NFC North Notes

The Bears are hoping a small-town, small-school project will be the next defender to succeed in their system, the Lions were pushing to get their rookies into the system fast over the weekend, and the Packers revealed they would have played hardball with Javon Walker if they hadn't traded him on draft day.


Bears coach Lovie Smith has made his tiny hometown of Big Sandy, Texas, familiar to football fans in and around Chicago, and Danieal Manning hopes to do the same for his hometown of Corsicana, another obscure East Texas community.

"It's an hour and a half west from Lovie," the Bears' top draft pick said Monday morning at Halas Hall. "I'd never heard about Big Sandy until Lovie came down there. A lot of people haven't heard about Corsicana, either, but it's bigger than Big Sandy."

Prior to the draft, Smith personally put Manning through his paces at Corsicana High School, where, as a senior, he finished second in the state in the 100 meters (10.34 seconds) and fourth in the 200 (21.28).

Manning's hometown has a population of 26,000, and it made the NFL map when the Bears used the 42nd pick in Saturday's draft to select the junior safety from Abilene Christian University. Manning, whose first name is pronounced "Dan-yell," is the first player in 21 years to be drafted from the Division II school in Central Texas, which has an enrollment of fewer than 5,000.

The 23-year-old Manning's immediate goal is to live up to his nickname of "Yea" the same way he did at Abilene. In his first year there, following a failed attempt to play at Nebraska, Manning practiced with teammates but wasn't allowed to play because of the NCAA's transfer rules. But he displayed to teammates his athleticism and versatility, playing quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back on the scout team.

One of his best friends nicknamed him "Yea," because he said: "Once you get on the field, you're going to have the crowd saying, ‘Yea,' because of all the big plays you make."

The friend was right. As a redshirt freshman in 2003, Manning intercepted six passes, forced three fumbles, averaged 35.9 yards per kickoff return with a touchdown, averaged 9.2 yards per punt return and caught six passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. The next season he intercepted two passes, recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown, averaged 29.2 yards and scored a TD on kickoff returns and averaged 22 yards on punt returns with another two scores. Last season Manning returned a kickoff, a punt and an interception for touchdowns.

"The talent was easy to see," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "That just jumps out at you."

But it can be difficult projecting how well a big fish in a small pond will perform in an ocean. A talented player in Division II and the Lone Star Conference faces a giant step up in the level of competition. The Bears tried to cover all the bases in their evaluation process.

"You spend a lot of time on each player you evaluate," Angelo said. "But when you get to the first player you pick in the draft, it's really the toughest pick because this is the calling card. This is the message that we're sending to our locker room, the type of player that we want, not only in talent, but in personality and character.

"Even though Danieal came from a Division II school, we did as much work on him as we would do on any player — probably more so because he did come from a Division II school."

Manning's talent would have been displayed for a much larger audience had Manning's original plan of attending Nebraska materialized. But he came up short on the SAT, leaving him with nothing in Lincoln, Neb., but a go-nowhere job at a printing center where he could only read about the exploits of other athletes as the newspapers rolled off the presses.

Manning felt like he had disappointed everyone in his hometown, especially the members of his close-knit family. But they provided the support he needed.

"My dad (Joe) helped me out a lot," Manning said. "He's the one who really made me feel comfortable about coming home because I felt like I let a lot of people down, including myself. He said, ‘That's OK. This is not the road God chose for you.' So I came back home and started over."

Now Manning can provide an even greater source of pride for his hometown and family, which is soon to expand. He and girlfriend Latesha Cumby, the parents of 19-month-old Jonte, are expecting their second son July 11, two weeks before the Bears' training camp starts.

"We're trying to get all that organized," Manning said. "My girlfriend is getting ready to get some wedding stuff done, (but) I told her we might have to kind of hold off on that. It's been taking off for me. I didn't expect all this to happen that fast. (The wedding) probably won't happen this year, so we'll stay engaged for a while."

On the field, Manning believes a starting job is within his grasp, but even if he doesn't supplant Chris Harris at free safety, the rookie's ability to return and cover punts and kickoffs will allow him to contribute on special teams.

"That's going to pay the bills," he said. "I've got to get in and learn how to contribute the best way I can."


The Bears agreed to terms with 13 undrafted rookie free agents, including TEs Tim Day of Oregon and Cooper Wallace of Auburn, and Gs Tyler McMeans of Miami (Fla.), Nate Bunce of Miami (Ohio) and Travis Leffew of Louisville. They also signed PK Josh Huston of Ohio State to compete with Robbie Gould, an undrafted rookie who won the job last season. The other players signed were Ohio CB Dion Byrum, Notre Dame T Mark LeVoir, California-Berkeley S Donnie McCleskey, Northwestern WR Mark Philmore, Bowling Green RB P.J. Pope, Texas Tech S Dwayne Slay and Louisiana-Monroe P Joel Stelly.


The indoctrination phase had barely gotten underway but Lions coach Rod Marinelli left no doubt about what he's expecting from the Lions' rookies.

"I want to get them caught up as fast as I can," Marinelli said on the opening day of rookie mini-camp. "I need these guys to make an impact for us."

To make sure the rookies got the full attention of himself and his staff, Marinelli brought in only the seven draft picks, eight undrafted rookie free agents and another 28 undrafted players coming in on a tryout basis. No veterans participated in the three-day mini-camp.

"When you have a mini-camp with all of the rookies the first time, they're in the back of the line, they never ask a question, the meetings are intimidating, they don't get as many reps, they don't get coached with the details and they don't get the exposure to our special teams that I'd like," Marinelli explained.

"So they're the only guys in the building and we're able to coach all the details with them. Special teams is a priority, they're going to go in for a weight-lifting session and understand how we do things and meet with people who are going to affect their careers here so we can really do a good job of springboarding them with the veterans."

Even though the rookies had the coaches to themselves, they struggled at times to adjust to the pace that Marinelli expects them to maintain, and also struggled to handle new assignments.

First-round draft pick Ernie Sims, a linebacker from Florida State, was one who struggled in the individual drills.

"I knew it was going to be up-tempo and I knew I was going to have to learn on the run," Sims said. "It's a lot of new drills that I'm not accustomed to because I was at Florida State and we didn't do those kind of drills.

"That's why I'm here in the off-season. I'll be back on May 15 and I'll be ready to work."


The Lions apparently are interested in re-acquiring wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, who played with them three seasons (2002-2004).

Hakim visited the team headquarters Friday to meet with team officials and take a physical, but a Lions spokesman said he has not been offered a contract.

Hakim's best season with the Lions was 2003, when he caught 49 passes for 449 yards and four touchdowns. He missed 12 games with injuries in the three years with the team.


General manager Ted Thompson revealed just days after trading Javon Walker to Denver that the team was prepared to let the disgruntled Pro Bowl receiver sit the entire 2006 season.

"In the long run, we could have done that to make a statement," Thompson said May 4. "But I didn't think it was worth cutting off my nose to spite my face, and I think we did get fair value" in return for Walker.

The Packers swapped Walker for Denver's second-round pick (No. 37 overall) on the first day of the draft April 29. Two more trades evolved out of the pick to acquire more draft selections.

Essentially, the Packers came away with four rookie prospects for Walker: tackle/guard Daryn Colledge of Boise State in the second round (No. 47), cornerback/receiver Will Blackmon of Boston College in the fourth round (115), defensive tackle Johnny Jolly of Texas A&M in the sixth round (183) and safety Tyrone Culver of Fresno State two picks later.

Walker had threatened earlier in the off-season to retire rather than return to the Packers, who refused to renegotiate his contract. Walker, the team's first-round draft pick in 2002, had a year remaining on the contract.

He was coming off a season-ending knee injury that he sustained in the first game last year.

"According to my conversations with (Walker) and everyone else, he probably would have sat the year on injured reserve and been somewhere else next year," said Thompson, alluding to what would have resulted had he not jettisoned the receiver.

The second-year general manager, though, doesn't believe a precedent has been set within the organization for players unhappy with their contract situation to get their way by forcing a trade to another team. The Packers were compelled to send a similarly unhappy Mike McKenzie to New Orleans early in the 2004 season.

"I feel like (the Walker deal) was a strong enough trade that it should not be a precursor to something in the future," Thompson said. "But every player and every case is its own deal. So we'll see."

The loss of Walker leaves Donald Driver as the only top-flight receiver on the roster. The underachieving Robert Ferguson and former first-rounder Rod Gardner, who joined the team late last season, are the top candidates to join Driver in the starting lineup.

Thompson replenished the depth sapped by the trade of Walker and the release of injured second-year player Terrence Murphy by drafting Western Michigan's Greg Jennings in the second round and TCU's Cory Rodgers in the fourth round.

First-year receivers coach Jimmy Robinson believes the passing game can manage without Walker.

"Donald Driver's a premier talent. He's been a hell of a player in this league for a number of years," Robinson said. "He's had a bunch of solid years with pretty good numbers, and to my knowledge, Javon's had one. I'm not disparaging Javon. (But) my point is, Donald Driver's a big-time player.

"Yeah, Javon's a talented guy that is now playing somewhere else. So, (we have to) focus on the guys that are here and try to make the guys that have been here better and then go from there."


The top halfback tandem of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, as well as left tackle Chad Clifton, were among thr players held out of the team's first mini-camp, May 5-7, for injury reasons.

Green isn't expected to be fully recovered from a torn quadriceps tendon until the start of training camp in late July, though it's not a given the four-time Pro Bowler will be ready by then. He sustained the season-ending injury at Minnesota on Oct. 23.

Davenport also might not be back until training camp. He suffered a broken right ankle against New Orleans on Oct. 9.

Clifton is on the mend after undergoing knee and ankle surgery following the end of the season.

Brady Poppinga, a candidate to fill the starting vacancy at strong-side linebacker, continues to rehabilitate from late-season surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He's expected to return to the field some time during training camp.

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