NFC North News

While Green Bay is struggling with a former free agent acquisition, the rest of the division has been busy this off-season adding talent on the open market.

The Lions have taken three significant steps forward with the signing of guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant and wide receiver Tai Streets, but the free agent season has not been a clean sweep for them.

As they have added players to the top or middle of their talent pool, they have seen erosion at the lower levels.

Most damaging was the loss of outside linebacker Barrett Green to the New York Giants. Although he wasn't a Pro Bowl player, Green was feisty, ran well and could be a factor in the defense when he was healthy.

The Lions can take a chance on starting James Davis, a 2004 rookie who got limited playing time and needs additional time to adjust to the NFL -- they can go back into free agency for a replacement or they'll have to draft a linebacker.

The loss of linebacker Jeff Gooch to Tampa Bay also poses something of a problem. Although he was not a starter, he was a capable backup and one of the best coverage players on Chuck Priefer's special teams.

Last -- but not necessarily least -- on the list is the loss of offensive lineman Eric Beverly. The Lions didn't want him back in a starting capacity but he would have been extremely valuable in a backup role because he had experience at both center and guard. If all else failed, he could have started at right guard, across from Woody at left guard.

With Beverly gone to Atlanta, the Lions are faced with the need for landing at least a journeyman guard in free agency, drafting a starting-caliber guard or playing with an undistinguished backup from last year's team.

Individually, the moves are not devastating. Add them up, however, and they create unwanted concerns for a 5-11 team that can't afford to lose even its mid-range players.

Defensive end Joe Johnson, likely on his way out as a Green Bay Packer, has been charged with contempt of court after failing to appear at a Georgia hearing this week to face marijuana possession charges.

Johnson arrived a couple of hours late for the hearing. He told the court that his father died last week and that he attended the memorial services in Cleveland on Saturday and would attend the burial Tuesday in St. Louis. Johnson neglected to notify his attorney of the circumstances until Monday.

"Apparently this is not very important to Mr. Johnson," judge Larry Mims said Monday morning. "We can't allow him to just come when he feels like it."

After Johnson was arrested on a bench warrant Monday afternoon, he had a hearing with Judge Mims and agreed to pay double his original bond of $1,625, plus a $125 bench warrant fee, a total of $3,375 to keep from being held in jail.

Another hearing date will be scheduled.

Johnson was arrested on May 22, 2003 after Tift County sheriff's deputies found a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in his car after stopping to see why his car was sitting in the turn lane with its hazard lights flashing.

The Packers are expected to cut Johnson, who turns 32 on July 11, this off-season. If he is released before June 1, his entire $4.3 million in remaining signing bonus would come due and the team would only gain about $750,000 in cap room. If the Packers wait until after June 1, then about $1 million of his bonuses would count against the cap this year and the rest would be put off until 2005. In that scenario, the team would pick up about $4 million in cap space in 2004, but $3.25 million would count against their 2005 cap.

The Packers may be better off re-signing Johnson at the veteran's minimum salary of $760,000.

Johnson has missed 21 of 32 regular season games since the Packers lured him from New Orleans in 2002 with a $6.5 million signing bonus as part of a $33 million contract. He suffered a torn triceps in his first season in Green Bay, then was sidelined last year with a tear in his right quadriceps tendon during the first quarter of Green Bay's overtime loss to Kansas City on Oct. 12.

--The free-agent signing frenzy that took the NFL by storm in the first two weeks of March barely raised a murmur in the NFL's smallest city.

The Packers entered the weekend with $2.76 million of room beneath the cap. At the start of business Thursday, a total of 22 teams had more cap room and nine had less.

Although close to 80 free agents have found new teams during the first 10 days of the signing period, the Packers haven't signed anyone. The Packers are negotiating with Cincinnati safety Mark Roman, but that's as close as they've come to adding a player.

"We're fortunate to have our entire starting lineup under contract from last season," vice president Andrew Brandt said. "Any moves we make will be supplemental moves. Our big splash was Chad Clifton."

Clifton, their franchise left tackle, signed a six-year, $32.35 million deal the night of March 2.

The Packers tried the big-money signing in March 2002 but defensive end Joe Johnson ($6.5 million signing bonus) blew up in their face. Now they're following a similar path as in 2003, when they signed fullback Nick Luchey on March 9, Navies on March 19 and two players, center-guard Grey Ruegamer and defensive end Chukie Nwokorie, on April 8.

The combined signing bonuses allocated to those four "second-tier" unrestricted players was $2.375 million. All four made the team.

"We're trying to be prudent if possible, aggressive if need be," Brandt said. "But also realize this is a long off-season.

"Sometimes the free-agent market is, quote-unquote, sexier if you sign other teams' free agents. Our standard has been more signing our own free agents. You try to create the best team for the present and be mindful of the future."

Cornerback Denard Walker had his feelings hurt when the Vikings signed Antoine Winfield last week and immediately named him their starting left cornerback.

Walker's agent, John Hamilton, went public with Walker's unhappiness, saying it was "time Denard and the Vikings go their separate ways." Hamilton said the same thing to Vikings Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski during a phone call the next day.

The Vikings weren't thrilled. They told Hamilton Walker is still under contract for three seasons and would not be released any time soon. But the team also has let it be known Walker could be had by another team for a late-round draft pick.

--Don't rule out the possibility Vikings unrestricted free agent center Cory Withrow will return to the Vikings. He isn't getting much interest in free agency. He was scheduled to visit the Giants this week, but the Giants backed off after signing Shaun O'Hara. Withrow wants to go to a team that will provide more playing opportunities. He gets nothing but end-of-game kneel-downs playing behind Pro Bowl player Matt Birk.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Having him on the No. 1 offense in the NFL [in 2003] gives us an opportunity to really stretch the field and take pressure off of Randy [Moss]." -- Vikings coach Mike Tice, speaking about receiver Marcus Robinson, the former Ravens receiver who was signed as a free agent March 8.

The following is a compilation from the Insiders network.

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