NFC North Notes

Despite not signing anyone in four days, the Vikings have been one of the more active teams in the NFC North when it comes free agency.

CHICAGO BEARS

For the first time in six years, Bears quarterback Rex Grossman isn't spending his off-season learning a new offense and for the first time in his pro career, the fourth-year player isn't rehabbing an injury.

"I'm excited about going into a season with the same offensive coordinator and being able to develop our offense," Grossman said. "I'm excited to come back and be healthy and work on all the things I need to work on and on going into next year with one of the best offensive lines in the league and a deep offensive line."

After a few weeks away from football and some vacation time, Grossman is ready to get back into football mode.

"This next week I'm going to have to start working out again and watching tape and trying to get smarter as a quarterback," he said. "I want to understand some things I did wrong last year and make sure I don't make those same mistakes."

  • The Bears' current top-three offseason needs:

    1. Cornerback: UFA Jerry Azumah won't be back because of a chronic hip injury. Nate Vasher went to his first Pro Bowl and is a tremendous ball athlete with a nose for interceptions, even though he is undersized and doesn't have great speed. Charles Tillman, the other starter, may not be able to match up against smaller, quicker, faster receivers and could be better suited to safety. None of the backups from last season did anything to distinguish themselves.

    2. Tight end: This position has been an afterthought in the Bears' passing game for years and with good reason. It's been a long time since they've had anyone worthy of throwing the ball to on a regular basis, and they haven't had a talented all-around player at the position since Mike Ditka was a player. Lacking a proven No. 2 receiver to complement Muhsin Muhammad, a receiving threat at tight end is even more critical to the development of the Bears' passing game and young quarterback Rex Grossman.

    3. Wide receiver: The league's No. 31 passing game needs more consistent playmakers to complement go-to guy Muhsin Muhammad, who struggled to do it alone last year. Rookie Mark Bradley and second-year guy Bernard Berrian have potential and made some big plays last season, but Bradley is coming back from a torn ACL and Berrian's durability is a major question mark. Justin Gage has the size to be a factor on jump balls and in the red zone, but his production has also been inconsistent.


    DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

    In his four years of running the Bears' draft, G.M. Jerry Angelo has drafted one cornerback in the second round (Charles Tillman in 2003), one in the third round (Roosevelt Williams in 2002) and one in the fourth round (Nate Vasher in 2004).

    Since unrestricted free agent nickel cornerback Jerry Azumah is all but gone, the Bears are likely to go back to the cornerback well this year. It might even be in the first round, which could be peppered with six corners from a talented pool.

    "The cornerback position, we've always addressed it through the draft (rather than free agency)," Angelo. "We feel confident that we can do that again. With Jerry potentially not being with us, we'll be looking at that position very hard in the draft."

    That could means Ohio State's Ashton Youboty, Florida State's Antonio Cromartie, Miami's Kelly Jennings, Virginia Tech's Jimmy Williams or Clemson's Tye Hill, all of whom could go in the first round.

    Angelo also mentioned tight end as another likely position to be addressed on the first day of the draft. If it's the first round, they could go with UCLA's Marcedes Lewis or Georgia's Leonard Pope, although both could last until somewhere in the second round.

    NOTES

  • Bears coach Lovie Smith said his team will have a tougher time in the coming season because of its status as NFC North champion, but that's fine with him.

    "Things come through Chicago now, and we like that position," Smith said. We lost some good football coaches in our division this year. We have some new ones coming in, and I know they can't wait to get a piece of us."

    Every other team in the NFC North will have a new coach this season. The Packers replaced Mike Sherman with Mike McCarthy, the Lions dumped Steve Mariucci in favor of Rod Marinelli, and the Vikings hired west suburban Aurora native Brad Childress to succeed Mike Tice.

    When Smith took over the Bears before the 2004 season, he listed three goals, two of which he accomplished last season.

    "We dominated Green Bay this past year," Smith said of Goal No. 1. "We won the division, and we're still anxious to get that third goal, winning the world championship."

    Smith's salary of $1.4 million places him in the bottom five in the NFL, so a raise is expected, even though his original deal has two more years to run. But not much is being said on either side.

    "I'm making a lot of good money," Smith said. "What more can I ask for? I'd like to be the head coach of the Chicago Bears for years to come."

  • GM Jerry Angelo agreed with critics who expressed displeasure with punter Brad Maynard's 2005 season.

    Maynard's net average of 35.3 yards was 2 yards less than he has averaged since 2001, when the Bears signed his away from the Giants as an unrestricted free agent. Maynard played in all 16 games but missed a lot of practice time with a nagging calf injury. The nine-year veteran placed just 25 percent of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, a sharp drop from his previous career percentage of 32.7 percent. His gross average in the playoff loss to the Panthers was 35.1 yards, 7 yards less than his career average.

    "It was disappointing," Angelo said. "We'll have another punter in camp. We'll look into the punting situation this year."

  • Bears coach Lovie Smith said he'd be content to go into the 2006 season with the identical team, which is likely since 21 of the 22 starters are under contract through the coming season. Strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is the only exception, but the Bears expect him back. The restricted free agent has been given a $712,000 tender offer. That's the lowest of three levels, but it still guarantees the Bears the option of retaining his services by matching any offer he receives from another team. Defensive linemen Israel Idonije, the Bears' only other restricted free agent, received the same offer.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're not looking at this as a one-year surprise. We weren't surprised by the 11-5 year. Maybe some of you were. We're looking at it as we now have a foundation to continue that success and build on it." — Team president and CEO Ted Phillips to attendees at the team's annual fan convention.


    DETROIT LIONS

    Despite declarations by president Matt Millen and coach Rod Marinelli that Joey Harrington is their guy, the Lions continue to add arms to their roster.

    After adding Shaun King before free agency, the Lions made a much bigger splash with the addition of Jon Kitna on Tuesday. Kitna sought to leave Cincinnati mainly because of his stated desire to have an opportunity to compete for a starting job.

    Whether or not that opportunity was promised to Kitna remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain — the Lions continue to hedge their bets in case the coaching change fails to turn Harrington's career around.


  • Quarterback school got started for the Lions quarterbacks - Harrington, King and Dan Orlovsky at the time - as new offensive coordinator Mike Martz got a head start on the off-season program the first full week of March.

    Aside from the final game of the 2004 season in which Harrington burned Martz' St. Louis Rams for three touchdowns and a 106 passer rating, Martz said he had seen little of the four-year veteran.

    After reviewing selected videotape of Harrington in the past four years, Martz seemed optimistic about the possibility of developing him into a capable quarterback.

    "He's much better skill-wise than I remembered him," Martz said. "It's pretty significant."

    The idea apparently is to totally wipe Harrington's mind clean of the remaining remnants of the West Coast offense in which he struggled under Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci, and get him a fresh start in a more vertical passing game that is Martz' style.

    "You've just got to strip him down and teach him this system and get him involved in what we do and how we do it," Martz said, "and I don't think that'll be an issue."

  • The Lions' current top-three offseason needs:

    1. Left guard: The Lions tried to fill the hole through free agency last year with Rick DeMulling (Indianapolis) and Kyle Kosier (San Francisco) but weren't satisfied with the result. It is likely they will try again to land a veteran but the delayed start of free agency slowed down the process. If they can't get a guard for a reasonable price, Millen believes there is potential in the draft and it is not all in the first round. Kosier signed with Dallas on Saturday.

    2. Pass rusher: It can be a defensive end, it can be a linebacker. But defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson believes in an aggressive style of defense that requires a player with speed and athletic ability coming off the corner. Unrestricted free agent Kalimba Edwards hasn't lived up to his billing in his first four seasons. If Henderson believe Edwards can do the job - and the Lions get him re-signed - the hole might be filled.

    3. Defensive back. Fernando Bryant has missed 20 games with injuries in two seasons and, although the Lions will bring him back, they can't have a lot of confidence he'll go the distance in 2006 either. In addition, they need to be better at free safety. Depending on how the draft falls to them, this could be the position they fill in the first round.

    DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

    After five years of frustration, Lions president Matt Millen is focused on going back to what he believes in - being good up front, whether it's offense or defense. The Lions became a soft team while winning just 21 games in the five years under Millen but in new coach Rod Marinelli he has found a comrade-in-arms, so look for the Lions to get stronger, tougher and more physical.

    Don't be surprised if that is reflected on draft day.

    Millen has shown he's willing to wheel and deal in the first round and the Lions don't have one over-riding need that has to be filled in the NFL draft, so it's entirely possible he will make the No. 9 pick in the first round available.

    The bigger question is whether Millen would be willing to move up. Without a pressing need for a quarterback or running back, it is unlikely he would be interested. If D'Brickashaw Ferguson happened to be available at some point, however, Millen would have to consider a move.

    Assuming the Lions have no way to get to Ferguson, however, look for Millen and Marinelli to put some starch in the defense.

    NOTES

  • Running back Shawn Bryson officially re-signed with Detroit on Wednesday. Before free agency opened, he was believed to have agreed on what wass reported to be a three-year contract worth $4.5 million.

    Although he is listed on the depth chart as the backup to Kevin Jones, Bryson has been one of the Lions most valued players since being signed three years ago as an unrestricted free agent, coming off knee surgery in Buffalo.

    During the past season Bryson rushed 64 times for 306 yards and a touchdown, and he also caught 37 passes for 284 yards. His value goes beyond the numbers, however, because he is capable of filling in as a fullback, is the Lions best receiver out of the backfield and is their best at picking up the blitz.

    The Lions reached an agreement with Bryson shortly after the NFL reached an agreement on a CBA extension.

    The team reportedly was $13.1 million under the cap and that was before a league-wide increase that pushed the cap from $94.45 million to $102 million, so they are in a good situation to make the off-season acquisitions they need.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's a good player waiting to happen, and I think we can expedite that." - Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz on quarterback Joey Harrington.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    A year after skipping all of the team's off-season activities and threatening to sit out training camp only to show up at the start, Pro Bowl wide receiver Javon Walker apparently has turned his back on Green Bay for good.

    In an interview with ESPN.com on March 9, Walker made scathing comments aimed at forcing the Packers to trade him.

    "I just don't feel like this is the best place for me to be right now," Walker said. "I really have no interest in being in a Green Bay Packers uniform or playing for Green Bay again.

    "If I had to go back there, I'd retire. I don't have to play," he added.

    Walker is in the final year of the contract he signed as the Packers' first-round draft pick in 2002. He's scheduled to draw a base salary of $1.15 million with a salary-cap number of $2.005 million.

    The Packers rebuffed his overtures last year for a renegotiated contract or a trade on the heels of a breakout season in 2004.

    After reluctantly reporting to training camp, Walker suffered a season-ending torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his right knee in the regular-season opener at Detroit.

    Walker fired Drew Rosenhaus as his agent late in the season and subsequently hired Kennard McGuire, who reportedly beseeched general manager Ted Thompson recently to trade his client or allow them to pursue a trade. Thompson declined the request.

    Walker also reportedly told new head coach Mike McCarthy that there was no sense keeping him around if he had no desire to play for the team. Walker remains miffed with quarterback Brett Favre, who criticized the receiver last summer for threatening to hold out.

    "Why should I risk another year of getting beat up playing for a team that I don't want to play for? That's stupid," said Walker, who has been rehabbing in Tallahassee, Fla., where he's completing course work at Florida State. "If I'm going to go out and take hits, it's going to be for a team that I love playing for. I'm not going to grandstand. I just want the Packers to give me peace of mind."


  • The Packers' current top-three offseason needs:

    1. Linebacker: The man in the middle, Nick Barnett, is the only surefire player the team has in the linebacker corps. Veteran outside starter Na'il Diggs, as expected, was released March 2. Robert Thomas, who manned the weak-side spot in his first year with the team, was all but useless the second half of last season because of a quadriceps injury. If the Packers opt to hold on to their excess spending money and take a pass on one of the free agents available (LaVar Arrington being the biggest name), they may be wont to invest their No. 5 draft pick in Ohio State outside ‘backer A.J. Hawk.

    2. Defensive end: The Packers were able to retain Aaron Kampman, an indispensable every-down workhorse, but they're still starving for a player who can wreak havoc on the other end of the line since Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila isn't cut out to stop the run. North Carolina State's Mario Williams fits the bill and is the trendy pick for the No. 5 spot in Round 1 of the draft.

    3. Wide receiver: Javon Walker wants out of town and is coming off major knee surgery. Donald Driver is the most reliable performer, but the Packers become rather thin at the position after him. Robert Ferguson has been injury-prone in recent years and there isn't much experienced depth beyond that.

    DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY

    As much as general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy haven't ruled out taking a quarterback with the first pick, it's hard to think the Packers would make a play on Vince Young or Jay Cutler if either is available when their pick comes up at No. 5. The team may not get an answer from Brett Favre before the draft in late April, so it would have to count on Favre's coming back and, at worse, know that it has a fallback in place with 2005 first-rounder Aaron Rodgers, on whom Thompson and McCarthy are high.

    "You don't really know until you get him into the chaos of an NFL game," Thompson said of Rodgers, who appeared in only three games for mop-up duty last season. "But, everything I've seen leads me to believe that he's going to be a fine quarterback."

    Consequently, defense is occupying most of the attention of the decision makers in their draft preparations. The Packers have pressing needs from front to back in the unit and might have their choice of one of the clear-cut top two defensive players in the draft.

    North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams would be the obvious call from a team that hasn't had an overpowering player lined up on the outside since Reggie White eight years ago. However, Williams' impressive showing at the scouting combine could take him off the draft board by the Packers' turn.

    If that happens, the team will have to decide whether high-octane A.J. Hawk from Ohio State would be able to cover up the conspicuous holes at two of the three linebacker positions or whether to entertain trade offers from teams hankering to climb to No. 5 to fill their own particular need.

    By sliding down a few spots, the Packers, who have only five draft picks, can pick up an extra choice or two and still be in position to nab Texas safety Michael Huff or Oregon nose tackle Haloti Ngata. The uncertainty of free agent Grady Jackson's return makes the 340-pound Ngata an intriguing prospect.

    NOTES

  • Kicker Ryan Longwell signed with division-rival Minnesota. "Obviously I was very comfortable with kicking in this division as I have," Longwell said. "But, people make the difference in organizations. The thing about Green Bay was that there was good people there. When I started to get acquainted with the people here today in this organization they're incredible.

    "From the head coach to the special teams coach to the owner to everybody involved, they're just great people that this organization has in there. We were honored that they wanted us to come and be a part of it and be a part of the transition. We expect good things pretty quick here."

  • Contrary to wide receiver Javon Walker's contention that the Packers don't sufficiently compensate their own players, they stepped up with a potentially significant deal for running back Ahman Green, who's on the mend from his own injury woes.

    Green stands to pocket as much as $5 million if he's able to make a full recovery from the torn thigh tendon he sustained in the first half of the season and return to his Pro Bowl-form ways of a couple years ago.

    The Packers signed Green, due to become an unrestricted free agent, to a one-year, $2 million contract March 6. If he makes it to the regular season, Green would draw a base salary of $1.35 million and receive a $150,000 roster bonus. He netted a $500,000 signing bonus, the only guaranteed money in the contract.

    Green can make upward of nearly $3 million if he meets a number of performance-based incentives.

    He has been rehabbing in Green Bay since the end of last season and expects to resume running by the end of April. He won't take part in any of the minicamps but should be ready by the start of training camp.

    "Green Bay is where everything started for me to explode - in a good way," said Green, whom the Packers acquired in a 2000 trade with Seattle. "I really wanted to come back and be here."

    Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said previous to the re-signing of Green that he would be the starting halfback heading into the preseason, although he will face competition from Samkon Gado.

  • The agent for Craig Nall told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the third-string quarterback will try to court interest on the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

    Thompson and McCarthy conveyed to Robb Nelson that the team would like to bring back his client. However, Nall, who dropped on the depth chart after Aaron Rodgers was selected in the first round last year to be Brett Favre's backup, wants to see if there's a better opportunity elsewhere.

    Nelson acknowledged Favre's still-to-be-announced decision on whether to play another season or retire will factor into what Nall does. Favre and Nall are good friends and recently went hunting together. Nall, though, isn't letting on what Favre's decision will be.

    "Everyone knows Craig and Brett are close," Nelson said. "Craig has made it a policy of not asking Brett about what he is going to do, and if Brett offers up any information, Craig has made it a policy not to share it with anybody."

    Favre isn't expected to attend Packers Fan Fest at Lambeau Field this weekend. On the eve of his appearance at the inaugural event last March, Favre made it known he would be coming back for another season.

  • The Packers re-signed cornerback Jason Horton, one of their four exclusive-rights free agents, to a one-year, $385,000 contract.

    Horton played regularly as a dime back until a chronic shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve in November. He had surgery in December to repair a torn labrum and is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

    Two of the other exclusive-rights free agents - defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Colin Cole - figure to be re-signed. Wide receiver Andrae Thurman might not be brought back.

    Meanwhile, the team made a one-year, $712,000 qualifying offer to defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, one of three restricted free agents. Wide receiver Antonio Chatman and safety Todd Franz weren't extended qualifying offers.

  • McCarthy rounded out his staff with the hiring of former Packers linebacker George Koonce as director of player development March 8.

    Koonce, 37, replaces Turner Gill, who left after one year to become head coach at the University at Buffalo. Koonce was special assistant to athletics director Terry Holland at East Carolina the last two years.

    Koonce was an eight-year starter for the Packers until he departed as a free agent in 2000 to finish his NFL career with Seattle.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "The resulting new labor deal protects the future of the Green Bay Packers. Dramatic revenue sharing will enable all clubs to be competitive in this new system. We supported revenue sharing and are very happy to see it continued. We have always felt that the National Football League had the best system in professional sports, and fortunately, we have been able to maintain that system, which creates 32 competitive teams." — Packers president Bob Harlan reacting to the new collective-bargaining agreement reached between the NFL and its players March 8.


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