Making it in the NFL is difficult for anyone, but getting to the highest level as a specialist like Ball State punter Chris Miller is even tougher.
Miller, a local kid who grew up a short drive from the Bears' north suburban Lake Forest practice facility, spent the weekend auditioning for the Bears in hopes of being signed and invited to training camp in late July. For punters and kickers, the path to an NFL training camp often comes via tryout, since so few are drafted. Only three punters were taken in last month's draft and only two place-kickers were selected. It's a struggle to even get to a training camp since the NFL reduced roster sizes from 100 to 80.
Brad Maynard, like Miller a Ball State product, is entrenched as the Bears' punter, but Miller knows if he gets to training camp and into a preseason game, it's an audition for every other team in the NFL, some of which could be in need of his services. Miller and Miami's (Ohio) Jake Richardson were the only punters at the weekend rookie minicamp, and place-kicker Jeff Wolfert was the only kicker.
"The Bears said they're going to bring one specialist (to camp)," Miller said. "It's up in the air and, I can only hope for the best."
Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub wasn't sure which way the team would go when it comes time to decide which specialist will be brought to camp.
"We're not in a real hurry," Toub said. "We don't have to have a guy tomorrow. I may look at some more guys, but training camp's a long time away. We will have somebody. We just need one guy to spell our veteran players."
Odds are the Bears would want an extra punter in camp, since Maynard is 35, although he's still going strong. Because of their Ball State connection, Maynard has shared some advice with Miller in the past.
"I've talked to him on the phone a couple times," Miller said. "He just told me to keep focused and ‘Just do what I do. Go out there every day and perform like you've always done and good things will happen.' "
Miller actually surpassed Maynard's Ball State career record punting average of 44.2 yards, which was third in NCAA history when he graduated in 1996. Miller, a two-time Playboy Pre-season All-America pick, finished at 44.8, but he couldn't duplicate Maynard's amazing feat of being named the Mid-America Conference defensive player of the year in ‘96.
"I don't think anyone has ever done that," Miller said of a punter winning the honor. "And I don't think anyone's going to match that."
Wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias, the Bears' third-round pick, isn't yet in quarterback Jay Cutler's "fave five," but the veteran has already reached out to touch the rookie.
"I haven't had a chance to meet with him, but as soon as I got drafted he was one of the first texts I got, which was kind of welcoming," Iglesias said during last weekend's three-day rookie minicamp. "He just said that he's ready to work with me, and he's glad I'm a Bear, just like I'm glad I'm a Bear, and I'm glad to get a chance to work with him. He's a great quarterback, and I'm excited about it."
Iglesias, the 99th overall selection, was a three-year starter at Oklahoma and the Sooners' go-to guy the past two years. Since wide receiver is considered a weakness of the Bears, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Iglesias will have a chance to contribute immediately, unlike last year's third-round pick, wide receiver Earl Bennett, who failed to catch a pass all season.
"Last year, we had a luxury of having two veteran guys there (Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd) and we could slow Bennett's progress down some," Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "We may accelerate (Iglesias') progress a little."
Bennett welcomed Moore and Smith to town by taking them out to eat. He didn't spend too much of last year's signing bonus, though, since they dined at Denny's. But it wasn't a case of Bennett being cheap, according to Moore.
"We made the decision," Moore said, laughing. "We wanted to go to Denny's. It was the closest thing."
Smith as one of 25 players invited to try out at the rookie minicamp, which also includes the nine undrafted free agents who were signed the day after the draft and the nine draft choices.
But Louis lined up at left tackle and left guard at the rookie minicamp, where most 300-pounders should be, and he was listed as a guard on the roster.
"I'm whatever will help the team," Louis said when asked to clear up the confusion. "Wherever they need me to play, I'll play it. I'm not complaining."
Louis was a tight end in his first two seasons with the Aztecs, but he grew into an offensive lineman.
"I'm on record as being a Brett Favre fan," Smith said. "He's a great player, so I assume if he is available, teams will try to get him. It's good for our league if players like that are still playing. Right now, I'm trying to get the Bears ready."
Smith was then asked if Favre would be good for the NFC North.
"Well," he said, "again, right now, we're trying to get the Bears ready."
Knox is taking the biggest step up in class, coming from a Division-II program, so Turner was asked if the transition is more difficult for the speedy Knox.
"I don't think that's necessarily the case," Turner said. "From what I saw, he ran routes pretty well (Sunday)."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm trying to figure out what three Jerry didn't like." — Coach Lovie Smith's reaction when he was informed that general manager Jerry Angelo said six of the Bears' nine draft picks would realistically be expected to make the final 53-man roster.
The Lions' philosophy with quarterback Matthew Stafford is simple.
"I think the most important thing is to focus on where the guy is in his development," general manager Martin Mayhew said. "Is he ready? And when he's ready, you put him in."
The Lions want to be patient with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and they shouldn't have to rush him with veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper on a one-year contract.
But that doesn't mean the Lions are taking it easy with Stafford.
"We're not going to spoon-feed him, now," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "He's got to take it in and digest everything we give him and go out and perform."
As Linehan said, the Lions don't want to play Stafford before he's ready, but they don't know when that will be. They don't want to rush him. But they don't want to hold him back, either.
"At this point," Linehan said, "we're just going to throw everything at him, put him in as many situations as we can and see how fast he progresses and not really put a timetable on it."
The Lions drafted Stafford on April 25. Stafford attended rookie orientation the following Friday through Sunday, but under NFL rules, the earliest rookies can return to the offseason program is May 18.
In the meantime, the veterans are going through organized team activities. So the coaches are sending Stafford the practice scripts and film so he can try to keep up.
"We absolutely have mapped out these two weeks, and our fine focus is one getting him up to speed for when he comes back," Linehan said.
Linehan told Stafford he would communicate with him every day.
"I called last night," Linehan said. "He didn't answer. He was at a movie, so he texted me back. So I asked him what movie he was watching.
"No, we have dialogue. I told him, ‘As you go through, if you have questions, write them down, call back.' ... It doesn't replace doing it eye-to-eye and face-to-face, but it's certainly the next best thing."
Larry Foote has heard the wisecracks.
He was a starting linebacker on two championship teams in Pittsburgh. But he asked to be traded a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl, and when the Steelers eventually released him, he signed almost immediately with the team that just suffered the NFL's first 0-16 season.
The thing is, that team was the Lions. Is he crazy?
"This is my hometown," said Foote, a Detroit native who also played at Michigan. "All along during my career, this idea was always in the back of my head: What would it be like to play for the Lions? This is a great opportunity, a fresh start in my career, new coaches. I'm just excited and just honored to be here."
This wasn't just about a homecoming. This was about opportunity. Foote felt his role was limited in Pittsburgh, with first-round pick Lawrence Timmons pushing for playing time, and he wants to prove his worth as a three-down linebacker so he can cash in next year.
"I'm going to be valued a little higher than I am right now," Foote said. "I'm looking forward to just having a one-year deal and showing the Lions organization what I can do."
The Lions have an opening at middle linebacker, and Foote is expected to start between Ernie Sims and Julian Peterson. But the Lions drafted DeAndre Levy with the idea of moving him from the outside to the inside, and they made no promises to Foote.
"The point we made with him is the same point we made with every player on the team," coach Jim Schwartz said. "When he does sign on that line, he's not signing as the starting middle linebacker. He's signing to compete for the starting job."
Mayhew cited Tim Couch, who went to the Browns first overall in 1999 and failed miserably.
"I'll never forget Tim Couch," Mayhew said. "When they drafted him, they got Ty Detmer. They were going to take their time and work him in and all that, and in Week 2, there he was starting. And so I think that's something you have to be very cognizant of. But on the other hand, there are guys that have been able to go in and play early. I think you can't plan for that."
"Detroit is on the up-and-up," Foote said. "We're starting fresh with the football team. We've got a new mayor. We can't do nothing but go up, to be honest. But people have got to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get to the root of it and turn things around, and I'm definitely one that's on the positive side of that. I'm excited. Just off the field, just doing stuff in the community and reaching these young kids and getting this place turned around."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everybody gets their freak on a little different way." — Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a rock fan, on his headphones-only policy in the locker room.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Top draft pick B.J. Raji isn't being pigeonholed into one position on the defensive line.
Although Raji was taken ninth overall out of Boston College to be their starting nose tackle of the future and possibly the present in the new 3-4 scheme, the Packers had him take reps at end during the rookie orientation camp May 1-3.
"We want flexibility in the rotation with those defensive linemen," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's why B.J. will work the nose guard and the left end position."
The 6-foot-2, 337-pound Raji made a name for himself as an immovable run stopper and athletic pass rusher in the interior of Boston College's defensiveline, but he is open to moving around. He lined up as a five-technique end on occasion in college.
"I stressed that to the Packers when we had our little meeting at the combine (in February)," Raji said. "(Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac) doesn't want me to be deemed as just a nose tackle. He wants me to play some nose and defensive end."
Raji initially will work in a rotation with incumbent starter Ryan Pickett at nose tackle on early downs. Then, the Packers will have options to bounce either Pickett or Raji outside on passing downs, when they will work in their more traditional four-man line.
Cullen Jenkins, projected to start at one of the end positions in the base defense, also will be moved around in sub packages.
"It's a group we're trying to bring together and get some more flexibility with," McCarthy said.
Raji isn't obsessed with being a starter at the outset of his rookie season.
"The big thing for me is getting a grasp of the defense, understanding what the defense asks me to do," he said. "If I'm ready opening day to start, obviously I'd love to have that opportunity. But, if I'm not, I'm willing to do whatever I need to do as far as getting this team ready to win games."
Head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed during the May 1-3 rookie orientation camp that Collins was on hand for workouts earlier that week.
McCarthy alluded to Collins' absence for the first six weeks of the program as being a business situation. Collins, coming off a breakthrough season that earned him his first Pro Bowl appearance, is believed to be upset with a lack of movement by the organization to extend his contract, which will expire after next season.
"My responsibility clearly with our players is we need to progress forward as a football team in the football aspects of developing in the offseason program," McCarthy said. "We all have business, there's a business side of it, and that's always the difficult part of it. Sometimes, people want to blend the business and the football part of it together. In my opinion, that's not the benefit for the football team.
"We respect everybody's business situations. He's going through one right now. But, we do have a new defense (3-4), and Nick is a main communicator in that defense, and for him to come in here and to work with (safeties coach) Darren Perry and try to catch up on what's been going on here is important."
McCarthy, however, indicated that Collins didn't stick around for long in Green Bay. His appearance at the voluntary organized team activities later this month and the mandatory minicamp in late June is up in the air.
"I could see him coming back in the near future, yeah," McCarthy said. "You keep trying to make it about the contract, but it's about football. Everybody is accounted for."
Hunter, a backup and key special-teams player the past three seasons, was an odd man out in the Packers' transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme this year. Undersized at 6-feet-4, 271 pounds to remain at end, Hunter was moved to linebacker in the offseason program.
Green Bay, though, fortified the depth at linebacker in the draft by taking Southern Cal's Clay Matthews with its second first-round pick and Colorado's Brad Jones in the seventh round.
Bledsoe was on the Packers' practice squad on two different occasions last year.
"He's a stronger leg. He's been impressive," McCarthy said.
The 6-4, 232-pound Graessle has been out of football since his final year of college at Pittsburgh in 2006. He had tryouts as an undrafted player with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions in 2007.
The extended look given to Graessle by the Packers this offseason puts him in an open competition for the punting job with holdover Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks, who fizzled the first part of last season as a drafted rookie with the Washington Redskins.
The other tryout players the Packers signed are offensive tackle Dane Randolph (Maryland), defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi (Maryland) and cornerback Trevor Ford (Troy). All three were undrafted this year.
The OTAs for the full squad will be May 26 to June 18, followed by the minicamp June 22-24.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "(It would be) a wonderful little salt to rub in the eyes of some of our Green Bay Packer friends. Can you imagine Brett Favre going into Lambeau Field in Viking purple and maybe even wearing number 4? There would be audible gasps. There would be 60,000 audible gasps as he came out of the (visitors') tunnel." — Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on the Minnesota Vikings' possible interest in signing Favre, the legendary former Packers quarterback who is retired but a free agent.