When the Bears begin training camp next month, they will have more difference-making offensive weapons than a year ago, when they still managed to make it to Super Bowl XLI with a mundane attack.
The 2007 Bears offense will be bolstered by the addition of perhaps the NFL's most exciting player, Devin Hester, who set an NFL record with six touchdowns on various kick returns. Hester spent his rookie season trying to become an NFL cornerback when he wasn't going coast to coast with punts, kickoffs and missed field goals. That experiment has been abandoned. Instead, the Bears will do more to get the ball in Hester's hands by lining him up at wide receiver, in the slot and at running back.
Hester's conversion to offense has been seamless. From the first Organized Team Activity, he caught the ball as if that had always been his only job, and his ability to make tacklers look foolish was as impressive after catching a pass as it was after catching a kick.
But Hester is far from the only new option that quarterback Rex Grossman will have at his disposal. First-round draft pick Greg Olson has also been impressive during OTA practices. The 6-foot-6, 254-pound tight end has exhibited wide receiver-like speed and athleticism and promises to give the Bears the long-absent ability to stretch the middle of the field and deflect focus from an average group of wide receivers.
Another rookie, tiny third-round running back Garrett Wolfe, has Hester-like speed, quickness and elusiveness. The Bears will make an effort to get him several touches per game, in the hope of further stretching and confounding opposing defenses.
Defensively, the Bears have been ignoring the absence of Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, who is boycotting all team activities in protest over his designation as the team's franchise player. Briggs is expected to be back by the start of the regular season, but not much earlier. Second-year man Jamar Williams is playing in his spot until then, and the Bears are hopeful he can play well enough to make Briggs expendable, if not this year then next, when Briggs will certainly be gone.
The defense is also working on contingency plans for the six-week absence of tackle Tank Johnson, who will be gone at least that long as the result of his suspension from the league following a recently completed 60-day jail sentence.
The return last week of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris was encouraging, as he is arguably the key component in the group. If he's 100 percent recovered from last season's torn left leg tendon, the Bears can weather the loss of Johnson. Working unrestricted free agent Anthony Adams and 2006 third-round pick Dusty Dvoracek into the defensive tackle rotation has been an off-season priority, and both are expected to be key players, with or without Johnson on the field.
The secondary added a physical presence in safety Adam Archuleta, who is expected to team with Mike Brown, although several players have taken first-team reps throughout the spring.
Rookie to watch: Greg Olsen — An immediate-impact player who could make the offense better all by himself.
Sudden impact: Devin Hester — The conversion from cornerback to wide receiver/running back was practically instantaneous, as Hester has displayed excellent hands and game-breaking run-after-the-catch ability from his first day on offense.
Second-year DE Mark Anderson, who led the Bears with 12 sacks last season after being drafted in the fifth round, has played ahead of veteran Alex Brown throughout the OTAs.
"The situation obviously is different and I haven't been in that situation before (playing backup)," Brown said. "Wale (Ogunleye) and Mark are just in there first and it's hard, yeah, buy hey, what do I do?"
Just two years into a five-year, $15 million deal, Brown is seeking a trade and/or renegotiation, although he's never had more than seven sacks in a season.
Something dragged down the Lions last year as they went 3-13, second-worst in the NFL.
"There was an undertow that you couldn't necessarily put your finger on," quarterback Jon Kitna said, "and I think we've rid ourselves of that."
The Lions have made major changes. They have brought in two new coaches — defensive coordinator Joe Barry and offensive line coach Jim Colletto. They have retooled the roster, bringing in more men who fit the mold of coach Rod Marinelli, not to mention more team speed.
"I think you keep looking for the right type of people that I want here," Marinelli said. "It's about team."
The Lions say there is a different feeling in the locker room now.
"I think the credit goes to Marinelli," wide receiver Mike Furrey said. "There's a trust factor in this locker room now that was not here at all last year. There were different segments and groups all around the locker room, and now it's one group and one team."
Rookie to watch: Calvin Johnson — The Lions drafted a wide receiver in the top 10 for the fourth time in five years. But after going 1-for-3 — Roy Williams was a hit; Charles Rogers and Mike Williams were misses — they think they have gotten the best one yet. Johnson, the second overall pick, was considered the best player in the draft, and he has lived up to the billing so far. He made some spectacular plays in off-season workouts — snagging the ball with one hand repeatedly — while showing smooth athleticism, proper technique and strong work ethic.
Sudden impact: Dewayne White — As the defensive line coach in Tampa Bay, Rod Marinelli helped White go from an immature, out-of-shape draftee into a versatile defensive end and a man. White, whose father died when he was a baby, even credits Marinelli with teaching him how to be a good father. Now that Marinelli is the head coach of the Lions, it's no wonder that White left Tampa Bay for Detroit as a free agent this off-season. White will start at left end and he'll set an example of what Marinelli wants — on the field, in the locker room and elsewhere.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
A quiet off-season from a dearth of activity in player acquisitions touched off a tempest courtesy of quarterback Brett Favre in May.
The last holdover from the 1996 Super Bowl champions voiced his displeasure about general manager Ted Thompson's not bolstering the offense with the would-be trade for receiver Randy Moss and wondered aloud whether the team still wanted him around for a 16th year. Favre purportedly demanded a trade and claimed he wouldn't be showing up for the mandatory minicamp, but he did appear in an effort to mend fences with the club.
Favre can't be sure what he'll have on offense, other than Pro Bowl receiver Donald Driver. Unproven Vernand Morency and rookie Brandon Jackson will likely work in tandem to make up for the free-agent loss of Ahman Green at halfback. The offensive line is a work in progress, after three rookies were thrust into the lineup last year. The writing could be on the wall for tight end Bubba Franks, who's been lining up with the No. 2s.
The defense is intact from 2006. Questions linger, though, over struggling strong safety Marquand Manuel and defensive tackle Justin Harrell, this year's first-round draft pick that hasn't been cleared for team drills because of his biceps injury last season.
Rookie to watch: James Jones — Since he doesn't have Moss to throw to, Favre is warming up to this third-round draft pick out of San Jose State. Jones reminds his graybeard quarterback of Sterling Sharpe in the manner he overwhelms defensive backs with his size (6-1, 207) and strength, coupled with his dexterity of catching with his hands. Those attributes make up for Jones not being a blazer.
Sudden impact: Frank Walker — The team's only addition via free agency or trade this off-season is off to an auspicious start at nickel back. Quickness and heady skills in coverage showed up in the May minicamp and the subsequent Organized Team Activities. Walker has the upper hand for the job entering training camp, though Will Blackmon and Patrick Dendy could make things interesting.
Favre incurred what he thought to be tendinitis in the right shoulder during Organized Team Activities. Consequently, the team shut him down for the final four of 12 OTA practices, which concluded June 19.
The injury isn't considered serious.
"I probably could practice, but it really don't make a lot of sense to go out and make it any worse," said Favre, who participated in seven of the OTA sessions.
Favre stuck around for his charity softball game June 17 in the Green Bay area but was to head back to his home in Hattiesburg, Miss., to get ready for some rigorous training.
Trainer Ken Croner, from Athletes' Performance in Tempe, Ariz., was expected to drop in on Favre at the end of June or early July. Croner has worked with Favre, 37, in the past on strengthening his core as a way to build up his endurance and improve his mobility late in his career.
Favre said footwork drills would be the emphasis of the upcoming training, leading up to the start of training camp July 28. The cardio-based workouts last an hour, with the repetitions done at an accelerated rate to simulate what Favre endures on game day.
"The average play is about four seconds. So, each exercise is four seconds (and) rest for 30," Favre said.
The sixth-year player never played a down for second-year head coach Mike McCarthy. Barry suffered a torn quadriceps in a spring minicamp in 2006 and was on injured reserve all of last season.
Prior to McCarthy's arrival, Barry, whom the Packers signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002, was a fixture in the U-71 power-run package (named for his uniform number) as an extra blocker. McCarthy, though, implemented a zone-blocking scheme, and Barry was the antithesis of the lighter, agile linemen desired for the system.
"He was a player that did some positive things (before last year), but when you talk about offensive line and when people talk about being a third tight end, I wasn't looking for another tight end," McCarthy said. "We were looking for offensive linemen that particularly can play multiple positions. And, really, his opportunity just did not happen because of his injury situation."
Barry had yet to be cleared for on-field work this off-season before he was cut.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 332 pounds, though he was heavier than that at times, Barry claimed in May that he was on the right track to getting his weight down to satisfy the team's desires.
The Packers also cut offensive tackle Josh Bourke, whom they signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
Woodson said during the mandatory minicamp in May that he was going to stay away from the OTAs, as he did last year, choosing instead to work out on his own in Houston.
"I told coach (McCarthy) I would come back. So, I'm just trying to keep my word," Woodson said of attending a portion of the OTAs.
He didn't stay for the final two OTA practices June 18 and 19, however.
Fellow starting cornerback Al Harris also cut out early after showing up for the second week of the OTAs. Harris and Woodson were on the field together for a couple days before Harris bolted June 13.
Jennings is the incumbent starter opposite Donald Driver but has been prone to injuries not even two years as a pro. Jennings was bothered by an ankle injury during the second half of last season.
Ferguson, meanwhile, said he's fully recovered from the Lisfranc foot injury that cost him all but the first four games of 2006. He needed only one day off from the eight practices in the last two weeks because of fatigue with the foot.
Cornerback Will Blackmon, expected to challenge for the nickel-back spot, missed most of the OTAs because of a groin injury.
Defensive tackle Justin Harrell, this year's first-round draft pick, remained limited to individual drills. The team has taken a cautious approach in the off-season after Harrell suffered a torn biceps tendon early last season at Tennessee.
Rouse and receiver David Clowney, a fifth-round pick, are the only draftees out of 11 signed by the Packers.
Freeman had two stints with the club — 1995-2001 and 2003 — and ranks fifth in team annals with 431 receptions. He was Green Bay's top receiver during the Super Bowl-winning season of 1996.
Freeman has been out of football since 2004, when he signed with Miami but was cut in training camp.