NFC North Notes and Quotes

The Bears are excited by a veteran who has lost weight and appears invigorated to produce more, a lesser known wide receiver is hoping for more production and opportunity in Detroit, and the Packers aren't steadfast in the positioning of arguably their best defensive player. Get the stories from the Vikings' NFC North rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

Tight end Desmond Clark doesn't quite look like the wide receiver he was at Wake Forest in the late 1990s, but he has lost about 15 pounds from last year's 254.

The eight-year veteran appeared much quicker and more effective as a pass receiver during off-season workouts after shedding the weight and reducing his percentage of body fat.

"It's been tremendous seeing what he's done through OTAs and minicamp," Bears tight ends coach Rob Boras said. "This is my third spring with him, and this is by far his best. He's quicker out of his breaks. We'll find out how the weight loss affects him when we get to training camp as far as the blocking. But as far as being a route runner and being able to use quickness and speed to get open, it's definitely shown up."

In 2005, his third season with the Bears, Clark led the team's tight ends and finished fourth overall in receiving with 24 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the second consecutive season in which his production slipped and a far cry from the 51 catches for 566 yards he had with the Broncos in 2001.

"He does an all-around nice job in both the run and pass for us," Boras said. "The (increased) quickness is going to help him. That's one of the weaknesses that he and I have talked about, just trying to create some more separation and becoming more quarterback-friendly by getting open. And then also he must reduce the mental errors and the mistakes. Eliminating those things will make him even more of an all-around player for us."

The Bears aren't planning on a drastic change in their offensive scheme, but if Clark proves to be a more effective receiver, he could become the security blanket quarterback Rex Grossman and other Bears quarterbacks have lacked for many years. An off-season ankle injury that lingered throughout almost the entire training camp sabotaged Clark's 2005 season. So far, he's the picture of health.

"We're not calling different plays to get Desmond the ball," Boras said. "We're calling the same plays. But last year, Desmond had an ankle injury. He is our best receiving tight end, so having him healthy and having him participate in every practice, you would hope that we would be better at that position and that's showing up. It's not just lip service to say that if you're here you can prove yourself to the quarterback and you can get that comfort zone with him."

CAMP CALENDAR: Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on Wednesday, July 26, and the first practice is at noon, Thursday, July 27. Camp closes after a 10 a.m. practice on Wednesday, Aug. 16. The Bears have a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field on Wednesday, Aug. 9; and 7 p.m. practices under the lights at ONU's Turner Field on Friday, Aug. 4, Tuesday, Aug. 8, and Sunday, Aug. 13.

NOTES

  • The Bears will be desperately seeking a reliable complement for go-to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad once training camp begins, and for now, the competition is wide open.

    According to wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, there are several players in the mix.

    "Right now that No. 2 is hard to say," Drake said. "With Mark Bradley (rebounding from a knee injury) and Justin Gage having a few injuries this spring, Bernard Berrian right now has the inside shot at it. But if things continue to progress, you need to keep your eyes on Rashied Davis because he has demonstrated this off-season that he has the ability and potential to be that guy. He's jumped into the mix in my opinion, and he needs to continue to do that."

    Davis is a former Arena League MVP who played cornerback and special teams for the Bears last season but has switched to offense this year.

  • Justin Gage was second on the Bears last season with 31 receptions and 346 receiving yards, but he'll be hard-pressed to hold off younger, faster competition this season like Bernard Berrian, Mark Bradley, Rashied Davis and Airese Currie.

    "Justin is Justin," said wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. "He's steady and consistent. Justin doesn't have the speed that you would like, but there's a role for him. He's a guy that when you put him in there, you don't (worry) because you know that he's going to do the right thing. You know that if the opportunity's there for him to make a play, he'll make it. Justin's a guy who you can put in and trust to do things the right way."

    The 6-foot-4 Gage, who played basketball in addition to football at Missouri, creates mismatches with his size and leaping ability, but he hasn't ever established himself as a go-to guy who can get consistent separation.

  • Even though he's No. 3 on the depth chart, Adrian Peterson led all Bears running backs with a 5.1-yard average per carry last season, picking up 391 yards on 76 carries. He also averaged 6.9 yards per reception, better than both Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson.

    Running backs coach Tim Spencer said Peterson could be a starter in the NFL.

    "He can do anything that our position requires him to do and do it well while also playing on special teams," Spencer said. "He's a jack of all trades, and master of all. That would be A.P."


    DETROIT LIONS

    When he has been healthy, Eddie Drummond has been one of the NFL's best kickoff and punt returners for the past four seasons, but he's not satisfied with that role.

    Drummond, a fifth-year player from Penn State, is hoping he will finally get a chance to get on the field as a receiver in the new offensive system being installed by Lions coordinator Mike Martz.

    There is nothing Drummond would like more than to play the role of a quick, smaller receiver in Martz's Detroit offense the way Az-Zahir Hakim played it in Martz's Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis a few years ago.

    "I watched a lot of film on the greatest offense on turf and I feel I can fit in tremendously, right away," Drummond said. "I just have to learn the system. It's a complicated system and we're a long way from getting everything down but we are making progress."

    Martz has been working Drummond in the slot position that proved so productive for Hakim, but that was only in off-season workouts. The pace and the demands will be increased significantly when the Lions begin training camp workouts July 28.

    But Drummond feels good about starting with a clean slate under Martz and head coach Rod Marinelli.

    As a free agent rookie in 2002, he showed some speed and athleticism but it was never developed, perhaps because Mornhinweg's staff felt the youngster would have his hands full handling punt and kickoff return duties.

    "My rookie year I thought I would get a chance because I did so well in preseason when Mornhiweg was here but right away they just labeled me as a return specialist," Drummond said. "We had plenty of receivers — big-time money receivers — so they let them play.

    "From that first year it just carried over and they just kept me as a returner. This is what I've been waiting for — somebody like Martz to come in and be comfortable with players like me on and off the field."

    Previous Lions staffs might also have had concerns with Drummond's ability to hold up physically. Although he is powerfully built at 5-feet-9 and 190 pounds, he has had trouble staying healthy as a return specialist.

    He has missed at least four games every season, including the last five games of his 2004 Pro Bowl season when he suffered a broken shoulder blade. He averaged 13.2 yards on punt returns and 26.6 yards on kickoff returns before the injury.

    CAMP CALENDAR: July 27 — All players report to training camp; July 28 — Two-a-day workouts begin; August 11 — exhibition opener against Denver.

    NOTES

  • By quarterback Jon Kitna's estimation, the Lions got only about 30 percent of their offense installed during the off-season mini-camps, which means they will have a tremendous amount of work facing them at the start of training camp.

    Nevertheless, Kitna — the pre-camp favorite to emerge with the No. 1 quarterback job — feels the Lions have a solid basis from which to learn the rest of the Mike Martz offense.

    "It's still above the average NFL level and training camp will be much more intensive," Kitna said. "We'll go through 14 practices in the first two weeks; we've had 14 practices the last two months (of OTAs)."

    Actually, the Lions will have more like 25 practices in the first two weeks of training camp, with two-a-days scheduled to begin July 28.

  • Coach Rod Marinelli has made a lot of changes — physical and mental — in the Lions' approach since he was hired in February, but he says he never considered moving the team away from its Allen Park facility for training camp.

    "I wanted to keep as many things the same as I could," Marinelli explained. "Otherwise, I thought it was a hindrance."

    Neither was Marinelli eager to hold a combined workout with any other NFL team or teams.

    "I really didn't want to do it the first (season)," he said. "Sometimes you have to cut back when you go into it wanting to see certain things. I didn't need an added distraction. I just wanted to make sure this camp goes right, that our installation pace is at our pace that we want and at the tempo we want."

    The last time the Lions held an out-of-town training camp was under Marty Mornhinweg, when they practiced at Saginaw Valley State College in 2001. Since the opening of their Allen Park facility, the Lions have held training camp there. It is closed to the public.

  • The Lions saved their franchise player tag and left tackle Jeff Backus got the long-term security he was seeking in an 11th-hour deal worth $15.5 million in guaranteed money on a six-year contract.

    The Lions and Backus arrived at the settlement last Thursday afternoon; approximately four and a half months after the team had put the franchise tag on Backus, guaranteeing him $6.98 million for the 2006 season.

    Had they not settled on a new contract before the July 14 deadline, the Lions could not have negotiated a new contract until the end of the 2006 season without risking the franchise tag for the duration of Backus' contract.

    Although Backus has not reached the elite level of NFL left tackles, he has been a pillar of strength for the Lions — starting all 80 games since he was taken in the first round of the 2001 draft, playing over injuries and proving himself as one of the hardest workers on the team.

    "He embodies what (coach) Rod Marinelli's looking for in terms of football character," said Lions chief operating officer Tom Lewand. "He rarely misses a practice. He's played hurt. He goes above and beyond, and he has developed into one of the most solid left tackles in the league — solid and steady. He's the kind of guy you can count on day in and day out."

    Backus, who is coming off off-season ankle surgery, was clearly miffed at the team's inability to come up with a satisfactory long-term contract at the start of free agency last winter, but he was clearly pleased with the Lions' efforts resulting in the current deal.

    "It's a big load off my shoulders," he said.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Nick Barnett will remain at middle linebacker.

    "Yeah, for right now," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said.

    The possibility exists, though, that it won't be long after training camp starts July 28 that the new coaching staff mulls moving the team's top tackler each of his first three years in the league to the outside. Rookie Abdul Hodge would be the reason why such a change would be made.

    Hodge, a third-round draft selection out of Iowa, was on par with top pick A.J. Hawk in chasing the football during off-season workouts in May and June. Hodge backed up Barnett and wound up with numerous reps with the No. 1 defense when Barnett had to miss four days of organized team activities because of injury and personal issues.

    If Hodge continues to make strides early in training camp, head coach Mike McCarthy and Sanders will have to strongly consider getting him on the field. He's a natural middle linebacker, so that would necessitate shifting Barnett outside.

    "I don't foresee that happening," Sanders said of taking Barnett out of the middle. "But, we still try to double-train as many guys as we can. In the event that something happens, we want to have our best three players in there. We try to get as many guys ready at as many different positions as we can."

    Hawk is entrenched as the starter on the weak side in the Packers' 4-3 base alignment.

    Conversely, the strong side is unsettled, with free-agent signee Ben Taylor penciled in for the time being. Roy Manning, Brady Poppinga and Tracy White, another off-season addition, also are in the mix.

    "It looks like there's going to be some fierce competition at the linebacker spot. We were a little bit void of that prior to this spring," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We have a lot of guys that look like they can function pretty well. They certainly worked hard in the spring. I think it has a chance to be a strong area for this team."

    Barnett, though, has experience at the position.

    He played exclusively on the outside his last three years at Oregon State before the Packers readied their first-round draft pick to start in the middle as a rookie in 2003. Barnett flourished there the last three seasons, racking up a team-record 194 tackles in 2005.

    CAMP CALENDAR: Opens July 28 in Green Bay, closes Aug. 26. There will be an intrasquad scrimmage the evening of Aug. 5 before a sellout crowd at Lambeau Field.

    NOTES

  • Newly elected team president John Jones is recovering at home after undergoing open-heart surgery June 11.

    "He's resting very well," chairman/chief executive officer Bob Harlan told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I'm not sure how soon he'll be back (to work). There's no rush."

    Jones, 54, succeeded Harlan as the organization's 10th president May 31. Harlan will remain in the front office until he retires next May after turning 70.

  • The publicly owned Packers are expecting a record turnout of 30,000 people for the annual shareholders meeting the morning of July 19 inside Lambeau Field.

    It's the first time the event will be at the stadium since 1999. About 5,000 people had to be turned away last year when the meeting was held across the street at the 10,000-seat Resch Center.

    Shareholders attending the meeting can bring one guest. The attendees will get a tour of facilities, including the Packers locker room, after the meeting.

  • Former tight end Keith Jackson will present the late Reggie White for induction into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame on July 22 at the Lambeau Field Atrium.

    White, the team's all-time sacks leader, died Dec. 26, 2004, at age 43 from a respiratory ailment. He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 5.

    Besides Jackson, former teammates Edgar Bennett, LeRoy Butler, Santana Dotson, William Henderson, Sean Jones and Frank Winters are expected to attend the Packers Hall of Fame induction banquet.

  • The Packers are commemorating the 10th anniversary of their Super Bowl XXXI-winning season in 1996 with the creation of an anniversary logo, which will be displayed on game tickets and programs during the upcoming season.

    The club also will play highlights from the Super Bowl victory over New England on the video boards at Lambeau Field during game days.

    "I think the fans will enjoy some of the things we have planned, which will conjure up some great memories and allow us all to relive exciting moments," Harlan said.


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