NFL Nation: Will Heller

Aaron from Chicago wants to know why the Seattle Seahawks keep acquiring personnel from his favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield was the latest addition to the "Minnesota West" roster in Seattle.

"Ever since we controversially signed Steve Hutchinson from them," Aaron writes, "it has seemed as though the Seahawks go out of their way to snatch whatever Vikings they can to stick it to us. It started with them signing Nate Burleson, then Sidney Rice and Heath Farwell, Darell Bevell and Tarvaris Jackson (for whatever reason). They even outbid us for T.J. Houshmanzadeh a few years back. They signed Ryan Longwell at the end of this past season. Obviously, it has continued with Percy Harvin and now Winfield."

Sando: It's a remarkable pattern, but there's likely no revenge factor. The people running the Seahawks during the Hutchinson controversy are long gone from the organization. They were involved in adding Burleson and Houshmandzadeh, but they had nothing to do with the Seahawks' more recent deals for Rice, Farwell, Bevell, Jackson, Harvin or Winfield.

Bevell's hiring as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator stands out as a factor behind the team's decisions to sign Rice and trade for Harvin.

John Schneider's presence as the Seahawks' general manager since 2010 provides a strong link to the NFC North in general. Schneider, after spending much of his career with the Green Bay Packers, played a role in Seattle adding former NFC North players such as Breno Giacomini, Will Blackmon, Cliff Avril, Steven Hauschka, Brett Swain, Frank Omiyale and others. Also, Schneider and Bevell were together in Green Bay. However, Seattle has added many more players without ties to the Vikings or the NFC North.

For a while, the Detroit Lions signed or otherwise acquired a long list of players with Seahawks ties. There were some connections between the organizations -- former Lions coach Rod Marinelli and former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell shared a history with Tampa Bay, for instance -- but some of the overlap defied explanation.

Tyler Polumbus, Burleson, Will Heller, Rob Sims, Lawrence Jackson, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, Trevor Canfield, Marquand Manuel, Kole Heckendorf, Kevin Hobbs, Logan Payne, Chuck Darby, Keary Colbert, Billy McMullen, Travis Fisher, Cory Redding, John Owens, Joel Filani, T.J. Duckett, Kevin Kasper, Etric Pruitt and Mike Williams were among the players to play for both organizations.

Injury-report implications

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
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Implications from the injury reports around the AFC South …

Indianapolis remains without inside linebacker Pat Angerer and guard Joe Reitz. Jerrell Freeman’s been a great fill-in for the defense, but Reitz’s replacement, Seth Olsen, is poor. Dwight Freeney, Cory Redding and Mike McGlynn are all questionable. Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison would work for Freeney, Ricardo Mathews probably for Redding and Trai Essex for McGlynn. Big drop-offs all.

Jacksonville will be without left guard Eben Britton, which means another start for Herb Taylor. Daryl Smith will miss his third game, putting Kyle Bosworth into the lineup as an outside linebacker. Cameron Bradfield is questionable, and should be an upgrade at right tackle if he can play and push Guy Whimper back to the bench. Cornerback Derek Cox is probable and should be a boon to the pass defense.

Tennessee will be without middle linebacker Colin McCarthy, a defensive captain. The Titans also have two questionable players on the interior defensive line: Sen’Derrick Marks and rookie Mike Martin. If both are out it’ll mean more snaps for undrafted rookie DaJohn Harris. Detroit tight end Tony Scheffler is doubtful. If he’s out the Lions could play less two-tight or use reserve Will Heller. Strong safety Louis Delmas is also doubtful. His backup is John Wendling.

Houston is quite healthy. Backup inside linebacker Tim Dobbins is questionable. Denver right guard Chris Kuper is out and Manny Ramirez is in line to replace him.

NFC North Quick Hits: Monday

March, 12, 2012
3/12/12
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I have no idea if this is our last post of the day or if we'll have five more before we call it a night. That's how crazy the NFL news cycle is at the moment. But we've had a collection of newsbits hit the wire in the past few hours, so let's bring them all together while we have a moment — in quick-hitting fashion, of course.

Item: The NFL has taken $36 million in salary cap space from the Washington Redskins and $10 million from the Dallas Cowboys for two-year-old contract violations.
Comment: Each NFC North team will receive $1.6 million in additional cap space as a result. Yee-haw!

Item: The Detroit Lions released tight end Will Heller.
Comment: Heller was due a roster bonus of $200,000 and would have received a base salary of just under $1 million in 2012. As cold as it sounds, you don't need to pay your third tight end that kind of money.

Item: The Chicago Bears issued a low tender of $1.26 million to running back Kahlil Bell, a restricted free agent.
Comment: The Bears have the right to match any contract offer Bell might receive, but they would get no compensation if he departs. At this moment, he appears in line to be Matt Forte's primary backup in 2012. Marion Barber isn't expected back.

Item: The Vikings aren't expected to tender linebacker/special teams ace Kenny Onatolu, according to Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Comment: The fate of the Vikings' other restricted free agent, running back Lorenzo Booker, has yet to be learned.

Item: The Green Bay Packers are entering into their final hours of exclusive negotiating with center Scott Wells, a pending free agent.
Comment: The Packers have a history of last-minute agreements, but Wells might feel compelled to test his market value before being satisfied with what the Packers have offered.

Item: I can't count how many people have asked for updates on the status of Packers left tackle Chad Clifton and receiver Donald Driver.
Comment: If either player has restructured his contract and/or been informed of his release, it hasn't been made public. That's all I can tell you at this moment.
DETROIT -- A few important NFC North notes from the inactive lists for Sunday's early games:

New story: Mistakes don't doom Lions

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
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Matthew StaffordKim Klement/US Presswire Matthew Stafford and the Lions are off to an impressive start in 2011. Stafford threw for 305 yards and three TDs, leading Detroit to a 27-20 victory at Tampa Bay.
TAMPA, Fla. -- I scrambled up to the press box here late Sunday afternoon, seeking verification of some basic facts. Namely: The current year and the final score of the game that had just concluded at Raymond James Stadium.

No, I hadn't fallen into a heat-induced delerium. In fact, I had just left the Detroit Lions' air-conditioned locker room. Therein, I heard:

Quarterback Matthew Stafford talk about the latest ailment that forced him to stagger off the field.

Coach Jim Schwartz rant about "stupid" football and "inexcusable" mistakes, promising that "it's not going to be a real pleasant film session" on Monday.

Guard Rob Sims express his conviction that coaches would "jump us on a whole bunch of stuff" in the coming days.

Hmmm. Tapping into my long history as a reporter, I confirmed that Sunday's game in fact took place in 2011. The Lions defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, winning their season opener for the first time in four years and putting on display many of the components that caused so many of us to catch Lions Fever this offseason.

That Stafford's "injury" was nothing more than cramps, and that Schwartz was able to discuss Sunday's troubles in the context of a victory, marked the start of a new era that only the Lions could indoctrinate. They are far from perfect and in fact could have botched Sunday's game. But overcoming injuries and "bad football," as Schwartz called it during a different portion of his rant, is half the battle in the NFL. There are no perfect teams, and just about every one of them has a knucklehead like Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus, whose fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct was almost certainly what Schwartz was referring to when he said: "There are some things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and will not continue."

Indeed, Cherilus' post-whistle shove of a Bucs defender stopped the clock with 1 minute and 24 seconds remaining and the Bucs out of timeouts. It gave the Bucs enough time to mount a potential game-tying drive, but ultimately they ran out of time. It also gave Schwartz exactly what any coach wants: A victory with plenty of material to humble his players with moving forward.

You see what's happening here, right? One of Schwartz's biggest tasks this season will be to shield players from the hype we've all created for them. It's always preferable to have players who believe they can be good than to be convinced that they already are.

But let's make no mistake here. For the most part, what we saw Sunday verified what we thought about the Lions this summer. Playing in a heat index that reached 94 degrees, the Lions controlled the game from start to finish. Frankly, much of the Bucs' success came after Lions breakdowns, namely Aqib Talib's 28-yard interception return for the touchdown and Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return.

Indeed, Schwartz said, "They couldn't really move the ball on our defense but they had 10 points in the first quarter mainly because of two mistakes."

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Margaret BowlesReceiver Calvin Johnson and the Lions made enough plays to hold off Tampa Bay in their opener.
But Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson connected for two highlight-reel touchdowns -- one a 36-yard play on fourth down after Talib bit on a double move, and the other a 1-yard pass Stafford shoved in Johnson's direction during the third quarter just as his right calf seized.

"During the process of dropping back, I was losing it," Stafford said. "I bet I looked pretty stupid on TV. He made me look pretty good once again."

I'm sure it took the breath of many Lions fans to see Stafford on his back on the sidelines while athletic trainers worked on his leg. But he never missed a snap, finishing with the second 300-yard game of his career and the Lions' first on opening weekend since Bobby Layne threw for 364 yards in 1953.

Stafford made a handful of mistakes himself, throwing high for tight end Will Heller on Talib's interception and nearly throwing a second on a pass behind running back Jahvid Best. But Stafford appeared in command of the offense from the start, and the Lions never trailed after the 36-yard play to Johnson.

"We didn't play our best football out there but we still got a win," Stafford said. "That's a good sign. Obviously you won't want those mistakes to keep coming back. We've got to fix those."

As Stafford and the offense rolled up 431 total yards, the Lions' defense largely shut down Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch served in a modified spy role, sacking Freeman once and finishing with two quarterback hits. Freeman had 98 passing yards through the first three quarters, and the Bucs a total of 128 yards, before the Lions' late-game breakdowns.

"This is the beginning of something special and I'm glad to be a part of it," Tulloch said. "It's crazy when you win and you know you can play better. That's what makes this so exciting. We can just keep working."

That's what I think will distinguish this edition of the Lions. Trust me, I understand why Schwartz was upset. Any coach would have been in that situation. But he doesn't get to rain on our parade. "We can just keep working" is much different sentiment than "back to the drawing board." The Lions are done with that place. This is, after all, 2011.

Halftime: Lions 20, Bucs 13

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
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TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts after an eventful first half at Raymond James Stadium:
  • The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should feel fortunate to trail by seven points, and to be getting the ball to start the second half. The Detroit Lions have outgained them 324-108 and have 16 first downs to the Bucs' seven. The Bucs' only touchdown came off a pass tipped by Lions' tight end Will Heller and into the arms of cornerback Aqib Talib, and they needed a 78-yard kickoff return to put them in position for one of their field goals.
  • That said, the Lions have set themselves up for second-half success by possessing the ball for 21 minutes and 45 seconds. They've also run 41 plays to the Bucs' 23. On a hot and steamy day, that type of disparity cane make a difference late in the game.
  • Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has made a few mistakes, but overall you would have to call a 265-yard first half a success. The Lions had a delay of game under his watch, he dropped a shotgun snap to thwart one play and he overthrew receiver Calvin Johnson in the second quarter. Two other passes -- the interception to Talib and a near-interception on a pass to Jahvid Best -- put his receivers in tough spots. But his 37-yard touchdown pass to receiver Johnson on fourth down, which Talib appeared to tip but couldn't knock down, was a thing of beauty. He kept an 11-yard scoring pass to tight end Tony Scheffler appropriately low to prevent an interception, and he could have had a third touchdown pass had tight end Brandon Pettigrew not dropped an easy one in the first quarter.
  • The Lions' pass defense has been sharp. Quarterback Josh Freeman has managed only 98 yards through the air. Cornerback Chris Houston made a physical interception in the end zone to end one drive, and nickel back Aaron Berry broke up a potential touchdown pass late in the second quarter. Safety Louis Delmas, meanwhile, made a nice breakup of a third-down pass.
  • Who liked Scheffler's touchdown celebration? It appeared he was mimicking a swashbuckling pirate in the home of the Buccaneers. Not bad on the creativity scale.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Here is something to consider as the Detroit Lions trail the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 10-6 after the first quarter of the season: On a hot and humid day, the Lions ran 25 of the first 28 offensive plays and held the ball for 12 minutes, 52 seconds of the first quarter.

The temperature has hit 89 degrees with a 93-degree heat index.

The Lions only have six points to show for two long drives and have made a few more mistakes than they would have liked. The two most egregious: Tight end Brandon Pettigrew dropped a touchdown pass and tight end Will Heller inadvertently tipped a pass into the hands of Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib, resulting in a 28-yard interception return.

But the Lions' heavy first-quarter possession should only help them as the game continues. Their defense is rested, while the Bucs' has worked pretty hard already in this heat.

NFC North Week 14 decisive moment

December, 14, 2010
12/14/10
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» NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

The Detroit Lions knew they might never get a better chance to take the lead Sunday in what was yet another close game in the fourth quarter. So facing a second down from the Green Bay Packers' 13-yard line, they dialed up what they hoped was a perfect play for the situation.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called a tight end screen, but he targeted No. 3 tight end Will Heller. Heller was giving starter Brandon Pettigrew a breather at the end of a 12-yard drive, but the Packers could never have guessed what was coming.

Linebacker Clay Matthews ran past him at the line of scrimmage, and by the time Heller grabbed Drew Stanton's pass, he had three key blockers out in front of him.

Right tackle Corey Hilliard and center Dominic Raiola double-teamed safety Nick Collins. Receiver Calvin Johnson held off cornerback Tramon Williams. And Heller ran through linebacker A.J. Hawk's tackle attempt at the goal line for the touchdown.

"It was a long drive," Heller said. "Brandon [Pettigrew] made some big plays on the drive to get us in position. I was just going in to give him a blow. We called a tight end screen and it was a good situation for it. They were bringing pressure off the edge with Matthews. I got a hand on him and was able to release behind him. A lane opened up and the linemen made some big blocks."

Nearly half of the fourth quarter still remained, but as it turned out, Heller's touchdown proved to be the decisive moment of the game.
Before anyone starts doing cartwheels over the Detroit Lions' latest swindle/trade, let's remember one thing: Good cover cornerbacks are never, EVER reasonably available when under contract. You can get them, but it almost always requires a ridiculous contract on top of premium trade terms.

The Lions had to do neither Saturday afternoon in order to pry Alphonso Smith away from the Denver Broncos. Instead, general manager Martin Mayhew sent No. 4 tight end Dan Gronkowski to the Broncos. And that's it. As of now, at least, there are no indications that the Lions included any draft picks for Smith, who was the No. 37 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

It's rare that a team gives up on a highly-drafted cornerback after one year. It was especially painful for Denver which, as my AFC West colleague Bill Williamson recently pointed out, traded its 2010 first-round pick (No. 14 overall) to jump back into the second round in 2009 to draft Smith. But he was buried deep on the Broncos depth chart this summer and would have been released were it not for this trade.

That said, Mayhew had every reason to make this trade. Even though Gronkowski had a strong preseason, there was little chance he would play in a tight end group that includes established veterans Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Will Heller. Cornerback is a much more important position than tight end, and the Lions' need there is acute.

Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade finished the preseason as the starting cornerbacks, with Eric King working at nickel. But Smith will get every opportunity to turn around his career in Detroit, at minimal cost to the Lions. Advantage, Detroit.

Draft Watch: NFC North

March, 17, 2010
3/17/10
12:00
PM ET
» NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Chicago Bears

Last month: The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa 2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Now: The Bears have addressed some of the needs we first identified last month via the free-agent market, signing defensive end Julius Peppers to replace Ogunleye and Chester Taylor to provide premium depth in the backfield. But both safety positions remain noticeably untouched. There have been some suggestions that the Bears pursue St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe, a restricted free agent who would require no compensation to pry from the Rams. Barring a run at him, safety ranks with offensive line as the Bears' top needs with the draft looming in five weeks.

Detroit Lions

Last month: Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free-agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey Fitzsimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Now: The Lions have addressed the interior of their defensive line, acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland and hosting defensive tackle/end Anthony Hargrove, a restricted free agent, on a visit. Veteran guard Chester Pitts is scheduled for a visit, but the left guard position might ultimately be filled through the draft. It's also not out of the question that the Lions target Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 overall pick. The Lions have addressed their No. 2 receiver position with free agent Nate Burleson and re-signed Heller, two other areas of need we discussed.

Green Bay Packers

Last month: Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Now: Clifton and Tauscher have both re-signed, but finding a left tackle of the future remains one of the Packers' top priorities as the draft approaches. Clifton signed a three-year deal, but it's not clear how long he will play. As per their philosophy, the Packers haven't addressed any needs by signing free agents from other teams. They'll target their remaining need positions in the draft. In addition to left tackle, that positional list should also include outside linebacker and cornerback.

Minnesota Vikings

Last month: Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickelback Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Now: The Vikings re-signed Sapp to give them an alternative if Griffin isn't ready to start the season, but cornerback could still be a high priority in the draft. The loss of Taylor makes depth at running back an issue, but that is one position where it makes sense to go young. As draft boards begin to shape up, it will be interesting to see if the Vikings get an opportunity to fill their need for a long-term quarterback answer. Will there be anyone of that description available with the No. 30 overall pick? That debate remains unsettled.

Updating UFA movement in NFC North

March, 15, 2010
3/15/10
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As we head into the second full week of free agency, it's probably a good time to revise our look at each NFC North team's unsigned players. We haven't had a restricted free agent (RFA) receive an offer sheet yet, so we'll limit this post to unrestricted free agents (UFAs) -- who have total freedom to sign with another team.

Chicago Bears
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: None have re-signed. The Bears are trying to bring back Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
UFAs as of March 5: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.
Comment: Ciurciu, Heller and Jansen have re-signed. Foote seems likely to return to Pittsburgh.

Green Bay Packers
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.
Comment: Clifton and Tauscher have re-signed. Kampman signed with Jacksonville.

Minnesota Vikings
UFAs as of March 5:
Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.
Comment: Kennedy and Sapp re-signed. Taylor signed with Chicago. Hicks signed with Washington.

NFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
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Chicago Bears

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Josh Bullocks, safety Danieal Manning, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Jamar Williams.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: With no picks in the first or second round of next month's draft, the Bears are gearing up for a relatively major jump into free agency. They're expected to bid for defensive end Julius Peppers and possible safety Antrel Rolle and would also like to re-sign linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna could also be a target. Manumaleuna played for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis.

Detroit Lions

Potential unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Potential restricted free agents: Defensive end Copeland Bryan, offensive lineman Dylan Gandy, defensive lineman Jason Hunter, offensive lineman Daniel Loper, offensive lineman Manny Ramirez, safety Ko Simpson, linebacker Cody Spencer.

Franchise player: None

What to expect: The Lions aren't likely to be as active as they were last year, but general manager Martin Mayhew said over the winter that he could envision a five- or six-man free agent class. Running back, defensive end and defensive back are all positions they will investigate. They'll also need to find a backup quarterback, assuming Daunte Culpepper moves on.

Green Bay Packers

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.

Potential restricted free agents: Safety Atari Bigby, defensive back Will Blackmon, offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, running back John Kuhn, offensive lineman Jason Spitz, cornerback Tramon Williams.

Franchise player: Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett

What to expect: The Packers will have a demanding offseason filled with difficult decisions. To this point, they haven't re-signed either of their starting offensive tackles. They are clearly approaching injured linebacker Aaron Kampman with caution. And they have a long line of restricted free agents who would like long-term contracts, starting with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. The Packers have more than enough to keep them busy, but they haven't dabbled much in free agency in recent years, anyway.

Minnesota Vikings

Potential unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Potential restricted free agents: Offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive end Ray Edwards, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, fullback Naufahu Tahi.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Vikings are awaiting word from quarterback Brett Favre on the 2010 season, a decision that could impact their offseason plans. They would like tailback Chester Taylor back, but it's possible Taylor will at least test his value on the open market. As a Final Four team, the Vikings will be limited to signing players that have been released by other teams unless they lose one of their own unrestricted free agents first.

Draft Watch: NFC North

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
12:00
PM ET
» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Chicago Bears

The Bears started five different safety combinations last season and have a pressing need for a ball-hawking free safety. Al Afalava could fit as a strong safety, but the Bears don't seem to trust any of their incumbent safeties in deep coverage. The Tampa-2 scheme doesn't always put safeties in position to make big plays, but the Bears' free safety has too often been a liability. Chicago could also use depth at defensive end after the death of Gaines Adams and the expected departure of Adewale Ogunleye.

Detroit Lions

Depth is an issue at most positions, but none moreso than in the Lions' interior offensive and defensive lines. They are in position to draft an elite defensive tackle with their No. 2 overall pick, be it Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy or Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. They also will be scouring the nation for candidates to play both guard positions alongside center Dominic Raiola. A receiver to steal some coverage from Calvin Johnson should be a priority after the middling performance of free agent acquisition Bryant Johnson last season. There could also be a need at tight end, where starter Brandon Pettigrew is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and his two backups -- Casey FitzSimmons and Will Heller -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Green Bay Packers

Both of the Packers' starting offensive tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are pending unrestricted free agents. At 34 and 33, respectively, neither player has a long career ahead of him. The Packers might have addressed one of the positions by drafting T.J. Lang last year, but they could use additional depth and options considering both positions must soon be turned over. Injuries last season revealed a need for depth in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback, and the Packers also need to determine whether they will replace outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.

Minnesota Vikings

Whether or not quarterback Brett Favre returns in 2010, the Vikings must establish a succession plan at the position. They've drafted three quarterbacks in the past four years, but among that list -- Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and John David Booty -- none are signed for 2010. There's no reason to believe the Vikings consider Sage Rosenfels a long-term solution, so drafting a quarterback would seem to be among their highest priorities. Another area of need is at cornerback, where starter Cedric Griffin is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and nickel back Benny Sapp is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Free agency: NFC North

February, 16, 2010
2/16/10
1:00
PM ET
» AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free agency situation in the NFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Chicago Bears

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Darrell McClover, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Key figures: Defensive end Mark Anderson and safety Danieal Manning are two key players who would have joined the list of unrestricted free agents if the NFL weren't on track for an uncapped offseason. The Bears can block both from moving now. Ogunleye is unlikely to return if he's seeking significant money. The Bears want to re-sign Tinoisamoa, even after his injury-shortened 2009 debut. Peterson's eight-year run with the team might be coming to a close.

Culpepper
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDaunte Culpepper could return to Detroit as Matthew Stafford's backup.
Detroit Lions

Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, offensive lineman Damion Cook, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tight end Casey Fitzsimmons, linebacker Larry Foote, tight end Will Heller, cornerback Anthony Henry, cornerback Will James, offensive lineman Jon Jansen, safety Marquand Manuel, quarterback Patrick Ramsey.

Key figures: The Lions have a total of 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents, a product of the extended roster tryouts they held throughout the 2009 season. The biggest name among their UFAs is Foote, who seems unlikely to return and should be replaced by DeAndre Levy. Culpepper will seek offers on the open market, but it's not out of the question he could return as Matthew Stafford's backup. James had some moments in 2009 and might be worth a return engagement.

Green Bay Packers

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive tackle Chad Clifton, running back Ahman Green, linebacker Aaron Kampman, nose tackle Ryan Pickett, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher.

Key figures: The Packers have a notable list that includes four starters and would have included six more if not for the uncapped year. Clifton will be 34 this summer and Tauscher will turn 33, and it's time for the Packers to begin a succession plan at both positions. T.J. Lang figures as Tauscher's replacement, but Tauscher was actually playing better than Clifton at the end of 2009. Kampman seems unlikely to return as a linebacker in the 3-4, especially while he rehabilitates a knee injury. Pickett could be phased out by B.J. Raji.

Minnesota Vikings

Unrestricted free agents: Offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy, receiver Greg Lewis, cornerback Benny Sapp, running back Chester Taylor.

Key figures: Taylor is perhaps the most valuable backup tailback in the league, considering his abilities as a receiver and third-down converter. He will be 31 when the 2010 season begins, but figures to get some attention if he enters the free-agent market. The Vikings want him back, but probably won't devote a huge salary to him with starter Adrian Peterson approaching the expiration of his contract. Sapp probably made himself some money with a credible replacement of injured starter Antoine Winfield.

Sifting through Detroit's roster

November, 17, 2009
11/17/09
2:30
PM ET

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Quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Kevin Smith are players the Lions can build around.

Detroit cornerback Phillip Buchanon lingered a bit longer than usual in the Lions’ locker room at halftime Sunday, receiving treatment for a minor injury. Really, there was no rush. The Lions were scheduled to receive the second-half kickoff, and Buchanon wasn't a member of the return team.

But these are the Lions, and seemingly on cue, tailback Kevin Smith fumbled on their first offensive play. With Buchanon temporarily unavailable as the defense took the field, Detroit coaches sent out newcomer Jack Williams. Earlier in the week, Williams had become the seventh cornerback to pass through the Lions’ revolving door dating back to the start of the season, yet another attempt to elevate their talent level.

On his first play, a 27-yard run by Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson, Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury. He will be placed on injured reserve this week.

Alas, Detroit is no luckier -- and only one victory better -- since compiling the NFL’s worst-ever season in 2008. I’ve seen the Lions play in person three times this season, most recently on Sunday. There have been a few encouraging signs, but overall I’m mortified by what seems to be a tremendous talent gap across most positions.

I can only assume that’s what coach Jim Schwartz was referring to last week during a conference call with Minnesota reporters. Asked to encapsulate his first season with the Lions, Schwartz said, “I’m certainly not discouraged but there hasn’t been a whole lot of encouraging either. I think the best word is determined. We know what our issues are. We are going to work hard to get through them. We still have a lot of work to do. We know that and we are determined to get done.”

The Lions could and probably should pick up their second victory Sunday when they host Cleveland. But a realist would say their best-case scenario for 2009 is 4-12, and even that might be stretching it. More importantly, as Schwartz seems to admit, the Lions remain deeply encumbered by a talent shortage brought on by a decade of poor drafting.

So while the topic is fresh in all of our minds, I thought I would scan the Lions' roster and divide the players into three categories:
  1. Keepers. These are players the Lions can build their future around.
  2. Worth Learning More About. For various reasons, I wouldn’t give up on the players in this group.
  3. Others. This one is pretty self-explanatory.

You can see the results of this exercise below. (No sense calling out the Others by name. It’s their island, anyway.)



A few notes and thoughts:
  • As you can see, I came up with only seven nucleus-type players, along with seven more who have the potential to be part of a core group. Keep in mind that every team has a relatively small nucleus with a bunch of complementary players around it. I don’t think I was a particularly tough grader here, but a nucleus should represent more than 13 percent of your players.
  • Cornerback is a position that many NFL teams have trouble establishing. But for the Lions not to have one nucleus-type player on either of their lines, at least by my reckoning, is most troublesome. It takes years to develop a good, cohesive lines. Last Sunday’s matchup against Minnesota provided an exaggerated example of the issue: Quarterback Matthew Stafford got pummeled while the Vikings' offense rushed for 152 yards and passed for 344 with only one sack. There’s a reason why the cliché still exists: It really does all start up front.
  • For me, the Lions’ next step is to spend the rest of this season performing a similar exercise: Which players can Schwartz build around? Which ones are toast? Then you just start in one corner and start working your way out. If it were me, I would make linemen on both sides of the ball the top (and perhaps single) priority this winter.
  • There are some good complementary players whom I left off this list because, based on age or history, it’s hard to envision them as more than short-term solutions. That group includes Buchanon, tight end Will Heller, cornerback William James and linebacker Larry Foote.
  • I realize linebacker Ernie Sims isn’t on this list. I think he is and can be a good NFL player, but he might better suited to play in more of a Tampa 2 style scheme. Even before he started dealing with shoulder and hamstring injuries, it has seemed the Lions were intent on moving rookie DeAndre Levy past him. I could be wrong about that and am willing to listen to alternate theories and evaluations.
  • I can’t say I had any specific criteria for making these selections. They’re based on what I’ve seen, along with what I’ve heard from people I trust. I consider this list a jumping-off spot for future discussion. I know some in our Lions audience are still mad at me for bailing on training camp, but hopefully we can move past that.

Let me know what you think, and we’ll continue to revisit the topic through the second half of the season and into the winter.

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