GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Green Bay Packers announced last week that they would open up Lambeau Field to fans for Brett Favre's induction into the Packers Hall of Fame, former team president Bob Harlan offered a glimpse into what this summer's ceremony might entail.

"We have featured people coming in to participate in the ceremony," said Harlan, who now serves on the Hall of Fame's board of directors. "To say it's going to be a historic evening when you see the people who are going to be here, you can't say enough about how historic it is."

The guest list is typically left up to the inductee, but it's safe to say plenty of Favre's old coaches and teammates will be present.

In fact, the invitations for the July 18 event already have gone out.

Thanks to Indianapolis Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who began his career as one of Favre’s understudies, we can see exactly what the invites look like:



In a telephone interview, Hasselbeck said he will do everything in his power to make it back for the event and expects many of Favre's former teammates to do the same.

"I think there's just a lot of respect for certain things, and that's a dead time in our offseason," said Hasselbeck, who spent three seasons (1998-00) in Green Bay. "Aside from some family commitment that I don't know about yet, I'm going to do everything in my power to be there. I think it's really cool. Thanks to Brett for [the invitation]."

Hasselbeck was one of several quarterbacks the Packers drafted, developed and then traded away during Favre's 16 years with the team. The list also includes Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell and Aaron Brooks. Hasselbeck, a sixth-round pick in 1998, said he actually became closer with Favre after the Packers traded him to the Seattle Seahawks in 2001.

"My first year, Brett was still a wild man," Hasselbeck recalled. "That second year he was trying to quit drinking and then the third year he did, so that third year it was a totally different experience. All those other guys that Brett had been with -- Chewy [Mark Chmura] and Frankie [Winters] -- were gone."

Like Favre, Hasselbeck got his first chance to start under coach Mike Holmgren, who left the Packers after the 1998 seasons to coach the Seahawks.

"When I left, Brett was really, really helpful," Hasselbeck said. "It was really hard for me that first year in Seattle. I had gotten hurt. I essentially got benched for Trent Dilfer and Holmgren was so, so hard on me. The only thing that gave me hope was that I knew that Holmgren had been harder on Brett. So I can remember phone calls with him [talking] about that."

Hasselbeck said he was on the fringes of Favre's inner circle during his time in Green Bay.

"I did Thanksgiving with the Favres and Christmas with the Favres, but it was probably Chewy, Frankie and Deanna [Favre] that got me the invite," Hasselbeck said. "And I was probably closer in age to Brett's daughter, Brittany. When I'd do Thanksgiving over there, I'd end up playing Battleship with Brittany while everyone else sat around watching football."
Jay CutlerAP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltBears quarterback Jay Cutler signed a seven-year $126.7 million extension last January.

At least 10 former Chicago Bears staffers from the Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman regimes said recently they believe the team can't consistently compete for championships as long as it fields a lineup with Jay Cutler under center.

That sentiment might explain why head coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace remain uncommitted to Cutler as the team's starting quarterback for 2015. Deciding whether to commit to Cutler has a time element. If Cutler is on the Bears' roster on March 12, $10 million of his 2016 salary is guaranteed.

Cutler declined comment through a team spokesman. His agent, Bus Cook, said questions about whether the Bears feel they can win with Cutler should be directed to the team.

Two teammates, who also asked to remain anonymous for this story, characterized Cutler as a divisive figure with whom they'd rather not continue to play.

In six years with the Bears, Cutler has gone through four offensive coordinators, two head coaches and a pair of general managers. Yet Cutler remains very much in play as the team's potential long-term solution at the position, in part, because of the seven-year, $126.7 million extension the quarterback signed in January 2014.

One more former staffer said the Bears could win with Cutler as long as the coaches handcuff him to the system.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports"I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there," new Bears coach John Fox said recently of Cutler. "[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak."
But that's precisely what the staff did when Mike Martz served as offensive coordinator during the 2010 and '11 seasons, according to another former coach, and Cutler and Martz were often at odds.

Although Smith let Martz go after the 2011 season, there's no denying Cutler played some of his best football as a Bear during a six-game span that year in which he completed 60.7 percent of his throws for 1,359 yards and eight touchdowns with three interceptions for a passer rating of 91.3. Cutler led the Bears to a 5-1 record during that stretch before breaking his right thumb in a Nov. 20 win over the San Diego Chargers.

“We're going to take our time on this,” Pace said recently. “We really have until mid-March. We're going to maximize that time and make thorough decisions through this whole process.”

But video evaluation of Cutler may not prove as beneficial as speaking with teammates and perhaps his former coaches. Remember, Pace worked with former Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, and it would come as a surprise if the new GM didn't pick Kromer's brain about Cutler. Kromer is the same coach who apologized during a team meeting for admitting he was an anonymous source in a story that characterized the Bears as harboring buyer's remorse for signing Cutler to the long-term contract. When the Bears cleaned house in December before Pace came on board, Kromer's contract was the only one terminated of all the assistants remaining on the staff.

“I don't think there's any question that there's ability and talent there,” Fox said recently of Cutler. “[But] there's a lot more that goes into it, and we're evaluating that as we speak.”

Despite Pace's and Fox's refusal to commit to Cutler publicly as the starter, it appears -- based on the staff they've set up -- the Bears are prepared to give the quarterback one last shot. The Bears hired two pro-Cutler coaches in offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains.

According to multiple sources, Cutler started to grow close to Gase after spending time with the former Broncos offensive coordinator at the wedding of former Bears quarterbacks coach Shane Day, a disciple of Martz. Cutler has wanted to work with Gase for a while, the sources said. Martz tried to hire Gase in 2010 as Chicago's quarterbacks coach, but Denver wouldn't allow him out of his contract, which led to the hiring of Day.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler completed 66 percent of his passes last season and threw for 3,812 with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions on a Bears' team that finished 5-11.
Back in 2012, Cutler wanted Smith to hire Loggains, but he wasn't allowed out of his contract with the Tennessee Titans. Cutler and Loggains have a close personal relationship, according to a sources, and both the quarterback and coach have wanted to work with one another for quite some time.

It's unknown how Cutler and the new staff will get along if he's still on the roster in 2015, and one former coach said he believes it's time the organization stops catering to the quarterback until he delivers a return on the club's investment.

One staffer said that while Cutler was injured and Josh McCown was flourishing as the replacement in 2013, there was a significant faction in the locker room that believed the latter should've remained the starter. Another coach said that fairly early in the 2014 season, it was apparent the team had made two mistakes: (1) not re-signing McCown, and (2) continuing to stand behind Cutler after it was clear he was not going to consistently operate within the confines of Trestman's offense.

That same coach said he believed McCown gave the Bears a better chance to win than Cutler because he simply executed the scheme the way he was asked, without freelancing.

Pace and Fox met with McCown during the NFL combine, but there will be no reunion as McCown signed with the Cleveland Browns.

Some may view the disparaging remarks from Cutler's former coaches as sour grapes on the part of scorned staffers. Nobody on the current staff has told Cutler he's on the way out or that his tenure in Chicago is in jeopardy.

But every one of the former staffers interviewed from the Smith and Trestman regimes pointed out similar flaws in the quarterback. Two “R” words -- “renegade” and “rogue” -- were often used by the former staffers when asked about Cutler's ability to play within the confines of an offensive system.

They all also questioned Cutler's leadership abilities. One former staffer said McCown was the offense's leader in the locker room during his final season in Chicago, adding that for Cutler “it's just not him” to embrace such a role. The staffer said that Cutler doesn't have to be a leader for the team to succeed.

But it's difficult to ignore that the most successful teams in the NFL have strong leadership at the quarterback position.

"There's a lot of things outside of the building that I think are maybe a little misunderstood. When you get to know somebody, things are different when you get to talk face to face. So yeah, that's going on,” Pace said. “I know he's a very talented player, and again it's just getting to know him as a person and kind of how he ticks.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers did not use the franchise tag on receiver Randall Cobb -- or any of their other pending free agents -- and now have only until March 10 to get a deal done with him before he's free to sign with another team.

Cobb
It would have cost the Packers $12.823 million to use the franchise tag on Cobb, but it would have assured that they would retain their slot receiver for at least one more season.

They easily could have absorbed that number under their salary cap given that they have about $33 million in available space at this point, but Packers general manager Ted Thompson has rarely used the tag as a means to keep a player. He did so in 2010 with defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who then agreed to a long-term deal shortly thereafter. He also used it in 2008 on defensive tackle Corey Williams and then traded him to the Cleveland Browns.

So what's next for Cobb and the Packers?

Between now and Saturday, the Packers still have exclusive negotiating rights with all of their free agents. But come 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, any team would be free to negotiate with Cobb even though they couldn't sign him until March 10.

Last season, the Packers let their priority free agent, cornerback Sam Shields, get to the negotiating period before they signed him to a four-year, $39 million contract. They got the deal done about six hours after Shields and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, were allowed to start talking to other teams.

Cobb's agent, Jimmy Sexton, almost certainly has an idea of what kind of money his client could get on the open market, but he might want to wait until the negotiating period officially opens at 4 p.m. ET on Friday before he goes back to the Packers with any more demands.

It's possible a team with major cap space, say the Jacksonville Jaguars (with nearly $70 million in cap space) or the Oakland Raiders (more than $56 million in cap space), could come in with an offer far above what the Packers think Cobb is worth.

Sexton did not return messages left Monday.

Cobb is coming off his best season with 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he has been primarily a slot, or inside, receiver during his four-year NFL career. Typically, receivers who play on the outside are higher paid.

The Packers plan to continue to try to work out a deal with Cobb before free agency opens. They also are trying to re-sign tackle Bryan Bulaga, who could have been franchised for $12.92 million, well above his market value.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been a while since the Minnesota Vikings were among the NFL's movers and shakers in the early stages of free agency, and coach Mike Zimmer had already indicated they weren't likely to be terribly active on the open market this season. But what general manager Rick Spielman said at the University of Minnesota's pro day on Monday morning offered another rationale for why the Vikings could pass on some of the league's hottest commodities when free agency kicks off next Tuesday.

The Vikings, Spielman said, could have more interest in players who are cut by their teams for salary-cap reasons than players who are unrestricted free agents. Those players are not counted in calculations for compensatory picks the next year, so signing one this year would not affect the Vikings' chances to get extra selections in the 2016 draft.

It's unlikely the Vikings will get any compensatory picks this year, Spielman said, and their group of players about to hit free agency is small enough that the Vikings might not get any choices next year, either. But if there is a recently-released player who can fill the same need as an unrestricted free agent, it doesn't hurt to consider that option.

"There's a pretty good group of guys that are going to get cut, or have been cut already," Spielman said. "You weigh UFAs, but we also put in all the guys who are potential street free agents. We may look at that route."

The Vikings, Spielman said, plan to "just sit back, unless something unique pops up." The last time they used a similar manifesto before the market opened, they signed Greg Jennings at the end of the first week. The wide receiver was 2013's "unique" option, after the Vikings had traded Percy Harvin, and it wouldn't be shocking to see the team chase one expensive acquisition in free agency, especially considering it has about $20.8 million in available cap space.

But a March spending spree hasn't been the Vikings' style since the late 2000s, and it's not likely to happen now.

"We've been pretty patient through free agency, and we feel good about a lot of these young kids we have on our roster that could potentially step up and fill some voids if we do lose some of our guys," Spielman said. "[VP of football operations] Rob Brzezinski is working through some of our current guys now, before March 10. There's a lot of work we have to get done this week. And once free agency starts, we'll probably lay in the weeds a little bit and see what happens."
The Detroit Lions are slowly starting to re-sign their own free agents.

According to NFLPA records, defensive end Darryl Tapp signed a one-year deal with a base salary of $870,000 to remain with the Lions. No other details were immediately available.

Tapp, 30, signed with Detroit during free agency in 2014 and was initially cut out of training camp but re-signed with the Lions before the first week of the season after an injury to Kyle Van Noy.

He ended up as a key part of the Detroit defensive end rotation, making 17 tackles and a half a sack.

Tapp, a second-round pick by Seattle in 2006, has played in 130 games between the Seahawks, Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit. He has 271 tackles, 25.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries and two interceptions in his career.

A message sent to Tapp was not immediately returned.

Tapp is the second Detroit unrestricted free agent to return to the team in 2015. Long snapper Don Muhlbach signed a one-year deal last week.

Tapp's deal was first reported by the blog Pride of Detroit.
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The decision was difficult, mostly because Ndamukong Suh was the player the Detroit Lions had built so much of their defense around for the past five seasons and into the foreseeable future.

To put a franchise tag on Suh -- a decision the Lions passed on Monday morning -- would have meant potentially tying up an obscene amount of money in the defensive tackle if a long-term deal couldn't be reached for slightly less cash. It would have meant leaving little wiggle room to improve the roster through free agency, and perhaps more cap cuts for players deemed valuable to the franchise.

And it would have come with zero guarantee the Lions would have signed him to a long-term deal anyway. So it was smart of the Lions to pass on franchising Suh, although now it puts a lot more pressure on the team's front office to get a deal done before he hits the open market as one of the most coveted free agents since the inception of free agency in the NFL.

The Lions mismanaged themselves into this position. They restructured Suh's contract enough during the first four years of his deal that it left the franchise with a $22.4 million cap charge for his final season. So they had to understand if the franchise tag became something they would have to consider using, the cost would be the astronomical number it is (almost $26.9 million) instead of a much more reasonable number.

The restructures took what would have likely been a reasonable franchise tag for a player such as Suh -- somewhere between $10 million and $12 million -- and made the number almost impossible to deal with.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh, C.J. Spiller
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsNow that the tag is no longer an option, can the Lions secure Ndamukong Suh to a long-term deal?
The restructures, along with long-term deals for quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, left the Lions with the potential for three massive contracts on the books while each player was entering or just leaving their primes. It is a financial quandary that would be difficult for any franchise to deal with.

The Lions shortened the window to get something done when they shut down negotiations with Suh prior to the season. This let J.J. Watt and Gerald McCoy essentially set the market price for Suh when he tries to become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, something likely to happen by the end of March, with either the Lions or another franchise. If Suh and the Lions had worked out a deal before the season, they could have set the high-end number and not had to worry about whether Suh would be around for the prime of his career.

An earlier contract could have also given more time to rework some other deals to find more room and a way to fit Suh, Johnson and Stafford under the cap and still have some money to improve the roster on the defensive line, offensive line, cornerback, running back and wide receiver. These are all areas where the Lions need to find players through the draft or free agency -- and the reason why they couldn't use the tag with the $26.9 million price tag.

It also would have made the decision to pass on emerging star defensive tackle Aaron Donald during the draft and declining Nick Fairley's fifth-year option in free agency easier to understand.

Yet the Lions did none of those things -- and continued to speak confidently about signing Suh to a long-term deal. Team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew have been saying this for over a year now, continually offering the same message: a deal, they believed, would get done.

Now, with the tag no longer an option, the Lions have a real deadline to reach a deal. And we'll see whether Lewand and Mayhew's confidence was justified, or a misjudgment of the entire Suh process if he walks to another team willing to pay.
The first part -- and possibly major conclusion -- to the year-long Ndamukong Suh free-agency drama will come to an end by 4 p.m. ET Monday, when the franchise has to make a decision whether or not to use the franchise or transition tag on the defensive tackle.

There are three types of tags that can be used: An exclusive franchise tag, which gives the team exclusive negotiating rights with Suh and assures he'll be a Detroit Lion next season for around $26.9 million unless he is able to work out a long-term deal with the club. A nonexclusive franchise tag does something similar, but allows him to negotiate with other teams. If a team makes him an offer and the Lions decline to match, Detroit receives two future first-round picks for Suh's services. The transition tag is similar to the nonexclusive tag, but with no compensation for losing Suh. If a long-term deal is not done by July 15 with the tag, $26.9 million is his figure for 2015.

So here's a quick look at the reasons for and against tagging Suh. In the past, I've said the Lions need to use the tag on Suh if they believe it is the only way to keep him around, but my belief now is the only way the franchise should use the tag is if it believes there is only a one-year window to win with this group of players.

Reasons to tag Suh:

1. The one-year window: If the Lions want to go all-in for 2015 with the understanding they might not be able to get Suh back in 2016 anyway, then it would make sense to tag him. This would likely mean the franchise believes this is the last year the team can potentially make it to a Super Bowl with the current nucleus that includes Suh, Calvin Johnson, Stephen Tulloch, Joique Bell and others (Matthew Stafford and Golden Tate, for instance, aren't going anywhere either way). If that's the case and the Lions don't believe they will get a long-term deal done with Suh, then that's a reason for the team to use the tag.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsIf the Lions put the franchise tag on Ndamukong Suh, their options in free agency will be limited.
2. Suh is a transcendent player: There is no question Suh is the best interior lineman in the NFL and one of the best defensive players in the league. Losing a player like this -- on a defense that has been built around him and the rest of the defensive line as the crux of a 4-3 scheme -- would no doubt damage the unit in 2015. Players like him don't come around very often and if the franchise believes he is that critical to a defense that was one of the best in the NFL last season, ensuring he is around might be the way to go.

An issue either way:

1. The public relations hit: The fan base appears to be truly divided on this issue. Some want to see the team keep him at all costs. Some want to see the team let him go if he doesn't want to sign a long-term deal to stay with Detroit. The Lions have done a good job keeping things positive with their fans, saying for over a year now they believed a deal would be done with Suh. If Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew can't deliver on that, it might be a bad look considering they were so confident about it. The flip on that, of course, is the Lions can say they tried everything they could (whether they really do or not) if Suh ends up leaving in free agency and isn't tagged.

The reasons against tagging Suh:

1. The money: Giving $26.9 million to Suh plus the $9.7 million in dead money that the Lions are going to have on the books no matter what in 2015 is crippling when it comes to free agency and building depth. It all but means the Lions won't be big players in free agency (although they wouldn't be huge there if Suh signs a long-term deal, either) but Detroit has holes that need to be filled on the defensive line, offensive line, cornerback, running back and receiver. Some will come in the draft, but a good veteran or two wouldn't hurt.

2. You believe Suh isn't worth it: As mentioned above, Suh is a special player. There is no question about that. But if the Lions believe they can replace him somewhat adequately between free agency and the draft and possibly upgrade at other positions (Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell, San Francisco guard Mike Iupati, Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb and Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton are some of the possible targets out there) then the sum of what could be brought in instead of Suh might make Detroit better off in the long run. That's a risk, because there's no guarantee Detroit could sign one or all of those players.

3. You believe Suh and the Lions will come to terms no matter what: If this is the case, you take your chances, although the question would also be raised as to why the deal has not been done already if the franchise truly believes this.

These are some of the reasons either way for tagging Suh by 4 p.m. or declining to. At least for Detroit, it'll have a better idea of what's next by the end of business today.
Thanks to everyone participating in this week's Twitter mailbag.

Let's get started.

@mikecwright: I'm not sure about "fits" as you say, but the Bears are definitely interested in David Harris of the New York Jets, and Tampa Bay's Mason Foster as potential fits at inside linebacker. I think linebackers such as Jonathan Casillas and O'Brien Schofield are also players to keep an eye on as free agency approaches. I think San Francisco has some interesting things going on at linebacker as well. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman appear to be close to returning to full health, which means that last year's starters Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite could be relegated to backup roles. So perhaps new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, given his familiarity with all four players, could talk Ryan Pace into trying to trade for one of his former 49ers pupils.

@mikecwright: I could definitely see that happening. The names to look out for would be linebacker Nate Irving, safety Rahim Moore and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, aka "Pot Roast," as all three are free agents. Knighton is reportedly looking to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.5 million per year, which seems a tad steep. Knighton played in Jacksonville and Denver for new Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio. So there's a good chance Del Rio could be looking to add Knighton as well. Irving is coming off a torn ACL, which means he probably won't have much leverage in terms of landing a big-money deal. But Irving became a full-time starter in 2014, and seems to be an ascending player. Moore, meanwhile, will be one of the better safeties on the market along with New England's Devin McCourty. So there's a good chance Moore could be looking for more than the Bears would be willing to pay. In the past, the Bears didn't value the safety position in terms of handing out big-money deals. Perhaps that's changed with Pace as the GM.

@mikecwright: I think you got it right. But I go back and forth between where to put Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. In fact, I'd say Marshall probably has a better chance of returning to Chicago than Cutler.

@mikecwright: I'm sure that 5.64 time in the 40-yard dash hurt him in the eyes of some scouts, but I don't believe that will affect his draft position. What you've got to realize is that Danny Shelton has rare power and strength, and he did put up a 30.5-inch vertical leap, which means he's got the explosion that personnel evaluators covet. He's also got the strength and power to command double-teams, which in turn would keep offensive linemen off the linebackers to allow them to run around and make plays. Shelton met with several teams at the combine, including Chicago, Indianapolis, Arizona, Green Bay, the New York Giants and New Orleans, and I don't think any of those teams' interest has waned after that time in the 40. Ultimately, what the player put on tape in games is what Shelton will be judged on; not a 40-yard dash time.

@mikecwright: I like him. Personal side note: Petty's coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was head coach of the Stephenville [Texas] Yellow Jackets back when they defeated us (Wichita Falls, Texas -- Hirschi High School) 49-40 in the first round of the playoffs my sophomore year. Anyway, as much as I like Petty, I don't think he's quite ready. I think he'll need a few years to learn the nuances of an NFL system before he's ready to be a starter. So if the Bears were to draft Petty, they'd have to let him sit and learn a few years before thrusting him into any real action.

Even Petty admitted that it's difficult at this point to project how he'll fare in an NFL system because of his background in a spread offense, but said he's more of a pocket passer than most spread quarterbacks.

"We were in the spread, but at the same time, I feel like I am a pocket passer," Petty said at the NFL combine. "I want to extend plays, extend plays within the pocket. That might be a little bit different than most spread quarterbacks who want to run it out of the pocket. For me, I feel like my game can translate easier in that, and the fact that I want to play within the pocket, and I want to extend plays within the pocket and beat you doing that."

The book is called Everybody Fumbles.

Published in 2014, it is the ultimate statement by Earnest Byner, the former Cleveland Browns running back involved in the play that has gone down in Browns history as merely “The Fumble.”

[+] EnlargeEarnest Byner, Brian Brennan
AP photo/Mark DuncanEarnest Byner's fumble in the 1988 AFC Championship Game haunted him for over a year until he left Cleveland.
Byner’s miscue at the goal line late in the January 1988 AFC Championship Game in Denver came as he was about to score to tie the game. It still hurts Browns fans, and it left Byner feeling like he was drowning.

But in time he recovered.

Byner now wants to make sure another player does not go through what he did for as long as he did. Byner watched the end of this season's NFC Championship Game and saw the Green Bay Packers' Brandon Bostick misplay an onside kick, helping Seattle complete an improbable comeback.

When Byner heard Bostick talk after the game and then a couple of days later, saying that he had let an entire team and fan base down, Byner knew he had to reach out -- even though he had never met Bostick and had never talked to him.

“I didn’t want him to feel like he was alone,” Byner said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Bostick made Byner’s role clear in a first-person story written on SI.com on Thursday, a story in which Bostick revealed he still lives with his mistakes and that he received death threats on Twitter.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it’s the first thing on my mind,” Bostick wrote. “There are nights when I dwell on it before falling asleep. Sometimes the thought creeps up on me when I’m lifting weights, or eating dinner, or sitting on my couch at home."

"That’s one of the reasons I’m calling him and we’re talking,” Byner said. “I’m trying to make it so it’s not a difficult process for him."

Bostick was supposed to block on the kick and let teammate Jordy Nelson catch the ball. Instead, Bostick tried to catch it and lost it.

Byner heard Bostick’s anguish after the game and reached out through Packers assistant coach Sam Gash, who played for the Ravens when Byner was an assistant coach in Baltimore.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bostick
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesEarnest Byner reached out to Brandon Bostick immediately after the tight end botched the onside kick in the NFC title game.
“With the way social media is now, the weight and how much he hears it, it all happened to him a lot quicker than it did me,” Byner said. “It took me four or five months. It made me struggle after four or five months.”

Byner would hear people yell, “Hey don’t fumble.” He’d hear other barbs, snide remarks. He’d notice people looking at him, then looking away. He felt love from many Browns fans, but the weight from the negative, he said, became heavier every day.

“It was almost like a drowning,” Byner said.

Byner played for the Browns for one season after the fumble but was not himself. He said it took a trade to Washington to bring him out of his dark state.

“It took a spiritual conversation for me to actually get past the fumble,” Byner said. “I’m not preaching to [Bostick]. But to me the spiritual impact is crucial. The spirit has a way of freeing you up a lot.”

Since then, Byner has helped several players in several sports. Bostick is the latest, as the two have talked several times since the championship game. The ex-Brown feels that Bostick will benefit from being released by Green Bay. Going to Minnesota will help him start fresh.

“The next step,” Byner said, “is to get together. I need to look him in his eyes. I need to feel what he’s feeling. That way I can make a difference in the process. Not just that process, but in his life. Because the better the person, the better the player you will have.”

As Byner says when describing his book on a video on his website earnestbyner21.com: “Mistakes are critical to learning, understanding what happened and how it happened. And being able to go to the next level. Being able to ultimately become a champion, not just in sports, but also in life.”
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There are two things the Detroit Lions desperately need as the franchise tries to win its first playoff game in more than 20 years: Defensive linemen and offensive linemen.

Though it is somewhat likely the Lions will go with one of those positions in the first round of this spring's NFL draft in Chicago, where they go has varied.

In his latest mock draft, Todd McShay has looked squarely at the offensive line Insider and taken the most versatile lineman out there: Florida State's Cameron Erving.

Erving would make perfect sense for Detroit because of how he plays. He's someone who will grade out as one of the best centers in the draft should the Lions -- or any team -- choose to use him there. Prior to this season, though, he was an offensive tackle for the Seminoles and did well enough there to start on a national championship team. His size, at 6-foot-5, 313 pounds, could move him to any position on the line if need be, including guard if the Lions feel comfortable with their tackle and center situations.

"When I made the switch, a lot of people asked me how I felt about it in terms of the NFL. That wasn’t on my mind," Erving said of the position switch last week at the NFL combine. "I mean, I’ve always been the type of person that does what’s best for the team. When I moved from defense (after freshman season) that was what was best for the team. And that’s how I did.

"As far as moving from tackle to center, it’s what the team needed at the time. So I did it."

Erving started his career as a defensive tackle at Florida State before moving over to offensive tackle in 2012. The other potential option here is if the Lions were to draft Erving -- or another tackle -- in the first round, this could potentially help the franchise move current left tackle Riley Reiff inside to guard.

General manager Martin Mayhew is all about versatility -- especially in this draft -- and Erving would present the most versatile player possible on the offensive line in the Class of 2015.
As Bears general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox evaluate Jay Cutler to determine whether to bring him back for the 2015 season, ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden thinks it’s time the club gives another signal-caller an opportunity.

Asked on ESPN "Mike & Mike" on Thursday what would go into the final decision regarding Cutler, Gruden said, “I think John Fox is going to look at the body of work. They’re going to see that he didn’t get it done really with Lovie Smith or Marc Trestman, and now I’m the next head coach. I think you need to give some other people an opportunity to play. I think some of these quarterbacks get too many chances. There are good enough players out there that deserve a chance to be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJay Cutler got a $126.7 million extension from the Bears in January 2014, but the team is still exploring its options at quarterback.
In six seasons with the Bears, Cutler produced a regular-season record of 44-38 and has thrown 129 touchdown passes to go with 93 interceptions for a passer rating of 84.3.

The new regime’s intense evaluation of Cutler stems from his seven-year, $126.7 million extension signed last January. Cutler’s $15.5 million base salary for 2015 is already fully guaranteed, but if the quarterback remains on the roster on the third day of the new league year (March 12), he’s guaranteed another $10 million of his 2016 salary.

“I know he has talent,” Gruden said. “But I don’t think he warrants that salary for sure. I think Chicago needs to look at getting a different leader under center.”

It’s clear the new regime has at least explored that possibility. The club met recently at the NFL combine in Indianapolis with former backup Josh McCown for breakfast in a restaurant inside the team’s hotel.

"[The] meeting went really well. [I] enjoyed spending time with them," McCown told ESPN.

McCown played for Fox in Carolina (2008-09) and spent three seasons with the Bears (2011-13) before signing a two-year deal to join former coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers released McCown on Feb. 11.

McCown played a significant role in Chicago, helping the club to implement a new offense under Trestman and former offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, and was often described by former Bears general manager Phil Emery as "a glue guy" in the locker room.

McCown played eight games during his last season in Chicago (2013), winning three games in five starts while filling in for an injured Cutler. McCown performed well enough to stir debate about whether he should be the full-time starter over Cutler.

“Two years ago, the Bears were on the brink of going to the playoffs because of Josh McCown’s play,” Gruden said. “Josh McCown played great for Marc Trestman. He fit that system. He understood it. He looked like he was in rhythm. He won a lot of games just two years ago for the Bears. He’s available. You can bring Josh McCown back. Jake Locker, possibly. There are some quarterbacks out there that need a new place to go. We were in Super Bowl XXXVII with Brad Johnson, I think he was on his third team. Rich Gannon was on his fifth team. Steve Young never started until he was 30 years old. We live in a day where everything has to happen right now, or let’s get him out of here. Some of these guys are going to prove to you that they can play. They just need a new setting.”

Perhaps that also includes Cutler.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Whatever you thought of A.J. Hawk's nine years with the Green Bay Packers, remember this: It was never his fault that general manager Ted Thompson picked him fifth overall in the 2006 draft.

Hawk made only one Pro Bowl, and even then he wasn't voted in. He went as an alternate in 2010 -- the season the Packers won the Super Bowl.

Maybe the Packers would have been better off with Vernon Davis, the tight end whom Thompson bypassed in order to pick Hawk. Davis remains with the San Francisco 49ers, who picked him right after Hawk came off the board, and he has been voted to a pair of Pro Bowls.

But even at No. 5, there are no guarantees. None of the three players picked in that spot in the three drafts that followed -- Levi Brown (2007), Darren McFadden (2008) and Mark Sanchez (2009) -- was ever voted to the Pro Bowl. Same thing with the player taken at No. 5 the year before Hawk -- Cadillac Williams.

[+] EnlargeAJ Hawk
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh"I try to look at it like, 'Hey, man, I was lucky enough to get nine years there and win a ring,'" A.J. Hawk said. "I wish we would've won more rings, but I wish them the best."
Imagine how Hawk's Packers career, which ended Wednesday when he was released, would be viewed if he would have been picked, say, at No. 30, where Thompson will select this year.

Or in the second round. Or the third round.

You'd be putting him in the Packers Hall of Fame.

He might end up there anyway because, if nothing else, he was a durable, long-lasting player who did whatever the coaches asked. He epitomized what the Packers want in one of their guys. In his nine years, he played in 142 of a possible 144 games and ended his career as the team's all-time leading tackler.

Thompson called Hawk "a consummate Packer" in the statement that announced his release.

If the NFL Players Association wanted an example for players to follow upon their release, they should distribute this 30-minute video Hawk released on Wednesday. In it, he described how the Packers notified him that he would be released -- he was on a charity cruise when they told him last week, and they said they would wait until he returned before they announced it.

"That just goes to show you the type of guys they are, the kind of organization they run," Hawk said in the video. "They were looking out for me even throughout this, and how I would feel. They don't need to do that."

He added: "They stayed awesome throughout this whole process. They've been super classy like they have my whole nine years there."

Yes, at the end, Hawk's deficiencies were obvious. Maybe it was because of his bum ankle, which required surgery after the season to remove bone spurs, even though he refused to concede that it impacted his play.

Whatever lateral movement he had as a young player, and even that was limited, was gone. All you had to do was watch him try to cover Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph on the opening play of the Nov. 23 game at Minnesota. Rudolph caught a pass 2 yards from the line of scrimmage and ran away from Hawk for a 23-yard gain.

It was no coincidence that Hawk's playing time began to diminish the following week against the New England Patriots. By season's end, the only time defensive coordinator Dom Capers used Hawk was in the base 3-4 defense. In some games, such as the Dec. 8 Monday nighter against the Atlanta Falcons, that meant Hawk played just eight of 67 defensive snaps. Over the final six games of the season, including the playoffs, Hawk's highest snap total was 32 of 68 plays in the Dec. 14 loss at the Buffalo Bills.

Yet he never complained -- not during the season and not now.

"I try to look at it like, 'Hey, man, I was lucky enough to get nine years there and win a ring,'" Hawk said. "I wish we would've won more rings, but I wish them the best. No ill will towards anybody there, honestly, players, coaches, front office. I'm not leaving there bitter at all."
This seemed inevitable for months now, from the moment Reggie Bush injured his ankle during the fifth week of the season and Theo Riddick darted through the Minnesota defense on the opening drive the following week.

Riddick
Even when the Lions drafted Riddick in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, his skills were similar enough to Bush's -- then the Lions' top offseason free-agent acquisition -- that it seemed like the team signed its present and drafted its future, all in the same two-month span.

It turns out that's exactly what happened, as the Lions cut Bush on Wednesday after two years with the team and with two years left on his four-year contract.

But Bush's fate with the Lions was sealed as much by his inability to stay on the field -- he played 11 games in 2014 and has had only two seasons in which he played all 16 games -- as it was Riddick's emergence in the backfield.

The questions continued to come throughout the season, especially as Riddick played well in Bush's absence. Bush still had the occasional explosiveness. Riddick was the more consistent presence as a receiving back, which essentially became the role for Bush and Riddick in the Detroit offense.

Riddick, who has only 29 career carries and no rush longer than 9 yards, will never be mistaken for a between-the-tackles back, but neither was Bush. When it comes to receiving, though, Riddick had the superior season, even with fewer repetitions. Riddick had 34 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns, many of those plays coming in big spots.

He had the game-winning touchdown against Miami. He had a massive one-handed catch on the final drive against Atlanta, as well as a touchdown reception. Not coincidentally, Riddick had his most receptions (eight) and targets (12) against Atlanta, a game in which Bush was sidelined.

Riddick was productive when he played but was often behind Bush when he was healthy -- relegating Riddick to becoming the two-minute back because of his work out of the backfield.

Now his role could greatly expand in 2015, or at least he'll be the first player to have a shot at taking the snaps vacated by Bush's release.

"It depends on what we want to do, but he's capable of carrying it more than what we gave it to him," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said last week. "But he’s also, you can also see his numbers of out of the backfield, catching the ball. Things of that nature, they jump out at you.

"So he's got a unique skill there, but he's also a good ball carrier, so we'll see how that goes."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Any football department run by a general manager as meticulous as the Minnesota Vikings' Rick Spielman -- who rates draft prospects down to the thousandth of a point -- is going to have a fairly high view of information gathering.

Before Spielman hired Mike Zimmer in January 2014, he studied 13 different backgrounds for potential head coaches. The GM routinely charts in-game decisions, and went through a litany of scenarios with Zimmer before his first games as a head coach last fall. Spielman, Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner crisscrossed the country last spring, interviewing passers who could be the Vikings' next QB of the future. If the Vikings' front office is ever going to be accused of falling short in any one area, preparedness will not be it.

There's a difference between accumulating data and using it to shape a significant number of decisions, however. And in a league that probably still ranks among the least data-dependent of the four major U.S. sports, the Vikings ranked among the 12 teams listed as analytics "skeptics" in ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings, which attempted to measure how heavily all 122 North American major pro teams use analytics. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert wrote, the Vikings don't have a full-time employee devoted to analytics, and it's unclear how much the team relies on data findings in its decisions. Coach Mike Zimmer leaned on the traditional side of fourth-down decisions, going for it just three times before the fourth quarter in 2014.

The Vikings made their skepticism about Pro Football Focus clear last season, particularly when the name of left tackle Matt Kalil came up, but that stemmed more from a belief that outside sources don't have all the information to thoroughly evaluate the team than it did from an inherent aversion to new schools of thought. When I covered the team for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I talked with Spielman about his approach to analytics, and the methods the Vikings use to evaluate draft picks. Essentially, the team takes all of its combine data, in-house ratings and psychological evaluations of players and feeds them into a giant database, looking for precedents. If the Vikings can find a player with similar attributes who has since been successful in the NFL, they might be more willing to consider a prospect whose measurables would otherwise invite skepticism. But for Spielman and Zimmer, the tape still takes precedent.

When I've talked with Spielman about the Vikings' analytics use, he hasn't seemed particularly interested in standing out, so he's likely happy the team is lumped with more than one-third of the league in one of the middle quartiles of our survey. The Vikings certainly use analytics as a tool, but to say they have a deep reliance on them would probably be stretching it.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The staffer walked around the locker room daily after practices and walkthroughs. He’d go to each player and quickly click on a sensor.

Sometimes, he’d grab the heart monitors from the shirts of Detroit Lions players.

Every scan had a purpose, information gathering used to try and help the Lions win games Sundays as they searched for some sort of edge over the rest of the teams in the league. Every team in the NFL -- and every player in the league -- has radio frequency technology in their shoulder pads and around stadiums on game day to measure various movements.

[+] EnlargeTom Lewand
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiTeam president Tom Lewand and the Lions utilize analytical technology as a valuable piece of supplemental data.
 The Lions are believed to be the only team in the league to use the radio-based technology daily. The team, using a system installed by Zebra Technologies, had sensors sewn into practice jerseys to be able to track information even during non-padded practices as part of their analytic analysis. This goes along with a heart rate monitor the Lions players wear on Zephyr undershirts specifically equipped with a snap-on sensors to measure other performance levels.

“At first it’s weird, but once you’re out there at practice, your mind is on everything else,” receiver Ryan Broyles said last season. “When you’re out there and you’ve got pads on and all that stuff, it’s not really that big of a deal. But it tracks a lot of stuff.

“It tracks how fast you go, how much force you put in the ground, the distance you cover and the heart rate monitor shows how high your heart rate is or your intensity is.”

The Lions deem this information valuable as supplemental data. The technology helped with measuring a player’s true recovery from injury. In at least one instance last season, a player thought he was ready to return but the data collected by the franchise and then measured to the recovering player had him sit out one more week.

The Zephyr tracker and the Zebra technology have combined to give Detroit a still-emerging picture of how deep analytics could go. Team president Tom Lewand told ESPN.com last season the Lions had their system specifically developed and installed in their Allen Park, Michigan practice facility. This included sensors -- essentially looking like ordinary poles -- around the outskirts of the practice field to help measure various levels of output and distance.

“It gives you a good sense of how much work is being done by the players, how much physical exertion and some other things,” Lewand said. “Without getting too much into the detail of it, it certainly can measure a lot of the physical activity and physical load not just from a distance and miles run, but actually how much exertion there is, what heart rates are, those kinds of things.”

Lewand often declined to give specifics of the system -- one he said was the only one of its kind in the NFL -- during an interview with ESPN.com. Players throughout the season said the coaching staff used the information to taper practices based off the data.

The franchise installed the system on a minimal basis in 2013 and used it extensively for the first time last season. The Lions are tweaking it constantly to find new uses for it. One use came in using the technology to help give information about free agents the team worked out weekly.

Lewand said Lions coach Jim Caldwell has been “a huge part of developing it and customizing” the technology based on what his coaching staff wants to see since being hired in January, 2014. As for exactly what that data is -- Lewand and the Lions declined to delve into specifics. In addition to the system, the Lions had senior coaching assistant Gunther Cunningham dive heavily into analytics and Pro Football Focus last season -- something broken down well by The MMQB.

As far as games go -- and this is something he said could be implemented league-wide eventually -- the system they have can overlay routes run onto game film to measure exact distances covered. It can tell how close a receiver was running to a defensive back and how fast they are in comparison to each other. It can tell how fast a defensive lineman moves off the ball.

All of this information could end up working their way into coaching information and even television broadcasts. This has already shown up when broadcasts show how far a player ran when breaking down certain plays.

That, though, is just the beginning of what can be done.

“I think you’ll see those statistics start coming out as part of the growth of that particular industry,” Lewand said. “As far as the possibilities internally, there are a lot. We’re using some now.

“We’re exploring some other ones actively, and I’m sure there are other ones that our imaginations haven’t gotten to yet.”

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