NFC North Notes

The Bears may find themselves short on talent in the defensive backfield, the Lions feel improved on defense even though their big-name signings came on the other side of the ball, and the Packers might be returning 10 defensive starters even though their pass defense was porous last year. Gets those stories and many more notes from the Vikings' division rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

The only significant change to the Bears defense is the departure of overpaid R.W. McQuarters, a frequent starter at cornerback who was better suited as the nickel.

The absence of McQuarters, who was also a better-than-average punt returner, bumps Nathan Vasher up the ladder, and the Bears are confident he will respond to the challenge of full-time corner behind starters Charles Tillman and Jerry Azumah. As a rookie in 2004, Vasher led the team with five interceptions, and he has always demonstrated an uncanny knack for getting interceptions.

The problem with cutting loose McQuarters and his $3.2 million base salary is that the Bears could find themselves thin on the corner if any of the top three is injured. For now, there is no proven depth behind them. The top veteran backup is Todd McMillon, whose primary value is as a special-teams players.

Rashied Davis, an undrafted free-agent rookie, looked promising in minicamps and spring practices. But, like Azumah and Vasher, he is just 5-feet-10, and even though Randy Moss is no longer in the NFC North that lack of size could be a concern.

Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera also hopes for a change in the health of his group. Last season, key elements like linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, safety Mike Brown, Tillman and Azumah all missed significant chunks of playing time because of injuries. All are expected to be 100 percent recovered by the time training camp begins on July 23.

A minor change involves the flip-flop of Brown and Mike Green at the safety positions. Brown moves from free to strong to better utilize his in-the-box hitting skills, while Green is expected to be more effective focusing on coverage.

Hunter Hillenmeyer spent most of the 2004 season filling in at middle linebacker for Urlacher while he limped through three injuries. Hillenmeyer played well enough to earn a starting spot on the strong side, but that position is still somewhat unsettled heading into training camp. Marcus Reese and Joe Odom have also started on the strong side in the past.

The defensive line should be unchanged, with Ogunleye at left end and Alex Brown on the right. Michael Haynes hasn't lived up to his first-round draft status in 2003, but he is a solid backup at both end spots. Tackle Tommie Harris impressed as a rookie, showing athleticism and disruptive tendencies, and he has the talent to take a big step up this season. Ian Scott is more the stay-at-home nose tackle type and a good complement to Harris.

The Bears have several undersized pass-rush types who could provide some extra firepower in nickel and dime situations, but none of them made much of an impact last season.

NOTES

  • Bobby Wade was a 14-game starter at wide receiver last season, but he seems like the forgotten man this off-season, with Justin Gage getting promoted to first team and second-year man Bernard Berrian challenging him for that spot.

    Wade tied for second on the team — and first among the wideouts — last season with 42 catches. But he failed to do much after the reception, averaging just 11.5 yards per catch with no touchdowns. He's small (5-10, 192) and not very fast. But he does have some redeeming qualities.

    "Bobby Wade's steady," said wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. "He doesn't possess great speed, but he's where he's supposed to be, and he makes plays and makes catches. There's a place for him (on the team)."

  • Almost all the off-season talk regarding the Bears' offense has centered on the return to health of starting quarterback Rex Grossman.

    But, since Grossman has ended each of his two NFL seasons on injured reserve, including the final 13 games last season, the progress of backup Chad Hutchinson has been encouraging.

    "He's solidified the backup quarterback position for us," coach Lovie Smith said, "so that helped a lot, too."

    Hutchinson wasn't signed until Sept. 28 last season, and then had to cram most of the season to get up to speed with the offense.


    DETROIT LIONS

    There was nothing particularly spectacular about the Lions defense last season - 15th against the run, 20th against the pass, 22nd overall among the 32 NFL teams in total yards surrendered.

    They made it through the first seven games of the season without allowing an opposing running back a 100-yard game but in the next month they were shredded by Clinton Portis (147 on 34 carries), Fred Taylor (144 on 23 carries) and Edgerrin James (105 on 23).

    Their pass rush was primarily a one-man operation (James Hall with 11.5 sacks). Their coverage was hurt by an ankle injury that cost cornerback Fernando Bryant six starts in the final 11 games. And free safety Brock Marion turned out to be a virtual non-factor.

    So Lions president Matt Millen had some work to do in the off-season. And, although his defensive moves haven't drawn the headlines he got by drafting wide receiver Mike Williams and signing free agents tight end Marcus Pollard and quarterback Jeff Garcia, he seems to have bolstered the Lions' defense significantly.

    The addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters have put some punch into the secondary; the release of Marion cleared the way for third-year free safety Terrence Holt to take a shot at a starting job; and the addition of defensive tackle Shaun Cody from USC and cornerback Stanley Wilson of Stanford gave the Lions an infusion of young blood in areas that needed help.

    Kennedy, a punishing hitter, and McQuarters, a veteran capable of playing virtually anywhere in the secondary, will probably have the greatest impact. The Lions have not had an enforcer of Kennedy's stature in recent years and their cornerback depth has been lacking.

    Two late-round draft picks - defensive end Bill Swancutt from Oregon State and linebacker Johnathan Goddard from Marshall - bear watching also. Swancutt was an outstanding pass rusher on the collegiate level and Goddard has some versatility as well as special teams possibilities the Lions will cultivate when they get to training camp.

    Equally important in any improvement the Lions might make in the upcoming season is the return of outside linebacker Boss Bailey. Bailey didn't miss a defensive play in his rookie season but sat out the entire 2004 season after knee surgery.

    The Lions believe Bailey is fully recovered, which means he rejoins a young, athletic and active linebacker crew which includes Teddy Lehman, James Davis and Alex Lewis, with veteran Earl Holmes still listed as the starting middle linebacker.

    Throw in last year's Pro Bowl performers - cornerback Dre' Bly and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers - and the Lions are hoping to make a big improvement from their No. 22 overall defensive rating.

    NOTES

  • Like the rest of the players around the NFL, the Lions are getting a couple of weeks off before the start of training camp and the good news is that apparently none of them will be wearing a red jersey when the team reports for the start of training camp July 28.

    The most notable players that began the minicamps in red jerseys - meaning their teammates have to keep hands off, respecting their return from injuries - were wide receiver Charles Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey and kick returner Eddie Drummond.

    By the finish of the final minicamp in early June, all three had shed the red and were getting no special treatment.

    Rogers is coming off his second broken collarbone in two years, Bailey is recovering from knee surgery he required last August and Drummond is making a comeback from a broken shoulder blade suffered on Thanksgiving Day.

    Although coach Steve Mariucci gave all three permission to get out of the red jersey in minicamp, he is obviously reserving the right to keep them on a short leash as they begin training camp.

    "If there is a guy that has had an injury, we will limit a little bit what he does," Mariucci said. "If a guy is a veteran kind of guy, you'll limit what he does on occasion. We'll try to monitor some age and some injuries in training camp, and kind of play it by ear."

  • When the Lions lost Stockar McDougle to the Miami Dolphins during free agency the right tackle job he had held for most of the past three seasons was declared open for competition.

    Victor Rogers, a seventh-round pick in the 2002 draft who finally got some playing time at the end of the 2004 season, is among those lining up for a shot at the job.

    So is Kelly Butler, fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft who was inactive for the first 15 games of his rookie season and did not play in the 16th. And the Lions signed former San Francisco lineman Kyle Kosier, just in case neither of their own young players is able to handle the job.

    As it stands now, less than three weeks from the start of training camp, it appears the three will be part of the Lions most spirited competition going into the NFL season.

    Butler got most of the work at right tackle during the recently-completed minicamps but it remains uncertain if coach Steve Mariucci had him there because he's the early leader in the competition or because Mariucci wanted to give him enough early reps to enable him to compete on a level playing field.

    Rogers worked primarily at left tackle, presumably as a backup to Jeff Backus, and Kosier saw action in a variety of positions. So, where does the competition stand?

    "Kyle Kosier has been a starter at the left tackle spot or guard or right tackle," Mariucci said. "Kelly Butler (got) a lot of snaps at the right tackle spot. We're going to be moving guys around. Kelly red-shirted last year so he needs all of the snaps he can get."

    The apparently means the position will be decided on the field in August.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    As it stands now, the Packers might very well enter 2005 with 10 starters in the lineup from the unit in 2004 that was deficient in every phase of play.

    Only free safety Darren Sharper, who was cut March 10 after refusing to accept a massive pay cut, definitely will be missing from the starting group that finished a deceivingly competitive 25th in yards allowed.

    The defense as loosely coordinated by Bob Slowik was so inept, particularly against the pass, that coach Mike Sherman felt compelled to demote Slowik just 12 months after he hired him to replace the fired Ed Donatell. Slowik sat around for a few weeks before taking the secondary job in Denver.

    Sherman hired Jim Bates, the successful defensive coordinator for the last five seasons in Miami. Then Bates hired two of his Dolphins aides, Bob Sanders and Robert Nunn, to coach the defensive line and former Saint assistant Joe Baker to work with holdover Lionel Washington in the secondary. Another holdover, Mark Duffner, continues working with linebackers.

    Bates said little publicly after an off-season in which new GM Ted Thompson didn't exactly open the checkbook to provide defensive reinforcement. The four veterans that were added - linebacker Raynoch Thompson and safeties Earl Little, Arturo Freeman and Todd Franz - essentially received minimum-wage deals.

    On Draft Day, Bates hoped to get a bumper crop with the Packers possessing four picks in the first three rounds. Instead, Bates had to twiddle his thumbs when Thompson ended quarterback Aaron Rodgers' freefall with the 24th pick. The only first-day defender was Nick Collins, a cornerback-safety from Bethune-Cookman who undoubtedly will struggle with the pro game as a rookie.

    Bates will be his usual gung-ho self. He was all over the practice field during the minicamps. He called the depth on the defensive line better than any that the Dolphins had during his tenure. He has spoken highly of the young cornerbacks. And he foresees big things ahead for defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the only legitimate pass rusher that the platoon has.

    The other end, Aaron Kampman, lacks talent but outworks just about everyone that he faces.

    The problem is at tackle, where Cletidus Hunt blew off the second minicamp and Grady Jackson this week went public in his demands for a new contract.

    The linebackers might be OK if Bates can get Nick Barnett playing like Zach Thomas.

    In the secondary, the Packers like Al Harris at one cornerback spot but have major questions everywhere else. Ahmad Carroll was so ordinary during the off-season that another second-year corner, Joey Thomas, might start ahead of him. The safety jobs are up for grabs among the three retread veterans, incumbent Mark Roman, Collins and rookie Marviel Underwood, a fourth-round pick from San Diego State.

    NOTES

  • Besides Javon Walker and Grady Jackson, the Packers are in a contractual battle with tight end Bubba Franks.

    Franks, who was designated as a transition player at the start of free agency, has refused to sign the one-year tender worth $2.095 million. He wants a long-term contract and might not report until he gets one.

    Beyond Franks, the Packers are thin. David Martin has never fulfilled his promise as a receiver although he has improved as a blocker. The No. 3 last year, Ben Steele, has the speed and length to get downfield but continued to drop passes in the off-season just like he did in late-season games in ‘04.

    "The funny thing is sometimes it's the easy ones that he drops," tight ends coach Joe Philbin said. "He handles the harder ones. It's a little bit of focus and a little bit of concentration and taking care of first things first. I don't believe it's from a lack of effort or desire. Maybe there's a little bit of immaturity in regards to taking care of first things first."


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