NFL Nation: Roy Williams

IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

If you want to read Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

IRVING, Texas -- Two veteran wide receivers went off the market Monday when Nate Burleson and Jason Avant signed with the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers, respectively.

Both were linked to the Dallas Cowboys by the media (hello, that's me), but sources indicated the Cowboys had some interest in Burleson, who played for their new passing game coordinator, Scott Linehan, with the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys just were not willing to pull the trigger on a deal now, continuing their patient approach in free agency.

Could it mean the Cowboys are as content at wide receiver as owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said?

[+] EnlargeTerrance Williams
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsTerrance Williams, a 2013 pick, started as the No. 3 receiver and also showed he could handle the No. 2 role. Is Dallas hoping for a repeat in the 2014 draft?
With Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, the Cowboys are set at the top two spots. Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley would settle in as the No. 3 receiver, splitting the job depending on role. Harris has more big-play ability. Beasley is better in the quick-game routes.

I've long said the Cowboys do not need a true No. 3 receiver over the years because they have tight end Jason Witten, and the running backs have always figured prominently in the passing game.

The best performance by a No. 3 receiver for the Cowboys in the past five years has been Laurent Robinson, who caught 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2011. But mostly the Cowboys need their third receiver to catch anywhere from 30 to 40 passes a season. Kevin Ogletree did that in 2012 with 32. Technically Roy Williams might not have been the No. 3 receiver in 2010, but he caught 37 passes. In 2009, Patrick Crayton caught 37 passes for 622 yards and 5 touchdowns.

So you’re looking for a No. 3 receiver to catch two or three passes a game when you look at the options available in how the Cowboys have constructed their offense.

But what if Bryant or Williams gets hurt? And there will be injuries. Can Harris be a No. 2 receiver and excel outside? Maybe for a few games. Beasley is just a slot receiver because of his size. That is why I thought Avant or Burleson would have been good fits. Other options remain, such as Earl Bennett and even Miles Austin, but that would be a long shot.

However, if the Cowboys were not willing to make a play for a free agent Monday, they're not going to get into the market Tuesday.

Last week, I wondered whether Gavin Escobar could be an option as the third receiver. The Cowboys like his athleticism and saw in glimpses his ability to make plays. His touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the season finale was an eye-opener. With the way the tight ends are used these days, Escobar has more receiver skills to him than tight end skills. He needs to get bigger and stronger to be an on-the-line tight end, but that part of his game will never be his strength. His strength will be working the seams and his ability to go get the ball.

But here is a thought: This is considered one of the deeper drafts in memory for wide receivers. Could the Cowboys be looking for their No. 3 receiver, who could be the No. 2 receiver, in the early to middle rounds of the draft?

Williams, a third-rounder last year, caught 44 passes for 736 yards and 5 touchdowns and showed he could handle the No. 2 role when Austin missed games with a hamstring injury. Williams' development played a part in the release of Austin.

If a Mike Evans fell, or if a Marqise Lee is there in the first round, could they be targets? It sure seems as if the draft is the Cowboys' preferred method to find their No. 3 receiver.

Dez Bryant praises Jon Kitna

December, 26, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- In Dez Bryant's rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys he received snaps with the second-team offense because he was behind Miles Austin and Roy Williams in the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant and Jon Kitna
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDez Bryant is grateful to Jon Kitna for showing him the ropes early in his career.
The second-team quarterback was Jon Kitna.

Bryant praised Kitna for helping develp him during that 2010 season. In 12 games, Bryant finished with 45 catches for 561 yards and six touchdowns. He also returned two punts for scores.

"Man, just keep in a person's ear, I know for me individually, I'm excited," Bryant said of Kitna, who re-joined the Cowboys on Wednesday. "Kit is a big reason why my career started the way that it did and I can't thank him enough. Just to see him here, I feel good."

Kitna become an on-the-field mentor to Bryant, helping him master the offense and understand how defenses play different coverages.

"It's nice for him," Kitna said when told about Bryant's comments. "Chad Johnson was very similar to that. ... You come in with a certain perception of what you think the league is going to be like and you figure out it's going to take more work than you probably thought it was going to, and then the light goes on and you feel like you can be special player in this league. I'm excited for him and what it means for his career and for his future after football."

This isn't the first time a wide receiver has heaped praise on Kitna. Williams talked about the close relationship he forged with Kitna when the two played for the Detroit Lions and continued when they became Cowboys.'

Coach Jason Garrett is big on having the right type of player in his locker room. Garrett looks for leaders who show it on and off the field. In Kitna's case, the quarterback demonstrated it with Bryant away from the field.

"I'm going to be always be thankful and always appreciate that from him," Bryant said. "I can't thank him enough. I give a lot of credit and success go to Kit. My career started because of Kit. He always talked to me every day. I will never forget. He always stayed in my ear. He always stayed on me. He always told me I had the potential to be something."

Cowboys need to pass on Ed Reed

November, 12, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Considering the Dallas Cowboys' woes at safety, Ed Reed would seem to make sense to join a defense in crisis mode. But he’s not the Ed Reed from the Baltimore Ravens days.

The Cowboys can be criticized for picking Roy Williams over Ed Reed in 2002, but if -- or when -- they pass on Reed this time, it makes more sense. And a source told ESPNDallas.com’s Calvin Watkins the Cowboys will not sign Reed.

Reed played in only seven games for the Houston Texans. Hip surgery knocked him out of the preseason and the first two games of the regular season. He started five of the seven games he played and had 16 tackles with no interceptions. He criticized Wade Phillips’ coaching.

Oh, and he is 35 years old.

Jeff Heath has struggled and was responsible for three touchdowns in the loss to the New Orleans Saints. J.J. Wilcox has missed three games with a knee injury but had yet to make impact plays. Reed might want to go to a team with a better chance of making a playoff run at this point in his career. At 5-5, the Cowboys currently share the NFC East lead with the Philadelphia Eagles, but look far from a contender.

The Cowboys could claim Reed, who earned $6 million this year from the Texans, and pay him $411,000 for the final six weeks. They have the salary-cap room to do it, but is it worth it?


Todd McShay set off alarms as he considered if NFL teams drafting sixth (St. Louis Rams) and 10th (Buffalo Bills) might consider selecting wide receivers with those choices.

The alarms grew louder as McShay, speaking in the video above, noted that Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, widely rated as the top receiver in the 2012 NFL draft, did not possess prototypical size.

Blackmon, though obviously talented, doesn't fit the physical mold for receivers drafted among the top three overall choices over the past 25-plus years. We discussed the reasons back at the combine, when the Rams held the second overall choice and Blackmon was a consideration for them.

The Rams subsequently traded the second overall choice to Washington. They now hold the sixth overall choice. Blackmon would be a more logical value there than at No. 2, except for those alarms going off.

Consider recent draft history.

First, take a look at receivers drafted among the top five overall choices since 2000, listed in the first chart below.

Three of the seven are superstars: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. Another, A.J. Green, is coming off an impressive rookie season. Braylon Edwards has enjoyed sporadic success. The other two, Charles Rogers and Peter Warrick, fell far short of expectations.

Those seven players have combined for 12 Pro Bowl appearances (Fitzgerald 5, Johnson 5, Johnson 1, Edwards 1).

The next set of receivers, listed below, were drafted sixth to 15th overall. I selected that range because three NFC West teams -- the Rams, Seattle Seahawks (12th) and Arizona Cardinals (13th) -- hold picks in that area.

The 16 players listed in the second chart have combined for two Pro Bowls, one by Roy Williams and the other by Koren Robinson as a return specialist in Minnesota, long after Robinson had bombed as a receiver.

Receivers talented enough to command selection among the top few overall choices have fared better than the ones with enough question marks to push them down into the next tier.

That is something to consider when weighing how the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals should use their first-round selections, even if the Rams did land Torry Holt with the sixth overall choice in 1999.

Anything else, Mr. Cutler?

March, 13, 2012
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Let's take a moment to review.

As the Chicago Bears' offense collapsed last season, then-injured quarterback Jay Cutler made a nuanced plea for schematic continuity without directly endorsing the return of offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

A month later, the Bears replaced Martz and promoted offensive line coach Mike Tice into the role.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler, Brandon Marshall
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBears quarterback Jay Cutler got his receiver, former Denver teammate Brandon Marshall.
A few weeks after that, the Bears hired a quarterbacks coach whom Cutler once endorsed for Martz's job and is obviously a personal favorite. Jeremy Bates was one of the Denver Broncos' offensive assistants during Cutler's time there.

On Feb. 20, Cutler spoke openly during an ESPN 1000 interview about his desire for a big receiver and specifically acknowledged his continuing friendship with Brandon Marshall, who at the time was a member of the Miami Dolphins. Tuesday, less than an hour after the NFL's free agent and trading period opened, the Bears acquired Marshall for a pair of third-round picks.

What Jay wants, Jay gets.

Maybe he should have asked for Jake Long, Reggie Bush and a private plane as well.

In all seriousness, I know some of you will think that new general manager Phil Emery and coach Lovie Smith have gone out of their way to placate, suck up to and otherwise make their quarterback happy. But I wouldn't look at it quite that way.

What the Bears have done is take most every step available to maximize the huge investment they made in Cutler in their historic 2009 trade for him.

It's fair to expect an elite quarterback to raise the production of those around him, but the Bears hadn't given Cutler much to work with since his arrival. They traded away his best receiver, tight end Greg Olsen, and hoped he could make it work with former college teammate Earl Bennett, a kick returner trying to play receiver in Devin Hester and a raw speedster in Johnny Knox. Last year's signing of veteran Roy Williams proved a laughably inadequate response to their positional weakness.

It's also fair to expect a quarterback to find common ground with his coordinator, but Cutler has now bid farewell to two of them in his three-year Bears career. The hope now is that Cutler can resume his lockstep relationship with Bates, and get enough flexibility from Tice, to eliminate the red tape and bureaucracy that has stifled the team's offense at times in recent years.

There is no such thing as a perfect environment in the NFL, and it's worth noting that pass protection has probably been the single biggest issue the Bears offense has faced since Cutler arrived. Regardless, the Bears have surgically repaired much of the ruins around him.

Cutler has been reunited with his favorite coach and top receiver, and frankly it's on him to make it work. The Bears have reinforced their commitment to their franchise quarterback. The rest is up to him.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Chicago Bears

Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.

Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.

What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.

Detroit Lions

Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.

Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.

What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.

Green Bay Packers

Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.

Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.

What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.

Minnesota Vikings

Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.

What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.
We're going to get some mileage out of the research I did, and had forwarded to me, for our 2011 All-NFC North team. The first installment is left over from the debate that ultimately led me to choose Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson over the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin.

[+] EnlargePercy  Harvin
Icon SMIPercy Harvin can do plenty of things on the field, as long as the Vikings have him on the field.
I checked out their playing time as part of comparing their production. As it turned out, Nelson and Harvin were on the field for almost exactly the same amount of time. Nelson played 609 snaps and Harvin 605. (All numbers in this post exclude penalties, which means they vary slightly from the figures we've used during the season.) The percentages of their team's total snaps were close as well: 58.9 for Nelson and 58.4 for Harvin.

That makes sense for Nelson, who was part of the NFL's deepest receiving corps. But I have a hard time understanding how Harvin -- by far the Vikings' best receiver in 2011 and one of their few playmakers -- was on the sideline for more than 40 percent of a mostly punchless team's snaps.

Across the NFL, 54 receivers played a higher percentage of their team's snaps than Harvin did. That includes teammate Devin Aromashodu, who eventually stepped into the starting lineup after Bernard Berrian's departure and Michael Jenkins' injury. Aromashodu caught 26 passes while playing on 674 snaps, 69 more than Harvin. (Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe led Vikings pass-catchers by playing 76.1 percent of the team's snaps.)

I think we all assumed that Harvin would be the Vikings' No. 1 receiver, and it was immediately surprising when he played about half of the snaps in the Vikings' first two games. At the time, coach Leslie Frazier said: "We have certain packages where we want to feature him, and not necessarily overuse him, but use him to help our football team."

Many of us dropped the issue given Harvin's season-long productivity, but in the end the Vikings finished the season with the NFL's fifth-fewest passing yards while their best receiver was on the sideline for 41.6 percent of their plays. That's hard to defend.

On the other hand, it's possible the Vikings believed Harvin would be more effective with managed snaps. He did, after all, catch a career-high 87 passes while rushing for 345 yards out of the backfield. The Vikings also had him as their primary kickoff returner on 30 of the kickoffs they faced.

Frazier denied during the season that his playing-time plan for Harvin was related to his migraine history, but it's worth noting that Harvin had no reported issues this season. Did the limited contact contribute to that? Assuming Frazier was being truthful, the two events were coincidental.

Regardless, in the big picture Harvin is too young to be on a pitch count. He won't turn 24 until May. It's true that he was managing a rib injury late in the season, but that doesn't account for 431 plays on the sideline. There is every reason to believe that Harvin could and should play at least as much as the No. 1 or No. 2 receivers on other teams.

For context, here are the NFC North receivers who played a higher percentage of snaps than Harvin in 2011:
Consider that Jennings played more snaps in 12 1/2 games before suffering a knee injury than Harvin did in 16. In the end, Harvin had the best year of his career when playing limited snaps. The Vikings must spend part of this offseason deciding if that was the reason, or if they artificially capped his production by overcompensating on his playing time.
Our latest discussion with Jeff Dickerson on "Chicago's GameNight" at ESPN 1000 generated an interesting question: What should be the top priority for new Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery?

I broke my answer into two parts, based on the short and long terms. Immediately, Emery needs to upgrade a receiving corps after an ineffective attempt to bolster last season's group with free agents Roy Williams and Sam Hurd. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice will place a heavy emphasis on the power running game, but he also wants to throw the ball downfield and needs bigger and better targets to do that.

In the long term, however, Emery needs to address a defense built around four Pro Bowl players who are all on the wrong side of 30.

The issue isn't so much that defensive end Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman and linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are aging. All four keep themselves in excellent physical condition and played at a high level in 2011.

More worrisome is that none of the four have a potential heir on the roster. As a result, Peppers, Briggs, Urlacher and Tillman were all among the 2011 NFL leaders in playing time at their positions. We've already noted that Briggs played every defensive snap this season. The rest of the numbers are in the chart.

Urlacher will turn 34 in May. Peppers just turned 32, Briggs will be 32 in November and Tillman turns 31 later this month. It's important to note that none of them need to be replaced in 2012, at least based on their 2011 performances. But restocking so many key positions is a multiple-year project that hasn't begun.

The job of a general manger is to provide a steady infusion of talent to ensure an orderly transition at key positions, whenever possible. Emery needs to jump-start that process for the Bears' defense. It might not be time to find the next Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs, but the Bears need to at least start thinking about it.

Bears regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 20
Preseason Power Ranking: 13

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
AP Photo/Paul SakumaCaleb Hanie was ineffective after taking over for an injured Jay Cutler in late November.
Biggest surprise: The Bears installed little-known Henry Melton into the critical "three-technique" position on their defensive line, hoping that the converted running back/defensive end could play the role of interior playmaker last filled by Tommie Harris about five years ago. Melton had his ups and downs, but he finished with seven sacks in 15 games. The only defensive tackle in the NFL with more sacks was Tommy Kelly of the Oakland Raiders, who had 7.5. Melton will have to even out his game to be a long-term starter, but no team is going to turn down seven sacks from an interior defensive lineman.

Biggest disappointment: Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie spent nearly four years in the organization before the Bears called on him for extensive service. No matter the situation, that's a reasonable timeframe for a quarterback to develop into a useful asset. When Hanie took over a 7-3 team, it was fair to think he could navigate the Bears toward the playoffs. Instead, he was benched after four consecutive losses, punctuated by nine interceptions and 19 sacks, and helped scuttle the Bears' postseason hopes. You can't blame Hanie for everything that went wrong during that stretch, but the quarterback is the most important player on the field and Hanie obviously didn't do enough to win a game. The Bears deserve some blame for failing to develop him, but in the end the responsibility lies with the player.

Biggest need: Amazingly, it's a toss-up between two positions that annually draw offseason discussion around this team: receiver and safety. Quarterback Jay Cutler has obvious chemistry with receiver Earl Bennett, but it's also clear that Devin Hester is best left primarily as a returner and that veteran Roy Williams is on his last legs. The Bears traded away tight end Greg Olsen because he didn't fit into now ex-coordinator Mike Martz's system, and they enter this offseason with a far-too-limited number of reliable pass-catchers. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that 2011 third-round pick Chris Conte merits a look as a starting safety in 2012, but 2010 third-rounder Major Wright hasn't shown much progress and the Bears desperately need a playmaker in the back end.

Team MVP: Part of me wants to say that tailback Matt Forte deserves the award. Amid a public negotiation about his expiring contract, Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage when he suffered a season-ending sprained knee in Week 13. But the Bears' collapse after Cutler's injury, especially before Forte was sidelined, demonstrated how valuable he really is. The Bears averaged 32 points per game during a five-game winning streak prior to his injury. In a 1-5 finish, they averaged 14.2 points per game. Sometimes, as they say, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Whither Hester? In Week 10, Hester returned a punt 82 yards against the Detroit Lions for his 18th career touchdown return. That left him one behind Deion Sanders' NFL record. But illness and a sprained ankle dramatically limited Hester's impact thereafter. He caught only four passes in the Bears' final seven games, and over that stretch he managed three returns for more than 30 yards. Hester is the type of player who could have helped overcome the ineffective offense Cutler left behind. His disappearance is a little-mentioned, but highly important, factor in their 8-8 final record.

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Our "Watch" series: At various times this season, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen was on pace to break the NFL record for sacks in a season. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson was on track to contest the single-season record for touchdown receptions and Chicago Bears tailback Matt Forte was in contention to set a new record for all-purpose yards. All three have fallen off those record paces, unfortunately. Allen has one sack in his past three games, Johnson has one touchdown catch in his last four games and Forte has produced 246 all-purpose yards over his last four games and is now sidelined by a sprained knee. All three players have had great seasons, of course, and their record pace was fun while it lasted.

2. Roy Williams, Chicago Bears receiver: Williams hasn't inspired much confidence with his underwhelming showing this season, and I can't imagine a quarterback on the Bears' roster feeling good about throwing in his direction after he turned what should have been a touchdown into a game-changing interception Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Caleb Hanie delivered a perfectly placed ball into Williams' chest at the goal line late in the fourth quarter. But Williams bobbled it, knocked it into the air and ultimately couldn't prevent Chiefs safety Jon McGraw from making the interception. The score would have tied the game at 10. Ultimately, the Bears lost 10-3.

3. Direction in Detroit: This week might be the most critical in the tenure of Lions coach Jim Schwartz. The NFL made his job as team disciplinarian easy last week by handing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh a two-game suspension. The league isn't likely to step in on the cases of receiver Titus Young, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and kick returner Stefan Logan, all of whom received costly personal fouls Sunday night in the Lions' 31-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints. I'm sure some people don't enjoy watching that kind of football, but the real issue Schwartz has is that the penalties have impacted his team's competitiveness. Schwartz is facing the prospect of benching three prominent players during a playoff run. His response to this crisis will go a long way toward determining whether the Lions make the playoffs.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMike Martz
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMike Martz's future in Chicago remains uncertain at this point.
1. Debate in Minnesota over quarterback Christian Ponder: On the one hand, Ponder threw for a career-high 381 yards and had the first three-touchdown game of his career Sunday against the Denver Broncos. On the other hand, he committed three costly turnovers in a 35-32 loss. He now has nine turnovers in six starts this season. Are we seeing the typical hot-and-cold performance of a rookie quarterback, especially one that had no offseason work due to the NFL lockout? Or is that excuse making? Reasonable people could occupy both sides of that argument.

2. Intrigue surrounding Mike Martz, Chicago Bears offensive coordinator: In recent weeks, we've seen reports that Martz has interest in several college football openings, including Arizona State and UCLA. Sunday, ESPN reported that Martz appears unlikely to return to the Bears when his contract expires after the season. Monday, Bears coach Lovie Smith said those reports have been "made up" because, as the man who hires and fires assistant coaches, he could be the only credible source on the topic. Some of what we have seen lines up with classic contract leveraging: creating the perception of a market for a soon-to-be free agent. Some of it could reflect the hope of others in the Bears organization. I'm not sure. But I'll repeat my earlier sentiment: Martz is far from perfect, but starting over with a new coordinator and/or scheme would be a destructive setback for quarterback Jay Cutler and render moot two years of roster maneuvering to fit Martz's player requirements.

3. Cash accounts, Green Bay Packers: The Packers launched the fifth stock offering in franchise history Tuesday morning, putting up 250,000 shares at $250 apiece to help pay for a looming $143 million expansion and renovation project for Lambeau Field. It's a little early for a progress report, but I know I had a hard time even accessing the dedicated website (www.packersowner.com) to see what all the fuss was about. Most every NFL team solicits public money for stadium projects, but in this case, only the people interested in contributing have to participate. Taxpayers with no interest in football have no obligations.

Lions-Bears II: Devin Hester limited?

November, 13, 2011
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CHICAGO -- Greetings from Soldier Field, where I can confirm the wind has already kicked up enough for the American flags around the plaza to be whipping at right angles. Inside the stadium, where the winds are less predictable, the flags above the goal posts are fluttering lazily. Take that amateur observation for what it's worth.

I want to point you in the direction of some information tweeted Sunday morning by ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson. Indications are that Chicago Bears receiver/kick returner Devin Hester (ankle) will be active for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, but he won't be at full strength and might not be a big part of the Bears' offense.

In that scenario, you would assume that Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox, Dane Sanzenbacher and Roy Williams will get the majority of snaps at receiver. Knox is expected to start ahead of Williams.

NFC North Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Bernard Berrian, Minnesota Vikings receiver: Berrian took to Twitter on Sunday to note that he has been "open" for the past four years. I don't really care that one of his antagonists was a Minnesota state representative, one who happens to be a co-author of owner Zygi Wilf's stadium financing bill. No matter who he was speaking to, Berrian was wrong to imply that getting open means he has been doing his job. There are multiple reasons why he has been so unproductive in recent years, and they include some factors (like quarterback accuracy) that are beyond Berrian's control. I'll have more on this topic later in the week, but for now understand that Vikings quarterbacks have targeted him on 67 passes over the past 20 games. Berrian has caught 30 of them. Berrian would be well-advised to evaluate what he does, or doesn't do, to fight for the ball before drawing attention to his production.

2. Insanity in Chicago: We've hammered Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz pretty well in recent weeks for his play calling. So we should note that the Bears came to their senses in several ways last Sunday. First, they swapped receivers Roy Williams and Johnny Knox, returning Knox to his starting role. While Knox has his own issues to work through, Williams needed to be held accountable for his lack of productivity. Second, Martz called only 19 passes compared to 30 running plays. The reality is the Bears aren't in position to generate a ton of scoring on their own. Martz smartly and safely capitalized on the boost he got from the Bears' defense (one touchdown) and special teams (one touchdown, another set up and a blocked field goal).

3. Remi Ayodele, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle: The Vikings’ new nose tackle has started four games and doesn’t have a single tackle. Nose tackles don’t typically pile up tackles, and Ayodele’s top job is to occupy multiple blockers. But you would think a nose tackle would fall on a running back at some point during a four-game stretch. Ayodele doesn’t play in the nickel, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has been on the field for only 76 of the Vikings' 259 defensive snaps. That in itself is an indictment of his contribution so far. But still ….

RISING

[+] EnlargeGunther Cunningham
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioGunther Cunningham has adapted his defensive game plan, blitzing less and allowing his back seven to drop back and make plays.
1. Gunther Cunningham, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator: I have no idea how long Cunningham is planning to coach. He's 65 and has been coaching for 42 years. But it's nice to see him having success as his career inevitably moves into its twilight. Lost in the publicity of the Lions' offensive explosion has been a defense that Cunningham has smartly tweaked to fit his personnel. When he arrived in 2009, Cunningham estimated he would blitz on 40 percent of his defensive snaps. Now armed with one of the NFL's best defensive lines, Cunningham almost never blitzes and instead allows his back seven to drop into coverage and make plays. All three of the Lions' interceptions Sunday of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo came against a standard four-man rush. Overall, Cunningham blitzed on 10.9 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. Good coaches never get old. They adapt.

2. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers receiver: In his past 10 games, dating back to last season and including playoffs, Nelson has caught 42 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns. He has effectively emerged as the Packers' No. 2 receiver, regardless of who starts, and absolutely earned the three-year contract extension he signed over the weekend. The Packers' top draft pick in 2008, Nelson is yet another example of a homegrown talent who worked his way through the Packers' in-house minor leagues to become a top contributor.

3. Matt Forte, Bears tailback: There are three players in Bears history to surpass 200 rushing yards in a game. One is Gale Sayers. One is Walter Payton. The other is Forte, who finished with 205 yards Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Through four games, Forte has been the Bears' best player. He is obviously their rushing leader, but he also has more than twice as many receptions as his next-closest teammate. Overall, Forte has touched the ball on 37.7 percent of the Bears’ snaps and has accounted for more than half of their total yards. Rarely do you see a player in a contract year make a better case for himself.

NFC North Stock Watch

September, 27, 2011
9/27/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Concern about Ryan Grant's future: The veteran Green Bay Packers running back didn't exactly roar back from his ankle injury in the first two weeks of the season, totaling 65 yards on 15 carries. But against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, Grant broke through for 92 yards on 17 carries and emerged relatively unscathed from a hit to his ribs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "Ryan was Ryan today for the first time this season. He ran the ball hard. He made the right cuts." I'm sure the Packers aren't going to forget about second-year back James Starks, but Grant's performance was a reminder that this team has two legitimate options in the backfield.

2. Game-day awareness: Two weeks ago, the Bears allowed offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call passing plays more than 80 percent of the time in what was mostly a close game against the New Orleans Saints. Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings unintentionally limited tailback Adrian Peterson to a total of five carries in the second half against the Detroit Lions. In each case, Bears coach Lovie Smith and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier expressed regret the next day. You have to wonder about game-day communication when such an obvious trend goes unnoticed, or at least unaddressed, until it's too late.

3. Roy Williams, Bears receiver: Williams returned from a groin injury but continues to look totally out of sync with quarterback Jay Cutler, and it wasn't clear if he was even running at 100 percent because of the injury. Cutler threw four passes toward Williams. Two were intercepted and two fell incomplete. With Earl Bennett sidelined by a chest injury, the Bears really need Williams to step up as an option. But it seems increasingly unlikely that it will happen.

[+] EnlargeJason Hanson
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJason Hanson came through in a big way for the Lions on Sunday.
RISING

1. Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions place-kicker: It's hard to believe that we spent time this summer discussing whether Hanson was nearing the end of his career. The Lions had a legitimate competitor in Dave Rayner, but Hanson never appeared challenged. This past Sunday, he drilled all four field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder that might have been good from 60. Even at age 41, Hanson appears to have one of the most accurate deep legs in the league. He has converted all eight attempts this season, including two from at least 50 yards, and is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. The man is in his 20th NFL season.

2. Jarius Wynn, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle: How many of you had Wynn as the Packers' leading pass-rusher after three weeks? I wouldn't have guessed it. Wynn had his way with the Bears' offensive line last Sunday and now has three sacks on the season. The only other Packers player with more than one sack is cornerback Jarrett Bush (1.5). Much as C.J. Wilson did last year, Wynn is taking advantage of Mike Neal's latest injury to establish a permanent role. I can't say I spent a lot of time studying Wynn during the preseason, but on Sunday, he appeared powerful and aggressive and fully capable of capitalizing on attention paid to linebacker Clay Matthews. (And before you ask, the answer is "no." I don't think anyone should have concerns about Matthews' total of one sack this season. I feel like he's still affecting games, especially in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. And Sunday, all three of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage.)

3. Tight end play: We just saw a glimpse of the kind of tight-end production the NFC North could see on a weekly basis. Our top four tight ends combined for five touchdowns in Week 3. The Packers' Jermichael Finley had three of them, while the Bears' Kellen Davis had a 32-yard score and the Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe had an 8-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew recorded 11 receptions for 112 yards and is tied for third among all NFL tight ends this season with 16 catches.

Bears safeties: Steltz and Meriweather

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
3:13
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears will be without both Week 1 safeties Chris Harris and Major Wright in Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers.

That's the upshot of the inactive lists we were just given here in the Soldier Field press box. Brandon Meriweather and Craig Steltz will start at safety for the Bears, who will also be without running back Marion Barber (calf). Receiver Roy Williams (groin) is active and will play.

The Bears do have quarterback Nathan Enderle active Sunday, mostly because injuries at other positions makes him one of their 46 healthy players.

There were no surprises among the Packers' inactive list.

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