NFC North News and Notes: July 23

Is Zack Follett ready to step in for the departed Ernie Sims in Detroit? What will Green Bay do with Johnny Jolly suspended for the year? Does Minnesota coach Brad Childress have any news on Brett Favre?

Detroit Lions

Zack Follett sure talks a good game. He started to play a pretty good one late in his rookie season, too. Follett, a seventh-round pick out of California who began the season on the practice squad, emerged as a playmaker on special teams and also got a chance to excel in some defensive packages at the end of the regular season.

LB Zack Follett
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

"He took steps all along the way," coach Jim Schwartz said.

Now it's time for a giant step, though, provided Follett's ready. By trading away a four-year starter in Ernie Sims, the Lions created a void at weak-side linebacker. Entering training camp, that No. 1 job appears to be Follett's to lose.

"The door's definitely open for me, compared to what it was last year," said Follett, who would join another second-year pro, DeAndre Levy, and veteran Julian Peterson in the starting lineup at linebacker in the Lions' 4-3 scheme. "It's real fun to see. Just to see how far I've grown in a year, I'm excited to go out there. The coaches have been doing a real good job of teaching me the defense, and it's coming along so much quicker than it was last year. I'm able to go out there and just play fast. And that's my game... to play fast."

Follett's hard-hitting reputation and outgoing personality helped make him an instant fan favorite last fall. And this spring he has become a go-to interview for local and national media outlets, while also becoming an advertising pitch man in Detroit.

"Everyone's been real cool," said Follett, whose father, Bob, died unexpectedly at age 57 in April. "That's why I say it's easy to relate to these fans in Detroit. Because they're down to Earth, and that's kind of my style: blue-collar guy. And that's how the fans are, and they really appreciate that. So that's why I think I've been able to connect with them so much."

Still, he knows it'll take more than a quick wit – or his own cheering section at Ford Field – to stick around for long, and he sounds determined to do just that.

"Knowing the defense, last year, I didn't have a good grasp of it," said Follett. "That's something I've worked on quite a bit, getting in the playbook, knowing my plays, and then just being a smart football player. That's one thing [defensive coordinator] Gunther [Cunningham] likes. It's OK if you make your mistake once, but are you gonna make it the next time? And after you make that mistake, are you gonna come back and make a play? That's one thing he always looks for, and that's what I'm trying to improve on."

Added Schwartz: "He's taken the next step. He's had a good offseason. He's a lot more comfortable playing behind the ball. He worked really hard on the scout team last year to try to get a lot of that work, and it's showing right now."

Green Bay Packers

The Packers had a sneaking suspicion they would have to play without defensive end Johnny Jolly.

DE Johnny Jolly
Tom Dahlin/Getty

Maybe not the entire 2010 season – as is the profound case for Jolly, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely July 16 for violating its substance-abuse policy – but Green Bay braced itself for the prospect of a lengthy absence.

Now that Jolly won't be able to apply for reinstatement until after Super Bowl XLV in February, the Packers' moves during the offseason made sense.

They used a high pick on a defensive end in the April draft, taking Purdue's Mike Neal in the second round.

With Jolly nowhere in sight on the practice field, the team shifted previously entrenched nose tackle Ryan Pickett to Jolly's starting spot at left end, enabling 2009 first-round draft pick B.J. Raji to take over at the nose, his natural spot.

With that, the Packers had their Jolly-less approach in place, if indeed the league disciplined him by docking games – and pay.

"Johnny is a good player that loves everything about the game of football," general manager Ted Thompson said after the suspension was rendered. "We appreciate the contributions he has made to the Packers the past four seasons. His focus and priorities now lie elsewhere. Our thoughts are with him during this difficult personal time."

Jolly is only the second Green Bay player to be suspended for a season. Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung was banished in 1963 for gambling.

Jolly faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted on a felony charge of possessing 200 grams of codeine outside a nightclub in his hometown of Houston in July 2008. The repeatedly-delayed start to the trial is scheduled for July 30, the same day Jolly's teammates will report for training camp in Green Bay.

Despite the Packers' intuition to have a backup plan ready were Jolly to be lost for any length of time, he won't be easily replaced.

Jolly was a reliable and productive starter the last two seasons after he returned from a serious shoulder injury in 2007. He didn't miss a game in 2008 and '09 and produced 82 and 75 tackles in those seasons, respectively, the latter No. 1 among the team's defensive linemen.

Green Bay is going to try to compensate by plugging in the massive-yet-mobile Pickett on the outside for the first time in his 10-year pro career and setting Raji loose on the inside to tie up blockers and provide some pass rush.

The depth behind the starting line, which includes right end Cullen Jenkins, is suspect since 2007 first-round draft pick Justin Harrell has been fragile as a pro and there's no telling what the Packers can get out of rookies Neal and possibly seventh-round choice C.J. Wilson this season.

So the season-long suspension of Jolly can't be easily dismissed and could have far-reaching ramifications for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings

Brad Childress spent Monday in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, visiting with Brett Favre, but one thing the Vikings coach did not do was press the quarterback for a timeline on when he might make a decision about playing in 2010.

QB Brett Favre
Larry French/Getty

That was probably a wise thing considering Childress almost certainly wouldn't have gotten an answer. Favre continues to deal with issues related to his surgically repaired left ankle.

"The deadline? I don't know," Favre told USA Today. "There obviously comes a point where you've probably gone too far, where you just have to move on. He hopes I make the right decision for myself, one way or the other."

The Vikings will hold their first practice in Mankato on July 30. No one has expected Favre – healthy or not – to be at camp while the Vikings are in Southern Minnesota (they break camp on Aug. 12), but Favre made it clear to USA Today that he would like to play a 20th NFL season if the ankle gets better.

"After almost nine weeks, it's not where I would like it to be, but I'm working at it," said Favre, who had arthroscopic surgery in late May. "Maybe it never gets to where I want it to be. Forty years old... three surgeries... that's all you need to know."

This isn't like last offseason, when Favre was dealing with the effects of having surgery on a torn biceps in his throwing arm. In fact, Favre informed Childress in late July 2009 that he would not play but changed his mind on Aug. 18.

That worked out pretty well, as the Vikings went 12-4, won the NFC North and advanced to the conference championship game. Favre had one of the best seasons of his career, throwing 33 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions.

It wouldn't be surprising if a similar scenario played out this year. Childress has made it clear all offseason that there is a different set of rules for Favre.

All the Vikings really want is for Favre to be ready by the Sept. 9 regular-season opener in New Orleans.

Favre, meanwhile, figures to continue throwing to receivers at Oak Grove High School in order to get his arm into shape and also test his ankle.

Meanwhile, the wait will continue.

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