NFC North Issues

Here is some recent NFC North Division news and notes about the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers:

Detroit Lions
It's one of Matt Millen's pet sayings: "You can never get too many good defensive backs." And he's giving the phrase more than lip service.

The addition of seven-year veteran cornerback R.W. McQuarters is the fourth major move Millen has made in the past three seasons to shore up the Lions defensive secondary.

It started with cornerback Dre' Bly, who was acquired as an unrestricted free agent in 2003. Bly has earned Pro Bowl honors in both years with the Lions.

Millen added cornerback Fernando Bryant, also by the free agent route, a year ago but didn't have quite the same luck. Bryant was hampered by an ankle injury, was limited in his effectiveness and missed much of the second half of the season.

In the past four months, Millen has made two more free agent moves - landing strong safety Kenoy Kennedy in the early days of free agency in March and, more recently, convinced McQuarters to accept a one-year, $1.6 million contract to join the Lions.

There is still a question as to how the Lions plan to use the versatile McQuarters when they get into the NFL season.

He almost certainly will get a chance to compete with Bryant for a starting cornerback job and Millen knows McQuarters could be effective as a nickel back. Because McQuarters has experience at free safety there is another scenario that isn't getting a lot of discussion.

It has been assumed that third-year player Terrence Holt would be the successor to Brock Marion at free safety but coach Steve Mariucci and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron have seemed at times to have reservations about turning the job over to Holt.

If Bly and Bryant look solid at the corners, there is a possibility McQuarters will join Holt in the competition for the free safety position.

Either way, the Lions look stronger in the secondary than they have been in recent years.

Notes, quotes
-- Although the Lions say they never considered it an issue, quarterback Joey Harrington is assured of collecting the $3 million roster bonus as it was written in the contract he signed as a rookie three years ago.

With the $3 million bonus and the $4.95 million salary he is due this year, Harrington's salary cap number comes in close to $8 million, giving rise to speculation the Lions might ask him to renegotiate the contract. One news report last spring even speculated the Lions might cut Harrington.

As it turned out, the Lions did not even approach Harrington to renegotiate and the team says there was never a serious consideration of cutting him.

"There's no issue around it," said Lions executive vice president and chief operating officer Tom Lewand.

Lewand said the $3 million bonus became guaranteed on June 15 and is payable on July 1. Harrington, a three-year starter, has two years left on his original contract.

-- Russ Bolinger, who played seven years with the Lions and has been in the team's scouting department the last nine years, has left the team to accept a similar position with the Washington Redskins.

Bolinger played with the Lions as an offensive guard from 1976 through 1982, continued his NFL career with three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and also had a season with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL in 1985.

The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Bolinger as a scout in 1994 and he rejoined the Lions as an area scout in 1996. He was the team's director of college scouting in 2001-2002, and was the college scouting coordinator the past two seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we get a multi-year deal worked out, great. If we don't, we've always been comfortable with Eddie playing at that $1.43 million tender." - Lions executive vice president Tom Lewand, on the team's decision not to reduce the tender offer to Pro Bowl kick returner Eddie Drummond as they could have on June 15.

Strategy and personnel
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: QB Rick Mirer; DT Kelvin Pritchett; CB Dainon Sidney; WR Tai Streets; FB Stephen Trejo.
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
The Vikings are the trendy pick to win the NFC because of an off-season spent revamping one of the worst defenses in the league.

Just be careful before jumping on the bandwagon.

For starters, there have been other infusions of talent to no avail in recent years. And, secondly, the weakness of last year's defense, the linebackers, is the area least improved.

Even coach Mike Tice said one of his two biggest concerns heading into training camp is weakside linebacker. Dontarrious Thomas and Raonall Smith are competing for the starting spot vacated when Chris Claiborne signed with the Rams as a free agent.

Thomas is the team's fastest linebacker, but he was overwhelmed by the professional game as a rookie last season. Smith, a former second round draft pick, has been a major disappointment mostly because of injuries. He finally showed glimpses of success last season, but then suffered a season-ending concussion.

"I have not seen to this point the consistency that I've been looking for out of either one of those athletes," Tice said. "My hope is that one of those guys shows me that coming out of preseason. That's one concern."

The Vikings also will have new starters at strongside linebacker (Napoleon Harris) and middle linebacker (Sam Cowart). Both are coming off leg injuries. Harris, who was part of the Randy Moss trade, has never lived up to being a first round pick. Cowart knows defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's defense better than E.J. Henderson, last year's starter, but age and a history of injuries make him a suspect replacement.

Tice's other major concern is at kicker, where there team's woes aren't solved just because former Bear Paul Edinger was signed to compete with Aaron Elling.

Tice desperately wants someone who can kick off and placekick. But it's looking as though he might have to go into yet another season with two kickers.

"I have one who can hit the ball through the end zone (Elling) and one who can hit field goals," Tice said. "I need someone to emerge and do both consistently and very good."

Notes, quotes -- Coach Mike Tice predicted that SS Corey Chavous and CB Brian Williams "will both be in training camp with their heads on straight, and that's all I asked them to do." Chavous and Williams missed all 13 voluntary developmental practices because they're unhappy with their contracts. "I'm not going to get involved with their business," Tice said. "I don't do contracts, and that's it. I don't want to address it again. OK. And I am not angry at either one, regardless if I just sounded angry."

-- Although he said "business is business, and we have to respect that," coach Mike Tice also sent a subtle message to the disgruntled Chavous and Williams. "We move forward and we work and develop the guys we have (at developmental camp)," Tice said. "Guys like (cornerback) Ralph Brown had an excellent offseason, and showed that he can be a guy for us. (Safety) Willie Offord has had a very consistent offseason for us. They both seized the opportunity and did the best with it, which is what you hope they do. So that's a good thing."

-- Free-agent running back Chad Morton visited Winter Park this week, but left without agreeing to a contract. He was expected to take several more visits to other teams. Tice was asked if Morton looked good. "Yeah," he said. "He was in a suit." Tice said the Vikings are interested in signing Morton. "That's why he's here, to give us the ability to give us that sixth running back going into camp, and a very prolific return guy and also a very good cover guy," Tice said. "He knows some of the guys. ... I think we have a good shot there."

-- Rookie first-round draft pick Troy Williamson dropped his share of passes during mini camp and the four developmental camps. "He dropped some balls wide open every once in awhile," Tice said. "But that's youngness, a guy looking to run with the ball before he has it. We'll get that fixed. He's shown he can make the tough catches."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I wasn't going to put them out there with a game tonight. If they pull up, (Twins manager Ron Gardenhire) would knock me out." -- Coach Mike Tice on Twins outfielders Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, who were invited observers of the team's final developmental camp practice on Tuesday. Hunter told reporters he was ready to suit up if Tice needed him. Strategy and personnel
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: PK Morten Andersen; C Billy Conaty; OG David Dixon.
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; RB Onterrio Smith.

Green Bay Packers
The Packers will enter training camp without knowing who either of their two starting safeties will be.

Last year, Darren Sharper was listed as the free safety but actually played more to the tight end side as the strong safety. The other starter was Mark Roman.

After Sharper was cut (and later signed with Minnesota), the Packers brought in a total of five safeties. The group includes Bethune-Cookman rookie Nick Collins, a second-round pick; San Diego State rookie Marviel Underwood, a fourth-round pick; former Brown Earl Little; former Dolphin Arturo Freeman; and former Redskin Todd Franz. Roman also returns after a lousy season.

"Two guys will come out of that group," new secondary coach Joe Baker said. "We're giving everybody a shot right now. We're certainly not where we feel we need to bring somebody else in.

"We feel good about the guys that are here right now. We need to see these guys play in a competitive situation against guys in different jerseys, and see what we look like."

Little, a long-time starter for the Browns, is nearing the end but wants one more shot.

"I came here for the offense; I know they can put a lot of points on the board," Little said. "And I also knew the safety position was wide open; that's what every coach told me. They've been true to their word so far."

Collins is the fastest player in the bunch but comes out of a Division I-AA program and figures to need extensive seasoning. Underwood isn't as athletic as Collins but looks more ready to play.

Notes, quotes
-- Hockey is coming to Lambeau Field in February. It really will be the Frozen Tundra Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. when Wisconsin and Ohio State play the first hockey game of any kind at Lambeau.

The 72,000-seat stadium will be converted into a 40,000-seat outdoor ice rink. It has been dubbed the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic.

"I just hope the football gods give the hockey gods one day," Ohio State coach John Markell said. "Outdoors, I hope it's not subzero."

At that time of year, the average mean temperature in Green Bay is about 19 degree and the average high is 27.

The only other outdoor hockey game in NCAA Division I history was played between Michigan and Michigan State in October 2001 at MSU's Spartan Stadium. That game drew 72,000 fans.

A portable rink will be set up on the north half of Lambeau Field.

-- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the team's first-round draft pick, failed to distinguish himself in the nine-day June minicamp that ended last week.

"The one thing we didn't see is the accuracy that we all saw in college," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "I think that that's just a part of being overloaded with the thinking. Sometimes he was a little bit quick to shuffle-step back up inside and I think it's because he's not seeing downfield."

Rodgers, a 66.1 percent passer at Cal, wasn't on target often enough.

"He's high on all his throws," Rossley said. "When he doesn't cut loose, he's not following through and finishing on the ball. I want to see him torque and throw the ball hard."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm assuming he'll report to camp on time and ready to go and be in the greatest shape he's ever been in. That would certainly be good for him, that he would undertake that." -- Coach Mike Sherman on DT Cletidus Hunt, who blew off the voluntary minicamp in June.

Strategy and personnel
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: P Brian Barker; WR Shockmain Davis (not tendered as ERFA); LB Torrance Marshall.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: C Junius Coston (5/143), G Will Whitticker (7/246).
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.

Chicago Bears
Kurt Kittner's excellent spring got a little better, as did his chances of competing for a roster spot, when the Bears waived quarterback Craig Krenzel June 14.

Kittner, fresh from leading the Amsterdam Admirals to the championship of the NFL Europe League last Saturday, moved up a peg on the Bears' depth chart with Krenzel's release. Krenzel was the Bears' 2004 fifth-round draft choice from Ohio State, and he got an unexpected five starts as a rookie last season, when he was thrown into the fray after Rex Grossman was injured and Jonathan Quinn was ineffective.

But Krenzel struggled, completing just 46.5 percent of his passes (59 of 127) for 718 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. His passer rating of 52.5 was the worst of the four quarterbacks who started for the Bears, but they were 3-2 in Krenzel's starts.

The team asked Krenzel to play in Europe this spring, to accumulate more game experience, but he declined, choosing instead to work on his game at Halas Hall. That decision didn't help his future with the Bears, and when the team selected Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton in the fourth round in the April draft, Krenzel fell to fourth on the depth chart. Kittner is now No. 4, behind Grossman, Chad Hutchinson and Orton.

Kittner was named MVP of World Bowl XIII Saturday after completing 15 of 28 passes for 239 yards and two TDs in a 27-21 win over the Berlin Thunder. The Schaumburg High School graduate played five years under Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner while he was head coach at Illinois.

"He's got a real good feel for what we're doing," Turner said of Kittner's familiarity with the offense. "It's changed a little bit since he was there, but not much, very minor. He'll be able to pick it up and that'll help him tremendously."

Kittner, who was drafted in the fifth round in 2002 by the Falcons, had four starts for Atlanta in 2003 but completed just 44 of 114 passes for 391 yards with 2 TDs and 6 interceptions. He spent last season out of football after being released by the Falcons, Bengals, Giants, Patriots and Steelers in a five-month span. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Kittner is looking forward to reuniting with Turner.

"I think he just has an understanding of what's going on, and he teaches the quarterbacks well," Kittner said. "So when you're on the field, you can almost predict or you know what types of plays he's going to call in certain situations just because over the week you've gone over it so much."

Krenzel was behind center for the Bears during consecutive come-from-behind road victories against the Giants Nov. 7 and the Titans Nov. 14. In the process, he became the first Bears quarterback since 1965 to start his career 3-0. Since 1970, just seven quarterbacks have begun their NFL careers with victories in their first three starts, and only three quarterbacks have won more than three straight starts to open their careers.

Krenzel suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter at Dallas on Thanksgiving and was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 7.

¬ - The Bears' defensive starting lineup appears fairly well set five weeks before the start of training camp, but coordinator Ron Rivera wants to keep some uncertainty among his players.

"I think you have to create a little situation where they're a little bit uncomfortable," Rivera said. "If you can do that, get them feeling uncomfortable, they'll push each other and they'll push themselves."

- Bears DE Adewale Ogunleye finally returned to practice in a limited capacity on June 15 after undergoing postseason ankle surgery.

The 2003 AFC sack leader was hampered most of last season by the nagging injury and managed just five sacks, 10 less than a year earlier. He cost the Bears $30 million, plus Pro Bowl wide receiver Marty Booker and a third-round draft choice.

Despite continuing his rehab, Ogunleye said he feels more comfortable this season, as opposed to last year, when he joined the Bears in the preseason.

"It feels more like this is my team, like I'm here with my linemates," Ogunleye said. "Last year I was like one of the new guys. Now I'm part of the team and I'm one of the leaders of the team. It was kind of hard last year, like it was thrown upon me at the last minute."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Lovie (Smith) said last year, and I agree with what coach said: There's never been a middle linebacker with his ability in this system, and in this system, it could be tremendous what he does." -- Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera talking about MLB Brian Urlacher

Strategy and personnel
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; QB Craig Krenzel; CB R.W. McQuarters; QB Jonathan Quinn; WR David Terrell; RB Anthony Thomas; OG Rex Tucker.

Packer Report Top Stories