NFC North Hot News

As the Vikings continue to woo free agents, the rest of the NFC North is largely concerned about losing their own free agents. We check in with news over the last week from the rest of the division.

As the Vikings continue to woo free agents, the rest of the NFC North is largely concerned about losing their own free agents. We check in with news over the last week from the rest of the division.

CHICAGO BEARS

Johnson signs with the Rams

The St. Louis Rams signed Leon Johnson Friday. After missing almost two years following a serious knee injury, the running back spent the last two seasons with the Bears.

Johnson, 6-0, 222, played in all 16 games for the Bears in 2002, starting the final four contests of the season. He finished second on the team with 103 carries for 329 yards and one touchdown and 16 receptions for 125 yards. Johnson was also the leading punt returner for Chicago, recording 28 returns for a 10.3 average and a long of 30.

The Bears will likely address the position in the draft, but for now will count on Adrian Peterson to back up Anthony Thomas.

Chandler likely to remain as backup
The signing of Kordell Stewart gives the Bears a legitimate starting quarterback, but the position is still a question mark. For now, ancient and fragile Chris Chandler is the backup, but he failed to finish four of his seven starts last season, and he'll be 38 before the season is half over. He cannot be counted on to play for long stretches because of a lack of mobility and durability. Nevertheless, GM Jerry Angelo is left with little choice than to tab Chandler as No. 2 - for now, anyway.

"Chris is certainly going to be the backup, (but) we've got some other options in front of us that we hope to pursue and try to bring a young quarterback into the mix," Angelo said. "That's something that we've all talked about over the last couple of months, and we'll just see where that goes."

It's likely that the Bears will draft a quarterback with the 35th overall selection, which adds more questions to the position.

Stewart impressed with Jauron
QB Kordell Stewart's brief encounters with Bears head coach Dick Jauron, and the coach's reputation as a loyal supporter of his players, were instrumental in the quarterback's decision to join the Bears. Stewart believes he can have a more even-keeled relationship with Jauron than he had with Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh.

"I had an opportunity to meet (Jauron) a year ago at an awards banquet in Kansas City, and he was a nice guy then, and he's the same guy now," said Stewart, who was more impressed with Jauron's sincerity as the recruitment period continued. "Just him calling when he did to make sure everything was OK and cool through the process, that's big, man, that's huge, because not too many coaches do that. There's a lot of egos out there, but that's something that he didn't present to me. That's what it's all about, being able to sit down and talk to someone and expressing. I mean, we're human beings. We try to act like we're barbarians, but we're not. Those days are over with. It's really about guys seeing eye to eye and trying to do one thing and being on the same page and playing at one beat and one sound, and that's what it's really all about."

Miller helped by Keyshawn
Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson recently restructured his contract, saving the team about $2.5 million against the salary cap. Tampa Bay is interested in using some of that money to sign QB Jim Miller as a backup.

Big shoes to fill
LB Bryan Knight, a fifth-round draft choice last year, is penciled in as Rosey Colvin's replacement. Knight had 1-1/2 sacks last season in limited duty. "When we made the decision, we felt we had somebody who could replace him, and we have a lot of confidence in Bryan," GM Jerry Angelo said. "Rosey did an excellent job for us. We hope (defensive end) Alex Brown will take a step this year, but we'll still be looking (for pass-rush help). It's a top priority going into the draft."

Brown had 2 1/2 sacks last season and finished second on the team in tackles among defensive linemen with 49, even though he started just nine games.

A versatile performer
Despite the fact that Terrence Metcalf didn't played sparingly during his rookie campaign, the Bears are depending on him to provide depth on the offensive line. Metcalf played in nine games last season without a start.

Metcalf spent time at guard and tackle in college, and Bears GM Jerry Angelo said he can also play center. That will be beneficial when it comes time to carry 45 men on game day.

"We're going back and forth on where we want to line him up next year," said Angelo. "I feel he can play really any position along the line of scrimmage, center as well. He played guard and tackle at the University of Mississippi and we're going to find him a spot this year. A great kid, a great worker, tough, big, strong, all the things we look for he has."

Columbo could move back to natural position
Marc Colombo spent the majority of his college career as a right tackle. However, when the Bears drafted him with their first-round pick last year he was supposed to be the left tackle of the future.

With the emergence of Mike Gandy and the recent release of James "Big Cat" Williams, there is a good chance Colombo will move back to the right side, giving the Bears two solid young tackles.

Colvin leaves with mixed feelings
To no one's surprise, Rosey Colvin, the Bears' leading sacker of the past two seasons, officially became an ex-Bear. Colvin, who at different times appeared close to a deal with the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals, decided on the New England Patriots instead. The Bears were never really a contender for the services of the 25-year-old strong-side linebacker.

"I'm a professional. I can't control some of the things that go on outside of the locker room past myself," Colvin said. "The only thing I can control is my effort on the field and my performance each and every weekend, and if they decide to go in a different direction, that's their problem to have. I'm going to be me, and I am going to be me in New England, not in Chicago."

Colvin, who had 10 1/2 sacks in each of the past two seasons, said he leaves the Bears with mixed feelings. "It was fun-filled," he said of his four years. "We went through the process of trying to build a team into a winner, a powerhouse or whatever, and we did that in 2001 and took a step backwards in 2002. I wish them the best of luck, all of my friends and my fans that I leave behind. It's tough, but being a professional you have to be able to do your job in any given place. That's why they call it being a professional athlete."

Colvin's deal is believed to include a signing bonus of $9 million and annual salaries of between $4 million and $4.5 million. Prior to his arrival in Foxboro, Colvin had visits with the Houston Texans, New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars in addition to the Lions and Cardinals. He was widely considered one of the top prizes in free agency. "It was definitely exhausting," Colvin said of his cross-country tour. "It started to wear on me, but I'm a high-energy-type person. Being up for it and going through it was not the problem. It was just to the point that it got to be all the flights, all the dinners, everything, the physicals ... I just got to the point where I wanted it to be over. It's a process that I think everybody should be able to go through to a certain extent. But I'm grateful, don't get me wrong, I'm definitely grateful."

Both sides happy with deal
Not only did the Bears retain the most accurate field-goal kicker in franchise history, they kept him out of the clutches of a division rival. The Bears on Wednesday matched the $7 million, five-year offer sheet that Paul Edinger signed with the Vikings. The deal includes $1.6 million in bonus money to be paid this month. The Bears would have received a sixth-round draft choice as compensation had they failed to match the Vikings' offer. The Bears had to pay quite a bit more than the $605,000 qualifying offer that they gave Edinger, but that didn't come as a surprise. The Redskins established the market when they paid $7.13 million over five years to sign the New York Jets' unrestricted free agent John Hall, a less accurate kicker than Edinger.

"It was fair for us, and Paul's happy," Angelo said. "It wasn't a difficult decision to match. We felt confident he would be back, even if he did get an offer."

Edinger's 35 field goals of 40 yards or longer are the most in the NFL over the past three seasons. Last year he led the NFL with an average FG attempt of 41.9 yards, and he led the NFC and was second in the NFL with an average made field goal of 40.4 yards. Edinger's five field goals of 50 yards or longer (in eight attempts) tied a team record. He was the NFL special teams player of the month last November, when he was successful on 10 of 11 FG kicks, including a 40-yarder in overtime to defeat the Detroit Lions 20-17.

"You don't want to see any of your players playing in the division," Angelo said. "You don't want to have to play against them."

DETROIT LIONS

Millen hoping LB is rejuvenated

The Lions' search for a strongside linebacker might have ended in their own back yard with the re-signing of Brian Williams. Williams, 30, played just three games last year before suffering a broken leg that put him out for the rest of the season. Although his injury left the Lions with serious linebacking problems, team president Matt Millen feels the year of rest and rehab might have rejuvenated Williams, who was coming off a knee injury suffered in 2001.

Diggs signs offer sheet
Green Bay Packers' linebacker Na'il Diggs has reportedly signed a four-year offer sheet with the Detroit Lions, worth $10 million, with a signing bonus close to $2.8 million.

Diggs, 24, visited with the Lions last week, and according to LionsFans.com Insider Mike Fowler, Detroit attempted to structure a deal that would make it difficult for Green Bay to match. The deal would have likely been front-loaded, according to Fowler, forcing the cap-strapped Packers into a disconcerting position.

A three-year veteran from Ohio State, Diggs tallied 84 tackles last year (67 solo) and only appears to be getting better. If Diggs joins Detroit, he would likely play outside linebacker, opposite Barrett Green.

Rogers wouldn't mind playing in Detroit
The Lions have the No. 2 pick in the draft, and their attention seems to be focused sharply on wide receiver Charles Rogers of Michigan State. With more than a month until the draft, however, anything could happen. The Lions are willing to consider offers for their first-round pick. Their needs are so deep that an offer including additional high draft picks would be extremely appealing. For right now, however, it looks like they will add another big piece to their offense. Encouraging to the Lions is the fact Rogers is agreeable to playing in Detroit, approximately two hours from his home in Saginaw, Michigan.

"I think it would be all pluses," he said. "I came to Michigan State, which was close to home as well. The same thing I did at Michigan State, I feel like I could do in Detroit. "I played two years of college football, so I feel like I'm still scratching the surface of what I can do."

On Tuesday, 28 pro scouts converged on East Lansing, to get a first-hand look at Rogers. And Rogers, who is projected to be the first receiver taken in the NFL Draft in April, didn't disappoint.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder was timed between 4.26 and 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a vertical leap of 37 inches. Cincinatti, Detroit and Houston, who hold the first three picks in the draft were all in attendance.

Bills' FA running back visits Motor City
On Wednesday, Buffalo Bills' free-agent running back Shawn Bryson visited Detroit.

Bryson's appearance is somewhat of a mystery, however. The 26-year-old third-year veteran rushed 13 times for just 35 yard (2.7 per carry) last season while catching just one ball for nine yards. His best season was his rookie year when he rushed for 591 yards on 161 carries (3.7 per carry). The Lions also entertained Jaguars' FA linebacker Wali Rainer.

Harrington believes he has foundation to build on
QB Joey Harrington had the lowest passer rating of any fulltime NFL starter last year -- 59.9 -- but he said he believes his rookie season gave him a solid foundation from which to grown and expand in 2003.

"I expect to make great strides," he said. "The experiences I had last year -- the ups and downs both -- will contribute to what I do in this off-season, what I learn and how I go about next year. "Last year I went through some highs, (beating) New Orleans, winning three of the first six games, and I also went through some lows. I got booed. That doesn't sit well because I know I can play better, I know that I should be playing better and I've taken that as a motivating tool in this off-season."

There was a feeling among those close to the Lions that former coach Marty Mornhinweg might have overloaded Harrington with his offensive schemes and that Harrington's performance tapered off late in the season. He doesn't agree, however. "Honestly, the whole season I felt good," Harrington said. "I felt like I was making progress and I say that because I didn't make many mistakes a second time. I made a lot of different mistakes, but when I made a mistake I would correct it very quickly and not make it again. In my mind, that's very definitely an improvement."

Harrington says the irregular heartbeat that ended his rookie season prematurely last year is no longer a concern to him. "I am completely fine," Harrington said in a press conference Wednesday. "There is no medication, there's nothing. It's something that's in the past."

Harrington was stricken in the early minutes of the Lions' Dec. 15 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ford Field and the next day underwent a surgical procedure to correct the flaw. Two days after the procedure he was back on his feet but doctors ruled him out for the final two games of the season. Harrington said he was cleared for action after going through a stress test at the end of the year and continued his workout program even while spending time at his family's home in Washington during the winter.

"I never really got away from football entirely," he said. "That's just not in my nature. When I was taking some time off, I was still working out in the mornings from nine to 12 and I would have some time in the afternoon to play golf."

Streets: Jets, Patriots, Lions interested
The New York Jets, New England and Detroit are all interested in acquiring WR Tai Streets. Streets is a restricted free agent, and the 49ers would technically be owed a first-round pick as compensation, but San Francisco might be willing to accept less.

Brown didn't waste any time
Ray Brown didn't wait as long to re-sign a contract with the Lions as originally expected. Brown, 40, sat out all of the 2002 training camp and was signed by the Lions on Aug. 20. Within a matter of days he was their starting right guard and started all 16 games, playing as well or better than anyone on the offensive line. At the end of the season, he hinted he would wait and re-sign late in the summer again next year but the Lions convinced him to get his name on the dotted line this week. Coach Steve Mariucci, who also coached Brown in his only Pro Bowl season at San Francisco in 2001, and Lions president Matt Millen have made it clear they do not expect the senior citizen offensive lineman to wear himself out in training camp.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

Holliday may visit with Chiefs

The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks have submitted offers to Vonnie Holliday, but he is considering other alternatives, according to the Arizona Republic.

Holliday's agent, Brian Levy, said the defensive end probably will visit Kansas City after the owners meetings, which are being held this week.

Eagles waiting on KGB answer
The Eagles want Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Now, they're just waiting to find out whether Gbaja-Biamila wants the Eagles. The Eagles brought the free agent defensive end and his family in for a visit last week, gave him a tour of their state-of-the-art training facility and their spanking brand new stadium across the street, showed him around Philadelphia, and wined and dined him. Sometime in the next few days, KGB's agent, Bruce Tollner, will inform the Eagles whether his client, a restricted free agent with the Packers, has any interest in signing an offer sheet with the NFC East club.

"He said all the right things when he was here," an Eagles source said. "We're hopeful. But we'll have to see."

The Packers tendered Gbaja-Biamila, who has registered 25-1/2 sacks the last two seasons, a $1.3 million offer at the start of the free agency signing period, which means they'd receive a first-round pick from any club that signs KGB. But the Packers also have the right to match any offer he receives. They've been trying to re-sign the 25-year-old end to a long-term deal. The Eagles have more than $15 million in cap space, which is considerably more than the Packers, who have just under $5 million. They easily could put together a heavily front-loaded deal that would be next to impossible for the Packers to match. But first, they need the go-ahead from Gbaja-Biamila to even make an offer.

"Kabeer is very happy in Green Bay," his agent said. "As a restricted free agent, it was worth looking at other situations. Philly is a great organization, and he decided to evaluate that. It's a situation where he's very happy where he is and, in order to think about another situation, he needed to see it."

The Eagles didn't make an offer to Gbaja-Biamila during his visit. But Tollner told club president Joe Banner that his client would be looking for the same kind of up-front money that the Washington Redskins recently gave another restricted free agent, wide receiver Laveranues Coles. Coles received a $13 million signing bonus from Washington.

The Eagles' pursuit of Gbaja-Biamila came just days after they waved bye-bye to their three-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Hugh Douglas. The 31-year-old Douglas signed a five-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars that included a $6 million signing bonus. Douglas had 12 1/2 sacks last season, but because of his age and the questionable condition of his knees, the Eagles were reluctant to give him a large signing bonus. Douglas didn't practice at all during the second half of last season because of his knees. He had just 1-1/2 sacks in the Eagles' final five games. At just 255 pounds, Gbaja-Biamila is a bit undersized and isn't really suited at this stage of his career to be an every down end. But the thought of his speed on the edge has defensive coordinator Jim Johnson salivating. If they sign him, he likely would rotate on the right side with Derrick Burgess, who missed most of last season with a broken foot.

"Nasty kid" visits with Packers
Offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer, an unrestricted free agent from New England, was in Green Bay for a visit. Ruegamer, 6-4 and 302, was Miami's third-round draft choice in 1999 and also spent time in Pittsburgh. He has started three games at center in his 33-game career but can also play guard. At Arizona State, he started at both tackles and center over four seasons. Former Green Bay guard Rich Moran, who serves as Ruegamer's agent, said his client had drawn significant interest from the Packers since the visit. Moran described him as "just a tough, mean, nasty kid."

Said an NFC scout: "He's right on the bubble. If you need him to start you got a starter. If not, you've got a solid swing guy. He's a better athlete than (Bill) Ferrario. Smart. Versatile."

Couldn't pass Packers' physical
Last week, after electing not to match the four-year, $6 million offer from Washington for restricted free agent Matt Bowen, the Packers brought in backup safeties John Keith and Bobby Myers seeking his replacement. However, the Packers' medical staff rejected both players because of previous knee injuries. Neither player received a qualifying offer last month and became free agents. Myers, Tennessee's fourth-round draft choice in '00 from Wisconsin, won the Titans' free safety job in '01 but blew out a knee in the opener. He tried to come back in '02 but the knee wasn't sound and he needed additional surgery.

Wants an 'opportunity' to start
Tod McBride visited the Cardinals last week in search of a starting job and money. McBride, Green Bay's top backup cornerback the last three seasons, has visited Atlanta and Dallas. He said the Falcons made him an offer.

If McBride, an unrestricted free agent, signed with the Cardinals, he would compete for the starting job now occupied by David Barrett.

"I'm looking for a starting job," he told reporters in Phoenix. "I really wasn't given a fair shake (in Green Bay) in terms of a fair opportunity to start. Free agency provides that opportunity."

Bengals match
LB Armegis Spearman will stay with Cincinnati after the Bengals matched Green Bay's offer sheet of three years.

How Wayne's departure went down
The Packers cut linebacker Nate Wayne last week. Wayne was summoned to the office of coach Mike Sherman Monday shortly before what the team believed was the deadline for payment of a $750,000 roster bonus.

"Nate was shocked, upset, hurt," agent Harold Lewis said. "He said he thought this was the team he would play for the rest of his life." On Friday, Wayne flew from Green Bay to Philadelphia for a press conference in which he was introduced as the newest Eagle. He agreed to a four-year, $13.23 million contract that contained a signing bonus of $4 million to replace Shawn Barber on the weak side. Wayne also had been aggressively pursued by Detroit and Cleveland. By releasing Wayne the Packers voided his $1.5 million base salary and $750,000 roster bonus. However, he still will count $1.125 million this year based on acceleration of his remaining pro-rated signing bonus.

Wayne replaced Brian Williams as the weak-side starter in 2000 and played well in 2001. But then he suffered three major injuries in less than 12 months and wasn't as effective in '02, although he did lead the Packers in tackles with 132.

"Nate's a good football player," Hatley said. "He's been productive for us but he probably didn't have one of his better years last year. Was Nate going to be back at the level he played in 2001 or is he going to play the way he did in 2002?"

Wayne led the team in "turnover" plays with eight, including three interceptions for the second year in a row. But he also missed 12 tackles, had just 3 1/2 tackles for loss and allowed 5 1/2 plays of 20 yards or more, most by a linebacker. On Monday morning, it appeared to one of Wayne's agents that the Packers intended to pay the $750,000 and keep Wayne. Lewis said he proposed various cap-friendly options to keep Wayne in Green Bay, but with the Packers were interested in Wayne only at about $1.25 million, compared to $2.25 million, and both sides ultimately walked away.

"You do your research, make a decision, pull the trigger and just hope it's the right thing to do," Hatley said. "There's some linebackers out there that we like. Whether we'll get them, who knows."

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