Everyone on the Bears' defense is back, but not necessarily happy.
Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs was demoted to second team during the early-June minicamp because he dropped out of the Bears' "voluntary" off-season program hoping to create some impetus for a new contract a year before he hits unrestricted free agency. But he will not be playing behind Leon Joe once training camp gets under way.
Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher also skipped some OTAs, complaining that the $900,000 he will make over the next two years was unfair in relation to the $9 million that nickel cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. will make over the same period. By almost all accounts, the Bears overpaid for Manning (up to $21 million over five years), but they were determined to upgrade the secondary after the Panthers' Steve Smith abused them in a divisional-round playoff loss last season. With Vasher, Charles Tillman and Manning, the corner position should be a plus this season.
The defense also got a boost in the draft, with the Bears' first pick going for defensive back Danieal Manning. The second-round pick from Abilene Christian could take a job from free safety Chris Harris, who started 13 games as a rookie in 2005 but may have been force fed into the lineup. The Bears' second second-round pick was used on Miami's Devin Hester, who is listed as a cornerback but is raw at that spot. Hester will, however, upgrade the return game immediately with his big-play ability.
Another draft choice, third-rounder Dusty Dvoracek, could play a significant role at defensive tackle because Tank Johnson, who was a key backup in a four-man rotation last season, will not be healthy at the start of training camp because of a hamstring tear he suffered in February.
Punter Brad Maynard had a disappointing season in ‘05, and undrafted free agent Joel Stelly has been brought in to provide competition.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've made a run and had a good season (in 2005). We've gone on a long winning streak (eight in a row), and now the next phase we have to go through is how to come back from a tough loss (in the divisional round to the Panthers), when we've been knocked down. This team will get up. That's the next step for us. We can't wait for the season to start. We can't wait to get up, and this time we're going to handle success a lot better." — Bears coach Lovie Smith.
Ask Donnie Henderson how aggressive he will be as the Lions' new defensive coordinator and there's a good chance he'll roll his eyes, get a silly grin on his face and shake his head.
"Me?" he's likely to ask. "Who told you anything like that?"
The fact is Henderson — with the approval of head coach Rod Marinelli — is likely to run the most aggressive defense the Lions have seen in years, possibly since the days of Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt in the 1960s.
Henderson wants to find ways to get after the quarterback, even though the Lions are not blessed with a marquee pass rusher, and Marinelli's influence is almost certain to be seen on the defensive line, the area he developed as a position coach at Tampa Bay before being hired as the Lions' head coach in January.
The Lions will have a number of changes in their defense — a shakeup in the linebackers with Boss Bailey expected to surface at middle linebacker, the departure of defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson with Shaun Cody considered the heir apparent, the arrival of first-round draft pick Ernie Sims who some have compared favorably to a young Derrick Brooks, and a new look in the secondary with Fernando Bryant back to full health.
Bailey has battled injuries during his first three NFL seasons, but Henderson likes his speed and athletic ability, and will probably move Bailey from the Sam position to the Mike.
Wilkinson apparently isn't ready to hang up his cleats after 12 NFL seasons but had reservations about starting over with a new, gung-ho coaching staff. So the Lions released him, clearing the way for the younger, more active Cody to step into full-time duty.
The secondary will certainly be younger than it was a year ago with the departure of R.W. McQuarters and Andre Goodman during free agency. Bryant is likely to join Dre' Bly as the starting cornerbacks and two youngsters — Keith Smith and Stanley Wilson — will be expected to move into nickel and dime roles.
The biggest influence on the defense, however, is at the top with Marinelli and Henderson.
"It reminds me of my first couple years in the league with (Tom) Coughlin," Bryant said. "The pace and the intensity and the coaching that you're getting is remarkable. It's in your face, what you're supposed to do, no exceptions. No mistakes are tolerated. It's good."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the fact we stunk it up the last five years might have something to do with it." - Fullback Cory Schlesinger explaining why most of the Lions players have bought into the aggressive, disciplined approach of coach Rod Marinelli and his staff
GREEN BAY PACKERS
There was no mistaking the off-season focus of general manager Ted Thompson, who didn't rest on the laurels of a Packers defense that ranked first against the pass and seventh for total yards last season.
He committed potential earnings of more than $60 million to nab three starters in free agency and made another sizable investment in taking linebacker A.J. Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. The Packers could have at least five new starters.
Hawk's arrival came on the heels of Thompson completing his free-agent dealings with the signing of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million deal. Woodson, provided he can dodge his susceptibility to injury, stands to make more than $10 million this year and will team with Al Harris to give the Packers one of the top shutdown tandems.
Throw in Marquand Manuel, a productive safety in Seattle's run to the Super Bowl last season, and the secondary is the strength of the defense. Manuel has unseated the pedestrian Mark Roman at strong safety and will be counted on to bring a hard-hitting mentality that has escaped the defense in recent years.
Ryan Pickett was an enforcer up front for St. Louis in 2005, so much that the Packers meted out a four-year, $14 million contract in tapping the former first-round draft pick as the aging Grady Jackson's replacement at nose tackle. Though not nearly as heavy as Jackson, Pickett is beset by weight issues and admitted he had to shed 10 pounds by training camp to come down from 325.
Although Woodson gives the defense a star presence that had been lacking, the reshaped linebacker corps is where the appeal lies.
Middle linebacker Nick Barnett, the defensive leader last season, is the lone returning starter after veterans Na'il Diggs and Robert Thomas were released. Hawk, and his reckless abandon, will start from the get-go on the weak side, giving the Packers two young cornerstones at linebacker around whom to build for the future. If not a third with third-round draftee Abdul Hodge, who will be Barnett's understudy for the time being. Ben Taylor, meanwhile, was a free-agent addition by way of Cleveland who has taken hold of the starting spot on the strong side.
Thompson turned to Canada to try to resolve the team's punting woes, and Jon Ryan has been as good as advertised. The deep-hitting Ryan distanced himself from incumbent B.J. Sander in off-season workouts.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You never know when your body is going to give out. I've been so fortunate after 15 years, this will be 16, that I've been able to play every game. You figure it's just a matter of time before something gives out. It's like driving a car — eventually, you're going to have a blowout. I don't want that to happen. I've had a lot of success. I don't need to play. I'm playing because I like to play; I love the game." — Quarterback Brett Favre while he was in Chicago on June 27 to shoot a commercial for Sensodyne toothpaste.
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