Around the NFC North

The Josh Bullocks signing gives the Bears more cover ability in the secondary. A Lions beat writer thinks Matthew Stafford makes sense with the first overall pick. The Packers have continued their recent trend with a relatively quiet free agency. Go around the NFC North with reports, analysis and notes from the Vikings' divisional rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

The signing of unrestricted free agent and former Saint Josh Bullocks, gives the Bears a veteran presence at safety to replace their unrestricted free-agent safety Mike Brown, who is still waiting for an offer.

Bullocks also gives the Bears something they were lacking in the secondary: a legitimate free-safety type. The other safeties on the roster are all better suited to strong safety, considering they are more the extra-linebacker, in-the-box, run-support types. Danieal Manning has excellent speed and appears to have the tools to be an excellent free safety, but he has failed there in the past and spent last season as the nickel back, where he will probably remain.

While the addition of Bullocks isn't a blockbuster move, it makes safety much less of a need in the draft, but the Bears might still draft one.

That leaves offensive line, wide receiver and pass rusher as the Bears' primary needs, in that order. If the Bears are able to re-sign John St. Clair, last year's starting left tackle, they will be in better shape up front, but they still need to add young linemen after neglecting the line in the draft for so many years.

The addition of Frank Omiyale, a Panthers backup, gives the Bears more versatility and depth, but it remains to be seen if he is an upgrade over anyone in their mediocre group. If St. Clair comes back, either he or Omiyale would probably be the starting right tackle, while the other could challenge Josh Beekman or Roberto Garza for one of the guard spots.

Wide receiver is a wasteland, maybe the weakest group in the NFL, with only Devin Hester providing a weapon that concerns defenses.

No Bear had more than six sacks last season and that's not the preferred formula for an effective Cover 2 defense.

NOTES

  • Coming off a 51-catch season with a team-best 665 receiving yards, Devin Hester is the only player on the roster who can be considered even close to a No. 1 wide receiver, and with no help expected in free agency, he's destined to be the main man again, unless the Bears happen to strike gold in the draft.

    "It's important for me to play like a No. 1 receiver," Hester said. "That's my biggest goal. I feel like I have the ability to play as a No. 1 receiver, and I'm feeling real good and confident. Kyle (Orton) is coming out here throwing great passes and organizing the receivers and putting them in the right spots. That's what it's all about, being on the same page as the quarterback."

    Asked if Hester could be a go-to guy in the passing game, coach Lovie Smith seemed comfortable with the idea.

    "You talked to Devin, right?" Smith said. "What did he tell you? He told you he was the No. 1 receiver, right? He definitely has No. 1 receiver-type ability. At the end of (last) year, Devin was definitely playing like a No. 1 receiver and I'm excited about this second year of him being a full-time wide receiver."

    In his last six games last season, Hester caught 25 passes for 347 yards. At that pace over 16 games, he'd have 67 receptions for 925 yards.

  • Considering offensive left tackle Chris Williams had back surgery before the preseason even started last year and then sat, watched and rehabbed for seven games before making his NFL debut, it might have seemed like his rookie season lasted forever.

    But the first-round pick who is being given the starting job to lose, keeps it in perspective while putting it in the past.

    "It wasn't as long for me as it was for (rookie running back) Matt (Forte), who played like 20 games," Williams said. "But still it was a long year mentally because of going through the surgery and all that. It was a lot all in one year, but I'm ready to roll now."

    Williams was asked if he had any lingering health problems.

    "No, there's nothing wrong," he said. "You want to examine me or something?"

  • G.M. Jerry Angelo has hinted that former Pro Bowl corner back Nate Vasher has to be more productive than he has in the past two injury-riddled seasons to regain his starting job from Corey Graham.
    Vasher understands the challenge.

    "Rightfully so," he said. "I think it's more or less, ‘What have you done lately?' You have to go out and prove yourself every year and be able to contribute to the team. It's definitely a privilege to be in the NFL and to play on any roster. I'm going to have an opportunity to come out and fly around before the draft so the coaches can evaluate and see exactly what direction we're going to head."

    Vasher missed eight games last season with hand injuries, and 12 in ‘07 with a torn groin muscle. But he says he can regain the form he flashed in his first two seasons (2004-05), when he had 13 interceptions and played all 32 games.

    "I feel great now," he said.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's rumors every single year, whether it's (Jay Cutler) or somebody else. I'm happy with where I'm at. I think the organization is behind me, and I know my teammates are, so that's really all that matters to me. I'm real proud with what I've done early in my career, and I feel like I'm going to be a good quarterback in this league for a long time, so I don't think I have that much stuff to worry about." — Bears QB Kyle Orton on the Jay Cutler-to-the Bears rumors.


    DETROIT LIONS

    It's not the destiny thing, though that makes it a little eerie.

    Yes, the Lions' last great quarterback was Bobby Layne in the 1950s. Yes, before the Lions even hired him as coach, Jim Schwartz joked that it was time to replace Layne. And yes, Matthew Stafford went to Layne's high school.

    But no, the reason the Lions should draft Stafford isn't poetic. It's practical.

    The Lions are starting from scratch, coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season, and they have been proactive trying to reshape the roster to fit coach Jim Schwartz's system, using trades and signings.

    The defense has been reinforced at defensive tackle (Grady Jackson), linebacker (Julian Peterson) and defensive back (Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry, Eric King). The offense has added a No. 2 receiver (Bryant Johnson) and depth at running back (Maurice Morris) and guard (Daniel Loper).

    But many holes remain, and the greatest need is a quarterback of the future. The Lions are set up to draft and develop one - if they fail to acquire Denver's Jay Cutler. The Lions already tried to trade for Cutler once, and now he has asked the Broncos to move him.

    Stafford, often compared to Cutler, has a big arm to get the ball downfield to the Lions' best player, deep-threat receiver Calvin Johnson. And the Lions wouldn't have to throw him in too soon. He could sit behind Daunte Culpepper until he is ready.

    Schwartz believes in building from the inside out, and a left tackle like Baylor's Jason Smith or Virginia's Eugene Monroe also would make sense. But Schwartz also has said repeatedly that quarterback is the most important position on the field. When you're starting over, the most important position on the field is a good place to start.

    NOTES

  • Mayhew said Julian Peterson's acquisition does not change the Lions' draft plans. Wake Forest's Aaron Curry is still a candidate to be the No. 1 pick, even though he played outside linebacker in college and the Lions now have Peterson and Ernie Sims. If the Lions draft Curry, he will play the middle. "We've seen Aaron," Mayhew said. "We're familiar with Aaron. We've watched a lot of tape of Aaron. Our scouts have. Our coaches have. We've investigated. We've talked about it. We feel very comfortable he can come in and start at (middle linebacker). If we drafted Aaron, we think he can start at (middle linebacker) from Day One."

  • Redding's departure doesn't open a hole at defensive tackle as first thought, because the Lions planned to play him at left end on running downs and tackle on passing downs. "We needed a tackle before this, and we still need a tackle," Mayhew said.

  • Daunte Culpepper doesn't look like the same quarterback who played last season at more than 290 pounds after coming out of semi-retirement. "He looks like a new man," center Dominic Raiola said. "He looks brand-new. The guy's really taken this re-signing serious and this job serious, his job at the quarterback position serious." Raiola said Culpepper has lost "at least 20 pounds, but it's not like he lost muscle. It looks like he's been working."

  • Quarterback Drew Stanton knows he has a lot to prove. But he said he is looking forward to the chance to reestablish himself within the organization. Asked if he really thought he had a realistic chance, he said: "Definitely. I definitely have a chance. I was drafted here first of all, and they want to see me try and do something successful. Being a second-round pick, they want to see some kind of return on that investment. So from that standpoint alone, I think they're going to give me a fair shot." Stanton was a second-round pick in 2007. But he has had little practice time, let alone playing time, because of injuries and other issues.

  • The Lions are unlikely to experiment with Jeff Backus at guard early in off-season workouts to see if he can handle the move. "I would be very surprised if we saw Backus as anything other than a left tackle before the draft," Schwartz said. "That doesn't mean that you don't draft a left tackle." Schwartz said the rookie could play guard and move to tackle later.

  • Raiola sees a difference now that Mayhew has replaced president Matt Millen. "We'll see in the future, but from what I see right now, there's no favoritism," Raiola said. "Everybody's a clean slate. Nobody's getting babied. It's not like how it was when Matt was here. Nobody's going to get babied." Asked to expand on that, Raiola said: "How it was in the past, I think there were different people on different pedestals. I think right now everybody's looked at the same. Nobody's going to be better than this guy because of what you're getting paid."

  • The Lions have told Raiola's agent they would like to sign him to a contract extension, but the sides have not negotiated. "There's no numbers," Raiola said. "There's just saying they want to get me done."

  • The Lions signed tight end Will Heller to a one-year contract. Heller, who left Seattle, replaces John Owens, who signed with the Seahawks. "Hopefully I can come in and contribute from a blocking standpoint," Heller said. "That's kind of been my role everywhere I've been. Wherever they need me. I try to be versatile." Heller caught four passes for 29 yards in 12 games last year. Owens caught eight passes for 56 yards in a touchdown in 16 games.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Every time you get somebody new, you want to say, ‘This is the guy, finally.' I've said that before. I just want to let everything play out and do everything, not look ahead, learn more about these guys every day and kind of build our trust with them." - Center Dominic Raiola, who has seen a lot of coaches come and go since 2001, on new coach Jim Schwartz.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Like defensive back Frank Walker in 2007 and linebacker Brandon Chillar in 2008, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith could be the only acquisition of note by the Packers this offseason.

    The team's big overhaul of its defensive system from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, along with the hire of well-traveled Dom Capers as defensive coordinator, hasn't moved notoriously conservative general manager Ted Thompson to be a player in free agency.

    As usual, Thompson has his eyes on what the draft will be able to do for shoring up position deficiencies, most notably on the defensive line.

    Coming off a 6-10 season, the Packers will be armed with at least nine picks, including No. 9 overall and four selections in the top 83.

    "We obviously have some very high picks in the draft," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "This is a class that can definitely give us a big boost as a football team because of where we are selecting."

    McCarthy has come to the defense of Thompson's relative inactivity in the open market thus far, emphasizing, "It's about improving. We're trying to improve, whether it's through free agency, whether it's through the draft or whether it's through doing a better job on our offseason program, because we do have change in our schemes and so forth and we're going to be a better football team in 2009."

    Having a top-10 pick in the first round of the draft should enable the Packers to get an impact starter they desperately need at defensive end or outside linebacker in the new scheme.

    Then again, Thompson has been enigmatic with the first choice in recent drafts and could stray again from addressing an immediate need, say if one of the top receivers is sitting there when Green Bay is on the clock.

    NOTES

  • The Packers had an unusual flurry of activity in free agency.
    With only one acquisition to its credit so far - former Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith - Green Bay hit a signing trifecta with its own players.

    Defensive back Jarrett Bush realized a big pay raise when the Packers matched a three-year, $4.5 million offer sheet he had signed as a restricted free agent with the Tennessee Titans. Green Bay values Bush's contributions on special teams. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus.

    Restricted free agent Jason Hunter, a young prospect who is being moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in the team's new 3-4 defense, signed his one-year tender of $1.01 million.

    Defensive end Michael Montgomery, an unrestricted free agent, elected to stay put as he re-signed for two years. Montgomery had attracted interest from the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.

    The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Montgomery probably will need to put on some weight to contend for playing time at end in the new system.

  • Fresh off his first trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, safety Nick Collins is entering the final year of the contract he signed as a second-round draft pick in 2005.

    He is one of several candidates the Packers have for contract extensions down the line, but Collins isn't getting hung up on what the future holds.

    Asked whether he wants to be in Green Bay long term, Collins said, "Of course. This is where I started; this is where I want to finish. But, this is a business. Hopefully, things get worked out. But, if not, I'm always going to be a Packer, in my heart."

  • Running back Ryan Grant was perhaps more excited than many of his teammates for the onset of the offseason program March 16.

    Grant was relegated to the sideline all offseason last year because he refused to sign the team's tender as an exclusive rights free agent in an effort to land a lucrative long-term deal, which he did early in training camp.

    "I'm excited that I can participate in a lot of the stuff (this year)," Grant said. "I am glad that I get a chance to just come back and be regular like everybody else."

  • Packers president Mark Murphy said the retirement of legendary quarterback Brett Favre's jersey No. 4 won't be happening anytime soon.

    "I don't anticipate it this season," Murphy said. "Obviously, we will do it. We've made that commitment. He deserves to have his number retired. I just think both sides need some time."

    A retirement ceremony was planned for last season's Sept. 8 opener against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. Favre, however, came out of retirement in August, and a bitter dispute with the Packers resulted in his being traded to the New York Jets.

    Favre retired a second time after last season and has said he doesn't plan to play again.

    "Quite honestly, from a practical standpoint, we had to cancel one retirement ceremony already," Murphy said with a chuckle. "I think it's smart to make sure that he is retired, rather than going through a situation like that again. He'll be a member of our family long term."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "There were a few things that we tried (early in free agency) that were a little crazy that just didn't work out. We don't keep score in free agency; a lot of the media seems to try to keep score. I think our main focus is the offseason program and the guys we have on our team." — General manager Ted Thompson, as he addressed the crowd at the team's annual Fan Fest at Lambeau Field on March 13.


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