NFL Nation: Brandon Jackson

Super XLV: Where are they now?

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
6:30
PM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Exactly three years ago -- on Feb. 6, 2011 -- the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, much has happened to the 53 players who were on the roster for that 31-25 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Arlington, Texas.

Free agency, injuries, retirement and declining performance cause roster turnover.

Still, it’s eye-opening that from the group that suited up for the Packers’ last championship, only 12 players (just 22.6 percent) remain under contract with the team for 2014. Another 11 are still officially members of the Packers, but have contracts that expire next month. There are 13 players with other NFL teams, and 17 are out of football -- perhaps for good.

Here’s a look at the status of every player who was on the active roster three years ago today at Super Bowl XLV:

Under contract for 2014

  • [+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
    Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThree years after being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers is still leading the Packers.
    QB Aaron Rodgers: Threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the way to winning the Super Bowl XLV MVP, then won the NFL MVP award the next season. Signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension last April.
  • G Josh Sitton: Started Super Bowl XLV at right guard, but moved to left guard in 2013 and was a second-team, All-Pro selection. Signed a five-year contract extension on Sept. 2, 2011 that averages $6.75 million per season.
  • T Bryan Bulaga: Started at right tackle, but moved to left tackle last offseason. A training camp knee injury ended his 2013 season, and he now enters the final year of his rookie contract.
  • G: T.J. Lang: Served as a backup, but became the starting left guard the next season. Signed a four-year contract extension on Aug. 14, 2012 that averages $5.2 million per season. Moved to right guard last season.
  • WR Jordy Nelson: Caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and went on to post 1,000-yard receiving seasons in two of the next three years. Entering the final year of his contract in 2014.
  • OLB Clay Matthews: Forced a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl that the Packers recovered and turned into a touchdown to pad the lead. Four-time Pro Bowler signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension last April.
  • LB A.J. Hawk: Started and made seven tackles in the Super Bowl. Was released two months later, only to re-sign a more salary-cap friendly deal. Is under contract through 2015.
  • CB Tramon Williams: Broke up three passes in the Super Bowl, including the one that sealed the game on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers’ 33-yard line in the final minute. Entering the final year of his contract. Scheduled to make $7.5 million in 2014, and could be a candidate to be released or restructured despite a strong finish to last season.
  • K Mason Crosby: Made a 23-yard field goal in the game and signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract on July 29, 2011. Struggled in 2012, but bounced back last year to post his best season.
  • P Tim Masthay: Capped his first season with the Packers by averaging 40.5 yards and allowing the Steelers just 5 yards on punt returns in the game. Signed a four-year, $5.465 million contract extension on July 26, 2012.
  • LS Brett Goode: Has been the long snapper since 2008 and signed a three-year, $2.715 million contract extension on Oct. 13, 2012.
  • CB Jarrett Bush: Special teams player who was pressed into defensive duty in the game after injuries to Sam Shields and Charles Woodson, and intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the second quarter. Signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract on March 26, 2012.
Headed for free agency next month

  • RB James Starks: Started the Super Bowl and rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries. Battled injuries most of his career, and might not be re-signed.
  • WR James Jones: Caught five passes for 50 yards in the game, and signed a three-year, $9.6 million contract on Aug. 2, 2011. Caught 59 passes for a career-high 817 yards in 2013, and could be a re-signed despite his age (will turn 30 next month).
  • DT Ryan Pickett: Started the game, made two tackles and was in on the play in which Matthews forced Rashard Mendehall's fourth-quarter fumble. Played in all 16 games last season with a base salary of $5.4 million, but might be at the age (34) where the Packers let him walk.
  • DT B.J. Raji: Capped a strong 2010 postseason with a pair of tackles in the game. Finished his rookie contract in 2013, and reportedly turned down an $8 million-per-year offer last season.
  • DE C.J. Wilson: Started the game, but played only 14 snaps. Biggest impact came the night before the game, when he kept things loose in the team hotel by playing piano and leading a team sign-along. Finished his rookie contract in 2013.
  • FB John Kuhn: Played on both offense and special teams in the game. Signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract on Aug. 1, 2011.
  • CB Sam Shields: Suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the game. Had his best season in 2013 while playing under the restricted free agent tender of $2.023 million. Will command a big contract either from the Packers or another team in free agency.
  • LB Robert Francois: Went back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster throughout the 2010 season, and played on special teams in the game. Played last season under a one-year, $725,000 deal, but tore his Achilles tendon on Oct. 6.
  • TE Andrew Quarless: Caught one pass for 5 yards in the game. Suffered a major knee injury the next season and missed all of 2012. Returned last season to catch 32 passes for 312 yards (both career highs) in the final year of his rookie deal.
  • QB Matt Flynn: Served as Rodgers’ backup but did not play in the Super Bowl. Left after the 2011 season as a free agent, and after stints with Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo, he returned to the Packers last season for a one-year minimum deal and played in five games after Rodgers broke his collarbone.
  • C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Was inactive for the Super Bowl. Became a starter late in 2012 and for all of 2013, when he played under the restricted free agent tender of $1.323 million deal.
With other teams

  • [+] EnlargeMcCarthy
    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCoach Mike McCarthy and the Packers have seen a lot of roster turnover since winning Super Bowl XLV.
    WR Greg Jennings: Started and became just the third player in team history to catch multiple touchdowns in a Super Bowl by recording touchdowns of 21 and 8 yards. Signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Vikings last March.
  • G Daryn Colledge: Started at left guard, but left in free agency a few months later to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Cardinals. Has started every game for the Cardinals since.
  • C Scott Wells: Started at center and remained with the Packers through the 2011 season before signing a four-year, $24 million contract with the Rams. Has missed 13 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
  • LB Desmond Bishop: Became a starter earlier in 2010 after Nick Barnett's wrist injury and made nine tackles in the Super Bowl. Also recovered the fumble that Matthews forced. Signed a four-year, $19 million contract in 2011, but was released after missing the entire 2012 season because of a hamstring injury. Signed with the Vikings last offseason, but appeared in only four games.
  • OLB Frank Zombo: Started the game and had the Packers’ only sack of Roethlisberger but battled injuries the next two years and was released. Signed with the Chiefs last year and appeared in all 16 games.
  • CB Charles Woodson: Started at cornerback, but broke his collarbone late in the second quarter and missed the remainder of the game. Played two more seasons with the Packers, who released him last year. Returned to his old team, the Raiders, and played in all 16 games last season.
  • DE Cullen Jenkins: Played 36 snaps and had a pair of quarterback pressures. Left in free agency the following year and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles, who released him after two years. Signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the Giants last season.
  • TE Tom Crabtree: Played on both offense and special teams in the Super Bowl, catching one pass. Left last year to sign with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent, but was limited to seven games because of injuries.
  • CB Josh Gordy: Was inactive for the game, and the next season was signed off the practice squad the by the Rams. Spent the past two seasons with the Colts.
  • G Nick McDonald: Was inactive for the game, like he was for every game that season. Was released in training camp the next year, and spent parts of the next two seasons with the Patriots. Did not play in 2013, but was recently signed by the Chargers.
  • OLB Erik Walden: Was inactive after suffering an ankle injury in the NFC Championship Game. Played the next two seasons before signing a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colts last year.
  • DE: Jarius Wynn: Was active but did not play. Played in Green Bay through 2011, and with the Titans and Chargers before landing with the Cowboys last season.
  • FB Quinn Johnson: Inactive for the game. Was traded to the Titans in 2011. Has played in 24 games for the Titans over the past three years.
Out of football

  • T Chad Clifton: Started at left tackle, but his long career with the Packers ended when they released him after he played in only six games in 2011. Was never signed by another team.
  • WR Donald Driver: Started the game and caught two passes for 28 yards before leaving with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Retired after the 2012 season as the team’s all-time leading receiver.
  • S Nick Collins: Started and made a key early play when he returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Suffered a neck injury in Week 2 of 2011 and hasn’t played since.
  • DT Howard Green: Claimed off waivers earlier that season and started the game. His hit on Roethlisberger led to Collins’ interception return for a touchdown. Returned in 2011 and played in all 16 games, but has not played since.
  • WR Brett Swain: Posted a team-high four special teams tackles. Was released the following season and played briefly with the 49ers. Was cut in training camp last season by the Seahawks.
  • S Atari Bigby: Played on special teams. Signed with the Seahawks the following season and played in 15 games. Played in eight games with the Chargers in 2012, but did not play in 2013.
  • CB Pat Lee: Special teams player who saw action on defense after injuries to Woodson and Shields. Played one more season in Green Bay before splitting time in 2012 between the Lions and Raiders. Did not play in 2013.
  • RB Brandon Jackson: Played as the third-down back, but did not have any carries in the game. Caught one pass for 14 yards. Signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Browns in 2011, but missed all of that season and played in only two games in 2012.
  • FB Korey Hall: Caught one pass for 2 yards and made one special teams tackle in the game. He played in 13 games with the Saints in 2011, and retired after going to camp with the Cardinals in 2012.
  • S Charlie Peprah: Led the Packers with 10 tackles (including nine solo stops). Returned as a starter in 2011, when he had five interceptions, but was released shortly before training camp in 2012. Played in five games for the Cowboys in 2012.
  • LB Diyral Briggs: Made one special teams tackle in the game, but never played in another NFL game.
  • LB Matt Wilhelm: Made two special teams tackles, but seven-year career ended after that game.
  • G Jason Spitz: Played on special teams. Left in free agency the next year and signed a three-year, $4.05 million contract with the Jaguars, who released him in training camp last summer. He signed with the Seahawks, but was released on Oct. 12.
  • TE Donald Lee: Played in the game, but did not have a catch and was released two months later. Played in nine games for the Bengals in 2001.
  • QB Graham Harrell: Inactive for the game. Remained with the Packers until he was released in training camp last summer. Also spent time briefly with the Jets before being released.
  • RB Dimitri Nance: Inactive for the game. Was released by the Packers the following summer and never played in another NFL game.
  • CB Brandon Underwood: Inactive for the game. Was released in 2011. Went to camp with the Raiders in 2012 and Cowboys in 2013, but did not make either team.
The Cleveland Browns were the busiest team when it came to hitting the waiver wire Sunday, signing six players who were cut from other teams a day ago.

But none of the additions was a kicker. So, less than a full week from kicking off the season against Miami, Cleveland doesn't have a replacement for Phil Dawson, the team's kicker since the Browns returned to the league in 1999.

Here are the players who are out for the Browns: running back Brandon Jackson, tight end Kellen Davis, linebacker L.J. Fort, offensive lineman Caylin Hauptmann, offensive lineman Jarrod Shaw and fullback Brad Smelley.

Here are the players who are in: running backs Bobby Rainey (Ravens) and Dennis Johnson (Texans); tight ends MarQuies Gray (49ers) and Keavon Milton (Saints); offensive lineman Patrick Lewis (Packers); and linebacker Brandon Magee (Cowboys).

“Again, our roster is fluid right now,” coach Rob Chudzinski said in what must have been the understatement of the day. “We still need to address our kicker position, so we’re not done. We’re a young and hungry team with some solid veteran leaders. I like the foundation we have in place as we enter the season. I’m excited to see what we can do.”

The Browns now have nine 2013 undrafted rookies when you add the five signed Sunday (Gray, Johnson, Lewis, Magee and Milton) with safety Josh Aubrey, offensive lineman Martin Wallace and linebackers Paul Hazel and Eric Martin. That's nearly 17 percent of the Browns' 53-man roster.

These moves show the Browns wanted to upgrade at running back and tight end. Rainey and Johnson will compete to be the No. 2 running back behind Trent Richardson. Gray and Milton will add depth behind Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge.
Cleveland Browns first-round pick Barkevious Mingo will be released from the hospital Friday after bruising his lung in a preseason game the night before. He's expected to miss next week's third preseason game but should be ready for the regular-season opener, according to NFL.com.

Even if Mingo was sidelined for a couple of regular-season games, the Browns would have been able to handle it. Mingo is working at outside linebacker on the second team, and the Browns have depth at pass rusher with Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves.

The bigger concern for Cleveland is at right guard and running back. The Browns are deciding whether running back Dion Lewis (fractured leg) is done for the season or could be a candidate for the injured reserve-designated to return list, league sources told The Plain Dealer. Either way, Lewis is going to miss significant time at point where he had become the favorite to back up Trent Richardson.

The injury to Lewis is compounded by the fact the Browns are already without Montario Hardesty, last year's backup running back. The often-injured Hardesty is expected to miss two to three regular-season games after recently undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. The Browns' options right now at the No. 2 running back spot is either Brandon Jackson, who has eight carries over the past two seasons, or Chris Ogbonnaya, who has taken over as the starting fullback this training camp. Cleveland can also pick up a running back released elsewhere after the final major cutdown.

The picture isn't any brighter at right guard. Jason Pinkston suffered a high ankle sprain and will most likely be out at least four weeks, according to The Plain Dealer. Under that timetable, the Browns couldn't expect him back until the third game of the regular season. Shawn Lauvao is expected to miss two to three games in the regular season after having his ankle scoped last week.

So, what are the Browns going to do at right guard for the first couple of weeks? On Thursday night, the Browns replaced Pinkston with Garrett Gilkey. Who ever thought the seventh-round pick from Division II Chadron State would possibly be the first rookie out of this year's draft class to start this season?

This is why Mingo is the least of the Browns' worries.

"It was a tough night from an injury standpoint," coach Rob Chudzinski said after the Browns' 24-6 preseason win over the Detroit Lions. "But that's the game. Guys get injured and others have to step up in their place."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – When the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV, it was worth wondering whether that might be the beginning of a dynasty.

With a star quarterback in the prime of his career and enough young playmakers on both sides of the ball, talk of multiple titles didn’t seem all that far-fetched.

In the two seasons since quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ Super Bowl MVP-winning performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 6, 2011, the Packers have put together regular seasons of 15-1 and 11-5 that resulted in a pair of NFC North titles.

But in that same span, they have won only one playoff game -- last season’s wild-card round against a Minnesota Vikings team that had to make the last-minute switch to backup quarterback Joe Webb because injured starter Christian Ponder couldn’t go.

What’s more, in the two playoff losses -- to the New York Giants on Jan. 15, 2012, and to the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 12, 2013 -- the Packers were, as linebacker A.J. Hawk so bluntly put it this week, “blasted.”

The Packers gave up a combined 82 points in the two playoff losses. The 45-31 loss to the 49ers, who piled up 579 yards of offense, has put Dom Capers’ defense under intense scrutiny heading into this season in large part because 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the Packers look completely unprepared for the read-option offense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (the most ever in a game by an NFL quarterback), including a 56-yard touchdown run that broke a 24-24 tie midway through the third quarter.

“We went to the playoffs twice and got blasted,” Hawk said. “We got beat bad. They took the game from us.

“Specifically, as defensive guys, we let our offense down, so that’s something as a defense we need to get some pride back and take it. That’s why I think this whole offseason, if you’ve watched anything, our practices or whatever we’re doing, it’s almost stepped up a notch.”

Capers has spent at least a small portion of almost every training camp practice working against the read-option, using some of what he and his staff learned during their March visit to College Station, Texas, where they met with the Texas A&M coaches to study the read-option.

While Capers has insisted throughout the offseason that his defense’s performance against the 49ers was an anomaly and pointed to the statistical improvement -- to 11th in yards allowed in 2012 after finishing dead last in 2011 -- the lasting image of his unit from last season is them chasing (and almost never catching) Kaepernick.

“We kind of hit the perfect storm there,” Capers said. “We’d made so many strides with so many young players, and it kind of went out the window. Because when you have a game like that, you kind of say, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ It can happen real easy in this league. That offense, the next week went for about 400 [yards], and then in the Super Bowl it was like a track meet after that blackout.”

When it comes to defending that offense, Capers’ defense will be tested early. The Packers open the season at the 49ers and then host the Washington Redskins in Week 2. If Robert Griffin III is back from his knee injury by then, they will face two read-option quarterbacks in as many weeks.

“I think every team right now is working on that. Every defensive coordinator is trying to figure out how to stop this pistol-read option,” Hawk said. “At the same time, offensive coordinators are working on new wrinkles to beat these defenses, so we’ll see. That’s what’s fun. Week 1 and Week 2, we get a nice, big test. We’re looking forward to it.”

Three hot issues

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThere's no question that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is absolutely integral to the Packers' chances in 2013.
1. Protect the investment. There’s nothing more important to the Packers than protecting Rodgers, who signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension this offseason. Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season. Not all of the sacks were the fault of the offensive line; sometimes, Rodgers held the ball too long. Nevertheless, coach Mike McCarthy decided to revamp his front five, moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Josh Sitton to the left side. T.J. Lang went from right guard to left, and the right tackle position was declared an open competition that has yet to be decided.

"You say, 'Look, we have to protect the backside of the quarterback, so let’s put the two most accomplished guys to date there,'" offensive line coach James Campen said.

The problem is, one of those two most accomplished players is already a scratch. Bulaga injured a knee during Saturday night’s scrimmage and will miss the entire season.

The jury remains out on whether the line changes will work.

"It’s a progression," Campen said. "I’d say we’re climbing the hill now."

2. Find a running game: The Packers haven’t had a running back gain 100 yards or more in a regular-season game since Brandon Jackson rushed for 115 against the Redskins on Oct. 10, 2010. Their streak of 43 straight regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher is the longest in the NFL.

It got so bad last season that when opposing defenses often left both safeties deep and dared the Packers to run, they still couldn’t do it. They finished 27th in rushing yards per game using a handful of different backs who either couldn’t stay healthy or didn’t produce.

Enter second-round draft pick Eddie Lacy of Alabama and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin of UCLA. They have shared reps with two returners from last season, Alex Green and James Starks. It’s a safe bet Lacy will end up as the starter, but nothing has been decided yet.

“We have great competition," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "The preseason will all work itself out."

3. Jones’ impact: In April of 2012, general manager Ted Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players -- a clear reaction to finishing last in the NFL in yards allowed the previous season. He didn’t go as heavy on defense in this year’s draft but did use his top overall pick on UCLA defensive end Datone Jones.

The hope is that Jones can become a three-down player capable of playing end in Capers’ 3-4 defense and as one of two inside rushers in the nickel and dime packages.

Early returns suggest Jones will provide some immediate help, at least in the sub packages. Through the first week of practice, he has shown well in the one-on-one pass-rushing drill. By subjective count, he has won 10 of his 19 reps in that drill.

“You can see his quickness out there and some of the things that he’s been able to do," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "But some of the mistakes that he makes you don’t see."

Reason for optimism

The Packers have arguably the best quarterback in the league and a trio of receivers capable of getting open and running after the catch. Rodgers’ accuracy (67.7 percent over the past two seasons combined) and ability to take care of the ball (14 interceptions over the past two seasons combined) means the Packers will put up points. If receivers Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, plus tight end Jermichael Finley, stay healthy, Rodgers has plenty of weapons.

Reason for pessimism

Mike McCarthy
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePackers coach Mike McCarthy had 16 players sidelined with injuries during the team's scrimmage.
Injuries have hit the Packers hard in two of the past three seasons, and they have already begun to pile up this year. Bulaga's injury could ruin the plans for the offensive line. Two of their top three cornerbacks (Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward) remain sidelined. McCarthy was so concerned about his team’s inability to stay healthy that he examined every aspect of his operation this offseason -- from weight training to nutrition to practice routine. Still, they had 16 players sidelined for their scrimmage on Saturday.

Observation deck

  • The Packers stuck with Mason Crosby through a kicking slump last season, when in one stretch he missed 12 out of 24 field goals on the way to a league-low 63.6 percent conversion rate, but they might be running out of patience. Crosby had an abysmal performance in their scrimmage on Saturday night -- missing five of eight kicks -- including two from inside 40 yards. During live-kicking periods so far this summer, Crosby has made just 12 of 19 field goals (63.2 percent). For the first time since 2007, Crosby has competition in camp. Going head-to-head with Crosby, first-year kicker Giorgio Tavecchio has made 16 of 19 (84.2 percent), including six of seven in Saturday’s scrimmage. However, the issue with Tavecchio is leg strength. His longest make so far has been from 53 yards, but he hit the crossbar before it went through.
  • Few title contenders probably could remain as such if they lost their starting quarterback for any length of time, but the Packers appear especially vulnerable if anything serious happens to Rodgers. The competition between last season’s backup, Graham Harrell, and practice-squader B.J. Coleman hasn’t been decided. Regardless of who wins the job, neither has done anything to make anyone believe the Packers wouldn’t go in the tank if they lost Rodgers. Perhaps that is why the Packers decided to bring in veteran Vince Young for a workout on Monday.
  • M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian have been taking turns playing the safety spot next to Morgan Burnett, but no starter has been named yet. Regardless of who wins the job, both Jennings and McMillian will play. Jennings appears better suited to playing deep zone coverage, while McMillian looks better closer to the line of scrimmage.
  • Don’t be surprised if rookie fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari ends up as the starting right tackle if Marshall Newhouse falters. Bakhtiari has begun to get more work reps with the starters.
  • Second-year defensive tackle Mike Daniels might be the most improved player on the roster. He has been a major force in the pass-rushing drills.
  • Backup receiver Jeremy Ross might make it possible for the Packers to take Cobb off kick-return duties and concentrate solely on receiver. Ross had a 49-yard kickoff return in Saturday’s scrimmage and has had no issues catching kickoffs or punts.
  • The Packers have a history of keeping an undrafted free agent or two on their 53-man roster, and the best candidate this season looks like outside linebacker Andy Mulumba of Eastern Michigan.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice is only 26, but he has taken a lot of hits. Although he put together a fantastic season, as usual, in 2012, he looked worn down late in the year and during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He has four straight regular seasons with more than 250 carries, and has caught at least 61 passes in each of those seasons. Even though he is still extremely potent, Baltimore might be wise to deflect a few more early down carries toward Bernard Pierce to extend Rice’s effectiveness. Pierce isn’t close to the receiver Rice is, and is still learning pass protection. However, he was very impressive late in the season, and you could argue he was running more effectively than Rice in the postseason. A bigger back than Rice, Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and could make a big impact in games in which Baltimore has the lead. Bobby Rainey enters his second season as well. He is a shorter back with a thick build, good balance and good feet. Expect him to take a step forward in his second season, but he helps the Ravens mostly on special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis will open training camp as the Bengals’ top running back. But don’t expect him to keep that distinction for long, as Giovani Bernard is sure to pass him. Green-Ellis gets what is blocked, has some power to drag tacklers, and is very reliable with his ball security. What you see is what you get with Green Ellis -- and it isn’t good enough. Bernard is an exciting prospect with loads of big-play ability. He can run inside with quick feet and more power than you might suspect, but also is very dangerous on the perimeter with his long speed and elusiveness in the open field. Green-Ellis will surely be superior in pass protection than Bernard to start the season, but Bernard is far more dangerous as a receiving option. Cincinnati also brought back Bernard Scott before the draft, but with the selection of Bernard, Scott’s roster spot is far from certain. The Bengals also drafted Rex Burkhead, who does everything well and is an underrated prospect overall. In time, I expect Burkhead to be a fine complement to Bernard as Cincinnati’s second running back.

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson battled numerous injuries during his rookie campaign, and that is the only concern I have about this 21-year-old. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has an outstanding history of utilizing a true feature back, and Richardson fits that mold with his rare blend of vision, power, lateral agility and speed to go along with excellent receiving skills. There isn’t much on Cleveland’s depth chart behind Richardson, so maybe the Browns will keep their eyes out for a veteran who gets released. For now, Montario Hardesty is No. 2. Injuries have been a big problem for him, but he does have a fair amount of ability. Also in the mix are Dion Lewis, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Jackson is bigger and runs with much more power than Lewis, but isn’t as quick. Both do their best work on third down, while Ogbonnaya is a big runner with some power, but he lacks any particular skill to wow you. A scat back with big-play ability would be a welcomed addition here.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers used this year’s second-round pick on Le'Veon Bell, as they felt that their running backs from 2012 were simply not getting the job done. Bell is very young, has good size and is quite established in the passing game, which is something Pittsburgh wasn’t getting from Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer. Redman and Dwyer are similar players. They both have good size and initiate contact. They get what is blocked, but not much more and lack dynamic qualities. They are backups in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers drafted Chris Rainey to help as a returner and add a running back/wide receiver hybrid to their offense. Rainey didn’t work out, but Pittsburgh signed LaRod Stephens-Howling this offseason for the same reasons. Baron Batch is also in the equation. His most notable contributions come on special teams, but he is a serviceable runner, receiver and blocker. The Steelers were in talks with Ahmad Bradshaw before the draft. With the selection of Bell, you would think that ship had sailed, but you never know. Bradshaw will end up somewhere this season. It is also likely that either Redman or Dwyer is gone before the season.

This, my friends, is big. It doesn't get a whole lot bigger during the first full week of February to get a double dose of mock drafts.

That's what we have on this fine Thursday: Mock drafts 2.0 from ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider. You need an Insider subscription to access the full posts, but as always I'm willing to sneak you the NFC North portions as long as no one tells on me.

5. Detroit Lions
Kiper: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones
McShay: Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan
Seifert comment: The Lions are going to have plenty of starting positions to fill on defense after the release of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the likely departure of defensive end Cliff Avril and other possible departures. To me, the best 4-3 defensive end available makes the most sense at No. 5.

20. Chicago Bears
Kiper: Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker
McShay: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Seifert comment: Te'o was the best linebacker in the country for most of 2012. Will last month's bizarre revelations push his draft stock down? Who knows. But the Bears obviously have a need for a long-term replacement for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, a pending free agent.

23. Minnesota Vikings
Kiper: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams
McShay: Connecticut cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Seifert comment: A lot of you would like to see the Vikings draft a receiver here, but that could be contingent on free agency. Defensive tackle and cornerback are also key positions of need.

26. Green Bay Packers
Kiper: Alabama running back Eddie Lacy
McShay: Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Jenkins
Seifert comment: I'll be interested to see how much public momentum builds for the Packers to draft a running back. General manager Ted Thompson has drafted two running backs in the first three rounds during his tenure, and neither Brandon Jackson (2007) nor Alex Green (2011) have had the impact the Packers hoped for.
This is the type of news that the rebuilding Cleveland Browns needed leading up to their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the draft and the expected centerpiece of Cleveland's young offense, was back practicing for the first time since having a small piece of loose cartilage removed from the knee 25 days ago. This isn't a major shock because ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported last month that Richardson was expected to play in the season. But, with the Browns, you almost have to see it to believe it when it comes to good news.

And, according to The Plain Dealer, Richardson looked "completely healthy' at the start of practice. Wearing a protective rubber sleeve, he showed no signs of a limp while running drills.

If there is one player that the Browns need offensively against the Eagles, it would be Richardson, even if his workload will be limited. Cleveland can't trust backup running back Montario Hardesty to hold onto the ball and can't expect third-down back Brandon Jackson to carry the ground game. The Browns need to be able to run the ball against the Eagles, which ranked 16th last year in rushing yards allowed per game (112.6) and 19th in yards per carry (4.4).

Plus, the strong running of Richardson will cut down on the obvious passing situations against a Philadelphia defense that harasses quarterbacks. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden fumbled twice against the Eagles on Aug. 24.

The Browns also welcomed back Dimitri Patterson, the team's nickel back who had been out since injuring an ankle in the first preseason game in Detroit on Aug. 10. Patterson may need to start sometime this month if cornerback Joe Haden is suspended by the league. He is presumably appealing a four-game suspension for a failed drug test.


BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns couldn't hide their enthusiasm for Trent Richardson.

The Browns wanted him so badly that they gave up three picks to move one spot to make sure they got the only elite running back in this draft. Then, even before the Washington Redskins made their pick at No. 2, Cleveland turned in its card with Richardson's name on it.

Richardson brings new life and enthusiasm to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. He also brings something equally as important -- a physical identity.

Cleveland's long-plodding offense is now tougher, rougher and meaner. With all due respect to Jim Brown, Richardson is far from "ordinary." Richardson is the type of no-nonsense running back that a team needs when colliding with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

In the SEC, one of the best college conferences in the country, Richardson set Alabama season records for rushing yards (1,679) and touchdowns (21) by showing no hesitation when running in between the tackles. He was fearless in bulling past defenders and stiff-arming them. What makes him a playmaker is his ability to also make players miss in the open field. His power and elusiveness is a special combination.

This is a draft where the Browns must rebuild their offense. It started by finding the centerpiece for it.

"We’re thrilled. He’s one of the guys who’s passionate, productive and durable," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "He’s the kind of runner that we feel is going to help us to put an offense together to score the points that we need to win the games that we’re going to win."

Shurmur added, "If you don’t sense the excitement in my voice, then you’re missing it."

What the Browns were missing last season was a spark on offense. Cleveland ranked 29th in yards and 30th in scoring. That's why trading up to secure Richardson wasn't just the right move. It was the only one.

It was an aggressive move for an aggressive player. Outside of quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Richardson was the only other player in this draft who could immediately affect an offense.

Problem: The Browns scored the second-fewest rushing touchdowns (four) in the past 15 NFL seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Solution: Richardson is one of three players in SEC history to score 20 or more rushing touchdowns in a season.

Problem: The Browns' running backs averaged the fewest yards after contact (1.77) last season.

Solution: Richardson thrives on contact and talked openly Thursday night about crashing into Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu.

There's a risk in taking a running back so high in the draft, which is why few teams do it. There have been five running backs taken in the top five in the previous 10 drafts: Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Cadillac Williams (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). They've combined for one Pro Bowl.

Shurmur indicated that if the Browns didn't take Richardson in the top five, another team would have. This prompted the Browns to give up picks in the fourth (118th overall), fifth (139th) and seventh (211th) rounds to move up one spot to get Richardson. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams reportedly were thinking about trading up for him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Browns couldn't contain their excitement over getting Alabama's Trent Richardson.
Why were so many teams interested in Richardson? As Shurmur describes him, Richardson is virtually flawless.

"He can run with power. He can make you miss when he gets in the open. He can score," Shurmur said. "I like the fact that when he’s asked to pass protect, he will do it aggressively. And, when you throw him the football, he catches it. Unless I’m missing something there, that’s what runners got to do."

The Browns needed a playmaker at running back. Perhaps just as important, they needed a running back who will show up every week. That was a major problem last season, when Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson missed a chunk of the season with injuries.

"The other guys on this team, the coaches and our fans need to know that our players are going to show up," Shurmur said. "I’ve seen this in this player. We feel like that’s what we’re getting."

Richardson has his skeptics, namely the best running back in Browns history. When asked Thursday afternoon about the possibility of Cleveland taking Richardson, Jim Brown said, "I'm not overwhelmed with it. The problem is that he's ordinary. I think he's ordinary." Asked what about him is ordinary, Brown said, "the size, the speed, his moves."

You have to admire how Richardson responded to the criticism. Like his style of play, he attacked it head on.

"I got a lot to prove," he said on a conference call with reporters. "I'm going to make sure they all mention my name and compare people to me."

Shurmur couldn't say at what point during the draft process that the Browns knew Richardson was going to be their pick.

It could have been during his pro day in late March, when he knocked down Cleveland running backs coach Gary Brown in a blocking drill.

It could have been when he took 17-year-old cancer survivor Courtney Alvis to the senior prom 10 days before the draft.

Richardson acknowledged he didn't know he was going to be taken this high. But he's as excited as the Browns that it happened.

"It's bigger than winning the national championship game," Richardson said.

In a perfect scenario, the Browns would've been able to trade up last month in order to get RG3. They didn't get their quarterback, but they were determined not to lose out on their running back.

But Richardson is more than a running back to the Browns. He's their cornerstone and their new identity.

"He’s going to be what we think is going to be a really, really fine addition to the Cleveland Browns team," Shurmur said. "He’s going to be one of those players that our fans and our community will be able to watch run the ball for a lot of years. That’s what we’re excited about."

Poll: Browns' biggest draft need

April, 12, 2012
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There's no debate that the Cleveland Browns need to upgrade significantly on offense in this draft.

The Browns ranked 29th in total yards (288.8 per game) and 30th in points (13.6). The St. Louis Rams were the only other team to rank in the bottom four in the NFL in both those categories.

SportsNation

What is the biggest draft need for the Cleveland Browns?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    37%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,364)

But what is the Browns' biggest need heading into this year's draft? Here are the top choices:

Quarterback: The Browns failed in their attempt to trade up in the draft to get Robert Griffin III. Now, they are left with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9), 25th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8).

Running back: Cleveland didn't re-sign Peyton Hillis, their starting running back for the past two seasons who went to Kansas City. The Browns' remaining backs -- Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya -- totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown last season. Hardesty and Jackson missed a combined 22 games last season because of injuries.

Wide receiver: This group produced a lot of drops and few big plays. Greg Little, Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi combined for 20 catches over 20 yards, averaged 12.1 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns.

Offensive tackle: The Browns cut starting right tackle Tony Pashos and didn't re-sign backup Artis Hicks. If the season started today, Cleveland would go with Oniel Cousins, a Ravens castoff who has started five games in four seasons.

Go ahead and register your vote, or let me know what you think in the comments section below. I'll follow up by Monday.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Green Bay Packers have received the maximum number of extra draft picks available to teams through the NFL's compensatory draft program, while the Minnesota Vikings have received two.

That's our local upshot of Monday's always-anticipated announcement of compensatory draft picks. The Packers got four extra picks and will now have 12 in next month's draft, while the Vikings will have a total of 10. Neither the Chicago Bears nor the Detroit Lions were expected to receive a compensatory pick.

The NFL doesn't reveal its exact formula for determining the extra picks, but in essence it's based on the difference in value between the free agents a team loses and the ones it signs the previous year. In 2011, the Packers bid farewell to free agents Daryn Colledge, Brandon Jackson and Cullen Jenkins, among others, and did not sign a significant free agent of their own.

The formula granted the Packers two fourth-round picks and two additional seventh-rounders. The Packers' total of 12 picks includes three in the fourth round and four in the seventh.

Meanwhile, the Vikings received two fourth-round picks, No. 33 and No. 39 in the round, after losing receiver Sidney Rice, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and defensive end Ray Edwards in 2011. They signed nose tackle Remi Ayodele, but he made little impact.
The free-agent market for running backs has heated up, but the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have been content to chill.

Richardson
Richardson
Redman
Redman
Both teams need to replace their leading rushers. The Steelers can't depend on Rashard Mendenhall (ACL surgery in January) this year, and the Browns didn't attempt to re-sign Peyton Hillis. If the season kicked off today, the Steelers would start Isaac Redman, and the Browns would go with either Montario Hardesty or Brandon Jackson.

Still, there's been no sense of urgency by either team, as a running back signed nearly every day this week. Mike Tolbert joined the Panthers on Monday. BenJarvus Green-Ellis went to the Bengals on Wednesday. And Michael Bush landed with the Bears on Thursday.

I could see where the Steelers might be content with Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Baron Batch, although it's still risky considering they have a combined 197 carries in the NFL. General manager Kevin Colbert insisted the Steelers weren't in the market for a running back more than any other position at the NFL combine last month, but that doesn't mean he has ruled it out completely.

The Browns' running back group of Hardesty, Jackson and Ogbonnaya totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown, and it's assumed they would add someone in free agency or the draft.

The remaining free-agent running backs aren't game-changers, but they can be productive. The top ones available are: Brandon Jacobs, Cedric Benson, Joseph Addai, Ryan Grant and Kevin Smith. There are possibilities for trades, but the Panthers aren't shopping Jonathan Stewart yet, and the Bears don't appear ready to move Matt Forte.

When it comes to the draft, the Browns have a big decision at running back. They could take Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the fourth overall pick or wait to find one in the second, third or fourth rounds.

Looking at what the Steelers and Browns have now, they would strengthen their teams if they added a running back. But their approach so far tells me these teams are either waiting for a good value in free agency, or they will look for another running back in the draft.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The NFL lockout robbed the Green Bay Packers of some traditional pomp and circumstance normally afforded to Super Bowl champions. They have yet to visit the White House. Their ring distribution was pushed back to an anticlimactic mid-June ceremony. Some key players didn't finalize new contracts until late July.

So as they reported to training camp this past weekend, the Packers were focused on recreating the special circumstances that led to their Super Bowl XLV victory in hopes of an encore trip this season. They bid farewell to several players whose jobs were phased out by the end of 2010, but at the public behest of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and others, they brought back a number of others whose secondary contributions seemed too valuable to lose.

"That was important," Rodgers said. "I don't think you get better by robbing from the whole. We were fortunate enough to bring back some of our guys and also bring some guys back who were injured. You start off with a great amount of chemistry between the guys. It's a close-knit locker room, and guys hang out with each other, enjoy spending time together and enjoy working together.

"So we have that going for us, which I know doesn't go on for every team, and that does a lot. When you can count on the guy next to you, when you spend time with him, when you spend time after practice watching film, that's important stuff when it comes down to crunch time and winning games."

Appropriately, I spoke with Rodgers only after he wrapped up a locker room card game. Having been apart for the entire offseason, Packers players clearly were relishing the renewal of friendships and bonds forged during their championship run. Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers' "No. 1 issue" will be handling success, and players are channeling that request toward a second Super Bowl title -- and a proper celebration afterward.

"A-Rod was able to keep some of the guys that he wants so they can still be explosive," safety Nick Collins said. "We kept some of our main people on defense so we can keep doing what we're doing. Now it's just a matter of putting it all together again."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
AP Photo/Morry GashWorking Jermichael Finley back into the game plan will be a pleasant problem for the Packers to deal with in training camp.
1. Tight end Jermichael Finley is back (most of him): Felled last season by a Week 5 knee injury and later a postsurgical infection, the Packers tight end reported to training camp in superb shape after a long rehabilitation. He has without question trimmed his already-wiry frame and drew skepticism when he insisted he weighed in at 240 pounds.

The Packers' medical staff prescribed a gradual return to football activities, but it didn't take long for Finley to display his unique receiving skills during an individual drill. When two quarterbacks inadvertently threw him passes, Finley calmly caught one and tucked it under his arm, then caught the other.

Finley's return will prove as challenging as it is exciting and should be a focal point over the next few weeks. After his injury, the Packers refocused their offense around receiver Greg Jennings. Rodgers said it will be a "challenge" to fold in the pre- and post-injury schemes.

"You add another talented guy back to the mix like that," Rodgers said, "and it's tough to get the ball around to all of our skill guys. You've got to find a way to get everyone else involved, realizing that you might be bringing back the most talented guy to the offense.

"When [Finley] is out there, we're a different team. Defensive coordinators have a difficult job when they're trying to figure out how to cover him. It's going to be important for us to find ways to get him the ball but also to keep the other guys involved who played big roles for us last year."

2. The extents of leadership: Rodgers said in a number of interviews that he wanted the Packers to re-sign receiver James Jones and running back John Kuhn. Both returned with three-year contracts on Sunday.

But Rodgers insisted in the strongest terms possible that he never went to general manager Ted Thompson to plead either case. "That's 100 percent untrue," he said.

Asked how much he talked to Thompson or coach Mike McCarthy about the issue, Rodgers said: "Zero."

He added, "I don't get paid to do that. I get paid to play quarterback. I don't make those decisions. You look at Ted's track record. He's done an incredible job of bringing in talent. They've done an incredible job bringing in talent; they bring in the talent, I get paid to play quarterback. It's not my style to go up there and say anything to those guys."

At the same time, let's not be naive. When a Super Bowl MVP publicly calls for a reasonable personnel move, it shouldn't be surprising to see it happen.

3. Backfield rotation: I saw no evidence that the Packers plan for anything other than Ryan Grant to be their starting tailback when the season opens. There has been plenty of discussion about Grant's future after the postseason emergence of James Starks and the arrival of rookie Alex Green, but Grant worked with the first team throughout the first three days of practice and had some runs, McCarthy said, "that looked like Ryan Grant looks like in the regular season."

Starks also got some time with the first team, and that kind of rotation is fully expected to continue. The one question mark is on third downs following the free-agent departure of Brandon Jackson. Neither Grant nor Starks is known for his receiving ability. Could Green be that guy? Or is that why Rodgers wanted Kuhn back? I'm guessing it's the latter.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeDerek Sherrod
AP Photo/Morry GashFirst-round pick Derek Sherrod, a tackle in college, has opened training camp as the starting left guard.
Under McCarthy, the Packers have a long history of shifting offensive linemen to fill vacant positions. But it was still interesting to see first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod line up at left guard with the first team for three consecutive practices.

Sherrod was drafted as a left tackle and said he had never played left guard before Saturday evening. He appeared to hold his own on a physical level, although there was no doubt that his head was swimming in the Packers' playbook.

"Once he gets it down mentally, he's going to be a damn good player," right guard Josh Sitton said. "I think he's got the confidence. He's got the talent level. I think he's going to be a good player."

If Sherrod maintains his spot, the Packers will open the season with two first-round picks and one second-rounder among their five starters. And after adding his 6-foot-5, 321-pound frame to the group, the Packers now have what McCarthy called "our biggest line in my six years here."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Since last summer, we've been hearing about the potential of defensive end Mike Neal, the Packers' second-round pick in the 2010 draft. His chiseled 294-pound frame certainly looks the part. But Neal didn't practice much during my time in Green Bay because he is still recovering from surgery this past fall to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder.

I'm not in any way questioning Neal's toughness or the level of his rehabilitation. But the departure of veteran Cullen Jenkins opened the door for Neal to take the right end job and own it. Nothing can happen until he heals and strings together a few weeks of uninterrupted practice. The Packers are hoping to accelerate his return by the end of this week. For now, the Packers are using C.J. Wilson in that spot.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie Randall Cobb is working at all three receiving positions as both a kickoff and punt returner and even as the backup holder. His acceleration and aggressiveness in the open field were eye-opening, at least with the team in shorts and helmets. Although much could change, McCarthy said he is giving Cobb a longer look at punt returner than at kickoffs. He is hoping Green emerges to handle the latter.
  • McCarthy has been complimentary of rookie tight ends D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor. Both are athletic and have good hands. Because of Finley's return schedule and Andrew Quarless' hip flexor, Williams and Taylor both got good work with the first team. You have to wonder whether Williams, especially, will challenge Quarless' roster spot.
  • The Packers have shifted to a new camp schedule that features one practice a day, usually with a 7 p.m. local start. The plus for players? No two-a-days. The downside? "There are a lot more meetings," linebacker Clay Matthews said. Rodgers said, "We're in meetings all day. It's a great opportunity for young guys to get into the playbook. But it is a longer day because you're in meetings, but it's positive for the young guys." McCarthy planned this schedule before the lockout, but in the end it will help new players catch up quicker.
  • Matthews slimmed down with a focus on running this offseason and came to training camp determined to avoid the hamstring injuries he incurred in the Packers' previous two training camps. (Did he really need those camps? You decide.) I thought it was interesting that on the first play of team drills in full pads, Matthews stood up right tackle Bryan Bulaga and made the stop on a running play. One of the Packers' weaknesses last season was run defense on Matthews' side.
  • Why was Jones' return so important? Here's how Jennings put it: "We're looked at and viewed as one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. You unplug any one of those guys, that outlook kind of goes down. I don't care which one you unplug, it goes down. If we had lost James, we definitely would have had a void to fill."
  • McCarthy hasn't always kept three quarterbacks on his 53-man roster, but he likes what he's seen from No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell. I like keeping the third quarterback, and frankly it's risky the way we've gone about it," McCarthy said. "If you asked me my druthers, if I could keep three quarterbacks, I would always keep three, and I would have a fourth on developmental. It's the most important position in football. ... When it was Brett [Favre] and Aaron you never blinked. But Matt [Flynn] has also now shown he is durable and a tough guy, so he's also given us that flexibility to go and carry the extra DB. But if you're asking me to assess it from a risk standpoint, I would definitely lean toward keeping a third."
  • I saw one padded practice in my three days with the Packers. It lasted nearly two and a half hours. McCarthy called it "sluggish," but to me it was understandable. The biggest sign that players weren't quite in their element yet: not a single fight or raised temper that I could see.
  • Safety Morgan Burnett (knee) has been cleared for full practice but is not yet working with the first team. To this point, at least, Charlie Peprah has maintained his starting spot. At right outside linebacker, however, the Packers rotated three players with the first team: Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones.

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flyer on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might/ pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine him changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives should Ponder need some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

Packers back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Players felt confident enough to avoid any known group workouts during the lockout. Several players suggested they wouldn't go public with any grand plans even if they had them, but all indications are that most Packers worked out on their own this offseason. Coach Mike McCarthy supported that decision, saying conditioning and avoiding mishaps should be players' highest offseason priorities. It makes sense. The Packers are entering their sixth season in McCarthy's offense and their third in Dom Capers' defense.

Biggest challenge: The Packers are in pretty good shape. Their biggest challenge is the same whether or not they had a full offseason: Putting their Super Bowl victory in the proverbial rearview mirror and dedicating themselves to the kind of long-term success they appear built for. Players and coaches had every right to enjoy a celebratory offseason. Now it's time to flip the switch.

A true backfield rotation? When Ryan Grant has been healthy, McCarthy has strongly preferred a one-back system as opposed to rotating multiple runners into the game. Grant's season-ending ankle injury has healed, but is McCarthy planning to break the mold this summer? The Packers have a number of viable options to use either alongside or in place of Grant if and when they want, including 2010 postseason star James Starks. This Packers backfield arrangement will be one of the more closely watched areas of their training camp, especially by fantasy football players.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, running back Brandon Jackson, running back John Kuhn, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones.
We've mentioned but not obsessed over the possibility of a training camp competition for the Green Bay Packers' starting tailback job. Our general assumption is that veteran Ryan Grant would resume his role as the team's primary runner, with the likely tweak of a true(er) rotation with a deep list of backups headed by James Starks.

Starks
Starks
Grant
Grant
Grant appears to be of the same mindset, but he said all the right things during a recent interview with WSSP-1250. Here is how Grant described the situation, as transcribed by sportsradiointerviews.com:
On keeping his starting role

Ryan Grant: "I would think so. I don't know. From what I've heard, that's the conversation that was told to me. ... I was told that by [former running backs coach Edgar Bennett], initially. Jerry [Fontenot, the new position coach] didn't tell me that anything changed. Jerry told me that, as of right now, I'm still the leader of the backfield and the expectations won't change. ... I do believe there will be competition, which is fine. I'm all for that."

On whether he wants to start

RG: "Of course. Why would you not want to? Who doesn't want that? But I do want to win, more importantly. And I do feel like what I bring to the table and what I do on the field is very direct to me. ... I'm looking forward to whatever happens regarding all that and I'm just going to take care of what I can."

On if he was asked to be a backup

RG: "If it was in the best interest of the team, I'm all for it."

Everything is contingent on Grant returning in full health from an ankle injury that cost him 15 regular-season games and all of the postseason in 2010. But it would be easy for coach Mike McCarthy to keep Grant in a nominal starting role. What will be more interesting, however, is the extent to which McCarthy spreads carries between Grant, Starks, and rookies Randall Cobb and Alex Green. McCarthy might also have to factor in veterans John Kuhn and Brandon Jackson, who are pending free agents but could re-sign.

Grant was the Packers' unquestioned starter during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. McCarthy handed him the ball 312 times in 2008 and 282 in 2009. No other running back got more than 45 carries in either of those seasons. You would think those numbers will move closer together in 2011. How much closer? That will be the interesting part.

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