NFC North News

The rest of the division is considering potential roster moves as the June 1 cap casualties are around the corner.<p>


The Lions have settled -- temporarily, at least -- the question of who's going to play left guard on the offensive line.

"Right now, it's Matt Joyce," coach Steve Mariucci said.

That might still change before the start of the NFL season Sept. 12 but it's the best solution the Lions could find after losing two starters from last year's team - Ray Brown to retirement and Eric Beverly to the Atlanta Falcons in free agency.

They filled one of the holes by signing Damien Woody, who earned a Pro Bowl start at the center position at New England but also has extensive experience playing guard.

It was assumed Woody to be slotted at left guard - between tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola - but Mariucci and offensive line coach Pat Morris had Woody playing at right guard in the Lions' recent training camp. And Joyce surfaced as the best bet on the left side.

"He started the last four games last year when Beverly got hurt," Mariucci said. "He'll be competing with David Loverne and whoever else."

Loverne, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent, started 11 games with Washington in 2002 but was no better than the fifth guard last season at St. Louis. He is viewed as a backup to both guard positions more than as a starter at either.

The Lions guard positions are an important part of Mariucci's plan to improve the running game in 2004. He flirted with the possibility of trading with the Dallas Cowboys for guard Larry Allen but came away with the feeling Allen will land in Oakland, if the Cowboys actually let him go.

The only other possibility of landing another experienced guard will be to wait for the June 1 cuts and see if another player surfaces.

"I sense that we'll be potentially adding to this team between now and training camp," Mariucci said.

Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes

--Whether he likes it or not -- and it's obvious he doesn't -- Mike McMahon's role as the Lions backup quarterback is not likely to change in the near future.

"I think when I first came in here, he wanted to compete for the job even-up," coach Steve Mariucci said. "That's what his hope was, that he'd have an equal chance to compete.

"But I think that has sort of sorted itself out. Joey (Harrington) is our starter and Mike's our backup, even though I think he feels he would like to start, wants to start and should start."

Mariucci said he expects to discuss the situation with McMahon but even with Harrington's limited success in his first two seasons, he appears to be in little danger of losing the starting job.

Although Lions coaches love McMahon's athletic ability and his attitude, he completed only 9 of 31 passes in two games last year and has completed only 42.3 percent of his passes in three seasons.

Despite his lack of accuracy throwing the football, both Mariucci and president Matt Millen wanted to keep McMahon for at least another season as a backup to let him develop his skills.

Although the Cleveland Browns reportedly made inquiries about acquiring him, nothing developed and McMahon had little choice, as a restricted free agent, but to re-sign with the Lions.


"I heard Roy telling somebody ... `I run, I come back and I run, I come back and I run; they give me a play off and then I come back and I run.'" -- Quarterback Joey Harrington on how the Lions' rookies, including wide receiver Roy Williams, got a taste of life in the NFL during the recent minicamp.

Stragety and Personnel

Lions president Matt Millen is keeping an eye on the free agent market but it appears the Lions have done most of their offseason shopping.

The one area that is still a concern is offensive guard where they lost two - Eric Beverly to the Atlanta Falcons and Ray Brown to retirement - but signed only one starter - Damien Woody.

It is likely the Lions will wait until the June 1 cuts to see if they can find a reasonably-priced guard; otherwise the left guard job probably will go to utilityman Matt Joyce, who filled the position in minicamp.

Although there have been suggestions the Lions consider going after a veteran quarterback as the backup to Joey Harrington, it is not likely they will. They believe Harrington - given the additional offensive weapons he'll have this year - is on course to become a solid NFL quarterback.


Granted, free safety Brian Russell isn't the second coming of Ronnie Lott. Or Robert Griffith in his prime.

But one has to wonder if the Vikings should have rewarded Russell a tad more handsomely for his efforts in 2003. Russell, who had no leverage whatsoever as a player with only two years of NFL experience, was given a one-year, $380,000 contract on the eve of this year's minicamp.

Russell made the minimum of $300,000 last season. He was so underpaid in relation to his productivity that the NFL's "Performance Based Pay" program supplemented his salary with a league-high $114,258.

The PBP program was added to the league's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association in 2002. It uses league revenues to supplement pay to players whose playing time and performance is disproportionate to their pay.

Russell, an undrafted college quarterback an former practice squad player who almost was cut a couple of years ago, came out of nowhere in 2003 to play in every defensive snap and tie for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine.

The Vikings wanted former third-round draft pick Willie Offord to win the free safety job. But Offord underachieved and couldn't beat out the scrappy Russell.

The Vikings seem to be leaning toward Offord again this year. They like that Offord is bigger, and they aren't happy with Russell's open-field tackling.

During an informal state-of-the-team chat after the draft, coach Mike Tice said he wasn't pleased that Russell was attending classes at San Diego State instead of participating in the team's offseason strength and conditioning program.

"We have to continue to get better at free safety," Tice said.

Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes

--WR Randy Moss will wear orthotic inserts in his shoes to ease the pain from plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

"The orthotics seem to be taking a lot of the edge off," coach Mike Tice said.

--Like a lot of teams, the Vikings have two lists of prospects when they dive into the rookie free-agent signing period immediately after the draft. There's a list of regular prospects and a list of premium prospects. West Virginia LB Grant Wiley was a definite premium prospect. A consensus All-American last season, Wiley wasn't drafted because of his lack of size and speed. But Wiley has a chance to make the team. The Vikings are thin at middle linebacker and Wiley is a polished tackler. The Vikings thought enough of him to give him a $15,000 signing bonus, high for a rookie free agent.

Strategy and Personnel

Middle linebacker Greg Biekert made his retirement official on the eve of the team's first minicamp this weekend. The 35-year-old, who played the past two seasons with the Vikings after his first nine with the Raiders, would have been a backup to second-year pro E.J. Henderson had he returned.

Biekert's effectiveness diminished last season. He was too slow to protect the short-middle part of the field in pass coverage or stop the run if the ball carrier went anywhere but right at him.

Biekert had another year left on his contract. When he hesitated initially about leaving his family behind in Oakland for yet another season, the Vikings made the decision easier by not encouraging his return and letting it be known publicly that Henderson would be the starter.

Henderson is faster, more athletic and, obviously, a lot younger. He became the team's nickel linebacker last season. But there will be some growing pains as he adjusts to becoming an every-down player.

The Vikings will have to live with those pains. Without Biekert, there are no experienced backups behind Henderson. Fifth-round draft pick Rod Davis and former practice squad player Max Yates are possibilities.


"He was one of the smartest and toughest players I have ever been associated with." -- Coach Mike Tice, who said goodbye to middle linebacker Greg Biekert, who retired after 11 seasons, the past two with the Vikings.


While most of the discussion in the secondary has been about Mike Green and Bobby Gray competing at strong safety, don't forget the more important battle is at cornerback between Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters.

"We're going to have competition, and at cornerback it's the same thing. Both guys have played well, talking about Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters, and they cheer each other on when the other guy is making a good play," Lovie Smith said.

Charles Tillman quickly earned the reputation as the team's top cornerback, but who will lineup opposite of him when the season starts?

McQuarters has the talent to be a solid cornerback in this league. In 2001 he was the team's best cover man and got a healthy contract because of his work.

However since receiving a five-year deal worth $21 million his production has slipped. Injuries have played a part, as he was sidelined for nearly half of 2002. When he was on the field the reviews weren't kind.

Nicknamed the "Franchise", McQuarters was anything but last year and often looked overmatched. It took one of the worst games by a Bear in recent memory for him to be demoted. Against Seattle McQuarters was beaten for a touchdown, flagged for a pass interference penalty that set up another touchdown and also muffed a punt pinning the Bears inside their 10-yard line that led to more points for the Seahawks.

Azumah, who had been demoted in favor of Tillman after three games, came into his own after replacing McQuarters in the starting lineup.

Azumah finished tied with Tillman for the team lead in interceptions with four. The converted college running back also led the NFL with an average of 29.0 yards per kick return, which earned him a Pro Bowl appearance. The move also worked for McQuarters, who only had two interceptions, but finished among the league's top punt returns and played much better in a supporting role.

Considering the money that McQuarters makes it will be hard to keep him on the roster if he's not starting or willing to take a reduced salary. At this point the Bears don't have enough experience behind him to release the 5-foot-10, 198-pounder.

Fourth-round pick Nathan Vasher could eventually be the nickel back, but putting that type of pressure on him as a rookie when Chicago has a seven-year veteran under contract is unlikely.

There is a chance that McQuarters could revert to his '01 form and Azumah could be a solid third cornerback at a reasonable salary considering he's also a top-notch kick returner.

Strategy and Personnel

When asked if quarterbacks Tim Couch, Kurt Warner or Kerry Collins could be future Bears, coach Lovie Smith cast a vote of confidence for starter Rex Grossman and new backup Jonathan Quinn. But he didn't completely rule out adding another quarterback to the mix.

"We like the guys that we have right now," Smith said. "We're not openly going after any of the quarterbacks that are out there. Do things change? I guess sometimes things change, but I don't see why they would here.

"We don't have interest in them. That's what I've said; I'm saying that again. We like the guys we have. Everyone that comes available, we look at, and that's pretty much it."


"Rex Grossman is our quarterback, and we're real happy with that. And anything that we do from here on out is exploratory." -- GM Jerry Angelo on the Bears' quarterback situation.

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