NFC North Issues

Here is an update - news, notes, quotes, and draft needs/wants - on other teams in the NFC North Division.<p>

CHICAGO BEARS

INSIDE SLANT

In yet another indication that Rex Grossman is the Bears' future and present at quarterback, veteran backup Chris Chandler was released last March 19.

Chandler started six games last season, compiling a 3-3 record. For the season, the 38-year-old, 16-year NFL veteran had a passer rating of 61.3 with three TD passes and seven interceptions. Chandler's departure saves the Bears the $1.4 million he was due this season and could improve the team's chances of signing another unrestricted free agent.

Without Chandler, the Bears have just two quarterbacks. Grossman, who had a 78.5 passer rating in three starts last season, is entrenched as the starter, even though he threw just 62 passes last season. New Bears coach Lovie Smith realizes that his team will lack experience at the most important position, but he has confidence in Grossman's ability to handle the job.

"It's not ideal," Smith said. "Five years from now, we're going to like Rex Grossman a lot more than we do this year. But we think that Rex can do the job. We'll put more on him (in five years) than we will initially. He just has to have a consistent year and not make a lot of bad plays for us this coming year. "Whether we win or lose, it isn't always just Rex. A quarterback has to play well, but to me the pressure's more on the guys around him. The defense has to come through and get a lot of turnovers to put Rex in position where he has to take the team 40 yards instead of 80 yards. We're going to be concentrating more on that type of stuff than anything."

Former Kansas City Chiefs No. 3 quarterback Jonathan Quinn, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on March 3, is Grossman's only backup for now. The Bears are expected to add another quarterback, more likely through the draft than free agency, although both options are possible.

The 6-foot-4, 224-pound Chandler was signed by the Bears as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2002 season and that year became the first player in NFL history to start for seven different teams (the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Phoenix Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons in addition to the Bears.)

Chandler started seven games in 2002 but was knocked out of three of them with a sprained neck, then a sprained ankle and finally a concussion. He finished each of his first five starts last season but left his sixth with an injury to his right shoulder.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--Lovie Smith said he has no qualms about using starters on special teams, even as returners, as the Bears used cornerbacks Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters last season to return kickoffs and punts, respectively.

"Let me ask you this," Smith said. "What's the object each play? To score. So it doesn't matter, offense, defense, special teams, the object is to score. If that's your best option to score, that's what you should do.

"So, for us, Jerry's a great return guy. We're going to have him returning the ball. Some guys, if you don't have to put them at risk, we won't. But guys that we think can change the game on that play, we're going to put them in that situation. R.W. McQuarters returning punts. I just think it's important that you do that."

--The Bears will open the 2004 preseason on the road against the Rams, coach Lovie Smith's former employer.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We think John (Tait) can be an All-Pro at the right tackle. At left tackle he may be OK for right now. But we recruited John, and we signed him to play right tackle for us. We think we're going to do an awful lot on that right side, and we want him there." -- Lovie Smith on recently signed UFA ORT John Tait.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Defensive tackle - UFA Keith Traylor won't be back, and holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone are ordinary players, not the kind of playmakers that Lovie Smith needs for his defense; Offensive left tackle - Mike Gandy filled in here for most of the past two seasons, but he's a guard, and he plays left tackle like a guard. 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo may never make it back from a dislocated knee cap suffered in November of that year. For now, inexperienced Qasim Mitchell is No. 1 based on his two starts last season; Wide receiver - The Bears need a complement for Marty Booker, preferably one with big-play capabilities.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): OG Corbin Lacina; DT Keith Traylor.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (1): DE Joe Tafoya.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Steve Edwards; OT Mike Gandy; CB Todd McMillon; WR Ahmad Merritt; FB Stanley Pritchett; WR Dez White.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: RB Thomas Jones; OG Michael Keathley; QB Jonathan Quinn; OT John Tait.

PLAYERS LOST: QB Chris Chandler; DE Phillip Daniels; LB Warrick Holdman; QB Kordell Stewart; OG Chris Villarrial.

MEDICAL WATCH: OT Marc Colombo will not be ready to compete in minicamps and is shooting for the start of training camp, but he may not be able to come back at all after suffering a dislocated knee cap in November of 2002 and ensuing complications; OG Rex Tucker (torn right ankle tendon) is already back in action and should be 100 percent by the March minicamp; QB Rex Grossman (fractured right index finger) should not be hindered during minicamp practices.

DETROIT LIONS

INSIDE SLANT

There is no doubt the addition of safety Brock Marion can be a major step in firming up the Lions' defensive secondary.

But that does - and should not - mean the Lions have finished rebuilding in that area, which - except for cornerback Dre' Bly - was a virtual disaster area last season.

In particular, it does not mean the Lions will - or should - forget about drafting safety Sean Taylor of Miami if he happens to be available when the exercise the No. 6 pick in the draft.

Marion, who will be 34 in June, gives the Lions the leadership, experience and savvy they need at free safety and it is expected Brian Walker will start at strong safety with promising second-year safety Terrence Holt playing a backup role.

What on earth would give anyone the idea that that combination would leave no room for Taylor, who is considered by some as the best athlete in the draft and has been referred to as the possible next Ronnie Lott?

There is a distinct possibility Taylor would join Marion in the starting lineup ahead of Walker, who has not been the high-impact player the Lions had hoped for when they signed him two years ago, and Holt, who is still a work in progress.

By the time Marion is ready to retire, Taylor would be going into the prime of his career, capable of playing either safety position and assuming the leadership role.

Even without Taylor, the Lions have made huge strides in upgrading their secondary by adding cornerback Fernando Bryant and Marion; the addition of Taylor would make it a smashing success.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--The Lions' offseason workout program gets underway this week and coach Steve Mariucci expects good results.

"I think 56 out of 61 guys are going to be in, which is tremendous," Mariucci said. "The other guys will be in a little bit later.

"We have fewer guys this year that are nursing surgeries and injuries and are limited than in years past. We had nine guys (last year) enter the season on PUP. This year we seem to be healthier in March and April."

--The Lions' preseason schedule has been set, except for the actual dates of the games.

They will open and close the preseason with home games against Pittsburgh (the weekend of Aug. 12-16) and Buffalo (Sept. 2-5), with road games against Cleveland (Aug. 19-23) and Baltimore (Aug. 26-30) in between.

The exact dates will be announced along with the regular season schedule in early April.

The Lions' regular season schedule includes home games against the NFC North division opponents plus Arizona, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Washington.

The regular season road schedule includes games against Atlanta, Dallas, Jacksonville, the New York Giants, Tennessee and the NFC North teams.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel that I'm playing at a pretty good level right now. I've been doing that pretty consistently over my career. The main thing is that I'm having fun playing football; I still enjoy playing." -- Safety Brock Marion, who will be 34 in June, on how much longer he'll be able to play with the Lions.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Lions had a ton of needs going into the offseason and they have had a steady stream of visitors at their Allen Park headquarters as president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci try to fill the holes in the roster.

Their most recent success was the signing of free safety Brock Marion. Combined with the signing of cornerback Fernando Bryant in early March, it gives the Lions a major overhaul in the defensive secondary where they struggled in 2003. With Bryant and Marion joining cornerback Dre' Bly, they should be much stronger in 2004.

On the same day Marion visited, the Lions also hosted Denver linebacker Ian Gold. Although he left without a contract, the Lions have an obvious interest and an obvious need in signing him after losing weak-side linebacker Barrett Green to the NY Giants.

Guard Ruben Brown visited the Lions last week also, but was not signed, leaving them still looking for a starting guard to line up with LG Damien Woody, who was signed early in March.

A new concern has surfaced also. Backup QB Mike McMahon is expected to accept their one-year offer for $1.3 million but he is likely to leave after the 2004 season for a team that will give him a shot at a starting job. And the Lions have lost third-string QB Ty Detmer to Atlanta, leaving them in need of at least one young quarterback to develop.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: 1. Running back. They released veteran RB James Stewart for cap reasons and last year's biggest producer, Shawn Bryson, is a UFA, leaving only second-year RB Artose Pinner. They need a lead back, probably in the draft but might have to re-sign Stewart just to stay respectable for a year; 2. Wide receiver. The Lions released Bill Schroeder after two unhappy and unproductive seasons but they have to find a replacement to line up across from WR Charles Rogers. Two possibilities - UFA WR Tai Streets of San Francisco and a first or second-round draft pick; 3. Guard. By signing UFA Damien Woody from New England, the Lions are all set at LG but would like to land an experienced starter at RG, then re-sign Eric Beverly as a backup to all three interior line positions.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (7): OG Kerlin Blaise; OG Ray Brown; CB Doug Evans; WR Shawn Jefferson; P John Jett; CB Otis Smith; LB Brian Williams.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): CB Leonard Myers (RFA tender withdrawn).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (7): WR Scotty Anderson; LB Donte' Curry; P Nick Harris; QB Mike McMahon; CB Leonard Myers; WR Reggie Swinton; FB Stephen Trejo.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (4): CB Chris Cash; S Julius Curry; LS Jody Littleton; OG Josh Lovelady.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: RB Shawn Bryson; WR Eddie Drummond; DE James Hall; WR David Kircus; DT Kelvin Pritchett; S Bracy Walker.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB Fernando Bryant; OG David Loverne; S Brock Marion; CB Dainon Sidney; WR Tai Streets; OG Damien Woody.

PLAYERS LOST: OG Eric Beverly; QB Ty Detmer; DT Luther Elliss; LB Jeff Gooch; S Corey Harris; WR Bill Schroeder; RB James Stewart.

MEDICAL WATCH: DE Kalimba Edwards, who struggled last season and was never effective after an off-season surgery for a sports hernia, underwent a similar surgery again this year and is said to be progressing much better. No immediate indication on what he will be able to do in mini-camp, however.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

INSIDE SLANT

It was near midnight March 19 and Vikings coach Mike Tice was as happy as he's been since free agency began 16 days earlier.

Tice had just spoken to Darren Bennett, the unrestricted free agent punter from San Diego. Bennett, 39, had just agreed to a two-year, $2-million offer to join the Vikings after spending his first nine seasons in San Diego.

"We're three-for-three," said Tice, referring to the Vikings' top three priorities heading into free agency. "We wanted to re-sign (tight end) Jimmy Kleinsasser before free agency, which we did. We wanted to sign (cornerback) Antoine Winfield, which we did. And we wanted to sign Darren Bennett, which we just did."

Sure, the Vikings have other holes, including a glaring one at right defensive end. They've also whiffed in their attempts to find a weak-side linebacker.

But Bennett was an important signing. He's a seasoned punter, a two-time Pro Bowler with a career average near 44 yards.

"He has all the kicks you need, and he'll be in the dome," Tice said. "I was as impressed with him as any free agent we've had come in."

The Vikings tried to go the cheap route at punter last season when they drafted Eddie Johnson in the sixth round out of Idaho State. Johnson had a decent preseason and won the job.

The Vikings complained about his release time so often that it became a mental block for Johnson. After he dropped three snaps in three consecutive games late in the season, Johnson was benched as the Vikings had to drag journeyman Leo Araguz away from his insurance business in Texas to punt the final two games.

Johnson won't be released immediately. The Vikings will need two punters for training camp. But it's obvious Johnson's days with the Vikings are over.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--RB Michael Bennett, a former Big Ten sprint champion at Wisconsin, was going to skip the Vikings' offseason conditioning program to run track. But when the Vikings hired his former personal trainer, Mark Ellis, as assistant strength and conditioning coach, Bennett changed his mind.

--One of the hardest things coach Mike Tice has had to do this offseason is tell TE Hunter Goodwin he was going to be released. Tice, a former blocking tight end for 16 NFL seasons, had a soft spot for the blue-collar Goodwin. But Goodwin became expendable when the Vikings signed Jermaine Wiggins, who's more versatile than Goodwin. Tice was happy to see Atlanta sign Goodwin three days later.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it will be a good experience for my family. When I was there the other day, it was only the second time in my life that I've seen snow," punter Darren Bennett, who is leaving sunny San Diego and the Chargers for Minneapolis and the Vikings.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It's possible that the Vikings' starting defensive ends on opening day 2004 will be Chuck Wiley and Nick Rogers.

Ouch.

What about Kenny Mixon, you ask?

Mixon's status became cloudy this week when a jury found him guilty of drunken-driving, possessing and open container of alcohol and driving without a license. It was Mixon's second DUI conviction and third alcohol-related incident in 16 months.

Mixon faces up to a year in jail and a possible four-game suspension from the NFL. His sentencing is April 1. The league won't take any action until after Mixon is sentenced.

Mixon probably won't have to serve a year. If he doesn't appeal, he is expected to conclude his jail time -- possibly 90 days -- before the start of training camp.

Mixon was solid at left end last season. Wiley was the primary starter at right end, while undersized Lance Johnstone was a situational pass rusher.

Rogers will be moved from linebacker to right end, where he played in college. Wiley and Billy Lyon are backups, although the Vikings will look for defensive ends in the draft and during the second wave of free agency following the June 1 roster cuts.

NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: The Vikings addressed two of their biggest needs in free agency by signing Antoine Winfield as a shutdown left cornerback and Marcus Robinson as a No. 2 receiver. Here are their new needs for the draft: Right defensive end: The Vikings don't bring enough pressure off the edge. DT Kevin Williams (10.5 sacks) had an outstanding rookie season and needs help from the outside. A dominant RDE is needed; Outside linebacker: The Vikings would like to find a fast, athletic weakside linebacker. That would allow them to move Chris Claiborne to the strong side. Nick Rogers, who finished last season as a starting outside linebacker, has been moved back to his more natural position at right defensive end. Defensive tackle: The Vikings could use more depth here; Offensive line: They also need more depth here.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (2): OT Everett Lindsay; C Cory Withrow.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): P Leo Araguz; RB John Avery.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (1): CB Eric Kelly.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (1): S Brian Russell.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OG Lewis Kelly; TE Jim Kleinsasser.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: P Darren Bennett; S Tyrone Carter; DT Steve Martin; WR Marcus Robinson; TE Jermaine Wiggins; CB Antoine Winfield.

PLAYERS LOST: WR D'Wayne Bates; S Jack Brewer; TE Hunter Goodwin; DT Fred Robbins; DE Talance Sawyer.

MEDICAL WATCH: LB Henri Crockett probably won't participate at the beginning of the team's offseason conditioning program. He had shoulder surgery after the 2003 season.


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