NFC North notes: Calhoun gets his chance

Also, Marinelli's motivation, the Vikings' improved receivers, unhappy Urlacher and more.

Detroit Lions running back Brian Calhoun isn't offended if some people are writing him off.

"I mean, it's understandable," Calhoun said, "because I haven't played a lot the last two years."

The former Wisconsin star has played only 11 games over two seasons, with only 14 carries and six catches. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a rookie and struggled with it last year.

And now, he is competing with Kevin Smith, Tatum Bell, Artose Pinner and Aveion Cason.

But Calhoun thinks he is in the best position to succeed since coming to Detroit. His knee has healed, the Lions' new zone blocking scheme suits him and the competition is open.

"I'm confident in my ability and what I can do," Calhoun said, "and I think now that we have the system in place that's going to be able to show what I can do, it's going to give me a better chance to perform at a high level."

Many people were surprised when the Lions drafted Calhoun — including Calhoun. He said he had never spoken to the Lions beforehand. He was hoping offensive coordinator Mike Martz had some secret plans for him.

But Kevin Jones was entrenched as the Lions' starting running back, and Calhoun had to learn Martz's system.

"His offense is pretty complex," Calhoun said. "It's tough to pick up for a regular player, let alone a rookie. I never really caught up to where I could have been a major contributor."

After appearing in seven games, Calhoun tore the ACL in his right knee in practice. He came back last season but lasted only four games before the Lions put him back on injured reserve.

"At the time, I was kind of frustrated because I felt that I was healthy, but I really wasn't," Calhoun said. "It didn't feel the same, obviously. I didn't have the burst. It was always sore. I never had swelling, but it was always sore, always bothering me."

And now?

"It's not sore," Calhoun said. "It's not tired. I mean, I feel great. My legs feel good. ... I really feel more confident in my knee than last year."

Calhoun said he began his offseason training earlier this year, the first week of February. He is taking better care of his body, stretching and warming up properly, eating better. After bulking up the past couple of years, he's back down to his old playing weight of 208 pounds, but a leaner, stronger 208 pounds.

"I haven't felt this good since I came out of college a couple years ago," Calhoun said.

More Lions

— Coach Rod Marinelli likes to keep the pressure on his players, and he called defensive tackle Shaun Cody about once a week earlier this offseason. Sometimes it was a quick chat. Sometimes it was just a voice mail. "'You know, Shaun, you don't need to call me back. I just want to leave you with this,'" Cody said. "Then, he'll drop you some jewel or nugget of pass-rushing wisdom. ... It was different every week. But he's always trying to remind you — football, football, football." When was the craziest time Marinelli called? Late one night in February, when Cody was out to dinner with his girlfriend at a nice restaurant in southern California. "Just when they were putting on the candles," Cody said, laughing. "No."

— Calhoun (hamstring) and defensive end Ikaika Alama-Francis (groin) were limited in OTAs as a precaution. Linebacker Ernie Sims (shoulder) and defensive tackle Cory Redding (shoulder) also were not cleared to practice. Marinelli expects everyone to be ready for training camp except tight end Dan Campbell (elbow) and safety Daniel Bullocks (knee).

— The Stanley Cup made a pit stop at Lions headquarters one day before the Detroit Red Wings won it in Pittsburgh.

Vikings: Receivers catching on?

The addition of free agent Bernard Berrian should give the Vikings the type of downfield receiving threat that they were missing last season.

Berrian, however, might not be the only Vikings player who can fill this role in 2008. Second-year players Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison appeared sharp and more confident during the OTA practices that were open to the media.

The speedy Allison caught a few nice long passes from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and could be ready to take an important step in his development.

Rice had a productive rookie season — his four touchdown catches led the team — and has added about eight pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame. That would put him around 210 pounds.

"Anytime you get in the offseason lifting program and offseason conditioning program, and then you're taking the time individually with a position coach every day to just learn some things that may not have been roped to you, I think you can't put a premium on that," coach Brad Childress said when discussing the development of the second-year players.

Rice, a second-round selection, has soft hands and is one of the Vikings' best pure receivers. He can be a deep threat and cause matchup problems for opposing defensive backs in jump-ball situations in the back of the end zone.

Allison only had eight receptions for 122 yards after being taken in the fifth round of last year's draft. He did turn into a productive kickoff return man and led the NFC and ranked third in the NFL with a kickoff-return average of 28.7 yards. He showed his athletic ability by registering the longest play in Vikings' history with a 104-yard kick return for a touchdown in a December victory over Detroit.

With Maurice Hicks having been signed as a free agent to possibly handle kickoff duties, Allison's biggest contribution could come in a receiving role.

More Vikings

— Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who faces four charges stemming from a Feb. 24 brawl outside a Miami nightclub and is scheduled for a June 20 court date, met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last weekend. McKinnie is a repeat offender of the league's personal conduct policy and, thus, could face disciplinary action.

— Two former Vikings wide receiver have surfaced in the CFL. Bethel Johnson has joined the Toronto Argonauts and Kelly Campbell signed with the Edmonton Eskimos.

— Safety Darren Sharper will be among 20 current and former players who will take part in the annual NFL Broadcast Boot Camp from June 16-19 at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J.

— DE Erasmus James, traded by the Vikings to Washington last week for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2009 draft, had an interesting quote about his time in Minnesota in a Washington Post story.

"Coming in as a first-rounder there's a lot of pressure on you," said James, who was taken by the Vikings in the first round of the 2005 draft and battled knee injuries the past two seasons. "A lot of guys think because you're a first-rounder, you're going to come in and start. ... And that's the worst thing to come in as, especially as a rookie with people like that, because you can't get any help. It's kind of like you fend for yourself. It's nice to be around older guys who are not out there to say, 'Hey, there's this new guy coming in.' It's not like that at all. You can learn from these guys. I'm real excited about that."

— Veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte likes what he sees as he mentors young starter Tarvaris Jackson. "He's been great. He listens. I can talk to him," Frerotte said. "He's got so much ability. I don't talk to him a lot because obviously right now he knows a heck of a lot more about the offense than I do because he's been in it for three years. But I just give him little tips on what he should look at doing. He's really doing well out here. I'm really impressed. He knows the offense, knows what the coaches want. I think it's going to be a good relationship."

Bears: Urlacher arrives

Brian Urlacher calmed the commotion that his absence from voluntary offseason activities has caused by showing up last Friday at Halas Hall and fully participating in the first of three mandatory minicamp practices over the weekend.

Urlacher had hinted he would be a no-show this weekend in protest over the Bears' reluctance to fast track and sweeten the contract extension that he's seeking with four years still remaining on his nine-year $56.65 million deal.

The Bears have offered an $18 million package including $5 million up front, an extra $1 million for each of the four years on his current deal and an additional year at $9 million. The six-time Pro Bowl pick wants more.

Urlacher wouldn't say whether he had changed his mind or if he ever seriously considered extending his boycott to the mandatory phase of the offseason, which would have resulted in a fine of $8,165.

"All that matters is I'm here with my teammates," he said. "It's a mandatory team drill. Everyone's here that's supposed to be here. When it says mandatory, you're supposed to be at those things, so that's why I'm here."

Urlacher did all the individual drills with the linebackers and lined up with the first-team defense in 11-on-11 drills.

By attending this weekend's activities, Urlacher increases his chances for an agreement by showing good faith. But, even though he led the team with 158 tackles last season and seemed to move without restrictions during Friday's unpadded workout, the Bears aren't expected to add much to their latest offer.

Urlacher battled through an arthritic back last season, was not voted to the Pro Bowl for just the second time in his eight-year career and then had postseason neck surgery, although he said he was fine physically. He wouldn't confirm that there was any ulterior motive to his presence.

"I'm supposed to be here," he said. "I'm not trying to send any message. It's a mandatory team function and we're supposed to be here. I came here to practice just the same as any year in the past. I wasn't here for the first couple OTAs, but I'm here for the main practices that I'm supposed to be here for."

Asked if stalled negotiations had been rekindled, Urlacher said: "Next question please."

While the offseason weightlifting program, which began April 7, and the 13 organized team activities, which began early in May and continue periodically through June 19 are not mandatory, attendance is close to 100 percent. Urlacher also practiced Saturday and Sunday but was noncommittal about his attendance at the remaining OTAs.

"Not sure," he said with a smile. "Possibly. Maybe. Yes. No. Pick any one of those answers you want."

As it turned out, Urlacher was absent again when OTAs began the following week.

But he did have a definitive answer regarding his health, which curtailed his practice time last season,

"I feel great," he said. "It really hasn't been an issue. I did the rehab. I think it was six weeks. I did it in Arizona with, obviously, direction from our team. But I feel good, really good."

More Bears

— With his two-year contract battle well behind him after agreeing to a six-year, $36 million deal back on March 1, and with the financial spotlight now on Urlacher, Lance Briggs says he's no longer the "hated man."

"When you're in a contract dispute, you're viewed as selfish and many different things," said Briggs, who skipped most voluntary offseason work the previous two years while posturing for his deal and can sympathize with Urlacher.

"Even though that is a fact, that you're thinking about yourself, no one else is really going to think about you but you," Briggs said. "No one else is going to take care of you like you. In football, the way things work, if you've outplayed your contract, you've outplayed your contract. It doesn't matter if you've been making a lot of money. You're a marquee player and everyone knows what our marquee player (Urlacher) has meant to not only this team but this city and this organization. Football players know; in this business you know exactly what your value is, and it's time to get a new deal."

— Two young men stood at the entrance to Halas Hall last Friday afternoon holding a sign that read: "Chicago needs Cedric Benson."

Benson took most of the snaps with the first team during minicamp but is expected to face a training camp battle for the featured role from second-round draft pick Matt Forte'. Despite an offseason arrest for boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest that generated a lot of unneeded notoriety for the veteran, the charges have been disputed by Benson and at least two impartial observers and will be challenged in court. Benson, who suffered a fractured ankle last November, is running and cutting without restrictions, has lost about 10 pounds since last season and seems quicker than he's been in the past. 

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