NFC North Update

Packers' sign the fastest player in the draft, former Lion Aaron Gibson may be witnessing his last career opportunity in Chicago, and Minnesota loses its starting running back for half of the year. Plus, Chris Claiborne has big plans for the Vikings' defense. Many, many more divisional notes from our sources in Green Bay, Chicago and Minnesota.

(News bits collected from division sources:, and Most recent listed first)


So far, so good
Linebacker Hannibal Navies, who signed in March as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina, looked good in the minicamps. The problem is, can he stay healthy? In four seasons with the Panthers he missed 25 of 64 games with an assortment of injuries and registered only two sacks and one interception. The Packers are planning to start him on the strong side. "He has really good movement skills for a guy that size (6-3, 247)," new linebackers coach Mark Duffner said. "He can cover the tight end. He can twist and bend. He has some explosiveness coming off the edge as a rusher. I like his athleticism."

Not much hope for former Duck
Signed last month to a bargain-basement contract one year in length, QB Akili Smith has little chance to succeed in Green Bay. He's a player who requires an enormous number of repetitions anyway, and the fact that he joined the Packers after their 3-month off-season program and is coming into an entirely different offensive system makes failure almost a given. Barring injury, the quarterback situation in Green Bay probably shakes down this way. Craig Nall gets every opportunity to assume the No. 2 job from Doug Pederson. If Nall wins it and engenders widespread confidence among the coaches in doing so, then Smith would have a chance to stick with an impressive training camp. Coach Mike Sherman still might want Pederson as No. 3 to serve as a security blanket. However, if Smith offers long-range potential as the eventual successor to Brett Favre, Pederson easily could go and Smith might stay. Eric Crouch is just too short and raw to be much of a factor. Smith, who will be 28 in August, was part of the quarterback draft class of 1999 that was heralded as the best since 1983. Tim Couch went first to Cleveland, Donovan McNabb went second to Philadelphia, Smith went third to Cincinnati, Daunte Culpepper went 11th to Minnesota and Cade McNown went 12th to Chicago. McNabb and Culpepper rank among the top 10 quarterbacks in the business, Couch has been so-so and McNown and Smith have been busts. The third-best quarterback in that draft, Aaron Brooks, was taken in the fourth round by Green Bay. Last month, a personnel director for an NFL team was asked if Smith could ever be developed. "You can't say he can't because he's got athletic ability," the scout said. "Sometimes the maturation process is longer for some guys than others. Maybe the change in scenery will help. Maybe being around a guy like Favre will help him. Maybe getting away from that organization will help." Why was Smith so horrendous in Cincinnati? "I don't think he has any understanding what's going on," the scout said. "Every time he got to play he just got overwhelmed. He's a good athlete but he's not very well prepared and he's not very smart. He may be worse than that (15 test score). He plays dumb and I don't think he spends a lot of time at it. "He's an athlete but he doesn't make much as a runner. And I really don't know how tough a guy he is, to be honest with you." The personnel man said he was told by Bengals' officials over the years just how eager they were to wash their hands of Smith. "Every (year) he thought he should be the starter going in," the scout said. "He tried to rally the players against whoever else was the starter. They didn't see any way they could get it done with him." Clearly, Smith had worn out his welcome in Cincinnati. Following his release, 86.8% of respondents in a Cincinnati Enquirer poll said they approved of the Bengals' decision. For his part, Smith blamed the sad-sack Bengals for his failure, describing his four years as "hell for everybody. I'm kind of baffled that they drafted me. Ten games into my second season they benched me, and it was over after that." In 22 games, including 17 starts, Smith completed 215 of 461 passes (46.6%) for 2,212 yards, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His passer rating was a minuscule 52.8. His record as a starter was 3-14.

Suspended four games
Packers LB Torrance Marshall has been suspended for the first four games of next season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He won't be eligible to play in a regular season game until Oct. 5 vs. Seattle.

Signs three-year contract
CB Chris Johnson, who was labeled the fastest player in the draft after posting a 4.23-second time in the 40-yard dash at the pre-draft workout, has signed a three-year deal. The seventh-round pick is the fourth Packers draft choice to sign.

German-native gets shot
WR JJorg Heckenbach, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and an NFL Europe veteran, has been signed by the Packers. In seven NFL Europe seasons, Heckenbach has 65 receptions for 759 yards and five TDs.


League to have their say
According to the league, discipline for a second alcohol-related violation "is likely to be a suspension, the duration of which may escalate for repeat offenses."

The Bears and agent Mark Bartelstein are optimistic that Bryan Robinson will avoid jail time or at least have his sentence reduced.

"We're just leaving it in the league's hands," Bartelstein said. "Bryan's doing everything he can to get it sorted out the right way."

First Gator to sign
The Bears agreed to terms on a four-year contract with fourth-round draft pick Todd Johnson Wednesday. The deal is worth $1.8 million including a signing bonus of $425,000.

Although, as a rookie Johnson’s biggest impact will likely come on special teams, at some point he should compete for a starting job. He’s played both free and strong safety while at Florida, meaning the Bears see him as a possible replacement for Mike Green or free agent to be Mike Brown. (Numbers: Johnson's deal is worth $1.795 million, including a $425,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $225,000 this year, $305,000 in 2004, $380,000 in 2005 and $460,000 in 2006. Johnson, a 6-1, 200-pound safety, was one of four players chosen by the Bears from the University of Florida. A three-time all-Southeastern Conference performer with the Gators, Johnson started 35 of 47 career games played and registered 284 tackles and nine interceptions.)

Signs three-year deal
Bryan Anderson thought he was going to be an undrafted free agent, but with the second to last selection (261st overall) in the draft he was picked by the Bears. Anderson agreed to a three-year deal with the Bears on Wednesday that included a $23,000 signing bonus. (Numbers: The numbers behind seventh-round pick Bryan Anderson's three-year deal? His $933,000 contract calls for base salaries of $225,000, $305,000 and $380,000 and a $23,000 signing bonus. Anderson, the Bears' final selection in the draft, was a four-year fixture at right guard at the University of Pittsburgh. The 6-4, 325-pounder started 45 of 46 games played and earned all-Big East Conference honors as a senior.)

The guard has a shot to make the team as a backup, but will have to compete with Terrence Metcalf and veteran Aaron Gibson.

Could have new competition
Anthony Thomas is atop the Bears depth chart at running back heading into training camp, but he will have to produce to keep the starting job. Thomas will compete for time with second-year back Adrian Peterson.

However, another running back could be in the mix after the NFL holds their supplemental draft Thursday. The Bears are considering selecting Georgia Tech RB Tony Hollings, who is a converted safety. He led the nation in rushing after four games, but a knee injury ended his season prematurely.

Health is key
When R.W. McQuarters started 16 games he played like a pro bowl cornerback in 2001. He had three picks and became the Bears shutdown cornerback. Last season, McQuarters couldn’t stay healthy playing and starting in just nine games.

For the Bears defense to return to top form, McQuarters has to be there every week going up against the opposition’s best receiver.

Gibby's last chance
Former Lions first-round pick Aaron Gibson is battling for a roster spot with the Bears and maybe for his NFL life. Although only 25, the 6-foot-6, 390-pound Gibson has plummeted since he was the Lions' top pick in 1999. He has since been released by Detroit, and late last year by the Cowboys, when he was claimed on waivers by the Bears. Gibson is being worked at right guard and right tackle, where he was an all-American at Wisconsin. "We're moving Aaron inside and out, and that's what we're going to keep doing," coach Dick Jauron said. "We really like what Aaron's done for us since he got here in terms of our off-season program, what we've asked him to do weight-wise. He's obviously a massive man, very strong, naturally strong. He's worked hard in our off-season strength training program too and all of our other programs. I think Aaron's going to make a run at it, I really do, and we're really glad to have him and glad to witness firsthand his attitude. He's been tremendous with us."


Contract getting close
Vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski returned from vacation this week and immediately began working hard to sign the team's draftees. They are already close to sixth-rounder Michael Nattiel, a linebacker from Florida.

Suspended four games
Vikings TE Byron Chamberlain has been suspended four games after testing positive for the banned supplement Ephedra. Chamberlain will be forced to sit out the first four games of the season, and will be eligible to return Oct. 5 at Atlanta.

Running back will miss half the season
Running back Michael Bennett will miss some regular-season games this year, possibly the whole season, depending on his response to treatment for a Jones fracture in his foot. Bennett suffered a setback from his March surgery this week when it was discovered that a pin that was inserted had broken.

He will have another procedure performed in the next week and is hoping that will allow him to return to action sometime around midseason.

"I talked to Michael today and I’m excited that he is going to undergo a medical procedure that may give him an opportunity to return at some point during the 2003 season," Vikings head coach Mike Tice said in a statement. "Our first concern is for Michael’s well-being for the long term. This gives an opportunity for the rest of the backs on our team to step up and do what every player wants and that’s to compete."

If Bennett doesn’t respond to this procedure and therapy, he will be forced to undergo season-ending surgery sometime during the season.

In the meantime, the Vikings aren’t looking to sign another running back, instead giving Doug Chapman, Onterrio Smith and Moe Williams the opportunity to earn the starting job.

Claiborne has big plans for Vikings' D
Chris Claiborne, who came to the Vikings in a surprise offseason move via unrestricted free agency, has big plans for his new defense in Minnesota.

"I love it. I definitely love it," he said. "The off-season moves they made make the team better. Our team defensive goal is to be in the top 10 in defense."

Negotiations expected to begin soon
Vikings first-round draft choice, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, came to mini-camp in prime shape. And while there is a limit to what you can discover about a guy when the practices are sans pads, Williams made enough of an impression -- both with his quickness and his work ethic -- that coach Mike Tice is said to be intent on not allowing another holdout this year.

Of course, that's not all up to him. It's up to owner Red McCombs, who will sign the checks, to director of football operations Rob Brzezinski, who will negotiate for the Vikings, and William's agent, Tom Condon.

Getting a deal done won't be easy. Condon is a tough negotiator. And then there is the matter of which slot, money-wise, Williams will be fit into.

You remember the routine. The Vikings allowed the clock to expire on their No. 7 pick, allowing two teams to jump in front of them before finally taking Williams at No. 9. Now, the Vikings said Williams was their guy all along, that they were only trying to trade down to 10 to get both Williams and a couple draft picks.

So where does he get paid? At No. 7, where the Vikings were slotted to pick, or at No. 9, where he actually was picked? Condon didn't waste much time coming out and saying he intended to try to get Williams no. 7 money -- even though the actual No. 7 pick, Byron Leftwich, is his client as well.

This process will not be easy, but look for it to get done. Insiders are saying there is a good chance the two sides will end up compromising at money commesurate with the No. 8 pick overall. In any event, Tice has made it clear that his team cannot come out of the gate strong with another key player holding out; last year's stumble out of the gate, which was made worse by injuries along the offensive line, doomed Tice's first season as head coach.

Negotiations should begin in earnest shortly after the Vikings front office staff returns from vacation following the July 4 holiday.

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