Everyone on the Bears' defense is back, but not necessarily happy.
Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs was demoted to second team during the early-June minicamp because he dropped out of the Bears' "voluntary" off-season program hoping to create some impetus for a new contract a year before he hits unrestricted free agency. But he will not be playing behind Leon Joe once training camp gets under way.
Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher also skipped some OTAs, complaining that the $900,000 he will make over the next two years was unfair in relation to the $9 million that nickel cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. will make over the same period. By almost all accounts, the Bears overpaid for Manning (up to $21 million over five years), but they were determined to upgrade the secondary after the Panthers' Steve Smith abused them in a divisional-round playoff loss last season. With Vasher, Charles Tillman and Manning, the corner position should be a plus this season.
The defense also got a boost in the draft, with the Bears' first pick going for defensive back Danieal Manning. The second-round pick from Abilene Christian could take a job from free safety Chris Harris, who started 13 games as a rookie in 2005 but may have been force fed into the lineup. The Bears' second second-round pick was used on Miami's Devin Hester, who is listed as a cornerback but is raw at that spot. Hester will, however, upgrade the return game immediately with his big-play ability.
Another draft choice, third-rounder Dusty Dvoracek, could play a significant role at defensive tackle because Tank Johnson, who was a key backup in a four-man rotation last season, will not be healthy at the start of training camp because of a hamstring tear he suffered in February.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've made a run and had a good season (in 2005). We've gone on a long winning streak (eight in a row), and now the next phase we have to go through is how to come back from a tough loss (in the divisional round to the Panthers), when we've been knocked down. This team will get up. That's the next step for us. We can't wait for the season to start. We can't wait to get up, and this time we're going to handle success a lot better." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith.
Wide receiver Koren Robinson quickly responded to reports last week that he was back in a South Carolina rehab facility. The Vikings receiver, who is a recovering alcoholic, said he is simply taking classes in an effort to help him maintain his sobriety.
"I'm not in rehab; it's nothing like that," Robinson said. "I'm taking prevention classes so I won't have to go back to rehab or won't have a situation. I just wanted to get away, make sure I'm bulletproof. So I'm just trying to be proactive. When did it become not cool to be proactive?"
A website report about Robinson being in rehab gained momentum when his agent, Alvin Keels, confirmed the story but said Robinson was doing this on his terms and that treatment hadn't been mandated by the NFL or the Vikings.
The 26-year-old Robinson joined the Vikings as a free agent last September after being released by Seattle in June following some well-documented alcohol problems he had during his four seasons with the Seahawks. The ninth overall pick in the 2001 draft was cut after his arrest for drunken driving in May 2005.
In 2004, Robinson had been suspended for four games after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy; the Seahawks tacked on two more games for missing team meetings. The league's action meant Robinson's next positive test would lead to a one-year suspension.
Robinson went through an alcohol treatment program last summer before signing with the Vikings. He proved to be a model citizen with the team and was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team as a kick returner. Robinson also caught 22 passes for 347 yards and a touchdown. A free agent, he received a three-year contract that includes $5.5 million in guaranteed bonuses in March.
He is expected to enter training camp as the Vikings' top receiver.
"I had a great year last year, and I'm looking to have a better year this year," Robinson said. "I know how my mindset was when I came into the season last year and just am trying to get that mindset for this year. I'm just trying to make sure this aspect of my life is covered all the way around the board. Nothing more, nothing less."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Football is played in pads. We've got some shorts All-Americans out here and we'll see if they can play with those hats on come a month or so." -- Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who is looking forward to training camp.
Green Bay Packers
There was no mistaking the off-season focus of general manager Ted Thompson, who didn't rest on the laurels of a Packers defense that ranked first against the pass and seventh for total yards last season.
He committed potential earnings of more than $60 million to nab three starters in free agency and made another sizable investment in taking linebacker A.J. Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. The Packers could have at least five new starters.
Hawk's arrival came on the heels of Thompson completing his free-agent dealings with the signing of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million deal. Woodson, provided he can dodge his susceptibility to injury, stands to make more than $10 million this year and will team with Al Harris to give the Packers one of the top shutdown tandems.
Throw in Marquand Manuel, a productive safety in Seattle's run to the Super Bowl last season, and the secondary is the strength of the defense. Manuel has unseated the pedestrian Mark Roman at strong safety and will be counted on to bring a hard-hitting mentality that has escaped the defense in recent years.
Ryan Pickett was an enforcer up front for St. Louis in 2005, so much that the Packers meted out a four-year, $14 million contract in tapping the former first-round draft pick as the aging Grady Jackson's replacement at nose tackle. Though not nearly as heavy as Jackson, Pickett is beset by weight issues and admitted he had to shed 10 pounds by training camp to come down from 325.
Although Woodson gives the defense a star presence that had been lacking, the reshaped linebacker corps is where the appeal lies.
Middle linebacker Nick Barnett, the defensive leader last season, is the lone returning starter after veterans Na'il Diggs and Robert Thomas were released. Hawk, and his reckless abandon, will start from the get-go on the weak side, giving the Packers two young cornerstones at linebacker around whom to build for the future. If not a third with third-round draftee Abdul Hodge, who will be Barnett's understudy for the time being. Ben Taylor, meanwhile, was a free-agent addition by way of Cleveland who has taken hold of the starting spot on the strong side.
Thompson turned to Canada to try to resolve the team's punting woes, and Jon Ryan has been as good as advertised. The deep-hitting Ryan distanced himself from incumbent B.J. Sander in off-season workouts.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You never know when your body is going to give out.
I've been so fortunate after 15 years, this will be 16, that I've been able to
play every game. You figure it's just a matter of time before something gives
out. It's like driving a car -- eventually, you're going to have a blowout. I
don't want that to happen. I've had a lot of success. I don't need to play. I'm
playing because I like to play; I love the game." -- Quarterback Brett Favre
while he was in Chicago on June 27 to shoot a commercial for Sensodyne