NFC North Notes

The Bears are sending a player off into retirement, the Lions are piecing together their offensive line and the Packers are dealing with a unhappy player, similar to what happened with the Vikings last year.

CHICAGO BEARS

At his retirement announcement, Jerry Azumah recalled that he was a record-setting running back at New Hampshire who was drafted by the Bears to play cornerback.

"I couldn't figure out why I rushed for over 6,000 yards and all of a sudden I'm running backwards," Azumah said. "There were definitely some doubts."

But Azumah beat the odds by making a successful conversion that resulted in a seven-year career, which he pulled the plug on Thursday because of hip and neck injuries that robbed him of some of his acceleration and made continued play in the NFL a serious health risk.

Azumah signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract before the 2001 season, and if healthy, he would have cashed in as an unrestricted free agent this year. Though small for the NFL at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, Azumah played bigger than his size and never shied away from contact. He started 48 times and played as the third corner in most of his other 105 NFL games. He made the Pro Bowl as a kickoff returner by averaging 29.0 yards per attempt in 2003.

"Yeah, it would've been a huge payday," Azumah said. "But sometimes it's not all about that. It's about quality of life. It's about being healthy and moving forward and moving on with your life. Chapters end in your life and other chapters open. I'm going to walk away with my head up high, and there are a lot of things on the table for me now. I'm looking forward to the future."

After his only Pro Bowl appearance, Azumah battled serious injuries the next two seasons. During training camp in 2004, he suffered a disk injury to his neck that required surgery and kept him out all of the preseason and the first four weeks of the regular season. Last year, again in training camp, Azumah had an arthroscopic procedure on his hip that allowed him to be back on the field as the Bears' nickel cornerback on opening day. He underwent a more invasive procedure two months ago on the same hip.

"My hip is fine," Azumah said. "It's feeling great. I'm walking and everything is good. If anybody wants to race, step up."

Running is one thing, but the constant collisions that come with playing in the NFL are something else.

"My neck was a little hurt (too), but it's just my overall health," Azumah said. "Injuries happen; this is football. I've been playing this game for a long time, and I've weighed my options, and I feel like this is the best option for me right now."

Azumah plans to become more involved with his pet foundation: Azumah Student Assistance Program (ASAP) and some other charity work in the Chicago area, where he plans to remain.

"I want to get more involved in charity and building up the community, and I also have some business ventures that I'd like to get into," Azumah said. My plate is definitely full. Also I'd like to travel a little bit, get away, go to somewhere real hot where they don't speak English. I have a lot of things in store for me, so I'll be OK."

NOTES

  • Shortly after the Bears announced the signing of free-agent quarterback Brian Griese, coach Lovie Smith reiterated that Rex Grossman is the Bears' starter. But that isn't etched in stone, and Grossman's status isn't nearly as secure as it was before Griese came aboard.

    "Our starting rotation will be Rex, Brian and then Kyle (Orton)," Smith said. "The person at the top of the depth chart knows he has to play a certain way, or you give the second guy an opportunity to play."

    In each of the past two off-seasons the Bears told veteran free agents that the starting job was Grossman's, so as to not create even an appearance of a quarterback controversy. That might be difficult to prevent now, given Griese's credentials, but Angelo said he had already spoken with Grossman about the situation and has gotten positive feedback.

    "Rex told me when Chris Chandler was here (in 2003), he learned so much, given Chris' experience, and he felt that a veteran quarterback could only add to his growth," Angelo said. "He understood totally because, in the end, we know it's all about team. This is a move we made because it's in the best interest of our football team."

  • Coming in as the backup to Rex Grossman, at least initially, is not a new experience for Brian Griese, even though he's been a starter for most of his eight-year NFL career.

    "Being around as long as I have in the league, I have been in some different situations," said the Bears' most recent free-agent acquisition. "I backed up John Elway, I backed up Bubby Brister for a while and then took over in Denver. The same thing with Jay Fiedler in Miami.

    "I've been on both sides of that situation, and I feel very comfortable. I really believe the only thing you can control in those situations is what you do as a player, but also how you interact with your teammates, which is critical. I'm coming to Chicago to be supportive of each and every one of my teammates and try to be the best player I can be."


    DETROIT LIONS

    What the Lions might be lacking in quality, they apparently will try to make up in quantity as coach Rod Marinelli adds pieces to a subpar offensive line.

    After putting the $6.9 million franchise tag on left tackle Jeff Backus, the Lions did not target other high-priced linemen. Instead, they have pursued a number of journeymen who have played under new offensive line coach Larry Beightol or fit into the mold of what he is looking for in those positions.

    The veterans signed by the Lions include:

  • Rex Tucker, a seven-year veteran who has played both guard positions as well as right tackle, and played in eight games last year for offensive coordinator Mike Martz at St. Louis.

  • Barry Stokes, an eight-year veteran who has played for six NFL teams and had one start for the Atlanta Falcons during the 2005 season. Stokes played under Beightol in Green Bay in 2000 and 2001.

  • Courtney VanBuren, a three-year veteran who was a third-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers in 2003. He sat out the 2005 season with a knee injury.

    The offensive line is one of the areas of concern for the Lions if they hope to implement a stronger running game under new coach Rod Marinelli and Martz. In particular, there is a need for improvement at left guard and right tackle.

    Last year's left guard - Kyle Kosier - was signed by the Dallas Cowboys and there has been speculation the Lions might move their right guard - former Pro Bowler Damien Woody - to the left side, but Marinelli indicated he will not make an immediate decision on the proposed move.

    Kelly Butler, a 2004 sixth-round draft pick, started all 16 games at right tackle in 2005. The Lions were not entirely displeased with his performance but feel a need to improve, whether it is with him or another player.

    NOTES

  • Defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was not in attendance when the Lions began their off-season workouts but Marinelli apparently is willing to cut the 12-year veteran some slack.

    There have been suggestions that Wilkinson, the overall No. 1 pick in the 1994 NFL draft, might be ready for retirement - even after having a strong season in 2005 - rather than start all over with another new coaching staff.

    Team president Matt Millen, who signed Wilkinson as a free agent in August of 2003, is close to Wilkinson and has expressed hopes that he will play at least one more season.

    Though Wilkinson did not measure up to the overall No. 1 rating early in his career, he has played well for the Lions and has been a strong locker-room influence on younger players, including two-time Pro Bowl tackle Shaun Rogers, who plays beside him.

  • With coach Rod Marinelli's declaration that the Lions will move on without quarterback Joey Harrington, the Harrington era is officially over but the team now has to determine how to part company with their former first-round pick.

    Team president Matt Millen is hoping to trade him either before or during the NFL draft on April 29-30. If he fails there, it is expected he will release Harrington before he is due a roster bonus of $4 million on June 15.

    Millen reportedly has talked with several teams but the team that apparently has expressed the most interest is Kansas City. It is expected the teams will discuss a possible trade during the league meetings in Orlando.

  • Although he has started only three games in seven seasons, defensive lineman Jared DeVries is content with his role in the Lions' defensive line rotation.

    "Obviously, my role in years past has been primarily as a backup at different positions - right, left end, sometimes inside," DeVries said. "I've played some on special teams - on kickoff return, field goal block, sometimes in punt situations or punt returns.

    "Every team needs role players and, obviously, we all want to be starters, but when coaches decide whatever it may be, you accept that role and do it to the best of your ability. Hopefully, it helps the team."

    DeVries agreed to terms of a five-year contract after briefly testing free agency. He is coming off what was probably his best season with three quarterback sacks, a blocked field goal attempt (Dec. 11 vs. Green Bay) and two fumble recoveries.

  • With their quarterback situation finally settled - Joey Harrington on his way out of town, Jon Kitna and Josh McCown lined up to compete for the starting job - things have been quiet in the Lions' personnel department. But that apparently does not mean they won't get back into the free-agent market if the opportunity is right.

    There was speculation they might try to put together a package that might interest former Dallas guard Larry Allen, but he agreed to terms with the 49ers.

    "We're still looking at guys out there, searching and dusting things off," coach Rod Marinelli said. "We'll just keep looking."

    Marinelli said he has made no final decision on whether he will move Damien Woody from right guard to left guard.

    "I like to get guys on the field," Marinelli said. "It's like a batting stance, you've got to feel comfortable. We'll let the field do the talking for us."


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Wide receiver Javon Walker isn't the only player on the current roster who has a major beef with how the organization conducts its business.

    The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that safety Mark Roman, along with Walker, was a conspicuous no-show for the start of the off-season workout program March 20.

    Roman apparently is miffed about the team's recent signing of Seattle free-agent safety Marquand Manuel. Roman and Manuel were teammates with Cincinnati for two years before Roman signed a four-year contract with the Packers in 2004.

    Roman has been Green Bay's starter at strong safety the last two seasons. However, his play has been spotty, and the Packers view the hard-hitting Manuel as an upgrade at the position to work alongside free safety Nick Collins.

    Green Bay signed Manuel to a five-year, $10 million contract with $2 million in bonus money.

    Roman, who received a signing bonus of $700,000 from the Packers, is scheduled to draw a base salary of $800,000 this year and count $975,000 against the salary cap. The Journal Sentinel indicated that Roman has no designs of taking part in team activities during the off-season.

    Meanwhile, the newspaper, citing a source, reported that Walker has hired a real-estate agent and will have his Green Bay home up for sale by next week. Walker's parents are believed to be coming in to help Walker empty the residence.

    Walker said in a scathing interview with ESPN.com on March 9, "If I had to go back there (to Green Bay), I'd retire. I don't have to play."

    Walker is in the final year of his rookie contract he signed as the team's first-round draft pick in 2002. He's due to earn $1.15 million and has a salary-cap number of $2.005 million.

    The Packers have rebuffed Walker's demand for a renegotiated contract, both last year and now early in this off-season. General manager Ted Thompson has publicly stated that the team won't give in to Walker, who missed all but the first game of last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

    Despite the absences of Walker and Roman, first-year coach Mike McCarthy said the initial turnout of players for the workout program was an impressive 91 percent.

    "I know the turnout wasn't 91 percent last year, I can tell you that," right tackle Mark Tauscher told the Journal Sentinel. "They're really pushing to get everyone to be up here all off-season, as much as you can up in Green Bay, for a lot of reasons. It'll be a battle when you've got guys that live in warm climates."

    NOTES

  • Evidently not enamored with penalty-prone Ahmad Carroll as their starting cornerback opposite Al Harris, the Packers plan to court Oakland free agent Charles Woodson.

    The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the Packers are among three teams that have expressed an interest in Woodson, 29, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. A visit to Green Bay next week is in the works. Woodson has met with Tampa Bay and is scheduled to visit Seattle this weekend.

    Woodson is coming off a season-ending broken right leg suffered in Week 6. He hasn't played a full season since 2001.

    Woodson has 17 interceptions since the Raiders took the Heisman Trophy winner out of Michigan with the fourth pick in the 1998 draft.

  • Having missed out on New England's Adam Vinatieri and deciding to back off pursuing Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt, the Packers find themselves in a bind as they seek a replacement for kicker Ryan Longwell, who signed a free-agent deal with Minnesota.

    They may wind up settling on Longwell's predecessor with the Vikings, Paul Edinger. The Packers reportedly will have Edinger in for a visit late next week following the league meetings in Orlando, Fla. New England also has shown interest in Edinger, who beat the Packers twice last season with last-second field goals.

    The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Mike Stock, the Packers' new special teams coordinator, is upset with the organization's decisions regarding the kicking situation. The Packers didn't attempt to retain Longwell, their all-time leading scorer, and then made a modest offer to sign Vinatieri, who signed a record-setting deal with Indianapolis.

    Besides Edinger, the other available veteran kickers of note are Atlanta's Todd Peterson and Seattle's Josh Brown, who's a restricted free agent.

    General manager Ted Thompson isn't pressing to fill the glaring void, however.

    "We'll need a kicker sometime around the second week in September, when we open the season," Thompson told the Wisconsin State Journal. "Until then, we don't absolutely have to have a kicker. But we're working on it."

    The Packers also need a replacement on punt returns for diminutive but sure-handed Antonio Chatman, who signed a two-year deal with Cincinnati. Green Bay didn't tender Chatman an offer as a restricted free agent.

  • Should Brett Favre decide to return, he'll possibly have to break in a new center.

    Pro Bowler Mike Flanagan, who manned the spot for the better part of five years, signed a three-year, $9 million contract with Houston on March 23. Flanagan received a $3 million signing bonus and will reunite with deposed Packers coach Mike Sherman, the Texans' assistant head coach/offensive line coach.

    Versatile interior lineman Scott Wells figures to get first crack at replacing Flanagan. Wells started two games in place of an ailing Flanagan last season and also logged two starts at center as a rookie late in the 2004 season.

    Also under consideration will be Chris White and Junius Coston, who made the team as rookies last year but were deactivated for most of the season.

  • Veteran nose tackle Grady Jackson contends that he saw the writing on the wall long before the Packers signed St. Louis free agent Ryan Pickett on March 17.

    Jackson, an unrestricted free agent, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that he never spoke with Mike McCarthy since he was hired as head coach in early January.

    "If they wanted me there, they would have made some attempt to sign me," Jackson said. "All along, it made me feel like they didn't want me there anymore. I guess all along they wanted to go in a different direction."

    Jackson, 33, is seven years older than Pickett but feels he's worthy of netting a deal richer than the four-year, $14 million contract Pickett received from the Packers.

    Jackson visited Atlanta on March 23 and also has interest from St. Louis, Cincinnati and the New York Giants.

  • Running back Najeh Davenport remains unsigned as an unrestricted free agent. Although he's received an offer from the Packers, Davenport is keeping his options open. He visited Miami and has a stop in Oakland on tap.

    Davenport sustained a season-ending broken ankle in Week 5 last year. However, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he passed his physical during the visit with the Dolphins.

    The Packers are more likely to re-sign Davenport after Tony Fisher signed a one-year deal with St. Louis on March 23. Fisher said he never received an offer to stay put and took some parting shots at the organization.

    "Green Bay was my first choice, but they really didn't do anything," Fisher told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The coaches all said they wanted me back but, obviously, it's not up to them. ... I can't speak for everybody. There could be a great deal of uncertainty on what's going on. Nobody knows what the direction is. Either you're rebuilding or you're not rebuilding. It's crazy.

    "(Thompson) might just want his people in there. Considering a lot of us didn't come from his drafts or him bringing us in, maybe he wants to go in another direction."

    Davenport, Jackson and offensive lineman Grey Ruegamer are the Packers' only unrestricted free agents without a contract. Ruegamer isn't expected back.

  • The linebacker corps was thinned some more when Paris Lenon, who started 12 games on the outside last season, signed a three-year deal with Detroit on March 21.

    Coupled with the release of veteran Na'il Diggs earlier in the month and the uncertainty of Robert Thomas' health after an injury-shortened season, the Packers have big voids to fill around middle linebacker Nick Barnett.

    They've identified Cleveland free agent Ben Taylor as a starting candidate and made him an offer after a recent visit. However, the Browns reportedly have upped the ante in an attempt to re-sign the unrestricted free agent.

    The Packers previously signed Jacksonville restricted free agent Tracy White to a one-year contract. They released John Leake, who appeared in three games late in the season but only on special teams.

  • Three days after third-string quarterback Craig Nall signed a three-year deal with Buffalo, the Packers signed former Indianapolis prospect Tom Arth on March 22.

    Arth's arrival gives Aaron Rodgers company at the outset of the team's off-season workout program. Brett Favre still hasn't made a decision about whether to return for another season or retire, and free-agent signee Brian Wrobel is playing in NFL Europe.

    The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Arth spent time with the Colts the last three seasons. He was an All-American at Division III John Carroll (Ohio) University.

  • In other team transactions, defensive tackle Colin Cole, an exclusive-rights free agent, signed his one-year tender for $500,000. The 325-pound Cole played in every game last season for the first time, logging four starts, and had a career-high 62 tackles.

    Wide receiver Harry Williams, whom the Packers claimed off waivers from the New York Jets on March 13, was waived a week later because he failed his physical. Williams was told he would need arthroscopic knee surgery, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    Tight end Garrett Cross was activated from the reserve/left squad list. Cross, who abruptly left the team at the outset of training camp last year, is a former college teammate of Aaron Rodgers at California.

    "We've all made mistakes in our past," McCarthy told the Journal Sentinel. "I respect a young man who had the ability to walk away and also the ability to try to come back."

  • Running back Ahman Green was spared from facing a misdemeanor charge for domestic abuse when the case was dropped in Brown County (Wis.) on March 21.

    Green was arrested last April after a dispute at home with his wife, Heather. He subsequently filed for divorce but rescinded that late in the year when the couple worked on reconciling the marriage.

    Green faced up to 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

    The four-time Pro Bowler signed a one-year, $2 million contract March 6 to remain with the team.




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