NFC North Issues

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

After four years and a steady diet of losing game after game, it might take more than personnel changes to get the Lions back to respectability. And that is what coach Steve Mariucci has been working on during the six months since the end of the 2004 NFL season.

Mariucci is hoping to establish a new attitude on this year's team, in addition to getting his players physically prepared for the start of training camp in late July and the regular season in September.

"I think these guys are very in tune to what sort of calendar year we expect from them in terms of the entire body at work," Mariucci said. "From the 14 weeks in the off-season through the mini-camps, through being in shape before they get to training camp, the certain tempo in the way we practice and developing a certain work ethic."

-- Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, the Lions' first-round pick in the NFL draft, is going through the information overload that is common among players in their first minicamp experience.

Although he is lining up behind Charles Rogers at the split end position, Williams has worked at all of the wide receiver positions during the Lions' three weeks of minicamp and organized team activities.

Williams admits it can be a frustrating experience with a head-full of formations, responsibilities and new routes to be run by a rookie.

"You're playing as hard as you can and doing what you can do, and you're going the wrong way," Williams said. "When you're in practice they don't care that you mixed this play up with another position, because you're wasting everybody's time, you're wasting a rep."

Although offensive coordinator Ted Tollner and receivers coach Fred Graves might show impatience on the field, Williams said they are supportive and understanding in the meeting rooms. And he says he gets a lot of help from his teammates, including last year's rookie receiver Roy Williams.

"Coach Graves is on me," Mike Williams said. "He's that guy, he's on you like, 'You do this, yada yada yada.' Coach Tollner is like, 'C'mon, Mike, let's go.' And Roy and all those guys, you watch them do it and when you don't do it right, they pull you aside and say, 'Oh, you've got to do it this way.'

"When you're trying to learn, trying to do well, you've got to be receptive to every form of criticism from every angle. You get to the point where (cornerback) Dre' Bly will be like, 'You're open but you'd be more open if you did this.' It's a good situation to be in a good group of guys that want you to do well."

-- QB Rick Mirer was signed as the No. 3 QB and never played in a game last season. The Lions are re-stocking the QB position and Mirer is not expected to be re-signed.

-- DT Kelvin Pritchett was still relatively productive in the d-line rotation last year in his 14th NFL season and he's excellent in the locker room. At 35, however, it might be time to hang 'em up and make room for a younger player on the roster.

-- CB Dainon Sidney was injured in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve. Not likely he will be back for 2005.

-- WR Tai Streets was signed as insurance against an injury to Charles Rogers, Roy Williams or Az-Zahir Hakim. He got his chances but was not productive, struggling to get off the line and get open. Re-signing him is not a high priority.

-- FB Stephen Trejo was released last season, then re-signed when FB Cory Schlesinger had injury problems. Trejo is versatile and contributes on special teams but the Lions will try to upgrade.

-- WR Eddie Drummond (tendered at $1.43M) would be the perfect kick and punt returner if he could only stay healthy. He's coming off his first Pro Bowl selection.

-- DT Marcus Bell: UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
-- OT Sean Bubin: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
-- CB Chris Cash: RFA: $656,000/1 yr.
-- CB Mike Echols: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
-- TE Casey Fitzsimmons: ERFA; $380,000/1 yr.
-- S Vernon Fox: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
-- CB Andre Goodman: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
-- OG Tyrone Hopson: RFA: terms unknown.
-- WR David Kircus: ERFA; $380,000/1 yr.
-- LS Jody Littleton: ERFA; $380,000/1 yr.
-- LS Don Muhlbach: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
-- LB Wali Rainer: UFA; terms unknown.
-- C Dominic Raiola: UFA; $17.5M/5 yrs, $4.6M SB.
-- OT Victor Rogers: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--WR Scottie Vines: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--S Bracy Walker: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

-- OG Rick DeMulling: UFA Colts; $4.45M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
-- QB Jeff Garcia: FA Browns; $2M/1 yr.
-- C Brock Gutierrez: UFA 49ers; terms unknown.
-- WR Kevin Johnson: FA Ravens; terms unknown.
-- S Kenoy Kennedy: UFA Broncos; $14M/5 yrs, $4M SB.
-- OT Kyle Kosier: RFA 49ers; terms unknown.
-- CB R.W. McQuarters: FA Bears; $1.5M/1 yr.
-- OG Rob Murphy: FA 49ers; terms unknown.
-- TE Marcus Pollard: FA Colts; $6M/3 yrs, $2.3M SB.
n RB Jamel White (UFA Ravens; terms unknown.

Note: With the acquisition of cornerback R.W. McQuarters, it appears most of the Lions free agent shopping is complete.

President Matt Millen said he would still be interested in cornerback Ty Law, assuming Law makes a full recovery from last year's broken foot, but it is uncertain if the Lions want to pour more cap money into the defensive secondary.

--TE Stephen Alexander: UFA Broncos; $4.2M/3 yrs, $1M bonuses.
--CB Rod Babers: Not tendered as ERFA/Buccaneers; terms unknown.
--WR Az-Zahir Hakim (released).
--OG Matt Joyce (released/failed physical).
--S Brock Marion (released).
--OT Stockar McDougle: UFA Dolphins; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--QB Mike McMahon: UFA Eagles; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--WR Reggie Swinton: UFA Texans; terms unknown.
--S Brian Walker (released/failed physical).

Coach Lovie Smith has been encouraged by what he has seen from the Bears' offense during spring practices, but truthfully, that group has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the NFL last season.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad has been the most noticeable improvement, catching everything within his expansive wingspan and frequently owning talented young cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman.

Fully rehabbed quarterback Rex Grossman has increased the precision of his timing with Muhammad, and he is 100 percent healthy with a month to go before camp begins. Whether a retooled offensive line, which is better on paper, performs more efficiently on the field remains to be seen. But Grossman's quick release and rapid reading of defenses will make the line appear better even if it isn't.

"We're getting closer to being the type of offense that we would like to be," Smith said at the conclusion of the Bears' 14 OTAs (organized team activities) on Wednesday. "I think Rex Grossman had an outstanding off-season. Muhsin Muhammad has been outstanding on and off the field. (Free-agent offensive right tackle) Fred Miller, a guy who has really solidified the offensive line, has been good. Muhammad has been exactly what we've asked him to be."

Muhammad has been asked to be the bellwether for a receiving group that was arguably the least talented in the league last season. That's exactly what he's done.

While second-round wideout Mark Bradley seems extremely raw for a No. 39 overall pick, other young pass catchers have taken a step since the last off-season.

"We really like where we are right now," Smith said. "I think Bernard Berrian, Justin Gage and other players we've had in our system have really stepped it up. The second year in the system we should be a lot better, and I think that's what we've seen."

It's actually the first year under new offensive coordinator Ron Turner, but the wicked fast and quick-as-a-hiccup Berrian has served notice that he's more than a deep threat and hash mark-to-sideline receiver. He's caught the ball much more consistently and turned inside slants into long gains. The key for the spindly former go-to man for David Carr at Fresno State, will be how he handles the banging he's sure to get when the pads come on.

Gage, who showed big-play potential as a rookie in 2003 but was ignored by fired offensive coordinator Terry Shea last season, has been given a starting spot opposite Muhammad and seems determined to hold on to it.

NOTES -- With defensive tackle Tank Johnson awaiting a July 8 arraignment for allegedly carrying an unregistered handgun in his car, Bears coach Lovie Smith was asked if he had a policy on such a practice.

"I definitely have an opinion on that," Smith said on the Bears' final practice day before training camp begins on July 23. "No, I don't think they should (carry weapons). Of course we're going to let it play out in the courts, and (NFL) commissioner (Paul Tagliabue) will really decide what to do with Tank first before we get a chance to look at it. But of course we don't agree with guys carrying guns around, if that was the case. We'll look to discipline Tank after he goes through the courts and through the NFL."

Johnson was charged June 11 with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon after police said they found a loaded 9 mm Ruger handgun in his GMC Yukon parked outside downtown nightclub Excalibur. Last week, Johnson's attorney, Jerome Marconi, said he expected Johnson to plead not guilty at his arraignment and that the case would proceed to trial.

Of the 255 players selected in the draft, Bears WR Mark Bradley was just the 24th to sign and the second of the Bears' six draft picks to agree to terms after safety Chris Harris signed on June 1.

-- QB Jeff George still has a live arm, but he never got a chance to do anything more than throw a few practice balls after being signed late last season and will probably be replaced as the No. 3.

-- OT Aaron Gibson saw his weight balloon again last season and he looked too fat and too slow in three late-season starts that came only after massive injuries on the line.

--WR Mark Bradley (2/39): Terms unknown.
--S Chris Harris (6/181): $1.485M/4 yrs, $100,000 SB; 2005 cap: $255,000.

--OL Steve Edwards: RFA; $656,000 /1 yr.
--TE John Gilmore: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--S Bobby Gray: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--CB Todd McMillon: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--OG Terrence Metcalf: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--TE John Owens: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--WR Eddie Berlin: UFA Titans; $565,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2005 cap: $480,000.
--PK Doug Brien: FA Jets; terms unknown.
--OL Roberto Garza: UFA Falcons; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad: FA Panthers; $30M/6 yrs, $10M SB.
--OT Fred Miller: FA Titans; $22.5M/5 yrs, $6M SB/$2M RB '06; 2005 cap: $2.2M.
--LB LeVar Woods: FA Cardinals; terms unknown.
--PK Paul Edinger (released).
--QB Craig Krenzel (released).
--CB R.W. McQuarters (released).
--QB Jonathan Quinn (released).
--WR David Terrell (released).
--RB Anthony Thomas: UFA Cowboys; terms unknown.
--OG Rex Tucker (released).

The Packers had a rather disappointing season on the football field in 2004 but their economic performance off it never was better.

For the fiscal year ending March 31, the Packers reported record net income of $25.4 million, or an increase of 10.9% from the previous year.

The team also reported that total operating revenue jumped 11.7% to a total of $200 million.

The profit picture is particularly impressive given the fact that the franchise did not receive an expansion fee from the Houston Texans in fiscal 2005. The Packers received $2.1 million in fiscal 2004, the last year the expansion fee was paid to all NFL teams.

With revenue generators like the Packer Pro Shop and the Titletown Atrium padding the coffers from Lambeau Field, the Packers ranked 10th among NFL teams in total revenue for the third straight year. Meanwhile, expenses increased from $149.9 million to $166.3 million.

While the financial news was bright, there is reason to be concerned about the future, according to club officials.

"The No. 1 unresolved issue for us is the labor situation," vice president John Jones said.

Under the current contract, the 2007 season would not be subjected to a salary cap, which worries the league and the franchises. In 2008, there would be no system in place.

"We are confident we will solve the revenue-sharing issues," Jones said.

New stadiums will open in the coming years serving the Cardinals, Cowboys, Colts and Giants. Those new stadiums will alter the revenue picture in the league.

In order to deal with upcoming financial obstacles, the franchise has established the Packers Franchise Preservation Fund. The fund, essentially the old corporate reserve fund, is used for player costs and other football-related operations. The fund was given a new name to address future needs.

The fund now totals $97.7 million, an increase of $13.3 million from the previous fiscal year. In years past, club officials said their goal was to build the fund to a level that approximated the yearly costs of football operations. Last year, that was $119 million.

-- Coach Mike Sherman interrupted a practice during the June minicamp, called the team together and then told them to reconvene inside the team's gym at Lambeau Field.

What happened next was unexpected. Sherman set up a no-holds-barred dodgeball tournament. Not only players but also coaches and staff participated.

In the end, wide receiver Donald Driver's team defeated fullback William Henderson's team for first place.

"It was a good event in regard to the chemistry of the team," Sherman said. "Everybody was having a good time."

Plus, no one came up lame.

"Obviously, you always worry about those things," Sherman said. "But we played paintball one year and I think (Darren) Sharper fell out of a tree, so this was probably safer. We've done bowling and guys have hurt their backs and balls changed lanes so this might have been the safest exercise."

-- Agent Drew Rosenhaus represents two wide receivers, Green Bay's Javon Walker and Arizona's Anquan Boldin, who want to renegotiate their contracts. Walker didn't attend either minicamp this spring whereas Boldin missed one and made one.

"We've had discussions in the past with the Cardinals about Anquan that have been productive and that's one of the reasons why he's working out with his team while on the other hand, Javon Walker, the Packers have said: "We're not going to discuss Javon's contract.' And that's why Javon's not there.

"Javon is only making $500,000 this year and he's a fabulous player and we would like to have the opportunity to talk about an extension, which is what we've done for a number of our players in the NFL. And they have been disinterested in doing that so we've elected, if that's the case, to be elsewhere."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "In Europe, his punting was pretty good. His ball placement was excellent inside the 20-yard-line. I think he improved his technique. I think he gained some confidence over there." - Coach Mike Sherman on P B.J. Sander.

--TE Bubba Franks (tendered at $2.095M).
--P Brian Barker is 40. He did a decent job filling the breach after B.J. Sander flopped but the Packers need better.

--WR Shockmain Davis (not tendered as ERFA) blew out a knee in training camp and won't be back.

--LB Torrance Marshall, a third-round pick in 2001, will be leaving. He looks good coming off the bus but has no instincts.

--C Junius Coston (5/143): Terms unknown.
--DE Mike Montgomery (6/180): Terms unknown.
--OG William Whitticker (7/246): Terms unknown.
--OT Kevin Barry: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--T/G Brad Bedell: UFA; $540,000/1 yr; 2005 cap: $455,000.
--WR/KR Antonio Chatman: Potential ERFA; $380,000/1 yr.
--RB Najeh Davenport: RFA; $641,000/1 yr; $15,000 advance.
--RB Tony Fisher: Potential RFA; $600,000/1 yr, $200,000 SB.
--CB Jason Horton: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--DT Cullen Jenkins: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--DE Aaron Kampman: RFA; $1.2M/1 yr, $500,000 SB (matched Vikings offer).
--LB Paris Lenon: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--TE David Martin: UFA; $1.365M/2 yrs, $250,000 SB; 2005 cap: $665,000.
--QB Craig Nall: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--LB Hannibal Navies: UFA; terms unknown.
--QB J.T. O'Sullivan: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--C/G Grey Ruegamer: FA, had been released by Packers; $576,160/1 yr, $30,000 SB.
--TE Ben Steele: ERFA; $305,000/1 yr.
--DE R-Kal Truluck: Potential RFA; $455,000/1 yr.
--S Todd Franz: Not tendered as RFA by Redskins; terms unknown.
--S Arturo Freeman: FA Dolphins; $565,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2005 cap: $480,000.
--OG Adrian Klemm: UFA Patriots; $2.6M/2 yrs, $800,000 SB/$200,000 RB '06; 2005 cap: $1M.
--S Earl Little: FA Browns; $665,000/1 yr; 2005 cap: $455,000.
--OG Matt O'Dwyer: UFA Buccaneers; $790,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2005 cap: $480,000.
--LB Raynoch Thompson: FA Cardinals; terms unknown.
--CB Michael Hawthorne (released).
--S Bhawoh Jue: UFA Chargers; $4.5M/3 yrs, $1.5M SB/$455,000 RB '06.
--QB Doug Pederson: UFA; hasn't officially retired, but accepted a head coaching job at a Shreveport, La., high school.
--OG Marco Rivera: UFA Cowboys; $19M/5 yrs, $8.125M SB/$300,000 RB '05; $575,000 base guarantee '06.
--S Darren Sharper (released).
--OG Mike Wahle (released).

When discussing the potential success or failure of the running game this season, some Vikings coaches are as focused on the return of tight end Jim Kleinsasser from knee surgery as they are on who wins the battle for the featured back position.

"I never worry about who (running backs coach Dean Dalton) has in at running back because they all bring certain talents," said Steve Loney, offensive coordinator and line coach. "Having Jimmy back is going to be tremendous for us in the running game. He's a real positive there."

Kleinsasser tore an ACL in his right knee during last year's season-opening victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The season-ending injury left the Vikings' running game weak at the point of attack, often forcing them to abandon the running game altogether.

Without the 6-3, 272-pound Kleinsasser leading the way on the perimeter or from the backfield in his H-back position, the Vikings' leading rusher, Onterrio Smith, gained only 544 yards. The stress on the running game was only compounded by lingering injuries to running back Michael Bennett and center Matt Birk.

Bennett is healthy again and is the frontrunner in the race for the No. 1 running back job. Birk, however, is coming off hip surgery and three hernia operations since the start of last season. He is expected to miss most if not all of training camp and the preseason.

Kleinsasser on the other hand appears set for the start of training camp. His rehab went well and his increased confidence in the knee was evident during the team's mini-camp and developmental camps. "I still have to wait until training camp to see how the knee going to react when I get banged around," Kleinsasser said. "That will be the true test."

But so far, so good, coach Mike Tice said.

"Everybody is just tickled pink that we're able to have an outside running game again," Tice said. "Last year, we had to manufacture some things because when you lose Jimmy, you lose that outside running threat. We're an outside run team. That was a part of our offense that was really missing without Jimmy."

-- The Vikings' passing game will be much more disciplined without the free-wheeling Randy Moss streaking down the field. QB Daunte Culpepper will throw to designated spots on timing routes more often than he has. Offensive coordinator Steve Loney said the passing game won't be complex. He prefers to do a limited number of things well rather than a lot of things not so well. "My background has been to take a few things that we do well and try to run them from a lot of different (formations and motion)," Loney said.

-- RB Ciatrick Fason, a fourth round draft pick from Florida, has drawn comparisons to veteran teammate Moe Williams. "He's not a dancer," coach Mike Tice said of Fason. "He has shown an ability to run forward."

-- PK Morten Andersen will be 45 next season; the Vikings won't re-sign him unless it's an emergency situation.

-- C Billy Conaty was a third-string center and strictly an insurance policy for banged-up starter Matt Birk; he won't be re-signed unless Birk's health continues to deteriorate.

-- RG David Dixon was a rock for the team last season, but he'll be 36; the Vikings are making plans without him. They've already shuffled their starting line, moving LG Chris Liwienski to right guard.

--WR Kelly Campbell: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--QB Shaun Hill: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--LB Keith Newman: UFA; terms unknown.
--S Willie Offord: RFA; $656,000/1 yr.
--TE Jermaine Wiggins: UFA; $7.3M/5 yrs, $1M SB.
--CB Brian Williams: RFA; $1.43M/1 yr.
--C Cory Withrow: FA, had been released by Vikings; 1 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Sam Cowart (trade Jets).
--PK Paul Edinger: FA Bears; $540,000/1 yr.
--LB Napoleon Harris (trade Raiders).
--QB Brad Johnson: FA Buccaneers; $6M/4 yrs, $1.2M SB; 2005 cap: $1.3M
--S Darren Sharper: FA Packers; $14M/4 yrs, $1M SB/$3M RB; 2005 cap: $4.25M.
--CB Fred Smoot: UFA Redskins; $34M/6 yrs, $10.8M SB.
--WR Travis Taylor: UFA Ravens; $2M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
--DT Pat Williams: UFA Bills; $13M/3 yrs, $2M SB/$4M RB '06.
--LB Chris Claiborne: UFA Rams; $10.5M/3 yrs, $3.6M SB.
--PK Jose Cortez (released).
--QB Gus Frerotte: UFA Dolphins; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--OL Adam Haayer: Not tendered as RFA/Cardinals; terms unknown.
--DE Kenny Mixon (released).
--WR Randy Moss (traded Raiders).
--FS Brian Russell: RFA Browns; $3M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
--CB Terrance Shaw (released).
--RB Onterrio Smith (suspended).

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