NFC North Tour: Training Camp

We catch up on the news and look ahead to this week's camp battles in Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. The Bears parted ways with longtime center and leader Olin Kreutz, the Lions continue adding to roster and the Vikings have high expectations with Donovan McNabb.

After 13 years and six Pro Bowls with the Chicago Bears, the Olin Kreutz era is over.

The Bears broke off negotiations with Kreutz, an unrestricted free agent who was looking for a $4.5 million salary, and instead signed ex-Seahawks center Chris Spencer as his replacement. The Bears reportedly would not go higher than $4 million for Kreutz who, for the better part of a decade, was the unquestioned leader, not only of the offensive line, but of the team as a whole.

"It was easy to follow (him)," offensive tackle Frank Omiyale said. "He was always the one out front, always the one in the weight room, so if you had any question about what you needed to do to get ready, all you had to do was check out and see where he was at."

Kreutz, a third-round pick out of Washington in 1998, has a streak of 134 consecutive starts at center and a total of 183 starts, second in franchise history to Walter Payton's 184. Kreutz started all 16 games in 10 seasons, and in the past 10 seasons, he missed just one game. The game he missed was a week after undergoing an appendectomy, and he was back in the starting lineup the following week.

Even Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who pulled the plug on Kreutz, admits the Bears will miss Kreutz.

"Is it going to be a loss? Yeah, it's going to be a loss," Angelo said. "It's going to be a temporary loss, but we have to regroup. We're bringing in Chris Spencer to come in here and compete for that starting center spot."

Spencer is entering his seventh NFL season and has started 70 games, including 16 last year, just the second time that he has started every game in a season. The 29-year-old Mississippi product is 6-foot-3 and 309-pounds.

The Bears' offensive line allowed more sacks than any team in the NFL last season and was a big reason the team was a lowly No. 30 in total yards and No. 28 in passing yards.

Without Kreutz, that group is worse off than it was a year ago, even though the Bears used this year's first-round draft pick on Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi. Because of the work stoppage that wiped out the off-season, Carimi has had just a couple days to learn the Bears' playbook and receive coaching, so it will be difficult for him to make an early impact.

Kreutz, who took $2 million less from the Bears than the Dolphins offered him the last time he was an unrestricted free agent, would have provided the glue for a group in flux. It defies explanation how the same team that forked out a combined $13 million to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor last season would decide to pinch pennies when it comes to a loyal, long-time employee who may wind up in the Hall of Fame.

For that $13 million, the Bears got a 2.4-yard rushing average from Taylor (267 yards on 112 carries), who could soon lose his roster spot to recently signed Marion Barber. They got five catches for 43 yards and a handful of blocks from Manumaleuna, who failed his physical and was waived last week.

Angelo took exception to media reports that said there was a divide between the front office and the coaching staff on the decision not to re-sign veteran unrestricted free agent center Olin Kreutz.

"I resent the fact that something was written that said there is a divide," Angelo. "Regardless of what anybody says, that's not true. That's a lie, and it's fabricated, and I resented that when I read that. That, to me, was dirty pool."

— New tight end Matt Spaeth will never be the receiving threat that Greg Olsen was, but the 6-foot-7, 260-pound former Steeler is a much better fit for what Mike Martz wants from a tight end in his offense.

"I'm more maybe like an old-school throwback," Spaeth said. "I like to get after it, I like to block, and that's probably my main thing. But I also want to be show that I can be very effective in the passing game. I came from a great system, I played under a great tight end and in a sense this is maybe my time to prove what I can do."

Expected battle of the week: Newcomer Roy Williams is expected to take playing time from one of the top three wide receivers; most likely Devin Hester, since Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett are considered ahead of Hester on the depth chart.

Other battle fronts: With the addition of Marion Barber, there is a battle between him and Chester Taylor for the backup job behind starter Matt Forte.

Lions: Free agency is starting point

After every draft pick was announced in April, general manager Martin Mayhew was asked why he didn't draft a linebacker or a cornerback.

His answer — the draft wasn't the finish line. He thought he could upgrade those positions better in free agency and he's made good on his word.

The top prize was Stephen Tulloch, the league's second-leading tackler last season with 160.

Stephen Tulloch
Grant Halvorson/Getty Images
"He's a great ballplayer," said new starting safety Erik Coleman. "He's tough, he's physical, he loves to tackle and he seems like he's in control of the defense. All those values you want in a linebacker."

Tulloch's presence in the middle will force the Lions to move last year's starting middle linebacker, Wisconsin's DeAndre Levy, to the outside, a move Levy was anticipating and is ready for.

"I talked to them (coaches) and I told them I'd be willing to do whatever helps us win games," Levy said on Saturday. "Wherever they put me, I'm going to make the most of it."

The Lions starting linebacker trio to start last season was Levy in the middle with Zack Follett and Julian Peterson on the outside. This year, it looks to be Tulloch in the middle with Levy and Justin Durant, who was signed away from Jacksonville, on the outside.

It is a significant upgrade.

"Tulloch would add a little more speed," safety Louis Delmas said when asked about him last week. "He might be short and stubby (5-11, 240 pounds), but my man is fast. I raced him every day (in summer workouts in Miami) and I watched him run every day and man, he'd add some excitement."

Tulloch, who played on a one-year deal last year in Tennessee, was hoping for a multi-year deal. But his options got real short in a hurry when the Titans signed former Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud on Saturday.

That, coupled with the Lions interest in former Packers linebacker Nick Barnett, may have hastened Tulloch's decision to take the one-year deal.

— DT Ndamukong Suh had a busy summer, traveling to Europe and Australia and Mexico, among other places. When asked about it, coach Jim Schwartz said, "I don't care where I went this summer, somebody told me, 'Oh, I saw Suh in Australia, Oh I saw Suh in France.' There were more Suh sightings than Big Foot. But every single person that saw him said, 'Holy crap, he looks good.' He's in great shape. He's a pro. The best way to put it is, he's mature beyond his years."

Expected battle of the week: When the Lions signed free agent kicker Dave Rayner, veteran Jason Hanson, the longest tenured Lion and franchise scoring leader, knew that he'd be fighting to keep his job in this, his 20th training camp.

The reason: Hanson is 41 and he's had knee surgeries (first his plant leg and then his kicking leg) the last two years. Rayner filled in last season and went 13-for-16, including a game-winner at Tampa Bay.

Said Schwartz: "If we have a pressure kick, I would trust Jason to do it. It's just been a matter of health. He's getting a little bit older and the last two training camps he hasn't been healthy."

Rayner can't join the team until the new league year starts, but Hanson has looked strong. On Saturday he was booting them comfortably from 45 yards and beyond.

Other battle fronts: A couple of young veterans are fighting for the jobs. At running back, third-year Aaron Brown is running no higher than fifth behind Jahvid Best, rookie Mikel Leshoure, Maurice Morris and Jerome Felton. At wide receiver, Derrick Williams is now behind Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, rookie Titus Young and newly signed Rahied Davis. KR Stefan Logan is also in the mix at receiver.

Vikings remain in win-now mode

Coach Leslie Frazier has said at every turn that he does not believe the Vikings are rebuilding and that he thinks his team can rebound from a disappointing 2010 season.

Although the Vikings finished 6-10 and in last place in the NFC North, they went to the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago and Frazier is convinced that is the club he's taking over after serving as the interim coach for the final six games last season.

Frazier's faith in the fact he's not taking over a rebuilding project — right or wrong — was displayed when the Vikings obtained quarterback Donovan McNabb from the Washington Redskins for a sixth-round pick in 2012 and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2013 in the days after the NFL lockout ended.

McNabb, who will turn 35 in November, is coming off a poor season in Washington and certainly is on the downside of his career, but Frazier is confidence he can provide the type of boost that Brett Favre brought to this team in 2009.

Only time will tell if that's truly the case.

"Back in the spring, I was asked if we were in a rebuilding mode, and I never, ever saw it that way," Frazier said. "We're still a team that's one year removed from playing in the NFC Championship Game. So we've got some pieces in place on this football team to fight for an NFC North championship again. Donovan is a guy who should help our team improve in the 2011 season."

McNabb will have to play far better than he did a year ago if that is going to happen. He completed 58.3 percent of his passes (his worst percentage since 2006) and threw a career-high 15 interceptions. His 77.1 passer rating was his worst since his rookie season in 1999 with Philadelphia.

Expected battle of the week: LDE Brian Robison vs. Everson Griffen — Robison is expected to have the upper leg in the battle to replace Ray Edwards as the starting left end. Robison, who was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million just before the lockout began, had served as Edwards' backup and also played inside on passing downs. Griffen, a fourth-round pick of the Vikings last season, had some off-the-field issues this offseason but the hope is he can contribute more this year.

Other battle fronts: Chris DeGeare figures to get an opportunity to push Anthony Herrera for the right guard job. Herrera suffered a torn ACL last season and could begin training camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list. ... With Ben Leber not signed, Erin Henderson could start camp atop the depth chart at weak-side linebacker. The Vikings might give special-teams ace Kenny Onatolu a chance to push him. Jasper Brinkley is more suited for middle linebacker but he also could get a look. ... Newcomer Remi Ayodele figures to be the starting nose tackle, but Letroy Guion also could get a chance to compete for the job.

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