Wide receiver Mark Bradley became the highest drafted rookie this year to sign an NFL contract, after his father negotiated a five-year deal last Tuesday afternoon with the Bears.
Danny Bradley, a star quarterback at Oklahoma from 1981-84 and a veteran of 10 years in the Dallas Cowboys' front office, acted as his son's agent and helped make him the first player drafted in the first three rounds to agree to terms. Terms were not released, but the total value of the deal is believed to be $4.25 million. Bradley was selected 39th overall, even though he never established himself as a starter at Oklahoma, where he played two seasons after transferring from Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Bradley will get the advantage of a full training camp, and all indications are that he will need every rep and then some. He is not a quick study, was prone to bad decisions at Oklahoma and has dropped good passes at an alarming rate throughout the Bears' spring practices. But he is an elite athlete and has a rare combination of size and speed.
The 6-1, 201-pound Bradley caught just 23 passes last season, but he scored 7 touchdowns and averaged 21.3 yards per reception. He also averaged more than 25 yards per kickoff return at Oklahoma. In his second and final season at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Bradley was the team's leading receiver with 7 touchdowns and more than 600 yards in five games before he suffered a torn ACL that resulted in knee surgery. He still runs a 4.43 40 and could also make an early impact as a flyer on coverage teams.
But Bradley has struggled to catch the ball during spring practices, showing inconsistent hands but also exhibiting the athleticism that enabled him to start his Oklahoma career as a cornerback before switching back to wide receiver.
"I'm confident enough to make an impact whether it's on special teams or on offense," the 23-year-old said after signing the contract following Tuesday afternoon's practice. "Our offensive coordinator, Ron Turner, is talking about doing some special things for me and I feel great about it."
In a high school game, Bradley once accounted for touchdowns five different ways, rushing, passing, receiving, on a punt return and a kickoff return. He was named Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year in Arkansas as a senior, when he set a state high jump record at 7-4 (second in the nation that year) and broke the state meet record in the long jump at 24-7 1/2. He was also the state decathlon champion and set a state meet record in the triple jump as a junior.
But the 24-year-old former first-round draft choice knows he has a long way to go before he's entrenched as the leader of the offense.
"I think I still have a lot to prove to everyone," said Grossman, who is 100 percent recovered from last season's knee surgery. "I'm glad I have their confidence, but there's still a lot to prove, and I understand that. It's just a process that any quarterback goes through not having a lot of experience."
This year there will be fewer twice-daily practices and more night workouts. New strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones played a part in the new format, as did holdovers on the coaching staff that wanted to avoid a repeat of the numerous groin and hamstring injuries of 2004.
"It's a combination of all of us really," Smith said. "First off there's five preseason games (rather than the usual four), so we feel like we can get a lot better evaluation from the game and of course practice. We're just going to spread it out a little bit more."
Players will get more of an opportunity to perform in preseason games this year than they did a year ago. Smith said players would get more snaps in preseason games than they did a year ago.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've seen a lot of good players in this league and played with some good players, and I think he ranks up there with those guys. He just needs the opportunities on Sundays to prove that and some targets to throw to." — Bears Pro Bowl WR Muhsin Muhammad on QB Rex Grossman.
For a number of the Lions players, losing has become a way of life. Although they might reject it, it is virtually the only thing they've known since landing in the NFL.
Quarterback Joey Harrington, for instance, has played three seasons, has 44 games and has seen the Lions put together records of 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10.
Left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola, both fixtures on the Lions offensive line, have played four seasons and have seen even worse horrors - a 2-14 season that preceded the 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10 seasons that Harrington has suffered through.
The Lions have taken baby steps to get back to respectability during the past two years and some observers are predicting a major step - perhaps nine or 10 wins - in the 2005 season.
Harrington, Backus, Raiola and the rest of the relatively young players are expected to make their share of contributions to the improvement but the Lions also are getting leadership from players who have experienced more success elsewhere in the NFL.
The most recent free-agent acquisitions by Lions president Matt Millen include strong safety Kenoy Kennedy, who got playoff experience got playoff experience with the Denver Broncos, as well as tight end Marcus Pollard and guard Rick DeMulling, who were starters on Indianapolis' playoff team in recent seasons.
A major acquisition a year ago was guard Damien Woody, a Pro Bowler in 2002 and the starting center on New England's Super Bowl championship team a year earlier.
However, no free-agent acquisition has done more for the Lions than cornerback Dre' Bly, who played on St. Louis' Super Bowl winner as a rookie in 1999. Since joining the Lions two years ago he has been a two-time Pro Bowl and an enthusiastic recruiter of players Millen has been working on signing during free agency.
The Lions aren't underestimating the importance of the young players who have suffered through the last four years of losing but the leadership of those more accustomed to winning is expected to play a major role in any improvement for 2005.
That might explain why coach Steve Mariucci has been so enthusiastic about the addition of two former Indianapolis Colts - tight end Marcus Pollard and guard Rick DeMulling - via free agency this year.
"They were great acquisitions for us and for a lot of reasons," Mariucci said. "They have experience as starters on good teams, they are healthy, they fit needs that we have, they've been here and they're dedicated and working every day like you would hope from a veteran.
"When we did our research we were told that not only can they start and play, but they're great guys. They fit right in. We expect good things from both of them. They're both starting."
Pollard gives the Lions a tight end presence they've lacked in recent seasons and DeMulling is working at left guard, which was a problem area last year.
Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers head coach when McQuarters was their No. 1 pick (28th overall) in the 1998 NFL draft. When he was traded to Chicago two years later, he spent four years playing under Jauron.
Mariucci, of course, is the Lions' head coach and Jauron is in his second season as their defensive coordinator.
Neither Mariucci nor Jauron has indicated how the Lions plan to use McQuarters but they like his position flexibility. He has played cornerback, nickel and dime back, and last year played part of the season at free safety.
In seven NFL seasons, McQuarters has nine interceptions. His best season was 2001, when he intercepted three passes and broke up another 18 under Jauron.
McQuarters was released last month by the Bears in a cost-cutting move. His one-year deal with the Lions is believed to be worth $1.6 million.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is easy to say that our goal is to win the Super Bowl but to have high expectations or lofty goals or to be confident requires a certain amount of work first. You have to do the work before you can win." - Coach Steve Mariucci on the Lions' approach to the preparing for the 2005 NFL season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
B.J. Sander is back from NFL Europe with a season of professional competition under his belt but no more of a toehold as the Packers' punter for 2005.
Punting for Hamburg, Sander averaged 40.0 yards, which tied for only fourth best among the six punters. His net of 36.6 led the league.
"It's an open job," said Sander, who returned in time to punt at the end of the Packers' minicamp earlier in the month. "I have to come in and win the job. I have to do what I'm capable of doing, prove to the coaches that I can do this. As far as I'm concerned, I am not only competing with the two guys that are here but against everyone in the league.
"It's one of those things where the punter of this team might not be here right now, but I am going in as it's an open job and I have to win it."
The Packers traded up to select Sander in the third round in 2004. It was one of several lousy decisions by Mike Sherman that led Packers President Bob Harlan to strip him of his GM duties in January.
Sander was abysmal in training camp and exhibition games. Still, Sherman elected not to cut his losses.
He kept Sander on the inactive list for all 17 games but signed veteran Bryan Barker as a band-aid.
With Barker deemed over the hill at 40, the Packers dispatched Sander to NFL Europe and signed free agents Brooks Barnard and Bryce Benekos. The B&B boys failed to distinguish themselves in minicamps, leaving Sander as the apparent frontrunner by default.
"I thought he had a solid season over there," special teams coach John Bonamego said. "I wouldn't say he was spectacular, but it was a solid performance. The biggest thing was getting game experience. You can't simulate what it's like in the game.
"We were looking for him to improve his overall consistency."
Kicker Ryan Longwell offered these words of advice to Sander: "He needs to put last year behind him. That's the difference between standing here nine years down the road and being in another line of work in a few years."
"We've had discussions in the past with the Cardinals about Anquan that have been productive and that's one of the reasons why he's working out with his team while on the other hand, Javon Walker, the Packers have said: ‘We're not going to discuss Javon's contract.' And that's why Javon's not there.
"Javon is only making $500,000 this year and he's a fabulous player and we would like to have the opportunity to talk about an extension, which is what we've done for a number of our players in the NFL. And they have been disinterested in doing that so we've elected, if that's the case, to be elsewhere."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In Europe, his punting was pretty good. His ball placement was excellent inside the 20-yard-line. I think he improved his technique. I think he gained some confidence over there." - Coach Mike Sherman on P B.J. Sander.