With plans to play defensive linemen in a rotation, which is not expected to include end Phillip Daniels or tackle Keith Traylor, the Bears could be a major player in free agency, which begins March 3.
And the Bears will have plenty of money to do so, especially if they go through with plans to cut Daniels and linebacker Warrick Holdman, which would save about $6 million and leave them roughly $16 million under the salary cap, which is expected to be between $79 million and $80 million for the 2004 season. Daniels' cap number is $5.8 million for the coming season, while Holdman's is $4 million.
Traylor, who will be an unrestricted free agent, will not be back. Both head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera prefer more mobile players than the 340-pound Traylor, whose forte is controlling the run in a limited area and occupying blockers.
General manager Jerry Angelo said there is virtually no chance of trading Daniels or Holdman because of their inflated cap numbers. Holdman missed three games with injuries and had just 79 tackles last season at weak-side linebacker, a position that should provide more opportunities to make plays. Daniels has always been a solid run defender but never became the pass rusher the Bears hoped for when they signed him to a five-year, $24 million deal in 2000.
"Their roles will most likely diminish given what we do scheme-wise," Angelo said. "So you have to look at their (salary-cap) number. We're still in the decision-making process, but you can read between the lines."
Angelo said there is a possibility both players could be back if they agree to restructured contracts for much lower cap numbers, and the Bears are discussing that possibility with their agents. Without Daniels, the Bears would be left with Alex Brown, who led the linemen last season with 79 tackles, and 2003 first-round draft pick Michael Haynes as their starters. The only other end on the team with any NFL experience is career backup and special-teams player Joe Tafoya.
"We'll want to have four ends, so we'll be looking at defensive line possibilities," Angelo said. "If we don't have Phillip with us, we'd certainly have to do something in free agency or the draft, or both."
Among this year's crop of free-agent defensive ends, the Titans' Jevon Kearse would be the impact pas rusher the Bears have lacked for many years. The Rams' Grant Wistrom, a big fan of Lovie Smith's, is an overachieving playmaker who also has put up big sack numbers in the past, including a combined 20 in 2000 and 2001.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
"Last year wasn't a great year for him, but it wasn't a great year for a lot of players on our team," Smith said. "We're starting over, (and) he's going to get a chance to start over, too. He's already been in. He wants us to give him a chance and to evaluate him. He was a good player in the past, and he'll be a good player in the future."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We think that there's a good nucleus of players to build from (but) by me being here, something was wrong. We know that there's some things that have to be corrected, and we're going to have to do that." — Lovie Smith after the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine. Smith doesn't believe he needs to tear down the team he's inherited and start from scratch, but he knows he wouldn't have the job if there weren't some deficiencies that need to be addressed.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bears will be looking for an upgrade at running back in the draft, but they won't use their first pick (14th overall) on Maurice Clarett. However, they will have more inside information on the controversial Buckeye, courtesy of new running backs coach Tim Spencer, who coached Ohio State runners for the past 10 seasons.
Spencer said the topic of Clarett hasn't come up yet in staff meetings, but it will soon. Spencer was hardly glowing in his assessment of Clarett, either declining to answer or offering marginal praise.
"He's a real smart football player," Spencer said. "That was one of the reasons he was able to jump ahead of the guys who were there. There were three other guys we had recruited the year before who were great running backs in their own right, and he stepped ahead of those three guys.
"He's a determined young man. On the football field he works his butt off."
PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Bears are unlikely to tag any of their free agents.
Guard Chris Villarrial and wide receiver Dez White will be allowed to have other teams set their market value, and the Bears will not bid for White. Villarrial would provide continuity if he can be signed for a reasonable amount.
With a cap value of $5.8 million, DE Phillip Daniels could be released, although a renegotiation is possible.
WLB Warrick Holdman is more likely to be launched, given his lack of productivity last season, in addition to his history of injuries and $4 million cap number.
FEELING A DRAFT: The Bears draft 14th and they should be looking for an offensive left tackle, which is probably the most glaring hole on the team. That would be the first step in solidifying a unit that has been in makeshift mode more often than not the past couple years. A defensive tackle might be another consideration because none of the ones they have are dominant players, and UFA Keith Traylor, 34, will not be back.
MEDICAL WATCH: QB Rex Grossman avoided surgery on the torn tendon in his right middle finger, and he should be ready to throw at the first minicamp, March 26-28.
OT Marc Colombo is expected to be able to participate in offseason workouts, as his excruciatingly long rehab from a dislocated kneecap during the 2002 season continues. But Colombo was also expected to participate in last year's training camp, and he wound up missing the entire season.
OG Rex Tucker is expected to have recovered by minicamp from a torn right ankle tendon that kept him out for the entire 2003 season. Tucker also missed the final 11 games of the 2002 season with a fractured left fibula and dislocated left ankle.
One way or the other, the Lions have to improve their defensive secondary by the time they get to training camp in July.
The question is how they go about it.
The most obvious way - the one coach Steve Mariucci would love - would be to make a deal with the Washington Redskins for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
The idea of pairing Bailey with last year's free agent prize - Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly - is most appealing to Mariucci but Lions president Matt Millen has to consider the cost.
Not only would he probably have to give up at least one high draft pick, he would have a ton of money tied up in his two starting cornerbacks.
If the Lions eventually decide the cost is too high, they can work the free agent market for a cornerback - an Antoine Winfield or Ahmed Plummer - and hope they can draft safety Sean Taylor of Miami in the first round.
Even without the additions that are likely to be made, the Lions should be better in their defensive secondary in 2004 than they were in 2003. Terrence Holt, coming off an impressive rookie season, will compete for the free safety job and two cornerbacks - Chris Cash and Andre Goodman - will be back from injuries that cost them the entire 2003 season.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
— The Lions' pursuit of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey has been compared in Detroit to the Tigers' pursuit of All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
The Tigers, who lost 119 games last year, eventually landed Rodriguez to complete a productive offseason and the move was hailed as an indication the team is on its way to becoming a serious contender in the American League Central Division.
The Lions - coming off consecutive seasons in which they won two, three and five games - are in the rebuilding mode also, and coach Steve Mariucci feels a deal for Bailey would have a similar impact.
"It would be like a Pudge Rodriguez signing, which was very exciting to the city of Detroit and fans everywhere," Mariucci said. "The Champ Bailey thing would be like that.
"It would be one of those real important acquisitions in the offseason in any sport. He would be a factor, he would be very well received here. It's an interesting scenario to play with his brother and help us build this team up."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You'd be as good as anybody in the league. Two Pro Bowl corners — I don't know who's got that. You'd sleep well at night." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci, on the possibility of having Dre' Bly and Champ Bailey in the same defensive secondary.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions have to make a decision on several veterans - defensive end Robert Porcher, defensive tackle Luther Elliss and running back James Stewart at the top of the list - before they get too far into the offseason restocking of the team.
It appears they will release Elliss, who has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons, but there is less certainty involving Porcher and Stewart.
Porcher, a 12-year veteran, would like to play another season but the Lions say the numbers have to be right. Stewart missed the 2003 season with a shoulder injury and is not the ideal back for their West Coast offense, but the Lions currently don't have a better back on the roster.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Signing defensive end James Hall is probably the most critical move facing the Lions going into the free agent signing season.
Hall has developed into the team's most consistent defensive end. If they can get him signed, they will probably try to bring Robert Porcher back for another year as a role player.
Lions executive vice president/COO Tom Lewand would also like to resign G Eric Beverly, OLB Barrett Green and LB Jeff Gooch. It appears Green and Gooch might want to test free agency, however. RB Shawn Bryson might have to wait until after the draft to see if his services are required in 2004.
RB Paul Smith, signed by the Lions last November, was re-signed in early February. Although he is not viewed as a starting back he can fill several roles — outstanding special teams player, backup fullback and a running back capable of catching the ball and occasionally carrying the ball from scrimmage.
FEELING A DRAFT: There were few positions that didn't get a thorough going-over from the Lions during the combine. They have needs at safety, running back, tight end and possibly even a pass rusher.
They will try to fill some of the needs during free agency but will have no shortage of needs in the draft.
The name that frequently comes up with the Lions' first-round pick — No. 6 overall — is Miami safety Sean Taylor. He would fill a glaring need and has all the skills and temperament the Lions need in that position.
MEDICAL WATCH: Wide receiver Charles Rogers, who broke his collarbone in October, has been given tentative clearance to resume conditioning - including weight lifting - on March 1. ... Tackles Jeff Backus and Matt Joyce both have undergone elbow surgery since the end of the season and are expected to be ready for offseason workouts on schedule. ... Center Dominic Raiola underwent a surgical procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat and defensive end Kalimba Edwards has undergone his second surgery for a sports hernia in less than a year.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Lee Remmel, the grand old man of the Packers' publicity department, has a new job befitting his 55 years either covering the team as a reporter or promoting it for the Packers.
Packers President Bob Harlan has appointed Remmel as Team Historian.
"If we're breaking ground I feel good about that," said Remmel, who turns 80 in June. "Bob Harlan came to me with an intriguing opportunity. I thought it was a great situation. I was thinking about continuing in some role but I didn't know what that would be."
Most of Remmel's regular duties as executive director of public relations will be spread among the others in the department headed by Jeff Blumb. That will allow Remmel to devote his time to the new job.
However, he will continue to attend all games and remain a part of the daily activities.
Remmel said retirement was something that he considered, but when Harlan came up with a new plan he jumped at the idea. As PR director, Remmel's uncanny memory of Packer lore made him an invaluable resource for reporters and researchers alike.
"I have done enough of that, some in an official capacity and some not in an official capacity," Remmel said. "I've done it for many years. This just formalizes it."
Remmel was a reporter and columnist for the Green Bay Press-Gazette for 29 1/2 years. He wrote his second Packers story in 1945, paying his own travel expenses to cover Don Hutson's record-breaking performance in a 57-21 victory over the Lions in Milwaukee.
He joined the Packers as public relations director in 1974 and has been there ever since.
Remmel is one of just 12 individuals to have worked all 38 Super Bowls. He worked eight for the Press-Gazette, 28 for the NFL and two with the Packers in 1996 and ‘97.
"His tremendous depth of Packers knowledge is immensely valuable both to the club and league," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. "The Packers are a vital part of the NFL tradition and no one is more synonymous with the Packers than Lee Remmel."
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
The market for Clifton, a second-round draft choice, was set on the eve of free agency last year. Flozell Adams re-signed with Dallas for $25 million over five years, including a $10 million signing bonus. Luke Petitgout re-signed with the New York Giants for $30 million over six years, including a $9.75 million signing bonus. Clfiton and the Packers are trying to reach a long-term agreement, which would pull the franchise tag off of him.
Kennedy, 71, said Packers coach Lisle Blackbourn sent him a letter in 1955 inviting him to try out for the Packers the next year.
Kennedy played end for the Harvard Crimson and was a letter-winner. In ‘55, Blackbourn was in his second season as the Packers' head coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Not that I've got anything against the place, but I'll never coach in Green Bay. I'd just be distracted. All my family, and then my friends all over the state. Everybody would be coming out of the woodwork, and I get them in Carolina." — Panthers special teams coach Scott O'Brien, a native of Superior, Wis., who turned down chances to coach for the Packers in 1992 and ‘99.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers were evaluating the safeties extra hard this week at the combine.
Darren Sharper is among the best in the business at free safety. However, there is a major hole at strong safety, where Antuan Edwards is expected to depart as an unrestricted free agent and Marques Anderson hasn't played very well in 21 starts over his first two seasons.
Miami's Sean Taylor is far and away the best safety in the draft. However, there is little depth at the position, so the Packers might not be able to take a safety with their 25th pick of the first round.
PLAYER TO WATCH: The Packers are hoping that Chris Johnson can put his knee cartilage problems behind him and resume his career at cornerback.
Johnson, a seventh-round draft choice from Louisville in 2003, ran 40 yards in 4.25 seconds for the Packers before the draft. He looked good for much of the first three weeks of training camp before being injured.
The damage was underneath his kneecap and put Johnson on injured reserve for the season. He still isn't out of the woods, either. The Packers will know more next month about his future.
FEELING A DRAFT: The Packers own the 25th pick in the first round. They hit it right for a change last year in the first round with linebacker Nick Barnett and probably will look toward defense again in April.
Areas of need include safety, cornerback and defensive end. They don't necessarily need another starting linebacker but their backups are next to worthless.
MEDICAL WATCH: No new information.