When the defending NFC North champion Bears reconvene on July 26 at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, coach Lovie Smith expects to have all hands on deck.
Running back Thomas Jones and Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, two of the 22 returning starters, missed most of the "voluntary" portion of the Bears' off-season program. Both attended the mandatory minicamp the first weekend in June. Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher, also unhappy with his contract, missed most of the previous two weeks but was back this week, although he was held out of practice to rest his sore knees.
"I would definitely be surprised if we had a holdout for training camp," Smith said. "I think the players know what's at stake. We need to be here. Training camp's important. You can look at what happened last year with (first-round pick) Cedric Benson, who held out, missed most of training camp and never got back on the right footing. Now Cedric Benson has been here throughout the entire off-season and has gotten better and better. We're really excited about what he might be able to do for us this year."
Benson was buried on the depth chart behind Jones last season, but they split carries during minicamp and are expected to compete on equal footing this summer for the featured role. Briggs was dropped to second string behind journeyman Leon Joe during the minicamp, but Smith said talk of demotions is premature.
"We haven't demoted anyone really," Smith said. "It starts all over this year, and the way to get on the depth chart is to be here and give us a chance to evaluate you. We don't really have a true depth chart right now. We're going to training camp and then we'll let everyone have an opportunity to compete."
Smith said Vasher would be in better position than Jones and Briggs based on his off-season attendance.
"He hasn't missed the entire off-season, so his situation is different," the Bears' coach said. "He finished up with us here."
Vasher didn't scrimmage because he's doing some minor rehab work to strengthen his quadriceps muscle in order to take pressure off his sore patella tendon, but he said he's ready to do whatever coaches ask. He and agent Mike Sullivan were hoping to entice the Bears into adding a year to the two years still remaining on his original four-year deal. He will make $900,000 over the next two seasons, making him the 131st highest paid cornerback in the NFL, while Bears nickel corner Ricky Manning Jr. will make about $9 million.
The Bears have stuck to their philosophy of not renegotiating with players who have just two years' experience.
"For the time being I have to be content with my position," said Vasher, who had eight interceptions last season. "I realize it's a business, and I'll continue to get ready to have a great season."
Vasher said he isn't even considering not reporting to training camp on time.
"I'll be there with bells on," he said. "I'll be ready for another Pro Bowl season."
Although the Bears have not engaged in any dialogue with Vasher's agent regarding an extension, it could happen in the future.
"We haven't been promised anything," Sullivan said. "They didn't want to pay attention; we wanted to get their attention. What Nate has accomplished is out there. They could do nothing, but it would be unfair to Nate."
Clark, who had just 24 catches for 229 yards last season, was singled out for praise by Bears coach Lovie Smith at the conclusion of spring practices.
"I'm just not throwing out Desmond because the tight end has been a position that most people like to talk about," Smith said. "He's played well. He's had a few outstanding days out here and yes, he definitely has earned that right to get more plays, more balls thrown his way."
The Lions know who their linebackers will be for the 2006 NFL season; they're just not exactly sure where they will be.
Barring any major shakeups, the three starters will be chosen from a group of four — three veterans and Ernie Sims, their first-round pick in the April draft. But there is at least a strong possibility that all of the veterans will be playing a position different than they played last season.
The three veterans involved in the shakeup are Boss Bailey, the former strong-side linebacker now being projected to move to the middle; Teddy Lehman, who played on the strong side as a rookie, trained in the middle behind Earl Holmes and is now being considered as a strong-side contender; and James Davis, who has been a starter at the weak side but now could find himself competing for the strong-side job.
Sims is considered a perfect fit for the weak-side position but he will have to win the confidence of coach Rod Marinelli and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson before he gets the job.
Bailey will probably face the biggest adjustment of all the linebackers, considering he has never played in the middle and is coming off foot surgery that kept him out of all the off-season workouts.
That has not damped his enthusiasm for taking a shot at the new position, however.
"It's very interesting," Bailey said. "It's a new challenge for me. I played outside pretty much my whole career and in college, so it's a new challenge for me. I'm confident I can get it done because while I was playing outside I always made sure I learned all the positions."
The linebacker realignment is being necessitated by Henderson's style of defense, which puts a premium on fast, athletic linebackers capable of running down plays from sideline to sideline. And the middle linebacker job came open when the Lions decided not to pursue Holmes when he became a free agent.
"The way they're trying to coach it, the schemes they're trying to run, it's only fitting for a guy like me to be in the middle," said Bailey. "Because of the speed, the quickness and the scheme, where we're going to try to run cover 2 a lot and make things bounce outside more."
It remains to be seen if Bailey will be fully ready to return to work when the Lions open training camp on July 27, but he has done all he could to learn the job in meetings.
"Mentally, I'm doing everything and more, doing extra stuff mentally because I can't do everything physically," he said, "but I'm in the meetings and rehabbing and working out."
Jones, Bryson and Pinner all are back for 2006, along with free agent acquisition Arlen Harris and third-round draft pick Brian Calhoun from Wisconsin. Although coach Rod Marinelli isn't bestowing any starting jobs, it is expected that Jones, a former first-round pick, could benefit greatly from offensive coordinator Mike Martz's insistence on a strong running game.
"It's like I've always said since I've been here, we've got to ride (Jones') coattails," said wide receiver Roy Williams. "We've got to be able to run the football in this league. If we can't do that, we'll be at the bottom of the barrel like we have been the last three years.
"We've got to be able to run the football (and) he's the man to do it. Calhoun can come in and get his little shake on in there and our running game will be at the top of the league."
Marinelli isn't promising the top running game in the NFL but he says he likes what he has seen from Jones in the off-season workouts, especially in becoming a more complete back, capable of catching the ball out of the backfield.
"He's catching the ball well, better," Marinelli said. "And he's worked hard at it. He's caught a million balls. I think he's really done a nice job."
While admitting the players have reason to be enthused about the possibilities being developed by offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Marinelli wants the team concept to overshadow anything else.
"The thing I keep trying to allude to, I think, is ‘Lions football,'" he said. "This is Lions football and every time I get into a team setting, I think it's really important (that) we're not an offense, we're not a defense, we're not a special teams and we understand it's ‘Lions football.' And each unit has the opportunity to impact Lions football."
Except for occasional brief glimmers, the West Coast offense never gained any traction in the past five seasons under Marty Mornhinweg or Steve Mariucci, and the players were clearly ready for a change with Marinelli was hired last January.
Although Martz is demanding as he installs the new offense, it has caught the players' attention and imagination during off-season workouts.
"What the offense is doing right now with the energy of coach Martz and the offensive staff ... the team can see it," Marinelli said. "We've got to do it; the basis, the movement, the patterns, the speed, the energy out there, I really like the progress (and) the steps we're taking to be a really good offense. It's got a chance to really energize our team, yes."
"I really do," said receiver Roy Williams. "I'm really excited about this football team. We have (Mike) Martz on the offensive side, we have coach (Donnie) Henderson on the other side.
"These are two of the ‘head coaches' coaching around this league and as long as we do what they tell us to do, I don't think there's any stopping this football team."
It's been awhile since that kind of enthusiasm existed in a Lions camp, especially when the coordinator was as demanding as Martz has been in developing the offense during the off-season program.
"It's exciting because this offense exploits the positives that people have," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "You've seen this offense over the years, (Martz) has come here, the strides we've made have been great but there's no need to make predictions.
"We have to go out and do it ... week in and week out. It can't be a sometimes thing, it can't be two quarters. His offense is predicated on everybody doing their job on every single play or else it's going to break down. We're going to have to keep working."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The specter of a training-camp holdout by cornerback Al Harris hangs over the Packers. Or, perhaps it doesn't.
Conflicting statements were made by Harris and his agent, Jack Bechta, as the team wrapped up three months of off-season work June 21.
In two published reports in Wisconsin newspapers, Harris gave the impression that he would further show his displeasure about not having his contract reworked by skipping the start of camp July 28. Harris boycotted a non-mandatory minicamp in late May as well as voluntary organized team activities in June.
"It's not 100 percent, that's for sure," Harris told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he would report on time for camp. "I'd like to come out and do my job, but everyone's got to be fair, too. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."
A day later, Harris, 31, told the Wisconsin State Journal that he won't show up for the start of camp and added that he has no interest in playing for the team if it doesn't renegotiate the six-year, $18.6 million extension he received in 2004. Harris is under contract through 2009.
"Under the current deal now, I can't see myself playing there. I feel real strong about this thing," Harris said in the June 22 article. "I'm going to do what I need to do. Either we make it happen in Green Bay, or we make it happen elsewhere. I know there's teams out there that would pay me what I'm asking for. I'd love to be with the Packers, though. It's not like I'm trying to kill ‘em."
Harris has a base salary of $1.5 million this year. The ninth-year veteran reportedly is demanding two roster bonuses amounting to $5 million to be paid next March and March 2008 and incentive bonuses up to $1.5 million if he makes the Pro Bowl.
The $7 million in bonuses included in the contract extension two years ago weren't all guaranteed.
Harris apparently is miffed that the Packers signed free agent Charles Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million contract in April that could net the Pro Bowl cornerback more than $10 million this year.
Amid the uproar of Harris' comments last week, Bechta attempted to put out the fire by saying that his client won't be missing any time in training camp.
"Oh, yeah (he'll be there on Day 1). That is not an issue. We'll be in training camp," Bechta said. "According to my (recent) conversations with him, there's no holdout, there's no games being played. He'll go in and practice like he always does every year.
"The guy hasn't missed a game (his entire career), and he doesn't want to jeopardize that streak."
Packers' officials weren't too worked up about the implied threat of a holdout by Harris.
"All of the conversations that I've been a part of (regarding) Al Harris, I've been told over and over again he's nothing but a true professional," first-year head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's always come in in shape, (is) an extremely hard worker, and I don't think that will change."
Head coach Mike McCarthy said Favre, 36, will concentrate on keeping himself fit at home in Mississippi. Rock Gullickson, the team's strength and conditioning coach, will be dispatched for a few days to work with Favre.
"Just going back through the cut-ups and things like that, I think his biggest concern when he left here was probably his conditioning, which we feel he's in pretty good shape for this time of year," McCarthy said.
McCarthy excused Favre from the final day of the 14 OTA sessions, which were spread out over three weeks. Favre, in his 16th year in the league, participated in 10 of those practices and spent the other four days working out with Gullickson.
Favre said earlier in the month that he planned to throw on his property two or three weeks before the start of camp.
"He's got a big bag of balls hanging out there in his warehouse. So, I think there's a little more throwing that goes on than some people think down in Mississippi," McCarthy said.
Favre also will be trying to stay mentally sharp in the coming weeks. He acknowledged early in the OTAs that he was overwhelmed by the new verbiage implemented by McCarthy in the West Coast offense. Favre left Green Bay with DVDs of practice footage and playbook material in tow for his laptop.
Hawk said at the end of the OTAs that he's "confident" a deal will be struck with the team and that he won't be a camp holdout at the outset.
"I know a lot of first-round picks don't come to camp on time, but we'll see what we can do," said Hawk, whom the Packers selected fifth overall. "You miss something in these OTAs, and you're behind. Obviously, training camp is even worse."
Hawk missed the first seven OTA practices because he was completing school at Ohio State, from which he earned his degree in criminology.
As a top-five pick, the Packers' first since they took cornerback Terrell Buckley at No. 5 in 1992, Hawk will command a hefty contract. Running back Carnell Williams received a five-year, $30 million package with guaranteed bonus money of more than $13 million as the No. 5 pick by Tampa Bay last year.
The Packers have been nearly flawless in recent years to get their first-round draftees signed by the start of full-squad practices in training camp. Cornerback Ahmad Carroll missed only the first practice in 2004.
The Packers had profits of $18 million. The renovation of Lambeau Field, which was completed three years ago, is the crux of the big revenue stream. The famed stadium has become a year-round destination for visitors with an atrium dotted by restaurants, shops and other attractions.
The scrimmage last year featured the Buffalo Bills. The Packers aren't aligning with a team in training camp this year.
Head coach Mike McCarthy would only say "at some point" after the Packers wrapped up three weeks of organized team activities June 21.
Green and Davenport are coming off serious leg injuries that ended their seasons by the midway point last year. Davenport, who sustained a broken right ankle, is ahead of Green in the recovery process and begged the medical staff to clear him for the OTAs, to no avail.
Green is on the mend from a torn right quadriceps tendon. All indications are the team won't rush the Pro Bowler back into practice and might not have him full go until the middle of August.
"I would say if we had to go play a game in training camp that I think those guys would be ready. (But) we're just going to be smart on an individual basis," McCarthy said.
Linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee) and rookie cornerback Will Blackmon (foot) also are iffy to be ready for the early part of camp, which starts July 28.
Left tackle Chad Clifton and backup tackle/guard Adrian Klemm, however, are expected to take part the first day. Clifton was held out of all off-season workouts after undergoing minor knee and ankle surgeries following last season. Klemm was sidelined because of a sprained knee suffered in the post-draft minicamp in early May.