NFC North News

The Bears are getting tight to the cap and still have one need to fill, the Lions are looking forward to the return of their best receiver, and the Packers hope they found a new starting safety. Get the week's action around the NFC North as free agency slows and teams start thinking of the draft.

CHICAGO BEARS

Now that the Bears have picked up John Tait in addition to running back Thomas Jones and quarterback Jonathan Quinn, another ex-Chief who will help assimilate the offense, they may stand pat until the draft.

But many observers consider offensive left tackle to be a remaining area of concern for the Bears. They have about $3 million left under the salary cap, and free-agent LT Ephraim Salaam is a player they covet, if they can squeeze him under the cap.

"I don't know if we're going to do anything at all," GM Jerry Angelo said. "It's not like we've got a 20 that's burning a hole in our pocket. We're going to spend when we feel the right player (is available), and we're going to get better as a football team. We do have some room, and if that right person is there, then we'll pursue it."

But the Bears are interested in Salaam only at their price, and they have exchanged contract proposals with Salaam's agent, Rocky Arceneaux. But the Bears insist they could go into the 2004 season with inexperienced Qasim Mitchell protecting Rex Grossman's blind side.

The 6-foot-6, 355-pound Mitchell started two games at left tackle toward the end of last season and looked raw but showed potential before missing the season finale with a fractured fibula. He spent the 2002 season on the Browns' injured reserve list. He signed with the Bears last Sept. 16 after being released by the Browns.

The Bears are still considering Salaam for that position, but they can't afford to pay more than a bargain price for him without finagling some other contracts. "That's a possibility," Angelo said of Salaam. "We're not going to let the player dictate as much as we are the market. We certainly are looking at several players, and he is still a possibility."

Sans Salaam, the Bears say they are confident enough in Mitchell's potential to move Mike Gandy back to his natural guard position. Gandy played left tackle most of last season and the final six games in 2002 after other players were injured or proved ineffective. Gandy is penciled in as the replacement for right guard Chris Villarrial, who departed for Buffalo via free agency.


QUOTE TO NOTE: "I started writing my first speech for the team years ago. I have tailored it to the Bears since then, but standing in front of the team for the first time, I've given that a lot of thought and I know exactly what I want to say. I know exactly what the theme will be for the first camp, the second, the third, throughout. I'm one of those guys." — New Bears head coach Lovie Smith, on addressing the entire team for the first time at the first offseason mini-camp.


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Defensive tackle - UFA Keith Traylor won't be back, and holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone are ordinary players, not the kind of playmakers that Lovie Smith needs for his defense; Offensive left tackle - Mike Gandy filled in here for most of the past two seasons, but he's a guard, and he plays left tackle like a guard. 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo may never make it back from a dislocated knee cap suffered in November of that year. For now, inexperienced Qasim Mitchell is No. 1 based on his two starts last season; Wide receiver - The Bears need a complement for Marty Booker, preferably one with big-play capabilities.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (3): OG Corbin Lacina; DT Keith Traylor; WR Dez White.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (1): DE Joe Tafoya.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Steve Edwards; OT Mike Gandy; CB Todd McMillon; WR Ahmad Merritt; FB Stanley Pritchett.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: RB Thomas Jones; QB Jonathan Quinn; OT John Tait.

PLAYERS LOST: QB Chris Chandler; DE Phillip Daniels; LB Warrick Holdman; QB Kordell Stewart; OG Chris Villarrial.

MEDICAL WATCH: OT Marc Colombo will not be ready to compete in minicamps and is shooting for the start of training camp, but he may not be able to come back at all after suffering a dislocated knee cap in November of 2002 and ensuing complications; OG Rex Tucker (torn right ankle tendon) is already back in action and should be 100 percent by the March minicamp); QB Rex Grossman (fractured right index finger) should not be hindered during minicamp practices.


DETROIT LIONS

Those cold March mornings in Michigan are getting a little more bearable for the Lions, thanks to wide receiver Charles Rogers.

Rogers, the Lions' first-round draft pick and the second player taken in the 2003 NFL draft, has finally been given the go-ahead to resume workouts after breaking his right collarbone last Oct. 7.

Although he is still somewhat limited in what he can do, he has been working out four days a week - Monday through Thursday - since March 1 at the team's practice facility in Allen Park.

After a five-month layoff, Rogers is exercising patience and good judgment in his comeback. "I've got six months," he said. "Ain't no rush ..."

At the time he was injured - five games into the season - Rogers was just getting the feel of the NFL game. He had missed two weeks of practice time during training camp with a dislocated finger but still managed to catch 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns in his first five starts.

He was told at that time he might be ready to play again in 4-6 weeks, but it eventually became clear he would not play again in 2003 and he finished the season on injured reserve.

He might have been ready sooner if he and the Lions had opted for a surgical procedure - complete with a metal plate and screws - but they didn't go that route.

Even now, Rogers says he has not been told by Lions doctors that the collarbone is completely healed but he says he feels fine and has had no problems - aside from the anticipated sore muscles and stiffness after the long layoff - in running, lifting and catching passes.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Although the 2003 Lions had the NFL's least productive running game and were ranked 32d (dead last) in total offense, they weren't the worst in one very significant category.

    No Lions running back lost a fumble during the entire 2003 season and, as a team, they tied the NFL record by losing only four fumbles the entire season. In doing so, they tied the record set by San Francisco (1960), Kansas City (1982) and Minnesota (1998).

    In overall turnovers, they rated in the middle of the pack with 28 (including 24 interceptions) and 28 takeaways.

    At least part of the credit probably goes to coach Steve Mariucci, whose "Four Points of Pressure" drills and emphasis put a stress on protecting the football.

    In 112 regular season games he has coached at San Francisco and Detroit, Mariucci's teams have the second-best turnover rate since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. His teams average 1.47 turnovers per game.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not trying to get healed and come back all in one day." — Wide receiver Charles Rogers on his painstaking comeback from a broken collarbone suffered last Oct. 7.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Lions' focus in the free agent market has moved to running back and the offensive line, guards in particular, but they do not seem to be in a rush to sign anyone.

    In the past two weeks they have talked to running backs Garrison Hearst, who had three of his best NFL seasons under Steve Mariucci at San Francisco, and Amos Zereoue of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Neither appears to be the long-term solution the Lions are seeking and would probably share the job with second-year back Artose Pinner.

    Since losing guard/center Eric Beverly to Atlanta, the Lions also are in the market for a starting right guard and a backup center. Kelvin Garmon of San Diego and David Loverne of St. Louis both visited the Allen Park facility last week.

    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: 1. Running back. They released veteran RB James Stewart for cap reasons and last year's biggest producer, Shawn Bryson, is a UFA, leaving only second-year RB Artose Pinner. They need a lead back, probably in the draft but might have to re-sign Stewart just to stay respectable for a year; 2. Guard. By signing UFA Damien Woody from New England, the Lions are all set at LG but would like to land an experienced starter at RG, then re-sign Eric Beverly as a backup to all three interior line positions.

    UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (9): OG Kerlin Blaise; OG Ray Brown; RB Shawn Bryson; QB Ty Detmer; CB Doug Evans; WR Shawn Jefferson; P John Jett; CB Otis Smith; LB Brian Williams.

    RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (7): WR Scotty Anderson; LB Donte' Curry; P Nick Harris; QB Mike McMahon; CB Leonard Myers; WR Reggie Swinton; FB Stephen Trejo.

    EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (4): CB Chris Cash; S Julius Curry; LS Jody Littleton; OG Josh Lovelady.

    PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: WR Eddie Drummond; DE James Hall; WR David Kircus; DT Kelvin Pritchett; S Bracy Walker.

    PLAYERS ACQUIRED: CB Fernando Bryant; CB Dainon Sidney; WR Tai Streets; OG Damien Woody.

    PLAYERS LOST: OG Eric Beverly; DT Luther Elliss; LB Jeff Gooch; S Corey Harris; WR Bill Schroeder; RB James Stewart.

    MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The Packers have been looking for a safety to start opposite Darren Sharper ever since LeRoy Butler's career abruptly ended with a shoulder injury in Week 10 of the 2001 season.

    Antuan Edwards and Marques Anderson basically split the job over the past two seasons but neither got the job done. Edwards is being allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent; Anderson will return but the Packers don't want to start him.

    On Monday, the Packers zeroed in on Cincinnati's Mark Roman as their top free agent at safety and got him signed. The Bengals didn't appear interested in re-signing Roman and the only other team that he visited, Chicago, is well-stocked with three veteran safeties.

    Roman, 5-10 7/8 and 201, was a backup cornerback for most of his first two seasons with the Bengals after being drafted in the second round in 2000 out of Louisiana State. He backed up at free safety in 2002 and started all 16 games at free safety in ‘03.

    It would seem that Roman is an upgrade in coverage over Anderson. The question is whether he will be any tougher or tackle any better than Anderson given his lack of size.

    "(Roman) has got some coverage skills for a safety," a personnel director for an AFC team said. "He's got good range but I don't know how instinctive he is because he just doesn't make any plays. OK in (run) support."

    Roman was a four-year starter at LSU, the first three at free safety and his senior season at cornerback before he was suspended from mid-1999 on for dealings with an agent. He weighed 188 at the combine, where he scored 20 on the 50-question Wonderlic intelligence test.

    The Packers already are counting $5.833 million under the cap for one safety (Darren Sharper) and weren't willing to break the bank for anyone else.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Punter Josh Bidwell didn't find his big payday in unrestricted free agency. At least he found a lot better weather to punt in.

    Bidwell ended 48 hours of deliberation by accepting a modest three-year, $1.845 million contract with Tampa Bay.

    "We respect his wish to go elsewhere," Packers vice president Andrew Brandt said. "We talked to Josh about staying. He made a decision to go elsewhere that he felt was best for his family and his career."

  • The five starters on the Packers' offensive line played in 5,063 out of a possible 5,155 snaps during the regular season, or 98.2 percent.

    Left tackle Chad Clifton was one of 32 offensive linemen in the NFL who played every snap. He played in 1,031 out of 1,031.

    Right tackle Mark Tauscher played 1,025, left guard Mike Wahle played 1,020, center Mike Flanagan played 1,016 and right guard Marco Rivera played 971.

  • The Packers allocated 12 players to NFL Europe League training camps that started Feb. 27. The league begins play April 3.

    According to one scout, the Packers' two best performers in the first three weeks of practice have been three-technique defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and tight end Tony Donald.

    Jenkins, who started for three years at Central Michigan, wasn't drafted and signed immediately with the Packers. He was waived on the cut to 65 in August and remained out of football.

    The Packers think Jenkins has a chance largely because of his pedigree. His brother, Kris, emerged in his second season for Carolina and now is one of the NFL's premier defensive tackles.

    Donald is a top-flight athlete who put in time on the Packers' practice squad after being waived Aug. 30. He played both linebacker and tight end in training camp but the Packers think his future is on offense.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm hoping (Brett Favre will) play another four or five years. Really, you have to tell the guy he's going to be a backup to Brett. We told him we want Brett to stay as long as he can. There's no hiding that. And we have confidence in Craig Nall." — Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley on free-agent QB Billy Volek, who visited Green Bay March 8.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Packers were $2.8 million under the cap as of March 17 but still hadn't signed a player in free agency.

    One player that they are interested in is Kansas City cornerback William Bartee. He has excellent size (6-1, 200) and runs well. His problem with the Chiefs was not playing the ball well downfield.

    The Packers, Giants and Chiefs all have made offers to Bartee, who expects to make a decision by the weekend.

    If the Packers sign Bartee they then wouldn't attempt to bring back cornerback Michael Hawthorne, an unrestricted free agent.

    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: The Packers will be looking to improve their shaky defense in the early stages of the draft. They would like to sign a defensive end to be in the rotation at the least. Possibly, he would take some playing time away from Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. They need a cornerback, because Bhawoh Jue is the best that's behind Mike McKenzie and Al Harris; And they would like to find the heir apparent to Brett Favre.

    UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (7): S Antuan Edwards; WR Antonio Freeman; CB/S Michael Hawthorne; QB Doug Pederson; DT Larry Smith; OT Marcus Spriggs; TE Wesley Walls.

    UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): S Bobby Jackson.

    RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (3): CB Bhawoh Jue; LB Torrance Marshall; TE David Martin.

    EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (4): OT Kevin Barry; RB Tony Fisher; LB Paris Lenon; CB James Whitley.

    PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: OT Chad Clifton; S Curtis Fuller; LB Marcus Wilkins.

    PLAYERS ACQUIRED: S Mark Roman.

    PLAYERS LOST: P Josh Bidwell; NT Gilbert Brown; NT Rod Walker.

    MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.





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