NFL Nation: Nate Vasher

Detroit Lions cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
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Check here for a complete list of the Detroit Lions' roster moves.

Surprise move: I don't know if it qualified as a surprise, but it was sure jarring to hear earlier Saturday that veteran punter Nick Harris was ousted. Harris has been the Lions' punter since 2003 and hadn't appeared to be in decline. But rookie Ryan Donahue is 10 years younger than Harris and had an equally strong training camp. Age doesn't always apply to punters as it does to players at other positions, but the Lions must believe Donahue can be their punter for years to come. Meanwhile, the Lions activated cornerback Alphonso Smith from the non-football injury list, meaning they believe he will be ready to play before the sixth week of the season.

No-brainers: You don't always see a six-year veteran as a team's No. 6 receiver, but Maurice Stovall proved he will be a valuable special teams player as well as a possible red zone threat. He beat out 2009 third-round draft pick Derrick Williams, whose potential never materialized and who was still dropping passes with regularity during the preseason. In training camp, it was clear that veteran Nate Vasher was behind younger cornerbacks Aaron Berry and Brandon McDonald. Both Berry and McDonald remain on the roster. Vasher was cut.

What's next: Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is usually good for a couple of trades and veteran acquisitions during Labor Day weekend. You wonder if the Lions want to fortify their running back depth, which currently includes little-used Aaron Brown and an injured Maurice Morris. Chester Taylor is a Detroit-area native. Just saying.
For those who like to dig up old blog posts for a "gotcha" moment, I'll beat you to the punch. Here's what I wrote near the end of draft weekend in April:
I have no problem if the Detroit Lions, three years removed from the worst season in NFL history, continue drafting without regard for position. In the long run, it's the best approach for re-stocking a once-barren roster.

In the short term, however, I'll say this: There better be more on the way.

Sunday afternoon, it is now undeniable that the Lions have held up their end of the bargain, even if it was via an unexpected path. In the past week, they've signed two starting linebackers and two cornerbacks who will have good opportunities to start as well. When you add linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant to cornerbacks Eric Wright and Chris Houston, you've got a reputable and responsible follow-up to a universally praised draft class.

Houston is their most recent move, having agreed to a two-year contract after Houston spent a few days testing his value on the market. Houston started 15 games last season and there is every reason to believe he'll be with the first team when the Lions open the regular season. But with Houston, Wright, Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher, the Lions finally have a group of at least semi-established cornerbacks from which to choose a starting lineup. If Aaron Berry stays healthy this summer, you can add a fifth name to that list.

The Lions hit a couple of speed bumps when camp opened -- injuries that forced Smith and left tackle Jeff Backus to the non-football injury list. But as they resume practice Monday, it's clear they have both addressed their needs and built on their strengths this offseason. Well done.

NFC North free-agency breakdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lions back-to-work FYI

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

Readiness factor: Coach Jim Schwartz has maintained the same offensive and defensive schemes since arriving in 2009, minimizing the mental cram factor in training camp. But significant transitions loom at several positions, and they will be rushed in less-than-ideal situations. The Lions need to establish three starting defensive backs, two linebackers and will also need to find a balance for their running back duo of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.

Biggest challenge: I think someone once said that cornerbacks don't grow on trees. (Neither does money, I hear.) We've been over this issue before, but here are the facts: The Lions' top two cornerbacks currently under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nathan Vasher. Is that their plan for 2011? Will they be aggressive enough to land one of the few starting-quality free agents available? Is veteran Chris Houston more likely to re-sign? Perhaps, but the Lions have a complex problem to solve in quick fashion.

Obligatory Stafford reminder: It's been well-established that quarterback Matthew Stafford's right shoulder has healed after January surgery. He has looked buff during offseason workouts and is ready to resume his role as the Lions' franchise quarterback. At 23, Stafford is about the same age as 2011 rookies Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert. But two years of injuries have put Stafford into something close to a make-or-break season. He needs to stay on the field.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Chris Houston, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
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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.
Julius Peppers & Ndamukong SuhUS PresswireFeared pass rushers Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh will showcase their talents tonight.
Something has been missing from my life, and perhaps yours as well. Our extended postseason run and an unusual start to the offseason has delayed a follow-up I've been meaning to write for some time. So while we have a moment, let's finally restore order around here.

One of our primary themes for the 2010 season was the NFC North's response to its precedent-setting passing numbers in 2009. In a pre-training camp post, we suggested the division race would turn on the degree to which each team's pass defense could catch up to our passing offenses.

Would the Chicago Bears' acquisition of defensive end Julius Peppers pay off? How much better would the Detroit Lions' pass rush be with their retooled defensive line, one that now included a former Pro Bowl defensive end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and the No. 2 overall pick of the draft (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh)? Would the Minnesota Vikings sustain their historic passing efficiency of 2009 while improving their own pass defense? Could the Green Bay Packers straighten out the personnel shortage that led to an epic collapse in the wild-card playoffs?

Our theory: The most effective response would clinch the division and, perhaps more. And although there were a few exceptions here and there, the end result proved illuminating.


As the charts show, the Bears won the NFC North after making a 24-spot jump in the NFL's rankings for defensive passer rating. The Packers, who fielded the league's best pass defense and No. 3 passing offense based on quarterback rating, won Super Bowl XLV. The Vikings improved their pass defense, but the collapse of their passing offense was the single biggest factor in their 6-10 record. Finally, the Lions' progression in both categories mirrored their four-victory improvement from 2009.

Sorry, run-and-run-defense enthusiasts. Success in today's NFL requires efficient passing and pass defense. Passer rating isn't a perfect common evaluator, but I like it better than the NFL's traditional measure using total yards. And as Kerry Byrne of Football Facts points out, defensive passer rating is one of the most reliable indicators of championship-caliber teams.

"This game is made for offensive players, I think," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said recently. "The rules are, and all that kind of stuff."

In turn, any team that can take either special advantage of those rules and make headway against them on defense -- or both -- figures to be in the playoff conversation. So let's take this quiet moment in the NFL offseason to measure each NFC North team through the passing lens. Where are they and how can they improve?

Chicago Bears

Quarterback Jay Cutler threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2010 after getting assimilated into Mike Martz's offense, and the entire team figures to benefit from its familiarity with Martz's system. With that said, I see two pass-related areas the Bears should focus on this year: Pass protection and interior pass rush.

The Bears gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks last season, a figure that doesn't directly apply to passer rating but assuredly affects a quarterback's accuracy and decision-making over time. In a recent interview with the Bears' website, coach Lovie Smith noted "the number of hits Jay took this past season." On many levels, the Bears need to enter 2011 with a better Week 1 plan for their offensive line.

Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris reminds us the Bears don't have an established interior pass-rusher who has typically defined their defense. Matt Toeaina, who replaced Harris in the starting lineup last season, was credited with two sacks.

Detroit Lions

The Lions are hoping that Vanden Bosch returns at full strength following neck surgery. If so, their biggest pass-related need this offseason is continuing to rebuild their cornerback position. They did not re-sign starter Chris Houston before last week's deadline, but it's possible he could return to the team after testing the free-agent market. At the moment, however, the Lions have only two established cornerbacks under contract: Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher.

Meanwhile, the Lions have acknowledged the need to improve at their No. 3 receiver position. Although they can mitigate this issue with the smart use of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, the Lions' offense would take a substantial hit if either Calvin Johnson or Nate Burleson were forced from the lineup for an extended period. Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for a substandard 21 receptions last season.

Green Bay Packers

Thompson will need to sort out his receiver depth in anticipation of James Jones' pending free agency. Jones said Monday he wants to be a starter, an indication that he will look to sign elsewhere when the market opens. The Packers could use Jordy Nelson as their unquestioned No. 3 receiver and seek further depth in the draft, a reasonable path that could make Jones' departure inevitable.

[+] EnlargeSidney Rice
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSidney Rice is expected to test the free-agent market this offseason.
The Packers' other big challenge will be replacing defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who led their linemen with seven sacks despite missing five games because of injury. Jenkins is a pending free agent and appears set to move on. Rising second-year players Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson could vie for that job. Reviews on both players have been good, but are they seven-sack good? Another possibility is veteran Johnny Jolly, who has applied for reinstatement after a one-year suspension.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings might have more passing-game work ahead of them than the rest of the NFC North combined.

At the top of the list is finding short- and long-term answers at quarterback, a job that could require multiple acquisitions. Former Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice is a pending free agent and wants to test his value on the market, and last season ended with high-priced veteran Bernard Berrian as an afterthought. A significant rebuild of the receiving corps could be on the horizon.

Defensively, the Vikings probably are looking for two new starters on their defensive line. Left end Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, appears set to move on in free agency. (Backup Brian Robison signed a new contract last week.) Nose tackle Pat Williams also isn't expected back.

Finally, the Vikings enter the offseason certain of only one starter in their secondary: cornerback Antoine Winfield. The health of fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) is uncertain, and at the very least, safeties Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah will have to earn their starting jobs in training camp.
The NFL will continue to move us through unprecedented territory over the next week as its owners and players work toward a new collective bargaining agreement. It's left me, you and many others confused about what can and can't happen.

Let's pull from ESPN.com's news story to reiterate the ground rules for the next week:
"The extension of the CBA also includes a 'tolling agreement'; in this scenario, the league's 32 teams still will be prohibited from executing player transactions. It is the same agreement reached Thursday. During this period, teams can talk about players but signings or renegotiations of current contracts cannot occur."

So if you've been reading about player moves Friday, they would have to actually occurred Thursday in order to be official. That's apparently the case for two reported deals in the NFC North:
  1. Adam Caplan of Fox Sports reports the Green Bay Packers have reached a two-year agreement with safety Charlie Peprah, who would have become an unrestricted free agent. Peprah started 11 games last season after rookie Morgan Burnett suffered a season-ending knee injury. I would imagine the Peprah/Burnett combination in 2011 would make safety Atari Bigby expendable.
  2. The Detroit Lions have re-signed cornerback Nate Vasher, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. It's interesting that the Lions agreed with Vasher, who was a big part of the Lions Week 16 victory over the Miami Dolphins, and not fellow starter Chris Houston. Given how wild the past few weeks have been, I'm not sure how much to read into that yet.
Webb/SmithGetty ImagesChicago's J'Marcus Webb, left, and Detroit's Alphonso Smith were pleasant surprises in 2010.
About this time last year, we compiled a list of four NFC North players who had the opportunity to alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at their positions -- provided they demonstrated notable offseason development. In reviewing that post, I feel better about the positions we identified than the specific players we picked out. But such is life.

This year's pending lockout presents a curveball for offseason development. If a lockout begins in early March and continues through the summer, coaches and front office executives won't have their typical opportunity to improve and observe younger players. Free agency could also be truncated and risky. Ultimately, teams might be left to rely on observations and projections based on last season's performance.

In that vein, let's pick one player per team whose 2010 emergence seemingly eliminated a 2011 offseason need.

Chicago Bears

Player: Offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb

2010 notables: The Bears made Webb a seventh-round pick last spring and, desperate for alternatives after a rough start, elevated him to the starting lineup in Week 5. Webb's ascendance coincided with the stabilization of the Bears' line, and he remained the starter for the rest of the season. How well he played as an individual is up for debate. According to ESPN's penalty database, Webb was called for 11 penalties in his 12 starts, including seven for holding.
Position status: If nothing else, Webb enters the offseason as one of the Bears' top two tackles along with Frank Omiyale. Offensive line might be the single-most needy position group on the Bears' roster, and the team could legitimately address any of its five positions in the first round of the 2011 draft. Based on how the draft plays out, the Bears could keep Webb at right tackle. Or, given his 6-foot-8 frame, they could consider moving him to left tackle and returning Omiyale to the right side. The future of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, who was moved from left tackle to left guard midway through last season, could also affect where Webb plays.
2011 projection: Yes, there are many moving parts here. But Webb has a couple of things going for him. One, he is a 22-year-old player who has navigated his way through 12 NFL starts and still has plenty of room to improve. Long-range planners are always infatuated by a young player with experience. Second, Webb is a favorite of Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, who personally scouted him before the draft -- and came away from Webb's workout with a chipped tooth. There is a long way to go here, and it would be wrong to assume Webb is a lock to start in 2011. But the Bears can't address all five positions in one offseason, and Webb's presence might help make their decisions easier this spring.

Detroit Lions

Player: Cornerback Alphonso Smith
2010 notables: Acquired in a preseason trade with the Denver Broncos, Smith made a productive if uneven debut by intercepting five passes in 12 games. A shoulder injury ended his season in December, and many fans' lasting impression might have been his embarrassing Thanksgiving Day performance against the New England Patriots. But playmaking cornerbacks are difficult to find, and Smith gives the Lions a viable option at a position of significant need.
Position status: Veterans Chris Houston and Nate Vasher are pending free agents, but the Lions have said they want Houston to return. Veteran Eric King has been informed of his release, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Tye Hill, Prince Miller and Paul Pratt are all pending free agents, although the Lions have exclusive rights on Miller and Pratt. Last season's Week 1 nickelback, Aaron Berry, spent most of the season on injured reserve.
2011 projection:
In 2010, the Lions brought back only one member of their 2009 secondary: Safety Louis Delmas. Smith's performance in 2009 should at least lessen the overhaul necessary this offseason. Like Webb, he shouldn't be a lock to start in 2011. But the Lions also shouldn't be starting from scratch, either. Smith gives the Lions a legitimate option in the event they focus their resources elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLate-season starter James Starks gives the Packers options at running back next season.
Green Bay Packers

Player: Running back James Starks
2010 notables:
Starks' story has been well-told. After spending the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he rushed for 73 yards in his NFL debut and amassed 315 yards in four playoff games. In part because he never fumbled, Starks earned the trust of coach Mike McCarthy, and proved to be a reliable and instinctive runner.
Position status:
The Packers are expected to get former starter Ryan Grant back from an ankle injury. Grant is scheduled to earn about $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his most recent contract extension. Backups Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are pending free agents. Starks leapfrogged fellow rookie Dimitri Nance, who is signed through 2013.
2011 projection:
In an era where many teams split carries among their tailbacks, Grant was the Packers' primary runner from 2007 to 2009. That was the plan for 2010 as well, before his injury. But if nothing else, Starks gives the Packers a second option and important insurance should Grant be felled by another injury. Does Starks deserve to compete with Grant for a starting job next season? That's a question the Packers' coaching staff will have to answer whenever training camp convenes. But the Packers learned the hard way last season that a two-man backfield is a requirement, not a luxury.

[+] EnlargeHusain Abdullah
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireVikings safety Husain Abdullah might have played himself into a starting role next season.
Minnesota Vikings

Player: Safety Husain Abdullah
2010 notables:
Known mostly for special teams play and fasting during training camp, Abdullah unseated Tyrell Johnson and was a surprise starter at strong safety. He missed one game because of a concussion and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. You never know how players will be viewed by a new coaching staff, but Abdullah seemed to show enough promise to merit another chance to start in 2011.
Position status:
The Vikings have long been due for changes at safety, where Johnson and Madieu Williams have performed poorly over the past three seasons. Williams could be released this offseason, opening at least one starting spot. Jamarca Sanford struggled to stay healthy last season but might be best suited as a special teams player.
2011 projection:
Would the Vikings replace both starting safeties this offseason? Or would they give Abdullah another chance while focusing on Williams' free safety spot? The latter scenario seems more likely. At this time last season, few would have expected Abdullah to be in this spot. But if last season were any indication, he had leapfrogged every other safety on the Vikings' roster. Read into that ranking what you will.

How I See It: NFC North Stock Watch

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Pessimism in the NFC North: For the first time all season, the division had an undefeated week. Better later than never, right? What's more, all four victories were notably impressive. The Chicago Bears scored 38 points on the New York Jets' supposedly vaunted defense. The Green Bay Packers dropped 45 points on the New York Giants. The Detroit Lions scored 17 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter to win a road game in Miami. And the Minnesota Vikings upset one of the NFL's best teams on their own field after waiting 48 hours in a hotel for a delayed kickoff. Take a bow, Black and Blue.

2. Drama in Chicago: When the season began, who would have guessed the Bears would not only have the division locked up before the Week 17 matchup against the Packers, but also the NFC's No. 2 seed? The Bears remain an enigma to some, but I would count myself among their believers since they dismantled the Eagles last month. The Bears would be well-advised to keep pushing through their game against the Packers, regardless of the stakes. But at the very least, they'll have a well-deserved stress reduction this week.

3. Mistakes by Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears quarterback: Admit it. When Jets safety Dwight Lowery returned an interception 20 yards for a touchdown Sunday, you thought something along these lines: "Here it comes." Cutler has limited his interceptions all season after throwing an NFL-high 26 last year, but the national consensus seems to be that it is only a matter of time before he reverts. Instead, Cutler rallied to throw three long touchdown passes in the second half without another interception. He has 14 in 14 starts this season, four of which came in one game against the Washington Redskins. That means Cutler has 10 interceptions in his other 13 starts. Those are playoff-caliber numbers.

RISING

[+] EnlargeThe Vikings' victory over the Eagles guarantees Leslie Frazier at least a .500 record as interim head coach.
AP Photo/Miles KennedyLeslie Frazier will be counting on Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson to lead a thin group of linebackers in Minnesota.
1. Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings interim head coach: Frazier outcoached Philadelphia Eagles counterpart Andy Reid in Tuesday night's 24-14 victory, finding ways to harass quarterback Michael Vick all evening, and also did a masterful job keeping his team focused during the 48-hour delay. The victory guaranteed Frazier at least a .500 record during his six-game tryout for the full-time job. Will that be enough? You could make that argument, but in reality no one knows what owner Zygi Wilf is thinking and whether he has already decided to interview other candidates. Hiring a head coach is a critical decision, and there is nothing wrong with being thorough.

2. B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle: As we discussed during training camp, the Packers needed Raji to be a difference-maker in his second season. Quietly, Raji has done just that. His sack of the Giants' Eli Manning last Sunday gave him 6.5 this season, the third-most of any defensive tackle in the NFL. Raji has been the workhorse and stalwart of an otherwise injury-plagued position group, rarely leaving the field and playing in just about every alignment that defensive coordinator Dom Capers conjures up. It was going to be difficult for Raji to make the Pro Bowl ahead of the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh, whose nine sacks made him a lock, but he has definitely produced a Pro Bowl-caliber season.

3. Nate Vasher, Detroit Lions cornerback: There is no doubt that the Miami Dolphins targeted Vasher last Sunday. If I had Brandon Marshall on my team, I would do the same thing. Marshall was targeted on 16 passes, and he caught 10 for 102 yards. But Vasher provided a few glimpses of the cornerback he used to be, rallying to grab a key fourth-quarter interception and also tackling Dolphins tailback Ronnie Brown in bounds on the final play as the clock expired. Vasher shouldn't be starting in the NFL at this point, and he wouldn't be if it weren't for a rash of injuries in Detroit. But his career might not be over, either.

Wrap-up: Lions 34, Dolphins 27*

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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A few thoughts on the end of another late-game victory for the Detroit Lions:

What it means: The Lions won their third consecutive game, two of which have come on the road, and now have a chance to elevate out of the NFC North basement for the first time in three seasons. A victory in next Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings will ensure it. Sunday’s game should be an instant classic in recent Lions history.

What I liked: The Lions scored the final 17 points to complete a comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. A 53-yard touchdown reception by tailback Jahvid Best, Dave Rayner’s 47-yard field goal and DeAndre Levy’s 30-yard interception return accounted for the scoring. Levy’s decision to cut back at about 10-yard line was a smooth, veteran and knowledgeable football play.

What I liked II: Cornerback Nate Vasher intercepted Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to set up Rayner’s field goal and also made a textbook tackle of Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown on the final play of the game, keeping Brown in bounds with the Dolphins out of timeouts. Vasher seemed buried two years ago in Chicago, and his career took him to San Diego and finally to Detroit. But Sunday, we got a reminder of how good of a player he once was.

What I liked III: Nate Burleson’s 30-yard block of Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis in the fourth quarter allowed tailback Best to maneuver downfield for his touchdown. Burleson basically face-guarded Davis across the field and down the right sideline before pancaking him near the goal line. Best got the credit for the score, but it wouldn’t have happened if Burleson hadn’t stayed with Davis.

Secondary woes: The Lions began the game without safety Louis Delmas, who was deactivated because of a concussion, and I checked my Lions roster a few times to identify some unfamiliar numbers. At different point, you saw Eric King, Prince Miller and Tye Hill playing in the Lions’ beleaguered secondary. While Vasher bailed out the secondary, it’s worth noting that Hill should have intercepted a Henne pass late in the second quarter. But the ball glanced off his hands and into those of Davone Bess for a 13-yard touchdown that gave the Dolphins a lead heading into halftime.

What I wasn’t sure of: Receiver Calvin Johnson wasn’t on the field for much of the fourth quarter. Did he have an injury? There was no official announcement that I saw or heard. *Update: Johnson had an ankle injury.

What’s next: The Lions will return home for their season finale to take on the Vikings, who might or might not have played their Week 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles by then.

Wrap-up: Patriots 45, Lions 24

November, 25, 2010
11/25/10
4:10
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A few thoughts on another late collapse by the Lions:

What it means: The Lions dropped to 2-9 on the season, ensuring themselves a 10th consecutive losing season. They have now lost their past seven Thanksgiving Day games and nine of their past 10.

A harsh lesson: Trailing 14-3 in the first half, the Patriots stayed cool, made a few offensive adjustments and roared back to score the final 28 points of the game. The Lions, on the other hand, melted down on defense -- particularly cornerback Alphonso Smith -- and watched quarterback Shaun Hill throw a critical interception in the third quarter.

The goat: A national television audience got an idea why the Denver Broncos gave up on Smith after one season. Smith was the closest defender on three of quarterback Tom Brady's touchdown passes, but it was his tackling that was atrocious and not worthy of a professional football field. Most notably, he was way too high on Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a 15-yard touchdown run and got twisted out of his Underoos on a 79-yard catch-and-run by receiver Deion Branch. With all of that said, I'm not a fan of the Lions' decision to bench him in favor of veteran Nate Vasher. I'm all for accountability, but I also think it's obvious the Lions don't know how to respond to adversity. You don't give a young player like Smith a chance to learn if he's standing on the sideline.

More slop: In case you forgot, this game was tied at 24 when the fourth quarter began. After that point the Lions were called for seven penalties, two of which were declined. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew lost track of where he was on the field, stepped out of bounds, and then stepped back in illegally to catch a pass. Meanwhile, receiver Bryant Johnson dropped another touchdown pass. That's pretty much the definition of a 45-minute team.

Congratulations in order: Brady finished with a perfect passer rating of 158.3 after completing 21 of 27 passes for 341 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Early pressure: The Lions battered Brady early in the game. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh notched his eighth sack of the season.

Little Best: Rookie tailback Jahvid Best wasn't a factor because of turf toe. Maurice Morris and Aaron Brown combined for a better-than-expected 91 rushing yards on 22 carries.

What's next: The Lions will host the Chicago Bears on Dec. 5, the first of three late-season home games against NFC North rivals.

The Green Bay Packers' decision to release cornerback Al Harris was "not a physical decision," coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. Instead, McCarthy said, "this is a big-picture roster decision."

Translation: The Packers didn't have much use for a reserve cornerback who wouldn't be a special-teams contributor and might hinder the development of a younger player.

Harris obviously wasn't going to reclaim his starting job from Tramon Williams, and the Packers like what they've seen from rookie nickel back Sam Shields. So at best, Harris would have been the Packers' dime back assuming everyone ahead of him remained healthy.

Every team has its own philosophy in roster building, and the Packers lie on one extreme of the spectrum. Whether you like it or not, the Packers almost always use young players to fill out the back end of the roster in hopes they will one day develop into starters. That pipeline produced Williams, Shields, linebacker Desmond Bishop and others.

Teams rarely turn loose good cornerbacks, however, so you have to wonder if McCarthy wasn't just being nice when he said he has "no doubts" that Harris can still play. Remember, Harris suffered a much worse knee injury a year ago than originally believed. But if the Packers truly do believe Harris can still play, then they are a rare team which has jettisoned a cornerback who is at least serviceable because he doesn't fit their roster profile. Moreover, they were willing to overlook last season's personnel disaster at the position in making this move.

If you recall, the Packers lost Harris, Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee and Will Blackmon to season-ending injuries and entered the playoffs with a patchwork group. Even an aging Harris would have some value this season if they experienced another personnel shortage.

"We feel this is the best path for us," McCarthy said. "There is a lot of different variables involved, and those were all discussed. ... The course we've taken, particularly at corner and the whole secondary, all the players involved, the other responsibilities that the players also have, this is the decision we made."

Like all veteran players released after the trading deadline, Harris is now subject to waivers. He told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he believes he could land with an NFC North team.

The Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings all have varying needs for a cornerback. The Lions might be the most needy, and they have the best position among division teams on the waiver wire. It's also worth nothing that Harris and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre remain close friends. Let's take a closer team-by-team look:

Chicago Bears

Starter Charles Tillman has been struggling, and the Bears could move to a rotation situation when Zack Bowman (foot) returns to the field. But with Tim Jennings starting on one side and D.J. Moore providing strong depth, the Bears are pretty well set at both spots. *Update: Coach Lovie Smith said Monday he is pleased with his current depth.

Detroit Lions

Starter Chris Houston dislocated his shoulder Sunday against the New York Jets, and the Lions have banished former starter Jonathan Wade to the dime position. Alphonso Smith is starting at one position on the other side, and on Sunday, Brandon McDonald was serving in the nickel role. The Lions have been relying on Nate Vasher for depth, but Harris would certainly be an upgrade over Vasher.

Minnesota Vikings

Starter Cedric Griffin is out for the season, and teams have picked on replacement Asher Allen. Rookie nickel back Chris Cook has been uneven, and the Vikings have two veteran free-agent pickups -- Lito Sheppard and Frank Walker -- playing in the dime. Based on that depth, Harris could start or at least play nickel for the Vikings. *Update: Coach Brad Childress said Monday that "I don't know if there is a spot for us right now in that area."
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Veteran experience in Chicago. When we look back at this offseason, we might see it as the moment when the Bears accelerated the breakup of their 2006 Super Bowl team. Already, right end Alex Brown and cornerback Nathan Vasher have been released. There is no indication the Bears will re-sign left end Adewale Ogunleye. Tight end Desmond Clark could be the next to go. Each decision was made on its own merits, and I doubt the Bears' brain trust is executing a systematic plan to tear down their team and start over. After missing the playoffs for three consecutive years, the Bears need to win in 2010. No matter what the intention, however, there will be more than a few new faces at prominent positions in Chicago this season.

Rising

Jimmy Clausen, potential Minnesota quarterback. Discussion of a Clausen free-fall has generated suggestions that the Notre Dame quarterback could be available close to the Vikings’ No. 30 overall pick. We’ve chronicled the team’s need to find a long-term direction at the position, and Clausen’s experience in a pro-style system is an attribute coveted by Vikings coach Brad Childress. It’s not clear how the Vikings feel about the rest of Clausen’s skills, but we might start learning more at an open throwing session Friday in South Bend, Ind. It now seems possible, at least, that the Vikings could have their pick of every quarterback in the draft with the exception of Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford.
Chicago's decision to release cornerback Nathan Vasher came a year too late.

[+] EnlargeNathan Vasher
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireNathan Vasher battled with injuries the past couple of seasons.
Whether it was injuries or confidence or a combination of both, Vasher was clearly an inferior player at the end of the 2008 season. He appeared in eight games that year, after making it through only four the season before, and had a $2.5 million roster bonus due before the 2009 season.

That seemed an appropriate time to part ways, but the Bears' loyalty to a key player on the 2006 Super Bowl team got the best of them. Against all logic, they believed Vasher could regain his starting job and give them the kind of playmaking that led to 13 interceptions in the first two seasons of his career.

Vasher, however, started only two games and lost his job to Zack Bowman. Any chance of competing for the 2010 nickel job was eliminated Tuesday after the Bears signed free agent Tim Jennings.

But don't shed many tears for Vasher, one of the genuinely good guys in the Bears locker room. As Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune points out, Vasher collected $18.6 million over the past three seasons.

Three and out: Bears

September, 4, 2009
9/04/09
10:30
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Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Three quick hits on the Chicago Bears:

1. New quarterback Jay Cutler has been everything you could have imagined: strong-armed and strong-willed in his first summer with the Bears. There’s no doubt he has the best passing skills in multiple generations of Bears teams. And at the same time, it’s pretty clear he can be moody and difficult to please. It’s all part of the package. But channeled correctly, Cutler’s personality could make Chicago’s offense as feisty as its defense. That’s not a bad thing. Best of all, at least for Bears fans, it looks like he will make the players around him better. Cutler coaxed some pretty solid catches from a pretty average group of receivers during training camp.
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Chicago Bears

2. We’ve said it before, but internally there has to be some concern about the Bears’ secondary. Cornerback Charles Tillman missed the entire preseason because of back surgery. Fellow cornerback Nate Vasher hasn’t proven to being a starter, but his likely replacement -- Zack Bowman -- has been limited by a hamstring injury. So has presumptive starting safety Danieal Manning. The Bears have decent personnel if everyone is healthy. But if they aren’t, the pass defense becomes a weakness and Chicago could face a serious mismatch during its season opener Sept. 13 at Green Bay.

3. I know we had this discussion last season, but Matt Forte might be the best receiving tailback in the NFL. Not only does he have soft hands, but Forte has a deep understanding of how to use his body, how to judge angles and when to leave his feet. Those skills all sound basic, but they are much more refined in Forte than they are in most running backs. Let’s be clear: Forte is a runner first. But his ability to create mismatches and make difficult catches offers a unique facet to the Bears' offense.

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