NFC North notebook

Lions coach Rod Marinelli brings school to Detroit's practices; rookie Matt Forte' figures to be the Bears' featured back; Vikings center Matt Birk wants contract extension; and much more.

Before he became coach of the Detroit Lions, before he was the defensive line coach at Tampa Bay, before he rose through the college ranks — Southern Cal, Arizona State, California, Utah State — Rod Marinelli started as an assistant coach and history teacher at Rosemead High, his alma mater, outside Los Angeles.

His coaches and teachers had a huge impact on his life, and he never has forgotten it.

Last June, the Lions opened their last offseason practice to the public and held it at Detroit Renaissance High, so coaches and players from the Public School League could see how professionals went about business.

This year, the Lions tried something different. The Lions invited 10 high schools from across southeastern Michigan to send seven players, two coaches and a teacher to an offseason practice. They attended meetings, took a tour of the building and got an up-close look on the field.

Marinelli doesn't see much difference between Lions coaches and high school coaches and teachers. It's just a different level, a different environment.

"They're all teaching," Marinelli said. "What they're doing is the same as what we're trying to do — teach."

Marinelli wanted to limit the number of people to keep the experience intimate. He asked the coaches to pick the players they wanted to come — maybe guys who needed inspiration, maybe guys who deserved a reward, maybe a young guy on the rise.

"For my kids, it's just the work ethic and how they're running around in practice from drill to drill and then from team to team," Ann Arbor Pioneer High coach Jeremy Gold said. "Just getting these kids to understand that this is a fast-paced deal. You have to be in great shape to go for two-hour practice."

Allen Park High coach Tom Hoover was thrilled after watching offensive coordinator Jim Colletto instruct the offensive linemen in the classroom and then move the lesson outdoors.

"Every single guy in there was glued to the screen, and he was showing them what he wanted," Hoover said. "And then when I watched practice out here, they did it at full speed, under fire. He's an excellent teacher. I saw it before, during and after."

Marinelli also asked the coaches to pick a teacher who doesn't coach.

"I thought that was a real benefit for them to see what goes on here," Marinelli said. "It just helps them to relate to a student better. ... I just wanted to show why players like this stuff.

"The classroom teachers were able to see it's the same thing -- presenting material, how you present, changing the environment of a room, voice inflection, all those type of things. It's all the same."

More Lions — Wide receiver Calvin Johnson was absent the last two times the media was allowed to watch the Lions' organized team activities. The practices are voluntary. "It's personal for him," Marinelli said. "I know where he's at. It's a private issue for him."

— Defensive tackle Landon Cohen, a seventh-round pick out of Ohio University, finally joined the Lions for his first practice during their last week of OTAs. He was ineligible to practice until then under NFL rules because of his college schedule. "It's frustrating," Cohen said. "The one thing that I really have to do is just get all the mental stuff down. Physically I'm ready to go and I'm in shape and ready to do the things."

— Marinelli is pleased with his team's physical conditioning — and wants to keep it that way. "The thing that impresses me now with them — and I've just got to just keep hitting it — is how lean," Marinelli said. "This team is lean. Everybody that walks in, ‘Wow, is this a lean team.' And we've got to continue that through the summer and stay quick and fast."

BEARS: Forte' taking over for Benson With the demise of Cedric Benson, rookie Matt Forte' will go to training camp as the Chicago Bears' de facto featured running back. And that's just fine with the second-round pick from Tulane who believes he can handle the major responsibility of resurrecting a rushing offense that was the worst in the NFL last season in average gain per attempt. "I'm not going to sit here and doubt myself or my talent or anything," the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Forte said. "I believe that I can come in and play. I have the ability, (but) it's going to take a lot of work." Forte worked overtime for the Green Wave last season, carrying 361 times for 2,127 yards (second in the nation), 23 touchdowns and a 5.9-yard average per carry. Benson averaged a career-worst 3.4 yards per carry in 2007 for the Bears, who, as a team, averaged a league-worst 3.1 yards per try, so the bar isn't set high for Forte. Although the Bears have yet to run a full-speed play in pads and won't until the training camp practices start on July 23, offensive coordinator Ron Turner has been impressed with Forte. "He's been tremendous," Turner said. "He's a very intelligent young man. He's been here 10 practices or whatever counting OTAs and minicamp, and right now we're not afraid to call anything in our offense with him: first down, second down, third down. Sure he's made some mistakes, and he's got some things to clean up technique-wise and assignment-wise and all that, but we'll continue to work on that. But he's a very bright young man who can do a lot of things." Part of Forte's allure on draft day was his versatility. He caught 103 passes for 985 yards at Tulane and showed a willingness to stick his nose in as a blocker, making him a reliable third-down option, a designation Benson never achieved. Forte will encounter a more complicated third-down blocking scheme in the NFL, but he is confident he can be a complete back, even though he's aware it won't happen overnight. "It's a process," he said. "I'm just a rookie coming in, so it's going to be a long process. That's why we go to training camp, that's why we're out here now in OTAs. (We're) learning the plays; learning the system and getting used to the speed of the game." If the Bears don't sign a free agent running back off the NFL scrap heap to replace Benson, the Bears would be left with only seventh-year veteran backup Adrian Peterson and second-year situational runner Garrett Wolfe behind Forte. At just 5-foot-7 and 186 pounds, Wolfe's role figures to be primarily as a receiver in passing situations or as a change-of-pace back. Peterson is one of the Bears' best special-teamers and has performed well as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations. He had a career-best 51 catches last season, which was second best on the team, and his 420 receiving yards were fourth best on the Bears. Peterson's 151 carries last season exceeded his total from his first five NFL seasons, but he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, and his longest run was for 21 yards. Forte doesn't see his niche in the Bears' offense changing much without Benson in the mix. "It's probably the same role that they brought me in here for," he said. "I'm a pass-catcher, runner and a pass-blocker." More Bears —Forte' worked with the first team at Wednesday's OTA, during which the Bears were short-handed at the position. Peterson, the most experienced ball carrier on the roster after Benson's release, underwent an appendectomy Monday night. Peterson is expected to resume normal football activities well before the first training camp practice on July 23. Forte, Wolfe and even wide receiver Devin Hester lined up at tailback. The Bears have discussed bringing in another veteran running back but haven't made any decisions. "With Ced gone, obviously the younger guys that we have will have an opportunity to get better," running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "I'm sure that as we go on, we'll talk (about adding another running back). But for right now, I'm going to get (reps for) my guys that I have right now." — Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher practiced during Wednesday's OTA, his first appearance at a voluntary workout this offseason. Urlacher has been staying away in hopes of forcing the Bears to fatten his nine-year, $56.65 million contract, which still has four years remaining. He declined to talk to the media after practice, but defensive coordinator Bob Babich was glad to have him back. "Anytime you're practicing football it's a big plus to have Brian Urlacher out here," Babich said. "He picked up right where he left off from the minicamp. It was good to have our leader out here." Babich did not know if Urlacher would be back for next week's final three OTA practices. VIKINGS: Birk honest about absence Give Matt Birk credit.

The Pro Bowl center, who hasn't taken part in any of the Vikings' voluntary workouts this offseason, didn't dodge any questions related to his absence while attending the team's mandatory minicamp.

Birk said the fact his wife is expecting the couple's fourth child this week played a significant role in his decision to stay away but also admitted his thinking was impacted by his contract situation.

Birk is entering the final season and the Vikings have made no attempt to discuss any type of extension with him.

"Obviously, a lot has been made of the fact that I haven't received a contract extension," Birk said. "That was just part of my decision process, not coming to OTAs. I consider myself very lucky to be a part of this team and play football for a living. But I consider myself more blessed with my family. With our situation right now, it's a busy time."

A six-time Pro Bowl section, Birk is due to make $5.72 million this season and will be eligible to become a free agent next March. But Birk, a native of St. Paul, Minn., would rather remain in Minnesota. He has played for his hometown team since 1998.

"I've expressed my desire to stay here. That's all I can do," he said. "I'm just going to do what I've always done for the last 10 years. I never take this for granted.

"I'm just going to work hard and contribute to the team. That's what it's about. ... The thing I've learned (is that) every single person in the NFL is replaceable. Everyone is useful, but nobody is necessary. It doesn't matter who you are."

More Vikings — Defensive end Ray Edwards sat out the Vikings' three-day minicamp because of a lower back injury. Edwards is slated to be the team's starting left end this season after playing right end last season. Newcomer Jared Allen is taking over on the right side.

— Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is expected to be the member of the Vikings' defense who wears an in-helmet communication device this season. The NFL approved one defensive player on each team wearing the device this spring and the Vikings experimented with the system in minicamp.

— Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, a disappointment last season after signing as a free agent, was a standout at minicamp. Shiancoe made several nice catches, including three circus grabs on the first day of the workouts.

— Four coaches will work with the Vikings in the coming months as part of the NFL's Minority Fellowship intern program: Among them is Joe Panos, a former NFL offensive lineman who played at Wisconsin.

— The Vikings have five practices set up as part of their OTAs over the next two weeks and then will be done until reporting to training camp July 23 in Mankato.

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