NFL Nation: Garrett Wolfe
Biggest surprise: There were no earth-shattering moments Saturday for the Bears. But it was sobering to see them give up on three members of their 2009 draft class, including defensive end Jarron Gilbert, receiver Juaquin Iglesias and safety Al Afalava. Defensive lineman Henry Melton squeezed onto the roster, and the class did produce two 2010 starters: Receiver Johnny Knox and right guard Lance Louis. Meanwhile, guard Josh Beekman was put out of his misery. The Bears have been trying to replace Beekman for two years and finally released him. Finally, the Bears kept four tailbacks -- Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell and Garrett Wolfe. Forte and Taylor are expected to get all of the offensive snaps, but Bell and Wolfe have special teams value.
No-brainers: There was plenty of excitement when the Bears drafted quarterback Dan LeFevour, an Illinois native, but it was apparent early in training camp that he wasn't destined to make the roster. The Bears devoted all of their offensive reps to starter Jay Cutler and then-backup Caleb Hanie. Todd Collins has taken over at No. 2 because of Hanie's shoulder injury, and there was no way the Bears were going to release Hanie and keep LeFevour. You wonder if he won't end up back on their practice squad.
What's next: The Bears are going to have to get their special teams re-situated after releasing Tim Shaw, who led the team with 30 special teams tackles last year. It appears Shaw was released to make room for linebacker Brian Iwuh, who the team believes is more suited for its defensive scheme.
As we approach the NFL's flea market season, let's identify one player who seems most at risk on each NFC North team.
Player: Running back Garrett Wolfe
Comment: We've been waiting for Wolfe's speed to translate into regular playmaking for three years, and his time might now be up. Although he's been a good special-teams player in the past, Wolfe is on the wrong side of the Bears' Matt Forte-Chester Taylor tailback tandem. If the Bears keep a third running back, it could be second-year player Kahlil Bell.
Player: Offensive lineman Jon Jansen
Comment: Jansen started two games last season as an emergency fill-in and has spent the summer competing with Gosder Cherilus for the starting right tackle job. But if Cherilus wins the job, as expected, the Lions might choose a younger player such as Corey Hilliard as a backup.
Green Bay Packers
Player: Tight end Donald Lee
Comment: The Packers have five tight ends that probably should make the team: Jermichael Finley, Spencer Havner, Tom Crabtree, rookie Andrew Quarless and the veteran Lee. But that's a high number, and you wonder if Lee wouldn't be the odd man out. He's scheduled to make $2 million this season, all of which would be guaranteed if he's on the Week 1 roster. That's premium money for a part-time player.
Player: Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd
Comment: A kickoff specialist is a luxury reserved for only the biggest, most consistent boomers in the NFL. Lloyd, on the other hand, doesn't have a touchback this preseason and has been a big disappointment. It's possible the Vikings will give him time to straighten out, but their health-induced duress at other positions might make his roster spot too valuable.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
In lieu of our regular format, we’ll take a spin through three preseason finales Friday morning. More than anything else, teams try to avoid injuries in the last preseason game. But unfortunately for them, a few players were hurt Thursday night:
Chicago 26, Browns 23
- Cornerback Zack Bowman celebrated his return with a diving interception on the first play of the game, and then later left the game with stiffness in the hamstring that has bothered him most of this summer. Bowman is an excellent talent and likely starter when he’s healthy, but that latter part has been a problem. The same goes for tailback Kevin Jones, who was carted off the field after suffering a left ankle injury in the first quarter. The Bears have been hoping to use Jones to avoid overworking starter Matt Forte, but without him, they’ll be left with Garrett Wolfe and Adrian Peterson. More news to come on the Jones front.
- On a night when quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t throw a pass, the standout player was receiver Johnny Knox. The rookie caught two passes for 61 yards, had a 50-yard kickoff return and a 38-yard punt return to set up a late score. The performance should solidify his roster spot. I’m not sure how much he’ll play in the early going, but Knox has the raw speed and playmaking ability to eventually develop into a player.
Detroit 17, Buffalo 6
- We got more of the same from quarterback Matthew Stafford, which didn’t make the Lions’ looming decision any easier. Stafford showed some flashes with three bullet passes to receiver Calvin Johnson, one of which -- a 34-yard touchdown -- was called back because of penalty. Stafford also lost a fumble and threw an interception before leaving early in the second quarter. Coach Jim Schwartz wouldn’t tip his hand about who will start the Sept. 13 season opener at New Orleans, but it’s clear that rookie mistakes will be a part of Stafford’s early performances if he does start.
- It was an interesting night for the Lions’ rookie class. Stafford was up and down. Sixth-round pick Aaron Brown, meanwhile, rushed for 56 yards. But third-round pick Derrick Williams mishandled another punt and might have difficulty making the team. I would imagine the Lions will find a place for him, but he certainly hasn’t proved ready to return kickoffs or punts as expected.
Tennessee 27, Green Bay 13
- Rookie defensive lineman B.J. Raji had a sack and three tackles, but he also left with a right ankle injury and did not return. Whether Raji opens the season as a starter was already in doubt after his two-week holdout; if he can’t play at left end the Packers will be happy with Johnny Jolly there. Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters that he had no reason to believe Raji’s injury was serious but would have more information Friday.
- Under some duress from the Titans' pass rush, third-string quarterback Brian Brohm completed 20 of 28 passes for 154 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown or an interception, but showed enough to increase his chances for getting another year to develop in the Packers' offense. His longest pass was a 33-yard catch-and-run to receiver Jordy Nelson, but for the most part he threw short and prevented mistakes. The Packers have a lot invested in Brohm and would prefer not to have to replace him, via trade or waiver claim, this weekend.
As we review preseason action this summer, I won't pretend to bring you brilliant insight from games I don't cover live. We'll save that kind of thorough analysis for the games that I actually see and conduct interviews at afterwards. (Yes, there was some sarcasm there. Lighten up. It's Sunday morning!)
With that said, it's important to get a feel for every NFC North preseason game in a timely fashion. So while I covered Friday night's Minnesota-Kansas City game, below are some thoughts on the three games that took place Saturday night. I've also included links to the local coverage of reporters who were in attendance as well as some NFL.com video so you can see for yourself.
Chicago 17, New York Giants 3
- Everyone can agree that quarterback Jay Cutler was sharp (8-of-13) and productive (17 points in his first three drives) during his second start of the preseason. He threw well on the run, scrambled once on his own for 12 yards and threw a beautiful touch pass to receiver Devin Aromashodu for 38 yards. Working at times from the no-huddle, the Bears gave their future opponents plenty to think about with their passing performance. Cutler and backup Caleb Hanie combined to complete 18 of 31 passes for 241 yards.
- If you were worried about tailback Matt Forte's hamstring, it didn't look bad Saturday night on a 32-yard touchdown dash up the middle. Overall, Forte finished with 58 yards on nine carries. On the downside, backups Kevin Jones and Garrett Wolfe each lost a fumble.
- Defensive tackle Tommie Harris started but didn't show up in the box score. Fellow defensive linemen Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Dusty Dvoracek and Marcus Harrison all finished the game with a sack.
Cleveland 27, Detroit 10
- Incredibly, the Lions fought among themselves before the game. Defensive end Dewayne White and tight end Carson Butler were the culprits, fighting long enough that they both ended up on the ground. It's always good to be in a "fighting mood" during pregame warm-ups. But actually fighting? Unheard of. I'm guessing Butler, at least, will have his ticket punched out of Detroit soon.
- Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a tough night. Getting a start as he competes with Daunte Culpepper, Stafford threw an interception on his first pass and later overthrew two wide-open receivers (John Standeford and Adam Jennings) on passes downfield. Overall, Stafford completed 5 of 13 passes. Neither he nor Culpepper led the Lions to a score. We go to Week 3 of the preseason with no better idea of who will win the starting job.
- Let's just say it: Saturday night was terrible all around for the Lions. The special teams gave up two touchdown returns to Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, although one was called back by penalty. And Browns quarterback Derek Anderson picked apart the Lions' defense for 130 passing yards.
Green Bay 31, Buffalo 21
- The Packers' top defense held Buffalo scoreless in the first half and continued to swarm the ball. Safety Nick Collins forced an early interception, and Green Bay got some good pass rush out of its 4-3 nickel alignment. Defensive lineman Johnny Jolly finished with two sacks. The Packers led 21-0 when starters left the game. The only downside: Collins left with a rib injury.
- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was locked in, completing 8 of 9 passes for 98 yards and two scores. His 5-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver was an athletic play, and fantasy players everywhere are going to like that he connected multiple times with second-year tight end Jermichael Finley.
- Backup quarterback Brian Brohm got extended playing time because of a shoulder injury to Matt Flynn that isn't deemed serious. But Brohm didn't give anyone reason to believe he can overtake Flynn on the depth chart if everyone is healthy.
Let's catch up on some NFC North-related moves as the first week of free agency concludes:
- Green Bay finally netted itself a safety by agreeing to terms with free agent Anthony Smith, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Smith played for new Packers safeties coach Darren Perry when both were in Pittsburgh. We delved into why the Packers were so intent on signing a safety earlier Friday.
- Running back Kevin Jones re-signed with Chicago for reasons that remain unclear to me. Jones was inactive for five the Bears' last seven games in 2008, and offensive coordinator Ron Turner has spoken this offseason about giving Garrett Wolfe a long look as the No. 2 back behind starter Matt Forte. But Turner might have been overruled internally; the Bears gave Jones a $1 million signing bonus and will pay him a total of $2 million this season. That's not third-string money.
- Minnesota re-signed linebacker/special teams ace Heath Farwell to a three-year contract worth about $8 million. Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune reports $3.25 million in is guaranteed. That's a nice contract for a player who has never started an NFL game and missed last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But Farwell was one of the league's top special teams cover men before the injury and was on track to be the Vikings' top backup linebacker in 2008.
- Detroit signed free agent offensive lineman Daniel Loper to a one-year contract. Loper is the second former Tennessee player to sign on to play for new Lions coach Jim Schwartz, the Titans' former defensive coordinator. Cornerback Eric King is the other. Loper will provide depth and could compete with Damion Cook for the left guard position.
- Green Bay defensive back Jarrett Bush, a restricted free agent, visited Tennessee on Friday. Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reports.
- Minnesota has no visits scheduled for this weekend, vice president Rick Spielman said Friday. But it's possible that cornerback Karl Paymah could visit next week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
The top issues facing each team in the division:
|Wesley Hitt/Getty Images|
|Lovie Smith has some work to do with his defense.|
Primary issue: The Bears gave up an average of 241.2 passing yards per game in 2008, third-worst in the NFL. The run defense ranked No. 5 overall, but coach Lovie Smith must find a way to re-balance a once-proud group.
Smith, however, isn't likely to get help from a personnel infusion this offseason. A series of recently-signed contract extensions means the Bears must largely rely on existing players to improve. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher, and defensive tackle Tommie Harris are all in the midst of long-term deals.
If players remain static, that leaves two avenues for adjustment: Scheme and coaching.
Solution: Smith already has overhauled his defensive coaching staff and seems poised to impose some level of scheme change himself by calling the game-day defensive signals himself. The Bears could also help themselves at two positions in the draft: Defensive end and safety.
Secondary issue: Ron Turner's offense could use more explosion, both from the backfield and at wide receiver. In 2008, there was perhaps one player -- receiver Devin Hester -- who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball.
As a team, the Bears had 35 pass plays of more than 20 yards and three of more than 40. Those figures ranked No. 26 and No. 29, respectively, in the NFL.
Solution: Receiver seems an obvious target in free agency. Turner also would be wise to follow up on his plan to get scatback Garrett Wolfe more involved in the offense.
Primary issue: The Lions finished 2008 with the NFL's 30th-ranked rush offense and 32nd-ranked rush defense. Valuing quickness over size, the Lions got pushed all over the field on both sides of the ball and need to overhaul both lines.
|Derick Hingle/Icon SMI|
|Alabama's Andre Smith could fit in nicely with the Lions.|
This is not a one-year project, and instead takes several good drafts, along with at least some isolated free-agent acquisitions, to accomplish. Conservatively, the Lions need to find at least two guards, two defensive tackles and an eventual successor for center Dominic Raiola.
Solution: The Lions must take a lineman with at least one, if not both, of their No. 1 picks. Some believe Alabama left tackle Andre Smith could be the best player in the draft. Left tackle isn't the Lions' top need, but Smith could set a tone for the entire offensive line.
Secondary issue: The Lions have three veteran quarterbacks on their roster: Drew Stanton, Daunte Culpepper and Jon Kitna. They have the opportunity to re-sign Dan Orlovsky. None of those players, however, are long-term answers at the position.
New coach Jim Schwartz joked last month that it was time to replace former quarterback Bobby Layne, who last played for the Lions 51 years ago. The Lions need a permanent answer at the game's most important position.
Solution: The Lions will consider whether to take Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick. That's a possibility. Here's another: Making Culpepper or Orlovsky a bridge starter and selecting a developmental quarterback later in the draft.
|David Stluka/Getty Images|
|In the Packers' new 3-4 scheme, Aaron Kampman will move to outside linebacker.|
Primary issue: The Packers believe their personnel is flexible enough to absorb a pending shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme, but it's inevitable that some positions are going to turn over.
Aaron Kampman's shift to linebacker means the Packers need a new defensive end. And there's no guarantee that the two primary outside linebackers on the roster, Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga, will be able to handle the new scheme.
Unfortunately for them, the Packers will have to make those decisions months before training camp begins. Now is the time when the best alternatives are available.
Solution: General manager Ted Thompson needs to step out of his free agency shell and sign at least one linebacker and one defensive end to protect himself this summer. Those positions should also be a focus of the April draft.
Secondary issue: The offensive line got old in a hurry last season, and it's possible the Packers will have to replace at least one, if not both, of their tackles. Right tackle Mark Tauscher is headed to free agency while recovering from a torn ACL, a bad situation for both sides. And left tackle Chad Clifton struggled with both knees last season and has one year left on his contract.
The Packers aren't exactly set at guard, either. They rotated Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Josh Sitton through the position last year, but it's possible that Colledge could figure as a replacement for one of the tackles.
Solution: Colledge could replace Tauscher at right tackle. It's also likely that Thompson will select multiple linemen in the draft.
Primary issue: For three years, the Vikings have been looking for the long-term successor to Culpepper. Coach Brad Childress has given Tarvaris Jackson every opportunity to claim that position, and you better believe that Childress would love for Jackson to do that once and for all in 2009.
|Rick Scuteri/US PRESSWIRE|
|The Vikings need Tarvaris Jackson to take over as starting QB.|
The question becomes the extent to which the Vikings will protect themselves against the possibility that Jackson can't do it. Gus Frerotte isn't likely to return, so at the very least the Vikings will have to find a new veteran backup for Jackson.
Many fans are hoping that second-year player John David Booty can challenge Jackson for the job, but it's unlikely that will happen in 2009.
Solution: The Vikings have a veteran team that seems primed for a deep playoff run, but they need to elevate their quarterback play one way or the other. Signing the best free agent available, likely to be Jeff Garcia, is probably their best option.
Secondary issue: The Ryan Cook experiment could end for several reasons, leaving the Vikings in need of a right tackle. Cook could replace veteran Matt Birk at center, or he simply could be benched after nearly three inconsistent seasons as a starter.
Cook played center in college at New Mexico and never has looked entirely comfortable as a right tackle.
Solution: There are no internal replacements. This position will have to come from outside the organization. Childress has long been a fan of Philadelphia's Jon Runyan, a free agent this spring, but that would be a short-term decision.
The toe injury of Chicago tailback Matt Forte on Thursday night highlights the Bears' personnel anomaly in the backfield.
The Bears have used Forte almost exclusively this season, leaving their other three tailbacks -- Adrian Peterson, Garrett Wolfe and Kevin Jones -- mostly idle. Forte, in fact, entered this game against New Orleans with 269 of the Bears' 350 carries by running backs.
When he departed, the Bears were left to choose between Peterson and Jones as their top tailback. (Wolfe is inactive because of a hamstring injury).
Jones ranks second on the team with 34 carries, but he has been inactive for the past four games and probably wouldn't have been available Thursday night were it not for Wolfe's injury. As it turned out, the Bears chose Peterson to enter the game first.
Forte returned to the game with 10:38 remaining in the second quarter, and the depthless Bears drew a sigh of relief.
This is the time of year when coaches like to say that rookies are no longer rookies. They've been involved in at least 14 "game weeks," including the preseason, and thus made it through the duration of a typical college season.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|The Bears have leaned heavily on rookie Matt Forte so far this season and they aren't going to stop now.|
This hasn't been a huge year for impact rookies in the NFC North, in part because three-fourths of the teams in essence are playing without a first-round draft pick. Minnesota and Green Bay didn't have a first-round pick, while Chicago offensive tackle Chris Williams (No. 14 overall) had back surgery in August.
We'll take a more in-depth look at each team's rookie class after the season, but for now let's consider five rookies who could impact their teams during the final six games of the season. Here's the drill: I'll name my top four. You give me your suggestions for the fifth (the mailbag would be fine) and we'll all meet back here on Friday.
1. Chicago tailback Matt Forte: It would be hard for the Bears to rely on Forte any more than they already do. He has accounted for nearly 75 percent of their rushing yards, and his 43 receptions are 10 more than his closest teammate. From a conditioning standpoint, you would think the Bears will give him relief at some point. But there's no indication that they trust Kevin Jones, Adrian Peterson or Garrett Wolfe enough to take Forte off the field.
2. Detroit tailback Kevin Smith: It appears the Lions have finally committed to using Smith as their primary runner rather than splitting his carries with veteran Rudi Johnson. Smith has produced 208 yards over the past two games, his best stretch of the season, and should get a long look over the final six games.
3. Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson: This is a notoriously difficult position for rookies. Playing as the No. 4 receiver this season, Nelson has 21 receptions. But that total ranks as the fourth most for rookie receivers in the NFL. His playing time might depend on the condition of teammate James Jones' knee, but Nelson should get his share of opportunities.
4. Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril: He only has one sack this season, but there are some who believe Avril could develop into a significant outside pass-rusher. All he needs is playing time, and the Lions should give him plenty of it. Starters Dewayne White and Jared DeVries have been dinged up, and their injuries provide the Lions a perfect reason to get Avril a prominent role.
5. ????? Again, your nominations are accepted here.
CHICAGO -- We interrupt the track meet in Chicago to wonder how much longer punter Chris Kluwe will be in a Vikings uniform.
I like Kluwe, but a few minutes ago he made one of the worst plays you'll see a punter make. Standing at about the Chicago 9-yard line, Kluwe dropped a perfect snap. He picked it up and tried to punt, but by then Bears safety Craig Steltz was in position for the block.
The ball landed close to Kluwe's foot, where it seemed destined to be downed. The Bears would have had excellent field position but would have had to earn a score. Instead, Kluwe kicked the ball out of the scrum -- which, of course, is against NFL rules. As it turned out, the ball bounced right into the hands of Bears special teamer Garrett Wolfe, who returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.
The penalty was declined, and the score counted.
Kluwe clearly panicked, which isn't a good sign considering the pressure Kluwe is under. As you'll remember, Vikings coach Brad Childress threatened Kluwe's job two weeks ago after he failed to kick the ball out of bounds as directed at New Orleans. The result was a pair of touchdown returns from the Saints' Reggie Bush.
Was Kluwe thinking too much about his orders to -- no doubt -- kick the ball out of bounds against the Bears' Devin Hester? It's a good bet -- and a bad turn of events for Kluwe's job security.
After an unexpected 11-day diversion in Green Bay, we finally resume our NFC North tour Monday with a trip to the Minnesota Vikings' training camp at Minnesota State University. The party will continue later this week when we drop in on the Detroit Lions, so you better get your seat now.
Look for an expanded mailbag later Monday morning and we'll check in when we get our feet on the ground in Mankato.
Around the NFC North on a fine 55-degree Minnesota morning:
- Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will make his first start Monday night as the team's starting quarterback. The Packers will take on Cincinnati in their preseason opener, and Rodgers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Hopefully there will be more cheers than boos."
- Rookie running back Kevin Smith was working with the Lions' first-team offense Sunday morning in practice, but coach Rod Marinelli insisted there was nothing to read into it. "There's no rotation right now," Marinelli said, according to the Detroit News. "We're just working guys."
- Chicago Bears running back Garrett Wolfe put on a show in the team's preseason opener last week -- catching a 25-yard touchdown and logging a 42-yard run -- despite a left hamstring injury that leaves him at about 80 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I haven't done anything in this league," Wolfe said, "so every opportunity I have to show something, I need to be out there."
- The Vikings are hoping that veteran Vinny Ciurciu can step in to Heath Farwell's role as the No. 4 linebacker and special teams leader. Farwell will miss the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
4:30 PM ET Philadelphia Washington 8:25 PM ET San Diego San Francisco
1:00 PM ET Minnesota Miami 1:00 PM ET Baltimore Houston 1:00 PM ET Detroit Chicago 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Carolina 1:00 PM ET Atlanta New Orleans 1:00 PM ET Green Bay Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Kansas City Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET New England New York 4:05 PM ET New York St. Louis 4:25 PM ET Buffalo Oakland 4:25 PM ET Indianapolis Dallas 8:30 PM ET Seattle Arizona