North Report: Division Rivals Prep For Camp

The quarterback situation in Minnesota isn't necessarily cleared up, Chicago's Desmond Clark is returning to college form (literally), and the Green Bay Packers are flirting with change at a linebacker. A complete NFC North report inside.

Minnesota Vikings

Daunte Culpepper's trade to Miami means everything is just fine when it comes to the Vikings' starting quarterback situation, right?

Maybe not.

Almost a year after Culpepper sought and received an adjustment to his contract, veteran Brad Johnson might be looking for a bump in the four-year, $6 million contract he signed to serve as a backup in March 2005.

The issue was brought up recently in an article in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. The paper pointed out that the $1.2 million Johnson is due to earn in 2006 would make him the NFL's lowest-paid veteran starter.

At least 36 quarterbacks could make more than Johnson, according to the paper. That includes several veteran backups.
Some members of that list are Chicago's Brian Griese ($6 million), Detroit's Josh McCown ($4 million), Miami's Joey Harrington ($3 million) and St. Louis' Gus Frerotte ($3 million).

Johnson's agent, Phil Williams, told the Star Tribune, he did not want to discuss the issue publicly, "at this time." But there is no question the Vikings will be getting Johnson at a bargain-basement price if his contract remains the same.

And, on paper at least, it appears the Vikings offense will only go as far as Johnson takes them. Without Johnson, the Vikings quarterbacks are veteran journeyman Mike McMahon, unproven fifth-year player J.T. O'Sullivan and rookie project Tarvaris Jackson.

It's not exactly like last season, when Johnson was able to step in and replace Culpepper after the latter was lost for the season because of a severe knee injury in Week 8.

Johnson is a team-first player, meaning a training camp holdout is unlikely, but it would not be surprising if something happened behind the scenes to upgrade his contract before the Vikings' regular-season opener on Sept. 11 at Washington.

Vikings Camp Calendar: Rookies and selected veterans will report on July 27; the remainder of the veterans will report July 30; training camp officially will open July 1. Training camp will break from Mankato, Minn., on Aug. 18. There will be an evening practice against the Kansas City Chiefs on Aug. 4.

Chicago Bears

Tight end Desmond Clark doesn't quite look like the wide receiver he was at Wake Forest in the late 1990s, but he has lost about 15 pounds from last year's 254.

The eight-year veteran appeared much quicker and more effective as a pass receiver during off-season workouts after shedding the weight and reducing his percentage of body fat.

"It's been tremendous seeing what he's done through OTAs and minicamp," Bears tight ends coach Rob Boras said. "This is my third spring with him, and this is by far his best. He's quicker out of his breaks. We'll find out how the weight loss affects him when we get to training camp as far as the blocking. But as far as being a route runner and being able to use quickness and speed to get open, it's definitely shown up."

In 2005, his third season with the Bears, Clark led the team's tight ends and finished fourth overall in receiving with 24 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the second consecutive season in which his production slipped and a far cry from the 51 catches for 566 yards he had with the Broncos in 2001.

"He does an all-around nice job in both the run and pass for us," Boras said. "The (increased) quickness is going to help him. That's one of the weaknesses that he and I have talked about, just trying to create some more separation and becoming more quarterback-friendly by getting open.

And then also he must reduce the mental errors and the mistakes. Eliminating those things will make him even more of an all-around player for us."

The Bears aren't planning on a drastic change in their offensive scheme, but if Clark proves to be a more effective receiver, he could become the security blanket quarterback Rex Grossman and other Bears quarterbacks have lacked for many years. An off-season ankle injury that lingered throughout almost the entire training camp sabotaged Clark's 2005 season. So far, he's the picture of health.

"We're not calling different plays to get Desmond the ball," Boras said. "We're calling the same plays. But last year, Desmond had an ankle injury. He is our best receiving tight end, so having him healthy and having him participate in every practice, you would hope that we would be better at that position and that's showing up. It's not just lip service to say that if you're here you can prove yourself to the quarterback and you can get that comfort zone with him."

Bears Camp Calendar: Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on Wednesday, July 26, and the first practice is at noon, Thursday, July 27. Camp closes after a 10 a.m. practice on Wednesday, Aug. 16. The Bears have a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field on Wednesday, Aug. 9; and 7 p.m. practices under the lights at ONU's Turner Field on Friday, Aug. 4, Tuesday, Aug. 8, and Sunday, Aug. 13.

Green Bay Packers

Nick Barnett will remain at middle linebacker.

"Yeah, for right now," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said.

The possibility exists, though, that it won't be long after training camp starts July 28 that the new coaching staff mulls moving the team's top tackler each of his first three years in the league to the outside. Rookie Abdul Hodge would be the reason why such a change would be made.

Hodge, a third-round draft selection out of Iowa, was on par with top pick A.J. Hawk in chasing the football during off-season workouts in May and June. Hodge backed up Barnett and wound up with numerous reps with the No. 1 defense when Barnett had to miss four days of organized team activities because of injury and personal issues.

If Hodge continues to make strides early in training camp, head coach Mike McCarthy and Sanders will have to strongly consider getting him on the field. He's a natural middle linebacker, so that would necessitate shifting Barnett outside.

"I don't foresee that happening," Sanders said of taking Barnett out of the middle. "But, we still try to double-train as many guys as we can. In the event that something happens, we want to have our best three players in there. We try to get as many guys ready at as many different positions as we can."

Hawk is entrenched as the starter on the weak side in the Packers' 4-3 base alignment.

Conversely, the strong side is unsettled, with free-agent signee Ben Taylor penciled in for the time being. Roy Manning, Brady Poppinga and Tracy White, another off-season addition, also are in the mix.

"It looks like there's going to be some fierce competition at the linebacker spot. We were a little bit void of that prior to this spring," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We have a lot of guys that look like they can function pretty well. They certainly worked hard in the spring. I think it has a chance to be a strong area for this team."

Barnett, though, has experience at the position. He played exclusively on the outside his last three years at Oregon State before the Packers readied their first-round draft pick to start in the middle as a rookie in 2003. Barnett flourished there the last three seasons, racking up a team-record 194 tackles in 2005.

Packers Camp Calendar: Opens July 28 in Green Bay, closes Aug. 26. There will be an intrasquad scrimmage the evening of Aug. 5 before a sellout crowd at Lambeau Field.


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