If not quality, the Bears at least have quantity at tight end this off-season.
Undrafted free agents Cooper Wallace and Tim Day have been added to the mix along with incumbent starter Desmond Clark and returning backups John Gilmore and Gabe Reid. Minnesota basketball player Zach Puchtel, who played one season of football at Harvard four years ago, is also hoping to work his way into the equation after participating in the Bears' rookie minicamp the first weekend in May.
"It seems like people around here really like talking about our tight ends these days," Bears coach Lovie Smith observed after seeing the media attention that the three tight end newcomers attracted over the weekend.
The Bears' No. 31 passing game could get a much-needed boost from the presence of a receiving threat at tight end, since that position accounted for just 28 receptions for 250 yards last season.
Wallace at Auburn, and Day at Oregon, were each good enough to start for three years in quality Division-I programs. But neither was deemed good enough to spend a draft choice on — a sore subject for both.
"Obviously, for many years I've been thinking about getting drafted and having people talk about me and all that," the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Wallace said. "It's a pretty humbling experience. (But) it's probably better for me because I got to end up here."
Day, the same height and weight as Wallace, also appreciates the opportunity, considering the Bears' desire to upgrade the tight end position.
"It didn't work out for me being drafted," he said, "but being undrafted and coming here is great. I think it's the best place for me to come in and get some time and show my talents to the team."
Day's draft status dipped as a senior when he was underutilized in Gary Crowton's spread-option offense, catching just 25 passes for 215 yards (8.6-yard average) and one touchdown. He also wasn't asked to do much as an in-line blocker. And he had surgery in February of 2005 to relieve chronic tightness in his calves, which also didn't help his draft status.
"I think that's what really got me to drop," Day said of the surgery. "I'm just going to try to show everybody I can play without the injuries. I'm healthy right now. I ran faster and squatted more (after the surgery). It helped me a lot."
Day's strength is as a pass catcher. He caught 35 passes for 457 yards (13.1-yard average) and 8 touchdowns as a junior. But he has a reputation for being a little soft and lacking the toughness to be effective as a blocker, which the Bears require from their tight ends. Day doesn't agree with his critics.
"I think I'm a better blocker than people give me credit for," he said. "I think if you go back and look at my film, you can see that we were successful running the ball because they can get around the edge because I can block. It's just another thing that I have to go out and show and (then) people might believe me."
He isn't the consummate tight end all teams crave, but Day has a better opportunity than most undrafted rookies of making the final roster.
"We think we were lucky to get two players like that who weren't drafted," Smith said. "We thought going in, especially Tim would get drafted. Of course he should have a heck of a shot of making our ball club here, so it could end up being good for both of us."
Wallace's blocking isn't outstanding either, but as a junior he helped clear the way for running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown to become top five picks.
"The running backs were pretty good," Wallace admitted, "but we had a good o-line, and I was anchoring the end of it. We prided ourselves on the run game, so I think that was a big reason we were good. "I think blocking is more of a strength for me. I have to go a little more aggressively to the whistle, but I think it's something I could be good at."
"That one was easy," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said.
Huston backed up Mike Nugent for most of his college career and played against Bears incumbent kicker Robbie Gould, who is now his competition.
"(Gould) is a good kicker," Huston said. "He made a lot of clutch field goals against us and has a big leg. I was impressed with him when he was at Penn State and he's only gotten better."
Huston's forte is his leg strength, which resulted in touchbacks on 49 of 70 kickoffs last year, his only season as the starter.
"Everyone looks at my kickoffs," Huston said at the recent rookie minicamp. "All my friends say, ‘You're going to have all these touchbacks in the NFL,' and I say, ‘Hey, boys, it's a little different. You're moving back five yards, you've got a brand-spanking-new ball and (you're kicking) off an inch tee.' Those are three things that you've got to adjust to and we're getting adjusted to it. I hit some good balls, but you're not going to see the 75 percent touchback ratio like you do in college."
He receives almost daily advice from one of the all-time great multiple-threat weapons, Deion Sanders, and not just on playing the game.
"Deion is not only my idol, but he's like a big brother to me," Hester said. "We text message each other every day. He just gives me words of encouragement. Most of the time it's scripture out of the Bible. Whenever I need advice, I always call him up. We don't even really talk about things on the field. We talk about things off the field, just life in general, how to manage my money, marketing, just little things like that I have to look at. He's been a helpful person to me."
Jones, who is perhaps the hardest worker on the team, declined to participate in the off-season weight-lifting program at Halas Hall. He rushed for a career-high 1,335 yards last season but has two years left on a four-year, $10 million deal that has been a bargain for the Bears. Jones isn't happy that he's making so much less money than Benson, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, who has a five-year, $35 million contract. The veteran would welcome a trade and a new, more lucrative contract, and Benson wasn't happy with the 67 carries he got last year.
Fordyce signed with the Bears on March 1. His only NFL experience was at training camp with the Cardinals in 2004 and 2005. Fordyce was waived following each camp.
QUOTE TO NOTE "Mark has staggering numbers. How many guys do you know can vertical (jump) 42 inches? Dominique (Wilkins), David Thompson. He has great quickness and explosion and hopefully we'll see that from him as he starts to rush the passer." — Bears coach Lovie Smith on fifth-round DE Mark Anderson, a potential situational pass rusher.
Left tackle Jeff Backus still doesn't have the long-term contract the Lions have talked about for the last three years but he can take consolation in the $6.983 million he will receive for the 2006 season.
Backus wore the Lions franchise player tag for roughly 2 1/2 months before signing the team's tender offer, guaranteeing him the average salary for the five highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL.
The Lions have indicated they will continue trying to work out a long-term deal with Backus' agent, Pat Dye, but in the meanwhile they will have the all-important left tackle hole filled as coach Rod Marinelli and offensive line coach Larry Beightol begin reconstructing the line.
Backus has started every game since the Lions took him in the first round of the NFL draft in 2001 and — along with center Dominic Raiola and right guard Damien Woody — is expected to retain his starting job for the upcoming season.
The other two positions — left guard and right tackle — could be open for competition as Marinelli seeks to establish the strong running game that has become a major part of offensive coordinator Mike Martz's style of football.
The addition of veteran free agents Barry Stokes, Rex Tucker and Courtney Van Buren has given Beightol additional options for the two positions that must be upgraded from the 2005 season.
Stokes and Van Buren are expected to compete with Rick DeMulling for the left guard job that was held most of the season by Kyle Kosier, who was lost in free agency this spring. Tucker is working at right tackle, along with Kelly Butler, who started every game last year in only his second NFL season.
In addition, the Lions added three rookies — late draft picks Jonathan Scott and Fred Matua, along with Frank Davis, an undrafted rookie from South Florida.
What Marinelli likes about all of the line candidates is that they have the flexibility to work at different positions.
"We're just trying to find five starters right now," Marinelli said. "And there are some guys that have some position flexibility and back up also."
Harrington, in a lengthy interview with the Detroit Free Press, said he felt he had been abandoned by former Lions coach Steve Mariucci and some of his teammates, and that atmosphere made it too difficult to remain with the team.
Regardless of how poorly or how well Harrington played, Mariucci virtually never supported him. It was during the 2004 season that Harrington realized Mariucci had no confidence in him.
"I went into his office to talk with him," Harrington said. "I said, ‘Coach, I need you to give me permission to throw the ball downfield. To take some shots downfield. I feel like I can't.'
"He said, ‘I don't know where you're getting that idea.' I said, ‘You tell me every day if there's any chance of a mistake, pull it back, check down. I feel roped in. Let me take some chances.'
"He stood up, went to his sink and started brushing his teeth. He said, ‘I've got to do some interviews. If you want to talk about this, come back later.' And then he walked out."
Harrington said he had no problem with new Lions coach Rod Marinelli or offensive coordinator Mike Martz but was uncomfortable playing with a team he felt had turned its back on him. He relayed that message to Marinelli but told him he would stay and work through the issues if Marinelli wanted him back.
It was shortly thereafter Marinelli said the Lions would move on without Harrington.
"The thing with the fullback spot, right now it's all schematic and running around and learning stuff," said Lions president Matt Millen. "Where the role really gets defined is when we get the pads on. That's when Cory defines himself."
Millen also admitted, however, that Schlesinger might have to broaden his approach if he is do all the things required of the position by Martz.
"I mean, we don't have a straight, traditional fullback role," Millen said. "Every now and then it shows up but it's not going to be like that all the time. (Schlesinger) can also play some other things — the shift, move, motion guy.
"The 300-pound tight ends work in this offense because they line up in the backfield and show up on the edge."
Despite a number of rumors and unsubstantiated reports, it remains uncertain which player or players went to the NFL Players Association with complaints regarding the intensity or scheduling during Marinelli's first mini-camp in April.
The league and players association agreed the Lions were guilty of a violation and it cost them two days of off-season workouts, but no one has fessed up to being responsible for taking the issue to the NFL.
The latest report on a Detroit sports talk radio station was that the grievance was filed by defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Marcus Bell, with union rep James Hall, a starting defensive end, also involved.
Rogers, who seldom speaks to the media, declined comment and Bell denied involvement in the grievance procedure. Hall read a prepared statement to media members as his only response on the day the report surfaced.
"Irrespective of what you may have heard or what has been reported, since the arrival of Coach Marinelli and his staff, the players' commitment to his vision for a winning organization has been tangibly demonstrated through extraordinary levels of participation, effort and energy devoted to his off-season program," Hall said, reading from a prepared statement.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Maybe it should be out in the open, what happened but it's not because it's an in-house thing. It's over with and we're moving on." — Fullback Cory Schlesinger on media inquiries regarding the source of complaints for the union grievance that cost the Lions two days of off-season workouts.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers signed Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a hefty free-agent contract last month primarily for his defensive prowess.
Yet, head coach Mike McCarthy already is in the midst of exploring ways of getting the ultra-talented veteran involved in other areas.
"I think anytime you put the ball in Charles' hands, good things are going to happen," McCarthy said.
Woodson warranted a seven-year contract worth more than $39 million and stands to earn a quarter of it this year. He will start opposite Al Harris on the left side, giving the Packers one of the more formidable shutdown duos.
Woodson also is in the mix with a host of rookies to fill the vacancy at punt returner. He was used sparingly in that role with Oakland his first eight years in the league, running back just 12 punts, but has game-breaking potential even at age 29 and coming off a string of injuries the last few years.
"The biggest thing for Charles is, obviously, to get acclimated with our defense. (But) I'm excited about him as a punt returner. He's very natural back there," McCarthy said. "You never have enough good returners. So, that's obviously an opportunity to get him the football because he is an exciting player with the ball in his hands."
The former do-everything Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan also will get perhaps more than a look-see at receiver during the Packers' organized team activities in June. The Raiders backed off on deploying Woodson as a two-way player after they gave him cameo time on offense early in his career, when he caught two passes.
Other than Donald Driver, the Packers are unsettled at the receiver spot after trading Javon Walker to Denver on the first day of the draft. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Woodson could be summoned when Green Bay spreads the field with four- and five-receiver sets.
"We will address his participation on offense as we go down the line," McCarthy said.
The Packers, however, first want Woodson to make plays with his hands and be a difference maker on defense. He has only 17 interceptions in his career, five of which came his rookie season in 1998. He's had just seven picks since 2000.
Still, the never-shy Woodson arrived in Green Bay full of braggadocio that he's the best cornerback in the league. He wore his college number, 2, in the post-draft minicamp earlier this month and has petitioned the league to allow him to wear it during the season.
"The confidence comes from a long history of success. I've been good at this game for a long time," Woodson declared. "The last couple of years, with the (losing) seasons we've had (in Oakland) and with the injuries, I've definitely been overlooked. I see a lot of the guys that they rank up there ahead of me, they're not even close. I tell you that now.
"But, I have a new opportunity, a fresh start here in Green Bay. I look forward to it."
Woodson said he's fully recovered from the broken right leg that sidelined him the final 10 games last season.
Hawk, the No. 5 overall draft pick, isn't allowed by a league rule to participate because he's completing classes at Ohio State before graduating early next month. He will be back with the Packers for the latter part of their 14 organized team activities, which start May 31.
Head coach Mike McCarthy excused Favre from showing up for the minicamp, which is voluntary and is an extra camp because the Packers have a new coach. Favre is expected to take part in most of the OTAs.
McCarthy said the 36-year-old Favre will continue to work out on his own at home in Mississippi the next couple weeks before returning for the OTAs. Favre isn't working with a personal trainer, as he did extensively last off-season, but is in tip-top shape from doing a lot of manual labor to clean up debris left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina at his 600-acre property.
Favre's absence from the minicamp allowed heir apparent Aaron Rodgers to run the No. 1 offense.
Halfback Ahman Green, who wouldn't have practiced anyhow, also was excused from attending because of a prior charity commitment. Green is recovering from a torn quadriceps tendon sustained early last season and doesn't expect to return to the field until the second half of training camp.
Other notable players remaining out because of injury issues were offensive tackles Chad Clifton (knee) and Adrian Klemm (knee), halfback Najeh Davenport (ankle) and linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee). Klemm suffered a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the first day of the post-draft minicamp.
Besides Favre and Green, veterans not present were cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson, defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, fullback William Henderson and wide receiver Rod Gardner.
Manuel, who's expected to replace Roman at strong safety, participated this weekend after missing the first camp with a groin injury sustained in Super Bowl XL.
Defensive end Kenny Peterson and defensive tackles Donnell Washington and Johnny Jolly also were back on the field after being held out of the post-draft minicamp. Peterson and Jolly, a sixth-round draft pick this year, were nursing ankle injuries. Washington was out of shape.
The contest will start at 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, at Lambeau Field.
The NFL barred the teams from playing Thursday night, as originally scheduled, because the Packers will be coming off a Monday night game at Cincinnati. A league rule implemented in 2003 prohibits teams from playing two exhibition games in a span of four days.
Why the early start, though?
Packers president Bob Harlan said the organization didn't want to take away from the high-school football games typically played on Friday night in Wisconsin. Those games start at 7 p.m.
"We feel strongly about not interfering with high-school play. That's why we scheduled the game for Thursday night in the first place," Harlan said. "Now that we've got to be on Friday, we still decided we don't want to be head to head with them. We know how important it is in this state. We talked to the high-school coaches and knew their feeling about it."
The ring surfaced last month in an auction on a Web site, discovered by a son of the late Ray Nitschke, one of Kramer's teammates during the Packers' reign of dominance in the 1960s. The auction house promptly stopped the bidding and agreed to return the ring to Kramer.
A ceremony was held May 16 at Lambeau Field.
"It's beautiful. It's in great shape. I am surprised after so many years. It's pristine, a word I don't get to use very often," said Kramer, who had been wearing a replica of the ring the last several years. "I don't know if we'll ever find out where it's been or how much fun it's had, but I'd like to know."
Kramer, 70, will put the replica ring on auction from May 22-26 on his Web site, www.jerrykramer.com, to raise money for fellow NFL retirees who are beset with inadequate pensions and disability compensation from the league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We don't make any decisions that please everybody. But, we feel very strongly about the high schools." — Packers president Bob Harlan on playing the final preseason game against Tennessee in the afternoon Friday, Sept. 1, after the league nixed the originally scheduled date of a night earlier.