NFC North News

Coaching staffs are being rearranged, while other clubs are looking toward the draft and free agency.

Three weeks into the off-season, the metamorphosis of the Detroit Lions coaching staff has hit high gear.

Coach by coach, the staff of assistants is taking on a Steve Mariucci look and personality.

As is frequently the case with NFL coaches when they move from one job to another, Mariucci is gradually loading up his staff with coaches he knows and obviously feels comfortable with.

He started with offensive line coach Pat Morris, who worked with him at Southern Cal and for him in San Francisco.

Next came offensive assistant Greg Olson, who worked with Mariucci for a year as the quarterbacks coach in San Francisco and is likely to end up with similar responsibilities when everything shakes out in Detroit.

And, most recently, Mariucci landed former Chicago coach Dick Jauron, who surprised some observers by taking the Lions defensive coordinator job over an assistant head coach position with the New York Giants and a coordinator job in St. Louis.

The Jauron hiring was probably the most significant because the Lions defensive personnel is presently ahead of the offense in terms of development and anticipates payoff in the 2004 season.

Jauron and Mariucci worked together for three years in the early 1990s under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and have remained close -- personally and professionally -- in the years since then, an obvious factor in Jauron's decision to accept the job with the Lions over a job with other higher-profile teams in the NFL.

Mariucci has remained strictly incommunicado since hiring Morris but it is obvious he felt a need -- in light of the Lions struggles on their way to a 5-11 season -- to rebuild his coaching staff with coaches he knows and trusts.

It remains to be seen how much benefit the Lions can reap from the staff shakeup, but if team president Matt Millen can add a few more quality defenders along the lines of those he landed last season -- Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, linebacker Earl Holmes and rookies linebacker Boss Bailey and safety Terrence Holt -- the Lions have a chance to become at least a little more competitive in 2004.

In Jauron's only other stint as a defensive coordinator, he worked under Tom Coughlin to turn the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars into an instant contender. He is low key and has always been a popular coach with his players, a trait very similar to Mariucci.

Just one year after an onslaught of injuries decimated the unit, the Packers' starting offensive line gobbled up a phenomenal 98.4% of the available snaps.

Kevin Barry played 65 snaps at right tackle, mostly in the first three games when right guard Marco Rivera needed a break because of a sprained knee and right guard Mark Tauscher then moved inside.

Grey Ruegamer played a total of 26 snaps at center and guard late in the season after Mike Wahle broke his hand and the Oakland and Denver games turned into blowouts.

Guard-tackle Marcus Spriggs and tackle Brennan Curtin never get off the bench.

Of the 5,675 plays available for offensive linemen this season in 18 games, the starters took 5,584.

"We had great continuity," said Larry Beightol, the offensive line coach who completed his fifth season coaching Rivera, Wahle and center Mike Flanagan. "Everybody answered the bell."

According to Beightol, the most effective player for the second year in a row was Rivera.

"Marco had an outstanding year but the whole offensive line had a superior year," he said. "They're better as a group than they are individually, which is what the game is all about, anyway."

The Packers allowed just 20 sacks, including 19 in the regular season. That broke the club mark for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season.

The offensive line was responsible for just five of the 20 sacks. Flanagan didn't allow any, Rivera gave up 1/2 sack and Chad Clifton, Tauscher and Wahle each yielded 1 1/2.

Brett Favre was responsible for 10 1/2 sacks.

Coaching News
After firing defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who quickly was hired for the same job with the Falcons, coach Mike Sherman promoted secondary coach Bob Slowik to be the new defensive coordinator. Sherman also hired Kurt Schottenheimer as defensive backs coach. Schottenheimer was Detroit's defensive coordinator last season, but was replaced by Dick Jauron. Former Cardinals assistant Johnny Roland will coach the running backs following the departure of Sylvester Croom to be the head coach at Ole Miss.

Coach Mike Tice wanted to hire former New York Jets assistant coach and former NFL player Bill Bradley as a general defensive assistant.

"There's a 98 percent chance," Tice said.

Bradley worked with former Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell as a defensive backs coach for six seasons. Cottrell was fired after the 2003 season and hired by Tice earlier this month to replace George O'Leary, who left to become head coach at the University of Central Florida.

The Vikings are set with defensive backs assistants Chuck Knox Jr. and Kevin Ross. But Cottrell wants to add Bradley in some capacity. However, Bradley declined the opportunity and has aid he won't coach this year.

The Vikings would love to sign Ray Lewis, but they'll have to settle for hiring Lewis' former personal trainer, Kurtis Shultz. Shultz was hired Tuesday as strength and conditioning coach, replacing Steve Wetzel, who left to join former Vikings coach Dennis Green in Arizona.

Shultz was one of five people interviewed by coach Mike Tice. Shultz was Cincinnati's assistant strength and conditioning coach.

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Mike Tice, his coaching staff and members of the personnel department and scouting were in Mobile, Ala., recently with the other NFL teams getting ready for this year's draft by watching practice and interviewing players during the week leading up to the Senior Bowl.

"This is an important time," Tice said. "It's all about scouting right now."

While the Vikings could use a No. 2 receiver, a blue chip guard or tackle and a tight end if -- probably when -- Jim Kleinsasser leaves via free agency, Tice knows the team's No. 1 priority is defense.

The offense is good enough to get to the Super Bowl. The defense is improving, but needs, in order: a dominant defensive end, a playmaking outside linebacker or shutdown cornerback, and a Ted Washington-sized nose tackle.

After years of neglect under former coach Denny Green, the defense got a couple of nice jolts of young, talented blue-chippers from the top two rounds of the 2003 draft.

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, chosen ninth overall, led the team with 10.5 sacks and will be a Pro Bowl player and potential all-pro very soon. Linebacker E.J. Henderson, the Butkus Award winner in 2002, made great strides during the 2003 season and is poised to replace Greg Biekert in the middle full-time.

Henderson, who can make plays Biekert can only dream of, and Williams give the Vikings two playmakers in the middle of the defense. Cornerback Brian Williams is on the brink of a Pro Bowl, while strong safety Corey Chavous made it for the first time this season.

Now, it's time to address the edges of the front seven. Chuck Wiley at right defensive end simply won't cut it for a team that wants to play in a Super Bowl.

The Vikings should either spend the money to get a great defensive end in free agency (can you say Jevon Kearse?), take one with the 19th pick if one is left, or trade up to get one.

The Vikings have no excuses. They will have about $22 million to spend under the salary cap. Owner Red McCombs doesn't like to throw big money around in free agency, but he should this offseason because, thanks to last year's drafting, the Vikings need fewer defensive pieces to challenge for a Super Bowl.

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