NFL Nation: DeShawn Wynn

To all those who think the four NFC South teams are so set at running back they don’t need to touch that position in the upcoming draft, I give you DeShawn Wynn.

In the second half of the New Orleans Saints' playoff loss to Seattle, Wynn was getting much of the playing time and serving as the last-resort blocker for Drew Brees as the Saints tried to come from behind and keep their dream of back-to-back Super Bowls alive. It didn’t happen, and that’s largely because the Saints simply ran out of running backs.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe Bucs and Saints brought in Alabama's Mark Ingram for a pre-draft visit.
Wynn, who had been with the Saints earlier in the season, had been re-signed in the week leading into the game. Same for Joique Bell, who didn’t make the active roster that day, but the Saints could have used him. They went into the game with Julius Jones and Reggie Bush as their running backs.

Jones was a retread from coach Sean Payton’s Dallas days and was with the Saints only because there already were problems at running back. Bush spent much of last season on the sideline, but was healthy enough to at least set foot on Qwest Field. That’s more than can be said for Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who weren’t available because of injuries.

Jones and Bush quickly got banged up by a Seattle defense that didn’t scare too many people last season. That left the Saints with Wynn and a loss.

There’s a lesson in that for the entire NFC South. No matter how set you think you are at running back, you’re probably not as well off as you think. As they head into the draft, the Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers all seem to have at least an immediate feature back, and the Saints look to have plenty of options in an offense that relies on playing a variety of running backs.

But none of the NFC South teams can afford to ignore running back in this draft. Here’s a team-by-team look at why:

Falcons. Michael Turner's coming off a season in which he ran for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns and Jason Snelling's a solid backup with the ability to function as a power runner and catch passes out of the backfield. But that’s not enough.

The Falcons got only two games out of Jerious Norwood before he went down with a season-ending injury. Norwood is the guy the Falcons always have envisioned as their speed back, but he’s never been able to stay healthy, and his time in Atlanta looks to be over.

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMichael Turner logged over 700 carries combined during the 2008 and 2010 seasons and could be wearing down.
The Falcons could look for a pure speed back like Kentucky’s Derrick Locke or North Carolina’s Johnny White in the middle rounds. But there’s been talk in mock-draft circles that Alabama running back Mark Ingram could be available when the Falcons pick at No. 27. There are seemingly larger needs at defensive end and wide receiver, but would the Falcons be wise to pass on Ingram if he’s available?

Ingram’s not a pure speed back and he’s not a true power back. He’s somewhere in between, and he’s the closest thing to a surefire feature back in this year’s draft. The Falcons have been pushing their luck with Turner. He carried 334 times last season and 376 times in 2008. He missed five games because of injury in 2009. There were times last season when Turner seemed to lack the pop he showed early in his Atlanta days, and you have to wonder if he’s starting to wear down.

It might be time to get an heir apparent in Atlanta. Even if Turner stays healthy, the Falcons could use someone to pick up some of his carries or else they might end up with an empty backfield like the Saints in Seattle.

Buccaneers. Tampa Bay fans are excited about LeGarrette Blount and rightfully so. The undrafted rookie was cut by the Titans in training camp, and Tampa Bay took a shot by picking him up. By midseason, Blount was Tampa Bay’s feature back. He ran for 1,007 yards on just 201 carries.

Blount’s role and statistics should only continue to improve next season. But it’s tough to look objectively at Tampa Bay’s backfield situation and say the Bucs are just fine. Cadillac Williams is a potential free agent. If he returns, it will be only in the role of third-down back he filled the second half of last season. There’s a chorus of fans in Tampa Bay who believe Kareem Huggins is the perfect complement to Blount.

Kareem Huggins
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaKareem Huggins, who figures to be LaGarrette Blount's backup, is coming off a major knee injury.
He might be. Huggins is one of those guys who flashes promise in the preseason. But he has only four regular-season carries in his career and he’s coming off a major knee injury. Before the lockout, the Bucs weren’t overly optimistic Huggins would be ready for the start of training camp.

Then, there is Blount. His physical style and habit of trying to hurdle defenders could leave him open to injury. Also, Blount went undrafted for a reason. He had a violent altercation with an opponent after a college game, and questions remain about his ability to keep his emotions in check over the long haul. Maybe that’s why the Bucs had Ingram in for a pre-draft visit earlier this week.

Panthers. On paper, they’ve got the best backfield in the division. They’ve got DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and either one could be the feature back for most teams. They also have Mike Goodson, who emerged last season when there were injuries in the backfield.

But, depending on how the labor situation plays out, Williams will be either a restricted or unrestricted free agent. Stewart came into the league with foot problems and rarely has been completely healthy. If Williams goes, the Panthers suddenly are on thin ice. They’d be one Stewart injury away from having to use Goodson, who is ideal as a part-time player, as their full-time running back.

Saints. This circle started and will end with New Orleans. The Saints re-signed Thomas before the lockout. They’ve given indications they plan to extend Bush’s contract and keep him. All signs are that Thomas, Bush and Ivory should be recovered from their injuries. Promising young running back Lynell Hamilton also is coming back from injury.

The numbers say the Saints are just fine at running back. But recent history tells another story. The Saints also had Ingram in for a visit, and he has to be a consideration if he’s available at No. 24. Even if it’s not Ingram, the Saints need to add a running back somewhere in the draft.

Of all the NFC South teams, the Saints know best that you never can have enough good running backs. If they had one more last year, they might have gone back to the Super Bowl.
Marshawn Lynch and Tracy PorterMike Nelson/US PresswireMarshawn Lynch pushed Tracy Porter and the Saints' defense around on his 67-yard score.
SEATTLE -- The memories of their Super Bowl season will last forever. The magic did not.

The feel-good story of last season -- or maybe the past decade or two -- is over. It ended unexpectedly and more than a little embarrassingly for the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions came into Qwest Field on Saturday to play the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a 7-9 record.

It ended with the Seattle Seahawks, a team that stumbled to the NFC West championship, defeating the Saints 41-36. Just like that, the magic and miracles that carried the Saints all the way to Miami and last year’s Super Bowl are over.

“After you experience raising that trophy, you don’t want to see anyone else lift it,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle said. “There wasn’t a person in this locker room that didn’t think we would be lifting that trophy again.’’

That’s not going to happen. Some other team will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and it will come in a season in which the Saints generally looked like they were avoiding “the curse’’ that has dethroned so many recent Super Bowl champions.

They went 11-5 in the regular season, again riding the arm of Drew Brees and using a defense that looked better overall than it did a year ago. Then, against a team the Saints handled easily in the regular season, it all fell apart.

Instead of looking like the Saints of the regular season or the champion Saints of the 2009 season, the Saints looked a lot more like the New Orleans teams of 2007 and 2008. Those teams could move the ball, but didn’t play much defense. Those teams were mediocre, sort of like the Seahawks.

“We’ll have a chance to look at the film,’’ Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked to explain why his team suddenly collapsed.

Payton’s right. There will be no Super Bowl parades or even any more games this season. The Saints will have months to reflect on what happened.

There will be painful weeks to watch the film of Matt Hasselbeck throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a lot of time to see safety Darren Sharper looking like he waited too long to retire. Time to watch strong safety Roman Harper looking even worse than Sharper and time to watch rookie cornerback Patrick Robinson making a season’s worth of rookie mistakes.

That’s not going to look good on the résumé of Gregg Williams. He’s the defensive coordinator and the man many credit for putting the Saints over the top last season. He has been mentioned as a possible head-coaching candidate in other places in recent weeks. He now will have time to interview. If Williams doesn’t get another job, he and Payton can watch the horror movie together.

[+] EnlargeSaints' Drew Brees
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesA season after winning their first Super Bowl, Drew Brees and the Saints were ousted in the wild-card round.
“Our eyes were not very good in coverage,’’ Sharper said.

Throw in their legs and their minds too, and don’t limit the blame to the secondary. The front four and the linebackers also got destroyed. Hasselbeck, who couldn’t even play a week ago because of a hip injury, completed 22 of 35 passes and finished with a 113.0 passer rating. Marshawn Lynch ran over the New Orleans defense for 131 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

“I think we might have taken for granted the success they had throwing against us earlier in the season,’’ Sharper said.

That’s a reference to the Nov. 21 regular-season game in the Superdome. Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards in that game, but the Saints won 34-19. So what changed between the regular-season game and now? And what happened between last year’s Super Bowl and now?

A team that took pride in saying the only real losses from the Super Bowl were linebacker Scott Fujita and backup running back Mike Bell somehow lost a lot more. Yes, injuries were a factor. The Saints were forced to play Sharper because starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins was injured. Running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory didn’t play because of injuries and fellow running backs Reggie Bush and Julius Jones got so banged up in the second half that the Saints had to play DeShawn Wynn, who was signed last week.

But the problems started long before Bush and Jones got hurt. The Saints, who had to fly across the country and had only six days between games, started off playing like champions. They jumped out to a 10-0 lead and Seattle was looking every bit the part of a 7-9 team. Then everything changed.

“It’s only appropriate to start off with congratulating [coach] Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks for a big win,'' Payton said. “They played a real good game.’’

Yes, give the Seahawks credit, but the Saints gave them a whole lot of help. Although Brees threw for 404 yards on 60 attempts, any attempt at offensive balance was abandoned in the second and third quarters when the Seahawks outscored the Saints 27-10.

Lynch and the Seattle receivers ran all over Williams’ defense. Things got so bad that Payton had to call for a desperation onside kick near the end of the game instead of using it as a surprise as he did in the Super Bowl win.

The Saints, who danced their way out of Miami after the Super Bowl and posed for pictures on the Atlanta Falcons’ logo in the Georgia Dome a few weeks ago, lost their swagger in Seattle.

The locker room was quiet.

“We knew we had a team we thought could repeat,’’ Sharper said.

“This stings a lot,’’ cornerback Jabari Greer said.

The silence and the sting will last the long flight back home and probably spill over into the coming weeks and months. The Saints lost more than just a playoff game.

They lost their chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions and they did it against a team that had a losing record in the regular season. Instead, they’re left to think about preventing a repeat of what happened in Seattle.

“If we’re ever in this position down the road, we have to remember this experience so it doesn’t happen again,’’ Shanle said.

Reggie Bush and Drew BreesAP Photo/Patrick SemanskyWith a depleted backfield, Reggie Bush might take a lot more handoffs than usual in the playoffs.
If you go by record or reputation, you can look at Saturday’s playoff game and say the New Orleans Saints should be able to win with one arm tied behind their back.

That might be exactly what the Saints have to do.

They’re heading into Seattle’s Qwest Field without running backs Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. Both were placed on injured reserve this week. Ivory has a foot injury that will require surgery. Thomas has an ankle injury that kept him out much of the season and finally sidelined him after a brief, but promising, late-season comeback.

On the surface, Ivory and Thomas aren’t superstars, but they were important cogs in an offense that’s known more for the passing game than the running game. Thomas was the closest thing to a complete running back the Saints had during last season’s Super Bowl run. With Thomas and Reggie Bush injured early in the season, Ivory, an undrafted rookie free agent, stepped up and was the team’s leading rusher during the regular season.

Quarterback Drew Brees might be good enough to put the team on his back and simply use the passing game to get by the 7-9 Seahawks, who are in the playoffs only because they were slightly less mediocre than the rest of the teams in the NFC West.

As good as Brees is, though, that’s a lot to ask. Qwest Field is known as one of the league’s loudest outdoor venues, and weather frequently can be a factor. Scratch the running game out of New Orleans’ offense, and Seattle’s defense simply will load up against the pass.

Even when Bush and Thomas were hurt early in the year, New Orleans coach Sean Payton made it a point not to abandon the running game completely. Even Brees needs help and balance, and the Saints will have to turn to some unusual suspects to provide at least some threat of a running game.

“We’ve gone through this before and really it’s not uncommon,’’ Payton said. “It’s more of the norm and making sure that through preparation that the players that maybe haven’t played more significant roles at one point or another are now ready to play those roles. More than anything else, I think it’s the preparation and the teaching and the coaching that goes on. The players work week-to-week regardless of what their status might be that week, and it’s understanding that all of these guys are on hand and ready to contribute.”

What the Saints have on hand is a unique collection of running backs, all with different strengths and weaknesses. They have Bush, who could be more important than ever, Julius Jones, DeShawn Wynn and Joique Bell. Wynn and Bell were signed this week to fill the roster spots of Thomas and Ivory. Wynn had a brief stint with the Saints this season, and Bell was signed off Philadelphia’s practice squad.

At least one of them will be active Saturday, but it probably will be only as a third running back. That leaves Bush and Jones as New Orleans’ two best options in the running game and, as the only two backs with much experience, they’ll also be needed in the passing game.

“The protections are the big issue,’’ Payton said.

In recent weeks, opponents have been trying to beat the Saints by blitzing Brees frequently. That strategy worked well for Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and you can bet the Seahawks have studied film of those games closely.

Neither is an exceptionally big back and neither is known as a blocker. Jones, who was signed by New Orleans this year after three mostly disappointing seasons in Seattle, hasn’t done much with the Saints. Ivory vaulted over Jones on the depth chart. In a backup role, Jones has carried 48 times for 193 yards and caught 17 passes for 59 yards. He has not scored a touchdown.

The Saints might use Jones as a blocker, but it’s not likely they’ll suddenly put the entire running game in his hands. That’s why Bush could be the wild card in this game.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Bush never has been the type of running back to handle 20 or 25 carries a game. Instead, he’s been used in tandem, first with Deuce McAllister, then with Thomas and most recently with Ivory. Bush has been part running back, part wide receiver and part return man throughout his career.

But this could be the one game where the Saints use Bush almost exclusively as a running back because they really don’t have many other choices.

“We just have to package him the right way and look at the snaps and what we’re trying to do when we put him in that position,’’ Payton said.

Bush missed eight games earlier this season with a broken leg, and the Saints have gradually worked him back into the rotation. But it might be time to take the limitations off Bush, and there were some encouraging signs in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Bush had season highs with 70 rushing yards on nine carries.

“I thought he played well last week,’’ Payton said. “He’s healthy and is doing well. Coming back off of the injury, he’s fully recovered now and I thought the carries and the touches he had last week were encouraging.”

Although Bush finished the regular season with just 36 carries for 150 yards, there is a precedent for his stepping up in the postseason. That’s what happened last season as the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints were cautious with Bush, who was dealing with a knee injury most of the regular season.

But he was healthy for the postseason, and the Saints unleashed him. Bush averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the postseason and was at his best in a divisional round victory against Arizona in which he ran for 84 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown run. Bush also returned a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.

Still, the Saints were pairing Bush with a healthy Thomas throughout the postseason, and Bush never got more than seven carries in a game.

The Saints aren’t going to suddenly hand the ball to Bush 25 times on Saturday, but it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll get more than seven carries. Jones probably will get more carries than usual, and Wynn and/or Bell could end up handling a few carries.

The Saints have used Bush basically as a hybrid throughout his career. On Saturday, they might have to ask him to be just a running back.

Saints enter playoffs thin at RB

January, 4, 2011
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The New Orleans Saints, who have struggled with injuries in the offensive backfield all season, will be without leading rusher Chris Ivory in the playoffs.

The team announced Tuesday that Ivory has been placed on injured reserve. They filled his roster spot by signing DeShawn Wynn, who was with the team in training camp.

This leaves the Saints thin at running back and the status of Pierre Thomas for the playoffs is uncertain. Thomas missed much of the season with an ankle injury. He returned briefly, but missed the regular-season finale with lingering ankle problems.

The Saints also have Reggie Bush, who they’ve been easing back in slowly after he suffered a broken leg earlier in the year. Veteran Julius Jones also has gotten limited playing time.

Seahawks without top receivers vs. 49ers

December, 12, 2010
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The Seattle Seahawks named injured receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu inactive Sunday.

Playing without Williams, in particular, puts the Seahawks at a significant deficit as they try to improve their NFC West record to 4-1 against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Williams' presence on third down, in particular, helps the Seahawks sustain drives. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has played at a higher level lately -- more confidently, more efficiently -- with Williams in the lineup.

Seattle might now need to rely more heavily on its ground game. The ground game showed improvement against Carolina last week. The 49ers are allowing 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, however. That is the third-best average for any defense in the NFL this season.

Also inactive for Seattle: guard Breno Giacomini, guard Chester Pitts, tackle William Robinson, defensive lineman Amon Gordon and defensive lineman Jay Richardson. J.P. Losman is the third quarterback.

The 49ers' inactive players: kicker Joe Nedney, cornerback Tramaine Brock, running back DeShawn Wynn, cornerback William James, linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, tackle Joe Staley and tackle Alex Boone. David Carr is the third quarterback.

Thomas, Harper out for Saints

October, 3, 2010
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NEW ORLEANS -- As expected, the Saints will be without injured running back Pierre Thomas for Sunday’s game with Carolina.

The Saints have said Ladell Betts will start in place of Thomas. The Saints also are without injured running back Reggie Bush, and that means Chris Ivory and DeShawn Wynn likely will share carries with Betts.

The Saints also will be without starting strong safety Roman Harper. Pierson Prioleau will start in his place. John Carney will handle place-kicking duties as Garrett Hartley is inactive after missing a short kick in overtime last week.

Also inactive for the Saints are linebacker Anthony Waters, offensive lineman Charles Brown, tight end Tory Humphrey and defensive end Junior Galette.

Waiting for word on Pierre Thomas

October, 3, 2010
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NEW ORLEANS -- I’m in the Superdome, where the big question is if New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas will play against the Panthers today.

The Saints haven’t officially ruled Thomas out just yet, but the early signs are not encouraging. The fact the Saints activated running back DeShawn Wynn off the practice squad is a rather strong indication that Thomas won’t go.

If that’s the case, it appears likely that undrafted rookie Chris Ivory will get the start with veteran Ladell Betts and Wynn as the backups. I’ll be back with official word on Thomas as soon as we get it.
OK class, it's time for one of our final lessons in the new world of an uncapped NFL. Before the free-agent market opens Friday morning, each team must first address its entire list of restricted free agents in one of two basic ways:

1. Tendering a 1-year contract, OR
2. "Non-tendering" the player, essentially cutting ties.


Remember, a restricted free agent (RFA) is a player with four or five years of experience whose contract has expired. Those players are free to seek offers elsewhere, but current teams at least have the right to match that offer and keep the player. Depending on the level of contract tender, the team could also receive draft-pick compensation.

If the player doesn't sign an offer sheet elsewhere, and can't agree on a long-term contract, he plays at the salary in the chart below. (There are slightly higher values for players in their fifth seasons.)


Because of the addition of a fifth year to the RFA list in the uncapped year, an additional 212 players are scheduled to be restricted free agents this offseason. Below is a list of the primary RFAs for each NFC North team.

There have been some reports about individual tenders, but no team has officially released its decisions. That will happen sometime between now and Thursday night. When it does, we'll analyze how easy or difficult it will be for those tendered to move on to another team.

Chicago Bears: Defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Josh Bullocks, safety Danieal Manning, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Jamar Williams.

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

Green Bay Packers: Safety Atari Bigby, defensive back Will Blackmon, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, running back John Kuhn, offensive lineman Jason Spitz, cornerback Tramon Williams, running back DeShawn Wynn.

Minnesota Vikings: Offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive end Ray Edwards, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, cornerback Karl Paymah, fullback Naufahu Tahi.

To read all of our award-winning CBAWatch discussion, click here.

Packers: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Check here for a full list of Green Bay’s player moves.

Biggest surprise: Brian Brohm was the 56th player taken in the 2008 draft, the third quarterback overall. For that reason alone it’s a shock the Packers have given up on him so quickly, despite another shaky preseason in which he finished with a passer rating of 54.5. He made some incremental progress this summer, and it’s possible the Packers will re-sign him to their practice squad Sunday. But it’s clear they were willing to risk losing him altogether. It’s a stunning fall for a player the Packers originally thought was polished and ready to immediately step in as the No. 2 quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers.

Second-biggest surprise: The Packers kept all three of their fullbacks while leaving their tailback depth pretty thin, at least for now. Fullbacks Korey Hall and John Kuhn are good special teams players, but doesn’t one make the other expendable? The Packers obviously don’t agree. They kept both players -- along with rookie fullback Quinn Johnson -- while waiving tailbacks Tyrell Sutton and Kregg Lumpkin. The decisions leave DeShawn Wynn as the only healthy backup behind starter Ryan Grant. (Brandon Jackson is recovering from an ankle injury.)

Third-biggest surprise: Veteran receiver Ruvell Martin was released in favor of first-year receiver Brett Swain. I’m guessing this was a special teams decision, as Swain was having some success on coverage teams this summer. But Martin has been a productive reserve over the past three seasons, and I didn’t hear too much about his roster spot being in jeopardy.

Fourth-biggest surprise: Safety Anthony Smith, signed to a free agent contract this offseason, was released. There have been suggestions he was pushing starter Atari Bigby. Not anymore. Neither of general manager Ted Thompson's veteran free agent pickups, Smith and center Duke Preston, made the final roster.

No-brainer: Placing defensive lineman Justin Harrell (back) on injured reserve was dramatic but needed to be done. The Packers have carried him on their 53-man roster for the past two years even though he has missed more games (19) than he has played in (13) because of various injuries. He wouldn’t have made it to training camp this year if he weren’t a first-round draft pick. It was time for the Packers to cut their losses.

What’s next: One way or the other, the Packers will have to address their quarterback depth. It might simply mean adding Brohm or a waiver claim to the practice squad. But it’s also possible the Packers will look elsewhere for depth behind Rodgers. In news reports, they have been linked to Tampa Bay’s Luke McCown; but it will likely take a draft pick to pry him away from the Buccaneers. Backup Matt Flynn has been limited by a shoulder injury, so from the outside it would seem risky to enter the season with Rodgers and Flynn as the only active quarterbacks.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham became something of a folk hero a few years ago when HBO caught his crusty act on film while filming the Kansas City Chiefs for "Hard Knocks." Cunningham has brought that lovable intensity to the Lions, apparently a welcome tonic to the doldrums of training camp.

A former Chiefs head coach, Cunningham went out of his way to say he likes working for the Lions and living in Detroit. He is keeping players on edge with intense blitz sessions, but he is also making each day interesting for the entire team in what he says is the swan song of his long career.

Cunningham: "This is my last stop. I may die out there [on the field], because I'm gonna give you everything I got. And I know Jim [Schwartz] and the staff is, too. And that's what we're trying to sell to the players -- who we're here for. We're not here for the money. We're here for this city and to make the fans cheer."

You can read more about Cunningham -- and find out which player joked that Cunningham is "missing a couple screws" -- in the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and on Mlive.com.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.

Chicago Bears
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)

Campfires
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.

The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.

Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.

It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.

O-verhaul
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.

Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.


Detroit Lions
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.

 
  Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI
  The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.

Campfires
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.

Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.

Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.

Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.

Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.

And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.

Linebacker city
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.

Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Chicago quarterback Kyle Orton avoided an interception Sunday for the first time in five games. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bears took the opportunity to name Orton their unquestioned starter for 2009.

Here's what offensive coordinator Ron Turner told reporters in the locker room following Sunday's season-ending loss at Houston, according to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald:

"Oh yeah. There's no question about it. Kyle's the guy. I thought he made great strides this year, and even still, it's hard to score in this league without big-play players."

Coach Lovie Smith was less definitive, noting that every player must earn his spot. But it seems clear that Orton has carved a permanent role after beating out Rex Grossman in training camp.

Fans might not want to hear this, but the Bears could do a lot worse than Orton given the state of quarterbacking in the NFL. It doesn't mean they should give up on drafting and developing quarterbacks. But other than trading the franchise for Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, there won't be many avenues available for upgrading the position in the offseason.

What the Bears should do, as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times points out, is give Orton more help by adding some big-play receivers. For the first time since 1990, the Bears didn't have a wide receiver among their top two pass-catchers for the season. (Rookie tailback Matt Forte finished first, with tight end Greg Olsen second).

There will be plenty of time to discuss the Bears' offseason priorities. For now, let's take our final regular-season spin around the NFC North. (Sniff, sniff).

  • The Bears passed over rookie Craig Steltz and started nickel back Danieal Manning at safety in place of the injured Mike Brown, notes Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald. Brown was sorely missed.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune takes issue with Smith's assertion that the Bears don't need a defensive overhaul: "This much was easy to know: Giving up 31 points in the biggest game of the season confirmed that a team built around defense needs to rebuild that side of the ball. Of course, that starts with being willing to reinvent the model, which starts with acknowledging it's broken."
  • Like most quarterbacks who face Detroit, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers had the best game of his season Sunday. Rodgers finished the season with a 93.8 passer rating, notes Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Could DeShawn Wynn challenge Ryan Grant for the starting tailback job next season? Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel speculates on the future of the Packers' tailback position.
  • Packers kicker Mason Crosby was short on a 69-yard field goal attempt just before halftime of the Packers' 31-21 victory over the Lions, notes the Associated Press.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News on the Lions' 0-16 season: "It's etched on their foreheads, in indelible ink. The worst team in the history of the NFL, the worst team in the history of Detroit sports, the worst collection of professional sportsmen ever assembled in our fair city, in almost any fair city."
  • Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who missed his third consecutive game, earned a $1 million bonus because the Lions finished with less than 54 sacks allowed this season. David Birkett of the Oakland Press has the story.
  • Lions coach Rod Marinelli was asked if he was glad the season was over. His response, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press: "No. I could go another 16."
  • Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards left the Metrodome limping on a sprained left knee but is optimistic he won't miss any game time, reports the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams (fractured scapula) is planning to play Sunday against Philadelphia, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
  • Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press breaks down the thought process of Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, who sat through three timeouts before finally drilling his game-winning 50-yard field goal Sunday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Congratulations to the Green Bay Packers, who on Sunday became the first team in NFL history to have two receivers finish with 100 yards in the same game in which two of their running backs also gained 100 yards.

You wouldn't have expected that feat to occur against anyone other than the bumbling Detroit Lions, who finished the first 0-16 season in NFL history in fine historical fashion. The Lions' latest rebuilding process could begin as early as Monday when coach Rod Marinelli meets with owner William Clay Ford, but at least Marinelli and his defense went out in style.

The Packers got 100-yard rushing games from Ryan Grant (106 yards) and DeShawn Wynn (also 106), while receivers Donald Driver (111 yards) and Greg Jennings (101) also finished in triple digits. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that statistical combination had never occurred before in league history.

The victory allowed the Packers some joy at the end of a deeply disappointing season. For the Lions? Just another drop in the historical bucket.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The Green Bay Packers were so impressed this summer with running back Kregg Lumpkin, an undrafted rookie from Georgia, that they released three veteran backs to keep him on the roster. Vernand Morency, Noah Herron and DeShawn Wynn were all jettisoned when Lumpkin won the No. 3 tailback job behind Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson. (Wynn was later signed to the practice squad).

The idea was for Lumpkin to provide depth while learning the ropes from Grant and Jackson. But with Grant nursing a sore hamstring and Jackson recovering from a mild concussion, Lumpkin took all the snaps at tailback Wednesday in practice. Both Grant and Jackson are expected to play Sunday at Detroit, but the situation underscores the faith the Packers have in a rookie few NFL fans might have heard of.

"I think he could handle it all," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in Green Bay. "He's done a very good job with his opportunities."

Lumpkin was active but did not play in Monday night's 24-19 victory over Minnesota. Based on the health of his teammates, that could change Sunday in Detroit.

Elsewhere around the NFC this on this Thursday morning:

  • Under McCarthy, the Packers are a combined 9-0 against Minnesota and Detroit. Conveniently, they open the season against those two teams. Overall, McCarthy is 10-3 against the NFC North.
  • Vikings coach Brad Childress on quarterback Tarvaris Jackson's mindset: "He's doing fine. It's not like he's on suicide watch or anything like that."
  • The Lions made a number of lineup moves Wednesday, but it doesn't appear that first-round draft pick Gosder Cherilus will be involved in any of them. Cherilus will continue to back up right tackle George Foster for at least one more week. It's probably a smart move to avoid starting a rookie against Packers left defensive end Aaron Kampman.
  • Sunday's Packers-Lions game will be televised locally in Detroit after a furniture store purchased the remaining 3,100 tickets to secure a sellout.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Bears quarterback Kyle Orton: "Don't get caught up in the notion that Orton can't make plays or win games. That tag might have applied when Orton was a rookie asked mostly to hand off. Now, three years later, the Bears expect him to do more and need him to do more."

Packers: Cutdown analysis

August, 30, 2008
8/30/08
8:59
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

You can view the Packers' list of roster moves here.

Biggest surprise: You knew some good running backs would get released given the Packers' depth at the position, but you just didn't know who. As it turned out, the Packers released two veterans -- Vernand Morency and Noah Herron -- in favor of rookie Kregg Lumpkin. (The Packers had already waived DeShawn Wynn.) Lumpkin was one of the surprises of training camp and impressed coaches with his tenacity as well as his skills. Of course, the majority of the Packers' carries this season will go to Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.

No-brainers: The receiver position was another area of depth for the Packers, so it wasn't surprising to see them release four wideouts Saturday. Most notable was seventh-round pick Brett Swain. But few rookies were going to crack a group that includes Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Ruvell Martin. (Second-round draft choice Jordy Nelson was the only one.)

What's next: Although his injury was not believed to be season-ending, the Packers placed long-snapper J.J. Jansen on injured reserve because of a sprained lateral collateral ligament. The means they will have to find a new long snapper this week. Thomas Gafford, waived by the Bears on Saturday, could be a possibility. The Packers could also bring in several players for tryouts before deciding what direction they're going. Meanwhile, although quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm both made the roster, there are no guarantees the Packers won't seek a veteran backup for Aaron Rodgers this week.

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