Burleson. Burleson was released by the Lions in February but also showed up at the game to hang out with the Lions.

To both men, this showed there was something more to their time in Detroit other than football.

“It definitely means a lot. It does. It absolutely does. Just to know that guys go against each other, all day every day,” Young said. “On Sundays, it looks like we’re out to decapitate each other but at the end of the day, somewhere along the way, some people lose sight of the fact that it’s a brotherhood to me.

“I don’t know, man. I really just, you feel the brotherhood and it doesn’t change. Especially with the guys you sweat with every day, line up with every day, put your hand in the dirt with every day, fight with, all that.”

That’s why Young was welcomed back, even if he’ll be playing for a rival next season. He was once a part of them and even though his jersey may have changed -- that bond still remains.

Chicago Bears draft wrap-up

May, 10, 2014
May 10
6:05
PM ET
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A wrap-up of the Chicago Bears’ draft. Click here for a full list of Bears' draftees.

Bears general manager Phil Emery likes to say a team can never expect to fill all of its needs via the draft. Well, eight draft choices later, the Bears actually came close.

Best move: Taking defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton with consecutive picks on Day 2. We don’t know if Ferguson or Sutton will pan out, but the Bears had to keep strengthening the defensive line after last season. Ferguson and Sutton join new faces Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Austen Lane, Trevor Scott and Israel Idonije, who is back for his second tour of duty. The Bears also re-signed tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins to help fortify the trenches on defense.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Casey
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsArizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, a fourth-round pick by the Bears, has some question marks in terms of off-the-field incidents.
This reminds me of how Emery & Co. rebuilt the offensive line last offseason.

Riskiest move: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey’s (fourth round) on-field production speaks for itself: 4,239 yards, 48 rushing touchdowns and 77 receptions for 679 yards in three years for the Wildcats.

However, there are questions about Carey that extended beyond the football field. The 5-9, 207-pound tailback reportedly had multiple run-ins with the authorities, including a charge of assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend that was later dismissed.

Carey depicted himself as a high-character individual when he spoke to Chicago media members following his selection by the Bears at No. 117.

“As you guys are going to get to know me over the years; I’m an outgoing [person] who loves kids and is light-hearted,” Carey said. “I would never do anything to harm people. I’m a loveful cat.”

Emery is not afraid to draft or acquire players with questionable character. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has rewarded Emery’s faith in him by posting consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. On the flip side, 2012 fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez lasted only one season before being cut after multiple run-ins with the law last offseason.

Most surprising move: Emery told reporters before the draft that he rejected the notion of drafting a developmental quarterback in the later rounds with the intent of grooming him to be a future starter.

The Bears selected San Jose State quarterback David Fales in the sixth round (183).

Go figure.

File it away: Time will tell if the Bears regret passing on a safety in the first round.

The organization continued its longstanding tradition of waiting until the later rounds to address the position when they moved back into the fourth round and traded away a pair of fifth-round selections to grab Minnesota’s Brock Vereen at 131. Vereen does have an excellent NFL pedigree. His brother, Shane, a standout running back, was selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Their father, Henry, was drafted by the Bucs in 1979.

Vereen is a versatile player who lined up at all four defensive back spots over the course of his career with the Golden Gophers. He started 36 games and registered 200 tackles, four interceptions, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and one blocked kick.

“Brock is one of the smartest and most versatile players I have ever had the privilege of coaching and is an outstanding young man,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “He is the ultimate team player and will do whatever is needed to help the Bears win. I know he is going to make Chicago a better team and will also be a great teammate in the locker room.”

But you can argue the Bears are in this mess at safety because the organization doesn't put a high enough value on the position.
Charles TillmanGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesCharles Tillman and the Bears' defense should benefit from some key additions in 2014.
The Chicago Bears' front office grunted through one of the league's busiest offseason of signings to put the team in position to draft the best player available in May while also minimizing the burden of the potential first-round pick to carry the savior label.

So while the workload won't lighten as the Bears prepare for the NFL draft and the April 22 start of the offseason program, they've unwittingly utilized a core motto of former NFL coach Dennis Green: Plan your work and work your plan. That has led to the Bears signing 30 players since the final week of December, a group that includes 17 returners, 10 unrestricted free agents and three street free agents to drastically improve -- at least on paper -- one of the NFL's worst defenses of 2013.

"I think we'll slow down a tad," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on March 31. "But we have a lot of work to do. We have some positions we want to make more competitive. The draft's around the corner."

Not to diminish the work to be done over the next few weeks, but Chicago's activity up to this point should make things easier moving forward. Headed into the offseason, the Bears needed to address a defensive line that played a major role in 2013 in the defense allowing 5.34 yards per rushing attempt (the league average was 4.10), and did so by signing Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije, in addition to bringing back Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins.

The club also re-signed starting corners Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, while adding to the safety position by acquiring M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy.

So is the defense better now than it was in 2013?

"The obvious answer to that would be we're healthier [than in 2013] because nobody's hurt," Emery said. "Also, I think we've added some guys at key points in their career. Jared adds experience, production, leadership. Somebody like Lamarr and Willie add some youth, speed and [physicality]. Really excited about Jeremiah Ratliff this year. He's excited about playing. He wants to finish here. He added so much the last few weeks [of 2013] in terms of leadership; unbelievably mentally tough player. So yeah, I think the collective group, we've gotten stronger and we're headed in the right direction as far as we want to establish as a defensive football team."

Given the financial commitments to Houston, Allen and Young -- all defensive ends -- it'll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds ways to get them on the field at the same time. Allen is the bona fide starter at right end, and Houston will play on the left side. But it's likely the Bears will take advantage of Houston's versatility and kick him inside to defensive tackle on passing downs while playing Young opposite Allen at end.

Even without the benefit of the upcoming draft, Chicago's defensive line appears to be a more dynamic group than it was in 2013.

"It's up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same time or at different times or different personnel groupings or groupings against personnel," Emery said.

Depending on the direction the Bears take in May in the draft, that task could become more difficult for Tucker. Despite the Bears adding Jennings, McCray and Mundy in free agency, the club could stand to acquire another safety in the draft capable of competing for a starting job; especially with the possibility Chris Conte might miss time at camp after undergoing shoulder surgery.

But the club might see more value in using its first-round pick on one of the talented interior defensive line prospects such as Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald or Florida State's Timmy Jernigan, as picking a safety at No. 14 might be a little too high for the team's tastes. Surely, the Bears will address safety in the first three rounds, in addition to adding depth at some point at corner and at linebacker.

Emery declined to say whether the signing of Allen or all the work done to revamp the defensive line will change the club's draft plans -- only that "it's always been about getting the best players possible to continue to build our team towards winning championships. To do that, you have to have high-quality players and players that can make plays. We talked at the end of the season about having more playmakers on our team."

The Bears certainly added some. In the process, they made the possibility of a defensive renaissance similar to what was experienced on the other side of the ball in 2013 a potentially easier undertaking.

They've planned their work and are working their plan.
On the eve of free agency two weeks ago, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

Only three of the original 15 remain unsigned as free agency enters its third week. One of them, former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, could remain that way for a while because of his neck injury.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released shortly after free agency opened. He signed with the Packers on March 15.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed in the last week:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Trying to come back from neck fusion surgery, Finley remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks during free-agency's first week. According a report in the Green Bay Press-Gazette over the weekend, the Seahawks failed Finley on his physical during the visit, leaving his status in doubt.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year, $4 million contract.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: After going unsigned during the first week of free agency, Jones signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Raiders. The deal was similar to the three-year, $9.6 million deal he signed with the Packers three years ago.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Was weighing an offer from Seattle, where he has visited twice since the start of free agency. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys that could become a four-year deal if the team exercises an option after the first year.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Signed a three-year, $9 million with the Atlanta Falcons after the Bears decided not to pursue an extension with the kick return specialist.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.
DETROIT -- Throughout the first week of free agency, the Detroit Lions continued to focus on offense, the part of the game the team is most known for and the part of the game that has produced the more gaudy numbers for the team in recent years.

The offensive power is strong. The offensive power added receiver Golden Tate, retained tight end Brandon Pettigrew and continued to stockpile players attempting to score.

Ihedigbo
But what about defense? The other side, the side that helped Seattle win a Super Bowl last season. The side of the ball where Detroit has noticeably struggled in recent seasons despite the drafting of defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in the first round of three of the past four drafts.

A lot of focus is on the Lions’ sub-par pass defense -- the cornerbacks struggled yet again in 2013 -- but Lions president Tom Lewand looks at pass defense as encompassing everyone on the defense.

“When you’re talking about pass defense, you’re not just talking about defensive backs,” Lewand said Monday at the MGM Grand. “I think you have to talk about everybody on the defense, because they all defend the pass.

“We built our team up front, and I won’t change a thing about that. Giving the quarterback a very short time to throw the ball, create a lot of pressure.”

Yet the Lions have not made any real impact moves defensively during free agency. They signed two defensive linemen for depth -- Vaughn Martin and Darryl Tapp -- and let a productive defensive end, Willie Young, leave for Chicago.

In the secondary, the Lions have only visited with one free agent, safety James Ihedigbo, and he left without signing a contract. That might happen, but until it does, that leaves Detroit without any impact changes in the defensive backfield. The most noticeable move they have made was bringing in Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a potential first-round pick, for a visit Monday.

But the Lions say they are trying to, and have in the past, made attempts to improve their defense.

“Are we looking at ways to strengthen our team and our defense, absolutely,” Lewand said. “I think we have to do that. We lost Louis Delmas to the Miami Dolphins, and we’ve been looking at ways to add to our secondary.

“I think we’ve done that the last few years, whether it’s drafting a number of defensive backs in the middle rounds, in the second round last year with Darius Slay, and we see a lot of those young corners developing.”

It is possible Detroit could add to that, too. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said at his introductory news conference that he could never have enough cornerbacks. He has a lot of young ones, but few proven ones other than Chris Houston, who had an inconsistent 2013.

So it is still an area the team could draft, both at corner and safety, in May as the Lions search for whatever way possible to improve their team.

Free-agency review: Lions

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
9:00
AM ET
A week in, here's a quick review of the free-agency period for the Detroit Lions:

Tate
Tate
Most significant signing: Considering that Detroit has mostly signed depth or re-signed its own free agents, the obvious choice is receiver Golden Tate. The former Seattle Seahawk will complement Calvin Johnson and should take pressure and attention off of the Lions' top receiver. He can also spread the field, has elite hands and can block extremely well for a 5-foot-10 receiver. He plays taller than he is and should be a good addition to Detroit.

Most significant loss: Defensive end Willie Young was a productive player who often became overlooked because of the star power in the middle (Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley) and the emergence of Ziggy Ansah at the other end. But Young is a long, rangy end who was good against the run and showed improvement. That he went to one of Detroit's top rivals, Chicago, adds to the significance because the Lions will see him at least twice a year.

Biggest surprise: That the Lions didn't make a bigger play earlier in the safety market. Like receiver on offense, safety is Detroit's biggest need on defense after the release of Louis Delmas. The team looked like it was interested in Chris Clemons and had reportedly expressed interest in T.J. Ward, but so far the only safety the team has brought in is James Ihedigbo. While Ihedigbo could fill a need if he signs, Detroit could have tried to make a bigger play here considering the market and the need. Unless the Lions draft one.

What's next: Solving the backup quarterback issue. The Lions need to have a veteran behind Matthew Stafford, and Kellen Moore just is not going to be a viable option there right now. Detroit, be it through re-signing Shaun Hill or signing someone like Luke McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick, has to have a player with some experience ready to come in if Stafford were to get hurt. Detroit has too many other pieces to let that be an actual issue.
On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.
Lamarr Houston's five-year, $35 million contract was a start, but the Bears had been sending out clear signals the organization intended to further address defensive end via free agency.

Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Young fit the mold of what the Bears were searching for.

While the Bears never had serious interest in former Minnesota Vikings star pass-rusher Jared Allen, Young’s three-year, $9 million signing allows general manager Phil Emery to continue his mission of getting younger on defense, while at the same time stealing a productive player from the division rival Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/Richard LipskiWillie Young posted 47 tackles and three sacks last season for the Detroit Lions.
Young started 15 games for the Lions last year and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. But the 6-foot-4, 251-pound edge rusher has a reputation for being extremely disruptive when asked to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Young also has ties to Bears coach Marc Trestman from their time spent together at NC State.

To add some perspective, Julius Peppers was scheduled to earn $14 million in 2014 and eat up $18,183,333 worth of cap space. Young lands in Chicago at a fraction of the cost, and at six years younger than Peppers, figures to have a much greater impact on the Bears’ defense for the next several seasons.

Young probably isn’t a household name in the NFL, but the deal looks solid on the surface.

For all the criticism directed toward the Bears’ secondary in 2013, notably the safeties, the front four needed the most work in the offseason. Houston and Young represent a significant upgrade over what the Bears lined up last year at defensive end when the club barely managed to muster a pass rush or effectively stop the run.

The Bears simply weren’t in a position to wait and see when Corey Wootton recovered from offseason hip surgery to make their second move at defensive end in free agency. Maybe Wootton is back in the mix when healthy (June or July), but with a thin crop of defensive ends expected to be available in May’s NFL draft, the Bears knew they had to be aggressive in free agency in regards to the position.

The respective contracts of Houston and Young speaks to the dire situation the Bears found themselves in on the defensive line. In total, the Bears awarded deals totaling eight years, $44 million to defensive ends, while safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jordan Senn and wide receiver Domenik Hixon all received modest deals by comparison.

Instead of rolling the dice on older and somewhat more established defensive ends on the market, the Bears secured the bookends of their defensive line for the future.

In free agency, it isn’t always about reeling in the biggest names. It’s about making the moves that make the most sense for the health of the franchise.
As free agency begins Tuesday and the Detroit Lions figure out exactly how to fill their holes, certain players will stand out.

And over the past three days, the Lions have spent time in the beginnings of talks with free agents as they try to maximize about $11 million in salary-cap space.

It might sound like a lot -- and it will be enough to get a couple of deals done -- but the total is in the lower half of the NFL and could keep the Lions from being major movers in the market, at least until a new contract is worked out with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

If that happens.

As everyone settles in for the insanity of free agency, here is a look at players the Lions could target on defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Why: This could be predicated on what happens with defensive end Willie Young. If the team is able to bring Young back, the Lions might be done at the position in the near term. If not, they might look for a replacement. At defensive tackle, the team already signed Corvey Irvin and has depth.

Two candidates:
  • Young: Last season was his first consistent extended action, and he was effective. He had 47 tackles and three sacks, but his size and speed make him an attractive free agent for teams. At 28, he is in his prime.
  • Brett Keisel: He is a 3-4 defensive end who can play defensive tackle in the 4-3. Though 35 years old, he had 29 tackles and four sacks in 12 games last season. He could be a cheap alternative if the team feels there is a need for another veteran on the line.
LINEBACKER:

Why not: Sure, there could be a deal made with someone for cheap or a hybrid defensive end/linebacker, but with DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch returning and the team playing more nickel than ever, it could be tough for them to lure a big-name player.

Two options:
  • LaMarr Woodley: Expected to be released by the Steelers later Tuesday, he has connections to the state and can play both linebacker and defensive end, making him a potentially cheap, versatile piece.
  • Larry Foote: Like Woodley, this is more about someone who has connections to Michigan. If Foote is planning on being a starter, he isn’t going to come to Detroit -- and his price tag would likely be too much anyway.
CORNERBACK:

Why: Despite the team having money wrapped up in Chris Houston and a bunch of younger cornerbacks ready to seek out playing time, the Lions might be wise to invest in another veteran, much like they did with Rashean Mathis a season ago.

Four candidates:
  • Mathis: He showed he can still play after becoming the team’s top cornerback last season and was a steadying influence in the Detroit locker room for those younger cornerbacks. He would probably still come cheap.
  • Corey Graham: He played last season under new Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and has familiarity with Austin's schemes. At 6 feet, Graham has the height Austin wants, made 68 tackles and intercepted four passes a season ago. He could be a strong fit.
  • Alterraun Verner: The Lions reportedly reached out to the former Tennessee cornerback, but he is expected to be pursued heavily in free agency. Though the Lions could be a fit, Verner might end up being too expensive.
  • Charles Tillman: He told reporters during Super Bowl week that he wouldn’t rule out playing for the Lions, and he could be an interesting cornerback/safety hybrid. He also has familiarity with the division, having played for Chicago, and has the respect of receiver Calvin Johnson.
SAFETY

Why: Other than receiver, this might be the biggest need of all for Detroit after the team released starter Louis Delmas. Though the Lions could address this spot in the draft, they likely would like to put someone experienced opposite Glover Quin.

Some candidates:
  • T.J. Ward: The Cleveland safety has been the name most tied to the Lions during the four-day lead up to the beginning of free agency. He had 112 tackles and two interceptions last season and could be a good complement to Quin. He is going to be highly sought after, so if Detroit lands him, he might be the team’s big free agency move.
  • Chris Clemons: His former team, the Dolphins, signed Delmas on Monday, meaning Clemons is likely headed elsewhere. He has been productive the past two seasons with 90-plus tackles in each. If the Lions don’t land Ward, Clemons could be a strong second option for Detroit. Insider Matt Williamson considers Clemons one of the best bargains of this free agent class.
  • James Ihedigbo: He doesn’t have the name recognition of Ward or Clemons, but like Corey Graham, he is someone Austin is familiar with from Baltimore. Ihedigbo, 30, had a career year in 2013, making 99 tackles and intercepting the first three passes of his career.
  • Ryan Clark: The Steelers safety could be a cheap, valuable addition and an instant locker room leader like Delmas and Nate Burleson were. At age 34, Clark has had three straight seasons of 100 tackles or more.
  • Charles Woodson: This would almost scream cheap, one-year deal for an aging veteran with ties to the state. He made 97 tackles last season and still seems in shape to play. He could provide good tutoring and a high level of play for Detroit, and told the Detroit News “never say never” when asked about playing for the Lions. He has also been around the state the past few days, but that likely means nothing in terms of free agency.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC North

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
10:00
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A few deals have been signed around the NFC North in the days leading up to free agency, but plenty of valuable players are about to hit the open market.

Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).

We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.

1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.

Cassel
Cassel
6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year deal with the Vikings on Friday, just before teams could start contacting his agent. He will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.

McCown
10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: He proved he is capable of filling in for Jay Cutler in a pinch and is instrumental behind the scenes for nearly every skill player on the offense. It's not a slam dunk he will be back, and talks with the Bears haven't been especially productive.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.

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