There isn't a more interesting or competitive position battle in Bears training camp than at wide receiver.
Muhsin Muhammad is the sun in the solar system of the Bears' passing attack, the man the offense will revolve around. The Bears found their go-to guy when he was trimmed from the Carolina Panthers' bloated payroll at the end of February. Now the search is on for complementary players to draw some attention away from Muhammad and to add additional weapons to the offensive arsenal.
There are at least five qualified candidates but probably just four roster sports available. Any or all of the five could wind up starting. Coaches might have some tough decisions next month on cut-down days.
"That's a good thing," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "We've got a little competition, and that's what you need, especially when you have young guys. We're looking forward to the competition playing out."
Last season Bobby Wade started 14 games and caught 42 passes, tied with David Terell for the most receptions by a Bears wide receiver. But in the offseason, coaches decided Justin Gage would be a more productive starter because of his size and strength and because Wade is more effective playing in the slot.
Second-round pick Mark Bradley seems to have put a spring case of "skillet hands" behind him and has caught more passes in training camp drills than any wide receiver on the team. Bernard Berrian, last year's third-round pick, is the fastest and has shown more improvement this season than any of the top six wideouts. Five-year veteran Eddie Berlin has displayed sticky hands and toughness over the middle, and he's the best of the bunch on special-teams coverages.
A case can be made for each of the candidates, since each brings to the table valuable qualities in offensive coordinator Ron Turner's scheme.
A fifth-year veteran, Berlin is the most experienced of the Bears' "other" receivers. At 5-feet-11 and 195 pounds and minus great speed, it's easy to typecast him as the prototypical white, possession receiver.
Getting his deep speed on the field provides a dimension that most of the Bears' top receivers don't possess. Berrian has actually gotten stronger since last season, but he's still pencil thin. He has been impressive turning quick flips into long gains, but coaches may cringe every time his frail body takes a big hit. Berrian caught 15 passes for 225 yards last season, but most of those were outside the hash marks.
Bradley dropped so many balls in spring practices that it was impossible not to notice him. That hasn't been a problem during camp, though. Bradley probably has the most impressive physical tools of the Group of Five, with the best combination of size and speed, and he was drafted with the highest pick (39th overall).
Gage, the former Missouri basketball player, is the biggest of the Bears' receivers at 6-feet-4 and 212 pounds. And he still has his basketball ups, which enables him to take jump balls away from most defensive backs.
"Not the fastest guy in the world," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said of Wade, "but he has as much savvy as anybody I've ever been around, (as far as) just knowing where to be and understanding the game. He catches the ball and just has a feel for the game, and he's tough. He fits, and he's a big part of what we're trying to do."
Backup quarterback Chad Hutchinson has opened up the offense with some long-distance connections.
At a full-pads practice last Friday night, he first found rookie Mark Bradley for a long touchdown over second-year cornerback Jerrell Pippens and two plays later scored again from more than 50 yards out when Eddie Berlin made a diving grab in the end zone despite decent coverage by Rashied Davis.
"I'm just taking what they give me," Hutchinson said. "When you have good receivers, they make you look good. Getting good protection helps, too. I feel confident with everybody out there. "I'm here to push Rex (Grossman) and make him as good as possible so he can lead this team."
In just five games last season, Hutchinson was sacked 23 times, including 9 in the season-ending loss to the Packers. Picked up on waivers last Sept. 28, Hutchinson did not have the benefit of a training camp and played behind a patchwork offensive line that was also burdened by the extraordinary number of coverages in Terry Shea's offense.
"I knew that they were put in a hard position last year, just like myself, and I never quit having confidence in them. We weren't getting it done, but I know we can get it done."
"I can't really say (why)," Joe said of his release by the Bears. "Obviously they decided I wasn't ready to play here. This year, I have a different mindset and a different attitude. I was surprised when they let me go. (But) it feels like a homecoming because everyone knows my name. They're looking for me to do good things."
The Cardinals cut Joe after he was arrested June 30 for carrying a pistol without a permit in Washington D.C.
Training camp is underway, preseason play is just around the corner and it's less than six weeks until the start of the NFL's regular season, so where are the new-look Lions of 2005?
The fact is, the Lions of 2005 have pretty much the same look as the Lions of 2004.
For the first time since Matt Millen was hired as the team president in 2001, the Lions are not looking at their No. 1 and/or No. 2 draft picks as instant starters.
There are changes to be sure - several veterans plugged into key spots in the lineup. That means Kenoy Kennedy at strong safety, Rick DeMulling at left guard, Marcus Pollard at tight end and Kevin Johnson as the No. 3 or 4 wide receiver.
All play critical roles in the higher expectations for 2005, but the Lions are no longer involved in the desperation rebuilding program that marked the first four seasons of Millen's administration. The players they added through free agency and the draft were additions to what has become a solid roster.
The biggest change in the 2005 Lions is that they now have the experience and the confidence to finally climb from the depths of the NFC North and - possibly - compete with Minnesota and Green Bay for the division title.
Keep in mind, this is a team that hasn't put together a winning season since 2000, when the Bobby Ross/Gary Moeller coached team went 9-7 and convinced owner William Clay Ford it was time for a top-to-bottom overhaul.
This is a team that went 2-14 and 3-13 under Marty Mornhingweg, Millen's first coaching choice and first major on-the-job mistake.
This is a team that went 5-11 and 6-10 under Steve Mariucci, the coach some expected to work an instant miracle.
Add them up and it's 16-48 for the past four seasons. And this is the team that is some are now predicting to go 9-7 or 10-6?
Mariucci has made it clear he believes the Lions are a better team but he refuses to get caught up in the speculation game.
"You know I don't make any predictions," he said. "I don't give you any numbers but the foundation has really been put into place. We've been working for several years to put a lot of pieces of this puzzle together and, boy, we're ... getting there, and it's going to be fun.
"I guess I'm just eager to see how fast this team can come. I think it's going to be a lot of fun to watch, to see how fast this team can play some real good football."
There will be indicators to measure the Lions progress - how well quarterback Joey Harrington plays knowing he has veteran Jeff Garcia looking over his shoulder, how well the three young first-round receivers - Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams - mesh, whether second-year running back Kevin Jones can continue to churn out yardage at the rate he produced in the second half of his rookie season, whether the addition of Kennedy and veteran cornerback R.W. McQuarters will give defensive coordinator Dick Jauron the complete package he needs to play a more aggressive style of defense.
It's just around the corner. It's not necessarily a new-look Lions team but they're betting that on January 1, nobody's going to be looking at them as the same old Lions either.
Coach Steve Mariucci views him as an all-around handyman, not only in the Lions defensive secondary, but on special teams also.
"I really like having him here," Mariucci said. "He is a versatile, veteran player and he can play corner on either side. He played safety last year, he can go inside and play nickel when we go to our nickel and dime groups, he can play inside or outside, he can be a punt return man, he can cover kicks and I like his approach.
"He has been starting for a long time in the league and he needs to earn himself some playing time - which he is doing very well and very professionally. We love having the guy."
The last time 85 was worn by a Lions receiver was Oct. 24, 1971. Chuck Hughes was wearing it in a game against Chicago when he suffered a heart attack and died on the field at Tiger Stadium.
Although the number was never officially retired, the Lions never gave it to another player until Johnson asked for it after joining the team. He was touched by the story of Hughes' death, but asked for the number if he could get the approval of Hughes' family.
The Lions made several attempts to locate Hughes' family, but they were unsuccessful and it was determined that Johnson would be given No. 85.
"We didn't give out that number out of respect to Chuck Hughes," former Lions equipment manager Mark Glenn told Booth Newspapers. "But this is a good decision, 34 years is long enough."
Johnson said he will wear the number with respect for Hughes and his family.
"I have a strong faith in God and I understand the situation of what happened," he said. "I have faith in God and what's meant to be is meant to be. No man can change it. That's how I feel about it. Hopefully, I can make some good things happen with this number."
The absence of Williams and Drummond created at least a couple of minor problems for the team.
Without Williams and Drummond, receivers coach Fred Graves had only eight receivers with which to work. The Lions signed WR Grant Motto to get them back to nine receivers, still one short of the normal training camp number.
With Drummond holding out, the punt and kick return duties are being spread among a variety of players. CB R.W. McQuarters and CB Dre' Bly - plus several younger players - are sharing the punt return work; WR Scottie Vines, RB Shawn Bryson and RB Paul Smith are getting most of the reps on kickoff returns.
WR Scottie Vines suffered a sprained thumb on the first day or practice but has returned to work.
OLB Boss Bailey, who missed all of the 2004 season after knee surgery, is not restricted in what he does, but is practicing only once a day.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Most of the attention in Packers training camp centers on Brett Favre as he enters his 15th season. That's basically why the Packers will be playing just five noon starts all year.
Still, there's another player that might be just as important to one of the league's elite offenses. That's Ahman Green.
It's inevitable that Green will slip, just like the Packers' corps of running backs will break up.
In both cases, the Packers can only wish it's later than sooner.
No back in the NFL has gained more yards rushing (6,848) and from scrimmage (9,036) in the last five seasons than Green.
At the same time, no team has had more continuity at the position than Green Bay.
The fact that four of the stalwart five players from the last three seasons will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in March creates an undercurrent of urgency. For both the free agents-to-be and the Packers, this could be a now-or-never year.
"I know they're hungry," first-year running backs coach Edgar Bennett said, referring to having four veterans entering contract years. "I know they'll give us everything they've got."
Barring the unforeseen, four of the five backs that have been together since 2002 will be here opening day. That means Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher again will rank 1-2-3 at running back and venerable William Henderson will be the starting fullback for the 10th straight year.
But big changes could be just around the corner.
Green is pressing for a blockbuster extension that might triple the five-year, $18.375 million deal that he signed in July 2001. That contract contained $6 million in bonuses; last year, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson signed an eight-year, $60 million deal with $21 million guaranteed and Washington's Clinton Portis signed an eight-year, $50.5 million deal with $17 million in bonuses.
In April, Green filed for divorce from his second wife, Heather, after 14 months of marriage. He and his first wife, Shalynn, separated in March 2002; their divorce became final in summer 2003.
Davenport, who will play for $641,000 this season, needed money so badly this spring that he agreed to take $15,000 less salary for the season in exchange for a $100,000 advance. He's looking for a big paycheck from the Packers, if they don't re-sign Green, or on the unrestricted market.
Fisher received a $200,000 signing bonus in December as part of a one-year, $660,000 deal.
And Henderson may or may not attempt to resume his career in 2006 after his four-year, $4.5 million deal expires.
"Great personnel," Bennett said. "They're winners. They're workers. They're team players. They're leaders. It's unique."
The key is whether Green is able to cope with his personal situation, a revamped offensive line and the slew of injuries from all the punishment he has absorbed that limited him to merely 54.7 percent playing time in ‘04.
Green's greatest year, 2003, came on the heels of an injured-filled ‘02 season in which Green would later say was filled with off-field distractions. He is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing Aug. 29 on a charge of disorderly conduct/domestic abuse stemming from an incident April 25 involving Heather Green at the couple's home outside Green Bay.
From a financial standpoint, Green should be motivated like never before. He must produce huge numbers and stay healthy because, with his 29th birthday approaching in February, the Packers and every other team undoubtedly will have reservations about paying him superstar money.
Using a subjective list of the top 15 running backs in the league, the 28-year-old Green is a tad older than the average age of 27.5. Considering regular-season statistics only, Green has the seventh-most touches (1,876) among those 15 players.
Having been one himself, Bennett knows more than a little about career expectancy for running backs. His finest seasons for the Packers came at ages 26 and 27. He blew out an Achilles' tendon in 1997 at 28 and never was the same.
The Packers' featured back before Green, Dorsey Levens, was 27 when he had his 1,435-yard rushing campaign in ‘97. He was good enough to gain 1,034 yards two years later before an assortment of injuries turned him into a backup.
John Brockington was the Packers' last all-pro running back before Green. He was never the same after a third straight 1,000-yard season at age 25.
Green comes off a year in which Achilles, knee and rib-cartilage injuries limited him to 54.9 percent participation. His coaches have talked about his asthma-induced breathing problem. After averaging 5.22 per carry in 2003 he slipped to 4.46 last year.
Does Green have another sensational year in him?
"Absolutely, absolutely," Bennett said. "He worked his butt off this off-season. His weight's down. He is phenomenal at the preparation part of it. This guy's a warrior. He didn't cry about the injuries."
Davenport underwent major shoulder surgery in March but he's ready to practice and his weight is down to 243, about 22 pounds lighter than in April 2004.
"He had an impressive off-season," Bennett said. "He's sleek. This guy can wear down a defense."
"I just told them I want to be cut or traded," said Jackson, who is in the final year of a two-year, $2.31 million deal. "They said they aren't going to do it, it's not going to happen.
"They act like they don't want to respect me. The simple fact is that if I'm ranked in the top 20 or top 10 of run stuffers, then I feel like they need to honor that."
Asked if his heart would be in it this season, Jackson said: "It's hard to say.
"Obviously, it's a situation we're still trying to take care of, but that's not taking away from me doing the things that I need to do as far as playing," Walker said. "I'm just going to leave that alone and treat it like it never happened and play football, be hungry all over again.
"Last year I was hungry and this year it's probably worse because I'm hungrier."
Before taking the field, Walker had a conversation with Brett Favre, who was his harshest critic during the months leading up to camp.
"There were no hard feelings," Walker said. "He had his opinions and I had mine. Now we're at work. We know we're on the same level now so it's time to go out and play. I didn't take any of that personally."