It remains to be seen if first-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs attends next weekend's Bears mini-camp, and if so what his mindset is concerning the breakdown in contract talks between agent Drew Rosenhaus and the Bears.
Briggs will become a free agent at the end of this season, and the Bears want him back, but at less than what they're paying Brian Urlacher, a five-time Pro Bowler who signed a nine-year, $56 million deal in 2002. Rosenhaus had preliminary talks with the Bears in April but they ended before the draft and haven't resumed.
"We went to him because this is when we go to our players when we want to extend them," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said in mid-April. "He is under contract this year, so we have that satisfaction. We wanted to reward him based on what he did. I told him and his agent we were going to come at him with a good faith offer, and we've certainly done that. They accepted the fact that we did do that. It's just now a matter of coming to a conclusion."
Speculation was that the Bears might take a linebacker early in the draft as an eventual replacement for Briggs, but they didn't address that situation until the fourth round, when they selected Arizona State's Jamar Williams. That doesn't do much for a linebacking crew that lacks depth. It's strong at the top, with underappreciated Hunter Hillenmeyer on the strong side joining Briggs and Urlacher in the starting lineup. Williams does, however, provide the Bears with versatility, so he could be a key component, if not this year than certainly in 2007, especially if Briggs is gone.
"We were looking for a guy that can play all three positions, and that's exactly what he can do," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said of the 6-foot, 250-pound Williams. "He's going to come in and give us, I think, some special depth in terms of having the same type of capabilities as Hunter Hillenmeyer has. Hunter can probably play all three positions for us. This young man could do the same thing. So we feel very comfortable about that."
Still, an injury to any of the starters, especially the two Pro Bowlers, would be a huge loss. Among the backups, Joe Odom has eight career starts but spent most of last season on injured reserve. Brendon Ayanbadejo is primarily a special-teams player, though an excellent one, and Leon Joe has never started a game and has been cut twice, once by the Bears in 2004, the same year they drafted him in the fourth round.
But for now, the Bears seem content to consider a future without Briggs.
"We've talked," Angelo said. "We're moving forward now. We're doing other things. We're not at a stop sign here waiting for something to happen now with Lance. We're moving down a path and we told the agent that as well."
"The only position that people talked about was tight end," general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I think offensively we are pretty good everywhere else in terms of our personnel and experience. So (tight end) would be the position people might be scratching their heads about, why we didn't address it."
Since then, the Bears have signed undrafted tight ends Tim Day of Oregon and Cooper Wallace of Auburn, both of whom were three-year starters and could have a role in an unimpressive and unsettled area. Day is considered a better than average receiver but isn't as physical as Wallace.
However, DePaul hasn't been contacted yet, nor have the Bears been asked for permission to speak with him. DePaul isn't considered the top candidate. The Texans have already interviewed Broncos assistant GM Rick Smith and are scheduled to meet with Packers director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie.
DePaul is in his sixth season with the Bears, having been hired by Jerry Angelo a week after he became the Bears GM. Prior to that, DePaul spent four years in the Eagles' personnel department and eight years as an assistant coach in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It takes a person with character and a person who's accountable to ‘fess up to that and stand here and look you guys in the eye and take those questions, and I think I'm man enough to do that." — Bears third-round draft choice Dusty Dvoracek on his past alcohol-related problems
The departure of 12-year veteran defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson means the Lions will have a new — and probably leaner — look on their defensive line when they open the season Sept. 10 against Seattle.
Wilkinson was unable to commit to returning for a fourth season with the Lions so president Matt Millen reluctantly released him, clearing the way for coach Rod Marinelli to move ahead with his plans for the 2006 season.
Though Millen will keep his eyes open for defensive line help when NFL teams make their June cuts, it appears likely Marinelli will fill the 350-pound loss at defensive tackle with a player currently on the Lions' roster.
The most likely candidate to replace Wilkinson appears to be Shaun Cody, a second-year player from Southern California.
Cody, a second-round draft pick in 2005, played in all 16 games as a rookie, got two starts and showed steady improvement as the season progressed. He finished the season with 31 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Although Cody weighs in at approximately 310 pounds, he fits the mold of smaller, faster defensive linemen Marinelli favored during his nine seasons as the defensive line coach at Tampa Bay.
Just as important — maybe even more so — is the fact that Cody is young and enthusiastic. In the four months since Marinelli has been hired he has talked repeatedly about stocking the Lions with players with a passion for the game, and Cody is in the stage of his career in which he has that passion.
Marcus Bell, a five-year veteran who has been part of the Lions' defensive line rotation the past two seasons, and Damian Gregory, a former Tampa Bay player under Marinelli, could also get added playing time with the departure of Wilkinson.
"You have to see the game through practice — the speed you're playing with, the tempo, the recognition," Marinelli said. "I've got two speeds — a walk-through speed and a practice speed, and I try to have no in-between gray area there."
In his determination to get the Lions to practice and play hard, the new coach already has met some resistance. A grievance was filed after the first voluntary mini-camp and it cost the team two days of off-season workouts. And last week the Lions released defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, in part because he apparently did not want to start over with a new demanding system.
Gradually, however, Marinelli is getting his players indoctrinated into his all-out system of practice.
"It's speed and hands, and hand-placement and tempo, how we play," he said. "It's urgency. And when you're doing this, you get off the field faster."
As an example, Marinelli cited one particular session in which the team went through 24 plays in one period of practice, and they got it accomplished in 17 minutes.
The Lions are scheduled for their mandatory mini-camp May 31-June 2. By the time they finish five sessions in three days, they will have a pretty good idea of what to expect in training camp.
"It's bittersweet," Cody said. "Big Daddy was a great mentor to me. He taught me a lot of things last year and I'm definitely going to miss him. He's a great player. It's some tough shoes to fill (but) I'm excited to get the opportunity finally and see what I can do with it." Cody was familiar with Lions coach Rod Marinelli and his style of defensive line play even before he landed with the Lions as their second-round pick out of Southern California in 2005.
The Trojans played a very similar defense to that played by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Marinelli was the defensive line coach, and Cody watched Tampa Bay film on a regular basis and even talked to Marinelli by phone on a couple of occasions.
"That's all we watched at SC — Tampa Bay Marinelli film," he said.
If he wins the starting job as Wilkinson's replacement, Cody knows he will be expected to play the position differently than Wilkinson played it.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Cody said. "Big Daddy was a guy who could take two gaps. He was a big man, a big fellow who played a lot of years and knew a lot of veteran tricks. I'm more of a one-gap, get-up-the-field type of guy. I'm a pass rusher and I can put some heat on the quarterback. So I definitely think I bring something different than Big Daddy."
First it was Joey Harrington, whom Millen felt could be a capable NFL quarterback in the right system with the right coach. Harrington was traded to Miami after indicating to Millen and the Lions coaches he was uncomfortable with the Lions after four frustrating seasons.
And most recently it was defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who was released after spending the off-season mulling over retirement and missing all of the Lions off-season workouts to date.
"Do we like him? Yeah, absolutely," Millen said. "We love him. But I think with where we're at right now, we'll go with the young guys."
The signing of Wilkinson after he had been released by Washington in the summer of 2003 was arguably one of Millen's best moves in his five years as the Lions president.
Wilkinson teamed with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to give the Lions an effective inside force against the running game as well as providing a strong inside push on the pocket.
Millen liked Wilkinson personally also, but felt he could not go on indefinitely waiting for a commitment for the 2006 season, especially after Wilkinson had indicated reluctance to start over with a new gung-ho coaching staff.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Big Shaun will be taking up the blocks and I'll be getting the single-teams, hopefully. That'll work out." — Lions defensive tackle Shaun Cody on how he hopes to benefit from playing with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The offensive line continues to be snake bitten after the Packers allowed Pro Bowl right guard Marco Rivera and emerging left guard Mike Wahle to flee in free agency last year.
Kevin Barry, a candidate to start at right guard, likely will miss the entire season after he sustained a torn quadriceps tendon in his left leg toward the end of the team's final practice in its second mini-camp May 21. His knee buckled while engaged with defensive end Michael Montgomery in a pass-blocking drill.
The Packers haven't ruled out Barry for the rest of the year, but he will undergo surgery in the next week and faces a long rehabilitation, perhaps up to a year.
"You don't want to see a player suffer an injury. Unfortunately, it's part of our business," coach Mike McCarthy said. "You wish it would not occur in spring. It's unfortunate. I feel bad for Kevin, personally more than anything."
McCarthy said the injury is similar to that sustained by Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green last October in a game at Minnesota. Green underwent surgery and missed the rest of the season. He's still more than two months away from returning to the field on a full-time basis and probably won't be cleared for contact until the second half of training camp, in mid-August.
Barry, an unrestricted free agent, accepted a two-year offer to return to the Packers when the new coaching staff assured him he would have an opportunity to earn a starting job next season. The coaches moved the backup tackle inside to right guard at the start of off-season work in late March. Barry was known the last few years for being deployed as a blocking tight end in the "U-71" power-run package, coined for his uniform number.
Barry, though, again struggled with keeping his weight under control. He's listed at 6-foot-4 and 332 pounds but reported for the post-draft mini-camp in early May about 25 pounds overweight. Consequently, he was demoted to the No. 2 spot in favor of inexperienced second-year player Junius Coston.
The 6-3 Coston weighs 317, which is on the heavy side for the zone-blocking scheme that's been incorporated this year. The scheme requires all linemen to be light on their feet and athletic.
In the recent mini-camp, Barry was back at tackle as Mark Tauscher's understudy on the right side.
Without Barry in the mix, the Packers may have to count on Coston or third-round draft pick Jason Spitz to fill a huge void at right guard, or possibly hold their breath with Will Whitticker that he can shed a lot of weight in the next three months. The incumbent starter, listed at 338, is a bad match as an interior blocker in the new scheme and lined up at left tackle in the mini-camps with Chad Clifton and Adrian Klemm nursing injuries.
Rookie Daryn Colledge, a second-round draft pick, remains in the lead for the starting job at left guard. The combination of Klemm, Scott Wells (now the starting center) and since-departed Grey Ruegamer was ineffective at the spot most of last season.
The team is taking a cautious approach with Davenport, who's seven months removed from having surgery for a broken right ankle sustained early in the season last year.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said during the second mini-camp, May 19-21, that the coaching staff will wait on Davenport to be ready for the early part of training camp.
"A lot of guys want to rush back," Jagodzinski said. "But he's been here for the whole off-season program. He has an idea of what we're trying to get done out there. We're playing it on the safe side. Why would you lose a guy in shorts?"
By all indications, Davenport is ahead of Pro Bowl back Ahman Green in their recoveries from serious injuries. Green suffered a torn quadriceps tendon two weeks after Davenport went down. Although he's been running for a month, Green doesn't expect to be cleared for contact until the latter stages of training camp.
Green was taken by surprise, though, when coach Mike McCarthy had him line up in the backfield and carry the football during a walkthrough session on the last day of the recent mini-camp.
All of the running backs, whether healthy or not, are in learning mode because of the offense's new zone-blocking scheme.
"I don't want to get too excited about anything yet; it's just in the beginning phases. I'm taking the baby steps right now, and I'm very happy with it," Green said.
Favre was excused by the coach from taking part in the last mini-camp, which was voluntary. McCarthy had previously said that Favre would be on hand for the 14 OTA sessions, which are spread out until late June, and possibly would be on the field for 10 of those.
"He'll be here on and off throughout (the OTAs) based on our installation structure," McCarthy at the conclusion of the recent mini-camp.
Aaron Rodgers, the team's first-round draft pick last year, took the lion's share of reps with the No. 1 offense. He continues to make big strides in the passing game under the somewhat undivided eyes of McCarthy and first-year quarterbacks coach Tom Clements with Favre absent the majority of the off-season thus far.
"I'm just feeling like I'm in complete command," Rodgers said.
Rookie cornerback Will Blackmon, a fourth-round pick, rolled his foot on the final day of the mini-camp and was on crutches later in the day for precautionary reasons. The injury isn't considered serious.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson obliged Houston's request to speak with McKenzie, who's considered one of two frontrunners for the job. The other is Denver assistant GM Rick Smith, who had his interview May 19.
McKenzie and Smith are African-Americans.
McKenzie, 43, has worked in the Packers' front office since then-GM Ron Wolf hired him as a scout in 1994. McKenzie has overseen the pro personnel department the last 10 years.
"Right now, I love working for the Packers," McKenzie said. "(But) I'm more than ready (to be an NFL GM). If it is to be, it will be. Right now, I'm just flattered (by the interest). If it happens, I'd be honored and would go in there with my hard hat and give it my best shot."
Wide receivers Chad Lucas and Vince Butler, tight end Tory Humphrey and safety Atari Bigby are with Amsterdam. Defensive tackle Jerome Nichols is with Frankfurt. The teams tied for the best record (7-3) during the regular season.
Lucas led the league with eight touchdowns, all receiving, and had 27 receptions for an average of 16.3 yards. Nichols, also a first-year pro, tied for the NFLE lead with six sacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just feel like I have to work even harder now. This is a new coaching staff, (and) everybody has their opinions about certain players and things like that. All I can do is go out there and work. I took a bad step from the beginning. So all I can do now is try to dig my way out of the hole again, get myself back in shape." — Defensive tackle Donnell Washington, a third-round draft pick in 2004 who has yet to play a down in his NFL career and landed in coach Mike McCarthy's doghouse for reporting to the first mini-camp overweight and out of shape. Washington, who dropped his weight from 345 to 338 in the past two weeks, participated in the second mini-camp May 19-21 after being held out of the first.