NFC North Issues

Here's a look at recent NFC North Division news from the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers:

Chicago Bears
INSIDE SLANT

Quarterback Rex Grossman continues to impress observers with his mechanics and accuracy during the Bears' organized team activities, which run Monday-Thursday the first four weeks of June. "I didn't know that much about him other than what I saw on film and I thought he played well when he played last year," said Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "I was pleasantly surprised at how well he throws the football; all passes. He's got great velocity, tremendous accuracy and he throws a nice, tight spiral. The ball comes out of his hand as well as anybody I've seen."

Grossman can't wait to display his talents as an every-week starter during the regular season, something he's never come close to doing, since he's started just six games in two seasons.

"I'm more motivated than ever to play a full season," Grossman said. "And to go to the playoffs and do a bunch of big things."

The Bears expect nothing less.

Even after the disaster that ensued at quarterback last season following Grossman's season-ending ruptured ACL in Game Three, the Bears did not pursue a veteran backup.

G.M. Jerry Angelo wants no confusion when it comes to who will be leading the offense this year and in the foreseeable future. And he has spent lavishly to provide the third-year QB, who has just six NFL starts, with the necessary weaponry.

"We made an investment in Rex," Angelo said, "and we have to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure that that investment comes to fruition."

That includes adding Pro Bowl veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad ($30 million) and right tackle Fred Miller ($22.5 million) this past off-season, to go along with last year's pricey addition of tackle John Tait ($33.65 million) and guard Ruben Brown ($8 million).

The Bears used the fourth overall pick in the draft on running back Cedric Benson, even though they spent $10 million a year earlier on free agent Thomas Jones.

NOTES, QUOTES
-- If the Bears don't show significant improvement from last season's 5-11 disappointment, coach Lovie Smith will still be back for a third season.

But time is running out for general manager Jerry Angelo. This year's draft was his fourth, and if his personnel doesn't start to pay major dividends in 2005, he'll need asbestos underwear. Angelo came aboard after the late Mark Hatley conducted the 2001 draft. The Bears made their only postseason appearance in the past 10 years that season, but all the major players were acquired by Hatley. Since then, the Bears' record is 16-32.

Angelo chose Smith to succeed Dick Jauron, who was fired after the 2003 season. When Angelo made the announcement, he remarked that, if things didn't work out, he wouldn't be around long enough to make another coaching hire.

He's right.

A playoff berth might not be imperative for Smith, especially since he's working with five new assistants this season. But for Angelo's sake, the Bears must at least appear to be on the verge of becoming a postseason team.

-- Nathan Vasher, a 2004 fourth-round pick who led the Bears with five interceptions as a rookie, is continuing to show the same propensity for making plays on the ball during offseason practices.

Vasher first displayed his knack for picking off passes at Texas, where he tied a school record with 17 career interceptions.

"It's a lot of preparation and then taking advantage of the opportunity," Vasher said. "Being able to catch the ball and finish, that's what I pride my game on. Being able to even be close to it, that's the tough part. But finishing is probably the easiest."

Vasher is penciled in as the third cornerback behind Charles Tillman and Jerry Azumah, and his potential and production allowed the Bears to trim veteran R.W. McQuarters and his $3.05 base salary from the books last month.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm learning something every day -- what there guys can do and what they can't. What they can handle mentally, who can handle what. Every day I come out here, I learn more about the personality of this team and the personnel of this team." -- Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Jeff George; OT Aaron Gibson.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: S Chris Harris (6/181).
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OL Steve Edwards; TE John Gilmore; S Bobby Gray; CB Todd McMillon; OG Terrence Metcalf; TE John Owens.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: WR Eddie Berlin; PK Doug Brien; OL Roberto Garza; WR Muhsin Muhammad; OT Fred Miller; LB LeVar Woods.
PLAYERS LOST: PK Paul Edinger; CB R.W. McQuarters; QB Jonathan Quinn; WR David Terrell; RB Anthony Thomas; OG Rex Tucker.

DETROIT LIONS
INSIDE SLANT

After missing the final 11 games of his rookie season (2003) and virtually all of the 2004 season, Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers is eager to get started on the 2005 NFL season.

"I'm just eager to play football," Rogers said, during the final week of the Lions organized team activities at Allen Park last week. "I'm just glad to be out here on the football field, participating, contributing and trying to get this team rolling, to win some football games."

Rogers, the second player taken in the 2003 NFL draft, has either been extremely unlucky or is just too fragile to last through an entire season with his slender build. The Lions are obviously hoping he has just been unlucky.

Rogers got off to a good start in his rookie season with 22 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns in the Lions' first five games but he suffered a broken right collarbone in practice and missed the rest of the season.

He was back in the starting lineup last year but he lunged for a pass on the third play of the season opener at Chicago, landed hard on the ground and suffered a second break in his right collarbone, just inches from the first.

Rogers had a plate surgically attached to the collarbone after the second injury and has completed a long period of rehab. He has put on 10-12 pounds, putting him at approximately 212 on a 6-feet-3 frame, which the Lions hope will make him more sturdy.

Rogers got some encouragement in the final week of the OTAs when the Lions medical staff cleared him to practice in a regular blue jersey, rather than in the red jersey reserved for players coming off injuries.

"We're not scrimmaging so it's still a little different than the real stuff but, at least, it's a step in the right direction," said coach Steve Mariucci.

NOTES, QUOTES
-- CB R.W. McQuarters, formerly of the Bears, has agreed to a deal with Detroit. It's reportedly a one-year deal worth $1.6 million. As of Friday night, he hadn't signed but had agreed. Lions president Matt Millen was interested in both McQuarters and Ty Law but didn't want to risk a long wait on Law's recovery from the broken foot, so he went after McQuarters. It's uncertain where the Lions plan on using him. He could be at CB, FS or as a nickel. He also gives them a backup to Eddie Drummond on punt returns.

-- The Lions have another four weeks of conditioning work in the off-season program but they put the wraps on their final organized team activity workouts at Allen Park last week.

Coach Steve Mariucci called the final two-week session of on-field work "a start."

"Would I like to be better at practice, with more precision and better execution and fewer assignment mistakes?" he asked. "Absolutely. We always want to be better. You never want a ball on the ground. You want it to be right.

"But we presented a lot of material for the first time for these guys. Even for the veterans, some of this was new. It starts off this way and the next time you do it, it gets better.

"So we're going to be ready for the Packers after a preseason and camp; we're not ready for them yet."

The Lions open the regular season Sept. 11 against longtime rival Green Bay at Ford Field.

Mariucci estimated he and his staff have installed 80 percent of the offensive and defensive plays they will use next season. The remaining 20 percent and the polishing process will have to wait until the start of training camp July 28.

-- The bocce tradition that Lions coach Steve Mariucci launched seven years ago when he was coaching at San Francisco is continuing.

Mariucci held his second annual bocce ball tournament in suburban Detroit last week, raising well over $200,000 for the Detroit Lions Charities.

Twenty-eight four-player teams participated in the tournament and fans paid $200 each for admission. A number of Lions players also participated, playing against fans who dished out additional cash in a "beat the celebrity" phase of the event.

Mariucci, who comes from a strong Italian background where bocce was played on a regular basis, decided to hold a tournament as a fund-raiser when he was coaching the 49ers in San Francisco.

It was so popular - attracting the likes of John Madden and 49ers players - that it has become a regular event. Even now that he is coaching in Detroit, Mariucci goes back to San Francisco for what will be his seventh tournament there.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like our progress. I like where we're headed. You don't look back. Nobody's ever won a 100-meter dash by peeking over their shoulder. You keep focused, keep your eyes on the prize and the things you have to accomplish, and when we do that it's going to be awesome." - Coach Steve Mariucci on the pressure to produce a winning team in his third year with the Lions.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Rick Mirer; DT Kelvin Pritchett; CB Dainon Sidney; WR Tai Streets; FB Stephen Trejo.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Eddie Drummond.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: DT Marcus Bell; OT Sean Bubin; CB Chris Cash; CB Mike Echols; TE Casey FitzSimmons; S Vernon Fox; CB Andre Goodman; OG Tyrone Hopson; WR David Kircus; LS Jody Littleton; LS Don Muhlbach; LB Wali Rainer; C Dominic Raiola; OT Victor Rogers; WR Scottie Vines; S Bracy Walker.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: G Rick DeMulling; QB Jeff Garcia; C Brock Gutierrez; WR Kevin Johnson; S Kenoy Kennedy; OT Kyle Kosier; OG Rob Murphy; TE Marcus Pollard; RB Jamel White.
PLAYERS LOST: TE Stephen Alexander; CB Rod Babers; WR Az-Zahir Hakim; OT Matt Joyce; S Brock Marion; RT Stockar McDougle; QB Mike McMahon; WR Reggie Swinton; S Brian Walker.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
INSIDE SLANT

The Vikings' youth movement at place-kicker might spread to the punter position if Travis Dorsch performs in training camp as he did in NFL Europe this spring.

Dorsch was named to the All-NFL Europe first team after leading the league in punting with a 42.5-yard average for the Rhein Fire. He punted 44 times with 11 inside the 20-yard line and a long of 60 yards.

Dorsch will compete with 40-year-old Darren Bennett, who is coming off the worst of his 10 NFL seasons. Bennett had career lows for average (39.3) and punts downed inside the 20 (18) in 2004, his first season with the Vikings after nine years in San Diego.

Bennett teamed with 44-year-old kicker Morten Andersen to give the Vikings the oldest duo of specialists in the league. Andersen, a free agent, was not re-signed. The place-kicking duties are up for grabs between Aaron Elling and former Bear Paul Edinger.

Dorsch was a fourth round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2002 out of Purdue. He never established himself with the Bengals and was released. He signed with the Vikings on Aug. 3, 2004.

Dorsch spent the first two weeks on the Vikings' practice squad. Bennett's age and poor 2004 season convinced the Vikings to sent Dorsch to NFL Europe.

Bennett has one year left on his contract. He signed a two-year deal last year worth more than $2 million.

Bennett, however, never got comfortable as a Viking last year. After years of heavy duty with the Chargers, Bennett went long stretches without punting last season. There was one game early in the season in which the Vikings didn't punt at all.

Bennett finished with a career-low 57 attempts. Without Randy Moss this fall, Bennett's workload might increase. Of course, that's assuming the young Dorsch doesn't beat him out first.

NOTES, QUOTES
-- Veteran MLB Sam Cowart, who was signed as a free agent from the Jets, has impressed coaches with his leadership and grasp of coordinator Ted Cottrell's defense. Cowart played for Cottrell in New York and Buffalo. "Sam certainly has made a difference in there with his quarterbacking skills at middle linebacker," coach Mike Tice said after a recent developmental camp. "He's been absolutely brilliant and excellent. And he has certainly shown that he has enough juice left in that body to be an excellent player."

-- TE Jermaine Wiggins will never look buff or chiseled, but coaches say he's in better shape than he was when he joined the team last season. "He signed a nice deal for him, and I think he feels loved right now," coach Mike Tice said. "He's been in the offseason program, and he's had a great offseason. His body actually looks better than it was. He kind of has the ugly body, but he looks better, he looks more fit."

-- The Vikings are being careful with WR Nate Burleson, who is coming back from surgery to repair a broken middle finger. "Nate's been running all the routes," offensive coordinator Steve Loney said. "He just can't catch the ball or stick a hand up on it."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Defensively, I know the defense has won some (practice) competitions before in the past. I don't know if they've swept the week before. They swept this week, and I think that's good," coach Mike Tice, talking about his revamped defense following the third of four developmental camps this week.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: PK Morten Andersen; C Billy Conaty; OG David Dixon.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR Kelly Campbell; QB Shaun Hill; LB Keith Newman; S Willie Offord; TE Jermaine Wiggins; CB Brian Williams; C Cory Withrow.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: LB Sam Cowart; PK Paul Edinger; LB Napoleon Harris; QB Brad Johnson; S Darren Sharper; CB Fred Smoot; WR Travis Taylor; DT Pat Williams.
PLAYERS LOST: LB Chris Claiborne; PK Jose Cortez; QB Gus Frerotte; OL Adam Haayer; DT Chris Hovan; DE Kenny Mixon; WR Randy Moss; FS Brian Russell; CB Terrance Shaw.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
INSIDE SLANT

In the first minicamp, quarterback Aaron Rodgers impressed many observers.

In the second minicamp, which concluded Thursday, Rodgers encountered more of the typical ups and downs associated with being a rookie quarterback.

"He's overwhelmed by the offense," coach Mike Sherman said. "You have to understand our offense is an accumulation of a lot of years, and we're constantly challenging a 15-year veteran with our offense and everybody else has to learn what he knows. It's a lot of stuff. That stuff can get in the way of performance at times, because there is a lot of stuff. But he's doing fine. He's right where I expect him to be."

As the Packers' first quarterback taken in the first round since Rich Campbell in 1981, Rodgers obviously has the team made. He would like to be No. 2 behind Brett Favre but for now holdover Craig Nall has the edge on him based on seasoning.

"It seems like it's a little more complex every day," Rodgers said. "But the more studying, the more time I have in this offense the better I'm going to be, the more the game's going to slow down and I'm going to start playing better."

Rodgers has thrown a lot of high incompletions, fumbled and held onto the football too long.

The coaching staff hasn't asked Rodgers to change how he holds the football. His habit of putting it up around his ear once he took the snap was a cause of debate around draft time.

"It might come down a little bit," Rodgers said. "I'm going to try to keep it up just because that's what I'm used to and I feel it can add to my fundamentals if I can get the ball out of my hands quick. I've got a quick release and I'm going to stick to it."

NOTES, QUOTES
-- After his celebrity softball game on June 5, Brett Favre sat in the dugout and answered a flock of questions from reporters.

At times, he seemed almost eager to get some things off his chest regarding the comments that he made about holdout wide receiver Javon Walker a month ago. At the time, he ripped Walker for failing to abide by the final two years of his contract and said the Packers could win without him.

"He's a phenomenal player," Favre said. "The sky's the limit for him. He doesn't even realize how good he can be. I just want him in camp. It's going to help us as a team. I hated that that had to come out but I meant what I said. I don't backtrack from that.

"I hate to see the game going this way. And I've read a lot of comments that, 'Well, Brett's got his money,' and all this stuff. Never once did I mention holdouts. Never once did I say, two years, three years left on my contract, I deserve this ... You let that take its course. There's a way you handle things, I believe. Now if I am wrong, I apologize for that.

"But I believe as the leader of this team, in some ways, I have to be vocal. I've always been a quiet guy when it comes to things like that. But I am at the latter part of my career, and I want to win. I don't know if it will be this year, maybe we go 8-8, maybe we go 13-3, I don't know, but I want to do everything in my power to make sure that we get our best shot."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a defensive lineman so, enough said. A lot of times they don't know where they're going." -- S Mark Roman, who suffered a minor knee injury catching a fly ball when DT Kenny Peterson collided with him at the Brett Favre annual celebrity softball game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: TE Bubba Franks.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: P Brian Barker; WR Shockmain Davis (not tendered as ERFA); LB Torrance Marshall.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: C Junius Coston (5/143).
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Kevin Barry; T/G Brad Bedell; WR/KR Antonio Chatman; RB Najeh Davenport; RB Tony Fisher; CB Jason Horton; DT Cullen Jenkins; DE Aaron Kampman; LB Paris Lenon; TE David Martin; QB Craig Nall; LB Hannibal Navies; QB J.T. O'Sullivan; C/G Grey Ruegamer; TE Ben Steele; DE R-Kal Truluck.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Todd Franz; S Arturo Freeman; OG Adrian Klemm; S Earl Little; OG Matt O'Dwyer; LB Raynoch Thompson.
PLAYERS LOST: CB Michael Hawthorne; S Bhawoh Jue; QB Doug Pederson; OG Marco Rivera; S Darren Sharper; OG Mike Wahle.


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