Contract talks to heat up soon
Although the negotiating season is just beginning, the focus soon will be on the Lions' talks with wide receiver Charles Rogers, the No. 2 pick in the draft. The player drafted ahead of Rogers -- quarterback Carson Palmer of Cincinnati -- agreed to terms before the NFL draft in April, so that puts Rogers next in line for a deal. Rogers is represented by Kevin Poston of suburban Detroit, a factor viewed by some -- but apparently not the Lions -- as a red flag issue at the time of the draft. Rogers has expressed an interest in being signed in time for the start of camp, Poston has indicated he expects to have a deal in place by that time and Lions vice-president Tom Lewand is quick to point out the team has not had a rookie holdout since 1997. Last year's No. 2 pick in the draft -- defensive end Julius Peppers -- signed a seven-year, $46 million contract that included a $9.1 million signing bonus. With the Lions' $5.5 million rookie pool for 2003, it is a foregone conclusion that Poston will be seeking a deal worth considerably more than Peppers got from the Carolina Panthers.
NFL Europe standout signed
DT Toby Golliday, who played for F.C. Barcelona in NFL Europe this spring, has been signed. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Fifth-round pick signs
Terrence Holt, a safety from North Carolina, became the first Lions draft pick to get his contract signed for the 2003 NFL season. Holt, the younger brother of St. Louis receiver Torry Holt was drafted in the fifth round, signed a three-year contract but details were not immediately known. Holt is an interesting prospect for the Lions, although they are not expecting him to step into a starting role in their defensive secondary. He lasted longer in coach Steve Mariucci's "beep test" -- an endurance test -- than any other player on the team in minicamp and has shown an eagerness to prove he can play in the NFL. "There's a lot to learn yet," Lions president Matt Millen said, referring to Holt. "He's smart enough. You have to be smart back there because you're going to have to run a lot of the defense. You have to have some man cover skills, which is where I'd like to see him get a little better. But he does have feel in space and he can get to spots. Those are all good things."
At 6-feet-2 and 208 pounds, Holt has the size to become a force at one of the safety positions and had moments when he flashed in minicamp, despite having only average speed. On one particular day, he caught a Lions rookie tight end from behind and a couple of plays later got in position to knock down a pass intended for veteran wide receiver Bill Schroeder. Millen is waiting to see what happens when the hitting starts in training camp.
"I'm anxious to watch him with pads on," Millen said. "His movement skills are good enough. I mean they're not great but I want to see him when he hits."
Education continues for Rogers
The development -- and education -- of rookie wide receiver Charles Rogers is going to be an interesting angle in the Lions' 2003 NFL season. Team president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci launched the process even before they took the Michigan State wide receiver with the No. 2 pick in the draft last April.
They brought Rogers in for a workout at their Allen Park practice facility and liked what they saw in talent, skills and confidence. They nudged him a little farther along during the post-draft minicamps. But the biggest steps in the process will come in training camp, the exhibition season and -- finally -- the NFL regular season.
The Lions obviously expect big things from Rogers, but Millen seems set on not overburdening the promising young receiver by demanding too much, too soon. He has made it clear from the start that very, very few players make the transition from college starter to NFL Pro Bowler in one season.
"He needs a lot of work, but he pays attention and he keeps his head in things," Millen said recently. "He needs to keep on lifting, he needs to get a little bit bigger but you saw some of the things he can do. He'll be fine. When I said he's going to have his tough times early, he's going to. That's just the way it is. Plus, it's going to be an adjustment but he's football smart. He'll figure it out."
The regulars at the Lions minicamps -- the reporters and observers who were there every day -- got a pretty good glimpse of Rogers in the figuring-out-phase earlier this spring. Sources say when Rogers went through his pre-draft private workout with the Lions he had a good workout and his confidence was showing. He was still feeling good about himself when he came in for the start of minicamp after the draft but was justifiably reserved.
As one source put it: "His eyes were real big." A couple of acrobatic catches over veteran cornerback Dre' Bly gave him another boost in confidence, but Rogers came back to earth in a hurry when one of the Lions young cornerbacks drilled him squarely in the chest as he tried to get off the line of scrimmage. Although Rogers played it off as no big deal, the play apparently made a big impression on him. He was a little more reserved for the remaining days of the minicamp, as some of the scouting reports had indicated he would be at various times.
The feeling is that Rogers went into his learning mode -- stepping back slightly to figure out the speed, the intensity and the way the game is played in the NFL. He still has a couple of weeks to mull it over before he and the rest of the Lions report for the start of training camp later this month. The guess among the Lions insiders is that he'll have a better understanding when he goes to work. And, eventually, he'll be everything the Lions expect of him -- one of the best receivers in the NFL.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
So far, so good
Linebacker Hannibal Navies, who signed in March as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina, looked good in the minicamps. The question is, can he stay healthy? In four seasons with the Panthers he missed 25 of 64 games with an assortment of injuries and registered only two sacks and one interception. The Packers are planning to start him on the strong side. "He has really good movement skills for a guy that size (6-3, 247)," new linebackers coach Mark Duffner said. "He can cover the tight end. He can twist and bend. He has some explosiveness coming off the edge as a rusher. I like his athleticism."
Not much hope for former Duck
Signed last month to a bargain-basement contract one year in length, QB Akili Smith has little chance to succeed in Green Bay. He's a player who requires an enormous number of repetitions anyway, and the fact that he joined the Packers after their three-month offseason program and is coming into an entirely different offensive system makes failure almost a given.
Barring injury, the quarterback situation in Green Bay probably shakes down this way. Craig Nall gets every opportunity to assume the No. 2 job from Doug Pederson. If Nall wins it and engenders widespread confidence among the coaches in doing so, then Smith would have a chance to stick with an impressive training camp. Coach Mike Sherman still might want Pederson as No. 3 to serve as a security blanket. However, if Smith offers long-range potential as the eventual successor to Brett Favre, Pederson easily could go and Smith might stay. Eric Crouch is just too short and raw to be much of a factor. Smith, who will be 28 in August and was part of the quarterback draft class of 1999 that was heralded as the best since 1983. Tim Couch went first to Cleveland, Donovan McNabb went second to Philadelphia, Smith went third to Cincinnati, Daunte Culpepper went 11th to Minnesota and Cade McNown went 12th to Chicago. McNabb and Culpepper rank among the top 10 quarterbacks in the business, Couch has been so-so and McNown and Smith have been busts. The third-best quarterback in that draft, Aaron Brooks, was taken in the fourth round by Green Bay.
Last month, a personnel director for an NFL team was asked if Smith could ever be developed. "You can't say he can't because he's got athletic ability," the scout said. "Sometimes the maturation process is longer for some guys than others. Maybe the change in scenery will help. Maybe being around a guy like Favre will help him. Maybe getting away from that organization will help."
Why was Smith so horrendous in Cincinnati? "I don't think he has any understanding what's going on," the scout said. "Every time he got to play he just got overwhelmed. He's a good athlete but he's not very well prepared and he's not very smart. He may be worse than that (15 test score). He plays dumb and I don't think he spends a lot of time at it.
"He's an athlete but he doesn't make much as a runner. And I really don't know how tough a guy he is, to be honest with you."
The personnel man said he was told by Bengals officials over the years just how eager they were to wash their hands of Smith. "Every (year) he thought he should be the starter going in," the scout said. "He tried to rally the players against whoever else was the starter. They didn't see any way they could get it done with him."
Clearly, Smith had worn out his welcome in Cincinnati. Following his release, 86.8% of respondents in a Cincinnati Enquirer poll said they approved of the Bengals' decision. For his part, Smith blamed the sad-sack Bengals for his failure, describing his four years as "hell for everybody. I'm kind of baffled that they drafted me. Ten games into my second season they benched me, and it was over after that."
In 22 games, including 17 starts, Smith completed 215 of 461 passes (46.6%) for 2,212 yards, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His passer rating was a minuscule 52.8. His record as a starter was 3-14.
Suspended four games
Packers LB Torrance Marshall has been suspended for the first four games of next season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He won't be eligible to play in a regular season game until Oct. 5 vs. Seattle.
Signs three-year contract
CB Chris Johnson, who was labeled the fastest player in the draft after posting a 4.23-second time in the 40-yard dash at the pre-draft workout, has signed a three-year deal. The seventh-round pick is the fourth Packers draft choice to sign.
German-native gets shot
WR JJorg Heckenbach, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and an NFL Europe veteran, has been signed by the Packers. In seven NFL Europe seasons, Heckenbach has 65 receptions for 759 yards and five TDs.
Already, circumstances are different.
Think back to a year ago. First-round draft pick Bryant McKinnie showed up for mini-camps talking large but looking larger. He spent a good bit of time after practices hearing criticism about his lack of shape, then running extra laps in an attempt to change that.
Now, nobody's saying that situation affected negotiations between the two sides, one that turned into the longest holdout of the season in the NFL. A holdout that created all sorts of acrimony between the two sides and wiped out the majority of the season for McKinnie, who stepped into the starting lineup -- and played well -- at left tackle two weeks after finally signing his deal.
Still, this year is different. This time the Vikings first-round draft choice, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, came to mini-camp in prime shape. And while there is a limit to what you can discover about a guy when the practices are sans pads, Williams made enough of an impression -- both with his quickness and his work ethic -- that coach Mike Tice is said to be intent on not allowing another holdout this year.
Of course, that's not all up to him. It's up to owner Red McCombs, who will sign the checks, to director of football operations Rob Brzezinski, who will negotiate for the Vikings, and William's agent, Tom Condon.
Getting a deal done won't be easy. Condon is a tough negotiator. And then there is the matter of which slot, money-wise, Williams will be fit into.
You remember the routine. The Vikings allowed the clock to expire on their No. 7 pick, allowing two teams to jump in front of them before finally taking Williams at No. 9. Now, the Vikings said Williams was their guy all along, that they were only trying to trade down to 10 to get both Williams and a couple draft picks.
So where does he get paid? At No. 7, where the Vikings were slotted to pick, or at No. 9, where he actually was picked? Condon didn't waste much time coming out and saying he intended to try to get Williams no. 7 money -- even though the actual No. 7 pick, Byron Leftwich, is his client as well.
This process will not be easy, but look for it to get done. Insiders are saying there is a good chance the two sides will end up compromising at money commensurate with the No. 8 pick overall. In any event, Tice has made it clear that his team cannot come out of the gate strong with another key player holding out; last year's stumble out of the gate, which was made worse by injuries along the offensive line, doomed Tice's first season as head coach.
Negotiations should begin in earnest shortly after the Vikings front office staff returns from vacation following the July 4 holiday.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
It's not much, but it will help in the short term. A new circular scoreboard will be installed at each end of the Metrodome in time for the season opener, one that will allow the Vikings to be allowed to sell advertising on the boards to increase their revenue on game days.
Meanwhile, owner Red McCombs was definitely among the group of owners that applauded the Chicago Bears for their recent decision to make Bank One their "presenting partner." It would not be out of the question to see something like that happen in Minnesota sooner than later.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I love it. I definitely love it. The off-season moves they made make the team better. Our team defensive goal is to be in the top 10 in defense." -- Vikings linebacker Chris Claiborne.