NFL Nation: Mark Tauscher

Packers eyeing Wisconsin lineman

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The University of Wisconsin has produced plenty of quality NFL offensive linemen recently -- from Travis Frederick to Peter Konz to Joe Thomas to Ricky Wagner to Kevin Zeitler.

None of them, however, has made the short trip north to play for the Green Bay Packers.

It has been more than 10 years since the Packers drafted a lineman from Wisconsin. In back-to-back years (2000 and 2001), they picked tackle Mark Tauscher (seventh round) and guard Bill Ferrario (fourth round). Tauscher went on to become a longtime starter, while Ferrario lasted only one season as a backup.

There’s another former Badgers lineman on the Packers’ radar this year. Ryan Groy said Thursday that he met with Packers offensive line coach James Campen on Wednesday at the NFL combine.

Groy played mostly guard for the Badgers, starting every game at left guard last season. But he also has experience at tackle (three starts in 2012) and center (one start in 2011).

With the Packers potentially in the market for a center depending on whether they re-sign Evan Dietrich-Smith, who will be a free agent next month, Groy might be someone the Packers would consider in the late rounds.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated Groy as the 10th-best guard in the draft , although he’s not limiting himself to just that position.

“A lot of guys have asked me that, and what I’ve told them mostly is the inside three [positions],” Groy said on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. “That’s where I feel most comfortable. I feel very comfortable at guard [and] center, and I told them if need be I can play tackle. I’m not afraid to go out there. I’m not afraid to play it.”

Groy’s lone start at center came against Illinois as a sophomore.

“Pete Konz went down against Minnesota, hurt his ankle, and then I played [center] at Illinois,” said Groy, who said he was measured at 6-foot-4˝ and 316 pounds at the combine. “Travis switched to center in the third quarter and I played left guard the last three games [of that season].”
Earlier this month, we noted the Green Bay Packers would be close to the NFL salary-cap limit of $120 million when free agency began. Salary-cap rules remain a bit of a mystery here during this post-lockout frenzy, but from what I can see, the Packers have created at least $19 million in cap space over the past few days.

That total is the sum cap values of the five veteran players they reportedly plan to release. The most recent name added to the list is longtime offensive lineman Mark Tauscher, who managed only 12 starts over the past two years because of injuries. The list also includes defensive lineman Justin Harrell, along with linebackers Brandon Chillar, Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga.

It's possible the Packers have created more space by renegotiating some veteran contracts, but if that's the case, it hasn't yet been reported.

If you're hoping the Packers will use that money to sign a veteran free agent, you've obviously not been watching how they have operated over the past few years. Some of the money will go toward signing their draft class. (Their rookie pool assignment was about $5.1 million this year.) Some of it might go to receiver James Jones, if he re-signs, and then I presume the Packers will consider contract extensions for some of their young starters, from guard Josh Sitton to tight end Jermichael Finley to receiver Jordy Nelson.

More details for the curious: It's been a while since the NFL salary cap has mattered, so let's touch a bit on what is happening.

The NFL salary cap is operating under post-June 1 rules. That means when a team releases or trades a player at this point, his entire salary cap figure for 2011 disappears from their books. The remaining "acceleration," if any, from his contract then counts against the team's 2012 salary cap.

That acceleration is known as "dead money" because it is cap space devoted to players no longer on the roster. So the Packers will have some dead money charged to their 2012 cap as a result of these 2011 moves. My pea brain is spinning too much to figure it out, but it will be a relatively small number.

Recent Packers posts: Who might replace left guard Daryn Colledge? The Packers trust Mason Crosby as their place-kicker of the future. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers really, really wants the Packers to re-sign Jones. To little surprise, the Packers told Barnett he will be traded or released. Chillar suffered a cruel fate.
Some of you might already have seen John Clayton's projection of the NFL's 2011 salary cap, which will return at least some teams to the era of cap-induced cuts and adjustments after years of escalated spending.

Clayton estimates a 2011 cap of $120 million for each team. That's about a six percent drop from the most recent cap in 2009, and it would require adjustments for two NFC North teams in order to be compliant. Below is a look at the cap status of all four of our teams along with some thoughts on potential impact:

Chicago Bears
Cap status:
About $37 million under

Comment: If anything, the Bears will have to spend significantly in order to exceed the cap "floor," or the minimum expenditure required. Regardless, all indications have been that the Bears are prepared to be active in free agency. At least one starting-caliber offensive lineman should be on their shopping list.

Detroit Lions
Cap status:
About $16.5 million under
Comment: The Lions are positioned to pursue cornerbacks and/or linebackers on the free agent market. But the big question everyone is asking: Can they fit cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha under the cap? The answer, as always in the case of the salary cap, is yes. Any one player can be squeezed in as long as the team is comfortable with the consequences. The Lions would need to make a priority judgment on whether Asomugha is worth the cap percentage he would consume or if they should use it on multiple other players.

Green Bay Packers
Cap status:
About $62,000 under
Comment: As Clayton notes, the Packers have a couple relatively easy fixes. They seem likely to part ways with linebacker Nick Barnett, saving $4.4 million against the cap. Right tackle Mark Tauscher's presumed departure would erase another $4.5 million. And in reality, the Packers' biggest upcoming expenditures will be signing their draft class and probably kicker Mason Crosby.

Minnesota Vikings
Cap status:
About $5.1 million over
Comment: Clayton suggests two fixes: Releasing receiver Bernard Berrian and extending the contract of tailback Adrian Peterson, who is scheduled for a monster base salary of $10.72 million. Coach Leslie Frazier said this offseason that he wants Berrian to return, and extending Peterson will be a delicate, complex and time-consuming project. You at least have to wonder how active the Vikings will be on the free agent market.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
12:00
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» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

It's no secret that the Bears patched together a serviceable offensive line last season, one born of trial, error and desperation. But with an entire offseason to prepare, they will need a better Week 1 plan. The Bears need help across the line, and you could make an argument for any of the five positions as their top need. Center Olin Kreutz could relieve the situation by re-signing when the free-agent market opens, but otherwise the Bears don't have a single position with an established starter. It's not clear where incumbents Frank Omiyale, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza or J'Marcus Webb will play in 2011. Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris highlighted the Bears' need for an upgraded interior pass rush. The Bears would benefit from a pass-rushing defensive tackle as well as some depth behind defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije.

Detroit Lions

The Lions have only two experienced cornerbacks under contract, Nate Vasher and Alphonso Smith. They offered 2010 starter Chris Houston a contract tender, but he is likely to be made an unrestricted free agent when the market opens. The Lions would like him to return but the situation's uncertain. In either event, cornerback is the Lions' top need this offseason. Running a close second is outside linebacker after the Lions released one starter, Julian Peterson, and issued a qualifying tender for another, Zack Follett, whose 2010 neck injury could preclude his return. There has been some discussion about moving middle linebacker DeAndre Levy to the outside, but that probably would still leave the Lions in search of two new starters. Finally, the Lions want more production from their No. 3 receiver after Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for 21 receptions last season. Good depth at tight end mitigates the urgency of this need, but the Lions are one injury away from a shortage at receiver.

Green Bay Packers

The Super Bowl XLV champions will get an internal boost at several positions from the 15 players who finished last season on injured reserve. As a result, this roster doesn't have many obvious shortcomings. But at the top of a short list is outside linebacker, where the Packers rotated three players opposite Clay Matthews last season. The Packers also must continue crafting their succession plan for longtime offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Last year's No. 1 pick, Bryan Bulaga, replaced Tauscher in Week 5. Bulaga could stay at right tackle, or he could ultimately take over for Clifton. In either case, the Packers eventually will need further reinforcements. The same is true at receiver, where veteran Donald Driver is 36 and No. 3/4 receiver James Jones could sign elsewhere as a free agent. Jordy Nelson remains under contract, but Driver's age and Jones' uncertain status make receiver a secondary area of need for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

As we've been discussing for months, the Vikings need to acquire at least one and perhaps two new quarterbacks. Their dream scenario is to draft one who is ready to start right away, but that might be difficult if they stay in the No. 12 overall slot. Short of that eventuality, the Vikings might be forced to draft a future starter and sign or trade for a short-term answer. The Vikings are also looking to replace two starters on their defensive line, left end Ray Edwards and nose tackle Pat Williams, and could have three starting positions in their secondary up for grabs. Only cornerback Antoine Winfield seems guaranteed of a starting spot. The receiver position could need an overhaul if they lose Sidney Rice to free agency and Bernard Berrian is ultimately released, as has been speculated.
Ted ThompsonKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTed Thompson's team-building philosophy will likely be popular around the league this offseason.
The Green Bay Packers ended the 2009 season with short- and long-term needs at both offensive tackle positions. Their ensuing plan was never in doubt. The Packers re-signed both incumbents, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and then sat tight until the April draft -- where they patiently waited for Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga to fall to them at No. 23 overall.

Clifton started all 20 games of the Packers' run to the Super Bowl XLV championship, while Bulaga replaced an injured Tauscher for the final 16. It was a routine example of the Packers' team-building philosophy: Develop your own depth, promote from within and spend free-agent money to retain your own players.

Around here, we've gone around and around on the Packers' recent unwillingness to supplement their roster with veteran free agents. It's hard to argue with the results this season, and now it's time to find out how -- and if -- the rest of the NFL implements "The Packer Way."

The methods of all Super Bowl champions are scrutinized and often copied the following offseason. But this year, the Packers' competitors aren't likely to have a choice. The impending lockout will wipe out free agency, at least for now. Although the market will eventually open when a collective bargaining agreement is reached, it's quite possible the timing will be reversed.

The draft will come first, followed by free agency, rather than the other way around. Teams will not have the luxury of making draft decisions based on the results of free agency. Without a hard plan in place, they must, in the words of Arizona general manager Rod Graves, "approach the draft as if that's the only thing we have to focus on."

We needn't waste much time on the background. You know it well. Of all the players currently on the Packers' roster, only three -- cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Ryan Pickett and linebacker Brandon Chillar -- were signed as veteran free agents. Three more were acquired via trade: running back Ryan Grant, along with safeties safety Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith. The rest were either drafted by the Packers, signed as undrafted rookies, claimed on waivers or signed off another team's practice squad.

The intriguing issue is whether the Packers are uniquely equipped to navigate the offseason as it crystallizes for all NFL teams. From the outside, it sure seems that way.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bulaga
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Packers waited for Bryan Bulaga to fall to them in last year's draft, and the offensive tackle was a starter most of the season.
"I'd say that our football team represents what you can accomplish building through the draft," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a credit to [general manager] Ted Thompson and our personnel staff. We're a draft-and-develop program, we have been for the last five years, we'll continue to do so, and this is a very important draft class for our football team to keep the competition at a high level in the locker room, to keep the depth of our football team as deep as possible. The lesson we learned going through this past season is a very good experience to draw from, so we believe in the draft. That's important to us."

As he has in past years at the scouting combine, Thompson found himself answering questions last week about his approach to free agency and the draft. This year, however, there was no tinge of derision. Instead, Thompson was asked to explain how he stocked his team so well while largely eschewing a primary source of talent.

Thompson credited former Packers general manager Ron Wolf for being a "strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft" but otherwise said: "Our guys do a lot of work."

Thompson said: "Most of our entire staff and personnel was trained by Ron Wolf and he believed very strongly in scouting and going to see players and doing due diligence and working just as hard on the seventh-round guys and the free agents as we do on the first-round guys. That's just the way we do business."

It's not as if other teams don't try their best to draft good players. But the Packers have two factors working in their favor that some others do not:

  1. A proven system for scouting, evaluating and valuing potential draft picks
  2. A single-mindedness about the draft that, without the crutch of free agency, forces them to keep looking until they find what they want

It was interesting last week listening to the disparate viewpoints of NFL general managers. Some were clearly relived to see two draft-first teams, the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, advance to the Super Bowl.

"Oh man, I love it," said Billy Devaney of the St. Louis Rams. "Isn't that awesome? I think both teams combined maybe had four starters that they got through free agency. The vast majority were draft picks, a couple of street free agents here and there, but those two organizations -- they've done it the way that everybody else aspires to do it. Putting it together with the foundation of hitting on their draft picks, and doing a great job keeping their guys."

The truth is, not everyone does aspire to it. Two disciples of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested it's wrong to ignore any avenue for improving their team.

"I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency," said the Atlanta Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff. " I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeon-holed as one type of team builder."

GM Scott Pioli of the Kansas City Chiefs suggested that patience will allow teams to stay true to their core values, whatever they may be.

"Everybody is going to build their team the same way that they believe," Pioli said. "You're going to have the draft. You're going to have free agency. None of this is going to go away. At some point everything is going to be done."

But if nothing else, the uncertainty about the timing and nature of this year's free-agent market seems likely to make the draft each team's first stop for offseason upgrades. You don't have to look any further than the NFC North to find recent examples where teams were able to focus their attention elsewhere in the draft after making inroads in free agency six weeks earlier.

The Chicago Bears, for example, signed free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers in March and then focused on safeties at the top of the April draft, eventually landing expected 2011 starter Major Wright. The Detroit Lions signed receiver Nate Burleson in free agency, relieving a primary roster need and freeing them to pursue running back Jahvid Best and safety Amari Spievey in the draft. Both players are likely 2011 starters.

This spring will be a guessing game -- for most teams. For the Packers, it will be business as usual.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Interest in Minnesota: The Minnesota Vikings are 3-6 and aren't likely to make the playoffs. They're returning to the Metrodome for a home game against the rival Green Bay Packers, and there have been some questions about the reception coach Brad Childress and the rest of the team will get. I'm guessing it will be tamer than you might expect. This season's disappointment has gone on long enough, and I'm guessing Vikings fans who actually come to the game won't muster much venom. Second, I'm guessing there will be even more Packers fans in attendance than usual. I've been amused at how many of them have organized in favor of Childress keeping his job, for obvious reasons. The Twitter page @savechilly is especially creative.

2. Optimism in Detroit: It's amazing how quickly sentiment can change around an NFL team. Two weeks ago, Detroit Lions fans were riding higher than they had in years, anticipating a potential upset of the New York Jets. The Lions led for much of that affair before losing quarterback Matthew Stafford (shoulder) and the game in overtime. A week later, it seems legions of fans and media are questioning the job performance of coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew. As we've discussed before, the Mayhew-Schwartz record since the start of the 2009 season is abysmal. In fact, it's now 4-21. But the worst thing the Lions could do now is panic and start over. Mayhew and Schwartz deserve three years to funnel the improvements they've made into the team's won-loss record.

3. Average age in Green Bay: The Green Bay Packers' decision to waive cornerback Al Harris and place right tackle Mark Tauscher on injured reserve robbed them of two key veterans. Tauscher has been asked to travel with the team and participate in meetings, but as Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette and Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com have pointed out, the Packers are a much younger team now. They have only six players older than 30. The good news is that the Packers' locker room leadership had already shifted toward quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Cornerback Charles Woodson is also a calming presence.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler managed to stay upright Sunday thanks to the help of an improved offensive line.
RISING

1. Chicago Bears offensive line: This group was the target of frequent criticism for the league-high 32 sacks the Bears gave up through the first half of the season. Some of it was deserved, and some was convenient. Regardless, I think we can all agree that Sunday marked a breakthrough performance. Although the Vikings' pass rush has fallen off this season, the Bears should be recognized for the time they gave quarterback Jay Cutler. There isn't really a way to measure it other than to say it was substantial. Cutler was sacked only once and completed 63 percent of his passes. He joked Tuesday that he wasn't sore from the game because he was hardly hit. Kudos to a maligned unit for stepping up in a big game.

2. Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers right tackle: The decision to place Tauscher on injured reserve means Bulaga, originally drafted as the Packers' left tackle of the future, will be expected to at least finish out the year as their right tackle. Bulaga has made a surprisingly smooth transition to the role -- not because he was deemed incapable, but because the shift in sides is usually as difficult as a swap between tackle and guard. Bulaga has done both this year, working first at left tackle, then at left guard and now at right tackle. It's not clear where his long-term future rides, but to this point he's held down an unfamiliar spot for a first-place team.

3. Israel Idonije, Chicago Bears defensive end: There has been some discussion that Idonije's production this season is purely a result of Julius Peppers arriving to play on the other side. I'm sure it has helped, but Idonije beat a number of blocks on his own in Sunday's 27-13 victory over the Vikings. Among other plays, Idonije dropped Vikings tailback Toby Gerhart for a 1-yard loss during a key third-quarter sequence in the red zone.

Matthews, Pickett active for Packers

October, 24, 2010
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers will have linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (ankle) for Sunday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings. That's the headline for the pre-game inactive list for both teams.

To no surprise, right tackle Mark Tauscher is inactive, meaning rookie Bryan Bulaga will start his third consecutive game.

For the Vikings, cornerback Lito Sheppard was deactivated to make room for rookie cornerback Chris Cook, who returns after missing two weeks with a knee injury. The Vikings will start Asher Allen opposite Antoine Winfield, with Cook serving as the nickel. Newcomer Frank Walker would play in the dime if necessary.

Tyrell Johnson will start at strong safety for Husain Abdullah (concussion).

Wrap-up: Dolphins 23, Packers 20

October, 17, 2010
10/17/10
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Some quick thoughts on the Green Bay Packers' 23-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

What it means: The Green Bay Packers are 3-3, with all three losses coming by three points. Two have been in overtime, and the winning field goal in the third came with four seconds remaining in regulation. No matter how small the margin of defeat, however, the Packers are nowhere close to where they hoped to be six games into the season.

This will turn it around: In classic Ted Thompson fashion, the Packers acquired safety Anthony Smith from the Jacksonville Jaguars after the game for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. Yes, it's the same Smith whom the Packers released on the final cutdown day prior to the 2009 season. Smith will provide some depth following injuries to Morgan Burnett and Derrick Martin, and before Atari Bigby can return from the physically unable to perform list.

Offensive: The Packers had 359 net yards, but 86 of them came on one pass play to receiver Greg Jennings in the first quarter. They averaged 4.7 yards on their other 58 plays. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to be uncharacteristically inaccurate, completing only 18 of 33 passes, and his best play Sunday was what appeared to be an impromptu quarterback sneak to tie the game with 13 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Rodgers did appear to be under duress for a good part of the game; defensive end Cameron Wake had three of the Dolphins' five sacks.

Controversial call: Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum was so upset about a fourth-quarter call that he showed a photograph of the pre-snap alignment to reporters, according to Kareem Copeland of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Linebacker Robert Francois was called for being over the center on a punt, a new rule this season. But Slocum said the photograph showed Francois was well off the line of scrimmage and in compliance with the rule. The call, however, returned possession to the Dolphins and set up a go-ahead touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano.

Short-handed: We already knew the Packers would be without tight end Jermichael Finley, right tackle Mark Tauscher and linebacker Nick Barnett, among others. But they also played Sunday without linebacker Clay Matthews, defensive end Ryan Pickett and defensive lineman Mike Neal. Matthews' replacement, Brady Poppinga, left Sunday's game with an injury.

Back in action: The Packers made an effort to get the ball to their top offensive playmaker following the loss of Finley. Jennings finished with six receptions for 133 yards after catching 14 in the Packers' first five games combined.

What's next: The Packers host the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

Dolphins at Packers inactives

October, 17, 2010
10/17/10
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The Miami Dolphins' chances of victory have improved based on the Green Bay Packers' scratches Sunday at Lambeau Field.

The Packers will be without four starters, including the NFL's sacks leader, outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

Miami will have inside linebacker Channing Crowder in uniform for the first time this year. Defensive end Jared Odrick will miss his fourth straight game with a leg injury.

Miami Dolphins
Green Bay Packers

Wrap-up: Redskins 16, Packers 13

October, 10, 2010
10/10/10
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Graham Gano kicked a 33-yard field goal in overtime Sunday to give the Washington Redskins a 16-13 win over the Green Bay Packers.

What it means: Now 3-2, the Packers are once again a game behind the Chicago Bears in the NFC North. The Packers have to be sick after not only losing a game they controlled for most of the afternoon, but also after seeing another injury to a significant player. The Packers led for the first 58 minutes, 39 seconds of the game. I didn't see every snap while in transit, but watching Mason Crosby's 53-yard field goal attempt bounce off the left upright near the end of regulation must have been painful.

Injury of note: Tight end Jermichael Finley didn't return after suffering a knee injury in the first quarter and was later seen standing on the sidelines with crutches. The Packers already were playing Sunday without tailback Ryan Grant, right tackle Mark Tauscher, linebacker Nick Barnett, linebacker Brandon Chillar and safety Morgan Burnett. Losing Finley for any amount of time would represent the biggest blow by far. We'll keep you updated on any details that arise, but for now Packers fans everywhere are holding their breath. Making matters worse, the Packers also played much of the game without veteran backup tight end Donald Lee, who didn't return after suffering a shoulder injury. That left rookie Andrew Quarless playing key minutes in a close game.

Think about it: The Packers' two losses have both come with less than five seconds remaining in the respective games. Chicago Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould booted a 19-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in Week 3. Sunday, Gano's 33-yard field goal came on the final play.

Flags fly: The Packers added another nine penalties to their season total, including two that helped the Redskins get Gano in position for an easier field goal attempt in overtime. Linebacker Brady Poppinga's holding penalty gave the Redskins another set of downs after failing to convert third-and-1 from the Packers' 30-yard line, and a pass interference call three plays on cornerback Charles Woodson got the Redskins out of a third-and-15 at the 30.

What's next: The Packers hope to rebound next Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Miami Dolphins.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 6

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The battalion of satellite trucks was long gone when the Green Bay Packers reported to training camp this summer, having vacated the premises shortly after quarterback Brett Favre was traded in August 2008.

Every player was signed and accounted for, making a distant memory of holdouts that have disrupted training camp in each of the past two seasons.

All that remained was the type of tranquility that allows a team to come of age. Many of us believe the Packers have the makings of a special group, one that is already off to a good start with a productive and --- more importantly -- quiet training camp.

"We determine our path that we're going to take," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Maybe we have less obstacles going into the year than we've had in the past for people to evaluate. If they think that and like us more this year, that's fine. But in reality, if you don't come here and put in the time and put in that foundation, it doesn't matter. These are our foundation days, and I like the work our guys have been putting in."

Quiet and determined, the Packers have been busy implementing some second-year wrinkles into defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. They're facilitating the continued growth of tight end Jermichael Finley and are literally working overtime to rectify their special teams and kicking problems from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Christian Petersen/Getty ImageAaron Rodgers and the Packers faithful are thinking big.
These Packers are thinking big -- as big as it gets. So are their fans. I spotted more than a few "Super Bowl or bust" signs in the training camp bleachers last week. Those expectations are deserved and embraced in Green Bay.

"We have the right pedigree," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "... I like the way we're practicing. But a lot of things have to happen between now and the end of the season. You have to have a couple things go your way, you have to be able to stay healthy, and you have to execute down the stretch and win some games in the end."

Make no mistake, however. The building blocks are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Have the Packers done enough to address the pass defense that let them down in losses to Pittsburgh and Arizona last season? Three focal points jumped out during my visit to camp.

First, McCarthy has instituted mandatory tackling drills every day, an effort to limit yards after catch. You might not think that tackling is directly related to pass defense, but the Packers determined their problems stemmed as much from broken tackles after modest catches as they did from a lack of pass rush or poor coverage. So it's been back to the most basic of fundamentals this summer.

"If you're a high schooler," McCarthy said, "this is the practice you want to learn from."

Second, the Packers are committed to leaving second-year defensive lineman B.J. Raji at nose tackle rather than shifting him between tackle and end in their base scheme. Raji was unstoppable in an inside role at Boston College, and while the Packers' 3-4 scheme is not entirely comparable, this arrangement represents the Packers' best opportunity for collapsing the pocket.

Finally, there were some encouraging signs from two young cornerbacks the Packers are counting on for improved depth. Pat Lee grabbed an athletic interception by jumping over receiver James Jones during one practice, and second-year player Brandon Underwood has caught everyone's eye. Most recently, he returned an interception for a touchdown during a live period of Saturday's Family Night scrimmage. Rodgers and McCarthy went out of their way to mention Underwood during recent interviews.

"He's had a great camp," Rodgers said. McCarthy added: "Brandon is clearly a much more mature player. He has all the skills. ... The thing about him, he's a tough, smart guy, too. He's got a chance to be a really good player."

2. Can Finley continue his path to stardom? Rodgers picked up the phone shortly after the Pro Bowl, where he worked with tight ends Vernon Davis and Jason Witten, and called Finley. "I firmly believe Jermichael Finley is in their class," Rodgers said. "He is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. And that's what I told him. I said, 'You've got a lot of work in front of you, but you've got the talent and ability to be recognized as a Pro Bowl tight end every year.'"

As I noted during the offseason, Rodgers threw more toward Finley than any other Packers player during the second half of last season. He changed the way opponents approached the Green Bay offense, and he spent much of the offseason working to upgrade his blocking skills to give the Packers more of a run-pass option when he is in the game. After dabbling in boxing and mixed martial arts to improve his hand quickness, Finley said: "I'm still a work in progress with my blocking and stuff. I just need to maintain and stay consistent. If I get that straight, the sky is the limit for me."

3. Can the Packers straighten out their special teams? Rankings for combined coverage and return performance in the NFL are elusive, but Football Outsiders provides a reliable independent analysis. FO gave the Packers the worst special-teams rating in the league last season, and McCarthy has reacted with a number of measures that suggest the analysis is spot on.

The Packers are now devoting an extra 10 minutes to special teams per practice, a significant number considering how regimented modern-day NFL practices have become. They are holding an open competition to replace punter Jeremy Kapinos, for now pitting former Australian rules player Chris Bryan against Tim Masthay, and they welcomed a newly conditioned place-kicker Mason Crosby this summer.

Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is using the extra time to run coverage drills that emphasize controlled engagement with opponents. As for the punting competition, I couldn't say there was much separation between Bryan and Masthay. "Those guys are kicking it high and kicking it long," Slocum said.

As for Crosby, who struggled during the second half of last season, Slocum said: "Physically, I think he's at his best since I've been with him. He really put in some work in the summer and spring to increase his core strength. I think you're going to see that in his kickoff distance and from a field goal standpoint." Crosby missed five of his first 11 training camp kicks, but Slocum acknowledged that rotating Masthay and Bryan as holders probably played a role.

"We're working right now to build the cohesiveness of the hold, the snap and the kick," he said. "We missed a couple field goals, but I think his mentality is right where it needs to be, and we're working to get that together."

As if on cue, Crosby was lights-out during Saturday's Family Night scrimmage, drilling seven of eight attempts -- including shots from 47, 51 and 53 yards.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I would never have guessed receiver Donald Driver would have a contract extension by the end of the first week of camp. From the outside, you could have put two and two together and wondered if he wasn't entering his final season with the team. After all, Driver has already set the franchise record for career receptions. He turned 35 in the offseason, was entering the final year of his existing deal and would need to hold off a hard-charging young receiver in Jordy Nelson. But it didn't take the Packers long to realize Driver is rejuvenated after having both knees cleaned out this spring. "I feel so much better," he said.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

[+] EnlargeDonald Driver
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Packers gave wide receiver Donald Driver an extension one week into camp.
To this point, the Packers have been unable to find a spot for veteran linebacker Brady Poppinga in their scheme. During a midweek shakeup of the linebacker depth chart, Poppinga found himself behind Brandon Chillar, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones. He was later sidelined by a concussion. Poppinga is a good player who might be better suited as a 4-3 linebacker -- or, if he bulked up, a 4-3 defensive end.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Although there is a long way to go, it appears incumbent Daryn Colledge is holding off Jason Spitz for the starting left guard spot. Spitz has also been working behind center Scott Wells and would seem to be an ideal multi-position backup. The rest of the offensive line appears healthy and set: Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher at tackles, with Colledge and Josh Sitton at guards.
  • Although the Packers dramatically cut down their sack totals during the second half of last season, pass protection remains a point of emphasis. "We've got to do a better job of cutting down sacks and negative yardage plays," Rodgers said. He added that Finley's presence "opens up the field" for the offense and, in turn, makes it more difficult for defenses to mount a pass rush. I thought it was an interesting, if not direct, correlation and will take a closer look at that in the coming weeks.
  • From the outside, cornerback Al Harris appears to be in phenomenal condition as he completes his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury. McCarthy said Harris is "champing at the bit" to begin practicing, but he simply hasn't been cleared medically. Still, the Packers are much more optimistic about Harris' future than they were a few months ago. McCarthy said Harris was "a big question mark" at the end of spring practice but said there is "no reason to think" Harris won't return to the field in 2010. "I just don't want him to do too much too fast," McCarthy said. "I don't want him to have a setback."
  • The Packers made a number of experimental adjustments to their base linebacker group, most notably moving Matthews to the left side and inserting Chillar on the right side. The move was prompted by a minor injury that caused Brad Jones to miss several days of practice, and the switchback has yet to occur. "Brandon is sort of a multi-purpose guy for us last year and we've liked what we've seen from him," Capers said. One way or the other, Chillar is going to play a lot this season.
  • Safety Atari Bigby will miss about a month of practice because of ankle surgery, and it's quite possible the Packers will open the season with rookie Morgan Burnett in the starting lineup. While the Packers are excited about Burnett's future, it's always a tough task to get rookies ready to start in Week 1. Understandably, Burnett is swimming in the playbook right now. "By the end of training camp," he said, "I'll have everything that I need down."
  • McCarthy has installed a sign on the office wall of each coordinator. It reads: "Less volume, more creativity." McCarthy said it applies mostly to his own offensive play-calling, but it's also appropriate to keep in mind as the Packers enter their second year in Capers' scheme.
  • The early-camp understanding has been that Will Blackmon will resume his role as the primary kickoff and possible punt returner, but Blackmon's surgically-repaired knee has been sore and cost him a number of practices during the first week. He didn't participate in the Family Night scrimmage, but McCarthy attributed his absence to normal post-surgery soreness.
The offseason is nearly over. NFL vacations are under way, and we're going to follow suit here on the NFC North blog next week. We've got a few things to get to first, and we'll start with a look at the road we've traveled over the past five months.

There are any number of ways we can examine it, but I'm going to place 10 key offseason decisions into two categories: "smart" and "questionable." (Very creative, I know.) The final tally was just a nice round number, but I do think we can safely say it will take at least 10 victories for any NFC North team to make the 2010 playoffs.

So let's get to it:

[+] EnlargeNate Burleson
AP Photo/Paul SancyaNate Burleson gives the Lions another threat to score through the passing game.
SMART DECISIONS

  1. The Detroit Lions gave quarterback Matthew Stafford some tools. Receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler, running back Jahvid Best are all independent playmakers who are threats to score anytime they touch the ball. New left guard Rob Sims should help stabilize the offensive line. From the outside, this infusion gives the Lions the beginnings of a personality. A number of questions remain on defense, but the Lions should be able to match the explosiveness of most opposing offenses. For the first time in several years, we at least have an idea of how the Lions plan to win games.
  2. In searching for a new offensive coordinator, the Chicago Bears did the best they could under the circumstances. Team president Ted Phillips has left little doubt that substantial improvement will be necessary this season for coach Lovie Smith to keep his job, an ultimatum that considerably limited the candidates for this job. Mike Martz has his faults, but he also has the ideal résumé for this situation: Experience, a scheme that has always scored points and a hit-the-ground sprinting mentality that should have the Bears improved from Week 1. Under its current circumstances, this team couldn't afford to take a chance on an unproven coordinator.
  3. The Green Bay Packers recognized their age and depth issues along the offensive line and took appropriate steps to remedy them. They re-signed tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher but have also identified successors for both. Coach Mike McCarthy said rookie Bryan Bulaga will continue practicing behind Clifton at left tackle, so far resisting the urge to insert him into the competition at left guard. Meanwhile, T.J. Lang will be focused on the right side behind Tauscher. The combination gives the Packers a layer of competence followed by a layer of depth, two dynamics that were lacking when they opened the 2009 season.
  4. [+] EnlargeBryan Bulaga
    AP Photo/Morry GashRookie Bryan Bulaga gives the Packers added depth along the offensive line.
  5. The Minnesota Vikings played ball with quarterback Brett Favre. You might be tempted to ask if they had any other option, but we should still recognize the non-traditional approach Vikings coach Brad Childress openly took in dealing with his 40-year-old quarterback. Childress knows he has a much better chance to win the Super Bowl with Favre than without him, so he has given Favre the space to call his own shots. That freedom likely will include an excused absence from training camp. You might consider Childress hamstrung in this regard, but not every coach would openly admit to a separate set of standards among players. Had he pressured Favre at all, he would be looking at the likelihood of Tarvaris Jackson as his 2010 starter.
  6. NFC North teams recognized the division's substantive shift to the passing game and reacted accordingly. The Bears spent lavishly to sign pass-rusher Julius Peppers. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was on the doorstep of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch when the free-agent market opened, part of a massive overhaul of the Lions' defensive line. The Packers shifted B.J. Raji to nose tackle, the most natural position for him in a 3-4 scheme, in hopes of increasing their interior push on first and second downs. And the Vikings issued defensive end Ray Edwards a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, a move that ensured no one would sign him to an offer sheet.
QUESTIONABLE DECISIONS

  1. In focusing on their defensive line this offseason, the Lions left their linebacking and secondary exposed. I'm not yet convinced this was the wrong approach, and I'm glad the Lions didn't feel compelled to sign another layer of veteran "bridge" players who are either past their primes or never had one. But the bottom line is we can reasonably expect new, inexperienced starters at two linebacker spots, along with cornerback, nickelback and safety. The Lions have decided to take the plunge and trust their draft and development systems. It might work out, but there is measurable risk involved.
  2. Rod Marinelli
    Warren Wimmer/Icon SMIRod Marinelli knows there is work to be done with Chicago's defense.

  3. The Bears wanted Perry Fewell to join them as defensive coordinator, but Fewell spurned them to join the New York Giants instead. Left with few other options, the Bears promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to the job. Marinelli initially was hesitant about the job; he has never been an NFL coordinator and now will have a whole new set of responsibilities on game day. Marinelli's close relationship with Smith suggests more status quo and less tweaking. Are those the appropriate ingredients for a defense that has been slipping slowly for three years?
  4. Green Bay safety Atari Bigby, legitimately handed a tough situation by changes to the NFL's offseason rules, skipped the entire offseason -- including mandatory minicamp. Much of his absence came after the Packers traded up to draft safety Morgan Burnett in what should have been a clear message to Bigby. Burnett performed well enough in spring practices to create the possibility he could displace Bigby entirely with a strong training camp. If Bigby wanted out of Green Bay all along, he's done everything right. But if he envisions a long-term career with the Packers, he probably should have returned at least for minicamp.
  5. [+] EnlargeBrett Favre
    AP Photo/Andy KingThe Vikings still haven't found a long-term replacement for Brett Favre.
  6. The Vikings allowed another offseason to pass without making an effort to identify a long-term starter to succeed Favre (someday). Sage Rosenfels appears on the way out. Jackson was issued a low tender and still received no interest on the restricted free-agent market. Rookie Joe Webb wasn't considered a quarterback prospect by most teams before the draft, including the Vikings. This wasn't the best year for drafting quarterbacks, and the Vikings were buried with the No. 30 overall pick. But if rookies are going to have as hard of a time making this team as the Vikings say they are, why not package a few picks to take a chance with Tim Tebow? Or use a second- or third-round pick to take a Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy? The only thing worse than missing is not taking a swing at all.
  7. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Vikings and tailback Adrian Peterson appear to have developed a disconnect. Peterson trained on his own in Houston, was unable to break away from a hometown parade that conflicted with veteran minicamp and was the subject of an uncomfortable NFL Network video in which running backs coach Eric Bieniemy tore apart his 2009 performance. Does Peterson want a new contract? Has he suddenly transformed into a diva? Is he chafing at Bieniemy's tough love? No one has confirmed or denied anything, but the team needs to ensure it is on common ground with Peterson before training camp opens.

Computing NFC North progress

May, 11, 2010
5/11/10
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Best/Bulaga/GerhartUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Lions, Packers and Vikings addressed some of their most urgent needs on offense by using early draft picks to acquire Jahvid Best, Bryan Bulaga and Toby Gerhart, respectively.
In the weeks since the NFL draft, we've taken some big-picture looks at the NFC North. We've made a run at naming a preseason division favorite, tried to identify a preseason rookie of the year and examined some faulty assumptions.

Through it all, I've struggled to incorporate a gold mine of statistical analysis forwarded by ESPN's Stats & Information, a series of numbers that help illustrate some of the division's most notable areas of concern entering the offseason. So with the help of ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin, I want to use some of that information to open a unique window into whether NFC North teams have responsibly shored up their weaknesses over the past months.

Chicago Bears

Issue: The short-yardage running game
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears had the NFL's worst per-carry average (1.5 yards) on third-and-2 or less last season.
How the Bears responded: Hiring offensive line coach Mike Tice, who brings a power-running sensibility to Mike Martz's passing offense. Moving left guard Frank Omiyale to right tackle. Signing free agent tailback Chester Taylor.
Seifert analysis: Much of the Bears' hopes rest on Tice's shoulders to make over this group; as many as four 2009 starters will remain in their positions. Starting tailback Matt Forte is known more for shiftiness than power, opening an opportunity for Taylor to take over some of those opportunities. But effective power running, especially in short-yardage situations, requires frequency in play calling. Martz isn't known for his patience in the run game.

Issue: Pass defense in obvious passing situations
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears ranked near the bottom of the NFL when defending against third-and-8 or more.
How the Bears responded: Overhauling their pass rush by signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and jettisoning incumbents Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye (for now). The safety position is also in transition after the re-acquisition of safety Chris Harris and the drafting of Major Wright.
Seifert analysis: That's about as much personnel change as you'll see generated in one offseason from an incumbent coaching staff/front office. (Unless you're in Detroit.) The Peppers acquisition speaks for itself. He'll cause more havoc than Brown or Ogunleye, and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli isn't expected to be a heavy blitzer. Harris is no world-beater, but even mediocre play would be an improvement. If nothing else, the Bears get an A for effort in addressing this issue.

Detroit Lions

Issue: Explosive running plays, or lack thereof
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions had five running plays of 20 or more yards last season, the second-fewest in the NFL.
How the Lions responded: Trading up to draft Cal tailback Jahvid Best, who runs the 40 in 4.35 seconds and averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his college career.
Seifert analysis: Best was widely considered the most explosive runner in the draft. The Lions did take a step to shore up their offensive line, trading for Seattle guard Rob Sims, but they're hoping Best will be the kind of player who can make big plays on his own. That would make a huge difference for a team that had to work too hard to score touchdowns last season. The Lions ranked No. 29 in the NFL last season in yards per play (4.6) and tied for No. 27 with 28 total touchdowns. To keep up in their division, they need to be able to score quicker and easier.

Issue: Historically horrible pass defense, especially on downfield throws
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions were the only NFL team to allow opponents better than 50 percent completion percentage on passes that traveled 21 or more yards in the air last season.
How the Lions responded: Overhauling their personnel on the defensive line and secondary. Of the eight combined starters in those two units, at least five will be new. Depending on how competition plays out, safety Louis Delmas might be the only returning starter among the eight.
Seifert analysis: The defensive line is far ahead of the secondary in terms of credibility and potential to impact games. At different points in their careers, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Corey Williams have been dominant pass-rushers relative to their positions. The sky is the limit for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Lions' pass defense will go as far as their pass rush takes them. It stands to reason they should at least cut down on opponents' downfield percentage; more pass rush equals less time to let long passes develop. As for coverage, it probably couldn't be much worse than last season.

Green Bay Packers

Issue: Although it settled in the second half of the season, the Packers' pass protection allowed NFL-high sack levels.
Stats & Information revelation: The Packers allowed 31 sacks against defensive formations of four or fewer pass-rushers, tied for the league lead. That rate speaks to consistent 1-on-1 defeats.
How the Packers responded: Re-signing both veteran tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Drafting tackle Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall.
Seifert analysis: Some might question the wisdom of bringing back a pair of 30-something tackles. But the Packers at least have smoothed out the cliff they started last season on. They have a more reliable safety net should Clifton or Tauscher falter or get injured, and Bulaga promises a solid future at one of the tackle positions. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also has agreed there are times he should throw the ball quicker. The combination of better depth and Rodgers' experience should minimize the issues Green Bay suffered through last season.

Issue: Elite quarterbacks scorched the Packers' pass defense last season.
Stats & Information revelation: Despite disappointing performances against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and -- in the playoffs -- Arizona, the Packers led the NFL in defense against four-receiver sets.
How the Packers responded: They took only one aggressive step to address their personnel here: Trading up to draft safety Morgan Burnett. Otherwise, they are counting on the healthy return of cornerbacks Al Harris, Will Blackmon, Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood. They also are hoping Brad Jones can provide consistent pass rush as an outside linebacker.
Seifert analysis: Although this statistic is culled from a relatively small sample of the Packers' defensive plays, it might help explain why they are not as worked up about this situation as some of us are. Like it or not, they have chosen not to overreact to some disappointing games against Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks. They're trusting their developmental system to give them the personnel reinforcements they need. It should also be re-emphasized that they'll take on "elite" quarterbacks in only three games this season: Twice against Minnesota's Brett Favre, assuming he doesn't retire, and once against New England's Tom Brady.

Minnesota Vikings

Issue: Minnesota's running game was less effective in 2009.
Stats & Information revelation: Nearly 27 percent of the Vikings' rushing attempts went for no gain or a loss, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
How the Vikings responded: Allowing Taylor to depart via free agency. Trading up to draft Toby Gerhart, a 231-pound tailback.
Seifert analysis: The Taylor-Gerhart swap will be secondary to the larger issues Minnesota must address. First, they'll need more even-handed performances from an offensive line that introduced two new starters in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Second, tailback Adrian Peterson must continue his career-long efforts to contain his aggressiveness long enough to allow the hole to develop. It's an especially important task in a zone-blocking scheme.

Issue: Minnesota nose tackle Pat Williams has flirted with retirement, and both he and teammates Kevin Williams might have to serve a four-game suspension after testing positive for a diuretic.
Stats & Information revelation: Even with Williams' advancing age, the Vikings' up-the-gut defense still led the NFL by allowing 3.0 yards per carry last season.
How the Vikings responded: Re-signed backup Jimmy Kennedy and issued a high tender to fellow backup Fred Evans, a restricted free agent.
Seifert analysis: The Vikings are satisfied with their depth at both defensive tackle positions and have long groomed Evans to replace Pat Williams. No matter whom they acquire, there will be a drop-off if their two starters are suspended concurrently. The bigger issue is finding a long-term replacement for Pat Williams. Is Evans the guy? He'll get his chance to prove it should the suspensions stand.
Green Bay PackersScott Boehm/Getty ImagesA computer simulation system predicts Green Bay will win the NFC North this season -- assuming a certain Minnesota quarterback retires.
Preseason predictions are a lot like flying lessons. You can practice and study and anticipate as much as you want while sitting in a simulator. The reality, however, is no one knows if you can fly a plane until you get up in the (real) air.

That's a pretentious, Minnesota cake-eating way of acknowledging the limited value of predicting in May who will sit atop the NFC North on the night of Jan. 2, 2011. But to the extent that it matters, and following up on our "faulty assumptions" discussion from last week, I think we are erring in assuming that Minnesota should be the preseason favorite to repeat as division champions.

In fact, if I had to pick a winner right now -- and I don't, and it doesn't matter, but I'm doing it anyway -- I would go with Green Bay. (Audience: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.)

I'll state my case in a bit. But first, let's consider the most quantitative way I'm aware of to make these predictions. We first introduced you to AccuScore last summer as Brett Favre was moving closer to joining the Vikings. The AccuScore people develop variables to create digital profiles for NFL coaches and players. Those profiles are used to create "teams" that are then run through a computer simulation to play out a "season" based on each team's actual NFL schedule.

Using 10,000 such simulated seasons last year, AccuScore correctly predicted the NFC North's final standings. This year, as you can see in the charts below, AccuScore is picking Minnesota to win the division if Favre returns and the Packers if he doesn't.

ESPN.com's Spring Power Rankings also pick Minnesota to finish ahead of Green Bay, presumably based on similar expectations for Favre. But I think we should at least question whether Favre's presence automatically will give the Vikings a division title. These are two teams, after all, that finished within a game of each other last season, primarily as a result of Minnesota's season sweep.

(Sorry, Chicago and Detroit. My head isn't big enough to consider more than two division contenders right now.)

Here's where I'm coming from:

  1. Favre made an undeniable impact on the Vikings last season, but let's not forget it came as a result of arguably the best season of his career. He threw seven interceptions in 2009 after throwing at least twice that many in 14 of his previous 17 full seasons. To be fair, we can't rule out a repeat performance. But what do you think is more likely: A 2010 season closer to his career averages or another precedent-setter? If a modest slip accounts for even one additional loss, it could be enough for the Packers to leapfrog them in the standings.
  2. If Favre is less effective in 2010, it stands to reason he'll be less dangerous to the Packers' biggest weakness of last season: Pass defense against elite quarterbacks. When you look at Green Bay's schedule, you see eight games in which they will face a quarterback who has played in a Pro Bowl. But I would only consider three of those games -- two against Favre and one against New England's Tom Brady -- to feature the kind of elite passers who ravaged the Packers last season. And this doesn't take into account the possibility that the Packers' pass defense will improve independently of Favre's potential slide. I have my doubts about the Packers' potential for improvement, but it's conceivable the Vikings will be less equipped to exploit it.
  3. Jermichael Finley
    AP Photo/Jim MoneTight end Jermichael Finley had a breakout season in 2009, catching 55 passes for 676 yards and 5 TDs.

  4. There are some areas in which Green Bay unquestionably has improved and Minnesota appears to have weakened since the start of last season. The Packers, for one, have a more balanced passing attack following the emergence of tight end Jermichael Finley. As long as 35-year-old receiver Donald Driver can provide another productive season, Green Bay has a yin-and-yang passing tree that will be much more difficult to defend than it was in the first half of 2009.
  5. The Packers also appear to have a better plan at offensive line than they had entering the 2009 season. They have a veteran starter locked in at both tackle positions with skilled younger players set to back up both of them. First-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga will play behind left tackle Chad Clifton and T.J. Lang likely will be behind right tackle Mark Tauscher. This scenario minimizes the chance of jailbreak pass "protection" that set back the Packers early last season.
  6. Minnesota's pass rush shouldn't miss a beat as long as defensive end Ray Edwards returns to complement Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. But the back seven is in an underdiscussed transition mode as spring practice begins. It's uncertain whether longtime middle linebacker E.J. Henderson will make a full return from a fractured leg, and the drop-off to second-year player Jasper Brinkley is notable. Starting cornerback Cedric Griffin will need several more months to rehabilitate a torn anterior cruciate ligament, leaving veterans Lito Sheppard and Benny Sapp to man his position. No NFL team seemed willing to give Sheppard or Sapp a starting job in free agency this year. And the Vikings only can hope that 33-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield is fully recovered from a fractured foot that limited him last season.
  7. Green Bay's schedule gives the team a better chance to jump to an early division lead than the Vikings'. With games against Buffalo, Detroit, Washington and Miami, the Packers have a decent chance to be 5-1 or 6-0 heading into an Oct. 24 showdown against the Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Vikings, meanwhile, face difficult games at New Orleans and at the New York Jets. They'll have done well to be 4-2 at that point. But the bottom line is that there is a decent chance the Packers could establish a three-game lead in the division before November starts.

This is just one early-May take. I'm sure you have your own. Remember: We're still in the simulator. Nothing more. Let's take pleasure from a consequence-free environment.

How much to value a right tackle

April, 6, 2010
4/06/10
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Matt Maiocco's take on the 49ers possibly having to trade up from No. 13 for an offensive tackle hits on a significant theme in the 2010 NFL draft.

Seattle might have a shot at only the third-rated tackle -- all the way up at No. 6. That would make it tough for the 49ers and teams picking later in the round to feel as good about their options.

In 2007, the 28th overall choice landed the third-rated tackle, Joe Staley, and the 49ers were happy to draft him. Joe Thomas (third overall to Cleveland), Levi Brown (fifth to Arizona) and Ben Grubbs (28th to San Francisco) were the only other offensive linemen drafted in the first round.

The 49ers' need for a right tackle shouldn't blind them to value. Right tackles are still right tackles, not left tackles or quarterbacks. But finding a good one in the second round could be tougher if a first-round run on the position depletes the pool. Massachusetts' Vladimir Ducasse projects as a possible second-round choice with the size San Francisco might like at the position, but the 49ers aren't picking until 17 choices into the round.

As the chart shows, eight of the 12 playoff teams from last season used starting right tackles drafted in the first two rounds (by other teams in two cases). Brown was the only one chosen in the first half of the first round. The Cardinals drafted him to protect the blind side for left-handed quarterback Matt Leinart, although plans have changed. Brown is moving to left tackle this year, just as Leinart has become the starter following Kurt Warner's retirement.

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