Matthew Stafford knows what ‘talented’ Sam Darnold faces

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matthew Stafford can understand it all, everything New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold might be going through this week. Because the veteran quarterback has been there, and he understands all the expectations and ups and downs that could come.

In 2009, Stafford was Darnold — opening his rookie season as a highly touted quarterback on the road against an opponent with a veteran defense and a top quarterback. That opponent was New Orleans with Drew Brees. And the Saints ended that season by beating Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.

Stafford watched Darnold play at USC. Watched him play during the preseason. Likes his arm. Thinks Darnold is “a talented kid.” But like any rookie, Stafford said, you don’t know what you don’t know because college is way different than the NFL.

“Listen, this game is about experience,” Stafford said. “This league is about experience. You know, he played at a high level in college against some high-level competition. He’s gotten some under his belt in the preseason and he’s a talented guy.

“He can make a bunch of plays not only with his arm but with his feet. We’ve seen it more and more recently, these young guys coming in and playing at a really high level.”

Stafford and Darnold weren’t in the exact same situation. Darnold has more talent around him in New York than Stafford did coming off the Lions’ 0-16 season in 2008. But the issues he faced in 2009 will be similar to what Darnold will face this week against Detroit and for the first part of this season.

Stafford’s first game as a pro didn’t turn out too well, either. He completed 16 of 37 passes for 205 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He was sacked once and had a passer rating of 27.4 — the worst of his career.

“All of it is tough. We weren’t a great football team at that point,” Stafford said. “We were rebuilding in a lot of areas. I was not by any means, and still am not, a finished product. You know, learning on the fly against some great competition, but that’s what it’s all about.”

So Darnold will start in Detroit. Against Stafford. On Monday Night Football. And the Lions, like the Saints did to a rookie 10 years ago, will hope to give the Jets’ starter plenty more to learn.

Photo: AP Photo/Gail Burton

Lions’ Zach Zenner working to cure rare disease, save kids’ lives

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — He finished his workout, got in his car and drove 1.8 miles from the Detroit Lions’ practice facility to a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble. Zach Zenner sat down, opened up his laptop and began his second job: trying to save the lives of children.

For at least two hours each day this spring, inside the bookstore he has gone to since his rookie year, Zenner logged on to a microscope almost 1,000 miles away at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine. There, he read images of the stained brains of mice studied in a lab. He recorded the results and analyzed the data.

This was Zenner’s latest offseason, medical-research project, joining Dr. Jill Weimer’s team at Sanford searching for effective drug treatments and, hopefully, eventually, a cure for Batten Disease. This was different than Zenner’s past two years studying hypertension and diabetes in Detroit-based labs, earning him a medical-journal publication. This time, he was working remotely instead of having his hands in everything. His responsibilities changed, forcing him to use different brain muscles.

And he was working to find a way to keep children alive from a rare, debilitating disease.

All 13 types of Batten Disease — a group of lysosomal storage genetic disorders — affect children. The National Institutes of Health estimates that between two and four of every 100,000 children in the United States will be diagnosed with a form of Batten. Almost all are fatal, most by the time the child reaches age 12. There is no cure. Only one form — CLN2 — has a potentially effective treatment.

When Zenner started working on Batten, he didn’t know much about it. Assigned to write an introduction for a couple of papers, he began to dive deep into the disease. Children with Batten, according to the NIH, appear healthy at birth and can start showing symptoms anywhere from infancy to age 4 or 5, depending on the form.

Eventually, the children can become blind, unable to communicate and are sometimes confined to a wheelchair.

“It just puts it in perspective what you’re doing,” Zenner said. “It might seem like all you’re doing is crunching numbers and looking at image slides, but then you always have to have in the back of your mind what the overall picture is, which is trying to help those kids out that have it.”

Zenner ended up on the project because it fit his schedule demands. He knew he would have to work remotely due to a combination of his hectic life, lab location, football training and the birth of his first child.

Sanford invited him to work there, in part, because he already is accepted to the medical school. A good opportunity to do quality research along with making connections for his future, he accepted.

He met Weimer, who was skeptical of the arrangement at first. She figured she might hear from him once or twice and that he’d work when he could. She didn’t expect him to become a fully immersed part of the group, including participating in the group WhatsApp chat and twice-weekly lab meetings via Skype.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Weimer said. “Even the week after they had the baby, he logged into lab meetings. He’s holding the baby in his arms while his wife was getting some rest. It was so impressive.”

Zenner became one of two “Weimer Lab Ghosts” along with Katherine White, whom he worked with almost daily — communicating what they were seeing and the data they were tracking.

Zenner’s past two years placed him in labs studying mice under microscopes, participating in different tests, feeding them, recording data and sometimes doing postmortem surgery to help with results. This project, over the span of six months, featured his critical thinking and a more intensive scientific-writing regimen.

“To go back and write again is such a good exercise and so important in science,” Zenner said. “To do that was really good. A good exercise. It was just different skills. The image analysis is something that is a part of any lab work and ended up just being more of my focus this time around, and it’s good.

“It’s a good skill to have, and although it is different, it is still very important for a lot of labs that you work in.”

Weimer had Zenner record the results he read on the microscope blindly — meaning he didn’t know which slides were the disease with drug treatment and which were without — so he could make unbiased decisions about whether or not the treatment was working.

Much of Zenner’s work focused specifically on CLN6, with which symptoms begin within a child’s first few years. It leads to children losing the ability to walk, speak and, eventually, see. Kids with CLN6 usually die by their early teenage years. There is also an adult-onset version of CLN6 that has a slower rate of decline.

CLN6 is trickier, Weimer said; from her observations, if a family’s first child has it, somehow the second child often does, as well — even though it should be only a 1-in-4 possibility.

For any type of Batten to occur, the child has to receive a bad gene from both parents, both of whom have to be carriers for the disease. A lot of recent Batten disease research funding came from the Charlotte and Gwenyth Gray Foundation, a nonprofit started by Gordon Gray — a producer on the films “Miracle,” “The Rookie” and “Million Dollar Arm” — and his wife, Kristen. Their two daughters have Batten. Money raised by their research helped create a gene therapy clinical trial in less than a year.

“Part of what Zach was involved in was helping us with the analysis of screening gene therapy in other forms of Batten disease and just knowing that sometimes it could take a long time for kids to get the cue to receive the gene therapy,” Weimer said. “Or some of them aren’t eligible for the gene therapy trial, so what other drugs or treatments are there out on the market that we can actually be treating these kids with?

“Also, gene therapy is so new, we have no clue how long it is going to last, so we’ll always want to have an arsenal of treatments ready to go. So the drugs Zach was involved in screening were really those next-generation treatments that we kind of have cued up after the gene therapy.”

Zenner, standing in the Lions’ locker room earlier this month, shook his head when he was asked what he learned about Batten. He could have been there for hours and not covered all of it. Working on a rare disease parents and children have no control over left him with a greater appreciation of the wonder of the human body.

“I’m always struck by how easy it is for things to go wrong, like you have one genetic mutation and you’re missing this protein and now you have an autosomal storage disorder and you have progressive nerve degeneration and you die when you’re 8 years old,” Zenner said. “You know, it’s horrible. But it’s such a small thing that turns into such a large consequence.

“I’m always struck by how the human body is put together and how so many things can go wrong. But when you look at the general population, how often it doesn’t go wrong and the miracle of human life, I guess.”

Studying humans — and helping them — has always been Zenner’s goal. He applied to medical school before he knew professional football would be a reality.

He has deferred Sanford’s acceptance yearly as he stayed with the Lions. While Sanford still has an agreement to accept him, because his NFL career has been an actual career — something unknown when he was an undrafted free agent out of South Dakota State in 2015 — he likely has to retake the MCAT.

It would seem like it could have been a decision point for Zenner between football and medicine, but he insisted it isn’t. Football, with which he’s on the roster bubble with the Lions, is still the priority. Zenner is committed to football for as long as it will have him. But he also knows what’s waiting for him after.

“What we’ve discussed a little bit of is a conditional acceptance — like if I retake my MCAT and I get a certain score, then I will maintain my acceptance to the school,” Zenner said. “It’s more a ‘take it to stay at USD.’ It’s not like they revoked it.

“It’s not a decision point for me. Having to retake it — at this point in my career, I’m going to have to retake it either way.”

As long as the Sanford acceptance remains, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, he’ll eventually start classes there. When he does, he already has been offered a job in Weimer’s lab. She told Zenner he can return to do research in offseasons. When he does eventually start med school, she has a medical-student training grant ready for him so he can work for her while receiving a stipend as part of an internship program.

Zenner and Weimer hope that is still far off. After this spring, there’s little question about Zenner’s long-term future. It’ll be in medicine. In the short-term, he has an offseason working home.

“The way that it’s set up it is really easy for them to cut out little chunks for people to work on,” Zenner said. “With the way, how kind they are and how it is set up that way, it’s really easy for me to keep going back.”

When he does, there will be more lives to try to save while working from South Dakota, his home or a coffee shop somewhere.

Photo: Michael Rothstein

Even in preseason, is it time to be concerned about Detroit Lions?

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

DETROIT — The images were far too familiar. Matthew Stafford dropping back, seeing his offensive line accordion in front of him.

When he was on the sidelines, he saw his defense do exactly the opposite: Allow his quarterbacking counterparts to get all the time they needed to find an open man and complete a pass. Or have a running back have an easy lane to run through.

This was a theme of 2017 for the Lions – lack of protection for Stafford and lack of pressure on opponents. And it was among the things Detroit supposedly had fixed heading into this season, particularly the bit about keeping Stafford upright. Yet in the second preseason game, none of that really happened.

Stafford, when he was in for three series, was sacked twice. All night, Detroit’s running backs had little to no room to run. Giants backup quarterback Davis Webb had enough time to complete 14 of 20 passes and not get sacked. And New York’s top two running backs – neither of whom was super rookie Saquon Barkley – averaged over 5 yards per carry.

If all of this sounds like a repetition of past years, well …

“It looked bad,” offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins said.

Yes, it is still early. Preseason being preseason, everything should be viewed with the caveats of the lack of game-planning and nuanced play-calling along with players themselves getting into shape and fewer reps to find a rhythm. But as many veterans know and what has played out year over year is this: Early can get late in the NFL faster than any player or coach would like. So a performance like this, preseason be darned, is reason for concern heading into when games really count three weeks from now.

This isn’t a judge of the final score of either preseason game. It’s more that when the starters were in, nothing looked particularly good other than a play here or there. The players and Matt Patricia said all the things you figured they’d say after a game like Friday – they have to get better, it’s still early, it’s preseason. But there was also some acknowledgement of, well, how rough it looked.

“It’s disheartening to see us not perfect our technique. It’s disheartening to see us not execute what we’ve been executing all week,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. “It’s disheartening not to see certain things that you sit in a building from morning till night going over and then when you get on the field you don’t see it done.

“Like I said, we got two more weeks and [Saturday] is the first day to start correcting these situations and start correcting to stop that run. Because if you don’t stop the run you have a lot of great NFL teams in the league that have good running backs and O-lines that can just move that ball whenever they choose to.”

Every area had issues. Matt Prater missed a field goal. TJ Jones had a drop that led to an interception. The Lions looked discombobulated and at points without any sort of energy.

Had Stafford and the starters played an entire game it’s possible things would have looked different. But based on the small sample size, the Lions look far away from the team they need to be to have success this year. Patricia acknowledged as much, calling what the Lions have to do a “big job in front of us” and that his team didn’t play well at any position.

There’s no denying any of that. It looked like it live. The tape essentially confirmed it. And while yes, it is early, if the Lions don’t get things fixed over the next two weeks things could be really problematic once games start counting in September.

“We have to come together as a group,” Jean Francois said. “The coaches can talk until they’re blue in the face. We have to come together as a team and we have to show Matt Patricia that we can master everything that he asks us to do.

“Because if we don’t, it’s going to be a long season and we ain’t trying to have a long season around here.”

Photo: Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Kenny Golladay could be breakout star, key to Lions’ offense

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Kenny Golladay will lean back ever so slightly in the Detroit Lions’ meeting room and begin to speak. In front of him is an explanation of something they were going to work on or had just completed, and Golladay just isn’t quite sure of it.

So the second-year wide receiver takes his massive frame, pushes back and asks the receiver behind him a question. And Marvin Jones Jr. almost always has the answer.

“He’ll ask me a lot of different things,” Jones said. “Sometimes a play or sometimes what should I have done right there or what would you have done. Stuff like that. Whatever question pops in his mind, he asks.

“He wants to be that guy that’s dominant and stuff like that, and you see it transfer on the field.”

Dominance has been a big word in Golladay’s lexicon so far this training camp. While often choosing not to talk with the media, he did say in a rare-for-this-year interview that his plan was to “dominate every day and that’s just what I’m looking forward to.”

That’s come intermittently — but his presence is noticed. The Lions’ tallest receiver at 6-foot-4, Detroit selected him in the third round last year in part because of his jumping ability, catch radius and knack for grabbing the ball at its highest point. Combined with his speed for a bigger receiver, it made him a tantalizing early threat — something enhanced by his two touchdowns in both the preseason and regular-season openers in 2017.

Then he went quiet for most of the year, in part due to a hamstring injury that cost him five games of his rookie year. But the potential was intriguing. Then he started lining up on the outside during training camp opposite Jones with Golden Tate in the slot and had flashes of dominance again.

It’s reason to think he could be a massive key to Detroit’s offense this fall. Among receivers with 20 or more receptions last season, Jones was first in the league with 18.05 yards per catch. Golladay was fifth at 17.04 yards.

Having the two of them on the field at the same time with Tate, the NFL’s yards-after-catch leader among receivers last season, forms a dynamic combination most teams in the league don’t have.

“It is trouble for the defense,” tight end Michael Roberts said. “It’s so many options on both sides of the ball. If you put the two of them on the same side, it’s even more trouble. It’s just a well-balanced offense.

“You saw what we did, drafted a running back, brought in LeGarrette [Blount], took an O-lineman in the first round (center Frank Ragnow) so that’s obviously speaking to our run game, and that’s what they want — they want to run it. So it’s just becoming a very balanced offense and it’ll show soon.”

It’s also one that has the big-play capability because of Jones and Golladay — but specifically Golladay. With the three receivers on the field at the same time, teams will struggle where to shade a safety or straight up double a player. Focus too much on the short game with Tate and Theo Riddick and both Golladay and Jones win one-on-one matchups with corners. Focus on the deep threats and it leaves Tate and Riddick underneath to move the ball.

“Everything,” Golladay said, “works in together.”

Golladay becomes a bigger option, too, with the departure of tight end Eric Ebron. Golladay has the height (6-foot-4) of Ebron with better jumping ability. He also could siphon some of the targets that went to Ebron since the tight end combination of Roberts and Luke Willson is unlikely to garner the attention Ebron did last year. This could lead him to be the breakout player on a veteran offense with multiple pass-catchers at every position.

It helps, too, that Golladay grasps the game better than he did a year ago. He understands how to face longer corners and how important the details are to turn him from a receiver with potential into one of the better ones in the NFL.

“He’s understanding the game,” cornerback Nevin Lawson said. “He’s understanding where he needs to be. I can tell he’s focused.”

That’s on the field, where it’s shown through his play and his numerous grabs over Detroit’s defensive backs in the red zone and out of it. Then off the field, in the meeting rooms, he’s focused more, too.

And there, where he’s still learning, all he has to do is turn around to find the answers. Because sitting there is Jones. And that’s been a help, as he’s learning new parts of the offense under a different head coach.

“Just understanding the full concept of what we’re doing, which he’s learning, which has been good so far. Just really being consistent with all of that information,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s one thing to kind of come in as a young player, learn a specific role, be consistent with just that information.

“But now once you expand the information, to make sure that is continually improved upon as that goes through.”

Photo: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Would unlikely Khalil Mack trade make sense for Lions?

Every week during the preseason, we’ll be taking some of your questions for a Detroit Lions mailbag. To ask a question for a future Mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter or email

Now, on to this week’s questions.

Michael, there’s definitely a difference with Matt Patricia instead of Jim Caldwell. Practices are more intense. There’s more running. The pacing is different and, obviously, the defensive scheme is different. Every coach is going to bring his own philosophy and that has been obvious.

As far as specifically Miles Killebrew, I don’t think what Patricia is doing with him is that much different than what Teryl Austin tried to do with him. Austin attempted to put Killebrew in the best position, which was a sub-package player who was essentially a hybrid linebacker/safety. It seems like that’s what Detroit is looking at Killebrew as again. The difference this year is that Killebrew – in my opinion – hasn’t looked quite as good. Now there’s a long way to go between now and the regular season, but the combination of adding Tracy Walker as a third-round pick as well as the flexibility of Quandre Diggs and the re-signing of Tavon Wilson has put Killebrew in a tough spot, roster-wise. It’s why I’ve consistently mentioned him as a possible trade target. That would only increase if this coaching staff believes in Charles Washington as much as the last staff did, particularly on special teams.

But Detroit is trying to put Killebrew in a bunch of different spots right now to see which one, if any, fits best. The Lions did this with a lot of players in the past; Austin happened to be quite good at that. Don’t think the comparison to Kyle Van Noy is accurate because Van Noy was always going to be a player who was better in a 3-4 system – something obvious in New England. If Van Noy was still a Lion now, I think he would have found a role in this defense.

On the face of it, it seems insane, Ben, but with every day Khalil Mack doesn’t report to camp and if the Raiders really believe they can’t sign him, it could be possible that Oakland would try to make a deal. First the logistics on that. For any team to trade for Mack, it have to be convinced it could sign him to a long-term deal. Unlike Major League Baseball and the NBA, NFL general managers and head coaches hoard draft picks like the rarest of diamonds. And if I’m the Raiders – again, this is me being the Raiders­ – I’m asking for a reasonable amount of draft picks for Mack. So there’s that. I also would do everything I could, if I were the Raiders, to try and retain Mack.

With that being said, if I’m Bob Quinn, I’m at least poking around while I’m in Napa, California, this week to see what it would take to trade for the star pass-rusher. There’s no question Detroit needs pass-rush help, and the team’s top pass-rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, is playing on the franchise tag, has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and turns 30 next year. Trading for Mack – depending on what it would cost – would give Patricia an elite pass-rusher and give Detroit’s talented secondary an established pass-rusher to create havoc. Do I think it would happen? No, I don’t. But if I’m Quinn I’m at least asking about it just in case.

Lions DE Ansah off PUP list

Associated Press

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions have removed defensive end Ziggy Ansah from the active/physically unable to perform list.

The Lions announced the move Monday. They have not said what injury caused Ansah to go on the PUP list.

Ansah hasn’t played a full 16 games since the 2015 season. He is back with the Lions for this season on the franchise tag.

Ansah played in 14 games last season and finished with 12 sacks, including three each against the Giants, Bengals and Packers. Detroit drafted him in the first round in 2013.

Photo: Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

Patricia implements more physical workouts

Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Matt Patricia had players lay down on the ground, offense on one side, defense on the other. At the whistle, they popped back up and the offensive player — the ball carrier — then had to try to beat the defensive player one-on-one.

On the first padded day of Detroit Lions practice Sunday, they ran a modified version of the Oklahoma drill — just one example of the physicality and intensity under Patricia, the first-year Lions head coach, who is trying to change the culture of a team that hasn’t won a division title since 1993.

To do so, Patricia said at some point the Lions will tackle to the ground — a stark difference from former coach Jim Caldwell, who rarely had live tackling during practices. Patricia does want to keep his players upright for the most part, but he recognizes there are times that tackling has to happen.

Just to be prepared.

“At some point you have to go live. You have to be able to experience that both offensively and defensively because you don’t want to do it for the first time in a game,” Patricia said. “You have to be able to get in good position. There’s certainly a manner in which we can practice in pads where we can thud each other up and be in a good hit position and know that from the strike standpoint everything is clean and we’re in good space but then not really follow through or try to finish at that exact moment.

“But at some point you have to transition into the finish and be able to make sure you understand what that feels like and that we’re doing it the right way.”

It led to Patricia calling Sunday “the most exciting day of the year,” because it’s the first time his team is able to put on pads and actually have more consistent contact. It’s also the first time he had a team under his control in pads for the first time.

Patricia said while working in pads is something that is made a big deal of, he believes players should always want to play in pads for both protection and to get used to it since they’ll be wearing full pads during games. It also forces players to get to another conditioning level because of some restrictions pads place on players.

The potential for more tackling and contact is just one area where Patricia has changed Lions practices. Detroit does more running under Patricia than it did under Caldwell — including running laps for mistakes made in practice, something the defense had to do at least once Sunday.

On Friday, Patricia opened his first training camp practice by working on goal-line strategy because of the importance Patricia places on it in games. The Lions offensively struggled in goal-line and short-yardage situations in 2017, something general manager Bob Quinn said after the draft bothered him during Caldwell’s final season.

Now, as the pads go on, they can work on that even more. The players noticed an increased energy having pads on as well. The linemen can hit. The players move just a little faster. For the third straight day, practice ran at least two hours.

“It’s definitely physical and that’s what we want to be, a physical team,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “So we’re out here working hard and the most dominant team wins every Sunday, so that’s what we have to be and that’s how we practice.

“And we’re all taking to it.”

Ziggy Ansah will play on franchise tag in 2018

By Blake Froling

Detroit Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah will not be getting a long-term deal before the deadline today at 4 p.m. ET, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Ansah will play the 2018 season on the franchise tag, which will pay him a guaranteed $17.1 million.

Ansah, 29, finished last season with 12 sacks but was still plagued by inconsistency. He had three sacks against the Giants in Week 2, then went the next 10 games with a total of three sacks, then racked up six sacks in the final two games of the season against the Bengals and Packers.

Injuries have also been a major concern during Ansah’s career. He missed almost all of training camp and preseason last year with knee and back injuries and they persisted throughout the regular season. In 2016, Ansah was limited by a high ankle sprain for the majority of the season and only recorded two sacks.

2015 was Ansah’s best season by far, his third year in the league. He generated 14.5 sacks and earned second team All-Pro honors and a trip to the Pro Bowl.

The Lions aren’t sure if Ansah can stay healthy enough over the course of a long-term contract to warrant extending him. Ansah believes he’s one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL and deserves to be paid like one. That’s why a deal couldn’t be done. Ansah and the team cannot negotiate a new deal until after the season ends once they pass the 4 p.m. deadline.

The Lions also have to look at their cap situation as a whole when evaluating the offer they might make to Ansah. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has a $26.5 million cap hit and the team invested heavily in the offensive line last offseason. Wide receiver Golden Tate is due for a contract extension as well, and he’s been one of the most productive wideouts in the NFL since he signed with the Lions in 2014.

If Ansah can stay healthy and be a consistent force on the edge, then the Lions will be happy to pay him top dollar. But he has to prove it first.

Photo: Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

NFC North Q&A: Who will win the division? Staff

Will the Minnesota Vikings defend their NFC North crown in 2018, and which teams from the division will make the playoffs? Our division reporters make their predictions:

Courtney Cronin, Minnesota Vikings reporter: Packers. Green Bay will halt the Vikings’ attempt for a second straight division title and capture the NFC North in Aaron Rodgers‘ season of redemption. Green Bay made a ton of changes to its coaching staff and drafted cornerbacks with its first two picks to combat a passing league. They also have two of the league’s top red-zone targets, Jimmy Graham and Davante Adams, and added three receivers in the draft. The entire division got better this offseason, including Minnesota stealing the spotlight by signing Kirk Cousins. Still, the Packers and Vikings will be the only two teams to make the playoffs from the North. Chicago and Detroit are improved but probably still a year away from reaching the postseason.

Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Packers reporter: Vikings. This looks like a two-playoff-team division if the Vikings and Packers live up to expectations. The Week 2 game between the two teams at Lambeau Field will give one of them an early leg up in the division and could shape the way things go the rest of the way. At this point, though, the Vikings look like the more complete team thanks to a strong defense, an improving offense and stability off the field in the coaching and personnel departments.

Jeff Dickerson, Chicago Bearsreporter: The Minnesota Vikings. But I also have the Green Bay Packers making the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Vikings are the easy choice to win the NFC North after they reached the NFC Championship Game last year and then signed quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency. I also fully expect Aaron Rodgers to have an MVP-type season after he missed nine games last year due to injury. I’m not sure what to make of the Lions under Matt Patricia. And Chicago — under new head coach Matt Nagy — is an improved team, but I don’t anticipate the Bears qualifying for the postseason.

Michael Rothstein, Detroit Lions reporter: Vikings. Rodgers is back and automatically makes the Packers one of the top teams in the NFC, but Minnesota might be the top team in the conference other than Philadelphia and maybe Los Angeles. The Vikings improved from last season, added Kirk Cousins, get Dalvin Cook back from injury and have the division’s top defense, so they win the division again. The Packers also make the playoffs as a wild-card team. The Lions end up close but a tough schedule at the beginning and end of the season keeps them out of the playoffs for the second straight year.

Photo: Rick Wood /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Former MSU, Detroit Lions coach Darryl Rogers dies at 83

Associated Press

DETROIT — Darryl Rogers, who coached Michigan State to a share of the Big Ten title in 1978 and later took the helm for the Detroit Lions, has died. He was 83.

The Lions said Rogers’ family confirmed his death Wednesday.

Rogers coached Michigan State from 1976 to 1979, going 24-18-2. The 1978 team, which included star flanker Kirk Gibson, won its final seven games to finish tied for first in the conference.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Darryl Rogers and his family at this most difficult time,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said in a statement. “Coach Rogers won the 1978 Big Ten championship at Michigan State and was, in many ways, an offensive pioneer in college football. I was honored to have had the opportunity to talk to him a number of times throughout my time here and he was always very supportive. He loved Michigan State and will forever be a Spartan.”

Rogers also coached at Arizona State from 1980 to ’84 before heading to the NFL. He was with the Lions from 1985 to ’88.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Darryl,” Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said. “On behalf of me, my family and the entire Detroit Lions organization, I would like to extend our sincere sympathy to his wife, Marsha, and the Rogers family.”

Rogers played wide receiver and defensive back at Fresno State and became the coach there in 1966. He also coached San Jose State from 1973 to 1975 before taking over at Michigan State.

Photo: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images