The Bears didn't answer very many of the myriad questions they had entering the offseason, most of them on the offensive side. The one exception was at running back, where the featured role now belongs to rookie Matt Forte with the release of Cedric Benson, who was arrested twice within five weeks on alcohol-related charges.
The quarterback competition between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton remains a toss-up according to coaches and the battle could continue well into the preseason, although there is no timetable.
The wide receiver position will have a new look, as veterans Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd have been added to fill the void left by the release of Muhsin Muhammad and the free-agency loss of Bernard Berrian. They were the team's top two receivers the past two seasons, and while Booker still appears to have some value left, Lloyd has been a disappointment in his unspectacular NFL career.
The wild card at wide receiver is Devin Hester, who is being given a much greater role in the passing game as his conversion from cornerback continues. Hester was a focal point of offseason passing plays, and he has shown the potential to be an impact player this season, even if he isn't a starter. The Bears also added a wideout in the draft, taking Earl Bennett in the third round.
Any improvement on an offensive line that was a major disappointment last season will hinge on the ability of first-round pick Chris Williams to step in as the opening-day starter at left tackle. Steady veteran John Tait has already been switched from left tackle to right tackle, where he should be an upgrade over Fred Miller, who got old in a hurry last season. Center Olin Kreutz is still a Pro Bowl caliber player and right guard Roberto Garza works well within the unit, but left guard remains a question mark. That spot could be filled by John St. Clair, who is currently keeping the left tackle spot warm until Williams takes over, which the Bears hope will be early in training camp.
Defensively the Bears locked up three-time Pro Bowl weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs to a six-year, $36 million deal, but six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher remains unhappy with his current $56.65 million contract, which has four years remaining. If they can keep Urlacher happy — most of the key players from the 2006 Super Bowl defense are still playing at a high level - they just need to stay healthier than they did last season.
Rookie to watch: Running back Matt Forte - With Benson gone, Forte has to be the go-to guy, since the only runners behind him are journeyman veteran Adrian Peterson and tiny Garrett Wolfe, who is essentially a situational player.
Sudden impact: Safety Mike Brown - A major reason for the Bears' defensive demise last season can be traced to the season-ending torn ACL suffered by their former Pro Bowl safety. Brown has looked like his old self during offseason work, which means he's always in the right place and usually around the ball. But Brown has suffered serious injuries in each of the past four seasons, missing 43 games, so the Bears are holding their collective breath that he can play a full season.
But the rash of injuries began in 2004 with a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon in the second game of the year. The following season he was voted to the Pro Bowl, even though a calf injury forced him out of the final four regular-season games. Brown's ‘06 season ended after six games because of a foot injury.
Through four serious injuries and lengthy rehabs, Brown hasn't lost his passion for the game, which is why he's already jacked up about regaining his Pro Bowl form and helping the Bears' defense attain the elite status it enjoyed in 2005 and ‘06.
"I have a total passion for the game, and I feel that I can still play," Brown said. "If I didn't have my skills, if the injuries were diminishing my skills any, I would think long and hard about it. But every time I come out here and see myself on film, I still look pretty good.
"When I'm on the field, I think I'm one of the best safeties in the league. I have a lot of confidence, and I feel like I bring a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of intensity. I love playing with this team. I love the defense, I think it's conducive to the way that I play and I just want to show people what I can do."
"Right now the position is wide open," Hester said. "The best two are going to step up and play."
Hester sees himself as a starter; if not now, then soon.
"If you're a receiver and you don't feel that way, then you don't deserve to be out here on the field," he said. "It's competing for a job, and that's how the next man (on the depth chart) gets better. That's what I'm out here doing, and when the season kicks off, I'm hoping I'll be one of the No. 1 guys."
Booker and Lloyd have gotten most of the first-team reps, but Hester has also been utilized. Receivers coach Darryl Drake said no final decisions have been made.
"Right now we don't have clear-cut starters," Drake said. "Those guys (Booker and Lloyd) are in the mix. Devin is in the mix. So those guys are probably the ones."
Hester has been focusing on running more precise routes and fine-tuning his timing with quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton. He said the mental aspect of his game has improved over last season, his first as a full-time receiver.
"I'm a lot better at knowing the game," he said. "I'm starting to understand the defense as well as the offense."
For now, though, Hester's forte remains the deep ball, where he can utilize his rare speed to get behind even the fastest cornerbacks. His communication with the quarterbacks on those plays is simple.
"Whenever we have a deep ball, I just tell them throw it as far as you can and hopefully I'm going to run it down," he said.
"It's pretty easy," Grossman said. "I think you'd have to be pretty immature to take it to a personal level. I don't think there's a downside to (the competition) for anyone other than Kyle and I. Obviously we'd both like to have the job. If anything, it probably makes you better to concentrate that much harder."
Coach Lovie Smith said he's in no hurry to determine the winner of the QB battle and that it would not be decided by the start of the preseason.
"Just some time during training camp, during the preseason," Smith said of the timetable. "Ideally, you would like to have someone in place by going to that last week of the preseason, but we'll just let it play out. If it's not clear by then, we'll let it go right up until (the start of the season)."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're in fourth place right now in our division. So that's the mindset that we have. We have a long ways to go." — Bears coach Lovie Smith on the team's attitude after completing off-season practices.
The Lions worked more slowly this offseason in the hopes of moving more quickly during the season. The coaches were more patient and kept drilling the fundamentals, so the players could master the bread-and-butter stuff.
"I think it put us in a position where the players have a good base of what is expected of them," left tackle Jeff Backus said on the last day of organized team activities. "We all understand the scheme and why we're doing things the way we are. It's going to give us a good base going into training camp."
On defense, the addition of ex-Buccaneers Chuck Darby, Dwight Smith, Brian Kelly and Kalvin Pearson who know the Tampa-2 system had a noticeable effect, tackle Cory Redding said.
"Everybody's moving quicker, because those guys are bringing their knowledge from playing in the system," Redding said. "When they get out there and run it right and run it fast, the other guys behind them see how it's supposed to be run."
On offense, there have been more dramatic changes with Jim Colletto replacing Mike Martz as coordinator.
Kitna concentrated on the mechanics of running the offense, with more control at the line of scrimmage. The linemen and backs worked on the new zone running scheme. Everyone worked to master a smaller number of plays.
Wide receiver Roy Williams said the Lions had only 30 or 40 passing plays and maybe 10 running plays. They had more than 200 plays in their game plans last year.
"I'll tell you what: With the plays that we've got in, we're going to be real good at them," Williams said.
They better be, Furrey said.
"We all know it," Furrey said. "We all know what's going on. We've had eight weeks now to just basically fine-tune it. Now we've got five weeks to go home and get ready to come back physically. We won't have any excuses coming into the season. We need to show up and play some football, and that's it."
Overall, there is a different feeling around team headquarters. The edginess Martz brought is gone. Some players who didn't buy in are out.
"The atmosphere is awesome," Backus said. "I think Rod has done a tremendous job of doing it his way and getting what he wants out of us and making changes when changes need to be made. I'm excited to see what happens this season."
Rookie to watch: Running back Kevin Smith — The Lions plan to run the ball more and have installed a zone running scheme. That's perfect for Smith, a third-round pick this year, who ran the ball a ton in the exact same scheme last year for Central Florida. His college coach once worked with Lions offensive coordinator Jim Colletto. Even the names of some of the plays are the same. Smith will compete in camp with Tatum Bell, Brian Calhoun, Aveion Cason and Artose Pinner.
Sudden impact: Safety Dwight Smith — We could have picked any of the new additions in the secondary. Corners Leigh Bodden and Brian Kelly will make an immediate impact, and safety Kalvin Pearson should contribute. But we'll go with Smith because he shores up a critical spot in the Tampa 2 and has a lot of experience in this defense. The Lions' secondary, a big weakness in the past, now looks like a strength.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You've got to have confidence to play in this league. We have the confidence. We've had it for the past two years. The question is: Are we going to be able to put it together?" - WR Mike Furrey.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers receivers apparently are missing being the human targets for Brett Favre's notoriously hard throws.
A few of the retired Favre's former teammates bellyached during the minicamp, which ended June 19, that successor Aaron Rodgers is provoking pain with the velocity on his passes.
"Since I got here (last year), everybody's talking about how hard Brett throws, and Aaron's tearing gloves up out there, too," second-year receiver James Jones said. "When you all interview him, tell him to slow down a little."
Rodgers had some playful choice words for his receiving corps when he caught wind of their comments.
"I'm not surprised by it - they need to catch the ball," a smiling Rodgers said. "They're doing a good job of catching the ball. They just whine and complain all the time."
On the first day of minicamp June 17, the fourth-year pro had to quash a report by the FOX television affiliate in Green Bay that he had gotten married the previous weekend in his native California.
In fact, Rodgers dropped out of playing in receiver Donald Driver's charity softball game on Father's Day because he was attending the wedding of a family friend in California.
"It's all funny to me," Rodgers said of the erroneous information that went public. "It's all good stuff. It's better than maybe a different story. It's all positive stuff, except for the wedding stuff. They're trying to kill my game in Green Bay, I think.
"It's fun being in the public eye. I know I have a responsibility. I'm just going to try to keep it positive information."
Rodgers attracted further attention with a haircut. The family friend requested that Rodgers get his shoulder-length locks chopped before the wedding.
"It was just too much maintenance," Rodgers said. "I got to the point where, combing it every morning, I really got the feel of what the female sex has to go through on a daily basis. I have a lot more respect for ‘em after combing my hair, to get the knots in your hair, it's always in your face."
Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has long hair, quipped of Rodgers' new ‘do: "He looks like he's about 13 years old now."
A team that included defensive end Aaron Kampman and running backs coach Edgar Bennett won the eight-team tournament.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The happiest person in the whole world is my mom, probably. She's been waiting a long time for it. But, I'll be honest, I miss it, and it's probably going to come back here pretty soon." — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on getting a short haircut before the team's three-day minicamp, June 17-19. Rodgers had let his hair grow down to his shoulders during the offseason.