NFC North Notes

Yesterday we looked at the Vikings' top goals heading into training camp. Now it's time for a look at the questions surrounding their division rivals.


Three training camp goals:

1. Find a worthy complement to No. 1 WR Muhsin Muhammad.

Free-agent addition Muhsin Muhammad caught 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

No other Bears wide receiver has that many catches, yards or touchdowns in his career.

Justin Gage, a 6-foot-4 third-year player, caught 12 balls for 156 yards last season and has 29 career receptions for 494 yards and two touchdowns. He is currently the starter opposite Muhammad. Gage has excellent leaping ability and showed the ability to make big plays down the field as a rookie, but he regressed last season under since-fired offensive coordinator Terry Shea.

Last year's starter, Bobby Wade, caught 42 passes for 481 yards, giving him 53 career catches for 618 yards. He has yet to score an NFL touchdown. Wade is undersized and not that fast, but he can be an effective possession receiver if he demonstrates more consistent hands.

Bernard Berrian caught 15 passes for 225 yards and two scores last season as a rookie, and he has shown significant improvement in the off-season. He has excellent speed, but it remains to be seen if he can be a factor over the middle considering his skinny frame. If he can continue to turn short slants into long gains when the lights come on, he could be a major player in Ton Turner's offense.

Rookie Mark Bradley and Airese Curry seem like projects, even though Bradley was a second-round pick.

2. Decide on a starting running back.

For now it's Thomas Jones.

But the Bears didn't draft Cedric Benson fourth overall so he could be brought along slowly while watching from the sidelines. Presuming the former Texas Longhorn is in camp on time, or even close to on time, he should get the nod.

Chances are, the odd man out is not going to get nearly enough time to keep him content, even though the coaching staff keeps talking like that is a possibility. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner would prefer his starter to be an every-down type guy. Since Benson showed better than expected hands throughout the off-season, that increases the chance that he'll be the starter by opening day. Turner also prefers a power running game with the majority of the carries going between the tackles, which is Benson's forte.

Jones is probably a better fit as the change-of-pace guy, and he is considered much less durable than the workhorse Benson. Before last season, Jones had never carried more than 138 times in any of his four previous NFL seasons.

But Jones did carry 240 ties last season for 948 yards, and he caught a team-high 56 passes for 427 yards. He is not expected to give up the job without a struggle, so it could be an interesting summer.

3. Get a pass rush.

One common thread that runs throughout the eight losing Bears seasons in the past nine years is lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Of the past 11 years, only in the 13-3 aberration of 2001 did the Bears accumulate more than 38 sacks in a season.

Last year's addition of defensive left end Adewale Ogunleye was supposed to boost the Bears' pass rush, but he hobbled through an injury-plagued 2004 with just five sacks, and never approached the level of play that helped him lead the AFC in sacks in 2003. It remains to be seen if that season was simply a by-product of playing on the same line as Jason Taylor or if Ogunleye is capable of double-digit sacks when he is the focus of the opponents' pass protection.

Defensive right end Alex Brown led the Bears with six sacks last season, but four of them came in one game against Kurt Warner, who refused to get rid of the ball that day. If Ogunleye is healthy, that should help Brown continue to improve his sack totals.

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher should be turned loose more often this season after picking up 5.5 sacks in little more than half a season last year. He and second-year defensive tackle Tommie Harris could give the Bears pressure from enough different areas to create a pass rush that will set the tone for a defense that appears on the verge of taking a big step.


  • Hunter Hillenmeyer was a special-teams player and backup linebacker until last season, when he stepped in at middle linebacker while Brian Urlacher was injured. Hillenmeyer wound up starting seven games in the middle, and he played so well that he earned a full-time starting spot on the strong side.

    According to linebackers coach Bob Babich, Hillenmeyer has a strong hold on the strong-side job, even though that position isn't nearly as settled as the other two linebacker spots with Urlacher in the middle and last year's leading tackler Lance Briggs on the weak side.

    "He's entrenched as the starter," Babich said of Hillenmeyer. "Hunter has taken over that spot. For somebody to beat him out, they'd have to do a good job."

  • It appears the only unsettled O-line job is at right guard.

    Terrence Metcalf has the job for now, but he has been given opportunities in the past only to lose them based on performance or because of injury. Metcalf will have plenty of competition this summer.

    Roberto Garza, Qasim Mitchell and Steve Edwards are all candidates, with Garza the best bet to unseat Metcalf if he falters.

    "We've got some players who are pretty comparable in ability and it's really hard to judge offensive linemen without shoulder pads on," said new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who was new offensive coordinator Ron Turner's right-hand man at the University of Illinois the past eight seasons. "So we'll find out a lot about our football team and our offensive line when we put our pads on and go to work."


    These are three training camp goals the Lions hope to accomplish:

    1. Establish Joey Harrington as the starting quarterback and offensive leader.

    Since the moment coach Steve Mariucci expressed an interest in signing Jeff Garcia last February, speculation has run rampant that it is only a matter of time until Garcia unseats Harrington as the Lions quarterback.

    Mariucci has stated in so many words that Harrington is the No. 1 quarterback but until Harrington - now in his fourth NFL season - establishes himself by his performance in training camp or the preseason, the speculation will continue and that could lead to unrest and uncertainty among the offensive troops.

    If the Lions are going to make a move in the NFC North race - as they and many observers believe is possible - they can't become embroiled in a quarterback controversy.

    But that means Harrington has to step up and do the job. After three years in which he had little help from his receivers and backs, he now has all the weapons necessary to be an effective NFL quarterback. The rest is up to him.

    Unless Harrington totally self-destructs in the pre-season, it seems unlikely Mariucci will pull the plug before the Sept. 11 opener against Green Bay. But if Harrington falters and the Lions don't get off to a good start, there is little doubt that Mariucci will go to Garcia, who was his starter and a Pro Bowl performer under Mariucci when they were together at San Francisco.

    Of course, there is another factor to be considered - Garcia. He is coming off a miserable season at Cleveland and his arm strength - average at best, even at the height of his career - might have deteriorated even more if his performance during the minicamps was any indication.

    2. Settle on the best set of linebackers.

    After two years of apparently wise drafting, Lions president Matt Millen has accumulated a promising set of young linebackers. The question now is where they're going to fit in, assuming they're all healthy at the end of training camp.

    At the top of the list is Boss Bailey, who had a strong rookie season - starting every game at the strong side - but missed the entire 2004 season after undergoing knee surgery in August.

    He participated in all of the minicamps and Mariucci had him out of the red jersey by the middle of June, an indication the Lions feel he is fully recovered from the surgery. Assuming there are no lingering after affects, it is likely he will reclaim the strong side linebacker job.

    If that indeed is the case, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has to decide what to do with second-year linebacker Teddy Lehman, who started all 16 games as a rookie last year in Bailey's place.

    The original plan was that Lehman, with all of his speed and athletic ability, would play in the middle, even though he's not considered a classic "thumper." And that is probably where he will work - in competition with veteran Earl Holmes - if Bailey is 100 percent.

    There is still a possibility, however, that Lehman might be tested at the weak side, the position he played during most of his career at Oklahoma. James Davis, starting his third NFL season, did a respectable job on the weak side last year but doesn't have an ironclad claim on the job.

    And, lurking in the wings is Alex Lewis. He has played primarily on special teams and in nickel packages where the Lions could maximize his speed and athletic ability but it's not out of the question that he could compete eventually for a starting job.

    3. Reconfigure the defensive secondary.

    If Millen has said it once, he's said it dozens of times: "You can never have too many good cornerbacks." He might expand that to "defensive backs" in general after the past off-season.

    With the addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters in free agency, and the drafting of cornerback Stanley Wilson, the Lions have the makings of one of their best defensive secondaries in years. But there are questions as to how it will fit together.

    Going into camp two things are certain: Dre' Bly will start at the right corner and Kennedy will be the strong safety. The other two jobs - plus the nickel and dime positions - will be won through competition.

    Fernando Bryant, who was a high-priced free agent acquisition a year ago, had a disappointing first season in Detroit, in part because of a bothersome ankle injury that cost him six games. He and McQuarters will probably battle it out for the left corner position.

    The other possibility is that McQuarters will compete with third-year free safety Terrence Holt for that job. McQuarters played part of last season in Chicago at free safety and the Lions coaching staff - for whatever reason - has been reluctant to entrust the job to Holt.

    In addition to those veteran players, the Lions have a handful of promising young defensive backs - Keith Smith, who got considerable experience as a rookie in 2004; Stanley Wilson, their third-round draft pick and a speedster; and more experienced corners in Chris Cash and Andre Goodman.


  • With a roster that includes Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson and Mike Williams - as well as kick returner Eddie Drummond - there aren't a whole lot of receiver jobs up for competition when the Lions go to training camp.

    With those five players considered automatics, there is a good chance coach Steve Mariucci will be looking for just one more wide receiver to carry into the regular season.

    That being the case, there could be some stiff competition between David Kircus and Scottie Vines, the two most experienced players in the race for the No. 6 receiver spot.

    Kircus, who set a handful of records at Division II Grand Valley State, is going into his third season with the Lions but has struggled to fit his talent into the Lions' offensive format. In two seasons he has caught only six passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, and has split time between the active roster and practice squad.

    Vines was originally signed by the Lions as an undrafted rookie in 2003 but spent most of his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers on the practice squad or injured reserve.

    The Lions re-signed Vines last November, however, and they liked what they saw well enough to bring him back this year. He caught two passes in the season finale at Tennessee and was impressive in minicamp workouts.

    "He played a little bit at the end when guys were banged up," coach Steve Mariucci said. "He's 220 pounds; I think he can play in some special teams areas and help us out. He's really making a push."


    Three training camp goals:

    1. Defend the pass.

    A year ago, the Packers were as inept against the pass as inept can be. In large part, that's why defensive coordinator Bob Slowik now coaches the secondary in Denver and Jim Bates is coordinating the defense in Green Bay.

    Under Slowik, the Packers ranked 25th against the pass (225.8 yards per game), their poorest ranking since the merger in 1970. Not only was the unit unable to cover receivers, all too often the players weren't able to line up properly.

    Blown assignments became commonplace, penalties went unchecked and quarterbacks had one gigantic field day.

    In 17 games, the opponents had a passer rating of 101.5 against Green Bay, a total that was light years higher than anything the Packers had ever allowed before (86.1 in ‘58). That's what happens when a team allows a club-record 37 touchdown passes and intercepts a club-low eight passes.

    The only brightener was an improved pass rush that generated 30 sacks in the last nine games compared to 14 in the first eight.

    2. Solidify the offensive line.

    The Packers had as much if not more continuity in the offense during the last four seasons than any team in the NFL. When healthy, and they usually were, the starters from 2001-04 were LT Chad Clifton, LG Mike Wahle, C Mike Flanagan, RG Marco Rivera and RT Mark Tauscher.

    That all changes this season after the Packers elected to sacrifice both Wahle and Rivera for salary-cap purposes. Wahle went to Carolina for $27 million over five years whereas Rivera went to Dallas for $19 million over five years.

    The Packers signed New England unrestricted free agent Adrian Klemm in hopes that the athletic but often-injured veteran can replace Wahle at left guard. At right guard, the combatants are former Buccaneer Matt O'Dwyer and Grey Ruegamer, who started much of 2004 at center for the injured Flanagan.

    With his veteran offensive line, Brett Favre was sacked just 14 times, tying the Colts for the league's best protection. But now, especially in a division loaded with good defensive tackles, there figures to be considerably more pressure in his face.

    3. Settle with Javon Walker, Grady Jackson and Bubba Franks.

    Walker, the Pro Bowl wide receiver, is unhappy with the final two years of his original five-year contract and is threatening to sit out.

    Jackson, an aging nose tackle, has a year remaining on his deal and claims he won't report until the contract is sweetened.

    Franks, who was designated as a transition player in February, also wants a long-term deal and hasn't been heard from all off-season.

    Agent Drew Rosenhaus represents Walker and Jackson. So far, the club has told him that they have no intentions of altering either contract. At this point, public opinion seems to be squarely behind the club and against the players.

    The Packers probably can't win without Walker. Despite arthroscopic knee surgery in January and his advancing years, Jackson is the team's most effective defensive lineman. And Franks, despite his lack of deep speed, is far better than backups David Martin and Ben Steele.


  • Nose tackle Grady Jackson fired Brett Favre's long-time agent, Bus Cook, and picked up Drew Rosenhaus this summer.

    Jackson said he wasn't considering a holdout until he saw the three-year, $13 million deal that nose tackle Pat Williams got from Minnesota to leave Buffalo.

    "That got me teed off," said Jackson, who is in the final year of a two-year, $2.31 million deal. "That's when I thought I've got to get what I can get. I'm looking at having four, maybe five years left at most.

    "I mean, Ted Washington gets that big deal with Oakland (four-year, $14 million). Are you telling me he's better than me? I want something like Pat Williams or Sam Adams or Ted Washington. I know I'm better than all those guys."

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