NFC North news, notes and quotes

At one time, the strength of the Bears was their defensive line. No longer. Like the Bears, the Lions could be searching on the offensive and defensive lines. Meanwhile, the Packers will continue to look to the draft first to build and sustain their team.


Chicago Bears

While the Bears' greatest area of need remains the offensive line, it's not written in stone that they'll take an O-lineman with their first-round pick (29th overall) on April 28.

No one should be surprised if they target the defensive line with that first choice, especially after parting ways with defensive tackle Tommie Harris Feb. 28. Nose tackle Anthony Adams, a 16-game starter last year, is eligible for free agency, if and when it starts.

Since taking over as the Bears' draft-day decision-maker in 2002, general manager Jerry Angelo has used his top pick on a defensive lineman three times and drafted 14 of them in nine years.

Matt Toeaina played ahead of Harris most of last season, starting 10 games, but Harris reclaimed the starting job late in the season. Henry Melton, a fourth-round pick in 2009, is undersized at 6-3 and 260 pounds, and he was mostly a situational pass rusher last year.

Marcus Harrison, a third-round pick in 2008, will have an opportunity to earn significant playing time at one or both of the tackle spots, but he has been a huge disappointment. The 6-3, 312-pounder was a game-day inactive 11 times last year and had a total of one tackle.

Because the current crop of draft-eligible defensive linemen is so talented and so deep, especially at end, it's possible that starting-caliber players could be available through the end of the second or third round.

Wide receiver is another area the Bears would like to upgrade. But Angelo has never used a first-round pick on a wideout.

NOTES

  • If and when there is a free-agency period, the Bears won't make the kind of splash they did last year.

    Signing Julius Peppers to a six-year deal that could be worth as much as $91 million was a difference-making maneuver, but it isn't something any team can afford every year.

    "It's a difficult thing to do," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "You don't want to come out every year having to spend big chunks of money on one player. That's not the goal.

    "We determined that was a unique situation, and that was really an aberration of free agency. We thought he was a special player, obviously he was a fit, he was a need, and we felt like that was the right thing."

    Until a new CBA is in place, teams won't know what the salary cap will be.

    "We have to hypothesize and we have on certain cap numbers," Angelo said, and we have to do our scenarios and we have our budget that we operate within. We have to have 'guesstimations' on that."

    The Bears landed the biggest fish in the free-agent pond last year in Peppers. But expectations should be scaled back this time around.

    "Can we get the big fish (again)?" Angelo said. "I don't know. I haven't seen the bait yet, and until I know how much bait we can put on the hook, I don't know that we can get the big fish. That's going to be determined once we have a clear understanding of where the cap is."

    Some teams justify spending big bucks in free agency on one big-ticket player in the belief that they are just one difference-maker away from getting to the Super Bowl. Angelo doesn't buy that philosophy, he doesn't feel the Bears are in that category, and he doesn't believe the solution is that simple.

    "We're not one player away," he said. "I have seen teams do that. I have been part of teams that have done that. That hit or miss rarely hits, so we don't want to get into that mindset.

    "When we do things, there's got to be a plan in place. We need to get better at (multiple) positions. We need to upgrade, create more competition, and then we've got to come together as a team."

  • Since he was drafted in the first round in 2008, Chris Williams has started 11 games at right tackle, seven at left tackle and the last 11 of the 2010 season at left guard.

    Where his future with the Bears lies is still unclear.

    "We have a few options, a few directions we can go," coach Lovie Smith said. "We don't have to make those decisions right now. We just know that Chris is a part of our future, and once we lock him in to a position, maybe (it's) the one he's in right now. (Offensive line coach) Mike Tice did a super job molding an offensive line this past year, and I'm anxious to see exactly where we end up playing him."

  • Arguably the most important of the Bears' unrestricted free agents is 13-year veteran center Olin Kreutz.

    "I believe in him," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's the anchor of our team, our team leader. So he's very important to what we do. I know he's without a contract right now, but I think Olin knows that he's wanted and that's not really even a question."

    --Four-year veteran cornerback Corey Graham, another potential unrestricted free agent, has started just one game in the previous two seasons. But he had 25 solo tackles on special teams last season, more than twice as many as Garrett Wolfe, who was second with 12.

    "When you say he's not a starter, we look at that a little bit differently," coach Lovie Smith said. "Special teams, that's a starting group that we have. Corey Graham is a starter as I see it. He's one of our core players that's helped us win football games each year."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's no question about Jay's toughness or anything like that. For guys to even challenge that or question that (they) don't know what they're talking about, don't know him. He's as tough as any quarterback in the league." – Coach Lovie Smith on the continuing question of QB Jay Cutler's toughness.


    Detroit Lions

    The Lions' offensive and defensive lines are expected to return intact whenever the 2011 season rolls around. The defensive line is, in fact, the strength of the team.

    But general manager Martin Mayhew said that would not preclude him from drafting either an offensive or defensive lineman with the 13th overall pick, even though there are pronounced needs in other areas.

    "Sometimes when you add a player it might not make sense on the face of it," Mayhew said. "But when if you see what's on the horizon and you look down the road and around the corner, it does make sense."

    This particular draft is rich in offensive and defensive linemen. The Lions have an aging left tackle in Jeff Backus (he'll be 34) and a right tackle - Gosder Cherilus – coming off microfracture knee surgery. Even though the defensive line is relatively young and deep, it is the catalyst of the Lions' defensive philosophy. They won't pass up the chance to add another key piece.

    "We have a lot of needs and we will take the best available player," Mayhew said. "(The defensive line) has to be the strength of our team in the future and it's a big part of our defensive philosophy. There are a lot of intriguing guys here, a lot of good defensive ends and a lot of versatile guys who can play outside and rush from the inside. That is definitely an area we will look to address."

    The Lions will certainly draft a linebacker and a cornerback at some point. But leaving the Combine, the general consensus was they weren't going to be able to get the right player at those positions with the 13th pick.

    Although, there is a slight chance that Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara could slip to 13. If that happens, the Lions would likely take him.

    One thing that is certain, the Lions are not going to draft a quarterback.

    "I am putting all my eggs into the Matt Stafford, Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton basket," Mayhew said. "I haven't evaluated a lot of these quarterbacks. When we interview our 60 guys, we won't interview a single quarterback."

    Barring an unexpected reversal, the Lions will have only five draft picks. They lost their sixth-round pick in a trade and their seventh-round pick was forfeited after they were found guilty of tampering.

    It is unknown if the Lions filed an appeal of those charges - the deadline was Feb. 28 - but from the way Mayhew talked, it's doubtful.

    "When this kind of thing happens, you have to go back and reevaluate what you did, what you didn't do and things you can do differently," he said. "Then you have to move on. We're moving on.

    "We haven't made a final determination on what the next step is, but from our standpoint, there are so many positive things going on with our franchise and it doesn't make a lot of sense to wallow around in something negative."

    NOTES
  • Although general manager Martin Mayhew seemed desperate to move on from the tampering charges, coach Jim Schwartz seemed ready to keep up the fight. "I believe firmly in our case and we reached the wrong conclusion in that," he said. "We still have some options we can pursue." Although Schwartz wouldn't talk about it, it is believed that the player the Lions' supposedly tampered with (former Kansas City safety Jarrad Page) actually made contact with Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Neither the league nor the Lions would confirm whether an appeal was made.

  • Schwartz is still reluctant to discuss the rehab of QB Matthew Stafford, except to say, "I feel optimistic he'll have a good rehab." When asked why he suddenly decided to have surgery after months of saying none would be required, Schwartz said, "Yeah, we're probably not going to talk about that."

  • Mayhew was not a fan of some comments made by OLB Zack Follett a few months back. On a radio show, Follett referred to Stafford as a 'China Doll.' Follett later backed away from that, saying it was taken the wrong way. Said Mayhew: "I think the world of Zack Follett, but I didn't think much of those comments. It was a poor choice of words from a good guy."

  • The Lions were greatly relieved to learn that they will be able to monitor the rehabs of injured players in the event of a lockout. "We will be able to monitor rehabs," Mayhew said. "They won't be out there on their own with us having no clue where they are physically. We will be able to be in contact about rehabs." The Lions have a host of recovering players, including Stafford (shoulder), linebacker DeAndre Levy (groin), safety Louis Delmas (groin), tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee), cornerback Chris Houston (shoulder) and kicker Jason Hanson (knee).

  • It was somewhat surprising that Mayhew announced that No. 3 QB Drew Stanton would be tendered. It was believed that Stanton, a fourth-year player, played his final game as a Lion last year. "We plan on having Drew on our team next season," Mayhew said. "He's the kind of guy where every year has been a little different, but I think he made some dramatic improvement in the second half of the season. We plan on having him back to see if he can continue to improve."

  • It was less of a surprise that PK Dave Rayner was tendered. The Lions are concerned about the health and durability of 40-year-old Jason Hanson. "The big thing with Jason is physical and we have no answers for that right now," Mayhew said. "By the time we get to the summer, we will know exactly where he is, how he's feeling and what he's able to do." Hanson has had knee surgery the last two seasons - his left knee before the 2009 season, which didn't cost him any games, then his right knee last year, which cost him half the season. "Age is a factor with Jason, more so than his health," Mayhew said. "He's getting older, but that's one area where we have some time before we have to make a decision."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "One reason we've had success is we haven't tried to fit square pegs into round holes. We have drafted from the inside out and we've had very specific job descriptions in mind for the guys we draft." – Coach Jim Schwartz on the Lions' recent success in the draft.


    Green Bay Packers

    The release March 2 of former first-round draft pick A.J. Hawk (who was then re-signed to a lesser deal) and the – the starting linebacker subsequently was going to be re-signed to a reported five-year contract – may be the only significant splash the Packers make in this choppy offseason.

    That is, until the April 28-30 draft, which is when general manager Ted Thompson traditionally carves out some lasting marks. With few exceptions, the core of Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning team last season was composed of a preponderance of draft picks made by Thompson since 2005.

    The draft will go on as planned, even if the league operations grind to a halt because of labor unrest. The reigning NFL champions, however, will be in unfamiliar territory as the holders of the 32nd and last pick in the opening round.

    "The first round will be excruciating because we'll sit there and watch all these really good players get drafted before we can do anything," Thompson said. "But, that's a problem we're OK to deal with."

    With little roster turnover expected, the Packers have the luxury of drafting for the purpose of restocking just a few positions. That could prompt the normally judicious Thompson to take a leap of faith early in the draft for the third straight year – he traded up to land linebacker Clay Matthews in Round 1 in 2009 and safety Morgan Burnett in Round 3 last year.

    NOTES

    A day after the Packers cut Hawk, their 2006 first-round draft pick, they finalized a five-year contract with Hawk.

    "With A.J., the business side of the game is driving this decision," general manager Ted Thompson said following the release of Hawk on March 2. "We're hopeful that we can continue to work with A.J. to have him be a part of our team in the future."

    Indeed, Thompson had no intention of dispatching Hawk on the eve of what was supposed to be the final day of the NFL business year. Yet, Thompson wasn't going to pay the underwhelming five-year starter the $10 million salary that would have taken effect Friday had the league owners and players reached accord on a new collective-bargaining agreement.

    Hawk was prepared for several weeks to take a paycut in order to stay with the Packers.

    "There's definitely no reason to worry," Hawk said before the Packers' Super Bowl XLV win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 6. "As far as my contract, I just want to play."

    Hawk, whose 2010 season started inauspiciously when he didn't play a down on defense in the season-opening win at the Philadelphia Eagles, was a key component of the Green Bay defense in its late-season run to the league title. He had the "quarterback" duties for the unit, relaying the calls on the field, after fellow inside linebacker Nick Barnett suffered a season-ending wrist injury early in the season. Hawk also was one of six team captains in the playoffs.

    By keeping Hawk in the fold through 2015 after his rookie contract would have expired at the end of next season, the Packers have potentially set the stage for a big battle for playing time at the two inside linebacker spots.

    They signed Desmond Bishop to a substantial contract extension late in the 2010 season, and the combination of Bishop and Hawk was effective down the stretch. Barnett and Brandon Chillar, who also ended the season on injured reserve, have big-money contracts as well.

    Thompson said at the recent NFL Scouting Combine that he is receptive to keeping all four players, though the writing could be on the wall for Barnett in the wake of Hawk's new deal.

  • Also Wednesday, the Packers released two more veterans: eight-year tight end Donald Lee and five-year safety Derrick Martin.

    Unlike Hawk, Lee and Martin will be left to look for new teams once free agency starts.

    Martin, who was acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens before the start of the 2009 season, was primarily a contributor on special teams with the Packers. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 in 2010.

    Lee, a three-year starter for Green Bay from 2007-2009, had his playing time drastically reduced last season. Jermichael Finley took over as the starter, and even after Finley sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, Lee lingered behind rookie Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree.

    Lee finished the season, including playoffs, with 11 catches for 73 yards and three touchdowns.

  • Packers president Mark Murphy was in the throes of the 11th-hour talks between the league owners and players' union in front of a federal mediator in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and Thursday as the two sides tried to iron out their differences before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement late Thursday night. A 24-hour extension was agreed to Thursday afternoon.

    Murphy is part of the NFL's negotiating team. He also is on the league's labor committee, which has the authority to call for a lockout of players if a new CBA isn't in place.

  • Cornerback Brandon Underwood reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was fined $379 in a Wisconsin courtroom Wednesday stemming from allegations of sexual assault last June.

    Underwood was found guilty after he entered a no-contest plea to one count of prostitution non-marital sexual intercourse in Sauk County Circuit Court.

    Two women had told police that Underwood, 24, raped them at a resort in Wisconsin Dells. Underwood argued the sexual contact was consensual.

    He was one of several Packers' players who stayed in a condominium at the resort following a charity golf outing hosted by linebacker Clay Matthews.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You just try to make good football decisions. That's what we've done all along. We've always tried to manage the cap ... in such a way that we can make football decisions. We still feel like we're in a position where we can do that." - General manager Ted Thompson, on preparing for a potential work stoppage.


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