Even though Devin Hester isn't expected to play a great number of snaps at wide receiver this season as he begins his conversion from cornerback, he has already generated tremendous interest based on his NFL-record six kick-return touchdowns as a rookie in 2006.
By the middle of last season, Hester was making teammates and opponents, as well as fans, sit up and take notice every time he touched the ball because of his rare combination of speed and ability to make tacklers miss him in the open field. Bears coach Lovie Smith convinced Hester that he would be much more valuable to the team with additional touches, even though it meant abandoning his desire to develop into an NFL cornerback like his mentor Deion Sanders.
Since Hester had played some wide receiver and running back at Miami, the conversion has been smooth so far. Even during OTAs, when the switch was first made, Hester caught the ball downfield effortlessly while maintaining the same exciting open-field moves he displays on kickoff and punt returns.
"Just watching film (from OTAs) and seeing some of the things that were going on, when I was coming out of my breaks and just catching the ball, I was like, ‘Hey, I can do this,' " Hester said. "It's not bad.
"The more reps I get, it seems like the better I get."
Hester will still be the focal point of the Bears' return game.
"Most definitely," he said. "The special teams ain't going nowhere."
It's unclear how much action Hester will see on the offensive side of the ball behind starters Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian. And backups Mark Bradley and Rashied Davis both played key supporting roles last season. But the best guess is that the Bears would like Hester to get 10 touches a game, whether it's lining up in the slot, split wide, catching the ball out of the backfield or even taking an occasional handoff or pitchout. As far as physical tools, Hester has more than most NFL players.
"The speed was always there," he said. "It's just being able to get my hands on the ball and the run after the catch. I feel like I'm getting a lot better with that. I'm dealing with more, dodging guys, and it's helped me out a lot. I know it's going to carry over to the special teams as well.
"Once you get your hands on the ball it's show time. The more repetitions I get, I feel the better as a player I get and this team gets."
Even if Hester doesn't touch the ball, his presence on the field could benefit the offense. With his big-play ability, Hester will attract a great deal of attention from opposing defenses. The Bears occasionally used Hester as a decoy during 11-on-11 scrimmages in the spring with great success.
"That's the fun part, just running a fake reverse and seeing everybody just run at you, (while running back) Cedric (Benson) is way over on the other side of the field. It just cracks me up."
CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on July 26, and their first practice is at 3 pm., Friday, July 27. Camp concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18. They will return to Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 4, for a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field.
"Dusty will be getting most of the reps (in training camp)," Haley said. "He and Anthony (Adams) will be in there taking turns at the nose, and they'll share the reps for most of training camp."
All of which leaves strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer in the familiar role of forgotten man. But that doesn't mean he's not a key member of the defense.
"He's as solid as a rock," said new linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, who replaced Bob Babich when he was promoted to defensive coordinator. "He's steady day in and day out. He's very smart. He understands the defense. He knows where to line up all the time. He's never out of position. He's always in the right place at the right time."
"His work ethic is getting him to where he needs to be," defensive line coach Brick Haley said. "He's got really good speed, quickness and agility. The thing he has to do now is be able to be a better run defender for us. He's not going to be in the game only on third down or second-and-long. He's going to play three downs. If he keeps working to get better at that, I think we'll be fine."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He has the hide of a buffalo; a water buffalo. I think Rex has taken a lot of heat, of course. He gets criticism and stuff like that, and the guy still goes out there and makes plays." — WR Muhsin Muhammad on QB Rex Grossman.
Why did the Lions make Cory Redding the highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL?
It wasn't just because the salary cap went up and they had money to spend. It wasn't just because if they lost Redding, they would have a big hole up front or have to spend big money to find a replacement.
Redding has never made a Pro Bowl. He hasn't even played a full season at his position. But after moving from end to tackle six games into last season, he was a beast. He racked up eight sacks.
Coach Rod Marinelli, a longtime defensive line coach, says the defensive front must drive this franchise. The defensive tackle position is critical to the Tampa Two defense. And he believes Redding is a building block for the future.
Marinelli recruited Redding hard, calling him constantly this off-season until the Lions signed him just before the July 16 deadline to sign franchise players to long-term deals.
"One thing I know and I believe: You can never overpay for the attitude, the effort, the want," Marinelli said. "He's a talented man. He's a big, physical man. He's extremely tough, a hitter. ... A big part of defense is attitude, wanting to be great, being disciplined, doing what you're supposed to do, being smart. And he fits that mold."
Redding said he wasn't worried about living up to the contract — a seven-year, $49-million deal that includes about $16 million in guaranteed money.
"It's good pressure for me," Redding said. "I welcome it. And that's how I play. ... I don't even dwell on everything that's going on. I play the game. That's what it's all about. So I'm glad we got these numbers and all this stuff out of the way so I can focus on football and do what I love to do and my passion is about."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 25. Practice begins July 26. Camp breaks Aug. 19.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's how he feels. ... I have expectations, too; very high." — Coach Rod Marinelli, on quarterback Jon Kitna saying the Lions would win more than 10 games this season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Three months after taking him to the dismay of many fans as their first-round draft pick, the Packers still don't know what they have in defensive tackle Justin Harrell.
The former Tennessee standout was limited to position drills in the off-season workouts. The medical staff thought better than to put Harrell in possible harm's way in team drills as he neared the end of his recovery from a ruptured biceps tendon, which cost him most of last season.
Although head coach Mike McCarthy indicated last month that Harrell would be cleared for all phases of practice when training camp opens July 28, it's not clear whether the rookie will be on the field. He has yet to be signed to a contract, and his participation in practice hinges on a deal being struck.
Given the amount of on-field time he's already missed, Harrell needs to be on the field from the outset of camp. His post-draft declaration that he would be in the starting lineup for the regular-season opener Sept. 9 rings hollow until he can sufficiently prove that he is healthy and has assimilated the defensive scheme.
With little to go on, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Bob Sanders are reserving judgment on what Harrell's role will be at the start of the season.
"As we all know when you get to training camp, we'll be playing real football with the pads and so forth," McCarthy said. "You learn a lot about the individuals from their movement, foot quickness and leg strength, things like that, but it's a different game when you put the pads on. So, that will be a true test."
Sanders wasn't any more revealing about what he has in mind for Harrell, who figures to contend with incumbent Corey Williams for the starting job alongside nose tackle Ryan Pickett. Ideally, the Packers project Harrell to be an early-down run stopper, giving way to Williams in pass-rush situations.
"He's a big guy; he's strong; he's fast; he's smart," Sanders said of Harrell. "So, hopefully, he'll be able to step up, learn what we're doing and have a chance to make it happen early."
CAMP CALENDAR: Opens July 28 in Green Bay, closes Aug. 28. Like last year, there are eight evening practices on the camp schedule, including July 31 at Green Bay East High School's City Stadium, where the Packers played their home games from 1925 to 1956. A sold-out intrasquad scrimmage is Aug. 4 at Lambeau Field.
Jones had been placed on administrative leave of absence May 26, four days before he was to assume the reins of president and CEO from retiring Bob Harlan. At the time, the Packers' executive committee cited undisclosed management concerns for temporarily removing Jones from the front office.
Jones' health was previously dismissed as a reason for the ouster; he underwent open-heart surgery in June 2006.
However, in the release announcing Jones' official departure, he said, "What happened to me a year ago was sudden and devastating. Due to a previously undetected, rare birth defect of the heart, I experienced an aortic dissection. I underwent a series of complex emergency heart surgeries in June 2006. I am grateful that I survived.
"However, like many heart surgery patients, I have found that the residual effects of the surgeries have made it difficult to continue my current job. The Packers mean so very much to me, but my family means more. I need to put my health and continued recovery above everything else. I am proud of my service to the team and to the community and have done everything I could to prepare the Green Bay Packers for the future. The Packers have been fair to me during this process, and I appreciate it."
Peter Platten, speaking on behalf of the organization's executive committee, said, "It has become clear through our discussions with John that his recent leave of absence was unfortunately caused by his medical situation. Both John and the Packers wanted to take the necessary time to evaluate the appropriate course, and we appreciate the professionalism with which he has handled this matter. At no time have we questioned his integrity or character."
Jones reportedly had an annual salary of about $900,000 in his existing contract, all of which would probably be paid in the next three years as part of the agreement with the team.
Harlan has remained on board as team chairman until a successor can be found.
The search is expected to pick up now that the organization has settled with Jones. Among the possible candidates that have been bandied about are current team executives Andrew Brandt (vice president of player finance), Jason Wied (vice president of administration) and Vicki Vannieuwenhoven (vice president of finance), as well as first-year Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt, a Wisconsin native who once worked in the Green Bay front office.
Jerry Babb, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana-Lafayette, didn't make the cut after participating in the off-season minicamps and organized team activities.
Starter Brett Favre and heir apparent Aaron Rodgers are locks to make the team coming out of camp, which starts July 28. Ingle Martin is in good shape to be the No. 3 quarterback for the second straight year. He'll have competition, though, from undrafted rookie Paul Thompson, a converted receiver from Oklahoma whose athleticism could keep him in the mix.
Martin was shaky directing the No. 1 offense in place of Favre and Rodgers, who were recovering from ankle and foot injuries, respectively, during the full-squad minicamp in May. Martin, a fifth-round draft pick last year, said he learned from the experience and vows to bring a competitive spirit to training camp.
"If you're not always looking to climb up the ladder, I think you'll sell yourself short and someone else will step up and take your spot," Martin said. "Right now, I'm trying to work up the ladder. I always prepare like I want to be the second-string quarterback (and) the first-string quarterback. I think I'd be selling the Packers and fans short if I was just happy to be the third quarterback."
The publicly owned franchise invites dialogue between those who are holders of team-issued stock certificates and its decision-makers, including Harlan and Thompson.
Due to a large turnout, the meeting is held at Lambeau Field.
Former teammate Antonio Freeman presented Brooks for induction. ESPN anchor John Anderson, a Green Bay native, presented Butler.
As of July 20, they had six of their 11 drafted rookies unsigned: first-round defensive tackle Justin Harrell, second-round running back Brandon Jackson, third-round receiver James Jones and the sixth-round trio of fullback Korey Hall, linebacker Desmond Bishop and kicker Mason Crosby.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would think it would be a fun time. I think any time you're a part of something like that, it's a special time, and I think our team would view it that way." — Head coach Mike McCarthy on quarterback Brett Favre's entering the season on the brink of breaking a handful of all-time league records, including wins (needs two), touchdown passes (seven) and pass attempts (136).