NFC North News and Notes: June 4

Are Detroit fans finally starting to buy in to the new regime? Will we see Johnny Jolly on the field at all this season in Green Bay? Can Ryan Longwell live with having a kickoff specialist in Minnesota?

Detroit Lions

At least some long-suffering fans are starting to get excited about the Lions. Despite the Lions' lousy record and Detroit's lousy economy, fans are lining up and paying for autographs from the team's young stars.

QB Matthew Stafford
Getty Images: Stephen Dunn

One night, QB Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 pick this year, were signing at memorabilia stores on opposite sides of the metro area. Suh's signature cost $40-55, Stafford's $30-35.

The first fans in line for Suh were Allen McCord, 40, and son Thomas, 12, of Detroit. They showed up two hours early so they could nab Suh's signature and then race over to get Stafford's.

"I haven't seen two Lions signing at the same time," said Steven Graus, who has been in this business for 22 years and owns DC Sports, where Suh signed. "It's good for the city. People are spending their hard-earned money, and so the memorabilia market is hopefully back for the Lions."

Joe Morgan has owned Motor City Sports Gallery for five years. He said for the first time he is receiving more requests for Lions autograph signings than for Red Wings, Tigers or Pistons.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson drew a larger crowd recently than athletes like Chris Chelios, Carlos Guillen and Curtis Granderson. Stafford's crowd was even bigger than Johnson's.

Graus said Barry Sanders used to be in high demand, but because he was Barry Sanders, not because he played for the Lions. Fans actually are interested in the team now.

"I think it's about the best it's been since we've been in business, as far as the renewed interest in the team, with some of the drafts they've had," Graus said.

When the Lions drafted Stafford last year, there was fear and skepticism. But he has won over fans, and the Lions have added more pieces. Suh is viewed as a coup. As Graus said, "He was the player everybody told them they should take, and they took him."

"Stafford, I was always kind of hemming and hawing about whether or not he was actually going to be good," said Randy Osbourn, 33, of Shelby Township. "But Suh, it feels different with him versus the last five or 10 draft picks we've had.

"There was always the excitement, but with him, it's just that thing you can't really describe. You feel he's not going to be just either your average guy or follow the Charles Rogers route of just complete collapse."

Osbourn has an impressive personal collection that includes more than 100 individual autographs. But he had only one Lions autograph, that of former defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, until he stood in line to get Suh's.

"I've had opportunities to go to other shows, and no one's piqued my interest, really drawing me out," Osbourn said. "Suh, as soon as I heard we got him on draft day, it was pretty much wherever he was going to be at."

Green Bay Packers

From teammates to coaches, concerns are mounting about the playing future of defensive end Johnny Jolly with the Packers.

DE Johnny Jolly
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel

Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of a felony drug-possession charge, stemming from an incident in his hometown of Houston in July 2008. The start of the much-delayed trial was pushed back to June 4.

"I'm concerned for Johnny Jolly personally," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a member of our football team that's going through a legal situation, and we're monitoring it closely, and we'll just continue to support Johnny the best we can."

Jolly, an unsigned restricted free agent, hasn't been with the team since the end of last season. McCarthy hasn't spoken to him in more than a month, and even players who are close with Jolly have had little or no contact with him this spring.

"It's tough seeing this whole thing transpire. We just pray for him," veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said.

Pickett is hopeful Jolly won't be found guilty and will be back with the team, but Pickett added, "It's a distraction."

McCarthy isn't sure that Jolly will be available to play next season. Guilty or not, Jolly could be suspended by the league for violating its substance-abuse and/or personal-conduct policies – he was arrested for allegedly possessing more than 200 grams of codeine outside a Houston nightclub and last month was reprimanded by the court for breaking conditions of his bond.

"Definitely, his availability is in question," McCarthy said. "I don't think you can deny that."

As such, the Packers have been preparing to move on without Jolly, a full-time starter the last two seasons.

They moved Pickett, a nose tackle his first nine years in the league, to Jolly's spot at left end. B.J. Raji, the team's top draft pick in 2009, is the starter at the nose, his natural position.

"We're eager to have him back," Pickett said of Jolly. "We're just going to watch the thing unfold like everyone else and see how it comes out."

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings' decision to sign kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd to a two-year contract this offseason, means that for the first time in his career Ryan Longwell won't be handling both kickoffs and field goals.

K Ryan Longwell
Getty Images: Nick Laham

And that doesn't sit too well with the veteran of 14 NFL seasons. "It's odd," said Longwell, who remains very effective on field-goal attempts and made 28 of 30 last season. "It wasn't like I asked to not do it, and it's not like I prefer not doing it. [It's] definitely something that I've never had to deal with before. We kicked off yesterday, and I was with the [second] team. It's just something that you've got to kind of take it a day at a time. We have a long ways between now and the final roster." Longwell, 35, isn't just saying this because his professional pride has been hurt. He also made it clear that he feels he is a better field-goal kicker when he is booting the ball off the tee. This is based on the fact that during outdoor games, Longwell is able to get a much better read on wind conditions and other factors when he is kicking off. He then uses that on field-goal attempts. One example he gave came in late December last season, when he kicked a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter at Chicago. "[That] was a kick that the wind was blowing hard off the left all game, but kicking that direction kicking off the ball, [it] just wasn't falling right," Longwell said. "It wasn't going with what the wind felt like. So when we went out there, I aimed accordingly to how the ball flew on kickoffs and made it. It's things like that I think with games in Washington and New England and Philly, where we play this year, it's a tool that I've always used." The addition of Lloyd indicates the Vikings are prepared to have two kickers on their 45-man game-day roster, a big commitment with how precious each of those spots is considered. Lloyd does have 51 touchbacks over the past two seasons. Asked about the situation, coach Brad Childress said: "I'm not going to tell you that Ryan Longwell will never kick off. He's going to have to keep that club sharp in his bag. Rhys Lloyd was brought in with a specific idea in mind, but still in all, you have to come out and perform and you have to do it." Said Longwell: "Rhys is a good guy, and we both understand the business. We didn't ask to be in this predicament, but at the same time we both have jobs to do. I feel like for the four years I've been here, I've done everything I'm supposed to do and then some and performed well. So I'm not really concerned about employment, so to speak. It's just that you want to be able to go out there and do what you do to the best of your ability. You want all the tools to be able to do that."

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