NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears could be after a wide receiver with their limited draft picks, the Lions have plenty of top picks to make a difference, and the Packers will likely look to fill positions in their new 3-4 defense. Get news, notes and quotes from the Vikings' NFC North rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

For the time being, the first day of the draft should be extremely uneventful for the Bears. After trading their first- and third-rounders as part of the Jay Cutler deal, their only first-day pick is No. 49 overall.

They don't pick again until No. 99, a compensatory selection for losing Bernard Berrian in free agency last spring, and then again at No. 119.

Since they have added three offensive linemen and two safeties in free agency, the Bears' greatest remaining need is for an all-around wide receiver. But it's possible they might decide that anyone left at the 49th spot isn't going to provide much of an immediate impact, which is what they were looking for when they paid the price for Cutler.

If general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith decide they need to get better at wide receiver immediately, they could address the situation in free agency after the draft. It's also possible that the Bears could address wide receiver in free agency and the draft.

The only young wideout who appears to have much potential is last year's third-round pick, Earl Bennett, and you have to question how much promise he holds considering he couldn't get on the field last year despite playing behind one of the weakest WR groups in the NFL. Bennett didn't catch a pass last season, although coaches say they expect much-improved play from him this season.

Ohio State wide receiver Brian Robiskie makes a great deal of sense for the Bears if he's still around at No. 49. He would be the perfect complement to burner Devin Hester. Robiskie is more polished than most rookie wideouts, and he has the size and ability to do the possession-type duties that would be wasted on Hester. The Bears have also shown interest in Georgia's Mohamed Massaquoi and Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias.

If the Bears decide to pass on a wide receiver, they might instead take a developmental project along the offensive line. Two of their free-agent pickups — Orlando Pace and Kevin Shaffer — are hardly youngsters, and the Bears have practically ignored the O-line in the past several drafts.

Of more immediate need could be a pass-rush threat, even one who figures to play strictly in passing situations. No Bears player had more than six sacks last season and, with the possible exception of defensive tackle Tommie Harris, they don't have anyone on the roster who can be considered a serious threat to hit double digits, unless new D-line coach Rod Marinelli is really a miracle worker.

Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson could be a nice fit, but it's doubtful he'll still be on the board. Ditto for Cincinnati's Connor Barwin, who seems to be leaping up draft boards.

Free safety is another potential consideration. Josh Bullocks was added in free agency, but he might not be much better than a stopgap solution. Their other free-agent safety, Glenn Earl, might not even have that much of a future, considering he's missed the past two seasons with a foot (Lisfranc) injury.

The problem with the Bears' holdover safeties is that they're all basically strong safety types with limited coverage skills.

NOTES

  • At first glance, WR Earl Bennett's rookie season looks like a bust. At second glance, too.

    The third-round pick from Vanderbilt didn't catch a pass for the Bears last season and barely got on the field for a team that had a serious shortage of talent at wide receiver.

    But Bennett will get plenty of opportunities this season to prove that the Bears didn't waste a draft pick on him. In just three years, the 6-foot, 203-pound Bennett established the all-time career reception record in the Southeastern Conference with 236 catches, but he admits he was slow to grasp the nuances of the Bears' playbook.

    "I had a problem learning the plays at the beginning," Bennett said. "I struggled with it a bit, just like I struggled with it my first year in college. But as of now, I feel real comfortable with the playbook. I could just about play any position on the field. I feel like I've got the playbook down, and I'm ready to go."

    While Bennett's improvement last year didn't manifest itself on game days, his command of the playbook and confidence in his route running were evident in practices later in the season.

    "I feel like I've progressed a lot since last year when I first came in," he said. "This was a big opportunity to get in there and showcase what I can do, and hopefully I showed the coaches what I can do."

  • Once again the Bears will receive plenty of prime-time exposure. In the 2009 schedule released Tuesday evening, the Bears will play five nationally televised night games, starting with the season opener, a Sunday night showdown in Green Bay against the Packers on Sept. 13. The home opener is the following Sunday, Sept. 20, at 3:15 p.m. against the Steelers.

    Last season the Bears played five prime-time games, three on Sunday night, two of which were victories; and one each on Thursday night and Monday night, both of which were overtime victories. They have an identical slate this season with a Thursday night game on the NFL Network against the 49ers at San Francisco Nov. 12 and a home game Monday night against the Vikings on Dec. 28. The other two Sunday night games are at home against the Eagles Nov. 22 and Oct. 18 at Atlanta against the Falcons.

    At least on paper, the Bears seem to have an advantageous schedule for 2009, with eight games against teams that had double-digit defeats last season, including home and away dates with NFC North rivals Green Bay (6-10) and Detroit (0-16).

    The Bears host the Rams (2-14 last year) and the Browns (4-12), and they face the Seahawks (4-12) and Bengals (4-11-1) on the road.

    Five of those games are against teams with new head coaches. In Detroit, former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz replaced Rod Marinelli, who was hired by the Bears as their assistant head coach/defensive line coach. In Cleveland, fired Jets coach Eric Mangini replaced Romeo Crennel; in St. Louis, former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo succeeded Jim Haslett; and in Seattle, Jim Mora Jr. was promoted from assistant head coach/secondary after Mike Holmgren retired.

  • After 12 years in St. Louis with the Rams, seven-time Pro Bowl OLT Orlando Pace signed with the Bears to finish out his Hall of Fame career.

    Aside from protecting Jay Cutler's blind side, Pace could do the Bears another solid by recruiting long-time Rams teammate Torry Holt to Chicago. Holt, like Pace, was released by the Rams to free up salary cap space. But he still has plenty of good football left and he's exactly the type of productive, veteran wide receiver that the Bears need to increase Cutler's effectiveness.

    "I spoke with Torry," Pace said on a recent visit to Halas Hall. "It's funny. He was in my house a few days before I came here. I think he's just out searching. I'm probably (going to be) recruiting him here to Chicago, and hopefully it works out."

    Holt will be 33 in June, but he still caught 64 passes for 796 yards last season, both of which would have been tops on the Bears. In the eight previous seasons, Holt never had fewer than 1,188 receiving yards, and he has more career TD reception (74) than any Bears wide receiver has receptions.

  • The Bears' 2009 opponents had a combined record of 105-149-2 last season. Using last year's records as a guideline, the Bears have the NFL's easiest schedule, as their 2009 opponents compiled a 41.4 winning percentage last season. By comparison, the Dolphins, who have the most difficult schedule, face teams that compiled a 59.4 winning percentage last season.

    The Vikings and Packers have the second and third easiest schedules this season, facing opponents who had winning percentages of 42.0 and 42.8, respectively last season.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it makes a huge difference. I've played with some really great quarterbacks, and I've played with some ... not to slight anybody, but I think there's a difference in your team. It's just the leadership, and if they can get the ball out, and if the offensive line, if we can protect him, I think he'll be fine, he'll be great." — LT Orlando Pace on how much difference a quality quarterback like Jay Cutler makes.


    DETROIT LIONS

    With five of the first 82 picks in the NFL draft, including the No. 1 overall pick, the Lions have an opportunity to build a foundation amid the rubble of the league's first 0-16 season.

    "We need to take advantage of those," coach Jim Schwartz said.

    Poor drafts led to this low point. President Matt Millen was fired last year, and this will be the first time general manager Martin Mayhew makes the final call in the draft.

    Mayhew and Schwartz believe in building from the inside out. They want a bigger, stronger team that runs the ball and stops the run. The Lions' roster is so decimated that they will consider all options and, in general, take the best player available. They won't reach for a particular position.

    "We're going to look at every possibility that we can to improve our team, and we're going to go in with an open mind," Schwartz said. "We talked about the No. 1 pick. Would you trade it? Maybe. Would you be comfortable with picking a quarterback there? Maybe. Would you be comfortable picking a left tackle there? Maybe.

    "I think at our point where we are as an organization, we need to be open to everything. We're not at the point where one player is going to put us over the top, so we need to look at the big picture, not the small picture."

    Mayhew has said signing the No. 1 pick before the draft is of "critical importance." The Lions have had preliminary negotiations with multiple candidates, but 10 days before the draft, they hadn't moved past that point. Asked if the No. 1 pick was set, Schwartz said: "No, not 100 percent. There's still discussions to be had."

    Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford appears to be the leading candidate, with Baylor left tackle Jason Smith, Virginia left tackle Eugene Monroe and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry also in the mix.

    The Lions also have the No. 20, No. 33, No. 65 and No. 82 picks, plus two sixth-rounders and a seventh-rounder. They have the ammunition to move up, but Mayhew might not.

    "I'm more of a trade-back type of guy," Mayhew said. "I would never say never, but I would be much more inclined to trade back than I would to trade up. Usually if you assume the draft is about value, usually that would indicate you would try to trade back most of the time, because you're not going to get value giving up picks to get up."

    Millen used to receive good reviews immediately after his drafts, only to see his picks fail on the field. Mayhew, who worked under Millen, paid attention to that.

    "We've gotten A's before in April, but then three years later, it doesn't look as good as it looked in April," Mayhew said. "So my emphasis should be on how this looks three years from now, not how it looks in April. So we might not get an A. I'll tell you that now. My goal is to get an A three years from now."

    NOTES, QUOTES

  • Don't forget about wide receiver. The Lions drafted a wide receiver in the top 10 four out of five years from 2003-07, but Calvin Johnson is the only one still in Detroit.

    Johnson is outstanding, but he needs help. The Lions signed Bryant Johnson and Ronald Curry as free agents, and they have claimed Will Franklin off waivers from Kansas City. Franklin was a fourth-round pick last year, but had a knee injury and caught only seven passes for 82 yards.

    "We had a couple guys on our coaching staff who were in Kansas City last year, so they were able to bring some perspective to that," said Schwartz, referring to defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and assistant secondary coach Daron Roberts.

    Curry, signed this week, spent the past seven seasons with Oakland. He caught 19 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns last year.

  • WR Bryant Johnson has averaged 42.5 catches a year. He caught 35 passes as a rookie. He has caught between 40 passes and 49 passes each season since. Good. Solid. But not the numbers expected of a wide receiver drafted 17th overall.

    "I just want to come in and do what I know I'm capable of doing, regardless of what numbers I can put up," Johnson said. "I just know I can play better than I've played in my career, and it's a great opportunity here."

  • Before he re-signed with the Lions, offensive tackle George Foster was a free agent working out at his alma mater, Georgia. And while there, he talked a little with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, a candidate to be the Lions' pick No. 1 overall.

    "I told him that there are some pieces in place up here — and mainly, Calvin," Foster said with a laugh. Asked for his impressions of Stafford, he said: "As far as the eye test, he probably got an A-plus. Physically, there's not a throw he's going to have a problem making that I can see," Foster said.

    "Again, I am not a scout. How did he throw the out? I don't know. I just know the ball got there really quick, on point, and that's all I can say."

  • The Lions will unveil their new logo and uniforms at a suburban Detroit sporting goods store Monday. The new look apparently leaked when a toy truck was posted for sale on nflshop.com, and it is more of a tweak than a redesign. Some detailing has been added to the logo to make the lion more dynamic and mean.

  • The Lions will hold their annual Draft Day Party at Ford Field, beginning at 3 p.m. and ending at approximately 8 p.m. April 25. The draft begins at 4 p.m. The event is free. Fans can watch the draft on the Ford Field video boards. Other festivities include autograph sessions, photo opportunities and clinics with former Lions players, an interactive area, tours of the Lions' locker room and children's activities like face-painting.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I didn't know Aaron Curry changed his name." — Lions president Tom Lewand, asked when Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford would be introduced as the Lions' pick No. 1 overall.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The last time the Packers had the luxury of a top-10 pick in the draft, general manager Ted Thompson went with a linebacker from a Big Ten school by taking Ohio State's A.J. Hawk at No. 5 in 2006.

    Green Bay has the No. 9 selection this year. Given the team's biggest need of a pass rusher who can fit its new 3-4 defensive scheme, don't put it past Thompson to eye up another highly touted Big Ten product — Penn State hybrid end/linebacker Aaron Maybin, who has tremendous upside as a young player.

    Then again, as his controversial 2007 first-round choice of injury-riddled defensive tackle Justin Harrell suggested, Thompson could go any number of ways on draft weekend.

    "Hopefully, we'll get a very good player," Thompson said, "and if we do, it really won't matter what position it is because you're only a sprained ankle away from needing the next guy."

    Thompson relishes stockpiling the roster through the draft, and this year is a critical one for him and head coach Mike McCarthy after the Packers crashed to a 6-10 season.

    Green Bay has four picks in the top 83 and could add more to the plate if Thompson finds value in trading down from the No. 9 spot.

    With uncertainty at offensive tackle, particularly with veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher unsigned as he recovers this offseason from knee surgery, the Packers could take a chance on maligned Andre Smith from Alabama.

    Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji also has come under fire in recent weeks, and perhaps he would fall into Green Bay's lap in the first round.

    Missouri tight end Chase Coffman, son of former Packers Pro Bowl tight end Paul Coffman, could merit consideration in the second round.

    NOTES

  • Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins has yet to report for the team's offseason program, which started March 16.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Collins' wife, Andrea, gave birth to the couple's third child April 10 at their offseason home in Gainesville, Fla.

    "He has some things with his family that he's attending to right now. Our conversations have been about that," McCarthy said. "He's got a lot going on right now with his personal situation. He's tending to family business down there in Florida."

    Collins' absence from the first four weeks of the voluntary offseason program also is believed to be stemming from his unhappiness that the Packers aren't in a hurry to sign him to a long-term contract. Collins is in the final year of his rookie deal and is coming off a breakout season that ended with his first appearance in the Pro Bowl.

  • General manager Ted Thompson and his personnel staff have gone outside the scouting box this month, giving long looks at a couple former college basketball players who could have a professional future as football players.

    The Packers were among 12 teams represented at a campus workout for Cleveland State's J'Nathan Bullock. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Bullock was a load as a power forward on the basketball court for the Vikings, who played in the NCAA Tournament this year.

    He was a football standout in high school in Flint, Mich., and could make an intriguing NFL prospect as a tight end.

    A few days after checking out Bullock, the Packers worked out former Duke point guard Greg Paulus in Durham, N.C.

    The 6-1, 180-pound Paulus was a four-time all-state quarterback in high school in Syracuse, N.Y., and has an itch to return to football after his college basketball career ended this year. He has a year of eligibility to play college football and has been in contact with Michigan — and, reportedly, Syracuse — about potentially transferring there.

  • The Packers made a rare offseason trade April 13, when they dealt long snapper J.J. Jansen to the Carolina Panthers for what reportedly is a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2011.

    Green Bay had two long snappers on the roster and decided to stick with Brett Goode, who joined the team right before last season started after Jansen suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final preseason game.

    The Packers had been high on Jansen, whom they signed as an undrafted player out of Notre Dame last year.

  • Green Bay also made another roster move with the signing of nose tackle Brian Soi, a free agent.

    The 6-3, 334-pound Soi, who hasn't played in a regular-season game, was an undrafted signee by the Miami Dolphins in 2007. He spent time with the New York Giants last year.

  • On paper, the Packers will have a golden opportunity from the start next season to make amends for their dismal 6-10 campaign in 2008.

    The 2009 season schedule released April 14 sets up well for Green Bay to get out of the gates fast before it gets to a treacherous final stretch of the 16-game slate.

    The combined 2008 record of the first eight opponents was 48-79-1, and the only playoff team the Packers will see in that first half of the season is the NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings, who will meet Green Bay twice before midseason.

    The second half of the schedule, in sharp contrast, starts with a Nov. 15 home game against the Dallas Cowboys. Following a Thanksgiving Day game at the Detroit Lions, the Packers will be confronted with three straight games against the Baltimore Ravens on a Monday night, at the Chicago Bears and at the Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Green Bay, which will play three of its final four games on the road, will end the regular season at the NFC-champion Arizona Cardinals.

    "Playing on Monday night after Thanksgiving will give us a chance for another break before the final month," said McCarthy, whose team has its bye week earlier than usual in Week 5. "Historically, we've been strong in December, and we'll look to rise to that challenge."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "To have three of those division games in the first five weeks and with the bye there (in Week 5), too, I think it's something that we can use to get off to a good start. But, obviously, we have to play and perform well." — Team president Mark Murphy on how the start of the 2009 season schedule sets up for the Packers.

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