NFC North Notes and Quotes

Wide receivers could be the concern in Chicago once again, the Bears are expecting to get lighter and more athletic on the offensive line, and the Packers are hoping to avoid another contract dispute with one of their better players.


Aside from aging Muhsin Muhammad, who will be 33 on opening day, the Bears don't have any proven receivers, but they've got some young players who could become effective complements and more.

That could be significant this year because it's not certain that Muhammad is very special anymore, coming off a relatively pedestrian 64-catch, 750-yard season. The rest of the Bears wideouts are inexperienced players with talent and potential.

After three injury-riddled seasons, quarterback Rex Grossman is looking forward to emerging as a legitimate NFL starter, with the help of some of the young receivers.

"I think we've got the guys right now that can definitely do the job," Grossman said. "I'm excited about everyone on our offense because when you go through the running backs and the offensive line there's nothing (we) need. And then wide receivers, we've got some young guys that can definitely step up and be stars in this league."

Mark Bradley, the Bears' second-round pick in 2005, appeared on the verge of stardom as a rookie before he suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 30. He caught 18 passes for 230 yards, including five for 88 yards in the first half of the game in which he was injured. If he's back to 100 percent, he's a solid No. 2 who could become a go-to guy.

Skinny, fragile Bernard Berrian has big-play speed, and he started to step up at the end of 2005. He caught 13 passes for 246 yards, an impressive 18.9-yard average, and for the first time showed that he could be effective on plays inside the hash marks. But it was one of those plays that he suffered an injury in the divisional playoff loss to the Panthers. Before the injury, he was the Bears' leading receiver in that game with five catches for 68 yards.

Six-foot-four Justin Gage was the team's second-leading receiver last year, with 31 catches for 346 yards, but he needs to take another step in his fourth season or he'll be passed by younger players.

Airese Currie is another deep threat who missed all of his rookie season in 2005 with injuries, but he could be a factor this year.


  • The Bears finished No. 29 in offense last season, yet failed to select an offensive player on the first day of the draft.

    "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.

  • The Bears signed undrafted free agent rookie cornerback and return specialist Ricky Williams of Bethune Cookman.

    Williams, who participated in the Bears' rookie mini-camp May 5-7 on a tryout basis, is an explosive kickoff returner with excellent quickness, speed and elusiveness.

    The 5-10, 190-pounder averaged 31.4 yards on 21 kickoff returns with two touchdowns last season. As a junior, Williams averaged 23.9 yards on 18 kickoffs including a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.


    Lions coach Rod Marinelli wasn't eager to release 350-pound defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, but by doing so, the Lions have opened the way for the quicker, more athletic type of nose tackles that typify Marinelli's defense.

    "The nose (tackle) has to be stout at the point, tough and (play) technique," Marinelli said. "But he's also got to have some good movement. The guy I had in Tampa is a good example — (Chris) Hovan, who was a 3 and then went to a 1-technique."

    Although Wilkinson teamed nicely with equally large Shaun Rogers to give the Lions a strong inside tandem the past three years, it is expected that second-year defensive tackle Shaun Cody — who is about 40 pounds lighter than Wilkinson — will take over the job.

    "Shaun Cody is a good, young, 310-, 312-pound kid who can really move," Marinelli said. "He not just has to hold the point in a one-gap system, he's got to be a good rusher and he's got to be able to play the field laterally."

    Marinelli says it would be an oversimplification to say he prefers smaller, more athletic players to the 350-pounders that frequently man defensive tackle jobs in the NFL.

    "I had Darrell Russell with me for awhile," he said. "I coached him in college and I had him in Tampa for a little bit. Darrell was big — 345 pounds — but he had great feet, great movement and pad level."

    The one additional quality that Russell had and that Marinelli wants to see in his Lions defensive tackles?

    "Balance," he said. "Balance has always been a key for me, guys that can stay on their feet."

    Wilkinson had expressed thoughts of retirement at the end of the 2005 season and indicated reluctance after 12 years in the league to start over with a new staff in a new system. Because he was unable to commit to playing the 2006 season, the Lions released him.

    "He's a heck of a player now," Marinelli said. "But we've got some really good young players, too. Cody's a second-round draft pick. Marcus Bell and Damian Gregory, all those guys are young guys, working hard and I see some real upside with those guys."


  • Twice in a span of less than two weeks, Lions president Matt Millen has parted company with players he liked personally and though of highly.

    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.


    The Packers apparently have another disgruntled starter on their hands, though they're not expecting any drawn-out soap operas like the ones they've endured in recent off-seasons with Mike McKenzie and Javon Walker, and lately with Mark Roman.

    Cornerback Al Harris, arguably the best defensive player on the team, skipped the voluntary mini-camp May 19-21 because he reportedly isn't satisfied with his contract.

    Coach Mike McCarthy said during the mini-camp he wasn't aware of any such discrepancies and that Harris was missing to tend to a personal matter.

    However, a source close to the situation told the Wisconsin State Journal that Harris stayed home for the five practices because he's angling for a pay raise. Harris signed a five-year, $18.6 million contract extension at the outset of the 2004 season, just as a recalcitrant McKenzie was forcing the team to trade him to New Orleans.

    However, the $7 million in bonus money contained in the deal wasn't entirely guaranteed. Harris apparently was miffed after Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson signed a more substantial free-agent contract with the Packers, worth $39 million for seven years, including as much as $10 million this year. Woodson will start opposite Harris on the left side.

    Harris, who has four years left on his contract, is scheduled to make a base salary of $1.5 million next season.

    Harris, 31, said during the first mini-camp that he felt his deal paled in comparison to what Woodson commanded in April and wasn't happy.

    "Hell no!" he said, adding, "But I won't do what Mike McKenzie did. That's not me. That's not my style."

    Harris' agent, Jack Bechta, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would possibly wait until toward the end of next season before asking the Packers to rework his client's contract.

    "The (salary) cap has gone up 23 percent in the last two years, so there should be some room there," Bechta said. "But as for a new contract right now, no. That's probably not going to happen."

    Bechta tried to put to rest the speculation that Harris backed out of the mini-camp for financial reasons, saying the ninth-year pro was needed for a personal issue with his parents. Harris has never been selected to the Pro Bowl, though he came close last season. Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson went so far as to rank Harris as the second-best shutdown corner in the league, behind Denver's Champ Bailey.

    Incumbent strong safety Mark Roman, meanwhile, participated in the recent mini-camp after he threatened to skip it because of his unhappiness about the team signing Marquand Manuel in March to a lucrative contract without informing Roman ahead of time. The Seattle free agent is expected to replace Roman as the starter, though Roman, who initially demanded to be traded, has vowed to fight for the spot in the coming months.


  • Running back Najeh Davenport lost his bid to try to convince the medical staff to allow him to participate in the organized team activities, which began May 31.

    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.

  • Linebacker A.J. Hawk, the No. 5 overall draft pick this year, wasn't allowed to participate in the second mini-camp because he still was taking classes at Ohio State. Hawk will graduate June 9 and return for the remainder of the OTAs.

    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.

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