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NFC North Issues

Find out what's new in the NFC North with "Hot News" entries collected from our fellow divisional sources: LionsFans.com, Viking Update and Bear Report.<P>


RB should get strong look: Luke Staley was a seventh-round draft pick in 2002 but missed his entire rookie season after undergoing yet another knee surgery. He spent the entire year rehabbing and looked good -- especially running routes and catching passes -- in minicamp. If he is healthy, he will compete strongly for a third-down job.

Streets re-signs with SF: A likely target for the Lions is no longer on the market. Tai Streets, who was rumored to be a cap casuality on June 1, re-signed with the 49ers for one year at $1.318 million. The deal means that Streets will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2003 season.

UDFA RB has potential:

Avon Cobourne was extremely productive at West Virginia and looked good in the Lions' minicamp, although he does not have ideal speed. He was signed as an undrafted rookie.

DT gets restructured deal: Defensive tackle Luther Elliss agreed to a restructured contract that allows him to remain with the team, albeit at a steep price. Elliss agreed to a nearly $4 million pay cut for the 2003 season, the rest of his original contract extension remains in place as does the bonus structure. Elliss has been assured a roster spot.

Rookie RB expected to compete

Artose Pinner was drafted in the fourth round after slipping because of a broken foot suffered in the Senior Bowl. Although not a speed merchant, the Lions liked his production at Kentucky. They will not rush his recovery but expect him to compete in training camp.

RB looking good so far

Shawn Bryson, an unrestricted free agent from Buffalo, seems to be on his way to a complete recovery from the knee injury that cost him a chance to compete with Travis Henry with the Bills. He has speed to carry from scrimmage but also catches the ball relatively well.

Trade talk doesn't faze DT

It's still unclear if the Lions succeeded in lighting a fire under their huge -- and frequently out of shape -- defensive tackle Shaun Rogers when they shopped him to the New England Patriots and other teams before the NFL draft last month. That won't be clear until the Lions get to training camp in July. Or perhaps not until they get to the NFL regular season in September. Lions president Matt Millen was willing to part with Rogers, a two-year veteran who has shown immense potential, for a first-round or high second-round draft pick, but got no such offer. The theory -- according to sources familiar with the situation -- was to send Rogers a wakeup call even if the trade couldn't be completed. If that indeed was the purpose, it apparently was wasted on Rogers, who looked at it as an indication of his popularity. "It snuck up on me once again that it's a business," he said. "I take it as a compliment that I'm a tradeable commodity, that's what it is."

Rogers slid to the second round of the 2001 NFL draft because he was coming off ankle surgery, and the Lions traded up to get him in the second round. Although he missed most of training camp, he played all 16 games his rookie season at a level close to Pro Bowl quality. In his second year, however, Rogers was slowed early by a minor surgical procedure on the same ankle, then suffered a broken, dislocated left thumb. His weight soared, his conditioning fell off and he did not have a good season.

"I had a cast on my hand, so I made the best of the situation, played as much as I could and as well as I could, and I got the results that I got," Rogers said.


Traylor to be released?

Keith Traylor should have a good idea of his future with the Chicago Bears as the June 1st salary cap cuts approach. The defensive tackle didn't take part in the team's May mini-camp because of an illness in the family.

There is a good chance Traylor will be released as Bryan Robinson moves to defensive tackle permanently and defensive coordinator Greg Blache plans on using Phillip Daniels on the inside in pass rush situations.

Both moves reduce the need for Traylor, especially with Ted Washington due back from a foot and ankle injury that forced him to miss the final 14 games of the 2002 season.

Careful with comparisons

After a rookie season in which he showed occasional flashes of pass-rushing talent and the ability to develop into an all-around strong-side linebacker, the Bears are hoping Bryan Knight has matured enough to move into the vacancy created by the free-agency departure of leading sacker Rosey Colvin. They have been careful not to compare Knight to Colvin, who led the Bears with 10 1/2 sacks in each of the past two seasons before leaving for New England. But coaches do believe that Knight can be an effective edge rusher and also drop into coverage, an area where Colvin was sometimes lacking.

"Bryan's got different skills that Rosey," coach Dick Jauron said. "He's faster than Rosey and probably a little bit quicker athlete. Rosey had a very good sense of the game, he had a great feel for the game of football and he had a feel for pass rush too, used his hands well, had a sense of what the tackle was trying to do. He could work with what the tackle was trying to do to him.

"Bryan has the speed factor, he's just got to keep working on the feel factor. I would say in terms of speed and foot quickness, he's ahead (of Colvin). In terms of probably overall feel, I think he's probably quite not where Rosey was. I do think though he's a talented player and he's got a good feel for the game, so I believe those things will come in time."

Competition in Bears QB depth

A sprained left knee is the latest obstacle in quarterback Henry Burris' desperate quest to earn a spot on the Bears' roster. Already this offseason, Burris' chances have been all but eliminated by the acquisition of unrestricted free agent Kordell Stewart and the drafting or Rex Grossman. The Bears continue to insist that they will keep injury-prone Chris Chandler as Stewart's backup, while bringing Grossman along as the quarterback of the future.

"The way I'm looking at it, it's better now than later, and I'll definitely be ready for camp, if not sooner," Burris said. "I'll continue to work hard, and whatever Chicago thinks, I can't control it."

With Cory Sauter also on the roster and participating in the Bears' off-season program, Burris, who was getting some much-needed playing time in NFL Europe, will be lucky to make it to training camp. With four games left in the Europe campaign, Burris suffered his injury while dropping back to pass in the Berlin Thunder's 24-14 victory over the Barcelona Dragons last weekend. The 27-year-old Canadian Football League refugee finished the game and completed 7 of 9 passes for 72 yards. Burris will rehab his knee back in the States and miss the Thunder's final four games. He finished the season with 55 completions on 99 attempts with five touchdowns and five interceptions while playing in a platoon system with Phil Stambaugh. Burris very rarely resembled an NFL quarterback last season while playing behind Jim Miller and Chandler. He completed just 18 of 51 passes (35.3 percent) for 207 yards while throwing three touchdowns and five interceptions. He did, however, provide some much-needed mobility behind the immovable Miller and Chandler. Still, in Burris' only start, when Miller and Chandler were both injured, he was awful, completing 7 of 19 passes for 78 yards and four interceptions against Tampa Bay. In that game, Sauter saw the first playing time of his five-year NFL career, and he was impressive, completing 6 of 9 for 59 yards and driving the Bears to the Bucs' eight-yard line, their deepest penetration of the day in a 15-0 loss. But with the multi-dimensional Stewart installed as the starter and Grossman projected as the future with Chandler around as insurance, Burris and Sauter face an uphill battle to make the final roster. If, however, the Bears decide that Chandler and his fragile health are a luxury they can't afford, Sauter and maybe even Burris have hope - but not much.

Daniels on the move

While most of the Bears defensive ends are one-dimensional, Phillip Daniels can play the run and rush the passer. Therefore, defensive coordinator Greg Blache plans on playing Daniels at left end on first and second down and then will move inside in nickel situations providing pressure on the quarterback from defensive tackle.

Could have a big impact

Four different players started at tight last season, in order, Fred Baxter, John Davis, Dustin Lyman and John Gilmore. Baxter was cut three games into the season after criticizing offensive coordinator John Shoop's play calling. The other three are back this season, but unrestricted free agent Desmond Clark is No. 1 on the depth chart.

"He can stretch the field vertically," coach Dick Jauron said of Clark, who was impressive during last week's minicamp 11-on-11 passing drills. "He's got good hands. He's got a feel for the game. To my knowledge, he's never been the starter. That's the difference now, he is the starter. He is our guy. We expect him to step up and play like that athlete that you all saw out there."

Two years ago Clark caught 51 passes for 566 yards and six TDs with the Denver Broncos. The Bears four tight ends caught a total of 49 passes last season for 495 yards and five TDs. The Bears believe Clark's pass-catching ability will provide quarterback Kordell Stewart with another dangerous weapon and give opposing defenses another distraction. At 6-feet-3 and 255 pounds, with enough speed to get deep, Clark may be a difficult matchup for most opponents.

"Unless they have a great coverage 'backer that they feel can single him up, or a safety that is athletically big enough and skilled enough to cover him," Jauron said.

Could compete for starting role

Bobby Gray impressed the Bears coaching staff enough last year to be put on the field in dime situations before suffering a dislocated wrist in Week 3. The safety could have a shot at unseating Mike Green as the starting free safety.

At 6-foot 205 pounds Gray has the strength to play the run, but being able to cover tight ends and running backs on a down-by-down basis will be a challenge. The training camp competition between Green and Gray could be among the best battles on the defensive side of the ball.

Nickel in the future?

The Bears drafted Charles Tillman in the second round (35th overall) with the intention of making him their nickel cornerback.

"I think I can contribute to the nickel back spot," Tillman said. "It's going to take me a little bit of time to learn the defense and formations, but I'm sure with (Mike) Brown and (Mike) Green and (secondary) coach (Vance) Bedford, they're going to teach me and I'll learn it pretty quick."

Tillman will have to compete with Roe Williams for the spot. However, all indications are that the team isn't happy with Williams' lack of production as a rookie.

"I'm not trying to step on anybody's toes and try to come in and say, ‘I've got this, I'm going to do this.' I'm kind of just holding back, sitting back, watching, learning the ropes. I'll step in when I have to."

Last year the Bears had just nine interceptions and only one from their top corners in R.W. McQuarters and Jerry Azumah.

Kordell's start doesn't mirror Grossman's

Most teams prefer to bring young quarterbacks along slowly, which is what the Bears plan to do with rookie Rex Grossman. When new Bears starter Kordell Stewart was a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played right away -- but not quarterback.

"I didn't watch, I played," Stewart said. "I was Slash at the time. So, as a quarterback, I was playing wide receiver. It gave me the opportunity to understand what it was the quarterback needed from his wideouts."

As a rookie in 1995, Stewart threw just seven passes, but he caught 14 balls for 235 yards (16.8-yard average) and ran 15 times for 86 yards (5.7-yard average). The next season he threw only 30 passes but caught 17 for 293 yards (17.2-yard average) and rushed 39 times for 171 yards (4.4-yard average). "Once I had my opportunity to go in and play quarterback, it was easy for me to catch on," Stewart, who became the starter in 1997. "And that's when we went to the AFC championship. The benefit for me was I had the opportunity to get out there and run the sight adjustments (as a receiver), the hot routes and run against the one-on-one matchups, (so I learned) where I needed the ball to be."

RB will be given opportunity to start

The Bears running game finished last in the league in 2002 and for the team to improve that stat will have to change. Although, Anthony Thomas has been named the starter, Adrian Peterson will be given every chance to unseat the "A-Train" in training camp.

Peterson, who was drafted in the sixth-round of the 2002 draft, carried the ball 19 times for 101 yards as a rookie.

Back issues for TE

TE John Davis did not participate in minicamp because of a back injury that has nagged him since midway through last season. Rest was expected to alleviate the problem, but he has not responded as well as the team had hoped.

A-Train "special" enough?

It was months ago that general manager Jerry Angelo voiced the opinion that he didn't consider running back Anthony Thomas to be a "special" player. Last season the A-Train averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, a drastic drop-off from his rookie season average of 4.3.

"It's the first time I'm hearing it because I don't watch TV or read what you guys write in the papers," Thomas said. "I just want to go in and try to make myself better. I just know what I have to do. I'm here for one reason; to come in and try to help win games. I can't worry about what the players say or what the media says. I just need to go in and do my thing. That's the only thing I can do."

Coach Dick Jauron has plans to get second-year player Adrian Peterson more involved in a running attack that produced the fewest yards in the NFL last season with Thomas as the main man. "I don't need anybody to push me or cuss me or do things like that to motivate me," Thomas said, when asked if he thought Peterson's role was to put pressure on him to be more productive. "I think I'm a self-motivated player."


The Steal of the Draft?

Onterrio Smith has already given himself a nickname. Here it is; see if you can figure it out: "The SOD." Mr. Smith? "The Steal of the Draft," he said, joking.

He could be. Most figured Smith would be a second- or third-round draft choice. But, for many reasons -- his past perhaps a big one -- he lasted until the second day, when the Vikings snapped him up despite the fact that Michael Bennett was coming off the second-best rushing career in team history. Smith, though, could be a striking compliment to what Bennett offers. Bennett's speed could be augmented by Smith's slashing, between-the-tackles style. Indeed, it if Smith practices to his potential when training camp begins, he could compete to wrest snaps away from Moe Williams, last year's short-yardage and goal-line back. But the question remains: Why did he fall to the fourth round? Well, he was kicked off the Tennessee football team in 2000 after testing positive for marijuana. He then transferred to Oregon and sat out a year. But, at age 20, he was arrested for drunken driving and driving with a suspended license. He also had a torn lateral miniscus in his left knee midway through the 2002 season, and had surgery in November. He returned to play in his team's bowl game, but did not work out at the scouting combine. Well, his knee seems fine. And, he claims, he's a more mature young man. Smith figures to make his first impact on special teams. He averaged 26.7 yards per kickoff return at Oregon, and the Vikings hope he can fill that role for them; the team has been looking for a breakaway threat on kickoff returns since David Palmer in 1998.

Initial showing positive

One of the best impressions to come out of minicamp was Daunte Culpepper living up to coach Mike Tice's expectation that he become more of a student of the game. The initial post-minicamp reaction was that Culpepper was as sharp as he's ever been -- making reads better and going through his progressions better.

Last year he was saddled with the baggage of the "Randy Ratio." It's clear now that, as the QB of the present and the future, he won't force passes to meet a quota -- and he looks ready to live up to his new contract by becoming the leader the coaches envision he will be.

Bennett on schedule

Running back Michael Bennett, recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, planned to begin running soon. "Everything is ahead of schedule," he said.

Impressing early

The early returns on rookie punter Eddie Johnson are very good. Johnson, drafted in the sixth round, was very impressive during minicamps. Johnson, who averaged 46 yards per punt in two seasons at Idaho, has assumed the lead position at his position. "He has just got exceptional leg strength," coach Mike Tice said. "You can hear the ball come off his foot. It sounds like a shotgun blast each time."

A year later, no regrets

This time Bryant McKinnie will be with the team from the start of training camp, part of a shuffled offensive line that Vikings coaches feel will be the strongest the team has had since 1998. But, as minicamp was set to get under was last week, McKinnie talked about last year's half-season-long holdout. The bottom line: He doesn't regret it. Believe him, he heard it all during his holdout. Why not take the money? Isn't an $8 million signing bonus enough? Don't you care about your team? Even his mother urged him to fire his agents and end his holdout. "But when I believe in something," he said, "I stick with it." The crux of the holdout came because the two sides disagreed what the seventh player taken in the 2002 draft was worth. The Dallas Cowboys had given Safety Roy Williams, selected one spot after McKinnie in the draft, a signing bonus of $9.3 million, and McKinnie and his agents believed the NFL slotting system dictated he should get more. The Vikings argued that Dallas overpaid Williams. The bottom line was McKinnie didn't end his three-month holdout until his guaranteed money was raised to $9.35 million. The total value of the contract was lower than the one he had rejected, but the guaranteed money was his top concern.

"I have helped a lot of people that will come behind me, and they didn't even know it," McKinnie said. "All they know is that I held out. But I'd tell them, 'I benefited y'all, too.' Hopefully some people look at it that way."

Why now?

The motives behind the move have been speculated on ever since Friday's news broke that Daunte Culpepper was going to become the highest-paid player in Vikings' history. Maybe owner Red McCombs was tired of being called a cheapskate, maybe a splash was needed to get the bad taste of that draft-day clock expiration blunder out of everybody's mouths.

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