GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The NFL's annual season opener featuring the defending Super Bowl champions is about many things -- the final coronation for the reigning champs, the celebration of a new football season and even a musical event.

But let's get right down to what the Green Bay Packers' trip to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL's kickoff game on Thursday, Sept. 4 is all about.

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMike McCarthy said he's hoping that a season opener in Seattle will mean added focus for the Packers in training camp.
For the Packers, it will be their first game in Seattle and against the Seahawks since the infamous Fail Mary game on "Monday Night Football" in Week 3 of the 2012 season, which helped bring an end to the replacement officials. It was arguably one of the biggest stories – and biggest distractions – of that season, which was precisely why Packers coach Mike McCarthy tried to head off that talk from the beginning.

In quotes distributed by the Packers shortly after the 2014 NFL schedule was announced on Wednesday, McCarthy addressed that subject.

"This game won’t be about the past," McCarthy said. "It will be about the 2014 Green Bay Packers."

This marks the third straight season the Packers will play at the defending Super Bowl champions. They do so this season because both teams finished in the same place – first – in their respective divisions. The Packers played at the New York Giants in 2012 after their Super Bowl win and at the Baltimore Ravens last season following their Super Bowl victory.

But it's the first time since the Packers won the Super Bowl (2011) that they will be featured in the season-opening, Thursday night game.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for our football team," McCarthy said. "We have experience playing in the kickoff opener three years ago, and we will draw on that. Obviously, being the visiting team this time presents new challenges. It will help sharpen our focus even more during training camp and the preseason."

Here's what McCarthy had to say about the rest of the schedule, which can be found here:

  • On playing three NFC North games in 12 days (Weeks 3-5 at Detroit, at Chicago and home against Minnesota on Thursday night): "Two of our division opponents have new head coaches, so that's an added challenge, but division games always carry extra importance, no matter when they're played. We played three in a row late in the season two years ago, and that was a key stretch in our season. This will be no different."
  • On having five prime-time games (for now, pending flexible scheduling changes beginning in Week 5): "It’s an honor. I know our fans around the world always appreciate the chance to watch us on national TV. Playing under the lights always adds to the atmosphere at Lambeau Field, and on the road."
  • On the bye coming exactly in the middle of the season: "Ideally, that’s how you draw it up. It will be a great time to re-evaluate and recharge heading into November and December football."
  • On having four home games in five weeks following the bye: "That's a potential plus, but we have to be in position to take advantage of it. That will be the third quarter of our season and it will be important to make the most of playing at home during that stretch."
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Predictions

Breakdown: The Vikings' efforts to improve their defense under new coach Mike Zimmer will get a firm test early in the season; the team will have faced Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers by Oct. 2, with two of those three games coming on the road. The Vikings will have to handle that stretch of their schedule if they want to burnish their playoff chances with a soft stretch in the middle of the season -- four consecutive games against Detroit, Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Washington, with a bye week coming at the end. And the NFL gave the Vikings their fair share of chances to play cold-weather games in their first season at TCF Bank Stadium; four of Minnesota's last six are at home.

Complaint department: If the Vikings were to have a gripe with this schedule, it would probably come right up front. They will open on the road for the sixth time in seven seasons, face Brady in their first game at TCF Bank Stadium and travel to two of the toughest venues on their schedule -- the Superdome and Lambeau Field -- in a five-week stretch. The other home game in there is against the Atlanta Falcons, who will be trying to rebound from a rare down year. It will be incumbent upon Zimmer to have the Vikings' defense in good working order early in the season, or the passers on the Vikings' schedule could make it tough to recover.

Getting acquainted with the elements: The Vikings haven't played well in cold weather in recent years, but they are going to have to learn, because the NFL loaded up the back half of their schedule with home games. They get three in a row at home from Nov. 23-Dec. 7, and close the season with Jared Allen's return to Minnesota on Dec. 28. In fact, the Vikings will play five of their seven games after the bye in cold-weather climates, with four of those at home and another in Chicago. The only breaks will come on Dec. 14 in Detroit's dome, and Dec. 21 in Miami.

Strength of schedule: 21st, .477 | Vegas over/under : 7

Vikings Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, New England, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Atlanta, 4:25 p.m.
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 2, at Green Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Chicago, 1 p.m.
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Predictions

Breakdown: In perhaps the least surprising news of all, the NFL picked the Green Bay Packers to open the season at the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Thursday, Sept. 4. It seemed likely from the moment the Seahawks hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February. So many good story lines in that game, leading with the first meeting since the Fail Mary ending to the 2012 game and the replacement officials. The Packers don't play on Thanksgiving but still have two Thursday games. The other is Oct. 2 against the Vikings. After an unusually early bye last season in Week 4, the bye comes after eight games and is followed by a stretch of four out of five at home.

Complaint department: It's not the easiest opening stretch, with three of the first four on the road. That includes a pair of division games at the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. The only home game in that stretch, when the weather tends to be at its best in Green Bay, is against the New York Jets in Week 2. In the first six weeks, the Packers have only two home games. That means plenty of cold-weather games are possible at Lambeau Field. And it's not like their warm-weather trips are all late in the season, either. They play at the Dolphins in Week 6, when the weather still could be decent in Green Bay.

Seeing division rivals early: A year after playing a late-season, division-heavy schedule, this year features only one NFC North game over the final five weeks of the season. That's against the Lions in Week 17, when everyone plays division games. Instead, the Packers play three straight division games in a 12-day stretch early in the season. Two of those -- against Lions (Sept. 21) and Bears (Sept. 28) are on road -- followed by the Thursday home game against the Vikings.

Strength of schedule: 13th, .504 | Vegas over/under : 10

Packers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Thursday, Sept. 4, at Seattle, 8:30 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, NY Jets, 4:25 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, at Detroit, 1 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Chicago, 1 PM
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 2, Minnesota, 8:25 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Miami, 1 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Carolina, 1 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Philadelphia, 1 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Minnesota, 1 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, New England, 4:25 PM
Week 14: Monday, Dec. 8, Atlanta, 8:30 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, at Buffalo, 1 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Tampa Bay, 1 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Detroit, 1 PM
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Predictions


Breakdown: Teams discuss the need to start off quickly so often it's become almost cliché. But in Chicago's case, it holds true with the club playing two of the first three games on the road against quality opponents. The Bears open Sept. 7 at home against the Buffalo Bills, before hitting the road for the opening of the new Levi's Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers in a prime-time clash. In Week 3, the Bears go back on the road for a Sept. 22 game against the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football." So Chicago's revamped defense, which finished 32nd last season against the run, will be tested early on in the schedule against Frank Gore (1,128 yards last season) and new Jets addition Chris Johnson (1,000-plus yards in six consecutive seasons). Maybe both backs are truly washed up. Maybe they're not. Either way, the Bears get a chance to find out while they're fresh. After the outings against the 49ers and Jets, the Bears host the Green Bay Packers. So what's expected to be a revamped Bears defense better be prepared.

Starting with the matchup at San Francisco, the Bears play four of their first six games on the road: at Carolina on Oct. 5, at Atlanta on Oct. 12 and at New England on Oct. 26 just before what will likely be a much-needed Week 9 bye. What's good for the Bears is they play five of their final eight games at Soldier Field, which could make for a tremendous advantage as the weather begins to turn downright frigid in Chicago.

Complaint department: Why not start the schedule at Soldier Field against former coach Lovie Smith and former backup quarterback-turned-starter Josh McCown? That would make for an intriguing, potentially drama-filled matchup to kick off the season. Instead, that matchup won't come until four days before Thanksgiving.

Furthermore, the Bears play the Lions on Thanksgiving, and then host them in Week 16 before concluding the regular season on the road Dec. 28 against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. Prior to the Thanksgiving clash with Detroit, the Bears host the Vikings Nov. 16. That means the Bears face the Lions and Vikings for a combined four games over the last seven weeks of the season. That could be either boring, which might be complaint-worthy, or full of drama and playoff implications if the teams are in the thick of the hunt in the NFC North. So we're not sure whether to complain or applaud here.

Thanksgiving turkeys: That's typically what the Bears have been on this holiday in recent history, but perhaps that changes this year with the schedule featuring a Thanksgiving matchup on the road against the Detroit Lions. Interestingly, Chicago and the Lions have squared off on Thanksgiving on 15 occasions, with the Bears holding an 8-7 record. But the Bears own a 1-4 mark in their past five outings on Thanksgiving, with their last win coming courtesy of the Lions on Nov. 25, 1993. The Bears haven't played a Thanksgiving game since Nov. 25, 2004, when they lost 21-7 at Dallas during former coach Lovie Smith's first season at the helm. That season, the Bears finished with a record of 5-11.

Strength of schedule: 15th, .496 | Vegas over/under : 8

Bears Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 22, at N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at New England, 1 p.m.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 27, at Detroit, 12:30 p.m.
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 4, Dallas, 8:25 p.m.
Week 15: Monday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Predictions

Breakdown: The Lions hired head coach Jim Caldwell on Jan. 14 to provide stability to a talented but reckless team that posted a 7-9 record in 2013. The nation won’t have to wait long to see if Caldwell can deliver results. Detroit opens its regular season at home on "Monday Night Football" versus the New York Giants before facing back-to-back playoff qualifiers from last year: the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers. Winnable games appear on the schedule from Weeks 4-7 (New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings) until the Lions host the always dangerous New Orleans Saints and then travel to London to square off against the Atlanta Falcons. The highlights of the second half of the schedule include a trip to New England in Week 12, and two games versus NFC North rival Chicago Bears, who will be this year’s Thanksgiving Day opponent at Ford Field. Detroit could have a chance to control its destiny within the division with four of its final five games to be played against NFC foes. Caldwell and company wrap up the regular season with consecutive road games in Chicago and Green Bay, cities that usually prove difficult for road teams in December.

Complaint department: The easy target is the trip to London in Week 8. But the NFL pulls out all the stops to make teams feel comfortable whenever they play overseas, and their bye is the following week. In all likelihood, the Lions will have overcome the long flight and time zone change by the time the second half of their season kicks off. The real issue for Detroit is wrapping up the year with back-to-back games in Chicago and Green Bay. The Lions did manage to knock off the Bears and their banged up quarterback, Jay Cutler, last year at Soldier Field, but had lost five straight in Chicago from 2008-12. But that pales in comparison to their struggles on the road versus Green Bay. Detroit has not won a game in the state of Wisconsin since 1991. If the NFC North crown or playoff positioning hangs in the balance for the Lions in Week 16 and Week 17, Caldwell’s group figures to be at an extreme disadvantage.

Uncharted territory: The Week 1 NFL prime-time matchups are generally reserved for the league’s elite -- except for the second of the opening Monday night doubleheader that caters to the West Coast audience -- but a pair of 7-9 teams pop up on the schedule this year. This is the first time the Lions will open their season on Monday night since September 20, 1971, when they lost a 16-13 decision to the Minnesota Vikings at old Tiger Stadium. This marks the fourth straight year "Monday Night Football" has paid a visit to Ford Field, with the Lions owning a 1-2 record the past three years in that prime-time spot.

Strength of schedule: 16th, .492 | Vegas over/under : 8

Lions Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Monday, Sept. 8, N.Y. Giants, 7:10 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at Atlanta, 9:30 a.m. (in London)
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at New England, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 27, Chicago, 12:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.

Bears sign RB Shaun Draughn

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
2:59
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The Chicago Bears signed running back Shaun Draughn to a one-year contract, the team announced.

Draughn
Draughn played in 20 games for the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens from 2011-13. His best season came in 2012 when he carried the ball 59 times for 233 yards and two touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 158 yards for the Chiefs.

Draughn also returned 23 kickoffs for 537 yards that same year in Kansas City.

Bears general manager Phil Emery served as the Chiefs' director of college scouting when Draughn entered the league in 2011 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of North Carolina. Draughn originally signed with the Washington Redskins before eventually making his way to Kansas City.

The 6-foot, 205 pound tailback appeared in just three games and ran the ball only four times for two yards for the Ravens last season.

The Bears were looking to add depth in the backfield in the offseason after the club released veteran running back Michael Bush on the eve of NFL free agency in March. The team could still decide to draft a running back in the late rounds to compete with the likes of Draughn and Michael Ford for the reserve roster spots behind two-time Pro Bowl starter Matt Forte.
Maybe the Detroit Lions are just doing their diligence on as many potential draft picks as possible, but Tuesday's visit by former Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack should only fuel more speculation that general manager Martin Mayhew might try to move up from No. 10.

Mack
Todd McShay currently projects Mack will go third to the Jacksonville Jaguars in his latest mock draft Insider, while Mel Kiper Jr. has the Oakland Raiders taking Mack at No. 5 in his latest mock draft Insider.

Mack is at least the third top prospect to make a pre-draft visit to the Lions. Potential number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina visited last week.

This month, the Liions also hosted Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, projected by Kiper Jr. to go third to the Jaguars and by McShay to go fifth to Oakland.

In reporting on the visit, the Lions' team website quoted Mack as saying it would be fun to play in a defense like Detroit's.

"Just talking to coaches you can't help but get excited," Mack told DetroitLions.com. "Just being able to be mentioned with and play with a guy like [Ndamukong] Suh and [Nick] Fairley and all those guys inside.

"Knowing all those guys they have around them in [DeAndre] Levy. [Ziggy] Ansah is a new addition to the madness coming off the edge. Somebody has to get single blocked, and that’s fun."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings players are on a one-week break from the team's offseason workout program, and many of them will return next week for the team's voluntary veteran minicamp. The Vikings got to start their offseason program two weeks earlier than most teams, after hiring new coach Mike Zimmer, but that doesn't mean they get to have a longer program than the rest of the league. As such, players are on their own this week, though there are still handfuls of players working out at the team's facility.

But when the Vikings do get back together, they'll likely have high attendance for their minicamp, as they've had for the beginning of their offseason program and they've had for their programs in years past. For many players, in addition to a chance to get extra work with teammates and make a good impression on coaches, there's money to be earned by participating in the team's offseason program.

Like many teams, the Vikings include workout bonuses in the contracts of veteran players, offering them an incentive to spend time in a structured program where the team can keep track of what they're doing and give them opportunities to work with players. The bonuses generally aren't offered to players in their rookie contracts, but some draft picks, like cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, have $100,000 bonuses in the fourth year of their rookie deals.

This season, the Vikings could pay out as much as $1,695,000 in workout bonuses to players who participate in the majority of their offseason program. Those bonuses range from $250,000 (for running back Adrian Peterson) all the way down to $10,000 (for cornerback Josh Robinson and long-snapper Cullen Loeffler). Peterson, of course, hasn't been with the team yet during its offseason workouts, instead staying in Houston to do rehab work after his January groin surgery, but he said earlier this month he hopes to join the Vikings for their offseason program soon.

Here is the full list of the Vikings' 2014 workout bonuses, according to ESPN Stats & Information contract data:

 
Despite signing free-agent safety James Ihedigbo and re-signing cornerback Rashean Mathis, the Detroit Lions still have plenty of holes in their secondary.

So says ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

In an ESPN Insider piece, Kiper identified the top needs for all 32 teams.

For the Lions, who hold the 10th overall pick in next month's draft, Kiper’s list looks like this:
  • Cornerback
  • Safety
  • Receiver
  • Outside linebacker

The Lions' defense ranked 25th in the league in passing yards allowed per game last season despite having one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. So, help on the back end of the defense remains a need.

"The Lions will hope to get some development out of young players Darius Slay and Bill Bentley, but that doesn't diminish the need here given their performance in 2013, when veteran Rashean Mathis was often the best corner on the field," Kiper wrote.

In his most recent mock draft , Kiper had the Lions taking the top safety in the draft -- Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

"James Ihedigbo has been added, but he was allowed to walk away by Baltimore, and the addition of high-level talent would be useful here," Kiper wrote. "A free safety at No. 10 shouldn't be out of the question. Anything the Lions can do to improve in coverage would be good."

The Lions also made a significant addition at receiver, signing free agent Golden Tate.

"But another target on the outside besides Kris Durham and a hopefully healthy Ryan Broyles would be useful," Kiper wrote.

As for outside linebacker, Kiper wrote: "Currently part-timer Ashlee Palmer is slotted as a potential starter, so the Lions could look to add help to go with Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy."
MINNEAPOLIS -- There are just 16 days to go until the 2014 NFL draft, meaning we're firmly in the time of year when general managers are more likely to top off their draft preparations with a dollop of misdirection than a scintilla of truth.

And yet, when Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman described the process of evaluating this year's quarterback class as "torturous" in an interview published Monday, his comments were structured around a consistent theme he's been hitting since the Vikings began draft preparations in earnest three months ago.

"Every one of these quarterbacks ... nothing is a sure thing," Spielman said in a discussion with MMQB.com on Monday. "There’s no Andrew Luck, no Peyton Manning. It is such a mixed bag with each player -- every one of them has positives, every one of them has negatives. And if that’s the way you end up feeling, why don’t you just wait ’til later in the draft and take someone with the first pick you’re sure will help you right now?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWould the Vikings have stayed with Christian Ponder as long as they did if he had been drafted in the second or third round?
Since January, Spielman has been talking about how far and wide the Vikings would search for a quarterback, how careful they would be not to get boxed into drafting one in the first round. He has described this class as being without a sure thing since February and has talked since March about how re-signing Matt Cassel gave the Vikings the freedom to wait on a quarterback.

There are a couple of viable explanations for the consistency. One possibility is that Spielman has been crafting the narrative that the Vikings won't force a quarterback pick at No. 8 for months, possibly to ward off teams that might be interested in leapfrogging the Vikings for a QB or to create a market for trading down. The other scenario is that Spielman is staring at the situation, knowing how damaging the fallout could be for him if he misses on another highly drafted passer, and is mulling the possibility that a first-round quarterback might just be too big of a gamble in this draft.

Plenty of people around the league believe the Vikings won't take a quarterback at No. 8, choosing instead to draft a defensive player or trade back a few spots to accumulate more picks before picking a defender. With the caveat that what you hear from people around the league has to be triple-filtered this time of year, I'm inclined to think it's likely the Vikings wait, for a couple reasons. First, the Vikings still have enough defensive needs that they would be helped sooner by a linebacker or defensive back than they would by drafting a quarterback who needs time to develop. There's some legitimacy to Spielman's statements that the Vikings aren't that far away from being back in the playoffs. That's based on how many close games they might have won with only slightly more efficient quarterbacking and a less porous defense last season. If you believe a full season of Cassel and the prospect of defensive improvement is enough for a quick pivot while Adrian Peterson is still in his 20s, wouldn't it be tempting to consider that route?

The second, and probably more important reason for the Vikings to wait on a quarterback, is this: They've seen just how much time and how many resources can be squandered on a quarterback who doesn't pan out. Peterson was 26 when Christian Ponder made his first start for the Vikings. Percy Harvin was a 23-year-old turning into a breakout star, and Jared Allen was in the midst of a 22-sack season at age 29. The Vikings were in the middle of a rebuilding project under Spielman and Leslie Frazier, but those don't have to take that long in the modern NFL when there are cornerstone players in place.

Heading into 2014, though, Harvin, Allen and Frazier are gone, Ponder has lost the benefit of the doubt, and the Vikings are still trying to figure out their long-term answer at quarterback. Spielman outlived Frazier in Minnesota and got a chance to hire his own coach in Mike Zimmer, but he probably can't survive another big swing and miss at quarterback. If the Vikings were to hitch their fortunes to the wrong guy at No. 8, Zimmer could eventually be dragged down with the GM.

It's interesting to think about what might have happened in 2011 if the Vikings had taken Ponder in the second or third round and if they would have felt less compelled to stand by him. Would they have made a play for Robert Griffin III the next year or taken Russell Wilson instead of Josh Robinson in the third round after Frazier and his staff coached Wilson at the Senior Bowl?

The Vikings might have decided to give Ponder time anyway, but it's difficult to argue any team faces the same pressure to stick by a second-day draft pick as it does with the 12th overall selection. It has to be in the back of Spielman's mind that taking a quarterback later in the draft wouldn't carry the same kind of inherent commitment as drafting one in the top 10, in addition to the fact that passing on QB at No. 8 would give him the opportunity to pick from a dynamic group of defensive players. Considering the quarterbacks that could be in next year's class -- such as Florida State's Jameis Winston, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota -- the Vikings had better know how tethered they want to be to a quarterback they would take this year.

The Vikings are in eight days of pre-draft meetings that conclude next Tuesday, when players return to the team facility for a three-day voluntary minicamp. That event will give Zimmer his first real chance to work with players and make some determinations about what he has in Cassel and Ponder. From there, the Vikings can have their final discussions about how they want to approach the quarterback position. But it seems possible, as it has for months, that they are seriously weighing the benefits of waiting if they're not completely enamored with a QB in the first round.

"How many franchise quarterbacks actually come out?" Spielman said earlier this offseason. "Last couple years, there have been a couple guys that have been taken in the second and third rounds that have been successful. I think there’s some depth in this quarterback class. You’re definitely not going to be forced to take a quarterback at 8 unless you’re totally sold on that quarterback. I can guarantee you that it’s not going to be a forced issue.”
The Detroit Lions open their voluntary mini-camp on Tuesday, and they'll have a pair of new defensive backs on the field for it. The team announced it signed cornerbacks Aaron Hester and Nate Ness after working both players out on Monday, and both should be ready for the mini-camp with new coach Jim Caldwell.

Hester, the younger cousin of return man Devin Hester, was last with the Denver Broncos in training camp last season. The 24-year-old was cut at the end of camp in August, after being signed by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent.

Ness has played in eight career games, the last one coming with the St. Louis Rams in 2011. The 27-year-old began his career as an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets in 2009, and also spent time with the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins.

It's possible -- perhaps even probable -- both players are just on the roster for extra depth, but their stature should hit a familiar refrain for where the Lions are going with their cornerbacks. Both stand 6-foot-1, and they worked out at the team's facility in Allen Park, Mich., on the same day the Lions hosted cornerbacks Justin Gilbert (6-foot-0) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3) on pre-draft visits.

The Lions want bigger cornerbacks, and in a league that's both trying to keep up with larger wide receivers and likely to copy the Seahawks' approach after their Super Bowl win, the Lions are hardly the only team looking for size in their secondary. They certainly are taking steps in that direction. The shortest defensive back on their roster is the 5-10 Bill Bentley, and 11 of the 15 defensive backs on the roster are at least six feet tall, counting Hester and Ness. If the Lions do intend to play more press coverage under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, they should have the size to do it.
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson says it every year -- and no doubt will say it again -- that he doesn't draft for need.

Then how do you explain why he used his first six picks in the 2012 NFL draft on defensive players following a season in which his team ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed?

There are no absolutes when it comes to picking players, but need has to factor in. With that in mind, in an ESPN Insider piece, draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. broke down the team-by-team needs heading into next month’s draft.

And there was little surprise when it came to his thoughts on the Packers. You can quibble with the order, but there's no doubt all four positions he listed qualify as needs.

Kiper listed the Packers' needs as:
  • Safety
  • Tight end
  • Receiver
  • Insider linebacker

The degree of need at safety could depend on how the Packers view second-year defensive back Micah Hyde. Coach Mike McCarthy has said several times this offseason that he wants Hyde on the field more this year. As a rookie, Hyde played almost exclusively in the slot as the nickel or dime defensive back. This year, his role will expand to include some safety.

"Free safety is a clear need," Kiper wrote. "And Morgan Burnett didn't set the world on fire last year either, so I could see the Packers targeting the position as early as Round 1. Calvin Pryor could be a fit."

The top tight end on the Packers' roster as it stands today is Andrew Quarless.

"I'd be surprised if they don't add another option here," Kiper wrote.

The Packers have a top-notch duo at receiver in Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson and they are high on Jarrett Boykin but after losing James Jones in free agency, they could use another receiver.

"The depth chart could use some help, and certainly some size," Kiper said.

At inside linebacker, veteran A.J. Hawk, a former first-round pick, seems entrenched, but the other starter, Brad Jones, could face some competition.

"I have some concerns about how well they can cover underneath from the linebacker position," Kiper said.

Bears draft focus: LB

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
12:30
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Despite selecting a pair of linebackers over the opening four rounds of last year’s draft, the Bears still need to find a viable, long-term solution in the middle of the defense.

While 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic started nine games at middle linebacker as a rookie, Bears general manager Phil Emery has hinted on multiple occasions that Bostic may be better suited to one day move to outside linebacker.

“Maybe in the future his best position might be at one of those outside spots where he is filling from the backside and able to use his unique talents to the best of his ability,” Emery told ESPN 1000’s “Waddle and Silvy Show” last December.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIAlabama's C.J. Mosley is the top-rated inside linebacker in this year's draft.
Where Bostic lines up this year is up in the air. The Bears re-signed veteran inside linebacker D.J. Williams to a one-year deal, but Williams hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and appeared in just six games last season before landing on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Williams will turn 32 in July, and even if he does manage to shake off the injury bug, is likely a short-term fix at middle linebacker.

Khaseem Greene, a 2013 fourth-round draft choice, replaced Lance Briggs at weakside linebacker for seven games last year and seems earmarked for a role on special teams in 2014, unless the Bears suffer another rash of injuries at the position.

Former first-round pick Shea McClellin is expected to transition from defensive end to strongside linebacker.

So if the Bears are serious about potentially moving Bostic outside in the near future, the team needs to find help at inside linebacker, possibly in this draft.

Alabama’s C.J. Mosley is the consensus No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2014 draft class and could be available when the Bears pick at No. 14 overall in the first round. But with greater needs at safety, cornerback and defensive tackle, the Bears could wait until the middle rounds to address linebacker.

If that is the route the Bears decide to go, Monday is an important day because Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov is scheduled to hold a private pro day and run in front of scouts and NFL personnel people for the first time in the offseason. Skov, who declined an invitation to the Senior Bowl, pulled a hamstring before Stanford’s pro day that kept him sidelined. He also did not run the 40 yard dash in February at the NFL combine.

Skov has dealt with injuries throughout his college career, but the 6-foot-2, 245 pounder finished last season with better overall numbers than many of the other highly rated linebackers in the class of 2014, including Mosley.

Skov recorded 109 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2013.

Another mid-round linebacker that could make sense for the Bears is Louisville’s Preston Brown, who began his college career at strong side linebacker before moving to the middle where he led the Cardinals in tackles back-to-back seasons. He had 98 stops, five sacks and 14 tackles for loss for Louisville last year.

“Moving to the middle taught me how to take control of the whole defense,” Brown said. “When you’re on the outside, you line up more at the line of scrimmage. In the middle, you sit back five yards and have to study what’s going on and make sure everybody is in the right place. You have to know everybody’s job.

"When you play Mike linebacker, you have to study a ton and learn the different shifts and formations. You have to be dialed in every snap, every game, because if you miss a check that could result in the other team scoring a touchdown. [Intelligence] is so important when you play middle linebacker.”

Brown has strong ties to new Bears assistant defensive line coach Clint Hurtt, who served as Louisville’s defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator from 2010-13.

“I love Coach Hurtt and he was one of my favorite coaches on the staff,” Brown said. “I would meet with him at least once a week and watch the run game and pick up some pass-rush moves from him. You could always talk to him if you had a problem. He was one of my favorite coaches.”

Five potential targets
1. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
2. Shayne Skov, Stanford
3. Chris Borland, Wisconsin
4. Preston Brown, Louisville
5. Max Bullough, Michigan State

The next five: 6. Avery Williamson, Kentucky; 7. Yawin Smallwood, Connecticut; 8. Khairi Fortt, California; 9. DeDe Lattimore, South Florida; 10. Glenn Carson, Penn State.
Position grade: B
MINNEAPOLIS -- It appears likely we'll see the 2014 NFL schedule this week, possibly as soon as Tuesday night. When the 256-game slate is made public, fans will be able to get their hands on the Minnesota Vikings' calendar for their first season at TCF Bank Stadium. It's an itinerary that, in all likelihood, was more difficult for the league to plan than any in the past five years (and possibly longer).

The Vikings will once again be sharing a stadium with the University of Minnesota, which moved out of the Metrodome in 2009, but this time the Vikings are playing on campus and working under an agreement that places some fairly stringent restrictions on when the team can play home games at TCF Bank Stadium.

For starters, if the Vikings have a prime-time home game this season, it almost has to be on a Sunday night, Thanksgiving night or in late December when the fall semester is over. The team's agreement with the university prohibits the Vikings from playing a weeknight home game while school is in session, and considering how the Vikings have hosted Thursday night games each of the past two seasons, it's difficult to see them playing at home on a Thursday for a third consecutive year. It seems like a prime-time home game would come on a Sunday night, on Monday, Dec. 22, or not at all.

The university also asked the NFL and the Vikings to work with them in preventing home games during the Minnesota State Fair and on Gophers' home weekends. That's part of the reason the Vikings are playing their final two preseason games on the road, and it seems unlikely the league will be able to avoid at least one or two weekends when the Vikings and Gophers are home at the same time (the Gophers have home games on Sept. 6, Sept. 20, Oct. 11, Oct. 18, Nov. 8 and Nov. 15). The university also asked to set aside a pair of Sunday afternoons in November for Gophers basketball games, and the agreement between the university and the team means Vikings' ticketholders wouldn't have parking priorities if the teams are playing at the same time.

Assuming many -- or at least some -- of those demands were compatible with the many other scenarios NFL scheduling guru Howard Katz must manage, it probably isn't too hard to make some reasonable guesses about the Vikings' 2014 schedule. If they open on the road, they'd avoid sharing a home weekend with the Gophers after the first week of the school year (even though the Vikings have opened five of their past six seasons away from home). The league could put the Vikings on the road on both Nov. 9 and 16, or give the team a midseason bye, setting those two Sundays aside for Gophers basketball games when there are already football games on Saturday. And assuming the league sticks with its rotation of Week 17 division matchups, the Vikings would be slated to finish the season in Chicago.

It's a difficult (albeit temporary) set of circumstances to manage, but taking all that into consideration, here's one guess (and it's nothing more than that) at the Vikings' schedule that could keep all parties relatively happy:

Sunday, Sept. 7 -- at Buffalo, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 14 -- vs. Washington, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 21 -- at Tampa Bay, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 28 -- vs. Chicago, 7:20 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 5 -- at Miami, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 12 -- vs. New York Jets, 12 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 16 -- at Green Bay, 7:20 pm.
Sunday, Oct. 26 -- vs. New England, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 2 -- vs. Carolina, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 9 -- Bye
Sunday, Nov. 16 -- at St. Louis, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 23 -- vs. Detroit, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 30 -- at New Orleans, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 7 -- vs. Green Bay, 3:25 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 14 -- at Detroit, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 21 -- vs. Atlanta, 12 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 28 -- at Chicago, 12 p.m.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers begin their offseason program on Tuesday, which means most -- if not all of the players -- will return to town today.

Nothing is mandatory, but nearly a third of their players have workout bonuses in their contracts. While it may vary from deal to deal, typically players must participate in 80 to 90 percent of the offseason program in order to collect their bonuses.

A total of 21 players have bonuses tied to the offseason workout program. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information contract data, the Packers have the highest potential payout on workout bonuses in the NFL this offseason at $4.3 million.

That is due in part because they have six players who rank among the top 20 in workout bonuses this year, including three players -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Sam Shields -- who are tied for the second-largest workout bonus in the league this offseason at $500,000. Only New York Jets tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson has a larger workout bonus at $750,000.

Other Packers who rank among the top 20 are safety Morgan Burnett, guard Josh Sitton and cornerback Tramon Williams.

Even injured players who may not be able to participate in the workouts, such as Matthews (who is recovering from thumb surgery), can collect their workout bonuses by reporting to Lambeau Field and taking part in whatever exercises they can.

Per the rules of the collective bargaining agreement of 2011, the offseason program can last no more than 10 weeks with no more than four workouts per week, and none on the weekends. Full-contact practices are not allowed.

The first phase is limited to strength training and conditioning. In the second phase, coaches are allowed to be on the field with players doing individual and position drills without helmets. The third phase includes organized team activities (OTAs) and a minicamp (the only mandatory part of the offseason program).

In the OTA/minicamp portion, helmets but no pads except for protective knee and elbow pads are allowed. Full team (11-on-11) drills are allowed, but live contract drills between offensive and defensive linemen or receivers and defensive backs is prohibited.

The full Packers' offseason schedule can be found here.

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