Lions still looking to fill vital roster spots


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— This is a big week — possibly a make-or-break week — for the NFL. If there is to be at least a two-week free-agency period with training camp starting on time at the beginning of August — meaning if the NFL year is to start July 18 — the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement should be all but in place by the end of the week.

According to ESPN and the Associated Press, talks between the owners and players are set to resume today in New York City. After a brief bump in the road last week, it seems like progress is being made toward a deal.

So let’s be optimistic and start looking toward that free-agency period for the Lions. There’s little mystery about where they will be looking — cornerback and linebacker.

General manager Martin Mayhew made it clear during the draft, when he did not address those needs, that he felt he could better upgrade those positions through free agency or trades.

For the sake of discussion, here are five free agents at both positions that the Lions might have some interest in once the doors open on free agency.

Cornerbacks

1. Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland: You have to list him first because he will be, arguably, the most coveted free agent on the market, and also the most expensive. But the odds of the Lions winning this sweepstakes seem long.

The Eagles and Cowboys are expected to make a run at him.

He turns 30 Wednesday, but he’s considered to be the best cover corner in the game.

His stated intention is to land on a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Lions might be poised to end their playoff drought next season, but adding Asomugha alone won’t make them Super Bowl contenders, and his price tag might prevent the Lions from filling some other holes.

2. Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati: This might be a more realistic option. He’s going to command about $8 million per year, according to ESPN’s John Clayton, which is no bargain but far less than Asomugha.

Plus, Joseph is 27 and isn’t far behind Asomugha in terms of his shutdown abilities on the edge. He has 14 interceptions in his career, three last season in 12 games.

Joseph might have more suitors than Asomugha, because he’s perceived to be more accessible. The Bengals won’t go out without a fight, and the Texans, Seahawks, Redskins, Buccaneers, Eagles and Cowboys could be in the mix.

3. Chris Houston, Detroit: It’s not completely clear how much the Lions want to re-sign Houston. They liked him, for sure, but they didn’t offer him an extension last season. They were hoping they could get him on another one-year deal to take a longer look before committing to him long-term.

But, he was their best corner last season and unless they strike it rich with one of the free agents previously mentioned, they will have to woo him back.

4. Chris Carr, Baltimore: The Lions made a run at him before last season. He’s 28 and has been a steady, if not spectacular, player for seven seasons.

He doesn’t have the size (5-foot-11, 180) that Mayhew likes at corner, but he plays with the aggression and toughness that the GM covets.

5. Ike Taylor, Pittsburgh: Three years ago, maybe, this guy would have been at the top of the wish list for a lot of teams. But he’s 31 now; still productive, but clearly, he’ll be negotiating his last big contract.

But at 6-2, 195, he has the size the Lions want at corner and he has shown throughout his career that he is an above-average cover man.

The question is, does he have three good years left? Two?

Linebackers

1. Stephen Tulloch, Tennessee: He has a history with coach Jim Schwartz. He has an expressed fondness for the Lions’ aggressive style of defense and he has said he’d love to play behind the Lions’ talented defensive front.

He might be the most underrated linebacker in the game; for sure, he’s the most anonymous guy who’s made 281 tackles the last two seasons, and he’s still just 26.

He’s a middle linebacker, though. So to sign him would mean moving DeAndre Levy to weak-side linebacker. It’s a position that Levy played at Wisconsin and one he said he wouldn’t mind going back to at the professional level, but the Lions are reluctant to move him out of the middle.

2. Ben Leber, Minnesota: He’s a little bit older (32) but has been a consistently productive outside linebacker for 10 seasons.

It seems like Leber expects an address change next season. Here’s what he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

“The reality is if they (Vikings) were really, really wanting me back, then maybe something would have been said before the lockout. I had a good meeting with coach (Leslie) Frazier and (vice president of player personnel Rick) Spielman at the end of the year. Each side expressed how much I’d like to be here and finish my career here.

“I am hopeful and hope that I can come back and be a Viking again. But I’m also a realist, and I’ve been through this process before. It’s not always up to you, and you have to be willing to move on.”

3. Kirk Morrison, Jacksonville: He’s 29 and coming off his least productive year. After averaging more than 130 tackles for six years with the Raiders, he had 89 tackles for the Jags.

But he’s still considered one of the best and most durable middle linebackers available. He’s played in 95 straight games.

There’s a good chance Jacksonville will work hard to keep him.

4. Thomas Howard, Oakland: Howard lost his starting outside linebacker spot last season to Quentin Groves, but he is a player a lot of scouts believe is ready to break out.

He’s just 27 and had a three-year stretch — from 2007-2009 — when he started and produced 106, 96 and 97 tackles.

He would be a lower-profile signing than somebody like Tulloch, or even Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who has been mentioned as a player of interest for the Lions, but he would also be a lot more affordable — especially if the Lions spend big to get a corner.

5. Thomas Davis, Carolina: Interesting case here. A first-round pick in 2005 and a productive player for a couple of years, but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament twice in a seven-month span and missed the entire 2010 season.

Dr. James Andrews, who performed both surgeries, said that he will be able to return to football this season. The question will be whether or not he regains the explosiveness he had before the injury.

If he does, there’s a lot of good football left him in.

He’s 28.

The Lions ‘D’

Where the Lions ranked in various defensive categories last season:

Scoring defense — 19th (23.1 points per game)

Total defense — 21st (343.6 yards per game)

Passing yards — 16th (218.6 per game)

Rushing yards — 24th (124.9 per game)

Sacks — Sixth (44 total)

Interceptions — Tied for 19th (14 total)

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell e-mails all active players


Associated Press

Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote NFL players Thursday, outlining the league’s last proposal to the union and cautioning that “each passing day puts our game and our shared economics further at risk.”

Goodell ended the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, by telling players: “I hope you will encourage your union to return to the bargaining table and conclude a new collective bargaining agreement.”

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Talks between the teams’ owners and the NFL Players Association broke off last Friday, the 16th day of federal mediation in Washington. The union dissolved that afternoon, allowing players to file a class-action antitrust suit in federal court. Hours later, owners locked out the players, creating the NFL’s first work stoppage since 1987.

“I’ve told my guys to take the letter and set it on fire. We’re not that stupid,” said Seattle Seahawks guard Chester Pitts, whose reaction was relayed by NFLPA assistant executive director George Atallah.

Goodell wrote that the NFLPA “walked out of the federal mediator’s offices … and filed a lawsuit.” He also said owners “are prepared to resume those negotiations at any time.”

“We need to come together, and soon,” Goodell wrote.

He told players he wants them to “understand the offer that we made,” a proposal put forth during the final day of negotiations.

“We believe the offer presented a strong and fair basis for continuing negotiations, allowing the new league year and free agency to begin, and growing our game in the years to come,” Goodell said.

His letter goes point-by-point through 10 categories Goodell said were included in the NFL’s last proposal. Among them:

— Salary and benefits would be $141 million per club in 2011, and rise to $161 million by 2014;

— Free agency after four seasons;

— Less offseason work and fewer padded practices in the preseason and regular season;

— Keeping a 16-game regular season for at least the next two seasons and not changing to 18 games without the union’s agreement;

— Guaranteeing up to $1 million of a second year of a player’s contract if he is injured and can’t return to play;

— A new rookie compensation system;

— A jointly appointed neutral arbitrator for all drug and steroid appeals.

Seattle stuns defending champs New Orleans in NFC playoffs


Detroit News wire services / Detroit News wire services

Seattle — Jokes, lightweights, laughingstocks.

Not these Seattle Seahawks. They just sent the defending Super Bowl champions packing.

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Matt Hasselbeck threw four touchdown passes and Marshawn Lynch scored on an electrifying 67-yard run with 3:22 left and the Seahawks pulled one of the biggest upsets in playoff history with a 41-36 win over the New Orleans Saints.

The Seahawks (8-9) held a 34-20 early in the fourth quarter before Drew Brees looked ready to lead the Saints (11-6) on one of their patented comebacks. But Lynch broke about a half-dozen tackles for his TD and a few anxious minutes later, the party was on at the NFL’s loudest stadium.

Seattle, the first division winner with a losing record, will play next weekend, either at top-seeded Atlanta or No. 2 Chicago.

“We kind of expected to win,” first-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “I know that sounds crazy, but we did expect to win. The fact that it happened, it’s just kind of like, we want to take it in stride and go to the next one. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the way the mindset of this team was.”

Hasselbeck, cleared to play just two days ago because of a hip injury, threw for 272 yards and his four TD passes set a playoff career high. The veteran quarterback threw two TD passes to tight end John Carlson in the first half and started the second half with a 38-yard strike to former Lion Mike Williams to give Seattle a 31-20 lead.

The game wasn’t clinched, though, until Lynch provided a run that’ll be replayed in the Pacific Northwest for years. He took a second-down carry with less than four minutes to go and then the highlights began. He broke six tackles on his 67-yard run, tossing in a massive stiff arm that sent cornerback Tracy Porter to the turf and completed the longest scoring run of his career.

The win was the first in the playoffs for a team with a losing record.

“We respect the heck out of the Saints, but I think we felt something special all week and today, and we’ll see,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s a good start for us.”

Lynch finished with 131 yards on 19 carries, the first Seattle back to top 100 yards all season.

Hasselbeck, Lynch and a strong performance by Seattle’s offense extended the Saints franchise misery to 0-4 in road playoff games.

The Saints were considered the second-best team in the division behind the NFC South-winning Falcons. Even though they lost to Tampa Bay in the season finale a week ago and were without running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Danny Clark, the Saints were favored by 10 points to advance.

Now they go home.

Brees, who completed a playoff-record 39 passes in 60 attempts for 404 yards and two TDs, still couldn’t match Hasselbeck and the Seahawks offense. Brees led one final drive, hitting Devery Henderson on a 6-yard touchdown with 1:30 left to get within 41-36.

But DeShawn Wynn was stopped on the 2-point conversion, Garrett Hartley’s onside kick was recovered by Carlson and the Seahawks were home free.

Reggie Bush finished with five carries for 12 yards, caught five passes and did not play in the fourth quarter, jogging back to the locker room early in the quarter and never returning.

Julius Jones, cut by Seattle earlier in the season, ran for two short touchdowns and finished with 120 all-purpose yards.

In the second half, Brees all but abandoned the run, throwing on 33 of the Saints’ 41 plays, as he tried to rally the Saints from a two-touchdown deficit.

Brees pulled the Saints within 34-27 on Jones’ 4-yard touchdown run with 13:11 left, a drive helped along by a personal foul penalty by Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons.

Seattle then threw on three straight plays, all incomplete and used just 16 seconds. Brees and the Saints took over at their 44 and drove to the Seattle 4 before Henderson was stopped short on a third-and-3 pass. The Saints settled for Hartley’s 21-yard field goal with 9:13 left and trailed 34-30.

Seattle got a first down on its next drive when Hasselbeck hit Brandon Stokley for 12 yards, but Hasselbeck was sacked by Scott Shanle on second down and Seattle was forced to punt with under six minutes remaining. The 52-yard punt by Jon Ryan, plus a penalty on the return, backed the Saints to their own 6 with 5:36 left.

Brees couldn’t convert on third-and-8 at his 19 and the Saints punted with 4:29 left and just one timeout. Lynch’s run then gave Seattle an 11-point lead.

At the end of the game, Carroll gathered his team at midfield after Hasselbeck took one final knee, jumping up and down on the Seahawks logo with most of his team jumping in unison.

Hasselbeck left the field to a rousing ovation and his youngest son propped up on his shoulders.