NFC North News

The Packers finally landed the quarterback they've been courting the entire off-season, although it wasn't entirely on their terms.

Detroit Lions
Except for minor tweaking, Lions president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci are taking a hands-off attitude toward offseason changes in their defensive line.

The defensive ends are set: Robert Porcher is back for his 13th - and possibly final - NFL season; James Hall is safely signed to a long-term contract; Kalimba Edwards is healthy again and, as a result, expected to give the Lions a much-needed edge pass rusher.

And the Lions couldn't be happier with defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan (Big Daddy) Wilkinson - the combination they fell into almost by accident a year ago.

Playing side-by-side, Rogers and Wilkinson provide at least 700 pounds of inside run-stopping ability, a factor the Lions hope will lift them out of several years of mediocrity in that area.

Millen snapped up Wilkinson after he was cut in August by the Washington Redskins and he proved to be a key to the slight improvement in the Lions' rush defense, which has gone from 23d in the NFL in 2001 to 17th in 2002 to 15th in 2003.

Rogers might be the real key to the Lions' hopes for continued improvement in 2004.

"I'm looking forward to him taking the next step," Mariucci said. "The next level in terms of premier linemen. He's not there yet (but) he's headed there. He's a young guy, we love having him and he should have many more good football years in front of him."

Notes, quotes, anecdotes
--With the addition of several quality free agents and some top NFL draft picks, the Lions - despite their 10-38 record over the past three seasons - are getting occasional mentions as a possible NFC North contender.

It helps that the division is not particularly strong these days. The Chicago Bears are in a rebuilding mode, the Minnesota Vikings have been inconsistent despite the presence of Randy Moss, and Brett Favre isn't getting any younger.

Although some observers feel the Lions still have the look of an 8-8 team, they could conceivably be a factor in the division race if they can stay healthy and show the improvement coach Steve Mariucci hopes to see.

A competitive Lions team would be a rare treat for their long-suffering fans.

Since going 10-6 under Wayne Fontes in 1995, they have had only two winning seasons (9-7 in 1997 and again in 2000).

"I was born 10 pounds and one ounce. This is nothing new. It wasn't like one year I decided to eat my way to the big-drawers category. It's been this way all my life." - Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers on being a big (350 pounds) man in the NFL.

Green Bay Packers
The Packers selected two cornerbacks in the 2004 draft: Arkansas' Ahmad Carroll in the first round and Montana State's Joey Thomas in the third.

In the post-draft mini-camp, Carroll gave too much cushion to receivers, looked sluggish coming out of his turns and was overshadowed by Thomas.

In the June mini-camp, Carroll showed improvement and closed the gap on Thomas. He covered more closely and showed that at the very least he should be in the dime defense.

"I think he has drastically improved from the first time he got in here," director of college scouting John Dorsey said. "He's starting to get it."

Carroll, who stands 5-9 1/2, is the shortest cornerback in Green Bay since Terrell Buckley from 1992-'94.

What the Packers haven't seen from Carroll is an ability to finish plays on a consistent basis. But Dorsey figures that should come as his technique becomes refined.

"What he needs to do is gain a little confidence and be able to close at the end," Dorsey said. "Utilize his speed."

Thomas has the size (6-1, 195) that the Packers much prefer to go with good, not great speed. He had bright moments in both minicamps but still is very much a work in progress.

"Joey has to utilize those long features: the arms, the body," Dorsey said. "You can start to see him do that."

The Packers struck it rich in the first round a year ago when Nick Barnett took the middle linebacker job and ran with it. Barnett was the 29th pick. Carroll was drafted No. 25.

Will Carroll be another Barnett? Meaning, if Mike McKenzie doesn't return, is Carroll capable of starting across from Al Harris?

"We started making those assumptions when the pads went on," Dorsey said, referring to projections for Barnett. "I think you have to wait for that, too. But it's unfair to compare him (to Carroll and Thomas) because he's such a unique animal. Do they have the drive and wannabe to be like him? Yeah. But do they have his feel and instincts? Barnett had an innate feel."

Notes, quotes, anecdotes
--The Packers didn't get the length of contract they wanted but at least they did get their desired quarterback.

After a three-month flirtation former Browns starter Tim Couch signed a one-year deal rather than the two-year arrangement that the Packers preferred. He reportedly received a $625,000 signing bonus and a $625,000 base salary in 2004. The deal also contains incentives to compensate Couch if he should start for Brett Favre.

--The Packers' final mini-camp was marred by the absence of cornerback Mike McKenzie and the abbreviated appearances put in by defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt and running back Ahman Green.

Perhaps as a result, coach Mike Sherman seemed even more communicative than normal. He also was noticeably more visible in the locker room, spending plenty of time talking to veteran players.

Sherman disputed the idea that there was dissension in the ranks.

"This was a non-mandatory camp, No. 1," Sherman said. "I do tell them, 'If you're not here, I'm disappointed. I expect you to be here.'

"Is there rebellion? We've had maybe two people miss in four years since I've been here. In past years people have missed and great players have missed, so I wouldn't make any more out of that. It's unfortunate. Things come up; if they disappoint me, they know how I stand on that."

"I understand that my career is year to year, and now maybe training camp to training camp, but I'm not going to worry about it. It's been that way for 14 training camps. For a guy who was never drafted, to be in this league and have a 12-year career, I can't complain about that." - QB Doug Pederson.

Strategy and personnel
The Packers signed former Arizona tight end Steve Bush but aren't done looking for another solid backup.

Mikhael Ricks, the starter in Detroit the last two seasons, visited the Packers Monday and Tuesday and then headed for New York and a visit with the Jets. The Packers are seeking a complement to Bubba Franks and David Martin.

"I'm OK with being a role player now, and, hopefully, get an opportunity to play and contribute," Ricks said.

Minnesota Vikings
As good as their No. 1-ranked offense was in 2003, the Vikings believe they'll be much more explosive on that side of the ball this season.

The addition of No. 2 receiver Marcus Robinson and athletic pass-catching tight end Jermaine Wiggins, and the continued maturity of quarterback Daunte Culpepper are three reasons for optimism.

But the main reason might be the return to Pro Bowl form of running back Michael Bennett, who has been impressive during minicamp and developmental camp.

"As everybody knows, Michael is probably one of the fastest guys in the league," Culpepper said. "When he gets into his rhythm and his groove, we're hard to stop because he can take it from anywhere on the field and score a touchdown.

"When you have a threat like that, it makes it easier for you to run the offense and to run the play-action game and to get receivers open after you fake it to Bennett in the backfield."

Bennett made the Pro Bowl following the 2002 season, but broke his foot while working out on a treadmill while training for the 2003 season. He missed the first seven games and finished with 447 yards rushing and one touchdown on 90 carries.

Although Bennett showed glimpses of his speed last season, he clearly wasn't 100 percent. But he's in midseason shape now. He has lost five pounds to reach 200 and looks as quick and fast as he did when he was running track at the University of Wisconsin.

"Michael used to be a track guy who played football," Vikings owner Red McCombs said after watching Bennett score on a long pass play during mini-camp. "Now, Michael is a football player who can also run track."

Strategy and personnel
Rookie fourth-round draft pick Nat Dorsey, at 6-7, 322 pounds, finally gives the Vikings a player with true left-tackle size. Until Dorsey was selected out of Georgia Tech in April, the Vikings had to make due with guards and practice-squad projects behind starter Bryant McKinnie.

Dorsey will need a year to build strength, according to coach Mike Tice, a former offensive line coach. It's unlikely Dorsey has the strength to be a long-term solution should something happen to McKinnie. But Dorsey's future looks bright.

In fact, the Vikings consider him a potential starter at right tackle in 2005. Mike Rosenthal, the starter there since last season, is in the final year of his contract.

"It is. Definitely, it is." -- Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper when asked if this year's offense will be the best he has played in since coming to Minnesota in 1999.

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