NFC North News

The Bears are working through an offensive makeover, the Lions are counting on the draft to make them competitive, and the Packers are thinking long and hard about the past booms and busts with their 25th selection on Saturday.

CHICAGO BEARS

Lovie Smith's offense will look a lot different than Dick Jauron's, and not just because Terry Shea will be coordinating the group instead of John Shoop.

The Bears are expected to start the 2004 season with eight different starters on offense than the group that started on opening day last season.

Left tackle Qasim Mitchell is penciled in ahead of Mike Gandy, who started there last season. Rex Tucker is back at left guard after missing all of last season with a torn ankle tendon, and he will replace Steve Edwards, who did a commendable job as an inexperienced fill-in and could be a future starter somewhere on the line.

At right guard, free agent Ruben Brown replaces Chris Villarrial, who left for Buffalo via free agency. John Tait, the Bears' big-ticket purchase, upgrades right tackle, where Aaron Gibson started all 16 games last year.

The backfield underwent an even more extensive remodeling. Rex Grossman replaces Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler, both of whom were released. UFA Thomas Jones will start ahead of incumbent 1,000-yard rusher Anthony Thomas, although the Bears still insist there's enough work for both players. Because of his superior blocking Bryan Johnson gets the nod at fullback ahead of holdover Stanley Pritchett.

At wide receiver Dez White was allowed to leave without a fight in free agency, and first-round disappointment David Terrell gets first shot at replacing him, although that could change if the Bears go for a wideout in the first round.

The new coaching staff believes the offense has been upgraded across the board, but there is concern from the outside that it could take a long time for so many new starters to jell.

"We feel that we have enough on our offensive side of the ball given what we're going to do with our scheme," Smith said. "I feel very good about our prospects on offense.

"How fast they come together, that's hard to say. Anytime you bring new players together, it's going to take some time. But I feel our coaches are understanding of that. The good news is we have quality players. It's not that we're playing with inexperienced, young players for the first time. That's not the case. At most positions we have good experience."

Smith makes a good point. Other than Mitchell and Grossman, who have played in just three NFL games apiece, the new guys have been around the block a time or two. And many of them should be at or approaching the pinnacle of their career.

Brown has been to the Pro Bowl in the last eight years of his nine-year career, and while he may have made it to Hawaii on reputation the past year or two, he was a great bargain at $4.5 million for three years.

Tait, at 29, is entering his sixth season, as is the 27-year-old Tucker, who was nearing Pro Bowl-level play before injuries derailed him the past two seasons. Johnson and Jones are entering their fifth season, and Terrell his fourth.

DRAFT STRATEGY — The Bears have spent the entire offseason fortifying an anemic offense, adding four starters - tackle John Tait, running back Thomas Jones, guard Ruben Brown and fullback Bryan Johnson.

Common wisdom would dictate that defense would be addressed in the draft, especially considering that's head coach Lovie Smith's area of expertise.

But Smith is not conceding that he's finished with an offense that he has said all along isn't in need of rebuilding.

"We wanted to look at adding some play makers and look at our offensive line in particular," Smith said. "That's not to say that we wouldn't have done something with the defensive side (in free agency), but it just didn't work out that way.

"We're going to look at the value of the player going into the draft. Everybody says that, and obviously need will always be a consideration. We have a few areas of need that we feel we'll be able to have flexibility, particularly on the first day."

That being said, it would be a major surprise if the Bears didn't move immediately to improve a defensive line that won't impress anyone and should scare new coordinator Ron Rivera.

The tackle position needs a playmaker desperately, since it is currently populated by players who would be backups or stopgap starters on decent units. Starters Alfonso Boone and Bryan Robinson are backed up by Ian Scott and Tron LaFavor, neither of whom was terribly impressive last season.

The logical choice would be Miami's Vince Wilfork, who was one of the players to visit Halas Hall last weekend. If his weight is down around 325, Wilfork has enough quickness to play in the Bears' new scheme and also be a run-stopping force in the middle. If he plays at 350 or so, which he did at the beginning of last season, Wilfork will not fit into the Bears' plans.

The Bears would also consider the top two defensive ends in the draft, Southern Cal's Kenechi Udeze and Ohio State's Will Smith. Especially Udeze, who had 16 sacks last season and could make an immediate impact as a pass rusher at the very least. That's an area that needs to improve drastically, considering last season's franchise-worst total of 18 sacks.

If the Bears do not seek an upgrade on the d-line, it might be because they decide they cannot pass up the abundance of talent at wide receiver, where a big-play complement to Marty Booker would help the development of quarterback Rex Grossman.

Washington's Reggie Williams and Oklahoma State's Rashaun Woods could both be available at No. 14.

Jerry Angelo does not have a history of trading up in the draft, and it is extremely doubtful that he would consider moving up more than a couple spots because of the cost and because he values his drafts picks and believes that the draft is the primary tool in building a team.

They also won't move down more than a couple spots, since the consensus is that the talent drops off after about 16 players.

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft — Defensive tackle, defensive end, wide receiver, offensive left tackle, linebacker.

DT — Bryan Robinson was supposed to be more at home inside after he moved from DE, but he hasn't made much of an impact, doesn't provide much pass rush and is not a stout run stuffer. Alfonso Boone can stuff the run, but he may not have the quickness or athleticism to thrive in Ron Rivera's defense. As rookies last season, Tron LaFavor and Ian Scott didn't look to be much more than backups.

DE — Eighteen team sacks last season placed the Bears dead last in the NFL. Alex Brown was a dangerous pass rusher in college, and he had a team-best 5 1/2 last season. The Bears need more from DRE, and Brown might be able to provide that if he continues to improve and shows more quickness after losing 10-12 pounds. DLE Michael Haynes was a pass-rushing terror at Penn State but had just 2 sacks last season. Getting smaller this season should help him, too.

WR — David Terrell, the 2001 first-round draft choice, has only on rare occasions shown he deserved to be taken eighth overall. Rookies Justin Gage and Bobby Wade showed promise last season, especially considering they were fifth-round picks. But the Bears would love a wideout with home-run potential to complement Marty Booker, who excels at working the middle of the field and underneath the coverage.

OLT — The Bears spent $33 million this year for right tackle John Tait and $26 million a year earlier to keep center Olin Kreutz from leaving in free agency. But they still haven't solved the problem at left tackle, where they've been taking on water for several years. Qasim Mitchell has potential, but that's not enough to protect Rex Grossman's blind side. Mike Gandy is better suited to play inside, although he filled in at OLT last year and most of 2002.

LB — They've lost talented players Rosey Colvin and Warrick Holdman in each of the past two seasons, leaving a gap in the unit that has Brian Urlacher in the middle and Lance Briggs at one outside spot.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't tell an awful lot about guys when they are running around in their underwear. No battles will be won in the offseason." — Coach Lovie Smith discussing competition for starting jobs


DETROIT LIONS

Despite four strong moves in free agency - signing guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant, wide receiver Tai Streets and safety Brock Marion - the Lions probably have more holes than they can adequately fill in the draft.

But they should be able to made serious inroads into getting back to respectability and laying a foundation to compete in the NFC North by 2005.

Coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen don't necessarily look at it that way. Mariucci already is on record saying the Lions can compete this year if they get a few well-placed additions in the draft.

That might be asking a lot, however, of a team coming off consecutive seasons of 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002 and 5-11 last year.

Last week, for instance, Millen was still working at filling glaring holes at right guard and weakside linebacker.

The latest guard candidate was Larry Allen, the 10-year Dallas guard who is being shopped by Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, presumably for a trade before the start of the draft.

The linebacker position - vacant after the loss of Barrett Green to the New York Giants - would be available to free agents Ian Gold of Denver or Warrick Holdman of Chicago if either is willing to play for what the Lions are willing to offer.

If the Lions can get those two jobs filled before the draft, they might actually come close to competing in the NFC North, as Mariucci has suggested.

DRAFT STRATEGY — If they stay at No. 6 in the first round, they are almost certain to get one of several top players - tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Roy Williams or safety Sean Taylor. But team president Matt Millen might prefer to pass on the high-impact player at No. 6 for a chance to acquire additional picks later in the first and second rounds. Because of the depth of the draft at wide receiver and the likely availability of a solid running back in the late first or early second, the deal might actually make sense for the Lions. One problem: There always seem to be more teams willing to trade down for additional draft picks than teams eager to trade up and part with their extra draft picks.

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft — Wide receiver, running back, tight end, safety, outside linebacker.

WR — The Lions drafted Charles Rogers with the No. 2 pick a year ago and if they could land another top receiver this year, they'd have a matched set that quarterback Joey Harrington could work with. Even if they don't land Larry Fitzgerald or Roy Williams with the No. 6 pick overall, they could take a quality receiver later in the first or even in the second. Michael Clayton, Lee Evans or Reggie Williams could upgrade the Lions receiving corps.

RB — The Lions had the NFL's least productive running game last season, averaging less than 84 yards per game, and - going into the draft — have done nothing to improve it. They are counting on improved production from Artose Pinner and Shawn Bryson, two backs who were limited last year as they came off serious injuries and surgery, but Millen and Mariucci would like to add another tailback in the draft. They like both Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones but probably would not take them at No. 6, which means that - barring a trade - they will probably look for a back in the second round and hope a player like Michigan's Chris Perry will be available.

TE — By the end of the 2003 season, the Lions were starting an undrafted rookie - Casey FitzSimmons - ahead of Mikhael Ricks and two late-round draft picks from 2002, John Owens and Matt Murphy. FitzSimmons caught the ball well and Ricks eventually made some plays when pressed into duty after the team's receiving corps was decimated by injuries. But the Lions don't have a full-service tight end capable of making the tough catch over the middle, stretching the field or inline blocking. That's why they would like to have Kellen Winslow Jr. available when they draft.

S — The addition of free safety Brock Marion and cornerback Fernando Bryant alleviates some of the immediate pressure in the defensive secondary, but the Lions still need to upgrade the safety position. Brian Walker, expected to start at strong safety, has not played up to expectations the past two years, Marion is 34 years old and Terrence Holt still has much to learn about the NFL game in spite of a promising rookie season. Sean Taylor might not be as glamorous a selection as Winslow but he might be just as good a player in two years.

OLB — If the Lions land a weak-side linebacker in free agency before they get to the draft table, the pressure comes off. If not, they'll be looking for an outside backer - possibly late in the first day of drafting - probably to compete with last year's fifth-round pick James Davis for the starting job.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I got to sit and watch training camp last year and I think I wouldn't mind sitting and watching it this year, too. (laughing) No, I'm looking forward to it. It's definitely where you set the tone for the season, where you establish yourself. So I'm looking forward to the grind of training camp." — Running back Artose Pinner, who missed his rookie training camp last year recovering from a broken left ankle and ligament damage.


STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The focus seems to be on tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. as the player most likely to be drafted by the Lions if he is there when they exercise the No. 6 pick in the draft on Saturday.

They still like Miami (Fla.) safety Sean Taylor and would happily settle for either of the two top receivers - Larry Fitzgerald or Roy Williams - but Winslow's potential seems to be overshadowing the other players who are expected to be on the board when the Lions draft.

Winslow was one of the final visitors among the top draft candidates to visit the Lions training facility in Allen Park. They like everything about him and have no problem with his choice of Carl and Kevin Poston as the agents to represent him.

Although some teams reportedly have shied away from drafting players represented by the Postons, the Lions were able to work out a deal last year for first-round pick Charles Rogers and feel they would have no major problem if they draft Winslow.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

DRAFT STRATEGY — The Packers are looking at a first-round selection in the 20s for the third straight year. If they fare as well as they have the last two years it will be just fine with them.

Two years ago, they gave up a second-round pick to move from 28th to 20th in the first round and select wide receiver Javon Walker. After a shaky rookie season Walker's career took off as a deep ball threat in 2003.

Last year, they stayed at 29 and took Nick Barnett, who played quite well as their starting middle linebacker.

Now the Packers are at 25, a pick that has been more bad than good for NFL teams in the last quarter century.

Nine of the last 25 picks in that position have been unadulterated busts. The list includes running back Vegas Ferguson in 1980, cornerback Rod Hill in 1982, linebacker Billy Cannon Jr. in 1984, linebacker Emmanuel King in 1985, running back Terrence Flagler in 1987, running back Dexter Carter in 1990, running back Greg Hill in 1994, tackle Billy Milner in 1995 and defensive end Jon Harris in 1997.

Some other players clearly didn't meet expectations but at least contributed. The list includes safety Rick Sanford in 1979, cornerback Rod Jones in 1986, quarterback Tommy Maddox in 1992 and safety Antuan Edwards in 1999.

Two recent choices at 25, wide receiver Freddie Mitchell in 2001 and defensive tackle William Joseph in 2003, haven't done much of anything yet, especially Joseph.

Of the 25, just two made the Pro Bowl. Nose tackle Ted Washington (1991) has been to three and guard Jermane Mayberry (1996) has been to one.

The Packers returned all 11 starters from one of the league's best offenses a year ago. The re-signing of tackle Chad Clifton made that possible.

Now the charge for coach Mike Sherman will be to build up a defense that too often let him down. The Packers also tried that approach last year, using their first four choices for defense, but wound up with only Barnett contributing.

"We've got enough talent on offense," vice president of football operations Mark Hatley said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to add defensively."

Sherman has been a wheeler-dealer on draft day and the Packers won't by shy again. Last year, he traded up for defensive tackle Kenny Peterson in the third round, nose tackle James Lee in the fifth, linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer in the fifth and cornerback Chris Johnson in the sixth.

Time will tell, however, if he simply traded up for the wrong players.

The Packers remember the drafts engineered by Ron Wolf in 1995 and again in 2000 that produced five starters apiece. A great draft is what they could really use to put them over the top.

"You just have to have those every now and then," said Hatley, who engineered drafts in Chicago that produced five starters in 1999 and four in 2000. "You're not going to have one every year because your football team gets too good, but where we are right now with our football team, we need that."

TEAM NEEDS going into the draft — Cornerback, quarterback, defensive end, defensive tackle, safety.

CB — The Packers needed help even before Mike McKenzie's request to be traded was made last week. McKenzie is a solid starter but Al Harris is right on the edge so far as having enough speed to start and Bhawoh Jue doesn't inspire much confidence as a No. 3. The Packers have some other bodies (Chris Johnson, Michael Hawthorne, Derek Combs) but nothing is proven.

QB — If the Packers can complete a trade for Tim Couch they'll be out of the quarterback market. If not, they would be back to having Doug Pederson and Craig Nall behind Brett Favre. The club simply doesn't know how many more years Favre will play. What they do know is that they need to get busy before too much longer finding his successor.

DE — Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila played 87 percent of the snaps in 2003, too much for someone with his lithe body type. The other starter, Aaron Kampman, is a hard worker but won't wow anyone with his talent. Joe Johnson and Jamal Reynolds are expected to be cap casualties after June 1. The only backup of merit is Chukie Nwokorie.

DT — The starters are set with Cletidus Hunt as the three technique and Grady Jackson on the nose. The backups are in flux after the release of nose tackles Gilbert Brown and Rod Walker. Second-year men Kenny Peterson and James Lee are more suspects than prospects.

S — The Packers added former Bengal Mark Roman. He will battle Marques Anderson for the starting job opposite Darren Sharper. With Antuan Edwards having departed to Miami the only backups are Curtis Fuller and James Whitley.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • It's admirable that cornerback Mike McKenzie thinks so highly of Lionel Washington, the Packers' assistant secondary coach since he entered the league in 1999. But McKenzie is misguided if he thinks that by demanding a trade and bypassing the team's offseason workout program he is helping Washington or himself.

    If Washington found the hiring of Kurt Schottenheimer as secondary coach so distasteful he would have resigned. Someone with Washington's demonstrated ability to teach cornerback play wouldn't have been out of a job for long.

    It's a similar situation to what happened at defensive coordinator. Sherman promoted Bob Slowik from secondary coach to coordinator over Mark Duffner, another former NFL coordinator. Instead of quitting, Duffner stayed on as linebackers coach.

    Organizations make these kinds of decisions all the time. The Lions defense as coordinated by Schottenheimer beat Green Bay and St. Louis in the final month of 2003 with a secondary so decimated by injury that he had to play golden oldies Otis Smith and Doug Evans, neither of whom can run at all anymore. He is supposed to be a solid coach.

    McKenzie is a moody, rather mysterious individual. There's really no way to predict what he might do.

    Clearly, the Packers need him. McKenzie also needs the paychecks from a $2.75 million base salary that kick in with the first regular-season game. No play, no pay.

    Extending McKenzie in January 2002 for $17.11 million over five years turned out to be a bargain for Green Bay. Six months earlier, they extended Ahman Green for $18.375 million over five years. McKenzie got a $3.5 million signing bonus and a $1.75 million roster bonus in ‘03. Green got a $5 million signing bonus and a $1 million roster bonus in ‘02.

    If the Packers renegotiate McKenzie's deal with three years left, Green would have an even stronger argument that the final two years of his contract should be improved.

    One of McKenzie's best friends, cornerback Reggie Howard, struck it rich on the unrestricted market last month. No more than an adequate zone corner in Carolina, he signed a six-year, $21.54 million deal to be the No. 3 in Miami behind Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. It contained a $4.5 million signing bonus.

    Howard and McKenzie played together at Memphis State and are workout buddies in the Miami area.

    It was a March like no other for free-agent cornerbacks. Buffalo's Winfield got a $12.81 million bonus from Minnesota. San Francisco gave Ahmed Plummer $11 million to re-sign. Shawn Springs, who appeared over the hill last year, got $10.25 million up front to move from Seattle to Washington.

    If those deals didn't rankle McKenzie, maybe these did: San Francisco's Jason Webster to Atlanta ($7 million signing bonus); Jacksonville's Bryant to Detroit ($7 million); New Orleans re-signed Fred Thomas ($5 million); and Arizona's David Barrett to the Jets ($4.5 million).

    The Packers haven't had a holdout of consequence since Dorsey Levens (44 days) in 1998. McKenzie could be the next.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Christmas Eve, I kind of wish it was here; the people in Green Bay would love it. But that's fine. I appreciate the national exposure we get." — Packers President Bob Harlan on the NFL schedule that sends them to Minnesota for a 2 p.m. game Friday, Dec. 24.




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