NFC North Issues

In Green Bay, the Packers are starting to wonder how much longer Brett Favre will be around. Detroit has worries about their offensive line being able to hold up, while there are also offensive questions in Minnesota.

Left guard Mike Wahle was deemed too expensive and GM Ted Thompson sacrificed him for salary-cap purposes. He signed a five-year, $27 million deal with Carolina that contained an $8 million signing bonus.

Two days later, right guard Marco Rivera, whose contract had expired, signed a five-year, $19 million deal with Dallas that contained an $8.125 million signing bonus.

Also, wide receiver Javon Walker and tight end Bubba Franks sat out the entire offseason for contractual reasons and are threatening to miss substantial portions of training camp. Walker wants to renegotiate the final two years of his contract. Franks is unhappy with his transition-player tender of $2.095 million and would like a long-term deal.

At the same time, quarterback Brett Favre will turn 36 in October during the middle of his 15th season. That's about the time many great quarterbacks of the past began to fade.

There are also durability concerns surrounding running back, who has taken a ton of punishment since 2000. He was dogged last season by Achilles' tendon, knee and rib-cartilage injuries and averaged 4.46 yards per carry in 17 games, down from 5.22 in 2003.

The Packers signed oft-injured Patriot Adrian Klemm to replace Wahle. Klemm is a fine athlete and has good size, but any player with his injury background would be hard to rely on.

Rivera's position will be filled by holdover Grey Ruegamer, an aggressive but not particularly athletic former center, or aging Matt O'Dwyer, a minimum-salary unrestricted free agent from Tampa Bay.

Walker blossomed into a Pro Bowl receiver in '04 and now is demanding to be paid like it. He's a big, powerful player with the raw speed to run by almost any cornerback and a tremendous work ethic.

Under the catastrophic possibility that Walker isn't on the field, the Packers would be hard-pressed to compensate with the triumvirate of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and rookie Terrence Murphy, a second-round draft choice from Texas A&M.

The Packers selected Cal's Aaron Rodgers in the first round with the idea that he eventually will replace Favre. Coach Mike Sherman can only hope, however, that it happens later than sooner.

-- Brett Favre has sold his 7,800-square foot home on Green Bay's West Side. The exact price wasn't available but the asking price was $895,000, down from $1.35 million two years ago.

It was purchased by Scott Gage, a radiologist from Racine, Wis., who is moving to Green Bay along with his wife and six of their eight children.

"The fact that it was Brett Favre's was not the determining factor," Gage said. "But it was icing on the cake and a little more exciting for the kids. It takes a little of the dread out of moving."

The Packers have given thought to making a move on Lance Schulters, the veteran safety who was cut by Tennessee June 16.

Don't expect GM Ted Thompson to fork out a lot of money for Schulters. Thompson has played it close to the vest since taking the job in January. He has been a frugal shopper in free agency, to say the least.

The Packers appear weak at safety but at least there are plenty of bodies. Fighting for two jobs are incumbent Mark Roman, veterans Arturo Freeman and Earl Little, and rookie Nick Collins, a second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman.

For the first three years of president Matt Millen's regime, the Lions' lament was a lack of big-play makers. That is no longer the case.

Millen put the finishing touches on a nucleus of promising young playmakers that gives the Lions offense all the explosive capabilities it has lacked since the retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders six years ago.

The last piece Millen fit into the offensive puzzle was wide receiver Mike Williams of USC - a big, sure-handed receiver expected to line up in the slot with two previous first-round picks - Charles Rogers and Roy Williams - lined up outside.

The Lions also signed veteran tight end Marcus Pollard and wide receiver Kevin Johnson out of free agency, giving coach Steve Mariucci a solid, deep set of receivers from which to choose.

The Lions believe they can create some favorable matchups when they put the full complement of receivers in the formation, with last year's rookie sensation running back Kevin Jones.

If opposing defenses bring down a safety to stop Jones, they feel they can beat them with their receivers going downfield. If opposing defenses do not put the safety in the box, the Lions feel Jones will be able to take them apart with the running game.

To facilitate the explosive offense, however, Millen also had to do some patchwork on the offensive line to fill a troublesome hole at left guard and bolster the tackle corps after the loss of starting right tackle Stockar McDougle to the Miami Dolphins in free agency.

Millen signed Rick DeMulling, a three-year starter at Indianapolis, to move into the left guard position and landed Kyle Kosier to compete for the right tackle job and provide backup experience all the way down the offensive line.

With all of the pieces in place for a seemingly more productive offense, the Lions also made a move to provide experienced help at the quarterback position, where Joey Harrington has been inconsistent in his first three NFL seasons.

If Harrington falters, the Lions now have former San Francisco Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia in a backup role and - considering Mariucci's history with Garcia - there appears to be little doubt that Harrington will have to produce early and often or lose the job to Garcia.

-- Quarterback Jeff Garcia has carefully avoided comments that might be considered inflammatory regarding his role as the backup to three-year veteran Joey Harrington but - back home in Gilroy, Calif., for his annual golf outing - he recently spoke a little more freely.

"It's Joey Harrington's job to lose," Garcia told the Gilroy Dispatch. "But I'm going to be right there nipping on his heels."

There is speculation by Lions watchers that if Harrington does not get off to a fast start or if the Lions aren't winning early in the season, coach Steve Mariucci - who had Garcia as his quarterback in San Francisco - will be quick to make a change.

And if Garcia gets that opportunity - a chance at the starting job for the Lions - he left little doubt about his intentions.

"I don't plan on giving it back," he said.

-- In his first three seasons as the Lions quarterback, Joey Harrington has not gotten a lot of help from his receivers. Although he has never complained or pointed a finger at those who dropped passes, the performances in recent years by Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim and Stephen Alexander speak for themselves.

But Harrington is openly enthused with his current set of receivers - first-round draft picks Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, veteran receiver Kevin Johnson and tight end Marcus Pollard. The three young first-round picks are particularly intriguing to a quarterback who will be under pressure to produce this year.

"Big targets," Harrington said, when asked about Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. "I think it'll be good for us because they're big targets down in the end zone.

"We've struggled at times; we've had to settle for field goals sometimes when we didn't make plays down there. And having guys like that - who can screen out the defender and you can throw a high ball to -will really help out."

The Lions are in the final days off the off-season workout program that once again saw virtually full-team participation.

President Matt Millen talked about doing some free agent "bottom feeding" after the June roster cuts but he seems to be content with the Lions' roster as it presently stands.

The addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters fortified the defense in a defensive secondary that now seems to be a solid as the rest of the defense, which is expected to be improved from last year when the Lions were 22d in the NFL in yards allowed.

Vikings coach Mike Tice insists it will be business as usual for the team's high-scoring offense in 2005.

"Offensively," he said, "we're going to be as good as anybody."

We'll see.

The Vikings are the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl because of upgrades on defense. But despite their efforts to spin it otherwise, the Vikings are looking at a massive hole on offense after the off-season trade of their best player, Randy Moss, to Oakland.

The offense was built around the enigmatic receiver who, like him or not, caught 90 touchdown passes and wreaked havoc on defenses the past seven seasons.

The Vikings attempted to replace Moss' speed when they selected South Carolina receiver Troy Williamson with the seventh overall pick in the draft. While Williamson might be able to match Moss' speed, he shows no signs of matching Moss' production any time soon.

Travis Taylor, a free-agent acquisition from Baltimore, is the sleeper offseason pickup. He didn't live up to his first-round pedigree with the Ravens, but he also never played with a quarterback as talented as Daunte Culpepper. Taylor will start out as the No. 3 receiver, but could easily climb to No. 2 behind Nate Burleson.

The running back position depends on the fragile legs of Michael Bennett, especially since backup Onterrio Smith was suspended for the entire season after a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Ciatrick Fason, a rookie from Florida, was selected in the fourth round and might become a factor by the end of the season.

At quarterback, the Vikings lost backup Gus Frerotte, but recovered nicely by signing Brad Johnson via free agency. Johnson won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay and will be a comforting presence on the sideline. The line will struggle with C Matt Birk expected to miss most or all of training camp because of recent hip surgery and three hernia operations since last summer. Backup Cory Withrow is a step down and often gets hurt when he's called on.

Veteran right guard Dave Dixon is gone, but might be brought back as a backup. Former left guard Chris Liwienski will shift to right guard, while his former spot will be up for grabs between Adam Goldberg and rookie second-round draft pick Marcus Johnson.

Keep an eye on Johnson. He's ready to play, physically and mentally. He's big enough to play tackle yet nimble enough to play inside.

Mike Rosenthal returns to right tackle after breaking his foot in Week 2 last season. If he is reinjured, Johnson probably will step in and start, or at least compete there with second-year pro Nat Dorsey.

At kicker, the Vikings added Paul Edinger, who was released by Chicago after a disappointing 2004. The Vikings insist Edinger will compete with Aaron Elling, who is back from a broken leg.

Elling handled all of the team's kicking duties in 2003. He lost his confidence and his job last summer. The Vikings brought him back as a kickoff specialist when Morten Andersen proved he was too old to do it. The Vikings appear to have a dilemma. They don't want to keep two kickers, but they don't seem to have one who can handle kickoffs and placekicking.

Elling is a sound kickoff specialist and a shaky place-kicker. Edinger is a more accurate place-kicker, but not as good on kickoffs.

Solving the kicking situation is one of the team's biggest priorities in training camp. Poor kicking has been Tice's Achilles' heel since he became a full-time head coach in 2002.

-- WR Kelly Campbell asked for and received a continuance in his court battle against charges of receiving a stolen handgun and possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Campbell was scheduled for a plea arraignment on Wednesday in Atlanta's Fulton County District Court, but asked for the continuance to a later date. The marijuana charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail. The stolen handgun charge could be considered a felony and carry a maximum of 10 years in jail.

-- Offensive coordinator Steve Loney said he expects TE Jim Kleinsasser to make a full recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. "I've always contended that Jimmy is the best blocking tight end in the league," Loney said. "And he's a guy that when he gets a ball out there he can change a five-yard pass into an explosive pass. I expect all those things out of Jimmy this season."

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