NFC North Issues

The Packers fielded one of the league's most prolific offenses in 2004, but it stands to reason that they won't be as good this season.

Left guard Mike Wahle was deemed too expensive and GM Ted Thompson sacrificed him for salary-cap purposes. He signed a five-year, $27 million deal with Carolina that contained an $8 million signing bonus.

Two days later, right guard Marco Rivera, whose contract had expired, signed a five-year, $19 million deal with Dallas that contained an $8.125 million signing bonus.

Also, wide receiver Javon Walker and tight end Bubba Franks sat out the entire offseason for contractual reasons and are threatening to miss substantial portions of training camp. Walker wants to renegotiate the final two years of his contract. Franks is unhappy with his transition-player tender of $2.095 million and would like a long-term deal.

At the same time, quarterback Brett Favre will turn 36 in October during the middle of his 15th season. That's about the time many great quarterbacks of the past began to fade.

There are also durability concerns surrounding running back Ahman Green, who has taken a ton of punishment since 2000. He was dogged last season by Achilles' tendon, knee and rib-cartilage injuries and averaged 4.46 yards per carry in 17 games, down from 5.22 in 2003.

The Packers signed oft-injured Patriot Adrian Klemm to replace Wahle. Klemm is a fine athlete and has good size, but any player with his injury background would be hard to rely on.

Rivera's position will be filled by holdover Grey Ruegamer, an aggressive but not particularly athletic former center, or aging Matt O'Dwyer, a minimum-salary unrestricted free agent from Tampa Bay.

Walker blossomed into a Pro Bowl receiver in '04 and now is demanding to be paid like it. He's a big, powerful player with the raw speed to run by almost any cornerback and a tremendous work ethic.

Under the catastrophic possibility that Walker isn't on the field, the Packers would be hard-pressed to compensate with the triumvirate of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and rookie Terrence Murphy, a second-round draft choice from Texas A&M.

The Packers selected Cal's Aaron Rodgers in the first round with the idea that he eventually will replace Favre. Coach Mike Sherman can only hope, however, that it happens later than sooner.

-- Brett Favre has sold his 7,800-square foot home on Green Bay's West Side. The exact price wasn't available but the asking price was $895,000, down from $1.35 million two years ago.

It was purchased by Scott Gage, a radiologist from Racine, Wis., who is moving to Green Bay along with his wife and six of their eight children.

"The fact that it was Brett Favre's was not the determining factor," Gage said. "But it was icing on the cake and a little more exciting for the kids. It takes a little of the dread out of moving."

The Packers have given thought to making a move on Lance Schulters, the veteran safety who was cut by Tennessee June 16.

Don't expect GM Ted Thompson to fork out a lot of money for Schulters. Thompson has played it close to the vest since taking the job in January. He has been a frugal shopper in free agency, to say the least.

The Packers appear weak at safety but at least there are plenty of bodies. Fighting for two jobs are incumbent Mark Roman, veterans Arturo Freeman and Earl Little, and rookie Nick Collins, a second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman.

-- 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).

New offensive coordinator Ron Turner is not nearly as gimmicky as the wacky Terry Shea was. Turner also runs the West Coast offense, but he is much more committed to a between-the-tackles power running game, which should favor rookie Cedric Benson ahead of veteran slasher Thomas Jones.

Shea's was supposedly a tight end TE-friendly scheme, but Bears tight ends were unproductive last season, although their general lack of talent at the position may have had something to do with that. The same nondescript group is back this season, although big WR Rob Johnson, a waived free agent, is being used as an H-back and could factor as a receiver. Veteran TE Desmond Clark has been a big bust and has missed almost the entire off-season with a sprained ankle.

A healthy Rex Grossman returning at quarterback should make all the Bears' receivers more productive and help the offense work more efficiently. Backup Chad Hutchinson has the benefit of a full off-season in the program and will be better equipped to fill in should Grossman suffer another injury.

Rookie running back Cedric Benson is No. 2 on the depth chart but that may be just the Bears' way of showing veteran incumbent starter Thomas Jones the proper respect. Not that Jones is a stiff, but Benson was the fourth overall pick in the draft, and he has shown better receiving skills than anticipated and the quickness and cutting ability to make the first tackler miss. It would surprise most observers if Benson is not the opening day starter.

The Bears' starting wide receivers are almost certain to be different this season. Career underachiever David Terrell was released and Bobby Wade could be on the bubble. Free agent Muhsin Muhammad was brought in to be the Bears' go-to guy and veteran leader, and he quickly adapted to that role. The mission now is to find a legitimate threat opposite Muhammad to take some of the heat off him.

For now, Justin Gage is the other starter. He was the forgotten man in Shea's offense last season. But with Shea gone and Turner running the offense, Gage is working with the first team and again showing the big-play potential that he did as a rookie. Gage doesn't have great speed, but he is a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (Missouri) who has the ups to take deep balls away from shorter defensive backs.

Second-year wideout Bernard Berrian appears poised to take a big step this season. He showed flashes last season as a rookie - mostly as a deep threat - but he has demonstrated much more consistent hands this off-season and a greater willingness to test the middle of the field, something he shied away from last season or was not asked to do because of his frail appearance. Berrian provides a speed dimension lacking in other Bears wideouts.

Kicker Doug Brien has replaced Paul Edinger after the five-year veteran suffered through two straight unacceptable seasons. Brien has always been very accurate but chose the most inopportune times for his misses. Like Edinger, Brien is not a very effective kickoff man.

For the second straight season big bucks were poured into the offensive line. Free agent Fred Miller was signed to play right tackle, allowing John Tait to move to left tackle, which was a massive headache last season. Roberto Garza was added as insurance in case Terrence Metcalf is unable to hold on to the right guard spot.

-- Brian Urlacher appeared ready to realize his big-play potential last season in Ron Rivera's defense, but three separate injuries caused him to miss the first seven games of his career and derailed his season. But he still finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks, picked off a pass and forced two fumbles.

That only served to heighten the anticipation for this season.

"I think he can have a great year," coach Lovie Smith said. "Every time I talk with Brian I talk about him being one of the all-time great middle linebackers to play the game. I'm saying the same thing right now. He's healthy. It's the second year in the system for him. It should make a big difference. We're just looking for an excellent year from him."

With the departure of R.W. McQuarters, the punt-return job is up for grabs. WR Bernard Berrian, CB Nathan Vasher and rookie WR Mark Bradley are all contenders who have played the role effectively in college. Berrian also filled in as a kickoff-return man last season when Azumah was hurt, but his slight frame doesn't seem ideally suited to kickoffs.

-- 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).

For the first three years of president Matt Millen's regime, the Lions' lament was a lack of big-play makers. That is no longer the case.

Millen put the finishing touches on a nucleus of promising young playmakers that gives the Lions offense all the explosive capabilities it has lacked since the retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders six years ago.

The last piece Millen fit into the offensive puzzle was wide receiver Mike Williams of USC - a big, sure-handed receiver expected to line up in the slot with two previous first-round picks - Charles Rogers and Roy Williams - lined up outside.

The Lions also signed veteran tight end Marcus Pollard and wide receiver Kevin Johnson out of free agency, giving coach Steve Mariucci a solid, deep set of receivers from which to choose.

The Lions believe they can create some favorable matchups when they put the full complement of receivers in the formation, with last year's rookie sensation running back Kevin Jones.

If opposing defenses bring down a safety to stop Jones, they feel they can beat them with their receivers going downfield. If opposing defenses do not put the safety in the box, the Lions feel Jones will be able to take them apart with the running game.

To facilitate the explosive offense, however, Millen also had to do some patchwork on the offensive line to fill a troublesome hole at left guard and bolster the tackle corps after the loss of starting right tackle Stockar McDougle to the Miami Dolphins in free agency.

Millen signed Rick DeMulling, a three-year starter at Indianapolis, to move into the left guard position and landed Kyle Kosier to compete for the right tackle job and provide backup experience all the way down the offensive line.

With all of the pieces in place for a seemingly more productive offense, the Lions also made a move to provide experienced help at the quarterback position, where Joey Harrington has been inconsistent in his first three NFL seasons.

If Harrington falters, the Lions now have former San Francisco Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia in a backup role and - considering Mariucci's history with Garcia - there appears to be little doubt that Harrington will have to produce early and often or lose the job to Garcia.

-- Quarterback Jeff Garcia has carefully avoided comments that might be considered inflammatory regarding his role as the backup to three-year veteran Joey Harrington but - back home in Gilroy, Calif., for his annual golf outing - he recently spoke a little more freely.

"It's Joey Harrington's job to lose," Garcia told the Gilroy Dispatch. "But I'm going to be right there nipping on his heels."

There is speculation by Lions watchers that if Harrington does not get off to a fast start or if the Lions aren't winning early in the season, coach Steve Mariucci - who had Garcia as his quarterback in San Francisco - will be quick to make a change.

And if Garcia gets that opportunity - a chance at the starting job for the Lions - he left little doubt about his intentions.

"I don't plan on giving it back," he said.

-- In his first three seasons as the Lions quarterback, Joey Harrington has not gotten a lot of help from his receivers. Although he has never complained or pointed a finger at those who dropped passes, the performances in recent years by Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim and Stephen Alexander speak for themselves.

But Harrington is openly enthused with his current set of receivers - first-round draft picks Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, veteran receiver Kevin Johnson and tight end Marcus Pollard. The three young first-round picks are particularly intriguing to a quarterback who will be under pressure to produce this year.

"Big targets," Harrington said, when asked about Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. "I think it'll be good for us because they're big targets down in the end zone.

"We've struggled at times; we've had to settle for field goals sometimes when we didn't make plays down there. And having guys like that - who can screen out the defender and you can throw a high ball to -will really help out."

The Lions are in the final days off the off-season workout program that once again saw virtually full-team participation.

President Matt Millen talked about doing some free agent "bottom feeding" after the June roster cuts but he seems to be content with the Lions' roster as it presently stands.

The addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters fortified the defense in a defensive secondary that now seems to be a solid as the rest of the defense, which is expected to be improved from last year when the Lions were 22d in the NFL in yards allowed.


-- 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.
-- RB Jamel White (UFA Ravens; terms unknown.

-- 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).

Vikings coach Mike Tice insists it will be business as usual for the team's high-scoring offense in 2005.

"Offensively," he said, "we're going to be as good as anybody."

We'll see.

The Vikings are the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl because of upgrades on defense. But despite their efforts to spin it otherwise, the Vikings are looking at a massive hole on offense after the off-season trade of their best player, Randy Moss, to Oakland.

The offense was built around the enigmatic receiver who, like him or not, caught 90 touchdown passes and wreaked havoc on defenses the past seven seasons.

The Vikings attempted to replace Moss' speed when they selected South Carolina receiver Troy Williamson with the seventh overall pick in the draft. While Williamson might be able to match Moss' speed, he shows no signs of matching Moss' production any time soon.

Travis Taylor, a free-agent acquisition from Baltimore, is the sleeper offseason pickup. He didn't live up to his first-round pedigree with the Ravens, but he also never played with a quarterback as talented as Daunte Culpepper. Taylor will start out as the No. 3 receiver, but could easily climb to No. 2 behind Nate Burleson.

The running back position depends on the fragile legs of Michael Bennett, especially since backup Onterrio Smith was suspended for the entire season after a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Ciatrick Fason, a rookie from Florida, was selected in the fourth round and might become a factor by the end of the season.

At quarterback, the Vikings lost backup Gus Frerotte, but recovered nicely by signing Brad Johnson via free agency. Johnson won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay and will be a comforting presence on the sideline. The line will struggle with C Matt Birk expected to miss most or all of training camp because of recent hip surgery and three hernia operations since last summer. Backup Cory Withrow is a step down and often gets hurt when he's called on.

Veteran right guard Dave Dixon is gone, but might be brought back as a backup. Former left guard Chris Liwienski will shift to right guard, while his former spot will be up for grabs between Adam Goldberg and rookie second-round draft pick Marcus Johnson.

Keep an eye on Johnson. He's ready to play, physically and mentally. He's big enough to play tackle yet nimble enough to play inside.

Mike Rosenthal returns to right tackle after breaking his foot in Week 2 last season. If he is reinjured, Johnson probably will step in and start, or at least compete there with second-year pro Nat Dorsey.

At kicker, the Vikings added Paul Edinger, who was released by Chicago after a disappointing 2004. The Vikings insist Edinger will compete with Aaron Elling, who is back from a broken leg.

Elling handled all of the team's kicking duties in 2003. He lost his confidence and his job last summer. The Vikings brought him back as a kickoff specialist when Morten Andersen proved he was too old to do it. The Vikings appear to have a dilemma. They don't want to keep two kickers, but they don't seem to have one who can handle kickoffs and placekicking.

Elling is a sound kickoff specialist and a shaky place-kicker. Edinger is a more accurate place-kicker, but not as good on kickoffs.

Solving the kicking situation is one of the team's biggest priorities in training camp. Poor kicking has been Tice's Achilles' heel since he became a full-time head coach in 2002.

-- WR Kelly Campbell asked for and received a continuance in his court battle against charges of receiving a stolen handgun and possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Campbell was scheduled for a plea arraignment on Wednesday in Atlanta's Fulton County District Court, but asked for the continuance to a later date. The marijuana charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail. The stolen handgun charge could be considered a felony and carry a maximum of 10 years in jail.

-- Offensive coordinator Steve Loney said he expects TE Jim Kleinsasser to make a full recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. "I've always contended that Jimmy is the best blocking tight end in the league," Loney said. "And he's a guy that when he gets a ball out there he can change a five-yard pass into an explosive pass. I expect all those things out of Jimmy this season."


-- PK Morten Andersen will soon be 45. 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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