NFC North News

The draft is just over a week away, while the majority of teams are focussed solely on that another is looking to shed dead weight.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers' corps of defensive ends is expected to be two names shorter by the start of training camp with the release of Joe Johnson and Jamal Reynolds.

That leaves Green Bay with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila at elephant end and Aaron Kampman at power end. The only backup of any merit is Chukie Nwokorie.

The Packers would like to add at least two ends. One undoubtedly will come via the draft. The other could come via restricted free agency.

St. Louis end Bryce Fisher, a restricted free agent, visited Green Bay but the Packers still were uncertain if they were going to submit an offer sheet. Deadline for making a move on restricted free agents is April 16.

"They're definitely very interested," agent Peter Schaffer said. "He had a great visit. He doesn't have any bad feelings for the Rams. It's two great organizations. It's always nice to be wanted."

The Rams could be expected to do everything in their power to match an offer for Fisher. However, the Rams are relatively tight against the cap and might deem it financially imprudent to match if the offer is steeply front-loaded.

If the Rams don't match, the Packers would owe them a seventh-round draft choice. They have two picks in the seventh, including a compensatory selection.

Fisher, 6-3 and 268, has adequate pass-rush ability and could play both end spots in the Packers' scheme. The Packers would like to reduce "KGB"'s workload this season.

Fisher played in 16 games last year behind Leonard Little and Grant Wistrom and had 47 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one pass defensed. He was drafted in the seventh round by Buffalo in 1999 but spent his first two seasons on reserve to fulfill a two-year service obligation in the Air Force. He played at the Air Force Academy.

News & Notes
--The Packers wanted to sign Tennessee's Billy Volek to be their backup quarterback behind Brett Favre but in the end he opted to re-sign with the Titans.

Now the Packers have been pursuing Tim Couch, who is on the way out in Cleveland.

Andrew Kessler, an associate of Couch's agent, Tom Condon, said length of contract remains an issue because Couch, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, doesn't want to be a backup for very long.

"It's not all about money," Kessler said. "Green Bay is attractive for a variety of reasons. Tim wants a good situation. But Brett could play four more years. Tim doesn't want to give away four years. One or two is a different story. Those things have to be considered."

--Eric Crouch was in camp for three days last summer as a quarterback before announcing his retirement.

Now Crouch wants to play again and the Packers have taken him off their reserve/retired list.

"We'll play him at safety and try him at punts (returns)," Sherman said. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. He is athletic. He was confused: Was he a quarterback? Was he not a quarterback? Now he's a safety."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Linebacker Chris Claiborne, who wasn't known as the hardest offseason worker when he was with the Lions, is participating in the Vikings' offseason strength and conditioning program.

That's an important step in the eyes of coach Mike Tice.

Although Claiborne was in better shape in his first season with the Vikings in 2003 than he was at any point in Detroit, Tice and the Vikings still worry about Claiborne's conditioning.

Claiborne isn't chiseled, and never will be. But he's beginning to realize he won't be in his mid-20s forever. In other words, he understands he needs help from new strength and conditioning coach Kurtis Shultz if he wants to stay healthy and in the league long-term.

Claiborne played as long as he could with ankle and shoulder injuries in 2003. He was forced to the sideline down the stretch and had offseason surgeries. The Vikings' defense suffered without him.

When he was healthy, Claiborne was a playmaker. The Vikings think he can return to that form, and are banking on him as their strong-side linebacker.

The team needs a new weak-side linebacker because it isn't thrilled with Henri Crockett. If one can't be found, it's possible Claiborne will have to play there.

But that's OK. Claiborne has played all three linebacker positions in his five seasons, so versatility is one of his strengths.

A buff body isn't one of his strengths, but at least he's working it.

News & Notes
--While so many teams are looking to move up in this year's draft, the Vikings once again are talking about moving down so they can capture more picks in the top three or four rounds.

"We like this draft," coach Mike Tice said. "It's talented and deep at a lot of positions."

The Vikings have tried unsuccessfully to trade down in their first two drafts with Tice as the head coach. Both times, they've run out of time and been passed over by teams behind them.

--Look for the Vikings to stretch the field this season even more than they have in recent seasons.

WR Marcus Robinson, signed as a free agent from Baltimore, isn't known for running precise routes. He loves to run deep routes, and will be given that opportunity as the Vikings' new No. 2 receiver.

Randy Moss is the best deep route-runner in the league, and Kelly Campbell is one of the fastest receivers in the league. Of the top four receivers on the team, Nate Burleson is the only one who doesn't excel at catching the deep ball.

QB Daunte Culpepper loves throwing the deep ball, and should get plenty of opportunities to do so in 2004.

DETROIT LIONS
What was the old Vince Lombardi line? Winning's not the best thing, it's the only thing.

With apologies to Vince, it was something like that.

Except when it applies to the Lions in the past three years when winning wasn't the only thing. To coach Steve Mariucci, who suffered through a 5-11 season in his first year with the Lions, it was the exception to the rule. And it made him appreciate victories.

"To me, winning is only a relief," Mariucci said. "That's all it is. It's like you dodged a bullet.

"You should be able to celebrate and enjoy it a little bit more than you do, but you just don't. You (enjoy it) in the locker room, you (enjoy it) on the ride home and then as soon as you get home you start thinking about the next one. And looking for the scores and how did they do and did somebody get hurt?"

By beating St. Louis in the season finale, Mariucci avoided matching his coaching career all-time low 4-12 record (4-12 in 1999, the first of two rebuilding years at San Francisco), but he admits the first year in Detroit was difficult.

"You know what was rough," he said. "We won the first game and everybody was feeling okay. For about five minutes. And then we went on a streak and lost six in a row."

As the season progressed, the Lions lost more and more starters with season-ending injuries and never got on any kind of a roll.

"That's what was scary," Mariucci said. "The future of the season was going to be with guys that are not even on the team. You've got to call 'em up and invite 'em to play. That's so unsettling; that's where we were."

News & Notes
--If the first few days of the offseason workout program are any indication, the Lions should be far better prepared for the 2004 season than they were for the 2003 season.

Most notably, they are much better off - healthwise - than they were when they went to work in their first season under Mariucci.

"We have fewer guys this year that are nursing surgeries and injuries, and are limited in our off-season program," he said. "We had - what? - nine guys enter the season on PUP. This year we seem to be healthier in March and April."

Among the players who were limited last year but are healthy this year are wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, tight end Mikhael Ricks and defensive end Kalimba Edwards. And three of last year's injured players - wide receiver Charles Rogers, cornerbacks Chris Cash and Andre Goodman - are participating in the April workouts, although they might not be 100 percent quite yet.

--With the major portion of their free agent shopping behind them, the Lions have focused on draft preparations.

They have brought in several draft prospects - late-round prospects as well as first-day prospects - and will bring in more before the draft April 24-25.

Among the top prospects to visit the Allen Park facility are wide receiver Reggie Williams of Washington and running back Kevin Jones of Virginia Tech.

Safety Sean Taylor of Miami (Fla.) reportedly will visit the Lions, along with other candidates for the No. 6 pick in the draft, the slot the Lions earned for their 5-11 record last season.

Others included in the first wave of visitors include running back Derrick Ward of Ottawa (Kansas), tight ends Ben Troupe of Florida and Kris Wilson of Pittsburgh, wide receiver/H-back Mickey Peters of Texas Tech and long snapper Drew Caylor of Stanford.


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