NFC North tour: Stafford shining

No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford shows his talent in Detroit; the Bears add veteran linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa; Brett Favre continues to be the top storyline in Minnesota.

The arms race between veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper and No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford will begin during the Lions' last minicamp June 22-24.

To be sure, it will be only the beginning.

"The arms race, it won't just be that minicamp," coach Jim Schwartz said. "It's going to be all of training camp. That's what that competition is at quarterback."

But talk of an arms race started with Schwartz himself, and it is significant that he already has defined the starting line.

The Lions have been active since the draft, from signing a couple of solid NFL veterans who grew up in Detroit and played at Michigan — linebacker Larry Foote and offensive tackle Jon Jansen — to claiming multiple players off waivers.

But the biggest story has been Stafford's development. He has been impressive since joining the veterans in organized team activities, and the Lions seem to alternate between showing their excitement and trying to contain it.

In an interview with SI.com, Schwartz raved about Stafford: "So far, whatever the opposite of buyer's remorse is, that's what we have. We knew he had the terrific NFL arm. But we've found out his release is just textbook classic."

But the day that quote appeared on the Internet, Schwartz clammed up. If the Lions had buyer's remorse, then that would mean Stafford had not lived up to expectations. The opposite of buyer's remorse, then, would be that he had exceeded expectations.

Asked if Stafford had exceeded expectations, Schwartz gave a careful response that really didn't answer the question: "My expectations are high, not only for him but for just about every player. So it's hard to exceed my expectations."

It's hard. That doesn't mean Stafford hasn't. In a recent practice, he made several impressive throws, including one through tight coverage over the middle to receiver Keary Colbert.

"That's the sign of a young, great quarterback," Colbert said. "It was a small window. He has a lot of confidence in himself and in his arm to make that throw, and he showed it. He put it in there where only I could get it."

Schwartz also spoke highly of Stafford's release.

"It's one thing to have a strong arm," said Schwartz, who was Tennessee's defensive coordinator the past eight years. "Most NFL quarterbacks have a strong arm.

"But being a defensive coordinator, being a defensive coach my whole career, the guys who are hardest to play are the guys with the quick release. What happens is, you can't break on the ball.

"You can make it look like you're fitting it into spots because you cut the reaction time of the defense."

The Lions want to be careful to handle Stafford correctly. They know the Lions have hyped hotshots at quarterback in the past, rushed them and watched them fail.

Though Schwartz said the coaches would "really turn the microscope on" during minicamp, he reiterated that Stafford will start only when he's ready and the best quarterback.

"He needs to pass both of those," Schwartz said. "It doesn't matter if he's ready if he's not the best, and it doesn't matter if he's the best if he's not ready."

Bears: Adding to defense

Proving that they haven't forgotten about their defense, the Bears signed standout free-agent linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa on May 29, just hours after signing versatile backup lineman Israel Idonije to a two-year contract extension through 2011.

Those moves won't have the same impact as the addition of quarterback Jay Cutler and left tackle Orlando Pace did, but they have helped solidify the Bears' front seven.

Tinoisamoa, a starter in each of his six seasons with the Rams, and their leading tackler in four of those seasons, signed a one-year deal and immediately become the favorite to win the starting job at strong-side linebacker.

The 6-1, 225-pound Tinoisamoa joins a unit that already includes Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who have been voted to nine Pro Bowls between them. Midway through last season, Nick Roach won the starting job on the strong side from Hunter Hillenmeyer, who is still recovering from offseason hernia surgery. Roach is currently listed as the starter, and Tinoisamoa has not been promised anything more than an opportunity to compete for the job, but he is expected to win the competition.

He's undersized for an NFL linebacker, but that isn't considered a drawback in a defense that values speed and quickness more than size. Tinoisamoa led the Rams with a career-best 104 tackles last season and also had a personal-best 3.0 sacks.

His presence should give the Bears excellent depth and some spirited competition at training camp. Other than the three projected starters, plus Roach and Hillenmeyer, the Bears also have fourth-year player Jamar Williams, who is having an excellent offseason, and 2008 seventh-round pick Joey LaRocque. Williams and LaRocque both were productive on special teams last season. In addition, the Bears also used a fifth-round pick this year on Ohio State's Marcus Freeman, but they might not keep more than seven linebackers.

The 27-year-old Tinoisamoa attracted attention from the Patriots, Bills and Eagles, but the Bears became a clear favorite after the Patriots signed former Lions linebacker Paris Lenon.

Idonije has shown tremendous versatility playing inside and outside on the Bears' defensive line and contributing on special teams, where he has blocked four kicks and blown up numerous would-be tacklers on return teams.

This season, Idonije is being asked to slim down and focus on defensive end after getting most of his 2008 snaps at tackle, when he played at close to 300 pounds. He's nearing his 2009 target weight of 270 and hoping to improve upon last season's career-best 3.5 sacks.

The Bears haven't completely ignored the offense since the draft. They signed former Lions tight end Michael Gaines to a one-year contract on May 11, and he has the inside track on the No. 3 tight end spot, which requires a physical presence as a blocker in the run game. Gaines should see plenty of action, since the Bears' top two tight ends, Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, are used more as receivers, especially Olsen, who has been a favorite target of Cutler during 11-on-11 work in OTA practices.

Vikings: Favre still dominates news

The Vikings appear to have added a dynamic playmaker by taking the multi-talented Percy Harvin with the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft.

They could have a contract situation on their hands with veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield staying away from offseason practices, in part because Winfield, coming off the first Pro Bowl appearance of his 10-year career, is entering the last season of a six-year deal.

Then there is the issue of Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson saying he wanted to add up to 12 pounds to his 6-1 frame, something that apparently isn't going to happen given that Peterson recently said he is at 216 pounds. That's 1 pound lighter than his weight at the end of last season.

But no matter how many storylines might be surrounding the Vikings this spring and summer, none is going to trump a question that has been asked since late April: Is Brett Favre going to be this team's quarterback in 2009?

It remains a legitimate query and one that either nobody has an answer to or if they do they aren't talking. The Favre option became a potential reality when the New York Jets released the future Hall of Famer from their reserve/retired list in late April.

Rumors quickly began to circulate that Favre was headed to Minnesota and while those have settled down of late, the Vikings' front office and coach Brad Childress have refused to dismiss the fact that Favre could end up wearing purple for a season or two.

"I'm thinking about the next four OTAs next week," Childress said Friday at a community-service event.

On Friday, agent Bus Cook told The Associated Press that his good friend Favre remains retired. But, without prompting, he told the AP's Dave Campbell: "I would think they would pull out all the stops if they want to get the guy. I think Brett Favre just brings a whole new ballgame to any ballclub. That's no reflection on the guys that are on their team at quarterback right now, but Brett's in a different league than most."

The will-he-or-won't-he questions leave plenty of uncertainty for many, most importantly the current quarterback trio of Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and John David Booty.

Rosenfels was acquired from the Houston Texans in late February for a fourth-round pick and told that for the first time in his nine-year career he was going to get a shot to compete for the starting job. Perhaps that's why Rosenfels has seemed somewhat annoyed to have to be answering questions about Favre and the "will he or won't he" aspect of this story.

Jackson thought he was the starter entering training camp last year, but had to deal with Favre-to-Minnesota speculation early on and thus seems better equipped to roll with the punches at this point.

As the Vikings' OTAs wind down — the club held its mandatory minicamp at the end of May — there appears little doubt that if Favre does decide he wants to return that Childress and Co. would welcome him. One big issue remains the status of the partially torn right biceps in Favre's throwing arm. There has been plenty of debate about whether he would be willing to have surgery or if he was going to try to complete the tear on his own by throwing a football and hope the healing process would begin that way.

Cook would not comment about the state of Favre's arm.

Jackson and Rosenfels are treating the situation as if they will be competing for the starting job come late July and early August. Whether that is really going to be the case remains a mystery in Minnesota at this point.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.


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