The general consensus seems to be that the Bears are leaning toward tight end or cornerback in the draft, but they also could be looking for an upgrade at safety, a replacement at guard and depth at linebacker in the draft and through free agency.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo is concerned about the health of Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Brown, who has missed 18 of the last 32 regular-season games with injuries.
As a result, Brown's off-season workouts will be adjusted to prevent injuries like the strained calf that kept him out of four games last season and most of the playoff loss to the Panthers.
"We did (that with) Brian Urlacher two years ago (after he suffered four injuries in the 2004 season), and Brian changed his whole regimen of training," Angelo said. "Strength and conditioning coordinator) Rusty Jones spent an inordinate amount of time with him in certain areas that really helped him, and I think Brian would say the same. It's something we feel we can work on. We're addressing certain things with each player, and we're probably going to be doing something a little bit different with Mike in the off-season."
With Brown's durability a concern and with former starter Mike Green a likely cap casualty and rookie Chris Harris failing to provide consistency despite an impressive rookie season, the Bears could use an upgrade at safety.
Even with the signing of starting right guard Terrence Metcalf, offensive line is also an area of interest in the off-season.
"We'd like to get one or two young offensive linemen irrelevant of Terrence coming back," Angelo said.
Strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is almost certain to be re-signed as a restricted free agent, but that still doesn't leave the Bears with much depth there, and first-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs is schedule to become unrestricted after the 2006 season.
Hester will still be a first-day pick, though, and he could go as high as the second round because he may be the fastest player and the best return specialist in the draft. He averaged 15.6 yards the past two seasons on 41 punt returns and scored four touchdowns. He also averaged 25.5 yards on 40 kickoff returns and scored two more touchdowns. With 4.3 speed, great agility and vision, Hester is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
So why was he working out with the cornerbacks at the Combine?
"That's basically where my heart was," he said. "I felt at DB as well as offense I can get my hands on the ball. But I'm not going to dwell on just being a corner in the league. I'm a team player and I'll do whatever it takes to win. If they need me to long snap, that's what I'm going to do."
The Bears have interviewed Hester, who could fill a couple of their needs.
"It went pretty good," the junior said of his talks with the Bears. "They need a great return guy as well as a nickel back, and it sounds like I'm one guy that they're looking at."
"I spoke with them my first night and at the Senior Bowl," said the 5-foot-8, 185-pound younger brother of Redskins Pro Bowl wideout Santana Moss. "I feel kind of comfortable talking to them, and they've shown a lot of interest."
Moss didn't put up big numbers in college and his durability is a concern, but he averaged 17 yards on a total of 57 catches in his last two seasons with the Hurricanes, scored nine touchdowns and has punt-return ability.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought Ron (Rivera) was definitely deserving of getting a head football job, but Ron's time will come. I thought he should have gotten one this past year with the amount of openings there were. His time will come. We have some unfinished business in Chicago. Maybe it will work out that way; Ron will help us take care of that, and then he'll get his job." — Bears coach Lovie Smith.
The arrival of free agency didn't present the crisis for the Lions that it did for many NFL teams. They did not have to make massive roster cuts and have enough cap room to do some serious shopping on the free-agent market.
Although the Lions suffered through a fifth consecutive double-digit losing season with a 5-11 record, president Matt Millen does not believe they are as far from respectability as the record might indicate.
That doesn't mean they don't have some holes to fill before new coach Rod Marinelli and his staff go to training camp next July.
"We have to be better on our offensive line," Millen said. "Obviously we have to be."
If the team is going to play the kind of offense Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz visualize, the Lions will have to get better up front. That means keeping left tackle Jeff Backus, who now wears the franchise tag, and acquiring a left guard. And they will have to decide if right tackle Kelly Butler is good enough to be the long-term solution.
Marinelli wants to be able to run the football and the Lions were just not strong enough up front to do that last season.
There are other areas Millen expects to address as well.
"We have to get more consistency out of our quarterback position," he said. "We need more consistency out of our receivers. Defensively, our secondary, we've got to be better, and I want to get more consistent pressure out of our front, out front seven."
In addition to a left guard, it is likely the Lions will pursue an edge pass rusher, a safety with speed and cover ability, as well as a backup to quarterback Joey Harrington.
Harrington and backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky, last year's fifth-round draft pick, were scheduled to begin working with Martz in early March, about two weeks before the official start of the Lions' off-season training program.
The most appealing part of the new offense - for Lions fans and possibly for Harrington - is that Martz does not practice or preach the West Coast offense.
Harrington was not a good fit in the West Coast as a rookie under Marty Mornhinweg or the past three seasons under Steve Mariucci, who staunchly refused to adjust his offense to his quarterback or receivers.
Under Martz, the offense will be entirely different.
"That's a culture shock, totally different," Martz said. "All the drops we use, the terminology is different, everything is different. I think it's a nice thing for him, it's a good thing for me to go through; it's a nice start for me.
"It's a new chapter in my life," said Martz, who was fired as the St. Louis head coach at the end of the 2005 season, "and I think it's a nice chapter for Joey."
In other words, Harrington will not be changing plays, changing protections or moving his offensive teammates around on the field at the line of scrimmage.
"We don't audible, not at all," Martz said recently. "I just want him to focus on playing quarterback and not worry about audibles and not worry about protections or where the receivers are. That'll all get resolved, that's my job. I just want him to focus on taking the talent that he has and detailing everything, making sure he understands exactly what to do on every play."
In his previous four NFL seasons playing the West Coast offense, Harrington was responsible for line of scrimmage adjustments that his critics said were frequently too conservative.
Henderson, the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets the past two seasons, likes linebackers who can run and widen the field against opposing running backs, and that means the Lions' linebackers could face a complete reshuffling for 2006.
"I'm not going to go into the entire scheme because it's complex," Millen said, "but Boss could play the middle. He could also be on the weak side or stay on the strong side. All of our linebackers could play any of the three positions. We'll have to settle on where we want them."
Last year's alignment found Bailey at the strong side (until he was injured and went to injured reserve), with James Davis at the weak side and Earl Holmes in the middle. Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis, two more fast, athletic linebackers, missed virtually the entire season with injuries.
Holmes did a good job in the middle but, at 33, doesn't have the speed to chase down many running backs. He is also an unrestricted free agent.
The threesome - tabbed "The Roaring 20s" - are Barry Sanders, Lem Barney and Billy Sims. All three wore uniform number 20, which was retired by the Lions in 2004. They will be the honorary chairmen of the team's golf outing at the Tournament Players Club of Michigan in early June.
Sanders and Barney both are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and many believe Sims would have been a Hall of Famer himself if a knee injury had not ended his career after 4 1/2 seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our lack of success isn't Steve's fault, it's my fault. I really believe that because Steve came in and was what he was. It didn't work here." — Lions president Matt Millen, taking the blame for the team's failure to improve under former coach Steve Mariucci.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
It's come down to a painstaking game of, "Who will blink first?"
Just as the Packers have been biding their time the last two months awaiting definitive word from their franchise quarterback, now Brett Favre has assumed a wait-and-see mindset with regards to his employer.
In an interview with ESPN on Feb. 28, Favre indicated he's not in a hurry to give the team a "Yea" or a "Nay" about playing next season.
"In some ways, I'm kind of waiting to see what we do free agent-wise and in the draft and those things," Favre said. "And, they're probably kind of waiting on me, too. So, it's a little bit of a waiting game.
"Right now, I'm just trying to get away from it as much as I can and clear my mind, as hard as that may be."
Although the Packers brass would have liked an answer by the start of free agency, which has been pushed back to Monday, general manager Ted Thompson apparently is resigned to giving Favre all the time he needs.
Even if it means having to go through the initial stretch of free agency and up to and perhaps beyond the April 29-30 draft before knowing whether the 36-year-old Favre will be back.
"They're going to decide when they decide," Thompson said of Favre and his family. "What are the alternatives?"
Consequently, both sides appear to be open to pushing back the day when the team must fork over a $3 million roster bonus to Favre. The money is due to be meted out five days into the new fiscal year, contingent on Favre's returning for a 15th season as the team's starter.
However, a day after talking with ESPN while he was in Homestead, Fla., to take NASCAR driving lessons, Favre sounded like he won't be coming back to Green Bay. He conducted an interview with Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV after completing a round of golf in a pro-am at the PGA's Ford Championship in Miami.
"I don't know if I'm any different today than I was a month ago. I think about it every day," said Favre, who had told ESPN in late January that he was leaning toward retirement.
"I want to win. That's the only thing left for me to do, is to win. And, I don't want to go back out and be 4-12. Who does?"
That explains why Favre first wants to see how aggressive Thompson is in free agency. The Packers have the ample means, with roughly $25 million in salary-cap room, to make a huge splash and try to turn their fortunes around in one year.
So, after making it known in early March last year that he would return for another season, the likelihood of an announcement by Favre in the near future doesn't appear good.
"No one loves to win more than me; no one loves to compete more than me. And, to do that and win four games (last year) is disappointing. I take just as much responsibility and blame as anyone," said Favre, who had a career-high 29 interceptions.
"It's made me second-guess what type of player I am. I've told people that, and they say, ‘You still can play.' But, (I say), ‘Yeah, we won four games.' So, I wonder sometimes if the magic has fizzled out."
Moreover, his run of off-season hardships the last three years continued Feb. 27. His wife, Deanna, returning to the family's Mississippi home from a business endeavor in Las Vegas, was on a private plane that had to make an emergency landing in Phoenix because of problems with its hydraulic system.
Deanna switched planes and made it back later that night. Brett wasn't on the trip.
In a move that was expected since the end of last season, they released veteran linebacker Na'il Diggs on Thursday. Diggs was a starter at both outside positions his first six years in the league.
However, he was limited to only nine games and six starts last season because of torn medial-collateral ligaments in both knees. The lost time never allowed Diggs to acclimate himself to a new defensive system, which will be carried over to this season, and he was deemed expendable by first-year head coach Mike McCarthy.
"I had a chance to talk to the defensive coaches about it," McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Basically, our discussion was we were moving in another direction. Everybody was in agreement."
Diggs was cut a few days before he was due a roster bonus of $600,000. He was scheduled to draw a base salary of $2.3 million in the final year of a four-year deal, and his cap number would have been a little more than $3.8 million.
The Packers will count the remaining prorated $700,000 portion of Diggs' signing bonus on this year's cap but added more than $3.1 million to their exorbitant cap cushion.
The release of Diggs leaves middle linebacker Nick Barnett as the only sure starter among the group for next season. Green Bay figures to plug in the holes by tapping a deep crop of free agents.
San Francisco's Derek Smith, Carolina's Will Witherspoon, Baltimore's Bart Scott and the New York Giants' Nick Greisen could top the wish list. Smith, Scott and Greisen are inside players, which might orchestrate a speculated move of Barnett to the outside.
"We want run-and-hit (linebackers)," McCarthy said. "The defensive system is really predicated on that. Being able to run and match coverages. Good tackling, you want every defender to fit into that mold."
The team informed Chatman's agent, Mark Mersel, that it's targeting bigger receivers to fit in McCarthy's version of the West Coast offense.
"I've always been a fan of big, physical people at that position," McCarthy said. "The bigger the target, the better your accuracy. We've got a lot of depth at that position."
The 5-foot-9 Chatman would have been in line to receive the low-level tender offer of $712,000 from the Packers.
"I'm surprised. (Chatman's) surprised. I thought he could be in Green Bay for the long run," Mersel said. "But, if they don't want to respect a guy with a big heart, then so be it."
Thanks to injuries sustained by Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson and rookie Terrence Murphy, Chatman served as the No. 3 receiver for most of last season. He also started three games. He ranked second on the team with a career-high 49 catches for an average of 11.2 yards with four touchdowns.
Though consistently reliable in fielding punts, Chatman wasn't a big-play return man, save for an 85-yard touchdown against Chicago in the second-to-last game last year.
"Obviously, I think the salary is a disservice to him," agent Kennard McGuire said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Walker threatened to sit out last season in lieu of an extension to his rookie contract, but he was on the field for the start of training camp. A little more than a month later, though, Walker sustained a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his right knee in the season opener.
Uncertain about whether Walker will make a successful return from the debilitating injury, the Packers surely won't be moved to give Walker a pay raise ahead of next season.
McGuire said Walker should be ready by the start of training camp. He's rehabbing in Tallahassee, Fla., where he's returned to Florida State to complete work toward earning his degree.
The team has had ongoing negotiations with the agents for defensive end Aaron Kampman, running back Ahman Green and center Mike Flanagan.
Kampman is a high priority to get under contract since he'll be coveted on an open market lacking high-caliber defensive ends. He stands to get a long-term deal averaging $5 million per year, on par with Kyle Vanden Bosch's four-year, $21 million contract accorded by Tennessee last month.
Meanwhile, there appears to be mutual interest for the return of Green and Flanagan, both of whom were sidetracked by injuries last season.
"We've been talking extensively to him," general manager Ted Thompson said of Flanagan, who courageously played the last half of the season after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.
"Whether or not it happens before the start of free agency, we'd like to. But, that's part of free agency, too."
Agent David Dunn said Green should be ready by the start of training camp. He's on the mend from October surgery for a torn quadriceps tendon.
"All things being equal, he wants to be there," Dunn said at the scouting combine.
His agent, Frank Bauer, said at the combine that Longwell is poised to explore his options in free agency after the Packers failed to make a play for re-signing their all-time leading scorer by the end of last season.
"In approaching Ryan at the end, whereas this thing should have been done a while back, hurts," Bauer said. "Clubs that identify the key player, they're going to try to get (an extension) done in October and not let him leave the building.
"Once the players leave the facility (at season's end), then it changes a little bit. It's like an old girlfriend — out of sight, out of mind — and now, you've got a problem. Timing is everything, and the timing on this one got screwed up."
Longwell is believed to be seeking a deal that will reward him with as much as, if not more than the $1.5 million average salary of his recent five-year pact with the Packers. He'll be in competition, though, with New England's Adam Vinatieri and Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt in commanding a lucrative deal.
Veteran fullback William Henderson also is reportedly unhappy with the Packers' negotiating ploys because they're not willing to accord him more than a one-year deal.
Henderson said at end of last season that he felt he had three more solid years in him and wants a long-term deal to return to the team.
"We've talked, but we haven't gotten anywhere. We've made up our minds to test the market," agent James Williams said.
Dutton, who hails from nearby Oshkosh, had been allocated to NFL Europe, but he flunked his physical. Dutton sustained a stress fracture in a shin and was cut by Seattle early in training camp last year.
The Packers have three punters on the roster: incumbent B.J. Sander, Ryan Flinn and recently signed Jon Ryan, who starred in the Canadian Football League last year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel very optimistic about his decision, but he needs to be 110 percent between the breastplates because you want him to come back and play like he always has and like we all enjoy and love. We're going to give him the timeframe that he needs." — Head coach Mike McCarthy on waiting on quarterback Brett Favre to decide whether or not to return for next season.