NFL Nation: Nick Harris

A new punter for the Lions, too

April, 27, 2013
4/27/13
3:59
PM ET
It appears that two NFC North teams will have highly-regarded rookie punters in 2013.

We noted earlier that the Minnesota Vikings drafted UCLA's Jeff Locke with the No. 155 overall pick Saturday afternoon, a move that will probably prompt the release of veteran Chris Kluwe.

Eleven spots later, the Detroit Lions drafted Appalachian State punter Sam Martin. The move provides what the Lions hope will be a long-term solution after their initial decision to part ways with Nick Harris after the 2010 season. The Lions ran through two other punters before bringing back Harris early last season, but Martin is a strong-legged youngster who might also handle kickoffs for the Lions.

His arrival will complete the Lions' offseason overhaul of specialists. Earlier this month, place-kicker Jason Hanson retired and was replaced by veteran David Akers.
Olindo Mare, who received a huge contract from the Carolina Panthers last year, won’t be handling the kickoff duties for the team this year.

The Panthers announced Monday that Mare has been released. Presumably, that means former Canadian League player Justin Medlock has won what was a competition for Carolina’s kicking job throughout the preseason.

Mare’s signing last year caused controversy because the Panthers released John Kasay, the final remaining player from their 1995 expansion team, to make room for Mare. The thinking was that Mare was as accurate as Kasay and could also handle kickoff duties. But Mare had a disappointing 2011 season and missed some crucial field-goal attempts. The Panthers brought Medlock in as competition and decided to let Mare go.

Although the Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million contract last year, the salary-cap implications of his release are minimal. Mare was scheduled to count $3.2 million against this year’s salary cap. By releasing him, the Panthers still will be responsible for $3.1 million.

The kicker job isn’t the only area where the Panthers are going in a younger direction. They also released veteran Nick Harris. That means the Panthers are ready to go with rookie Brad Nortman as their punter. The Panthers drafted Nortman in the sixth round. They brought in Harris to compete with him and Nortman won the job.

As Carolina trimmed its roster to 75 players, there were several other moves of note.

Receiver David Gettis, who missed last season with a knee injury, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Gettis, who had been considered a candidate to start, wasn’t able to get healthy enough during the preseason. By going on PUP, Gettis now can be activated after six games. The Panthers also placed cornerback Brandon Hogan on the reserve/injured list. Hogan had been considered a candidate for significant playing time, but he also was slow in recovering from a knee issue. In the next five days, it will be decided if Hogan will take an injury settlement, be placed on injured reserve for the entire season or be released.

The Panthers also waived receiver Darvin Adams, guard Roger Allen, receiver Michael Avila, receiver Brenton Bersin, guard Will Blackwell, defensive end Eric Norwood, running back Lyndon Rowells, tight end Greg Smith, running back Josh Vaughan and receiver Rico Wallace.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers put out their first depth chart Tuesday afternoon. Let me emphasize this is an unofficial depth chart, but there are several things that jump out at me.

Let’s start with one thing that’s very atypical for the Panthers, who generally are the most conservative team in the NFC South when it comes to such matters. The Panthers are listing rookie Amini Silatolu as the No. 1 left guard. That probably will be the case come opening day, but the Panthers generally don’t list rookies as starters on their first preseason depth chart. Instead, they give veterans every benefit of the doubt. But I think this is a pretty good sign that the Panthers aren’t really counting on veterans like Mike Pollak or Bruce Campbell to start. I’d say an injury is about the only thing that would prevent Silatolu from being the starter when the regular season opens.

But the flip side of this is that the Panthers are listing first-round draft choice Luke Kuechly as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker behind veteran Thomas Davis. Kuechly has been working with the first team throughout training camp. This one purely is a courtesy to Davis, who is trying to come back from his third torn ACL. Kuechly is pretty much guaranteed a starting job in the regular season.

Another item worth noting is that Derek Anderson is listed as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen is No. 3. Coach Ron Rivera was asked after Tuesday’s practice if Anderson was the backup and the coach didn’t hesitate to affirm that. It looks like Clausen, who started as a rookie in 2010, is looking at another season of being the third quarterback.

The Panthers are listing Sherrod Martin as their starting free safety and that could end up being the case in the regular season. But all indications out of Carolina’s camp are that Martin is very much in competition with free-agent addition Haruki Nakamura for the starting job.

I’ve also been told that the Panthers view the punter and kicker jobs as serious competitions. They’re listing veteran Olindo Mare No. 1 and Justin Medlock No. 2 at kicker and Nick Harris as the No. 1 punter with rookie Brad Nortman as No. 2. But the order at both spots could change, depending on what happens in the preseason games.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Carolina’s special teams were among the worst in the league last year. That’s why the Panthers didn’t sit still in the offseason. They went out and made a bunch of moves that should help their special teams.

Safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and fullback Mike Tolbert all have been productive on the coverage units in previous stops. The Panthers also used two draft picks on two players they expect to be regulars on special teams. Wide receiver Joe Adams has excellent potential as a return man. The Panthers also drafted punter Josh Nortman. But the job doesn’t automatically belong to Nortman. The Panthers also brought in veteran Nick Harris to compete with Nortman, after they released Jason Baker earlier in the offseason.

Even kicker Olindo Mare, who had some big misses last season, is going to have to win his job. The Panthers brought in former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock to compete with Mare. There’s competition everywhere. That’s a good thing. Injuries left the Panthers very short-handed on special teams at times last season. This offseason, general manager Marty Hurney has gone out of his way to make sure the Panthers have plenty of talent and depth on special teams. If the special teams and the defense can be better than last year, Carolina has a chance to challenge for a playoff spot.
Bryan AngerCal Sport Media/AP ImagesUsing the 70th pick on Cal punter Bryan Anger hurts the Jaguars more than it helps them.


The Jacksonville Jaguars have been accused (occasionally by me) of not doing well enough in assessing how the rest of the league's teams value some players they draft.

Some personnel people around the league say the Jaguars simply don’t care about that. In a way, I admire them for it. Don’t be overly concerned and influenced by the forces around you, by the competition. Do your own thing. Bank on your convictions.

But when it comes to taking Cal punter Bryan Anger in the third round, the Jaguars absolutely should care about league context.

I know at least one other team had him rated as a fifth-rounder.

Anger is first punter to go in the top 100 picks since 1995, when Todd Sauerbrun went in the second round to Chicago, 56th overall. (Correction: In 2005, Kansas City took Dustin Colquitt in the third round, 99th overall. Apologies.)

There is a reason for that.

It’s important that you don’t punt terribly. But it’s not so important that you punt fantastically, certainly not important enough that you sacrifice the chance to improve at a position that could be on the field for three downs a game.

“I think it will be evident when you get a chance to see him punt: He’s got a strong history which I feel will transfer to this level in helping us defensively with the yardage we can gain in field position,” general manager Gene Smith said.

“… He’s the player in that round at your pick that you feel can upgrade your football team. I think that’s an easy decision for me, to get a starter in the third round.”

Calling a punter a starter is beyond a stretch.

The Jaguars' defense played 970 plays in 2011. The Jaguars' offense played 958 plays. The Jaguars punted 99 times.

“I think it’s first downs that you gain,” Smith said in a further defense of the pick. “And I feel like in the third round it’s not a round that you always get proven starters.”

Really?

In Smith’s three previous drafts, he picked four times in the third round. Guard Will Rackley, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and cornerback Derek Cox are starters. The only non-starter, defensive tackle D’Anthony Smith, has missed his first two seasons with injuries.

Jacksonville averaged 41.9 yards per punt last season, 31st in NFL. It averaged 36.5 net yards per punt, 28th in NFL. Those numbers were, in part, a testament to the team’s foolish conclusion that greybeard Matt Turk was the man to replace Adam Podlesh, who left for Chicago as a free agent.

The Jaguars cut Turk after five games, going with Nick Harris the rest of the way. Harris was 3 yards, and 5.1 net yards, better per punt than Turk had been.

A longer punt is easier to cover, so this is too simple.

Nevertheless, here is my counterproposal to drafting Anger 70th:

Jacksonville uses an average punter and boosts its net average to what was the midpoint for 2011. By my calculations, that would give the Jaguars an extra 15.5 net yards a game. Then use the 70th pick on an offensive lineman who, as part of a better scheme, could help cut the Jaguars’ sack yardage in half. That would give the team an extra 10.3 yards a game, and also help young quarterback Blaine Gabbert not worry so much about getting crunched.

The overall gain from my plan -- not just estimating that the average that will come with a big leg, but actually factoring in context -- would be better.

The goal is not to punt, and you drafted a punter. That was the first thing a reporter in Jacksonville said to coach Mike Mularkey after the pick.

“And hold, hold for extra points,” Mularkey said. “If you want to write about him, he’s a really good holder for extra points and field goals, and he just so happens to be a difference-maker when it comes to punting.”

Oh, he holds, too? Well, that changes everything.

No, actually, any guy on offense with good hands, starting with your backup quarterback, should be able to function as a holder.

Maybe Anger is the league’s best punter and holder for 15 years.

Even if he is, it says here there will be at least three dozen players among the picks after Anger who have more impactful careers than he will. And that’s a modest 20 percent of the 183 guys we’re talking about. If the Jaguars missed on him by two rounds, maybe it’s 64 players. It could be more.

Are the Jaguars, coming off a 5-11 season, good enough that they can pass on such potential people? They are not. Perhaps are they expecting Gabbert to be terrible again, knowing they’ll be punting a ton and being proactive?

They need more guys who can score touchdowns or stop touchdowns. Get more guys who can get you first downs and you’ll punt less, kicking more field goals and scoring more touchdowns. Get more guys who can stop a third-down run or break up a third-down pass and you’ll be fielding punts, not covering them.

Do those things and getting a few additional yards when you have to kick the ball away doesn’t mean so much.

Know where you have a chance to add guys who fit that bill?

With the third-round pick you just used on a punter.

Too often the Jaguars are a punching bag or a punch line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other UFAs:
Mel Tucker Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe Jaguars, who haven't scored more than 20 points this season, managed 14 in interim coach Mel Tucker's debut.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After a news-filled week with change, the Jaguars took the field for "Monday Night Football" and promptly proved talent trumps everything.

Depleted at cornerback and ineffective rushing quarterback Philip Rivers, Jacksonville allowed the Chargers' quarterback to find big plays all night. He missed on only 6 of 28 passes and threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-14 win that ended San Diego's six-game losing streak and snapped the Jaguars’ hopes that a new coach could quickly change their course.

All the promise the Jaguars brought into the first game under interim coach Mel Tucker with a national audience watching flamed out Monday night at EverBank Field.

Tucker preached to his team that just because it didn’t see immediate results didn’t mean the changes they’d adopted weren’t the right ones, and asked them to rededicate and recommit.

With four games left, they may have the right roster character to do so, but the improvements and dividends are likely to be small.

“We did improve as a football team this week in a lot of areas,” Tucker promised. “Those are some things that didn’t show up for the entire game, but they will give us a chance to win and sustain winning in the future.”

Tucker’s in a tough spot, trying to sell hope and change with only so much he can do and no influx of talent walking into team headquarters.

I want to believe his belief, but at the same time it’s hard to buy into a predictable offense that lacks anything dynamic beyond Maurice Jones-Drew, and into a defense that’s too injured to cover against quality receivers being targeted by an accurate quarterback.

Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the offense pieced together a nice second quarter, when they turned a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 lead. It was his first game with two touchdown passes, but an interception resulting from a miscommunication with receiver Mike Thomas late in the second quarter positioned San Diego to retake the lead before intermission.

And a team that hasn’t scored 21 points in a game all season never threatened to do so from that point forward.

“We executed well in the second quarter, but the biggest thing we’ve got to take out of this game is that we’ve got to execute like that the whole game,” Gabbert said. “We’ve got to play four quarters of football. We can’t just have one great quarter.”

I’d rather not carve up Tucker’s postgame comments, but how they squared with the game that came before them was somewhat striking to me.

He said playing from behind, the team remained confident in its game plan. “I didn’t see confusion, I saw an element of sharpness and crispness, I saw a confidence as guys broke the huddle,” he said.

I saw two Keystone Cops moment, with Gabbert simply dropping the football on a scramble before batting it out of bounds to earn a penalty, and with long snapper Jeremy Cain sending holder Nick Harris in wild pursuit of a well-wide snap on what was to have been a long field goal attempt.

Tucker said he did see a sense of urgency, but the Jaguars never really stepped up their tempo. Had they, things might have gotten worse, not better. But as with many things at this stage of a bad season, you have to ask: Why not try?

Tucker said “we did what we could,” and that I believe.

This is a limited team that needs a new coaching staff and its young quarterback to spend an offseason together, re-crafting an offense to be less predictable and feature more explosive pass catchers -- like San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson, who scored a 35-yard touchdown and is heading for unrestricted free agency.

Jacksonville doesn’t get to shop for such players yet, it’s got to make do with the ones it has.

Like undrafted rookie corner Kevin Rutland, who had good position against Vincent Brown in the end zone on a 22-yard touchdown reception, but failed to turn his head to locate the ball and make a play on it.

Rutland’s been with the Jaguars since the start of camp, he’s gotten sufficient work as an understudy and he should have been ready, he said.

“There should have been no slack,” he said. “I imagined my first start going a lot different. This is step one and I can grow from here."

He and a lot of people.

Detroit Lions cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
8:28
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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.
Barring a last-minute change this weekend, the Chicago Bears won't be the only NFC North team with a new punter in 2011.

Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press is reporting the Detroit Lions will release veteran Nick Harris and install rookie Ryan Donahue in that role. Harris, 33, has been the Lions' punter since 2003.

Donahue was one of the nation's top college punters last season at Iowa, and the Lions' pursuit of him this spring indicated they planned a serious challenge to Harris this summer. Both punters finished the preseason with identical 34.4-yard net averages, but you could tell the Lions were serious about Donahue when he began holding for place-kicker Jason Hanson in preseason games.

As you recall, the Bears decided against re-signing veteran punter Brad Maynard and instead acquired former Jacksonville Jaguars punter Adam Podlesh.
The best thing we can say about Week 4 of the preseason is that it's over, at least here in the NFC North. The next time one of our teams is on the field, it will be for real. In between, roster cutdowns from 8o to 53 will take place. The deadline is Saturday evening.

A quick rundown of Thursday evening's activity, which featured four fun but meaningless victories:

Chicago Bears 24, Cleveland Browns 14
Final preseason record:
2-2
Of interest: Only a handful of Bears starters played. One of them, defensive tackle Henry Melton, registered an encouraging sack of Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace in the first quarter. ... It was interesting, but probably not newsworthy, that Chris Spencer started at center alongside the rest of the Bears' first-team offensive line. Just a night off for veteran Roberto Garza. ... Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie took a step in the right direction, completing 7 of 10 passes for 83 yards and dropping a perfect pass into the far corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown to receiver Johnny Knox. ... Tailback Chester Taylor started but managed 27 yards on 10 carries in what was presumably a showcase stint. But an injury to tailback Khahlil Bell might change the Bears' plans for Taylor, depending on its severity.

Detroit Lions 16, Buffalo Bills 6
Final preseason record: 4-0
Of interest: Most starters played one series. ... Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a 39-yard pass to receiver Calvin Johnson on the game's first play, allowing Stafford to finish the preseason with this line: 25 completions, 33 attempts, 395 yards, five touchdowns and a 154.7 passer rating. ... Receiver Maurice Stovall produced a nice final argument for a roster spot, downing a punt at the Bills' 8-yard line and catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from Shaun Hill in the first quarter. ... Running back Jerome Harrison was untouched until the end of his 47-yard run in the first quarter. ... Rookie punter Ryan Donahue got the first punt of the night, for whatever that's worth, and averaged 44.0 yards on four punts. Veteran Nick Harris averaged 51.5 yards on two punts.

Green Bay Packers 20, Kansas City Chiefs 19
Final preseason record: 3-1
Of interest: Some starters, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, played one series. Rodgers' final pass of the preseason was an 8-yard touchdown to tight end Tom Crabtree. Rodgers finished the preseason with 37 completions in 47 attempts for 395 yards and four touchdowns for a 130.1 passer rating. ... Tailback Ryan Grant's 23-yard run to start the game came after strong blocks from tight end Andrew Quarless and right tackle Bryan Bulaga. ... Linebacker Vic So'Oto has put on a late charge for a roster spot. Thursday night, he had 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown. ... Not that it's a big concern, but quarterback Matt Flynn had one of the ugliest lines you'll see: two completions in 10 attempts for 12 yards and an interception, good for a 0.0 passer rating.

Minnesota Vikings 28, Houston Texans 0
Final preseason record:
2-2
Of interest: Nearly every starter sat out this game. Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder put on an unexpected display of his scrambling ability, running for 61 yards on eight carries, before leaving midway through the third quarter. Some were nice improvisational plays. A few were necessary when blitzers came free. And a few came after the point when he should have thrown the ball. All in all, however, Ponder left the Vikings with a positive impression after completing 10 of 16 passes for 83 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Kyle Rudolph. ... With their top three running backs sidelined, the Vikings gave a workout to rookie Caleb King, whom they signed last month after no one selected him in the supplemental draft. King finished with 62 yards on 19 carries, including two touchdown runs.

Previewing NFC North preseason Week 4

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
4:10
PM ET
Welcome to preseason Week 4, where most players you know and love will take up residence on the sideline. All four NFC North teams are in action Thursday night. I've tossed out a few talking points below and will have some postgame thoughts either late tonight or, more likely, first thing Friday morning.

Chicago Bears
Opponent:
Cleveland Browns
Location: Soldier Field
Key issues: Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie has a 55.9 passer rating this preseason, having thrown two interceptions and no touchdowns in 53 attempts. His job isn't threatened, but the Bears would like to see him finish summer on a higher note. ... Do the Bears have any pass-rushing depth other than tackle/end Amobi Okoye? This game should provide give us some definitive answers.

Detroit Lions
Opponent:
Buffalo Bills
Location: Ralph Wilson Stadium
Key issues: The Lions have built significant momentum this summer and, frankly, escaping unscathed Thursday night should be their only goal. They should take a long look at their running back depth, determine a winner in their punting derby between Nick Harris and Ryan Donahue, and get back to Detroit.

Green Bay Packers
Opponent:
Kansas City Chiefs
Location: Lambeau Field
Key issues: The Packers need to decide how many receivers and tight ends they'll keep and then make decisions accordingly. Will receiver Chastin West make the team? How about receiver/punt blocker Tori Gurley? Also, third-string quarterback Graham Harrell should get a long opportunity to lock down a roster spot.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent:
Houston Texans
Location: Metrodome
Key issues: Rookie quarterback Christian Ponder will start. Will he earn the No. 2 job behind Donovan McNabb? Or will it be Joe Webb? We'll also get a look at the Vikings' depth, or lack thereof, behind tailback Adrian Peterson. It's interesting to note they tried to claim former Lions fullback/running back Jerome Felton. Meanwhile, second-year defensive end Everson Griffen will get a look at linebacker as the team looks for depth behind its starters.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
1:00
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?

After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.

But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.

By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.

What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.

"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.

Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford has looked strong during training camp.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. … Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."

In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.

2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.

I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.

"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."

3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.

Right?

The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.

I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."

The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.

The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.

BEST RELATIONSHIP

A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.

"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."

Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFinding a backup option to running back Jahvid Best remains a priority for the Lions.
UNANSWERED QUESTION

What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?

If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.

"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.

So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.

But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yarde line, that’s to be expected.)
  • Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
  • Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
  • Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
  • One of my favorite sights of Lions’ training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
  • Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."

Wrap-up: Jets 23, Lions 20 (OT)

November, 7, 2010
11/07/10
7:55
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Hitting a few points on a wild game at Ford Field:

What it means: Late Sunday afternoon, it appeared the Detroit Lions were poised to leapfrog the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North standings. They held a 20-10 lead fourth-quarter lead over the New York Jets amid a raucous Ford Field crowd, while the Vikings trailed the Arizona Cardinals 24-10. Alas, at the end of the day, the Lions were 2-6 and the Vikings were 3-5 after a crazy turnaround befitting the Lions' recent history.

StaffordWatch: Quarterback Matthew Stafford did not return after re-injuring his right shoulder in the fourth quarter. Coach Jim Schwartz said the Lions are "going to take a pretty serious look at it," prompting questions about whether Stafford will be shut down for a period longer than the five games he got the last time. I have no questions about Stafford's toughness, but I think it's fair for all of us to wonder why his body has been so brittle in the first 1 1/2 seasons of his career.

Numbskull play: Of all the crazy things that happened in the fourth quarter and overtime, the one I can't get over is linebacker Julian Peterson's blatant and inexcusable hit out of bounds against LaDainian Tomlinson with about 40 seconds remaining. The mistake in essence put the Jets in range for the game-tying field goal. The Lions use a number of young players who might have made that mistake, but it was stunning for it to be a veteran like Peterson who apparently had no idea where he was on the field.

Suh kick: The novelty of having defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh attempt an extra point after a Jason Hanson injury quickly gave way to some serious questions. Why is Suh, not punter Nick Harris, the backup kicker? Why wouldn't you go for two points in that situation? Schwartz said "we have a lot of confidence" in Suh but admitted he was put in a difficult situation. "He went out there without any warm-ups," Schwartz said, "where a kicker that's not playing a position generally has time to take his time. Probably should have called a timeout, given him time to get ready." Had the Lions made the kick or a two-point conversion, the Jets would have been playing for a touchdown instead of a field goal at the end of regulation.

What's next: The Lions play at the Buffalo Bills next Sunday.

Getting over the hump at Lambeau

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
7:55
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KuhnAP Photo/Mike RoemerUnlikely hero John Kuhn and the Packers salted away the final 6-plus minutes for a division win.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Two thoughts swirled in my head Sunday afternoon as I walked to the postgame interview area at Lambeau Field. I was trying to remember the last time a late game-management decision had mattered for the Detroit Lions, much less been questioned. I was also trying to make sense of how a converted fifth-year fullback who entered the season with 18 career carries was among the biggest reasons the Green Bay Packers avoided a disastrous home loss.

Unlike most of the past two decades of Lions-Packers games in the state of Wisconsin, this contest came down to the final 6 minutes and 32 seconds. And here's what we learned: Lions coach Jim Schwartz overestimated how close his admittedly competitive team is to pulling off a franchise-changing upset. The Packers, meanwhile, could walk off Lambeau Field knowing that their previously weak running game consumed the rest of the game and prevented the Lions from regaining possession in a 28-26 victory.

The Packers have their share of remaining concerns. Players were so glum after squeaking by the Lions for the 19th consecutive time at home that coach Mike McCarthy "had to remind us twice in the locker room that we did get a win," tailback John Kuhn said. Meanwhile, as we discussed earlier, quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered some pointed postgame analysis of his team's game plan.

The Packers held the ball for only 22:23 of the game and got off only 40 offensive plays, about half of what the Lions ran. But once Schwartz made the debatable decision at the 6:23 mark to trust his defense and punt from the Packers' 37-yard line, the Packers looked like a different team.

Kuhn carried on seven of their final 12 plays, amassing 34 yards and accounting for three first downs to keep the clock moving. The game ended when Kuhn ran eight yards on 3rd-and-7 with 55 seconds remaining after the Lions had used their final timeout.

"That's what you look for," McCarthy said. "... That's the toughest time in the game -- it should be -- to run the football. We lined up and it was real football. I can't say enough about our run-blocking unit. ... To finish the game right there, I thought that was a real statement for our offense."

We've spent plenty of time addressing the Packers' post-Ryan Grant running game, but after halftime Sunday, their entire offense went dark. It didn't score and ran only 10 plays before that final possession, the byproduct of three turnovers and Charles Woodson's interception return for a touchdown. Rodgers had a perfect passer rating at halftime, but in the second half threw as many interceptions (two) as he completed passes to his own team before that 6:23 point.

"That was pretty frustrating," center Scott Wells said. "As an offense, we want to be able to control the game. We want to run 70-plus plays and we're nowhere near that."

If you're a Packers fan, you were understandably biting your lip as they protected that two-point lead. It was time for what football people call the "four-minute drill," where the play-calls and tempo are designed to run out the clock. But after netting 156 rushing yards in their two games after starter Grant's injury, the Packers hardly seemed a team capable of eating that much time.

But Kuhn, at 250 pounds, might be built perfectly for such situations. He rumbled for seven yards on his first carry, five on his second and suddenly the Packers were rolling.

"To be able to end a game like that is always nice," Kuhn said.

Added Wells: "There's some satisfaction with that, yes. I feel we shouldn't have been in that situation to begin with. But at the same time, when the game is on the line ... to go out there and be able to run the ball effectively, that was a positive. We were able to secure a game, and that matters."

If a below-average running game can chew up 6:32, with some help from a quarterback with quick feet and good decision-making, is that enough? The Packers soon will let us know.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Jim PrischingLions coach Jim Schwartz was scrutinized for some of his late-game decisions.
The Packers would not have been in that situation, however, had the Lions taken a different path at the end of their final possession. As they broke into Packers' territory, Schwartz's options included:

  1. Calling a third-down play, perhaps a run, with the intention of going for it on fourth down or getting better field position for a field-goal attempt.
  2. Going for it on fourth down regardless, even if it was 4th-and-9.
  3. Attempting a 55-yard field goal by Jason Hanson, who had earlier converted from 52 and 49 but been far short from 56.
  4. None of the above.

Schwartz decided on the fourth option. Quarterback Shaun Hill threw incomplete toward Calvin Johnson on third down. On fourth-and-9, Nick Harris kicked a 24-yard pooch-punt, and the Lions never got the ball back.

As we discussed last week, it's a measure of progress to be discussing individual Lions' decisions rather than global incompetence. And I'm not ready to say Schwartz made the wrong call. What it did tell us, however, is that Schwartz placed too much trust in a defense that had played well in the second half but overall is still far from a finished product. When it came time to stop a team that hasn't run the ball well all season, the Lions didn't come close.

Schwartz said afterward that he thought the wind was "fairly significant" and made it too difficult of an attempt. He added: "I thought it was a little bit too long to make and we decided to try to punt and pin them down. We had a lot of momentum on defense. It's a one-score game. If we try that field goal and miss it ... field position drastically changes."

The Lions, Schwartz said, are "very, very close" and "it's our job to get over the hump." You could suggest that the Lions, losers of 23 consecutive road games and 10 consecutive against the Packers, needed an aggressive boost at that point to get to the other side of that hump. But Schwartz would have none of it.

"We're not going to make any decisions based on what our record is," he said. "We're going to make decisions that are best within the game. If it's a field goal we think Jason can make, we're going to put him out there."

Schwartz coached as if he has a playoff-caliber team rather than one that clearly doesn't know (yet) how to handle close games at the end. Already this season, the Lions have lost three games by five or less points.

"When we [get over the hump]," Schwartz said, "we're going to get on a roll and play really good football."

Sunday, at least, the Lions demonstrated they're not there yet. Instead, it was the Packers who found a way over their own personal hump. Lesson learned.

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