NFC North Notes

The Vikings are seeing the rapid improvement of a draft pick, the Lions' younger players are trying to overcome their losing way of recent past, and the Packers' 2004 third-round punter is trying to stay employed. Get those stories from around the NFC North and more notes.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Rookie receiver Troy Williamson has been a Viking for only two months, but he's already starting to show signs of improvement in the eyes of some coaches.

"He dropped some balls in that first mini-camp right after the draft," coach Mike Tice said. "But I think he's come back (in four developmental camps) and shown that he has the ability to make the catches that he was dropping. We'll work with him. We can fix some things."

Williamson was selected with the seventh overall pick in the draft, the key component in the trade that sent Randy Moss to Oakland. Comparisons to Moss are inevitable and grossly unjust for a raw rookie who played in a South Carolina system devoid of a quality quarterback and an imaginative passing attack.

Vikings coaches are being careful not to rush Williamson. He's not even listed as a starter at this point.

"I think what you have to do is you don't throw the whole pizza pie at him and make him have to eat it all," said offensive coordinator Steve Loney. "I think it would be a disservice to expect him right from the get-go to absorb this entire offense and be able to play all the (receiver) positions."

Williamson runs a 4.34 40-yard dash, but also is big enough at 6-1, 203 pounds to be effective as a downfield blocker. If nothing else, playing receiver for the Gamecocks made Williamson a better blocker.

"He'll mix it up out there," Loney said. "So what you do is you take an attribute like that and you give him that much. And when he can completely digest that, then you give him some more."

Obviously, the Vikings didn't use the seventh pick in the draft on Williamson because they thought he was a good blocker. Williamson won't fill Moss' shoes, but he will be counted on to be a factor in his rookie season.

"There's a lot of pressure on that young man coming in," Loney said. "I attribute those drops in minicamp to nerves. Since then, he's made some difficult catches. He's going about his work, and I see him improving."

NOTES, QUOTES
--RB Ciatrick Fason, a fourth round draft pick from Florida, has drawn comparisons to veteran teammate Moe Williams. "He's not a dancer," coach Mike Tice said of Fason. "He has shown an ability to run forward."

--Tice wasn't happy this off-season when Fason and some other rookies had to miss a developmental camp practice to attend a league rookie event in California. "I'm mad about that," Tice said. "The league sets up things during days we're allowed to have (developmental camps). We only get 14 of them, and three of them are cut short because of charity golf tournaments that I support."

--Tice is happy with the way former starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson has accepted his demotion behind veteran Sam Cowart. "E.J. is having a great offseason. He has looked very, very good in the (expanded) special teams role that we've assigned to him. And he's playing behind a guy like Sam, who isn't going to play forever, so it's an excellent learning situation for E.J."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He won a Super Bowl, something I haven't done." – Coach Mike Tice, when asked if backup QB Brad Johnson can do anything on the sideline to help starting QB Daunte Culpepper.


DETROIT LIONS

For a number of the Lions players, losing has become a way of life. Although they might reject it, it is virtually the only thing they've known since landing in the NFL.

Quarterback Joey Harrington, for instance, has played three seasons, has 44 games and has seen the Lions put together records of 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10.

Left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola, both fixtures on the Lions offensive line, have played four seasons and have seen even worse horrors - a 2-14 season that preceded the 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10 seasons that Harrington has suffered through.

The Lions have taken baby steps to get back to respectability during the past two years and some observers are predicting a major step - perhaps nine or 10 wins - in the 2005 season.

Harrington, Backus, Raiola and the rest of the relatively young players are expected to make their share of contributions to the improvement but the Lions also are getting leadership from players who have experienced more success elsewhere in the NFL.

The most recent free-agent acquisitions by Lions president Matt Millen include strong safety Kenoy Kennedy, who got playoff experience got playoff experience with the Denver Broncos, as well as tight end Marcus Pollard and guard Rick DeMulling, who were starters on Indianapolis' playoff team in recent seasons.

A major acquisition a year ago was guard Damien Woody, a Pro Bowler in 2002 and the starting center on New England's Super Bowl championship team a year earlier.

However, no free-agent acquisition has done more for the Lions than cornerback Dre' Bly, who played on St. Louis' Super Bowl winner as a rookie in 1999. Since joining the Lions two years ago he has been a two-time Pro Bowl and an enthusiastic recruiter of players Millen has been working on signing during free agency.

The Lions aren't underestimating the importance of the young players who have suffered through the last four years of losing but the leadership of those more accustomed to winning is expected to play a major role in any improvement for 2005.

NOTES

  • The Lions traditionally have scouted players not only for their physical ability but for their character traits as well.

    That might explain why coach Steve Mariucci has been so enthusiastic about the addition of two former Indianapolis Colts - tight end Marcus Pollard and guard Rick DeMulling - via free agency this year.

    "They were great acquisitions for us and for a lot of reasons," Mariucci said. "They have experience as starters on good teams, they are healthy, they fit needs that we have, they've been here and they're dedicated and working every day like you would hope from a veteran.

    "When we did our research we were told that not only can they start and play, but they're great guys. They fit right in. We expect good things from both of them. They're both starting."

    Pollard gives the Lions a tight end presence they've lacked in recent seasons and DeMulling is working at left guard, which was a problem area last year.

  • In signing his one-year contract with the Lions, cornerback R.W. McQuarters was reunited with two of his former NFL head coaches - Steve Mariucci and Dick Jauron.

    Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers head coach when McQuarters was their No. 1 pick (28th overall) in the 1998 NFL draft. When he was traded to Chicago two years later, he spent four years playing under Jauron.

    Mariucci, of course, is the Lions' head coach and Jauron is in his second season as their defensive coordinator.

    Neither Mariucci nor Jauron has indicated how the Lions plan to use McQuarters but they like his position flexibility. He has played cornerback, nickel and dime back, and last year played part of the season at free safety.

    In seven NFL seasons, McQuarters has nine interceptions. His best season was 2001, when he intercepted three passes and broke up another 18 under Jauron.

    McQuarters was released last month by the Bears in a cost-cutting move. His one-year deal with the Lions is believed to be worth $1.6 million.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is easy to say that our goal is to win the Super Bowl but to have high expectations or lofty goals or to be confident requires a certain amount of work first. You have to do the work before you can win." - Coach Steve Mariucci on the Lions' approach to the preparing for the 2005 NFL season.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    B.J. Sander is back from NFL Europe with a season of professional competition under his belt but no more of a toehold as the Packers' punter for 2005.

    Punting for Hamburg, Sander averaged 40.0 yards, which tied for only fourth best among the six punters. His net of 36.6 led the league.

    "It's an open job," said Sander, who returned in time to punt at the end of the Packers' minicamp earlier in the month. "I have to come in and win the job. I have to do what I'm capable of doing, prove to the coaches that I can do this. As far as I'm concerned, I am not only competing with the two guys that are here but against everyone in the league.

    "It's one of those things where the punter of this team might not be here right now, but I am going in as it's an open job and I have to win it."

    The Packers traded up to select Sander in the third round in 2004. It was one of several lousy decisions by Mike Sherman that led Packers President Bob Harlan to strip him of his GM duties in January.

    Sander was abysmal in training camp and exhibition games. Still, Sherman elected not to cut his losses.

    He kept Sander on the inactive list for all 17 games but signed veteran Bryan Barker as a band-aid.

    With Barker deemed over the hill at 40, the Packers dispatched Sander to NFL Europe and signed free agents Brooks Barnard and Bryce Benekos. The B&B boys failed to distinguish themselves in minicamps, leaving Sander as the apparent frontrunner by default.

    "I thought he had a solid season over there," special teams coach John Bonamego said. "I wouldn't say he was spectacular, but it was a solid performance. The biggest thing was getting game experience. You can't simulate what it's like in the game.

    "We were looking for him to improve his overall consistency."

    Kicker Ryan Longwell offered these words of advice to Sander: "He needs to put last year behind him. That's the difference between standing here nine years down the road and being in another line of work in a few years."

    NOTES

  • Agent Drew Rosenhaus represents two wide receivers, Green Bay's Javon Walker and Arizona's Anquan Boldin, who want to renegotiate their contracts. Walker didn't attend either minicamp this spring whereas Boldin missed one and made one.

    "We've had discussions in the past with the Cardinals about Anquan that have been productive and that's one of the reasons why he's working out with his team while on the other hand, Javon Walker, the Packers have said: ‘We're not going to discuss Javon's contract.' And that's why Javon's not there.

    "Javon is only making $500,000 this year and he's a fabulous player and we would like to have the opportunity to talk about an extension, which is what we've done for a number of our players in the NFL. And they have been disinterested in doing that so we've elected, if that's the case, to be elsewhere."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "In Europe, his punting was pretty good. His ball placement was excellent inside the 20-yard-line. I think he improved his technique. I think he gained some confidence over there." - Coach Mike Sherman on P B.J. Sander.


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