Having come up way short in the bidding for former Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and ex-Rams safety Adam Archuleta, the Bears appear content to play the waiting game, biding their time as they look for bargains in free agency.
Both of those players would have stepped into the starting lineup for the defending NFC North champions. But now they may have to be content to add a couple role players via free agency, unless a player of starting caliber falls into their lap later in the process.
Randle El would have started the 2006 season opposite Muhsin Muhammad, but the Bears' offer of $18 million over six years paled in comparison to the Redskins' $27 million over six years. It was a similar situation with Archuleta, who could have paired with Mike Brown. Brown would have switched back to free safety and replaced Chris Harris, who played well for a sixth-round rookie in 2005 but had several lapses.
So for now, the Bears will rely on their own holdovers to step up their production from last season. They hope that 2005 second-round WR Mark Bradley recovers in time from his Oct. 30 torn ACL to perform on opening day as he did in the game in which he was injured. Bradley caught five passes for 88 yards in the first half of that game, his fourth as a starter.
Skinny, speedy Bernard Berrian came on late in his second NFL season and is another possibility to start opposite Muhammad if no help arrives in free agency. Big, physical Justin Gage had a couple moments in 2005, as he did in his first two seasons, but he needs to produce on a more consistent basis or become lost in the shuffle.
So, even though the Bears have about $25 million in cap room, they're in no hurry to spend it. Assuming they re-sign RFA strong-side LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, as expected, the Bears will have all 22 starters back from an 11-5 team.
That's why they're content to add depth and perhaps an upgrade in the return game during free agency. The Bears also will investigate the possibility of locking up some of their key players beyond next season with their extra cap money.
Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, who will become an unrestricted free agent a year from now, is the biggest concern for the Bears. But considering the money that players like Will Witherspoon have gotten recently, the Bears aren't confident they have enough money to keep Briggs off the market. They also aren't likely to pay him Brian Urlacher-type money ($55 million for nine years, including guaranteed $16 million), which is probably similar to what Briggs and agent Drew Rosenhaus will need to keep the player in Chicago. Defensive tackle Ian Scott, the only other starter whose contract is up after next season, is a player the Bears have a much better chance of locking up with a multi-year extension.
The 6-foot, 211-pound four-year veteran has started just two NFL games since being drafted in the fourth round (100th overall) in 2002, four picks before the Bears picked defensive end Alex Brown. But Wesley's 18 special-teams tackles were second best on the Panthers in 2004. He impressed Bears special-teams coordinator Dave Toub with his performance as the outside cover man in Carolina's playoff victory at Soldier Field in January, tackling Nate Vasher after punt returns of 6 and minus-5 yards in the fourth quarter.
"We had to double-team him and we still couldn't block him," Toub said. "He's physical, plays with great effort and is a good tackler in space. He's an impact player as a gunner, and good gunners are hard to come by in this league. He makes us better. He fits a piece of the puzzle that we were missing."
Wesley, who signed a two-year contract Thursday, has 55 tackles and two sacks on defense and 32 special-teams tackles in 58 games. He was the Panthers' fourth corner last season and could compete for the Bears' opening at No. 3 cornerback, although the team is still expected to take a cornerback in the first three rounds of the draft.
Gilmore has been exclusively a backup in his three seasons with the Bears and is not considered a major player in the passing game, with just 12 career receptions and six starts, including two in the past three seasons. Gilmore visited with the Raiders and former Bears offensive coordinator John Shoop, Oakland's tight ends coach, earlier in the week. He was offered a contract, but it wasn't enough to entice him to leave a comfortable although backup situation.
"This is where I wanted to be," said the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder who was drafted in the sixth round by the Saints in 2002, cut in the preseason and signed by the Bears. "I'm pretty sure they knew that, and obviously they wanted me here."
The Bears will not offer Griese an opportunity to compete with starter Rex Grossman on a level playing field, but they would like a veteran to push Kyle Orton for the No. 2 spot and be able to step in as a starter without a big drop-off in production. The Bears' job could be attractive to Griese, given Grossman's extensive injury history - he's missed 27 of the last 32 games with knee and ankle injuries. And, although Orton was the starter during the Bears' eight-game win streak last season and went 10-5 as a rookie starter, he is not yet ready to handle the starting job on a full-time basis.
Last year, the Bears met with Brad Johnson, Jay Fiedler and Kurt Warner in free agency but never made an offer to any of them and were not offering a chance to compete for the No. 1 job.
Grossman isn't taking anything for granted as far as the starting job, but he's confident that the Bears already have the weapons on offense to show significant improvement.
"I think we've got the guys right now that can definitely do the job," he said. "I'm excited about everyone on our offense because when you go through the running backs and the offensive line there's nothing that's needed. At wide receiver, we've got some young guys that can definitely step up and be stars in this league. So I'm excited about everyone."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That'll all run its course. Obviously our focus is going into free agency now and the draft. That's what we're all on board with." - Bears general manager Jerry Angelo's latest dismissal of questions regarding a contract extension for coach Lovie Smith, whose $1.4 million salary is among the lowest in the league. Smith has two years remaining on his original deal.
Just weeks after declaring their commitment to Joey Harrington as the No. 1 quarterback, the Lions and their former first-round draft choice have agreed to part company.
Harrington, who expressed reservations at the end of the 2005 season regarding his future in Detroit, apparently decided it was time to move on and Lions president Matt Millen, a longtime Harrington supporter, agreed to trade or release him.
To accommodate the switch, the Lions signed two veteran free-agent quarterbacks - Jon Kitna, a nine-year veteran with Seattle and Cincinnati, and Josh McCown, a four-year veteran from Arizona.
The Lions did not immediately indicate how they will handle the Harrington situation but it appears they will make a move to free him from the final two years of his original contract by the start of the April 29 draft or by June 15, the day he is due a $4 million roster bonus.
During the four seasons since the Lions took him with the No. 3 pick in the first round of the 2002 draft, Harrington never reached the level of play the Lions expected of him. But he was hardly to blame for the Lions' recent failures.
He was a bad fit for the West Coast offense coached by Marty Mornhinweg and later Steve Mariucci; he was never given the full support of either coach; his supporting cast was subpar; and eventually his teammates turned against him with the apparent approval of Mariucci.
The Lions' new staff - including coach Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz - spoke highly of Harrington after studying game film but the damage control was too little, too late.
An early-March quarterback school with Martz did not go well and the Lions had little choice but to look elsewhere for a quarterback.
After four years as the whipping boy of coaches, teammates, fans and media, Harrington apparently decided he had had enough. Neither he nor the Lions had an immediate statement but by signing Kitna and McCown, the team made it clear that Harrington would get his wish.
Although they feel they have a strong corps of promising young receivers in Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, the Lions felt they needed veteran leadership in setting the pace for work habits and toughness.
Receivers coach Kippy Brown worked with Bradford the past four years at Houston and believes the veteran can bring those qualities to the Lions.
"He has worked his way the blue-collar way and, hopefully, he'll be a good example for some of our young guys here," Brown said.
Bradford, 30, has never caught more than 45 passes in a season but his per-catch average in six of the last seven seasons has ranged from 12.8 yards (in 2005) to 19.2 yards (in 2003).
Kosier took over the job from former Indianapolis Colt lineman Rick DeMulling early in the season and did an adequate job but the Lions viewed his value more as a dependable backup at several positions than as a starting left guard.
DeMulling is expected to compete for the job but the Lions are expected to continue shopping the free agent market - including the possible June 1 cuts - for another interior lineman.
Despite daily media requests for a meeting with president Matt Millen or coach Rod Marinelli, the Lions apparently were willing to let unnamed sources do their talking in the media.
It became obvious when the team gave Jon Kitna a $3.5 million signing bonus that he was not being brought in as just a backup to Harrington. And by the time Josh McCown was signed, it was clear - again from unnamed sources - that Harrington was on his way out.
Meanwhile, reports swirled that Harrington and offensive coordinator Mike Martz had clashed during a week of quarterback school, that Harrington had "sabotaged" the quarterback school with a poor attitude and that Marinelli and Martz simply didn't like the prospect of playing Harrington.
Instead of clearing the air - either on or off the record - the Lions kept their silence.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Immediately, you're not thinking you've got better ideas than that guy. That's for sure." - Quarterback Jon Kitna on what he was thinking during his first meeting with Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brett Favre can't say general manager Ted Thompson and his right-hand men in the front office are sitting on their hands.
Just as Favre purportedly warned team management that it would have to step up its activity in free agency to cut him off at the retirement pass, the Packers made some noise that should get the quarterback's attention.
The signings of St. Louis nose tackle Ryan Pickett and Seattle safety Marquand Manuel weren't headline-grabbers. Yet, coupled with preceding in-house signings of running back Ahman Green and defensive end Aaron Kampman, the Packers showed they're serious about fielding a team that will be competitive next season.
"I said all along we wanted to keep Aaron Kampman, and we did that. We wanted Marquand Manuel, and we did that," Thompson said.
Manuel made a name for himself as the injury replacement for Ken Hamlin in the Seahawks' run to Super Bowl XL. Rewarded with a five-year, $10 million contract, the hard-hitting Manuel figures to be an upgrade over Mark Roman at strong safety.
The Packers won out over the Rams and Buffalo for the 6-foot-2, 320-pound Pickett. They view the former first-round draft choice as a superb run stuffer who, at 26, has more fuel in the tank than 33-year-old Grady Jackson, whom Green Bay deemed expendable. Pickett had 65 tackles, including 12 for loss, as the Rams' top defensive lineman last season.
"You never have enough big guys. He's a very productive tackle," coach Mike McCarthy said.
Thompson also re-signed two potential starters in wide receiver Rod Gardner, another former first-round draft pick, and hulking offensive lineman Kevin Barry.
"It's a crazy world right now (with free agency). Absolutely nuts," Thompson said. "We're trying to be aggressive and do the right thing."
Whether a team still armed with about $25 million in spending room under the expanded salary cap has been and will be aggressive enough in Favre's eyes remains to be seen. Favre has purposely put off making a decision on his playing future in part because he wants to know if the Packers, coming off a horrendous 4-12 season, are playing to win now or later.
A report circulated in the past week that Favre explicitly told Thompson and Co. to dive headfirst into the free-agent pool and then he would be more inclined to play another year. Thompson, though, said no such mandate came from Favre.
"That's not what he said. He never said that," Thompson said.
What the sides were in agreement on is that a $3 million roster bonus due Favre on March 20 would be delayed until he renders the long-awaited decision. If he does come back for one more season, he'll receive the bonus. If he makes the call to retire, the bonus becomes null and void.
It's not out of the realm of possibility the Packers still will be waiting for Favre to make up his mind after the April 29-30 draft.
The ante for wooing Vinatieri, one of the most accurate kickers in league history, was raised some after Minnesota landed Longwell on March 11 with a five-year, $10 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. The Packers, despite having ample room under the salary cap, weren't inclined to throw that type of money at Longwell.
With Vinatieri, a two-time Pro Bowl choice, angling for a more lucrative deal than what Longwell received from the Vikings, it would seem unlikely the Packers would jump into a bidding war that figures to include the Patriots and possibly Dallas.
However, Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said, "A kicker is incredibly important, and it's most important when you don't have one."
Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt is the other marquee kicker on the open market, though there's been no indication the Packers will bring him in him for a visit.
Longwell is the latest former Packer to relocate to division rival Minnesota. Safety Darren Sharper signed with the Vikings after being cut last March. Fullback William Henderson, an unrestricted free agent, visited Minnesota on March 15 and expressed an interest in moving there after 11 years with the Packers.
Brett Favre still hasn't made up his mind about whether to return for a 15th season as the team's starter or retire. Meanwhile, four-year backup Craig Nall has been exploring opportunities elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent, visiting Minnesota and Buffalo in the past week.
Rodgers said at the team's Fan Fest on March 11 that he will remain in Green Bay the next three months, fully immersing himself in learning the offense and preparing to assume the starting reins should Favre call it quits.
"I've got a long way to go; I've got a lot to learn. But I'm excited," said Rodgers, a first-round draft pick last year.
"I can't control what Brett does," he added. "I can just be the best player I can be. If my time does come, great. If not, I've got another season to learn behind one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and learn a new offense. I've got a lot of challenges learning that offense. Whatever Brett does, he's going to do. I'm going to make myself as game-ready as I can be."
The 6-foot-2 Rodgers said core training will be an emphasis in his off-season conditioning work. He wants to shed a couple pounds from his current weight of 224.
Gardner, a former first-round draft pick of Washington, made a good impression in the final two games of last season after he was signed off waivers from Carolina. At 6-2, 215 pounds, Gardner fits the mold of big, aggressive receivers desired by McCarthy for the offense he will implement.
"I've followed him for a while, and he's a guy I really liked coming out (of college)," McCarthy said. "He's part of that first three or four guys" on the depth chart.
With Walker recently threatening to walk away from the team with a year left on his contract, Gardner joins Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson as the Packers' only experienced receivers. They chose not to tender diminutive Antonio Chatman, a restricted free agent.
The playing future of Terrence Murphy, who showed flashes as a rookie early last season, remains up in the air. Murphy is afflicted with a narrowing of the spinal column from a hit he took on a kickoff return at Carolina on Oct. 3, and it's unlikely he'll be cleared to play this year, if ever again.
Kansas City free agent Marc Boerigter, a 6-foot-3 possession-type receiver, is scheduled to visit the Packers on Sunday.
Green Bay claimed receiver Harry Williams off waivers from the New York Jets on March 13. The 6-2, 186-pound Williams, a seventh-round draft pick last year, appeared in one game with the Jets. The Packers assume the final three years of Williams' rookie contract.
Versatile defensive lineman Kenny Peterson, the only one of the team's three restricted free agents to receive a tender, followed through by signing a one-year deal for the low-level $721,600 on March 15.
Taylor started every game at weak-side linebacker in the Browns' 3-4 defense last season. The 6-1 1/2, 245-pound Taylor was hampered by injuries his first three years in the league after the Browns took him in the fourth round of the 2002 draft.
The Packers are seeking starters at both outside spots to complement middle linebacker Nick Barnett.
Carroll's attorney, Sam Hilburn, entered the pleas on Carroll's behalf for the charges of assaulting an officer, refusing to submit to arrest and disorderly conduct.
Police contend that Carroll slapped the officer's hand when the former University of Arkansas standout was being questioned at On the Rocks about an alleged altercation at another bar earlier in the evening of Feb. 16. Hilburn said several witnesses were willing to testify that Carroll didn't slap the officer.
Each of the three charges is punishable by a $1,000 fine and less than a year in jail.
The average gross ticket price for the bowl seating at Lambeau Field, which amounts to 62,945 seats, will remain $58.39. Counting 6,000 club seats, the average gross ticket price is $71.62.
"Our current pricing is in the middle range of the league, and that's where we like to be," president Bob Harlan said. "We always consider the market we're in and the loyalty of our fans. It's a subject that we consider to be very important."
Harlan endorsed the freeze on ticket prices despite the fact the club will have to contribute about $2 million from its local revenue this year to lower-revenue teams in the league, as dictated by a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement. The Packers ranked in the top eight for total revenue last season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Obviously, there's only one starter, and Ahman Green is that guy. He's done nothing to lose that position, other than get hurt. I believe he is the best running back on the team right now. But that doesn't take away from my approach and my mentality - I'm going to fight for it. It's competition. That's why we play this game." - RB Samkon Gado on the anticipated battle for the featured back role after the Packers re-signed Green to a one-year, $2 million contract March 6 following an injury-shortened season.