NFL Nation: C.C. Brown

Early thoughts on the Jaguars scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13, with thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive right and restricted free agents.

QB Luke McCown -- I would think they will look to upgrade the backup so they have a fallback plan and better mentor for Blaine Gabbert.

OT Guy Whimper -- He was banged up and streaky in 2011. He’s OK as a third tackle, but doesn’t rate as a priority.

DE Jeremy Mincey -- Had a breakout year and is a high-energy pass-rusher who will be better as they add a big-time end. Probably wants more than they’ll pay.

DE Matt Roth -- They got him cheaply on a one-year deal. As they look to add a premier guy at the spot, it seems they'd like him back as part of the rotation at the right price.

S Dwight Lowery -- The No. 1 priority among their free agents. He transitioned very well from corner to safety and fixed a problem they don’t want to have to address again.

CB Rashean Mathis -- Combination of torn ACL and age (31) means they will be looking to replace him. Though he could be back late if he’s cheap.

K Josh Scobee -- A very solid kicker I feel sure they’d love to retain.

Other UFAs:

Kurt Coleman misses no tackles

May, 19, 2011
5/19/11
5:49
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I know a lot of you are out there talking smack about the mailbag. I just know it. You're all like, "He says he's going to use the mailbag but it's just a bunch of baloney. He won't really. He's just new and trying to make nice."

Well, you're WRONG! And I'm about to show you just how wrong you are. And maybe even blow a little part of your mind in the process. Ready? Here goes:

Coleman
Coleman
Dipped into the mailbag this afternoon and found an interesting note from Damien (Philadelphia) pointing me to a story on Pro Football Focus about the best-tackling safeties in the league. Leading the list is Eagles part-timer Kurt Coleman, who apparently made all 24 tackles he attempted (and one assist) without missing one.

Now, 24's not a huge number, obviously. And Sheil Kapadia of philly.com's Moving the Chains blog did a good job of digging into Coleman's numbers to provide a decent analysis of what this means. Kapadia seems to conclude that Coleman could parlay this (as well as the likely departure of Quintin Mikell and the limited practice time rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett is likely to get thanks to the lockout) into a larger role in 2011. Coleman did a good job filling in last season when Nate Allen got hurt, made a contribution on special teams and could play his way into more playing time.

As for the rest of PFF's lists, only one other NFC East safety made the top 20. That would be the Giants' Kenny Phillips, with just 61 tackles and 11 assists to just five misses. But they also did a "bottom 20" list of the league's worst safeties in tackle attempts per miss, and the division had a couple of guys on that list. Washington's Kareem Moore managed 13 missed tackles against 42 tackles and 11 assists, giving him the fifth-worst ratio in the league among safeties with at least 15 tackle attempts. And the Giants' Deon Grant was 12th-worst, with 10 misses against 48 tackles and six assists.

Giants fans might get a chuckle, though, out of seeing former Giant C.C. Brown at the top (or, I guess, the bottom) of the bad list. Toiling in 2010 for the Lions, Brown missed 10 tackles while recording just 32 (and three assists). I know Giants fans who knew Brown by his unfortunate nickname ("Can't Cover") during his time in New York are sitting there thinking his initials ought to have been "C.T."

Anyway, Mailbag FTW. Thanks, Damien. Have a Dock Street IPA on me.
In general, we expect too much from late-round picks. (And from overall draft batting averages.)

In a recent conversation with former Denver general manager Ted Sundquist, he pointed to an article he once read in Ourlads by Joe Landers. Apologies, I couldn’t find the link.

“Using some common sense and a little investigative research, you'll find that it's rare, at least according to Landers’ study, to find a cornerback or running back or wide receiver that's really going to help you in the last three rounds,” Sundquist said. “And yet you'll find teams constantly take a reach on one of these positions.

“Evidence shows you're more likely to find a defensive tackle, offensive lineman, safety or tight end in the later rounds. Why? Most conventional wisdom says don't draft a safety or tight end high due to escalating rookie salaries and the going market at the position. As for defensive tackles or offensive linemen, it’s probably because of the greater numbers at the position. Both circumstances force down talented players at those positions.”

I went back and combed over the AFC South drafts since 2002, to see how many picks they spent on each side of the ledger Sundquist sets forth and how often the Colts, Jaguars, Texans and Titans did well with a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round pick at those spots. This is, of course, highly unscientific. Metrics guys can probably shred it. But I thought it worth fiddling with.

Notables are players who played significantly, even if it’s been with another team, or recent picks who appear on track to contribute.

Houston Texans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 9

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 14

Most: Six safeties, four receivers, corners and defensive tackle

Notables: Colts

WRs, RBs. CBs: 7

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 13

Most: 13 offensive linemen

Notables: Jaguars

WRs, RBs. CBs: 12

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 9

Most: Five receivers, four offensive linemen

Notables: Titans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 14

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 16

Most: Seven offensive linemen, six wide receivers

Notables:
Of the notables from the division drafted since 2002, 73 percent (19) have been from the positions Sundquist says teams should concentrate on late while 27 percent (seven) play positions he believes should generally be avoided.

I'd be fine with the Titans not wasting yet another late pick on a receiver and with the Texans using late-rounders on something other than corners and receivers for sure. But it's not like Houston's spending late picks on safeties or the Colts use of such selections on offensive linemen have paid huge dividends either.

I'd love to read your thoughts.

It's franchise tag day -- sort of

February, 10, 2011
2/10/11
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Officially, Thursday is the first day NFL teams can place a franchise tag on players whose contracts are expiring and would otherwise be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

But in one of many twists we can expect in the structure of the 2011 offseason, the NFL Players Association has declared the franchise tag to be irrelevant until a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached.

The existing CBA will expire March 3, and the reality is no players will be changing teams this offseason -- whether they are franchised or not -- until the league reaches a labor resolution.

It is possible, however, that players who are franchised now could be grandfathered into the next CBA. So it's at least worth discussing who might be candidates here in the NFC North. The exact salary levels, as well as the number of years required for unrestricted free agency, are yet to be determined. Below we've included players with at least four years of experience.

Team: Chicago Bears
Prominent players with expiring contracts: Defensive tackle Anthony Adams, tight end Desmond Clark, cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: Kreutz probably doesn't need to be protected with a tag. Hanie could garner interest around the league but would you guarantee him franchise money to stay?

Team: Detroit Lions
Prominent players with expiring contracts: Safety C.C. Brown, cornerback Chris Houston, defensive end Turk McBride and quarterback Drew Stanton.
Comment: Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com reports the Lions won't use the tag.

Team: Green Bay Packers
Prominent players with expiring contracts:
Safety Jarrett Bush, left guard Daryn Colledge, running back Brandon Jackson, receiver James Jones, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and running back John Kuhn.
Comment: Jenkins is a possibility, although the Packers have a young player in Mike Neal who might be ready to take over his spot next season. Colledge's status is uncertain.

Team: Minnesota Vikings
Prominent players with expiring contracts:
Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Chad Greenway, linebacker Ben Leber, receiver Sidney Rice, defensive end Brian Robison and nose tackle Pat Williams.
Comment: Greenway and Rice are young players the Vikings would hate to part ways with. They have seemed cooler on Edwards' status.

Dirty Laundry: A full plate

December, 23, 2010
12/23/10
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We've had a season of debatable calls and obscure rulings here in the NFC North, and each Week 15 game provided us new material. In order of occurrence:

The Detroit Lions were the beneficiaries (for once) of a critical decision midway through the fourth quarter of their eventual 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On a third-and-goal from the Lions' 2-yard line, the Bucs appeared to have scored a go-ahead touchdown on Josh Freeman's 2-yard pass to tight end Kellen Winslow.

But referee Terry McAulay's crew called Winslow for offensive pass interference, nullifying the touchdown and ultimately forcing the Bucs to settle for a game-tying field goal. It was Winslow's second such penalty of the game, a fact that suggests McAulay's crew was either aware of a tendency to push off or had been "encouraged" to look for it by the Lions' bench.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Star Tribune, Brian PetersonHad the whistle not blown when it did, Brett Favre's last play Monday night would have likely resulted in a fumble.
Across the league, offensive pass interference has been called 75 times over 15 weeks. That averages out to five per week, or less than one per game. Winslow is the only player to have more than one in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database.

The earlier call, in the first quarter, came after a relatively mild push on middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. The second was an odd-looking play from the start. Winslow did not appear to be the first read, and when Freeman finally lofted him the ball, Winslow literally boxed out Lions safety C.C. Brown, never leaving his feet while making the catch.

Replays showed Winslow put both hands on Brown's chest to achieve a level of separation just before the catch. Although Winslow argued vociferously, I had no beef with McAulay's call.

A few hours later, the Green Bay Packers were hoping to take a 10-point lead over the New England Patriots at halftime when they allowed an epic 71-yard kickoff return to offensive lineman Dan Connolly. Almost immediately, you began filling the mailbag with complaints about a number of purported illegal blocks on the play.

I saw two on the TV replay. One I would consider critical and the second relatively moot.

The first came just as Connolly broke open the return at the Packers' 40-yard line. I immediately noticed Packers fullback Quinn Johnson barreling into linebacker Diyral Briggs, creating a collision that gave Connolly 30 yards of open field.

When you watch the replay a few times, you see Johnson was pushed in the back by Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich. No interpretation is necessary here: It was a bad no-call for Ed Hochuli's crew.

At the end of the return, Patriots running back Sammy Morris shoved place-kicker Mason Crosby to the ground from behind. That could have been ruled a penalty as well. But assuming Hochuli ruled it a spot foul, the Patriots still would have assumed possession inside the Packers' 15-yard line.

Finally, there have been questions from many of you about the final play of Brett Favre's night -- and possibly his career -- in the Minnesota Vikings' 40-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton blew past Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Wootton grabbed Favre and flipped him to the frozen turf at TCF Bank Stadium. At some point, the ball trickled loose. Should it have been a fumble as well as a sack?

I looked for the two obvious signs on the replay: When did referee Carl Cheffers blow the whistle? And was Favre down when he fumbled?

On the first issue, you can hear a whistle blowing almost simultaneous to the moment when Wootton grabbed Favre. Whether it was early or not, the play was officially over when the ball fell to the ground. Had the whistle blown later, however, it almost certainly would have been ruled a fumble. Favre's left knee landed on Wootton's left knee, meaning he was not down when the ball squirted loose.

(Note: No challenges last week means no change to our most recent Challenge Tracker.)

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

October, 11, 2010
10/11/10
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After the Detroit Lions' 44-6 victory Sunday over the St. Louis Rams, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Detroit Lions cheerfully take their turn in the exam room.
  1. In this instance, at least, I'll give the Lions a pass on just about everything. When you've only won three of your past 44 games, you get to call a halfback pass midway through the fourth quarter. Nate Burleson gets to raise the ball in the air 10 yards before crossing the goal line, narrowing avoiding having it knocked out of his hand. You get to punt the ball into the stands after said touchdown. Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh gets to do a stomp-and-grind after tipping an interception to himself and following up with a nifty 20-yard return. Cornerback Alphonso Smith gets to do his own dance after returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown. At some point, the Lions will want blowout victories to be routine and their reactions will follow accordingly. But on Sunday, the Lions got to have some fun.
  2. I can't imagine Smith losing his starting cornerback job anytime soon after picking up his third interception in five games since the Lions acquired him from Denver Broncos. There is much more to playing cornerback than making interceptions, but one big play can compensate for a slew of coverage issues. To this point, I think we can agree that Smith is around the ball a lot. That's a good sign. Another good sign: The Lions got a winning performance out of rookie Amari Spievey, who started at safety for the injured C.C. Brown. When young players like Spievey and Smith contribute to a victory, it offers another level of satisfaction.
  3. [+] EnlargeNate Burleson
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNate Burleson and the Lions were in a celebratory mood after notching their first win of the season.
  4. It goes without saying that the Lions are holding their breath on receiver Calvin Johnson's shoulder. Coach Jim Schwartz said "we'll see where it is" after tests Monday. Initial reports suggested the injury wasn't serious, but it would be an awfully crushing blow for him to miss any time after seeing what can happen when he's on the field at the same time with Burleson, who returned after missing most of three games because of an ankle injury. Quarterback Shaun Hill targeted either Johnson or Burleson on 15 of his 32 passes, and they combined for eight catches, 110 yards and two touchdowns. Burleson's effectiveness on third down was especially notable.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What is it about Hill and the Rams? Hill has made 19 starts in his NFL career and is 4-0 against the Rams. In his past two starts against them, Hill's teams have won by a combined score of 79-6. Sunday, Hill had his best all-around game for the Lions this season -- completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing three touchdown passes without a turnover. His 117.6 rating was the second-highest of his career.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 17, 2010
9/17/10
3:40
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jerry Lai/US PresswireExpect Jay Cutler and the Bears offense to test the Dallas secondary.
The Dallas Cowboys better get their nickel defense ready, because the Chicago Bears are a three-receiver offense. That's what we expected when Mike Martz took over as offensive coordinator, and it played out in Week 1 against the Detroit Lions in an obvious way. Receivers Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Devin Aromashodu were all in the starting lineup, and the Bears had three receivers on the field for 71.4 percent of their plays, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. In addition, they were in that set on 83.7 percent of their passes. Quarterback Jay Cutler averaged a strong 8.4 yards per attempt on plays when three receivers were on the field. It will be an interesting matchup because, like the Minnesota Vikings, the Cowboys have only three true cornerbacks on their active roster: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.

The Vikings miss receiver Sidney Rice in many ways, but none more than when quarterback Brett Favre is under pressure. Rice was Favre's most dependable safety valve when blitzed last season, and the Miami Dolphins would be wise to test his ability to adjust Sunday at the Metrodome. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Rice caught 80 percent of the passes Favre threw his way last year when facing a blitz. In the Sept. 9 season opener, the New Orleans Saints blitzed Favre on 13 of 28 dropbacks. Favre completed just three of those 13 passes, including 1-of-6 to receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin. The Dolphins would be silly to sit back in coverage.

Attention, Minnesota defense: Play close to the line of scrimmage, especially when the Dolphins are in the red zone. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne hasn't had much luck throwing into the end zone in his career. Since the start of last season, Henne has completed only 20 percent (five of 25) of those passes. It's obviously not the easiest pass to throw, and for some perspective, you should realize Favre has led the NFL over that stretch with a 53.8 completion percentage on passes into the end zone. But with Henne, you're much more likely to see a shorter pass that asks the ball carrier to zip into the end zone.

Ryan Grant's season-ending ankle injury removed a player who took at least some attention from Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. After his strong second half of last season, Finley entered 2010 as arguably the Packers' top offensive weapon. The Philadelphia Eagles certainly approached him that way with regular double-teams, and occasional triple-teams, during last Sunday's 27-20 Packers victory. The Buffalo Bills have no reason not to follow the same pattern, especially when the Packers take the field without a proven running back on their roster. I realize we're talking about running games and passing games here, but ultimately the Bills have one less player to keep track of in the Packers' offense. Grant might not have been a world-beater, but he reliably picked up yards. Will backup Brandon Jackson do the same? That's uncertain. If possible, Finley will be more of a marked man this Sunday.

As much as I like the Detroit Lions' defensive line, I'm not confident in the team's chances against Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Unless the pressure is sudden and fierce, Vick has a pretty good chance of escaping the pocket against any team. And if he does that against the Lions, Vick will be off to the races against a hobbled and unproven back seven. Even if middle linebacker DeAndre Levy plays, he is nowhere close to 100 percent because of a groin strain. The same goes for safety Louis Delmas. And the Lions still have two starters -- safety C.C. Brown and cornerback Jonathan Wade -- playing with a fractured forearm and finger, respectively. The Lions' best hope is to get to Vick before he gets out of the pocket.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
4:06
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonPackers quarterback Aaron Rodgers thrives against pressure defenses like Philadelphia's.
1. With national discussion centering so squarely on the Green Bay Packers' postseason chances, we've probably failed to address adequately their far-from-a-gimmee regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers have opened on the road only four times in the past 25 years, and their recent history in Philadelphia hasn't been great. In fact, the Packers have lost nine consecutive games there. But that type of history is irrelevant to this game. In reality, the Eagles are a team in flux as they transition from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback. And as we discussed earlier this week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is equipped to nullify the Eagles' pressure defense. We should always account for the inevitable surprises of Week 1, but the fact remains that the Packers will have the better team at kickoff.

2. The Packers should find out whether their pass defense made any progress this offseason. They have made some personnel moves, among them moving B.J. Raji to nose tackle, inserting rookie safety Morgan Burnett into the starting lineup and shifting Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews to the other side of the line of scrimmage. But depth at cornerback remains an issue with Al Harris (knee) and Brandon Underwood (shoulder) sidelined by injury. Rookie Sam Shields could be the Packers' nickel back against an offense that attempted the fourth-most pass attempts of 15 yards or longer last season, according to research by ESPN's Stats & Information. With or without McNabb, the Eagles will try pushing the ball downfield. We'll find out if the Packers can handle it.

3. It's been a while since the Detroit Lions' defense had a notable advantage in any type of matchup. But it's hard to ignore the intensity and production with which their defensive line played this preseason, and if nothing else they'll carry a newfound confidence into Soldier Field. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing whether left end Cliff Avril is able capitalize on the presence of better-known teammates Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams. As we've discussed, the Bears' offensive line didn't inspire much confidence during the preseason. We'll find out if Avril is capable of capitalizing against Bears right tackle Frank Omiyale. I'm also interested in whether Bears left tackle Chris Williams can match Lions right end Vanden Bosch's intensity.

4. It will be interesting to see how heavily the Chicago Bears rely on a passing game that struggled all preseason. It doesn't fit the history of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but the best way to slow a pass rush is to establish your running game. Tailback Matt Forte appeared to have regained his burst during the preseason, most notably on an 89-yard touchdown run, and backup Chester Taylor had a nice 34-yard burst during the preseason as well. Running the ball straight at the Lions doesn't sound exciting or even a long-term answer, but it might be a good way to eat up yardage, control the clock and keep the Lions' explosive offense off the field while the passing game gets settled.

5. Credit goes to Chris Burke of NFLFanHouse for this one. Technically, the Minnesota Vikings' loss to the New Orleans Saints lifted the Lions out of last place in the NFC North for the first time since December 2007. Let's take it one step further. A win against the Bears would give the Lions a share of first place for the first time since September 2007. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Lions should have as much pause about their linebackers and secondary as they do excitement about their offense. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is struggling with a groin injury and might not play. Safety C.C. Brown and cornerback Jonathan Wade are both playing with bone fractures, and safety Louis Delmas has been limited by a groin injury. That's a lot of limitations to overcome.
As we enter the final week of the preseason, position battles and depth chart competition should be nearing their conclusion. No clear answers generally means trouble. So with that timing in mind, let's take a look at the key summer issues in each NFC North locale:

Chicago Bears
Unsettled positions:
Both safeties and strongside linebacker
Comment: The safety issue will come down to how quickly rookie Major Wright can return from a fractured finger. If it's soon, he could be the free safety with Chris Harris at strong. If not, the Bears might have to patch the position together with Harris at free safety and Danieal Manning or Craig Steltz on the strong side. Meanwhile, Nick Roach seemed to have the linebacker job won before having knee surgery. Can Pisa Tinoisamoa hold him off?

Detroit Lions
Unsettled positions:
No. 2 cornerback, strong safety
Comment: Jonathan Wade held down the cornerback job in camp until a finger injury knocked him from the lineup. Eric King or Dre' Bly could be his short- and/or long-term replacement. C.C. Brown was the first-team strong safety for most of camp, but his hand was in a cast last week. Randy Phillips has been the primary replacement, but fellow rookie Amari Spievey was moved from cornerback to safety last week.

Green Bay Packers
Unsettled positions:
Left guard and punter
Comment: Daryn Colledge won the left guard job by default after a hip flexor slowed rookie Bryan Bulaga. Tim Masthay appears to have an edge on Chris Bryan in the punting battle, but the Packers will take the competition through the end of the week.

Minnesota Vikings
Unsettled positions:
No. 2 cornerback, strong safety, center, third-down back
Comment: Rookie Chris Cook appears on the brink of beating out Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen for the right cornerback job. Tyrell Johnson is trying to hold off Jamarca Sanford at safety. That battle is too close to call. The Vikings are worried that center John Sullivan's calf injury has put him too far behind to be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans, leaving them to decide whether to play backup Jon Cooper or move over right guard Anthony Herrera. The Vikings have rotated Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Albert Young in the third-down role and might use a combination when the season begins.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 7, 2010
8/07/10
11:30
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesLouis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 28 of their past 30 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

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

BIGGEST SURPRISE

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

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

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

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

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

  • Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
  • Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson, making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
  • Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
  • Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
  • Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
  • Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
  • Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
  • With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
  • In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
  • One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Now that we've put the latest Brett Favre news cycle to bed (I think), we're going to be all about the Detroit Lions' defensive line here Wednesday afternoon. Rookie Ndamukong Suh arrived at the facility at 1:40 p.m. ET and is expected to practice at 3:15 p.m. I'll have some first impressions for you afterwards.

[+] EnlargeKyle Vanden Bosch
AP Photo/Paul SancyaKyle Vanden Bosch and the defensive line will have to make up for the weaknesses in other areas of Detroit's defense.
But first, I wanted to delve into the larger topic of the Lions' defensive line overhaul. After four practices over the past three days, I feel comfortable that this an NFL-caliber and potentially defensive line. (You couldn't make either statement a year ago.) But the way the Lions are structured, this can't be just an NFL-caliber defensive line -- not if the Lions want to effect a significant climb from the bottom of the league's defensive rankings.

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

That's going to be the key to unlocking the Lions' defensive mystery this season: Can a strong defensive line cover for shortcomings -- or at least significant uncertainty -- elsewhere? No matter what you say about the potential of the Lions' linebackers and secondary, you can't claim that many of them are established players.

I posed that topic to coach Jim Schwartz, who was gracious enough to give me some time Wednesday afternoon. Schwartz has said that he wants to reserve judgment about the line until he sees it perform under game conditions, not to mention with Suh in the mix. But Schwartz believes in the theory of some positions covering for others.

"We've always thought that you want to be strong upfront, particularly on defense," Schwartz said. "If you are, you can cover for a lot of other things. If you're strong up front, you might not need the extra man in the box. If you're strong up front, you don't need to blitz to get to the quarterback. You can have an effect on a lot of other positions."

The Lions didn't necessarily pursue this particular structure as much as they just accepted the opportunity. Suh was their highest-rated player in the draft, and so they picked him. Corey Williams was available from Cleveland for a song. Vanden Bosch was the rare commodity of an available pass rusher, one with who Schwartz had a long history.

But it will be up to that group to provide regular instances of what happened during Tuesday morning's live-contact running drill. Williams stuffed the run on one play and Vanden Bosch did the same on another, accounting for two-thirds of the plays the first team saw in the drill.

"Until you see it in a real game you never really know," Schwartz said. "But I think we have some seen some good signs. ... They had an outstanding period in a way that affected the rest of the group."

Players have noticed their energy, even if production is difficult to judge in practice.

"What stands out to me is the D-line," safety Louis Delmas said. "Those are dogs up there. There's nothing like having a bunch of guys that want to play football and want to get to the quarterback. It's like they think the quarterback has money pouches on him. The way I see it, the second is going to have three or four seconds at most to cover guys."

In truth, the secondary is going to need that type of support for this defense to improve. Delmas hasn't practiced yet while nursing a groin injury, and I would consider him the only established defensive back the Lions have. The first-team secondary has remained consistent during the time I've been here -- Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with Marvin White and C.C. Brown at safety -- and I haven't seen anything to suggest there are any diamonds in the rough here. The Lions' offense has gotten the best of them more often than not.

OK, I'm headed out to Suh-a-palooza. Check back in a bit.

Camp Confidential: New York Giants

August, 3, 2010
8/03/10
1:00
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 16

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The New York Giants are going through an identity crisis. Just when we had them pegged as a perennial playoff team, they went out and lost eight games in one season.

There are plenty of players on the roster who own Super Bowl rings from the '07 season, but some of them also took the field in disgraceful losses to the Panthers and Vikings to close out '09. Coach Tom Coughlin seemed invincible two years ago, but it's not a stretch to say that his job's on the line heading into this season. Co-owner John Mara has suggested that's not the case, but it's hard to envision Coughlin surviving another .500 season.

The good news for Giants fans is that Coughlin's been here before, and he's come out on the other side. He told me Monday that two books he read over the summer -- a biography of Harry Truman and a remarkable story involving four Navy SEALs -- have had a profound effect on him. He'll spend the next three weeks in training camp attempting to inspire his players to be "uncommonly good."

"I don't remember anyone saying I was on the hot seat when we were 5-0," he said Monday. "But believe me, the most intense pressure comes from within. The outside stuff doesn't affect me."

Coughlin has personally challenged veteran players such as defensive end Justin Tuck to get out of their comfort zones and take larger leadership roles. He also brought in fiery defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to create more energy on the practice field. The former Bills assistant can be heard from across the University at Albany campus shouting at his players and he even tried to throw a block for cornerback Corey Webster during an interception return Monday.

"With our group of players, a coach has to do something phenomenal for us to wholeheartedly follow you," Tuck told me Monday. "[Fewell] had to win our trust. But every day, he shows us how much he loves the game with his actions. And when you see a guy with that much energy, it's hard not to get behind him."

Shortly after Fewell was hired, Tuck stopped by his office to say hello. When he walked into the room, he said Fewell grabbed a marker and started drawing plays on the board.

"He went through a bunch of different scenarios and then asked me how I thought they might work this season," said Tuck. "I got more and more excited as he talked about all the possibilities."

Tuck didn't want to give too much away, but he did disclose that one of the scenarios involved him and Osi Umenyiora both playing linebacker at the same time. But keep that confidential if you would.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeOsi Umenyiora
Rich Kane/Icon SMIOsi Umenyiora is in a battle to regain his job as a starter.
1. What happens if Osi Umenyiora doesn't win back his starting job? For the first two days of camp, Umenyiora was all smiles. He's only practicing once a day in order to manage his hip injury, but he doesn't think the injury will keep him out of any games. Umenyiora's a prideful player who felt humiliated by losing his job to Mathias Kiwanuka last season.

The good thing is that Fewell's going to be up front with all of his players and let them know where they stand. Coughlin remembers how the Giants came at teams with waves of pass-rushers in '07 and '08. Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and first-round rookie Jason Pierre-Paul have the talent to be a special group. But last year players along the defensive line started trying to do too much individually and didn't play as a unit. I don't see any circumstance where Umenyiora embraces a reserve role, so that will put the coaching staff in an interesting situation. My guess is that Umenyiora meets the challenge and wins back his job.

"Osi's in for a fight because Kiwi's not going to back down," said Tuck. "Those two are going to push each other and I think that's a good thing."

2. Is former second-round pick Will Beatty ready to take over at left tackle?

Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese love creating competition and it's going to be interesting to see if David Diehl can hold onto his left tackle spot. The good news for Diehl is that he's going to end up starting on the offensive line no matter what happens in that competition. Coughlin's going to do whatever's best for the team, and I think that will ultimately be Beatty at left tackle and Diehl at left guard. Beatty, a second-year player, has shown a lot of quickness in the first three practices of training camp.

It won't be a completely smooth transition, but I believe he has the athletic ability and size to succeed at left tackle. The Giants have had a lot of continuity along the offensive line, but that won't keep Coughlin from pulling the trigger on a move. In talking to Reese, I get the feeling he's enjoying this competition quite a bit.

3. Can the Giants re-establish the running game?

[+] EnlargeBradshaw
Geoff Burke/US PresswireA healthy Ahmad Bradshaw could see more carries in 2010.
Of all the things that went wrong last season, the lack of a consistent running game might have been the thing that disappointed Coughlin the most.

The Giants went from the No. 1 rushing team in the league in '08 to a No. 17 ranking in '09. They averaged almost a full yard less per carry in '09, which put too much pressure on Eli Manning and the passing game.

Tiki Barber told me early last season that he'd advised Brandon Jacobs to learn how to protect his body more on runs. It may have been solid advice, but Jacobs appeared tentative in '09 and began to doubt himself as the season unfolded. If he looks tentative early in this season, I believe a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw will be prepared to take over as the featured back.

I've been impressed with how quick and decisive he's looked in camp. And Andre Brown appears to have regained his speed after missing last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Brown should be a good change-of-pace back and he has soft hands that could make him a decent option on third down.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I think the most pleasant surprise so far is the Giants appear to have a ton of competition at cornerback. Aaron Ross missed so much time last year because of hamstring issues that he sort of faded out of the picture. Now, he's getting his hands on lots of footballs and he's regained that quickness that we saw a couple seasons ago. The problem for him is that Terrell Thomas and Webster have both been excellent in this camp. Webster was a disappointment last season, but he's been one of the best players in camp through three practices.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It's hard to give up on someone after three practices, so I'll go with an injured player in safety Kenny Phillips. He has an excellent attitude, but the fact that he's on the physically unable to perform list isn't a great sign. He was on the verge of stardom before a serious knee condition required microfracture surgery. The Giants brought in plenty of insurance for Phillips this season, but it would be really disappointing if he's not able to make a full recovery.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeKeith Bulluck
AP Photo/Mike GrollLinebacker Keith Bulluck (53) has looked comfortable in the early stages of camp.

  • If you think the Giants are going to slowly bring along Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph, think again. They want Joseph breathing down Rocky Bernard's neck this season. And so far, Joseph's done a tremendous job soaking up a lot of information. But when Coughlin's standing a few feet away, Joseph had better know when he's supposed to be in a drill. Reese told me Monday afternoon that Pierre-Paul and Joseph have to help out immediately.
  • I thought former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck would look a little stiff since he hasn't done any live scrimmaging since his ACL surgery last December. Instead, he's moved around really well and seems to be comfortable in Fewell's defense.
  • Second-year tight end Travis Beckum's going to get every opportunity in the world to contribute, but it's not good to flat-out drop a ball when Rhett Bomar threads the needle in team drills.
  • Defensive end Dave Tollefson is one of those steady players who refuses to go away. Nothing flashy, but he's relentless in pursuing the quarterback. I noticed that he's added a little inside spin move to his game. Some of the young offensive linemen haven't known what to do with him.
  • Sixth-round draft pick Adrian Tracy is a fish out of water at linebacker. The former William & Mary defensive end has some athleticism, but he could use a redshirt (practice squad) year.
  • Former Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty is in remarkable condition in this camp. Even Coughlin marveled at how Canty breezed through sprints. Canty has some close friends with the Cowboys (Jay Ratliff, Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher) and he'd like to send a message that Jerry Jones made a mistake in letting him walk.
  • I've given up trying to cut Sinorice Moss. I already have him on my 2013 projected Giants roster. It's crowded at receiver again, but the little guy won't go away. And he had a really nice day Monday.
  • If Ramses Barden ever finds a way to take his practices to the games, the Giants will have a remarkable weapon in the red zone. Manning told me Monday that Barden has won him over. He has some Plaxico Burress-like tendencies -- and I'm talking about the good tendencies. Even when he's covered, Barden has a knack for making catches. He's just an enormous target.
  • Reese refuses to give up on linebacker Gerris Wilkinson. The former Georgia Tech player has teased the Giants with his athleticism, but his career has been hampered by injuries and inconsistency.
  • Fullback Madison Hedgecock has a little competition in rookie Jerome Johnson. Hedgecock drops way too many passes. If Johnson shows anything in the passing game, this thing could get interesting.
  • I don't know if he'll hold off Bulluck, but middle linebacker Jonathan Goff looks so much more confident to me in this camp. He's doing a great job communicating and he's done a nice job in coverage.
  • Clint Sintim went through some growing pains last season, but he looks the part of a starter now. He hasn't let any of the Giants' misdirection plays fool him.
  • Either Antrel Rolle is really, really good at safety or I spent too much time watching C.C. Brown and Aaron Rouse chasing cars last season. I think Rolle's an excellent fit for Fewell's defense. If Phillips can return to form, he and Rolle could be one of the best tandems in the league. Deon Grant was a good pickup because of his durability. He just doesn't miss any games, and the Giants need more of those players.
  • I know Steve Smith had a breakout season, but Hakeem Nicks looks like a No. 1 wide receiver to me. I thought it was telling that he was the one receiver whom Manning asked to join him at the Manning Passing Academy. Those two are putting on a show early in camp.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- I took in most of the Detroit Lions' two training camp practices Monday, surpassing my 2009 total and matching what I saw in 2008. And the best news yet: I'm back for more on Tuesday!

My official Lions "Camp Confidential" report isn't scheduled to post until Saturday, but the blog will feature heavy Lions emphasis through my Wednesday departure. If there's something you want me to check out, just let me know. Otherwise, you're left to my whims and personal biases.

Ok, enough chit-chat. Here are some first-day impressions from Allen Park:
    [+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
    AP Photo/Carlos OsorioQuarterback Matthew Stafford led the Lions through two training camp practices on Monday.

  • Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, activated from the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list Sunday, participated in the less-physical afternoon practice wearing a brace on his knee. Pettigrew looked, well, like a player trying to run with a brace on his knee: Not smooth, but not unexpected. I would be really surprised if he is on the field for Tuesday's full-pads practice.
  • The Lions activated defensive end Jared DeVries from the PUP list, and DeVries mostly worked with the second team at left end. Cliff Avril continued getting most of the first-team work there, but I would imagine DeVries will be rotating with Avril before too long.
  • I planned to take a look at middle linebacker DeAndre Levy, but he sat out both practices because of what coach Jim Schwartz said was continuing back tightness. Levy's absence emphasized the Lions' shaky depth at the position; special teams player Vinny Ciurciu was the first-team middle linebacker in both practices.
  • The morning practice featured an entertaining red-zone session in which the defense more than held its own. But the offense triumphed on one play in particular: Fullback Jerome Felton's steamroll of safety Marquand Manuel at the goal line. Meanwhile, quarterback Matthew Stafford misfired on two red-zone passes. One appeared to be a miscommunication with receiver Calvin Johnson and another pass was a step behind receiver Nate Burleson.
  • Running back Kevin Smith (knee) didn't do much in either practice, but I glimpsed at least four other runners getting work with the first team: Maurice Morris, Jahvid Best, Felton and DeDe Dorsey.
  • As defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh continued his holdout, Sammie Hill was working alongside expected starter Corey Williams.
  • Schwartz indicated he is being extra cautious with safety Louis Delmas, who is recovering from a groin strain. Delmas is a "known quantity," Schwartz said, and the Lions' only goal is to get him healthy -- not back out on the field. Delmas said: "Everybody that I'm playing with, we all got a good understanding of each other. When I get back, I think I'll be able to adjust to them really fast." Schwartz has been rotating safeties during camp, and Monday his first-teammers were Marvin White and C.C. Brown.

NFC North training camp preview

July, 20, 2010
7/20/10
10:00
AM ET
Of the eight divisions, the NFC North reports to camp the latest. All four teams arrive July 30.

Figuring Brett Favre will report to Minnesota sometime after the Vikings break camp in Mankato, Minn., that seems fitting. All good things come to those who wait.

The NFC North, once known as a pounding-the-rock division, is now one of the more interesting for quarterback play. Favre, who is expected to return, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers are among the league’s elite quarterbacks. Jay Cutler of the Bears hopes to regain that status after a poor 2009 season. The Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the hope of him being one of the next great ones.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

[+] EnlargeMike Martz
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe addition of Mike Martz to run the Bears' offense should pay off on the scoreboard.
Chicago Bears: Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz add enough offense to the Bears to catch up to the Vikings or Packers?

Martz adds five to six points a game to any offense he’s around, so there is no question the Bears will be better on offense. Cutler likes what he sees, but the Bears must tighten their defense because the season will be a roller-coaster ride if they play 27-24 games every week. Keep an eye on the defense -- it ranked only 17th in 2009 -- in camp and during the preseason.

Detroit Lions: Can the Lions generate enough of a running game to make it easier on Stafford?

Probably not. The Lions averaged only 25.6 rushing attempts a game last season, meaning Stafford needed to complete 24 or 25 passes a game for the offense to be good. Keep an eye on rookie RB Jahvid Best in camp. He will add explosiveness. Last year’s starter, Kevin Smith, is coming off knee reconstruction and may not be ready to earn quality first- and second-down yards.

Green Bay Packers: What’s the biggest concern on defense?

The Packers must sort out their cornerback situation in camp. Al Harris is coming off a major injury, so they must make sure that Tramon Williams is ready to take over if Harris is not ready for the start of the regular season. They also must develop Pat Lee as a key backup just in case.

Minnesota Vikings: While they wait for Favre to return, what is the main job of the Vikings’ offense this summer?

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
John David Mercer/US PresswireAdrian Peterson had nine fumbles in 2009, losing six.
Ensuring that Adrian Peterson protects the football would be nice. Peterson has an NFL-high 20 fumbles the past three seasons. Vikings head coach Brad Childress knows that Peterson’s aggressive style sometimes will lead to fumbles, but a repeat of late-season fumbling issues by Peterson would not be good. Peterson fumbled twice and caused a turnover on a third play when he botched a handoff in the second quarter against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bears: Head coach Lovie Smith. This is an easy one. Smith is on the hottest seat in the division. If the Bears don’t have a winning record this season, anyone who isn’t a McCaskey or a Halas will lose his job. It’s win or else.

Lions: Right tackle Gosder Cherilus: Former Redskins veteran Jon Jansen was signed to be an insurance policy, but Jansen came out of the offseason program in competition for a starting job. The right tackle job is there for the taking. Cherilus is big and physical, but he’s on the hot seat.

Packers: Safety Atari Bigby. The Packers rewarded free safety Nick Collins with a four-year, $30.4 million contract. Bigby isn’t happy that he was given the $1.759 million restricted tender and hasn’t signed it. Plus, the Packers drafted strong safety Morgan Burnett in the third round and seem to like him.

Vikings: Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels. Before Favre joined the Vikings last season, Rosenfels competed against Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job. Rosenfels left the offseason program as the fourth quarterback, behind rookie Joe Webb, who was drafted to play receiver. Rosenfels’ seat is burning.

SECRET WEAPON

Bears receivers: Want a weird stat? The Bears are tied with the Vikings for most Pro Bowl players at wide receiver. That’s right. The Vikings have Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. The Packers have only Donald Driver as a Pro Bowler, although Greg Jennings has been on the Pro Bowl radar the past couple of years. Bears wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox have each been to the Pro Bowl. The problem is that each made it as a returner, not a receiver. Those trips vouch for their athletic abilities, but it makes them ultimate secret weapons in the Mike Martz offense. Hester has receiving skills similar to Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers, but he tends to wear down the more routes he runs. Plus, he is challenged by the adjustments receivers must make on routes. Knox’s game is speed, but the second-year player still must polish his receiving skills.

Martz and the Bears said they like their receiving corps, but how good is it? If Hester and Knox are raw talents who can turn into solid receivers, the Bears could emerge as one of the league’s surprise offenses.

Another receiver to follow in training camp is Devin Aromashodu. This is Aromashodu’s fifth team, but Jay Cutler treated him as though he were his favorite receiver in the second half of last season. He caught 22 passes in the final five games. It’s hard to categorize Bears receivers into who is the legitimate No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. It will be interesting to see how this sorts out in camp.

WILD CARD: DETROIT’S SECONDARY

How quickly the Lions’ secondary jells this summer could determine the fate of Detroit’s division rivals. In many ways, the Lions are the wild card of this division because the Vikings, Packers and Bears are each counting on two wins against Detroit if they want to get a better seeding in the playoffs or, in the case of the Bears, make the playoffs.

No secondary has undergone more change the past two offseasons than the Lions’. Detroit’s passing defense was abysmal last season, ranking last in the NFL. Opponents threw for 266 yards a game, with a 68.1 completion percentage and a 107.0 QB rating. Obviously that won’t cut it in a division that features Favre, Rodgers and Cutler.

Safety Louis Delmas, a second-round pick in 2009, seems to be a good piece to build around. Lions coach Jim Schwartz must sort out whether Ko Simpson, Marquand Manuel or C.C. Brown is the strong safety to pair with Delmas.

It’s a roll of the dice at cornerback. Eric King is the only corner returning from last season, but he started only one game for the Lions. The Lions acquired Chris Houston from the Falcons in a trade and have high hopes for third-round choice Amari Spievey. The Lions also have Jonathan Wade and Dre’ Bly, who played for Detroit from 2003-2006, but he’s 33.

Report: Rolle receives Giant deal

March, 5, 2010
3/05/10
10:55
PM ET
The New York Giants and free-agent safety Antrel Rolle have agreed to a five-year, $37 million contract, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Rolle will become the highest-paid safety in league history and his new contract includes a $15 million signing bonus.

Rolle
Rolle
Judging by that contract ($22.5 mil in first three years), the Giants are still angry about how their secondary was torched in '09. If Kenny Phillips is fully recovered from microfracture surgery on his knee, he and Rolle should form one of the best safety duos in the league. They both played at the University of Miami and both possess excellent range. In fact, Rolle entered the league as a cornerback.

General manager Jerry Reese was very open about his disappointment in the way Michael Johnson and C.C. Brown performed at safety last season and he vowed not to let something like that happen again. With Rolle in the fold, the Giants have to feel a lot better about their secondary. The Cardinals are quickly becoming the top talent supplier in the league with Rolle, Anquan Boldin and Karlos Dansby already joining other teams.

In his 59 starts with the Cardinals, Rolle had 12 interceptions and four forced fumbles. He'll obviously be an immediate starter for the Giants. Not a lot of $37 million backup safeties in the league. I think this decision also had a lot to do with the fact the Giants play in the same division with some very talented tight ends in Jason Witten, Brent Celek and Chris Cooley.

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