Around the NFC North
Every standout player on an above-average Bears defense is over 30.
But worry may be premature. Four of those old-timers were voted to the Pro Bowl last season – Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.
It may be asking too much for all four to continue playing at the same elite level they have over the past decade, but none of them showed signs of wear last season. All four played all 16 games. But what are the odds they'll remain that durable for another season?
"I still see a productive defense," said first-year GM Phil Emery. "And that's the most important thing – that the players we have in starter roles, are they producers? And do they have, for want of another word, do they still have some juice? Do they still have legs? Do they still have burst? Can they still get to the ball? I see players on our defense as starters who still have that burst, that are still producing."
But clearly, the Bears need more help from supporting players and for younger players to step up and play a bigger role, especially in the pass-rush department. The Bears were 29th in sacks last season, despite the presence of right end Peppers, who had 11 sacks and still commands double-team attention. Even with offenses focused on Peppers, left end Israel Idonije contributed just five sacks. Up-and-down tackle Henry Melton quietly had seven sacks. But no one from last season who's back for 2012 had more than two.
The Bears' defense depends on getting pass-rush pressure almost exclusively from the linemen with little blitz help from the back seven, who ideally can focus on coverage. When the front four doesn't produce, an average-at-best secondary is more easily exposed. An upgrade is needed across from Tillman, and the safety position has been a revolving door in Smith's previous eight years. Coincidentally, the Bears have selected a safety in each of the last eight drafts, but they're still looking for a winning combination.
First-round pick Shea McClellin is being counted on to goose the pass rush, but it's tough to imagine where any additional pressure will come from.
"Obviously it helped fill a need for us as a pass rusher," Emery said of the first-round pick. "We are also very excited about Shea in terms of his all-downs ability. This is an all-downs football player, including special teams. This is a four-down player. We are excited about him for several reasons: He's got really quick feet and hands as a pass rusher, and he has natural hips as a pass rusher."
Unless McClellin can help the defense create constant pressure up front, the Bears struggle to create the turnovers that have been a huge part of every successful defense during Smith's reign. Since 2004, the Bears have 266 takeaways, the most in the NFL and 19 more than the second-place Panthers.
Lions receiver coach Shawn Jefferson doesn't think concussions are triggering the recent rash of suicides among former players. This particular manifestation of depression, he believes, is borne out of the alienation players feel when they leave the game.
"It's not the depression that kills you," said Jefferson, who was a teammate with the late Junior Seau in San Diego. "It's trying to make that transition to real life without that support group you've had in place your whole career. The depression is a result of not being around your guys anymore; that's what kills you.
"The depression comes about because you don't have that structure any more. You aren't walking into that locker room and chatting with your locker mates. You're not in that fire on Sunday with those guys. You are at the door knocking, but nobody will let you in. You don't have that sense of purpose. For guys who retire, there is a dark side to that transition period."
Jefferson speaks from experience. He thought his post-football life would be great. He had saved and invested his money wisely. He had a young family to tend to. He figured he could happily live out his days fishing and, as he put it, "living the salt life."
A year into it, he was struggling. The void, the absence of the game and all of its attending structures, became increasingly unbearable for him.
"I was getting up every day and going fishing," he said. "After a while I was going by myself because my buddies had to work. I would just keep pushing the limits. I would go 50 miles out into the ocean. The next day, I'd say let's go out to where the big boys are and I'd go out 100 miles. But it's not the same. You just can't replace that feeling, that adrenaline rush you get playing the game."
The alienation of the retired player, Jefferson said, is similar to what a soldier feels when he's back from combat.
"People in the outside world don't know what it's like to go into battle with a guy," he said. "Civilians who haven't been to war have no idea what it's like to be in a foxhole with a guy, to depend on that guy to save your life. Basically, that's what football players do, they depend on each other to save their butts every week. You develop a bond and when you retire, that bond is gone and you crave for it."
Jefferson said he was thrown a lifeline, a lifeline he believes the NFL should finance and promote as much as it does player safety issues. He was asked by former Lions coach Steve Mariucci to take a coaching internship.
"It was by the grace of God that Mooch called me out of the blue," Jefferson said. "I was out of the game a year and he said, ‘Hey, what're you doing?' He asked if I was interested in an internship and I jumped at it.
"This was the rope somebody threw me when I was drowning in high water."
He's been the Lions' receivers coach since 2005 and he wishes he could sit down with commissioner Roger Goodell to share some of his ideas. He believes part of the solution is for the league to take measures to keep retired players around the game. He's not saying give them all jobs. He's saying give them access. Establish internships – coaching, consulting, commentating. Or, more simply, make them feel they are still welcomed, still part of the game.
"You don't know how much good it could've done if Junior Seau could have stayed around the game," Jefferson said. "If he would have come to my practice on a Monday, I would have told him I have a team meeting on Friday and he had 15 minutes to tell the team anything he wanted. He would have felt important. He would have been on that stage again and everybody would have been in tune with him. He would have been thinking about it all week. Can you imagine what that would have done for a guy like that?
"The NFL doesn't get it. They are looking in the wrong places."
Here's one of many ideas Jefferson has: When a player retires, give him a card, a sort lifetime NFL membership card. The card would give him access to team's practice facilities and stadiums.
"This would allow guys to go watch practice at a facility," Jefferson said. "He's not going to steal ideas or share ideas or anything like that. He's just going to watch practice. He's just going to smell the game, get on the grass, be around the guys. That would mean the world to retired players.
"The mere fact that he had that card, the mere fact that he knew he could be around football, would change things for him. You don't understand the change of mindset that would take place there. He would know he's still part of the NFL, that they still care about him, that his presence is wanted. If they did that, those guys would feel like employees for life even though they're not getting paid."
Jefferson applauds the league's stance on player safety. He understands the concern about head injuries.
"But," he said, "find out what triggers the depression and what triggers the depression is not being around the guys anymore, not being on the field anymore. Mother Nature has taken away that one great asset that she gave you and changed your life. That triggers the depression. The blows to the head don't. It takes something to trigger it. I know. I have been through it."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
For the first time since the cold, dark night of Jan. 15, football was back in Green Bay.
The rookie orientation camp that runs Friday to Sunday marked the first on-field action of substance for the Packers this offseason. It also was the start of a busy and critical month of work as the Packers look to put the lopsided upset loss to the New York Giants in the playoffs behind them and focus on the 2012 season.
Two weeks of voluntary organized team activities will follow in late May and early June. The newly condensed offseason schedule, in compliance with the league's collective bargaining agreement, culminates with the mandatory minicamp June 12-14.
With the accelerated schedule for play-calling and game-scheme installations comes an expedited learning curve for the team's rookie crop.
Ted Thompson has proved to be the consummate draft-and-develop general manager in the league since 2005 and winds up giving the majority of his picks the benefit of the doubt by holding onto them their first year. A lot more is expected out of this year's draft class – and in a hurry.
Thompson reacted to having the league's worst-ranked defense in 2011 by investing his first six of eight draft choices on that side of the football. He traded up three times during the draft to get three defensive players he wanted.
The introduction to the pro game is sure to come fast and furious for first-round pick Nick Perry, the USC defensive end who is being expected to start opposite former Trojans teammate Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, and the second-round duo of Michigan State defensive lineman Jerel Worthy and Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward.
Worthy also is being penciled in as an immediate starter with the Packers set to be thin on the line at outset of next season because of league-imposed suspensions for ends Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Mike Neal (four).
Hayward could land a significant role right off the bat as the coaches mull moving Charles Woodson from cornerback to safety to fill a big void created by the release of Pro Bowl player Nick Collins.
"These guys have never played in the NFL," Thompson said matter-of-factly about the rookies. "They've never competed on the level they're going to have to compete at. So, they're going to have to show us. But, we feel good about ‘em right now."
The dozens of players – from the draftees to the signed undrafted players to the unsigned guys invited to participate on a tryout basis – who arrived en masse in Green Bay for the rookie camp understand what's at stake from the get-go.
"Catching a dream ... no longer chasing ... there is a difference," linebacker Terrell Manning, a fifth-round pick, tweeted before he left home Thursday.
Per the new CBA, NFL teams are bound to a rookie pay scale for the first time, and the first-year salary allotments for all draft picks have been established. The Packers have about $4.85 million to spend on their rookies this year.
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