NFC North News

The Lions are depending on their rookie class for a turnaround season, while the Packers continue to deal with a malcontent.

Detroit Lions: Inside Slant
The only place you'll find continuity - if you've been searching in the Allen Park, Mich., area - is in the Merriam-Webster dictionary; it hasn't been anywhere to be found in the Detroit Lions organization for most of the past three years.

That could all be changing, however, in the second year under coach Steve Mariucci.

Although Mariucci and president Matt Millen combined to put a new face on the team with the signing of several quality free agents and Mariucci made a six-man turnover in his coaching staff, the winds of change are definitely subsiding in the Lions country.

What Mariucci and Millen are looking for now - aside from the usual influx of draft picks - is a sense of routine and continuity. And it seems to be right around the corner.

Lions players now have a better sense of what to expect from Mariucci - whether it is in meetings, in the offseason workout program and mini-camps, or the regular season.

"From that standpoint, there is continuity from one year to the next in your procedure, in how you do things," Mariucci said. "Yes, that's good. We have six new coaches but it takes a couple years to put a staff together. You can't get it all done in one year. It takes two, three years to get guys you need because of contracts and that sort of thing.

"We're starting to get a routine here, which is very necessary. Sometimes change is good, sometimes change can set you back. But whatever it is, we need to have some continuity here - with personnel, with systems, with how we do things and who's doing it."

Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes
-- Although the Lions' rookies undoubtedly will be stuck with traditional rookie responsibilities like carrying the veterans' equipment off the field at the end of practice and buying the donuts for the Saturday morning practices, they won't have to worry about the degrading part of the old-time hazing process.

Coach Steve Mariucci says he doesn't believe in it.

"We don't do all the rookie hazing, all that singing and all that baloney," he said. "I want them to blend in fast and not worry about all the other stuff."

It will be important that the rookies not only blend in quickly but become productive quickly also, if the Lions hope to improve on last year's 5-11 record.

Wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Kevin Jones are expected to make major contributions (probably as starters) and it appears likely Teddy Lehman will get playing time at linebacker as well as special teams.

Linebacker Alex Lewis also appears to be headed for significant special teams work. Cornerback Keith Smith and tackle Kelly Butler might require time to develop, although Smith's speed might get him a shot at playing special teams.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"Rookies and freshmen have and always will drive me crazy. But it's a double-edged sword because I love coaching them and I love bringing them along." -- Coach Steve Mariucci talking about the arrival of the Lions rookies to join the veterans in the offseason workout program.

Strategy and Personnel
The Lions reportedly have had talks with free agent tight end Stephen Alexander of San Diego, but a deal apparently has not yet been reached.

The Lions have three veteran tight ends on the roster - Mikhael Ricks, Casey Fitzsimmons and John Owens. There was speculation they might take Kellen Winslow Jr. in the draft to beef up the position. That didn't happen but team president Matt Millen is still interested in improving the depth there.

Green Bay Packers: Inside Slant
A year-long quest by Packers wide receivers coach Ray Sherman to have the death of his son ruled accidental ended with tears of joy Thursday in a Brown County courtroom.

Brown County (Green Bay) Judge Richard Dietz decided the 14-year-old boy's death should be certified as an accident. The new death certificate will bear Dietz's signature.

Ray Sherman Jr., 14, died May 18, 2003 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in the garage of the family's home in Green Bay. The manner of death initially was ruled a suicide, but later the manner of death was ruled undetermined.

The Sherman family filed a lawsuit in Brown County challenging the decisions. After two days of testimony from family, friends and three expert witnesses, Dietz made his decision.

"The only reasonable conclusion with respect to the manner of death of Raymond Glenn Sherman is that the death was the result of an accident," Dietz said.

"This is bittersweet for us," Ray Sherman said. "From a young age, for our son, we taught him how to fight for what you believe in. And as a family, we knew from the beginning that this was an accident.

"When you lose a loved one, when you lose your son, it's very difficult, but we know as a family we have to continue on because that's what he would have wanted us to do."

In remarks made after the decision by Dietz, Interim Brown County Medical Examiner Al Klimek wasn't swayed.

"Today, Judge Dietz sided with the family, their attorney and various compensated expert witnesses, amending the manner of death ruling to accidental," Klimek said. "Today, Ray's death was placed into a statistical category that is thought of as unintentional, less accountable. I cannot place it in that category."

Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes
--Unhappy cornerback Mike McKenzie has a big-time agent now but his message to the Packers remains the same: Trade me.

Miami-based Drew Rosenhaus became McKenzie's fifth agent in five years earlier this week. McKenzie fired Brian Parker earlier in the month.

McKenzie wants out of Green Bay. The Packers gave Rosenhaus, as they did Parker, permission to find a new home for his client.

"I'll probably be trying to find compensation for the Packers along the lines of a first-round draft choice or a comparable player," Rosenhaus said. "I'll be working on this immediately."

--Torrance Marshall is going through a divorce, was 10 pounds over his playing weight of 255 at mini-camp and might be hard-pressed to make the team for a fourth season.

Another overweight linebacker by about 10 pounds at minicamp was Armegis Spearman, the former Bengal who worked in the middle and weak side. He was 258.

In contrast, Marcus Wilkins, Nick Barnett and Hannibal Navies were praised for their off-season work.

Wilkins has seven percent body fat, weighed 235 and worked extensively on the strong side for the first time.

Barnett weighed in at 232, seven more than he weighed at several points last season. Linebackers coach Mark Duffner used to think Barnett needed more bulk but now considers 230 to be adequate for him.

"You need runners," Duffner said.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"I interviewed Ahmad personally at the combine. You try to cut through the BS. There's a lot of BS at the combine with the different players who had been coached up. This kid didn't have any BS to him. He was very straightforward with his answers, looked you straight in the eye. He was very confident and beyond his years." - Coach Mike Sherman on top pick CB Ahmad Carroll.

Strategy and Personnel
The Packers continue to talk to the agent for quarterback Tim Couch. However, they are reluctant to trade anything more than a fifth-round draft pick to the Browns for Couch.

It appeared that the Browns would just cut Couch for salary-cap reasons after June 1. Now, however, there are indications that the Browns might retain Couch until they determine if Kelly Holcomb's shoulder is sound. Holcomb figures as the backup to Jeff Garcia.

Minnesota Vikings: Inside Slant
With a new defensive coordinator, young players and other new faces, the Vikings consider their June developmental camp as a key steppingstone toward a successful season.

"We have young players, and we have to make sure that they understand the sense of urgency when they come into the National Football League," coach Mike Tice said. "I think our first- and second-year players understand that because of the season we had last year, with the great start (6-0) and kind of rocky middle and then the tough, tough end (9-7).

"But the biggest challenge we'll have as coaches is just keeping the young guys growing mentally and obviously physically as professional players."

Four first- and second-year players will start in the front seven on defense under new coordinator Ted Cottrell. Rookie right end Kenechi Udeze and second-year defensive tackle Kevin Williams are on the line. Second-year middle linebacker E.J. Henderson will start alongside either second-year pro Mike Nattiel or rookie Dontarrious Thomas at weak-side linebacker.

Cottrell also has to incorporate a new starting left cornerback, Antoine Winfield. The Vikings also will give disappointing third-year pro Willie Offord another crack at unseating starting free safety Brian Russell.

Offensively, the Vikings' third receiver is second-year pro Nate Burleson, who showed promise last season, but not enough to keep the Vikings from acquiring free agent Marcus Robinson as their new No. 2 receiver.

Another new face on that side of the ball is No. 2 tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who will be a big part of the passing game.

On special teams, kicker Aaron Elling enters his second season needing to prove himself. The Vikings lost confidence in him last season and it cost them points in critical situations.

The Vikings made progress during a developmental camp and a mini-camp earlier this month. They'll increase the intensity next month.

"I'm very proud of where everybody's at right now," Tice said. "We're going to be really good. I can see it already; we're going to be really good."

Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes
--WR Randy Moss said he was unaffected by the offseason rumors that he might be traded. "I'm a football player," he said. "I love to play football. I love this game. Wherever I play at and whatever helmet I put on I'm going to play. So it doesn't matter if I'm a Viking or if I'm a Cincinnati Bengal. It doesn't matter to me. I love playing here and I love coming to work each morning."

--The Vikings' media relations department probably should have tweaked its interview lineup on the first day of mini-camp. Coach Mike Tice went first. At 6-8, Tice had the media microphones pulled up high. Next up was Antoine Winfield. The 5-9 cornerback couldn't even see over the microphones. Eventually, a reporter asked Winfield, "So what is your real height?" Winfield smiled and said, "5-9. I just got measured yesterday, so I'm 5-9."

QUOTE TO NOTE
"I gave McKinnie a hug when I first saw him because he was the biggest guy I have ever seen." -- First-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze, a 6-3, 281-pound defensive end, referring to Bryant McKinnie, a 6-8, 346-pound left tackle.

Strategy and Personnel
Drafting Nat Dorsey in the fourth round last month has enabled the Vikings to make several changes in the practice schedules of their backup offensive linemen.

Dorsey, a 6-7, 322-pounder from Georgia Tech, is a legitimate backup left tackle, something the Vikings haven't had in a few seasons. His presence behind starter Bryant McKinnie allows Adam Haayer and Adam Goldberg to work as backups at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Haayer and Goldberg were practice squad players who backed up McKinnie last season.

Lewis Kelly, an emergency backup at left tackle last season, also has had more time to work at center and both guard positions. Kelly didn't work at center last season.


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